Workers and the Soviet state: lessons from the 1920s

The centenary of the Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia provides an opportunity to open up debates on the nature of revolutions and post-revolutionary politics. In this piece Simon Pirani takes a controversial look at changes in relationship between the Communist Party, the state apparatus and the working class in the years between the end of the Civil War and Lenin’s death. This piece was originally developed as notes for a talk at the Institut Marcel Liebman in Brussels.


This piece focuses on the period between 1920 and 1924, when the Russian Civil War had ended, the New Economic Policy was adopted, and economic recovery began.

When I began my research, I knew that, during the Civil War, the Bolsheviks had become deeply divided from the workers in whose name they claimed to govern. This was partly because choices by all political forces were constrained by circumstances. I wanted to know what happened to the relationship between the Bolshevik government and the workers once some of the constraints were removed. For this reason, the research focused on the post-Civil War period, when the Bolsheviks governed free from the threat of immediate defeat, for the first time.

This was a time when people could start thinking about shaping a new post-capitalist society – building a new world, as the most optimistic revolutionaries put it.

This piece summarises some points from my book, published in 2000, which was based on archival research in Moscow, focused on grass-roots militants, both Bolsheviks and non-Bolsheviks.[1]

There are four main themes. (i) how the working class emerged from the civil war; (ii) working class politics outside the party; (iii) mass mobilisation campaigns; (iv) the economic recovery; this is followed by some conclusions.

Theme 1: How the working class emerged from the civil war

Working-class organisation emerged from the civil war weakened, but not destroyed. There had been a dramatic dispersal of urban populations. Between 1917 and 1920, about half the Moscow population left the city and many factories stopped working.

Isaac Deutscher famously wrote that ‘the proletarian dictatorship was triumphant, but the proletariat had nearly vanished.’ The social historians of the 1970s and 1980s had corrected this one-sided picture. They showed that while many young men went into the army, skilled older workers usually did not. Among those that remained, political and trade union activity continued. In Moscow this was especially true among workers in the metallurgical, chemical and textile factories.

In the spring of 1921, problems of food supply and transport, that had accumulated during the civil war, caused a supply crisis in Moscow, Petrograd and other towns. There was a wave of protest that started with strikes in January and continued with mass meetings and demonstrations in February. The workers’ demands had much in common with those raised by the Kronshtadt sailors. But there was no coordination, and the workers’ movement was already subsiding by the time the Kronshtadt revolt began in March.

The workers’ movement raised economic demands, related to the supply crisis, and broader political demands. The economic demands were directed against policies associated with ‘war communism’ – for the abolition of grain requisitioning, for free trade with the countryside, and free movement of labour between factories. At an important conference in early February in Moscow of metalworkers’ delegates – that is, representatives of the best-organised workers – a resolution was passed demanding the replacement of grain requisitioning with a tax in kind. This measure was of course adopted by the Communist Party congress a month later, and was the starting-point of the New Economic Policy.

At such meetings, workers often demanded the ‘equalisation of rations’, that is, an end to corrupt practices by which the emerging party and state bureaucracy assured extra food supplies for themselves – for example, claiming rations simultaneously for three or four jobs; putting factory managers and others on to higher rations supposedly reserved for those doing hard physical labour; or outright theft.

The political demands were aimed at making soviet rule more democratic. Resolutions were passed urging the restoration of the freedoms of speech and assembly. There were often vigorous protests against the arrest of non-Bolshevik factory-based militants.

This political aspect of the revolt was more pronounced in Petrograd than in Moscow, and most pronounced of all, of course, at Kronshtadt. There the main platform document called for the election of soviets by secret ballot, an end to privileges for the Communist Party, and other more far-reaching political reforms.

The Kronshtadt revolt has been described by some historians as a ‘third revolution’, or a step in that direction. But the lack of coordination with the workers’ movement, the tone of these resolutions, and the readiness of protesting workers – if not all participants in the Kronshtadt revolt – to negotiate with the authorities suggest that it was not. It can best be understood as a movement to renew soviet democracy.

Theme 2: Working class politics outside the party

During the 1921 revolt, and the first couple of years of NEP, the most interesting political trend among workers, to my mind, was the so-called non-partyist group. They were not just non-party (outside of all political parties), but non-partyist (that is, they saw this rejection of the party form as a matter of principle).

