Max Shachtman


Soviets and the Constituent Assembly

Contribution to a Key Question of the Russian Revolution

(January 1949)

From The New International, Vol. XV No. 7, September 1949, pp. 218–224.
Part 8 Max Shachtman, Under the Banner of Marxism, Bulletin of the Workers Party, Vol. IV No. 1 (Part II), 14 January 1949, pp. 62–108.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The attitude of the Bolsheviks toward the Constituent Assembly in the Russian Revolution is a question that has not only been considerably agitated by opponents of Marxism in recent years but has also agitated many who are seriously interested in a re-evaluation of the Revolution from the Marxian standpoint. The following is printed as our contribution to the question. It is an excerpt from a longer essay written earlier this year by Max Shachtman, entitled Under the Banner of Marxism, which was occasioned by the resignation from the Workers Party of E. Erber in a statement setting forth his abandonment of Marxism. Both documents, in mimeographed form, are available through The New International. – Ed.

* * *

Let us jump from Marx in Germany in 1850 to Lenin in Russia in 1917. The Wise One [Erber] writes:

The Kerensky regime had done its utmost to block its further advance by frustrating the efforts of the masses to end the war and divide the land. The regime sought to stretch out its undemocratic authority as long as possible by repeatedly postponing the election of a Constituent Assembly. If the revolution was to advance, Kerensky had to go. Only the Bolshevik Party was able to show the way to the teeming, creative, democratic Soviets of 1917. The revolution broke through the impasse and opened a road toward a resolution of the land and peace questions. Far from carrying out a coup d’etat, as their opponents charged, the Bolsheviks rode to power on the crest of an upsurge that sought to realize the long-promised objectives of land and peace.

We are beginning to get an idea of what the Marxist policy should have been, and it’s not bad as a starter. “If the revolution was to advance, Kerensky had to go.” Right is right. But Kerensky alone? Really, now, would that have been fair? Should Kerensky have been made the scapegoat for the “Kerensky regime,” that is for the Kerensky government? What about the “socialist opponents” – the Mensheviks and SRs – who made the existence of the regime possible, who were part and parcel of it, who were fully co-responsible with Kerensky in trying to “stretch out” the “undemocratic authority” of the regime “as long as possible,” in doing “its utmost to block” the advance of the revolution “by frustrating the efforts of the masses to end the war and divide the land”? What gives them immunity and not Kerensky? Whatever our opinion may be, we know the opinion of the Russian workers and peasants: the whole kit and caboodle had to go! Their place had to be taken by – write it down again! – “the teeming, creative, democratic Soviets of 1917.” Led by whom? By Lenin and Trotsky, because – write this down, too! – “only the Bolshevik Party was able to show the way” to the Soviets. Only the Bolsheviks.

That way was the seizure of power by the workers’ and peasants’ Soviets, which proceeded to give the land to the peasants, control of the factories to the workers, peace to the whole country, and to usher in the greatest victory for the socialist working class in all its history.

The Dispersal of the Constituent Assembly

But what about the Constituent Assembly – didn’t the Bolsheviks demand that it be convened and then, after tricking the workers into giving them power on the basis of this democratic slogan, didn’t these same Bolsheviks disperse the Assembly when it did convene? This brings us to Erber’s second pontifical bull against the Bolsheviks, the second error which brought about the subsequent 30 years’ horror. And for a second time, Erber is counting on the possibility that his reader’s ignorance is greater than his own.

The Bolsheviks, along with the Left Social-Revolutionists, did indeed disperse the Constituent Assembly. But this means that they refused to disperse or dissolve the revolutionary workers’ and peasants’ Soviet government in favor of a counter-revolutionary and unrepresentative parliament. That’s the first point and the main point!

What was the revolutionary Soviet power? It was “far from ... a coup d’état,” it was the triumphant revolution of the “teeming, creative, democratic Soviets” which “broke through the impasse and opened a road toward a solution of the land and peace questions.” This impasse was broken through against the opposition and resistance not only of Kornilov and Kerensky, but above all of the Mensheviks and SRs. The workers and the peasants, in their democratic Soviets, repudiated the two old parties and their leadership. They turned to the leadership of the left wing of the SRs and above all the leadership of Lenin’s party, because – we are still quoting from the Wise One – “only the Bolshevik Party Was able to show the way.” That way was lined with the slogan, was it not, of “All Power to the Soviets!”

