On the Russian Revolution (A letter from Kropotkin, 1920)

Well, the London Anarchist Bookfair has come and gone. My talk of “What it means to be libertarian” went okay, I think – I think my accent caused some problem. There were three meetings (over four hours) on the Russian Revolution – just as well my talk last-year was on the Russian Revolution otherwise it would have been four meetings. I attended two which I will discuss here and, as an added bonus, I include a newly translated, very rare, letter from Kropotkin written in 1920 which is very pertinent to discussions made at the bookfair.

Before that, I should mention the recent articles and reviews I have posted. Freedom published the short version of Mind the Gap! In their bookfair issue. After I posted the long version, I realised that I forgotten to mention the stagnation in productivity we have experienced since 2010. I should have added, it is easy to explain the decline in productivity – investment drives productivity. Obviously, after the crisis there is no drive to invest given the drop-in demand and the rise in uncertainty. However, in what passed as the up-turn under the Tories since 2010 there was no need to invest. Partly, due to the withdrawal of demand austerity was based on but also and due to the servile labour market the Tories have forged – why should bosses invest when there are no wage pressures to do so?

As I noted in Mind the Gap!, weakening of the Tory anti-union laws would actually do capitalism some good. Workers could take effective action, get pay rises and focus bosses into investing in new machinery (funded in part by the increased demand of said pay rises). Currently, State interference in the (labour) market is ensuring that wages do not rise (as Adam Smith long ago noted) and, due to the contradictions of capitalism, this is now harming capitalism as a system.

Proudhon noted in System of Economic Contradictions how capitalists introduce machinery to combat “the insubordination of our workers.” later picked up by Marx (in passing) and then expanded upon by Autonomist Marxists (while proclaiming Marx’s genius, unaware, of course because Marx suggested the opposite in The Poverty of Philosophy, that Proudhon said it first). And this explains a lot of the productivity issues which are so worrying many – no need to invest to increase profits in the face of rising wages if workers are so cowed that they do not act to increase their wages…

(for my American readers, much the same can be said about the farcical notion that Trump’s corporation tax cut will be passed on to workers in the shape of wage rises – without direct action by workers to force the bosses to do something, they will feather their own nest. Worker’ wages will “rise” only in the sense that CEOs and others at the top of the company hierarchy are usually, technically, employees of the corporation and they may give themselves a slice of the tax cut.)

Another issue is the rise in inflation – caused by the Brexit vote. The Bank of England has been mulling over an increase in interest rates for some time (they have been rock-bottom – and so negative in real terms – for over a decade) and has now decided to increase them slightly. Yet the logic of this is driven by the assumption inflation is caused by wage increases (needless to say, increases in profits, rents or interest never cause inflation in spite of them being a component of the price…). However, even with record low unemployment wage growth is stubbornly flat (the obvious reason, lack of union strength to force bosses to increase wages, usually goes unmentioned – or filed under “unknown reasons”). Raising interest rates is a solution for when labour is strong (it causes unemployment, basically, so weakening labour’s strength – see section C.9 of AFAQ). Which is why the Bank of England has kept rates at rock-bottom for so long – it knows labour is weak – but what else can it do within the neo-liberal framework?

I also posted a review of Mark Leier’s pamphlet on what lessons to draw from the First International. Not much to disagree with, although I managed to… on Marx being a great scholar but in the context of his diatribe against Proudhon. I simply note that for all of Marx’s (at times) impressive scholarship, he always seems driven by pettiness and political point-scoring. This, of course, detracts from his argument – but it is hard to discover, given that when doing so he fails to reference the quotes in question (I give the example of John Stuart Mill in my review).

Finally, there is a review of an excellent book on how the British left responded to the Russian Revolutions in 1917 and subsequent developments. This is very relevant today, given the two meetings I attended at the bookfair on the subject of the 100th anniversary of the Revolution. Given the quality of both, I somewhat how regret doing one (The Bolshevik Myth Reloaded) on the Russian Revolution last year – although I did so in order to raise the need to prepare for the anniversary, understand what happened and so be in a position to refute the pro-Bolshevik accounts that would inevitably be produced.

