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Dancing Cheek To Cheek

The Relationship of the Bolshevik Party to the Working Class in
Early Revolutionary Russia


Bruce A. Clark

Not to laugh, not to weep, but to understand.

Spinoza (often quoted by Trotsky)


You can’t always get what you want.
And if you try sometime you just might find
You get what you need.

Mick Jagger, Keith Richard

I. Introduction

This paper will try to clarify the relationship of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) to the working class of that country, most especially the industrial working class. The period covered will be primarily from the February revolution of 1917 to the end of the cultural revolution, in 1931-32, with some limited consideration of the years from then until 1940. It is hoped that this discussion will shed some light on the long controversial issue of whether or not the USSR is, or more specifically, was through the end of the period under discussion, a “workers’ state”.

After making clear a couple of definitions of essential terms, there will be a long section containing an overview outlining the relevent historical occurrences pertaining to the topic under discussion. After laying the groundwork in the above sections, a number of closely related issues will be taken up: the working class; state power; the working class and democracy; the working class, social mobility and the party; and the party in society. Finally, the concluding section will consider the question of the “workers’ state”.

II. Definitions

Much of the important writing about the Russian Revolution and the early period of the USSR has been done by participants, later leaders. These people were, or at least professed to be, Marxists and they used a Marxist vocabulary. This vocabulary often utilized terms in very different senses than those the words have in common western political and sociological practice. This has resulted not only in confusion and misunderstanding, both on the part of scholars and the readers of their works, but also has allowed a deliberate obfuscation of aspects of Soviet history and reality for political reasons.1 This paper will attempt to avoid these traps by either trying to use words in their Marxist senses or by clearly setting out the meanings of the words to be used.

The word “class” describes a relationship to the means of production. Under capitalism, the capitalist or bourgeois class owns the means of production and derives its income therefrom. The working class or proletariat must work for its living.2 Between the two main classes is the petty-bourgeoisie or middle class3 which consists of owners of small enterprises, professional businesses or farms who work in them as well.

The term “working class” gives some thorny problems in the Soviet case. Technically, anyone who must work and does not own is a worker, including white-collar clerks and factory managers employed by the Soviet regime. In discussing class relations after the revolution, this can cause confusion. To avoid this, industrial workers “at the bench” will be referred to as the “industrial working class”.

The broader group which also includes those of working class origin but have been promoted into white-collar jobs and those brought into industry from the countryside will be referred to as the “working class”. Those white collar specialists and professionals who came from prerevolutionary middle and upper class strata are commonly called “bourgeois specialists” and that usage will be continued here. As time gets closer to the present, and classes as they existed in tsarist Russia change or even cease to exist, more precise definitions may be required, but that period is beyond the scope of the present discussion.

Another often misused term is the “state”. In the Marxist sense, the state is the means of enforcing the rule of the class in power. This includes the army, the police, the courts, jails, etc.4 It is the manifestation of power. It is not to be confused with the government, and the terms are not interchangeable. During the period between the February and October revolutions there was a dual power. Both the Provisional Government (PG) and the Soviets had means of enforcing their decisions. One side had jails, courts and police the other had armed detachments of workers and some of the army garrisons. Neither side had all of the power. There were two states, as well as two governments.

III. Historical Overview

The February Revolution

When the Russian Revolution broke out in February of 1917, it took all by surprise, even those who had been predicting, planning, and working for it for a generation. Consequently, no group or party on the scene knew just how to handle it. The Bolsheviks, with which this paper is principally concerned, were no exception.

In Petrograd, the radical flagship of the revolution, there were only a few leading Bolshevik cadre present, such as Shliapnikov. They assessed the situation and took the position that the correct path was one of working toward a seizure of power by the revolutionary working class, and made that the Party’s public position in the press, at least for a little while.

The working class, however, was much more amorphous and divided.5 The most radical stratum of the industrial working class was that of the skilled workers, especially those in the metal machinery industry.6 They were relatively literate, educated and politically sophisticated, having been exposed to revolutionary propaganda and parties, as well as having been in the leadership of unionization struggles, for a long time. They were, in general, pure proletarians in that they had few ties to the countryside, and few owned houses or other property. As might be expected, these workers had a high class consciousness and an unreconciled opposition to the upper social classes of Russian society. This group was generally furthest to the left and most conscious in its political changes of position.

Another stratum of the industrial working class was that of the more unskilled workers, such as those in textiles, railroad, the manual- labor positions of the metal industry, and included most working class women who worked. This stratum is distinctly less literate, educated, politically experienced and radical than the more skilled workers. This group also averages less tenure in the working class and has closer ties to the countryside. Indeed, many members of this grouping shift back and forth between city and village, both by season and when the need for cash demands it. These workers tended to need leadership from outside and got involved in political ferment only over issues of more personal application.

A third, but smaller layer of the industrial working class was that economically on the top of the others, the even more educated elite of the working class, exemplified by the printers. Many were small property owners. With greater ties to upper layers of society, this group had a lower class-consciousness, less opposition the War, and less hostility to the upper classes of society. It was generally the most conservative of the three strata.

The Inter-Revolutionary Period

Soon after the revolution, the bourgeois forces, as exemplified by the Constitutional Democrats (Kadets), formed a Provisional Government (PG). The working class parties formed Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, and the tsar abdicated. Although the workers had definite ideas on the material gains they expected from the revolution (an eight-hour day, wage and working condition improvements, workplace democracy, etc.), there was also a general attitude of a unified opposition to the monarchic past and toward cooperation of all anti- tsarist forces. There were few among the masses who, even though they were socialists, favored a break with capitalist forces. Working together for what was seen as common goals was much more attractive. Few had, at that point, thought it through completely enough to see all of the implications of that position.

The PG and the Soviets formed an uneasy dual power, dividing up the responsibilities of government and clashing at the areas of overlap. The Bolsheviks initially opposed any support for the PG, but after the return of some underground party leaders from internal exile, such as Stalin, the policy was reversed to one of critical support. This political attitude was more in tune with mass feeling, and little distinguished from that of the Mensheviks.

As the spring of 1917 progressed, more and more differences appeared between the Soviets and the PG. For example, the industrial working class had been becoming more and more opposed to the war and its domestic repercussions. Bolshevik anti-war, anti-imperialist propaganda had been at work for years, also. The bourgeoisie, with its international ties, supported the war effort and its secret treaties for dividing the spoils upon victory. This split caused a crisis at the beginning of May, resulting in resignations of some bourgeois members of the PG and the entry into it by certain Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs), notably the SR Kerensky. It also caused one of the numerous incremental steps driving the more advanced workers away from the bourgeoisie and toward the Bolsheviks.

With the return of Lenin from Switzerland, the Bolsheviks position toward the PG also changed. The Party turned to the position of his April Theses, which advocated taking no part in the PG, but building up the Soviets toward an eventual seizure of power. This position initially drew little support, even from the left-most portions of the industrial working class. However, it gained more support within the community of professional revolutionaries with the return of other anti-war social democratic emigres, such as Trotsky, who made up the Mezhraiontsy(Inter-District Committee), and later joined the Bolsheviks.

