Boris Yelensky: Factory Committees in the Russian Revolution

Boris Yelensky’s In the Social Storm – Memoirs of the Russian Revolution, is a neglected text even in anarchist circles. Yelensky was living in exile in Chicago when news of the February Revolution in Russia reached him. He returned to Russia in July 1917, going back to the Kuban region on the Black Sea, where he began organizing factory workers throughout the area, with the centre of his activities being in the port city of Novorossiysk. In this except from his Memoirs, Yelensky describes how a relatively small group of anarchists was able to organize factory committees in Novorossiysk and surrounding areas in the weeks leading up to the October Revolution. While Council Communists and other far left Marxists like to claim the idea of factory committees as their own, while portraying anarcho-syndicalists as advocates of bureaucratic trade union organization, the fact remains that anarchists were at the forefront of the factory committee movements in Russia, and a couple of years later, in Italy. At the 1918 All-Russian Conference of Anarcho-Syndicalists in Moscow, the delegates confirmed their commitment to factory committees as organs of worker self-management. I included the Conference’s Resolution on Factory Committees in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas.

Petrograd Factory Workers

Anarchists and Factory Committees in Kuban

In Novorossiysk, which, though situated rather far from the center, had a dynamic revolutionary cadre, a movement liberated from the control of the Kerensky government became apparent even before October.  To be sure, the Soviet and similar organizations were officially conducted by the Kerensky regime, but in practice everything was in readiness for the expected revolt in the crucial center of Russia so that when it did occur, everything could be changed over to the new foundations of social co-operation without bloodshed.

Novorossiysk was prepared for any development and in this preparation our group played a substantial role.  I can affirm with confidence that we even played the leading role. There were larger organizations in the city – Bolsheviks and Left Social-Revolutionaries – but our small, close-knit anarchist unit had a greater impact on the working class. Furthermore, the more enlightened members of the Bolsheviks and Left Social-Revolutionaries manifested a strong sympathy for the activities of our group.  Thus, the constructive work of our Unit attracted sympathetic interest and help not only from the masses of workers but also among our so-called political adversaries.

When I returned from Kharkov with my two comrades, I submitted a report on my trip, pointing out that I saw no possibility of procuring more colleagues to help in our work and proposing that, if we were determined to achieve constructive results, we must do so with the forces now available to us.

Once again there emerged the question of finances, this time brought up by Comrade George, who had come with me from Kharkov.  This, in turn, brought up the question of expropriation of course, but this time it didnʼt take us long to convince our new co-worker that our group had no intention of undertaking such steps, for we were striving to build a new life founded on social justice and did not feel we could build on this sort of foundation.  This led to a series of meetings that lasted far into the night and continued for a solid week.  In the course of these meetings, and springing from our discussions, there began to crystallize a picture of what our principal task should be.

We then decided that our first undertaking should be to agitate among the workers, urging them to confiscate all industry.  Furthermore, they should organize in every factory and plant “internal committees,” functioning very much as shop committees do among the more democratic unions in the U.S.  But where a shop committee in the U.S. deals with simple economic activities, our internal committees were to fulfill quite a different function, for they were to enable the workers on the job to conduct industrial operations without the bosses.

We designated a special committee of three comrades to prepare a draft of a statute. Comrade Katya Garbova was considered a very competent worker and well equipped for such a task and Comrade Vanya Budnik and myself joined her.  The following day, the committee met and Comrade Garbova presented an outline of the by-laws.  After a brief discussion and a few corrections, we adopted the draft. It is now more than a half-century since that time and I do not have copies of that project and must therefore reproduce its contents from memory.

The title of our project in Russian was Ustav Komitetov Vnutrenovo Rasporyadka (Statutes for Interior Shop Committees) and its principal features or clauses were as follows:

(l) In every factory and shop, each faction would select a delegate, and these delegates would constitute an “Internal Affairs Committee,” which would take over all functions related to the management of production and distribution and would, in addition, exercise administrative duties.  Every element represented would conduct its own internal affairs and the General Committee possessed only the authority to coordinate all proposals stemming from the workers in the various departments.

(2) The committee was to elect a president and a secretary, who would be relieved of their regular jobs and take over the administrative functions.

(3) An “Economic Soviet” was to be organized, composed of two delegates from each factory or shop.  This Soviet would have no executive powers, its task being limited to the coordination of work at the various points and the extension of assistance where it might be needed.

The Economic Soviet was also assigned the mission of collaborating with the Cooperative Movement, so that the latter might take over the finished products and exchange them for the raw materials required by the shops and the factories, as well as for the consumer goods needed by the workers and their families. In addition, this Soviet, with the aid of the Cooperatives, was directed to procure essential commodities for the population of the city.

(4) All organizations were to be built from the bottom upward.  Each and every citizen was considered to be morally responsible in his job as well as in his private life.  Thus, the new social order would be constructed on the basis of collective responsibility.  No individual had a right to expect that anyone else would provide for him or work for him.  This meant that every individual was to be the architect of his own life, and all persons acting in unison would fashion the new community, which would endeavor to expand the great social revolution.

(5) Taking into account the fact that there was no possibility in the immediate future of abolishing money as a medium of exchange, it was recommended that every worker, regardless of the nature of their employment, would receive 300 rubles a month in wages, plus 25% additional for every person whom he supported.  In other words, equal compensation was to be introduced for all, from the unskilled worker to the head engineer; equal pay without distinction.

There were numerous other technical proposals pertaining to the “Internal Affairs Committees,” but those cited above were the principal ones.  The draft of the project was discussed for several days at meetings of our group.  When it was finally adopted, we decided to call meetings of the various shops and plants, and to prepare the working masses for the new social order that seemed to permeate the atmosphere already.  A keen sense of anticipation was prevalent all around us.

Our small group had proceeded this far in the flush of earnest enthusiasm for our great dream; now we were faced with the reality of implementing our ideas concretely.  Three of the members of our group had taken part in trade union activity previously and had some experience with strikes and organizing.  None of the rest of the group had any experience along these lines, so it became the task of the three of us with the experience to educate the rest of the group, by lectures and talks, until they had at least a rudimentary knowledge of the functions and workings of trade unions.  They were willing learners and riding high on a wave of enthusiasm.  They accepted immediately the most important premise we were operating with: that we, as anarchists, were not going out to help the people by building towers for them or by promising them a better social order.  We were going forth to try to help them build a new society themselves.  They, a collective of determined individuals, had to create for themselves a new society based on equality, freedom and social justice.

We decided to start our organizational chore with a large meeting in one of the cement factories.  Since we were on good terms with the workers there the meeting was easily arranged in a few days.  As it turned out, not only the workers of the factory and their families came, but they had also invited everyone from the administration and since such a large meeting couldnʼt be kept secret in the city, many activists from the various political sects and parties also attended.  Many of them were simply curious to see what the small Anarchist group would accomplish.  And, of course, there was an element of excitement too, a quality of the unknown, since no one knew what the representatives of the central government would do or what their reaction would be to this attempt to destroy the principle of private property and to start building a new society.

The factory did not have a hall large enough to hold the crowd but it was ideally situated in a valley between two mountains, so the meeting was held in a field near the factory.

One of the active workers from the factory opened the meeting with a short talk, explaining the reason for the gathering, and then introduced our comrade Katya Garbova.  She was an excellent speaker and proceeded to paint a graphic picture of the situation all over Russia, especially the dichotomy between the empty promises of the various political parties about freedom after the revolution and the reality – true in all of Russia, but particularly in St. Petersburg – which saw the political parties locked in a great struggle against each other, none interested in the welfare of the people, each interested only in seizing power for their own ends. In the meantime the Kerensky government was attempting to continue a war that was ruining the country.

She reminded them that they, the Russian people, had won the great social revolution and that now it was time for them to start to build a new and a free society.  “It is for this reason and this reason only that we come to you today, to remind you that it is time that the workers started to think and actively to build that free society.  If you do not take over the industries and become the masters of your own lives, the political parties will take over in your name and you will remain industrial slaves. It is up to you and only you can decide what to do.  We did not come here to advise you what to do.  Our only aim is to help you if you wish to attempt to start building a newer, freer form of society.  We believe that, in order to do so, we must make for ourselves a completely new environment, in which a human being can live and function in freedom; only with such an approach will we be able to start reconstructing the art of living again.”

She told them that we had a prospectus for their consideration and introduced me – I had prepared myself to present our suggestions.  There was a moment of intense silence when Katya completed her impassioned plea and then an explosion of thousands of voices as the people gave Katya a standing ovation.  Even some of the administration were on their feet cheering.

The following is the essence of my own speech:

“Since the brave and hungry women of Petrograd started to roll the great wheel of the revolution, many human lives have been lost and many false impressions have been promulgated.  The worldʼs current impression is that anarchists are only fit to throw bombs and are not fit for any constructive works.  This misconception dates from the attempts of Karl Marx to spiritually destroy the great thinker and fighter for human rights, Mikhail Bakunin.  These ideas are still pressed by the state socialists and others who wish to keep the human race in a fit state for exploitation.

