The communist left and the counter-revolution, 1921-30
After 1921 the Bolshevik Party found itself in a nightmarish situation. Following the defeat of workers’ uprisings in Hungary, Italy, Germany and elsewhere between 1918 and 1921, the world revolution went into a profound reflux from which it was never to recover, despite sending out after-shocks like Germany and Bulgaria in 1923 and China in 1927. In Russia both the economy and the proletariat itself had reached a level of near disintegration; the working masses had withdrawn or been chased from political life. No longer an instrument in the hands of the proletariat, the Soviet state had effectively degenerated into a machine for the defence of capitalist ‘order’. Prisoners of their substitutionist conceptions, the Bolsheviks still believed that it was possible to administer this state machine and the capitalist economy while waiting for and even assisting the resurgence of the world revolution. In reality, the necessities of state power were transforming the Bolsheviks into overt agents of the counterrevolution, both at home and abroad. Inside Russia they became the overseers of an increasingly ferocious exploitation of the working class. Although the NEP brought with it a certain relaxation in the state’s economic domination, especially over the peasants, it did not see any let up in the party’s dictatorship over the proletariat. On the contrary, since the Bolsheviks still considered that the main danger of the counter-revolution within Russia came from the peasants, they concluded that the economic concessions given to the peasants had to be counter-balanced by a strengthening of the political domination of Russian society by the Bolshevik Party; and this brought with it a reinforcement of tendencies towards monolithism in the party itself. This ‘tightening up’ of control by the party, and within the party, was seen as the only way of erecting a proletarian dam against a flood-tide of peasant capitalism.
Internationally, the requirements of the Russian state were, through the medium of the dominant Russian party, having a more and more pernicious effect on the policies of the Communist International: the United Front, the workers’ government -- reactionary ‘tactics’ such as these were to a large extent the expression of the need for the Russian state to find bourgeois allies in the capitalist world.
Although the Bolshevik Party had not yet definitively abandoned the proletarian revolution, the whole logic of the situation it was in more and more pushed the party into a final and complete identification with the demands of Russian national capital. Lenin’s last writings show an obsessive concern with the problems of ‘socialist construction’ in backward Russia. The victory of Stalinism merely made this logic explicit, eliminating the dilemma between internationalism and Russian state interests by simply abandoning the former in favour of the latter.
The events of the last fifty years have shown that a proletarian party cannot survive in a period of reflux or defeat in the class struggle. Thus, the only way that the communist parties could preserve their physical existence after the failure of the revolutionary wave was to pass lock, stock and barrel into the camp of the bourgeoisie. In Russia the tendency towards degeneration was further accelerated by the fact that the party had fused with the state and thus had to adapt itself even more quickly to the demands of national capital. In a period of defeat, the defence of revolutionary positions can only be carried on by small communist fractions who detach themselves from the degenerating party or survive its demise. This phenomenon took place in Russia, mainly between 1921 and 1924, with the emergence of small groupings determined to defend communist positions against the betrayals of the party. As we have seen, the emergence of oppositional tendencies within the Bolshevik Party was not new, but the conditions in which these fractions had to operate after 1921 differed dramatically from those under which their predecessors had worked.
The precondition for defending a communist perspective against the advancing counterrevolution was, especially in Russia, the ability to place loyalty to those perspectives above all sentimental, personal, and political attachments to the original organizations of the class, now that the latter had embarked upon a path of class betrayal. And, indeed, this was the great achievement of the Russian left fractions; their defiant commitment to carry out communist work against the party and against the Soviet state as soon as such work could no longer be carried on within those institutions.
For the left, communist positions came first. If the ‘heroes’ of the revolution no longer defended the communist programme, then those heroes had to be denounced and left behind. It is not surprising that the Russian left communists tended to be made up of relatively obscure individuals, mainly workers, who had not been part of the Bolshevik leadership during the heroic years. (Miasnikov even used to deride the Left Opposition as being nothing but an “opposition of celebrities” who only opposed the Stalinist faction for their bureaucratic reasons -- see L’Ouvrier Communiste, no. 6, January 1930). These revolutionary workers were able to understand the conditions facing the Russian proletariat much more easily than high-ranking Bolshevik officials who had really lost touch with the class and were only capable of seeing the problems of the revolution in terms of state administration. At the same time, however, the obscure origins of the left fractions’ members were often a factor of weakness in these groups. Their analyses tended to be based more on a raw class instinct than on a profound theoretical formation. Coupled with the historic weaknesses of the Russian workers’ movement, which we have already mentioned, and the isolation of the Russian left from communist fractions outside Russia, these factors placed serious limits on the theoretical evolution of left communism in Russia.
