Posts Tagged ‘Red Army’

Review of Anarchist Encounters: Russia in Revolution and The Experiment: Georgia’s Forgotten Revolution, 1918-1921

March 14, 2018

A. W. Zurbrugg (ed)
Anarchist Encounters: Russia in Revolution
London, Anarres Editions, 2017. 259pp., £10.99 pb.
ISBN 9780850367348

Eric Lee
The Experiment: Georgia’s Forgotten Revolution, 1918-1921
London, Zed Books, 2017. 160pp., £12.99 pb.
ISBN 9781786990921

First published on Marx and Philosophy,14 March 2018

Both of these intriguing new works take critical views of the Russian Revolution, whose centenary has just passed. Anarchist Encounters comprises an edited volume of eyewitness reports written by Spanish and Italian anarcho-syndicalists who visited Russia in the years 1920-1921 that also includes Emma Goldman’s critique of Bolshevik hegemony over the Revolution, based on the two years she spent living there. Eric Lee’s The Experiment examines the relatively unknown Georgian Democratic Republic, a three-year period of Menshevik, social-democratic governance in Russia’s southern neighbor and former colony that was crushed by the Red Army in 1921. According to Ethel Snowden, a Fabian who participated in a delegation including former members of the Second International who visited the Republic in 1920, Georgia under the Social Democrats represented the “most perfect Socialism in Europe.” As Lee explains, it is rather significant that these internationalists traveled to Georgia and not Russia.

True to their leader Karl Kautsky, who also visited Georgia in 1920 and had emphasized in The Dictatorship of the Proletariat (1918) that there can be “no Socialism without democracy,” the Georgian Mensheviks opposed the Bolshevik seizure of power in October 1917 together with the one-party State which soon followed, declaring independence in May 1918. The Mensheviks’ relationship with the regional proletariat and peasantry provides a less harrowing example than those seen in Russia during the Civil War years, 1918-1921. In parallel, based on their observations of the “tremendous defects of communist centralisation” (73), as writes Ángel Pestaña Núñez, a delegate from the Spanish Confederación Nacional de Trabajo (CNT), many of the syndicalists whose works appear in Anarchist Encounters actively discouraged their labor organizations from affiliating with the Communist International and its Red Trade Union International (RILU).

Vilkens, the pen-name of Manuel Fernández Álvarez, a Spanish journalist associated with the French Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT), observes in his report republished in Anarchist Encounters that, by the time of his visit to the Soviet Union in mid-1920, it was already a clearly defined class society, with “VIPs” receiving higher salaries than the rest of society. Vilkens identifies a sex-economy of sorts among young females who made themselves available to bureaucrats, commissars, and the emerging “Sov-bourg” in exchange for access to greater privilege. He defines the “living conditions of producers in Russia” as “not brilliant,” and identifies compulsory labor under the Bolsheviks’ increasingly bureaucratic-centralist regime to be the continuation of “feudal service” (19). In fact, Vilkens holds the Reds responsible for their shackling of the independent initiative of workers, as is reflected in the Communist Party Central Committee’s decision after October 1917 to favor Taylorism and one-man management over workers’ control via the soviets and factory committees that had (re)emerged during the Revolution. Pestaña, who visited Russia in summer 1920, too, expresses similar concerns about how the committees had degenerated from drivers of the Revolution to an institutionalized “workplace police” (79). Vilkens presents the strike at the Perovo locomotive factory in July 1920 that was met with a show of force by the military and the CheKa, or “Extraordinary Commission,” as a grim “example […] of how the so-called dictatorship of the proletariat imposes suffering on the real proletariat” (34).

