On this page I have consolidated my various posts on the 1917 Russian Revolution and its aftermath.
Kropotkin’s hopes for a social revolution in Russia were revived in February 1917 when the Russian people spontaneously arose to overthrow the Czar. The following passages are from Voline’s account of the 1917 “February Revolution,” from his history of the Russian Revolution, The Unknown Revolution, other excerpts from which are included in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. Voline emphasizes the spontaneous nature of the February Revolution, arising from Russia’s disastrous war with Germany.
The February Revolution
On February 24 (Russian old style) disturbances began in Petrograd. Primarily provoked by the lack of provisions, they did not seem likely to become serious. But next day events took a sudden turn. The workers in the capital, feeling that the Russian people generally were in solidarity with them, extremely agitated for weeks, starving, and not even receiving any more bread, thronged the streets, demonstrated fiercely, and flatly refused to disperse.
Yet on this first day the demonstrations were cautious and inoffensive. In close-packed masses the workers, with their wives and children, shouted: “Bread! Bread! We have nothing to eat. Either give us bread or shoot us! Our children are dying of hunger. Bread! Bread!”
Besides the police, the Government sent detachments of mounted troops, Cossacks, against the demonstrators. But there were few troops then in Petrograd — except unreliable reservists. So the workers were not at all frightened. They bared their breasts to the soldiers, held up their children, and cried: “Kill us all if you dare! Better to be shot than to starve to death!”
Finally — and this was the key point of the episode — nearly all of the soldiers, smiling, walked warily towards the crowd, without using their weapons, and ignoring the orders of their officers. And many of the latter were not particularly insistent. In some places the soldiers fraternized with the workers, going so far as to give them their rifles, getting off their horses, and mingling with the throng. Naturally this attitude of the troops encouraged the protesting workers.
Here and there, however, the police and the Cossacks did charge groups of demonstrators carrying red flags, and several of them were killed or wounded.
In the barracks of Petrograd and the suburbs of the capital, the garrison regiments still held back from taking the side of the Revolution. And the government held back from sending them to combat it.
But the morning of February 26 brought a notable new happening. By decree, the Government ordered the Duma dissolved.
This was a sort of signal that everybody seemed to have been waiting for before beginning decisive action. The news, known everywhere in the capital almost instantaneously, spurred on events. From that moment, the demonstrations took on the character of a strictly revolutionary movement.
Shouts of “Down with Tsarism!”, “Down with the War!”, and “Long live the Revolution!” rang from the milling crowd, whose attitude steadily became more determined and menacing. All over the city the demonstrators resolutely attacked the police. Several public buildings were burned, including the Court House. The streets bristled with barricades. Soon many red flags appeared. The soldiers still maintained a benevolent neutrality, but more and more frequently they mingled with the throng. The Government could depend on its troops less and less.
Now it hurled the whole police force of the city against the rebels. The police quickly formed detachments for mass attack. They installed machine-guns on the roofs of various houses and even in some churches, and occupied all strategic points. Then they began a general offensive against the rising masses.
During that whole day of February 26 the fighting was hot. In many instances the police were dislodged, policemen were killed, and their machine-guns silenced. But elsewhere they resisted fiercely.
Tsar Nicholas II, who was at the war-front, was warned by telegram of the gravity of the situation. Meanwhile the Duma decided to continue sitting and not yield to the order to dissolve.
The decisive action occurred on February 27, 1917.
From early morning, whole regiments of the Petrograd garrison, no longer hesitant, mutinied, left their barracks, arms in hand, and took over certain strategic points in the capital, after brief skirmishes with the police. The Revolution gained ground.
At a given moment, a dense mass of demonstrators, defiant and grimly threatening, and partially armed, assembled in Znamenskaya Square and in the vicinity of the Nikolaievsky railway station. The Government sent two cavalry regiments from the Imperial Guard, the soldiers it still could trust, as well as a strong detachment of police, both on foot and mounted. The troops were supposed to support and assist the police.
After the usual summons [warning the demonstrators to disperse], the police commander gave an order to charge the crowd. But now another last-moment “miracle” occurred. The officer commanding the Guard cavalrymen raised his sabre, and with a cry of “Charge the police!” launched his two regiments against them. In almost no time the latter were beaten, thrown back, overwhelmed.
Soon the last resistance of the police was broken. The revolutionary troops seized the Government arsenal and occupied all vital points in the city. Surrounded by a delirious multitude, the regiments drew themselves up, with flags unfurled, before the Tauride palace, where the Duma — the poor Fourth Duma — was sitting, and put themselves at its disposal.
Shortly afterward the last regiments of the garrison of Petrograd and its suburbs joined the movement. Tsarism had no more armed forces in the vicinity of the capital. The population was free. The Revolution had triumphed.
The events which presently followed are well known.
A provisional government, composed of influential members of the Duma, was formed and ardently acclaimed by the people.
The provinces enthusiastically joined the Revolution.
Some troops were hastily withdrawn from the front, and were sent by order of the Tsar to the rebel-held capital, but were unable to reach it. For the railroad workers refused to transport them further when they drew near the city. Then the soldiers refused to obey their officers and went over to the Revolution. Some returned to the front; others simply dispersed.
Tsar Nikolai himself, returning to Petrograd by railroad, had his train stopped at Dno station and then had it take him back to Pskov. There he was joined by a delegation from the Duma and by military personages who had joined the Revolution. He could do nothing but accept the situation. After some trifling negotiations he signed his abdication, for himself and his son Alexis, on March 2.
For a moment, the provisional government sought to present the throne to the ex-Emperor’s brother, Grand Duke Michael, but he declined the offer, declaring that the fate of the country and the dynasty should be put into the hands of a regularly convoked Constituent Assembly.
The front hailed the accomplished Revolution.
Tsarism had fallen. Formation of the Constituent Assembly was the order of the day. While waiting for it to be called, the provisional government became the official authority — “recognized and responsible”. The first act of the victorious Revolution was over.
We have recounted the facts of this February revolution in some detail in order to bring out in relief the main point:
Once more, the action of the masses was spontaneous, logically climaxing a long period of concrete experience and moral preparation. This action was neither organized nor guided by any political party. Supported by the people in arms — the Army — it was victorious. The element of organization had to be introduced — and was introduced — immediately afterward.
