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Democratic Production and the Workers' Opposition of Revolutionary Russia (Part 1)

Don Fitz

Democratic Production and the Workers' Opposition of Revolutionary Russia (Part 1)

by Don Fitz

In a post-capitalist society, who should control production? How should decisions about worklife be made? Who should decide what is produced, where it is produced and how it is exchanged within a country and between countries? For the first time in history, the great Russian Revolution of 1917 had to confront these issues in more than a theoretical way. The issues became painfully pragmatic during intense conflict between the party majority and the Workers' Opposition (WO) of 1919-1921.

Too many discussions of the Bolsheviks focus on political battles and treat economic debates as barely secondary. In fact, struggles at the point of production were core; political conflicts reflected many of these differences; and, today, perspectives on top-down control version self-management permeate every vision of a new society.

In the Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels wrote that the task of building communism must be the work of the “toiling masses” themselves. In August, 1917 Vladimir Lenin wrote in The State and Revolution that “the administration of industry is well within the competence of any moderately intelligent citizen.” By 1919 thousands of workers across Russia saw these principles slipping away and cohered a group whose best known leaders were Alexandra Kollontai and Alexander Shlyapnikov.

Both had been early confidants of Lenin. While Lenin was in exile, Kollontai kept him informed of unfolding events in Russia. Shlyapnikov, a major leader of the Metalworkers Union, was the senior Bolshevik in Petrograd when the February revolution broke out. When Lenin returned to Russia and Kollontai presented his “April Theses” on the need for a continuing revolution Kollontai and Shlyapnikov were among his most ardent supporters.

Yet, by 1922 Lenin had suggested that each be shot! What had the WO done that engendered such hostility from the great architect of revolution?

First Days of Revolution

Having been a metalworker since he was 13 years old, Shlyapnikov had an intense conviction that working people were most qualified for running industry because they had day-to-day experiences with processes of production. He played a key role in absorbing craft unions into a single industrial Metalworkers' Union, much as advocated by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

As the first Commissar of Labor in the new Soviet government Shlyapnikov was keenly aware that both Bolsheviks and non-Bolsheviks had brought success to the October Revolution. The Metalworkers Union and vast numbers of other workers wanted a multi-party revolutionary government.

But as several parties rose in opposition and many of their members joined the counter-revolutionary “White” armies, the Soviets took various methods to restrain them. When Lenin suggested to the Council of People's Commissars that it arrest leaders of the Kadet Party, Stalin was the only member to vote against the resolution. Though Stalin is often portrayed as waiting for the chance to suppress opponents, unfolding events of the Bolshevik Revolution confirm that history molds people at least as much as individuals create history.

At the very outset of the October 1917 revolution, in the Metalworkers' Union called for workers' control of production. In March 1919 the 8th Party Congress (now the Russian Communist Party, or RCP) approved the famous economic section of its program, which included in paragraph 5: “Trade unions should further concentrate in their hands management of the entire economy as a single unit.” This clearly distinguished the Bolsheviks both from anarcho-syndicalists, who abhorred any “concentration,” and from super-centralizers, who wanted the economy coordinated by the state rather than the unions. Would workers' control soon blossom in Russia?

Rancorous Collapse of a Honeymoon

Despite the favorable resolution, Shlyapnikov sensed a discrepancy between what it said and what he saw being practiced. He was critical of reliance on specialists to run factories and impose top-down discipline on workers. No one disagreed that plunging productivity was threatening the survival of the revolution.

The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk of March, 1918 resulted in the loss of 40% of Russian industry and 70% of its iron and steel production. Supply lines were broken as parts necessary for manufacture vanished. The civil war which began in May, 1918 cost millions of lives from fighting, famine and disease. Mass starvation spread in Russian cities. How could the human misery be ended?

Leading Bolsheviks who had never worked in a factory interpreted the cause of the crisis as absenteeism and slovenly work habits, They saw the solution as more labor discipline with control by technocrats and the growing bureaucracy. Others, like Shlyapnikov, felt that production was hampered by breakdowns in supplies and lack of fuel and food. For them, bureaucratic control could not overcome inadequate raw materials, cold and hunger.

