Sam Levy 1962

The Basic Reasons for the Degeneration of the October Revolution:
A Reply to the Solidarity Pamphlet The Workers Opposition, and a Defence of Bolshevism

Source: From Socialist Current, Volume 7, no 7, July 1962. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers. Basic spelling and grammatical errors have been corrected.


Earlier this year, the publishers of the pamphlet The Workers Opposition (Solidarity pamphlet, no 7, price 2/-) sent us a copy with a request that we should review it in our journal, Socialist Current. After studying it, we came to the conclusion that a 500 or 600 word review in one of our regular monthly issues would be completely inadequate and that what was really required was a proper, full-dressed reply. The following ‘Special’ is an attempt to do this, and it is published in place of the July (1962) issue of Socialist Current (Volume 7, no 7).

We realise that some of our readers may question our decision to devote a whole issue of Socialist Current to what they may consider to be a matter of only limited historical interest. We appreciate this point of view, but we think that at a time when Khrushchev and his associates are trying to explain away the Stalin era in Russia by attributing it to the actions of ‘evil men’, it is necessary to reply to a pamphlet which willy-nilly and from a completely different standpoint, suggests something not dissimilar.

The Solidarity pamphlet, of course, contains a number of suggestions about the ‘lessons’ of the early 1920s in Russia and their implications for our day and age. But since they are, at best, implied rather than stated, and put in the negative, our replier has left these severely alone. His reply is to the concrete arguments contained in the pamphlet and not the shadow-like ‘implications’.

Editorial Board

Some Basic Reasons for the Degeneration of the October Revolution

Despite the title on the front cover and the solitary use of a dead author’s name immediately beneath it ‘The Workers Opposition – by Alexandra Kollontai’) the Solidarity pamphlet no 7 is not a simple reprint of an internal Bolshevik Party document of the early 1920s. Side by side with the Kollontai original (a centre section consisting of 45 pages) there is a four-page Introduction and 25 pages of footnotes which have been added, 41 years later, by the publishers of the pamphlet in question (presumably to amplify, explain and interpret). By any standard this is a curious arrangement, but it becomes doubly so when we realise that, despite the fact that Kollontai’s ideas and those of the pamphlet’s publishers have a similar air and atmosphere, in terms of tradition and basic orientation they are diametrically opposed to each other. Kollontai’s writing was both an exposition of the position of the faction within the Bolshevik Party known as the ‘Workers Opposition’, and at the same time an appeal to both the membership and the leadership of that party to alter the party’s policies to conform with the opposition’s ideas. Kollontai argued as a leading participant in the Bolshevik Party, Solidarity argue as vehement opponents of the whole concept of Bolshevism. Thus the only rational way to reply to this pamphlet is to treat it as two separate ones.

The Kollontai Exposition

The original pamphlet itself is a disappointing document because of its vagueness and the systematic use of generalities coupled with symbolic, almost mystical, terms and phrases. It is also of rather low theoretical level and in fact does not show the ‘Workers Opposition’ (which was an honest revolt against conditions, including incipient bureaucracy) in its best light. Kollontai’s basic concepts are perhaps best illustrated by her own words:

Only the vanguard of the class can create revolution [viz: the Bolshevik Party – SL] but only the whole class can create through everyday experience and the practical work of its basic class collective. Whoever does not believe in the basic spirit of a class collective – and this collective is most fully represented by the trade unions – must put a cross over the Communist reconstruction of society.

Or again:

Organisation of control over the social economy is a prerogative of the All-Russian Congress of producers who are united in the trade and industrial unions which elect the central body directing the whole economic life of the republic.

More crudely put: ‘The Workers Opposition asserts that administration of the peoples’ economy is the trade unions’ job.’ The demand that the trade unions, and the trade unions alone, should run the economy is of course a form of syndicalism – and that is a fact despite the denial of the Workers Opposition itself. Syndicalism is no terrible crime, but an unwillingness to face up to the implications of her own ideas is itself a serious fault.

Idealisation: In the Soviet Russia of 1921 the question of reconstruction was the burning issue and, consequently, any concrete answers to the problem had to rest on a sound understanding of the factors involved. In this respect the Kollontai thesis does not measure up to reality. Despite the early references to the three fundamental causes of the crisis, and an attempt roughly to sketch a background, Kollontai did not see the wood for the trees. She failed to understand the real situation in which the Russian working class was placed and the actual relationships within the class. In place of such an understanding she merely recorded an idealised image of the workers of that period. ‘Who is right’, she oratorically asked, ‘the leaders or the working mass endowed with the healthy class instinct?’ The idealisation of the workers in the abstract is of course a by no means uncommon petty-bourgeois disease which, if it does nothing else, at least labels those who indulge in it. Whatever else workers may suffer from, it certainly isn’t this particular malady. We know ourselves and our fellow workers far too well for that.

