Boris Yelensky: Returning to Russia (1917)


Boris Yelensky (1889-1974) was a Russian anarchist from Kuban, a city in southern Russia just north of the Black Sea. In the 1890s, he moved with his family to Novorosisk, a port city on the Black Sea. At 16 years old, he participated in the Novorosisk Soviet during the 1905 Russian Revolution. With the defeat of that revolution, Yelensky was forced into exile, eventually making his way to the United States in 1907. He returned to Russia for about ten months in 1910, but was again forced to flee. Back in the United States, he became the secretary of the Anarchist Red Cross, an organization that provided relief and support for anarchist political prisoners, predominantly in Russia. He was in Chicago when news of the February Revolution arrived. In the following excerpt form his memoir,  In the Social Storm: Memoirs of the Russian Revolution, Yelensky describes the excitement this news generated among the Russian exiles in the US, and their return to Russia to participate in the Revolution. Even then, the Bolsheviks were trying to impose their control over the revolutionary struggle. Yelensky returned to Novorosisk in July 1917, where he became involved with a local anarcho-syndicalist group that worked toward the establishment of factory committees throughout the region.


Returning to Russia

It is impossible to forget that winter night in March, 1917, when we came out of the Chicago Opera House and heard the newsboys shouting loudly: “Revolution in Russia! Tsar Nicholas abdicates!” Each one of us bought a paper and we rushed into a restaurant where we read every word twice and then looked for the news between the lines. We saw that the Romanoff dynasty had come to an end, yet our minds were still full of suspicion, and we couldn’t get used to the idea that our long fight to liberate Russia from the Tsar and his corrupt government had at last been successful.

We were skeptical and thought that it might be merely an attempt to depose the Tsar which would have no lasting effect. But the next day brought more and fuller news and our doubts began to vanish. The Russian colonies all over the United States began to celebrate and high-spirited political meetings were held by every political group. In the joy of the moment every radical seemed to feel it was his duty to attend the functions of other parties and groups and it was in every way a time of brotherly feeling.

As soon as the first news of the Russian Revolution reached them the vast majority of the political refugees then living in the United States thought immediately of returning to Russia to help build a new society and to help defend the new freedoms which had been won with so much suffering. At first these desires seemed far from fulfillment, partly because the great majority had no financial means and also because of the massive disruption of transportation facilities incurred by the first World War. However, the dream of returning came true when Kerensky came into power and the Provisional Government decided that it would pay all the expenses for political refugees and their families who wished to return to Russia.

The first small group, which included Leon Trotsky, left immediately. It was detained for a while in Halifax, Canada, but was set free and allowed to go on as a result of representations by Kerensky’s government.

Soon afterwards a special committee of representatives of all the Russian political groupings was formed in New York, and this committee, working in co-operation with the Russian consul, became the clearinghouse for those who were entitled to a free passage home. A similar committee was later formed in Chicago to represent the political refugees in the mid-Western states; in a few weeks it approved several hundred applications, and soon the first group was ready to leave Chicago, accompanied by a contingent from Detroit.

Since the Atlantic was a dangerous place to cross at this time it was decided that all the political refugees would leave from the Pacific coast and go through Siberia to whatever point in Russia they wished to reach.

The departure of the first group from Chicago was a sight never to be forgotten. It seemed as though the whole Russian and Jewish radical colony had come to the station to see their friends go home. Later, during April, May and June, 1917, contingents from the Eastern States were constantly passing through Chicago and each arrival became the excuse for another celebration.

The first months of the Russian Revolution brought a feeling of brotherhood between the various political groups, but this spirit didn’t last long. The well-known Bolshevik, Bukharin, came to Chicago to give a few lectures on the revolution, predicting that a “proletarian” revolution would soon take place in Russia. After his lectures, the small Bolshevik group in Chicago began to act as if they would soon take over affairs, and their representatives on the Political Refugee Committee began to claim that they were the only real representatives of the Russian people and that, for this reason, they alone had the right to decide who could go back to Russia.

Their declarations resulted in a bitter fight, which lasted through one meeting of the committee until past midnight. When the rest of the members saw that it was impossible to reach an understanding with the Marxists they decided to go to another hall to terminate the business on the agenda. Accordingly, at 3 a.m., all the members of the Committee, except the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks, went to the Russian I.W.W. hall on Roosevelt Road. The first question discussed there was the election of a special committee that would go next day to the Russian Consul and explain to him what had happened. About 5 a.m., a certain Mr. Berg, later to become more famous under the name of [Mikhail] Borodin, came to us and proposed that we should not be hasty but should find a way to work with the Bolsheviks. His proposal wasn’t accepted and we told him that we’d let the Russian Consul decide the matter.

Later in the morning, when our committee arrived at the Consul’s office, the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were already there. Our Chairman and Secretary explained what had happened the previous night. The Consul was shrewd enough to understand what the Bolsheviks were driving at, and he said that he would acknowledge no one committee and would deal only with our present Chairman and Secretary, giving passports and money solely on their recommendations. So, in the end, the Bolsheviks had to come to our Committee and to accept the common decisions.

When the last group of returning refugees left Chicago in June, 1917, the activities of the Anarchist Red Cross which we had worked on for so long, seemed to have reached an end; neither those who left for Russia nor those who remained in the United States dreamed that in a few years they would have to organize another Anarchist Red Cross to help the new political prisoners in Russia. We could not foresee that the brutalities of the Tsar’s government would seem like child’s play in comparison with those that the new despots of Russia would initiate. The whole thinking world imagined that Russia was on the way to becoming one of the most democratic countries in the world.

Boris Yelensky (1967)


Nestor Makhno: The February Revolution and Freedom for Political Prisoners

Nestor Makhno

Nestor Makhno

Nestor Makhno (1888-1934) is one of the best known (or notorious) of the anarchists involved in the 1917 Russian Revolution. He was from Gulyai-Pole (Huliaipole) in southern Ukraine. He became active in the local anarchist movement in 1906. Two years later he was sentenced to death for his participation in a shoot out with the local police that left a district police officer dead, but his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. He spent nine years in Moscow’s Butyrki Prison, where he met Peter Arshinov, who helped solidify Makhno’s commitment to revolutionary anarchism (Arshinov was to reunite with Makhno in Ukraine during the Russian Civil War). After the February Revolution, Makhno and many other political prisoners were amnestied by the Provisional Government. Makhno returned to Gulyai-Pole, ultimately organizing and leading an anarchist inspired insurgency (the “Makhnovshchina”) against the Czarists (the “Whites”), the Bolsheviks (the “Reds”), and Ukrainian nationalists during the Russian Civil War. I included material on the Makhnovist movement, including excerpts from Peter Arshinov’s History of the Makhnovist Movement, in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary history of Libertarian Ideas. Here I present the first chapter from volume one of Makhno’s memoir, The Russian Revolution in Ukraine, in which Makhno describes his imprisonment, his release by the Provisional Government, and his return to Gulyai-Pole to participate in the revolution.


My Liberation

The February Revolution of 1917 opened the gates of all Russian prisons for political prisoners. There can be no doubt this was mainly brought about by armed workers and peasants taking to the streets, some in their blue smocks, others in grey military overcoats.

These revolutionary workers demanded an immediate amnesty as the first conquest of the Revolution. They made this demand to the state-socialists who, together with bourgeois liberals, had formed the Provisional “Revolutionary” Government with the intention of submitting revolutionary events to their own wisdom. The Socialist-Revolutionary A. Kerensky, the Minister of Justice, rapidly acceded to this demand of the workers. In a matter of days, all political prisoners were released from prison and were able to devote themselves to vital work among the workers and peasants, work which they had started during the difficult years of underground activity.

The tsarist government of Russia, based on the landowning aristocracy, had walled up these political prisoners in damp dungeons with the aim of depriving the labouring classes of their advanced elements and destroying their means of denouncing the iniquities of the regime. Now these workers and peasants, fighters against the aristocracy, again found themselves free. And I was one of them.

The eight years and eight months I spent in prison, during which I was shackled hand and foot (as a “lifer”) and suffered from a serious illness, failed to shake my belief in the soundness of anarchism. For me anarchism meant the struggle against the State as a form of organizing social life and as a form of power over this social life. On the contrary, in many ways my term in prison helped to strengthen and develop my convictions. Because of them I had been seized by the authorities and locked up “for life” in prison.

Convinced that liberty, free labour, equality, and solidarity will triumph over slavery under the yoke of State and Capital, I emerged from the gates of Butyrki Prison on March 2, 1917. Inspired by these convictions, three days after my release I threw myself into the activities of the Lefortovo Anarchist Group right there in Moscow. But not for a moment did I cease to think about the work of our Gulyai-Pole group of peasant anarcho-communists. As I learned through friends, the work of this group, started over a decade earlier, was still on-going despite the overwhelming loss of its leading members.

One thing oppressed me – my lack of the necessary education and practical preparation in the area of the social and political problems of anarchism. I felt this deficiency deeply. But even more deeply I recognized that nine out of ten of my fellow-anarchists were lacking in the necessary preparation for our work. The source of this harmful situation I found in the failure to establish our own school, despite our frequent plans for such a project. Only the hope that this state of affairs would not endure encouraged and endowed me with energy, for I believed the everyday work of anarchists in the intense revolutionary situation would inevitably lead them to a realization of the necessity of creating their own revolutionary organization and building up its strength.

Such an organization would be capable of gathering all the available forces of anarchism to create a movement which could act in a conscious and coherent manner. The enormous growth of the Russian Revolution immediately suggested to me the unshakable notion that anarchist activity at such a time must be inseparably connected with the labouring masses. These masses were the element of society most dedicated to the triumph of liberty and justice, to the winning of new victories, and to the creation of a new communal social structure and new human relationships.

Such were my cherished thoughts about the development of the anarchist movement in the Russian Revolution and the ideological influence of this movement on revolutionary events.

With these convictions I returned to Gulyai-Pole three weeks after my release from prison. Gulyai-Pole was my home town where there were many people and things close to my mind and heart. There I could do something useful among the peasants. Our group was founded there among the peasants and there it still survived despite losing two-thirds of its members. Some were killed in shoot-outs, others on the scaffold. Some disappeared into far-off, icy Siberia while others were forced into exile abroad. The entire central core of the group had almost entirely been wiped out. But the ideas of the group had struck deep roots in Gulyai-Pole and even beyond.

The greatest concentration of will-power and a profound knowledge of the goals of anarchism are necessary in order to decide what it is possible to gain from an unfolding political revolution.

It is there in Gulyai-Pole, in the heart of the labouring peasantry, that will arise that powerful revolutionary force – the self-activity of the masses – on which revolutionary anarchism must be based according to Bakunin, Kropotkin, and a host of other theoreticians of anarchism. This force will show to the oppressed class the ways and means of destroying the old regime of slavery and replacing it with a new world in which slavery has disappeared and authority will no longer have a place. Liberty, equality, and solidarity will then be the principles which will guide individuals and human societies in their lives and struggles, and in their quest for new ideas and equitable relations between people.

