The Workers' Opposition.
Alexandra Kollontai’s text The Workers’ Opposition was written in Russian, during the early weeks of 1921. It was an attempt to give a more detailed justification to the Theses on the Trade Union Question, submitted by the Workers’ Opposition for discussion at the 10th Congress (March 1921) of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (The Theses themselves were published in Pravda on January 25, 1921). The document was published in England almost immediately, in Sylvia Pankhurst’s Workers’ Dreadnought (April 22 – August 19, 1921) and reprinted in Chicago later that year. In Russia, it was circulated at the 10th Congress, but banned immediately afterwards (as part of the outlawing of the Workers’ Opposition), following the ban on organised factions which had been voted at that Congress. Solidarity republished Kollontai’s text in 1961. The publication aroused considerable interest (as judged by sales) but little comment at the time. Translations appeared in several languages.
Destalinisation, Hungary ’56, Czechoslovakia ’68, and the spread of left-communist ideas in the wake of the student unrest of the 1960s all contributed to making the debate on the nature of the Soviet state more vigorous and important. Hence a second edition in 1968, and now a third one.
We are not reprinting this text because we agree with the analysis contained in it (in many respects we do not, as will be made clear in the rest of this Introduction), but rather because of the importance of the text itself in relation to the question of the causes of the degeneration of the Russian revolution.
Much more is now available than 20 years ago concerning the darker sides of the Russian revolution before Lenin’s death. Daniels, Avrich, Voline, Brinton and others have shattered the myth of Stalin being mainly responsible for the degeneration of a revolution which – according to the myth – had remained fundamentally sound under Lenin’s leadership. Even Trotskyist historians have had to give up the myth (see Liebman’s recent Leninism under Lenin). The pre-1923 closet has turned out to contain an impressive number of skeletons. (The Solidarity footnotes – written in 1961 – which follow Kollontai’s text, may be useful to those not acquainted with the works referred to above; they supply some basic information on the facts Kollontai refers to, and they start to explore the role of Bolshevik ideology and practice in the degeneration of the Russian revolution. The interested reader may also want to read Paul Cardan’s preface to the French translation of this text, republished as a Solidarity pamphlet: From Bolshevism to Bureaucracy.)
But nothing can substitute for the flavour of the original documents, testifying to how historical events were perceived by their contemporaries. Kollontai’s text, an admirable blend of seriousness and sarcasm, of analysis and involvement, of clarity and passion, is probably the liveliest and most interesting document showing that, even among leading Bolsheviks and as early as 1920, i.e. nearly four years before Lenin’s death, a consciousness was spreading that the Party’s policies did not reflect the interests of the working class: the systematic violation of the principles of democracy and working class power at the point of production was having its effects on many rank-and-file members and on a few leaders.
The Workers’ Opposition is an incisive critique of the developing bureaucracy. It is a critique which, in spite of a number of limitations to be discussed below, is far more penetrating and radical than those of the various tendencies inside the Bolshevik Party which, for one reason or another, were – after Lenin’s death – to oppose Stalin’s “usurpation” of the Russian revolution. It is full of glimpses of a dismal situation where there is no democracy and little freedom of opinion and criticism; where the workers have already been totally expropriated of all power to decide (even on small things like equipping a dining room or organizing a nursery); where the Party and Soviet bureaucrats already enjoy considerable privileges (see the discussion of housing); and where comrades who dare to disagree with decrees from above are still being persecuted (notice the word still, had persecution of dissenting comrades then already been going on for a long time?). This is a picture usually associated with Stalinist, rather than Leninist, Russia. It is also interesting that the remedies suggested by Kollontai contain some demands now usually rather associated with the anarchist tradition: decisions should come from below; persons in a position of power should be elected by, responsible to, and revocable by, those affected by their decisions, the creativity of the revolutionaries must be considered the greatest resource for the advice of the revolution, and must not be stifled by delegating decisions to bureaucrats, and so on.
