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The Workers Opposition in Russia

A. Kolontay

Moscow, 1921

Industrial Workers of the World

1001 W. Madison Street Chicago, Ill., U. S. A.


The principal object in translating and publishing this book is to show the workers in America a revolutionary political party in operation, and to demonstrate its inevitable tendency towards bureaucracy with a consequent isolation of the masses. A complete survey or even a small part of the evils abounding in a political centralization of production and distribution is of course beyond the scope of this small book and too, it is obvious that the complaint expressed here could not tread outside of party lines.

The book was only intended originally for the delegates of the Tenth Congress of the Russian Communist Party, and, anticipating criticism for publishing in America what was not intended for the world at large we justify ourselves on the ground that criticism of a party having perhaps the destiny and welfare of the millions of Russia in their hands is as much the business of revolutionary workers in America as anywhere else. Yes, even Russian workers.

The Russian revolution as a spontaneous movement of the masses is not the property of any certain group or party. All humanity if bound up in such an event and therefore no one can be expected to recognize certain circles beyond which a knowledge of such vital questions cannot go.

The failure of the Bolshevik party to solve the social problem and the failure of the author of this book to prove that it could have been solved by the same political party if they only had adopted the tactics suggested by the "Opposition", these two facts taken together, should in our opinion, be sufficient to remove for a long time to come the notion that a few leaders can emancipate the workers from their desks in government buildings.

Kollontay has succeeded in convincing us that Lenin, Trotzky and Zinoviev together with other front rank Bolsheviks were wrong all the time in trying to solve the social problem from the top downward. She has strengthened the belief that it must take place from the bottom upward, but she has failed to show any logical justification for a political party directing such a movement.

The translation of this book from Russian to English presented many difficulties, chief of which was the necessity of the remodeling many parts into readable English. The original in Russian was written in haste, with barely time to have it printed for the Tenth Congress of the Russian Communist Party and this made it impossible for a better and more studious attention to the details of construction. Therefore the English translation bears many sentences and paragraphs that are not exact translations, but retain the sense of the original copy. One other thing that must be noted in connection with the book, is the intimate manner the writer assumes. This is of course because of her intended auditors were familiar with the situation with which she was dealing and therefore she was excluded from the necessity of going very deep in her discussions. But is spite of all this it is obvious that the "Infantile sickness of Leftism" is a disease that is completely overshadowed by the organic weakness of the political centers.

This book is now out of print in Russia and together with the "Workers Opposition" as a movement was officially declared by the tenth Congress of the Russian Party to be, "incompatable [sic] with the present policy of the Communist party", and as this can mean nothing else than that the stamp of illegality has been placed on the movement it must now operate outside of party influences. What will be the future of the "Opposition" principles in Russia one can only guess, but it is certain that the struggle of the workers to control the industries themselves with be carried on in Russia in spite of all legal hindrances.

The Workers Opposition in the Russian Communist Party

What Is The Workers' Opposition?

What is the "Workers' opposition"? Is it necessary on behalf of your party and the world workers' revolution to welcome its existence, or is it just the contrary, that the phenomenon is a harmful one, dangerous "politically," as comrade Trotzky just recently stated in one his speeches on the trade union question?

In order to answer these questions which are agitating and perturbing many of our fellow workers, it is necessary to make clear:

1. Who enters into the Workers' Opposition, and how has it originated?

2. Where is the root of the controversy between the leading comrades of our party centers and the Workers' Opposition?

It is very insignificant- and to this must be drawn the attention of our central bodies- that the Workers' Opposition is composed of the most advanced part of our class-organized proletarian-communists. The opposition consists almost exclusively of member of the trade unions, and this fact is attested by the signature of those who side with the opposition under the theses on the role of industrial unions. Who are these members of the trade unions? Workers,-That part of the advanced guard of the Russian proletariat which had borne on its shoulders all the difficulties of the revolutionary struggle, and did not dissolve itself into the soviet institutions by losing contact with the laboring masses, but on the contrary, remained closely connected with them.

