Bolshevik Debates on Censorship

On Censorship, on its Relationship to the Sovnarkom, and the Resignation of Several Bolshevik Leaders

 

Central Executive Committee, November 17, 1917.

The restrictions on the press evoked strong objections from members of the Central Executive Committee, especially from the Left SRs but also some Bolsheviks. As revolutionaries who had suffered under Tsarist press censorships, restricting freedom of expression was a bitter pill to swallow, a rejection of all they had fought for. Others charged the Bolsheviks with instituting a system of political terror. Therefore, the Left SRs introduced a resolution repealing the press decree and prohibiting all acts of political repression without authorization from a tribunal appointed by the CEC. The proponents of censorship, however, justified it on various grounds, ranging from immediate threats to the regime (Trotsky) to more ideological arguments about weakening “capitalists” and the creation of a new order (Avanesov, Lenin, others). The debate was important not only for the immediate issue, but because it was an early posing of the question of how open the new regime would be to conflicting viewpoints and how ready to resort to repressive measures against opposing ideas as well as physical opposition.

Fifth Session of the Central Executive Committee

1. Freedom of the Press and Responsible Government

LARIN: At the present moment, on the eve of the elections to the Constituent Assembly, the situation in regard to the press needs to be improved. The measures taken against press [freedom] could be justified during the actual course of the struggle [for power], but not now. The press should be free so long as it does not incite subversion or insurrection. Censorship of every kind must be completely eliminated. No repressive measures should be taken except by a special tribunal, whose competence should extend to all kinds of political repression, arrests etc. The new government cannot afford to issue any more orders like the ignorant one signed by Muravyev.

I propose the following resolution: The CEC ordains:

1. Lenin’s press decree is revoked.
2. No acts of political repression may be carried out except by authorization of a special tribunal, chosen by the CEC in proportion to the strength of each fraction. The tribunal has the right to repeal all acts of repression that have already occurred.

AVANESOV: I propose that discussion of this issue be postponed until a decision has been reached on composition of the government.

MALKIN: The question of press freedom must be examined in the context of the general political situation, considered even more broadly than Larin suggests. We must examine the question of [the powers of] the CPC, which is issuing one decree after another without any sanction by the CEC.

KALEGAYEV: In my view the question of press freedom should be taken separately from that of an agreement [with the socialists on composition of the government], since for a socialist there can be no doubt as to how he should act [on the matter of press freedom]. SHREYDER agrees.

KAMKOV: Either we recognize freedom only in words, or else we are behaving hypocritically. When Bolshevik newspapers were closed down [under previous regimes] we expressed our indignation along with our Bolshevik comrades. No one has yet called for the overthrow of the existing regime, yet press freedom is being infringed without due cause. We are [morally] obliged to rescind these repressive measures, which bring shame on the Russian revolution. I propose that they be so rescinded forthwith.

Avanesov’s motion is rejected. By [a majority of] 22 votes it is decided to consider the question of the press together with that of repressive acts in general.

AVANESOV: The question of press freedom must be seen in the context of the current political situation in the country as a whole. It seems that no one objects to closure of bourgeois newspapers during an insurrection, when fighting is in progress. If this is so, [we must ask ourselves] whether the struggle is indeed over and the moment has come when we can pass on to a normal mode of life. Having silenced the bourgeois press, [the revolutionary authorities] would be very naive if they were to let slip from their hands such a powerful means of influencing the ideals of all workers, soldiers, and peasants. All these measures are designed to facilitate the creation of a new regime, free from capitalist oppression, in which a socialist press will ensure freedom of speech for all citizens and for all tendencies of thought.

We defend freedom of the press [in principle], but this concept must be divorced from old petty-bourgeois or bourgeois notions of liberty. If the new government has had the strength to abolish private landed property, thereby infringing the rights of the landlords, it would be ridiculous for Soviet power to stand up for antiquated notions about liberty of the press. First the newspapers must be freed from capitalist oppression, just as we have freed the land from the landlords, and then we can promulgate new socialist laws and norms enshrining a liberty that will serve the whole toiling people, and not just capital.

I move the following resolution:

The closure of bourgeois newspapers was not motivated simply by military considerations during the period of insurrection and suppression of attempted counterrevolution, but was an essential transitional measure in establishing a new press regime in which public opinion will not be fabricated autocratically by the capitalists who own the newsprint and printing-presses.

