Lessons of Party and Class from the Russian Revolution

What are the fundamental lessons regarding the relationship between party and class to be learned from the Russian Revolution? Is “All Power to the Soviets” a real alternative to the rule of political parties? 

In one of their recent correspondences, the ICC asked me to explained what in my views were the fundamental lessons to be learned about the relationship between party and class from the October Revolution. This is an extremely complex topic of course, not one that can simply be answered without a total historical dissection of the revolution and its outcomes. One could accuse this of just another old debate about “old dead russian men” that is not relevant, but if you ask the average person on the street in the USA if they have questions about communism usually “old dead russian men” like Lenin and Stalin come up. The October revolution also is not ancient history; it was almost 100 years ago when the Red Guards seized the Winter Palace and the Revolutionary Military Committee announced the overthrow of Kerensky’s government, putting in motion a chain reaction of events that are essentially the reason “communism” is even a household name.

Of course, there are many lessons to learn from the successes and failures of the Russian Revolution, and one of course can’t explain the failure of the revolution to produce communism with a single simple reason. The questions of geo-politics, productive forces, the peasantry, gender, national oppression and alienation all have roles to play. Why the Bolshevik seizure of power led to Stalinism is a question that must be answered with a variety of factors in mind. So to say that the failure of the Russian Revolution in the long term was due to a mistaken conception of the party in relation to the class is historically lazy. The Bolshevik’s conception of the party was not the same as it was after “War Communism” as it was before. I would argue that essentially the Bolsheviks had a correct interpretation of the party (a mass party of the working class and its allies committed to revolution). However the experience of it becoming a party for mobilizing peasants in the Russian Civil War and losing urban working class support in the course of the war created the notion of a militarized “vanguard party” where the Comintern was the “general staff” of the world revolution. What is understood to be Bolshevik forms of organization are moreso Comintern forms of organizations.

So what exactly are the lessons to learn then? “Substitutionism”, where a minority party rules in the name of the working class, was not the ideology of the Bolsheviks who came to power through mass support, not a coup. They also came to power in a whole alliance of the revolutionary left, which included the Left wing of the Social-Revolutionsts and various anarchists and dissident Mensheviks. It was not the Bolsheviks who came into power in October but the Revolutionary Military Committee. The Bolshevik’s aim was for an alliance of socialist parties to rule cooperatively  through the system of soviets. However after the concessions of Brest-Litovsk, which some Bolsheviks themselves opposed, the Left Social-Revolutionaries  began a terrorism campaign against the Bolsheviks, leaving them the only party to rule in the Soviets. (See Alexander Rabinowtich’s Bolsheviks Come to Power and Bolsheviks In Power for a historically in-depth look at these events). Rather than the dangers of “subsitutionism” being the lessons of October, I would argue the following lessons make more sense:

1. The dictatorship of the proletariat essentially takes the form of the Communist Party(ies) ruling through a commune-state.

This is a tough pill to swallow for some, who would counterpose “all power to the soviets” to this vision. However, this is based on a misunderstanding of the soviets and the reason “all power to the soviets” was a Bolshevik slogan. The Soviets of 1917 were formed by right wing Mensheviks who supported the war. Before the Soviets could be revolutionary, revolutionary parties had to win them over. The Bolsheviks would never have argued “all power to the soviets” if the Soviets were dominated by right-wing parties; it was when the majority in the Soviets supported the overthrow of the Provisional Government that the Bolsheviks used this slogan. And correctly so. Soviet rule is still a form of party rule, just mediated through radical political democracy. Workers in the organs of the new workers state will belong to political parties and factions of them, and policy will come from these various parties. The only alternative would be to ban political parties altogether, which would just mean that people would be voting for personalities rather than programmes.

The idea of Soviets ruling with a small vanguard party merely “advising” the correct path is a way to let the right-wing labor bureaucracy, which is hegemonic, take power and then restore capitalism. “All Power to the Soviets” does not answer the question of power, because ultimately a political party with a programme and mass support is needed to keep revolutionary councils or communes from becoming tools of reactionaries and reformists. The aim of a party is not to act as the holy carriers of wisdom to guide the class, but to represent the class and politically train the class to run society.

By Commune-state, I mean simply a workers republic that has the basic radical democratic features of the Paris Commune: representation through directly elected delegation, short term limits, immediate recall of reps, merging of executive and legislative branches, and general free political association. The early Soviet Republic established in October aimed to carry on many of these political principles.

