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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)
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KPFK Interview on Eros and Revolution

April 17, 2016

PO_SCSS86_01 (3)-1

On April 11, I was invited to speak with Chris Burnett, host of the Indymedia on Air program (KPFK 90.7, Los Angeles), about my forthcoming book, Eros and Revolution: The Critical Philosophy of Herbert Marcuse.  The recording of our conversation can be found below.

On the Life and Death of Comrade Ricardo Flores Magón

March 13, 2015

Against Capital, Authority, and the Church”

This is part II of an interview with Claudio Lomnitz regarding his book, The Return of Comrade Ricardo Flores Magón (Zone Books, 2014). Part I can be found here.


Continuing in the vein of the last question from the first part of our conversation, which had to do with the profoundly romantic love-relations, both platonic and sexual, that developed among the central figures of the Junta Organizadora of the Mexican Liberal Party (PLM) and those closest to them, what role would you say art and
beauty played in this movement? In the chapter on Magón’s bohemian period, “La Bohème,” you observe that an aesthetic sensibility was intimately related to the humanistic and revolutionary sensitivities felt by the militants affiliated with this group. Indeed, such a philosophical connection between art and social revolution has been identified at different times by Herbert Marcuse and Albert Camus, among others. G. W. F. Hegel is known for his view that aesthetic heroism is seen in one’s commitment to the cause of changing the world.

Although it is tough to respond to a question like this for the entire movement, because there was a fair amount of variation amongst its participants, one can say for the movement as a whole relied crucially on reading and writing—and that beauty was a key reason to gain access to literacy. Ricardo was very explicit in his correspondence on the significance of words, of discussion and thought, and insistent on the fact that it was consciousness, not violence, that really did the work of Revolution. Yet there was quite a lot more beyond the question of revolution itself. First, the contents of Regeneración and The Border included a fair amount of art and beauty—emphasis on poetry, for instance, interest in graphic art, and the recognition of literary authors and works. This emphasis was also critical in the development of interpersonal affinities—a factor that was indispensable for the social life of the militant, as we saw in the discussion of love.

There was also a philosophical principle at stake, which was that the movement felt that humanity was being degraded by contemporary forms of exploitation and oppression, and that beauty was in fact key to the human vocation. So, for instance, in one letter written from Leavenworth to Ellen White, Ricardo wrote: “I could not help laughing a little—only a little—at your lovely naiveté. You say that it is superfluous to speak to me of Beauty, and you say this when it is Beauty what I love most.” More philosophically, again from Leavenworth, Ricardo wrote to the socialist activist Winnie Branstetter that “Man has wronged the Beautiful. Being the most intelligent animal, the one most favored by Nature, Man has lived in moral and material filth.”

I would say that beauty and art were key to the formation of the militants, in the socialization of the movement, in the definition of the movement’s goals, in the formation of spiritual affinities between strangers who could then reach out and support one another spontaneously, and in the philosophical attitude that led individuals to revolt against what might otherwise have been naturalized as “their lot.”

This is also, I think, one of the reasons why we see important militants of the group tending to artistic production at different moments of their lives. In some cases—Práxedis Guerrero, Juan Sarabia, or Santiago de la Hoz come to mind—poetic writing was happening at the height of their role as political organizers. In others—with this to some extent being the case of Ricardo’s plays, for instance—the turn to artistic production is an alternative space for communitarian organization and militancy, at a point in time when political effectiveness in the armed revolutionary struggle had declined significantly. But it is generally true that a great number of militants wrote poetry or found forms of artistic expression, even if it was simply to court a potential lover.

For those who are more familiar with a reductive account of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) that prioritizes the reformist landowner Francisco I. Madero’s Anti-Reelectionist campaign against the Porfiriato—or at least, early on, the Maderista opposition to Díaz’s choice for vice-president in the planned 1910 election—it may come as a surprise to consider that the PLM organized a number of armed revolt in the border region during the lead-up to the Revolution in the hopes of catalyzing a generalized popular insurrection across Mexico. The first came in 1906, the second in 1908, and the third when the Revolution was very young, in December 1910, and then in Baja California during the first half of 1911. The most ambitious of these planned revolts was the first, slated to commemorate Independence Day in September 1906: with the central figures of the Junta Organizadora fully participating, the idea was to attack and take three major Mexican border towns—Ciudad Juárez, Nogales, and Jiménez. However, the machinations of the transnational spy network foiled the uprising, with part of the Junta being arrested and another part managing to escape capture. Díaz thereafter opted to have the U.S. State prosecute the revoltosos for their violation of neutrality laws which had been established during the Spanish-American War in exchange for his non-intervention in that conflict—with this being the very charge on which Magón and his comrades were imprisoned once again for three years in 1907, as retribution for their attempted insurrection. The 1908 revolt, an attack led by Práxedis Guerrero and Francisco Manrique on Las Palomas, Chihuahua, while the rest of the Junta was behind bars, seems to have been ill-advised, and a similar analysis could perhaps be applied to the December 1910 uprising in which Práxedis himself was killed.