(In any case, because of the repression, all of the central organizations of the political parties of the left, as well as their leaders, were, at the time of the Revolution, far from Russia. Martov of the Social Democratic Party, Tchernoff of the Social Revolutionary Party, Lenin, Trotsky, Lunacharsky, Losovsky, Rykov, Bukharin, et al, were all living abroad. It was not until after the February Revolution that they returned home).
Another significant point also emerges from these events.
Again, immediate and specific impetus was given to the Revolution by the absolute impossibility of Russia continuing the war — an impossibility which naturally was intensified by the obstinacy of the Government. This impossibility resulted from the inextricable chaos into which the war had plunged the nation.
Russian anarcho-syndicalists regarded the February 1917 Russian Revolution as the beginning of the social revolution they had long worked for, pointing to the soviets, factory committees, peasant seizures of land and other examples of the self-activity and self-organization of the masses which they hoped would replace the Russian state machine and capitalist economic relations. In the following declaration from June 1917, when the Provisional Government was still embroiled in the First World War, the Petrograd Union of Anarcho-Syndicalists set forth their approach to revolution, with their ultimate goal being anarchist communism. They note the ongoing failure of the political authorities to deal with the economic collapse brought on by the war, and the need for the Russian people to resolve the crisis through their own direct action, a position similar to that taken today by anarchists in Greece, where the authorities continue to make the people pay for an economic crisis created by international capitalism.
Declaration of the Petrograd Union of Anarcho-Syndicalist Propaganda
The present moment represents a turning point in the history of mankind. The world war, which has already been raging for three years, has revealed with striking clarity the total collapse of the foundations on which contemporary society rests. The clearest testimony to the downfall of the capitalist order is the popular revolution which has erupted throughout Russia and which continues to develop in the direction of a fundamental social upending. In addition, there is the ferment among the proletariat of other capitalist countries, which must sooner or later assume the proportions of a mass revolutionary upheaval. These historical events are of the first importance. They show that the advance guard of the international proletariat, which has been seeking a way out of the intolerable situation arising from the three year war launched by the imperialist bourgeoisie of the great powers, is suddenly faced with the prospect of a full scale social revolution, which hitherto seemed a matter for the distant future.
The need for basic social and economic reconstruction is now felt particularly keenly by the proletariat of Russia. The great disorganization of the economic life of the country, the complete bankruptcy towards which Russia is rapidly moving and which is unavoidable if the inviolability of capitalist forms is to be allowed to persist, requires the immediate organization by the working masses themselves of new forms of economic relations. No social reforms carried out from above by a bourgeois, semi-socialist or even completely socialist Provisional Government or Constituent Assembly can alleviate the economic plight which is growing worse each day. Popular organizations — organizations of the workers and peasants — must not rely on reforms from above but must undertake a direct and fundamental reorganization of contemporary social and economic relationships.
Such an organization is already present to a significant extent. On the very morrow of the overthrow of the house of Romanovs there began a feverish organization of labour at the grass roots level. The Anarcho-Syndicalists, having always set great hopes on the creative spirit of the masses and on their capacity for self-organization during a revolutionary situation, were not disappointed in their expectations. The whole expanse of Russia is now covered by an intricate network of popular organizations: soviets of peasants’, workers’ and soldiers’ deputies, industrial unions, factory committees, unions of landless peasants, etc., etc. And with each day the conviction is growing among the toiling masses that only the people themselves, through their own non-party organizations, can accomplish the task of a fundamental social and economic reconstruction.
The state has already been dealt its first crushing blow. It must now be replaced by an all Russian federation of free cities and free communes, by urban and rural communes united from the bottom up in local, district, and regional federations. Such a political reconstruction will provide a radical solution to the question of full autonomy for small territorial units.
It will also point the way to the solution of complex national questions, which could not be solved as long as the state — even if ‘democratic’ in allowing a measure of autonomy to the nationalities — was preserved. The soviets of workers’, peasants’ and soldiers’ deputies, expressing the political will of the masses, must take upon themselves the execution of this political reconstruction of the country on the basis of the widest introduction of federalism.
But the execution of a second and even more important task, that of a total economic reconstruction, must be left to other popular organizations better fitted for the purpose: industrial unions and other economic organizations of workers and peasants. The confiscation of the land, workers’ control over production and further steps towards the complete socialization of the land and the factories can be undertaken only by federations of unions of labouring peasants, industrial unions, factory committees, control commissions and the like in local districts throughout the country. Only an all-Russian union of these organizations of producers, around which will also be mobilized all able bodied elements from the parasitic and intermediary classes of the population, can be capable of reconstructing the whole economic life of the country on new foundations. And this process of fundamental economic reconstruction will develop only to the extent that the importance of political organizations declines while that of economic organizations of producers grows, organizations which can remove the useless political forms of human existence.
The social revolution, which the Russian urban and rural proletariat is working hand in hand to carry out, will be anti-statist in its methods of struggle, syndicalist in its economic content and federalist in its political tasks. Its triumph will thus herald the creation of a social system that will naturally and relatively painlessly evolve in the direction of the full realization of the anarchist communist ideal.
Closely related to the Anarcho-Syndicalist conception of the content and tasks of the Russian Revolution is our position on the question of the war. A durable peace among nations cannot be established from above by the imperialist governments. It can only be the result of a victorious uprising of the proletariat of all the belligerent countries, which will make an end to the predatory competition of the capitalists and prepare the way for the unity of free peoples. Thus the continuation and deepening of the revolution in Russia — its transformation into a social revolution — is a factor of enormous international significance. An ‘offensive’, allegedly launched with the aim of liberation, can only benefit the capitalists of both sides, who are interested in a ‘victorious’ conclusion of the war. It cannot benefit the people, who everywhere yearn for an end to war for all time as well as for the overthrow of the capitalist yoke.
The Anarcho-Syndicalists, now as well as before the overthrow of the autocracy, are well aware that ‘the main enemy is within your own country’, and that the slogan of domestic peace is equivalent to a surrender of all the gains won by the people to the counter-revolution. Only through the continuation and deepening of the Russian Revolution can the conditions be created for the kind of peace that will foster a revolutionary outbreak among the proletarian masses of Germany. Those proletarian masses are already freeing themselves from the noxious influence of the Social Imperialists [pro-war Social Democrats], who have been throwing the revolutionary internationalists in prison and subjecting them to every other form of persecution. Only the final triumph of the Russian Revolution will make possible an international revolution, and only the success of the international revolution can in turn secure the new social order in Russia.
