The Russian Revolution in Retreat

review by Samuel Farber

Posted September 2, 2008

The Russian Revolution in Retreat, 1920-24
Soviet Workers and the New Communist Elite
by Simon Pirani
London and New York: Routledge, 2008,
312 pages, hardcover $160.

THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN “Leninism” and Stalinism has been a highly controversial topic between the political left and right as well as within the left itself. The “totalitarian” school of thought, historically associated with the political right and with many liberals, has held that there are no qualitative differences between the two regimes and that the main source of Stalinism was the Bolshevik ideology and politics that existed before the October Revolution.

Going a step further, thinkers such as the philosopher Karl Popper, and contemporary East European liberals such as Adam Michnik, have contended that totalitarianism is the inevitable end result of any uncompromising ideology and political practice that attempts to reshape society as a whole.

Marxist historians, such as Isaac Deutscher, have expounded an alternative view according to which Leninism and Stalinism were different political regimes. The undemocratic practices of Lenin’s government, however deplorable, are seen as the result of objective, inescapable historical circumstances with no viable alternative options.

The book under review presents a third position. According to author Simon Pirani, although certain aspects of Bolshevik ideology “played a crucial part in weakening and undermining the revolution, that ideology itself was powerfully impacted by social changes over which it [the Bolshevik government] had little control, and to whose operation it often blinded itself.” (236)

Pirani’s work focuses on the issue of soviet and workplace democracy and is based on an exhaustive investigation of archival materials concerning Moscow, including the Communist Party, the Cheka-GPU, and workplace organizations, particularly the AMO car factory and the Bromlei machine building works. Pirani was also able to use an unpublished working class interview project started by Maksim Gor’kii but scrapped abruptly in 1938. (17) The richness of detail and originality of Pirani’s research is remarkable.

Pirani’s conclusion is similar to mine in Before Stalinism. The Rise and Fall of Soviet Democracy (Verso, 1990.) There, I argued that although there were major qualitative differences between Leninism in Power (a term I use to differentiate between Leninism before and after the revolution) and Stalinism, Leninism in Power harmed workers’ democracy for reasons that could not be simply reduced to “objective necessity,” and seriously weakened the possibilities of successful resistance to Stalinism.

My book was based on a detailed review of the voluminous English language literature on the subject and covered topics ranging from the decline of democracy in the soviets to issues such as workers’ control, union independence, freedom of the press, and the legal system.

The Working Class in Reality

One of Pirani’s major achievements in this excellent book is that he convincingly refutes Deutscher’s claim that by the end of the Civil War the working class had been “pulverized” and that “the proletarian dictatorship was triumphant but the proletariat had nearly vanished.” (22) Thus, Pirani shows that although between 1917 and 1920 the number of industrial workers in Moscow fell by approximately half, to about 200,000, the number of white collar and service workers fell only slightly, to about 220,000 people.

Pirani points out that the shrinkage in the industrial work force was uneven, with greater reductions in the metalworking, food processing and textile industries, and a smaller shrinkage in the garment and chemical industries. He also shows that despite its numerical decline and the problems brought about by the Civil War, the workers’ movement in Moscow continued to be active in political and industrial struggles. (22-23) Much of this activity was critical of the government, if not outright oppositionist, and was usually animated by a general concern about inequality in society and by specific left wing demands such as a greater equalization of rations.

Pirani points out that many Communist workers critical of the government acknowledged that Soviet Russia’s poverty made impossible the implementation of egalitarian principles in society as a whole, but contended that an authentic communist party should strive for equality, at least among party members. Pirani writes that it was precisely the regime’s failure to ensure equality at least among Communists that led one Vladimir Petrzhek, a member of the AMO car factory party cell, to resign from it in June 1922. (This episode is also reviewed in Pirani’s article “Notes from a Revolution Dying,” ATC 134, May-June 2008.)

Pirani describes how workers were often irritated by the arrogance and arbitrariness of the authorities and channeled their discontent and criticisms in various ways, including electing to the factory committees and soviets “non-party” workers, some of whom had roots in other left-wing parties. Thus 25% of the people elected in the Moscow soviet elections of April 1921 were “non-partyists,” including the representatives of most big factories, something that the hierarchy of the Bolshevik party in Moscow saw as a disaster.

