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Anarchist Encounters: Russia In Revolution

ed. AW Zurbrugg,
Annarres Editions, Merlin Press, London, 2017. ISBN. 978-0-85036-734-8, Pb., pp. 161.

Reviewed by Eddie Little

This book presents extracts from five visitors to Russia in 1920 and 1921. Armando Borghi, attended the ‘Red’ Labour Union International meeting in Moscow in July 1920 representing the Italian Syndicalist Union. Returning to Italy he observed to the veteran Anarchist Errico Malatesta that ‘between us and the Bolsheviks the distance is astronomical’. Another Moscow visitor, Angel Pestana Nunez, representing the Spanish CNT, attended the newly formed Communist International. He asked ordinary Russian workers about the Factory Committee system some three years into the Revolution. Were the workers able to choose whoever they want? ‘Nothing like that’, was the reply,’ A list of names is provided by the local Soviet or by members of the Communist Party working in the factory. The list is final. Names may not be added’. Once the members of the factory committee have been designated they ’cease to be considered as workers and are considered to belong to the category of State employees. They have no obligation to work; if they do, they do so voluntarily. Their mission is surveillance, to ensure others do the work’. On Nunez’s return to Spain he persuaded the CNT to break relations with Moscow.

The other three visitors were the Lithuanian born radical Emma Goldman. Recently expelled from the United States, she visited Soviet Russia to collect items for a projected Museum of Revolution. Gaston Leval attended the Red Trade Union International as a delegate from the Spanish CNT. Like Nunez he returned from Russia to oppose participation in the ‘Red’ Labour Union International and the Communist International. The third, and most featured in the book, was ‘Vilkens’
(Manuel Ferandez Alvarez) In a series of articles published in Le Libertaire and reprinted here, Vilkens documented his journeys and the people he encountered in 1920, describing workers’ living and working conditions, rural life and women’s lives. His disillusionment with the Soviet system emerged in his pieces on ‘The Fiction of Soviet Democracy’ and ‘The Cheka Dictatorship’.

The five visitors were Anarchists in varying degrees. In 1901 Lenin had castigated Anarchism because of its evident failure to understand the development of society and concluded,’ Anarchism is a product of despair. The psychology of the unsettled intellectual or the vagabond and not of the proletarian’. It is intriguing therefore how these observers were permitted to enter Russia. Presumably their credentials as delegates to certain events may have been a factor. Their observations provide an interesting alternative view of the Revolution that will no doubt remain controversial. A helpful Introduction by Anthony Zurbrugg puts the contributors in context and a very comprehensive bibliography is provided. Zurbrugg notes that the visitors ’viewed the activities and policies of the Bolshevik Party with a critical eye, but they sought to balance any criticism with a reasoned appraisal of the outside forces that weighed down and limited options’.

However, Emma Goldman’s piece ‘The Crushing of The Russian Revolution’ pulls no punches: ‘The Russian Revolution - as a radical social and economic change - meant to overthrow capitalism and establish Communism must be declared a failure’. The debate continues, and this book makes a valuable contribution to it.