Skip to main content
By Don Fitz
March 29, 2018 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — In a post-capitalist society, who should control production? How should decisions about work life be made? Who should decide what is produced, where it is produced and how it is exchanged within a country and between countries? For the first time in history, the great Russian Revolution of 1917 had to confront these issues in more than a theoretical way. The issues became painfully pragmatic during intense conflict between the party majority and the Workers' Opposition (WO) of 1919-1921.
Too many discussions of the Bolsheviks focus on political battles and treat economic debates as barely secondary. In fact, struggles at the point of production were core; political conflicts reflected many of these differences; and, today, perspectives on top-down control version self-management permeate every vision of a new society.
In the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote that the task of building communism must be the work of the “toiling masses” themselves.  In August 1917, Vladimir Lenin wrote in The State and Revolution that “the administration of industry is well within the competence of any moderately intelligent citizen.”  By 1919 thousands of workers across Russia saw these principles slipping away and cohered a group whose best-known leaders were Alexandra Kollontai and Alexander Shlyapnikov.
Both had been early confidants of Lenin. While Lenin was in exile, Kollontai kept him informed of unfolding events in Russia. Shlyapnikov, a major leader of the Metalworkers Union, was the senior Bolshevik in Petrograd when the February revolution broke out. When Lenin returned to Russia and Kollontai presented his “April Theses” on the need for a continuing revolution, Kollontai and Shlyapnikov were among his most ardent supporters.
Yet, by 1922 Lenin had suggested that each be shot. What had the WO done that engendered such hostility from the great architect of revolution?
First days of revolution
Having been a metalworker since he was 13 years old, Shlyapnikov had an intense conviction that working people were most qualified for running industry because they had day-to-day experiences with processes of production. He played a key role in absorbing craft unions into a single industrial Metalworkers' Union, as advocated by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).
As the first Commissar of Labor in the new Soviet government, Shlyapnikov was keenly aware that both Bolsheviks and non-Bolsheviks had brought success to the October Revolution. The Metalworkers Union and vast numbers of other workers wanted a multi-party revolutionary government.
But as several parties rose in opposition and many of their members joined the counter-revolutionary “White” armies, the Soviets used various methods to restrain them. When Lenin suggested to the Council of People's Commissars that it arrest leaders of the Kadet Party, Stalin was the only member to vote against the resolution.  Though Stalin is often portrayed as waiting for the chance to suppress opponents, unfolding events of the Bolshevik Revolution confirm that history molds people at least as much as individuals create history.
At the very outset of the October 1917 revolution, the Metalworkers' Union called for workers' control of production. In March 1919, the 8th Party Congress (now the Russian Communist Party, or RCP) approved the famous economic section of its program, which included in paragraph 5: “Trade unions should further concentrate in their hands management of the entire economy as a single unit.”  This clearly distinguished the Bolsheviks both from anarcho-syndicalists, who abhorred any “concentration,” and from super-centralizers, who wanted the economy coordinated by the state rather than the unions. Would workers' control soon blossom in Russia?
Rancorous collapse of a honeymoon
Despite the favorable resolution, Shlyapnikov sensed a discrepancy between what it said and what he saw being practiced. He was critical of reliance on specialists to run factories and impose top-down discipline on workers. No one disagreed that plunging productivity was threatening the survival of the revolution.
The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk of March 1918 resulted in the loss of 40% of Russian industry and 70% of its iron and steel production.  Supply lines were broken as parts necessary for manufacture vanished. The Civil War that began in May 1918 cost millions of lives from fighting, famine and disease.  Mass starvation spread in Russian cities. How could the human misery be ended?
Leading Bolsheviks who had never worked in a factory interpreted the cause of the crisis as absenteeism and slovenly work habits. They saw the solution as more labor discipline with control by technocrats and the growing bureaucracy. Others, like Shlyapnikov, felt that production was hampered by breakdowns in supplies and lack of fuel and food. For them, bureaucratic control could not overcome inadequate raw materials, cold and hunger.
One of the first great blots on the revolution was in Astrakhan, where Bolsheviks authorities dispersed worker assemblies, jailed elected leaders and insisted on greater productivity. In 1919, Bolsheviks fired upon a metalworkers assembly of 10,000 workers, resulting in 2000 injuries. The new secret police, the Cheka, killed hundreds, some by tying rocks to them and throwing them in the Volga River. Renewed assaults resulted in the execution of over 4000 by April. As head of the Red Army, Leon Trotsky sent his approval. Shlyapnikov demanded an investigation. 
Also in 1919 forced labor camps were created, where people could be sent by orders of the Cheka, revolutionary tribunals or people's courts. As the tide of the Civil War turned during Fall 1919 and the collapse of White armies was eminent, attention turned to the organization of industry.  At the end of that year, when Leon Trotsky was at the height of his popularity, he first proposed the militarization of labor. Labor armies would be run with drafts, compulsion and a top down structure like the military.
Shlyapnikov accepted Trotsky's use of former tsarist officers as “specialists” in the Red Army (the most centralized branch of “industry”) because workers had no special knowledge of military strategy. But he argued that industrial workers understood production processes better than the specialists assigned by the party to run factories. As more and more rank-and-file party members shared similar concerns they began to cohere as the Workers' Opposition (WO) in 1919. 
Division within the RCP intensified throughout 1920. The year began with Shlyapnikov's proposal that unions take control of all levels of the economy.  In March Trotsky put forth his idea of “one-man management” of factories and Lenin soon agreed. Kollontai staunchly defended the concept of “collective management” by elected worker representatives.