I missed the two-hour long meeting entitled “The Russian Revolution from below,” as it clashed with my meeting and I wanted a break to revisit the stalls. I attended the one entitled “Not Just Kronstadt,” which was somewhat chaotic as the lead wanted to organise it as a workshop while most attendees wanted an introductory speech. Also, he admitted that he did not known that much about the revolution and expected people in the audience to know more about it than him. So I discovered – not for the first time! – how annoying it is when you know more about a subject than the organiser of a meeting!

He had written a pamphlet on the subject, so he had done some research – but he did not seem to have read section H.6 of An Anarchist FAQ (AFAQ). Which is unfortunate, as it is an attempt to gather all the research on the subject and seek to show (by using academic resources, where possible) how the anarchist critique has been confirmed. Which it has – unfortunately, the meeting organiser seemed unaware of much of this and gave a quasi-liberal (seemed to oppose the dissolving of the Constituent Assembly as “undemocratic”) and quasi-libertarian (he had read Maurice Brinton’s The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control, as everyone must), but then he is the editor of Peace News.

After, finally, doing an introductory speech, it was opened up – and the first person to talk was a member of the CWO (who was to give their talk on the Russian Revolution in the next meeting slot, more on that shortly). Took issue with Brinton, complaining that Brinton had contrasted the factory committees to the Bolsheviks when, in fact, the majority of members of the committees were Bolsheviks. This is valid if somewhat beside the point. Yes, the factory committees were in the majority Bolsheviks – which was a problem as this meant their leading elements did not have the theoretical sophistication needed. So the committees themselves – because they shared the same ideological blinkers – supported centralisation (as more “efficient”), saw governmental action at the centre as key, etc.

One book I saw in a bookshop (I cannot remember the title and I did not buy it as money was tight) on various experiments on workers control had a chapter on Russia. The author of that chapter pointed to a pro-(workers-)State resolution of the committees and suggested its lack of concern over the dangers of centralisation was due to the workers feeling they were in control – they had no fear of abuse of power because they were in power. No, I thought. It had no such fears because the committees were dominated by Bolsheviks who did not have the theoretical framework to recognise there was such a danger.

So when the Bolshevik leadership systematically undermined the factory committees in favour of nationalisation, the factory committees themselves would have accepted this. For two reasons. First, party discipline. Second, they shared the same ideological illusions in terms of what “socialism” was like, the benefits and efficiency of centralisation, and so on. This does not stop the factory committees being an alternative to the Bolshevik vision of “socialism” (i.e., State-Capitalism as Kropotkin and other warned long before). Indeed, some did raise alternatives – but the party leadership overruled them and imposed their own notions of “socialist” economic structures.

Brinton, then, simplified events to draw out the key issue – the attitude of the Bolshevik leadership to the factory committees. I stress the leadership because they were the ones whose ideas mattered for they were the ones holding power both in the party and in the State. That many rank-and-file Bolsheviks played a leading role in the factory committees is somewhat irrelevant – it is the promise and the possibilities that the factory committees expressed which matter. This is what Brinton was drawing out and he was right to do so.

Marx did the same thing with the Paris Commune – he failed to mention the leading role of mutualists (“Proudhonists”) and Blanquists in the municipal council in The Civil War in France and instead discussed its deeper meaning (although, as I indicate, that deeper meaning was somewhat distorted by Lenin in State and Revolution – see my chapter in the newly published Blood-Stained for a shorter account plus a summary of other relevant material from section H of AFAQ). Although I must add that Marx’s non-mention is worse than Brinton’s because by ignoring the libertarian influences on the Commune’s proclamations, he presents it as being somehow without precedent – a reflection, needless to say, of Marx’s habitual viewing everything in terms of faction fights.

Talking of Marx, I attended an earlier meeting by the translator of a new book of Bakunin’s writings in which I noted that Marx had recommended no uprisings in 1870-1 (saying instead utilise republican freedom – that is, stay at home and later stand in elections) while in 1917 the local Bolsheviks recommended that the women workers did not strike (something the CWO failed to mention for some strange reason). Also, I’ve just finished reading the excellent The First Socialist Schism: Bakunin vs. Marx in the International Working Men's Association in which the shenanigans of Marx and Engels packing the Hague Congress reminded me of similar activities by the Bolsheviks in the spring and summer of 1918 with the soviets. The importance of controlling the credentials committee – as shown in 1872 and in 1918 – has not been lost on modern-day Leninists, I can tell you.