The next measure should be to confiscate private printing-presses and stocks of newsprint, and to transfer their ownership to [organs of] Soviet power in the centre and in the provinces, so that parties and groups may have the technical means to publish [newspapers] in proportion to the number of their adherents.

The restoration of so-called ‘freedom of the press’, i.e. the return of printing presses and newsprint to the capitalists, poisoners of the people’s consciousness, would be an impermissible capitulation to the will of capital, a surrender of one of the most important strong points of the workers’ and peasants’ revolution, and thus indubitably counter-revolutionary. Accordingly the CEC repudiates categorically any proposals leading to a restoration of the old regime in press matters and supports the CPC unconditionally against pretensions and intrigues dictated either by petty-bourgeois prejudices or by outright servility to the counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie.

KALEGAYEV: The way this question has been posed shows that there is a profound disagreement between our position and that of the Bolsheviks. [The latter argue:] previously we defended all civil liberties, but now we are prepared to muzzle our opponents. However, one cannot emancipate society from the fetters of capitalism by taking repressive measures against newspapers. Nor is it possible to carve up freedom of the press like a loaf of bread, allocating so much freedom to each group according to the influence exerted by its ideas. When the Bolsheviks talk of poisoning the people’s consciousness by the printed word, they are adopting the viewpoint of [the editors of] Zemshchina.

TROTSKY: One should distinguish between the situation during a civil war and the situation once victory is complete. To demand that all repressive measures should be abandoned during a civil war is equivalent to demanding that the war itself should cease. Such a demand could come only from adversaries of the proletariat. Our opponents are not offering us peace. No one can provide a guarantee against [a victory of] the Kornilovites. During a civil war it is legitimate to suppress newspapers that support the other side. But when we are finally victorious our attitude toward the press will be analogous to that on freedom of trade. Then we shall naturally move on to a [regular] regime in press matters. In our party press we have for a long time been accustomed to take a non-proprietorial view of press freedom. Measures taken against [suspect] individuals should also be taken against press organs. We should confiscate and socialize printing-presses and stocks of newsprint… (Shouts from the floor: ‘And Bolshevik ones too?’). Yes, all these stocks should be transferred to public ownership. Any group of [workers] soldiers, or peasants will be able to submit an application for [access to supplies of] newsprint and to a printing-press.

We say that Novoe vremya, which has no electoral support, should not have a single piece of printer’s type or a single sheet of paper. Nor should Russkaya volya, so long as it remains simply an organ of the banks, have any right to exist. Such measures should not be continued indefinitely, but neither can we return to the capitalist way of doing things. The transfer of power to the soviets is a transition from bourgeois rule to a socialist system. How was Suvorin able to publish a paper on such a grandiose scale? Only because he had money. Can we permit him and his like to pour out their poison during the Constituent Assembly elections? Such a paper would be bought by only a minuscule section of the population. In general, can one imagine that newspapers should [be allowed to] exist which depend upon the banks rather than upon the people? All the press media should be handed over to Soviet power. You say that [before the revolution] we demanded freedom of the press on behalf of Pravda. But then we were living under conditions which were apposite to our programme-minimum; now we are putting forward the demands in our programme maximum. (Applause by soldiers in the audience.) I see the soldiers are with me. (Left SR cries: ‘Demagogy! ‘ ‘Cirque Moderne!’) I used the same language to the crowds there as I am using now; it is not I who speak with a forked tongue. When you return–the soldiers to the trenches, the peasants to the villages-you will say that there are two points of view on this question: either freedom for the bourgeois press or confiscation of paper and printing presses for transfer to the hand of the workers and peasants.

KARELIN: It is a Hottentot morality which holds that it’s bad if someone steals my wife but good if I steal someone else’s. I say this because Trotsky has been critical of our party. It is surprising that we should hear [such arguments] from a party which itself now enjoys freedom of the press. We cannot have double standards of morality.

But I would rather discuss this question in terms of political expediency. Is it expedient to muzzle the expression of any trend of opinion? History teaches that whenever this is done it only makes such opinions more attractive. Forbidden fruit is sweet. I agree with Trotsky that we have to eliminate capitalist oppression in regard to the press. But the measures [he proposes] are risky. One can attain this objective without muzzling opinion, simply by undertaking a wide range of protective actions in the distribution of material. The [Bolshevik] resolution proposes that parties and groups should have [the right to publish] newspapers in proportion to the number of their supporters, but such calculations will scarcely be practicable. It would be absurd to distribute [opportunities to publish] in proportion to [the strength of various currents of] opinion; this would be like socializing thought itself.

