Alexander Berkman: The Idea is the Thing

Here is a thoughtful piece on social change by Alexander Berkman. A version of this essay formed part of Berkman’s classic introduction to anarchism, Now and After: The ABC of Anarchist Communism. Informed by a lifetime of struggle and involvement in the international anarchist movement, and having witnessed the triumph of the Marxist dictatorship in Russia and the rise of fascism in Italy, Berkman was well situated to comment on the problem of achieving far-reaching social transformation in the face of reaction. I included material by Berkman on the Russian Revolution and other excerpts from Now and After in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas.

The Idea is the Thing

Did you ever ask yourself how it happens that government and capitalism continue to exist in spite of all the evil and trouble they are causing in the world?

If you did, then your answer must have been that it is because the people support those institutions, and that they support them because they believe in them.

That is the crux of the whole matter: present-day society rests on the belief of the people that it is good and useful. It is founded on the idea of authority and private ownership. It is ideas that maintain conditions. Government and capitalism are the forms in which the popular ideas express themselves. Ideas are the foundation; the institutions are the house built upon it.

A new social structure must have a new foundation, new ideas at its base. However you may change the form of an institution, its character and meaning will remain the same as the foundation on which it is built. Look closely at life and you will perceive the truth of this. There are all kinds and forms of government in the world, but their real nature is the same everywhere, as their effects are the same: it always means authority and obedience.

Now, what makes governments exist? The armies and navies? Yes, but only apparently so. What supports the armies and navies? It is the belief of the people, of the masses, that government is necessary; it is the generally accepted idea of the need of government. That is its real and solid foundation. Take the idea or belief away, and no government could last another day.

The same applies to private ownership. The idea that it is right and necessary is the pillar that supports it and gives it security.

Not a single institution exists to-day but is founded on the popular belief that it is good and beneficial.

Let us take an illustrations; the United States, for instance. Ask yourself why revolutionary propaganda has been of so little effect in that country in spite of fifty years of Socialist, I.W.W. and Anarchist effort. Is the American worker not exploited more intensely than labor in other countries? Is political corruption as rampant in any other land? Is the capitalist class in America not the most arbitrary and despotic in the world? True, the worker in the United States is better situated materially than in Europe, but is he not at the same time treated with the utmost brutality and terrorism the moment he shows the least dissatisfaction? Yet the American worker remains loyal to the government and is the first to defend it against criticism. He is still the most devoted champion of the “grand and noble institutions of the greatest country on earth”. Why? Because he believes that they are his institutions, that he, as sovereign and free citizen, is running them and that he could change them if he so wished. It is his faith in the existing order that constitutes its greatest security against revolution. His faith is stupid and unjustified, and some day it will break down and with it American capitalism and despotism. But as long as that faith persists, American plutocracy is safe against revolution.

As men’s minds broaden and develop, as they advance to new ideas and lose faith in their former beliefs, institutions begin to change and are ultimately done away with. The people grow to understand that their former views were false, that they were not truth but prejudice and superstition.

In this way many ideas, once held to be true, have come to be regarded as wrong and evil. Thus the ideas of the divine right of kings, of slavery and serfdom. There was a time when the whole world believed those institutions to be right, just, and unchangeable. In the measure that those superstitions and false beliefs were fought by advanced thinkers, they became discredited and lost their hold upon the people, and finally the institutions that incorporated those ideas were abolished. Highbrows will tell you that they had “outlived their usefulness” and that therefore they “died”. But how did they “outlive” their “usefulness?” To whom were they useful, and how did they “die”?

We know already that they were useful only to the master class, and that they were done away with by popular uprisings and revolutions.
Why did not old and effete institutions “disappear” and die off in a peaceful manner?

For two reasons: first, because some people think faster than others. So that it happens that a minority in a given place advance in their views quicker than the rest. The more that minority will become imbued with the new ideas, the more convinced of their truth, and the stronger they will feel themselves, the sooner they will try to realize their ideas; and that is usually before the majority have come to see the new light. So that the minority have to struggle against the majority who still cling to the old views and conditions.

Second, the resistance of those who hold power. It makes no difference whether it is the church, the king, or kaiser, a democratic government or a dictatorship, a republic or an autocracy — those in authority will fight desperately to retain it as long as they can hope for the least chance of success. And the more aid they get from the slower-thinking majority the better the fight they can put up. Hence the fury of revolt and revolution.

The desperation of the masses, their hatred of those responsible for their misery, and the determination of the lords of life to hold on to their privileges and rule combine to produce the violence of popular uprisings and rebellions.
But blind rebellion without definite object and purpose is not revolution. Revolution is rebellion become conscious of its aims. Revolution is social when it strives for a fundamental change. As the foundation of life is economics, the social revolution means the reorganization of the industrial, economic life of the country and consequently also of the entire structure of society.

But we have seen that the social structure rests on the basis of ideas, which implies that changing the structure presupposes changed ideas. In other words, social ideas must change first before a new social structure can be built.

The social revolution, therefore, is not an accident, not a sudden happening. There is nothing sudden about it, for ideas don’t change suddenly. They grow slowly, gradually, like the plant or flower. Hence the social revolution is a result, a development, which means that it is evolutionary. It develops to the point when considerable numbers of people have embraced the new ideas and are determined to put them into practice. When they attempt to do so and meet with opposition, then the slow, quiet, and peaceful social evolution becomes quick, militant, and violent. Evolution becomes revolution.

Bear in mind, then, that evolution and revolution are not two separate and different things. Still less are they opposites, as some people wrongly believe. Revolution is merely the boiling point of evolution.

Because revolution is evolution at its boiling point you cannot “make” a real revolution any more than you can hasten the boiling of a tea kettle. It is the fire underneath that makes it boil: how quickly it will come to the boiling point will depend on how strong the fire is.

The economic and political conditions of a country are the fire under the evolutionary pot. The worse the oppression, the greater the dissatisfaction of the people, the stronger the flame. This explains why the fires of social revolution swept Russia, the most tyrannous and backward country, instead of America where industrial development has almost reached its highest point — and that in spite of all the learned demonstrations of Karl Marx to the contrary.

We see, then, that revolutions, though they cannot be made, can be hastened by certain factors; namely, pressure from above: by more intense political and economical oppression; and by pressure from below: by greater enlightenment and agitation. These spread the ideas; they further evolution and thereby also the coming of revolution.
But pressure from above, though hastening revolution, may also cause its failure, because such revolution is apt to break out before the evolutionary process has been sufficiently advanced. Coming prematurely, as it were, it will fizzle out in mere rebellion; that is, without clear, conscious aim and purpose. At best, rebellion can secure only some temporary alleviation; the real causes of the strife, however, remain intact and continue to operate to the same effect, to cause further dissatisfaction and rebellion.

Summing up what I have said about revolution, we must come to the conclusion that:

1) a social revolution is one that entirely changes the foundation of society, its political, economic, and social character;

2) such a change must first take place in the ideas and opinions of the people, in the minds of men;

3) oppression and misery may hasten revolution, but may thereby also turn it into failure, because lack of evolutionary preparation will make real accomplishment impossible;

4) only that revolution can be fundamental, social and successful, which will be the expression of a basic change of ideas and opinions.

From this it obviously follows that the social revolution must be prepared. Prepared in the sense of furthering the evolutionary process, of enlightening the people about the evils of present-day society and convincing them of the desirability and possibility, of the justice and practicability of a social life based on liberty; prepared, moreover, by making the masses realize very clearly just what they need and how to bring it about.

Such preparation is not only an absolutely necessary preliminary step. Therein lies also the safety of the revolution, the only guarantee of its accomplishing its objects.

It has been the fate of most revolutions — as a result of lack of preparation — to be sidetracked from their main purpose, to be misused and led into blind alleys. Russia is the best recent illustration of it. The February Revolution, which sought to do away with the autocracy, was entirely successful. The people knew exactly what they wanted; namely the abolition of Tsardom. All the machinations of politicians, all the oratory and schemes of the Lvovs and Milukovs — the “liberal” leaders of those days — could not save the Romanov Régime in the face of the intelligent and conscious will of the people. It was this clear understanding of its aims which made the February Revolution a complete success, with, mind you, almost no bloodshed.

Furthermore, neither appeals nor threats by the Provisional Government could avail against the determination of the people to end the war. The armies left the fronts and thus terminated the matter by their own direct action. The will of a people conscious of their objects always conquers.

It was the will of the people again, their resolute aim to get hold of the soil, which secured for the peasant the land he needed. Similarly the city workers, as repeatedly mentioned before, possessed themselves of the factories and of the machinery of production.

So far the Russian Revolution was a complete success. But at the point where the masses lacked the consciousness of definite purpose, defeat began. That is always the moment when politicians and political parties step in to exploit the revolution for their own uses or to experiment their theories upon it. This happened in Russia, as in many previous revolutions. The people fought the good fight — the political parties fought over the spoils to the detriment of the revolution and to the ruin of the people.

This is, then, what took place in Russia. The peasant, having secured the land, did not have the tools and machinery he needed. The worker, having taken possession of the machinery and factories, did not know how to handle them to accomplish his aims. In other words, he did not have the experience necessary to organize production and he could not manage the distribution of the things he was producing.

His own efforts — the worker’s, the peasant’s the soldier’s — had done away with Tsardom, paralyzed the Government, stopped the war, and abolished private ownership of land and machinery. For that he was prepared by years of revolutionary education and agitation. But for no more than that. And because he was prepared for no more, where his knowledge ceased and definite purpose was lacking, there stepped in the political party and took affairs out of the hands of the masses who had made the revolution. Politics replaced economic reconstruction and thereby sounded the death knell of the social revolution; for people live by bread, by economics, not by politics.

Food and supplies are not created by decree of party or government. Legislative edicts don’t till the soil; laws can’t turn the wheels of industry. Dissatisfaction, strife, and famine came upon the heels of government coercion and dictatorship. Again, as always, politics and authority proved the swamp in which the revolutionary fires became extinguished.

Let us learn this most vital lesson: thorough understanding by the masses of the true aims of revolution means success. Carrying out their conscious will by their own efforts guarantees the right development of the new life. On the other hand, lack of this understanding and of preparation means certain defeat, either at the hands of reaction or by the experimental theories of would-be political party friends. Let us prepare, then.

Alexander Berkman, 1927

Cover from Berkman’s paper, The Blast

Advertisements

Sébastien Faure: Anarchist Synthesis

Sébastien Faure

Recently I noticed some renewed interest in the idea of an “anarchist synthesis,” a concept championed in the 1920s by such anarchists as Voline and Sébastien Faure. In Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included excerpts from Voline’s article on an anarchist synthesis that Faure had printed in his Encyclopédie Anarchiste. Today, I am reproducing parts of an article Faure wrote in 1928 on the anarchist synthesis. Fundamentally, Faure and Voline were trying to transcend the sectarian differences that existed among anarchists that had been exacerbated by the Marxist, Fascist and military suppression of anarchist ideas and movements in Russia, Italy and Latin America. The idea of an anarchist synthesis is similar to the concept of anarchism without adjectives, in that both sought to overcome the sectarian squabbles that prevented anarchists from taking united action, without attempting to impose a particular perspective as a quasi-official anarchist orthodoxy (something which the synthesists accused the Platformists of doing). Thanks to Shawn Wilbur for yet again making a translation of this sort of material available.

The Anarchist Synthesis

In France, as in the majority of other countries, we distinguish three great anarchist currents, which can be designated in this way:

Anarcho-syndicalism;
Libertarian communism;
Anarchist individualism.

It was natural and inevitable that, having reached a certain development, an idea as vast as anarchism would result in this triple manifestation of life.

A philosophical and social movement, a movement of ideas and action, intending to make a clean break with all authoritarian institutions, must inevitably give rise to these distinctions necessarily determined by the variety of the situations, milieus and temperaments, as well as the diversity of the sources by which the countless individual formations and the tremendous multiplicity of events are fueled.

Anarcho-syndicalism; libertarian communism; anarchist individualism: these three currents exist and nothing nor any person can prevent this from being the case. Each of them represents a force—a force that it is neither possible nor desirable to strike down. To convince ourselves of this, it is enough place ourselves—as simply anarchists, full stop—at the very heart of the gigantic effort that must be carried out in order to shatter the principle of authority. Then, you will be conscious of the indispensable boost furnished by each of these three currents in the battle to be given.

These three currents are distinct, but not opposed.

Now, I have three questions to pose:

The first is addressed from the anarcho-syndicalists to the libertarian communists and anarchist individualists;

The second is addressed from the libertarian communists to the anarcho-syndicalists and anarchist individualists;

The second is addressed from the anarchist individualists to the anarcho-syndicalists and libertarian communists.

Here is the first:

“If anarchism, considered as a social and popular action, contemplates the hour when, inevitably, it will make the decisive assault on the capitalist, authoritarian world that we express by the phrase “the Social Revolution,” can it do without the support of the imposing masses that group within their midst, in the field of labor, the trade-union organizations?”

I think that it would be madness to hope for victory without the participation in the liberating upheaval — and a participation that is active, efficient, brutal and persistent — by these working masses, who, en bloc, have a greater interest than anyone in social transformation.

I am not saying, and I do not think that, in anticipation of the necessary collaboration between the syndicalist and anarchist forces in the period of revolutionary ferment and action, both must, right now, unite, associate, merge and form just one homogeneous and compact whole. But I do think and will say, with my old friend Malatesta:

“Anarchists much recognize the utility and importance of the trade-union movement, they must favor its development and make it one of the levers of their action, striving to make the cooperation of syndicalism and other progressive forces lead to a social revolution that includes the suppression of classes, total liberty, equality, peace and solidarity among all human beings. But it would be a macabre illusion to believe, as many do, that the workers’ movement will lead to such a revolution by itself, by virtue of its very nature. Quite the contrary: in all the movements based on immediate and material interests (and a broad workers’ movement can be built on no other foundations), there is a need for ferment, pressure, the concerted work of men of ideas who struggle and sacrifice themselves in the service of a future ideal. Without this lever, every movement inevitably tends to adapt itself to the circumstances, giving rise to the conservative spirit, the fear of change among those who succeed in obtaining better conditions. Often, new privileged classes are created, who strive to support, to reinforce the state of things that we wish to bring down.

From this arising the pressing necessity of properly anarchist organizations that, within or outside the syndicates, struggle for the full realization of anarchism and seek to sterilize all the germs of corruption and reaction.” — Malatesta, “A Project of Anarchist Organization”

We see it: it is no more a question of organically linking the anarchist movement to the syndicalist movement than [of linking] syndicalism to anarchism; it is only a question of acting, within or outside of the syndicates, for the full realization of the anarchist ideal.

And I ask the libertarian communists and the anarchist individualists what reasons of principle or fact, what essential, fundamental reasons, they can oppose to an anarcho-syndicalism conceived and practiced in this manner?

Here is the second question:

“Intransigent enemy of the exploitation of man by man, engendered by the capitalist regime, and of the domination of man by man, birthed by the State, can anarchism conceive of the actual and total suppression of the first without the suppression of the capitalist regime and placing in common (libertarian communism) of the means of production, transport and exchange? And can it conceive of the actual and total abolition effective of the second without the permanent abolition of the State and of all the institutions that result from it?”

And I ask the anarcho-syndicalists and the anarchist individualists (1) what reasons of principle or fact, what essential, fundamental reasons, they can oppose to a libertarian communism conceived and practiced in this manner?

Here is the third and last question:

“Anarchism being, on the one hand, the highest and clearest expression of the reaction of the individual to the political, economic and moral oppression that all the authoritarian institutions cause to weigh on them and, on the other hand, the firmest and most precise affirmation of the right of every individual to their full flourishing through the satisfaction of their needs in all domains, can anarchism conceive of the actual and total realization of that reaction and that affirmation by a better means that that of an individual culture pushed as far as possible in the direction of a social transformation, breaking all the machinery of constraint and repression?”

And I ask the anarcho-syndicalists and the libertarian communists, what reasons of principle or fact, what essential, fundamental reasons they can oppose to an anarchist individualism conceived and practiced in this way?

These three currents are called to combine: the anarchist synthesis.

From all that has come before and, particularly, from the three questions above, it follows:

1° that these three currents: anarcho-syndicalism, libertarian communism and anarchist individualism, currents that are distinct, but not contradictory; there is nothing about them that renders them irreconcilable, nothing that essentially, fundamentally opposes them, nothing that proclaims their incompatibility, nothing that prevents them from coexisting peacefully, or indeed from acting together toward a common propaganda and action;

2° that the existence of these three currents not only could not, in any way and to any degree, harm the total force of anarchism,—a philosophical and social movement considered, as is appropriate, in all its breadth,—but still can and, logically, must contribute to the combined force of anarchism;

3° that each of these currents has its indicated place, its role, its mission in the heart of the broad, deep social movement that, under the name of “Anarchism,” aims at the establishment of a social milieu that will insure to each and all the maximum well-being and liberty;

4° that, under these conditions, anarchism can be understood as what we call, in chemistry, a composite or mixed body, a body formed by the combination of several elements.

This mixed body is composed by the combination of these three elements: anarcho-syndicalism, libertarian communism and anarchist individualism.

Its chemical formula could be S. 2 C. 2 I. 2.

According to the events, the milieus, the multiple sources from which the currents that make up anarchism spring, the mixture of the three elements must vary. It is up to analysis and experimentation to reveal this dosage; through synthesis, the composite body is reassembled and if, here, one element predominates, it is possible that, there, it will be some other…

How is it that the existence of these three currents could have weakened the anarchist movement?

At this point in my demonstration, it is necessary to ask how it has happened that, especially in recent years and very particularly in France, the existence of these three anarchist elements, far from having strengthened the libertarian movement, has resulted in its weakening.

And having posed this problem in clear terms, it is important that it be studied and resolved in an equally crystalline manner.

The response is easy; but it demands from all, without exception, a great steadfastness.

I say that it is not the existence itself of these three elements—anarcho-syndicalism, libertarian communism and anarchist individualism—that has caused the weakness or, more precisely, the relative weakening of anarchist thought and action, but only the position that they have taken in relation to one another: a position of open, relentless, implacable war.

In the course of these harmful divisions each faction has employed an equal malice. Each has done their best to misrepresent the theses of the two others, to reduce their affirmations and negations to absurdity, to puff up or deflate their essential lines until they make an odious caricature of them.

Each tendency has directed against the others the most treacherous maneuvers and made use of the most murderous arms.

If, lacking an understanding between them, these three tendencies had been less rabid to make war against one another; if the activity used to struggle, within or outside of the various groupings, had been used to battle, even separately, against the common enemy, the anarchist movement of this country would have gained, as a result of the circumstances, a considerable breadth and a surprising strength.

But the intestine war of tendency against tendency, often even of personality against personality, has poisoned, corrupted, tainted, sterilized everything; even to the countryside, which should have been able to group around our precious ideas the hearts and minds enamored of Liberty and Justice, which are, especially in the popular milieus, much less rare than we like to pretend.

Each current has spit, drooled, vomited on the neighboring currents, in order to sully them and suggest that it alone is clean.

And, before the lamentable spectacle of these divisions and of the horrible machinations that they provoke on all sides, all our groupings are little by little emptied of the best of there content and our forces are exhausted against one another, instead of united in the battle to be waged against the common enemy: the principle of authority. That is the truth.

The evil and the remedy

The evil is great; it can, it must only be short-lived and the remedy is within reach of our hands.

Those who have read these lines attentively and without prejudice will work it out without effort: the remedy consists of drinking in the idea of the anarchist synthesis and applying that synthesis as soon and as well as possible. (2)

From what does the anarchist movement suffer? — From the war to the knife made by the three elements of which it is composed.

If, according to their origin, their character, their methods of propaganda, organization and action, these elements are condemned to rise up against one another, the remedy that I propose is worth nothing; it is inapplicable; it would be ineffective; let us abstain from its use and seek something else.

On the contrary, if the aforementioned oppositions do not exist and, in particular, if the elements—anarcho-syndicalist, libertarian communist and anarchist individualist—are made in order to combine and form a sort of anarchist synthesis, it is necessary—not tomorrow, but today—to attempt the realization of that synthesis.

I have discovered nothing and I propose nothing new: Luigi Fabbri and some Russian comrades (Voline, Fléchine, Mollie Steimer), with whom I have talked extensively these days, have confirmed to me that realization has been attempted in Italy, in the Italian Anarchist Union and, in Ukraine, within Nabat, and that these two attempts have given the best results, that they alone have broken the triumph of fascism in Italy and the victory of bolshevism in Ukraine.

There exists, in France, as pretty much everywhere, numerous groups having already applied and currently applying the elements of the anarchist synthesis (I wish to cite none of them, in order not to omit any), groups in which anarcho-syndicalists, libertarian communists and anarchist individualists work in harmony; and these groups are neither the least numerous nor the least active.

These few facts (and I could cite others) demonstrate that the application of the synthesis is possible. I do not say, I do not think that it will be done without delay or difficulty. Like everything that is still new, it will encounter incomprehension, resistance, even hostility. If we must remain imperturbable, we will remain so; if we must resist critiques and malice, we will resist. We are conscious that salvation lies there and we are certain that, sooner or later, the anarchists will reach it. That is why we do not let ourselves become discouraged.

What was done, in memorable circumstances, in Italy, in Spain, in the Ukraine; what was done in many localities in France, can be done and, under the pressure of events, will be done in all countries.

[Faure’s Notes:]

(1) It being well understood, as the libertarian communists have explicitly declared at Orléans (at the congress held in that town July 12-14, 1926), that, in the heart of the libertarian Commune, as they conceive it, “all the forms of association will be free, from the integral colony to individual labor and consumption.

(2) The phrase anarchist synthesis must be taken, here, in the sense of gathering, association, organization and understanding of all the human elements who align themselves with the anarchist ideal.

Speaking of association and studying whether it is possible and desirable that all these elements should assemble, I could only call anarchist synthesis, this assembly, this basis of organization.

The synthesis of the anarchist theories is another matter, an extremely important subject that I propose to address when my health and circumstances allow.

Sébastien Faure, 1928

Thomas Spence: Pioneer of Anarchist Socialism

Thomas Spence

The recently formed London Anarchist Communist group (LAC) will be publishing a book on “Anarchist Communism in Britain.” Part One deals with precursors of anarchist socialism and communism in Britain. Below I have reproduced the section on Thomas Spence (1750-1814), who advocated a decentralized system of parish government based on the common ownership of land. From an anarchist perspective, it is Spence’s ideas on property that are of most interest. The LAC compares him to the French revolutionary, François-Noël “Gracchus” Babeuf (1760-1797), but as Brian Morris argues at the end of the excerpt, he was much closer in his approach to the enragés in the French Revolution, who were radical egalitarians and supporters of direct democracy based on neighbourhood sections and districts. I included excerpts from the writings of one of the enragés, Jean Varlet, in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, in which Varlet denounces “revolutionary government” as a contradiction in terms: “To any rational being, government and revolution are incompatible, unless the people wishes to set its constituted authorities in permanent insurrection against itself.”

Prehistory of Anarchist Communism in Britain: Thomas Spence

In Britain there was a parallel figure to Babeuf in 1792 in London. This was Thomas Spence, who had developed advanced views in Newcastle on Tyne inside the Newcastle Philosophical Society. Within this rather genteel group, the plebeian Spence began to develop ideas of land communism expressed in his Plan. He first lectured on these ideas within the Society at the age of 25. “The land or earth, in any country or neighbourhood, with everything in it or the same, or pertaining thereto, belongs at all times to the living inhabitants of the said country or neighbourhood in an equal manner”. He believed that each parish should take the land back into their possession and form themselves into corporations. The land becomes the property of the parish.

Spence in no way envisages the end of the money system. He pictures people paying rent to the parish for usufruct rights to the land. This rent would be paid into a parish treasury to support the poor and unemployed, and for the maintenance of lands and highways etc. The government, a democratic assembly of representatives, and elected by secret ballot, was seen by Spence as having limited functions, and would not meddle in the functioning of the parishes.

Spence chose to go beyond the gentlemanly hobbies of the Philosophical Society by disseminating his ideas through the publication of a halfpenny ballad in 1775-6. For this he was expelled from the Society, and subsequently lost his job as a teacher. Spence eventually resolved to go to London, because his radical ideas had little audience in Newcastle.

Spence’s arrival coincided with the founding of the London Corresponding Society, set up by the shoemaker Thomas Hardy, and which consisted of tradesmen, shopkeepers and mechanics. The Society’s aims were the discussion of parliamentary reform, and put forward demands for universal suffrage and annual parliaments.

Spence influenced members of the Society, among whom was Thomas Evans. He gathered a small group around him and began to propagandise the ideas contained within his plan. This included methods of propagation similar to those of the Babeuvists: chalk and charcoal notices on walls and public places, debates and public meetings, and the sale or distribution of handbills, broadsheets, tracts and pamphlets.

Spence was jailed several times for steadfast adherence to his ideas. His greatest period of activity was between 1792 and 1801 and he continued with intermittent publication of his ideas until his death in 1814. Evans and Allen Davenport formed a Spencean Society to propagate his ideas around 1807. With the death of Davenport, Evans founded the Society for Spencean Philanthropists which continued with the propagation of Spence’s ideas.

The Spenceans were at the forefront of the working class demonstrations in London between 1815 and 1820. Some Spenceans were implicated in the Cato Street conspiracy in 1820. The repression which followed led to the disappearance of the Society and the extinction of the Spencean current, although his continuing influence on British radicalism should not be ignored.

Spence’s emphasis was on land communism, and he saw “Private Property in land” as the main evil within society. The abolition of private property in land would of course mean the suppression of the aristocracy and “Lordship”. However goods, merchandise and cattle would not face similar communalisation.

Spence symbolises a radical current within the great movement that was emerging around Chartism and the demands for universal suffrage and annual parliaments. Spence expressly came to London to propagate his ideas there because he sensed that his ideas might have a certain resonance within this movement. The fact that he was not able to move beyond land communism to general communism is a result of the limits imposed by the class of artisans and “mechanics”, of which he was an advanced spokesman, which was yet to develop into the working class.

Alongside his advocacy of land communism was the concept of a federation of parishes administering the economic process and with a system of social welfare. In this Spence prefigures the notion of the commune or municipality as the basic unit of society as developed by anarchist communist thinkers. Spence sees the parishes as providing public grain stores, free schools, libraries, public baths and hospitals. Spence was very wary of centralised State solutions to economic inequality and he believed that a bottom-up revolution was necessary which might well involve the use of physical force to overthrow the old ruling class.

Brian Morris has been instrumental in rescuing the important figure of Spence from obscurity. As he notes: “Neither the sans-culottes nor the enragés nor that much-neglected socialist Thomas Spence fully and explicitly articulated anarchism as a political doctrine. What they had in common was that they stressed local and popular democracy and were hostile toward big capital, whether of the merchant class or of the capitalist landlords. Their social idea was that of an egalitarian society consisting of independent artisans and small peasant farmers. Even Spence, though he advocated communal property in land, parish democracy, and parish militias… allowed for a structure of provincial and national assemblies. Even so, like the sans-culottes, he tended to see the parish or local commune as the fundamental unit of society and sought any means to limit the power of the central government.” (“The sans-culottes and the enragés: libertarian movements within the French Revolution,” in Ecology and Anarchism, pp.101-102).

Spence needs to take his rightful place as one of the precursors within Britain of the libertarian communist current that was to emerge with the emergence of the working class.

From The Idea: Anarchist Communism, Past Present and Future

Kropotkin on the Russian Revolution

Peter Kropotkin

Continuing on with my posts relating to the 100th anniversary of the 1917 October Revolution in Russia, and in commemoration of Kropotkin’s birthday (December 21, 1842), today I present a relatively unknown letter that Kropotkin wrote in August 1920 about the Russian Revolution, in which he criticizes the centralism and authoritarianism of the Marxists, advocating instead an anarchist social revolution based on voluntary federation, decentralization and workers’ self-management. Kropotkin points out that the differences between the Marxists and the anarchists on these points date back at least to the time of the First International, where the anarchists argued that in order to prevent the creation of a socialist state that would establish new forms of exploitation and domination of the working classes, it was necessary that the workers themselves, through their own organizations, organize production, distribution and public services on a functional and geographical basis. I explore these issues in more detail in ‘We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It’ – The First International and the Origins of the Anarchist Movement. I thank Iain McKay for posting Kropotkin’s letter on his Anarcho webpage, and Lee Dugatkin, author of a book on Kropotkin (The Prince of Evolution: Peter Kropotkin’s Adventures in Science and Politics), for first posting it on his Kropotkin webpage. Kropotkin’s letter was originally published in the French anarchist paper, Le Libertaire, in July 1921.

A letter from Kropotkin

Introduction from Le Libertaire, 22 July 1921:

Kropotkin was visited in his residence in the environs of Moscow by numerous foreign delegates. He was often misled as to their quality and many who were just socialists assumed an anarchist label in front of him.

One of these, the Czechoslovak Hugo Sonnenschein, obtained from the great libertarian theorist the following few lines which [Sonnenschein] was to bring to the awareness of the revolutionaries of his country. He was one of those who deceived Kropotkin over their quality; he was a Bolshevik and [so] the letter, by the author of Autour d’une Vie [Kropotkin’s Memoirs of a Revolutionist] and so many other admirable books, [because it] did not sing the praises of the Bolshevik regime was suppressed for more than six months.

We have only known about it for a few days. We publish it in the hope that all our comrades will read it with pleasure and profit.

Comrades and Friends,

The last war has proven, beyond all doubt, that in today’s society it is absolutely mad to hope that a day will come when wars would become impossible as long as the present exploitation of labour by Capital and backward nations by nations more advanced in industry continues to exist. As long as this exploitation lasts, wars will devastate humanity and hinder its development. The four-year war (which still continues) has confirmed once again what socialists of every shade have repeatedly stressed: As long as Capital can buy the strength of Labour and enrich itself by the toil of others, there will be internal wars. And what is true for a nation is also true for the society of peoples. The nation which precedes other nations in its economic development (or else, only believes that they have preceded), will inevitably seek to enrich themselves by force of arms.

Under the present conditions wars will return; and their character, as we have seen recently, will be more and more ferocious, more and more abominable, and more and more disastrous for the generations to come. Under these conditions the need for a profound reconstruction of society upon new bases – that is to say, for a social revolution – becomes more and more obvious. The bourgeoisie itself is beginning to realize it. And that is why it is absolutely essential for those who are most interested in reconstruction to discuss thoroughly the essential features of the changes in the structure of society which it is a question of achieving.

So far, the workers have had little interest in this kind of discussion. They did not believe in the possibility of an impending social revolution. But they must now see that they were wrong. Life itself, and above all the war, has imposed reconstruction. The social revolution knocks at our doors. Furthermore, as you will undoubtedly learn when your delegates return from Russia, the attempt at a Jacobin social revolution which has been taking place on a large scale for nearly three years has not produced the results we were hoping to obtain.

They will explain this failure by the war, which is still on going. But the cause is much deeper.

The Revolution of November 1917 sought to establish in Russia a mixed regime of Babeuf’s highly centralized authoritarian Communism; with [Constantin] Pecqueur’s equally centralized Collectivism, which has been popularized in Europe for forty years under the name of Marxism. And this attempt – it must be acknowledged – has certainly not given the results hoped for.

The attempt to establish a highly centralized power, imposing the communist revolution by decrees and by armies of bureaucrats [employés] did not succeed. The usual vices of every centralized State gnaw away at this administration, the mass of the people is excluded from reconstruction, and the dictatorial powers of the communist bureaucrats [employés], far from alleviating the evils, only aggravate them.

It is therefore obvious that the workers of central and western Europe, particularly the Latin ones, when they know the results of the Revolution in Russia should look for more effective means of reaching their goals. Already in the First International, when they were studying “public services in the future society,” they sought the solution of the social problem by the socialization of production and exchange; but they wanted to get there not by the centralized State but by the federation of free Communes, the decentralization of production and exchange, and the awakening of the local initiative of groups of producers and consumers. In short, they studied the question of how to build the new society not by orders from the centre, but by construction from the simple to the complex, always encouraging local and individual initiative, instead of killing it by armies of functionaries who carry out the will of the centre as best they can.

The experiment conducted in Russia has confirmed the need to develop these tendencies of autonomy and federalism, and it is in this direction that without doubt the efforts of the workers will head, as soon as they delve into the great and difficult questions that confront every revolution, as had been done in the federalist International.

Brothers and friends of Western Europe, history has imposed a formidable task on your generation. It falls upon you to begin to apply the principles of Socialism and to find practical forms. And it is upon you that falls the task of developing the new structures of a society where the exploitation of man by man, as well as classes, will have disappeared and, at the same time, a society where, instead of the centralization which brings us oppression and wars, will develop a thousand centres of life and constructive forces in free Trade Unions and independent Communes.

History pushes us in this direction.

Well, let us courageously get to work!

Let us break with the two prejudices of benefactor-Capital and the providence-State! And in our groups and congresses, in our Trade Unions and in our Communes, we will find the necessary elements to build a new society, the Society of Labour and Liberty, free from Capital and the State, and from the cult of Authority.

Peter Kropotkin, Moscow, August 1920

Luigi Fabbri: For the Russian Revolution – Against Dictatorship

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

The Russian Revolution and the Anarchists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Luigi Fabbri

Kropotkin: The Origins of Anarchy

I was very excited to learn that Iain McKay, who produced the excellent anthologies of the writings of Proudhon, Property is Theft, and Kropotkin, Direct Struggle Against Capital, is now working on the definitive edition of Kropotkin’s Modern Science and Anarchy (better known in English as “Modern Science and Anarchism”), to be published by AK Press. The new edition will not only include the complete text of Kropotkin’s essay on modern science and anarchy/anarchism, but the additional essays that Kropotkin included in the 1913 French edition, including “The State – Its Historic Role,” and “The Modern State,” in which Kropotkin analyzes the emergence and mutually reinforcing roles of the modern state and capitalism. Here, I reproduce Kropotkin’s introductory chapter to Modern Science and Anarchy, in which he argues that throughout human history there has been a struggle between authority and liberty, between “statists” and anarchists.

The Origins of Anarchy

Anarchy does not draw its origin from any scientific researches, or from any system of philosophy. Sociological sciences are still far from having acquired the same degree of accuracy as physics or chemistry. Even in the study of climate and weather [Meteorology], we are not yet able to predict a month or even a week beforehand what weather we are going to have; it would be foolish to pretend that in the social sciences, which deal with infinitely more complicated things than wind and rain, we could scientifically predict events. We must not forget either that scholars are but ordinary men and that the majority belong to the wealthy, and consequently share the prejudices of this class; many are even directly in the pay of the State. It is, therefore, quite evident that Anarchy does not come from universities.

Like Socialism in general, and like all other social movements, Anarchy was born among the people, and it will maintain its vitality and creative force only as long as it remains a movement of the people.

Historically, two currents have been in conflict in human society. On the one hand, the masses, the people, developed in the form of customs a multitude of institutions necessary to make social existence possible: to maintain peace, to settle quarrels, and to practice mutual aid in all circumstances that required combined effort. Tribal customs among savages, later the village communities, and, still later, the industrial guilds and the cities of the Middle Ages, which laid the first foundations of international law, all these institutions were developed, not by legislators, but by the creative spirit of the masses.

On the other hand, there have been magi, shamans, wizards, rain-makers, oracles, priests. These were the first teachers of a [rudimentary] knowledge of nature and the first founders of religions ([worshiping] the sun, the forces of Nature, ancestors, etc.) and the different rituals that were used to maintain the unity of tribal federations.

At that time, the first germs of the study of nature (astronomy, weather prediction, the study of illnesses) went hand in hand with various superstitions, expressed by different rites and cults. The beginnings of all arts and crafts also had this origin in study and superstition and each had its mystical formulae that were provided only to the initiated, and were carefully concealed from the masses.

Alongside of these earliest representatives of science and religion, there were also men, like the bards, the brehons of Ireland, the speakers of the law of the Scandinavian peoples, etc. who were considered masters in the ways of customs and of the ancient traditions, which were to be used in the event of discord and disagreements. They kept the law in their memory (sometimes through the use of symbols, which were the germs of writing) and in case of disagreements they acted as referees.

Finally, there were also the temporary chiefs of military bands, who were supposed to possess the secret magic for success in warfare; they also possessed the secrets of poisoning weapons and other military secrets.

These three groups of men have always formed among themselves secret societies to keep and pass on (after a long and painful initiation period) the secrets of their social functions or their crafts; and if, at times, they fought each other, they always agreed in the long run; they joined together and supported each other in order to dominate the masses, to reduce them to obedience, to govern them – and to make the masses work for them.

It is evident that Anarchy represents the first of these two currents, that is to say, the creative, constructive force of the masses, who developed institutions of common law to defend themselves against the domineering minority. It is also by the creative and constructive force of the people, aided by the whole strength of science and modern technology, that Anarchy now strives to set up the necessary institutions to guarantee the free development of society – in contrast to those who put their hope in laws made by ruling minorities and imposed on the masses by a rigorous discipline.

We can therefore say that in this sense there have always been anarchists and statists.

Moreover, we always find that [social] institutions, even the best of them – those that were originally built to maintain equality, peace and mutual aid – become petrified as they grew old. They lost their original purpose, they fell under the domination of an ambitious minority, and they end up becoming an obstacle to the further development of society. Then individuals, more or less isolated, rebel. But while some of these discontented, by rebelling against an institution that has become irksome, sought to modify it in the interests of all – and above all to overthrow the authority, foreign to the social institution (the tribe, the village commune, the guild, etc.) – others only sought to set themselves outside and above these institutions in order to dominate the other members of society and to grow rich at their expense.

All political, religious, economic reformers have belonged to the first of the two categories; and among them there have always been individuals who, without waiting for all their fellow citizens or even only a minority of them to be imbued with similar ideas, strove forward and rose against oppression – either in more or less numerous groups or alone if they had no following. We see revolutionaries in all periods of history.

However, these Revolutionaries also had two different aspects. Some, while rebelling against the authority that had grown up within society, did not seek to destroy this authority but strove to seize it for themselves. Instead of an oppressive power, they sought to constitute a new one, which they would hold, and they promised – often in good faith – that the new authority would have the welfare of the people at heart, it would be their true representative – a promise that later on was inevitably forgotten or betrayed. Thus were constituted Imperial authority in the Rome of the Caesars, the authority of the [Catholic] Church in the first centuries of our era, dictatorial power in the cities of the Middle Ages during their period of decline, and so forth. The same current was used to establish royal authority in Europe at the end of the feudal period. Faith in an emperor “for the people” – a Caesar – is not dead, even today.

But alongside this authoritarian current, another current asserted itself in times when overhauling the established institutions was necessary. At all times, from ancient Greece to the present day, there were individuals and currents of thought and action that sought not to replace one authority by another but to destroy the authority which had been grafted onto popular institutions – without creating another to take its place. They proclaimed the sovereignty of both the individual and the people, and they sought to free popular institutions from authoritarian overgrowths; they worked to give back complete freedom to the collective spirit of the masses – so that the popular genius might once again freely rebuild institutions of mutual aid and mutual protection, in harmony with new needs and new conditions of existence. In the cites of ancient Greece, and especially in those of the Middle Ages (Florence, Pskov, etc.,) we find many examples of these kinds of conflicts.

We may therefore say that Jacobins and anarchists have always existed among reformers and revolutionaries.

Formidable popular movements, stamped with an anarchist character, took place several times in the past. Villages and cities rose against the principle of government – against the organs of the State, its courts, its laws – and they proclaimed the sovereignty of the rights of man. They denied all written law, and asserted that every man should govern himself according to his conscience. They thus tried to establish a new society, based on the principles of equality, complete freedom, and work. In the Christian movement in Judea, under Augustus – against the Roman law, the Roman State, and the morality, or rather the immorality, of that time – there was unquestionably considerable elements of Anarchy. Little by little this movement degenerated into a Church movement, fashioned after the Hebrew Church and Imperial Rome itself, which naturally killed all that Christianity possessed of anarchism at its outset, gave it Roman forms, and soon it became the principal support of authority, State, slavery, oppression. The first seeds of “opportunism” which were introduced into Christianity are already visible in the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles – or, at least, in the versions of these writings that make up the New Testament.

Similarly, the Anabaptist movement of the sixteenth century, which inaugurated and brought about the Reformation, also had an anarchist basis. But crushed by those reformers who, under Luther’s leadership, leagued with the princes against the rebellious peasants, the movement was suppressed by a great massacre of peasants and the “lower classes” of the towns. Then the right wing of the reformers degenerated little by little, until it became the compromise between its own conscience and the State which exists today under the name of Protestantism.

Therefore, to summarize, Anarchy was born in the same critical and revolutionary protest which gave rise to socialism in general. However, one portion of the socialists, after having reached the negation of capital and of a society based on the enslavement of labour to capital, stopped there. They did not declare themselves against what constitutes the real strength of capital – the State and its principal supports: centralization of authority, law (always made by the minority, for the profit of minorities), and [a form of] Justice whose chief aim is to protect authority and capital.

As for Anarchy, it does not exclude these institutions from its critique. It raises its sacrilegious arm not only against capital but also these henchmen of capitalism.

Peter Kropotkin

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.

makhno-cover-revolution-in-ukraine

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

makhno-fcover-ukrainian-revolution

 

Kropotkin on the Russian Revolution

kropotkin_funeral

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

anarchist-communism-kropotkin

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

february-revolution

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

Russian Civil War battle scene

Russian Civil War battle scene

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

alexandre_ghe__open-letter-to-kropotkin

Open Letter to Peter Kropotkin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alexandre Ghé

Lausanne, Switzerland 1916

[Working translation by Shawn P. Wilbur]

February Revolution 1917

February Revolution 1917

The October Revolution and the Communist Party

Soviet poster

Soviet poster

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

lenin-october-revolution

The Russian Revolution and the Communist Party

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alexander Berkman

berkmancover