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Ian Birchall


Another side of anarchism

(Summer 2010)

From International Socialism 2 : 127, Summer 2010.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Website.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Paul Blackledge’s article Marxism and anarchism [1] is a most useful contribution. It provides a sound exposition of the fundamental differences between Marxism and anarchism; it is based on careful and thorough documentation and is argued in a sober and unsectarian tone. The defence of Lenin against his anarchist critics is entirely justified. Debate with the numerous variants of anarchism will undoubtedly be a feature of left politics in the coming years, and this article will be a valuable resource for Marxists engaged in such discussions.

Yet at times the article only tells half the story. In his introduction Paul promises us a historical framework for the debate. But though he refers effectively to the classic texts of Marxism, he often seems to lift those texts out of the concrete history in which they were originally produced. The late Tony Cliff often used to remind us that “tactics contradict principles”. The formulation is not without problems [2], but it is a useful reminder that the concrete application of principles is a complex matter. Real life is often rather messy.

Thus Paul cites Trotsky on “the death of an anarchist he had known in Paris”. [3] But this cursory description obscures a development halted only by death. The anarchist in question was Jules Marius Lepetit (pseudonym of Louis Bertho). Born into dire poverty, he went to work in the Saint-Nazaire shipyard at the age of eleven. He became an anarchist and was known as a powerful orator who could captivate an audience. He worked as a navvy, was a militant trade unionist, a class fighter and, during the First World War, an anti-war activist. [4]

In 1920 Lepetit, in company with two French comrades, Marcel Vergeat and Raymond Lefebvre, travelled to Russia for the Second Congress of the Communist International. While the Bolshevik Revolution had not been the one he had dreamt of, Lepetit knew the value of a bird in the hand and wanted to see for himself, not only attending the Congress but travelling in Ukraine. His friend Pierre Pascal wrote in his obituary:

Vergeat and Lepetit were changed men when they left Russia ... Moreover, their education was completed by Lenin himself, through discussion and his writings. They had a long friendly conversation with him, and they read the French translation of his work The State and Revolution. It was a real revelation for them to read this ... It was their feeling of duty which led to their death. They died victims of their haste to return to France bearing the good news of Communism. [5]

This is confirmed by a letter written by Lepetit days before leaving Russia:

The revolution is giving birth in blood and tears, in pain and anguish, but the essential thing is that it is giving birth to something beautiful and healthy. I believe that, despite all its faults, the Russian Revolution, still in its first phase, will, if other peoples can assist it, produce a truly beautiful society. But that means that the workers of the West must not leave it to rely on its own strength. [6]

Visitors to revolutionary Russia did not travel in the luxury provided for “friends of the Soviet Union” in later decades; it was a dangerous journey. The three comrades took a boat from Murmansk and perished in a storm. Trotsky was confident that

Lepetit would have in the course of things, the course of the struggle, and the course of his own thought, inevitably arrived at the dictatorship of the proletariat and the Communist International had not the waves of the Northern ocean swallowed him up on the way. [7]

Ninety years on, with the benefit of hindsight, we are rightly suspicious of “inevitability”. Many of those attracted by revolutionary Russia were soon repelled by ascendant Stalinism. But Lepetit’s interrupted trajectory shows how the lines between anarchism and Marxism are often blurred.

Nor was Lepetit an isolated case. Alfred Rosmer, a French syndicalist who arrived in Moscow for the Second Congress, recalled a conversation shortly after his arrival:

To a young Spanish comrade, who, wanting to prove his communist orthodoxy, had proclaimed: “We are waging a pitiless struggle against the anarchists,” Bukharin replied sharply: “What do you mean by fighting against the anarchists? Since October, there have been some anarchists who have come over to the dictatorship of the proletariat. Others have come closer to us and are working in the soviets and in the economic institutions. It’s not a question of ‘fighting’ them, but of discussing frankly and cordially, seeing if we can work together, and only abandoning the attempt if there is an irremovable obstacle”. [8]

In the years after the revolution, the Bolsheviks were short of allies. Old quarrels with syndicalists and anarchists were not nearly so important as building unity in defence of the revolution. As Victor Serge testifies, “Lenin was very anxious to have the support of ‘the best of the anarchists’.” [9]

This was true not only internationally but inside Russia itself. On the Military Revolutionary Committee which organised the 1917 insurrection in Petrograd, there were four anarchists. One of these was the remarkable Bill Shatov, a Russian who had emigrated to the USA, been active in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and as a birth control campaigner, and had returned to Russia in 1917. Victor Serge has given us a striking portrait of his role, which transcended his original anti-authoritarianism:

Just after the October Revolution, he found himself, by force of circumstances, “governor” of the city [Petrograd], since the Red Guards – among whom there are many libertarians – constituted in fact the only real power and they elected him unanimously. His liveliness, his convinced optimism, his resolve, his overflowing energy have since made him quite naturally into one of the leaders of the Red Army. One day he was asked: “But how can you, as an anarchist, exercise authority?” He replied with a question: “Should we not have defended Petrograd?”

His great merit is that he is unable to sacrifice action to abstract ideas. For this profoundly Americanised Russian worker action comes before any theory because it is life. Anarchy is not an ideal formula; it must be life and can be born only from action. Does the revolution not need violence, authority, constraint? Is not the evil facing us at present the evil of civil war? Shatov considers it is better to win at this price than to be defeated for – and by – the ideal. Although working in complete agreement with it, he does not join the Communist Party. “Sooner or later,” he says, “we shall find ourselves enemies again.” But if you watch him at work, it seems as if this eventuality is still quite a long way away. [10]

In fact, the conflicts and tensions of the revolution produced deep divisions among the Russian anarchists. Some intransigent elements remained implacably opposed to the Bolsheviks and even launched physical attacks against them. At the opposite extreme were

The “Soviet” anarchists who believe that at the present time they have a duty to work with the Bolshevik Communist Party and even to go over to it completely. Indeed, numerous comrades have joined the party, believing that the present time was not one for philosophical reservations, and that its programme was the only practical and feasible one to safeguard the gains of the October Revolution. Without joining the party, the comrades of the anarcho-syndicalist group Golos Truda (Moscow and Petrograd) have in practice made common cause with it, going so far as to approve of the militarisation of labour.

They recognise, admittedly in rather confused terms, the need for a revolutionary dictatorship during the transition period, but not the necessity for a political party. [11]

Lenin found time in the post-revolutionary period to discuss with such anarchists as Alexander Berkman, Emma Goldman and Nestor Makhno, trying to win them over. In his memoirs Makhno describes a highly conciliatory Lenin, willing to admit he might well be mistaken. [12] Serge tells us that:

Trotsky was, much later (in 1938, I think), to recount that Lenin and he had thought of recognising an autonomous region for the anarchist peasants of the Ukraine, whose military leader Makhno was. That arrangement would have been both just and diplomatic, and perhaps an outlook as generous as this would have spared the revolution from the tragedy towards which we were drifting. [13]

Paul mentions the importance of Lenin’s State and Revolution. But at the time of its first publication, this vital book received a far warmer welcome among anarchists than among the orthodox Marxists of the day. Alfred Rosmer recalled its reception in France:

Lenin, a Marxist and a social democrat, was treated as an outcast by the theoreticians of the socialist parties which claimed to be Marxist. “It isn’t Marxist,” they shrieked, “it’s a mixture of anarchism and Blanquism.” One of them even found a witty turn of phrase and called it “Blanquism with sauce tartare”. On the other hand, for revolutionaries situated outside the mainstream of orthodox Marxism, for the syndicalists and anarchists, this Blanquism, sauce and all, was a pleasant revelation. They had never heard such language from the Marxists they knew. They read and re-read this interpretation of Marx, which was quite unfamiliar to them. [14]

Paul endorses Hal Draper’s claim “that anarchism is a form of socialism from above”. Draper’s enormous erudition and firm commitment to the self-emancipation of the working class make his work an enormous asset to socialists. But sometimes he lapses into a sectarian desire (all too typical of the Shachtmanite current) to push everyone who deviates from the approved orthodoxy into the camp of reaction.

It is, of course, absolutely true that there is a strand of elitism and even contempt for the working class in some anarchists. Of nobody was this more true than the young Victor Serge. At the time of the 1910 railway strike in France he argued that anarchists should be indifferent to the outcome of the conflict: victory would merely confirm the “working class mentality” in its errors and dogmatism, while defeat would strengthen the state. [15] Serge’s subsequent development, under the impact of world historical events, is a reminder that the dividing lines are not as fixed as they may sometimes seem.

The living experience of revolution led Serge to radically revise his ideas on the question of the revolutionary party. As he argued, “The party is the nervous system of the working class, its brain.” He also stressed the importance of leadership within the party’s own structure: “The leaders and the key members perform the role of brain and nervous system within the organism of the party also.” For the rank and file of the party were unable to see the situation as a whole, and must therefore depend on the “core of party members who have been selected and tried by long years of struggle and work, enjoy the goodwill of the movement as a whole, have access to the apparatus of the party, and are accustomed to thinking and working collectively”. [16]

Serge argued that there was no future for anarchism if it failed to integrate itself into the movement launched by the Bolshevik Revolution, but that if it did participate it could make a significant contribution to that movement:

They will not be able to carry out their task, and to exercise an influence unless, as revolutionaries, they accept their role without hiding from themselves any of the consequences of their position.

If they follow this course, they will become Communists who, in the major episodes of the revolutionary struggle, will necessarily act like all true Communists and hand in hand with them. But unlike many others, they will strive throughout these battles to preserve the spirit of liberty, which will give them a greater critical spirit and a clearer awareness of their long-term goals. Within the Communist movement their clear-sightedness will make them the enemies of the ambitious, of budding political careerists and commissars, of formalists, party dogmatists and intriguers. In other words, by their very presence within the organisations, they make a substantial contribution to driving away the self-seekers. [17]

On this basis, Serge argued for anarchism’s particular moral contribution to the revolutionary movement:

Anarchist philosophy, which appeals to individuals, imposes on them attitudes in their private life and their inner life, proposes a morality, which is something that Marxism, a theory of class struggle, does not do to such a great extent. Armed with the spirit of free enquiry, more liberated than anyone else from bourgeois prejudices with regard to the family, honour, propriety, love, from worrying about “what people will say” and “what is expected”, militants who see anarchism as “an individual way of life and activity”, in the well-chosen phrase of some of the French comrades, will resist reaction in behaviour with their common sense and their courage in setting an example. While others become officers, functionaries, judges, sometimes joining the privileged elite, they will remain simply men, free workers, who can perform in a stoical fashion all the tasks that are necessary to plough up the old land, but who will never be intoxicated by rhetoric, or by success, or by the lure of profitable careers. [18]

Paul, who has made his own important contribution to the discussion of Marxism and morality, would probably not go along with this. [19] However, Serge’s thoughts on the relation of Marxism and anarchism, based on his own unique revolutionary experience, are of considerable value, and it was surprising that they got no mention in an otherwise useful and wide-ranging article.

* * *


1. Blackledge, 2010.

2. I recall a committee meeting at which Cliff was insisting on this. Nigel Harris smiled at him benignly and responded, “That’s right, Cliff. We oppose Hitler in principle so we support him tactically.” For once Cliff was silenced.

3. Trotsky, 1921.

4. Article on Lepetit in Maitron, 1964ff.

5. Bulletin communiste, 17 February 1921, cited in Rosmer, 1971, p. 92.

6. Cited in Maitron, 1964ff.

7. Trotsky, 1921.

8. Rosmer, 1971, p. 61.

9. Serge, 1967, p. 104.

10. Serge, 1997, pp. 29–31.

11. Serge, 1997, pp. 98–102.

12. Guérin, 1969, p. 461.

13. Serge, 1967, p. 119. However, I have been unable to find any such reference in Trotsky’s writings for 1938.

14. Rosmer, 1971, p. 46.

15. Serge, 1989, pp. 117–119.

16. Serge, 1992, pp. 57–58. See also his pamphlet on Lenin: Serge, 1994.

17. Serge, 1997, pp. 117–118.

18. Serge, 1997, p. 118.

19. Blackledge, 2008.

* * *


Blackledge, Paul, 2008, Marxism and Ethics, International Socialism 120 (Autumn 2008).

Blackledge, Paul, 2010, Marxism and anarchism, International Socialism 125 (Winter 2010).

Guérin, Daniel (ed.), 1969, Ni Dieu ni Maître (La Cité, Lausanne).

Maitron, Jean, 1964ff., Dictionnaire Biographique du Mouvement Ouvrier Français (Les Editions ouvrières).

Rosmer, Alfred, 1971, Lenin’s Moscow (Pluto).

Serge, Victor, 1967, Memoirs of a Revolutionary 1901–1941 (Oxford UP).

Serge, Victor, 1989, Le Rétif: articles parus dans l’anarchie 1909–1912 (Librairie Monnier).

Serge, Victor, 1992, Year One of the Russian Revolution (Bookmarks & Pluto), www.marxists.org/archive/serge/1930/year-one/index.htm

Serge, Victor, 1994, Lenin in 1917, Revolutionary History, Volume 5, Number 3.

Serge, Victor, 1997, Revolution in Danger (Redwords).

Trotsky, Leon, 1921, Vergeat, Lepetit and Lefebvre, The First Five Years of the Communist International, Volume 1.