“I would like to make one more point before I present our prospectus. The situation all over Russia, with political parties warring with each other as to who will take power and control the lives of the people is not new to us.  We have seen the same situation all over the world, in many lands.  What is happening in Russia has happened before, particularly as regards the Social Revolutionary Party, which has always told the Russian peasantry that the land belongs to them and who have promised the people their dream will come true after the revolution.  The revolution has come and now they say that the peasantry must wait until a law is passed.  Havenʼt we waited long enough already?

“The Social Democrats have always preached that the proletarians are the master class and some of them have even said that the factories and shops belong to the workers – again all empty promises.

“Our small anarchist group comes to you with a proposition.  We think that enough has been destroyed by the revolution.  We feel that the time has come for constructive work in our everyday lives to build a new and free society.  We have been accused of being utopians and dreamers and I am glad to be considered so.  What our accusers do not tell you is that we dreamers are ready at any time to try to start building that dream into a reality – that is what we came to you tonight to speak about.”

I then read the prospectus for the takeover by the workers of the factories and shops all over the Novorossiysk region, and continued:

“I must tell you that the lines I have read to you will remain dead lines if we do not make this prospectus a milestone in our miserable lives.  Change will only come if every one of us decides that he or she wants this change and is willing to work for it.

“There is one other important point and that is that we do not expect or depend on any political party or any other human being to do anything for us. The first step toward a new society is for each and every one of us to understand that we, the people, must do the work ourselves.  Only we, working together, can bring about this utopian dream of a free society.

Your factory is the first to be presented with this idea.  In the coming weeks we will cover everyone in the other factories and shops and we hope that by the end of the month we will have an opinion by the workers on our prospectus.  We would like to suggest that you call a meeting of everyone connected with your work and take up the matter of our prospectus. We would suggest that you try to do this without any outside influence, inviting only those involved with the factory.  If you accept in principle our prospectus, we would suggest that the meeting elect two delegates to a conference to be called for the purpose of organizing an economic soviet, which would coordinate the work of the factoriesʼ Internal Shop Committees.”

The enthusiasm was so great that everyone wanted to express his or her thoughts and it was after midnight when the meeting finally came to an end. The reactions were almost all positive and we were sure, when we left the meeting that we were on the right track.

The news of our plans went through the city by word of mouth like a tidal wave and by the next evening our small headquarters was packed with workers from the other shops and factories, all of them demanding that we come and speak to their meetings. The demand was so great and our resources so limited that we finally had to determine where to go next by lottery. It took nearly two weeks to complete the meetings and at every one of them the workers accepted our proposals and elected two delegates to the conference.

Boris Yelensky

The Red and Black Flag of Anarcho-Syndicalism


Nestor Makhno: The October Revolution and Ukraine

In this excerpt from his memoir, The Russian Revolution in Ukraine, Nestor Makhno describes the effects of the October Revolution in Ukraine. While the “toilers” (workers and peasants) in Ukraine welcomed the October Revolution, anarchist revolutionaries, such as Makhno, urged vigilance, lest the Bolsheviks establish their own dictatorship.

The October Revolution and Ukraine

I want to move on to reporting on the effect of the October coup after its triumph in Petrograd and Moscow. It exerted an influence almost immediately on the revolutionary toilers of Zaporozh’e and Preazov, in particular. This included the following raions [districts] which were linked ideologically with the Gulyai-Pole Soviet and looked to it for guidance in the struggle against the government and the widening and deepening of the revolutionary process: Aleksandrovsk, Melitopol’, Berdyansk, Mariupol’, Bakhmut, and Pavlograd.

Having followed closely the everyday goings on in these raions, I can confirm that in November and December the triumph of the coup in Russia was greeted by the Ukrainian toilers with great joy. They in no way changed their own local activities because they recognized that the Coup was based on the ideas of the real Revolution, which came from the awakening of the oppressed villages and enslaved cities.

Up until October, Gulyai-Pole raion had tried to make its mark on the Revolution in a deep and deliberate manner – completely devoid of any statist concepts. Then at the end of November 1917 four official governments were organized in Ekaterinoslav, each pretending to rule the revolutionary masses of the whole province. They proceeded to bad-mouth each other and then started to fight among themselves, dragging the toilers into the fray. Gulyai-Pole raion completely avoided taking sides in these struggles in which one government or the other temporarily triumphed.

At the beginning of December the bloc of Bolsheviks and Left S-Rs got the upper hand in Ekaterinoslav. Gulyai-Pole raion recognized these parties as revolutionary and immediately came up with an analysis their revolutionary value.

The toilers said:

“We consider the Bolsheviks and Left S-Rs to be revolutionary because of their activities during the Revolution. We congratulate them as staunch militants. But we don’t trust them in power. They triumphed on our backs over the bourgeoisie which tried to kill the Revolution with the support of right-wing socialist groupings. And then the Bolsheviks and Left S-Rs set up their own government which smells just the same as any other government, the likes of which have been stifling us for centuries. And it doesn’t look like this new government is in any hurry to establish local self-management for the toilers so they won’t be at the mercy of the bosses.

Everywhere commissariats are being established. And these commissariats have a police-like character rather than being egalitarian institutions composed of comrades seeking to explain to us the best way to organise ourselves so that we will be independent and not have to listen to the bosses who up to now have lived on our backs and done us nothing but harm.

Since this revolutionary government shows no egalitarian tendencies, since on the contrary it is consolidating police-like institutions, then in the future we can expect, instead of advice, only the peremptory orders of the bosses. Anyone thinking independently and acting contrary to the orders received will be faced with death or deprived of their freedom, which we value above all else.”

The toilers offered this analysis which, although vague in details, expressed the truth that by means of their sacrifices events had taken place in which one evil system was overthrown and another installed in its place under various pretexts.

The fact that the toiling masses of Ukraine understood the aspirations of the various political parties allowed them to reject the right-wing socialists and ally themselves with those groups which they saw moving in the same direction. In the vanguard they saw the Bolsheviks, Left S-Rs, and anarchists. But the first two socialist groupings knew what they needed to do at the given moment; moreover they had concluded an alliance which meant that they acted perfectly in unison. This made them stand out in the eyes of the toilers who referred to them under one name – “Bolsheviks” – a name under which all the revolutionaries were merged, including the anarchists.

The masses of toilers looked at this complex of groupings standing in their vanguard and said: “We welcome these revolutionaries, but we don’t have enough information to say they won’t end up fighting among themselves for the right to take power over us and subject us entirely to their will. This tendency certainly exists among them which could lead them to unleash a new war while we, the toilers, with our right to autonomous action on behalf of revolutionary interests, are relegated to the sidelines and forced to submit to the egotistical, criminal interests of parties.”

This forced the revolutionary toilers of Gulyai-Pole to be even more vigilant than usual.

Nestor Makhno, The Russian Revolution in Ukraine

Emma Goldman’s Disillusionment with Marxism-Leninism, Not the Russian Revolution

In the chapter on the Russian Revolution in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian IdeasI included excerpts from the Afterword to Emma Goldman’s My Further Disillusionment with Russia (originally published in 1924)But as Emma Goldman noted in a handwritten inscription to the book, what she was disillusioned with was the Bolsheviks (today known as “Marxist-Leninists”), who had strangled the Revolution, not with the Russian Revolution, which had begun with such great promise. In today’s post, I include the beginning of Goldman’s Afterword, where she refers to the Marxist dogma that a socialist revolution can only occur in advanced capitalist societies, which became an excuse for the Marxist dictatorship in Russia, as the Communists bludgeoned the Russian people into the 20th century. Far from representing the next stage in historical development, the Communist dictatorship in the Soviet Union represented a brutal process of forced industrialization that created a form of state capitalism, paving the way neither for socialism nor communism, but for the restoration of capitalism after the collapse of the Soviet Union (see the article by the the Russian anarcho-syndicalist group, the Interprofessional Workers’ Union, “Russian Capitalism,” in Volume Three of my Anarchism anthology).

Marxism v. the Russian Revolution

Non-Bolshevik Socialist critics of the Russian failure contend that the Revolution could not have succeeded in Russia because industrial conditions had not reached the necessary climax in that country. They point to Marx, who taught that a social revolution is possible only in countries with a highly developed industrial system and its attendant social antagonisms. They therefore claim that the Russian Revolution could not be a social revolution, and that historically it had to evolve along constitutional, democratic lines, complemented by a growing industry, in order to ripen the country economically for the basic change.

This orthodox Marxian view leaves an important factor out of consideration — a factor perhaps more vital to the possibility and success of a social revolution than even the industrial element. That is the psychology of the masses at a given period. Why is there, for instance, no social revolution in the United States, France, or even in Germany? Surely these countries have reached the industrial development set by Marx as the culminating stage. The truth is that industrial development and sharp social contrasts are of themselves by no means sufficient to give birth to a new society or to call forth a social revolution. The necessary social consciousness, the required mass psychology is missing in such countries as the United States and the others mentioned. That explains why no social revolution has taken place there.

In this regard Russia had the advantage of other more industrialized and “civilized” lands. It is true that Russia was not as advanced industrially as her Western neighbours. But the Russian mass psychology, inspired and intensified by the February Revolution, was ripening at so fast a pace that within a few months the people were ready for such ultra-revolutionary slogans as “All power to the Soviets” and “The land to the peasants, the factories to the workers.”

The significance of these slogans should not be underestimated. Expressing in a large degree the instinctive and semi-conscious will of the people, they yet signified the complete social, economic, and industrial reorganization of Russia. What country in Europe or America is prepared to interpret such revolutionary mottoes into life? Yet in Russia, in the months of June and July 1917, these slogans became popular and were enthusiastically and actively taken up, in the form of direct action, by the bulk of the industrial and agrarian population of more than 150 million. That was sufficient proof of the “ripeness” of the Russian people for the social revolution.

As to economic “preparedness” in the Marxian sense, it must not be forgotten that Russia is preeminently an agrarian country. Marx’s dictum presupposes the industrialization of the peasant and farmer population in every highly developed society, as a step toward social fitness for revolution. But events in Russia, in 1917, demonstrated that revolution does not await this process of industrialization and — what is more important — cannot be made to wait. The Russian peasants began to expropriate the landlords and the workers took possession of the factories without taking cognizance of Marxian dicta. This popular action, by virtue of its own logic, ushered in the social revolution in Russia, upsetting all Marxian calculations. The psychology of the Slav proved stronger than social democratic theories.

That psychology involved the passionate yearning for liberty nurtured by a century of revolutionary agitation among all classes of society. The Russian people had fortunately remained politically unsophisticated and untouched by the corruption and confusion created among the proletariat of other countries by “democratic” liberty and self-government. The Russian remained, in this sense, natural and simple, unfamiliar with the subtleties of politics, of parliamentary trickery, and legal makeshifts. On the other hand, his primitive sense of justice and right was strong and vital, without the disintegrating finesse of pseudo-civilization. He knew what he wanted and he did not wait for “historic inevitability” to bring it to him: he employed direct action. The Revolution to him was a fact of life, not a mere theory for discussion.

Thus the social revolution took place in Russia in spite of the industrial backwardness of the country. But to make the Revolution was not enough. It was necessary for it to advance and broaden, to develop into economic and social reconstruction. That phase of the Revolution necessitated fullest play of personal initiative and collective effort. The development and success of the Revolution depended on the broadest exercise of the creative genius of the people, on the cooperation of the intellectual and manual proletariat. Common interest is the leit motif of all revolutionary endeavour, especially on its constructive side. This spirit of mutual purpose and solidarity swept Russia with a mighty wave in the first days of the October/November Revolution. Inherent in that enthusiasm were forces that could have moved mountains if intelligently guided by exclusive consideration for the well-being of the whole people. The medium for such effective guidance was on hand: the labour organizations and the cooperatives with which Russia was covered as with a network of bridges combining the city with the country; the Soviets which sprang into being responsive to the needs of the Russian people; and, finally, the intelligentsia whose traditions for a century expressed heroic devotion to the cause of Russia’s emancipation.

But such a development was by no means within the programme of the Bolsheviki. For several months following October they suffered the popular forces to manifest themselves, the people carrying the Revolution into ever-widening channels. But as soon as the Communist Party felt itself sufficiently strong in the government saddle, it began to limit the scope of popular activity. All the succeeding acts of the Bolsheviki, all their following policies, changes of policies, their compromises and retreats, their methods of suppression and persecution, their terrorism and extermination of all other political views — all were but the means to an end: the retaining of the State power in the hands of the Communist Party. Indeed, the Bolsheviki themselves (in Russia) made no secret of it. The Communist Party, they contended, is the advance guard of the proletariat, and the dictatorship must rest in its hands. Alas, the Bolsheviki reckoned without their host — without the peasantry, whom neither the razvyoriska, the Tcheka, nor the wholesale shooting could persuade to support the Bolshevik régime. The peasantry became the rock upon which the best laid plans and schemes of Lenin were wrecked. But Lenin, a nimble acrobat, was skilled in performing within the narrowest margin. The new economic policy was introduced just in time to ward off the disaster which was slowly but surely overtaking the whole Communist edifice.

Emma Goldman

Voline: Opposing Concepts of the Russian Revolution

All Power to the Soviets!

In the following excerpt from Voline’s anarchist history of the Russian Revolution, The Unknown Revolution, Voline contrasts two opposing conceptions of revolution, that of the Bolsheviks (Marxist-Leninists), and that of the anarchists. The Bolshevik conception of revolution centered on the need for a disciplined party organization to achieve state power. The anarchist conception of revolution is based on notions of self-management, self-organization, and the self-activity of the general population. Voline debunks the common misconception that anarchists are opposed to organization; what they oppose are top down, authoritarian forms of organization. I included much of this section of The Unknown Revolution in the chapter on the Russian Revolution in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas.

Opposing Conceptions of the Revolution

The Bolshevik idea was to build, on the ruins of the bourgeois state, a new “Workers’ State” to constitute a “workers’ and peasants’ government,” and to establish a “dictatorship of the proletariat.”

The Anarchist idea [was and] is to transform the economic and social bases of society without having recourse to a political state, to a government, or to a dictatorship of any sort. That is, to achieve the Revolution and resolve its problems not by political or statist means, but by means of natural and free activity, economic and social, of the associations of the workers themselves, after having overthrown the last capitalist government.

To co-ordinate action, the first conception envisaged a certain political power, organizing the life of the State with the help of the government and its agents and according to formal directives from the “centre”.

The other conception conjectured the complete abandonment of political and statist organization; and the utilization of a direct and federative alliance and collaboration of the economic, social, technical, or other agencies (unions, co-operatives, various associations, etc.) locally, regionally, nationally, internationally; therefore a centralization, not political nor statist, going from the central government to the periphery commanded by it, but economic and technical, following needs and real interests, going from the periphery to the centres, and established in a logical and natural way, according to concrete necessity, without domination or command.

It should be noted how absurd — or biased — is the reproach aimed at the Anarchists that they know only how “to destroy”, and that they have no “positive” constructive ideas, especially when this charge is hurled by those of the “left”. Discussions between the political parties of the extreme left and the Anarchists have always been about the positive and constructive tasks which are to be accomplished after the destruction of the bourgeois State (on which subject everybody is in agreement). What would be the way of building the new society then: statist, centralist, and political, or federalist, a-political, and simply social? Such was always the theme of the controversies between them; an irrefutable proof that the essential preoccupation of the Anarchists was always future construction.

To the thesis of the parties, a political and centralized “transitional” State, the Anarchists opposed theirs: progressive but immediate passage to the economic and federative community. The political parties based their arguments on the social structure left by the centuries and past regimes, and they pretended that this model was compatible with constructive ideas. The Anarchists believed that new construction required, from the beginning, new methods, and they recommended those methods. Whether their thesis was true or false, it proved in any case that they knew clearly what they wanted, and that they had strictly constructive ideas.

As a general rule, an erroneous interpretation — or, more often, one that was deliberately inaccurate — pretended that the libertarian conception implied the absence of all organization. Nothing is farther from the truth. It is a question, not of “organization or non-organization”, but of two different principles of organization.

All revolutions necessarily begin in a more or less spontaneous manner, therefore in a confused, chaotic way. It goes without saying — and the libertarians understood this as well as the others — that if a revolution remains in that primitive stage, it will fail. Immediately after the spontaneous impetus, the principle of organization has to intervene in a revolution as in all other human activity. And it is then that the grave question arises: What should be the manner and basis of this organization?

One school maintains that a central directing group — an “elite” group — ought to be formed to take in hand the whole work, lead it according to its conception, impose the latter on the whole collectivity, establish a government and organize a State, dictate its will to the populace, impose its “laws” by force and violence, combat, suppress, and even eliminate, those who are not in agreement with it.

Their opponents [the Anarchists] consider that such a conception is absurd, contrary to the fundamental principles of human evolution, and, in the last analysis, more than sterile — and harmful to the work undertaken. Naturally, the Anarchists say, it is necessary that society be organized. But this new organization should be done freely, socially, and, certainly, from the bottom. The principle of organization should arise, not from a centre created in advance to monopolize the whole and impose itself on it, but — what is exactly the opposite — from all quarters, to lead to points of co-ordination, natural centers designed to serve all these quarters.

Of course it is necessary that the organizing spirit, that men capable of carrying on organization — the “elite” — should intervene. But, in every place and under all circumstances, all those valuable humans should freely participate in the common work, as true collaborators, and not as dictators. It is necessary that they especially create an example, and employ themselves in grouping, co-ordinating, organizing, using good will, initiative, and knowledge, and all capacities and aptitudes without dominating, subjugating, or oppressing any one. Such individuals would be true organizers and theirs would constitute a true organization, fertile and solid, because it would be natural, human and effectively progressive. Whereas the other “organization”, imitating that of the old society of oppression and exploitation, and therefore adapted to those two goals — would be sterile and unstable, because it would not conform to the new purposes, and therefore would not be at all progressive.

In fact, it would not contain any element of a new society, inasmuch as it would only alter the appearance of the old. Belonging to an outdated society, obsolete in all respects, and thus impossible as a naturally free and truly human institution, it could only maintain itself by means of new artifices, new deceptions, new violence, new oppression and exploitation. Which inevitably would lead astray, falsify, and endanger the whole revolution. So it is obvious that such an organization will remain unproductive as a motor for the Social Revolution. It can no more serve as a “transitional society” (as the “Communists” pretend), for such a society must necessarily possess at least some of the seeds of that toward which it purports to evolve. And all authoritarian and statist societies possess only residues of the fallen social order.

According to the libertarian thesis, it is the labouring masses themselves who, by means of the various class organizations, factory committees, industrial and agricultural unions, co-operatives, etc., federated and centralized on a basis of real needs, should apply themselves everywhere, to solving the problems of waging the Revolution. By their powerful and fertile action, because they are free and conscious, they should co-ordinate their efforts throughout the whole country. As for the “elite”, their role, according to the libertarians, is to help the masses, enlighten them, teach them, give them necessary advice, impel them to take the initiative, provide them with an example, and support them in their action — but not direct them governmentally.

The libertarians hold that a favourable solution of the problems of the Revolution can result only from the freely and consciously collective and united work of millions of men and women who bring to it and harmonize in it all the variety of their needs and interests, their strength and capacities, their gifts, aptitudes, inclinations, professional knowledge, and understanding. By the natural interplay of their economic, technical, and social organizations, with the help of the “elite” and, in case of need, under the protection of their freely organized armed forces, the labouring masses should, in view of the libertarians, be able to carry the Revolution effectively forward and progressively arrive at the practical achievement of all of its tasks.

The Bolshevik thesis was diametrically opposed to this. In the contention of the Bolsheviki it was the elite — their elite — which, forming a “workers’ government” and establishing a so-called “dictatorship of the proletariat”, should carry out the social transformation and solve its prodigious problems. The masses should aid this elite (the opposite of the libertarian belief that the elite should aid the masses) by faithfully, blindly, mechanically carrying out its plans, decisions, orders, and “laws”. And the armed forces, also in imitation of those of the capitalist countries, likewise should blindly obey the “elite”.

Such is, and remains, the essential difference between the two ideas. Such also were the two opposed conceptions of the Social Revolution at the moment of the Russian upheaval in 1917.

The Bolsheviks, as we have said, didn’t want even to listen to the Anarchists, still less to let them expound their thesis to the masses. Believing themselves in possession of an absolute, indisputable, “scientific” truth, and pretending to have to impose it immediately, they fought and eliminated the libertarian movement by violence from the time the Anarchist idea began to interest the masses — the usual procedure of all dominators, exploiters, and inquisitors.

In October, 1917. the two conceptions entered into conflict, which became increasingly acute, with no compromise possible. Then, for four years, this conflict kept the Bolshevik power on the alert, and played a more and more significant part in the vicissitudes of the Revolution, until the libertarian movement in Russia was completely destroyed by military force at the end of 1921.


The Unknown Revolution

Luigi Fabbri: For the Russian Revolution – Against Dictatorship

AK Press has now published Bloodstained: One Hundred Years of Leninist Counterrevolution, a collection of anarchist writings on the so-called “October Revolution” in Russia in 1917, which marked the Bolshevik’s seizure of power. Contributors include Rudolf Rocker, Nestor Makhno, Iain McKay, Alexander Berkman, Maurice Brinton, Ida Mett, Otto Rühle, Emma Goldman, Barry Pateman, Paul Mattick, Cornelius Castoriadis and Luigi Fabbri. Here I reproduce the conclusion to Fabbri’s essay, “Anarchy and ‘Scientific’ Communism,” largely a response to the then Bolshevik ideologue Nikolai Bukharin’s anti-anarchist pamphlet, “Anarchy and Scientific Communism” (Bukharin ended up being shot on Stalin’s orders in 1938 as an alleged counter-revolutionary plotting with the Nazi government in Germany against the Soviet state). In the conclusion to his essay, Fabbri makes clear that the anarchists fully supported the Russian Revolution. What they opposed was the Bolshevik dictatorship, which marked the end of the Revolution. I included a chapter on the Russian Revolution in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas.

The Russian Revolution and the Anarchists

The Russian Revolution is the most earth-shaking event of our day. Brought on and made easier by an enormous cause, the world war, it has surpassed that world war in magnitude and importance. Had it managed, if it manages or should it manage in the future – as, in spite of everything, we still hope – to break the bonds of wage slavery that bind the working class, or should the advances made by earlier revolutions be expanded to include economic and social equality, freedom for all in fact as well as in theory, that is to say with the material possibility of enjoying it, then the Russian Revolution will surpass in historical importance even of the French Revolution of 1789-93.

If the world war failed to extinguish all hope of resurrection by the oppressed people of the world, if despite it men are not to be set back centuries to the animal existence of their ancestors, but only a little way, it is beyond dispute that we owe it to the Russian Revolution. It is the Russian Revolution that has raised the moral and ideal values of humanity and which has impelled our aspirations and the collective spirit of all peoples forwards towards a higher humanity.

In that sad dawn of 1917, while the whole world seemed to be rushing headlong into horror, death, falsehood, hatred and blackest obscurity, the Russian Revolution suddenly flooded those of us who were suffering from that endless tragedy with the searching light of truth and brotherhood, and the warmth of life and love began to flow again along withered veins to the parched hearts of the workers’ international. For as long as that memory persists, all the peoples of the earth will be obliged to the Russian people for an effort that, not only in Russia and Europe but in the most distant corners of the globe inhabited by men, succeeded in lifting the hopes of the oppressed.

We absolutely do not conceal the cost of the Russian people’s feat in terms of fatigue, heroism, sacrifice and martyrdom.

We anarchists have not followed the progress of the revolution with mental reservations or in a spirit of sectarianism. We never talked this way, in public or in private: up till now, but no more. So long as the revolution was moving forward we did not concern ourselves with whichever party it was that won the most fame. Then no one, or practically no one, spoke of the Russian anarchists. We knew – and later news proved we were right – that they must be in the forefront of the battle, unknown but nonetheless important factors in the revolution. And for us that was enough.

We have no partisan interests, nor have we any need to exploit our fallen to secure privileges for the future; and for that reason our silence on the work of our comrades did not dampen our joy. And, between the months of March and November, before they seized power (and even for a few months after they had, until bitter experience confirmed what our doctrine had given us an inkling of in advance) the bolsheviks seemed to be the most energetic foes of the old oppressors, of the war policy, of all truck with the bourgeoisie; and fought against democratic radicalism with its roots in capitalism and, along with it, against the social patriots, reformists, right socialist revolutionaries and mensheviks; and later, when after a little hesitation they co-operated to scatter to the winds the equivocation of the constituent Assembly, the anarchists, without any senseless rivalry , stood at their side.

They stood at their side ideally, spiritually, outside Russia and, more practically, in the sphere of propaganda and political activity against the slander and calumnies of the bourgeoisie. And, even more practically, they stood there still (and that even after they had begun to oppose at the polemical level), against the bourgeois governments when, so far as was possible, an effort was made to use direct action to prevent the infamous blockade of Russia and to stop the supply of war materials to her enemies. Every time the interests of the revolution and the Russian people seemed to be at stake, the anarchists held their ground, even when they knew that they could indirectly be giving help to their opponents.

The same thing, on a much larger scale, with a greater expenditure of energies and more sacrifices in ruthless armed struggle, happened inside Russia where our comrades have been fighting for the revolution against tsarism since before 1917, with dogged opposition to the war and after that with weapons in hand in March; then later against bourgeois democracy and social reformism in July and October; fighting at last on all fronts, giving up their lives in the fight against Yudenich, Denikin and Wrangel, against the Germans in Riga, the English in Archangel, the French in Odessa and the Japanese in Siberia. Many of them (and this is not the place to see if or to what extent they were mistaken in so doing) have collaborated with the Bolsheviks in internal civil or military organization, wherever they could, with least conflict with their own conscience, to the advantage of the revolution. And if today Russian anarchists are among the opposition inside Russia and fight against Bolshevik policy and the Bolshevik government, all they are doing is pressing on – a heroic few – with the struggle for revolution begun in March 1917.

Not only is today’s government not the Russian Revolution, but it has become its very negation. On the other hand, that was inevitable by virtue of the fact that it is a government. Not only does fighting the Russian government, at the level of polemic, with revolutionary arguments – that have nothing in common with the arguments of the revolution’s enemies – not only does this not make one a foe of the revolution, but it defends it, clarifies it and frees it of the stains which the bulk of the public sees in it – stains that are not of it, but come from the government party, the new ruling caste that is growing, parasite-like on its trunk, to the detriment of the great bulk of the proletariat.

This in no way prevents us from understanding the grandiosity of the Russian Revolution, and appreciating the renewal it has meant for a good half of Europe. The only thing we oppose is the claim of a single party to monopolize the credit and the benefits of such an enormous event, which they certainly did have a hand in, but in a proportion one might reasonably expect from their numbers and organization. The Russian Revolution was not the work of a party – it was the work of a whole people: and the people is the real leading actor of the real Russian Revolution. The grandeur of the Revolution comes not in the form of government ordinances, laws and military feats, but in the form of the profound change wrought in the moral and material life of the population.

That change is irrefutable. Tsarism in Russia has died, and with it a whole endless series of monstrosities. The old noble and bourgeois ruling class is destroyed and along with it many things, from the roots up, especially a lot of prejudices, the removal of which was once thought impossible. Should Russia, as appears to be the case, be unfortunate enough to see a new ruling class formed there, then the demolition of the old annihilated one leads to the expectation that the rule of the new power will in its turn be overthrown without difficulty. The original libertarian idea behind the “Soviets” did not win the souls of Russians over in vain, even if the Bolsheviks have maimed it and turned it into a cog in the bureaucracy of the dictatorship; inside that idea lies the seed of the new revolution which will be the only one that acts out real communism, communism with freedom.

No government can lay claim to the moral renewal of Russia in the wake of revolution, nor can it destroy it; and that renewal is the merit of the popular revolution alone, not of a political party. “And of course, in spite of everything” (a comrade wrote to me who had just returned from Russia, after some criticisms of the bolshevik maladministration), “the impression that the life of the Russian people makes all in all is so grand that everything here in capitalist Europe seems a wretched, stupid ‘petit bourgeois’ imitation. No vulgarity there; one never hears those vulgar songs sung by drunks; there the off-putting atmosphere of Sundays and those places where people amuse themselves in western countries does not exist. Amid sacrifice and unspeakable suffering, the people really do live a better, more intense moral life.”

In real terms the Russian Revolution lives on in the Russian people. That is the revolution we love, that we celebrate with enthusiasm and with a heart filled with hope. But, as we never tire of repeating, the revolution and the Russian people are not the government that, in the eyes of superficial folk, represents them abroad. A friend of mine, returning from Russia in 1920 burning with enthusiasm, when I warned him that the soviets there were a humiliating sort of subordination and that government agents even manipulated their elections “fascistically”, replied some-what rashly: “But if the majority of the proletarians were really able to elect the soviets of their choice, the Bolshevik government would not remain in government another week!”

If that is so, then when we criticize – not persons, not individuals, whom we have often defended against slanderers in the kept press of capitalism – when we, prompted by our constant concern not to fall into the mistaken, exaggerated form of criticism, attack the ruling party in Russia and those of its supporters anxious to follow in its footsteps in Italy – because we see that its methods are harmful to the revolution and bring about a real counter-revolution – how can anyone say that “we are taking up a stand against the Russian Revolution”?

Luigi Fabbri

Voline: The Bolshevik October Revolution

Well, here it is: the 100th anniversary of the 1917 October Revolution in Russia. The “October Revolution” in reality represented the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks, the party of Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin, representing the revolutionary wing of the Russian Marxist social democratic movements.  This part of the Russian Revolution (not to be confused with the relatively spontaneous February Revolution) came to be known as the “October Revolution” because it began on October 25, 1917 under the old Russian calendar (November 7, 1917 under the modern calendar). Here I present a chapter from the Russian anarchist Voline’s account of the Russian Revolution, The Unknown Revolution, in which he describes the events of October 1917. Previously, I posted an anarchist analysis of the October Revolution by Alexander Berkman, who went to Russia in 1919 and then witnessed first hand how the Bolsheviks had used the October Revolution to establish their own dictatorship. I included a chapter on the Russian Revolution, with contributions by Berkman, Voline, Peter Arshinov, Gregory Maksimov, Emma Goldman, Russian anarcho-syndicalists and the Makhnovist movement, in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian IdeasAK Press has just published Bloodstained: One Hundred Years of Leninist Counterrevolution, a collection of critical writings on the October Revolution by a variety of anarchists and libertarian socialists, including Luigi Fabbri, Rudolf Rocker, Nestor Makhno, Iain McKay, Alexander Berkman, Maurice Brinton, Ida Mett, Otto Rühle, Emma Goldman, Barry Pateman, Paul Mattick, and Cornelius Castoriadis.

The Bolshevik Revolution

At the end of October, 1917, the climax drew near in Russia. The masses were ready for a new revolution. Several spontaneous uprisings since July […] and disturbances among both troops and civilians, were adequate evidence of this. From that time onward the Bolshevik Party saw itself in a position to avail itself of two real forces—the confidence of the great masses and a large majority in the Army. It went into action and feverishly prepared for a decisive battle which it was determined to win. Its agitation was furious. It put the finishing touches on the formation of workers’ and soldiers’ units for the crucial combat. Also it organized, completely, its own units and drew up, for use in the event of success, the composition of the projected Bolshevik government, with Lenin at its head. He watched developments closely and issued his final instructions. Trotsky, Lenin’s right-hand man, who had returned several months earlier from the United States, where he had lived after his escape from Siberia, was to share a considerable portion of the power.

The left Social Revolutionists were collaborating with the Bolsheviki. The Anarcho-Syndicalists and the Anarchists, few in numbers and badly organized, yet very active, did everything they could to support and encourage the action of the masses against Kerensky. However, they tried to orient the new revolution away from the political course of the conquest of power by a new party, and to put it on the true social road, toward free organization and collaboration, in a spirit of liberty.

The ensuing course of events is fairly well known. We shall recount the facts briefly.

Having recognized the extreme weakness of the Kerensky government, [having] won the sympathy of an overwhelming majority of the working masses, and having been assured of the active support of the Kronstadt fleet—always the vanguard of the Revolution— and of the majority of the Petrograd troops, the Bolshevik Party’s central committee set the insurrection for October 25. The Pan-Russian Congress of Soviets was called for the same day.

In the minds of the central committee, this congress—the great majority of its delegates being Bolsheviks who supported their party’s directives blindly—would, if need be, proclaim and uphold the Revolution, rally all of the country’s revolutionary forces, and stand up to the eventual resistance of Kerensky.

On the evening of October 25 the insurrection came off, effectively. The congress met in Petrograd as scheduled. But it did not have to intervene.

There was no street fighting, no barricades, no widespread combat. Everything happened simply and quickly.

Abandoned by everyone, but holding fast to its illusions, the Kerensky government was sitting in the Winter Palace in the capital. It was defended by a battalion of the “elite” guards, a battalion of women, and a handful of young cadets.

Some detachments of troops won over by the Bolsheviki, acting according to a plan worked out jointly by the Congress of Soviets and the party’s central committee, surrounded the palace and attacked its guards. This action of the troops was supported by some of the battleships of the Baltic fleet, brought from Kronstadt and drawn up in the Neva opposite the palace. Most notable was the cruiser Aurora.

After a short skirmish and a few cannon-shot from the cruiser, the Bolshevik troops took the palace.

Meanwhile, however, Kerensky had managed to flee. The other members of the Government were arrested.

Thus, in Petrograd, the “insurrection” was limited to a minor military operation, led by the Bolsheviks. Once the seat of government was emptied, the party’s central committee installed itself there as conqueror. The overturn was virtually a palace revolution.

An attempt by Kerensky to march on Petrograd with some troops summoned from the front (Cossacks, and again the Caucasian division) failed—thanks to the vigorous armed intervention of the capital’s working masses, and especially of the Kronstadt sailors, who quickly came to the rescue. In a battle near Gatchina, on the outskirts of Petrograd, a part of Kerensky’s troops were beaten, and another part went over to the revolutionary camp. Kerensky fled and escaped abroad.

In Moscow and elsewhere, the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks was attended with greater difficulty.

Moscow saw ten days of furious fighting between the revolutionary forces and those of reaction. There were many victims. Several sections of the city were heavily damaged by artillery fire. Finally the Revolution won.

In certain other cities also, the victory was gained only after intense struggle.

But the countryside, for the most part, remained calm, or rather, indifferent. The peasants were too much absorbed in their own local preoccupations. For some time they had been in the process of solving the “agrarian problem” for themselves. In any case, they could see nothing wrong in the Bolsheviks taking power. Once they had the land, and didn’t have to fear the return of the pomestchiki, the big land-owners, they were nearly satisfied, and gave little thought to the occupants of the throne. They didn’t expect any harm from the Bolsheviki. And they had heard it said that the latter wanted to end the war, which seemed perfectly just and reasonable to them. Thus they had no reason to oppose the new involution.

The way in which that revolution was accomplished illustrates very well the uselessness of a struggle for “political power”. If, for one reason or another, such power is supported by a strong section of the populace and especially by the Army, it would be impossible to win against it, and therefore futile to attack it. But if, on the contrary, it is abandoned by the majority of the people and by the Army—which occurs in every genuine revolution— then it is not worth bothering with. At the slightest gesture of the armed people, it will fall like a house of cards. It is necessary to be concerned, not with “political” power, but with the real power of the Revolution, with its inexhaustible, spontaneous, potential forces, its irresistible spirit, the far-flung horizons it opens—in short, with the enormous possibilities it brings in its train.

However, in several regions, notably in the East and in Central Russia, the victory of the Bolsheviks was not complete. Counterrevolutionary movements soon appeared. They consolidated themselves, gained in importance, and led to a civil war which lasted until the end of 1921.

One of those movements, headed by General Anton Ivanovitch Denikin, took on the proportions of an uprising which seriously threatened the power of the Bolsheviks. Starting from the depths of Southern Russia, Denikin’s army almost reached the gates of Moscow in the summer of 1919.

Also very dangerous was another uprising launched by General Baron Peter Wrangel in the same region. And a third movement of White Russians organized by Admiral Alexander Vassilievitch Kolchak in Siberia was for a time conspicuously menacing. Marching with his army from his headquarters in Omsk westward to the Ural mountains, he vanquished the Bolsheviki in several battles.

Other counter-revolutionary rebellions were of less importance.

The greater part of these movements was partly supported and given supplies through foreign intervention. Some were backed and even politically directed by the moderate Socialists, the right Social Revolutionaries, and the Mensheviks.

