Posts Tagged ‘proletariat’

“A Marxist-Leninist Perspective” on Stalin: Totalitarian Propaganda that Fails in Rationalizing his World-Historical Crimes (Part I/III)

November 14, 2018

“Today [in 1958], everyone knows Russian Communism as the greatest barbarism on earth. Stalin is the name which symbolizes this.”

– Raya Dunayevskaya1

Chagall

Marc (Moishe) Zakharovich Chagall, “Festive Design” (1918-9)

Breht Ó Séaghdha’s much-anticipated, “big,” and supposedly “spicy” interview on “Revolutionary Left Radio” with Justin and Jeremy from the “Proles of the Round Table” about Josef Stalin and the historical record is a sustained, nearly three-hour long fraud that above all insults the memory of Stalin’s millions of victims. Unfortunately for the host Ó Séaghdha, who misleadingly presents his guests Justin and Jeremy as following an “empirical and statistical approach” to the history of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), the reality is that he platformed neo-Stalinist propagandists on this episode, and either could not or would not challenge them on their myriad lies covering for what the Marxist-Humanist Raya Dunayevskaya rightly terms “the greatest counter-revolution in all history.”2 Given the friendly tone between Ó Séaghdha and his guests during this interview, as reflected in his admission at the outset of his “love and respect” for his “comrades and friends” Justin and Jeremy, his identification of the “Proles of the Round Table” as being “one of [his] go-to podcasts” represents a dangerous concession which reveals that he is following his guests’ lead when it comes to historical events.

Before analyzing and correcting the numerous distortions presented by Justin and Jeremy on this particular episode of “Revolutionary Left Radio,” I must express a very fundamental concern for Ó Séaghdha’s profession in the introduction of the need for leftists “always to show solidarity with our Jewish comrades,” given that not once in this three-hour interview does either the host or the guests discuss or even mention the Molotov-Ribbentrop, or Nazi-Soviet, Pact signed on August 23, 1939. Following in the wake of Hitler’s annexation of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia and the Anschluss with Austria, the terms of this non-aggression treaty, agreed initially to ten years, represented a ‘honeymoon’ for the two totalitarian dictators Hitler and Stalin, setting forth the terms by which Poland, Finland, and Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia were to be divided after the Nazi invasion a week later.

In Tinísima, Elena Poniatowska depicts even so hardened a Stalinist as Tina Modotti, a nurse who worked in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) with Red Aid International, affiliated with the Third International (Stalin’s Communist International, or Comintern), as reacting to the news of the Nazi-Soviet Pact by refusing food, desiring death, and considering this “the betrayal of everything for which we’ve fought.” Arguing with her partner Vittorio Vidali, himself a high-ranking Comintern agent responsible for numerous assassinations of non-Stalinist supporters of the Spanish Republic, Modotti asks:

“And the dead? And the relatives of the dead—who will calm them down? You know how much I love and admire the Soviet Union; you know how I revere Stalin. Everything you say is fine, Toio [Vittorio], but an alliance with Hitler—never!”3

Indeed, as historian Catherine Evtuhov relates,

“The agreement stunned leftist intellectuals and workers, who had believed that Moscow was the vital center of international revolution and anti-Nazism. As Arthur Koestler recalled, the sight of the swastika flying at the Moscow Airport [to mark Ribbentrop’s visit] destroyed his allegiance to communism.”4

The Hitler-Stalin Pact not only carved up Poland and much of the rest of Eastern Europe, but also involved the NKVD and Gestapo exchanging political prisoners, including Communists, and Polish prisoners of war; trade in oil, wheat, and weaponry between the two hegemons; and Stalin publicly praising Nazi victories.5 Furthermore, between 1939 and 1941, Stalin’s regime deported a million and a half Poles, Ukrainians, Belorussians, Jews, Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians to the Far North, Siberia, and Central Asia; approximately one-fifth of those deported perished. Stalin’s forces were also responsible for executing at least 17,000 captive Polish officers in 1940.6

Rendezvous

Cartoon in The Evening Standard (20 September 1939) depicting the partition of Poland between Hitler and Stalin at the dawn of World War II. Notice the Orientalist depiction of Stalin’s face.

With Stalin thus neutralized, Hitler received the green light with which he infamously launched World War II and, shortly thereafter, the Holocaust, or HaShoah, which accelerated in June 1941 when Hitler turned on his erstwhile ally by invading the Soviet Union. Alongside the estimated 25 million Soviet people who died in the war, at least 1 million Jews in Ukraine and five million other Jews were murdered in Poland, the Soviet Union, and other territories of Eastern Europe which were conquered by the German Wehrmacht for Hitler’s pathological, ultra-nationalist concept of Lebensraum (“living-space”).7 In fact, in January 1948, Solomon Mikhoels, chair of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, was executed on Stalin’s orders by the Soviet Belorussian State police before he could bring to light documentation of the Nazi genocide of over 1.5 million Soviet Jews in these same territories conquered by the Wehrmacht “from the retreating Soviets”—territories which previously had been occupied by the Red Army, following Hitler and Stalin’s mutual agreement.8

When it came to actual war with Hitler, Stalin’s myopic incredulousness about the reported 84 intelligence warnings he received about German preparations for invasion led to the immediate destruction of one-fourth of the Soviet air force, effectively granting the Nazi Luftwaffe aerial supremacy during the beginning of “Operation Barbarossa.”9 Whereas the Red Army had “approximately the same number of men on the Soviet western border as the Germans and significantly more tanks, guns, and aircraft,” the USSR’s security was endangered for two important reasons: the Red Army was comprised of peasants who were often demoralized by collectivization and famine, and it was led by inexperienced officers who had effectively been promoted through Stalin’s devastating Purge of an estimated 90 percent of “the highest army commanders, all the admirals, about 90 percent of corps commanders,” and several “divisional and brigadier generals” just a year to two years before the start of World War II.10 That the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union had ordered his troops to occupy the new territory gained through the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which lacked any defensive fortifications, was not helpful, either.11

Moreover, Stalin’s disagreement with and overriding of the “leading Soviet military strategist,” General Georgii Zhukov, led to multiple disasters. To name just a couple: first, in August 1941, when Stalin refused to withdraw Red Army divisions from Kyiv (Kiev), the Wehrmacht proceeded to encircle and imprison more than 3 million Soviet officers and troops by the end of the year;12 and second, when, following the successful December 1941 counter-attack to rescue Moscow, Stalin hubristically enjoined offensives across the entire western front that “exhausted his troops and exposed them to Germany’s new campaign, this time aimed at the Caucasus and its oil fields.” Once Kyiv fell, the Nazis systematically murdered its Jewish population—some thirty-thousand men, women, and children—in the massacre known as Babi Yar.13

Beyond this, Stalin’s refusal to sign the Geneva Conventions (1929) governing the treatment of prisoners of war (POW’s) arguably greatly harmed his officers and troops captured by the Nazis, who, in contrast to Western POW’s, were initially generally refused food and medical treatment, if they were not summarily executed. In point of fact, it was on Soviet POW’s that the Nazis first “tested” Zyklon-B gas in the Auschwitz death-camp (September 1941). An estimated three million Soviet POW’s died in Nazi captivity.14 Hitler’s regime did not think to exploit Soviet POW’s as forced labor until November 1941, alongside the millions of Ukrainian and Polish Ostarbeiter slave laborers, though it had no reservations leaving intact collectivized farms in occupied Ukraine, thus “taking advantage of the Soviet invention for extracting resources from the rural population.”15

In light of these incredible omissions about the nearly two-year period of collaboration between Hitler and Stalin, the Holocaust, and the General Secretary’s numerous strategic blunders during World War II itself—which Jeremy and Justin outright ignore, mischaracterizing Hitler’s military defeat in May 1945 as Stalin’s “accomplishment”—it becomes clear that no one on this show has any credibility discussing the historical record.

To put it lightly, it is extremely problematic for anyone appealing to history to uncritically champion the genocidal and imperialist state-capitalist monster known as Stalin in 2018. As Rohini Hensman rightly points out, and as we shall explore more in part II of this response, “Stalin […] in his time had rehabilitated tsarist imperialism.”16 In 1927, Alexander Berkman identified Stalin’s rule as being equivalent to “Tsarist Socialism,” perhaps following Nestor Makhno’s lead in denouncing the “Bolshevik tsars” the previous year.17 According to Hannah Arendt’s analysis, class struggle and internationalism were absent within the politics of Stalinist totalitarianism, beyond merely opportunistic use as legitimating ideologies.18 Dunayevskaya correctly identified the Stalinist bureaucracy as “the most deadly, the most insidious, [and] the most dangerous enemy because it springs from the proletariat and cloaks itself in Marxist terminology.” So why on Earth would revolutionary leftists want to promote the legacy and supposed continued relevance of such decidedly counter-revolutionary distortions of socialism?

There is clearly something rotten in the heart of the Western left, for both neo-fascism and the red-brown alliance are on the rise. Indeed, “[t]his alliance between neo-Stalinists […] and neo-fascists […] is a twenty-first century version of the Hitler-Stalin pact.”19 It should not be surprising, then, to contemplate that Ó Séaghdha uncritically interviewed the pro-Assad propagandist and Russia Today correspondent Rania Khalek six months ago. Amidst such stark realities, I concur with Hensman that we must pursue and tell the truth as well as seek to bring morality and humanity into politics, among other critical tasks,20 and it is in the spirit of these maxims that I respond critically to Ó Séaghdha’s “Stalin podcast.”

tanks

Vladimir Tambi (1906-1955), Tanks

What Did Stalin Do Wrong?

The struggle for total domination of the total population of the earth, the elimination of every competing nontotalitarian reality, is inherent in the totalitarian regimes themselves; if they do not pursue global rule as their ultimate goal, they are only too likely to lose whatever power they have already seized.”

– Hannah Arendt 21

As if the host and his guests could be forgiven for covering up the Hitler-Stalin Pact—which they cannot—Jeremy and Justin’s ‘homage to Stalin’ comes through very clearly in their responses to Ó Séaghdha’s opening question, regarding which criticisms (if any) the “Proles of the Round Table” have of Stalin’s rule over the former Soviet Union. Still, even before responding here, Jeremy and Justin already have denied that Stalin was a dictator, instead suggesting that certain “people” could criticize him without fear of retaliation. Which people do they mean? Surely, they are not referring to M. I. Ryutin, the first Communist to openly denounce Stalin’s personal dictatorship and war on the peasantry in his 1932 appeal to the Central Committee, requesting Stalin’s deposition and an end to forced collectivization. Stalin responded by demanding Ryutin’s execution, yet, due to the objection of members of the Politburo (the highest-ranking body within the Communist Party), this renegade Communist was banished and only murdered five years later in the Purges. In addition, Stalin executed Ryutin’s sons, banished his wife to a prison camp, and temporarily exiled the Jewish Politburo members Lev Kamenev and Gregory Zinoviev for their supposed complicity in the affair—thus foreshadowing their ultimate fate in the Purges.22

Evidently, the “Proles of the Round Table” rely on a misunderstanding of what dictatorship is—that is, centralized and effectively absolute power over the State and military apparatus. They miss Voline’s point that “dictatorship […] being universal and universally embraced, the way is open for fascist psychology, ideology and action.” With their comment on Stalin’s openness to criticism, they would consciously eliminate from history all the artists, intellectuals, dissidents, workers, and peasants who were imprisoned, tortured, and murdered in the Stalinist Terror, including the writer Isaac Babel, the renowned poet Anna Akhmatova’s son Lev Gumilyov (imprisoned in the GULAG slave-labor camps) and her husbands Nikolai Gumilyov, who was murdered by the CheKa (precursor to the NKVD, or Soviet Interior Ministry: Stalin’s secret police), and Nikolai Punin (who died in the GULAG), as well as the Russian Makhnovist Peter Arshinov, who was executed in the Terror in 1937 or 1938 on the charge of organizing to resurrect the anarchist movement in the Soviet Union—to say nothing of all the “Old Bolsheviks” killed in the Moscow Show Trials.

Jeremy and Justin therefore reject the historical reality that, following the expulsion in 1927 of his primary rival Lev Trotsky from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, “there is little doubt that Stalin and a narrow circle of aides made all the historical decisions of the period.”23 Kamenev and Zinoviev, who had joined with Trotsky (also Jewish) in 1926 to form a “United Opposition” to Stalin, quickly recanted following Trotsky’s forced exile in 1928. Lacking a base among either workers or peasants, these rivals of Stalin were outmaneuvered by the General Secretary’s construction of a vast bureaucracy.24 The “Proles of the Round Table” thus omit Stalin’s internal liquidation of factions, his utter subordination of foreign Communist Parties to his arbitrary rule, and his war on the remnants of intellectual freedom in the USSR.25 Like other authoritarian socialists, Justin and Jeremy misleadingly conflate the Communist Party bureaucracy with the proletariat and peasantry it exploited and dominated—a notion with which Ó Séaghdha concurs, insisting as he does that historical Stalinist bureaucracies have represented “mass-proletarian movements.” This is a classic exposition of “substitutionism,” whereby élites of intellectuals and/or bureaucrats rule over the working classes by proxy and in their supposed interests, though without any democratic participation on the part of workers and peasants. The ill-named concept of “democratic centralism” expresses the same dictatorial idea.

Therefore, rather than reflect thoughtfully on the history of the Russian Revolution and the Soviet Union, Jeremy and Justin vigorously defend Stalin’s technocratic and genocidal legacy of authoritarian high modernism, whereby the centralized power of the totalitarian State is employed “scientifically” and expeditiously to transform society not in the interests of humanity or the working classes, but the Party bureaucracy and state-capitalism.26

According to the “Proles of the Round Table,” these were the three greatest mistakes or crimes for which Stalin is responsible during his three decades as General Secretary of the Soviet Union, from 1922-1952:

  1. Justin argues that Stalin should have supported the Spanish Revolution more, although Jeremy is quick to clarify that he did not “betray” it. The pair detail the extent to which Stalin supplied arms and ammunition to the Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War—yet Jeremy suggests that, had Stalin provided greater assistance to the Republic, the Soviet Union might not have been able to resist Nazi and Japanese expansionism during World War II. Of course, he fails to mention the Hitler-Stalin Pact here; neither does he seem to consider that, had the Nationalist forces been defeated in Spain, Hitler may have been checked before even launching World War II. Jeremy and Justin contend that Stalin’s intervention in Spain was benign, and that it’s “patently false” that his Comintern agents “maliciously murdered anarchists […] in the streets.” Both claims are complete lies. Firstly, Stalin effectively looted the Republic’s gold reserves by vastly overcharging for the arms sold to it, as historian Gerald Howson has shown, and the Soviets would often send dysfunctional weapons that lacked ammunition. In addition, Stalin treated Spain as a colonial possession, dispatching NKVD and GRU (military-intelligence) agents there who reported to and acted under him, not the Republican government.27 Even so pro-Soviet an historian as E. H. Carr recognized that the Republic ultimately had become “the puppet of Moscow.”28 Secondly, the “Proles of the Round Table” appear willfully ignorant of the “Tragic Week” of May 1937, otherwise known as the “May Days,” when Stalinists from the Comintern-affiliated Partit Socialista Unificat de Catalunya (PSUC) in Barcelona struck out against the Confederación Nacional de Trabajo (CNT), the Unión General de Trabajadores (UGT), and the Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista (POUM), in an effort to uphold “antifascist unity” while crushing the ongoing social revolution. In effect, the May Days “guaranteed the armed victory of the Stalinist-led counter-revolution,” which in turn allowed for the victory of Nationalist forces, following the rationale that “Stalin feared his leftist rivals in Spain more than he did Franco.”29
  2. The deportation to Irkutsk and Siberia of “10,000 Soviet citizens” from the Volga region who were ethnic Germans beginning in 1941, supposedly for fear of their being a “fifth column” vis-à-vis the invading Nazi military. For Jeremy, the error was that Stalin deported these Germans on an ethnic basis, though he definitely implies that the General Secretary would have been justified in deporting or exiling his opponents on a “class” or political basis—because, of course, for Jeremy and Justin, any political opposition to Stalin is “counter-revolutionary,” no matter its actual content, given their absurd view that the General Secretary represented the epitome of the Russian Revolution. In uttering such words, Jeremy unwittingly expresses his support for Stalin’s GULAG system of slave-labor camps on principle. He also underestimates the number of Volga Germans deported by Stalin’s regime by a factor of between 40 and 70.
  3. Stalin’s imposition of Article 121, which criminalized male homosexuality with hard labor, following the Bolsheviks’ earlier suspension of Tsarist-era penal codes against homosexuality after October 1917. Though they criticize Stalin for this reactionary move, Justin and Jeremy try to contextualize the reversal by pointing out the supposedly perceived affinities between homosexuality and fascism at that time, and between homosexuality and pederasty, or pedophilia—thus unironically recalling today’s criminalization of homosexuality under Vladimir Putin. Ó Séaghdha assists by claiming such criminalization to have been standard practice “all over the world” at the time. Yet a fact check shows this not remotely to have been the case.

