The Revolution that Failed – James Joll

THE REVOLUTION THAT FAILED

James Joll

“They have shown how the revolution is not to be made.”
Kropotkin

The atmosphere of academic, even though passionate, discussion about the future society, the growing strength of the political working-class parties in Germany, France and Italy, as well as the revulsion caused by the frequent acts of terrorism, all tended to make the anarchist intellectuals increasingly unrevolutionary, and their groups mostly became – like the devoted anarchist groups in London or New York today – centres for unorthodox speculation about society rather than cells preparing revolutionary action. As Lenin put it contemptuously in 1918: “The majority of anarchists think and write about the future without understanding the present. That is what divides us communists from them.”[1]

Malatesta later remembered Kropotkin saying to him: “My dear Errico, I am afraid we are alone, you and I, in believing that the revolution is near.”[2] In fact, even Kropotkin sometimes doubted it, but Malatesta never lost his revolutionary enthusiasm and temperament. He wrote in 1906:

It seems to me today that the anarchists have let themselves fall into the opposite fault to the violent excesses. We now need rather to react against a certain tendency to compromise and a quiet life which is displayed in our circle. It is more necessary now to revive the languishing revolutionary ardour, the spirit of sacrifice, the love of risk.[3]

Malatesta had led the life of an exile after leaving Italy in the autumn of 1878. He went briefly to visit some Italian friends in Egypt, but the Italian authorities made representations to have him deported and he made his way to the great anarchist centre, Geneva, where he became a friend of Kropotkin and of Elisée Reclus. But he was not left in peace and was expelled from the canton of Geneva after a few months. He went to Rumania for a short spell, and then to Paris, where he was able for a while to pursue his trade as a mechanic till the police again made life difficult for him. In 1881 he reached London, which was to be his main base for nearly forty years. However, whenever an opportunity occurred to return to Italy he took it; he was back in Florence and in trouble with the police in 1885. Then he went to South America and spent four years in the Argentine, where he spread anarchist ideas among the Italian immigrants and left an anarchist stamp on the organized working-class movement which was to last well into the twentieth century. But it was the revolution in Europe, and especially in Italy, that was his main concern, and at the end of 1889 he returned to London, waiting for a chance to go back to Italy again. The chance seemed to have come early in 1897, at a time when bad harvests and rising prices had led to peasant revolts, and when, as a result of the demand for strong action against strikers and rioters, constitutional government seemed to be in danger. Actually, Malatesta was not able to play any part in the industrial and political struggles in Italy in 1898 and 1899, since he was arrested early in 1898. He had gone to the port of Ancona, where there was an active anarchist group among the dockers and several anarchist publications,[4] and he had thrown himself into the cause of the anti-political revolution, opposing those anarchists such as Saverio Merlino who felt that in an emergency anarchists should participate in elections to support the liberal and social-democratic cause. It was a suggestion to which Malatesta’s firm reply, made after he was in prison, was: “I beg you not to make use of my name in the electoral struggle fought by the socialists and republicans. I protest not only that it would be without my agreement, but also with my express disapproval.”[5] Malatesta was arrested after riots in Ancona and charged with “criminal association” – a charge, with its implication that anarchists were no better than common criminals, which brought a cry of rage from the international anarchist community. In the event, Malatesta and his friends were convicted of belonging to a “seditious association”; Malatesta was sentenced to imprisonment and sent to the island of Lampedusa. However, in May 1899, he succeeded in escaping in a boat during a storm and returned to London via Malta and Gibraltar.

After a visit to the United States and to the strong Italian and Spanish anarchist groups in New Jersey, he talked of visiting Cuba, but does not, in fact, seem to have done so. By the following year he was back in London, still waiting – like Mazzini half a century earlier – for the chance to take his place in the Italian revolution. During these last years of his stay in London, Malatesta was watched closely by the British police, particularly after the assassination of King Umberto in 1900 by an Italian member of an anarchist group from Paterson, New Jersey – an act of pure anarchist propaganda by the deed, carried out by a man thirty years old, happily married, and moved only by a cold and fanatical fury. Because of the continuous suspicions of the London police, Malatesta was involved in one of the sensational criminal episodes of Edwardian England, the Houndsditch murders and the “Siege of Sidney Street”.

