|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Issue 209 June 2017
Soviet power or coalition sell-out
The gains from Russia’s February revolution were under threat from sabotage by right-wing forces – aided by the Provisional Government, a coalition of capitalists, tsarists and social democrats. Potentially, real power lay with the mass soviets (councils) but they were dominated by right-wing socialists, the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries. On day two of the first All-Russia Congress of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Soviets in June 1917, LEON TROTSKY made this speech warning of the dangers ahead. It was published in the Bolshevik newspaper, Pravda.(1) This is the first time it has been translated into English – by Pete Dickenson.
Comrades, we all listened with great interest to the speech of the minister of food supply, from which many of us actually learnt something, which can scarcely be said about all the speeches that have been made here. If this speech did not give an account of the organisational work that has been done, this can be explained in part by the minister only recently taking up his post. (2) In any event, he outlined a programme of activity, defined the present most important area, precisely what was missing in the other ministerial speeches.
They talked about revolutions, about the great French revolution. They exchanged ideas on this and gave another airing to the old Marxist and populist arguments. But comrades, we are here at the parliament of the revolutionary democracy, before which ministers give reports about what they have done already and what they intend to do. Since the question concerns power, each speaker’s task, particularly those with responsibility like ministers, is to say they have done so and so and think that this is sufficient and, consequently, that the present administration of government is satisfactory.
On the other hand, they could say, comrades, that my plans have met with administrative resistance in the government and therefore it is necessary to reform and to renew this administration. This is the approach of the minister of food supply. That is why I personally not only listened attentively to him but was confirmed in those conclusions I had come to the meeting to hear. For it is always possible to learn a lot from ideological opponents who seriously stick to their task.
The minister of food supply actually took the question from the heights of abstraction onto the ground of the exhausted Russian economy. We must organise food supplies, we must widen and regulate production. To organise food supply means to organise its distribution. An obstacle on this road is transport difficulties which must be overcome and can be overcome only by the state. The economic department of the executive committee has said a lot about transport difficulties, about disabled locomotives, about the inability of present industry to build new locomotives and to repair the old. Here is a particular example, comrades, which I also recommend to the attention of the minister of food supply.
One of the directors of an important Petrograd factory that is very well equipped has said that we are currently turning out submarines in Petrograd for delivery in 1920. He claimed that there are a certain number of factories which he, as an engineer, organiser and director, knows very well could, without serious technical modification, turn out 15 locomotives a month. I don’t vouch for the figures, I take them at face value, but this is a serious engineer and organiser and he has named a particular number of locomotives. Why has this not been done? Because it requires breaching contracts made by the state with other factories or with factories from other enterprises. This will violate private interests, private profits, and the government cannot bring itself to take this course. They tell us that there isn’t another road.
But what other roads are possible, comrades? As you know, the government was formed where there was a socialist minister of labour, and a minister of commerce and industry, Konovalov, who is a serious politician representing the industrial bourgeoisie. (3) Apparently, first and foremost, through the cooperation of these two representatives, it was proposed to bring in organisation and planning of production and industry. What did Konovalov do? He walked out, with the open support and sympathy of the most prominent organs of the commercial and industrial bourgeoisie. He walked out, comrades, and it is ridiculous to say that he left as a consequence of his bad character.
I think, and this is a widely held opinion, that Konovalov is one of the most progressive and serious representatives of Russian commercial and industrial capital. In leaving, he sabotaged the task of organising production which was, and is, posed in front of us in all its magnitude. I ask further, comrades: what is the answer? This is the concrete task and central question of our whole government. It is a question about the fate of our industry, one they pass over as if it were just some carping or other by the Bolsheviks and Internationalists.
An attempt has been made to build a coalition government. Whoever is in it, whether it’s Pereverzev, socialists or honest liberals, we really don’t care. (4) But the centre of the whole organisation was constructed on the coalition model: the minister of labour is a socialist, and the minister of commerce and industry is a responsible representative of capital. And when the issue was posed like this, Konovalov walked out. If I’m not mistaken, they spent three weeks looking for a substitute and didn’t find one, comrades. (Applause)
What does this mean, comrades? If the principle itself was valid – the principle of coalition government with the participation of a responsible representative of capital – then you need to ask yourselves how its bankruptcy and collapse can be explained. We don’t have a government at the moment; the government is in a state of crisis because the most responsible representative of commercial-industrial circles walked out of it, with the support of commercial-industrial capital.
This means that we are living through a state of panic-stricken crisis of government. They are now trying to attract Tretyakov to come from Moscow, a representative of the Moscow stock exchange committee. That is, a figure responsible to the same commercial and industrial circles in whose name Konovalov spoke. The issue boils down to a change of personalities, and we cannot and should not imagine that this attempt will not go the same way as all previous attempts to solve the crisis of power: ie either Tretyakov will successfully sabotage the creative organisational revolutionary work of the government or he will walk out.
And why will he leave, comrades? Why will he sabotage industry? To deepen the crisis, to prove that revolutionary elements are disrupting the economy, to starve out the revolution and the proletariat. This is their tactic. Read the speech of Krinsky at a private meeting. He says: ‘What are you afraid of? That there are too many banknotes in the country? Wait a moment. When hunger begins and there isn’t enough money, when real hunger begins, everyone will cry out for firm, strong government and then our chance will come’.
Krinsky’s language has the serious capitalists and landowners in mind. They are all waiting for the revolutionary proletariat to be ground down and then their turn will come. I say that Tretyakov will come only to carry through this programme – provided he isn’t turned towards socialism. If he does prove to be unfaithful to his own class, this class will turn its back on him, when he turns towards Skobelev and the other socialist ministers. (5)
We therefore face a chronic inability to resolve this question, because it is not about the technicalities of a plan but the implementation of a plan in a resolute manner, even if it is not completely worked out. But to do this requires a unified government. This is the whole point, because if you want to act hand-in-hand with merchants and industrialists then – no matter whether there are five socialists and ten bourgeois in the governments or the other way around – if you consider it necessary to act in agreement with the bourgeoisie, you must capitulate to it, and all its tactics relating to the economy reduce themselves to grinding down the revolution.
The representatives of landlordism and big capital engage in systematic blackmail and extortion in relation to the parties and revolutionary forces of the democracy. When we are facing up to these questions, comrades, comrade Bramson appears and says: ‘Don’t blame the ministers or the government, remember that each time they have to force their way through a prickly hedge of all sorts of obstacles, of left elements, anarchists, internationalists and Bolsheviks, etc’. (6)
Comrades, is this really a serious formulation of the question or is there something in it verging on the serious? You pose the question in this way when the government in Russia is your government, the majority in the soviets of workers’ deputies is your majority, when the army is behind you and the democracy is behind you – and here are agitators, troublemakers and anarchists paralysing the creative work of this state power that has the support of the soviets, the army and the democracy. Comrades, such a view is deeply humiliating to you yourselves.
In my opinion, comrades, it is not true that the revolutionary democracy, supported by the majority of the people, is perhaps paralysed by some troublemakers or other in its creative efforts. In the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ Deputies, one of the speakers from minister Tsereteli’s own party asked whether he knew that there is a Black Hundred nest in a particular post and telegraph administration where officials go round villages asking the peasants if it was better under the tsar. (7) Do you intend to smash this Black Hundred nest the questioner asks?
What did Tsereteli say? No, he said, I do not want to apply repressive measures, I want to create conditions so that when a Black Hundred agitator appears in a village and asks if things were better under the tsar, then they will tell him that he’s lying and that it was worse under the tsar. (Applause) Right, absolutely right. I applauded this reply myself. I just ask that the same principle applied to the Black Hundreds applies to the left-wing agitators who you treat worse than the Black Hundreds. (Applause)
Comrades, what I am demanding is a very modest minimum programme. This programme will be such that a commissar of the Provisional Government, coming to Kronstadt, will accomplish such work that the Kronstadters will say that the government commissar is better than the one they elected themselves.(8) And if this is not the case, then you will need to persuade them, comrades, precisely because the Provisional Government – with its present composition – has put in place commissars who even the most loyal and friendly Soviet of Peasants’ Deputies said were one-sidedly selected from the landowner structures. Therefore, comrades, so-called misunderstandings are happening in the country between the local soviets of soldiers’, workers’ and peasants’ deputies, and the commissars.
Contending class interests
This is the result, comrades, of all the ill-fated policies. In a revolutionary epoch, when social concerns are particularly laid bare and all class passions are raised, the masses, freeing themselves from the old feudal repression, bring forward their own interests and issues. We have a government from above split into two, not in the sense of the soviets and the Provisional Government but because the Provisional Government has not been built as a strong government but modelled on a standing conference, a standing chamber for conciliation between representatives of landowners and peasants, and between capital and labour.
