Lessons of History


Richard Bolstad

[This is part 2 of a pamphlet called the Industrial Front by Richard Bolstad written in about 1978. It was published by the Christchurch Anarchy Group in Christchurch. While I don’t agree with everything in this pamphlet (particularly the stress on primal therapy at the end!!), it is still a good introductory overview of class-based uprisings in Europe for people new to revolutionary politics. At the time Bolstad was influenced by councilism (Socialisme ou Barbarie and Solidarity (UK)), and his stress on workers’ self-management is in this mould (though also coloured by anarchism).

I could add to his list of uprisings the ones in Germany (where workers’ councils or rate were formed) and Italy following WWI, the brief formation of workers’ councils in some parts of Ireland in 1919-20, the uprising in China in 1926-7, the long hot autumn in Italy in 1969, the Portuguese revolution in 1974-5, the formation of workers’ councils (shora) in Iran during the revolution of 1978-9, the Kwanju commune of 1980 (in Korea), and no doubt many other uprisings besides (particularly the little known episodes outside Europe)…]


Up until about 300 years ago, most of Europe was ruled by kings and queens, and by the landlords who supported them. The common people worked mainly as farmers (peasants). As the queens and kings of Europe began to become aware of the rest of the world outside Europe, they hired traders to bring them back the riches of the east – spices, fabrics, precious stones etc. The traders soon learnt to buy goods cheap and sell them dear in Europe. They became richer. In these times work such as sewing was done chiefly by craftsmen (eg. tailors).  The traders saw, however, that with the new machines being invented, common people could be trained to make goods. By hiring poor people, they could make clothing from the fabrics they brought back from the east. The poor people needed only to be paid enough money to keep them alive, and the clothing could be sold at high prices. Gradually, the traders set up more and more factories employing the poor. Because they grew rich, not by working, but by the profits made from selling what their workers made, there was hatred from the beginning between the workers and their bosses.

In time the bosses (called capitalists because their power was based on their money) grew more powerful than the old rulers – the kings and queens. Finally they staged revolutions to overthrow the old rulers, to gain ‘free trade’, the right to ‘free enterprise’ and parliamentary ‘democracy’ (really the parliaments could only do what the big businesses wanted). The system which controls the world today is essentially the same as it was after these revolutions (i.e. Capitalism). In some countries the capitalists all work together as one unit (state-capitalism) and claim to have the workers’ interests at heart. However even here the capitalists are still a rich class, and the workers do not make the important decisions about their life and work (eg. the workers do not run their factories). What with war, fascism, depressions, racism and dehumanising technology; Capitalism has proved itself the most brutal regime ever to dominate human society.

But Capitalism has one historically invaluable benefit. It has produced the working class – a vast majority of the population who are educated, and whose everyday experience pushes them to think in terms of a classless society. For the peasants, there was no real way out of Feudalism. They could hope for a fairer deal from their landlords, or hope to become craftsmen themselves, but a society without landlords was both inconceivable and impossible. For the working class however, it becomes more and more obvious that factories and other workplaces could be run by the workers themselves, and that the bosses of industry are just a parasite class living off the workers. The knowledge and skill needed to produce goods, and to organise production without depressions, wars etc. already exits in the working class. So the workers are the first genuinely revolutionary and libertarian class.

Since the beginnings of capitalism, workers have organized to overthrow their employers and set up a free society (the ­original work for which was socialism). Over the centuries they have produced better and better proof that they are capable of organising such a society. They have developed an increasing understanding of what socialism means and how it can be achieved and protected.

Here we will briefly review some of the milestones in this process. We are not doing this simply because we think history is fun; we are trying to learn from what has happened, so we don’t repeat old mistakes; so we can help the growth of genuine socialism; and so we can better understand what is happening around us now. It is up to us to review this aspect of history because, of course, the newspapers and books written by rich historians will not. We will try and keep historical irrelevancies to a minimum, and will group facts to enable ready understanding as A) how the struggle began B) What was achieved C) Some suggestions as to why it failed. One must remember that revolutionary periods are only milestones. Here in New Zealand, in this year, right now, the struggle is on.


A)     How the Struggle Began:

The first place where the capitalist class staged an over­throw of the king and set up capitalism was England. Here the army of Oliver Cromwell overthrew and executed King Charles 1st, setting up a parliament. The Diggers were a group of poor people who, in 1649 set about digging up the wasteland of England and farming it. They lived communally, and endeavoured to completely equalise all relationships (including those between adults and children, men and women etc).

B)      What Was Achieved:

The theory of socialism was voiced for the first time NOT by the political economists, NOT by liberal landowners, but by working people. Gerard Winstanley, chief spokesperson for the Diggers, stated ‘And let all men say what they will, so long as such are rulers as call the land theirs, upholding the particular property of mine and thine, the common people shall never have their liberty, nor the land be freed from troubles, oppressions and complainings’.

C)      Why it Failed:

A small and immature movement at a time when the working class was just beginning, the Diggers had no future. They were beaten by paid hooligans and fined by magistrates; their cattle were driven away, their seedlings torn up and their huts burned down.

2.       THE ENRAGES

A)      How the Struggle Began:

The second Capitalist revolution occurred in the Netherlands. It was followed by the French and American revolutions. It was within the vast upheaval of the French revolution that the Enrages, a loose group of socialist revolutionary ‘extremists’ appeared. The Enrages emerged in 1793, calling for direct action by the people, and seeing economic change rather than political action as the way forward. The capitalist leaders of the French Revolution soon proved that they were not going to assist this economic change, and the Enrages represented disillusioned workers who saw that the new elected government was no more help than the kings. In late 1792 they began petitioning for price controls and there were riots against profiteering shopkeepers provoked and backed by them. Later they were joined by a women’s organization, led by Claire Lacombe­ (La Societe des Republicaines Revolutionaires) who mustered at their suppression a demonstration of 6000 Parisian women.

B)     What Was Achieved:

The Enrages had far more social effect than the Diggers. They inflamed popular support for their policies, mobilized workers, especially women, and exposed the whole concept of ‘revolutionary government! ‘What is liberty’, asked Jacques Roux, “when one class of men starve another’. And his friend Jean Varlet added clearly ‘For any reasoned being, government and revolution are incompatible’.

C)   Why it Failed:

The Enrages was still a numerically small movement at the dawn of capitalism. Moux and Varlet were arrested and Lacombes society was banned.


A) How the Struggle Began:

In 1848 there was a series of revolutions across Europe, whereby parliaments were set up and ‘free’ enterprise for capitalists supported. Meanwhile socialist ideology was beginning to spread as the working class developed numerically. The French Revolution had meanwhile (as the Enrages had foreseen) degenerated into an ‘Empire’ with Napoleon in command. This was followed by his successor Napoleon 3rd. After disasterous defeat in battle with Germany, Napoleon 3rd was deposed in September 1870. The elected government of Paris, under Adolphe Thiers and Jules Faure then took over. They quickly proceeded to agree to Germany’s humiliating surrender terms, including the surrender of the Paris forts and handing over the guns and stores of the Paris army.

In protest at this betrayal, the Paris workers rioted in October 1870. Led by Louis Blanqui, a ‘socialist’, they seized the town hall. The National Guard defeated this demonstration, and after further riots in January 1871, began preparations to surrender Paris. In March Thiers sent troops into disarm Paris. On March 26 the people of Paris elected representatives and on the 28th declared the ‘Commune of Paris’, in open revolutionary defiance.

B) What was Achieved:

On March 30, the Commune abolished conscription and the standing army and police, and armed the people instead. A halt to the payment of all rents was called. On April 1st it was decided that no employee of the commune would receive a salary over 6000 francs (a workingman’s wage). All officials were elected and subject to recall at anytime. On April 6 the Guillotine used for executions was publicly burned. On April 16 a list was drawn up of all factories closed down by managers, and plans were made to reopen them under workers self-management. On April 20 night work was abolished for bakers, and the employment offices were closed.

The Paris Commune thus represents the first socialist organization in history. It was recognised as such by Marx, Bakunin and all the other ‘leading revolutionaries’ of the time, but it was, in fact, a purely spontaneous creation of the working people of Paris. The Commune has provided a model for revolutionaries ever since, and Marx called his doctrine communism after it.

C) Why it failed:

The Commune quickly set up plans to spread its message throughout France, but by early April, the troops of Thiers were surrounding Paris. As representative of the capitalist class who had no power in the commune, Thiers determined to crush the city unmercifully. Throughout May he amassed all the troops possible (with the support of Germany!) and bombarded Paris. On May 21st they broke into the city, advanced through the German held area (obviously the German rulers felt crushing socialism more important than their previous war) and took Paris. A vast massacre of men, women and children followed for weeks. The defeated were simply massed together and shot in the hundreds. Many more were herded into concentration camps. Such was the working class’ first experience of the brutality with which the capitalists will defend their gold.


