The Bolsheviks and Democracy

I thought Per-Åke Westerlund’s article in the recent issue of Socialism Today, was an excellent rebuttal of the attacks made on Lenin over the last decades. A major slander he did not mention, however, which continues to be the cornerstone of attacks on socialism, is the events around the election and dissolution of the constituent assembly elected on December 30, 1917.

The votes in these elections were as follows: Bolsheviks 25%; the Socialist Revolutionaries (SR’s) 58%; the Mensheviks 4%; and the Cadets (the main capitalist party), 13%. The overwhelming majority of academics writing about the revolution point to these results as ‘proof’ that the Bolsheviks were an undemocratic minority who seized and maintained power by force. They neglect to mention that from the overthrow of the Tsar in February 1917 the leaders of the SR and Cadet parties had promised elections, but in practice had used every conceivable excuse not to go ahead – including the disastrous June offensive against the German armies – and in the meantime used every opportunity to reduce and attack the democratic rights gained by workers and soldiers in the revolution. It took the October Revolution to ensure that elections actually happened. It was a fantastic achievement, considering that about one quarter of European Russia was occupied by German forces and the economy and infrastructure were collapsing, to organize an election within two months of taking power. Compare that to the US occupation authorities in Iraq who have effectively stated that no elections can take place there until at least 2005!

In reality, the composition of the deputies in the newly elected constituent assembly was a pale reflection of the revolutionary wave sweeping the working class and peasantry. The SR’s had long since split on irreconcilable lines, with the mass of poorer peasants supporting the Left SR’s and the urban middle and upper class and the richer peasants supporting the right wing. In practice it had become two separate parties, but this was not reflected in the constituent assembly. The list of SR candidates had been drawn up months earlier and was weighted overwhelmingly in favor of the right, reflecting the split between the counter-revolutionary leadership and the radicalized rank and file.

Lenin and the Bolsheviks are frequently accused of having ‘packed’ meetings of the soviets in order to gain a majority, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. In fact the soviets represented an accurate reflection of the democratic will of the workers, with delegates under the right of recall at all times and returning to work with their ‘electorate’ after soviet meetings. It was this direct democracy which allowed the rapid move in favor of the Bolsheviks and the radicalization of the SR’s to adopt a position very close to them. The soviet congress of October 25, 1917 elected an executive committee of 101, with 62 Bolsheviks and the rest SR’s and Mensheviks. The Declaration of Rights of Working People was adopted overwhelmingly by the congress. The main points of this were: an immediate end to the war, and nationalization of land and industry, with the land to be distributed to the poorer and landless peasants.

The latter was an integral part of the SR’s own program. Yet when the declaration was put to the vote at the first session of the constituent assembly, the Right SR’s and the bosses party, the Cadets, voted it down. A clear cut case of politicians not keeping their promises! Time after time, not only in soviet meetings but in the rural ‘Zemstvo’s’, which were supposed to be the local pre-parliaments and were frequently semi-appointed bodies packed with members of the richer classes, votes were taken with majorities demanding immediate peace and the transfer of land to the peasants. By September 1917 over 70% of rural districts were affected by direct action by the peasants to seize land and drive out the landlords. Under such circumstances to have submitted to the will of the constituent assembly would have meant handing over power to a counter-revolutionary minority representing the bosses and landowners.

When Lenin was later accused by the Mensheviks and SR’s of having no popular support, he replied ‘if you have the support of the people, why do you need the Germans [armies] and the White Tsarist generals?’

Socialism Today #83, May 2004