What’s the problem, then, with these supposed criticisms? For one, they reveal that Jeremy and Justin are not remotely arguing in good faith. To begin with, the guests chuckle when discussing the “shady” actions of NKVD agents “murdering anti-Soviet communists in the background” in Barcelona after Ó Séaghdha questions them about this. They are, moreover, quite dishonest about the overall meaning of Stalin’s intervention in the Spanish Civil War.

Furthermore, regarding deportations, Jeremy completely overlooks Stalin’s far more extensive and systematic ethnic cleansing of over a million ethnic minorities, mostly Muslim, during World War II: Chechens, Crimean Tatars, Kalmyks (Buddhists), Ingush, Balkars, Karachai, and Meskhetians. As there is no mention or discussion of these on the podcast, neither is there any discussion of precisely why Stalin and the Communist Party might have feared these minorities’ siding with the advancing Germans: namely, due to their oppression under the Soviet Union. Forcibly transferred by the NKVD to Central Asia, the Far North, and Siberia like the Cherokee people coerced onto the “Trail of Tears,” many of these oppressed peoples died either during the journey or in exile—leading to the logical conclusion that Stalin is guilty of genocide here beyond any reasonable doubt. Of course, these atrocious mass-deportations go unmentioned by Jeremy, who rather banally asserts that the Volga Germans “had it better” in exile in Russia’s Far North and Eastern Siberia than those Germans and German-Americans detained by the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration in internment camps during World War II. For context, he will later add that he considers Lavrentiy Beria, the successor to the “Purged” Nikolai Yezhov as NKVD chief in 1939—a man responsible for the liquidation of Social Democrats in Georgia and Armenia, Old Bolsheviks in the Terror, and Polish officers captured after the Nazi-Soviet Pact—to have been a “liberal.”30

So beyond proclaiming elitism and substitutionism; arguing in bad faith; and denying atrocities such as the Stalinist dictatorship, the Nazi-Soviet Pact, the May Days, Stalin’s mass-deportations of oppressed nationalities, and the GULAG slave-labor camp system (see part II of this response); Jeremy and Justin now present the classic argument of “whataboutism,” which seeks to distract from the issue at hand—Stalin’s totalitarian atrocities—by falsely claiming that that same issue is dwarfed by some similar issue that is ongoing elsewhere. A fact check shows just how dishonest this argument is: 11,000 Germans and German-Americans were interned in the U.S. during WWII, while Stalin’s regime deported at least 400,000 Volga Germans to Siberia and Irkutsk.31 (For reference, the U.S. interned about 120,000 Japanese-Americans during WWII.)

In sum, Jeremy is lying to his audience when he claims that Stalin wasn’t “just f*cking with people just to f*ck with them.”

deportations

Courtesy Asya Pereltsvaig

Notes

1Raya Dunayevskaya, Russia: From Proletarian Revolution to State-Capitalist Counter-Revolution, eds. Eugene Gogol and Franklin Dmitryev (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2018), 317 (emphasis in original).

2Ibid.

3Elena Poniatowska, Tinísima (México, D.F.: Ediciones Era, 1992) 595-596 (my translation).

4Catherine Evtuhov et al., A History of Russia: Peoples, Legends, Events, Forces (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004), 700.

5Ibid 702.

6Ibid 710.

7Ibid 705; Serhii Plokhy, The Gates of Europe (New York: Basic Books, 2015), 269-274.

8Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (London: Vintage, 2010), 340-345; Plokhy 269.

9Evtuhov 702-703.

10Ibid 673.

11Plokhy 264.

12Ibid 264-265.

13Evtuhov 703.

14Ibid 704-705.

15Plokhy 267-274.

16Rohini Hensman, Indefensible: Democracy, Counter-Revolution, and the Rhetoric of Anti-Imperialism (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2018), 47.

17Alexander Berkman, “A Decade of Bolshevism,” in Bloodstained: One Hundred Years of Leninist Counterrevolution, eds. Friends of Aron Baron (Chicago, Calif.: AK Press, 2017), 122; Nestor Makhno, “The Idea of Equality and the Bolsheviks,” in Bloodstained: One Hundred Years of Leninist Counterrevolution, eds. Friends of Aron Baron (Chicago, Calif.: AK Press, 2017), 58.

18Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (San Diego: Harcourt, 1968), xv, 362.

19Hensman 52.

20Hensman adds the political goals of struggling for democracy, centering internationalism, and advocating for the promotion of human rights and democracy through global institutions (279-302). Beyond this, reorganizing society toward popular power through self-organization in the labor, educational, and territorial sectors (on the social level) is an equally pressing task.

21Arendt 392.

22Evtuhov 671.

23Plokhy 245.

24Evtuhov 641-644.

25Arendt 379; Evtuhov 663.

26James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999).

27Spain Betrayed: The Soviet Union in the Spanish Civil War, ed. Ronald Radosh (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011), xvii-xviii.

28E. H. Carr, The Comintern and the Spanish Civil War (London: Pantheon, 1984), 31.

29Agustín Guillamón, Ready for Revolution: The CNT Defense Committees in Barcelona, 1933-38 (Oakland: AK Press, 2014), 189; Evtuhov 698.

30Evtuhov 692.

31Ulrich Merten, Voices from the Gulag (Lincoln, Nebraska: American Historical Society of Germans from Russia, 2015), 168-170.

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“Lessons from exits foreclosed: An exilic interpretation of the Mexican and Russian Revolutions, 1910-1924” – published in Capital and Class

April 7, 2018

800px-Darker_green_and_Black_flag.svg

I am pleased to announce the publication in Capital and Class of a collaborative work co-written by Andrew Smolski, Alexander Reid Ross, and myself, entitled “Lessons from exits foreclosed: An exilic interpretation of the Mexican and Russian Revolutions, 1910–1924.” Please find the abstract here:

We apply a typology of exile to factions involved in the Mexican and Russian Revolutions of the early 20th century. Our typology is based on Grubačić and O’Hearn’s theory of exile, which seeks to explain how alternative social institutions based on mutual aid, substantive reproduction, and egalitarian, direct democracy come into being and sustain themselves. We argue for exile as a determinant of revolutionary outcomes and the state (de)formation process and that we must understand exile-in-rupture as a moment when structures are at maximal flux due to the existence of exilic factions. By doing so, we offer a novel approach to understanding revolutions and state (de)formation based upon the alliances between exilic and incorporative factions. Through descriptions of loyalty bargains made, maintained, and broken during the Mexican and Russian Revolutions, we demonstrate how factions representing autonomy and exit are excluded from the resulting political-economic order post-Revolution, while their energy and power are leveraged during revolution itself. Based on this, we argue that exile is a key component of radical strategy, but that it is often precariously based on loyalty bargains that underpin it. Due to exile’s precarity, revolutions are foreclosed by reincorporation into the capitalist world-system as states are (re)formed by incorporative factions. Therefore, exile is both a necessary and contingent component of revolution and state (de)formation.

Red and Black October: An Anarchist Perspective on the Russian Revolution for its 100th Anniversary

December 15, 2017

A hundred years [correction: 100 years and 37 days] from the day that the Winter Palace fell in PetrogradOctober 25 in the Julian calendar, November 7 in the Gregorian—we present an anarchist perspective on the Russian Revolution, which began in February 1917 with a mass-mobilization and mutinies that deposed Tsar Nicholas II. Though the Revolution contained an awesome amount of liberatory potential as reflected in workers’ self-management and peasant land-seizures, it took a fatal turn with the seizure of power by the authoritarian Bolshevik Party. #RussianRev100Years #1917LIVE #1917CROWD #1917UNDEAD

Table of Contents

What precipitated the crisis and revolutionary events of 1917?

What helped propel the Revolution?

What was the anarchist role in the Revolution?

How did the events beginning in 1917 present two opposing conceptions of social revolution?

How did the Revolution go wrong?

What was the role of the Bolshevik Party?

What was the Red Terror?

What was the Russian Civil War?

What about the imperialists?

What happened in Ukraine?

Were Makhno and his followers anti-Semitic?

What happened at Kronstadt in 1921?

How did Lenin contradict his supposed anti-imperialist principles while in power?

How did Red October, the Red Terror, and the Civil War lead to Stalin’s rule?

What lessons should we take from the Revolution?

Works Cited

Recommended Statements and Memoirs

Recommended Films

A map of the former Russian Empire using current borders, with important cities, sites, and regions for the Revolution indicated. The black star just west of St. Petersburg corresponds to Kronstadt. Key: red/maroon = Bolshevik control or influence; black = anarchist control or influence; green = Greens or Basmachi presence; pink = Menshevik control or influence

A map of western Russia and Eastern Europe using current borders indicating important cities and sites for the Revolution. The black star just west of St. Petersburg corresponds to Kronstadt.

What precipitated the crisis and revolutionary events of 1917?

Two factors were decisive in the emergence of the Russian Revolution of 1917: the Tsar’s forcible participation in the ongoing First World War, and widespread economic crisis, including near-famine conditions for urban workers. The disorganization of economic life during the war led to critical shortages for both the cities and the Army, thus making the continuation of the war-effort quite impossible. It was in the cities that the Revolution began in early 1917, spreading to the war-front by summer, provoking mass-desertions by conscripted soldiers who had experienced the utter pointlessness of the war firsthand. In fact, the Russian Revolution can in some ways be considered one of the greatest popular anti-militarist uprisings in history.

In February 1917 (March by the Gregorian calendar), starving masses rose up in Petrograd (previously and subsequently again known as St. Petersburg). On the first day of demonstrations, February 24 (Julian calendar), soldiers—perhaps in part with Bloody Sunday in mind—refused to fire on the striking workers and starving women, and the Petrograd garrison increasingly mutinied against the Tsar. Even the Imperial Guards turned on the tsarist police. The regiments in mutiny soon defeated all remaining tsarist forces in the capital, and railway workers defended the revolutionary city by refusing to transport loyalist forces to Petrograd. Finally acknowledging the reality of the situation, Nicholas II abdicated on March 2, ending three centuries of despotism by the Romanov dynasty. The Revolution had begun!

As Voline writes, the February Revolution, “the action of the masses[,] was spontaneous, logically climaxing a long period of concrete experience and moral preparation. This action was neither organized nor guided by any political party. Supported by the people in armsthe Army—it was victorious” (emphasis in original). He clarifies that this incredible historical progression was achieved by the people without leaders, for Yuli Martov (Menshevik) and Vladimir Lenin, Lev Trotsky, and Nikolai Bukharin (Bolsheviks) were all exiled at this time, only to return after February.

What helped propel the Revolution?

Though the February Revolution gave rise to a bourgeois Provisional Government led by Alexander Kerensky, a social-democratic member of the Socialist-Revolutionary (SR) Party, the emancipatory spirit of the Revolution was carried on by the insurgent peasantry and proletariat. The peasants, who made up 85% of Russia’s population at the time, immediately set about expropriating the land after the fall of the Tsar, and the Petrograd Soviet was resurrected from the 1905 Revolution, once again becoming a trusted voice of the working class and ever-greater segments of the Army. Nonetheless, the Provisional Government perpetuated Russia’s participation in the war, a decisive factor impelling the fall of the Romanov dynasty, and Kerensky even re-established the death penalty at the front. He also ordered a disastrous offensive on the Austro-German lines in June 1917.

In August, the White General Kornilov attempted to crush the Revolution in the name of the Provisional Government, but the workers of Petrograd once again mobilized as they had in February to defend the city with arms and by rerouting forces sent via rail to support Kornilov’s putsch attempt. Subsequently, the Bolsheviks won majorities in the soviets, factory committees, and soldiers’ committees, and in light of the Left-Socialist Revolutionaries’ decision to affiliate with them, the Party gained much sympathy among workers and peasants alike. Thanks to its heroic past, the SR Party, which represented the cause of agrarian socialism, had become the strongest party after February 1917, taking the majority of the seats in the Constituent Assembly, and enjoying the support of the majority of the population due to its “solid backing in the villages as a result of its pre-revolutionary activity and its work in promoting peasant cooperatives” (Maximov 50). This arrangement between the Bolsheviks and Left-SR’s would continue until July 1918, when the latter attempted to overthrow the Red State. Following the Provisional Government’s release of an arrest warrant against Lenin on July 6, 1917, the Red leader went underground to plan an insurrection against Kerensky.

For further reading

What was the anarchist role in the Revolution?

Numerically, self-described anarchists in Russia at the time of the February Revolution were not particularly strong, as the movement was just beginning, while revolutionary syndicalism was similarly germinating, and the most radical element of party politics, the Left-SR’s, was relatively weak in comparison to the Bolsheviks. Besides that, the Left-SR’s were actually in coalition with the ruling Bolshevik Party from Red October until July 1918, when they attempted to overthrow their erstwhile allies. Voline emphasizes that, had the anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists had more time than they were given before the Bolshevik assault of April 1918, they could likely have influenced the masses to boldly carry on with the project of free initiative and self-organization made possible by the Revolution. Yet he remarks with disappointment upon his return to Petrograd from exile in July 1917 that, “[i]n the fifth month of a great revolution, no Anarchist newspaper, no Anarchist voice was making itself heard in the capital of the country. And this in the face of the almost unlimited activity of the Bolsheviki!” (emphasis in original).

Between May and October 1917, some anarcho-syndicalists voted with the Reds in factory committees in favor of workers’ control, and the resurgent anti-authoritarianism of the Russian masses after February to some extent led the Bolsheviks to converge opportunistically with anti-statist and federalist critiques, thus misrepresenting their own politics (Goodwin 45-6). While the Bolsheviks did want to end Russian participation in World War I and have the land be returned to the peasantry, it is also true that the Bolsheviks ultimately crushed soviet-based democracythus contradicting their rhetorical commitment to have “all power” be devolved “to the sovietsand only retroactively acknowledged the peasantry’s expropriation of private property since February with their Land Decree, proclaimed on October 26, 1917, the day after the fall of the Winter Palace. Additionally, as shall be described more below, the Reds had a prejudiced, authoritarian view of the peasants in line with Marxist ideology which rationalized the commission of several atrocities against them.

Ironically, then, anarchist sailors from Kronstadt played an important role in the insurrection to capture the Winter Palace. The Dvintsi (from Dvinsk) regiment, both comprised of and commanded by anarchists, was similarly critical in the struggle against Kerensky’s forces. Their commander, Gratchov, distributed arms and ammunition to the workers shortly after the October seizure of power, anticipating the danger this posed to the Revolution, but was killed under mysterious circumstances soon after having reported to the Bolshevik authorities. Anatoli Jelezniakov, an anarchist Kronstadter, was the one who ordered the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly in January 1918, announcing that the parliamentarians had “prattled long enough!” Anarchists also participated in the defense against General Kornilov’s coup attempt of August 1917 and organized libertarian-oriented partisan groups, such as the “M. A. Bakunin Partisan Detachment” of Yekaterinoslav or the Black Guards detachments commanded by Maria Nikiforova in Ukraine. Anarchists were moreover critical to the defense against Admiral Kolchak’s White forces in eastern Russia and Siberia.

Grimly, the Red authorities used the pretext of the Moscow Black Guards’ supposed plans for an “anarchist counter-revolution” to suppress the movement in April 1918, by which time the movement in Russia had numbered an estimated 10,000 individuals (Goodwin 48). In parallel, Nestor Makhno’s Insurrectionary Army of Ukraine was organized on anarchist principles, and the Makhnovists played a crucial role in defending the Revolution from the reactionary White Armies led by Generals Denikin and Wrangel during 1919-1920—before they, too, were suppressed by the Bolsheviks. The Greens, a powerful guerrilla movement spearheaded by deserting ex-conscripts, successfully defended the autonomous peasant revolution against Whites and Reds alike in the Civil War (1918-20) until their eventual defeat by the centralizing Bolshevik State.

The Union for Anarcho-Syndicalist Propaganda began publishing Golos Truda (“The Voice of Labor”) in Petrograd as a weekly in summer 1917, continuing until spring 1918 and then restarting later in Moscow. The Union also founded an Anarcho-Syndicalist publishing house, but both the press and the Union were shut down by the Reds in 1919. Meanwhile, the Federation of Anarchist Groups of Moscow published the daily Anarchy, with an anarcho-communist perspective, carrying on intensive propaganda work from 1917-18. Though Federation members participated with the Dvintsi in the struggle against Kerensky, the Reds repressed the Federation in April 1918, eliminating the last of its militants by 1921. In Ukraine, Nestor Makhno, Peter Arshinov, Voline, and others were involved in the founding in late 1918 of the Nabat (“Tocsin”) Confederation, which sought a unified anarchist movement, proclaimed the necessity of libertarian social revolution through its Nabat newspaper, and tried to organize a Pan-Russian Anarchist Confederation—a project that was directly stifled by Trotsky. Like the Insurrectionary Army of Ukraine, all these anarchist organizations “eventually met with the same fate: brutal suppression by the ‘Soviet’ authority.”

The editors of Golos Truda, who included Voline and Maximov, among others, denounced the ongoing war and called on Russian conscripts to desert the war-effort, thus providing the possibility of an example to the rest of the world’s soldiers, who in unison could ignite a world revolution. The editors considered it their “first duty, our most sacred task, to take up this work immediately in our own land […by ] open[ing] new horizons for the laboring masses, [and] help[ing] them in their quest.” In their initial issues, they emphasized the importance of continuing and deepening the Revolution:

We say to the Russian workers, peasants, soldiers, revolutionists: Above all, continue the Revolution. Continue to organize yourselves solidly and to unite your new organizations: your communes, your unions, your committees, your Soviets. Continue—with firmness and perseverance, always and everywhere—to participate more and more extensively and more and more effectively, in the economic activity of the country. Continue to take into your hands, that is, into the hands of your organizations, all the raw materials and all the instruments indispensable to your labor. Continue to eliminate private enterprises.

Continue the Revolution! Do not hesitate to face the solution of all the burning questions of the present. Create everywhere the necessary organizations to achieve those solutions. Peasants, take the land and put it at the disposal of your committees. Workers, proceed to put in the hands of and at the disposal of your own social organizations—everywhere on the spot—the mines and the subsoil, the enterprises and establishments of airports, the works and factories, the workshops, and the machines.

Golos Truda’s editors stress the need for workers and peasants to create autonomous class organizations in order to press forward with the reconstruction of the economy from below, and the need for intellectuals to focus their efforts in helping the masses prepare for the “real Revolution” of socializing production. By means of such class organizations could the economic system realistically transition into serving popular interests. Demarcating their position from all statists, the editors observe that political parties are required for the task of taking power, but,

To take over the economy, a political party is not indispensable. But indispensable to that action are the organizations of the masses, independent organizations remaining outside of all political parties. It is upon these organizations that falls, at the moment of the Revolution, the task of building the new social and economic system.

That is why the Anarchists do not form a political party. They agitate, either directly in the mass organizations or—as propagandists—in groups and ideological unions.

As an illustration of the same, consider the fate of the Nobel refinery in Petrograd: in late 1917, the refinery’s workers decided to manage the site collectively in the wake of its abandonment by the owners during the Revolution, yet the Red authorities completely ignored their will and shuttered it anyway, laying off all the workers. The situation was generally very similar throughout much of Russia and Ukraine, for the Bolshevik authorities prohibited the masses from independent action, maligning such initiative as a “breach of discipline,” and actively suppressed autonomous social movements like those of the anarchists, the Makhnovists, and the Greens, as well as cooperatives, workers on strike, and peasants in revolt.

Golos Truda’s editors summarize it well:

Anarchism is not only an idea, a goal; it is, before anything else, also a method, a means of struggling for the emancipation of [humanity] […]. One cannot achieve Anarchism in any way except by going straight to the goal, by the direct Anarchist road. Otherwise one never will arrive (emphasis in original).

For further reading:

How did the events beginning in 1917 present two opposing conceptions of social revolution?

Voline emphasizes that, in spite of the “victory” of Bolshevism in power, anarchism represented a real alternative that envisaged “a full and integral social revolution” after February 1917. In 1918, this liberatory alternative posed such a threat to the Red State that the Bolsheviks felt compelled to utterly crush it by means of terror. It was thus through force rather than via discussion or debate that the Reds suppressed the anarchist alternative, initially in April 1918 through outright repression of anarchist individuals and collectives and the shuttering of libertarian social centers and presses, and evermore so between 1919-1921, particularly in Ukraine, where the Makhnovists struggled against White reaction and subsequently against Red betrayal. Voline writes that the period between Red October and the end of 1918 was “significant and decisive, and that it “was in the course of those months that the fate of the Revolution was decided.” Still, it was not until they had suppressed the Kronstadt Commune and otherwise eliminated the libertarian movement by the end of 1921 that the Reds became masters of the political situation, although even then their authority had in reality been destroyed throughout vast swathes of rural regions, as peasants set off mass-rebellions against conscription and the  grain-requisition regimes imposed by the Reds.

Whereas the Bolsheviks implemented statist-authoritarian means as their revolutionary strategy, Russian and Ukrainian anarchists followed Proudhon and Bakunin’s vision of “direct and federative alliance[s]” among the associated workers and peasants with their unions, communes, and cooperatives organized non-hierarchically along local, regional, and international lines. In contrast to the Marxist view of centralization first, followed in theory by an eventual “withering away of the State,” the anarchists stressed the importance of an immediate rather than delayed socialization of the means of production by the working classes. It is therefore untrue that anarchists had no vision for social organization after the Revolution. On the contrary, we see two contrasting principles of organization: namely, the Bolsheviks’ centralist-authoritarian principles versus the anarchists’ libertarian and federative ones. In Voline’s words, “Naturally, the Anarchists say, it is necessary that society be organized. But this new organization should be done freely, socially, and, certainly, from the bottom [up].”

Like Bakunin, Voline sees a role for an “elite” to organize the libertarian social revolution, but such revolutionary organizers must be “true collaborators” with the people, who help them, “enlighten them, teach them, […] impel them to take the initiative, […] and support them in their action,” not “dictators” who hold power dominate, subjugate, or oppress them. This is another key difference with Bolshevism, which prescribes an elite that is to be aided by the masses and armed forces through blind obedience. In contrast, anarchism envisions that, through

The natural interplay of their economic, technical, and social organizations, [and] with the help of the “elite” and, in case of need, under the protection of their freely organized armed forces, the labouring masses should […] be able to carry the Revolution effectively forward and progressively arrive at the practical achievement of all of its tasks.

Against the Reds’ interest in the “organization of power,” anarchists counterposed the project of “organizing the Revolution.” For Voline, there exists “an explicit and irreconcilable contradiction” between the true libertarian social revolution and “the theory and practice” of statism and authoritarianism.

 

How did the Revolution go wrong?

“the forward march of the revolutionary masses toward real emancipation, toward the creation of new forms of social life, is incompatible with the very principle of State power” (Voline).

In contrast to Trotsky’s well-known hypothesis set forth in The Revolution Betrayed (1937), that the “degeneration” of the Russian Revolution came about only with the rise of Stalin in 1924, the Bolshevik seizure of power on October 25-26, 1917, arguably can be considered the beginning of its corruption. Voline describes the storming of the Winter Palace as amounting “virtually [to] a palace revolution” that gave the Reds a clear tactical advantage over the anarchists. That the Russian masses entrusted the fate of the Revolution to the Bolsheviks reflected both the hegemony of statism in the Russian popular imagination as well as the “insufficiency of the preliminary destruction” achieved in the February Revolution. Voline means to say that the people’s toleration of the continued existence of the State after the fall of Tsarism set the stage for the Bolshevik seizure of power and the subsequent deviation and destruction of the Revolution. Instead of the left-wing coalition government favored by the Menshevik Yuli Martov or any sense of direct democracy based on the soviets, the victorious Bolsheviks effectively instituted a one-party dictatorship which claimed baselessly to represent the interests of the proletariat. Subsequently adopting a perspective that in a way anticipated the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt’s distinction between “friends” and “enemies,” the Reds forcibly disarmed the workers and their organizations and suppressed all alternative factions through the use of terror. As the publisher of Gregori Maximov’s The Guillotine at Work explains, during the Russian Civil War (1918-1920):

all-non Bolshevik elements were dubbed ‘petty-bourgeois and counter-revolutionary elements.’ Right and Left Social-Revolutionists, Social-Democrat[s] of all Shades, Maximalists, Anarchists of every tendency—all were placed in the same category of ‘counter-revolutionists.’ Soon these elements began to crowd not only the Tzar’s empty prisons but the vast number of private buildings converted by the Bolsheviks into prisons. Newly built ‘concentration camps,’ which were unknown to the Tzar’s government, were quickly filled (5-6).

In this way, the Bolshevik regime effectively instituted state slavery to defend its hegemony—such was the conclusion reached by Karl Kautsky, “the most prominent leader of world Social-Democracy,” while Lenin still lived (Maximov 20).

It is therefore highly ironic yet also revealing to consider that Lenin’s popularity after the February Revolution followed in large part from the entirely misleading vision he sets forth in the “April Theses” (1917), which argue that the Bolsheviks seek a “second revolution” that would overthrow the Provisional Government; abolish the police, military, and bourgeois State apparatus; and champion soviet power in its place. Acutely aware of the strong libertarian-humanist element in Russian socialism, the former exile knew that openly presenting his political project as Marxian centralism would be a non-starter in the motherland (21-3). Instead, he would attract the masses by appealing to the liberatory memory of the 1871 Paris Commune (31). In fact, such rhetorical “deviations” led several more moderate Russian Social Democrats to criticize Lenin’s call for immediate revolution as a reversion from Marxism to “Bakuninism”: Georgii Plekhanov especially made this connection, judging Lenin’s advocacy of the overthrow of the Provisional Government as “an insane and extremely harmful attempt to sow anarchist turmoil on the Russian Earth” (emphasis in original). In parallel, the Menshevik Martov considered Lenin’s advocacy of bypassing the “objectively necessary” historical stage of bourgeois democracy as a dangerous reorientation of the struggle from Marx to Bakunin (Goodwin 45-7).

Nevertheless, this feigned affinity with anarchism was purely instrumental and opportunistic: while in opposition to the Provisional Government, Lenin had militated greatly against the reinstatement of the death penalty in the Army, immediately upon taking power in October, he took steps to ensure that the revolutionary announcement abolishing the death penalty made on October 26, 1917—the day after the Winter Palace had fallen—was a mere formality. Instead, Lenin greatly impressed the need for the persistence of capital punishment. The appeal to the Paris Commune, therefore, was mere “bait,” a “weapon clearing the road to power” (Maximov 28-34). As the Red leader himself put it, “Do you really believe we shall be able to come out triumphant without the most drastic revolutionary terror?” (29).

Like his lieutenant Trotsky, then, Lenin was a State Terrorist, the “initiator and ideologist of terror in the Russian Revolution modeled upon the terror of the French Revolution” (Maximov 30). By suppressing not only the capitalists but also the rest of the non-Bolshevik left after October, these two figures bear principal responsibility for the vast suffering and death brought about by the Civil War. In targeting socialist-democratic forces of the Revolution for destruction, the Reds similarly targeted the masses of workers and peasants who supported these forces. In contrast, Maximov speculates that, had the broad Russian left been united rather than dealing with a treacherous war launched on it by the Bolsheviks, the “resistance” of the landowners and reactionaries who would go on to comprise the White Armies would have been easily defeated, and the need to resort to terror quite baseless (32-3). Instead, a myriad of socialist and anarchist groups, trade unions, and cooperatives became the regime’s adversaries (37). In parallel, workers and peasants who resisted Bolshevik policies—such as in the case of the latter, vast grain requisitions taken indiscriminately by the Red Army from rich and poor peasants alike to feed the cities—were depicted as “enemies of the people” (39). For this reason, many were targeted for arrest or assassination by the CheKa, or the Extraordinary Committee, which Lenin established in December 1917 (54-6).

For Maximov, then, the Marxist-Leninist centralized State views virtually the entire population as its enemy, with its only “friend” being the minority of pro-Bolshevik workers. This political strategy of championing the dictatorship of the proletariat—or really, the Party over the proletariat and the peasantry—hence inevitably becomes “a slaveholders democracy, which, as distinguished from the one of the ancient world, has for its aim freedom, economic equality, freeing the entire population from slavery, and all this is to be realized… by enslaving the entire population! Could there be a more absurd theory?” (41). Maximov here echoes Bakunin’s prescient warnings about the the risks associated with a Red bureaucracy: “Take the fiercest revolutionary and put him on the All-Russian throne or give him dictatorial power, […] and he will become worse than Alexander Nikolaevich [Alexander II] himself in a year.”

In light of the constellation of forces after Red October, it is quite unsurprising that freedom and equality came to be associated under Lenin with bourgeois delusions, and the critical victories over Tsarism represented by the securing of the freedom of the press, association, and organization in February thus easily rolled back (Maximov 42-3). Voline observes with reason that this suppression of freedom of speech, press, organization, and action “is fatal to true revolution.” Indeed, the Bolshevik regime revealed its autocratic character through its mass-violation of the formal abolition of capital punishment that had been decreed the day of the fall of the Winter Palace in October 1917 (55). The regime even wantonly executed followers of Tolstoy for observing their religious beliefs regarding non-cooperation with war in refusing conscription for the Red Army (10, 195). Ultimately, Lenin’s terroristic employment of the CheKa was in no way accountable to the soviets but rather a consciously elitist effort to “direct” the Revolution toward the Reds’ consolidation of power by means of the suppression of various rivals on left and right (57-8). In specifically targeting the libertarian movement, the Bolsheviks suppressed the Revolution itself. As Voline recounts:

Thus, inch by inch, the rulers become the absolute masters of the country. They create privileged classes on which they base themselves. They organize forces capable of sustaining them, and defend themselves fiercely against all opposition, all contradiction, all independent initiative. Monopolizing everything, they take over the whole life and activity of the country. And having no other way of acting, they oppress, subjugate, enslave, exploit. They repress all resistance. They persecute and wipe out, in the name of the Revolution, everyone who will not bend to their will.

To justify themselves, they lie, deceive, slander.

To stifle the truth, they are brutal. They fill the prisons and places of exile; they torture, kill, execute, assassinate.

That is what happened, exactly and inevitably, to the Russian Revolution.

For further reading:

 

What was the role of the Bolshevik Party?

The Bolsheviks, the supposed “majority” faction of the Russian Social Democratic Party, agitated and organized against the Provisional Government and Russia’s ongoing participation in World War I following the February 1917 Revolution. Yet as Voline observes, the Reds’ most popular slogansLong live the Revolution! Down with the war! The land to the peasants! The factories to the workers!were in fact appropriated from the anarchists. As discussed above, moreover, Lenin’s public program, as based on the April theses, invoked the liberatory model of the Paris Commune, thus gravely deceiving the Russian masses as to the Reds’ actual political project: the imposition of State capitalism in the name of communism. Consider Lenin’s comments from “The Tax in Kind” (1921), that,

[w]hile the revolution in Germany still tarries, our task should be to learn from the Germans how to run state capitalism, by all means to copy it from them and not to spare dictatorial methods in order to accelerate this process of taking over from the Germans, doing it at an even more rapid pace than the one followed by Peter the First in Westernizing barbarous Russia […] (emphasis added).

Wrongly considered the “leaders” of the Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks in fact usurped power from the soviets and thus from the people through their October 1917 seizure of power, completely deviating the course of the Revolution. Even in November 1917, the editors of Golos Truda had anticipated that the soviets could well become merely executive organs of the nascent Red State; this is unfortunately what happened rather soon after Red October. Besides this, the Bolsheviks’ first major imposition on the masses came with the new authorities’ signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Germany (negotiations for which began in November 1917, with its ratification coming in March 1918), an accord that exchanged control over the Baltic States, Ukraine, and Belarus to the Central Powers for Russia’s withdrawal from the conflict. This deal, the invention of Lenin and Trotsky, greatly contradicted the wishes of the Russian masses, the Left SR’s, the Maximalists, the anarchists, and even the majority of the members of the Bolshevik Party’s Central Committee, who preferred to continue a revolutionary war against the Austro-Hungarian and German imperialists. Lenin’s self-assertion here presages the ruthless centralism that would govern the Reds’ consolidation of power through the terroristic elimination of political rivals and enemies, and it would serve as the grounds for the Left-SR’s attempt at their overthrow (July 1918).

The Bolshevik Party carried out one of the most disastrous examples of substitutionism in history: that is, the substitution of the autonomous, independent action of the people by the centralized rule of dictatorship. While they claimed to represent the interests of the workers and peasants, the Reds, “a government [comprised] of intellectuals, of Marxist doctrinaires,” in fact greatly oppressed them by means of their imposition of State capitalism over them. Through the Red Terror and during the Civil War, the Bolsheviks practiced self-preservation at the expense of millions of lives of workers and peasants and the very Revolution itself (Maximov 149, 185). The “bourgeois statist-reformers” Lenin and Trotsky essentially employed instrumental thinking and oppression in their own supposed struggle against oppression, which in effect was quite enslaving, and demonstrated clearly for all “how not to wage a revolution.”

