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Pano Vassilev's 'The Soviets idea' - call for help

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Pano Vassilev's 'The Soviets idea' was published in Sofia in 1933. It's an anarchist analysis of the origins of Soviets, and how anarchists related to them in the revolutions of 1905 and 1917.

The Kate Sharpley Library has a neatly-handwritten translation of 'The Soviets idea' which we have scanned and put online. We are now asking for help in typing it up. Please add text below.


It is in three chapters (available as pdf files):
1, The Soviets idea not a Bolshevik notion (10MB) Typed up docx file uploaded at: http://katesharpleylibrary.pbworks.com/w/file/73547648/Pano%20Vassilev-%20The%20Soviets%20Idea%20-%20Part%20I.docx

Proofread version below.
2, Precise origin and historical development of the Soviets idea (14MB) Proofread version below

3, Appearance and evolution of the councils idea in Russia and the anarchists' relationship with it. (10.5 MB)


A brief biography of Vassilev is available at http://www.katesharpleylibrary.net/02v7sn


Pano Vassilev The Soviets Idea (Sofia 1933)


Pano Vassilev : The Soviets Idea

(Sofia, 1933)




1.    The Soviets Idea not a Bolshevik notion.  
2.    Precise Origin and Historical Development of the Soviets Idea.
3.    Appearance and evolution of the council’s idea in Russia and the anarchists’ relationship with it.
4.    A short biographical note on the author.  






Chapter One : The Soviets Idea not a Bolshevik Notion 


The theory of soviets has no connection with the soviet system of government, despite what most people believe. On the contrary, we are entitled to argue the very opposite, namely, that the soviets idea, the idea of social life’s being organised along the lines of a new, free, communist system, with the production and distribution of goods in the society of the future being regulated through the good offices of meetings and working encounters between direct delegates, subject to replacement at all times and possessed of no authority, from trades organisations and distribution agencies… this idea has nothing in common with the characteristic peculiar to the Bolsheviks, their statist inclinations and their dictatorial system in the regimentation of social life.

            If, in spite of that, the soviets idea is still identified (especially in Bulgaria) with Bolshevism and with the current Soviet system, with their statist dictatorship, this is due primarily to the fact that the Bolshevik Party, for a variety of reasons, has managed to impose and to consolidate its dictatorial authority in Russia. In the very place where the proletariat first attempted to implement the soviets system in practice and on a huge scale.

            And if one adds to this, simple ignorance of the history of the labour movement and more especially of its left wing, the confusion is the more readily understandable. Even in our own circles, there are anarchists who look upon soviets as a purely Bolshevik invention and do not distinguish them from Bolshevik dictatorship.

            It is not hard to demonstrate that, fundamentally, Bolshevism and the soviets idea in its proper and original sense, are utterly unconnected.

            Above all, one has to remember that, according to its own supporters, Bolshevism is the “true”, “the only properly understood marxism”. Marx and Engels, the founding fathers of the marxist ideology, never pronounced themselves in favour of soviets. They wrote numerous books in which they expounded in detail not only the theoretical and philosophical principles, but also the constructive programme of what they themselves dubbed “ scientific socialism”. But in none of their works (whether these be books, pamphlets, programmes, letters or critical notes) will one discover a single line on the basis of which it might be argued that “the great teachers of the proletariat” envisaged “workers’ councils” as organs which might be used by the proletariat in its struggle so as to marshal its efforts, or in some future  socialist order, to organise production, distribution and social life in general, or even in the so-called ‘transitional’ period.

            Likewise, it is impossible to discover one single word to the effect that workers’ councils are organs of struggle in the works of marxism’s students and publicists who have thought and put pen to paper since Marx and Engels. This is quite natural, since marxism was conceived, formed and evolved precisely as a parliamentary, statist variant of socialism. Such it was, and such essentially, it remains, despite the soviet backdrop erected by the Bolsheviks in 1917.

            The split which took place in the first international in 1872 was the logical outcome of the incompatible and profoundly antagonistic views of the marxists and the bakuninists on the very issue of the relationship between workers’ movements and the modern bourgeois state generally, and its legislative organ, parliament in particular. The marxists, led by Karl Marx himself clearly and categorically described themselves as parliamentarians and statists. And the bakuninists were dubbed anarchists because they pronounced themselves against all forms of parliamentarism.

            In the view of Marx, Engels and their disciples, the social revolution is still regarded as a series of social reforms effected by a political party, describing itself as socialist or proletarian, which has taken power. This is to say that, that political party has achieved mastery of the State’s legislative and executive arms, parliament, the police, the army and the courts. The so-called dictatorship of the proletariat, as conceived by the founders of marxism and their supporters, is the dictatorship of a parliament in which the “representatives of the proletariat” have managed to secure a majority. This notion is spelled out in the Communist Manifesto wherein there is mention of conquest of the machinery of State and of “centralisation of credit by means of the State[1]In the Anti-Dühring2, Engels writes: “The proletariat takes charge of state power and transforms the major means of production into State property and “The State emerges truly representative of the whole of society”.  In their immediate aims the marxists have always employed the expression “People’s State” (Volkstaat) complete with a legislative assembly ie. a parliament wherein the majority is held by the “people’s representatives”.

            In the 12 June 1845 issue of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, Marx even wrote bluntly3 that, “following the proletariat’s victory” a constituent assembly with dictatorial powers would have to be summoned. And in his mind this was “dictatorship of the proletariat”.

            For marxists, this “dictatorship of the proletariat” has always meant the dictatorship of the “people’s representatives” in parliament, in the present bourgeois State and this is especially clear in the commentary of Marx’s friend, Engels, upon the Critique of the Erfurt Programme. “One absolutely certain point is that our party and the working class can only accede to power in the form of the democratic republic. Indeed, as the Great French Revolution has shown, that is the specific form of the dictatorship of the proletariat”4

            From this we may conclude that for Engels and so for Marx and for Marxists, the bourgeois democratic republic is the political form of socialism on the morrow of the Revolution. There is no other form in which the proletariat’s dictatorship may be expressed, because the Great French Revolution has shown (!)that the democratic republic is its specific form.