Regarding authoritarianism, Vilkens discusses several examples of the Bolsheviks dismissing and invalidating elections of non-Bolshevik delegates to the soviets and laments that the option to recall authorities is effectively absent. As such, he concludes that the soviets have been subordinated to the Red State, such that “a government of bourgeois intellectuals and nobles is imposed on the people: Rakovsky, Manonilsky, Petrovsky, Lenin, Trotsky […]” (50). Indeed, the Bolshevik regime’s continuity with capitalism, according to Vilkens, is starkly illustrated by its delay in the people’s emancipation, seen most clearly in the CheKa dictatorship, which for Goldman represents not just a State within a State but a State over a State. An especially moving episode illustrating such oppression is mentioned by the volume’s editor Zurbrugg: the case of the syndicalist Lepetit, his fellow CGT comrade Vergeat, and Lefevre, French delegates to the summer 1920 Comintern congress, who were denied exit and sent to their deaths in the northern port city of Murmansk once the Red authorities had discovered the delegates’ critical take on the Revolution’s clear betrayal through their refusal to surrender documents.[1]

Furthermore, Armando Borghi, a delegate from the Italian Syndicalist Union (USI) at the July 1920 RILU congress, reports a conversation with Victor Serge which belies the former anarchist’s public support for the Bolsheviks: “In the factories, the disciplinary system is ruthless. Trotsky is a perfect tyrant. There is neither communism here, nor socialism, nor anti-communism, but Prussian military discipline” (84).

In his “Nine Points” on the Revolution (1921), Vilkens clarifies that this event cannot be reduced to the Bolshevik Party, which represents a class above the workers and antagonistic to them; that the “true revolutionaries”—“principally the anarchists”—are persecuted, incarcerated, and murdered without due process; and that consequently, self-management of the workers and peasants, the very meaning of the Revolution, is missing. Vilkens here concedes that the imperialist blockade of Russia represents a “monstrous crime,” in parallel to Pestaña, Goldman, and Peter Kropotkin, all of whom went further than Vilkens in refraining from criticizing the Bolsheviks as long as the imperialist onslaught raged. Yet afterward, Goldman would denounce the Reds for imposing the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which stipulated peace with Germany; commencing the razvyorstka, or grain-requisition regime, which greatly contributed to the famine of 1921-1922; disarticulating the cooperatives; and effectively instrumentalizing the soviets.

Gaston Leval, a CNT delegate to the RILU’s summer 1921 congress in Moscow, observes explicit class divisions in the new education system after visiting a special school in Bolchavo dedicated to the upbringing of the next generation of State administrators and reports meeting Goldman and Alexander Berkman, describing them as highly disconcerted by the recent suppression of the Kronstadt uprising and the ever-burgeoning powers of the police-bureaucracy. In her analysis, Goldman relates her own impression after visiting an official school that this was a mere Potëmkin village concealing widespread hunger and misery.[2] Leval further discusses the Left-Social Revolutionary leader Maria Spiridovna, a former political prisoner from the Tsarist period whom the Bolsheviks imprisoned intermittently from 1919-1921, and Alexandra Kollontai and Alexander Shlyapnikov, leaders of the Workers’ Opposition within the Communist Party, who outlined a more democratic political structure whereby the State would serve trade unions. The Workers’ Opposition met with Lenin and Trotsky’s reprobation—including, per Leval, a specifically sexist attitude by Trotsky toward Kollontai—and as such was silenced at the Tenth Party Congress of March 1921. In 1936, shortly before the beginning of the mass-purges, Kollontai would observe retrospectively that “[Stalin’s] dictatorship brought with it rivers of blood, but blood was already flowing under Lenin, and doubtless much of it was innocent blood” (11).

Now, in The Experiment, Lee describes the development of the Georgian Menshevik movement in Georgia. In his youth, Noe Zhordania, a central figure within Georgian Menshevism, had identified with Russian Populism, but became a Marxist after encountering Kautsky’s writings. During the 1903 split of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, most Georgian followers of Zhordania sided with the Mensheviks, reflecting their commitment to a mass-party strategy, while a small minority, including Stalin and Sergo Ordzhonikidze, joined the vanguardist Bolsheviks. As orthodox-Marxists, the Georgian Mensheviks were committed to a stages theory of history, and so believed that the agrarian and ‘backward’ Georgia required capitalism and bourgeois democracy before progressing to communism. Yet the emergence of the self-governing and anti-Tsarist Gurian Republic among the peasantry in western Georgia from 1902-1906 led Zhordania and other Mensheviks to reinterpret peasants as rural workers, publicly support the uprising, and open party membership to the peasantry.

