By way of an anniversary, the first All-Russian Congress of Soviets convened in Petrograd a hundred years ago today. I plan to talk about it in context rather than in detail, because although it confirmed the legitimacy of the Provisional Government that had, in the form of various coalitions, been trying to run Russia since the February Revolution (in March), it otherwise reflected the chaotic nature of its political environment.
Most of the thousand or so delegates, and most of the workers or soldiers they represented, simply wanted food and peace in a hurry, but debates were guided by the more political animals among them, representing a wide spectrum of liberal and socialist views. These politicians, some of them hardened opponents of the old regime at the climax of a decades-long struggle, bickered along the lines anyone with a working knowledge of socialism in the early twentieth century would expect.
The majority wanted controlled, relatively gradual change within something like the social, political and geopolitical norms of the day, while a substantial minority argued for immediate revolution and a completely new socio-political world order. For the moment, the political gradualists still held sway in Petrograd and Moscow (the only places that really mattered when it came to controlling Russian politics), but with every day that passed without peace or economic transformation the workers and soldiers became more impatient, their mood more in tune with the aims of Lenin’s Bolsheviks and other revolutionary political factions.
The Congress both reflected the wild state of flux that had characterised Russian politics since the beginning of the year (and that generally accompanies revolution on the streets wherever it takes place), and was one of its by-products. Worker’s and soldiers’ councils, or soviets, had been a feature of the half-cocked 1905 revolution in Russia, and had returned in force during 1917, springing up spontaneously or as the work of local agitators all over Pertrograd, Moscow and the armed forces. During the February Revolution, those in the capital had been loosely organised into a central Petrograd Soviet, which had since been acting as a form of volatile but extremely powerful parliament, allowing the new Provisional Government to remain in power at its pleasure and drawing it ever further to the left.
The Petrograd Soviet was meanwhile facing its own challenges from below. In an attempt to add some semblance of concrete to its essentially ad hoc authority, it had organised a meeting of all the soviets it could muster, convened on 3 June with the understandably grandiose title of the National Conference of Soviets. The main business of the Conference was to organise the systems of credentials and voting necessary to turn itself into a congress that could claim a national, democratic mandate for policy decisions.
After the October Revolution, the Bolshevik-controlled All-Russian Congress would go on to function as the supreme political authority in Russia (rather than the whole USSR) until 1936, but in June 1917 it was just another noisy institution flailing in the whirlwind of ongoing revolution. While its leaders jockeyed to fill power vacuums, its constituent soviets swung towards radicalism and their delegates waited to be replaced, its debates centred on the one shared aim that might, if achieved, bring relative calm and the prospect of real social progress: peace.
Everyone with anything to say inside revolutionary Russia talked about wanting peace, and Russia – with its army, economy and society in ruins – was obviously ripe for peace, but wanting peace wasn’t quite the same as being a pacifist or as simple as it sounds.
For Marxism-inspired revolutionaries like Lenin and Trotsky – important street politicians in the context of the Petrograd whirlwind, but at this stage hardly bookies’ favourites as Russia’s next leaders – peace was a simple matter. Unwavering pacifists, they had opposed the War since before it began, regarded the conflict as a grotesque example of elite classes getting underclasses to do their fighting for them, and simply demanded that Russia stop fighting at once, leaving the warring states to sort out any fallout for themselves. This view resonated nicely with the impatient masses, but not with the gradualist side of Russian socialism, and not with the Provisional Government.
Left-leaning, and lurching further that way to keep up with events, but still essentially attached to the principles of pre-War liberal Europe, the Provisional Government desperately wanted peace and a chance to calm the storms, but not at any price. It promoted the socialist slogan – ‘peace without annexations or indemnities’ – that had already become a global buzz-phrase for pacifists, but it didn’t want to leave Russia at the mercy of a victorious German Army and it didn’t dare risk the loss of Allied economic aid by walking away from the fight. The government instead pinned its hopes on ending the War by bringing international socialism together for a peace conference – but by mid-June that wasn’t going so well.
In early June, the National Conference of Soviets (along with Dutch and Scandinavian socialist groups) had sent invitations to a conference in Stockholm to socialists from all the belligerent countries, but most belligerent governments were in no mood to grant passports to travelling pacifists and immediately banned delegates from travelling to Stockholm. Even more damagingly, a majority of Western European socialists at war, though in theory committed to seeking peace, remained patriots first and foremost, determined on a peace in line with their country’s needs and ambitions. The same catch had undermined international socialism’s stand against war in 1914, and pre-conference talks with international socialists already in Petrograd as observers quickly demonstrated that as yet, despite war-weariness and the rebirth of socialism as a revolutionary force in Russia, nobody else on either side was willing to abandon national interest for international brotherhood.
Displaying the kind of optimism it takes something like the overthrow of an emperor to generate, the Provisional Government clung to the belief that Stockholm represented a real chance of peace, pinning its hopes on the fact that the British government, alone among the major allies, had granted passports to pacifists. By the time the All-Russian Congress of Soviets opened those hopes had been dashed, and the British government was in the process of changing its mind. Why and how the Lloyd George coalition dithered its way to disapproval pretty much summed up why mainstream socialism was, as diplomacy had been a few months earlier, incapable of delivering peace in 1917.
For obvious strategic reasons, the British government wanted the Provisional Government to survive and carry on fighting. With the Labour Party installed as part of the governing coalition, it was also less afraid of pacifists or revolutionaries than most European governments (and less hostile to socialism in general than the USA), so its first reaction to the Stockholm proposals was to give peace and the new Russian regime a chance. Passports were therefore granted to a small group of pacifists, led by Labour MP and future premier Ramsay Macdonald, but they were prevented from sailing from Aberdeen on 11 June by the Firemen’s and Seamen’s Union, which then organised a nationwide blockade of ports to stop them finding a another route out of the country.
The stated reason for this superficially bizarre behaviour was the seamen’s fury at public rejection by pacifists, and by MacDonald in particular, of their demands for reparations from Germany to compensate the victims of submarine warfare. MacDonald tried to defuse the situation by making a statement accepting the seamen’s view that reparations should be paid to both Allied and neutral victims, but it made no difference because the real issue behind the blockade was the union’s mistrust and resentment of pacifism itself.
The delegation gave up and went home on 15 June, by which time popular and press support for the union’s actions had made clear to the cabinet that, much as the government wanted to give peace without indemnities a chance, the nation as a whole wanted the pound of flesh propaganda had led most people to expect. The delegates’ passports were cancelled, any hope disappeared that the Stockholm conference would be more than another token gathering of powerless pacifists, albeit bolstered by the newly empowered pacifists of the Russian revolutionary left, and the government in Petrograd was left with the impossible task of satisfying bellicose allies and a pacifist population.
Just how badly that turned out is another part of the wider story. For now, this grossly simplified, largely fact-free amble through the muddy, swirling waters of socialist politics in June 1917 is a reminder of how quickly the solidarity of opposition can be turned into civil war by the expectations, dilemmas and compromises that come with power. It is also, like the fate of Austrian Emperor Karl I (31 March, 1917: The Right Charlie), a reminder that once you start breaking up a system you’d better go all the way, or someone else will do it for you. They can often seem like a good idea to people trying to balance a vested interest in stability against a conscience, but moderate revolutionaries are still an oxymoron trying to deliver the impossible… so watch your back, M le Président.