The Bolshevik Left and Workers’ Power

The essay we are publishing here is a translation of the “Présentation” to “La Gauche bolchevique et le pouvoir ouvrier 1919-27” written and published by Michel Olivier as one of three pamphlets which collects together in French many of the documents of the communist left in Russia. The first of these will shortly be published by the Smolny publishing house along with the previously unpublished translations of the four issues of Kommunist, the Moscow review of the left Bolsheviks (April-June 1918). Most of the texts in “La Gauche bolchevique” are already available in English [see note 13 at the end of the article] but the Présentation, or introduction, has value for underlining some of the key strengths and weaknesses of the communist left in Russia. In so doing they also give an insight into the gradual but inexorable progress of the counter-revolution in Russia. We have translated it in the spirit of its author as a contribution to an often unknown part of working class history. If there ever was a “warning from history” it is surely contained in the tragic demise of the Russian Revolution and in the failure of the communist left to halt it.

An Introduction

Leonard Schapiro begins his book The Origins of the Communist Autocracy by writing:

It is strange that the story of political opposition to Lenin has never before, so far as I am aware, been told in detail or as a whole (1).

It’s true. He started out on this task but why did he finish in 1922? In fact, he stops when he believes that the power could no longer be challenged by any opposition after a measure that weighs heavily and more than any other, the prohibition of internal fractions at the Tenth Communist Party Congress (March 1921), and at a time which also saw the bloody suppression of the Kronstadt rebellion. It is an institutional vision of history which is all about those who have power, and those who have succeeded. He also wrote in his conclusion

Many of them (the Bolshevik leaders) rebelled again in 1923 (2) when they discovered that they had in fact acted to consolidate the domination of the central apparatus of defeats. But by then it was too late (3).

From our point of view history is not just written by the winners. Some victories also turn out to be defeats.

For the labour movement which has known an impressive list of defeats, what followed the revolution in Russia, the constitution of an imperialist state, is generally regarded as a victory when in fact it was a terrible defeat. On the other hand the ideas produced by the struggle of the Bolshevik left now appear very fruitful despite the succession of defeats at the time: the failure of revolution in Germany, Hungary, the massacre of the workers in the Kronstadt revolt etc. It is a history that is still to be made.

This ignorance is not just confined to the period of Lenin’s life. For a number of Communist protagonists of the time the debates in the Russian party began with the “Declaration of the Forty Six” Old Bolsheviks of 15 October 1923 which was sent to the Party’s Political Bureau. In this document they sharply criticised economic policy, but even more firmly the internal regime of the party.

The party has to a considerable extent ceased to be an independent living collective [...] There is a growing division between a hierarchy of secretaries [...], the Party officials are recruited by the top, and the mass of the Party does not participate in this common life.

Bulletin Communiste, No. 32-33, 1933

The lack of knowledge on an international level by members at the time of the national communist parties is extraordinary; it was not customary to discuss the situation of the Russian Party in the Communist International (CI). Bizarre for internationalists! Russian affairs were the preserve of the Russians! Thus, Bordiga (4) mounted a strong challenge to this convention, in the course of seriously running foul of Stalin in February 1926 (at the 6th Expanded Executive of the Comintern), (5) by claiming the right to discuss the Russian question in the International.

In this Executive Bordiga was equally vehemently opposed to the theory of “socialism in one country”. But the fact that this rule existed allows us to understand how easy it was for members of the International to have no knowledge of the dissensions inside the Russian Communist Party at a time when Trotsky was launching his fight. This is why the fractions and the currents within the Russian party still remain, for a good number of commentators and historians of Russia, a matter which can be reduced to the Trotskyist opposition.

Trotsky himself gave substance to this interpretation in qualifying the Declaration of the Forty Six “Old Bolsheviks” of 15 October as the declaration of “the 1923 Opposition”.

Nothing could be more simplistic. This declaration was independent of the letter Trotsky wrote to the Politburo on 8 October 1923, even if a great number of his political friends had supported it.

Thus the majority of the 46 signatories were mainly old left communists from the 1919 fraction who had taken up the political fight of December 1919 once again within the “Democratic Centralist” group. At least 16 of them, to our knowledge, were very often at that period against Trotsky’s positions.

The work which we are presenting here, follows on from the book published by the Collectif Smolny which deals with the left communist fraction in the 1918, and especially the debate on the social and economic measures of the period of transition. With the publication of these left communist documents of 1921-29 we bring to the reader raw material which is little known, or even unknown, today on the divergences and struggles within the Russian Communist Party.