At the time, the non-Bolshevik socialist parties had been outlawed. There was no legal restriction on membership, but, in practice, their members were subject to arrest, their newspapers to closure and their meetings to harassment by the Cheka. This led some historians to assume that the non-partyists were mainly closet Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries. But archival research on their biographies and activities shows that this was not the case.

Some of them were former members of non-Bolshevik socialist parties, but others were former Bolsheviks, others syndicalists who renounced the party form in principle, and still others were people who had been active in 1917 but had not joined any party.

Separately, there was a significant group of former Bolsheviks in Moscow who had quit the party in the spring of 1921. Some of them briefly participated in the Workers and Peasants Socialist Party led by Vasily Paniushkin, which was suppressed after a few months. In 1920 these people had participated in an internal party opposition alliance, comprising the Democratic Centralists, the Workers Opposition, and other smaller groups, that came within a few votes of taking control of the Moscow party organisation in 1920.

In Moscow there were elections to the city soviet in April-May 1921. These were called by the Bolshevik leaders as a way of drawing a line under the Civil War, and the crisis of January-February, and moving on to economic reconstruction. The Bolsheviks won a majority in these elections, but only because the white-collar workers and officials from government departments based in the city, which accounted for about half the delegates, returned mostly Bolshevik representatives. Most large factories, that is, the workers in whose name the government claimed to rule, returned non-party delegates. These made up more than one quarter of the total (533 out of 2115).

The minutes of the first meeting of the soviet are very revealing. The non-partyists appealed to the Bolsheviks to work jointly on rebuilding the economy. The Bolsheviks rejected these overtures, and used their majority to ensure that none of the non-partyists were elected to the soviet executive. They also ruled that the non-partyists would not be allowed to operate as a fraction on the soviet.

The minutes of the soviet during 1921 and 1922 show that it soon became an empty talking-shop, used to rubber stamp decisions already taken by Bolshevik committees. This was not simply due to unfavourable circumstances inherited from the Civil War, but due to the Bolsheviks’ political intolerance towards the workers they claimed to represent.

The records of workers’ organisations at the AMO factory, the first car manufacturer in the Soviet Union, are also revealing. The non-partyists controlled the factory committee up until 1922. Then, after a lengthy campaign, most of them were removed by the Communist cell at the factory. From the factory committee minutes, and from interviews given later to an oral history project, it is clear that many of the non-partyists were inspired by a mixture of Narodnism and Syndicalism.

Why were the Bolsheviks so intolerant of such workers? To answer this, we may recall an exchange at the 11th party congress in 1922 between Lenin and Aleksandr Shliapnikov, the leader of the workers’ opposition in the Bolshevik party. Lenin commented on the political mood among factory workers, and complained: ‘Those in the factories are not the proletariat, but casual elements of all kinds.’ Shliapnikov responded that Lenin and others were ‘painting the proletariat in false colours.’ He added: ‘We will never have a different or “better” working class, and we need to be satisfied with the one we have.’

Theme 3: Mass mobilisation campaigns

The Bolshevik party was managing its relationship with the working class in a way that confounded the aspirations to participatory democracy that had run through soviets and factory committees in 1917. Now that the party had state power, such aspirations were overwhelmed by the vanguardist aspects of its ideology.

The working class, if indeed it existed (the point on which Shliapnikov argued with Lenin), was seen as a passive force. Rather than participating in political decision-making, the class was to be mobilised for political purposes according to decisions made by the party.

Two campaigns launched by the Bolsheviks in 1922 are symptomatic. The first was the campaign to seize church valuables to fund relief for famine victims on the Volga. The motivation was quite cynical, since the famine was caused not by a lack of cash resources but by a poor harvest and the collapse of the transport system. Nevertheless, the government saw this as an opportunity for anti-religious propaganda, and urged workers to sequester golden religious icons to fund famine relief.

In some factories, Mensheviks and non-party militants put forward proposals, including forming support groups to travel to the famine-hit areas to help, and monitoring how the proceeds of the sale of valuables were used. But such departures from the party line were denounced by Bolshevik party members.