            Up until the October 1917 Revolution and even for two months after that, the Russian Bolsheviks – who, like all marxists at the time called themselves social-democrats – depicted the famed “dictatorship of the proletariat” exclusively as the dictatorship of a constituent assembly. And its was towards just that dictatorship that they had bent all their efforts right up to the last breath of the Russian Constituent Assembly of 1917. There are facts and documents galore to confirm this, including those drawn from Bolshevik sources. For instance, the very programme of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in which the Bolsheviks were the majority, is quite clear about its hostility to the soviet and its advocacy of parliamentarism. That programme was still in force in 1917. In this programme, which the Bolsheviks and Lenin subscribed to, until the Kronstadt sailors dismissed the Constituent Assembly in October 1917, one may read :

     “That is why the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party deems it its most urgent task to abolish the absolution of the Tsar and its replacement by a democratic republic whose constitution must guarantee:

i.    The sovereignty of the people, which is to say, the concentration of the entire supreme power of the State in the hands of a legislative assembly made up of the people’s representatives.
ii.    The right of eligibility, (general, equal and direct, for all citizens aged more than 20 years) to the Constituent Assembly and to the organs of local power : and the entitlement of every elected to be appointed to any parliamentary position.

     While pursuing its immediate objectives, the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party supports any revolutionary opposition movement directed at a radical political change, and categorically repudiates any schedule of reforms that would reinforce the police and administrative surveillance of the labouring classes.“

     “The Russian Social Democratic Labour Party is firmly convinced that the implementation of political and social reforms is feasible only through the abolition of the authoritarianism of the tsars, and the summoning of a constituent assembly freely elected by the entire people”5

            As this extract indicates, this programme did not look beyond a democratic republic, a constituent assembly elected by the whole citizenry. And as we have said, this programme was still extant, unchanged, in 1917, and enjoying the support of the Mensheviks and of the Bolsheviks together with Lenin. The programme had not altered following the attempted revolution of 1905-1906 when the Russian workers had set up their soviets which then played a highly significant role in the struggle. And, not merely did the Bolsheviks not amend the programme in the wake of the “general repetition” of 1905-1906. So as to make it less parliamentary and more “soviet”, but indeed they stressed that they opposed the soviets, the workers’ experiment. Thus at the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party congress held in London from 13 May to 1 June 1907, the Bolshevik Party (at that time only a faction) moved and (becoming the majority) ensured the adoption of a resolution on the issue of soviets, of which the following are some excerpts :

  1. “Resolution on the matter of the party’s relations with the Duma (the Russian Parliament); b) the people must be given an explanation of the impossibility of achieving political freedom by the parliamentary route, as long as power remains in the hands of the tsarist government6 ; the necessity of an open struggle by the masses of the people against the armed might of absolutism, as the only chance for the revolution to assure itself of a total victory: the transfer of power into the hands of the people’s deputies and the summoning of a constituent assembly with equal, direct and secret ballot.”      


  1. “Resolution vis-à-vis the labour congress7 b) the Bolsheviks’ draft (which was adopted): Given 1) that the Social Democratic Labour Party is the only organisation unifying the  conscious element of the proletariat as a vanguard and which directs the working class’s struggles for a socialist society and the conditions crucial for its introduction.”

    III.    “That at the moment of revolutionary eruption, it seems possible (!) to organise or to employ for the ends of the social democracy the workers’ non-party formations, such as, say, the soviets of workers’ representatives, etc.”

    IV.    “That the idea of a labour congress leads in fact to the replacement of the social democracy by the workers’ organisations lacking any party of a lasting nature, and that the organisation and preparation through propaganda for that labour congress inevitably culminates in the dis-organisation of the party and leaves broad masses of workers under the tutelage and influence of bourgeois democracy.”




“The congress acknowledges that(…) 2) The Party’s participation in these organisations is a possibility in the event of necessity, provided that the party develops and strengthens its aims; 3) The idea of a partyless labour congress backed by the anarcho-syndicalists in their struggle against the influence of social democrats over the labouring masses, is absolutely harmful for the proletariat’s class development; 4) As regards the need for free discussion of the labour congress issue in the party press, congress takes the view that there should be no propaganda geared to the organisation of the labour congress, neither by members individually nor among the party’s organisations” 8  

            These quotations from the programme of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. (in which the Bolsheviks were the majority) and the resolutions regarding that party’s attitude to the Duma and the projected non-party “congress of workers” indicate that the Russian “Marxist – Leninist”, even after the 1905-1906 experience, kept the faith with the teachings of Marx and Engels and went on regarding as their own the “specific formula” according to which “the dictatorship of the proletariat” was to be a democratic, parliamentary republic and not the workers and peasants’ soviets.

            And if, after the October uprising (1917) they jettisoned their old parliamentarist and non-revolutionary democratic standpoint vis-à-vis the constituent assembly and became “pro-soviets”, this was purely and simply under compulsion and because they could not do otherwise.

            All information concerning the conduct of the Bolsheviks during this period is of tremendous historical importance and shows that up until the dismissal of the Constituent Assembly, they were its champions and placed their hopes in it so as to secure a majority, no matter how, and, thanks to that majority to proclaim the “dictatorship of the proletariat”. Hence their hesitant and confused stance vis-à-vis the soviets even when the labouring masses had began openly to ventilate the slogans  “Down with the Constituent Assembly”…  “All power to the soviets of the workers, soldiers and peasants!”

            Quite by contrast the anarchists, or rather those of their number who were for the soviets, looked upon them as “executive organs of the will of the labouring people” 9.From June or July 1917 on, they placed themselves at the head of the monthly assemblage which had rallied around the councils of the proletariat and against the Constituent Assembly. As for the Bolsheviks, they persisted in regarding as possible a “revolutionary overhaul” of the national assembly and adopted no clear and definite stance on the question of the soviets’ role and mission in the proletarian revolution.

