Russian communist left: reponse to Simon Pirani

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In WR 329 we reviewed a recent book by Simon Pirani,[1] which deals sympathetically with the left-wing communist oppositions expelled from the Bolshevik Party in the early 1920s. Pirani, a former Trotskyist who is now critical of Trotskyist positions, has also recently written a review of the ICC's book on the Russian Communist Left, which appeared in the journal Revolutionary History.[2] Here, in a response written by a close sympathiser, we want to deal with his specific criticisms of our book, and to comment on what seem to us to be the wider issues raised.

How to understand the history of the revolutionary movement

Pirani welcomes the publication of the historical documents included in the ICC's book, many of them for the first time in English. He recognises that the positions of the Russian Communist Left were more radical than those of the Trotskyist Left Opposition, and claims to agree with the ICC's position on the early degeneration of the Russian Revolution, finding "compelling" a 1977 text which "offers an account of the retreat of the Soviet state from socialist aims that in retrospect seems more convincing than some others available to those active in left politics 30 years ago".

This approach, which recognises the political importance of the Communist Left, is obviously positive, and reflects the sympathetic approach of his own book.

Pirani's first criticism is of how the ICC deals with the history of the revolutionary movement. He chides us for ignoring recent historical research on the communist opposition in Russia, and for being more interested in "judging the left communists' documents textually, against what [we] regard as immutable communist standards, than in the actual struggles during which these documents appeared..." He specifically criticises the book's coverage of the Kronstadt uprising for offering a "lamentable" lack of evidence that the garrison was revolutionary and relying instead on "doctrinal faith".

While it's true that some ‘communist standards' are ‘immutable' in the sense that they remain fundamentally valid in all periods of working class history (internationalism, for example), the communist programme is something that develops through the experience of the class and the reflection of revolutionary minorities on that experience. The whole aim of our series on communism, from which some of the essays in this book are taken, is to demonstrate this against ideas of an ‘invariant' communist programme.

For all their hesitations and confusions, the contribution made by the left communist currents in the Bolshevik Party to understanding how and why the Russian Revolution degenerated was absolutely crucial in laying the foundations of the clarity defended today by the groups of the communist left - the very clarity that Pirani now finds ‘compelling'.

The purpose of the ICC in publishing the book, stated clearly in its introduction, was to enable a new generation of revolutionaries today (not least in Russia itself) to better understand the work of the left communist currents, "not only to demonstrate the continuity of their political traditions, but also because without a thorough assimilation of the work and concrete experience of the left fractions, it would be impossible for the new groups to develop the theoretical and organisational solidity they need if they themselves are to survive and grow."

In this context, the specific aim of the section dealing with the Kronstadt uprising was not to prove yet again the proletarian nature of the uprising (although it does cite the list of delegates elected to the provisional revolutionary committee and the points of the Kronstadters' platform as evidence of this), but rather to examine the debates within the Communist Party in Russia; the positions adopted at the time by representatives of the opposition, and the political lessons drawn by the Communist Left. If the Italian Left in the 1930s was able to draw the essential lesson of Kronstadt - that socialism could not be imposed on the proletariat by force - it was primarily because it based itself firmly on a marxist political framework, and in particular on a defence of the proletarian nature of the Russian revolution; not because of research on the garrison's composition.

We think that Pirani's criticisms reveal a certain tendency towards academicism. We share his interest in the ‘lives lived' by individual militants and ‘the circumstances that shaped their dissident activity', but as a revolutionary marxist organisation we believe it is only by examining the political positions defended by revolutionaries in the past, and understanding the political debates and analyses behind them, that can we strengthen the revolutionary movement of today.

The political significance of the Russian Communist Left

Pirani also questions the political and organisational continuity of left communism in Russia, rejecting the claim that it had a continued existence from 1918 to the 1930s defending a distinctive set of political positions, and argues that its positions were "largely irrelevant to the waves of communist dissidence in 1921-23 and 1927-29".

He singles out for criticism the study by our comrade Ian, who before his untimely death in 1997 was engaged in original research on the Russian communist left. Ian's research showed, for example, that many known members of the 1923 Workers' Group were also members of the Left Communist fraction in 1918, and he described in some detail the process by which the former won over elements from the Workers' Opposition and the Democratic Centralists. It's true that Ian also lists a set of political positions to distinguish the Russian left communists, which can give the impression that all these positions were defended by all expressions of left communism in Russia and internationally from the 1920s on, whereas a number of these positions (such as the characterisation of the trade unions as capitalist organisations) only emerged through the discussions and debates that traversed the left communist currents for many decades after the revolutionary wave. But the rest of the book gives a critical appraisal of the positions defended by groupings like the Workers' Truth and the ‘Decists', which need to be understood - along with Trotsky's Left Opposition - as part of the wider left-wing opposition within the Bolshevik Party.

