March 18th 2011 marks two key revolts in working class history. First, it is the 140th anniversary of the start of the Paris Commune. Second, it is the 90th anniversary of the final day of the Kronstadt Rebellion against the Bolshevik regime. Both events are important to anarchism. The first, obviously inspired by Proudhon’s mutualist ideas, influenced the revolutionary anarchism which was supplanting it both in the libertarian wing of the First International and as the main form of anarchism . The second exposed the nature of the Bolshevik regime in a way which could not be ignored. It caused the likes of Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman to finally break all ties with a regime they were already disillusioned with.
Perhaps needless to say, Leninists glorify the Paris Commune while vilifying the Kronstadt Rebellion. Indeed, in 1921 the Bolsheviks were marking the 50th anniversary of the 1871 revolt and denouncing the atrocities against its participants while their own troops were killing prisoners in Kronstadt. After the revolt they renamed one of the battleships whose sailors lead the revolt to... The Paris Commune!
Unsurprisingly, An Anarchist FAQ discusses both the Paris and Kronstadt communes. Section A.5.1 discusses the Paris Commune as part of a longer discussion of anarchist revolutionary practice while Kronstadt is mentioned as part of the general discission of the Russian revolution in Section A.5.4. There is a much longer appendix on Kronstadt which covers it in great detail (including refuting the usual Leninist myths which are, pun intended, trotted out against the rebellion). This was originally going to be part of section H but it became obvious that the discussion on the Russian revolution would make that section far too long -- even longer than it is -- hence the appendix on the Russian Revolution and the summary section H.6!
As I discuss in the introduction to the newly published Proudhon anthology Property is Theft!, Proudhon’s ideas were extremely influential in the Commune. This is unsurprisingly, given that members of the Paris section of the International took part in the revolt and were elected to the municipal council.
So it is important when reading Marx’s The Civil War in France that much of it is simply reporting. He may have been agreeing with the actions of the Communards, but that does not change the awkward fact that he is not presenting his notions of social organisation but rather summarising the actions of people heavily influenced by his arch rival Proudhon. So when Marxists point to The Civil War in France as evidence for Marxism’s “democratic essence” that misses the point -- it is a libertarian-infused work but that is because it is describing a libertarian-infused revolt!
A while ago, the Proudhon blog compared Marx’s comments on the Commune to Proudhon’s November 1848 election manifesto (it also exactly a year ago discussed Proudhon, Marx and the Paris Commune). I’ll do so again here -- in part to reduce having to go to new pages, in part so I can put page numbers from Property is Theft! against the quotes (I should also note that that Proudhon blog post does cover other material, if you are interested). First, however, I’ll quote from a letter from Marx a few years (1866) before just to set the stage -- he really disliked the Parisian mutualists:
“The Parisian gentlemen had their heads full of the emptiest Proudhonist phrases. They babble about science and know nothing… Proudhon did enormous mischief… he himself is only a petty-bourgeois utopian… the workers, particularly those of Paris, who as workers in luxury trades are strongly attached, without knowing it, to the old rubbish. Ignorant, vain, presumptuous, talkative, blusteringly arrogant, they were on the point of spoiling everything… I shall… rap them on the knuckles…”
I particularly like the “without knowing it” bit... Needless to say, Marx’s scorn for the Parisian workers is at odds with his praise in March 1871, particularly as these very same workers introduced ideas raised by Proudhon before, during and after the 1848 revolution. To show this is easy -- it is a matter of comparing Marx’s reporting of the Commune with Proudhon’s 1848 election manifesto. I should also note that Marx consistently argued against any sort of popular revolt at this time (they should wait and gather their forces -- for the next general election!). So if the Communards had listened to Marx then the Paris Commune would never have happened (the same thing happened in 1917, when Petrograd Bolsheviks opposed the protests which started the February revolution).
“The Commune was to be a working, not a parliamentary body, executive and legislative at the same time”
“It is not enough to say that one is opposed to the presidency unless one also does away with ministries, the eternal focus of political ambition. It is up to the National Assembly, through organisation of its committees, to exercise executive power, just the way it exercises legislative power through its joint deliberations and votes.” (Property is Theft!, p. 378)
“The Commune was formed of the municipal councillors, chosen by universal suffrage in the various wards of the town, responsible and revocable at short terms.”
“Besides universal suffrage and as a consequence of universal suffrage, we want implementation of the imperative mandate [mandat imperative]. Politicians balk at it! Which means that in their eyes, the people, in electing representatives, do not appoint mandatories but rather abjure their sovereignty!... That is assuredly not socialism: it is not even democracy.” (Property is Theft!, p. 379)
“Yes, gentlemen, the Commune intended to abolish that class property which makes the labour of the many the wealth of the few . . . by transforming the means of production, land, and capital, now chiefly the means of enslaving and exploiting labour, into mere instruments of free and associated labour.”
“the capitalist profits by his capital without working . . . in the current system, equality, liberty and fraternity are impossible: and thus, poverty and proletariat are the inevitable consequence of property as presently constituted . . . The productivity of capital . . . is the true cause of poverty, the true origin of the proletariat. . . under universal association, ownership of the land and of the instruments of labour is social ownership . . . We want the mines, canals, railways handed over to democratically organised workers’ associations . . . want these associations to be models for agriculture, industry and trade, the pioneering core of that vast federation of companies and societies woven into the common cloth of the democratic and social Republic.” (Property is Theft!, pp. 373-4, pp. 377-8)
“It wanted to make individual property a truth...”
“We want property, but property restored to its proper limits, that is to say, free disposition of the fruits of labour, property MINUS USURY!” (Property is Theft!, p. 379)
I should note that the notion of mandating and recalling delegates was first raised in March 1848, in Proudhon’s second pamphlet of the revolution (Democracy):
“In the end, we are all voters; we can choose the most worthy.
“We can do more; we can follow them step-by-step in their legislative acts and their votes; we will make them transmit our arguments and our documents; we will suggest our will to them, and when we are discontented, we will recall and dismiss them.
“The choice of talents, the imperative mandate [mandat impertif], and permanent revocability are the most immediate and incontestable consequences of the electoral principle. It is the inevitable program of all democracy.” (Property is Theft!, p. 273)
There is one area which the 1848 manifesto does not discuss, which is federalism. For that, we need to turn to his last work -- The Political Capacity of the Working Classes.
“In a rough sketch of national organisation, which the Commune had no time to develop, it states clearly that the Commune was to be the political form of even the smallest country hamlet . . . The rural communities of every district were to administer their common affairs by an assembly of delegates in the central town, and these district assemblies were again to send deputies to the National Delegation in Paris, each delegate to be at any time revocable and bound by the mandat imperatif (formal instructions) of his constituents. The few but important functions which would still remain for a central government were not to be suppressed, as has been intentionally misstated, but were to be discharged by Communal and thereafter responsible agents.
“The unity of the nation was not to be broken, but, on the contrary, to be organised by Communal Constitution, and to become a reality by the destruction of the state power which claimed to be the embodiment of that unity independent of, and superior to, the nation itself, from which it was but a parasitic excrescence.”
“The commune is by essence, like man, like the family, like every individual and collective which is intelligent, moral, and free, a sovereign being. In this quality the commune has the right to govern itself, to administer itself . . . to police itself, to have its own gendarmes and civic guard, to name its judges, to have its own newspapers, assemblies, special societies, warehouses, its own bank, etc. . . . everything that happens inside and around it, which touches on its interests and agitates its opinion. This is what a commune is: since this is collective life, political life . . . all external coercion is antipathetic to it . . . There is no middle term: the commune will be sovereign or a subsidiary, all or nothing. Favour it as much as you like; from the instant when it no longer falls under its own law, when it must recognise a higher law, when the larger unit of which it is a part is declared its superior, and not the expression of its federal relationships, it is inevitable that one day or another that the commune will find itself in contradiction with this larger State, and that conflict will break out . . . in a confederated France, under a regime that one may regard as the ideal of independence, the first act would be to return to the communes the plenitude of their autonomy and to the provinces” (Property is Theft!, pp. 768-9, p. 771)
Elsewhere in that work, he argues (as he did in 1848) against delegating power into an executive body (a government) and for the assembled delegates creating committees from their midst:
“In a democracy organised according to the true ideas of the popular sovereignty, that is, according to the principles of contractual right, every oppressive and corrupting action of the central Power on the Nation is rendered impossible. The mere supposition of such a thing is absurd. And why?
“It is because, in a truly free Democracy, the central Power is not separated from the assembly of deputies, the natural organs of local interests called together in agreement;
“It is because every deputy is the man of the locality which choose him for its representative, its emissary, one of its citizens, its agent [mandataire] changed to defend its particular interests, except when he has to bring them as much as possible into union with the general interests before the country [le grand jury];
“It is because the combined deputies, if they choose from their midst a central executive committee of management, do not separate it from themselves or make it their commander who can carry on a conflict with them.
