The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Soviet

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Edition of 1920. See also Soviet (council) on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

SOVIET (pron. sävyet'), a Russian word signifying council, advice, harmony, concord; sovietnik = councillor. Under the old régime the Tsar's Council of Ministers was called the “Soviet of Ministers,” but the term has been invested with a new meaning since the Russian Revolution of March 1917. The popular organizations which then came into existence were called “Councils of Workmen's and Soldiers' Deputies,” bodies which were supposed to be holding things together under the provisional Government until the election of the Constituent Assembly could take place; in a sense, they were vigilance committees designed to guard against counter-revolution. The Petrograd Soviet of 4,000 members was the most important of these, on account of its position in the capital and its influence over the garrison. By degrees the orderly and moderate element was pushed out of this group and the extremists who demanded “all power to the Soviets” became supreme. When the Constituent Assembly eventually met, the Bolsheviki and their allies were in a minority, yet they succeeded in breaking up the Assembly and finally came out with their own program, the so-called “soviet government.” Chaos and disorders paralyzed the upholders of constitutional democracy because they lacked both authority and the power to restrain the wild elements. The latter, on the other hand, possessed the Red Guard, a powerful armed mob, while the Soviet leaders — mainly ambitious doctrinnaires — saw in the instrument of their creation a road to fame and power. Soon the Soviet system was invested with intellectual justification as “a higher type of State” and “a higher form of democracy” which would “arouse the masses of the exploited toilers to the task of making new history.” Furthermore, it offered “to the oppressed toiling masses the opportunity to participate actively in the free construction of a new society.” According to Lenine, the author of these quotations, Soviet rule “is nothing else than the organized form of the dictatorship of the proletariat.” A loose code of rules governing elections to the soviets was framed, but the following classes were disqualified to vote: “Those who employ others for profit; those who live on incomes not derived from their own work — interest on capital, industrial enterprises or landed property; private business men, agents, middlemen; monks and priests of all denominations; ex-employees of the old police services and members of the Romanoff dynasty; lunatics and criminals.” With village and factory Soviets as a base, there arises a vast pyramid of district, cantonal, county and regional Soviets, each with its executive soviet. Over and above these stands the “All-Russia Soviet Congress,” which appoints an All-Russian Central Executive Committee of not more than 200 members, which in turn chooses the Soviet of People's Commissaries — the Ministry. Beginning with a minimum of three and maximum of 50 members for smaller communities, the maximum for town soviels was fixed at 1,000 members. According to its founders, this system is destined in the future to replace all other forms of government in the world.

For good or ill, a new system of government has appeared in Sovietism. Not a little speculation has been aroused in countries outside of Russia and a considerable number of political thinkers have analyzed the future possibilities of Soviet rule. The reign of terror and bloodshed which accompanied that rule in Russia may be regarded as an accidental transitory phase in the history of a country where violent occurrences are no novelties. It is necessary to separate barbarity and invidious class distinctions from Sovietism itself and to consider the latter purely as a political experiment of some importance. The essence of the conflict between the Parliamentary and the Soviet systems is whether the basis of representation shall be political or economic, using these words in their narrowest sense. The conception of the Soviet as ultimately representative of the local economic groupings — factories and productive areas — explains the enthusiasm of the neo-Marxians (who admit no politics outside the economic sphere) for the Soviet system, the elements of which they see in the works committees and such like combinations in modern large-scale industry. Some admirers, however, regard the Soviet system as a dual one with parallel political and industrial organizations, though it is probable that in practice the two branches merge in a single channel, the economic. Here we have only to ask whether a factory's political Soviet would be likely to work independently of its economic Soviet to realize that a separate standpoint is possible only in theory. The Soviet government in Russia claims to be in such close relations with the proletarian organizations on which it is based that “at all times the greater part of the population joins in the administration of the state” and that every worker may initiate in his Soviet a plan for reorganizing his industry which has only to be examined by the Sovets higher up and ratified to become law! If the Soviet system really fulfilled its claim to instruct the elector by giving him actual administrative experience, this would be a good argument in its favor, but in practice the demagogue and the party man dominate the high Soviets and these in their turn lord it over the lesser bodies. Hence the value of the system as an administrative training school disappears and the machine offers nothing useful that could not be obtained by Parliamentary government. Many sincere democratically-minded people in other countries have grown dissatisfied with their systems of Parliamentary government and have consequently been half prepared to welcome the Soviet idea as an alternative. Various causes have been advanced as being responsible for diminishing the prestige of Parliaments, such as their remoteness from public opinion, which elects but cannot recall them; the congestion of legislative business and the difficulty of carrying out necessary reforms; the party system and the caucus; the corruption arising from personal and corporate pressure and the encroachments of cabinets. The Soviet system professes to remove these defects and also to introduce reforms which seem unattainable under Parliamentary government one of the chief being the creation of small and compact local administrative units to replace the existing large and unwieldy geographical electoral units. Many theorists, indeed, regard the Soviet system not as necessarily an instrument of proletarian dictatorship, but rather as a federation of local electoral groups, which, guided by intelligence and with toleration, could be transformed into a genuinely democratic form of government. Others, again, vision a possibitity of separating the political and industrial spheres, while extending to both the means of self-government. In comparing existing institutions with visionary alternatives the advocates of the latter not infrequently fail to foresee the many defects which are not immediately apparent, but must inevitably be expected to arise. In no country have both these systems been fully tried, for Russia has never had real Parliamentary government, and in Bavaria, where a Soviet republic was established in February 1919, the venture so far has not presented the unassailable argument of success. It is difficult to see that the Soviet system can claim any tangible advantage over its rival, especially as the apex of the Soviet pyramid is far more remote from the individual elector than any Parliament or Congress. Altogether it seems easier and safer to overhaul and improve the solid machinery of a stable government than to cast it aside in favor of an abstract conception of doubtful value.

Henri F. Klein,
Editorial Staff of The Americana.