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Freedom & Revolution
In 1922 Emma Goldman complained Soviet Russia, had become the modern
socialist Lourdes, to which the blind and the lame, the deaf and the dumb
were flocking for miraculous cures(1). The Russian Revolution was the first
occasion where decades of revolutionary ideas could be applied to real life.
What was theory was now practice. The struggle between the two concepts of
revolution – the statist-centralist and the libertarian federalist – moved
from the realm of the abstract to the concrete.
The question thrown up by the October revolution is fundamental. Once
capitalism has been defeated, how is communism to be achieved? While there
are certainly faults to be found with aspects of the anarchist movement, at
least it cannot be criticised for getting the basics wrong. Anarchists have
consistently argued that freedom and democracy are not optional extras.
Rather they form part of the conditions necessary for the growth of
What is socialism?
How does one create a communist society? The answer lies in our conception
of socialism. What is meant by ’socialism’? The classic definition is that
of society run according to the dictum from each according to his/her
ability, to each according to his/her needs. To anarchists, material
equality is one dimension to socialism, but there is another of equal
importance, that of freedom.
The world has enough wealth to provide for all our material comforts.
Socialism seeks to liberate people from the constant worries about mortgages
or landlords, the rising cost of living and the numerous other issues,
trivial yet vital that grind us down in our daily life. What’s more,
socialism must also give us the power to control our own lives, power to
take control of our own destinies.
For our entire lives, from school to the workplace, we are forced to obey
somebody else’s order, treated like children or bits of machinery. Human
beings have great potential but for most of us, only in a socialist society,
will this potential be realised.
So though socialism is about material equality it is also about freedom.
Furthermore it is impossible to maintain one without the other. As long as
power is distributed unequally, a section of society will continue to have
privileges leading to material advantage. Ultimately society will again be
divided into classes, into those who have and those who have not.
Furthermore the experience of those attempts to manage the economy through
an undemocratic centralised state has also shown that it is unfeasible to
manage and control a complex system without democracy and accountability.
The revolution must achieve a number of things. It must defeat the ruling
class, removing from them their economic and political dominance. In place
of the bosses, the working class must in every sphere of activity make the
decisions that ultimately affect them; in factories, communities, schools,
universities, newspapers, television and film studios.
This is the sort of society that is worth fighting for. However it not the
sort of society that can be achieved through the dictatorship of a minority
over the majority. Even some Marxists such as Rosa Luxembourg recognised
this. She said, Socialist practice demands a total spiritual transformation
in the masses degraded by centuries of bourgeois class rule. Social
instincts in place of egoistic ones, mass initiative in place of inertia,
idealism which overcomes all suffering, etc. etc…. The only way to a
rebirth is the school of public life itself, the broadest and the most
unlimited democracy, and public opinion. It is rule by terror which
The questions that face us are: what does revolution mean? Once capitalism
has been overthrown how is society to be run? Who will control the
factories, how will production be managed? How will the population be fed,
how will the economy be organised? And finally, how will the revolution be
defended against opposition and its survival ensured? If communism is to
become a reality, answers must be found.
1.Who’s in charge?…running the revolution.
On midnight 25/26th of October, the Military Revolutionary Committee (MRC),
following the directions of the Petrograd Soviet (workers council), started
the confused process of seizing the Winter Palace where Kerensky’s cabinet
was in session. The October Revolution had taken place. In contrast to the
dramatic portrayal of the storming of the winter place by the Soviet film
maker Eisenstien, there was practically no opposition to the take-over and
hardly any bloodshed. Sergei Mstislavskii, a leader of the Left SR’s
(peasant-based party which briefly entered a coalition with the Bolsheviks)
describes being woken up on the morning of the 25th by the cheerful tapping
of rifles…. ‘Gird up your loins boss. There’s a smell of gunpowder in the
city..’ Actually, the city did not smell of gunpowder; power lay in the
gutter, anyone could pick it up. One did not have to gird one’s loins, one
needed only to stoop down and pick it up(2)
The Bolshevik Myth is that the Bolsheviks, under the logical and scientific
leadership of Lenin, guided the revolution over hurdle after hurdle. They
argue that objective circumstances forced them to make difficult but
ultimately correct decisions. Descriptions of the revolution like the
following passage are frequently found:
the bolsheviks..in the hour of crisis put aside all their indignation at the
governmental persecutions and concentrated on the task of saving the
revolution. The victory before the gates of Petrograd set free the energies
of the masses throughout the country. Peasants revolted against their
landlords, and in far-away industrial centres Soviets took power. The
decisive hour was approaching. Would there be a force capable of directing
the chaotic mass movements into one channel towards the correct aim?(3)
Here it is implied that without the Bolshevik leadership the revolution
would not have happened. The masses are portrayed as incapable of running a
new society. The creative ability of the working class to build a new
society is not present in the Leninist conception of a working class capable
of only ‘trade union consciousness’. The October Revolution was not really
so much a bold stroke by the Bolsheviks under Lenin as is it was a
culmination of months of progressive social revolution throughout the
country, The ubiquitous growth of peasants and workers’ committees and
soviets sapped the power from the hands of Kerensky and the bourgeois
provincial government, which surrendered without a fight as it’s capacity to
govern had completely dissolved(4).
After the October Revolution, the Second Congress of Soviets elected an
interim government (the Sovnarkom), pending the holding of elections to the
Constituent Assembly. This provisional government on the 3rd of March
undertook in a solemn declaration to summon a Constituent Assembly.
Following elections the SR’s had an overall majority, with the Bolsheviks
winning only 175 out of the 707 seats.
It is with the decision to call for elections to the Constituent Assembly
that the anarchists first diverged from the Bolsheviks. What lead them to
take this decision and why did anarchists oppose it?
The western model of parliamentary democracy could more accurately be
characterised as a ‘4-year dictatorship’. The crucial difference between
‘representative’ democracy and ‘direct’ democracy is that under the former,
voters have no part in deciding policy and are unable to recall their
representatives. Instead they have nothing more than the illusion that by
voting they are in some way able to control the political process.
Once power lay in the hands of the Soviets, the Constituent Assembly became
a redundant institution. Here was a country where control had been finally
wrenched from the ruling class and was organised in the hands of the
workers. The Bolsheviks decision to call for new elections was a step
backwards. In terms of fighting for socialism, it made no sense to be
supporting the authority of the Constituent Assembly over that of the
masses. As anarchists said shortly afterwards:
To continue the Revolution and transform it into a social revolution, the
Anarchists saw no utility in calling such an assembly, an institution
essentially political and bourgeoisie, cumbersome and sterile, an
institution which, by its very nature, placed itself ‘above the social
struggles’ and concerned itself only, by means of dangerous compromises,
with stopping the revolution, and even suppressing it if possible…..so the
Anarchists tried to make known to the masses the uselessness of the
Constituent Assembly, and the necessity of going beyond it and replacing it
at once with economic and social organisations, if they really wanted to
begin a social revolution
………We believe, in fact, that in a time of social revolution, what is
important for the workers is for them to organise their new life themselves,
from the bottom, and with the help of their immediate economic
organisations, and not from above, by means of an authoritarian political
One of the main differences between the anarchist and the Leninist tendency
is in their differing attitudes to power and control. While both agree that
the revolution should be made by the working class, they disagree on who
hold the reigns of power afterwards. Leninists believe it is the job of the
party to exercise control of society on behalf of the ruling class and like
a parent, the party interprets what the best interests of the working class
are. In contrast, anarchists believe that it is the working class who should
run society, making and implementing decisions from the bottom up, through a
system of organisations similar to the factory committees and the soviets.
Often Leninists will counter this argument by saying, the party is made up
of the best elements, the vanguard, of the working class. Although at the
time of October the Bolsheviks were the largest working class party this was
because of what they claimed to stand for (All power to the soviets etc.).
There were still many advanced workers outside the party, so even then the
‘vanguard’ and the party were not identical. In the years that followed as
the party came to be increasingly composed of bureaucrats, the advanced
workers were often as not in opposition. The mistake the Leninists make is
to assume October froze the ‘vanguard’ in one organisation for all time.
Leninists and anarchists agree that, unlike most others in the working
class, they have both an analysis of how society works and practical
experience drawn from involvement in struggles. These are the tools needed
to effect a complete transformation of society. However anarchism and
Leninism diverge on the ability of the working class to run society. They
have differing estimations of how aware the working class are of their
revolutionary potential. Anarchists believe that it is possible to convince
the mass of the working class of our ideas. In contrast, Lenin said that
most workers are capable only of trade union consciousness. Naturally
therefore, Leninists believe that since the working class is sensible only
to its short term interests, it is vital that the Leninists are in power, in
order for the revolution to suceed.
It was this line of thinking that led the Bolsheviks to initially call for
elections to the Constituent Assembly and then, once it had been held, to
call for its dissolution, as Alexander Berkman commented in 1921;
They (the Bolsheviks) had advocated the Constituent Assembly, and only when
they were convinced they could not have a majority there, and therefore not
be able to take state power into their own hands, they suddenly decided on
the dissolution of the assembly
Lenin, in a signed Pravda article published on 22 December 1918, quoted
approvingly from Plekhanov’s speech at the Second RSDRP(6) Congress in 1903;
If in a burst of enthusiasm the people elected a very good parliament…then
we ought to make it a very long parliament and if the elections have not
proved a success, then we should seek to disperse parliament not after two
years but, if possible, after two weeks.(7)
Their opposition wasn’t based, unlike the anarchists, on the essentially
anti-democratic nature of the Constituent Assembly, instead it was on
whether or not the Bolsheviks were the controlling force.
In a revolutionary situation the anarchists are alone in arguing that
society should be organised from the bottom up, through a freely federated
system of workers’ councils. Decisions should be taken at the lowest
possible level. Delegates are elected solely to represent the view of those
who elected them, receive no more pay than the average worker, may act as a
delegate for only a fixed amount of time and are recallable. If the working
class has the power to overthrow capitalism, it certainly is capable of
organising a socialist society afterwards.
2. Fighting the Counter Revolution
Once the capitalist power structure has been dismantled, the next immediate
issue on the revolutionaries’ agenda is to ensure the defence of the
revolution while also fostering its growth. It is a mistake to characterise
revolutions as inherently bloody. In the October Revolution itself there
were only 500 casualties. Many were surprised by the speed and ease with
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