But to revert to the main theme. Kollontai, by her own writings and the document in question in particular, showed she had no clear idea of what was really taking place in the Soviet Union in the period in question. In revolting against intolerable conditions and the growth of bureaucracy, she and her co-oppositionists symbolised a healthy reaction, but by not understanding the causes of these things and their effect on all classes and social groups, they created nothing more than a dream-world. According to them, apparently, the very conditions which affected everyone else, including the most class-conscious people in the Bolshevik Party, somehow miraculously passed over the body of the working class itself.

Reality: The real world was of course very different. The Civil War was near its end and the Russian economy was at its lowest ebb. In 1921 Russian national income amounted to only one-third of that of 1913. Industry was producing less than one-fifth of the goods; the coal mines less than one-tenth of the coal; the iron foundries no more than one-fortieth. The stocks on which an economy rests were exhausted, while the railways, the means of transporting what little there was, existed in a very precarious state. What effect did all this have on the industrial workers, that is apart from the material hardships? Even in the big plants there was masked unemployment: workers attending factories, despite the lack of raw materials and machinery with which to work, and being subsidised by the state in order to maintain the social character of the class. At the same time, because of the terrible conditions there was wholesale pinching of factory products by their workers. Despite deliberate government policy to preserve the proletariat, the Russian towns became so depopulated that, in 1921, Moscow had only a half and Petrograd only one-third of their former populations. The people of the two capitals had lived for months on food rations of two ounces of bread a day and a few frozen potatoes, and were reduced to heating their dwellings with the wood of their own furniture. In 1921, the economy was running to a standstill, the factories barely able to keep going, machinery being worn out, raw material extremely difficult to get, and with a labour force that was half starved, unskilled and incompetent.

Self-Preservation: Under these conditions, not unnaturally, the mood and feelings within the working class was narrow and reactionary. Understandably the mass of the workers were interested in the first instance in self-preservation, and not in high moral and socialist ideals. Only within the Bolshevik Party were there workers who still somehow retained this high moral outlook. (The outlook of the German workers after the Second World War can only give a vague picture of this because conditions were better in Germany.) The depth to which things went is best illustrated by Victor Serge when he said:

Such things came to pass: a factory numbering a thousand workers, giving as much as half its personnel to the various mobilisations of the party and ending by working only at low capacity with the five hundred left behind for the social battle, one hundred of them former shopkeepers... And since in order to continue the revolution, it is necessary to continue the sacrifices, it comes about that the party enters into conflict with that rank and file. It is not the conflict of the bureaucracy and the revolutionary workers, it is the conflict of the organisation of the revolutionists – and the backward ones, the laggards, the least conscious elements of the toiling masses.

Divorcement: It may be argued that how can it be said that the Workers Opposition had no sense of the feel and mood of the workers, after all a number of relatively important trade union leaders supported them; for example, they had great support amongst the leadership of the Metal Workers Union. The answer is quite simple: all trade union leaderships have a tendency to be divorced from the mass of their membership working at the bench or in the mine, etc. This is not necessarily the fault of the trade union leader, the revolutionary trade union leader tries to overcome this division, the opportunist and careerist one uses and furthers this division. By 1921 a certain divorcement had taken place, not because of the leadership, but because of the conditions appertaining at the time. These leaders, who had come from the bench, after this loss of contact tended to look to the past, and, after glorifying it, imagined that the workers of 1921 were the same workers of 1917. Compared to the normal trade union bureaucrat, this was a healthy reaction, but this divorcement caused them to misread the signs and made them readily accept what was essentially a petty-bourgeois concept: the idealised worker, the workers in the abstract. No doubt some of the stupid bureaucratic tricks practised by some of the other union bureaucrats, the ones who utilised the regime and the status quo for their own ends, enhanced this illusion.

The Unions: The common divorcement of the petty-bourgeois intellectuals of the ‘Workers Opposition’ and certain of the trade union leaders was the basis for their alliance within the faction in question; the result of the alliance was the postulation of the idea that the trade unions should run industry, that the trade unions had the right to run industry because they were based on the ‘healthy class instincts of the workers’. This vested interest outlook, the belief that ‘we’ (viz: the trade unions) can do the job was, in fact, a mirage based on wishful thinking. The weaknesses, the inefficiency, the growth of bureaucracy, were a symptom of the economy, not a cause. The problem of reconstruction in backward Russia was inseparable from the question of primitive accumulation (but more about that later).

