The Russian Revolution was, in fact, a great mass movement, a wave rising from the people which passed over and submerged ideological formations. It belonged to no one, unless to the people. In so far as it was an authentic revolution, taking its impulse from the bottom upward and spontaneously producing the organs of direct democracy, it presented all the characteristics of a social revolution with libertarian tendencies.
Without being a direct testimonial, Daniel Guerin’s essay, Anarchism: from theory to practice, remains one of the most significant libertarian reflections on the russian revolution. As part of our ongoing series on the revolution, we share below the chapter of the essay dedicated to the events in russia. (From libcom.org, where the full essay can also be consulted).
Anarchism in the Russian Revolution
Anarchism had found its second wind in revolutionary syndicalism; the Russian Revolution gave it its third. This statement may at first surprise the reader, accustomed to think of the great revolutionary movement of October 1917 as the work and domain of the Bolsheviks alone. The Russian Revolution was, in fact, a great mass movement, a wave rising from the people which passed over and submerged ideological formations. It belonged to no one, unless to the people. In so far as it was an authentic revolution, taking its impulse from the bottom upward and spontaneously producing the organs of direct democracy, it presented all the characteristics of a social revolution with libertarian tendencies. However, the relative weakness of the Russian anarchists prevented them from exploiting situations which were exceptionally favorable to the triumph of their ideas.
The Revolution was ultimately confiscated and distorted by the mastery, according to some – the cunning, according to others – of the professional revolutionary team grouped around Lenin. But this defeat of both anarchism and the authentic popular revolution was not entirely sterile for the libertarian idea. In the first place, the collective appropriation of the means of production has not again been put in question, and this safeguards the ground upon which, one day perhaps, socialism from below may prevail over state regimentation; moreover, the Russian experience has provided the occasion for some Russian and some non-Russian anarchists to learn the complex lessons of a temporary defeat – lessons of which Lenin himself seemed to have become aware on the eve of his death. In this context they could rethink the whole problem of revolution and anarchism. According to Kropotkin, echoed by Voline, it taught them, should they ever need to know, how not to make a revolution. Far from proving that libertarian socialism is impracticable, the Soviet experience, on the contrary, broadly confirmed the prophetic correctness of the views of the founders of anarchism and, in particular, their critique of authoritarian socialism.
A LIBERTARIAN REVOLUTION
The point of departure of the Revolution of 1917 was that of 1905, during which a new kind of revolutionary organ had come into being: the soviets. They were born in the factories of St. Petersburg during a spontaneous general strike. In the almost complete absence of a trade-union movement and tradition, the soviets filled a vacuum by coordinating the struggle of the factories on strike. The anarchist Voline was one of the small group which had the idea of setting up the first soviet, in close liaison with the workers and at their suggestion. His evidence coincides with that of Trotsky, who became president of the soviet a few months later. In his account of 1905 he wrote, without any pejorative intent – quite the contrary: “The activity of the soviet represented the organization of anarchy. Its existence and its subsequent development marked the consolidation of anarchy.”
This experience had made a permanent mark upon working-class consciousness and, when the second Russian Revolution broke out in February 1917, its leaders did not have to invent anything. The workers took over the factories spontaneously. The soviets revived on their own initiative. Once again, they took the professional revolutionaries by surprise. On Lenin’s own admission, the masses of peasants and workers were “a hundred times further to the left” than the Bolsheviks. The prestige of the soviets was such that it was only in their name and at their behest that the October insurrection could be launched.
In spite of their vigor, however, they were lacking in homogeneity, revolutionary experience, and ideological preparation. This made them easy prey to political parties with uncertain revolutionary ideas. Although it was a minority organization, the Bolshevik Party was the only really organized revolutionary force which knew where it was going. It had no rivals on the extreme left in either the political or the trade-union field. It had first-class cadres at its disposal, and set in motion, as Voline admitted, “a feverish, overwhelming, fierce activity.”
The party machine, however – of which Stalin was at that time an obscure ornament – had always regarded the soviets with suspicion as embarrassing competitors. Immediately after the seizure of power, the spontaneous and irresistible tendency toward the socialization of production was, at first, channeled through workers’ control. A decree of November 14, 1917, legalized the participation of workers in the management of enterprises and the fixing of prices; it abolished trade secrets, and compelled the employers to publish their correspondence and their accounts. According to Victor Serge, “the leaders of the Revolution did not intend to go beyond this.” In April 1918 they “still intended . . . to set up mixed companies with shares, in which the Soviet State and Russian and foreign capital would all participate.” “The initiative for measures of expropriation came from the masses and not from authority.”
As early as October 20, 1917, at the first Congress of Factory Councils, a motion inspired by anarchism was presented. It proposed “control over production, and that control commissions should not be simply investigative bodies, but . . . from this moment on cells of the future preparing to transfer production to the hands of the workers.” “In the very early days of the October Revolution,” Anna Pankratova  reported, “anarchist tendencies were the more easily and successfully manifested, because the capitalists put up the liveliest resistance to the enforcement of the decree on workers’ control and actually refused workers’ participation in production.”
Workers’ control in effect soon showed itself to be a half measure, halting and inefficient. The employers sabotaged it, concealed their stocks, removed tools, challenged or locked out the workers; sometimes they used the factory committees as simple agents or aides to management; they even thought it profitable to try to have their firms nationalized. The workers responded to these maneuvers by seizing the factories and running them for their own benefit. “We ourselves will not send the owners away,” the workers said in their resolutions, “but we will take charge of production if they will not insure that the factories function.” Anna Pankratova adds that, in this first period of “chaotic” and “primitive” socialization, the factory councils “frequently took over the management of factories whose owners had been dismissed or had fled.”
