The Workers Opposition, Alexandra Kollontai 1921

On Bureaucracy & Self-activity of The Masses

1. Initiative... & The Roots of Apathy

Is it to be bureaucracy or self-activity of the masses? This is the second point of the controversy between the leaders of our Party and the Workers’ Opposition. The question of bureaucracy was raised and only superficially discussed at the eighth Soviet Congress. Herein, just as in the question on the part to be played by the trade unions and their problems, the discussion was shifted to a wrong channel. The controversy on this question is more fundamental than it might seem.

The essence is this: what system of administration in a workers’ republic during the period of creation of the economic basis for Communism secures more freedom for the class creative powers? Is it a bureaucratic state system or a system of wide practical self-activity of the working masses? The question relates to the system of administration and the controversy arises between two diametrically opposed principles: bureaucracy or self-activity. And yet they try to squeeze it into the scope of the problem that concerns itself only with methods of animating the Soviet institutions.

Here we observe the same substitution of the subjects discussed as the one that occurred in the debates on the trade unions. It is necessary to state definitely and clearly that half-measures, changes in relations between central bodies and local economic organizations, and other such petty non-essential innovations (such as responsible officials or the injection of Party members into the Soviet institutions, where these Communists are subjected to all the bad influences of the prevailing bureaucratic system, and disintegrate among the elements of the former bourgeois class) will not bring ‘democratisation’ or life into the Soviet institutions.

This is not the point however. Every child in Soviet Russia knows that the vital problem is to draw the wide toiling masses of workers, peasants and others, into the reconstruction of economy in the proletarian state, and to change the conditions of life accordingly. The task is clear: it is to arouse initiative and self-activity in the masses. But what is being done to encourage and develop that initiative? Nothing at all. Quite the contrary. At every meeting we call upon the working men and women to ‘create a new life, build up and assist the Soviet authorities’. But no sooner do the masses or individual groups of workers take our admonition seriously and attempt to apply it in real life than some bureaucratic institution, feeling ignored, hastily cuts short the efforts of the over-zealous initiators.

Every comrade can easily recall scores of instances then workers themselves attempted to organise dining-rooms, day nurseries for children, transportation of wood, etc. Each time a lively, immediate interest in the undertaking died from the red tape, interminable negotiations with the various institutions that brought no results, or resulted in refusals, new requisitions etc. Wherever there was an opportunity under the impetus of the masses themselves – of the masses using their own efforts – to equip a dining-room, to store a supply of wood, or to organise a nursery, refusal always followed refusal from the central institutions. Explanations were forthcoming that there was no equipment for the dining-room, lack of horses for transporting the wood, and absence of an adequate building for the nursery. How much bitterness is generated among working men and women when they see and know that if they had been given the right, and an opportunity to act, they could themselves have seen the project through. How painful it is to receive a refusal of necessary material! when such material had already been found and procured by the workers themselves. Their initiative is therefore slackening and the desire to act is dying out. ‘If that is the case’, people say, ‘let officials themselves take care of us’. As a result, there is generated a most harmful division: we are the toiling people, they are the Soviet officials, on whom everything depends. This is the whole trouble.

2. The Essence of Bureaucracy

Meanwhile, what are our Party leaders doing? Do they attempt to find the cause of the evil? Do they openly admit that their very system which was carried out into life through the Soviets, paralyses and deadens the masses, though it was meant to encourage their initiative? No, our Party leaders do nothing of the kind. Just the opposite. Instead of finding means to encourage the mass initiative which could fit perfectly into our flexible Soviet institutions, our Party leaders all of a sudden appear in the role of defenders and knights of bureaucracy. How many comrades follow Trotsky’s example and repeat that ‘we suffer, not because we adopt the bad sides of bureaucracy, but because we have failed so far to learn the good ones’ (‘On one common plan’, by Trotsky).