On the question of the trade unions running the economy, the Workers Opposition had no clear understanding of the role and function of the unions in those conditions. The unions were organised and run by the Bolshevik Party, and were not totally identifiable with the workers in them. The unions felt the pressure of the various sections of the working class and attempted to resolve them, but simultaneously and more consciously, they put pressure on the workers (for increased production, etc) as an agency of the Bolshevik Party, and the state. It does not follow that the trade unions were more reactionary than the workers; the contrary was true, the unions attempted to push the workers into actively participating in running the unions as well as in the economy itself. The whole polemic in the Bolshevik Party at the time on the trade union question reflected this sad truth. The instrument which the Workers Opposition saw as the vehicle to run the economy did not conform in reality to the picture they created in their imagination. The essence of the problem rested not with the party, the state or trade unions, but in the conditions of the economy and the mood of the mass of the population.

The Workers Opposition: The Workers Opposition also developed the argument that the trade unions should run the economy not only for developing production but also to counter bureaucracy. This is the weakest argument of all. The history of trade unions show that they quite quickly become bureaucratised. This is no accident because, by virtue of their specific function, the unions are based on a membership with a relatively low level of socialist consciousness, far lower than political parties. So, if it is the normal pattern that during the period when the main function of a union is to defend its members’ interests against the employing class that bureaucracy arises, how much worse would that bureaucracy be if were to become the employer! If through its hands it controlled the wealth of the country, then the apparatus would indeed wax and grow. One could attack the bureaucracy in the party and the state, but this was no alternative. No, the trade unions were not just a blind alley in and of themselves, incapable of running the economy, but were in fact an even quicker and straighter road to the full hell of bureaucracy.

Key Problem: Bureaucracy was a key problem in the Soviet state and party, and the Workers Opposition quite correctly attacked the increasing and all-pervading power of the bureaucratic elements in the state and the party. But in this it was not alone, the party leadership, and Lenin in particular, constantly warned against and attacked the growing bureaucratic elements. The problem was, however, not just attacking them, but of overcoming them and the trend they represented. The Workers Opposition, in the words of Kollontai, advocated that ‘Instead of a system of bureaucracy it [viz: the Workers Opposition – SL] proposes a system of self-activity for the masses’, but, as we have seen, this in the circumstances was simply words – meaningless jargon. It is true that the Workers Opposition also proposed a number of practical propositions, and these, incidentally, were accepted and largely carried out. The very party document ‘Draft Resolution on Party Unity’, which demanded the disbanding of all factions indeed went on to make this statement:

The congress at the same time declares that every practical proposal concerning questions to which the so-called ‘Workers Opposition’ group, for example, has devoted special attention, such as purging the party of non-proletarian and unreliable elements, combating bureaucracy, developing democracy and the initiative of the workers, etc, must be examined with the greatest care and tried out in practical work.

In fact, soon after the passing of this resolution, a purge based on the proposals of the ‘Workers Opposition’ was carried out, and during it one-third of the party’s membership (200 000) were expelled. Yet despite this, the bureaucracy finally became the masters. Yes, despite Kollontai, Shliapnikov, Lenin, Trotsky and many others, the battle was lost. The purge had no permanent effect on the trend towards bureaucracy, but the ban on factions, which was meant as a temporary measure to preserve the party ranks in a period of crisis, so that it would be able to fight the enemies of socialism (both external and internal, and including bureaucracy) became the opposite instrument to the original intentions. It became the weapon of the bureaucrats in the fight against the revolutionary elements. But then history is full of policies, programmes and resolutions which subsequently became the rope by which their authors were hanged. (It’s easy to be wise afterwards.)

Fertile Soil: Yet, it wasn’t the mistakes, and there were many, which made the later, developed bureaucracy possible. Concrete conditions, not the intentions, and acts of the Bolshevik Party, laid the basis for it. The national struggle for survival meant that the bankrupt country had to carry through a form of primitive accumulation (albeit under a socialist regime) in order first to survive, and then to expand. This very need was the fertile soil on which the bureaucracy grew. Bureaucrats and bourgeois specialists came into their own, and whereas even in a highly developed country they would play an important but rapidly decreasing role, in backward Russia, however, the need was so indispensable that the bureaucracy became in fact the masters and the bourgeois specialists ceased to be bourgeois and became integrated into that stratum.

