The Communist Left in Russia, 1918-1930, Part 1

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When one talks about the revolutionary opposition to the degeneration of the revolution in Russia, or of the Communist International, it is generally assumed that one is referring to the Left Opposition led by Trotsky and other Bolshevik leaders. The wholly inadequate criticisms of the degeneration made after much delay by those who had played an active part in that degeneration are taken to be the be all and end all of communist opposition inside Russia or the International. The much deeper and more consistent critique elaborated by the ‘left wing communists' long before the Left Opposition came into existence in 1923 is either ignored or dismissed as the ravings of sectarian lunatics cut off from the ‘real world'. This distortion of the past is simply an expression of the long ascendancy of the counter-revolution since the years of the revolutionary struggle ended in the 1920s. It is always in the interests of the capitalist counter-revolution to hide or distort the genuinely revolutionary history of the working class and its communist minorities, because only in this way can the bourgeoisie hope to obscure the historic nature of the proletariat as the class that is destined to lead mankind into the reign of freedom.

Against this distortion of the past revolutionaries must reaffirm and re-examine the historic struggles of the proletariat; not out of an archivist's interest in history, but because the past experience of the class forms and unbreakable chain with its present and future experience, and only by understanding the past can the present and the future also be understood and outlined. We hope that this study of the communist left in Russia will help to reclaim an important chapter in the history of the communist movement from the distortions of bourgeois history, whether academic or leftist. But more important we hope that it will serve to clarify some of the lessons that emerge out of the struggles, failures and victories of the Russian left, lessons that have a vital role to play in the reconstitution of the communist movement today.


"In Russia the problem could only be posed. It could not be solved in Russia". (Rosa Luxemburg, in The Russian Revolution.)

In the wake of the counter-revolution which inundated the world after the revolutionary years of 1917-23, a myth grew up around Bolshevism, portraying it as a specific product of Russian ‘backwardness' and Asiatic barbarism. Remnants of the German and Dutch left communists, profoundly demoralised by the degeneration and death of the revolution in Russia, regressed to the semi-Menshevik position that the bourgeois development of Russia in the twenties and thirties was inevitable, because Russia had been unripe for communism; and Bolshevism was defined as an ideology of the ‘intelligentsia' who had sought only the capitalist modernisation of Russia and who had thus carried through a ‘bourgeois' or ‘state-capitalist' revolution in place of an impotent bourgeoisie, basing itself on an immature proletariat.

This whole theory was a total revision of the genuinely proletariat character of the Russian Revolution and of Bolshevism, and a repudiation by many left communists of their own participation in the heroic events that began in October 1917. But like all myths, it contained a grain of truth. While fundamentally a product of international conditions, the workers' movement also contains certain specificities arising out of particular national-historic conditions. Today, for example, it is not by accident that the re-emerging communist movement is strongest in the countries of Western Europe and far weaker, indeed almost non-existent, in the countries of the Eastern bloc. This is a product of the specific manner in which the historic events of the last fifty years have unfolded, in particular the way in which the capitalist counter-revolution has organised itself in different countries. Similarly, when we examine the revolutionary movement in Russia prior to and following the October insurrection: while its essence can only be grasped by considering it in the context of the international workers' movement, certain of its strengths and weaknesses can be linked to the particular conditions then prevailing in Russia.

In many ways, the weaknesses of the Russian revolutionary movement were simply the other side of the coin of its strengths. The ability of the Russian proletariat to move very quickly towards a revolutionary solution to its problems was largely determined by the nature of the Tsarist regime. Authoritarian, decrepit, incapable of erecting any stable ‘buffers' between itself and the proletarian menace, the Tsarist system ensured that any attempt of the proletariat to defend itself would immediately bring itself up against the repressive forces of the state. The Russian proletariat, young but highly combative and concentrated, was neither given the time nor the political space to develop a reformist mentality which could lead it to identify the defence of its immediate material interests with the survival of its ‘motherland'. It was thus far easier for the Russian proletariat to refuse all identification with the Tsarist war-effort after 1914, and to see the destruction of the Tsarist political apparatus as a precondition for its advance in 1917. Very broadly, and without trying to make too mechanical a connection between the Russian proletariat and its revolutionary minorities, these strengths of the Russian class were one of the factors which allowed the Bolsheviks to stand at the head of the world revolutionary movement both in 1914 and in 1917, with their ringing denunciation of the war and their uncompromising advocacy of the need to smash the machinery of the bourgeois state.

But as we have said, these strengths were also weaknesses: the immaturity of the Russian proletariat, its lack of organisational traditions, the suddenness with which it was propelled into a revolutionary situation, tended to leave important lacunae in the theoretical arsenal of its revolutionary minorities. It is significant, for example, that most of the pertinent critiques of the reformist practices of social democracy and trade unionism began to be elaborated precisely in those countries where these practices were most firmly established, in particular, Holland and Germany. It was here, rather than in Russia where the proletariat was still struggling for parliamentary and trade union rights, that the pernicious dangers of reformist habits were first understood by revolutionaries. For example, the work of Anton Pannekoek and the Dutch Tribune group in the years preceding World War 1 helped to prepare the ground for the radical break that the German and Dutch revolutionaries made with the old reformist tactics after the war. The same applies to Bordiga's Abstentionist Fraction in Italy. In contrast to this, the Bolsheviks never really understood that the period of reformist ‘tactics' had ended once and for all with the entry of capitalism into its death throes in 1914; or at least they never fully understood all the implications of the new epoch for revolutionary strategy. The conflicts over trade union and parliamentary tactics which rent the Communist International after 1920 resulted to a large extent from the failure of the Russian party to thoroughly grasp the needs of the new epoch; and this failure was not entirely restricted to the Bolshevik leadership: it was also reflected in the fact that the critique of unionism, parliamentarism, substitutionism and other social democratic hangovers which the Russian left communists made never achieved the same level of clarity as that of their Dutch, German and Italian counterparts.