The working class position of cooperation of all anti-tsarist forces toward building a western-style parliamentary democracy was step by step being undermined by the events of the day. Significant among these were problems in the factories. As a means of weakening the power of the Soviets, individual capitalists were bent upon creating economic problems, even to closing, dismantling and moving whole factories. Workers and their unions responded by petitioning the Ministry of Labor of the PG to intervene and nationalize the firms, if necessary. This was frequently a useless waste of time, for the Ministry often did nothing.

They also began programs of workers’ control, whereby workers’ organizations supervised all aspects of production to counter disruption efforts by the owners.7 David Mandel says “Workers’ control remained first and foremost a practical response to the concrete problems the workers faced and not, as the dominant view in Western historiography has maintained, an anarchistic or anti-authority movement. ... The need for authority was clearly recognised although subject to broad control. The conception ... closely resembled that of the ‘dual power’ established in February on the political level.”8

Such processes gradually forced on the more sophisticated skilled workers the understanding that the bourgeois forces were bent on taking away the gains of the revolution, including such democracy and power as they had won in the Soviets. They became disabused of their ideas of a grand revolutionary cooperation among all classes, for the implications of bourgeois leadership became more apparent. However, the awareness of possible civil war was also present, and in the eyes of most was something to be feared and avoided at all costs. This was a factor inhibiting movement toward a break with the capitalists. In looking at the political parties of the February Revolution, the Mensheviks, SRs and Kadets were all seen to be holding hands with whoever was on their right. Only the Bolsheviks were consistantly on the side of the workers and the Soviets, and Bolshevik positions began to be taken more and more seriously by the skilled workers.

This motion peaked in Petrograd during the July Days, when workers’ demonstrations voicing Bolshevik slogans for soviet power were severely repressed by the PG. The Bolshevik press there was shut down and some of its leaders were either arrested or went into hiding. In other parts of the country, these events and repressions did not occur, and the movement developed more smoothly while still being able to draw the conclusions which the Petrograd workers did from those events. Also, in other areas the Bolshevik press continued to operate. The unskilled workers were moving much more slowly, if at all, from the initial revolutionary positions, and the worker aristocracy was still significantly defensist.

Although the skilled workers, who had moved closest to the Bolsheviks, had had a bad scare, they were not conservatized. They simply needed time to digest the experience. They learned four basic things. First, that the position which they and the Bolsheviks had taken (that the bourgeois right was counter-revolutionary) was vindicated. Second, that the revolutionary supporters of the PG, the Mensheviks and the Right SRs, were not going to lead them to their goal. Third, that the repression of the Bolsheviks had not helped them with their problems. And fourth, that the possibility of a violent civil war if the Soviets took power was dangerously real and that they were not yet reconciled to its necessity and were not yet willing to take the risk. The net result was that, for several weeks, they were relatively quiescent.

By this time, the unskilled workers were more and more feeling the pinch from the deteriorating economic conditions, suffering from a food shortage, seeing the effects of the factory owners’ offensive against the workers and were starting to radicalize. Also, many who had left the city for the villages for the summer saw the poor conditions there and brought their knowledge back with them to the cities. What had before been just a slogan for soviet power began to take on real meaning in their own lives. This shift was manifested by their turn away from the SRs, whom they had heavily supported, and toward the Bolsheviks, in massive numbers. By the middle of August, the Bolsheviks held a majority on the executive of every Petrograd industrial union except those of the printers and the paper workers. The pattern was similar in Moscow and elsewhere.9

The Kornilov rising was a blessing in disguise for those favoring soviet power. First, it showed the true motives of the right even clearer than before. Second, it soon became clear that Kerensky, head of the PG, was in on the conspiracy. Third, it allowed a degree of military organization among the workers to defend the revolution (the Military Revolutionary Committee), organization which would aid in the future seizure of power. Fourth, it prompted the release from prison of Bolshevik leaders like Trotsky to help lead the workers in saving the revolution. Fifth, it got the otherwise somewhat conservative railroad workers involved in defeating Kornilov. And sixth, it provided further proof, if it was necessary, that no matter what one thought of them, the Bolsheviks were the only possible leaders of the working class if the revolution was to survive. They (and the Left SRs allied with them) were the only parties not sullied by a history of compromise with the right.

At this point, the industrial working class actually led the Bolsheviks, for the Party was internally divided on whether to seize power in the name of the soviets. When these internal differences had been overcome, the movement to seize state power at the time of the Congress of Soviets proceeded apace.

October, 1917, Through the Civil War

It is clear that at the time just before the October revolution, urban society was well polarized, with most working class strata favoring soviet state power and liberal bourgeois and white- collar/intelligentsia layers, with their Menshevik and SR tag-alongs, still favoring a unity government. However, it is also clear that all parties on the Soviet side did not mean the same thing when they spoke of soviet power.

The Bolsheviks understood that the Soviet government was to be one based upon the industrial working class and that they wanted to be the majority party. They were definitely not at that time in favor of one party rule. The Bolsheviks were also in favor of the Constituent Assembly, but with the proviso that it not oppose Soviet power. They were aware that the rest of the country would very likely be behind the urban areas in working class consciousness, and that they themselves would probably be in a minority.

The industrial working class, most especially the less skilled workers and the ‘worker aristocracy’, did not have such a well defined understanding. They had become committed to soviet power, but saw no contradiction between that and an all-country Constituent Assembly. Withholding a seizure of power until it could be done by the Assembly held out the hope that the new Soviet government would be less isolated and would face a lower likelihood of civil war. However, this would also mean giving more time for the right and the deteriorating economy to undermine the movement.

When the Bolsheviks took the initiative in Petrograd, over the objection of the Left SRs, Menshevik Internationalists, some moderate Bolsheviks and their supporters on October 25, the Soviet ratified the move and the issue was settled. In other parts of the country, like Moscow, things went less smoothly, for the balance of forces was not so overwhelmingly in favor of the Soviets. Several days of street fighting were necessary to accomplish the takeover. Once the deed was done, the whole Petrograd industrial working class, except for a small group of printing and paper unions, seemed to support it wholeheartedly, and previous hesitations evaporated.

There remained some controversy over the form of the new government. Some, the Left SRs, the Menshevik Internationalists, and some sections of the Petrograd working class (railroad workers, small printing and metal-working factories, state factories) favored a coalition including all socialist parties, even defensists. After a couple of weeks of debates, strike threats, negotiations, and the realization that the industrial working class overwhelmingly supported a government by the existing Soviets, the movement petered out. It was realized by most workers that to fight the new soviet government at that time would have meant aiding the counter-revolution.

In the Constituent Assembly elections, the working class vote went overwhelmingly for the Bolsheviks, even though, nationwide, the Party received less than 25% of the total. David Mandel states

Although the campaign itself did not generate much passion, the turnout in the working-class districts equaled or slightly exceeded the city average ... This shows two things. On the one hand, the workers did consider the Constituent Assembly an important arena of political struggle. On the other hand, through their overwhelming support of the Bolshevik list they made known their desire for the assembly to confirm and continue the policies of the Soviet government. The workers, in effect, wanted this body, elected by universal suffrage, to give an all-national seal of approval to the programmes and policies of the working class. ... the Constituent Assembly still held out the hope, however faint, that the civil war could be halted.10

The returns, showing a conciliationist majority, convinced the Bolsheviks that the Assembly was not going to work out.11 This feeling of the Bolsheviks was known to other parties and there was public opposition to it. In the period between the election and the actual meeting of the Constituent Assembly, many publicly demonstrated support for the Assembly but conditioned that support upon the Assembly’s support for soviet power.

