Democratic Production and the Workers’ Opposition of Revolutionary Russia (Part 2)


Alexander Shlyapnikov
Alexander Shlyapnikov

[This is the second of two parts.  The first section covered the origins of the Workers’ Opposition (WO), interpretations of “workers’ control,” and the 10th Party Congress.]

How Do You Strangle an Opposition?

After the 10th congress, anti-WO campaigns multiplied.  Party leaders removed former WO organizers from positions and/or transferred them to locations where they would be isolated.  The epitome of this strategy was when Lenin, Bukharin, Grigory Zinoviev and Vyacheslav Molotov collaborated to oust Shlyapnikov as head of the Metalworkers’ Union and replace him with yes-bureaucrats.

With opportunities for discussion and organization being closed out, Kollontai and Shlyapnikov realized that there was one avenue still open for getting their ideas heard: the Comintern.  One of its 21 points of agreement for joining included the right of a political minority in a country to appeal its case to the international.  They organized an “Appeal of the 22” from loyal Bolsheviks to the third Comintern meeting of February 24 – March 4, 1922 regarding the suppression of union activists.

When Kollontai tried to address the Comintern Executive, Trotsky and Zinoviev removed her from the list of speakers.  Resisting that decision, Kollontai insisted on speaking and Trotsky repeated his disallowal and ordered Russian delegates to “obey party directives.”

As the 11th party congress of March 22-April 2, 1922 approached, it was clear that Lenin’s view of unions as mediators between workers and state-appointed managers prevailed over Trotsky’s implications that unions should be crushed and the WO orientation that they be managers of industry.  Lenin reminded the congress that those who create panic in an army are shot and denounced participation in the “Appeal of the 22” for starting panic in the party.  Unambiguous was the implication that Shlyapnikov, as originator of the Appeal, should be shot.

Suppression of dissent within the RCP was not an aberration of the 10th party congress – it both preceded it and intensified after it.  Lenin’s illness resulted in his being out of the picture during most of 1923.  (He died in January 1924.)  The following are actions and trends which preceded Stalin’s rise to power:

a) Probably the most frequent complaint among WO supporters was transfer to other locations to prevent them from organizing, speaking, or attending congresses or conferences.

b) Or perhaps tied for first place among complaints was removal of elected worker representatives and/or appointment of those who would be more compliant.

c) Publication of minority views was delayed or dissidents were not allowed to defend themselves from attacks.

d) Conference dates were moved up to prevent membership discussion of issues.

e) Votes were overturned or minorities were disallowed proportional representation on higher bodies.

f) Rules against “factionalism” were applied vigorously to party minorities while majorities could engage in such behavior without rebuke.

g) Many were prohibited from resigning from party positions, thereby compelling them to represent views they did not agree with when speaking publicly.

h) Oppositionists were prohibited from presenting a proposal for a vote and banned from appealing the decision to a higher body.

i) Oppositionists were repeatedly attacked as playing into the hands of counterrevolutionaries.

j) The secret police were used against critics inside the Communist Party via surveillance, interrogation, entrapment and arrest.

k) Oppositionists were expelled from the RCP for disagreement.

l) Lenin’s singling out opponents who he suggested should be shot was not a way to build solidarity among comrades.

Battle for Supremacy

As Lenin’s health faded, conflict over succession became extreme.  Though Shlyapnikov stood outside of the ensuing factional fights, he publicized strong opposition to Stalin’s “socialism in one country,” which resulted in his being denied the right to speak at the 14th congress in May 1925.  That year, Zinoviev and Lev Kamemev echoed Shlyapnikov’s concern and created the “United Opposition” (UO) with Trotsky.  Stalin then made sure that they were removed from positions, just as the party center had done to the WO.

Shlyapnikov wrote of his agreements and disagreements with Trotsky and concluded that Trotsky had little chance of obtaining party leadership.  Accusations of who did what to whom and why during 1923-27 became weird.  Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev did their best to woo WO supporters to their group.

After Stalin’s thugs disrupted their meetings, Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev admitted that the UO had lost and denounced Shlyapnikov for his WO ideas.  Historian Isaac Deutscher wrote that Shlyapnikov gave in to Stalin although it was actually the UO that did so.  In fact, a Pravda article by Valerian Kuibyshev denounced Shlyapnikov for failing to recognize his errors as Trotsky and Zinoviev had done.

The UO became outraged at Stalin’s bungling of foreign affairs and, despite their pledge to end factionalism, in May 1927 they issued the “Declaration of the 83.”  Shlyapnikov and his allies were not cosigners and have been criticized ever since for not doing so.

Shlyapnikov’s biographer Barbara Allen interprets his unwillingness to sign the declaration as due to (1) Trotsky’s refusal to invite Shlyapnikov to participate in writing or editing it, and (2) Trotsky’s refusal to withdraw his condemnation of the WO made the previous year.  Though it is clear that a prominent leader like Shlyapnikov would not attach his name to a document for which he was excluded from drafting and omitted multiple WO beliefs, issues separating the WO from the UO ran far deeper.

In 1927 Leon Trotsky was one of the most politically unstable leaders of the RCP, having occupied virtually every position on the Social Democratic spectrum.  First, he was a Menshevik denouncing Lenin’s authoritarianism; then, he organized his own group; then, he was reborn as the unquestioning disciple of Lenin; then, in 1919, he and Bukharin cohered the extreme right wing faction in opposition to both Lenin and the WO.  As a Menshevik Trotsky had praised internal party democracy; then, he became a major opponent of party democracy, wrote several chapters in the book of suppression of dissent, and helped develop practices to crush party opponents; and finally, he became the victim of the very rules and practices for which he was the co-author.