What was the Constituent Assembly that finally convened in 1918, after the Soviet revolution? It was a faint and belated echo of an outlived and irrevocable political situation. It was less representative and less democratic than the Kerensky regime had been during most of its short life. During most of its existence, the Kerensky regime was supported by the bulk of the workers, soldiers and peasants who were democratically organized in their soviets. It was supported by the Menshevik and SR parties and party leaderships which, at that time, dominated the soviets, had their confidence and support and represented (more or less) the actual stage of political development and thinking of the masses at the time. Given the change in the political development and thinking of the masses, this regime had to go, says the Wise and Stern One.

But what did the Constituent Assembly represent when it finally came together, despite the months of Kerenskyite, Menshevik and SR sabotage? It was elected on the basis of outlived party lists. It was elected by a working class and peasantry that – politically speaking – no longer existed. The SR Party, which held about half the seats, had already split in two. But while the official party, controlled by the right wing, held most of these seats, the new leftwing SR Party which was collaborating with the Bolsheviks in the Soviet power and which already had or was rapidly gaining the support of the great majority of the peasants, held very few of the SR seats. The official SR list had been voted by the peasants before the tremendous revolutionary shift had taken place in their ranks. The official SR peasant supporters no longer existed in anything like the same number that had, earlier, cast their vote for the party list. Substantially the same thing held true for the Menshevik group in the Assembly, which represented the votes of workers who had since turned completely against the Mensheviks and given their allegiance to the parties of the Soviet power, the Bolsheviks or the Left SRs. The composition of the Assembly, on the day it met, no longer corresponded even approximately to the political division in the country. The sentiments and aspirations of the masses had changed radically since the party lists for the Assembly were first drawn up and after the voting had taken place. By its composition, we repeat, the Assembly was less representative than the Kerensky government in its heyday.

The Demand for the Dispersal of the Soviet Power

It is not surprising, then, that the Constituent Assembly turned out to be a counter-revolutionary parliament. The Bolsheviks and the Left SRs called upon the parties of the Assembly to recognize the Soviet power. The Mensheviks and right-wing SRs, to say nothing of the bourgeois Kadets, refused. Understandably! They had opposed the democratic slogans which brought about the revolution. They had brought the revolution against the monarchy to an impasse. They resisted tooth and nail the attempts to “open a road toward a solution of the land and peace questions.” They had opposed the slogan of “All Power to the Soviets!” Their leadership had been repudiated and overturned by the “teeming, creative, democratic Soviets” which turned to the Bolsheviks as the “only” ones able to show the way. They had “subordinated the aims of the Revolution to the imperialist program of the bourgeoisie.” They capped this not very glorious, not very socialist, not very democratic record by presenting a little amendment to the Soviet power, namely, that it give up power and all claim to power, and take its orders henceforward from them! They asked the Revolution to renounce itself, dig its own grave, jump into it and cover itself with earth hallowed by bourgeois democracy. From its very beginning, the Constituent Assembly declared war upon the Soviet power.

Erber, the democrat, is merciless in his criticism of the Bolsheviks for dispersing the counter-revolutionary Assembly. But nowhere does he even indicate that what was involved was the demand by the Assembly to disperse and dissolve the revolutionary Soviet government installed by the “teeming, creative, democratic Soviets of 1917”! Erber is for the Soviets so long as they confine themselves to teeming, but not if they exercise their democratic rights and mission to create a proletarian, socialist power. What is the difference between the Russian Assembly, which he accepts, and the German Scheidemann whom, he says, he rejects? Only this: Scheidemann succeeded in crushing the German Soviets and the Assembly failed to crush the Russian Soviets – that’s all.

It may be asked:

“Even if it is granted that this Assembly was unrepresentative, why didn’t the Bolsheviks call for new elections which would have made possible the convocation of a parliament corresponding democratically to the political division in the country?”