We are aware that our work still remains incomplete and we hope that it will be emulated by others. We desired to collect together the important texts published in French as the majority of them are scattered and published at different times in numerous, and often confidential, publications.

The Democratic Centralists (1919-21)

There exists an obvious and direct line running from the Left Communist fraction of 1918 and the Democratic Centralist (or Decist) group (6) which was created in December 1919, both at the level of ideas and individuals involved.

Differences which had been put on the back burner due to the serious state of the civil war resurfaced once this had ended. These dissensions matured throughout 1918. Lenin pronounced himself in favour of “labour discipline” and “one man management” and the need to employ bourgeois specialists in the factories at the first Congress of economic councils in May-June 1918.

Ossinsky and Smirnov, supported by many provincial delegates, demanded “a workers’ administration … not only from the top but from below”. A subcommission of the Congress accepted a resolution by which two thirds of the representatives sitting on any enterprise management council must be elected by the workers, which made Lenin furious. (7) In the plenary session he had the resolution “corrected” by deciding that only one third or more of the management personnel should be elected. There was at this point a split within the left communists.

Radek was ready to accept “one man management” in exchange for some decrees on nationalisation which in his eyes guaranteed the socialist regime and would inaugurate “war communism”. Bukharin also left the group. The group’s ideas continued to have an echo and would resurface with the new group of “Democratic Centralists”. Indeed Democratic Centralists re-formed around Ossinsky, Sapronov, Smirnov, Massimovsky, Kossior etc on the same question of defence of workers’ democracy against the growing militarisation of the regime.

Furthermore they continued to protest against the principle of the “single manager” in industry, and to defend the collective or collegial principle as being the

most effective weapon against the departmentalisation and bureaucratic stifling of the state apparatus.

Theses on the Collegial Principle and Individual Authority

When they recognised, as they had already done in their journal Kommunist (1918), the need to use bourgeois specialists in industry and the army they put the accent above all on the need to put these specialists under rank and file control.

Nobody questioned the need to employ specialists; the issue was; how to employ them?

Sapronov, quoted in R. V. Daniels, The Conscience of the Revolution p.109

They also took up the need as they had affirmed in 1918 to give new life to the workers’ councils (soviets).They revolted against the destruction of the initiative of local workers councils and suggested reforms with the aim of revitalising them as effective organs of workers’ democracy. Thus during a Communist Party conference Sapronov succeeded, despite the opposition of Vladimirsky the official spokesman for the Party (8), to get a resolution adopted to modify the composition of the central executive committee in order to make it more representative, as well as reforms aimed at giving effective power to the executive committees of local soviets. Similarly, immediately after the Communist Party conference, a long debate took place within the commission of the Seventh Soviet Congress on the subject of the respective proposals of Vladimirsky and Sapronov. The resolution adopted was based on Sapronov’s proposals and contained the majority of his proposals.

In the end the resolution remained a dead letter.

The Eighth Party Congress met in March 1919 and reorganised its operations, with a Political Bureau and a Central Committee as well as an Organisation Bureau, since the policy of “war communism” involved the mobilisation of the entire resources of the country. In December 1919 Trotsky proposed the militarisation of labour and it was in this climate that the struggle of the Democratic Centralists made itself known.

The Ninth Party Congress in March- April 1920 was notable for the debates with the Democratic Centralists (9). The group denounced the centralisation and authoritarian methods of the Central Committee which it qualified as “bureaucratic centralism” and “authoritarian centralism” which it compared with the administrative and economic management of the state (10). The Democratic Centralists also condemned the “technocratic” organisation of labour under the principle proclaimed by Lenin of “one man management” (edinonachal’ie).

They reproached Lenin for having distorted the meaning of the democratic centralist formula in developing an authoritarian hierarchy under cover of the civil war and in newly-created bodies. The Ninth Congress opposed this on the higher principle of complete unity but also decided to set up a Control Commission to put a check on the abuse of power and bureaucratism.

In September 1920 they denounced the bureaucratisation of the party, and the growing concentration of power in the hands of a tiny minority.

Furthermore the Congress ended by voting on a manifesto which called for

a critique of all kinds of party institutions at both the local and central level [and rejected] any kind of repression against comrades because they hold different ideas.

Resolution of the Ninth Party Congress on the New Tasks of Building the Party

This showed that at this time there was still a living debate in the party and that these criticisms still had influence within it.