Bureaucracy is a direct negation of mass self-activity. Whoever therefore accepts the principle of involving the masses in active participation as a basis for the new system of the workers’ republic, cannot look for good or bad sides in bureaucracy. He must openly and resolutely reject this useless system. Bureaucracy is not a product of our misery as Comrade Zinovieff tries to convince us. Neither is it a reflection of blind subordination’ to superiors, generated by militarism, as others assert. This phenomenon has deeper roots. It is a by-product of the same cause that explains our policy of double-dealing in relation to the trade unions, namely, the growing influence in the Soviet institutions of elements hostile in spirit not only to Communism, but also to the elementary aspirations of the working masses. Bureaucracy is a scourge that pervades the very marrow of our Party as well as of the Soviet institutions. This fact is emphasised not only by the Workers’ Opposition. It is also recognised by many thoughtful comrades not belonging to this group.

Restrictions on initiative are imposed, not only in regard to the activity of the non-party masses (this would only be a logical and reasonable condition, in the atmosphere of the civil war). The initiative of Party members themselves is restricted. Every independent attempt, every new thought that passes through the censorship of our centre, is considered as ‘heresy’, as a violation of Party discipline, as an attempt to infringe on the prerogatives of the centre, which must ‘foresee’ everything and ‘decree’ everything and anything. If anything is not decreed one must wait, for the time will come when the centre at its leisure will decree. Only then, and within sharply restricted limits, will one be allowed to express one’s ‘initiative’. What would happen if some of the members of the Russian Communist Party – those, for instance, who are fond of birds – decided to form a society for the preservation of birds? The idea itself seems useful. It does not in any way undermine any ‘state project’. But it only seems this way. All of a sudden there would appear some bureaucratic institution which would claim the right to manage this particular undertaking. That particular institution would immediately ‘incorporate’ the society into the Soviet machine, deadening, thereby, the direct initiative. And instead of direct initiative, there would appear a heap of paper decrees and regulations which would give enough work to hundreds of other officials and add to the work of mails and transport.

The harm in bureaucracy does not only lie in the red tape as some comrades would want us to believe – they narrow the whole controversy to the sanitation of Soviet institutions’. The harm lies in the solution of all problems, not by means of an open exchange of opinions or by the immediate efforts of all concerned, but by means of formal decisions handed down from the central institutions. These decisions are arrived at either by one person or by an extremely limited collective, wherein the interested people are quite often entirely absent. Some third person decides your fate: this is the whole essence of bureaucracy. In the face of the growing suffering in the working class, brought about by the confusion of the present transitory period, bureaucracy finds itself particularly weak and impotent. Miracles of enthusiasm in stimulating the productive forces and alleviating working conditions can only be performed by the active initiative of the interested workers themselves, provided it is not restricted and repressed at every step by a hierarchy of ‘permissions’ and ‘decrees’. Marxists, and Bolsheviks in particular, have been strong and powerful in that they never stressed the policy of immediate success of the movement (This line, by the way, has always been followed by the opportunists-compromisers). Marxists have always attempted to put the workers in such conditions as would give them the opportunity to temper their revolutionary will and to develop their creative abilities. The workers’ initiative is indispensable for us, and yet we do not give it a chance to develop. Fear of criticism and of freedom of thought, by combining together with bureaucracy, often produce ridiculous results. There can be no self-activity without freedom of thought and opinion, for self-activity manifest itself not only in initiative, action and work, but in independent though as well. We give no freedom to class activity, we are afraid of criticism, we have ceased to rely on the masses: hence we have bureaucracy with us. That is why the Workers’ Opposition considers that bureaucracy is our enemy, our scourge, and the greatest danger to the future existence of the Communist Party itself.

3. Against The Bureaucracy in The Party

In order to do away with the bureaucracy that is finding its shelter in the Soviet institutions, we must first get rid of all bureaucracy in the Party itself. That is where we face the immediate struggle. As soon as the Party – not in theory but in practice – recognised the self-activity of the masses as the basis of our State, the Soviet institutions will again automatically become living institutions, destined to carry out the Communist project. They will cease to be the institutions of red tape and the laboratories for still-born decrees into which they have very rapidly degenerated.

