The life-story of Bolshevik oppositionist and left-communist Gavril Myasnikov teaches important lessons on the dangers of a political culture that stifles and represses internal debate and factions.
The communist-left or ‘left-communism’ was not a movement composed of intellectuals isolated from the working class. The ‘left-communists’ mostly remembered for being attacked in Lenin’s famous pamphlet Left-wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder were a real tendency within the workers movement, playing an important role not only in Germany, the Netherlands and Italy but in the Bolshevik Party itself. These experiences of the communist-left in Russia can provide many important lessons to marxists today and the life story of Gavril Myasnikov is no exception.
The ‘left-commmunists’ as a faction within the Bolsheviks first developed as a response to the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk which made peace with Germany under unfavorable circumstances for the Bolsheviks. This initial ‘left-communist’ faction included prominent Bolsheviks Bukharin and Dzerzhinsky and saw the treaty as a capitulation to world imperialism which would close off the potential for world revolution. Their opposition to it stemmed not from militarism and nationalism but from a belief that world revolution was on the agenda, the immediate task being to form a Red Army and aid the German working class in overthrowing their government. Whether or not this position was correct is up to debate. Ultimately the treaty was signed, despite protestations not only from the left-communists, but also Left-SRs and anarchists. According to Lenin it was more important to have an immediate end to the war and consolidate the Soviet state and too risky to pursue revolutionary war. Due to the difficulty of throwing together a real army in their current circumstances his position won eventually won enough enough support to pass after heated debate and the treaty was signed.
Gavril Myasnikov was a member of this left-communist faction and had a long history of working class militancy behind him. However Myasnikov, unlike Bukharin and Dzerzhinsky, refused to become a bureaucrat. His entire life proved to be one based on intransigent opposition to capitalism and all those who stood in the way of the revolutionary proletariat’s fight against it. He would not only be an enthusiastic participant of the October Revolution but would continue to fight for the proletariat to truly have a voice in the Bolshevik party afterwards. He never surrendered in this fight and ultimately died a prisoner of Stalinism.
Myasnikov was born in the Urals in 1889 and found employment as a metal worker. He found himself in the midst of a strong tradition of working class militancy and took an active role in the 1905 revolution against Czarist autocracy. This revolution saw the formation of the first Soviets through mass strikes and the intervention of political militants. These Soviets or ‘wokers councils’ aimed to unite the entire working class on a regional basis rather than on a trade or industrial basis and showed the capacity of the working class to organize as a progressive class in history, using the Soviets to agitate for political demands against the Czar such the introduction of a parliament. Myasnikov was impressed by the role of the Bolsheviks in these events and joined the party in 1906. Shortly after the Czarist police imprisoned him in Siberia. In prison Myasnikov faced forced labor, beatings and even went on hunger strike for 75 days. He attempted escape three times, each attempt seeing him trying to rejoin the revolutionary underground only to fall back into prison.
Myasnikov had returned from exile in Siberia in 1917 and played an active role in the October Revolution. He was involved in forming a factory committee, participating in his local Soviet and Bolshevik party district to take a leading part the seizure of power by the working class in the Urals. It was the on-the-ground activity of worker militants like Myasnikov that ultimately made the October Revolution possible. Without these networks of militants who made real connections to the masses of workers no alternative center of authority to the Provisional Government would have been possible.
Myasnikov’s revolutionary zeal was representative of the times surrounding him, where new potentials for social change were opening up all around him. However Myasnikov’s millenarian drive for revanchism against the old regime was a step above others. In July 1918 Myasnikov and a crew of workers executed the Czar’s younger brother the Grand Duke Michael. It is unclear whether this was an autonomous act or an order from higher level Bolsheviks. Either way it got him called “a bloodthirsty and embittered man, and not altogether sane” by the secretary of the Perm’ Bolshevik Party Committee, though shortly after Myasnikov reported to Lenin with the Czar and his family being shot shortly after.
As these events show Myasnikov had no qualms with red terror and proletarian dictatorship when they were aimed against reactionaries. Yet when it came to suppression of dissent from within the working class itself Myasnikov would adamantly fight for freedom of speech and the right to form factions with platforms within the party as well as control over industry through producers soviets. After opposing the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk Myasnikov recognized the need for unity within the party and stood by Lenin to defeat the Whites. At this point authoritarian measures were seen as temporary concessions due to the need to win the Civil War and it was hoped that the end of war would see a return of the Soviets. However by the end of the Civil War Myasnikov had joined in with groups like the Democratic Centralists and Workers’ Opposition who were criticizing the party from within, though his own critiques would differ from the aforementioned groups.
