1990s >> 1996 >> no-1108-december-1996

Book Reviews: ‘Workers Against Lenin’

Laying the foundations

Workers Against Lenin. Labour Protest and the Bolshevik Dictatorship 1920-22. By Jonathan Aves. IB Taurus.

A so-called Workers’ State that oppressed the workers was not just a feature of Russia under Stalin. It also existed under Lenin and Trotsky; in fact, it was they who laid the foundations for the reinforced dictatorship Stalin later built up.

In 1920 the Civil War ended and the Western powers’ blockade of Russia was lifted. The workers, who had suffered terribly from food and fuel shortages and from harsh labour discipline, expected improvements in their conditions. The Bolshevik government, however, made no immediate steps in this direction. The result was a wave of labour discontent which lasted until 1922 and which Jonathan Aves here analyses in detail on the basis of contemporary Russian press reports and other archive material.

The coming of peace led to a debate in the Bolshevik Party as to how to deal with the working class. Trotsky, fresh from his military success as commander-in-chief of the Red Army, notoriously favoured the militarisation of labour; which would have meant that absenteeism would be treated as desertion and strikes as mutinies, to be punished in accordance with the terms of the military code of discipline. Lenin was more flexible; he wanted to maintain the Bolshevik dictatorship at all costs and was prepared to make some concessions to the workers to achieve this. Another group, known as the “Workers’ Opposition”, composed largely of Bolshevik trade unionists, was more favourable to the demands of the workers.

Russian workers at this time had many grievances. They objected to not being allowed time off to search for food and wood in the countryside. They objected to having to work compulsory unpaid overtime on traditional holidays, even on May Day. They objected to their unions being taken over by the Bolsheviks and turned into organs of managerial control, labour discipline and speed-up. In a number of places they went on strike and elected as their representatives members of the non-Bolshevik anti-Tsarist parties such as the Mensheviks and the anarchists.

Lenin was not amused. The strikes were suppressed. Many of the strikers were sent to labour camps. Some were shot. Some concessions were finally made but not until 1921 when Lenin announced to the 10th Congress of the Bolshevik Party a “new economic policy” which, among other things, allowed local peasant markets, where the workers had traditionally bought their food but which the Bolsheviks had suppressed, to operate again.

But there was a price –the suppression of the few remaining vestiges of independent trade unionism that had managed to survive the first years of the Bolshevik dictatorship. The unions became incorporated into the state; in fact, ceased to be unions, becoming instead organs of the state similar to the Labour Front Hitler later set up in Germany. This, let it be noted, was done under Lenin and Trotsky and was not a product of a later “Stalinism”. The Menshevik leaders were forced into exile. The “Workers’ Opposition” –and all other “factions”– within the Bolshevik Party was banned, so establishing the principle of “monolithic unity” of which the next victim was to be one of its main architects . . . Trotsky.

From a socialist point of view the Bolsheviks had got themselves into an impossible position. Having seized power as a minority in a country where socialism was not possible for all sorts of reasons (economic backwardness, isolation from the rest of the world, lack of a majority will for socialism), they had no alternative but to do the only thing that was possible: to continue to develop capitalism.

The Bolsheviks found themselves in the position of having to preside over –and, in fact, to organise– the accumulation of capital. But, as capital is accumulated out of surplus value and surplus value is obtained by exploiting wage-labour, this inevitably brought them into conflict with the workers who, equally inevitably, sought to limit their exploitation. The Bolsheviks justified opposing and suppressing these workers’ struggles on the ground that they (the Bolsheviks) represented the longer-term interests of the workers. But did they?

Certainly, they claimed to be acting to further the cause of socialism, but Marx when formulating his materialist conception of history had already pointed out that you shouldn’t judge a historical movement by what it said –and genuinely thought- it was doing but on what, objectively, it did. And objectively what the Bolsheviks did was to develop capitalism in Russia in the form of what Lenin himself in his more honest moments called state capitalism.

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