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

  • Posted on: 15 March 2018
  • By: thecollective

via Black Rose Anarchist Federation / Federación Anarquista Rosa Negra

by Javier Sethness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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