A belated answer to a revolutionary anarchist: Emma Goldman and the Russian Revolution

Printer-friendly version

We are publishing here a response to the analysis drafted by Emma Goldman (1869-1940) in the first years after the October 1917 revolution. After her expulsion from the United States in January 1920 she spent two years in Russia, then published three books:[1] “I consider then, and still consider, that the Russian problem is entirely too complex to speak lightly of it”, she wrote in the introduction to her first book. We are responding to Emma Goldman because she was a central figure of the revolutionary workers’ movement in the United States at the time of the First World War. Because of her determination to defend a clearly internationalist position against the war she was nicknamed “Emma the Red - America's Most Dangerous Woman” by the American ruling class. But there are two other reasons to examine Goldman's positions in more detail. On the one hand, her important influence in the anarchist and anarcho-syndicalist milieu up until today – “the Rosa Luxemburg of the anarchists”; and on the other because her early analysis of the Russian Revolution and the problems it faced shows great honesty and responsibility. Today, although we do not share at all some of her positions, Goldman's efforts are a valuable contribution to the understanding of the degeneration of the Russian Revolution.


Goldman, an anarchist of Russian origin, was inspired by the theories of the influential anarchist Peter Kropotkin, but defended an anarcho-syndicalist position in her activity. She clearly rejected marxism as a political and theoretical orientation. What distinguished Goldman from Kropotkin was her determination, along with Malatesta, Berkman, and others, in February 1915, to take a firm stand against the “Manifesto of the Sixteen”, whereby Kropotkin and other anarchists debased themselves by their shameful approval of the First World War. Goldman defended a clear internationalist position condemning any participation, support or tolerance of the war, thereby providing an internationalist point of reference in the United States.

Our aim in this article is to examine Goldman’s political assumptions regarding the Russian Revolution, her experiences and conclusions. To anticipate: Goldman's observations, underpinned by a deep proletarian instinct, and her significant advances, must in our view be distinguished from some of her central political conclusions. In order to allow sufficient insight into Goldman's position, it is necessary to include long quotations. Since it is not possible to address all aspects of her analysis, we are forced to make a selection and so urge a direct reading of her writings on the Russian Revolution and her autobiography.

Goldman was constantly preoccupied with two questions: the fusion of the Bolsheviks with the state apparatus and its consequences; and her own self-laceration over the moment that would allow or even force her to expose her criticism of the Bolsheviks – which she eventually did after months of painful hesitation. We cannot address here Goldman’s other political concerns, like the “red terror”, the Cheka, Brest-Litovsk, Makhno’s movement in the Ukraine, the Razvyorstka (the relentless requisition of food from the peasants, which therefore includes the relationship between the working class and the peasantry), the catastrophic situation of children[2] or her position regarding the workers' councils. However, her experiences and analyses of the Kronstadt uprising in March 1921 are important because they signified Goldman's break with the Bolsheviks.

"The truth about the Bolsheviki"

The outbreak of the October Revolution filled her with great enthusiasm: “From November, 1917, until February, 1918, while out on bail for my attitude against the war, I toured America in defence of the Bolsheviki. I published a pamphlet in elucidation of the Russian Revolution and in justification of the Bolsheviki. I defended them as embodying in practice the spirit of the revolution, in spite of their theoretic Marxism.”[3]

In 1918, in the anarchist magazine Mother Earth, she published an article entitled “The Truth about the Bolsheviki”:

The Russian Revolution can mean nothing to him unless it sets the land free and joins to the dethroned Tsar his partner, the dethroned land-owner, the capitalist. That explains the historic background of the Bolsheviki, their social and economic justification. They are powerful only because they represent the people. The moment they cease to do that, they will go, as the Provisional Government and Kerensky had to go. For never will the Russian people be content, or Bolshevism cease, until the land and the means of life become the heritage of the children of Russia. They have for the first time in centuries determined that they shall be heard, and that their voices shall reach the heart of, not of the governing classes they know these have no heart but the heats of the peoples of the world, including the people of the United States. Therein lies the deep import and significance of the Russian Revolution as symbolised by the Bolsheviki (…) The Bolsheviki have come to challenge the world. It can nevermore rest in its old sordid indolence. It must accept the challenge. It has already accepted it in Germany, in Austria and Romania, in France and Italy, aye, even in America. Like sudden sunlight Bolshevism is spreading over the entire world, illuminating the great vision and warming it into being - the new life of human brotherhood and social well-being.”[4]

So Goldman's view of the Bolsheviks in 1918 was anything but negative. On the contrary, her defence of the Russian Revolution and of the Bolsheviks was a highly responsible reaction to the American bourgeoisie's campaign of lies and its role in the brutal, internationally coordinated campaign against revolutionary Russia. Her radical criticism after two years in Russia was always motivated by the intention of defending the October Revolution against its external enemies, as well as against internal degeneration; this was the main concern of her activities and writings.

Enthusiasm and disappointment

Two brief quotes impressively illustrate the change in Goldman's assessment of the evolution of the Russian situation. She describes her arrival in Petrograd in January 1920 in exuberant terms: “Soviet Russia! Sacred ground, magic people! You have come to symbolise humanity’s hope, you alone are destined to redeem mankind. I have come to serve you, beloved Matushka. Take me to your bosom, let me pour myself into you, mingle my blood with yours, find my place in your heroic struggle, and give to the uttermost to your needs!”[5]

But then, two years later, as a final description of her stay in Russia, we find the following: “In the train, December 1, 1921! My dreams crushed, my faith broken, my heart like a stone. Matushka Rossiya [Mother Russia] bleeding from a thousand wounds, her soil strewn with the dead. I clutch the bar at the frozen window-pane and grit my teeth to suppress my sobs.”[6]

It was just one year and eleven months since I had set foot in what I believed to be the promised land. My heart was heavy with the tragedy of Russia. One thought stood out in bold relief: I must raise my voice against the crimes committed in the name of the Revolution. I would be heard regardless of friend or foe.[7]

What happened between her arrival in 1920 and her departure two years later? And was her disappointment exclusively the result of a naive expectation overtaken by reality? We will return to this second question at the end of the article.

