Kropotkin on the Russian Revolution

Peter Kropotkin

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

A letter from Kropotkin

Introduction from Le Libertaire, 22 July 1921:

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

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

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

Comrades and Friends,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

History pushes us in this direction.

Well, let us courageously get to work!

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

Peter Kropotkin, Moscow, August 1920


Gregory Maksimov: The Factory Committees and the October Revolution

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

“Centralism via Federalism”

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

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

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

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

After October

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

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

Workers’ Control

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

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

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

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

Factory Committees

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

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

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

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

Seizure of enterprises

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

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

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

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

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

Gregory Maksimov

Boris Yelensky: Factory Committees in the Russian Revolution

Boris Yelensky’s In the Social Storm – Memoirs of the Russian Revolution, is a neglected text even in anarchist circles. Yelensky was living in exile in Chicago when news of the February Revolution in Russia reached him. He returned to Russia in July 1917, going back to the Kuban region on the Black Sea, where he began organizing factory workers throughout the area, with the centre of his activities being in the port city of Novorossiysk. In this except from his Memoirs, Yelensky describes how a relatively small group of anarchists was able to organize factory committees in Novorossiysk and surrounding areas in the weeks leading up to the October Revolution. While Council Communists and other far left Marxists like to claim the idea of factory committees as their own, while portraying anarcho-syndicalists as advocates of bureaucratic trade union organization, the fact remains that anarchists were at the forefront of the factory committee movements in Russia, and a couple of years later, in Italy. At the 1918 All-Russian Conference of Anarcho-Syndicalists in Moscow, the delegates confirmed their commitment to factory committees as organs of worker self-management. I included the Conference’s Resolution on Factory Committees in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas.

Petrograd Factory Workers

Anarchists and Factory Committees in Kuban

In Novorossiysk, which, though situated rather far from the center, had a dynamic revolutionary cadre, a movement liberated from the control of the Kerensky government became apparent even before October.  To be sure, the Soviet and similar organizations were officially conducted by the Kerensky regime, but in practice everything was in readiness for the expected revolt in the crucial center of Russia so that when it did occur, everything could be changed over to the new foundations of social co-operation without bloodshed.

Novorossiysk was prepared for any development and in this preparation our group played a substantial role.  I can affirm with confidence that we even played the leading role. There were larger organizations in the city – Bolsheviks and Left Social-Revolutionaries – but our small, close-knit anarchist unit had a greater impact on the working class. Furthermore, the more enlightened members of the Bolsheviks and Left Social-Revolutionaries manifested a strong sympathy for the activities of our group.  Thus, the constructive work of our Unit attracted sympathetic interest and help not only from the masses of workers but also among our so-called political adversaries.

When I returned from Kharkov with my two comrades, I submitted a report on my trip, pointing out that I saw no possibility of procuring more colleagues to help in our work and proposing that, if we were determined to achieve constructive results, we must do so with the forces now available to us.

Once again there emerged the question of finances, this time brought up by Comrade George, who had come with me from Kharkov.  This, in turn, brought up the question of expropriation of course, but this time it didnʼt take us long to convince our new co-worker that our group had no intention of undertaking such steps, for we were striving to build a new life founded on social justice and did not feel we could build on this sort of foundation.  This led to a series of meetings that lasted far into the night and continued for a solid week.  In the course of these meetings, and springing from our discussions, there began to crystallize a picture of what our principal task should be.

We then decided that our first undertaking should be to agitate among the workers, urging them to confiscate all industry.  Furthermore, they should organize in every factory and plant “internal committees,” functioning very much as shop committees do among the more democratic unions in the U.S.  But where a shop committee in the U.S. deals with simple economic activities, our internal committees were to fulfill quite a different function, for they were to enable the workers on the job to conduct industrial operations without the bosses.

We designated a special committee of three comrades to prepare a draft of a statute. Comrade Katya Garbova was considered a very competent worker and well equipped for such a task and Comrade Vanya Budnik and myself joined her.  The following day, the committee met and Comrade Garbova presented an outline of the by-laws.  After a brief discussion and a few corrections, we adopted the draft. It is now more than a half-century since that time and I do not have copies of that project and must therefore reproduce its contents from memory.

