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Democratic Production and the Workers' Opposition of Revolutionary Russia (Part 2)

Don Fitz

Democratic Production and the Workers' Opposition of Revolutionary Russia (Part 2)

by Don Fitz

[This is the second of two parts. The first section covered the origins of the Workers' Opposition (WO), interpretations of “workers' control,” the 10th Party Congress, and suppression of the WO after the congress.]

The Third Meeting of the Comintern

With opportunities for discussion and organization being closed out, Kollontai and Shlyapnikov realized that there was one avenue still open for getting their ideas heard: the Comintern. One of its 21 points of agreement for joining included the right of a political minority in a country to appeal its case to the international. They organized an “Appeal of the 22” from loyal Bolsheviks to the third Comintern meeting of February 24 – March 4, 1922 regarding the suppression of union activists.

When Kollontai tried to address the Comintern Executive, Trotsky and Zinoviev removed her from the list of speakers. Resisting that decision, Kollontai insisted on speaking and Trotsky repeated his disallowal and ordered Russian delegates to “obey party directives.” (Trotsky's elimination of the right of a party minority to exercise its right of dissension would soon haunt him.) The Comintern created a commission to investigate the affair and censured the 22, ordering them to abstain from such actions in the future.

Back in the USSR things did not settle down. The Metalworkers' Union met in March 1922. Despite intense maneuvers WO supporters gained 84 votes against 99 for the slate approved by the party center for the union's central committee. They asked for proportional representation. The RCP's Politburo stepped into the union's affairs and ruled that WO supporters should not have any representation.

WO supporters in the Siberian city of Omsk had a majority of the party's committee. CC secretary Stalin took the reigns of reorganizing the RCP in Omsk – there were reprimands, expulsions and over 100 transfers to reestablish control of the local party from the center.

As the 11th party congress approached, it was clear that Lenin's view of unions as mediators between workers and state-appointed managers prevailed over Trotsky's implications that unions should be crushed and the WO orientation that they be managers of industry. Party leaders such as Bukharin were threatened by the continuing loyalty to WO ideas. The existence of Shlyapnikov was living contradiction to Bukharin's belief that workers could not generate an “intellectual elite” capable of managing the economy. The need to destroy Shlyapnikov and co-thinkers figured large in frequent complaints that the “Appeal of the 22” had fallen into the hands of reactionaries and thereby threatened the revolution – complaints which prefigured those that would appear against Trotsky.

The 11th party congress took place March 22-April 2, 1922. Since Lenin had theorized that conditions in Russia meant that the proletariat no longer existed as a class, Shlyapnikov congratulated the congress “on being the vanguard of a non-existent class.” Lenin reminded the congress that those who create panic in an army are shot and denounced participation in the “Appeal of the 22” for starting panic in the party. Unambiguous was the implication that Shlyapnikov, as originator of the Appeal, should be shot.

Kollontai challenged the atmosphere of terror engulfing the party's persecution of those who supported WO beliefs. She noted that the ban on factions created an atmosphere whereby two comrades engaged in discussion would be fearful of a third entering the room because that person could accuse them of having a “factional” meeting.

As the party discussed whether Shlyapnikov and Kollontai should be expelled for holding “factionalist” meetings, Shlyapnikov mocked them for not presenting evidence that “meetings” had a chairperson, agenda, votes or minutes. When reading this period of Soviet history, it is easy to get lost in a discussion of whether Shyapnikov, Kollontai and hundred of groups across Russia were or were not adhering to the ban on factions and lose sight of the fact “party discipline” in 1922 required surrendering basic democratic rights.

Throughout 1922, the secret police were increasingly being used to ferret out what the party center saw as its enemies. Shlyapnikov strongly suspected that police provocateurs were behind the woman who sought to entice him into creating a “fourth international,” an act which would have verified Lenin's accusations. Secret police kept close surveillance of party opposition groups such as Workers' Truth and Workers' Group, whose members were later arrested. Earlier, the Cheka had destroyed a group which dared to actually split form the RCP and call itself the “Worker-Peasant Socialist Party.”

How Do You Strangle an Opposition?

