a revolution in retreat

Adam Ford reviews The Russian Revolution in Retreat, 1920-24. Soviet workers and the new communist elite, by Simon Pirani, Routledge, 2008.

“I cannot be that sort of idealist communist who believes in the new God That They Call The State, bows before the bureaucracy that is so far from the working people, and waits for communism from the hands of pen-pushers and officials as though it was the kingdom of heaven.” – excerpt from the resignation letter of a Bolshevik Party member

Within what is usually labelled ‘the left’, your answer to the question ‘When did the Russian revolution go wrong?’ is a kind of touchstone. Each organisation seems to have its own One True Answer, and giving the wrong response at the wrong meeting can earn you the kind of scorn that the very religious reserve for those whose beliefs differ ever so slightly from theirs. Cue many weary Life of Brian jokes.

To outsiders – those semi-mythical ‘normal’ people who go to work, pay their bills, and never worry about such things – this seems absurd, and of course in some ways it is. After all, we are now in 2010, getting on for a century since the capture of the Winter Palace, an event which took place in a largely feudal country. In the UK, we live in a capitalist economy so advanced that it has gone post-industrial, where much of the dirty work has been farmed out to countries where they’ll do it much cheaper. And with instantaneous international communication tracking ‘just in time’ production, it makes much more sense to think of a global proletariat. So why all this focus on Russia?

Well, it’s important precisely because theoretical perspectives were developed in response to events in Russia, and later the Soviet Union, Maoist China, Cuba, and the Eastern Bloc. Broadly speaking, Trotskyism was born in 1923, when Trotsky became unofficial leader of the Left Opposition to Stalin and the ‘troika’. Following this, Stalinism would be understood as the belief that socialism could be built in one economically backward country, whether or not revolution broke out elsewhere. From these beginnings, socialist parties in the UK and around the world justified their own organisational structures and prescriptions for revolution in reference to Moscow.

But there is another argument, which stands in opposition to Trotsky, Stalin, Lenin, and all the other Bolshevik leaders. It’s an argument that’s guaranteed to wind up anyone who puts any two of those three on a pedestal, and it runs like this: the Russian revolution went wrong when the Bolsheviks seized power from the workers. This is the view of Simon Pirani.

In the author’s own words: “This book argues that the working class was politically expropriated by the Bolshevik Party, as democratic bodies such as Soviets and factory committees were deprived of decision making power; it examines how the new Soviet ruling class began to take shape.” Making extensive use of the Russian regime’s archives – including reports by the Cheka (secret police) – Pirani has compiled a three hundred page study of a critical period in the Russian revolution, between the tail end of the Civil War against ‘White’ European-backed pro-Tsarist forces, and the Josef Stalin’s final rise to power, following the death of Lenin. He shows how Moscow factory workers defended their interests, sometimes by working with, and sometimes struggling against the Bolshevik government.

Pirani’s choice of these years as the focus of his study is an interesting one. He acknowledges that times would inevitably be tough for labourers during the Civil War, with Russia under siege: “Indeed, under these conditions of desperate shortage, labour could only be alienated labour, and on that basis social relationships were formed that could only be exploitative.” But then there were three years and two months between the final defeat of Baron Wrangel’s Whites and the death of Lenin. Pirani demonstrates that these were not times when workers’ control of the economy was strengthened – on the contrary, it was severely weakened, in the aftermath of the New Economic Policy (NEP) and the ‘social contract’ to increase industrial productivity.

By 1920, the ‘Red Terror’ was in full swing – a campaign of mass arrests and executions targeting those deemed to be enemies of the revolution. These included White agents, but also deserting soldiers and striking workers at the Putilov factory – two hundred of whom were killed by the state’s security agents.