Thus in the years 1919 and 1920 the Democratic Centralists promoted the preservation of freedom within the Communist Party. They did not want the Central Committee to lead the Party, but to guide it by following a general line without getting tied up in details. They insisted that the rank and file should debate all issues before any important decision was taken, that in Party elections minorities should be represented, and that they should have the benefit of means to publish their opinions. The attitude of these militants viv-a-vis the measures of the regime in a period of civil war can be summed up in the following sentences of Ossinsky who declared in March 1920 and the Ninth Congress of the Communist Party

Comrade Lenin says the essence of democratic centralism is contained in the fact that the Congress elected the Central Committee so that the Central Committee directs [the Party]. We cannot approve this somewhat fantastic opinion … We believe that democratic centralism … is about putting into practice the directives of the Central Committee through [the intermediary] of the local bodies as the autonomous responsibility of the latter and in their responsibility for their own domain of work (11).

And also

The fundamental slogan we must put forward in the present period is that of unification of the tasks of military organisation and method of administration with the creative initiative of the conscious workers. If, under the cover of military tasks ,you create in fact bureaucratism we will disperse our forces and fail to fulfil our tasks.

Quoted in Daniels, Documentary History p. 186

In 1927 we find the political positions in defence of workers’ initiative once again as can be seen in “On the Eve of Thermidor” and throughout the existence of the left communists.

Some of the Democratic Centralists were already engaged in the “Military Opposition” which was formed for a brief time in March 1919. The needs of the civil war had by then forced the establishment of a centralised fighting force, The Red Army was made up not only of workers, but also of recruits from the peasantry and other social layers. Very rapidly this Army began to adopt the same hierarchical scheme established in the rest of the state apparatus. The election of officers was rapidly abandoned because it was “politically useless and technically inefficient” (Trotsky, Work, Discipline and Order, 1920) The death penalty for disobedience under fire, the salute and the special ways to address officers were all re-established, and hierarchical distinctions were reinforced, especially in the Army High Command, as was the recruitment of ex-officers of all ranks from the Tsarist Army.

The principal spokesman of this opposition was Vladimir Smirnov who was opposed to modelling the Red Army on the same lines as the classical bourgeois army. He did not oppose nor attack the Red Army - the journal Kommunist had forcefully complained about it in January 1918 - nor did he oppose employing military “specialists” but was against excessive hierarchy, and discipline and claimed that that general political orientation of the army could not be separated from its communist principles. The Party leadership wrongly accused the Military Opposition (recalling the debate over Brest-Litovsk) of wanting to dismantle the army in favour of partisan detachments more adapted to peasant wars or partisan guerrilla war. In fact the majority of the Party confused bourgeois forms of hierarchical centralisation with the self-disciplined centralisation springing from the rank and file which is one of the characteristics of the proletariat.

The Military Opposition’s proposal was to be rejected.

The debates and the precise ideas of the left communists which are their constant characteristic also arose in other questions under discussion in the Party.

The Workers’ Opposition

| Gavril Miasnikov (1889-1945)
| Gavril Miasnikov (1889-1945)

This did not have the same membership as the Democratic Centralists, even if one could find in its ranks some of the left communists of 1918, like Alexandra Kollontai or Miasnikov. The political formation of Gabriel Miasnikov and his comrade workers is the most difficult to characterise. The latter had been part of the left communists of 1918 but found himself in the Workers’ Opposition movement, largely because this fraction was mostly made up of workers, whilst the Democratic Centralists were principally members of the Central Committee and other leading organs of the Party.

Previously a certain number of the elements who formed the Workers’ Opposition came out of another left current of the Bolshevik Party. Before Lenin’s return to Russia in April 1917, the metal workers fraction of the Petrograd, inspired by Shlyapnikov and Kollontai defended the idea that the workers’ councils (Soviets) were the indispensable elements of workers’ power, and they opposed the Bolshevik right wing who, alongside the Mensheviks, defended the existence of workers’ assemblies with the sole aim of supporting and consolidating the official power of the bourgeoisie after the overthrow of Tsarism. It was this stance, thanks to the factory committees under the impetus given to them by Shlyapnikov and Yeremeyev which created the reservoir for the Red Guards which allowed the Bolsheviks to achieve victory in October. In more recent times the Workers’ Opposition had come to represent the workers who were mainly in the unions and held a majority in the metalworkers’ union.

At the Tenth Party Congress in March 1921 a controversy which became more and more acute since the end of the civil war broke out within the Bolshevik Party. Superficially it was debate about the role of the unions under the dictatorship of the proletariat but in fact it was an expression of deeper problems about the future power and its relationship to the working class. Lenin, for tactical reasons, oriented the debate on the union question and the other issues were thus avoided.