I should make it clear that in advocating freedom of opinion we do not seek to extend it to the weakest sector [in terms of popular support]. Trotsky alleges that we are arguing from the standpoint of capital. I say that whoever puts the question in such terms is arguing from the standpoint of his own [ministerial portfolio]. Genuine representatives of the people should not be afraid of minority opinions. Such fear betrays an awareness that one’s own opinions are weak. ‘Who wants press freedom?’, Trotsky asks. The answer is: everyone who cherishes the [revolutionary] movement of our people. We think this movement will suffer if we continue to apply the sanctions which at the start we accepted as justified. Moreover, the honour of this movement requires that an end be put to civil war.

LENIN: Karelin assures us that the road on which he stands leads to socialism. But to take this road would be to advance toward socialism hindside first. Trotsky was right: ‘freedom of the press’ was the slogan under which the cadets mutinied and fighting began in Petrograd and Moscow. This time the SRs are not acting either as socialists or as revolutionaries. [Early] this week the entire telegraph network was in Kerensky’s hands. Vikzhel was also on the [Provisional Government’s] side. But they did not have the army with them. As it turned out, the army was for us. The civil war, begun by a minuscule group, is not yet over. The Kaledinites are marching on Moscow and the shock battalions on Petrograd. We do not want civil war. Our forces have been very patient. They waited and refrained from shooting. The shock troops fired first, killing three of our men. Krasnov was treated mildly, merely being placed under house arrest. We are opposed to civil war. But if it continues none the less what are we to do? Trotsky was right to pose the question: for whom are you speaking? We asked Krasnov whether he would sign a statement on Kaledin’s behalf promising that the latter would stop fighting. But not surprisingly he replied that he could not do so. If the enemy is still in the field, how can we be expected to lay down our arms? When they propose peace terms we shall negotiate. But at present the peace offers are coming from persons on whom the decision does not depend, so they are nothing but fair words. After all Rech’ is an organ of Kaledinites. We recognize the [Left] SRs’ sincerity, but behind them stand Kaledin and Milyukov.

Soldiers! The firmer you stand the more we shall achieve. On the other hand, [if you are soft, our enemies] will say that we are still unsure of ourselves, [pointing to the fact that] we let Milyukov go. We stated earlier that if we took power we would close down bourgeois newspapers. To allow them to exist is to cease to be socialists. Whoever says ‘let the bourgeois newspapers publish’ fails to understand that we are moving full steam ahead toward socialism. After all tsarist newspapers were closed down when tsarism was overthrown. Now we have castoff the bourgeois yoke. It was not we who thought up the social[ist] revolution-it was proclaimed by the delegates to the Congress of Soviets-and no one there protested at the decree proclaiming it. The bourgeoisie proclaimed liberty, equality and fraternity, [but] the workers say: ‘this is not what we want.’

We are accused of retreating, but it is the [Left] SRs, not we, who are going back to Kerensky. It is said that our resolution contains something new. Yes, of course we are introducing something new, for we are moving on towards socialism. When the SRs spoke out in the First and Second Dumas they too were mocked for saying something new.

Private advertisements must be declared a [state] monopoly. The members of the printers’ union [who object to this] are looking at the question purely in bread-and-butter terms. We shall satisfy their [material] desires, but in a different way. We cannot give the bourgeoisie any [opportunity] to slander us. We must at once set up a commission to investigate the connections between the bourgeois newspapers and the banks and to ascertain what sort of ‘freedom’ these papers enjoyed. It is not freedom to buy up quantities of newsprint and to hire a mass of scribblers. Before [anyone may] start up a newspaper, we shall insist that he prove his independence of the banks. One can hold elections to find out the strength of each party and allocate the technical resources according to the number of votes cast. This will prevent capitalists alone enjoying freedom of the press and flooding the villages with their cheap newspapers. We must get away from the notion that a press dependent on capital can be free. This is an important question of principle. If we are moving towards social[ist] revolution, we cannot reply to Kaledin’s bombs with bombs of falsehood. There are of course inadequacies in our draft decree, but it will be implemented by the soviets [flexibly], according to local conditions. We are not bureaucrats and do not want to apply the letter of the law everywhere, like the officials of old. I remember how the SRs used to say that the village is terribly ignorant, that they [the villagers] draw their information from Russkoye slovo. It is our fault for leaving the newspapers in bourgeois hands. We have to go forward to the new society and deal with the bourgeois papers in the same way as we dealt with the Black Hundred ones in February-March.