But here again we must temper this observation with an understanding of the international context of the revolution. The theoretical weaknesses of the Bolshevik party were not absolutes, precisely because this was a genuinely proletarian party, and therefore open to all new developments and understandings that come from the proletarian struggle when it is on an ascendant path. Had the revolution of October extended itself internationally, these weaknesses could have been overcome; the social democratic deformations in Bolshevism only hardened into a fundamental obstacle to the revolutionary movement when the world revolution entered into a reflux and the proletarian bastion in Russia became cripplingly isolated. The rapid slide of the Communist International into opportunism, largely under the influence of the Russian party, was, amongst other things, the result of the Bolsheviks' attempt to balance the survival needs of the Soviet state with the international needs of the revolution, an attempt which became increasingly contradictory the more the tide of revolution receded, and which was finally abandoned with the triumph of ‘socialism in one country', which signified the death of the Communist International and crowned the victory of the counter-revolution in Russia.

If the extreme isolation of the Russian bastion was to ultimately prevent the Bolshevik party from going beyond its initial errors, it also severely hampered the theoretical development of the left communist fractions who detached themselves from the degenerating Russian party. Cut off from the discussion and debate which was still being maintained by the left fractions in Europe, subjected to a ruthless repression by an increasingly totalitarian state, the Russian left tended to restrict itself to a formal critique of the degeneration of the Russian counter-revolution, and rarely penetrated to the roots of the degeneration. The sheer novelty and rapidity of the Russian experience were to leave an entire generation of revolutionaries utterly confused as to what had happened there; not until the thirties and forties did a coherent understanding began to emerge out of the remaining communist fractions. But this understanding came above all from revolutionaries in Europe and America; the Russian left was too close, too caught up in the whole experience to elaborate an objective, global analysis of the phenomenon. We can therefore only endorse the assessment of the Russian left made by the comrades of Internationalism:

"The enduring contribution of these small groups trying to come to grips with the new situation, is not that they could have possibly understood the entire process of state capitalism at its beginnings nor that they expressed a totally coherent programme, but that they sounded the alarm and were among the first to prophetically denounce the establishment of a state capitalist regime; their legacy in the workers' movement is to have provided the political proof that the Russian proletariat did not go down to defeat in silence". (J. Allen, ‘A Contribution on the Question of State Capitalism', Internationalism n°6)

What is the communist left?

An aspect of the myth of ‘backward' or ‘bourgeois' Bolshevism is the idea that there is an impassable gulf between the Bolsheviks, who are presented as partisans of state capitalism and party dictatorship, and the left communists who are painted as the real defenders of workers' power and the communist transformation of society. This idea has a particular appeal to councilists and libertarians who want to identify only with what pleases them in the past workers' movement and reject the real experience of the class as soon as they discover its blemishes. In the real world however there is a direct and irreplaceable continuity between what Bolshevism originally was and what the left communists were in the 1920s and after.

The Bolsheviks were themselves on the extreme left of the pre-war social democratic movement, especially because of their resolute defence of organisational coherence and the need for a revolutionary party independent of all reformist and confusionist tendencies of the workers' movement.[1] Their position on the 1914-18 war (or rather the position of Lenin and his supporters in the party) was again the most radical of all the anti-war stances in the socialist movement: "turn the imperialist war into a civil war"; and their call for the revolutionary liquidation of the bourgeois state in 1917 made them the rallying point for all the intransigent revolutionary minorities in the world. The ‘left radicals' of Germany - who were to provide the main nucleus of the KAPD (German Workers' Communist Party) in 1920 - were directly inspired by the example of the Bolsheviks, especially when they began to call for the constitution of a new revolutionary party in total opposition to the social-patriots of the SPD (Social Democratic Party).[2]

Thus, up to a certain point the Bolsheviks and the Communist International, which was largely set up on their initiative, represented the pre-war ‘left'; they became the communist movement. Left communism only has a meaning as a reaction against the degeneration of this original communist vanguard, against the betrayal of what the vanguard has stood for at the beginning. Left communism thus emerged organically out of the original communist movement led by the Bolsheviks and the CI.

This becomes startlingly clear when we look at the origins of the communist left in Russia itself. All the Russian left fractions had their origins in the Bolshevik party. This is in itself proof of the proletarian character of Bolshevism. Because it was a living expression of the working class, the only class that can make a radical and continuous critique of its own practice, the Bolshevik party perpetually generated revolutionary fractions out of its own body. At every step in its degeneration voices were raised inside the party in protest, groupings were formed inside the party, or split from it, to denounce the betrayals of Bolshevism's original programme. Only when the party had been buried by its Stalinist gravediggers did these fractions no longer spring from it. The Russian left communists were all Bolsheviks; it was they who defended a continuity with the Bolshevism of the heroic years of the revolution, while those who calumniated, persecuted and exterminated them, no matter how exalted their names, were the ones who were breaking with the essence of Bolshevism.

