Workers’ Opposition

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Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum

Formed in the winter of 1920-21, the Workers’ Opposition formed a faction within the All-Russian Communist Party to try to halt the perceived drift towards bureaucratism in both Soviet institutions and the party itself, and to promote a syndicalist agenda of trade union control of the economy. Along with the Democratic Centralists, the Workers’ Opposition represented the most serious threat to party unity since the October Revolution and was indicative of considerable working-class disenchantment with the party leadership and its policies. The leading figures in the Workers’ Opposition were Aleksandr Shliapnikov, chair of the central committee of the Metalworkers’ Union, and Aleksandra Kollontai, the most prominent Bolshevik feminist.

The Workers’ Opposition became embroiled in the trade union controversy that broke out in preparation for the party’s Tenth Congress. Most fully articulated by Kollontai, it advocated a congress of producers to be elected by the trade unions and responsible for management of industry and control over the entire economy. Condemning the increasing reliance on “bourgeois specialists,” Kollontai wrote that “only workers can generate … new methods of organizing labor as well as running industry.” As for the party, the Workers’ Opposition called for the expulsion of all non-proletarian elements and for future eligibility for membership to be contingent on the performance of manual labor for “a certain period of time.”

At the Tenth Congress, the Workers’ Opposition’s position on trade unions received only 18 of over 400 votes cast by delegates. The party apparatus’ manipulation of delegate selection at the provincial level undoubtedly contributed to the Opposition’s poor showing. Weary of the divisions within the party ranks, Lenin pushed through resolutions on “party unity” and against “the anarcho-syndicalist deviation” that effectively banned the Workers’ Opposition and other party factions. A purge of the leadership of the Metalworkers’ Union followed soon thereafter. Complaints against the party’s repression of dissent within its ranks such as a “Declaration of the Twenty-Two” addressed to the Comintern and an appeal of the “Workers’ Truth” group continued into 1922. Ironically, Trotsky was to lodge similar complaints, but only after these groups that he had opposed ceased to exist.

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