Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History


Catherine Merridale, Moscow Politics and the Rise of Stalin: the Communist Party in the Capital 1925-32, Macmillan, Basingstoke, 1990, pp328, £47.50

Catherine Merridale has produced a book that is both useful and interesting. It is extremely valuable as a study of the processes at work in the Soviet Union’s largest party organisation at the time of Stalin’s rise to power and this, in itself, fills an important gap in our understanding. The book is also particularly informative in its attempt to focus, not simply on the ‘high politics’ of leadership struggles, but on the workings of the party at the grassroots and the role of local activists there. This has been aided by Merridale’s access to Soviet archives including factory records of major plants, and of the Metal Workers Union.

Existing under the very nose of the apparatus Moscow was always heavily, directly and more consistently influenced by the centre than were other local parties. However, up until 1924 the Trotskyist opposition did have significant support amongst youth in Moscow’s higher educational institutes, although less among workers than in some other areas. Merridale provides some useful documentation on this point. However, many readers of this journal will not agree with Merridale’s characterisations of the politics of the various left oppositions. For example she attacks the Trotsky-Zinoviev group for using the “same extreme language as the Stalin-Bukharin majority, not seeking common ground with their opponents, but seeing them as betrayers of Leninism” (p.23). She falsely claims that “no Bolshevik opposition after 1921 included soviet democracy in its programme” (p.24),while the Platform of the Joint Opposition of 1927 clearly raised just such a call (see Chapter 5). However she does provide us with useful evidence of the continuing support for the left, right up to its outright suppression in 1927.

As an example, the Democratic Centralists, part of the Joint Opposition, had the loyalty of the Klara Zetkin plant, right up to 1927. The Opposition had a considerable base in Sokol’niki, an area that Merridale explains as containing a great concentration of government and state institutions, whilst at one stage it could count on 62 cells in the Krasnaya Presnaya district.

At the time of the fight with the left in the mid and late 1920s the Moscow party apparatus was in the hands of the Bukharinite Uglanov. Merridale’s account of his regime is very illuminating indeed. It comes at a time when certain Soviet and western historians have suggested that the Bukharinites would have been a democratic alternative to the ‘command administrative’ system of both Trotsky and Stalin. She points out that Uglanov was a rigid bureaucratic centraliser who used the apparatus to exclude the New Opposition from political life in the capital, whose chief representative was Kamenev – the author seems to have a softer spot for him than for other opposition leaders. Unlike in Leningrad the New Opposition made no attempt to mobilise rank and file support for their platform. Yet Uglanov attempted to maintain an iron grip on the party organisation on behalf of Bukharin and Stalin.

However, Merridale points out that, once the Stalin-Bukharin bloc started to split, Uglanov saw his own power base shift from under him very rapidly. He was replaced as Moscow Party Secretary by Molotov, and cast into the ranks of the Right Opposition. In her discussion of the activities of the Right Opposition, Merridale makes it abundantly clear that they were simply a conservative part of the apparatus. They made no attempt to organise at the grassroots, but, appearing as the supporters of the existing order, they could command considerable support from the top levels of the government bureaucracy, trade unions and factory directors.

Merridale here highlights the depth of the fissures that existed within the party and governmental apparatus at this time, and she does it very well. Those fissures were to widen. Molotov was replaced by Bauman, who displayed those traits of voluntarism that were at the heart of the development of the Stalinist system. He lost no time in trying to move too rapidly in the campaign of collectivisation, and he was eventually replaced by Kaganovich, one of the most loyal of Stalin’s men. By 1930 the emerging Stalin clique had their hands firmly on the capital city’s party organisation. Yet even they were to have to do battle to oust the Secretary of the most prestigious Krasnaya Presnaya district, Ryutin, who lost his post only in 1932.

But, as we have already said, Merridale’s book is not simply about leadership battles along the road to Stalinism. Her intention is to explore the interrelationship between the emerging Stalinist system and the rank and file. Here, her thesis is summed up in the following way:

What is beyond question, however, is that the rank and file contributed to the implementation of Stalin’s policies after 1928. There is no doubt that their enthusiasm, however brutal its consequences in many instances, was indispensable to the Stalinist ‘great turn’. (p.67)

Here, broadly speaking, she puts herself alongside the school of revisionist historians of the Soviet Union in the West. They have broken with the old totalitarian school that saw the bureaucratic apparatus as monolithic and all-embracing, while the masses were but passive puppets. Before Merridale, others, such as Lynne Viola in Best Sons of the Fatherland (1987), have stressed the degree of popular motivation and enthusiasm that accompanied the ‘Great Turn’. Coming at a time when many Soviet historians are turning to totalitarian theories, this school offers many refreshing insights compared with the dull old Stalinist and Western orthodoxies. It points to the very real enthusiasm shown by a layer of workers for the ‘turn’ in its earliest years, and argues that, at least at this time, party activists were not simply passive dupes.