The encirclement of the Russian Revolution

Goldman rightly attaches great importance to the question of the encirclement of the Russian Revolution, which, according to her, was a real cause of the difficulties of the first years of soviet rule. But, as we will show later, she speaks little of its political isolation as due to the fact that the world proletariat had not been able to take power in other countries, which was the essential question, and which did not allow the important errors of Bolshevik power to be corrected.

In her book The Crushing of the Russian Revolution written in 1922, Goldman stresses from the outset how the encirclement of Russia stifled the revolution and that the situation of a world war created the worst conditions for the revolution.

The march on Russia began. The interventionists murdered millions of Russians, the blockade starved and froze women and children by the hundred thousands. And Russia turned into a vast wilderness of agony and despair. The Russian Revolution was crushed and the Bolshevik regime immeasurably strengthened. That is the net result of the four years conspiracy of the imperialists against Russia.”[8]

The internationally coordinated war against Russia resulted in a brutal strangulation. It would be very erroneous not to take this tragic situation into account in the analysis of the degeneration and failure of the Russian Revolution. Goldman constantly evokes it in her personal experiences; for example she describes the terrible situation resulting from the ruthless starvation of Russia and its consequences for millions of children in 1920-21, a situation further aggravated by the scheming of many state bureaucrats to enrich themselves. On this issue, despite all her harsh criticisms, Goldman defended the Bolsheviks' efforts to improve the situation of the children:

It is true that the Bolsheviki have attempted their utmost in regard to the child and education. It is also true that if they have failed to minister to the needs of the children of Russia, the fault is much more that of the enemies of the Russian Revolution than theirs. Intervention and the blockade have fallen heaviest upon the frail shoulders of innocent children and the sick. But even under more favourable conditions the bureaucratic Frankenstein monster of the Bolshevik state could not but frustrate the best intentions and paralyse the supreme effort made by the communists on behalf of the child and education (...) More and more I came to see that the Bolsheviki were trying to do all they could for the child, but that their efforts were being defeated by the parasitic bureaucracy their state had created[9]

So, concretely, she describes what were called the “Dead Souls”[10]: names of children who had already died and were registered on the lists of those entitled to food rations by the lower bureaucracy, who then diverted these fraudulent rations for their own consumption or to sell for themselves; all this to the detriment of hundreds of thousands of starving children, the most vulnerable victims of the asphyxiation caused by the international blockade!

Goldman cannot be reproached for having analysed the decline of the Russian Revolution without taking into account the decisive and deadly situation of its isolation in Russia. She also attempted, as is shown by the quotes from her texts, to distinguish between the Bolsheviks and the state bureaucracy, to which we will return later.

Her weakness lies rather in the absence of a clear analysis of the fact that the war and the blockade against Russia were only possible because the working class, specifically in western Europe, was progressively defeated, particularly in Germany. The working class in western Europe, and also in the United States, was confronted with a much more experienced bourgeoisie and a more sophisticated state apparatus than in Russia. But it is not only the defeat of the international revolutionary wave that produced the desperate situation of Russia; it is also the backwardness of the international working class compared to Russia.

In Germany, the attempted revolution only began more than a year after October 1917, which left a long time free for the strategy of Russia's isolation, as shown in the months following the negotiations at Brest-Litovsk. The seizure of power by the proletariat in the central states of western Europe was the only way to break the strangling of the Russian Revolution and put a stop to armed intervention. It is only possible to understand the roots of the defeat of the Russian Revolution by examining precisely the international balance of forces between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie; this aspect appears only occasionally in the writings of Goldman, barely developed, and which leaves the impression that the fate of the revolution was sealed mainly on Russian soil.

The isolation and strangulation of Russia after October 1917 in no way explains every aspect of its internal degeneration, which was ultimately the most traumatic experience for the working class, nor should it serve as justification for this internal degeneration. With regard to the problem of the Bolsheviks’ catastrophic errors, in particular their policy of identification with the state apparatus, it is crucial to see that this could only have been corrected under the influence of a victorious revolutionary working class in other countries, which was tragically not to be the case.[11]

On closer inspection, there is a contradiction in Goldman's central theses about the relationship between the international situation and the causes of the degeneration of the Russian Revolution. On the one hand she writes: “All my observations and studies over two years gave me the clarity that the Russian people, if not continuously threatened from without, would have soon realised the danger from within and would have known how to meet that danger (…)”.On the other hand, however: “If there was ever a doubt as to what constitutes the greatest danger to a revolution - outside attacks or the paralysed interest of the people within - the Russian experience should dispel that doubt completely. The counter-revolutionists, backed by Allied money, men and munitions, failed utterly (...)”[12]

As we have already said, Russia’s isolation must in no way serve as an excuse for its errors. But Goldman draws a curious conclusion in which she contradicts all her “observations and studies” quoted above: the salvation of the revolution depended essentially on the forces and politics of the working class in Russia, the international situation becoming for her a much more secondary factor. Goldman develops a logic here that reminds us of Voline, without however going so far;[13] she presents the defeat of the Allied counter-revolutionary forces as proof that the counter-revolution had been a perfectly surmountable obstacle for the revolution, which is shockingly simplistic when you consider the huge damage caused by the this bloody confrontation,[14] including the deaths of tens of thousands of determined revolutionaries, which Goldman herself had well described. Those conscious revolutionaries who had voluntarily put themselves in the front line in their thousands and fallen in battle could probably have opposed in some way the internal counter-revolution.

