The Russian Revolution in Retreat: reviews

In academic journals

“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, in 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 of 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. Through skilful writing and his intimate knowledge of his sources, 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.

“Simon Pirani approaches his topic from a basically Marxist perspective and utilizes as criteria the concepts of participatory democracy and the historical role (in the Marxist sense) that workers seemed to have achieved during the 1917 revolutions. Those who fear that this approach will be too delimiting and open to bias can be reassured. Pirani skilfully navigates the straits of conflicting political convictions as he wields his above-mentioned dual criteria to reveal quite mercilessly how Communist Party leaders and elites imposed hierarchical, bureaucratic, and repressive structures on the workers and the soviets. Even those who do not share the author’s enthusiasm for what October 1917 seemed to portend will hardly be disappointed in this incisively sketched portrait of the utter betrayal of 1917’s promise.”  – Michael Melancon, Auburn University, in the American Historical Review, February 2009.

“This study brings significant new insights to the subject and makes a very significant contribution to filling in the ‘view from below’ of the early stages of the regime’s evolution towards a totalitarian dictatorship and of the coalescence of a bureaucratic elite. In particular, it provides a rare, concrete feel for the still vibrant, though increasingly stifled, political life among the various party and non-party oppositions, all of whom defended, albeit within varying limits, the democratic and egalitarian aspirations of the October Revolution.”  – David Mandel in Critique, May 2009.

“Pirani’s work, which draws extensively on documents from numerous central Russian and local Moscow party archives and demonstrates an outstanding command of the secondary literature, adds considerable nuance and detail to the workers’ movement and its relationship to the state. […] It is also a reminder that research on the Russian revolution, even as we approach its centennial, has not been exhausted. […] recommended reading for all Soviet scholars.” – Nicholas Ganson in The Soviet and Post-Soviet Review 38 (2011)

“This is an enormously well-researched book. Pirani has made extensive use of four local Moscow archives in addition to the central state and party archives. His careful sifting of the literature […] shows clearly in his copious footnotes […] It is to the credit of the publishers that they have decided to produce a paperback edition, as the hardback price would have kept a book that deserves wide readership from reaching its audience.” – T. Clayton Black, Washington College, in NEP Era Journal, 2009.

“The end of the cold war and the opening up of previously closed Soviet archives has made possible a reassessment … Utilising a huge array of sources, Pirani seeks to demonstrate that workers, at least in Moscow, were not simply engaged in a struggle for survival but were capable of expressing alternatives policies to the Bolsheviks, with whom they were increasingly disillusioned.” – Rick Simon, Nottingham Trent University, in Capital and Class, September 2009.

“Pirani adds significantly to our understanding of high Party politics, including Lenin’s conflicts with inner-Party oppositionists, the 1920 trade union debate, the Tenth Party Congress’ ban on factions, and the 1923 contest between Stalin’s triumvirate and the oppositionists associated with Trotsky.  The heart of the book, though, are his case studies of trade union, soviet and Party organizations in Moscow, and particularly his examinations of nonparty factory workers’ protests and strikes.  […] Among the studies to which his volume invites immediate comparison are Jonathan Aves’s Workers against Lenin and Robert V. Daniels’s The Conscience of the Revolution.” – Michael Hickey, Bloomsburg University, h-Russia, April 2009. Read the full review here

The radical and left press

“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 here

“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 (author of Before Stalinism), in Against the Current. Read the full review here

“Pirani sets out to show how little power ordinary workers had in the period 1920-24, over their workplace and over the Soviet Union in general. […] He is the only person on the libertarian left who has set out to prove the point using original materials. Pirani is concerned to show that there were real workers and so a real working class in this period, and not a shadow class’’.” – Hillel Ticktin (author of The Ideas of Leon Trotsky, Origins of the Crisis in the USSR etc), in the Weekly Worker. Read the full review here and a response by Geoff Barr 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 – culled from minutes of various soviet, trade union and party meetings, from newspapers of the time, as well as from detailed reports of the Cheka, not to mention a considerable body of Russian-language post-Soviet scholarship. – Paul Le Blanc (author of A Short History of the US Working Class, etc) in New Politics. Read the review here, reproduced on the Radical Socialist web site, based in India

“One thing is beyond dispute: the Russian revolution was not the first link in a world proletarian uprising, though many genuinely believed it was at the time. It’s not helpful to reach back into history and start pointing fingers, but then this is not what Pirani does. As a Marxist, he tries to analyse the contending social forces, and explain why events happened the way they did.” – Adam Ford in The Commune. Read the review here.

Pirani asks the question “could things have been different?” and wisely concludes that the material conditions (including the defeat of the workers’ revolutions outside Russia) meant that the outcome would have been little different in terms of the demise of the revolution. However, he does suggest that a different choice by the communists in 1921 as regards working class democracy would have at least have left a better legacy than the monolith of the “workers’ state” which remains today “a burdensome shibboleth for the workers’ movement”. – The Internationalist Communist Tendency web site. Read the review here.

“Pirani’s book should be read by those who think, or who want to refute, that the state in Russia under the Bolsheviks could ever have been described as ‘workers’’.” – Adam Buick in Socialist Standard. Read the review here

In the frontispiece

“This powerful book takes a close look at the relationship between the Bolshevik party and the democratic aspirations of rank-and-file workers in Moscow in the crucial early years of the Russian revolution. Simon Pirani’s prodigious utilization of local party and secret police archives allows him to show how the Bolshevik party leadership systematically destroyed democratic voices on the shop floor: the party offered a ‘social contract’ that promised improving standards of living in exchange for the loss of a political voice. Paying close attention to the material reality of the post-revolutionary period and to moments of intense shop floor dissent, this book goes beyond Robert Daniels’s classic The Conscience of the Revolution in emphasizing the importance of independent and non-party socialist worker activists. He instructs careful readers about the complex, fragile thing called democracy, exploring its origin and demise in economically and politically fraught conditions of revolutionary change.”  –  Diane P. Koenker, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA (author of Moscow Workers and the 1917 Revolution, etc.)

“Why did the Russian revolution, a mass uprising for justice and democracy, end in a single party dictatorship? This gripping tale of workers in revolution and retreat is essential reading for anyone interested in an answer.  Pirani follows Russian workers as they seize power, fight for a democratic revolution, and lose to a Bolshevik party bureaucracy intent on consolidating control. Using exciting new sources, Pirani takes us into the factories of Moscow to understand relations among activists, workers, bureaucrats, and a multiplicity of revolutionary parties.”  – Wendy Goldman, Carnegie Mellon University, USA (author of Women, The State and Revolution, Women at the Gates, Terror and Democracy in the Age of Stalin, etc.)


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