            So, for instance, when the masses of Petrograd and Kronstadt, disgusted by the Constituent Assembly and the machinations of the “people’s representatives” sitting in it, openly lined up behind the watchword “All power to the soviets!” first launched by anarchists, “then…” as Efim Yarchuk10writes… “The Bolsheviks took up the cudgelsfor the Constituent Assembly and in order to defend it, introduced into the soviets the idea of their being metamorphosed to a certain extent, into organs of the central authority”. 11

“And whenever the Bolshevik Roshal at a meeting in Kronstadt on 3 July 1917 spoke to the masses of an armed demonstration under the slogan of “All power to the soviets!” , the other members of the party met with Raskolnikov to await the decision of the party’s central committee which was based in Petrograd. And when Roshal asked Raskolnikov the question “What do we do if the party decides not to support anything?”, the latter replied “That doesn’t matter! From here we will force their hand” 12

It is well known and the Bulgarian Bolsheviks concede this, that up to the very last minute before the October rising, the majority of the party’s central committee opposed it, and that Zinoviev, Kamanev and others played the dismal role of typical opportunists and counter-revolutionaries during those decisive days. Those gentlemen who subsequently pronounced themselves “authentic” and patent  revolutionaries and who during the Kronstadt Revolt of 1921 against the Bolshevik authorities whom they represented dared label the Kronstadt sailors as “counter-revolutionaries”, these gentlemen funked the fight at the crucial moment for the real proletarian revolution.

That the Bolshevik Party was truly, up to the last moment before the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly, in favour of it and that it was compelled to amend its anti-soviet stance and moreover, to embrace the watchword “All power to the soviets!” as soon as it was confronted by the fait accompli of the dismissal of the Constituent Assembly, is evidenced by the testimony of Leon Trotsky : “ Our party did not reject democracy, taking account of the certain priorities of political agitation in this lawful transition towards the new regime. Out of this came our attempt to convene the Constituent Assembly (…) The constituent assembly proved an obstacle to the revolutionary movement and was swept aside”. 13

Trotsky does not say, of course, how and by whom precisely the constituent assembly was “swept aside”, because we may be sure he has no “political agitation” interest in doing so. Nor is he in a position to describe this revolutionary act on the part of the Bolshevik Party which, as he himself admits, did its utmost to attain “the dictatorship of the proletariat”, ie. The Constituent Assembly. Trotsky merely hints that the Constituent Assembly was “swept aside” because it was an obstacle in the path of the revolutionary movement. But anyone who bothers to reflect upon this for a moment will infer from this  cautions phrasing that… “1) The revolutionary movement at that point was assuredly not led by the Bolshevik Party and 2) The Bolshevik Party of the day with its preference, obvious up to the last minute, for the Constituent Assembly was one of the factors hampering the development of the revolution.”

Anatol Gorelik without concealing the reality for considerations of “political agitation” has this to say of the events of those days… “Still hesitant, torn between the soviets and the Constituent Assembly, they were in any case determined to ensconce themselves firmly in the Winter Palace. It was only in January 1918 (two months on from 25 October!) that, having failed to win a majority of votes in the elections to the Constituent Assembly, and faced with the fait accompli of the latter’s having been dismissed by a detachment of sailors under the command of the anarchist Zhelezniakov, they repudiated that Constituent Assembly”. “On that day, comrade Zhelezniakov was commander of the guard on the Constituent Assembly. Later, that afternoon, he calmly strode up to the father of the house, the Social Revolutionary Chernov and suggested to all of the Constituent Assembly’s members that they remove themselves for folk hadhad enough of their palaver and their ‘work’ (and that the sailors wanted to get to their beds). The existence of the Constituent Assembly was terminated as straight-forwardly as that. The Bolsheviks had no hand in dismissing the Constituent Assembly; they merely ‘legalised’ the fait accompli”. “Even then, as now, the Bolshevik’s policy hinged upon the balance of forces.” 14

And, truth to tell, one can only understand the about turn in terms of the need to need to readjust to the facts. The Bolshevik Party suddenly did a somersault apropos of the soviets and the Constituent Assembly in 1917-1918, under pressure from the astute and far-sighted Lenin. An exposition of the facts shows that, faced with the  choice of being faithful to Marxism and parliamentarism by clingingstubbornly, come what may, to the Constituent Assembly and opposing the transfer of power implicit in ‘All power to the soviets!’, with the risk of being “swept aside” by the labouring masses from the theatre of the social struggle as a political party identified with the Constituent Assembly (as befell all the other ‘socialist’, ‘worker’ and ‘labour’ parties) the Bolsheviks repudiated the Constituent Assembly and temporarily fell into line with the  surge from the masses by swimming with the current so as  to await  the opportune  moment to annihilate the  ‘soviets’ to strip them of their ‘power’ and to concentrate the power by a round-about route into their own  hands, no longer through the Constituent Assembly planof course but rather through the agency of a central executive committee of the soviets.

And despite the prevailing consensus in the party’s central committee – that there be no surrender to the enthusiasm of the masses – Lenin, though in the minority, correctly grasped with his expansive mind the dismal fate which lay in store for the party unless it fell into line with the inclinations of the masses. Lenin announced that the party was with the movement of the workers and peasants and with its outlook. He announced that he was taking the majority on the central committee to task for it was at odds with the wishes of the masses and defaulting upon its revolutionary duty. He unreservedly embraced the slogan of ‘All power to the soviets!’ and, by decree, changed the party’s name to ‘communist’ and for the time being, toed the communist line.

But this, did not last long. After it had been announced that the counter-revolution had been defeated, and thanks to Lenin’s bold stratagem, the Bolshevik Party managed to secure a majority in the Pan-Russian Congress of Soviets and on the central executive committee of the soviets. This signalled the start of centralisation upon that institution (in which the Bolsheviks always retained the upper hand) of initiative and rights. Indeed “by a round-about route” there was a homecoming to the old attitude : all of the soviets’ right had been cancelled “temporarily” to begin with, and then for good and were now soviets in name only.

