Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Barbara C. Allen - Alexander Shlyapnikov 1885-1937: Life of an Old Bolshevik

There's an old propaganda image (see below) that shows the Bolshevik leaders from 1917, the year of the Russian Revolution, listing the fate of each of them under Stalin. Many are dead, and of those living when the image was made, the remainder would perish under the dictator. Some of them would admit to fantastical crimes against the Revolution in show trials. Others simply disappeared. The familiar names and faces from this image are matched by thousands of anonymous others who died in labour camps, or in front of firing squads. To protect his new order, Stalin had to both ideologically break with the old Bolshevik revolutionary ideology and destroy those who had fought for it.

Alexander Shlyapnikov was one of those Old Bolsheviks. He became a committed revolutionary as a young metalworker, working closely with Lenin, and eventually became a member of the Bolshevik organisations' central leadership. Under the Tsar Shlyapnikov became a highly respected workers leader, organising both the socialist movement and the early trade union movement. Barbara C. Allen's book is a detailed study of this revolutionary life, based in part of Shlyapnikov's autobiogrpahies and her own painstaking work in Russian archives.

Much of the book is taken with Shlyapnikov's life post-Revolution. But in fact some of the material on his early life is equally, if not more fascinating. Born into a relatively poor family of "old believers", a persecuted religious sect, Shlyapnikov's background was unusual when compared to many other Bolshevik leaders. At an early age he entered the factories and became an engineer, skills that he remained enormously proud of until the end of his life. Forced into exile in the aftermath of the 1905 revolution, Shlyapnikov immersed himself in working class and trade union activities abroad. Allen argues this profoundly shaped his politics and ideas:
Shlyapnikov had become a highly skilled metal turner and fitter, a crafty and conspiratorial underground activist and a steadfast Bolshevik. As such he belonged to an exclusive group of 'conscious' Russian proleatrians. In Western Europe, however he took a path that dfiverged from that of many other radicalised Russian workers. Life and work there gave him the opportunity to observe foreign trade unions' methods of organisation. Acquisition of fluent French and proficiency in German and English facilitated his education in Western-European labour organising and radical socialism.
Shlyapnikov became a key figure for the Bolsheviks' helping organise the distribution of revolutionary materials into Tsarist Russia across the Finnish border. During the revolutionary  year of 1917 he became a central figure in the metalworkers union, which formed the basis for his support in the major debates that took place after the revolution.

The decimation of the Russian economy and population following World War One and the counter-revolutionary Civil War undermined many of the ambitions of the Revolution. Quickly it became clear that there needed to be drastic changes to defend the Revolution and save the situation. Hundreds of Bolsheviks and workers engaged in these debates throughout Russia, and Shlyapnikov placed himself at the heart of these, particularly given his position as a former industrial worker and trade unionist.
According to his proposals, reflected in major speeches, papers and published articles (1919-20), trade unions would replace state economic bodies as managers of the economy. Moreover, the CC [of the Bolsheviks] would stop interfering in the everyday affairs of local part, trade union and factory-committee organisations. He believed that the active, voluntary participation of the workers was essential for economic development and in building the new socialist society.
It would be difficult to disagree with Shlyapnikov's visions here, yet as the situation worsened through the 1920s, this idea of socialism became more and more distant. Enormous debates took place about the role of workers, trade unions and the peasantry. Shlyapnikov argued his position firmly, though it seems to me that he was guilty of a certain utopianism, or idealism when, for instance, he argued that the problem with the New Economic Programme was its focus on the peasantry. In an economy dominated by the peasantry, after the failure of European Revolution, there was always going to have to be a compromise with the peasantry for the survival of the revolution.

 Having taken an increasingly oppositional position during the debates of the early 1920s (Shlyapnikov was a key figure in the Workers' Opposition) he became a target for the increasingly repressive regime as Stalin cemented his position. In the early 1930s he was expelled from the Communist Party, despite apparently still being very much of the position that he could play a key role in developing the Russian economy and defending the revolution. In these years he certainly seemed to have been increasingly Utopian about the nature of the Soviet economy, and though he made little attempt to organise factionaly, the fact that he had been publicly outspoken in the past, meant that he was a target for Stalin's increasingly paranoid spies.

Tried, imprisoned, exiled and eventually executed, Shlyapnikov never broke from his ideals, declaring his loyalty to the idea of Soviet power at the very end of his trial. He put up with debilitating illness and saw former comrades break under the pressure, yet he never backtracked on his principles. Sadly, in the appalling, counter-revolutionary atmosphere of 1930s Russia, Shlyapnikov's "guilt" was extended to his family who all suffered into the 1950s as a result of their association with him.

Shlyapnikov is a fascinating character, and deserves a detailed biography. Sadly though, I was disappointed by this book. Despite the author's detailed knowledge of the source material, I felt that her understanding of Shlyapnikov was undermined by her lack of clarity on his politics, and those of the wider revolutionary movement. At times, her explanation of Bolshevik ideas, particularly those of Lenin, is limited. For instance, when discussing Bolshevik debates about the national question, she writes that Lenin "saw nationalism as a powerful force for bringing about revolution", a statement that is at best an extremely simplistic summary of Lenin's nuanced political position around the question.

Similarly I felt that the author lacked an understanding of the way that the economic situation was negatively transformed by the Civil War. For instance, the discussion of the Kronstadt Rising implies that those who had been so pro-revolution and supportive of the Bolsheviks during 1917 were the same as those who rose up in 1921. Yet the reality, as both Lenin and Trotsky repeatedly made clear, was that the core of the Kronstadt workers and sailors had been decimated and was dominated by the 1920s with former peasants who were no longer as seeped in revolutionary politics and experience as their predecessors. I think the fault is that the author while acknowledging that Shlyaphikov still "continued to believe in revolution" right until his death, thinks that this was naive.

Sadly, this lack of clarity about the backdrop to Shlyaphikov's life and struggles undermines what should be an excellent book. Nonetheless, for students of the Russian Revolution, the sections on Bolshevik activity in the workplaces before the Revolution and the internal debates after the revolution will be of interest. And despite some flaws, Barbara Allen's finally frees Shlyaphikov's life and politics from Stalinist distortion and lies.

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Krupskaya - Memories of Lenin
Serge - Revolution in Danger
Baku - Congress of the People of the East

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