The Russian

Paul Avrich
(AK Press)
Some of us have never been able to keep our anarchists straight. Especially when it came to the Russians. Hell, they weren't even able to keep their anarchists straight.

There was M. A. Bakunin and P. A. Kropotkin and A. A. Karelin and N. I. Makhno and G. P. Maksimov ("The Maximum Maksimov") who went off to Chicago and Bill Shatov ("Just Plain Bill") and V. M. Volin and R. I. Donubediupmibebe whose name I just made up and thousands and thousands of others although we'll never know how many because anarchists didn't like the state and certainly didn't like the state counting them, right? They were anarchists, remember?

The Russian Anarchists is a user-friendly manual on the forming, founding, feeding and decline of Russian anarchists. Take Bakunin, for example. He was a real Billy Goat Gruff. He saw Stalinism before it became Stalinism. He said that there was an "authoritarianism inherent in a so-called dictatorship of the proletariat."

    The citizens of the new people's state would be rudely awakened from their self-delusion to discover that they had become "the slaves, the playthings, and the victims of a new group of ambitious men."

Unfortunately, he let it be known that his own "secret society" would be subjected to the "strictest discipline and subordinated to a small revolutionary directorate."

Kropotkin was more of a Granny Goose, according to Avrich. He was "singularly mild and benevolent. He lacked completely Bakunin's violent temperament, titanic urge to destroy, and irresistible will to dominate."

    Nor did he possess Bakunin's anti-Semitic streak or display the hints of derangement that sometimes appeared in Bakunin's words and actions.

He was, says the writer, a man of "courtly manner and high qualities of character and intellect ... the very picture of reasonableness." A friend once wrote me about him:

    Kropotkin was indeed the most appealing of our anarchist gurus. He was an academic of sorts, a student of geography, geology, and ethology, not to mention his white beard and twinkling eyes behind thick glasses.

§     §     §

Those of us who saw ourselves as political Romantics always had a warm spot in our hearts for the Anarcho-Syndicalists who ran Barcelona before the Stalinists came to town and murdered them all. For the first time, we have found out the how of the Anarcho-Syndicalists --- how they differed from all those ill-tempered Bakunin types.

As Avrich explains it, Anarcho-Syndicalists (hereinafter referred to as A/S to preserve my sanity as I type) came out of the syndicalists of 1890 Paris. They "condemned the terrorists for dissipating their forces in hit-and-run raids on the privileged classes." They also "considered organized labor a powerful engine of revolt."

They not only loathed the centralized state and had "a sharp distrust of politicians," they saw unions, with their experience of worker control as "a basis of the future libertarian society." In France of those years, the majority of unions

    had come to regard the state with hostile eyes and to reject the conquest of political power --- whether by revolutionary or parliamentary methods --- as inimical to their true interests.

Instead, they looked forward to a social revolution which would destroy the capitalist system and inaugurate a stateless society in which the economy would be managed by a general confederation of labor unions.

Wow! What a dream, eh?

And so it happened in Spain, starting in 1936. After Franco began the civil war, the anarchists --- specifically the Federación Anarquista Ibérica, FAI, and the big anarchist-dominated labor union, the CNT --- joined the Catalan local government and collaborated with the popular front central government. At the same time, there was irregular action by workers taking over many different factories and shops, particularly in Catalonia, and farms in Andalusia. However, this whole development was suppressed by the Republican government itself within a year and a half. By 1937, the FAI was in fact outlawed in Republican Spain. And so, so quickly, the chance for an anarchist to join other anarchists to help govern a country faded, and so it died.

§     §     §

If I were teaching a course in Russian history, or labor history, or just history history, I would include this book. Avrich is a good enough writer to take the raggle-taggle world of anarchism and make it make sense.

And he has the art to include the dramatic relics of the past, for example, ending the chapter on "The Downfall of Russian Anarchism" --- dealt death blows by both Lenin and Trotsky, by means of the Cheka --- by quoting Alexander Berkman, "profoundly disheartened by the turn the revolution had taken." He wrote dramatically in his diary,

    Grey are the passing days. 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," he concluded, "decided to leave Russia."

--- Jennifer Lopez-Whaley
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