“But as long as a country is governed by the dictatorship of one party, the workers’ and peasants’ councils obviously lose all their meaning. They are reduced to the passive role played in by-gone days by the States-General and parliaments when these were summoned by the monarch and had to contend with an all-powerful King’s Council”.15

Once ensconced in power and masters of the situation, the Bolsheviks could hardly have acted otherwise. Indeed “The Bolsheviks have never been supporters of an authentic councils system. In 1905, Lenin for instance explained to the chairman of the St. Petersburg soviet16 that ‘his party could not sympathise with the obsolete institution of the councils arrangement.’ But as the early stages of the Russian Revolution had evolved precisely on the basis of just that councils arrangement, the Bolsheviks, whenever they took power, had to seek an accommodation, willy nilly with this inheritance, a very dubious one in their  eyes. Then all of their actions were designed gradually to divest them of all power and to subordinate them to the central government. That they were successful in this is, in our view, the tremendous tragedy of the Russian Revolution.” 17

We shall see, in a separate chapter, why the Russian anarchists were unable to prevent the Bolsheviks from taking power and from directing the revolution and the soviets down the wrong road.
























(1)     The Communist Manifesto, conclusions, recommendation No:5.

(2)     Anti-Dühring, Ed. Sociales, 1959, pp. 319-320.

(3)     The Germans – like Liebknecht and Bebel – put out a newspaper of this name to which Marx and Engels contributed.

(4)     In Marx-Engels Programmes Socialistes, Ed. Spartacus, p. 74.

(5)     Londonsky sezd rosiskoy sots-demokraticheskoy rebotchky parti, Paris 1906, p.16.

(6)     It follows, logically, that should ‘real power’ slip from the hands of the tsarist government, ‘political freedom’ can be achieved by the parliamentary road.

(7)     A reference to the projected labour congress of representatives of the soviets and other non-party organisations.

(8)     Op. Cit. P.455.

(9)     See Preobrazhensky’s book Anarchism and Communism (In Russian).

(10) Yarchuk was one of those involved.

(11) Quoted in Yarchuk’s book Kronstadt in the Russian Revolution (in Russian and Spanish translation).

(12) Yarchuk, op. Cit. P.15.

(13) Terrorism and Communism (retranslated from the Bulgarian, p.36)

(14) Anatol Gorelik, Les Anarchistes dans la Revolution Russe, Paris 1973 (translation by Alexandre Skirda), p.65. For the section “Comrade Zhelezniakov… ‘fait accompli’ “ we have translated from the Russian original (pp. 15,16), for it is omitted from the French edition.( Translator’s note)

(15) Kropotkin, Message to the workers of the West, 1920, in Kropotkine Oeuvres, 1976, p.346.

(16) One G. Khrustalev.

(17) Rudolf Rocker, Les soviets trahis par les bolcheviks (la faillite du communisme d’ Etat), 1921, French edition by Spartacus, 1973, p.20.




Chapter Two : Precise origin and Historical Development of the Soviets Idea


            Generally the soviets idea is regarded as a “novelty” sprouted from the Russian Revolution of 1917. More “diligent” (!) historians date the first appearance of soviets somewhere around 1905-1906, at a time of significant revolutionary events in Russia. In fact, neither of these explanations is true.

            It is true to say that soviets appeared for the first time during the important and tremendous strikes by the Russian proletariat in 1905-1906. It is also a fact that the Russia of 1917 witnessed the most remarkable attempt, to date, in the history of the proletarian revolutionary movement to implement in practice the soviets arrangement on a large scale. And following that experiment, it is equally certain that the idea of soviets has awakened a hitherto unparalleled echo and become popular above all in countries where it was either unknown, as in Bulgaria, for example, or roundly dismissed, being deemed “utopian”, as in Germany.

            However, it is incorrect to think that the workers’ soviets as organs for coordinating workers’ struggle at local level appeared first in Russia in 1905-1906 or 1917. This is every whit as mistaken as the belief that the idea of social organisation, and more especially the organisation of production and consumption in the society of the future by means of local soviets of workers surfaced for the first time ever during the Russian Revolution.

            The origins of the very idea of workers’ councils as the organ marshalling the workers in one locality, as well as the emergence of this notion of society’s future economic and social activities’ being regulated in a given area by the workers’ soviets go back as far as the days of the First International. It was present in the branches which were on the left and whose ideologue and most famous inspiration was Mikhail Bakunin.

            This view of the workers’ soviet as an organ uniting and coordinating the struggles of the proletariat at local level, when that proletariat is organised in its class organisations – the unions – is a natural reflex dictated by necessity itself. Once the workers of a town are united by the union and whenever they seek contact with other unions in some local organisation, it is only logical that they should seek and discover an organ to liaise between and unite them. By means of that organ, they will be able to coordinate their efforts in the town, without losing their trade’s liaisons nor their autonomy of action.

            For such co-ordination, the most apt organ is the local workers’ soviet, i.e. the union of delegates from all the workers’ organisations existing in a given area, elected by the trade union assemblies of the workers themselves and accountable at all times to those assemblies and subject to recall by them. This organ is neither a local management committee whose members are empowered to take and enforce decisions, nor a mini-parliament wherein the “people’s representatives” take their seats, elected for a given term, during which they make laws, whilst the electors unconditionally abide by the laws until the next elections, as is the case in contemporary municipal elections.

            The local workers’ soviets have been set up under a variety of names and titles, as purely technical, executive organs. They have not had any managerial powers nor any right to resolve or direct, according to their own lights, what should and should not be done. It behoves the people who established them to make the decisions through the agency of their delegates. The requirements of the workers’ struggle are their raison d’être.

            The First International was a labour union set up mainly by national and regional unions. The strongest and most forward-looking branches were the trades organisations of the Jura workers (in French-speaking Switzerland), in Paris and in certain parts of France, England, in the Walloon area of Belgium, in Spain and in Italy. In all these branches, excepting England, the dominant ideas and organisational formats were those peddled and put into practical effect by Proudhon and Bakunin. Through them, Proudhonist and Bakuninist ideas had a predominant influence upon the International as a whole. Marx’s influence was pre-eminent only in Germany, but the International’s German branch was then one of the weakest and had but slight impact upon the development of the thinking of the International at this fundamental stage.