The Bolsheviks preferred the Soviet (Commune-type) form of government to the parliamentary form from the standpoint of the working class and of democracy and as the only state form under which the transition to socialism could be achieved. The Bolsheviks did not invent the Soviets, they did not create them. The Soviets developed spontaneously among the masses and, without asking anybody’s approval, became organs for the defense of the demands of the masses and organs of power. The wisdom and superiority of the Bolsheviks consisted in understanding the full meaning and social potentiality of these democratic organs which they themselves did not fabricate artificially but which they found at hand as a natural product of the revolution. Among the Bolsheviks, it was Lenin who understood them best. His views were not concealed, hidden in his pocket to be brought out only after the masses had been tricked into giving the Bolsheviks state power. Immediately upon his return to Russia, Lenin saw that the Soviets were already a state power, a unique power, dual to the official state power and in immanent conflict with it. Almost the first words he wrote on the subject (Pravda, April 22, 1917) were these:

Lenin on Soviets and Parliament

It is a power entirely different from that generally to be found in the parliamentary bourgeois-democratic republics of the usual type still prevailing in the advanced countries of Europe and America. This circumstance is often forgotten, power is of exactly the same type as the Paris Commune of 1871. The fundamental characteristics of this type are: (1) the source of power is not a law previously discussed and enacted by parliament, but the direct initiative of the masses from below, in their localities – outright “usurpation,” to use a current expression; (2) the direct arming of the whole people in place of the police and the army, which are institutions separated from the people and opposed to the people; order in the state under such a power is maintained by the armed workers and peasants themselves, by the armed people itself; (3) officials and bureaucrats are either replaced by the direct rule of the people itself or at least placed under special control; they not only become elected officials, but are also subject to recall at the first demand of the people; they are reduced to the position of simple agents; from a privileged stratum occupying “posts” remunerated on a high-bourgeois scale, they become workers of a special “branch,” remunerated at a salary not exceeding the ordinary pay of a competent worker.

This, and this alone, constitutes the essence of the Paras Commune as a specific type of state.

Lenin prized the Soviet type of state, from the very beginning of the revolution, for its superiority from the standpoint of the workers and of genuine democracy. His view on the Constituent Assembly, furthermore, is most concisely and clearly set forth in the first two of his theses on the subject:

  1. The demand for the convocation of a Constituent Assembly was a perfectly legitimate part of the program of revolutionary Social-Democracy, because in a bourgeois republic a Constituent Assembly represents the highest form of democracy and because, in setting up a parliament, the imperialist republic which was headed by Kerensky was preparing to fake the elections and violate democracy in a number of ways.
  2. While demanding the convocation of a Constituent Assembly, revolutionary Social Democracy has ever since the beginning of the revolution of 1917 repeatedly emphasized that a republic of Soviets is a higher form of democracy than the usual bourgeois republic with a Constituent Assembly.

Lenin wrote his views about the Soviets, and repeatedly stated that “Humanity has not yet evolved and we do not as yet know of a type of government superior to and better than the Soviets of workers’, agricultural laborers’, peasants’ and soldiers’ deputies,” not after the Soviets had rallied to the support of his party, but from the very start, in April, when the Soviets were overwhelmingly under the leadership and control of the Mensheviks and SRs, with the Bolsheviks as a small minority among them. Lenin wrote his views on the Soviets and the Constituent Assembly, on the commune type of state and the parliamentary type of state, for the entire political public to see and read. Anyone able to understand anything in politics was able to understand Lenin.

Once the Soviet power had been established with the decisive support of the masses of workers and peasants, the Constituent Assembly could not represent anything more than a throwback to bourgeois democracy, a throwback in the course of which the new Soviet power would have to be crushed, as it was crushed later on in Germany, Bavaria, Austria and Hungary. To have tried to bring into life a “good” bourgeois parliament when life had already made a reality of a far more democratic form of government established by the masses themselves and enjoying their support and confidence, would have meant a victory for reaction. That in the first place.

The Disputed Question – in the Abstract

In the second place, we do not hesitate to say that, abstractly, a second and a third or fourth attempt to establish a more democratic parliament, could not be ruled out as impossible, or unnecessary, or contrary to the interests of the working class – abstractly. Similarly, you cannot rule out a decision by the revolutionists themselves, under certain circumstances, to dissolve Soviets that came into existence under different circumstances. The Soviets may be too weak to take supreme power in a country but strong enough to prevent the bourgeoisie and the petty-bourgeois parties from consolidating their power on a reactionary basis; the bourgeoisie may be too weak to crush the Soviets but strong enough to hold on to its rule. The revolutionists or the Soviets may not enjoy sufficient popular support; the bourgeoisie may hesitate before a civil war in which everything is at stake.