The main interest of this text, then, lies in that it clearly demonstrates the extent of bureaucratization already present in Russia in 1920. But there is another reason why it is important: this text shows the inability of even a ‘leftist’ and independent thinker like Kollontai to perceive some crucial aspects of bureaucratization, the reason probably being her still largely Marxist analytical framework. Kollontai’s analysis is very similar to (in fact, it is probably one of the sources of) the later theories attributing the degeneration of the Party to unavoidable factors like the backwardness of Russia, the small relative size of the working class, and the Civil War. Her diagnosis of the cause of bureaucratization is centred on the penetration of non-working-class elements into the Party: peasants, and bourgeois elements (specialists and the like). Non-Bolshevik, as she is in her faith in the working class and in the primacy of class over Party, she is still a Marxist and a Bolshevik in her belief that the class origin of the members of a political organization is the only relevant factor determining the organization’s policies. The working class, according to her analysis, is good; other classes are evil; the Bolshevik Party’s basic principles are sound, its leadership is revolutionary; if the Party were made up of workers only, there would be no need to worry. But – so the argument went on – as the Party is not only made up of workers and could not be, in the Russian conditions of the time – the workers had to protect themselves from ‘their’ party. This, it was believed, could be achieved by expelling non-proletarian elements. It was also concluded that more power should be given to the trade unions, whose personnel comes from the working class: There, the class atmosphere is “thicker.”
But from Kollontai’s text itself it emerges that the great majority of Bolshevik leaders (and presumably of cadres too – given the limited success of the Workers’ Opposition propaganda campaign) distrusted the workers, were in favour of the Party controlling everything, wanted “one-man management,” favoured the appointment principle as against the election principle, and conceived of the trade unions simply as one more coercive apparatus to get the workers to work harder. The consistency of all the positions with the basic tenets of Bolshevik Marxism (the workers by themselves can only develop a trade union consciousness, the Party is the collective consciousness of the working class, the development of the forces of production has absolute priority, etc. ) is indisputable. Kollontai’s prescriptions amounted to a rejection of those tenets. This rejection, if examined carefully, would have come to imply that:
(1) organisations develop dynamics of their own, depending on their ideology, structure and power,
(2) the ideology, structure and power of the Bolshevik Party was eminently favourable to bureaucratization, i.e. to the development of vested interests in seeking and defending privileges via the monopoly of decisional power.
But then Kollontai would have had to admit that Bolshevik ideology and organizational structure could themselves – and within a few months – turn the best workers into bureaucrats. Bolshevism would have stood accused of being itself a cause of the degeneration of the revolution.
It is doubtful that Kollontai had realized the more general implications of what she was arguing. In this text, she does not recognise the fact that the Bolshevik Party could (and did) ‘degenerate’ quite apart from any infiltration’s of non-revolutionary elements, that its policies, from the very inception of the revolution, aimed at depriving the workers of any real decisional authority, and actively contributed to the workers’ retreat from the historical stage.
Again, she should not have identified, as she implicitly does, workers’ management of production with management by the unions. By 1921 the Russian unions were already strongly under Party control, and already in an advanced stage of bureaucratization. As Brinton has shown in detail, the Bolshevik policy in the first year or so after the revolution was to remove all questions of industrial management from the hands of autonomous workers’ committees and vest them in the hands of the unions or other “economic” organizations. At a later stage (from about 1919 on) the Bolsheviks were to shed even the pretence of union control and sought firmly to place all matters of industrial policy directly in the hands of the Party. Whether Kollontai and the Workers’ Opposition realized it or not, their protest on this question was really only aimed at this second phase of Bolshevik policy.