These ideas sustained me through the long years of suffering in prison and now I carried them back with me to Gulyai-Pole.

Nestor Makhno



Kropotkin on the Russian Revolution


On February 8, 1921, Peter Kropotkin died. His funeral in Moscow was the last anarchist demonstration in the Soviet Union, as the Bolsheviks consolidated their dictatorship, imprisoning, executing and forcing into exile their revolutionary opponents on the left. The Kronstadt rebellion against the Bolshevik dictatorship happened just a few weeks later. In April 1919, Kropotkin had written a letter to the workers of western Europe, arguing against foreign intervention in Russia, which the Bolsheviks would use as further justification for the suppression of all other revolutionary groups. He supported the soviets and workers’ councils against the Bolshevik dictatorship, which he correctly predicted would strangle the revolution. He also called for the reconstitution of a genuine workers’ International, rather than an International dominated by political parties, harkening back to the so-called First International, when mutualist, federalist, social democratic and anarchist workers joined together in economic solidarity against international capitalism. I’ve included most of Kropotkin’s letter, leaving out only the conclusion.

Peter Kropotkin

Peter Kropotkin

Letter to the Workers of Western Europe

I have been asked if I did not have a message for the workers of the western world. Certainly there is plenty to say an learn of the actual events in Russia. As the message would have to be long to cover all, I will indicate only the principal points.

First, the workers of the civilized world and their friend in other classes ought to prevail on their governments to abandon entirely the idea of armed intervention in Russia whether openly or secretly. Russia is undergoing now a revolution of the same extent and importance as England under went in 1639 to ’48, and France in 1789 to ’94. Every nation should refuse to play the shameful role played by England, Prussia, Austria and Russia during the French Revolution.

Further, it must be borne in mind that the Russian Revolution – which is trying to build a society in which all productive work, technical ability and scientific knowledge will be entirely communal – is not a mere accident in the struggle of contending parties. It was prepared by almost a century of socialist and communist propaganda, since the days of Robert Owen, Saint Simon and Fourier. And although the effort to introduce the new social system by means of a party dictatorship is apparently condemned to failure, it must be recognized that already the revolution has introduced into our daily lives new conceptions of the rights of labor, its rightful place in society and the duties of each citizen, – and that they will endure.

Not only the workers, but all the progressive forces in the civilized world should put an end to the support given until now to the enemies of the revolution. Not that there is nothing to oppose in the methods of the Bolshevik government. Far from it! But all foreign armed intervention necessarily strengthens the dictatorial tendencies of the government, and paralyzes the efforts of those Russians who are ready to aid Russia, independently of the government, in the restoration of its life.

The evils inherent in a party dictatorship have been accentuated by the conditions of war in which this party maintains its power. This state of war has been the pretext for strengthening dictatorial methods which centralize the control of every detail of life in the hands of the government, with the effect of stopping an immense part of the ordinary activities of the country. The evils natural to state communism have been increased ten-fold under the pretext that all our misery is due to foreign intervention.

I should also point out that if Allied military intervention continues, it will certainly develop in Russia a bitter feeling toward the western nations, a feeling which will be used some day in future conflicts. That bitterness is always developing.

In short, it is high time that the nations of Europe enter into direct relations with the Russian nation. And from this point of view, you – the working class and the progressive elements of all nations – should have your word to say.

A word more on the general question. The re-establishment of relations between the European and American nations and Russia does not mean the supremacy of the Russian nation over the nationalities that composed the Czarist Empire. Imperialist Russia is dead and will not be revived. The future of these different provinces lies in a great federation. The natural territories of the various parts of this federation are quite distinct, as those of us familiar with Russian history and ethnography well know. All efforts to reunite under a central control the naturally separate parts of the Russian Empire are predestined to failure. It is therefore fitting that the western nations should recognize the right of independence of each part of the old Russian Empire.

My opinion is that this development will continue. I see the time coming when each part of this federation will be itself a federation of rural communes and free cities. And I believe also that certain parts of western Europe will soon follow the same course.

As to our present economic and political situation, the Russian revolution, being a continuation of the great revolutions of England and France, is trying to reach the point where the French revolution stopped before it succeeded in creating what they called “equality in fact,” that is, economic equality.

Unhappily, this effort has been made in Russia under a strongly centralized party dictatorship. This effort was made in the same way as the extremely centralized and Jacobin endeavor of Babeuf. I owe it to you to say frankly that, according to my view, this effort to build a communist republic on the basis of a strongly centralized state communism under the iron law of party dictatorship is bound to end in failure. We are learning to know in Russia how not to introduce communism, even with a people tired of the old regime and opposing no active resistance to the experiments of the new rulers.

The idea of soviets, that is to say, of councils of workers and peasants, conceived first at the time of the revolutionary attempt in 1905, and immediately realized by the revolution of February, 1917, as soon as Czarism was overthrown, – the idea of such councils controlling the economic and political life of the country is a great idea. All the more so, since it necessarily follows that these councils should be composed of all who take a real part in the production of national wealth by their own efforts.

But as long as the country is governed by a party dictatorship, the workers’ and peasants’ councils evidently lose their entire significance. They are reduced to the passive role formerly played by the “States General,” when they were convoked by the king and had to combat an all-powerful royal council.

A council of workers ceases to be free and of any use when liberty of the press no longer exists, and we have been in that condition for two years, – under a pretext that we are in a state of war. But more still. The workers’ and peasants’ councils lose their significance when the elections are not preceded by a free electoral campaign, and when the elections are conducted under pressure by a party dictatorship. Naturally, the usual excuse is that a dictatorship is inevitable in order to combat the old regime. But such a state of affairs is evidently a step backwards, since the revolution is committed to the construction of a new society on a new economic base. It means the death-knell of the new system.

The methods of overthrowing an already enfeebled government are well known to ancient and modern history. But when it is necessary to create new forms of life, especially new forms of production and exchange, without having examples to imitate; when everything must be constructed anew; when a government which undertakes to furnish every citizen with a lamp and even the match to light it, and then cannot do it even with a limitless number of officials, – that government becomes a nuisance. It develops a bureaucracy so formidable that the French bureaucracy, which requires the help of forty officials to sell a tree broken down by a storm on the national highway, is a mere bagatelle in comparison. That is what we are learning in Russia. And that is what you workers of the west should avoid by every means, since you have at heart the success of a real social reconstruction. Send your delegates here to see how a social revolution is working in real life.

The immense constructive work demanded by a social revolution cannot be accomplished by a central government, even if it had to guide it something more substantial than a few socialist and anarchist hand-books. It has need of knowledge, of brains and of the voluntary collaboration of a host of local and specialized forces which alone can attack the diversity of economic problems in their local aspects. To reject this collaboration and to turn everything over to the genius of party dictators is to destroy the independent center of our life, the trade unions and the local cooperative organizations, by changing them into bureaucratic organs of the party, as is the case at this time. That is the way not to accomplish the revolution, to make its realization impossible And that is why I consider it my duty to put you on guard against borrowing any such methods . . .

The late war has brought about new conditions of life for the whole civilized world. Socialism will certainly make considerable progress, and new forms of more independent life will be created based on local autonomy and free initiative. They will be created either peacefully, or by revolutionary means.

But the success of this reconstruction will depend in great part on the possibility of direct cooperation between the different peoples. To achieve that, it is necessary that the working classes of all nations should be directly united and that the idea of a great international of all the workers of the world should be taken up again, but not in the form of a union directed by a single political party, as in the case of the Second and Third Internationals. Such unions have of course plenty of reason to exist, but outside of them, and uniting all, there should be a union of all the workers’ organizations of the world, federated to deliver world production from its present subjection to capitalism.

Peter Kropotkin

Dmitrov, Russia
April 28, 1919


Ida Mett: Peasants in the Russian Revolution

Russian peasants demonstrating in Moscow 1917

Russian peasants demonstrating in Moscow 1917

In these excerpts from Ida Mett’s book The Russian Peasants in the Revolution, Mett provides some of the background regarding the Russian peasantry on the eve and at the beginning of the 1917 Russian Revolution. There was a burgeoning peasant cooperative movement, and a large contingent of Russian peasants recently deserted from the Army, as they turned their backs on Russia’s war against Germany and returned home. The political party that enjoyed the greatest peasant support was the Socialist Revolutionary Party (the SRs), but it was divided between right and left factions and soon let the revolutionary initiative fall into the hands of the Bolsheviks, who by 1921 had effectively repressed all other revolutionary groups, including the anarchists.


Ida Mett

Ida Mett (1901-1973) was only 16 years old when the 1917 February Revolution swept Russia. The February Revolution was a largely spontaneous event that the organized political parties, including the Bolsheviks, had not anticipated. The provisional government of Alexander Kerensky (1881-1970), a “right SR,” made the disastrous decision of trying to maintain the war against Germany, and was overthrown by the Bolsheviks in the 1917 “October Revolution.” Mett became an anarchist when she moved to Moscow to study medicine, but by that time the Bolsheviks were well on their way to suppressing the anarchist movement. Mett was arrested in 1924, but managed to escape, eventually making her way to Paris, where she worked with other Russian anarchist exiles, including Nestor Makhno and Peter Arshinov. She supported the Spanish anarchist movement and managed to survive World War Two, publishing her account of the 1921 Krondstadt rebellion against the emerging Bolshevik dictatorship, The Krondstadt Uprising, in 1948.

Russian peasant broom makers

Russian peasant broom makers

The expansion of cooperatives

When we talk about the Russian peasant economy, we need to stop on the cooperative movement, which started as soon as 1905 to expand rapidly. After this date, consumers’ cooperatives and agricultural cooperatives appeared, mostly. Thus, in 1871, there were 61 consumers’ cooperatives, and 21 agricultural cooperatives in the whole of Russia. In 1881, there were respectively 233 and 87 of them; in 1901, 577 and 350; in 1906, 1172 and 666; and in 1915, 11000 and 6800.

In 1908 the first congress of all the cooperative societies gathered in Moscow, in which almost 2000 delegates took part. This congress was used as a starting point for the creation of a wide network of cooperatives with their own bank (the Popular Bank of Moscow). At the head of this movement was a leading organization with highly valuable intellectual forces. We must however point out that the most active members of this cooperative movement were not the poor peasants, but the middle peasants.

Generally, in cooperatives and even more so in agricultural cooperatives, many socialists and even more so socialist revolutionaries concentrated their action. Bolsheviks also entered the cooperative movement, but with the ulterior motive to use the cooperatives as a legal terrain for illegal or semi-legal revolutionary work.

We can say that, in general, cooperatives, during their short lifespan, played, on top of their important economic role, a cultural role of the first order, and have widely contributed to the improvement of agricultural methods and to the development of agricultural science. But fate demanded that this same cooperative movement play a fatal role in the conduct of the Socialist Revolutionary Party in the summer of 1917, when they opposed the decisive action of the peasants who wished for an immediate land distribution, which made it much easier for the Bolsheviks to grab power by playing on the incoherent and hesitating policies of the only great party of the peasants then – the Socialist Revolutionary Party.