These two factors; isolation and strangulation on the one hand, and the errors of the Bolsheviks on the other, were mutually reinforcing. The main difference between them was that the war against Russia was obvious to all, while the internal degeneration began in a much more hidden way, eventually becoming the trauma of the century for the international working class. Goldman's conclusions are, in essence, a common way of taking into account both the question of the external counter-revolution and that of the internal counter-revolutionary degeneration; a problem with which all the revolutionaries of the 1920s were confronted.

War does not create the best conditions for revolution

One of Goldman's notable contributions to understanding the defeat of the Russian Revolution – even though we do not share her conclusion – is her reflection on the conditions for a revolution during and after a war: “Perhaps the Russian Revolution was doomed at its birth. Coming as it did upon the heels of four years of war, which had drained Russia of her best manhood, sapped their blood, and devastated her land, the revolution may not have had the strength to withstand the mad onslaught of the rest of the world.[15]

Here she rightly points out the direct result of the war and responds to the false and schematic ideas whereby the crisis automatically aggravates the war and war automatically strengthens the consciousness of the working class, thus leading to the break out of revolution. Goldman emphasises that fundamentally the revolution suffered from exhaustion in Russia resulting from the war itself. But the idea that the fate of the revolution could somehow be “doomed at its birth” shows a fatalistic approach.

An important potential factor must be considered that was not realised. The First World War ended in November 1918, one year after October 1917. As we have already pointed out, the only hope for October was for the revolution to break as quickly as possible in other countries and, above all, for a rapid revolutionary surge in western Europe. This was a historically possible perspective, and the working class had no choice but to engage the struggle in that direction.

The war ended with victorious and defeated countries. If the defeat shook the defeated governments and could, therefore, facilitate their weakening and the revolutionary dynamic, this was not the case for the victorious governments which, on the contrary, were strengthened. In the victorious states where the working class had been painfully dragged to slaughter by the bourgeoisie for four years, it was the aspiration for peace and stability that prevailed and significantly undermined the possibilities for a revolutionary assault by the proletariat in France, Britain, Belgium, Holland and Italy. It was not only the balance of power between the imperialist states that was different after the war, but also the state of mind of the masses who were thus divided according to whether they were in a victorious or vanquished country. Goldman raises the problem of the war which creates poor conditions for the revolution, but she reduces it mainly to the case of Russia itself

What possibilities for change after a revolution?

What possibilities for change existed in Russia at a time of total encirclement and famine? In the anarchist camp, there were very different opinions on this subject but what was significant was the great expectation of immediate improvements in living conditions, especially in terms of economic measures and the fundamental reorganisation of production. So what were Goldman's expectations at that time, just two years after October 1917? Was she expecting on her arrival in Russia in January 1920 to find a society that already met human needs? At her first meeting with Maxim Gorky, on a train to Moscow, she told him: “I also hope you will believe me when I say that, though an anarchist, I had not been naive enough to think that anarchism could rise overnight, as it were, from the debris of old Russia.”[16]

She describes conversations with Alexander Berkman, her closest political and personal companion for decades, as follows: “He dismissed the charges [against the Bolsheviki] as the irresponsible prattle of ineffective and disgruntled men. The Petrograd anarchists were like so many in our ranks in America who used to do least and criticise most, he said. Perhaps they had been naive enough to expect anarchism to emerge overnight from the ruins of autocracy, from the war and blunders of the Provisional Government.[17] Goldman did not judge the Russian Revolution by a naive measure based exclusively on the immediate improvement of living conditions and the economy.[18]

On the question of the immediate possibilities of a social upheaval in the interest of the working class and other oppressed layers, like the millions of peasants in Russia, Goldman puts her point of view again in a framework that does not ignore the international situation. Nor did she hesitate to defend the efforts of the Bolsheviks (as we have seen with regard to the situation of children which demanded immediate and drastic action) and to severely criticise the positions of other anarchists. Goldman did not submit to the law of silence and the rejection of any mutual criticism within the anarchist camp. We do not know what arguments she used against impatient anarchists who expected the immediate upheaval of society. But these controversies between anarchists show that there was no homogeneous anarchism in Russia during the revolution.

The question of possible immediate measures to rapidly relieve suffering was of crucial importance for the working class and for the peasantry as a whole, and was not only a theme of the most impatient parties of anarchism, among whom this question often uniquely decided their attitude towards the Bolsheviks. For the working class, revolution is not an abstract historical logic. After decades of brutal exploitation, and having endured the sufferings of the butchery of 1914-1918, the great hopes of a sunrise on the horizon of life were more than understandable and fitting. They constituted an important driving force of the revolutionary conviction and combativity that enabled October. Given the immediate reality of the strangulation of revolutionary Russia, of hunger and the war against the white armies, the expected sun had not risen on the horizon. Hunger and demoralisation weighed heavily on the working class. In this almost desperate situation, Goldman adopted a responsible attitude of patience and perseverance which, with the progressive defeat of the world revolutionary wave after the war and for all revolutionaries could only be maintained with enormous political will and clarity.

The Bolsheviks and the state apparatus: the shipwreck of marxism?

In her analysis of the dynamic of the state apparatus in full growth after October, Goldman was totally faithful to her own idea according to which the Russian problem was much too complicated to be explained away by a few superficial phrases. She gave a great deal of attention to this question and distinguished herself by precise observations and reflections. Nevertheless, we absolutely do not share a good number of these conclusions! Her writings contain contradictions on the question of the relations between the Bolsheviks and the developing state apparatus.

In 1922 she was not yet ready to make a profound analysis; this was only possible at the end of the 1920s and the beginning of the 1930s when the Italian Communist Left took up the task. There was no doubt that certain anarchist principles on the question of the state strongly dominated her analyses and the conclusions that flowed from it.