One of the first great blots on the revolution was in Astrakhan, where Bolsheviks authorities dispersed worker assemblies, jailed elected leaders and insisted on greater productivity. In 1919, a metalworkers assembly of 10,000 was fired on by Bolsheviks, resulting in 2000 injuries. The new secret police, the Cheka, killed hundreds, some by tying rocks to them and throwing them in the Volga River. Renewed assaults resulted in the execution of over 4000 by April. As head of the Red Army, Leon Trotsky sent his approval. Shlyapnikov demanded an investigation.

Also in 1919 forced labor camps were created, where people could be sent by orders of the Cheka, revolutionary tribunals or people's courts. As the tide of the Civil War turned during Fall 1919 and the collapse of White armies was eminent, attention turned to the organization of industry. At the end of that year, when Trotsky was at the height of his popularity, he first proposed the militarization of labor. Labor armies would be run with drafts, compulsion, and a top down structure like the military.

Shlyapnikov accepted Trotsky's use of former tsarist officers as “specialists” in the Red Army (the most centralized branch of “industry”) because workers had no special knowledge of military strategy. But he argued that industrial workers understood production processes better than the specialists assigned by the party to run factories. As more and more rank and file party members shared similar concerns they began to cohere as the Workers' Opposition (WO) in 1919.

Pulling Apart

Division within the RCP intensified throughout 1920. The year began with Shlyapnikov's proposal that unions take control of all levels of the economy. In March Trotsky put forth his idea of “one-man management” of factories and Lenin soon agreed. Kollontai staunchly defended the concept of “collective management” by elected worker representatives.

The debate over economic control spread throughout the party and promised to be intense at the upcoming 9th RCP Congress. Lenin and other party leaders thought it best that Shlyapnikov not be present and assigned him to western Europe for union work. Kollontai criticized Lenin for repeatedly removing those he disagreed with from open party discussions.

In Shlyapnikov's absence, the 9th party congress overturned the 8th congress' resolution on unions' running the economy and instead called for the party to increase its control over union staff. Subsequently, support for the WO spread among industrial unions across the country. Throughout the year, party leaders attacked WO leaders personally and politically as they sought to undermine its influence.

They accused the WO of having ties to counterrevolutionaries. Lenin and Nikolai Bukharin claimed that the desire of the WO to include non-Bolsheviks in management of the economy made it “syndicalist,” even though actual syndicalists did not include it in their umbrella. Grigory Zinoviev chided it for failing to understand that the transition to socialism had to be controlled by party specialists rather than workers.

The discord of 1920 did not only center around the WO. In August, Trotsky inspired the merger of railway and water-transport unions into a new Tsektran, which had appointed leaders and widespread labor conscription. Multiple organizers feared that this was merely Trotsky's first step in centralizing all unions into an appointed state apparatus of militarized labor. Hostility spread so rapidly that the September 9th Party Conference presidium left Trotsky and his supporters off of its list for the Central Committee (though they were later put back on).

Trotsky's allies were so adamant in demanding the militarization of labor that they broke party discipline by denouncing the WO in meetings with non-party workers. Defending his proposals, Trotsky wrote “Man must work in order not to die. He does not want to work. But the social organization compels and whips him in that direction.” In one meeting after another, workers openly worried that if Trotsky's proposals were put into effect, they could be jailed for breaking minor labor rules.

The anger seemed about to boil over. Lenin's supporters put together a commission to resolve differences. It included both Trotsky and Shlyapnikov. Yet, both quickly resigned, complaining that Lenin had stacked the deck to ensure that the views of neither would be represented in its proposals. This may have been the only time that Trotsky and Shlyapnikov agreed during this period.

As the infamous 10th party congress of March 8-16, 1921 approached, the RCP had three clearly defined factions. On the left, the WO called for increased union control over the economy, decreased bureaucratization, and restoration of internal party democracy. The right, led by Trotsky and Bukharin, called for labor armies controlled by the state. “The Ten,” based on Lenin's most loyal supporters, proposed that unions be separate from the state, with their major role being education of workers on socialism.

