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The Russian Revolution in Retreat, 1920-1924
Soviet workers and the new communist elite
by Simon Pirani
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Moscow workers celebrating literacy, 1922
Moscow building workers celebrating graduates from a literacy course, 1922

The Russian revolution of 1917 was a defining event of the 20th century, and its achievements and failures remain controversial in the 21st. This critically acclaimed book, published in 2008, focuses on the retreat from the revolution’s aims in 1920-24, after the end of the civil war – and specifically, on the turbulent relationship between the working class and the Communist Party in those years.

It is based on extensive original research of the actions and reactions of the party leadership and ranks, of dissidents and members of other parties, and of trade union activists and ordinary factory workers. It discusses working-class collective action before, during and after the crisis of 1921, when

the Bolsheviks were confronted by the revolt at the Kronshtadt naval base and other protest movements.

This book argues that the working class was politically expropriated by the Bolshevik party, as democratic bodies such as soviets and factory committees were deprived of decision-making power; it examines how the new Soviet ruling class began to take shape. It shows how some worker activists concluded that the principles of 1917 had been betrayed, while others accepted a social contract, under which workers were assured of improvements in living standards in exchange for increased labour discipline and productivity, and a surrender of political power to the party.

NEW IN MAY 2013:
Russian edition now available

The Russian Revolution in Retreat has now been published by Novyi Khronograf in Russian (Russkaya Revoliutsiya v Otstuplenii, 2013). Information (in Russian) is here. Purchasers outside Russia, for university libraries etc, may contact Index Books (Email: sales@indexbooks.co.uk. Telephone/fax: (44) 20 8690 3590)

Socialism in the 21st Century and the Russian revolution

I contributed this article to International Socialism journal, in response to a negative review of my book. You can view or download some additional notes on historical issues here. The review to which I responded is here.

Articles by Simon Pirani on early Soviet Russia, covering some of the subject matter in The Russian Revolution in Retreat

The communists' dilemma. Against the Current, March 2008
Communist dissidence and its context. Revolutionary History (10:1), 2008

The Russian Workers and the Bolshevik Party in Power. A talk to the Iranian Socialist Forum, a web discussion run by Iranian activists in exile,  September 2006
The party elite, industrial managers, specialists and workers, 1922-23. Paper for the Study Group on the Russian revolution conference, January 2006

Mass mobilisation versus mass participation: the Bolsheviks and the Moscow workers 1921-22. Paper presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Slavonic Studies convention, December 2004

… and some other references to publications:

"Mass Mobilization versus Participatory Democracy: Moscow Workers and the Bolshevik Expropriation of Political Power", in Donald Filtzer, Wendy  Goldman, Gijs Kessler and Simon Pirani (eds.), A Dream Deferred: New Studies in Russian and Soviet Labour History (Bern, Peter Lang, 2009)

"The party elite, the industrial managers and the cells: early stages in the formation of the Soviet ruling class in Moscow, 1922-23", Revolutionary Russia, vol. 19, no. 2, December 2006

"The Moscow Workers' Movement in 1921 and the Role of Non-Partyism", Europe-Asia Studies, Vol. 56 no.1 (2004)

"Class Clashes With Party: Politics in Moscow between the Civil War and the New Economic Policy" - Historical Materialism, Vol. 11, issue 2 (2003)

Reviews ...

“Even though Pirani has clear political preferences, they never compromise the soundness of his analysis. Replete with new and often compelling source material, this impressively researched book is a stimulating, nuanced, competent and very readable account of critical political struggles during this important period in Soviet history. Most significantly, it actually has the potential to enhance our understanding of their outcomes. It undoubtedly deserves a wide readership.” - Simon Ertz, Stanford University, Europe-Asia Studies, May 2009.

“The study is particularly strong in its exploration of industrial worker politics in these formative years and the degree to which they were oppositional in purpose, values and organisation. [...] Although studies of labour and politics, like Pirani's revolution, are also 'in retreat', this stimulating volume deserves a wide readership.”  - William Rosenberg, University of Michigan, in Revolutionary Russia, October 2009.

“The greatest contribution ot this sophisticated and penetrating analysis of worker-party relations is, in my view, the extraordinarily detailed way that Pirani has reconstructed debates and events at the grass-roots level. He effectively puts the reader 'in the room' with rank-and-file communists, and - to an unprecedented extent - independent non-party worker and socialist activists, as they doggedly defended the revolution's democratic premise on the shopfloor and in the factory cell. [...] we get a good sense of the emotional energy and urgency with which some workers engaged in the political arena at this critical juncture.”  - Page Herrlinger in the International Review of Social History, April 2009.

“Pirani has assembled a picture not of just what Trotsky said here or Lenin there, if you like the grand theory, but rather what lesser figures, people with more concern, perhaps, for what they'd understood the revolution to have been and how it should be defended. What we get here, then, includes the unnamed hecklers, the calls from the back, reported dutifully by those Cheka agents. The evidence he assembles is confined by choice specifically to the period 1920-1924. It is an interesting choice, for in this period we are leaving behind the distortions imposed by civil war.”  -  William Dixon in Mute. Read the full review 

“According to […] Simon Pirani, although certain aspects of Bolshevik ideology ‘played a crucial part in weakening and undermining the revolution, that ideology itself was powerfully impacted by social changes over which it [the Bolshevik government] had little control, and to whose operation it often blinded itself.’ […] The richness of detail and originality of Pirani’s research is remarkable.” – Samuel Farber in Against the Current. Read the full review here

“It is difficult to convey in a short review how valuable is the new material that Pirani presents in this compelling study […] including contemporary reports, speeches, articles and interventions by dozens of Bolshevik and non-Bolshevik workplace activists, factory managers, dissidents and bureaucrats" – Paul Le Blanc in New Politics.

More reviews here

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* If you have problems ordering, please email me on simonpirani@gmail.com