In brief there were three positions on the union question in the Party:

  1. That of Trotsky, Bukharin etc … for the total integration of the unions into the “workers’ state” where their task would be to stimulate the productivity of labour (in this Trotsky was trying to reformulate the position he had defended for organising the Red Army).
  2. That of Lenin, for whom the unions still had to act as organs of class defence even against the “workers’ state”. He defended the idea that they too suffered from “bureaucratic deformations” (Platform of the Ten) (12) whilst trying to act in an intermediary role.
  3. That of the Workers’ Opposition in favour of the management of production by industrial unions which should remain independent of the soviet state.

In fact the whole framework of the debate was totally inadequate and overlooked the main issue: the condition of the working class and its own power. The Workers’ Opposition expressed in a confused and hesitant way the antipathy of workers towards the bureaucratic and military methods which were becoming, more and more, the hallmarks of the regime. Now that the rigours of the civil war were over, the working class wanted change.

The leaders of the Workers’ Opposition largely came from the union apparatus and seemed to have considerable support amongst metalworkers.

Shlyapnikov and Medvedev, (13) two members of the group’s leadership were both metalworkers. Thus Alexandra Kollontai, the most wellknown member of the group could write in a programmatic text, the proposal for a “Platform on the Union Question” submitted by the group to the Tenth Party Congress (8-16 March 1921) (14)

The Workers’ Opposition sprang from the depths of the industrial proletariat of Soviet Russia. It is an outgrowth not only of the unbearable conditions of life and labour in which seven million industrial workers find themselves but it is also a product of vacillation, inconsistencies and outright deviations of our Soviet policy from the previously expressed class-consistent principles of the Communist programme.

Kollontai went on to highlight the unbearable economic conditions which the new workers’ power had to face after the civil war. She also drew attention to the growth of the bureaucratic strata whose origins were outside the working class; in the intelligentsia, the peasantry, the remnants of the old bourgeoisie etc.

This strata had come, more and more, to dominate the Soviet apparatus and the party itself. This engendered careerism which could lead only to contempt for proletarian interests.

For the Workers’ Opposition, like the left communists earlier, the Soviet state itself was not a pure proletarian state but a heterogeneous institution forced to hold the balance between different classes and strata within society.

It insisted on the fact that the way to ensure that the revolution remained faithful to its initial goals wasn’t to entrust leadership to non-proletarian technocrats and socially ambiguous state organs but to go back to the activity and the creative power of the workers themselves.

"This consideration, which should be the very simple and clear to every practical man, is lost sight of by our Party leaders: it is impossible to decree Communism. It can be treated only in the process of practical research, through mistakes, perhaps, but only by the creative powers of the working class itself." (Kollontai, The Workers’ Opposition, taken from the Solidarity (London) republication of the Workers’ Dreadnought translation of 1921 p.32, 1968)

The Workers’ Opposition already had its own limitations in seeing the dictatorship of the proletariat as the same as that of the Party. Like a lot of left communists this drew them into an act of loyalty during the Tenth Party Congress. When the Kronstadt Revolt broke out the leadership of the Workers’ Opposition pledged their loyalty by volunteering for the front. [15] They were not alone. Few of the other left fractions understood the importance of the Kronstadt Rising as the last great workers’ struggle to re-establish the power of the workers’ councils.

At the end of the Congress the Workers’ Opposition, in spite of everything, condemned Kronstadt as an “anarchist petty-bourgeois deviation” and “objectively counterrevolutionary”.

The ban on factions at the Tenth Party Congress struck a fatal blow against the Workers’ Opposition, but equally at the Party itself even if the resolution was taken as an emergency measure in exceptional circumstances. [16] Faced with the prospect of illegal and clandestine work the Workers’ Opposition proved incapable of maintaining its opposition to the regime.

Some of its members continued the struggle in the 20s in association with other illegal factions, others simply capitulated. After the struggle Kollontai never again opposed the regime. She was appointed Ambassador to Norway, to get her out of Russia, before ending up as an apparently loyal servant of the Stalinist regime. [17] In 1921 another reason for the weakness of the criticism of the regime by the Workers’ Opposition was its almost total lack of an international perspective. The Democratic Centralists had a more global and internationalist orientation, which is why this current was able to maintain and give birth to other initiatives, as we shall see below.