On the other hand, the Bolshevik power had to carry on a long and difficult struggle in two directions—against its ex-partners, the left Social Revolutionaries, and against the Anarchist movement and ideology. Naturally, these leftist movements did not fight the Bolsheviks on the counter-revolutionary side, but, on the contrary, in the name of “the true Social Revolution”, betrayed, in their opinion, by the Bolshevik Party in power.

Beyond question, the birth, and especially the extent and strength of the counter-revolutionary forces, were the inevitable result of the bankruptcy of the Bolshevik power, and of its inability to organize a new economic and social life for the Russian people. Farther on the reader will see what the real development of the October Revolution was, and also what were the means by which the new power had to impose itself, maintain itself, master the storm, and “solve” after its own fashion the problems of the Revolution.

Not until the end of 1922 could the Bolshevik Party feel itself completely—at least for a moment in history—master of the situation.

On the ruins of Tsarism and of the bourgeois-feudal system, it was now necessary to begin to build a new society.


Nestor Makhno: From the Public Committee to the Peasants’ Union

Russian peasants

After his return to Ukraine in March 1917, Nestor Makhno focused on creating a Peasants’ Union that would organize the local peasantry for the purpose of instituting a form of socialist self-management of the land by the peasants themselves. He debated those local anarchists who opposed taking a leadership role, concerned that they would be placing themselves in positions of authority above the people. He spoke against organizing support for revolutionary parties for the purpose of enabling them to push for the expropriation of the land by a Constituent Assembly, when the peasants could do this themselves without waiting for the political parties to do this for them. He also argued for the replacement of the local Public Committee, which represented the Provisional Government, by the Peasants’ Union. The following excerpts, from Volume One of Makhno’s memoir, The Russian Revolution in Ukraine, begin with Makhno attending a general meeting of the Public Committee.

From the Public Committee to the Peasants’ Union

Towards noon I arrived at the general meeting which had just started with the report of the chairman of the Public Committee, Ensign Prusinsky…

At the conclusion of his report, the chairman of the Public Committee asked me to address the Council in support of his views. This I refused to do and instead asked to speak on another matter.

In my speech I pointed out to the peasants the absurdity of allowing in revolutionary Gulyai-Pole such a Public Committee, headed by people who were strangers to the community and who were not accountable to the community for their actions. And I proposed that the assembly immediately delegate four people from each sotnia (Gulyai-Pole was divided into seven wards, called sotnias) to hold a special conference about this and other questions…

It was decided that delegates should be elected at separate meetings of the sotnias and a day was fixed for the meetings. Thus ended my first public appearance after getting out of prison…

After this I went to a meeting of our whole group.

Here we analyzed my report and Kalenichenko’s criticism of it. As a result, we decided to begin methodical propaganda work in the sotnias: among the peasants, and in the mills and workshops. This agitation work was to be based on two premises:

  1. So long as the peasants and workers found themselves in a disorganized state, they would not be able to constitute themselves as a regional social force of [an] anti-authoritarian character, capable of struggling against the “Public Committee”. Up to this point the peasants and workers, whether they liked it or not, had been obliged to adhere to the “Public Committee”, organized under the auspices of the Provisional Coalition Government. That is why it was important to re-elect this Committee in Gulyai-Pole.
  2. Sustained agitation must be carried out for the organization of a Peasants’ Union, which we would take part in and in which we would exercise the dominant influence. We would express our lack of confidence in the “Public Committee”, an organ of the central government, and urge the Peasants’ Union to take over this organ.

“This tactic,” I told the comrades, “I see leading to the repudiation of government rule with its concept of this type of Public Committee. Moreover, if we are successful in our efforts, we shall help the peasants and workers to realize a fundamental truth. Namely that once they take a conscious and serious approach to the question of revolution, then they themselves will become the true bearers of the concept of self-management. And they won’t need the guidance of political parties with their servant — the State.

The time is very favourable for us, anarchists, to strive for a practical solution to a whole range of problems of the present and the future, even if there are great difficulties and the possibility of frequent mistakes. These problems are connected in one way or another with our ideal and by struggling for our demands we shall become the true bearers of the free society. We can’t let this opportunity pass by. That would be an unforgivable error for our group, for we would become separated from the labouring masses.

At all costs we must beware of losing touch with the workers. This is equivalent to political death for revolutionaries. Or even worse, we could force the workers to reject our ideas, ideas which attract them now and will continue to attract them so long as we are among them, marching, fighting, and dying, or winning and rejoicing.”

The comrades, smiling ironically, replied: “Old buddy, you are deviating from the normal Anarchist tactic. We should be listening to the voice of our movement, as you yourself called upon us to do at our first meeting.”

“You are quite right, we must and we shall listen to the voice of our movement, if there is a movement. At present I don’t see it. But I know we must work now, without delay. I proposed a plan of work and we have already adopted it. What else remains to do, except work?”…

About the middle of the week, the elected delegates gathered at the school to discuss the re-election of the Public Committee…

The elected peasant delegates consulted with the delegates from the factory workers and jointly passed a resolution demanding the re-election of the “Public Committee”…

The delegates returned to their own electors and discussed the resolution with them. When the resolution had been confirmed by the electors, a date was set for new elections.

Meanwhile the members of our group were preparing the peasants for the organization of the Peasants’ Union.

During this period an agent arrived from the District Committee of the Peasants’ Union, formed from the ranks of the Socialist-Revolutionary Party. This was Comrade Krylov-Martynov, who was charged with organizing a committee of the Peasants’ Union in Gulyai-Pole…

The SR Krylov-Martynov was an effective orator. He described in glowing terms to the peasants the impending struggle of the Socialist-Revolutionaries for the transfer of land to the peasants without compensation. This struggle was to take place in the Constituent Assembly, expected to be convened in the near future. For this struggle the support of the peasants was required. He appealed to them to organize themselves into a Peasants’ Union and support the Socialist-Revolutionary Party.

This provided an opening for me and several other members of our group to intervene. I said:

“We, the Anarchists, agree with the Socialist-Revolutionaries on the necessity of the peasants organizing themselves into a Peasants’ Union. But not for the purpose of supporting the SRs in their future oratorical struggle with the social-democrats and kadets in the contemplated Constitutional Struggle (if indeed it ever comes to be).

From the revolutionary Anarchist point of view, the organization of the Peasants’ Union is necessary so the peasants can make the maximum contribution of their vital energies to the revolutionary current. In doing so they will leave their stamp upon the Revolution and determine its concrete results.

These results, for the labouring peasantry, will logically turn out as follows. At present the power of Capital and its creature — its system of organized thuggery — the State — is based on the forced labour and artificially-subjugated intelligence of the labouring masses. But now the labouring masses of the countryside and the cities can struggle to create their own lives and their own freedom. And they can manage this without the leadership of political parties with their proposed debates in the Constituent Assembly.

The labouring peasants and workers shouldn’t even be thinking about the Constituent Assembly. The Constituent Assembly is their enemy. It would be criminal on the part of the workers to expect from it their own freedom and happiness.

The Constituent Assembly is a gambling casino run by political parties. Ask anyone who hangs around such places if it is possible to visit them without being deceived! It’s impossible.

The working class — the peasantry and the workers — will inevitably be deceived if they send their own representatives to the Constituent Assembly.

Now is not the time for the labouring peasantry to be thinking about the Constituent Assembly and about organizing support for political parties, including the Socialist-Revolutionaries. No! The peasants and the workers are facing more serious problems. They should prepare to transform all the land, factories, and workshops into communal property as the basis on which they will build a new life.

The Gulyai-Pole Peasants’ Union, which we are proposing to found at this meeting, will be the first step in this direction…”

The SR agent of the District Party Committee of the Peasants’ Union was not perturbed by our intervention. In fact he agreed with us. And so on March 28–29, 1917, was founded the Gulyai-Pole Peasants’ Union.

Nestor Makhno

Makhno – fighting for the revolution

After February: Makhno Returns to Ukraine for the Revolution

Nestor Makhno

After his release from prison at the beginning of the February 1917 Revolution in Russia, Nestor Makhno made his way back to his home town in Ukraine, Gulyai-Pole. There he met up with surviving anarchists to take stock of the situation and determine a course of action. Initially, Makhno had considered making the overthrow of the local organ of the Provisional Government, the Public Committee, their first priority. However, he decided it would be better to first focus on creating a Peasants’ Union, which would spearhead the expropriation of the land without having to wait for the Provisional Government to take action. He proposed placing an anarchist at the head of the Peasants’ Union to prevent it from being co-opted by any of the political parties. His comrade, Kalinichenko, opposed this approach, arguing that the anarchists should not take any leadership positions but should instead spread anarchist propaganda to encourage the peasants themselves to take an anarchist path. The following excerpts from Makhno’s memoirs are taken from Chapter 2 of his book, The Russian Revolution in Ukraine.

Returning to Ukraine to Make the Revolution

Upon arrival in Gulyai-Pole, I immediately got together with my comrades from the anarchist group…

I saw before me my own peasant friends – unknown revolutionary anarchist fighters who in their own lives didn’t know what it means to cheat one another. They were pure peasant types, tough to convince, but once convinced, once they had grasped an idea and tested it against their own reasoning, why then they pushed that idea at every conceivable opportunity. Truly, seeing these people before me I trembled with joy and was overcome with emotion.

I immediately decided to start the very next day to carry out active propaganda among the peasants and workers of Gulyai-Pole. I wanted to dissolve the Public Committee (the local organ of the Provisional Government) and the militia, and prevent the formation of any more committees. I decided to take up anarchist action as the first order of business…

The members of our group hastily set up a meeting to discuss practical affairs. By this time my enthusiasm for rushing into action had cooled off considerably. In my report I down played for the time being the carrying on of propaganda work among the peasants and workers and the overthrow of the Public Committee.

Indeed I surprised my comrades by insisting that we as a group reach a clear understanding of the state of the anarchist movement generally in Russia. The fragmentation of anarchist groups, a phenomenon well-known to me before the Revolution, was a source of dissatisfaction for me personally. I could never be happy with such a situation.

“It is necessary,” I said, “to organize the forces of the workers on a scale which can adequately express the revolutionary enthusiasm of the labouring masses when the Revolution is going through its destructive phase. And if the anarchists continue to act in an uncoordinated way, one of two things will happen: either they will lose touch with events and restrict themselves to sectarian propaganda; or they will trail along in the tail-end of these events, carrying out tasks for the benefit of their political enemies.

Here in Gulyai-Pole and the surrounding region we should act decisively to dissolve government institutions and absolutely put an end to private property in land, factories, plants, and other types of enterprises. To accomplish this we must keep in close contact with the peasant masses, assuring ourselves of the steadfastness of their revolutionary enthusiasm.

We must convince the peasants we are fighting for them and are unswervingly devoted to those concepts which we will present to them at the village assemblies and other meetings. And while this is going on we must keep an eye of what is happening with our movement in the cities.

This, comrades, is one of those tactical questions which we shall decide tomorrow. It seems to me it deserves to be thoroughly discussed because the type of action to be engaged in by our group depends on the correct resolution of this question.

For us, natives of Gulyai-Pole, this plan of action is all the more important as we are the only group of anarcho-communists which has kept in touch with the peasants continuously over the last 11 years. We know of no other groups in the vicinity.

In the closest cities, Aleksandrovsk and Ekaterinoslav, the former anarchist groups were virtually wiped out. The few survivors are far away. Some of the Ekaterinoslav anarchists stayed in Moscow. We don’t know when they will return. And we still haven’t heard anything about those who emigrated to Sweden, France, or America.

At the present time we can depend only on ourselves. No matter how weak we are in our knowledge of the theory of anarchism, we are compelled to work out an immediate plan of action to be undertaken among the peasants of this region. Without any hesitation we must begin work on organizing the Peasants’ Union. And we must see to it that one of the peasants from our group is at the head of this Union.

This is important for two reasons: first, we can prevent any political group hostile to our ideals from infiltrating the Union; and secondly, by being able to address meetings of the Union at any time on current issues, we shall be creating a close bond between our group and the Peasants’ Union. This will give the peasants a chance to deal with the land question themselves. They can go ahead and declare the land public property without waiting for the ‘revolutionary’ government to decide this question which is so crucial for the peasants.”

The comrades were pleased with my report but were far from agreeing with my approach to the whole matter. Comrade Kalinichenko sharply criticized this approach, advocating that our role as anarchists in the current revolution should be restricted to publicizing our ideas. He noted that since we could now act openly, we should make use of this situation to explain our ideas to the workers, without involving ourselves in unions or other organizations.

“This will show the peasants,” he said, “that we are not interested in dominating them but only in giving them advice. Then they will look seriously at our ideas and, embracing our methods, they will independently begin to build a new life.”

At this juncture we concluded our meeting… For the time being we decided simply to review my report and submit it to further analysis and discussion.

Nestor Makhno

Voline: The Russian Revolution – Peasants and Soviets

The February Revolution

In this excerpt from his anarchist history of the Russian Revolution (The Unknown Revolution), Voline discusses the insurmountable problems facing the “Provisional Government” following the overthrow of the Czar at the beginning of the February 1917 Revolution in Russia, primarily the war in Europe which it refused to extricate Russian from, the revolt of the peasants and their seizure of the land that they had worked for centuries, and the competing power of the “Soviets,” standing congresses of workers that were spreading across Russia. I included a chapter on the 1917 Russian Revolution in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas.

After February: The Provisional Government, the Peasants and the Soviets

The machine called the “bourgeois State” broke down in Russia in February, 1917. Its purpose and its activity had always been contrary to the interests and aspirations of the people. Since the latter, for the moment, had become masters of their own destinies, it could not be repaired and put back into working order. For it is the people who make such a machine run — whether under compulsion or freely — and not the governments. The broken apparatus could neither exercise nor re-establish rule by force. And the people no longer “marched” voluntarily toward goals that were not their own.

Hence it was necessary to replace the disabled apparatus with another one, adapted to the new situation, instead of losing time and strength in vain efforts to get it running again.

The bourgeois and nationalist government couldn’t understand this. It insisted on maintaining both the “machine” and the evil heritage of the fallen regime, the war. On this account it was making itself increasingly unpopular. And with the machine [the bourgeois State] broken, it was powerless to go ahead, to impose its war-like will.

This first problem of the hour [ending the war], the most serious, the most immediate, was thus inevitably condemned to remain unsolved by the provisional government.

The second thorny problem was the agrarian question.

Russia’s peasants — who made up 85 per cent, of the population — aspired to possess the land. The Revolution gave these aspirations an irresistible force. Having been reduced to impotence, exploited, and duped for centuries, the peasant masses no longer would pay attention to anything else. They needed the land, at all costs, and immediately, without protocol or ceremony.

Neither physically nor morally could Russia continue the war. Refusal of the Tsarist government to recognize that fact was the immediate cause of the Revolution. And so long as this impossibility continued, any government which failed to recognize it would, logically, fall like that of the Tsar.

To be sure, the provisional government hoped to be able to alter the situation, to end the chaos, reorganize the country, give it new energy. But these were illusions; neither the available time nor the state of mind of the masses would permit it.

Back in 1905, at the Peasant Congress called shortly after the Manifesto of October 17 (while the “liberties” still existed), in preparation for the calling of the Duma, numerous delegates had acted as spokesmen for the aspirations [of the rural masses].

“Any mention of redemption of the land revolts me,” one of those peasant delegates declared. “They propose that we reimburse the enslavers of yesterday, who, even in our own day, aided by the functionaries, have made our life into an obstacle course. Haven’t we already reimbursed them sufficiently by paying rent? It is impossible to measure the barrels of blood with which we have watered the soil. And that’s not all; with their own milk, our grandmothers nursed the hunting dogs of these gentlemen. Isn’t that redemption?”

“For centuries we have been grains of sand blown by the wind. And they were the wind. And now we have to pay again? Oh, no. There is no need for diplomatic discussion. There is only one just way — the revolutionary way. Otherwise they will fool us once more. Anything that speaks of ‘redemption’ is a compromise. Comrades, don’t repeat the error of your fathers. In 1861 they [the enslavers] were cleverer than we, and they had us; they gave us only a little because the people did not take everything.”

“We never sold them the land,” peasants from the Orel region protested. “Therefore we don’t have to redeem it. Already we have paid enough by working for an inhumanly low wage. No, in no case will we pay a redemption. My Lord didn’t get the land from the moon; his grandparents seized it.”

“Redemption would be a flagrant injustice to the people,” delegates from the Kazan district averred. “The people ought to receive a receipted bill of sale with the land. For, in fact, these gentlemen never bought that land. They confiscated it, to sell it later.”

And other peasants told the eminent savant Nikolai Rubakin, sometime between 1897 and 1906: “All these gentlemen — Orlov, Demidoff, Balachoff — got their land free from the Tsars and Tsarinas as presents. And now they want us to redeem it at such prices? That is not only injustice, it is open robbery.”

This explains why the peasants did not want to wait any longer [in 1917]. Nearly everywhere they were forthrightly expropriating the land, driving out any landlords who had not already fled. Thus they had solved the “agrarian question” in their own way and by themselves, without bothering about deliberations, machinations, and the decisions of the Government or the Constituent Assembly. And the Army, composed primarily of peasants, certainly was ready to support this direct action.

The provisional government was undecided whether to accept the situation or to resist it — that is to struggle against the revolting peasants, and also, almost inevitably, against the Army as well. So naturally it adopted the tactic of waiting, hoping, as with the problem of war, to be able to arrange things by maneuvering intelligently and skilfully. The Government spokesmen adjured the peasants to wait patiently for the Constituent Assembly, which, they said, would have the right to establish all law, and certainly would give full satisfaction to the peasants. But nothing came of this.

These appeals were for the most part futile, and this tactic had no chance of success. For the peasants did not have the least confidence in the words of the “gentlemen” in power. They had been fooled often enough! And they felt strong enough now to take the land. To them this was only justice. If sometimes they hesitated again, it was only out of fear of being punished for the acts they were committing.

Too, the problem of the industrial workers was as insoluble by a bourgeois government as that of the peasants. The masses of those workers sought to obtain from the Revolution a maximum of well-being and [the establishment of] rights to a minimum. Immediate and very serious struggles were foreseeable in this field of conflict. And by what means was the provisional government going to maintain its position?