The forms and nature of the activity undertaken by the Anarcho-Syndicalists in Russia flow logically from their conception of the content and tasks of the Russian Revolution. The Anarcho-Syndicalists do not form a separate political party because they believe that the liberation of the working masses must be the task only of workers’ and peasants’ non-party organizations. They enter all such organizations and spread propaganda about their philosophy and their ideal of a stateless commune, which in essence merely represents the deepening and systematization of the beliefs and methods of struggle put forward by the working masses themselves. Adopting the position that the basic purpose of any social upheaval must be economic reconstruction, the Anarcho-Syndicalists will apply their energies above all to work in those mass economic organizations which must carry out the reorganization of production and consumption on completely new lines.
June 4, 1917
In Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included a chapter on the Russian Revolution. Several selections dealt with anarchist responses to the 1917 October Revolution, which marked the beginning of the Bolshevik seizure of power.
Soon after the October Revolution, some anarchists began to realize that rather than pushing the social revolution forward, the Bolsheviks were seeking to establish their own dictatorship, subordinating the soviets to their party organization. The Russian anarcho-syndicalist, Gregory Maksimov, therefore proclaimed in December 1917 that the anarchists “will go with the Bolsheviks no longer, for their ‘constructive’ work has begun, directed towards what we have always fought… the strengthening of the state. It is not our cause to strengthen what we have resolved to destroy. We must go to the lower classes to organize the work of the third—and perhaps the last—revolution” (Volume One, Selection 83).
Because the soviets, as “presently constituted,” were being transformed by the Bolsheviks into organs of state power, Maksimov argued that the anarchists “must work for their conversion from centres of authority and decrees into non-authoritarian centres,” linking the “autonomous organizations” of the workers together (Volume One, Selection 83). But as the Bolsheviks continued to consolidate their power, subordinating not only the soviets but also the trade unions to their “revolutionary” government, the anarcho-syndicalists began to emphasize the role of the factory committees in furthering the cause of the anarchist social revolution and in combatting both capitalism and the nascent Bolshevik dictatorship.
At their August 1918 congress, the Russian anarcho-syndicalists described the factory committee as “a fighting organizational form of the entire workers’ movement, more perfect than the soviet of workers’, soldiers’ and peasants’ deputies in that it is a basic self-governing producers’ organization under the continuous and alert control of the workers… With the aid of the factory committees and their industry-wide federations, the working class will destroy both the existing economic slavery and its new form of state capitalism which is falsely labelled ‘socialism’,” which the Bolsheviks were in the process of establishing (Volume One, Selection 84).
Maksimov later wrote a damning indictment of the Bolshevik counter-revolution, The Guillotine at Work.
By 1918, the Bolsheviks under Lenin had abolished the Constituent Assembly and were in the process of establishing their one party dictatorship, paving the way for Stalin‘s ascension to power and the end of the Russian Revolution. In the following piece, written by the Russian anarcho-syndicalist, Gregory Maksimov, he argues that what the Bolsheviks were doing, despite their claims to the contrary, was creating a state capitalist dictatorship with its own ruling class, the party bureaucrats who would now form a new class to rule over the working masses rather than leading the people to socialism.
Paths of Revolution
Is ours a social revolution? There are some who argue that a social revolution presupposes a ‘final and fundamental upheaval’, while others prefer to focus their attention on the character and essence of the day-to-day revolutionary movement. But we shall not dispute whether it is the movement or the decisive upheaval that merits the name of revolution. For since the movement is linked with final goals and since both the movement and the upheaval constitute a single uninterrupted process, must we not examine them together when talking about the revolution?
In answering this question, however, we must not conclude that, simply because there has not yet been a decisive social transformation, there has therefore been no social revolution. For in order to call a revolution ‘social’, it is enough that the movement should simply be striving to bring about this definitive transformation. When the question is put this way there can be no two opinions as to whether or not our revolution is a social revolution.
Yes, our revolution is indeed a social one, for the revolutionary masses are aglow with the destruction of the class system; for a countless series of victories have been won by the workers and peasants under the banner of socialism; for our revolution has been a class war. But is it moving along the path towards socialism?
A ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, they call it. But isn’t the organization of future socialism to be founded on the liberation of humanity from class distinctions? Within the framework of this dictatorship, however, we can see that the centralization of power has begun to crystallize and grow firm, that the apparatus of the state is being consolidated by the ownership of property and even by an anti-socialist morality. Instead of hundreds of thousands of property owners there is now a single owner served by a whole bureaucratic system and a new ‘statified’ morality.
The proletariat is gradually being enslaved by the state. The people are being transformed into servants over whom there has risen a new class of administrators — a new class born mainly from the womb of the so-called intelligentsia. Isn’t this merely a new class system looming on the revolutionary horizon? Hasn’t there occurred merely a regrouping of classes, a regrouping as in previous revolutions when, after the oppressed had evicted the landlords from power, the emergent middle class was able to direct the revolution towards a new class system in which power fell into its own hands?
The resemblance is all too striking. One cannot deny it. And if the elements of class inequality are as yet indistinct, it is only a matter of time before privileges will pass to the administrators. We do not mean to say that this inequality and these privileges are arbitrary, or that the Bolshevik party set out to create a new class system. But we do say that even the best intentions and aspirations must inevitably be smashed against the evils inherent in any system of centralized power.
The separation of management from labour, the division between administrators and workers flows logically from centralization. It cannot be otherwise. There are no other words to the song. The song goes like this: management implies responsibility, and can responsibility be compared with ordinary labour? Responsibility demands special rights and advantages. Such is the source of privilege and of the new anti-socialist morality. Hence we are presently moving not towards socialism but towards state capitalism.
Will state capitalism lead us to the gates of socialism? Of this we see not the least bit of evidence. Will the new government not contrive ‘artificially’ to concentrate property in its hands, as is deemed necessary from the Marxist point of view? Will it not complete the class stratification of the country, which capitalism could not accomplish ‘naturally’? And will the emergence of a single owner really ease the task of achieving socialism?
Arrayed against socialism are — together with thousands of former small and large property holders — thousands of administrators. And if the workers should, owing to the division of the population into two hostile classes and to the deepening of class consciousness, become a powerful revolutionary force, then it is scarcely necessary to point out that the class of administrators, wielding the powerful state apparatus, will be a far from weak opponent. The single owner and state capitalism form a new dam before the waves of our social revolution.
We anarchists and syndicalists —indeed all who believe that the liberation of the workers is the task of the workers themselves — were too poorly organized and too weak to hold the revolution on a straight course towards socialism. It goes without saying that socialism will not fall from the sky, and that only one conception of socialism is not enough. But now, in the midst of the revolution, we must lay the foundation for socialism and create the organizations for the revolutionary struggle and the economy. The plan for this foundation, in order to conform to the plan of socialist construction, must not be centralist, for, as we have already explained, socialism and centralism are antithetical.
Is it at all possible to conduct the social revolution through a centralized authority? Not even a Solomon could direct the revolutionary struggle or the economy from one centre. And if this is impossible for an intellectual, then it is even more impossible for a worker, who is so little versed in the affairs of state. The worker in a centralized state, alienated from his proper way of life, feels like a fish out of water. What he needs, rather, is an atmosphere in which the functions of management and labour are close together or even merged with each other.
The people made the revolution without orders from any centre. They tore power to shreds, scattering them over the vast revolutionary countryside, thereby confronting power with local self-rule. But that splintered and dispersed power poisoned all the soviets and committees. Dictatorship appeared again in the new garb of Executive Committees and Councils of People’s Commissars; and the Revolution not recognizing it embraced it. Not seeing the enemy, the Revolution was too sure of victory and bit by bit put power in its hands.
There was an urgent need for systematic organization and for the co-ordination of activities. The Revolution looked for this but too few elements were aware of the necessity and the possibility of federalist organization. And the Revolution not finding it, threw itself into the arms of the old tyrant, centralized power, which is squeezing out its life’s breath.
We were too disorganized and too weak and so we have allowed this to happen.
Gregory Maksimov, September 16, 1918
I concluded the chapter on the Russian Revolution in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas with reflections on the Russian Revolution by Voline, Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman. Berkman’s assessment of the Russian Revolution was taken from the post-script to his exposé of the counter-revolutionary role of the Bolsheviks under Lenin, The Bolshevik Myth. Earlier, Berkman had published a pamphlet setting forth his preliminary views on the Russian Revolution, The Russian Tragedy, from which the following excerpts have been taken.
The Russian Tragedy
We live at a time when two civilizations are struggling for their existence. Present society is at death grips with the New Ideal. The Russian Revolution was but the first serious combat of the two forces, whose struggle must continue till the final triumph of the one or of the other.
The Russian Revolution has failed – failed of its ultimate purpose. But that failure is a temporary one. In the point of revolutionizing the thought and feeling of the masses of Russia and of the world, in undermining the fundamental concepts of existing society, and lighting the torch of faith and hope for the Better Day, the Russian Revolution has been of incalculable educational and inspirational value to mankind.
Though the Russian Revolution failed to achieve its true goal, it will forever remain a most magnificent historic event. And yet – tremendous as it is – it is but an incident in the gigantic war of the two worlds.
That war will go on, is going on. In that war capitalism is already facing its doom. Yet more: with capitalism, centralized political government, the STATE, is also doomed, – and that is the most significant lesson of the Russian Revolution as I see it…
It is generally admitted that the Russian Revolution is the most important historic event since the Great French Revolution. I am even inclined to think that, in point of its potential consequences, the Revolution of 1917 is the most significant fact in the whole known history of mankind. It is the only Revolution which aimed, de facto, at social world revolution; it is the only one which actually abolished the capitalist system on a country-wide scale, and fundamentally altered all social relationships existing till then. An event of such human and historic magnitude must not be judged from the narrow viewpoint of partisanship…
The October Revolution
It has been asserted by some writers that Bolshevik accession to power in Russia was due to a coup de main, and doubt has been expressed regarding the social nature of the October change.
Nothing could be further from the truth. As a matter of historic fact, the great event known as the October Revolution was in the profoundest sense a social revolution. It was characterized by all the essentials of such a fundamental change. It was accomplished, not by any political party, but by the people themselves, in a manner that radically transformed all the heretofore existing economic, political and social relations. But it did not take place in October. That month witnessed only the formal “legal sanction” of the revolutionary events that had preceded it.
For weeks and months prior to it, the actual Revolution had been going on all over Russia: the city proletariat was taking possession of the shops and factories, while the peasants expropriated the big estates and turned the land to their own use. At the same time workers’ committees, peasant committees and Soviets sprang up all over the country, and there began the gradual transfer of power from the provisional government to the Soviets. That took place, first in Petrograd, then in Moscow, and quickly spread to the Volga region, the Ural district, and to Siberia. The popular will found expression in the slogan, “All power to the Soviets”, and it went sweeping through the length and breadth of the land. The people had risen, the actual Revolution was on. The keynote of the situation was struck by the Congress of the Soviets of the North, proclaiming: “The provisional government of Kerensky must go; the Soviets are the sole power!”
That was on October 10th . Practically all the real power was already with the Soviets. In July the Petrograd uprising against Kerensky was crushed, but in August the influence of the revolutionary workers and of the garrison was strong enough to enable them to prevent the attack planned by Korniloff. The Petrograd Soviet gained strength from day to day. On October 16th it organized its own Revolutionary Military Committee, an act of defiance of and open challenge to the government. The Soviet, through its Revolutionary Military Committee, prepared to defend Petrograd against the coalition government of Kerensky and the possible attack of General Kaledin and his counter-revolutionary Cossacks. On October 22nd the whole proletarian population of Petrograd, solidarically supported by the garrison, demonstrated throughout the city against the government and in favour of “All power to the Soviets”.
The All-Russian Congress of Soviets was to open on October 25th. The provisional government, knowing its very existence in imminent peril, resorted to drastic action. On October 23rd the Petrograd Soviet ordered the Kerensky Cabinet to withdraw within 48 hours. Driven to desperation, Kerensky undertook – on October 24th – to suppress the revolutionary press, arrest the most prominent revolutionists of Petrograd, and remove the active Commissars of the Soviet. The government relied on the “faithful” troops and on the young yunkers of the military student schools. But it was too late: the attempt to sustain the government failed. During the night of October 24-25 [November 6-7 on the non-Russian calendar] the Kerensky government was dissolved – peacefully, without bloodshed – and the exclusive supremacy of the Soviets was established. The Communist Party stepped into power. It was the political culmination of the Russian Revolution.
Various factors contributed to the success of the Revolution. To begin with, it met with almost no active opposition: the Russian bourgeoisie was unorganized, weak and not of a militant disposition. But the main reasons lay in the all-absorbing enthusiasm with which the revolutionary slogans had fired the whole people. “Down with the war!”, “Immediate peace!”, “The land to the peasant, the factory to the workers!”, “All power to the Soviets!” – these were expressive of the passionate soul cry and deepest needs of the great masses. No power could withstand their miraculous effect.
Another very potent factor was the unity of the various revolutionary elements in their opposition to the Kerensky government. Bolsheviki, Anarchists, the left faction of the Social Revolutionist party, the numerous politicals freed from prison and Siberian exile, and the hundreds of returned revolutionary emigrants, had all worked during the February-October months toward a common goal.
But if “it was easy to begin” the Revolution, as Lenin had said in one of his speeches, to develop it, to carry it to its logical conclusion was another and more difficult matter. Two conditions were essential to such a consummation: continued unity of all the revolutionary forces, and the application of the country’s goodwill, initiative and best energies to the important work of the new social construction. It must always be remembered – and remembered well – that revolution does not mean destruction only. It means destruction plus construction, with the greatest emphasis on the plus. Most unfortunately, Bolshevik principles and methods were soon fated to prove a handicap, a drawback upon the creative activities of the masses.
The Bolshevik Counter-Revolution
The Bolsheviki are Marxists. Though in the October days they had accepted and proclaimed anarchist watchwords (direct action by the people, expropriation, free Soviets, and so forth), it was not their social philosophy that dictated this attitude. They had felt the popular pulse – the rising waves of the Revolution had carried them far beyond their theories. But they remained Marxists. At heart they had no faith in the people and their creative initiative. As social-democrats they distrusted the peasantry, counting rather upon the support of the small revolutionary minority among the industrial element.
They had advocated the Constituent Assembly, and only when they were convinced that they would not have a majority there, and therefore not be able to take State power into their own hands, they suddenly decided upon the dissolution of the Assembly, though the step was a refutation and a denial of fundamental Marxist principles…
As Marxists, the Bolsheviki insisted on the nationalization of the land: ownership, distribution and control to be in the hands of the State. They were in principle opposed to socialization, and only the pressure of the Left faction of the Social Revolutionists (the Spiridonova-Kamkov wing) whose influence among the peasantry was traditional, forced the Bolsheviki to “swallow the agrarian program of the Socialist-Revolutionists whole”, as Lenin afterwards put it.
From the first days of their accession to political power the Marxist tendencies of the Bolsheviki began to manifest themselves, to the detriment of the Revolution. Social-Democratic distrust of the peasantry influenced their methods and measures. At the All-Russian Conferences the peasants did not receive equal representation with the industrial workers. Not only the village speculator and exploiter, but the agrarian population as a whole was branded by the Bolsheviki as “petty bosses” and “bourgeois”, “unable to keep step with the proletariat on the road to socialism”. The Bolshevik government discriminated against the peasant representatives in the Soviets and at the National Conferences, sought to handicap their independent efforts, and systematically narrowed the scope and activities of the Land Commissariat, then by far the most vital factor in the reconstruction of Russia. (The Commissariat was then presided over by a Left Social Revolutionist).
Inevitably this attitude led to much dissatisfaction on the part of the great peasant masses. The Russian muzhik [peasant] is simple and naive, but with the instinct of the primitive man he quickly senses a wrong: no fine dialectics can budge his once settled conviction. The very cornerstone of the Marxian credo, the dictatorship of the proletariat, served as an affront and an injury to the peasantry. They demanded an equal share in the organization and administration of the affairs of the country. Had they not been enslaved, oppressed and ignored long enough? The dictatorship of the proletariat the peasant resented as discrimination against himself. “If dictatorship must be”, he argued, “why not of all who labour, of the town worker and of the peasant, together?”
Then came the Brest-Litovsk peace. In its far-reaching results it proved the death blow to the Revolution. Two months previously, in December, 1917, Trotsky had refused, with a fine gesture of noble indignation, the peace offered by Germany on conditions much more favourable to Russia. “We wage no war, we sign no peace!” he had said, and revolutionary Russia applauded him. “No compromise with German imperialism, no concessions”, echoed through the length and breadth of the country, and the people stood ready to defend their Revolution to the very death. But now Lenin demanded the ratification of a peace that meant the most mean-spirited betrayal of the greater part of Russia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, White Russia, Bessarabia – all were to be turned over to the oppression and exploitation of the German invader and of their own bourgeoisie. It was a monstrous thing – the sacrifice at once of the principles of the Revolution and of its interests as well.
Lenin insisted on ratification, on the ground that the Revolution needed a “breathing spell”, that Russia was exhausted, and that peace would enable the “revolutionary oasis” to gather strength for new effort. Radek denounced acceptance of Brest-Litvosk conditions as betrayal of the October Revolution. Trotsky disagreed with Lenin. The revolutionary forces split. The Left Social Revolutionists, most of the Anarchists and many of the nonpartisan revolutionary elements were bitterly opposed to making peace with imperialism, especially on the terms dictated then by Germany. They declared that such a peace would be fatal to the Revolution; that the principle of “peace without annexations” must not be sacrificed; that the German conditions involved the basest treachery to the workers and peasants of the provinces demanded by the Prussians; that the peace would subject the whole of Russia to economic and political dependence upon German Imperialism, that the invaders would possess themselves of the Ukrainan bread and the Don coal, and drive Russia to industrial ruin.
But Lenin’s influence was potent. He prevailed. The Brest-Litvosk treaty was ratified by the 4th Soviet Congress.
It was Trotsky who first asserted in refusing the German peace terms offered in December, 1917, that the workers and peasants, inspired and armed by the Revolution, could by guerilla warfare overcome any army of invasion. The Left Social Revolutionists now called for peasant uprisings to oppose the Germans, confident that no army could conquer the revolutionary ardor of a people fighting for the fruits of their great Revolution. Workers and peasants, responding, rushed to the aid of Ukraine and White Russia, then valiantly struggling against the German invaders. Trotsky ordered the Russian army to pursue and suppress these partisan units.
The killing of Mirbach [the German ambassador] followed. It was the protest of the Left Social Revolutionist Party against, and the defiance of, Prussian imperialism within Russia. The Bolshevik government initiated repressive measures: it now felt itself, as it were, under obligations to Germany. Dzerzhinsky, head of the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission [the Bolshevik secret police], demanded the delivery of the terrorist. It was a situation unique in revolutionary annals: a revolutionary party in power demanding of another revolutionary party, with which it had till then cooperated, the arrest and punishment of a revolutionist for executing the representative of an imperialist government! The Brest-Litvosk peace had put the Bolsheviki in the anomalous position of a gendarme for the Kaiser. The Left Social Revolutionists replied to Dzerzhinsky’ demand by arresting the latter. This act, and the armed skirmishes which followed it (though insignificant in themselves) were thoroughly exploited by the Bolsheviki politically. They declared that it was an attempt of the Left Social Revolutionist Party to seize the reins of government. They announced that party outlawed, and their extermination began.
These Bolshevik methods and tactics were not accidental. Soon it became evident that it is the settled policy of the Communist State to crush every form of expression not in accord with the government. After the ratification of the Brest-Litvosk peace the Left Social Revolutionist Party withdrew its representative in the Soviet of People’s Commissars. The Bolsheviki thus remained in exclusive control of the government. Under one pretext and another there followed most arbitrary and cruel suppression of all the other political parties and movements. The Mensheviki and the Right Social Revolutionists had been “liquidated” long before, together with the Russian bourgeoisie. Now was the turn of the revolutionary elements – the Left Social Revolutionists, the Anarchists, the non-partisan revolutionists.
But the “liquidation” of these involved much more than the suppression of small political groups. These revolutionary elements had strong followings, the Left Social-Revolutionists among the peasantry, the Anarchists mainly among the city proletariat. The new Bolshevik tactics encompassed systematic eradication of every sign of dissatisfaction, stifling all criticism and crushing independent opinion or effort. With this phase the Bolsheviki enter upon the dictatorship over the proletariat, as it is popularly characterized in Russia. The government’s attitude to the peasantry is now that of open hostility. More increasingly is violence resorted to. Labour unions are dissolved, frequently by force, when their loyalty to the Communist Party is suspected. The cooperatives are attacked. This great organization, the fraternal bond between city and country, whose economic functions were so vital to the interests of Russia and of the Revolution, is hindered in its important work of production, exchange and distribution of the necessaries of life, is disorganized, and finally completely abolished.
Arrests, night searches, zassada (house blockade), executions, are the order of the day. The Extraordinary Commissions (the Cheka), originally organized to fight counter-revolution and speculation, is becoming the terror of every worker and peasant. Its secret agents are everywhere, always unearthing “plots”, signifying the razstrel (shooting) of hundreds without hearing, trial or appeal. From the intended defence of the Revolution the Cheka becomes the most dreaded organization, whose injustice and cruelty spread terror over the whole country. All-powerful, owing no one responsibility, the Cheka is a law unto itself, possesses its own army, assumes police, judicial, administrative and executive powers, and makes its own laws that supersede those of the official State. The prisons and concentration camps are filled with alleged counter-revolutionists and speculators, 95 per cent of whom are starved workers, simple peasants, and even children of 10 to 14 years of age… Communism becomes synonymous in the popular mind with Chekism, the latter the epitome of all that is vile and brutal. The seed of counter-revolutionary feeling is sown broadcast.
The other policies of the “revolutionary government” keep step with these developments. Mechanical centralization, run mad, is paralyzing the industrial and economic activities of the country. Initiative is frowned upon, free effort systematically discouraged. The great masses are deprived of the opportunity to shape the policies of the Revolution, or take part in the administration of the affairs of the country. The government is monopolizing every avenue of life: the Revolution is divorced from the people. A bureaucratic machine is created that is appalling in its parasitism, inefficiency and corruption. In Moscow alone this new class of sovburs (Soviet bureaucrats) exceeds, in 1920, the total of office holders throughout the whole of Russia under the Tsar in 1914… The Bolshevik economic policies, effectively aided by this bureaucracy, completely disorganize the already crippled industrial life of the country. Lenin, Zinoviev, and other Communist leaders thunder philippics against the new Soviet bourgeoisie — and issue ever new decrees that strengthen and augment its numbers and influence.
The system of yedinolitchiye is introduced: management by one person. Lenin himself is its originator and chief advocate. Henceforth the shop and factory committees are to be abolished, stripped of all power. Every mill, mine, and factory, the railroads and all the other industries are to be managed by a single head, a “specialist” — and the old Tsarist bourgeoisie is invited to step in. The former bankers, bourse operators, mill owners and factory bosses become the managers, in full control of the industries, with absolute power over the workers. They are vested with authority to hire, employ and discharge the “hands”, to give or deprive them of the payok (food ration), even to punish them and turn them over to the Cheka.
The workers, who had fought and bled for the Revolution and were willing to suffer, freeze and starve in its defence, resent this unheard of imposition. They regard it as the worst betrayal. They refuse to be dominated by the very owners and foremen whom they had driven, in the days of the Revolution, out of the factories and who had been so lordly and brutal to them. They have no interest in such a reconstruction. The “new system”, heralded by Lenin as the saviour of the industries, results in the complete paralysis of the economic life of Russia, drives the workers en masse from the factories, and fills them with bitterness and hatred of everything “socialistic”. The principles and tactics of Marxian mechanization of the Revolution are sealing its doom.
The fanatical delusion that a little conspiratorial group, as it were, could achieve a fundamental social transformation proved the Frankenstein of the Bolsheviki. It led them to incredible depths of infamy and barbarism. The methods of such a theory, its inevitable means, are twofold: decrees and terror. Neither of these did the Bolsheviki spare. As Bukharin, the foremost ideologue of the militant Communists taught, terrorism is the method by which capitalistic human nature is to be transformed into fit Bolshevik citizenship. Freedom is “a bourgeois prejudice” (Lenin’s favourite expression), liberty of speech and of the press unnecessary, harmful. The central government is the depository of all knowledge and wisdom. It will do everything. The sole duty of the citizen is obedience. The will of the State is supreme.
