The Story of Soviet Russia

The Russians have a long history of battling for basic human rights and true anarchist democracy, as documented in Daniel Guerin’s Anarchism, published in 1970.

In 1905, the Russian people rose up in rebellion against the brutal dictatorship of the czar and the horrendous inequality between the ruling and lower class. 150,000 impoverished workers protested their tragic living and working conditions in the capital of St. Petersburg in January, agitation that led to Russian soldiers at the White Palace firing into the unarmed crowd. The “Bloody Sunday” massacre sparked a revolution: nearly half a million people went on strike across the nation, clashing with police, who shot people down in the streets; sailors and soldiers mutinied against their officers; peasants attacked the homes of their landlords; Baltic peoples demanded independence; students rioted at their universities; and terrorists assassinated government officials and military and police commanders. Workers seized factories and businesses from their employers, taking ownership by force. In St. Petersburg, anarchists and socialists helped set up worker councils called “soviets,” true anarchist organization. The people and their leaders demanded an elected parliament, voting rights, freedom of the press and religion, and the right to form political parties. In other words, they demanded basic individual rights and a less autocratic system of government that other parts of the world, such as the United States, had won. Daniel Guerin writes:

The Russian Revolution was, in fact, a great mass movement, a wave rising from the people which passed over and submerged ideological formations. It belonged to no one, unless to the people. In so far as it was an authentic revolution, taking its impulse from the bottom upward and spontaneously producing the organs of direct democracy, it presented all the characteristics of a social revolution with libertarian tendencies.[1]

The State of course responded with repression: the army was dispatched to destroy the worker councils and disperse strikes, protesters were imprisoned, and some citizens were executed. Well over 10,000 people died, and scores of thousands more imprisoned. Nevertheless, power yielded hesitantly to ever increasing demand and strife. Toward the end of 1905, Czar Nicholas II agreed to broadened personal freedoms and the establishment of an elected parliament, expressed in the October Manifesto. The working people celebrated. However, as under the American oligarchy, the new Constitution of 1906 granted little power to the people. The czar retained veto power over all law, the power to elect half the legislature of the new parliament the revolutionaries had called for, and total power over the military and the church. These concessions satisfied few socialists, many of whom still pushed for the overthrow of the czar.

Struggles for more freedom, political power, and decent living conditions continued, exploding violently again in February 1917. Russian soldiers, horribly unprepared for the Great War against Germany, were being slaughtered, wounded, and imprisoned by the millions. Troops were mutinying and deserting by the tens of thousands each month. The people were starving, commodities scarce, inflation skyrocketing. The czar consistently worked to weaken the elected parliament.

On February 23, 90,000 people went on strike and marched in Petrograd (formerly St. Petersburg), demanding food and an end to the war. Tens of thousands more joined them, until Petrograd fell into chaos. Many of the strikers were women, who were left to suffer in the factories and plants as men were shipped to the bloodbath of Europe. Army groups were sent to crush the strikes, but soldiers refused to fire upon women, and many joined the protestors. Workers again took control of their workplaces. Peasants seized the land of the agricultural bosses. Socialist political parties recreated the 1905 soviet. The people organized socialist communities characterized by cooperatively- and communally-owned government, childcare facilities, kitchens, laundries, farms, and factories, and also characterized by personal freedoms when homosexuality, abortion, and birth control were legalized.[2]

Without the power of the military, the czar surrendered his power in March.

But the battle was far from over. As the world has been reminded in the recent Arab Spring, the ousting of a dictator often leaves political establishments in the best position to take control. The political party that took charge of the transition government, the Constitutional Democratic Party (Kadets), had been a liberal party born during the 1905 revolution, but was distinctly non-socialist, made up of political elites and aristocrats led by Prince Georgy Lvov. The transition government was expected to organize elections for a Constituent Assembly, in which the people would democratically select representatives to compose a new government. But the Kadets announced they would continue the war, and would not organize such elections until the war was concluded. This outraged the people, and a new wave of massive protests shook Russia. Half a million workers and soldiers marched on July 1, 1917 in Petrograd alone; they called for the war’s end and all political power to be handed over to the soviets, the worker councils. Hundreds of soviets banded together into an All-Russian Congress of Soviets. The Kadet government responded with the usual means of repression, but was forced to yield in July; Alexander Kerensky, from a coalition of socialist parties, was made the new prime minister by the political establishment. But Kerensky also refused to organize a Constituent Assembly. He declared himself commander-in-chief and Russia a republic.

Civil unrest continued, and more and more the soviets, having no political power of their own, looked toward a party called the Bolsheviks for representation. The Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, would increase in popularity and come to dominate the All-Russian Congress of Soviets, taking the reigns of the worker revolution, and would thus become an enemy of the Kerensky regime. But the Bolsheviks did not hold the anti-statist views of anarchists, other socialists, or even much of the citizenry. Lenin said that the workers were “a hundred times further to the left”[3] than he or the Bolsheviks. In fact, “The anti-Bolshevik, left-wing labor movement opposed the Leninists because they did not go far enough… [Leninists] used the international radical movement to satisfy specifically Russian needs, which soon became synonymous with the needs of the Bolshevik Party-State.”[4]

Guerin wrote that the party “had been authoritarians for a long time, and were imbued with ideas of the State, of dictatorship, of centralization, of a ruling party, of management of the economy from above, of all things which were in flagrant contradiction with a really libertarian conception of soviet democracy.”[5] Lenin wrote before the October 1917 Revolution that the anti-capitalist organization of industry should be overseen by the State, that it should seize a monopoly over all industry and operate in the interests of the people and not capitalist owners.[6] The Bolsheviks even “regarded the soviets with suspicion as embarrassing competitors.”[7] They were interested in ending capitalism and building a new, prosperous Russia without suffering or poverty, but without question sought the power to oversee this process themselves as a ruling party. But in order to appeal to a far more liberal base, the party often had to offer support to ideas that contradicted their traditional beliefs. In the words of the anarchist Voline, “in order to catch the imagination of the masses, gain their confidence and their sympathy, the Bolshevik Party announced…slogans which had up till then been characteristic…of anarchism,”[8] like “All power to the soviets!” The party had to make concessions here and there and play along with certain ideas in order to survive and grow.

As soviets across Russia pressured the All-Russian Congress of Soviets to end the Kerensky government, the Bolsheviks organized an armed uprising that faced no real resistance. On November 7, Lenin led tens of thousands of armed supporters to the government buildings in Petrograd and took them over. The Winter Palace was seized and the Kerensky officials were arrested. The Bolsheviks seized power, and while it was legitimized by the soviets and a cause for celebration among much of the citizenry, libertarian socialists and anarchists were dismayed. Voline wrote:

Once they have consolidated and legalized their power, the Bolsheviks–who are socialists, politicians, and believers in the State, that is to say, centralists and authoritarian men of action–will begin to arrange the life of the country and the people by governmental and dictatorial means imposed from the centers… Your soviets…will gradually become simply executive organs of the will of the central government… An authoritarian political state apparatus will be set up and, acting from above, it will seek to crush everything with its iron fist… Woe betide anyone who is not in agreement with the central authority.[9]

Anarchist Errico Malatesta warned that the

…armed forces which have served to defend the Revolution against external enemies…tomorrow will serve to impose the will of the dictators on the workers, to check the course of the Revolution, to consolidate newly established interests, and to defend a newly privileged class against the masses. Lenin, Trotsky, and their companions are certainly sincere revolutionaries, but they are preparing the government cadres which will enable their successors to profit by the Revolution and kill it. They will be the first victims of their own methods.[10]

And all this is precisely what happened. Despite a 1918-1922 civil war, in which other political parties and anti-Bolshevik organizations battled to remove Lenin and his party, despite intervention by the United States military and other Allied powers, and despite persistent riots and strikes against their regime, the Bolsheviks became the ruling party of Russia. They arrested and executed political opponents, crushed independence movements among peoples like the Ukrainians, and established a bureaucracy of directors to manage the economy. Many of these directors were wealthy capitalists “left over from old Russian capitalism, who had adapted themselves all too quickly to institutions of the soviet type, and had got themselves into responsible positions in the various commissariats, insisting that economic management should be entrusted to them and not to workers’ organizations.”[11] They dismantled worker cooperatives, refusing to allow any factory or company to operate with its own democratic will. Government dictators replaced capitalist dictators. The workers and the soviet worker councils had no real power, and were subject to all decisions made by the State.[12] Anarchist groups became the most active and the most popular among the Russian people by 1918, but the Bolsheviks systematically crushed their movement by 1921, criminalizing anarchist literature and activities, then arresting, exiling, or executing anarchists and other libertarians.[13] The dream of worker self-management in Russia died under authoritarian socialists, under communists, under “the vilest and most dangerous lie of our century…Red Bureaucracy,” as Mikhail Bakunin said.[14] He declared:

I detest communism because it is the negation of liberty and I cannot conceive anything human without liberty. I am not a communist because communism concentrates all the powers of society and absorbs them into the State, because it leads inevitably to the centralization of property in the hands of the State, while I want to see the State abolished. I want the complete elimination of the authoritarian principle of state tutelage which has always subjected, oppressed, exploited, and depraved men while claiming to moralize and civilize them. I want society, and collective or social property, to be organized from the bottom up through free association and not from the top down by authority of any kind… In that sense I am a collectivist and not at all a communist.[15]

Though crushed in Russia, the soviet worker councils inspired other ordinary people throughout Europe, in Ukraine, Italy, Spain, Germany, Holland, Bavaria. Guerin writes of Ukraine, which was shaken by peasant revolts and saw brief independence after World War I:

Peasants united in “communes” or “free-work soviets,” and communally tilled the land for which they had fought with their 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.

This Bolsheviks destroyed this movement also.

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[1] Guerin, 82

[2] Maass, Case for Socialism, 133

[3] Guerin, 83

[4] Paul Mattick, Marx and Keynes: The Limits of the Mixed Economy (Boston: Porter Sargent, 1969), p. 295.

[5] Guerin, 86

[6] Guerin, 86-87

[7] Guerin, 84

[8] Guerin, 85

[9] Guerin, 87-88

[10] Guerin, 112

[11] Guerin, 90

[12] Guerin, 91

[13] Guerin, 95-96

[14] Guerin, 22

[15] Guerin, 22