Decisive sections of the people may believe insistently in the possibility of finding a solution in a more democratic parliamentary system and at the same time refuse to allow the new proletarian democracy to be destroyed. History knows all sort of combinations of circumstances and is very fertile in creating new combinations. How long it would be possible for revolutionary Soviets (a semi-state) to exist side by side with an uncertain bourgeois parliament (another semi-state) under any and all conceivable circumstances, cannot be answered categorically or in advance. All we need to say is this: there are historical laws of revolution, we know these laws, and we also know that there have been and will probably continue to be exceptions to these laws.

However, it is not this abstract question that is being discussed, important though it is in its own right. We are not saying that in every socialist revolution, regardless of the country, the period, the economic and political conditions in which it develops, Soviets will arise; or if they do that they will develop just the way they did in Russia, that the workers’ organs will come into existence in head-on conflict with the bourgeois parliamentary system, that these workers’ organs will have to disperse or dissolve the parliament in the same way that we saw in Russia, that the bourgeoisie will have to be overturned by violence, that the ousted bourgeoisie is absolutely certain to resist with armed force, that a civil war is absolutely inevitable.

It is conceivable that the rise of the socialist proletariat is so swift, mighty and irresistible; that the economy is in such a state of disorder and the bourgeoisie in such a demoralized, depressed and hopeless state, that it decides to throw in its hand without a real fight. It is conceivable that under such or similar circumstances the classical bourgeois parliament can be so drastically revised from within its own organs that it becomes transformed into something radically different. All laws, including historical laws, have their exceptions. But again, that is not what we are discussing here. We are discussing what actually happened, in the Russian Revolution.

And what actually happened, that is, the way the social and political forces actually meshed and drew apart and clashed in Russia during the revolution, shows that the Bolsheviks acted as revolutionary socialists in the struggle around the Constituent Assembly and not like political science professors drawing diagrams on a high school blackboard.

The Disputed Question – in Political Reality

Which brings us to the third place – the political reality. Once the Soviets took power, the counter-revolution instantly adopted the slogan of the Constituent Assembly even before the Constituent actually convened. The true representatives of the classes regarded neither the Soviets nor the Constituent Assembly as abstractions. For the reaction as well as for the petty-bourgeois democracy (each from its own standpoint), the Constituent Assembly became the rallying cry, the banner, the instrument for the struggle to overthrow the Soviet Power of the workers’ and peasants, which also meant to overthrow all the achievements obtained by this power and expected from it. The conflict between “Soviet” and “Assembly” on the blackboard is one thing. In the Russia of 1917–1918, it was a violent and irreconcilable conflict between the classes. In Erber’s document, it need hardly be added, the class struggle does not exist. Or if it does, why, it can easily be straightened out by men of good will. The Assembly demanded the capitulation of the Soviets; it could not exist without such a capitulation. Men of good will were of little use in this conflict. A civil war broke out, and as the German phrase has it, the weapon of criticism gave way to the criticism of weapons.

The civil war that followed is clearly the fault of the Bolsheviks. Of that, there is no doubt in Erber’s mind. It’s notoriously true, too! If the Bolsheviks had not taken power, there would have been no need for a civil war to crush them! Even before the Bolsheviks took power, as a matter of fact, if the Soviets (we mean, of course, the teeming, democratic Soviets) had not existed at all, there might not even have been a Kornilovist-monarchist plot to drown them in a bloodbath. Indeed, we may even state it more generally: If workers were not so insistent and militant in trying to impose their modest demands on obstinate and reactionary employers, the latter would find no need of subsidizing thugs and fascists to beat and shoot workers. You can hear that philosophy expounded in any highschool (third term), from a thousand pulpits and ten thousand newspaper pages: If labor gets unreasonable in its demands and doesn’t know its proper place, well then, we don’t like it, you know, but if that happens, Fascism just is inevitable. Yessirree! It’s notoriously true. It is also true that if you stop breathing altogether, not even your worst enemy will dream of strangling you.