First of all it's indispensable to broadly present Goldman’s vision on the issue:

The first seven months of my stay in Russia had almost crushed me. I had come with so much enthusiasm, with a passionate desire to throw myself into the work, into the holy defence of the revolution. What I found completely overwhelmed me. I was unable to do anything. The chariot wheel of the Socialist State rolled over me paralysing my energy. The wretchedness and distress of the people, the callous disregard of their needs, the persecutions and the repression tore at my mind and heart and made life unbearable. Was it the revolution which had turned idealists into wild beasts? If so the Bolsheviks were mere pawns in the hands of the inevitable. Or was it the cold, impersonal nature of the state which by foul means had harnessed the revolution to its heart and was now whipping it into channels indispensable to the state? I could not answer these questions. Not in July 1920, at any rate.”[19]

Yet neither in the conservative not even in the revolutionary sense do the trade unions in Russia represent the need of the workers. What they really are is the coerced and militarised adjunct of the Bolshevik state. They are “‘the school of communism’ as Lenin insisted in his thesis on the functions of the trade unions. But they are not even that. A school presupposes the free expression and initiative of the pupils, whereas the trade unions in Russia are military barracks for the mobilised labour army, forced into membership by the whip of the state driver.”[20]

I am certain that neither Lunacharsky nor Gorky knew about it [the imprisonment of children by the Cheka]. But therein lies the curse of the vicious circle; it makes it impossible for those at the head to know what the host of their subordinates are doing (...) Does Lunacharsky know of such cases? Do the leading communists know? Some no doubt do. But they are too busy with ‘important state affairs’. And they have become callous to all such ‘trifles’. Then, too, they themselves, are caught in the vicious circle, in the machinery of Bolshevik officialdom. They know that adherence to the party covers a multitude of sins.” [21]

And concerning relations between the state apparatus and its bureaucrats:

In the village where he [Kropotkin] lived in little Dimitrov, there were more Bolshevik officials than ever existed there during the reign of the Romanov's. All those people were living off the masses. They were parasites on the social body, and Dimitrov was only a small example of what was going on throughout Russia. It was not the fault of any particular individual, rather it was the state that they had created, which discredits every revolutionary ideal, stifles all initiative and sets a premium on incompetence and waste.”[22].

Goldman's observations on the concrete reality of the state very precisely describe how it developed more and more and began inexorably to consume everything. It's to her great credit that she gives a detailed perception of the “daily life” of the bureaucratic apparatus and its profound contradiction with the interests of the working class and other exploited classes. In 1922, her descriptions were highly pertinent faced with all the glorifications circulating in the international workers' movement on the situation in Russia and faced with a blindness towards the problems it confronted. There's no doubt that Goldman’s efforts to warn against the dangers of the state as it was developing in Russia were precious at this time, even if her analysis was based on what she saw and only provisional.

But what conclusions did she draw from it?

It would be an error to assume that the failure of the revolution was due entirely to the character of the Bolsheviki. Fundamentally it was the result of the principles and methods of Bolshevism. It was the authoritarian spirit and principles of the state which stifled the libertarian and liberating aspirations. Were any other political party in control of the government in Russia the result would have been essentially the same. It is not so much the Bolsheviks who killed the Russian Revolution as the Bolshevik idea. It was marxism, however modified; in short, fanatical governmentalism (...) I have further shown that it is not only Bolshevism that failed, but Marxism itself. That is to say, the STATE IDEA, the authoritarian principle, has been proven bankrupt by the experience of the Russian Revolution. If I were to sum up my whole argument in one sentence I should say: The inherent tendency of the State is to concentrate, to narrow, and monopolise all social activities; the nature of revolution is, on the contrary, to grow, to broaden, and disseminate itself in ever-wider circles. In other words, the State is institutional and static; revolution is fluent, dynamic. These two tendencies are incompatible and mutually destructive. The State idea killed the Russian Revolution and it must have the same result in all other revolutions, unless the libertarian idea prevails. (...) The main cause of the defeat of the Russian Revolution lies much deeper. It is to be found in the whole Socialist conception of revolution itself.”[23]

And while the workers and peasants of Russia were laying down their lives so heroically, this inner enemy rose to ever greater power. Slowly but surely the Bolsheviki were building up a centralised state, which destroyed the Soviets and crushed the revolution, a state that can now easily compare, in regard to bureaucracy and despotism, with any of the great powers of the world.”[24]

The marxist policies of the Bolsheviki, the tactics first extolled as indispensable to the life of the revolution only to be discarded as harmful after they had wrought misery, distrust and antagonism, were the factors that slowly undermined the faith of the people in the revolution.”[25]

Goldman’s thesis is the following: marxism, because of the policy of the Bolsheviks towards the state following the revolution, has turned out to be useless. Contrary to the viscerally anti-organisation sections of anarchism, Goldman never defended the position that the problems of the Bolsheviks fundamentally resulted from the organisational strength of their political party. She rejected rather their concrete policy. And she had good reason to on two counts when she said that the state is by nature "institutional and static". Manifestly, she refers here to the experience concerning the bourgeois state and its nature before the revolution. Goldman’s position is not exclusively emotional, as some anarchists constantly reproached her for at the time, but is based on historic experience. The state in feudalism and capitalism is by its nature completely static and, above all, unconditionally defends the interests and power of the dominant class; it is openly reactionary. Secondly, we share the point of view according to which the problem is not that of individual personalities in the ranks of the Bolsheviks, but the enormous confusion within the party concerning the state after the revolution, which in fact reflected the immaturity of the workers' movement at that time on the question of the state.