MALKIN: Lenin has no business to allege that we are going to socialism hindside first. Least of all should the charge be levelled by the man who once wanted to advance to socialism by offering his famous ‘cutoffs’. but who has now wholly accepted our agrarian programme of land socializations.

When this resolution was introduced, we thought that the repressive dictatorship offered us was a result of the panic that seized the Bolshevik maximalists when they found themselves isolated at the moment of their victory. But now Trotsky and Lenin have sought to give this dictatorship an ideological foundation. We firmly repudiate the notion that socialism can be introduced by armed force. In our view socialism is a struggle not merely for material advantages but for supreme human [moral] values. The revolution’s appeal lies in the fact that we are striving not just to fill our hungry bellies but for a higher truth, the liberation of the individual. We shall win not by closing down bourgeois newspapers but because our programme and tactics express the interests of the broad toiling masses, because we can build up a solid coalition of soldiers, workers, and peasants.

Lenin has told us about slanders put out by the bourgeois press and about Chernov. So what? Has not the truth about Chernov now asserted itself and given the lie to the slanders of the yellow press? We revolutionaries and socialists replied to these lies by telling the truth. The lies of the bourgeois press do not represent an authentic danger to the socialist movement. The toiling masses have a reliable compass to guide them: the support of overwhelming numbers of people, who will sooner or later win over the remaining, more backward strata of democracy. To be good leaders [we] must first be good politicians, good socialists; at the same time the [mass] movement [itself] is implementing the noble ideals of the labouring people, the bulk of mankind, who are advancing towards socialism.

We Socialist-Revolutionaries were once prisoners of tsarism but we were never its slaves, and we don’t want to establish slavery for anyone now. We remind the Marxists present that you cannot establish new social relations by decree; they have to be developed gradually, in the process of struggling for socialism. When whole sectors of the nation’s economic life are being socialized, when they are being taken over by co-operatives and municipal institutions, one need not fear the bourgeois press. Just let it try to influence the masses: they won’t listen! ‘The arm of criticism, not criticism by arms’: this should be the watchword in the free Russian Republic. Those who feel that defeat is round the comer can scarcely win. You are applying the tactics of the vanquished, not of the victors, for the triumphant proletariat should show magnanimity not only toward its enemies on the battlefield but toward all political opponents, whatever class they belong to. You are dishonouring the socialist movement by depriving it of its moral force.

We propose that the CEC immediately repeal all limitations on press freedom. In vain does Trotsky, referring to the soldiers’ applause, tell us that they will not follow us [in such a course]. They applauded him because they are drunk with victory and have lost their reason. At such a moment your tactics may succeed; but once they have sobered up ours will triumph. A motion to curtail debate is passed. Two resolutions are tabled: Larin’s, which fails by 31 votes to 22, and the Bolshevik one, which is passed by 34 votes to 24 with I abstention. RYAZANOV, explaining his motives for voting against the Bolshevik resolution: I am the representative of [the All-Russian Central Council of] Trade Unions. I cannot vote for any limitation on press freedom since I believe that even the Anarchists should have the right to express their views.

At the request of SPIRO a half-hour recess is declared.

Chairman: Gillerson

PROSHYAN, for the Left SRs: This question is one of acute importance for our fraction. The struggle for press freedom has always been closely bound up with the struggle for socialism. The revolution cannot take a step backward on this matter, covering itself by [offering minority groups] access to technical facilities but in practice prohibiting [them from exercising these rights]. The resolution that has been passed legalizes repression and clearly shows that the Bolshevik members of the CEC are embarking upon a path of terror. This tactic is ruinous for the class struggle and ruinous for the revolution.

Our party has charged me to make the following declaration:

The resolution on the press just passed by the majority of the CEC is a clear and unambiguous expression [of support for a] system of political terror and for unleashing civil war. The SR fraction, while remaining in the CEC, the legitimate [central deliberative] organ of revolutionary democracy, in order to defend the interests of the workers and peasants whom it represents, has no desire to bear any responsibility for this system of terror, ruinous for the revolution, and therefore withdraws an its representatives from the Military-Revolutionary Committee, the staff, and all responsible posts.