A conciliation chamber cannot rule in a revolutionary epoch because the majority in the government has a much stiffer spine since they represent classes that for decades and centuries have been used to ruling and dominating. Ministers in practice capitulate to them on the most important questions, and all our work comes to a standstill, sabotaged from the right, continually disorganised.
Comrades, I entirely agree with our minister of food supply. I do not belong to the same party but, if they were to tell me that the government was to consist of twelve Peshekhonovs, then I would say this would be a big step forward. (Applause) I would say: Konovalov has gone, find a second Peshekhonov, a serious worker (Applause) and chase out of the government all who are preventing Peshekhonov from creating the possibility of work. (Voice: ‘Correct!’ Applause) This will be a serious step forward. You see, comrades, that on this issue I am not starting from any factional or party angle but from a broader view of the present tasks of economic organisation. I completely agree with the minister of food supply, Peshekhonov, when he says that discipline of the masses is necessary. Correct.
What do the working masses see? They see, firstly, the complete disorganisation of the government and, secondly, ceaseless plundering by the representatives of capital. I say to you, comrades, that in these circumstances each worker has the psychological right to say to themselves that, since everything is collapsing and the capitalists are continuing to rob, why should I be silent? I will put forward the maximum demands and take what I can. This is the inevitable outcome of the situation.
But on that day, at that hour when a government is in power that every worker – at least every honest, uncorrupted worker – sees as their own, then workers, peasants and soldiers will say that this government will not deceive them, will not rob them, Peshekhonov will not betray them. And when Peshekhonov – not as a land statistician, not as a junior minister which he is at the moment but as a full minister – says to the working class we have so much coal, so much iron and on this basis such and such factories can operate; in state coffers there are so many resources, in the banks so much money so that you can get such and such a salary and such and such a quantity of foodstuffs.
Then, in relation to the government, conscious workers will feel themselves to be, for example, like a striker does in relation to the running of his union. He demands an increase in strike pay and the union says: here are our coffers, here are our books, we can’t give you any more. While the Shingarevs, Tereshenkos, Lvovs, Konovalovs, the Kadets, or maybe those to the right of the Kadets, are in place, the working class will say: they are capitalist stooges, I don’t trust them and I will get the maximum I can. (9) This psychology is completely natural.
I must say the same about all the other issues. After two weeks or after a month, all the questions before us today will be even more acute, and the way out will need even more heroism than today. I will give you one example, comrades. Imagine the demobilisation of the Russian army under the present government. A conciliationist government will be absolutely incapable when an avalanche of Russian soldiers, who dreamt of the land during the war, dash back to the villages and find, in essence, the liquidation of landlordism unresolved. When Russian soldiers will not be able to get as far as their villages due to disruption on the railway system, when they will be starving because there are no food supplies, there can then be the gravest complications, the gravest conflicts. You say we need discipline. Correct. We do need discipline, but by who and over who?
When comrade Dan alleged that the revolutionary, socialist internationalists denied the need for a strong revolutionary government this was not true. (10) None of us denied the need for a strong revolutionary government. The question is: whose government and over whom? A government of Prince Lvov or those behind him over the workers’ democracy? Or a government of the workers’ democracy over all its sections, over the entire people? That is the issue, comrades. I say that at the time of demobilisation we will need the strongest government.
When soldiers are now deserting from the army or committing excesses at train stations, or smashing bread shops, they consider themselves rebels – very much like strikers do – against the government that stands over them. If a government is standing over them which has come from the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies, a strong power, the transgressors will have the psychology not of a striker but a strike-breaker.
It is necessary to cultivate and create a general opinion in workers, peasants and soldiers that this is their own government. But while the government is in the hands of Lvov, Konovalov or a Tretyakov in the future you will not achieve anything with speeches or appeals, however eloquent, since the Russian workers and peasants have it strongly fixed in their heads that these classes have signified slavery and humiliation. You will achieve nothing, despite the mediation of all the socialist ministers, because the masses will not consider this government its own government, not on a single issue.
Therefore, the so-called left agitators, who are preparing a future Russian revolution, support you despite your policies that I consider mistaken. They support the authority of the soviets of workers’ and soldiers’ deputies, and correctly say that the policies of the soviets today are mistaken, and that power in its entirety must be transferred to them, pressure must be brought to bear in this direction. And they remember that there are no other revolutionary organisations apart from the soviets of workers’ and soldiers’ deputies.
That is why, comrades, the politics of half-heartedness, the politics of conciliationism, will turn out to be impotent. They threaten to cast us into the pit of unpopularity and hostility to the authority of the soviets. I venture to suggest that we, with our work, do not undermine your authority, we are an indispensable element in preparing the future.