Despite the left’s ability to break from ‘official’ institutions and to identify with the struggle of the class against them, the immense retreat of the class in Russia posed the left fractions with a series of opaque and contradictory problems. Despite its rapid degeneration after 1921, the Bolshevik Party remained the focus of proletarian life in Russia since the soviets, factory committees and other mass organs of the class were dead, and the state itself had become an organ of capital. Because of the apathy and indifference of the class, political debate and conflict were centred almost exclusively around the party. It is true that the very indifference and non-activity of the class made most of the ideological debates within the party in the twenties sterile from the beginning, but the fact that the party was a kind of oasis of political thought in a desert of working class apoliticism could not be ignored by revolutionaries.
This situation placed the left fractions in a horrible dilemma. On the one hand the apathy of the masses, together with the repressive actions of the state, made it extremely difficult to militate within the proletariat ‘in general’. On the other hand, any work towards the party was severely hampered by the banning of factions in 1921 and the increasingly stifling atmosphere within the party; it was almost impossible for any genuinely oppositional group to do legal work within the party. Even the relatively mild criticisms voiced in 1923 by the Platform of the Forty-Six (the founding document of the Left Opposition) contained the complaint that “free discussion within the party has in fact disappeared; the party’s social mind has been choked off”. For the tendencies to the left of the Left Opposition, the situation was even worse; and yet all of them continued to combine propaganda work among the ‘broad masses’ of the factories with secret work within the local party cells. The Workers’ Group in its 1923 Manifesto spoke of the “necessity to constitute the Workers’ Group of the Russian Communist Party (Bolshevik) on the basis of the programme and statutes of the RCP, in order to exert a decisive pressure on the leading group of the party itself.” The Workers’ Truth group’s 1922 Appeal expressed the view that “everywhere in the mills and factories, in the trade union organizations, the workers’ faculties, the Soviet and party schools, the Communist Union of Youth, and the party organizations, propaganda circles must be created in solidarity with the Workers’ Truth.”1 Such declarations of intent demonstrate the extreme difficulty facing these groups in their efforts to find an echo in the Russian proletariat and the impossibility of their finding clear-cut organizational solutions in a period of disarray and confusion.
Finally, we must bear in mind the fact that these groupings were subject to the most intense persecution and repression at the hands of the party-state. Precisely because Russia had been the ‘land of the Soviets’, the country of the proletarian revolution, the counter-revolution there had to be total, ruthless and implacable, burying the last traces of everything that had been revolutionary. Even before the victory of the Stalinist faction, the left groupings had been subject to investigation by the GPU, arrest, imprisonment and exile. Deprived of funds and equipment, constantly on the run from the secret police, it was difficult for them to carry out even a bare minimum of political propaganda. The solidification of the counter-revolution after 1924 made things even harder. And yet throughout these dark years of reaction the left communists continued to fight for the revolution. As late as 1929 the Workers’ Group was publishing an illegal paper in Moscow, The Workers’ Road to Power. Even in the Stalinist labour camps their political voices were not silenced. A proletarian revolution does not die easily. The revolutionaries who fought on in such adverse circumstances derived their courage and their tenaciousness from the simple fact that they had been born out of a revolution of the working class. Let us therefore examine in more detail the principal groupings who kept the flag of the communist revolution flying in spite of everything that was piled up against them.1. The Workers’ Truth
The Workers’ Truth group was formed in the autumn of 1921. It appears to have been composed mainly of intellectuals, and to have grown out of the ‘Proletkult’ cultural milieu whose main animator was Bogdanov - a party theorist who had clashed with Lenin over philosophical problems in the 1900s and who had been prominent in the ‘left’ tendencies in Bolshevism at that time. In its 1922 Appeal, Workers’ Truth characterized the NEP, “the rebirth of normal capitalist relations”, as signifying a profound defeat for the Russian proletariat:
“The working class of Russia is disorganized; confusion reigns in the minds of the workers; are they in a country of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, as the Communist Party untiringly reiterates by word of mouth and in the press? Or are they in a country of arbitrary rule and exploitation, as life tells them at every step. The working class is leading a miserable existence at a time when the new bourgeoisie (ie the responsible functionaries, plant directors, heads of trusts, chairmen of executive committees, etc) and the Nepmen live in luxury and recall in our memory the picture of the life of the bourgeoisie of all times.”
