This week’s podcast is an interview with Lara Douds on the formation, functioning, and decline of the Lenin’s Council of People’s Commissars, or Sovnarkom.
Here’s a partial transcript to whet your appetite.
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This abridged version of the interview has been edited for clarity. Look out for the full audio version soon.
Lara Douds is an Assistant Professor of History at Durham University specializing in the history of the institutions and political culture of the early Soviet government. She’s the author of Inside Lenin’s Government: Power, Ideology and Practice in the Early Soviet State published by Bloomsbury.
Your book Inside Lenin’s Government; Ideology, Power and Practice in the Early Soviet State is an overdue examination of the formation of the Council People’s Commissars, or Sovnarkom. What is Sovnarkom?
Sovnarkom, Soviet narodnykh kommissarov or Council of People’s Commissars, was the body that was established at this momentous Second Congress of Soviets in November 1917. The Second Congress of Soviets meets a day or so after the October Revolution. The Bolsheviks have seized power. They’re in the majority, and they decide to set up what they believe to be the world’s first workers and peasants, socialist government. The government cabinet is this Council of Peoples Commissars, and it’s the place, I argue at least, where all high level government decision making is being carried out in the first couple of years after the October Revolution.
It’s made up of Lenin, of course, as chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars, and a number of others. They are 11 fellow commissars and a trio who are responsible for military affairs. In some ways they are carrying over a similar sort of division of business as the Provisional, and the Tsarist government. They have commissars for things like Labor, Post and Telegraph, Foreign Affairs and Enlightenment, which Anatoly Lunacharsky is famously the commissar.
I like to claim it has the first female cabinet minister in world history—Alexandra Kollontai, who’s commissar for Social Welfare. I’m not entirely sure about this and I’m waiting for someone to correct me. But I think she’s at least one of the first female cabinet ministers.
The choice of “commissars” is interesting. Trotsky remarks in his memoir that they just thought it had a sort of more revolutionary ring to it. But then I think it goes a bit deeper, that it’s something about getting rid of the title of Minister.
There’s an anti-bosses sentiment going on here, I think. And it’s in the legislation setting up Sovnarkom. It’s very clear that Sovnarkom is to be a collegial body that is made up of chairmen or representatives of other collegiums, the commissariats. There’s a sense in which you’re getting rid of hierarchical bourgeois ministers, who centralize the system. Sovnarkom is supposed to be accountable to a larger standing body, the Russian Central Executive Committee. The Central Executive Committee is a standing body made up of hundreds of representatives that was formed by the Second Congress of Soviets. It’s a sort of quasi-legislature for which Sovnarkom is the sort of quasi-executive.
I say quasi- because the Bolsheviks were not keen on the idea of the division of powers. They saw that as something that bourgeois parliamentary systems did, and that the division was a fig leaf for bourgeois democracy to con people.
How have historians understood Sovnarkom?
Much of Sovnarkom’s history and its significance has been pretty sidelined. There’s been much more focus on the role and the significance of the Communist Party bodies. We’re more familiar with the Politburo, the Orgburo, and the party-state monolith that occupies the Soviet political landscape from the early 1920s until Gorbachev tries to disentangle the party-state with his reforms in the 1980s.
During the Cold War in particular, there’s a kind of mirror image of opposite defenders and detractors of this party-state monolith. Official Soviet historians have an agenda to portray the Politburo as the natural executive of the government from day one. Also Cold Warriors from the Anglophone side also want to portray this as the natural state of affairs. They want to condemn so-called Soviet democracy as an ultra-centralized, repressive monolithic system from day one.
When Sovnarkom hasn’t been neglected, it’s been viewed as a fig leaf, or sort of window dressing to cover up where the real power laid. Scholars like Leonard Shapiro writing in the 1960s say things like the Bolsheviks and Lenin ruled through the Party’s Central Committee immediately after the October Revolution. It’s not until much later that one historian began to take Sovnarkom a bit more seriously. T.H. Rigby’s well-known 1979 classic Lenin’s Government: Sovnarkom, 1917-1922 is the first serious English language study of Sovnarkom. He basically says, “Hang on, wait a minute.” This elegant totalitarian logic is nice on paper, but when you actually scratch the surface, it seems that Sovnarkom actually did have a significant role to play as a government cabinet. It wasn’t just a sort of facade for the Communist Party from day one of the October Revolution.
