The bosses are often swine, but there’ll always be bosses, won’t there? What’s the good of racking your brains to try and make sense out of it? — GRANDPA BONNEMORT, ZOLA’S Germinal
The anarchists set themselves apart from all other radical groups in Russia by their implacable opposition to the state in any form. Faithfully they cleaved to Bakunin’s dictum that every government, no matter who controls it, is an instrument of oppression. Nor did they exclude the “dictatorship of the proletariat” from this indictment, despite the fact that it was a basic tenet of their Bolshevik allies. Though the anarchists shared Lenin’s determination to destroy the Provisional Government, Bakunin’s warnings about the power-hungry Marxists lingered in their thoughts.
Their latent suspicions of the “socialist-careerists”1 rose to the surface in early September, after the Bolshevik party won majorities in both the Petrograd and Moscow Soviets. Svobodnaia Kommuna, organ of the Petrograd Federation of Anarchists, recollected the oft-repeated allegation of Bakunin and Kropotkin that the so-called dictatorship of the proletariat really meant “the dictatorship of the Social Democratic party.”2 Every revolution of the past, the journal reminded its readers, simply yielded a new set of tyrants, a new privileged class, to lord it over the masses; let us hope, it declared, that the people will be wise enough not to let Kerenskii and Lenin become their new masters—”the Danton and Robespierre” of the Russian Revolution.3 [The Russian Anarchists]Continue reading…
Peter Arshinov* first met and befriended Nestor Makhno in prison in 1911, a friendship that that was to continue after their release following the February Revolution in 1917. In 1919 Arshinov became Makhno’s secretary, and remained with the Makhnovischina until 1921. The following year, 1922, he escaped into exile in Berlin where he published the Russian edition of the Makhno story. Arshinov’s history of the Makhnovists is one of the most important primary sources on the life of the Ukrainian anarchist guerrilla leader.
Makhnovism refers to various related political and economic theories elaborated by Ukrainian anarchist revolutionary leader Nestor Makhno, and by other theorists (Peter Arshinov etc.) who claim to be continuing Makhno’s work. During Makhno’s lifetime Makhnovism was anarchistic, and opposed the state and political parties, as well as bureaucracy, favouring highly decentralized communes run by peasants and workers. Makhnovism builds upon and elaborates the ideas of Peter Kropotkin, and serves as the philosophical basis for anarchist communism.
In early 1918, the new Bolshevik government in Russia signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk making peace with the Central Powers, but ceding large amounts of territory to them, including Ukraine. Partisan units were formed that waged guerrilla war against the Germans and Austrians. Nestor Makhno was one of the main organizers of these partisan groups, who united into the Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army of Ukraine (RPAU), also called the Black Army (because they fought under the anarchist black flag) and “Makhnovists” or “Makhnovshchina”. The RPAU also battled against the Whites, the Reds and anti-semiticpogromists. In areas where the RPAU drove out opposing armies, there were villagers (and workers) who sought to abolish capitalism and the state through organizing themselves into village assemblies, communes and councils. Land and factories were expropriated and workers’ self-management implemented. The economy the Makhnovists in Ukraine implemented was based on free exchange between rural and urban communities.
A fascinating first-hand account of the activists of the Anarchist Red Cross (later the Anarchist Black Cross — ABC) in the Russian revolutionary movement from 1905 through 1917, and the subsequent Leninist/Stalinist repression.
The book contains a tribute to Yelensky from fellow Russian revolutionary M. Beresin: “When I arrived in the United States in 1911, a fugitive from a hard-labor sentence in Siberia, my first thought was to devise some means of extending aid to our comrades who were languishing in Russian prisons. I promptly proceeded to have a noticed inserted in the Russian language newspapers requesting any co-workers in our ideological movement who were located in Philadelphia… to come to a meeting. Among those who attended that gathering was Yelensky. Our first step was the … organization of the “Anarchist Red Cross” … Yelensky is one of the most ardent and dynamic workers in our Movement; he has not for a single moment deviated from his ideological course; He has not allowed himself to become assimilated… by the American Bourgeois spirit. This intransigence of his… was responsible for the fact that in time he became to be recognized as more than a person. He became a veritable `institution’“
Boris Yelensky’s memoir charts the history of the Russian anarchist movement in the early years of the 20th Century. Told in prosaic yet detailed fashion, unadorned by romanticism, it is his personal account of the turbulent period leading up to — and after — the successful take-over of the Russian monarchy by Lenin and the Bolsheviks. He provides an alternative historical viewpoint as to the Russian anarchist experience of that momentous period.
In the Social Storm: Memoirs of the Russian Revolution is not only a critique of the Bolshevik modus operandi and why they willingly sacrificed the one great opportunity to implement the socialist ideals fleshed out over the previous half century or more. It is more than an analysis of the Bolshevik mindset. Yelensky illustrates how the anarchist movement and men such as Nestor Makhno played a vital role in the social forces and the massive political and social upheaval of the period.
Yelensky (Russia, 1889 — USA, 1974) describes how the anarchists living and struggling within this maelstrom of change did their utmost to implement their ideas through the example of their everyday lives. The experiments in actual anarchist projects of which Yelensky was a part, and which he describes in detail, were attempts to redefine social organizations to make them fair and liberating to everyone involved. They had a short window of opportunity to show the positive aspects of their philosophy, one that promised a viable alternative social and industrial organization to the repressive, totalitarian, brutal state dictatorship of the Bolsheviks — and to that of the capitalists who, likewise, used a centralized authoritarian government system disguised as “democracy” to fulfill similar ends.
For anarchists and political researchers Yelensky’s book is a revealing account of anarchism in action. A first-hand description of the lives and the efforts of those who went to Russia in good faith, believing positive changes were at hand. Instead, they faced the grim reality there was no new utopia awaiting them; Russia had fallen into the hands of a cabal of ruthless Marxist ideologues who, with their dreaded cheka terror squads, were hell-bent on acquiring total power over one of the largest empires on earth — and, in the process, murdering anyone who stood in the way of their ambitions.
Paul Avrich’s The Russian Anarchists records the history and ideas of Russian anarchism from the 19th century through to its brutal suppression by the Bolsheviks in the 1920s. All the major personalities are discussed in detail: Bakunin, Kropotkin, Baron, Rogdaev, Chernyi, Makhno, Volin, Shapiro, Maksimov. The well-documented study includes comprehensive end notes, a chronology and an annotated bibliography. Part I focuses on the events and personalities leading up to 1905, while part II deals with the events following on from February 1917 to the Bolsheviks’ final suppression of the Russian anarchists in the early 1920s. Analysing the role of the anarchist movement in post-revolutionary period, Avrich traces its relations with the Bolsheviks and shows that most of them foresaw that the Marxist “dictatorship of the proletariat” would replace the tyranny of the tsars with the tyranny of commissars.