Workers’ control soon had to give place to socialization. Lenin literally did violence to his more timorous lieutenants by throwing them into the “crucible of living popular creativity,” by obliging them to speak in authentic libertarian language. The basis of revolutionary reconstruction was to be workers’ self-management. It alone could arouse in the masses such revolutionary enthusiasm that the impossible would become possible. When the last manual worker, any unemployed person, any cook, could see the factories, the land, the administration in the hands of associations of workers, of employees, of officials, of peasants; rationing in the hands of democratic committees, etc.; all created spontaneously by the people – “when the poor see and feel that, there will be no force able to defeat the social revolution.” The future seemed to be opening up for a republic of the type of the Commune of 1871, a republic of soviets.
According to Voline’s account, “in order to catch the imagination of the masses, gain their confidence and their sympathy, the Bolshevik Party announced . . . slogans which had up tin then been characteristic . . . of anarchism.” All power to the soviets was a slogan which the masses intuitively understood in the libertarian sense. Peter Archinoff reported that “the workers interpreted the idea of soviet power as that of their own right to dispose of themselves socially and economically.” At the Third Congress of Soviets, at the beginning of 1918, Lenin declared: “Anarchist ideas have now taken on living form.” Soon after, at the Seventh Party Congress, March ~8, he proposed for adoption theses which dealt among other things with the socialization of production administered by workers’ organizations (trade unions, factory committees, etc.); the abolition of officials in charge of manual trades, of the police and the army; the equality of salaries and remuneration; the participation of all members of the soviets in management and administration of the State; the complete elimination by stages of the said State and of the use of money. At the Trade-Union Congress (spring 1918), Lenin described the factories as “self-governing communes of producers and consumers.” The anarcho-syndicalist Maximoff goes so far as to maintain that “the Bolsheviks had not only abandoned the theory of the gradual withering away of the State, but Marxist ideology in general. They had become some kind of anarchists.”
AN AUTHORITARIAN REVOLUTION
This audacious alignment with the instinct of the masses and their revolutionary temper may have succeeded in giving the Bolsheviks command over the revolution, but had nothing to do with their traditional ideology or their real intentions. They had been authoritarians for a long time, and were imbued with ideas of the State, of dictatorship, of : ‘:__’: , of a ruling party, of management of the economy from above, of all things which were in flagrant contradiction with a really libertarian conception of soviet democracy.
State and Revolution was written on the eve of the October insurrection and mirrors the ambivalence of Lenin’s thoughts. Some pages might have been written by a libertarian and, as we have seen above , some credit at least is given to the anarchists. However, this call for a revolution from below runs parallel to a statement of the case for a revolution from above. Concepts of a hierarchical, centralized state system are not half concealed afterthoughts but, on the contrary, are frankly expressed: the State will survive the conquest of power by the proletariat and will wither away only after a transitional period. How long is this purgatory to last? This is not concealed; we are told rather with relief than with regret that the process will be “slow,” and “of long duration.” Under the guise of soviet power, the revolution will bring forth the “proletarian State,” or “dictatorship of the proletariat”; the writer even lets slip the expression “bourgeois State without the bourgeoisie,” just when he is revealing his inmost thoughts. This omnivorous State surely intends to take everything over.
Lenin took a lesson from contemporary German state capitalism, the Kriegswirtschaft (war economy). Another of his models was the organization of modern large-scale industry by capitalism, with its “iron discipline.” He was particularly entranced by a state monopoly such as the posts and telegraphs and exclaimed: “What an admirably perfected mechanism! The whole of economic life organized like the postal services, . . . that is the State, that is the economic base which we need.” To seek to do without “authority” and “subordination” is an “anarchist dream,” he concluded. At one time he had waxed enthusiastic over the idea of entrusting production and exchange to workers’ associations and to self-management. But that was a misdeal. Now he did not hide his magic prescription: all citizens becoming “employees and workers of one universal single state trust,” the whole of society converted into “one great office and one great factory.” There would be soviets, to be sure, but under the control of the workers’ party, a party whose historic task it is to “direct” the proletariat. The most clear-minded Russian anarchists were not misled by this view. At the peak of Lenin’s libertarian period they were already warning the workers to be on their guard: in their journal, Golos Truda (The Voice of Labor), in the last months of 1917 and early in 1918 Voline wrote the following prophetic warning:
“Once they have consolidated and legalized their power, the Bolsheviks – who are socialists, politicians, and believers in the State, that is to say, centralist and authoritarian men of action – will begin to arrange the life of the country and the people by governmental and dictatorial means imposed from the centers …. Your soviets . . . will gradually become simply executive organs of the will of the central government…. An authoritarian political state apparatus will be set up and, acting from above, it will seek to crush everything with its iron fist . . . Woe betide anyone who is not in agreement with the central authority.
“All power to the soviets will become in effect the authority of the party leaders.”
It was Voline’s view that it was the increasingly anarchist tendencies of the masses which obliged Lenin to turn away from his original path for a time. He would allow the State, authority, the dictatorship, to remain only for an hour, for a short moment. And then would come “anarchism.” “But, good God, do you not foresee . . . what citizen Lenin will say when real power has been consolidated and it has become possible not to listen any more to the voice of the masses?” Then he will come back to the beaten path. He will create “a Marxist State,” of the most complete type.
It would, of course, be risky to maintain that Lenin and his team consciously set a trap for the masses. There was more doctrinal dualism in them than deliberate duplicity. The contradiction between the two poles of their thought was so obvious, so flagrant, that it was to be foreseen that it would soon impinge upon events. Either the anarchist trend and the pressure of the masses would oblige the Bolsheviks to forget the authoritarian aspect of their concepts, or, on the contrary, the consolidation of their power, coinciding with the exhaustion of the people’s revolutionary upsurge, would lead them to put aside their transitory anarchist thoughts.