The Peasantry in the February and October revolutions

[…]During the first world war, millions of Russian peasants were mobilized. These soldiers in the trenches ardently longed to come back home. The longer the war dragged on, the soldiers’ state of mind became less and less conformist. Soldier-peasants did not understand why they were torn away from the land which fed them. Their wives and mothers wrote letters in which they complained of the hard life in the countryside emptied from its male population. Therefore when the February revolution started in the long bakery queues of Petrograd, soldiers, at the front, were already ripe to support it.

While, in the cities, the February revolution engendered a form of patriotism in different layers of the intelligentsia – ‘now, we know why, and for whom, we spill our blood, we are going to defend our Russia, democratic Russia,’ they said – these feelings seemed absent among the soldier-peasants after three years of war. They all dreamt to go back to their villages and to share the land of the nobility, towards whom they felt more hostility than towards Germans and Austrians. This feeling was irresistible and the Russian soldier, under his soldier’s greatcoat took part whole-heartedly in the installation of a new order of things.

He was for immediate peace and did not wait for his demobilization order to return home. He was also for immediate land redistribution. As soon as the summer of 1917, the sailors of the Baltic Sea sent their representatives all across the country in order to put this redistribution into effect. Soldiers and sailors also sent their representatives to the peasants’ soviets.

At the first All-Russian congress of countryside deputies, held in Petrograd between May 11th and 26th 1917, 242 motions were registered which dealt with abolishing private property of land forever, making land impossible to sell, buy, rent, or mortgage. According to these motions, all land was to be confiscated without compensation, transformed into national goods and given to enjoy to the people who worked on it. As for the cattle found on the confiscated land, they were to be given without compensation to the state or to the peasant communities, only the cattle of poor peasants was not to be confiscated.

Peasants’ motions demanded that every citizen eager to cultivate it themselves have access to the enjoyment of the land; waged work in agriculture was to be abolished.

The enjoyment of the land was to be equal between everyone, and the land was to be redistributed periodically in order to account for population increase. And, above all, full and complete freedom was to be had as to how to work the land: the land could be worked on individually, by a family, by a commune, by a cooperative, according to local decisions. Only the great domains which had been subjected to a rational culture had to be given to the state.

Ida Mett, Paris 1948


Prelude to the Russian Revolution: Alexander Ge – Against the War


The most popular posts on my blog remain the ones on the Russian Revolution. As the 100th anniversary of the 1917 February Revolution is fast approaching, I thought I would again add some more background material that I was unable to include in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, which has an entire chapter on the Russian Revolution, including material by Voline, the Makhnovists and the Russian Anarcho-Syndicalists. Today I present an open letter to Kropotkin from the Russian anarchist, Alexander Ge, written during the height of the First World War. Kropotkin’s pro-war stance had been widely denounced by other anarchists, many of whom issued their own manifesto against the war. Ge’s letter ranks with Errico Malatesta’s criticisms of Kropotkin’s position as one of the most eloquent rebuttals of Kropotkin’s stance, and helped mend the deep divisions within the Russian anarchist movement engendered by Kropotkin’s support for the war against Germany. Noteworthy is Ge’s reference to Bakunin’s approach during the Franco-Prussian war, which was to refuse support for any state during the conflict, but rather to incite uprisings across France against both the Prussian invaders and the French ruling class.

Russian Civil War battle scene

Russian Civil War battle scene

At the time, Ge (sometimes spelt ‘Ghé’) was a radical anarchist communist living in exile in Switzerland. After the February 1917 Revolution, he returned to Russia, where he threw himself into the revolutionary struggle. He became a delegate to the revolutionary Soviets, where he defended the anarchists against Bolshevik attacks. He denounced the Bolshevik’s 1918 ‘Brest-Litovsk’ peace treaty with Germany, arguing that it ‘is better to die for the worldwide social revolution than to live as a result of an agreement with German imperialism.’  However, after the Russian Civil War began in earnest, Ge supported the Bolsheviks in their fight against the “Whites” (the Czarists), becoming (according to another erstwhile anarchist, Victor Serge),  an official with the notorious Cheka, the Bolshevik secret police. He was killed in action in the Caucasus. This translation of Ge’s letter is by Shawn Wilbur.


Open Letter to Peter Kropotkin

After an entire series of public declarations in favor of the Triple and Quadruple Entente, which have produced consternation in the anarchist and internationalist milieus, there has recently appeared a new Manifesto, which the bourgeois press has hastened to describe as an “Anarchist Manifesto.”

In that Manifesto, also signed by you, you follow the line of conduct that you have mapped out since the beginning of the war, inviting us to support the belligerent Entente.

I will not dwell, for the moment, specifically on the Manifesto, because its detailed critique would lead us too far afield. But, as the social character of your public assessments with regard to the facts of the European war give each of us the right to demand explanations of you, because these assessments touch directly on the very principles of Anarchy, I will allow myself to submit these lines to you.

For us, everything in your recent public declarations is an enigma. We differ with you, one of the greatest theorists of Anarchy, not only in the individual evaluation of the events, but on the principled relations that the anarchists must have with these facts. And, above all, it poses for us the question: what is the cause of our divergence? Is it that we are bad anarchists and you are good, or, on the contrary, have we remained anarchists while you have ceased to be one? There are not two different anarchisms in existence and this is why I think I have the right to formulate my question in precisely this way.

Additionally, — and this second question is also of great importance, — I would ask you to clarify from what moment our disagreement dates. Did a community of ideas exist between us before the war? Was the divergence only produced by the fact of the hostilities?

Finally, — a third and last question, — does your present conduct follow logically from all that you taught and maintained before the war or is it in contradiction with your previous writings?

In order to facilitate your responses to the questions posed, I will clarify the points on which we have held common ideas and on which we are today in opposition.

Formerly, you would find, that, without exception, all the forms of the State are in the same measure instruments of oppression of the working classes, and that is why you were anti-democrat. In 1883, before the Criminal Court of Lyon, you declared: “We want liberty and we think that it is incompatible with the existence of any statist power, no matter its origin and form. What does it matter if it is imposed or elected, monarchist or republican, resting on divine right or the right of the people, of the coronation or universal suffrage? History teaches us that all governments are the same and that one is as good as the other. Some are more cynical, and others are more hypocritical; the best often appear the worst: all have the same language, everywhere the same intolerance. Even the most liberal keep deep down in the dust some old codes, some convenient little laws against the International, in order to apply them in the favorable cases against their troublesome adversaries. In other words, the anarchists do see the evil not in one form of government or another, but in the idea of government and in the very principle of power.”

Later, you proclaimed the same ideas in several works. Notably, in Anarchie you said: “The State has been produced, created by the centuries, in order to maintain the domination of the privileged classes over the peasants and workers. Consequently, neither the Church, nor the State can become the force that would serve for the annihilation of those privileges.” And then: “The weapon of oppression and of enslavement cannot become a weapon of liberation.”

You did not protest when, in the columns of the newspaper Pain et Liberté, of which you were one of the originators, the article of Elisée Reclus was printed, in which the author said: “We have tolerated enough the kings anointed by the Lord or seated by the will of the people; all these ministers plenipotentiaries, responsible or irresponsible; these legislators who manage to obtain a bit of power from an emperor or from a flock of voters; these judges who sell what they call Justice to those who pay the most; these priest who represent God on earth and who promise a place in paradise to those who become their slaves here below.” And in the same place: “We anarchists do not want to reconstruct anew the State that we have always disavowed.”

Ten years ago, you said, with regard to the Russo-Japanese War, responding to a Frenchman in an article that I have before me: “Each war is an evil, whether it ends in victory or defeat. It is an evil for the belligerent powers, an evil for the neutral powers. I do not believe in beneficial wars. The Japanese, Russian or English capitalists, yellow or white, are equally odious to me. I prefer to put myself on the side of the young Japanese socialist party; however small in number, it expresses the will of the Japanese people when it declares itself against war. In short, in the present war I see a danger for progress in all of Europe in general. Can the triumph of the lowest instincts of contemporary capitalism aid in the triumph of progress?”

So you have adopted the anti-statist way of seeing, proper to anarchists, not only as regards the future society, but also the present society. And we have always believed, in agreement with you, that true liberty is not compatible with the existence of any statist power, whatever its form and origin. From your point of view, and ours, the evil (and, consequently, the good) is not only in one or the other form of government, but in the very principle of power.

Like you, we have also accepted that the instrument of oppression cannot be the instrument of deliverance. On the foundation of that truth, which has always been for us an axiom, we have refused the collaboration of classes, practiced by the socialists, and we have attempted to wrest the proletariat from the struggle based on statist legislation. We have pushed that formula to the maximum, as far as the absolute exclusion of all mitigating circumstances. In an article “Pour la caractéristique de notice tactique,” in the fourth number of the newspaper Pain et Liberté, we have underlined this point: “There can be no alliance, no coalition, even temporary, with the bourgeoisie. Between it and us there exists no other field of activity than the field of battle, where each wants to bury the other in the tomb. We are fully convinced that there exists no moment in history that will demand of the proletariat a collaboration with the bourgeois parties, for the proletariat cannot, even temporarily, ally itself with them without interrupting its struggle against the bourgeoisie.”

To think like our common master, Bakunin, detested by all the bourgeoisie and by all the state socialists: still in the era of the First International, he foresaw what would happen to the working class, by participating in bourgeois politics, and that is why he withdrew from the International, which had become Marxist, as soon as it had begun to march openly down the path of political struggle. In his remarkable article: “The Policy of the International,” which is, in places, prophetic, he said:

“The people have always been misled. Even the great French Revolution betrayed them. It killed the aristocratic nobility and put the bourgeoisie in its place. The people are no longer called slaves or serfs, they are proclaimed freeborn by law, but in fact their slavery and poverty remain the same.

“And they will always remain the same as long as the popular masses continue to serve as an instrument for bourgeois politics, whether that politics is called conservative, liberal, progressive, or radical, and even when it is given the most revolutionary appearances in the world. For all bourgeois politics, whatever its colour and name, can at base only have one aim: the maintenance of bourgeois domination; and bourgeois domination is the slavery of the proletariat.

“What then was the International to do? It first had to detach the working masses from all bourgeois politics, it had to eliminate from its own program all the political programs of the bourgeois.”

Thus you had, before the war, maintained without reservations an equally negative conception for all the forms of bourgeois statism, and thus you accepted the formulas of Bakunin. Before the war you declared that the existence of liberty is incompatible with the existence of the statist power, whatever its form and origin. Then, you had found that all the governments are alike and that one is as good as another; that not one of those existing can become an instrument of liberation.

As for war, you have always reckoned without reservations that it was an evil and that, being the lowest consequence of capitalism, it could never serve the triumph of progress.