The debate over economic control spread throughout the party and promised to be intense at the upcoming 9th RCP Congress. Lenin and other party leaders thought it best that Shlyapnikov not be present and assigned him to western Europe for union work.  Kollontai criticized Lenin for repeatedly removing those he disagreed with from open party discussions.
In Shlyapnikov's absence, the 9th party congress overturned the 8th congress' resolution on unions' running the economy and instead called for the party to increase its control over union staff.  Subsequently, support for the WO spread among industrial unions across the country. Throughout the year, party leaders attacked WO leaders personally and politically as they sought to undermine its influence.
They accused the WO of having ties to counterrevolutionaries. Lenin and Nikolai Bukharin claimed that the desire of the WO to include non-Bolsheviks in management of the economy made it “syndicalist,” even though actual syndicalists did not include it in their umbrella. Grigory Zinoviev chided it for failing to understand that the transition to socialism had to be controlled by party specialists rather than workers. 
The discord of 1920 did not only center on the WO. In August, Trotsky inspired the merger of railway and water-transport unions into a new Tsektran, which had appointed leaders and widespread labor conscription. Multiple organizers feared that this was merely Trotsky's first step in centralizing all unions into an appointed state apparatus of militarized labor. Hostility spread so rapidly that the 9th Party Conference presidium left Trotsky and his supporters off its list for the Central Committee (though they were later put back on). 
Trotsky's allies were so adamant in demanding the militarization of labor that they broke party discipline by denouncing the WO in meetings with non-party workers.  Defending his proposals, Trotsky wrote: “Man must work in order not to die. He does not want to work. But the social organization compels and whips him in that direction.”  In one meeting after another, workers openly worried that if Trotsky's proposals were put into effect, they could be jailed for breaking minor labor rules. 
The anger seemed about to boil over. Lenin's supporters put together a commission to resolve differences. It included both Trotsky and Shlyapnikov. Yet, both quickly resigned, complaining that Lenin had stacked the deck to ensure that the views of neither would be represented in its proposals. This may have been the only time that Trotsky and Shlyapnikov agreed during this period. 
As the infamous 10th Party Congress of March 8-16, 1921 approached, the RCP had three clearly defined factions. On the left, the WO called for increased union control over the economy, decreased bureaucratization, and restoration of internal party democracy. The right, led by Trotsky and Bukharin, called for labor armies controlled by the state. “The Ten,” based on Lenin's most loyal supporters, proposed that unions be separate from the state, with their major role being education of workers on socialism.
Many meanings of ‘workers' control’
It would be easy to argue that “workers' control” was abandoned at the 10th Party Congress. But the phrase “workers' control” meant very different things to different people at different times. So it's necessary to dive into socialist theory.
Did “workers' control” suggest that the labor force at each factory could seize it, do with it whatever they wanted, including selling it to the highest bidder and dividing the proceeds (as actually occurred at least once after the revolution)? Did it mean that each group of workers would decide not only how to organize production but also what products to manufacture and sell in the market? Or, did it mean, as the WO proposed, that elected union leaders would coordinate production at a local and national level, leaving the maximum possible decision-making regarding the organization of production to each group of workers?
Marx' critique of capitalism’s “anarchy of production” was a central part of the attitude towards workers' control in the early 20th century. Goods were produced, not due to social need, but because they could sell in the capitalist market. For Marx, economic justice required a plan for production to meet needs. This was supported by virtually everyone calling themselves socialists.
A major difference arose between reformists (like Eduard Bernstein) who felt that workers' rights could be won gradually by electing socialists to office and those (like Lenin) who saw the necessity for revolution. Both sides rejected anarchist and syndicalist views that would leave production in the hands of each workgroup. For socialists, a series of worker-owned enterprises would leave the market intact and force the workgroups to compete with each other and exploit themselves.
Marx assumed that those who would plan production would be the “toiling masses” themselves. But what if the “toiling masses” were divided from those who had power over the economy? Marx never posed this possible discord between theory and practice, but it was posed by bitter debates within the RCP.
Lenin's approach to control of industry reflected his approach to land and the peasantry. The Bolsheviks assumed that raising productivity required collective working of the land. When Lenin returned to Russia after the February 1917 revolution and spoke at the Bolshevik April conference regarding a resolution on land, he was adamant that the clause on peasants' taking control of land should go before the portion on nationalizing land because “it is the revolutionary act which is important.” As peasant land seizures spread across Russia during the following months the Bolsheviks followed Lenin's lead in enthusiastically supporting them while scarcely mentioning the ultimate goal of nationalizing land. 
Likewise, between the two revolutions, workplace seizures grew like an urban wildfire. Lenin unabashedly fanned the flames of discontent as he spoke and wrote in favor of “workers' control over the production and distribution of goods.” Criticism came from other Bolsheviks such as Solomon Lozovsky who wrote: “It is necessary to make an absolutely clear and categorical reservation that the workers in each enterprise should not get the impression that the enterprise belongs to them.” 
Shlyapnikov and Kollontai were among the thousands of revolutionaries who lauded Lenin's statements. For them, workers' control was an end in itself and the foundation of a new society. But a careful reading of Lenin reveals that he saw workers' control as a means of smashing capitalist control of industry that would yield to the greater end of centralized planning. 