The reactionary meaning of Bolshevik rule is illuminated well by the proletarian Communist Party member Gavril Miasnikov, who was expelled from the Party in 1922, effectively for thoughtcrime. Reflecting on the meaning of the Russian Revolution to date, Miasnikov addresses Lenin directly, observing, “To break the jaws of the international bourgeoisie is all very well, but the trouble is that you lift your hand against the bourgeoisie and you strike at the worker. Which class now supplies the greatest number of people arrested on charges of counter-revolution? Peasants and workers, to be sure” (Maximov 271, emphasis added).

For further reading:

What was the Red Terror?

“Lenin’s mind, like the mind of any partisan of dictatorship, of any dictatorship, works only along a single trackthe police” (Maximov 150).

The infamous Red Terror launched by Lenin and the Bolsheviks in April 1918 sought to resolve the contradiction between the profoundly libertarian progress seen since February with the Bolsheviks’ authoritarian vision for the region. The Terror is outlined in Lenin’s address on April 29, 1918, “The Immediate Tasks of Soviet Power,” which stresses the putative necessity of “halting the offensive upon capital” waged by striking workers and those engaged in self-management and industrial democracy (Maximov 59-62). Acknowledging the “great deal of elemental Anarchism” evident throughout the former Empire, Lenin insists in parallel on the need for an “iron power” to keep the anarchic peasantry under control (63-66). According to Voline, the Bolsheviks saw clearly that allowing anarchists freedom would be equivalent to political suicide. Soon after publishing “The Immediate Tasks,” Lenin reiterated the necessity of an “iron order” and announced a “great crusade” to be comprised of urban workers’ brigades against “grain speculators, Kulaks, village usurers, disorganizers, grafters [… and all] those who violate the strict order established by the State” in the countryside (Maximov 68). The plundering and murders engaged in by Red grain-requisitioners provoked a vast uprising of the peasantry throughout much of Russia and Ukraine—yet rather than lament such a turn of events, Lenin considered it a “merit” that “we [had] brought civil war to the village” (69-71).

The second stage of the Terror, an intensification of the same, began after the Left-SR and ex-anarchist Dora Kaplan’s attempt on Lenin’s life in August 1918. By means of these two stages, by the end of 1918, the Reds had suppressed civil liberties and banned all non-Communist publications, broken up anarchist collectives and murdered individual anarchists, outlawed the Socialist-Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks, suppressed the Left-SR’s, executed a countless number, and incarcerated tens of thousands (Maximov 84). In parallel, the peasantry was used as a target for exploitation and regimentation. Consider this testimony by a Left-SR about the scorched-earth tactics employed by the Reds against the peasants of Tambov:

I was arrested not in January 1921, but in September 1920. There was no wide insurrectionary movement in the government of Tambov, although there were detached cases of armed resistance on the part of the peasants to the requisitioning detachments who were shamelessly looting the villages. On the day of my arrival in Tambov the Central Executive Committee of Tambov Soviets hung out the following announcement, declaring that ‘because of their attempt to disrupt the campaign of grain collecting, the villages Verkhne-Spasskoye (ten thousand population), Koziri (six thousand), and four other villages were burnt, hundreds of peasants were shot, and their property was looted.’ During my six months of confinement in the prisons of the Tambov CheKa I had a chance to see for myself the nightmarish picture of mass-annihilation and ruination of the toiling peasants of the government of Tambov which was carried on by the Communist authorities: hundreds of peasants were shot by the Revolutionary Circuit Courts and the Tambov CheKa; thousands of unarmed peasants were mowed down by the machine guns of the students of military schools and Communists, and tens of thousands were exiled to the far away North, while their property was burned or looted. The same picture, according to the data which the party of Left-Social-Revolutionaries has at its disposal, can be drawn for a number of other provinces: the government of Samara, Kazan, Saratov, in Ukraine, Siberia, etc. (Maximov 87-8).

Official statistics show that there were at least 245 peasant uprisings in 1918, and 99 in the first half of 1919 (Maximov 91). These were cruelly suppressed by the Reds, and such suppression in turn catalyzed further rebellions. Indeed, echoing the Left-SR’s testimony cited above, the CheKa gave explicit orders for the utilization of “mass terror” against villages considered to be supportive of the Green guerrillas, who defended the local peasant revolution (122-3). Additionally, the Reds in 1919-1920 destroyed the Russian cooperative movement due to its ties to non-Bolshevik socialists; as Maximov writes, “the cooperatives furnished an abundant and ever-renewed supply of inmates for the prisons and concentration camps” (132-3). By thus “ruthlessly persecuting all those who differed with them in opinion,” Lenin and Trotsky are clearly responsible for the vast crimes of the Terror, as for preparing the conditions for the 1921 famine, which took the lives of over 5 million people, in accordance with official statistics (96, 185). While 1921 did see drought and a resulting poor harvest, that the peasantry lacked accumulated stock due to the Reds’ grain-requisition regime can explain the breadth and depth of the famine (183-4).

Yet, by this time, Lenin would rationalize such State Terror by saying that the alternative of equality and democracy advocated by Left-SR’s, anarchists, and other democratic critics would necessarily allow the White reaction victory in the Civil War, such that, according to this thought process, Left-SR’s, anarchists, and democrats effectively became imperialist stooges and agents for the “restoration of capitalism.” Lenin explicitly says as much, calling those who “continue to struggle for the ‘equality of labor democracy’ […] partisans of Kolchak,” the leader of the Whites (Maximov 94). In this way, the emergence of the Civil War and the White reaction was utilized as a new and retroactive rationalization of the pre-existing Terror, and grounds for its expansion, as in Petrograd and Astrakhan, where the CheKa in 1919 forcibly suppressed striking workers (99-103). Maximov estimates that in 1919 alone, the Chekist terror took the lives of 25,000, with some 44,000 imprisoned and subjected to starvation, forced labor, torture, and rampant disease (111-2). In the provinces ruled by Trotsky, workers were often shot for “violating labor discipline” (136). This follows from the demand he made at the Third All-Russian Congress of Trade Unions (1920) for the “militarization of labor,” and his deluded sense that, the Soviet Union supposedly having become a “Workers’ State,” labor no longer had any need to organize independently of the State.

In February 1920, the CheKa announced the formal abolition of the death penalty in Russia with the exception of the war front, yet in May it was re-established by official decree. Just before the ban came into effect in February, however, CheKa head Felix Dzherzhinsky ordered the mass-execution of those sentenced to death, with the Left-SR A. Izmaylovich recalling the shooting of 150 prisoners in Moscow on the eve of the decree’s proclamation (Maximov 119-20). Red authoritarianism only burgeoned more: in “The Party Crisis” (January 1921), Lenin defended labor’s militarization, dismissed talk of industrial democracy, and identified the heresy of “syndicalist deviation” as something to be extirpated (Maximov 144-5). Whereas the policies of forcible grain requisitions in large part had triggered the 1921-1922 famine, Lenin in no way relieved the peasantry of this yoke but instead continued to demand further extraction, wielding terror against peasants who resisted and restricting the movement of starving peasants to other provinces in search of food by means of military cordons (149-50).

Thus, in contrast to the political opening expected by many leftists, workers, and peasants following the victory over the Whites in the Civil War—the hopes of getting on with the project of instituting a new Paris Commune in Russia, as falsely projected by Lenin in 1917 and 1918—the Reds showed that they were fully prepared to continue using State Terror to hold on to power. Alongside the fate of the Makhnovists, the suppression of the Kronstadt Commune is the best evidence for this sad reality, accounting for a quarter of the estimated 70,000 lives taken by the Red Terror in the year 1921 (Maximov 199).

Altogether, from 1917 to 1924, Maximov estimates that 200,000 lives were taken directly by the Red Terror, and that the Bolshevik experiment overall cost between 8 and 10 million lives, if we factor in victims of the Civil War and the 1921 famine, or between 10 and 13 million, if we incorporate the deaths attributable to the White Terror and reaction as well as the 1924 famine (Maximov 240-1).

For further reading:

What was the Russian Civil War?

The Russian Civil War, launched by the top-heavy White Army against the Revolution in 1918 with the forces of international reaction behind it, centrally pitted Reds against Whites but also saw important liberatory roles played by the Greens, the Left-SR’s, and the Makhnovists, all of whom opposed Whites and Reds alike. White Armies led variously by Generals Denikin and Wrangel as well as Admiral Kolchak were defeated by the joint action of the people in the revolt, the Makhnovists, the Greens, and the Red Army by 1920. Voline points out that some of this counter-revolutionary militarism was actually supported by Right-SR’s and Mensheviks. Yet by the end of 1919, with “Kolchak and Denikin […] defeated and the movements headed by them […] virtually liquidated,” much of Russia and Ukraine had been “cleared of white guardist bands” (Maximov 113). According to Maximov, irregular libertarian partisans of Russia’s Far East were decisive in the defeat of the Whites in that region (236).

The Greens, so named thanks to their forest and marshland hideouts, united many “deserter comrades” with disaffected peasants impelled by hatred of State exploitation into rural partisan armies that defended the Revolution from Red and White alike in Ukraine, the Volga and Urals regions, Siberia, and some central Russian provinces (Posadskii 8, 11). Makhno, himself a peasant, led the Insurgent Army through Ukraine, inflicting devastating losses on Whites as his liberatory forces went. Influenced by anarchism, Makhno hoped to create a peasant utopia on the land; unlike many Greens, who opposed both Reds and Whites, Makhno engaged in tactical alliances with the Reds until 1920, when the latter betrayed the Makhnovists following their vital services rendered to the defense of the Revolution. Whereas Makhno and his followers together with the Siberian Greens favored free soviets and free federations, the Greens met with a similar fate at the hands of the victorious Bolsheviks: the Red Army engaged in scorched-earth tactics against peasant communities considered to be supportive of the guerrilla movement, specifically targeting family members of known Greens for reprisal in Caucasia, Crimea, and the Don basin (Posadskii 4-14; Maximov 176-7, 194-5).

In response to their perception of the Bolsheviks’ capitulation to imperialism with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the Left-SR’s assassinated the German ambassador and a high-ranking German officer in July 1918, and they spearheaded a short-lived uprising against the Bolsheviks in Moscow. Later, from 1920-1921, the Left-SR Alexander Antonov led a major Green uprising in the Tambov region, one so menacing Lenin would consider it the single greatest threat to his rule. Yet the Tambov Rebellion, too, was put down using overwhelming force, as detailed above.

The flag of the Green Armies of the Russian Revolution

What about the imperialists?

There is no doubt that the capitalist powers intervened on the side of the Whites against the Revolution in the Russian Civil War. The infamous Czech Legion, for example, seized control of the Trans-Siberian Railroad (completed under Nicholas II) during part of the Civil War, and imperialist governments supplied the Whites heavily with arms and ammunition. The “North Russia” campaign by U.S., British, French, and Polish forces captured the key port city of Arkhangelsk from the Reds in 1918. Nonetheless, such imperialist intervention cannot explain or rationalize the depravity of Bolshevik rule. As Lenin and company often blamed the shortcomings of the Revolution on “capitalist encirclement” and the “inaction” of the global proletariat, they assumed that the success of the Russian Revolution depended on the spread of social revolution to other countries, yet did not stop to think that the very opposite might be true: that the “extension of the Revolution depended upon the results of the revolution in Russia.” In this sense, the lack of an expanding global Bolshevik upheaval perhaps reflected workers’ ambiguities about the meaning of the Russian Revolution after its deviation by the Reds. In July 1918, the Bolsheviks would see the repercussions of their negotiating a peace with the German and Austro-Hungarian imperialists, when the Left-SR’s attempted an abortive uprising to overthrow Lenin and his colleagues due to their desire to defend the Revolution by continuing the war against imperialism.

Soldiers from the counter-revolutionary Czech Legion

What happened in Ukraine?

In Ukraine, Makhno, Arshinov, and Voline worked with the syndicalist Nabat (“Alarm”) confederation once the Revolution broke out. The Makhnovists proclaimed “Land and Liberty,” expropriated the land, and promoted soviet-based democracy in the regions they liberated. In 1919, the Insurrectionary Army led by Makhno hailed the Third Revolution against the Bolsheviks and called for land to be transferred from the Red State directly to the peasantry itself.

In 1919, the Reds conspired to crush the Makhnovists, even as the Insurrectionary Army was holding the line against the White General Denikin’s forces invading from the south. The Bolsheviks’ calculus was that Denikin would annihilate Makhno’s forces, thus eliminating a major rival to their rule, and then the Ukrainian peasantry would rebel against the occupying Whites and so weaken it before a victorious Red Army counter-offensive. Toward this end, in June Trotsky declared illegal the Fourth Extraordinary Convention being organized by the Makhnovists and ordered the arrest and execution of a number of commanders, though Makhno escaped unharmed.

Thereafter, the Insurrectionary Army regrouped and rallied to the defense of the Revolution, wreaking havoc in the rear of Denikin’s forces, which were thereafter easily defeated en route to Moscow by the Red Army (Maximov 108-111). The Reds then re-entered into a tactical military alliance with the Makhnovists to rout the White General Wrangel’s forces in Crimea. Importantly, the text of this pact stipulates that those regions in which the Makhnovists have presence are to be governed by the principles of “autonomy, federalism, and free agreement” in their relations with the Reds (126). Yet once Wrangel too had been defeated, Red Army commanders ordered the Insurrectionary Army to incorporate itself into the Red Army (127-8); when they refused to do so, they were criminalized as “bandits,” and the Reds banned their planned 1920 pan-Russian anarchist congress in Kharkov, ordering Makhno’s arrest as a “counter-revolutionary.” The militants were crushed, and the leadership driven into exile (Avrich 60).

The fate of the Makhnovists followed from the Reds’ premeditated policy of physically destroying popular insurgent movements, both “those that were hostile to them as well as those that fought together with them against Kolchak and Denikin” (173-4). How ironic that the anarchists’ heroic defense of the Southern line against the Whites only facilitated the Reds’ repression of the libertarian movement throughout Russia!

A similar story is seen in Russia’s Far East, where the Reds suppressed anarchists, Maximalists, and Left-SR’s after their critical contributions to the defeat of the White reaction in the region (Maximov 237-8).

For further reading:

Were Makhno and his followers anti-Semitic?

No, though Red apologists such as Trotsky like to claim that the Makhnovists hated Jews. Against such slanderous charges, Voline cites the example of Grigoriev, an ex-tsarist officer who led a reactionary peasant movement in Ukraine in 1919 that did engage in pogroms: “One of the reasons for the execution of Grigoriev by the Makhnovists was his anti-semitism and the immense pogrom he organised at Elizabethgrad, which cost the lives of nearly three thousand persons.”

He adds several other reasons showing the Makhnovists’ opposition to anti-Semitism, including the facts that a “fairly important part in the Makhnovist Army was played by revolutionists of Jewish origin,” that the Insurrectionary Army counted with several Jewish combatants and contained entirely Jewish fighting units, that Ukrainian Jewish communities provided many volunteers to the Army, and that “the Jewish population, which was very numerous in the Ukraine, took an active part in all the activities of the movement.”

Thus we see that the Makhnovist movement, though greatly inspired politically by the example of Mikhail Bakunin, progressed beyond this anarchist militant’s conspiratorial anti-Semitism to strictly punish chauvinistic acts inspired by such prejudice. For his part, Bakunin believed in the fantasy of universal Jewish power, and he conflates the power of finance capital with delusions about Jewish domination. See Statism and Anarchy.

What happened at Kronstadt in 1921?

The Kronstadt Commune of March 1921 was preceded by strike movements among workers in Petrograd and Moscow who demanded resolution to their starvation conditions as well as a halt to the terror and free soviet elections. The Reds met these striking workers with mass-arrests, lockouts, the declaration of martial law in Petrograd, and ultimately the armed suppression of workers in the city. As Maximov writes, whether ironically or not, “[t]the Petrograd scene strikingly resembled the last week of the Tzar’s absolutist regime” on the eve of the conflict (160). The sailors of Kronstadt echoed their fellow workers’ demands from across the bay, outlining in the Petropavlovsk resolution of February 28, 1921, fifteen demands, including the re-establishment of civil liberties, free elections to the soviets, the release of political prisoners, the review of all cases of those imprisoned and held in concentration camps, the right to organize labor unions, the immediate abolition of grain-requisitions, the liberation of the peasantry, and the abolition of Bolshevik commissars in the military and overseeing workplaces. While the resolution affirmed its demands within the parameters of the Soviet Constitution, Lenin and Trotsky found it profoundly threatening. They feared that its spirit could spread quickly within the armed forces—that the “petty-bourgeois [sic] Anarchist elemental forces [were] the most dangerous enemy, which might draw many sympathizers and partisans, which might obtain strong backing in the country and change the sentiments of the great masses of people” (Maximov 175). As such, they slandered the Kronstadt sailors, insulting them as being the dupes of Socialist Revolutionaries, a former tsarist general known as Kozlovsky, and the proto-fascist Black Hundreds.

The Bolsheviks then declared a state of emergency in Petrograd, clarifying that any crowds “congregating in the streets” were to be immediately shot, with any soldiers resisting such orders themselves to be summarily executed. The Reds also took several relatives of the sailors hostage (Maximov 165). In response, the Kronstadters took up arms to defend themselves and declared the abolition of the death penalty while themselves taking some 280 Reds hostage. Unfortunately, however, the weather was still cold enough to allow for the bay to be frozen over, thus facilitating a ground invasion of the island-fortress. Ultimately, after more than 10 days of artillery bombardment, Trotsky’s battalions, aided by ex-tsarist generals and supported by Chinese and Bashkir reinforcements, overwhelmed the Kronstadters and retook the island on March 17. An estimated 18,000 insurgents were killed in the fighting and executed shortly after their defeat (Maximov 164-8).

On March 18, the Reds held a public celebration in Petrograd marking fifty years since the beginning of the Paris Commune—this, as Kronstadt lay visibly in ruins. Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, who had attempted to intercede before the Bolsheviks to avert the Commune’s violent suppression, listened aghastly to Bolshevik military bands playing “The Internationale” in the streets. Goldman writes that “[i]ts strains, once jubilant to my ears, now sounded like a funeral dirge for humanity’s flaming hope,” while Berkman caustically observes that “Trotsky and Zinoviev denounce Thiers and Gallifet for the slaughter of the Paris rebels.”

How did Lenin contradict his supposed anti-imperialist principles while in power?

Lenin is known for his supposedly innovative characterization of imperialism as “the highest stage of capitalism,” and his view that capitalism will be taken down by the revolt of peoples oppressed by imperialism. Lenin expressed concern for the persistence of “Great Russian chauvinism” over the former Russian Empire’s numerous minorities and oppressed nationalities. So what was his relationship to such principles after he seized power over the Russian Empire?

Ukraine

See above. The Bolsheviks clearly did not favor Ukrainian self-determination.

Georgia

In February 1921, the Red Army invaded and occupied its southern neighbor Georgia from  Armenia, reproducing the Red Terror in the newly conquered country. This imperialistic venture followed from the general maxim of the Terror: As Georgian Mensheviks had declared independence in October 1917, this renegade province of the Russian Empire required a coercive corrective to its course. An appeal from Tiflis (Tbilisi) workers to the workers of Western Europe from August 1921 speaks to the repression imposed by the foreign Red rulers:

From the very first days Georgia was conquered, we were placed in the position of and treated as slaves. We were deprived of freedom of speech, of press, assembly, and the right of free association. A regime of military labor service has been imposed upon all the workers of Georgia, irrespective of their occupation. Everywhere Extraordinary Committees (CheKa) have been set up […]. The advanced workers of Georgia, irrespective of their party affiliation, are thrown into prison where they are being decimated by hunger and diseases. Human life has become of no value. Innocent people are shot, even those who never mixed into politics, who never took part in any political struggle. People were shot because they served the democratic government, the State; because in open war they defended their native country from the invasion of foreign troops (Maximov 171-2).

Alongside Mensheviks, then, Georgian national-liberation fighters were targeted for elimination by the occupying Reds (236).

Central Asia: Kirghiz-Kazakh Steppe and Turkestan

A map of Turkestan/Central Asia using current borders

Larger map situating Turkestan in relation to western Russia (using current borders)

In Central Asia, the Reds’ desire to maintain imperial hegemony over the region led it to support Tsarist-era settler-colonists against the indigenous populations, resulting in a popular resistance movement known as the Basmachi (Russian for “raiders”), and subsequently intensify the conflict and ultimately accommodate the resistance movement.

Both armed rebellion in the late Tsarist era and the emergence of the Basmachi movement in Soviet Turkestan had important bases in the colonization of the Central Asian steppe during the Tsarist period. This colonization, greatly enhanced by the onset of the Stolypin reforms (1901-3), which effectively targeted the rural commune for elimination, expelled the indigenous Kirghiz-Kazakh people from the best grazing lands and disrupted their traditional way of life, resulting in annual famines from 1910 to 1913 (Pipes 83; Rywkin 16). Increasingly greater stresses on the Kirghiz-Kazakh caused them to revolt in 1916 after they were targeted for conscription during World War I. One important factor that contributed to the popular resistance to this measure was that these Muslims would be conscripted to fight alongside non-Muslims against the Ottoman Caliph (Pipes 83; Olcott 353). Following repression of the revolt, many Kirghiz-Kazakh fled to Turkestan, and this together with the entirety of the travails experienced by the indigenous peoples during the late Tsarist period caused Kirghiz-Kazakh political leaders to seek the definitive termination of Russian settlement of the region (Rywkin 17). To this end, the Kirghiz-Kazakh had, before the 1917 Revolution, begun to demand territorial autonomy above all else, in the hope that self-rule would allow them to legislate in favor of indigenous peoples and reverse the excesses of Russian colonization (Pipes 85).

Following the Revolution and further armed conflict with Kirghiz-Kazakhs returning from exile, the Russian settler-colonists increasingly came to side with the Bolsheviks, hoping to use the rhetoric of proletarian dictatorship against the indigenous Muslims: Bolshevism, in this sense, was to mean the rule of workers, soldiers, and peasants, and since the Kirghiz-Kazakh supposedly had no such organized classes or groups, they were “not to rule but be ruled” (Pipes 86). Delegates to the 1917 Congress of Soviets, fearful of losing control over the empire’s many disparate nationalities and Central Asia’s lucrative cotton production, voted against any consideration of autonomy for Turkestan and the participation of Muslims in the Soviet administration in Central Asia (Pipes 91; Olcott 359-60).

Following up such rhetoric, the Reds, after their occupation of Turkestan in 1919, excluded local nationalists from political power. Even when the Kirghiz republic was allowed autonomy a few years later, Russian settler-colonists in the area refused to accept its sovereignty and worked to undermine it, and the Kirghiz-Kazakh nationalists, without an army, political organizations, or connections in Moscow, could do little to effectively liberate the region. The 1921 and 1922 famines that struck the Kirghiz-Kazakh steppe affected the indigenous populations significantly, as they had lost much of their livestock following the 1916 rebellion and disproportionately received less food from government distributions. The profound effects of this famine can explain the subsequent lack of indigenous popular resistance to the Soviet regime in the Kirghiz-Kazakh region, in contrast to the case of Turkestan (Pipes 174).

The Basmachi

Soviet rule in Turkestan met with greater challenges than that over the Kirghiz-Kazakh region. Though Soviet rule greatly discounted indigenous interests here as it did in the Kirghiz-Kazakh steppe, it met with opposition from an indigenous Muslim government based in Kokand and, following the breakdown of the Kokand regime, an emerging popular resistance movement known as the Basmachi (Russian for “raiders”). As in the Kirghiz-Kazakh region, Soviet power found support from settler-colonial elements, but here it met opposition from the autonomy-seeking Kokand government, supported by the politically-inclined segments of the indigenous populations and anti-Communist elements. The Tashkent Soviet, in an effort to extend control over rural Turkestan, supported persecutions, expulsions from the land, and looting of the indigenous Muslims, creating a situation which one contemporary Soviet official equated with the “feudal exploitation of the broad masses of the indigenous population by the Russian Red Army man, colonist, and official” (Pipes 177-8, emphasis added). Though the Tashkent Soviet firmly controlled urban areas, it had little authority over the countryside, where the populace had been alienated by Soviet cooperation in what it deemed a continued colonization. Tensions at this time between the two rival governments came to a head, and the Tashkent Soviet, fearful of the Kokand government’s emphasis on national self-determination, ordered the city of Kokand destroyed, its government overthrown (Pipes 174-8).

Following this brazen dismissal of indigenous interests, the Tashkent Soviet made little effort to win back the allegiance of its Muslims subjects and made little effort to relieve those affected by the winter famine of 1917-18, thus pushing more Muslims into supporting and joining the Basmachi movement (Rywkin 22-3). To some, the destruction of the Kokand Islamic government and its replacement with a secular, anti-religious State constituted blasphemy and can explain emergent cooperation with the developing Basmachi movement (Olcott 358). The Tashkent Soviet’s efforts at confiscating waqf, or clerical lands, for the benefit of the regime; the closing of religious schools; and the discontinuation of shari’at courts further contributed to popular opposition to the Soviet regime (Pipes 259).

The emergence of the popular resistance movement known as the Basmachi constituted a reaction to perceived Soviet abuses and excesses which, gathering support from the general populace, struggled violently against foreign occupation and resulted in an escalation and intensification of counter-insurgency efforts. In contrast to the later occupation of Afghanistan (1979-1989), the Soviets eventually came to realize that brute force itself would not succeed in bringing an end to popular insurrection in Turkestan, and so they successfully co-opted the Basmachi movement from below by responding to the needs and desires of the populace supporting the movement.

Following the fall of Kokand, many indigenous individuals involved in the government, along with others suffering under the requisitions and looting attendant with the Soviet regime, joined the Basmachi, who previously had been feared by the population at large as bandits and common criminals. The group came to represent the struggle for liberation from Soviet rule (Pipes 178; Rywkin 33). The Basmachi soon grew to control the Turkestani countryside, generally enjoying the support of the population and, by violently punishing collaboration with the Soviet regime, coercing those who would think twice about backing them (Rywkin 35; Haugen 89). Though targeted at Bolshevik rule, the Basmachi resistance increasingly came to represent a Muslim struggle against Russians rather than an anti-communist campaign (Rywkin 38). The movement, plagued by lack of unity among its leaders, hoped to overcome these difficulties and approach victory with the defection of Enver Pasha, a former ruler of Turkey whom Lenin had sent to quell the insurgency, yet who ended up joining it himself. Enver’s integration into the Basmachi strengthened the movement, increasing its numbers to twenty thousand members who now could count a number of victories under their belts. Nonetheless, Enver failed to unify the resistance, having antagonized other Basmachi commanders with his vision of a pan-Turkic Muslim empire (Pipes 258; Rywkin 39). With his death in battle against the Reds in 1922, all hopes to consolidate the resistance movement ended (Pipes 259).

The Soviet regime coupled military escalation in response to Basmachi with political concessions. The combination of these two factors undermine popular support for the Basmachi and thus their effectiveness. Moscow saw in the emergence and perpetuation of the Basmachi movement the persistent refusal of the Tashkent Soviet to grant autonomy to indigenous peoples, such that, in 1918, Stalin ordered Turkestan autonomous. However, the non-cooperation of local communists with this directive caused it to be irrelevant until Lenin later intensified central pressure on the Tashkent communists (Pipes Ibid 179, 183). The result of heavy pressuring, the 1920 Seventh Congress of Soviets was the first to allow Muslim participation, but few would-be delegates attended for fear of reprisals from the then-raging Basmachi movement (Rywkin 26). The Eighth Congress, though, yielded an indigenous majority in the Tashkent government, thus arousing the hopes of Turkestani intellectuals for self-determination. Although Lenin, in contrast to the Russian settler-colonists in Turkestan, may have favored real autonomy for the Muslim peoples of the region in theory, he was not willing to countenance an autonomy that would threaten the unity of the Soviet regime and the centralized rule of the Communist Party (Rywkin 32).

Following these political concessions came a burgeoning Soviet military presence in Turkestan. Eventually, Soviet and local leaders increasingly came to realize that the coupling of military escalation with political half-measures would not bring order to the region. To this end, the administration overturned the most unpopular reforms: the waqf was returned, Koranic schools were legalized, shari’a courts were granted increased autonomy, taxes were cut by half, and food supplies to indigenous peoples were increased (Pipes 259; Rywkin 41; Olcott 360). Moreover, the introduction of the New Economic Policy permitted a return to private trade, and ended the forced requisitions of food and cotton, the origin of much resentment toward the Soviet regime (Pipes 259; Rywkin 41). Given these substantial concessions, much of the previous support for the Basmachi dissipated, and order was restored for the Communist Party in much of the region.

How did Red October, the Red Terror, and the Civil War lead to Stalin’s rule?

As we have seen, the Bolshevik seizure of power gave rise to the Red Terror and the Civil War. According to Maximov, the “entire country was turned into a prison” so that Bolshevik control of the State would persist (192, emphasis in original). The Reds never once tried to negotiate peaceful settlement of conflicts during the Civil War or thereafter, but simply resorted to intimidation as based on the real threat of physical annihilation by means of the Red Army and the CheKa plus its successor, the GPU (State Political Administration) (179, 207). In quashing all alternatives to Bolshevik hegemony, including striking workers and peasants in revolt, the Reds exhausted the sources of resistance that could have averted Stalin’s rise or reversed it shortly after its emergence. By 1922, the rate of State repression against socialists and anarchists lessened to some degree simply because most of them had by this time already been suppressed (213-223). In cultural terms, Lenin’s partner, N. K. Krupskaya, circulated a list of forbidden literature that included Kant, Plato, the Gospels, Schopenhauer, Kropotkin, Tolstoy, and Bakunin in 1923, demanding that libraries remove these authors and works from circulation immediately (221-2). Of course, the Nazis would publicly burn books by many of these same authors in the years to come.

As Paul Mattick argues, there is very little in Stalinism that did not also exist in Leninism or Trotskyism. Indeed, it is quite telling that a variation on the same boast Trotsky would make after the April 1918 raids against the anarchists—that “At last the Soviet government, with an iron broom, has rid Russia of Anarchism”would be used by Stalin’s hangmen to hail the purges against Trotskyists and Old Bolsheviks fifteen years later.

For further reading:

What lessons should we take from the Russian Revolution?

Metaphorically, the Russian Revolution illustrates “the resplendent rays of freedom” melting away an ossified despotism, thanks to the action of “the common people [who] swept over the land like spring floods and washed away the debris of the old regime” (Maximov 336). The heroic, libertarian mass-mobilizations of February 1917 opened the horizon of possibility, astonishing the rest of the world through the suddenness of their overthrow of the Tsar. In this Revolution, the peasantry retook the land and many workers engaged in cooperative self-management of production. Yet the historical burdens of Tsarism put the working classes at a disadvantage, in the sense that they could not self-organize openly as long as Nicholas II ruled. Following his abdication, the absence of workers’ class-organizations which could serve as “receiving sets” for the implementation of anarchism in Russia and throughout the former Empire greatly hampered the cause in the struggle between libertarian and authoritarian socialism that characterized the years 1917-1921. To a considerable extent, this lack can explain the defeat of the anarchists by the Reds in the Red Terror and Civil War.

The anarchist Revolution, of course, can only begin through the action of the masses in conjunction with specifically anarchist militants, who must not be allowed to hold coercive power over the people. The success of this Revolution depends ultimately on whether its emancipatory nature can win over the “neutral” mass through its positive results. A final essential element is working toward the ideological destruction of what Voline terms the “political principle”: statism and authoritarianism.

We close with the most hopeful interpretation of the tragedy of the Russian Revolution, one that is not specific to this event but rather to all other major historical setbacks: “Let Russia serve as a lesson to all other nations. Let the mountains of corpses and the oceans of blood shed by its people be a redeeming sacrifice for all nations, for the toilers of all countries” (Maximov 334).


Works Cited

Avrich, Paul. Kronstadt 1921 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970).

Bakunin, Mikhail. Statism and Anarchy, trans. and ed. Marshall Shatz (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

Bloodstained: One Hundred Years of Leninist Counter-Revolution, ed. Friends of Aron Baron (Chico, California: AK Press, 2017).

Goodwin, James. Confronting Dostoevsky’s Demons (New York: Peter Lang, 2010).

Haugen, Arne. The Establishment of National Republics in Soviet Central Asia (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).

Maximov, G. P. The Guillotine at Work: Twenty Years of Terror in Russia (Chicago: Globus Printing, 1979 [1940]).

Olcott, Martha B. “The Basmachi or Freeman’s Revolt in Turkestan 1918-24.” Soviet Studies 33.3 (July 1981): 352-69.

Pipes, Richard. The Formation of the Soviet Union (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997).

Posadskii, A. V. Девятнадцатый, зеленый… («Зеленое» движение в годы Гражданской войны в России) (Saratov: Publikatsiya RFFI, 2016).

Rywkin, Michael. Moscow’s Muslim Challenge: Soviet Central Asia (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1990).

Skirda, Alexandre. Nestor Makhno: Anarchy’s Cossack, trans. Paul Sharkey (Oakland: AK Press, 2004).

Voline, The Unknown Revolution (Montréal: Black Rose Books, 1975 [1947]).

