Note: Because Guerin’s work here encompasses a lot- especially within the confines of a mere 159 pages- I’m offering my review of this text in several parts, mostly to coincide with the format of the book (Part 1: The Basic Ideas of Anarchism, Part 2: In Search of a New Society, Part 3: Anarchism in Revolutionary Practice, and a final Part, which will cover Guerin’s “By Way of Conclusion” plus his post-script “May 1968″). Since in Part 3 I ended up being a little bit verbose I chose to split it into two posts; I ended at the Russian Revolution of 1917 and here will pick back up with the anarchist experiences in the Urkaine, Kronstadt, and then touch upon Italy and Spain. Breaking the text down into several parts gives me the added luxury of fleshing more out of each one, and expanding and interjecting my own views where they agree or differ.
As “Voline reported that (the anarchist) movement was ‘still far too small to have any immediate, concrete effect on events” (p. 96) during the Russian Revolution of 1917, the libertarian revolt was easily co-opted and taken over by Lenin and his, er, less than libertarian agenda. However, there is ample evidence that in fact, though their numbers relatively small (no more than a few thousand) dedicated anarchists performed leading and undeniable roles in the revolution, especially in fighting for more worker autonomy and militarily against the White army. Anarchists and their sympathizers rapidly increased, especially in the larger cities of Russia, leading a French captain to note in 1918: “The anarchist party is the most active, the most militant of the opposition groups and probably the most popular… the Bolsheviks are anxious.” (p. 96). That anxiousness from the Bolsheviks, as they moved to consolidate and formalize their Party power and establish a new State, “did their best first to prevent, and then to forbid, any manifestation of libertarian ideas and finally suppressed them by brute force.” (p. 96). It would take until 1921 for the Bolsheviks to finally and completely have all the anarchists either in jail, murdered, or fleeing into exile.
… 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….
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… This was a traditionally rebellious region which had seen violent disturbances in 1905. (p. 98 )
When the occupying German and Austrian armies withdrew from the Ukraine following the November 11 armistice, Lenin’s Red Army, fairly busy taking power for itself in Russia proper, paid little attention to the rural Ukraine. The occasional Bolshevik commissioners who came to the area looking to extract taxes and levies from the locals found themselves face to face with an increasingly brazen Robin Hood-like figure in Makhno and his “Makhnovtchinan” Army.
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 afar 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…” (p. 99)
As inspiring as all this was, coming from an almost entirely uneducated peasant population, the lack of political astuteness of their under-education proved to be a serious hinderance in the long run. The Makhnovists attempted at first to negotiate their own autonomy with the Bolshevik Party, who by this time was prepared to declare war on any and every group that dared criticize any aspect of the only legal political Party. At the same time, Makhno’s forces fought hard against invading forces and proved far more effective in defending these vast segments of countryside. The White Army units were increasingly deployed and then disposed of by the un-trained and under-armed peasant army- led democratically by Makhno- which proved to be surprisingly quick, brazen, and effective. However, Makhno refused to place his army under the supreme command of the Red Army and Trotsky. In June of 1919 Trotsky finally drafted an order outlawing Makhno’s forces and all political congresses “standing out against Soviet power in the Ukraine.” For nearly two years the Makhnovist’s fought back and forth (and sometimes simultaneously) against invading White Army forces and imperial Red Army forces. By the end of November 1920 the Bolsheviks grew so impatient to bring the Ukraine under control that previously unconsidered “ambush” tactics were employed, in which generals from Makhno’s forces were invited to take part in negotiations and subsequently shot- while unarmed- upon their arrival. Eventually the Mahnovites were merely out-numbered and out-armed until August of 1921 when Makhno fled to Romania, and eventually Paris, to avoid his inevitable capture and execution.
Though ultimately defeated, Nestor Makhno led a military campaign which protected the free, libertarian social and political economy of a huge swath of rural countryside for nearly four years. With a deep-seated hatred for all authoritarian components of life and unimaginable courage, much stronger invading armies of all sorts were kept at bay, and their successes have proven a source of inspiration for anarchists ever since.
At about the same time, far from the Ukraine in the industrial/naval city of Kronstadt, a similar libertarian revolt against the Bolsheviks was to take place. In February of 1921 the workers of Kronstadt revolted:
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… The worker’s 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…. (p. 102)
Despite the military forces stationed at Kronstadt’s reputation as the “pride and glory of the Russian Revolution” from the Red Army General Trotsky himself, the sailors took the side of the factory worker’s who were revolting.
During two mass meetings held in the main square (the sailors) took up as their own the demands of the (striking workers). Sixteen thousand sailors, workers, and soldiers attended the second meeting…. They… called for the abolition of “political officers, (and) “asked that no political party should have privileges…
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… 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.” (p. 103)
Guerin importantly notes here that, as an island military base with a population of civilians which lived there merely to work in the munitions factories and the other civilian-components of the naval base, Kronstadt was completely devoid (as far as any historian can find) of an anarchist pole or group operating on the ground. Instead, the people themselves, who believed they were fighting in a revolution whose goal was their emancipation and the development of a free, socialist society, grew angry and revolted when the authoritarian realities of the Bolshevik Party came to be. In retrospect, anarchists have taken much from the social and political conditions that led to the Kronstadt uprising.
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”. (p. 104)
For it’s danger to their power, Lenin and Trotsky carefully picked only the most loyal of Red Army soldiers (many were hesitant against actions against their own class). It took about 11 days for the increasingly mighty Red Army to level the rebellion; “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!” (p. 105).
Inspired by all that was happening in Russia, in 1919 in Northern Italy a string of factory take-overs was launched. Following a number of strikes and minor concessions by the metal worker’s union, in 1920 one employer decided the best move was a lockout, and they closed the factory. Worker’s responded by re-opening the factory, on their own, and under their own management. At first they were quite successful, even receiving funding from banks. Once the bankers began refusing to lend money to the factories, they began issuing their own money to pay themselves. This system ended after worker’s received a promise that their control would be extended if the “rightful” ownership of the factories would be recognized. The worker’s agreed, but such recognition from the employers never materialized. Since these trade unions were made up of a mix of anarchists and non-anarchist leftists, organizationally they attempted to act more practical than an overtly revolutionary movement. The experiment of “worker’s councils” throughout the region was thought by many anarchists to be easily transformed- once social conditions were favorable- into entirely revolutionary bodies.
Over time, the anarchist elements of Italy fractionalized over debates about syndicalism, trade unions, factory councils, and other libertarian formulations. Many attempted to create socialist political parties, with the result being the gradual decline in libertarian ideas. None of this can particularly be blamed on the Italians; as the Bolshevik Party and Lenin took power of Russian and the Revolution, the moment throughout Europe faded. With the specter of a proletarian revolution in Russia- covering one-sixth the land of the globe- libertarian ideas rapidly faded from the imagination and hearts of the worker class throughout Europe and soviet-styled “councils” sprang-up not only in Italy but Germany, Austria, Hungry, and other places. Those still committed to anarchism and libertarianism typically played prominent roles in local unions and worker councils, but found little sympathy for their beliefs anyway.
In Spain, too, the CNT (Spanish National Confederation of Labor- anarcho-syndicalists) was preparing in 1920 to send a delegation to Moscow to express their desire to join the Communist International. As the Communist International set-about to build a European-wide trade union which could work to build an “international revolutionary” movement, the Spanish delegation rejected the idea that such a movement would be controlled, ultimately, by the Communist Party. Disillusioned by the authoritarianism exhibited by the Russians, Angel Pestana, the Spanish delegate, was deeply troubled.
He had not the heart to tell his Spanish comrades the truth. It seemed to him like “murder” to destroy the immense hope which the Russian Revolution had raised in them. (p. 116)
He would be saved from having to break the hearts of his fellow revolutionaries, as he was arrested immediately upon his return to Spanish soil. But the next delegation to leave Spain for a congress in Moscow, this one the 1921 version, included amongst them a French anarchist, Gaston Leval, who returned to Spain to tell the masses that “what had failed in Russia was not the Revolution, but the State” (p. 117). Having officially parted ways with the Russian Revolution and the Communist Party, the CNT and radical Spain turned to anarchism first and foremost.
The basis for a libertarian revolution was pretty well laid in the consciousness of the popular masses and in the thinking of libertarian theoreticians (in Spain)… It suited both the backward state of a poorly developed country, in which rural living conditions remained archaic, and also the growth of a modern proletariat born of industrialization in cetain areas. (p. 118-119)
In short, Spain was a largely rural and agrarian place; under-educated and pre-industrial, composed largely of rural “communes” in which land was owned by peasants who shared equally in the labor. Just as in Russia before, large numbers of peasants were being moved into the cities to work the newly formed factories as the ruling class attempted to reap the benefits of industrialism. But because of their communal, rural experiences trade unionism (and syndicalism) grew popular rapidly in the face of capitalism’s sterility. As city-dwellers learnt more about anarchism, libertarianism, and revolution, they brought these ideas home to the countryside.
Guerin (remember him?- I got all wrapped up in the history and forgot this is merely a review of his book!) takes great pains to explain the differences in the Spanish tradition of anarchism as it developed through the beginnings of the Twentieth Century. He does so, of course, because what the Spanish anarchists were able to accomplish during the Spanish Civil War (1931-1936) is generally seen as by far the most successful moment for libertarian-socialism in revolutionary practice. Famously, the anarchists of Spain militarily fought on no less than two fronts, while simultaneously maintaining a libertarian (anarchist) economy over large sections of the countryside (a la Makhno).
But the Spanish anarchists also lost, eventually, which is another reason many libertarians since have paid great attention to what went right but also what went wrong. There is no shortage of anarchists’ who write about the important lesson’s to be learnt from the anarchist experiences of Spain; many, including Guerin, draw very important conclusions from these few years. However, as witnessed by the material triumphs of capitalism (both in State as well as market form) over libertarianism over the final two-thirds of the Twentieth Century, it’s quite clear that capitalism learned some important lessons as well.
I won’t take the time here to get into details about Spain as I did with Russia, simply because to do so would drag this “book review” out even more unnecessarily. Guerin, like so many others, gives it a lengthy treatment and for good reason. I’ll get to Guerin’s final conclusions as well as his post-script on Paris ’68 next time.