Bakunin and Kropotkin on national liberation, Victor Serge and libertarian activity

Back from holiday and back into work – both work-work and union-work. Not much fun, time consuming and energy draining – but needed. Currently fighting an brazen attempt by management to make a few people redundant on particularly spurious grounds but luckily we have less hoops to jump through in terms of strike action this time. Things like this just drive home how inefficient and wasteful hierarchical workplaces (wage-labour!) are. Anyone who witters on about the need for “authority” in the workplace (whether Engels or von Mises) really shows that they do not know what they are talking about (i.e., they are not a worker).

The trade unions are so regulated these days, and most people are completely unaware of how much. I was talking to someone who works in Housman’s bookshop and he was surprised to discover that it was illegal for unions to strike over the NHS reforms – and he was politically active! Solidarity strikes are also illegal. All that they can strike on are narrow "economic" issues related to your job -- such as pay, redundancies, conditions, "selfish" issues (hence the few letters I saw in the papers moaning that the trade unions were striking over pensions but did not over the Tory “reforms” – i.e., privatisation – of the NHS). Needless to say, I do think that the unions show act and break the anti-union laws but that requires some work in terms of building strong rank-and-file movements within them, something few people on the left seem keen on (or if they do, it is with the goal of taking positions in the hierarchy – and poaching members from other sects – rather than empowering the base). I do think this is a subject we libertarians need to discuss in more depth.

This lack of a counter-power in the workplace helps explain the current crisis – there is simply little to stop bosses and managers imposing their crazy, ignorant ideas in their area of control. But that is another issue…

I’m reading Victor Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary (the new complete edition) on my way to work. He was a brilliant writer, although I’m finding his book somewhat selective and self-serving. For example, it completely downplays his very public Bolshevik-elitism of 1919 to the early 1930s (hard to tell when he changed his mind, perhaps in exile? perhaps in internal exile as an Oppositionist?). He also downplays his role in the illegalists and the Bonnet affair and, as such, paints a false picture of his move to Leninism – he was an elitist individualist anarchist (not in the American sense!) who became an elitist Bolshevik defending the necessity of party dictatorship to communist-anarchists and syndicalists. Funnily enough, while he talks of Lenin seeking to recruit “the best of the anarchists” (a phrase endlessly quoted by the likes of the SWP) the comrades mentioned remained true to libertarian politics and denounced the dictatorship over the proletariat.

In the chapter on the Left Opposition (Chapter 7: The Years of Resistance: 1928-1933), he makes a few comments on it supporting workers' democracy:

“From 1928-29 onwards, the Politburo turned to its own use the great fundamental ideas of the now expelled Opposition (excepting, of course, that of working-class democracy).” (293)


“The program that we hard-core Oppositionists have drawn up will not change now till 1937: the reform of the Soviet State by a return to working-class democracy.” (300)

Except that this is not true. The Platform of the Opposition made no commitment to genuine workers democracy – its desire to revitalise the soviets and unions was placed within the context of the party dictatorship. Let me quote the appropriate section:

“[The] growing replacement of the party by its own apparatus is promoted by a ‘theory’ of Stalin's which denies the Leninist principle, inviolable for every Bolshevik, that the dictatorship of the proletariat is and can be realised only through the dictatorship of the party.” (The Challenge of the Left Opposition (1926-7), 402)

I could quote more, but it is covered in my critique of McNally’s “Socialism from Below.” Serge himself, in 1938, did acknowledge the actual situation in an article in which he admitted that “the greatest reach of boldness of the Left Opposition in the Bolshevik Party was to demand the restoration of inner-Party democracy, and it never dared dispute the theory of single-party government – by this time, it was too late.” (The Serge-Trotsky Papers, 181) Serge kind-of-admits it in his memoirs when he discusses the Platform:

“On the political level, it was essential to restore life to the Soviets… and above all to revitalise the Party and the trade unions… In conclusion, the Opposition openly demanded… the implementation of the excellent resolutions on internal democracy that had been adopted in 1921 and 1923.” (261-2)

Yes, they aimed for party democracy and that was it. It should be noted that Serge elsewhere denounces the Lenin Levy which opened the party to new members, arguing that this helped ensure the victory of the bureaucracy – which raises the question of how effective party democracy would be in that situation. He defends the need for dictatorship within the party by the “Old Bolsheviks” post-civil war to safe-guard against power-seekers and the corrupt. So we have a basic contradiction – unsurprisingly, given his elitism of the time (as reflected by his support of the crushing of Kronstadt). Self-reform by the bureaucracy was his only option, an unlikely event which quickly proved a false hope (I discuss Serge’s rationale for his position on Kronstadt elsewhere so won’t do so here).

So the Left-Opposition (as discussed here) was simply part of the bureaucracy (as Serge admits at one point) which aimed for minor reforms of the system but did not fundamentally propose anything significantly different – or even socialistic, rather a nicer and less oppressive form of state-capitalism and party dictatorship (the Trotskyists were termed “the bureaucracy in exile” for good reason!). The demand for genuine soviet democracy was raised outside of the party, in the Kronstadt Programme Serge summarises (147-8) and in various (small) groups – including some ex-Bolsheviks (like the Workers’ Group around G. T. Miasnikov). All were suppressed – with the support of Trotsky (as noted by the GPU to the Trotskyists when they were moaning that repression within the party was unknown).

Needless to say, in Serge’s account of the Second Congress of the Comintern (125) he does not mention Zinoviev’s pronouncement on the necessity of party dictatorship… which was clearly a lesson the Bolsheviks considered as required learning to the world revolutionary movement (see Lenin’s Left-Wing Communism and Trotsky’s Terrorism and Communism, both written to influence delegates to the congress). This awkward fact is usually not mentioned in Leninist accounts (see my long critique of Darlington’s book on syndicalism).

