So… the ‘Soviet’ was originally a left-positioned constituent collective, rising out of the various revolutionary groups, factory- and soldiers’ committees who took to the streets in February 1917. This was an important distinction from the Provisional Government of the Duma, which was already in place previously as (supposedly) a democratic power between the citizens and the Tsar, and seen as a predominantly bourgeoisie power – even if they were a lot ‘lefter’ than we would normally think of as bourgeoisie in current terms.
So far so good, right?
This is where things start to get really confusing. Thank Crom that Mr. Mieville is writing a historical fiction book [kinda] what with all the various committees, executives, assemblies and party names I’m trying to get my head around!
The Dual Power phase of the Revolution between the Soviet assemblies and the Duma lasted for all of eight or nine months in total. Infighting and factionalism abounded, all set to the terrifying and tragic heartbeat of the First World War; more soldiers being requested to join the front, which in turn inspired “defencist”, anti-war arguments from the Soviet, but also national cohesion from the more right-leaning sections of society. An impossible situation.
Things start to boil in June-July when Petrograd/St. Petersburg infantry units refuse to go to the war and begin to advocate for a second, more robust military revolution to oust the Duma.
The Role of the Military
This is an important turning point, not that I am a historian; but it highlights a problem between radicalism and governance. The army has always been a highly controversial and key player in many radical gestures: Egypt and the Arab Spring notably, but also recently Zimbabwe and the ousting of Mugabe. We can only surmise what might have happened in Syria if the military had come out in favor of the protestors at the start of the Syrian War, rather than stayed allied with Assad, for example.
But it is, we must never forget; undesirable. People with guns shooting people – how is that a radical gesture, given that it is what human civilization has been doing ever since they invented them? In the Arab Spring for example, the military “saviors” of the people soon conducted their own crackdowns against the radical protestors. Here in our case study of 1917, we have the Petrograd Machine Gunners shouting that they will take their guns to the streets. Eurgh.
There is a quote somewhere that goes something like “the seeds of Stalinism where there from the beginning” which is a bit of an understatement, since Stalin himself was there from the beginning, pumping out editorial pieces as he repositioned himself for ever greater influence. But the “authoritarian” tendancies weren’t just coming from ‘old Joe. When Finland and the Ukraine tried to secede in those early days [a pertient point for today, in the case of Ukraine] both the Soviet and the Duma disagreed with their self-determination.
In these later stages of the Dual Power phrase we see the Soviet congress trying to manage it’s own rapidly growing fault lines along the more moderate-leaning Menshavik’s and the more left-leaning Bolsheviks [we all know how that one played out]. As well as these ideological splits and put-downs, they all faced the problems of governing such a vast landmass.
Personally I think there is a link behind both of these things: the dependence on the military by radical groups, and the rise of authoritarianism. That link I would call a kind of statist/centist approach. The Soviet and the Duma were trying to control “Mother Russia” and to do so, they wanted the bullets to stop any other dude wanting to do the same.
The Soviet assemblies were indeed a devolved power structure, with just about every village, workplace, cultural grouping having their own soviet committee to voice their concerns – but something must have been going wrong with that apparatus. People were still starving in the streets after the Revolution, criminal gangs were rampant. Famine wasn’t very far away, communities were in melt down – I can’t help but think that the direction of radical change was skewed in favor of “The Big State” rather than grassroots radical change.
Sure, it’s easy to say all this now, and I’m only highlighting that eight-or-nine month gap during which time everyone must have been running around like headless chickens. However, here is my point: unless the living conditions are changed for the citizen, and unless they are empowered in very real ways – collectively produce food, produce energy, not be in housing debt, reduce the reliance on capital – then how are either the Soviet or the Duma improving things?