A) How the Struggle began:

By the early 20th century socialist workers movements existed throughout the world. After initial attempts at forming a United ‘International Working Men’s Association’, the revolutionary socialist movement split into two camps. One following the ideas of Karl Marx held that the aim of socialist revolution should be to set up a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, a government of revolutionaries representing the working people. This government would then establish socialist economic relations and build up production to a state of economic prosperity. At this stage it would ‘wither away’ having completed its function, and a fully communist society would remain. The other camp was initially represented by Michael Bakunin who defined his doctrine of Anarchism thus: ‘We reply that no dictatorship can have any other aim except to perpetuate itself, and that it is capable of instilling and fostering only slavery in the masses that endure it. Liberty can only be created by liberty, that is by mass rebellion and the free organization of the working masses from-the bottom upwards’.

In Russia both these trends were represented. There were 3 main variants of Marxism there: the Social-Revolutionary Party, the Menshevik Party and the Bolshevik Party. The Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Ilich Lenin, were the most revolutionary of these three movements, but also the most centralised.

In January 1905 a demonstration at the Russian Winter Palace culminated in a massacre by the palace guard. Resentment swelled in Russia, and waves of strikes finally led in the cities to the formation of Soviets of Workers Deputies – spontaneously organised bodies of elected and revocable workers delegates. The factory town of Ivanovo-Voznesensk produced the first, but the Petrograd Soviet, constituted on October 14, 1905 with 550 delegates representing 250 000 workers, was the most important. It was December before the government was strong enough to strike back, but when it did the Soviets were soon crushed. Over the ensuring years, submerged rebellion continued despite Tsarist repression, and the Soviet masses moved towards a second and more convincing attempt at revolution. The Bolshevik Party meanwhile could not see (even after 1905) the potential for spontaneous organisation and revolt in the working class. In January 1917 in Switzerland Lenin spoke of the 1905 revolt stating ‘We of the older generation may not live to see the decisive battles of this coming revolution’. Six weeks later revolution broke out in Russia.

Strikes and bread riots occurred in Petrograd and there were angry street demonstrations. Troops sent to restore order fraternised with the demonstrators, and the Soviets re-emerged. On February 27, Tsar Nicholas 2nd abdicated, and the bourgeoisie, who had been pressing for sometime for abdication, set up a Provisional Government (with Prince Luov as Prime Minister).­This government was intended by the bourgeoisie and the Tsarist officials to initiate a ‘Western style’ republic. They reckoned without the rising power of the Soviets. Immediately after the revolution the Soviets themselves were unaware of their power, and their attitude was described by Lenin as ‘voluntary surrender of state power to the bourgeoisie and its Provisional Government’.

Meanwhile, the basis of the Soviets-workers committees in the factories was solidifying. The committee and soviets at this stage could be said to be approaching a society based on workers’ self-management – where the workers as a class make all the fundamental decisions directly through organisms of their own choice, (which they totally dominate and which federate at all levels by means of elected and revocable delegates). This concept of workers control was clearly what the committees had in mind. The Exploratory Conference of Factory Committees of Petrograd War Industries on April 2 for instance proclaimed ‘From the Factory Committee should emanate all instruc­tion concerning internal factory organisation (i.e. instructions concerning such matters as hours of work, wages, hiring and firing holidays, etc)…The Factory Committee Controls managerial activity in the administrative, economic and technical fields’. The workers were led to believe that the Bolshevik Party supported this stand. Lenin stated in Pravda, May 17 ‘the workers must demand the immediate realisation of control, in fact and without fail, by the workers themselves’. The draft for the new Party Program, produced by Lenin on May 20 claims ‘The Party fights for a more democratic workers and peasants republic, in which the police and standing army will be completely abolished and replaced by the Universally armed people, by a universal militia. All official persons will not only be elected but also subject to recall at any time upon the demand of a majority of the electorate.’ Increasingly, Bolshevik members were elected to prominent positions in the Soviets.

B) What was Achieved:

The Soviets were no sooner out of the control of the provisional government than they were under the control of the Bolshevik government. They never had the complete autonomy to plan a new society that the Paris Commune had. They were basically vast action committees, rather than genuine social organizations. Over the next months, the workers attempted to use them, and the All Russian Conference of Factory Committees as organisations like the Paris Commune. Why they failed we will see below (because many today consider the Bolsheviks to have been a socialist movement a detailed documented explanation is needed – the next pages are just a summary of such.)

The achievements of the Russian Revolution were the formation of workers committees on a nationwide basis – a basis big enough for them to succeed. This time the failure could not be blamed on the weakness of the movement.

Even after the Bolsheviks gained control of Russia, there were two aftermaths of struggle. One was the Kronstadt commune, and as this was an uprising attempting to prevent the failure of the revolution in Russia itself, we will consider this in section C. The other was the struggle by the Makhnovists in the Ukraine. We will look at this separately as event No 5.

C) Why it Failed:

The crucial difference between the Bolshevik approach and that of the workers themselves was hard to discern in Lenin’s speeches, but was there. At the first fall Conference of Petrograd Factory Committees from May 30-June 5 Lenin stated that workers control meant ‘that the majority of workers should enter all responsible institutions and that the administration should render an account of its actions to the most authoritative workers organisations.’ Here he clearly states that the right of the workers is only to be given an account of what is done by a separate managerial administration. Merely to give the workers the right to supervise, inspect or check decisions made by groups separate from the productive process (whether managers or the Bolshevik Party) is not enough. The separation of the producers from actual management of the means of production (the basis of all class society) still remains. This results in a situation of dual power between the workers organisations and Lenin’s ‘administration’. Eventually one of these two interests will win full control. In Soviet Russia, it was to be the administration.

On October 1, 1917, Lenin stated in ‘Can the Bolsheviks retain State Power?’ that ‘When we say workers control, always associating that slogan with the dictatorship of the proletariat, and always putting it after the latter, we thereby make plain what kind of state we have in mind’. During this period intensive propaganda was carried out for libertarian ideas. Of both Anarchists and Bolsheviks, Kerensky (at the head of the Provisional Government) threatened to ‘burn them out with red hot irons’, but with the revolution in full swing he was powerless. Golos Truda was the chief Anarcho-syndicalist paper at this time. On October 13 for example, it called for ‘total workers control, embracing all plant operations, real and not fictitious control, control over work rules, hiring and firing, hours and wages and the procedures of manufacture.’

At the First All Russian Conference of Factory Committees 86 of 137 delegates were Bolshevik. On October 25, three days later, a Bolshevik dominated Military Revolutionary Committee of the Petrograd soviet (four of its members were anarchists) engineered a coup d’etat and overthrew the Provisional government. Now the truth of Lenin’s call for ‘all power to the Soviets’ was put to the test. During the opening session of the Second All Russian Congress of Soviets on the next day, a decree was announced establishing the Council of Peoples Commissars (Sovnarkom) described as a ‘provisional workers and peasants government’ exercising authority ‘until the convocation of the Constituent Assembly’. The new state was swift to secure its power. On November 9 the Soviet of the Peoples Commissariat of Posts and Telegraphs was dissolved. The Commissar stated ‘I declare that no so-called initiatory groups or committees for the administration of the department of Posts and Telegraphs can usurp the functions belonging to the central power and to me as Peoples Commissar.’ The end of dual power was at hand.

What of the ‘Constituent Assembly’ to whom Sovnarkom was to hand over power? One of the first acts of Sovnarkom was to confirm the date of the elections for 12 November 1917 and a leading Bolshevik Commissar (Urutsky) supervised these. Of the 707 elected members of the assembly (out of a total of 808 originally planned) the Socialist Revolutionary Party gained 410 seats, the Bolsheviks 175, the Mensheviks 16 and the bourgeois Kadets 17. There followed much wrangling, accusations by the Bolsheviks against the Kadets, and a desperate union between the Bolsheviks and the left wing of the Socialist Revolutionary Party (this Left S.P. group held only 40 of the seats in the assembly; but the Bolsheviks now claimed that their defection invalidated the vote). On December 1, 1917, Lenin announced ‘We are asked to call the Constituent Assembly as originally conceived. No, thank you. It was conceived against the people and we carried out the rising to make certain that it will not be used against the people…When a revolutionary class is struggling against the propertied classes which offer resistance, that resistance has to be suppressed, and we shall suppress it by the same methods by which the propertied classes suppressed the proletariat’.