The Clandestine Oppositions

But the Workers’ Opposition didn’t end there. In February 1922 it made an appeal to the Comintern Congress (c.f. Letter of the 22 Opposition members to the International Conference of the Communist International). They attacked party policy, notably its proposal to expel those who had carried on their political activity despite the banning of factions. This proposal was not in fact adopted by the latter though two were expelled from the Party; Mitin as “a malevolent disorganiser” and Kuznetsova as “outside the working class”. It seems that members of the Workers’ Opposition were still active in 1924, as one can read in Medvedev’s letters published in Bulletin Communiste in 1927. In 1924 the Workers’ Opposition developed a criticism of the Party’s activity abroad; this document is interesting as it contradicts all that had generally been accepted and thought about the Workers’ Opposition, which was assumed to have disappeared after 1922.

Decimated, the Opposition was all the more rapidly superseded on the left by clandestine groups like Workers’ Truth and the Workers’ Group. At this time Workers’ Truth was very hostile to the Workers’ Opposition which it considered “an objectively reactionary group” whose members were “wolves in sheep’s clothing”, The Workers’ Group, made up of those around Miasnikov its most wellknown member, would have a future and would be one of the most fruitful oppositions within the framework of the dictatorship.

The Party Crisis, Kronstadt and the End of the Revolutionary Episode in Russia

The contradictions of the regime, repressed during the civil war, resurfaced from the start of 1921.

Peasant risings, which had begun in September 1920, multiplied and gained in intensity. In February 1921 the Cheka counted 118 risings, the most violent of which broke out in Tambov province.

These revolts involved at times around 50,000 insurgents. In the towns the situation was no better. Industrial production was down to one fifth of the 1913 level. The towns still faced food supply difficulties. The precarious living conditions forced numerous citizens to return to the countryside; the population of Petrograd went from 2 millions in 1917 to 750,000 in 1920.

The number of industrial workers was halved. This is the context of the Kronstadt Revolt. It was an unbearable drama for the revolution and for the workers’ movement. A lot of Bolsheviks would have a bad conscience about it long afterwards. This is what Bukharin had to say at the Third Comintern Congress

Who says that Kronstadt was White? No. For the sake of our ideas, for the task which we face, we were forced to repress the revolt of our erring brothers. We cannot consider the Kronstadt sailors as enemies. We love them as true brothers, our flesh and blood (18).

The Tenth Party Congress took place in this atmosphere, revealing a divided party prey to serious crisis. Lenin stated during the debate that there were at least eight platforms which were finally boiled down to three before the Congress opened. This extreme division led him to write the article “The Party Crisis”. This crisis did not end there despite the bureaucratic measures forbidding factions, as we saw above. Nothing could resolve this problem, especially not administrative measures. The illness whose deepest causes Lenin sought to diagnose was revealed as a general crisis of the regime, leading to an internal crisis of the Party and in the relations between Party, state and the masses. That the crisis was revealed over the union problem was no accident as it forms the heart of the relationship between the power and its contradictions with the working class. Lenin summarised the issue when he said:

The actual differences do not lie where Comrade Trotsky sees them but in the question of how to approach the mass, win it over, and keep in touch with it (19).

The crisis did not end even after the Tenth Congress and its administrative measures against factions. The same situation reappeared in 1923 with the Declaration of the Forty Six “Old Bolsheviks”. The crisis had shifted up a level because at this point the leading group was divided as Stalin was beginning his takeover of power. For the first time left communist currents made common cause with the Trotsky Opposition before evolving alongside it and becoming more radical. The Decists were part of the United Opposition (Trotsky, Kamenev, Zinoviev etc) which formed in spring 1926, but they very quickly had their earlier suspicions confirmed. The Bolshevik Party had become the party of the bureaucracy and a new organisation would have to be set up. They thus broke after the “peace declaration” signed by 6 members of the Central Committee (the signatories were Trotsky, Kamenev, Zinoviev, Sokolonikov, Piatakov and Evdokimov). They saw this as a declaration of surrender by the Opposition. In 1926 the Group of Fifteen was formed initially by old Decists. Let’s allow Miasnikov to speak about it.

Comrade Sapronov (the former Decist) … in the years 1926-7 revised the platform of the Decists. It was an entirely new platform of a group which as a consequence is totally new without any links to the Decists of the past except in the person of Sapronov as its spokesman.

And he went on,

The Group of Fifteen owes its name to the platform signed by fifteen comrades. In its main points, in its estimation of the nature of the state in the USSR, in its ideas about a worker’ state, the programme of the Fifteen comes very close to the ideology of the Workers’ Group (20).

