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The Workers' Opposition (Russian: Рабочая оппозиция) was a faction of the Russian Communist Party that emerged in 1920 as a response to the perceived over-bureaucratisation that was occurring in Soviet Russia.
The Workers' Opposition was led by Alexander Shlyapnikov, who was also chairman of the Russian Metalworkers' Union, and it consisted of trade union leaders and industrial administrators who had formerly been industrial workers. Alexandra Kollontai, the famous socialist feminist, was the group's mentor and advocate. Other prominent members included Sergei Medvedev and Mikhail Vladimirov (leaders of the Metalworkers' Union), Alexander Tolokontsev and Genrikh Bruno (artilleries industry leaders), Mikhail Chelyshev (a member of the Party Control Commission), Ivan Kutuzov (chairman of the Textileworkers' Union), Kirill Orlov (member of the Council of Military Industry and a participant in the 1905 mutiny on the Russian battleship Potemkin), and Aleksei Kiselyov (chairman of the Miners' Union). Yuri Lutovinov, a leader of the Metalworkers' Union and of the All-Russian Council of Trade Unions, sometimes spoke for the group, but sometimes held his own opinion.
The Workers' Opposition advocated the role of unionized workers in directing the economy at a time when Soviet government organs were running industry by diktat and trying to exclude trade unions from a participatory role. Specifically, the Workers' Opposition demanded that unionized workers (blue and white collar) should elect representatives to a vertical hierarchy of councils that would oversee the economy. At all levels, elected leaders would be responsible to those who had elected them and could be removed from below. The Workers' Opposition demanded that Russian Communist Party secretaries at all levels cease petty interference in the operations of trade unions and that trade unions should be reinforced with staff and supplies to allow them to carry out their work effectively. Leaders of the Workers' Opposition were not opposed to the employment of "bourgeois specialists" in the economy, but did oppose giving such individuals strong administrative powers, unchecked from below.
The Tenth Congress of the Russian Communist Party, in 1921, condemned the Workers' Opposition for factionalism, but adopted some of its proposals, including conducting a purge of the Party and organizing better supply of workers, to improve workers' living conditions. Several leaders of the Workers' Opposition, including Shlyapnikov, were elected to the Party Central Committee. Nevertheless, Party leaders subsequently undertook a campaign to subordinate trade unions to the Party and to harass and intimidate those who opposed this campaign.
End of the movement
Members of the former Workers' Opposition continued to advocate their views during the period of the New Economic Policy but increasingly became politically marginalized. Nonetheless, on 5 July 1921 Kollontai took the floor before the Third Congress of the Comintern, bitterly attacking the policies of the Soviet government and warning that NEP 'threatened to disillusion workers, to strengthen the peasantry and petty bourgeoisie, and to facilitate the rebirth of capitalism'.
Shlyapnikov and his supporters also conducted discussions with Gavril Myasnikov's Workers Group, but unlike Myasnikov, were determined not to leave the ranks of the Communist Party. At the beginning of 1922, former exponents of the Workers' Opposition, such as Shlyapnikov and Medvedev, and other members of the party of working class origins signed the so-called "Letter of the Twenty-Two", appealing to the Comintern Executive against suppression of dissent within the Russian party and bourgeois infiltrations into the Soviet state and the party itself. Kollontai co-signed the letter, with her best friend Zoya Shadurskaia, as intellectuals of non-working-class extraction, but in February 1922 she was restrained by Trotsky and Zinoviev from speaking before the Comintern Executive on behalf of the views expressed in the appeal. Shlyapnikov, Kollontai, and Sergei Medvedev narrowly escaped expulsion from the Russian Communist Party at the party's subsequent Eleventh Congress in 1922, while two other signatories of the appeal, F. Mitin (b. 1882) and N. Kuznetsov (1898-1935), were expelled. Kollontai later became an important diplomat and Shlyapnikov turned to writing his memoirs.
In the latter half of the 1930s, Shlyapnikov and his closest comrades (Kollontai was not among them) were charged with having being involved in a counterrevolutionary group called "Workers' Opposition" and with having linked up with the "counterrevolutionary Trotskyist–Zinovievist terrorist bloc". Despite their proclaiming themselves innocent, both Shlyapnikov and Medvedev, along with many others, were condemned to death and executed in September 1937. In her biography of Shlyapnikov Barbara Allen concludes the last chapter before epilogue, with these words:
There was no 'show trial' of the Workers' Opposition, either because it did not fit the narrative of oppositionism Stalin desired to construct or because Shlyapnikov and his closest comrades did not succumb to pressure to debate themselves and slander others in the service of the 'party'. For them, the party was not Stalin and his band, but a revolutionary political institution organised by workers in order to achieve a better life for the oppressed. This firm conviction helped them resist Stalin's rhetoric and narrative of the party's past and to imagine an alternative to his vision of socialism.— Barbara C. Allen, Alexander Shlyapnikov, 1885–1937: Life of an Old Bolshevik, pp. 364-365
After the end of Stalinism, Shlyapnikov was rehabilitated in 1963, Medvedev in 1977. The decision annulling the latter's case for lack of evidence emphasized that "None of those judged on the Workers' Opposition case confessed guilt".
- Allen (A Proletarian From a Novel), pp. 183–184.
- Shliapnikov. "Shliapnikov: Appeal of the 22. 1922". www.marxists.org.
- Allen (Early dissent), p. 31.
- Allen (Early dissent), p. 52
- Allen (Alexander Shlyapnikov), pp. 362–363. Tolokontsev, Kutuzov and Kiselyov were also put to death at the same time. Chelyshev had "died of a heart attack while under NKVD interrogation rather than confess to outlandish charges" (ibidem, p. 333). Lutovinov had already committed suicide in 1924.
- Allen (Alexander Shlyapnikov), p. 367. A few minor figures, however, may have confessed.
- Allen, Barbara C (January 2015). Alexander Shlyapnikov, 1885–1937: Life of an Old Bolshevik. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill (Historical Materialism Series). Paperback published by Haymarket Books in 2016.
- Allen, Barbara C., 'A Proletarian From a Novel': Politics, Identity, and Emotion in the Relationship between Alexander Shliapnikov and Alexandra Kollontai, 1911-1935. "The Soviet and Post-Soviet Review", 35 (2008), No. 2, 21-54
- Allen, Barbara C., Early dissent within the party: Alexander Shliapnikov and the letter of the twenty-two. "The NEP Era: Soviet Russia 1921-1928", 1 (2007), 21-54
- Daniels, Robert. The Conscience of the Revolution: Communist Opposition in Soviet Russia. Cambridge, Mass., 1960; revised edition, Boulder, Col., 1988.
- Holmes, Larry E. For the Revolution Redeemed: The Workers Opposition in the Bolshevik Party, 1919-1921. The Carl Beck Papers in Russian and East European Studies, no. 802 (1990).
- Kollontai, Alexandra. Rabochaya oppozitsiya. Moscow, 1921. Translated into English by Solidarity in London and the IWW in the United States.
- Sorenson, Jay. The Life and Death of Soviet Trade Unionism: 1917-1928. New York, 1969.