Suppression of dissent within the RCP was not an aberration of the 10th party congress – it both preceded it and intensified after it. Lenin's illness resulted in his being out of the picture during most of 1923. (He died in January 1924.) The following are actions and trends which preceded Stalin's rise to power:

a. Probably the most frequent complaint among WO supporters was transfer to other locations to prevent them from organizing, speaking, or attending congresses or conferences.

b. Or perhaps tied for first place among complaints was removal of elected worker representatives and/or appointment of those who would be more compliant.

c. Publication of minority views was delayed or dissidents were not allowed to defend themselves from attacks.

d. Conference dates were moved up to prevent membership discussion of issues.

e. Votes were overturned or minorities were disallowed proportional representation on higher bodies.

f. Rules against “factionalism” were applied vigorously to party minorities while majorities could engage in such behavior without rebuke.

g. Many were prohibited from resigning from party positions, thereby compelling them to represent views they did not agree with when speaking publicly.

h. Oppositionists were prohibited from presenting a proposal for a vote and banned from appealing the decision to a higher body.

i. Oppositionists were repeatedly attacked as playing into the hands of counterrevolutionaries.

j. The secret police were used against critics inside the Communist Party via surveillance, interrogation, entrapment and arrest.

k. Oppositionists were expelled from the RCP for disagreement.

j. Lenin's singling out opponents who he suggested should be shot was not a way to build solidarity among comrades.

Those who seemed to most frequently engineer the destruction of the WO were Lenin, Zinoviev, Trostky, and Bukharin. Though Stalin's name does appear among those carrying out the suppression, it does not appear as prominently as these. History suggests that Stalin successfully learned the lessons they taught.

Battle for Supremacy

As Lenin's health faded, conflict over succession became extreme. The “triumvirate” of Stalin, Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev manipulated election to the January 1924 13th party congress as seamlessly as the party center had done against the WO. Though Shlyapnikov stood outside of the ensuing factional fights, he publicized strong opposition to Stalin's “socialism in one country,” which resulted in his being denied the right to speak at the 14th congress in May 1925. That year, Zinoviev and Kamemev echoed Shlyapnikov's concern and created the “United Opposition” (UO) with Trotsky. Stalin then made sure that they were removed from positions, just as the party center had done to the WO.

Shlyapnikov wrote of his agreements and disagreements with Trotsky and concluded that Trotsky had little chance of grabbing party leadership. Accusations of who did what to whom and why during 1923-27 became weird. Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev did their best to woo WO supporters to their group and denounced the increasing variety of tactics Stalin used against them, despite their similarity to tactics which they had used against the WO. Stalin simultaneously aimed his guns on Shlyapnikov with the falsified “Baku Letter,” a document which had been altered to imply WO supporters wanted to dissolve Communist Parties in western Europe.

After Stalin's thugs disrupted their meetings, Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev admitted that the UO had lost, denounced Shlyapnikov for his WO ideas, and promised to dissolve their group. Historian Isaac Deutscher wrote that Shlyapnikov gave in to Stalin although it was actually the UO that did so. In fact, a Pravda article by Valerian Kuibyshev denounced Shlyapnikov for failing to recognize his errors as Trotsky and Zinoviev had done.

The UO became outraged at Stalin's bungling of foreign affairs and, despite their pledge to end factionalism, in May 1927 they issued the “Declaration of the 83.” Shlyapnikov and his allies were not cosigners and have been criticized ever since for not doing so.

Shlyapnikov's biographer Barbara Allen interprets his unwillingness to sign the declaration as due to (1) Trotsky's refusal to invite Shlyapnikov to participate in writing or editing it, and (2) Trotsky's refusal to withdraw his condemnation of the WO made the previous year. Though it is clear that a prominent leader like Shlyapnikov would not attach his name to a document for which he was excluded from drafting and omitted multiple WO beliefs, issues separating the WO from the UO ran far deeper.

In 1927 Leon Trotsky was one of the most politically unstable leaders of the RCP, having occupied virtually every position on the Social Democratic spectrum. First, he was a Menshevik denouncing Lenin's authoritarianism; then, he organized his own group around his personality; then, he was reborn as the unquestioning disciple of Lenin; then, in 1919, he and Bukharin cohered the extreme right wing faction in opposition to both Lenin and the WO. As a Menshevik Trotsky had praised internal party democracy; then, he flip-flopped to become a major opponent of party democracy, wrote several chapters in the book of suppression of dissent, and helped develop practices to crush party opponents; and finally, he stomped his foot in fury as he became the victim of the very rules and practices for which he was the co-author. Realizing that having been a right-wing Bolshevik did not worked out so well, Trotsky reappeared as left oppositionist. His disciples have worshiped him as “leftist” ever since.

