The life of an old Bolshevik

August 17, 2016

In a review for the revolutionary socialism in the 21st century website, Ian Birchall examines a book about the life of the Russian revolutionary Alexander Shlyapnikov.

"YOUNG ALEXANDER conquered India. He alone?" Brecht's lines are often quoted by Marxists as a rejoinder to the "great men" approach to history. Yet when it comes to the Russian Revolution many Marxists seem to adopt a similar approach. Lenin has been repeatedly rediscovered and reloaded; yet when it comes to his fellow Bolsheviks, even key figures like Zinoviev, information is much harder to come by. It may well be true that if Lenin had not been in Petrograd in 1917, the Revolution would not have happened; but it is also true that without the collective efforts of many Bolsheviks, Lenin would have had no party and would have been no more than a historical footnote. It is only fairly recently, with the opening of Russian archives, that we are beginning to get a fuller picture of the many individuals who helped to prepare and make the Revolution. (See for example Dave Harker's remarkable study Building the Old Bolsheviks 1881-1903)

Barbara C. Allen's biography of Alexander Shlyapnikov, the first full study in English, is therefore a valuable contribution which enables us to see the course of the Russian Revolution from a rather different angle through the experiences of a skilled metalworker. She has made extensive use of archival material; somewhat surprisingly, Shlyapnikov's three children survived the Stalin epoch and gave her access to documents as well as sharing family memories.

Alexander Shlyapnikov (left) talks with Clara Zetkin outside a session of the Third Congress of the Comintern in 1921
Alexander Shlyapnikov (left) talks with Clara Zetkin outside a session of the Third Congress of the Comintern in 1921

ALEXANDER SHLYAPNIKOV was born in 1885 into a family of "Old Believers" (a puritanical split from the Orthodox Church). They suffered considerable poverty after his father died when he was only three. He had primary schooling, but began working an 11-hour day in a foundry at the age of 10, after lying about his age. By the age of 15 he was an apprentice metalworker and moved to St. Petersburg. He had already begun to read Marxist literature and during a strike he organized his fellow apprentices into squads to harass scabs.

The 1903 split between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks made little immediate impression on Shlyapnikov, and he and his comrades continued to distribute literature produced by various tendencies. It was only during the revolution of 1905, when he was twice imprisoned for his activities, that he identified firmly with the Bolsheviks. By 1907 he was a highly skilled metal turner and fitter, but faced with the threat of conscription into the army, he decided to leave Russia and move to Western Europe.

Shlyapnikov was now one of a particular group of activists often referred to as "worker-intelligents" (a "worker intellectual" would do as a rough translation). He was a factory worker, employed in an automobile factory at Asnières-sur-Seine on the outskirts of Paris. He could thus make political propaganda among his fellow workers and develop workplace organization. But at the same time he was developing politically and became a writer. Such people played an absolutely vital role in the building of the party and provided a link between the theoreticians and the rank and file.

Between 1908 and 1916, Shlyapnikov was in Western Europe. As a skilled metalworker he found jobs in France, Germany, England and Scandinavia, and visited the United States. He thus developed a good knowledge of the political traditions of countries outside Russia; in particular he had contact with French syndicalists and learned to appreciate a revolutionary current very different from Bolshevism. He came to Britain in 1915; with the wartime demand for skilled labor, he rapidly got a job at the Fiat car factory in Wembley and became a member of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers.

Of necessity, Shlyapnikov worked closely with Lenin during this period. Yet he was never an unconditional admirer of Lenin, and had many disagreements with him on tactical questions, as well as being very critical of Lenin's support for national self-determination. Sometimes he felt that Lenin's polemics on theoretical questions created unnecessary divisions. In a letter to Zinoviev he wrote that Lenin "should not fly off the handle over trivia. He should support his proposals with evidence, not curses, and should not divide Bolsheviks into sheep and goats."

Lenin, as is well known, traveled to Russia in 1917 by means of the "sealed train" (which Shlyapnikov helped to organize). But between the outbreak of war in 1914 and 1917, Shlyapnikov visited Russia three times, something which involved considerable difficulty and risk. He established routes for smuggling literature into Russia, and was able to get a good understanding of the state of organization and consciousness inside Russia. Without the work of organizers like Shlyapnikov, Lenin's return to Russia would have been far less effective.

Shlyapnikov had become a skilled organizer, and his ability to deal with illegal conditions was greater than that of many Bolshevik leaders more senior than himself. Bukharin was a fine theoretician, but when it was arranged for him to visit the United States, he made his reservations in his real name rather than in the alias on his passport, and it was Shlyapnikov who had to sort out his problems.

Whatever his differences with Lenin, Shlyapnikov welcomed the October Revolution and threw himself into activity. Skilled activists like him were rare and had to take on many tasks. When the first Council of People's Commissars was set up, he became Commissar of Labor, one of only two commissars with a proletarian background.

THAT THE Revolution made the working class into a new ruling class was generally accepted. But how would the working class rule? There were a variety of organizations through which the workers could exercise their power. The party, with some legitimacy, could claim to represent the interests of the working class. Then there were the soviets and the factory committees. In addition there were the trade unions, which had traditionally defended the immediate economic interests of the working class. What should be the division of responsibility and power between these various organizations? How should they interact and if possible reinforce each other?

