Alexander Shlyapnikov, 1885-1937: Life of an Old Bolshevik

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Barbara C Allen’s important biography has opened an exciting, and long overdue, new line of enquiry into the dynamics of the Russian Revolution, well-timed for its centenary in 2017.

Alexander Shlyapnikov was the most prominent of the worker intellectuals, the backbone of the Bolshevik Party. The author is not particularly sympathetic to Lenin or the Bolsheviks, but recognises this was their greatest asset. The role of the worker intellectuals is grossly misunderstood and under-researched. Allen’s thorough exploration of the post-Soviet archives has reignited many long-standing controversies.

Shlyapnikov was a highly skilled metal worker, chair of his union in 1917 and the Bolsheviks’ Labour Commissar immediately after the revolution. He had worked in factories in different parts of Western Europe before the revolution, was fluent in several European languages and steeped in the Russian classical literature.

He read his first Marxist books and pamphlets as a 14 year old factory apprentice. He was a lover of Alexandra Kollontai, the Bolsheviks’ most prominent women’s leader. They remained lifelong friends and comrades.

But Shlyapnikov is best known as leader of the Workers’ Opposition at the end of the Civil War, and in particular for a devastatingly provocative remark aimed at Lenin at the 11th Congress of the Bolshevik Party in 1922. Lenin had argued that the working class that had made the revolution no longer existed, destroyed by factory closures, famine, the civil war. Shlyapnikov disagreed and went on to argue for trade union control over the economic recovery. With savage wit he exclaimed, “Permit me to congratulate you on being the vanguard of a non-existent class.”

In their respective biographies of Trotsky and Lenin, both Isaac Deutscher and Tony Cliff, in slightly different ways, acknowledge this moment as a critical turning point in the degeneration of the revolution. Was Lenin’s assessment correct? A serious weakness in Allen’s book is her cursory use of historical context. It sometimes reads as though the archival sources are simply being strung together.

There is no proper attempt to address the significance of this question. Trotsky agreed with Lenin and even called for the military conscription of labour. This was unacceptable, but it illustrates the depth of the crisis compounded by the Kronstadt uprising against the Bolsheviks and the highly risky introduction of the New Economic Policy, promoting small peasant proprietor capitalism.

What is important here though is that we see Shlyapnikov, undaunted, ready to challenge Lenin and Trotsky, on equal terms, even though the Workers’ Opposition had been banned. Indeed Lenin had earlier insisted that Shlyapnikov be elected onto the central committee. Tenuous strands of revolutionary democracy persisted. Even Stalin, before he had him executed, felt obliged to employ his talents. Shlyapnikov was in charge of metal imports and even as Stalin banned his memoirs, he placed Shlyapnikov in charge of the construction sector.

The question, though, is why Shlyapnikov didn’t join Trotsky’s opposition, especially as he had no illusions in “Socialism in One Country”. Allen doesn’t really ask this question but her book has enough insight to provide the discerning reader with the answer.