Also the purely economic problem was exceedingly difficult, because it was closely related to the other problems, on the one hand, and moreover, coping with it could not be delayed. In the midst of war and revolution, with a chaotic situation in a disrupted country, it was necessary to organize production anew, as well as transportation, exchanges, finance, etc.

There remained, finally, the political problem. Under the existing circumstances there was no valid solution for it. The provisional government had of course assigned the task of calling the Constituent Assembly in the near future. But for a thousand reasons [attainment of] this task could not succeed. Above all, the government dreaded the opening of that Assembly. Contrary to its promises, its fondest hope was to postpone the Assembly as long as possible, and meanwhile it would seek the installation, through some fortunate turn of luck, of a “constitutional” monarchy. But presently other perilous obstacles arose.

The most serious was the resurrection of the workers’ Soviets, notably the Petrograd Soviet. This had been re-established in the very first days of the Revolution — by tradition, and also as in 1905, in default of other workers’ organizations. True, at that moment the industrial workers were under the influence of the moderate Socialists, Mensheviks, and right Social Revolutionaries. But, all the same, their ideology and program was absolutely contrary to the project of the provisional government, and naturally the moral influence and activity of the Petrograd Soviet soon began to conflict with that of the Government, to the detriment of the latter.

The Petrograd Soviet was a sort of second government for the country. It set the tone of all the vast network of provincial Soviets and co-ordinated their activity. Being thus supported by the working class of the whole country, it quickly became powerful. Also it steadily gained more and more influence in the Army. Before long the orders of the Soviets often carried far more weight than those of the provisional government. Under such conditions the latter was obliged to deal carefully with the Soviets.

It goes without saying that the Government would have preferred to fight them. But to take this action against the organized workers on the morrow of a revolution which had loudly proclaimed absolute freedom of speech, of organization, and of social action, was impossible. For on what real force could it depend to carry out that task? It had none.

Accordingly the Government was compelled to make the most of a bad situation, to tolerate its powerful rival, and even to “flirt”’ with it. The provisional regime well knew the fragility of the sympathies it had among the workers and in the Army. It was keenly aware that in the first serious social conflict those two decisive forces indubitably would side with the Soviets.

As always it “hoped”. It sought to gain time. But the presence of this second “directorate”, unofficial, but threatening, and with which it had to deal, comprised one of the biggest obstacles that the provisional government — official but powerless — must surmount.

The violent criticism and vigorous propaganda by all the Socialist parties, and especially the extreme leftist elements (left Social Revolutionaries, Bolsheviks, Anarchists) also were not to be disregarded. For, naturally, the Government could not have recourse to repressive measures against freedom of speech. And even if it had dared do this, where were the forces to carry out its orders? It had none at its disposal.

Even a powerful bourgeoisie, organized and strongly entrenched, which already had withstood more than one combat with oppositional forces and possessing powerful material forces (police. Army, money, etc.) would have been hard put to arrive at a satisfactory solution to so many problems and to impose its will and its program in the face of the existing situation. And such a bourgeoisie did not exist in Russia. As a class conscious of its own interests, the capitalist class in that country was scarcely beginning to exist. Weak, unorganized, and without tradition or historical experience, it could hope for no success. Also it was not active.

So, representing “in principle” a hardly existing and inactive bourgeoisie, the provisional government was condemned to work in a vacuum. This was without doubt the basic cause of its failure.


G.P. Maksimov: The Anarchists and the February Revolution in Russia

February 1917

February 1917

Gregory (“Grigori”) Maksimov (often written as “Maximov” and “Maximoff” in English language material) was one of the leading exponents of anarcho-syndicalism in Russia during the 1917 Revolution.  He was in St. Petersburg when the February 1917 Revolution broke out, participating in the strike wave that helped provoke the Revolution. He became active in the factory committee movement which sought to bring about genuine workers’ control in Russia. After he was forced into exile in 1921, he wrote an exposé of the Bolshevik tyranny in Russia, The Guillotine at Work, and edited the first major English language selection of Bakunin’s writings, The Political Philosophy of Bakunin (published from Maksimov’s manuscripts after his death in 1950). The following excerpt is taken from Maksimov’s pamphlet, Syndicalists in the Russian Revolution, in which he describes the beginning of the Russian Revolution, before the return of the many political exiles who were to play such a fateful role in the Revolution’s ultimate outcome (including Bolsheviks like Lenin and Trotsky, and anarchists like Boris Yelensky).

Revolutionaries in St. Petersburg - March 1917

Revolutionaries in St. Petersburg – March 1917

The February Revolution

The Revolution shook all classes and strata of Russian social life. A vast unrest had permeated all levels of Russian society as a result of three centuries of oppression by the Tsarist regime.

During the revolutionary explosion, this unrest became the force which cemented the heterogeneous elements into a powerful united front, and which annihilated the edifice of despotism within three days, a brief revolutionary period, unprecedented in history. Within this movement, despite the fact that its component forces were actuated by different, and often mutually exclusive tasks and purposes, reigned full unanimity. At the moment of revolutionary explosion the aims of those various forces happened to coincide, since they were negative in character, being directed at annihilating the superannuated absolutist regime. The constructive aims were not yet clear. It was only during the further course of development, through the differing constructions placed on the aims and tasks of the revolution, that the hitherto amorphous forces began to crystallize and a struggle arose among them for the triumph of their ideas and objectives.

It is a noteworthy feature of the revolution that despite the rather small influence of Anarchists on the masses before its outbreak, it followed from its inception the anarchistic course of full decentralization; the revolutionary bodies immediately pushed to the front by the course of revolution were Anarcho-Syndicalist in their essential character. These were of the kind which lend themselves as adequate instruments for the quickest realization of the Anarchist ideal – Soviets, Factory Committees, peasant land committees and house committees, etc. The inner logic of the development and growth of such organizations led in November (October) 1917 to the temporary extinction of the State and the sweeping away of the foundations of capitalist economy.

I say temporarily, for in the long run the State and capitalism came to triumph, the logical development of the revolution having been openly frustrated by those who at first were instrumental in accelerating its course of development. Unchecked by the too trustful masses, whose aims and course of action, though felt instinctively, were still a far from being clearly realized, the Bolsheviks, to the extent that they gained the confidence of those masses, gradually enveloped the revolution with the chilling atmosphere of State dominance and brute force, thus dooming it to an inevitable process of decay. This process, however, became noticeable only six months after the “October revolution”. Up to that moment the revolution kept on ripening. The struggle became sharper and the objectives began to assume an ever clearer and more outspoken character. The country seethed and bubbled over, living a full life under conditions of freedom.

Grand struggle

The struggle of classes, groups and parties for preponderant influence in the revolution was intense, powerful and striking in character. As a result of this struggle there resulted a sort of stalemate of forces; none was in a position to command superiority in relation to the rest. This in turn made it impossible for the State and government – the external force standing above society – to become the instrument of one of the contending forces. The State, therefore, was paralyzed, not being able to exert its negative influence on the course of events, the more so in that the army, due to its active part in the movement, ceased to be an obedient instrument of State power. In this grand struggle of interests and ideas the Anarchists took an active and lively part.

The period from March (February) to November (October) 1917 was in its sweep and scope a most resplendent one for Anarcho-Syndicalist and Anarchist work, that is for propaganda, agitation, organization and action.

The revolution opened wide the door to Anarchist emigres returning from various countries, where they had fled to escape the ferocious persecution of the Tsar’s government. But even before the emigres’ return there arose, with the active participation of comrades released from prison and exile, groups and unions of Anarchists, as well as Anarchist publications. With the return of the Anarchists from abroad, this work began to pick up considerable momentum. Russia was covered with a thick, albeit too loosely connected, net of groups. Scarcely a sizeable city did not have an Anarcho-Syndicalist or Anarchist group. The propaganda took dimensions unprecedented for Anarchist activity in Russia. Proportionately, there was a great number of Anarchist newspapers, magazines, leaflets, pamphlets and books. The book market was flooded with Anarchist literature. The interest in Anarcho-Syndicalism and Anarchism was enormous, reaching even the remote corners of the faraway North.

Newspapers were published not only in the large administrative and industrial centres, like Moscow and Petrograd, which had several Anarchist newspapers (in Petrograd the circulation of the Anarcho-Syndicalist Golos Trouda and the Anarchist Burevestnik was 25,000 each; the Moscow daily Anarchia had about the same circulation), but also in provincial cities, like Kronstadt, Yaroslavl, Nizhni-Novgorod, Saratov, Samara, Krasnoyarsk, Vladivostok, Rostov on Don, Odessa and Kiev. (In 1918, Anarchist papers were coming out in Ivanovo-Vosnesensk, Chembar, Ekaterinburg, Kursk, Ekaterinoslav, Viatka.)

Oral propaganda was even more extensive than written – it was carried out in the army, as well as in factories and villages. The propaganda stressed the central task of bringing out and carrying to their logical end the Anarchist principles and tendencies inherent in the revolution. This propaganda, Anarcho-Syndicalist propaganda especially, was very successful with the toilers. The influence of Anarchism, especially its Anarcho-Syndicalist variety, was so great with the Petrograd workers that the Social-Democrats were compelled to issue a special publication for the purpose of waging a struggle against “Anarcho-Syndicalism among the organized proletariat.” Unfortunately, this influence was not organized.

Gregory Maksimov