Victor Serge

Year One of the Russian Revolution

IX – Suppression of the Anarchists

Written: 1925–1928, Vienna, Leningrad, Dietskoye Seloe.
First Published: L’An 1 de la révolution russe, 1930.
This Version: New International, Vol. XV No. 2, February 1949, pp. 60–62.
Translation: Dan Eastman.
Transcription: Ted Crawford.
Mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

April and May [1918] saw an extreme aggravation of the famine.

Remember that the autocracy had fallen in February 1917, with cries of “Bread! Bread!” from the workers’ districts of Petrograd. Since 1916 the supply of even the army had become so poor that in 1917 the troops received only 57 per cent of their meat ration.

The disorganization of the railway system had been completed by the spontaneous demobilization of the army and then by the German offensive and the sporadic resistance of guerilla bands. The best proletarian elements left the factories to fight or devote themselves to the needs of the revolution: the owners supported by the technicians sabotaged production. The price of manufactured goods, which became rarer and rarer, rose with the inflation. The value of the paper money depreciated with every new and frequent issue. The peasants began to refuse to sell their wheat to the state, which forbade them to sell it elsewhere, and offered them only a scandalous price, paid in paper money in the bargain, or in various manufactured articles. Under pressure of speculation the price of wheat rose to four or five times its previous price.

These were the tragic realities of the problem of supplying the cities, the working class, the living force of the revolution, and the new army.

Grain Monopoly Combats Speculation by Kulaks

A monopoly of the wheat market had been established by the Provisional Government after the fall of the autocracy; but the monopoly had been entrusted to Supply Committees formed of merchants, industrialists, proprietors, and rich peasants. The Soviet government gave them an altogether different character. The Mensheviks, the S-Rs and the peasants called on the People’s Commissars to dissolve them. But the monopoly was a vital, necessity. A free grain market would leave the poverty-stricken government powerless before speculation. The rich or well-to-do sections of the population would be the best fed, the only ones fed in fact. It would be practically impossible to control the transportation of food. It was necessary to defend the monopoly to the last ditch, and that is just what was done.

An April 2 decree instituted the exchange of commodities with the country, the first attempt to regulate difficult and chaotic relations with the peasants. The depreciation of paper money called for direct exchange of commodities for wheat; but the commodities bartered by the state fell into the hands of the rich peasants, the kulaks. The new decree confined the exchange to the middle and poor peasants.

Thus began the struggle between the rich and the poor peasants, which in several months was to grow into a fierce civil war. Finally on May 13 the government was forced to proclaim a “dictatorship over supplies.” The decree which instituted this dictatorship compelled the delivery to the state of all excess grain held by the farmers, with deductions for the support of the peasant family, and for the next. sowing, etc. These deductions were fixed by averages. The, poor people and the workers were urged to unite against the kulaks in the battle for grain.

Famine, Discontent and Counter-Revolutionary Propaganda

The Commissariat of Supplies was given the fullest powers. In short it was a declaration of war between the dictatorship the proletariat and the kulaks. On May 20 a “Supply Army” was formed. Its forces varied between forty and forty-five thousand men until 1919. It was sent to make requisitions in the country.

The famine was so great that at Tsarskoye-Selo, not far from Petrograd, the population received only one hundred grams of bread a day. There were disturbances, with shouts of “Long live the Constituent Assembly!” and even “Long live Nicholas II!” on April 6 and 7. On April 19 there were “hunger riots” at Smolensk, “fomented” (?) by Anarchists. In April, entry into overpopulated and exhausted Samara was forbidden.

The sharpness, despair, and anger caused by the famine, which even touched the working class, made the ruined urban middle classes, who were totally incapable of understanding the revolution, fertile ground for all kinds of counter-revolutionary propaganda. The discontent of middle and wealthy peasantry seemed to foreshadow a formidable Vendean uprising.

“In those days,” a worker writes, “you couldn’t find a horse in Petrograd; they were all killed and eaten, or requisitioned, or hidden away in the country. There weren’t even any dogs or cats to be found … The people lived on tea and potato pancake fried in linseed oil. As a member of the Vyborg (Petrograd) Soviet Executive, I know that there whole weeks during which the workers received neither bread nor potatoes; they were given sunflower seeds and nuts ...”

“With this relation of forces – the starving cities faced with one hundred hostile peasants – the situation of the Soviet government seemed desperate.”

The Disarming of the Anarchists

It was under these conditions that the Anarchists were disarmed during the night of August 11.

The small influence of the Anarchists over the working masses is attested by the number of seats they received in the soviets and in the soviet congresses, where as a rule they had no more than half a dozen out of several hundred delegates (however, a certain number of the libertarians boycotted the soviets). Their energetic little groups had distinguished themselves in June 1917 during the bloody incident at Durnovo villa, in Petrograd, then by their part in the July riots, the forerunners of the October insurrection. These demonstrations were in part their work. At Kronstadt and elsewhere they had fought courageously with the Bolsheviks against Kerenskyism.

Despite their ideological confusion most of them fought well in October. Their movement experienced an exceptional growth on the morrow of the proletarian insurrection. No power opposed them. They went ahead requisitioning houses without any control.