For the Workers’ Truth the ‘Soviet’ state has become “the representative of the nationwide interests of capital ... the mere directing apparatus of political administration and economic regulation by the organizer intelligentsia.” At the same time the working class had been deprived of its defensive organs, the unions, and of its class party. In a manifesto issued to the Twelfth Party Congress of 1923, Workers’ Truth charged the unions with:
“converting themselves from organizations to defend the economic interests of the workers into organizations to defend the interests of production, ie of state capital first and foremost.” (Quoted in E.H. Carr, The Interregnum.)
As for the party, the Appeal asserts that: “The Russian-Communist Party has become the party of the organizer intelligentsia. The abyss between the Russian Communist Party and the working class is getting deeper and deeper ...”
They therefore declared their intention of working towards the formation of a real “party of the Russian proletariat”, though they admit that their work will be “long and persistent, and first of all ideological”.
Although the relatively modest aims of the Workers’ Truth group appear to express some understanding of the defeat the class had suffered and of the consequent limitations on revolutionary activity in such a period, their whole framework is vitiated by a peculiar ambiguity about the historic epoch and the tasks confronting the class globally. Perhaps basing themselves on Bogdanov’s idea that until the proletariat has matured into a capable organizing class, socialist revolution would be premature, they imply that the revolution in Russia had had the task of opening up a phase of capitalist development:
“After the successful revolution and civil war, broad perspectives opened before Russia, of rapid transformation into a country of progressive capitalism. In this lies the undoubted and tremendous achievement of the revolution in October.” (Appeal)
This perspective also led the Workers’ Truth group to advocate a strange foreign policy for Russia, calling for rapprochement with ‘progressive’ capitalism in America and Germany against ‘reactionary’ France. At the same time the group seems to have had little or no contact with left communist groups outside Russia.
It was positions such as these which no doubt led the Workers’ Group of Miasnikov to proclaim that it had “nothing in common with the so-called ‘Workers’ Truth’ which attempts to wipe out everything that was communist in the revolution of October 1917 and is, therefore, completely Menshevist” (Workers’ Dreadnought, 31 May 1924) -- though in its 1923 Manifesto the Workers’ Group acknowledges that groups like the Workers’ Truth, Democratic Centralism and the Workers’ Opposition contain many honest proletarian elements and calls on them to regroup on the basis of the Workers’ Group’s Manifesto.
At the time of the Russian Revolution those who talked about the ‘inevitability’ of a bourgeois evolution for Russia tended to be identified as Mensheviks. But in the light of subsequent experience, we prefer to compare the positions of the Workers’ Truth group to the analysis arrived at by the German and Dutch left in the 1930s. Like the Workers’ Truth, the latter began with some perceptive insights into the nature of state capitalism, but undermined their analysis by concluding that the Russian Revolution had from the beginning been an affair of the intelligentsia carrying out the organization of state capitalism in a country which had been unripe for communist revolution. In other words, the analysis put forward by Workers’ Truth is that of a revolutionary tendency demoralized and confused by the defeat of the revolution and thus led to call into question the original proletarian character of that revolution. In the absence of a clear and coherent framework in which to analyze the degeneration of the revolution, such deviations are inevitable particularly in the adverse conditions in which revolutionaries in Russia found themselves after 1921.