Oh, wait a minute! Erber is not defending the bourgeoisie and the reaction! He’s really radical, and he doesn’t care much about what is done to the bourgeoisie. What upsets him is that the Bolsheviks took power and dispersed the Assembly in opposition to the workers. Do you see now? Listen to this little sneer, lifted right out of the literature of the professional anti-Bolshevik (and the professional anti-unionist, we might add):

As for the masses who constituted the Soviets, Lenin held that they would be won to the idea in time. It was for the vanguard to act and explain later. Those of the workers who refused to accept this concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat had to be handled firmly, for their own good.

Our little animal is a vicious one, isn’t he? Lenin was for imposing his dictatorship upon the masses and explaining to them later. And if they didn’t go along, why, shoot the rabble down – for their own good! He turned out pretty bad, this Lenin. Fights for months with democratic slogans; fools everybody, including the democratic Soviets which brought him to power on the crest of their upsurge and without a coup d’état on his part, and then, a very few weeks later, the mask is off! He acts for their own good; he shoots them for their own good. There’s an authentic portrait of Lenin for you, an unretouched photograph of him!

A “Proof” Against the Bolsheviks

What is the proof for this insolent charge? One proof is the famous “demonstration” of January 18, 1918, organized by the reactionary City Duma of Petrograd against the Soviet Power and for the Constituent Assembly. The “demonstration” was dispersed by Red Guards. To show the magnitude of this Bolshevik atrocity, Erber quotes an article by Maxim Gorky, “whose honesty as a reporter of the events can be accepted.” We hear Gorky burning with indignation at the charge that this was a bourgeois demonstration and denouncing the Bolsheviks for encouraging “the soldiers and Red Guards [to] snatch the revolutionary banners from the hands of the workers.”

Gorky’s honesty, guaranteed by Erber personally, makes him a good reporter of events! Gorky was, to be sure, an honest man and a socialist. But on revolutionary problems, he had no more qualification than the next man, except perhaps that he was warmly sentimental, almost always confused in the political conflicts of the Marxian movement, and a bitter enemy of the Bolshevik Revolution for a long time, above all, at the time it occurred. If Erber picks him out as his reporter of events, it is a clear case of like calling unto like. Erber is attracted by Gorky’s impressionism and by his confusion, which he likes to think is no greater than his own muddleheadness.

You read Erber’s lurid quotation from Gorky, and your mind’s eye conjures up the image of Scheidemann, Noske and Ebert mowing down the German workers with machine guns. Erber has his countries, parties and men mixed up a little. Who was involved in this huge demonstration which, if you follow Erber, you might think was terminated with workers dead and dying by the thousands? Three days before Gorky’s anguished article, his own paper, Novaia Zhizn, reported the demonstration as follows: “About 11:30 some two hundred men bearing a flag with the words, ‘All Power to the Constituent Assembly,’ came across the Liteiny Bridge.” There is the imposing number of the Petrograd population that followed the clarion call of the bourgeoisie, the Mensheviks and the S.R.s to proclaim the sovereign rights of the Constituent Assembly which they had so successfully sabotaged for six months. One hundred plus one hundred, making a grand total of two hundred, all good men and true!

The other proof is this:

Gorky is quite correct in asking what the bourgeoisie had to cheer about in the convocation of a Constituent Assembly in which the bourgeois party, the Kadets, held only fifteen seats out of 520, and in which the extreme right Social Revolutionaries, who had been identified with Kerensky, were thoroughly discredited.

We will even try to explain to this innocent what only 15 Kadets out of 520 seats and a majority for the bourgeoisie had to cheer about. A Constituent with the S.R.s, even right-wing S.R.s, would give the bourgeoisie very little to cheer about, if this Constituent were proclaiming its sovereignty against the Czarist Duma. The same Constituent, however, in proclaiming its sovereignty against the revolutionary power of the democratic Soviets of the workers and peasants, would give the bourgeoisie, inside Russia and all over the world, plenty to cheer about. And it did cheer about it!! How explain that mystery? And how explain a few other mysteries?