On December 5, a decree was issued setting up a Supreme Economic Council (Vesenka) to work out ‘a plan for the organisation of the economic life of the country and the financial resources of the government.’ The Vesenka was attached to the council of Peoples Commissars. It had a large membership from the new commissariats, a number of experts (nominated in a ‘consultative’ capacity) and a few members of the All-Russian council of Workers Control. The All Russian Council of Workers Control (set up on November 14) in turn consisted of 21 representatives, of whom only 5 came from the all Russian Council of Factory Committees (5 were from the central executive committee of the Soviets, others from Bolshevik dominated Trade Unions and bodies of Engineers, Technicians and Agronomists).

Anna Mikhailouna Pankratora (from 1952 a member of the Central Committee of the party) published in 1923 a work called ‘Russian Factory Committees in the struggle for the socialist factory’, one of the few official works on the process we are studying. She explains about the Vesenka ‘We needed a more efficient form of organisation than the factory committees and a more flexible tool than workers control. We had to link the management of the new factories to the principle of a single-economic plan and we had to do it in relation to the socialist perspectives of the young workers’ state…the Factory Committees lacked practise and technical know-how’.

On December 13 the ‘General Instructions on Workers Control in Conformity with the Decree of November 14’ declared that in future ‘the control commissions in each factory were to constitute the executive organs of the ‘control of distribution section’ of the local trade union federation. The activities of the control-commissions should be-made to conform with the decisions of the latter.’ This ensured that the factory committee only functioned as arms of the unions. The significance of this more became clear at the First All-Russian Congress of Trade Unions on January 7-14, 1918. A resolution of this congress stated ‘As they develop the trade unions should, in the process of the present socialist revolution, become organs of socialist power, and as such they should work in co-ordination with and subordination to other bodies in order to carry into effect the new principles…The Congress is convinced that in consequence of the foreshadowed process, the trade unions will inevitably become transformed into organs of the socialist state.’

On April 3, 1918 (new calendar dates from this time on) the Central Council of Trade Unions issued a declaration stating that every union should have a commission ‘to fix norms of productivity for every trade and category of workers. The use of piece rates ‘to raise the productivity of labour’ was conceded. It was claimed that ‘bonuses for increased productivity above the established norm may within certain limits be a useful measure for raising productivity without exhausting the worker.’ Finally if ‘individual groups of workers’ refused to submit to union discipline, they could in the last resort be expelled from the union ‘with all the consequences that flow therefrom’. Repression of non-Bolsheviks was increasing. On April 11-12 armed detachments of Cheka (the Bolshevik secret police) raided 26 anarchist centers in Moscow. Forty anarchists were killed or wounded, over 500 imprisoned.

From this time the issue of workers control was discussed within the party. External opposition had been crushed. On April 20 the first issue of the left communist journal Kommunist came out. It warned of ‘a labour policy designed to implant discipline among the workers under the flag of self discipline, the introduction of labour service for workers, piece rates, and the lengthening of the working day’. It noted ‘the introduction of labour discipline in connection with the restoration of capitalist management of industry cannot really increase the productivity of labour….Socialism and socialist organization will be set up by the proletariat itself, or they will not be set up at all: something else will be set up — state capitalism’.

Lenin’s reply was clear. On April 28 he published ‘The Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government. This stated ‘We must raise the question of piece-work and apply and test it in practise…we must raise the question of applying much of what is scientific arid progressive in the Taylor system’ In 1914 Lenin had written an article entitled ‘The Taylor System – Man’s enslavement by the machine’ about these new time and motion productivity studies. Lenin (April 1918) carries on ‘The irrefutable experience of history has shown that…the dictatorship of individual persons was very often the vehicle, the channel of the dictatorship of the revolutionary classes…Large-scale machine industry – which is the material-productive source and foundation of socialism – calls for absolute and strict unity of will…How can strict unity of will be ensured? By thousands subordinating their will to the will of one…Today the Revolution demands, in the interests of socialism, that the masses unquestionably obey the single will of the leaders of the labour process.’

On May 5, Lenin published ‘Left-wing childishness and petty bourgeois mentality’ against Kommunist. He notes ‘It has not occurred to them that state capitalism would be a step forward as compared with the present state of affairs in our Soviet Republic. If in approximately six months time state capitalism became established in our Republic, this would be a great success and a sure guarantee that within a year socialism will have gained a permanently firm hold and will have become invincible in our country…In the second place, there is nothing terrible in it for Soviet power, for the Soviet state is a state in which the power of the workers and the poor is assured.’ Tragically, as we have seen, this power was by now totally lost. Lenin termed it the task of the Bolsheviks ‘to study the state capitalism of the Germans, to spare no effort at copying it’.

In December 1918, the Bolshevik Molotou reported to the Second All-Russian Congress of Regional Economic Councils (Glavki), on membership of the glavki. He noted that over 10% were former employers or employers representatives, 9% technicians, 38% officials (eg. from Vesenka) and 43% representatives of workers organisations such as trade unions. The management of production was in the hands of people ‘having no relation to the proletarian elements in industry’. Those who actually directed policy were “employers representatives, technicians and specialists”.

From March 29-April 4, 1920, the Ninth Party Congress was held. Lenin called on the unions ‘to explain to the broad circles of the working class that industrial reconstruction can only be achieved by a transition to the maximum curtailment of collective administration and by the gradual introduction of individual management in units directly engaged in production…The elective principle must now be replaced by the principle of selection’. The congress called for a struggle against ‘the ignorant conceit of…demagogic elements…who think that the working class can solve its problems without having recourse to bourgeois specialists in the most responsible posts’. Further, ‘no trade union group should directly intervene in industrial management’ and ‘Factory Committees should devote themselves to the questions of labour discipline, of propaganda and of education of the workers’.

The final scene in the conflict between Lenin and. the left communists (now called ‘Workers Opposition’) was played at the tenth party congress of March 8-16, 1921. At this time the Kronstadt revolt was in full swing. On February 28th the sailors and workers of Kronstadt (the port of Petrograd) had joined striking Petrograd workers calling for immediate new soviet elections by secret ballot, freedom of speech, of press and of assembly for all working class and peasant groups, liberation of all prisoners of working class and peasant movements, abolition of special organs for party propaganda within the armed forces, equalization of rations for all workers, the right to private production of food and handicrafts (provided no wage labour is used) and the institution of workers control groups. 780 Kronstadt party members left the party in shock at the subsequent Bolshevik smear campaign (Radio Moscow claimed the revolt was Tsarist inspired), and the warning by Trotsky that the Red Army would crush the town. Despite refusal of regiments to fight fellow workers, the army attacked on March 7th and ten days later amidst much slaughter, Kronstadt fell. The Kronstadters had claimed ‘the Soviet Socialist Republic can only be strong when its administration belongs to the toiling classes, represented by renovated trade unions…Thanks to the policy of the ruling party the trade unions have had absolutely no opportunity to be purely class organizations.’

The same call was echoed within the congress by the Workers Opposition. Its fate was no less complete than that of Kronstadt. All opposition groups in the party were banned ‘The Congress prescribes the rapid dispersal of all groups without exception which have formed themselves on one platform or another… failure to execute this decision of the Congress will lead to immediate and unconditional expulsion from the Party’. Lenin called the Workers Opposition ‘a menace to the Revolution’ and mocked at their call for workers councils ‘A producers Congress! What precisely does that mean? It is difficult to find words to describe this folly. I keep asking myself, can they be joking? Can one really take these people seriously? While production is always necessary, democracy-is not. Democracy of production engenders a series of radically false ideas.’

In his ‘Draft Theses on the Role and Functions of the Trade Unions Under the New Economic Policy’ Lenin stated ‘A free market and capitalism, both subject to state control, are now being permitted and are developing; on the other hand, the state enterprises are being put on a profit basis, i.e. they are in effect being largely reorganised on commercial and capitalist lines…it is absolutely essential that all authority in the factories be concentrated in the hands of the management.’ To give them a material incentive, moreover, the directors of factories and trusts were paid partly by a commission and at times workers wages were tied to enterprise profitability.

So it was that the Bolshevik party did for the Bourgeoisie what they themselves could not do — successfully achieved a bourgeois revolution in Russia.

Finally, a note for those who wonder what Trotsky, Lenin’s right hand man and later opponent of the bureaucracy of Stalin, thought of all this. In July 1920 Trotsky published ‘Terrorism and Communism’. In this he states ‘The very principle of compulsory labour is for the communist quite unquestionable…The only solution to economic difficulties that is correct from the point of view both of principle and of practise is to treat the population of the whole country as the reservoir of the necessary labour power – an almost inexhaustible reservoir — and to introduce strict order into the work of its registration, mobilization and utilisation…The introduction of compulsory labour service is unthinkable without the application, to a greater or lesser degree, of the methods of militarization of labour…The unions should discipline the workers and teach them to place the interests of production above their own needs and demands…The young workers state requires trade unions not for a struggle for better conditions of labour – that is the task of the social and state organisations as a whole – but to organise the working class for the ends of production….I consider that if the civil war had not plundered our economic organs of all that was strongest, most independent, most endowed with initiative, we should undoubtedly have entered the path of one man management in the sphere of economic administration much sooner and much less painfully.’