NOGIN, given the floor for an urgent statement on behalf of a group of people’s commissars, reads the following declaration:

We take the stand that it is vital to form a socialist government from all parties [represented in] the soviets. Only such a government can seal the heroic struggle of the working class and revolutionary army in the October-November days. We consider that a purely Bolshevik government has no choice but to maintain itself by political terror. This is the course on which the CPC has embarked. We cannot follow this course, which will lead to the proletarian mass organizations becoming estranged from those who direct our political affairs, to the establishment of an irresponsible government, and to the annihilation of the revolution [and] the country. We cannot bear responsibility for such a policy and therefore, in the presence of the CEC, resign from our posts as people’s commissars.

(signed) V. Nogin, PC of Trade and Industry
A. Rykov, PC of Internal Affairs
V. Milyutin, PC of Agriculture
I. Teodorovich, PC of Supply

[The following] adhere to this statement:

D. Ryazanov
N. Derbyshev, commissar of press affairs
I. Arbuzov, commissar of the State Printing Works
[K.] Yurenev, commissar of Red guards
G. Fedorov, head of the labour conflict department (chairman of the workers’ section) in the ministry of Labour
Citizen Yu. Larin, commissar, head of department of legislative proposals.

[Addendum:] While adhering to the general appraisal given above of the political situation in regard to the need for an agreement, I consider it impermissible to lay down my responsibilities.

(signed) A. Shlyapnikov, PC of Labour

An unidentified LEFT SR then reads the following statement:

To the Chairman of the CEC:

The Left SR fraction proposes that the CEC should address the following urgent interpellation to the Chairman of the CPC, Ulianov-Lenin:

At the Second Congress of Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies it was laid down that the CEC is the supreme organ to which the government is wholly responsible. However, in the last few days the government has published a number of decrees which have not been discussed or approved by the CEC. By this procedure the government has taken measures which have de facto annulled fundamental civil liberties. We therefore ask the chairman of the CPC:

1. On what grounds were drafts of [these] decrees and other measures not submitted for examination to the CEC?
2. Does the government now intend to desist from the arbitrary and completely impermissible practice it has established of ruling by decree?

(signed) V. Karelin, V. Spiro, A. Shreyder, V. Alexandrovich-Dinitriyevsky, I.V. Balashev, Peter Bukhartsev, A. Proshyan, S. Zak, Gr. Zaks.

[After an interruption to read telegrams of support from abroad, the meeting continued-Ed.]

3. Interpellation on Arbitrary Rule

LENIN, replying to the interpellation: Let me remind you that in the first days of the revolution the Bolsheviks invited the Left SRs to join the new government, but that they declined because they did not want to share responsibility with their neighbours to the left during these difficult critical days. In order to exercise control over the government’s policy, it is quite sufficient for the CEC to have the right to remove ministers. The new government could not have coped with all the obstacles which stood in its path if it had observed all [legal] formalities. The moment was too serious to brook any delay. We could not afford to lose time smoothing over asperities, for this would only have affected the external trimmings and not the essence of the new measures.

After all, the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets, too, cast aside all formal considerations when, in a single great session, it adopted two laws of world-wide significance. Let us admit that these laws may suffer from formal defects, considered from the standpoint of bourgeois society: the main thing is that power is in the hands of the soviets, which can correct them as may be required. The criminal inactivity of the Kerensky government led the country and the revolution to the verge of ruin; its delaying policy nearly proved fatal. The new government, by passing laws which meet the aspirations of the broad popular masses, is staking out landmarks along the road to a new way of life. The local soviets may adapt the basic decrees passed by the government, expanding and supplementing them according to their own particular needs. Mass creativity is the fundamental factor in the new society. Let the workers set about establishing workers’ control in their factories; let them supply the villages with manufactures in exchange for grain. Not a single product, not a single pound of grain should be left unaccounted for, since socialism is above all else a matter of accounting. Socialism is not created by direction from above. Its spirit is totally alien to that of routine obedience as found in the barracks or in the bureaucracy. Socialism is something vital, the creation of the people themselves.

MIRSKY. I move that for the rest of this session the debate be private.

PROSHYAN: I object. We do not and cannot have any secrets from the people. Our electors ought to know what their chosen representatives are doing.

Motion rejected unanimously.

KALEGAYEV, replying to Lenin for the Left SRs: The fact that the Left SRs are not in the government is one question, the legality of that government’s actions is another. The Soviet government ought to keep to the rules laid down by the Second Congress of Soviets. The practice of determining laws in secret and decreeing them autocratically can lead only to the most unfortunate misunderstandings. When decrees are being turned out one after another like fresh loaves from the bakers’, contradictions [are bound to] arise which will cause confusion in the provinces. The new laws are not only deficient from an external, formal point of view: they are also mutually contradictory in spirit. For example, the land decree abolished private property in land in perpetuity, but the decree on land committees, which was published shortly afterwards, said nothing about this. This leads to muddle and argument. When these ordinances reach the provinces and come to be interpreted by simple-minded people there will be discord and conflict.