In addition, in no small part due to this new jail sentence for many of the key figures of the Junta Organizadora, the PLM seems to have been relatively eclipsed in the years leading up to the Revolution itself by Maderismo, which provided a more incrementalist, familiar, and accommodating alternative to the one advanced by the PLM: for Francisco I. Madero (“Don Panchito”) stood for “law and order,” constitutionality, and bourgeois-democratic reform, in contrast to Magón’s stress on direct action, radical land redistribution, expropriation, and proletarian emancipation. You discuss the fascinating history whereby Madero approached Magón early on to offer him the position of vice-presidential candidate at his side—an offer which Magón readily rejected out of hand. Then, you show how Madero appropriated Díaz’s federal army to reign in and defeat the Liberal troops who had taken Mexicali and Tijuana in the months leading up to Díaz’s fall in 1911, and subsequently activated diplomatic channels with the U.S. to have the Junta and a number of PLM commanders imprisoned once again after Ricardo’s rejection—even if Madero had requested and received military support from the Liberals in good faith up to that point in the Revolution! Madero’s opportunistic traición (betrayal) clearly demonstrates his commitment to practicing authoritarian-Weberian statecraft, and it can explain the reason for which Regeneración came to refer to him variously as a “dictator,” a “second Porfirio Díaz,” and “a slave owner.” Can you expand upon the various dilemmas faced by the PLM in the early phase of the Revolution? You argue that, following its split with Madero, the PLM became a more marginal current in the revolutionary process, even as it became free to openly express its anarchist philosophy. Could it have been different?

Counterfactuals are always difficult. People will always debate whether Ricardo made a mistake in rebelling against Madero or not. At the very least, from a political point of view, his timing seemed ill-advised. Ricardo pronounced that Madero was a traitor while the revolt against Porfirio Díaz was still raging. This opened the group that was loyal to his position to being represented as traitors, paid for by the científicos, and doing Díaz’s dirty work for him. Many honest revolutionaries felt this way—including old PLM sympathizers like Esteban Baca Calderón and Manuel Diéguez, of Cananea vintage. Perhaps Ricardo felt that he would lose credibility if he supported Madero and then rebelled once Madero was in power. It’s hard to say. It is clear though that the Junta under Ricardo’s leadership had no effective military strategist, and its position with regard to Madero first, and then with regard to Huerta, Carranza, Villa and the rest of them, left the military leadership that it had in Mexico very vulnerable, since they always needed alliances, and these alliances opened them up to being labeled as traitors by the Junta in Los Angeles. So Ricardo’s decision on Madero in effect paved the way to a quick military defeat, but perhaps also to more lasting ideological influence.

Junta 1910

The Junta Organizadora of the PLM in 1910. From left: Anselmo Figueroa, Práxedis Guerrero, Ricardo Flores Magón (seated), Enrique Flores Magón, and Librado Rivera. Práxedis’ face has been superimposed onto that of another central figure in the PLM, most likely Antonio Villarreal, who broke from the group early on within the development of the Mexican Revolution. Besides the question of Villarreal’s defection to Francisco Madero, Ricardo held his rumored homosexuality in contempt. (Courtesy El Hijo del Ahuizote)

For Magón, armed struggle certainly was an important tactic, but given his view that the counterrevolution was concentrated in the three-headed hydra of capital, State, and clergy, social revolution to him was more expansive than mere insurrection—hence his belief in the need for agitational intellectual work to continue to inspire militant direct action, as through the issues of Regeneración. Magón’s decision after the failure of 1906 and the subsequent imprisonment of the Junta to prevent his brother Enrique from participating in the 1908 uprising and thereafter to emphasize the protection of the physical integrity of the PLM’s intellectuals led to conflict with Práxedis, who—perhaps in a more consistently anarchist way—felt he could not ask others to risk their lives in insurrection without doing the same. The twenty-eight year old militant died in the December 1910 revolt for having observed this belief, thus expiating his guilt for surviving Manrique, who was killed in the 1908 revolt—in a parallel to the fate of the EZLN’s Subcomandante Pedro, who similarly lost his life during the neo-Zapatista uprising on 1 January 1994.

