Gambling on the world revolution

Hillel Ticktin reviews Simon Pirani's 'The Russian Revolution in retreat, 1920-24: Soviet workers and the new communist elite' Basees/Routledge series, Russian and east European studies, 2008, pp312, �80

In reviewing Simon Pirani’s book, I am going to look at it on two planes. The first, accepting the viewpoint of the author, considers his goals and how he achieved them. The second considers how far the author’s standpoint is valid.

Overall, this book traces the degeneration of the Communist Party and of the Soviet regime during the period of the New Economic Policy, using the minutes of congresses, conferences and meetings of various party and state bodies, newspaper reports, secret police files and the variety of books written on the subject. This is an historical book, with a limited degree of sociological analysis. It is consciously written from the author’s standpoint and does not attempt to grapple either with the complexities of the political economy of the USSR or with the very different political and economic theories of Lenin and Trotsky, or for that matter of Preobrazhensky. It is neither an overall account of movements and viewpoints in the USSR as a whole nor a comprehensive account of opinion in Moscow in the period 1920-24.

Nonetheless Simon Pirani has provided an account of the rise and rise of the apparatus which put Stalin in power. Although he clearly disagrees with Trotsky’s policies and Trotsky’s defence of those policies, he has unintentionally validated the main theory put forward by Trotsky and Rakovsky to explain the degeneration of the revolution and the rise to power of Stalin and the bureaucracy. He explicitly and implicitly differs from them in arguing that the introduction of democracy could have prevented the rise of Stalin and that such a democracy would have been able to defend the revolution against capitalism. However, this is not fully spelled out. He argues that “different choices in 1921 would have made possible different types of resistance to the re-imposition of exploitative class relations and the establishment of dictatorship” (p241).

Pirani devotes some time to bringing out the disappointment of party members and of the intelligentsia in the period under assessment, and makes a point of the number of suicides brought on by disillusionment. He quotes Victor Serge on the need to maintain a libertarian spirit within the revolution.

He sets out to show how little power ordinary workers had in the period 1920-24, over their workplace and over the Soviet Union in general. He has used research conducted in the Soviet Union archives for this purpose. While few will be surprised by his goal and by his conclusion, he is the only person on the libertarian left who has set out to prove the point using original materials.

Workers in 1920-24

Pirani is concerned to show that there were real workers and so a real working class in this period, and not a shadow class. The latter refers to the often repeated point that the bulk of the working class had been killed in the civil war or had decamped back to the villages.

He does show that there were workers with a workers’ consciousness, of sorts, who were discontented with the lack of democracy and so their lack of power in the Soviet Union. However, this is not the same thing as showing that there was a working class, since the word ‘class’ implies the existence of a collectivity. It is probably part of humanity’s genetic constitution to demand control over the work environment and over society as a whole, but it is another matter when a class establishes an objective and subjective unity with conscious demands. The loss of the vast bulk of the class conscious workers is uncontested.

In a forthcoming review in the journal  Critique David Mandel points to a number of crucial factories which had lost their pre-1918 workforce. Given the collapse of manufacturing industry, it could not be otherwise. Pirani quotes Diane Koenker (Moscow workers and the 1917 revolution Princeton 1981) as saying that the most political workers went to the front, leaving a “middling” sort of workforce. This he takes as evidence that workers were political (p23). He therefore draws the conclusion that there was a working class and rejects Isaac Deutscher’s remarks that the working class had ceased to exist. At this point, he does not make a distinction between workers and the working class. The latter had ceased to exist, but there were workers.

How one judges workers of the “middling” sort is precisely the question. It was clearly in the minds of the old Bolshevik leaders, because Pirani details how Lenin wanted to recruit only workers who had 10 years experience at the bench. Pirani clearly thinks, here, that the working class exists wherever there are workers, even though elsewhere in the book he takes a different stance.

He also adds white-collar workers to his total. Today there is no question that we can make no distinction between white-collar and blue-collar workers as integral parts of the working class in so far as it is formed. However, that was not the case at that time. Generally white-collar workers enjoyed a superior position within the factory and had considerably higher wages in most countries. In the conditions of early Soviet Russia this was even more the case, simply because of the extreme inequality of the time. White-collar workers were more likely to be employed, work in better conditions, and have a measure of job security. That, of course, does not alter Simon Pirani’s point that there was a genuine workforce concerned at its lack of democracy. Seen from a libertarian viewpoint, he has made his point.

