Party and Class in 1918: Vladimir Sorin on Soviet Power

The translation which follows is our latest offering from the pages of the Left Communist journal Kommunist 4 which appeared in June 1918.(1) The writer is the 25 year old Vladimir Sorin.(2) Less is known about him than many of the other contributors. Robert Daniels does not mention him at all in The Conscience of the Revolution whilst Ronald Kowalski in his The Bolshevik Party in Conflict: The Left Commmunist Opposition of 1918 is content to accurately summarise the article which follows, as well as quote from his 1925 book on the various Left Communist oppositions.(3) Sorin was in a good position to write it having been a member of both the Left Communists of 1918 which produced this piece and the Military Opposition against Trotsky at the Eighth Party Congress in 1919 (although he appears not to have spoken). A Commissar for Petersburg in 1920 he was a member of the Moscow Central Committee of the Party from 1921 until 1925. Until 1930 he was editor of the Sputnik Kommunista, the social and political publication of the Communist Party Central Committee.

Based in Moscow, he seems to have politically followed Bukharin in moving from the left of the Party to its right by the end of the civil war. His 1925 book contains the earliest assessment of Miasnikov’s Workers’ Group but its main purpose is to demonstrate that the Left Opposition of Trotsky was in error through an analysis of previous failed oppositions. According to Kowalski it is not a complete hatchet job but it fed into the case of the Stalin-Rykov-Bukharin faction in their fight against the Left Opposition (which by now included some of Sorin’s former comrades like Smirnov and Sapronov).(4) None of this would of course save him under Stalin. Being a supporter of Bukharin he was arrested in 1939 and was shot in the gulag in 1944.

The merit of the brief article which follows is that it gives a clear picture that all was not well already with soviet democracy after only 8 months. He starts by re-stating what everyone knew at the time that the international revolution was critical to the survival of soviet power. But he then quickly re-asserts the central theme of the Left Communists that the revolution had already abandoned “positions we occupied without a fight and begin a progressive retreat”. In short, three months on the Left Communists were still lamenting the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.

However that is not his main focus. He complains that the soviet power is now “employing” all kinds of hangers on, opportunists and careerists. Among these are “the multitude of technicians and specialists of all kinds who feel no sympathy whatsoever for the soviet power” but just want more money or access to small privileges. The Bolsheviks had been a very small party in the years before the overthrow of the Tsar (estimated at 8,000 in January 1917). Continual repression though ensured that no-one's commitment (apart from that of Okhrana spies like Malinovsky!) could be doubted. Even in the course of 1917 when the Party grew to some 300,000 by October the growth was mainly amongst workers who sought soviet power. Once this was achieved though both soviet organisations and the Bolshevik Party were attractive targets for careerists of all types. Sorin throws in the fact that Russia is culturally backward and thus barely qualified people can find a niche in the new soviet power. He realises that all revolutions which set out to create a new order will be faced with such problems and thus urges that:

… we must fight to prevent the October Revolution from being used to serve the interests of a relatively insignificant group, and there is but one way to prevent this: by training the vast working masses in social activity, facilitating and reinforcing workers’ control over this staff whose duty is serving their needs, and suppressing all privileges favouring the staff of social organisations.

Contrary to hostile commentaries (who with the benefit of hindsight know the story ended badly) the Bolsheviks initially did not see the building of socialism as the task of the party but as one for the class as a whole. At the Second Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, in the debate with the Mensheviks, Lenin argued that the Party “is only the vanguard” whilst the vast mass of the working class are not and “should not belong to a party”.(5) In Lenin’s State and Revolution the party is only notable by the absence of references to its role. Lenin in the “honeymoon period” of the revolution constantly supported the “revolution from below” telling workers that only they could build socialism and no-one else could do it for them.(6) Indeed the evidence suggests that in 1917-18 many Bolsheviks now thought the party had no further role to play. In Petrograd, Mary McAuley quotes one Bolshevik memoirist, Shelavin:

… the best party people were throwing themselves into the surge of construction … when the Vasilievsky island district soviet moved from the 16th line to a new building on Middle Prospect, the party committee got shoved up to the fifth floor on the grounds that it did not have any particular work to do.(7)

Another Bolsehvik, Ilyin-Zhenevsky, claimed that:

Many Party members even formed the view that Party work was somehow second-class work.(8)

But there were also many party members (especially amongst those who supported the Left Communists, like Sorin) who argued that the tasks of propaganda, agitation and education were not over. They deplored the fact that so many Party members put their work for the soviets first so that a bureaucracy was developing. As Sorin hints here, it was not even an efficient one as there was administrative chaos in attempts to deal with the declining food supply, the collapse of industry, and the growth of corruption. As the economic situation worsened McAuley records “The party organization was fading, as an organization…”. As evidence she points to the Northern Region Conference in early April 1918 where:

Zinoviev agreed that all the party forces had gone to work in the new state institutions (the state had swallowed up the old party, as he put it) but he refused to accept that the destruction of the old party had been as complete, and the degeneration of the soviet apparatus had been as serious as the Left Communists claimed.(9)

In fact the real problem was that, as workers abandoned the cities in search of food, the Bolsheviks lacked enough people to maintain a separation between party and soviet work. Though the debate went on inside the party as to the relative importance of each institution right through the civil war, in the final analysis the two were increasingly forced to merge. McAuley concludes that even as late as 1920:

… faced with fewer and fewer people, a strategy of merging the party and soviet leadership was a rational one. It was though simultaneously one that kept the Soviet, not the party, in command.(10)

But of course the soviets also gradually lost their influence as the working class abandoned the towns and cities in search of food. The civil war finished the job off with the Red Army and Cheka becoming the main arms of a new state which barely referred to the soviets.

Sorin’s article is unique in the entire corpus of the writings of Kommunist in his assertion that the Party will have to be the guardian of the revolution if the soviets fail. Bukharin was to say something similar in his Economics of the Transformation Period but that was in 1920 when he had long abandoned the Left Communists and when the soviets had become empty shells. Sorin writing in 1918 is actually aiming at the danger of the peasants’ deputies coming to dominate via their soviets. In a massively peasant country this might seem logical but in fact, given that the workers’ soviets gave the political lead, it really was an imaginary danger. Why then is Sorin so insistent on the significance of the Party? Partly it is because he shares the general Left Communist suspicion of the peasantry, but really because he wants to demonstrate that the Left Communists are both loyal to the Party and are the real communists. At this point the Left Communist project was under enormous pressure from other sections of the Communist Party who were accusing them of disloyalty for meeting with the Left SRs to discuss a common fight against the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Indeed the pressure was so intense that this fourth issue of Kommunist was to be its last. Sorin finishes the article with a stingingly prophetic statement:

… we believe that in the interests of the international proletarian movement, it is preferable to lose at the hand of outside forces as a true proletarian power, than to survive by adapting to the circumstances, by eschewing communist principles and allowing the soviet power to degenerate until nothing of it remains but its external shell; the “mark” of the proletarian soviets, with their content having become thoroughly non-proletarian. This second path leads to decomposition, to the corruption of soviet power and to the dejection of the working masses in Russia as well as the West.

The degeneration at the hands of the peasants would not come until after the adoption of the New Economic Policy. Before that, the need to fight a civil war transformed soviet power into party-state power. The intolerance with which the Left Communists were treated in 1918 was new for a Party that had always had a vibrant factional life, but the Bolsheviks had the luxury of debate when they were in opposition. In power in the middle of a civil war of incredible brutality every debate was much more a question of the life or death of the revolution. In the absence of the international revolution, which the Russian working class as much as the Bolsheviks had counted on, the question turned not on how to achieve socialism, but on what form the counter-revolution would take.