On 16 December 1910 the police were called to a jeweller’s shop in Houndsditch in the East End of London. A gang of thieves had attempted to break in by means of a tunnel from an empty house next door. When the police arrived three policemen were shot and the robbers escaped, although one of them had been wounded. The wounded man was taken to the house of a girl who had been regularly attending the meetings of the anarchist groups in the East End, and there he died. The girl was arrested, but produced no information: she seems to have known very little about the criminals, whom she knew simply as Peter the Painter and Fritz. Then, among the equipment left in the empty house, a cylinder of oxygen and a blow lamp were found; near them was a card with Malatesta’s name and address. What had happened, apparently, was that a Latvian who went under the name of Muromtrev had, some months earlier, asked the anarchists in the East End for assistance in finding a job. They had sent him to Malatesta, who himself was earning his living as a mechanic; and Malatesta had given him a card of introduction to his suppliers to enable Muromtrev to obtain the equipment for his trade, which turned out to be burglary rather than engineering. Malatesta was at once arrested and, although his innocence was very soon established, the attention of the popular papers had already been drawn to the sensational story of dangerous foreign criminal anarchists in London. The Houndsditch affair had an even more dramatic sequel. The murderers barricaded themselves in a house in Sidney Street in Stepney, and it was only after troops had been called out and the Home Secretary, Winston Churchill, had personally supervised their disposition, that the two remaining members of the gang were killed.

Although the whole affair might have led to a general anarchist scare – as the Chicago bomb and the assassination of President McKinley had done in the United States – it probably only served to emphasize the innocence of the anarchists in London. An attempt to deport Malatesta a year or so later failed, and the other anarchists in England remained unmolested. Rudolf Rocker, [Rocker was a characteristic anarchist in that he preferred to be turned back by the U.S. immigration authority rather than go through a ceremony of marriage with the woman with whom he lived devotedly and faithfully throughout a long life.] a German anarchist who (although a Gentile himself) devoted years to social work among the Jews in the sweatshops of the East End tailors, recalled the descent of the journalists on his club after the Sidney Street affair, and reported the somewhat disappointed reaction of one of them, Philip Gibbs, who wrote in the Graphic:
So I sat, a solitary Englishman, among all these foreign anarchists, for more than an hour, during which nothing happened except friendly greetings, handclasps, voluble conversation in subdued voices and a foreign tongue… Nothing happened to me. I could laugh now at my fears. These alien anarchists were as tame as rabbits. I am convinced that they had not a revolver among them. Yet remembering the words I heard, I am sure that this intellectual anarchy, this philosophy of revolution, is more dangerous than pistols or nitro-glycerine. For out of that anarchist club in the East End come ideas.[6]
At least one foreign revolutionary, however, was enthusiastic about the exploits of Peter the Painter and his anarchist significance. Peter and his companions were, Benito Mussolini wrote,

anarchists… in the classical sense of the word. Haters of work, they had the courage to proclaim it once and for all, because physical work brutalizes and degrades man, haters of property which seals the difference between one individual and another, haters of life, but above all, haters, negators, destroyers of society.[7]

Malatesta made another effort to get away into a truly revolutionary atmosphere in Italy – an atmosphere to which Mussolini was contributing as a left-wing socialist editor and agitator who was not without sympathy for anarchist methods. In 1913 Malatesta returned again to Ancona and took an active part in the anti-clerical and anti-parliamentary campaign which the anarchists were organizing. Then, in the famous “Red Week” of June 1914, there broke out in central Italy a series of demonstrations which turned into an effective general strike. The anarchists tried to make this movement into a genuinely insurrectional one in accordance with their own beliefs. Malatesta recalled that, after the police had killed two young men in Ancona,

The tramway strike paralysed the traffic, all the shops were shut and the general strike became a reality without the need of discussing or proclaiming it. On the next and subsequent days Ancona was in a state of political insurrection. The armouries were sacked, grain was requisitioned, a sort of organization was established to procure the necessities of life. The city was full of soldiers, there were warships in the harbour, the authorities sent out strong patrols, but they did not order repression, probably because they were not sure of being able to count on the obedience of the soldiers and sailors. Indeed, the soldiers and sailors fraternized with the people: the women, the incomparable women of Ancona, embraced the soldiers, gave them wine and cigarettes and exhorted them to mix with the people…[8]

Although the movement spread, and others besides the anarchists – socialists and even liberal republicans – seemed ready for revolt, the General Confederation of Labour, which controlled most of the trade unions, called off the strike and the movement quickly collapsed. It was a sign of how little control the anarchists really had over the labour movement, in Italy at least, and how far the realities of the twentieth century were from the insurrectionary dreams of Malatesta’s youth.