“It is because the combined deputies, by choosing in their amidst a central executive commission, do not make it distinct from themselves, higher than them, being able to conflict with them, as would be the case with a royal or an elected President of the people.” (De La Capacité Politique Des Classes Ouvrières (Editions du Trident, 1989), pp. 283-4)
Compare Proudhon to the Declaration to the French People issued by the Commune (and written by a mutualist). That is the document which Marx refers to when he wrote “[i]n a rough sketch of national organisation, which the Commune had no time to develop...” Perhaps unsurprising, given its obvious Proudhonian themes and language, he failed to quote it. Here it is:
“The absolute autonomy of the Commune extended to all localities in France . . . The only limit to the autonomy of the Commune should be the equal right to autonomy for all communes adhering to the contract, whose association shall insure French unity . . . The choice by election or competition of magistrates and communal functionaries of all orders, as well as the permanent right of control and revocation . . . Paris wants nothing else as a local guarantee, on condition, of course, of finding in the great central administration — the delegation of federated Communes — the realisation and the practice of the same principles . . . Political unity, as Paris wants it, is the voluntary association of all local initiatives, the spontaneous and free concourse of all individual energies in view of a common goal: the well-being, the freedom and the security of all.” (Property is Theft!, pp. 789-90)
So neither Proudhon nor the Communards equated federalism with isolation and recognised that when groups federate they come together in a specific location to discuss their common affairs. Sadly, Marxists seem to think that this equates to centralism. Thus we find Lenin in State and Revolution getting his kickers into a twist on this when the reformist Eduard Bernstein argues that in Marx’s comments on the Paris Commune “we find a programme developed which, according to its political contents, shows in all material features the greatest similarity to the federalism of Proudhon.” Strangely, while quoting Marx to refute this Lenin did not, like Bernstein, quote Proudhon (nor, for that matter, the Communards!):
“To confuse Marx’s view . . . with Proudhon’s federalism is positively monstrous! But it is no accident, for it never occurs to the opportunist that Marx does not speak here at all about federalism as opposed to centralism, but about smashing the old, bourgeois state machine which exists in all bourgeois countries . . . It is ridiculous. But the remarkable thing is that nobody argued with Bernstein on this point . . . The opportunist has so much forgotten how to think in a revolutionary way and to dwell on revolution that he attributes ‘federalism’ to Marx, whom he confuses with the founder of anarchism, Proudhon . . . Here is one of the roots of the extreme vulgarization of the views on the difference between Marxism and anarchism, which is characteristic of both the Kautskyites and the opportunists . . . There is not a trace of federalism in Marx’s above-quoted observation on the experience of the Commune . . . Marx disagreed both with Proudhon and Bakunin precisely on the question of federalism (not to mention the dictatorship of the proletariat). Federalism as a principle follows logically from the petty-bourgeois views of anarchism. Marx was a centralist. There is no departure whatever from centralism in his observations just quoted.”
Except, of course, Marx is reporting on the Communard’s declaration and that is full of federalism. In-so-far as Marx is simply repeating the ideas expressed by the Communards he is repeating federalist ideas whose origins can be found in Proudhon. That is uncontroversial. Lenin argued “if the proletariat and the poor peasants take state power into their own hands, organise themselves quite freely in communes, and unite the action of all the communes in striking at capital . . . won’t that be centralism? Won’t that be the most consistent democratic centralism and, moreover, proletarian centralism?” In a word, no. It is federalism. Lenin claimed that “Bernstein simply cannot conceive of the possibility of voluntary centralism, of the voluntary fusion of the proletarian communes” yet that is federalism, as Proudhon (and Bakunin, as we will see) advocated. As one anarchist summarised:
“comparison will show that the programme set out [by the Paris Commune] is . . . the system of Federalism, which Bakunin had been advocating for years, and which had first been enunciated by Proudhon. The Proudhonists . . . exercised considerable influence in the Commune. This ‘political form’ was therefore not ‘at last’ discovered; it had been discovered years ago; and now it was proven to be correct by the very fact that in the crisis the Paris workers adopted it almost automatically, under the pressure of circumstance, rather than as the result of theory, as being the form most suitable to express working class aspirations.” (K.J. Kenafick, Michael Bakunin and Karl Marx, pp. 212-3)
And this raises an important issue, namely the influence of theorists in movements. After all, reading many Marxist accounts of the Commune (starting with Marx) it would appear that the Communard’s ideas just appeared as if from nowhere. This is not true, as can be seen from comparing their ideas with those of Proudhon. Yet this does not mean that revolutionary ideas do not get produced spontaneously by working class people and so that Lenin’s vanguardist nonsense that workers are only capable of reaching trade union consciousness is correct? Far from it! Proudhon (who was working class, let us not forget!) influenced working class militants and working class struggles and movements influenced Proudhon. The election manifesto being quoted was written during the 1848 revolution, a spontaneous revolt which Proudhon participated in, tried to influence and learned from. As that manifesto argues: “So that, organisation of credit and organisation of labour amount to one and the same. It is no school and no theoretician that is saying this: the proof of it, rather, lies in current practice, revolutionary practice. Thus application of one principle leads the people towards discovery of another, and one solution arrived at always opens doors to another.” (Property is Theft!, pp. 374-5) So Proudhon must be considered as clarifying and developing ideas current within the radical working class circles he was part of -- and was trying to influence.
However, to return to the Paris Commune and federalism. “Like all philistines,” Lenin proclaimed, “Bernstein pictures centralism as something which can be imposed and maintained solely from above” -- apparently the Communards were philistines, and petit-bourgeois for good measure (something, as noted below, Trotsky openly argued in 1921). This very obvious conclusion, given the Communard’s actual ideas, is reflected in an article by one of Bakunin’s closest allies, James Guillaume. This was written at the time of the Paris Commune and is notable in its linking to Proudhon’s ideas and the Proudhonian terminology invoked (not least the idea of “collective force”):
“Federalism, in the sense given to it by the Paris Commune, and that was given to it many years ago by the great socialist Proudhon, who first scientifically outlined the theory,—federalism is above all the negation of the nation and the State.
“For federalism, there is no more nation, no more national or territorial unity. There is only an agglomeration of federated communes, an agglomeration which has for its determining principle only the interests of the contracting parties, and which consequently has no regard for the questions of nationalism or of territory.
“There is equally no more State, no more central power superior to the groups and imposing it them its authority: there is only the collective force resulting from the federation of the groups, and that collective force, which acts to maintenance and guarantee of the federal contract,—a true synallagmatic contract this time, stipulated individually by each of the parties,—this collective force, we say, can never become something prior and superior to the federated groups, something analogous to what the State is today to society and to the communes. The centralized and national State thus no longer exists, and the Communes enjoying the fullness of their independence, there is truly an-archy, absence of central authority.”
Let us move on from Lenin’s State and Revolution, a work which not only completely misrepresents anarchism (as you would expect) but also Marxism (specifically, confusing smashing the state machine with the republican state as such -- as discussed in section H.3.10 of AFAQ as well as below).
So the influence of Proudhon on the Paris Commune is obvious, both in terms of the political vision of a communal, federated, France and the economic vision of a socialism expressed in a federation of self-managed workers associations. Yet Marx fails to mention him. It does not take long to work out why. After 20 years, Engels felt able to note that “a minority” of the council were “members of the International Working Men’s Association, chiefly consisting of adherents of the Proudhon school of socialism” and that this was reflected in the actions of the commune (both good and bad).
Engels does indulge in some distortions in order to claim the Commune for Marxism, proclaiming that Proudhon was “the Socialist of the small peasant and master-craftsman”, that he “regarded association with positive hatred” and that “[o]nly for the exceptional cases . . . of large-scale industry and large industrial units, such as railways, was there any place for the association of workers” in his ideas. Engels points to the third study of General Idea of the Revolution to backup his claim. Let us do what he does not, and quote from this study:
“Association has indeed its use in the economy of nations. The workers’ associations are indeed called upon to play an important part in the near future; and are full of hope both as a protest against wage-labour, and as an affirmation of reciprocity. This part will consist chiefly in the management of large instruments of labour . . . workers’ associations . . . should be judged, not by the more or less successful results which they obtain, but only according to their silent tendency to assert and establish the social republic. Whether the workers know it or not, the importance of their work lies not in the petty interests of their company but in the negation of the capitalist regime, [both] stock-market speculator [agioteur] and governmental, which the first revolution left undisturbed. Later, with the political lie, mercantile chaos and financial feudality overcome, the companies of workers, abandoning luxury goods and toys, will have to take over the great departments of industry, which are their natural prerogative.” (Property is Theft!, pp. 558-9)
Hardly a “positive hatred”! And it should be borne in mind that Proudhon is critiquing the ideas of Louis Blanc. As such, he was critiquing association of a specific type, namely state socialism and so one driven by a desire to associate everyone into ONE centralised body, rather than driven by practical need:
“Association formed without any outside economic consideration, or any leading interest, association for its own sake, as an act of devotion, a family tie, as it were, is an act of pure religion, a supernatural bond, without real value, a myth.” (Property is Theft!, p. 556)
Strangely, Engels failed to quote from the sixth study of that book in which Proudhon argues extensively and convincingly for workers’ associations:
“he [the worker] will participate in the chances of loss or gain of the establishment, he will have a voice in the council, in a word, he will become an associate . . . he forms a part of the producing organisation, of which he was before but the slave...
“Thus we need not hesitate, for we have no choice. In cases in which production requires great division of labour, and a considerable collective force, it is necessary to form an ASSOCIATION among the workers in this industry; because without that, they would remain related as subordinates and superiors, and there would ensue two industrial castes of masters and wage-workers, which is repugnant to a free and democratic society... the conclusion would be that all workers must associate, inasmuch as collective force and division of labour exist everywhere, to however slight a degree.
“It is in such cases, perfectly defined, that association, due to the immorality, tyranny and theft suffered, seems to me absolutely necessary and right. The industry to be carried on, the work to be accomplished, are the common and undivided property of all those who take part therein: the granting of franchises for mines and railroads to companies of stockholders, who plunder the bodies and souls of the wage-workers, is a betrayal of power, a violation of the rights of the public, an outrage upon human dignity and personality...
“Finally appear the workers companies, regular armies of the revolution . . . the wage-worker of the great industries had been crushed into a condition worse than that of the slave by the loss of the advantage of collective force. But by the recognition of his right to the profit from this force, of which he is the producer, he resumes his dignity, he regains comfort; the great industries, terrible engines of aristocracy and pauperism, become, in their turn, one of the principal organs of liberty and public prosperity.” (Property is Theft!, pp. 583-5)
In short, Proudhon was flexible. For small-scale production (such as peasant farming or artisan workplaces) association would be introduced only if desired by those involved. For most workplaces, association was not only required but absolutely essential -- to safeguard the liberty and wellbeing of the workers! This, I would suggest, is the exact opposite of Engels assertions and so it is fair to surmise that he is distorting Proudhon’s position and argument. For as noted in the introduction to Property is Theft!, Proudhon’s comments were directed against a specific form of (centralised, monolithic) Association rather than association as such. As Engels must surely have been aware.
