The Peace News commemoration of the Russian Revolution (PN 2612–2613) accurately identified the role of nonviolent direct action in creating that inspiring event but offered no explanation of why it all ended in tears. Most historians accept that the revolution degenerated into authoritarian terror but activists disagree on the causes.
Leninists blame the ensuing civil war, Trotskyists blame Stalin, anarchists blame Lenin while an old Communist Party friend of mine reckons it would have all worked out in the end if only ‘Stalin had killed more reactionaries’!
“Anti-authoritarians who gave Lenin the benefit of the doubt were one after another eliminated”
Before the revolution, Lenin outlined his Marxist ideas for Russia in numerous texts. By helping him into power, anti-authoritarians effectively collaborated in creating a murderous regime that liquidated freedom along with its proponents.
In 1923, the anarchist Emma Goldman observed: ‘It is now clear why the Russian Revolution, as conducted by the Communist Party, was a failure. The political power of the Party, organised and centralised in the State, sought to maintain itself by all means at hand.’ Goldman was able to escape abroad, millions less fortunate were murdered.
There are reasons to absolve libertarians who collaborated with the Bolsheviks. Firstly, unlike us, they didn’t have the benefit of hindsight. Many anarchists who supported Lenin hoped the revolutionary self-activity of the masses would prove impossible to suppress.
Secondly, on returning to Russia in April 1917, Lenin realised Marxist centralism wouldn’t wash with the masses who were already taking things into their own hands. Especially as 86 percent of Russians were peasants whom Marx deemed incapable of developing revolutionary consciousness.
So Lenin cynically adopted the populist mantras of direct-action socialists: ‘Peace, Land and Bread’, ‘All Power to the Soviets’, ‘Bread and Freedom’. So persuasive was Lenin’s new guise that some of his Bolshevik comrades suspected he’d gone over to the anarchists.
As soon as the Bolsheviks seized state power, however, Lenin lost no time reassuring party loyalists that he was no libertarian. He had formerly denounced the Provisional Government’s retention of the death penalty (which had briefly been abolished). On grabbing power, Lenin successfully demanded its immediate reintroduction for ‘counter-revolutionaries’.
“Leninists blame the civil war, Trotskyists blame Stalin, anarchists blame Lenin”
Similarly, Lenin’s espousal of workers’ control, legalised by a decree of 3 November 1917, was within two weeks reined in by Bolsheviks insisting that: ‘the lower organs of control must confine their activities within the limits set by the instructions of the proposed All-Russian Council of Workers Control. We must say it quite clearly and categorically so that workers in various enterprises don’t go away with the idea that the factories belong to them’!
The Bolshevik leadership never intended to support the self-activity of the workers but to conscript them into ‘an army of labour’ – disciplined, regimented and controlled.
Anti-authoritarian Tolstoyans, anarchists and Left Social Revolutionaries who gave Lenin the benefit of the doubt were one after another eliminated until finally, under Stalin, the last of the Bolshevik old guard was ‘liquidated’.
By April 1918, the Russian Revolution had gone the way of the English Revolution and the French Revolution. For a short while the exuberant, liberated masses made hay while the sun shone, before a new ruling class, dripping in blood, ushered in a new authoritarian era.
In 1917, the Russian people had revolution thrust upon them, everyone had to make the best of chaotic circumstances. We can afford to be more reflective.
Russian libertarians split over their reaction to Lenin. Some anarchists retained their principles and opposed the Bolsheviks but others collaborated. Four anarchists served on Trotsky’s Military Revolutionary Committee while Anatoli Zhelezniakov, an anarchist sailor, enforced the dismissal of the first and only sitting of Russia’s Constituent Assembly in January 1918.
We can’t repair the 1917 revolution but we can learn from it and I suggest there are two immediate lessons to be drawn from the Russian fiasco.
Firstly, we urgently recognise the key importance of opposing the authoritarian behaviour that currently afflicts our political events. Such behaviour begins by denouncing critics as ‘hate-speakers’ and escalates to censorship, bans and violence.
Secondly, I suggest we question the whole notion of ‘revolution’. We should reject the simplistic binary labelling of politics as either ‘reformist’ or ‘revolutionary’.
Voting does indeed change virtually nothing however long we endure. Revolution as a single cataclysmic event surely changes everything much too rapidly for mere mortals to constructively assimilate, leaving us far too vulnerable to a man with a plan and a gun in his pocket.