Kropotkin: The Coming Anarchy (1887)

In my last post, I reproduced some thoughts of Tomás Ibáñez on the “coming anarchism,” that is the anarchism of the future, modified and adapted to rapidly changing conditions unforeseen by 19th century anarchist revolutionaries. The title to the piece was an allusion to an article by the anarchist communist, Peter Kropotkin, “The Coming Anarchy,” the second part of an essay he published in the English review, The Nineteenth Century (February and August 1887 issues). The two parts of Kropotkin’s essay were republished as the pamphlet, “Anarchist Communism: Its Basis and Principles” (1887, reprinted on its 100th anniversary in Kropotkin, Anarchism and Anarchist Communism, ed. N. Walter, Freedom Press,  1987). Here, I reproduce excerpts from “The Coming Anarchy,” highlighting Kropotkin’s advocacy not only of anarchism, but of anarchy itself. Unlike some anarchists who equate “anarchy” with some decentralized, federalist forms of direct democracy, Kropotkin argued that what we should be striving for is anarchy in the sense of a society without any kind of law or government at all. I included several selections by Kropotkin on anarchy, anarchist communism, law and morality in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas.

Peter Kropotkin

The Coming Anarchy

I have already said that anarchy means no-government. We know well that the word ‘anarchy’ is also used in the current language as synonymous with disorder. But that meaning of ‘anarchy’ being a derived one, implies at least two suppositions. It implies, first, that whenever there is no government there is disorder; and it implies, moreover, that order, due to a strong government and a strong police, is always beneficial. Both implications, however, are anything but proved. There is plenty of order — we should say, of harmony — in many branches of human activity where the government, happily, does not interfere.

As to the beneficial effects of order, the kind of order that reigned at Naples under the Bourbons surely was not preferable to some disorder started by Garibaldi; while the Protestants of this country will probably say that the good deal of disorder made by Luther was preferable, at any rate, to the order which reigned under the Pope. As to the proverbial ‘order’ which was once ‘restored at Warsaw,’[1] there are, I suppose, no two opinions about it. While all agree that harmony is always desirable, there is no such unanimity about order, and still less about the ‘order’ which is supposed to reign on our modern societies; so that we have no objection whatever to the use of the word ‘anarchy’ as a negation of what has been often described as order.

By taking for our watchword anarchy, in its sense of no-government, we intend to express a pronounced tendency of human society. In history we see that precisely those epochs when small parts of humanity broke down the power of their rulers and reassumed their freedom were epochs of the greatest progress, economical and intellectual. Be it the growth of the free cities, whose unrivalled monuments — free work of free associations of workers — still testify [to] the revival of mind and of the well-being of the citizen; be it the great movement which gave birth to the Reformation — those epochs when the individual recovered some part of his freedom witnessed the greatest progress.

And if we carefully watch the present development of civilized nations, we cannot fail to discover in it a marked and ever-growing movement towards limiting more and more the sphere of action of government, so as to leave more and more liberty to the initiative of the individual. After having tried all kinds of government, and endeavoring to solve the insoluble problem of having a government ‘which might compel the individual to obedience, without escaping itself from obedience to collectivity,’ humanity is trying now to free itself from the bonds of any government whatever, and to respond to its needs of organization by the free understanding between individuals prosecuting the same common aims.

Home Rule, even for the smallest territorial unity or group, becomes a growing need; free agreement is becoming a substitute for the law; and free co-operation a substitute for governmental guardianship. One after the other those functions which were considered as the functions of government during the last two centuries are disputed; society moves better the less it is governed.

And the more we study the advance made in this direction, as well as the inadequacy of governments to fulfill the expectations placed in them, the more we are bound to conclude that Humanity, by steadily limiting the functions of government, is marching towards reducing them finally to nil; and we already foresee a state of society where the liberty of the individual will be limited by no laws, no bonds — by nothing else but his own social habits and the necessity, which everyone feels, of finding cooperation, support, and sympathy among his neighbours.

Of course, the no-government ethics will meet with at least as many objectives as the no-capital economics [communism]. Our minds have been so nurtured in prejudices as to the providential functions of government that anarchist ideas must be received with distrust. Our whole education, from childhood to the grave, nurtures the belief in the necessity of a government and its beneficial effects.

Systems of philosophy have been elaborated to support this view; history has been written from this standpoint; theories of law have been circulated and taught for the same purpose. All politics are based on the same principles, each politician saying to the people he wants to support him : ‘Give me the governmental power; I will, I can, relieve you from the hardships of your present life.’