2. A party must have mass support from the politically active working class to take power; otherwise revolution is not possible.

This is related to the question of soviet rule as counter-posed to party rule mentioned above. Mass support and legitimacy do matter, and communist revolutionaries need to build up institutions with legitimacy as a real alternative for rule. This means that the party must rule with some form of democratic mandate, not as a coup imposed upon the people. The Bolsheviks were able to do this with their years of building support from workers in factories and other industries, as well as their role in fighting against the despotism of czarism. Therefore when crisis did create a power vacuum, they were able to win enough support from the working class to overthrow the provisional government and form a workers state. If the party regime doesn’t have enough mass support to legitimately rule it will have to make assaults on democracy to stay in power, as demonstrated by the Bolsheviks in their retreat from soviet democracy.

3. A political regime is only as democratic as the ruling party or parties.

The loss of democracy within the Bolshevik party, with the ban on factions, was ultimately the end of the Russian Revolution that sealed the rise of Stalinism. This means mass membership based political parties where there is open debate amongst the membership and decision-making distributed to the membership. This is a general rule for political regimes of all types, but since the working class needs democracy like oxygen it must control its own parties and keep them accountable to the class at large.

In the United States, full suffrage means little when one’s choices are limited to political parties that are just fundraising machines for different factions of capital to win campaigns to stay in power. Rather than ruling parties that operate like this, we need parties where the membership develops and hold representatives accountable to a real program.

This means free discussion and debate in the revolutionary press as well. The Bolshevik Party in its heroic period (before the Russian Civil War)  was as radically democratic as possible, especially considering the repressive conditions it worked under. To quote veteran Bolshevik Vladimir Nevsky, it was a party where “Free discussion, a lively exchange of opinions, consideration not only of local, but also of all-Russian issues, an unusually lively interest in current issues, an absolutely universal participation in discussing and deciding these issues, the absence of any bureaucratic attitude to getting things done – in a word, the active participation of emphatically all members in the affairs of the organisation – were the distinctive features of our cells and committees.” We need a party which embodies this same spirit of democracy, both outside and in power.

4. The party doesn’t die, it betrays

The Bolshevik party over the course of 10 years had become an oppressor of the working class rather their champions. By the 1940s none of the old Bolsheviks except Stalin and select few of his cronies remained. The SPD, which was also at one point a heroic revolutionary party, would transform into a party that sought to manage capitalism rather than overthrow it. The party and class are different from each other, and the class-party can become a “party of order” due to its own internal dynamics.

The problem is that mass political parties require bureaucracy, or paid officials with decision-making authority. Eventually the scale of organization and activity require bureaucrats, yet these bureaucrats are essentially petty-bourgeois because of their position of control over information and authority in the party. Therefore this petty-bourgeois bureaucratic strata must be kept under the democratic rule of the working class, as they will develop class interested opposed to the rest of party and lead toward a growing conservative and opportunism. This growing conservatism due to antagonistic class interests within organizations is the cause of “betrayal.” So therefore the proletariat must not only struggle against the bosses, but also the bureaucracy in their own organizations.

Why we need a world party

As a long-term goal communists should work towards a world party organized around a minimum/maximum programme that can tolerate factionalism while maintaining independence from bourgeois and reformist parties.

mythical party

“…it is inevitable that the growing proletariat should resist exploitation, and that it should organize industrially, co-operatively and politically to secure for itself better conditions of life and labor, and greater political influence. Everywhere the proletariat develops these phases of activity whether it is socialistically minded or not. It is the mission of the Socialist movement to bring all these various activities of the proletariat against its exploitation into one conscious and unified movement, that will find its climax in the great final battle for the conquest of political power.” – Karl Kautsky, The Road to Power, 1909

“There are therefore no bodies which are revolutionary because of their form; there are only social forces that are revolutionary through the direction in which they act, and these forces are organized in a party that fights with a program.” – Amadeo Bordiga

Do Communists need a party? If so, what kind do we need? Can revolutionary syndicalism or councilism serve as an alternative to forming a party? While the Communist League of Tampa is not a party formation the question of proletarian political organization is raised in our Points of Unity which states: “the proletariat must form its own political institutions independent from other classes and develop the capacity to rule as a class and abolish capitalist relations.” 

