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

Book Two: Bolshevism and Anarchism


Some Personal Experiences

Certain personal experiences, chosen from among thousands like them, will serve as illustrations to make the particular nature of this period in Russia more understandable.

One evening near the end of 1917, in Petrograd, two or three workers from the former Nobel oil refinery (it had employed about 4,000) came to the meeting place of our Union and told us the following:

The refinery having been abandoned by the owners, the workers there decided, after numerous meetings and discussions, to operate it collectively. They had begun to take steps toward this end, and, among other moves, had addressed themselves to "their government" (the Bolshevist regime), asking for aid in the realization of that project.

But the Commissariat of the People at Work informed them that unfortunately it could do nothing for them under the prevailing conditions. It could get them neither fuel nor raw material nor orders nor clientele, nor means of transport, nor money for operating expenses.

So the workers prepared to get the plant going again through their own efforts, hoping to find what they needed to continue production and insure an adequate market.

Now the workers' committee at the refinery had been advised by the Commissariat of Work that inasmuch as its case was isolated and since a large number of enterprises were in an analogous position, the Government had decided to close all these establishments and to lay off the workers, giving them two or three months' wages, and to wait for better times.

However, the workers of the Nobel refinery did not agree with the Government. They wanted to continue work and production, being certain now of success. They told the Government so. The Bolshevik regime answered with a categorical refusal, declaring that as director of the whole country and responsible to that whole, it could not allow each plant to act according to whim, for this would end in inextricable chaos; that, as a government, it was obliged to take general action; and that, so far as operations in the Nobel plant were concerned, the action could be only to terminate them.

Called together by the plant committee in a general assembly, the workers objected to this decision. Then the Government proposed a new general meeting, where its representatives could come and definitively explain the true sense of the ruling and the necessity for its application.

The workers accepted that proposal. And it was thus that some of them who had relations with our Union came to tell us about the situation, and to ask that we send a speaker to the meeting to expound the point of view of the Anarchists -- for at that time this was still possible. The men at the plant, they said, surely would be glad to hear our opinion, so as to be able to compare the two theses, choose the better one, and act accordingly.

I was chosen as the delegate to that gathering, and was the first of those from outside to arrive. In a huge room the majority of the plant's workers were assembled. On an improvised platform in the center their committee sat around a table awaiting the appearance of the members of the Government. The attitude of the mass of toilers was grave, reserved. I took a place on the platform.

Soon the representatives of the Government arrived very "officially" and very solemnly, with shining brief cases under their arms. There were three or four of them, Mikhail Shlyapnikov himself, Commissar of the People at Work, as their leader.

He spoke first. In a dry official tone he repeated the terms of the Government's decision and expatiated the motives which led to it. He ended by declaring that that decision was positive, irrevocable, without appeal, and that, if they opposed it, the workers would commit a breach of discipline, the consequences of which would be serious both for themselves and for the whole country. A glacial silence greeted this speech, except for some applause clearly Bolshevist.

Then the chairman announced that certain workers in the Nobel plant wished also to know the point of view of the Anarchist on the question at issue, and that, inasmuch as a spokesman for the Anarcho-Syndicalist Union was present, he would give him the floor.

I got up. The members of the Government, stupified, (obviously they had not expected this), looked at me with unconcealed curiosity, mixed with irony, unease, and spite. What happened then has remained faithfully engraved in my memory, it was so typical, instructive, and encouraging to my convictions.

Addressing the big audience of workers, I said to them in substance as follows:

"Comrades, you have been working for years in this plant. You wish to continue your free work here. You have a perfect right to do this. It is perhaps even your duty. In any case, the manifest duty of the Government -- which calls itself yours -- is to facilitate this task, to sustain you in your resolution. But the Government has just repeated to you that it is impotent to do it, and therefore it is going to close the plant and lay you off; this in spite of your decision and your interests. I declare before everything that from our point of view -- I speak in the name of the Anarcho-Syndicalist Union -- the impotence of the Government (which calls itself yours) is not a reason to deprive you of your bit of bread honestly earned."

A salvo of applause greeted me.

"On the contrary," I continued, "those men, whether they call themselves members of the Government or anything else, ought to have congratulated you on your initiative, encouraged you, and said to you as we say to you: 'Seeing the impotence of the authorities, you have only one recourse, and that is to manage for yourselves and fight your way out by your own strength and means'. Your Government should add that, as such, it will do all within its power to assist you.

"As for me, I am not a member of the Government, nor do 1 wish to be -- for no government, you see, is capable of doing what is necessary for you, nor of organizing human life in general. So I shall add another thing. I ask you one question: Have you the strength and the means to try to continue the work? Do you think you can succeed? Could you, for example, create among your ranks small, active, mobile working units, some of which would occupy themselves with getting fuel, some with finding raw material, others with the question of delivery by railroad, and still others with clientele and orders?

"Everything, comrades, depends upon such action. If you can create what is necessary, if you think you can succeed, you have only to go to it, and the Government ('your Government') certainly ought not to find anything inconvenient in all this. On the contrary------.

"We, the Anarchists, are sure that the workers themselves, having various relatives, [at least] a few in all parts of the country, and understanding thoroughly the elements essential in their work -- especially when there are 4,000 of you -- will solve the problem much more simply and quickly than the Government. We think, then, that you have only to create mobile working units, bringing together men capable because of their knowledge, aptitude, and contacts, to act energetically and with success. Once their mission is finished, these working units would cease to exist and their members would rejoin the mass of workers in the plant. What do you think of that?"

Unanimous and prolonged plaudits were my answer. And at the same time several voices shouted: "Yes! Yes! Exactly! . .. We have prepared everything necessary . . . Yes, we can go on. We have considered the question for weeks."

"Attention, comrades," I went on. "You are lacking fuel. The Government has given up furnishing you with any. Without fuel the Nobel plant cannot run. Will you be able to get it for yourselves by your own means?"

"Yes, yes," a man responded. "There are fifteen men at the plant, all ready and organized to go into the countryside. Each one, through his contacts, will easily find the right sort of fuel for the plant."

"And to bring that fuel here?"

"We have already been in conference with the comrades on the railroads. We shall have cars and everything necessary. One of our groups is taking care of that."

"And as to the market?"

"No difficulty, Comrade. We know the clientele of the plant 3nd we can readily dispose of the products."

I glanced at Shlyapnikov and the others. They were rolling their eyes terribly, and nervously tapping the table with their finger-tips.

"Well, my friends," I continued, "Under these circumstances our Anarchist advice is simple: Act, produce, go to it! However, one word more. It goes without saying that you will not act as capitalist bosses -- no? You are not going to exploit the workers? You are not going to constitute yourselves as a corporation and sell shares?"

They laughed. And immediately some workers got up and said that of course all work would be done in a collective manner in perfect camaraderie, and only in order to be able to live. The plant committee would watch over the economy of the enterprise, the receipts would be divided equitably, and by common agreement, if there was an excess of receipts, it would form an operating fund. "And," they concluded, "if we commit acts contrary to the solidarity of the workers, we give the Government carte blanche to penalize us. In the opposite case, it has only to let us alone and to have full confidence in us."

"All right, my friends," I finished in turn, "you have only to get going. I wish you good courage and good luck."

A thunder of applause ensued. Extraordinary animation, replacing the previous torpor, now reigned in the big hall. On all sides the audience acclaimed our joint conclusion, and no longer paid any attention to the Government representatives, who sat glued to their chairs, immobile, their features drawn.

Shlyapnikov whispered something into the ear of the chairman, who shook his bell frantically. Finally calm was re-established. Then Shlyapnikov spoke again.

Coldly, although visibly angry, measuring his words and accompanying them with the gestures of an Army general, he asserted that, "as a member of the Government", he had nothing to change, nor to add to what he had said. Nor would he retract any part of it. He repeated that the decision of the Government to close the Nobel refinery was final.

"You yourselves put us in power," Shlyapnikov said. "You voluntarily, freely, entrusted us with the destinies of the country. You had confidence in us and in our acts. You, the working class of the country, wished us to take care of your interests. So it's for us to know them, to understand them, to watch out for them. It goes without saying that it's our task to busy ourselves with the true general interests of the working class and not with those of this or that little fraction. We can't act -- a child could understand this -- in the interest of each separate enterprise. It is logical and natural to elaborate and establish plans of action for the whole of the nation, for both the workers and the peasants.