Moreover, however urgent the situation may be the CPC has no right to infringe the rules laid down by the Congress and to act contrarily to their spirit as well as their letter. The government ought to have requested the Congress to give it power to modify the Congress’s dispositions. If it failed to do so, it is [acting illegally, just as it is] acting illegally by ignoring the will of the CEC.

A motion to curtail debate is defeated.

PROSHYAN: When I was working in Finland, before coming to Petrograd, I was very much in favour of our party joining the government. But now that I have seen how things are here I have changed my mind. We are being asked to go back to the old way of doing things: in place of one irresponsible government which led us to the verge of ruin we are being offered another irresponsible government which will finish off the revolution for good. Let us forget about the formal objections. The point is not that the government has broken the law or that it should have to respond to interpellations, but that in the very centre of revolutionary democracy there is disorder, caused by a divorce between the executive authorities on one hand and the central representative organ on the other-the CEC, which does duty for the Congress of Soviets. The Military-Revolutionary Committee is frequently out of touch with the revolutionary staff, the CPC with the Commander-in-Chief, and so on- These lapses and errors can only be of advantage to enemies of the revolution.

It is not because we are addicted to the letter of the law that we insist on the government rendering account of its actions to the CEC. For only if these two organs are in concord can one expect the government to remain loyal to the spirit of the decisions taken by the Congress of Soviets. We have before us the example of the previous coalition regimes. They managed to avoid their formal responsibility to account for their conduct before the CEC, and by doing so they in fact broke the vital link between themselves and the people. This was their basic mistake, the source of their weakness. We warn the new government not to follow blindly along the same path. We do so because we want the new people’s government to rest on a solid foundation.

KARELIN: I protest at the abuse of the term ‘bourgeois’. It is not only bourgeois governments which need to give account of themselves or to maintain good order in their affairs, even in matters of detail. Don’t let’s try to cover up mistakes by pinning an unpopular label [on critics]. A proletarian government must also submit to popular control. After all, when a firm is taken over by its workers, they cannot manage it properly without keeping and presenting accounts.

Our demand for responsible government is being rejected on the simple grounds that this was characteristic of earlier parliamentary regimes. The logical corollary would be to abandon financial accountability as well, as another ‘bourgeois’ prejudice. Our demand for control [over the government by the CECI does not stem from any party-political egoism but is a requirement imposed by life itself.

These decrees and draft ordinances which are being cooked up like bliny are extraordinarily illiterate, although as yet, thank heavens, literacy has not been declared a bourgeois prejudice. This defect will make for a lot of trouble, especially in the countryside, where people are used to interpreting orders from on high literally, and clashes may even occur there. Thus the government’s excessive display of activity, instead of helping the country, will cause it irremediable harm.

LEVIN: The soviet which I represent fought hard against the irresponsibility of the previous coalition cabinets. Unfortunately the same light-hearted attitude towards their obligations is being adopted by our present-day Bolshevik leaders, who seem not to realize how serious this matter is.

MALKIN: The reason why we did not join the government was very different from the reason for the resignation of some members of the CPC. We reject the path of experimentation on which the new government has embarked. We want our group, which comprises a significant minority in the CEC, to be able to make its weight felt in the legislative process. Not a single people’s commissar has addressed a session of the CEC in an official capacity until today, when some of them announced their resignation. Their departure from the government threatens it with a catastrophic collapse. What steps does Lenin propose to take to avert such an eventuality? He should make his views known on this question, which is of such urgency to us all.

TROTSKY: In Kerensky’s day neither the right nor the left wings of the Socialist-Revolutionary party pressed the old CEC to render account of itself. Our Soviet parliament differs from others in that it does not contain representatives of antagonistic classes. Our government is one of the toiling oppressed classes and so has no place for conventional parliamentary machinery. Procedural rules usually just serve to balance off against each other the opposing class forces represented in the assembly, and to prevent deputies from being influenced by their electors. For when a deputy is asked to do something by the mass [of electors] who voted for him, he can easily reply that he cannot grant their request because of the limitations of parliamentary procedure. But in our system things are different. Our deputies do not need to shield themselves behind formal excuses of this sort. They are linked to their electors by the same kind of bond as exists in a trade union-a bond that is vital and immediate. It is true that we don’t have formal guarantees [against abuses of executive power], but in lieu of that our deputies enjoy real controlling authority, for at any moment they may recall the people’s commissars. Soviet power is not the result of backstage manoeuvres by party leaders, like a French government, for example. Our power expresses the actual will of the organized masses. It may be true that our decrees have some rough edges, but they express a vital creativity that is more important than formal perfection.

