Anarchists in the Russian Revolution

Republished with permission.
Source: The Anarchist Library


The Russian revolution of 1917 saw a huge growth in anarchism in that country and many experiments in anarchist ideas. However, in popular culture the Russian Revolution is seen not as a mass movement by ordinary people struggling towards freedom but as the means by which Lenin imposed his dictatorship on Russia. The truth is radically different. The Russian Revolution was a mass movement from below in which many different currents of ideas existed and in which millions of working people (workers in the cities and towns as well as peasants) tried to transform their world into a better place. Sadly, those hopes and dreams were crushed under the dictatorship of the Bolshevik party — first under Lenin, later under Stalin.

The Russian Revolution, like most history, is a good example of the maxim “history is written by those who win.” Most capitalist histories of the period between 1917 and 1921 ignore what the anarchist Voline called “the unknown revolution” — the revolution called forth from below by the actions of ordinary people. Leninist accounts, at best, praise this autonomous activity of workers so long as it coincides with their own party line but radically condemn it (and attribute it with the basest motives) as soon as it strays from that line. Thus Leninist accounts will praise the workers when they move ahead of the Bolsheviks (as in the spring and summer of 1917) but will condemn them when they oppose Bolshevik policy once the Bolsheviks are in power. At worse, Leninist accounts portray the movement and struggles of the masses as little more than a backdrop to the activities of the vanguard party.

For anarchists, however, the Russian Revolution is seen as a classic example of a social revolution in which the self-activity of working people played a key role. In their soviets, factory committees and other class organisations, the Russian masses were trying to transform society from a class-ridden, hierarchical statist regime into one based on liberty, equality and solidarity. As such, the initial months of the Revolution seemed to confirm Bakunin’s prediction that the “future social organisation must be made solely from the bottom upwards, by the free associations or federations of workers, firstly in their unions, then in the communes, regions, nations and finally in a great federation, international and universal.”[Michael Bakunin: Selected Writings, p. 206] The soviets and factory committees expressed concretely Bakunin’s ideas and Anarchists played an important role in the struggle.

The initial overthrow of the Tsar came from the direct action of the masses. In February 1917, the women of Petrograd erupted in bread riots. On February 18th, the workers of the Putilov Works in Petrograd went on strike. By February 22nd, the strike had spread to other factories. Two days later, 200 000 workers were on strike and by February 25th the strike was virtually general. The same day also saw the first bloody clashes between protestors and the army. The turning point came on the 27th, when some troops went over to the revolutionary masses, sweeping along other units. This left the government without its means of coercion, the Tsar abdicated and a provisional government was formed.

So spontaneous was this movement that all the political parties were left behind. This included the Bolsheviks, with the“Petrograd organisation of the Bolsheviks oppos[ing] the calling of strikes precisely on the eve of the revolution destined to overthrow the Tsar. Fortunately, the workers ignored the Bolshevik ‘directives’ and went on strike anyway ... Had the workers followed its guidance, it is doubtful that the revolution would have occurred when it did.” [Murray Bookchin, Post-Scarcity Anarchism, p. 123]

The revolution carried on in this vein of direct action from below until the new, “socialist” state was powerful enough to stop it.

For the Left, the end of Tsarism was the culmination of years of effort by socialists and anarchists everywhere. It represented the progressive wing of human thought overcoming traditional oppression, and as such was duly praised by leftists around the world. However, in Russia things were progressing. In the workplaces and streets and on the land, more and more people became convinced that abolishing feudalism politically was not enough. The overthrow of the Tsar made little real difference if feudal exploitation still existed in the economy, so workers started to seize their workplaces and peasants, the land. All across Russia, ordinary people started to build their own organisations, unions, co-operatives, factory committees and councils (or “soviets” in Russian). These organisations were initially organised in anarchist fashion, with recallable delegates and being federated with each other.