It is my view that political organization inevitably takes the form of a party of some kind if it is effective, so communists undeniably need to form a party as a long term goal. Right now the conditions for forming a party aren’t viable. This does not however mean that there isn’t work in the current circumstances we can do to change these conditions. We can still form political groupings, build those groupings, merge with others, intervene in mass struggles and run educational efforts without being centralized as a single world party. Instead we have to develop the basis for such a party to exist.

To clarify, a party is simply defined as a formal organization unified around a programme, which is in the broadest sense a series of political demands and basic principles of operation as well a long term vision of social change. This programme is the basis around which it organizes, agitates and educates. It is these characteristics that define a party rather than precise organizational structures, which can vary. A party doesn’t necessarily mean standing in elections; nor does it always mean a “vanguard party” where a small cadre with strict ideological unity proclaims itself the leaders of the working class. Neither does it mean an organization which will substitute itself for the working class by establishing a monopoly on political power.

The kind of party we need is first and foremost a world party, an organization where (to use a rather militaristic metaphor) each national section is essentially a battalion in a worldwide army. Our revolution will be international, hence there must be organization at an international level to coordinate it. Before the question of seizing power is even on the table some kind of world party that can pursue the internationalization of revolution must exist. Such an organization must have a balance of centralization and decentralization so as to prevent a single national section from asserting specific national interests over the whole organization while also allowing for the autonomy that separate sections need to meet their specific conditions. This was one of the problems of the Comintern: its domination by Russian national interests. To paraphrase Bordiga, the Comintern should have run Russia rather than the other way around.

This party should be a mass party rather than a vanguard party in the following sense. It should welcome all workers and intellectual allies that are willing to follow the programme and collectively work to actualize it. There should not be a tight ideological/theoretical line imposed on members, which constrains the ability of an organization to adapt to new conditions and have open debate without splitting or needlessly expelling members. Unity should be based around the broader programme, with debate open within all layers of the group on policy as well as theoretical issues. There must be internal democracy, accountability and transparency. Like a proper proletarian government it must be run on principles of delegation and egalitarianism rather than through a caste-like hierarchy. Leadership responsibilities should be formalized to ensure accountability, though recallable by constituents if necessary. The party also should not associate itself with the vanguard of the class struggle itself. The vanguard is not a single organization but a layer of the class that exists both within and outside party organizations. To say otherwise would be making the untenable claim that class struggle only occurs under the control of the party.

The kind of centralism we desire is one that is based on a true unity of the group around programme and action. This kind of centralism is a goal to be worked towards, not something to be forced by a clique in the leadership when the conditions for it don’t exist. Therefore the banning of factions as such is not a tolerable policy, as factions are an expression of real divisions in the organization that cannot be ‘cured’ with mere suppression. The ability to form factions and oppose leadership is part of a healthy organization that develops itself through debate rather than blind conformity to the central committee. This isn’t to say any and all factions should be tolerated; some positions will fall completely outside what can be tolerated in a communist organization. That said a healthy organization must be able tolerate factionalism, as it will be inevitable in any kind of mass party.

Bolshevism, before the Russian Civil War, operated on these principles for the most part. The party contained multiple factions and would publish internal debates in their public press. Much of the attempts to mimic Bolshevism today are based more on how the Party and Comintern developed after the Russian Civil War rather than pre-1918 Bolshevism. The point is not much that we must mimic their example, but that mass parties based on these principles can be formed and that a party like the Bolsheviks became successful organizing with them. The notion of an “iron-law of oligarchy” where all political organization of a considerable scale will lead to authoritarianism should be avoided for the conservative notion that it is. Of course any party will have tendencies towards deformations due to operating under the pressures of capitalist society. But these tendencies can be fought against; they are not impossible to overcome.

The Bolshevik Party before 1918 was hardly a bureaucratic centralist organization that stifled internal debate.

Attempts to replace the party as a central organ of revolution such as syndicalism and councilism have provided interesting movements and critiques but ultimately have failed to provide a realistic alternative. Syndicalism counterposes party organizations to workers in industrial unions that will prepare a revolutionary transformation through general strikes that seize the means of production to institute workers self-management. One basic problem with this strategy is the general tension between the roles of trade unions and political organizations. Syndicalism aims to essentially combine the two, forming trade unions that are based on a political affinity to a general vision of seizing means of production. This model of organization had much appeal to workers who were skeptical of social-democracies parliamentary tactics, seen as avoiding the mediation of politics altogether in favor of direct action on an economic basis. Yet a vision of seizing the means of production and self-managing them is still a political vision that must grapple with social problems beyond the economic.

