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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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