And now you say: “At the present moment, each man who wants to do something useful for the rescue of European civilization and for the prolongation of the struggle in favour of the workers’ International, can and must do only one thing: to aid in the defeat of the enemy of our dearest aspirations — Prussian militarism.”

That phrase alone already contains a full denial of all that you have said before, for if, for the rescue of European civilization, you should go to war against the Germans, it is probably because liberal England or republican France, with their militarisms, represent greater values than Germany. So why did you maintain before that all the governments are equal?

Then if France and England contain more elements of communist progress than Germany, and if the victory of the allies should open the gate wider for the continuation of the struggle in favour of the workers’ International than a victory for Germany, we must admit, consequently, that France and England, representing a more elevated culture, are an instrument of liberation to a greater extent than Caesarian Germany. And why then have you taught before that none of the present governments cannot become an instrument of liberation?

Now you advise us to go to war as volunteers to fire on the German workers with 50 cm. guns, in order to save civilization and European culture. Where then is the superiority of Anglo-French culture over German culture? Does it guarantee the workers the “equality in fact” that the French Revolution had wanted to attain? You have said that “only in an egalitarian society will we find justice.” Well, is there a gram more justice and economic equality in Anglo-French culture than in German culture? “The full development of the personality is only permitted to those who are not dangerous to the existence of bourgeois society,” you have also said. But does the French republic or the English democracy allow any more attacks on their integrities, in the bourgeois and capitalist sense of that word, than German Caesarism? Finally, it seems to me that the watchword: “we must defend the highest culture,” — if we admit that such a taxonomy of cultures exists, which is not anarchist, but properly bourgeois, — such a watchword would lead us to practical conclusions that are statist and nationalist.

Then we would often be obliged, in future wars, to take the side of some State whose culture appears to us more elevated. In that case, in the interest of the defense of the preferred culture, we would never have the right to be antimilitarists, but we would be obliged to vote for the military credits on the demand of the respective State that defends that high culture, and we would always be obliged to support militarism, which fulfills the sacred mission of its defence. Then we should also admit that if our participation in war is necessary for the continuation of the war in favour of the workers’ international, then that militarism that, in this case, helps us to clear the road toward our communist ideal, must be inscribed as a categorical imperative in our anarchist tactics.

Finally, one more point, of secondary importance. In inviting us to actively support the Entente, you say: “After the defeat of Napoleon III, the old Garibaldi rose up suddenly for the defence of France.” Certainly, it was a very generous impulse on the part of the great Italian idealist, but I do not understand what that could have to do with our tactics. Was Garibaldi an anarchist? On the contrary, I remember that article 7 of his “Propositions” at the First Congress of the League of Peace and Freedom, in 1867, was conceived as follows: “The religion of God is adopted by the Congress.” Should that also serve as an example to us, because it was Garibaldi who said it? And wouldn’t it be better and more justified in such circumstances, if one should have already invoked the authority of Garibaldi, to recall article 12 of his “Propositions,” which says explicitly that “only the slave has a right to make war against tyrants” and that “this is the only case where war is permitted”?

There, dear Master, are the questions that I have to pose to you and to which, I am persuaded, I will not have to wait long for your response.

Alexandre Ghé

Lausanne, Switzerland 1916

[Working translation by Shawn P. Wilbur]

February Revolution 1917

February Revolution 1917

Malatesta: Looking Forward


As 2016 draws to a close, some more inspiring words from Errico Malatesta. Originally published in 1897 after the Italian parliamentary elections, Malatesta’s comments are particularly appropriate following the failed Italian constitutional referendum, the 2016 US elections, and the Brexit vote in the UK. As Malatesta argues, it is not enough to preach abstention – anarchists most also present a viable alternative to electoral strategies for change. This translation is taken from the just published Volume Three of the Complete Works of Malatesta, “A Long and Patient Work: The Anarchist Socialism of L’Agitazione, 1897-1898,” expertly edited by Davide Turcato and published by AK Press. Although this is Volume Three of a ten volume collection, it is the first of the ten volumes to appear, given the importance of the 1897-1898 period in the development of Malatesta’s approach to anarchism and revolution. I included several selections by Malatesta in Volume One of  Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas.


Point of Honor: To the Comrades

The elections are over.

We—by which we mean all the comrades—have done all we could to alert the people to the deceitfulness and harm implicit in the electoral contest—and we did well. But now another more important duty is incumbent on us: demonstrating—with facts and with results—that our tactics are better than those of the parliamentarists, that we mean to be and are already, not merely a negative force, but an active, functioning, effective force in the fight for the emancipation of the proletariat.

We oppose the parliamentary socialists, and are right to do so, since in their program and in their tactics lurk the seeds of a fresh oppression; and, should they succeed, the government principle that they cling to and bolster would destroy the principle of social equality and usher in a fresh age of class struggles. However, in order to be entitled to oppose them, we must do better than them.

Being right in theory, cherishing loftier ideals, criticizing others, foreseeing the harmful consequences from incomplete and contradictory programs, is not enough. In fact, if everything is confined to theory and criticism and does not offer a jumping-off point for an activity that seeks out and creates the conditions for the implementation of a better program, then our action turns out to be harmful, in practice, because it hobbles the efforts of others, to the benefit of our common foes.

Preventing, through our propaganda, the people from sending socialists and republicans into parliament (since those who are the most accessible to our propaganda are the very people who, but for us, would cast their votes for anti-monarchy candidates) is an excellent outcome as long we manage to turn whomever we lure away from the fetishism of the ballot box into a conscious and active fighter for genuine, complete emancipation.

Otherwise, we would have served and would serve the interests of the monarchy and the conservatives!

Let us all ponder this point. What is at stake is the interest of our cause and our honor as men and as a party.

The isolated, casual propaganda that is often mounted as a concession to one’s conscience, or as merely an outlet for a desire to argue, is of little or no use. Given the unconscious, impoverished conditions in which the masses find themselves, and all the forces lined up against us, this propaganda is forgotten and evaporates before it can build up any impact and make any headway. The terrain is too hard for seeds scattered randomly to germinate and put down roots.

We are after unrelenting, patient, coordinated effort tailored to a range of settings and a variety of circumstances. Each of us must be able to depend on the cooperation of all the rest; and wherever a seed has been thrown out, there must follow solicitous attention from the grower in the tending and protection of it until such time as it blossoms as a plant capable of surviving on its own and bringing forth further fertile seeds.

In Italy, there are millions of proletarians who are still blind instruments in the hands of the priests. There are millions who, while hating the master intensely, are persuaded that one cannot live without masters, and they are incapable of imagining and yearning for any other emancipation than their becoming masters in their turn and exploiting their fellow wretches.

There are vast stretches—actually most of the landmass of Italy—where our message has never been heard or, if perchance it has made it there, it has left no discernible trace behind.

Though only a few, there are workers’ organizations and we are alien to them.

Strikes occur and, caught unprepared, we are neither able to help the workers in their struggle nor profit from the mental unrest to spread our ideas.

Popular upheavals and near-insurrections happen and nobody gives us a thought.

Then comes the persecution, and we are imprisoned, deported in our hundreds or thousands, and we find ourselves powerless to even draw the public’s attention to the infamies visited upon us, let alone to do anything else.

To work, comrades! The task is a big one! To work, everyone!

Errico Malatesta

Translated from “Obbligo d’onore: Ai compagni,” L’Agitazione (Ancona) 1, no. 4 (April 4, 1897).


Kropotkin on Syndicalism and Anarchism

Happy birthday Kropotkin Claus!

Happy birthday Kropotkin Claus!

It’s that time of year again — no, not Christmas! It’s Kropotkin’s birthday and the Winter Solstice! As in years past, I celebrate this date by posting something by Kropotkin. Given my recent focus on the debates and splits within the International Workers’ Association and the CNT, I thought it might be more useful to present some of Kropotkin’s views on syndicalism and anarchism. The following article was first published in Les Temps Nouveaux, the anarchist paper published by Jean Grave in Paris around the turn of the 19th-20th centuries. This translation was first published by Black Flag in 1997 (a better version is included in Iain McKay’s anthology of Kropotkin’s anarchist writings, Direct Struggle Against Capital). Among other things, Kropotkin discusses the historical development of revolutionary syndicalism, and the role played by the International Workingmen’s Association of the 1860s-1870s, something I deal with in more detail in ‘We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It’: The First International and the Origins of the Anarchist Movement. I devoted an entire chapter of Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas to anarcho-syndicalism, and included additional anarcho-syndicalist material in other chapters, and in Volumes Two and Three.


Syndicalism and Anarchism

From all sides, people are always asking us, “What is Syndicalism and what is its relationship to Anarchism?”. Here we will do our best to answer these questions.

Syndicalism is only a new name for an old tactic in which the workers of Great Britain have taken successful refuge for a long time: the tactic of Direct Action, and the fight against Capital in the economic sphere. This tactic, in fact, was their favourite weapon. Not possessing the right to vote, British workers in the first half of the nineteenth century won important economic gains and created a strong trade union organisation through use of this weapon alone, and even forced the ruling classes to acknowledge their demands with legislation (including an extension of the franchise).

Direct Action has proved itself, both in achieving economic results and in extracting political concessions, to be a significant weapon in the economic arena.

In Britain, the influence of this idea was so strong that in the years 1830 to 1831 Robert Owen attempted to found one big national union, and an international workers organisation, which using direct action would struggle against Capital. Early fears of persecution by the British government forced him to abandon this idea.

This was followed by the Chartist movement, which used the powerful, widespread and partly secret worker’s organisations of the time in order to gain considerable political concessions. At this point British workers received their first lesson in politics: very soon they realised that although they backed political agitation with all means at their disposal, this agitation won them no economic advantages other than those they themselves forced the employers and lawgivers to concede through strikes and revolts. They realised how pointless it was to expect serious improvements to their conditions of life to come from parliament.

A Chartist Demonstration

A Chartist Demonstration

French workers came to exactly the same conclusion: the revolution of 1848 which had given France a Republic convinced them of the complete fruitlessness of political agitation and even of political victories; the only fundamental changes to workers conditions of life are those which the ruling classes are forced to concede by Direct Action.

The revolution gave the French another lesson. They saw how completely helpless were their intellectual leaders when it came to finding out about new forms of production which would secure for the workers their share and bring about the end of their exploitation by Capital. They saw this helplessness both in the Luxembourg Commission, which met between April and June 1848, and in the special Chamber chosen to study this question in 1849, on which over 100 Social Democratic Deputies sat. From this, they realised that workers themselves had to work out the main lines of the social revolution, on which they must travel if they are to be successful.

The use of direct action by Labour against Capital, and the necessity for workers themselves to work out the forms of economic organisation with which to eliminate capitalist exploitation: these were the two main lessons received by the workers, especially in the two countries with the most developed industry.

When, then, in the years 1864/66 the old idea of Robert Owen was realised and an international worker’s organisation was set up, this new organisation adopted both of the above fundamental principles. As the International Workers Association (IWA) had been brought into being by representatives of the British trade unions and French workers (mainly followers of Proudhon), who had attended the second World Exhibition in Paris, it proclaimed that the emancipation of the workers must be the task of the workers themselves and that from then on the capitalists would have to be fought with mass strikes, supported internationally.


Following on from this, the first two acts of the International were two such mass strikes, causing enormous agitation in Europe and a salutary fright for the middle class: a strike in Paris, supported by the British trade unions, the other in the Genoese building trade, supported by French and British workers.

In addition, congresses of the International workers no longer bothered with discussing nonsense with which nations were entertained by their rulers in parliamentary institutions. They discussed the fundamental question of the revolutionary reconstruction of society and set in motion the idea which since then has proved so fruitful; the idea of the General Strike. As to what political form society would take after the social revolution, the federations of the Latin countries openly stood against the idea of centralised states. They emphatically declared themselves in favour of an organisation based on a federation of free communes and farming regions, who in this way would free themselves from capitalist exploitation and on this basis, on the basis of federal combination, form larger territorial and national units.

Both basic principles of modern Syndicalism, of direct action and the careful working out of new forms of social life, are based on trade union federations: from the beginning, both were the leading principles of the IWA.

Even them within the Association, however, there were two differing currents of opinion concerning political activity which divided the workers of different nations: Latin, and German.

The French within the International were mainly supporters of Proudhon, whose leading idea was as follows: The removal of the existing bourgeois state apparatus, to be replaced by the workers own organisation of trade unions, which will regulate and organise everything essential to society. It is the workers who have to organise the production of life’s necessities, the fair and impartial exchange of all products of human labour, and their distribution and consumption. And if they do that, we will see that there will be very little left for the state to do. Production of everything needed, and a more equitable exchange and consumption of products, are problems which only the workers can solve. If they can do all this, what remains to be done by existing governments and their hierarchy of officials? Nothing that workers can’t organise themselves.

But among the French founders of the International there were those who had fought for the Republic and for the Commune. They were insistent that political activity should not be ignored and that it is not unimportant for the proletarian whether they live under a monarchy, a Republic, or a commune. They knew from their own experience that the triumph of conservatives or of imperialists meant repression in all directions, and an enormous weakening of the power of workers to combat the aggressive politics of the capitalists. They were not indifferent to politics, but they refused to see an instrument for the liberation of the working class in electoral politics or successes, or in the whole to-ing and fro-ing of political parties. Accordingly, the French, Spanish, and Italian workers agreed to insert the following words into the statutes of the International: “Every political activity must be secondary to the economic.”

Among British workers there were a number of Chartists who supported political struggle. And the Germans, unlike the French, did not yet have the experience of two republics. They believed in the coming parliament of the German Reich. Even [Ferdinand] Lassalle [1825-1864]– as is now known – had some faith in a socialist Kaiser of the united Germany he saw rising.

Because of this, neither the British nor the Germans wanted to rule out parliamentary action, which they still believed in, and in the English and German texts of the same statutes inserted: “As a means, every political activity must be secondary to the economic.”

Thus was resurrected the old idea of trust in a bourgeois parliament.


After Germany had triumphed over France in the war of 1870-71 and 35,000 proletarians, the cream of the French working class, were murdered after the fall of the Commune by the armies of the bourgeoisie, and when the IWA had been banned in France, Marx and Engels and their supporters tried to re-introduce political activity into the International, in the form of workers candidates.

As a result, a split occurred in the International, which up to then had raised such high hopes among proletarians and caused such fright among the rich.

The federations of the Latin countries, of Italy, Spain, the Jura and East Belgium (and a small group of refugees from France) rejected the new course. They formed their own separated unions and since this time have developed more and more in the direction of revolutionary Syndicalism and Anarchism, while Germany took the lead in the development of the Social Democratic Party, all the more so after Bismarck introduced the universal right to vote in parliamentary elections following the victory in war of the newly established German Reich.

Forty years have now passed since this division in the International and we can judge the result. Later, we will analyse things in more detail but even now we can point to the complete lack of success during these 40 years of those who placed their faith in what they called the conquest of political power within the existing bourgeois state.

Instead of conquering this state, as they believed, they have been conquered by it. They are its tools, helping to maintain the power of the upper and middle class over the workers. They are the loyal tools of the Church, State, Capital and the monopoly economy.

But all across Europe and America we are seeing a new movement among the masses, a new force in the worker’s movement, one which turns to the old principles of the International, of direct action and the direct struggle of the workers against capital, and workers are realising that they alone must free themselves – not parliament.

Obviously, this is still not Anarchism. We go further. We maintain that the workers will only achieve their liberation when they rid themselves of the perception of centralisation and hierarchy, and of the deception of State appointed officials who maintain law and order – law made by the rich directed against the poor, and order meaning the submission of the poor before rich. Until such fantasies and delusions have been thrown overboard, the emancipation of the workers will not be achieved.

But during theses 40 years anarchists, together with these workers who have taken their liberation into their own hands, making use of Direct Action as the preparatory means for the final battle of exploited Labour against – up to the present day – triumphant Capital, have fought against those who entertained the workers with fruitless electoral campaigns. All this time they have been busy among the working masses, to awaken in them the desire for working out the principles for the seizure of the docks, railways, mines, factories, fields and warehouses, by the unions, to be run no longer in the interests of a few capitalists but in the interest of the whole of society.

It has been shown how in England since the years 1820-30, and in France following the unsuccessful political revolution of 1848, the efforts of an important section of the workers were directed at fighting Capital using Direct Action, and with creating the necessary worker’s organisations for this.

It has also been shown how, between 1866 and 1870, this idea was the most important within the newly established International Workers Association but also how, following the defeat of France by Germany in 1871 and the fall of the Paris Commune, political elements took the upper hand within the International through this collapse of its revolutionary forces and temporarily became the decisive factor in the worker’s movement.

Since this time both currents have steadily developed in the direction of their own programmes. Worker’s parties were organised in all constitutional states and did everything in their power to increase the number of their parliamentary representatives as quickly as possible. From the very beginning it could be seen how, with representatives who chased after votes, the economic programme would increasingly become less important; in the end being limited to complete the trivial limitations on the rights of employers, thereby giving the capitalist system new strength and helping to prolong the old order. At the same time, those socialist politicians who competed with the representatives of bourgeois radicalism for the capture of worker’s votes helped, if against their intentions, to smooth the way for a victorious reaction across Europe.

Their whole ideology, the ideas and ideals which they spread among the masses, were focused on the one aim. They were convinced supporters of state centralisation, opposed local autonomy and the independence of small nations and devised a philosophy of history to support their conclusions. They poured cold water on the hopes of the masses while preaching to them, in the name of “historical materialism”, that no fundamental change in a socialist direction would be possible if the number of capitalists did not decrease through mutual competition. Completely outside their observations lay the fact which is so obvious in all industrialised countries today: that British, French, Belgian and other capitalists, by means of the ease with which they exploit countries which themselves have no developed industry, today control the labour of hundreds of millions of people in Eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa.

The result is that the number of those people in the leading industrialised countries of Europe who live off the work of others doesn’t gradually decrease at all. Far from it. In fact, it increases at a constant and alarming rate. And with the growth of this number, the number of people with an interest in the capitulation of the capitalist state system also increases. Finally, those who speak loudest of political agitation for the conquest of power in the existing states fiercely oppose anything which could damage their chances of achieving political power. Anyone who dared to criticise their parliamentary tactics was expelled from international socialist congresses. They disapproved of strikes and later, when the idea of the General Strike penetrated even their own congresses, they fought the idea fiercely with all means at their disposal.

Such tactics have been pursued for a full 40 years, but only today has it become clear to everyone that workers throughout Europe have had enough. With disgust, many workers have come to reject them. This is the reason we are now hearing so much about “Syndicalism”.

Revolutionary syndicalist CGT paper

Revolutionary syndicalist CGT paper

However, during these 40 years the other current, that which advocates the direct struggle of the working class against Capital, has also grown and developed; it has developed despite government persecution from all directions and in spite of denunciation by capitalist politicians. It would be interesting to plot the steady development of this current and to analyse its intellectual as well as personal connections with the social democratic parties on the one hand, and with the anarchists on the other. But now is not the time for publication of such work, all things given it is perhaps better that it has not yet been written. Attention would be turned to the influence of personalities, when it is to the influence of the major currents of modern thought and the growth of self-confidence among the workers of America and Europe, a self-confidence gained independently of intellectual leaders, to which special attention has to be directed in order to be able to write a real history of Syndicalism.

All that we now have to say about it is the bare facts that completely independently of the teachings of Socialists, where working masses were gathered together in the main industrial centres, that these masses maintained the tradition of their trade organisations from former times, organising both openly and secretly, while all the time growing in strength, to curb the increasing exploitation and arrogance of the employers. At the same time that the organised working masses grew larger and stronger, becoming aware of the main struggle which since the time of the great French revolution has been the true purpose of life of civilised peoples, their anti-capitalist tendencies became clearer and more certain.

During the last 40 years, years in which political leaders in different countries have used the widest possible means to try to prevent all worker’s revolts and to suppress any of a threatening character, we have seen workers’ revolts extend even further, becoming ever more powerful, and workers’ aims expressed more and more clearly. Ever increasingly, they have lost the character of mere acts of despair; whenever we have contact with the workers, more and more we hear the prevailing opinion expressed, which can be summarised in the following few words: “Make room, gentlemen of industry! If you can’t manage to run the Industries so that we can scrape a living and find in them a secure existence, then away with you! Away, if you are so short sighted and incapable of coming to a sensible understanding with one another over each new turn of production which promises you the greatest instant profit, that you must attack without regarding the harmfulness or usefulness of its products like a flock of sheep! Away with you, if you are incapable of building up your wealth other than with the preparation of endless wars, wasting a third of all goods produced by each nation in armaments useful only for robing other robbers! Away. If from all the wonderful discoveries of modern science you have not learnt to gain your riches other than from the poverty to which a third of the population of the big towns and cities of our exceptionally rich countries are condemned! Away, if that is the only way you can run industry and trade! We workers will know better how to organise production, if only first we succeed in eradicating this capitalist pest!”

These were the ideas fought over and discussed in workers’ households throughout the entire civilised world; they provided the fertile ground for the tremendous workers’ revolts we have seen year after year in Europe and in the United States, in the form of strikes by dockers, rail workers, miners and mill workers, etc., until finally taking the form of the General Strike – soon growing into major struggles comparable with the powerful cycles of the force of nature, and next to which small battles in parliaments appear as a children’s game.

While the Germans celebrated their ever growing electoral success with red flags and torchlit possessions, the experienced Western people’s quietly set to work on a much more serious task: that of the internal organisation of the workers. The ideas with which these last peoples occupied themselves were of a much more important nature. They asked themselves, “What will be the result of the inevitable worldwide conflict between Labour and Capital?”, “What new forms of industrial life and social organisation will this conflict create?”.