So while I can admire his courage in the face of Stalinism, I do find his rewriting of his own works before the mid-1930s somewhat annoying. His numerous articles defending the dictatorship of the party should have been mentioned and explicitly rejected rather than give the false impression that his position of the late-1930s was something he always held. Still, it is nice that he finally came to (near) communist-anarchist positions – 20 years too late... And, of course, any Leninist reading this book will get a distinctly false impression of revolutionary anarchism, mostly because Serge was never a communist-anarchist. Still, Serge’s account of meetings in 1920s Russia, carefully controlled by the bureaucracy, the careful limitation of opposition voices, did remind me of SWP meetings I have attended (including Marxism).

Talking of Serge, I would be remiss not to point to Luigi Fabbri’s comments at the time of his conversion to Bolshevism and subsequent attempts to recruit from us:

“He, like some other anarchists we know, has failed to understand that the most important part of the anarchist programme consists, not of some far-off dream, which we would also like to have come true, of a society without masters and no government, but, above all else, of the libertarian notion of revolution, of revolution against the State and not with the State, the notion that freedom is also a means as well as an end, a more appropriate weapon against the old world than the State authority preferred by Kibaltchitch [Serge’s real name] and less of a two-edged sword, a weapon less treacherous than that authority.” (Revolution and Dictatorship)

Serge by the late-30s comes to the same conclusion, shame it was 20 years too late. And, of course, Emma Goldman made the same point in her accounts of the Russian Revolution (and in her excellent Trotsky Protests Too Much she is, rightly, less than complementary about Serge). And talking of Red Emma, her autobiography (Living My Life) is a much better book in terms of the reality of Bolshevik Russia and the lessons to be learned (My Disillusionment in Russia is also essential reading). Ironically, Serge complains at one point about the foreign “revolutionaries” in Russia who were happy to be wined and dined in the starving country, unwilling to go to the factories and see what the reality of the situation was. Goldman (and Berkman) did precisely that and she ended up rejecting Bolshevism and reaffirming her communist-anarchism, penning these words (see the Emma Goldman archive for the text in question):

“It is that very circumstance which has made it bitterly hard for me to speak out against the evils as I saw them day by day. But finally I realized that silence is indeed a sign of consent. Not to cry out against the betrayal of the Russian Revolution would have made me a party to that betrayal. The Revolution and the welfare of the masses in and out of Russia are by far too important to me to allow any personal consideration for the Communists I have met and learned to respect to obscure my sense of justice and to cause me to refrain from giving to the world my two years' experience in Russia.


“Friends whose opinion I value have been good enough to suggest that my quarrel with the Bolsheviki is due to my social philosophy rather than to the failure of the Bolshevik régime. As an Anarchist, they claim, I would naturally insist on the importance of the individual and of personal liberty, but in the revolutionary period both must be subordinated to the good of the whole. Other friends point out that destruction, violence, and terrorism are inevitable factors in a revolution. As a revolutionist, they say, I cannot consistently object to the violence practised by the Bolsheviki.

“Both these criticisms would be justified had I come to Russia expecting to find Anarchism realized, or if I were to maintain that revolutions can be made peacefully. Anarchism to me never was a mechanistic arrangement of social relationships to be imposed upon man by political scene-shifting or by a transfer of power from one social class to another. Anarchism to me was and is the child, not of destruction, but of construction--the result of growth and development of the conscious creative social efforts of a regenerated people. I do not therefore expect Anarchism to follow in the immediate footsteps of centuries of despotism and submission. And I certainly did not expect to see it ushered in by the Marxian theory.

“I did, however, hope to find in Russia at least the beginnings of the social changes for which the Revolution had been fought. Not the fate of the individual was my main concern as a revolutionist. I should have been content if the Russian workers and peasants as a whole had derived essential social betterment as a result of the Bolshevik régime.

“Two years of earnest study, investigation, and research convinced me that the great benefits brought to the Russian people by Bolshevism exist only on paper, painted in glowing colours to the masses of Europe and America by efficient Bolshevik propaganda. […]

“The Russian workers […] possessed themselves of the factories, organized their own shop committees, and were virtually in control of the economic life of Russia. But soon they were stripped of their power and placed under the industrial yoke of the Bolshevik State. Chattel slavery became the lot of the Russian proletariat. It was suppressed and exploited in the name of something which was later to bring it comfort, light, and warmth. Try as I might I could find nowhere any evidence of benefits received either by the workers or the peasants from the Bolshevik regime.


“The argument that destruction and terror are part of revolution I do not dispute. I know that in the past every great political and social change necessitated violence. […] I have never denied that violence is inevitable, nor do I gainsay it now. Yet it is one thing to employ violence in combat, as a means of defence. It is quite another thing to make a principle of terrorism, to institutionalize it, to assign it the most vital place in the social struggle. Such terrorism begets counter-revolution and in turn itself becomes counter-revolutionary.


“There is another objection to my criticism on the part of the Communists. Russia is on strike, they say, and it is unethical for a revolutionist to side against the workers when they are striking against their masters. That is pure demagoguery practised by the Bolsheviki to silence criticism.

“It is not true that the Russian people are on strike. On the contrary, the truth of the matter is that the Russian people have been locked out and that the Bolshevik State – even as the bourgeois industrial master – uses the sword and the gun to keep the people out. In the case of the Bolsheviki this tyranny is masked by a world-stirring slogan: thus they have succeeded in blinding the masses. Just because I am a revolutionist I refuse to side with the master class, which in Russia is called the Communist Party.” (preface to the 1st edition of My Disillusionment in Russia)

And I must note, even this short extract from Goldman’s book exposes as lies the notion – so beloved by the likes of the SWP and their American section – that she was an individualist elitist unconcerned by the working class or our struggles. Her critique of the Bolshevik regime was, like her activism and writings in America, very much focused on the class struggle. As I discussed in my review of my recent review of a biography of Lucy Parsons, this represents the best of the anarchists rather than Serge’s defence of Bolshevik elitism and dictatorship (see The Unhappy Elitist: Victor Serge’s Early Bolshevism by Peter Sedgwick). Like Malatesta, Kropotkin, Fabbri and many others, Goldman saw the reality of Bolshevism and it did not take being at the wrong end of state repression to focus their attention to act or draw some of the right – and obvious – conclusions!

Talking of critiques of Bolshevism, it would be remiss of me not to mention his excellent essay Anarchy and "scientific" communism which critiques Bolshevism from a communist-anarchist perspective (i.e., one alien to Serge’s tradition). His analysis of the rise of Fascism is also important (Preventative Counter-Revolution) and his Life of Malatesta (my favourite dead anarchist) is useful to placing the rise of fascism in context (see also section A.5.5 of AFAQ). He also contributed to the debate on the Platform (About A Project For Anarchist Organisation) although he is best known, I think, for Bourgeois Influences on Anarchism (which was the first thing I read by him, if memory serves!).

A Luigi Fabrbri anthology would be well worth the time – It could be the above books and articles and it would be a worthwhile addition to our libraries! And I have to mention my opinion that the Italian movement contributed immensely to the anarchist movement in terms of realistic thinkers – Malatesta, Fabbri and Camillo Berneri – and as suggested in my review article on an SWP book, better understanding of the experiences of post-war Red Years in Italy would help us today immensely.

I have been thinking of Fabbri a bit of late, based on my experiences as a union rep – namely that bosses like being bosses and “management’s right to manage” is what drives a lot of decisions in industry rather than profits as such. In section J.5.12 of AFAQ, the reason why workers’ self-management is not more widespread under capitalism is discussed. It is more efficient, more productive, etc. so it should, under “market” theory, spread and replace wage-labour. It does not simply because bosses/managers are well aware that it puts them out of a job. I quote an author on the rise of Italian Fascism who quotes Fabbri:

“The anarchist Luigi Fabbri termed fascism a preventative counter-revolution; but in his essay he makes the important point that the employers, particularly in agriculture, were not so much moved by fear of a general revolution as by the erosion of their own authority and property rights which had already taken place locally: ‘The bosses felt they were no longer bosses.’” (Adrian Lyttelton, “Italian Fascism”, pp. 81-114, Fascism: a Reader's Guide, p. 91)

My experiences of my new “modern” management hierarchies as a union rep shows that Fabbri had a point – a lot of management decisions are based simply on “I’m the boss so shut up and do what you are told.” That this generates a lot of problems for the bosses in the future goes without saying but they keep at it. This gets ignored by bourgeois economics (as you would expect) but also by a lot of radicals as well – thanks, in part, to Marx’s analysis in Capital which downplays class struggle in the workplace (as Cornelius Castoriadis showed well in, say, Modern Capitalism and Revolution – still essential reading). Also reflected in Michal Kalecki’s “The Political Aspects of Full Employment” (pdf):

“Indeed, under a regime of full employment, the ‘sack’ would cease to play its role as a disciplinary measure. The social position of the boss would be undermined, and the self-assurance and class-consciousness of the working class would grow. Strikes for wage increases and improvements in conditions of work would create political tension. It is true that profits would be higher under a regime of full employment than they are on the average under laissez-faire; and even the rise in wage rates resulting from the stronger bargaining power of workers is less likely to reduce profits than to increase prices, and thus adversely affects only the rentier interests. But ‘discipline in the factories’ and ‘political stability’ are more appreciated than profits by business leaders. Their class instinct tells them that lasting full employment is unsound from their point of view, and that unemployment is an integral part of the ‘normal’ capitalist system.”

Profits are important, but power more-so – particularly, of course, as surplus value extraction depends on ensuring workers produce more than they get back in wages (thank you Proudhon for Marx’s great insight!). Still, in a choice between more profits and less power then bosses will seek to secure their position at the expense of the former – for good reason, as no manager wants empowered, assertive staff who may conclude (quite rightly) that we do the work, we manage the work, then we do not need managers, bosses and owners…

Still, if managers are divorced from reality then they are joined there by a lot of the revolutionary movement seem to exist in a little world of their own. This is obvious, I think, with the Leninist left – who are busy trying to reproduce something which did not exist in the first place (i.e., their idealised notions of 1917 – see section H.5.12 – and Bolshevism in powersection H.6 of AFAQ). It also applies to people who should know better (e.g., The Coming Insurrection). Take, for example, Adrian Peacock’s Two Hundred Pharaohs Five Billion Slaves a reasonably entertaining and at times very interesting Situationist influenced book that came out a few years back.

Unsurprisingly, Peacock is hardly polite about anarchism (which is fine) but also hardly accurate. For example, he defines “Anarcho-syndicalism” as “the seizure by the revolutionary working classes of their own pre-revolutionary organisations during their general seizure of society.” (199) This is just crazy and it makes you wonder why anyone should take anything he writers seriously.

This is compounded when we see, in the section on anarchism, the words “[a]ccording to the workers’ movement of the 1960s” (198) followed by a quote on the Spanish Revolution from The Society of the Spectacle. Guy Debord was many things but he was not “the workers’ movement of the 1960s” or, indeed, at any time. Nor where the Situationists (did any of them ever actually sell their labour to a boss?). Few in the actual workers’ movement of the 1960s had heard of Guy Debord and even fewer would have read that particular book (even the more accessible section on anarchism and Marxism Peacock quotes from).

This is a feature of Peacock’s book. Thus we read “the workers’ movement anticipated a century and a half ago” (164) and then quotes... The German Ideology by Marx and Engels! That this was before they even joined what was to become the Communist League seems irrelevant. It gets even more silly, with the want-to-be Bolshevik Antonio Gramsci being proclaimed one of the “theorists of the revolutionary workers’ movement of the 1920s”! (202) I guess that because he attacked anarchism, his Bolshevism can be ignored (regardless of its impact on the actual workers’ movement).

Let me play the game… Trotsky’s militarisation of labour in 1920 was anticipated by the revolutionary workers’ movement decades before in the call for the establishment of labour armies in The Manifesto of the Communist Party….

Then we have the inaccuracies which by strange co-incidence fit the narrative. Peacock, in his attempt to paint anarchism as being somehow separate from the workers movement, quotes Bakunin and states this was “[o]n abandoning the first revolutionary organisation of the proletariat of the nineteenth century” (197) except that Bakunin was expelled from the First International (by Marx) in 1872 and the letter quoted was written in April 1870. The letter itself discusses the role of revolutionaries in popular movements (and as discussed in section J.3.7 of AFAQ, terminology aside, Bakunin was being quite sensible). As for the letter itself, this discusses his vision of social revolution and predicts certain aspects of the Paris Commune:

“let us suppose . . . it is Paris that starts [the revolution] . . . Paris will naturally make haste to organise itself as best it can, in revolutionary style, after the workers have joined into associations and made a clean sweep of all the instruments of labour, every kind of capital and building; armed and organised by streets and quartiers, they will form the revolutionary federation of all the quartiers, the federative commune . . . All the French and foreign revolutionary communes will then send representatives to organise the necessary common services . . . and to organise common defence against the enemies of the Revolution, together with propaganda, the weapon of revolution, and practical revolutionary solidarity with friends in all countries against enemies in all countries.” (Michael Bakunin: Selected Writings, 178-9)

In previous works to this, Bakunin raises the idea of mandating and recalling delegates, expropriation of capital and the creation of something which looks remarkably like a workers’ council (as discussed here, not to mention  my blog post on the Proudhon, Marx and the Commune). Peacock proclaims:

“The Paris Commune saw the workers seize revolutionary power and form the first ever ‘workers’ council.’ Paris became a revolutionary city in which all classes were abolished.” (168)

Except, of course, it did not – the Commune was not a body of delegates from workplaces! It was the elected local (municipal) council to which mandates and recall were added (as advocated by Proudhon… in 1848!). And as Kropotkin argued, one of its key problems was that it did not expropriate capital so the notion that “all classes were abolished” is simply nonsense – Marx considered it the political form by which the economic liberation of the proletariat could be achieved, he never suggested it had abolished classes… in the space of a few days! As I discuss this at length elsewhere, I will leave the Commune here. Then there is this:

“capitalism can only continue by increasing the numbers of exploited workers, by training us, by politicising us, by linking us together in increasingly interdependent coalitions (the factory system), by constantly raising up and organising an unhappy opposition to its own activities.” (137)

All of which suggests a very passive perspective on us workers – we have to dragged into the struggle by capital, which trains us, politicises us (really?), organises us… and there I thought we organised ourselves, drew political conclusions from our own struggles and experiences, and so on. I guess that is what you get when you start paraphrasing The Manifesto of the Communist Party rather than thinking for yourself…

Which raises the question of the interaction of revolutionaries with mass movements. I was re-reading Maurice Brinton this week (For Workers’ Power is essential reading) and he notes in a few places how Marx did not predict the basic idea of workers democracy of mandating and recalling delegates – it was a product of working class people in struggle. Well, yes and no. He was right in-so-far as Marx did not predict it but that does not mean no-one else did – both Proudhon and Bakunin argued for mandating and recall before 1871. Does pointing that out mean denigrating the activities of working class people? No, as the people who formed the Commune did not appear out of nowhere – anarchists and other socialists (not many of the latter Marxists, I should note!) had been raising their ideas in working class organisations and struggles for some time and, of course, being influenced by these before, during and after.

It smacks of Leninism, whose vanguardism has so permeated the revolutionary left that even libertarians are unconsciously influenced by it. The idea that if you become revolutionary that you somehow are separate from the rest of your class is often assumed by many (or appears to be). Sure, being an educated and class conscious worker can feel isolating at times (for example, I’m not interested in football very much – I take an interest in Scotland games and that is about it these days – which often makes for short conversations in certain circles and I was surprised – genuinely, although perhaps that says more about me than anything else! – that at a union do that no one I mentioned John Stuart Mill to knew who he was!). However, I’m still working class, still a wage-worker, still contributing as an equal in union meetings and actions.

So, Proudhon (for example) was not an isolated figure – he was working class (no matter if some Leninists seek to deny it), he took part in the debates of the workers and socialist movements (considered in their widest sense) and influenced, and was influenced by, both. The same with the members of the First International who took part in the Paris Commune – sure, they read Proudhon precisely because he was “one of theirs” and applied many of his ideas, developed others, rejected some. That Marx failed to raise these ideas says more about his politics, I think, and his influence and participation in the workers’ movement than anything else.

The book also smacks of preaching to the converted – for all its appeals to the proletariat, most of the book would be understandable only to people well aware of the ins-and-outs of the left and its history. I’m not sure what the “average” worker would make of books like Peacock’s (I know, “average” and as Proudhon once noted “[t]here is no such liar as an average”). It takes so much for granted, so much of a shared history and terminology, that distributing it on a picket line would produce more shrugs than smiles (as for the reaction if you gave it to those workers ignoring the union pickets and going into work…).

Our ideas need to be:

  • Understandable
  • Relevant
  • Applicable
  • Practical
  • Empowering
  • Improvable

Reading Peacock’s book is like going into a strange, parallel world which is not good – it has the same feel as seeing Trotskyist journals (particularly American ones) which seem to be stuck in the 1930s. And it should be obvious that things have changed. One obvious example, 100 years ago the Social Democratic Parties across the world (not Labour, though) considered themselves as revolutionary and socialist – they have not done so for quite a few debates. They limit themselves to seeking to make capitalism less bad – the dialogue in Lenin’s State and Revolution (misleading as it is) simply does not make sense now (Social Democracy has no pretence of reformist socialism). And the notion of utilising Lenin’s terminology from Left-Wing Communism is farcical (as happened in one meeting of my local union executive committee), particularly as Lenin was wrong!

So we need to recognise that the working class has suffered a massive defeat over the last few decades. Many of the younger generation have no concept of basic ideas on the importance of struggles, unions, not scabbing, etc. – never mind socialism. We need to recognise we are building from the bottom and while we need to remember the lessons of the past, we cannot be in hock to it. Our current task is to help empower people so they developer a sense of their own power and ability to change things.

We need to be clear, jargon free. If your conclusion needs lots of explanation then it is probably wrong. If it requires lots of new words, find existing ones. If the words you use do not reflect what you mean, then use words that do. Be honest and accurate, basing analysis and conclusions on facts. Do not assume too much. If you discover ultra-left groups like the ICC agree with you, rethink your analysis to see if you went wrong somewhere. Recognise this is going to be a long journey and recognise that we need activities, ideas and practices which reflect where we are now (building libertarian organisations and the spirit of revolt in others) rather than where we wish we were (in the middle of a social revolution). If the conclusion of any article you write is “we need social revolution” then rewrite it as while this is obviously correct it has little use to producing said social revolution. We need a popular movement which wins, which empowers.

We should also reject the idea of “one-size fits all.” For example, in some cases becoming a rep in a mainstream union may be best, in others it may be forming an IWW branch. Our activity needs to reflect reality, not abstractly correct points which end up reducing our scope of activity rather than increasing it. Basically, be human beings rather than politicos (recognise the problems with vanguardism as out-lined in section H.5 of AFAQ, not try and ape it – the robo-trots may appear “efficient” but at what cost to us as individuals, the workers’ movement and the prospects of revolution?). Recognise that social revolution is not around the corner but remember that what we do now can bring it closer. Do not burn yourself out – it is okay to take a rest, a break. If you dislike something do not just complain, do something better – break the consumerist cloud which hangs over anarchism by some do-it-yourself. And, of course, be willing to listen and to learn while we are advocating our ideas. Education should be a two-way process – leave the monologues to the Leninists.

Talking of being human beings, I must admit to have been thinking about nationalism, or more precisely the referendum on Scottish independence which will take place next year. I do consider myself as Scottish and although in exile for over 10 years have never really taken an active part in the London anarchist movement (I do go to the London bookfair). This is partly family circumstances (it is not fair on my partner if she is lumbered with the weans while I’m off at meetings) but also because I do still feel that this exile is temporary and I will be returning to civilisation soon (in Scotland “Conservative strategists found the more they told the electorate the party had a real chance to win a seat the more people were motivated to go out and back their opponents.”).

Anyways, while I can appreciate most of the arguments for voting no or not voting at in the referendum a big part of me still would vote yes, if I were there (how big varies). I am an internationalist and anti-statist, but independence chimes with my decentralist and federalist ideas. It also chimes with my upbringing in Scotland and who am I as a result. I know, it is not particularly coherent but I’m not a robot and are torn by contradictory ideas and feelings (while not really comparable, Goldman took a while to speak out against the Bolsheviks because she knew how it would be used by the right to discredit all notions of socialism, not just Leninism). So I’m raising my feelings here rather than presenting a well-thought out analysis.

I hope whatever campaigning anarchists in Scotland do on this issue reflects the complexity of the situation and the feelings it produces. I would urge that national liberation be linked to human liberation, arguing that genuine liberation needs the expropriation of land and capital, that genuine autonomy means federalism within Scotland itself, that self-government for Scotland is meaningless in a class system and requires self-management in all aspects of life – including in our workplaces!

As an aside, Serge notes that he conclusion that the Russian workers and peasants had to expropriate capital and land in 1917 meant he was “on the line” advocated by Lenin – except, of course, this was “the line” raised by Kropotkin and other anarchists during the 1905 revolution (and rejected at the time by all Marxists) and that this reflected the analyse his had been presenting since the 1870s. Simply put, the Russian libertarians sought to push the February revolution forward by taking part in it, a position Kropotkin applied to all popular movements (particularly the labour movement). Hopefully anarchists in Scotland will seek to utilise the debates on independence to raise deeper questions and push the debate further towards genuine liberation – libertarian socialism.

Anyways, here is an extract from the introduction to my new anthology of Kropotkin’s writings, Direct Struggle Against Capital on Kropotkin’s position on national liberation movements. I have some sympathy for it which for many Marxists confirms, like Kropotkin’s, my petit-bourgeois nature – in spite of him being an ex-member of the Russian ruling class and my own proletarian upbringing and current reality (yes, really, I’ve seen Marxists call Kropotkin “petit-bourgeois”!):

On National Liberation

Anarchism does not limit itself to just fighting economic and political oppression and exploitation but rather “works to destroy authority in all its aspects” and “refuses all hierarchical organisation.” [“Anarchism: Its Philosophy and Ideal”, Anarchism: A Collection of Revolutionary Writings, 137] This means that as well as statism and capitalism, anarchists also opposed, for example, patriarchal relationships between the sexes as the “revolution, intoxicated with the beautiful words, Liberty, Equality, Solidarity, would not be a revolution if it maintained slavery at home. Half humanity subjected to the slavery of the hearth would still have to rebel against the other half.” [“Agreeable Work”, The Conquest of Bread, 128. It should be noted that while Kropotkin was a committed advocate of women’s equality, he wrote very little about it. As with many male radicals of his time, opposing patriarchy was not considered as important as, say, fighting capitalism or the state.] It also applied between nations and ethnic groups and, unsurprisingly, Kropotkin was a supporter of national liberation struggles:

“True internationalism will never be attained except by the independence of each nationality, little or large, compact or disunited – just as anarchy is in the independence of each individual. If we say no government of man over man, how can [we] permit the government of conquered nationalities by the conquering nationalities?” [quoted in Miller, 231]

This meant that anarchists “do not treat questions of nationality lightly, and we are firmly persuaded that as long as there are States, be they called Empires, Kingdoms, bourgeois Republics or even Social Democratic Republics, the danger of a weak nation being invaded, crushed and exploited by its more powerful neighbours will remain.” [“Caesarism”, Freedom, June 1899]

Kropotkin lived during the time when direct imperialism reached its height. He was well aware that the conquest of colonies by European powers (and so imperialist rivalries) were driven both by reasons of state and economic interest. With the workers “being unable to purchase with their wages the riches they are producing, industry must search for new markets elsewhere, amidst the middle classes of other nations. It must find markets, in the East, in Africa, anywhere; it must increase, by trade, the number of its serfs in Egypt, in India, on the Congo. But everywhere it finds competitors in other nations which rapidly enter into the same line of industrial development. And wars, continuous wars, must be fought for the supremacy in the world-market – wars for the possession of the East, wars for getting possession of the seas, wars for the right of imposing heavy duties on foreign merchandise.” [“Anarchist Communism: Its Basis and Principles”, Anarchism: A Collection of Revolutionary Writings, 55-6] Capital “knows no fatherland; and if high profits can be derived from the work of Indian coolies whose wages are only one-half of those of English workmen, or even less, capital will migrate to India, as it has gone to Russia, although its migration may mean starvation for Lancashire.” [Fields, Factories and Workshops: or, Industry combined with agriculture and brain work with manual work (London: T. Nelson, 1912), 57] This shaped modern warfare:

“men no longer fight for the pleasure of kings, they fight for the integrity of revenues and for the growing wealth… [and] benefit of the barons of high finance and industry… political preponderance… is quite simply a matter of economic preponderance in international markets. What Germany, France, Russia, England, and Austria are all trying to win… is not military preponderance: it is economic domination. It is the right to impose their goods and their customs tariffs on their neighbours; the right to exploit industrially backward peoples… to appropriate from a neighbour either a port which will activate commerce, or a province where surplus merchandise can be unloaded… When we fight today, it is to guarantee our great industrialists a profit of 30%, to assure the financial barons their domination at the Bourse, and to provide the shareholders of mines and railways with their incomes.” [“War”, Words of a Rebel, 65-6]

Genuine internationalism had to oppose imperialism and to “proclaim the complete liberty of each nation, however small it might be, and its absolute right to develop along the lines it wished.” [quoted in Jean Caroline Cahm, “Kropotkin and the Anarchist Movement”, Eric Cahm and Vladimir Claude Fisera (eds.), Socialism and Nationalism 1, 57] Indeed, “it is very possible that the more internationalist a man becomes, the greater will be his regard for the local individualities which make up the international family, the more he will seek to develop local, individual characteristics.” [quoted in Jean Caroline Cahm, 53]

However, while opposing foreign oppression Kropotkin was not blind to the limitations of nationalism and its aim to simply create an independent country. Given his stress on change from below, by the oppressed masses themselves, he argued that in order to be successful any national liberation movement had to take up the social question. Hence the “failure of all nationalist movements… lies in this curse… that the economic question… remains on the side… it seems to me that in each national movement we have a major task: to set forth the question [of nationalism] on an economic basis and carry out agitation against serfdom, etc. at one with the struggle against [oppression by] foreign nationality.” [quoted in Miller, 230] This meant that “a national movement which does not include in its platform the demand for an economical change advantageous to the masses has no chance of success unless supported by foreign aid.” [quoted in Jean Caroline Cahm, 56] Anarchists, then, should not ignore national liberation struggles because they lacked a clearly defined socialist politics. Rather, “when revolt breaks out, when men arm themselves against their exploiters – others who are oppressed should be with them. They should enlarge the meaning of their revolt, raise up among them a flag which represents a superior ideal – without doubt, always!” [quoted in Jean Caroline Cahm, 56]

Anarchists, Kropotkin argued, should work within national liberation movements in order to broaden their vision and to turn them into human liberation struggles – from all forms of oppression, economic, political, social and national. The aim would not be a fragmentation of humanity into isolated peoples but rather the creation of a universal human community sharing the globe based upon a free federation of free peoples no longer divided by classes or hierarchies.

So that is part of the Kropotkin anthology introduction, which is currently being proof-edited by the same comrade who did such a good job with Property is Theft!, Jesse Cohn. I’m hoping that the new anthology will, like the Proudhon one, help flesh out his ideas and influence – showing a committed, realistic anarchist thinker engaged in the workers movement and current events. In other words, an antidote to the “wise saintly advocate of co-operation” picture some have been keen to inflict on Kropotkin (that Marxists do this I understand, but not a few so-called anarchists have done so – seeking to justify their own warmed-up liberalism no doubt, but doing serious harm to Kropotkin, his legacy and how communist-anarchism is viewed by others).

And I must stress that Kropotkin really does follow in Bakunin’s footsteps in many ways – a revolutionary anarchist committed to class struggle and class organisation as the means of starting a social revolution and ensuring it goes in a libertarian direction. Which is also important, as Kropotkin (like Bakunin) did not think anarchy would appear overnight: he was well aware that it was a process which took time and occurred in difficult circumstances. Indeed, it was the Marxists of the time who had a naïve vision of social revolution as a relatively easy process – which makes the Leninist explanation of the rise of Stalinism so wrong, particularly as they mock anarchists for thinking that a social revolution will not need defending (we have always recognised the need for armed defence, that was not why Bakunin opposed Marx’s dictatorship of the proletariat!). And, of course, the Leninist narrative does not fit the facts as the degeneration into authoritarianism started before the start of the civil war at the end of May 1918 and continued after its end (see section H.6 of AFAQ).

Kropotkin also shared Bakunin’s perspectives on national self-determination. This is reflected in sections D.6 and D.7 of AFAQ but here is a sub-section of my recent article on Proudhon (Proudhon: Neither Washington nor Richmond) which I decided not to include – that article was already too long and it is, as the sub-heading suggests, an aside to the main argument. It was originally planned to be after the discussion of deplorable views of Marx and Engels and just before the conclusion.

An aside on Bakunin

Rosdolsky’s work is also of interest with regard to Bakunin’s position on national liberation struggles, albeit nearly 20 years before he became an anarchist. Rosdolsky contrasts his position as “an unadulterated revolutionary romantic” (156) to Engels’ which showed “the superiority of his materialist method over Bakunin’s idealist approach.” (158) Yet he also admits that there are problems in how Engels “applies his method” (158) which meant that “the political romantic Bakunin proved victorious over the political realistic Engels – not because, but in spite, of his inverted way of thing; and Engels remained in the wrong, in spite of his superior method.” (159)

How was this possible? Looking at Rosdolsky’s arguments, it seems that the main problem is that he misunderstands what materialism amounts to in an attempt to rescue Engels’ reputation. It becomes clear that it was Bakunin who was the materialist, basing himself on the class nature of the Slav countries and the class dynamics of the 1848 revolution.

As Rosdolsky suggests, Marx and Engels in “their treatment of the Austrian nationality problem strayed from reality” and “did not seek the explanation for the counter-revolutionary conduct of the nonhistoric Slaves in the national power struggles caused by the rivalry of ‘ruling nations’ and ‘servant nations.’ They sought it instead in the Slavic peoples themselves, in the ‘counter-revolutionary character that history forced upon them” (89-90) How can Engels’ analysis be materialist if “[o]ne searches in vain… for a factual, historical substantiation of his thesis (that the Slavs were necessarily counter-revolutionary)”? (104) How materialist is an analysis rooted in a “strange division by nation, instead of social class”? (131)

Marx and Engels found it hard to fairly explain Bakunin’s ideas as it was “by no means always real pan-Slavism that they refer to under than name; very often their reproaches in this regard are unjustified or at least exaggerated” (164) For Engels, “a ‘pan-Slavist’ was essentially anyone who did not recognise the claims of the Austrian Germans and Hungarians to the Slavic territories they held and who adhered to the right of self-determination for the nonhistoric Slavs.” (163) However, “it was not very realistic for the spokesmen of the historic nations to demand self-immolation from the nonhistoric Slaves ‘in the interests of the revolution,’ while they themselves showed not the slightest desire to give up their intransigent behaviour vis-à-vis these Slavs” (165) This has an obvious negative impact:

“the Slavic democrats are taken to task for not being ready to join the revolution ‘unconditionally’; but this does not prevent Engels, on his part, from imposing on them the condition that they first ‘give up their nationality’ if they wish to be considered revolutionaries, an impossible, nonsensical demand which Bakunin and his Slavic friends had to reject from the outset.” (166)

In contrast Bakunin, Rosdolsky admits, presented “a thoroughly real vision born of the actual historical process” (168) which was “something very powerful, something very real: this was a vision, an inspired presentiment of the historical process that would finally lead the Slavic peoples to a new life, to an independent existence” (159) So Bakunin’s flowing rhetoric was based on an understanding of the class structure and dynamics of the Slavic nations in question. If this is not materialism, what is? Ignoring the class dynamics and contradictions of the revolution and the class nature of these peoples is pure idealism of the worse kind – an idealism that Bakunin did not indulge in:

“It is enough to compare Bakunin’s peasant propaganda with the nervous, colourless peasant politics of German democracy in 1848-49… this comparison does not speak too well of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung either, since the paper regarded the Slavs of Austria as hopelessly reactionary masses and did not realise that the peasantry of these people was rebelling against feudalism. In this regard, then, Bakunin’s revolutionary perspective was more realistic and farsighted” (170)

Thus it was Bakunin who “knows how to move the Slavic peoples of Austria, their peasant masses” (170) by appealing to their class interests and arguing that “these peoples themselves had to decide the political fate of their territories and the future boundaries of their states” (171)

Engels, however, branded peoples as by nature reactionary – yet could not the oppressed peasants be won to the revolution? That they did not, as Rosdolsky notes, is due to the limitations of the bourgeoisie and nobles at the head of the national movement that Engels was supporting, their “class nature” (89) Worse, the national movements he and Marx supported “had contributed, by their nationalistic intolerance and excessive chauvinism, to the pro-Austrian conduct of the Slavs” (164) The people who Engels pinned his hopes on, the Polish revolutionaries, “were handicapped by a programme that treated the non-Polish ‘border peoples’ as simple objects for annexation” and failing to recognise that they could succeed with “the most active cooperation of not only the Polish, but also the Ukrainian, Belorussian and Lithuanian peasant masses” and so ignored “the national and, above all, social needs and desires of these peasant masses.” (171-2) Unlike Bakunin: “With the landlords’ programmes you will not rouse a single peasant.” (quoted, 172)

That Rosdolsky seeks to explain Engels’ mistakes in terms of “the contradiction between the plebeian revolution of the peasants and workers of the Russian empire… and the German bourgeois revolution of 1848” (169) yet this simply reinforces the idealist nature of his analysis. So Bakunin’s approach was not idealism but rather Engels’ was, an idealism rooted, moreover, in the crudest nationalistic bigotries. That Rosdolsky could not bring himself to admit this suggests the power of ideology and party discipline can inflict even the best and most resolute writers.

Unsurprisingly, Bakunin’s politics “really had nothing in common with the ordinary variety of reactionary Russian pan-Slavism, and hence it was very unjust of Engels and Marx constantly to attribute to him such a spiritual kinship.” (173) Rather, “once again Bakunin’s vision proves to have been clearer and more farsighted, because the national awakening of the nonhistoric Slave peoples was only the other side of the social awakening – the process of becoming historic – of the broad peasant masses of these peoples” (170-1)

Needless to say, Rosdolsky’s assertion that Bakunin’s “ideology” was “in its most profound essence was a peasant-revolutionary ideology” (171) may have been applicable to his ideas in 1848 and 1849 but it is untenable to assert that it was “the essentially peasant origin and character of his revolutionary ideology” which “brought him into conflict with the West European, proletarian socialism of Marx and Engels” (172) in the First International. To do so means completely ignoring Bakunin’s recognition of the leading role of the urban working class and advocacy of revolutionary unionism during his anarchist period of 1866 onwards yet Rosdolsky does precisely that when he proclaimed that for Bakunin “only the peasant revolution is a genuine ‘popular revolution’… Bakunin had no conception of the epoch-making significance of the industrial working class, no conception of the special historical mission of the proletariat.” (169) [See sections H.2.2, H.2.7 and H.2.8 of An Anarchist FAQ volume 2 [AK Press, 2012] for details.]

In many ways, this reflects Blackledge’s terrible article on anarchism I’m in the process of discussing (part 1; part 2; part 3) – namely, the obvious problem for Marxists while they consider Bakunin as being a theoretical non-entity (in general or, at best, compared to Marx) he did get it right – for example, in terms of his critique of Marx and, as discussed here, in terms of national liberation struggles.

And I should note the idea that it is a principle of Marxism to oppose both sides in conflicts between capitalist nations or be in favour of national self-determination was not something Marx and Engels actually advocated. Both took sides in numerous conflicts between capitalist states, including between imperialist powers. They also were more than happy for nations to be invaded and colonised by others (those who they considered as being more progressive). Both noted, publicly, that they would expect their followers in Germany to take up arms in defence against Russia.

The later, of course, caused Lenin no end of problems – the opportunists (majority of socialists!) who sided with their governments in the First World War had numerous quotes by Marx and (more so) Engels to justify their position. This was particularly true of the German Social Democrats. So while the (vast majority!) of anarchists could reject Kropotkin’s support for the allies easily (by quoting his early works on war under capitalism against him!), the few Marxists who refused to support the slaughter had a major problem (just as they had in defending the general strike after 1905 – the reformists and bureaucrats could just quote Engels against them!).

So Lenin solved the problem, as Luxemburg did, by invoking the notion of epochs – Marx and Engels lived in the epoch of capitalist expansion, not one of decay and imperialism. Therefore they were right to side with capitalist states (and ruling classes!) but now that was no longer valid. And when did this new epoch arrive? After raising a few dates in the 19th century, Lenin finally picked around 1900 – by a handy coincidence five years after Engels died (unlike the initial dates Lenin played with!). Convincing, not very but given the slaughter going on it helped Marxists make the right decision – by following the likes of Malatesta, Rocker, Goldman, Berkman and so forth (i.e., the vast majority of libertarians!) and denounce it as a war between ruling classes which workers had no interest in.

These days, thanks to Lenin and his followers, most Leninists get it wrong and think most anarchists joined Kropotkin while most Marxists joined Lenin. Not true – the majority of Social Democratic parties followed the German SDP in siding with their ruling class (with ample quotes from Marx and Engels to justify it to the orthodox) while Kropotkin had a handful of libertarians join him in his insanity.

People often forget how many positions in the Leninist left are driven by the conflict between the needs of the moment and the need to invoke the holy texts. Anarchists, luckily, are not inflicted by such pressures to be orthodox… that is one of the many reasons why I feel we are in a good position (assuming we can build on it).

Until I blog again, be seeing you…

PS and, yes, I’m excited about the new Doctor (Malcolm Tucker IS the Doctor! or with puppets) and, yes, I don’t like the current Doctor at all…

PPS and, yes, I have a few reviews and articles I plan to write. Hopefully I will find the time and energy to do them soon.


Hello, I just came across

Hello, I just came across this article and some of your other articles on Bakunin, which I have bookmarked. I just wanted to recommend a text (if you are not already familiar with it), which I have found to be extremely helpful: Paul McLaughlin's Bakunin: The Philosophical Basis of His Anarchism. I look forward to reading through your articles. MWII


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