But despite a certain pessimism and intellectualism, the Workers’ Truth group did not hesitate to intervene in the wildcat strikes which swept across Russia in the summer of 1923, attempting to raise political slogans within the general class movement. This intervention, however, brought the full force of the GPU down on the group and its back was broken quite quickly in the repression that followed.2. The Workers’ Group and the Communist Workers’ Party
We have seen that many of the weaknesses of groups like the Workers’ Opposition and Workers’ Truth can be traced to their lack of an international perspective. As a corollary to this we can say that the most important of the left communist fractions in Russia were precisely those who emphasized the international nature of the revolution and the need for revolutionaries of the whole world to join together. This was the case with the elements in Russia who corresponded most closely to the German KAPD and its fraternal organizations.
On 3 June and 17 June 1922, the Workers’ Dreadnought published a statement by a recently formed group calling itself the “Group of Revolutionary Left Communists (Communist Workers’ Party) of Russia”. They announced themselves as a group that had left “the social democratic Russian Communist Party which has made business its chief concern” (WD, 3 June); and although they pledged themselves to “support all that is left of revolutionary tendencies in the Russian Communist Party” and to “welcome and support all the demands and propositions of the Workers’ Opposition which point in a sound revolutionary direction”, they insisted that “there is no possibility of reforming the Russian Communist Party from within. In any case the Workers’ Opposition is not capable of doing it.” (WD, 17 June). The group denounced the efforts of the Bolsheviks and the Comintern to compromise with capital both in Russia and abroad, and in particular attacked the Comintern’s United Front policy as a means for the “reconstruction of the capitalist world economy” (WD, 17 June). Since the Bolsheviks and the Comintern were taking an opportunist course which could only lead to their integration into capitalism, the group affirmed that the time had come to work for a Communist Workers’ Party of Russia aligned to the KAPD of Germany, the Dutch KAP, and other parties of the Communist Workers’ International.2
The subsequent development of this group is obscure, but it seems to have been closely bound up with the better known Workers’ Group (also known as the Communist Workers’ Group) of Miasnikov -- in fact the Russian ‘CWP’ of 1922 seems to be a precursor of the latter. On 1 December 1923 the Dreadnought announced that it had been sent a copy of the Workers’ Group’s Manifesto by the CWP, along with a protest by the CWP against the imprisonment in Russia of Miasnikov, Kuznetzov, and other militants of the Workers’ Group. In 1924 the KAPD published the Manifesto in Germany and described the Workers’ Group as the “Russian section of the IVth International”. In any case, the defence of left communism as exemplified by the KAPD was henceforward to be carried on in Russia by the Miasnikov group.
Gabriel Miasnikov, a worker from the Urals, had leapt to prominence in the Bolshevik Party in 1921 when, immediately after the crucial Tenth Congress, he had called for “freedom of the press from monarchists to anarchists inclusive” (quoted in Carr, The Interregnum). Despite Lenin’s attempts to dissuade him from this agitation, he refused to climb down and was expelled from the party in early 1922. In February-March 1923 he joined with other militants to found the Workers’ Group of the Russian Communist Party (Bolshevik), and they published their Manifesto, which was distributed at the Twelfth Congress of the RCP. The group began to do illegal work amongst party and non-party workers, and seems to have had an important presence in the strike wave of summer 1923, calling for mass demonstrations and trying to politicize an essentially defensive class movement. Their activities in these strikes were enough to convince the GPU that they were a real threat; a wave of arrests of their leading militants dealt a severe blow to the group. But as we have seen, they carried on their underground work, if on a reduced scale, until the beginning of the 1930s.3
The Workers’ Group’s Manifesto is a considerable advance on the Appeal of the Workers’ Truth, but it still shows the hesitations and half-formed ideas of the communist left, especially in Russia, in that period.
The Manifesto contains the usual denunciations of the dreadful material conditions being suffered by the Russian workers and of the inequalities that accompany the NEP, and asks “is it in reality possible that the Nep (new economic policy) is changing into the NEP - the New Exploitation of the Proletariat?”. It goes on to attack the suppression of dissent inside and outside the party, and the danger of the party being transformed into “a minority, wielding control of power and of the country’s economic resources, which will end up as a bureaucratic caste”. It argues that the unions, soviets and factory committees have lost their function as proletarian organs, so that the class has no control either of production or the political apparatus of the regime. And it calls for a regeneration of all these organs, a radical reform of the Soviet system which will enable the class to exert its domination over economic and political life.