Stripped of fine phrases, intended mostly for Western consumption, this was and is the practical attitude of the Bolshevik government. This government, the real and only actual government of Russia, consists of five persons, members of the inner circle of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Russia. These “Big Five” are omnipotent. This group, in its true essence conspiratorial, has been controlling the fortunes of Russia and of the Revolution since the Brest-Litvosk peace. What has happened in Russia since has been in strict accord with the Bolshevik interpretation of Marxism. That Marxism, reflected through the Communist inner circle’s megalomania of omniscience and omnipotence, has achieved the present debacle of Russia.
In consonance with their theory, the social fundamentals of the October Revolution have been deliberately destroyed. The ultimate object being a powerfully centralized State, with the Communist Party in absolute control, the popular initiative and the revolutionary creative forces of the masses had to be eliminated. The elective system was abolished, first in the army and navy, then in the industries. The Soviets of peasants and worker’s were castrated and transformed into obedient Communist committees, with the dreaded sword of the Cheka ever hanging over them. The labour unions governmentalized, their proper activities suppressed, they were turned into mere transmitters of the orders of the State.
Universal military service, coupled with the death penalty for conscientious objectors; enforced labour, with a vast officialdom for the apprehension and punishment of “deserters”; agrarian and industrial conscription of the peasantry; military Communism in the cities and the system of requisitioning in the country, characterized by Radek as simply grain plundering… the suppression of workers’ protests by the use of the military; the crushing of peasant dissatisfaction with an iron hand, even to the extent of whipping the peasants and razing their villages with artillery – (in the Ural, Volga and Kuban districts, in Siberia and Ukraine) – this characterized the attitude of the Communist State toward the people, this comprised the “constructive social and economic policies” of the Bolsheviki.
Still the Russian peasants and workers, prizing the Revolution for which they had suffered so much, kept bravely fighting on numerous military fronts. They were defending the Revolution, as they thought. They starved, froze, and died by the thousands, in the fond hope that the terrible things the Communists did would soon cease. The Bolshevik horrors were, somehow – the simple Russian thought – the inevitable result of the powerful enemies “from abroad” attacking their beloved country. But when the wars will at last be over – the people naively echoed the official press – the Bolsheviki will surely return to the revolutionary path they entered in October 1917, the path the wars had forced them temporarily to forsake.
The masses hoped and endured. And then, at last, the wars were ended. Russia drew an almost audible sigh of relief, relief palpitating with deep hope. It was the crucial moment: the great test had come. The soul of a nation was aquiver. To be or not to be? And then full realization came. The people stood aghast. Repressions continued, even grew worse. The piratical razvyorstka [compulsory food requisitioning], the punitive expeditions against the peasants, did not abate their murderous work. The Cheka was unearthing more “conspiracies”, executions were taking place as before. Terrorism was rampant. The new Bolshevik bourgeoisie lorded itself over the workers and the peasants, official corruption was vast and open, huge food supplies were rotting through Bolshevik inefficiency and centralized State monopoly — and the people were starving.
The Petrograd workers, always in the forefront of the revolutionary effort, were the first to voice their dissatisfaction and protest. The Kronstadt sailors, upon investigation of the demands of the Petrograd proletariat, declared themselves [in solidarity] with the workers. In their turn they announced their stand for free Soviets, Soviets free from Communist coercion, Soviets that should in reality represent the revolutionary masses and voice their needs. In the middle provinces of Russia, in Ukraine, on the Caucasus, in Siberia, everywhere the people made known their wants, voiced their grievances, informed the government of their demands. The Bolshevik State replied with its usual argument: the Kronstadt sailors were decimated, the “bandits” of Ukraine massacred, the “rebels” of the East laid low with machine guns.
This done, Lenin announced at the 10th Congress of the Communist Party of Russia (March 1921) that his former policies were all wrong. The razvyorstka, the requisition of food, was pure robbery. Military violence against the peasantry a “serious mistake”. The workers must receive some consideration. The Soviet bureaucracy is corrupt and criminal, a huge parasite. “The methods we have been using have failed.” The people, especially the rural population, are not yet up to the level of Communist principles. Private ownership must be re-introduced, free trade established. Henceforth the best Communist is he who can drive the best bargain (Lenin’s expression).
The present situation in Russia is most anomalous. Economically it is a combination of State and private capitalism. Politically it remains the “dictatorship of the proletariat” or, more correctly, the dictatorship of the inner circle of the Communist Party…
The Bolshevik government still strives to uphold the dangerous delusion that the “revolution is progressing”, that Russia is “ruled by proletarian soviets”, that the Communist Party and its State are identical with the people. It is still speaking in the name of the “proletariat”. It is seeking to dupe the people with a new chimera…
Till now the State has been the mortal enemy of labour syndicalism within Russia, though encouraging it in other countries. At the 10th Congress of the Russian Communist Party (March, 1921) Lenin declared merciless warfare against the faintest symptom of syndicalist tendencies, and even the discussion of syndicalist theories was forbidden the Communists, on pain of exclusion from the Party… A number of the Labour Opposition were arrested and imprisoned…
Must tortured humanity ever tread the same vicious circle?
Or will the workers at last learn the great lesson Of the Russian Revolution, that every government, whatever its fine name and nice promises is by its inherent nature, as a government, destructive of the very purposes of the social revolution? It is the mission of government to govern, to subject, to strengthen and perpetuate itself. It is high time the workers learn that only their own organized, creative efforts, free from Political and State interference, can make their age-long struggle for emancipation a lasting success.
Alexander Berkman, May, 1922
In Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included several pieces on the lessons of the Russian Revolution. The Chapter on the Russian Revolution itself begins with a selection from Gregory Maksimov on the co-optation of the soviet workers’ and peasants’ councils by the Bolshevik Party. Maksimov called for a “third revolution” and supported the creation of factory councils as genuine organs of workers’ self-management. Maksimov was a leading Russian anarcho-syndicalist and critic of the emerging Bolshevik dictatorship. In the following excerpts, written in the late 1920s, Maksimov sets forth some of the lessons of the Russian Revolution. The original article was reprinted in his posthumous publication, Constructive Anarchism, and later as a pamphlet,The Program of Anarcho-Syndicalism.