What shall we do then in order to destroy bureaucracy in the Party and replace it by workers’ democracy? First of all it is necessary to understand that our leaders are wrong when they say: ‘Just now we agree to loosen the reins somewhat, for there is no immediate danger on the military front, but as soon as we again feel the danger we shall return to the military system in the Party.’ We must remember that heroism saved Petrograd, more than once defended Lugansk, other centres, and whole regions. Was it the Red Army alone that put up the defence? No. There was, besides, the heroic self-activity and initiative of the masses themselves. Every comrade will recall that during the moments of supreme danger, the Party always appealed to this self-activity, for it saw in it the sheet-anchor of salvation. It is true that at times of threatening danger, Party and class discipline must be stricter. There must be more self-sacrifice, exactitude in performing duties, etc. But between these manifestations of class spirit and the ‘blind subordination’ which is being advocated lately in the Party, there is a great difference.

In the name of Party regeneration and the elimination of bureaucracy from the Soviet institutions, the Workers’ Opposition, together with a group of responsible workers in Moscow, demand complete realization of all democratic principles, not only for the present period of respite but also for times of internal and external tension. This is the first and basic condition for the Party’s regeneration, for its return to the principles of its programme, from which it is more and more deviating in practice under the pressure of elements that are foreign to it.

The second condition, the vigorous fulfilment of which is insisted upon by the Workers’ Opposition, is the expulsion from the Party of all non-proletarian elements. The stronger the Soviet authority becomes, the greater is the number of middle class, and sometimes even openly hostile elements, joining the Party. The elimination of these elements must be complete and thorough. Those in charge of it must take into account the fact that the most revolutionary elements of non-proletarian origin had joined the Party during the first period of the October revolution. The Party must become a Workers’ Party. Only then will it be able vigorously to repeal all the influences that are now being brought to bear on it by petty-bourgeois elements, peasants, or by the faithful servants of Capital – the specialists.

The Workers’ Opposition proposes to register all members who are non-workers and who joined the Party since 1919, and to reserve for them the right to appeal within three months from the decisions arrived at, in order that they might join the Party again.

At the same time, it is necessary to establish a ‘working status’ for all those non-working class elements who will try to get back into the Party, by providing that every applicant to membership of the Party must have worked a certain period of time at manual labour: under general working conditions, before he becomes eligible for enrolment into the Party.

The third decisive step towards democratization of the Party is the elimination of all non-working class elements from administrative positions. In other words, the central, provincial, and county committees of the Party must be so composed that workers closely acquainted with the conditions of the working masses should have the preponderant majority therein. Closely related to this demand stands the further demand of converting all our Party centres, beginning from the Central Executive Committee and including the provincial county committees, from institutions taking care of routine, everyday work, into institutions of control over Soviet policy. We have already remarked that the crisis in our Party is a direct outcome of three distinct crosscurrents, corresponding to the three different social groups: the working class, the peasantry and middle class, and elements of the former bourgeoisie – that is, specialists, technicians and men of affairs.

Problems of State-wide importance compel both the local and central Soviet institutions, including even the Council of People’s Commissars and the All-Russian Central Executive Committee, to lend an ear to, and conform with, these three distinct tendencies, representing the groups that compose the population of Soviet Russia. As a result, the class line of our general policy is blurred, and the necessary stability is lost. Considerations of State interests begin to outweigh the interests of the workers.

To help the Central Committee and Party Committees stand firmly on the side of our class policy, to help them call all our Soviet institutions to order each time that a decision in Soviet policy becomes necessary (as, for instance, in the question of the trade unions) it is necessary to disassociate the prerogatives of such responsible officials who, at one and the same time, have responsible posts both in the Soviet institutions and in the Communist Party centres. We must remember that Soviet Russia has not so far been a socially homogeneous unit. On the contrary, it has represented a heterogeneous social conglomeration. The State authority is compelled to reconcile these, at times mutually hostile, interests by choosing the middle ground.

The Central Committee of our Party must become the supreme directing centre of our class policy, the organ of class thought and control over the practical policy of the Soviets, and the spiritual personification of our basic programme. To ensure this, it is necessary, particularly in the Central Committee, to restrict multiple office-holding by those who, whilst being members of the Central Committee, also occupy high posts in the Soviet government. For this purpose, the Workers’ Opposition proposes the formation of Party centres, which would really serve as organs of ideal control over the Soviet institutions, and would direct their actions along clear-cut class lines. To increase Party activity, it would be necessary to implement everywhere the following measure: at least one third of Party members in these centres should be permanently forbidden to act as Party members and Soviet officials at the same time.