Unions, to most effectively perform their function of protecting the basic economic interests of the workers they represent, must gain membership from as many workers as possible in a given trade or sector regardless of politics. However political organizations are based on the exclusion of those who don’t follow the groups political line. As a result in syndicalism there is a constant tension between maintaining the political vision of the union and operating as a functioning union that can mediate the relation between laborers and employers. Syndicalists unions therefore tend to either give up on radical politics and become reformist unions like the French CGT or essentially become parties that run workplace committees, albeit confused ones that refuse to recognize they are essentially parties. This isn’t to say revolutionary or ‘red’ unions never have existed or can’t exist at all, but they tend to not last for long or have trouble sticking to their politics and therefore on their own have trouble developing the kind of long term strategy and base that can provide a basis for revolution. Revolutionary unions have a place in a broader communist movement, but by themselves they are insufficient.

Another alternative to the party that is raised by some communists is councilism, which argues that the only legitimate revolutionary organs are workers councils formed by the workers themselves through mass strike actions. Councilism argues that political parties are an essentially bourgeois form that will inevitably substitute themselves for the proletariat as a class and therefore must be avoided at all costs. Generally its adherents argue that rather than organizing as a party communists should simply educate others and circulate information. Most councilists therefore take a very fatalistic attitude to revolution, arguing that only intense economic crisis will inspire the proletariat to form councils without any kind of prior organizing from conscious militants. The hope is that workers will spontaneously realize the need to seize the means of production and form workers councils on their own without guidance from conscious organized militants.

Councilism is based on a historical fantasy, because the actual historical experiences of workers councils have all been connected to political parties. The Soviets of 1917 were formed by Mensheviks, while the workers councils of the German Revolution were all connected to whatever political parties the workers who participated were involved in. Council rule is still essentially party rule, just the rule of whatever party dominates in the councils. In Germany 1918 this was the SPD. In Hungary 1956 the councils backed a social-democratic left nationalist Imre Nagy. On their own workers councils have never been able to act as an alternative centre-of-authority to the bourgeois regime. They have functioned moreso as united-front organizations of the class in struggle that rarely stand as permanent decision making apparatuses. Practically every mass upsurge of the working class has involved agitation, organization and education from conscious militants, both during and preceding the uprising.

Without a party with a mass base in the working class that develops a plan for an alternative to the current regime workers councils will simply give power back to the existing state or give way to other reactionary or reformist forces. There must be organized political opposition to reformist/reactionary groups that can organize an alternative center of authority and coordinate an overthrow of the state and formation of a new revolutionary regime. This means more than just loose networks of individuals who circulate information and theory who will either be completely ineffective or unaccountable. The hope that councils on their own will rule without political parties simply has no real basis in history. It is an idealistic fantasy. The workers who make up councils are themselves part of political parties, and the delegates they elect and decisions they make will reflect this. The alternative would be to ban political parties, which of course then raises the question of who enforces this ban.

The question of substitutionism raised by councilism is still an important one however. What will prevent a party from taking power and substituting itself for the proletariat, becoming a bureaucracy separate from the class that sets up an exploitative state? The simple answer is that the party doesn’t rule as a single party with complete monopoly on power but shares power with the entire revolutionary mass movement, as well as other revolutionary tendencies it may be in alliance with. Through political struggle within and outside the party the class keeps it on track and accountable to mitigate the development of internal counter-revolution. For this purpose the ability to form factions and for workers to have institutional channels outside the party to defend their basic interests are of importance. Another consideration to make is that the regime which developed in 1920s Russia primarily represented petty-proprietors (professionals,state bureaucrats, peasants) rather than the proletariat. With a ban on factions in the party and the soviets being shells of what they once were there were no institutional means for the proletariat to challenge this, leading to a sort of ‘red bonapartism’.

When the party takes power it doesn’t install itself as the sole source of authority but rather secures the basis for its minimum program to be put into practice. The minimum program is a set of institutional and political measures that destroys the bourgeois state and raises the entire working class to take hold of the ‘general means of coercion’ (Marx). This includes but is not limited to rule of the commune-state (based on free elections, recallable delegates, political egalitarianism, self-government of localities), the arming the workers, the abolition of police and military, reduction of work hours, banning of bourgeois/reactionary political parties, and empowerment of workers at the point of production. In other words it secures the dictatorship of the proletariat and enables class struggle to ascend to a new level without the constraints of the bourgeoisie state. This minimum program, as it becomes universalized internationally, provides the basis for enacting the maximum program which is composed of measures to transition into communism. If the minimum program cannot be actualized due to insufficient support then the party must wait; there is no shortcut into power through coalitions with bourgeois parties unified around a more reformist and tame programme that isn’t blatant opportunism.