And that is the true origin of the Syndicalist movement, which today’s ignorant politicians have just discovered as something new to them.

To us anarchists this movement is nothing new. We welcomed the recognition of syndicalist trends in the programme of the International Workers Association. We defended it, when it was attacked within the International by the German political revolutionaries who saw in this movement an obstacle to the capture of political power. We advised the workers of all nations to follow the example of the Spanish who had kept their trade union organisations in close contact with the sections of the International. Since this time we have followed all phases of the worker’s movement with interest and know that whatever the coming clashes between Labour and Capital will be like, it will fall to the syndicalist movement to open the eyes of society towards the tasks owing to the producers of all wealth. It is the only movement which will show to thinking people a way out of the cul-de-sac into which the present development of capitalism has given our generation.

It goes without saying that anarchists have never imagined that it was they who had provided the syndicalist movement with its understanding of its tasks with regard to the reorganisation of society. Never have they absurdly claimed to be the leaders of a great intellectual movement leading humanity in the direction of its progressive evolution. But what we can claim is to have recognised right from the beginning the immense importance of those ideas which today constitute the main aims of Syndicalism, ideas which in Britain have been developed by Godwin, Hodgkin, Grey and their successors, and in France by Proudhon: The idea that workers’ organisations for production, distribution, and exchange, must take the place of existing capitalist exploitation and the state. And that it is the duty and the task of the workers’ organisations to work out the new form of society.

Neither of these two fundamental ideas are our invention; nor anyone else’s. Life itself has dictated them to nineteenth century civilisation. It is now our duty to put them into reality. But we are proud that we understood and defended them in those dark years when social democratic politicians and pseudo-philosophies trampled them underfoot, and we are proud that we stand true to them, today as then.

Peter Kropotkin


Beware Bakunin: Anarchist!

Bakunin: Beware Anarchist!

Beware Bakunin: Anarchist!

This is my more detailed reply to René Berthier’s defence of his claim that the anarchist movements that emerged in the 1870s from the struggles and debates within the International Workingmen’s Association constituted some kind of break with Bakunin’s revolutionary socialism. My title is a play on Augustin Souchy’s autobiography, Beware Anarchist! A Life of Freedom. Souchy was a German anarcho-syndicalist and anti-militarist. His best known book in English is probably With the Peasants of Aragon, in which he describes the revolutionary collectives in the Aragon region of Spain during the Spanish Civil War.


Recently, René Berthier, or a friend of his, posted on my blog and other anarchist websites some comments directed against two of my recent posts: first, a selection of quotations from Bakunin in which he clearly identifies himself as an anarchist who advocated some form (or forms) of anarchy; and second, Max Nettlau’s 1935 biographical sketch of James Guillaume, in which Nettlau criticizes Guillaume’s claim that the true inheritors of Bakunin’s legacy were the revolutionary syndicalists. One of Nettlau’s main points was that Bakunin never limited himself to advocating syndicalist methods; he also advocated insurrection and the revolutionary commune. To Nettlau, Bakunin’s anarchism was broader than Guillaume’s revolutionary syndicalism, and cannot be reduced to it; although Bakunin’s anarchism contained syndicalist elements, it also contained much more than that.

It is neither “conventional, conservative” nor being “deprived of critical spirit” to criticize Berthier’s revisionist view of Bakunin, and his claim that there is some kind of break, conceptual, tactical or otherwise, between Bakunin and the anarchists who came after him. In fact, it is not even possible to argue that many of these anarchists came after Bakunin — they came with him during the conflicts within the International over the proper direction of European working class movements for self-emancipation. Malatesta clearly comes to mind, as do Reclus, Cafiero, and the Spanish anarchists who fought with Bakunin within the International against the Marxists and Blanquists and, outside of the International, against the bourgeois republicans, the Mazzinians, the neo-Jacobins, the reformists and the state socialists.

Now let’s deal with the Bakunin quotations that Berthier tries to discount in order to support his claim that there was a break between Bakunin’s “revolutionary socialism” and the self-proclaimed anarchist groups and movements of the 1870s (and beyond).

First, he corrects the Maximoff translation of a letter in Italian where Bakunin in fact referred to “anarchy” instead of “anarchism.” Fair enough. Then he emphasizes the use by Bakunin of the word “anarchy” in a negative sense, meaning disorder or chaos. This doesn’t have much bearing on whether Bakunin can be described as an anarchist, or whether the self-proclaimed anarchists of the 1870s advocated something so distinctive from what Bakunin advocated that Berthier can show that there was a “break” between them and Bakunin. Even if Bakunin only advocated “anarchy” in a negative sense, without giving it any positive content, that would still make him some kind of anarchist.

The first problem with the argument regarding Bakunin’s use of the word “anarchy” in a negative sense is that Bakunin regarded anarchy or disorder as something that was inevitable during revolutionary upheavals. Consequently, rather than seeking to suppress anarchy in this sense, as revolutionary governments inevitably sought to do, Bakunin invoked this kind of anarchy as a destructive force that revolutionaries could use to sweep away the existing social order. Anarchy, as destructive force, actually played, or should play, a positive role in the revolutionary process. It is both a destructive and a creative force. One cannot dismiss this aspect of Bakunin’s thought simply by referring to it as “questionable” Hegelian dialectics.

Looking at some of the quotations I relied on, one can see, sometimes in the same passage, how Bakunin refers to anarchy in both a negative and a positive sense, as a destructive and creative force, and as the end result of the revolutionary process. Let’s begin by focusing on three passages that Berthier singles out to show how mistaken I was to rely on them in order to show that Bakunin was an anarchist.

The first is the passage regarding “anarchy,” in the sense of disorder, leading either to enslavement or to the full emancipation of the people (Berthier simply ignores the latter part of the quotation, which I have italicized):

“The lack of a government begets anarchy, and anarchy leads to the destruction of the State, that is, to the enslavement of the country by another State, as was the case with the unfortunate Poland, or the full emancipation of the toiling people and the abolition of classes, which, we hope, will soon take place all over Europe.

Thus, anarchy as a destructive force can destroy a particular state, but that destruction can lead to two diametrically opposed things: it may ultimately result in another state enslaving the country in which the state has been destroyed, as in Poland, or it may lead to something altogether different, the complete emancipation of the people. Because Bakunin sought to avoid the replacement of one state by another, foreign or otherwise, his argument was that revolutionaries should harness the destructive power of anarchy not only to destroy the state but to ensure that the end result was not the reconstitution of the state, but its permanent abolition, the full emancipation of the people and the abolition of classes, a positive form of anarchy.

This is made clear by the second passage Berthier focuses on, the passage that I used as part of the title to my book on the First International and the origins of the anarchist movement:

“We do not fear anarchy, we invoke it. For we are convinced that anarchy, meaning the unrestricted manifestation of the liberated life of the people, must spring from liberty, equality, the new social order, and the force of the revolution itself against the reaction. There is no doubt that this new life—the popular revolution—will in good time organize itself, but it will create its revolutionary organization from the bottom up, from the circumference to the center, in accordance with the principle of liberty, and not from the top down or from the center to the circumference in the manner of all authority.”

Berthier suggests that this quotation constituted a poor choice for the title to my book about the International because in it, Bakunin is supposedly using the word “anarchy” in a purely negative sense, as nothing more than “the chaos following the collapse of a social system.” But if one reads the passage carefully, Bakunin defines “anarchy” as the positive result of the revolutionary upheaval, “the unrestricted manifestation of the liberated life of the people,” not simply the means to create that “liberated life.” “Anarchy,” conceived as the realization of the liberated life of the people, springs from (i.e. is the result of) liberty, equality, the new social order and the force of the revolution itself. Besides lending itself as a catchy title to a book, this passage shows that Bakunin used anarchy in a positive sense to describe the result of a successful revolution, not simply in a more negative sense of either chaos or destructive force.

The third passage is the one where I relied on Maximoff’s translation of “anarchy” into “anarchism.” However, even after making that correction, the passage still constitutes a use by Bakunin of “anarchy” in a more positive sense, not in the sense of “chaos,” as Berthier claims:

“Outside of the Mazzinian system, which is the system of the republic in the form of a State, there is no other system but that of the republic as a commune, the republic as a federation, a Socialist and a genuine people’s republic — the system of Anarchy. It is the politics of the Social Revolution, which aims at the abolition of the State, and the economic, altogether free organization of the people, an organization from below upward, by means of a federation.”

What is the “system of Anarchy” of which Bakunin writes? It is the republic as a socialist commune and federation, the “free organization of the people… from below upward, by means of a federation.” This is a positive form of anarchy. But “anarchy” is also “the abolition of the State,” which is only a negative form of “anarchy” in the sense that destruction is the negation of something existing (the state), but the result is not something negative, either “anarchy” in the sense of chaos or a reconstituted state, but something positive, the federation of socialist communes.

Thus, a close examination of these passages shows that it is Berthier, not me, who “most of the time (not always, though) misinterprets what Bakunin really says.”

Consider also the very title to Bakunin’s last published work, Statism and Anarchy. Surely Bakunin was not arguing that the alternative to Statism was anarchy conceived as disorder, chaos and destruction.

Berthier also claims that “Bakunin felt really uneasy” in using the word “anarchist.” However, at another point he says instead that when Bakunin used the words “anarchy” or “anarchist,” he felt it “necessary to add an explanation, as if the concept was not immediately understandable by the reader.” This latter explanation makes more sense, and does not imply any kind of “uneasiness” on Bakunin’s part. At the time Bakunin wrote these various passages, largely between 1868 and 1873, the only “anarchist” with whom anyone would likely have been familiar would have been Proudhon, who distanced himself from his anarchist stance of the 1840s in his later works, for a variety of reasons (police censorship, pessimism regarding the prospect for positive social change, and so forth).

There were no anarchist movements, nor very many people who identified themselves as anarchists. Anarchist ideas were in the process of development by Bakunin and others. As most people would be unfamiliar with anarchist ideas, and would naturally assume that “anarchy” only meant chaos and disorder, it became necessary for the early revolutionary anarchists, including Bakunin, to explain what they meant when they described themselves as such.

Bakunin first described himself as an anarchist in the Italian paper, Libertà e Giustizia, in September 1867, when he distinguished himself from Pan-Slavists, describing them as “unitarians at all costs, always preferring public order to freedom”; whereas, Bakunin wrote, “I am an anarchist and prefer freedom to public order” (W. Eckhardt, The First Socialist Schism, p. 453, n. 47). And we see in the passages that I cited in my earlier post that Bakunin continued to identify himself as an anarchist in order to distinguish his views from those of his political opponents, whether Pan-Slavists, Blanquists, Marxists, Mazzini or other supporters of some kind of state power.