Intriguingly, given this difference of opinion on theory and practice, you discuss how Práxedis was more wary of the employment of hatred than Magón in the revolutionary struggle, with the former declaring in some of his final articles for Regeneración that “[d]espotism can be annihilated without hatred,” and that “[w]e are going off to a violent struggle without making violence our ideal and without dreaming of the execution of our tyrants as if that was the supreme victory of justice. Our violence is not justice; it is simply a necessity.” What was Magón’s take on hatred, in contrast? Beyond this, I will say that your assessment of Práxedis’ supposed youthful lack of comprehension of the “value of survival” potentially runs the risk of betraying ageism. Do you disagree?

Your charge of “ageism” against me is probably right. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but there is a kind of paternal identification in my sympathy with Ricardo’s attempt to try to keep Práxedis away from battle.

Having said that, though, it is also true that I sympathize more with Práxedis than with Ricardo on the question of hatred. I think that Ricardo at a certain point was filled with a lot of bile. Many of his attacks on enemies, and on comrades who he came to see as enemies, are simply horrifying. One can understand why Ricardo hated when one considers the hardship and sacrifices that he endured, but that does not make his attitude attractive. Ricardo had many great virtues; his promotion of hatred was not one of them. Práxedis, by contrast, was more conscious of this problem, and one of the beauties of Práxedis is that he wrote his thoughts on this question down and published them.

Ricardo’s fanning of hatred was also predicated on his view of history, and not only on rancor. He was convinced that he was living at the cusp of world revolution, and he was by no means alone in that belief—particularly after the start of World War I. In some ways this sense might justify to a degree Ricardo’s continuous call for violence and even for murder, but I must say that this aspect of Ricardo is to me one of the most problematic. And one sees its negative effects in some of the people who were closest to him, as well as in loss of support for revolution by a people who were exhausted by continual and unending violence. This was an aspect of the Mexican situation that Ricardo did not live directly, but that is very relevant for understanding what Enrique and other Liberals experienced when they returned to Mexico after the revolution.

As the early phase of the Revolution developed and increasingly more former members of the PLM decided to join Madero, the transnational network supporting the “Mexican Cause” began to break down, as you detail—in part as a response to the virulent aggressivity Ricardo expressed to a number of his former comrades who would defect to Madero. One critical component of this uncomradely behavior has to do with Ricardo’s evident prejudice against non-heterosexuals: he reserved special ire for the lesbian Juana B. Gutiérrez de Mendoza, outing her publicly as a “degenerate” engaged in a “quarrel with Nature” following her break with the PLM, and Antonio I. Villarreal, who left the Junta for Madero and thereafter was accused of having had relations with a certain barber. Despite Gutiérrez de Mendoza’s “betrayal,” she would go on to help Zapata compose the Plan de Ayala (1911/1914) following her disillusionment with Maderista reformism, while Villareal the socialist served under Madero and received a promotion to lieutenant colonel for having done so, before founding a Mexico City version of Regeneración (which Magón considered “Degeneración” or “Regeneración burguesa”) and later charging Ricardo with having sold out.

Of course, the “charge” of homosexuality raised by Magón played into popular knowledge of the “Scandal of the 41,” which refers to a police raid of an upper-class ball in Mexico City in 1901 that involved the arrest of 41 young males who were found dancing with each other, half of them in drag. The implication is that the Porfiriato’s ruling class was effeminate, emasculated, and “degenerate,” whereas what was needed was masculine, masculinizing—and to a certain degree, patriarchal—regeneration! Unfortunately, with regard to the present, a similar dynamic seems to operate to an extent now in Mexico in terms of President Enrique Peña Nieto and Manuel Velasco Coello, State Governor of Chiapas. Certainly, these PRI potentates are horrid reactionaries, but it is known that one current of the opposition against them is expressed in terms of their being supposed putos, or gays (“fags”), in Magonist style. Several questions come to mind. First, to what degree does Ricardo’s homophobia mirror the prevailing prejudices of Mexican society at that time? It rather self-evidently contradicts the militant anti-authoritarian philosophy governing the PLM, which, being profoundly transgressive, “confronted the status quo and sought to create an alternative to it,” as you write. Furthermore, how much do you think Mexican society has progressed on questions of sexual and gender diversity in the century since the Mexican Revolution—no thanks to Magón, unfortunately?

It is probably impossible to gauge the depth or extent of “homophobia” during Magón’s day. The term itself did not exist and, as Carlos Monsivais once pointed out, the affair of the 41 was Mexico’s first homosexual scandal, and it happened in 1901. So my response to the first part of your question is tentative—but here it is: I have the impression that Ricardo was more intensively “homophobic” than many of his contemporaries, and I think that he was that for a couple of different reasons. The first was to do with the idea of regeneration itself—a notion that constantly relied on the view that Mexico was prostrated, humiliated, enslaved, and so on. These ideas all involved undermining virility. And indeed “virility” was a key value for the movement. This does not automatically lead to homosexual panic, but it can play in as a factor, and I think that for Ricardo, it did.

A second factor in my view is Ricardo’s extensive prison experience. Homosexual relations were extremely common in prison, and this was well-known in Mexico. Mexico’s chief positivist criminologist, Carlos Roumagnac, had published a study of criminal types based on extensive interviews in Belem Prison—one of the places where Ricardo had been held—and claimed that almost all of the prison inmates had sex with one another. Antonio Villarreal’s description of the Junta’s experience in federal prison in Arizona also dwelled on this point. It is possible that Ricardo developed an aversion to sexual advances that he’d been subjected to in prison, or that he developed a view concerning homosexuality and weakness, or that he himself was a homosexual and was terrified to be “outed.” We cannot say from the historical documents, but I think that we can say that experiences in prison were relevant.

Finally, the third factor is the political utility of the accusation. In the press, Ricardo was constantly on the attack, and he tended to use whatever he could to defile his enemies. The accusation of homosexuality was useful, and he used it—I would say not only that he used it, but that he indulged.

As for changes with present-day Mexico, Mexico has had tremendous transformations in gender and sexual relations—tremendous. Even in my life-time, let alone with regard to what was happening in the Porfiriato. Now, ideas of homosexual conspiracy, and of homosexual conspiracy in the elite, like anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, are still common and commonly indulged. In this regard, Ricardo was much less pernicious than contemporary conspiracy theorists, because he did not believe that Mexico was in the hands of a homosexual ring. I think that the fact that Ricardo was for the most part anti-nationalistic spared him from some of the worst aspects of conspiracy theories like the kind to which you refer, that tend to imagine the nation as pure, and then to posit its exploiters as a cabal of ill-born perverts. Ricardo’s homophobia was also directed to people who he saw as traitors, but to traitors of a Cause rather than traitors of a “pure” nation.

Given, as you say, that the anarchist revolution “was the most radical revolution that the Enlightenment spawned,” I was curious if you have any comments to share about the influence postmodernism and poststructuralism have had on the anarchist tradition in recent decades, as in the concept of “post-structuralist anarchism.” As you know, both these schools of thought reject the Enlightenment wholesale.

I don’t know enough about these tendencies to comment, but I think that there is good reason why postmodernism and post-structuralism would have a serious interest in anarchism. On the one hand, Michel Foucault’s criticism of the State and of sovereignty can easily lead to the exploration of anarchism as an alternative space; on the other, postmodernism’s rejection of the grand récit of progress provides ample space for the valorization of the peasantry, of artisans, and of modes of life that are distinct from the old Marxist romance with the industrial proletariat. Those connections were always extremely important to the anarchists, who were not at all committed to uprooting the peasantry and transforming it into industrial labor.

When I say that anarchism was the most radical current of the Enlightenment, I mean this especially with regard to the slogan “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.” They took this further than anyone else.

Importantly, you observe that vegetarianism was an innovative social practice taken up by some members of the PLM and U.S.-based supporters of the Mexican Cause: namely, Práxedis Guerrero and Elizabeth Trowbridge, a young Boston heiress sympathetic to socialism who made a substantial proportion of her inheritance available to the struggle. Presumably, as you write, she and Práxedis adopted vegetarianism as an affirmation of their love for animals and a repudiation of the cruelty and suffering unnecessarily visited on them—such that their keen rejection of social injustice among humans was extended also to the animal and natural worlds. Perhaps they were also influenced in this decision by the examples of the anarcho-pacifist Tolstoy and Élisée Reclus, theVegetarian Communard,” which were in turn echoed by the vegetarian clubs that arose in the Spanish anarchist cultural revolution as well as among the Sarvodaya vegetarian-anarchists.1 In a parallel to the question of LGBTQ emancipation, to what extent do you see progress or regression in terms of the struggle for animal rights and liberation at present?