Thus, three apparitions haunted the Bolshevik spirit in 1917: the wary spirit worried that workers' control could interfere with building a state-run economy; the undivided spirit beheld self-management as simultaneously the method and goal of establishing socialism; and, the redefining spirit realized that workers' control could first be used as a method to break up capitalism and then reappear as control by the party unifying production on behalf of the working class. These ghosts wrestled with each other, sometimes within themselves, through 1921 and beyond.
Praise of worker's control diminished as party leaders saw production falling and centralization became the word of the day. Terrified by mushrooming disorder, they decided to bring back bureaucrats to run the state and economy. Shlyapnikov was shocked when he returned to Moscow in February 1919 to see the extent of pre-revolutionary specialists in control of industry. The same concern echoed across the country. 
The Bolshevik factions of 1921 were corporal forms of the three apparitions of workers' control. The WO advocated workers' making fundamental decisions about production and coordinating the economy through elected representatives. Endorsing top-down militarization of labor, the Trotsky-Bukharin bloc did not even give lip service to workers' control. Lenin, the skilled manipulator, cohered the overwhelming majority by co-opting much of the language of workers' control while adopting a gentler-worded form of much of what Trotsky-Bukharin proposed.
10th Congress of the Russian Communist Party
In late 1920, Lenin and Trotsky each had representatives on the party's Central Committee (CC) while there were none for the WO. Since Trotsky's faction was strong, almost winning a CC majority, Lenin had his work cut out for him, which he did most skillfully. 
Efim Ignatov was one of many Moscow workers who favored a major role for the soviets and unions in coordinating production. They blocked with WO supporters to obtain a large minority of votes for selection of delegates to the 10th Party Congress. Lenin had the party's Central Committee (CC) interfere to deny proportional representation – all the delegates went to his faction.  It is unknown the extent to which the WO was similarly underrepresented in other parts of Russia.
While support for the WO was strong among industrial workers, it lacked the political skills of Lenin and the writing talent of Trotsky. So several of its leaders turned to Kollontai who wrote the pamphlet entitled The Workers' Opposition.
As editor of the party's paper Pravda, Bukharin was able to ensure that Kollontai's manuscript was published well after those airing Lenin's and Trotsky's views. When it did appear, workers read the WO echoing their own complaints: though self-organization of production should be the essence of communism, workers were denied any such role, which was given to party-approved specialists. The party was interfering with workers' initiative so much that they could not even organize their own canteens or childcare without going to bureaucrats. As former capitalists adapted themselves to the soviet system, they reappeared as the new bosses. 
Kollontai quipped that while party leaders regarded unions as “schools for communism,” unions should be its creators as well. She proposed that “all cardinal decisions of party activity” within unions should be subjected to a vote by the rank and file. Instead of concentrating funds for the dominant view, she advocated printing views of all factions. Though Kollontai's pamphlet clearly stated that “specialists can do valuable work,” it was ridiculed by Lenin's supporters as ignoring the need for specialists. 
Factionalism was even deeper in 1921 than it had been in 1917 when some CC members opposed the seizure of power; in 1918 when there was strong opposition to the treaty of Brest-Litovsk; or during many other disagreements. In earlier disputes different Bolsheviks lined up together and other disputes would see different realignments. But the 1921 division had been brewing for years with opposing sides becoming more intransigent – the sort of conflict that could rip a party apart.
As sailors rallied to the call of many Petrograd workers for democratic elections and coping with food shortages, the Kronstadt Rebellion broke out when the 10th Congress was opening. Timing could not have been worse for the WO, which strongly advocated working within the RCP rather than rising up against it.
Multiple speakers used Kronstadt to associate the WO with counter-revolution. Lenin opened the congress with an attack on the WO, saying it used the same slogans as Kronstadt. He singled out Kollontai, denouncing her pamphlet as the “platform of a new party” and exclaimed: “For this you should not only be excluded but shot as well!” Attempting to link it to another source of discord Bukharin howled that the WO “was complicit in peasant opposition to the Soviet regime.” 
Despite the onslaught of Lenin's full fury the WO pushed forward. It's ally Ignatov made three proposals designed to reverse the path taken by the RCP: (1) purge non-proletarian, non-peasant party members who had joined since mid-1918, (2) require non-workers to wait 1-2 years before holding party positions, and (3) require all party members to do at least three months of physical labor a year. 
As the congress wore on, Lenin's grip became tighter and votes for WO proposals became smaller. By the end, there was an overwhelming vote endorsing Lenin's view that workers were not yet ready to run the economy. Two shockers came during the final session. One resolution banned factions and allowed the Central Committee (CC) to expel those engaged in factional activity. The second, aimed specifically at the WO, condemned the “syndicalist and anarchist” deviation within the party.
The icing on the cake was election of Shlyapnikov to the CC and the refusal to allow WO members to leave their position in the party. Together, these destroyed the ability of the WO to organize and specifically forced Shlyapnikov to present Lenin's views when speaking in public. A question which no one seemed to have asked was: If it was okay for the RCP to have banned factions and muzzled the WO, would it have been okay for the Mensheviks to have done the same to the Bolsheviks when they had the upper hand?
By the end of the 10th Congress, it was unambiguous that the phrase “workers' control” assumed that the single party in power was alone in representing the true interests of the working class. The party would control industry, including control of management and day-to-day decisions regarding work life. This interpretation implied that the vanguard party, knowing better than workers themselves what their true needs were, could remove and replace those elected to union offices.