At this time moreover the two groups were drawn towards political rapprochement. In August 1928 at the Moscow Conference of the Workers’ group it was said that

The Workers Group voted on the text of an appeal to the Group of Fifteen and to the survivors of the Workers’ Opposition inviting them to unite in a common programme on the basis of the November Revolution (which we call October due to the old calendar).

Miasnikov added

At the same meeting a proposal of draft statutes for the Communist Workers’ Parties of the USSR was presented. Having been only read without being submitted to a deeper examination the proposal was not considered as coming from the Council but only from an individual member of the central bureau (21). In its appeal the Workers’ Group mentioned this proposal as previously submitted for discussion before being definitely adopted as the basis on which the two groups in question would be able to unite to form the Russian Communist Workers’ Party. To this end a resolution was adopted to constitute the central bureau of the Workers’ Group as the central organising bureau for Communist Workers’ Parties of the USSR. All the members of the Group of Fifteen were dispersed in exile at this period; thus there could be no question of organising a full meeting. But at this meeting there was a member of this group with full voting rights.

In Prison and in the Camps (1933 -1937)

Ciliga (22) shows how the group which was essentially constituted on a new basis (Manifesto of the Fifteen or On the Eve of Thermidor) constantly won over militants from the “irreconcilable” Bolshevik-Leninist wing and finally became a majority in the prison at Vorkuta. But it was the orientation of the Workers’ Group within the working a class, a group which was much more politically clear which allowed it to regroup elements around it.

The Miasnikov group, the Decists, some old Trotskyists; in all 25 individuals would form a Federation of Left Communists.

Platform of the Fifteen

From “Democratic Centralism” to the Radical Critique of Soviet Power.

The document, Platform of the Left Opposition, also called the Platform of the Fifteen; On the Eve of Thermidor (of Sapronov, Smirnov, Obhorin, Kalin etc.) was published for the first time in French by Reveil Communiste in November 1927. The Communist Vanguard groups were groups of dissidents from the Italian Communist Left who separated from this faction in 1927 over the need to create a fraction without waiting for any eventual appeal for reintegration to the Communist International, and on the nature of the Soviet state.

The dictatorship of the proletariat in Russia is no longer a reality in the country of the greatest working class revolution Elsewhere in their introduction the Communist Vanguard groups wrote Communist thought was linked to a preconception of unity and discipline: this is thus how through degeneration of the Third International first, and by a lack of resolve afterwards, the premises of Thermidor, which inexorably advances today, were prepared.

This is the reason why these groups found themselves well prepared for the conceptions of the platform, presented in June 1927 to the Political Bureau of the Russian Communist Party. The Platform was naturally banned by the Central Committee of the RCP.

It had also been published in Germany two months earlier by “the group of fighters of the Hamburg October expelled from the German Communist Party”. This was the group around Karl Korsch, Kommunistische Politik, (23) with whom the Communist Vanguard groups had close relations; the translator from Russian being his wife, Hedda.

Before Thermidor

Before Thermidor carried great political weight, it involved a radical critique of the Soviet regime from the Twenties, some of which we would like to stress in order to show its inestimable contribution to the workers movement.

1. What are the class relations in Russia?

The general results of the change of class relations during the years of NEP [involve] the birth and development of a pre-eminently parasitic type of bourgeoisie which has gained ground in the fields of commerce, speculation, usury and even a part of production.

2. The need for workers democracy

The resurgence of the themes of the left communists in the Bolshevik Party like the insistence on workers’ democracy and workers’ councils can be seen.

It is necessary to gradually re-establish the methods of workers’ democracy which during the three years of civil war were heavily restricted. Above all it is necessary to re-establish the electability of all officials within organisations.

3. The defence of the workers

… as a very important point so that they, and they alone, exercise the class dictatorship Thus they recalled the need to honour what had been decided at the Eleventh Party Congress

[which allowed] strikes within state enterprises with the following restriction: The application of the method of struggle by strikes in a proletarian state can in the end be justified and explained by bureaucratic corruption and other remnants of the capitalist past.

4. How can real workers’ power be exercised?

The text begins by recalling Lenin’s position.

It is necessary to organise the state in a way in which its organs, in halting exploitation aren’t transformed from “servants of society” into “dominators of society” like the special organs of all states. This state shouldn’t be “a state of officials” but only “a state of armed workers”.

Lenin, The State and Revolution

For that, it was already proposed as a first step for officials

  1. that they are not only “elected but also recallable”;
  2. “their appointments are not superior to the workers”.