It is fair to say that the Bolsheviks had no answers to these questions. Flung into power in a situation they had neither predicted nor planned for, they were in uncharted waters. Lenin's State and Revolution had celebrated workers' democracy in the tradition of the Paris Commune, but it had not begun to tackle the question of the relative roles of party, soviets and unions. Zinoviev warned trade unionists not to seek national economic leadership, and Bukharin argued that there would be no trade unions in communist society.

The early frenzied years of the revolution threw up many problems, all against a background of civil war and the isolation of Russia. As Commissar of Labor, Shlyapnikov faced situations where workers were pursuing their own interests rather than those of their class. Thus workers at railroad-car plants were turning cars into residences for themselves and employees were stealing supplies. With Shlyapnikov's acquiescence, boards including union representatives were replaced by one-man management.

Things came to a head by 1920 with the formation of the Workers' Opposition, in which Shlyapnikov played a leading role. This advocated an increased role for unions. Unions and factory committees would replace state economic bodies in the management of the economy. Union representatives at all levels would be elected. Factory assemblies would decide important questions facing the factory. The Workers' Opposition were widely accused of being "syndicalist," but as so often, the term was being misused. Syndicalists proper, whom Shlyapnikov had known during his time in France, believed that the unions should take over the running of society, without the need for political parties. Shlyapnikov did not oppose the role of the party, but argued that a bigger role for the unions would mean more direct involvement of workers in running their own state.

The rise of the Workers' Opposition coincided with a crisis in the course of the revolution, which saw the Kronstadt rising and the introduction of the New Economic Policy. So it was no surprise that the Workers' Opposition was defeated. But if Lenin opposed Shlyapnikov's policies, he was also concerned not to lose an able and dedicated comrade. As on other occasions, his aim was not to crush the opposition but to win it over. Shlyapnikov and other Workers' Opposition members were elected to the Central Committee.

Throughout the 1920s, Shlyapnikov did a variety of jobs--despite ill health--and continued to advocate greater involvement of workers in the party and its leadership. But he was swimming against the tide. Apathy and demoralization were growing; in 1922 at a private meeting with comrades from the Metalworkers' Union, Myasnikov reported that at Perm in the Urals, "entire cells of communists were leaving the party, some enticed back only by gifts of boots from party leaders." Shlyapnikov did not support Trotsky, disagreeing with his strategy and doubtless recalling earlier clashes with Trotsky.

Yet until the 1930s Shlyapnikov continued to make his contribution. He responded to various attacks with humor and irony. With the consolidation of Stalin's power, everything changed. Stalin's aim was quite simply to destroy independent-minded revolutionaries. One member of the party purge commission told him that the very fact he was trying to defend himself was a proof of guilt. At one interrogation, he explained his differences with other opposition groups in the '20s; he argued that they "wanted only one thing: return to intra-party democracy as it existed under Lenin. This degree of democracy did not satisfy us, the past for us was not an ideal; we demanded thorough worker democracy."

After repeated interrogation he made some self-criticisms, but refused to confess. Obviously he was not suitable material for a show trial. In September 1937, he appeared before a court in closed session, and was sentenced to death and shot the same day. Stalin had broken one more link with the Bolshevik past.

BARBARA ALLEN has given us a fascinating perspective on the Russian Revolution, showing its strengths and weaknesses through the remarkable but ultimately tragic story of a Bolshevik worker-intellectual. Whether Shlyapnikov's strategy was a realistic possibility will remain a question of debate, but there is much here to disconcert the unconditional defenders of "Leninist" orthodoxy. Allen treats her subject with appropriate sympathy but does not attempt to draw political lessons; only in the conclusion does she give us some brief hints of her own stance, telling us that Shlyapnikov's views were "too narrowly class-based" and that he was "too easily convinced, as a young man, that workers' rights could only be ensured by the political repression of the propertied classes." (How else this might be achieved, she does not trouble to tell us.)

Allen has discovered much fascinating material which will enrich our understanding of the Russian Revolution. The book is not always an easy read; detailed accounts of factional disputes and disciplinary procedures can be wearing. And while she has burrowed deep into the archives in pursuit of her subject, she sometimes fails to place it in a broader context, so that it is hard to see the wood for the trees. However, the helpful conclusions at the end of each chapter make it easier for readers to navigate their way.

I will cite just one example which infuriated me. In 1922, Shlyapnikov signed the "Letter of the 22" appealing to the Communist International. The International set up a commission which included the German Communist Clara Zetkin. Zetkin remained silent and did not support the appeal. On the basis of a secondhand quote from another historian, we are told that Zetkin was "old, upset over the death of Rosa Luxemburg, and easily flattered and manipulated by RCP [Russian Communist Party] leaders." Anyone who has consulted John Riddell's edition of the proceedings of the Third Congress of the International in 1921 will recognize this for the slanderous nonsense that it is. Zetkin had put up a vigorous fight in the debate about the ill-fated March Action, and showed little sign of being "upset" or easily manipulated. She was just 65 years old, scarcely senile. Doubtless she had her reasons for not supporting Shlyapnikov, but they can scarcely be explained in these ridiculous personal terms. Allen rightly deplores the misogynistic language of some of the attacks on Shlyapnikov's ally Kollontai, but she seems much more tolerant towards ageism.

However, such lapses are only minor blemishes; Allen deserves our gratitude for telling the story of an honest and clear-sighted revolutionary who pursued his own course through the revolution with courage and integrity.

First published at rs21.

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