The fourth basic demand of the Workers’ Opposition is that the Party must reverse its policy in relation to the elective principle.

Appointments are permissible only as exceptions. Lately they have begun to prevail as a rule. Appointments are very characteristic of bureaucracy, and yet at present they are a general, legalized and well-recognised daily occurrence. The procedure of appointments produces a very unhealthy atmosphere in the Party. It disrupts the relationship of equality amongst the members by rewarding friends and punishing enemies, and by other no less harmful practices in Party and Soviet life. Appointments lessen the sense of duty and responsibility to the masses in the ranks of those appointed, for they are not responsible to the masses. This makes the division between the leaders and the rank and file members still sharper. Every appointee, as a matter of fact, is beyond any control. The leaders are not able closely to watch his activity while the masses cannot call him to account and dismiss him if necessary. As a rule every appointee is surrounded by an atmosphere of officialdom: servility and blind subordination, which infects all subordinates and discredits the Party. The practice of appointments completely rejects the principle of collective work. It breeds irresponsibility.

Appointments by the leaders must be done away with and replaced by the elective principle at every level of the Party. Candidates shall be eligible to occupy responsible administrative positions only when they have been elected by conferences or congresses. Finally, in order to eliminate bureaucracy and make the Party more healthy, it is necessary to revert to the state of affairs where all the cardinal questions of Party activity and Soviet policy were submitted to the consideration of the rank and file, and only after that were supervised by the leaders. This was the state of things when the Party was forced to carry on its work in secret – even as late as the time of the signing of the Brest-Litovsk treaty.

4. Discuss The Problems Openly

At present, the state of things is altogether different. In spite of the widely circulated promises made at the All Russian Party Conference held in September (1920) a no less important question than that of concessions was quite arbitrarily decided for the masses. Only due to the sharp controversy that arose within the Party centres themselves was the question of the trade unions brought out into the open, to be thrashed out in debate.

Wide publicity, freedom of opinion and discussion, the right to criticise within the Party and among the members of the trade unions – such are the decisive steps that can put an end to the prevailing system of bureaucracy. Freedom of criticism, right of different factions freely to present their views at Party meetings, freedom of discussion – are no longer the demands of the Workers’ Opposition alone. Under the growing pressure from the masses, a whole series of measures that were demanded by the rank and file long before the Party Conference are now recognised and officially promulgated. One need only read the proposals of the Moscow Committee in regard to Party structure to be proud of the great influence that is being exerted on the Party centres. If it were not for the Workers’ Opposition, the Moscow Committee would never have taken such a sharp ‘turn to the left’. However, we must not overestimate this ‘leftism’, for it is only a declaration of principles to the Congress. It may happen, as it has many a time with decisions of our Party leaders during these years, that this radical declaration will soon be forgotten. As a rule, these decisions are accepted by our Party centres only just as the mass impetus is felt. As soon as life again swings into normal channels, the decisions are forgotten.

Did not this happen to the decision of the eighth Congress which resolved to free the Party of all elements who joined it for selfish motives, and to use discretion in accepting non-working class elements? What has become of the decision taken by the Party Conference in 1920, when it was decided to replace the practice of appointments by recommendations? Inequality in the Party still persists, in spite of repeated resolutions passed on this subject. Comrades who dare to disagree with decrees from above are still being persecuted. There are many such instances. If all these various Party decisions are not enforced, then it is necessary to eliminate the basic cause that interferes with their enforcement. We must remove from the Party those who are afraid of publicity, strict accountability before the rank and file, and freedom of criticism.

Non-working class members of the Party, and those workers who fell under their influence, are afraid of all this. It is not enough to clean the Party of all non-proletarian elements by registration or to increase the control in time of enrolment, etc. It is also necessary to create opportunities for the workers to join the Party. It is necessary to simplify the admission of workers to the Party, to create a more friendly atmosphere in the Party itself, so that workers might feel themselves at home. In responsible Party officials they should not see superiors but more experienced comrades, ready to share with them their knowledge, experience and skill, and to consider seriously workers’ needs and interests. How many comrades, particularly young workers, are driven away from the Party just because we manifest our impatience with them by our assumed superiority and strictness, instead of teaching them bringing them up in the spirit of Communism? Besides the spirit of bureaucracy, an atmosphere of officialdom finds a fertile ground in our Party. If there is any comradeship in our Party it exists only among the rank and file members.