The Bolshevik leadership were even more alarmed that they were able to obtain 73% of the delegates only by heavily relying on the support of the white collar and service workers. (98) Pirani further shows how in the AMO car factory, the “non-partyist” group, mostly composed  of older, skilled workers, came together in late 1920, and between February and April 1921 swept the board in elections to the factory committee, the Moscow soviet and the district soviet.

It is clear that sentiments of discontent and opposition were widespread and affected the members of the Communist Party itself. How else to explain Smilga and Trotsky’s remarkable assessment that 30% of Communist Party members in Kronstadt supported the rebellion in March, 1921 while 40% remained neutral and only 30% supported the government? (85) (Kronstadt was a vitally important naval fortress protecting Petrograd. A sailors’ revolt there fuelled by intolerable economic conditions, especially for the peasantry from which many of the sailors came, as well as both worker and peasant political discontent, was suppressed by the Bolshevik government with heavy loss of life on both sides.)

I think that even more important than the Kronstadt rebellion was the urban strike movement that spread across Russia in February 1921, shortly before the rebellion broke out in the northern port. In Petrograd, this strike movement developed in late February and was centered in several metal plants, tobacco and shoe factories, shipyards and drydocks.

Initially the strikes put forward primarily economic demands but later on, the workers began to raise demands that were primarily political in content. Among these were the removal of special squads of armed Bolsheviks from the factories and the restoration of political and civil rights. The working-class unrest in Petrograd had been preceded by a similar development in Moscow, where a strike wave engulfed a number of its major factories in the metal, chemical, printing, and garment industries.

The newly resurgent Mensheviks played a significant role in these developments although not at all in the Kronstadt rebellion, since the latter ran against their strategy of non-violent opposition to the government. But not only did the Mensheviks get a new lease of life during this period. The Communist Party itself witnessed the emergence of various internal important opposition groups such as the Workers’ Opposition and the Democratic Centralists.

Pirani’s work is especially useful in describing some of the various left opposition groups, which to a considerable extent drew on oppositionists leaving or being expelled from the ruling Communist Party.

Among these he describes the Ignatov group, the Bauman group, named after the Moscow district of the same name, Vasilii Paniushkin’s Workers and Peasants Socialist Party, and the Workers Group and Workers Truth Group. (64, 65, 118, 127-8) Pirani points out that the last two groups were virtually destroyed by GPU arrests in September 1923, a rather typical political occurrence at the time.

Repression and “Social Contract”

Another major contribution of Pirani’s book is that it shows that it was not only repression that kept the Communist Party in power. He describes how governmental repression played a major role in silencing, isolating and expelling from work centers members of rival working-class left-wing organizations, and purging unions with dissident communist, Menshevik, and SR leaderships. This repression was primarily conducted by the Secret Police (Cheka) which was responsible not to the revolutionary courts, justice ministry, or to workers’ organizations, but only to party committees. (38, 172)

On the other hand, however, the government managed to neutralize if not retain the passive support of the working class. This was achieved on the basis of a new strategy made possible by the gradual economic recuperation of the country and the consequent steady rise in real wages and improved living standards in the period 1922 to 1927.

Pirani argues that an implicit pact was established, where workers traded off their power and broad political autonomy in exchange for material improvements and a limited degree of room for working class pressure. As he describes it, “the party had defined a framework for industrial conflict: the exact terms of the social contract (i.e. living standards) could be haggled over, but the basis of it (workers’ surrender of political power) could not.” (200)

In this way, for example, a fragmented strike movement in Moscow was able to win some concessions from the authorities in 1923. Another critically important part of this new government strategy was the replacement of mass autonomous decision making by the government’s attempt to foster mass participation without mass control. (141) As a result of this strategy, by the end of 1921, the Moscow soviet was near death as it was turned into a supervisory body for municipal administration where even party delegates did not show up at the plenary sessions. Meanwhile, political decisions became the province of party bodies (106) Mass meetings changed from sites of heated debates into gatherings for routine approval of standard resolutions. (151)

Not surprisingly, Pirani points out that this new strategy led to a dramatic rise of working-class abstention and apathy. At election meetings, workers were either silent or did not show up at all. Bolshevik candidates were often elected at meetings without a word of discussion. Pirani describes one instance, in the 1922 soviet elections at the Guzhon steelworks in Moscow, where a list of Bolshevik candidates was elected to the local soviet with very revealing results: 100 votes in favor, two against and about 1900 abstentions. (155)

It is worth noting that the government was following a remarkably similar strategy with the peasantry. With the end of forced requisitions of food and the establishment of the tax in kind in 1921, the Bolshevik leadership through its New Economic Policy (NEP) achieved considerable success in quieting peasant discontent that had recently manifested itself in massive rebellions in Tambov, Ukraine and other rural areas. Again, the same tradeoff was clear: the peasants were allowed to cultivate the land on their own, to trade freely and improve their standard of living provided they kept quiet and stopped making political trouble for the authorities.