Rather than taking power through a coup the party gains sufficient support for its minimum program and mobilizes the population to enact it. If properly applied the minimum programme will expand political power to the entire proletariat rather than confine it to a single party. The party doesn’t rule with a monopoly on power in the name of the class; it secures the institutional means for the class to rule as a whole and abolish itself along with all other classes. We have no patience for conspiratorial Blanquist fantasies, yet at the same time we reject that taking power must mean majority support in bourgeois elections. How we determine sufficient support depends on specific historical circumstances. There are no formalistic procedures, especially not success in bourgeois elections, that can measure this. We should of course aim for majority support of the working class, but even then measuring whether or not we have a true majority is difficult.

This proposed party would be organized around an invariant minimum/maximum programme as detailed above rather than transitional demands or a “mass line” that tails the spontaneous demands arising from immediate struggles. It would have to patiently build up mass support for its politics rather than hoping to be the “spark that lights the prairie fire”. This entails not softening our politics in hopes of “chasing” the masses to gain popularity or sacrificing our political independence through united fronts with bourgeois or reformist parties. The party must be a party of opposition to the entire bourgeois order, one that stays hard and fast to its programme without embracing reformist coalitions as a shortcut to power. This doesn’t mean refusing to fight for reforms short of proletarian dictatorship, but it does mean rejecting the notion that we can ‘trick’ the working class into taking power by mobilizing it to fight for reforms.

To emphasize the role of the party is not to deny the role of spontaneous mass struggle. There is a mutually reinforcing relation between the spontaneous mass movement (where action precedes consciousness) and the planned efforts of communists organized on the basis of programme (where consciousness precedes action). Mass action and party together comprise the totality of the class struggle, the former bringing the largest masses of workers into the battle against capital with the latter working to merge this mass movement of the class with the communist programme. This doesn’t mean class consciousness is injected into the class “from without” through the bourgeois intelligentsia, but it doesn’t mean it will develop spontaneously into a movement to topple class society without the conscious efforts of communists either.

Today there is much hope amongst ultra-left tendencies like Endnotes that spontaneous class struggle will bring forth completely novel forms of organization that are adequate for our times. While this is possible there is reason to believe that as long as politics exists the party (defined as organization centered around programme) will be invariant as a necessary means of intervening in politics (any collective project of changing society). Politics means a clashing of social visions which are products of class interests, and to contest these social visions classes and factions within classes form programmatic organizations. Some would claim that the party is a 19th century form of organization that is outdated by changed conditions. There is no doubt the 21st century won’t bring us organizations identical to German Social-Democracy or Bolshevism; to attempt to recreate these models would be foolish. Conditions have certainly changed, but how they have changed to make the party in general irrelevant is never made clear by those making this claim. A party for today will obviously look different from those of the past, operating under different structures and formalisms. We need organizations that can adapt to the novel circumstances of today. There is no perfect past model for us to mimic, no ideal form of proletarian organization that we can resurrect for todays use. Yet there is also no reason we cannot learn from the whole past of revolutionary organizations, from groups like the early SPD and Bolsheviks, the KAPD, the PCInt and even syndicalist organizations like the old IWW or FORA.

Forming a world party is not the immediate task at hand. First we must develop the “raw material” that can form the basis for such an organization. An organization with membership dominated by a single locale or country cannot declare itself a national or world party in good faith. Such an organization would merely be a sect masquerading as a party. First we must build our local committees and organizations around revolutionary politics. Yet we cannot do this in isolation. It is essential that we stay in contact with other communists around the world, engaging in collective discussion on long-term strategy, coordinating our activities and organizationally centralizing as necessary.

Gavril Myasnikov: hero of the working class

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.  

1922-gavril_myasnikov

Myasnikov in 1922

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.

Further reading:

Bolshevik Opposition to Lenin: G. T. Miasnikov and the Workers’ Group by Paul Avrich

Manifesto of the Workers Group

Letter to G. Myasnikov by V.I. Lenin

The Latest Deception by Gavril Myasnikov