But the problem that they all have, including Merridale, is in proving that this groundswell actually helped to create the Stalinist system. She points to the highly contradictory nature of the party in the mid and late 1920s. She disagrees with Trotskyists that the Lenin Levy and subsequent mass recruitment drives simply filled the party with passive political illiterates:

To suggest that the new generation were all passive dupes of the General Secretary is to underestimate the interest the average worker had in the progress of the revolution, both in general and in terms of his or her prospects in the new society. Those who did not have this interest tended to stay away altogether. (p.139)

The attempt to create a mass party was indeed fraught with contradictions for the emerging bureaucracy. On the one hand, it was formed on the basis of shop and shift cells. On the other hand, the increase in its proletarian composition was also accompanied by the development of an ever greater network of supervisory committees to oversee the rank and file. However, Merridale documents a degree of grassroots vitality in the late 1920s within a party supervised by the emergent bureaucracy, but organised in the plants and workshops.

Party meetings at the Krasnyi Proletarii factory lasted until 3 or 4am despite proposals from higher up that such meetings be limited to three hours only. Merridale provides examples of lower party organs organising strikes in the late 1920s and in 1930. And there was often conflict in the plants between the party and a management with supposedly supreme powers under edinochalie (one man management).

Yet there is a real danger of drawing too many conclusions from this picture of rank and file activity, however good a corrective it may be to previous accounts. By 1932 most of the accoutrements of a mass party had been dissolved in order to guarantee a more smoothly running machine for the apparatus. Shop and shift cells were abolished. Political education remained a low priority as the agenda of party bodies was normally dominated by questions of production and productivity. Merridale’s discussion of the contradictions between their educational tasks and fulfilment of the plan presented to party officials is fascinating. As the magazine Propagandist described it in September 1930:

Propagandists with other party responsibilities left the preparation of classes until the last moment, reading teaching materials on the tram on the way in. (p.l50)

This is not surprising in an organisation that had ordained subordination to the claims of industrial management:

The party cells must actively promote the fulfilment of the principle of edinochalie in the whole system of industrial management. (quoted p.168)

Such a situation created very real tensions, as Merridale demonstrates. Most high ranking technical personnel were not party members, but were in many cases inherited from Tsarism or the non-party technical intelligentsia. In the giant Serp i Molot (Hammer and Sickle) factory in 1925, only two members of the factory administration and not one foreman were party members. Hence the contradiction between a worker based party and a management whose dictates the workers were not allowed to challenge by the apparatus of that same party. And hence the need for the Stalinist clique finally to transform the party into an apparatus party.

While the book claims to prove that a movement of an enthusiastic rank and file shaped and, more importantly, supported the ‘Great Turn’, it often provides contrary evidence. For instance, in 1929 party election meetings at AMO and Serp i Molot failed even to muster a quorum. Whilst there was support amongst a large section of worker activists for a ‘second revolution’, which involved a ‘workers promotion’ system under apparatus patronage, this was definitely on the wane after 1930. Factory cells again started to give voice to workers’ grievances, and accordingly faced a clampdown on their residual independent rights. Even if the rank and file had been used against the right wing in the bureaucratic apparatus, they now constituted a potential challenge, not simply a support mechanism, for the emerging Stalinist regime. They could be used against the Moscow right because Nepmen, kulaks and their Moscow patron, Uglanov, were deeply unpopular amongst the Moscow workers. NEP meant 25 per cent unemployment amongst the capital’s industrial workers. But when they started to demand some of the fruits of the ‘second revolution’, the bureaucratic apparatus clamped down on them ever more firmly.

The book is a most valuable contribution to our understanding of the rise to power of the Stalin clique. Unfortunately, perhaps because she does not choose to deal with ‘high politics’, Merridale does not really look at the development and make-up of the group around Stalin. We need more such studies. Merridale has shown the range of materials that can be used. She has also shown some of the key themes that need to be. explored. Whilst having a few reservations about some of the book’s conclusions, this study is thoroughly recommended. It is just a great pity that it is so expensive.

Dave Hughes

Updated by ETOL: 23.7.2003