"All Power to the Soviets!" Biography of a Slogan

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A Socialist Project e-bulletin .... No. 1454 .... July 24, 2017

"All Power to the Soviets!" Biography of a Slogan

Lars T. Lih

"All power to the Soviets!" is surely one of the most famous slogans in revolutionary history. It is right up there with "Egalité, liberté, fraternité" as a symbol of an entire revolutionary epoch. In this essay and others to follow, I would like to examine the origin of this slogan in its original context of Russia in 1917.

Our slogan consists of three words: вся власть советам (vsya vlast’ sovetam). "Vsya" = "all," "vlast’" = "power", and "sovetam" = "to the soviets." The Russian word sovet simply means "advice," and, from that, "council." By now, of course, we are very used to the Russian word, because it evokes a specific set of... meanings arising out of the revolutionary experience of 1917.

In this series, I will often use the Russian original of another term in this slogan, namely, vlast’ (I will henceforth transliterate without the soft sign). "Power" is not an entirely adequate translation; indeed, in an attempt to catch these nuances, vlast is often translated in English by the unidiomatic phrase "the power" (for example, by John Reed in Ten Days that Shook the World). Vlast has a more specific reference than the English word "power"; the Russian word refers to the sovereign authority in a particular country. In order to have the vlast, one has to have the right of making a final decision, to be capable of making the decisions and of seeing that they are carried out. An effective vlast needs firm control over the armed forces, a strong sense of legitimacy and mission, and a social base. Max Weber’s phrase "a monopoly of the legitimate use of force" goes to the heart of the matter.

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