“True Members” of the Working Class

For Pirani, such a change in the relations between the Bolsheviks and the working class, and I would argue the peasantry too, could not but have a major effect on the Bolsheviks themselves. He describes how the increasing distrust of the working class led the Bolshevik leadership to redefine who was to be considered a “true member” of that class. Membership in the working class became increasingly seen not in terms of people’s objective position in the economy as wage earners, but in terms of the types of workers the Bolshevik leadership considered “truly proletarian” and, by implication, more likely to be in political agreement with the government.

As we saw earlier, soviet elections did not necessarily live up to the Bolshevik leadership’s expectations about the political behavior of different types of workers. In the case of the unemployed, some Bolsheviks encouraged their organization. However, as Pirani points out, “this clashed with prevalent party opinion, which held that many of the jobless — for example, women, young workers and recent migrants — were less proletarian than others, and that such organization was permissible only within strictly predetermined limits.” (160)

The concern with the “dilution” of the working class by “non-proletarians” led to the exclusion from the unions of “semi-proletarian elements” such as handicraftsmen, seasonal workers and those who had lost their jobs in the first round of NEP redundancies. Along the same lines, the metalworkers’ union excluded from membership workers who supplemented their wages from a home workshop, while one union official even argued that a worker whose wife ran a market stall, or sold soft drinks, and paid a home help, were clear candidates for expulsion. (159)

Moreover, by the end of 1920, one-man management had been established in 86% of enterprises, thus eliminating the principle of workers’ control. (57) Regarding the political organization of the party and the government, a hierarchical structure and the systematic appointment of officials controlled by the Central Committee secretariat had begun to be created in 1922 and 1923, and contained a middle layer of officials that reached down into the factory cells. (170, 232)

This secretariat had grown from a staff of only 30 people in February 1919 to 150 in March 1920 and 602 in the year up to March 1921. The principle of appointments by the bureaucratic apparatus rather than by elections spread throughout Soviet Russia, culminating in the birth of the infamous Nomenclature — lists of state and party appointments that required central approval — in late 1923 and early 1924. (170)

After Lenin died in January of 1924, the party organized the “Lenin levy,” a massive recruitment campaign which greatly facilitated the bureaucracy’s control of malleable and obedient new members. Substantial numbers of these new recruits lacked the independence of mind of the more politically experienced party cadre, many of whom had participated in the October Revolution and the Civil War. (172)

The Possibility of Choices

Was there a possible political alternative to this general scenario or was it, as Deutscher and many Trotskyists and leftists have contended, a tragic situation where Lenin and the Bolshevik leadership had no other choices available?

Pirani seems somewhat ambivalent about this question. On one hand, he says that if the Bolshevik leadership had reinvigorated soviet democracy and legalized the other socialist parties, it is “unlikely that such choices would have greatly altered the course of Russian history.” (240) For him, the failure of the workers’ movements to produce revolutionary change outside Russia and the poor economic conditions existing in the country prevented any positive outcome to the Revolution. (240)

On the other hand, he allows for the possibility that had the government pursued different choices in 1921, “different types of resistance to the reimposition of exploitative class relations and the establishment of dictatorship” could have occurred. (241)

It was precisely this last consideration that led me to suggest an alternative political scenario in Before Stalinism. It is a political scenario that would have accompanied the New Economic Policy (NEP) that was inaugurated in 1921.

This would have involved the legalization of all parties and political groups willing to accept, and pledge loyalty to, the Soviet system of government. The government would have also immediately closed all punitive labor camps, placed the secret police under strict judicial control, and declared an immediate amnesty for all people imprisoned for nonviolent political offenses.