Our legislative activity is already yielding results. It has evoked a response throughout Russia and even abroad. The land decree was so well attuned to popular aspirations that it would have been wrong to delay its promulgation by a single day, even if this would have allowed us to improve the wording.

Let those who are tired, who are few in numbers but of high [intellectual] quality, go their own way: we shall continue our march forward without them, holding our heads high. A previous speaker said that the government is facing collapse. It is not collapsing but purging itself. We who remain in it think it would be wrong to make the slightest concession to the bourgeoisie or to the groups of intellectuals who stand in the middle and advocate compromise. If you disagree with us you may recall us, but we shall never voluntarily betray our [revolutionary] line.

LENIN: I shall deal with the concrete charges levelled against the CPC. So far as Muravyev’s order is concerned, we only learned of it from the newspapers, since in an emergency the Commander-in-Chief has the right to issue orders on his own authority. This order contained nothing contrary to the spirit of the new government, but is was phrased in such a way that undesirable misunderstandings could have resulted, and therefore the CPC has annulled it. You also criticized the land decree, although it meets the people’s demands. As for the charge of schematism, where are your own drafts, amendments, and resolutions? Where is the fruit of your creative thinking? You are free to put forward laws yourselves, but we don’t see any. You call us extremists, but you are nothing other than apologists for parliamentary obstruction, for what used to be called chicanery. If your are dissatisfied, call a new Congress [of Soviets] and act instead of sitting back and talking about a collapse of the government. Power rests with our party, which enjoys the broad masses’ confidence. It is true that some of our comrades have taken a stand that has nothing in common with Bolshevism, but the Moscow workers will not follow Rykov or Nogin.

Proshyan said that in Finland, where the Left SRs were in close contact with the masses, they thought it essential for all left-wing revolutionary socialists to unite. If the Left SRs here [in Petrograd] do not join us, this simply shows that they have become divorced from the people, like their defensist predecessors.

RYAZANOV. Let me point out that the CEC delegates who took part in the talks with [representatives of] the other socialist parties acted in complete solidarity with the Bolshevik cc.

TROTSKY: The Bolshevik CC is not trying to arrogate all power to itself. We offered power to the Second Congress of Soviets, which included some defensist delegates. It is not our fault that they walked out and refused to go along with the majority. We responded to Vikzhel’s invitation [to attend the conference], but we cannot afford to sacrifice the new government’s programme for the sake of a shadowy agreement [with the democratic socialists].

SPIRO, for the Left SRs, tables the following motion:

The CEC, having heard the explanations offered by the chairman of the CPC, considers them unsatisfactory.

URITSKY tables a resolution expressing confidence in the CPC:

The CEC states, in regard to the interpellation that has been presented, that:

1. The Soviet parliament of the working masses can have nothing in common, so far as its procedure is concerned, with a bourgeois parliament where different classes with antagonistic interests are represented, and where deputies of the ruling class turn procedural rules into a weapon of legislative obstruction;

2. The Soviet parliament cannot refuse the CPC the right to issue, without preliminary discussion by the CEC, urgent decrees within the limits of the general programme adopted by the AH-Russian Congress of Soviets;

3. The CEC exercises a general control over the entire activity of the CPC and may replace the government or individual members thereof,

4. The CEC regrets that the Left SRs, who presented the interpellation, have not found it possible in participate directly in the government, and thus in the elaboration of all urgent decrees.

The Left SR resolution is rejected by 25 votes to 20. A discussion follows on whether people’s commissars should be allowed to vote. LENIN and TROTSKY point out that at party congresses leaders could do so and that they are bound by party discipline; for this reason they intend to take part in the vote. Uritsky’s resolution is taken as the basic text by 25 votes to 23 and then, on a roll-call vote, by 29 votes to 23 with 2 abstentions. Subsequently it is voted on clause by clause. Clause I is passed without amendment. KALEGAYEV proposes that clauses 2 and 3 be omitted, but this is defeated, in the first instance by 27 votes to 14 [and in the second instance by an unspecified number of votes]. AVANESOV proposes omission of clause 4, but this likewise is rejected. Finally the resolution is approved as a whole.