Malatesta returned sadly to London. He quarrelled with Kropotkin over Kropotkin’s support for the war; and he remained a voice of the anarchist conscience constantly declaring that – to quote the title of one of his English articles of 1914 – “The anarchists have forgotten their principles.” After the war, at the end of 1919, he finally returned to Italy and plunged with as much enthusiasm as ever into the social, political and industrial unrest of the years that ended with Mussolini’s march on Rome. Malatesta, for all the revolutionary prestige he still enjoyed and in spite of his reputation for incorruptible honesty and warm humanity, was unable to influence events much. He refused to countenance political and parliamentary activity; at the same time he had grave doubts about using the trade unions as a means of making the revolution, for he believed that the unions demanded a degree of organization and, above all, the existence of permanent officials, which was something his anarchist principles would not allow him to accept. After some difficulty with the government and also with the French – who refused him permission to cross France because he had been expelled for political offences forty years earlier – Malatesta returned to Italy in triumph. (It is said that the seamen of Genoa stopped work and that all the ships’ whistles sounded in his honour.) But his old age was spent in obscurity and disappointment, though his courage and spirit never failed.

Malatesta was imprisoned by the Italian government in 1921; he and his companions went on hunger strike as a protest against the delay in bringing them to trial. He was finally released some two months before the fascists came to power. In fact, they did not interfere with the old man – Malatesta was now nearly seventy – and he lived quietly in Rome, earning his living with his hands as he had always done, so that members of the Roman bourgeoisie were sometimes startled to learn that the small, gentle, elderly electrician who worked for them was, in fact, the terrible Malatesta. He died in 1932. His hopes that the anarchists in Italy would be strong enough to serve as a leaven in the revolutionary movement and to turn it to truly anarchist ends had been disappointed. The Italian state was, at the end of his life, a stronger and more formidable adversary than it had ever been.

What was equally disturbing, however, was that the Russian Revolution had – like 1789, or 1848, or 1871 – left the anarchists disappointed and disillusioned. Yet another revolution had taken place and yet again it was the wrong revolution, so that the true social revolution was still to be made. Malatesta had never had any illusions about what had happened in Russia; and his epitaph on Lenin sums up his attitude:

Lenin is dead. We can feel for him that kind of enforced admiration which strong men, even when deluded, even when wicked, can extract from the crowd, men who succeed in leaving as they pass a deep mark on history: Alexander, Julius Caesar, Loyola, Cromwell, Robespierre, Napoleon. But, even with the best intentions, he was a tyrant who strangled the Russian revolution – and we who could not admire him while alive, cannot mourn him now he is dead. Lenin is dead. Long live Liberty![9]

If Malatesta felt disillusioned by what had happened in Russia, the disappointment was even more bitter for others of his generation, and especially, of course, for Peter Kropotkin, who all his life had believed in and worked for the revolution in Russia. When it finally came, in February 1917, he was all too ready to interpret the facts to fit his theories:

What they reproached us with as a fantastic Utopia has been accomplished without a single casualty. The free organizations which sprang up during the war to care for the wounded, for supplies for the distribution of provisions, the unloading of trains, and so many other ends, have replaced on 2 March the whole ancient litter of functionaries, police, etc. They have opened the prison gates, declared the ancient government nonexistent, and what is best, have one after another disarmed and expelled all the police, high and low.[10]

When he returned, after over forty years of exile, to face the realities of Russia in the summer of 1917 he was bound to be disappointed. His own position was a curious one, for his support of the war had alienated from him nearly all the revolutionaries on the left, and his opposition to government as such made it hard for him to collaborate very far with the moderate members of the provisional government. His personal position was a strong one and he had been given a warm welcome; but, quite apart from his political beliefs, his failing health prevented him from playing a very active role. After the October Revolution he devoted himself more and more to writing and for the most part lived quietly in the country, receiving a few Russian anarchists and friends from abroad – Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, or the British socialist Margaret Bondfield. After the bolshevik revolution he was able to forget his differences with the Russian anarchists on the issue of the war, but, although in touch with some of them, he was unable to take any practical part in the movement or to prevent its liquidation by the communists.

Kropotkin himself was left unmolested: but he did not hesitate to attack Lenin – with whom he had at least one interview – in the most bitter terms. When the bolsheviks took hostages from Wrangel’s anti-revolutionary army, Kropotkin wrote to Lenin:
I cannot believe that there is no single man about you to tell you that such decisions recall the darkest Middle Ages, the periods of the Crusades. Vladimir Ilyich, your concrete actions are completely unworthy of the ideas you pretend to hold… What future lies in store for communism when one of its most important defenders tramples in this way on every honest feeling?[11]

While he made the best of the situation when talking to foreign visitors and never gave up his innate optimism, his last months (he died in February 1921) were full of doubts and anxieties, and in one of the last documents he wrote he expressed the helplessness of a whole generation of revolutionaries:

The revolution will advance in its own way, in the direction of the least resistance, without paying the slightest attention to our efforts. At the present moment the Russian revolution is in the following position. It is perpetrating horrors. It is ruining the whole country. In its mad fury it is annihilating human lives. That is why it is a revolution and not a peaceful progress, because it is destroying without regarding what it destroys and whither it goes.

And we are powerless for the present to direct it into another channel, until such time as it will have played itself out. It must wear itself out… Therefore the only thing we can do is to use our energy to lessen the fury and force of the oncoming reaction. But in what can our efforts consist?

To modify the passions – on one side or the other? Who is likely to listen to us? Even if there exist those who can do anything in this role, the time of their debut is not yet come; neither the one nor the other side is yet disposed to listen to them. I see one thing: we must gather together people who will be capable of undertaking constructive work in each and every party after the revolution has worn itself out.[12]

The actual experience of the Russian anarchists in the revolution justified Kropotkin’s pessimism and, indeed, showed that an anarchist revolution in Europe was even more remote than it had ever been. The situation in Russia had, at first, seemed to provide an excellent opportunity for putting Bakunin’s teachings into practice with more hope of success than there had ever been in, for instance, Italy at the time of the ill-fated risings in Bologna and the south in the 1870s. There was, in 1917, a virtual breakdown of the authority of the state; workers’ and peasants’ Soviets had formed and these might be expected to form the basis of anarchist communes; all over the country there was a great deal of spontaneous, as yet undirected, revolutionary activity and a profound desire for social change. There were a number of anarchist groups in Russia, although they had been obliged to operate secretly, and, in any case, were only a small minority compared with the other left-wing parties – the social revolutionaries and the two branches of the social democrats, menshevik and bolshevik. The anarchists, too, were divided among themselves: some were anarcho-syndicalists and placed their hope of revolution in the action of the workers’ unions which would take over the factories. Others were communist anarchists and disciples of Kropotkin, who saw social revolution coming about through the formation of local communes which would then join in a federation. Again, there were a certain number of individualist anarchists, distrustful of any except the freest and most spontaneous forms of association; others were followers of Tolstoy who were opposed to violence and who, it was said, refused as a matter of principle to kill the lice which they plucked from their beards.

During the summer of 1917 these various and diverse small groups tried to intensify their propaganda and their influence. The Federation of Anarchist Groups in Moscow produced a daily paper; in Petrograd the Union for Anarcho-Syndicalist Propaganda, run by a group of anarchists headed by Volin, who had recently returned from exile in New York, published weekly their Golos Truda (The Voice of Labour); in the Ukraine a Confederation of Anarchist Organizations took the name of Nabat (Tocsin) from their newspaper. What all anarchists could agree on was the necessity of throwing themselves into the revolution and, as Bakunin had taught, trying by their revolutionary example to steer it along anarchist lines. As Golos Truda wrote in the critical days preceding the bolshevik seizure of power:

If the action of the masses should commence, then, as anarchists, we will participate in it with the greatest possible energy. For we cannot put ourselves out of touch with the revolutionary masses, even if they are not following our course and our appeals, and even if we foresee the defeat of the movement. We never forget that it is impossible to foresee either the direction or the result of a movement by the masses. Consequently, we consider it our duty to participate in such a movement, seeking to communicate our meaning, our ideas, our truth to it.[13]

Determined as the anarchists were not to corrupt the revolution by using means which would, in their view, merely re-establish the equivalent of the old order, they opposed even the slogan “All Power to the Soviets!” because they objected to the concept of power. And it was this disregard of the fact of power that made them unable to achieve very much, and made it possible, within three years, for the bolsheviks to destroy the anarchist movement in Russia completely. If, as occasionally happened, the anarchists were sufficiently influential in a factory to persuade the workers to take it over and run it on anarchist lines, then quickly the local bolshevik leaders would force it to close. If a prominent anarchist wanted to give a lecture or hold a meeting, he would find that the bolsheviks in control of the local soviet would see that there was no hall available. “Liberty,” Lenin remarked to Alexander Berkman, “is a luxury not to be permitted at the present stage of development.”[14]

