By the end of the First World War workers’ councils — soviets to use the Russian term — were taking root across Europe.
The workers’ movement was the core of a revolt against the impact of the war.
The most important event of this period was the Russian Revolution of 1917. In February workers overthrew the dictatorial ruler, the Tsar. Then in October they took power.
What was important about the October Revolution was its universality. For hundreds of thousands of people across the world, the triumph of the soviets gave meaning to their struggles.
Harry McShane, at the time a young shop steward in Glasgow, recalled, “The victory in Russia was a revelation. For the mass of people it meant hope that the war would end. We in the shop stewards movement began to understand workers’ democracy for the first time.
“‘All Power to the Soviets’, meant they had discovered a system of working class self-government through which the old crowd could be completely destroyed.”
The first soviet began as a strike committee during the earlier Russian Revolution of 1905.
Sparked by Bloody Sunday — a massacre of innocent demonstrators in January 1905 — the revolutionary movement was led by the Russian working class, even though it was only a small minority of the population.
The massacre provoked a wave of strikes. A strike by typesetters in September spread to paralyse the country.
A meeting of factory delegates in the capital St Petersburg called on workers to strike and elect representatives to a council of workers’ deputies.
By the end of November the soviet represented over 180 factories and 16 trade unions. The same process took place in Moscow.
This new workers’ organisation was forced into violent confrontation with the state. The military eventually crushed the insurrection.
This defeat was not the end of the matter. The conditions that workers endured during the First World War forced them to fight.
In February 1917 economic strikes and food protests led by women fused into a general strike that drew the army into an insurrection.
When the workers and soldiers of St Petersburg overturned the Tsarist regime their first action was to form a soviet of workers and soldiers’ deputies to give this radicalisation an organised expression.
Meanwhile, a provisional government controlled by moderate opposition parties took power.
The soviets were composed of workplace delegates rooted in the factories and they spread across the country. The factory committees led a wave of strikes for higher wages, better conditions and the eight-hour day.
The soviets were democratic and revolutionary. John Reed, a US eyewitness, described how, “no political body more sensitive and responsive to the political will was ever invented”.
The divisions widened between the working class and the liberal capitalists who had timidly opposed Tsarism. The factory committees had to organise food distribution and combat economic sabotage by the employers.
Unlike 1905, the soviets spread to the army and the peasantry. The slogan of Land, Peace and Bread caught the popular mood.
The Russian revolutionary leader Lenin described the situation as one of dual power—where the soviets and the provisional government battled for control.
Lenin’s supporters argued within the soviets to win a majority for the seizure of power. In September the soviets in the capital and the other big urban centres swung behind Lenin’s Bolsheviks. It was this majority that enabled them to take power on the 25 October.
Working class radicalisation was not confined to Russia. There were mass strikes and struggles across Europe in the following years.
Workers’ councils have arisen under different guises in struggles on every continent over the last century.
They emerge out of struggles that go beyond economic demands and challenge the capitalist state.
Before 1905 orthodox Marxism regarded backward Russia as the least likely starting point for the European revolution.
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