This immediately brings us to the major problem which faced the Russian left in the early twenties. What attitude should they take up to the Soviet regime? Did the regime still have any proletarian character, or should revolutionaries call for its out and out destruction? The trouble was that during those years there simply was neither the experience nor the established criteria for deciding whether or not the regime had become completely counter-revolutionary. This dilemma is reflected in the ambiguous attitude the Workers’ Group took up towards the regime. Thus it attacks the inequalities of the NEP and the danger of its “bureaucratic degeneration” while at the same time asserting that “the NEP is the direct result of the situation of the productive forces of our country. It must be used to consolidate the positions conquered by the proletariat in October.”4 The Manifesto thus puts forward a series of suggestions for ‘improving’ the NEP – workers’ control, non-dependence on foreign capital etc. Similarly, while criticizing the degeneration of the party, the Workers’ Group, as we have seen, opted for work among party members and for putting pressure on the party leadership. And although elsewhere the group posed the question whether the proletariat might not be “compelled to once again start anew the struggle -- and perhaps a bloody one -- for the overthrow of the oligarchy” (quoted in Carr, The interregnum), the main emphasis of the Manifesto is on the regeneration of the Soviet state and its institutions, not on their violent overthrow. The position of ‘critical support’ is further underlined by the fact, that, in the face of the war threat posed by the Curzon Ultimatum of 1923, the members of the Workers’ Group are reported to have taken an oath to resist “all attempts to overthrow the Soviet power” (Carr, Ibid). Whether or not it was ‘correct’ to defend the Russian regime in 1923 is not really the point. The positions the Workers’ Group took up then certainly did not make it counter-revolutionary, because the experience of the class had not yet definitively settled the Russian question. Its ambiguities about the nature of the Russian regime are above all testimony to the immense difficulties this question posed to revolutionaries in the confusion and disarray of those years.
But the most important aspect of the Workers’ Group was not its analysis of the Russian regime but it’s intransigently internationalist perspective. Significantly, the 1923 Manifesto begins with a powerful description of the world crisis of capitalism and posed the choice facing mankind as a whole: socialism or barbarism. In attempting to explain the delay in the working class arriving at a revolutionary consciousness in the face of this crisis, the Manifesto mounts a marvelous attack on the universally counter-revolutionary role of Social Democracy:
“The Socialists of all countries, are at any given moment the only saviours of the bourgeoisie from the proletarian revolution, because the working masses are accustomed to be suspicious of everything which comes from their oppressors, but when the same things are described as being in its interests and are adorned with socialist phrases, then the worker who is misled by these phrases believes the traitors and expends his energies in a hopeless struggle. The bourgeoisie has, and will have, no better advocate.”
This understanding allows the Workers’ Group to make a series of bitter denunciations of the Comintern’s tactics of the United Front and the Workers’ government as so many ways of tying the proletariat to its class enemies. Though less aware of the reactionary role of the unions, the Workers’ Group shared the KAPD’s perception that in the new epoch of capitalist decay all the old reformist tactics had to be jettisoned:
“The time when the working class could improve their material and legal position by strikes and entrance into Parliament is now irrevocably past. It must be said openly. The struggle for the most immediate objectives is a struggle for power. We must drive home by our propaganda that, though we have called for strikes in various cases, these cannot really improve the workers’ conditions. But you, workers, have not yet overcome the old reformist illusions and are carrying on a fight which only exhausts you. We are in solidarity with you in your strikes, but we always insist that these movements will not liberate you from slavery, exploitation and hopeless poverty. The only road to victory is the conquest of power by your own rough hands.”
The role of the party, then, is to prepare the masses everywhere for civil war against the bourgeoisie.
