Kropotkin on the Russian Revolution

Peter Kropotkin

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

A letter from Kropotkin

Introduction from Le Libertaire, 22 July 1921:

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

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

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

Comrades and Friends,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

History pushes us in this direction.

Well, let us courageously get to work!

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

Peter Kropotkin, Moscow, August 1920

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Gregory Maksimov: The Factory Committees and the October Revolution

During the 1917 Russian Revolution, anarchists were at the forefront of the anti-bureaucratic factory committee movement. While Boris Yelensky and his anarchist comrades were busy organizing factory committees in the Kuban region in southern Russia, anarchists took a leading role in the factory committee movements in other parts of Russia, Petrograd in particular. The anarchists initiated the factory committee movement before the 1917 October Revolution, seeing the factory committees as forming a more solid basis for genuine workers’ control, given the control of the Russian trade union movement by the political parties. Gregory Maksimov was one of the leading anarchist proponents of the factory committees, organizing the first conference of Petrograd Factory Committees in June 1917. As the name implies, the factory committees were based in the workplace, and organized on a directly democratic basis. In contrast, the Soviets, along with most trade unions, were dominated by political parties that in practice favoured a representative system of government. After the October Revolution, the Soviets became increasingly under the control of the Bolsheviks, causing Maksimov and other anarchists to seek to expand the factory committee movement as one that would achieve genuine workers’ control. By December 1917, Maksimov was already warning the Russian people that the Soviets were becoming organs of state power. In his article, “The Soviets of Workers’, Soldiers’ and Peasants’ Deputies,” reprinted in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Maksimov called for a “Third Revolution” that, following the February and October Revolutions, would, through the factory committee movement, bring about genuine workers’ control, or worker self-management. The excerpts below are taken from Maksimov’s later pamphlet, Syndicalists in the Russian Revolution.

“Centralism via Federalism”

The influence of Anarcho-Syndicalism showed itself creditably in the struggle for supremacy waged by the Factory Committees against the trade unions. The Factory Committees were almost completely swayed by a unique sort of Anarcho-Syndicalism; this is attested by all the conferences of the Petrograd Factory Committees, and by the All-Russian conferences of these committees. Moreover, the Bolsheviks in their drive towards seizure of power and dictatorship, were forced to cast away (for the time being only, as subsequent events proved), their orthodox Marxism and to accept Anarchist slogans and methods.

Alas, this was but a tactical move on their part, not a genuine change of program. The slogans formulated by the Bolsheviks (Communists) voiced, in a precise and intelligible manner, the demands of the masses in revolt, coinciding with the slogans of the Anarchists: “Down with the war,” “Immediate peace without annexations or indemnities, over the heads of the governments and capitalists,” “Abolition of the army,” “Arming of the workers,” “Immediate seizure of land by the peasants,” “Seizure of factories by the workers,” “A Federation of Soviets,” etc. Wouldn’t the realization of these great slogans lead to the full triumph of Anarchist ideology, to the sweeping away of the basis and foundations of Marxism? Wasn’t it natural for the Anarchists to be taken in by these slogans, considering that they lacked a strong organization to carry them out independently? Consequently, they continued taking part in the joint struggle.

But reality soon proved that all the lapses by the Bolsheviks from the revolutionary position were no casual things, but moves in a rigorously thought-out tactical plan, directed against the vital interests and demands of the masses – a plan designed to carry out in life the dead dogmas of a disintegrated Marxism. The true face of the Bolsheviks was revealed by the Commissar of National Affairs~Stalin (Dzhugashvili), who in one of his articles (April 1918) wrote that their aim is, “To arrive at centralism via federalism.” Persistently, cautiously, the revolution was being forced into Marxist channels in accordance with a preconceived plan. Such a channel is for every popular creed a Procrustean bed.

Thus, during the period of the Bourgeois and Bourgeois Socialist Government, the Anarchists worked (not organizationally of course) hand-in-hand with the Bolsheviks. How were the Anarchists situated during that period? The listing of the cities where Anarchist publications came out shows that freedom of the press was of the most extensive kind. Not a single newspaper was closed, not a single leaflet, pamphlet or book confiscated, not a single rally or mass meeting forbidden. Despite the seizure of rich private houses, like the Durnovo Villa and other mansions in Petrograd; despite the seizure of printing shops, including the printing shop of Russkaya Volia, published by the Tsar’s minister Protopopov; despite open incitement to insubordination and appeals for soldiers to leave the fronts; despite all that, only a few cases where Anarchists were manhandled might be construed as connivance by authorities, or premeditated acts. True, the government, at that period, was not averse to dealing severely with both Anarchists and Bolsheviks. Kerensky threatened many times to “burn them out with red-hot irons”. But the government was powerless, because the revolution was in full swing.

After October

How did the position of the Anarchists change with the triumph of the October revolution, in the preparation and making of which they had taken such a prominent part? It has to be pointed out that during the Kerensky period the Anarchists had grown considerably and that towards the October days their movement had already assumed considerable proportions. This growth became even more accelerated after the October revolution, when the Anarchists took an active part in the direct struggle against both the counter-revolution and the German-Austrian troops. Not only did the voice of the Anarchists command attention, but the masses actually followed the appeals and directives of the Anarchists, having come to see in them the concrete formulation of their age-long aspirations. That is why they backed demands of an Anarcho-Syndicalist character, carrying them out in the teeth of hamstringing efforts, rather feeble at that time, by the Bolsheviks.

Under the influence of Anarcho-Syndicalist propaganda, there began in Petrograd a spontaneous process of socialization of housing by the house committees. This extended to entire streets, bringing into existence street committees and block committees, when entire blocks were drawn in. It spread to other cities. In Kronstadt it started even earlier than Petrograd and reached even greater intensity. If in Petrograd and other cities, dwellings were socialized only on the triumph of the October revolution, in Kronstadt similar steps were taken earlier, under the influence of Yartchuk, who was enjoying great popularity in that town, and in face of the active resistance of the Bolsheviks. Measures of this kind were carried out in an organized way by the revolutionary workers and sailors throughout the town. The Bolshevik fraction left a session of the Kronstadt Soviet in protest against the socialization of dwellings.

Workers’ Control

In the field of revolutionary struggle towards immediate abolition of the institution of private property in the means of production, the influence of the Anarchists was even more pronounced. The idea of “workers’ control”, carried out through the Factory Committees, an idea advocated by the Anarcho-Syndicalists from the very outset of the revolution, took root among the city workers, gaining such a strong hold on them as to force its acceptance, in a distorted form, of course, by the Socialist parties. The Social Democrats and the right Social-Revolutionists twisted this idea of workers’ control into that of State control over industry, with the participation of workers, leaving enterprises in the hands of the capitalists.

As for the Bolsheviks, they were quite vague about the meaning of the term “workers’ control”, leaving it undefined, and making it a handy tool of demagogic propaganda. This is confirmed by [the Bolshevik writer] A. Lozovsky (S. A. Dridzo), who writes the following in his pamphlet Workers’ Control (Petersburg: Socialist Publishing House, 1918):

“Workers’ control was the fighting slogan of the Bolsheviks before the October days . . . but despite the fact that workers’ control figured in all resolutions, and was displayed on all banners, it had an aura of mystery about it. The party Press wrote very little about this slogan, still less did it try to implement it in a concrete way. When the October revolution broke out and it became necessary to say clearly and precisely what this workers’ control was, it developed that, even among the partisans of this slogan, there existed great differences of opinion on that score” (p. 19).

The Bolsheviks refused to accept the Anarcho-Syndicalist construction of the idea of workers’ control: namely, taking control of production, its socialization and instituting workers’ control over socialized production through the Factory Committees. This idea won out, workers having begun expropriating enterprises while the Bourgeois-Socialist government was still in power. The Factory Committees and various control committees were already taking over the managing functions at that time. On the eve of the October revolution this movement assumed a truly mass character.

Factory Committees

The Factory Committees and their Central Bureau became the foundation of the new revolutionary movement, which set itself the task of making the factories into Producer and Consumer Communes. The Factory Committees were to become the nuclei of the new social order gradually emerging from the inchoate elemental life of the revolution. Anarchistic in their essence, the Factory Committees made many enemies. The attitude of all political parties was restrained hostility, their efforts centering on reducing the Factory Committees to a subordinate position within the trade unions.

The Communists [Bolsheviks] from the outset showed their suspicion of this type of organization. It was only after they had become convinced that the trade unions were too strongly dominated by the Social-Democrats to lend themselves as instruments of Communist policy that, following the Anarcho-Syndicalists, they began to centre their attention on the Factory Committees, aiming to place them under their control and, through those committees, ultimately to gain control of the trade unions. Despite this attitude, the Bolsheviks were forced by the course of events to assume a position toward the Factory Committees which differed little from that of the Anarcho-Syndicalists. Only gradually did they assume this position. At first they combatted it.

“The Anarcho-Syndicalists entrenched themselves behind the Factory Committees. They created a veritable theory around it, saying in effect that the trade unions have died, that the future belongs to the Factory Committees, who will deliver the knock-out blow to capitalism, that the Factory Committees are the highest form of labour movement, etc. In a word, they developed in regard to the Factory Committees the same theory which the French Anarcho-Syndicalists developed in regard to the trade unions. Under these conditions the divorce between the two organizations (trade unions and Factory Committees) represents the greatest danger for the labour movement of Russia.”

“This danger is the greater, that even among active people of the Factory Committees who are not Anarcho-Syndicalists, we also see this tendency to oppose the trade unions to the Factory Committees and even to replace industrial unions and their local branches with respective organizations of the Factory Committee type” – Lozovsky, Workers’ Control (p. 37).

Seizure of enterprises

Characteristically, only the Anarcho-Syndicalist press correctly evaluated the role and significance of the Factory Committees. The first article in the revolutionary press on this problem, by the author of these lines, appeared in the first issue of Golos Truda. (Incidentally, the article did not express the opinion of Golos Truda as a whole on this problem.) At one of the conferences of the Factory Committees held in Petrograd, during August, 1917, the article was hotly contested by the Bolsheviks, notably Lozovsky and others. But this idea, sound in itself and answering the mood and needs of the workers, became dominant even in the Bolshevik Party. Even Lenin declared in his speech at the All-Russian Trade Union Convention (held in the spring of 1918) that “the factory is a self-governing commune of producers and consumers.”

The results of this Anarcho-Syndicalist propaganda soon bore fruit. There followed a wave of seizures of enterprises and the organization of Workers’ Management. These began when the provisional government was still in power and, it stands to reason, the Anarchists played the foremost role in them. The most talked-of event of the kind at that period was the expropriation under the direct influence of the Anarchist Zhuk, of the Shlisselburg gunpowder mills and agricultural estates, both of which were then organized on Anarchist principles. Such events recurred ever more frequently, and on the eve of the October revolution they came to be regarded as a matter of course. Soon after the triumph of the October revolution, the Central Bureau of the Factory Committees worked out extensive instructions for the control of production. These instructions proved to be a brilliant literary document, showing the triumph of the Anarcho-Syndicalist idea. The significance of this incident is the greater considering that the Bolsheviks were then predominant in the Factory Committees.

How greatly the workers were influenced by the idea of Factory Committees being the executive bodies of the Factory-Communes – the cellular bodies joining into a federative organization, which unites all workers and creates the necessary industrial administrative system – is shown by the uneasiness the Bolsheviks revealed after the October revolution.

“In place of a ‘Republic of Soviets’, we are led to a republic of producers’ co-operatives (artels), into which the capitalist factories would be metamorphosed by this process. Instead of a rapid regulation of the social production and consumption – instead of measures which, objected to as they may be on various grounds, do represent a genuine step toward a socialist organization of society – instead of that we are witnessing something which partakes somewhat of the Anarchist visionary dreams about autonomous industrial communes” – I. Stepanov, From Workers’ Control Towards Workers’ Administration in the Industries and Agriculture (Moscow: 1918, p. 11).