The end approaches
After the 10th Congress, anti-WO campaigns multiplied. Party leaders removed former WO organizers from positions and/or transferred them to locations where they would be isolated. The epitome of this strategy was when Lenin, Bukharin, Zinoviev and Vyacheslav Molotov collaborated to oust Shlyapnikov as head of the Metalworkers' Union and replace him with yes-bureaucrats. It required the big guns from the party center since they were strongly resisted by the union, which voted repeatedly against such maneuvers. When a CC commission noted that the reason for removing specific metalworkers was that they had been WO supporters, Shlyapnikov correctly replied that such targeting violated the 10th Party Congress ban on factions. 
Instead of responding to Shlyapnikov's charges, the center initiated the party's first show trial of Shlyapnikov for the crime of continuing a faction (which he had not done). This attack accomplished several goals simultaneously. First, it initiated terror against resistance to Lenin's power. (A side effect was teaching Stalin how to conduct a show trial via false accusations.) Second, by publicly humiliating Shlyapnikov after removing him from union leadership, it further undercut his political effectiveness. 
The most important aspect of Shlyapnikov's show trial was how it fit into the overall plan to slash the power of the Metalworkers' Union. The 500,000 members of the union outnumbered the membership of the RCP.  Forcing such a union to kneel before the smaller organization put the RCP well on its way to being the single political/economic force in the country.
Shlyapnikov was hardly a solitary target of the party's wrath. The list is quite long, with some of the notable cases being David Ryazanov, Flor Mitin and Kollontai. Prior to the May 1921 trade union congress Ryazanov criticized the party for treating trade unions with scorn, only consulting them on trivial matters, and insisting that their leaders sign decrees whether they agreed with them or not. In order to prevent Ryazanov from presenting such a resolution, they forbade him from attending the congress. (Party discipline meant that leaders could tell followers what meetings they could and could not go to.) When the resolution made it to the floor and passed anyway the party investigated how the resolution could have possibly made its way through its censors. 
Mitin discovered how to cope with demotion of WO supporters across the country. He transferred many to a different location but in a higher position than what they had been demoted to. His actions did not violate the ban on factions while the pattern of targeting party loyalists who had been members of the WO did violate the ban. The party center found this irrelevant and had Mitin expelled. 
When Kollontai criticized the New Economic Policy (NEP) at a July 1921 Communist International (Comintern) meeting, Trotsky misrepresented her views as merely those of one individual and appealed to the sexism of the audience by referring to her as a “Valkyrie.” Another Bolshevik denounced her for violating party discipline and presenting ideas of the “shitty” Workers' Opposition. 
Anti-WO tactics were not limited to personality attacks, reassignments and expulsions. An odd letter went to Shlyapnikov inviting him to join efforts to create a new international party, which would be an extreme violation of party discipline. Shlyapnikov interpreted it as an effort to entrap him. 
Within months of the 10th Party Congress, anti-WO repression had spread rapidly through Russia. In Nikolaev, 84 of the 100 delegates to a local congress supported WO ideas. As a result, 90 of its best-known supporters were transferred to other locations in early 1922. Retaliation against WO supporters and removal of elected union officers resulted in fewer workers being willing to participate in unions. 
The third meeting of the Comintern
With opportunities for discussion and organization being closed down, Kollontai and Shlyapnikov realized that there was one avenue still open for getting their ideas heard: the Comintern. One of its 21 points of agreement for joining included the right of a political minority in a country to appeal its case to the international. They organized an “Appeal of the 22” from loyal Bolsheviks to the third Comintern meeting of February 24 – March 4, 1922 regarding the suppression of union activists. 
When Kollontai tried to address the Comintern Executive, Trotsky and Zinoviev removed her from the list of speakers. Resisting that decision, Kollontai insisted on speaking and Trotsky repeated his disallowal and ordered Russian delegates to “obey party directives.” (Trotsky's elimination of the right of a party minority to exercise its right of dissension would soon haunt him.) The Comintern created a commission to investigate the affair and censured the 22, ordering them to abstain from such actions in the future. 
Back in the USSR things did not settle down. The Metalworkers' Union met in March 1922. Despite intense maneuvers WO supporters gained 84 votes against 99 for the slate approved by the party center for the union's central committee. They asked for proportional representation. The RCP's Politburo stepped into the union's affairs and ruled that WO supporters should not have any representation. 
WO supporters in the Siberian city of Omsk had a majority of the party's committee. CC secretary Stalin took the reigns of reorganizing the RCP in Omsk – there were reprimands, expulsions and over 100 transfers to reestablish control of the local party from the center. 
As the 11th Party Congress approached, it was clear that Lenin's view of unions as mediators between workers and state-appointed managers prevailed over Trotsky's implications that unions should be crushed and the WO orientation that they be managers of industry. Party leaders such as Bukharin were threatened by the continuing loyalty to WO ideas. The existence of Shlyapnikov was living contradiction to Bukharin's belief that workers could not generate an “intellectual elite” capable of managing the economy. The need to destroy Shlyapnikov and co-thinkers figured large in frequent complaints that the “Appeal of the 22” had fallen into the hands of reactionaries and thereby threatened the revolution – complaints which prefigured those that would appear against Trotsky. 
The 11th Party Congress took place March 22-April 2, 1922. Since Lenin had theorized that conditions in Russia meant that the proletariat no longer existed as a class, Shlyapnikov congratulated the congress “on being the vanguard of a non-existent class.”  Lenin reminded the congress that those who create panic in an army are shot and denounced participants in the “Appeal of the 22” for starting panic in the party. Unambiguous was the implication that Shlyapnikov, as originator of the Appeal, should be shot.