The Communist Left during the heroic years of the revolution, 1918-21

The first months

The Bolshevik party was actually the first party of the reconstituted workers' movement to give rise to a ‘left'. This was precisely because it was the first party to lead a successful insurrection against the bourgeois state. In the conception of the workers' movement of the time, the role of the party was to organise the seizure of power and to assume governmental office in the new ‘proletarian state'. Indeed the proletarian character of the state, according to this conception, was guaranteed by the fact that it was in the hands of a proletarian party which sort to lead the working class towards socialism. The fundamentally erroneous character of this dual or treble substitution (party-state, state-class, party-class) was to be laid bare over the ensuing years of the revolution; but it was the tragic destiny of the Bolshevik party to put the theoretical errors of the entire workers' movement into practice, and thus to demonstrate through their own negative experience the absolute falsity of this conception. All the shame and betrayals associated with Bolshevism derived from the fact that the revolution was born and died in Russia, and that the Bolshevik party, by identifying itself with the state that was to become the internal agent of the counter-revolution, itself became an organiser of the revolution's decline. Had the revolution broken out and degenerated in Germany and not Russia, the names of Luxemburg and Liebknecht might today cause the same ambiguous and mixed reactions as do the names Lenin, Trotsky, Bukharin and Zinoviev. It is only because of the great adventure that the Bolsheviks undertook that revolutionaries can assert unambiguously today: the role of the party is not to take power on behalf of the class, and the interests of the class are not identical to the interests of the post-revolutionary state. But it has taken many years of painful reflection to be able to spell out these apparently simple lessons.

As soon as it became a party ‘in charge of' the Soviet state in October 1917, the Bolshevik party began to degenerate: not all at once, not in a completely unbroken downward course, and, as long as the world revolution was on the agenda, not irreversibly. But nevertheless, the general process of degeneration began immediately. Whereas formerly the party had been able to act freely as the most resolute fraction of the class, always showing the way to deepen and extend the class struggle, the Bolsheviks' assumption of state power put a growing brake on their ability to identify with and participate in the proletarian class struggle. From now on the needs of the state were to more and more take precedence over the needs of the class; and although this dichotomy was hidden at first by the very intensity of the class struggle, it was nevertheless the expression of an intrinsic and fundamental contradiction between the nature of the state and the nature of the proletariat. The needs of the state are essentially concerned with holding society together, of containing the class struggle within a framework acceptable to the maintenance of the social status quo; the needs of the proletariat, and thus of its communist vanguard, can only be the extension and deepening of its class struggle towards the overthrowing of all existing conditions. Now as long as the revolutionary movement of the class was on the ascendant both in Russia and internationally, the Soviet state could be used to guard the conquests of the revolution; it could be an instrument in the hands of the revolutionary class. But as soon as the real movement of the class disappeared, the status quo defended by the state could only be the status quo of capital. This was the general tendency, but in fact the contradictions between the proletariat and the new state began to appear immediately, because of the immaturity of the class and the Bolsheviks in their attitude to the state, and above all because the consequences of the revolution remaining isolated in Russia began to take their toll on the new proletarian bastion from the very beginning. Faced with a number of problems which could only be solved on the international arena - the organisation of a war ravaged economy, relations with huge peasant masses inside Russia, and with a hostile capitalist world outside - the Bolsheviks lacked experience to take measures which could have at least diminished the nefarious consequences of these problems; as it was the measures which they took tended to compound the problems rather than relieve them. And the overwhelming majority of the errors they made flowed from the fact that they had taken charge of the state, and thus felt justified in identifying proletarian interests with the needs of the Soviet state, and indeed subordinating the former to the latter.

Although no communist fraction in Russia at the time succeeded in making a fundamental critique of these substitutionist errors - and this was to remain a failing on the part of the entire Russian left - a revolutionary opposition to the Bolsheviks' early state early state policies crystallised only a few months after the seizure of power. This opposition took the form of the Left Communist group around Ossinski, Bukharin, Radek, Smirnov and others; organised mainly in the party's Moscow Regional Bureau and expressing itself through the factional journal Kommunist. This opposition of early 1918 was the first organised Bolshevik fraction to criticise the party's attempts to discipline the working class. But the original raison d'être of the Left Communist group was its opposition to the signing of the Brest-Litovsk treaty with German imperialism.

This is not the place to undertake a detailed study of the whole Brest-Litovsk issue. In brief the main debate was between Lenin and the Left Communists (led on this issue by Bukharin) who were in favour of a revolutionary war against Germany and denounced the peace treaty as a ‘betrayal' of the world revolution. Lenin defended the signing of the treaty as a way of obtaining a ‘breathing space' while reorganising the military capacities of the Soviet state. The Lefts insisted that:

"The adoption of the conditions dictated by the German imperialists would be an act going contrary to our whole policy of revolutionary socialism; it would lead to the abandonment of the proper line of international socialism, in domestic as well as foreign policy, and could lead to one of the worse kinds of opportunism." (R. Daniels, The Conscience of the Revolution, 1960, p.73)

Acknowledging the technical inability of the Soviet state to wage a conventional war against German imperialism, they advocated a strategy of tying the German army down with guerrilla tactics by flying detachments of Red partisans. The waging of the "holy war against German imperialism", they hoped, would serve as an example to the world proletariat and inspire it to join in the fight.