I was surprised to learn that Lenin’s State and Revolution functioned as a foundational text in his thinking about building the Soviet state. What ways does the early Soviet State seek to realize some of State and Revolution‘s prescriptions?
State and Revolution is a strange, old text, and it has divided opinion among all the scholars that have sought to interpret its meaning. Some focus on its ultra-democratic-utopian-withering of the state, and others focus more on its violent themes. I read it at the beginning of my PhD, and put it to one side and thought, “I’m not really sure how useful this is going to be.” And it wasn’t really until I’d finished the archival work and was quite far into the writing process that I started to feel, I need to go back and look at this. There were all sorts of elements of the state apparatus, and the way that Lenin and the other Bolsheviks were talking about what they were trying to achieve in de-bureaucratizing the state apparatus that reminded me of the broader principles of State and Revolution.
The main thing really was that Lenin is absolutely emphatic in State and Revolution that the state is a special kind of organization of force for the suppression of one class over another. And he’s wasn’t writing a kind of abstract philosophical text here. His writings are always linked to what’s going on in concrete form, the concrete struggle as it were. And he’s arguing with people like Kautsky, Bernstein, the Mensheviks, and other moderate socialists in Russia who were saying, “We can work with existing Provisional Government structures, and have a more peaceful transition.”
Lenin is arguing very strongly against this, and that some kind of violent break is needed to smash the bourgeois state. At the same time, he’s saying “Once we’ve done that, we can actually put the apparatus of the bourgeoisie to work for this new, “dictatorship of the proletariat.” This is a transitional phase. Wonderful commune democracy and the withering away of the state is all great in the long term, but there has to be something in the interim before we get to that point.” However, Lenin’s not particularly precise. He doesn’t really know. He’s grasping for what form this is going to take.
It’s clear in State and Revolution that Lenin’s learned a lot of lessons about what the state shouldn’t be like. It shouldn’t be anything like a bourgeois Western parliamentary democracy, which as Marx said, is con in that every four or five years the proletariat gets a vote in another bunch of bourgeoisie to oppress them. And so it’s very clear that the Soviet state is not going to be something like this. It has to be a representative government, but not parliamentary. And it’s not going to be about division of powers. It’s going to be much more like the Paris commune, which is about uniting executive and legislative powers together.
It’s also about the participation of the proletariat—drawing the proletariat into administration on a very practical level. It’s the blending of state and society and the removal of that barrier he perceived existed in Western bourgeois parliamentary systems. He’s fairly naive in believing the working class can staff the state administration. That the business of administration has been simplified by capitalism . . . What does he say? Any old kitchen maid can be a state administrator or something. He’s saying this in 1917, 1918.
He’s changed his mind by 1921 about this, and he quite strongly rejects this by then. But at this stage, he’s looking for opportunities to proletarianize and de-bureaucratize, because bureaucracy is the sort of antithesis of what he feels a genuine Soviet socialist democracy would look like.
I started to see some structures and some practices that the Bolsheviks had built into their state apparatus in this “transitional phase,” as they called it. One of those things was what I call collegiality in the book. Like the use of collegium as commission boards made up of equally empowered members. You can draw in members of the proletariat or specialists who are responsible for a particular area of government, or administration into these collegiums. Their goal was to spread authority away from a ministerial hierarchical government.
And they’re not permanent either.
No. They’re not permanent. And there’s also a kind of rotation of officers so that no one person takes authority. They also experimented with paying everybody fairly equal wages in the state administration.A lot of other things too like drawing proletarian human material but this gave way because of the sheer lack of suitable literate people to staff them. That gave way to things like the setting up Rabkrin, the Workers and Peasants Inspectorate, which was set up a couple of years later. Rabkrin was supposed to be a way workers and peasants could keep an eye on the Tsarist white collar holdover staff, who actually made up quite a significant part of administration from the provisional government and the Tsar’s government.
And also things like the receptions, which I talk a bit about in the book. Receptions are a way of having some real contact between the state administration and ordinary workers and peasants who could enter into the space of the government to present their complaints or requests, and there could be a sort of responsive relationship between state and society. So, in all sorts of ways, I found that the early Bolshevik government was trying to incorporate some of the broad ideas of State and Revolution into this new apparatus to de-bureaucratize. It doesn’t work particularly well, and many of these things are fairly short-lived and backfire spectacularly, and in certain other ways create more problems for the government in terms of its efficiency.
But yeah, overall, Lenin doesn’t throw State and Revolution into the dustbin of history, as Trotsky would say.
What did Sovnarkom do?
We can imagine Sovnarkom as a fairly standard government cabinet, in that it held weekly meetings with the chairmen of the commissariats. They were tasked with dealing with the range of challenges that faced this young Soviet government. Basically, all of the commissariats could propose policy measures or legislation and points to the agenda of Sovnarkom. And then all Sovnarkom members would discuss them. They would ideally read briefing papers before the meeting and discuss them for a few hours in a Sovnarkom meeting. Then decisions were taken by majority vote with Lenin as chair.
There was a real effort regularize its operation. Quite quickly, rules were brought in about how many minutes people could stand up and present their proposals. And how many people could then speak for and against this afterwards. This kind of systematization surprised me a lot. I thought, they’re becoming quite sensible administrators from being from this underground party of radicals. They quickly put the suits on, come in and shuffle the papers, and look to regularize the operations of this institution.
When you look at the protocols, the agenda, you see Sovnarkom is discussing all of the major policy initiatives and dealing with challenges. Like economic questions and social policy issues of early legislation, and just a whole range of government business is passing through the Sovnarkom’s agenda in these earlier years. And I guess this surprised me because the traditional history had argued that the Party’s Central Committee very quickly takes over this decision making role.
I was also very surprised to even just look at the material artifacts of the archival files. Sovnarkom documents were nicely typed up in order and professional. Whereas the Central Committee record was more hastily drawn up, scribbled in handwriting. Not all of it, but some of it. And the Central Committee seemed to be really sticking to discussions of what we would think of as Bolshevik, and then Communist Party business. So, things like the running of conferences, etc. And of course, they began to talk about big policy issues, and I think that’s a fairly sort of normal healthy process for a political party in power. The central committee also discussed big policy issues in that forum.
But it’s a different process, I think, from the one that comes later with the Politburo. When you go from the high level discussion of policy to the day-to-day management and close decision making on every sort of government item of business.
One of the most interesting things that you talk about is the role of Sovnarkom’s Administration Department, and how it, and Lenin personally would hold these receptions. Citizens would come and petition the government, petition officials, petition Lenin, and sometimes even have long conversations with him. What these are receptions? They are really interesting since I think most people wouldn’t imagine that these Bolsheviks would hold office hours.
Exactly. That’s exactly what they are. The receptions are something, again, that surprised me because I hadn’t actually come across this anywhere in any books that I’d read about early Soviet politics. I read a bit about it in some of the memoirs of the people staffing the Soviet Administration Department before I went to the archives. And I thought, they talk about this but these memoirs were fairly hagiographical. And people like [Sovnarkom secretary] Lidiia Fotieva and Vladimir Bonch-Bruevich [head of the Sovnarkom Administration Department] say wonderful things like, “Lenin sat with peasants. And he was very, very keen to engage with them, and to hear what they had to say. And to feel like they could submit requests, and to have the government listen to them, and try to solve problems.”
And I sort of put it too one side thinking, “Ooh, this is a bit nauseating.” But when I actually got into looking at the Sovnarkom files, I found there was a great paper trail to support this—much more than I had expected. I started to take the receptions more seriously. What I found again and again in Lenin’s correspondence with the Administration Department staff, and also with the commissariats, examples of him saying, “Why haven’t you dealt with this citizen’s request? This peasant is complaining to us about how we’ve unfairly taken his cow, or we haven’t recommended him for a horse for the Red Army or something. Why haven’t you sent some kind of reply and followed it up?”
