The Role of the Anarchists in the Russian Revolution and Civil War, 1917-1921: A Case Study in Conspiratorial Party Behavior during Revolution. John W. Copp. Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 1992.
Copp’s work on the activities (and ultimate defeat) of anarchists during the Russian revolution throws up some interesting ideas. Examining who the anarchists were, he concludes that they weren’t very different from rank-and-file Bolsheviks: ‘the anarchists themselves, like the Bolsheviks, were largely products of the urban working class. […] There is strong evidence that anarchism was popular among the working class and some evidence that it appealed to the peasantry. […] [T]he largely urban background of the anarchists’ activists would suggest that they most probably were concerned with urban issues and urban problems and therefore would concentrate their efforts in the large cities until forced to turn more towards the peasants by high levels of government suppression.’ (p87-8)
Ultimately, he blames division among the anarchists for their failure to organise successfully: ‘While their individual responses were nearly always principled and often even heroic, the failure of their attempt to develop a national umbrella organisation and the contradictory responses of the anarcho-communists and the anarcho-syndicalists to the establishment of class institutions demonstrate the futility of the anarchists’ efforts to band together to produce their dream of revolution. Instead of seizing the revolutionary initiative or even responding to Bolshevik designs as a whole they were forced to battle piecemeal against whichever Bolshevik policies struck the members of a particular faction as wrong.’ (p212) This criticism was certainly repeated by some anarchists – Makhno for example.
One of Copp’s most interesting points is about how anarchists came to cooperate with the Bolsheviks: ‘The key philosophical element which made it possible for many anarchists to alter their perception of the Bolsheviks seems to have been the centrality of the concept of revolution in the anarchist belief system. […] [T]he need for cooperation between the two if the anarchists’ fundamental goal of a social revolution was to be accomplished, allowed the anarchists to focus on the Bolsheviks’ “good” side and work together with their “revolutionary brethren” and ignore the rivalry of the past.’ (p136)
As we know (with hindsight) this cooperation led to both revolution and the Bolshevik seizure of power. Anarchists thereafter were divided on how to respond. Despite (because of?) their popularity the anarchist movement was eventually absorbed or repressed and sidelined. Copp’s account of the conflict anarchists had to face (loyalty to anarchism or to the revolution) is not just of historical interest. How do we stop revolution turning into its opposite? If there isn’t a single key to success, what combination of popularity, organisation, principle, ferocity and luck do we need?