All our education is permeated with the same teachings. We may open any book of sociology, history, law, or ethics : everywhere we find government, its organization, its deeds, playing so prominent a part that we grow accustomed to suppose that the State and the political men are everything; that there is nothing behind the big statesmen. The same teachings are daily repeated in the Press. Whole columns are filled up with minutest records of parliamentary debates, of movements of political persons; and, while reading these columns, we too often forget that there is an immense body of men — mankind, in fact — growing and dying, living in happiness or sorrow, labouring and consuming, thinking and creating, besides those few men whose importance has been so swollen up as to overshadow humanity.

And yet, if we revert from the printed matter to our real life, and cast a broad glance on society as it is, we are struck with the infinitesimal part played by government in our life. Millions of human beings live and die without having had anything to do with government. Every day millions of transactions are made without the slightest interference of government; and those who enter into agreements have not the slightest intention of breaking bargains. Nay, those agreements which are not protected by government (those of the Exchange, or card [gambling] debts) are perhaps better kept than any others. The simple habit of keeping one’s word, the desire of not losing confidence, are quite sufficient in the immense overwhelming majority of cases to enforce the keeping of agreements.

Of course, it may be said that there is still the government which might enforce them if necessary. But not to speak of the numberless cases which could not even be brought before a court, everybody who has the slightest acquaintance with trade will undoubtedly confirm the assertion that, if there were not so strong a feeling of honour in keeping agreements, trade itself would become utterly impossible.

Even those merchants and manufacturers who feel not the slightest remorse when poisoning their customers with all kinds of abominable drugs, duly labelled, even they also keep their commercial agreements. But, if such a relative morality as commercial honesty exists now, under the present conditions, when enrichment is the chief motive, the same feeling will further develop very fast as soon as robbing somebody of the fruits of his labour is no longer the economical basis of our life…

The objections to the above may be easily foreseen. It will be said of course: “But what is to be done with those who do not keep their agreements? What with those who are not inclined to work? What with those who would prefer breaking the written laws of society, or—on the anarchist hypothesis—its unwritten customs? Anarchism may be good for a higher humanity,—not for the men of our own times.”

First of all, there are two kinds of agreements: there is the free one which is entered upon by free consent, as a free choice between different courses equally open to each of the agreeing parties. And there is the enforced agreement, imposed by one party upon the other, and accepted by the latter from sheer necessity; in fact, it is no agreement at all; it is a mere submission to necessity. Unhappily, the great bulk of what are now described as agreements belong to the latter category. When a workman sells his labour to an employer and knows perfectly well that some part of the value of his produce will be unjustly taken by the employer; when he sells it without even the slightest guarantee of being employed so much as six consecutive months, it is a sad mockery to call that a free contract. Modern economists may call it free, but the father of political economy—Adam Smith—was never guilty of such a misrepresentation. As long as three-quarters of humanity are compelled to enter into agreements of that description, force is of course necessary, both to enforce the supposed agreements and to maintain such a state of things. Force—and a great deal of force—is necessary to prevent the labourers from taking possession of what they consider unjustly appropriated by the few; and force is necessary to continually bring new “uncivilized nations” under the same conditions.

But we do not see the necessity of force for enforcing agreements freely entered upon. We never heard of a penalty imposed on a man who belonged to the crew of a lifeboat and at a given moment preferred to abandon the association. All that his comrades would do with him, if he were guilty of a gross neglect, would probably be to refuse to have anything further to do with him. Nor did we hear of fines imposed on a contributor to the dictionary for a delay in his work, or of gendarmes driving the volunteers of Garibaldi to the battlefield. Free agreements need not be enforced.

As to the so-often repeated objection that no one would labour if he were not compelled to do so by sheer necessity, we heard enough of it before the emancipation of slaves in America, as well as before the emancipation of serfs in Russia…

Overwork is repulsive to human nature—not work. Overwork for supplying the few with luxury—not work for the well-being of all. Work is a physiological necessity, a necessity of spending accumulated bodily energy, a necessity which is health and life itself. If so many branches of useful work are so reluctantly done now, it is merely because they mean overwork, or they are improperly organized. But we know—old [Benjamin] Franklin knew it—that four hours of useful work every day would be more than sufficient for supplying everybody with the comfort of a moderately well-to-do middle-class house, if we all gave ourselves to productive work, and if we did not waste our productive powers as we do waste them now.

As to the childish question, repeated for fifty years: “Who would do disagreeable work?” frankly I regret that none of our savants has ever been brought to do it, be it for only one day in his life. If there is still work which is really disagreeable in itself, it is only because our scientific men have never cared to consider the means of rendering it less so. They have always known that there were plenty of starving men who would do it for a few cents a day.

As to the third—the chief—objection, which maintains the necessity of a government for punishing those who break the law of society, there is so much to say about it that it hardly can be touched incidentally. The more we study the question, the more we are brought to the conclusion that society itself is responsible for the anti-social deeds perpetrated in its midst, and that no punishment, no prisons, and no hangmen can diminish the numbers of such deeds; nothing short of a reorganization of society itself.

Three quarters of all the acts which are brought before our courts every year have their origin, either directly or indirectly, in the present disorganized state of society with regard to the production and distribution of wealth—not in perversity of human nature. As to the relatively few anti-social deeds which result from anti-social inclinations of separate individuals, it is not by prisons, nor even by resorting to the hangmen, that we can diminish their numbers. By our prisons, we merely multiply them and render them worse. By our detectives, our “price of blood,” our executions, and our jails, we spread in society such a terrible flow of basest passions and habits, that he who should realize the effects of these institutions to their full extent would be frightened by what society is doing under the pretext of maintaining morality. We must search for other remedies, and the remedies have been indicated long since.

…[I]f all our children—all children are our children—received a sound instruction and education—and we have the means of giving it; if every family lived in a decent home—and they could at the present high pitch of our production; if every boy and girl were taught a handicraft at the same time as he or she receives scientific instruction, and not to be a manual producer of wealth were considered as a token of inferiority; if men lived in closer contact with one another, and had continually to come into contact on those public affairs which now are vested in the few; and if, in consequence of a closer contact. we were brought to take as lively an interest in our neighbours’ difficulties and pains as we formerly took in those of our kinsfolk—then we should not resort to policemen and judges, to prisons and executions. Anti-social deeds would be nipped in the bud, not punished. The few contests which would arise would be easily settled by arbitrators; and no more force would be necessary to impose their decisions than is required now for enforcing the decisions of the family tribunals of China.

And here we are brought to consider a great question: what would become of morality in a society which recognized no laws and proclaimed the full freedom of the individual? Our answer is plain. Public morality is independent from, and anterior to, law and religion. Until now, the teachings of morality have been associated with religious teachings. But the influence which religious teachings formerly exercised on the mind has faded of late, and the sanction which morality derived from religion has no longer the power it formerly had. Millions and millions grow in our cities who have lost the old faith. Is it a reason for throwing morality overboard, and for treating it with the same sarcasm as primitive cosmogony?

Obviously not. No society is possible without certain principles of morality generally recognized. If everyone grew accustomed to deceiving his fellow-men; if we never could rely on each other’s promise and words; if everyone treated his fellow as an enemy, against whom every means of warfare is justifiable—no society could exist. And we see, in fact, that notwithstanding the decay of religious beliefs, the principles of morality remain unshaken. We even see irreligious people trying to raise the current standard of morality. The fact is that moral principles are independent of religious beliefs: they are anterior to them…

In fact, each new religion takes its moral principles from the only real stock of morality—the moral habits which grow with men as soon as they unite to live together in tribes, cities, or nations. No animal society is possible without resulting in a growth of certain moral habits of mutual support and even self-sacrifice for the common well-being. These habits are a necessary condition for the welfare of the species in its struggle for life—cooperation of individuals being a much more important factor in the struggle for the preservation of the species than the so-much-spoken-of physical struggle between individuals for the means of existence. The “fittest” in the organic world are those who grow accustomed to life in society; and life in society necessarily implies moral habits.

As to mankind, it has during its long existence developed in its midst a nucleus of social habits, of moral habits, which cannot disappear as long as human societies exist. And therefore, notwithstanding the influences to the contrary which are now at work in consequence of our present economic relations, the nucleus of our moral habits continues to exist. Law and religion only formulate them and endeavour to enforce them by their sanction…

Whatever the variety of theories of morality, all can be brought under three chief categories: the morality of religion; the utilitarian morality; and the theory of moral habits resulting from the very needs of life in society. Each religious morality sanctifies its prescriptions by making them originate from revelation; and it tries to impress its teachings on the mind by a promise of reward, or punishment, either in this or in a future life.

The utilitarian morality maintains the idea of reward, but it finds it in man himself. It invites men to analyse their pleasures, to classify them, and to give preference to those which are most intense and most durable. We must recognize, however, that, although it has exercised some influence, this system has been judged too artificial by the great mass of human beings.

And finally—whatever its varieties—there is the third system of morality which sees in moral actions—in those actions which are most powerful in rendering men best fitted for life in society—a mere necessity of the individual to enjoy the joys of his brethren, to suffer when some of his brethren are suffering; a habit and a second nature, slowly elaborated and perfected by life in society. That is the morality of mankind; and that is also the morality of anarchism.

Such are, in a very brief summary, the leading principles of anarchism. Each of them hurts many a prejudice, and yet each of them results from an analysis of the very tendencies displayed by human society. Each of them is rich in consequences and implies a thorough revision of many a current opinion. And anarchism is not a mere insight into a remote future. Already now, whatever the sphere of action of the individual, he can act, either in accordance with anarchist principles or on an opposite line. And all that may be done in that direction will be done in the direction to which further development goes. All that may be done in the opposite way will be an attempt to force humanity to go where it will not go.

Peter Kropotkin

1. This was a statement made by the Russian Governor of Poland, Muraviov, after brutally putting down the Polish uprising of 1863.

Tomás Ibáñez: The Coming Anarchism

The Autonomies website has recently posted a translation of an essay by the Spanish anarchist, Charla de Tomás Ibáñez, “The Anarchism to Come,” which could also be translated as “The Coming Anarchism,” an allusion to Kropotkin’s 1887 article, “The Coming Anarchy.” I thought it fitting to reprint excerpts from Tomás Ibáñez’s essay some 130 years later. While highlighting the necessary differences between contemporary anarchism, historical anarchism, and the “coming anarchism,” Tomás Ibáñez nevertheless argues that there are certain “invariant” elements of classical anarchism that must be preserved in order for something to be considered any kind of anarchism. Originally published in Libre Pensamiento, No. 88.

Current forms of anarchism

I believe that it becomes quite clear that the context in which the coming anarchism will find itself will be eminently different from the context in which it has operated until recently, which can only but substantially modify it.

Some of these changes are already beginning to gain form, such that, to glimpse, even if confusedly, the characteristics of the coming anarchism, it is very useful to observe the current anarchist movement, and especially its most youthful component.  This component represents a part of contemporary anarchism that already manifests some differences with classical anarchism, and with that which I have sometimes called “neo-anarchism”.

What we can observe at the present is that, after a very long period of very scarce international presence by anarchism, what is emerging and is already proliferating in very appealing ways in all of the regions of the world, are various collectives concerned with a great diversity of themes; multiple, fragmented, fluctuating and at times ephemeral, but which participate in all of the movements against the system, and sometimes even initiate them.  Undoubtedly, this fragmentation corresponds to some of the characteristics of the new context which we are entering and which is making possible a new organisation of the spaces of dissidence.  The current reality which is becoming literally “shifting” and “liquid” demands, certainly, much more flexible, more fluid organisational models, oriented according to simple proposals of coordination to realise concrete and specific tasks.

Like the networks that rise up autonomously, that self-organise themselves, that make and unmake themselves according to the exigencies of the moment, and where temporary alliances are established between collectives, these probably constitute the organisational form, reticular and viral, that will prevail in the future, and whose fluidity is already proving its effectiveness in the present.

What seems to predominate in these youthful anarchist collectives is the desire to create spaces where relations are exempt from the coercion and the values that emanate from the reigning system.  Without waiting for a hypothetical revolutionary change, it is for them a matter of living from now on as closely as possible to the values that this change should promote.  This leads, among the very many other kinds of behaviour, to developing scrupulously non-sexist relations stripped of any patriarchal character, including in the language, or to establishing relations of solidarity that completely escape hierarchical logic and a commodity spirit.

It also contributes, and this is very important, to the weight that is given to those practices that exceed the order of mere discursivity.  The importance of doing and, more precisely, of “doing together“, is emphasised, putting the accent on the concrete effects of this doing and on the transformations that it promotes.

In these spaces, the concerts, the fiestas, the collective meals (vegan, of course), form part of the political activity, equal to the putting up of posters, neighbourhood actions, talks and debates, or demonstrations, at times quite forceful.  In reality, it is a matter of making the form of life be in itself an instrument of struggle that defies the system, that contradicts its principles, that dissolves its arguments, and that permits the development of transforming community experiences.  It is for this reason that, from the new libertarian space that is being woven in different parts of the world, experiences of self-management, of economies of solidarity, of networks of mutual aid, of alternative networks of food production and distribution, of exchange and distribution are developing.  The success on this point is complete, for if capitalism is converting itself into a form of life, it is obvious that it is precisely on this terrain, that of forms of life, where part of the struggle to dismantle it must situate itself.