It can obviously be argued that Kollontai was not speaking her whole mind, but rather moderating her criticisms and demands for tactical reasons: she must have known, it could be argued, that she was sounding already extremist enough – Lenin, in fact, accused her text of petty-bourgeois anarchism); and that the union apparatus, although far from ideal, was the only significant organizational structure where the Workers’ Opposition might find support. But the subsequent actions of many members of the Workers’ Opposition suggest that they were not more radical than this text implies. They were ready to limit, but not to endanger, the primacy of the Party, as shown by the fact that many of them denounced the Kronstadt uprising and even fought against the sailors.
Thus, there seems to be a significant difference between the Kronstadt ‘rebels’ and the Workers Opposition: the latter did not defend the right of other parties to exist (and therefore, presumably, to supplant the Bolshevik Party if democratic elections so decided). Their democratic aspirations were considerably more limited than those of the Kronstadt sailors. All opposition had to be within the Party. This may help explain why, on the whole, they do not seem to have put up a tough struggle against the decision to dissolve them as an organised group, and why many of them remained Bolshevik to the end, including Alexandra Kollontai.
Our Introduction to the previous reprint concluded with the following words:
“Both East and West, the working class has – during the last fifty years – gone through a tremendous experience: the experience of ‘its own’ leaderships, in fact of all ‘leaderships’ claiming to act on its behalf. And deep down it is beginning to draw the lessons of a whole historical epoch. These are that its emancipation will only be achieved and maintained through its own sustained efforts. Over a hundred years ago Marx and Engels wrote that ‘the emancipation of the working class is the task of the working class itself and that the proletarian movement was the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority’. In 1921 Alexandra Kollontai and the Workers’ Opposition perceived some aspects of this essential truth through the terrible experience of the bureaucratic counter-revolution. Today, after the open admissions of the 20th and 22nd Congresses of the CPSU, after what the whole world witnessed in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, and after the innumerable and as yet undocumented horrors of the Stalin epoch (and of the period immediately preceding it), it is the task of revolutionaries to take a dispassionate look at reality, to draw all the lessons and fearlessly to proclaim them”
These lines no longer seem to be satisfactory as a conclusion. They reflect the concerns which were central to Solidarity’s activity at the time – namely, the effort to persuade revolutionaries that the disdain of democracy, the cult of leaders, the manipulatory tactics, which the Marxist movement had inherited from Stalinism, had their roots in Leninism itself. This truth is now much more widely accepted, especially in those countries which have experienced a radical student movement. The renewed interest in anarchism, the hippies in the USA, Rudi Dutschke in Germany, the Internationals Situationniste and Cohn-Bendit in France, the “metropolitan redskins” in 1977 in Italy, just to give a few examples, testify to the spread of the refusal of Leninism indeed, in many cases, of Marxism itself. The same holds true for large actions of the women’s movement.
As we ourselves developed an increasingly critical attitude towards Marxism, we could not avoid reconsidering the role assigned by Marxism to the working class. Our present opinions on this issue are not unanimous. I, for one, feel uneasy at the simplistic faith in the working class expressed by those concluding lines. They follow Kollontai in treating the workers as a homogeneous whole, all fundamentally revolutionary; while the other social groups, by implication, are classified as counter-revolutionary. On this second point, in her own time, Kollontai was justified enough; on the first, she was not. Already then, within the working class there were divisions and hierarchies, the most significant one being between the older, politically educated, skilled workers and the recently arrived, unskilled ones, the latter were almost absent from the 1917-18 Factory Committees, and there is evidence that the skilled workers felt they were entitled to leadership over them, and that frictions between the two strata were frequent.
The ‘left-communist’ and libertarian traditions seem to have paid too little attention to the internal division of the working class. Yet, in trying to define the working class, the following dilemma is inevitable: the more one tries to minimize the internal divisions and divergent interests of the working class, the smaller the working class must be taken to be (it is only half a joke to say that, in the USA, a homogeneous working class without privileged strata would include black unskilled women workers only; the larger one tries to make the working class the more evident internal cleavages and contrasts become. Even the best attempts to prove that the working class is not a minority of the working population (e.g. Braverman’s Labour and Monopoly Capital, Monthly Review Press, 1974) stop far short of demonstrating its capacity for political unity. It is not necessary to refer to racial division in the USA to know that hierarchies and division exist within the working class. For instance, better-paid workers usually bitterly oppose reductions in differentials. If unemployment can be made to fall on ethnic minorities or immigrants, racism or nationalism often develop among the employed white or non- immigrant workers. The concept of “Labour aristocracy,” criticisable as it may be, was born out of real historical problems.