It seems reasonable that having achieved revolution, and expropriated the bourgeoisie, the working class would want to use force against counter-revolutionary elements. Such ideas were entirely in line with Marxist ideas about the “dictatorship of the proletariat”. But already it was clear that the Cheka operated outside of working class control, and were often used on workers struggling for rations. Whereas Marx had promoted the 1871 Paris Commune as the best example of how proletarian dictatorship would work, neither the Chekists nor their bosses were “chosen by universal suffrage”, or “responsible” to workers, nor, “revocable at short terms”. Already, a party bureaucracy was forming which was largely unaccountable to the people it claimed to speak for, and this bureaucracy had its own brutal secret police.

For Pirani, “No trace remained in Bolshevik practice of the ideas, widely discussed in 1917-18, that repression of the revolution’s enemies, like other aspects of policy, was an issue subject to decision by the masses of the revolution’s participants. The arbitrary exercise of power by party bodies and the Cheka, often justified during the civil war on military grounds, continued in 1920.”

In their review of The Russian Revolution in Retreat, the Trotskyists of the Permanent Revolution group uphold the Cheka as a necessary defence against “opponents of Soviet power amongst the aristocracy, bourgeoisie and officer corps and of the anti-Soviet parties”, whilst also admitting that “repression was also directed at the pro-Soviet parties, the Left SRs and anarchists who had supported the July coup attempt”.

But why would working people support a coup attempt against what was supposed to be their own government? Perhaps because they were trying to protect their own interests! For the Bolshevik leadership and the Cheka, they did so because they were ‘unconscious’, or even ‘bandits’. Working people supposedly didn’t know what was good for them, and Pirani comments that “the practical consequence of this was that political decision-making had to be concentrated in the party”. This distinction between the actual working class (who could not be trusted) and the “proletariat” (organised in a vanguard party who know best) has been inherited by all Trotskyist and Leninist groups ever since, and used to justify the proposed dictatorship of the party over the working class.

The 1921 Bolshevik Party Congress proved to be another turning point. While factions that had supported greater worker control over production were banned, proposals were drawn up to improve production. But the Congress was punctuated by perhaps the most (in)famous showdown between Lenin’s government and workers in struggle, at the Kronstadt naval fortress. Sixty thousand Red Army soldiers were sent into battle against around fifteen thousand sailors, soldiers and civilians, who were demanding new elections to the soviets, freedom of speech and the press for workers, peasants, anarchists and other left critics of the Bolsheviks, as well as the release of political prisoners, and several other demands. In many ways, the defeat of Kronstadt was a deathblow to the idea that workers’ councils would have power over the centre, and it was quickly followed by an important change in Bolshevik strategy – the New Economic Policy.

Pirani could reasonably be criticised for not describing the workings of the NEP in enough detail. In short, it allowed small businesses and shops to operate on a private basis, while the state maintained control of the banks and big industries. Some foreign – i.e. capitalist – investment would be soon encouraged, in order to speed up the industrialisation of the economy.

But for Pirani’s purposes, it seems that the NEP’s effects – on the structure of the Bolshevik Party, and workers’ fingernail grip on control – were more important than its details. He describes how a “new party elite” was effectively created, as “workers turned administrators, together with soldiers turned administrators and administrators turned Bolsheviks, formed the majority of the party.” A picture emerges of a party that was increasingly bureaucratic, in the original sense. That is to say, rule by the party office, and not by the factory floor, sailors’ garrison, or wherever else working class people were found. In this period, the Party became “an administrative machine for implementing decisions taken at the top.” However, workers generally accepted this on the basis of a social contract: better living standards would result from increased labour discipline, productivity, and surrender of political power. In Pirani’s words, “Workers benefited from this set-up – most significantly by regaining, and starting to surpass, the living standards achieved on the eve of the First World War. But the quid pro quo for this was the surrender of political power to the party.”