There were also cracks appearing in the unskilled workers’ support for the Soviet regime, but these seem more to be the result of growing economic difficulties and hunger than from determined opposition to Soviet power. Much of this opposition died down as more and more of these workers left the city for the villages. In early January, the Constituent Assembly actually met and was dispersed, but there was little real outcry. There was some bitterness at the apparently independent Red Guard actions of shooting some demonstrators, but the the Soviet government seemed to suffer little real loss of support.

After January 5, 1918, the new government set to governing and trying to end the country’s involvement in World War I. Through the spring, economic conditions got steadily worse. More and more factories cut back or closed and there was less and less food. After a time, the government even asked workers to leave and go to rural areas. There they could not only find more food, but could help carry the revolution to the countryside. By the summer of 1918, working class Petrograd was but a shadow of its former self.

After the ending of the war with Germany, the civil war picked up. Many thousands of workers were mobilized into the new Red Army. Those workers who remained in the factories suffered from cold and hunger and did their best to keep the Red Army supplied. Mandel summarizes the situation thus:

The atmosphere of conflict between the workers and their organizations — the factory committees, trade unions and soviets — was fostered by the latter’s swift transformation from organs of class struggle, whose primary function had been to educate and mobilise the workers, into organs preoccupied more and more with state and economic administration. In a sense, this seemed only natural: a workers’ state should be run by the workers’ organizations. ...

Even in ideal economic conditions and under the most representative system, there is still bound to be some degree of conflict between more general needs and those of individuals and groups. ... The soviet state was unable to meet even the minimum needs of the workers. Under such circumstances it required a high degree of dedication and tolerance on the part of the workers to continue to view this state as the incarnation of their interests.12

At the end of the civil war and war communism, industry and the economy were in shambles. The militarization of so many aspects of life had caused oppositions to arise. Within the CP were factions such as the Democratic Centralists, who wanted a lot more democracy and a lot less centralism, and the Workers’ Opposition, who opposed Trotsky’s idea of the militarization of labor. There was also the severe challenge of the Kronstadt rebellion. These workers and sailors in the port made demands for serious improvements in democracy. They were militarily repressed. It is not clear that any of these movements had strong support among industrial workers, those that were left.13 It was hoped that future organized opposition within the CP would be prevented by the ban on factions imposed at the Tenth Party Congress in 1921.14

The civil war left its mark, at least for a time, on industrial working class/party relations. The new Soviet system had been significantly organized with war-winning attitudes along military lines. This was especially true of Trotsky’s policy in transport. These militarization attitudes were carried over by Trotsky in his resolution to militarize all labor. This was opposed by the unions, who wanted the industrial working class organizations themselves to control industry, not the central government. Lenin’s position of independent unions but government control of industry carried the day. Also, many of the new party/government functionaries, as well as workers, came directly from the Red Army, with military attitudes.

Transition and NEP

The condition of Soviet industry was very bad, both in terms of physical plant and in terms of output and productivity. In all respects, it was but a fraction of pre-World War I levels. Much of the industrial working class was dispersed, some portion was dead, some still in the Red Army, and some had moved into the apparatus. The country was isolated, blockaded, and hungry, with famine in the countryside.

The fact that there was strong central political leadership made it possible to move forward rather than sit, fragmented, and further disintegrate.

The party leadership realized that, even though they had won the war, and that industry was centrally controlled, they did not have a hope of continuing to run the whole economy centrally. NEP was instituted to solve that problem. Since the country was predominantly peasant, good relations with them were necessary, and they were, to a degree, to be temporarily favored over the workers. Trotsky summed it up this way: “The working class, being in power, has the possibility, when class interests require it, of giving industry a credit at the expense of the worker’s wage.”15

The fundamental goal of the NEP was economic and political survival, and in that overwhelmingly peasant country, it meant smychka, a bond with the peasants. It was hoped that in the interval of internal peace, the application of the capital created in a recovery of the economy to the mostly-centralized industry would lay the foundation for long-term industrial growth and improved conditions for the working class. Some central policies of the NEP were private trade and agriculture and limiting wage gains to productivity increases. These ideas were made more concrete in the August 1924 resolution “On Wage Policy” which further specified industrial goals of work rationalization, output norms, incentive pay, and fuel and raw material conservation.

The main social organs of the industrial working class, the trade unions, were in a difficult position. Officially, they were to represent the workers’ interests in privatized areas of the economy. In nationalized industries, they were not taking the side of one class against another, but were still to represent the workers’ economic interests in the period of transition to socialism. Strikes were permitted, but less disruptive solutions were preferable.16 But, as the main organizations of the industrial working class in what was viewed as a workers’ state, they were also supposed to help manage and run the new economy, and this meant being the boss.

There is no doubt that the leaders of the trade unions, men such as Tomsky, had the workers’ interests at heart, but their leadership positions meant that the best they could do was to find viable compromises between the short-term goals of the rank and file worker and the long-term goals of industrial growth and the workers’ state. The Sixth Trade Union Congress agreed with the “On Wage Policy” guidelines and supported the use of “red industrialists”, but also stated that working conditions must improve. In line with this, the unions did fight for better contracts for the workers and helped resolve grievances.

In practice, the government policies weren’t always followed. It was broadly realized that the industrial working class suffered from poor working and living conditions and inflation, as a result of the bad economic condition of the country. It was also understood that the rundown state of the physical plant could only be so productive. For these reasons wage increases were allowed to advance ahead of productivity gains at least until the middle of 1926 and workers’ legitimate complaints were recognized. There was a currency reform in March of 1924 which substantially eased the inflation problem.

Government policies also called for the closing down of inefficient plants. This was sometimes done, but not always, especially in the cases of factories with long revolutionary histories, like the Putilov Works in Petrograd. Even though they were a drag on the economy, they were allowed to continue as a concession to the workers.17

There was significant rationalization of the work process. This consisted of three types of things. One, things which necessitated an increase of effort, such as output norms and stretch out. Two, scientific management (Taylorism), which meant such things as rearrangement of machinery to improve work flow. Three, incentive pay. By 1924, roughly 60% of industrial workers were on piece work.

Another attempt both to get workers, along with specialists and management personnel, involved in the effort to run the economy and to get new ideas and suggestions to help improve productivity was the introduction of shop floor meetings. These had been around for a long time, but not on a very wide scale until 1924. Also involved were efforts to increase the role of factory committees.