Superficial: To put it another way: whereas the various ideas of a syndicalist character have been based on the concept of a highly-skilled, highly-competent working class taking over directly the running of the economy (through direct control of the factories, mines, etc), the Workers Opposition, even if it wasn’t too conscious of the implications of its ideas, was in fact counterposing the trade union machine to that of the party and the state for the purpose of running the backward economy of the Russia of the 1920s. Such was the superficial theoretical understanding of the Workers Opposition that it took over the basic syndicalist approach of tendencies in the West, and particularly in France, without realising that, whether right or wrong, these ideas rested on the precondition of the existence of a highly-developed industrial proletariat. Their position was half-baked from a syndicalist standpoint, and their proviso that the party should exercise a vague ‘overlordship’ didn’t make it less so from a Marxian point of view.

In summarising the Kollontai document, one must repeat one’s earlier judgement, which is that it is only important as an historical document. It gave no profound Marxist analysis of the problems which faced Russia at that time, nor did it offer any tenable solutions. What is more, and this reflects the narrowness of the thinking of Kollontai and the Workers Opposition, is that the document is confined to the situation in Russia and doesn’t deal with the world outside. From a reading of the document they seemed to have been completely unaware of the extent of the effects which events beyond the frontiers were having internally, and though it may be argued that there was general agreement on the international aspect of Bolshevik policy, this is not specifically mentioned.

If the treatment of the actual Kollontai exposition has been short and sketchy, it is because other, and in many ways, better documents have already diagnosed the symptoms. The chief interest in her exposition was her concrete counter-proposals. So now we must move on to the Solidarity introduction and footnotes.

The Solidarity Introduction and Footnotes

Now we come to the residual two-fifths of the pamphlet and the whole point in publishing it: the introduction and footnotes. Lenin was very partial to the Russian proverb that a spoonful of tar will spoil a barrel of honey: and here, unfortunately, we have 60 per cent of a barrel of dubious honey covered with 40 per cent of tar. For whatever may have been the faults in Kollontai’s original exposition, she at least stood four square in support of the idea of the vanguard party, four square in support of the Bolshevik Party in particular, and in spite of criticisms only advocated the reformation of the leadership. Solidarity, however, are diametrically opposed to the Bolshevik Party and the basic concepts behind it (though it is interesting to note that nowhere in either the introduction or the footnotes do they make a criticism of Kollontai’s own ideas in this respect).

No one can put their position better than they themselves:

We also seek to show in the footnotes [they say] the role played by Bolshevik ideology in the whole process of degeneration of the Russian Revolution. This degeneration is usually attributed to such ‘unavoidable’ and ‘external’ factors as Russian backwardness, the failure of the revolution to spread to the industrially advanced countries of Western Europe, the overwhelming preponderance of the peasantry and the terrible legacy of devastation left by the ‘Imperialist War’, by the Civil War and by the Wars of Intervention. Such factors were undoubtedly extremely important in giving the degeneration of the Russian Revolution its specific features. But they do not explain the intrinsic nature of this process... It is our contention that the ideology of Bolshevism – with its emphasis on ‘one-man management’ of industry and on the ‘political supremacy of the party’ – played a very significant role in the process of degeneration.

Upside Down: From this it is quite clear that, for Solidarity, it was Bolshevik ideology and its corollary Bolshevik practice which was the fundamental cause of the degeneration of the Russian Revolution; objective conditions apparently only affected the form which this degeneration took. Here we have everything put upside down. Here we have one of the subjective factors, the Bolshevik Party, clothed in the role of a fundamental cause while objective conditions obligingly take on the character of secondary factors. This is not Marxism, that goes without saying – but it also can’t be considered a rational explanation.

A Vacuum: However, since they have this sort of subjective approach to the matter, then in turn that determines the pattern of the material which they pick up, extemporise and publish: the utilisation, or perhaps more appropriately, the mis-utilisation of various different types of documents, articles and statements in order to attack their particular bogeyman – Bolshevism. That is why, from Solidarity’s introduction and footnotes, one cannot gather any clear picture of the conditions which existed in Russia during and just after the Civil War. Again, and as in the case of Kollontai, one doesn’t get a clear picture of the feel and mood of the population, the workers, the peasants and the capitalists, let alone the subdivisions within the classes in the Soviet Union at this particular period. This is no accident: their theories on degeneration can only be safely propounded in a vacuum – and without reference to inconvenient detail. Not for these high-sounding moralists is there any need to examine the complex relationships between class and party in a backward war-torn country in which the working class was a small minority.

Victor Serge: Here, perhaps, one cannot do better than quote what the now-dead writer Victor Serge had to say about the situation in Russia in the period in question. And one can quote Serge with both confidence and a clear conscience, because Serge’s status as an eye-witness and an authority on this crucial period is something which is presumably accepted by the editors of Solidarity themselves. After all, a reprint of his article on the Kronstadt Revolt appears under their imprint... But Serge did not make the same sort of stupid blunders as the Editors of Solidarity, and, in effect, replied to their arguments about ‘Bolshevik ideology’ in advance. ‘It is often said’, he wrote in a letter published in the New International in February 1939, ‘that “the germ of all Stalinism was in Bolshevism at its beginning.”’