Since Bakunin’s death, other anarchists have continued to use the label to distinguish themselves from other revolutionaries, citing many of the same grounds cited by Bakunin: preferring freedom to “public order” (see for example Kropotkin’s essay, “Order,” in Words of a Rebel); advocating “anarchy” as both a method and as a goal (Malatesta, in his pamphlet, Anarchy, among many other writings); rejecting any participation in bourgeois politics; rejecting the state, even as a transitional power; rejecting a privileged role for the urban or industrial proletariat; and rejecting government by legislation and the so-called “rule of law.” This is what made these anarchists either Bakunin’s comrades in arms, for those who were his contemporaries, or his ideological successors.

I would like to conclude with some remarks regarding Berthier’s argument that the anarchists of the 1870s broke with Bakunin’s advocacy of a “pluralist” International. While Bakunin certainly opposed the International adopting a compulsory political program, he also lobbied incessantly for his own anarchist program, not to impose it on others, but to convince them to adopt it. His position is illustrated by this quotation from a fragment from the Knouto-Germanic Empire (Oeuvres, Vol. 6, p. 430):

“A political program has value only when, coming out of vague generalities, it determines precisely the institutions it proposes in place of those which it wants to overthrow or reform. Such is the program of Mr. Marx. It is a complete scaffolding of highly centralized and authoritarian economic and political institutions, no doubt sanctioned, like all despotic institutions in modern society, by universal suffrage, but nevertheless subjected to a very strong government, to use the expressions of Mr. Engels, the alter ego of Mr. Marx, the confidant of the legislator.

“But why is it precisely this program that is supposed to be officially introduced, necessarily, in the statutes of the International? Why not the Blanquists? Why not ours? Could it be because Mr. Marx invented it? That is not a reason. Or because the workers of Germany seem to accept it? But the anarchic program is accepted, with very few exceptions, by all the Latin Federations; the Slavs will never accept any other.”

It was around this time that Bakunin wrote the program for the Slav Section of the International in Zurich, which expressly accepted “the Anarchist revolutionary programme,” and called for the “abolition of all States.” There can be no question regarding Bakunin’s role in convincing many Spanish, Italian, Swiss, French and Russian members of the International to adopt an anarchist stance.

Furthermore, it was Bakunin himself who wrote the St. Imier Congress resolutions in September 1872 that:

“the aspirations of the proletariat can have no purpose other than the establishment of an absolutely free economic organization and federation, founded upon the labour and equality of all and absolutely independent of all political government… ”

Therefore, “the destruction of all political power is the first duty of the proletariat,” and “any organization whatsoever of a self-styled provisional and revolutionary political authority for the purpose of ensuring such destruction can be nothing but another fraud, and would be as dangerous to the proletariat as any government now in existence” (reprinted in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas).

From the outset, the anti-authoritarian International adopted an anti-statist position, making it difficult for any sections allied with Marx to participate, and it was Bakunin who authored the resolutions that helped to create that difficulty (of course, Marx and Engels put pressure on the social democratic Internationalists to boycott the anti-authoritarian International in any event). The resolutions at the 1877 Verviers Congress of the anti-authoritarian International were not really any different in substance from the resolutions Bakunin wrote for the St. Imier Congress five years earlier. The Verviers delegates simply made it clear that in addition to rejecting the state and so-called “revolutionary” government, they also rejected, as had Bakunin himself, the socialist political parties that hoped to achieve political power.

The Belgians who had already moved toward a social democratic position, such as Caesar De Paepe, did not even attend the Verviers Congress, instead choosing to attend the Socialist congress in Ghent. However, in the Verviers region itself, many of the Internationalists continued to support an anarchist approach. The rejection of socialist political parties at the Verviers Congress simply confirmed what was already happening–the Internationalists who had decided to follow the electoral path no longer saw a need for an international association of workers, instead choosing to focus their energies on political activities within their own countries; whereas many of the anarchists who remained in the anti-authoritarian International, such as Malatesta and Kropotkin, continued to see a useful role for the International.

The anarchists did not drive De Paepe and other Belgians out of the International — rather De Paepe and many of the other Belgian Internationalists no longer believed that the International and working class organizations to which its members belonged, from resistance and mutual aid societies to cooperatives and trade unions, formed the “embryo” of the future socialist society. Rather, as De Paepe himself said at the 1874 Brussels Congress of the anti-authoritarian International, “the reconstitution of society upon the foundation of the industrial group, the organization of the state from below upwards, instead of being the starting point and the signal of the revolution, might not prove to be its more or less remote result.”

Consequently, De Paepe argued that “the proletariat of the large towns” would be compelled “to establish a collective dictatorship over the rest of the population… for a sufficiently long period to sweep away whatever obstacles there may be to the emancipation of the working class” (‘We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It’, page 211). De Paepe and other Internationalists had adopted a view virtually indistinguishable from that of Marx, a view to which Bakunin was completely opposed (‘We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It’, page 130).

Who remained in the International who agreed with Bakunin’s anti-statism, his rejection of participation in bourgeois politics, the creation of autonomous working class organizations that would provide the basis for workers’ self-management, and the use of insurrectionary means, as well as general strikes, to abolish the state and capitalism in order to create a socialist society based on equality and freedom for all? The anarchists. And it is simply untrue that the anarchists in the anti-authoritarian International were all anti-organizationalists who rejected anything other than affinity group forms of organization.

Even Paul Brousse, who argued against having any kind of coordinating centre for the anti-authoritarian International, was still an advocate of the revolutionary commune (incidentally, Bakunin agreed with the view that the anti-authoritarian International should not have a central coordinating agency, because “[s]ooner or later it would be without fail transformed into a sort of government” — ‘We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It’, page 205). The majority of the Spanish anarchists continued to advocate a trade union based working class movement committed to achieving “anarchy” in a positive sense, as did many of the Italian anarchists, such as Malatesta, and some of the French anarchists (see Chapters 9 through 11 of ‘We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It’).

Robert Graham


Malatesta: All or Nothing?


In these troubled times, I often think back to the situation faced by Errico Malatesta and the Italian anarchists when Mussolini’s Fascists held power in Italy. In this excerpt from an article that Malatesta wrote in 1930, eight years into the Fascist dictatorship, Malatesta argues against an “all or nothing” approach, advocating that one must always try to achieve as much as is practically possible in any given situation consistent with one’s ideals. I included several excerpts from Malatesta’s other writings in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas.


All or Nothing?

I am not an advocate of the ‘all or nothing’ theory. I believe that nobody actually behaves in such a way as implied by that theory: it would be impossible.

This is just a slogan used by many to warn about the illusion of petty reforms and alleged concessions from government and masters, and to always remind [one] of the necessity and urgency of the revolutionary act: it is a phrase that can serve, if loosely interpreted, as an incentive to a fight without quarter against every kind of oppressor and exploiter. However, if taken literally, it is plain nonsense.

The ‘all’ is the ideal that gets farther and wider as progress is made, and therefore it can never be reached. The ‘nothing’ would be some abysmally uncivilized state, or at least a supine submission to the present oppression.

I believe that one must take all that can be taken, whether much or little: do whatever is possible today, while always fighting to make possible what today seems impossible.

For instance, if today we cannot get rid of every kind of government, this is not a good reason for taking no interest in defending the few acquired liberties and fighting to gain more of those. If now we cannot completely abolish the capitalist system and the resulting exploitation of the workers, this is no good reason to quit fighting to obtain higher salaries and better working conditions. If we cannot abolish commerce and replace it with the direct exchange among producers, this is no good reason for not seeking the means to escape the exploitation of traders and profiteers as much as possible. If the oppressors’ power and the state of public opinion prevent [us] now from abolishing the prisons and providing any defence against wrongdoers with more humane means, not for this we would lose interest in an action for abolishing the death penalty, life imprisonment, [solitary] confinement and, in general, the most ferocious means of repression by which what is called social justice, but which actually amounts to a barbarian revenge, is exercised. If we cannot abolish the police, not for this we would allow, without protesting and resisting, that the policemen beat the prisoners and allow themselves all sorts of excesses, overstepping the limit prescribed to them by the laws in force themselves…

I am breaking off here, as there are thousands and thousands of cases, both in individual and social life, in which, being unable to obtain ‘all’, one has to try and get as much as possible.

At this point, the question of fundamental importance arises about the best way of defending what one has got and fighting to obtain more; for there is one way that weakens and kills the spirit of independence and the consciousness of one’s own rights, thus compromising the future and the present itself, while there is another way that uses every tiny victory to make greater demands, thus preparing minds and the environment [for] the longed-for complete emancipation.

What constitutes the characteristic, the raison d’etre of anarchism, is the conviction that the governments — dictatorships, parliaments, etc. — are always instruments of conservation, reaction, oppression; and freedom, justice, well-being for everyone must come from the fight against authority, from free [activity] and free agreement among individuals and groups.


One problem worries many anarchists nowadays, and rightly so.

As they find it insufficient to work on abstract propaganda and revolutionary technical preparation, which is not always possible and is done without knowing when it will be fruitful, they look for something practical to do here and now, in order to accomplish as much as possible of our ideas, despite the adverse conditions; something that morally and materially helps the anarchists themselves and at the same time serves as an example, a school, an experimental field.

Practical proposals are coming from various sides. They are all good to me, if they appeal to free initiative and to a spirit of solidarity and justice, and tend to take individuals away from the domination of the government and the master. And to avoid wasting time in continuously recurring discussions that never bring new facts or arguments, I would encourage those who have a project to try to immediately accomplish it, as soon as they find support from the minimal necessary number of participants, without waiting, usually in vain, for the support of all or many — experience will show whether those projects were workable, and it will let the vital ones survive and thrive.

Let everyone try the paths they deem best and fittest to their temperament, both today with respect to the little things that can be done in the present environment, and tomorrow in the vast ground that the revolution will offer to our activity. In any case, what is logically mandatory for us all, if we do not want to stop being truly anarchist, is to never surrender our freedom into the hands of an individual or class dictatorship, a despot or a Constituent Assembly; for what depends on us, our freedom must find its foundation in the equal freedom of all.

Errico Malatesta

Adunata, October 4, 1930



The October Revolution and the Communist Party

Soviet poster

Soviet poster

It’s that time of year again – no, not Halloween, the World Series, or the return to “Standard Time” (in a regimented world, all time is “standard” time). It’s the anniversary of the 1917 October Revolution in Russia, which ultimately led to the creation of a brutal dictatorship cloaked in the ideological mantle of Marxism (“our friends, the enemy,” as the anarchist historian Max Nettlau used to say). For some reason, my posts regarding the 1917 Russian Revolution generate some of the most traffic. I have posted some of Alexander Berkman’s writings on the Russian Revolution before, and also included his critique of the “Bolshevik Myth” in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. Here is a piece by Berkman, written around 1922, on the counter-revolutionary role of the Communist Party (formerly, the Bolshevik party).


