The Workers Opposition: Defending Socialism Inside Stalinist Russia

The history of the Workers’ Opposition has been largely forgotten, both in the West and in the former Soviet Union.  This is unfortunate, since it is the history of a faction within the Russian Communist Party itself which, during the very time that the Russian Revolution was falling into the centralization of political and economic power that would shortly lead to Stalin’s dictatorship, stood up to defend socialism, democracy, workers’ control, the rights of union workers, and economic justice.  Sadly, their struggle was in vain—the bureaucratic Party concentrated all power in its hands, and Stalin soon assumed sole power and crushed the people of the Soviet Union under one of the most brutal regimes of the 20th century.  Many of the members of the Workers’ Opposition died in Stalin’s jails.

The ideas that were advocated by the Workers’ Opposition had deep roots in the history of the Russian Revolution.  In January 1905, a large peaceful demonstration was led by an Orthodox Priest, George Gapon, to the Czar’s Winter Palace, with a petition asking for freedom and democracy.  They were fired on by Czarist troops, and “Bloody Sunday” became the rallying cry for revolution. Over the next few months, demonstrations and protests took place across Russia, and some three million workers walked out on strike.

In May, in the city of Ivanovno-Voznesensk, some 70,000 striking textile workers elected a strike committee, known as a Soviet (from the Russian word for “council”).  Soon, workers, peasants and soldiers in nearly every sizable city in Russia elected their own local Soviets, and these began taking on political tasks and functioning more and more as quasi-governmental powers, in many cases organizing their own armed militias and passing and enforcing their own laws and regulations. In the larger industrial cities, like Moscow and St Petersburg, the Soviets became strong enough to directly challenge the authority of the Czarist government (in St Petersburg, the Soviet declared on its own authority an end to the Czar’s censorship, and banned the city’s printers from publishing anything that had been submitted to the Czar’s censors), and plans were being made for each municipal and regional Soviet to send delegates to a national Soviet to form a provisional national government.  By September 1905, the Soviets had become powerful enough to call out a nationwide general strike that completely paralyzed the entire country.  Within a month, the Czar was forced to give in, and signed the October Manifesto granting a constitution and an elected legislature known as the Duma.

With that concession, the revolt died down, and the Czarist police moved quickly to crush the remaining Soviets.  All the leaders of the St Petersburg Soviet were arrested (including a young radical named Leon Trotsky).  In Moscow, the Soviet called on its workers to go out on strike again and throw up barricades in protest, but the rebellion was easily beaten by Czarist troops.  By December 1905, the Soviets were gone and the revolt had ended.

In March 1917, though, the same basic process was repeated.  Wearied by the poverty and hunger brought about by the First World War, workers spontaneously went out on strike all over Russia.  As the bread riots and strikes became more political in character, local Soviets were again elected. The most important of these was the Petrograd Soviet (the city of St Petersburg had been renamed to Petrograd after the war had started), which was elected in the middle of March.  Other Soviets appeared in hundreds of other cities, and the All-Russian Central Executive Committee was formed in Petrograd to coordinate all of the local Soviets.  The political slogan adopted by the revolution was “All power to the Soviets!” When the Czar abdicated and a Provisional Government formed by the Duma took power, the Soviets remained intact, in many areas exercising more authority than the new Provisional Government did.

At the time the Czarist government fell, the Soviets were dominated by representatives of the peasant-based Social Revolutionary Party and the Menshevik faction of the leftist Russian Social Democratic Party.  Over the next several months, however, the Bolshevik faction of the Social Democrats, led by Lenin, gained control of the major Soviets.  When Kerensky’s Provisional Government floundered over economic troubles and its decision to continue the unpopular participation of Russia in the First World War, the Bolsheviks organized a successful bloodless coup in November 1917, transferring power from the Provisional Government to the Bolshevik-dominated Soviets.  For the next four years, Russia was wracked by civil war, as the Bolsheviks were opposed by a loose collection of former Czarists, conservative peasants, foreign troops (including Americans), and non-Bolshevik socialists and anarchists.