From here on in, Pirani’s analysis of the revolution’s decay has much in common with that of Trotsky himself, in The Revolution Betrayed. Bureaucrats now enjoyed significant material privileges, which were extremely important in the context of a very poor society. Party functionaries were appointed by the Central Committee. The material interests of the bureaucrats were increasingly served by exploitation of the masses. The significant difference between Pirani and Trotsky’s accounts is that Trotsky saw the introduction of NEP as the beginning of the end (it certainly was for him), whereas Pirani views the entirety of Bolshevik rule as constituting the expropriation of the toilers.

In one sense, The Russian Revolution in Retreat isn’t anything particularly new; anarchists Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman had both written of their disillusionment in Russia by 1925. Where Pirani does break new ground is by using the secret police’s own files against them, ironically giving a voice to hecklers at the back of rooms, using the notes of those who would silence them

One thing is beyond dispute: the Russian revolution was not the first link in a world proletarian uprising, though many genuinely believed it was at the time. It’s not helpful to reach back into history and start pointing fingers, but then this is not what Pirani does. As a Marxist, he tries to analyse the contending social forces, and explain why events happened the way they did, so:

“The rolling-back of socialist aspects of the revolution, and the advance of Stalinism, were conditioned by many powerful factors over which the Bolsheviks had no control: the failure of the workers’ movements at the end of the First World War to produce revolutionary change outside Russia; the economic conditions in Russia that were unfavourable for socialist experiments; and the economic imperatives that drove Russia forward to industrialization.”

In order to defend their perspectives and positions, socialist parties omit many of these vital stories from their official narrative, in a blatant violation of Marxism. Even when events such as the repression of left oppositionists and anarchists are raised, they are normally treated as mistakes, or – as the International Socialism review puts it, being rather “heavy-handed”. But why were these decisions taken? It seems that some writers are Marxist right up to the point where they are called upon to analyse their revolutionary heroes.

The best Marxist writing is so valuable because it provides a framework for understanding individuals and their acts, placing them in the context of the social forces acting upon that person. However, defenders of leading Bolsheviks often place their heroes above social forces to a certain extent. Though this reaches its most finished expression in Stalinist apologias, it is certainly present in reviews of Pirani’s book from various parties proclaiming themselves the heirs to Trotsky. And while Trotskyists would not explicitly label Lenin or Trotsky as supermen, they ask us to believe that for once in history, men with authority over working class people knew their interests better than they did, and acted out of something approaching selflessness. This is the warped logic at the heart of all ‘vanguardist’ theories, and Pirani picks it apart with some precision.

But how does this help us in the here and now? We are in the midst of a societal collapse, which is compelling working class people to struggle for survival on a global scale. Perhaps it shows us that a united working class must come to recognise itself through that struggle, and then begin to organise the world economy in its own interests. Perhaps it goes some way to showing that communism can only come from below, as a conscious movement of the working class to free itself. Sadly, twentieth century Russia was neither the time, nor the place, for that to happen.

16 thoughts on “a revolution in retreat

  1. ‘One thing is beyond dispute: the Russian revolution was not the first link in a world proletarian uprising, though many genuinely believed it was at the time.’A formulation that is entirely correct, and one that has implications not only for the Leninist theory of organisation, but on the entire conception of the epoch upon which the organisational theory rests. An excellent review.


  2. You ask “why working people would support a coup attempt against supposedly their own government.” Referring to the Left SR uprising in mid 1918. Good question. As of course the the Left SR coup attempt was not supported by working people, it rallied very few people to its side, including the Petrograd Left SRs who didn’t even know it was planned. And fizzled out very rapidly.
    Its intended purpose was to provoke a German invasion (the Left SRs opposed the Brest Litovsk peace treaty) hence the target of the German ambassador assassinated by Blumkin (later Trotsky’s secretary – murdered by Stalin), the Germans did indeed move their forces right up to Moscow as a result of it but withdrew as the German revolution meant they lost the war.
    It is important to reassess the period of the post-revolution crisis, but simply taking Pirani’s word for it, an old time leader of the corrupt WRP, isn’t perhaps the best place to start. Rabinowich’s book on the year after the revolution in Petrograd is much better.


