Nestor Makhno: The October Revolution and Ukraine

In this excerpt from his memoir, The Russian Revolution in Ukraine, Nestor Makhno describes the effects of the October Revolution in Ukraine. While the “toilers” (workers and peasants) in Ukraine welcomed the October Revolution, anarchist revolutionaries, such as Makhno, urged vigilance, lest the Bolsheviks establish their own dictatorship.

The October Revolution and Ukraine

I want to move on to reporting on the effect of the October coup after its triumph in Petrograd and Moscow. It exerted an influence almost immediately on the revolutionary toilers of Zaporozh’e and Preazov, in particular. This included the following raions [districts] which were linked ideologically with the Gulyai-Pole Soviet and looked to it for guidance in the struggle against the government and the widening and deepening of the revolutionary process: Aleksandrovsk, Melitopol’, Berdyansk, Mariupol’, Bakhmut, and Pavlograd.

Having followed closely the everyday goings on in these raions, I can confirm that in November and December the triumph of the coup in Russia was greeted by the Ukrainian toilers with great joy. They in no way changed their own local activities because they recognized that the Coup was based on the ideas of the real Revolution, which came from the awakening of the oppressed villages and enslaved cities.

Up until October, Gulyai-Pole raion had tried to make its mark on the Revolution in a deep and deliberate manner – completely devoid of any statist concepts. Then at the end of November 1917 four official governments were organized in Ekaterinoslav, each pretending to rule the revolutionary masses of the whole province. They proceeded to bad-mouth each other and then started to fight among themselves, dragging the toilers into the fray. Gulyai-Pole raion completely avoided taking sides in these struggles in which one government or the other temporarily triumphed.

At the beginning of December the bloc of Bolsheviks and Left S-Rs got the upper hand in Ekaterinoslav. Gulyai-Pole raion recognized these parties as revolutionary and immediately came up with an analysis their revolutionary value.

The toilers said:

“We consider the Bolsheviks and Left S-Rs to be revolutionary because of their activities during the Revolution. We congratulate them as staunch militants. But we don’t trust them in power. They triumphed on our backs over the bourgeoisie which tried to kill the Revolution with the support of right-wing socialist groupings. And then the Bolsheviks and Left S-Rs set up their own government which smells just the same as any other government, the likes of which have been stifling us for centuries. And it doesn’t look like this new government is in any hurry to establish local self-management for the toilers so they won’t be at the mercy of the bosses.

Everywhere commissariats are being established. And these commissariats have a police-like character rather than being egalitarian institutions composed of comrades seeking to explain to us the best way to organise ourselves so that we will be independent and not have to listen to the bosses who up to now have lived on our backs and done us nothing but harm.

Since this revolutionary government shows no egalitarian tendencies, since on the contrary it is consolidating police-like institutions, then in the future we can expect, instead of advice, only the peremptory orders of the bosses. Anyone thinking independently and acting contrary to the orders received will be faced with death or deprived of their freedom, which we value above all else.”

The toilers offered this analysis which, although vague in details, expressed the truth that by means of their sacrifices events had taken place in which one evil system was overthrown and another installed in its place under various pretexts.

The fact that the toiling masses of Ukraine understood the aspirations of the various political parties allowed them to reject the right-wing socialists and ally themselves with those groups which they saw moving in the same direction. In the vanguard they saw the Bolsheviks, Left S-Rs, and anarchists. But the first two socialist groupings knew what they needed to do at the given moment; moreover they had concluded an alliance which meant that they acted perfectly in unison. This made them stand out in the eyes of the toilers who referred to them under one name – “Bolsheviks” – a name under which all the revolutionaries were merged, including the anarchists.

The masses of toilers looked at this complex of groupings standing in their vanguard and said: “We welcome these revolutionaries, but we don’t have enough information to say they won’t end up fighting among themselves for the right to take power over us and subject us entirely to their will. This tendency certainly exists among them which could lead them to unleash a new war while we, the toilers, with our right to autonomous action on behalf of revolutionary interests, are relegated to the sidelines and forced to submit to the egotistical, criminal interests of parties.”

This forced the revolutionary toilers of Gulyai-Pole to be even more vigilant than usual.

Nestor Makhno, The Russian Revolution in Ukraine

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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

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.

Nestor Makhno: From the Public Committee to the Peasants’ Union

Russian peasants

After his return to Ukraine in March 1917, Nestor Makhno focused on creating a Peasants’ Union that would organize the local peasantry for the purpose of instituting a form of socialist self-management of the land by the peasants themselves. He debated those local anarchists who opposed taking a leadership role, concerned that they would be placing themselves in positions of authority above the people. He spoke against organizing support for revolutionary parties for the purpose of enabling them to push for the expropriation of the land by a Constituent Assembly, when the peasants could do this themselves without waiting for the political parties to do this for them. He also argued for the replacement of the local Public Committee, which represented the Provisional Government, by the Peasants’ Union. The following excerpts, from Volume One of Makhno’s memoir, The Russian Revolution in Ukraine, begin with Makhno attending a general meeting of the Public Committee.

From the Public Committee to the Peasants’ Union

Towards noon I arrived at the general meeting which had just started with the report of the chairman of the Public Committee, Ensign Prusinsky…

At the conclusion of his report, the chairman of the Public Committee asked me to address the Council in support of his views. This I refused to do and instead asked to speak on another matter.

In my speech I pointed out to the peasants the absurdity of allowing in revolutionary Gulyai-Pole such a Public Committee, headed by people who were strangers to the community and who were not accountable to the community for their actions. And I proposed that the assembly immediately delegate four people from each sotnia (Gulyai-Pole was divided into seven wards, called sotnias) to hold a special conference about this and other questions…

It was decided that delegates should be elected at separate meetings of the sotnias and a day was fixed for the meetings. Thus ended my first public appearance after getting out of prison…

After this I went to a meeting of our whole group.

Here we analyzed my report and Kalenichenko’s criticism of it. As a result, we decided to begin methodical propaganda work in the sotnias: among the peasants, and in the mills and workshops. This agitation work was to be based on two premises:

  1. So long as the peasants and workers found themselves in a disorganized state, they would not be able to constitute themselves as a regional social force of [an] anti-authoritarian character, capable of struggling against the “Public Committee”. Up to this point the peasants and workers, whether they liked it or not, had been obliged to adhere to the “Public Committee”, organized under the auspices of the Provisional Coalition Government. That is why it was important to re-elect this Committee in Gulyai-Pole.
  2. Sustained agitation must be carried out for the organization of a Peasants’ Union, which we would take part in and in which we would exercise the dominant influence. We would express our lack of confidence in the “Public Committee”, an organ of the central government, and urge the Peasants’ Union to take over this organ.

“This tactic,” I told the comrades, “I see leading to the repudiation of government rule with its concept of this type of Public Committee. Moreover, if we are successful in our efforts, we shall help the peasants and workers to realize a fundamental truth. Namely that once they take a conscious and serious approach to the question of revolution, then they themselves will become the true bearers of the concept of self-management. And they won’t need the guidance of political parties with their servant — the State.

The time is very favourable for us, anarchists, to strive for a practical solution to a whole range of problems of the present and the future, even if there are great difficulties and the possibility of frequent mistakes. These problems are connected in one way or another with our ideal and by struggling for our demands we shall become the true bearers of the free society. We can’t let this opportunity pass by. That would be an unforgivable error for our group, for we would become separated from the labouring masses.

At all costs we must beware of losing touch with the workers. This is equivalent to political death for revolutionaries. Or even worse, we could force the workers to reject our ideas, ideas which attract them now and will continue to attract them so long as we are among them, marching, fighting, and dying, or winning and rejoicing.”

The comrades, smiling ironically, replied: “Old buddy, you are deviating from the normal Anarchist tactic. We should be listening to the voice of our movement, as you yourself called upon us to do at our first meeting.”

“You are quite right, we must and we shall listen to the voice of our movement, if there is a movement. At present I don’t see it. But I know we must work now, without delay. I proposed a plan of work and we have already adopted it. What else remains to do, except work?”…

About the middle of the week, the elected delegates gathered at the school to discuss the re-election of the Public Committee…

The elected peasant delegates consulted with the delegates from the factory workers and jointly passed a resolution demanding the re-election of the “Public Committee”…

The delegates returned to their own electors and discussed the resolution with them. When the resolution had been confirmed by the electors, a date was set for new elections.

Meanwhile the members of our group were preparing the peasants for the organization of the Peasants’ Union.

During this period an agent arrived from the District Committee of the Peasants’ Union, formed from the ranks of the Socialist-Revolutionary Party. This was Comrade Krylov-Martynov, who was charged with organizing a committee of the Peasants’ Union in Gulyai-Pole…

The SR Krylov-Martynov was an effective orator. He described in glowing terms to the peasants the impending struggle of the Socialist-Revolutionaries for the transfer of land to the peasants without compensation. This struggle was to take place in the Constituent Assembly, expected to be convened in the near future. For this struggle the support of the peasants was required. He appealed to them to organize themselves into a Peasants’ Union and support the Socialist-Revolutionary Party.

This provided an opening for me and several other members of our group to intervene. I said:

“We, the Anarchists, agree with the Socialist-Revolutionaries on the necessity of the peasants organizing themselves into a Peasants’ Union. But not for the purpose of supporting the SRs in their future oratorical struggle with the social-democrats and kadets in the contemplated Constitutional Struggle (if indeed it ever comes to be).

From the revolutionary Anarchist point of view, the organization of the Peasants’ Union is necessary so the peasants can make the maximum contribution of their vital energies to the revolutionary current. In doing so they will leave their stamp upon the Revolution and determine its concrete results.

These results, for the labouring peasantry, will logically turn out as follows. At present the power of Capital and its creature — its system of organized thuggery — the State — is based on the forced labour and artificially-subjugated intelligence of the labouring masses. But now the labouring masses of the countryside and the cities can struggle to create their own lives and their own freedom. And they can manage this without the leadership of political parties with their proposed debates in the Constituent Assembly.

The labouring peasants and workers shouldn’t even be thinking about the Constituent Assembly. The Constituent Assembly is their enemy. It would be criminal on the part of the workers to expect from it their own freedom and happiness.

The Constituent Assembly is a gambling casino run by political parties. Ask anyone who hangs around such places if it is possible to visit them without being deceived! It’s impossible.

The working class — the peasantry and the workers — will inevitably be deceived if they send their own representatives to the Constituent Assembly.

Now is not the time for the labouring peasantry to be thinking about the Constituent Assembly and about organizing support for political parties, including the Socialist-Revolutionaries. No! The peasants and the workers are facing more serious problems. They should prepare to transform all the land, factories, and workshops into communal property as the basis on which they will build a new life.

The Gulyai-Pole Peasants’ Union, which we are proposing to found at this meeting, will be the first step in this direction…”

The SR agent of the District Party Committee of the Peasants’ Union was not perturbed by our intervention. In fact he agreed with us. And so on March 28–29, 1917, was founded the Gulyai-Pole Peasants’ Union.

Nestor Makhno

Makhno – fighting for the revolution

After February: Makhno Returns to Ukraine for the Revolution

Nestor Makhno

After his release from prison at the beginning of the February 1917 Revolution in Russia, Nestor Makhno made his way back to his home town in Ukraine, Gulyai-Pole. There he met up with surviving anarchists to take stock of the situation and determine a course of action. Initially, Makhno had considered making the overthrow of the local organ of the Provisional Government, the Public Committee, their first priority. However, he decided it would be better to first focus on creating a Peasants’ Union, which would spearhead the expropriation of the land without having to wait for the Provisional Government to take action. He proposed placing an anarchist at the head of the Peasants’ Union to prevent it from being co-opted by any of the political parties. His comrade, Kalinichenko, opposed this approach, arguing that the anarchists should not take any leadership positions but should instead spread anarchist propaganda to encourage the peasants themselves to take an anarchist path. The following excerpts from Makhno’s memoirs are taken from Chapter 2 of his book, The Russian Revolution in Ukraine.