            At the beginning, and for a long time thereafter, the ideological Outlook was confused and nebulous. This is why during the early congresses (Geneva in 1866 and Lausanne in 1867) there was not, on the part of the internationalists any clear-cut stance with regard to the specific forms which social life might assume following the “liquidation” of capitalism and of the State. But the growth of the International as a weapon of combat was matched by a deepening of the ideas which blossomed very quickly. Practical activity and the daily contest between labour and capital progressively led the workers’ organisations to a more thorough and far-reaching study of the social question and of the practicalities of settling it. At the Basle Congress of 1869, the International attained the high-point of its external development. This congress clarified particularly the question of the new forms that were to be assumed by economic and social organisation the day after the revolution. In the reports submitted on these issues by the delegates, the Belgian Hins and the Frenchman Pindy; the great role that the workers’ councils or unions would have to play in the solution of the social question was broached seriously for the first time in the sessions of the International. And the Basle congress stated clearly and categorically that the workers’ union organisations are not merely organs for the defence of the workers’ interests within the framework of the existing capitalist society, but also the skeleton and embryo of the social organisation to come, right in the very bosom of capitalism. This declaration is imbued with the spirit of Bakunin’s teachings on the social revolution namely, that the new society will of itself represent the worldwide union of producers’ organisations – from industry, agriculture, transport, culture, etc. – and will draw its inspiration only from” a serious international organisation of workers’ associations from every land” 1. It is in this light that we have to understand the resolution passed by the congress on this issue, on a motion from the Belgian, this: “Congress is of the view that all workers ought actively to work towards the creation of resistance funds in the various trades bodies. As such societies are formed, it invites the branches, federal groups and central councils to so advise the associations of the same corporation as to encourage the formation of national trades associations. These federations will be charged with assembling all data relevant to their respective industries, directing what concerted steps are to be taken, regularising strikes and working effectively to ensure their success, until such time as wage slavery is replaced by the federation of free producers”2.

            Given that the revolutionary workers of the First International came to the conclusion that the trades unions of today serve to defend the workers and tomorrow will become the unions of free workers which will organise local production, the logical inference from this is that the current organs uniting the local unions into one regional union federation or union, will tomorrow serve as the natural organs of administering and managing new forms of production, consumption and social life. These organs can not act otherwise, save for the local workers’ councils. Today they are made up of all the delegates from all the trades organisations of one area, tomorrow their functions will be expanded, with delegates from the consumer organisations of the workers and their families on a district basis, according to the requirements of the new situation and new tasks.

            And in the comment which Hins made in the wake of this resolution, it is truly stated: “Yes, the resistance societies will survive the abolition of the wage system, not in name only but as an endeavour; they will then be the organisation of labour. They will then be the resolution of free exchange, effecting a vast worldwide distribution of work” 3 .

            And this administrative organ will be: “The councils of the trades and industrial organisations (which) will replace the present government and once and for all this representation of labour will take the place of all the old political systems of the past.” 4

            And so was born by natural means the idea of ordering and regulating social and economic activity in the society of the future by means of workers’ councils.

            It is interesting to note that the other submission on this issue which was examined and enlarged upon at the 1869 congress in Basle, the submission by the Parisian joiner Pindy, arrived  at exactly the same conclusions as this apropos of the organs that were to administer life in the future. These reflections are the inspiration of the revolutionary unions of today.

            “According to Pindy, in the society of the future the unions are to form free communes in which government and local administration will be replaced by the councils of delegates from the workers’ trades unions” 5

            The same idea is argued by the Bolshevik author, A. Tchekine [Chekin] (Stotski) in a bulky tome : “At the International’s Basle congress, one of the French delegates (it is obvious that he refers to Pindy – note by P. Vassilev), argued the need to create trades unions, stressed that they are  crucial for two reasons; one the one hand, ‘they are a weapon against the exploitation of capital in our own day’ and, on the other, ‘given that they embrace different trades in a town, they form the commune of the future (…) The government is replaced by the councils of the assembled trades bodies, and by a committee of their respective delegates, overseeing the labour relations that are to take place of politics’ “ 6 .

            In the view of the members of the International’s left wing, whose inspiration was Bakunin and which scored a resounding victory at the Basle congress over the parliamentary, democratic and statist ideas of Marx, it was clear that in order to transform society, it had to be dominated and organised by the workers of the factories, workshops, agricultural enterprises, etc. And not by the power of the State and its legislative organ, parliament, contrary to the Marxist thinking. This is the reason why they did not ape the bourgeoisie by attempting to set up a new “workers” political party so as to achieve mastery of political power and to reform economic and social life from the top down. Instead, the workers organised on the basis of economic production so as to become the masters of economic power, industry, transport and agriculture, the means of production and consumption, without which no truly social regime is a possibility, let alone any emancipation of the forces of labour from the yoke of wage slavery. They wish to reorganise the whole of society’s life from the bottom up; the basis of that life is the economy; the workers nonetheless concede that all political power and all direction of certain individuals by others must vanish along with the exploitation of man by his fellow man. The First International’s Bakuninists also rightly understood that this does not mean the elimination of all order, all organisation and all planning and activity of a general sort. For the administration “of things” which is to say the production and distribution of goods in the future classless and stateless workers’ society, there will have to be organs which meet those needs without contradicting the aim. These organs are envisaged as being the workers’ councils which come together and liaise by means of a non-statist system, a federalist arrangement of local workers’ organisations.

            So it was that the soviets idea came into being. It was subsequently refined and popularised very widely among the workers of the Latin countries at the time, through the press, books and pamphlets of the International’s federal wing which followed Bakunin and his friends. It is set forth particularly clearly by Bakunin himself in his pamphlet Programme and purpose of the Secret Revolutionary Organisation of the International Brotherhood written in 1866 7 which is to say, 3 years in advance of the Basle congress when the International’s thinkers and militants outlined more definitely the forms which society would turn to after its victory over capitalism.

            Point 6 of this “programme dealing with the revolution in practice”, after saying that the state and all of the state’s functions are to be destroyed “radically” and that “all productive capital and instruments of labour” are to be  expropriated “by the workers’ associations” which are to manage them “collectively” and that “the federative alliance of all the workers’ associations (…) will constitute the Commune”, then points out that there is a need to lay the foundations immediately of … “The Revolutionary commune, through the delegation of one or two deputies per barricade, one per street or per district, deputies rested with binding mandates, accountable and subject to recall at all times. The communal council this arrived at, will be able to select from among its membership separate executive committees for each sector of the commune’s revolutionary administration” 8 .