By 1921, the Russian Civil War was over, and the Bolsheviks stood as the only remaining power in Russia. In the 1918 Constitution, political power was, theoretically, centered in the local democratically-elected Soviets.  The local Soviets elected representatives to the national Council of People’s Commissars, which in turn elected a Chairman as head of state.  The Council also elected the heads of the various Commissariats, or governmental departments, which had responsibility for various areas of government.

Very quickly, however, the Soviet-based government became subordinated to the ruling Communist Party.  All of the real political and economic power lay within the Communist Party’s Political Bureau (Politburo), which was elected by the Party Central Committee.  The Soviet government quickly became a rubber stamp for decisions made by the Politburo.

In February 1921, the sailors at the Kronstadt Fortress mutinied in an attempt to overthrow the Communist Party and re-institute direct elected worker control through the Soviet government.  The rebellion was crushed by Red Army troops.

The Workers’ Opposition was a faction within the Communist Party that advocated the same return to democratic Soviet government, as well as direct worker control of industries through elected managements set up by the trade unions.

Most of the members of the Workers’ Opposition were trade union officials.  The most prominent spokesperson for the Workers’ Opposition was Alexander Shlyapnikov, who was Chairman of the Russian Metalworkers Union.  He was joined by fellow Metalworkers Union officials Sergei Medvedev and Mikhail Vladimirov, and by Textile Workers Union official Ivan Kutuzov, Miner’s Union Chairman Alexei Kiselev, Yuri Lutovinov of the All-Russian Council of Trade Unions, Mikhail Chelyshev of the Party Control Commission, Kiril Orlov of the Council of Military Industry, and others.

Although not a trade unionist, one of the most outspoken supporters of the Workers’ Opposition was Alexandra Kollantai. In 1921, Kollantai submitted a paper entitled “The Workers’ Opposition in the Russian Communist Party” for the 10th Congress of the Communist Party, held in 1921, which argued in favor of independent trade unions, party democracy, and returning political power to the elected Soviet councils.  Although the Congress elected Shlyapnikov to the Central Committee and adopted some of the positions advocated by the Workers’ Opposition, including a removal of some party members and a pledge to divert more resources to improving workers’ lives, it condemned the Workers’ Opposition itself for “factionalism”, and suppressed all its writings.  At the 11th Party Congress in 1922, Shlyapnikov, Kollantai and Medvedev were almost expelled from the Communist Party after circulating another paper criticizing the suppression of dissent in the Party and condemning the domination of the trade unions by Party functionaries.

After this, most of the former Oppositionists were forced to temper their criticism.  Kollantai was appointed Ambassador to Norway, and later to Sweden and Mexico.  She was never again able to exercise any influence on Party policy. Her virtual exile abroad probably saved her life.

Stalin was elected General Secretary of the Politburo in 1922.  After Lenin died in 1924, Stalin used his control of the Politburo to become the sole power in the Communist Party, and ruled Russia as a virtual autocrat.  The Soviet Union revealed itself as an institution of bureaucratic state capitalism, in which worker control was crushed, independent labor unions were actively destroyed, and the only acceptable role for workers was to shut up, get back to work, and produce wealth for the benefit of the privileged Party elite.

In 1926, members of the now-banned Workers’ Opposition tried to rally fellow Party members to prevent Stalin’s grab for power, but failed.  In a series of purges, Stalin consolidated his power, removed all the “disloyal elements” from the Party, and jailed them.  Shlyapnikov and Medvedev were both shot in September 1937. The rest died in gulag prisons.  Kollantai, who no longer had any ability to influence events within the Soviet Union, was the only survivor.  She died of natural causes in 1952.

Even in death, however, the Workers’ Oppositionists had the final say.  When the Leninist state capitalism finally collapsed in 1989, it was striking miners in the Ukraine and the appearance of the trade labor union Solidarity in Poland, champions of the independent unionism and workplace democracy that the Workers Opposition had preached, that provoked the USSR’s downfall.

One thought on “The Workers Opposition: Defending Socialism Inside Stalinist Russia”

  1. Interesting, informative piece. I should post this in a comment stream from the other day where someone was ranting about what a great example of the evils of liberalism the USSR was…

    btw, I was wondering if Sergei Medvedev was related to twin brothers Roy and Zhores Medvedev, since though it’s a common surname they both grew up to be dissidents a generation later, but couldn’t find mention of any family connection.

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