We do not wish to enter into a retrospective debate about the strategic possibilities open to the Soviet power in 1918. We should make it clear that both Lenin and the Left Communists recognised that the only ultimate hope of the Russian proletariat lay in the world extension of the revolution; both of their motivations and actions were placed within a framework of internationalism and both presented their arguments in full view of the Russian proletariat organised in the Soviets. We therefore consider it inadmissible to define the signing of the treaty as a ‘betrayal' of internationalism. Nor as it turned out, did it mean the collapse of the revolution in Russia or Germany, as Bukharin had feared. In any case, these strategic considerations are imponderable to some extent; one of the most important political questions deriving from the Brest-Litovsk debate is the following: is ‘revolutionary war' the principal means for extending the revolution? Does the proletariat in power in one region have the task of exporting revolution at bayonet point to the world proletariat? The comments of the Italian Left on the Brest-Litovsk question are significant in this regard:

"Of the two tendencies in the Bolshevik party who confronted each other at the time of Brest-Litovsk, Lenin's and Bukharin's, we think that it was the former who was more in line with the needs of the world revolution. The positions of the fraction led by Bukharin, according to which the function of the proletarian state was to liberate the workers of other countries through a ‘revolutionary war', are in contradiction with the very nature of the proletarian revolution and the historic role of the proletariat." (‘Parti-Etat-Internationale: L'Etat Proletarien', Bilan n°18, April-May, 1935)

In contrast to the bourgeois revolution, which could indeed be exported by military conquest, the proletarian revolution depends on the conscious struggle of the proletariat of each country against its own bourgeoisie: "The victory of a proletarian state against a capitalist state (in the territorial sense of the word) in no way means the victory of the revolution". (ibid). The Red Army's advance into Poland in 1920, which only succeeded in driving the Polish workers into the arms of their own bourgeoisie, is proof that military victories by a proletarian bastion cannot substitute for the conscious political action of the world proletariat, and therefore the extension of the revolution is first and foremost a political task. The foundation of the Communist International in 1919 was thus a far greater contribution to the world revolution than any ‘revolutionary war' could have been.

The actual signing of the Brest-Litovsk treaty, its ratification by the party and the Soviets, coupled with the Left's earnest desire to avoid a split within the party over the issue, ended the first stage of the Left Communists' agitation. Now that the Soviet state had acquired its ‘breathing space', many of the immediate problems facing the party were centred around the organisation of the war-torn economy within Russia. And it was on this question that the Left Communist group contributed its most valuable insights into the dangers facing the revolutionary bastion. Bukharin, the fervent partisan of revolutionary war, was less interested in formulating a critique of majority Bolshevik policy on the internal organisation of the regime; from now on many of the most pertinent criticisms of the leadership's domestic policies were to come from the pen of Ossinsky, who was to prove himself to be a much more consistent oppositional figure than Bukharin.

In the early months of 1918 the Bolshevik leadership attempted to deal with Russia's economic turmoil in a perfunctorily ‘pragmatic' manner. In a speech given to the Bolshevik Central Committee and published as The Immediate tasks of the Soviet Regime, Lenin advocated the formation of state trusts in which the existing bourgeois experts and owners were to be retained, though under the supervision of the ‘proletarian' state. The workers in turn would have to accept the Taylor system of ‘scientific management' (once denounced by Lenin himself as the enslavement of man by the machine), and one-man management in the factories: "The revolution demands... precisely in the interests of socialism that the masses unquestionably obey the single will of the leaders of the labour process". All of this meant that the factory committee movement, which had spread like wildfire ever since February 1917, was to be curbed; expropriations carried out by such committees were to be discouraged, their growing authority in the factories was to be reduced to a mere ‘checking' function, and they were to be made into appendages of the trade unions, which were much more manageable institutions, already incorporated into the new state apparatus.

The leadership presented these policies as the best way for the revolutionary regime to overcome the threat of economic chaos and to rationalise the economy towards an eventual social construction, when the world revolution extended itself. Lenin frankly called this system "state-capitalism", by which he understood the proletarian state's control of the capitalist economy in the interests of the revolution. In a polemic against the Left Communists (Left-wing Childishness and the Petty Bourgeois Mentality) Lenin argued that such a system of state capitalism would be a definite advance in a backward country like Russia, where the main danger of counter-revolution was the fragmented, archaic petty bourgeois mass of the peasantry. This conception remained a tenet of creed to the Bolsheviks and blinded them to the fact that the internal counter-revolution was expressing itself first and foremost through the state, not through the peasants. The Left Communists too were worried about the possibility of the revolution degenerating into a system of "petty bourgeois economic relations" (‘Theses on the Present Situation', Kommunist, n°1, April 1918, available in English in Daniels, A Documentary History of the Revolution), and they also shared the leadership's conviction that nationalisation by the ‘proletarian' state was indeed a socialist measure, and in fact they demanded its extension to the whole economy. Clearly they could not have been fully aware of what the danger of "state capitalism" actually meant, but basing themselves on a strong class instinct, they quickly saw the dangers inherent in a system which claimed to organise the exploitation of the workers in the interests of ‘socialism'. Ossinsky's prophetic warning is now well known:

"We do not stand for the point of view of ‘construction of socialism under the direction of the trusts'. We stand for the point of view of the construction of the proletarian society by the class creativity of the workers themselves, not by ukases of ‘captains of industry'...We proceed from trust for the class instinct, to the active class initiative of the proletariat. It cannot be otherwise. If the proletariat does not know how to create the necessary prerequisites for socialist organisation of labour, no-one can do this for it and no-one can compel it to do this. The stick, if raised against the workers, will find itself in the hands of a social force which is either under the influence of another social class or is in the hands of the soviet power; then the soviet power will be forced to seek support against the proletariat from another class (e.g. the peasantry), and by this it will destroy itself as the dictatorship of the proletariat. Socialism and socialist organisation must be set up by the proletariat itself, or they will not be set up at all; something else will be set up - state capitalism." (‘On the Building of Socialism', Kommunist n°2, April 1918, in Daniels, The Conscience of the Revolution, p. 85).