5. Historical Necessity of The Opposition

The task of the Party congress is to take into account this unpleasant reality. It must ponder over the question: Why is the Workers’ Opposition insisting on introducing equality, on eliminating all privileges in the Party, and on placing under a stricter responsibility to the masses those administrative officials who are elected by them? In its struggle for establishing democracy in the Party, and for the elimination of all bureaucracy, the Workers’ Opposition advances three cardinal demands:

(1) Return to the principle of election all along the line with the elimination of all bureaucracy, by making all responsible officials answerable to the masses.

(2) Introduce wide publicity within the Party, both concerning general questions and where individuals are involved. Pay more attention to the voice of the rank and file (wide discussion of all questions by the rank and file and their summarizing by the leaders; admission of any member to the meetings of Party centres, except when the problems discussed require particular secrecy). Establish freedom of opinion and expression (giving the right not only to criticise freely during discussions, but to use funds for publication of literature proposed by different Party factions).

(3) Make the Party more of a workers’ Party. Limit the number of those who fill offices, both in the Party and the Soviet institutions at the same time.

A correct solution to the question will be if we succeed in closely linking the party along the whole line, not only with the Soviet bodies, but also with the trade unions. Here, a person working in both positions not only does not threaten a deviation of the party’s policy from the purity of the party line, but, on the contrary, gives the party class stability against the influence of world capitalism in the coming era (through trade agreements and concessions).

To create such a Central Committee with ‘workers spirit’ means to create such a Central Committee, where representatives of the lower ranks, wedded to the masses, would cease to play the role of ‘ceremonial generals’ at a merchant wedding, and in fact would be inextricably linked with the broad non-party members of the working masses in trade unions and manage to take into account, sum up the slogans the moment, the needs, the aspirations of the class and would direct the party’s policy along the class line.

This last demand is particularly important. Our Party must not only build Communism, but prepare and educate the masses for a prolonged period of struggle against world capitalism, which may take on unexpected new forms. It would be childish to imagine that, having repelled the treason of the White Guards and of Imperialism on the military fronts, we will be free from the danger of a new attack from world capital, which is striving to seize Soviet Russia by roundabout ways, to penetrate into our life, and use the Soviet Republic for its own ends. This is the great danger that we must stand guard against. And herein lies the problem for our Party : how to meet the enemy well-prepared, how to rally all the proletarian forces around clear-cut class issues (the other groups of the population always gravitate to capitalism). It is the duty of our leaders to prepare for this new page of our revolutionary history

It will only be possible to find correct solutions to these questions when we succeed in uniting the Party all along the line, not only together with the Soviet institutions, but with the trade unions as well. The filling up of offices in party and trade unions not only tends to deviate Party policy from clear-cut class lines but also renders the Party susceptible to the influences of world capitalism during this coming epoch, influences exerted through concessions and trade agreements. To make the Central Committee one that the workers feel is their own is to create a Central Committee wherein representatives of the lower layers connected with the masses would not merely play the role of upgrading generals’, or a merchant’s wedding part. The Committee should be closely bound with the wide non-party working masses in the trade unions. It would thereby be enabled to formulate the slogans of the time, to express the workers’ needs, their aspirations, and to direct the policy of the Party along class lines. Such are the demands of the Workers’ Opposition. Such is its historic task. And whatever derisive remarks the leaders of our Party may employ, the Workers’ Opposition is today the only vital active force with which the Party is compelled to contend, and to which it will have to pay attention.