There was a substantial degree of unemployment during the NEP period, especially the early years. While there were some unemployment benefits available, they were meager, and effected only a few per cent of the unemployed. The Soviet government was not immediately aware of the extent of the problem because of an inadequate process for the collection of statistical data. Even when it became aware of an unemployment problem, the leadership had only limited concern, for the main part of the problem was not industrial working class unemployment.18

The industrial working class had different types of reactions to these events and policies.19 There was a good deal of resentment of the government’s and trade unions’ making of policies without consulting the workers at the bench. There was also an attitude that the efforts of the Communist Party, red industrialists and bourgeois specialists to increase productivity, as well as the pay differentials between the skilled and unskilled workers, were exploitation of the workers.20 Trotsky noted that the “word ‘sovbour’ — soviet bourgeois — as applied to a privileged dignitary appeared very early in the workers’ vocabulary.”21

In the 1924-6 period, many workers viewed the shop meetings as a part of this exploitation. The suggestions submitted were mostly of the no- additional-effort variety and worker participation in the meetings was low. The workers’ dislike for the privileges of management employees and bourgeois specialists was aggravated by managers who did not implement useful suggestions or who took some other unpopular action, like closing the workers’ club to save money.

Despite any negative attitudes on the part of many workers, there did not appear to be much overt political opposition. Most strikes were due to local wage-and-hour type disputes and about the implementation of policies rather against government policy itself. There was much awareness that many of the workers’ problems were due to the NEP and to the general economic condition of the country. Questions of high politics were not usually of great concern to the workers; they mostly worried about improving their own material welfare.

Rosenberg notes that “the Smolensk materials suggest, however, that many workers at the local level approached these issues with an interesting mixture of radicalism and traditionalism, often showing themselves at once antagonistic and respectful to party authority which, despite everything, they still seem to have considered their own.”22 The fact that workers criticized their own trade union leaders for failing to get better contracts for them, even into the late 1920s, seems to imply that they thought that the unions both should and could be doing this. It also argues for the idea that the unions were in the workers’ eyes something more than just arms of the government apparatus.

The party and the government did, however, have very real problems in the industrial working class. There was an insufficient number of party cadre in the plants to try to convince the workers of the correctness of government policies and to lead the way to greater productivity at the shop level. This problem must be at least a significant partial explanation for the Lenin Levy in 1924. Also, factory committees suffered in this period. It seems that many party cells found it easier to do the committee members’ jobs themselves rather than to convince and lead independent committee members so that they could do them.

There were also problems with the existing cadre themselves. For many of the above-mentioned reasons, the party members were often resented and disliked by the workers. This, of course, was hard on the party cadre and led the lowest level of the party rank and file to refer to political work in the factories as “trench work”. These attitudes of a two-sided struggle led to still further poor response, opposition and disinterest from the masses. It also led to overwork, nervous exhaustion and much poor health among the dedicated party cadre, many of whom had been doing this for years.

The results of the Lenin Levy in Smolensk, with regard to membership, were that 71% of the new recruits had at least 8 years experience in industrial production, with an additional 28% with 2-7 years, 52% were from working class families, 57% had Red Army service, 97% had at least primary education, and only 4.4% with reported ties to the countryside. This response indicates that there must have been some fundamentally strong ties between the industrial working class and the Communist Party, even with all of the tribulations of the times. These new cadre had more respect than the older cadre, also, for they were not identified with criticized policies.

After the new members got to work, there was a big surge of activity, but there was soon a return to the earlier types of problems with the Communist cadre. The Lenintsy had joined substantially because of promises of gaining greater control over wages and working conditions. But their new party duties were to increase productivity, and they disliked the idea of being “exploiters” themselves and criticized the party. Also, there were frictions with the older party members, and the new cadre often found themselves doing all of the “trench work”. They felt used, and mass work became even more unpopular than before. By 1925, there were a large number of reports of indifference in factory party cells.

Other areas of the country, however, reported much success from the Lenintsy. This would seem to indicate that there are indeed different circumstances in different places. There is also a likely correlation to the degree of political training given to the new cadre. In the Smolensk region, a very short program was the norm. In Victor Kravchenko’s memoir, he does not display these types of problems. He fortunately had a father who had gone through the revolution and, despite the father’s criticisms of the Bolsheviks, the revolutionary ideals and motivation stuck.

Despite complaints, this was a time of rising living standards for workers. By 1927-8, purchasing power had risen 11.1% above that of 1913 and the working day had fallen from an average of 8.5 hours in 1921 to 7.75 hours.23

This NEP period was also the time of the early trends in increased worker education and the beginnings of proletarian upward social mobility — the vydvizhenie. This is another means, besides wages and working conditions, for bringing satisfaction to the industrial working class: the opportunity for an education, even as an adult, which wasn’t a real possibility under the tsar. The rabfaks had been begun in 1918, but only for a small number of workers; by the mid 1920s, this number had increased to 45,999, still a small fraction of the number who would later be enrolled. There were other schools, like trade schools, in which workers participated.

Many of the more talented workers, and, probably, a certain number of the opportunistic ones, had the opportunity to be promoted out of the factory jobs and into supervision, or full-time party and administrative work. Some were even at this date sent for full-time education to prepare them for other work.

The early opportunities for upward mobility were limited, however. There were enough educated bourgeois white collar employees and professionals to fill many of the specialist positions in the still relatively low level of industrial development.

There were some opportunities, however. By 1927, nearly half of regional party secretaries had joined as workers. By 1928, some 70% of Communist directors of enterprises (most directors were party members) were former workers, and over 80% of these had only informal, primary educations.24 Most of those workers who had received higher educations in the red universities were in journalistic or political work.

The Great Turning Point and the Cultural Revolution

In the spring of 1928 came the Shakhty trial of bourgeois specialists of the Ukraine. It opened the floodgates to the accumulated worker criticism of the spetsy in the factories. In addition to resenting the privileged status of the bourgeois specialists, many had bitter memories of the role of the intelligentsia in 1917.25 It introduced a new atmosphere in the country, and in industry in particular. The practice of “self-criticism” was conducive to workers airing more of their grievances at factory meetings. This heightened degree of two- way communication increased worker participation in the meetings and, by the end of 1928, had altered the whole character of the meetings. This was also the time when the CP leadership decided that the USSR needed many more Communist engineers and specialists available for employment in the new plants to be completed in the forthcoming industrialization drive. The mobilization of the “thousands” of Communists and other adult workers began in September of 1928, most for the study of engineering. There were plans for 3000 more to enter the rabfaks over the next two years, and further expansion of other higher education facilities, as well.

The first “thousand”, all Communists, was made up as follows: 60% were over 30, 79% were working class, most had served in the Red Army during the Civil War, and only 20% had less than six years tenure in the CP. Some had already attained high position. Most went directly to higher education schools.

There was a similar policy initiated in the military. Some 8000 went into military higher education in 1931-2, 93% of working class origin. The trade unions also had a series of “thousands”. The first, in 1928- 9, was mostly non-party and had at least five years production experience. Most of these (55,000 in 1930 alone) entered preparatory schools before being enrolled in higher education facilities.

The rabfaks, which had longer programs of study, also expanded, but not so much as other schools. They concentrated on students with less work experience.

These “thousands” made up only a small portion of the students in higher education. In 1927-8, there were some 205,000 students, of which 28% were working class, in higher education schools. By 1932-3, this had increased to 703,000, of which 55% were working class. These figures do not count the additional two million (in 1932-3) who were attending rabfaks, universities, technicums and trade schools. There were also large anti-illiteracy campaigns.