Trotsky had ridiculed Kollontai's lack of faith in specialists and bureaucrats during the 1921 party congress, but zig-zagged in 1923 to demand that the industrial bureaucracy be “destroyed.” Meanwhile, Shlyapnikov and Kollontai maintained the same position they had had for years – preserve specialists as advisers and elect managers. The contrast was deep because Shlyapnikov's political life had centered around workplace democracy while Trotsky pulled the democracy rabbit out of his hat when convenient.

Trotsky's inconsistency, along with Kamemev 's and Zinoviev's alignment and realignment of factional allies would make any reasonable person ask “What will the UO do to our economic program if they actually defeat Stalin and Bukharin?” Since those who became the UO had scorned WO ideas throughout the 1919-21 debates and repeated that scorn in 1926, there was no reason to believe that it would not happen again. It would not have been out of character for Shlyapnikov to have asked himself if the same group which helped remove the WO from influence was now toying with it to get support while covertly planning to dump it once getting the upper hand over Stalin. The UO's absence of interest in soliciting input from WO supporters when drafting its program must have exacerbated suspicions of its long-term objectives.

Though both Kollontai and Shlyapnikov continued to work inside the RCP, the infighting led them in different directions. Kollontai wrote that early in life she had been shy and unsure of herself. The severity of attacks on her views and personality seem to have traumatized and embittered her. Kollontai played a critical role in arranging a treaty of mutual recognition between Norway and the USSR in February 1924 and followed that with diplomatic work in Mexico. She continued to address the oppression of women, even when Trotsky's opposition would not.

In his autobiography Trotsky attacked Kollontai for “bowing” to Stalin. Trotsky seemed to assume that anyone who did not bow to him supported every proclamation from Stalin. In 1927, she wrote that “...the masses distrust the opposition...The formation of a bloc with yesterday's opponents is completely incomprehensible.” This slap at the unnamed Kamemev and Zinoviev was hardly groveling to Stalin. Shlyapnikov nevertheless told her of his disapproval. Though Kollontai's articles became infrequent, she occasionally wrote about women's issues and continued diplomatic work with Norway and Sweden until her death in March 1952.

Shlyapnikov Under Stalin

As Stalin consolidated power Shlyapnikov continued his course of working within the RCP while trying to do what he could to improve the condition of workers. This required him to repeatedly deny accusations of factionalism. During 1926-27 a Trotskyist detained in Omsk tried to deflect attention with claims that a secretly formed WO group had illegal literature and printing equipment and had tried to link up with other cities. Shlyapnikov had to assure the secret police that he had warned his colleagues against doing any of these.

As Shlyapnikov retreated into writing memoirs of the revolution, he was sharply criticized for failures to glorify Stalin. Refusing to recant, he was purged from the RCP in 1933. The hate campaign went into high gear: Stalin's supporters began condemning those who failed to condemn Shlyapnikov.

Until the end, Shlyapnikov was a worker-intellectual who focused on how the organization of labor could be improved. Throughout his life workplace democracy and industrial productivity were one and the same goal. The WO's central concept was that those who labor every day understand the best ways to sustain and enhance production processes. Even before the revolution, Shlyapnikov had opposed speed-up, noting that he saw more industrial accidents with an 8 hour day than the old 11 hour day. As Trotsky preached that labor productivity must be increased by cracking the Bolshevik whip, Shlyapnikov patiently explained that the real problem was bottlenecks that prevented supplies from reaching factories. He realized that ultra-specialization of factories intensified the bottlenecks and countered that each factory should be able to produce as much basic machinery as feasible.

A fundamental breach with the party center was the WO belief that effective management of industry could only occur if non-Bolsheviks were included in decision-making. Lenin, Trotsky and others insisted that decisions be left to Bolsheviks who were required to vote as directed by party discipline. Understanding that hunger and cold would worsen low productivity, the WO stood aghast at Lenin's New Economic Policy (NEP) that would prioritize creating rich peasants over increasing food and fuel for industrial workers.