            Thus the soviets idea was thoroughly explored and peddled as the administrative organ of the free communes to come, at the congress and conferences of the Spanish branch of the International which was the branch most imbued with the principles of Bakuninism. This has been stated by the historian of anarchism, Max Nettlau, who in his article “On the occasion of the forthcoming congress of the International Workers’ Association” 9  writes… “The Spanish federation [this being, of course, the Spanish branch of the First International – Pano Vassilev] saw in the local workers’ unions the organisation that was due to embrace all of the workers of one locality from the various areas of production. Thus their delegates would form the local union (the soviet) of the free commune. Entering into the federation with same unions from one sector, they will form a territorial production organisation covering one union region. Then, as was indicated at the Valencia conference of September 1871 which issued a special report on its ideas on the occasion of the International’s conference in London, the communes of every land will form one territorial federation which will be able to federate with the federations of other lands. In this fashion, the internal apparatus for the reconstruction of production, distribution and world-wide liaison will be established. This suggestion was all but ignored by the London conference where the Marxists had the upper hand 10. The report lay buried in Engel’s archives where I discovered it in 1927 and published it thereafter.”

            There we have further testimony pleading on behalf of our assertion that Marxism, with its advocacy of state socialism and parliamentary socialism, is incompatible with the soviets arrangement and, quite naturally, had opposed it. But despite the negative and indeed scornful attitude of the Marxists in the International towards this set-up, their federal branches continued vigorously to anticipate the issue of the new forms of administering and regulating society’s life in precisely those terms. At the congress of the Spanish branch held in Zaragoza in April 1872 the question was openly broached and there was specific allusion to consejos locales … local soviets or councils… which would comprise “all producers” and turn into “administrative councils”. In the report submitted to that congress by the federal council, it says among other things… “All of the major instruments of labour which today are in the hands of an idle few, might be transformed overnight by a revolutionary force and placed immediately in usufruct at the disposal of the toilers who presently use them to produce. These toilers, merely by organising themselves into the union, if they had not done so already, and by offering the requisite assurances to the local councils, would obtain full benefit of the instruments of their labour” 11 .

            And further on, when the question of supplying the needs of the populace in the wake of the social change is examined, it is stated: “These councils, split up into as many commissions as may be necessary, would oversee the retention of collective, ownership and in conjunction with the administrators of the production societies, would see to it that commerce matched the interests and rights of the membership and of the collective generally. To accomplish this, it would be necessary that big stores be set up and that bourgeois small business be transformed as has been said – or along similar lines – apropos of small industry, which is to say concentrated and wage slavery abolished.” 12

            The first attempts at practical application of the idea of this social transformation implicit in the anti-statist, anti-parliamentary and federalist views held by internationalists in Latin countries were made in the French revolutionary labour movement and more especially in Paris in 1871 during the famed Paris Commune and in Spain at the time of the revolutionary communes of Alcoy, Barcelona and Cartagena in 1873. We know from the earliest manifestoes of the Paris Commune and the proclamations of the Bakuninists (who attempted to proclaim free communes in Lyons, Marseilles and elsewhere) that the aim of the revolutionary movement in France was the abolition of the State and of all legislative and other organs (parliament, policy, army etc.) and their replacement by the national federation of free, autonomous communes… “the association of which ought to ensure French unity” 13 .This federation was to comprise free delegations from the federated communes. “Unity as  foisted upon us to date by the  Empire, by the monopoly and by parliamentarism, is naught but despotic, unthinking, arbitrary and onerous centralisation” said the 19 April 1871 manifesto of the Commune. Paris sought “the absolute autonomy of the commune extended to all of the  localities of France” … “ Paris seeks nothing more by way of local guarantees, provided of course, that the same principles are realised and practised in the great central administration, delegated by the federated communes”.

            Bakunin himself was involved in the revolts in Lyons and Marseilles. And in Paris there was Eugene Varlin, Elisee Reclus and others. The manifestoes and proclamations bear to the great influence which Bakuninism had upon the character of events. But regrettably, for a number of reasons, that influence was not strong enough and the great proletarian masses of Paris, as Bakunin noted after the defeat of the Commune, were insufficiently imbued with the socialist awareness vital if they were to be able to give all the impetus that might be desired to the Paris Revolution of 1871.

            “The people of Paris (...) was socialist much more as a matter of instinct than as a result of an idea or conviction thought through” 14 .The outward organisational profile of the Commune, and its actions were not purely federalist and socialist. The statists and parliamentarists were an impediment to that, for they accounted for the bulk of the Commune’s ideologues, inspiration and membership. They were old-style republican democrats, influenced by the masses into a revolution with social implications. For that reason the Paris Commune, after a brief span of existence as an authentic free commune, progressively assumed the features of a local state with its own government and parliament which, out of habit, continued to describe itself as a ‘communal council’. But the internationalists who were elected onto the communal council, did not for a moment accept the idea that this council in fact represented a State power and looked upon it purely and simply  as an executive organ. However, out of the 60 odd members of the council, the internationalists and Bakuninists numbered only 22. The rest were Jacobins ie. authoritarians, statists, parliamentarists. “This was a great misfortune for the Commune and for them; they were paralysed by it and they paralysed the Commune” 15 But for all that, the fact is that the Parisian proletariat of 1871 overthrew not just the monarchy but also the machinery of the parliamentary democratic state, and substituted a municipal council for them. Even though, subsequently, governmental power clambered onto this throne the fact that the Parisian Revolution went down that road and not that of the state and parliament shows, even then, that the Bakuninist view of the social revolution is not “utopian” and “laughable”, as Marx and Engels said it was. In fact that view was a lot more closely attuned to the natural stirrings of proletarian revolution than the Marxists’ statist and parliamentary notion which was pulverised by the Commune 16 And had the Bakuninists’ anti-state influence been stronger in Paris, the municipal council would not, of course, have encompassed local governmental powers. It would have remained a purely administrative organ, as the Bakuninists wanted. And in this specific instance, the council should not have been run as in the days of traditional municipal elections. 17 Instead, it would have been made up of direct delegates, revocable at all times, from the workers’ organisations of producers and consumers, as was the case in Spain in 1873 during the upheavals in Alcoy, Barcelona and Cartagena. There, the “soviet system” was implemented for the first time, albeit only briefly and at local level.