Anyway, I’ve gone off target. Our CWO-ist considered it sufficient to quote Lenin sounding libertarian from early 1918 to refute the charge the Bolsheviks were authoritarian from the start – as I noted, it is not what people say what counts but rather what they did. He also suggested that Lenin was opposed to the Social-Democratic vision of socialism, something I again noted simply was not true (Kautsky on steroids, in fact). Unfortunately, the meeting organiser – after letting the CWO waffle on for ages – cut me off. He did the same last year at another meeting – presumably knowing something about a subject is a sign you should let others talk…

So the meeting was somewhat frustrating, not least when the organiser himself raised the standard Bolshevik objection on how factory committees sometimes expressed “localism” or competed against each other for resources (but added, as Leninists never do, that the Bolsheviks hindered their attempts to federate – as Brinton showed). Amazingly, he made no mention of the much. much worse problems produced by Bolshevik centralisation and Statism – nor the huge bureaucracy it spawned. Yes, I freely admit that “localism” can (and undoubtedly will) be a problem – but the Bolshevik “solution” of centralisation was worse. Subsequent research – as I recount in section H.6 of AFAQ – has confirmed the accounts by the likes of Goldman, Berkman and Kropotkin (see letter below for a short account).

The next Russian Revolution meeting was in the same room, immediately after, by the left-communist CWO. This was shocking. I became an anarchist thirty years ago this year and this was also the last time I heard this account of the Russian Revolution – yes, the CWO gave the same account of the revolution as did the SWP back in 1987. Why is the Anarchist bookfair letting a pro-Bolshevik organisation have a meeting?

Essentially, the position advocated was that the Bolsheviks were fine and they only became authoritarian (counter-revolutionary) as a result of terrible objective circumstances – economic collapse, the food-supply crisis, etc. Thus before summer of 1918 (June seemed to be mentioned), the Bolsheviks had played a revolutionary role and their ideology played no role in the degeneration of the revolution. And if the CWO are right (I stress they are not!), then the obvious conclusion is embrace this ideology as it produced a “successful” revolution. Which they, of course, do – but make worse by also embracing Borgia (advocate of party dictatorship, amongst other stupidities).

I tried to response to the “short” (i.e., half-the-meeting) introduction – and the speaker repeatedly interrupted me by asking “questions.” I – along with other anarchists – sat through his (long) pro-Bolshevik contribution in the previous meeting but that respect was not offered here. I did ask whether he was going to continue to interrupt me as it was breaking my chain of thought – and he said yes.

So, for example, he interpreted by asking which Bolsheviks (as the party was not a monolith) to which I replied “As I said, ‘Lenin argued that the Bolsheviks had to seize power’…” (a simple fact). Similarly, I sought to link the Bolsheviks’ attitude to the soviets in 1918 (packing and disbanding them) to what happened in 1905 and the speaker feigned puzzlement on why that should be relevant. All they frustrating, as intended I am sure.

Another interruption – the final one as the fire alarm went off – came in the form of the food crisis. He pointed to the forced requisition of food from the peasants – but I countered with how the Bolsheviks suppressed workers’ initiative in favour of a State-orientated approach. I did not have time to mention how the Bolsheviks placed soldiers and the Cheka to stop “speculation” in food – which was, mostly, peasants trying to get their crops into towns to trade for goods. So we have the strange sight of, according to the CWO, Bolshevik authoritarianism being driven by peasants refusing bring their crops to the towns (so forcing them to requisition food from the peasants by force) and the Bolsheviks clamping down on peasants bringing food to the town (so forcing them to stop trade – “speculation” – by the peasants by force). I would also have noted how some local Bolsheviks banned workers – many of whom had recently come from the villages – from growing their own food. They did not wish the workers to become “petit-bourgeois”, so preferring them to starve presumably. And I did not have time to mention how Bolshevik centralised economic structures and policies produced bottle-necks and disruption in the economy, helping to worsen the economic collapse and reduce the numbers of goods available…

But, as I said, the fire alarm went off. As a fire marshal at work, I tried to get people to leave by the nearest exit and then went off to find out whether there was a fire. There wasn’t, so I returned to the meeting room – but it was empty. Strange.

Suffice to say, it would be impossible to cover the deep flaws in the CWO’s position. As I discuss in some detail in section H.6 of AFAQ, Bolshevik ideology did play a key role in the degeneration of the revolution – not least in making the terrible economic crisis worse. As Kropotkin suggests in the letter below, a vision of socialism as being based on centralisation, the believe that centralisation is more “efficient” and, worse, the “principle” of “revolutionary” social-democracy, has an impact because those in charge will build structures which reflect their prejudices. Which the Bolsheviks did – with predictable (and predicted!) negative effects. And, as Kropotkin suggests, the only way of solving the many problems produced by any real revolution is by local initiative and federalism based on the working classes own organisations. This has been the anarchist position since Proudhon and reflected by this excellent quote by Kropotkin from 1913:

“the State, with its hierarchy of functionaries and the weight of its historical traditions, could only delay the dawning of a new society freed from monopolies and exploitation […] what means can the State provide to abolish this monopoly that the working class could not find in its own strength and groups? […] what advantages could the State provide for abolishing these same [class] privileges? Could its governmental machine, developed for the creation and upholding of these privileges, now be used to abolish them? Would not the new function require new organs? And these new organs would they not have to be created by the workers themselves, in their unions, their federations, completely outside the State?” (La Science moderne et l’anarchie [Paris : Stock, 1913], 91-2)

Talking of which, I sent the proof-edited draft of both Modern Science and Anarchy plus my introduction to AK Press the Wednesday before the bookfair. The book now is now being advertised. Also, I cover in more detail what I discussed above in my chapter of Bloodstained: One Hundred Years of Leninist Counterrevolution entitled “The State and Revolution: Theory and Practice.” Even if I did not have a chapter in it, I would heartedly recommend the book as it contains many classic anarchist and libertarian socialist texts analysing the Russian Revolution (indeed, it includes all the texts I would have included in such a volume). So congratulations to AK for bringing it out – and I do feel honoured to be included in such august company!

Finally, below is a new translation of a rare letter by Kropotkin from 1920. I was unaware it existed because I found it via Lee Dugatkin’s Kropotkin webpage which, in turn, links to the Max Nettlau archive at the International Institute of Social History. Dugatkin is a biologist who has written on co-operation and altruism in nature and, as a result, developed an interest in Kropotkin (on whom he had written a short book – The Prince of Evolution: Peter Kropotkin’s Adventures in Science and Politics [pdf]). As a result of going through the Nettlau and other archives, found a few “new” articles to add to me incomplete Kropotkin bibliography. Some are from Freedom, but unsigned, others from French papers, and so on.

Suffice to say, I do not think we will ever get a complete bibliography of Kropotkin – due to both the range of journals he wrote for and because he did not always sign his pieces (particularly in the early days). This can be annoying – for example, I recently translated an article by Kropotkin from Les Temps Nouveaux about the 1905 Russian Revolution only to discover that it had been printed in Freedom at the same time under the name “S”! I assumed it was not signed Kropotkin because there was also a letter from Kropotkin on the Revolution in the same issue (which is in Direct Struggle Against Capital), but still – that is a few hours of my life I will not get back.

So I’ve added to my Kropotkin pieces on my “On War” project and got some new references for Modern Science and Anarchy – but any attempt to produce a complete Collected Works of Kropotkin would involve a massive amount of research to track things down as well as a lot of analysis to work out which unsigned articles in the papers he was associated with (Freedom, Les Temps Nouveaux, etc.) were by him. Still, my trawling through the archives has been fruitful – I can see why Kropotkin was so respected in the movement.

Here is the letter from 1920, published after his death in Le Libertaire (which had been founded in 1895 and would continue in various forms until today). It is significant in what he says about war (which suggests he may have recognised his mistake in 1914) as well as the problems/dangers facing the revolution. His solution is, of course, correct – the need for local action and federation by working class organisations. So, as relevant now as it was then – particularly as the Bolshevik Myth lingers on and appears in the most unlikely of places (such as an Anarchist bookfair!).

Until I blog again, be seeing you!

A letter from Kropotkin

(Le Libertaire, 22 July 1921)

Kropotkin was visited in his residence in the environs of Moscow by numerous foreign delegates. He was often misled as to their quality and many who were just socialists assumed an anarchist label in front of him.

One of these, the Czechoslovak Hugo Sonnenschein, obtained from the great libertarian theorist the following few lines which he was to bring to the awareness of the revolutionaries of his country. He was one of those who deceived Kropotkin over their quality; he was a Bolshevist and the letter of the author of Autour d'une Vie [Memoirs of a Revolutionist] and so many other admirable books did not sing the praises of the Bolshevik regime was suppressed for more than six months.

We have only known about it for a few days. We publish it in the hope that all our comrades will read it with pleasure and profit.

Comrades and Friends,

The last war has proven, beyond all doubt, that in today’s society it is absolutely mad to hope that a day will come when wars would become impossible as long as the present exploitation of labour by Capital and backward nations by nations more advanced in industry continues to exist. As long as this exploitation lasts, wars will devastate humanity and hinder its development. The four-year war (which still continues) has confirmed once again what socialists of every shade have repeatedly stressed: As long as Capital can buy the strength of Labour and enrich itself by the toil of others, there will be internal wars. And what is true for a nation is also true for the society of peoples. The nation which precedes other nations in its economic development (or else, only believes that they have preceded), will inevitably seek to enrich themselves by force of arms.

Under the present conditions wars will return; and their character, as we have seen recently, will be more and more ferocious, more and more abominable, and more and more disastrous for the generations to come. Under these conditions the need for a profound reconstruction of society upon new bases – that is to say, for a social revolution – becomes more and more obvious. The bourgeoise itself is beginning to realise it. And that is why it is absolutely essential for those who are most interested in reconstruction to discuss thoroughly the essential features of the changes in the structure of society which it is a question of achieving.

So far, the workers have had little interest in this kind of discussion. They did not believe in the possibility of an impending social revolution. But they must now see that they were wrong. Life itself, and above all the war, has imposed reconstruction. The social revolution knocks at our doors. Furthermore, as you will undoubtedly learn when your delegates return from Russia, the attempt at a Jacobin social revolution which has been taking place on a large scale for nearly three years has not produced the results we were hoping to obtain.

They will explain this failure by the war, which is still on going. But the cause is much deeper.

The Revolution of November 1917 sought to establish in Russia a mixed regime of Babeuf’s highly centralised authoritarian Communism; with Pecqueur’s equally centralised Collectivism, which has been popularised in Europe for forty years under the name of Marxism. And this attempt – it must be acknowledged – has certainly not given the results hoped for.

The attempt to establish a highly centralised power, imposing the communist revolution by decrees and by armies of bureaucrats [employés] did not succeed. The usual vices of every centralised State gnaw away at this administration, the mass of the people is excluded from reconstruction, and the dictatorial powers of the communist bureaucrats [employés], far from alleviating the evils, only aggravate them.

It is therefore obvious that the workers of central and western Europe, particularly the Latin ones, when they know the results of the Revolution in Russia should look for more effective means of reaching their goals. Already in the First International, when they were studying “public services in the future society,” they sought the solution of the social problem by the socialisation of production and exchange; but they wanted to get there not by the centralised State but by the federation of free Communes, the decentralisation of production and exchange, and the awakening of the local initiative of groups of producers and consumers. In short, they studied the question of how to build the new society not by orders from the centre, but by construction from the simple to the complex, always encouraging local and individual initiative, instead of killing it by armies of functionaries who carry out the will of the centre as best they can.

The experiment conducted in Russia has confirmed the need to develop these tendencies of autonomy and federalism, and it is in this direction that without doubt the efforts of the workers will head, as soon as they delve into the great and difficult questions that confront every revolution, as had been done in the federalist International.

Brothers and friends of Western Europe, history has imposed a formidable task on your generation. It falls upon you to begin to apply the principles of Socialism and to find practical forms. And it is upon you that falls the task of developing the new structures of a society where the exploitation of man by man, as well as classes, will have disappeared and, at the same time, a society where, instead of the centralisation which brings us oppression and wars, will develop a thousand centres of life and constructive forces in free Trade Unions and independent Communes.

History pushes us in this direction.

Well, let us courageously get to work!

Let us break with the two prejudices of benefactor-Capital and the providence-State! And in our groups and congresses, in our Trade Unions and in our Communes, we will find the necessary elements to build a new society, the Society of Labour and Liberty, free from Capital and the State, and from the cult of Authority.

Moscow, August 1920

Peter Kropotkin


Like what you are reading?  Get a notification whenever we post a new article to

Anarchist Writers via Facebook or Twitter

where you can also like and comment on our articles