Against this threat the Left Communists advocated workers' control of industry through a system of factory committees and ‘economic councils'. They defined their role as that of a "responsible proletarian opposition" constituted within the party to prevent the party and the soviet regime "deviating" towards the "ruinous path of petty bourgeois policies" (‘Theses on the Present Situation', Kommunist no. 1, in Daniels, A Documentary History etc).

That the dangers that the Lefts were warning against were not restricted to the economic plane, but had far-reaching political ramifications, can be shown by another warning they issued against the attempt to impose labour discipline from above:

"With the policy of administering enterprises on the basis of broad participation by capitalists and semi-bureaucratic centralisation it is natural to combine a labour policy directed towards the installation amongst the workers of discipline under the banner of ‘self-discipline', towards the introduction of obligatory labour for workers (such a programme was advocated by the rightist Bolsheviks), piecework payment, lengthening of the working day, etc.

"The form of governmental administration will have to develop in the direction of bureaucratic centralisation, the deprivation of the local soviets of their independence, and in practice the rejection of the type of ‘commune state' administered from below" (ibid).

Kommunist's defence of factory committees, soviets, and working class self activity was important not because it provided a solution to the economic problems facing Russia, or still less a formula for the ‘immediate construction of communism' in Russia; the Lefts explicitly stated that "socialism cannot be put into operation in one country and a backward one at that" (L. Schapiro, The Origin of the Communist Autocracy, 1955, p. 137). The imposition of labour discipline by the state, the incorporation of the proletariat's autonomous organs into the state apparatus, were above all blows against the political domination of the Russian working class. As the ICC has often pointed out,[3] the political power of the class is the only guarantee of the successful outcome of the revolution. And this political power can only be exercised by the mass organs of the class, by its factory committees and assemblies, its soviets, its militias. In undermining the authority of these organs the policies of the Bolshevik leadership were posing a grave threat to the revolution itself. The danger signals so perceptively observed by the Left Communists in the early months of the revolution were to become even more serious during the Civil War period. In fact this period would in many ways determine the ultimate destiny of the revolution inside Russia.

The civil war

The period of the Civil War in Russia, from 1918-20, above all attests to the immense dangers facing a proletarian outpost if it is not immediately reinforced by the armies of the world revolution. Because the revolution did not take root outside Russia, the Russian proletariat had to fight virtually alone against the attacks of the White counter-revolution and its imperialist backers. In military terms, the heroic resistance of the Russian workers was victorious, but politically the Russian proletariat emerged from the Civil War decimated, exhausted, fragmented, and more or less deprived of any real control of the Soviet state. In their fervour to win the military struggle, the Bolsheviks had accelerated the decline of working class political power by a continuous militarisation of social and economic life. The concentration of all effective power in the higher echelons of the state machine allowed the military struggle to be prosecuted in a ruthless and effective manner, but it further undermined the real bastions of the revolution: the mass unitary organs of the class. The bureaucratisation of the Soviet regime that occurred during this period was to become irreversible with the reflux of the world revolution after 1921.

With the outbreak of hostilities in 1918, there was a general closing of ranks within the Bolshevik party, as everybody recognised the need for unity in action against the external danger. The Kommunist group, whose publication had ceased to appear after being severely hounded by the party leadership, ceased to exist, and its original nucleus went in two directions in response to the Civil War.

One tendency, exemplified by Radek and Bukharin, greeted the economic measure imposed by Civil War with unabashed enthusiasm. For them, the wholesale nationalisations, suppression of trade and monetary forms, and requisitioning of the peasantry, the so-called ‘War Communism' measures, represented a real break with the previous "state capitalist" phase and constituted a major advance towards communist relations of production. Bukharin even wrote a book, The Economics of the Transition Period, explaining how economic disintegration and even forced labour were inevitable preliminary stages in the transition to communism; he was clearly trying to demonstrate ‘theoretically' that Russia under War Communism, which had been adopted simply as a series of emergency measures to deal with a desperate situation, was a society in transition to communism. Former Left Communists like Bukharin were quite prepared to abandon their previous criticisms of one-man management and labour discipline, because for them the Soviet state was no longer trying to compromise with domestic capital, but was acting resolutely as an organ of communist transformation. In his Economics of the Transition Period, Bukharin argued that the strengthening of the Soviet state, its increasing absorption of social and economic life, represented a decisive advance towards communism:

"The ‘governmentalisation' of the trade unions and in practice all mass organs of the proletariat result from the inner logic of the transformation process itself. The smallest germ cell of the labour apparatus must become a support for the general process of organisation, which is planfully led and conducted by the collective reason of the working class, which has its material embodiment in the highest, all-embracing organisation, its state power. Thus the system of state capitalism is dialectically transformed into its own opposite, into the governmental form of workers' socialism." (Bukharin, Economics of the Transition Period, quoted in A Documentary History of Communism, edited by R. Daniels, 1960, p. 180).

With such ideas Bukharin ‘dialectically' reversed the marxist understanding that the movement towards a communist society will be characterised by a progressive weakening, a "withering away" of the state machine. Bukharin was still a revolutionary when he wrote the Economics; but between his theories of a statified ‘communism' entirely contained within one nation, and the Stalinist theory of ‘socialism in one country' there is a definite continuity.

