Communist Party Building

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Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum

The Communist Party (the Bolsheviks’ proper name after March 1918) styled itself as the “vanguard of the proletariat” and in this vein served as the nerve center of the new Soviet state. During its first years in power, the party metamorphosed into a hierarchically structured bureaucracy that functioned on the basis of discipline as mandated by the principle of “democratic centralism.” From 1917 through 1925, the party held annual congresses (as well as smaller and less formal conferences) at which delegates heard reports from leading figures, debated and voted on resolutions, and elected members to the Central Committee. The Central Committee stood at the apex of a hierarchy of committees that extended downward to the regions, provinces, and so forth, paralleling and shadowing the soviet administrative structure. The key personnel at every level consisted of secretaries whose appointment was based on “recommendations” from the next highest level up to the Secretariat of the Central Committee. This system also applied to other important assignments within the party and state and came to be known as the nomenklatura. As approved by the Eighth Congress in March 1919, the Central Committee created two other bodies: an Organizational Bureau (Orgbiuro) to manage the burgeoning party apparatus, and the Political Bureau (Politbiuro) to deal with “political questions” too urgent to await a full meeting of the Central Committee.

The size of the party fluctuated a good deal during its first years in power. At the time of the October Revolution it numbered between 250- and 300,000. Many factors limited its growth thereafter including the elementary struggle for survival which left little time for active political engagement, political disenchantment especially in the spring of 1918, death at the front, and a purge (that is, removal) of passive members, deserters from the Red Army and other undesirable elements which was carried out in the spring of 1919. By August 1919 the Secretariat estimated total membership as no more than 150,000. As a result of intense recruitment, numbers increased to 430,000 by January 1920 and as many as 600,000 by March. But despite special efforts to recruit members from the working class, their proportion fell steadily throughout these years, from 57 percent at the beginning of 1918, to 48 percent in early 1919 and 44 percent a year later. The proportions of peasants, particularly lads who had served in the Red Army, and what the sources refer to as “employees,” that is, white-collar workers, correspondingly rose.

The upper echelons of the party frequently were split over policy matters. Zinoviev’s and Kamenev’s opposition to armed insurrection in October 1917 provoked Lenin’s wrath, although they incurred no punishment. Oppositional positions soon emerged over other issues. The Brest Litovsk Treaty was opposed by the Left Communist faction which also voiced protest against Lenin’s willingness to rely on “bourgeois specialists” in industry and administration. Two former Left Communists, V. V. Osinskii and T. V. Sapronov, organized another opposition group, the Democratic Centralists, that lobbied for restoring autonomy to local party organizations and against the trend towards “appointmentism.” A Military Opposition emerged at the Eighth Congress against the professionalization of the army and the use of tsarist officers as “military specialists.” During the summer and autumn of 1920, unrest among industrial workers and the party’s rank and file crystallized in the form of a Workers’ Opposition. Led by Aleksandra Kollontai and Aleksandr Shliapnikov, it campaigned for trade-union control of industry. The party’s Tenth Congress passed a resolution denouncing the Workers’ Opposition as a “syndicalist and anarchist deviation.” Another resolution, “On Party Unity,” condemned both the Workers’ Opposition and the Democratic Centralists as fractional groups whose members risked expulsion from the party. These resolutions foreshadowed further tightening of restrictions on all forms of oppositional activity.

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