The Politbureau appointed Trotsky head of the vast new Transport and Railway Administrative body Tsektran to carry out these policies (early September). On December 2 he announced to an enlarged Plenum of Tsektran that ‘a competent, hierarchically organised civil service had its merits. Russia suffered not from the excess but from the lack of an efficient bureaucracy’ and ‘The militarization of transport required an internal, ideological militarization.’


A.   How it Began.

While this fierce struggle went on in Russia itself, in the Ukraine a similar uprising occurred, though for the first years it lacked the damaging presence of the Bolsheviks. Following the treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the Austro-German army entered the Ukraine as rulers and set up the government of the Hetman Skoropadski. The popular struggle against this repressive monarchist regime took two forms — in the southern Ukraine a peasant anarchist movement arose, under the guidance of a group of anarchist communists at Gulyai Polye. In the north a bourgeois movement arose, led by Petliura. The southern movement known as the Revolutionary Insurgent Army of the Ukraine or the Makhnovists (after Nestor Makhno, the anarchist organizer of their struggle, renowned through the Ukraine for his heroism) soon proved the dominant force.

Due to the collapse of the axis powers in the war, and to the Makhnovist insurrection, the Hetman government and the landlord class in general were forced to abandon the Ukraine. The Petliurists quickly set up a government in Kiev (December 1918) and the Makhnovists threw their forces against it. From Nov. 1918 to June 1919, meanwhile, they organised free communes in the south. The structure of these organs was decided by the peasants and workers themselves. All organization in the Makhnovist areas was fully based on the working people, independent and opposed to non-worker control of the area (whether by landlords, the bourgeoisie, the kulaks (rich peasants) or a party bureaucracy).

For seven months (November 1918-June 1919) a vast area of the Ukraine was undisturbed by the war and here anarchist communism began to flower. Nestor Makhno himself describes the communes thus:

“The agricultural communes wore in most cases organized by peasants, though sometimes their composition was a mixture of peasants and workmen. Their organization was based on the equality and solidarity of the members. All members of these communes – both men and women – applied themselves willingly to their tasks, whether in the field or the household. The kitchen and dining rooms were. communal. But any members of the commune who wanted to cook separately for themselves and their children, or to take food from the communal kitchen and eat it in their own quarters, met with no objection from the other members of the commune.

A member could at anytime absent himself from the commune as long as he gave advance notice of this to the comrades with whom he worked most closely on communal tasks, so that the latter could cope with the work during his absence. This was the case during working periods. But during periods of rest (Sunday was considered a day of rest) all members of the commune took it in turns to go off on trips.

The management of each commune was conducted by a general meeting of all its members. After these meetings, each member, having his appointed task, knew what changes to make in it and so on….Every commune comprised ten families of peasants and workers i.e. a total of 100,200 or 300 members. By decision of the regional congress of agrarian communes every commune received as much land as its members could cultivate, situated in the immediate vicinity and formerly owned by the landlords, They also received cattle and farm equipment from these former estates.’

C. Why it Failed

In 1919 the red Army under Kamenev invaded the Ukraine. However as the invading white army under Denikin moved in from the south, they evacuated the Ukraine and it was the Makhnovists who on September 25 managed to decisively defeat this white army at Peregonovka. The Bolsheviks meanwhile began a vicious struggle against the Makhnovists. On June 4, 1919, Trotsky published order No. 1924 forbidding the holding of a congress of workers and peasants in the Ukraine. This congress was called by the Revolutionary Military Council of the region – a local self defence group. In his order Trotsky claims ‘This congress can have no other result than to excite some new disgraceful revolt like that of Grigor’ev, and to open the front to the whites, before whom Makhno’s brigade can only retreat incessantly, on account of the incompetence, criminal designs and treason of its commanders.’ In fact, it was the Red Army which retreated leaving the. Makhnovists to defeat the Whites in December, and the bandit leader Grigor’ev (who had defected from the Bolshevik Army) was executed by Makhno himself at a mass meeting in front of the combined Makhnovists and Grigor’evs own troops. So much for Trotsky’s views on free assembly. Compare this with the view given on November 5, 1919, by the Revolutionary Military Council of the Makhnovist Insurgent Army ‘All Socialist political parties, organizations and tendencies have the right to propagate their ideas freely, both orally and in writing. No restriction of Socialist freedom of speech and press will be allowed, and no persecution may take place in the domain.’

In January 1920 the Makhnovist Army was outlawed (the Bolsheviks ‘ordered’ it to fight on the Polish Front – thus removing from the Ukraine just as the White army under Wrangel was invading — it refused). Open war resulted, and several attempts were made to assassinate Makhno using espionage. On October 15, a pact was formed between the Makhnovists and the Red Army to fight Wrangel (whose invasion was now too serious to ignore). In November Insurgents in the south Ukraine began to organise their local co-operatives into free Soviets. Popular support for the Makhnovists, even amongst the Red Army, was such that the Bolsheviks were forced to add the following clause to their pact — ‘while crossing Soviet territory at the front, or going between fronts, the insurrectionary army will accept into its ranks neither detachments of, nor deserters from, the Red Army.’ This pact was never published in the Soviet Press in full, despite an agreement to do so, and on November 26, 1920 the Bolsheviks, having used the Makhnovists to defeat Wrangel, treacherously broke it. Suddenly they arrested Anarchists throughout the Ukraine, attacked Gulyai Polye (the Makhnovist centre), and invited Makhnovist generals to a military council meeting only to shoot them. The Makhnovist Army was ordered (order No. 60149 from Melitopol, by Commander M. Frunze) to ‘immediately begin transforming the insurrectionary partisan units into regular military units of the Red Army’. This despite the first clause of the Military Agreement stating that the Insurgent Army ‘will retain its established internal structure, and does not have to adopt the bases and principles of the regular Red Army.’

Trotsky could by this time reinforce his army with Chinese troops (who were less likely to defect to Makhno’s troops), and the extermination of Makhnovists and their families by the Army and the Cheka (Soviet Secret Police) began. This involved mass shootings of peasants. In Novospasovka mothers were forced to hold their children in their arms so as to execute them both together. By August 1921 the Makhnovist Army had been destroyed in toto.


A. How the Struggle Began:

The Spanish Revolution probably represents the most widespread and prolonged attempt at socialism in history. Again, as in Russia, the crucial factors in failure were internal. It could be said that from the Soviet Union we learn not to trust Marxists in power. From the Spanish Republic we learn not to trust ‘Anarchists’ IN POWER!

Spain had a republican (i.e. capitalist) government from 1931 on. In 1933 the right wing won convincingly in the elections (mainly because the working class abstained from voting – they considered parliament a fraud). However after 3 years of right wing rule Spain was desperate, and in 1936 even the big Anarchist trade union (CNT) urged workers to vote for the left wing. They imagined that this would liberate all the Anarchist political prisoners – but in 4 months the gaols were again full – this time imprisoned by the ‘left wing’ government. Unfortunately too, the left-wing victory encouraged the right wing to plot a coup d’Etat. In July 1936 the Army rose up on behalf of the right wing (i.e. the Fascists under Franco). Several major cities were quickly taken by the Fascists. On July 18th the CNT called for a revolutionary general strike to fight back.

Workers surrounded the barracks forced the troops to give in, and then seized and distributed arms. In a day the revolutionary victory was sure, and workers were organized into collectives to run half of Spain.

B. What was Achieved:

Before looking at the political intrigues which eventually destroyed the Spanish Revolution, we will briefly summarise the achievements of the Spanish people in organizing and running a socialist society without any direction from a political party including the CNT.

Spain’s major economic problem in 1936 was the land. Over 68% lived in rural areas, whore 67% of the land was owned by only 2% of the landowners. The obvious solution was Collectivisation, and about 3 million people quickly formed themselves into collectives. This occurred in all the provinces of Spain including, for example Castille (230 collectives) a UGT stronghold (the UGT called for nationalization rather than collectivisation, but in fact many collectives were joint UGT-CNT affairs). Castille is an example of the tremendous national solidarity too: In July 1937 over 1000 members of collectives in the Levante moved there to advise and assist in the building of collectives. The peasants organizations united quickly with the trades also – eg. in Castille in October 1937 the 100 000 members of the Regional Federation of Peasants joined with the 13 000 members of food distribution trades. After November this occurred on a national scale. As early as June 1937 a national plenum of the Regional Peasant Federations was held in Valencia to plan national co-ordination, ensure fair distribution of land amongst collectives and extend the movement.