As Stalin consolidated power Shlyapnikov continued his course of working within the RCP while trying to do what he could to improve the condition of workers.  This required him to repeatedly deny accusations of factionalism.  As Shlyapnikov retreated into writing memoirs of the revolution, he was sharply criticized for failures to glorify Stalin.  Refusing to recant, he was purged from the RCP in 1933.  The hate campaign went into high gear: Stalin’s supporters began condemning those who failed to condemn Shlyapnikov.

Until the end, Shlyapnikov was a worker-intellectual who focused on how the organization of labor could be improved.  Throughout his life workplace democracy and industrial productivity were one and the same goal.  The WO’s central concept was that those who labor every day understand the best ways to sustain and enhance production processes.  Even before the revolution, Shlyapnikov had opposed speed-up, noting that he saw more industrial accidents with an 8 hour day than the old 11 hour day.  As Trotsky preached that labor productivity must be increased, Shlyapnikov patiently explained that the real problem was bottlenecks that prevented supplies from reaching factories.  He realized that ultra-specialization of factories intensified the bottlenecks and countered that each factory should be able to produce as much basic machinery as feasible.

Even after his 1935 arrest Shlyapnikov worked as an assistant director of transportation in Astrakhan where he was in exile.  His son Yuri, who was allowed to visit him in 1936, was impressed with Shlyapnikov’s design of a time-saving machine for unloading bread.  This was the year before his execution.

Stalin decided that Shlyapnikov would have the same fate as other thought criminals.  Shlyapnikov was re-arrested in September 1936 as one of thousands caught up in the great terror.  The only thing laughable about Stalin’s cabal was the charges they came up with for their victims.  On September 2, 1937 the court found Shlyapnikov guilty of heading the “anti-Soviet terrorist organization” called the Workers’ Opposition which had conspired with “Trotskyist-Zinovievist and right-Bukharinist terrorists.”  Shlyapnikov was shot in Moscow the same day.

Looking Forward

The ghost of the WO haunts every scenario of progressive activity.  Whether we seek to create democratic unions, establish independent political parties, grow local and healthy food or build consumer cooperatives, we repeatedly confront those who would control us from above.  Learning from the legacy of the WO requires exploring its weakness as we appreciate its strengths.

In a world being devastated by climate change, racist xenophobia, neoliberalism and the mindless worship of object possession, the end of capitalism could well be as terrifying as the starvation which engulfed Russian cities at the time of its revolution.  Desperate people, robbed of their self-confidence, are prone to bending to strong leaders rather than keeping power in their collective hands.  Struggles by the WO show the need to never let power-mongers cohere their control and become a new ruling class.  Worker self-management, agricultural collectives, and consumer cooperatives can join together to create a democratic society without being dominated either by corporate markets or vanguardist elites.

The ultimate failure of the WO was, in part, due to a lack of the political/manipulative adroitness that Lenin had.  It was, in part, due to the lack of writing brilliance like Trotsky.  More than anything else, it was a lack of self-confidence that led the WO to look for support from those determined to destroy it.  Shlyapnikov spent his entire political life having faith in the Bolshevik organization.

Observers saw Shlyapnikov as easily outmaneuvered and no match for Lenin.  When she broke off her romantic relationship with him in 1916, Kollontai concluded that, in political battles, Shlyapnikov was “helpless and clumsy.”  While Kollontai may have hit the nail on the head in recognizing Shlyapnikov’s political naivete, the hammer rebound.  Lenin’s friends often referred to him as “Ilyich.”  She ended her most famous work, The Workers’ Opposition, completed before the 10th party congress, with the prophesy “Ilyich will be with us yet.”  Even as Lenin was devising a strategy to destroy the WO, Kollontai fantasized that he would advance its cause.  Kollontai’s placing her hope in Lenin manifests the pathos of those who sought for the underclass to become its own master.

Many believe that honoring the great accomplishments of leaders like Lenin and Trotsky requires (1) overlooking the enormity of their mistakes and (2) denigrating contributions of those like Shlyapnikov and Kollontai.  The Russian revolution shows us that when oppressed people partner with those who have the intellectual capabilities of Bolshevik leaders, sooner or later the underclass will need to wrest control from their hands, even as the new leaders shriek that they must be able to dominate society because the counter-revolution is so strong.

In hindsight, all but the most blind can see that ultra-centralization which dismembered workplace self-management, created not socialism, but a new type of rule, which has been called a bureaucratic, vanguard or coordinator ruling class.  Building a classless society requires ending the dichotomy between controllers and controlled.  Leaders must be aware of the power they have and be willing to step aside rather than holding onto power for decades.

More important, we need to build a culture of those not in leadership positions stepping up to the plate to use the abilities they may have never known they had.  Even more important, rank and file members must insist and demand that leaders teach them the organizing, speaking and writing skills that are necessary to replace them.  Every progressive group – not just unions, but also political parties, and groups focused on community organizing, environmental protection, anti-imperialism, and rights of the specially oppressed – need to vastly expand to practice of rotating the role of coordinators.  This is what it means to develop a leadership which negates itself in the process of becoming.

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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