The Workers’ Groups understanding of the new historic epoch appears to contain all the weaknesses as well as the strengths of the KAPD’s idea of the “death crisis of capitalism”. For both, once capitalism had entered into its final crisis, the conditions for a proletarian revolution exist at any time: the role of the party is thus one of detonating the class into a revolutionary explosion. Nowhere in the Manifesto is there any understanding of the reflux of the world revolution that has taken place, requiring a careful analysis of the new perspectives open to revolutionaries. For the Workers’ Group in 1923, world revolution was just as much on the agenda as it had been in 1917. Thus it could share the KAPD’s illusions in the possibility of building a IVth International in 1922, and as late as 1928-31 Miasnikov was still trying to organize a Communist Workers’ Party for Russia.5 It appears that only the Italian Left was able to develop an appreciation of the role of the communist fraction in a period of reflux, when the party can no longer exist. For the KAPD, the Workers’ Dreadnought, Miasnikov and others, the party could exist at any time. The corollary to this immediatist view was an inexorable tendency towards political disintegration: even allowing for the effects of repression, the German left communists, like their Russian and English sympathizers, found it almost impossible to sustain their political existence during the period of counter-revolution.
The concrete proposals advanced by the Workers’ Group concerning the international regroupment of revolutionaries show a healthy concern for the maximum possible unity of revolutionary forces, but they also reflect the same dilemmas about the relationship of the communist left to the degenerating ‘offical’ communist institutions which we have noted elsewhere. Thus while fiercely opposing any United Front with the Social Democrats, the Workers’ Group’s Manifesto calls for a kind of united front of all genuine revolutionary elements, among whom it included the parties of the IIIrd International as well as the Communist Workers’ Parties. On another occasion the Workers’ Group is reported to have entered into negotiations with the KPD left around Maslow in an attempt to draw Maslow into its aborted ‘foreign bureau’. The KAPD in its comments on the Manifesto was extremely critical of what it called the Workers’ Group’s “illusion that you can revolutionize the Communist International….the IIIrd International is no longer an instrument of proletarian class struggle. This is why the Communist Workers’ Parties have founded the Communist Workers’ International.” However the Workers’ Group’s dilemma about the nature of the Russian regime and of the Comintern was to be resolved in the light of practical experience. The victory of Stalinism in Russia led it to take a more intransigent line against the bureaucracy and its state, while the rapid decomposition of the Comintern after 1923 made it inevitable that the future international ‘partners’ of the Workers’ Group would be the genuine left communists of different countries. It was first and foremost this ‘international connection’ with the survivors of the revolutionary wave which allowed revolutionaries like Miasnikov to attain a relatively high level of clarity in the sea of confusion, demoralization and dupery which had engulfed the Russian workers’ movement.3. The ‘irreconcilables’ of the Left Opposition
We cannot go into the whole question of the Left Opposition here. Although their confused defence of party democracy, of the Chinese Revolution, and of internationalism against the Stalinist theory of ‘socialism in one country’ demonstrate that the Left Opposition was a proletarian current, in fact the last spark of resistance in the Bolshevik Party and the Comintern, the inadequacy of their critique of the advancing counter-revolution makes it impossible to consider the Left Opposition, as a body, part of the revolutionary tradition of the communist left. On the international level, their refusal to question the Theses of the first four Congresses of the Comintern prevented them from avoiding a pathetic repetition of all its errors. Within Russia, the Left Opposition failed to make the necessary break with the party-state apparatus, a break which could have placed them firmly on the terrain of the proletarian struggle against the regime, alongside the genuine left communist fractions. Although his enemies tried to implicate Trotsky for entering into relations with illegal groupings like the Workers’ Truth, Trotsky himself explicitly dissociated himself from these groupings. He referred to the Workers’ Truth group as the “Workers’ Untruth” (Carr, The Interregnum) and himself participated in the repression of the ‘ultra-left’, for example by assisting in the commission which investigated the activities of the Workers’ Opposition in 1922. All that Trotsky would admit was that the groups were symptoms of a genuine degeneration in the Soviet regime.