The principal measure being to revitalise the workers’ councils, they thus proposed to

1. Pose the solution of renewal of Soviets as pure organs of the proletarian dictatorship with unconditional pre-eminence for workers and poor peasants. The non-labouring elements, the bourgeoisie and the kulaks will not be able to participate in Soviet elections...
2. To reaffirm the autonomy of the Soviets in the towns as the essential organ of the dictatorship of the proletariat, particularly in the industrial centres...
3. The right of recall of delegates by electors should be reestablished at the same time as the option of recall. The freedom of criticism of all Soviet bodies and their leaders in the workers’ press and in the Party and in meetings should be guaranteed...

In this document the critique of the regime inside the Party and the policy of the Comintern are more radical than those of other oppositions. It was stated for example that the policy of the Anglo-Russian Committee amounted to

treason against the English workers [as it was] an “internal affair” of the leaders of the English trades unions and that the Russian trades unions could not or would not prevent such a betrayal.

They could not have been more critical or categorical in relation to the policy of the Comintern. The same critique of betrayal was made about the policy of the Communist International in China.

The document ends with a violent accusation that socialism in one country meant “going over to a nationalist position and the idealisation of NEP”, thus disowning the policy of Lenin.

In reading this text, understanding its positions, so critical of the Soviet regime and its policies, we are astonished by the conclusion, that is to say, that the rupture with the regime is not clearer. The last paragraph begins with the following phrase: “we don’t mean that the party has already degenerated” which has the air here of being in contradiction with the content of the document. We can understand that these oppositionists were still at a crossroads and did not push their critique to its logical conclusion to state that the regime was no longer proletarian, that this state had become a bourgeois state, and that we had already gone beyond Thermidor.

Michel Olivier

(1) From the preface [Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. 1955.] p. v.

(2) From the Declaration of the Forty Six of 15 October 1923

(3) Op cit. p. 334.

(4) Founder of the Communist Party of Italy in 1921.

(5) See “Bordiga’s Last Fight in the Communist International” in Internationalist Communist 14.

(6) Dekist or Decist comes from the initials for democratic centralism. The Praxis Centre for Education and Research (Moscow) has prepared documents and materials of the Decists running to 50 documents and 500 pages of the theses and other political documents of the “Sapronovtsy” (i.e followers of Sapronov).

(7) Socialisme ou Barbarie No. 35 (March 1964) p.107.

(8) Mikhail Vladimirsky (1874-1951). Member of the Central Committee from March 1918 to March 1919

(9) Lenin’s reply to the Democratic Centralists in the conclusion of his political report. Collected Works Volume 30 pp 443- 62.

(10) See the resolution of the Ninth Congress in April 1920.

In the last resort management by one person even where a specialist directs it is an expression of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

(11) Ossinsky, quoted by Schapiro in The Origins of the Communist Autocracy p.191.

(12) Lenin, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Stalin etc.

(13) Sergei Medvedev (1885-1937), a member of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party from 1900, and a Bolshevik from 1903. He was a member of the Central Committee of the All-Russian Metalworkers Union. Expelled from the Party in 1933 and executed 10 September 1937.

(14) The Platform of the Workers’ Opposition group for the Tenth Party Congress of the Russian Communist Party (March 1921) was originally translated and serialised in Workers’ Dreadnought in the same year. It was republished as The Workers’ Opposition by Alexandra Kollontai by the Solidarity (London) group in 1961. They edited the translation to make it more readable (though acknowledging that a full new translation would be better) and added subheadings in a 1968 second edition. It is this version which can be found online at . The International Communist Current seem to have also used this version (but reverting to the main section headings in the Workers’ Dreadnought original) in their pamphlet “The Russian Communist Left” (BM Box 869, London WC1N 3XX). This book also contains the Platform of the Left Opposition in the Bolshevik Party or On the Eve of Thermidor, published by the Communist Vanguard groups in France in 1928, as well as G. Miasnikov’s The Latest Deception.

(15) Miasnikov was the only one to oppose the assault on Kronstadt.

(16) Radek declared

In voting on this resolution I am well aware that it could be turned against us but nevertheless I support it. That the Central Committee takes such severe measures in a moment of danger against the best comrades in the Party if that is what is required… even if it is mistaken! That is less dangerous than the indecision which we can see today.

Quoted in Schapiro pp 215-6

(17) She died in March 1952, exactly one year before Stalin.

(18) Quoted in P. Avrich The Kronstadt Tragedy p.132.

(19) The Trade Unions, the Present Situation and Trotsky’s Mistakes From V. I. Lenin, Collected Works, 4th English Edition, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1965 Vol. 32, pp. 19-42. or at .