To remain a member in the union, to preserve the close vital contract with one's union, and hence, with the workers of one's industry, through all these stormy years, when the center of social and political life has been shifted away from the unions, is not at all an easy and simple task. Foamy waves of the revolution have caught and carried far away from the unions the best, the strongest and the most active element of the industrial proletariat, throwing one to the military front, another into the soviet institutions, and seating a third by desks covered with green office table cloth and heaps of office papers, books, estimates, and projects.

The unions have been depopulated. And only workers imbued with the strongest proletarian spirit, the real blossom of the rising revolutionary class, remained immune to the dissipating influence of authority. They still stay spiritually welded together with the masses of the workers: that lowest stratum of society from whom they themselves came, an organic connection which could not be severed even by the highest soviet positions.

As soon as the intensity of the struggle on the fronts diminished, and the pendulum of life swung on the side of economic reconstruction, these representative, inveterate proletarians in spirit, the most luminous and staunchest of their own class, rapidly discarded their military garb, gave up their office work in the military establishments, in order to answer the silent call of their comrades, the millions of Russian workers who even in Soviet Russia drudge out their shamefully miserable existence.

Through their class instinct, these comrades standing at the head of the workers' Opposition became conscious of the fact that there was something wrong: they understood that even though during these three years we have created the soviet institutions and reaffirmed the principles of the workers' republic, yet the working class, as a class, as a self-contained social unit with identical class aspiration, tasks, interests, and, hence, with a uniform, consistent, clear-cut policy, becomes an ever less important factor in the affairs of the Soviet Republic. Ever less does it lend color to the measured promulgated by its own government; ever less does it direct the policy and influence the work and the trend of thought of the central authorities. During the first period of the revolution, who would dare to speak of the "upper" and the "lower" strata? Masses, namely, the laboring masses, and the leading party center were all in one. All aspirations that were borne of life and struggle at that time found their most exact reflection in the most clearly defined and scientifically grounded formula of the leading party centers. There was no line drawn between the "upper" and "Lower" strata and there is no agitation or intimidation strong enough to eradicate the mass conviction that there has grown up a quite new peculiar social layer- that of the soviet and "upper" party elements.

The members of the trade unions, the existing nucleus of the workers' Opposition, have understood this fact, or rather, sensed it by their healthy class instinct. Fist they found it necessary to come into close contact with the rank and file. To enter into their class organizations, the unions, which, less than any other institution, have come under the destroying influence of cross-current, foreign, non-proletarian element, viz. : the peasant and bourgeois elements, which by adapting themselves to the soviet regime deform our soviet institutions and divert our policy from clearly defined class channels into the morass of "adaptation."

Thus the Workers' Opposition consists of proletarians closely connected with machine or mine, who are a part and parcel of the working class.

The Workers' Opposition, moreover, is wonderful in that it has no prominent leaders. It originated as any healthy, inevitable, class-founded movement would originate-from the depths of the laboring masses. It sprouted from deep roots simultaneously in all corners of Soviet Russia, when the appearance of the Workers' Opposition in the large centers was not even heard of.

"We had no idea whatever of the fact that in Moscow controversies are taking place," said one delegate from Siberia to one of the Miners' congresses, "and yet questions similar to yours have been agitating our minds also." Behind the Workers' Opposition is the class-uniform, class-conscious and class-consistent part of our industrial proletariat-that part of it which considers it impossible to substitute the great creative power of the proletariat in the process of building communist economy by the formal label of the dictatorship of the working class.

The higher we go up the ladder of the Soviet and party hierarchy, the fewer adherents of the opposition we find. The deeper we penetrate into the masses the more response do we find to the program of the Workers Opposition. This is very significant, and very important. This must be taken into consideration by the directing centers of our party. If the masses go away from the "upper" elements; if there appears a break, a crack, between the directing centers and the "lower" elements, that means that there is something wrong with "upper" elements, particularly when the masses are not silent, but think act move and defend themselves and their own slogans.