Instead of relying on the NEP's use of the market to help peasants, Shlyapnikov advocated building up industry and improving wages so peasants could more easily sell bread to urban workers. Shlyapnikov's approach to the peasantry was to urge voluntary formation of cooperatives to improve agricultural productivity (in contrast to forced collectivization that Stalin would carry out).

When Trotsky proposed to close small factories and concentrate industry in 1923, Shlyapnikov pointed out that unemployment was already ravaging Russia's cities. Having faith in Russia's workers, Shlyapnikov advocated building up industry by better use of resources, such as using gold to build domestic machines rather than buying foreign products.

Nevertheless, Shlyapnikov had such a strong knowledge of industrial processes that in 1927 he was sent to western Europe to purchase high quality machinery. Back in Russia, he realized that a major factor interfering with planning was that distortions in data increased with each level of management.

As the Soviet Union began its first 5 year plan, Shlyapnikov was made leader of the metalware-industries association in 1931. There he coordinated the transition to making precision instruments required for airplane, auto and tractor manufacture.

Even after his 1935 arrest Shlyapnikov worked as an assistant director of transportation in Astrakhan where he was in exile. His son Yuri, who was allowed to visit him in 1936, was impressed with Shlyapnikov's design of a time-saving machine for unloading bread. This was the year before his execution.

Since Shlyapnikov's ideas for workers' control of industry were known throughout Russia, Stalin needed to destroy him, especially after the widespread labor discontent of 1932. Shlyapnikov was also a thorn in Stalin's side because he refused to admit errors as Trotsky and Zinoviev had done in 1926. Praise of the great leader was in vogue during the 17th party congress in 1934, but Shlyapnikov never joined the chorus. Shlyapnikov's unwillingness to bend to Stalin could well have been the reason that there was no public show trial for him as there was for luminaries who confessed to “counter-revolutionary” activity, including Bukharin, Zinoviev, Kamenev and many others.

Shlyapnikov was dangerous to every team in power since the revolution because he elbowed room for his ideas while playing by their rules. When the 10th party congress forbade factions, the WO was dissolved (even though the party center continued its own factional behavior). As the concept of factional behavior broadened, Shlyapnikov worked with his co-thinkers to operate as best they could, unlike Trotsky who enthusiastically enforced rules when part of the ruling clique and ignored the same rules when he was on the outside looking in.

Throughout his life as a dissident, Shlyapnikov continually made quips at those who failed to grasp the holes in their own rules. When Shlyapnikov's interrogators first questioned him about “anti-party views,” he asked if they were attributing “their own thoughts to him.” When asked why he did not criticize his own historical writings, he retorted that the party had not assigned him to write historical fiction. In court for his 1933 purge trial due to a long list of anti-party crimes, he queried as to how such criminal activity could have occurred for 16 years with no one noticing. Under interrogation in 1935 for an alleged conspiracy, he noted the absurdity of claiming that he would secretly work with Zinoviev in 1932 when Zinoviev's opposition was defeated even though he had nothing to do with it in the 1920s when it was strongest.

Comrade Stalin was never known for having a keen since of humor. He decided that Shlyapnikov would have the same fate as other thought criminals. Shlyapnikov was re-arrested in September 1936 as one of thousands caught up in the great terror. The only thing laughable about Stalin's cabal was the charges they came up with for their victims. On September 2, 1937 the court found Shlyapnikov guilty of heading the “anti-Soviet terrorist organization” called the Workers' Opposition which had conspired with “Trotskyist-Zinovievist and right-Bukharinist terrorists.” Shlyapnikov was shot in Moscow the same day. The isolation and persecution of Shlyapnikov by Lenin had facilitated his execution by Stalin.

Looking Forward

Yes, Stalin was very wicked. But he was not a particularly creative thinker. Stalin carried out an enormous expansion and modification of techniques of suppression of those who preceded him. Understanding of what led to his consolidation of power is essential to building organizations today which are democratic and revolutionary.

The ghost of the WO haunts every scenario of progressive activity. Whether we seek to create democratic unions, establish independent political parties, grow local and healthy food or build consumer cooperatives, we repeatedly confront those who would control us from above. Learning from the legacy of the WO requires exploring its weakness as we appreciate its strengths.

During each phase of the Russian Revolution, there were those who criticized WO leaders for failing to leave the RCP and form an independent party. There is no agreement on when that should have occurred. Would it have been too early in 1919 when Shlyapnikov returned to Moscow and heard that complaints against top-down management were spreading across Russia?