  3. Nope. I still don’t care.

    If you want to try to engage people by talking about failed revolutions why not at least talk about the failed revolutions in the UK? We see the effects of those around us every day.


  4. Where did the revolution go wrong is a valid quesion and the answer will have a bearing on our own politics today. Most of communist politics could be subject to life of Brian jokes. As for Pirani’s political past-well we have all been members of failed organisations. I am not aware of what specific role he played in WRP corruption.

    But this is beside the point. He has provided detailed research to show the relationship between party and class following the Russian revolution. He demonstrates that the working class still remained organised despite myths of decimation of the working class which serve to justify substitutionism or the process in which the dictatorship of the working class became the dictatorship of the party.

    Permanent Revolution seem to have broken from the conventional Trotskist view of the Russian revolution. Mark Hoskinson in the latest issue of permanent revolution argues that the counter revolution began in 1921with the banning of factions, kronstadt and NEP. The importance of this move is the recognition that workers democracy is not a luxury which despite 1917 in which as Trotsky said the Bolshevik party became debolshevised, was Lenins enduring value. Perani’s research chimes with marks general approach.

    Now the previously Trotskyist received wisdom was that the view counter revolution began in 1921 was an Anarchist view. Therefore it was dismissed and Trotskys misuse of the anaolgy of Thermidor was accepted uncritically,despite the fact that Trotsky’s utter failure to spot the counter revolution centered on the party elite or the party apparatus and its fusion with the state had been known for many years. His complete mess up with the Thermidor analogy given the facts of the counterrevolution had been exposed in the 1930,s

    Mark Hoskisson was one of comrades putting the conventional view for many years,but lets not hold his past against him. But the political blinkers have not entirely gone since he dismisses the view that the process of substitutionism of party for class began shortly after the revolution as anachist. And there is ideological gulf between anachism and Marxism so the new marxist line based on a very narrow range of references is that 1921 was a distinct break from the fundamental character of the Bolshevik party in the period 1912/20. This is clearly dogmatism.

    Apart from the break of 1917 the Leninist faction was not democratic. democracy could be dispensed with if necessary. Don’t mention the Bolshevik Leninist’s before 1912 ! But sticking to period after 1917 the undemocractic choices were made as early as 1918 before the civil war. As Pirani concludes: the Bolsheviks vanguardism made them blind to the creative potential of democratic workers organisations. This was the constant refrain of all the opppositions inside the party. We do not trust the workers or their initiative. we fear criticism. we relay on specialists, managers,officers and a handfull of leaders.


  5. As you say PR have changed our view on Thermidor notably to point out how the actions of Lenin and Trotsky facilitated the bureaucratic degeneration of the revolution.
    I didn’t say there was nothing of worth in Pirani’s book, as is clear from my review I think. But his motivation does illustrate a point of view I think.
    Its too strong to say that the Leninist faction was not democratic. There were plenty of examples of democracy in it. I won’t tire you with them. But you repeat the idea of the Bolshevik monolith. There were widely differing view points in the Bolshevik faction and particularly in the business years from 1917-1921. Most of the important oppositions to Lenin arose within it, the Left Communists, the Trotskyists, the Workers Opposition, the Democratic Centralists, Miasnikov etc. So to speak of “Bolshevik vanguardism” is to elide the entirety of the very diverse Bolsheviks with one trend.


  6. I am writing a review of mark Hoskinssons article so only a few points here.

    The leninist faction did not see working class democracy as essential .Their usual approach was top down centralism.

    The ban on factions was a ban on non Leninist factions. The leninist fation with stalin at the core had already elbowed aside the non leninist intruders from 1917 to control all the key posts in the ultra centralised party structure.

    Trotsky considered himself to be the only true leninist among the top leadership or leninist faction and tried to cling to the leadership faction with damaging consequences for his understanding of the process of counter revolution and democracy in the party.