            The crushing of the Paris Commune “amid the blood of its bold defenders”, the bloody repression of the insurrection by the Spanish proletariat in 1873 and of the Italian in 1876 and the thoroughgoing reaction which followed upon these events in those countries, where the Bakuninist wing at the International was by far the more powerful, culminated in the smashing of the workers’ trades organisations imbued with the anarchist spirit. The International was ruthlessly repressed and in France was considered an “outlaw” organisation, and vanished shortly afterwards.

            Those anarchists who survived, especially the French ones, emigrated or else retreated into tiny purely ideological and secret coteries, secret on account of the circumstances and poorly organised. Constant harassment drew them into terrorist activity which was hard to sustain and dismal in its effects against the reaction 9 .The revolutionary literature which nourished and spawned the soviets idea, was destroyed and disappeared.

            The soviet ideal went into a decline and it ceased to motivate the action of revolutionaries in this new setting. This led to a new and peculiar revolutionary mentality among the members of the underground and purely ideological groups, which were more individualistic than collectivist or communist. It was precisely this situation and this “new” mentality which paved the way for the emergence of an “anarchist” current in a variety of guises, complete with a fairly negative attitude towards the mass trades organisations of the workers. Terrorist practice naturally led to a personality cult and to a veneration of individual heroism. This climate also saw the equally natural emergence of the many faceted theory of “the important role of the individual in history” which directly contradicts Bakunin’s view which awards only a very modest significance in history to the individual per se. It was also in this climate that the notion of the great and exaggeratedly significant role of purely ideological groups, taking precedence over the secondary activity of the working class’s mass trades organisations, was forged. Given the circumstances, it is scarcely astonishing that the anarchist of the day should have given a lot more consideration to negative and destructive action than to the positive business of creation with an eye to the approaching social revolution. Constructive elements and the authors of the future rebuilding of society, ie. the workers’ economic organisations, were scorned.

            Greater emphasis was laid on merely negative and destructive aspects: “the fighters”, the purely ideological groups of the “revolutionary minority”. And even the unadulterated Nechaevian idea surfaced: 18 namely that it is utterly pointless even to spare a thought about the day after the destruction of the old order in that this diverts attention away from the principal task: the elimination of all that is old, rotten and in place. Quite obviously, given the dominion of such notions in anarchist circles it was above all not a question of organisations which “on the morrow” might oversee the new social relationships. The soviets idea was for along time eclipsed.

            However, from the close of the period of savage repression on, and with the return of emigres and the banished 19 as well as the release of certain comrades, the labour movement began gradually to assume a revolutionary aspect. In Spain the term of the eclipse and outlawry of the trades union movement was more short-lived. The majority of anarchists had hardly severed their links with the ranks of unionised workers, despite the persecutions and the blood-letting. As soon as the unions were re-established, the soviets idea surfaced again at the first union conferences held across the country at the end of 1876. These touched upon the issue of “Practical measures which should be adopted following destruction of the present state”. The draft, passed almost unanimously on a motion from the federal commission, stated among other things:

     1.  - “Following the outbreak of insurrection, those localities in which the members of the International may have the upper hand, shall declare themselves free and independent and released from all national bonds.”

     2.  - “Each of them will immediately declare that everything situated within its boundaries belongs to it and that nothing belongs to anyone in particular, save furniture and clothing for private use.”

     8. – “The local councils are to sub-divide into as many commissions as may be necessary for defence, food, administration, labour, education, regional and federal liaison, etc.”

    11. – “Through the agency of special commissions, the departmental and regional congresses themselves shall assume the running of all affairs which may not be susceptible to handling by the localities, such as departmental and regional defence, the organisation of public services, shipping, railways, posts, telegraphs, etc. The regional congress is to appoint the region’s representatives to the world congress and to other regions.” 20

            But then (in 1876) the national congress was unable to proceed because of the repression which prevented full-fledged public organisation. This was possible only in 1881 with the holding in Barcelona of the first labour congress of the new Spanish Federation. That congress produced nothing in particular. In 1882 the second congress met in Seville and the preparatory commission on this occasion issues a manifesto that is very interesting in terms of content and historical importance. After greeting the workers’ delegates assembled on “the banks of the Guadalquivir” the manifesto emphasised that the new movement drew its inspiration from “anarchist” and “federalist principles”. It gave a general outline of organisational format. And again, it boiled down to workers’ councils, their role and their functions.

            “At branch level, the human being… autonomous… deliberates and votes mooting and publicising all that he wants and how he wants, and the exercise of his individual rights is dependent only upon his own activity, unless he fails to meet his duties or resorts to non-regulation procedures.”

            “The local federation, by virtue of its existence, of course is possessed of a perfectly juridical social identity, which is to say it has rights and duties and is made up of delegates sent by the trades sections which may exist in the locality. This legal entity goes by the name of Local Council. However, though the members of the local federation, just like anybody else who may attend a meeting – regardless of the federation to which they belong, provided that they have abided by their obligations – may take part in the discussions in this council, with as much entitlement as the delegates who make it up, only those delegates from the trade sections which do make up the local council may participate in the voting” 21 .

            Parallel with this, one sees the rebirth in France of the old Bakuninist, federalist anti-statist socialism under the name of “Revolutionary Syndicalism” or “anarcho-syndicalism”. The notion of “workers’ councils” surfaces again, as does their role in the future reconstruction of society. At the Tours congress of the federation of the Bourses du Travail 22 in 1896, the outline of the future society was given in the report submitted by delegates Claude Guiot (on behalf of the Nimes Bourse du Travail) and Fernand Pelloutier 23 (on behalf of the federal committee of Bourses du Travail).

            “Each trade is organised as a union: each union appoints a council, which we might term a labour trades council: these unions are in turn federated on the basis of trade, nationally and internationally”.

