The bureaucracy was not born of a one-party state, or the rule of the Bolshevik party.
Administration is a necessary function of any state, but precisely because of its role in allocating, dividing up and distributing the surplus product, it carries the risk of developing into a bureaucratic layer with its own distinct interests. In backward Russia, with a huge pool of peasant labour and a minority working class, such a bureaucracy composed of residue elements of the old ruling class was able to wrap its tentacles around the organs of workers’ power from the beginning.
It was therefore the rising of the state bureaucracy — the industrial managers,military specialists and state functionaries — fusing, combining, amalgamating and interpenetrating with the Stalin apparatus that had grown up within the party, which constituted the new ruling elite (Block 1975). Not to register this process is to treat the party and the state as reified historical actors, set apart from society (Orlovsky 1989). But this social layer was not yet a ruling class in 1921.
It had not made itself the sole the master of the surplus product. It had to smash the remnants of working class power, whose principal agents remained largely within the Communist Party. The process through which the bureaucracy was formed and grew to strangle the ruling workers’ party emerged out of the circumstances of the civil war. When the counter-revolutionary army threatened Petrograd in 1919, distinctions between party and soviet often appeared to break down altogether (Rabinowitch 1989).
The party secretariat, in which Stalin played a key role after his appointment as general secretary in April 1922, gathered together separate strands of party organisation. Even before the 11th party congress of March–April 1922, “there were 7,000 national- and regional-level officials reporting directly to the secretariat’s record and assignment department”; by the time of the congress, “this department had collated lists of 33,000 officials and set about taking charge of them”.
In late 1923 “the first lists (nomenklatury) of party and state appointments that required central approvalwere drawn up; in 1924, record and assignment departments, responsible to their central parent body, were put into all the main branches of the state apparatus. The Moscow regional party’s record
and assignment department, set up in July 1922, appointed in its first seven months 5,863 party members (about one-fifth of the Moscow membership), to positions, mostly into central or local party or Soviet bodies. ‘Appointism’ — that is, the appointment rather than election of party and state officials
that had begun during the civil war — now predominated.
The tenth party congress in March 1921 had condemned it,but in the years that followed it spread, becoming comprehensive in 1924–25” (Pirani 2008). This bureaucratic layer gave itself privileges which further differentiated it from the working class. The elite had real material privileges — leather jackets, good living quarters and better meals, a car, a dacha and the freedom to travel. In 1924, a trade union statistician was scandalised to discover that some “sluzhashchie” admitted to earning more than 30 times the minimum wage. In late 1923, when the trade unions were protesting vociferously about industrial managers being overpaid, they pointed to the “doubtful specialists” who benefited. The Hungarian communist Bela Kun, living in exile in Moscow, received at least 25 times the minimum.
Then there were non-cash benefits as the housing, education and healthcare, or the gold watches presented to Party members in industrial management (Pirani 2008). The communist industrial managers began to organise politically, in the sense that they lobbied to secure their own position within the state bureaucracy. In December 1922, they launched a permanent council of industrialists and began to publish a journal. In 1923, a Moscow “Red directors” club was established as part of the national grouping, with 146 members. Significantly, the communist managers’ lobbying was stiffly resisted by communist trade union leaders (Pirani 2008).
Government service personnel in 1924 totalled about 1.8m; by 1926, the figure had increased by 25% to over 2.3m. The hypertrophy of the state was matched by the growth of the party. By 1924, only 14% of all commissars, deputies, department heads, and collegium members in central agencies were registered as party members or candidates (Sternheimer 1980). Of a total party membership of about one million in 1927, some 439,000were employed by the state directly in the state apparatus or indirectly in such “social” or “economic” institutions (Rowney 1989).
Is the characterisation of Russia in the 1920s as a degenerated workers’ state incoherent?
This designation only made sense as long as it was possible to argue that the Russian working class still in some sense ruled politically, i.e. that it still had the channels, the levers and the institutions through which it could control the surplus product.
Immediately following the revolution which shattered the old state, the new soviet government headed by the Bolsheviks based its rule on the mass organisations that had taken power and established a number of democratic channels through which workers played a significant role in determining the major production decisions of Russian society. The already backward state of the country coupled with international isolation severely limited the possibilities for the new workers’ government. Similarly, the absence of reliable allies made the descent to one-party rule difficult to arrest. The onset of the civil war and foreign intervention only compounded these tendencies. In such circumstances, the emergence of a bureaucratic layer within the new state was inevitable. The social, economic and political pressures on the new state made its victory highly likely — probably in the form of a capitalist restoration. However whether it would triumph was not a foregone conclusion. There was a struggle to preserve the forms of working class rule.