Yes to your comment on Tolstoy and Reclus. I think that the question of animals and animal rights is a sign of deep progress, and extends much further today than it did at the time of Elizabeth or Práxedis, because the question of the environment and of our responsibility as subjects no longer of human history, but of the history of life on the planet, is today of a different order than it was then. Remember that the Mexican Revolution occurred before the existence of the atomic bomb or of atomic energy. The sense that humans could actually destroy the planet was not yet there, even though there were ideas of conservation and concerns with destruction of environments. Frances Noel, one of the American radicals that I write about, was an environmentalist and supporter of conservation in California. More generally, the question of health, fresh air, and environment was part of the discourse not only of hygienists and eugenicists, but also of labor organizers and urban reformers at that time. So I don’t mean to say that environmental issues were absent then, but simply that they were of a different order. Today the environmental struggle is of the very highest priority. It was not then. This makes the vegetarianism of a Práxedis or an Elizabeth all the more interesting, relevant, and attractive today.

With reference to the Baja California campaign of 1911—the PLM’s most famous military struggle, which resembled a fiasco more than any successful revolution—you note a number of problematics: for one, that only an estimated 10 percent of the insurrectos who captured Tijuana were Mexicans, with the remainder being Wobblies from the U.S. and foreign soldiers of fortune. Secondly, this material dynamic led to the awkward situation whereby more experienced Anglo volunteers were elected as officers—in accordance with anarchist-democratic principles—to wage war against Mexicans, as in the case of the British aristocrat Carl Ap Rhys Pryce, who promptly announced the independence of Baja California following Díaz’s resignation in Ciudad Juárez in May 1911. Juxtaposed with the clownish venture capitalist Dick Ferris’ proposal for outright colonization of the peninsula in the interest of U.S. capital, Pryce’s move—which was not supported by the Junta in Los Angeles or by Liberals and Wobblies in the field—inexorably led many Mexican observers to conclude that the Liberal campaign in reality sought to facilitate the annexation of Baja to the U.S., as in the concept of filibusterismo, in a parallel to the previous loss of Texas and the entire Southwest after the war waged by James K. Polk against Mexico some sixty-five years prior.

This framing of the Baja campaign immediately served to delegitimize the Liberal efforts there, and furthermore aided in the ease with which Madero employed the federal troops whose command he had inherited against the PLM—with Mexicali and Tijuana falling within a month of Díaz’s abdication. While the Junta felt Baja was but one among several fronts, or puntos rojos, for libertarian upheaval in the country, this association made between the PLM and secessionism may well have marred its relationship with Mexican public opinion. Do you consider Ricardo’s decision to remain physically aloof from the Baja operation to have been a mistake, or believe that he was insufficiently forceful in distancing the Liberal campaign from the charges of filibusterism raised against it, his stress on direct action and revolutionary expropriation notwithstanding? In part, as you observe, this problem is inherent to the Junta’s anarchism, which was not concerned with “national integrity,” as patriots and statists are.

This is a difficult question to respond to, because we don’t actually know what Ricardo and the Junta was thinking, so my response is very tentative. It is clear that in 1911 Ricardo did not think or believe that the United States was close to a revolution (a notion that he might have thought in 1917), but if he felt that the Wobblies and Socialists in the Southwest were in fact strongly increasing in force and might be building to a position where they might aspire to take power, he might have been indifferent as to whether Baja stayed in Mexico, became independent, or was annexed to the United States.

My impression is that he may not have cared all that much if Baja had become an independent republic, but that he would have been adamantly opposed to annexation by the United States at that time. This is all speculation, you understand. According to Ricardo, he rejected both alternatives and wanted the peninsula in Mexico where it belonged—but this was after he was accused of filibusterism. I certainly don’t think that he cared what proportion of troops were Mexicans and which were foreign. The struggle was for liberation from economic and political exploitation, not for national independence. Ricardo was for extending Mexican nationality to foreigners who participated in the Revolution.

Should Ricardo have gone to Baja California to lead the fight? From the viewpoint of the fighters who sympathized with the Liberals, yes. At the very least, they should have been in more direct contact. The Junta tended to use John Kenneth Turner and Antonio de Pío Araujo as intermediaries, and the troops in Mexicali and Tijuana were never visited by Ricardo, or by Anselmo Figueroa, or Enrique, who were the senior members of the Junta then.

But on the other hand, Ricardo and the Junta always viewed Baja as one front, and not as their principal goal. In this respect, it made sense for Ricardo not to go there to lead the fight, because Baja was extremely isolated then, and he could not have led a propaganda effort comparable to what he could do from Los Angeles. And yet, the Junta was all imprisoned and sent to McNeil Island in Washington State after the fall of Tijuana. So it is possible that they would have been able to do more from Baja California after all.

Faced with the progression of the Revolution and particularly the coup d’etat of February 1913 led by General Victoriano Huerta that killed Madero and his vice president Pino Suárez—a coup which the U.S. Embassy helped to coordinate, in fact, as you show—Regeneración reacted by claiming all politicians to be the same, whether they be dictators, bourgeois reformists, or generals. Yet you suggest that this ultra-left type of analysis was not shared by the Mexican people at large. Could you speak, then, to the tensions between the “vanguardist” anti-authoritarianism of the PLM and the reality of the popular sentiments regarding the course of the Revolution, particularly in terms of the fate of Madero?

Maligning Madero was a bad political mistake that showed lack of regard for popular sentiment. Or maybe, as you say, it simply reflected the degree to which this was a vanguardist movement that saw its role as educating the people and weaning them from deception. Although by the time of the coup Madero’s popularity was very much in question, at least in some areas of Mexico—certainly in Mexico City—his assassination was deeply unpopular. Jibes in Regeneración against Madero and his wife and family at the time of their assassination were deeply insensitive, and might have guaranteed that the movement would remain marginal as a political force, if it hadn’t been for the fact that the movement was so deeply marginalized in Mexico by then in any case. Recall that at the time of the coup, the Junta was in prison in Washington, and many of the old militants of the PLM had left its ranks and joined other movements—often as those movements’ radical fringe.

Beyond the tactical blunder, there seems to me to have also been insufficient appreciation for liberal-democratic reform by the Junta, which is why they viewed Huerta and Madero as being the same. It is true that they were pretty similar from the point of view of economic policies. In fact, Huerta even made some concessions to the union movement in order to buttress some of his popular support. But the fact of parliamentary democracy was more of a value than the PLM recognized, in my opinion, including for the future of the labor movement.

What can you say about the relationship between the PLM and other insurgent movements opposed to Madero and his successors Huerta and Venustiano Carranza: that is to say, Emiliano Zapata and the Ejército Libertador del Sur, as well as Pancho Villa and his División del Norte? You observe that Zapata sympathized with the PLM’s September 1911 manifesto, and he would seem to have consciously taken the concept of “Tierra y Libertad” (“Land and Freedom”) directly from the Liberals, with the practical manifestations of Zapatista strategy arguably advancing in consonance with Magón’s call for generalized and decentralized armed revolt designed to expropriate the means of production. However, the situation would seem to have been rather different in the case of Villa.

I think that it is fair to say that Zapatismo got its main ideas from the Liberals, and that Zapatismo ended up being the best example of the sort of politics that Ricardo was advocating for. Obviously, ideology was not everything—and much of what Zapatismo did responded directly to conditions on the ground, rather than to ideology, so I don’t think that the PLM can take all of the credit, or all of the flak, for what the Zapatistas did and did not do. But their ideological influence was very real, and their points of confluence were many. The problem of the caudillo and of personalismo was a concern for the PLM—probably not shared by Zapatistas overall—but because Zapatismo did not really aspire to take power nationally, this concern was in the end secondary.

The PLM had a terrible opinion of Villa. This was in large part due to Villa’s role fighting the PLM during the Madero revolution, and to the fact that he was directly responsible for butchering many of their comrades. But differences with Villa also went beyond that sphere—to Ricardo, Villa was a typical politiquillo: corrupt, blood-thirsty, self-aggrandizing, in the pay of the Americans at first, and of the highest bidder after that…

The fact that PLM opinion on Villa was so negative, though, does not mean that there were no points of coincidence with this movement, or with Carrancismo, for that matter. The PLM’s 1906 platform had pretty broad influence in the Mexican revolutionary process. Because of Villa’s personal animosity to the PLM, there weren’t a lot of former PLM militants in his movement, but there were many prominent people in Carranza’s camp for a while, including people like Antonio Villarreal and Juan Sarabia, who were relevant players for the agrarian ideas of that movement.

A century now after the Revolution, do you see any movements taking from the example of Magón and the PLM? In an April 1994 interview, Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos of the EZLN explicitly tied Zapatismo to the thought of Ricardo, among others, while in Rojava a number of parallel developments taken up by the Kurds have seen the flowering of “democratic confederalism” and anarchistic self-management during the past few years. Self-evidently, as well, Magón remains a key reference for the movimiento social in Mexico to this day.

Ricardo Flores Magón was one of the few ideologues of stature in the Mexican Revolution. Other important figures, like Luis Cabrera or José Vasconcelos, for instance, were probably much better political analysts than Ricardo, but they were not visionaries, in the sense of imagining a truly alternative society. Hence, despite all of their shortcomings, Ricardo’s thought and experience return constantly. What is more, the transnational, feminist, anti-racist and anti-nationalist component is unique for the Mexican Revolution, as well as being a source of inspiration to any contemporary Mexican-American social movement worth its salt, starting with the Chicano movement in the 1970s. So PLM influence returns in social movements, just as you say, and it also often happens with individuals as well—I know that I was impacted by Ricardo’s writings when I first read some of them, when I was 17 (years ago!) and yet I knew very little about the Mexican Revolution then, and did not have any special interest in the subject.

As with many other complicated figures, there are people who claim inspiration from Ricardo but who have a politics that is not very compatible with his. This deserves to be noted, certainly, but the deeper point is that there are movements today looking to formulate various alternative forms of self-management, democracy and equality that have found—and will continue to find—much to learn from Ricardo’s thought, and from the collective experience of the PLM and of their friends and allies.

RFM Pics_6

Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary, where Ricardo and Enrique Flores Magón and Librado Rivera were imprisoned during the First Red Scare for violating neutrality laws and the Espionage Act. This would be Ricardo’s place of death during the early morning of 21 November 1922, whether due to conscious medical neglect or outright murder. (Courtesy John Murray Papers)

The ascendancy of Huerta in 1913 provoked a crisis in Texas and the rest of the border region which would ultimately prove fatal to Magón. In response to Huerta’s coup, Jesús María Rangel, a respected Liberal commander, organized an expeditionary force to cross into Chihuahua, do battle with the Carrancistas, and progress south to deal with Huerta himself, but they were forcibly prevented from doing so by Texas Rangers who met them at the border, fired on them, and arrested the revolutionaries who survived the shoot-out. The PLM immediately took up the cause of the “Texas Martyrs” and the surviving political prisoners. Then, in 1915, a Mexican uprising in Texas following the Plan de San Diego was met with a fierce, all-out reprisal against Mexicans located in the state: thousands were shot, lynched, or otherwise summarily executed by white-supremacist gangs. Such atrocities led Magón to declare in Regeneración that it was not the San Diego rebels but their executioners who should be shot. It was this declaration, together with Ricardo’s apt designation of Carranza as “another Díaz” and another “lackey of the White House” who would work to “subject the Mexican proletarian and turn him [sic] over to the foreign and domestic capitalist class, hand and foot,” as well as the accompanying call he made for Mexicans fighting in Carranza’s army to turn their guns on the officer class which landed him and Enrique once again in jail in 1916, until Emma Goldman’s efforts to raise bail gave them a temporary reprieve.

Then, with the coming of the Red Scare, the Magón brothers were tried and convicted yet again in 1918. Ricardo was sentenced to twenty-one years’ imprisonment, thanks to a new charge of violation of the Espionage Act, which had just been passed the year before. Such a sentence amounted to capital punishment for Ricardo, whose health was already declining. In point of fact, two years after coming to Leavenworth Federal Prison in Kansas, where he had requested medical assistance no fewer than 22 times, Magón died of a heart attack. Ricardo’s death came just days after he was transferred to a different cell farther away from Librado Rivera, who was also interned in Leavenworth on the same charge as Magón. While there is no question that Venustiano Carranza ordered Zapata’s assassination in Chinameca, Morelos in 1919, it is less clear that Magón’s end was due to outright execution rather than conscious medical neglect. Do you think Ricardo was murdered?

I myself don’t think that Ricardo was murdered, but probably we will never know for sure. I do believe that there was deliberate medical negligence with regard to Ricardo’s serious condition, and that his death might have been postponed or averted had he been given proper medical attention, but I don’t believe that he was strangled, as the theory goes.

We know for sure that one of the theories of his “murder” is false—as I show in the book—and we know for sure about the medical negligence. Whether Ricardo might have been murdered by a guard in any case is possible, and I am sure that there will be many who subscribe to that theory.

The reasons why I don’t think that he was murdered are, first, that Librado Rivera did not say that Ricardo was murdered in a letter that he wrote to a comrade from prison telling the tale of Ricardo’s death, at a time when Librado did not know what was being said outside the prison. After Librado’s release from Leavenworth, he did subscribe to the theory of Ricardo’s murder, but by that point the productivity of that tale was clear, and going against it would have been costly and unnecessary since, in a deeper sense, Ricardo was of course killed by his oppressors.

I also don’t believe that Ricardo was murdered because I don’t think that the Americans saw him as such a threat at that point. The Obregón government was willing to repatriate him to Mexico. If Obregón did not see Ricardo as a threat, why would the US government? Remember that Ricardo was practically blind by the time that he died, and in very poor health. Finally, Ricardo’s death was an embarrassment to the warden of the prison, who had repeatedly claimed that the prisoner’s health was good. It earned him a direct inquiry from the Attorney General. So I don’t see much motivation there either.

My sense is that the story of Ricardo’s assassination was a way of figuring and expressing the potency of his subversive ideas, and a way of pointing to the repression to which he was subjected by the American government. Ricardo’s ideas were indeed powerful. And he was indeed condemned to life in prison because of his resistance to the draft and to World War I, and because of his adscription to anarchism. All of that is true. I just don’t think that he was murdered by the guard, that’s all.

While the twilight of Magón’s life was full of pathos, given the decline of Regeneración, the poverty and marginalization experienced by the Junta members prior to imprisonment in Leavenworth, and the estrangement with Enrique, you make clear that Ricardo was encouraged in the end by an optimistic, almost Hegelian sense that the Mexican and Russian Revolutions illuminated the way forward for humanity, hearkening the beginning of a universal social transformation that would overthrow capital and all authority. In a letter written in Leavenworth less than a year before his death, indeed, Ricardo expressed his certainty regarding the “bright future which is [now] opened to the human race,” and he even identifies this as his “consolation.” A little less than a century on, we see that the multidimensional crisis of the capitalist world-order persists precisely because the revolutions of the twentieth century failed to displace the reactionary enemies identified by Magón from the stage of world history. In light of the intimate and profound knowledge of social revolution you have collected and presented to us in The Return of Comrade Ricardo Flores Magón, do you have any concrete suggestions to make to anarchists and other radicals today?

Thank you for this question—it is not one that I had dared to ask myself. As long as I’m not taken as some sort of Delphian oracle, here’s my response. I think that the most powerful aspect of this story and experience is the idea of the centrality of mutual aid. Also, I believe that the movement’s feminism, its punctilious resistance to nationalism, its commitment to love and to art and beauty, and its criticism of the State and of organized religion are all exemplary. I do not have as high an opinion of the movement’s embrace of violence or of its revolutionary theory, which was simply wrong.

Concerning the latter, Ricardo believed that each town and village in Mexico replicated a fundamental struggle between the oppressors and the oppressed, and that a revolutionary spark had the power to explode the whole tinder-box. In this sense, he can be seen as a precursor to foquismo and Che Guevara—with some of the same limitations as that theory, too. What Ricardo did not visualize though is that revolutionary processes are civil wars, and that in civil wars all of the fractures of society become politically productive and material for political exploitation. The dynamic of war was not, as Ricardo imagined, a kind of purgatorial fire that would end up cleansing society of its ills and giving birth to pure communism. Instead, civil war proved to be a process wherein coalitions were formed, leaderships emerged, and the life and freedom of the best people were bargained with. There were major gains in the process, to be sure, but the costs were huge, and the results were not what the PLM hoped for, so much so that many of its militants continued to struggle, and continue to rise up in arms until they were finally shot. I give the example of Lázaro Alanís at the very start of the book, who rose up in arms first against Porfirio Díaz, then against Madero, then against Huerta, then against Carranza, and was finally executed after participating in the De la Huerta rebellion against Obregón.

I don’t think much of Bakuninist theories of violence. But to my mind there’s deep philosophical truth in much of the doctrines of Kropotkin and others who believe in the primacy of mutual aid, and I also feel that there are communications media and organizational possibilities in the present that make at least some anarchist ideals more viable today than they were in the early twentieth century. Of course, new theorists will be necessary to put these resources into play in a way that is different from those that were tried in that earlier generation.

Thank you again, Javier, for offering me this conversation, which has given me much to reflect on.

1 John P. Clark, The Impossible Community: Realizing Communitarian Anarchism (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), 145-6, 180, 229.