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