The russian revolution of 1917: Carlos Taibo

We close our series – without for a moment suggesting that this is the last word – on the russian revolution of 1917 with an interview with Carlos Taibo, author of the recent work, in spanish, Anarquismo y revolución en Rusia (1917-1921).  Though the interview focuses on Taibo’s concern with calling attention to the role of anarchists and libertarians in the events of the russian revolution, it takes us beyond the past; the revolution remains a lens through which to think through our political present.

Originally published in Contexto y acción, we present the essay below in translation.

“Paradoxically, the Bolsheviks put an end to the Russian Revolution”

Fermín Grodira, 25th of Octuber of 2017

On the centenary of the Russian Revolution, numerous books have been published analysing the event from the the perspective of the Bolsheviks – criticising or praising them -, but few focus on the defenders of the “third revolution”: the anarchists.  Carlos Taibo, professor of political science at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid and libertarian intellectual does in Anarquismo y revolución en Rusia (1917-1921), and he does so far from the usual manichaeisms with which this historical period is dealt with, but without occluding his “manifest sympathy for the causes brandished by the Russian libertarians”.

Rosa Luxemburg defined the Russian Revolution as the “mightiest event” of the First World War.  What is the significance of the Russian Revolution in your opinion?

It was a truncated revolution that promised more than it gave.  If we judge it in terms of the initial event in which an alternative and inspiring model was generated, in my understanding, it was a failure.  By contrast, if we judge it in terms of grand strategic traditions, it gave light to a regime that marked indelibly the history of the 20th century and which in some cases brought forth beneficial elements.

The book bears a great deal on the negative aspects of the Russian Revolution, and not so much on the high points.

The book aims to analyse the fours years between 1917 and 1921, somber years marked by war, and my interest focuses on studying the confrontation between the libertarian and Bolshevik worlds.  The heart of the work I believe justifies a less than warm reading of what the Bolsheviks did in those years.

The russian Revolution itself refutes one of Marx’s theses, in carrying off a Revolution in a backward agrarian country and not in an industrialised and proletarian one.  How does orthodox marxism address this matter?

Marx’s work is vast.  There are those who distinguish between a young Marx, a mature Marx and a late Marx.  The mature Marx maintained that a socialist Revolution is only imaginable in a country that had reached a certain capitalist development and in which there exists a proletariat as a more or less well-established class.  It is evident that russia was not that country and Marx would have probably been a little horrified in 1917 with the ways that many Bolshevik leaders made use of his theorisations.  Perhaps the figure of the late Marx is however of greater interest, for he gives greater attention to the singular condition of russian society and the existence of collective structures like the rural communes, from a very different perspective from that embraced by the Bolsheviks.

The world proletarian revolution was another failed prediction, in this case of the Bolsheviks.  Could the Russian Revolution have unfolded differently if the Spartacist Revolution had triumphed? 

If the Sparticists had been able to realise their project in Germany, one of the principal centres of international capitalism, it is legitimate to conclude that it would have affected the general revolutionary dynamic of these years and that it would have imposed a different direction on what was happening in the nascent Soviet Union.  To say anything more would be an exercise in political fiction.

“All power to the soviets” and “All power to the proletariat and the peasants” were the slogans of the Bolsheviks before the Russian Revolution.  What did this translate into after they came to power?

Into a manifest forgetfulness of these slogans.  In my book, I pay attention to Lenin’s April Theses, which on the basis of a legitimate reading of events, reflect a libertarian inflection of his position, born of an awareness that the soviets exhibited an incipient capacity of transformation and that, as a consequence, it was necessary to support them.  When the Bolsheviks took power, they manifestly forgot this position.  Their politics, in a very obvious way, sought to cancel the autonomous capacity of the soviets and of the factory committees, with the important addition of inventing a proletariat which did not exist and of attributing to itself the representation of this proletariat at a time when the peasantry was demonised, suggesting thereby that the latter held strictly reactionary positions, something that again was a distortion of reality.

Returning to Rosa Luxemburg, she thought that the “October uprising”  meant “not only the actual salvation of the Russian Revolution; it was also the salvation of the honor of international socialism”.  By contrast, the conservative historian Richard Pipes is of the opinion that the October Revolution was a coup d’etat. What is your opinion with regard to this?  

It is a very complex matter.  To simply state that it was a coup d’etat is to ignore that behind it was a clear current of social revolution.  It also has to be asked if in Russia at the time there was a State as such.  I believe, anyway, that the Bolsheviks, carried by the legitimate desire to save the revolution, paradoxically put an end to it to the extent that they cancelled the grass roots dimension of the social revolution, tied initially to the soviets and the factory committees, and generated a fundamentally political process, hierarchical and hyper-centralised that more obviously recalls a coup d’etat than a genuine social revolution.

In fact, the elections to the Russian Constituent Assembly give to the Socialist-Revolutionary Party the absolute majority and the Bolsheviks dissolve it. 

In effect.  When it is said that specific measures taken by the Bolsheviks were justified by the dramatic scenario that was the civil war and the invasion of the country by foreign armies, it is forgotten that the earlier world-view of the Bolsheviks already prefigured these measures in the form of a political project marked by an extreme centralisation.

What were the principal differences in the approaches of the Bolsheviks and the anarchists?

It is not an easy question to answer because there were distinct currents within the anarchist world.  Yet having said this, I believe that the first difference is that the anarchists wagered on the preservation of the autonomous capacity of the soviets and the factory committees to decide.  Furthermore, they defended a plural society, very different from that derived from the annihilation of the other parties by the Bolsheviks.  They also rejected the militarisation of the economy, the parallel gestation of a bureaucracy and the emergence of a conventional army.  And lastly, they repudiated a repressive order tied to the rise of the Cheka.

What was the situation of the anarchists before and after the Russian revolution?

Beginning with the February revolution, there was a flourishing of anarchist groups, in the city as well as in the countryside.  It is not easy to measure objectively their dimension, but the anarchists were clearly present.  Many anarchists joined the October revolution at a moment when it was not very clear that this revolution would be exclusively Bolshevik, and they did so because they believed that this revolution would permit the removal of Kerensky’s provisional government and open the way for an open opposition to the foundations of capitalism.  The majority of libertarians however immediately understood that the Bolshevik project pointed to horizons very different from those that they defended.  After December 1917, an ever more acute confrontation developed between anarchists and Bolsheviks, although it is true that a part of the libertarian movement integrated the Bolshevik power apparatus, the so-called, and following a confusing manifesto, anarcho-Bolsheviks.

In The State and Revolution and the April Theses, Lenin advocated an abolition of the State in stages, but once in power, the actions that followed were quite different.  Was it a way of gaining the support of the anarchists?

I believe that it was more the confirmation that there was something very interesting in the soviets and the factory committees, and that the Bolsheviks should not remain to the side as these structures expanded.  I try on various occasions in the book to distinguish anarchists and libertarians.  The anarchists were people who demonstrated an ideological and doctrinal adherence to a specific worldview, while the libertarians were people who, without such attachment, revealed in their daily practice a project of self-management and direct democracy.  And in the Russia and Ukraine of these years, there were many libertarians, while far fewer anarchists.

What role did the anarchists play in the Kronstadt rebellion and the Makhnovshchina, and what aims did they seek?

There were few anarchists in the Kronstadt rebellion, though many libertarians and many people who in fact recuperated the slogan that proclaimed “all power to the Soviets and none to the parties”.  The Kronstadt rebellion produced a very powerful shock in Bolshevik power, as the insurgents employed their own slogans of October 1917.  Although the presence of anarchists was stronger in the Makhnovshchina – the figure who gives the movement its name, Nestor Makhno, was a well known anarchist -, I believe that the majority of the peasants who gave life to this movement were strictly speaking more libertarians than anarchists.  In the Makhnovshchina, there were people with other ideological worldviews, like Revolutionary Socialism, Menshivism, or even Bolshevism.  Anyway, the Makhnovshchina saw itself weighed down because it had to always deal with a military confrontation, with the white armies and then with the Bolsheviks, as a consequence of which its task of constructing a self-managed society, though evident in intention, was not particular solid in reality.

In your book, you address the military aspects of Makhno’s revolution, but the society that they constructed or proposed remains unclear.

As far as I know, when the Makhnovists occupied a village, they limited themselves to calling an assembly of the inhabitants and left to their free will the determination of what they wanted to do.  There was no principle that served as the basis for imposing structures.  They would say: “We believe that you should free yourselves, but the way to do so is for you yourselves to decide”.  There was no shortage of initiatives or experiments in self-management.  What did happen was that they were trapped by the military dynamic and, also, by the oblivion bestowed by history on the defeated.

You are also the author of Historia de la Unión Soviética: De la revolución bolchevique a Gorbachov.  Do you think that real socialism was ever actually reached, at any moment, in the USSR?

If I accept the very rhetoric of the soviet system, the society that it outlined was a society in transition to socialism.  It did not even affirm that it was a socialist society.  Even less a communist society.  I prefer to speak of unreal socialism.  I believe that unfortunately the systems of the soviet type were not able to leave behind the historical and social universe of capitalism, even though that was undoubtedly their intention.  They succumbed to the logic of salaried labour, commodities, hierarchy and the idolatry of the development of productive forces.  And they ended up reproducing many of the terms of the system that on paper they wanted to contest.

Was this due more to external circumstances, such as the civil war and the interventions of foreign powers or to issues proper to Bolshevism?

I believe that the two factors were important.  If we were to forget that from the very beginning, the experiment of the Soviet Union was marked by a foreign aggression, we would be leaving aside one very important element to assess why this system took on an authoritarian character and an irrational hierarchy.  Yet I earlier referred to the fact that if we were only to consider this first perspective, we would be forgetting the very organic conception of the Bolsheviks, born of a reading of Marx, a Jacobin in many ways, that also led directly to an insalubrious horizon.  We cannot forget any of these dimensions.

Do you consider that Leninism was a prelude to Stalinism? 

I believe that it was.  In a certain sense, Lenin’s last writings point to a recognition of this, not because their author was able to foresee what Stalinism was, but because they glean a self-criticism with regards to measures taken before 1924.  Trotsky’s case is more striking.  Once he was obliged to abandon the Soviet Union, Trotsky assumed a hypercritical position with respect to Stalin’s rules of power, obviously forgetting what he himself had done when he enjoyed a very notable executive capacity.  Trotsky was the most responsible for the militarisation of work and the creation of conventional armed forces, with which then it can be said, I believe, without in any way diverging from the truth,  that he played a fundamental role in the foundation of the power of the bureaucracy that he would later criticise.

Trotsky was also involved in the repression of Kronstadt and of the Makhnovshchina.

In effect.  And I emphasise that he never said “we made a mistake”, as a consequence of which Lenin’s responsibility, as that of Trotsky’s, for the subsequent drift of the soviet system appears to me evident.  This is not to deny that history is obviously very complex.  I am not saying that what fed Lenin and Trotsky had inevitably to lead to Stalin, but without them, Stalin would be difficult to explain.

Your book is dedicated to the anarchists and much is said also of the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks, while little space is given over to the Socialist Revolutionaries or the SRs.  Who were they and what became of them? 

One of the main strands that runs through the book is that linked to Russian populism, the movement of the Narodniks.  This movement appeared in the decade of 1870 and had very diverse expressions, some of a clearly libertarian character, others more associated with traditional politics.  It was fundamentally a movement of agrarian socialism that defended a Russian path different from Western capitalism and which in many cases was premonitory in terms of an awareness of the problems of women and the environment.  Even though according to one view, it died in the very decade of 1870, other readings defend that, with different modulations, it persisted through time until after the Bolshevik revolution in the form of the Socialist Revolutionary Party.  This last saw the light in the beginning of the 20th century, and latter gave birth to two distinct organisations: one on the right and another on the left.  The right-wing one was in power with the provisional government in 1917 and the left-wing one collaborated incipiently in the initial moments of the October Revolution to then immediately distance itself from the Bolshevik movement and become the object of a crude repression.

Why are these other so important movements in the russia of 1917 not known?

Because history is always written by the victor.  And in 1917, the victors were the Bolsheviks and in 1991, when the Soviet Union disappeared, the role was assumed by liberal discourse which invades us from all sides.  In between remained the remnants of other movements to which we pay no attention.  I could also speak of the Mensheviks.  If you go into a bookshop and ask for a work on these last, the book seller will be confused.  And yet they played a fundamental role during these years.   An explicit knowledge of the political forces that were then very relevant is lacking, of which two major exemples were the Mensheviks and the Socialist Revolutionaries.  I don’t add the anarchists because they benefit from the ongoing existence of anarchist movements.

What remains in Russia today of the revolutions of 1917?

The scenario remains very confusing, given that it seems inevitable that any political force or person who wants to intervene in the political debate sees itself obliged to define itself in relation to the events of 1917.  This happens particularly with president Putin himself, along with an extremely confusing response, each time Putin tries to gather together disparate elements of the reigning order.  The figure most admired by Putin is Peter Stolypin, prime minister of the Tsar.  The traces of the movements, such as those I studied in the book, are in any case, in contemporary Russia, limited.  Even though there is a historiographical interest and works continue to be published on these movements, let us not forget that the trace is much less than that which ties Spain to the libertarian world, and this for two reasons: the libertarian movement was much more significant numerically than the Russian and the Russian revolution is more distant in time.  But still, I have the impression that in Russia there persists to some degree, even though marginal, this original libertarian perspective that had it that in the political culture of the country the institution of the State was not particularly appreciated, that by contrast, a certain admiration showed itself for peasant rebellions and a space was opened for a defense of the rural commune, which in many of its dimensions had a libertarian character.

The State criticised by Bakunin and Kropotkin has little to do with the contemporary State.  What validity does anarchism have today?

The libertarian perspective, as with any other, has to be adapted to new scenarios.  You are right to say that the State is a different institution to the extent that, even though it still has a good many of its features of a century and a half ago, it has added other elements.  This forces us to consider that many of the forms of alienation and exploitation that we know of do not pass through, or don’t necessarily pass through, the institution of the State.  Yet I believe that once the corresponding corrections are made, the libertarian perspective continues to be very useful to analyse the intricacies of our societies.  In this sense, I predict a revival of libertarian ideas and, above all, practices that already appear to be perceptible in the contemporary world.  Even though the movements definable ideologically and by doctrine as anarchist are today weak, the corresponding ideas today have a visible presence in many important spheres, such as those linked to ecology, feminism or pacifism.

One of these movements with a certain libertarian essence, according to some, was 15M, but then came Podemos, a highly hierarchised political party.  What remains of 15M?

I think that more things remain than what appears, as I believe that we lack sufficient perspective to evaluate the legacy, in terms of ideological imaginary, of 15M.  It is true that if we use the phenomenon of Podemos as the thermometre, then the balance is devastating.  Podemos is a conventional political force, integrated in the institutions, increasingly hierarchical, tributary of the dried up social-democratic project and little conscious of what threatens to befall us with the risk of a general collapse of the system that we bear.  It is the very opposite of a libertarian perspective.  And, nevertheless, if what is happening in many neighbourhoods and villages is analysed, a trace of 15M is discovered that probably translates into a seed that will end up germinating again.  We also give far too much attention to the conventional political system and we forget what happens in a periphery that, always with the collapse of the system on the horizon, can provoke surprises.

Is the anarchist label very burdensome?

I have an ambivalent position with respect to this.  I have little fondness for those anarchists who arrogantly display their condition, as if they were superior beings and I therefore seek to avoid the term.  Yet I also  don’t feel comfortable with the permanent demonisation which so much of the media give themselves over to, continuing to think of anarchists as bomb carriers and who throw them haphazardly against the first person to come along.  Generally, I am not very fond of labels.  I prefer to judge a person by their conduct.  There are people who never call themselves anarchists to whom I feel very close and there are anarchists with whom I feel no proximity.

You addressed the environmental question in books such as Colapso: Capitalismo terminal, transición ecosocial, ecofascismo and you defend degrowth in others such as ¿Por qué el decrecimiento? Un ensayo sobre la antesala del colapso. Why is it that despite the environmental disasters of which we are victims, that degrowth is not part of the political discourse?

The everyday discourse of political parties is aberrantly short term.  It is obsessively marked by the goal of maximising votes in the next elections.  This translates into all discussions addressing the medium and long term, which is what is most important, being permanently discarded.  Three years ago, the manifesto Última llamada [Last Call] was signed by many of the main actors of the Spanish left.  I think that its principal virtue was to make manifest the enormous contradictions of these people, who are capable of signing a manifesto that takes into account the immediacy of the risk of the collapse of the system, while in their daily lives and in their political organisations, they manifestly forget these types of problems and they do so proudly and obscenely.  A Podemos leader could affirm that “degrowth gets you no votes”.  Of course, if one outlines their program with an exclusive concern to garner votes, then the best that one could do is join the Popular Party, which appears as the political party that gathers the most votes.

It is political fiction, but what do you believe will be the future of our society with respect to environmental questions and the possibility of a systemic collapse?

I am not in a position to affirm conclusively that a general collapse of the system will take place.  I limit myself to indicating that this collapse is very likely.  Among those who research these matters, it is affirmed that the risk of the collapse of the system spreads out over a period that extends from 2020 to 2050, and this on the basis of a prognosis that I believe is serious.  It fascinates me that this discussion has no echo in a society such as ours.  Things being what they are, there are not many motives to be optimistic with respect to the future.  The collapse will predictably translate into a general collapse of all institutions, something which does not have to be negative, and of all of the relations sheltered by an extraordinarily delicate economic situation.  All of this is a scenario for which we are little prepared.  For many years, I understood degrowth as a tool that offered ways to confront the risk of collapse.  I no longer say this.  Degrowth arrives too late, it seems to me.  And if its conceptual tools have any purpose, it will be for the moment after the collapse, and not to avoid it.

To conclude, a question that I always wanted to ask you.  You publish between three and five books a year.  How do you do it?

I write a great deal, probably too much, but I can explain.  It is very rare to find in the media an article by me.  Why?  Ten years ago, I wrote for four newspapers: El PaísLa VanguardiaEl Periódico de Catalunya and El Correo.  I wrote for these four newspapers because it meant nothing to them and they didn’t care whether I wrote for the competition.  I was sacked from these four papers and today I write nowhere.  I dedicate the greater part of my time to writing books.  I am always working on one.  And, on a different level, among these three or four books that I have published over these last years, some are re-editions, something which allows one to construct a less surprising scenario.

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