Is the Opposition necessary? Is it necessary, on behalf of the liberation of the workers throughout the world from the yoke of capital, to welcome its formation? Or is it an undesirable movement, detrimental to the fighting energy of the Party, and destructive to its ranks? Every comrade who is not prejudiced against the Opposition and who wants to approach the question with an open mind and to analyse it, even if not in accordance with what the recognised authorities tell him, will see from these brief outlines that the Opposition is useful and necessary. It is useful primarily because it has awakened slumbering thought. During these years of the revolution, we have been so preoccupied with our pressing affairs that we have ceased to appraise our actions from the stand-point of principle and theory. We have been forgetting that the proletariat can commit grave mistakes and not only during the period of Struggle for political power. It can turn to the morass of opportunism. Even during the epoch of the dictatorship of the proletariat such mistakes are possible, particularly when on all sides we are surrounded by the stormy waves of imperialism and when the Soviet Republic is compelled to act in a capitalist environment. At such times, our leaders must be not only wise, (statesman-like) politicians. They must also be able to lead the Party and the whole working class along the line of class creativeness. They must prepare it for a prolonged struggle against the new forms of penetration of the Soviet Republic by the bourgeois influences of world capitalism. Be ready, be clear – but along class lines ; such must be the slogan of our Party, and now more than ever before.

The Workers’ Opposition has put these questions on the order of the day, rendering thereby an historic service. The thought begins to move. Members begin to analyse what has already been done. Wherever there is criticism, analysis, wherever thought moves and works, there is life, progress, advancement forward towards the future. There is nothing more frightful and harmful than sterility of thought and routine. We have been retiring into routine, and might inadvertently have gone off the direct class road leading to Communism, if it were not for the Workers’ Opposition injecting itself into the situation at a time when our enemies were about to burst into joyful laughter. At present this is already impossible. The Congress, and the Party, will be compelled to contend with the point of view expressed by the Workers’ Opposition. They will either compromise with it or make essential concessions under its influence and pressure. The second service of the Workers’ Opposition is that it has brought up for discussion the question as to who, after all, shall be called upon to create the new forms of economy. Shall it be the technicians and men of affairs, who by their psychology are bound up with the past, together with Soviet officials and some Communists scattered among them, or shall it be working class collectives, represented by the unions?

The Workers’ Opposition has said what has long ago been printed in the Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels: the building of Communism can and must be the work of the toiling masses themselves. The building of Communism belongs to the workers. Finally, the Workers’ Opposition has raised its voice against bureaucracy. It has dared to say that bureaucracy binds the wings of self-activity and the creativeness of the working class; that it deadens thought, hinders initiative and experimenting in the sphere of finding new approaches to production ; in a word that it hinders the development of new forms for production and life. Instead of a system of bureaucracy, the Workers’ Opposition proposes a system of self-activity for the masses. In this respect, the Party leaders even now are making concessions and ‘recognising’ their deviations as being harmful to Communism and detrimental to working class interests (the rejection of centralism). The Tenth Congress, we understand, will make another series of concessions to the Workers’ Opposition. Thus, in spite of the fact that the Workers’ Opposition appeared as a mere group inside the Party only a few months ago, it has already fulfilled its mission. It has compelled the leading Party centres to listen to the workers’ sound advice. At presents whatever might be the wrath toward the Workers’ Opposition, it has the historical future to support it.

Just because we believe in the vital forces of our Party, we know that after some hesitation, resistance and devious political moves, our Party will ultimately again follow that path which has been blazed by the elemental forces of the proletariat. Organised as a class, there will be no split. If some groups leave the Party, they will not the ones who make up the Workers’ Opposition. Those will fall out who attempt to evolve into principles the temporary deviations from the spirit of the Communist programme, that were forced upon the Party by the prolonged civil war, and hold to them as if they were the essence of our political line of action.

All those in the Party who have been accustomed to reflect the class viewpoint of the ever-growing proletariat will absorb and digest everything that is wholesome, practical and sound in the Workers’ Opposition. Not in vain will the rank-and-file worker speak with assurance and reconciliation: ‘Ilyich (Lenin) will ponder, he will think it over, he will listen to us. And then he will decide to turn the Party rudder toward the Opposition. Ilyich will be with us yet’.

The sooner the Party leaders take into account the Opposition’s work and follow the road indicated by the rank-and-file members, the quicker shall we overcome the crisis in the Party. And the sooner shall we step over the line beyond which humanisms having freed itself from objective economic laws and taking advantage of all the richness and knowledge of common working-class experience, will consciously begin to create the human history of the Communist epoch.