23 March 2010
In his eyewitness account Year One of the Russian Revolution, Victor Serge, the anarchist and Bolshevik sympathiser, recounts that the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly in 1918 “made a great sensation abroad. In Russia, it passed almost unnoticed.”
Yet, for opponents of the revolution, this incident epitomises what they believe was wrong with it.
The 1917 October Revolution was the culmination of the struggle by the working class and peasantry of Russia to rid society of the authoritarian, brutal and repressive capitalist society. The October revolution was the realisation of the call for “all power to the soviets” – the democratic bodies run by, and in the interests of, the workers, soldiers and peasants.
The October insurrection was overwhelmingly popular. Of the 670 delegates to the Second Congress of Soviets, 507 favoured a transfer of power to the soviets.
The working class recognised that the soviets represented their interests. Representatives to the soviet were elected from the workplaces, the barracks and the peasant villages, meaning they represented the class interests of the people who elected them. They were recallable at any time, so if representatives didn’t follow the will of the people, new representatives could be elected immediately.
The soviets were the legitimate form of democratic government after the October Revolution. Their program was to end the slaughter in the trenches of World War I, to give the peasantry the land they craved and to defend workers’ control of industry.
The Constituent Assembly, on the other hand, represented an attempt by the old, discredited capitalist class to regain power and they had no qualms in doing this undemocratically. Indeed, the Military Organisation of the Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs) had drawn up a plan for thirty armoured cars to advance on the Assembly, as the first act of a coup against the soviet government.
The nature of the Assembly was summed up by the Bolshevik Bukharin, who asked its delegates: “Which side are you on – with [the counter-revolutionary Cossacks] and the bourgeoisie, or with the workers, soldiers and peasants? Who is to have power now?”
The mass of the working class, peasantry and soldiers had no faith in the Assembly. For the majority of the Russian people, as Sokolov, an SR propagandist in the army said, “their sympathies were clearly with the soviets… I more than once had occasion to hear the soldiers, sometimes even the most intelligent of them, object to the Constituent Assembly.”
The class composition of those who rallied to defend the Constituent Assembly is clear. Orlando Figes, hardly sympathetic to soviet power, describes a demonstration in its support: “the crowd was largely made up of the small active citizenry – students, civil servants and middle-class professionals.” Victor Serge tells us that Boris Sokolov, a RSR, “admits that most of the demonstrators came from sections of the population (bourgeois or middle class) who were motivated much more by hatred of Bolshevism than any sympathy for the authority of the Assembly.”
Only about 52 per cent of the population voted for it, which immediately debunks claims that it was more representative than the soviets. In some regions, no polling took place, and on some fronts, commanders hid from the soldiers that the provisional government had fallen.
During the course of 1917, the SRs had split between those who supported the provisional government (the Right SRs) and those who supported the Bolsheviks (the Left SRs). However, the elections held at the end of 1917 did not reflect this split. The Left and the Right, standing on opposite sides on the vital question of where power should lie, were, in most regions, elected from the same electoral ticket, which overwhelmingly favoured the right.
In the three areas that distinguished between Left and Right SRs, the Left SRs won overwhelmingly – by a margin of more than two to one in the Baltic Fleet, by nine to one in Kazan, and by thirty-two to one in Petrograd.
Had the electoral roles reflected this split, those parties which supported the insurrection – the Bolsheviks and the Left SRs – would have had a majority in the Assembly.
When convened, the Constituent Assembly was presented with a decree supported by the Left Socialist Revolutionaries and the Bolsheviks which acknowledged the legitimacy and supremacy of the soviets and endorsed their program. This was defeated 237 to 138. Hence, the Constituent Assembly voted against the wishes of the people on the first decree put before it.
Once the Constituent Assembly made its intentions clear – that it was opposed to soviet power, and that it was a body well to the right of Russian society – whatever popular support it had vanished. This is why it disappeared with barely a whimper.