Kollontai challenged the atmosphere of terror engulfing the party's persecution of those who supported WO beliefs. She noted that the ban on factions created an atmosphere whereby two comrades engaged in discussion would be fearful of a third entering the room because that person could accuse them of having a “factional” meeting. 
As the party discussed whether Shlyapnikov and Kollontai should be expelled for holding “factionalist” meetings, Shlyapnikov mocked them for not presenting evidence that “meetings” had a chairperson, agenda, votes or minutes.  When reading this period of Soviet history, it is easy to get lost in a discussion of whether Shyapnikov, Kollontai and hundred of groups across Russia were or were not adhering to the ban on factions and lose sight of the fact that “party discipline” in 1922 required surrendering basic democratic rights.
Throughout 1922, the secret police was increasingly used to ferret out what the party center saw as its enemies. Shlyapnikov strongly suspected that police provocateurs were behind the woman who sought to entice him into creating a “fourth international,” an act that would have verified Lenin's accusations. Secret police kept close surveillance of party opposition groups such as Workers' Truth and Workers' Group, whose members were later arrested. Earlier, the Cheka had destroyed a group that dared to actually split from the RCP and call itself the “Worker-Peasant Socialist Party.” 
How do you strangle an opposition?
Suppression of dissent within the RCP was not an aberration of the 10th Party Congress – it both preceded it and intensified after it. Lenin's illness resulted in his being out of the picture during most of 1923. (He died in January 1924.) The following are actions and trends that preceded Stalin's rise to power:
a. Probably the most frequent complaint among WO supporters was transfer to other locations to prevent them from organizing, speaking or attending congresses or conferences.
b. Perhaps tied for first place among complaints was removal of elected worker representatives and/or appointment of those who would be more compliant.
c. Publication of minority views was delayed or dissidents were not allowed to defend themselves from attacks.
d. Conference dates were moved up to prevent membership discussion of issues.
e. Votes were overturned or minorities were disallowed proportional representation on higher bodies.
f. Rules against “factionalism” were applied vigorously to party minorities while majorities could engage in such behavior without rebuke.
g. Many were prohibited from resigning from party positions, thereby compelling them to represent views they did not agree with when speaking publicly.
h. Oppositionists were prohibited from presenting a proposal for a vote and banned from appealing the decision to a higher body.
i. Oppositionists were repeatedly attacked as playing into the hands of counterrevolutionaries.
j. The secret police was used against critics inside the Communist Party via surveillance, interrogation, entrapment and arrest.
k. Oppositionists were expelled from the RCP for disagreement.
j. Lenin's singling out opponents who he suggested should be shot was not a way to build solidarity among comrades.
Those who seemed to most frequently engineer the destruction of the WO were Lenin, Zinoviev, Trostky and Bukharin. Though Stalin's name does appear among those carrying out the suppression, it does not appear as prominently as these. History suggests that Stalin successfully learned the lessons they taught.
Battle for supremacy
As Lenin's health faded, conflict over succession became extreme. The “triumvirate” of Stalin, Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev manipulated election to the January 1924 13th Party Congress as seamlessly as the party center had done against the WO. Though Shlyapnikov stood outside of the ensuing factional fights, he publicized strong opposition to Stalin's “socialism in one country,” which resulted in his being denied the right to speak at the 14th Congress in May 1925. That year, Zinoviev and Kamenev echoed Shlyapnikov's concern and created the “United Opposition” (UO) with Trotsky. Stalin then made sure that they were removed from positions, just as the party center had done to the WO. 
Shlyapnikov wrote of his agreements and disagreements with Trotsky and concluded that Trotsky had little chance of grabbing party leadership. Accusations of who did what to whom and why during 1923-27 became weird. Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev did their best to woo WO supporters to their group and denounced the increasing variety of tactics Stalin used against them, despite their similarity to the tactics that they had used against the WO. Stalin simultaneously aimed his guns on Shlyapnikov with the falsified “Baku Letter,” a document that had been altered to imply WO supporters wanted to dissolve Communist Parties in western Europe. 
After Stalin's thugs disrupted their meetings, Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev admitted that the UO had lost, denounced Shlyapnikov for his WO ideas, and promised to dissolve their group. Historian Isaac Deutscher wrote that Shlyapnikov gave in to Stalin although it was actually the UO that did so. In fact, a Pravda article by Valerian Kuibyshev denounced Shlyapnikov for failing to recognize his errors as Trotsky and Zinoviev had done. 
The UO became outraged at Stalin's bungling of foreign affairs and, despite their pledge to end factionalism, in May 1927 issued the “Declaration of the 83.”  Shlyapnikov and his allies were not cosigners and have been criticized ever since for not doing so.
Shlyapnikov's biographer Barbara Allen interprets his unwillingness to sign the declaration as due to (1) Trotsky's refusal to invite Shlyapnikov to participate in writing or editing it, and (2) Trotsky's refusal to withdraw his condemnation of the WO made the previous year.  Though it is clear that a prominent leader like Shlyapnikov would not attach his name to a document for which he was excluded from drafting and omitted multiple WO beliefs, issues separating the WO from the UO ran far deeper.
