Conceding the Russian Revolution to liberals

Issue: 126

Kevin Murphy

A review of Simon Pirani, The Russian Revolution in Retreat, 192024: Soviet Workers and the New Communist Elite (Routledge, 2008), £20.00

Readers of this journal who have not had the unpleasant experience of wading through liberal studies of the Soviet working class will nevertheless find the narrative itself all too familiar. These studies acknowledge that there was indeed a popular revolution in 1917, but the nasty and intransigent Lenin and Trotsky refused to share power with the “moderate” socialists. The Bolsheviks then embarked on an anti working class programme, destroyed workers’ power in the factories, ruthlessly silenced dissent and workers’ strikes, and built an anti working class party-state machine for their own interests. The heroes of this story are the oppositionists of various shades—as long as they are not associated with the Trotskyists who surely were no better than Stalin. The victims are the workers, easily manipulated by coercion and viewed as a sociological category.

The academic bar in these accounts is low, with a few anecdotes of Soviet repression against workers supposedly providing proof of a general pattern, supplemented by the obligatory quotes from Lenin and Trotsky invariably taken out of context. Central to this depiction of the workers in early Soviet society is what is not included. Because the liberal mission is to connect the dots between 1917 and Stalinism, positive achievements in the workplace that do not fit neatly into this two-dimensional framework are largely parsed out. Similarly omitted are what Victor Serge characterises as “the tragic record” of the Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries (SRs) as opponents of the Soviet power and proponents of returning power to the former ruling classes. Obviously, no mention is ever made of the massive Western material support for the creation of the White terrorist armies which left almost ten million dead and an economy in complete ruins.

In contrast to this moralistic and selective narrative, Marxists have long argued that the social and economic catastrophe of seven years of imperialist war and civil war created the conditions for the rise of Stalinism. Lenin railed against a state apparatus “borrowed from Tsarism and hardly touched by the Soviet world” and described the Soviet regime as a “workers’ state with bureaucratic distortions”. The distortions were very real, including the substitution of party rule for that of the soviets, the gradual demise of party democracy throughout the period of the market-oriented New Economic Policy (NEP, 1921-1928), massive corruption, etc. But the “workers’ state” part of Lenin’s formulation also persisted. Soviet workers continued to exercise considerable control in production and the state instituted policies and legislation to defend workers and promote their self-organisation in factory committees, trade unions and the 700,000 strong proletarian women’s movement. Rather than a linear, inevitable process from Lenin to Stalin, the Marxist classics recognised the ambiguity of the NEP, the tension between an increasingly bureaucratic regime and the aspirations and actions of the working class as a living social and political force.

One would hope that a serious Marxist study of the Soviet working class would help challenge the profound deficiencies of the standard anti-communist textbook interpretation. Unfortunately, Simon Pirani’s study of Moscow workers, The Russian Revolution in Retreat, 192024: Soviet Workers and the New Communist Elite, largely mirrors the typical liberal arguments and methodology. Pirani contends that by 1924 the bureaucracy had so “emasculated” the soviets and unions that “the ‘workers’ state’ became a burdensome shibboleth of the workers’ movement” with the party transformed into an organisation “better suited to the purposes of the new ruling class”.1 The main driving force for the retreat was “Bolshevik ideology” that “played a crucial part in weakening and undermining the revolution”.2 If such arguments were based on systematic research, the prevailing Marxist works on the Russian Revolution would be seriously challenged. But despite considerable archival work on an eclectic range of topics, the study displays an astounding disconnect between the author’s strident anti-Bolshevik hyperbole and thin anecdotal evidence.

Pirani contends that “attempts to articulate opposition thinking, whether inside or outside the party, met with repression” and “political opposition automatically invited GPU [secret police] repression”.3 Now anyone familiar with the works of Victor Serge or Isaac Deutscher knows that there was indeed increasing intolerance of dissent within the party and that repression sometimes included heavy-handed measures against parties that had argued or continued to argue for the overthrow of Soviet power, such as Pirani’s heroes of the minuscule Workers’ Truth. But here Pirani has no sense of proportion. Thousands of Mensheviks and SRs who remained politically active in the Soviet Union found common cause with the regime precisely because of its pro working class policies. The entire Soviet prison population only exceeded 100,000 in 1925 with no more than a few thousand political prisoners—as opposed to hundreds of thousands a few years later under Stalin. As I show in my book Revolution and Counterrevolution, and as thousands of published GPU reports on workers’ dissent in factories throughout the Soviet Union illustrate, workers’ dissident voices in the factories were quite vibrant throughout the NEP.4

Pirani also makes much of a few cases of Soviet authorities arresting, laying off, or expelling strikers from their unions in 1920 and 1921.5 Yet his own research shows that those who he claims were supposedly “appointed to organise repression” of strikes were explicitly instructed “not on any account to arrest people of working class origin” an approach that was “in line with the approach adopted by the Cheka nationally”.6

Published GPU reports with information on thousands of strikes refute the myth of early Soviet repression against striking workers that has loomed so large in anti-Bolshevik propaganda. An essay on early Soviet strikes, in a volume co-edited by none other than Simon Pirani, shows that incidents of Soviet authorities arresting striking workers were extremely rare. Even in the late NEP, with data on the resolution of 691 (of 2,182) strikes, workers were arrested 0.7 percent of the time and repression in the wider sense with the threat of layoffs, 8.7 percent of the time. Almost half (45 percent) of all strikes resolved by management conceding to some of the strikers’ demands.7 We now know that more workers, 5,000 plus, were arrested during several days in early 1920 for supposedly plotting a general strike in the United States than in the entire first ten years of the revolution.8

But the most confusing and misleading assertions made in The Russian Revolution in Retreat deal with Soviet trade unions which were supposedly “emasculated”. According to Pirani, their primary function as conceived by the 1921 Tenth Party Congress was to “improve production”.9 This is a crude reading of Lenin’s position, which emphasised persuasion over coercion, and which dominated trade union policy until 1928. Although it is claimed that the study uses “factory-based organisations”, including records from factory committees, the book includes only a few citations, most from the AMO factory in 1921.10 Not a single factory committee collection is referenced systematically and the committees, the main union organization in the workplace, are not even mentioned in the brief section on the transformation of the trade unions. Nevertheless, the author is confident enough in his scanty research to claim that “in industrial disputes, the unions almost always acted as, and were perceived by workers as, industrial managers’ allies”.11

Pirani speaks here for Soviet workers rather than looking at their actions. Factory committee records from the Hammer and Sickle Factory in Moscow show that workers submitted over 13,000 grievances to arbitration during 18 months of 1924 and 1925 and expected to be defended by the factory committee representatives. As I show, the “social contract” of the early NEP largely ended strike activity by promising real wage increases and workers’ considerable control in the shops in exchange for industrial peace. So strong was the union organization that the factory director complained that in 1925 union representatives rather than management held real power in the shops.12 Even in the late NEP, as EH Carr and Robert Davies demonstrate, seven million Soviet workers repeatedly turned to arbitration precisely because they believed their trade unions would defend them against management. Real wage increases, the strengthening of workplace institutions such as the factory committees, women’s organisations, and arbitration bodies were crucial to the relative industrial peace of the NEP. Carr and Davies also note the trade union backsliding during the late NEP, content to save what they could in their “uneasy compromise” with red managers.13 Despite the union retreat, workers in Hammer and Sickle and throughout the Soviet Union (as GPU reports show) continued to look to their representatives to defend them, although they became increasingly critical of them.

Without citing these works, Pirani also suggests that regular real wage increases were also crucial to a NEP “social contract” though it is described as much more sinister. The Soviet state supposedly exchanged wage increases for increased labour discipline and productivity, and the “emasculation” of working class power.14 Yet there is not a single citation to illustrate that either side in this agreement actually saw it in these terms. Having completely missed the strengthening of union institutions in the early NEP that later had to be destroyed by Stalinism when the real drive for productivity began, Pirani confidently connects the dots: “The combination of state-imposed labour discipline and political exhortations at the heart of the social contract was a step in the direction of the mature Stalinist system”.15

Workers’ voices are inexplicably limited in this study so, as he does on other issues, Pirani inflates citations that conform to his analysis. In his conclusion Pirani refers a second time to one Bromlei worker who complained in 1922, before the stability of the early NEP took hold, that “every day we slide further and further from what we gained in October”. Pirani claims this “was presumably an articulation of what many others thought”.16 But when Pirani finds references that challenge his perspective, such as a 1923 GPU citation that indicated “an enormous increase in workers’ and peasants’ sympathy with our party”, he is again compelled to speak for the workers because “others did not like the Bolshevik expropriation of political power, and acquiesced grudgingly”.17

Pirani claims that by 1922 the Moscow Soviet’s “transformation from a participatory body to a lifeless lecture theatre reaped a harvest in the form of worker apathy”.18 Pirani offers all of one paragraph as proof of this decline and apathy. In fact, in the Hammer and Sickle factory the Left SR leader Steinberg and the Bolshevik Kalinin addressed a raucous soviet election meeting in December 1922.19 Now it may very well be the case that the Moscow Soviet was a lifeless institution but one of the problems with such an a priori assumption is that the evidence is left as an exercise for the reader. Indeed, thanks to the work of Jeffrey Rossman, we now know that even as late as October 1928 elected workers’ representatives to the Ivanovo Soviet used the institution to lambast the regime’s policy in no uncertain terms.20

Even more dubious is the claim that the 1922 campaign to confiscate Orthodox Church valuables to aid famine victims had “shifted the emphasis of Bolshevik anti-religious work from propaganda to offensive campaigning action, coordinated by party and state bodies and backed by state repression”.21 In fact, the campaign was an episodic departure from tolerant Bolshevik religious policy that prevailed throughout the NEP, with icons and prayers on the shop floor. The more strident and repressive state offensive against religion was directly tied to the Stalinist productivity drive, yet even in 1928 Moscow workers rebuffed a union campaign to work at Christmas.22

The Marxist tradition has always situated the rise of Stalinism in the context of the devastation of the civil war and the isolation of revolution but in The Russian Revolution in Retreat it is framed in terms that are palatable to anti-communist academics, including complete silence on the massive US, British, and French support that was indispensable for the creation of the White Armies. The rising power and privileges of the factory managers and party officials should be familiar to anyone who has read Lenin, Trotsky, Serge or Deutscher, but Pirani presents his findings as some sort of novelty.23 The crucial question for contemporary oppositionists and later Marxists was whether or not the working class could increase its authority on the “bureaucratically deformed workers’ state”. For Pirani, the question of reform is “moot” because of the isolation of the revolution. The Soviet working class is depicted as merely a victim of party policy, rather than a class in the Marxist sense.24

There are many other problems in The Russian Revolution in Retreat, including the omission of the proletarian women’s movement, perhaps because it completely contradicts the thesis of the book. The text repeatedly makes references to the regime’s “exploitation” of workers,25 without mentioning that most Soviet enterprises actually operated at a loss for much of the NEP. The influence of the amorphous “non-party” workers is grossly inflated as a political movement.26 In fact, non-party workers dominated factory committees throughout the Soviet Union for the duration of the NEP not because they represented some sort of anti-regime movement but because they agreed with the parameters of the social contract. The text is also muddied with references to obscure academic works that most readers have never read while Marxist classics are given short shrift. Pirani even repeats the canard that the 1923 Trotskyist opposition “had little connection with the worker support base as did previous dissidents”.27 Even with the tainted party gerrymandering, which Pirani acknowledges, the opposition won almost half the delegates in the proletarian Rogozhsko-Simonovskii district party conference. Complaining of the blatant falsification in the Central Committee, Preobrezhinsky noted that an opposition resolution was passed in almost every party meeting where he spoke.28

Surely the task for a Marxist historian is to distinguish between the positive remnants of the October Revolution and the origins of a system that had nothing to do with socialism. Without a theoretical framework The Russian Revolution in Retreat explains the drift towards Stalinism as simply a series of malicious misdeeds, inflated by necessity. Stalin’s loyalists certainly gained increasing control of the party apparatus but many of the society-wide negative attributes that are ascribed to the early Soviet regime in the text were in fact products of the later Stalinist system: the systematic repression, the silencing of dissident worker voices, the repressive anti-religious campaigns, the emasculation of the trade unions and the destruction of the factory committees. The social policies of Stalinism, as Michal Reiman has argued, were a response to the crisis of the late NEP, when Stalin’s alliance with the NEP advocates around Nikolai Bukharin collapsed.29

By 1927 workers’ real wages were slashed for the first time in the NEP as part of a cost cutting campaign, regime loyalists ruthlessly crushed the last open voices of dissent in the United Opposition, including unprecedented mass arrests, workers throughout the Soviet Union complained that their unions were no longer defending them as they had previously, and women’s organisations in the factories were transformed into paper institutions. A year later the state’s drive for accumulation in order (as Stalin put it) to catch up with the West “in ten years or get crushed”, necessitated completely cutting the connection with the egalitarian aims of the revolution. This presents a major problem for Pirani’s linear argument. The regime’s draconian policies of exploitation of the working class and peasantry were only initiated as a permanent feature of the system during the first Five Year Plan (1928-32) and how the working class and peasantry would respond to the state offensive was not pre-determined.

Given Pirani’s concessions on almost every interpretive issue, it is not surprising that his book is now drawing praise from liberal academics. One review, after lamenting that Pirani did not go quite far enough and should have recognised “that no real alternative to Stalinist authoritarianism existed in the wake of the civil war”, nevertheless claims there are “important contributions…to our understanding of the early years of Soviet rule in this meticulously researched study of workers’ politics in Moscow”.30 Similarly, the author of a liberal history of early Soviet print workers applauds Pirani’s “prodigious utilisation” of the archives to show “how the Bolshevik party systematically destroyed democratic voices on the shop floor”.31

But The Russian Revolution in Retreat is anything but a meticulous or systematic work and illustrates the double standards that reward ideological conformity. Indeed, what is amazing is how little new material is incorporated into the narrative. With the world capitalist crisis shaking the ideological foundations of the system, this could have been a book to resonate with the tens of thousands of young people now open to socialist ideas. Pirani’s decision to pander to the small world of liberal academics of the Russian Revolution is hard to fathom.


1: Pirani, 2008, pp10, 162, 241, 232.

2: Pirani, 2008, p236.

3: Pirani, 2008, pp115, 195.

4: Murphy, 2005, pp82-115.

5: Pirani, 2008, pp33, 37, 38, 84.

6: Pirani, 2008, p82.

7: Murphy, 2008, p181.

8: New York Times, 3 January 1920.

9: Pirani, 2008, p156.

10: Pirani, 2008, pp14, 17.

11: Pirani, 2008, p156.

12: Murphy, 2005, p181.

13: Carr and Davies, 1969, pp600-601.

14: Pirani, 2008, pp8-10.

15: Pirani, 2008, p91.

16: Pirani, 2008, pp165, 235.

17: Pirani, 2008, p205.

18: Pirani, 2008, p155.

19: Murphy, 2005, p93.

20: Rossman, 2005, pp54-58.

21: Pirani, 2008, p147.

22: Murphy, 2005, pp135-141, 203-205.

23: Pirani, 2008, p166-191.

24: Pirani, 2008, p162.

25: Pirani, 2008,pp6, 8, 71.

26: Pirani, 2008, pp90-114.

27: Pirani, 2008, p217.

28: Murphy, 2005, p165.

29: Reiman, 1987.

30: Hickey, 2009.

31: Pirani, 2008, pi.


Carr, EH, and RW Davies, 1969, Foundations of the Planned Economy, Volume 1 (Simon and Schuster).

Hickey, Michael, 2009,”A Social Contract and No Socialism”, H-Russia (April 2009),

Murphy, Kevin, 2005, Revolution and Counterrevolution: Class Struggle in a Moscow Metal Factory (Berghan).

Murphy, Kevin, 2008, “Strikes During the Early Soviet Period”, in Donald Filtzer, Wendy Goldman, Gijs Kessler and Simon Pirani (eds), A Dream Deferred: New Studies in Russian and Soviet Labor (Peter Lang).

Reiman, Michael, 1987, The Birth of Stalinism (Indiana University Press).

Rossman, Jeffrey, 2005, Worker Resistance under Stalin: Class and Revolution on the Shop Floor (Harvard University Press).