The Civil War had transformed the Bolshevik Party into a militarized an hierarchical organized and as the war ended this didn’t seem to change. The party was increasingly becoming an institution which represented petty-proprietors and professional bureaucrats as opposed to the revolutionary working class. The hopes that the proletarian democracy of the Soviets espoused by Lenin’s State and Revolution would return after the Civil War had been proven wrong. The future of the revolution was uncertain at this point and individuals like Myasnikov saw the future of the USSR as a legitimate workers republic at stake. The words of Victor Serge in his later work Memoirs of Revolutionary, also at the time a Bolshevik, capture a certain attitude within the party and amongst the broader working class:
“What with the political monopoly, the Cheka and the Red Army, all that now existed of the ‘Commune-State’ of our dreams was a theoretical myth. The war, the internal measures against counterrevolution, and the famine (which had created a bureaucratic rationing apparatus) had killed off Soviet democracy. How could it revive, and when? The Party lived in the certain knowledge that the slightest relaxation of its authority would give day to reaction.”
At this point Myasnikov primarily critiqued the Bolsheviks as a individual, not as a faction. He disagreed with the Workers Opposition’s position that unions should manage industry, counterposing to this administration of industry through producers soviets. Like his contemporaries who were also part of the communist left, the KAPD, Myasnikov believed that unions for the working class had outlived their use in the current period. However he would advocate for peasant unions, much to the dismay of the Worker’s Opposition who believed this would take power away from the industrial proletariat. His activities critiquing the party got him relocated to Petrograd from the Urals where he would be kept on a tighter leash but proved unwilling to be silenced. As a result he received the ire of Zinoviev who accused him of being an SR, threatening to expel him from the party.
In Petrograd Myasnikov focused on agitating for free speech. In March 1921 he called for unlimited free speech in a memorandum to the Central Committee. He also made it clear he thought this should extend even to monarchists, a comment that made it easy for Lenin to attack his platform. No other Bolshevik made this demand, thought eventually he would back off from this position, and argue that only manual workers should have freedom of speech. He also refused to condemn the Kronstadt rebellion, a position that the Workers’ Opposition refused to take. To Myasnikov Kronstadt was a sad example of communists murdering communists and showed how far the bureaucratization of the regime had gone.
Lenin critiqued Myasnikov’s arguments for freedom of speech on the grounds that they would allow reactionary forces to have the freedom to organize and spread their views, especially amongst the peasants. “What sort of freedom of the press? What for? For which class?” said Lenin in a 1921 letter to Myasnikov. Lenin undeniably had a point; that democracy and freedom are not metaphysical absolutes that exist independent of class context. However, while Myasnikov’s argument for free press extending to monarchists is certainly questionable it is undeniable that the proletariat cannot rule as a class if it does not have the freedom to represent itself. This requires a tolerance of internal debate and dissent as a well as a tolerance of internal factions. It also requires that the proletariat doesn’t face despotic conditions on the factory floor, which related to demands for workers control. Myasnikov responded to Lenin initially with panic but then wrote a letter in response. “You say that I want freedom of the press for the bourgeoisie. On the contrary, I want freedom of the press for myself, a proletarian, a member of the party for fifteen years.” he said. Lenin may have made him change his mind about extending freedom of the press to monarchists but his desire for a legitimate soviet democracy remained.
Lenin’s banning of factions in 1921 saw the Workers’ Opposition essentially suppressed. Myasnikov, while not yet part of an official faction, was expelled from the party in 1922. After this he would form an actual opposition organization, the Workers Group. The Workers Group united Myasnikov with former members of the Workers’ Opposition and operated as a clandestine organization, unable to print its own manifesto in Russia. The Workers Group Manifesto not only addressed issues in Russia but addressed the international communist movement as a whole. The Manifesto critiques not only the lack of working class rule in Russia but also the united front policy being imposed on the Communist Parties of the world. It also makes claims that fights for reforms are now historically obsolete and that insurrection is now on the agenda, expressing of the more voluntaristic tendencies in left-communism at the time.
The response of party leaders was to arrest Myasnikov and send him to Germany to do trade union work. It was here where we made connections with the KAPD, the left-communist party in Germany, as well as the more radical elements of the KPD (the more moderate of the communist parties who had the approval of the Comintern). The Workers Group critique of the ‘united front’ policy that sought unity with the same social-democrats who supported WWI and held back revolution at all cost resonated with the KAPD. Yet Myasnikov did not stay in Germany for long and returned to Russia during a strike wave where remaining members of the Workers Group were agitating. Shortly after arrival Myasnikov was put behind behind bars; Zionviev had promised him this wouldn’t happen if he was to return.
After spending over three years in prison and insane asylums Myasnikov was sent to Armenia, then Persia only to be arrested again. Myasnikov had already spent a good chunk of his life in prison and this one be one of his shorter sentences, leaving for Turkey after six months. In Turkey Myasnikov took up correspondence with Trotsky who was also in exile from Turkey. Years before Trotsky had helped repress and purge the Workers Group and lead the suppression of the Kronstadt revolt, yet Myasnikov looked beyond this and the two engaged in principled discussion.