But the Left Opposition in its early years was not simply Trotsky. Many of the signatories of the Platform of the Forty-Six were former left communists and Democratic Centralists like Ossinski, Smirnov, Piatakov, and others. And as Miasnikov said:
“There are not only great men in the Trotskyist opposition. There are also many workers. And these will not want to follow the leaders; after some hesitations, they will enter the ranks of the Workers’ Group.” (L’Ouvrier Communiste, no . 6, January 1930)
Precisely because the Left Opposition was a proletarian current, it naturally gave birth to a left wing which went far beyond the timid criticisms of Stalinism made by Trotsky and his ‘orthodox’ followers. Towards the end of the twenties a current known as the ‘irreconcilables’ grew up within the Left Opposition, composed largely of young workers who opposed the tendency of the ‘moderate’ Trotskyists to move towards some kind of reconciliation with the Stalin faction, a tendency which accelerated after 1928 when Stalin appeared to be rapidly carrying out the Left Opposition’s programme of industrialization. Isaac Deutscher writes that among the irreconcilables:
“ ... the view was already becoming axiomatic that the Soviet Union was no longer a workers’ state; that the party had betrayed the revolution; and that the hope to reform it being futile, the Opposition should constitute itself into a new party and preach and prepare a new revolution. Some saw Stalin as the promoter of agrarian capitalism or even, the leader of a ‘kulak democracy’ while to others his rule epitomized the ascendancy of a state capitalism implacably hostile to socialism.” (The Prophet Outcast)
In his book Au Pays du Grand Mensonge, Anton Ciliga gives an eye-witness account of the debates within the Left Opposition that took place inside Stalin’s labour camps. He shows that some Left Oppositionists stood for capitulating to the Stalinist system, others stood for reforming it, and still others for a ‘political revolution’ to remove the bureaucracy (the position Trotsky himself was to adopt). But the irreconcilables or “negators” as he calls them (Ciliga himself was one):
“ ... believed that not only the political order but also the social and economic orders were foreign and hostile to the proletariat. We therefore envisaged not only a political but also a social revolution that should open up a road to the development of socialism. According to us, the bureaucracy was a real class, a class hostile to the proletariat.” (Reproduced in ‘Revolutionary Politics in Stalin’s Prisons’, an Oppositionist pamphlet.)
In January 1930, writing in L’Ouvrier Communiste (no.6) Miasnikov wrote of the Left Opposition that:
“There are only two possibilities. Either the Trotskyists regroup under the slogan ‘war on the palaces, peace to the cottages’, under the banner of the workers’ revolution, the first step of which must be the proletariat becoming the ruling class, or they will languish slowly and pass individually or collectively into the camp of the bourgeoisie. These are the only two alternatives. There is no third way.”
The events of the 1930s, which saw the definitive passage of the Trotskyists into the armies of capital were to bear out Miasnikov’s prediction. But still the best elements of the Left Opposition were able to follow the other path, the path of the workers’ revolution. Disgusted by Trotsky’s failure to confirm their analysis in his writings from abroad, they broke from the Left Opposition in 1930-2 and began to work with remnants of the Workers’ Group and the Democratic Centralism group in prison, evolving an analysis of the failure of the world revolution and the meaning of state capitalism. As Ciliga points out in his book, they were no longer afraid to go right to the heart of the question and to accept that the degeneration of the revolution had not begun with Stalin but had gathered pace even under the aegis of Lenin and Trotsky. As Marx used to say, to be radical means to go to the root. In those dark years of reaction, what better contribution could the communist left have made than to have burrowed fearlessly to the roots of the proletariat’s defeat?
Some may see the debates that the Russian left communists carried on in prison as nothing but a symbol of the impotence of revolutionary ideas in the face of the capitalist leviathan. But although their situation was the expression of a profound defeat for the proletariat, the very fact that they continued to clarify the lessons of the revolution in such appalling circumstances is a sign that the historic mission of the proletariat can never be buried by the temporary victory of the counter-revolution – even if that victory lasts for decades. As Miasnikov wrote in connection with the imprisonment of Sapranov:
“Now Sapranov has been arrested. Even exile and the stifling of his voice did not succeed in diminishing his energy, and the bureaucracy could not feel safe about him till he was in the solid walls of a prison. But a powerful spirit, the spirit of the October Revolution, can’t be put in prison; even the grave can’t hide it. The principles of the revolution are still alive in the working class in Russia and as long as the working class lives this idea cannot die. You can arrest Sapranov, but not the idea of the revolution.” (L’Ouvrier Communiste, 1929)
It is true that the Stalinist bureaucracy long ago succeeded in wiping out the last communist minorities in Russia. But today, when a new wave of international proletarian struggle is finding a muffled echo even amongst the proletariat in Russia, the “powerful spirit” of a second October has returned to haunt the minds of the Stalinist hangmen in Moscow and their offspring in Warsaw, Prague and Peking. When the workers of the ‘Socialist Fatherland’ rise up to destroy once and for all the vast prison of the Stalinist state, they will, in conjunction with their class brothers all over the world, at last be able to solve the problems posed both by the revolution of 1917 and its loyal defenders: the revolutionaries of the Russian communist left.