Evolution of an elite

Pirani shows the evolution of the elite under NEP, particularly from 1923 onwards. He refers to the way Stalin saw to it that the old Bolsheviks were replaced by the more malleable workers who joined the party during and after the civil war (p172). He depicts the rise of the social group which backed Stalin and whom he represented (though he does not draw that conclusion). Although he makes a distinction between the state and the social relationships which he describes, he seems to regard them as cause and effect, rather than the other way around as in Marxism. He details the rise of a new layer of red managers, who acquired a limited collectivity of their own, and shows that inequality in income grew many times in this period.

Very interestingly, Pirani gives examples of the arrest of leftwing dissidents and their more general victimisation. He describes a series of groups and individuals who left the party on leftwing grounds. Indeed, part of their arguments would later be incorporated into Trotsky’s critique of Stalinism. Pirani cites the case of the Workers’ Truth group, which supported the October revolution but felt its ideals were being betrayed, in that a technical intelligentsia was playing a leading role and it would merge with the old bourgeoisie (pp237-38). The Bolshevik Party now represented this “technical organising intelligentsia”. The author, whose source for information on this group is a Menshevik paper, says it was clandestine but was spreading its propaganda with leaflets and by word of mouth. The point he is identifying is the ferment of opinion and critical discussion among students.

In this respect, his work is valuable in bringing out, in English, aspects of everyday political life in Moscow (see, for example, pp126-27). He also gives the example of the Workers and Peasants Socialist Party, which in 1921 denounced NEP as “favouring the capitalists and bourgeoisie”, and which wanted the restoration of the soviets as in 1917. Members of the party were arrested, jailed or exiled. Its leader, Paniushkin, was allowed out, met with Lenin, changed his mind and rejoined the party (p119). One may note that the interesting thing here is not just the dissidence from the left, but that Lenin took time off to convince Paniushkin and the latter yielded, at a time when he was not threatened with the firing squad.

There is no comparative political analysis, so Pirani does not try to argue whether discussion was more or less open in this period than in any other period of the USSR. He is emphatic that there was a working class and that it was not necessarily either anti-socialist or anti-Bolshevik. Workers did, however, want the right to choose their own representatives, who could express their views.

Marxism and libertarianism

Simon Pirani makes it clear, as detailed above, that he is sympathetic to a libertarian point of view, most particularly on the last page (p241). His philosophy is, however, outlined early in the book, where he declares that his central concept is that of alienation. He footnotes Marx’s Wage-labour and capital and István Mészáros’s Alienation. While it is slightly idiosyncratic to refer the reader to Wage-labour and capital, which is a popular work, rather than the original source of Marx’s theory on alienation, the Economic and philosophical notebooks of 1844, Pirani is entitled to do so.

His philosophy may refer to Marx, but it is clearly not the same as that of Marx. Marx embeds his concept of alienation in political economy, in the 1844 work, where it is clear that the alienation of workers from the product and labour process is the fundamental basis of their alienation from humanity and nature. Already implicit in this concept of alienation is its evolution to the concept of surplus value, since it is the removal of the surplus product and the control over the labour process which ensures that alienation.

The next step is the concept of class, which Marx was already using, and its linkage to surplus value. However, Simon Pirani remains at the level of control rather than discussing the complexities in the nature of class or the form of the extraction of the surplus product in this period. There are, of course, good reasons for this, in that control from below is a well established socialist principle and Pirani does try to use the concept of class. He is sensitive to the difficulties in utilising the concept at that time, given the short period in which the ruling group had existed.

However, the matter does not end there. If the form of the surplus product is the crucial determinant of the mode of production according to Marx, then we are left with the question of the nature of the regime evolving in the Soviet Union and its relation to the ultimate goals of the Bolshevik Party under Lenin and Trotsky.

In fact we know that they were aiming to set the stage for the global transformation of capitalism towards socialism. They knew that the Soviet Union could not become socialist on its own, although it could introduce anti-capitalist measures and help the world towards that transition. There was never any illusion in that regard, right from the beginning, when even Stalin was moved to say that socialism in one country was impossible in August 1917, at the 6th Party Congress.

When, then, it became clear after 1920-21 that the revolution was at least delayed, there were only two choices. One was to hang on as long as possible, hoping to assist the world revolution, particularly in Germany. The other was to take Simon’s advice, and institute democratic forms. Given the absence of a powerful leftwing party able to articulate a different path, it would be inevitable that the country would move to the right, whether by steps or immediately, particularly since the peasantry never supported the Bolshevik Party. There are good reasons why this was the case.