Needless to say, all the political parties and organisations played a role in this process. The two wings of the Marxist social-democrats were active (the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks), as were the Social Revolutionaries (a populist peasant based party) and the anarchists. The anarchists participated in this movement, encouraging all tendencies to self-management and urging the overthrow of the provisional government. They argued that it was necessary to transform the revolution from a purely political one into an economic/social one. Until the return of Lenin from exile, they were the only political tendency who thought along those lines.

Lenin convinced his party to adopt the slogan “All Power to the Soviets” and push the revolution forward. This meant a sharp break with previous Marxist positions, leading one ex-Bolshevik turned Menshevik to comment that Lenin had“made himself a candidate for one European throne that has been vacant for thirty years — the throne of Bakunin!”[quoted by Alexander Rabinowitch, Prelude to Revolution, p. 40] The Bolsheviks now turned to winning mass support, championing direct action and supporting the radical actions of the masses, policies in the past associated with anarchism (“the Bolsheviks launched ... slogans which until then had been particularly and insistently been voiced by the Anarchists.”[Voline, The Unknown Revolution, p. 210]). Soon they were winning more and more votes in the soviet and factory committee elections. As Alexander Berkman argues, the “Anarchist mottoes proclaimed by the Bolsheviks did not fail to bring results. The masses relied to their flag.” [What is Anarchism?, p. 120]

The anarchists were also influential at this time. Anarchists were particularly active in the movement for workers self-management of production which existed around the factory committees (see M. Brinton, The Bolsheviks and Workers Control for details). They were arguing for workers and peasants to expropriate the owning class, abolish all forms of government and re-organise society from the bottom up using their own class organisations — the soviets, the factory committees, co-operatives and so on. They could also influence the direction of struggle. As Alexander Rabinowitch (in his study of the July uprising of 1917) notes:

“At the rank-and-file level, particularly within the [Petrograd] garrison and at the Kronstadt naval base, there was in fact very little to distinguish Bolshevik from Anarchist... The Anarchist-Communists and the Bolsheviks competed for the support of the same uneducated, depressed, and dissatisfied elements of the population, and the fact is that in the summer of 1917, the Anarchist-Communists, with the support they enjoyed in a few important factories and regiments, possessed an undeniable capacity to influence the course of events. Indeed, the Anarchist appeal was great enough in some factories and military units to influence the actions of the Bolsheviks themselves.” [Op. Cit., p. 64]

Indeed, one leading Bolshevik stated in June, 1917 (in response to a rise in anarchist influence), “[b]y fencing ourselves off from the Anarchists, we may fence ourselves off from the masses.” [quoted by Alexander Rabinowitch, Op. Cit., p. 102]

The anarchists operated with the Bolsheviks during the October Revolution which overthrew the provisional government. But things changed once the authoritarian socialists of the Bolshevik party had seized power. While both anarchists and Bolsheviks used many of the same slogans, there were important differences between the two. As Voline argued, “[f]rom the lips and pens of the Anarchists, those slogans were sincere and concrete, for they corresponded to their principles and called for action entirely in conformity with such principles. But with the Bolsheviks, the same slogans meant practical solutions totally different from those of the libertarians and did not tally with the ideas which the slogans appeared to express.” [The Unknown Revolution, p. 210]

Take, for example, the slogan “All power to the Soviets.” For anarchists it meant exactly that — organs for the working class to run society directly, based on mandated, recallable delegates. For the Bolsheviks, that slogan was simply the means for a Bolshevik government to be formed over and above the soviets. The difference is important, “for the Anarchists declared, if ‘power’ really should belong to the soviets, it could not belong to the Bolshevik party, and if it should belong to that Party, as the Bolsheviks envisaged, it could not belong to the soviets.” [Voline, Op. Cit., p. 213] Reducing the soviets to simply executing the decrees of the central (Bolshevik) government and having their All-Russian Congress be able to recall the government (i.e. those with real power) does not equal “all power,” quite the reverse.