In places, especially in Castille, the collective was replaced by a party orientated ‘commune’ and in others governmental influence led to virtual nationalisation, but by and large the collective was the form of rural organization. Once the old landowners had escaped, or were overthrown, the local inhabitants gathered together to plan. Firstly crops were gathered in from all the available land and a beginning made on farming the big estates for the whole collective. Delegates were nominated for agriculture and stock breeding, for local distribution, exchanges, public works, hygiene, education, and revolutionary defence. Workers groups were formed, each with a delegate, and the delegates met with those for agriculture to co-ordinate every 2-7 days. Of course many small landowners refused to join the collective. Their rights were respected and special accounts organised so they could deal with the collectives. Each family had its own vegetable gardens allotted also.

Modern machinery was bought and new types of seed used. New methods increased the acreage able to be farmed. In Aragon the initial years increase in wheat crop was 30% – in time of war when men were at the front!

Many collectives did without any ‘money’: others organized a local token system. Each household received money according to the number in it (not according to the number working in the fields from that family!) Similarly on a large scale those collectives who had more need for machinery were given machinery by the better off collectives. This was done via the peasants federation. Decisions were taken by ‘direct democracy’ at mass meetings and delegates merely co-ordinated progress.

Industry presented enormous problems for the revolution. Industries which normally exported goods found they no longer could sell their produce. Many goods produced formerly were no longer needed. On the other hand many factories were required to produce cars, trucks, and machinery and arms for the revolutionary war. There was no capital to purchase the needed machinery and raw materials as. the government held the gold. Finally the government nationalised forcibly all war industries, thus breaking the back of the industrial struggle.

In the early days of the revolution, workers simply seized the abandoned factories and reworked them under workers control. They often sold produce as before and shared the profits as their wage. This meant wages went up and down, and better equipped factories paid better wages. The CNT firmly opposed this ‘worker-run capitalism’ which soon died down.

In ‘October 1936 the Government issued a decree on Collectivisation. This was mere legalization of a move the workers had already taken. In fact the decree dampened down workers control by limiting collectivisation to enterprises employing over 100 workers and insisting that workers committee should do all in their power to ‘increase production by ‘closest collaboration with the owner’. Each workers ‘Council of Enterprises’ was to include a ‘controller’ from the government. In enterprises with over 500 workers or those involved in the war effort, the manager had to be approved by the government economic council. Not only that, but the Workers ‘Council of Enterprises’ was to be ‘orientated in its tasks’ by a government ‘General Council for Industry’. This massive bureaucracy ensured the workers control of industry was effectively crushed.

However, in the early months of revolution, the potential for worker self-management in industry was clearly shown. In Barcelona all transport services, electricity and water services etc were swiftly reorganised. The bakers’ collective recommenced bread’ distribution etc. Throughout Spain Health services were organized by the syndicates (workers co-ordinating bodies which grew out of the CNT) and schools were set up. The syndicate of Health Workers, for example, involved 40 000 members throughout Spain. Its congress, held in February 1937 planned out the total reorganization of Spain’s health service. Most private practices were eliminated. Public health and occupational health projects were begun.

Like any revolution, the Spanish revolution heralded dramatic changes in family life. Marriage became a matter of festivity followed by living together – its legality and bondage were abolished. Spanish women appeared on the streets for the first time, wore trousers (unheard of before), and organized themselves. By September 1936 Mujeres Libres, the anarchist women’s movement, had 7 labour sections – transport, public services, nursing, clothing, mobile brigades for non specialists and a brigade to supply women needed in the front line. Tragically, though, this equality in revolutionary energy was not always reflected in wages eg. in the Puigcerda retail trade, men earned 50 pesetas a week, women only 35.

Such failures emphasise the importance of women organising separately (just as peasants did not subordinate themselves to industrial workers). In Madrid the organization of women was achieved on the basis of house, and neighbourhood committees, uniting to form a sort of commune parallel to the syndicates. From here they organized creches and maternity homes, collective meals and laundry, and munitions for the war effort.

C.  Why it Failed:

From the beginning of the struggle, attitude of the old ‘left wing’ republican government was pathetic. On the 18th of July 1936, it reshuffled its members to include right-wingers and attempted to make a ‘deal’ with the Fascists. It had, now, no real power, except the second largest gold reserve in the world. Gold was to prove an essential ingredient – if the CNT had seized it at this stage instead of simply leaving it – arms for the struggle and machinery for the new society could have been purchased. The republicans did nothing with it.

Four days later the first peoples militia of 10 000 marched off to battle the Fascist army at Saragossa. The republicans did nothing. Workers seized the factories, and peasants converted the large estates into co-operatives. The ‘leaders’ of the CNT meanwhile, formed a ‘Committee of Anti-Fascist militias’ with the republicans and Marxist parties. They did not consult their workers, they simply acted. Obviously some form of co-operation with other mass organizations, such as the UGT (a Marxist union organization with a following almost as great as the CNT) was crucial, as both organizations claimed to aim at workers control. But collaboration with the republican government, which had no mass support, and had already shown itself more willing to make a deal with Fascists than arm workers, was a foolish mistake indeed. In September 1936 the ‘Committee of Anti-Fascist Militias’ was dissolved and a National Defence Council (actually a government including republicans, Marxists and a few ‘Anarchists’) was set up in Madrid. Meanwhile a meeting of workers’ councils in Barcelona was complaining that the Madrid government refused any aid to their industries producing armaments until they accepted its control.

The presence of ‘Anarchists’ in the government did nothing to prevent the government suppressing the revolution. On the other hand it forced workers to see the struggle as a choice between Fascism (with promises of economic prosperity) and the republic (which they had already suffered under for 6 years). The revolution was supposed to be ‘shelved’ until the Fascist defeat. Not surprisingly, morale gradually fell. A September National Plenum of the CNT urged that the representatives not take actions without consulting the masses, but still they acted on what they saw as the urgent task of anti-Fascist unity.

The Soviet aligned Marxists numbered 3000 in 1936 (compared to about 1,500,000 in the CNT). Stalin did not advise support for the antifascist struggle until it was obvious Franco could not secure a sudden win. After only a few months the Stalinists ran 90% of the posts in the Spanish War-Department. They set up their own private prisons and torture chambers called ‘preventoriums’ and forbade government to visit. ‘Pravda’ paper in Moscow declared on 6 December 1936 ‘the purging of the Trotskyists and Anarchosyndicalists has begun. It will be conducted with the same energy with which it was conducted in the USSR.’

In May 1937 the issue became quite clear. A Madrid government police force invaded the worker controlled Telephone exchange in Barcelona. Soon workers and police were in armed struggle again. Though the local CNT naturally backed the workers, the national ‘leaders’ complained that workers had been tapping government phone calls. They urged the workers to lay down arms, and the CNT workers were forced to leave the building. The Stalinists demanded reprisals against workers. Meanwhile after governmental crisis a new government was formed excluding the CNT leaders, and run by Juan Negrin, a Stalinist. The CNT leaders appealed for popular support, but after May in Barcelona, working people no longer trusted them. The government now proceeded to smash the CNT and the workers movement.

Firstly, they eliminated the militias – a type of armed unit formed by the workers at the time of revolution, based on equality, election of officers, voting on decisions to fight etc. By May 1937 the government had already gone far to reverse this situation. Former CNT leader, now minister of Justice , Garcia Oliver stated in February 1936: ‘Officers of the Popular Army, you must observe an iron discipline and impose it on your men who, once they are under your command, must cease to be your comrades and be simply cogs in the military machine of our army.’ Power corrupts, as Anarchists had always warned. This pathetic degeneration reached further depths. The CNT press even supported violence as a weapon of revenge (‘execution’ of Fascist prisoners), of intimidation (public execution of deserters) and deterrence (the death penalty for the thief). The republicans were only too happy to comply.

To finally clarify whose side the CNT officials belonged to by the end of 1937, it is only necessary to quote from the decisions of the National CNT Plenum of January 1938. Consider this proposal

“The manager who acts as the responsible official in the employment section, in production and in the Comitê for syndical control, can propose the dismissal of a worker, and, in agreement with the general manager, speedy decisions will be taken: In the case of unjustified absence from work; in cases of persistent lateness; in cases where, a worker fails to reach the production targets required; in the cases of those who tend to be ‘troublemakers’ in that they create dissension between the workers and the responsible officials or the trade union representatives.”