There is no third way between socialism and capitalism or between, on the one side, the society planned by and in the interests of the population to ensure that labour becomes humanity’s prime want and, on the other, the market, based on maximisation of profit. The failure of social democracy and Stalinism has amply illustrated that point. Since socialism could not come into being, the market had to be re-introduced, with all its problems. Under conditions of massive shortage, hunger and famine, it was imperative to get the economy going. That meant using the forms of the market, such as Taylorism, control over workers to ensure efficient working to get maximum output as quickly as possible. However, that put the Bolshevik Party, Lenin and Trotsky, etc squarely against the ordinary worker, who was stressed out working hard for a pittance. While that was understood in the civil war, the task of hanging on for an unknown result did seem like a utopia. It did also mean the growth of inequality, and the emergence of privileged sectors.

Looked at from the point of view of the ordinary “middling” sorts of worker, the demand that they sacrifice themselves for the world revolution, while managers, black marketers, small businessmen, etc were much better off required a very high level of political consciousness. Given what they had been through in the civil war and famine, only the most dedicated could have supported the Bolsheviks.

The second reason lies in the nature of the world economy. At the time, it was a world capitalist economy dominated by the British empire, with the USA on the verge of taking over. The British ruling class, acting for capitalism as a whole, was very clear on the dangers of Bolshevism and would have almost certainly found a way of restoring capitalism, in whatever form, as they did in the case of Hungary. Somewhat defective in human rights, the Bolshevik apparatus had established an independent revolutionary regime, capable of defending itself. Its removal would have left the revolution highly vulnerable.

What is socialism?

However, it is also important to consider the Marxist, and so Bolshevik, conception of socialism, because it is patently different from that of Simon Pirani and libertarians.

For Marx the abolition of the extraction of surplus value involved the relative abolition of the division of labour in two senses. Firstly, everyone would be involved in administering the society at some time in their lives, and probably everyone would be involved in aspects of decision-making affecting themselves and the society as a whole. Secondly, people would be involved in forms of labour which allowed them to fulfil their full potential. This is the true goal of socialism - in the words of Marx, socialism is the society where labour becomes mankind’s prime want. This stands in opposition to labour under capitalism, where labour is mankind’s prime curse. Luxemburg talked of the replacement of the economics of the society by the administration of things.

We have to note that this form of ‘government’ is very different from democracy as we understand it. It is also dissimilar from a libertarian viewpoint, where the aim is freedom from controls from above. Socialism is a society where the conflict between the individual and society is overcome for the first time in human history. In fulfilling his/her potential every individual would be advancing the cause of the society as a whole and so of every individual. The collectivity will not stand over the individual, whether malevolently or benevolently. Wherever there is a collectivity on the one side and the individual on the other, there is bound to be a conflict. That is one aspect of the trap which history sprang on Stalinism - leaving it at the mercy of forces it could not comprehend, so driving the regime to its ultimate madness.

The form of the surplus product, in socialism, would be one which is both administered and used by everyone, so raising the question as to whether there is a surplus product. How do we get there? Can we get there, step by step, gradually handing over control to the immediate producers? In that case, any backtracking on control is a betrayal. There is a long tradition which argues along those lines and Simon clearly sees himself part of that tradition.

The problem, however, is that workers’ control over the unit of production is not the same thing as the social goal explained above. For one thing, even in a transitional regime, however new, planning has to be socially controlled and so to a degree centralised. Most individual factories cannot themselves decide either how much to produce or the extent of their inputs, particularly in the transition period, although they must have an important if not major say in those decisions. Furthermore, there is a dichotomy between those in work and those not in work. There is an automatic difference between the employed and unemployed, between the members of the family who are at home and those in the factory, between the worker in the production unit and as a consumer, etc.

The interest of the class, as a result, can be quite different from the interest of many individual workers, even if their medium to long-term interest coincides with that of the class. Simon Pirani indeed cites a political grouping which held just such a viewpoint.

The question of the state

Instead of a discussion of class or the real possibilities of the time, we are treated to serial references to the need for the elimination of the state. Pirani wrongly refers to “the classical Marxist concept of socialism as the negation of the state ...”

The withering away of the state is an integral part of the conception of socialism, but it is part of a much broader political economic process, which permits the abolition of the state. It is not the other way around. As long as surplus value exists, there must be a state to hold the line over the exploited class or group and, as long as there is a surplus product which is not ‘regulated by the associated producers’ - but continues to be assigned, in however well meaning a manner, there will be a state. To repeat the above point: socialism is the society in which labour becomes mankind’s prime want and at that point the state can be abolished.

However, Simon does not seem to recognise that the abolition of the state also means the end of politics as we know it. For as long as there are different interests we need different political parties. Once there are no classes, no-one receiving a higher income or privileged position than another and everyone rotating in their positions in the flexible division of labour, there is no need for coercion, for law and so for the state. Before then, there is a transition in which these processes work their way through the society over time.