While Bukharin made his peace with War Communism, those Lefts who had been most consistent in their advocacy of workers' democracy continued to defend this principle in the face of the growing militarisation of the regime. In 1919 the Democratic Centralism group was formed around Ossinsky, Sapranov and others. They continued to dispute the principle of one-man management in industry and continued to advocate the collective or "collegial" principle as "The strongest weapon against the growth of departmentalism and bureaucratic deadening of the soviet apparatus" (Theses on the Collegial Principle and Individual Authority). While accepting the need for the use of bourgeois specialists in industry and the army, they also stressed the need for these specialists to be put under the control of the rank and file. "No one disputes the necessity of using the spetsy - the dispute is over how to use them" (Sapranov, quoted in Daniels, Conscience of the Revolution, p.109).

At the same time the Democratic Centralists, or ‘Decists' as they were known, protested against the loss of initiative by local soviets, and they suggested a series of reforms aimed at restoring them as effective organs of workers' democracy; it was policies of this sort which led critics to remark that the Decists were more interested in democracy than in centralism. Finally the Decists called for the restoration of democratic practices in the party. At the Ninth Congress of the RCP in 1920 they attacked the bureaucratisation of the party, the increasing concentration of power in the hands of a tiny minority. It is indicative of the influence that these criticisms could still have in the party that the congress ended up voting a manifesto vigorously calling for "broader criticism of the central as well as the local party institutions", and the rejection of "any kind of repression against comrades because they have different ideas". (Resolution of the Ninth Party Congress, ‘On the Next Tasks of Building the Party'.)

In general the Decists' attitude to the tasks of the Soviet regime in a period of Civil War can be summed up in Ossinsky's words to that same Congress:

"The basic slogan which we should proclaim at the present time is the unification of military work, military forms of organisation and methods of administration, with the creative initiative of the conscious workers. If, under the banner of military work, you in fact begin to implant bureaucratism, we will disperse our own forces and fail to fulfil our tasks." (Quoted in Daniels, A Documentary History of the Revolution)

Some years later the left communist Miasnikov had this to say about the Democratic Centralism group:

"This group did not have a platform of any real theoretical value. The only point which attracted the attention of all the groups and of the party was its struggle against excessive centralisation. It is only now that one can see in this struggle a still imprecise attempt of the proletariat to dislodge the bureaucracy from the positions it had just conquered in the economy. The group died a natural death, without any violence being used against it..." (L'Ouvrier Communiste, 1929, a French journal close to the KAPD.)

The Decists' criticisms were inevitably "imprecise" because they were a tendency born at a time when the Bolshevik party and the revolution were still very much alive, so that any criticisms of the party were bound to take the form of appeals for the party to be more democratic, more equitable etc... in other words, to restrict criticisms to the level of organisational practice rather than of fundamental political positions.

Many of the Democratic Centralism group were also involved in the Military Opposition, which was formed for a brief period in 1919. The requirements of the Civil War had impelled the Bolsheviks to set up a centralised fighting force, the Red Army, composed not only of workers but of recruits from the peasantry and other strata. Very quickly this army began to conform to the hierarchical pattern that was being established in the rest of the state apparatus. Election of officers was soon dispensed with as "politically pointless and technically inexpedient" (Trotsky, ‘Work, Discipline, Order', 1918, quoted in Daniels, Conscience of the Revolution, p. 104); the death penalty for disobedience under fire, saluting and special forms of address to officers were restored, and differences between ranks solidified, especially with the appointment of former Tsarist officers to high command posts in the army.

The Military Opposition, whose main spokesman was Vladimir Smirnov, was formed to fight against the tendency to model the Red Army along the lines of a typical bourgeois army. They did not oppose the establishment of the Red Army as such, nor the use of military spetsy, but they were against excessive hierarchy and discipline, and wanted to ensure that the army was guided by an overall political orientation which did not depart from Bolshevik principle. The party leadership falsely accused them of wanting to disband the army in favour of a system of partisan detachments more suited to peasant warfare; as on many other occasions, the only alternative that the Bolshevik leadership could see to what they termed "proletarian state organisation" was petty bourgeois, anarchist decentralisation; in fact very often the Bolsheviks confused bourgeois forms of hierarchical centralisation with the self discipline and centralisation produced from below which is the hall mark of the proletariat. In any case the demands of the Military Opposition were rejected and the grouping soon fell apart. But the hierarchical structure of the Red Army - in conjunction with the disbanding of the factory militias - were to make it more amenable to be used as a repressive force against the proletariat from 1921 onwards.

Despite the persistence of oppositional tendencies within the party throughout the Civil War period, the need for unity against the attack of the counter-revolution tended to act as a cohesive force within the party and among all the classes and social strata who supported the Soviet regime against the Whites. The innate tensions within the regime were held down during this period, only to burst up to the surface when the hostilities ceased and the regime was faced with the task of reconstructing a ruined country. Dissension over the next step for the Soviet regime expressed itself in 1920-21 in peasant revolts, discontent in the navy, workers' strikes in Moscow and Petrograd, to culminate in the Kronstadt workers' uprising in March 1921. These antagonisms inevitably expressed themselves within the party itself, and in the traumatic years 1920-21, it fell to the Workers' Opposition group to provide the main focus for political dissent inside the Bolshevik party.