            “Ownership is no longer individual : the land, mines, factories, workshops means of transport, houses, etc. become socially owned (…) Society requires so much wheat, so much clothing : the farmers and tailors receive from society either in money, so long as this may persist, or in exchange value, the wherewithal to consume or to use products manufactured by the other workers (…) The Bourses, acquainted with the amount of products that should be manufactured, so inform the labour trades councils of each corporation which deploys all of the trade’s members on the manufacture of the required products.” 24

            With the subsequent growth of French revolutionary syndicalism, especially in the 1900-1907 period, the councils ideas gained more and more ground. The spread of the ideas of revolutionary syndicalism beyond France led at the same time in the same direction in which the councils had pointed in the days of the First International and Bakunin. One need only cast an eye over the books, pamphlets and articles of revolutionary syndicalists, or more precisely the anarcho-syndicalists of the day like Pelloutier, Pataud, Griffuelhes, Yvetot, Monatte and many others, to realise that the appearance of the soviets idea in Russia has in no way enriched the concept. The propagandists and ideologues of anarchist revolutionary syndicalism had already established and adapted the concept 15 or 20 years before: and Bakunin and his companions, members of the International, anti-statists and federalists all – had done so 50 years previously.

            When the councils idea was built up and developed in anarcho-syndicalist circles, the Marxists (and among them the Bolsheviks) wanted none of it and most of them – who how pass for steadfast advocates of the soviets – looked upon the idea as an “idealistic utopia”. Their socialist “science” could not accept that one might arrive at socialism by a route other than the parliamentarism and democratic republic that Engels had proclaimed as “the specific form of the dictatorship of the proletariat”.

            And the facts show that the initial stage of the Russian Revolution was the stage of the soviets and the councils, and not of democracy and parliamentarism and this indicates yet again how the “anarchist utopia” is stronger than “Marxist science”.







(1)   Bakunin in The policy of the International published by L’Egalité of 28.8.1869 or some weeks in advance of the Basle congress (Text from Bakounine, Le Socialisme Libertaire, edited by F. Rudé, 1973, p. 181)

(2)   In point of  fact, Pindy… quote from Compte-Rendu du IV Congrès international tenu à Bâle en Semptembre 1869, Brussels edition 1869, p.143 and La Première Internationale (Receuil de documents), Geneva, 1962, tome II, p.109.

(3)   Op. Cit. p. 109, p.111 . In fact the quotation in Bulgarian does not figure in the original and we have gone for the nearest idea. The Bulgarian text reads literally “The organisation of local trades groups and general industrial unions will subsequently give rise to an administrative administration of the commune and a general representation of labour at the regional, national and international level” (French translator’s note.)

(4)   Rocker. Op. Cit. p. 47.

(5)   N. K. Lebedev , K istorik Internatsionale: Etapi mezhdunarodnago obedinenia trudiashchiksi (On the history of the International: The stages of international labour unity) p. 47, Moscow, Golos Truda, 1920.

(6)   A. Tchekine [Chekin] (Stotski) Uchenie o profesionalnom dvizhenie (Lesson of the Trades Union Movement), Moscow, Gosizdat, 1926. (We have been unable to find the quotations from Pindy with the exception of the last one (Op. Cit. Brussels, p. 143 and Geneva, p.109), but the first word is not ‘government’ but ‘group’ – Translator’s note)

(7)   Text reproduced in Daniel Guerin Ni Dieu ni Maître, Ed. Maspéro, tome I : The text is dated by him “undoubtedly from 1868”.

(8)   Bakunin in Ni Dieu ni Maitre, tome I, pp. 224-225.

(9)   Rabotnik (Worker), No:3, XII, 1930.

(10)                       It was at this very conference that the Spanish delegate Anselmo Lorenzo for the first time submitted an exposé and argument in favour of the soviets idea, whereupon the Marxists introduced their resolution on the need to found a workers’ political party and for it to participate in parliament in order to secure control there.

(11)                       Anselmo Lorenzo, El Proletariado Militante, Madrid, Ed. Alianza, 1974, pp. 275-276.

(12)                       Anselmo Lorenzo, op. Cit. p.276.

(13)                       Manifesto by the Paris Commune, 19. - IV – 1871 (in Charles Rihs, La Commune de Paris, 1871 : Sa Structure et ses doctrines, Ed. Seuil, 1973, pp.164-165).

(14)                       Bakunin, The Paris Commune and the idea of the State. We have lifted the text from the very serious edition of Fernand Rudé Bakounine et La guerre à la Commune, Anthropos, 1972, p. 411.

(15)                       Bakunin, op. Cit. p. 411.

(16)                       Orgueyani, Kak i ot Kakvo se razvi revoliutsnarno sindikalizm (How and Thanks to What Revolutionary Syndicalism Developed)

(17)                       See Kropotkin Paroles d’ur Revolté, Ed. Flammarion 1978, p. 111 (La Commune II)

(18)                       Nechaev had a revolutionary suspected of treachery executed. Ever since Bakunin’s denunciation of him, his name has been synonymous with Jesuitry, unscrupulousness and lack of respect among revolutionaries (Translator’s note)

 **In fact terrorism appeared at a later date in a variety of groups (Translator’s note)

(19)                       The system of banishment was then current in France. It was later taken up by Lenin and others. ( Translator’s note)

(20)                       Anselmo Lorenzo, op. Cit. pp 356-357.

(21)                       Anselmo Lorenzo, op. Cit. pp 427-428.

(22)                       This was an anarcho-syndicalist organisation that, when the Confederation Generale du Travail was set up, amalgamated with it. The finest French anarcho-syndicalists of the late 19th century were active in these unions.

(23)                       Fernand Pelloutier, famous anarchist and founder of French revolutionary syndicalism.

(24)                       A. Tchekine [Chekin] (Stotski), Op. Cit. (French text in Pelloutier, Histoire des Bourse du Travail, Paris, Gordon et Breach, 1971, pp.251-252.





Comments (3)

charles said

at 12:30 pm on Oct 2, 2014

Is anyone working on Chapter 3? If not, I will.

john said

at 1:03 pm on Oct 2, 2014

It would be very good if you could have a go.

charles said

at 1:16 pm on Oct 2, 2014

will do.

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