Recommended Statements and Memoirs

Recommended Films

  • October, dir. Sergei Eisenstein (1928)
  • From Tsar to Lenin, dir. Herman Axelbank (1937)
  • Doctor Zhivago, dir. David Lean (1965)
  • Reds, dir. Warren Beatty (1981)
  • Red in Blue, dir. Thibout Bertrand (2017)

“ZACF Reply to the Misrepresentation of the ZACF by American Journalists and on the Schmidt Affair”

February 24, 2016

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Published on Anarkismo, 19th February 2016

The following is the official statement of the Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Front (ZACF) of South Africa on the controversy that erupted around Michael Schmidt, a South African activist, several months ago. It follows a careful collective discussion process and research and comes several weeks after the last installment in a series of articles claiming to be an expose of Schmidt. As we are also committed to a number of ongoing workshops, activities and publications, our time was limited. It has two main aims: to outline our position on the claims made for, and against, Schmidt, and to respond to a number of false statements that have been made about the ZACF in the course of the developing Schmidt affair.

The statement opens with an executive summary, followed by a much more extensive discussion.

The statement was collectively crafted and issued by the ZACF: www.zabalaza.net

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY (DETAILED ANALYSIS FOLLOWS):

1. The Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Front (ZACF, or “Zabalaza”) is a small anarchist / syndicalist organisation in South Africa, dating back to 2003. It has a long history of militant work and publication, a majority black and working class composition, and connections in neighbouring countries. It was formed on May Day 2003 by independent collectives involved in student and township struggles and in the “new social movements” of the time. In line with its founding documents, the ZACF Constitution and Position Papers, the ZACF opposes all forms of oppression, including racial domination, national oppression, imperialism, the oppression of women and immigrants, and capitalism and the state (http://zabalaza.net/organise/theoretical-positions-of-the-zacf/).

2. We stand for the complete national and class emancipation of the black working class in South Africa through revolutionary struggle, and have a long track record as an organisation that’s political work and social base lie primarily with the black working class and its organisations (see e.g.www.zabalaza.net and www.saasha.net and www.facebook/zabalazanews). The anarchist and syndicalist movement in South Africa is very small, and the ZACF is a substantial and important part of this movement, not a minority strand.

3. In this statement the Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Front (ZACF) discusses the controversy that has surrounded accusations against former ZACF member Michael Schmidt, by the American journalists Alexander Reid Ross and Joshua Stephens and the America-based publisher AK Press. Schmidt left active work in ZACF in early 2009, and resigned in early 2010. The allegations are that Schmidt was, from at least 2002 to the present, a fascist and racist cadre infiltrating the anarchists – including ZACF. Schmidt argues that he has been misrepresented, that his track record and the evidence are at odds with the claims, and that fake right-wing statements he made as an undercover journalist investigating the white radical right have been misrepresented as his real views. Schmidt’s accusers claim these statements reflect his real views, and are part of a larger pattern of ongoing right-wing thought and action.

4. This is the second ZACF statement on the Schmidt affair, in the sense that ZACF was party to a statement issued by the global Anarkismo network on 29 September 2015, which currently comprises over a dozen revolutionary anarchist groups on five continents, most, historically, from the Global South. This statement did not take sides, but called instead for a careful evaluation of the case, the release of all evidence, and on AK Press to state that the accusations applied to Schmidt alone (not to everyone with whom he had been associated (www.anarkismo.net/article/28576). This statement was not acknowledged by Reid Ross and Stephens, or AK Press. The gravity of the allegations does not justify a lack of fair process.

5. ZACF completely distances itself from any and all racist and fascist and white supremacist positions, and condemns them in the strongest possible terms.

6. ZACF completely distances itself from any offensive statements that Schmidt has made, regardless of the rationale for such statements. We are disgusted by what we have read, and by the number of these statements, and note that these statements are indeed deeply racist and sometimes fascist. The “manifesto” and blog posts attributed to Schmidt on the right wing website Stormfront and on his blog at strandwolf.blogspot.com (linked to a group he now admits to setting up named Black Battlefront) are horrifying. It is very difficult for us to reconcile these awful blog posts (and those of several related online personas) with our experiences of Michael Schmidt as an active and dedicated member of our organisation.

7. ZACF views the accusations against Schmidt with the utmost gravity. If the accusations are proven true, ZACF will denounce Schmidt and take all appropriate steps. If proven, the accusations would indicate activities and views completely at odds with the positions and practice and social composition of the ZACF, at odds with the class-struggle, anti-racist and anti-oppression anarchist and syndicalist traditions that ZACF champions, as well as manifest dishonesty on Schmidt’s part. And the ZACF would have been the primary victim of Schmidt’s activities. Schmidt, if guilty, must bear the consequences of his actions.

8. ZACF also wishes to put on record that Schmidt has not been a member or participant in ZACF for over five years, has played no role in the development of this statement, or in any proposals and points that this statement makes, and has not been shown drafts or asked for comment, and also that ZACF has not been lobbied by Schmidt – or anyone else – to make any particular statements on the Schmidt affair, 2015-2016.

9. It is our position that the Schmidt affair cannot be resolved through another round of online articles, social media debates or statements. Not only have the online debates become unproductive and polarised (see point 27) but so much information and analysis has been produced that it is very difficult for individuals and organisations to methodically process and evaluate all arguments made by both sides.

10. In terms of evaluating the charges against Schmidt, ZACF instead supports the 30 January 2016 Anarkismo proposal for an inclusive and international anarchist and syndicalist commission of inquiry, to examine the allegations against Schmidt, as well as Schmidt’s replies to the allegations, with accusers and accused and sources available to answer questions and provide materials to the commission. The proposal does not envisage an Anarkismo-controlled process. Nor would Reid Ross and Stephens, AK Press or Schmidt, decide on its composition. See http://anarkismo.net/article/29047

11. We believe there are real problems with some of the statements made by both the accusers of Schmidt against Schmidt himself, as well as in Schmidt’s responses to these accusations. These may be open to innocent explanations: we keep an open mind. The ZACF will make a formal submission to the proposed commission, and be available for questions and to provide additional materials to that commission. We have extensive archives and records, which back up our claims, for example, about ZACF history (see below).

12. ZACF will also consider itself guided by the findings and recommendations of the proposed commission. The ZACF will address all the allegations against Schmidt himself, as well as his defence, in a separate statement at the conclusion of the commission’s investigations.

13. ZACF wishes to place on record that when similar accusations were levelled against Schmidt from 2011 onwards, we confronted and checked on Schmidt several times. He has always maintained the same basic defence as that he has presented in 2015. Given the evidence we had to hand, and given Schmidt’s record and status as a long-standing comrade, we felt that we had no real choice but to give him the benefit of the doubt. Historically we have critically accepted Schmidt’s explanation for what we felt was the lack of an alternative, but we recognise that an extensive case has now been made against Schmidt, and new evidence brought to bear. This new material and debate merits careful reflection and evaluation, but must be weighed up carefully against his own counter-case – honestly and fairly.

14. ZACF expresses its disappointment with Schmidt’s now-admitted non-disclosure of aspects of his claimed underground journalistic work to the ZACF, both during his tenure in the ZACF and when it previously spoke to him from 2011 onwards. ZACF is highly disappointed by Schmidt’s now-admitted failure to inform ZACF that he knew the identity of a National Intelligence Agency (NIA) spy moving in left circles.

15. We do not, in this statement, therefore discuss whether Schmidt is indeed guilty of all the charges that have been made against him by AK Press, and Reid Ross and Stephens. This statement is not a point-by-point discussion of evidence around Schmidt, and should not be misconstrued as such. It is detailed, not to bury issues in words, but because serious allegations need a serious reply.

16. ZACF rejects the version of ZACF history and politics contained within Reid Ross and Stephens’ articles. We realise well enough that ZACF was not the focus of the articles, and take it in good faith that we entered the conversation only by way of association, but we have to respond to what constitutes (even if unintentionally) a series of very serious, very damaging (and, as we show, false) allegations about our organisation. They were not irrelevant to it, or trivialities that can be ignored on the grounds that the focus was on Schmidt.

17. ZACF specifically rejects the following central claims put foward by Reid Ross and Stephens: that the ZACF considered a proposal for racial segregation in 2003 (untrue), that Schmidt successfully engineered the expulsion of black and township ZACF members in 2005 to whittle ZACF into a white group (untrue), that ZACF’s organisational culture was deeply shaped by an allegedly racist and fascist Schmidt (untrue), that ZACF ignored evidence that Schmidt was involved with the radical right (untrue), that other ZACF members shared Schmidt’s alleged right-wing opinions (untrue), that ZACF opposed feminism (untrue), that a ZACF social centre and garden in Soweto was run on racist lines (untrue), and they speak of a “Schmidt-era” of ZACF lasting into 2009 (untrue). ZACF also rejects Reid Ross and Stephens’ claims about the “national” character of ZACF, claims about the 2007 ZACF congress, claims about ZACF financial practices, claims about ZACF organisational culture and standards, and claims that ZACF ignored a problematic document that Schmidt issued internally in 2008 called “Politico-Cultural Dynamics of the South African Anarchist Movement” (ZACF discussed and rejected the document, and Schmidt also formally repudiated it that year).

18. There is no evidence whatsoever that ZACF was subverted, before, during or after 2008 by any fascist or racist or radical white right agenda, by anyone whatsoever. We are not concerned here with the separate issue of what Schmidt might have done elsewhere, covertly or otherwise in this period, we are stating that ZACF was never influenced by these politics – and that Schmidt never openly pursued any such politics while in ZACF. Contrary to the impression given by Reid Ross and Stephens, ZACF has always strived to act decisively and in line with its revolutionary principles and approach. There was no transition from a so-called right-wing “Schmidt-era” of ZACF, to a new, transformed ZACF later: ZACF theory and perspectives never changed, and the black working class orientation of ZACF never changed.

19. This criticism of the articles is not a matter of “shooting-the-messenger,” but of demonstrating that the message (as regards ZACF) is wrong. It is essential to our honour as revolutionaries to challenge, on the basis of facts, the profoundly inaccurate Reid Ross and Stephens’ version of ZACF history and politics, to clarifying the record of the ZACF, this including Schmidt’s role in ZACF, and ZACF’s relations to Schmidt, when he was a member, and subsequently.

20. Reid Ross and Stephens’ inaccurate representation of ZACF is based on poor research and analysis, and serious factual and analytical problems, regarding not just ZACF but South Africa generally. Eurocentrism and an uncritical embrace by the two journalists of deeply problematic anti-left arguments associated with the South African state and ultra-nationalists, but rooted in the colonial geography of reason, are part of the problem.

21. No use was made of easily available ZACF source materials and archives, and the two journalists have failed to contact ZACF throughout the series to check facts or to provide right-of-reply to charges made. Their account of ZACF is almost entirely based on the views of one former member active for a relatively short period, outsider opinions, dubious inferences from an inaccurate document by Schmidt that was rejected by ZACF, and unsubstantiated and often demonstrably false assertions. The history of ZACF cannot be based on so few sources, especially given that claims made by these sources contradict a larger body of other evidence that has been ignored.

22. Silencing black and African voices, and the ZACF, has been central to the articles’ methodology. ZACF sources were ignored. Contradictory data and testimony was ignored. In particular this relates to one ZACF ex-member and founder member, comrade Mzamani Philip Nyalungu, who was made central to one article (in fact he is the only person we feel was insulted by name, besides Schmidt, in their seven articles.) His testimony, at odds with key claims by the journalists, was not cited, yet the testimony of two white ex-ZACF members was repeatedly presented as self-evidently true. This can be construed as racist: while Reid Ross and Stephens may argue that they have grounds to criticise Schmidt harshly, there is no justification for this treatment of a serious black working class militant.

23. Claims that we are unduly emotional about what we feel is an unjustifiable misrepresentation of the ZACF, that trivialise this misrepresentation, or that present ZACF as ill-informed or ill-motivated, reflect the same colonial and silencing outlook.

24. There was a double-standard throughout the discussion of ZACF, which placed ZACF in a subordinate position, and had racial overtones. Reid Ross and Stephens stated that they concealed the names of the sources cited to ensure their personal security. Yet they provided the name and residential information of a prominent, township-based, black working class ex-ZACF member, while diligently concealing the details of a white middle class ex-ZACF member, no longer even resident in South Africa. No account was taken of the often violently intolerant contexts in which ZACF operates, and how the claims made in the articles against ZACF place it and its members at risk. If Schmidt was a fascist, racist infiltrator who was allegedly sufficiently dangerous to require that sources be kept concealed for safety, as the journalists insisted, then their immediate responsibility was actually to inform ZACF of a potentially deadly security threat. This would have allowed us to take immediate steps for the security of our black working class base. This never happened.

25. The same double standard was evident in the contrasting treatment of AK Press and ZACF. ZACF believes it completely unacceptable that Reid Ross and Stephens informed AK Press of their investigations into Schmidt and pending articles, allowing it to avoid reputational damage with a pre-emptive public statement – yet did not contact ZACF in a similar manner.

26. The development of the Schmidt affair raises questions about the future of the anarchist movement in the Global South and elsewhere. Certainly if Schmidt is guilty there are grounds for serious concern, but we have in mind here other issues that are just as important. The absence of a proper right-of-reply prior to publication, for both ZACF and Schmidt, the neglect for the safety and wellbeing of a black ZACF founder member, the hostile and personalised tone of many claims in the articles, the trial-by-media that has taken place, and the serious inaccuracies in the story around the ZACF, are some of the problems.

27. The ZACF also expresses its serious concern about the venomous and polarised tone that online debates on the Schmidt affair have assumed. A vocal anti-Schmidt current dominates many forums by relying, not on substantive debate, but on innuendos and on labelling, with any disagreement with any part of Reid Ross and Stephens’ / AK Press’ claims treated as the work of fascists, racists, tools of Schmidt etc. In this climate, those with contrary views soon withdraw, rational debate is closed, and more nuanced views that do not fit a neat pro-/ anti-Schmidt position, are lost. This is not a constructive approach to any debate, regardless of the severity of the accusations.

28. A sectarian current has also used the Schmidt affair to attack the ZACF, Anarkismo, and the whole anarcho-syndicalist, revolutionary syndicalist and anarchist-communist mainstream of anarchism. The simple fact of the matter is that, if Schmidt is indeed guilty, he would have betrayed the basic principles of class-struggle anarchism, the ZACF he helped found, the anarchists he has worked with as a militant and as a writer, and the movement generally. Therefore it is false to assume that if Schmidt is guilty, that his views represent, or arise from, class-struggle or Platformist/especifista anarchist traditions.

29. We are appalled that the worst public caricature that has ever been made of the ZACF comes, not from the state, not from capital, not from other left groups, but from people who claim to be anarchists. This is not a sign of a healthy movement.

30. ZACF believes there are also serious North/ South power dynamics at play in the affair that need attention. Precisely because countries like the USA dominate media, knowledge production and publication globally, even obscure writers in the Global North have a louder voice than almost any in the Global South. This is the context that allows the tiny collective running the America-based publishing house AK Press, and two minor (although doubtless well-intentioned and sincere – we are not debating their personalities) American journalists, Reid Ross and Stephens, to propagate their views on a global scale. ZACF simply has no commensurate power, this being directly linked to its African basis.

31. This North/ South situation allows the views of ZACF and Anarkismo, representing far more people and countries than one American publishing cooperative and two American journalists, to be completely marginalised, power reinforcing the process of silencing the African and black and ZACF voices that we have mentioned. It allows AK Press to effectively ban from publication Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism, which was primarily authored by one-time ZACF member, comrade Lucien van der Walt, almost a decade ago, as part of a larger project with Schmidt. It allows Anarkismo’s efforts to democratise the AK Press space by taking responsibility, qualifying its claims, and carrying different views on the story, to be ignored. It allows Reid Ross and Stephens to say what they wish about ZACF from behind the secure walls of the dollar and the American legal system. And it allows the unedifying spectacle of two white Americans doling out advice on racial politics and “the deleterious effects of institutionalized power disparities” to African and black anarchist revolutionaries.

32. We reject the AK Press collective’s attempts to deny responsibility in this affair. By their own admission, they worked with Reid Ross and Stephens to investigate Schmidt, and collaborated with them in compiling evidence; and they have provided the main platform for the mass dissemination of Reid Ross and Stephens’ seven articles. They are as responsible as Reid Ross and Stephens for what the ZACF has endured.

33. All of this is far from the prefigurative, solidaristic and internationalist movement we would like to see change the world. To avoid similar situations in future, we advocate a code of conduct for anarchist or anarchist-identified writers and journalists, that measures be put in place to keep small collectives controlling massive resources – including publishers like AK Press – accountable to the movements they claim to serve, the development of a more inclusive anarchist press, in which voices from working class and peasant movements, from ghettoes, from townships, from labour movements, from the oppressed nationalities and classes, and from the Global South as well as the Global North, are central.

34. ZACF also believes that substantial sectors of the self-identified anarchist movement need to have some serious introspection about the political culture of venom, sectarianism, and McCarthyite-style paranoia, obsessed with ultra-fringe forces like “national-anarchism,” exposed in the Schmidt affair. This that often substitutes for, and certainly hinders, building a mass, sustained, organised anarchism and syndicalism rooted in the popular classes, in labour movements, in oppressed nationalities, and in actual revolutionary struggles. Approaches like those proposed by Anarkismo and ZACF – a cautious approach to serious allegations, the use of a commission – can play an important role in this process.

35. We do not object to debate, or to criticism or self-reflection. Nor do we object to the anarchist and syndicalist movement having open and frank discussions. We do not call for a unity based on ignoring differences or on silence. We welcome open and honest debate as an essential part of an effective political practice. But what we do object to are debates based on sectarianism, personal attacks, innuendos, labelling, and bullying, and a lack of sensitivity to power dynamics.

36. We wish to stress that we have no personal issues with either Reid Ross or Stephens, neither of whom we know. We have no objections to critique. And we note Reid Ross emailed us on 27 December 2015 to state, “You have only my deepest respect for carrying on your incredible work” and stated he was “deeply sorry” if the articles created problems for ZACF. He also stated, “It was always my intention to remove both your collective and Lucien [van der Walt] from the investigation in such a way that would prevent a kind of ‘witch hunt’ effect.” We appreciate this effort to reach out to us, and the sentiment contained in these statements.

37. But the fact remains that the articles have, whether intentional or not, promoted falsehoods about ZACF, created serious problems for ZACF, silenced and even lectured ZACF. Neither AK Press, nor Stephens, nor Reid Ross have admitted this publicly; AK Press cancelled “Black Flame,” of which comrade van der Walt was primary author, Reid Ross and Stephens slated that book in their articles and by implication comrade van der Walt, and the articles presented ZACF as fundamentally subverted by a fascist and racist agenda. This obviously creates problems for ZACF.

38. Although Black Flame has, like any book, various flaws, and is not a ZACF publication, we insist that it is a revolutionary anarchist classic that remains of enduring value. It is a non-Eurocentric South-centred text that, for the first time, places people of colour, the Global South and struggles against imperialism and racism at the very centre of the history, canon and movements of historic anarchism and syndicalism. Reid Ross and Stephens themselves concede the book asserts the “primacy of class struggle and workers’ movements” in a global anarchist struggle – and this is not a rightist or a nationalist position.

39. We therefore urge both Reid Ross and Stephens, as well as members of the AK Press collective, not to fire off a hasty response to what we have written, but to consider seriously and respectfully the problems they have created for ZACF, one of the main anarchist organisations in Africa. And to admit there is fault, and that there are errors in the articles and the process that created them. We have no personal issues with any of these parties: we are raising issues of principle and process that deserve due consideration and a respectful conversation. We urge them to avoid statements that trivialize what has been done to ZACF, and how it has been done, or that evade responsibility by suggesting our responses are unduly emotional or ignorant.

40. If they are deeply sorry for the problems they created, as Reid Ross stated in his e-mail to the ZACF, they should issue a public apology to ZACF and to comrades Nyalungu and van der Walt (approved by ZACF in advance), for the misrepresentations that have been made, and also make a clear public statement (approved by ZACF in advance) explicitly stating that the allegations that they have made against Schmidt refer to Schmidt alone, and not to any publishers, co-authors, editors, left organisations or currents with which he may have been associated. (To his credit, Reid Ross has suggested that he is amiable to the idea of such a statement although we note that it has not, so far, appeared. We note with appreciation a statement by Reid Ross published on 17 February ( http://alexanderreidross.com/ideological-influence-and-the-schmidt-affair/ [10]) in which he states that “some have implicated the wrong people, groups, or sets of ideas”, but do not feel this goes far enough in addressing our concerns and ameliorating the damage done to the political work, dignity and reputation of the ZACF, comrades Nyalungu and van der Walt or “Black Flame”.)

CONTENTS:

**SECTION 1: THE ZACF, AN AFRICAN REVOLUTIONARY CLASS-STRUGGLE ANARCHIST / SYNDICALIST FORMATION

*1A. ZACF: Politics, Record and the Black Working Class Revolution
*1B. Locating ZACF in Southern Africa’s Radical “Humanism” and Revolutionary Non-Racialism
*1C. Online Resources on the ZACF

**SECTION 2: ANARKISMO & ZACF POSITIONS ON THE MICHAEL SCHMIDT ISSUE SO FAR

*2A. Overview of the 2015 Controversy over Michael Schmidt
*2B. How Anarkismo and ZACF Intervened at the Start of the Michael Schmidt Controversy
*2C. A Proposed Anarchist/ Syndicalist Commission into the Charges against Schmidt in 2016
*2D. FACT: ZACF Questioned Schmidt When Similar Allegations were made from 2011 Onwards
*2E. FACT: ZACF has Not Yet Taken a Position For or Against Schmidt in 2015/ 2016

**SECTION 3: GRAVE CONCERNS WITH REID ROSS & STEPHENS’ ACCOUNT OF ZACF

*3A. A Summary of Reid Ross & Stephens’ Inaccurate Claims about ZACF
*3B. FACT: The ZACF Never Considered any Proposal for “Segregation,” Argued Instead for a Black Working Class Focus, in 2003
*3C. FACT: The ZACF Never “Purged” Township Groups or Members
*3D. FACT: ZACF Mass Work in Motsoaledi, Soweto as Against Reid Ross & Stephens’ Disrespect for Comrade Nyalungu and PMCP/ BAG
*3E. FACT: ZACF Spending and ZACF Democracy
*3F. FACT: The 2007 ZACF Congress Aimed to Rebuild the ZACF Presence in the Black Working Class
*3G. FACT: The ZACF (and Schmidt) Rejected Schmidt’s “Politico-Cultural Dynamics …” Document in 2008
*3H. FACT: The Revolutionary Politics of “Black Flame”
*3I. FACT: Dispelling the Myth of a ZACF Debate on the “Recruitment of People of Colour” and of ZACF Becoming “Increasingly Open”
*3J. FACT: Claims that Schmidt Allegedly Voted FF+ were Never Ignored
*3K. FACT: Dispelling the Myth of a ZACF Debate on the “Inclusion of Feminism,” 2009-2010
*3L. FACT: Dispelling the Myth of a Debate on Working with “Collectives with Ideological Differences,” 2009-2010

**SECTION 4: METHODOLOGY: SOME REASONS FOR THE PROBLEMS IN REID ROSS & STEPHENS’ ZACF RESEARCH

*4A. Extraordinarily Narrow Data Collection, which Silenced ZACF, African and Black Anarchists
*4B. A Selective Use of Evidence and Leading the Witness
*4C. The Need to Distinguish Direct Witness Testimony, Second-hand Information and Opinion
*4D. Research Problems with Excessively Using Anonymous Sources
*4E. Fact-Checking Controlled by the Authors
*4F. Was Such Extensive Anonymity Really Required?
*4G. Time Constraints Do Not Explain the Mistakes
*4H. The Lack of a Proper Editorial or Peer-Review Process

**SECTION 5: THEORETICAL FRAMING: SOME REASONS FOR THE PROBLEMS IN REID ROSS & STEPHENS’ ANALYSIS

*5A. Authoritarian Nationalism and Colonial Reason: The Roots of Anti-Left Arguments
*5B. The Unknown Country: Reading South Africa off the USA and Western Europe

**SECTION 6: POLITICAL ISSUES IN THE AFFAIR – AND HOW A BETTER ANARCHISM IS POSSIBLE

*6A. For a Constructive Debate, Against Sectarianism
*6B. The Importance of Consistent Principles: The Double Standards of Personal Security in the Schmidt Affair
*6C. The AK Press Connection: Also Guilty
*6D. The North/ South Dynamics of the Schmidt Affair

Link to the full statement

Review of Herbert Marcuse’s Paris Lectures at Vincennes University (1974)

October 27, 2015
The Burning of the House of Lords and Commons, 16th October 1834 exhibited 1835 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Philadelphia Museum of Art: The John Howard McFadden Collection, 1928 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/TW1258

J. M. W. Turner, “The Burning of the House of Lords and Commons” (1834). Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Published on Heathwood Press on 27 October 2015.  Co-written with R.C. Smith

Herbert Marcuse’s Paris Lectures at Vincennes University
ed. Peter-Erwin Jansen, Charles Reitz
142 pp. – $20
ISBN: 1512319023
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015

Discovered in 2014 by Peter-Erwin Jansen, then annotated and edited by Jansen and Charles Reitz for publication in 2015, Herbert Marcuse’s 1974 Paris Lectures at Vincennes University do not necessarily provide any radical new material in comparison to some of the well-known works which he was already writing at the time when these lectures originally took place. That is to say that there is no grand treasure of previously unseen revolutionary insight waiting to be discovered in these hitherto unpublished manuscripts. With that observation in mind, what makes these lectures significant and worth reading for the Marcuse scholar has to do with some of the finer nuances of analysis that Marcuse presents regarding American society as the most advanced stage of monopoly capitalism. His discussion on the dynamic forces of revolution and counterrevolution are also notable in this regard. When considered in the context of his more major works, these lectures provide further insight into Marcuse’s overall critical theory. For the non-Marcuse scholar on the other hand – that is, the conscious citizen looking to understand the dynamic context of contemporary neoliberal capitalism and its historic genesis – this book offers an entry point into Marcuse’s thought and his excellent, highly reliable analysis of our modern times. This potential entry into Marcuse’s social philosophy is further reinforced by supplementary commentary by Sarah Surak, Detlev Claussen, and Douglas Kellner.

Integration, the dialectic between rulers and ruled, and new social movements

Though these lectures were first presented in 1974, Marcuse’s sharp analysis of some of the key trends of American society at the time highlight much of what we continue to observe today. In some instances, it could be said that Marcuse even anticipates what we now identify as neoliberalism, not to mention the rise of the mass-surveillance state and the underlying struggle and emergence of contemporary social movements.

Consider, for example, his discussion on the integration of the population with the dominant and coercive system of capital. By “integration” Marcuse means to describe: “the acceptance of, and even the identification with, the capitalist system among the majority of the population, including the majority of the working class” (p. 22). The general thrust of Marcuse’s analysis in this regard is the manner in which the dominant forces of contemporary society (the ‘bad totality’) attempt to keep people “within the framework of the capitalist system and, perhaps, even within the frame work of the capabilities of capitalism” (p. 22). As Marcuse explains, this integration is understood to take place “on three very different levels” (p. 22). The first is the sphere of consumption in which, “In satisfying the needs beyond the mere subsistence needs for a large part […] of the population, the increasing productivity of the service industries churns out more and more comforts, luxuries, and services like organized vacations, traveling, and so on and so on. These are powerful mechanisms which bind people to the established system” (pp. 22-23). In a sense these mechanisms of control help mask over surplus repression. They deflect from the suffering and misery which, in many ways, becomes the hidden reality of capitalist society. This is especially so, Marcuse explains, “when the people cannot imagine a better alternative” (p. 23).

The second level is what Marcuse terms “the management of the mind” (p. 23), which means “the consciousness as well as the unconscious” of the subject. In a sense, what Marcuse is surveying here is a reality we now know all too well: the maintenance of the present social order through structural and systemic mechanisms, albeit sometimes subtle, of control and coercion. The rise of the mass-surveillance state, as Edward Snowden has disclosed, is a perfect example. It is worth noting that it is an example that Marcuse also references in his lectures, decades before Snowden’s leaks revealed the hidden reality of state surveillance programs. Other examples can be found in what Marcuse describes as “two less noticeable phenomena, namely, the release and the satisfaction of primary aggression” (p. 23). In other words, “The increasing violence of films and television” as well as “The increasing aggressiveness in sports and entertainment, and so on” are exemplifications of a sinister psychological paradigm, one which we first learn about in the work of Freud. This paradigm, this play of psychic forces, can be described according “to the degree to which a social system frees the aggressive instincts of man and woman and at the same time succeeds in keeping them within the established framework so that they don’t blow up the society, that this satisfaction of aggressiveness strengthens the society which produces such satisfaction” (pp. 23-24).

To further describe the reality that Marcuse is pointing toward, we could cite several other phenomena as practical examples, including the self-deceiving satisfaction of consumerism. At the heart of consumerism and, equally, the greed and egoism commonly observed in contemporary society, is the unleashing and ultimate rationalization of excessive or rapacious desire for material goods, which, in many ways, is linked to deepening repression. On the one hand, consumerism reinforces the existing system; it strengthens some of the basic drives of contemporary capitalist society. On the other hand, in unleashing greed and egoism and rapacious desire, there is a sort of strange rationale on a systemic level which moralizes greed and attempts to keep the ailing psychology of consumerism in check. Thus, in the case of the Libor scandal for example, where it was discovered that banks were falsely inflating or deflating their rates so as to profit from trades, the bankers involved were condemned on a moral level. They were labelled as ‘greedy’ and ‘immoral’ and, in some cases, it was even argued that these bankers were in no way a representation of the system they inhabit. In popular discourse and reaction, it was rare to see any question of the capitalist context, of the logic or rational of modern political economy, which fosters the sort of behaviour of the bankers in question on the basis of the very impulses the contemporary social system unleashes. Thus, in an odd way, we observe another case of the degree to which the contemporary social system fosters, supports or frees antagonistic forces of man and woman while at the same time endeavouring to keep these destructive forces and impulses within the established framework. The satisfaction of greed and rapacious desire, as opposed to generosity, solidarity and egalitarianism, strengthens the system which produces such satisfaction; but it is moralized so as to ensure the maintenance of that system.

The final, third level “on which integration takes place is systematic and overt repression” (p. 24). Marcuse cites a particularly relevant example which concerns many young people today. To quote in full:

Students know all too well, for example, that if there is anything that indicates radical activity on their record, it will be all but impossible for them to find a job, especially with the entirely negative job market.

Allied with this systematic repression we witness a reduction of civilized sensibilities. You only have to look at some of the decisions made by the Supreme Court in the last years in order to see the dangerous extent of this reduction of civil liberties and, at the same time, the systematic and methodical increase in the power of the police, the National Guard, and other so-called forces of law and order.

This may suffice in order at least to outline the integration, the popular support of the system and some of the basic mechanisms which engender this support.

Following this, Marcuse turns his attention to a fruitful discussion “on the question of who is the actual agent of this repression”, or, as he rephrases, “who is actually the dominant class, the ruling class which is in control of American society” (p. 25). Here another example of particular relevance in our attempt to understand the broader social trends of contemporary society might be found, as Marcuse discusses the dialectic between rulers and ruled, offering some key passages which could be said to describe certain aspects of the unfolding of the contemporary neoliberal context (pp. 27-29). Referring back to the analyses offered by C. Wright Mills, Marcuse reiterates that “domination over the capitalist societies today is shared and organized by three groups” (p. 27), namely corporate leaders, politicians and the military. He then describes how this ruling class, “which not only is not monolithic but permeated with antagonisms, has a common feature, namely, the preservation of the established system” (p. 28). It is along these lines where Marcuse offers a valuable insight which further highlights the importance of this text in these early years of the 21st Century. He argues, when discussing the dialectical relationship between rulers and ruled, that the “various components of indoctrination, manipulation, and management of the mind also become […] instruments for expressing the will and the interests of the indoctrinated population” (p. 28). In essence, Marcuse is explaining the relation between structure and agency, in which “the government and its institutions, the ruling class, systematically makes what is called public opinion, but once made, this public opinion, which is constantly being reasserted, has in turn its own influence on the policy makers” (p. 28). One could argue that this practice is even more prevalent now, after decades of liberalization, in which the growing appearance of freedom – to debate policy or to vote according to one’s own will – is actually countered insofar that the people participate in the rule of society – that is, in the perpetuation of the misery of dominant, coercive and hierarchical social, economic and political conditions.

The people can indeed express their will, which is no longer their will but has been made their will by the ruling class and its instrumentalities. The people as authors, the people as buyers and sellers, in turn influence the policy of the rulers. […] There is no doubt that the people who cast their vote in any election are even, in the sense of the system, free people because nobody forces them to vote. But, still, are these the same people who can become subjects of radical change? (p. 29)

There is something horrifying about the reality that Marcuse is surveying here – a trend which, perhaps now more than ever, can be observed in its fullest. It is debatable, firstly, whether one’s vote can actually influence the policy of rulers. The crisis in Greece is a clear example of why such a question is justified. Even in the so-called radical party politics in the UK and the US led by Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders respectively, there is still an element of conformism – an element of conservativism, which, in essence, attests to the deepening of the status quo. The “oppositional” economic policies outlined by Corbyn and Sanders alike are really not that radical. They are viewed as progressive precisely because the social, political and economic context has, after so many years – perhaps beginning with the fall of the movements from the 60s and 70s – moved so far to the right. The arguably general absence of radical political subjectivity within these two examples of so-called radical Left party politics today attests to what Marcuse was indicating decades earlier. In a sense, the dialectic between rulers and ruled has developed beyond Marcuse’s conception, if we consider that, in the very existence of the party itself, the status quo of a less-than-revolutionary politics is upheld. Moreover, there is a distinction which must be drawn today – a distinction between the radical subjectivity of autonomous participatory (democratic) movements and the so-called radical subjectivity of the party, particularly as the politics of the latter persists as an extension of the hierarchical and institutional world, and, generally speaking, is framed largely by the ideology of representative democracy (i.e., democratic capitalism). It is debatable whether Marcuse was feeling his way toward this distinction in his 1974 lectures, but one could interpret his argument along such lines when he writes: “that there is a feedback, there is indeed a considerable degree of activity, opinions, and attitudes by the people influencing the government, and that on the other hand at least recognize themselves in their leaders” (p. 31). He then leaves us with one remark which is particularly telling:

The people as authors, the people as buyers and sellers, in turn influence the policy of the rulers. And it is interesting to think back, and not too long back, when among the American Left the slogan was “Power to the People.” “Power to the People.” The slogan is now used to far less a degree because the question “Who are the people?” cannot for any length of time be postponed (p. 29).

In some respects, the distinction highlighted above seems to be playing out today between the emergence of new social movements – which are grassroots, participatory, generally prefigurative, and more or less horizontal – and the lingering ideology of party representation. One could argue that it is, in part, the question “Who are the people?” that contemporary movements are attempting to answer in precisely the same way that they are also responding to the crisis of democracy. In other words, the question “Who are the people?” is symptomatic of alienation, socially and politically. The correct response is not a turn further away from democratic assembly and participation, to a further deepening of the questionable satisfaction of collective reliance on a leader; it is instead a revitalizing of the idea of the commons, of the grassroots, of collective struggle and solidarity – that is, dealienation on several levels. Occupy-style movements are a perfect example of the general political horizon contemporary social movements are suggestive of in this regard. Attempting on the level of praxis to answer questions around the contemporary crisis of democracy, participatory politics and what it means to be ‘public’ in twenty-first century society, the very political concept and definition of “the people” is brought into direct focus, so much so that the existence of hierarchy is challenged on the basis of a ‘mutually recognising’ politics which insists that the ultimate goal of emancipatory change must be, from the start, a product of (dealienating) interaction.

For Marcuse, the real possibility of a revolution in the most advanced industrial countries is one “not on a basis of poverty and misery, but rather on the basis of wasted abundance” (p. 49). Even though misery and suffering and struggle still play more of a role than what Marcuse may let on, especially now in the context of neoliberal austerity and the systematic dismantling of the welfare state, he is nevertheless on to something when he writes:

The result of the ever more explosive contradiction is the gradual development of what we may call an anti-capitalist consciousness; the development of an anti-capitalist consciousness and of an anti-capitalist mental structure, unconscious, among the population in the metropoles, a consciousness still largely unorganized, spontaneous, without definite goals, but, in any case, the consciousness and instincts, drives, “compulsions,” which very definitely come into conflict with the operational values required to sustain the capitalist system. That is to say, the protest comes into conflict with the so-called performance principle, which is the reality principle governing capitalist society. And against this performance principle, we see now the gradual emergence of an opposition―and I repeat, an opposition still unorganized, still to a great extent spontaneous―an opposition against toil as such, an opposition against alienated labor as a full-time job, opposition against the fact that life for the vast majority of the population, is to cite the phrase from Marx, “life as a means to an end and not as an end in itself,” namely life as a means to make a living, as one says, as a means for daily reproducing one’s own existence without ever, or only when it is too late, getting at the joy of really enjoying life (pp. 56-57).

Perhaps it is no coincidence that, in various instances of Occupy-style events and the ‘movements of the squares’, protest and struggle are just as present in action and language as joy, solidarity, and collective caring. Returning back to the joy of life, while practicing and experimenting with variations of participatory democracy and actual egalitarian possibilities – public and co-operative libraries, public medical tents, solidarity kitchens, social clinics, mutual aid networks, sustainability initiatives, self-managed workplaces – can it be that contemporary movements represent a more developed politics than what Marcuse saw fragments of in his own time? Is it not that these occupied spaces, these commons-oriented and participatory spaces of practice, are built on the idea of alternative forms of social relations which, in the process, seem to demonstrate a more mature form of the sort of new revolutionary movements of the 60s and 70s?  That contemporary social movements are beginning to emerge in challenge against not only the economic status quo but also the social, relational, emotional, psychological, political, cultural, and so on, attests in many ways to the many-sided transformative politics that Marcuse spent years arguing toward. To conclude this thought, consider the passage below in relation to some of the social movements we are witnessing throughout the world today, who aim toward a radical egalitarian and democratic horizon and seem to suggest some sense of a critically retrieved and holistic notion of social progress:

What is required to bring out the full, entire, and qualitative difference between socialism and capitalism is not so much the continued ever more efficient development of the productive forces, but the total redirection of the productive forces altogether towards new goals and toward a new quality of life. Now, in view of this fact, there must be not only the political and economic revolution, not only new institutions and basic social relationships, but also the reversal and subversion of the entire system of values that kept at least Western civilization going, going on the ever more repressive and destructive aspects, until this very day (pp. 59-60).

Capital, radical consciousness, and world-historical revolution

As alluded earlier, one of Marcuse’s principal concerns in the 1974 Vincennes lectures is to continue with a lifetime of investigation into the conditions underpinning the reproduction of the “bad totality” that is global capitalism, as juxtaposed with the possibilities of breaking free from this “Iron Cage,” to use Weberian terminology. As in his “Assessment” of “The Movement in a New Era of Repression” (1971), he observes in these lectures that the contemporary U.S. left lacks a “mass base” among the populace precisely because of the strength of integration, while on the other hand he laments the “sad phenomenon” whereby the oppressed racial and national minorities in the U.S. have been depoliticized and suppressed (p. 4)—thus blunting the revolutionary hopes he had identified as emanating from militant people of color at the conclusion of One-Dimensional Man (1964). The critical theorist moreover notes that, on the international stage, the “arrangement” the U.S. ruling class has made with the Soviet Union contributes to the overall stabilization of world capitalism, and he presciently speculates that a similar “arrangement” would be made with the People’s Republic of China (p. 7). Defining the “objective conditions” as “the strength or weakness of the State or the ruling class [versus] the strength or weakness of the working class,” Marcuse soberly acknowledges that the prevailing tendency is toward neo-fascism rather than any kind of socialism (p. 13, 10). In this sense, Marcuse observes knowingly that the problem of consciousness—the “subjective conditions”—does not have to do with any lack of knowledge regarding the factual situation, for the implicit and expressed political philosophy of the conformist majority in late-capitalist society would seem to be driven much more by powerlessness:

Yes, there are the objective conditions which one knows well: It is repression; it is corruption; capitalism no longer works without   inflation, unemployment, etc., etc. But what can one do? Nothing at all. (p. 18)

In idealistic terms, Marcuse counterposes against such widespread resignation the radical consciousness, which in Kantian terms mobilizes the “imagination as a cognitive faculty” to show “that the impossible is not impossible” (p. 16). It is in this sense that the radical consciousness is “way ahead” of the objective conditions, for it dialectically “projects potentiality in the objective conditions” and “anticipates possibilities not yet realized” (p. 18). Though Marcuse clearly sympathizes with this latter approach, he defines both the conformist and radical consciousness alike as manifestations of false consciousness—insofar as the latter refuses to apply a Marxist analysis to the changes in the capitalist system since the nineteenth century (p. 19). Speaking to the disillusionment felt by many of those formerly in opposition when ‘the Revolution’ was not consummated at the end of the 1960s, Marcuse criticizes the disengagement into which many radicals fell: “Any absenteeism from political life, any absenteeism from links with political activity is escapist and is conformist” (p. 33). Taking an historical view, the critical theorist observes that social revolution is a process, and that it cannot be presumed to be without its regressions. This is particularly the case for the world-historical revolution that Marcuse anticipated as possible for the end of the twentieth century or the beginning of the twenty-first: being “more radical and more sweeping in scope than all preceding historical revolutions,” this “would be a revolution not only in the political and economic institutions, not only a revolution in class structure, but also a total transformation and subversion of values in all spheres and dimensions of the material and intellectual cultures” (p. 59; emphasis added). The philosopher observes that:

we cannot possibly assume that the largest and most radical revolution in history […] would come about in a straightly ascending curve and would come about in a relatively short time. (p. 34)

Though Marcuse remains faithful to the possibility of this world-historical revolutionary transformation, and agrees with Marx that it would have to centrally include the advanced-capitalist core of the world-system, he specifies in the Vincennes lectures that he expects this revolution to be the work of “75 to 150 years” (p. 34)—in an echo of the closing lines to Counterrevolution and Revolt (1972). He clarifies that, though he believes the prospects for this revolution to be long-term, it will never come if the radical opposition does not strive to incubate it now.

As in Counterrevolution and Revolt, Marcuse in these lectures also discusses the phenomenon of the vast extension of the U.S. working class. Citing statistics compiled by Stanley Aronowitz and the U.S. government, Marcuse shows that monopoly capital has largely suppressed the middle class and made 90 percent of the population into a dependent class (pp. 40-42). The theorist then cites a famous letter from Marx to Engels (1865) in which the former tells the latter that the “working class is revolutionary or it is nothing at all” (p. 61). Marcuse interprets Marx’s statement here as suggesting that the laboring class is revolutionary insofar as its “needs and aspiration […] are irreconcilable and incompatible with the capitalist system” (p. 62). Returning to the discussion on conformist consciousness, he then declares the contemporary U.S. working class not to be revolutionary as a whole, though he does endorse Marx’s general point about the conflict between capital and labor, concluding that this antagonism is “bound to explode in the long run” (p. 62). As in a number of other addresses from this time-period, the critical theorist points out the militancy of a radical minority among the U.S. working class, compelled as it is by the combination of workplace alienation and revolutionary consciousness to engage in spontaneous acts of subversion, such as absenteeism, sabotage, and wildcat strikes (p. 63-64). Marcuse sees in such acts, and in the parallel vague public awareness of the obsolescence of the capitalist mode of production, the decline of the performance principle and a growing threat to regnant obedience (pp. 64, 52).

The critical theorist concludes by suggesting that this militant minority among the workers could, like radical students and people of color in struggle, serve as the catalyst for the future disintegration of U.S. and thus global capitalism (pp. 66-67). Closing on an ecological and syndicalist note, Marcuse anticipates laborers challenging workplace hierarchy and humanity engaging in a “total redirection of production […] towards the abolition of poverty and scarcity wherever it exists in the world today,” together with a “total reconstruction of the environment and the creation of space and time for creative work” (p. 69). Anticipating the profound exacerbation of the environmental crisis which was already evident at the end of his life, Marcuse announces that the “abolition of waste, luxury, planned obsolescence, [and] unnecessary services and commodities of all kind” would imply a lower standard of living for the world’s privileged minority, but that such a ‘sacrifice’ in capitalist terms would not be an excessively high price to pay for the possible “advent” of libertarian socialism (p. 69).

Closing thoughts

It is a testament to the fundamental character of Marcuse’s thought that he was able to identify, decades earlier, some of the deepest trends underlying the evolution of late-capitalist society. That he could, with remarkable precision, analyze the earliest developments of what we now understand as neoliberalism is one of many examples of the acute, incisive and penetrating qualities of Marcuse’s social philosophy (and also that, more generally, of the early Frankfurt School). Though it is certainly true that there are dated aspects to Marcuse’s argument in these lectures, this is only understandable considering that it is a basic principle of critical theory to remain rooted in history. Looking back, there may be concepts and arguments which can be retrieved and advanced. But this does not take away from Marcuse’s overall theses, formulated by way of remarkably complex and comprehensive research on the dynamic processes and forces of modern dominant, coercive and authoritarian society – as well as the foundational basis for emancipatory praxis and the development of an actual democratic, egalitarian social conditions.

At a time of endless “critical studies” and commentary, which do not always reach down to the levels of fundamental interdisciplinary analysis representative of the very essence of critical theory, we would do well to reflect on the crisis of contemporary social theory and the need to return to the roots of the Frankfurt School. In confronting the crisis of apolitical social theory, Marcuse can help show us the way forward as almost every sentence he composed in these lectures and elsewhere reminds us of the precisely foundational nature and transformative potential of critical theory.

The manner in which the critical theorist identifies, for example, the changing dynamics of capitalist society—whereby Marcuse suggests that revolution within the most advanced industrial nations will no longer be primarily based on hunger and misery but on wasted abundance (p. 49)—in many ways anticipates what we’re witnessing in these early decades of the 21st Century. Popular movements today – such as the sustainability movement, the circular economy, or the rise of eco-socialism, to name a few – are emerging in response to this very concept. The question of whether these movements are actually revolutionary and evidence an emancipatory politics is a legitimate one. In many cases, these mainstream initiatives – consider, again, the rise in the notion of the circular economy – seem to lack a more fundamental transformative project of thought. But what these movements are responding to – their language, their direction of imagination, and their efforts at re-designing modern political economy, no doubt exemplifies one of Marcuse’s basic arguments in his 1974 Paris lectures. Efforts in the realms of voluntary simplicity, political veganism, green syndicalism, and direct action for the climate represent more radical and direct manifestations of Marcuse’s argument with regard to ecological politics.

It unfortunately seems to be the case that many commonalities can be seen between the world-political situation today as compared to the case forty years ago. In light of the endless wars, extreme and burgeoning economic disparities, and ever-worsening environmental-health indicators, it is evident that capitalism continues to hold all of humanity and nature ransom in the Iron Cage. Though Occupy and the popular uprisings in the Arab world have demonstrated the significant potential for resistance and even revolution, the pendulum has clearly swung back again toward the consolidation of the system in recent years, as seen especially in Egypt, Syria, and the U.S. Perhaps the radical consciousness is more widespread now than before these breakthroughs, but it still confronts an entrenched conformist consciousness among the general populace, at least in the U.S. and Europe, as well as a fascistic concentration of power, wealth, and military might that is coordinated by the transnational capitalist class. Recent events in Greece evidence precisely this point. Here, a counterhegemonic movement emerged as a significant wave of grassroots energy only to crash upon the counter-revolutionary shores of the European Union, its entrenched neoliberal governments, and institutional politics. Greece may have seen mass mobilization, but much of Europe left revolutionary Greek movements to struggle for themselves (aside, perhaps, from the odd ‘solidarity’ march). In this sense, Marcuse’s comments on the glaring absence of a “mass base” for revolutionary social transformation remain apposite, as is the theorist’s analysis of the ideological basis for conformism, underpinned as it is by nihilistic fatalism and a mistaken feeling of powerlessness. Marcuse’s conclusion in the 1975 assessment of the “Failure of the New Left?” remains entirely true today: “[t]he transition to socialism is not now on the agenda; the counterrevolution is dominant.”[1] Though the inertial perpetuation of these negative conditions over time might lead one to conclude that a change in tactics and strategy would be justified, the problem of capitalism and domination still remains, such that the response in parallel likely remains radical mass-struggle to construct an anti-systemic multitude to disrupt and reorganize the hegemonic social, economic, and political institutions in all their facets.

Moving forward, the challenge for emerging scholars and writers in critical theory is to understand what key concepts need retrieval, critical sharpening or abandoning. In light of this challenge, an important question might be raised: how might these previously unpublished lectures inspire a project aimed toward advancing the Frankfurt School? What new ideas do they inspire? In what ways might Marcuse’s thought assist the pressing question of emancipatory politics and contemporary critical theory as we move forward in the 21st Century?

Another key challenge, as Marcuse would have it, is to engage with popular movements and help inform and guide their diversity of struggle today. Marcuse understood, in many ways, that revolutionary societal transformation is a complex, dynamic and many-sided process. In essence, we could say that it is subject to an extended social-historical process of revolutionary transition which could very well “take a time of at least 75 to 150 years” (p. 34). How can critical theory assist new social movements in establishing the basis for emancipatory societal transformation? Marcuse teaches us that, in the years past and in the years ahead, critical theory must constantly and normatively present the challenges of theory to movements in the field of practice. It is always possible that, in an actionist rush of blood for the thrill of practice, movements become inclined to abandon theory, usually to the detriment of practice which then turns incomplete, contradictory and incoherent. To borrow from Andrew Feenberg, theory must be a ‘philosophy of praxis’ – a ‘philosophy of praxis’ that engages on the level of practical action. If Marcuse (and arguably the first generation of the Frankfurt School in general) are the torch bearers when it comes to this philosophy of praxis, it is the challenge of the new wave of thinkers in this tradition to claim this torch and further illuminate the path forward. In doing so, theory must continue to draws its concepts and its inspiration from the revolutionary activity of new social movements and, as Charles Reitz recently commented, normatively challenge them to work for the radical rather than the minimal goals of socialism. If one were to take a single stirring inspiration from these lectures, this would be it.

[1]     Herbert Marcuse, The New Left and the 1960s: Collected Papers Volume 4, ed. Douglas Kellner (London: Routledge, 2004), 189.