In Guria, directly democratic village meetings and peasant courts expropriated and redistributed State-owned and private lands, making political demands including calls for a constituent assembly, abolition of the standing army, and freedom of speech and assembly. Interfacing with the Mensheviks, Gurian peasants formed Red Detachments for self-defense, and their efforts, which Lee compares to those of the Paris Commune, met with the support of Tolstoy, who declared that “[w]hat should be done is exactly what the Gurians are doing, viz., to organize life in such a manner that there should be no need for authority” (29). In parallel to the Commune, the first Gurian Republic was suppressed by the Tsar’s overwhelming forces in 1906.

In 1917, according to Lee, Georgian soviets and the State accorded in favoring Menshevik rule, such that there was no dual-power situation in the country, as in Russia: the soviets remained intact and the workers were not disarmed. The Social Democrats rejected Red October and refused to recognize the new regime as legitimate. In April 1918, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan declared independence as the Democratic Republic of Transcaucasia, but its precipitous collapse a month later led the Social Democrats to make an agreement with Germany that permitted the latter’s exploitation of Georgia in exchange for defense against Russia and Turkey. At the end of World War I, the Germans were replaced by the British, who in turn supported the White Armies against which Mensheviks and Bolsheviks alike struggled. In December 1918, the Georgian Mensheviks and Armenian Dashnaks engaged in a brief war over disputed territories that was inflamed by chauvinism on both sides.

In Georgia, the liberation of the land came together with anti-imperial struggle, given the concentration of territory held by occupying Russian state. In December 1917, the Mensheviks passed land reforms confiscating the properties of large landowners without compensation and abolishing the sale and purchase of land, though this market was subsequently reintroduced following the People’s Guard’s suppression of agrarian revolts among the Ossetian minority. Lee here shares Teodor Shanin’s critique of the agrarian reform: that it demobilized the Georgian peasantry. While this dynamic limited what was possible, Menshevik Georgia at least avoided war between the city and countryside, as seen in its northern neighbor during War Communism, and numerous strikes broke out under the Georgian Democratic Republic, reflecting workers’ constitutionally recognized right to strike. The Mensheviks proclaimed several other labor rights and supported the expansion of cooperatives but stopped short of nationalizing industry, mirroring their self-conception as intellectuals building capitalism as the basis for the socialism to come. Even so, the relationship between labor and the Menshevik State provides an alternative to the militarization thesis advanced by Trotsky at the Third All-Russian Congress of Trade Unions (1920)—a proposal that would have to wait until Stalin for its full application.

Ultimately, chauvinistic Menshevik policy toward ethnic minorities such as the Abkhazians and Ossetians precipitated the collapse of the experiment. Whereas the Bolsheviks lacked support in Georgia outside the peasantry and working class due to Menshevik policy, Stalin and Ordzhonikidze exploited grievances held by national minorities against the Social Democrats. In November 1919, the Reds attempted an unsuccessful coup, and in February 1921, they ordered the Red Army to invade following a putatively staged revolt in the border region with Armenia. Thus was Georgia forcibly reincorporated into the Russia Empire, now the Soviet Union. Yet in 1924, a courageous uprising against the occupation broke out, leading Zinoviev to liken it to the Kronstadt and Tambov rebellions in terms of significance, yet this too was crushed.

Thus, these two volumes, anarchist and social-democratic in orientation, provide critically important perspectives for understanding the myriad failures of the Russian Revolution. Both perspectives rightly repudiate the goal of establishing State capitalism through dictatorship. While The Experiment self-evidently lays bare many of the Georgian Mensheviks’ problems—reformism, chauvinism, and a disposition to terror—the viewpoints of the contributors to Anarchist Encounters may in turn be utilized to reveal the affinities between Menshevism and Bolshevism as statist and effectively bourgeois.

[1] Voline, The Unknown Revolution (Montréal: 1975), 321-3.
[2] “Potëmkin villages” refer to the Russian militarist Grigory Potëmkin’s practice of staging fake villages for Empress Catherine II’s review during a 1787 visit to Crimea.


Review: Maoism and the Chinese Revolution

July 25, 2016

Mao Stalin 2

Elliott Liu, Maoism and the Chinese Revolution: A Critical Introduction (PM Press, 2016).

Originally published on the Los Angeles section of the Black Rose/Rosa Negra Anarchist Federation website

This work, the sixth volume in PM Press’ “Revolutionary Pocketbooks” series, provides a compelling review of the philosophy and historical practices of Maoism before, during, and after the Chinese Revolution of 1949. Liu, an organizer with Take Back the Bronx in New York, shows Maoism to be essentially totalitarian—an “internal critique of Stalinism that fails to break with Stalinism.” In parallel to Loren Goldner’s argument in “Notes toward a Critique of Maoism” (2012), Liu accuses Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) of imposing state-capitalism onto the Chinese masses and, indeed, of preparing the way for the liberalizing reforms instituted by Deng Xiaoping after Mao’s death—this, precisely by means of the CCP’s repeated suppression of the revolutionary self-organization of peasants and workers, in keeping with the Lenino-Stalinist tradition. Though Liu focuses more on developments within China than international relations, any investigation of Mao’s foreign policies—supporting the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian Revolution, opening negotiations with Nixon, being among the first countries to recognize Pinochet’s coup in Chile, backing UNITA over the MPLA in Angola—shows the clear error of holding Maoism to be a liberatory philosophy. In this text, Liu analyzes the Chinese Revolution using a libertarian-communist or anarchist perspective.

The origins of Maoism as an insurrectional-peasant ideology owe much to the power of the Stalinist Communist International (Comintern), which, in an effort to protect the Soviet Union by destabilizing imperialism, disastrously ordered the Chinese Communists to ally with the Kuomintang (KMT), led by Chiang Kai-Shek. Upon taking power with the CCP’s aid in 1927, Chiang murderously suppressed the Shanghai and Canton workers’ communes, leading Mao to undertake the Long March to Yanan and a reorientation toward the Chinese peasantry as a potential mass-base. Although the CCP vastly expanded its presence in rural China by mandating land reforms that largely deposed the landlord class, in turn swelling the ranks of the Red Army, Mao’s cadres in certain cases protected the property of gentry who supported the war against the occupying Japanese power, or who were allied to the KMT, as during the case of the United Front strategy again mandated by Moscow to oppose Japan. In playing this conservative role, the CCP foreshadowed the moment it would replace the bourgeois-feudalist ruling class by capturing the State in the Chinese Revolution (1949). Even at this point, the height of victory, Liu notes that the CCP was unwilling to countenance mass-land seizures by peasants or proletarian self-management in the cities.

Instead, Mao largely followed the Stalinist model of nationalization and expansion of heavy industry and collectivization of agriculture, as outlined and directed by the Party in Five-Year Plans designed in the interests of securing “primitive socialist [i.e., state-capitalist] accumulation,” as previously theorized by the Soviet economist Yevgeni Preobrazhensky. In response to the widening class inequalities induced by such developments, Mao in 1956 called for “a hundred flowers to bloom” and manifest popular discontent—or “criticism”—but when “ultra-left” critiques surfaced and mass-strikes broke out in Shanghai, he dismissed such “deviations,” associating them with the “deceived” Hungarian revolutionaries put down by the USSR. The prominent student leader Lin Hsiling expressly identified the CCP as a bureaucracy ruling over the working classes without democracy, and she gained a following for this reason. In response, Mao commenced the “Anti-Rightist Campaign” to purge such critical-intellectual elements together with more conservative forces. Then, the Great Leap Forward (1956-1958), which was launched principally for the purpose of the accumulation of capital, burgeoned China’s industrial and agricultural output as the State extracted evermore from the peasants, tens of millions of whom succumbed to famine conditions.[1] As Liu writes, the hyper-exploitation of the country’s laboring classes implemented by Mao and the CCP caused not only state-capital but also corpses to accumulate. Hence, it is little surprise that, in assessing the revelations made by Nikita Khrushchev about Stalinist atrocities at the Twentieth Soviet Congress (1956) that would ultimately lead to the Sino-Soviet Split, Mao declared Stalin to have been “30 percent wrong and 70 percent right.”

Initiated by Mao to putatively oust bureaucratic rivals and stave off the threat of “capitalist restoration,” the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) brought about a similar dynamic to that induced by the Hundred Flowers Campaign, whereby the CCP summoned revolt from below, only to crush it once it came to threaten Party domination. Whereas the Red Guards called up to defend the Revolution engaged in varying critique of their “black” opponents—the progeny of the deposed feudal-bourgeois class—and CCP cadres proper, workers in Shanghai were inspired to dismiss the local Party leadership and found a “People’s Commune” altogether, leading to the January Revolution of 1967 that spread to several provinces. Though the Commune was defeated through the efforts of Mao and his loyalists, Liu identifies that these developments yielded a distinct “ultra-left” tendency advocating for proletarian organization outside the CCP, “a revolutionary split in the army, and a new revolution in China.” According to Liu, the most prominent crystallization of the ultra-left in the Cultural Revolution found expression in Shengwulian, or the Hunan Provisional Proletarian Revolutionary Great Alliance Committee, whose member Yang Xiguang wrote the highly influential Whither China?, advocating the establishment of a “People’s Commune of China” and recommending that the working classes organize autonomously against the “‘Red’ capitalist class.” Nevertheless, the CCP redeployed the forces of repression to break up Shengwulian in 1968 and thereafter utilized the State to maintain the domination of labor domestically and support enemies of the Soviet Union—UNITA in Angola, Pinochet in Chile—internationally, all the while moving to normalize relations with the US. Lastly, prior to Mao’s death in 1976, the Shanghai Textbook was published, containing a summary of the Communist leader’s views on the supposed transition to socialism—though in reality, as Liu observes, the text is more concerned with the “proper management of state capitalism.”

In essence, then, we see the arc of the CCP’s developments in history over time, from active collaboration with the bourgeois-nationalists of the KMT to the subsequent replacement of feudalist-capitalist relations of production with state-capitalist ones. While Mao and the CCP may have sought to avoid some of the excesses of Stalinism by introducing more participatory elements such as the mass-line, criticism, and self-criticism into the world of politics, in truth they worked systemically to coopt and repress any possibility of a more radical revolution that would institute self-management and autonomy among the Chinese workers and peasantry—in yet another parallel to the Bolsheviks, against whom arose the Third Revolution championed by insurrectional peasants and workers, from the Kronstadt Commune and the Makhnovshchina to other devastating rural rebellions, as developed in the Tambov region in response to famine caused by the Red State’s grain-requisition schemes. As Liu summarizes: “Mao subjectively aimed to prevent capitalist restoration [during the Cultural Revolution] but objectively strengthened its hold, preventing the emergence of any force capable of challenging it.” It is not an exaggeration, then, to assert that, just as Khrushchev continued to propagate Stalinist politics after having denounced his predecessor in the “Secret Speech,” Deng Xiaoping’s capitalist reforms do not constitute a total contradiction to Mao’s established approach, either.

Philosophically, Maoism does not go far beyond Stalinist reductionism, as it cannot. On Liu’s account, Mao’s conception of dialectics rationalizes Party substitutionism in place of autonomous proletarian struggle, and claims that the class politics of a given State should be analyzed with reference to the ideology of its leadership, not the actual class makeup of said leadership. It is due to such facile reasoning that Mao’s CCP could so readily judge Khrushchev’s regime as “bourgeois,” as against Stalin’s supposed revolutionism previously. With the progression of the Chinese Revolution, the CCP came to increasingly slander—much like the Bolsheviks—all oppositional forces as reactionary-bourgeois, even and especially if movements like Shengwulian and the Shanghai Commune were far more revolutionary than it was. As Liu notes, the labels “revolutionary” and “reactionary” in Maoist China were usually decided with reference to one’s relationship to the Party, rather than to the actual nature of one’s politics. Finally, one could likely say that Maoist gender politics are preferable to feudalist-capitalist ones, but these cannot easily be separated from the overall imperatives of Maoist state-capitalism—such that autonomist feminism holds greater promise for collective liberation.

In light of these considerations, Liu’s conclusion is quite right: “[f]or revolutionaries who aim at a free anarchist and communist society, Maoism as a whole must be rejected.” As an alternative to Maoism and all other strains of authoritarian socialism which irremediably substitute Party and State in the place of radical proletarian self-activity, today’s revolutionaries should struggle for “forms of mass, federated, armed and directly democratic social organization” at the regional and global levels, working to “maintain and expand rebel territories that allow for revolutionary activity” as much as possible.

[1] See Yang Jisheng, Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012).