Well [he continued], I have no objections. Only Bolshevism contained many other germs, a mass of other germs, and those who lived through the enthusiasm of the first years of the victorious socialist revolution ought not forget it. To judge the living man by the death germs which the autopsy reveals in a corpse – and which he may have carried in him since birth – is that very sensible?

And again, carrying the argument further, Serge goes on to quote and reply to one of the advocates of the theory of the ‘seeds of Stalinism’:

‘All that which was still socialistic and revolutionary in this Russia of 1921 was contained in the rank and file’, writes Ciliga in Révolution Prolétarienne of 10 November. ‘In standing up against them Lenin and Trotsky, in agreement with Stalin, with Zinoviev, Kaganovich and others responded to the desires and served the interests of the bureaucratic cadre. The workers were then fighting for the socialism whose liquidation the bureaucracy was already pursuing.’ One can see, Ciliga [comments Serge], that you did not know the Russia of those days; hence the enormity of your mistake. In reality a little direct contact with the people was enough to get an idea of the drama which, in the revolution, separated the Communist Party (and with it the dust of the other revolutionary groups) from the masses. At no time did the revolutionary workers form more than a trifling percentage of the masses themselves. In 1920-21 all that was energetic, militant, ever-so-little socialistic in the labour population and among the advanced elements of the countryside had already been drained by the Communist Party, which did not, for four years of civil war, stop its constant mobilisations of the willing – down to the most vacillating... And since in order to continue the revolution it is necessary to continue the sacrifices, it comes about that the party enters into conflict with that rank and file. It is not the conflict of the bureaucracy and the revolutionary workers, it is the conflict of the organisation of the revolutionists – and the backward ones, the laggards, the least conscious elements of the toiling masses. Under cover of this conflict, and of the danger, the bureaucracy fortifies itself, no doubt. But the healthy resistances that it encounters – I mean those not based upon demoralisation or the spirit of reaction – comes from within the party that a conflict arises in 1920 not between the rank and file – which is itself already very backward – but between the cadres of the active militants and the bureaucratic leadership of the Central Committee. In 1921, everybody who aspires to socialism is inside the party: what remains outside isn’t worth much for the social transformation. Eloquence of chronology: it is the non-party workers of this epoch, joining the party to the number of two million in 1924 upon the death of Lenin, who assure the victory of the bureaucracy... The firmness of the Bolshevik party, on the other hand, sick as it was, delayed Thermidor by five to ten years.

That is the evidence of Victor Serge, a man whom, as we have seen, the Editors of Solidarity can hardly describe as a naive fool.

The Party: Solidarity’s lack of understanding of the Bolshevik Party and its relationship to the Russian working class is also shown in its interpretation of how that party was built. ‘The Russian proletariat built the Bolshevik Party as flesh of its flesh and blood of its blood.’ If this was how the Bolshevik Party was built, why didn’t the working classes of other countries build similar parties in a similar manner? Maybe it only happened in Russia because of some inexplicable, mystical qualities inherent in the Russian proletariat. We will leave this childish rubbish to Solidarity; the issues were far more complex than that. Firstly and obviously, the Bolshevik Party was built like all other organisations by individuals who accepted certain ideas, combined together to advocate them and then had gained the confidence of the majority of workers. Additionally, because of the backward conditions of Russia in particular, the party’s ideas and the overwhelming majority of its leadership came, and could not but come, from outside the working class. It grew and hardened in the process of its struggle to become the mass party of the working class; the very process of the struggle, theoretical and practical, legal and illegal, created through an historically selective process, a party unrivalled in the history of the international working class. VI Lenin was indisputably the key figure in the development of that party – in both its strength and weaknesses. His was the guiding force in the creating and moulding of the party, and even those who opposed him nevertheless looked to him as the leader and moral guardian of the organisation. This Solidarity and many of the ultra-lefts fail to understand. Even Kollontai, it is interesting to note, acknowledged his pre-eminence. She ends her exposition, the one that forms the centre section of the Solidarity pamphlet, like this:

Not in vain will the rank-and-file worker speak with assurance and reconciliation: Ilyich [Lenin] will ponder, think over, listen to us, and then decide to turn the party rudder towards the opposition. Ilyich will be with us yet.