(20) The Platform of the Opposition of Fifteen (June 1927) (of the Sapronov-Smirnov group) was published in France by the Communist Vanguard groups under the title “on the Eve of Thermidor”. It had been translated into German by Hedda Korsch, wife of Karl Korsch. It can be found in the ICC book (see note 13).

(21) Miasnikov had edited this text. It was published in France for the first time by Albert Treint on 15 May 1930.

(22) Ante Ciliga In the Land of the Great Lie. Chapter 9 is available on (see note 13).

(23) Karl Korsch (1886-1961). At the end of 1918 he participated in the workers councils in Germany. Then he rapidly became an important member of the USPD and greeted the founding of the VKPD (United Communist Party of Germany) with enthusiasm. He wrote Marxism and Philosophy at the same time as George Lukacs wrote History and Class Consciousness (1923). Both notably

“put a common accent of the factor of consciousness in the class struggle, on the contribution of Hegel, via Marx, to a critical conception of ideology and on a resolute opposition to historical fatalism. On the other hand whilst Lukacs placed a critique of “reification” at the centre of his theory, Korsch accorded the same role to the materialist critique of history.” (S. Bricianer’s introduction to Marxisme et contre-revolution p.23)

He was Minister of Justice for one month in Thuringia in a united front government, and then elected to the Reichstag and named chief editor of the theoretical organ of the KPD Die Internationale. He made contact (Fifth Comintern Congress June 1924) with the Russians, Sapronov and Shlyapnikov, the Italian Bordiga, and posed the “difference between a real proletarian foreign policy and red imperialism”. Opposing the tactic of a “popular bloc” in 1925 he published Kommunistische Politik. He was expelled from the KPD with members of his group at the end of 1926. Korsch fled Germany in the autumn of 1933, rejoining his friend Brecht in Denmark. Subsequently he settled in the USA.


Dear Comrades:

I am deeply grateful to you for publishing this article. Some years ago, I ordered from the comrades of the International Communist Current their book on the Russian Communist Left by their late supporter, comrade Ian Hebbes, and found it very informative, educational, and telling me things I had not been aware of earlier, particularly on comrade Gabriel (or perhaps your spelling, Gavril, is right) Miasnikov. I had earlier learned of Miasnikov from comrade Loren Goldner in a phone conversation, and from learning of Miasnikov, ordered the ICC's book. But now you have added to and supplemented that. Again, I'm grateful.

I say this despite remaining in substance more a Trotskyist than a left communist, but I have respect and admiration for you comrades and also for the comrades of the ICC. I polemicize with those comrades and with you as well, but I favor the policy of maximum political education in these matters, and your article helps that.

Again, thank you.

Warmest comradely greetings,

Allan (Al) Greene, Long-time Marxist

Agree with Al Green that this is a fascinating look into the labyrinthine machinations of the deteriorating revolution in Russia. It seems that once tbe collapse begins there's no going back. No 'reaffirming' soviet power, no 'revitalization ' of workers' soviets, no 'renewal', no 're-establishment' of workers' power. Once the proletarian passion is lost, or suppressed, in a particular arena, there's no getting it back. Unless of course tbe revolution spreads internationally, in which case hope and confidence is maintained.

I was struck by what Kollontai had to say. "“This consideration, which should be the very simple and clear to every practical man, is lost sight of by our Party leaders: it is impossible to decree Communism. It can be treated only in the process of practical research, through mistakes, perhaps, but only by the creative powers of the working class itself.” (Kollontai, The Workers’ Opposition, taken from the Solidarity (London) republication of the Workers’ Dreadnought translation of 1921 p.32, 1968). IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO DECREE COMMUNISM. It can only emerge from the CREATIVE POWERS OF THE WORKING CLASS ITSELF. Of course we all know that. But it's good to be reminded.

Something that puzzles me. How can someone appreciate this article so much, and remain in substance more of a Trotskyist than a communist?

Yes that's right he expelled from the KPD with members of his group from Korsch fled Germany in the autumn of 1933 and afterwards settled in the USA.

This account of the deterioration, the warping and collapse of proletarian consciousness in post revolution Russia - inevitable that it was, given the defeat of the class in Europe and everywhere else - is surely the saddest story ever told. But we are doomed to be defeated till we win aren't we? And lessons have been learned even from that deadly and confusing mess that was Red Russia as it decayed into the bourgeois USSR.

But the analysis of the defeat of that revolution produced the Communist Left. That is some consolation and could yet prove a thing of triumph and a matter to rejoice over. Let's hope so!

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