Biography of working class Bolshevik, Alexander Shliapnikov, active in the Workers' Opposition movement who was eventually purged from the party and executed for his activities.
Alexander Shliapnikov was born in 1885 in Murom, Russia, into a Russian family belonging to the urban estate (meshchanstvo) and professing the Old Belief (a religious sect that split from the Russian Orthodox Church in the seventeenth century). His father died when he was three, leaving his mother to support four children by taking in washing. Shliapnikov completed primary school at age eleven and started factory work at age thirteen; he worked as an apprentice in Murom and Sormovo factories. In 1901, he became an apprentice mechanic at a St. Petersburg metalworking factory, but was fired and blacklisted after taking part in a strike. He returned to Murom, where he worked in a factory, improved his metalworking skills, and conducted illegal revolutionary agitation and organization. He became a member of the RSDLP in 1901 and after the party split in 1903, he joined the Bolsheviks.
From 1904 to 1907, Shliapnikov spent a total of two years in jail or prison. In January 1908, he left Russia for Western Europe. From 1908 to 1916, he worked in French, German, and English factories, becoming a highly accomplished master of metalworking, participated in Bolshevik party politics, helped organize trade unions, and published newspaper and journal articles about industrial work and trade union organization. During World War I, he served as the chief organizational link between the Bolshevik central committee abroad and Bolsheviks within Russia.
Shliapnikov led the bureau of the Bolshevik central committee in Petrograd in early 1917. During the February Revolution, he helped organize the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ Deputies and was a member of its executive committee. He favored formation of a revolutionary provisional government through negotiations with other left socialist parties in the soviet, but did not support the immediate violent overthrow of the provisional government. In 1917, he helped organize the Petrograd and All-Russian Metalworkers’ Unions and was elected chair of both; he remained chair of the All-Russian Metalworkers’ Union until May 1921. Shliapnikov supported the Bolshevik seizure of power on behalf of the soviet in October 1917. He served as Commissar of Labor until fall 1918. During the civil war, he held important posts on the Caspian-Caucasian and Western fronts.
In fall 1919, Shliapnikov first began to express disagreements with Communist party policy on trade unions. His theses proposing trade union control of industry and “workerization” of leading party organs were presented to the Ninth Party Congress in March 1920. Those who supported his views came to be called the “Workers’ Opposition.” Alexandra Kollontai joined in late 1920. When the trade union debate was opened in December 1920, Shliapnikov led the “Workers’ Opposition” in trying to elect to the Tenth Party Congress delegates who would vote for their theses (published in “Pravda” on January 25, 1921). The Workers’ Opposition was only a small minority at the congress (held in March 1921), where Kollontai’s famous pamphlet about the Workers’ Opposition caused a stir. The congress censured the Workers’ Opposition and banned factionalism within the party, but Shliapnikov was elected to the party central committee and several other important posts. He and his supporters continued to struggle for their views, adapting them to new conditions under NEP, and they presented a letter to the Comintern in 1922 criticizing the suppression of dissent within the Russian Communist Party. At the Eleventh Party Congress in March-April 1922, Shliapnikov and others narrowly escaped expulsion from the party for their petition to the Comintern.
After 1922, Shliapnikov continued to participate in internal party politics, but to little effect. He turned to writing and publishing his memoirs of the revolutionary movement, including in them oblique messages to workers about the importance of organizing themselves without depending on party intellectuals. He briefly worked at the Soviet diplomatic mission in Paris in 1924-25. From 1927 to 1929, he was chair of Metalloimport and in 1932-33 worked in Gosplan RSFSR. He was investigated several times for oppositional activities in the 1920s and early 1930s, although he never joined Trotsky, Zinoviev, or any other top party leaders in any of the various large oppositions. In 1932, he was forced to publish a confession of having committed errors in his memoirs of 1917. In 1933, he was purged from the Communist Party, in 1934 exiled briefly to the Russian north, in 1935 arrested and in 1937 executed. He was rehabilitated of criminal charges in 1963 and restored to membership in the Communist Party in 1988.
Originally contributed by Barbara C. Allen for the marxists.org Encyclopedia of Marxism