A broad subversive fabric is gaining shape that provides people with antagonistic alternatives to the system, and which, at the same time, helps to change the subjectivity of those who participate in them.  This last aspect is terribly important for there exists a very clear awareness, in having been formatted by and for this society, that we have no other remedy than to transform ourselves if we want to escape its control.  Which means that desubjectification is perceived as an essential task for subversive action itself.

Lastly, it is by no means infrequent that the alternative anarchist space converges with broader movements, such as those that mobilise against wars, or against summit meetings, and those that from time to time occupy squares rediscovering anarchist principles like horizontalism, direct action, or the suspicion before any exercise of power.  In fact, one could consider that these broader movements, which do not define themselves, far from it, as anarchist, represent what at one moment I qualified as outside the walls anarchism, and they prefigure the coming anarchism.

Together with these youthful anarchist collectives, another subversive phenomenon that responds to the technological characteristics of the current moment and which enriches as much the revolutionary practices, as the corresponding imaginary, consists of the appearance of hackers, with the practices and form of political intervention that characterise them.

In a recent book, it is correctly pointed out that if what fascinates and what attracts our attention are macro-concentrations (the occupation of squares, the anti-summit protests, etc.), it is nevertheless in other places where the new subversive politics is being invented: this is the work of dispersed individuals who nevertheless form virtual collectives: the hackers.

In analysing their practices, the author specifies that the value of their struggle resides in the fact that it attacks a fundamental principle of the current exercise of power: the secrecy of State operations, a strictly reserved hunting area and totally opaque to non-authorised eyes, which the State keeps exclusively to itself.  The activists draw on a practice of anonymity and of the elimination of traces that does not respond to the demands of secrecy, but to a new conception of political action: the opposite of creating an “us” heroically and sacrificially confronting power in an unmasked and physical struggle.  It is about, in effect, not exposing oneself, of reducing the cost of the struggle, but above all of not establishing a relationship, not even of conflict, with the enemy.

The anarchist invariant

Next to its inevitable differences with classical anarchism, a second consideration that we can advance, also in full confidence, is that to continue to be anarchism instead of becoming something else, the new anarchism should preserve some of the constitutive elements of the instituted anarchism.  It is these elements that I like to call “the anarchist invariant“, an invariant that unites the current and future anarchism, and that will continue to define, therefore, the anarchism to come.

In fact, this invariant is composed of a small handful of values among which figures prominently that of equaliberty, that is, freedom and equality in common movement, forming a unique and inextricable concept that unites, indissolubly, collective freedom and individual freedom, while at the same time completely excluding the possibility that, from an anarchist perspective, it is possible to think freedom without equality, or equality without freedom.  Neither freedom, nor equality, severed from their other half, fall within an approach that continues to be anarchist.

It is this compromise with equaliberty that places within the heart of the anarchist invariant its radical incompatibility with domination in all of its forms, as well as the affirmation that it is possible and, further, intensely desirable, to live without domination. And it is with this that the motto “Neither to rule, nor to obey” forms part of what cannot change in anarchism without it ceasing to be anarchism.

Likewise, anarchism is also denatured if it is deprived of the set formed by the union between utopia and the desire for revolution, that is, by the union between the imagination of a world always distinct from the existing one, and the desire to put to an end this last.

Another of the elements that is inscribed permanently in anarchism is an ethical commitment, especially to the ethical exigency of a consonance between theory and practice, as well as to the demand for an ethical alignment between means and ends.  This signifies that it is not possible to attain objectives in accordance with anarchist values along paths which contradict them.  Whereby, the actions developed and the forms of organisation adopted should reflect, already, in their very characteristics, the goals sought; they should prefigure them, and this prefiguring constitutes an authentic touchstone for verifying the validity of means.  In other words, anarchism is only compatible with prefigurative politics, and it would cease to be anarchism if it abandoned this imperative.

Lastly, neither can one continue to speak properly of anarchism if this renounces the fusion between life and politics.  We should not forget that anarchism is simultaneously, and in an indissociable way, a political formulation, but also a way of life, but also an ethics, but also a set of practices, but also a way of being and of behaving, but also a utopia.  This implies an interweaving between the political and the existential, between the theoretical and the practical, between the ethical and the political, that is, ultimately, a fusion between the sphere of life and the sphere of the political.

To continue to be “anarchism”, the “coming anarchism” cannot do without any of these elements.

Charla de Tomás Ibáñez

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

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

Gregory Maksimov: The Politics of Anarcho-Syndicalism

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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.

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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).

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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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