Kollontai on the Soviet bureaucracy (1921)

In 1921, the female Bolshevik Alexandra Kollontai penned “The Workers’ Opposition”, an essay strongly critical of the party and its treatment of workers and unions. The dissident faction that took shape around Kollontai also became known as the Workers’ Opposition. In this extract from Kollontai’s essay, she criticises the growth of bureaucracy, both in the Communist Party and the Soviet government:

“Is it to be bureaucracy or self-activity of the masses? This is the second point of the controversy between the leaders of our Party and the Workers’ Opposition… The essence is this: what system of administration in a workers’ republic, during the creation of the economic basis for Communism, secures more freedom for the class creative powers? Is it a bureaucratic state system or a system of wide practical self-activity of the working masses? …

The harm in bureaucracy lies not just in the red tape, as some comrades would want us to believe… The harm lies in the solution of all problems, not by means of an open exchange of opinions or by the immediate efforts of all concerned, but by means of formal decisions handed down from central institutions.

These decisions are arrived at either by one person or by an extremely limited collective, wherein the interested people are quite often entirely absent. Some third person decides your fate: this is the whole essence of bureaucracy.

In the face of the growing suffering in the working class, brought about by the confusion of the present period, bureaucracy finds itself particularly weak and impotent. Miracles of enthusiasm to stimulate the productive forces and alleviate working conditions can only be performed by the initiative of the workers themselves, provided it is not restricted and repressed at every step by a hierarchy of permissions and decrees…

Marxists have always attempted to put the workers in such conditions as would give them the opportunity to temper their revolutionary will and to develop their creative abilities. The workers’ initiative is indispensable for us, and yet we do not give it a chance to develop.

Fear of criticism and of freedom of thought, by combining together with bureaucracy, often produce ridiculous results. There can be no self-activity without freedom of thought and opinion, for self-activity manifest itself not only in initiative, action and work but in independent thought as well. We give no freedom to class activity, we are afraid of criticism, we have ceased to rely on the masses: hence we have bureaucracy with us.

That is why the Workers’ Opposition considers that bureaucracy is our enemy, our scourge, and the greatest danger to the future existence of the Communist Party itself.

In order to do away with the bureaucracy that is finding its shelter in the Soviet institutions, we must first get rid of all bureaucracy in the Party itself. That is where we face the immediate struggle. As soon as the Party recognised the self-activity of the masses as the basis of our State, the Soviet institutions will again automatically become living institutions, destined to carry out the Communist project. They will cease to be the institutions of red tape and the laboratories for still-born decrees into which they have very rapidly degenerated.”