These divisions cause some parts of the working class to be lukewarm or cold about radical struggles when these may endanger some of their own privileges (small as these may be), and resist radical ideologies which criticise these privileges. The vested interests of some sections of the working class surely had a role in the birth of so many working class organizations and leaderships which look abominable to a libertarian. And in so far as these divisions are the result of conscious action by the capitalists to divide and rule (for instance the conscious fostering of Paki-bashing, or of hierarchies in the factory, created by management, with little objective base, but internalized by the workers) they testify to a weakness of the working class, unable to prevent the division from becoming established and permeating its way of thinking. Considering these weaknesses, one should not be surprise to discover that many workers have internalized conservative values and modes of behaviour, and that many have opted for sectional struggles rather than struggles for the betterment of the whole class: with the consequent development of individualism, cynicism, sometimes racism, etc. More frequently, one should expect to find a sense of impotence, a fatalistic pessimism. Unfortunately, reality often confirms these expectations.
Luckily, theoretical analysis and recent struggles converge in demonstrating the increasing importance of concerns which are not specific to the trade “traditional” working class predicament (and on which, by the way, Marxism has very little to say): sexism, bureaucracy, authoritarianism, racism, nationalism, unfreedom East and West, etc. (it should be clear why many young workers do not see themselves as part of the working class: they do not feel that being a worker is the central, defining element of their personalities). There is no reason why radical struggles on these topics should mobilize only or mainly workers (so far, in fact, they have not). They can (as in May 68 in France) act as a catalyst, decrease the economist and corporation of working class struggles, and favour a return to more radical aspirations concerning work too; but they are also important in themselves – precisely because work and production are only one of the realms of social life which need revolutionizing.
So, unqualified references to the traditional belief in “the revolutionary role and revolutionary potential of the working class” are not only lacking in a solid theoretical base, but are also dangerous. They nurture an unjustified optimism on the strength and unity of the workers. And with it they breed mythical hopes with consequent waste of energies, disillusionment, despair, etc.; they favour a lack of critical attitude towards the negative sides of workers’ culture and activity (or passivity); they decrease the incentive to look for the causes of the workers’ weaknesses and for ways of fighting them. Perhaps even more dangerous, they favour a disdain or outright opposition towards the new struggles (sexual, ecological, anti-authoritarian, among students, in prisons, in mental hospitals, etc.), especially when workers remain indifferent or hostile to them (how many militants or rank-and-file papers actively fight the repression of homosexuals among workers?). And, at a more subtle level, by extolling workers because they are workers, they risk reinforcing the capitalist morality of productivity – of work as the essence of humanity and hence both a duty and something meritorious. One should rather try to spread the refusal of work and of the work ethic, a hatred of work as it is at Present.
One task of revolutionaries remains “to take a dispassionate look at reality, to draw all the lessons and fearlessly to proclaim them.” The provisional conclusions of attempting to do so seem to be that radical thought, nowadays, has no simple formulas, no clear allies. No one, and no social group, is entitled to a privileged role. But the other side of this situation is that opposition to present society is widespread in many more strata and groups than before. “The possibilities are nowadays at least as great as the despair” Horkheimer wrote in 1943. Let us explore and exploit these possibilities at us and the cracks in the social structure which our wedges can widen.
T. A. asks cogent questions about “the working class'’ which we expect to discuss further within Solidarity. As he suggests, our present opinions on this issue are not unanimous. The following points have been raised by members: