Voline, The Unknown Revolution, 1917-1921 (1947)

Book Two: Bolshevism and Anarchism


Bolsheviks and Anarchists Before October

Here we find occasion to go back and review the respective positions of the Bolsheviks and the Anarchists prior to the October Revolution.

The position of the Bolsheviki on the eve of that revolution was characteristic.

It is well to recall, however, that Lenin's ideology and the position of his party had changed considerably since 1900. Aware that the Russian labouring masses, once started in revolt, would go far and would not stop at a bourgeois solution -- especially in a country where the bourgeoisie hardly existed as a class -- Lenin and his party, in their desire to anticipate and dominate the masses in order to lead them, ended by formulating an extremely advanced revolutionary programme. They now envisaged a strictly Socialist revolution. And they arrived at an almost libertarian conception of the revolution, with almost Anarchist slogans -- except, of course, with regard to the fundamental point of demarcation -- the taking of power and the problem of the State.

When I read the writings of Lenin, especially those after 1914, I observed a perfect parallelism between his ideas and those of the Anarchists, except for the idea of the State and power. This identity of understanding, recognition, and prediction seemed to me already very dangerous for the true cause of the Revolution. For -- I did not fool myself -- under the pen, in the mouths, and in the acts, of the Bolsheviks, all these great ideas were without real life, without a future. These writings and these words, fascinating and overpowering, would remain without serious consequences, because the subsequent acts [of the Bolsheviki] certainly were not going to correspond to their theories.

But I was sure that, on the one hand, the masses, in view of the weakness of the Anarchist movement, would blindly follow the Bolsheviks, and that, on the other hand, the latter inevitably would deceive the masses and mislead them into an evil course. For beyond any doubt they would distort and pervert their proclaimed principles.

That is what happened in fact.

In order to quicken the spirit of the masses, and gain their sympathy and confidence, the Bolshevik Party launched, with all the strength of its agitational and propaganda apparatus, slogans which until then had particularly and insistently been voiced by the Anarchists:

Long live the Social Revolution!
Down with the war! Immediate peace!

And especially:

The land to the peasants!
The factories to the workers!

The labouring masses swiftly seized upon these slogans, which expressed their real aspirations perfectly.

From the lips and under the pens of the Anarchists, those slogans were sincere and concrete, for they corresponded to their principles and called for action entirely in conformity with such principles. But with the Bolsheviks, the same slogans meant practical solutions totally different from those of the libertarians, and did not at all tally with the ideas which the words appeared to express. For the Bolsheviki, they were only slogans.

Social Revolution meant for the Anarchists a really social act: a transformation which would take place outside of all political and statist organizations, and all out-moded social systems -- both governmental and authoritarian.

But the Bolsheviks pretended to wage the Revolution specifically with the aid of an omnipotent State, of an all-powerful government, of dictatorial power.

If a revolution did not abolish the State, the government, and politics, the Anarchists did not consider it a social revolution, but simply a political revolution -- which of course might be more or less coloured by social elements.

But achievement of power and organization of "their" government and "their" State spelled the Social Revolution for the "Communists" [the label which the Bolsheviki adopted later].

In the minds of the Anarchists, social revolution meant destruction of the State and capitalism at the same time, and the birth of a new society based on another form of social organization.

For the Bolsheviks, social revolution meant, on the contrary, the resurrection of the State after the abolition of the bourgeois State -- that is to say, the creation of a powerful new State for the purpose of "constructing Socialism".

The Anarchists held it impossible to institute Socialism by means of the State.

The Bolsheviki maintained that it could be achieved only through the State.

This difference of interpretation was, as will readily be seen, fundamental.

(I recall big posters on a wall in Petrograd, at the time of the October Revolution, announcing lectures by Trotsky on The Organization of Power. "A typical and fatal error," I said to comrades, "for if it is a question of social revolution, one should be concerned with organizing the Revolution and not with organizing power.")

Respective interpretation of the call for immediate peace also was notably different.