In 2007, Alexander Rabinowitch, the historian who wrote the classic The Bolsheviks Come to Power, published The Bolsheviks in Power focusing on the first year of revolutionary rule in Petrograd. Like Pirani, Rabinowitch described numerous instances of the Bolshevik leadership’s undemocratic practices that could not be justified by the objective situation at hand. Rabinowitch also showed that there were ample sectors on the left outside the Bolshevik party that were loyal to the soviet system.

This indicates to me that there was a real possibility for the political opening I just described. Of course, as time went by, incarceration, deportation and the other repressive actions taken by the government increasingly limited the time frame and window of opportunity for such an initiative.

Like the NEP, this alternative political policy could have also been used as an attempt to buy time in the hope of further improvements in the Russian economy and of the longer-term prospects of a revolution breaking out in the economically developed countries in Western Europe.

In 1921 and 1922, such a policy could have led to the Bolsheviks being voted out of power. The Bolshevik government could have then insisted on a number of minimum conditions preserving the major gains of the October Revolution before agreeing to such a transfer of power.

The Bolsheviks also would have had a legitimate and vital interest in assuring, as a minimum, the physical integrity of its members and supporters, the party’s freedom to organize politically, especially in relation to the support of revolutionary movements abroad, and the prevention of chaos in the country at large. Such a move would not have been totally unprecedented. After all, in September of 1917, although under different circumstances, Lenin had expressed a willingness to support a government of SRs and Mensheviks exclusively responsible to the soviets, with the Bolsheviks remaining outside, retaining full organizational freedom for propaganda and agitation.

The alternative was the steady bureaucratic degeneration of the revolution, and the increasing alienation of the state’s political leadership from the mass of the population.

Unjustified Monopoly of Power

After April 1917, the Bolsheviks insisted, against the Mensheviks and the right wing of the Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs), that although Russia was not economically ready for socialism, there were real possibilities for revolution in Russia as well as in the economically advanced countries of Western Europe. They held that these victorious revolutions in Western Europe would come to the aid of the workers’ and peasants’ republic in Russia, thus making the “revolutionary gamble” of October 1917 both necessary and justified.

The shift of the Comintern towards the United Front strategy in the early twenties indicated that the Russian leadership no longer saw revolution in Western Europe as a short-term possibility. Thus, the necessary gamble had been taken and lost. That means that after 1921, a new political as well as an economic orientation, was in order.

After the end of the Civil War, the peasantry was quite alienated from the government and its support among workers was precarious at best. The Communist Party was left ruling a country without a firm and significant social base of support. It is not surprising that it resorted, in the economic front, to a strategy of toleration, hoping to elicit, in return, a similar toleration from the peasantry and the working class.

On the political front, however, the regime chose instead bureaucratic administrative means and police repression to continue its monopolistic hold on power, a far cry from the workers’ and peasants’ republic it had envisaged in October of 1917. It was also clear that any turn for the worse in the economic situation, which was inevitably bound to happen sooner or later, would leave the government with purely repressive means to maintain itself in power.

For these reasons, while there are qualitative differences between Stalinism and Leninism in Power, it was the latter regime that politically disarmed the working class and the peasantry and made them unable to resist the onslaught of Stalinism. It is clear that after 1921 there was no longer, if there ever was, a socialist and Marxist justification for the Bolshevik monopoly of power.

It could be argued that this is a position benefiting from hindsight, based on historical experiences that were not available to Lenin and the mainstream Bolshevik leadership. Such criticism could be valid depending on what the contemporary socialist critic is trying to accomplish.

If the purpose is to draw the appropriate lesson from the degeneration of the October Revolution for the benefit of our present political ideas and practices, then hindsight is not only valid but necessary.It allows us to foresee with much greater clarity dangers that could not have been anticipated by the historical actors of the 1920s.

On the other hand, if what the critic is trying to accomplish is to evaluate the political record of Leninism in Power in its own terms, then the problem of hindsight has to be handled with great care and with a much stricter evaluative criteria. Even then, there is a lot of criticism that can still be legitimately raised about the political record of Leninism in Power.

Thus, for example, even if one were to grant that every single violation of democracy was justified by the dire economic, military and political situation confronting Lenin and the Bolshevik leadership, it is necessary to take note of the general tendency of that leadership to make a virtue out of necessity. This was not just a problem of a temporary rhetorical “bending of the stick,” but of converting emergency measures that were politically dangerous into permanent political and institutional features of the post-revolutionary state.

For either of these two purposes, looking back or ahead, Pirani’s valuable work is indispensable.