Many Meanings of “Workers' Control”

It would be easy to argue that “workers' control” was abandoned at the 10th party congress. But the phrase “workers' control” meant very different things to different people at different times. So it's necessary to dive into socialist theory.

Did “workers' control” suggest that the labor force at each factory could seize it, do with it whatever they wanted, including selling it to the highest bidder and dividing the proceeds (as actually occurred at least once after the revolution)? Did it mean that each group of workers would decide not only how to organize production but also what products to manufacture and sell in the market? Or, did it mean, as the WO proposed, that elected union leaders would coordinate production at a local and national level, leaving the maximum possible decision-making regarding the organization of production to each group of workers?

Karl Marx' critique of capitalist “anarchy of production” was a central part of the attitude towards workers' control in the early 20th century. Goods were produced, not due to social need, but because they could sell in the capitalist market. For Marx, economic justice required a plan for production to meet needs. This was supported by virtually all calling themselves socialist.

A major difference arose between reformists (like Eduard Bernstein) who felt that workers' rights could be won gradually by electing socialists to office and those (like Lenin) who saw the necessity for revolution. Both sides rejected anarchist and syndicalist views which would leave production in the hands of each workgroup. For socialists, a series of worker-owned enterprises would leave the market intact and force the workgroups to compete with each other and exploit themselves.

Marx assumed that those who would plan production would be the “toiling masses” themselves. But what if the “toiling masses” were divided from those who had power over the economy? Marx never posed this possible discord between theory and practice, but it was posed by bitter debates within the RCP.

Lenin's approach to control of industry reflected his approach to land and the peasantry. The Bolsheviks assumed that raising productivity required collective working of the land. When Lenin returned to Russia after the February 1917 revolution and spoke at the Bolshevik April conference regarding a resolution on land, he was adamant that the clause on peasants' taking control of land should go before the portion on nationalizing land because “it is the revolutionary act which is important.” As peasant land seizures spread across Russia during the following months the Bolsheviks followed Lenin's lead in enthusiastically supporting them while scarcely mentioning the ultimate goal of nationalizing land.

Likewise, between the two revolutions, workplace seizures grew like an urban wildfire. Lenin unabashedly fanned the flames of discontent as he spoke and wrote in favor of “workers' control over the production and distribution of goods.” Criticism came from other Bolsheviks such as Solomon Lozovsky who wrote “It is necessary to make an absolutely clear and categorical reservation that the workers in each enterprise should not get the impression that the enterprise belongs to them.”

Shlyapnikov and Kollontai were among the thousands of revolutionaries who lauded Lenin's statements. For them, workers' control was an end in itself and the foundation of a new society. But a careful reading of Lenin reveals that he saw workers' control as a means of smashing capitalists control of industry which would yield to the greater end of centralized planning.

Thus, three apparitions haunted the Bolshevik spirit in 1917: the wary spirit worried that workers' control could interfere with building a state-run economy; the undivided spirit beheld self-management as simultaneously the method and goal of establishing socialism; and, the redefining spirit realized that workers' control could first be used as a method to break up capitalism and then reappear as control by the party unifying production on behalf of the working class. These ghosts wrestled with each other, sometimes within themselves, through 1921 and beyond.

Praise of worker's control diminished as party leaders saw production falling and centralization became the word of the day. Terrified by mushrooming disorder, they decided to bring back bureaucrats to run the state and economy. Shlyapnikov was shocked when he returned to Moscow in February 1919 to see the extent of pre-revolutionary specialists in control of industry. The same concern echoed across the country.

The Bolshevik factions of 1921 were corporal forms of the three apparitions of workers' control. The WO advocated workers' making fundamental decisions about production and coordinating the economy through elected representatives. Endorsing top-down militarization of labor, the Trotsky-Bukharin bloc did not even give lip service to workers' control. Lenin, the skilled manipulator, cohered the overwhelming majority by co-opting much of the language of workers' control while adopting a gentler-worded form of much of what Trotsky-Bukharin proposed.