“What is in order is to distinguish the essential from the non-essential, the kernel from the accidental excrescences in the policies of the Bolsheviks. In the present period, when we face decisive final struggles in all the world, the most important problem of socialism was and is the burning question of our time. It is not a matter of this or that secondary question of tactics, but of the capacity for action of the proletariat, the strength to act, the will to power of socialism as such. In this, Lenin and Trotsky and their friends were the first, those who went ahead as an example to the proletariat of the world; they are still the only ones up to now who can cry with Hutten: “I have dared!”
“This is the essential and enduring in Bolshevik policy. In this sense theirs is the immortal historical service of having marched at the head of the international proletariat with the conquest of political power and the practical placing of the problem of the realization of socialism, and of having advanced mightily the settlement of the score between capital and labour in the entire world. In Russia the problem could only be posed. It could not be solved in Russia. And in this sense, the future everywhere belongs to ‘Bolshevism’.” (Rosa Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution)
C. D. Ward
1 The Manifesto of the Workers’ Group is available (together with the KAPD’s footnotes) in French in Invariance, Series II, no. 6. An incomplete version appeared in English in the following issues of the Workers’ Dreadnought: 1 December 1923, 5 January 1924. The Appeal of the Workers’ Truth group was published in the Socialist Herald, Berlin, 31 January 1923; extracts from it appear in English in Daniels, A Documentary History of Communism.
2 The 17 June text and another text on the United Front by the same group were reproduced in Workers’ Voice, no. 14.
3 Miasnikov’s subsequent history is as follows: from 1923 to 1927 he spent most of his time in prison or exile for underground activities. Escaping from Russia in 1927 he fled to Persia and Turkey, eventually settling in France in 1930. During this period he was still trying to organize his group in Russia. In 1946, for reasons best known to himself, (perhaps expecting a new revolution after the war?), Miasnikov returned to Russia…..and has never heard of since.
4 The KAPD published the Manifesto of the Workers’ Group with their own critical footnotes. They did not accept the Workers’ Groups analysis of the NEP. For them Russia in 1923 was a country of peasant-dominated capitalism and the NEP was the expression of this. Thus they stood “not for the transcendence of the NEP, but for its violent abolition”.
5 Writing in L’Ouvrier Communiste in 1929 Miasnikov reported on a conference held in August in 1928 between the Worker’s Group, Sapranov’s ‘Group of Fifteen’, and remnants of the Workers’ Opposition. Arriving at a high level of programmatic agreement, the conference resolved to “constitute the Central Bureau of the Workers’ Group into the Central Organizational Bureau of the Communist Workers’ Parties of the USSR.” (The decision to set-up Communist Workers’ Parties for USSR may reflect the concern to ensure autonomy for each Soviet republic and its Communist Party expressed in the 1923 Manifesto, a ‘decentralist’ tendency that was criticized by the KAPD in their notes to the Manifesto.)
Of the former Democraric Centralist Sapranov and his group, Miasnikov had this to say:
“Comrade Sapranov was not made of the same material as the leaders of the opposition of the celebrities. The friendly embraces, and kisses of Lenin did not smother him or kill the living, critical, proletarian spirit in him. And in the years 1926-7 he reappeared again as leader of the ‘Group of Fifteen’. The Platform of the Group of Fifteen had no links either in ideas or theories with the platform of Democratic Centralism. It was a new platform of a new group, with no other link to the past of Democratic Centralism other than the fact that its spokesman was Sapranov.
The Group of Fifteen drew its name from the fact that its platform was signed by fifteen comrades. In its main points, in its estimation of the nature of the state of USSR, its ideas about the workers’ state, the programme of the Fifteen is very close to the ideology of the Workers’ Group.”