Was the time ripe in 1920 when the civil war was over and militarization of labor was becoming the word of the day? Or was the critical hour the 10th party congress which, in 1921, forbade the WO from using its name or organizing? Or, perhaps 1922, when former WO members were barred from sharing concerns internationally. Would it have been too late in 1929 when Stalin's policies of forced collectivization resulted in millions of deaths? Despite worker protests in 1932, Stalin had consolidated power to such an extent that an opposition party could scarcely have survived.

Whatever the “correct” date might have been, it most definitely was not 1927, when the United Opposition issued the “Declaration of the 83.” By then, virtually everyone supporting WO ideas understood that siding with Trotsky over Stalin would mean replacing one authoritarian egomaniac with another. To bloc with those who had utter contempt for workplace democracy until it became politically expedient to feign solidarity would have betrayed everything the WO had worked for.

Was the steady (though often circuitous) march toward economic centralization inevitable, as historian E. H. Carr thought? If so, WO concepts were whimsical fantasies that must be brushed aside now as then. Central control remains an essential part of Leninist thought, whether it appears as Trotskyism or Maoism. The assumption is that the only form a post-capitalist society can take is having one ruling clique over a single party which controls the economy and worklife. Why the WO challenge to this view was defeated remains critical today.

In a world being devastated by climate change, racist xenophobia, neoliberalism and the mindless worship of object possession, the end of capitalism could well be as terrifying as the starvation which engulfed Russian cities at the time of its revolution. Desperate people, robbed of their self-confidence, are prone to bending to strong leaders rather than keeping power in their collective hands. Struggles by the WO show the need to never let power-mongers cohere their control and become a new ruling class. Worker self-management, agricultural collectives, and consumer cooperatives can join together to create a democratic society without being dominated either by corporate markets or vanguardist elites.

The ultimate failure of the WO was, in part, due to a lack of the political/manipulative adroitness of Lenin. It was, in part, due to the lack of writing brilliance of Trotsky. More than anything else, it was a lack of self-confidence that led the WO to look for support from those determined to destroy it. Shlyapnikov spent his entire political life having faith in the Bolshevik organization. He was an outstanding figure in the revolution because his ultimate weakness was the same as his greatness – his failure to act as though he would be Prince.

Observers saw Shlyapnikov as easily outmaneuvered and no match for Lenin. When she broke off her romantic relationship with him in 1916, Kollontai concluded that, in political battles, Shlyapnikov was “helpless and clumsy.” While Kollontai may have hit the nail on the head in recognizing Shlyapnikov's political naivete, the hammer rebound to whack her own head in 1921. Lenin's friends often referred to him as “Ilyich.” She ended her most famous work, The Workers' Opposition, completed before the 10th party congress, with the prophesy “Ilyich will be with us yet.” Even as Lenin was devising a strategy to destroy the WO, Kollontai fantasized that he would advance its cause. Kollontai's placing her hope in Lenin manifests the pathos of those who sought for the underclass to become its own master.

Many believe that honoring the great accomplishments of leaders like Lenin and Trotsky requires (1) overlooking the enormity of their mistakes and (2) denigrating contributions of those like Shlyapnikov and Kollontai. The Russian revolution shows us that when oppressed people partner with those who have the intellectual capabilities of Bolshevik leaders, sooner or later the underclass will need to wrest control from their hands, even as the new leaders shriek that they must be able to dominate society because the counter-revolution is so strong.

In hindsight, all but the most blind can see that ultra-centralization which dismembered workplace self-management, created not socialism, but a new type of rule, which has been called a vanguard, bureaucratic or coordinator ruling class. Building a classless society requires ending the dichotomy between controllers and controlled. Leaders must be aware of the power they have and be willing to step aside rather than holding onto power for decades.

More important, we need to build a culture of those not in leadership positions stepping up to the plate to use the abilities they may have never known they had. Even more important, rank and file members must insist and demand that leaders teach them the organizing, speaking and writing skills that are necessary to replace them. Every progressive group – not just unions, but also political parties, and groups focused on community organizing, environmental protection, anti-imperialism, and rights of the specially oppressed – need to vastly expand to practice of rotating the role of coordinators. This is what it means to develop a leadership which negates itself in the process of becoming.

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.