That does mean that the way is uncharted and that the form of control from below is not so clear. The concept of the soviet developed particularly in 1905 and thereafter workers’ control became a standard slogan. However, it was not in Marx’s vocabulary and there is no reason to assume that it is the only possible form of the transition to socialism.

Simon Pirani, however, as a good libertarian rests his case on the growth of the power of the state: “I argue that the movement towards socialism must involve participatory democratic forces that, though history, transcend the state. I endeavour to interpret events in early Soviet Russia as the conflict of these forms, however embryonic, with the state forms” (p10).

He depersonalises and dehumanises the state, which appears as the instrument of the Bolsheviks, bent, it would appear, on repressing the self-activity of the workers. States do not come from nowhere either in society or in history. Why would the Bolsheviks want to repress the working class in whose name they took power? Were Lenin and Trotsky power-hungry monsters, acting in their own self-interest or perhaps in the interest of a new class? That is the only logic possible. In that case, why did either bother to go through such a risky and dangerous life course, when they could have done much better in business and emigrate, being highly intelligent, innovative and in another context potentially entrepreneurial men. Simon Pirani does not believe that Lenin and Trotsky were evil men, stupid or inherently authoritarian. He rejects the traditional explanations, but provides no alternative.

For an anarchist, the state is the enemy and that is the end of the matter. While Marxists do argue that the state has to be eliminated and that it expresses the old order at all times, they nonetheless also contend that there is a transition period, the dictatorship of the proletariat, in which the state has to be utilised to sweep away the old order and begin the process of movement to the real transition to socialism.

It is, of course, true that without control from below there will be a bureaucratic apparatus inimical even to the process of transition. The problem for the Bolsheviks was that they were faced with the problems of an expected and ‘classical’ transition, together with the complexities of a backward country, in which the proletariat was both a minority and of very recent origins, plus the real problems of civil war, with direct intervention, boycott and sabotage by the international capitalist class. Their prime aim after 1921 was to remain in existence to assist the world revolution.

Simon Pirani argues that, while these problems were not irrelevant, they were not sufficient reason for the expropriation of power by the central committee of the Communist Party. His argument is consistent, since he begins and ends with the importance of destroying the state. Clearly if that is the goal you wish to impose on the revolution, then the revolution failed. In truth it never began.

Workers’ control

Once the movement to socialism does begin, socialists expect maximum participation in that process, within the limits of what is possible. However, it is not clear what that means.

The self-activity of the working class is evident when it is directed to overthrowing the old system. What does it mean in the process of transition? Under conditions where some people are better educated than others, some more skilled than others, some better leaders than others, some more self-sacrificing than others, simple self-activity becomes complex. A leadership and the apparatus, which is a party, is inevitable, even if the party calls itself the self-serving, self-sacrificing arm of the self-acting working class.

The aim of the working class in taking power is to abolish itself, not to continue its previous slave-like culture and existence. Automatically the process of taking power and the transition begins to accomplish that process. In principle, only the non-class goal of socialism remains. For a limited period of time sections of the population are torn between conflicting loyalties - the ultimate goal and their former existence as proletarians.

When one adds to this situation the real history of the Soviet Union, Simon Pirani’s critique looks somewhat simple. For a libertarian, an anarchist and so a believer in the simple abolition of the state, the October revolution was always immoral, wrong and dangerous, in that it raised hopes only to dash them.

In other words, the workers in the new Soviet Union from 1920 to 1924 could not be working class in the old sense, because they were not in a pristine capitalism. Put another way, Simon Pirani rightly argues that there was no ruling class yet formed. There cannot be a one-class society and so it follows he must be arguing that there was no working class. Alternatively, he could argue that the society was in transition and the categories themselves were in transition, with workers no longer selling their labour-power in the old sense. Indeed, he illustrates the way they worked and the forms of control they exercised, which were different from that of a classic working class. Their consciousness would necessarily be different from the consciousness of those workers who had survived the war, fighting for socialism during the war.

The point made by the Bolsheviks, Trotsky, Deutscher, etc was fundamentally correct, in that the old working class was largely wiped out. There were workers, but they were in a new situation and they did not have the history or many of the old-time comrades to tell them the nature of the vacuum in which they were living. Their reaction was often economistic and short-termist. They could not see the real goals of the regime and were necessarily critical, even if they were critical from the left.