4. Resignation of the People’s Commissars

ZAKS: This step is a sign that their [the resigning commissars’] former comrades in the CPC have set course for a socialist revolution. But if we burn our bridges will we not be entirely isolated? After all, we have won precious little support so far. Western Europe is shamefully silent. One can’t build socialism by decree and by relying solely upon a single party.

LENIN: The phrase ‘the west is shamefully silent’ is impermissible from the lips of an internationalist. One would have to be blind not to notice the ferment that has gripped the working masses in Germany and the west [in general]. The leaders of the German proletariat, the socialist intelligentsia, consist in the main of defensists, as they do everywhere else, but their proletarian followers are prepared to desert them and to respond to our call. The savage discipline that prevails in the German army and navy have not prevented elements opposed [to the war] from taking action. The revolutionary sailors in the German navy, knowing that their enterprise was doomed to fail, went to meet their fate heroically, in the hope that their sacrifice would awaken the spirit of insurrection among the people. The Spartakus group is spreading its revolutionary propaganda with ever greater intensity. The name of Liebknecht, that tireless fighter for the ideals of the proletariat, is daily becoming more popular in Germany.

We believe in a revolution in the west. We know that this is inevitable, but of course we can’t bring it about to order. Did we know last December what was to happen in February? Did we know for sure in September that the next month Russian revolutionary democracy would bring off the greatest overturn in world [history]? We knew that the old government was sitting on a volcano and we could guess from many signs that beneath the surface a great change was occurring in people’s ideas. We could feel the electricity in the air, we knew that it would inevitably discharge itself in a purifying storm. But we could not predict the day and hour when the storm would break. It is exactly the same now in the case of Germany. There too the people’s sullen discontent is growing and is bound to erupt in the form of a broad mass movement. We cannot decree the revolution but we can at least help it along. We shall organize fraternization in the trenches and help the western peoples to launch the invincible socialist revolution.

Zaks talks about [not] decreeing revolution. But isn’t our government calling upon the masses themselves to create a better way of life? The exchange of industrial products for grain and the introduction of [workers’] control and accounting are the beginning of socialism. Yes, we shall indeed establish a republic of labour in which whoever does not work shall not eat.

It is said that our party is isolated, but is this really so? A few individual intellectuals have split away, but with every day that passes we are winning more and more support among the peasants. Only those will conquer and retain power who believe in the people and plunge into the source of popular vitality and creativity.

I move the following resolution:

The CEC directs the CPC to present at the next session candidates for the posts of PC of Internal Affairs and PC of Trade and Industry, and proposes that Kalegayev assume the post of PC of Agriculture.

PROSHYAN: I again remind the CEC that the Left SR fraction has decided to withdraw its representatives from all Soviet organs.

MALKIN: Our fraction could accept this proposal only if a homogeneous socialist government were formed, the press decree annulled, and the policy of repression abandoned, so that the [inter-party) talks may be brought to a successful conclusion-as the CEC has resolved they should be.

TROTSKY. The Left SR fraction wants the CPC to approve a coalition with Avksentyev and co. [i.e. the Right SRs] and freedom for the press to serve finance capital. But we cannot allow the Left SRs to join the government with [a programme] so hostile to the people. They must [make up their minds:] either to go with Avksentyev or to go with us; there is no alternative.

MALKIN: Trotsky is putting the question in the form of an ultimatum and so discrediting the CEC’s decision, taken yesterday, to continue talks with Gots, Avksentyev, and the rest.

TROTSKY: It is not the individuals as such that we detest, or the groups to which they belong, but rather the tactics they employ. If [the moderate socialists] want to join the soviets we shall be pleased, but we cannot afford to deprive the country of its government while talks are going on-with our consent, incidentally-with the sort of people who incited the cadets [to rise] against Soviet power. If you don’t go along with us, just for the sake of the shadow of an agreement, then you are nobodies, mere shadows of Gots and Dan, who are themselves just shadows of the bourgeoisie.

Lenin’s resolution obtains 30 votes. The SRs refuse to take part in the vote. They also reject the proposal that Kalegayev assume the post of PC of Agriculture.

John L. H. Keep, ed. and trans., The Debate on Soviet Power. Minutes of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee of Soviets, Second Convocation, October 1917-January 1918. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979, pp. 68-89.

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