Engels went onto argue that “by far the most important decree of the Commune instituted an organisation of large-scale industry . . . which was not based only on the association of workers in each factory” but “combining all these associations in one great union.” This would “must necessarily have led in the end to communism, that is to say, the direct antithesis of the Proudhon doctrine.” Yet, as noted, above, Proudhon had argued for such a body (a “vast federation of companies and societies woven into the common cloth of the democratic and social Republic” which an expression of “universal association”) in 1848. In this he was repeating similar calls in 1846, when he argued that “to unfold the system of economic contradictions is to lay the foundations of universal association” and society needed “a solution based upon equality, – in other words, the organisation of labour, which involves the negation of political economy and the end of property.” (Property is Theft!, p. 179 and p. 202). Then there is 1863’s call for an “agricultural-industrial federation”:
“The aim of these particular federations is to shield the citizens . . . from bankocratic and capitalist exploitation as much from the inside as from the outside; they form by their ensemble, in opposition to the prevailing financial feudalism of today, what I will call an agricultural-industrial federation . . . The agricultural-industrial federation . . . tends to approximate equality more and more . . . the idea of an industrial federation acting as a complement to and ratification of the political federation receives the most striking confirmation by the principles of economics. It is the implementation on the highest scale of the principles of mutuality, of division of labour and of economic solidarity . . . industries are sisters; they are parts of the same body; one cannot suffer without the others suffering because of it. I wish that they federate then, not to absorb one another and merge, but to mutually guarantee the conditions of prosperity that are common to them all and on which none can claim a monopoly. By forming such a pact, they will not infringe their liberty; they will only give it more certainty and strength . . . All my economic ideas, elaborated for twenty-five years, can be summarised in these three words: Agricultural-Industrial Federation” (Property is Theft!, pp. 711-4)
Interestingly, Proudhon notes that “[t]he public, that for fifteen years has been following my works, knows what I mean.” (Property is Theft!, p. 712) The Communards certainly did although Engels, clearly, did not as his notion that a federation of associations is “the direct antithesis of the Proudhon doctrine” would have surprised Proudhon. Proudhon was obviously in favour of associations federating together but he was against centralised forms of association (and as the history of central planning has proved he was quite right in this). As such, Proudhon not Blanc holds the promise for a genuine socialist system notwithstanding Engels’ attempt to confuse federation with centralisation.
Engels also asserts that “the Commune was also the grave of the Proudhon school of socialism” and “has vanished from French working class circles.” In a sense he is right -- pure mutualism was rare in working class circles by 1891 but that was because it had changed and evolved into revolutionary anarchism and, in the form of revolutionary syndicalism, soon exploded into the international labour movement as an alternative to the reformist and bureaucratic social democracy which Marxism had produced. Indeed, this development had started in the First International and by 1871 revolutionary collectivism had replaced reformist mutualism as the predominant libertarian ideas within it. Not to mention this distorts the influence of Proudhon. And it is to this, what Bakunin termed “Proudhonism, extensively expanded upon and taken to its logical consequences.” (No Gods, No Masters, p. 149) which we now turn.
So far it is the libertarian influence on the Commune that has been discussed (the heroic Louise Michel should, of course, be mentioned). What of the Commune’s influence on libertarians? That is significant. Given his debt to Proudhon, it will come as no surprise that Bakunin supported the Commune -- unsurprisingly, as he predicted many key aspects of the Paris Commune beforehand. For example, in 1868 he argued as follows:
“the Alliance of all labour associations . . . will constitute the Commune . . . there will be a standing federation of the barricades and a Revolutionary Communal Council . . . [made up of] delegates . . . invested with binding mandates and accountable and revocable at all times. Thus organised, the Communal Council will be able to choose separate executive committees from among its membership for each branch of the Commune’s revolutionary administration . . . all provinces, communes and associations . . . [will] delegate deputies to an agreed place of assembly (all of these deputies invested with binding mandated and accountable and subject to recall), in order to found the federation of insurgent associations, communes and provinces . . . and to organise a revolutionary force with the capacity of defeating the reaction . . . it is through the very act of extrapolation and organisation of the Revolution with an eye to the mutual defences of insurgent areas that the universality of the Revolution . . . will emerge triumphant . . . Since it is the people which must make the revolution everywhere, and since the ultimate direction of it must at all times be vested in the people organised into a free federation of agricultural and industrial organisations . . . being organised from the bottom up through revolutionary delegation.” (No Gods, No Masters, pp. 181-2)
Here we have the mandating and recall of delegates, federations of communes, communal council nominating committees to work on specific tasks and so on. Bakunin explicitly discusses the revolt in his essay The Paris Commune and the Idea of the State. In it he noted what was to become a key libertarian critique of the commune -- that while it smashed the national state it kept a modified form of representative government within:
“Revolutionary socialism has just attempted its first striking and practical demonstration in the Paris Commune . . . it was a bold, clearly formulated negation of the State . . . They had to set up a revolutionary government and army against the government and army of Versailles; in order to fight the monarchist and clerical reaction they were compelled to organise themselves in a Jacobin manner, forgetting or sacrificing the first conditions of revolutionary socialism.” (Michael Bakunin: Selected Writings, pp. 198-202)
Here we see something Kropotkin expanded upon, that while it opposed national centralisation the Commune kept it in the form of the municipal council (and it must be remembered, and many forget, the Commune’s council was, to quote Marx, “formed of the municipal councillors, chosen by universal suffrage in the various wards of the town”). Instead, Bakunin repeated his previous arguments for federalism within the commune:
“The future social organisation should be carried out from the bottom up, by the free association or federation of workers, starting with the associations, then going on to the communes, the regions, the nations, and, finally, culminating in a great international and universal federation. It is only then that the true, life-giving social order of liberty and general welfare will come into being, a social order which, far from restricting, will affirm and reconcile the interests of individuals and of society.” (Michael Bakunin: Selected Writings, p. 206)
It should, hopefully, go without saying that anarchists recognised that the fact that the Paris Commune was isolated, that it did not spread outside of Paris, was the major reason why it failed. This, it should be stressed, simply confirmed anarchist theory. Regardless of what most Marxists assert, anarchists have long recognised that a revolution needed defending. As Bakunin put it in 1865:
“Immediately after established governments have been overthrown, communes will have to reorganise themselves along revolutionary lines . . . In order to defend the revolution, their volunteers will at the same time form a communal militia. But no commune can defend itself in isolation. So it will be necessary to radiate revolution outward, to raise all of its neighbouring communes in revolt . . . and to federate with them for common defence.” (No Gods, No Masters, p. 164)
So Bakunin’s critique does not rest on the necessity to federate within and outwith communes nor on the necessity to defend a revolution. Rather, it was on how the commune did both. This was repeated when other anarchists discussed the commune and its lessons, most notably Kropotkin. He discusses it in his earliest works, as collected in Words of a Rebel, in the articles “The Paris Commune” and “Revolutionary Government” (the later is also in the collection Anarchism). His next book, the classic The Conquest of Bread, was an attempt to learn the lessons of the Paris Commune so that when the next revolt happens it would be successful. Decades later, he placed the Commune at the heart of the development of revolutionary anarchism in his classic essay “Modern Science and Anarchism”:
“the Commune of Paris . . . brought into evidence what the political aspect of a Social Revolution ought to be . . . the free, independent Communist Commune . . . This was the form that the Social Revolution must take -- the independent Commune . . . We made one step more. We understood that if no central Government was needed to rule the independent Communes, if the national Government is thrown overboard and national unity is obtained by free federation, then a central municipal Government becomes equally useless and noxious. The same federative principle would do within the Commune.” (Evolution and Environment, pp. 74-5)
In this he followed Bakunin, stressing that while the Commune broke the state nationally it retained it locally. This delegation of power into the hands of a few placed a break on the development of the revolution, replacing mass direct action and participation with debates between a few representatives. With a handful of councillors deciding things, a bottleneck could not help but develop -- information, motions, questions were passed to the council where they accumulated awaiting their turn. In addition, the delegates turn into representatives and become isolated from the masses:
“Never before had a government been as fairly representative of all the advanced parties as was the Council of the Commune, elected on the 25th of March, 1871. All shades of revolutionary opinion -- Blanquists, Jacobinists, Internationalists -- were represented in it in a true proportion. And yet, the workers themselves having no distinct ideas of social reform to impress upon their representatives, the Commune government did nothing in that direction. The very fact of having been isolated from the masses and shut up in the Hotel de Ville paralyzed them. For the success of socialism, the ideas of no-government, of self-reliance, of free initiative of the individual, -- of anarchism, in a word, -- had thus to be preached side by side with those of socialized ownership and production.” (Part Six; Section IV, Memoirs of a Revolutionist, pp. 374-5)
This echoes Elisée Reclus who took part in the revolt: “the principle error of the [Paris] Commune, an unavoidable error, since it derived from the very principle on which power was constituted, was precisely that of being a government, and of substituting itself for the people by force of circumstances.” (quoted John P. Clark and Camille Martin, Anarchy, Geography, Modernity, p. 72). I discuss this more in my article The Paris Commune, Marxism and Anarchism (Anarcho-Syndicalist Review, no. 50) when one Marxist admits in passing that the Council could not handle the flow of resolutions, demands, questions and information being sent its way -- yes, in passing as if this point is of no real import! Clearly learning from the Paris Commune was considered far, far behind associating Leninism with it...
I must also stress that this idea of popular self-management and how it is contrary to the state can be found in Proudhon. Writing in 1849 as part of a polemic with state socialists Louis Blanc and Pierre Leroux, he argued:
“The State is the EXTERNAL constitution of the social power.