Nature of the regime

Simon Pirani sees a new class in formation from the early years. There is no doubt that the tsarist bureaucracy was incorporated in a bigger and more powerful entity. But one cannot simply talk about class in formation or bureaucracy without siting it both in history and in relational terms to other categories.

Bureaucracy has a long history, from the time of the Roman empire onward in the west, and even longer in the east, through the rise of capitalism and now in the decline of capitalism. One can define it in many ways, but for Marxists it can be understood as a social grouping, administering the society, that comes into being when the old social relations are in decline, while the new are still to establish themselves. They effectively fill a void when the old laws are malfunctioning but the new are not yet in place.

Every case is different, but in the context of the Russian Revolution, the laws of the market were subordinated to the needs of the new regime, but the replacement form - that of planning - could not come into being. As Preobrazhensky put it, we have lost the advantages of capitalism, but do not yet have the advantages of socialism. The void so created was filled by a series of transitional categories, institutions and social groups.

In fact, the world war, the civil war and the instability of the regime itself made any attempt to establish the laws of the new socio-economic order extremely difficult. Even if Richard Pipes, Simon Pirani or Orlando Figes were in control, they would have almost certainly had to use the bureaucracy to run whatever system existed. Russia had been an autocracy, which Trotsky describes as a semi-Asiatic formation, and any attempt to shift it to either capitalism or socialism was bound to result in massive disorder. Simon Pirani does not raise these questions. He simply alludes to contemporary historians who have put forward a number of hypotheses as to why the Soviet regime became so authoritarian. He keeps referring to consensus opinion as itself authoritative.

Given the wide divide between left and right in intellectual circles, whether in academia or outside it, there cannot be a consensus opinion and the absence of such an opinion does not mean that there is not a correct interpretation. For Marxists, as opposed to libertarians, liberals or neo-conservatives, there are a series of issues which are never raised by Pirani, but are well canvassed in the literature.

Pirani does not have a theoretical apparatus to bear on the subject. He uses categories in a conflicted manner. The advantage of Marxist categories is that they have an inbuilt dynamic, their own place in the political economy of the time. Without them, we get a rather fuzzy picture of a series of features which are clearly opposed to the concepts of equality, democracy and human freedom. We cannot, however, understand them, without a more profound analysis.


In short, the Bolsheviks found themselves in an historical hiatus or void, holding on to power in order to assist the world revolution, and the social evolution of the Soviet Union has to be understood in that context. Without that history and the interpretative theory that goes with it, we get a useful empirical survey.

We get a snapshot of selected parts of Moscow’s political life, mixed with the party conferences, congresses and discussions, from a particular vantage point. As such it has considerable value both for libertarians and for those who do want to understand the whole picture. From the point of view of Marxists, it provides the empirical basis of the theory that Stalin represented the emerging elite, and so bears out Trotsky’s explanation of the rise of Stalin.

Where I differ from Pirani is in his belief that democracy would have saved the day. Apart from a whole series of questions on the nature of democracy possible at that time, the weakening of the regime would have led inevitably to the restoration of capitalism. In effect, Lenin and Trotsky gambled that the revolution would happen in the west and imposed an iron regime on the Soviet Union to ensure stability.

One could then conclude that Trotsky should have taken power when offered it. He argued that, had he done so, he would have become another Stalin, representing the rising elite. Alternatively, following Pirani, one could argue that Lenin and Trotsky ought to have had democratic elections. They would have lost, and the regime would have reverted to capitalism and a probable white terror, but at least there would have been no Stalinism and the revolution would have remained a beacon of light for the future.

Finally, because of a tendentious reporting of my views in the Weekly Worker, I have to make clear that my own defence of Lenin-Trotsky and the October revolution of 1917 is also based on the standpoint that we do need a thoroughly democratic party for the present time. In my view, the lack of democracy of the time was contingent on the aspects discussed above, not on any inherent authoritarianism. Those conditions do not apply today.

One report alleged that I said it would have been better had there been no October revolution. That is certainly not my viewpoint. However, those, like myself, who justify the October revolution, have also to explain what the world gained from it, given the fact that Stalinism put the clock back a century, besides ruining the lives of hundreds of millions of people.

The point here is that Stalinism was not the product of Leninism but of the bourgeoisie, who isolated, sabotaged, fought and boycotted the Soviet Union. The social democrats played their role in preventing change in Europe. Some form of an October had to happen, and the first attempt to begin the transition to socialism was bound to be fought with all the weapons at the disposal of capital itself. In effect, capital won through the agency of Stalinism, even if the latter was not capitalist.

The October revolution ushered in the global transition to socialism and with it all the fury of the powers that be, but also the concessions necessary to delay the action of the working class.