The "upper" elements may divert the masses from the straight road of history which leads toward communism only when the masses are mute, obedient, and when the passively and credulously follow their leaders. So it was in 1914, at the beginning of the World War, when the workers believed their leaders and decided: "The instinctive feeling of protest against the war deceives us; it is necessary to be silent, to stifle that feeling and obey the superiors." But when the masses are in turmoil, criticize their leaders and use their own brains; when they stubbornly vote against their beloved leaders, quite often suppressing the feeling of personally sympathy towards them; then the matter assumes a serious turn, and it is the task of the party not to conceal the controversy, not to nick-name the Opposition with unfounded and meaningless epithets, but to ponder seriously over the whole matter and find out where the root of the evil is, where the root of the controversy is, what it is that the working class, the bearer of communism and its only creator, wants.

And thus the Workers' Opposition is the advanced part of the proletariat which has not severed the ties with the laboring masses organized into unions, and which has not scattered itself in the soviet institutions.


Before making clear what the cause is of the ever widening break between the "Workers' Opposition" and the official point of view held by our directing centers, it is necessary to call attention to two facts:

(1) The Workers' Opposition sprang from the depths of the industrial proletariat of Soviet Russia, and it is an outgrowth not only of the unbearable condition of life and labor in which seven millions of the industrial workers find themselves, but is also a product of vacillation, inconsistencies and outright deviations in our soviet policy from the clearly expressed class-consistent principles of the communist program.

(2) The opposition did not originate in some particular center, was not a fruit of personal strife and controversy, but, on the contrary, covers the whole extent of Soviet Russia and meets with a resonant response.

At present there prevails an opinion that the whole root of the controversy arising between the Workers' Opposition and the numerous currents noticeable among the leaders consists exclusively in the difference of opinions regarding the problems that confront the trade unions. This, however, is not true. The break goes deeper. Representatives of the Opposition are not always able to clearly express and define it, but as soon as some vital question of the reconstruction of our republic is touched upon, controversies arise concerning a whole series of cardinal economic and political questions.

For the first time the two different points of view, as they are expressed by the leaders of our party and the representatives of our class-organized workers, found their reflection at the Ninth Congress of our party, when that body was discussing the question: "Collective versus personal management in the industry." At that time there was no opposition from a well formed group, but it is very significant that collective management was favored by all the representatives of the trade unions, while opposed to it were all the leaders of our party, who are accustomed to appraise all events from the institutional angle. They require a great deal of shrewdness and skill to placate the socially heterogeneous and the sometimes politically hostile aspiration of the different social groups of the population as expressed by proletarians, petty owners, peasantry, and bourgeoisie in the person of specialists and pseudo-specialists of all kinds and degrees.

Why was it that none but the unions stubbornly defended the principle of collective management, even without being able to adduce scientific arguments in favor of it; and why was it that the specialists' supporters at the same time defended the "one man management"? The reason is that in this controversy, though both sides emphatically denied that there was a question of principle involved, two historically irreconcilable points of view had clashed. The "one man management" is a product of the individualist conception of the bourgeois class. The "one man management" is in principle an unrestricted, isolated free will of one man, disconnected from the collective.

This idea finds its reflection in all spheres of human endeavor -- beginning with the appointment of a sovereign for the state and ending with a sovereign director of the factory. This is the supreme wisdom of bourgeois thought. The bourgeoisies do not believe in the power of a collective body. They like only to whip the masses into an obedient flock, and drive them wherever their unrestricted will desires.

The working class and its spokesmen, on the contrary, realize that the new communist aspirations can be attained only through the collective creative efforts of the workers themselves. The more the masses are developed in the expression of the collective will and common thought the quicker and more complete will be the realization of working class aspirations, for it will create a new, homogeneous, unified, perfectly arranged communist industry. Only those who are directly bound to industry can introduce into it animating innovations.

