Boris Yelensky: Factory Committees in the Russian Revolution

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

Petrograd Factory Workers

Anarchists and Factory Committees in Kuban

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The following is the essence of my own speech:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boris Yelensky

The Red and Black Flag of Anarcho-Syndicalism

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Voline: The Bolshevik October Revolution

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

The Bolshevik Revolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other counter-revolutionary rebellions were of less importance.

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

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

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

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

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

Voline

Catalonia 2017

The Spanish government’s response to the Catalan independence vote brought back some painful memories regarding Franco’s dictatorship following the defeat of the anarchists in the Spanish Revolution. Here is a brief statement from the CNT – Catalonia-Balearic Islands that I thought summed things up very well. Respecting people’s right to collective self-determination, while recognizing that such self-determination can only truly be achieved through an anarchist social revolution, is a position that goes back to the beginnings of the anarchist movement, but that attained greater prominence after World War II, with the emergence of various national liberation movements across the globe, something that I have documented in Volume Two: The Emergence of the New Anarchism (1939-1977), in my trilogy, Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas.

CTN – Catalonia-Balearic Islands Statement on the Catalan Independence Vote

The CNT local unions from Catalonia and the Balearic Islands publicly state our support for the self-determination of the Catalan people.

As anarcho-syndicalists, we don’t think that political reforms within a capitalist framework can reflect our desire for social transformation, a change that would place production and consumption means in workers’ hands. Because of this, our daily struggles do not focus on creating new states or backing parliamentary initiatives.

However, we can’t look the other way when regular people are being attacked and repressed by any state. A state that has, in this case, removed its mask and revealed itself as an authoritarian rule, the true heir of the Franco regime. This is something that could be glimpsed before through many instances, such as labour law reforms, bank bail-outs, cuts on health and education, mass evictions of out-of-work families…many of which were implemented by the Catalan government itself.

CNT Catalonia and the Balearic greet this spirit of disobedience against a dictatorial state, a discriminatory and fascist state, and want to assert our strongest denunciation of repression against workers and of those who carry it out.

The men and women in CNT will stand as one to defend their neighbours and townsfolks, as couldn´t be otherwise with an anarcho-syndicalist, and henceforth revolutionary, organisation.

Originally published by CNT L’ Hospitalet.

The Origins of Anarcho-Syndicalism: the 1869 Basle Congress

This month marks the 148th anniversary of the September 5 – 12, 1869 Basle Congress of the International Workingmen’s Association (the so-called “First International”). This was the most representative congress held by the International, with around 78 delegates from the United States, England France, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, and Spain. It is noteworthy then that it was at this Congress that the delegates endorsed an essentially anarcho-syndicalist program for the International. Rather than relying on political parties to achieve their emancipation, the workers, through their own organizations, such as resistance societies (trade unions), and the International itself, would replace capitalism and the state, with these working class organizations providing the basis for the organization of a socialist society, “the free federation of free producers.” I discuss the Basle Congress in more detail in We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It: The First International and the Origins of the Anarchist Movement. Here, I present the speech by one of the French delegates, Jean-Louis Pindy (1840-1917), in which he argues in favour of a dual struggle, that of the trade unions and that of the communes, or municipalities, which together would form the socialist workers’ federation of the future. Pindy played an active role in the Paris Commune, narrowly escaping with his life, and supported the anarchists after the International was split in two by Marx’s expulsion of Bakunin and James Guillaume from the International at the 1872 Hague Congress.

Jean-Louis Pindy

Jean-Louis Pindy: Toward the Society of the Future

We anticipate the workers organizing in two ways: first, a local grouping which allows the workers in the same area to liaise on a day-to-day basis: then, a linking up of various localities, fields, regions, etc.

The first mode: This grouping is in keeping with the political relations of the existing society which it replaces to advantage: thus far, it has been the approach adopted by the International Working Men’s Association. Implicit in this state of affairs, where mutual societies are concerned, is federation of the local societies, helping one another out by means of money loans, organizing meetings to discuss social issues and, in concert, taking steps of mutual interest.

But as industry expands, another style of organization alongside the former becomes necessary. In every country, the workers sense that their interests are interlinked, and that they are being ground down one by one. For another thing, the future requires an organization that reaches beyond the precincts of the towns and, ignoring frontiers, establishes a sweeping reallocation of work around the globe: for this dual purpose, trades societies must be organized internationally: each trades body should maintain an exchange of correspondence and information within the country and with other countries (…)

This sort of association becomes a factor for decentralization, for no longer is it a matter of founding within each country a center common to all industries, but each one of them will be centered upon the locality where it is most developed: for example, in the case of France, while the colliers will be federated around Saint-Etienne, the silk workers will be federated around Lyon and the luxury industries around Paris. Once these two types of association have been established, labor organizes for present and future by doing away with wage slavery (…)

Association of the different corporations on the basis of town or country (…) leads to the commune of the future, just as the other mode of organization leads to the labor representation of the future. Government is replaced by the assembled councils of the trades bodies, and by a committee of their respective delegates, overseeing the labor relations which are to take the place of politics. (…) We propose the following resolution:

“Congress is of the view that all workers should actively engage in the creation of strike funds in the various trades bodies.

“As these societies take shape, it invites sections, federal groups and central councils to keep societies from the same corporation informed, so that they may proceed to formation of national associations of trades bodies.

“Such federations are to have charge of gathering all information regarding their respective industry, overseeing the steps to be taken in concert, regulating strikes and working actively towards their success, until such time as wage slavery may be replaced by the federation of free producers.”

CNT-AIT: To All Anarcho-Syndicalists (2017)

I meant to post this sooner, but here is a communiqué from those groups from the Spanish CNT (Confederación Nacional del Trabajo) that wish to remain part of the International Workers Association (Asociación Internacional de los Trabajadores – IWA-AIT), an international federation of anarcho-syndicalist groups. I have previously posted material on the split of one faction of the CNT, the Italian USI and the German FAU from the IWA-AIT. This communiqué is from the April 13 – 16, 2017 “Congress of Restructuring” in Villalonga, Spain, where various CNT groups disaffected from the CNT “leadership” responsible for the split from the IWA gathered to reconstitute the CNT as an affiliate of the IWA committed to the principles of international anarcho-syndicalism.

Communique of the CNT-AIT Congress to all workers and fighters

To All Anarchosyndicalists and Sympathizers

From various unions of the CNT-AIT that left what is now called the “CNT”, together with others that remain in it but with a critical stance, as well as with many others that were expelled or purged for having denounced the irregularities committed, we have met in Villalonga from the 13-16 of April [2017] in the Congress of Restructuring the anarchosyndicalist organization. We would like to publicly communicate the reasons and the resolutions of our Congress and make a call to unite in our organization in order to strengthen and give potential to revolutionary, anti-authoritarian and emancipatory anarchosyndicalism.

Motivations: In the last few years, what now calls itself “CNT” has been suffering an ideological derivation in all senses. This has included a series of scandalous situations in which some things are decided in the absence of assemblies, there has been a rupture of Confederal pact and federalism, a lack of solidarity, the inexistence of transparency [1], executive decisions of the Committees, the buying of votes, falsification of agreements, committees that veto the unions or their proposals without putting them on the agenda, centralism and even physical aggression.

This derivation has produced a weakness in the CNT that anybody can see: the need to have paid positions because of an absence of militants, the inability to publish the CNT newspaper, the decrease in the number of unions federated… Above all, it has provoked the serious fact that it was expelled from the IWA [International Workers Association], our International which established anarchosyndicalism in the world, because of the numerous irregularities committed by its Spanish section, the “CNT”, among others not paying dues [2], as established in the statutes, but also trying to organize a parallel international, only because it could not impose its agreements in the Congresses of the IWA [3].

The Congress of Restructuring: We met in order to give structure to the numerous anarchosyndicalist unions that exist in the geographical areas, to affirm anarchosyndicalism and the values that have inspired it, especially direct action, against parliamentarianism and bourgeois representationism that are being injected into supposedly revolutionary organizations, including the “CNT”.

We have taken the following agreements:

– We have adopted new statutes which are free of provisions which have supported or can support authoritarian practices, vertical structures and executive committees. In exchange, we are fostering consensus among the unions, more means for the local organizations and more autonomy against the committees, which will be reduced to authentic organs limited to coordination.

– Affiliation to the IWA, with the CNT-AIT being its Section in Spain, putting an end to the irregular situation that has been promoted by the Committee of the “CNT”, and contributing to the promotion of internationalism which is so necessary for the opposition of a globalized capitalist world, a question that characterizes the real anarchosyndicalism and not this colonialism of a negative and irrational “CNT”.

– We consider ourselves the continuation of the CNT created in 1910, the anarchosyndicalist and historic one.

– We call on all the anarchosyndicalists in the geographic areas to retake and [rejuvenate] anarchosyndicalism and to put it in the place that it should be: as a libertarian and emancipatory reference for the working class in the whole world.

From Villalonga, libertarian greetings, in solidarity and internationalist, to all the people, groups and organizations that aspire for freedom.

Endnotes

1. Such an absence of transparency, for example, encouraged the theft of around 20,000 euros from the CNT treasury by the General Secretary based in Valladolid.
2. For example: The union responsible for the CNT newspaper is no longer nominated by the unions and decided in Plenaries, but by the Confederal Committee, since the XI Congress in Zaragoza. (Translator’s explanation: The CNT’s reformist and executive wing have caused the situation in which the paper has not been published in years, due to the fact that they are trying to keep control of the publication and infuse it with their politics.)
3. A paradox since some unions that were expelled from the CNT were for dues arrears. While the CNT failed to pay dues to the IWA, it paid for a legal office of cronies whose cost were higher than the dues to the IWA. This office also absorbs all the resources destined to help repressed workers and prisoners that are from or collaborate with the CNT.
4. This decision was made by the Committees of the CNT without any agreement of the unions or the Congress. Leaving the IWA was not proposed in the XI Congress of the “CNT”.

Gregory Maksimov: The Politics of Anarcho-Syndicalism

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

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The General Politics of Anarcho-Syndicalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gregory Maksimov, 1927

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

February 1917

February 1917

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

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Revolutionaries in St. Petersburg – March 1917

The February Revolution

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

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

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

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

Grand struggle

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

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

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

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

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

Gregory Maksimov

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Boris Yelensky: Returning to Russia (1917)

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

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Returning to Russia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boris Yelensky (1967)

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

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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.

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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

Kropotkin on Syndicalism and Anarchism

Happy birthday Kropotkin Claus!

Happy birthday Kropotkin Claus!

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

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Syndicalism and Anarchism

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

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

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

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

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

A Chartist Demonstration

A Chartist Demonstration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

paris_commune

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Revolutionary syndicalist CGT paper

Revolutionary syndicalist CGT paper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peter Kropotkin

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