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

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This book, based on original research in newly available Russian archives, is a serious re-appraisal of the processes that led to the degeneration of the Russian revolution, and includes fascinating information on the opposition to this degeneration by Russian workers and communists in the early 1920s.  

Simon Pirani is a former Trotskyist and the book is in part his critique of Trotskyist positions on the Bolshevik Party as a vanguard party and defence of the ‘workers' state'.  His break with Trotskyism and his view of the inadequacies of the positions defended by Trotsky's Left Opposition have led him towards a more open and sympathetic approach towards the left communist oppositions, as described in his recent review of the ICC's book on the Russian Communist Left in Revolutionary History. We will return to this in a subsequent article.

The book focuses on the struggles of workers and communists against the Bolshevik Party in Moscow, covering the period from immediately after the end of the civil war in 1920, through the wave of workers' struggles in early 1921 that led to the Kronstadt uprising, to the defeat of the left-wing opposition in the Bolshevik Party in 1923-24.  This focus gives the reader an in-depth view of the processes by which the revolution degenerated, and of the reactions from the working class to each twist and turn.  On the other hand, it also means that the book lacks an international context, and its analysis of the roots of the Bolsheviks' errors is made almost entirely in isolation from the history of the international workers' movement and the defeat of the revolutionary wave in other key countries like Germany.  

Simon Pirani's book is worth reading at the very least as a supplement to the ICC's Russian Communist Left, as it contains a wealth of new and hitherto unavailable information on the left-wing oppositions that emerged from within the Bolshevik Party, including the Workers' Opposition, the Workers' Truth, the Democratic Centralists and the Workers' Group.  It also helps to widen our understanding of the opposition within the Bolshevik party as it describes the activities of other organised groups in Moscow like the Bauman group, a precursor of the Workers' Group, and the supporters of Ignatov, who were close to the Democratic Centralists  (pp61-.65).  There are vivid descriptions of the battles within the party and of the activities of the communist dissidents in the factories.  (There is also a tantalising reference on p119 to a group of ‘revolutionary left communists' who broke from the party in 1921 condemning the Bolshevik leadership for ‘returning to capital').  Pirani includes a section on the struggle of the communist left, describing the failure of "the only significant challenge to the party among Moscow workers in 1923" by the Workers' Group, and a description of the final confrontation between the left and the party leadership at the 12th party congress in 1923.  He acknowledges that it was only the communist left who voiced the danger that the party leadership "might play a role in the formation of oppressive social relations" (p216-7), while Trotsky at this time supported repressive action against the "far left" (p215). 

Other aspects of the book are not so helpful.  While Pirani is clearly motivated by a desire to defend the Russian revolution and the struggles of the Russian working class, his study, which originates in a PhD dissertation, is also marked by strong tendency towards academicism, with copious references to abstruse debates within bourgeois historiography, and there is a definite tendency to get lost in detail at the expense of a clear global, historical framework.

Politically, as far as they go, there is still much we can agree with in Pirani's arguments about the retreat of the Russian revolution; how the Bolshevik Party abandoned its original revolutionary principles, becoming fatally enmeshed in the state apparatus, depriving the soviets of power and politically expropriating the working class, culminating in the violent suppression of the revolt at Kronstadt.  He meticulously describes the emergence of a "party elite" embedded within the state apparatus that with the Stalinist counter-revolution was to become the kernel of a new ruling class.  He does not, however, relate the rise of Stalinism to the global tendency within capitalism in its epoch of decay towards state capitalism, or to the historical specificities of how this tendency showed itself in Russia; one of the key theoretical gains of the communist left.  This leaves his conclusions on the role of the Bolshevik Party and the particular path taken by the revolution in retreat lacking a solid historical framework.

One of Pirani's key conclusions is that the legacy of the Bolsheviks is negative, if only for the spread of authoritarian, vanguardist and statist ideology in the workers' movement.  He rejects the crass councilist and libertarian contention that the Bolsheviks were machiavellian power-seekers from the beginning, acknowledging the impact of external events on the revolution, including the failure of the world revolution to spread outside Russia.  He also rejects a fatalist approach and suggests that different choices in 1921 might have made possible a more successful resistance to the advance of Stalinism (p240-241). 

But his lack of a deeper historical framework, and the narrow focus of the book on developments in Russia, leaves Pirani's analysis vulnerable to the councilist and libertarian rejection of the whole experience of the ‘old' workers' movement and of any role for the most politically advanced minorities of the working class.  If the root of the Bolsheviks' errors was a substitutionist position - that the party takes power on behalf of the class - he fails to acknowledge that this was essentially the same position defended by the rest of the international workers' movement.  Substitutionism was at root a symptom of the as yet incomplete break of the working class from the social democratic conceptions prevalent in the ascendant period of capitalism, not a specifically Bolshevik deviation.

Pirani's book must be seen as part of his own personal attempt to break with Trotskyist positions, and this is definitely a positive sign of the disarray of leftism, particularly Trotskyism, in the face of the collapse of the Stalinist regimes after 1989, and of the search by the most positive elements for genuine proletarian political positions.  But it also shows the difficulties of breaking with leftism without beginning to draw the vital lessons of the experience of the proletariat's past struggles, and particularly of the Russian revolution. 

Mark Hayes 31/10/9

Simon Pirani, The Russian revolution in retreat, 1920-1924:  soviet workers and the new communist elite, Routledge, 2008

see also

Russian communist left: reponse to Simon Pirani


Historic events: