Socialist Classics: Alexandra Kollontai, ‘The Workers’ Opposition’

In Issue 25 (July 2006) Joe Conroy examined a work that tried to stop the Russian revolution going off the rails.

By early 1921 military resistance to the Russian revolution was coming to an end. The foreign armies sent in to bring back the Tsarist dictatorship in alliance with domestic counter-revolutionaries were beaten. The cost to the Russian working class in terms of death and economic devastation had been huge, and the ending of the war gave them a chance to face the political legacy it had left. Many workers felt that the ideals that had originally inspired their revolution were being pushed aside as bureaucrats got their hands on political power and economic privilege. Thousands of rank-and-file workers joined the Workers’ Opposition, a group within the Communist Party articulating their protest.

Alexandra Kollontai had over twenty years’ experience in the socialist movement, and had played an important role in the 1917 revolution. She came on to the Bolshevik party’s central committee, and was briefly commissar for social welfare in the revolutionary government. The role of women in the revolution and the opportunities it provided for their liberation was her central concern, and since 1919 she had headed the women’s department of the Communist Party. She joined the Workers’ Opposition in late 1920 and, for the Communist Party congress of March 1921, wrote a pamphlet explaining its point of view.

The main thrust of the Opposition’s case was that economic decision-making had been taken away from the workers and their organisations and given to bureaucrats outside the working class. “The basis of the controversy is, therefore, this”, writes Kollontai: “shall we achieve communism through the workers or over their heads, by the hands of Soviet officials?” (Selected Writings of Alexandra Kollontai, London 1977, p 174.) Or, more bluntly still (p 189): “Is it to be bureaucracy or self-activity of the masses?”

She recognises the desperately unfavourable situation the Russian workers were in, trying to recover from military attack and economic collapse, all the while being only a small minority of the country’s population. She accepts that the services of middle-class specialists were needed to help, especially in military matters, but the problem was that they were dominating in the all-important area of economic production—the basic area that the revolution was supposed to transform under the direction of the working class. The belief “that it is possible to bring about communism by bureaucratic means” was growing (p 166), with problems solved “not by means of an open exchange of opinions or by the immediate efforts of all concerned, but by means of formal decisions handed down from the central institutions” (p 191-2). This needed to be turned around (p 187-8):

it is impossible to decree communism. It can be created only in the process of practical research, through mistakes perhaps, but only by the creative powers of the working class itself.… All else is goose-stepping that shows distrust towards the creative abilities of the workers, distrust which is not compatible with the professed ideals of our party, whose very strength depends on the perennial creative spirit of the proletariat.

The reply, of course, was that it just wasn’t practical to depend on the creative spirit of the proletariat: visionary dreaming about free workers co-operatively producing in a communist utopia wouldn’t put bread on the table in the dire circumstances Russia faced. But Kollontai countered that, precisely because the circum­stances were so bad, radical solutions were needed. Instead of a short-term drive to increase production at whatever cost to the workers, trust in the capabilities of the working class, faith that their efforts could move mountains (p 185, 192):

New possibilities are open for a working class that has been freed from the yoke of capital, to have its own say in finding new incentives to labour and the creation of new forms of production which will have had no precedent in human history.… Miracles of enthusiasm in stimulating the productive forces and alleviating working conditions can only be performed by the active initiative of the interested workers themselves, provided it is not restricted and repressed at every step by a hierarchy of ‘permissions’ and ‘decrees’.

The tragedy was that many workers had such initiative, according to Kollontai, but were held back. She gives an example of a group of workers who decide to build a nursery, and get together all the necessary materials and labour, only to be refused permission by the officials. Unsurprisingly, they draw the conclusion that acting for themselves is a waste of time.

Kollontai’s observations here are relevant to the situation today in some Latin American countries, where groups of workers have established ‘factories without bosses’ in place of the failures of capitalist production. They are showing unprecedented initiative and creativity, rewriting the books on what can and can’t be done in production. But they will face, or already are facing obstacles from governments not of their own making. To survive, workers’ control has to spread throughout the economy and up to the heights of political power. Rebelling against “the yoke of capital” has shown in germ the potential of the working class: overthrowing that yoke altogether can liberate it fully.

Kollontai demanded “a clear-cut, uncompromising policy, a rapid, forced advance towards communism” (p 166). Such a demand had little reality in the Russia of 1921, however. Her insistence on a socialist society emerging from the activity of the working class—that “The building of communism belongs to the workers” (p 199)—was absolutely right. But precisely for that reason, the policy didn’t fit, because the Russian working class had all but ceased to exist. Many had been killed in the war, others had abandoned the factories to go home to their villages, some had entered the state/party bureaucracy. If only the working class could build communism, then communism couldn’t be built, not then and there. In Europe the working class was strong, and large parts of it on the side of socialism: as part of a general revolutionary upsurge, Russia could be a weak link in a socialist chain, but on its own it was going nowhere.

The working class that took power in 1917 had virtually disappeared, realising Kollontai’s fear of a workers’ dictatorship “without the foundation of the dictatorship” (p 172). For a period, the state was run on behalf of the workers rather than directly by them, but those in power separated more and more from the working class, with “ever-growing inequality between the privileged groups of the population in Soviet Russia and the rank-and-file workers” (p 170). This grew into a split between two different classes: those who worked in the economy, and those who controlled the economy. Kollontai noticed the emergence of this division: “we are the toiling people, they are the Soviet officials” (p 190). This was the framework in which the workers’ revolution gave way to a society where the workers were again exploited by those who held the wealth and power.

For all its reliance on the workers’ creativity, Kollontai’s pamphlet addresses itself to the Communist Party rather than the rank and file of the working class. If the party only sorted itself out, all would be well (p 192): “As soon as the party—not in theory but in practice—recognises the self-activity of the masses as the basis of our state, the Soviet institutions will again automatically become living institutions, destined to carry out the communist project.” While Lenin had bitterly criticised the Workers’ Opposition, she entertained the hope that he would see the light: “Ilyich will be with us yet” (p 200). Win or lose the debate, she wrote, the Opposition would never leave the party. So, while the Communist Party was effectively becoming the political instrument of the rising class of bureaucrats, the group that embodied the raw revolt of workers against them ruled out in advance any idea of organising independently of them.

The party’s congress showed very clearly that Ilyich would not be with them. Although Lenin admitted the existence of bureaucratic excesses and promised to do something about them, he sunk pretty low to trash the Workers’ Opposition. He opened the congress with an announcement that “the luxury of discussions and disputes within our Party” had to come to an end. Upon seeing a delegate talking with Kollontai in between sessions, he said to him: “What, are you still speaking to this individual?” Referring to The Workers’ Opposition, he told the congress: “People writing pamphlets like these should be exposed and eliminated.” According to his speech, the Opposition managed the feat of being simultaneously petty-bourgeois, anarchist, syndicalist, and a deviation linked to the counter-revolution. He concluded in George W Bush style: “the Workers’ Opposition is either for the party or against it, and if it continues as it is doing it must be expelled”.

Other leaders took their cue from him, heaping irrelevant allegations on top of personal abuse. The 5 per cent vote that the Workers’ Opposition got reflects more on how little the delegates represented the working class than on the undoubted weaknesses of the Opposition’s case. On the last day of the congress, the leadership brought in an emergency resolution banning them and any other groups within the party, and giving the central committee power to expel members. The Workers’ Opposition argued against it in vain.

Kollontai was sacked from her job as director of the women’s department, but the Workers’ Opposition didn’t go away. The 1922 party congress returned to the attack, with Lenin himself demanding Kollontai’s expulsion. While the delegates balked at going that far, the Opposition had effectively made its last stand. Kollontai accepted a job in the diplomatic service and dropped out of oppo­sitional activity. Leon Trotsky, Grigori Zinoviev, Nikolai Bukharin and others who had piled abuse on her and the Workers’ Opposition eventually found themselves in opposition against Stalin. While many of the original oppositionists bravely fought and died challenging Stalinism, Kollontai refused to take any further part.

Her pamphlet had accepted that the full application of democratic principles was hardly possible when the revolution was threatened with military defeat, but attacked those “who attempt to evolve into principles the temporary deviations from the spirit of the communist programme that were forced upon the party by the prolonged civil war, and hold to them as if they were the essence of our political line of action” (p 200). Just such an attempt did take hold, and is with us still: most organisations that claim to uphold the legacy of the Russian revolution are run on the lines introduced in the Russian Communist Party in 1921. Kollontai’s demands for democracy in the organising of socialist activity may be the most pertinent part of her pamphlet for modern readers.

“The initiative of party members themselves is restricted”, she writes (p 191).

Every independent attempt, every new thought that passes through the censorship of our centre, is considered as ‘heresy’, as a violation of party discipline, as an attempt to infringe on the prerogatives of the centre, which must ‘foresee’ everything and ‘decree’ everything and anything. If anything is not decreed one must wait, for the time will come when the centre at its leisure will decree. Only then, and within sharply restricted limits, will one be allowed to express one’s ‘initiative’.

The only remedy was “going back to democracy, freedom of opinion and criticism within the party” (p 172). People should be elected by the members to all party positions, not appointed by the leadership. Issues should be put to the rank and file for discussion first, and only after that should the leaders give their views. Groups within the party should be allowed to argue and organise openly against leadership policy, with party funds paying to publish their literature. All members should be entitled to attend meetings of the leadership.

Such proposals would give a seizure to those who lead today’s left-wing groups. The Russian Communist leaders of 1921 swore blind that restrictions on dissenting members were a purely temporary departure from the party’s traditions, that expulsions ordered by the central committee would be unforgivable if it wasn’t for the crisis that prevailed. But for the most part, those who claim to follow them in our own day cling to that 1921 regime for dear life. The result is a smattering of left-wing groups largely composed of people unable or unwilling to think for themselves without a party line for a safety blanket. As Kollontai puts it (p 192, 199):

Fear of criticism and of freedom of thought, by combining together with bureaucracy, often produce ridiculous results. There can be no self-activity without freedom of thought and opinion, for self-activity manifests itself not only in initiative, action and work, but in independent thought as well. We give no freedom to class activity, we are afraid of criticism, we have ceased to rely on the masses: hence we have bureaucracy with us.… Wherever there is criticism, analysis, wherever thought moves and works, there is life, progress, advancement forward towards the future. There is nothing more frightful and harmful than sterility of thought and routine.

Much in The Workers’ Opposition is unrealistic, a lot of its hopes we can see in hindsight to be vain, and its effort to get the revolution back on the rails was unsuccessful. But Connolly says somewhere that generations and individuals are judged not by what they achieve, but by what they dare to try and achieve. By that yardstick, Kollontai and the Workers’ Opposition deserve our admiration.