Between them, the right-wing S.R.s and the Mensheviks had the majority of the seats in the Constituent. Since it was an ever-so-democratic Constituent, this must have meant that the two parties were supported by the majority of the population. The Constituent is dispersed by the Bolsheviks, who do not have the masses but who act for them and explain later, and who shoot them down for their own good. So far, so good. The outraged S.R.s and Mensheviks return to the outraged masses, with the declaration, as one of them put it, that “The Constituent Assembly alone is capable of uniting all parts of Russia to put an end to the civil war which is speeding up the economic ruin of the country, and to solve all essential questions raised by the revolution.” The masses want democracy and the solution of all these essential questions. The Mensheviks and S.R.s promise to solve them. In fact, Erber tells us, they are now really for peace and for land to the peasants. What is more, the roles are reversed on the matter of democracy. The Bolsheviks are for the despotic dictatorship over the masses and “democratic slogans became a weapon of their socialist opponents.”

We are in 1918. The Bolshevik power is established in only a very tiny part of Russia and consolidated in none. The anti-Bolsheviks have political control in a multitude of localities – the great majority – and they even have considerable armed forces at their disposal. The Bolsheviks do not have what Stalin, for example, has today: a huge, tightly-knit political machine, hordes of privileged bureaucrats, a tremendous army, an all-pervading and terrifying G.P.U., and the like. They cannot simply dispose of their opponents by force or terror, as Stalin does. It is still a fair and square political fight, with the big odds still apparently in favor of the “socialist opponents,” who now have democratic slogans as their weapons and the democratic Constituent Assembly, in the flesh, as their banner.

The unexplained mystery, hidden to Erber behind seven of his own fogs, is this: How account for the fact that the “socialist opponents” get nowhere with their “democratic slogans” and their Constituent Assembly? Aren’t they the parties of the workers and peasants, as proved by the majority they registered at the opening of the Constituent? Aren’t they now armed to the toes with “democratic slogans” which, only a day ago, were so vastly popular with the masses that the cunning Bolsheviks won power with their aid ? Thorny questions, aren’t they ? But Erber is not going to get any thorns in his fingers if he can help it. Solution ? He leaves the questions strictly alone.

That’s a solution for him, but it does not answer the questions. The answer gives us the second key to the mystifications: The bourgeoisie had everything to cheer about in the convocation of the Constituent Assembly – everything. It could not expect to restore its power in its own name in the Russia of 1917-1918. But it could hope to restore it behind the stalking horse of bourgeois democracy, the Constituent Assembly and its Mensheviks-S.R. champions. Shall we look into this point for a minute?

An American Testimonial

Here, for example, we have the report of the U.S. Consul Dewitt Poole to the American Ambassador in Russia, written in Petrograd exactly one week after the final session of the Constituent. He is reporting on his visit five weeks earlier, to Rostov-on- Don “to investigate the question of the establishment of an American Consulate in that city.” During his visit, Mr. Poole meets with notorious monarchist and Cossack counterrevolutionists like General Kaledin, General Alexeyev and others connected with General Kornilov. The anti-Bolshevik united front is being formed into a “Council” in the Southeast of Russia immediately after the Soviet Power is established and before the Constituent even assembles. Let us read, and with profit, every one of the lines that we have room to quote from Mr. Poole’s report:

Negotiations are in progress for the admission to the Council of three representative Social Democrats, namely, Chaikowsky, Kuskova and Plekhanov; and two Social Revolutionaries, namely, Argunov and Potresov.

On the conservative side the Council, as now constituted, includes, besides the three generals (Alexeyev, Kornilov and Kaledin), Mr. Milyukov; Prince Gregory Trubetskoy; Professor Struve; Mr. Fedorov, representing the banking and other large commercial interests of Moscow; two other Kadets or nationalist patriots yet to be chosen; Mr. Bogayevsky, the vice-ataman of the Don Cossacks; and Mr. Paramonov, a rich Cossack. The Council will undoubtedly undergo changes in personnel, but a framework of an equal number of conservatives and radicals, not counting the three generals, appears to have been adopted.

In pursuance of the agreement with Mr. Savinkov, a proclamation to the Russian people has been drafted ... It refers to the suppression of the Constituent Assembly and asks for the support of the people in defending that institution. It is sound on the subject of the continuance of the war. The proclamation will be issued in the name of the league, unsigned, because it is frankly admitted that it has not yet been possible to obtain the names of persons who, it is thought, would be thoroughly acceptable to the people at large.

Isn’t every line of our wonderful Mr. Poole covered with mother-of-pearl, even though he never, we suppose, read Engels’ letter to Conrad Schmidt? What did the bourgeois have to cheer about in the convocation of the Constituent Assembly? Gorky didn’t know.