The massive education drive was but one part of the cultural revolution. One component of this revolution consisted of power politics at the top levels. Another major part consisted of an anti- bureaucratic, anti-privilege trend reflecting the pent-up strains of the NEP in the industrial working class. The workers felt that they were not getting their due in what was supposed to be a workers’ state. In this sense, the cultural revolution was a class war: the working class against the remnants of the bourgeoisie and the petty- bourgeois peasants.

While the opening shot of the Cultural Revolution is usually considered to be the Shakhty trial, it was both preceded and followed by spontaneous anti-bourgeois specialist and anti-bureaucratic purges. In the 1928-30 period, many of those purged were party Rightists. There was also some pseudo-proletarian ferment and purging by/on behalf of Communist intellectuals, who were sometimes of worker origin and sometimes not. Involved in this were organizations like the Organization of Proletarian Writers (RAPP) and the Organization of Proletarian Musicians (RAPM).

Along with the recruitment to education came the promotion of those already educated, and those whose new positions did not require much formal education, as well as those who completed their education in the cultural revolution period. In 1928-32 there were 56,000 new civilian engineers and another 56,000 new professionals in administration, government and exchange.26

Many factories trained and promoted from within: unskilled to skilled, skilled to supervision, etc. Peasants moved into the working class, usually an economic promotion for them, and received training and education at various skill levels. One of the reasons for the slowdown in the rapid increase of education at the end of the cultural revolution period was the exhaustion of the pool of sufficiently experienced workers available for educational recruitment. Most members of the industrial working class by the end of the first Five Year Plan (FYP) were employed in the countryside at the beginning of the period and were not considered ready for leadership. The official sponsorship of the higher education drive and of the cultural revolution ended in mid-1931.

The great industrial expansion made many new jobs. The promotion of the more experienced workers made room for many from the countryside, especially after collectivization. Kravchenko, as one of the vydvizhentsy, gives an excellent picture of the times. He shows that those who were selected for promotion did not live any kind of a life of luxury, but rather one of very hard work and minimal communal living situations. If they were not highly motivated, they would not have gotten through it; as he noted, some did not. He also takes pride in the achievements of the times.27

The collectivization drive and the earlier programs to aid existing collective farms and grain procurements relied for manpower primarily on workers recruited on short- and long-term bases. This indicated at least two things. One, the party leadership had confidence in the industrial working class as a supporter of the soviet system. Two, this confidence was vindicated, for the industrial working class did indeed perform, lead and assist as requested.

The Great Retreat

By 1931, the cultural revolution period was coming to an end. The first FYP was well underway. Jerry Hough comments that “it may well be that the Great Retreat was an unanticipated response to the unexpected chaos of the First Five-Year Plan period — and to the discovery that militant agents of social transformation are likely to be as disrespectful of any new Communist establishment as they were of the old bourgeois one, and that they are wildly impractical in their demands for funds.”28

As mentioned above, due to the large numbers of promotions, the experienced industrial working class was no longer in place. It had been substantially replaced with new, formerly rural/peasant workers. The new industrial working class was not well socialized and was unstable. There were high rates of lateness, absenteeism and jobchanging. The government responded with tightened work rules, more incentive pay, wage differentials and penalties for infractions. These penalties were indifferently applied due to the overall worker shortage. Despite the hard working conditions, their new industrial roles and incomes were probably a big step up from life on the farm, especially for those who were given skills and training.

The old bourgeois specialists were freed from their previous harassment and given new respect. The new worker-specialists took jobs with good pay and prestige. The educational system was reformed again, getting rid of experimentation and all traces of utopianism. The new system concentrated on teaching the basics necessary to industrialization.

The overall effect of the 1931 changes was to regain some stability from the turbulence of the cultural revolution period and to integrate and socialize millions of people into their new societal roles. Not only work rules, but literature, music and the other arts were marshalled to assist in this acculturation.

By mid-1932, the CPSU was 65% working class (by social position), although only 43.5% of its members were currently working in industry. An additional 27% were of peasant origin, although only 18% were active collective farmers. This would seem to indicate (very roughly) that some 1 million (out of 2.2 million) full and candidate members were workers and peasants who had been promoted to white-collar jobs.29 These 1 million were the new Communist elite either being educated or already in position and operating the party, the economy, and the country at that time. This group would later be refined (to put it gently) by subsequent membership purges and added to from later higher education graduating classes.

During the next few years, the industrialization was to continue at a high, but somewhat slower pace. There were periodic purges of membership to get rid of uneducated and unreliable members recruited in mass drives in workplaces during the cultural revolution. The Great Purge (the Yezhovshchina) won’t be considered here.

By the end of the 1930s, both the CPSU and society had changed drastically from the NEP period. In terms of education alone the results were astounding: CPSU members with at least a secondary education increased 180%, and those with a higher education increased 640%.30 In society in general, those with secondary and higher educations grew 660%.31 General living standards had not shown any spectacular increase since the end of the NEP. However, things had begun to improve by the end of the second FYP when an increase in consumer goods was halted by war preparations. The living standards of the members of the vydvizhentsy had indeed improved over what they had had previously.

The biggest change since the revolution was that in the elite which effectively ran the country. Instead of landowners, royalty, capitalists and declassed aristocracy in white-collar and professional jobs, it consisted mostly of (former) workers, a lesser number of (former) peasants, and the children of workers and peasants. Although the wealth and privileges of members of this group was, on the average, greater than that of society as a whole, the differences were much smaller, even for those at the highest levels, than were sililar differences under the tsar’s regime.

IV. Discussion

The Working Class

The working class has been defined and its components discussed above. Some its activities, especially those having a bearing on its relations to the CPSU have also been mentioned. But there are other important questions which need to be asked and answered if we are to understand the main issue at hand.

What do we mean when we speak of the working class? The industrial working class before the revolution? The broader working class as it became after the revolution and many industrial workers were promoted into white-collar and administrative jobs? The post-revolutionary industrial working class before it was diluted by millions of peasants? After many former peasants moved into industry? It makes a difference, for the answer to questions like whether the working class benefited from the new system varies depending upon which group is being considered and also varies over time.

The goals and ideals of the Bolsheviks are also important. Considering only cold sets of historical facts like how many kopecks per hour workers’ pay increased will give answers without much insight. The USSR has a relatively short history and has been very consciously developed in certain directions. The original goals have a definite relevance when trying to analyze the direction of this growth, and knowing the direction of growth is crucial to understanding the nature of the USSR.

Lenin and the other Bolsheviks were Marxists and socialists. Their goal was to eliminate capitalism, which they felt was exploitative of the large masses of people for the benefit of the few. They wanted to replace it with a society in which the working class had ultimate power, a dictatorship of the proletariat over the bourgeoisie. These leaders recognized that this would be a transitional form of state which would enable the modernization and development necessary for a truly socialist society at some future time. Part of this development would be the eventual disappearance of social classes. The means of production would not be owned and controlled by one class for its own exclusive benefit. Therefore the antagonisms engendered under capitalism would have no basis, and the society would gradually become one of all of the people.

From Marx they and their predecessors got the idea that the industrial working class in a modern industrial society was the only class which had the internal organization, consciousness and power, by virtue of its ability to bring an economy to a halt, to accomplish what Marx viewed as its revolutionary destiny. They applied these ideas to Russia32 and combined with them ideas to get the peasantry on the side of the revolution. It was the industrial working class with long experience under capitalism on which the Bolsheviks relied in 1917 (and afterwards) when they needed a motor to drive social and political change, for they felt that it was pragmatic and uncompromising.