The process of formation of the bureaucratic ruling class was well underway by the early 1920s, but still far from complete. The party itself had not been decisively subverted. Workers retained some levers, through the soviets and trade unions, for what might be called partial or negative control of production. The “resilient traditions of working class organisation” had survived the civil war (Aves 1996). Most importantly, the party was not completely dead — though it had clearly already begun to degenerate. The proletarian vanguard that had made the revolution was not completely exhausted, although by 1921 it was severely weakened. The correct strategy, flowing from the situation and the actual relation of forces at the time was to fight for working class democracy, starting from within the party. That was broadly the approach of the Trotskyist opposition and the best of other oppositions such as the Democratic Centralists.
Is the Communist Party in the mid-1920s a model for today?
No. A degenerated, heavily bureaucratised party shorn of its democratic structures was no basis on which to make and sustain workers’ revolutions at that time. We are certainly in no need of such a prototype today. However this does not mean junking wholesale the Bolshevik party as a model. This was still the party that led the 1917 revolution. This was the party that could take on and defeat all enemies, internal and external and survive the civil war. This was the party that would rancorously debate out its differences, such as over Brest-Litovsk or the trade union debate, often in public and with great sharpness, in order to clarify the assessment and to draw out the political conclusions.
That party, and the tradition it embodied, was not finished after the civil war. It had made a tremendous, irreplaceable contribution to the Russian working class over decades, and it was entirely right to seek to salvage whatever could be salvaged from its ranks. There were no other forces, no other agents capable of turning the tables on the bureaucracy and on Stalin’s wing at that time than the old guard of militant worker-Bolsheviks. Simon Pirani’s recent study has provided much detail about Moscow after the civil war, including on the strength of bureaucracy and on the state of workers’ organisation. However, by attributing the malaise to the party, I think he understates the role of the state bureaucracy, which had developed as a social force earlier and had already begun to usurp and subvert the party. Pirani also overstates the situation with regards to the mode of production. He argues that “despite this absence of a ruling class, exploitative social relationships based on alienated labour reappeared” (2008). The slippage here is twofold.
Firstly, it is at least a minimal criterion for a Marxist analysis to define who the ruling class are in any situation. The dispute here is not whether socialist, non-exploitative relations had emerged. Abolishing alienated labour was not possible in a backward, isolated economy. Rather the question concerns
the nature of the state at a time when social relations were in flux. The unavoidable question of who ruled is at least answered by the “workers’ state” formula, suitably qualified.
Could things have been different?
Pirani accepts that the lack of democracy alone did not cause the degeneration of the revolution after 1921. Rather, “there were mountainous obstacles — principally, Russia’s economic backwardness, and the failure of the revolution to spread — that anyway might not have been overcome”. In the long run, he accepts that different choices would not have greatly altered the course of Russian history (Pirani 2008).
Could the opposition have done more and earlier?
Undoubtedly. They should have opposed the ban on factions within the party and fought for the revival of the soviets. They could have opened up elections to the soviets and tried to collaborate with the best of the “non-party” groups in Moscow in 1921. They could have championed trade union independence from the state and other basic freedoms to organise, publish and dissent. The working class still required “light and air” in its own state, for without democracy workers could not control the surplus they had created. Pirani dates the political expropriation of the working class to 1924. The Democratic Centralist group argued from 1926 that a new party and a new revolution were necessary. This was burying the revolution while it was still alive, while the fight within the party was still possible. But after the defeat of the Left Opposition in 1927-28 and the closing off once and for all of the party as a channel for working class rule, it is absolutely correct to identify a qualitative shift in the situation. After 1928 and with the onset of Stalin’s forced march industrialisation and collectivisation, the working class no longer ruled politically in any sense and therefore it did not rule socially or economically either. The nationalised property relations are not sufficient to describe Russia as any kind of workers’ state, the description “degenerated workers’state” is undoubtedly incoherent. If workers do not rule politically, then they cannot rule at all. That was the great truth that broke the back of Trotsky’s later theories of Stalinism.
However, it is still possible to regard Russia for most of the 1920s as some sort of a workers’ state. Not a socialist mode of production, but one in which the working class was still the ruling class, through the Bolshevik party. Certainly a heavily bureaucratised state where the institutions of working class
democracy had withered and faded. Undoubtedly an increasingly bureaucratised party within which the apparatus was strangling the healthy forces. But still a party where those who had made the revolution in 1917 still held some weight. Vicarious abandonment of the Russian workers’ state before it was finally lost serves neither history nor the present.
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