Jock

Notes to the Introduction

(1) Earlier translations from Kommunist (March-June 1918) can be found at: leftcom.org

(2) There is some dispute about Sorin’s actual birth years (one source stating 1879) but all the indications are that he was fairly young in 1918. There exists a letter from Stalin to Lenin in 1919 which says that “young Sorin” is bored with the propaganda work he has been asked to carry out on the Southern Front. See: demokratizatsiya.pub

(3) Partiia i oppozitsiia. Iz istorii oppozitsionnykh techenii, I. Fraktsiia levykh kommunistov [Party and Opposition. From the history of opposition currents, the first left communist factions] (Moscow, 1925)

(4) Kowalski pp.4-10 and pp.134-6

(5) In his speech to the Second Congress in August 1903, Lenin, Collected Works Vol. 6, p.502

(6) See, for example: Lenin, Collected Works Vol. 26, p.288

(7) Mary McAuley, Bread and Justice: State and Society in Petrograd 1917-22 (Oxford, 1991), p. 172

(6) op. cit. p.173

(9) op. cit. p.174 (and preceding quote)

(10) op. cit. p.183

On the Question of Soviet Power

Everyone knows the reasons why the development of our revolution abroad halted and forced us to abandon the positions we occupied without a fight and begin a progressive retreat: the complexity of the international situation, the setback in the breakout of the revolution in Western Europe, the petty bourgeois customs and lifestyles of the majority of the population, the colossal disorganisation of the economy, etc.

However, this list omits to mention another factor that had an adverse influence on the development of the Russian Revolution: the conservatism of the soviet organisations themselves, a conservatism conditioned as much by the material (social) situation of the great army of soviet staff as by the original psychology that began to form in them in this situation.

To turn ourselves to the question at hand, we will attempt to approach the problem as would a sociologist working to analyse the origin and composition of this or that social group and to research its group interests and tendencies.

After destroying the old State apparatus and casting aside the functionaries who served it, the October Revolution had the working class come face to face with the need to create a new State machinery, adapted to the social regime change. A huge field opened itself up to active organisational work, and tens of thousands of people have been given the opportunity to use their gifts in their capacities in soviet organisations. Who composed this vast army of soviet staff that rushed into the various commissariats and commissions, directions and sections, bureaus and committees?

Obviously, the old experienced party militants made it a priority to enter them. However, if we wish to remain strictly realistic, we must recognise that only a small number of them are sufficiently active and tireless for the further development of the revolution and its growth. As for the majority of the members of the party, tired as they are from their long journeys in exile, from their exhausting clandestine activity, and from their lives as revolutionaries which are naturally fraught with danger, today, following the victory of the proletariat, they aspire to tranquil, peaceful activity in the course of constructing socialism. This group is inclined to consider their presence in the soviet organisations as the natural achievement and crowning of their previous work, and, in spite of themselves, they begin to adopt a hostile attitude and to feel a secret fear of all extreme measures, which have the potential to disturb their peace, which they took such pains to achieve.

Also now working in the soviet organisations is a layer of semi-intellectuals who, far from being erudite, were deprived of an outlet under the ancien régime, while today, thanks to the sabotage of specialised, trained staff, anyone possessing any knowledge, or even just the ability to count, read and write, has become a precious person to be clung to.

These semi-intellectuals (shop clerks, secretaries, petty functionaries, small employees, etc.), who could never have dreamed of having any sort of “career” under the ancien régime, have today “set out to become someone” thanks to the October Revolution. This has provoked an enormous rise in demand for technicians and specialists of all kinds. On the whole (we will not speak of specific people “who have convictions”, nor even of small groups), they are of course interested in preserving the privilege that this situation affords them. A certain “weight”, and a certain consideration in the eyes of their peers, decent treatment, a superior food ration and a multitude of small favours and priorities, all of this leads the middle soviet staff to hold onto their place, and they do not remain remotely predisposed to revolutionary boldness.

In the composition of the army of soviet employees, we must also include this shameless audience prepared to serve anyone at all under any regime whatsoever, and who, without the slightest internal conflict, “have infiltrated” the soviet government. Lastly, we also indicate the multitude of technicians and specialists of all kinds who feel no sympathy whatsoever for the soviet power and who have offered themselves at its service for the sole purpose of acquiring a lot of money, given that educated people are vital to the young Republic.

