Anarchism in Russia

Anarchism is the political belief that society should have no government, laws, police, or other authority, but should be a free association of all its members. William Godwin was an important anarchist philosopher in Britain during the late 18th century. He believed that the "euthanasia of government" would be achieved through "individual moral reformation".

The Russian writer Alexander Herzen was greatly influenced by the anarchist-socialism of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Forced into exile, Herzen established the Free Russian Press in London that published a series of journals including The Polar Star, Voices from Russia and The Bell.

In The Bell Herzen predicted that because of its backward economy, socialism would be introduced into Russia before any other European country. "What can be accomplished only by a series of cataclysms in the West can develop in Russia out of existing conditions."

Herzen believed that the peasants in Russia could become a revolutionary force and after the overthrow of the nobility would create a socialist society. This included the vision of peasants living in small village communes where the land was periodically redistributed among individual households along egalitarian lines.

Another writer influenced by anarchist thought was Peter Lavrov. Like Alexander Herzen Lavrov was exiled from Russia and while living in Europe explained his political views in the newspaper, Vpered! (Forwards!). Lavrov argued that progress came about from the deliberate action of "critically thinking individuals". The role of intellectuals was to imbue the people with the knowledge that would help them to attain "the moral ideal of socialism".

In Russia the most significant Anarchist was Michael Bakunin. In 1869 he co-wrote Catechism of a Revolutionist with Sergi Nechayev. It included the famous passage: "The Revolutionist is a doomed man. He has no private interests, no affairs, sentiments, ties, property nor even a name of his own. His entire being is devoured by one purpose, one thought, one passion - the revolution. Heart and soul, not merely by word but by deed, he has severed every link with the social order and with the entire civilized world; with the laws, good manners, conventions, and morality of that world. He is its merciless enemy and continues to inhabit it with only one purpose - to destroy it."

In 1873 Michael Bakunin published his major work, Statism and Anarchy. In the book Bakunin advocated the abolition of hereditary property, equality for women and free education for all children. He also argued for the transfer of land to agricultural communities and factories to labour associations.

Another anarchist in Russia, Peter Kropotkin, was arrested and imprisoned in 1874. Two years later he escaped and fled to Switzerland. His radical socialist views made him unwelcome in Switzerland and in 1881 he moved to France where he became a member of the International Working Men's Association (the First International).

In 1883 Peter Kropotkin was arrested and imprisoned by the French authorities. While in prison Kropotkin's ideas on anarchism were published. Released in 1886 Kropotkin moved to England where he wrote In Russian and French Prisons (1887). He was wrote a series of articles attacking the ideas of Charles Darwin. Kropotkin argued that it was cooperation rather than struggle that accounted for the evolution of man and human intelligence.

The publication of Kropokin's books, Conquest of Bread (1892), Memoirs of a Revolutionist (1899), Fields, Factories and Workshops (1901), Mutual Aid (1902) and The Great French Revolution (1909), turned him into a world known political figure. Emma Goldman argued: "We saw in him the father of modern anarchism, its revolutionary spokesman and brilliant exponent of its relation to science, philosophy and progressive thought." and was described by Emma Goldman as the "godfather of anarchism".

Another important anarchist, Nestor Makhno, emerged during the Russian Revolution. When the Central Powers occupied the Ukraine in 1918 he was chosen by Lenin to lead the revolutionary army in the area. Over the next few years he fought against the Austro-Hungarian Army, the German Army and the White Army.

During the Civil War Makhno played an important role in the defeat of General Anton Denikin in 1919 and General Peter Wrangel in 1920.

Makhno's decision to set up an Anarchist society in the Ukraine resulted in him being attacked by the Red Army. In August, 1921, Nestor Makhno was forced to leave Russia.

After the Russian Revolution the United States government decided to deport Emma Goldman to Russia from the United States. As an anarchist, Goldman was repelled by the Bolshevik dictatorship and after marrying a Welsh miner she managed to obtain British citizenship. Her books, My Disillusionment in Russia (1923) and My Further Disillusionment in Russia (1924) helped to turn a large number of socialists against the Bolshevik government.

The Russian anarchist, Vsevolod Volin, wrote a libertarian history of the Russian Revolution, entitled The Unknown Revolution, that was published in French in 1947 and English in 1954. Victor Serge was another anarchist who wrote about the revolution. His most famous book was Memoirs of a Revolutionary (1951).

Primary Sources

(1) Alexander Herzen, The Bell (1865)

Social progress is possible only under complete republican freedom, under full democratic equality. A republic that would not lead to Socialism seems an absurdity to us - a transitional stage regarding itself as the goal. On the other hand, Socialism which might try to dispense with political freedom would rapidly degenerate into an autocratic Communism.

(2) Mikhail Bakunin and Sergi Nechayev, Catechism of a Revolutionist(1869)

The Revolutionist is a doomed man. He has no private interests, no affairs, sentiments, ties, property nor even a name of his own. His entire being is devoured by one purpose, one thought, one passion - the revolution. Heart and soul, not merely by word but by deed, he has severed every link with the social order and with the entire civilized world; with the laws, good manners, conventions, and morality of that world. He is its merciless enemy and continues to inhabit it with only one purpose - to destroy it.

He despises public opinion. He hates and despises the social morality of his time, its motives and manifestations. Everything which promotes the success of the revolution is moral, everything which hinders it is immoral. The nature of the true revolutionist excludes all romanticism, all tenderness, all ecstasy, all love.

(3) Mikhail Bakunin, Marxism, Freedom and the State (1871)

I am a passionate seeker after Truth and a not less passionate enemy of the malignant fictions used by the "Party of Order", the official representatives of all turpitudes, religious, metaphysical, political, judicial, economic, and social, present and past, to brutalise and enslave the world; I am a fanatical lover of Liberty; considering it as the only medium in which can develop intelligence, dignity, and the happiness of man; not official "Liberty", licensed, measured and regulated by the State, a falsehood representing the privileges of a few resting on the slavery of everybody else; not the individual liberty, selfish, mean, and fictitious advanced by the school of Rousseau and all other schools of bourgeois Liberalism, which considers the rights of the individual as limited by the rights of the State, and therefore necessarily results in the reduction of the rights of the individual to zero.

No, I mean the only liberty which is truly worthy of the name, the liberty which consists in the full development of all the material, intellectual and moral powers which are to be found as faculties latent in everybody, the liberty which recognises no other restrictions than those which are traced for us by the laws of our own nature; so that properly speaking there are no restrictions, since these laws are not imposed on us by some outside legislator, beside us or above us; they are immanent in us, inherent, constituting the very basis of our being, material as well as intellectual and moral; instead, therefore, of finding them a limit, we must consider them as the real conditions and effective reason for our liberty.

(4) Peter Lavrov, To the Russian Revolutionary Youth (1874)

History has shown us, and psychology proves, that the possession of great power corrupts the best people, and that even the ablest leaders, who meant to benefit the people by decree, failed. Every dictatorship must surround itself by compulsory means of defence which must serve as obedient tools in its hands. Every dictatorship is called upon to suppress not only its reactionary opponents but also those who disagree with its methods and actions. Whenever a dictatorship succeeded in establishing itself it had to spend more time and effort in retaining its power and defending it against its rivals than upon the realization of its programme, with the aid of that power. The abolition of dictatorship assumed by a party can only be dreamed about before the usurpation takes place. In the struggle of parties for power, in the class of open or concealed ambitions, every moment furnishes an added reason and necessity for maintaining the dictatorship, creates a new excuse for not relinquishing it. A dictatorship can be wrested from the dictators only by a new revolution.

(5) Peter Lavrov, Vpered! (1875)

Falsehood can never be the means for spreading truth. Exploitation or the authoritarian rule of the individual can never be the means for the realization of justice. Triumph over idle pleasure cannot be attained by the forcible seizure of unearned wealth, or the transfer of the opportunity for enjoyment from one individual to another. People who assert that the end justifies the means should keep in mind the limitation of their rule by the rather simple truism; except those means which undermine the goal itself.

(6) Victor Serge, Year One of the Revolution (1930)

An Anarchist schoolmaster and former political prisoner, named Nestor Makhno, opened up guerrilla warfare at Gulai-Polye, with fifteen men at his side; these attacked German sentries to obtain weapons. Later on, Makhno was to form whole armies. The Germans repressed these movements with the utmost vigour, executing prisoners en masse and burning down villages; but it was all too much for them.

(7) Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman often considered returning to Russia.

Russian hearts dwelt more in Russia than in the country they were enriching by their labour, which nevertheless scorned them as "foreigners." All through the years we had been close to the pulse of Russia, close to her spirit and her superhuman struggle for liberation. But our lives were rooted in our adopted land. We had learned to love her physical grandeur and her beauty and to admire the men and women who were fighting for freedom, the Americans of the best calibre. I felt myself one of them, an American in the truest sense, spiritually rather than by the grace of a mere scrap of paper.

(8) Emma Goldman, Living My Life (1931)

The hated Romanovs were at last hurled from their throne, the Tsar and his cohorts shorn of power. It was not the result of a political coup d'‚tat; the great achievement was accomplished by the rebellion of the entire people. Only yesterday inarticulate, crushed as they had been for centuries, under the heel of a ruthless absolutism, insulted and degraded, the Russian masses had risen to demand their heritage and to proclaim to the whole world that autocracy and tyranny were for ever at an end in their country. The glorious tidings were the first sign of life in the vast European cemetery of war and destruction. They inspired all liberty-loving people with new hope and enthusiasm, yet no one felt the spirit of the Revolution as did the natives of Russia scattered all over the globe. They saw their beloved Matushka Rossiya now extend to them the promise of manhood and aspiration.

Russia was free; yet not truly so. Political independence was but the first step on the road to the new life. Of what use are "rights," I thought, if the economic conditions remain unchanged. I had known the blessings of democracy too long to have faith in political scene-shifting. Far more abiding was my faith in the people themselves, in the Russian masses now awakened to the consciousness of their power and to the realization of their opportunities. The imprisoned and exiled martyrs who had struggled to free Russia were now being resurrected, and some of their dreams realized. They were returning from the icy wastes of Siberia, from dungeons and banishment. They were coming back to unite with the people and to help them build a new Russia, economically and socially.