  7. Well if that’s your review then I’m afraid you’ve missed the point, namely that Lenin’s attitude changed between 1917-21. The Lenin of 1917/18 was not the Lenin of 1921. Just look at the how the debate around Brest Litovsk was handled for example, compared with the “debate” about the banning of factions and indeed the banning of factions itself.
    As you say Trotsky did try to prove himself the only “true” Leninist, I think Mark makes the point very well that his leadership of the left opposition through the 1920s was hidebound as a result.


  8. BTW I should have added we’re looking for follow up contributions to put in the journal, so if you’d like it published by us then let me know.


  9. I think I’m more with Barry Biddulph than BillJ on this point. BillJ argues that the degeneration of the Bolshevik party was process over time and I’d agree with this but Rabinowitch’s book on the first year of Bolshevik power gives plenty of examples of how decisions were being made back in 1918 by the Bolshevik leadership that were weakening the links between party and class, substituting party power for soviet power and the sidelining and eventual destruction of workers’ control.

    Mark I think is right that 1921 marked a discrete step back from which it was much harder if not impossible to return- the ban on factions and even more crucially (I think it deserves far more detailed attention) the disastrous crushing of Kronstadt were fundamental errors and that the Trotskyist left’s inability to see this or even (for the most part) discuss it are fatal flaws within its political DNA. However, he is I think wrong to see the beginning of the degeneration as originating in 1921- that’s too late. 1921 was a turning point but its origins were earlier I’d suggest.


  10. 1921 was the end of the beginning if you want to put it like that. In other words, degeneration was completed by then. As you say Rabinowich’s book does point to earlier examples of bureaucratic practice, how far any of that was justified is difficult to know, there were after all material pressures, but this was a process that was completed by 1921, after that point there was no going back.
    I put this point at the SWPs marxism. Their general answer was that Lenin had no option but to crush democracy as the bolsheviks needed to hang on for the German revolution. That’s a moot point anyway, as the revival of the economy with NEP should have allowed the revival of democracy if that was the reason for its abolition. In fact democracy was crushed even further. But more to the point a German revolution was impossible once democracy had been crushed in the party as the debacle of 1923 demonstrated all to clearly.
    More to the point what does this all mean now?
    I personally don’t think its necessary to agree a correct line on the degeneration, what socialists need to agree on is what type of organisation should they have now and what democratic guarantees need to be put in place to protect minorities from the abuse of the majority.


  11. OK BIll whens the deadline? Whats the e mail address?

    Obviously I cannot write a review before the review,but to address two points you do make.

    Brest Litovsk. The debate was handled differently.

    Well Lenin threatened to resign to get his own way rather than abide by the majority position. There was a slim majority in the central committee for the treaty. The treaty as not approved by a full membership conference. Instead a small number of 35 full timers approved of the decision at a special conference. The soviets and the wider workers movement were not invited to participate in the decision making process. The anti treatry faction had a lot of support in key bolshevik committees. The anti treaty faction and their publication faced organiational measures and the usual abuse : petty bourgeois, childish phrase mongers and so on. Not a climate for rational debate. Lenins bullying made Trotsky wobble ensuring the slim majorty in the central committe.


  12. It’s on a three monthly timetable so mid Sept, so deadline I suppose end of August, you obviously don’t have to frame it as a reply to Mark, but you can if you want. Generally articles are around 6K. E-mail me on this e mail or contact me on facebook and i’ll give you my other address.

    On Brest Litovsk I think you basically confirm my point. Whatever you think about Lenin’s debating style, and bear in mind that the German troops were advancing on all fronts at the time, so there was an issue of urgency, this was not the banning of debate and police measures that characterised the situation after 1921, and to a degree before it.
    The anti treaty faction did have a lot of support, probably the majority of the working class centres and of the Bolshevik party, but frankly the bottled it. By the summer the support for their position had all but evaporated. Interestingly even Krondstadt supported the peace treaty when it was put to a vote of the Soviet.