Sadly Ian's research remained unfinished, and readers today will have to make their own judgements about the question of organisational continuity, although a quick re-read of his study reveals a myriad of concrete links between the 1918 Left Communists and the Workers' Group, and between the 1921 Workers' Opposition and the Sapranov group of 1927 - to the extent that one is led to wonder why Pirani seems so determined to ignore the evidence - but in any case the book as a whole makes no claims for the organisational continuity of left communism in Russia, which is of secondary importance to the political continuity between the most intransigent elements who fought against the betrayals of the old workers' parties, and between them and the groups of the Communist Left today.

Pirani essentially sets up a ‘straw man' to knock down, instead of engaging with the main arguments presented by the ICC about the political significance of the left currents in the Bolshevik Party - arguments that his own book appears to be largely in agreement with.

As for left communist positions being irrelevant, the Workers' Group was targeted for repression precisely because of its influence in the working class and its willingness to intervene in their struggles. While its programmatic positions inevitably remained unknown to all but a tiny minority of workers in Russia, it was these same positions that allowed the left communists to relate directly to the workers' concerns and at least try to provide effective political leadership to the spontaneous strike movements of 1923.

The struggle of the Communist Left was a struggle for the party

Finally, Pirani criticises the ICC's book for ‘clinging' to the concept of the ‘vanguard party'. We noted in our previous review Pirani's rejection of ‘vanguardism', which for him played a wholly negative role, both in Bolshevik politics and subsequently the international workers' movement. This rejection is not so surprising given his political break with the Trotskyist movement which today specialises in turning  the Bolsheviks' errors into a hardened counter-revolutionary ideology. But to reject ‘vanguardism' per se is to turn your back not just on the whole experience of the Russian revolution but on the history of the workers' movement and the position defended by Marx and Engels, for whom the communists are nothing but "the most advanced and resolute section of the working class parties of every country" (Communist Manifesto) - in other words, the vanguard.

The ICC doesn't ‘cling' to the concept of the vanguard party; we openly defend the need for the formation of a world communist party in the proletariat's future revolutionary struggles.. For us, the Bolshevik party was the spearhead of the October insurrection, whose profoundly proletarian character was demonstrated precisely by the fact that its degeneration provoked such a significant response from its most intransigently revolutionary elements. The struggle of the left fractions was a struggle to resist the counter-revolutionary tide sweeping through the Bolshevik party and reclaim it for the working class.

Having acted as a real vanguard in the period 1914-1917, where it led the opposition to the imperialist war and was at the forefront of the combat for proletarian power, the Bolshevik party's capacity to continue with this ‘leading' role was progressively undermined by its entanglement with the Soviet state and its increasingly substitutionist ideas about its relationship with the class as a whole. But this tragic process did not eliminate the need for a communist vanguard: as the party degenerated, it was precisely the left fractions who became the advanced guard in the defence of revolutionary principles, even if this was now of necessity a task to be carried out in a much more negative period for the working class.    

MH 30/11/9

see also

Book review: Simon Pirani, The Russian revolution in retreat, 1920-1924



[1] The Russian revolution in retreat, 1920-1924: soviet workers and the new communist elite, Routledge, 2008.

[2] Revolutionary History, vol. 10, no.1. The same issue contains an interesting selection of writings by Rosa Luxemburg. For readers who are unfamiliar with it, Revolutionary History is a British-based journal dealing with the history of the revolutionary movement "mainly", to quote its website, "from a Trotskyist viewpoint". In the past Revolutionary History has shown itself to be hostile to the political positions defended by the communist left. In fact, despite considering itself to be a serious publication, over the last 20 years it has tended to avoid dealing with the history of left communism altogether, but where this has not been possible it has distorted its positions and tried to minimise its political significance; in a review of the ICC's Italian Communist Left pamphlet in 1995, for example, the journal's founder Al Richardson dismissed the majority of the Italian Left in the 1930s as "a harem of political eunuchs" and bracketed their denunciation of the social democratic parties after 1914 with the politics of "1960s Maoism" (see Revolutionary History, vol. 6, no 1, 1995, pp198-199).