Rejection of a principle -- the principle of collective management in the control of industry -- was a tactical compromise on behalf of our party, an act of adaption; it was, moreover, an act of deviation from that class policy which we so zealously cultivated and defended in the struggle of the revolution.

Why did this happen? How did it happedn that our party matured and tempered in the struggle of the revolution, was permitted to be carried away from the direct road in order to journey along the round-about path of adaptation, formerly condemned and severely branded as "opportunism."

The answer to this question we shall give later. Mean while we shall turn to the question: how did the Workers' Opposition form and develop?

The Ninth Congress (Russian Communist Party) was held in the spring. During the summer the Opposition did not assert itself. During the summer the opposition did not assert itself. Nothing was heard about it during the stormy debates that took place at the Second Congress of the Communist International, but deep at the bottom there was taking place an accumulation of experience, of critical thought. The first expression of this process, incomplete at the time, was at the party conference, in September, 1920. For a time the thought preoccupied itself largely with rejections and criticism. The Opposition was no well formulated proposals of its own. But it was obvious that the party was entering into a new phase of its life. Within its ranks a ferment was at work; signifying that the "lower" elements demand freedom of criticism, loudly proclaiming that bureaucracy strangles them, leaves no freedom for activity, or for manifestation of initiative.

The leaders of the party understood this undercurrent and through comrade Zinovieff made many verbal promises as to freedom of criticism, widening of the scope of self-activity for the masses, persecution of leaders deviating from the principles of democracy, etc. A great deal was said, and said well; but from words to deeds there is a considerate distance. The September conference, together with Zinovieff's much promising speech, has changed nothing either in the party itself or in the life of the masses. The root[,] from which the Opposition sprouts, was not destroyed. Down at the bottom a growth of inarticulate dissatisfaction, criticism, and independence was taking place.

This inarticulate ferment was noted even by the party leaders, where it quite unexpectedly generated sharp controversies. It is significant that in the central party bodies sharp controversies arose concerning the part that must be played by the trade unions. This, however, is only natural.

At present this subject of controversy between the Opposition and the party leaders, while not being the only one, is still the cardinal point of our while domestic policy.

Long before the Workers' Opposition had appeared with its theses, and formed that basis on which, in its opinion, the dictatorship of the proletariat must rest in the sphere of industrial reconstruction, the leaders in the party had sharply disagreed in the appraisal of the part that is to be played by the working class organizations regarding the latter's participation in the reconstruction of the industries on a communist basis. The Central Committee of the party split into groups. Comrade Lenin stood in opposition to Trotzsky, while Bucharin took the middle ground.

Only the Eighth Soviet Congress and immediately after, it became obvious that within the party itself there was a untied group kept together primarily by the theses of principles concerning the trade unions. This group, the Opposition, having no great theoreticians, and in spite of a most resolute resistance form the most popular leaders of the party, was growing strong and spreading all over laboring Russia. Was it so only in Petrograd and Moscow? Not at All! Even from the Donetz basin, the Ural Mountains, Siberia, and a number of other industrial centers came reports to the Central Committee that there also the Workers' Opposition was forming and acting. It is true that not everywhere does the Opposition find itself in complete accord on all points with the workers of Moscow. At times there is much indefiniteness, pettiness, and absurdity in the expressions demands and motives of the Opposition, while even the cardinal points may differ; yet there is everywhere on unalterable point-and this is the question: who shall develop the creative powers in the sphere of economic reconstruction? Whether purely class organs directly connected by vital ties with the industries- that is, whether industrial unions shall do the work of reconstruction- or shall it be left to the soviet machine which is separated from direct vital industrial activity and is mixed in its composition? This is the root of the break. The Workers' Opposition defends the first principle, while the leaders of the party, whatever might be their own differences on various secondary matters, are in complete accord on the cardinal point and defend the second principle.