Similarly with the term “workers’ control of production.” Before the October Revolution Lenin saw “workers’ control” purely in terms of the “universal, all-embracing workers’ control over the capitalists.” [Will the Bolsheviks Maintain Power?, p. 52] He did not see it in terms of workers’ management of production itself (i.e. the abolition of wage labour) via federations of factory committees. Anarchists and the workers’ factory committees did. As S.A. Smith correctly notes, Lenin used “the term [’workers’ control’] in a very different sense from that of the factory committees.” In fact Lenin’s “proposals ... [were] thoroughly statist and centralist in character, whereas the practice of the factory committees was essentially local and autonomous.” [Red Petrograd, p. 154] For anarchists, “if the workers’ organisations were capable of exercising effective control [over their bosses], then they also were capable of guaranteeing all production. In such an event, private industry could be eliminated quickly but progressively, and replaced by collective industry. Consequently, the Anarchists rejected the vague nebulous slogan of ‘control of production.’ They advocated expropriation — progressive, but immediate — of private industry by the organisations of collective production. [Voline, Op. Cit., p. 221]

Once in power, the Bolsheviks systematically undermined the popular meaning of workers’ control and replaced it with their own, statist conception. “On three occasions,” one historian notes, “in the first months of Soviet power, the [factory] committee leaders sought to bring their model into being. At each point the party leadership overruled them. The result was to vest both managerial and control powers in organs of the state which were subordinate to the central authorities, and formed by them.” [Thomas F. Remington, Building Socialism in Bolshevik Russia, p. 38] This process ultimately resulted in Lenin arguing for, and introducing, “one-man management” armed with “dictatorial” power (with the manager appointed from above by the state) in April 1918. This process is documented in Maurice Brinton’s The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control, which also indicates the clear links between Bolshevik practice and Bolshevik ideology as well as how both differed from popular activity and ideas.

Hence the comments by Russian Anarchist Peter Arshinov:

“Another no less important peculiarity is that [the] October [revolution of 1917] has two meanings — that which the working’ masses who participated in the social revolution gave it, and with them the Anarchist-Communists, and that which was given it by the political party [the Marxist-Communists] that captured power from this aspiration to social revolution, and which betrayed and stifled all further development. An enormous gulf exists between these two interpretations of October. The October of the workers and peasants is the suppression of the power of the parasite classes in the name of equality and self-management. The Bolshevik October is the conquest of power by the party of the revolutionary intelligentsia, the installation of its ‘State Socialism’ and of its ‘socialist’ methods of governing the masses.” [The Two Octobers]

Initially, anarchists had supported the Bolsheviks, since the Bolshevik leaders had hidden their state-building ideology behind support for the soviets (as socialist historian Samuel Farber notes, the anarchists “had actually been an unnamed coalition partner of the Bolsheviks in the October Revolution.” [Before Stalinism, p. 126]). However, this support quickly “withered away” as the Bolsheviks showed that they were, in fact, not seeking true socialism but were instead securing power for themselves and pushing not for collective ownership of land and productive resources but for government ownership. The Bolsheviks, as noted, systematically undermined the workers’ control/self-management movement in favour of capitalist-like forms of workplace management based around “one-man management” armed with “dictatorial powers.”

As regards the soviets, the Bolsheviks systematically undermining what limited independence and democracy they had. In response to the “great Bolshevik losses in the soviet elections” during the spring and summer of 1918 “Bolshevik armed force usually overthrew the results of these provincial elections.” Also, the “government continually postponed the new general elections to the Petrograd Soviet, the term of which had ended in March 1918. Apparently, the government feared that the opposition parties would show gains.” [Samuel Farber, Op. Cit., p. 24 and p. 22] In the Petrograd elections, the Bolsheviks “lost the absolute majority in the soviet they had previously enjoyed” but remained the largest party. However, the results of the Petrograd soviet elections were irrelevant as a “Bolshevik victory was assured by the numerically quite significant representation now given to trade unions, district soviets, factory-shop committees, district workers conferences, and Red Army and naval units, in which the Bolsheviks had overwhelming strength.” [Alexander Rabinowitch, “The Evolution of Local Soviets in Petrograd”, pp. 20–37, Slavic Review, Vol. 36, No. 1, p. 36f] In other words, the Bolsheviks had undermined the democratic nature of the soviet by swamping it by their own delegates. Faced with rejection in the soviets, the Bolsheviks showed that for them “soviet power” equalled party power. To stay in power, the Bolsheviks had to destroy the soviets, which they did. The soviet system remained “soviet” in name only. Indeed, from 1919 onwards Lenin, Trotsky and other leading Bolsheviks were admitting that they had created a party dictatorship and, moreover, that such a dictatorship was essential for any revolution (Trotsky supported party dictatorship even after the rise of Stalinism).

The Red Army, moreover, no longer was a democratic organisation. In March of 1918 Trotsky had abolished the election of officers and soldier committees:

“the principle of election is politically purposeless and technically inexpedient, and it has been, in practice, abolished by decree.” [Work, Discipline, Order]

As Maurice Brinton correctly summarises:

“Trotsky, appointed Commissar of Military Affairs after Brest-Litovsk, had rapidly been reorganising the Red Army. The death penalty for disobedience under fire had been restored. So, more gradually, had saluting, special forms of address, separate living quarters and other privileges for officers. Democratic forms of organisation, including the election of officers, had been quickly dispensed with.” [“The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control”, For Workers’ Power, pp. 336–7]

Unsurprisingly, Samuel Farber notes that “there is no evidence indicating that Lenin or any of the mainstream Bolshevik leaders lamented the loss of workers’ control or of democracy in the soviets, or at least referred to these losses as a retreat, as Lenin declared with the replacement of War Communism by NEP in 1921.” [Before Stalinism, p. 44]

Thus after the October Revolution, anarchists started to denounce the Bolshevik regime and call for a “Third Revolution” which would finally free the masses from all bosses (capitalist or socialist). They exposed the fundamental difference between the rhetoric of Bolshevism (as expressed, for example, in Lenin’s State and Revolution) with its reality. Bolshevism in power had proved Bakunin’s prediction that the “dictatorship of the proletariat” would become the“dictatorship over the proletariat” by the leaders of the Communist Party.

The influence of the anarchists started to grow. As Jacques Sadoul (a French officer) noted in early 1918:

“The anarchist party is the most active, the most militant of the opposition groups and probably the most popular ... The Bolsheviks are anxious.” [quoted by Daniel Guerin, Anarchism, pp. 95–6]

By April 1918, the Bolsheviks began the physical suppression of their anarchist rivals. On April 12th, 1918, the Cheka (the secret police formed by Lenin in December, 1917) attacked anarchist centres in Moscow. Those in other cities were attacked soon after. As well as repressing their most vocal opponents on the left, the Bolsheviks were restricting the freedom of the masses they claimed to be protecting. Democratic soviets, free speech, opposition political parties and groups, self-management in the workplace and on the land — all were destroyed in the name of “socialism.” All this happened, we must stress, before the start of the Civil War in late May, 1918, which most supporters of Leninism blame for the Bolsheviks’ authoritarianism. During the civil war, this process accelerated, with the Bolsheviks’ systematically repressing opposition from all quarters — including the strikes and protests of the very class who they claimed was exercising its “dictatorship” while they were in power!

It is important to stress that this process had started well before the start of the civil war, confirming anarchist theory that a “workers’ state” is a contraction in terms. For anarchists, the Bolshevik substitution of party power for workers power (and the conflict between the two) did not come as a surprise. The state is the delegation of power — as such, it means that the idea of a “workers’ state” expressing “workers’ power” is a logical impossibility. If workers are running society then power rests in their hands. If a state exists then power rests in the hands of the handful of people at the top, not in the hands of all. The state was designed for minority rule. No state can be an organ of working class (i.e. majority) self-management due to its basic nature, structure and design. For this reason anarchists have argued for a bottom-up federation of workers’ councils as the agent of revolution and the means of managing society after capitalism and the state have been abolished.

The degeneration of the Bolsheviks from a popular working class party into dictators over the working class did not occur by accident. A combination of political ideas and the realities of state power (and the social relationships it generates) could not help but result in such a degeneration. The political ideas of Bolshevism, with its vanguardism, fear of spontaneity and identification of party power with working class power inevitably meant that the party would clash with those whom it claimed to represent. After all, if the party is the vanguard then, automatically, everyone else is a “backward” element. This meant that if the working class resisted Bolshevik policies or rejected them in soviet elections, then the working class was “wavering” and being influenced by “petty-bourgeois” and “backward” elements. Vanguardism breeds elitism and, when combined with state power, dictatorship.

State power, as anarchists have always stressed, means the delegation of power into the hands of a few. This automatically produces a class division in society — those with power and those without. As such, once in power the Bolsheviks were isolated from the working class. The Russian Revolution confirmed Malatesta’s argument that a“government, that is a group of people entrusted with making laws and empowered to use the collective power to oblige each individual to obey them, is already a privileged class and cut off from the people. As any constituted body would do, it will instinctively seek to extend its powers, to be beyond public control, to impose its own policies and to give priority to its special interests. Having been put in a privileged position, the government is already at odds with the people whose strength it disposes of.” [Anarchy, p. 34] A highly centralised state such as the Bolsheviks built would reduce accountability to a minimum while at the same time accelerating the isolation of the rulers from the ruled. The masses were no longer a source of inspiration and power, but rather an alien group whose lack of “discipline” (i.e. ability to follow orders) placed the revolution in danger. As one Russian Anarchist argued,

“The proletariat is being gradually enserfed by the state. The people are being transformed into servants over whom there has arisen a new class of administrators — a new class born mainly form the womb of the so-called intelligentsia ... We do not mean to say ... that the Bolshevik party set out to create a new class system. But we do say that even the best intentions and aspirations must inevitably be smashed against the evils inherent in any system of centralised power. The separation of management from labour, the division between administrators and workers flows logically from centralisation. It cannot be otherwise.” [The Anarchists in the Russian Revolution, pp. 123–4]

For this reason anarchists, while agreeing that there is an uneven development of political ideas within the working class, reject the idea that “revolutionaries” should take power on behalf of working people. Only when working people actually run society themselves will a revolution be successful. For anarchists, this meant that “[e]ffective emancipation can be achieved only by the direct, widespread, and independent action ... of the workers themselves, grouped ... in their own class organisations ... on the basis of concrete action and self-government, helped but not governed, by revolutionaries working in the very midst of, and not above the mass and the professional, technical, defence and other branches.” [Voline, Op. Cit., p. 197] By substituting party power for workers power, the Russian Revolution had made its first fatal step. Little wonder that the following prediction (from November 1917) made by anarchists in Russia came true:

“Once their power is consolidated and ‘legalised’, the Bolsheviks who are ... men of centralist and authoritarian action will begin to rearrange the life of the country and of the people by governmental and dictatorial methods, imposed by the centre. The[y] ... will dictate the will of the party to all Russia, and command the whole nation. Your Soviets and your other local organisations will become little by little, simply executive organs of the will of the central government. In the place of healthy, constructive work by the labouring masses, in place of free unification from the bottom, we will see the installation of an authoritarian and statist apparatus which would act from above and set about wiping out everything that stood in its way with an iron hand.” [quoted by Voline, Op. Cit., p. 235]

The so-called “workers’ state” could not be participatory or empowering for working class people (as the Marxists claimed) simply because state structures are not designed for that. Created as instruments of minority rule, they cannot be transformed into (nor “new” ones created which are) a means of liberation for the working classes. As Kropotkin put it, Anarchists “maintain that the State organisation, having been the force to which minorities resorted for establishing and organising their power over the masses, cannot be the force which will serve to destroy these privileges.” [Anarchism, p. 170] In the words of an anarchist pamphlet written in 1918:

“Bolshevism, day by day and step by step, proves that state power possesses inalienable characteristics; it can change its label, its ‘theory’, and its servitors, but in essence it merely remains power and despotism in new forms.”[quoted by Paul Avrich, “The Anarchists in the Russian Revolution,” pp. 341–350, Russian Review, vol. 26, issue no. 4, p. 347]

For insiders, the Revolution had died a few months after the Bolsheviks took over. To the outside world, the Bolsheviks and the USSR came to represent “socialism” even as they systematically destroyed the basis of real socialism. By transforming the soviets into state bodies, substituting party power for soviet power, undermining the factory committees, eliminating democracy in the armed forces and workplaces, repressing the political opposition and workers’ protests, the Bolsheviks effectively marginalised the working class from its own revolution. Bolshevik ideology and practice were themselves important and sometimes decisive factors in the degeneration of the revolution and the ultimate rise of Stalinism.

As anarchists had predicted for decades previously, in the space of a few months, and before the start of the Civil War, the Bolshevik’s “workers’ state” had become, like any state, an alien power over the working class and an instrument of minority rule (in this case, the rule of the party). The Civil War accelerated this process and soon party dictatorship was introduced (indeed, leading Bolsheviks began arguing that it was essential in any revolution). The Bolsheviks put down the libertarian socialist elements within their country, with the crushing of the uprising at Kronstadt and the Makhnovist movement in the Ukraine being the final nails in the coffin of socialism and the subjugation of the soviets.

The Kronstadt uprising of February, 1921, was, for anarchists, of immense importance. The uprising started when the sailors of Kronstadt supported the striking workers of Petrograd in February, 1921. They raised a 15 point resolution, the first point of which was a call for soviet democracy. The Bolsheviks slandered the Kronstadt rebels as counter-revolutionaries and crushed the revolt. For anarchists, this was significant as the repression could not be justified in terms of the Civil War (which had ended months before) and because it was a major uprising of ordinary people for real socialism. As Voline puts it:

“Kronstadt was the first entirely independent attempt of the people to liberate themselves of all yokes and carry out the Social Revolution: this attempt was made directly ... by the working masses themselves, without political shepherds, without leaders or tutors. It was the first step towards the third and social revolution.” [Voline, Op. Cit., pp. 537–8]

In the Ukraine, anarchist ideas were most successfully applied. In areas under the protection of the Makhnovist movement, working class people organised their own lives directly, based on their own ideas and needs — true social self-determination. Under the leadership of Nestor Makhno, a self-educated peasant, the movement not only fought against both Red and White dictatorships but also resisted the Ukrainian nationalists. In opposition to the call for “national self-determination,” i.e. a new Ukrainian state, Makhno called instead for working class self-determination in the Ukraine and across the world. Makhno inspired his fellow peasants and workers to fight for real freedom:

“Conquer or die — such is the dilemma that faces the Ukrainian peasants and workers at this historic moment ... But we will not conquer in order to repeat the errors of the past years, the error of putting our fate into the hands of new masters; we will conquer in order to take our destinies into our own hands, to conduct our lives according to our own will and our own conception of the truth.” [quoted by Peter Arshinov, History of the Makhnovist Movement, p. 58]

To ensure this end, the Makhnovists refused to set up governments in the towns and cities they liberated, instead urging the creation of free soviets so that the working people could govern themselves. Taking the example of Aleksandrovsk, once they had liberated the city the Makhnovists “immediately invited the working population to participate in a general conference ... it was proposed that the workers organise the life of the city and the functioning of the factories with their own forces and their own organisations ... The first conference was followed by a second. The problems of organising life according to principles of self-management by workers were examined and discussed with animation by the masses of workers, who all welcomed this ideas with the greatest enthusiasm ... Railroad workers took the first step ... They formed a committee charged with organising the railway network of the region ... From this point, the proletariat of Aleksandrovsk began to turn systematically to the problem of creating organs of self-management.” [Op. Cit., p. 149]

The Makhnovists argued that 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 organise themselves, to agree among themselves in all aspects of their lives, as they 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.” [Peter Arshinov, quoted by Guerin, Op. Cit., p. 99] In Alexandrovsk, the Bolsheviks proposed to the Makhnovists spheres of action — their Revkom (Revolutionary Committee) would handle political affairs and the Makhnovists military ones. Makhno advised them “to go and take up some honest trade instead of seeking to impose their will on the workers.” [Peter Arshinov in The Anarchist Reader, p. 141]

They also organised free agricultural communes which “[a]dmittedly ... were not numerous, and included only a minority of the population ... But what was most precious was that these communes were formed by the poor peasants themselves. The Makhnovists never exerted any pressure on the peasants, confining themselves to propagating the idea of free communes.” [Arshinov, History of the Makhnovist Movement, p. 87] Makhno played an important role in abolishing the holdings of the landed gentry. The local soviet and their district and regional congresses equalised the use of the land between all sections of the peasant community. [Op. Cit., pp. 53–4]

Moreover, the Makhnovists took the time and energy to involve the whole population in discussing the development of the revolution, the activities of the army and social policy. They organised numerous conferences of workers’, soldiers’ and peasants’ delegates to discuss political and social issues as well as free soviets, unions and communes. They organised a regional congress of peasants and workers when they had liberated Aleksandrovsk. When the Makhnovists tried to convene the third regional congress of peasants, workers and insurgents in April 1919 and an extraordinary congress of several regions in June 1919 the Bolsheviks viewed them as counter-revolutionary, tried to ban them and declared their organisers and delegates outside the law.

The Makhnovists replied by holding the conferences anyway and asking “[c]an there exist laws made by a few people who call themselves revolutionaries, which permit them to outlaw a whole people who are more revolutionary than they are themselves?” and “[w]hose interests should the revolution defend: those of the Party or those of the people who set the revolution in motion with their blood?” Makhno himself stated that he “consider[ed] it an inviolable right of the workers and peasants, a right won by the revolution, to call conferences on their own account, to discuss their affairs.” [Op. Cit., p. 103 and p. 129]

In addition, the Makhnovists “fully applied the revolutionary principles of freedom of speech, of thought, of the press, and of political association. In all cities and towns occupied by the Makhnovists, they began by lifting all the prohibitions and repealing all the restrictions imposed on the press and on political organisations by one or another power.” Indeed, the“only restriction that the Makhnovists considered necessary to impose on the Bolsheviks, the left Socialist-Revolutionaries and other statists was a prohibition on the formation of those ‘revolutionary committees’ which sought to impose a dictatorship over the people.” [Op. Cit., p. 153 and p. 154]

The Makhnovists rejected the Bolshevik corruption of the soviets and instead proposed “the free and completely independent soviet system of working people without authorities and their arbitrary laws.” Their proclamations stated that the “working people themselves must freely choose their own soviets, which carry out the will and desires of the working people themselves, that is to say. ADMINISTRATIVE, not ruling soviets.” Economically, capitalism would be abolished along with the state — the land and workshops “must belong to the working people themselves, to those who work in them, that is to say, they must be socialised.” [Op. Cit., p. 271 and p. 273]

The army itself, in stark contrast to the Red Army, was fundamentally democratic (although, of course, the horrific nature of the civil war did result in a few deviations from the ideal — however, compared to the regime imposed on the Red Army by Trotsky, the Makhnovists were much more democratic movement).

The anarchist experiment of self-management in the Ukraine came to a bloody end when the Bolsheviks turned on the Makhnovists (their former allies against the “Whites,” or pro-Tsarists) when they were no longer needed. However, we must stress here the one obvious lesson of the Makhnovist movement, namely that the dictatorial policies pursued by the Bolsheviks were not imposed on them by objective circumstances. Rather, the political ideas of Bolshevism had a clear influence in the decisions they made. After all, the Makhnovists were active in the same Civil War and yet did not pursue the same policies of party power as the Bolsheviks did. Rather, they successfully encouraged working class freedom, democracy and power in extremely difficult circumstances (and in the face of strong Bolshevik opposition to those policies). The received wisdom on the left is that there was no alternative open to the Bolsheviks. The experience of the Makhnovists disproves this. What the masses of people, as well as those in power, do and think politically is as much part of the process determining the outcome of history as are the objective obstacles that limit the choices available. Clearly, ideas do matter and, as such, the Makhnovists show that there was (and is) a practical alternative to Bolshevism — anarchism.

The last anarchist march in Moscow until 1987 took place at the funeral of Kropotkin in 1921, when over 10,000 marched behind his coffin. They carried black banners declaring “Where there is authority, there is no freedom” and “The Liberation of the working class is the task of the workers themselves.” As the procession passed the Butyrki prison, the inmates sang anarchist songs and shook the bars of their cells.

Anarchist opposition within Russia to the Bolshevik regime started in 1918. They were the first left-wing group to be repressed by the new “revolutionary” regime. Outside of Russia, anarchists continued to support the Bolsheviks until news came from anarchist sources about the repressive nature of the Bolshevik regime (until then, many had discounted negative reports as being from pro-capitalist sources). Once these reliable reports came in, anarchists across the globe rejected Bolshevism and its system of party power and repression. The experience of Bolshevism confirmed Bakunin’s prediction that Marxism meant “the highly despotic government of the masses by a new and very small aristocracy of real or pretended scholars. The people are not learned, so they will be liberated from the cares of government and included in entirety in the governed herd.” [Statism and Anarchy, pp. 178–9]

From about 1921 on, anarchists outside of Russia started describing the USSR as “state-capitalist” to indicate that although individual bosses might have been eliminated, the Soviet state bureaucracy played the same role as individual bosses do in the West (anarchists within Russia had been calling it that since 1918). For anarchists, “the Russian revolution ... is trying to reach ... economic equality ... this effort has been made in Russia under a strongly centralised party dictatorship ... this effort to build a communist republic on the basis of a strongly centralised state communism under the iron law of a party dictatorship is bound to end in failure. We are learning to know in Russia how not to introduce communism.” [Anarchism, p. 254]

This meant exposing that Berkman called “The Bolshevik Myth,” the idea that the Russian Revolution was a success and should be copied by revolutionaries in other countries: “It is imperative to unmask the great delusion, which otherwise might lead the Western workers to the same abyss as their brothers [and sisters] in Russia. It is incumbent upon those who have seen through the myth to expose its true nature.” [“The Anti-Climax’”, The Bolshevik Myth, p. 342] Moreover, anarchists felt that it was their revolutionary duty not only present and learn from the facts of the revolution but also show solidarity with those subject to Bolshevik dictatorship. As Emma Goldman argued, she had not “come to Russia expecting to find Anarchism realised.” Such idealism was alien to her (although that has not stopped Leninists saying the opposite). Rather, she expected to see “the beginnings of the social changes for which the Revolution had been fought.” She was aware that revolutions were difficult, involving “destruction” and “violence.” That Russia was not perfect was not the source of her vocal opposition to Bolshevism. Rather, it was the fact that “the Russian people have been locked out of their own revolution by the Bolshevik state which used “the sword and the gun to keep the people out.” As a revolutionary she refused “to side with the master class, which in Russia is called the Communist Party.” [My Disillusionment in Russia, p. xlvii and p. xliv]



Freedom – Equality – Solidarity


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