Democratic Production and the Workers’ Opposition of Revolutionary Russia (Part 1)


Alexandra Kollontai

In a post-capitalist society, who should control production? How should decisions about worklife be made? Who should decide what is produced, where it is produced and how it is exchanged within a country and between countries? For the first time in history, the great Russian Revolution of 1917 had to confront these issues in more than a theoretical way. The issues became painfully pragmatic during intense conflict between the party majority and the Workers’ Opposition (WO) of 1919-1921.

Too many discussions of the Bolsheviks focus on political battles and treat economic debates as barely secondary. In fact, struggles at the point of production were core; political conflicts reflected many of these differences; and, today, perspectives on top-down control version self-management permeate every vision of a new society.

In the Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels wrote that the task of building communism must be the work of the “toiling masses” themselves. In August, 1917 Vladimir Lenin wrote in The State and Revolution that “the administration of industry is well within the competence of any moderately intelligent citizen.” By 1919 thousands of workers across Russia saw these principles slipping away and cohered a group whose best known leaders were Alexandra Kollontai and Alexander Shlyapnikov.

Both had been early confidants of Lenin. While Lenin was in exile, Kollontai kept him informed of unfolding events in Russia. Shlyapnikov, a major leader of the Metalworkers Union, was the senior Bolshevik in Petrograd when the February revolution broke out. When Lenin returned to Russia and Kollontai presented his “April Theses” on the need for a continuing revolution Kollontai and Shlyapnikov were among his most ardent supporters.

Yet, by 1922 Lenin had suggested that each be shot! What had the WO done that engendered such hostility from the great architect of revolution?

Early Days of Revolution

Having been a metalworker since he was 13 years old, Shlyapnikov had an intense conviction that working people were most qualified for running industry because they had day-to-day experiences with processes of production. He played a key role in absorbing craft unions into a single industrial Metalworkers’ Union, much as advocated by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

As the first Commissar of Labor in the new Soviet government Shlyapnikov was keenly aware that both Bolsheviks and non-Bolsheviks had brought success to the October Revolution. The Metalworkers Union and vast numbers of other workers wanted a multi-party revolutionary government.

In March 1919 the 8th Party Congress (now the Russian Communist Party, or RCP) approved the famous section of its program which included: “Trade unions should further concentrate in their hands management of the entire economy as a single unit.” Despite the favorable resolution, many sensed a discrepancy between what it said and what they saw being practiced. They were critical of reliance on specialists to run factories and impose top-down discipline on workers.

No one disagreed that plunging productivity was threatening the survival of the revolution. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk of March, 1918 resulted in the loss of 40% of Russian industry and 70% of its iron and steel production. Supply lines were broken as parts necessary for manufacture vanished. The civil war which began in May, 1918 cost millions of lives from fighting, famine and disease.

Leading Bolsheviks who had never worked in a factory interpreted the cause of the productivity crisis as absenteeism and slovenly work habits, They saw the solution as more labor discipline. Others felt that production was hampered by breakdowns in supplies and lack of fuel and food. For them, bureaucratic control could not overcome inadequate raw materials, cold and hunger.

As the tide of the Civil War turned during Fall 1919 and the collapse of White armies was eminent, attention turned to the organization of industry. At the end of that year, when Leon Trotsky was at the height of his popularity, he first proposed the militarization of labor. Labor armies would be run with drafts, compulsion, and a top down structure like the military.

Shlyapnikov countered that industrial workers understood production processes better than the specialists assigned by the party to run factories. As more and more rank and file party members shared similar concerns they began to cohere as the Workers’ Opposition (WO) in 1919.

Pulling Apart

Division within the RCP intensified throughout 1920. The year began with Shlyapnikov’s proposal that unions take control of all levels of the economy. In March Trotsky put forth his idea of “one-man management” of factories and Lenin soon agreed. Kollontai staunchly defended the concept of “collective management” by elected worker representatives.

The debate over economic control spread throughout the party and promised to be intense at the upcoming 9th RCP Congress. Lenin and other party leaders thought it best that Shlyapnikov not be present and assigned him to western Europe for union work. In Shlyapnikov’s absence, the 9th party congress overturned the 8th congress’ resolution on unions’ running the economy and instead called for the party to increase its control over union staff. Subsequently, support for the WO spread among industrial unions across the country.

The discord of 1920 did not only center around the WO. In August, Trotsky inspired the merger of railway and water-transport unions into a new Tsektran, which had appointed leaders and widespread labor conscription. Multiple organizers feared that this was merely Trotsky’s first step in centralizing all unions into an appointed state apparatus of militarized labor. Defending his proposals, Trotsky wrote “Man must work in order not to die. He does not want to work. But the social organization compels and whips him in that direction.”

As the infamous 10th party congress of March 8-16, 1921 approached, the RCP had three clearly defined factions. On the left, the WO called for increased union control over the economy, decreased bureaucratization, and restoration of internal party democracy. The right, led by Trotsky and Bukharin, called for labor armies controlled by the state. “The Ten,” based on Lenin’s most loyal supporters, proposed that the major role of unions be educating workers on socialism.

Many Meanings of “Workers’ Control”

It would be easy to argue that “workers’ control” was abandoned at the 10th party congress. But the phrase “workers’ control” meant very different things to different people at different times.

Did “workers’ control” suggest that the labor force at each factory could seize it, do with it whatever they wanted, including selling it to the highest bidder and dividing the proceeds? Did it mean that each group of workers would decide not only how to organize production but also what products to manufacture and sell in the market? Or, did it mean, as the WO proposed, that elected union leaders would coordinate production at a local and national level, leaving decision-making regarding the organization of production to each group of workers?