What does this mean?

This means that our party lives through its first serious crisis of the revolutionary period, and that the Opposition is not to be driven away by such a cheap name as "syndicalism," but that all comrades must consider this in all seriousness. Who is right- the leaders, or the working masses endowed with the healthy class instinct?

Crisis in the Party

Before considering the basic points of the controversy between the leaders of our party and the Workers' Opposition it is necessary to find an answer to the question: How cold it happen that our party- formerly strong, mighty, and invincible because of its clear-cut and firm class policy- began to deviate from its program.

The dearer the Communist Party is to us just because it has made such a resolute step forward on the road to the liberation of workers from the yoke of capital, the less right we have to close our eyes to the mistakes of leading centers.

The power of the party must lie in the ability of our leading centers to detect the problems and tasks that confronted the workers, and to pick up the tendencies, which they have been able to direct so that the masses might conquer one more of the historical positions. So it was in the past, but it is no longer so at present. Our party not only reduces its speed but ever oftener "wisely" looks back and asks: "Have we not gone too far? Is this not the time to call a halt? Is it not wiser to be more cautious, and to avoid the daring experiments unseen in the whole of the history."

What was it that produced this "wise caution" (particularly expressed in the distrust of the leading party centers toward the economic industrial abilities of the labor unions)- caution that has lately overwhelmed all our centers. Where is the cause?

If we begin diligently to search for the cause of the arising controversy in our party, it becomes clear that the party is passing through a crisis which was brought about by three fundamental causes.

The first main basic cause is the distressful environment in which our party must work and act. The Russian Communist Party must build communism and carry into life its program: (1) In the environment of complete destruction and break down of the economic structure. (2) In the face of the never diminishing ruthless pressure of the imperialist states and white guards. (3) To the working class of Russia has fallen the lot to realize communism, create new communist forms of economy in an economically backward country with a preponderant peasant population, where the necessary economic prerequisites for socialization of production and distribution are lacking, and where capitalism has not been able as yet to complete the full cycle of its development (from the unlimited struggle of competition of the first stages of capitalism to its highest form- to the regulation of production by capitalist unions-the trusts).

It is quite natural that all these factors hinder the practical realization of our program (particularly in its essential part- in the reconstruction of industries on the new basis) and inject into our soviet economic policy diverse influences and a lack of uniformity.

Out of this basic cause follow the two others. First of all, the economic backwardness of Russia and the domination of the peasantry within its boundaries create that diversity, and inevitably detract the practical policy of our party from the clear-cut class direction, consistent in principle and theory.

Any party standing at the head of a heterogeneous soviet state is compelled to consider the aspiration of peasants with their petty-bourgeois inclinations and resentments towards communism, as well as lend ear to the numerous petty bourgeois kind s of traders, middlemen petty officials, ect., who have very rapidly adapted themselves to the soviet institutions and occupy responsible positions in the centers, appear in the capacity of agents of different commissariats, ect. No wonder that Zurupa, the People's Commissar of Supplies, at the Eighth Congress quoted figure which showed that in the service of the Commissariat of Supplies there were engaged 17 per cent of workers, 13 per cent of peasants, less than 20 per cent of specialists, and that of the remaining, more than 50 per cent were "tradesmen, salesmen, and similar people, in the majority even illiterate." (Zurupa's own words.) In Zurupa's opinion this is a proof of their democratic composition, even though they have nothing in common with the class proletarians, with the producers of all wealth, with the workers in factories and mills.