In 1927 Leon Trotsky was one of the most politically unstable leaders of the RCP, having occupied virtually every position on the Social Democratic spectrum. First, he was a Menshevik denouncing Lenin's authoritarianism; then, he organized his own group around his personality; then, he was reborn as the unquestioning disciple of Lenin; then, in 1919, he and Bukharin cohered the extreme right wing faction in opposition to both Lenin and the WO. As a Menshevik, Trotsky had praised internal party democracy; then, he flip-flopped to become a major opponent of party democracy, wrote several chapters in the book of suppression of dissent, and helped develop practices to crush party opponents; and finally, he stomped his foot in fury as he became the victim of the very rules and practices for which he was the co-author. Realizing that having been a right-wing Bolshevik did not worked out so well, Trotsky reappeared as a left oppositionist. His disciples have worshiped him as “leftist” ever since.
Trotsky had ridiculed Kollontai's lack of faith in specialists and bureaucrats during the 1921 Party Congress, but zigzagged in 1923 to demand that the industrial bureaucracy be “destroyed.”  Meanwhile, Shlyapnikov and Kollontai maintained the same position they had had for years – preserve specialists as advisers and elect managers. The contrast was deep because Shlyapnikov's political life had centered on workplace democracy while Trotsky pulled the democracy rabbit out of his hat when convenient.
Trotsky's inconsistency, along with Kamenev's and Zinoviev's alignment and realignment of factional allies would make any reasonable person ask: “What will the UO do to our economic program if they actually defeat Stalin and Bukharin?” Since those who became the UO had scorned WO ideas throughout the 1919-21 debates and repeated that scorn in 1926, there was no reason to believe that it would not happen again. It would not have been out of character for Shlyapnikov to have asked himself if the same group which helped remove the WO from influence was now toying with it to get support while covertly planning to dump it once getting the upper hand over Stalin. The UO's absence of interest in soliciting input from WO supporters when drafting its program must have exacerbated suspicions of its long-term objectives.
Though both Kollontai and Shlyapnikov continued to work inside the RCP, the infighting led them in different directions. Kollontai wrote that early in life she had been shy and unsure of herself. The severity of attacks on her views and personality seem to have traumatized and embittered her. Kollontai played a critical role in arranging a treaty of mutual recognition between Norway and the USSR in February 1924 and followed that with diplomatic work in Mexico. She continued to address the oppression of women, even when Trotsky's opposition would not. 
In his autobiography Trotsky attacked Kollontai for “bowing” to Stalin. Trotsky seemed to assume that anyone who did not bow to him supported every proclamation from Stalin. In 1927, she wrote that “... the masses distrust the opposition ... The formation of a bloc with yesterday's opponents is completely incomprehensible.”  This slap at the unnamed Kamemev and Zinoviev was hardly groveling to Stalin. Shlyapnikov nevertheless told her of his disapproval.  Though Kollontai's articles became infrequent, she occasionally wrote about women's issues and continued diplomatic work with Norway and Sweden until her death in March 1952. 
Shlyapnikov under Stalin
As Stalin consolidated power Shlyapnikov continued his course of working within the RCP while trying to do what he could to improve the condition of workers. This required him to repeatedly deny accusations of factionalism. During 1926-27 a Trotskyist detained in Omsk tried to deflect attention with claims that a secretly formed WO group had illegal literature and printing equipment and had tried to link up with other cities. Shlyapnikov had to assure the secret police that he had warned his colleagues against doing any of these. 
As Shlyapnikov retreated into writing memoirs of the revolution, he was sharply criticized for failures to glorify Stalin. Refusing to recant, he was purged from the RCP in 1933. The hate campaign went into high gear: Stalin's supporters began condemning those who failed to condemn Shlyapnikov. 
Until the end, Shlyapnikov was a worker-intellectual who focused on how the organization of labor could be improved. Throughout his life workplace democracy and industrial productivity were one and the same goal. The WO's central concept was that those who labor every day understand the best ways to sustain and enhance production processes. Even before the revolution, Shlyapnikov had opposed speed-up, noting that he saw more industrial accidents with an 8-hour day than the old 11-hour day. As Trotsky preached that labor productivity must be increased by cracking the Bolshevik whip, Shlyapnikov patiently explained that the real problem was bottlenecks that prevented supplies from reaching factories. He realized that ultra-specialization of factories intensified the bottlenecks and countered that each factory should be able to produce as much basic machinery as feasible. 
A fundamental breach with the party center was the WO belief that effective management of industry could only occur if non-Bolsheviks were included in decision-making. Lenin, Trotsky and others insisted that decisions be left to Bolsheviks who were required to vote as directed by party discipline. Understanding that hunger and cold would worsen low productivity, the WO stood aghast at Lenin's New Economic Policy (NEP) that would prioritize creating rich peasants over increasing food and fuel for industrial workers.
Instead of relying on the NEP's use of the market to help peasants, Shlyapnikov advocated building up industry and improving wages so peasants could more easily sell bread to urban workers. Shlyapnikov's approach to the peasantry was to urge voluntary formation of cooperatives to improve agricultural productivity (in contrast to the forced collectivization that Stalin would carry out). 
When Trotsky proposed to close small factories and concentrate industry in 1923, Shlyapnikov pointed out that unemployment was already ravaging Russia's cities. Having faith in Russia's workers, Shlyapnikov advocated building up industry by better use of resources, such as using gold to build domestic machines rather than buying foreign products. 
Nevertheless, Shlyapnikov had such a strong knowledge of industrial processes that in 1927 he was sent to western Europe to purchase high quality machinery. Back in Russia, he realized that a major factor interfering with planning was that distortions in data increased with each level of management. 
