Adam Ford reviews The Russian Revolution in Retreat, 1920-24. Soviet workers and the new communist elite, by Simon Pirani, Routledge, 2008.
“I cannot be that sort of idealist communist who believes in the new God That They Call The State, bows before the bureaucracy that is so far from the working people, and waits for communism from the hands of pen-pushers and officials as though it was the kingdom of heaven.” - excerpt from the resignation letter of a Bolshevik Party member
Within what is usually labelled ‘the left’, your answer to the question ‘When did the Russian revolution go wrong?’ is a kind of touchstone. Each organisation seems to have its own One True Answer, and giving the wrong response at the wrong meeting can earn you the kind of scorn that the very religious reserve for those whose beliefs differ ever so slightly from theirs. Cue many weary Life of Brian jokes.
To outsiders – those semi-mythical ‘normal’ people who go to work, pay their bills, and never worry about such things – this seems absurd, and of course in some ways it is. After all, we are now in 2010, getting on for a century since the capture of the Winter Palace, an event which took place in a largely feudal country. In the UK, we live in a capitalist economy so advanced that it has gone post-industrial, where much of the dirty work has been farmed out to countries where they’ll do it much cheaper. And with instantaneous international communication tracking ‘just in time’ production, it makes much more sense to think of a global proletariat. So why all this focus on Russia?
Well, it’s important precisely because theoretical perspectives were developed in response to events in Russia, and later the Soviet Union, Maoist China, Cuba, and the Eastern Bloc. Broadly speaking, Trotskyism was born in 1923, when Trotsky became unofficial leader of the Left Opposition to Stalin and the ‘troika’. Following this, Stalinism would be understood as the belief that socialism could be built in one economically backward country, whether or not revolution broke out elsewhere. From these beginnings, socialist parties in the UK and around the world justified their own organisational structures and prescriptions for revolution in reference to Moscow.
But there is another argument, which stands in opposition to Trotsky, Stalin, Lenin, and all the other Bolshevik leaders. It’s an argument that’s guaranteed to wind up anyone who puts any two of those three on a pedestal, and it runs like this: the Russian revolution went wrong when the Bolsheviks seized power from the workers. This is the view of Simon Pirani.
In the author’s own words: “This book argues that the working class was politically expropriated by the Bolshevik Party, as democratic bodies such as Soviets and factory committees were deprived of decision making power; it examines how the new Soviet ruling class began to take shape.” Making extensive use of the Russian regime’s archives – including reports by the Cheka (secret police) – Pirani has compiled a three hundred page study of a critical period in the Russian revolution, between the tail end of the Civil War against ‘White’ European-backed pro-Tsarist forces, and the Josef Stalin’s final rise to power, following the death of Lenin. He shows how Moscow factory workers defended their interests, sometimes by working with, and sometimes struggling against the Bolshevik government.
Pirani’s choice of these years as the focus of his study is an interesting one. He acknowledges that times would inevitably be tough for labourers during the Civil War, with Russia under siege: “Indeed, under these conditions of desperate shortage, labour could only be alienated labour, and on that basis social relationships were formed that could only be exploitative.” But then there were three years and two months between the final defeat of Baron Wrangel’s Whites and the death of Lenin. Pirani demonstrates that these were not times when workers’ control of the economy was strengthened – on the contrary, it was severely weakened, in the aftermath of the New Economic Policy (NEP) and the ‘social contract’ to increase industrial productivity.
By 1920, the ‘Red Terror’ was in full swing – a campaign of mass arrests and executions targeting those deemed to be enemies of the revolution. These included White agents, but also deserting soldiers and striking workers at the Putilov factory – two hundred of whom were killed by the state’s security agents.
It seems reasonable that having achieved revolution, and expropriated the bourgeoisie, the working class would want to use force against counter-revolutionary elements. Such ideas were entirely in line with Marxist ideas about the “dictatorship of the proletariat”. But already it was clear that the Cheka operated outside of working class control, and were often used on workers struggling for rations. Whereas Marx had promoted the 1871 Paris Commune as the best example of how proletarian dictatorship would work, neither the Chekists nor their bosses were “chosen by universal suffrage”, or “responsible” to workers, nor, “revocable at short terms”. Already, a party bureaucracy was forming which was largely unaccountable to the people it claimed to speak for, and this bureaucracy had its own brutal secret police.
For Pirani, “No trace remained in Bolshevik practice of the ideas, widely discussed in 1917-18, that repression of the revolution’s enemies, like other aspects of policy, was an issue subject to decision by the masses of the revolution’s participants. The arbitrary exercise of power by party bodies and the Cheka, often justified during the civil war on military grounds, continued in 1920.”
In their review of The Russian Revolution in Retreat, the Trotskyists of the Permanent Revolution group uphold the Cheka as a necessary defence against “opponents of Soviet power amongst the aristocracy, bourgeoisie and officer corps and of the anti-Soviet parties”, whilst also admitting that “repression was also directed at the pro-Soviet parties, the Left SRs and anarchists who had supported the July coup attempt”.