The Workers' Opposition

The tenth Party Congress in March 1921was the arena for a controversy within the Bolshevik party which had been getting sharper and sharper since the end of the Civil War: the trade union question. On the surface this was a debate about the role of trade unions under the proletarian dictatorship, but it in fact expressed far deeper problems about the whole future of the Soviet regime and its relationship to the working class. Broadly speaking there were three positions within the party: that of Trotsky, who stood for the total integration of the unions into the ‘Workers' state' where they would have the task of stimulating labour productivity; that of Lenin, who argued that the unions still had to act as defensive organs of the class, which, he pointed out, was actually a "workers' and peasants' state" which suffered from "bureaucratic deformations"; and finally the position of the Workers' Opposition group who stood for the management of production by industrial unions independent of the Soviet state. Although the entire framework of this debate was profoundly inadequate, The Workers' Opposition expressed in a confused and faltering way the proletariat's antipathy to the bureaucratic and military methods which had more and more become the trademark of the regime, and the hope of the class that things would improve now that the rigours of the Civil War were over.

The leaders of the Workers' Opposition group came mainly from the trade union apparatus, but it appears to have had considerable working class support in South Eastern parts of European Russia and in Moscow, especially among metal workers - Shliapnikov and Medvedev, two of the groups leading members, were both metal workers. But the most famous of its leaders was Alexandra Kollontai, who wrote the programmatic text The Workers' Opposition as an elaboration on the ‘Theses on the Trade Union Question' submitted by the group to the Tenth Congress. All the strengths and weaknesses of the group can be gauged from this text which begins by affirming that:

"The Workers' Opposition sprang from the depths of the industrial proletariat of Soviet Russia. It is an outgrowth not only of the unbearable conditions of life and labour in which seven million industrial workers find themselves, but it is also a product of vacillations, inconsistencies and outright deviations of our Soviet policy from the early expressed class-consistent principles of the Communist programme." (Kollontai, The Workers' Opposition, Solidarity pamphlet n°7, p. 1).

Kollontai then goes on to outline the appalling economic conditions facing the Soviet regime after the Civil War, and draws attention to the growth of a bureaucratic stratum whose origins lie outside the working class - in the intelligentsia, the peasantry, remnants of the old bourgeoisie, etc. This strata had more and more come to dominate the Soviet apparatus and even the party itself, infusing both with a careerism and a blind disregard for proletarian interests. For the Workers' Opposition the Soviet state itself was not a pure proletarian organ but a heterogeneous institution forced to balance between the different classes and strata in Russian society. They insisted that the way that the revolution remained loyal to its original goals was not by entrusting its direction to non-proletarian technocrats and the socially ambiguous organs of the state, but by relying on the self-activity and creative powers of the working masses themselves:

"This consideration, which should be very simple and clear to every practical man, is lost sight of by our party leaders: it is impossible to decree Communism. It can be created only in the process of practical research, through mistakes, perhaps, but only through the creative powers of the working class itself." (Kollontai, ibid, p. 33).

These general insights of the Workers' Opposition were very profound in many ways, but the group was unable to contribute much of lasting value beyond these generalities. The concrete proposals they put forward as a solution to the crisis the revolution was passing through were based on a series of fundamental misconceptions, all of which expressed the magnitude of the impasse the Russian proletariat faced at this juncture.

For the Workers' Opposition, the organs which expressed the pure class interests of the proletariat were none other than the trade unions, or rather the industrial unions. The task of creating communism should therefore be entrusted to the unions: "The Workers' Opposition sees in the unions the mangers and creators of the communist economy..." (Kollontai, ibid, p. 28).

Thus while the left communists of Germany, Holland and elsewhere were denouncing the trade unions as one of the main obstacles to the proletarian revolution, the left in Russia was extolling them as potential organs of communist transformation! Revolutionaries in Russia seemed to have had great difficulty grasping the fact that the trade unions could no longer have any role to plat for the proletariat in the epoch of capitalist decadence: although the appearance of factory committees and soviets in 1917 signified that the unions were dead as organs of working class struggle, none of the left groupings in Russia really understood this, either before or after the Workers' Opposition. By 1921, when the Workers' Opposition was portraying the unions as the backbone of the revolution, the real organs of revolutionary struggle - the factory committees and the workers' soviets - had already been emasculated. Indeed in the case of the factory committees, it was their integration into the unions after 1918 which effectively killed them as organs of the class. The transfer of decision making power into the hands of the unions, despite the good intentions of its advocates, would in no way have restored power to the proletariat in Russia, even if such a project had been possible, it would simply have been a transfer of power from one branch of the state to another.

The Workers' Opposition programme for the regeneration of the party was also flawed at its roots. They explained the growing opportunism of the party purely in terms of the influx of a non-proletarian membership. For them the party could be put back on a proletarian path if an ouvrièrist purge was carried out against non-worker members. If the party was overwhelmingly composed of ‘pure', rough-handed proletarians, all would be well. This ‘answer' to the degeneration of the party completely missed the point. The opportunism of the party was not a question of its personnel but was a response to the pressure and tensions of holding state power in an increasingly unfavourable situation. Given the reigns of state in a period of reflux in the revolution, anyone would became an ‘opportunist', no matter how ‘pure' his proletarian ‘pedigree'. Bordiga once remarked that ex-workers often became the worst bureaucrats. But the Workers' Opposition never challenged the notion that the party had to control the state in order to guarantee that it remained an instrument of the proletariat:

"The Central Committee of our party must become the supreme directing centre of our class policy, the organ of class thought and control over the practical policy of the Soviets, and the spiritual personification of our basic programme." (Kollontai, ibid, p.42).

