Anarchism and Council Communism on the Russian Revolution.

Author:Memos, Christos

'Russia must return to the creative genius of local forces which, as I see it, can be a factor in the creation of a new life ... If the present situation continues, the very word 'socialism' will turn into a curse. This is what happened to the conception of 'equality' in France for forty years after the rule of the Jacobins.' Kropotkin to Lenin, Dmitrov, 4 March 1920. Prevailing ideas and analyses that deal with the historical and political significance of the Russian Revolution tend to reconstruct its history as past history, which is indifferent to current social and political conditions. There is an attempt for an image of a frozen past to be constructed that is separated from the present. The past is recognised only as past. The Russian Revolution is perceived as dead, past time that generated a monstrous totalitarian regime. According to this logic, it can only serve as an example to avoid. Having been disassociated from the present, then, the memory of the past struggles is expropriated by the status quo, the victors of history and it is utilised to legitimise the exploitation and domination of the ruling class. The demise of the Soviet regime is seen as being the tragic consequence of a pre-determined historical course that substantiates the triumph of western type liberal democracies. It also justifies neo-liberal policies even when neo-liberalism is going through a tremendous crisis: there is no alternative. Nothing important has survived from the Russian Revolution except the suffering and pain caused by the 'red terror'. In contradistinction to this approach, which reflects the idea of history as the history of the rulers and dominant, the history of the exploited and oppressed indicates that 'nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost to history'. (1)

For this concept of history, there is a continuity of the revolutionary struggles that breaks the homogeneous time of official history and unifies the militant legacy, arguing that 'most of the past is interrupted future, future in the past'. (2) Searching in the past for radical elements which are of vital importance for present and future anti-capitalist struggles, this paper presents and discusses the critique of the Russian Revolution and the Soviet Union developed by the two largely neglected political and theoretical traditions of anarchism and Council Communism. It argues that despite their theoretical and political inconsistencies, ambiguities and mistakes, both trends have provided valuable insights that could contribute to our better understanding of the Russian Revolution and the formation of the Soviet Union. A critical assessment of the anarchist and councilist evaluation of the Russian Revolution represents a fundamental part of the process of critically assessing the radical anti-capitalist tradition and, therefore, it constitutes part of the present struggles for human emancipation. In this sense, the essay, firstly, examines the anarchists' account of the Russian Revolution and their analysis of the new Soviet regime. Next, it considers the appraisal of the Soviet social formation carried out by the Council Communist tradition. It goes on to outline the contribution and the common perspectives that anarchists and Council Communists have shared. A large part of the merits of their radical critique amounts to the suppressed alternatives and the lost opportunities of the Russian Revolution. At the same time, the radical heritage of their critical endeavour, which concerns their emphasis on the self-organised struggle of the people and their critique of party politics and state, delineates the common ground on which the imperative need for a united action between anarchism and Marxism could be based. Finally, the essay examines the weak points of their critique, which are related to their confusion regarding the class nature of the Soviet Union, the character of the Russian Revolution and, at times, their espousal of a linear conception of history and time. The paper concludes by highlighting the need for the valuable anarchist and councilist legacy to be considered as a living past and developed further.


Despite the fact that anarchists disagreed with and opposed certain Bolshevik policies, their response to the Russian Revolution was initially positive and at times even enthusiastic. Having been attracted by its undoubted libertarian tendencies, the majority of rank-and-file anarchist militants adopted a friendly and supportive attitude to it. Anarchists saw, in both the theory and practice of the 'soviets', intimate connections with their own perceptions on councilism and a confirmation of the anarchist doctrine. In Russia, more precisely, many anarchists read Lenin's April Theses and The State and Revolution through anti-authoritarian lenses. (3) His determined will to smash the state and abolish the bureaucracy, the army and the police or his critique of parliamentarism were seen as a decisive step towards the espousal of more anti-authoritarian theses. For Russian anarchists, also, Lenin's attitude against the war 'was a departure from Marxism'. (4) The western European anarchists, likewise, supported the Russian Revolution primarily due to the Bolsheviks' stance against the Great War and the corresponding failure of the European radical movement to prevent it. One should not forget, however, that anarchists were not well aware of the political situation in Russia. Western European anarchists had great difficulties in getting access to accurate information about what exactly was happening in Russia owing to the problems with the flow of information from Russia to Western Europe, at least till 1920. (5) Hence, during the first three years of the revolution, the approval given to it by many western anarchists was warm and wholehearted, as their interpretation of it was, in essence, a libertarian one.

Indeed, in Italy, according to Carl Levy, the Russian Revolution 'brought "rigid" socialists and libertarians closer together' and 'seemed to lessen rather to accentuate ideological differences', since both anarchists and socialists 'adapted a sovietist interpretation' of the revolution. (6) The support for the Russian Revolution provided by Italian anarchists was even expressed practically when the Unione Anarchica Italiana (UAI) organised an anti-Russian-interventionist meeting in Florence in August 1920. (7) In France, anarchists expressed a genuine admiration for the Bolsheviks and were strongly influenced by the Russian Revolution both theoretically and politically. The revolutionary current of 'sovietism' developed by the French anarchists drew on the experience of the soviets, that is, the workers' councils which had emerged in Russia since the revolution of 1905. (8) In broad terms, French anarchists emphasised the similarities between sovietism, councilism and the anarchist perception of revolution, without hiding their differences from and certain objections to Bolshevism. After 1920, however, anarchists began more openly and strongly to criticise Bolsheviks for their policies. They argued that their methods were incompatible with a socialist society and acted as a brake in the course of the radical transformation of the Russian society. Crucial to this turn were the formation of the Red Army, the Bolsheviks' shift to more and more authoritarian policies, which culminated in the bloody repression of the Kronstadt rebellion of 1921, the implementation of NEP and the publication of Lenin's Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder. (9) The newly established regime was deprived of its ideological and political justification. As a consequence, the anarchist critique was vividly expressed both in practice (the Kronstadt Revolt and the Makhnovist movement in the Ukraine are the most remarkable cases but not the only ones) and theory.

On a theoretical level, the anarchist trend developed some of the first radical appraisals of the Soviet regime, though not without contradictions and ambivalences, which were principally depicted in Kropotkin's stance towards the Russian Revolution. Kropotkin returned to Russia in early summer 1917 and, unlike antiwar Russian anarchists, he reiterated his 'patriotic' positions for the continuation of the war in order to defeat Germany militarily. Unsurprisingly, due to his stand in favour of the war against Germany, on his arrival in Petrograd he was welcomed, along with sixty thousand people, by Kerensky and Skobolev on behalf of the republican government. Kropotkin's priority for the defeat of German militarism led him to maintain a close relationship with the liberal party of the 'Cadets', its leader Paul Miliukov, the Russian government and the Prime Minister Kerensky. (10) Having been detached from the struggles of the Russian people for many years, Kropotkin came to the point of speaking 'in favour of the Republic' (11) and 'urged the bourgeoisie to reorganise their enterprises so as to remedy the plight of the masses'. (12) As becomes clear, then, the Bolsheviks, because of their seizure of power, could not count on Kropotkin's sympathy and support. Kropotkin's views came under bitter attack from Lenin and provoked his sarcastic comments about the '"Plekhanovite" conversions of the Kropotkins ... into social-chauvinists or "anarcho-trenchists"' (13) and their hanging on 'to the coat-tail of the bourgeoisie'. (14) This controversy, however, did not keep Kropotkin and Lenin from meeting and exchanging a series of letters. More specifically, in their meeting in May 1919, Kropotkin pinpointed the similar goals that he shared with Bolsheviks, but at the same time, he emphasised their own differences in terms of the 'means of action and organisation'. (15) Kropotkin stressed the significance of the cooperative movement and observed that in Russia the cooperatives were persecuted by the local authorities and the previous revolutionaries who became...

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