But why would working people support a coup attempt against what was supposed to be their own government? Perhaps because they were trying to protect their own interests! For the Bolshevik leadership and the Cheka, they did so because they were ‘unconscious’, or even ‘bandits’. Working people supposedly didn’t know what was good for them, and Pirani comments that “the practical consequence of this was that political decision-making had to be concentrated in the party”. This distinction between the actual working class (who could not be trusted) and the “proletariat” (organised in a vanguard party who know best) has been inherited by all Trotskyist and Leninist groups ever since, and used to justify the proposed dictatorship of the party over the working class.
The 1921 Bolshevik Party Congress proved to be another turning point. While factions that had supported greater worker control over production were banned, proposals were drawn up to improve production. But the Congress was punctuated by perhaps the most (in)famous showdown between Lenin’s government and workers in struggle, at the Kronstadt naval fortress. Sixty thousand Red Army soldiers were sent into battle against around fifteen thousand sailors, soldiers and civilians, who were demanding new elections to the soviets, freedom of speech and the press for workers, peasants, anarchists and other left critics of the Bolsheviks, as well as the release of political prisoners, and several other demands. In many ways, the defeat of Kronstadt was a deathblow to the idea that workers’ councils would have power over the centre, and it was quickly followed by an important change in Bolshevik strategy – the New Economic Policy.
Pirani could reasonably be criticised for not describing the workings of the NEP in enough detail. In short, it allowed small businesses and shops to operate on a private basis, while the state maintained control of the banks and big industries. Some foreign – i.e. capitalist – investment would be soon encouraged, in order to speed up the industrialisation of the economy.
But for Pirani’s purposes, it seems that the NEP’s effects – on the structure of the Bolshevik Party, and workers’ fingernail grip on control – were more important than its details. He describes how a “new party elite” was effectively created, as “workers turned administrators, together with soldiers turned administrators and administrators turned Bolsheviks, formed the majority of the party.” A picture emerges of a party that was increasingly bureaucratic, in the original sense. That is to say, rule by the party office, and not by the factory floor, sailors’ garrison, or wherever else working class people were found. In this period, the Party became “an administrative machine for implementing decisions taken at the top.” However, workers generally accepted this on the basis of a social contract: better living standards would result from increased labour discipline, productivity, and surrender of political power. In Pirani’s words, “Workers benefited from this set-up – most significantly by regaining, and starting to surpass, the living standards achieved on the eve of the First World War. But the quid pro quo for this was the surrender of political power to the party.”
From here on in, Pirani’s analysis of the revolution’s decay has much in common with that of Trotsky himself, in The Revolution Betrayed. Bureaucrats now enjoyed significant material privileges, which were extremely important in the context of a very poor society. Party functionaries were appointed by the Central Committee. The material interests of the bureaucrats were increasingly served by exploitation of the masses. The significant difference between Pirani and Trotsky’s accounts is that Trotsky saw the introduction of NEP as the beginning of the end (it certainly was for him), whereas Pirani views the entirety of Bolshevik rule as constituting the expropriation of the toilers.
In one sense, The Russian Revolution in Retreat isn’t anything particularly new; anarchists Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman had both written of their disillusionment in Russia by 1925. Where Pirani does break new ground is by using the secret police’s own files against them, ironically giving a voice to hecklers at the back of rooms, using the notes of those who would silence them
One thing is beyond dispute: the Russian revolution was not the first link in a world proletarian uprising, though many genuinely believed it was at the time. It’s not helpful to reach back into history and start pointing fingers, but then this is not what Pirani does. As a Marxist, he tries to analyse the contending social forces, and explain why events happened the way they did, so:
“The rolling-back of socialist aspects of the revolution, and the advance of Stalinism, were conditioned by many powerful factors over which the Bolsheviks had no control: the failure of the workers’ movements at the end of the First World War to produce revolutionary change outside Russia; the economic conditions in Russia that were unfavourable for socialist experiments; and the economic imperatives that drove Russia forward to industrialization.”
In order to defend their perspectives and positions, socialist parties omit many of these vital stories from their official narrative, in a blatant violation of Marxism. Even when events such as the repression of left oppositionists and anarchists are raised, they are normally treated as mistakes, or – as the International Socialism review puts it, being rather “heavy-handed”. But why were these decisions taken? It seems that some writers are Marxist right up to the point where they are called upon to analyse their revolutionary heroes.
The best Marxist writing is so valuable because it provides a framework for understanding individuals and their acts, placing them in the context of the social forces acting upon that person. However, defenders of leading Bolsheviks often place their heroes above social forces to a certain extent. Though this reaches its most finished expression in Stalinist apologias, it is certainly present in reviews of Pirani’s book from various parties proclaiming themselves the heirs to Trotsky. And while Trotskyists would not explicitly label Lenin or Trotsky as supermen, they ask us to believe that for once in history, men with authority over working class people knew their interests better than they did, and acted out of something approaching selflessness. This is the warped logic at the heart of all ‘vanguardist’ theories, and Pirani picks it apart with some precision.
But how does this help us in the here and now? We are in the midst of a societal collapse, which is compelling working class people to struggle for survival on a global scale. Perhaps it shows us that a united working class must come to recognise itself through that struggle, and then begin to organise the world economy in its own interests. Perhaps it goes some way to showing that communism can only come from below, as a conscious movement of the working class to free itself. Sadly, twentieth century Russia was neither the time, nor the place, for that to happen.