Shawn Wilbur: Notes on the Anarchist Culture Wars

Taking a break from my usually more historical postings, today I reproduce a blogpost by Shawn Wilbur, prompted by recent discussions regarding alleged personal and political connections between the far right and anarchism. The problem of egoists, Nietzschean “supermen,” “national syndicalists,” “national anarchists,” and the like associating themselves with anarchism goes back at least to the 1890s, when Malatesta argued that anarchy without “socialist content… would be worthy of ‘supermen’ in Nietzsche’s and [the proto-fascist Gabriele] D’Annunzio’s fashion and, contradicting itself, would turn into aristocratism and tyranny” (Complete Works, Vol. 3, p. 293). Attempts by the far right to co-opt anarchists (and anarchism) were not limited to individualist anarchism, nor are they limited today to the so-called “post-left” anarchist milieu. The original Fascists in Italy attempted to recruit syndicalists (without as much success as some “post-leftist” anarchists would have it), and in France they attempted to appropriate the legacy of Proudhon, among other things. In Russia, “national bolsheviks” and “national anarchists” claim Bakunin as a forerunner, quoting from his various anti-semitic outbursts in support of  their “white nationalism.” But it is a completely fallacious leap to then argue that anarchism is an incipiently fascist doctrine, “contaminated” by inherently fascist ideas because fascists sometimes like to court self-proclaimed anarchists or to misappropriate anarchist ideas and tactics, such as direct action, for their own purposes.

Shawn Wilbur’s Contr’un: Anarchist Theory

Notes on the Anarchist Culture Wars

With regard to the “courting” of anarchists by authoritarians, and as someone who has been so courted on various occasions, it seems to me that the key vulnerability among radicals is not attraction to certain authors or ideas, but particular ways of interacting with ideas. And that vulnerability is widespread in the milieu, with perhaps the more dangerous instances involving ideas that are not themselves so obviously edgy.

What is required for someone to slide from Stirner toward fascism, from Proudhon toward monarchy, from Bakunin toward actual dictatorship, etc. is for a few, generally uncharacteristic bits of their thought to be disconnected from their context, elevated in importance and then associated with similarly disconnected bits of authoritarian thought, with some sort of eclecticism, “syncretism” or outright opportunism as the guiding philosophy. The alt-right has made this sort of opportunist, hodge-podge thinking a fairly explicit policy. Unfortunately, many radicals also engage in it, without much sense of the stakes. The result is a convergence of people who aren’t really all that interested in ideas, except as potential capital to put behind projects with some less philosophical basis or as a sort of personal adornment. And these people, whether they identify with the right or the left, tend to tell a story about “theory” that assumes ideas are generally mixable. No idea is really very distant from any other, provided you simply disregard the bits that establish distance (and, of course, clarity.)

(These folks will “use” any idea, no matter how radical, provided they can break off some little bit of it that appeals to their audience of people who don’t care much. We can never stop these people from this kind of annoying, but ultimately trivial appropriation. All we can do is be clearer than they are, so that people who actually do care aren’t mislead. You never convince opportunists that they are wrong, because that’s not ultimately what it’s about. You can, however, demonstrate the weaknesses of opportunism as a mode of thought.)

Sometimes these folks find common cause with people who think that ideas are indeed important, but draw firm lines between ideas that they think of as “bad” or “dangerous” and some set of ideas that seem to them safe, good, etc. There’s a kind of narrow rationalism that is constantly concerned that “something could go wrong” if we have unsafe thoughts or make use of ideas and ways of thinking unapproved by its particular standards. A lot of well-meaning and unconsciously authoritarian would-be radicals fall into this camp. Some of them are quite serious about the defense of their particular sort of approved thinking and some just have a low tolerance for anything that might seem “problematic,” “sketchy” or “fucked up.”

When we do find people swept from one position to another, I suspect these are often people who rather enjoy the fact that many ideas are dangerous, but aren’t so concerned about using ideas in any very serious way. Philosophy, like ideology, can be just another recreational drug. When we “lose” these people, we probably have to acknowledge that we only had them in a very limited sense in the first place.

None of these groups, it seems to me, are very well situated to deal with the notion of anarchy, which is necessarily (in the short term certainly, but probably also in the longest of terms) a truly dangerous idea. Now, some self-proclaimed “anarchists” are happy to do without the notion of anarchy, but as far as I can see that’s just giving up before you get started. But there are also people who look at Stirner (or something they’ve heard about egoism) and think “that’s problematic,” hear the usual criticisms of Proudhon and Bakunin and think “that’s fucked up,” worry about what might “go wrong” with poststructuralism, etc., but then look at anarchy and think “nothing to worry about here, folks.” But we often find that these folks also consider “democracy” a safe, positive notion, will find room in their nominally “anarchist” theory for authority, hierarchy, etc. It’s easy to be tolerant of this sort of thing as “rookie mistakes,” which ought to be fixed by more exposure to anarchist thought — except that there doesn’t seem to be much in the milieu pushing anarchists towards any more complex engagement, while there is perhaps an increasing resistance.

When it comes right down to it, the only people I have much faith in when it comes to a lasting commitment to anarchist thought and practice are those who are both serious about ideas (although I recognize a lot of ways this seriousness might manifest itself) — and specifically serious about anarchist ideas and anarchistic ways of thinking — and ready to acknowledge that the particular ideas that separate anarchism from the rest of the political or social philosophies out there, anarchy chief among them, are not “safe.” This isn’t a question of an intellectual vanguard or any sort of commitment that should exclude the average working stiff. We just shouldn’t be surprised that committing to even the serious contemplation of anarchy, which involves a radical break with the principles that govern the majority of our current relations and institutions, takes some mental effort, no matter where we’re starting from. You don’t have to know that Proudhon came to anarchy as a result of research into “the criterion” of certainty, but you probably do have to come to terms, in one way or another, that the “definitive” and “authoritative” are at least going to have to undergo some reworking in an anarchistic context, if they don’t simply get swept away with the authoritarian.

But if you can come to terms with anarchy, then you have not only gained an ideal, but presumably also mastered a skill. And that skill is, it seems to me, the one that best protects us whenever we are dealing with “dangerous” ideas. It might even simply involve the recognition that all ideas are dangerous, which is a pretty good inoculation against all the various systems and schemes that are peddled from every direction.

Shawn Wilbur

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.

Voline

Gregory Maksimov: The Politics of Anarcho-Syndicalism

maksimov-program-large

Gregory Maksimov, after being forced to leave the Soviet Union, continued to support the anarcho-syndicalist cause. One of his better known pamphlets, The Program of Anarcho-Syndicalism (1927), sets forth what he saw as the anarcho-syndicalist alternative to capitalism, parliamentarianism, and dictatorship. In this section, “General Politics,” he describes the political structure of an anarcho-syndicalist federation in general terms. Noteworthy is his argument that anarchy is a “true democracy,” showing that the anarchist current that conceives of anarchy as a form of direct democracy based on voluntary federation (what I have described elsewhere as “associational democracy”) goes back quite some time, well before Murray Bookchin and more recent writers.

asr-69-cover

The General Politics of Anarcho-Syndicalism

The bourgeois-democratic republic, with its formal equality for all people and its formal liberties, in actual fact protects private property and thus inevitably becomes a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie and an organization for the pitiless exploitation of the working masses. The same is true of the new Statism in the form of the Soviet republic, even if it is sanctified by the idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat. The fact that the State is owner not only of all means of production but also of the life of each individual, places everybody in the position of slaves, of talking robots and, with implacable logic, results in the creation of a new ruling class exploiting the working classes — the dictatorship of the bureaucracy; the State becomes a monstrous machine for the exploitation and total enslavement of the great mass of the people by a small clique.

In contrast, the communal confederation will transform the mass organizations of the working people into the only foundation for the construction of a new, Anarchist society, thus achieving full freedom of movement and full liberty for the individual.

Bourgeois democracy hides its class character under the masquerade of national equality symbolized by universal suffrage. Soviet democracy, on the other hand, sharply accentuates its class character by maintaining that the dictatorship of the proletariat is supposedly essential to the destruction of classes and the State. However, the experience of the Russian revolution has shown that the dictatorship of the proletariat is a fiction, a non-realizable utopia, since, logically and unavoidably, it results in a form of Party dictatorship and, next, a rule of the bureaucracy, i.e. simple absolutism. The Soviet state is forced to pretend that the dictatorship of the bureaucracy is the dictatorship of the proletariat, just as the bourgeoisie pretends that its dictatorship is the “people’s will”.

In contrast, the communal confederation, constituted by thousands of freely acting labor organizations, removes all opportunities for the limitation of liberty and free activity. It definitely prevents the possibility of dictatorship by any class, and, consequently, the possibility of establishing a regime of terror. The basic character of the communal confederation is such that it need have no fear of the widest freedom of rights for all men, independent of their social origin, so long as they work. As a result, true democracy, developed to its logical extreme, can become a reality only under the conditions of a communal confederation. This democracy is Anarchy.

Both bourgeois and soviet democracies limit themselves to formal declarations of political freedom and rights: the freedom of speech, assembly, association, press, strikes, inviolability of the individual, housing, etc. The former establishes these freedoms formally for all, the latter only for the working people. But the administrative practice of these democracies and, more important, the utter economic dependency of the working people, make it completely impossible for them — both in the bourgeois and the proletarian states — to make use of these rights and freedoms.

The full, unlimited rights of man and citizen are possible, in real life rather than in proclamations, in actuality rather than in form, only in conditions of full self-government in the shape of a communal confederation where capitalism and the state do not exist and where printing, paper, etc. will be generally available under the management of the productive federation concerned.

Bourgeois democracy proclaims the rights of men and citizens, but, owing to its governmental and capitalist foundations, it cannot transmute these rights into actual fact. Furthermore, inequality and oppression gradually increase and at the present time, in the epoch of Imperialism, bourgeois democracy has reached the highest degree of intensified racial and national oppression.

Soviet democracy has in this respect made the pretence of a step forward, but the official declaration of the principle of national self-determination has not led, and cannot lead, to the actual self-determination of peoples within the Soviet Union. In addition, even in liberating one nation from the domination of another, the Soviet State does not liberate the people of that nation from internal domination. National freedom does not consist, in separation, or in administrative self-rule, but in the freedom of the individuals composing the nation.

The freedom of a nation can have full expression only in a communal confederation in which freedom will become a reality through the liberty of individuals uniting at will in all manner of free associations, including national ones.

Not content with a formal declaration of the equality of the sexes, the Soviet State attempts to achieve it in reality by making very weak and diffident efforts in the direction of the liberation of women from the burdens of housekeeping, from the kitchen and child rearing. But since the State is by nature an enemy of full liberty, so in this issue too it has come up against insurmountable obstacles — obstacles inherent in its own nature — through appropriating to itself those functions of the church and the bourgeois state, the sanctioning and regulation of marriage. The full equality of the sexes and freedom for women are possible only in conditions of liberty for all, and such conditions will come into existence only in the communal confederation.

The experience of a political structure based on a system of free Soviets, which made its appearance at the beginning of the Russian October Revolution, demonstrates that the true organization of society on the basis of a federation of Soviets would not only remove all the negative aspects of bourgeois democracy and parliamentarism, would not only assure to the working masses simplicity in the election and recall of delegates, would not only bring the people closer to their social institutions, but would also destroy the State in all its forms, including dictatorship of the proletariat. Communalism, i.e. the federation of free communes with the Soviets in the field of the political organization of the country, would take the place of the State.

The bourgeois State has transformed the army into a weapon for the suppression of the working masses, and the protection of the State, i.e. the ruling class. In the Soviet State too the army fulfils the same functions. Only the workingmen’s militia, arming all the people, and organized by the Trade Unions and the village communes, can be a true weapon for the protection of general liberty and well-being. A workingmen’s militia will be tantamount to the removal of the State and the class system.

Admitting for the proletariat the guiding role in the Revolution, the Anarchists believe it would endanger the cause of liberation if any kind of privileges were instituted for them in relation to other categories of the working people. Equality of rights and obligations for all from the first days of the Revolution — that is the fundamental demand of social justice.

Gregory Maksimov, 1927

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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

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Boris Yelensky: Returning to Russia (1917)

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

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Returning to Russia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boris Yelensky (1967)

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Nestor Makhno: The February Revolution and Freedom for Political Prisoners

Nestor Makhno

Nestor Makhno

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

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My Liberation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nestor Makhno

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Kropotkin on the Russian Revolution

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

Peter Kropotkin

Peter Kropotkin

Letter to the Workers of Western Europe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peter Kropotkin

Dmitrov, Russia
April 28, 1919

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Ida Mett: Peasants in the Russian Revolution

Russian peasants demonstrating in Moscow 1917

Russian peasants demonstrating in Moscow 1917

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

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Ida Mett

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

Russian peasant broom makers

Russian peasant broom makers

The expansion of cooperatives

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

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

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

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

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The Peasantry in the February and October revolutions

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ida Mett, Paris 1948

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