The Russian Revolution in Retreat

Moscow building workers celebrating graduates from a literacy course, 1922

The Russian Revolution in Retreat, 1920-1924: Soviet workers and the new communist elite.  By Simon Pirani (Routledge, 2008)

The Russian revolution of 1917 was a defining event of the 20th century, and its achievements and failures remain controversial in the 21st. In this critically acclaimed book, published in 2008, I focused 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. The book 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.

In The Russian Revolution in Retreat, I argued 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, and examined how the new Soviet ruling class began to take shape. I showed 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. Simon Pirani, 2018

Translation, reviews and discussion

In 2013, a Russian translation of The Russian Revolution in Retreat (translated by Denis Gorbach and Evgeniya Polshchikovaya) was published by Novyi Khronograf in Moscow. (Information in Russian here.)

The Russian Revolution in Retreat was critically acclaimed in leading academic journals and in the radical and left press. See what the reviewers said here.

In 2010, I wrote an article, “Socialism in the 21st Century and the Russian revolution”, and some detailed supporting notes, in response to one of the few negative reviews, published by International Socialism journal. Perhaps naively, I posed questions to the reviewer, Kevin Murphy, in the hope of pursuing a discussion about what socialists could learn from the Russian revolutionary experience. Eight years later, I haven’t heard a word back; I suppose he just wanted to do a hatchet job. Nevertheless, writing the response was a useful and rewarding process for me.

Some related articles

These are links to PDFs of articles I wrote 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

See also

“Socialism in the 21st century and the Russian revolution”


The Russian translation

Some photos from The Russian Revolution in Retreat

Women textile workers at a mass meeting at the Trekhgornaia textile works, Moscow, in the mid 1920s


Delegates to the printers’ trade union congress, Moscow, 1924


Queueing for bread rations in Moscow in 1920


Members of a communist party commission on trade union work, Moscow, 1921

Photos from the Russian Archive for Cinematic and Photographic Documents, and from the archive of the late David King


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