Returning to Ukraine to Make the Revolution

Upon arrival in Gulyai-Pole, I immediately got together with my comrades from the anarchist group…

I saw before me my own peasant friends – unknown revolutionary anarchist fighters who in their own lives didn’t know what it means to cheat one another. They were pure peasant types, tough to convince, but once convinced, once they had grasped an idea and tested it against their own reasoning, why then they pushed that idea at every conceivable opportunity. Truly, seeing these people before me I trembled with joy and was overcome with emotion.

I immediately decided to start the very next day to carry out active propaganda among the peasants and workers of Gulyai-Pole. I wanted to dissolve the Public Committee (the local organ of the Provisional Government) and the militia, and prevent the formation of any more committees. I decided to take up anarchist action as the first order of business…

The members of our group hastily set up a meeting to discuss practical affairs. By this time my enthusiasm for rushing into action had cooled off considerably. In my report I down played for the time being the carrying on of propaganda work among the peasants and workers and the overthrow of the Public Committee.

Indeed I surprised my comrades by insisting that we as a group reach a clear understanding of the state of the anarchist movement generally in Russia. The fragmentation of anarchist groups, a phenomenon well-known to me before the Revolution, was a source of dissatisfaction for me personally. I could never be happy with such a situation.

“It is necessary,” I said, “to organize the forces of the workers on a scale which can adequately express the revolutionary enthusiasm of the labouring masses when the Revolution is going through its destructive phase. And if the anarchists continue to act in an uncoordinated way, one of two things will happen: either they will lose touch with events and restrict themselves to sectarian propaganda; or they will trail along in the tail-end of these events, carrying out tasks for the benefit of their political enemies.

Here in Gulyai-Pole and the surrounding region we should act decisively to dissolve government institutions and absolutely put an end to private property in land, factories, plants, and other types of enterprises. To accomplish this we must keep in close contact with the peasant masses, assuring ourselves of the steadfastness of their revolutionary enthusiasm.

We must convince the peasants we are fighting for them and are unswervingly devoted to those concepts which we will present to them at the village assemblies and other meetings. And while this is going on we must keep an eye of what is happening with our movement in the cities.

This, comrades, is one of those tactical questions which we shall decide tomorrow. It seems to me it deserves to be thoroughly discussed because the type of action to be engaged in by our group depends on the correct resolution of this question.

For us, natives of Gulyai-Pole, this plan of action is all the more important as we are the only group of anarcho-communists which has kept in touch with the peasants continuously over the last 11 years. We know of no other groups in the vicinity.

In the closest cities, Aleksandrovsk and Ekaterinoslav, the former anarchist groups were virtually wiped out. The few survivors are far away. Some of the Ekaterinoslav anarchists stayed in Moscow. We don’t know when they will return. And we still haven’t heard anything about those who emigrated to Sweden, France, or America.

At the present time we can depend only on ourselves. No matter how weak we are in our knowledge of the theory of anarchism, we are compelled to work out an immediate plan of action to be undertaken among the peasants of this region. Without any hesitation we must begin work on organizing the Peasants’ Union. And we must see to it that one of the peasants from our group is at the head of this Union.

This is important for two reasons: first, we can prevent any political group hostile to our ideals from infiltrating the Union; and secondly, by being able to address meetings of the Union at any time on current issues, we shall be creating a close bond between our group and the Peasants’ Union. This will give the peasants a chance to deal with the land question themselves. They can go ahead and declare the land public property without waiting for the ‘revolutionary’ government to decide this question which is so crucial for the peasants.”

The comrades were pleased with my report but were far from agreeing with my approach to the whole matter. Comrade Kalinichenko sharply criticized this approach, advocating that our role as anarchists in the current revolution should be restricted to publicizing our ideas. He noted that since we could now act openly, we should make use of this situation to explain our ideas to the workers, without involving ourselves in unions or other organizations.

“This will show the peasants,” he said, “that we are not interested in dominating them but only in giving them advice. Then they will look seriously at our ideas and, embracing our methods, they will independently begin to build a new life.”

At this juncture we concluded our meeting… For the time being we decided simply to review my report and submit it to further analysis and discussion.

Nestor Makhno

Voline: The Russian Revolution – Peasants and Soviets

The February Revolution

In this excerpt from his anarchist history of the Russian Revolution (The Unknown Revolution), Voline discusses the insurmountable problems facing the “Provisional Government” following the overthrow of the Czar at the beginning of the February 1917 Revolution in Russia, primarily the war in Europe which it refused to extricate Russian from, the revolt of the peasants and their seizure of the land that they had worked for centuries, and the competing power of the “Soviets,” standing congresses of workers that were spreading across Russia. I included a chapter on the 1917 Russian Revolution in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas.

After February: The Provisional Government, the Peasants and the Soviets

The machine called the “bourgeois State” broke down in Russia in February, 1917. Its purpose and its activity had always been contrary to the interests and aspirations of the people. Since the latter, for the moment, had become masters of their own destinies, it could not be repaired and put back into working order. For it is the people who make such a machine run — whether under compulsion or freely — and not the governments. The broken apparatus could neither exercise nor re-establish rule by force. And the people no longer “marched” voluntarily toward goals that were not their own.

Hence it was necessary to replace the disabled apparatus with another one, adapted to the new situation, instead of losing time and strength in vain efforts to get it running again.

The bourgeois and nationalist government couldn’t understand this. It insisted on maintaining both the “machine” and the evil heritage of the fallen regime, the war. On this account it was making itself increasingly unpopular. And with the machine [the bourgeois State] broken, it was powerless to go ahead, to impose its war-like will.

This first problem of the hour [ending the war], the most serious, the most immediate, was thus inevitably condemned to remain unsolved by the provisional government.

The second thorny problem was the agrarian question.

Russia’s peasants — who made up 85 per cent, of the population — aspired to possess the land. The Revolution gave these aspirations an irresistible force. Having been reduced to impotence, exploited, and duped for centuries, the peasant masses no longer would pay attention to anything else. They needed the land, at all costs, and immediately, without protocol or ceremony.

Neither physically nor morally could Russia continue the war. Refusal of the Tsarist government to recognize that fact was the immediate cause of the Revolution. And so long as this impossibility continued, any government which failed to recognize it would, logically, fall like that of the Tsar.

To be sure, the provisional government hoped to be able to alter the situation, to end the chaos, reorganize the country, give it new energy. But these were illusions; neither the available time nor the state of mind of the masses would permit it.

Back in 1905, at the Peasant Congress called shortly after the Manifesto of October 17 (while the “liberties” still existed), in preparation for the calling of the Duma, numerous delegates had acted as spokesmen for the aspirations [of the rural masses].

“Any mention of redemption of the land revolts me,” one of those peasant delegates declared. “They propose that we reimburse the enslavers of yesterday, who, even in our own day, aided by the functionaries, have made our life into an obstacle course. Haven’t we already reimbursed them sufficiently by paying rent? It is impossible to measure the barrels of blood with which we have watered the soil. And that’s not all; with their own milk, our grandmothers nursed the hunting dogs of these gentlemen. Isn’t that redemption?”

“For centuries we have been grains of sand blown by the wind. And they were the wind. And now we have to pay again? Oh, no. There is no need for diplomatic discussion. There is only one just way — the revolutionary way. Otherwise they will fool us once more. Anything that speaks of ‘redemption’ is a compromise. Comrades, don’t repeat the error of your fathers. In 1861 they [the enslavers] were cleverer than we, and they had us; they gave us only a little because the people did not take everything.”

“We never sold them the land,” peasants from the Orel region protested. “Therefore we don’t have to redeem it. Already we have paid enough by working for an inhumanly low wage. No, in no case will we pay a redemption. My Lord didn’t get the land from the moon; his grandparents seized it.”

“Redemption would be a flagrant injustice to the people,” delegates from the Kazan district averred. “The people ought to receive a receipted bill of sale with the land. For, in fact, these gentlemen never bought that land. They confiscated it, to sell it later.”

And other peasants told the eminent savant Nikolai Rubakin, sometime between 1897 and 1906: “All these gentlemen — Orlov, Demidoff, Balachoff — got their land free from the Tsars and Tsarinas as presents. And now they want us to redeem it at such prices? That is not only injustice, it is open robbery.”

This explains why the peasants did not want to wait any longer [in 1917]. Nearly everywhere they were forthrightly expropriating the land, driving out any landlords who had not already fled. Thus they had solved the “agrarian question” in their own way and by themselves, without bothering about deliberations, machinations, and the decisions of the Government or the Constituent Assembly. And the Army, composed primarily of peasants, certainly was ready to support this direct action.

The provisional government was undecided whether to accept the situation or to resist it — that is to struggle against the revolting peasants, and also, almost inevitably, against the Army as well. So naturally it adopted the tactic of waiting, hoping, as with the problem of war, to be able to arrange things by maneuvering intelligently and skilfully. The Government spokesmen adjured the peasants to wait patiently for the Constituent Assembly, which, they said, would have the right to establish all law, and certainly would give full satisfaction to the peasants. But nothing came of this.

These appeals were for the most part futile, and this tactic had no chance of success. For the peasants did not have the least confidence in the words of the “gentlemen” in power. They had been fooled often enough! And they felt strong enough now to take the land. To them this was only justice. If sometimes they hesitated again, it was only out of fear of being punished for the acts they were committing.

Too, the problem of the industrial workers was as insoluble by a bourgeois government as that of the peasants. The masses of those workers sought to obtain from the Revolution a maximum of well-being and [the establishment of] rights to a minimum. Immediate and very serious struggles were foreseeable in this field of conflict. And by what means was the provisional government going to maintain its position?

Also the purely economic problem was exceedingly difficult, because it was closely related to the other problems, on the one hand, and moreover, coping with it could not be delayed. In the midst of war and revolution, with a chaotic situation in a disrupted country, it was necessary to organize production anew, as well as transportation, exchanges, finance, etc.

There remained, finally, the political problem. Under the existing circumstances there was no valid solution for it. The provisional government had of course assigned the task of calling the Constituent Assembly in the near future. But for a thousand reasons [attainment of] this task could not succeed. Above all, the government dreaded the opening of that Assembly. Contrary to its promises, its fondest hope was to postpone the Assembly as long as possible, and meanwhile it would seek the installation, through some fortunate turn of luck, of a “constitutional” monarchy. But presently other perilous obstacles arose.

The most serious was the resurrection of the workers’ Soviets, notably the Petrograd Soviet. This had been re-established in the very first days of the Revolution — by tradition, and also as in 1905, in default of other workers’ organizations. True, at that moment the industrial workers were under the influence of the moderate Socialists, Mensheviks, and right Social Revolutionaries. But, all the same, their ideology and program was absolutely contrary to the project of the provisional government, and naturally the moral influence and activity of the Petrograd Soviet soon began to conflict with that of the Government, to the detriment of the latter.

The Petrograd Soviet was a sort of second government for the country. It set the tone of all the vast network of provincial Soviets and co-ordinated their activity. Being thus supported by the working class of the whole country, it quickly became powerful. Also it steadily gained more and more influence in the Army. Before long the orders of the Soviets often carried far more weight than those of the provisional government. Under such conditions the latter was obliged to deal carefully with the Soviets.

It goes without saying that the Government would have preferred to fight them. But to take this action against the organized workers on the morrow of a revolution which had loudly proclaimed absolute freedom of speech, of organization, and of social action, was impossible. For on what real force could it depend to carry out that task? It had none.

Accordingly the Government was compelled to make the most of a bad situation, to tolerate its powerful rival, and even to “flirt”’ with it. The provisional regime well knew the fragility of the sympathies it had among the workers and in the Army. It was keenly aware that in the first serious social conflict those two decisive forces indubitably would side with the Soviets.

As always it “hoped”. It sought to gain time. But the presence of this second “directorate”, unofficial, but threatening, and with which it had to deal, comprised one of the biggest obstacles that the provisional government — official but powerless — must surmount.

The violent criticism and vigorous propaganda by all the Socialist parties, and especially the extreme leftist elements (left Social Revolutionaries, Bolsheviks, Anarchists) also were not to be disregarded. For, naturally, the Government could not have recourse to repressive measures against freedom of speech. And even if it had dared do this, where were the forces to carry out its orders? It had none at its disposal.

Even a powerful bourgeoisie, organized and strongly entrenched, which already had withstood more than one combat with oppositional forces and possessing powerful material forces (police. Army, money, etc.) would have been hard put to arrive at a satisfactory solution to so many problems and to impose its will and its program in the face of the existing situation. And such a bourgeoisie did not exist in Russia. As a class conscious of its own interests, the capitalist class in that country was scarcely beginning to exist. Weak, unorganized, and without tradition or historical experience, it could hope for no success. Also it was not active.

So, representing “in principle” a hardly existing and inactive bourgeoisie, the provisional government was condemned to work in a vacuum. This was without doubt the basic cause of its failure.

Voline

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).

Revolutionaries in St. Petersburg - March 1917

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)

boris-yelenskycover

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.

petrograd-soviet

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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Anarchist Resistance: After the Elections – Before the Revolution

anarchy-flag-resist

The website “Strangers in a Tangled Wilderness” has recently posted a collection of anarchist responses to the Fall 2016 US elections, “Our Work Has Begun – The Future is Coming.” Here is the contribution from Anarchist Resistance NYC. Their criticisms of electoral strategies cannot be separated from the call for alternative means of action; as Malatesta argued, abstentionism in itself doesn’t change anything.

The Days After the Election and the Days Before the Revolution

by Anarchist Resistance NYC

Today, many radicals are asking themselves how they could be waking up to President Trump. Our question instead is what does this mean for the Left in this country. Paralyzing myths have now been shattered, and this situation could, with a lot of work, passion, and clear thinking, lead to a strategy of action and a far greater positive change than voting for the status quo. The change we are talking about is generational and will have a far greater effect than any string of elections, no matter how repugnant they may be.

Those that see the Greatness of America as being misogynist, nativist, anti-urban, and homogenous in race, sexuality and faith are fighting a rearguard battle against the future which they can not hope to win.

First, this election has dispelled the myth, spread during Occupy, that the primary division in this country exists between the 99% and the 1%. Trump’s victory proves that the conflict is deeper than what amounts to a very simplistic and inaccurate economic calculus: the 99 must surely win against the 1. Many of the so-called 99%ers came out in to support a billionaire, while the other half supported a pro-free trade, Wall Street democrat. Yes, there is absolutely a conflict between the rich and the poor, but that has never been the only division in this country. Those that see the Greatness of America as being misogynist, nativist, anti-urban, and homogeneous in race, sexuality and faith are fighting a rearguard battle against the future which they can not hope to win. This doesn’t mean that they will go away quietly and without inflicting great harm, but that is the nature of dying ideologies.

What is distressing is that this desperate rhetoric has captured the imagination of many who have suffered real humiliation and pain under the neo-liberalism of the one-percent. The tragedy is that the rejection and failure of neo-liberalism has led those “left behind” to eagerly cast their lot with the equally oppressive and failed ideology of paleo-conservativism, with its xenophobia, isolationism and anti-intellectualism. This has created a desperate new political alignment that rejects the very things that can restore its adherents’ respect and livelihood.

From this vantage point, American electoral politics has been nothing more than a zombie horde of defunct worldviews along with oppressive and dangerous ideologies lurching across the blue and red states. No president can overturn the demographic reality that this country will continue to urbanize, will become more and more diverse, and that the mythologized manufacturing jobs of the past will remain dead and buried. These realities are the true wheel of history – the dead will inexorably give way to the living, the past to the future – and no election can change that.

Revolution is not an event that suddenly happens, but something that is carefully prepared, built towards, and eventually implemented by those aligned with the future. All governments, whether they are liberal or conservative, will fight equally hard against threats to the State or the capitalist power structure.

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The second shattered myth is that electoral politics is a valid arena for populist leftist change. Whether it is Syriza or Trump, Podemos or Hillary, in the end the Left must confront the oppressive powers of the State and capitalism, none of which can possibly be subverted by superficial electoral games. This is not to say there would be no difference between a Trump administration and a Bernie administration, rather it is to say that the latter would only serve to stall the inevitable confrontation. Electoral politics holds out the promise of slow-moving, incremental socio-political advancement, but real evolution only comes about with a radical change of environment, and this can only be achieved through social revolution.

Revolution is not an event that suddenly happens, but something that is carefully prepared, built towards, and eventually implemented by those aligned with the future. All governments, whether they are liberal or conservative, will fight equally hard against threats to the State or the capitalist power structure. So if we are seeking a confrontation that promises a substantial and irreversible change in society, it doesn’t really matter if it is a liberal or a conservative regime in power. Liberal and conservative governments are both inherently reactionary and resistant to any kind of meaningful change, if only because their very existence is dependent on freezing the present and obscuring all possible futures.

We have seen this play out recently in places like Spain, Greece, the UK, and countless other countries. It is always the same paradigm: the political structure refuses to truly change and will continue an endless cycle of lurching back and forth between liberal and conservative. This brutal and blind impulse towards self-preservation is not only found in rightist regimes. Both right and left-wing regimes have used the implements of totalitarianism – prisons, secret police, fear, war, and economic oppression – to maintain the status quo. To have a future, we must reject all the State’s apparatuses of oppression, and this includes electoral politics with its self-serving divisiveness and false promises of change and hope.

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The third myth is that the government has ever been our government. The government is the tool of the State, it is an occupying force now, just as much as it was before. All occupying forces of the twentieth century pair an outward benevolence with a healthy dose of fear and repression. We have always understood this formula, and have been struggling against it. Trump’s victory, nevertheless, heightens the sense of urgency to pull down the mask of benevolence, and we must not squander it. The government has never been our protector, and now those caught up in the trap of “representative democracy” may finally see this as well.

Without these myths, what ways are open to us in the dark days to come? The situation has changed and will continue to change during the next four long years. It won’t be easy, in large part because currently the Left is small and lacks the maturity needed to mitigate many of the on-coming attacks on the future. Attacks on women, LGBTQ, POC, immigrants, political dissidents, and so many others, have been par for the course for too long, and the coming years will be no different. Trump’s victory has only increased the number of bullies and people who are fearful.

We need to pluck up our courage, ready or not, and do what we can to stand up to the bullies. We need not only audacity, but imagination. Our theater of action must move beyond the co-optable symbolic opposition to the lived reality of everyday struggles against oppression. Our actions need to be bold like the Greek anarchists who squatted a hotel to house refugees or the German Leftists who physically shut down and re-purposed a neo-fascist radio station. We need to take up space in Trump’s America and support others to speak, move, and love in their own neighborhoods without fear. We need to continue to expose the systemic brutality against those racially targeted by the police.

While the Trumpists spew their fevered conspiracy theories we will double down on reality. Yes, we will get bashed, we will lose some fights, but there is too much at stake to stay on the sidelines waiting “for next time.” There is no cavalry coming, no courts, no congressional gridlock, no petitions, no media; now it is clear the only recourse is action from the ground up. This is the time when we must ask ourselves: do we really stand with those being bullied even when to do so may cost us our own safety? Is it worth it to stand side by side with the targeted, the scared, and the disheartened, knowing there will be risks? This time we cannot delude ourselves – thanks to Trump these risks are greater but so also are the rewards.

We can cower in the corner, or we can stand up and make new comrades with whom we will grow our resistance. We must become ungovernable to the occupation and unwavering in our support of those that feel targeted. This is how resistance is born and how it achieves victory.

The liberals promised to protect everyone with nothing but a ballot, and now they have been routed and are publicly conceding on all fronts. They are asking us to passively accept whatever injustices Trump has planned for us, for our neighbors, for our friends, for our co-workers, and for those comrades we have not yet met. We have never believed in hiding who we are or being ashamed of our liberatory aspirations.

We know the power of solidarity. We have relied on it for generations and we know it is a stronger, more honest way to protect ourselves and ensure our future. The time has come to stand up for ourselves and what we fight for, to defend the communities that the liberals have abandoned to fend for themselves while cynically asking them to return to the fold in four years’ time. Four years is too long to hide in fear or to look the other way. Let us not be afraid, let us not offer concessions, for we know our work has begun and the future is coming.

Let us not be afraid, let us not offer concessions, for we know our work has begun and the future is coming

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