But the Bolsheviks were not syndicalists, and they did not take a short-term view of things. Lenin’s and Trotsky’s views in the Trade Union discussions and the above quote by Trotsky on workers sacrificing wages when necessary for the good of society would seem to affirm this. They wanted all working people to benefit eventually, to the degree that society could afford it and still develop toward greater goals to come, not just the social stratum that came out on top in the revolution.

Unfortunately, the Bolsheviks were revolutionary politicians, not experienced society builders. Once the revolution was victorious, they were at once out of their depth. Over the years they often tried to apply their socialist principles and found that the results were not what they had hoped for. Pragmatic detours, like the NEP had to be tried. The educational system was repeatedly reformed to fit the needs of the times. Hated techniques under capitalism like incentive pay were reintroduced because they worked in a society at the level of the USSR at the time. And privilege and differential pay were also brought back. The industrial working class was both the victim and the beneficiary of these techniques. Those individual workers not selected for promotion were victims, in the short-term at least.

Despite this, the history section above demonstrated that the industrial working class, especially the most aware and advanced sections of it (CP members and non-party aktiv) was still regarded as the main social motive force, and it continued to function reliably as such in the period under consideration. So, when we mean this motor force to bring about political and social change, it is the industrial working class of long standing (including those promoted away from “the bench”) about whom we speak.

What about when we speak about building a “workers’ state” or a workers’ society? The long-term goals of the Bolsheviks plus their actions of creating the means for social improvement (education, training in skills, promotion) for millions of people who were not in the experienced industrial working class stratum seems to indicate that we must utilize a broader usage of “working class” in this case. It might be more appropriate to include all those of industrial working class origin plus all who had come into it.

State Power

The essence of state power is control. Whoever has this control, whether it is a class, the vanguard of a class, or a small band of revolutionary usurpers, can determine the nature of the government and the direction in which society will develop by applying its resources in the desired manner. It may even mean using techniques developed by capitalism.

After the tsar was overthrown, the Provisional Government wing of the dual power was essentially bourgeois. The PG tried to carry on many of the policies of the ancien regime, such as the War, the secret treaties and capitalist property relations, and resurrecting the State Duma. As time went by, and the power and degree of radicalization on the Soviets grew, so did the PG’s opposition to the Soviets. It attempted to undermine, repress and later (in collusion with Kornilov) overthrow the Soviets and all that they stood for.

It is possible to see a distinct contrast between the direction of policies of the bourgeois PG when it held a portion of the state power and that of the Soviets both before and after the October revolution. Regardless of their immediate effect (death in civil war, pay and working condition sacrifices, fluctuating living conditions, etc.) two things are clear. First, the policies of the new government and the internal policies of the CP tended always to provide education and social upward mobility to and trust in the working class. Moreover, during periods where a substantial degree of capitalist property relations was allowed, the NEP, care was taken that political control was not ceded to capitalist forces. Furthermore, during the industrialization drive, there was a parallel collectivization drive which had the effect of destroying the private property based peasantry as a class and making industrial workers out of many of them, thus increasing the relative social weight of the working class in society.

Second, the capital generated from the economy was reinvested in further development, not squandered in great luxury by the rulers the way it was (and is) in other developing countries.

These points indicate that, whoever it was that held state power, the new Soviet state was fundamentally different than any other existing in the world at that time.

The Working Class and Democracy

After the founding of the Soviets, the industrial working class participated actively in the democracy running rampant at that time. There was an attitude that everyone should be able to participate in it. It actively favored a democratic government. As time went by, it became apparent that they could not have an all-encompassing democracy and still have the revolution. The trend continued as party after party took action against the Soviets and was eliminated from participating in the soviet democracy. Finally, just the Bolsheviks were left as the only party who unquestionably supported soviet power. The Soviets themselves later degenerated to administrative governmental organs and such democracy as remained was the internal CP democratic centralism, historically stronger on centralism than on democracy.

Even much of the remaining internal democracy disappeared with the ban in factions imposed in 1921 and the crushing of the Kronstadt revolt. Why did the working class, initially so desirous of democracy, not object to this trend? True, there were oppositions, like the Democratic Centralists, the Workers Opposition, the Workers Group, and later the Left Opposition. There were some industrial workers active in all of these, especially the Workers Group, but never on a massive or broad scale as in the ferment of 1917. There are at least four reasons.

  • First, the workers had the experience of seeing many political parties, even ones who initially supported the revolution, come into active opposition to the soviet state. This tended to give the idea that too much participation and contest in the running of things could be dangerous at least in the early period when their state was very weak and beset with external opposition and intervention.
  • Second, Lenin and others had for many years been expounding upon how western bourgeois democracies had consistently used and abused their own working classes, even taking them into war. These criticisms must have had some effect in giving democracy a bit of a bad reputation and weakening any ideas that a democratic form of government on the western model was the ideal form.
  • Third, there was a great trust in the Bolshevik leadership. The working class felt that it was their party and it was acting in their interest. Whether or not the working class had hopes that the restrictions placed upon internal CP democracy or upon the existance of other political parties would be temporary and would later be reversed in more favorable circumstances is not clear. It is clear that when these conditions were not reversed there was never a great protest.
  • Fourth, and probably the most significant, the Russian working class had little experience with the forms of political democracy. It did not know that democracy is something that has to be constantly fought for if it is to be retained. Even in countries born with a form of democratic government, such as the US, things like universal suffrage had to be fought for over generations, even centuries. In the Soviet Union, wide-ranging democracy did not have to be denied by the leadership; it was never seriously enough asked for by the population.

If there were truly no means for the working class to have any say in how things were done, perhaps some mass movement to change this would have developed. In fact, this was not the case. There was input into the political process, both in terms of a (decreasing) degree of internal democracy and by the actual influx of workers into the ruling party and into its upper circles. There was less formalized input by having former workers moving into the administrative apparatus and running industrial enterprises. As the degree of party democracy lessened, the degree of effective worker participation in factory committees and meetings increased. This area was of more immediate importance to workers’ lives than the areas of high politics. And workers at the bench could see that their friends, sons, daughters, and even possibly, in the future, themselves moving up and that a visit or phone call would cause their ideas to be heard. Kravchenko made a point to mention this phenomenon in his memoir.

The Working Class, Social Mobility and the Party

Many workers, especially the strongest supporters of the soviet system, moved up in society to white-collar, administrative, and even high political positions. The principal, indigenous organizations of the workers, the unions, had the somewhat contradictory roles of helping to run the economy and of trying to serve the immediate, short- term interests of the workers. How well they did these two functions is a topic beyond the scope of this paper. It should be clear, however, that the degree to which they performed them is the degree to which, respectively, the working class had some role in running industry and the degree to which they benefited from it in the short term.