Lessons of the Russian Revolution
Neither the Russian nor the German Revolutions realized the goals set them by history; but the Russian Revolution in its downfall revealed the nature of State socialism and its mechanism, demonstrating that there is no great difference in principle between a State socialist and a bourgeois society. Both strive for the solution of insoluble tasks: to harmonize freedom and power, equality and exploitation, prosperity and poverty. It showed that between these societies, seemingly so irreconcilable and so antagonistic to each other, there is really only a quantitative, not a qualitative difference. And the attempt to solve the social problem by utilizing the methods inherent in rigid, logically-consistent power Communism, as in the Russian Revolution, demonstrates that even quantity is not always on the side of authoritarian Communism and that, on the contrary, when logically pursued to the end, it resembles despotism in many ways.
The experience of the development of power Communism in Russia gives us the opportunity to analyze and explain its structure. The principal economic peculiarity of the Communist State is production for use (in which products do not become commodities) on the basis of bureaucratic relationships, where all means of production, all distribution of goods, all the people’s labour, and the individual himself, belong fully to the State, which in turn is in the hands of a small class of the bureaucracy. The rest of the population consists of workers, forced to give their labour energy to the State Trust, and with it to create the power of this Trust, at the same time increasing the economic standards of the administrative class.
The net of bureaucratic industrial relationships covers the entire economic life of society, and forces the working class into complete dependence on the State, which divides the population according to occupations, subordinates them to the rule of the bureaucracy, compels them to work under the direct control of officials, and views the human personality only as “manpower”. The State moves its manpower about as it sees fit, considering only its own interests, and applies military discipline to labour. In this way, the Communist state turns the working people into soulless cogs in the centralized machine, geared during their entire lives to the maximum fulfilment of production quotas, subjected to the will of the State, and allowed only a minimum of activity, initiative and individual will. Such a situation creates social inequality, strengthens the class structure of society, and solidifies the rule of bureaucracy.
An inevitable result of such a social organization is the powerful police state, which subordinates to itself every phase of the citizen’s life. By strong centralization of power, the Communist state subjects all its people to complete regimentation, and watches over them by means of organized espionage. This system destroys the freedom of movement, association and meeting, of speech and the press, of industrial struggle, of education, of dwelling and of personal development. It even invades the most intimate relationships between its citizens.
The evolution of such a society will lead inevitably to an intensification of its internal contradictions and, as under Capitalism, to class struggle of a more difficult and cruel kind than ever before. The Russian experience has demonstrated the impracticability of a social structure of this type. Its builders are forced to renounce authoritarian Communism in favour either of free Communism, requiring for its realization the liberation of the people from police tutorship, or of a capitalism which can retain this tutorship. The Bolsheviks, to hold their power, chose the second road — that of State Capitalism.
The Russian Revolution, begun in liberty and the liquidation of bourgeois society, made a full circle, and, in accepting the aristocratic principle of dictatorship, came back through “War Communism” to its point of origin — Capitalism. However, like the great French Revolution, it left to the world an idea which from that time has become the fundamental aspiration of the twentieth century, the goal for Revolutionary movements among the working masses of all countries, races and peoples.
Only the Anarcho-Syndicalist revolution can lead the proletariat and the whole of mankind on the road to true freedom, equality and brotherhood. It alone can save humanity from wars, since all States, however “red” they may be, are Imperialist by nature. With the bankruptcy of State Communism in Russia, and of Social Democracy in Germany, with the ever growing contradictions within Capitalist society, the struggle of the working masses against the existing social order is growing and expanding throughout the world, while at the same time continuing technical progress — resulting in the constant enlargement of industrial enterprises and the socialization within them of the productive processes — creates the essential material pre-requisites for the transfer from a Capitalist economy to a more perfect one — that of libertarian Communism. This transfer will make possible and realizable a successful social Revolution and such, indeed, is the fundamental aspiration of the International Anarcho-Syndicalist movement.
Only the social Revolution is capable of destroying private property and its mainstay, the State; of establishing public ownership and a stateless, federalist organization of society on the basis of the free association of productive units in factories and villages. It alone can assure liberty, i.e. the well-being and the free development of the individual in society, and of society itself. It alone will stop the division of society into classes and will abolish every possibility of the exploitation or rule of man by man.
The experience of Russia has shown that an essential condition for the successful realization of the revolution is the communal-syndicalist structure, based on the principles of Anarchist Communism. This is the transition period, leading eventually to complete Anarchy and Communism, which must follow the destruction of the State-Capitalist society. It will permit the proletariat not only to suppress counter-revolutionary opposition by the parasitic classes, but also to avoid social despotism in a “dictatorship of the proletariat” or in any other forms.
This transitional phase is characterized by the fact that in it, as Bakunin said, “the land belongs only to those who work it with their own hands — i.e. to the agricultural communes. Capital and all means of production belong to the workers, i.e. the workers’ associations.” At the same time, “All political organization must be nothing more than the free federation of free workers, both agricultural and industrial.” That is to say, in politics Communalism, the federation of free villages; in economy syndicalism, federation of free factories and workshops as an organizational form of Communism. In such a system the factories and villages, united among themselves, will gradually develop into producer-consumer communes.
“Villages and workshops,” said Bakunin, “which will reorganize in this way from below, will not create — at the very beginning — an organization that is in all points perfect according to our ideal. But it will be a living organization, and, as such, a thousand times belter than those in existence today. This new organization, which will always be open to propaganda and which will not be capable of becoming rigid and inflexible by means of any juridical sanctions of the State, will progress freely, developing and perfecting itself not according to some pre-ordained plan, not according to decrees and laws, but always in liberty and vitality, until it achieves a stage of efficiency which we can hope to see in our own day.”
The working classes are thus confronted with the great goal of the liberation and renaissance of the world. The task of international Anarcho-Syndicalism is to help actively in its realization. To hasten the quickest and most just solution to the historic problem facing the proletariat, the Anarcho-Syndicalists, benefitting by the experience of the class struggle, of revolutions and particularly of the great historic experiment in Russia, are developing the concrete tasks for the transition period (the time of passage from Capitalism to Anarchist Communism) and giving it a positive content…