The Workers' Opposition's inability to conceive of the dictatorship of the proletariat as anything else but the dictatorship of the party led them to make frantic pledges of loyalty to the party when, in the middle of the Tenth Congress, the Kronstadt revolt broke out. Prominent leaders of the Workers' Opposition even backed up these pledges by putting themselves in the front line of the assault on the Kronstadt garrison. Like all the other left fractions in Russia, they completely failed to understand the importance of the Kronstadt rising as the last mass struggle of the Russian workers for the restoration of soviet power. But assisting in the suppression of the revolt did not save the Workers' Opposition from being condemned as a "petty bourgeois anarchist deviation", as an "objectively" counter-revolutionary element at the conclusion of the Congress. The banning of "factions" in the party at the Tenth Congress dealt a stunning blow to the Workers' Opposition. Faced with the prospect of illegal, underground work, they proved unable to maintain their opposition to the regime. A few of its members fought on throughout the twenties in association with other illegal fractions; others simply capitulated to the status quo. Kollontai herself ended up as a loyal servant of the Stalinist regime. In 1922 the left communist paper, the Workers' Dreadnought referred to the "unprincipled and backboneless leaders of the so-called ‘Workers' Opposition'" (Workers' Dreadnought, July 29, 1922), and certainly there was a real lack of resolution in the group's programme. This was not a question of the courage or lack of courage of the group's members, but resulted from the extreme difficulty Russian revolutionaries faced in trying to oppose or break from a party which had been the moving spirit of the revolution. For many communists, to challenge the very premises of the party was sheer folly; outside the party was nothing but the void. This deep attachment to the party - so deep that it became a barrier against the defence of revolutionary principles - was to be even more pronounced in the Left Opposition later on.

Another reason for the weakness of the Workers' Opposition's criticisms of the regime was their almost total lack of an international perspective. While the most determined left fractions in Russia drew their strength from an understanding that the only true ally of the Russian proletariat and its revolutionary minority was the world working class, the Workers' Opposition's programme was based on a search for solutions entirely within the framework of the Russian state.

The central concern of the Workers' Opposition was this: "Who shall develop the creative powers in the sphere of economic construction?" (Kollontai, ibid, p. 4). The primordial task which she ascribed to the Russian working class was the construction of a "communist economy" in Russia. Their preoccupation with the problem of the management of production, with creating so-called ‘communist relations' of production in Russia show a complete misunderstanding of a fundamental point: communism could not be built in an isolated bastion. The main problem facing the Russian working class was the extension of the world revolution, not the "economic reconstruction" of Russia. Although the Kollontai text criticises "foreign trade with the capitalist states... [that is] carried on over the heads of the Russian as well as the foreign organised workers" (ibid, p. 10), the Workers' Opposition shared the growing tendency of the Bolshevik leadership at the time to put the domestic problems of the Russian economy above the problem of the international extension of the revolution. That the two tendencies had a different vision of this economic reconstruction is less important than the fact that they both tended to agree that Russia could turn in on itself for an indefinite period without betraying the interests of the world revolution.

This exclusively Russian perspective of the Workers' Opposition was also reflected in the group's failure to establish any firm ties with the left communist opposition outside Russia. Although Kollontai's text was smuggled out of Russia by a member of the KAPD and published both by the KAPD and the Workers' Dreadnought, Kollontai soon regretted this and tried to get the document back! The Workers' Opposition offered no real criticisms of the opportunist policies being adopted by the Communist International, endorsed the 21 Conditions, and did not seek to ally itself with the ‘foreign' oppositions within the CI, despite the obvious sympathy accorded them by the KAPD and others. In 1922 they made a last-ditch appeal to the Fourth World Congress of the CI, but restricted their protest entirely to the bureaucratisation of the regime and the lack of free expression for dissident communist groupings within Russia. In any case, they received scant echo from an International which had already expelled many of its best elements and was about to endorse the infamous United Front policy. Shortly after this appeal was made a special Bolshevik commission was set up to investigate the activities of the Workers' Opposition; it came to the conclusion that the group consisted an "illegal factional organisation", and the ensuing repression soon put an end to most of the group's activities.[4] The Workers' Opposition had the misfortune of being thrust into the political limelight at a time when the party was going through profound convulsions which would soon make legal oppositional activity. In trying to balance between the two stools of legal intra-party faction work and underground opposition to the regime the Workers' Opposition fell into the void; henceforward the torch of proletarian resistance would have to be carried on by more resolute and intransigent fighters.



[1] The Bolsheviks themselves produced extreme left tendencies in the pre-war period, notably the so-called ‘Ultamists' and ‘Recallists' who criticised the parliamentary tactics of the Bolshevik organisation after the 1905 Revolution. But since this debate took place in the twilight period between capitalism's ascent and decline, this is not the place to discuss these issues. The Communist Left is a specific product of the workers' movement in the epoch of decadence, since it originated in a critique of the ‘official' communist strategy concerning the revolutionary tasks of the proletariat in the new epoch.

[2] See ‘Lessons of the German Revolution' in the ICC's International Review n°2.

[3] See ‘The Degeneration of the Russian Revolution' and ‘The Lessons of Kronstadt' in International Review n°3.

[4] Although the Workers' Opposition effectively ceased to function after 1922, its name, like that of the Democratic Centralists, crops up over and over again in connection with illegal underground activities until the beginning of the 1930s, which implies that elements of both groups fought on till the bitter end.