By Barbara C. Allen

Haymarket Books. 426 pages. $28. ISBN 978-1-60846-558-3

Reviewed by Jim Burns

Look at the dates encompassing Alexander Shlyapnikov’s life, and particularly that of his death. 1937, a fateful year in Russia, and a pointer to what happened to him, along with many others like him.

Shlyapnikov was born in 1885 in Murom, a small town 300 kilometres east of Moscow. His parents were working-class and belonged to the Pomortsy sect, a group of Old Believers who had broken away from the Russian Orthodox Church: “In childhood, he remembered, he learned to value sobriety, hard work, compassion, honesty, studiousness and the natural world, but he also learned that many paths of social mobility were closed to him because of his class and religion.”

He was soon sent to work in a foundry, and by the time he was 14 he was reading Marxist literature given to him by a Social Democrat fellow-worker. In 1900 he moved to St Petersburg and helped organise apprentices in a factory he was employed at. His activities led to him being blacklisted. He joined the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party (RSDRP), but by 1905 had identified himself as a Bolshevik. And he had become by that time a skilled metalworker. He was already known to the police, and was arrested in 1904 and again in 1905 when he returned to his home town and was involved in disturbances which included the chief of police being held hostage. A further arrest in 1905 caused him to be in prison until 1907.

I’ve sketched in some of Shlyapnikov’s early activities, and they were significant enough for him to be elected to the St Petersburg committee of the RSDRP (Bolsheviks) at the age of 22. But because he had become an object of attention by the authorities he was advised to leave Russia. He met Lenin in Geneva, and then went to Paris and worked in factories in France, Germany, and England  between 1908 and 1916. This is a fascinating period in his life. He learned to speak French, and presumably some German and English, and in his spare time read and wrote a few short stories and poems, and articles for left-wing publications. He also studied the ways in which unions in Western European countries were organised and functioned, something that was to be formative in shaping his ideas about the role of unions in the Russian Revolution. Although he would later be accused of syndicalist tendencies he was more an advocate of industrial unions. i.e. the organising of workers in a factory into one union and not separate craft unions. He thought that unions should be concerned with economic and political matters through the party, and did not adopt the syndicalist idea of the working-class standing aside from involvements with political parties.

There is an interesting description of Shlyapnikov by a Finnish socialist from around this time which refers to him as “quiet and good-natured, never boisterous, never gesticulating or gushing, always dependable, clear-headed and tireless …..not like a Russian at all.” And Alexandra Kollontai, with whom he had a relationship in Paris, said that he was “nice, cheerful, direct and strong-willed,” and like “a proletarian……from a novel.”  Later, after their affair had ended, she criticised his political clumsiness and lack of interest in “intellectual work.”

He managed to slip in and out of Russia more than once between 1914 and 1916, using a French passport, and for a time in 1914 worked in factories in St Petersburg, passing as a French citizen,  and was involved in factional struggles between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. He was in the United States briefly in 1916, but returned to Russia before the Revolution broke out in 1917.

Shlyapnikov threw himself heart and soul into the struggle to establish the dictatorship of the proletariat. He was the most senior Bolshevik in Petrograd and was prominent in the Soviet that was established there. However, perhaps almost as a foretaste of what would happen later, “more moderate Bolsheviks, such as Stalin and Kamenev, who took control of the party’s leading bodies and press until Lenin arrived in Russia in April 1917, edged him out of the central party leadership.” . He turned his energies towards establishing a workers’ militia and the Red Guard, practical activities that would prove important later in 1917. And he was instrumental in forging the metalworkers’ union into a powerful national organisation. The union would be his power-base for a time. Barbara C. Allen quotes an assessment of him: “a party patriot…..an experienced conspirator, an excellent organiser and practical trade unionist, he was not at all a politician, capable of grasping the essence of the changing state of affairs and generalising from it.”

Once the Bolsheviks seized control Shlyapnikov was appointed Commissar of Labour. His policies appeared to be “oriented towards including workers in economic policy-making and planning, provided that these workers were socialists, even if they were not Bolsheviks.” But this may have had an adverse effect on unions in that it “contributed to undermining their independence and their ability to defend workers.” Not every Bolshevik had the same affection for unions that Shlyapnikov had and, in fact, the attitude of some was that unions were unnecessary in a socialist state. They represented sectional interests that couldn’t be allowed to affect the pre-eminence of the state or, indeed, the situations of other groups of workers. The debate over the role of unions and the capabilities of workers to be involved in economic and political matters would continue. It didn’t help when examples of corruption and labour indiscipline were highlighted by those who wanted union power to be limited. Trotsky, for example, called for the “militarisation of labour,” to deal with the crisis of the Civil War in Russia as attempts were made to overthrow the Bolsheviks and economic catastrophe loomed on the horizon.

Shlyapnikov came under attack when he proposed that trade unionists should “stand at the head of the masses’ increasing discontent.” It was seen by party leaders as a threat to their role and “a dangerous incursion on the powers of state economic bodies.” Allen says that “Conflicts over the role of trade unions and his own position, however, seem to have taken a toll on Shlyapnikov’s health.” He was given a period of medical leave.

He must have been seen as something of a thorn in the side of the Bolshevik leadership and it was decided to send him away from Moscow, where their rule now operated from. In March, 1920, he was despatched to Europe on a trade union mission. This meant that he was away while the Ninth Party Congress was held, and when questions were raised about his absence Kamenev said that he’d been removed because of his “syndicalist tendencies.”  In his absence the party further increased its control. Allen refers to Zinoviev stating that “the party was superior to all other worker organisations and that in time the state would take over trade unions.”

The effect of these activities was to push Shlyapnikov into forming, along with sympathisers, a group called Workers’ Opposition. Its programme aimed to re-establish the role of unions in the making of economic policies, and it referred back to earlier resolutions passed at party congresses which, it was claimed, acknowledged the desirability of union participation: “The Workers’ Opposition blamed the marginal role of the unions in production on growing bureaucratisation. The only remedy for this unfortunate state of affairs was for unions to implement economic policy.” Shlyapnikov, as a self-educated skilled worker, as well as a veteran revolutionary, had a contempt for the kind of bureaucrats and careerists the party was increasingly installing in positions of power in offices and factories. Lenin accepted that earlier congresses had committed the party to greater union involvements, but said that such a policy could only be put into effect when the unions were ready for it: “He, Zinoviev and Bukharin promoted the accusation that the Workers’ Opposition fostered syndicalism,” and furthermore it was “an anarcho-syndicalist, petty-bourgeois deviation.” With such attacks coming from party leaders some prominent members of Workers’ Opposition quickly left “when it no longer benefited their careers” to be seen associating with the group.

Alexandra Kollontai published a pamphlet supporting Workers’ Opposition, but in language that challenged the position of the party in stronger terms than Shlyapnikov had used. Lenin criticised Kollontai’s writing on the grounds that it was irresponsible and helped counter-revolutionaries. And the Kronstadt Mutiny erupted around the same time, and gave those who opposed Workers’ Opposition an opportunity to link it with the uprising. There were strikes, too, in Petrograd. When Lenin opened the party congress in 1921 he launched an attack on the Workers’ Opposition , using the term “syndicalist deviation,” and saying that it threatened “party unity and the party’s hold on power.” He further suggested that the union question was of no great importance in the broad scheme of things. He continued to denigrate Kollontai’s pamphlet, even to the extent of saying to her, “For this you should not only be excluded , but shot as well.” His words, overheard by others at the congress, were enough for them to shun her. Even Shlyapnikov thought it wise to avoid her company. Allen thinks that his failure to support Kollontai was inexplicable. But he seems to have thought that she had gone too far in her criticisms. Or he may have been just playing it safe.

Shlyapnikov lost his position at the Metalworkers’ Union and at one point was brought before a party court to answer charges of a “violation of party discipline.” Workers’ Opposition had virtually ceased to function in an effective way by 1923 or so, but a new organisation, the Workers’ Group, had formed, though it was soon broken by arrests of its leading members. Luckily, Shlyapnikov had only a loose connection to its leader so was not involved in the investigations into it. In 1924 he was sent to Paris in an obvious measure to remove him from Moscow and the opportunity of any future questioning of party policy. But he resumed his old habits when he returned from France and raised doubts about Stalin’s advocacy of “socialism in one country.” Stalin was by then in the ascendancy in party circles, so Shlyapnikov’s activities would hardly have endeared him to the future dictator. However, it would appear that, by the late-1920s, his questioning of party policies was tending to lack its earlier bite. When a United Opposition arose in response to Stalin’s increasing dominance of the party and his policies, it was defeated and many of its leadings lights were expelled from the party. Shlyapnikov had kept his distance from the United Opposition.

Shlyapnikov was still being given positions in government, such as chair of Metalloimport, though looked on with some suspicion due to his previous activities with Workers’ Opposition. He held this post from 1926 to 1929. At one point he made business trips to various countries on behalf of Metalloimport and took his wife and son with him. Years later, his wife, who must have sensed what was happening in Russia as Stalin’s grip on power was tightened, said that she’d pleaded with Shlyapnikov to stay in Paris, but that he refused because of his commitment to Soviet Russia. Allen thinks that he may “have also feared that his defection would discredit comrades who still held leading positions in Soviet industry.”

The situation was worsening. In 1929 he was accused of “Rightist deviation” because of some remarks he was alleged to have made in a cell meeting at Metalloimport. He left and was offered work in banking, but declined and retired to concentrate on his memoirs. But he continued to be criticised for his supposed links to opposition groups and individuals, and for the contents of his memoirs. He “had to defend himself against attacks on his books for their failure to glorify Stalin and the role of the Bolshevik Party in 1917.” According to Allen, he did submit “to pressure to condemn errors in his books,” and was assigned to work in Gosplan, where he was again accused of making anti-party comments in a cell meeting. In 1933 he was expelled from the Soviet Communist Party. The writing was clearly on the wall for what was going to happen later. In January, 1933, Stalin called for “vigilance against plots by Trotskyists and “Right deviationists.” He hadn’t quite got to the point of having anyone accused in that way shot, but it would only be a question of time.

Despite having been expelled from the party, or because of it, Shlyapnikov was ordered to the far north of Russia. Allen thinks this may have been because he hadn’t shown sufficient signs of remorse over his involvements with Workers’ Opposition and other forms of dissension from party policies. He wasn’t in good health and soon returned to Moscow. In November, 1934, Kirov, the party boss in Petrograd, was murdered, possibly at Stalin’s behest, though the truth has never been properly established. But the killing was an excuse for mass arrests and purges. Among those arrested were Kamenev and Zinoviev. Shlyapnikov was also picked up by the secret police. His diaries were seized and entries relating to him having seen working-class women and children in Leningrad with “gaunt faces, pale bloodless lips” were viewed as anti-Soviet. Likewise, with an entry relating to workers having low wages forced on them. He was told that Kamenev had implicated him in organising “joint illegal work.” And questions relating to the alleged continued existence of the banned Workers’ Opposition were raised.

He survived that arrest, but was exiled to Astrakhan, despite ill-health and the fact that he had praised Stalin’s international policy of “a united proletarian front” and admitted to associating with “unworthy people.” He was arrested again in September, 1936, after confessions from other prisoners claimed that they had plotted with Trotskyists and “Shlyapnikovists” to assassinate Stalin. At his trial he was said to have been “in contact with leaders of the Trotskyist-Zinovievist and Right-Bukharinist terrorist organisations,” and of having ordered his followers to carry out “terrorist acts” against party and government leaders. Sentenced to death, he was executed in September, 1937. It didn’t quite end there, because his wife was arrested and sentenced to eight years in prison and his children placed in an orphanage. They were all re-arrested between 1948 and 1951 when Stalin started another round of purges and executions.

The fact that many people were prepared to believe the charges made against Shlyapnikov and many others is almost frightening. They seem so artificially constructed, as they pack in almost every person (Trotsky, Zinoviev, Bukharin) who Stalin viewed as a threat to his dominance, that it’s hard to take them seriously. But people did and with terrible consequences. Perhaps ambition, to rise higher in the bureaucracy, or plain fear of Stalin’s wrath should they fail to satisfy him, lay behind it all?

This is a fascinating book about a man who clearly tried to bring about what he saw as the real aim of the Russian Revolution, to transform the lives of the industrial working-class by empowering them through their unions. He had his shortcomings, it’s true, but generally seems to have been seen in a positive light by many who knew him. That he failed to fully appreciate what someone like Stalin had in mind, or what careerists were capable of, should not be held against him. His own sincerity was hardly ever at fault, even if his sympathies and commitments wavered at times. He was, after all, living in difficult and dangerous times.

 Barbara C Allen has clearly delved deep into the archives and turned up some important and informative documents. Her book is clearly written and avoids academic jargon and theorising. And it focuses attention on the role of unions in the development of communism in Russia. And even, perhaps, their situation today as working conditions worsen, union membership is often in decline, and governments attempt to restrict even further the power and relevance that unions might have. There are numerous notes and an extensive bibliography.