A new factor then made its appearance, disturbing the balance of the issues in question: the terrible circumstances of the civil war and the foreign intervention, the disorganization of transport, the shortage of technicians. These things drove the Bolshevik leaders to emergency measures, to dictatorship, to centralization, and to recourse to the “iron fist.” The anarchists, however, denied that these were the result simply of objective causes external to the Revolution. In their opinion they were due in part to the internal logic of the authoritarian ideas of Bolshevism, to the weakness of an overcentralized and excessively bureaucratic authority. According to Voline, it was, among other things, the incompetence of the State, and its desire to direct and control everything, that made it incapable of reorganizing the economic life of the country and led to a real “breakdown”; that is, to the paralysis of industry, the ruin of agriculture, and the destruction of all connections between the various branches of the economy.
As an example, Voline told the story of the former Nobel oil refinery at Petrograd. It had been abandoned by its owners and its 4,000 workers decided to operate it collectively. They addressed themselves to the Bolshevik government in vain. Then they tried to make the plant work on their own initiative. They divided themselves into mobile groups and tried to find fuel, raw materials, outlets, and means of transport. With regard to the latter they had actually begun discussions with their comrades among the railwaymen. The government became angry, feeling that its responsibility to the country prevented it from allowing each factory to act independently. The workers’ council persisted and called a general assembly of the workers. The People’s Commissar of Labor took the trouble to give a personal warning to the workers against a “serious act of insubordination.” He castigated their attitude as “anarchistic and egotistical.” He threatened them with dismissal without compensation. The workers retorted that they were not asking for any privileges: the government should let the workers and peasants all over the country act in the same way. All in vain, the government stuck to its point of view and the factory was closed.
One Communist confirms Voline’s analysis: Alexandra Kollontay. In 1921 she complained that numerous examples of workers’ initiative had come to grief amid endless paperwork and useless administrative discussions: “How much bitterness there is among the workers . . . when they see what they could have achieved if they had been given the right and the freedom to act…. Initiative becomes weak and the desire for action dies down.”
In fact the power of the soviets only lasted a few months, from October 1917 to the spring of 1918. The factory councils were very soon deprived of their power, on the pretext that self-management did not take account of the “rational” needs of the economy, that it involved an egoism of enterprises competing one with the other, grasping for scarce resources, wanting to survive at any price even if other factories were more important “for the State” and better equipped. In brief, according to Anna Pankratova, the situation was moving toward a fragmentation of the economy into “autonomous producers’ federations of the kind dreamed of by the anarchists.” No doubt the budding workers’ self-management was not above reproach. It had tried, painfully and tentatively, to create new forms of production which had no precedent in world history. It had certainly made mistakes and taken wrong turns. That was the price of apprenticeship. As Alexandra Kollontay maintained, communism could not be “born except by a process of practical research, with mistakes perhaps, but starting from the creative forces of the working class itself.”
The leaders of the Party did not hold this view. They were only too pleased to take back from the factory committees the power which they had not in their heart of hearts been happy to hand over. As early as 1918, Lenin stated his preference for the “single will” in the management of enterprises. The workers must obey “unconditionally” the single will of the directors of the work process. All the Bolshevik leaders, Kollontay tells us, were “skeptical with regard to the creative abilities of workers’ collectives.” Moreover, the administration was invaded by large numbers of petty bourgeois, left over from old Russian capitalism, who had adapted themselves all too quickly to institutions of the soviet type, and had got themselves into responsible positions in the various commissariats, insisting that economic management should be entrusted to them and not to workers’ organizations.
The state bureaucracy played an increasing role in the economy. From December 5, 1917, on, industry was put under a Supreme Economic Council, responsible for the authoritarian coordination of the activity of all organs of production. From May 26 to June 4, 1918, the Congress of Economic Councils met and decided that the directorate of each enterprise should be composed of members two-thirds of whom would be nominated by the regional councils or the Supreme Economic Council and only one third elected by workers on the spot. A decree of May 28, 1918, extended collectivization to industry as a whole but, by the same token, transformed the spontaneous socializations of the first months of the revolution into nationalizations. The Supreme Economic Council was made responsible for the administration of the nationalized industries. The directors and technical staff were to remain at their posts as appointees of the State. At the Second Congress of the Supreme Economic Council at the end of 1918, the factory councils were roundly trounced by the committee reporter for trying to direct the factories in the place of the board of directors.
For the sake of appearances, elections to factory committees continued to take place, but a member of the Communist cell read out a list of candidates drawn up in advance and voting was by show of hands in the presence of the armed “Communist guards” of the enterprise. Anyone who declared his opposition to the proposed candidates became subject to economic sanctions (wage cuts, etc.). As Peter Archinoff reported, there remained a single omnipresent master – the State. Relations between the workers and this new master became similar to those which had previously existed between labor and capital.
The functions of the soviets had become purely nominal. They were transformed into institutions of government power. “You must become basic cells of the State,” Lenin told the Congress of Factory Councils on June 27, 1918. As Voline expressed it, they were reduced to the role of “purely administrative and executive organs responsible for small, unimportant local matters and entirely subject to ‘directives’ from the central authorities: government and the leading organs of the Party.” They no longer had “even the shadow of power.” At the Third Trades-Union Congress (April 1920), the committee reporter, Lozovosky, admitted: “We have abandoned the old methods of workers’ control and we have preserved only the principle of state control.” From now on this “control” was to be exercised by an organ of the State: the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspectorate.
The industrial federations which were centralist in structure had, in the first place, helped the Bolsheviks to absorb and subjugate the factory councils which were federalist and libertarian in their nature. From April 1, 1918, the fusion between the two types of organization was an accomplished fact. From then on the trade unions played a disciplinary role under the supervision of the Party. The union of workers in the heavy metal industries of Petrograd forbade “disruptive initiatives” from the factory councils and objected to their “most dangerous” tendency to put this or that enterprise into the hands of the workers. This was said to be the worst way of imitating production cooperatives, “the idea of which had long since been bankrupt” and which would “not fail to transform themselves into capitalist undertakings.” “Any enterprise abandoned or sabotaged by an industrialist, the product of which was necessary to the national economy, was to be placed under the control of the State.” It was “not permissible” that the workers should take over such enterprises without the approval of the trade-union organization.
After this preliminary take-over operation the trade unions were, in their turn, tamed, deprived of any autonomy, purged; their congresses were postponed, their members arrested, their organizations disbanded or merged into larger units. At the end of this process any anarcho-syndicalist tendency had been wiped out, and the trade-union movement was completely subordinated to the State and the single party.
The same thing happened with regard to consumers’ cooperatives. In the early stages of the Revolution they had arisen everywhere, increased in numbers, and federated with each other. Their offense, however, was that they were outside the control of the Party and a certain number of social democrats (Mensheviks) had infiltrated them. First, local shops were deprived of their supplies and means of transport on the pretext of “private trade” and “speculation,” or even without any pretext at all. Then, all free cooperatives were closed at one stroke and state cooperatives set up bureaucratically in their place. The decree of March 20, 1919, absorbed the consumer cooperatives into the Commissariat of Food Supplies and the industrial producer cooperatives into the Supreme Economic Council. Many members of cooperatives were thrown into prison.
The working class did not react either quickly or vigorously enough. It was dispersed, isolated in an immense, backward, and for the most part rural country exhausted by privation and revolutionary struggle, and, still worse, demoralized. Finally, its best members had left for the fronts of the civil war or had been absorbed into the party and government apparatus. Nevertheless, quite a number of workers felt themselves more or less done out of the fruits of their revolutionary victories, deprived of their rights, subjected to tutelage, humiliated by the arrogance and arbitrary power of the new masters; and these became aware of the real nature of the supposed “proletarian State.” Thus, during the summer of 1918, dissatisfied workers in the Moscow and Petrograd factories elected delegates from among their number, trying in this way to oppose their authentic “delegate councils” to the soviets of enterprises already captured by authority. Kollontay bears witness that the worker felt sore and understood that he had been pushed aside. He could compare the life style of the soviet functionaries with the way in which he lived – he upon whom the “dictatorship of the proletariat” was based, at least in theory.
By the time the workers really saw the light it was too late. Power had had the time to organize itself solidly and had at its disposal repressive forces fully able to break any attempted autonomous action on the part of the masses. According to Voline, a bitter but unequal struggle lasted some three years, and was entirely unknown outside Russia. In this a working-class vanguard opposed a state apparatus determined to deny the division which had developed between itself and the masses. From 1919 to 1921, strikes increased in the large cities, in Petrograd especially, and even in Moscow. They were severely repressed, as we shall see further on.
Within the directing Party itself a “Workers’ Opposition” arose which demanded a return to the democracy of the soviets and self-management. At the Tenth Party Congress in March 1921, one of its spokesmen, Alexandra Kollontay, distributed a pamphlet asking for freedom of initiative and organization for the trade unions and for a “congress of producers” to elect a central administrative organ for the national economy. The brochure was confiscated and banned. Lenin persuaded almost the whole congress to vote for a resolution identifying the theses of the Workers’ Opposition with “petty-bourgeois and anarchist deviations”: the “syndicalism,” the “semi-anarchism” of the oppositionists was in his eyes a “direct danger” to the monopoly of power exercised by the Party in the name of the proletariat. From then on all opposition within the Party was forbidden and the way was open to “totalitarianism,” as was admitted by Trotsky years later.
The struggle continued within the central leadership of the trade unions. Tomsky and Riazanov were excluded from the Presidium and sent into exile, because they had stood for trade unions independent of the Party. The leader of the workers’ opposition, Shlyapaikov, met the same fate, and was soon followed by the prime mover of another opposition group: G. I. Miasnikov, a genuine worker who had put the Grand Duke Michael to death in 1917. He had been a party member for fifteen years and, before the revolution, spent more than seven years in prison and seventy-five days on a hunger strike. In November 1921, he dared to state in a pamphlet that the workers had lost confidence in the Communists, because the Party no longer had a common language with the rank and file and was now using against the working class the repressive measures brought in against the bourgeoisie between 1918 and 1920.
THE PART PLAYED BY THE ANARCHISTS
What part did the Russian anarchists play in this drama in which a libertarian-style revolution was transmuted into its opposite? Russia had no libertarian traditions and it was in foreign lands that Bakunin and Kropotkin became anarchists. Neither played a militant anarchist role inside Russia at any time. Up to the time of the 1917 Revolution, only a few copies of short extracts from their writings had appeared in Russia, clandestinely and with great difficulty. There was nothing anarchist in the social, socialist, and revolutionary education of the Russians. On the contrary, as Voline told us, “advanced Russian youth were reading literature which always presented socialism in a statist form.” People’s minds were soaked in ideas of government, having been contaminated by German social democracy.
The anarchists “were a tiny handful of men without influence,” at the most a few thousand. Voline reported that their movement was “still far too small to have any immediate, concrete effect on events.” Moreover, most of them were individualist intellectuals not much involved in the working-class movement. Voline was an exception, as was Nestor Makhno, who could move the hearts of the masses in his native Ukraine. In Makhno’s memoirs he passed the severe judgment that “Russian anarchism lagged behind events or even functioned completely outside them.”
However, this judgment seems to be less than fair. The anarchists played a far from negligible part in events between the February and October revolutions. Trotsky admitted this more than once in his History of the Russian Revolution. “Brave” and “active,” though few in numbers, they were a principled opposition in the Constituent Assembly at a time when the Bolsheviks had not yet turned anti-parliamentary. They put out the call “all power to the soviets” long before Lenin’s party did so. They inspired the movement for the spontaneous socialization of housing, often against the will of the Bolsheviks. Anarcho-syndicalist activists played a part in inducing workers to take over the factories, even before October.
During the revolutionary days that brought Kerensky’s bourgeois republic to an end, the anarchists were in the forefront of the military struggle, especially in the Dvinsk regiment commanded by old libertarians like Grachoff and Fedotoff. This force dislodged the counter-revolutionary “cadets.” Aided by his detachment, the anarchist Gelezniakov disbanded the Constituent Assembly: the Bolsheviks only ratified the accomplished fact. Many partisan detachments were formed or led by anarchists (Mokrooussoff, Cherniak, and others), and fought unremittingly against the White armies between 1918 and 1920.
Scarcely a major city was without an anarchist or anarcho-syndicalist group, spreading a relatively large amount of printed matter – papers, periodicals, leaflets, pamphlets, and books. There were two weeklies in Petrograd and a daily in Moscow, each appearing in 25,000 copies. Anarchist sympathizers increased as the Revolution deepened and then moved away from the masses. The French captain Jacques Sadoul, on a mission in Russia, wrote in a report dated April 6, 1918: “The anarchist party is the most active, the most militant of the opposition groups and probably the most popular …. The Bolsheviks are anxious.” At the end of 1918, according to Voline, “this influence became so great that the Bolsheviks, who could not accept criticism, still less opposition, became seriously disturbed.” Voline reports that for the Bolshevik authorities “it was equivalent . . . to suicide to tolerate anarchist propaganda. They did their best first to prevent, and then to forbid, any manifestation of libertarian ideas and finally suppressed them by brute force.”
The Bolshevik government “began by forcibly closing the offices of libertarian organizations, and forbidding the anarchists from taking part in any propaganda or activity.” In Moscow on the night of April 12, 1918, detachments of Red Guards, armed to the teeth, took over by surprise twenty-five houses occupied by the anarchists. The latter, thinking that they were being attacked by White Guards, replied with gunfire. According to Voline, the authorities soon went on to “more violent measures: imprisonment, outlawing, and execution.” “For four years this conflict was to keep the Bolshevik authorities on their toes . . . until the libertarian trend was finally crushed by military measures (at the end of 1921).”
The liquidation of the anarchists was all the easier since they had divided into two factions, one of which refused to be tamed while the other allowed itself to be domesticated. The latter regarded “historical necessity” as justification for making a gesture of loyalty to the regime and, at last temporarily, approving its dictatorial actions. They considered a victorious end to the civil war and the crushing of the counter-revolution to be the first necessities.
The more intransigent anarchists regarded this as a short-sighted tactic. For the counter-revolutionary movements were being fed by the bureaucratic impotence of the government apparatus and the disillusionment and discontent of the people. Moreover, the authorities ended up by making no distinction between the active wing of the libertarian revolution which was disputing its methods of control, and the criminal activities of its right-wing adversaries. To accept dictatorship and terror was a suicidal policy for the anarchists who were themselves to become its victims. Finally, the conversion of the so-called soviet anarchists made the crushing of those other, irreconcilable, ones easier, for they were treated as “false” anarchists, irresponsible and unrealistic dreamers, stupid muddlers, madmen, sowers of division, and, finally, counterrevolutionary bandits.
Victor Serge was the most brilliant, and therefore considered the most authoritative, of the converted anarchists. He worked for the regime and published a pamphlet in French which attempted to defend it against anarchist criticism. The book he wrote later, L’An I de la Revolution Russe, is largely a justification of the liquidation of the soviets by Bolshevism. The Party – or rather its elite leadership – is presented as the brains of the working class. It is up to the duly selected leader of the vanguard to discover what the proletariat can and must do. Without them, the masses organized in soviets would be no more than “a sprinkling of men with confused aspirations shot through with gleams of intelligence.”
Victor Serge was certainly too clear-minded to have any illusions about the real nature of the central Soviet power. But this power was still haloed with the prestige of the first victorious proletarian revolution; it was loathed by world counter-revolution; and that was one of the reasons – the most honorable – why Serge and many other revolutionaries saw fit to put a padlock on their tongues. In the summer of 1921 the anarchist Gaston Leval came to Moscow in the Spanish delegation to the Third Congress of the Communist International. In private, Serge confided to him that “the Communist Party no longer practices the dictatorship of the proletariat but dictatorship over the proletariat.” Returning to France, Leval published articles in Le Libertaire using well documented facts, and placing side by side what Victor Serge had told him confidentially and his public statements, which he described as “conscious lies.” In Living My Life, the great American anarchist Emma Goldman was no kinder to Victor Serge, whom she had seen in action in Moscow.
It had been relatively easy to liquidate the small, weak nuclei of anarchists in the cities, but things were different in the Ukraine, where the peasant Nestor Makhno had built up a strong rural anarchist organization, both economic and military. Makhno was born of poor Ukrainian peasants and was twenty years old in 1919. As a child, he had seen the 1905 Revolution and later became an anarchist. The Czarist regime sentenced him to death, commuted to eight years’ imprisonment, which was spent, more often than not in irons, in Boutirki prison, the only school he was ever to attend. He filled at least some of the gaps in his education with the help of a fellow-prisoner, Peter Archinoff.
Immediately after the October Revolution, Makhno took the initiative in organizing masses of peasants into an autonomous region, a roughly circular area 480 by 400 miles, with seven million inhabitants. Its southern end reached the Sea of Azov at the port of Berdiansk, and it was centered in Gulyai-Polye, a large town of 20,000 to 30,000 people. This was a traditionally rebellious region which had seen violent disturbances in 1905.
The story began when the German and Austrian armies of occupation imposed a right-wing regime which hastened to return to their former owners the lands which had been seized by revolutionary peasants. The land workers put up an armed defense of their new conquests. They resisted reaction but also the untimely intrusion of Bolshevik commissars, and their excessive levies. This vast jacquerie  was inspired by a “lover of justice,” a sort of anarchist Robin Hood called “Father” Makhno by the peasants. His first feat of arms was the capture of Gulyai-Polye in mid-September 1918. The armistice of November 11, however, led to the withdrawal of the Austro-German occupation forces, and gave Makhno a unique opportunity to build up reserves of arms and supplies.
For the first time in history, the principles of libertarian communism were applied in the liberated Ukraine, and self-management was put into force as far as possible in the circumstances of the civil war. Peasants united in “communes” or “free-work soviets,” and communally tilled the land for which they had fought with the former owners. These groups respected the principles of equality and fraternity. Each man, woman, or child had to work in proportion to his or her strength, and comrades elected to temporary managerial functions subsequently returned to their regular work alongside the other members of the communes.
Each soviet was simply the executive of the will of the peasants in the locality from which it had been elected. Production units were federated into districts, and districts into regions. The soviets were integrated into a general economic system based on social equality; they were to be independent of any political party. No politician was to dictate his will to them under cover of soviet power. Members had to be authentic workers at the service of the laboring masses.
When the Makhnovist partisans moved into an area they put up posters reading: “The freedom of the workers and peasants is their own, and not subject to any restriction. It is up to the workers and peasants themselves to act, to organize themselves, to agree among themselves in all aspects of their lives, as they themselves see fit and desire …. The Makhnovists can do no more than give aid and counsel …. In no circumstances can they, nor do they wish to, govern.”
When, in 1920, Makhno’s men were brought to negotiate with the Bolsheviks, they did so as their equals, and concluded an ephemeral agreement with them, to which they insisted that the following appendix be added: “In the area where the Makhnovist army is operating the worker and peasant population shall create its own free institutions for economic and political self-administration; these institutions shall be autonomous and linked federally by agreements with the governing organs of the Soviet Republics.” The Bolshevik negotiators were staggered and separated the appendix from the agreement in order to refer it to Moscow where of course, it was, considered “absolutely inadmissible.”
One of the relative weaknesses of the Makhnovist movement was its lack of libertarian intellectuals, but it did receive some intermittent aid from outside. This came first from Kharkov and Kursk where the anarchists, inspired by Voline, had in 1918 formed a union called Nabat (the tocsin). In 1919 they held a congress at which they declared themselves “categorically and definitely opposed to any form of participation in the soviets, which have become purely political bodies, organized on an authoritarian, centralized, statist basis.” The Bolshevik government regarded this statement as a declaration of war and the Nabat was forced to give up all its activities. Later, in July, Voline got through to Makhno’s headquarters and joined with Peter Archinoff to take charge of the cultural and educational side of the movement. He presided at the congress held in October at Alexandrovsk, where the “General Theses” setting out the doctrine of the “free soviets” were adopted.
Peasant and partisan delegates took part in these congresses. In fact, the civil organization was an extension of a peasant army of insurrection, practicing guerrilla tactics. This army was remarkably mobile, covering as much as 160 miles in a day, thanks not only to its cavalry but also to its infantry, which traveled in light horse-drawn carts with springs. This army was organized on a specifically libertarian, voluntary basis. The elective principle was applied at all levels and discipline freely agreed to: the rules of the latter were drawn up by commissions of partisans, then validated by general assemblies, and were strictly observed by all.
Makhno’s franc-tireurs gave the White armies of intervention plenty of trouble. The units of Bolshevik Red Guards, for their part, were not very effective. They fought only along the railways and never went far from their armored trains, to which they withdrew at the first reverse, sometimes without taking on board all their own combatants. This did not give much confidence to the peasants who were short of arms and isolated in their villages and so would have been at the mercy of the counter-revolutionaries. Archinoff, the historian of the Makhnovtchina, wrote that “the honor of destroying Denikin’s counter-revolution in the autumn of 1919 is principally due to the anarchist insurgents.”
But after the units of Red Guards had been absorbed into the Red Army, Makhno persisted in refusing to place his army under the supreme command of the Red Army chief, Trotsky. That great revolutionary therefore believed it necessary to turn upon the insurrectionary movement. On June 4, 1919, he drafted an order banning the forthcoming Makhnovist congress, accusing them of standing out against Soviet power in the Ukraine. He characterized participation in the congress as an act of “high treason” and called for the arrest of the delegates. He refused to give arms to Makhno’s partisans, failing in his duty of assisting them, and subsequently accused them of “betrayal” and of allowing themselves to be beaten by the White troupe. The same procedure was followed eighteen years later by the Spanish Stalinists against the anarchist brigades.
The two armies, however, came to an agreement again, on two occasions, when the extreme danger caused by the intervention required them to act together. This occurred first in March 1919, against Denikin, the second during the summer and autumn of 1920, before the menace of the White forces of Wrangel which were finally destroyed by Makhno. But as soon as the supreme danger was past the Red Army returned to military operations against the partisans of Makhno, who returned blow for blow.
At the end of November 1920 those in power went so far as to prepare an ambush. The Bolsheviks invited the officers of the Crimean Makhnovist army to take part in a military council. There they were immediately arrested by the Cheka, the political police, and shot while their partisans were disarmed. At the same time a regular offensive was launched against Gulyai-Polye. The increasingly unequal struggle between libertarians and authoritarians continued for another nine months. In the end, however, overcome by more numerous and better equipped forces, Makhno had to give up the struggle. He managed to take refuge in Rumania in August 1921, and later reached Paris, where he died much later of disease and poverty. This was the end of the epic story of the Makhnovtchina. According to Peter Archinoff, it was the prototype of an independent movement of the working masses and hence a source of future inspiration for the workers of the world.
In February-March 1921, the Petrograd workers and the sailors of the Kronstadt fortress were driven to revolt, the aspirations which inspired them being very similar to those of the Makhnovist revolutionary peasants.
The material conditions of urban workers had become intolerable through lack of foodstuffs, fuel, and transport, and any expression of discontent was being crushed by a more and more dictatorial and totalitarian regime. At the end of February strikes broke out in Petrograd, Moscow, and several other large industrial centers. The workers demanded bread and liberty; they marched from one factory to another, closing them down, attracting new contingents of workers into their demonstrations. The authorities replied with gunfire, and the Petrograd workers in turn by a protest meeting attended by 10,000 workers. Kronstadt was an island naval base forty-eight miles from Petrograd in the Gulf of Finland which was frozen during the winter. It was populated by sailors and several thousand workers employed in the naval arsenals. The Kronstadt sailors had been in the vanguard of the revolutionary events of 1905 and 1917. As Trotsky put it, they had been the “pride and glory of the Russian Revolution.” The civilian inhabitants of Kronstadt had formed a free commune, relatively independent of the authorities. In the center of the fortress an enormous public square served as a popular forum holding as many as 30,000 persons.
In 1921 the sailors certainly did not have the same revolutionary makeup and the same personnel as in 1917; they had been drawn from the peasantry far more than their predecessors; but the militant spirit had remained and as a result of their earlier performance they retained the right to take an active part in workers’ meetings in Petrograd. When the workers of the former capital went on strike they sent emissaries who were driven back by the forces of order. During two mass meetings held in the main square they took up as their own the demands of the strikers. Sixteen thousand sailors, workers, and soldiers attended the second meeting held on March 1, as did the head of state, Kalinin, president of the central executive. In spite of his presence they passed a resolution demanding that the workers, Red soldiers, and sailors of Petrograd, Kronstadt, and the Petrograd province be called together during the next ten days in a conference independent of the political parties. They also called for the abolition of “political officers,” asked that no political party should have privileges, and that the Communist shock detachments in the army and “Communist guards” in the factories should be disbanded.
It was indeed the monopoly of power of the governing party which they were attacking. The Kronstadt rebels dared to call this monopoly an “usurpation.” Let the angry sailors speak for themselves, as we skim through the pages of the official journal of this new commune, the Izvestia of Kronstadt. According to them, once it had seized power the Communist Party had only one concern: to keep it by fair means or foul. It had lost contact with the masses, and proved its inability to get the country out of a state of general collapse. It had become bureaucratic and lost the confidence of the workers. The soviets, having lost their real power, had been meddled with, taken over, and manipulated, the trade unions were being made instruments of the State. An omnipotent police apparatus weighed on the people, enforcing its laws by gunfire and the use of terror. Economic life had become not the promised socialism, based on free labor, but a harsh state capitalism. The workers were simply wage earners under this national trust, exploited just as before. The irreverent men of Kronstadt went so far as to express doubt about the infallibility of the supreme leaders of the revolution. They mocked Trotsky, and even Lenin, irreverently. Their immediate demands were the restoration of all freedoms and free elections to all the organs of soviet democracy, but beyond this they were looking to a more distant objective with a clearly anarchist content: a “third revolution.”
The rebels did, however, intend to keep within the framework of the Revolution and undertook to watch over the achievements of the social revolution. They proclaimed that they had nothing in common with those who would have wished to “return to the knout of Czarism,” and though they did not conceal their intention of depriving the “Communists” of power, this was not to be for the purpose of “returning the workers and peasants to slavery.” Moreover, they did not cut off all possibility of cooperation with the regime, still hoping “to be able to find a common language.” Finally, the freedom of expression they were demanding was not to be for just anybody, but only for sincere believers in the Revolution: anarchists and “left socialists” (a formula which would exclude social democrats or Mensheviks).
The audacity of Kronstadt was much more than a Lenin or a Trotsky could endure. The Bolshevik leaders had once and for all identified the Revolution with the Communist Party, and anything which went against this myth must, in their eyes, appear as “counter-revolutionary.” They saw the whole of Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy in danger. Kronstadt frightened them the more, since they were governing in the name of the proletariat and, suddenly, their authority was being disputed by a movement which they knew to be authentically proletarian. Lenin, moreover, held the rather simplistic idea that a Czarist restoration was the only alternative to the dictatorship of his own party. The statesmen of the Kremlin in 1921 argued in the same way as those, much later, in the autumn of 1956: Kronstadt was the forerunner of Budapest.
Trotsky, the man with the “iron fist,” undertook to be personally responsible for the repression. “If you persist, you will be shot down from cover like partridges,” he announced to the “mutineers.” The sailors were treated as “White Guardists,” accomplices of the interventionist Western powers, and of the “Paris Bourse.” They were to be reduced to submission by force of arms. It was in vain that the anarchists Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, who had found asylum in the fatherland of the workers after being deported from the United States, sent a pathetic letter to Zinoviev, insisting that the use of force would do “incalculable damage to the social revolution” and adjuring the “Bolshevik comrades” to settle the conflict through fraternal negotiation. The Petrograd workers could not come to the aid of Kronstadt because they were already terrorized, and subject to martial law.
An expeditionary force was set up composed of carefully hand-picked troops, for many Red soldiers were unwilling to fire on their class brothers. This force was put under the command of a former Czarist officer, the future Marshall Tukachevsky. The bombardment of the fortress began on March 7. Under the heading “Let the world know!” the besieged inhabitants launched a last appeal: “May the blood of the innocent be on the head of the Communists, mad, drunk and enraged with power. Long live the power of the soviets!” The attacking force moved across the frozen Gulf of Finland on March 18 and quelled the “rebellion” in an orgy of killing.
The anarchists had played no part in this affair. However, the revolutionary committee of Kronstadt had invited two libertarians to join it: Yarchouk (the founder of the Kronstadt soviet of 1917) and Voline; in vain, for they were at the time imprisoned by the Bolsheviks. Ida Mett, historian of the Kronstadt revolt (in La Commune de Cronstadt), commented that “the anarchist influence was brought to bear only to the extent to which anarchism itself propagated the idea of workers’ democracy.” The anarchists did not play any direct part in events, but they associated themselves with them. Voline later wrote: “Kronstadt was the first entirely independent attempt of the people to free themselves of all control and carry out the social revolution: this attempt was made directly, . . . by the working masses themselves, without ‘political shepherds,’ without ‘leaders,’ or ‘tutors.’ Alexander Berkman added: “Kronstadt blew sky high the myth of the proletarian State; it proved that the dictatorship of the Communist Party and the Revolution were really incompatible.”
ANARCHISM LIVING AND DEAD
Although the anarchists played no direct part in the Kronstadt rising, the regime took advantage of crushing it to make an end of an ideology which continued to frighten them. A few weeks earlier, on February 8, the aged Kropotkin had died on Russian soil, and his remains had been given an imposing funeral, which was followed by an immense convoy of about 100,000 people. Over the heads of the crowd, among the red flags, one could see the black banners of the anarchist groups inscribed in letters of fire: “Where there is authority there is no freedom.” According to Kropotkin’s biographers, this was “the last great demonstration against Bolshevik tyranny, and many took part more to demand freedom than to praise the great anarchist.”
Hundreds of anarchists were arrested after Kronstadt, and only a few months later, the libertarian Fanny Baron and eight of her comrades were shot in the cellars of the Cheka prison in Moscow. Militant anarchism had received a fatal blow. But outside Russia, the anarchists who had lived through the Russian Revolution undertook an enormous labor of criticism and doctrinal revision which reinvigorated libertarian thought and made it more concrete. As early as September 1920, the congress of the Confederation of Anarchist Organizations of the Ukraine, Nabat, had categorically rejected the expression “dictatorship of the proletariat,” seeing that it led inevitably to dictatorship over the masses by that fraction of the proletariat entrenched in the Party, by officials, and a handful of leaders. Just before he died Kropotkin had issued a “Message to the Workers of the West” in which he sorrowfully denounced the rise of a “formidable bureaucracy”: “It seems to me that this attempt to build a communist republic on the basis of a strongly centralized state, under the iron law of the dictatorship of one party, has ended in a terrible fiasco. Russia teaches us how not to impose communism.”
A pathetic appeal from the Russian anarcho-syndicalists to the world proletariat was published in the January 7-14, 1921, issue of the French journal Le Libertaire: “Comrades, put an end to the domination of your bourgeoisie just as we have done here. But do not repeat our errors; do not let state communism establish itself in your countries!” In 1920 the German anarchist, Rudolf Rocker, who later lived and died in the United States, wrote Die Bankrotte des Russischen Stautskommunismus (The Bankruptcy of State Communism), which appeared in 1921. This was the first analysis to be made of the degeneration of the Russian Revolution. In his view the famous “dictatorship of the proletariat” was not the expression of the will of a single class, but the dictatorship of a party pretending to speak in the name of a class and kept in power by force of bayonets. “Under the dictatorship of the proletariat in Russia a new class has developed, the ‘commissarocracy,’ which oppresses the broad masses just as much as the old regime used to do.” By systematically subordinating all the factors in social life to an all-powerful government endowed with every prerogative, “one could not fail to end up with the hierarchy of officials which proved fatal to the development of the Russian Revolution.” “Not only did the Bolsheviks borrow the state apparatus from the previous society, but they have given it an all-embracing power which no other government arrogates to itself.”
In June 1922 the group of Russian anarchists exiled in Germany published a revealing little book under the names of A. Gorielik, A. Komoff, and Voline: Repression de l’Anarchisme en Russie Sovietique(The Repression of Anarchism in Soviet Russia). Voline made a French translation which appeared at the beginning of 1923. It contained an alphabetical list of the martyrs of Russian anarchism. In 1921-1922, Alexander Berkman, and in 1922-1923, Emma Goldman published a succession of pamphlets on the dramatic events which they had witnessed in Russia.
In their turn, Peter Archinoff and Nestor Makhno himself, escaped Makhnovites who had taken refuge in the West, published their evidence.
The two great libertarian classics on the Russian Revolution, The Guillotine at Work: Twenty Years of Terror in Russia by G. P. Maximoff and The Unkown Revolution by Voline, came much later, during the Second World War, and were written with the maturity of thought made possible by the passage of the years.
For Maximoff, whose account appeared in America, the lessons of the past brought to him a sure expectation of a better future. The new ruling class in the U.S.S.R. cannot and will not be permanent, and it will be succeeded by libertarian socialism. Objective conditions are driving this development forward: “Is it conceivable . . . that the workers might desire the return of the capitalists to their enterprises? Never! for they are rebelling specifically against exploitation by the State and its bureaucrats.” What the workers desire is to replace this authoritarian management of production with their own factory councils, and to unite these councils into one vast national federation. What they desire is workers’ self-management. In the same way, the peasants have understood that there can be no question of returning to an individualist economy. Collective agriculture is the only solution, together with the collaboration of the rural collectives with the factory councils and trade unions: in short, the further development of the program of the October Revolution in complete freedom.
Voline strongly asserted that any experiment on the Russian model could only lead to “state capitalism based on an odious exploitation of the masses,” the “worst form of capitalism and one which has absolutely nothing to do with the progress of humanity toward a socialist society.” It could do nothing but promote “the dictatorship of a single party which leads unavoidably to the repression of all freedom of speech, press, organization, and action, even for revolutionary tendencies, with the sole exception of the party in power,” and to a “social inquisition” which suffocates “the very breath of the Revolution.” Voline went on to maintain that Stalin “did not fall from the moon.” Stalin and Stalinism are, in his view, the logical consequence of the authoritarian system founded and established between 1918 and 1921. “This is the lesson the world must learn from the tremendous and decisive Bolshevik experiment: a lesson which gives powerful support to the libertarian thesis and which events will soon make clear to the understanding of all those who grieve, suffer, think, and struggle.”