The predominance of the Bolsheviks makes even more remarkable the successes achieved by our comrades, especially that of W. Shatov, in their work carried on within the Factory Committees. (Shatov led the attack on the Winter Palace, Petrograd, in October 1917. He left the Anarcho-Syndicalist movement and became in fact a Bolshevik from the very moment when the capital was moved to Moscow early in 1918. He was arrested and probably shot without trial during the purges in the late 1930s.) Even though dominated by the Bolsheviks, the Factory Committees of that period were carrying out the Anarchist idea. The latter, of course, suffered in clarity and purity when carried out by the Bolsheviks within the Factory Committees; had the Anarchists been in the majority they would have tried to eliminate completely from the work of the committees the element of centralization and State principles.

Gregory Maksimov

Voline: Opposing Concepts of the Russian Revolution

All Power to the Soviets!

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

Opposing Conceptions of the Revolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Voline

The Unknown Revolution

Pano Vassilev: The Idea of the Soviets (1933)

pano vassilev

The Kate Sharpley Library is seeking help typing a handwritten manuscript of an English translation of the 1933 work of the Bulgarian anarchist, Pano Vassilev, The Soviets Idea (or “The Idea of the Soviets”), in order to prepare it for publication. Pano Vassilev (1901-1933) was a prominent Bulgarian anarcho-syndicalist. He worked in Argentina for a few years and became acquainted with anarcho-syndicalism through the anarchist trade union federation, the FORA. He then spent some time in France, where he came into contact with Pierre Besnard and other French anarcho-syndicalists. Upon his return to Bulgaria, he became a leading advocate for anarcho-syndicalism within the Bulgarian anarchist movement. He was assassinated by the Bulgarian police in April 1933 as he was preparing to launch an anarchist appeal to Bulgarian workers on the eve of May Day demonstrations. In Volume Two of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included a 1945 manifesto from the Bulgarian Anarchist Communist Federation, which melded together anarcho-syndicalist and anarchist communist approaches. The BACF, as with Vassilev, rejected both dictatorship and parliamentarianism. Below, I set forth some passages from Chapter One of Vassilev’s book, which focuses on the Bolsheviks’ antipathy toward council forms of working class self-organization, and then their cooptation of the soviets during the Russian Revolution. I have omitted the footnotes, which can be found here

Soviets lenin

Chapter One : The Soviets Idea not a Bolshevik Notion 

The theory of soviets has no connection with the soviet system of government, despite what most people believe. On the contrary, we are entitled to argue the very opposite, namely, that the soviets idea, the idea of social life being organized along the lines of a new, free, communist system, with the production and distribution of goods in the society of the future being regulated through the good offices of meetings and working encounters between direct delegates, subject to replacement at all times and possessed of no authority, from trade union organizations and distribution agencies… this idea has nothing in common with the characteristic peculiar to the Bolsheviks, their statist inclinations and their dictatorial system in the regimentation of social life.

If, in spite of that, the soviets idea is still identified (especially in Bulgaria) with Bolshevism and with the current Soviet system, with their statist dictatorship, this is due primarily to the fact that the Bolshevik Party, for a variety of reasons, has managed to impose and to consolidate its dictatorial authority in Russia. In the very place where the proletariat first attempted to implement the soviets system in practice and on a huge scale.

And if one adds to this, simple ignorance of the history of the labour movement and more especially of its left wing, the confusion is the more readily understandable. Even in our own circles, there are anarchists who look upon soviets as a purely Bolshevik invention and do not distinguish them from Bolshevik dictatorship.

It is not hard to demonstrate that, fundamentally, Bolshevism and the soviets idea in its proper and original sense, are utterly unconnected.

Above all, one has to remember that, according to its own supporters, Bolshevism is the “true”, “the only properly understood marxism”. Marx and Engels, the founding fathers of the marxist ideology, never pronounced themselves in favour of soviets. They wrote numerous books in which they expounded in detail not only the theoretical and philosophical principles, but also the constructive program of what they themselves dubbed “ scientific socialism”. But in none of their works (whether these be books, pamphlets, programs, letters or critical notes) will one discover a single line on the basis of which it might be argued that “the great teachers of the proletariat” envisaged “workers’ councils” as organs which might be used by the proletariat in its struggle so as to marshal its efforts, or in some future  socialist order, to organize production, distribution and social life in general, or even in the so-called ‘transitional’ period.

Likewise, it is impossible to discover one single word to the effect that workers’ councils are organs of struggle in the works of marxism’s students and publicists who have thought and put pen to paper since Marx and Engels. This is quite natural, since marxism was conceived, formed and evolved precisely as a parliamentary, statist variant of socialism. Such it was, and such essentially, it remains, despite the soviet backdrop erected by the Bolsheviks in 1917.

The split which took place in the first international in 1872 was the logical outcome of the incompatible and profoundly antagonistic views of the marxists and the bakuninists on the very issue of the relationship between workers’ movements and the modern bourgeois state generally, and its legislative organ, parliament in particular. The marxists, led by Karl Marx himself, clearly and categorically described themselves as parliamentarians and statists. And the bakuninists were dubbed anarchists because they pronounced themselves against all forms of parliamentarianism.

In the view of Marx, Engels and their disciples, the social revolution is still regarded as a series of social reforms effected by a political party, describing itself as socialist or proletarian, which has taken power. This is to say that, that political party has achieved mastery of the State’s legislative and executive arms, parliament, the police, the army and the courts. The so-called dictatorship of the proletariat, as conceived by the founders of marxism and their supporters, is the dictatorship of a parliament in which the “representatives of the proletariat” have managed to secure a majority. This notion is spelled out in the Communist Manifesto wherein there is mention of conquest of the machinery of State and of “centralization of credit by means of the State.” In Anti-Dühring, Engels writes: “The proletariat takes charge of state power and transforms the major means of production into State property” and “The State emerges truly representative of the whole of society”.  In their immediate aims the marxists have always employed the expression “People’s State” (Volkstaat) complete with a legislative assembly, i.e. a parliament wherein the majority is held by the “people’s representatives”.

In the 12 June 1845 issue of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, Marx even wrote bluntly that, “following the proletariat’s victory” a constituent assembly with dictatorial powers would have to be summoned. And in his mind this was “dictatorship of the proletariat”.

For marxists, this “dictatorship of the proletariat” has always meant the dictatorship of the “people’s representatives” in parliament, in the present bourgeois State and this is especially clear in the commentary of Marx’s friend, Engels, upon the Critique of the Erfurt Programme. “One absolutely certain point is that our party and the working class can only accede to power in the form of the democratic republic. Indeed, as the Great French Revolution has shown, that is the specific form of the dictatorship of the proletariat.”

From this we may conclude that for Engels and so for Marx and for Marxists, the bourgeois democratic republic is the political form of socialism on the morrow of the Revolution. There is no other form in which the proletariat’s dictatorship may be expressed, because the Great French Revolution has shown (!)that the democratic republic is its specific form.

Up until the October 1917 Revolution and even for two months after that, the Russian Bolsheviks – who, like all marxists at the time called themselves social-democrats – depicted the famed “dictatorship of the proletariat” exclusively as the dictatorship of a constituent assembly. And it was towards just that dictatorship that they had bent all their efforts right up to the last breath of the Russian Constituent Assembly of 1917. There are facts and documents galore to confirm this, including those drawn from Bolshevik sources. For instance, the very program of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in which the Bolsheviks were the majority, is quite clear about its hostility to the soviet and its advocacy of parliamentarianism. That program was still in force in 1917. In this programme, which the Bolsheviks and Lenin subscribed to, until the Kronstadt sailors dismissed the Constituent Assembly in October 1917, one may read:

     “That is why the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party deems it its most urgent task to abolish the absolutism of the Tsar and its replacement by a democratic republic whose constitution must guarantee:

i.    The sovereignty of the people, which is to say, the concentration of the entire supreme power of the State in the hands of a legislative assembly made up of the people’s representatives.

ii.    The right of eligibility (general, equal and direct, for all citizens aged more than 20 years) to the Constituent Assembly and to the organs of local power; and the entitlement of every person elected to be appointed to any parliamentary position.
While pursuing its immediate objectives, the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party supports any revolutionary opposition movement directed at a radical political change, and categorically repudiates any schedule of reforms that would reinforce the police and administrative surveillance of the labouring classes.

The Russian Social Democratic Labour Party is firmly convinced that the implementation of political and social reforms is feasible only through the abolition of the authoritarianism of the tsars, and the summoning of a constituent assembly freely elected by the entire people.”

As this extract indicates, this program did not look beyond a democratic republic, a constituent assembly elected by the whole citizenry. And as we have said, this program was still extant, unchanged, in 1917, and enjoying the support of the Mensheviks and of the Bolsheviks together with Lenin. The program had not altered following the attempted revolution of 1905-1906 when the Russian workers had set up their soviets which then played a highly significant role in the struggle. And, not merely did the Bolsheviks not amend the program in the wake of the “general repetition” of 1905-1906… they stressed that they opposed the soviets, the workers’ experiment. Thus at the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party congress held in London from 13 May to 1 June 1907, the Bolshevik Party (at that time only a faction) moved and (becoming the majority) ensured the adoption of a resolution on the issue of soviets, of which the following are some excerpts :

“Resolution on the matter of the party’s relations with the Duma (the Russian Parliament): the people must be given an explanation of the impossibility of achieving political freedom by the parliamentary route, as long as power remains in the hands of the tsarist government; the necessity of an open struggle by the masses of the people against the armed might of absolutism, as the only chance for the revolution to assure itself of a total victory; the transfer of power into the hands of the people’s deputies and the summoning of a constituent assembly with equal, direct and secret ballot.
“Resolution vis-à-vis the labour congress [the Bolsheviks’ draft which was adopted]: Given 1) that the Social Democratic Labour Party is the only organization unifying the conscious element of the proletariat as a vanguard and which directs the working class’s struggles for a socialist society and the conditions crucial for its          introduction:

“That at the moment of revolutionary eruption, it seems possible (!) to organize or to employ for the ends of the social democracy the workers’ non-party formations, such as, say, the soviets of workers’ representatives, etc.
“That the idea of a labour congress leads in fact to the replacement of the social democracy by the workers’ organizations lacking any party of a lasting nature, and that the organization and preparation through propaganda for that labour congress inevitably culminates in the disorganization of the party and leaves broad masses of workers under the tutelage and influence of bourgeois democracy.”

“The congress acknowledges that… The Party’s participation in these organizations is a possibility in the event of necessity, provided that the party develops and strengthens its aims; the idea of a partyless labour congress backed by the anarcho-syndicalists in their struggle against the influence of social democrats over the         labouring masses, is absolutely harmful for the proletariat’s class development; as regards the need for free discussion of the labour congress issue in the party press, congress takes the view that there should be no propaganda geared to the organization of the labour congress, neither by members individually nor among the party’s organizations.”

These quotations from the program of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (in which the Bolsheviks were the majority) and the resolutions regarding that party’s attitude to the Duma and the projected non-party “congress of workers” indicate that the Russian “Marxist – Leninists”, even after the 1905-1906 experience, kept the faith with the teachings of Marx and Engels and went on regarding as their own the “specific formula” according to which “the dictatorship of the proletariat” was to be a democratic, parliamentary republic and not the workers and peasants’ soviets.

And if, after the October uprising (1917) they jettisoned their old parliamentarian and non-revolutionary democratic standpoint vis-à-vis the constituent assembly and became “pro-soviets”, this was purely and simply under compulsion and because they could not do otherwise.

All information concerning the conduct of the Bolsheviks during this period is of tremendous historical importance and shows that up until the dismissal of the Constituent Assembly, they were its champions and placed their hopes in it so as to secure a majority, no matter how, and, thanks to that majority to proclaim the “dictatorship of the proletariat”. Hence their hesitant and confused stance vis-à-vis the soviets even when the labouring masses had begun openly to ventilate the slogans  “Down with the Constituent Assembly”…  “All power to the soviets of the workers, soldiers and peasants!”

Quite by contrast the anarchists, or rather those of their number who were for the soviets, looked upon them as “executive organs of the will of the labouring people” From June or July 1917 on, they placed themselves at the head of the monthly assemblies which had rallied around the councils of the proletariat and against the Constituent Assembly. As for the Bolsheviks, they persisted in regarding as possible a “revolutionary overhaul” of the national assembly and adopted no clear and definite stance on the question of the soviets’ role and mission in the proletarian revolution.

So, for instance, when the masses of Petrograd and Kronstadt, disgusted by the Constituent Assembly and the machinations of the “people’s representatives” sitting in it, openly lined up behind the watchword “All power to the soviets!,” first launched by anarchists, “then…” as Efim Yarchuk writes… “The Bolsheviks took up the cudgels for the Constituent Assembly and in order to defend it, introduced into the soviets the idea of their being metamorphosed to a certain extent, into organs of the central authority”. “And whenever the Bolshevik Roshal at a meeting in Kronstadt on 3 July 1917 spoke to the masses of an armed demonstration under the slogan of “All power to the soviets!”, the other members of the party met with Raskolnikov to await the decision of the party’s central committee which was based in Petrograd. And when Roshal asked Raskolnikov the question “What do we do if the party decides not to support anything?”, the latter replied “That doesn’t matter! From here we will force their hand.”

It is well known and the Bulgarian Bolsheviks concede this, that up to the very last minute before the October rising, the majority of the party’s central committee opposed it, and that Zinoviev, Kamanev and others played the dismal role of typical opportunists and counter-revolutionaries during those decisive days. Those gentlemen who subsequently pronounced themselves “authentic” and patent  revolutionaries and who during the Kronstadt Revolt of 1921 against the Bolshevik authorities whom they represented dared label the Kronstadt sailors as “counter-revolutionaries”, these gentlemen funked the fight at the crucial moment for the real proletarian revolution.

That the Bolshevik Party was truly, up to the last moment before the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly, in favour of it and that it was compelled to amend its anti-soviet stance and moreover, to embrace the watchword “All power to the soviets!” as soon as it was confronted by the fait accompli of the dismissal of the Constituent Assembly, is evidenced by the testimony of Leon Trotsky : “ Our party did not reject democracy, taking account of the certain priorities of political agitation in this lawful transition towards the new regime. Out of this came our attempt to convene the Constituent Assembly… The constituent assembly proved an obstacle to the revolutionary movement and was swept aside”.

Trotsky does not say, of course, how and by whom precisely the constituent assembly was “swept aside”, because we may be sure he has no “political agitation” interest in doing so. Nor is he in a position to describe this revolutionary act on the part of the Bolshevik Party which, as he himself admits, did its utmost to attain “the dictatorship of the proletariat”, i.e. the Constituent Assembly. Trotsky merely hints that the Constituent Assembly was “swept aside” because it was an obstacle in the path of the revolutionary movement. But anyone who bothers to reflect upon this for a moment will infer from this  cautious phrasing that… “1) The revolutionary movement at that point was assuredly not led by the Bolshevik Party and 2) The Bolshevik Party of the day with its preference, obvious up to the last minute, for the Constituent Assembly was one of the factors hampering the development of the revolution.”

Anatol Gorelik without concealing the reality for considerations of “political agitation” has this to say of the events of those days… “Still hesitant, torn between the soviets and the Constituent Assembly, they were in any case determined to ensconce themselves firmly in the Winter Palace. It was only in January 1918 (two months on from 25 October!) that, having failed to win a majority of votes in the elections to the Constituent Assembly, and faced with the fait accompli of the latter having been dismissed by a detachment of sailors under the command of the anarchist Zhelezniakov, they repudiated that Constituent Assembly”. “On that day, comrade Zhelezniakov was commander of the guard of the Constituent Assembly. Later, that afternoon, he calmly strode up to the father of the house, the Social Revolutionary Chernov and suggested to all of the Constituent Assembly’s members that they remove themselves for folk had had enough of their palaver and their ‘work’ (and that the sailors wanted to get to their beds). The existence of the Constituent Assembly was terminated as straight-forwardly as that. The Bolsheviks had no hand in dismissing the Constituent Assembly; they merely ‘legalized’ the fait accompli”. “Even then, as now, the Bolshevik’s policy hinged upon the balance of forces.”

And, truth to tell, one can only understand the about turn in terms of the need to readjust to the facts. The Bolshevik Party suddenly did a somersault a propos of the soviets and the Constituent Assembly in 1917-1918, under pressure from the astute and far-sighted Lenin. An exposition of the facts shows that, faced with the  choice of being faithful to Marxism and parliamentarianism by clinging stubbornly, come what may, to the Constituent Assembly and opposing the transfer of power implicit in ‘All power to the soviets!’, with the risk of being “swept aside” by the labouring masses from the theatre of the social struggle as a political party identified with the Constituent Assembly (as befell all the other ‘socialist’, ‘worker’ and ‘labour’ parties), the Bolsheviks repudiated the Constituent Assembly and temporarily fell into line with the  surge from the masses by swimming with the current so as  to await  the opportune  moment to annihilate the  ‘soviets,’ to strip them of their ‘power’ and to concentrate power by a round-about route into their own  hands, no longer through the Constituent Assembly plan of course but rather through the agency of a central executive committee of the soviets.

And despite the prevailing consensus in the party’s central committee – that there be no surrender to the enthusiasm of the masses – Lenin, though in the minority, correctly grasped with his expansive mind the dismal fate which lay in store for the party unless it fell into line with the inclinations of the masses. Lenin announced that the party was with the movement of the workers and peasants and with its outlook. He announced that he was taking the majority on the central committee to task for it was at odds with the wishes of the masses and defaulting upon its revolutionary duty. He unreservedly embraced the slogan of ‘All power to the soviets!’ and, by decree, changed the party’s name to ‘communist’ and for the time being, toed the communist line.

But this did not last long. After it had been announced that the counter-revolution had been defeated, and thanks to Lenin’s bold stratagem, the Bolshevik Party managed to secure a majority in the Pan-Russian Congress of Soviets and on the central executive committee of the soviets. This signalled the start of centralization within that institution (in which the Bolsheviks always retained the upper hand) of initiative and rights. Indeed “by a round-about route” there was a homecoming to the old attitude: all of the soviets’ rights had been cancelled “temporarily” to begin with, and then for good and were now soviets in name only.

“But as long as a country is governed by the dictatorship of one party, the workers’ and peasants’ councils obviously lose all their meaning. They are reduced to the passive role played in by-gone days by the States-General and parliaments when these were summoned by the monarch and had to contend with an all-powerful King’s Council”.

Once ensconced in power and masters of the situation, the Bolsheviks could hardly have acted otherwise. Indeed “The Bolsheviks have never been supporters of an authentic council system. In 1905, Lenin for instance explained to the chairman of the St. Petersburg soviet that ‘his party could not sympathize with the obsolete institution of the councils arrangement.’ But as the early stages of the Russian Revolution had evolved precisely on the basis of just that councils arrangement, the Bolsheviks, whenever they took power, had to seek an accommodation, willy nilly with this inheritance, a very dubious one in their  eyes. Then all of their actions were designed gradually to divest them of all power and to subordinate them to the central government. That they were successful in this is, in our view, the tremendous tragedy of the Russian Revolution.”

Pano Vassilev, Bulgaria 1933

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