Even after a world proletarian revolution (which was never the case at the time of the Russian Revolution, being largely limited to that country), the "semi-state" – necessary but limited to minimal functions and subordinate to the workers' councils – remains in its essence always conservative and static, and in no way constitutes a driving force for the establishment of a communist society; nor is it an organ of the working class. The Italian Communist Left described it thus: “... the state, even with the adjective ‘proletarian’ attached to it, remains an organ of coercion, and in sharp and permanent opposition to the realisation of the communist programme. In this sense it is an expression of the capitalist danger throughout the development of the transition period ....”[26]

Consequently, it is absolutely false to speak of a "proletarian state" as an organ of the revolution, as the Trotskyists claim with regard to Russia, but also the Bordigist current concerning the theoretical analysis of the transition period. Such an idea is completely incapable of grasping the danger of identifying the workers' councils and the political party with the state apparatus – as tragically happened in Russia.

To avoid any false debate, a remark is necessary: Goldman often speaks of a "centralised state" built by the Bolsheviks. But this was not because she was a partisan of the federalist concept, like Rudolf Rocker who advocated the principle of an extremely federalist class struggle. [27]  The term "centralist" used by Goldman was rather a characterisation of the impenetrable, unresponsive, corrupt and hierarchical state apparatus in Russia, which sabotaged the implementation of even the smallest measures for the working class and other oppressed layers of society, like the peasantry.

But does the test of revolution signify the collapse of marxism as Goldman claims? And was anarchism, on the contrary, confirmed by the Russian Revolution? If one wants to understand the events around the Russian Revolution, standing as an arbiter of two historical political currents on the "field of the revolution" to give a winner and a loser is hardly useful.

We cannot deal with all aspects of the tragic degeneration of the Bolshevik party and the Russian Revolution in this response, but we have already dealt with these in numerous ICC texts. But we must respond to Goldman on the alleged shipwreck of marxism as a whole. The Bolshevik party degenerated, which was clearly expressed by its fusion with the state apparatus; that’s a fact – but marxism has not failed.

With her method, how does Goldman explain the fact that faced with the question of war, it was precisely within the marxist workers' movement, and on the basis of its historical legacy, that the clearest, most determined internationalist positions emerged, such as those embodied in the Kienthal Conference of 1916? And all this led by a marxist organisation, the Bolsheviks, a spearhead against the reformism which was gaining ground faced with the question of war.

With her method, how does Goldman explain the fact, mentioned at the beginning of this article and correctly denounced by herself, that within anarchism and even around the central figure of anarchism at the time, Kropotkin, a tendency appeared which abandoned internationalist principles and openly proclaimed so in a manifesto – a deviation that gave rise to great uncertainty, tensions and resistance within the anarchist ranks? According to Goldman's own method anarchism hit the rocks here since internationalism had just been thrown overboard by its most influential representatives. As in the marxist workers' movement this produced a lively confrontation faced with the test of war and a determined part of anarchism, which also included Goldman, fought against any support for either of the two imperialist camps involved.

It would be absolutely false to say that anarchism as a whole became bankrupt in 1914. On the contrary, it's precisely because such a drastic decantation took place within the anarchist and marxist workers' movement that it was possible in the struggle against war and in October ‘17, revolutionary, internationalist anarchists fought side-by-side with revolutionary marxists. If the necessary positioning between war and the revolution indeed produced such a result, it was just as much among marxists as among anarchists, producing a determined and intransigent defence of internationalism and the interests of the working class.

And that's not all. With her approach and the thesis of the bankruptcy of marxism, how does Goldman explain the fact that the Bolsheviks, an organisation of the marxist tradition, were able in 1917, with the April Theses formulated by its most determined representatives, to bring clarity against the democratic confusions still existing in the Russian working class?

It's a fact that the majority of the Bolsheviks gradually moved away the spirit of the October revolution, turning their backs on it. By identifying with the state apparatus and taking repressive measures against those who criticised, they became locked into the absurd belief that they could save the revolution and thus became the incarnation of the counter-revolution from within. But it wasn't the totality of the Bolsheviks who embarked on this path, because there were different organised reactions within the party in the face of these signs of degeneration.

Goldman describes her great sympathy for and closeness to one of these oppositional groups within the party; the "Workers' Opposition" around Kollontai and Shliapnikov. Clearly, marxism was capable of producing a militant revolutionary opposition, which Goldman expressly welcomed. On the other hand, she (and more so still her political comrade Alexander Berkman) described the organised tendencies within anarchism in Russia, the so-called "soviet anarchists", who openly supported the policies of the Bolsheviks; and this even in 1920 when the terror of the Cheka[28] was already set up. She also honestly describes what followed: " Unfortunately, as was unavoidable under the circumstances, some evil spirits had found entry into the Anarchist ranks debris washed ashore by the Revolutionary tide. (…) Power is corrupting and anarchists are no exception".[29] So, if we follow Goldman’s method, has anarchism in its entirety failed because of such facts? Such a conclusion would be wrong from our point of view. Her approach and conclusion does not take into account all the post-October 1917 debates within a so-called "bankrupt marxism".

The question of the state after the revolution wasn't resolved within the workers' movement of the time and this is equally valid for the anarchists. An essential reason was the absence of any concrete historical experience for what happened in Russia after 1917. Up to then the workers' movement had always started from the perspective of a rapidly extending revolution. The insurmountable isolation of the Russian Revolution and the obligation to defend its territory brutally and rapidly reinforced it suffocation and its degeneration; the state and the Bolshevik Party "fused" to become an active factor in this dynamic.

Even Goldman's political reference point, “Father Kropotkin” as his political entourage called him, was also unable to answer the questions of the role and function of the state after a revolution in his book The State: its Historic Role. The radical rejection of the state by the great majority of anarchists on the basis of an instinctive distrust, came from the experience of a brutal confrontation with the state under feudalism and the capitalist state apparatus; it rightly demanded the destruction of the bourgeois state by the proletarian revolution as was advocated by Lenin in his book The State and Revolution.

