Fateful minutes when history could have taken another course often happen in meetings

Fateful minutes when history could have taken another course often happen in meetings

(Christoph Haug) #1

My colleague, Per Månson, is not particularly interested in meetings (at least not as much as I am), he is interested in Russian history (much more than I am). But our interests met when he told me about incredibly important details of a meeting that changed not only Russian history, but arguably world history: the second All-Russian Congress of Soviets which took place in the Assembly Hall of Smolny in Petrograd (today: St. Petersburg) from 25 to 27 October 1917 (Julian calendar, 7-9 November 1917 in today’s Gregorian Calendar).

The Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets 25-27 October 1917

To learn about the historical significance of this meeting, you can consult any history book with a chapter on the October Revolution (also known as the Bolshevik Revolution).

Julij Martov Julij Martov

In his blogpost, Per details the dynamics of what he argues were crucial minutes first in the evening of 25 October 1917. If you understand Swedish or don’t mind using Google Translate, you will get the best picture by reading the original text, but the gist of it is the following: When Julij Martov, a Menshevik Internationalist, proposed immediate action to form a coalition government (including all socialist factions), his proposal was met with applause and virtually everyone, including the Bolsheviks, voted in favour of this plan. It is likely that Lenin and Trotsky would have opposed such a broad coalition government, but the reaction in the room showed that they would have not been able to stop it. However, as it turned out, they did not have to worry about that. Because here is how the meeting continued: When Lev Chintjuk, of the Conservative Socialists, proposed that the only way to solve the crisis was to start negotiating with the provisional government, he was booed at and called a bourgeois lackey and the like. Several other speakers endorsing the proposal received the same reaction. Then it was announced that shooting had started at the Winterpalace and some of the right-wing socialists left the congress. When Martov made a final attempt to start the building the coalition government as has been decided just an hour earlier, the room turned against him and rejected the plan.

What had happened? As I understand it, the meaning of building of a coalition government had changed because the right-wing socialists interpreted it as a government of which even bourgeois parties would be a part and that was unacceptable for most of the other delegates. Although this was not Martovs intention and not what had previously been decided, the idea of coalition government had become synonymous with “a coalition government which includes non-socialist parties”).

As Per puts it in his article: “Trotsky could now deliver the final blow to Martovs proposal in this historical moment where the Russian revolution could have taken another path” and, for lack of an audio recording of the meeting, he cites from Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution:

What has taken place,” says Trotsky, is an insurrection, not a conspiracy. An insurrection of the popular masses needs no justification. … and now you propose to us: Renounce your victory: make a compromise. With whom? I ask: With whom ought we to make a compromise? With that pitiful handful who just went out? … To those who have gone out, and to all who made like proposals, we must say, ‘You are pitiful isolated individuals; you are bankrupts; your rôle is played out. Go where you belong from now on – into the rubbish-can of history!’”

Leo Trotsky Leo Trotsky

When Trotsky’s words were met with applause, Martov shouted: “Then we are also leaving”, and he reportedly left the congress in a silence that perhaps indicates some subconscious sense for this historical moment. After the opposition had left, Lenin was able to install his one-party government instead of replacing the provisional government with an all-socialist coalition government which would have represented the vast majority of the Russian people.

(David Gibson) #2

Obviously this topic is near and dear to me:

Most of Kennedy’s key choices emerged out of ExComm meetings, and the rest were shaped by those discussions.

Another famous example is the meeting of the National Assembly in France on August 4, 1789, out of which came the abolition of feudal privileges.See

Sewell, William H. 1996. “Historical Events as Transformations of Structures: Inventing Revolution at the Bastille.” Theory and Society 25:841-881.


Ermakoff, Ivan. 2015. “The Structure of Contigency.” American Journal of Sociology 121:64-125.

(wilbert) #3

For a long time, I am thinking of writing a book about the most famous meetings in human history. This Russian one might be one of them. Does anybody has suggestions which other famous meetings have to be considered?

(Christoph Haug) #4

Here is another one about that:

2007). The night of August 4, 1789: A study of social interaction in collective decision-making. Revue européenne des sciences sociales, 45(1), 71–94.

The funny thing is that these meetings are often not so famous… (As David’s presentation illustrated.)

The question is also what kind of meetings would qualify… For example, when I watched a documentary about the history of Canada, I noticed at least two meetings that seemed pivotal for the history of the country. One took place long before Canada was founded. Unfortunately I don’t recall when it was and what exactly happened there, but it was between the French settlers and several native tribes (if you know which one I mean, please let me know!). And the other one was the Quebec Conference in 1864 which layed the foundation of what today is Canada.

But would it be relevant for your book? Is it more important that, for example, the Wannsee conference, where the Nazis decided the so called “Endlösung”?