They are talking now about small groups or circles seizing power. This is not true. At any mass meetings or gatherings that I go to where they ask me if it is now necessary to leave the soviet, not to submit to the soviets, to fight them, to break with the government, I reply: no. We are not happy with the government, we are not happy with the soviets, but it is impermissible to take power into our hands while the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies itself has not internally come to the realisation that, in this critical epoch, it has the duty to take responsibility for the cursed heritage of tsarism and for the deepening of the military collapse by the first liberal government.
Only the soviets of workers’, peasants’ and soldiers’ deputies are able to bring in an element of really creative, revolutionary discipline into the consciousness of the hungry masses who are already beginning to despair. Comrades, only this, disregarding the interests of private property, can solve our most urgent task. The policy that many ministers are conducting, that claims the Constituent Assembly will solve everything, is false, comrades. It is a liberal policy in essence. The Constituent Assembly will solve much but it must be prepared for, the conditions must be created for its formation. But this situation of collapse, of a growing mistrust towards an incapable administration, can undermine the very possibility of convening the Constituent Assembly.
The carrion crows of the fourth state Duma are absolutely not naive, they are at their class posts. (11) Their stooges in the government sabotage the creative efforts of the Peshekhonovs, and starve into surrender the Russian revolution: its food supply, its agrarian, industrial and diplomatic work. In all fields the policy of starvation and exhaustion is undermining the authority of the government and trust in it. It moves to the right, and sits in the Tauride Palace waiting, in Krinsky’s words, for the moment when the masses despair and say that they want the old tsar, a strong Octobrist government. (12) Then Rodzianko appears, the same Rodzianko who is the image of the Russian revolution, whose portrait hangs in the villages as the father of the new Provisional Government. He will install his Guchkov and then we will have a genuine strong government which in one container joins you from the right wing and us from the left.
Comrades, I am not hoping to convince you today for this will be too bold a hope from my side. What I would like to achieve today is to make you aware that, if we oppose you, we do not do so from any hostile, sectarian motives but because we, together with you, are suffering all the pangs and agonies of the revolution. But we see different answers to you and we are firmly convinced that, if you are consolidating the revolution today, we are preparing for you the revolution of tomorrow.
We are mobilising the most revolutionary left wing and, if the politics of the dual power vacuum – of the soviets and the government – leads to a counter-revolutionary crisis, and Guchkov and Rodzianko come to sweep the revolution away, then you will see, comrades, that we on the left will not be in the last place in the struggle, together with you, to develop and deepen the conquests of the revolution.
1. Pravda No75, 7 June 1917, originally titled: Speech at the Meeting of the First All-Russia Congress of Soviets on Relations with the Provisional Government.
2. The new minister of food supplies, appointed with the formation of the second Provisional Government in May (the first coalition government), was Alexy Peshekhonov, leader of the small right-wing social democratic Popular Socialist Party (ex-SRs) and a member of the Petrograd Soviet.
3. Alexander Konovalov, a textile magnate and leader of the liberal Progressist Party.
4. Pavel Pereverzev, member of the peasant-based Socialist Revolutionary party, justice minister in the first Provisional Government.
5. Matvey Skobelev, formerly a supporter of Trotsky in Austria he became a prominent Menshevik in the Petrograd Soviet and labour minister in the coalition government.
6. Leon Bramson, former Duma deputy (1906-07) for the Jewish workers’ Bund and the Lithuanian Trudoviks (Labour) group.
7. Irakli Tsereteli, leading Menshevik and post/telegraph minister in the government. The Black Hundreds were anti-Semitic murder gangs sponsored by Tsar Nicholas II.
8. Kronstadt was a naval base near Petrograd whose sailors were in the forefront of the revolution. In May 1917 the Kronstadt soviet had taken control of the area in protest at the betrayals of the Provisional Government.
9. Andrei Shingarev, member of the Constitutional Democratic party (Kadets – monarchists), minister of agriculture and then finance in the first Provisional Government. Mikhail Tereshchenko, a non-party big landowner, minister of foreign affairs in all three provisional governments. Prince Georgy Lvov was the leader (minister-president) of the first Provisional Government.
10. Fyodor Dan was a prominent leader of the Menshevik party, right-wing socialists.
11. The fourth state Duma was the last tsarist-era parliament. It formally existed until 6 October but had been rendered redundant by the February revolution.
12. The Octobrist party was right-wing, monarchist and pro-war – led by Alexander Guchkov and Mikhail Rodzianko.