Even though this merit of the anarchist movement must be recognised, a false conception nevertheless prevailed in its ranks: the reorganisation of society, immediately after the revolution, by the workers' councils, the unions and cooperatives. Such a scenario hopelessly pushes the organs of the defence and political interests of the working class, the workers' councils, which constitute the dynamic element of the society, to fuse with the organism charged with the management of society (what we call a reduced and controlled transitional state.[30] If this happens, the workers' councils can only lose their autonomy in relation to the state (which would mean the working class losing its autonomy as a class), and themselves becoming a cog in the bureaucratic machine. Goldman also shares this position, even if only in an implicit and undeveloped form.

Let's return to the question of the so-called shipwreck of marxism. The majority of anarchists criticised the tragic developments in Russia. But anarchism wasn’t confirmed in its totality in the Russian Revolution, just as marxism did not fail as a whole. There were without any doubt two false ideas among the Bolsheviks on the subject of the relations between workers' councils, party and state. At the time of the Russian Revolution the idea of unity between party and state apparatus dominated, and of a party which, alongside the workers' councils, had to be involved in the exercise of power. The dominant conception was that a minority within the class, its party, because of the confidence placed in it, would be called to take power in the name of the working class. This point of view clearly expressed the immaturity that existed on the question of the state after the revolution.

Through their conceptions of the post-revolutionary state and their relationship with it, the Bolsheviks became caught in a destructive spiral which, in the situation of complete isolation of the revolution, saw a false idea turn into a tragedy. Although the Bolsheviks never openly rejected the principle of the seizure of power by the workers 'councils, one of the first signs of degeneration was the gradual denial of the powers of the workers' councils, a process in which the Bolsheviks played a decisive role.

It’s not fatalistic sarcasm but a historical fact to say it was the tragic experience of the Russian Revolution that clarified all these questions. Salvation could only come from the international extension of the revolution on the basis of the vitality of the soviets. This would also have denied any retrospective determinism according to which the fate of the Russian Revolution was already sealed at its birth. But wanting to save the revolution with "the strong arm of the state", as the Bolsheviks initially attempted, was a pure and simple impossibility.

Goldman draws a static conclusion from the reality of the growing domination of the state apparatus after October and of the process of degeneration. The weakness in her method is not to take into account the struggle in the marxist ranks against the dynamic of state domination: nor does it take into account the enormous difficulties that this situation generated among the anarchists, even if this figures in the detail of her observations. Added to this weakness is her idea that the Bolsheviks – as a party of marxism and for that very same reason – were doomed to failure from the very start because of their supreme goal, that of seizing power, just as all the detractors of the Bolshevik Party claimed. It seems that, according to Goldman, it is the elementary existence of marxist positions which decided the fate of the revolution. In her conclusion on the question of the state she also expressly denies the fact that it was a process of degeneration resulting from the world context rather than a question "settled" from the start. With her proclamation of "the failure of marxism" in the experience of the Russian revolution, she gives too much away too easily, finally leading to another thesis.

"The end justifies the means" and Kronstadt: a break with the Bolsheviks

One of Goldman's theses where she goes furthest in her criticism is:

The Bolsheviks are the Jesuit order in the Marxist church. Not that they are insincere as men or that their intentions are evil. It is their Marxism that has determined her policies and methods. The very means they have employed have destroyed the realisation of their end. Communism, Socialism, equality, freedom – everything for which the Russian masses have endured so much martyrdom – have become discredited and besmirched by her tactics, by their Jesuit motto that the end justifies the means.” (…) “But Lenin is a shrewd and subtle Jesuit; he joined in the popular cry: ‘All power to the Soviets!’. When he and his follow-Jesuits were firmly in the saddle, the breaking up of the Soviets begun. Today they are like everything else in Russia – a shadow with the substances utterly crushed.” (…)  “To be sure, Lenin often repents. At every All-Russian Communist conclave he comes forth with his mea culpa. ‘I have sinned’. A young Communist once said to me: ‘It would not surprise me if Lenin should some day declare that the October Revolution was a mistake.’”[31]

Yes, the objectives of the Bolsheviks, communism, socialism, equality and freedom, which Goldman did not deny to be the true goals of the Bolsheviks, could not be realised. In other places in her writings on Russia, she describes how she was confronted with a question that was full of hope and asked many times by many Bolshevik leaders: "Will we soon see the revolution in Germany and the United States?" This too from Lenin in a meeting with Goldman. The Bolsheviks she spoke to were eager to receive a positive reply from her, she being closely in touch with the situation in the United States. It was clear from her descriptions that the Bolsheviks lived in constant fear of isolation and desperately awaited the least sign of revolutionary developments in other countries. This itself proves that in the ranks of the Bolshevik Party, which was anything but homogeneous, the hope of a world revolution had continued to live despite the increasingly clear degeneration. And so it was not just about a greed for power in Russia, as she runs the risk of claiming with the idea of the "Jesuitism" of the Bolsheviks.


Goldman's concerns revolved around the contradiction between the initial objectives of the Bolsheviks and their specific policies and methods. This led to a definitive break after the bloody repression of the Kronstadt uprising in March 1921 under the banner of saving the revolution, and where there was use of brutal violence within the working class, which was in stark contradiction with communist principles. Her experience with the Cheka also played a decisive role in her break with the Bolsheviks.

The method according to which the end justifies the means must be vehemently fought against by the working class. Goldman is honest in not to hiding her own hesitations about it. But her descriptions clearly refute the thesis that the Bolsheviks' thinking was that of the "Jesuits of Marxism", who would stop at nothing in the pursuit of their goals, and that here there would be a fundamental difference between the Bolsheviks and the anarchism.

How was this question posed among anarchists? She described her discussions with Berkman on the question of the legitimate means for defending the revolution:

"It was absurd to denounce the Bolsheviki for the drastic measures they were using, Sasha urged. How else were they to free Russia from the stranglehold of counter-revolution and sabotage? So far as he was concerned, he did not think any methods too harsh to deal with this. Revolutionary necessity justified all measures, however we might dislike them. As long as the Revolution was in jeopardy, those seeking to undermine it must pay the penalty. Single-hearted and clear-eyed as ever was my old pal. I agreed with him; still, the ugly reports of my comrades kept disturbing me."[32]

This debate with Berkman went on in the sharpest way:

For hours he would argue against my ‘impatience’ and deficient judgement of far-reaching issues, my kid-glove approach to the Revolution. I had always depreciated the economic factor as the main cause of capitalist evils, he declared. Could I fail to see now that economic necessity was the very reason which was forcing the hand of the men at the Soviet helm? The continued danger from the outside, the natural indolence of the Russian worker and his failure to increase production, the peasants’ lack of the most necessary implements, and their resultant refusal to feed the cities had compelled the Bolsheviki to pass those desperate measures. Of course he regarded such methods as counter-revolutionary and bound to defeat their purpose. Still, it was preposterous to suspect men like Lenin or Trotsky of deliberate treachery to the Revolution. Why, they had dedicated their lives to that cause, they had suffered persecution, calumny, prison, and exile for their ideals! They could not go back on them to such an extent![33]

For the working class, the means used must not be in contradiction with its fundamental objectives.[34] However, we reject the assertion that marxism alone, and the Bolsheviks in particular, would be vulnerable to the penetration of the dominant class ideology by adopting means that conflict with the goal of communism. The discussions described by Goldman are characteristic of the fact that anarchism has always had enormous difficulties in this regard. An example of the use by many anarchists of means that contradict the goal is the attack on Lenin by Fanny Kaplan on August 30th, 1918, justified by allegations of Lenin's so-called betrayal of the revolution. Given the long tradition of assassinations of representatives of the hated tsarist regime, which exposed the anarchists to a brutal repression, part of Russian anarchism resorted to what is called "propaganda by deed" by having recourse to "the ends justifies the means". This included targeting working class fighters, as the attack on Lenin shows!

It is not a matter of mourning the hated figures of Tsarism targeted by the methods of one part of Russian anarchism, which expressed a reductive understanding of feudalism, identifying it with some individuals. But, as Berkman defended it correctly against Goldman, this system was not based on the malevolence of individuals, but on social and economic bases in contradiction with the needs of the exploited classes. The "propaganda by deed", the individual violence against the hated representatives of feudalism, conceived as "triggering reflection" also expressed a false conception of the development of class consciousness, since these methods in no way demonstrate the necessity for a united struggle of the whole class against the foundations of exploitation.

It is understandable that Goldman showed allegiance to Kaplan as a prisoner, since she was tortured by the Cheka. She did not herself call for the same methods as Kaplan. But why in this situation did she not dare go a step further and criticise the "Jesuit" methods in the ranks of anarchism, rather than circumscribing it to the Bolsheviks?

Goldman suffered greatly in September 1921 with the Cheka's execution of friends, of anarchists such as Fanya Baron, with the approval of Lenin. Although Lenin was one of the most determined and clearest personalities of the October Revolution, such measures are unacceptable. Goldman developed a growing antipathy, especially towards Trotsky and Lenin, describing them as clever and cunning Jesuits.[35]

The Cheka had become uncontrollable and used hostage-taking and torture to extract information and carried out executions to spread fear. It was often used against political opposition groups coming from the very ranks of the Bolsheviks and anarchists, but also against workers who participated in strikes. Goldman's criticism of prisoners – defenceless individuals – being condemned to death, whether members of bourgeois counter-revolutionary organisations, criminals, or those taken prisoner from the white armies, is absolutely justified because such measures were not only meaningless acts of violence, but were also an expression of the view that people cannot change their opinions, their behaviour and political positions and they must, in a word, be liquidated.[36] Within the Bolsheviks, the fight against the suppression of opposition voices inside the party and the working class began in 1918. Although Goldman herself witnessed debates and the existence of different positions among the Bolsheviks, she draws too simplistic a picture in order to condemn the latter as "Jesuits of Marxism", as if they were forged from a single block, which never corresponded to reality. The central problem was the sliding into a militarist approach to political problems rather than turning to working class consciousness, to which most of the Bolsheviks succumbed in the false belief that they were saving the besieged revolution. But this does not correspond to a thirst for power allegedly rooted inside the Bolshevik Party.

Marxism has never defended the principle according to which the end justifies the means; this was never a principle or practice of the Bolsheviks before and during the October Revolution. Kronstadt's suppression, however, the tragic culmination of a growing repression, showed how much the degeneration had already progressed, the forms it would take and the logic behind it. Its political justification was derived from its underlying goal (the "iron cohesion" of Russia against the international attacks) justifying the means (bloody repression).

Goldman's personal and utterly demoralising experiences of Kronstadt led to a break with the Bolsheviks and marked a turning point. In the last days before the crushing of the sailors, soldiers and workers of Kronstadt, she was part of a delegation (including in addition to her, Perkus, Pertrowski, Berkman) who tried to negotiate with the Red Army. "Kronstadt broke the last thread that held me to the Bolsheviki. The wanton slaughter they had instigated spoke more eloquently against them then aught else. Whatever their pretences in the past, the Bolsheviki now proved themselves the most pernicious enemies of the revolution. I could have nothing further to do with them."[37]

Kronstadt was a terrible tragedy, a tragic mistake much more than a simple "error".

