Voline: My Friend Trotsky

Leon Trotsky: “shoot them like partridges”

Here is an extract from the new PM Press edition of Voline’s anarchist history of the Russian Revolution, The Unknown Revolution (with a new introduction by Iain McKay), describing Voline’s encounters with Leon Trotsky, before and during the Russian Revolution. It goes well with Emma Goldman’s “Trotsky Protests Too Much,” which I posted earlier. The excerpt can also be found in Daniel Guérin’s No Gods, No Masters (Ni Dieu Ni Maitre), published by AK Press.


Encounters with Trotsky

In April 1917 I met Trotsky again. (We had known each other in Russia, and, later in France from which we were both expelled in 1916.) We met in a print shop which specialised in printing the various publications of the Russian left. He was then editor of a daily Marxist paper Novy Mir (New World). As for me, I had been entrusted with editing the last numbers of Golos Truda (Voice of Labour), the weekly organ of the anarcho-syndicalist Union of Russian Workers, shortly before it was moved to Russia. I used to spend one night a week at the print shop while the paper was being prepared. That is how I happened to meet Trotsky on my first night there.

Naturally we spoke about the Revolution. Both of us were preparing to leave America in the near future to return home.

In the course of our conversation I said to Trotsky: “Truly I am absolutely sure that you, the Marxists of the left, will end up by seizing power in Russia. That is inevitable, because the Soviets, having been restored, will surely enter into conflict with the bourgeois government. The government will not be able to destroy them because all the workers of the country, both industrial workers and peasants, and also most of the army, will naturally put themselves on the side of the Soviets against the bourgeoisie and the government. And once the Soviets have the support of the people and the army, they will triumph in the struggle. And once they have won it will be you, the Marxists, who will inevitably be carried into power. Because the workers are seeking the revolution in its most advanced form. The syndicalists and anarchists are too weak in Russia to attract the attention of the workers rapidly by their ideas. So the masses will put their confidence in you and you will become ‘the masters of the country.’ And then, look out anarchists! The conflict between you and us is unavoidable. You will begin to persecute us as soon as your power is consolidated. And you will finish by shooting us like partridges. . .”

“. . .Come, come, comrade,” replied Trotsky. “You have a stubborn and incorrigible imagination. Do you think we are really divided? A mere question of method, which is quite secondary. Like us you are revolutionaries. Like you we are anarchists in the final analysis. The only difference is that you would like to establish your anarchism immediately without a preparatory transition, while we, the Marxists, do not believe it possible to ‘leap’ in one bound into the libertarian millennium. We anticipate a transitory epoch in the course of which the ground for an anarchist society will be cleared and ploughed with the help of the anti-bourgeois political powers: the dictatorship of the proletariat exercised by the proletarian party in power. In the end, it involves only a ‘shade’ of difference, nothing more. On the whole we are very close to one another. We are friends in arms. Remember now: we have a common enemy to fight. How can we think of fighting among ourselves? Moreover, I have no doubt that you will be quickly convinced of the necessity of a temporary proletarian socialist dictatorship. I don’t see any real reason for a war between you and us. We will surely march hand in hand. And then, even if we don’t agree, you are all wrong in supposing that we, the socialists, will use brutal force against the anarchists! Life itself and the judgement of the masses will resolve the problem and will put us in agreement. No! Can you really admit for a single instant such an absurdity: socialists in power shooting anarchists? Come, come, what do you take us for? Anyhow, we are socialists, comrade Voline! We are not your enemies. . .”

In December 1919, seriously ill, I was arrested by the Bolshevik military authorities in the Makhnovist region of the Ukraine. Considering me an important militant, the authorities advised Trotsky of my arrest by a special telegram and asked for his instructions concerning me. The reply, also by telegram, arrived quickly, clearly, laconically: “SHOOT HIM IMMEDIATELY—TROTSKY.” I was not shot, thanks to a set of circumstances particularly fortunate and entirely fortuitous.


Voline: The Unknown Revolution (1917 – 1921)

Previously, I have posted excerpts from Voline’s anarchist history of the Russian Revolution, The Unknown Revolution (1917 – 1921), first published in French in 1947. I am pleased to see that PM Press is reprinting The Unknown Revolution with a new introduction by Iain McKay. Here I reproduce an article from the book, originally published by the Union for Anarchist Propaganda in Petrograd, in its paper, Golos Truda, soon after the October Revolution of 1917, warning the Russian people of the consequences of a Bolshevik victory in the elections for the Constituent Assembly (which the Bolsheviks soon thereafter simply dismissed). I included a chapter on the Russian Revolution in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas.

The Red Guards enter the Constituent Assembly

The Constituent Assembly and the Bolsheviks

Comrade workers, peasants, soldiers, sailors, and all toilers:

We are in the midst of the election for the Constituent Assembly. It is very probable that this will soon meet and begin to sit.

All the political parties – including the Bolsheviks – put the ultimate fate of the Revolution in the hands of this central organization.

In this situation we have the duty to put you on guard against two eventual dangers:

First danger: The Bolsheviki will not have a strong majority in the Constituent Assembly (or may even be in a minority).

In that case, the Assembly will comprise a useless, motley, socialo-bourgeois political institution. It will be an absurd talking shop like the “State Conference” in Moscow, the “Democratic Conference” in Petrograd, the “Provisional Council of the Republic,” et cetera. It will become involved in empty discussions and disputes. It will hold back the real revolution.

If we do not want to exaggerate this danger, it is only because we hope that in this case the masses will once again know how to save the Revolution, with weapons in hand, and will push it forward on the right road.

But in relation to this danger we should point out that the masses have no need of a hullabaloo of this type, and ought to get rid of it. Why waste energy and money to create and maintain an inept institution? (While waiting, the workers’ Revolution will stop once again!) What would be the good of sacrificing more strength and blood only to combat later “this stupid and sterile institution” in order to “save the Revolution” (how many times again?) and get it out of “a dead end”?

That strength and those efforts could be employed to the greater advantage of the Revolution, the people, and the whole country at large, in organizing the labouring masses in a direct way and from the very bottom, alike in the villages, the cities, and in the various enterprises, uniting the [resultant] organizations from below, into communes and federations of free villages and cities, in a direct and natural manner. All that would need to be done on the basis of work and not of politics nor of membership in this or that party – and this would lead later to regional unification.

Likewise that strength and those efforts could and should be employed in organizing immediately and energetically the supplying of enterprises with raw materials and fuel, in improving means of communication, in organizing exchange and the entire new economy in general and, finally, in carrying on a direct fight against the remains of reaction, especially against the gravely threatening movement of Kaledin in the central region.

Second danger: The Bolsheviki will have a strong majority in the Constituent Assembly.

In such an event, having easily succeeded in overcoming the “opposition” and wiping it out without difficulty, they will become, in a firm and solid manner, the legal masters of the country and of the whole situation – and masters manifestly recognized by “the majority of the population.” That is precisely what the Bolsheviks want to obtain from the Constituent Assembly. That is what they need – that the Assembly consolidate and “legalize” their power.

Comrades, this danger is much more important, much more serious than the first. Be on your guard!

Once their power is consolidated and “legalized,” the Bolsheviks – who are Social Democrats, that is, men of centralist and authoritarian action – will begin to re-arrange the life of the country and of the people by governmental and dictatorial methods, imposed by the centre. Their seat in Petrograd will dictate the will of the party to all Russia, and command the whole nation. Your Soviets and your other local organizations will become, little by little, simply executive organs of the will of the central government.

In place of healthy, constructive work by the labouring masses, in place of free unification from the bottom, we will see the installation of an authoritarian and statist apparatus which would act from above and set about wiping out everything that stood in its way with an iron hand. The Soviets and other organizations will have to obey and do its will. That will be called “discipline.” Too bad for those who are not in agreement with the central power and who do not consider it correct to obey it! Strong by reason of the “general approbation” of the populace, that power will force them to submit.

Be on guard, comrades!

Watch carefully and remember.

The more the success of the Bolsheviks becomes established, and the firmer their situation, the more their action will take on an authoritarian aspect, and the more clear-cut will be their consolidation and defense of their political power. They will begin to give more and more categorical orders to the Soviets and other local organizations. They will put into effect from above their own policies without hesitating to use armed force in case of resistance.

The more their success is upheld, the more that danger will exist, for the actions of the Bolsheviks will become all the more secure and certain. Each new success will turn their heads further. Every additional day of achievement by Lenin’s party will mean increasing peril to the Revolution.

Furthermore, you can already see this now.

Study carefully the latest orders and plans of the new authority. You can already now clearly see the tendency of the Bolshevik leaders to arrange the lives of the people in a political and authoritarian manner, by means of a center which imposes itself on them. You can already see them give formal orders to the country. You can already see that those leaders understand the slogan “Power to the Soviets” to mean power for the central authority in Petrograd, an authority to which the Soviets and other local organizations must be subjugated as simple executive organs.

This is happening now, when the Bolshevik leaders still feel strongly dependent on the masses and are obviously afraid of provoking disillusionment; it is happening now, when their success is not yet totally guaranteed and still depends completely on the attitude of the masses toward them.

What will happen when their success becomes a fait accompli and the masses accept them with enthusiastic and firm confidence?

Comrade workers, peasants and soldiers!

Don’t ever lose sight of this danger!

Be ready to defend the real Revolution and the real freedom of your organizations and your action, wherever you are, against the violence and the yoke of the new Authority, the new Master: the centralized State and the new imposters: the heads of the political parties.

Be ready to act in such a way as to turn the success of the Bolsheviks – if these successes transform them to imposters – into their graves.

Be ready to rescue the Revolution from a new prison.

Don’t forget that only you may and can construct and create your new life by means of your free local organizations and their federations. If not, you will never see it. The Bolsheviks often tell you the same thing. All the better, naturally, if in the final analysis, they act according to what they say.

But comrades, all new masters, whose position depends on the sympathy and the confidence of the masses, speak sweetly in the beginning. In the first days, Kerensky also had a honeyed voice; the heart of gall is revealed later.

Observe and take note, not of words and speeches but of gestures and acts. And as soon as you discover the slightest contradiction between what these people tell you and what they do, be on guard!

Don’t trust in words, comrades. Trust only in deeds!

Don’t trust the Constituent Assembly, the parties, or the leaders. Have confidence only in yourselves and in the Revolution. Only yourselves – that is, your local grass-root organizations, organizations of the workers and not of the parties, and then your direct and natural unification (along regional lines) – only you can be the builders and the masters of the new life, and not the Constituent Assembly, not a central government, not the parties nor the leaders!

Golos Truda, No. 1, December 1917

Valentin Serov, The Assault of the Winter Palace, sketch, The Central Museum of the Revolution, Moscow, Russia.

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.


The Unknown Revolution