So, as in Russia, revolution was betrayed by the revolutionaries. Power corrupts, and where workers’ councils exist, power has no place. The conclusion of such a situation was inevitable. The workers were totally demoralised. The government proceeded to nationalise the factories under workers control. With government blessing, the Stalinists proceeded to attack and slaughter peasants in the collectives.

In October 1937 the CNT delegation from Aragon province announced ‘More than 600 organisers of the Collectives have been put in prison. The government has nominated management commissions which have seized the food warehouses and have distributed supplies haphazardly. The land, draught animals and agricultural implements have been returned to the members of fascist families or to fascists-who had been left unmolested by the revolution….A large number of collective piggeries, stables, stockyards, barns have been destroyed.”

The conduct of the war, now fully under government and Stalinist control, went from bad to worse. Eventually, Fascist victory became unavoidable, and in January 1939 when Franco’s troops entered Barcelona (an Anarchist stronghold) the demoralised population did not even offer resistance. As a war, in conventional terms, the Spanish Revolution was lost. Of course in its original form, the revolution was somewhat chaotic. It was an emergency uprising and medical and supply services, let alone military strategy in the early days left much to be desired. But the peoples hearts were in it, and this was the crucial lacking ingredient later on. As a professional soldier (Colonel Jimenez de la Beraza) noted of the first improvised militias – ‘From a military point of view it is chaos, but it is chaos which works. Don’t disturb it.’


A.   How the Struggle Began:

So far we have considered three dawn-time struggles of proletarian socialism (the Diggers, the Enrages and the Paris Commune) and then the two greatest achievements of socialism (the Russian and Spanish revolutions). From these we get some clear ideas of the actual dangers which confront socialist revolution. Since the end of World War 2 there have been revolutions and civil wars throughout the third world (i.e. Africa, Asia, South America) and in many of them genuine socialist movements have played a crucial role. But to avoid historical chaos we will not go into the fate of these struggles here. Instead we will look at two revolutions which have occurred in Industrialised Europe — i.e. in societies like ours, or like ours could soon become. Here we have a message of hope, for we will see that even in situations where revolution is traditionally unlikely – the totalitarianism of the Soviet bloc and the abundance of a liberal democracy like France – the workers have not ‘forgotten’.

At the end of the Second World War, the Soviet Union occupied east Europe and governments modelled on the Russian system were set up there. In Hungary the government set up by the Russians included as first minister General Bela Miklos – recently the first Hungarian to receive from Hitler the Knight Grand Cross of the Iron Cross. Two other former fascist generals were included along with Communists and others. The Communist Party under Matyas Rakosi quickly took over the A.V.O. (Hungarian secret police) and used it to expose the ‘crimes’ of the members of the liberal parties, who were promptly dethroned.

Russia brutally demanded 300 million dollars in reparations from its new ally. Even after later reductions, this still amounted to 10% of the Hungarian budget – an enormous burden on the workers who paid via their work in industry (all nationalised after 1948). Nationalisation occurred while the workers were on holiday (Easter Monday) and they arrived back, to find new bosses – no pretence at workers control here. As early as December 6, 1948 the minister of industry, Istuan Kossa, claimed ‘The workers have assumed a terrorist attitude towards the directors of the nationalised industries’. He added that forced labour might help them change their minds.

In March 1953 Stalin died and the more liberal Soviet leadership reflected itself in Imre Nagy becoming Prime Minister in Hungary (July 1953; at the advice of USSR premier Malenkov) Nagy released political prisoners, and dissolved some of the hated farm collectives begun by force under Stalin. For these reforms Nagy was thrown out in April 1955 and accused of being ‘an incorrigible, right-wing deviationist’.

After a taste of freedom, resistance had built up. On October 23rd 1956, the students of the Petofi circle (named after the poet who had fought in the revolution of 1848) called a demonstration in solidarity with striking workers of Posnan in Poland. The crowd of 50 000 heard a list of demands read and then marched to the radio building to insist their demands be broadcast. From within the building the AVO police machine-gunned into the crowd. Workers seized police guns and fired back. Revolt had begun. Meanwhile a crowd of 6000 went to the city Park to demolish the 26ft tall statue of the hated Stalin (so much for the claims of some that the Hungarian revolt was pro-Stalin). In the streets thousands of workers and students set up road-blocks and occupied the squares. Workers from the Czepel factory brought lorry loads of arms.

Many have also claimed that this revolution was pro-capitalist. To put the lie to that, here is the initial list of demands set out by delegates from 24 major factories on that day:

“1) The factory belongs to the workers. The latter should pay the state a levy calculated on tie basis of the output and a portion of the profits.

2) The supreme controlling body in the place of work is the workers council elected democratically by the workers.

3) Workers councils elect their own leading committees composed of 3-9 members, which carry out the decisions of the council and which will carry out other jobs which these decide on.

4) The Director is employed by the factory. The workers council elects the director and the highest employees. This election takes place after a public meeting called by the executive committee.

5) The director is answerable to the workers council in every matter which concerns the factory.

6) The workers council itself reserves all rights to:

a) Decide on the plans of the factory.

b) Decide the rates of pay in the enterprise.

c) Decide about all foreign contracts.

d) Decide all matters involving credit.

7) In the same way, the workers council resolves any conflicts about the employment of any worker.

8 ) The workers council has the right to examine the balance sheets and to decide the use to which profits are to be put.

9) The workers council handles social questions in the enterprise.”

While this statement accepts one-man directorship of the factory and the existence of a ‘state’ separate from the workers’ councils, it is a clearly socialist demand.

On the morning of October 24, 1956, Russian tanks entered Budapest. The Hungarian government had reappointed Nagy prime minister due to popular demand, but he quickly showed his colours by calling on the Russians to ‘restore order’. Workers attacked the tanks with molotovs and grenades. Russian tanks sent to fire on unarmed crowds instead fraternized with crowds. The AVO opened fire on both.

B)   What was achieved:

Workers’ councils were set up across Hungary in a genuine attempt at revolutionary change. In Poland, Czechoslovakia and East Germany there were demonstrations in solidarity. In Rumania the army, thought to be sympathetic, was disarmed. In the USSR the railway refused to run supplies to the army in Hungary. There were strikes and meetings of solidarity throughout the Soviet bloc. By October 30th the Russian tanks were being withdrawn. Working people had shown that even in ‘socialist’ Hungary, they knew what genuine socialism was and were prepared to fight for it. A generation of Fascism and Stalinism had not crushed them.

C)  Why it failed:

The Hungarian revolt, like the early revolts against capitalism, was crushed by brute force. In November fresh tanks, infantry and aircraft were moved in to pound the working class areas of Budapest and other cities to rubble. A puppet government under Janos Kadar was set up by the Russians (Nagy was finally executed for treason in 1958). Thousands were sentenced to death by mobile courts martial. The ‘Revolutionary Councils’, formed by linking up all the workers’ councils, and with representatives of peasants and white collar workers called a general strike. Demonstrations continued (e.g. on December 4, 30 000 women in Budapest gathered in Heros’ square – Russian troops fired over their heads ). Workers were coerced back to work. On December 9th the Central Workers Council called a new 48 hour general strike. The government replied by declaring martial law and dissolving all regional and central councils. Council organizers were arrested. On December 15 the death penalty for striking was introduced. Through January strikes continued but the struggle was truly lost. On January 8 1957 the workers council of Czepel dissolved itself rather than become a government tool.

The Hungarian revolutionary paper Nemzetor summed up: ‘All workers, socialists, even communists must at last realise that a bureaucratic state has nothing to do with Socialism.’


A) How it Began:

Anarchism died down in 1939 after the defeat of the Spanish revolution, and did not thoroughly revive itself until the 1960s. Anarchist movements have been active in many countries since then, from Japan to Uruguay, from Britain to China. But undoubtedly the most significant event since the Anarchist revival has been the French Revolution of 1968 which produced the anarchist theorist Daniel Cohn Bendit, and, more important, showed how an anarchist revolution could occur in an advanced western nation.

In the suburban belt of Paris there is a university campus named Nanterre. Here, during the mid 60s the student revolt was enacted much as it was in other universities around the world. In spring 1967, the boys living in at Nanterre illegally invaded the girls dormitories in defiance of the segregation rules. The fire brigade and police were called. On February 14, 1968 (St Valentines day) a similar event occurred in every French university, and the Minister of Education was forced to concede the right of girls to visit boys dormitories before 11pm. The next issue of contention was the sociology curriculum. On November 17, 1968 the Nanterre sociologists staged a strike protesting that sociology as it stood was propaganda for capitalism.