Now, Kollontai’s appeal to Lenin is not only interesting because it illustrates the almost-universal acceptance of his key position by party members as a whole; it is also interesting because it indirectly gives the lie to the picture which the Editors of Solidarity try to paint of the manner in which the Bolshevik Party was built. If that party was built spontaneously by the workers, and was now, in Kollontai’s time, being betrayed by a leadership which had somehow jumped on to the bandwagon and the workers’ backs, why, in the name of heavens should a woman like Kollontai – the theoretician of the ‘Workers Opposition’ – appeal to Lenin and by implication place her trust in him? The truth of the matter is that Kollontai knew more about the history of the Bolshevik Party’s development than the Editors of Solidarity either know, or want to know.

The Period: There are, however, two particular points which Solidarity specifically uses to justify its charges against ‘Bolshevik ideology’, namely... but perhaps it’s better to let them speak for themselves:

It is our contention [they say in their introduction] that the ideology of Bolshevism – with its emphasis on ‘one-man management’ of industry and on the ‘political supremacy of the Party’ – played a very significant role in the process of degeneration.

How significant the Editors of Solidarity consider these factors to be, one doesn’t know; but we shall obviously have to deal with the two of them at some length; because, if, like Solidarity, we rip them out of the context of the whole period in which they happened, we shall simply land up in a political fog (or, perhaps, with a theory that all revolutions and all social change inevitably end in bureaucracy).

One-man management, as opposed to corporate management by the workers of the factories themselves, was not something which was decided upon from above after a nice abstract discussion on principles. Nor, for that matter, was it a logical expression and outcome of a whole system based on an individual dictator, similar to the Stalin period. In fact a serious discussion went on within the Bolshevik Party on this issue from the beginning of 1920 until well into 1921. We can read, for example, Lenin frankly admitting that he and Bukharin had been defeated by Rykov and Tomsky at a meeting of the Communist faction of the All-Russian Central Council of Trade Unions, held on 15 March 1920, on this very issue.

Lenin: And again, we have Lenin saying in a speech at the Ninth Party Congress:

We are proceeding from this victory and from this certainty to the problems of peaceful economic construction, the solution of which is the chief function of our congress. In this respect we cannot, in our opinion, speak of the report of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee, or rather of the political report of the Central Committee. We must say frankly and openly that this, comrades, is a question which you must decide – which you must weigh with all your authority as the Supreme Party body. We have to take up a definite stand. It is your duty finally to confirm, correct or amend our decision.

That this issue was seriously and (taking into account the conditions within Russia) democratically discussed cannot be doubted is shown in this quotation from Lenin, when he said:

Had the advocates of corporate management during the last two months done what they are calling for, had they given us even single example... had they given us a questionnaire with a precise investigation of the problems comparing corporate with individual management, as was decided on by the Congress of the Council of the National Economy and by the Central Committee, we would have been much the wiser, we would not at the congress have had discussions of principle that are rather out of place, and the advocates of corporate management might have advanced matters. Their position would indeed have been a strong one if they could have instanced at least ten factories placed in similar conditions and managed on the corporate principle and have compared them in a businesslike way with the position of affairs in factories managed on the individual principle. We could have allowed any speaker an hour for such a report, and such a speaker would have advanced matters considerably. We might perhaps have established practical gradations in this question of corporate management. But the fact is that not a single one of them, neither members of the Council of National Economy nor trade unionists, who should have had practical data, gave us anything, because they had nothing to give.

In Context: Here we see that the actual conditions and circumstances were very different from those implied in the picture painted by Solidarity. The issue at that time was how to get the economy running again when everything, including technicians and the like, was in catastrophic short supply. It was not ‘Bolshevik ideology’ (in the abstract) which was responsible for the decision to accept one-man management. True Lenin himself thought that this was the best method of running highly complex industries, but in the last analysis, it was the material conditions and circumstances that forced the issue. Also, and since the main discussion and polemical battles took place within the Bolshevik Party between opposing Bolshevik factions, it is difficult to put the blame on ‘Bolshevik ideology’ since Kollontai, for example, was as much a Bolshevik as Lenin or Trotsky. No doubt there were bureaucratic tendencies within the Bolshevik Party, and the Central Committee of the party, at the time; but to wrap up the existence of these tendencies with the acceptance of one-man management, to label the whole thing ‘Bolshevik ideology’, without relating these things to the material conditions in which they took place – well that’s not serious politics.

Dictator? But what did Lenin mean by ‘individual management’, what did he mean by ‘the dictator'? The Editors of Solidarity make great play of some quotations from Lenin in which he uses these terms, and so it is probably worthwhile to take a closer look at these as a sort of final aspect of this particular question. Referring to Lenin’s article ‘The Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government’, Solidarity puts it this way:

What of discussion and initiative at shop floor level? The idea was summarily dismissed. ‘The revolution demands’, Lenin wrote, ‘in the interests of Socialism that the masses unquestionably obey the single will of the leaders of the labour process.’ No nonsense here [comments Solidarity], about workers’ management of production, about collective decisions, about government from below... instead, ‘iron discipline while at work, with unquestioning obedience to the will of a single person, the Soviet leader’.

