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.


The Platform and Its Critics

Organizational Platform

Continuing with the installments from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, in this section I discuss the impact of the “Organizational Platform of the Libertarian Communists,” published by Peter Arshinov, Nestor Makhno and other anarchists in 1926. Excerpts from the Platform were included in Volume One of the Anarchism anthology. The Platform generated a great deal of criticism from other anarchists, some of which I also included in Volume One. More recently, I posted a debate on Platformism between two Ukrainian anarchists in relation to the current civil war in Ukraine.

The Original Platformists

The Original Platformists

The Platform and Its Critics

The defeat of the Makhnovists in Ukraine and the anarchist movement in Russia led Arshinov and Makhno to argue that anarchists needed to rethink their approach. In 1926, now in exile, they published the Organizational Platform of the Libertarian Communists, calling for the creation of a General Union of anarchists based on theoretical and tactical unity, collective responsibility and federalism (Volume One, Selection 115). Although, for the most part, the Platform merely restated the Makhnovist conception of anarchism, it generated considerable controversy in anarchist circles. The Platform argued in favour of military organization based on “unity in the plan of operations and unity of common command,” “revolutionary self-discipline,” and “total submission of the revolutionary army to the masses of worker and peasant organizations common throughout the country.” Despite its insistence on revolutionary self-discipline and contrary to the practice of the Makhnovists during the Civil War, the Platform rejected any form of conscription, stating that “all coercion will be completely excluded from the work of defending the revolution,” marking a return to rather than a departure from anarchist principles (Volume One, Selection 115).

It was the Platform’s emphasis on the need for theoretical and tactical unity, and the notion of “collective responsibility,” that caused the greatest debate. The Platform argued that “the tactical methods employed by separate members and groups within the Union should… be in rigorous concord both with each other and with the general theory and tactic[s] of the Union.” Collective responsibility “requires each member to undertake fixed organizational duties, and demands execution of communal decisions.” The Platform took the position that revolutionary activity in collective areas of life “cannot be based on the personal responsibility of individual militants,” describing such an approach as “irresponsible individualism” (Volume One, Selection 115).

The General Union of anarchists was to strive “to realize a network of revolutionary peasant [and worker] economic organizations” and unions, “founded on anti-authoritarian principles,” with the General Union serving as “the organized vanguard of their emancipating process” (Volume One, Selection 115). Voline and several other exiled Russian anarchists argued against any anarchist organization assuming a vanguard role. For them, the social revolution “must be the free creation of the masses, not controlled by ideological or political groups,” for the “slightest suggestion of direction, of superiority, of leadership of the masses… inevitably implies that the masses must… submit to it.” A General Union of “anarchists” that “orients the mass organizations (workers and peasants) in their political direction and is supported as needed by a centralized army is nothing more than a new political power” (Volume One, Selection 115).

Anarchist critics of the Platform: Senya Fleshin, Voline & Mollie Steimer

Anarchist critics of the Platform: Senya Fleshin, Voline & Mollie Steimer

Voline and his associates found the Platform’s conception of social and economic organization “mechanical” and simplistic, with its scheme for the coordination of production and consumption by workers’ and peasants’ soviets, committees and unions run by elected delegates subject to recall. They saw in such organizations a danger of “immobility, bureaucracy [and] a tendency to authoritarianism that will not be changed automatically by the principle of voting.” They thought a “better guarantee” of freedom lies “in the creation of a series of other, more mobile, even provisional organs which arise and multiply according to the needs that arise in the course of daily living and activities,” offering “a richer, more faithful reflection of the complexity of social life” (Volume One, Selection 115).

While the Voline group acknowledged that ideological differences among anarchists, and the resulting disunity, were partly responsible for the failure of the Russian anarchist movement, they argued that there were other factors at play, including the “existing prejudices, customs [and] education” of the masses, the fact that they “look for accommodation rather than radical change,” and the repressive forces lined up against them (Volume One, Selection 115). For Voline, what was needed was not a more centralized and disciplined party type organization, but a “synthesis” of all the “just and valid elements” of the various anarchist currents, including syndicalism, communism and individualism (Volume One, Selection 116). Foreshadowing subsequent ecological conceptions of anarchism (Volume Two, Selection 48; Volume Three, Chapter 6), Voline argued that anarchism should reflect the “creative diversity” of life itself, achieving unity through “diversity and movement” (Volume One, Selection 116).

Malatesta responded to the Platform by emphasizing that “in order to achieve their ends, anarchist organizations must, in their constitution and operation, remain in harmony with the principles of anarchism.” He argued that the proposed General Union of anarchists should be seen for what it really was, “the Union of a particular fraction of anarchists.” He regarded as authoritarian the proposal for a “Union Executive Committee” to “oversee the ‘ideological and organizational conduct’” of the Union’s constitutive organizations and members, arguing that such an approach would turn the Union into “a nursery for heresies and schisms” (Volume One, Selection 115).

For Malatesta, what the Platformists were proposing was a form of representative government based on majority vote, which “in practice always leads to domination by a small minority.” While anarchist organizations and congresses “serve to maintain and increase personal relationships among the most active comrades, to coordinate and encourage programmatic studies on the ways and means of taking action, to acquaint all on the situation in the various regions and the action most urgently needed in each; to formulate the various opinions current among the anarchists… their decisions are not obligatory rules but suggestions, recommendations, proposals to be submitted to all involved, and do not become binding and enforceable except on those who accept them, and for as long as they accept them” (Volume One, Selection 115).

Malatesta quote 2

Since the publication of the Platform in 1926, anarchists have continued to debate which forms of organization are compatible with an anarchist vision of a free society. Some have championed various forms of direct democracy, whether in factory committees (Volume Two, Selection 59) or community assemblies (Volume Two, Selection 62). Others have followed Kropotkin, Voline and Malatesta in arguing in favour of more fluid, ad hoc organizations forming complex horizontal networks of voluntary associations (Volume Two, Selection 63; Volume Three, Selection 1).

Malatesta suggested that the Russian Platformists were “obsessed with the success of the Bolsheviks,” hence their desire “to gather the anarchists together in a sort of disciplined army which, under the ideological and practical direction of a few leaders, would march solidly to the attack of the existing regimes, and after having won a material victory would direct the constitution of a new society” (Volume One, Selection 115). But for those so inclined, there were other organizations for them to join, namely the various Communist Parties that were soon organized in Europe, Asia and the Americas under Russian tutelage.

Despite the creation of an anarcho-syndicalist International in early 1922 (Volume One, Selection 114), many anarchists and syndicalists, and the trade unions in which they were influential, affiliated instead with the Comintern (Communist International) and its related organizations. In addition, many anarchist and syndicalist groups and organizations were forcibly suppressed, by the Bolsheviks in Russia, the Fascists in Italy, the new “revolutionary” government in Mexico, military dictatorships in Portugal, Spain and Latin America, and the “democratic” government of the United States, which deported scores of radicals in 1919 (including Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman), imprisoned Mexican anarchists like Ricardo Flores Magón, and enacted “criminal syndicalism” laws to prohibit revolutionary syndicalist speech and action.

Robert Graham


Voline: The February 1917 Revolution in Russia

The February Revolution

Kropotkin’s hopes for a social revolution in Russia were revived in February 1917 when the Russian people spontaneously arose to overthrow the Czar. The following passages are from Voline’s account of the 1917 “February Revolution,” from his history of the Russian Revolution, The Unknown Revolution, other excerpts from which are included in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. Voline emphasizes the spontaneous nature of the February Revolution, arising from Russia’s disastrous war with Germany.


The February Revolution

On February 24 (Russian old style) disturbances began in Petrograd. Primarily provoked by the lack of provisions, they did not seem likely to become serious. But next day events took a sudden turn. The workers in the capital, feeling that the Russian people generally were in solidarity with them, extremely agitated for weeks, starving, and not even receiving any more bread, thronged the streets, demonstrated fiercely, and flatly refused to disperse.

Yet on this first day the demonstrations were cautious and inoffensive. In close-packed masses the workers, with their wives and children, shouted: “Bread! Bread! We have nothing to eat. Either give us bread or shoot us! Our children are dying of hunger. Bread! Bread!”

Besides the police, the Government sent detachments of mounted troops, Cossacks, against the demonstrators. But there were few troops then in Petrograd — except unreliable reservists. So the workers were not at all frightened. They bared their breasts to the soldiers, held up their children, and cried: “Kill us all if you dare! Better to be shot than to starve to death!”

Finally — and this was the key point of the episode — nearly all of the soldiers, smiling, walked warily towards the crowd, without using their weapons, and ignoring the orders of their officers. And many of the latter were not particularly insistent. In some places the soldiers fraternized with the workers, going so far as to give them their rifles, getting off their horses, and mingling with the throng. Naturally this attitude of the troops encouraged the protesting workers.

Here and there, however, the police and the Cossacks did charge groups of demonstrators carrying red flags, and several of them were killed or wounded.

In the barracks of Petrograd and the suburbs of the capital, the garrison regiments still held back from taking the side of the Revolution. And the government held back from sending them to combat it.

But the morning of February 26 brought a notable new happening. By decree, the Government ordered the Duma dissolved.

This was a sort of signal that everybody seemed to have been waiting for before beginning decisive action. The news, known everywhere in the capital almost instantaneously, spurred on events. From that moment, the demonstrations took on the character of a strictly revolutionary movement.

Shouts of “Down with Tsarism!”, “Down with the War!”, and “Long live the Revolution!” rang from the milling crowd, whose attitude steadily became more determined and menacing. All over the city the demonstrators resolutely attacked the police. Several public buildings were burned, including the Court House. The streets bristled with barricades. Soon many red flags appeared. The soldiers still maintained a benevolent neutrality, but more and more frequently they mingled with the throng. The Government could depend on its troops less and less.

Now it hurled the whole police force of the city against the rebels. The police quickly formed detachments for mass attack. They installed machine-guns on the roofs of various houses and even in some churches, and occupied all strategic points. Then they began a general offensive against the rising masses.

During that whole day of February 26 the fighting was hot. In many instances the police were dislodged, policemen were killed, and their machine-guns silenced. But elsewhere they resisted fiercely.

Tsar Nicholas II, who was at the war-front, was warned by telegram of the gravity of the situation. Meanwhile the Duma decided to continue sitting and not yield to the order to dissolve.

The decisive action occurred on February 27, 1917.

Revolutionary Russia

From early morning, whole regiments of the Petrograd garrison, no longer hesitant, mutinied, left their barracks, arms in hand, and took over certain strategic points in the capital, after brief skirmishes with the police. The Revolution gained ground.

At a given moment, a dense mass of demonstrators, defiant and grimly threatening, and partially armed, assembled in Znamenskaya Square and in the vicinity of the Nikolaievsky railway station. The Government sent two cavalry regiments from the Imperial Guard, the soldiers it still could trust, as well as a strong detachment of police, both on foot and mounted. The troops were supposed to support and assist the police.

After the usual summons [warning the demonstrators to disperse], the police commander gave an order to charge the crowd. But now another last-moment “miracle” occurred. The officer commanding the Guard cavalrymen raised his sabre, and with a cry of “Charge the police!” launched his two regiments against them. In almost no time the latter were beaten, thrown back, overwhelmed.

Soon the last resistance of the police was broken. The revolutionary troops seized the Government arsenal and occupied all vital points in the city. Surrounded by a delirious multitude, the regiments drew themselves up, with flags unfurled, before the Tauride palace, where the Duma — the poor Fourth Duma — was sitting, and put themselves at its disposal.

Shortly afterward the last regiments of the garrison of Petrograd and its suburbs joined the movement. Tsarism had no more armed forces in the vicinity of the capital. The population was free. The Revolution had triumphed.

The events which presently followed are well known.

A provisional government, composed of influential members of the Duma, was formed and ardently acclaimed by the people.

The provinces enthusiastically joined the Revolution.

Some troops were hastily withdrawn from the front, and were sent by order of the Tsar to the rebel-held capital, but were unable to reach it. For the railroad workers refused to transport them further when they drew near the city. Then the soldiers refused to obey their officers and went over to the Revolution. Some returned to the front; others simply dispersed.

Tsar Nikolai himself, returning to Petrograd by railroad, had his train stopped at Dno station and then had it take him back to Pskov. There he was joined by a delegation from the Duma and by military personages who had joined the Revolution. He could do nothing but accept the situation. After some trifling negotiations he signed his abdication, for himself and his son Alexis, on March 2.

For a moment, the provisional government sought to present the throne to the ex-Emperor’s brother, Grand Duke Michael, but he declined the offer, declaring that the fate of the country and the dynasty should be put into the hands of a regularly convoked Constituent Assembly.

The front hailed the accomplished Revolution.

Tsarism had fallen. Formation of the Constituent Assembly was the order of the day. While waiting for it to be called, the provisional government became the official authority — “recognized and responsible”. The first act of the victorious Revolution was over.

We have recounted the facts of this February revolution in some detail in order to bring out in relief the main point:

Once more, the action of the masses was spontaneous, logically climaxing a long period of concrete experience and moral preparation. This action was neither organized nor guided by any political party.  Supported by the people in arms — the Army — it was victorious. The element of organization had to be introduced — and was introduced — immediately afterward.

(In any case, because of the repression, all of the central organizations of the political parties of the left, as well as their leaders, were, at the time of the Revolution, far from Russia. Martov of the Social Democratic Party, Tchernoff of the Social Revolutionary Party, Lenin, Trotsky, Lunacharsky, Losovsky, Rykov, Bukharin, et al, were all living abroad. It was not until after the February Revolution that they returned home).

Another significant point also emerges from these events.

Again, immediate and specific impetus was given to the Revolution by the absolute impossibility of Russia continuing the war — an impossibility which naturally was intensified by the obstinacy of the Government. This impossibility resulted from the inextricable chaos into which the war had plunged the nation.

Anarchy – Anarchist

The following definition of “anarchy/anarchist,” originally published in the 1930s, is taken from Sebastien Faure’s Encylopédie anarchiste. Faure was an advocate of “anarchist synthesis,” which sought to combine the best elements of anarchist communism, anarcho-syndicalism and individualist anarchism. The article on “anarchist synthesis” in the Enclyopédie anarchiste was written by Faure’s collaborator, the Russian anarchist, Voline, and is reprinted in Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Volume One: From Anarchy to Anarchism (300CE-1939).

There is not, and there cannot be, a libertarian Creed or Catechism.

That which exists and constitutes what one might call the anarchist doctrine is a cluster of general principles, fundamental conceptions and practical applications regarding which a consensus has been established among individuals whose thought is inimical to Authority and who struggle, collectively or in isolation, against all disciplines and constraints, whether political, economic, intellectual or moral.

At the same time, there may be – and indeed there are – many varieties of anarchist, yet all have a common characteristic that separates them from the rest of humankind. This uniting point is the negation of the principle of Authority in social organizations and the hatred of all constraints that originate in institutions founded on this principle.

Thus, whoever denies Authority and fights against it is an anarchist.