As the Soviet Union began its first 5-year plan, Shlyapnikov was made leader of the metal ware-industries association in 1931. There he coordinated the transition to making precision instruments required for airplane, auto and tractor manufacture. 
Even after his 1935 arrest Shlyapnikov worked as an assistant director of transportation in Astrakhan where he was in exile. His son Yuri, who was allowed to visit him in 1936, was impressed with Shlyapnikov's design of a timesaving machine for unloading bread. This was the year before his execution. 
Since Shlyapnikov's ideas for workers' control of industry were known throughout Russia, Stalin needed to destroy him, especially after the widespread labor discontent of 1932. Shlyapnikov was also a thorn in Stalin's side because he refused to admit errors as Trotsky and Zinoviev had done in 1926. Praise of the great leader was in vogue during the 17th Party Congress in 1934, but Shlyapnikov never joined the chorus. Shlyapnikov's unwillingness to bend to Stalin could well have been the reason that there was no public show trial for him as there was for luminaries who confessed to “counter-revolutionary” activity, including Bukharin, Zinoviev, Kamenev and many others. 
Shlyapnikov was dangerous to every team in power since the revolution because he elbowed room for his ideas while playing by their rules. When the 10th Party Congress forbade factions, the WO was dissolved (even though the party center continued its own factional behavior). As the concept of factional behavior broadened, Shlyapnikov worked with his co-thinkers to operate as best they could, unlike Trotsky who enthusiastically enforced rules when part of the ruling clique and ignored the same rules when he was on the outside looking in.
Throughout his life as a dissident, Shlyapnikov continually made quips at those who failed to grasp the holes in their own rules. When Shlyapnikov's interrogators first questioned him about “anti-party views,” he asked if they were attributing “their own thoughts to him.” When asked why he did not criticize his own historical writings, he retorted that the party had not assigned him to write historical fiction. In court for his 1933 purge trial due to a long list of anti-party crimes, he queried as to how such criminal activity could have occurred for 16 years with no one noticing. Under interrogation in 1935 for an alleged conspiracy, he noted the absurdity of claiming that he would secretly work with Zinoviev in 1932, when Zinoviev's opposition was defeated, even though he had nothing to do with it in the 1920s when it was strongest. 
Stalin was never known for having a keen since of humor. He decided that Shlyapnikov would have the same fate as other thought criminals. Shlyapnikov was re-arrested in September 1936 as one of thousands caught up in the Great Terror. The only thing laughable about Stalin's cabal was the charges they came up with for their victims. On September 2, 1937 the court found Shlyapnikov guilty of heading the “anti-Soviet terrorist organization” called the Workers' Opposition, which had conspired with “Trotskyist-Zinovievist and right-Bukharinist terrorists.” Shlyapnikov was shot in Moscow the same day.  The isolation and persecution of Shlyapnikov by Lenin had facilitated his execution by Stalin.
Yes, Stalin was very wicked. But he was not a particularly creative thinker. Stalin carried out an enormous expansion and modification of techniques of suppression of those who preceded him. Understanding of what led to his consolidation of power is essential to building organizations today that are democratic and revolutionary.
The ghost of the WO haunts every scenario of progressive activity. Whether we seek to create democratic unions, establish independent political parties, grow local and healthy food or build consumer cooperatives, we repeatedly confront those who would control us from above. Learning from the legacy of the WO requires exploring its weakness as we appreciate its strengths.
During each phase of the Russian Revolution, there were those who criticized WO leaders for failing to leave the RCP and form an independent party. There is no agreement on when that should have occurred. Would it have been too early in 1919 when Shlyapnikov returned to Moscow and heard that complaints against top-down management were spreading across Russia?
Was the time ripe in 1920 when the Civil War was over and militarization of labor was becoming the word of the day? Or was the critical hour the 10th Party Congress that, in 1921, forbade the WO from using its name or organizing? Or, perhaps 1922, when former WO members were barred from sharing concerns internationally? Would it have been too late in 1929 when Stalin's policies of forced collectivization resulted in millions of deaths? Despite worker protests in 1932, Stalin had consolidated power to such an extent that an opposition party could scarcely have survived.
Whatever the “correct” date might have been, it most definitely was not 1927, when the United Opposition issued the “Declaration of the 83.” By then, virtually everyone supporting WO ideas understood that siding with Trotsky over Stalin would mean replacing one authoritarian egomaniac with another. To bloc with those who had utter contempt for workplace democracy until it became politically expedient to feign solidarity would have betrayed everything the WO had worked for.
Was the steady (though often circuitous) march toward economic centralization inevitable, as historian E. H. Carr thought?  If so, WO concepts were whimsical fantasies that must be brushed aside now as then. Central control remains an essential part of Leninist thought, whether it appears as Trotskyism or Maoism. The assumption is that the only form a post-capitalist society can take is having one ruling clique over a single party that controls the economy and work life. Why the WO challenge to this view was defeated remains critical today.
In a world being devastated by climate change, racist xenophobia, neoliberalism and the mindless worship of object possession, the end of capitalism could well be as terrifying as the starvation which engulfed Russian cities at the time of its revolution. Desperate people, robbed of their self-confidence, are prone to bending to strong leaders rather than keeping power in their collective hands. Struggles by the WO show the need to never let power-mongers cohere their control and become a new ruling class. Worker self-management, agricultural collectives, and consumer cooperatives can join together to create a democratic society without being dominated either by corporate markets or vanguardist elites.