These are the elements -- the elements of petty bourgeois --- widely scattered through the soviet institutions, the elements of the middle class with their hostility toward communism, and with their predilections toward the immutable customs of the past, with resentments and fears toward revolutionary acts,- these are the elements that bring decay into our soviet institutions, breeding there an atmosphere altogether repugnant to the working class. They are two different worlds and hostile at that. And yet we in Soviet Russia are compelled to persuade both ourselves and the working class the petty bourgeoisie and middle classes (not speaking of well to do peasant) can quite comfortable exist under the common motto: "all power to the soviets," forgetful of the fact that in practical everyday life the interests of the workers and those of the middle classes and peasantry imbued with petty-bourgeois psychology must inevitably clash, rending the soviet policy asunder, and deforming its clear-cut class statutes.

Beside peasant-owners in the villages and burgher elements in the cities, our party in its soviet state policy is forced to reckon with the influence exerted by the representatives of wealthy bourgeoisie now appearing in the form of specialists, technicians, engineers, and former managers of financial and industrial affairs, who by all their past experience are bound to the capitalist system of production. They cannot even imagine of any other mode of production but only that one which lies within the traditional bounds of capitalist economics.

The more soviet Russia finds itself in need of specialists in the sphere of technique and management of production, the stronger becomes the influence of these elements foreign to the working class elements, on the development of our economy. Having been thrown aside during the first period of the revolution, and being compelled to take up an attitude of watchful waiting or sometimes even open hostility toward the soviet authorities, particularly during the most trying months (the historical sabotage by the intellectuals), this social group of brains in capitalist production, of servile, hired, well-paid servants of capital, acquire more and more influence and importance in politics with every day that passes.

Do we need names? Every fellow worker carefully watching our foreign and domestic policy recalls more than one of such names.

As long as the center of our life remained at the military fronts the influence of these gentlemen directing our soviet policy, particularly in the sphere of industrial reconstruction, was comparatively negligible.

Specialists, the remnants of the past, by all their nature closely, unalterably bound to the bourgeois system that we aim to destroy gradually began to penetrate into our Red Army, introducing there their atmosphere of the past (blind subordination, servile obedience, distinction, ranks and the arbitrary will of superiors in the place of class discipline, ect.), but to the general political activity of the Soviet republic their influence did not extend.

The proletariat did not question their superior skill to direct military affairs, fully realizing through their healthy class instinct that in military matters the working class as a class can not explress a new word, is powerless to introduce substantial changes into the military system- to reconstruct its foundation on a new class basis- militarism, wars, will have no place in the communist society. The struggle will go on along other channels, will take quite different forms inconceivable to our imagination. Militarism lives through its last days, through the transitory epoch of dictatorship, and therefore it is only natural that the workers, as a class, could not introduce into the forms and systems of militarism anything new, and conducive to the future development of society. Even in the Red Army, however, there were innovating touches of the working class, but the nature of militarism remained the same and the direction of military affairs by the former officers and generals of the old army did not draw the soviet policy in military affairs away to the opposite side sufficiently for the workers to feel any harm to themselves or their class interests.

In the sphere of national economy it is quite different, however. Production, its organization- this is the essence of communism. To debar the workers from the organization of industry, to deprive them, that is , their industrial organizations, of the opportunity to develop their powers in creating new forms of production in industry through their unions, to deny these expressions of the class organization of the proletariat, while placing full reliance on the "skill" of specialists trained and taught to carry on production under a quite different system of production,- is the jump off the rails of scientific Marxian thought. This is, however, just the thing that is being done by the leaders of our party at present.

Taking into consideration the utter collapse of our industries while still clinging to the capitalist mode of production (payment for labor in money, graduations in wages received according to the work done) our party leaders, in a fit of distrust in the creative abilities of workers' collectives, are seeking salvation from the industrial chaos -- where? In the hands of scions of the bourgeois-capitalist past-businessmen and technicians, whose creative abilities in the sphere of industry are subject to the routine, habits and methods of the capitalist system of production and economy. They are the ones who introduce the ridiculously naïve belief that it is possible to bring about communism by bureaucratic means. They "decree" where it is now necessary to create and carry on research.

The more the military front recedes before the economic front, the keener becomes our crying need, the more pronounced the influence of the group which is not only inherent-


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