Lenin, in a speech on economic development to the Ninth Congress, also quoted from his own article, the same one and the identical section. Here, however, the interpretation is somewhat different. While also referring to the need for ‘unquestionably obeying the will of the Soviet leader, of the dictator, during working time’, he nevertheless makes certain other, almost axiomatic, things quite clear. These are, that meetings and discussions by workers should continue to be held, at which matter concerning the running of the factory, etc., should be discussed.

What Lenin Said: Here are the quotations in their correct perspective:

And our task, the task of the Communist Party, which is the class-conscious expression of the strivings of the exploited for emancipation, is to appreciate this change, to understand that it is necessary, to take the lead of the exhausted masses who are wearily seeking a way out and lead them along the true path, along the path of labour discipline, along the path of coordinating the tasks of holding meetings, and discussing the conditions of labour with the task of unquestionably obeying the will of the Soviet leader, of the dictator during working time.


We must learn to combine the ‘meeting’ democracy of the toiling masses – turbulent, surging, overflowing its banks like a spring flood – with iron discipline while at work, with unquestioning obedience to the will of a single person, the Soviet leader, while at work. [All emphases are original – SL]

Of course, the Editors of Solidarity are quite conscious that Lenin did not just advocate individual management. If they had simply overlooked the rest of what Lenin had to say in his pamphlet The Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government, and had only noticed the particular phrases which they subsequently quoted, then there would have been no need for them to make the following observation:

While paying lip-service to initiative and control from below, the real emphasis – and constant practice – always centred on discipline, obedience and the need for individual as distinct from collective management.

But here, perhaps, we should ask the Editors of Solidarity a direct question. Do they honestly consider that when Lenin wrote in the same pamphlet that ‘the more resolutely we now have to stand for a ruthless firm government, for the dictatorship of individual persons, in definite process of work, in definite aspects of purely executive functions, the more varied must be the form and methods of control from below in order to counteract every shadow of possibility of distorting the Soviet power, in order repeatedly and tirelessly to weed out bureaucracy’, he was merely paying ‘lip-service’ to these concepts? Do they honestly believe that this and other passages were just a mask to cover his desire for the growth of the bureaucracy, to cover his desire for personal dictatorship? If the answer is ‘yes’, let them say so.

Early Years: Let us, however, turn to what is probably the key point in the whole indictment of ‘Bolshevik Ideology’: its emphasis on ‘the supremacy of the party’. Again, like the rest of Solidarity’s arguments, the assumption is from the theory to the practice. Yet there is no valid reason at all for this argument, they themselves imply the opposite, when, for instance, they refer to the very democratic nature of the government and the general movement during the early days of the October revolution. They do not try and find, and they cannot find, any instance before the revolution where the Bolshevik Party advocated that it was an absolutely necessary condition that there should be only one legal party during the socialist transformation, or that the party itself should be a monolithic one.

It is true that after a few years the Bolsheviks deprived all other political parties of legal rights, and even existence. But the question is: why? Looking through the pamphlet The Workers Opposition, including the footnotes, one does not get an answer. The real answer lies first in the conditions, Russia’s backwardness, isolation, and the attempt of the imperialists to invade and strangle the new republic; and secondly, in the role of the other political parties, including the Mensheviks and the various wings of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, in those conditions.

The Banning: If the theories of the Menshevik Party, that Russia should and could only have a bourgeois revolution, were bankrupt, nevertheless the logical consequence of such theories of pessimism was treacherous activity on the part of many Mensheviks. Members of that organisation participated in counter-revolutionary governments against the Bolsheviks (for example, Maisky springs to mind). In fact, in a resolution of the Menshevik Party in December 1918 (during its ‘left’ phase, when Europe seemed on the edge of revolution, and when Martov, the most militant and left-wing of its leaders was in control), they condemned members who were in alliance in Georgia (precisely in the areas where the counter-revolution was temporarily being successful); but at the time condemned members who went over to the Bolsheviks. In an historic period when, whatever one may think of the regime, one has to take a stand (not necessarily uncritically), the Menshevik members supported both the revolution, that is as far as the minority of members were concerned, and the counter-revolution, as far as the majority were concerned. The best of the Mensheviks went over to the Bolsheviks. The tragedy was a personal one for people like Martov, whose criticism of the shortcomings of the Bolsheviks was linked to a fundamentally false premise about democracy (viz: bourgeois democracy in the abstract) and this led him up a blind alley. That he was incapable of giving an alternative to the basic Bolshevik policy was already noted during the revolution itself by his friend Sukhanov. As far as the majority of Mensheviks, they became counter-revolutionaries – considering the Bolshevik government to be not the lesser evil, but, on the contrary, the greater one. The attitude of the Socialist Revolutionary Party (the left-wing peasant party) was similar; added to which they carried out, and attempted to carry out, a number of assassinations. In the conditions where the government was fighting for its life, this led inevitably to the banning of the other parties.

