Learning from the Revolutionary Experience in Russia

Review: “The Russian Revolution in Retreat, 1920-24 Soviet Workers and the New Communist Elite” by Simon Pirani, Oxford and New York: Routledge, 2009, 289 pages, paperback, £26 or thereabouts

It is not a matter of this or that secondary question of tactics, but of the capacity for action of the proletariat, the strength to act, the will to power of socialism as such. In this Lenin and Trotsky and their friends were the first, those who went ahead as an example to the proletariat of the world; they are still the only ones up to now who can cry with Hutten (1): “I have dared!” This is the essential and enduring in Bolshevik policy. In this sense theirs is the immortal historical service of having marched at the head of the international proletariat with the conquest of political power and the practical placing of the problem of the realisation of socialism, and of having advanced mightily the settlement of the score between capital and labour in the entire world. In Russia the problem could only be posed. It could not be solved in Russia. And in this sense the future everywhere belongs to “Bolshevism”.

Rosa Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution 1918, emphasis in original

Now that Simon Pirani’s book has descended to paperback prices we are in a position to read it. And worth reading it is. Since the fall of the USSR and the opening of state archives we have been promised many new revelations about the dastardly deeds of the leaders of the Russian Communist Party (Bolshevik), to give it its 1918 title.

In fact these have been largely banal and unastonishing as (to give but one example) the supposed revelations that Lenin sent instructions to shoot deserters during the war against the Whites were hardly secret before 1990.

What has been more revealing and much more interesting for revolutionaries trying to understand how the hopes aroused in 1917 were so quickly dashed has been the work of those historians who pioneered research into how the revolution worked (or didn’t) from below. In this we are indebted now to a long list but Diane Koenker, Mary McAuley, Ronald Suny, William Rosenberg, Donald Raleigh and Steve Smith would be the most obvious trailblazers. Steve Smith was Pirani’s PhD supervisor and his Red Petrograd, along with Alexander Rabinowitch’s The Bolsheviks Come to Power, was the chief inspiration for the CWO when we wrote our booklet 1917 (2). Pirani shares much of the framework of the Communist Left. He agrees that the October Revolution of 1917 was a “defining event” which he views from a “socialist standpoint”. The big and agonising question he wants to explain is why “within months of the October uprising, the revolution was in retreat from the aims of social liberation it had proclaimed”. For him, and for us, socialism (or communism, as for Marx the terms were interchangeable) is based on Marx’s definition of “a movement to recreate society by superceding (sic) alienated labour, private property and the state”.

We also have to agree with Pirani that “the early spring of 1921 was a turning point for the Soviet state” as we have previously written precisely this in our article Kronstadt 1921: Beginning of the Counter-revolution (3).

Kronstadt gets little analysis in Pirani’s account as he concentrates on Moscow and on the strike wave in the factories which preceded Kronstadt. What Pirani does is provide more evidence for the precise manner in which the revolution retreated after 1921. He quickly debunks the idea of right wing (Pipes and Figes) and some anarchist historians that a third revolution was a serious prospect in early 1921 but he does recognise that;

The tenth congress held in the first week of March while the Kronshtadt revolt was being put down, decided to replace grain requisitioning with a tax in kind. It also banned factions in the party and approved the further centralization of the apparatus; this, together with the suppression of Kronshtadt and the invasion of Georgia confirmed the authoritarian, apparatus-centred direction that the Soviet state was to take.

p.72 - spellings as original

To which we would also add that the Third International’s adoption (three months later) of the united front with social democracy was also a retreat on the international stage every bit as serious as that at home.

This was in effect an abandonment of a perspective of world revolution. As world revolution was the premise on which the October revolution was based it is not a mere theoretical matter. The primary cause of the failure of the revolution was its isolation. Not a single leading figure of the revolutionary movement in Europe, from Lenin to Luxemburg (as our quote above shows) doubted that the construction of socialism could not be completed in an isolated Russia. Pirani barely acknowledges this (although he is aware of it and accepts it). What he is interested in is not the “why?” of the revolution’s failure but the “how?” and launches into his narrative. And in so doing he does us a service. For revolutionaries the Russian experience, for all its never-tobe- repeated uniqueness, does offer us one of the few chances to study how proletarian power will have to operate (or rather, not to operate).

The narrative is compelling. Pirani maintains that the Russian Communist Party (Bolshevik) (RCP (B) or the Bolsheviks as he insists on calling them because many workers still used that term, had a choice at this point with the civil war now over. They could either revive proletarian self-activity or they could further integrate party and state.

They chose the latter. Starting at the Tenth Party Congress he shows how the party first tightened up on it own dissidents with Bukharin (himself a dissident in 1918) calling for a “single party with a single psychology and a single ideology”. The former Left Communist also called for “greater centralization and militarization”, with his clear targets being the Workers Opposition and the Democratic Centralists. Pirani then looks at the economic recovery under NEP which led to the Russian Communist party remoulding “its political relationship with the working class” so that

A social contract evolved, under which workers would maintain discipline and improve labour productivity, and cede real decision-making power to the party - which in return would ensure a consistent improvement in living standards … The aspirations of 1917 to collective, participatory democracy were abandoned, and the for a for working class political activity, the soviets and the unions, allocated restricted functions that involved implementing, rather than making decisions.