At this point, a group calling themselves the Enrages after the original socialists of the French Revolution appeared. When, in January, the Minister of Youth and Sport visited the university he found the walls covered in obscene diagrams, and an immigrant German student named Cohn Bendit abused him. As rumours spread of police spies on campus, the Enrages marched around with placards parading blown up photos of police. On January 26 there was a scuffle (placards were forbidden on campus) and five vanloads of police were called in. The enrages began pelting the police with stones, and drew them on into the campus where a thousand students were coming out for midday break. In fury the mob formed, their suspicions of police on the campus confirmed. A riot erupted and the police fled.

On March 18, 1968 bombs were put through the windows of the Chase Manhattan Bank, the  Bank of America and Trans World Airlines in Paris, in protest against the Vietnam war. On 22 March 5 arrests were made by the police and that night students met in Nanterre to plan their protest. On April 2, 1200 students took over a lecture theatre and decided after discussion to set aside 2 and 3 May for boycott of- lectures and a study of imperialism. The dean closed the university and ordered ring leaders to appear before a disciplinary board at Sorbonne university. The students threatened to boycott the May 6th exams. In fear of all this, the Rector closed the Sorbonne in early May and moved riot police in to block the gates. The student reaction was spontaneous and violent. On Saturday May 4 the police swooped again, and on May 5 (Sunday) an emergency court condemned 6 to jail. Demonstrations planned for Monday were banned by the police. When they occurred, they were massive, and shocked Paris. Over 600 students needed first aid, there were over 422 arrests.

Over the next week the student movement grew from street brawls to Mass insurrection. Firstly the revolt spread from Paris to the provincial universities. Secondly, an opinion poll on May 8 showed that 4/5 of Parisians supported the students. The night of 10-11 May is remembered as ‘The Night of the Barricades.’ A crowd of 15 000 school and university students fought throughout the night, demanding the imprisoned to be set free. They had hardened, and refused a conciliatory offer to reopen the Sorbonne. The results of this street battle included 367 wounded, 460 arrests, 188 damaged cars.

Popular support was so strong that the pro-Soviet Union trade unions were forced to declare a one day solidarity general strike for May 13, to take the sting out of the question. That night, inspired by a day ‘solidarity’, the students took over the Sorbonne university, and set up the student Soviet. The Soviet met daily to co-ordinate the movement from then on. Late in the evening of Tuesday 14, the students at the Sorbonne learned that some groups of workers had gone further than their trade union bosses had intended. The Sud-Aviation works in Nantes had been occupied. Strikes were continuing. A week later the Citroen works were occupied, and suddenly a workers movement was born. In panic Seguy, speaking officially for the pro-Moscow unions claimed “self management is a hollow formula; what the workers really want is immediate satisfaction of their claims.” This statement summarises the basic position of the Moscow party, and explains why over the next weeks union bosses urged the workers back to work. The CGT union now has vested interests in the system, and a revolution is definitely not in its interests. Because it still held the respect of many workers, it was able gradually to disarm the revolution and assist the De Gaulle governments restoration.

B. What was achieved:

Here are some of Cohn-Bendit’s own observations on the movement he supported:

“It would be wrong to think that what happened in France could only have happened there, just as it is a mistaken idea that concentration camps could only have occurred in Hitler’s Germany or in Stalin’s Russia. Revolution as well as counter-revolution are international, and much as the student movements in Spain, America, Japan, Italy, etc. influenced the French student movements; the French student movement, which was the first to spill out from the university into the factories, can serve as an example elsewhere.

The events in France have proved that revolution is possible in even a highly industrialized capitalist society. Those who argued that the working class had out grown revolution stood convicted of theoretical and practical incompetence, a fact that suggests it is high time to discover why the working class has remained so passive for so long…

Now this failure cannot be explained simply in terms of treachery by the working class organizations, for it is basically due to the erosion of initiative within the capitalist system. The ideological submissiveness and servility of the wage slaves must not be condemned, which serves no purpose; nor deplored, which helps to engender a moral superiority, nor accepted, which can only lead to complete inaction – it must be fought by an active and conscious assault, if necessary by a minority, on the system in every sphere of daily life…

The mass intervention of the working class was the greatest achievement of our struggle; it was the first step on the path to a better society, a path that, alas, was not followed to the end. The militant minorities failed to get the masses to follow their example: to take collective charge of the running of society. We do not believe for a single moment that the worker are incapable of taking the next logical step beyond occupying the factories – which is to run them on their own. We are sure that they can do what we ourselves have done in the universities. The militant minorities must continue to wage their revolutionary struggle, to show the workers what their trade unions try to make them forget: their own gigantic strength. The distribution of petrol by the workers in the refineries and the local strike committees shows clearly what the working class is capable of doing once it puts its mind to it.”

Some of his observations on the strike committees are also notable. In late May there were over 450 action committees in Paris alone, engaged in an enormous variety of activities. They sprang up in schools, universities, government offices, professional organizations, firms and residential areas. Some did down to earth tasks such as clearing streets of rubbish and organising transport, some functioned as propaganda and political support groups. The student soviet did a great deal of the co-ordination work for Paris. In the city of Nantes the town hall became the seat of a soviet calling itself the Central Strike Committee. This soviet was formed by the three principal trade unions, two peasant unions, and the university and school movements. Wives of workers organized food deliveries to local shops, opening six retail trade outlets in schools. Teams of workers and students went out to help the farmers bring in their vegetables. Workers kept electricity going. Milk deliveries continued. Animal food and petrol was distributed to the farms as before. This all lasted less than a month, but it showed that the workers have not forgotten what they can do.

Cohn-Bendit states: “The action committee usually met once a day at a fixed hour and place, and its deliberations were open to all. Each local action committee was in contact with the wider Arrondissement committee, which in turn was in contact with the Paris Action Committee. However the local action committees consistently refused to allow this co-ordination to degenerate into a kind political direction. They reserved the right to take whatever steps they saw fit on both the local and also the national level, and rotated their delegates, who had no mandate, and merely acted as go betweens. Moreover, the internal organization of the local groups also varied according to the role they were playing at a given moment. There was one thing, however, that everyone was agreed on: the preservation of autonomy.”

In his article ‘The May-June Events in France’ Murray Bookchin brings out well another important aspect of the struggle in 1968. Bookchin (an Anarchist writer, and participator in the struggle in France) writes “The uprising revealed that we are at the end of an old era and well into the beginning of a new one. The motive forces of revolution today at least in the industrialised world, are not simply scarcity and material need, but also the quality of everyday life, the demand for the liberation of experience, the attempt to gain control over ones own destiny….A festive atmosphere prevailed throughout most of the May-June days, an awakening of solidarity, of mutual aid, indeed of a selfhood and a self expression that had not been seen in Paris since the commune. People literally discovered themselves and their fellow human beings anew — or remade themselves. In many industrial towns, workers clogged the squares, hung out red flags, read avidly and discussed every leaflet that fell into their hands. A fever for life gripped millions, a reawakening of senses that people never thought they possessed, a joy and elation they never thought they could feel. Tongues were loosened, ears and eyes  acquired new acuity. There was singing with new and often ribald verses added to old tunes. Many factory floors were turned into dance floors. The sexual inhibition that had frozen the lives of so many young people in France were shattered in a matter of days.”

C) Why it Failed:

Once again, everyday people had united against their oppressors and re-learnt the old lessons. The struggle against capitalism and other power divisions in society was again begun, and the form of the workers council was again developed. At best, however, we could think of the May 68 revolt as a preliminary skirmish like the 1905 uprising in Russia, because like that revolt it was swiftly put down. As has so often been the case, the Marxist parties were instrumental in subduing the revolt, however neither this nor the force of the state will account fully for the failure of this and other revolutions in similar situations. The study of revolutions in history, and the learning of ‘revolutionary strategy’ can help us in some ways. Getting involved in more relevant actions and putting more energy into the movement is, again, an advantage. But there is clearly another factor involved. Having summarised the collapse of the French Revolution, 1968, I shall return to this in the final section.

On May 22nd, the government in panic promised a general amnesty, and on May 24th, De Gaulle offered a referendum. The workers were not interested however, and on the next day demonstrations drew over 200 000 into the streets. 100 000 marched on the stock exchange and set it alight. Then a leader of the J.C.R. (Revolutionary Communist Youth) led the mass back to the Sorbonne. It soon became clear that this action, like the betrayal of the C.G.T. union, had defused a movement on the brink of success. On Monday May 27th an agreement between the state, the employers and the trade unions (The Grenelle agreement) was announced. Union secretary Seguy announced “Much remains to be done, but our most essential claims have been met and we will not go back on what we have agreed….”. His speech was met with whistles and boos, but gradually doubt began to creep into the factories.

On May 29th De Gaulle met with his army generals to prepare for a final battle, should the agreement fail. Half a million workers meanwhile paraded through Paris. Elections were set for 23 and 30 June. In the three weeks preceding them, the punch went out of the movement. Action committee after action committee collapsed. The students rushed out to support workers as their factories capitulated to union and police pressure. On the 7th and 10th of June there were fights with the police at the Renault factory in Flins, and on 11th June at the Peugeot factories at Sochaux. Three were killed in these battles. It was to no avail. The factories went back, and when the elections came they resulted in a massive victory for De Gaulle.


“In New Delhi in 1966 hundreds of thousands of half starving Indian peasants and urban poor actively participated in the biggest and most militant demonstration the town had ever known. Whole sections of the city were occupied, policemen attacked, cars and busses burnt. The object of this massive action was not however, to protest against the social system which maintained the vast mass of the people in a state of permanent poverty, and made a mockery of their lives.  It was to denounce some contemplated legislation permitting cow slaughter under specific circumstances. Indian ‘revolutionaries’ meanwhile were in no position to make meaningful comment. Did they not still allow their parents to fix their marriages for them, and consideration of caste repeatedly to colour their politics?”

This quote from Maurice Brinton’s book “The Irrational in Politics” brings up the issue which faces us repeatedly in our history of revolution. Why do people en mass obey their leaders even to the point of acting against their own survival? He continues

“confronted with disturbing facts like mass popular support for imperialist wars or the rise of Fascism a certain type of traditional revolutionary can be guaranteed to provide a stereotyped answer. He will automatically stress the ‘betrayal’ or ‘inadequacy’ of the Second or Third Internationals, of the German Communist Party…or of this or that leadership which, for some reason or other failed to rise to the historical occasion. (People who argue in this way don’t even seem to appre­ciate that the repeated tolerance by the masses of such ‘betrayal’ or ‘inadequacy’ itself warrants a serious explanation.)”

“More sophisticated revolutionaries will lay the blame elsewhere. The means of moulding public opinion (press, radio, TV, churches, schools and universities) are in the hands of the ruling class. These media consequently disseminate ruling class ideas, values, and priorities day in, day out. What is disseminated affects all layers of the population, contaminating everyone. Is it surprising, these revolutionaries will ask with a withering smile, that under such circumstances the mass of the people still retain reactionary ideas. (To accept this as an explanation would be to vest in ideas a power they cannot have, namely the power to dominate material conditions, neutralising the influence of the economic facts of life. It is surprising that this should never have occurred to our ‘Marxists’.)”

“This explanation, though partially correct, is insufficient. In the long run it will not explain the continuing acceptance by the ruling class of bourgeois rule – or that such rule has only been overthrown to be replaced by institutions of state capitalist type…” Brinton summarises: “it is the purpose of this pamphlet to explore the nature and cause of these resistances and to point out that they are not innate but socially determined. (If they were innate there would be no rational or socialist perspective whatsoever.) We will be led to conclude that these resistances are the result of a longstanding conditioning, going back to earliest childhood, and that this conditioning is mediated through the already conditioned parents and through the whole institution of the patriarchal family. The net result is a powerful reinforcement and perpetuation of the dominant ideology and the mass production of individuals with slavery built into them, individuals ready at a later stage to accept the authority of schoolteacher, priest, emplo­yer and politician…”

Brinton is hopeful about the future as regards overcoming our conditioning. He suggests “The assertion of the right to manage ones own life, in the realm of sex as in the realm of work, is helping to disintegrate the dominant ideology. It is producing less compulsive and less obsessive individuals, and in this respect preparing the ground for libertarian revolution.”

However more than just talking is needed to uproot repression. In ‘Leaving the Twentieth Century’ Christopher Gray comments on revolutionaries who were prominent in the French revolution of 1968 that “In the last analysis they made the same mistake as all left wing intellectuals; they thought that everyone else was plain thick. The poor workers don’t know what is going on, they need someone to tell them. But people in the streets, in the office and factories know damn well what’s going on, even if they can’t write essays about all its theoretical ramifications. The point is they can’t do anything about it. What needs understanding is the state of paralysis everyone is in. Certainly all conditioning comes from society  but it is anchored in the body and mind of each individual, and that is where it must be dissolved.

Ultimately the problem is an emotional one, not an intellectual one. All the analyses of reification in the world won’t cause a neurosis to budge an inch. Certainly a massive propaganda campaign to publicise the possibility of a revolution, of a total transformation of the world, is vitally important — but it will prove totally ineffective if it isn’t simultaneous with the creation of mass therapy.”

It is interesting to note that here we are touching on the same subject that we discussed on page one. The ultimate reason why life is so unacceptable in this society is also, as we are discussing now, the major obstacle in our changing things for the better…Our own alienation from ourselves. As Marx said so long ago “In what does this alienation of labour consist? First that the work is external to the worker, that it is not a part of his nature, that consequently he does not fulfill himself in his work but denies himself, has a feeling of misery not of well being, does not develop freely a physical and mental energy, but is physically exhausted and mentally debased”.

The solution suggested above takes us outside the scope of this present work. The concept of therapy, and in fact the very idea of revolution as a total transformation of the world (which it must be in order to succeed), take us out of the scope of this brief article on industrial struggle. Like the Women’s Movement, this is a topic which merits more than the token reference it receives here. Readers are referred to the bibliography for suggestions as to where to start.

To conclude, here is a note of hope about the sort of therapy which could well be far reaching enough to achieve the sort of change which we need to balance any revolutionary struggle on the social scale. The quote comes from Arthur Janov in ‘The Primal Revolution’.  “Numerous individuals who would never agree with me about society are drawn to Primal Therapy (and primal theory) out of their own misery, and because they sense a truth in it that they can feel. Nothing now can suppress the truth of personal change, because nothing can suppress truth in the long run. What happens to people, irrespective of initial outlook, is that becoming well automatically changes their views…. Neurosis is of a piece. It not only determines ones inner life, but shapes ones social philosophy. Changing that inner state provides the basis for change in social outlook: and that is the hope- the transformation of the members of society is inevitably the transformation of that society. That world is within our reach, because, in an unreal society, the simple truth is revolutionary.”


Anderson, Andy. HUNGARY 1956. Solidarity

Apter, David E. and Joll, James. ANARCHISM TODAY. Macmillan 1971

Arshinov, Peter. HISTORY OF THE MAKHNOVIST MOVEMENT. Solidarity/ Black and Red 1974

Bakunin, Michael. SELECTED WRITINGS. Jonathon Cape 1973.

Bookchin, Murray. POST SCARCITY ANARCHISM. Wildwood House 1974.


Brinton, Maurice. THE IRRATIONAL IN POLITICS. Solidarity.

Christie, Stuart & Meltzer, Albert. THE FLOODGATES OF ANARCHY. Sphere 1972.

Cohn-Bendit, Daniel & Gabriel. OBSOLETE COMMUNISM: THE LEFT WING ALTERNATIVE. Penguin 1969

Firestone, Shulamith. THE DIALECTIC OF SEX. Paladin 1972.

Goldman, Emma. RED EMMA SPEAKS. Vintage Books 1972.

Gray, Christopher. LEAVING THE 20TH CENTURY. Free Fall 1974

Hoyles, Andree . IMAGINATION IN POWER. Spokesman 1973

Janov, Arthur. THE PRIMAL SCREAM. Abacus 1978

Janov, Arthur. THE PRIMAL REVOLUTION. Abacus 1978

Janov, Arthur. PRIMAL MAN. Abacus 1978

Kollontai, Alexandra. THE WORKERS OPPOSITION. Solidarity


Lenin,V.I. THE STATE AND REVOLUTION. Foreign Languages Press Peking 1973




Marx, Karl and Engels, Frederick. SELECTED WORKS. Progress 1975


Reich, Wilhelm. THE MASS PSYCHOLOGY OF FASCISM. Pelican 1975


Rowbotham, Sheila. WOMAN’S CONSCIOUSNESS, MAN’S WORLD. Penguin.

Seale, Patrick & McConville, Maurine. FRENCH  REVOLUTION 1968. Penguin 1978

Shatz, Marshall S. et al. THE ESSENTIAL WORKS OF ANARCHISM. Bantam 1971

Voline. THE UNKNOWN REVOLUTION. Free Life Editions 1975


Woodcock, George. ANARCHISM. Penguin 1975


~ by vomitingdiamonds on 16/10/2010.

2 Responses to “Lessons of History”

  1. Lessons of History…

    I found your entry interesting do I’ve added a Trackback to it on my weblog :)…

  2. Your Blog post is awesome!!
    I don’t remember any REVOLUTION. Thanks for remind it 🙂 .

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