Socialism in the 21st century and the Russian Revolution

Issue: 128

Simon Pirani

My book The Russian Revolution in Retreat will not “resonate with the tens of thousands of young people now open to socialist ideas”, according to Kevin Murphy’s negative review in International Socialism 126.1 I hope he’s wrong. In my experience, many young people who want to subvert and supersede capitalism in the 21st century read widely and think hard. Above all they want the truth. Often they study our history sceptically, not only to uncover stories of social movements that our enemies try to hide, but also to understand socialism’s failures and to question authoritarian “socialist” orthodoxies.

The least that socialist historians of the Russian Revolution can do is to present information accurately and develop arguments and explanations on that basis. My book focused on a narrow time and space—Moscow between the end of the civil war in 1920 and Stalin’s arrival in the Bolshevik leadership in 1924—and sought to draw conclusions about broader questions, including the changing political relationship between workers and the Bolsheviks who claimed to rule in their name. Kevin doesn’t like these conclusions, but I think they work better than his backward-looking orthodoxy.

I argued that by 1924 the Bolsheviks had, essentially, politically expropriated the working class, ie pushed it out of the participatory decision-making central to my idea of movements towards socialism. “The Bolsheviks’ vanguardism and statism made them blind to the creative potential of democratic workers’ organisations, intolerant of other working class political forces and ruthless in silencing dissent,” I wrote.2

In the early years of the New Economic Policy (NEP), ie from 1921, this political expropriation was implemented not “simply by repression”: the Bolsheviks effectively struck a deal with the majority of workers, that the party would ensure a steady rise in living standards, provided that workers raised productivity and kept out of political decision-making.3 I argued that, while the “rolling-back of socialist aspects of the revolution, and the advance of Stalinism, were conditioned by many powerful factors over which the Bolsheviks had no control”, such as the European workers’ movements’ failure to produce revolutionary change elsewhere, “perhaps different choices in 1921 would have made possible different types of resistance to the reimposition of exploitative class relations and the establishment of dictatorship”.4

Kevin claims that I painted too negative a picture of the revolution’s reversal. During the NEP (ie up to 1928), he writes, “Soviet workers continued to exercise 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”.5 Certainly the Bolsheviks passed laws on such vital issues as living standards, hours, health and safety, women’s rights to divorce and abortion, education, etc. But workers’ “control in production”? Really? Were the organisations that Russian workers had in 1917 believed would control production—soviets, trade unions and factory committees—doing so in the 1920s?

Take the soviets. They flowered in 1917 and weakened during the civil war. The first post-war soviet elections in 1921 were seen as an opportunity to rebuild. I described in my book how in Moscow this opportunity was missed, largely because the Bolsheviks rejected overtures of cooperation from a substantial non-party workers’ grouping that won mandates from most big factories.6 Reading the soviet’s verbatim minutes and reports of its activity, I learned how, after the Bolsheviks spurned the non-party groups’ proposals, live discussions gave way to formulaic speeches, resolutions were passed without amendment or discussion, and non-Bolshevik soviet delegates were victimised. I concluded that the soviet became a “lifeless institution”: Kevin admits this “may very well be the case”, but then complains that I presented it as an “a priori assumption”.7 I didn’t. I gave copious evidence.* 8

Kevin adds that in 1928 workers used the Ivanovo soviet to “lambast the regime’s policy”.9 It’s an inspiring story, but not relevant to the issue here, ie whether workers could use the soviets to shape their future, as they tried to do in 1917-18. While in 1921 there may have been an opportunity to revive such participatory democracy, by 1922-23 it had gone. To talk, as Kevin does, of workers having “control in production” after that date is meaningless.

What about unions? I argued that they were “emasculated”, ie that power was stripped from the unions as “fora in which working-class collective political activity might develop”.10 Of course much damage had been done long before the period I researched—by the Bolshevik rejection from 1918 of all proposals for union and factory committee involvement in management, the economic catastrophe caused by war, and other factors. I began my research wondering about the extent to which workplace political activity—and not merely trade union activity directed at improving wages and conditions—revived after the civil war.

I invite readers to ignore Kevin’s unsubstantiated claims that my research of factory committees was “scanty” and that I ignored the women’s movement,* and read my detailed accounts of changing workplace relationships, strikes, unemployed workers’ actions, etc.11 I found evidence that by 1922 bureaucratised unions routinely opposed strikes; had more unelected officials than elected ones; worked together with party and government to discipline and punish strike organisers; and became, despite some Bolsheviks’ efforts to avoid it, heavily reliant on state funding. I concluded that unions had become dependent on the state and factory committees were getting integrated into management, in the context of the “social contract” described above.

Kevin writes that, as wages and conditions improved in the mid-1920s, workers customarily used official arbitration procedures, and that the Hammer and Sickle factory director complained the union was running the shops. OK. But how can he deduce from this that factory committees and women’s organisations were “strengthened” or had “control”?12 It all depends on what you mean by “strength” and “control”.

For sure, as the economy revived, factory committees usually became better organised and better placed to negotiate with management. But politically the unions never returned to the vitality of 1917-18. The idea that factory-level organisations would participate in political decisions about the republic’s future, or even strategic management decisions, was abandoned. On industrial issues, while workers could indeed use official procedures to change some things at factory level, they were largely deprived of the crucial weapons of striking, solidarity action and independent union organisation. And women’s organisations were subject to two provisos: they had to be dominated by the Bolshevik Party, and they excluded women who lost their jobs (women were almost always laid off before men were).* 13

My disagreements with Kevin are not only about history, but about the movement to socialism. He thinks the limited concessions overseen by corporatist union structures were more important than the silencing of worker dissent and political “emasculation” of unions. I think the opposite.

What matters to me is that, by effectively outlawing dissent and binding the unions to the state, the Bolsheviks damaged working class creativity and political participation—notwithstanding their success, like various European social democratic parties, in improving living standards. Worse still, they claimed they were acting as “communists”, helping to imbue swathes of the workers’ movement internationally with ideas about a transition to “communism” via “leadership”, a strong state, outdoing capitalism with industrial productivity, necessary sacrifice, etc. Sight was almost completely lost of ideas of a transition that supersedes alienation and alienated labour, that requires collective social participation, and that produces “mass communist consciousness” (Marx).

Socialists need to study all this, both to understand how our predecessors’ emancipatory strivings were crushed, and to negate the aspects of their ideological legacy that pull us backward. That was my motivation for writing my book. During more than 20 years in a Trotskyist organisation, I used to see socialism as something that would use the Russian experience as a model. Now I think it’s more complicated, and I hope readers will also aim for a more complicated view. The model needs to be taken apart and analysed to understand why it crashed.

For Kevin, things are simpler: socialist historians are pitted against a “liberal” consensus united in a “mission…to connect the dots between 1917 and Stalinism”—in large part an amalgam he has dreamt up—and his complacent, two-dimensional task is to reiterate the Bolsheviks’ positive achievements against their detractors.14

For example, in 1918 Lenin called the Soviet state a “workers’ state with bureaucratic distortions”. Kevin says that up to 1927-28 “the ‘workers’ state’ part of Lenin’s formulation…persisted”, along with the “bureaucratic distortions”.15 For me, the “workers’ state” is a cover-all formula that masks the very problems that need unpicking: the (inevitably) alienated character of wage labour in the Soviet state; the proliferation of forms of hierarchy and authoritarianism on the basis of this alienated labour, even in the absence of a recognisable ruling class; and the way that the Bolsheviks deceived themselves and many others that their control over the state gave it a “proletarian” character.

“The crucial question”, Kevin writes, “was whether or not the working class could increase its authority on the ‘bureaucratically deformed workers’ state’.”16 I do not agree. To define problems in terms of the working class competing for “authority” in the state means to start from the wrong place. We need to understand socialism as the overturning and surpassing by the working class of all authority and all statehood, together with the social relations of production on which they are based.

Here much of the history of the Russian Revolution—not because of the people involved but because of the circumstances—can only provide mostly negative examples. “While Marx and Engels had envisaged that socialism would involve a movement towards a public power that supersedes politics, ie a negation of, an overcoming of, the state, the movement in Russia during and after the civil war was mainly in the opposite direction”.17

Finally, Kevin’s two-dimensional desire to defend the Bolsheviks ties him up in knots on the issue of repression. He rails against the “myth of early Soviet repression against striking workers”.* 18 What does he mean, “myth”? Didn’t it happen? What about key turning points in the Soviet state’s evolution, such as the repression of the Emergency Assembly of Factory Committees in Petrograd in 1918 or of non-Bolshevik soviets during the civil war? During the NEP repressive practices included the arrest, sacking and ostracising of strike leaders, and widespread arrests of members of non-Bolshevik, pro-soviet groups (Workers Truth, the Workers Group, anarchists, Left Socialist Revolutionaries, etc)—not to mention the suppression of the Kronstadt uprising. This forcible shutting up of political opponents was integral to the Bolshevik relationship with workers. It surely did not feel “mythical” at the time.

Kevin partly excuses Bolshevik repression on the grounds that its targets were anti-soviet. But many were not. He makes a telling mistake by claiming derisively that the Workers Truth group, formed by Red Army veterans who risked their necks to defend Soviet power, “argued for the overthrow of Soviet power”.19 They did not. Isn’t it time, 90 years later, to abandon the sectarian Bolshevik mantra that “he who isn’t with us is against us”?

Kevin’s other argument is that repression in the 1920s was on a smaller scale than in the 1930s. He writes that “the entire Soviet prison population only exceeded 100,000 in 1925, with no more than a few thousand political prisoners”. 20 In fact, prisoner numbers were probably significantly higher than he suggests—and there were shootings, too, which Kevin doesn’t mention.* But the real problem is in Kevin’s implication that, since the Bolsheviks jailed fewer people than Stalin’s nightmarish dictatorship, they cannot have been such a bad bunch. I approach this issue differently.

What is important about the Bolsheviks’ usually (but not always) careful, forensic repression of dissent, which concentrated on singling out activists—and, of course, had many, many times fewer victims than Stalin’s— is that it disarmed the working class as a fighting force. It fitted with the Bolshevik world view, which by the mid-1920s vested hopes in the state, and abandoned in practice any sense that the working class was the motive force of history. By that time they were in a dead end. Let’s not follow them.


1: Murphy, 2010, p204.

2: Pirani, 2008, p235.

3: Pirani, 2008, p235.

4: Pirani, 2008, pp240-241.

5: Murphy, 2010, p198.

6: Pirani, 2008, pp96-107.

7: Murphy, 2010, p201.

8: * indicates issues on which I have posted more detailed responses at

9: Murphy, 2010, pp201-202.

10: Pirani, 2008, p155.

11: Murphy, 2010, p200.

12: Murphy, 2010, pp200-201.

13: Pirani, 2008, pp161-162.

14: Murphy, 2010, p197.

15: Murphy, 2010, p198.

16: Murphy, 2010, p202.

17: Pirani, 2008, p233.

18: Murphy, 2010, p199.

19: Murphy, 2010, p199.

20: Murphy, 2010, p199.


Murphy, Kevin, 2010, “Conceding the Russian Revolution to the Liberals”, International Socialism 126 (spring),

Pirani, Simon, 2008, The Russian Revolution in Retreat, 192024: Soviet Workers and the New Communist Elite (Routledge).