"These plans must safeguard the interests of the whole. The contrary, that is, to take or tolerate measures favoring a particular group, would be ridiculous, and contrary to the general interests of the people, and criminal toward the working class in its entirety. Our inability to solve immediately the various complex problems of this moment is transitory. It can be explained by the terrible actual conditions, after the evils we have lived through, the chaos we hardly have emerged from. The working class ought to understand this and be patient.

"The present situation does not depend on our wishes. It was not made by us. We all suffer from its painful and fatal consequences. They are the same for everybody, and will be for some time to come. So the workers must manage like everyone else, instead of looking for privileges for special groups. Such an attitude would be essentially bourgeois, egoistic, and disorganizing. If certain workers, pushed by the Anarchists, those petty-bourgeois wreckers par excellence, don't wish to understand, so much the worse for them! We have no time to waste with backward elements and their leaders."

And Shlyapnikov ended up by saying, in an aggressive menacing tone:

"In any event, I must warn the workers of this plant and also the Anarchist gentlemen, those professional wreckers, that the Government can change nothing in its carefully considered decisions; one way or another, it will make them be respected. If the workers resist, so much the worse for them! They will simply be laid off by force, and without indemnity. The most recalcitrant, the leaders, enemies of the proletarian cause in general, will expose themselves besides, to consequences infinitely graver. And as to the Anarchist gentlemen, let them take care! The Government cannot tolerate their mixing in affairs that are none of their business, nor their inciting honest workers to disobedience. . . . The Government will know how to penalize them, and will not hesitate. Consider it said!"

That speech was received with extreme reserve.

After the meeting, the plant workers surrounded me, indignant, outraged. They had caught the deceitful note of Shlyapnikov.

"His speech was clever but false," they said. "In our case it is not a question of a privileged position. Such an interpretation betrays our real thought. The Government has only to let the workers and peasants act freely throughout the country. Then it will see: things will speedily reorganize themselves, and we'll come to an agreement to the satisfaction of everybody. And the Government will have fewer worries and fewer excuses to make."

Always in such cases the same two conceptions were manifested and opposed -- the government-statist conception and the social-libertarian conception. Each had its reasons and its arguments.

What made the workers indignant were the threats against them and us. "A Socialist government should have recourse to other means to get at the truth," they contended. But they had no illusions about the outcome of the conflict. And, in fact, a few weeks later, the Nobel plant was closed and the workers laid off, all resistance being impossible against the measures taken by the " workers'" government against the workers.

Here is a memory with a different scene:

In the summer of 1918, after a sojourn at the revolutionary front against Germany, in the Ukraine, I revisited the little town of Bobrov, province of Voronezh, where my family lived.

The members of the local Bolshevik committee, all young people, knew me personally and knew of my ability as a teacher in adult education. They proposed that I organize the educational work of that region. At that time such undertakings bore the name of Proletcult, meaning Proletarian Culture.

I accepted on two conditions: 1. That I should receive no sort of remuneration, so that I could preserve full independence in methods and action; 2. That the complete independence of my educational activity was to be strictly maintained.

The committee accepted, and the town Soviet naturally confirmed this action. Then I called the first meeting of the new institution thus created, sending out a large number of invitations and notices to the labor unions in Bobrov, to [workers and peasants in] the surrounding villages, and to the intellectuals in that area.

On the evening of the meeting I found myself before some thirty sedate, distrustful, almost hostile individuals. Instantly 1 understood: these people had expected a standard meeting, a Bolshevik "commissar" with dictatorial gestures, revolver in his belt, giving orders and commands to be obeyed to the letter.

But this time these good folk met with something entirely different. Speaking to them as a friend, I gave them to understand at once that it was a question, in our work, of their own initiative, of their spirit, of their will and energy. I assured them that any intention to command, dictate, or impose anything at all upon them was completely foreign to me. And I invited them to establish, [of their own volition] and to the best of their ability, sound educational and cultural work in the region centering around Bobrov.

Then, addressing myself to their good will, and to their natural capacities, I specified, at the same time, my own role: a friendly and effective helper in the drawing up of plans and programs, and in recruiting a teaching force; with suggestions and advice from me based on my knowledge and experience. Too, 1 sketched out a rough scheme of what we could accomplish, if we worked together with all our hearts. An exchange of views, wholly free, followed my speech. And a certain amount of interest was awakened among the audience.

At least a hundred persons came to the second gathering in Bobrov, with the atmosphere much more friendly and confident. But I needed three or four meetings for the ice to be completely broken and mutual confidence fully established. Since my deep sincerity was beyond doubt and as the task seemed to everybody concerned interesting and achievable, a keen sympathy grew up among us all, and a great enthusiasm developed in some.

Then began a feverish activity, the scope and effects of which quickly surpassed all my expectations. Dozens of men, coming from the bosom of the people, and often scarcely educated themselves, were so eager about the project and set to work with such ardor and dexterity, and with such a richness of ideas and resulting achievements, that soon I had only to combine and co-ordinate their efforts, or to prepare for more important and larger accomplishments.

Our meetings, always public, and at which the entire audience was at liberty to contribute ideas and efforts, began to attract the peasant men, and even the peasant women, from villages some distance from Bobrov. Our work was talked about throughout the whole region, and on market-days those educational meetings invariably attracted a highly picturesque crowd.

Presently an excellent people's theatrical troupe was organized and made ready to give roving performances, chosen with method and taste.

Quarters for us were quickly found and equipped for all our needs. Furniture was repaired like new, broken windows replaced, school supplies (notebooks, pencils, pens, ink, et cetera) unearthed in no time, whereas formerly their absence constituted a serious handicap. Such were the first steps in the new educational project. A library was instituted, the first gifts of books came in, and evening courses for adults began.

But the local authorities sent their reports to the Center, [by that time] in Moscow. Thus [the higher-ups] learned that I was acting according to my own free will, without bothering about "instructions" or "prescriptions" from above; and that we all were working freely, without submitting to the decrees and orders from Moscow which, for the most part, were not at all applicable in our region or were even totally inept.

One fine day I began to receive "from down there", through the intermediary of the Brobov Soviet, huge packages stuffed with decrees, prescriptions, rules, formal orders, programs, projects, and plans -- every one completely fantastic and absurd. I was instructed to hold strictly to the text of all this stupid waste paper, these impossible and unrealizable orders.

I leafed through all that "literature" and continued my activity without thinking any more about it.

That was followed by an ultimatum: either submit or get out. Naturally I chose the latter alternative, knowing that submitting and applying the instructions from Moscow inevitably would kill the work we had undertaken. (I ask the reader to believe that the work in itself interested me; I concentrated loyally on my professional duties, without any mention of my Anarchist ideas, it was not at all a question of any sort of "subversive" propaganda, and this question was never brought up in the orders addressed to me. The Center simply would not allow anyone not to follow its regulations blindly).

It was over. After a moving farewell meeting, where everyone felt that the work just coming into being already was compromised, I left Bobrov.

My successor, a loyal servitor of Moscow, followed the Center's instructions to the letter. Some time afterwards, [all of the adult students and other participants in the educational enterprise] deserted, and the school, which a short time before had been full of life, disappeared. And a few months later, this Proletarian Culture project failed lamentably all over the country.

Like the workers in the Nobel oil refinery in Petrograd, those in various enterprises in several cities and industrial regions wished to take certain measures on their own, either to keep going works that were threatened with being closed, or to assure and organize exchange with the countryside, or to cope with some difficulty or other: to improve defective service, resolve unsettled situations, correct mistakes, fill in gaps. But systematically and everywhere, the Bolshevik authorities prohibited the masses from all independent action, although they themselves were most often incapable of acting effectively and opportunely.

Thus, for example, the soviet of the city of Elizabethgrad (in Southern Russia), having confessed itself powerless to solve certain local economic problems of great urgency, and its bureaucratic procedures offering no hope of success, the workers of several plants requested of the president of that soviet authorization to deal with those problems themselves, to create the necessary organizations, and to group around them all the city's workers to make sure of an effective outcome.1 In short, to act under the control of the soviet.

But as everywhere else those who made this proposal were severely reprimanded and threatened with penalties for their "disorganizing" tactics.

At the approach of winter, several other cities lacked fuel, not only for the operation of industries but also for heating homes.

In Russia, dwellings were always heated with wood. In the forested parts of the country, which were very numerous, getting in a supply of fuel in opportune time -- usually toward the end of summer -- was very simple. Before the Revolution the owners of large firewood depots often hired the peasants in the neighboring villages to cut down the trees and move the fallen sections either to the nearest railroad or to the depot itself. In Siberia and regions in the North, this custom was universal. After the annual harvest, the peasants, free from all work in the fields, willingly undertook this task, for very low wages.

After the Revolution, however, the city Soviets, transformed into administrative organs by the will of the Government, were formally charged with the necessary provisioning. Therefore it was up to them to deal with the peasants. And this was all the more necessary because the owners of the forests and firewood depots were not to be found, and the railroads functioned badly.

But because of their bureaucratic slowness -- a disease typical of all official administrations -- the Soviets almost never managed to achieve this task in time to meet the need.

The propitious moment having come, the workers and inhabitants of the cities offered voluntarily to go and deal with the peasants and assure the delivery of the wood. Naturally the Soviets refused, invariably describing this gesture as "arbitrary" and "disorganizing", and claiming that the provisioning of fuel would be done by the official units of the State, the Soviets, according to a general plan set up by the central government.

As a result, either the cities remained without fuel or it was bought at fantastically high prices, the work having become exceedingly difficult and the roads being almost impassable after September, because of rain and mud. Often the peasants flatly refused to undertake this job in that season, even for high wages, not being tempted much by the paper rubles issued by the Bolsheviks. Then they were compelled to do it by military order.

I could fill dozens of pages with analogous examples, taken at random from all fields. The reader has only to vary and multiply by himself those which I have mentioned: he never could go beyond the truth!

Everywhere in Soviet Russia and in all things the same phenomenon appeared -- production, transports, exchange, and commerce fell into an inconceivable chaos. The masses were denied any right to act on their own initiative. And the "administrations" (soviets and others) were constantly bankrupt.

The cities lacked bread, meat, milk, vegetables. The countryside lacked salt, sugar, industrial products. Clothing rotted in the warehouses in the cities. And in the provinces no one had anything to wear.

Disorder, negligence, and impotence reigned everywhere and in everything. But when those interested wanted to intervene so that they might energetically solve all these problems, nothing could be done about it. The Government intended to "govern". It would not tolerate any "competition". The slightest manifestation of an independent spirit of initiative was called "a breach of discipline" and was threatened with severe penalties.

The grandest conquests, the most beautiful hopes of the Revolution, were in the process of disappearing. And the most tragic aspect was that the Russian people, on the whole, were not aware of it. They "let matters alone", confident in [the ability of] "their" government and in the future. The Government utilized the time it needed to set up an imposing coercive force, blindly obedient. And when the people understood [what had happened], it was too late.

These personal experiences and observations confirmed factually our fundamental ideal: that the true Revolution cannot be accomplished except by means of the free activity of millions of interested working people themselves. Once the Government mixes in, and takes the place of the people, the life of the Revolution leaves it; everything stops, everything retreats, everything has to be begun again.

Let no one say to us that the Russian people "didn't want to act", nor that "they had to be compelled by force" to act "for their own good in spite of themselves". All that is sheer invention. During a great revolution, the people ask for nothing better than to act. What they have need of is the disinterested help of experienced revolutionaries, of educated men, specialists, technicians. The truth is that the castes, the groups, and the men desirous of power and privileges, stuffed with false doctrines and mistrusting the people, in whom they have no confidence, prevent the people from acting, and, instead of helping them, seek to govern them, to lead them, and exploit them, in a different way. And to justify themselves, they create the myth of their "powerlessness". So long as the people, that is. the laboring masses, of all countries do not understand this and do not veto the reactionary aspirations of all these elements, all revolutions will end in failure and the effective emancipation of Labor will remain an empty dream.

We have just said that the Russian people were not precisely aware of the mortal peril which confronted the Revolution.

It was natural, however, that, under the new conditions created by the Bolshevik government, the criticisms by and the ideas of the Anarchists, calling for freedom of initiative and action by the toiling masses themselves, found an increasingly wide echo among the country's population.

It was then that the libertarian movement began to achieve rapid success in Russia. And it was then that the Bolshevik regime, more and more disturbed by that success, decided to employ against the threatening Anarchism means approved by all governments -- an implacable repression, reinforced by ruse and violence.


1 In 1918-1919 this was still possible.