Anarchists in the Gulag (and prison and exile)

Bolshevik repression of anarchists after 1917

Foreword to “Anarchism” (published, Moscow 1918)

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Alexei Borovoi

This book is going to strike many an anarchist as heresy, especially as it comes from the pen of a dyed-in-the-wool anarchist believer. Or could the author’s heretical mind prove, in the eyes of some, the best possible testimony to his loyalty to anarchism?

Contemporary anarchism still constitutes, to borrow Jean Grave’s words, “a chaos of ideas”, so it is no accident if differing views very often spark debate. For anarchism embraces some very disparate, very contradictory and indeed, opposing notions.

How is the communism of a Kropotkin to be reconciled with the mutualism of a Proudhon? Where is the common ground between Tucker and Grave? Between Most and Bruno Will? And are Stirner, Nietzsche, Guillot and Tolstoy even to be counted as anarchists?

We are well familiar with the note of profound contempt that sounds in all dealings between “communist” anarchism and “individualist” anarchism – the latter being deemed an “amorphous” anarchism. Or individualists shying away from the very description anarchist-communist, looking upon it as simply some brand of socialism.

This book’s main focus is upon the broader characteristics of “traditional” anarchism through a re-examination of its basic standpoints. In this way I try to comprehend the currently predominant anarcho-communist strand which looks primarily to Bakunin, Kropotkin, Grave, Malatesta and a few others. It would appear that within such “traditional anarchism” there are two autonomous strands. Alongside the “old anarchism” (which we might term Bakuninist in the sense that it staunchly believes in anarchist “dogma” and sees anarchism primarily as a force for destruction, paying scant heed to organisation and the discipline of organisation), a new anarchism is emerging that a few somewhat pejoratively write off as “revisionist” and which places the chief emphasis on revolutionary creativity, on the awakening of the mass consciousness that calls for organisation “at the grassroots” whilst moderating the spontaneous power of the masses through organised class activity.

This differentiation between the two strands strikes us as still incomplete and provisional, however. The old anarchists – Bakunin above all – are also fond of talking about the creativity of the “masses”: for their part, the new anarchists do not and cannot repudiate the role of the minority in initiatives. The chief difference between them is actually over anarchist methodology. The underlying issues are pretty much the same: a quest for the best possible relationship between the individual and society, the simultaneous need to embrace an ideal and espouse a day-to-day approach cramped by compromises. But “traditional” anarchism spells out “dogmas” as binding upon everybody and countenances no fundamental criticism – whereas the “new” anarchism refuses to countenance dogma as part of anarchist principles.

I hold that such dead dogma constitutes anarchism’s most terrifying enemy, gnawing away at its innards and pushing it into contradictions that lead on to unities that are, to say the least, dubious. This book’s spirit of controversy is chiefly directed at this dogma and its social and philosophical provenance.

The critical achievements of anarchism have been huge. It has overthrown all of the starting points of formal and informal social philosophy. It was the first to have laid out an explosively powerful portrait of the might and richness of human nature. The unfettered development of the human spirit released from all outside hindrances and all contrived conditions: this was the programme it inscribed upon its colours.

But there is an even greater contrast between this grandiose task as such, as a goal, and the paltry means by which it envisages implementing that programme. The anarchists describe themselves as evolutionists, but dream of a flawless system that might be achieved overnight. Whilst sounding a note of gravitas, their economic constructions always point towards the old utopian schema.

I have framed the basic lines of these criticisms before but it strikes me that they still hold water. Anarchism must search inside itself for enough courage, in the face of friend and foe alike, to own up to its shortcomings. Anarchism is a world view of such power and vitality that it will withstand all criticisms and it should not fear them. The sweetest and loftiest dream loses, if not its charms then at least its powers of persuasion if it is regarded as false. And if we feel that some dream affords us, albeit only fleetingly, a mirage of freedom, only to lead on, in actual fact, to slavery, then we anarchists should have the courage to reject that illusion, no matter how novel and promising it may be. We can move beyond it as a cry for life, a summons to freedom.

