In the latest installment from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I discuss the spread of anarchist ideas and movements at the beginning of the 20th century, and the significance of the 1905 Russian Revolution. I refer to Kropotkin’s perceptive analysis of the significance of the 1905 Russian Revolution, the full text of which can be found here. Before the 1917 Russian Revolution, as the Marxist historian E.J. Hobsbawm himself admitted, “the bulk of the revolutionary left was anarcho-syndicalist, or at least much closer to the ideas and the mood of anarcho-syndicalism than to that of classical marxism.”
The Spread of Anarchism
Prior to the First World War, anarchism had become an international revolutionary movement, with the largest anarchist movements in countries with anarcho-syndicalist trade union organizations, such as Spain, Italy, Portugal, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico and Uruguay, or like minded revolutionary syndicalist movements, as in France. In the early 1900s, anarchist ideas were introduced to Japan (Volume One, Selection 102) and China (Volume One, Selections 96-99). Anarchists and syndicalists, despite the efforts of the Marxists and social democrats to exclude the anarchists from the international socialist movement, formed the extreme left wing of the socialist and trade union movements. Anarchist ideas regarding direct action, autonomous social organization, anti-parliamentarianism, expropriation, social revolution and the general strike were gaining more currency, particularly after the 1905 Russian Revolution, and the Mexican Revolution of 1910.
The 1905 Russian Revolution
In January 1905, Czarist troops massacred scores of protesters at a demonstration in St. Petersburg, precipitating a general strike and the formation of the first “soviets,” or workers’ councils in Russia (Voline, 1947: 96-101). Following Russia’s defeat in its war against Japan in February 1905, unrest spread throughout Russia, culminating in a countrywide general strike in October 1905. The Czar was forced to promise constitutional reforms, which he soon reneged upon. Nevertheless, the great general strike of October 1905 made a deep impression on workers and revolutionaries around the world, giving renewed credence to anarchist ideas, for it was the anarchists who had been advocating the general strike as a revolutionary weapon since the time of the First International (Volume One, Selection 27). The Marxist social democrats had been dismissing the general strike as “general nonsense” for years (Joll: 193).
Kropotkin observed that “what exasperated the rulers most” about the general strike “was that the workers offered no opportunity for shooting at them and reestablishing ‘order’ by massacres. A new weapon, more terrible than street warfare, had thus been tested and proved to work admirably” (1905: 280). Despite this practical vindication of anarchist ideas, Malatesta was careful to point out the limitations of the general strike. Instead of “limiting ourselves to looking forward to the general strike as a panacea for all ills,” Malatesta warned, anarchists needed to prepare for the insurrection or civil war which would inevitably follow the workers’ seizure of the means of production. For it is not enough for the workers to halt production; to avoid being forced by their own hunger back to work, the workers need to provide for themselves (Volume One, Selection 60).
As the anarchist pacifist Bart de Ligt (1883-1938) put it in the 1930s, “the workers must not strike by going home or into the streets, thus separating themselves from the means of production and giving themselves over to dire poverty but… on the contrary, they must stay on the spot and control these means of production” for their own benefit (Volume One, Selection 120). Maurice Joyeux (1910-1991), following the May-June 1968 events in France, described such action as the “self-managerial” general strike, by which the workers directly take control of the means of production (Volume Two, Selection 61).
No revolutionary group could claim credit for the 1905 Russian Revolution. As Kropotkin noted, the October 1905 general strike “was not the work of any revolutionary organization. It was entirely a workingmen’s affair” (1905: 278). What the anarchists could do was point to the 1905 Russian Revolution as a practical vindication of their ideas, enabling them to reach a much broader audience inspired by these events.