  13. I do not accept the extent of support of the anti-Treaty faction. Firstly the soviet Republic in Russia was brought into being on the back of support for a policy of bringing an end to the war. What kind of measure of democracy is completely ignoring the very policies by which the Bolsheviks-Left SR bloc came to power? Indeed the very anti-Treaty forces in Russia were elected to numerous posts in the administration which they refused to then take up.

    The situation in the Ukrainian Peoples Republic was very different, opposition to the Treaty made by the right-wing SR’s was oppose an Austro-German occupation set out to destroy independence and the coalition Soviet government which took power against the right-wing.


  14. Chris asks What kind of democracy is it whch completely ignors the very peace policy on which the Revolutionary givernment of the Bolsheviks and the left SR ‘s came to power. The question is rhetorical but rather unclear. It seems to suggest that the those workers and communists whom were opposed to the Treaty were undemocratic in opposing the politics of peace in the programmatic basis of the revolution in1917. Or he might be saying that it was not realistic to oppose the peace sentiment which helped establish the “socialist republic”.

    Now what we have been discussing is what lessons can we learn from the process of the degeneration of the Russian Revolution for our politics today.These considerations begin with the recognision that the Bolshevik government and the state the leaders established was at odds with the revolutionary programme/sentiments of the heroic year of 1917. Probably from 1918 and certainly from 1919 many Blolsheviks and many workers took the view that the political aspirations of 1917 had been betrayed by the Bolshevik leadership.

    For instance, soviet power,workers control/management,the commune state,workers self activity and creativity. Peace was always part of the socialist programme particularly in times of capitalist war,but there is the recognition of armed defence against counter revolution. so the Anti treaty comrades agitation cannot be regarded as somehow illegitimate because they did not emphasis peace as many did in 1917. Marxists are not pacifists.

    As for the narrow factional point that leadership posts were declined(a charge of disloyalty to the party? ) I am not sure which comrades and which posts are involved in the comrades comments. But in general there was a policy of incorporation in which oppositions could be beheaded or lose their leaders who would be immersed carrying out practical tasks under instructions from the Bolshevik leaders. It was a way of keeping critical mouths shut.

    On Bills response about Lenins style. i do not think it is a question of style but substance. If the various oppositions are described as petty Bourgeois and the counter revolution is described as petty bourgeois, then its not a question of differences with comrades, but dealing with the class enemy within. The logic is verbal abuse, anathama, repressive organisational methods and ultimately police methods and worse.

    Lenins speeches at the tenth congress are instructive in answering the question of chris and what kind of democracy is it? Lenin dishonestly claimed that there was a connection between the anarchist Petty bougeois counter revolution and the workers opposition. Not that he had bothered to read their literature, but the very idea of a conference of producers to help run production was clearly petty bourgeois! Furthermore, the idea that the Bolshevik party was fenced off from the workers and there was some kind of party dictatorship was also counter revolutionary. Not that he denied the party had separated itself from the working class. Oh no. The proletariat had become declassed ( an untruth) so only the Bolsheviks were truly working class . pure substitutionism. The red Jacobins preserving the future of the class. Meanwhile the centre of gravity for the counter revolution was the party leadership and the state they were building.

    In his speeeches to the tenth Congress lenin dealt briefly and dishonestly with Kronstadt. It was all about white generals. Not workers with a sense of betrayal you understand.

    lets list some of


  15. Only to point out that PR is debating the questions raised here. Contrary to Bill’s post no votes nor decisions have been taken that alter our current position on the website.


  16. Where did I say we had adopted a new “position” Andy, of course we never adopted an old “position” either. Its obviously not possible to change a position that was never adopted in the first place.
    But in general I don’t agree with adopting “positions” on historical questions. Agreement in the sense of a “line” is in my view pointless. What is important to agree is the current view on party organisation, not a “line” on disputed historical questions that are too far away to have a definitive assessment of, if indeed that was ever possible. It certainly wasn’t at the time and hasn’t been since.


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