The lack of short-term benefits for industrial workers displeased many workers. Some were able to see that a short-term sacrifice could mean a long-term benefit. (Before Stalin’s death, industrial workers were earning, on the average, more than white collar workers.33) Those who could do this were the ones who were closest to the CP and who moved up, the vydvizhentsy. The distinction between these two types is illustrated in Kravchenko’s memoir: his father was a long-term revolutionary worker, but after the revolution he became annoyed that there were not more immediate benefits and political democracy. Kravchenko, brought up in his father’s revolutionary zeal, and being intelligent, and full of the energy of youth volunteered for the hardest jobs, eventually joined the party, was sent to school, and moved well up into the government.

Were these vydvizhentsy all solely motivated by revolutionary idealism? Certainly not. We can never know how many put up with the sacrifices for purely personal gain, how many started out idealistically and later became self-serving, and how many kept their ideals and continued to serve the soviet system, either being politically naive or turning a blind eye to the problems, mistakes and crimes along the way for what they saw as a greater good in the future.

Does receiving privileges and material benefits necessarily mean forgetting one’s roots and no longer being idealogically a part of the working class? Even if it does, what is the significance of this? Trotsky, writing from abroad in the mid-1930s discussed this question. He was implacably hostile to the Stalin regime and to the bureaucracy34 which he felt that Stalin represented. Whether or not this was true is still a matter of debate, but in his discussion Trotsky set forth the issues of the consciousness of the newly privileged stratum and how it relates to the soviet state. He wrote

At the 11th Party Congress in March, 1922, Lenin ... addressed these words to the commanding group: ‘History knows transformations of all sorts. To rely upon conviction, devotion and other excellent spiritual qualities — that is not to be taken seriously in politics.’ Being determines consciousness. During the last fifteen years, the government had changed its social composition even more deeply than its ideas. ... It continues to preserve state property relations only to the extent that it fears the proletariat. ... As a conscious political force, the bureaucracy has betrayed the revolution. But a victorious revolution is fortunately not only a program and a banner, not only political institutions, but also a system of social relations. To betray it is not enough. You have to overthrow it. The October revolution has been betrayed by the ruling stratum, but not yet overthrown. It has a great power of resistance ...35


the social revolution, betrayed by the ruling party, still exists in property relations and in the consciousness of the toiling masses36


The bureaucracy has not yet created social supports for its dominion in the form of special types of property. It is compelled to defend state property as the source of its power and its income. In this aspect of its activity it still remains a weapon of the proletarian dictatorship.37


The distribution of this earth’s goods in the Soviet Union, we do not doubt, is incomparably more democratic than it was in tsarist Russia ...38

If we take into account his fundamental sympathy for the soviet system and the polemical nature of the work, the facts are essentially correct and the core of what he says still rings true. In essence, he is saying that even if the vydvizhentsy were bought off by power and privilege, they still remain a part of the broader definition of the working class and their individual consciousnesses do not matter. They still owed everything to the soviet system and were likely to preserve it. Eugenia Ginzburg’s memoir of the Yezhovshchina and her years in the gulag bears this out. With all she endured, she still considered herself a loyal revolutionary Communist.

The Party in Society

The Bolshevik Party, under the politically perspicacious leadership of Lenin, built itself over the years with the sole idea of being the vanguard of the revolutionary working class of Russia. In retrospect, it is apparent that one of its most important characteristics was it’s internal policy of democratic centralism. While this policy was of debatable efficacy in working toward the Russian Revolution, it did have lasting effects afterwards. Its emphasis on centralism over the effective ability to bring about change from below, especially after the ban on internal factions, helped create a situation whereby a party leader, once in power, was almost impossible to unseat.

It had the side effects of weakening desires for formal democratic government and for bringing about decision-making by personal contact, not by majority rule. But was this a bad thing? In the sense that it allowed many of the atrocities of the Stalin era, things so brutal and irrational that they could not by any stretch of the imagination have contributed to the strengthening of the USSR or the growth toward socialism, yes it was bad. In other senses, perhaps it was not so bad.

The CPSU kept up its close relationship with the industrial working class in spite of the fact that there was little formal political input from below. Certainly all workers didn’t like this, but enough supported the party’s goals for the situation to continue and the Party grow. Perhaps these workers felt that if the majority of that primarily peasant country had the opportunity to decide, the revolution would be derailed. Perhaps they felt that even if all workers, but only workers, had too much say in running the country, excessive capital would have gone into short-term benefits and consumer goods and not enough into building the kind of industrial strength many felt was needed to survive in a hostile world. We can only speculate, but the fact is that the CPSU did retain the support, even if it was grudging support in some cases, of the working class.

Was the party the vanguard of the working class? A more appropriate formulation might be that it contained the vanguard of the working class, or at least some of it. These advanced and aware workers, those like Kravchenko, were really the vanguard of the working class. They were the ones who went all out, took the most dangerous and heavy work assignments, put up with difficult conditions in educational institutions, moved to new areas of the country to build new industry where there was none before. The party recruited as many workers as it could, as many as would join (except during the years when the party was purging itself in the mid-thirties) in an effort to contain this vanguard.

Was the party the oppressor of the working class? As has been explained above, perhaps in the short-term sense. In the longer term, however, it was leading in a direction, perhaps the only direction, which could lead to a society in which the workers would truly prosper. It had not reached that goal in the period covered by this paper.

V. Conclusion

Who took state power in Russia in 1917? After the February revolution and the founding of the Soviets, the Soviets’ portion of the dual power was vested in the working class. No single party ruled the Soviets. The urban workers, at least the most advanced layer of them, took an active interest, participated, elected, helped keep the peace, were sometimes armed, etc.

After the October revolution things are both more and less clear in different respects. The working class was more united in its desire for soviet power and against allowing bourgeois forces to participate in government. Detachments of workers were armed and had participated in fighting to gain the power. It was they who made up the new Red Army to replace the the disintegrating primarily peasant army of the tsar and defended the new state against the Whites and foreign invaders. It was also they who made up the armed force which was the essence of the state.

What needs to be shown is whether or not the working class was also in the position of controlling that force. The Bolsheviks were the main, and later the only legal party representing the working class. It was the Bolsheviks who directed the forces of the state. Were they also part of the working class? Most of the leaders were not; they were intellectuals. The rank-and-file membership of the party, however, was primarily made up of workers. The party leaders were formally responsible to the membership to a somewhat limited degree, due to the nature of the way the party was internally governed. But, as has been discussed, the leadership’s stated goals and actual practices were so bound up with advancing the cause of the working class and were so strongly supported by it that it is safe to say that the Bolshevik party was a bona fide representative of the class39, at least at that early stage. Thus it can be said that it was the workers who took power in October of 1917.

Did this situation change over time? Did a workers’ state survive and continue to develop? To answer, we must clarify what is meant by the term “workers’ state”.

As we mentioned, the issue of control is paramount when speaking of the state. Control “by” and control “in the interest of” are certainly different, but if in the end they amount to the same thing, then extensively debating the difference is a waste of time. During the period of revolutionary ferment and civil war, state power and rank and file workers were intimately intertwined. When things settled down and the business of running a country began to be attended to, the situation had to change. If the industrial workers were busy carrying guns, etc., who would work? Institutionalized, professional, administrative organs, staffed by bureaucrats, had to be set up to handle many of the tasks falling to the state. Ergo, if it is true that the these organs of the state apparatus can be shown to have exercised control in the interest of the working class, then a workers’ state existed.