This group may well be the most reactionary; it is only their desire for a salary (and often also their penchant for embezzlement) that leads these members to offer their skills and their knowledge to the working class. The mere existence of the soviets terrifies them, and they are prepared to resign themselves to this if these organisations degenerate, adapting to the philistines and becoming acceptable to the broad layers of bourgeois democracy. Since the leading circles rely on, appreciate and cling to this group, the latter has the ability to exercise a certain pressure in the conservative and reactionary sense (as described above) on the policies of the soviets.

Such is the composition of this new social group we call the soviet staff. Given the general lack of culture, the backwardness of Russia and the paucity of its intellectual forces, this group could not be distinguished qualitatively from those layers or groups who are partly tired and unsure, besides the small nuclei of convicted, active, indefatigable staff who possess exceptional qualities.

Our analysis reveals that the soviet staff, interested on the whole in conserving their privileged positions and their purely professional interests, are prone to playing the role of a conservative social group. This has several consequences: a certain distrust of the working masses; a tendency to isolate themselves from them, to barricade themselves in; inclinations to evade party discipline (about which their provincial newspapers complain so much); a fear of shocks; insufficient interest in the workers; a penchant for compromise; and a tendency to manipulate soviet power, which they judge a threat to these petty bourgeois philistines who prove themselves slow in their paperwork, etc.

Far be it from us to claim that the soviet staff has already transformed into a new edition of the bureaucracy as irredeemably cut off from the masses as that of the higher levels of the German trade unions, for example. But it is incontrovertible that such a tendency exists. It goes without saying that this is not a question of any ill will of isolated individuals, nor one of any originality due to the Russian Revolution. Such a danger threatens any socialist revolution, since the capitalist regime has taken all measures possible to destroy at the root any mass initiative, as well as to accustom those masses to the idea that the administration of the State must be removed from them, and be carried out by specially trained individuals (i.e. functionaries). In any case, we must fight to prevent the October Revolution from being used to serve the interests of a relatively insignificant group, and there is but one way to prevent this: by training the vast working masses in social activity, facilitating and reinforcing workers’ control over this staff whose duty is serving their needs, and suppressing all privileges favouring the staff of social organisations.

Ultimately, the party itself, which is somewhat better insured against decomposition, must reinforce its control over these fractions of the soviets, and make sure that the staff of social organisations are subordinate and accountable to it.

We have said several times that the power of the soviets, the workers’ and peasants’ deputies, is the main achievement of our revolution. This is certainly true, but we must not forget that the (communist) party is everywhere and always superior to the soviets. And this is completely understandable. Only the party defends the interests of the international proletariat. Therefore, the soviets are the representatives of labour democracy in general, whose interests, notably those of the petty bourgeois peasantry, do not necessarily coincide with the interests of the proletariat.

The left communists are the most ardent zealots of soviet power, but, naturally, only insofar as this power retains its proletarian orientation and does not degenerate in a petty bourgeois direction due to the reasons mentioned above.

Our comrades often stigmatise us, claiming that we will disorganise collective soviet work and that we will be the “left” enemies of the soviets. This is due to their lack of reflection. The true dictatorship of the proletarian soviets, with uncompromising policies and the refusal of all opportunist acts – these are the aspirations of the left communists.

We affirm that firm proletarian politics, on both the interior and the exterior fronts, can provoke terrible dangers and could even lead to our defeat. But we believe that in the interests of the international proletarian movement, it is preferable to lose at the hand of outside forces as a true proletarian power, than to survive by adapting to the circumstances, by eschewing communist principles and allowing the soviet power to degenerate until nothing of it remains but its external shell; the “mark” of the proletarian soviets, with their content having become thoroughly non-proletarian. This second path leads to decomposition, to the corruption of soviet power and to the dejection of the working masses in Russia as well as the West.

Vl. Sorin

Monday, January 4, 2021