Then, as workers were voting increasingly for non-party candidates in soviet elections (since all other political parties were either banned or not trusted by the workers) by way of protest (the RCP did not win majority in a single large Moscow factory in 1921), the RCP began to change the rules.

Elections would be held only annually (as against quarterly and no-one spoke of the principle of recall) and non-party candidates could only be on the executive if they were approved by the RCP. This did not stop their election to the factory committees. Most of these non-party candidates were prepared to work with the RCP (many of them were themselves ex-Bolsheviks) in improving the economy and thus they increasingly accepted the dictatorship of the party. However the post-civil war RCP (B) did all it could to undermine these non-party communists since by this time many were convinced that only the party really represented the way forward. Lenin was one of them, arguing that the working class in Russia was now made up of “casual elements of all kinds” thus earning him the rebuke by the leader of the Worker’s Opposition, Shlyapnikov that

we will never have a different or “better” working class, and we need to be satisfied with the one we have.

At an open meeting of the RCP (B) party cell in the former Bromlei (now Red Proletarian) works an ex-Left SR, Comrade Beliakov perceptively stated

Every day we slide further and further from what we gained in October. In Russia there’s no communism. The communists aren’t even in power: They sign the decrees, but noncommunists write them. The decrees are aimed against the workers.

see p.165

This was a curiously prescient anticipation of Lenin who realised much the same thing at the Eleventh Party Congress in 1922 ..

if we take that huge bureaucratic machine, that gigantic heap, we must ask; who is directing whom? I doubt very much whether it can be truthfully said that the Communists are directing that heap. To tell the truth they are not directing, they are being directed.

V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 33

Pirani does not quote this in his work, which is a pity as it shows that the problems were seen by all. He is however right that it was one thing for communists to rail against bureaucratism meaning only waste, duplication and inefficiency, when in fact the problem was that the party was no longer the vanguard of the proletariat but the backbone of the state. Here there is a lacuna in Pirani’s case. In his introduction to the book he tells us that the retreat began “within months” of the October Revolution but his own account starts at the end of 1920. Thus when Pirani begins his narrative you feel as though there is something missing - the early errors of the Bolsheviks in not separating party and state, as well as the negative experience of the civil war on proletarian politics and the material fact that the Bolsheviks inherited a starving country which was to lose a further 8 million lives between 1918-21. These are material factors which Pirani acknowledges but largely dismisses to the detriment of his case.. Instead he charts a slow but steady decline after 1921. The workers still elect non-Bolsheviks to the factory committees, and in the period 1922-3 he tells us that

it would be hard to say that a bureaucratic ruling clique had taken shape.

But the process was unstoppable. By 1923 factory managers earned 40 - 50 times that of workers and bureaucrats not much less. Oppositionists inside the RCP were expelled and arrested and the failure of the various left communist groups from the Democratic Centrists and Workers Opposition to the more radical Workers Group and Workers Truth to win wider support was only a further indication of how the workers largely bought into a social contract in which the standard of living improved but so too did the partyocracy. As real wages continued to rise

The other side of the coin was the continuing erosion of working class participation in making decisions. Whereas in 1921 workers had gone to the soviet election meetings in good faith and elected non-party socialists, in 1923 they simply stayed away.

And the coup de grace was for the party to finally settle accounts with its own last dissidents in the Left Opposition (which was a disparate coalition of the followers of Trotsky and left communists like the Democratic Centralists). Pirani wisely also guides readers to the works of Graeme Gill on the social origins of Stalin’s dictatorship (see also our “Stalin and Stalinism” in Internationalist Communist 22) and thus completes his account of the stage by stage degeneration of the revolution. In doing so he has done us a great service. Our tendency, since its foundation in 1943, has always maintained that the party is the political leadership and guide of the proletarian revolution but that it cannot be either the state nor can it build socialism itself. The latter is the task of the working class as a whole which it does by controlling its own semi-statist institutions through class-wide bodies like workers councils. Pirani’s research not only amply confirms this framework it also shows that the proletariat has the capacity to develop its own instruments for freedom. Pirani asks the question “could things have been different?” and wisely concludes that the material conditions (including the defeat of the workers’ revolutions outside Russia) meant that the outcome would have been little different in terms of the demise of the revolution. However, he does suggest that a different choice by the communists in 1921 as regards working class democracy would have at least have left a better legacy than the monolith of the “workers’ state” which remains today “a burdensome shibboleth for the workers’ movement”. Pirani’s last quote is the 1920 exhortation of Victor Serge

The pitiless logic of history seems hitherto to have left very little scope for the libertarian spirit in revolutions. That is because human freedom, which is the product of culture and of the raising of the level of consciousness, cannot be established by violence; [and yet] precisely the revolution is necessary to win - by force of arms - from the old world … the possibility of an evolution … to spontaneous order, to the free association of free workers, to anarchy. So it is all the more important throughout all these struggles to preserve the libertarian spirit.

Revolutionaries can only agree and Pirani’s work is another important piece of the jigsaw allowing us to understand the kind of society we want, and the dangers that we must face up to in order to obtain it.


(1) Ulrich von Hutten (1488-1523) was a German humanist and poet who during the Reformation fought for the abolition of princes in the Holy Roman Empire and the secularisation of Church property.

(2) Available at £3 from the group address (postage included).

(3) See Internationalist Communist 21 or leftcom.org

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