The Bolshevik Party treated their organizations as equals. They had a large daily paper in Moscow, Anarchy. The libertarian syndicalist paper in Petrograd, Golos Truda (Workers’ Voice) which disputed the influence of Pravda for a time, only disappeared when its editors fell out over the question of revolutionary war. Volin, the editor-in-chief, and his friends abandoned propaganda for partisan guerrilla warfare, and went to the front, where they were useless.

Anarchy, edited by the Gordin brothers, devoted itself to feverish propaganda, exclusively idealistic and demagogic, which took account of absolutely no reality. Let us look over several numbers of this sheet for April 1918. Remember that we are on the eve of the collapse of anarchism in the Russian Revolution; after April 12 it no longer existed.

“We are against the soviets in principle,” wrote the Gordin brothers on April 7, “as we are against all states.”

“They say we are plotting to overthrow the Bolsheviks. Absurd! We were even opposed to overthrowing the Mensheviks.”

From the same on April 10:

“We considered and still consider the seizure of power a fatal error ... but we fought in the front ranks in October.”

“We are threatened, but we are quite calm. We cannot perish, for great things never perish.”

There was one single practical slogan, in big black letters across two pages of the paper, a humanitarian slogan directed, at the Cheka, which was comparatively mild at that moment: “Don’t shoot men who are arrested without arms.” This agitation, although often violent, was really inoffensive. But that was not the question at stake.

In Moscow alone the Anarchist forces, which were divided into a multitude of groups, sub-groups, factions, and sub-factions, varying all the way from individualism to syndicalism, passing through communism and not a few fantastic new isms, amounted to several thousand men, for the most part armed. In this period of famine, the sincere demagogy of the libertarian propagandists found not a little support among the backward elements of the population.

The Black General Staff: State Within the State

A Black General Staff directed these forces, which formed a sort of armed state – irresponsible, uncontrolled, and uncontrollable – within the state. The Anarchists themselves admitted that suspected elements, adventurers, common-law criminals, and counter-revolutionists found a refuge among them, as Anarchist principle did not allow them to close their organizations to anyone nor exercise any real control over anyone. They understood clearly the necessity for purging their groups, but this was impossible without either authority or disciplined organization. The diversity and inviolabilitv of their principles gradually led to the political suicide of the movement, which every day found itself more compromised.

Anarchy often published “important notices” like the following:

“Anarchist Federal Council. Regrettable abuses are occurring. Unknown persons have proceeded to arrest and extort funds in the name of the Federation. The Federation declares that it will not tolerate any requisitions intended for individual enrichment.” (April 1)

“The Black General Staff announces that it will not assume responsibility except for operations carried out on an order signed by at least three of its members, and in the presence of at least one member.”

The General Staff suspected its own members so much that two signatures were not enough! Vain precautions against banditry.

Did some of the Anarchists think of delivering a coup de grace to the Bolsheviks? There is a logic of power, and it is strong.

On April 7 or 8, Jacques Sadoul met one of them, one of the leaders who had rallied to the Soviets, Alexander Gay. He thundered against the Bolsheviks. (Gay nevertheless was at the extreme right wing of anarchism; he was among the “sovietists,” allied with the Communists). Several cities in the South were already in the hands of the Anarchists. Gay believed that he had several thousand armed men in Moscow at that time. But it was not yet time to act. The monarchists had joined the movement, hoping to turn it to their own purposes. First these impure and dangerous elements must be purged. In a month or two the Anarchists would dig the grave of Bolshevism – and the reign of the beast would be at an end.

I myself know that a meeting of the leaders of the Anarchist Federation had taken place some time before in which the question of an uprising against the Bolsheviks had been discussed. But what next? How were they to escape taking power?

Two influential speakers, B. and N., fought the uprising on the ground that it would be “stupid to assume the responsibilities and the fatal discredit for an inextricable economic situation” and that “they couldn’t hold out for long ...”

Incidents such as an attack on an American automobile, the murder of several Cheka agents followed by the summary execution of several bandits, and arrests of “expropriators” who were immediately claimed by the Anarchist Federation, led the president of the Cheka, Dzerzhinsky, to demand the liquidation of the Black Guard. Five thousand soviet troops participated in this military operation on the night of April 11–12. The hotels which were occupied by the Anarchists and defended by machine guns were surrounded. The occupants were given twenty minutes to surrender. In several places blood flowed; artillery took the Anarchy Club; the siege of one libertarian fortress lasted ten hours. Twenty-seven houses were captured, twenty groups disarmed, five hundred persons arrested. There were several dozen killed and wounded. Not one single well-known Anarchist died in this maneuver, which was not followed, as has been rumored, by any summary executions or any rigorous measures of any kind. The daily, Anarchy, reappeared on the 21st with a headline: “Down with Absolutism!”

Counter-Revolutionists Infiltrate the Anarchist Clubs

To what extent did the counter-revolutionists take advantage of the privileged position of the Black Guard? We can cite as a witness General Hopper, who took part in the conspiracies of the officers’ League for the Defense of Country and Liberty.

The leaders of the League did not know where to barrack their members in Moscow.

“One can only rely on the fighting capacity of an organization,” wrote Hopper, “if its members are under a military regime and under the command of a leader. The Anarchist Clubs offered us the opportunity for such organization. The Bolsheviks tolerated them. By the beginning of April, sixty to seventy of our members were installed in these clubs. We no longer had to rack our brains to find a place for our members who were arriving from the provinces. I had only to give them a passport and direct them to the head of the Anarchist Service, who soon installed them in a libertarian hotel. We had put an artillery captain whose appearance and character tallied with the literary anarchist type at the head of our Anarchist group.”

The counter-revolutionary officers who were arrested in the course of disarming the Anarchists had only to persevere in their roles to be liberated at the end of several weeks. I know of several other analogous examples from counter-revolutionary sources. They establish the fact that foreign officers also frequented the clubs of the “Third Revolution.”

Why the Black Guard Had Little Political Influence

The disarmament of the Anarchists was affected without much trouble at Petrograd, Vologda and. elsewhere. At Tsaritsyn (now Stalingrad) there was an Anarchist uprising on May 15. An uprising of Maximalists and libertarians also occurred at Saratov on May 17. The Anarchist movement remained alive in the Ukraine, where guerrilla warfare continued for years.

Thus a simple police operation put an end to anarchism’s role in the Russian Revolution, It was not even necessary to take any political steps against the danger. No press campaign, no agitation prepared, and no campaign justified the disarmament of the libertarians before the masses. Redoubtable as their Black Guard was, their political influence was practically nil. Their whole strength lay in a few machine guns that had fallen into the hands of a few determined men.

Its divisions, its utopianism, its disdain for reality, its resounding phrases and its lack of organization and discipline rendered the Anarchist “Party” incapable of a any useful endeavor. Whatever real capacities and energies it may have possessed were wasted in chaotic little struggles. It was a distinct and armed party as we have seen, that tried to organize a federation and a general staff; but it was an amorphous party, without any definite outline, without any leadership – that is to say, without a brain or a nervous system – a party prey to the most divergent aspirations and without the slightest control over itself. It was an irresponsible party in which intelligent individuals, overruled by cliques, by unsuspected foreign interests,, and by group instincts, stagnated uselessly.

It was an impossible party for times of social war; for under modern conditions war requires centralization, intelligence and direction of the fighting forces; war requires the clear understanding of fact and possibility that only a clear-cut doctrine can give.

In disarming the Anarchists, the Bo1sheviks – and the S-Rs who at least gave tacit consent to the maneuver – merely obeyed the imperious necessity for protecting the rear of the revolution. Could the revolution tolerate uncontrollable Anarchist strongholds, behind its front lines? The formation of the Red Army opened a long period of struggle between the guerrilla hands and the organizers of the regular troops. We shall return to this struggle.

The attempted defense of the Ukraine had revealed the cruel insufficiency of partisan troops. Frequently formed of adventurers, and frequently of excellent revolutionists, most often formed of a mixture of the two, they refused to take orders “from above,” and tried to make war according to their own whim. This resistance had to be broken before a regular army could be recruited. And to break their resistance, the partisan regime in the capital itself had first to be done away with.

Democracy for Dissidents – Disarmament for Armed Body

The Anarchists obliged the Bolsheviks to use force against a minority of revolutionary dissidents. Sentimental revolutionists would have hesitated. But what would have happened? Either the Black Guard would finally have started an uprising and Moscow would have undergone days of infinitely dangerous rioting (think of the famine and the already well organized counter-revolution), or else the Anarchists would have been gradually dissolved only after a long series of embarrassing incidents. A revolution which did not master dissidents who formed an armed state within the state would expose itself, weakened by internal division, to the blows of its enemies.

The proletarian party must know how to break the resistance of backward elements of the masses in decisive hours. It must know how to go against the masses whom hunger, for example, may drive to defeatist feelings at times, It must know how to swim against the current and make proletarian intelligence prevail over lack of intelligence or the influence of alien classes. All the more must it know how to reduce dissident, the minorities whom it would be stupid to encourage.

But a firm distinction must be made between dissidents who are faithful to the revolution, and true counter-revolutionary elements. The former are not enemies; they belong to our class; they belong to the revolution; they want to, can, and should serve it somehow or other. They are neither fatally, necessarily, nor absolutely wrong. To employ the methods of repression which are indispensable against the counter-revolution against them would evidently be criminal and tragic; for instead of mere disagreement there would be profound and bloody splits in the working class.

The Bolsheviks did not fall into that error. Their press continued to point out that no difficulties would be placed in the way of the continued existence and propaganda of the Anarchists. Once disarmed, the latter kept their press, their organizations, and their clubs. The little group of four or five Anarchist factions, composed of men who were constantly influenced in opposite directions – some approaching Bolshevism and being assimilated by the Communist Party, the others taking the road to the most resolute anti-sovietism – vegetated henceforth without exercising any noticeable political influence.

Last updated on: 2 August 2018