Book review from the July 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard
The Russian Revolution in Retreat, 1920-24. Soviet workers and the new communist elite. By Simon Pirani, Routledge, 2008.
One of the consequences of the fall of state capitalism in the USSR at the beginning of the 90s has been the opening up of the archives of the old regime, including those of its secret police. This book is a fascinating study, based on the minutes of meetings of soviets and factory committees as well as police reports, of the fight put up by factory workers in Moscow in the period 1920-24 to defend their interests under, and at times against, the Bolshevik government. Pirani also describes the beginnings of the emergence of members of the Bolshevik Party as a new, privileged elite.
In 1920 and 1921 during the civil war and its immediate aftermath, conditions in Russia were dire. Workers were paid in kind, but the rations often arrived late and were sometimes reduced. This led to protests and strikes, which the Bolshevik government was prepared to accommodate as long as these were purely economic and did not challenge their rule. The government was particularly edgy in 1921 at the time of the Krondstadt Revolt, whose demands for free elections to the soviets and a relaxation of the ban on private trading, had the sympathy of many workers. In fact, in the still not entirely unfree elections, to the local soviets that year members of other parties (Mensheviks, Socialist-Revolutionaries, anarchists) and non-party militants made gains at the expense of the Bolsheviks. Pirani concentrates on these “non-partyists” who seemed to have been factory militants who wanted to concentrate on economic issues, but with an acute understanding of the balance of forces and what could extracted from the government.
In 1923 the government cracked down on the other parties, including their factory activists, and stopped them carrying out any open activity. Pirani notes that “no non-communist political organization worked openly in Moscow again until the end of the Soviet period”. The non-partyists survived a little longer while the Bolsheviks tried to co-opt them into their party. What political opposition there was was confined to dissident Bolsheviks, inside and outside the party, some of whom adopted a pro-working class stand over wages and conditions, but eventually they too were silenced and many of them joined the members of the other parties in the labour camps of Central Asia and Siberia.
Lenin’s attitude was typical of the one he had displayed twenty years earlier in his notorious pamphlet What Is To Be Done? : that workers were not to be trusted to know their own best interest; judging this had to be left to an intellectual elite organised as a vanguard party. Pirani summarises part of Lenin’s speech to the 11th Bolshevik Party Congress in 1921:
“Lenin argued that the Russian working class could not be regarded as properly proletarian. ‘Often when people say ‘workers’, they think that that means the factory proletariat. It certainly doesn’t’, he said. The working class that Marx had written about did not exist in Russia, Lenin claimed. ‘Wherever you look, those in the factories are not the proletariat, but casual elements of all kinds.’”
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 cannot be trusted) and the “proletariat” (organised in a vanguard party who know best) has been inherited by all Leninist groups ever since and used to justify the dictatorship of the party over the working class.
Pirani’s book should be read by those who think, or who want to refute, that the state in Russia under the Bolsheviks could ever have been described as “workers”. The workers there always had to try to defend their wages and conditions against it, even in the time of Lenin and Trotsky.