There were circumstances, however, when Lenin was temporarily too weak to control the anarchists or when he was prepared to tolerate them temporarily if they were effectively fighting a common enemy. Thus, in the Ukraine, an anarchist-led guerrilla army was able to carry on an effective existence for over two years. This was almost entirely the work of Nestor Makhno, a tough, young revolutionary who emerged from prison in 1917, after nine years’ imprisonment on a charge of murdering a police officer.[15] Makhno was born in 1889 into a family of the poorest peasantry. He found work in a local foundry and, after the 1905 revolution, took up anarchism. While in prison, he had been much influenced by a self-taught anarchist theorist, Arshinov. When he was released he went back to his native town in the southern Ukraine and, by the force of his personality, succeeded in building up an anarchist movement which seemed to the peasants to give them just what they wanted – an immediate seizure of the land, which they carried out in September 1917. After the October Revolution the local soviet watched the growth of Makhno’s influence uneasily, but did nothing to stop him – even when he successfully negotiated, on the best anarchist principles, a direct exchange of grain produced by his peasants for textiles produced by anarchist workers in a Moscow factory. In his own area Makhno was carrying out the basic anarchist strategy of working for the revolution with others, especially the left social revolutionaries, fighting on the same side in the face of the threat from the white armies, while at the same time spreading anarchist ideas, methods and influences.

The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918, by which the bolshevik government made peace with Germany (much to the indignation of the social revolutionaries and anarchists, who had hopes of combining a protracted guerrilla war with a social revolution), gave the Germans and Austrians control of the Ukraine. The advance of their troops drove the various guerrilla bands out of the area, and for the time being put a stop to Makhno’s activity. He himself set out on a tour of Russia, and was disappointed to find that, with the establishment of bolshevik power, the anarchist groups had been largely dissolved and many anarchists had been arrested or had disappeared. He visited Kropotkin, and the old prophet gave the young rebel a word of advice: “One must remember, dear comrade, that there is no sentimentality about our struggle, but selflessness and strength of heart on our way towards our goal will conquer all.”[16] Makhno also managed to see Lenin and to talk with him about conditions in the Ukraine; and he was both impressed and bewildered. Lenin made no concessions to Makhno’s anarchist beliefs, but he seems to have been struck by his toughness and energy, and he probably felt that it was better to send so vigorous a young revolutionary back home to fight the Germans than keep him waiting in Moscow. Accordingly, with the help of the bolshevik authorities, Makhno succeeded in returning to the Ukraine and there set about organizing an effective guerrilla force – the Insurgent Army of the Ukraine – to harass both the German and Austrian occupation army and the puppet Ukrainian government which they had established. Makhno’s supporters were not all anarchists, and he was constantly having to intervene to curb the expression of anti-Semitic feelings among the peasants, to whom the Jew was a traditional scapegoat and the Jewish moneylender or pedlar a symbol of the economic order they were aiming to destroy. Makhno claimed, as opposed to the bolsheviks, that his army remained “unchangeably true to the Revolution of the Peasants and Workers, but not to instruments of violence like your Commissars and Chekas”.[17] He made it clear that his army was dedicated to the anarchist cause, and they carried the anarchist black flag throughout.

Makhno had at once to face the problems confronting anarchists in practice, and found, just as the Spanish anarchists were to do when engaged in a civil war nineteen years later, that compromises had to be made. One of the main subjects of discussion was whether the army should be recruited voluntarily or whether the soldiers should be conscripted from the areas which it controlled, Makhno decided for conscription – partly because the peasants were less afraid of reprisals from the other side if they could say they had been forced to serve. Makhno’s following was mainly in the countryside – he remained himself a peasant in outlook and manners – and the problems of organization in the towns proved more difficult. When, for example, the railway workers of Aleksandrovsk complained that they had had no pay, they were given the almost Godwinian advice to come to an equitable understanding with the railway users. And, at a congress of peasants, workers and insurgents in October 1919, a peasant voiced one of the perpetual problems of anarchist social organization: “If there is a bridge between two of our villages and the bridge gets broken, who is to repair it? If neither village wishes to do the work, then we shall not have a bridge and we will not be able to go to town.”[18]

Still, the anarchist bakers of Aleksandrovsk produced a scheme for providing bread for the population; and, in the areas controlled by Makhno, certain anarchist principles were established. Plans were made for anarchist education modelled on Ferrer’s experiments in Spain (see Chapter IX); freedom of the press was established, though not freedom of political organization, since this was contrary to anarchist belief. The basis of anarchist justice was also laid down:

On the question of the need to organize a judicial administrative apparatus we suggest as a basic principle that any rigid court and police machinery and any definite codification of laws constitute infringements of the population’s rights of self-defence… True justice cannot be administratively organized, but must come as a living, free creative act of the community… Law and order must be upheld by the living force of the local community and must not be left to police specialists.[19]

As in the Spanish Civil War, it was a principle that could very easily be used to justify summary execution and arbitrary terror. Within the limits imposed by conditions of guerrilla warfare, Makhno seems indeed to have done his best to run the areas he controlled on anarchist lines. The seizure of land in September 1917 had been followed by the establishment of agricultural communes; and, in a remote rural area cut off by war from the outside world, and where economic organization was in any case primitive, some sort of anarchist system of production and exchange worked to the satisfaction of the peasants. At the same time, Makhno, although retaining the military command in his own hands, adopted the idea that supreme authority rested with the new periodical congresses of workers, peasants and insurgents.

In the main, however, his task was necessarily a military one. During the summer of 1918 he harried the German and Austrian forces in a series of raids and, when they were obliged to withdraw because of the armistice in the west, Makhno used the opportunity to seize their stores and ammunition. During the next months his relations with the bolsheviks remained comparatively friendly. He was fanatically determined to wage ferocious war against all enemies of the revolution, whether they were Germans or white generals, and he was perfectly willing to do this in alliance with the bolsheviks. However, the appeal of Makhnovite anarchism to the peasant soldiers in the Red Army was enough to arouse bolshevik hostility; and when Makhno invited soldiers in the bolshevik forces to attend his anarchist congresses, this was something the bolshevik leaders could not forgive. In the spring of 1919 they decided that Makhno was no longer an ally, though at this point, when they themselves were being pressed on all sides, there was little they could do to deal with an army which by now numbered some 15,000. In the meantime Makhno conducted his campaign with considerable efficiency, but also with considerable brutality. His personal habits – he was drinking heavily and his affairs with women were notorious – and the inevitable compromises in which anarchist principles were sacrificed, worried some of his anarchist supporters from the Nabat group: “While possessing many valuable revolutionary qualities,” they were to say of Makhno in 1920, “he belongs unfortunately to that class of person who cannot always subordinate their personal caprices to the good of the movement.”[20] And the anarchist intellectual who, under the name of Volin, wrote the most complete account of the fate of the anarchists in the Russian Revolution said severely of him: “He had no theoretical or historical political knowledge; he was thus unable to make the necessary generalizations and deductions.”[21]

Nevertheless, Makhno’s achievement in organizing an army and conducting a campaign was, till then, unique in the history of anarchism and was only to be equalled by some of the successes of the Spanish anarchists in 1936-7. The liquidation of Makhno’s forces by the bolsheviks was therefore a blow to anarchists everywhere. By the autumn of 1920 the Red Army had sufficiently established its power in the south of Russia to dispense with Makhno’s aid; and in November 1920 an order was issued that all insurgent units were to be absorbed into the Red Army. Makhno resisted throughout that winter, but by August 1921 his support among the terrorized peasants had dwindled and he was forced to flee into exile. He died in Paris in 1935 in poverty, obscurity and bitterness.

Although, in the confusion of the civil war, Makhno was able to maintain his independence till the summer of 1920, other anarchist groups were less successful. The anarchists made one or two attempts at direct action against the bolsheviks, as when they placed a bomb in the headquarters of the Moscow communist party in September 1919, but such actions merely provided the bolsheviks with a useful label to be attached to anyone who challenged their right to rule. In April 1918 the Red Army and secret police raided the anarchist centres in Moscow and arrested several hundred people, using as an excuse the complaint by Raymond Robins, the American Red Cross representative, that anarchists had seized his car. This was accompanied by the allegation that the arrested anarchists were common criminals, and a denunciation of “the criminal activity of the armed detachments of counter-revolutionary burglars and robbers which had taken refuge under the black flag of anarchy”. It was a charge with which anarchists everywhere were already familiar, and indeed, as we have seen, there were always people connected with the movement whose acts of social protest looked very like the acts of ordinary crooks. Throughout the next two years the bolsheviks tried to maintain the fiction that it was only criminals who were in jail and that, as Lenin reassured the American anarchist Emma Goldman, “Anarchists of ideas are not in our prisons.”[22]

Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman arrived in Russia at the end of 1919, after being deported from the United States. Both of them were famous in the international anarchist movement, and they were at first welcomed warmly in the country from which their families had originally emigrated. Emma Goldman, now fifty years old, had lost none of her fire, courage and oratorical enthusiasm. For more than thirty years she had been advocating anarchism and practising free love, and had lectured all over the United States on subjects ranging from Ibsen to birth control, as well as running an anarchist periodical, Mother Earth. She had been repeatedly in trouble with the authorities – for her defence of Berkman’s attack on Frick and her campaign in favour of McKinley’s assassin, Czolgosz, as well as for her outspoken advocacy of contraception and frank discussion of topics such as homosexuality. She was several times imprisoned, and indeed had only just been released from a sentence resulting from her agitation during the war against conscription when the order for her deportation was made. She was a woman of total sincerity, warm-hearted and cultivated, who, like Kropotkin, had won the friendship and respect of many people who were not anarchists but who were impressed by her unfailing courage in support of freedom in all its forms. (Her autobiography, Living My Life, though often prolix, gives an unforgettable picture of the anarchist world and deserves a place alongside Kropotkin’s Memoirs of a Revolutionist as one of the classical accounts of the anarchist life.)

Berkman, her close friend and associate (although by now their association had become a purely professional one), lacked Emma’s warmth and broad humanity, but his passion for the anarchist cause and for truth and justice was equally strong. After his attempt on the life of Frick he served a prison sentence of fourteen years, but on his release he soon resumed his life as an agitator, regardless of public hostility and police oppression. In 1916 a bomb had exploded at a parade in San Francisco; and when Berkman and Emma Goldman heard of it she exclaimed: “I hope they aren’t going to hold the anarchists responsible for it.” “How could they?” their secretary asked. “They always have,” Berkman replied.[23] Indeed, two labour union leaders, Thomas Mooney and Warren K. Billings, were arrested and the police tried, though unsuccessfully, to implicate Berkman. Mooney and Billings were sentenced to death by a California court; their sentences were eventually remitted, after suggestions that their trial had been framed, and after an agitation led by Berkman, which had received support of an unusual kind when the bolshevik government in Russia threatened to arrest the American diplomatic representative in Russia if Mooney and Billings were not pardoned. Although the police had failed to involve Berkman in the Mooney and Billings affair, they were soon able, in the atmosphere of wartime America, to charge him with his agitation against conscription. In spite of his own able defence at the trial, at which both he and Emma Goldman sat in the dock, he was imprisoned and released only to be deported. While waiting to leave he heard the news of the death of Frick, whom he had tried to murder a quarter of a century before. “Deported by God,” was Berkman’s comment.

Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman arrived in Russia as honoured guests and, although they had already had doubts about some of the activities of the bolsheviks, they were as anxious to be impressed by the Revolution as Kropotkin had been. However, they were increasingly worried and disappointed, and soon began to be an object of suspicion to the secret police. Berkman himself sensed a change in his personal situation after he had refused to translate Lenin’s State and Revolution because he disagreed with it. They were shocked at the imprisonment of so many Russian anarchists, at the liquidation of Makhno’s insurgent army and at the refusal of the government to release anarchist prisoners to attend Kropotkin’s funeral in 1921 – the last occasion when the black flag of the anarchists was carried through the streets of Moscow.

Two weeks after Kropotkin’s funeral the sailors at the naval base of Kronstadt revolted against the bolshevik government. Although there had been anarchist influences among the sailors at Kronstadt in 1917, the rising in 1921 was, it now seems,[24] not directly anarchist in inspiration but rather an attempt by disillusioned revolutionaries to restore what they regarded as the purity of the original Soviet idea against the dictatorship of the bolsheviks. However, the programme which the sailors issued contained as one of its items, “Freedom of speech and press to workers and peasants, to anarchists and left socialist parties”; and to label the whole thing as an anarchist plot was an easy way of discrediting it. Coming so soon after Kropotkin’s death and Lenin’s refusal to release the anarchist prisoners, the brutal suppression of the Kronstadt revolt was a bitter blow to the foreign anarchists in Russia, even if its aims had not, in fact, been those of the anarchists. It is true that in the summer of 1921, after the anarchists in prison had gone on hunger strike, some of them were released in order to impress the delegates to the International Conference of Red Trade Unions, but this was the last concession. With the dissolution of Makhno’s army, the increasing rigour of the government towards all opposition and the arrest and persecution of the anarchists, anarchism in Russia was at an end. Trotsky’s boast, “At last the Soviet government, with an iron broom, has rid Russia of anarchism”,[25] seemed justified.

By the end of 1921, Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman decided to leave. “Grey are the passing days” Berkman noted in his diary.

One by one the embers of hope have died out. Terror and despotism have crushed the life born in October. The slogans of the revolution are forsworn, its ideals stifled in the blood of the people. The breath of yesterday is dooming millions to death; the shadow of today hangs like a black pall over the country. Dictatorship is trampling the masses underfoot. The revolution is dead; its spirit cries in the wilderness. […] I have decided to leave Russia.[26]

Exiled from Russia, exiled from America, Berkman and Emma Goldman went to Germany and France, after the usual difficulties which anarchists experienced in obtaining visas and residence permits. Worse still, when they published their books criticizing the bolsheviks, they found themselves estranged from many of their friends and associates on the left, for whom the Russian Revolution was still beyond criticism. It took courage to admit that yet another revolution had failed and that the anarchist society was farther away than ever.

Alexander Berkman continued to write and to work for the anarchist and syndicalist movement, but his years in prison had left him in delicate health and he died in Nice in 1936. Emma Goldman, after living for a time in England, went to France. On the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War she inevitably plunged into the struggle. After the liquidation of the Spanish anarchists and the defeat of the republic, she continued to be an active propagandist against the new Spanish regime and, while on a speaking tour in Canada, she collapsed and died in 1940.

The experiences of the anarchists in the Russian Revolution had shown that the theoretical differences between Marx and Bakunin meant in practice bitter strife and bloodshed. Communists and anarchists were henceforth irrevocably on different sides. At the same time, it was the anarchists who had failed to take the lead in a great revolution, just because their principles made organization so difficult. The Marxists, by their success in Russia, now appeared to be a far more effective revolutionary force than the anarchists; and it was thus even harder for the anarchists to win and retain the support which would enable them to put into practice their own ideas of what the revolution should be. Already before the First World War the anarchists had made occasional attempts to organize themselves into a regular disciplined movement, but each time their divisions and their uncompromising and often impressive insistence on the right to differ made these attempts ineffective. They were more at home providing a noisy and disruptive element in the early congresses of the Second International (until they were excluded by the socialist majority after 1896) than in holding congresses of their own.[27] Nevertheless, congresses, national and international were held; theory and tactics were repeatedly discussed. And in France, Spain and the United States many of the younger generation of anarchist-minded working-class leaders had tried to introduce new ideas and practices into the anarchist movement, even though the result of these new trends was often to divide the movement still further. Some at least of the anarchists realized that it was on the organized force of the trade-union movement that a revolution might be based; and it was in the trade unions that the battle between communists and anarchists was to be finally fought out.

Notes:
1. Leonard Schapiro, The Origin of the Communist Autocracy (London 1955), p. 182.
2. Errico Malatesta in Studi Sociali, 15 April 1931; reprinted in E. Malatesta, Scritti scelti, ed. C. Zaccaria and G. Berneri (Naples 1947), p. 326.
3. Armando Borghi, Errico Malatesta (Milan 1947), p. 95.
4. See Enzo Santarelli, “L’azione di Errico Malatesta e i moti di 1898 ad Ancona” in Movimento Operaio, 1954, pp. 248 — 72.
5. Questione Sociale, 14 June 1899, quoted Borghi, op. cit., pp. 126-7.
6. Rudolf Rocker, The London Years (London 1956), p. 208.
7. Gaudens Megaro, Mussolini dal mito alla realtà (Milan 1947), p. 245.
8. M. Nettlau, Errico Malatesta; la vida de un anarquista (Buenos Aires 1923), p. 193.
9. Malatesta, Scritti scelti, p. 170.
10. Quoted in G. Woodcock and I. Avakumovic, The Anarchist Prince (London 1950), p. 391.
11. ibid., pp. 425-6.
12. ibid., p. 430.
13. Voline (V. M. Eichenbaum), Nineteen-Seventeen: The Russian Revolution Betrayed (London 1954), p. 76.
14. Alexander Berkman, The Bolshevik Myth (London 1925), pp. 90-1.
15. For Makhno’s career, see the excellent account based on the available Russian sources, in David Footman, Civil War in Russia (London 1961), pp. 245-303. See also Paul Avrich, The Russian Anarchists (Princeton 1967) pp. 209 ff. and Paul Avrich (ed.), The Anarchists in the Russian Revolution (Ithaca, N.Y. 1973) Part Seven.
16. Footman, op. cit., pp. 253-4.
17. ibid., p. 271.
18. ibid., p. 280.
19. ibid., p. 284.
20. ibid., p. 289.
21. Quoted ibid., p. 289.
22. Emma Goldman, My Disillusionment in Russia (London 1925), p. 69.
23. Emma Goldman, Living My Life (London 1932), vol. II, p. 577.
24. See G. Katkov, The Kronstadt Rising in St Antony’s Papers, no. 6 (London 1959) and Paul Avrich, Kronstadt 1921 (Princeton 1970).
25. Quoted Voline, op. cit., p. 154.
26. Berkman, op. cit., p. 319.
27. See James Joll, The Second International (London 1955), ch. III.

This text is taken from James Joll, The Anarchists, obtained from the Digital Text International website. The Nestor Makhno Archive has modified some spellings and corrected some typographical errors.
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Source: http://www.ditext.com [James Joll, The Anarchists, Second edition, 1979.]

 

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