(Elise Keith) #5

Would they need to be meetings with recorded minutes? What scope do you have in mind?

When we first started Lucid, we had this idea that we’d do a promotional video series of dramatic re-enactments for famous meetings in history. Things like:

  • When the senators decided to assassinate Ceasar
  • the signing of the Magna Carta
  • The decision to fund Columbus
  • Napolean’s generals planning the march into Russia
  • The go for launch decision for the Challenger (this one is documented)
  • Drafting the US declaration of Independence

We realized that almost all the critical turning points in history can be marked by a pivotal meeting where things come to a head, and the key players decide on a course of action with fateful ramifications. There are also a lot of business related examples. Actors who didn’t get the big part, or did, and their lives changed. Investors who ignored the warning signs of the subprime mortgage market and lost it all when the market crashed. The movies are full of famous meeting scenes. What if Han Solo turned down Luke and Obi Wan when they met to negotiate passage out of Tatooine? So many famous meetings… :slight_smile:

(Elise Keith) #6

Another example: if you watch the movie The Big Short, it’s essentially a dramatized series of meetings. This reinforces Patrick Lencioni’s pitch that every good meeting needs a touch of drama.

Movies about meetings
(David Gibson) #7

The trick is determining when a meeting is consequential and when it’s incidental. And under “consequential” there are two more options: (1) the meeting was a conduit for forces that would have played themselves out the same way eventually; and (2) the meeting unfolded in such a way as to produce that outcome but could have easily unfolded differently, with different consequences for history. This is something I struggled with (I think successfully!) in my work on the Cuban missile crisis, and something I’ve tussled with Diana Vaughan (who wrote the big Challenger book) about.

(Elise Keith) #8

Interesting distinction! I’m not sure that “incidental” feels quite right, though. In the Challenger example, there was certainly more than one meeting and factor in play, but I believe that’s always the case. Meetings become catalytic when the timing is right, and I think that makes it more than incidental in many situations. Because while the conditions for a precipitous change may be present for a while, and emerging through a complex web of interactions, there is still something important about the moment when fuel and an igniter meet to create that spark. The moment of decision changes history. I think this is why so many business guru types, personal coaches, and religions all end up talking about the right way to make decisions. In the group context, the moment of decision is often a meeting.
So maybe not incidental, but often largely inevitable? Or predictable? I guess that’s semantics, though. I can see how writing about the “consequential” meetings would make for more interesting research, because if I understand you right, those are the ones that can make for surprise twists and cliffhangers!

(David Gibson) #9

Some have argued that the ExComm meetings during the Cuban missile crisis were superfluous as Kennedy had already made up his mind what to do. It’s hard to square that with the facts but regardless it illustrates the “meetings are incidental” argument.

(Christoph Haug) #10

Is that tussle documented, by any chance?

(William E. Christwitz) #11

Often the most aggressive and least collaborative leaders step in, when those who have tried to be democratic have failed to effectively govern well. Then different forms of social dysfunction take over for awhile and then Glasnost, etc. Russia did not yet know how to operate without a Czar, so they got Lenin and Stalin. One lesson: We need to learn better meeting skills, so that there is less need for insensitive manipulators and dominators.

(Christoph Haug) #12

I think the lesson from the OP is rather that we don’t know whether Russia was ready or not because it didn’t get a chance to try. The point Per is trying to make in his analysis is that there was, at least at some point, a will and opportunity to form a government that would have represented the vast majority of the people but because of how the meeting went (not because Russia wasn’t ready) it didn’t happen.

(David Gibson) #13

I’m afraid not! It started with my critique of her claim that the meeting outcome was predetermined, in the first chapter of my book. Emails were exchanged.

(jsandler) #14

Here’s a link to a New York Times analysis of a meeting that may prove historic

(David Gibson) #15

Some among us would say that two people are not enough for a meeting! That could play into the hands of the Republicans.

(Christoph Haug) #16

I thought the same, but then I read this and was relieved :stuck_out_tongue:

Team Trump and the Kremlin-Linked Lawyer

The Times reported that Donald Trump Jr. had set up a meeting during the campaign with a Kremlin-connected lawyer and that he had asked Mr. Kushner, along with the campaign chief Paul Manafort, to attend. That disclosure was based in part on a newly filed security clearance form on which Mr. Kushner listed the Russian lawyer’s name. Mr. Trump told The Times that the meeting had been primarily about a ban on adoptions by American families of Russian children. He did not respond to questions about why he thought it necessary for both Mr. Kushner and Mr. Manafort to attend.

(Elise Keith) #17

I believe the investigators, in this case, will agree with those of us who say two people is plenty. Especially if those two people declare themselves to be in a meeting. :grinning: