Aleksandr Reznik, Trotskii i tovarischi: Levaia oppozitsiia i politicheskaia kultura RKP(b), 1923-1924 (Trotskii and Comrades: The Left Opposition and the Political Culture of the RCP[b]). 382 pp. St. Petersburg: Evropeiskii universitet v Sankt-Peterburge, 2017. ISBN-13 978-5943802249.
Andy Willimott, Living the Revolution: Urban Communes and Soviet Socialism, 1917-1932. 203 pp. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. ISBN-13 9780198725824. 60.00 [pounds sterling].
The centenary of the Russian Revolution had the welcome effect of bringing the events of 1917 back to the forefront of Western public interest. Yet it reduced an entire process to two dates at best, February and October. The Russian Revolution was not only the history of two insurrections; nor was it the matter of a single year. At the end of 1917, there were still many events to come; and the changes in Russia's political, economic, and social structures were only beginning. It would take at least three more years of turmoil and struggle to shape the new regime. In addition to the country's appalling situation at the end of the Civil War and the concern about the future of its people, there are questions about its supporters' state of mind. A look through the Communist Party's archives for 1920-23 reveals entire folders of documents about sick leaves on physical or mental grounds. Exhaustion was not only the consequence of stress, disease, and poor material condition; it also reflected acute social and political concerns. How could an activist transcend his/her own heroism and dedication during the Revolution and Civil War? How would he/she build a new set of beliefs and values adapted to the new period of "peaceful socialist construction"? Three recent books give us some enlightening clues about different ways of tackling this issue. One option was to stick to revolutionary ideals in politics as the Left Oppositionists did. A second consisted in transferring communist commitment to everyday life and becoming a communard. Ossifying the past by celebrating the revolution again and again was a third alternative.
Lev Trotskii's struggle against Stalin was magnified for a long time as revolutionary romanticism before being vilified as a mere struggle for power between leaders. Yet this crucial episode of early Soviet history is still a new field for academic research. (1) The young Russian historian Aleksandr Reznik aims at going beyond "textocentrism" and "Trostkocentrism" (14) and tries to describe the 1923 Left Opposition as a living social group and not only as Trotskii's followers or disembodied bearers of ideology. On the basis of party and state sources from the center and the provinces (mostly Perm'), Reznik delineates the "political culture" (19) of Russian Communists, defined not only as a set of values but also as practices, emotions, and ways of communicating.
The chronological framework of his study covers a short period, from August 1923 until January 1924. Two texts were milestones of the crisis: the "Declaration of 46" in October 1923 claimed that "The factional regime must be eliminated and ... must be replaced by a regime of comradely unity and inner-party democracy." In December, Trotskii published a series of articles in Pravda arguing for The New Course and analyzing bureaucratization, which was for him the background of the struggle inside the Party itself. However, the 13th Party Conference ended on 18 January with the defeat of the opposition, three days before Lenin's death became a major reason to close off discussion. In the first chapter, Reznik traces this story in detail. He highlights some particularly sensitive core issues in the conflict, which he develops in later chapters: from Trotskii's role and his relations with other oppositionists to the mechanism of inner-party discussion and the type of arguments exchanged and to the strategy of both camps to obtain defined places and institutions.
Surely, "Trotskii [did] not have the weight of an ordinary member of the Central Committee," as Kamenev stated (103). This is why historians are not comfortable with his attitude in 1923, when he seems passive (absent or silent due to illness or political miscalculation). Many have cited psychological factors to explain his lack of action. More convincingly, Reznik describes how Trotskii interacted with the public in various ways throughout the period. He never ceased to write or publish and would receive feedback, as he did from a young woman who was fired from her position in the Women's Section of the Party (Zhenotdel) for "feminist deviation" (94). Still, his case must not obscure the role of those who signed the "Declaration of 46." Reznik draws their portraits and carefully reconstructs how they connected to one another to produce this petition. They were not all-union leaders but high-ranking Bolsheviks holding positions of responsibility in various fields, including the Main Political Administration (GPU) and the Red Army. Many were former left-wing Communists and/or Decists. This means that the 1923 opposition was by no means "Trotskyist," either ideologically or sociologically. Reznik strongly counters here the idea that "patron/client" pattern ruled inner party relationships. The 46 were linked by changing ties of friendship and politics, which explains both the weakness of the opposition at that time and the signatories' subsequent fate.
Reznik then tries to explain the opposition's defeat by studying "the technique of political struggle" (143). First, it was a war of words. The oppositionists insisted that the Party should practice "democracy," but it proved an awkward concept to handle. The press reminded its readers how the leading oppositionists had ruled with a heavy hand during the Civil War (59) and mocked "democrats" as "bureaucrats out of work" (125). Moreover, the 1917--21 inner-party squabbles had left bad memories, and in 1923 democracy as such had negative connotations (149-50). Other terms were unusable. Arguing against the majority of the Central Committee, oppositionists could not define themselves as minority members--that is, Mensheviks, in plain Russian (126). They could not assert they were building a faction, which was forbidden; consequently, they were not able to set up an effective web of supporters. Indeed, the Central Control Commission (TsKK) existed to prevent this from happening. Reznik examines its files to highlight this conflict mechanism. Leading oppositionists enjoyed greater freedom of speech than the rank and file. That said, one cannot state that widespread repression took place: many lost their positions, but very few were excluded from the Party. As Bukharin put it, the aim was "to assimilate some (those deemed capable of it) and to discipline the others" (189).
Here a crucial question arises: what level of support did the opposition actually have? Even though the essential archives (Pravda and the GPU-Federal Security Service [FSB]; 216, 349) are still closed to researchers, Reznik produces some evidence. On behalf of the majority, Iaroslavskii said meanly that it was not a "workers' opposition" but an "intelligentsia opposition." This accusation, reminiscent of the Makhaevshchina (126), proves to be largely right. Except for some individuals such as Sapronov and places like the Moscow working-class neighborhood of Krasnaia Presnia, the opposition's strongholds were mostly universities and government administration party cells. However, "class analysis" can be misleading. Many students and civil servants were of proletarian origin, and even some rural party cells supported the opposition due to a secretary who had been sent out to the sticks as punishment (218--25). Still, the case study of Perm' highlights another aspect of the social question. Even though the local working-class leader Miasnikov left an imprint of hard-line leftist rebellion after his expulsion from the Communist Party in 1922, Perm' workers did not grasp the issues of the 1923 discussion, which were far from their everyday problems.
Moreover, the rank and file were really afraid of divisions, and oppositionists were moderate in their claims. Even though they criticized bureaucratization, they did not raise social issues and they sought compromise. The majority had a better idea of what it wanted, and it learned in 1923 how to fight dissenters and hold onto power. More than the story of a lost battle, Reznik's very rich (and sometimes too dense) book gives a vivid picture of postrevolutionary bolshevism. Although still a lively body, it was already becoming ideologically and politically paralyzed by its own discourses and procedures.
Topics about which free discussion was still possible in the early 1920s included "problems of everyday life." Reznik shows that in 1923 Trotskii's book with this title was a political act directed at youth. The most committed youngsters who lived collectively in communes considered Trotskii as being on their side (92-93, 100-1). These communes have received little scholarly attention so far. Although there are a few monographs about peasants' collectives, none included discussion of urban communes. (2) Andy Willimott aims at filling this shortfall even though "there is no central [archival] holding on these groups." Nevertheless, Willimott "mined factory reports and institutional surveys, the local records of those institutes known to house ... commune groups, ... official protocols ..., media print sources ... as well as the available diaries" of people who participated in communes. Even though "this is not an easy tale to tell" (21), the author favors a narrative way of writing rather than an analytical approach, thus referring to microhistory (14).
The first chapter is devoted to the prerevolutionary origins of the communal movement, among which were artels (cooperative teams of workers) and kruzhki (radical student clubs). The latter were influenced by subversive thinking (e.g., Chemyshevsky's What Is to Be Done? ) and by actual revolutions (such as the 1871 Paris Commune). According to Willimott, this became "a common point of reference" for activists in the 1920s, made out of "constructs" and "imagined virtues" of 19th-century revolutionaries (36).
Student communes, such as attempts to build "Socialism in One Dormitory," are then studied through the trajectory of a young worker from Saratov who became a student in the mid-1920s and initiated a commune at the Electro-Technical Institute in Leningrad. In so doing, such young activists had "put themselves forth as a new political-cultural enlightening force" and promoted themselves by going "beyond the party's centralized propaganda mechanisms" (59). Hence they would exert social control over other students considered to be "politically unsatisfactory persons" (54).
In the third chapter, Willimott describes two Moscow youth communes in Moscow as examples of "Socialism in One Apartment." This type of byt (everyday life) commune was seen in the early 1920s as a rejection of the capitalist-like New Economic Policy (NEP). These groups developed alongside extensive discussions on the "new way of life," including the claim for equality between the sexes. For communards, this had immediate consequences for gender roles. Women were "forced to accept a masculine vision of revolution" and "to display a revolutionary 'steeliness"' (101) in order not to be perceived as baby (broads).
In their turn, production communes tried to build "Socialism in One Factory" mainly in the late 1920s and during the Great Break. This was a time when party representatives, workers, and spetsy (technical experts) were confronting one another in factories. Willimott describes how young communard activists set up the first production collectives without support, before "a virtuous circle of party ambition and activist inventiveness" (122) began in early 1930. Then communes flourished on the shop floor, although in a highly strained climate.
This was to be a short-lived apotheosis. In 1931, "Pravda published calls for a campaign against 'forced' or 'involuntary' urban communes and collectives" (148). Wage leveling in factories was now criticized and former communards would turn toward "piece rates and premiums" and finally conclude that all the encompassing collective organizations were "nothing short of a 'Utopia'" (153-54). Nevertheless, Willimott concludes that even during the Great Break, in "sometimes taking revolutionary policy in a slightly different direction than was perhaps intended, [communards] displayed their own agency" (167).
This overview of the communal movement would remind an older reader of the chapter about "Utopia in Life" in Richard Stites's Revolutionary Dreams. (3) Because printed sources are sparse, Willimott relies on the same material (such as Naishtat's brochure, which is wrongly spelled "Kaishtat" throughout Willimott's book). With regard to archival materials, Willimott quotes from files about student communes in two institutes, which is indeed a valuable discovery. But the date when the documents were written is mentioned only once: Willimott specifies that a quoted statement was made "some forty years on" (168). So, instead of documents produced by actual communards, it seems we are rather confronted with Brezhnevian memories of past events.
Otherwise, the majority of the sources used in this work were issued in the late 1920s, when the relative ideological pluralism of the NEP was already under criticism as "a more militant ideological discourse, coming off the back of the 1927 war scare," arose (164). This does not mean that early Stalinist materials are mere lies, but it underlines the need to put such statements into the context of power relations inside Soviet institutions and inside society as a whole.
Except for gender conflicts, which are accurately analyzed concerning byt communes, such questions about power relations are absent. The effect of reality given by quoting testimonies results in a rather uncritical outlook on the situation, far from microhistory. The internal structure of communes and their decision-making procedures are only occasionally tackled (73, 137, 4), without questioning their democratic character. Similarly, the attempts of student communards at promoting "personal reeducation" (77) for themselves but also for their fellow students (54) and their teachers (75), connected with their eagerness to receive "greater support from the local authorities" (70), are not analyzed in terms of power takeover within an institute. So strategic a step seems all the more obvious since communards rapidly improved their social status. Instead of an analysis, Willimott only notes that the communal movement had "a significant growth at the end of the 1920s--coinciding with a reinvigorated interest in collectivism" (54; my emphasis). One would expect more than the recognition of a coincidence.
The same can be said of the way in which the discussion about the way of life is presented. The fear expressed "that things had gone too far" in sexual liberation (95) is surprisingly not linked with the so-called "glass of water theory," and Aleksandra Kollontai is barely mentioned, although she became the scapegoat for sexual disorder. The absence of Trotskii is puzzling too, not only because he wrote an important work--Problems of Everyday Life (Voprosy byta), as Reznik pointed out--but also as a sign of a rather apolitical approach to the topic. (4) Writing about student communards who mobilized in 1927 against a Zinov'evite teacher, Willimott notes that the Leningrad leader "fell from power after 1926" (75), not mentioning the crushing of the United Left Opposition led by Grigorii Zinov'ev and Trotskii in that very year, 1927.
Nor does Willimott explain why egalitarianism, which was mainstream until 1931, ended up being understood as "Trotsky-ist levelling mania" or "pure Trotskii" (154, 9). This issue is of crucial importance to understanding production communes, which were distinct from other forms of team labor organization in practicing wage leveling. This practice explains why they were condemned when the regime sought to improve productivity through individual competition and collective cost accounting. Willimott is correct in saying that "ideological imperatives were shifting" (150), but it would have been preferable to add that this change complied with factory management necessities. In this new context, contrary to the author's opinion, communes did become "agents of resistance" (133). (5)
Communes mirrored major social, ideological, and political trends of the early Soviet regime and became sensitive discursive nodes in 1923 or 1931. One can regret that Willimott's book describes how they moved from behind the scenes to the forefront and then were discarded as broken props but does not explain why this happened.
After the oppositionists were defeated and the communards snubbed, "revolution" was increasingly seen as something from the past that should be commemorated and became a mere spectacle. Under the supervision of the French-speaking specialists Gianni Haver, Jean-Francois Fayet, Valerie Gorin, and Emilia Koustova, Le spectacle de la Revolution studies the "visual culture of commemorations of the October Revolution" in a lavishly illustrated book, beautifully published by the Swiss publishing house Antipodes.
It is a solid basis for reflection about the relationships between image and communism, which is an enthralling topic. The term "spectacle" is obviously a reference to Guy Debord (25), who asserted that in modern societies, both capitalist and socialist, human activity is alienated in the form of a spectacle of a harmonious community, hiding the reality of the oppression and exploitation of the masses by the ruling class. In the case of the Soviet Union, this meant, according to Debord, that the "representation of the working class has opposed itself radically to the working class." (6) The dual meaning of representation, inducing both visual representations (images, culture) and political representations (party-state), provides valuable perspectives for scholars. One might regret that the introduction of the book proposes a rather scholastic essay about totalitarian methods of staging instead of assuming clearly a Debordian inspiration.
Before listing the numerous interesting topics in this book, I will briefly note the dubious points. The gender analysis of commemorations by Magali Delaloye seems a bit short. The manly character of the beards and mustaches worn by red commanders is obvious, but it would have been more interesting to study the relationships between women and men at the commemoration rather than to state that they were invisible until 1935. The latter statement is surprising: anyone who has browsed the 1927 Soviet newspapers will have noticed images of girls with guns, in an attempt to link the war scare with the jubilee. Concerning music, one cannot credit Constance Frei for a balanced approach in her chapter. While hammering home the totalitarian essence of Soviet art, the chapter seems weak--vague in its discussion of Proletkul't and Narkompros and inaccurate in describing Avraamov's avant-garde Symphony of Factory Sirens as belonging ... to Socialist Realism (238)! Cecile Pichon-Bonin's paper about jubilee painting exhibitions is much more substantial, but even as it provides many details about the organization of such venues, it fails to show what image of the revolution was represented on canvas.
Otherwise, though, this volume offers very interesting chapters about the state of the art in various fields. Koustova, an authoritative researcher on the topic of revolutionary festivals, shows how the October commemorations were transformed. From a dual origin (labor movement gatherings and theatrical Gesamtkunstwerk), carnival-like demonstrations emerged in the 1920s and were later developed by the regime into more and more professionalized festivals. Surprisingly, the revolution left little imprint on the urban space, and the regime moved to other symbols after 1945: symbolically, the eternal flame in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow was lit in 1967 from the Flame to the Victims of Revolution inaugurated in Leningrad ten years earlier (86-87).
The chapters about the cinema are noteworthy. Alexandre Sumpf sums up the points of his recent book about the revolution on the silver screen. (7) Except for the 1927, 1937, 1957, and 1967 jubilees, October never was a central topic in Soviet cinema. Many moviemakers succeeded in avoiding it, and those who did represent it drew a more nuanced picture than one would think, even under Stalin. Haver and Gorin write about October in the newsreels, in Western Europe until the 1960s, and on US television. Elders remember how Western Sovietologists carefully analyzed the ranking of officials on the top of Lenin's mausoleum, but the role of technical progress in producing these images is not so well known and gives grounds for relevant thinking about the making of the spectacle. The case of documentaries made in the Baltic republics after their Sovietization (in Irina Tcherneva's contribution) is quite telling about the use of history in the USSR: to construct the myth of October for these new citizens, it ignored the local revolutionary past to promote the aid provided from outside by the Soviet state. When the revolutionary Latvian riflemen were finally rediscovered in the late 1960s, the old veterans were transformed into museum pieces, completing the alienation of the past.
The most innovative contributions of this volume show how various objects of everyday life served a commemorative function. Full-length chapters and smaller insets reconstruct the visual world of citizens of the Soviet Union and the People's Democracies: the epos of 1917 was reproduced on postcards (Matteo Bertele), stamps, envelopes, currency signs (Fayet), invitation cards (Nicolas Ofenstadt), sweets (Graham Roberts), children's books (Marina Balina), and so on. The late Larissa Zakharova shows that the 7 November holiday was also an occasion to dress up elegantly. Dignitaries ate fine food in Soviet embassies throughout the world, but so did ordinary people at home (Gorin and Haver). Even Western Communists had their part in this commemorative production through posters in France (Romain Ducoulombier) or party membership cards in Italy (Haver).
Browsing this beautiful book and gazing at all these memorabilia produces a strange feeling. Left Oppositionists claimed to change the world, and communards wanted to invent a "new way of life." Indeed, 1917 would reshape the world, but it gave eventually birth to an exotic bogeyman for the Western world. Over there, for sure, life was different from the consumer society: the scarce products available and their designs were indeed a constant remainder of that difference. "Thus, precisely at the moment when the bureaucracy wants to demonstrate its superiority on the terrain of capitalism it reveals itself a poor relative of capitalism." (8)
Each of these three books in its own way helps us understand the evolution of Soviet society. Oppositionists and communards alike tried to voice their ideals to shape Soviet society. Oppositionists pointed out the dangers of authoritarianism and bureaucratization but failed to vanquish them from within. Communards' endeavor, which seemed less political, lasted a bit longer, but their commitment to equality and democracy hic et nunc proved to be subversive, even though it was formally in line with the regime's values. Promoting the "spectacle of revolution" was one means among others to erase the memory of both Left Oppositionists and communards. In a meaningful allegory, Boris Pil'niak described as early as 1929 the fate of "men who had been created by the Revolution only to be rejected by it." There was only one solution left for them: "They had taken refuge underground [where] they practiced true communism, brotherhood, equality and fellowship." (9)
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(1) Valentina P. Vilkova, The Struggle for Power: Russia in 1923 (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 1996); Igal Halfin, Intimate Enemies: Demonizing the Bolshevik Opposition, 1918-1928 (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2007).
(2) Robert G. Wesson, Soviet Communes (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1963); V. V. Grishaev, Sel'skokhoziaistvennye kommuny sovetskoi Rossii, 1917-1929 (Moscow: Mysl', 1976); Dominique Durand, "En communisme des 1918": Sociographie des communes agraires en URSS (PhD diss., Paris IV, 1978), published in Russian as Kommunizm svoimi rukami: Obraz agrarnykh kommun v Sovetskoi Rossii (St. Petersburg: Evropeiskii universitet v Sankt-Peterburge, 2012); Eric Aunoble, "Le communisme tout de suite!": Le mouvement des communes en Ukraine sovietique, 1919-1920 (Paris: Les Nuits Rouges, 2008).
(3) Richard Stites, Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Vision and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).
(4) Available in English, with additional articles and speeches by Trotskii, as Leon Trotsky, Problems of Everyday Life: Creating the Foundations of a New Society in Revolutionary Russia (Atlanta: Pathfinder Press, 2011).
(5) Eric Aunoble, "Les ouvriers et le pouvoir a Kharkov de 1920 a 1933, a travers les archives regionales," Cahiers du Mouvement ouvrier (CERMTRI), no. 14 (2001): 24-25.
(6) Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, trans. Radical America A, 5 (1970), para. 100.
(7) Alexandre Sumpf, Revolutions russes au cinema: Naissance d'une nation. URSS, 1917-1985 (Paris: Armand Colin, 2015).
(8) Debord, Society of the Spectacle, para. 110.
(9) Boris Pilnyak, Mahogany, trans. Max Hayward, Partisan Review, no. 3-4 (1961): 450.
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