Again and again, he would use the word “living link.” He would say, “This is our opportunity to create a living link.” And he would use words like “to avoid bureaucratism.” Receptions were a tool to get rid of that barrier between government and governed. To be, receptive and open, and responsive.
What led to Sovnarkom’s decline.
I didn’t find a simple answer for this. There were a number of things coming together. In those early years, Sovnarkom worked as the principle executive cabinet body of the Soviet government. Then the Politburo begins to expand from mid-1919, and the whole party machinery expands into this Politburo, Orgburo and Secretariat form. And so an alternative apparatus operating plays some part in this migration of power. Whereas before, under Yakov Sverdlov the party machinery did not expand and went into sort of decline as he turned his attention much more to his role as chairman of the Central Executive Committee of Soviets.
So, this expansion is part of the story. An alternative apparatus is something that T. H. Rigby certainly thought was very important. And of course, there had always been the unresolved issue of where legitimacy for this new Soviet system comes from. Is it this locally elected body of soviets that feed into central Soviet institutions? Or is it something that arises from the vanguard party, the Bolsheviks, representing the proletariat’s interests? As you know is it’s historic mission. So, there’s always a fairly unresolved issue of these competing basis of legitimacy.
So there’s the problem of a firmly established, definitive solution to where legitimacy come from. Then you have the expansion of the Politburo, Orgburo and Secretariat machinery. But I think the decline of Sovnarkom also has to do with some of the problems in the functioning of the state apparatus. So, the expansion of the Party is how Sovnarkom declines. But for me, it wasn’t entirely sufficient to explain the why because I think we need to look also at what’s going on in the soviets and in Sovnarkom. And for all of the excitement for these innovative measures to de-bureaucratize the state apparatus, and experiments with these novel features like collegiality and receptions (priemnaya), and the Soviet apparatus combining executive and legislative functions, but still being sort of representative kind of political structures—there’s the civil war, of course. So, the circumstances come into this too.
And we don’t really know enough about what happens to the soviets in the Civil War. We just don’t have enough local studies. We don’t even have enough studies of what’s going on in those most important central Supreme Soviet institutions. So, there’s really a lot of important work to do, but you get the sense that the soviets atrophy during the Civil War because the exigencies of the fighting take people away. There isn’t the opportunity for assemblies to meet, etc.
Given that Sovnarkom does have a short life in terms of its significance in the early Soviet State, where do you place it in the history of Soviet governance or how we understand the Soviet system?
Again, going back to the view that the party-state was the inevitable direct, straightforward outcome, this sort of original sin of Bolshevik ideology. I think we can see very clearly that this is not the case at all. That this was really a period of ad hoc experimentation. There’s a wonderful sort of a cocktail of different forces coming together that shapes the migration of power from the state to the party. There’s also the problems that Lenin and the Bolsheviks built into the state apparatus through these attempts to de-bureaucratize. Whether it’s receptions, the collegia, or the issue of not having a clear division of powers and a separation of powers between the legislative and executive—all make for some kind of malfunctioning to some extent.
There’s also the Civil War, the circumstances of which just are not ideal for this kind of experimental, collegial approach to governance. And there’s also the preexisting political culture informing this drive to a paternalist approach through the receptions. So, Sovnarkom is telling us that there’s a much less elegant, clear explanation than the totalitarian model would have us believe. And I think, maybe it throws Gorbachev’s democratization reforms in a new light, where his removal of Article Six from the Soviet Constitution is trying to restore that very early system of Sovnarkom, where you have this separation of Party and state. So, we can maybe illuminate what’s going on there a little bit more.
I think maybe in the broader scheme of things, viewing this migration of power from Sovnarkom to the Politburo as a sort of, dare I say, failure of democratic transition rather than this attempt to build a disciplined party state. It’s actually more about crimes of omission than commission, and maybe it helps us to think about other failed democratic transitions in non-Western liberal contexts. Whether that’s Arab Spring or post-colonial Africa.