The present book has been written in particularly unfavourable conditions and is merely an overture to a more searching and perhaps more general follow-up work. It is simply a simplified rendition of my many long years of pondering the very nature of anarchism.

The path I have followed has been neither straightforward nor level: I have travelled it alone, without collaborators of which I was afraid, for certain demands are so intimate that one really does have to travel alone. To be sure, the upshot of this will have been mistakes aplenty in my work, but my attachment to anarchism ranks higher than any vain, personal ambition. The starting point for my anarchist musings have been the notion of “absolute individualism”, the singing of the praises of “man sufficient unto himself” and the negation of “the social”. But I quickly sensed the pointlessness of that: of furnishing a sociological underpinning whilst actually dispensing with the “social” factor, that is, building a Stirnerite edifice upon marxist foundations.

The next step in my anarchist “growth” is organically bound up with this notion: the apotheosis of “the will”, of “revolutionary” courage as an end in itself. Next, in my case as in the case of many others, came the stage of moving beyond marxism. Initially I had a theoretical familiarity with revolutionary syndicalism, followed by a direct contact with that movement during my time as an emigré (1911-1913): despite the best efforts of the “neo-marxists” keen to salvage what they regard as historical materialism’s “sacrosanct” position, that threw a wobble into my “marxism”.

Carried along by Bergson and busy with the different practical forms of the movements thrown up by rationalism (it too overtaken), movements that were very pertinent at the start of the 20th century – I finally arrived at the anarchist views into which this book affords a little glimpse as I strove to shrug off all fetishism, as far removed from those who dream of “Christ’s gospel” as from those who dreamt of Marx’s Das Kapital. The marxist worship of progress by the forces of production is as foreign to me as the siren songs of the “narodnitchestvo” (Populists). Neither “the masses”, nor “the people”, nor “the proletariat”, nor “the class” seem to me to be absolute: they are merely the forms which the differing degrees of an ethical consciousness may inhabit. We may look upon them as the expressions of the anarchist mind or of the mind of reaction.

Despotism can assume a variety of faces – the face of monarchist absolutism or that of the dictatorship of the proletariat: it can sit in judgment of its enemies either in special courts martial or in so-called revolutionary tribunals: it can enforce its will by means of hired gendarmes or volunteer guards: anarchism must always combat despotism: anarchism and despotism are incompatible.

By way of a foundation for the anarchist view, one can posit a principle: the unfettered development of man and the boundless spread of its ideal. Anarchism does not thunder about and has no model of “perfect regime” answering every one of man’s questions and meeting every one of his needs – (a regime dreamt of by every utopian and of which they dream still) – to offer. The essence of anarchism resides in its eternal restlessness, its eternal negation, its eternal craving. Freedom and justice depend upon these. Quietude represents the death of anarchism, and its elevation, albeit only temporarily and relatively, to the level of an absolute..

Finally, as far as anarchism is concerned, there is and will never be (no matter what conditions may be like) any achievement of a complete and utter harmony between the principle of individuality and the principle of society. Conflict between these is unavoidable: but at the same time it represents an ongoing spur to the uninterrupted development and growth of the individual, whilst rejecting any “finality” or “determinism” in the social ideal.

This book offers one way of breaking away from the rationalism of “traditional anarchism”: the latter, through its finest representatives (setting their personal contradictions to one side) is merely a rationalist construct (anarchist theory), from which romantic conclusions (its tactics) have been derived. In my eyes, anarchism is a romantic theory that rejects “science” and “classicism”, but its tactics should, by contrast, be realistic. By romanticism I understand merely the triumph of the will, of sentiment over “reason”, over abstract “concepts” with their attendant automatism: the triumph of the living, flesh-and-blood, individual human person.

A stance repudiating dogma, a bold, creative spirit that sets no boundaries, an equally unbounded love of freedom, self-mastery in the choosing of means … these should be the principles of anarchism as I conceive it.

A[lexei] B[orovoy], January 1918.

From: Taken from text that appeared in Noir et Rouge, No 30, June 1965, pp. 18-21, as reproduced on the site Translated by: Paul Sharkey.




Written by gulaganarchists

13, March 2012 at 9:53 pm

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