Party degeneration

Submitted by Matthew on 2 May, 2012 - 4:29

At the beginning of its rule the Bolshevik party did not have an apparatus. In February 1918, the staff of the renamed Communist Party central committee consisted of 10 people (Liebman 1975 ). The central committee secretariat’s staff grew from 30 in February 1919 to 150 in March 1920 and 602 the year up to March 1921 (Pirani 2008).

The first year of the revolution was tumultuous for the party. Membership dwindled in Petrograd, going from 30,000 in February to 13,472 in June, to about 6,000 in September, less than 2% of organised factory workers in the city (Rabinowitch 2007 ). Some of these losses were due to Communists going off to fight in the civil war or join the administration of the new state elsewhere. Some will have left for the countryside to avoid hunger and disease.

Despite civil war losses, the party still retained about 12,000 “undergrounders” in 1922 and over three times that number who had joined between the February and October revolutions. Pre-October Bolsheviks monopolised the upper levels of the regime in the first two years of the new regime. Between 1919 and 1921, however, their numbers were heavily diluted with newcomers (Rigby 1971).

A survey of the Moscow regional party’s 35,000 members in October 1920 showed that 32% of them joined between October 1917 and August 1919, and another 51% since then. Only a tiny minority (5%, i.e. 1,763 members) had joined the party before 1917 and another 10% had joined in 1917 before October (Pirani 2008).

Academic historiography has made the party the integrating mechanism of the whole system, reserving for itself all major decisions; directing, supervising and coordinating their operation and sorting out their problems and conflicts. Rigby argues that such an assumption is mistaken. In the first year or so after the revolution, “there was no evidence that leading Bolsheviks believed the party should perform such a role, there was no attempt to equip them to do so, and it did not in fact do so”.

However, between 1919 and 1921, “the relationship between party and state in Soviet Russia underwent a profound change and in the process Sovnarkom became increasingly dependent on the party central committee and its inner bodies in a variety of ways: for policy guidance, for resolution of important and disputed matters, for information necessary to effective executive action, for getting its programmes implemented in the provinces, for choosing its members and for staffing its offices” (1979).

By the end of the civil war, Russia was a one party state. A central reason for this was the implacable behaviour of the other parties during the civil war (Sakwa 1987). The process was not automatic and proceeded in stages as the new regime developed. The Mensheviks and Right SRs who had opposed soviet power remained legal in the early months of the new government. These parties were excluded from the national soviets in June 1918 (though they remained in local bodies), in the context of the burgeoning civil war and foreign intervention. Some anarchists had already turned against the regime in April 1918 and had been repressed. Most spectacularly, in mid July 1918, the Left SRs tried to incite an uprising and restart the war with Germany starting with the assassination of German ambassador.

Nevertheless some political liberty persisted. Until the middle of 1918, the Cadet newspaper Svoboda Rossii was still being published and there still existed an extensive Menshevik party press (Farber 1990). The Mensheviks were briefly reinstated in the soviets on 30 November 1918. The newspaper of the Menshevik central committee resumed publication on 22 January 1919. It was so successful — it printed 100,000 copies — that after the fourth issue it came out daily. However, it was closed down again on 26 February 1919. In 1920 the Mensheviks had party offices and a club in Moscow, although the Cheka raided the premises, sealed them up, confiscated papers, and arrested those assembled. That year the Mensheviks held party conferences in the open.

The SRs not allied with the counterrevolution were reinstated in the soviets in February 1919. A group of Left SRs around Steinberg was briefly allowed in 1920 to publish a periodical called Znamia. Likewise two different groups of Right SRs were briefly allowed to publish newspapers in 1919, and some, though not all, anarchist periodicals continued to appear until the last ones were closed down after the Kronstadt uprising (March 1921). When Kropotkin died in February 1921, some anarchists were released from prison for his funeral and for a 20,000 strong procession with placards and banners (Farber 1990).

In early 1920, repression was concentrated on the anarchists that had organised the bombing of a Moscow party meeting in September 1919. The Moscow Bolshevik Party Bureau, rather than any soviet body, discussed in July 1920 a formal appeal for legalisation by the Moscow Left SRs; it decided that given “the complexities of the current situation” the request could not be granted. The Cheka also kept an eye on the Left SR Internationalist Group, 11 members of which were arrested and then released in September 1920 (Pirani 2003).

On 17 April 1921, Lenin criticised a Cheka report recommending that certain groups within the Menshevik, SR and Anarchist parties should be legalised, and that individual Mensheviks and SRs should be released to take part in elections to the Moscow Soviets (Farber 1990). There were non-Bolshevik deputies in the Moscow Soviet up to 1923, although they did not threaten the Bolsheviks domination (Sakwa 1987).

After the civil war, there were a number of dissident workers who defined themselves as “non-party”. It is arguable that the label “non-party” was simply a cover for opposition socialist activity by workers who previously associated with banned parties like the Mensheviks and SRs. However their ranks included previously loyal but now disillusioned Bolshevik militants. Kamenev criticised non-party workers because they were “brought together exactly by the fact that they do not have a worked out programme and do not answer for each other”. I think that criticism was essentially just. Even historians like Pirani who have championed the non-party militants acknowledge that these opposition groups were not a political alternative to the ruling party (2008).

Rather more important was the Left Opposition which emerged in 1923 against Stalin’s wing of the party. The precise contours of the dispute are not the subject of this article. The point here is that the very existence of the opposition to Stalinism and its fight for the working class militants that led the revolution showed that there was life left in the party and hence in the possibility that the workers could reimpose control through reform of the state.

In 1927-28, about 8,000 oppositionists were expelled by decisions of the fifteenth party congress, and their leaders exiled. In a secret report, the central committee’s information department noted: “At several workplaces [the opposition] were successful, mobilising a significant group of workers. In some cases they took the lead at factory mass meetings, where their representatives took the chair” (Gusev 2009).

The Opposition’s aim, to win the best militants from the old guard within the ruling party, was strategically the right approach to reviving workers’ democracy in wider Russian society. Despite the evident substitution of the party for the broad, mass-based class rule institutions of the early revolution, perhaps even because of this substitution, the only strategic path to resuscitating genuine workers’ democracy was to fight within the party.

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.