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Democratic Production and the Workers’ Opposition of Revolutionary Russia


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?

Early 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.

In March 1919 the 8th Party Congress (now the Russian Communist Party, or RCP) approved the famous section of its program which included: “Trade unions should further concentrate in their hands management of the entire economy as a single unit.” Despite the favorable resolution, many sensed a discrepancy between what it said and what they saw being practiced. They were 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.

Leading Bolsheviks who had never worked in a factory interpreted the cause of the productivity crisis as absenteeism and slovenly work habits, They saw the solution as more labor discipline. Others 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.

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 Leon 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 countered 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. 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.

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. 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.”

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 the major role of unions be educating 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.

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? 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 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. They believed that 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.

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.

10th Congress of the Russian Communist Party

In 1920, 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.

WO supporters turned to Kollontai who wrote the pamphlet entitled The Workers’ Opposition. It echoed workers’ own thoughts: 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. 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 Central Committee (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!”

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 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.

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.

How Do You Strangle an Opposition?

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, Grigory Zinoviev and Vyacheslav Molotov collaborated to oust Shlyapnikov as head of the Metalworkers’ Union and replace him with yes-bureaucrats.

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.”

As the 11th party congress of March 22-April 2, 1922 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. 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.

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.

Battle for Supremacy

As Lenin’s health faded, conflict over succession became extreme. 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 Lev 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 obtaining 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.

After Stalin’s thugs disrupted their meetings, Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev admitted that the UO had lost and denounced Shlyapnikov for his WO ideas. 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; 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 became 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 became the victim of the very rules and practices for which he was the co-author.

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. 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, 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.

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.

Stalin 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.

Looking Forward

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.

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 that Lenin had. It was, in part, due to the lack of writing brilliance like 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.

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. 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 bureaucratic, vanguard 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 a shortened version of the completely documented essay which appeared in Green Social Thought and examines suppression of the Workers Opposition in greater detail. It 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 fitzdon@aol.com, was the 2016 candidate of the Missouri Green Party for Governor. He is Outreach Coordinator for the Green Party of St. Louis and is on the Editorial Board of Green Social Thought.

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