To the Anarchists that slogan was a call for direct action by the armed masses themselves, over the heads of the governors, the politicians, and the generals. According to the anarchists, those masses should leave the front and return to the country, thus proclaiming to the world their refusal to fight stupidly for the interests of the capitalists and their disgust with the shameful butchery. Such a gesture, frank, integrated, decisive -- the Anarchists believed -- would produce an enormous effect upon the soldiers of the other nations, and might lead, in the last analysis, to the end of the war, perhaps even to its transformation into a world revolution. They thought that it was necessary, taking advantage of the immensity of Russia, to draw the enemy on, cut him off from his bases, cause his Army to disintegrate, and put him out of the fighting.

The Bolsheviks, however, were afraid of such direct action. Politicians and statists, they wanted a peace through political and diplomatic channels, the fruit of discussions with the German generals and "plenipotentiaries".

The land to the peasants! the factories to the workers! By these words the Anarchists understood that, without being the I property of anyone, the land should be put at the disposal of all those who desired to cultivate it (without exploiting anyone) i and of their associations and federations, and that likewise the factories, works, mines, machines, et cetera, should be at the disposal of all the workers' productive associations and their federa- j tions. Methods and details of this activity would be regulated by those associations and federations, by free agreement.

But to the Bolsheviki this same slogan meant the nationalization of all those elements. For them the land, the works, the factories, the mines, the machines, and the means of transport should be the property of the State, which would permit the workers to use them.

Again, the difference of interpretation was fundamental.

As for the masses themselves, intuitively they understood all those slogans rather in the libertarian sense. But, as we have said earlier, the voice of Anarchism was relatively so weak that the vast masses didn't hear it. It seemed to them that only the Bolsheviks dared to proclaim and defend these glorious and just principles. This was all the more true in that the Bolshevik Party proclaimed itself every day on the street corners as being the only party struggling for the interests of the city workers and the peasants; the only party which, once in power, would know how to achieve the Social Revolution.

"Workers and peasants! The Bolshevik Party is the only one which defends you. No other party knows how to lead you to victory. Workers and peasants! The Bolshevik Party is your own party. It is the only party that is really yours. Help it to take power and you will triumph."

This leitmotif of the Bolshevik propaganda finally became an obsession. Even the left Social Revolutionary Party, which was much stronger than the small Anarchist groups, could not rival the Bolsheviks. However, it was then strong enough so that the Bolsheviki had to reckon with it and offer it, for some time, seats in the government.

Finally, it is interesting to compare the position of the Bolsheviks to that of the Anarchists, on the eve of the October Revolution, on the question of the workers' soviets.

The Bolsheviki expected to achieve the Revolution, on the one hand, through an insurrection of these Soviets, which were demanding "all power" for themselves, and, on the other hand, through military insurrection which would support the action of the Soviets (the whole proceedings of course under the immediate and effective direction of the party). The working masses had the task of vigorously supporting this action, In perfect accord with their point of view and their "tactics", the Bolsheviks launched the general slogan of the Revolution: "All power to the Soviets!."

As for the Anarchists, they were suspicious of this slogan and for good reason -- they knew well that that formula did not at all correspond with the real plans of the Bolshevik Party. They knew that in the last analysis the latter sought highly centralized power for itself. (That is, for its central committee and ultimately for its leader, Lenin, who, aided by Trotsky, as is now generally known, directed all the preparations for the taking of power).

"All power to the Soviets!" was therefore, in reality, according to the Anarchists, only an empty formula, subject to being filled later with any kind of content. And it was a false, hypocritical, deceptive formula -- for, the Anarchists declared, if "power" really should belong to the Soviets, it could not belong to the Bolshevik Party, and if it should belong to that Party, as the Bolsheviks envisaged, it could not belong to the Soviets.

That is why the Anarchists, while admitting that the Soviets should perform certain functions in the building of the new society, did not accept the formula without reservations. To them, the word power rendered it ambiguous, suspect, illogical, and demagogic. They knew that, by its very nature, political power could not really be exercised except by a very restricted group of men at the centre. Therefore this power -- the real power -- could not belong to the Soviets. It would actually be in the hands of the party. Then what did the formula "All power to the Soviets" truly mean?

Comment and doubts having to do with that theme were expressed by the Anarcho-Syndicalists in an editorial entitled Is This the End?, published in their weekly, Golos Truda.1 Pointed 0uestions were asked in that editorial.

"Will the eventual realization of the formula, All power to the Soviets -- rather the eventual taking of political power -- be the end? Wili this be all? Will this act accomplish the destructive work of the Revolution? Will it completely prepare the ground for the great social construction, for the creative spirit of the people in revolt? Will the victory of the 'Soviets' -- if it is achieved -- and, again, the 'organization of power' which will follow it, effectively signify the victory of labor, of the organized forces of the workers, the beginning of genuine Socialist construction?

Will this victory and this new 'power' succeed in leading the Revolution out of the impasse in which it finds itself? Will they manage to open new creative horizons for the Revolution, for the masses, for everyone? Are they going to point out the true course for the Revolution to constructive work, the effective solution for all the burning questions of the period?"

It would all depend, the Anarcho-Syndicalist organ contended, on what interpretation the conquerors put on the word power and their idea of the organization of power. It would depend, too, on the way in which the victory would be utilized by the elements holding power after that victory.

Plainly pessimistic, the editors of Golos Truda cited several circumstances vitally necessary to a just and equitable handling of the situation by the Bolsheviki. Only if certain factors existed, they averred, could the new crisis become the last one; only then could it signify the beginning of a new era. Those factors embodied five ifs:

"If by 'power' one wishes to say that all creative work and all organizational activity throughout the whole country will be in the hands of the workers' and peasants' organizations, supported by the armed masses;

If one understands by 'power' the full right of these organizations to carry on this activity and to federate to this end . . . thus beginning the new economic and social construction which will lead the Revolution to new horizons of peace, economic equality, and true liberty;

If . . . 'power to the Soviets' does not signify installation of lobbies of a political power . . . ;

If, finally, the political party aspiring to power . . . liquidates itself after the victory and yields its place effectively to a free self-government of the workers; and

If the 'power of the Soviets' does not become, in reality, statist power of a new political party."

But, the Anarcho-Syndicalists held, if "power" actually meant the activity of the authoritarian and political lobbies of the Bolshevik Party, lobbies directed by its principal authoritarian and political centre (the central power of the party and the State); if the; "taking of power by the Soviets" really meant usurpation of power by a new political party, for the purpose of reconstructing, by means of this power, from above and by that "centre", the whole economic and social life of the country, and thus resolving the complex problems of the moment and of the period -- then this new stage of the Revolution would not be the final stage either.

Golos Truda did not doubt for an instant, it stated, that "this new power" would neither begin nor understand the real Socialist construction, nor even satisfy the immediate essential needs and interests of the population. And it did not doubt that the masses would quickly become disenchanted with their new idols and be forced to turn to other solutions after having disavowed those new gods. Then, after an interval -- of uncertain length -- the struggle would of necessity begin again. This would be the commencement of the third and last stage of the Russian Revolution -- a stage which would be a Great Revolution in itself.

"This will be a struggle [the editorial continued] between the living forces of the creative spirit of the masses, on the one hand, and the Social Democratic power, with its centralist spirit, defending itself bitterly, on the other. In other words: a struggle between the workers' and peasants' organizations acting directly and on their own, taking the land and all the means of production, transport, and distribution, to establish, in complete independence, a really new human existence -- this on the one hand, and the Marxist political authority on the other; a struggle between the authoritarian and libertarian systems; a contest between two principles which have been battling for pre-eminence for a long time: the Marxist principle and the Anarchist principle."

And, the Anarcho-Syndicalist editors concluded, only a complete and definitive victory of the Anarchist principle -- the principle of the free and natural self-organization of the masses -- would spell a true victory for the Great Revolution.

They did not believe, they declared, in the possibility of achieving the Social Revolution through the political process. They did not believe that the work of new social construction, and the solution of the vast, varied, and complex problems of that time could be achieved through a political act, by the taking of power by the top or centre. "Those who live," they predicted, "shall see!


1 Petrograd, October 20, 1917.