After Turkey Myasnikov settled in France, publishing his pamphlet The Latest Deception that elaborated his theories of state-capitalism in the USSR. Trotsky still refused to believe the USSR was no longer a proletarian dictatorship, instead calling it a ‘degenerated workers state’. In summary his argument was that the working class had never been overthrown and nationalized property was evidence that the workers rather than bourgeois ruled (otherwise markets would return). As a result Trotsky was more of a loyal oppositionist to the Stalinist regime rather than a full-on opponent like Myasnikov. Instead of a mere political revolution that would reform the party Myasnikov claimed the sytsem itself must be overthrown and replaced with the rule of soviets with multiple political tendencies represented. He developed a theory where the ruling class in the USSR was not the proletariat with bureaucratic deformations as in Trotsky’s theory but a ‘social bureaucracy’ that expropriated political power from the proletariat and consolidated a state-capitalist system. These ideas were very similar to future state-capitalism theories expounded by the likes of CLR James, Raya Dunayevskaya and Tony Cliff and as a result have theoretical problems of their own. Their strength lies not so much in their ability to comprehend the USSR through marxist categories but rather in their political conclusions that allowed them to advocate working class independence from Stalinism.
Myasnikov would work in factories in France until 1945, meeting fellow oppositionists such as Ruth Fischer and Victor Serge. He remarried and was able to accommodate to life in France, remaining there during the war and keeping quiet. However in 1946 he disappeared. Friends inquired and discovered he had been taken back to Russia on a Soviet plane; nothing was heard of him since. What exactly happened is unclear, but it is clear that Myasnikov ultimately died a victim of the Stalinist state.
Myasnikov’s demands were not for the immediate institution of communism, which most knew wasn’t a possibility. Rather his demands were aimed to secure the proletariat the institutional means necessary to rule as a class. If this was the case, why were other Bolsheviks so hostile to Myasnikov’s demands? Wasn’t the Civil War over, meaning authoritarian measures were no longer needed? Wasn’t Lenin himself an advocate for soviet democracy in State and Revolution? Truth is that Russia was a peasant majority country, most of these peasants hostile to any kind of social change that would disrupt ownership of their property. Leading Bolsheviks worried that a return to mass soviet representation would give too much political voice to the peasants and would lead to populist or reactionary parties forming and gaining support. Getting the peasants a better deal would require the support of developed European industry, so therefore the leading Bolsheviks believed their only choice was to hold onto power at all costs through dictatorial means while giving the necessary concessions to peasant demands until world revolution came to the rescue. World revolution never came however and the result was that the Stalinist bureacracy would consolidate itself through mass repression and impose collectivization/industrialization in order to resolve ‘the peasant question’. However without the capacity to organize as a class workers had no means to combat the rise of Stalinism, nor would they have the means to oppose the full imposition of markets after the collapse of the USSR later on in 1989.
Why is the legacy of Myasnikov important today? Today many Leninist sects aiming to mimic the Bolsheviks impose crippling forms of centralism and repression of open political debate. They refuse any kind of transparency and act like rackets. It is often forgotten that before the Russian Civil War the Bolshevik was an organization that was centralist but also genuinely democratic, where dissenting views were openly discussed and factions were free to draw up platforms and debate them. The loss of this culture of internal dissent and debate was a major blow to the Russian Revolution. This was not because of vague abstract ideals of “democracy” or “freedom” but because the proletariat relies on political freedom in a very concrete form to be able to effectively organize and rule. The proletariat is an organically divided class. Factions are an expression of these divisions and enforcing a centralism that ignores them rather than a centralism based on real unity simply allows for the consolidation of bureaucratic cliques. The proletariat must also have genuine forms of political association which are not subsumed to the class interests of petty-propietors and civil bureaucracy that can adequately allow the class to represent itself. By banning factions such a form of association was blocked off. In the USSR the result of this was that the proletariat is ultimately liquidated as a class, only capable short outbursts over immediate economic demands.
Today organizations must learn from the early Bolsheviks rather than mimic the militarized, hierarchical and bureaucratic-centralist party it would become. We must aim for organizations that instead can work towards unity while allowing a healthy culture of debate. This of course doesn’t mean “anything goes” and that any political view should be accepted. Communists must work around firm principles and coherent points of unity that are clearly understood. Within these points of unity there should be room for discussion and debate, but at a certain level of divergence debate becomes pointless. For example, if a faction formed within a communist organization supporting US war with Iran or offering ‘critical support’ to MRAs those members should be expelled without question. Certain things are simply not up for debate; we are not liberals. That said many differences can and should be tolerated within a communist organization and creating a stultifying atmosphere where debate is prohibited can only limit how effectively it can grasp and intervene in its real surrounding circumstances while building a genuine connection with the working class.
Letter to G. Myasnikov by V.I. Lenin
The Latest Deception by Gavril Myasnikov