The Russian Revolution and the Communist Party

The October Revolution was not the legitimate offspring of traditional Marxism. Russia but little resembled a country in which, according to Marx, “the concentration of the means of production and the socialisation of the tools of labor reached the point where they can no longer be contained within their capitalistic shell. The shell bursts…”

In Russia, “the shell” burst unexpectedly. It burst at a stage of low technical and industrial development, when centralisation of the means of production had made little progress. Russia was a country with a badly organised system of transportation, with a weak bourgeoisie and weak proletariat, but with a numerically strong and socially important peasant population. In short, it was a country in which, apparently, there could be no talk of irreconcilable antagonism between the grown industrial labor forces and a fully ripened capitalist system.

But the combination of circumstances in 1917 involved, particularly for Russia, an exceptional state of affairs which. resulted in the catastrophic breakdown of her whole industrial system. “It was easy for Russia”, Lenin justly wrote at the time, “to begin the socialist revolution in the peculiarly unique situation of 1917.”

The specially favorable conditions for the beginning of the socialist revolution were:

  1. the possibility of blending the slogans of the Social Revolution with the popular demand for the termination of the imperialistic world war, which had produced great exhaustion and dissatisfaction among the masses;

  2. the possibility of remaining, at least for a certain period after quitting the war, outside the sphere of influence of the capitalistic European groups that continued the world war;

  3. the opportunity to begin, even during the short time of this respite, the work of internal organisation and to prepare the foundation for revolutionary reconstruction;

  4. the exceptionally favorable position of Russia, in case of possible new aggression on the part of West European imperialism, due to her vast territory and insufficient means of communication;

  5. the advantages of such a condition in the event of civil war; and

  6. the possibility of almost immediately satisfying the fundamental demands of the revolutionary peasantry, notwithstanding the fact that the essentially democratic viewpoint of the agricultural population was entirely different from the socialist program of the “party of the proletariat” which seized the reins of government.

Moreover, revolutionary Russia already had the benefit of a great experience — the experience of 1905, when the Tsarist autocracy succeeded in crushing the revolution for the very reason that the latter strove to be exclusively political and therefore could neither arouse the peasants nor inspire even a considerable part of the proletariat .

The world war, by exposing the complete bankruptcy of constitutional government, served to prepare and quicken the greatest movement of the people — a movement which, by virtue of its very essence, could develop only into a social revolution.

Anticipating the measures of the revolutionary government, often even in defiance of the latter, the revolutionary masses by their own initiative began, long before the October days, to put in practice their Social ideals. They took possession of the land, the factories, mines, mills, and the tools of production. They got rid of the more hated and dangerous representatives of government and authority. In their grand revolutionary outburst they destroyed every form of political and economic oppression. In the deeps of Russia the Social Revolution was raging, when the October change took place in the capitals of Petrograd and Moscow.

The Communist Party, which was aiming at the dictatorship, from the very beginning correctly judged the situation. Throwing overboard the democratic planks of its platform, it energetically proclaimed the slogans of the Social Revolution, in order to gain control of the movement of the masses. In the course of the development of the Revolution, the Bolsheviki gave concrete form to certain fundamental principles and methods of Anarchist Communism, as for instance: the negation of parliamentarism, expropriation of the bourgeoisie, tactics of direct action, seizure of the means of production, establishment of the system of Workers’ and Peasants’ Councils (Soviets), and so forth.

Furthermore, the Communist Party exploited all the popular demands of the hour: termination of the war, all power to the revolutionary proletariat, the land for the peasants, etc. This, as we shall see later, base demagoguery proved of tremendous psychological effect in hastening and intensifying the revolutionary process.

But if it was easy, as Lenin said, to begin the Revolution, its further development and strengthening were to take place amid difficult surroundings.

The external position of Russia, as characterised by Lenin about the middle of 1918, continued to be “unusually complicated and dangerous”, and “tempting for the neighboring imperialist States by its temporary weakness”’ The Socialist Soviet Republic was in an “extraordinarily unstable, very critical international position”.

And, indeed, the whole subsequent external history of Russia is full of difficulties in consequence of the necessity of fighting ceaselessly, often on several fronts at once, against the agents of world imperialism, and even against common adventurers. Only after the final defeat of the Wrangel forces was at last put an end to direct armed interference in the affairs of Russia.

No less difficult and complex, even chaotic, was the internal situation of the country.

Complete breakdown of the whole industrial fabric; failure of the national economy; disorganisation of the transportation system, hunger, unemployment; relative lack of organisation among the workers; unusually complex and contradictory conditions of peasant life; the psychology of the “petty proprietor”, inimical to the new Soviet regime; sabotage of Soviet work by the technical intelligentsia; the great lack in the Party of trained workers familiar with local conditions, and the practical inefficiency of the Party heads; finally, according to the frank admission of the acknowledged leader of the Bolsheviki, “the greatest hatred, by the masses, and distrust of everything governmental” — that was the situation in which the first and most difficult steps of the Revolution had to be made.

It must also be mentioned that there were still other specific problems with which the revolutionary government. had to deal. Namely, the deep-seated contradictions and even antagonisms between the interests and aspirations of the various social groups of the country. The most important of these were:

  1. the most advanced, and in industrial centers the most influential, group of factory proletarians. Notwithstanding their relative cultural and technical backwardness, these elements favored the application of true communist methods;

  2. the numerically powerful peasant population, whose economic attitude was decisive, particularly at a time of industrial prostration and blockade. This class looked with distrust and even hatred upon all attempts of the Communist government to play the guardian and control their economic activities;

  3. the very large and psychologically influential group (in the sense of forming public opinion, even if of a panicky character) of the common citizenry: the residue of the upper bourgeoisie, technical specialists, small dealers, petty bosses, commercial agents of every kind — a numerous group, in which were also to be found functionaries of the old regime who adapted themselves and were serving the Soviet government, now and then sabotaging; elements tempted by the opportunities of the new order of things and seeking to make a career; and, finally, persons torn out of their habitual modes of life and literally starving. This class was approximately estimated at 70% of the employees of Soviet institutions.

Naturally, each of these groups looked upon the Revolution with their own eyes, judged its further possibilities from their own point of view, and in their own peculiar manner reacted on the measures of the revolutionary government.

All these antagonisms rending the country and, frequently clashing in bloody strife, inevitably tended to nourish counter-revolution — not mere conspiracy or rebellion, but the terrific convulsion of a country experiencing two world cataclysms at once: war and social revolution.

Thus the political party that assumed the role of dictator was faced by problems of unprecedented difficulty. The Communist Party did not shrink from their solution, and in that is its immortal historic merit.

Notwithstanding the many deep antagonisms, in spite of the apparent absence of the conditions necessary for a social revolution, it was too late to discuss about driving back the uninvited guest, and await a new, more favorable opportunity. Only blind, dogmatic or positively reactionary elements could imagine that the Revolution could have been “made differently”. The Revolution was not and could not be a mechanical product of the abstract human will. It was an organic process burst with elemental force from the very needs of the people, from the complex combination of circumstances that determined their existence.

To return to tile old political and economical regime, that of industrial feudalism, was out of the question. It was impossible, and first of all because it were the denial of the greatest conquest of the Revolution: the right of every worker to a decent human life. It was also impossible because of the fundamental principles of the new national economy: the old regime was inherently inimical to the developement of free social relationship — it had no room for labor initiative.

It was apparent that the only right and wholesome solution — which could save the Revolution from its external enemies, free it from the inner strife which rent the country, broaden and deepen the Revolution itself — lay in the direct, creative initiative of the toiling masses. Only they who had for centuries borne the heaviest burdens could through conscious systematic effort find the road to a new, regenerated society. And that was to be the fitting culmination of their unexampled revolutionary zeal.

Lenin himself, replying in one of his works to the question, “How is the discipline of the revolutionary party of the proletariat to be maintained, how to be strengthened?” clearly and definitely replied: “By knowing how to meet, to combine, to some extent even to merge, if you will, with the broad masses of the toilers, mainly with the proletariat, but also with the non-proletarian laboring masses”.

However, this thought was and still remains, on the whole, in irreconcilable conflict, with the spirit of Marxism in its official Bolshevik interpretation, and particularly with Lenin’s authoritative view of it.

For years trained in their peculiar “underground” social philosophy, in which fervent faith in the Social Revolution was in some odd manner blended with their no less fanatical faith in State centralisation, the Bolsheviki devised an entirely new science of tactics. It is to the effect that the preparation and consummation of the Social Revolution necessitates the organisation of a special conspirative staff, consisting exclusively of the theoreticians of the movement, vested with dictatorial powers for the purpose of clarifying and perfecting beforehand, by their own conspirative means, the class-consciousness of the proletariat.

Thus the fundamental characteristic of Bolshevik psychology was distrust of the masses, of the proletariat. Left to themselves, the masses — according to Bolshevik conviction — could rise only to the consciousness of the petty reformer.

The road that leads to the direct creativeness of the masses was thus forsaken.

According to Bolshevik conception, the masses are “dark”, mentally crippled by ages of slavery. They are multi-colored: besides the revolutionary advance-guard they comprise great numbers of the indifferent and many self-seekers. The masses, according to the old but still correct maxim of Rousseau, must be made free by force. To educate them to liberty one must not hesitate to use compulsion and violence.

“Proletarian compulsion in all its forms”, writes Bukharin, one of the foremost Communist theoreticians, “beginning with summary execution and ending with compulsory labor is, however paradoxical it may sound, a method of reworking the human material of the capitalistic epoch into Communist humanity”.

This cynical doctrinairism, this fanatical quasi-philosophy flavored with Communist pedagogic sauce and aided by the pressure of “canonized officials” (expression of the prominent Communist and labor leader Shliapnikov) represent the actual methods of the Party dictatorship, which retains the trade mark of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” merely for gala affairs at home and for advertisement abroad. Already in the first days of the Revolution, early in 1918, when Lenin first announced to the world his socio-economic program in its minutest details, the roles of the people and of the Party in the revolutionary reconstruction were strictly separated and definitely assigned. On the one hand, an absolutely submissive socialist herd, a dumb people; on the other, the omniscient, all-controlling Political Party. What is inscrutable to all, is an open book to It. In the land there may be only one indisputable source of truth — the State. But the Communist State is, in essence and practice, the dictatorship of the Party only, or — more correctly — the dictatorship of its Central Committee. Each and every citizen must be, first and foremost, the servant of the State, its obedient functionary, unquestioningly executing the will of his master — if not as a matter of conscience, then out of fear. All free initiative, of the individual as well as of the collectivity, is eliminated from the vision of the State. The people’s Soviets are transformed into sections of the Ruling Party; the Soviet institutions become soulless offices, mere transmitters of the will of the center to the periphery. All expressions of State activity must be stamped with the approving seal of Communism as interpreted by the faction in power. Everything else is considered superfluous, useless and dangerous.

This system of barrack absolutism, supported by bullet and bayonet, has subjugated every phase of life, stopping neither before the destruction of the best cultural values, nor before the most stupendous squandering of human life and energy.

Alexander Berkman