A second campaign was organised during the trial of members of the Socialist Revolutionary (SR) party who had participated in the anti-Bolshevik government formed in Samara in 1918. The principal slogan was for the death penalty to be used – which is significant, since abolition of the death penalty had been an important democratic slogan in 1917. Large demonstrations were held on weekdays, and factory managements were instructed to bring workers on to the streets. Both the political content and the form of these demonstrations were attacks on soviet democracy.

At the same time, forms of workplace and soviet democracy that had survived the civil war were being eroded. In workplaces, the party had after the ‘trade union debate’ of 1921 decided once and for all that factory committees and trade unions would have no place in industrial administration of organisations. While the trade unions were given the task of ‘defending workers’ interests’, in practice the right to strike was constrained by the security services and by management whose standard reaction to any protests was to sack the organisers. Moreover, strike participants were often expelled from trade unions.

In the soviets, in addition to the squeezing-out of real political discussion that I have mentioned, there was a proliferation of bureaucratic structures. The secretary of the Moscow Bolshevik party, Isaak Zelensky, described the party as a pump that was ‘sucking in members and pumping them into soviet institutions’, so that few Bolshevik activists remained in the factories.

Theme 4: The economic recovery

Soviet democracy was retreating, and being stifled, in the context of an economic recovery that began in the first year of NEP. Industries were reorganised in trusts, and market mechanisms introduced into management. On one hand, this resulted in an increase in unemployment, particularly among women who were unceremoniously sacked to make way for male workers coming out of the army. On the other hand, industrial production began to recover, and by the mid-1920s had returned to 1913 levels.

Considering these processes from the standpoint of the advance or retreat of socialist and democratic elements in the revolution, one is struck by the force with which, as the economy recovered, old hierarchies and forms of alienation reasserted themselves.

In addition to the re-establishment of hierarchical relationships in workplaces, there was a rapid accumulation of material privilege by the elite in the state and industrial management. In 1922 and 1923 the top-down appointment of party officials to soviet and industrial positions was systematised. These party officials, as well as managers in the trusts, gathered personal wealth in a way that had simply not been possible during the civil war. This wealth was hardly comparable to that of the established propertied classes in other countries, but it was unattainable and hardly imaginable to even the best-paid workers.

A survey conducted in 1923 found that 14 percent of civil servants admitted to earning more than eight times, and some to earning more than thirty times, the minimum wage – although eight times was the legal maximum. And, of course, the survey is unlikely to have reflected semi-legal or non-legal incomes. By 1922 the party was officially sanctioning material privileges for its officials. A party conference resolution allowed them to earn senior management grades’ salaries plus 50 percent and guaranteed them valuable benefits such as housing, medical support and education. The party thus contributed to an atmosphere in which a social elite could re-form in a supposedly socialist society.


From the presentation of these four themes there are three conclusions I would like to draw out

First: Forms of hierarchy and alienation reappeared in the new society at a speed and with a force that caught Bolsheviks and workers alike unawares. Here was a classic example of historical forces working behind people’s backs, despite the great sense of agency that 1917 had given them.

Second: The Bolshevik approach to the working class in this period may be described as a ‘social contract’. The party said to workers: we will ensure that your living standards recover to their previous levels; we will provide welfare benefits and women’s rights similar to those in other industrialised countries. In return, you will observe labour discipline. You may complain about factory-level problems, but if you engage in political activity outside of, or against, the Bolshevik Party, you will be isolated and repressed. This isolation and repression was applied not only to the non-Bolshevik socialists but also to large numbers of disillusioned former Bolsheviks who left the party after the civil war.

Third: 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. It seems unlikely that different choices in the early 1920s would have substantially altered Soviet history – although they may have made possible different types of resistance to the re-imposition of exploitative class relations and dictatorship. However, Bolshevism also left legacies of authoritarianism, vanguardist and statist ideology that were influential, and damaging, in labour movements internationally over the last century. Overcoming such legacies, and disentangling them from the great progressive legacy of 1917, is part of the continuing process of social liberation.


[1] Pirani, Simon, The Revolution in Retreat 1920-24: Soviet Workers and the New Communist Elite (Routledge, London).


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