Erber doesn’t know yet. False modesty prevents us from saying we know. But Generals Alexeyev, Kornilov and Kaledin – they know. Prince Trubetskoy – he knows. Gospadin Fedorov, “representing the banking and other commercial interests of Moscow” – he knows. Gospadin Paramonov, a Cossack who happens also to be rich – he knows. Alas, every one of them has passed from our midst to enjoy the reward of the pious; not one of them is alive today to tell Erber what he knows. And that’s a double pity, because the proclamation of the Council was so “sound on the subject of the continuance of the war” – which is another subject that is of interest to Erber.

Testimonial of Three Czarist Generals

General Denikin issued a proclamation on January 9, 1918, before the hideous Bolsheviks dispersed the Assembly, proclaiming the aims of his “Volunteer Army.”

The new army will defend the civil liberties in order to enable the master of the Russian land – the Russian people – to express through their elected Constituent Assembly their sovereign will. All classes, parties and groups of the population must accept that will. The army and those taking part in its formation will absolutely submit to the legal power appointed by the Constituent Assembly.

This czarist general did not have much luck either. He was ready to “absolutely submit” to the Constituent, but he couldn’t find anyone else who panted to follow his inspiring democratic lead. “The volunteer movement,” he wrote later in his souvenirs, “did not become a national movement ... At its very inception ... the army acquired a distinct class character.” Erber should be compelled by law – democratically enforced – to read this. There are classes in society and their interests are irreconcilable. Above all in revolutionary times, all groups, movements and institutions “acquire a distinct class character.” So distinct that a czarist general finally sees it. But not Erber.

Here is another czarist general, Kornilov, and here are five instructive points from his program of February 1918:

  1. To reestablish freedom of industry and commerce and to abolish nationalization of private financial enterprises.
  2. To reestablish private property.
  3. To reestablish the Russian Army on the basis of strict military discipline. The army should be formed on a volunteer basis ... without committees, commissars, or elective officers ...
  1. The Constituent Assembly dissolved by the Bolsheviks should be restored ...
  2. The government established by General Kornilov is responsible only to the Constituent Assembly ... The Constituent Assembly, as the only sovereign of the Russian land, will determine the fundamental laws of the Russian constitution and will give final form to the organization of the state.

It’s a double pity that Kornilov joined his ancestors in the unsuccessful attack on Yekaterinodar a few weeks later, so that he can’t explain what the bourgeoisie had to cheer about, either.

Maybe we can find a hint from the other paladin of the Constituent, General Alexeyev, who is also armed to the teeth with “democratic slogans” (after the Bolsheviks take power but not, we regret to note, before), plus 100,000,000 rubles appropriated for his democratic efforts by the no less democratic government of France. In a perplexed and gloomy letter to the chief of the French mission in Kiev, the general writes in February 1918:

The Cossack regiments coming from the front are in a state of complete moral dissolution. Bolshevik ideas have found a great many followers among the Cossacks, with the result that they refuse to fight even in defense of their own territory. [Alexeyev means, of course, that these stupid Cossack regiments refuse to fight for the French banks.] They are firmly convinced that Bolshevism is directed solely against the wealthy classes ... and not against the region as a whole, where there is order, bread, coal, iron and oil.

We have found the hint! In the eyes of the masses, even of the politically backward and privileged Cossacks, the Constituent Assembly, the fight for it, the men and groups leading that fight, represent not democracy but the wealthy classes, the restorationists, the reaction, and at best, the compromisers and confusionists. In the eyes of the masses, the Bolsheviks and the Soviets represent the fight for freedom and the assurance that it can be won. They represent the movement “directed solely against the wealthy classes.”

That is why the Mensheviks and SRs, with all their votes and with all their “democratic slogans” and their Constituent Assembly, never and nowhere inspired the masses, never and nowhere recruited them to the banner of struggle to overturn the Soviet power and succeeded only in bringing the most shameful discredit upon themselves. That is why the “anti-democratic” Bolsheviks consolidated the Soviet power among the democratic masses in spite of odds almost without historical parallel. The “theoretical dispute” was decided freely by the masses, decided in struggle.

Max Shachtman

Marxist Writers’

Last updated on 29 September 2014