10th Congress of the Russian Communist Party

In late 1920, Lenin and Trotsky each had representatives on the party's Central Committee (CC) while there were none for the WO. Since Trotsky's faction was strong, almost winning a CC majority, Lenin had his work cut out for him, which he did most skillfully.

Efim Ignatov was one of many Moscow workers who favored a major role for the soviets and unions in coordinating production. They blocked with WO supporters to obtain a large minority of votes for selection of delegates to the 10th party congress. Lenin had the party's Central Committee (CC) interfere to deny proportional representation – all the delegates went to his faction. It is unknown the extent to which the WO was similarly underrepresented in other parts of Russia.

While support for the WO was strong among industrial workers, it lacked the political skills of Lenin and the writing talent of Trotsky. So several of its leaders turned to Kollontai who wrote the pamphlet entitled The Workers' Opposition.

As editor of the party's paper Pravda, Bukharin was able to ensure that Kollontai's manuscript was published well after those airing Lenin's and Trotsky's views. When it did appear, workers read the WO echoing their own complaints: though self-organization of production should be the essence of communism, workers were denied any such role, which was given to party-approved specialists. The party was interfering with workers' initiative so much that they could not even organize their own canteens or childcare without going to bureaucrats. As former capitalists adapted themselves to the soviet system, they reappeared as the new bosses.

Kollontai quipped that while party leaders regarded unions as “schools for communism,” unions should be its creators as well. She proposed that “all cardinal decisions of party activity” within unions should be subjected to a vote by the rank and file. Instead of concentrating funds for the dominant view, she advocated printing views of all factions. Though Kollontai's pamphlet clearly stated that “specialists can do valuable work,” it was ridiculed by Lenin's supporters as ignoring the need for specialists.

Factionalism was even deeper in 1921 than it had been in 1917 when some CC members opposed the seizure of power, in 1918 when there was strong opposition to the treaty of Brest-Litovsk, or during many other disagreements. In earlier disputes different Bolsheviks lined up together and other disputes would see different realignments. But the 1921 division had been brewing for years with opposing sides becoming more intransigent – the sort of conflict that could rip a party apart.

As sailors rallied to the call of many Petrograd workers for democratic elections and coping with food shortages, the Kronstadt Rebellion broke out when the 10th congress was opening. Timing could not have been worse for the WO, which strongly advocated working within the RCP rather than rising up against it.

Multiple speakers used Kronstadt to associate the WO with counter-revolution. Lenin opened the congress with an attack on the WO, saying it used the same slogans as Kronstadt. He singled out Kollontai, denouncing her pamphlet as the “platform of a new party” and exclaimed “For this you should not only be excluded but shot as well!” Attempting to link it to another source of discord Bukharin howled that the WO “was complicit in peasant opposition to the Soviet regime.”

Despite the onslaught of Lenin's full fury the WO pushed forward. It's ally Ignatov made three proposals designed to reverse the path taken by the RCP: (1) purge non-proletarian, non-peasant party members who had joined since mid-1918, (2) require non-workers to wait 1-2 years before holding party positions, and (3) require all party members to do at least three months of physical labor per year.

As the congress wore on, Lenin's grip became tighter and votes for WO proposals became smaller. By the end, there was an overwhelming vote endorsing Lenin's view that workers were not yet ready to run the economy. Two shockers came during the final session. One resolution banned factions and allowed the Central Committee (CC) to expel those engaged in factional activity. The second, aimed specifically at the WO, condemned the “syndicalist and anarchist” deviation within the party.

The icing on the cake was election of Shlyapnikov to the CC and refusal to allow WO members to leave their position in the party. Together, these destroyed the ability of the WO to organize and specifically forced Shlyapnikov to present Lenin's views when speaking in public. A question which no one seemed to have asked was: If it was okay for the RCP to have banned factions and muzzled the WO, would it have been okay for the Mensheviks to have done the same to the Bolsheviks when they had the upper hand?

By the end of the 10th congress, it was unambiguous that the phrase “workers' control” assumed that the single party in power was alone in representing the true interests of the working class. The party would control industry, including control of management and day-to-day decisions regarding worklife. This interpretation implied that the vanguard party, knowing better than workers themselves what their true needs were, could remove and replace those elected to union offices.