The ultimate failure of the WO was, in part, due to a lack of the political/manipulative adroitness of Lenin. It was, in part, due to the lack of writing brilliance of Trotsky. More than anything else, it was a lack of self-confidence that led the WO to look for support from those determined to destroy it. Shlyapnikov spent his entire political life having faith in the Bolshevik organization. He was an outstanding figure in the revolution because his ultimate weakness was the same as his greatness – his failure to act as though he would be Prince.
Observers saw Shlyapnikov as easily outmaneuvered and no match for Lenin. When she broke off her romantic relationship with him in 1916, Kollontai concluded that, in political battles, Shlyapnikov was “helpless and clumsy.”  While Kollontai may have hit the nail on the head in recognizing Shlyapnikov's political naiveté, the hammer rebounded. Lenin's friends often referred to him as “Ilyich.” She ended her most famous work, The Workers' Opposition, completed before the 10th Party Congress, with the prophesy “Ilyich will be with us yet.”  Even as Lenin was devising a strategy to destroy the WO, Kollontai fantasized that he would advance its cause. Kollontai's placing her hope in Lenin manifests the pathos of those who sought for the underclass to become its own master.
Many believe that honoring the great accomplishments of leaders like Lenin and Trotsky requires (1) overlooking the enormity of their mistakes and (2) denigrating the contributions of those like Shlyapnikov and Kollontai. The Russian Revolution shows us that when oppressed people partner with those who have the intellectual capabilities of Bolshevik leaders, sooner or later the underclass will need to wrest control from their hands, even as the new leaders shriek that they must be able to dominate society because the counter-revolution is so strong.
In hindsight, all but the most blind can see that ultra-centralization which dismembered workplace self-management, created not socialism, but a new type of rule, which has been called a vanguard, bureaucratic or coordinator ruling class. Building a classless society requires ending the dichotomy between controllers and controlled. Leaders must be aware of the power they have and be willing to step aside rather than holding onto power for decades.
More important, we need to build a culture of those not in leadership positions stepping up to the plate to use the abilities they may have never known they had. Even more important, rank-and-file members must insist and demand that leaders teach them the organizing, speaking and writing skills that are necessary to replace them. Every progressive group – not just unions, but also political parties, and groups focused on community organizing, environmental protection, anti-imperialism, and rights of the specially oppressed – need to vastly expand the practice of rotating the role of coordinators. This is what it means to develop a leadership that negates itself in the process of becoming.
This article is based on a January 2018 presentation at Legacy Books & Cafe in St. Louis, Missouri. Don Fitz, who can be reached at email@example.com, was the 2016 candidate of the Missouri Green Party for Governor. Don Fitz, who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, was the 2016 candidate of the Missouri Green Party for Governor. He is on the Editorial Board of Green Social Thought, where this article first appeared, and is Outreach Coordinator for the Green Party of St. Louis.
1. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, “Manifesto of the Communist Party”. In Selected Works of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Vol 1 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1969).
2. V. I. Lenin, “The State and Revolution”. In Selected Works of V. I. Lenin, Vol 2 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1970).
3. Barbara C. Allen, Alexander Shlyapnikov, 1885-1937: Life of an Old Bolshevik (Chicago IL: Haymarket Books, 2015), 106.
4. Ibid., 133.
5. Edward Hallet Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution: 1917-1923. Vol 2 (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1985), 85.
6. Allen, 122.
7. Ibid., 131.
8. Ibid., 137-139.
9. Ibid., 1, 158.
10. Ibid., 141.
11. Ibid., 143.
12. Ibid., 146-147.
13. Ibid., 174, 160.
14. Ibid., 162.
15. Ibid., 167.
16. Carr, 215.
17. Allen, 166.
18. Ibid., 167.
19. Carr, 29-30.
20. Ibid, 65, 68.
21. Ibid., 58.
22. Allen, 132.
23. Ibid., 163-164.
24. Ibid., 72-73.
25. Alexandra Kollontai, The Workers' Opposition. In Alix Holt, Selected Writings of Alexandra Kollontai (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1980), 152, 163-164.
26. Ibid., 179, 195-197.
27, Allen, 182-184.
28. Ibid., 184-185.
29. Ibid., 191, 204.
30. Ibid., 216.
31. Ibid., 209.
32. Ibid., 200-202.
33. Ibid., 211-212.
34. Ibid., 213.
35. Ibid., 214.
36. Ibid., 212, 218, 229.
37. Ibid., 232.
38. Ibid., 233.
39. Ibid., 237.
40. Ibid., 240.
41. Ibid., 238.
42. Ibid., 245.
43. Ibid., 247.
44. Ibid., 248.
45. Ibid., 210, 241, 254-257.
46. Ibid., 262.
47. Ibid., 262, 270-272.
48. Ibid., 274-277.
49. Ibid., 279.
51. Ibid., 261.
52. Alix Holt, Selected Writings of Alexandra Kollontai (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1980), 29, 293, 297.
53. Ibid., 298.
54. Allen, 281.
55. Holt, 23.
56. Allen, 293-305.
57. Ibid., 309, 313.
58. Ibid., 46, 306.
59. Ibid., 261, 265.
60. Ibid., 261.
61. Ibid., 288-290, 343.
62. Ibid., 305.
63. Ibid., 360.
64. Ibid., 277, 320, 331-332.
65. Ibid., 319, 323, 327, 344.
66. Ibid., 363.
67. Carr, 55-95.
68. Allen, 70, 80.
69. Kollontai, 200.