Karl Marx’ critique of capitalist “anarchy of production” was a central part of the attitude towards workers’ control in the early 20th century. Goods were produced, not due to social need, but because they could sell in the capitalist market. For Marx, economic justice required a plan for production to meet needs. This was supported by virtually all calling themselves socialist. They believed that a series of worker-owned enterprises would leave the market intact and force the workgroups to compete with each other and exploit themselves.

Marx assumed that those who would plan production would be the “toiling masses” themselves. But what if the “toiling masses” were divided from those who had power over the economy? Marx never posed this possible discord between theory and practice, but it was posed by bitter debates within the RCP.

Between the two revolutions, workplace seizures grew like an urban wildfire. Lenin unabashedly fanned the flames of discontent as he spoke and wrote in favor of “workers’ control over the production and distribution of goods.” Criticism came from other Bolsheviks such as Solomon Lozovsky who wrote “It is necessary to make an absolutely clear and categorical reservation that the workers in each enterprise should not get the impression that the enterprise belongs to them.”

Shlyapnikov and Kollontai were among the thousands of revolutionaries who lauded Lenin’s statements. For them, workers’ control was an end in itself and the foundation of a new society. But a careful reading of Lenin reveals that he saw workers’ control as a means of smashing capitalists control of industry which would yield to the greater end of centralized planning.

Thus, three apparitions haunted the Bolshevik spirit in 1917: the wary spirit worried that workers’ control could interfere with building a state-run economy; the undivided spirit beheld self-management as simultaneously the method and goal of establishing socialism; and, the redefining spirit realized that workers’ control could first be used as a method to break up capitalism and then reappear as control by the party unifying production on behalf of the working class. These ghosts wrestled with each other, sometimes within themselves, through 1921 and beyond.

10th Congress of the Russian Communist Party

In 1920, Efim Ignatov was one of many Moscow workers who favored a major role for the soviets and unions in coordinating production. They blocked with WO supporters to obtain a large minority of votes for selection of delegates to the 10th party congress. Lenin had the party’s Central Committee (CC) interfere to deny proportional representation – all the delegates went to his faction. It is unknown the extent to which the WO was similarly underrepresented in other parts of Russia.

WO supporters turned to Kollontai who wrote the pamphlet entitled The Workers’ Opposition. It echoed workers’ own thoughts: self-organization of production should be the essence of communism, workers were denied any such role, which was given to party-approved specialists. The party was interfering with workers’ initiative so much that they could not even organize their own canteens or childcare without going to bureaucrats. As former capitalists adapted themselves to the soviet system, they reappeared as the new bosses.

Kollontai quipped that while party leaders regarded unions as “schools for communism,” unions should be its creators as well. She proposed that “all cardinal decisions of party activity” within unions should be subjected to a vote by the rank and file. Though Kollontai’s pamphlet clearly stated that “specialists can do valuable work,” it was ridiculed by Lenin’s supporters as ignoring the need for specialists.

Factionalism was even deeper in 1921 than it had been in 1917 when some Central Committee (CC) members opposed the seizure of power, in 1918 when there was strong opposition to the treaty of Brest-Litovsk, or during many other disagreements. In earlier disputes different Bolsheviks lined up together and other disputes would see different realignments. But the 1921 division had been brewing for years with opposing sides becoming more intransigent – the sort of conflict that could rip a party apart.

As sailors rallied to the call of many Petrograd workers for democratic elections and coping with food shortages, the Kronstadt Rebellion broke out when the 10th congress was opening. Timing could not have been worse for the WO, which strongly advocated working within the RCP rather than rising up against it.

Multiple speakers used Kronstadt to associate the WO with counter-revolution. Lenin opened the congress with an attack on the WO, saying it used the same slogans as Kronstadt. He singled out Kollontai, denouncing her pamphlet as the “platform of a new party” and exclaimed “For this you should not only be excluded but shot as well!”

As the congress wore on, Lenin’s grip became tighter and votes for WO proposals became smaller. By the end, there was an overwhelming vote endorsing Lenin’s view that workers were not yet ready to run the economy. Two shockers came during the final session. One resolution banned factions and allowed the CC to expel those engaged in factional activity. The second, aimed specifically at the WO, condemned the “syndicalist and anarchist” deviation within the party.

The icing on the cake was election of Shlyapnikov to the CC and refusal to allow WO members to leave their position in the party. Together, these destroyed the ability of the WO to organize and specifically forced Shlyapnikov to present Lenin’s views when speaking in public.

By the end of the 10th congress, it was unambiguous that the phrase “workers’ control” assumed that the single party in power was alone in representing the true interests of the working class. The party would control industry, including control of management and day-to-day decisions regarding worklife.

[This is the first of two parts. The second section covers the third meeting of the Comintern, differences between the Workers’ Opposition and Trotsky’s United Opposition, Shlyapnikov during Stalin’s reign, and the importance of these conflicts for those living a century later.]

This article is based on a January 2018 presentation at Legacy Books & Cafe in St. Louis, Missouri. Though it incorporates ideas from dozens of sources on the Russian Revolution it borrows most heavily from Barbara C. Allen’s Alexander Shlyapnikov, 1885-1937: Life of an Old Bolshevik (2015), Chicago IL: Haymarket Books.

Don Fitz, who can be reached at [email protected], was the 2016 candidate of the Missouri Green Party for Governor. He is Outreach Coordinator for the Green Party of St. Louis and is on the Editorial Board of Green Social Thought, where Part 1 and Part 2 of a lengthier version of this article go into much more detail regarding suppression of the Workers Opposition.




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