The End Approaches

After the 10th congress, anti-WO campaigns multiplied. Party leaders removed former WO organizers from positions and/or transferred them to locations where they would be isolated. The epitome of this strategy was when Lenin, Bukharin, Zinoviev and Vyacheslav Molotov collaborated to oust Shlyapnikov as head of the Metalworkers' Union and replace him with yes-bureaucrats. It required the big guns from the party center since they were strongly resisted by the union, which voted repeatedly against such maneuvers. When a CC commission noted that the reason for removing specific metalworkers was that they had been WO supporters, Shlyapnikov correctly replied that such targeting violated the 10th party congress ban on factions.

Instead of responding to Shlyapnikov's charges, the center initiated the first party's show trial of Shlyapnikov for the crime of continuing a faction (which he had not done). This attack accomplished several goals simultaneously. First, it initiated terror against resistance to Lenin's power. (A side effect was teaching Stalin how to conduct a show trial via false accusations.) Second, by publicly humiliating Shlyapnikov after removing him from union leadership, it further undercut his political effectiveness.

The most important aspect of Shlyapnikov's show trial was how it fit into the overall plan to slash the power of the Metalworkers' Union. The 500,000 members of the union outnumbered the membership of the RCP. Forcing such a union to kneel before the smaller organization put the RCP well on its way to being the single political/economic force in the country.

Shlyapnikov was hardly a solitary target of the party's wrath. The list is quite long, with some of the notable cases being David Ryazanov, Flor Mitin and Kollontai. Prior to the May 1921 trade union congress Ryazanov criticized the party for treating trade unions with scorn, only consulting them on trivial matters, and insisting that their leaders sign decrees whether they agreed with them or not. In order to prevent Ryazanov from presenting such a resolution, they forbade him from attending the congress. (Party discipline meant that leaders could tell followers what meetings they could and could not go to.) When the resolution made it to the floor and passed anyway the party investigated how the resolution could have possibly made its way through its censors.

Mitin discovered how to cope with demotion of WO supporters across the country. He transferred many to a different location but in a higher position than what they had been demoted to. His actions did not violate the ban on factions while the pattern of targeting party loyalists who had been members of the WO did violate the ban. The party center found this irrelevant and had Mitin expelled.

When Kollontai criticized the New Economic Policy (NEP) at a July 1921 Communist International (Comintern) meeting, Trotsky misrepresented her views as merely those of one individual and appealed to sexism of the audience by referring to her as a “Valkyrie.” Another Bolshevik denounced her for violating party discipline and presenting ideas of the “shitty” Workers' Opposition.

Anti-WO tactics were not limited to personality attacks, reassignments and expulsions. An odd letter went to Shlyapnikov inviting him to join efforts to create a new international party, which would be an extreme violation of party discipline. Shlyapnikov interpreted it as an effort to entrap him.

Within months of the 10th party congress, anti-WO repression had spread rapidly through Russia. In Nikolaev, 84 of 100 delegates to a local congress supported WO ideas. As a result, 90 of its best known supporters were transferred to other locations in early 1922. Retaliation against WO supporters and removal of elected union officers resulted in fewer workers being willing to participate in unions.

[This is the first of two parts. The second section covers the Third Meeting of the Comintern, differences between the Workers' Opposition and the United Opposition, Shlyapnikov during Stalin's reign, and the importance of these conflicts for those living a century later.]

This article is based on a January 2018 presentation at Legacy Books & Cafe in St. Louis, Missouri. Though it incorporates ideas from dozens of sources on the Russian Revolution it borrows most heavily from Barbara C. Allen's Alexander Shlyapnikov, 1885-1937: Life of an Old Bolshevik (2015), Chicago IL: Haymarket Books.

Don Fitz, who can be reached at, was the 2016 candidate of the Missouri Green Party for Governor. He is on the Editorial Board of Green Social Thought and is Outreach Coordinator for the Green Party of St. Louis.