No Alternative: No one would or should defend and justify every individual action taken by the Bolshevik Party during this period: much of it was stupid, bureaucratic and even ruthless. But the issue must be understood in its broad historical pattern. The Bolshevik Party, with all its failings, stood for the preservation of the revolution, whilst the opposition parties evolved to positions of struggling for its destruction. Whilst it may be pointed out that incipient bureaucratic tendencies were emerging, the support of the counter-revolution, which would have brought about a super-Kornilov, was no substitute. The road from one solitary party led to the monolithic party – but this was not inevitable nor was it easily brought about. Given an extension of the revolution, it would never have happened. And this is not simply a theoretical postulation, since the question of revolution in Western Europe was touch-and-go a few times during the crucial period in question. The ‘legal’ justification for the monolithic party was, of course, laid down in the party document of unity in 1921, but its full realisation only took place after 1929 with the destruction of the Right Opposition under Bukharin, Rykov and Tomsky. The main purpose of the document was the preservation of the unity of the party during a crucial period, and the creation of a sort of temporary truce, while the party as a whole was fighting against conditions external to the party which were capable of destroying both it and the revolution. Its importance can be exaggerated, because even without it, given the general development which took place, a similar outcome would have happened. In fact, despite the fact that Lenin originally moved the document’s adoption, in 1923 he was suggesting to Trotsky that they should form a faction to fight the bureaucracy in the party headed by Stalin.

Lenin Again: The already quoted conclusions of Victor Serge are much more akin to reality than some of the ideas of our latter-day ‘authorities’ on the Russian Revolution. The main bulwark of the revolution, and the main defensive force of workers’ democracy, was the Bolshevik Party. Under the given conditions, the Bolshevik Party gradually had to restrict the democracy in order to preserve the revolution. The forces of reaction and deception (Social Democracy) were too strong to be overthrown and too weak to overthrow it. The problem of democracy and bureaucracy seriously worried the Bolsheviks because they realised on what a slender basis the democracy rested. The note of Lenin to Molotov with reference to membership, makes the point:

If we do not close our eyes to reality, we must admit that at the present time the proletarian policy of the party is not determined by the character of its membership, but by the enormous undivided prestige enjoyed by the thin stratum which may be called the old guard of the party. Only a very slight internal struggle within this stratum would be sufficient, if not to destroy this prestige, then in all events to weaken it to such an extent that it would lose the power to determine policy.

And his various suggestions, like that for a control commission, were made in this context, in order to try to preserve the party – so that it could carry out a proletarian policy against the bureaucratic tendencies that were developing in both the party and state machine.

Their Greatness: Historical conditions are more powerful than any party, but the greatness of the Bolshevik Party lay not only in the October Revolution, but in the fight against the all-powerful social forces. The core of the Bolsheviks – the ‘old guard’ – were split and very often confused in the struggle to overcome this barrier; but their unity of intent and purpose cannot be doubted. Their greatness was finally acknowledged by Stalin himself. While the Old Guard of Napoleon marched to defeat and destruction in column, and to the beat of drums, at Waterloo; the Bolshevik Old Guard, confused, demoralised and even cowardly, were tortured and murdered in dark cells or sent to the pitiless wastes of Siberia. But the destruction of Napoleon’s Old Guard, though colourful and spectacular, had little meaning – for they were the props to bolster up a bonapartist, dictatorial and, for France, a reactionary regime – the glorious days of 1789 were long since gone. The Bolshevik Old Guard, however, had been the creators of 1917 and, despite their weaknesses, Stalin feared what they represented and so finally destroyed them and the Bolshevik Party itself.

Here, by way of an incidental fact, it is perhaps interesting to remember that of Lenin’s General Staff during the revolution (the 31 Central Committee members and candidate members of October 1917) only two remained alive and at liberty in 1940; the murderer-in-chief Stalin himself, and the Russian Ambassador to Sweden, HE Madame Alexandra Kollontai. [1]


1. On page 63 of the Solidarity pamphlet (footnote 9) is a biographical sketch on AS Bubnov. Unfortunately, there is no similar note on Alexandra Kollontai, the authoress of the centre section of their pamphlet.