“By this external constitution of its power and sovereignty, the people does not govern itself; now one individual, now several, by a title either elective or hereditary, are charged with governing it, with managing its affairs, with negotiating and compromising in its name . . . This external constitution of the collective power . . . rests then on this hypothesis: that a people, that the collective being which we call society, cannot govern itself, think, act, express itself, unaided . . . that, to do these things, it must be represented by one or more individuals, who, by any title whatever, are regarded as custodians of the will of the people, and its agents . . . it is for that reason that we deny the State also, that we deny government . . . We affirm, on the contrary, that the people, that society, that the mass, can and ought to govern itself by itself. . .
“We deny government and the State, because we affirm that which the founders of States have never believed in, the personality and autonomy of the masses . . . We affirm, finally, that this anarchy, which expresses, as we now see, the highest degree of liberty and order at which humanity can arrive, is the true formula of the Republic . . . that between the Republic and the government, between universal suffrage and the State, there is a contradiction . . . no establishment of authority, no organisation of the collective force from without, is henceforth possible for us . . . in short, that the only way to organise democratic government is to abolish government.” (Property is Theft!, pp. 482-5)
The other key aspects of Kropotkin’s critique was that the Commune did not pursue an economic transformation. Property was left more or less alone. In this, Kropotkin is echoing Proudhon during the 1848 when he argued that the political revolution had to be turned into an economic one to succeed (although, of course, Kropotkin argues for a revolutionary solution against Proudhon’s reformist one). So, Kropotkin argued, the “next rising of communes will not be merely a ‘communal’ movement . . . The communes of the next revolution will proclaim and establish their independence by direct socialist revolutionary action, abolishing private property.” The “insurgent people will not wait until some new government decrees, in its marvellous wisdom, a few economic reforms” but rather they “will not wait to expropriate the holders of social capital by a decree which necessarily would remain a dead letter if not accomplished in fact by the workers themselves. They will take possession on the spot and establish their rights by utilizing it without delay. They will organise themselves in the workshops to continue the work, but what they will produce will be what is wanted by the masses, not what gives the highest profit to employers.” (The Commune of Paris) So the anarchists learned both economic and political lessons from the Commune:
“The Commune of 1871 could be nothing but a first attempt . . . it dared not unhesitatingly set forth upon the path of economic revolution. It neither boldly declared itself socialist nor proceeded to the expropriation of capital nor the organisation of labour . . . Nor did it break with the tradition of the state, of representative government. It did not seek to effect within the Commune that very organisation from the simple to the complex which it inaugurated without, by proclaiming the independence and free federation of communes . . . The communes of the next revolution will not only break down the state and substitute free federation for parliamentary rule; they will part with parliamentary rule within the commune itself. They will trust the free organisation of food supply and production to free groups of workers which will federate with like groups in other cities and villages . . . They will be anarchist within the commune as they will be anarchist outside it and only thus will they avoid the horrors of defeat, the furies of reaction. (The Commune of Paris)
Given this analysis, on the need to expropriate property and entrust production and distribution to federations of workers’ associations, it comes as no surprise that Kropotkin echoes Bakunin’s revolutionary unionism as both a means of improving conditions in the here and now as well as being the means of transcending capitalism and replacing it (see section I.1.3 of AFAQ on how our struggles within but against capitalism creates the structures of a free economy). Kropotkin summarises this in his Memoirs:
“Nothing less than an expropriation of the present owners of land and capital, and a transmission of all that is necessary for the production of wealth to the producers themselves, was the avowed aim of the association at the outset. The workers of all nations were called upon to form their own organisations for a direct struggle against capitalism; to work out the means of socializing the production of wealth and its consumption; and, when they should be ready to do so, to take possession of the necessaries for production, and to control production with no regard to the present political organisation, which must undergo a complete reconstruction . . . However, two factions soon developed . . . when . . . parliamentary rule had been introduced . . . an effort was made by the Germans to modify the aims and the methods of the whole socialist movement. The ‘conquest of power within the existing states’ became the watchword of that section, which took the name of ‘Social Democracy’ . . . The socialist ideal of this party gradually lost the character of something that had to be worked out by the labour organisations themselves, and became state management of the industries,--in fact, state socialism; that is, state capitalism . . . Gradually, the life and activity of the German social democratic party was subordinated to electoral considerations. Trade unions were treated with contempt and strikes were met with disapproval, because both diverted the attention of the workers from electoral struggles . . . In the Latin countries, however, this new departure found but few adherents. The sections and federations of the International remained true to the principles which had prevailed at the foundation of the association . . . the inspirers and intellectual leaders of the Latin federations were Bakunin and his friends . . . It was the necessary conflict between the principles of federalism and those of centralization, the free commune and the state’s paternal rule, the free action of the masses of the people and the betterment of existing capitalist conditions through legislation” (Part Six; Section II, Memoirs of a Revolutionist, pp. 358-61)
In short, mutual aid in the struggle against capitalism and the state produces the organisations of the libertarian communist society. I should also note that this is yet more evidence to refute those who claim that there is a fundamental difference between syndicalism and anarchism (see section H.2.8 of AFAQ) or that Marxism explains syndicalist ideas (see Syndicalism, Marxism and Anarchism). However, back to the Commune.
I must note that Kropotkin took part in an anarchist demonstration to mark the Paris Commune which raised the red flag. Like other socialist, anarchists initially waved the red flag -- as AFAQ explains the black flag, another workers’ flag raised in struggle against capital, came much later:
“We all took part, that year, in a manifestation with the red flag at Bern. The wave of reaction spread to Switzerland, and the carrying of the workers’ banner was prohibited by the Bern police, in defiance of the constitution. It was necessary, therefore, to show that at least here and there the workers would not have their rights trampled underfoot, and would offer resistance. We all went to Bern on the anniversary of the Paris Commune, to carry the red flag in the streets, notwithstanding the prohibition.” (Part Six; Section IV, Memoirs of a Revolutionist, p. 370)
Interestingly, Proudhon embraced the red flag in his first article on the 1848 revolution. Marx in 1871 wrote how “the old world writhed in convulsions of rage at the sight of the Red Flag, the symbol of the Republic of Labour, floating over the Hotel de Ville” while Proudhon in Paris 23 years previously argued in response to the tricolour becoming the French national flag rather than the red flag:
“The Revolution, one cannot deny it, has been made by the red flag . . . To deny the red flag, the crimson! — but it is the social question you are getting rid of. Every time the People, defeated by suffering, wanted to express its wishes and its complaints outside the law that kills it, it has walked under a red banner . . . the red flag is the sign of a revolution that will be the last. The red flag! It is the federal standard of humanity.” (Property is Theft!, pp. 257-8)
However, back to anarchist accounts of the Commune. Voltairine De Cleyre wrote three articles on the Commune. One is available on-line (The Paris Commune). In a posthumously published article, she argued that it was “a blow for the decentralisation of political power” but that “it must at any rate have failed (unless the other Communes of France had followed its example)” in part because it “failed to strike at economic tyranny.” She looked forward “to the strike of the people which will transfer that suffering to their oppressors” by turning “the strike which ‘quits’ to the strike which ‘takes possession,’ from that which lays down its tools to that which takes possession of its tools and . . . turns the masters out.” [“The Paris Commune,” Anarchy! An Anthology of Emma Goldman’s Mother Earth, pp. 67-8]
In 1912 (the year of her death), she was arguing that the Commune “proclaimed the autonomy of Paris” and “broke the chain that fettered her” to the state. It failed because while “making war upon the State, she had not made war upon which creates the State . . . the Commune respected property . . . [and] had left common resources in private hands . . In short, though there were other reasons why the Commune fell, the chief one was that . . . the Communards were not Communists. They attempted to break political chains without breaking economic ones.” (“The Commune Is Risen”, Gates of Freedom, pp. 205-6)) Two things stand out. Firstly, her analysis echoes Kropotkin’s standard communist-anarchist analysis of the Commune and its failings. Secondly, it shows that she had moved to communist anarchism from individualism it seems strange that she would bemoan the fact that the Communards’ chief failing was that they shared her own (alleged) economic position! As I discuss this elsewhere, I will leave it here.
This is a constant theme of libertarian analysis of the Commune -- that it did not go far enough. In terms of economics, it did not progress fast enough towards the socialisation of property. In terms of politics, it keep a central body within the Commune while rejecting it externally. In practice, this resulted in the creation of a quasi-State which had elements of a federation (mandated and recallable delegates) and a state (delegated power in the hands of the municipal council). Unsurprisingly, the Communal Council became a bottle-neck and hindered the revolution as I discuss in more detail in this article: The Paris Commune, Marxism and Anarchism (Anarcho-Syndicalist Review, no. 50). Obviously, I should revise this in light of the material now available in Property is Theft! and I will do so -- someday! Suffice to say, as I indicate in that article there is little actual analysis of the Commune in Marxist works. Anarchist thinkers like Kropotkin provided a far more critical appreciation of the Commune and its strengths and weaknesses (as shown in my article). For Marxists, it seems to be something to be invoked rather than understood and learned from.
And talking of lessons from the Commune, what of Marx’s comment that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.” It has to be noted that Lenin’s State and Revolution transformed the understanding of this. Before 1917 this comment was not taken to mean that socialism could not be implemented using universal suffrage -- for good reason. As discussed in detail in section H.3.10, shortly after the Commune Marx argued that in Britain, “the way to show [i.e., manifest] political power lies open to the working class. Insurrection would be madness where peaceful agitation would more swiftly and surely do the work.” (Collected Works, vol. 22, p. 602) A position both he and Engels repeated after they had allegedly concluded that the state had to be smashed. Indeed Engels clarified in 1884 what Marx meant:
“It is simply a question of showing that the victorious proletariat must first refashion the old bureaucratic, administrative centralised state power before it can use it for its own purposes: whereas all bourgeois republicans since 1848 inveighed against this machinery so long as they were in the opposition, but once they were in the government they took it over without altering it and used it partly against the reaction but still more against the proletariat.” (Collected Works, vol. 47, p. 74)
So while the machinery (bureaucracy) of the state would need to be smashed, the republican state would be captured via universal suffrage in order to achieve this (and let us not forget that the Commune was, as Marx noted, “formed of the municipal councillors, chosen by universal suffrage in the various wards of the town”). As then Marxist Geoff Hodgson pointed out, Marx’s comments were “an isolated and quite exceptional statement, written at a time when Marx was clearly full of enthusiasm for the Paris Communards” and “it can be interpreted as a specific reference to the type of state that existed in France and other parts of the Continent at the time, and there is no suggestion that it applied to all possible types of state under capitalism.” So “it depends very much on exactly what it means by words like ‘simply’ and ‘lay hold of’. It is easy to conceive of an interpretation of the passage that would be acceptable to the most reformist and gradualist Fabian social democrat.” In addition, Lenin’s interpretation of Marx’s subsequent comments on utilising universal suffrage to introduce socialism “quite simply does not stand up to the facts” as both America and Britain had standing armies and state bureaucracies. (The Democratic Economy, pp. 57-8) This becomes quite obvious when we look at various comments by Marx and Engels Lenin does not quote and his commentary on Engels statement that “our Party and the working class can only come to power under the form of a democratic republic” which is “the specific form for the dictatorship of the proletariat” (Collected Works, vol. 27, p. 227) That Lenin has to change “specific form” to “the nearest approach” speaks volumes (see section H.3.10 for more details).
And even if we ignore that and conclude Marx did argue for the smashing of the state he was simply following Bakunin’s conclusions from 1868: “revolution as we understand it will . . . set about the . . . complete destruction of the State and state institutions . . . Dissolution of the army, magistracy, bureaucracy, police and clergy.” Still, it only took three years -- unlike the five decades it took Marxists to appreciate the importance of workers councils, namely when (to quote Bakunin) the “federated Alliance of all labour associations . . . will constitute the Commune” within a new society based on “the people organised into a free federation of agricultural and industrial associations . . . from the bottom up.” (No Gods, No Masters, p. 180, p. 181 and p. 182)
More could be written about the Paris Commune and anarchist influences and analyses of it (Nicolas Walter’s The Anarchist Past and other essays has two useful articles on this, particularly “The Paris Commune and the Anarchist Movement”), but I will leave it there -- after noting that the introduction to the Proudhon anthology has a section on the Commune and Proudhon’s obvious influence in it. It also has an appendix of documents from the Commune which shows this influence. It includes an article by Proudhon’s friend Gustave Courbet which proclaims:
“Ah, Paris, the mighty city of Paris, has just shaken off the dust of all vassalage. The most heartless Prussians, the exploiters of the poor, were in Versailles. Her revolution is all the more equitable in that it springs from the people. Its apostles are workers, her Christ has been Proudhon.” (Property is Theft!, p. 788)
Interestingly, when debating (and rejecting) the notion of a “Committee of Public Safety” in the Commune’s council Courbet stated: “Let is use the terms suggested to us by our own Revolution.” (The Communards of Paris, 1871, p. 93) In this he echoed his friend Proudhon who made similar comments in 1848 (The Reaction, Le Représentant du Peuple, 29th April 1848):
“It is by ‘93 and all of its discord that we are being ruled; and as for 1848, that is still the seven-times-sealed book. What we have here is a phenomenon of social psychology that is deserving of further exploration. That phenomenon has come to pass in every revolutionary age and it is this that has raised every peril and determined catastrophes.
“The democrats of ‘93, conjuring up a republic with their highschool memories, after devouring one another, set the revolution back by half a century . . . The democrats of 1848, building the republic on their parliamentary memories, have also set the revolution back by half a century. I am not pointing the finger at their patriotism, their good intentions, their disinterestedness. The sum total of their fault is that they only imitators; they thought themselves statesmen because they were following the old models!
“So what is this queer preoccupation which, in time of revolution, bedazzles the most steadfast minds, and, when their burning aspirations carry them forward into the future, has them constantly harking back the past? How does it come about that the People, just when it is making the break with established institutions, takes another plunge and gets further immersed in tradition? Society does not repeat itself: but one would have thought it was walking backwards, like the rope-maker playing out his rope. Could it not turn its gaze in the direction in which it is going?
“In order to organise the future, a general rule confirmed by experience, the reformers always start out with their gaze fixed upon the past. Hence the contradiction forever discovered in their actions: hence also the immeasurable danger of revolutions.” (Property is Theft!, p. 308)
A certain German writer said something similar a few years later. Suffice to say, Murray Bookchin was right in Listen, Marxist!: “When the hell are we finally going to create a movement that looks to the future instead of the past? When will we begin to learn from what is being born instead of what is dying? Marx, to his lasting credit, tried to do that in his own day; he tried to evoke a futuristic spirit in the revolutionary movement of the 1840’s and 1850’s.” Bookchin was sadly all to correct in his comments (as can be seen, for example, when Leninists bemoan the Argentine revolt against neo-liberalism for not creating soviets -- so some progress, we are ruled by 1917 rather than 1793!). However, he was wrong to suggest (or imply) that this was Marx’s contribution -- he was simply repeating Proudhon! As I note in the introduction, this is just one of many areas in which Marx followed where Proudhon lead -- and in 1871 he simply repeated “the emptiest Proudhonist phrases” he had previously dismissed as coming from “a petty-bourgeois utopian”!
Which brings me to Kronstadt, 50 years later. Perhaps needless to say, anarchists have pointed to the similarities of the Paris Commune and Kronstadt (Alexander Berkman wrote an excellent preface to Ida Mett’s essential pamphlet on Kronstadt) summarises:
“At an early stage several tendencies had struggled against the bureaucratic degeneration of the Revolution. By posthumously excluding them from the ranks of the revolutionary opposition, Trotskyists, Leninists and others commit a double injustice. Firstly, they excommunicate all those who foresaw and struggled against the nascent bureaucracy. Secondly, they weaken their own ease, for if the demands for freely elected soviets, for freedom of expression (proletarian democracy) and for workers’ management of production were wrong in 1921, why did they become partially correct in 1923? Why are they correct now? If in 1921 Lenin and Trotsky represented the ‘real interests of the workers (against the actual workers), why couldn’t Stalin? Why couldn’t Kadar in Hungary in 1956? The Trotskyist school of hagiography has helped to obscure the real lessons of the struggle against the bureaucracy...
“It is our firm conviction that most Trotskyists and Leninists are - and are kept - as ignorant of this period of Russian history as Stalinists are of the period of the Moscow Trials. At hest they vaguely sense the presence of skeletons in the cupboard. At worst they parrot what their leaders tell them, intellectually too lazy or politically too well conditioned to probe for themselves. . . . The class criterion is the decisive one . . . Its main objectives were ones with which no real revolutionary could disagree . . .
“Attitudes to the Kronstadt events, expressed nearly 50 years after the event often provide deep insight into the political thinking of contemporary revolutionaries. They may in fact provide a deeper insight into their conscious or unconscious aims than many a learned discussion about economics, or philosophy or about other episodes of revolutionary history.
“It is a question of one’s basic attitude as to what socialism is all about. What are epitomised in the Kronstadt events are some of the most difficult problems of revolutionary strategy and revolutionary ethics - the problems of ends and means, of the relations between Party and masses, In fact of whether a Party is necessary at all. Can the working class by itself only develop a trade union consciousness? . . .
“Or can the working class develop a deeper consciousness and understanding of its interests than can any organisation allegedly acting on its behalf? When Stalinists or Trotskyists speak of Kronstadt as ‘an essential action against the class enemy’ when more ‘sophisticated’ revolutionaries refer to as a strategic necessity’, one is entitled to pause for a moment. One is entitled to ask how seriously they accept Marx’s dictum that ‘the emancipation of the working class is the task of tile working class itself. Do they take this seriously or do they pay mere lip service to the words? Do they identify socialism with the autonomy (organisational and ideological) of the working class? Or do they see themselves, with their wisdom as to the “historical interests’ of others, and with their judgment as to what should be ‘permitted’, as the leadership around which the future elite will crystallise and develop? One is entitled not only to ask . . . but also to suggest the answer!” (For Workers’ Power, pp. 78-83)
Of course, the ironic thing about all this is that if this revolt had happened ten years later these very same Leninists would have been praising it. Indeed, if you described the events of the Kronstadt uprising without mentioning names or dates (a general strike against an authoritarian regime which make sailors revolt in solidarity and issue demands for freely elected workers’ councils and basic working class freedoms) they would have no problems in supporting it. Indeed, they would probably proclaim it -- as with the Paris Commune -- as an example of the “democratic essence” of their ideology. But, of course, it did not happen in 1931 against Stalin but in 1921 against Lenin and Trotsky. Yet, as Brinton notes, the demands of the Kronstadters are “ones with which no real revolutionary could disagree” and here they are (as quoted by Ida Mett):
1. immediate new elections to the Soviets. The present Soviets no longer express the wishes of the workers and peasants. The new elections should be by secret ballot, and should be preceded by free electoral propaganda.
2. Freedom of speech and of the press for workers and peasants, for the Anarchists, and for the Left Socialist parties.
3. The right of assembly, and freedom for trade union and peasant organisations.
4. The organisation, at the latest on 10th March 1921, of a Conference of non-Party workers, solders and sailors of Petrograd, Kronstadt and the Petrograd District.
5. The liberation of all political prisoners of the Socialist parties, and of all imprisoned workers and peasants, soldiers and sailors belonging to working class and peasant organisations.
6. The election of a commission to look into the dossiers of all those detained in prisons and concentration camps.
7. The abolition of all political sections in the armed forces. No political party should have privileges for the propagation of its ideas, or receive State subsidies to this end. In the place of the political sections various cultural groups should be set up, deriving resources from the State.
8. The immediate abolition of the militia detachments set up between towns and countryside.
9. The equalisation of rations for all workers, except those engaged in dangerous or unhealthy jobs.
10. The abolition of Party combat detachments in all military groups. The abolition of Party guards in factories and enterprises. If guards are required, they should be nominated, taking into account the views of the workers.
11. The granting to the peasants of freedom of action on their own soil, and of the right to own cattle, provided they look after them themselves and do not employ hired labour.
12. We request that all military units and officer trainee groups associate themselves with this resolution.
13. We demand that the Press give proper publicity to this resolution.
14. We demand the institution of mobile workers’ control groups.
15. We demand that handicraft production be authorised provided it does not utilise wage labour.
Space precludes discussing the many rationalisations put forth by Leninists to justify the Bolshevik repression of this obviously socialist revolt -- for those interested, they are refuted in the appendix on Kronstadt in AFAQ. Many anarchists have discussed Kronstadt and it would be impossible to do justice to their accounts. The first important account was in 1922 by Alexander Berkman shortly after he left Bolshevik Russia (The Kronstadt Rebellion). Berkman’s My Disillusionment in Russia both have chapters on the revolt. Other works were produced by the debate with Trotsky in the late 1930s, with Emma Goldman’s classic Trotsky Protests Too Much (why was this not included in Red Emma Speaks?). Libertarian Marxist Ante Ciliga also contributed an important article in this debate entitled The Kronstadt Revolt (also see the chapter “Lenin, Also” from his book The Russian Enigma). Ida Mett’s The Kronstadt Uprising is an excellent (essential!) account of the revolt inspired by these debates. Voline has a chapter on Kronstadt in his classic The Unknown Revolution.
This is the first wave of accounts, if you like, written by participants in the Revolution. Since then other libertarians have written about the revolt and two important academic books have been published. I’ve already quotes Maurice Brinton’s 1967 preface to Ida Mett’s work and that edition included an introduction by Murray Bookchin (as Bookchin argues the “demands of the Kronstadt sailors were the very minimum needed to rescue the revolution from bureaucratic decay and economic strangulation.”). And, as mentioned above, there is the appendix on Kronstadt in AFAQ which utilises these sources to describe the revolt, analysis it and discuss the flaws in Leninist attacks on it. I summarised the key issues in this article. The academic books are Paul Avrich’s Kronstadt 1921 and Israel Getzler’s Kronstadt 1917-1921: The Fate of a Soviet Democracy and both, in general, confirm the anarchist position. I should note that Avrich’s book is selectively quoted by Leninists -- particularly as he makes a few comments which are really not supported by the evidence be presents. As such, Nicolas Walter’s review of Avrich’s book is essential reading (as contained in the anthology of his articles The Anarchist Past and other essays). Getzler’s book is excellent, providing a useful account of Kronstadt from 1917 (when it was not a Bolshevik stronghold but rather a Left-SR one) as well as the revolt in 1921 (see my review for details).
Yet there is, I would suggest, a tendency to concentrate too much on Kronstadt in libertarian circles. This is not to say that it is not important (it is!) but there is a tendency to focus on it rather than using it as the obvious climax of Bolshevik authoritarianism which started before the civil war started at the end of May 1918. After all the Kronstadt soviet was first disbanded by the Bolsheviks on July 9th, 1918, in the wake of the Left-SR “revolt.” As in 1921, the Left-SR and Maximalist-SR controlled soviet was replaced by a Bolshevik revolutionary committee (Alexander Rabinowitch, The Bolsheviks in Power, p. 302). So while Kronstadt revolt of 1921 is important, it is important in the sense that it was the final nail in the coffin of the revolution. The first nails had been driven in as soon as the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917 and most had been hammered home by the time the Civil War broke out at the end of May 1918. By July 1918, the Bolsheviks were in charge of a de facto one-party state although, as we will see, their ideology took until the start of 1919 to incorporate that reality as a lesson of the revolution.
In short, the focus on Kronstadt in 1921 downplays the awkward fact that Bolshevik authoritarianism started before the start of the civil war -- indeed, from the start as the first act of the revolution was to create an executive organ above the soviets, namely a Bolshevik government (no mention of that in State and Revolution or a host of other authoritarian measures -- see section H.1.7) As discussed in section H.6.1, it seems a bit self-contradictory to argue, as Leninists do, that revolutions need defending, cause economic disruption and generally produce difficult circumstances and then turn round and explain the degeneration of the Russian Revolution by invoking precisely these factors! Particularly as the gerrymandering and disbanding of soviets, the repression of opposition, imposing one-man management, and so on occurred in the early months of 1918. And in all this, in the decisions made by the Bolsheviks, we must factor in Bolshevik ideology. For example, as Maurice Brinton has proven conclusively in The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control the Bolshevik vision of socialism played its role in the defeat of the revolution:
“The events described in this pamphlet show that in relation to industrial policy there is a clear-cut and incontrovertible link between what happened under Lenin and Trotsky and the later practices of Stalinism. We know that many on the revolutionary left will find this statement hard to swallow. We are convinced however that any honest reading of the facts cannot but lead to this conclusion. The more one unearths about this period the more difficult it becomes to define - or even to see - the ‘gulf’ allegedly separating what happened in Lenin’s time from what happened later. Real knowledge of the facts also makes it impossible to accept . . . that the whole course of events was ‘historically inevitable’ and ‘objectively determined’. Bolshevik ideology and practice were themselves important and sometimes decisive factors in the equation, at every critical stage of this critical period. Now that more facts are available self-mystification on these issues should no longer be possible. Should any who have read these pages remain ‘confused’ it will be because they want to remain in that state - or because (as the future beneficiaries of a society similar to the Russian one) it is their interest to remain so.” (For Worker’s Power, p. 376)
Particularly as the impact of these policies made the difficult economic situation facing the revolution worse. As discussed in section H.6.2, Bolshevik ideology -- political and economic -- played its role in the development of the revolution. Unless, of course, you subscribe (as Leninists do) to the self-contradictory position that Bolshevik ideology was essential to the success of the revolution and had absolutely no impact on how it developed. It seems strange, to say the least, to argue that an ideology that favoured party power, centralisation, nationalisation, “from above” and so on rather than popular participation, decentralisation, workers self-management, “from below”, and so had no impact in making decisions which produced a party dictatorship in a centralised, bureaucratic, top-down regime presiding over a state-capitalist economy. And it must be stressed that workers did protest against Bolshevik rule -- from the spring of 1918 onwards there were waves of mass protests and strikes. The massive strikes of 1921 which produced the Kronstadt revolt were just the latest in a long-line of revolts -- all of which were crushed (see section H.6.3). Suffice to say, while Leninists like to argue that the Russian working class was “atomised” and “declassed” so necessitating Bolshevik dictatorship, such a proletariat does not need martial law to break its general strikes!
In short, there were plenty of “little Kronstadts” (to utilise an expression much used in 1921) -- not only in 1921 but in every year from 1918. And it must be stressed that this commonplace Leninist rationale for Bolshevik rule dates back to Lenin and was first formulated “to justify a political clamp-down.” Indeed, this argument was developed in response to rising working class protest rather than its lack: “As discontent amongst workers became more and more difficult to ignore, Lenin . . . began to argue that the consciousness of the working class had deteriorated . . . workers had become ‘declassed.’“ However, there “is little evidence to suggest that the demands that workers made at the end of 1920 . . . represented a fundamental change in aspirations since 1917.” (Jonathan Aves, Workers Against Lenin, p. 18, p. 90 and p. 91] Aves book is important (see my review) as it places workers struggles to the fore, but accounts of collective working class protest can be found in most good books on the Russian Revolution (i.e., not in the typical Leninist ones!).
In short, Bolshevism is a legacy better rejected. As I discuss in “On the Bolshevik Myth”, there is an alternative which proves that its flaws are ideological in nature. This is the Makhnovists who worked in the same terrible objective conditions and encouraged working class freedom rather than proclaim party dictatorship as a revolutionary truism. Suffice to say, its economic vision of socialism is little better than state capitalism while its vision of a workers’ state seems little more than changing one set of rulers for another.
Returning to Kronstadt, the most revealing Leninist argument against the demands of the revolt is the one which suggests soviet democracy would have resulted in the end of the Bolshevik government (quite correct) and then, ultimately, the end of the revolution as the Whites would have overthrown the new regime as it lacked the “iron” resolve and discipline of the Bolsheviks. In short, the masses were too exhausted, disillusioned and backward to allow soviet democracy. Perhaps needless to say, the fundamentally elitist argument that workers should not be allowed to vote or protest under a “revolutionary” government due to exceptional “objective circumstances” can be made at any once the Bolsheviks took state power (and it was the Bolsheviks who seized state power, not the workers or the soviets). This can be seen from this recent piece of Leninist hagiography (which is hagiography on Tony Cliff’s previous hagiography of Lenin!) by the British SWP (John Rose, Tony Cliff’s Lenin and the Russian Revolution). The author argues in relation to early 1918:
“The severely weakened Bolshevik Party was thus unable to prevent the emergence of the Extraordinary Assembly of Delegates from Petrograd Factories and Plants (EAD). Although this movement gained credibility from former and now deeply disenchanted Bolshevik supporters, it was in essence a cover for counter-revolution and would open the door to the extreme right, with ‘frustrated workers, in increasing numbers… venting their desperation in anti-Semitic pogroms’.”
Rose is quoting from Alexander Rabinowitch’s book The Bolsheviks in Power (p. 228) and he uses that work to show that Cliff’s picture of Lenin as the democratic socialist from below overwhelmed by terrible objective circumstances was correct. Ignoring the awkward fact (as the SWP always does) that Lenin dismissed “from below” as anarchist terminology (see section H.3.3), the interesting thing is that Rabinowitch’s book shows the exact opposite -- as I discuss in my review it provides extensive evidence that the Bolsheviks gerrymandered soviets and repressed protests to maintain power in the face of isolation from the workers and massive disenchantment with their inability to solve the problems facing the revolution. It is useful to quote in full Rabinowitch:
“By the beginning of April, it was becoming clear to EAD leaders that efforts to change the existing system ‘from within’ were not working. At the same time, all the major problems that had spawned their movement were becoming more acute. Indeed, just then a new source of concern was that frustrated workers, in increasing numbers, were succumbing to rightist propaganda and, among other things, venting their desperation in anti-semitic pogroms. For their part, Soviet authorities in Petrograd now seemed prepared to take whatever steps were necessary to curb labour protest, including arresting workers. This, in turn, led to the intimidation, apathy, and passivity of other segments of the Petrograd working class.” (The Bolsheviks in Power, pp. 227-8)
It is interesting that this expression of working class disenchantment with “the most democratic state ever” (tm) was expressed outside the soviets -- why? Rabinowitch shows how the Bolsheviks had gerrymandered the local soviets, packing them with “delegates” from their controlled organisations and this reduced the number of delegates actually elected from the factories to a fraction of the total number, safely outvoted by the others. And notice that for this Leninist this an independent workers organisation is presented as being “a cover for counter-revolution” -- and so, presumably, in need of repression (like Kronstadt). I assume if these workers had managed to express their opinions in free and fair soviet elections then the soviets have been disbanded -- as had others across Russia for by the spring of 1918:
“Menshevik newspapers and activists in the trade unions, the Soviets, and the factories had made a considerable impact on a working class which was becoming increasingly disillusioned with the Bolshevik regime, so much so that in many places the Bolsheviks felt constrained to dissolve Soviets or prevent re-elections where Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries had gained majorities.” (Israel Getzler, Martov, p. 179)
That Rose is extremely selectively quoting from Rabinowitch can be seen from the comment that Spiridinova “sanctioned the Left SRs’ assassination of the German ambassador in Moscow in July, as a deliberate provocation to force Germany to break the Brest-Litovsk treaty. The Bolsheviks obviously then had to ban the Left SRs.” Strangely, while quoting Rabinowitch’s book, the article writer somehow failed to mention that the Left-SRs took this measure after the Bolsheviks gerrymandered the Fifth All-Russian Soviet Congress, packing it with “delegates” with extremely dubious credentials and mandates: “Only after electoral fraud gave the Bolsheviks a huge majority . . . did they [the Left-SRs] implement . . . the assassination of the German Ambassador.” ( The Bolsheviks in Power, p. 396) Unsurprisingly, it would have undermined the narrative of brave democrats defeated by objective circumstances...
Near the end the article, the author laments: “Yet workers’ power and communism hardly seem a plausible democratic alternative.” Unsurprising, give this rewriting of history, selective use of references and rationalisations for destroying workers’ power and democratic alternatives in favour of Bolshevik power! It is hard not to agree with Martov that the Bolsheviks loved Soviets only when they were “in the hands of the Bolshevik party” (quoted by Getzler, Martov, p. 174) Still, Rose’s arguments in favour of Bolshevism are interesting as he is admitting that Bolshevik inability to solve the problems of the revolution caused a protest movement and this failed to impact on the so-called workers state. In response, a few frustrated workers turn to the right -- which is used by the SWP to justify the destruction of all worker protest! In short, worker unrest is “in essence a cover for counter-revolution” in a workers’ state! And this is not the standard SWP line against Kronstadt? That it would have opened the door to counter-revolution in a country exhausted and devastated by civil war? And here it is being utilised in April 1918 before it started! So much for workers’ power and democracy!
Simply put, Bolshevik authoritarianism predates the Civil War and continued long after its end. What is staggering is that Bolshevik incompetence is used to justify Bolshevik authoritarianism, while all the time lamenting the lack of workers’ power and democracy... all the while quoting from a book which shows how far the Bolsheviks deliberately undermined both to retain state power!
This is hardly an exception case. Chris Harman’s How the Revolution was Lost references Getzler’s book on leading left-Menshevik Julius Martov on how a leading Menshevik had joined the SRs in the “democratic counter-revolution” government created after the Czech Legion revolt of May 1918 (it was made up of members of the disbanded Constituent Assembly). This was used to rationalise the Bolshevik repression of the Mensheviks (the book was also used to prove Bolshevik popularity in late 1917, so justifying their seizure of power). Yet the book also states that this person was expelled from the Mensheviks as a result -- on the very same page! I discuss this as part of a critique of Harman’s position on how the revolution failed (and it is, more or less, the standard Trotskyist one bar the suggestion that Stalinism was a new class system). So the SWP are good at using references which say one thing to suggest another...
Given that it is rarely mention in Leninist circles, it is essential to stress that by early 1919 Bolshevik orthodoxy was that the dictatorship of the proletariat required the dictatorship of the party. Victor Serge, for example, noted in the 1930s noting that “the degeneration of Bolshevism” was apparent by that time “since at the start of 1919 I was horrified to read an article by Zinoviev . . . on the monopoly of the party in power.” (The Serge-Trotsky Papers, p. 188] It would be remiss to not note that this horror did not stop him working for the regime nor supporting that maxim until the mid-30s. Indeed, later in 1919 he justified this monopoly to anarchists to get them to join the Communists (which makes the all-too regular ISO/SWP attempts to contrast Serge with the so-called “elitist” Emma Goldman simply incredulous -- as I have discussed in detail, Serge became an elitist Bolshevik while Goldman stuck to her libertarian principles and sided with the Russian masses against their new masters). It can be seen when Zinoviev proclaimed the following at the 1920 Comintern conference:
“Today, people like [Karl] Kautsky come along and say that in Russia you do not have the dictatorship of the working class but the dictatorship of the party. They think this is a reproach against us. Not in the least! We have a dictatorship of the working class and that is precisely why we also have a dictatorship of the Communist Party. The dictatorship of the Communist Party is only a function, an attribute, an expression of the dictatorship of the working class . . . the dictatorship of the proletariat is at the same time the dictatorship of the Communist Party.” [Proceedings and Documents of the Second Congress 1920, vol. 2, pp. 151-2]
That year saw Trotsky asserting that while the Bolsheviks have “more than once been accused of having substituted for the dictatorship of the Soviets the dictatorship of the party,” in fact “it can be said with complete justice that the dictatorship of the Soviets became possible only by means of the dictatorship of the party.” “In this ‘substitution’ of the power of the party for the power of the working class,” he added, “there is nothing accidental, and in reality there is no substitution at all. The Communists express the fundamental interests of the working class.” (Terrorism and Communism, p. 109)
So this orthodox position was repeated by Trotsky at the time and until his death (which makes attempts by modern-day Leninists to present him as defending Bolshevism’s “democratic essence” against Stalinism somewhat surreal). Suffice to say, Bolshevik ideological orthodoxy played its role in deciding the response to the Kronstadt revolt. It’s call for free soviet elections could not be squared with Bolshevik dictatorship. And it should be stressed that all the main Bolshevik oppositions accepted this orthodoxy -- including the Workers’ Opposition. So Maurice Brinton made a rare mistake in his (classic and essential) “The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control” when he stated:
“The physical attack on Kronstadt - in which over 200 delegates to the Congress participated - was accompanied by a massive verbal onslaught against the Workers’ Opposition and similar tendencies. Although leading members of the Opposition were to fight against the Kronstadters . . . Lenin and the Party leaders were fully aware of the deep affinities between the two movements . . . Down to the fetishism of the unions, the language was the same.” (For Workers’ Power, pp. 371-2).
In reality, the Kronstadters had more in common with the Left-SRs and Maximalists. They advocated genuine political and economic democracy. The Workers’ Opposition reaffirmed the party’s monopoly of power as well as its role in the trade unions. Their suggested producers’ congress would have been elected under the influence of the party. So it is not that surprising that they took part in the destruction of Kronstadt -- they were loyal Bolsheviks defending the party dictatorship required to ensure the success of the revolution. This, as noted, was advocated by Trotsky well into the 1930s. For example, from 1936:
“The revolutionary dictatorship of a proletarian party is for me not a thing that one can freely accept or reject: It is an objective necessity imposed upon us by the social realities - the class struggle, the heterogeneity of the revolutionary class, the necessity for a selected vanguard in order to assure the victory. The dictatorship of a party belongs to the barbarian prehistory as does the state itself, but we can not jump over this chapter, which can open (not at one stroke) genuine human history. . . The revolutionary party (vanguard) which renounces its own dictatorship surrenders the masses to the counter-revolution . . . Abstractly speaking, it would be very well if the party dictatorship could be replaced by the ‘dictatorship’ of the whole toiling people without any party, but this presupposes such a high level of political development among the masses that it can never be achieved under capitalist conditions. The reason for the revolution comes from the circumstance that capitalism does not permit the material and the moral development of the masses.” (Writings of Leon Trotsky 1936-37, pp. 513-4)
Such a position makes an event like Kronstadt (or the numerous repressions of working class protest and democracy which came before it) inevitable. This flows from both the elitist assumptions of vanguardism and the recognition that state power cannot be seized by the masses but only by the few. Thus Trotsky:
“The very same masses are at different times inspired by different moods and objectives. It is just for this reason that a centralised organisation of the vanguard is indispensable. Only a party, wielding the authority it has won, is capable of overcoming the vacillation of the masses themselves . . . if the dictatorship of the proletariat means anything at all, then it means that the vanguard of the proletariat is armed with the resources of the state in order to repel dangers, including those emanating from the backward layers of the proletariat itself.” (“The Moralists and Sycophants against Marxism”, pp. 53-66, Their Morals and Ours, p. 59]
The problem is that by definition everyone else is “backward” compared to the vanguard. Or its leadership as this top-down approach is for the party as well. As Trotsky himself argued in 1903: “The statutes should express the leadership’s organised distrust of the members, a distrust manifesting itself in vigilant control from above over the Party”. (quoted by Brinton, For Workers’ Power, p. 300) And so a key lesson Trotsky learned from the Bolshevik revolution was that the party had the right, indeed the duty, to substitute itself for the working class and to use all means available to secure its hierarchical position over it. In short, how to create the preconditions for Stalinism...
And it is refreshing to see Trotsky admitting that it is the party which holds “authority” and is “armed with the resources of the state” rather than the masses. Long gone is Lenin’s 1917 notion of a “semi-state”, a state which “is no longer a state in the proper sense of the word.” Trotsky’s arguments imply nothing less than a state in “the proper sense of the word” as argued in section H.3.8 of AFAQ. The notion that Leninism aims to give power to workers organisations is, as shown in section H.3.11, a myth -- the party will seize and hold power in the workers’ state, as Lenin argued throughout 1917. In short, Trotsky’s position was mainstream Bolshevik ideology when he and Lenin held power:
“Without revolutionary coercion directed against the avowed enemies of the workers and peasants, it is impossible to break down the resistance of these exploiters. On the other hand, revolutionary coercion is bound to be employed towards the wavering and unstable elements among the masses themselves.” (Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 42, p. 170)
Unsurprisingly, when Leninists point to Lenin’s State and Revolution as evidence of their democratic politics they tend to forget these sort of comments. Needless to say, Lenin failed to mention it as well in 1917 -- but at least Trotsky (if not his followers) was more open about it twenty years later. Such a position, as noted, makes events like Kronstadt inevitable. And such a position is inevitable given vanguardist assumptions and the reality of state structures -- the state’s top-down, centralised and hierarchical nature will inevitably corrupt those who work in them as Bakunin predicted in Statism and Anarchy (see my recent review).
And since this is about both the Paris Commune and Kronstadt, it would be useful to give a summary of Trotsky’s comments about the former in February 1921. They are, well, somewhat at odds with Marx:
“The Commune shows us the heroism of the working masses, their capacity to unite into a single bloc, their talent to sacrifice themselves in the name of the future . . . but at the same time it shows us the incapacity of the masses to choose their path, their indecision in the leadership of the movement, their fatal penchant to come to a halt after the first successes, thus permitting the enemy to regain its breath . . . The workers’ party . . . is the accumulated and organised experience of the proletariat. It is only with the aid of the party, which rests upon the whole history of its past, which foresees theoretically the paths of development, all its stages, and which extracts from it the necessary formula of action, that the proletariat frees itself from the need of always recommencing its history: its hesitations, its lack of decision, its mistakes.
“The proletariat of Paris did not have such a party. . .
“The Central Committee of the National Guard is in effect a Council of Deputies of the armed workers and the petty bourgeoisie . . . at the same time, and just because of its immediate and elementary connection with the masses who are in the state in which the revolutionary has found them, it reflects not only all the strong sides but also the weak sides of the masses, and it reflects at first the weak sides still more than it does the strong: it manifests the spirit of indecision, of waiting, the tendency to be inactive after the first successes . . . The methods of shapeless democracy (simple electability) must be supplemented and to a certain extent replaced by measures of selection from above . . . the National Guard hastened to unload its responsibility, at the very moment when this responsibility was enormous. The Central Committee imagined ‘legal’ elections to the Commune . . . deprived of the leadership of a proletarian party, it lost its head, hastened to transmit its powers to the representatives of the Commune which required a broader democratic basis. And it was a great mistake in that period to play with elections. . .
“We can thus thumb the whole history of the Commune, page by page, and we will find in it one single lesson: a strong party leadership is needed.” (Lessons of the Paris Commune)
Just in case you missed it, Trotsky is denouncing the election of the Communal Council, the actual Paris Commune. Even the leadership of National Guard is suspect because it had an “immediate and elementary connection with the masses”, masses whose “indecision” costs the revolution dear. The “one single lesson” is the need of a vanguard party to seize power (with the support of the masses as Leninism is not quite Blanquism). As for working class people? Well, we can act only on “the condition that at its head . . .is an apparatus which is centralised and bound together by an iron discipline.” In short, we do what we are ordered to do -- in our own interests. As in any class system -- a fine liberation indeed!
For Marx, let us not forget, the “Commune was formed of the municipal councillors, chosen by universal suffrage in the various wards of the town, responsible and revocable at short terms.” It “took the management of the revolution in its own hands” and “plain working men for the first time dared to infringe upon the governmental privilege.” Quite the reverse of Trotsky (although, to be fair, privately Marx also bemoaned that the National Guard “surrendered its power too soon” -- I mention this and analyse Trotsky’s comments in The Paris Commune, Marxism and Anarchism), as noted by Maurice Brinton and Philippe Guillaume in an excellent article entitled “The Commune, Paris 1871”. It is worth quoting:
“Stated more concretely, the proletarian revolution of 1871 must now be re-evaluated in the light of the degeneration of the Russian Revolution . . . For . . . Trotsky . . . the great defect of the Commune was the absence of a revolutionary leadership . . . The present generation of revolutionaries . . . have experienced all the ills that have flown from the hypertrophy and subsequent degeneration of such a ‘leadership’ - even when it has proved victorious in its struggle against the bourgeoisie. They have witnessed, its gradual separation from the masses and its steady conversion into a new ruling group, as fundamentally opposed to the basic wishes of the masses themselves to administer society as any previous ruling group in history . . . It is interesting to contrast the Bolshevik appreciation of the Commune with . . . Marx . . . Marx does not once attribute the defeat to the absence of a ‘strong Party leadership’. He is vastly impressed by its great positive achievements . . . The masses in struggle themselves created this form of organisation, just as in 1905 they were themselves to create the Soviets, at first denounced by the Bolsheviks as ‘sectarian organisations’ . . . They generated their own socialist consciousness, assisted but not dictated to by conscious revolutionaries of various kinds. . . The Commune introduced the eligibility and revocability of all officials and the payment to them of working men’s salaries. Those are profoundly revolutionary measures. . . Nearly a century after they were first put forward by the Communards, they still form the basis of all genuinely revolutionary struggles . . . In this last quotation from Trotsky two little words epitomise, in a way, the whole subsequent degeneration of the great proletarian revolution of 1917: the words ‘from above’. . . “ (For Workers’ Power, pp. 51-60)
This article along with the preface to Ida Mett’s pamphlet and “The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control” are contained in the excellent -- essential (see my review) -- anthology of Brinton’s works For Workers’ Power. As would be expected, it does not consider the libertarian influences in the Commune but the points they make are correct. So while, rightly, critiquing Trotsky’s elitist dismissal of the real lessons of 1871, they do make this point:
“If history is an account of the achievements or shortcomings of revolutionary leaderships, how can we explain that the Commune, with its petty-bourgeois leadership was capable of introducing to the modern world the most advanced conceptions of proletarian democracy?” (For Workers’ Power, p. 53)
More accurately, given the evidence above, the Commune’s “petty-bourgeois leadership” were capable of introduction to MARX the most advanced conceptions of proletarian democracy, for Proudhon had introduced these conceptions to the modern world over two decades previously...
Finally, it may be objected that, unlike the Bolshevik revolution, the Paris Commune failed. Yes, indeed, the Bolsheviks did hold onto state power but there was nothing left of socialism. By end of 1918 (at the latest!) the Bolsheviks were ruling a state capitalist economy by means of party dictatorship -- and both the necessity of one-man management and of party dictatorship were party orthodoxies. As discussed in section H.6 of AFAQ, the Bolshevik monopoly of power and its disastrous and flawed vision of socialism were imposed by state repression -- which included smashing strikes, independent unions, freedom of speech and assembly, gerrymandering and disbanding soviets, imprisoning and shooting opponents (even ones, like the majority of the Mensheviks, who rejected armed revolt). If that is “success” then modern-day Bolsheviks really need better dictionaries! As Emma Goldman so correctly argued:
“The Russian Revolution - more correctly, Bolshevik methods - conclusively demonstrated how a revolution should not be made. The Russian experiment has proven the fatality of a political party usurping the functions of the revolutionary people, of an omnipotent State seeking to impose its will upon the country, of a dictatorship attempting to ‘organise’ the new life.”
The Situationist International also put it very well:
“The classical workers movement must be re-examined without any illusions, particularly without any illusions regarding its various political and pseudo-theoretical heirs, because all they have inherited is its failure. The apparent successes of this movement are actually its fundamental failures (reformism or the establishment of a state bureaucracy), while its failures (the Paris Commune or the 1934 Asturian revolt) are its most promising successes so far, for us and for the future” (Theses on the Paris Commune, Situationist International Anthology, Ken Knabb (ed.), p. 314)
Suffice to say, we remember the Paris and Kronstadt Communes in order to learn from the successes and failures of the past, to inform our ideas and actions now. This means understanding the roots of why certain revolts are so appealing and so succeeded while failing (the Paris Commune, the Spanish Revolution) and how other revolutions completely failed while apparently succeeding (the Russian Revolution). It will involve the wider left questioning their own assumptions, understand history rather than ritualistically invoking to justify its opposite (the Paris Commune to sex-up Bolshevism) and learning a bit more of the libertarian alternative to both capitalism and state socialism -- anarchism. Ultimately, Leninists cannot praise the Paris Commune while, at the same time, dismissing the libertarian ideas which influenced it and remain consistent.
The lesson of 1871 and 1921 is basic -- that social revolution requires mass participation, decentralisation, federalism and self-management. Precisely what the state crushes -- even the so-called “workers’ state” of Marxism. Marx wrote that “the Paris Commune took the management of the revolution in its own hands” and “plain working men for the first time dared to infringe upon the governmental privilege of their ‘natural superiors’“. The problem was, as Bakunin and Kropotkin stressed, it did not go far enough and rather than working class people taking management directly they gave it to a handful of representatives. They did not create the free federation of self-managed communities in Paris it wished for France. The revolution suffered as a result. The same mistake occurred in 1917, with the soviets passing power to Bolshevik dominated executive committees. In 1921, the Kronstadt revolt proclaimed the need for “All power to Soviets, not to parties” (quoted by Israel Getzler, Kronstadt 1917-1921: The Fate of a Soviet Democracy, p. vii) But by then it was too late. The mistakes Proudhon exposed in 1848 were repeated -- hopefully next time we will learn and apply Proudhon’s great insight:
“But the revolutionary power . . . is no longer today in the hands of the government; it is not in the National Assembly: it is in you. The people alone, acting upon themselves without intermediary, can achieve the economic Revolution . . . The people alone can save civilisation and advance humanity!” (Property is Theft!, p. 366)
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