Increasingly through the 1920s and 1930s the CPSU gave overall supervision to most everything of consequence. The CPSU has been shown to have been inextricably bound to the working class in terms of membership and goals.40 The main policies set down by the party were intended to be more of long-term benefit to a future country-of-all- the-people than of short-term benefit to the industrial working class. However compromises were made, such as allowing wages to increase faster than productivity to relieve extremely low industrial working class living standards. Other policies, such as promotion and education, provided both immediate benefits for the participants and the potential, at least, for providing the means for an industrial and economic growth which could supply the wealth, goods and services that would signal a much better and more equitable society than had existed before the revolution.

The twenty-year (more or less) time frame covered by this paper is very short to cover the period of development of a large country. Only the beginning can be seen. Even in that beginning, however, enough can be seen, to make a characterization. A theretofore unheard-of degree of upward mobility, education and training, job possibilities and input into the political process had been obtained for either people of working class origin, people who supported the political goals of the party tied to the working class, or people of another class (mainly the peasantry) who became a part of the working class.

Moreover, the economic basis was laid, albeit with much sacrifice on the part of the industrial working class and the peasantry, whereby these benefits could be expanded. (It is now being debated in academic circles whether or not the economic growth made could have been accomplished by less drastic means. Whatever speculative answers result from that debate, it won’t change the conclusion of this paper, for it is based upon what actually did happen.)

The conclusion of this paper is as follows. Based upon intimate relationship between the ruling CPSU and both the industrial working class and the more broadly defined working class, the material and non- material benefits accrued to those groupings and, what is probably most important, the potential for a future expansion of those benefits, it must be determined that in the early 1930s, the USSR was a workers’ state.

VI. Post Script

Whether the USSR remained a workers’ state in the years following the period covered by this paper is an issue too large to cover here. However, it might be fruitful to briefly discuss what must be demonstrated to show that that characterization has changed.

First, it must be shown that the ruling and governing elite (the CPSU and those closely associated with it) are now a new class separate from the working class and that it does not rule in the interests of the working class (or the common people in general, if it is felt that the USSR has become a society in which all working people are now members of a classless melange).

Second, it has to be determined that the upper strata of the Soviet economic, governing, social artistic and academic elites are essentially closed to those of “low” birth.

Third, it is necessary to prove that the material and non-material benefits which accrued to the working class since the period covered by this paper are less and/or show a loss or abandonment of the potential which was gained in the early years after the revolution.

Submitted in Fulfillment of the Requirements of Independent Study IS 37: USSR - Party and Politics, Spring Semester, 1985-86, Brown University, Professor Linda J. Cook, Political Science Department

End Notes

  1. For instance, the term “dictatorship of the proletariat”. Lenin used this term to describe a post-revolutionary relationship between the victorious working class and the defeated bourgeois class during a period of consolidation of the revolution. He did not use it in the sense of describing the form of government in the new state, which he envisioned a being a form of democracy. However, many scholars and politicians hostile to the Soviet state manipulate this usage difference by saying to their audience “See, the Russians believe in dictatorship, not democracy.”
  2. Some Marxists also throw in the requirement that a proletarian must produce surplus value, but such fine points will not help us here. To have to work is good enough.
  3. Not to be confused with “middle income”, as it often is in common western usage.
  4. For a Marxist view on the state, see “The State and Revolution”, Chapter I, Section 2, pages 272-4 and “Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power?”, page 395, both in Lenin, Volume 2.
  5. For an excellent, deeper analysis of the various working class strata, see Mandel, 1983, Chapter 2.
  6. While much of this description relates directly to the working class of Petrograd, the characteristics of the various categories of the working class seem to run true in other areas of the country, even though the mixture of the categories in each locale may vary widely from that of the capitol.
  7. This process must be distinguished from workers’ self-management, which was not much advocated at that time. The workers in general were aware of their lack of expertise and willing to let the owners run their enterprises, so long as they did not try to shut them down or otherwise use them as a weapon against the workers and their soviets.
  8. Mandel, 1984, pages 283-4.
  9. For an excellent, deeper analysis of this period, see Mandel, 1984, Chapter 1.
  10. Mandel, 1984, pages 350-351.
  11. For an illustration of the gulf between the attitudes of the Soviets and the Constituent Assembly, see the “Declaration of Rights of the Working and Exploited People” (Lenin, Volume 2, pages 520-2), passed by the All-Russia Central Executive Committee. It addresses fundamental revolutionary issues like socialism, nationalizations, and workers’ control. It was submitted on January 5, 1918, and the Assembly refused to discuss it.
  12. Mandel, 1984, pages 395-6.
  13. The Workers’ Group, which emerged in early 1921 and lasted for a couple of years did have some real working class support, but it is not well known how much. This was a Left grouping, favoring full freedom of the press and opposing NEP. For a fuller discussion, see Carr, page 89.
  14. See the resolution “On Party Unity” in Lenin, Volume 3, pages 579- 82.
  15. Quoted in Carr, page 32.
  16. Shapiro and Godson, page 9.
  17. See Carr, page 18, footnote 3.
  18. See Carr, pages 54-67.
  19. Much of the information on the NEP period comes from the Rosenberg article, which is drawn from the Smolensk archive. If allowances are made for differences in population composition they probably have a general validity. With regard to Smolensk, please note: the industrial working class made up about 10% of the urban population, which itself was about 10% of the population of the region. The Bolsheviks had a significantly higher percentage of the Constituent Assembly vote, and the Kadets a lower one than the national average. This would seem to imply that there was a high degree of goodwill toward the Bolsheviks even among non-industrial working class population groups.
  20. The article by Rosenberg discusses this in greater detail.
  21. Trotsky, page 100.
  22. Rosenberg, page 137.
  23. Shapiro and Godson, page 7-8.
  24. Fitzpatrick, 1979, page 182-3. Most statistics in this part of the paper come from this book.
  25. See Mandel, 1984, page 341.
  26. Fitzpatrick, 1984, page 33.
  27. So did others in their memoirs. Fitzpatrick, 1979, page 253.
  28. See Hough, Jerry, “The Cultural Revolution and Western Understanding of the Soviet System”, page 253, in Fitzpatrick, 1984, page 250.
  29. Rigby, pages 52 and 199.
  30. Rigby, page 401.
  31. Fitzpatrick, 1979, page 238.
  32. Marx chastised them for trying to apply his ideas as a general theory, when it was developed for industrialized Western Europe. See Marx’s 1877 letter to “Otechestvenniye Zapiski” in Marx, page 376-9.
  33. Fitzpatrick, 1979, page 237.
  34. Lenin felt that the revolution was being swamped by bureaucratic leftovers from the old regime (chinovniks), and Trotsky seemed to feel this way, also. Sheila Fitzpatrick notes that “In the whole Soviet population of 1926, there were fewer than four million persons classified as employees and professionals, and they had an average of 1.5 dependents. This group alone could not possibly have generated the fourteen million employees and professionals disclosed by the 1939 census. (Fitzpatrick, 1979, page 236.)
  35. Trotsky, page 251-2.
  36. ibid., page 255.
  37. ibid., page 249.
  38. ibid., page 143.
  39. See Fitzpatrick, 1979, 15-16.
  40. Sadler, page 4.


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