The title of our project in Russian was Ustav Komitetov Vnutrenovo Rasporyadka (Statutes for Interior Shop Committees) and its principal features or clauses were as follows:

(l) In every factory and shop, each faction would select a delegate, and these delegates would constitute an “Internal Affairs Committee,” which would take over all functions related to the management of production and distribution and would, in addition, exercise administrative duties.  Every element represented would conduct its own internal affairs and the General Committee possessed only the authority to coordinate all proposals stemming from the workers in the various departments.

(2) The committee was to elect a president and a secretary, who would be relieved of their regular jobs and take over the administrative functions.

(3) An “Economic Soviet” was to be organized, composed of two delegates from each factory or shop.  This Soviet would have no executive powers, its task being limited to the coordination of work at the various points and the extension of assistance where it might be needed.

The Economic Soviet was also assigned the mission of collaborating with the Cooperative Movement, so that the latter might take over the finished products and exchange them for the raw materials required by the shops and the factories, as well as for the consumer goods needed by the workers and their families. In addition, this Soviet, with the aid of the Cooperatives, was directed to procure essential commodities for the population of the city.

(4) All organizations were to be built from the bottom upward.  Each and every citizen was considered to be morally responsible in his job as well as in his private life.  Thus, the new social order would be constructed on the basis of collective responsibility.  No individual had a right to expect that anyone else would provide for him or work for him.  This meant that every individual was to be the architect of his own life, and all persons acting in unison would fashion the new community, which would endeavor to expand the great social revolution.

(5) Taking into account the fact that there was no possibility in the immediate future of abolishing money as a medium of exchange, it was recommended that every worker, regardless of the nature of their employment, would receive 300 rubles a month in wages, plus 25% additional for every person whom he supported.  In other words, equal compensation was to be introduced for all, from the unskilled worker to the head engineer; equal pay without distinction.

There were numerous other technical proposals pertaining to the “Internal Affairs Committees,” but those cited above were the principal ones.  The draft of the project was discussed for several days at meetings of our group.  When it was finally adopted, we decided to call meetings of the various shops and plants, and to prepare the working masses for the new social order that seemed to permeate the atmosphere already.  A keen sense of anticipation was prevalent all around us.

Our small group had proceeded this far in the flush of earnest enthusiasm for our great dream; now we were faced with the reality of implementing our ideas concretely.  Three of the members of our group had taken part in trade union activity previously and had some experience with strikes and organizing.  None of the rest of the group had any experience along these lines, so it became the task of the three of us with the experience to educate the rest of the group, by lectures and talks, until they had at least a rudimentary knowledge of the functions and workings of trade unions.  They were willing learners and riding high on a wave of enthusiasm.  They accepted immediately the most important premise we were operating with: that we, as anarchists, were not going out to help the people by building towers for them or by promising them a better social order.  We were going forth to try to help them build a new society themselves.  They, a collective of determined individuals, had to create for themselves a new society based on equality, freedom and social justice.

We decided to start our organizational chore with a large meeting in one of the cement factories.  Since we were on good terms with the workers there the meeting was easily arranged in a few days.  As it turned out, not only the workers of the factory and their families came, but they had also invited everyone from the administration and since such a large meeting couldnʼt be kept secret in the city, many activists from the various political sects and parties also attended.  Many of them were simply curious to see what the small Anarchist group would accomplish.  And, of course, there was an element of excitement too, a quality of the unknown, since no one knew what the representatives of the central government would do or what their reaction would be to this attempt to destroy the principle of private property and to start building a new society.

The factory did not have a hall large enough to hold the crowd but it was ideally situated in a valley between two mountains, so the meeting was held in a field near the factory.

One of the active workers from the factory opened the meeting with a short talk, explaining the reason for the gathering, and then introduced our comrade Katya Garbova.  She was an excellent speaker and proceeded to paint a graphic picture of the situation all over Russia, especially the dichotomy between the empty promises of the various political parties about freedom after the revolution and the reality – true in all of Russia, but particularly in St. Petersburg – which saw the political parties locked in a great struggle against each other, none interested in the welfare of the people, each interested only in seizing power for their own ends. In the meantime the Kerensky government was attempting to continue a war that was ruining the country.

She reminded them that they, the Russian people, had won the great social revolution and that now it was time for them to start to build a new and a free society.  “It is for this reason and this reason only that we come to you today, to remind you that it is time that the workers started to think and actively to build that free society.  If you do not take over the industries and become the masters of your own lives, the political parties will take over in your name and you will remain industrial slaves. It is up to you and only you can decide what to do.  We did not come here to advise you what to do.  Our only aim is to help you if you wish to attempt to start building a newer, freer form of society.  We believe that, in order to do so, we must make for ourselves a completely new environment, in which a human being can live and function in freedom; only with such an approach will we be able to start reconstructing the art of living again.”

She told them that we had a prospectus for their consideration and introduced me – I had prepared myself to present our suggestions.  There was a moment of intense silence when Katya completed her impassioned plea and then an explosion of thousands of voices as the people gave Katya a standing ovation.  Even some of the administration were on their feet cheering.

The following is the essence of my own speech:

“Since the brave and hungry women of Petrograd started to roll the great wheel of the revolution, many human lives have been lost and many false impressions have been promulgated.  The worldʼs current impression is that anarchists are only fit to throw bombs and are not fit for any constructive works.  This misconception dates from the attempts of Karl Marx to spiritually destroy the great thinker and fighter for human rights, Mikhail Bakunin.  These ideas are still pressed by the state socialists and others who wish to keep the human race in a fit state for exploitation.

“I would like to make one more point before I present our prospectus. The situation all over Russia, with political parties warring with each other as to who will take power and control the lives of the people is not new to us.  We have seen the same situation all over the world, in many lands.  What is happening in Russia has happened before, particularly as regards the Social Revolutionary Party, which has always told the Russian peasantry that the land belongs to them and who have promised the people their dream will come true after the revolution.  The revolution has come and now they say that the peasantry must wait until a law is passed.  Havenʼt we waited long enough already?

“The Social Democrats have always preached that the proletarians are the master class and some of them have even said that the factories and shops belong to the workers – again all empty promises.

“Our small anarchist group comes to you with a proposition.  We think that enough has been destroyed by the revolution.  We feel that the time has come for constructive work in our everyday lives to build a new and free society.  We have been accused of being utopians and dreamers and I am glad to be considered so.  What our accusers do not tell you is that we dreamers are ready at any time to try to start building that dream into a reality – that is what we came to you tonight to speak about.”

I then read the prospectus for the takeover by the workers of the factories and shops all over the Novorossiysk region, and continued:

“I must tell you that the lines I have read to you will remain dead lines if we do not make this prospectus a milestone in our miserable lives.  Change will only come if every one of us decides that he or she wants this change and is willing to work for it.

“There is one other important point and that is that we do not expect or depend on any political party or any other human being to do anything for us. The first step toward a new society is for each and every one of us to understand that we, the people, must do the work ourselves.  Only we, working together, can bring about this utopian dream of a free society.

Your factory is the first to be presented with this idea.  In the coming weeks we will cover everyone in the other factories and shops and we hope that by the end of the month we will have an opinion by the workers on our prospectus.  We would like to suggest that you call a meeting of everyone connected with your work and take up the matter of our prospectus. We would suggest that you try to do this without any outside influence, inviting only those involved with the factory.  If you accept in principle our prospectus, we would suggest that the meeting elect two delegates to a conference to be called for the purpose of organizing an economic soviet, which would coordinate the work of the factoriesʼ Internal Shop Committees.”

The enthusiasm was so great that everyone wanted to express his or her thoughts and it was after midnight when the meeting finally came to an end. The reactions were almost all positive and we were sure, when we left the meeting that we were on the right track.

The news of our plans went through the city by word of mouth like a tidal wave and by the next evening our small headquarters was packed with workers from the other shops and factories, all of them demanding that we come and speak to their meetings. The demand was so great and our resources so limited that we finally had to determine where to go next by lottery. It took nearly two weeks to complete the meetings and at every one of them the workers accepted our proposals and elected two delegates to the conference.

Boris Yelensky

The Red and Black Flag of Anarcho-Syndicalism

The Paris Commune and Workers’ Self-Management

Long Live the Commune!

The Association of Women for the Defence of Paris was one of the most revolutionary groups during the Paris Commune (1871). In the following submission to the Commune’s Commission on Labour and Exchange, the Association sets forth a revolutionary program similar to that of the anarchists. Capitalism was to be replaced by the free association of the producers by means of a worldwide strike of labour against capital.

Women workers

The Association of Women have considered the following:

There is only one way of reorganizing labour so that the producer is guaranteed the product of his own work, and that is by setting up free producer associations which will share out the profits from the various industries.

The establishment of these associations would put an end to the exploitation and enslavement of Labour by Capital, and would at last guarantee the workers the management of their own affairs. It would simultaneously facilitate urgently needed reforms, in both production and productive relationships, to include the following points:

(a) variety of work in each trade—a continually repetitive manual movement damages both mind and body.

(b) a reduction in working hours—physical exhaustion inevitably destroys man’s spiritual qualities.

(c) an end to all competition between male and female workers—their interests are identical and their solidarity is essential to the success of the final world-wide strike of labour against capital.

The Association therefore wants:

Equal pay for equal hours of work

A local and international federation of the various trade sections in order to ease the movement and exchange of goods by centralizing the international interests of the producers.

The general development of these producer associations requires:

Informing and organizing the working masses… The consequence of this will be that every association member will be expected to belong to the International Working Men’s Association.

State assistance in advancing the necessary credit for setting up these associations: loans repayable in yearly instalments at a rate of 5 per cent.

The reorganization of female labour is an extremely urgent matter, when one considers that in the society of the past it was the most exploited form of all.

Faced by the present events, with poverty increasing at an alarming rate, and seeing the unwarranted stoppage in all work, it is to be feared that the women of Paris, who have become momentarily revolutionary in spirit, may as a result of the state of continual privation, relapse into the more or less reactionary and passive position which the social order of the past marked out for them. That would be a disastrous step backwards which would endanger the revolutionary and international interests of the working class, thereby endangering the Commune.

For these reasons the Central Committee of the Association of Women requests the Commune’s Commission on Labour and Exchange to entrust it with the reorganization and allocation of work for the women of Paris, in the first instance providing the Association with production of military supplies. This work will naturally not be sufficient for the majority of working women, so in addition the Central Committee requests the commission to place at the disposal of the federated producer associations the sums of money necessary for the working of the factories and workshops abandoned by the bourgeois and comprising those crafts mainly practised by women…

For the Executive Commission

The Secretary-General


Communal Kitchen

The Paris Commune and the First International

Prussian troops marching through Paris

By March 1871, German troops occupied France and what remained of the national government was dominated by rightwing, bourgeois and monarchist factions led by Adolphe Thiers, a notorious reactionary who had done battle with Proudhon during the 1848 French Revolution. On March 18, 1871, Thiers sent troops into Paris to seize artillery to prevent it from falling into the hands of the people. The attempt was quickly rebuffed, with the result that Thiers was forced to withdraw national government forces from Paris. This marked the beginning of the Paris Commune. The Central Committee of the National Guard, which was more of a popular militia than a government organization, quickly called for the election of a municipal government, the Commune of Paris. Many of the militants in the Paris sections of the International ran for office, issuing the following wall poster in support of their slate of working class candidates. But as the poster makes clear, the Paris Internationalists wanted the Commune to be an organ of popular self-management, not a conventional assembly of elected representatives.

19th century workshop

Notions of worker self-management had originated among working class French mutual aid societies and cooperatives in the 1830s and ’40s. Proudhon had helped articulate these concepts and tried to put them into practice during the French Revolution of 1848. Central to these conceptions of worker self-management is the concept of “worker democracy.” In contrast to parliamentary or representative democracy, worker democracy was direct, with the workers themselves making policy decisions in their own general assemblies. When necessary, in order to coordinate action and to work for common goals, delegates from each functional group would meet with delegates from the other groups, carrying with them “imperative mandates” stipulating the policies and actions that the base group had endorsed. These delegates were also subject to immediate recall if they failed to carry out the mandates that had been given to them. Proudhon and other advocates of worker democracy considered this form of direct, functionally based democracy to be the antithesis of representative government and incompatible with state power. As can be seen below, the majority of the Paris Internationalists were also anti-authoritarians, regarding the “principle of authority” as being profoundly incapable of dealing with social crises or bringing about the emancipation of the working class.

For Workers’ Self-Management & Direct Democracy

When the poster speaks of a “freely discussed social contract” providing the basis of a classless, egalitarian society, the reference is not to the “hypothetical” social contract of Rousseau and the Jacobins, which was meant to provide a justification for political authority, but the revolutionary social contract long advocated by Proudhon. As Proudhon put it in The Principle of Federation (1863), the revolutionary social contract “is more than a fiction; it is a positive and effective compact, which has actually been proposed, discussed, voted upon, and adopted, and which can properly be amended at the contracting parties’ will. Between the federal contract and that of Rousseau and 1793 [the Jacobin conception of the social contract] there is all the difference between a reality and a hypothesis” (Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Volume One, Selection 18).

The Commune or Death


A long series of setbacks and a catastrophe that could bring about the complete ruin of our country: this is the situation that France has been placed in by the governments which have dominated it.

Recent events [March 18, 1871] have demonstrated the strength of the people of Paris. We are convinced that a fraternal understanding will soon demonstrate their wisdom as well.

The principle of authority from hereon in is incapable of re-establishing order in the streets and getting factory work up and going again and this incapacity constitutes its negation.

The selfishness of vested interests has led to a state of general ruin and to social conflict. Liberty, equality and solidarity are needed if we are to achieve an order based on new foundations with the reorganization of labour being its first prerequisite.


The independence of the Commune will mean a freely discussed social contract that will bring class conflict to an end and secure social equality.

We have demanded the emancipation of the working class and the elected Commune will ensure this, for it must provide all citizens with the means to defend their rights, to control effectively the actions of the representatives entrusted with the care of their interests, and to determine the gradual application of social reforms.

The autonomy of each Commune removes any trace of coercion from these demands and establishes the republic in its highest form.


We have fought and have learned to suffer for our egalitarian principles. We cannot withdraw as long as we can help to lay the cornerstone of the new social structure.

What have we asked for?

The organization of credit, of exchange, and of production co-operatives in order to guarantee the worker the full value of his labour;

Free, lay, and complete education;

The rights to assemble, to organize and to a free press as well as the rights of the individual;

Municipal administration of police, armed forces, sanitation, statistics, etc.

We have been dupes of those who governed: allowing ourselves to be taken in while they slided, as required, from cajoling to suppressing the various factions whose mutual antagonism guaranteed their power.

Today the people of Paris are far-sighted. They reject this role of a child being directed by a preceptor, and in the municipal election [of March 26, 1871], resulting itself from the action of the people, they will remember that the principle that governs groups and associations is the same as that which should govern society. Therefore, just as they would reject any administration or president imposed by some power from without, they will reject any mayor or prefect imposed by a government that is foreign to their aspirations.

They will affirm their right—higher than the vote of an assembly—to remain masters in their own city and to constitute their municipal representation as they see fit, without seeking to impose it upon others.

We are convinced that on Sunday, March 26th, the people of Paris will consider it a matter of honour to vote for the Commune.

The Federated Council (Paris) of the International and the Federation of Trade Unions, March 23, 1871

Paris Commune: Appeal to the Workers