Peter Sedgwick

Anarchy and Organisation

(Autumn 1968)

From International Socialism (1st series), No. 34, Autumn 1968, p. 36.
Transcribed and marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The Grand Camouflage
Burnett Bolloten
Pall Mall, 63s

The Russian Anarchists
Paul Avrich
Princeton UP/Oxford, 60s

Anarchy is back with us again. Absent these thirty years from the politics of the European continent, the old black flag has unfurled with all its ancient bogey power – witness its appearance in De Gaulle’s rallying-cry to the French petty-bourgeois electorate. The flag, it is true, is no longer borne by working men enrolled in specifically anarchist bands, but waved as a provocation by students and young professionals with a variety of party cards: self-styled Maoists, participatory democrats, Marcusians, Young Libs. We should not be surprised at its appearance. Where there is revolution there is anarchy, the first stirring, the first cry, the first position, before organisation begins. We must greet and welcome anarchy. It is not the sword of revolution, only its herald. But a herald performs a genuine service. These two books deal with the peak of anarchism’s flux in this century, in Russia before and around 1917, and in Spain during the Civil War. Burnett Bolloten’s fascinating monograph was first published in 1961, and has now been re-issued with a warm preface by Prof. Trevor-Roper. It is a book worthy of extensive rereading and reflection. Bolloten’s exposure of the machinations of Spanish Stalinism is unrivalled in its detail. It is possible now to feel that this very abundance of fact about governmental intrigue does less than justice to the more general military and social circumstances that must have surrounded and pressed upon the actors in this horrific drama. Sheer desperation, in the face of Franco’s scarcely interrupted advance across the peninsula, must have driven many defenders of the Republic into the vicious scapegoating for failure and the dishonest leaning on diplomatism that characterise so much of the story. And how do we explain the very enormity of the discrepancy between the revolution’s scope (a mass seizure of institutions hardly to be compared with any upheaval of our time, not excepting Russia in 1917) and the pitiful performance of all the political tendencies of the Popular Front? ‘The absence of a revolutionary party’ raises more questions than it answers. It may be that 1936-7 was only the 1848 of the Spanish proletariat; its social weight and organisational sophistication even under the heel of Franco and in the grip of Stalinist confusion, has increased gigantically since those days.

The growing revolutionary movement of Spanish workers and students will have much to learn from Bolloten’s discussion of problems of organisation on the military and economic fronts of the revolution. He does not idealise the militia system or minimise the terrible incompetence of the economic structure resulting from summary mass expropriation. The chapters dealing with the organisational dilemmas of the revolution are the most valuable of the book, and merit lively consideration from theorists of workers’ control. One wonders, for instance, how finance and credit were channelled to industry during the UGT’s occupation of the banks, how central co-ordination of munitions supply was attempted, or how trade union functions were carried on when the UGT and CNT were in management. As Bolloten points out, the anarchists were quite capable of centralising and rationalising their institutions, both in industry and the army, when the necessity presented itself. At least some of them were, some of the time.

Paul Avrich’s rich historical survey of the Russian movement also differentiates between organisation-minded and Utopian anarchists. The more practical anarchists, like Makhno and Arshinov, are hard to distinguish from Bolsheviks, in temperament and style (the fact that they fought the Bolsheviks, as well as the Whites, can largely be attributed to Cheka bloody-mindedness). The individualist-anarchists on the other hand were often scarcely political at all. The Russian syndicalists never got past the propaganda stage, it seems – despite the obvious talent of revolutionaries like Maximov and Voline. Their influence among the working class, however, was at various times second only to that of the Bolsheviks, and well ahead of the Mensheviks. However, their organisational principles, as well as Bolshevik repression, made it impossible for them to capitalise for any length of time on their base in the working class. Unlike their Spanish counterparts, the Russian anarchists left only a heritage of fine, dedicated individuals, and the seeds of some important theory (notably Machajski’s notion of the intelligentsia as the new ruling class). However, even in defeat, those who survived the Bolshevik onslaught knew how to live without selling out. The spectacle of Makhno, who had led armies of daring men across the Ukrainian plains, sweating out his last years, consumptive and alcoholic, in a Paris factory is a bitter emblem of the fate of one revolutionary wave.

It is to be hoped that both these works will go into paperback.

Last updated on 22 October 2020