The crushing of Kronstadt with several thousand dead proletarians (on both sides!) was based on an absolutely false assessment of the character of this uprising by Bolshevik leaders that could have had several causes: the fact that the international bourgeoisie had perfidiously seized this opportunity to hypocritically declare its "solidarity" with the insurgents; also the growing fear that Kronstadt had passed into the camp of the counter-revolution or was even already an expression of the counter-revolution. Goldman responded correctly to both of these aspects. In her autobiography dating back to 1931, however, she was unable to draw the most important lesson from the Kronstadt tragedy, as was the case for the entire Marxist Left during the repression, which mostly supported it. Neither, even with the passage of time, would she be able to understand, contrary to certain currents of the Communist Left, that violence within the working class must be firmly rejected and that this must be a principle.[38]

As with the question of the state, Goldman falls far too easily into the question of the so-called "continued Jesuitism of the Bolsheviks". She calls the Bolsheviks Jesuit, which is in total contradiction with their history. The dynamism of the majority of the Bolsheviks, who did not hesitate to use violence in Kronstadt in 1921 as an alleged means of class struggle, was by no means "their tradition" but rather, as we have seen, an expression of the process of their progressive degeneration.

Instead of looking fundamentally at the question that all revolutionaries without exception faced, namely what means can be used in the class struggle and in the revolution, the "Jesuit" label that Goldman loosely attributed to the Bolsheviks was rather an obstacle to understanding the degeneration of the revolution as a process.

Silence or criticism?

One question is found in Goldman's writings on Russia like a red thread: when was it justified to formulate an open criticism of the Bolsheviks? She described an encounter with anarchists in Petrograd with great indignation:

"These charges and denunciations beat upon me like hammers and left me stunned. I listened tense in every nerve, hardly able clearly to understand what I heard, and failing to grasp its full meaning. It couldn’t be true — this monster indictment! (…) The men in that dismal hall must be mad, I thought, to tell such impossible and preposterous stories, wicked to condemn the Communists for the crimes they must know were due to the counterrevolutionary gang, to the blockade and the White generals attacking the Revolution. I proclaimed my conviction to the gathering, but my voice was drowned in the laughter of derision and jeers.”[39]

As regards the question of the changes to come immediately after the revolution, Goldman's despondency with the positions of the other anarchists shows that anarchism was anything but homogeneous, especially with regard to the attitude towards the Bolsheviks. Anarchism in Russia had again divided into different camps.[40] The following passages from Goldman's writings once again testify to her responsible attitude in not ignoring her own uncertainties, but they also show the evolution of her attitude towards the Bolsheviks.

"Well could I understand the attitude of my Ukrainian friends. They had suffered much during the last year: they had seen the high hopes of the Revolution crushed and Russia breaking down beneath the heel of the Bolshevik state. Yet I could not comply with their wishes. I still had faith in the Bolsheviki, in their revolutionary sincerity and integrity. Moreover, I felt that as long as Russia was being attacked from outside I could not speak in criticism. I would not add fuel on the fires of counterrevolution. I therefore had to keep silent, and stand by the Bolsheviki as the organised defenders of the Revolution. But my Russian friends scorned this view. I was confounding the Communist Party with the revolution, they said; they are not the same, on the contrary they were opposed, even antagonistic.[41]

 “At the first news of war with Poland I had set aside my critical attitude and offered my services as a nurse at the front (…) But he (Zorin) never did. That of course could have no bearing on my determination to help the country, in whatever capacity possible. Nothing seemed so important just then.” (…) “I was not denying Makhno’s services to the Revolution in the struggle against the White forces, nor the fact that his povstantsy army was a spontaneous mass movement of the toilers. I did not think, however, that anarchism had anything to gain from military activity or that our propaganda should depend on military or political spoils. But that was beside the point. I was not in a position to join their work, nor was it a question of the Bolsheviki any more. I was ready to admit frankly that I had erred grievously when I had defended Lenin and his party as the true champions of the Revolution. But I would not engage in active opposition to them so long as Russia was still being attacked by outside enemies.”[42]

I was oppressively conscious of the great debt I owed to the workers of Europe and America: I should tell them the truth about Russia. But how could I speak out when the country was still besieged on several fronts? It would mean working into the hands of Poland and Wrangel. For the first time in my life I refrained from exposing grave social evils. I felt as if I were betraying the trust of the masses, particularly of the American workers, whose faith I dearly cherished.”[43]

"I found it necessary to observe silence so long as the combined imperialist forces were at the throat of Russia. (…) Now, however, the time for silence has passed. I therefore mean to tell my story. I am not unmindful of the difficulties confronting me. I know I shall be misappropriated by the reactionaries, the enemies of the Russian Revolution, as well as excommunicated by its so-called friends; who persist in confusing the governing party of Russia with the Revolution. It is, therefore, necessary that I state my position clearly towards both.”[44]

At that time other revolutionaries, such as Rosa Luxemburg, were quick to make criticisms of the Bolsheviks, even when they expressed total solidarity with them and defended the decisive role they had played in the Russian Revolution. Rosa Luxemburg wrote her pamphlet The Russian Revolution in 1918 at the same time as Goldman published the article "The Truth about the Bolsheviks" in Mother Earth with boundless enthusiasm. The example of Rosa Luxemburg shows how difficult it was to make the decision to publish her own criticism at the right time, and always with the concern not to strike a blow to the revolution. In her text written in the Moabit Prison, Luxemburg expressed a criticism of the Bolsheviks, where her concern was, by clarifying the problems posed in Russia, to show her support and solidarity:

"Lenin and Trotsky, on the other hand, decide in favour of dictatorship in contradistinction to democracy, and thereby, in favour of the dictatorship of a handful of persons, that is, in favour of dictatorship on the bourgeois model.” (…) “But this dictatorship must be the work of the class and not of a little leading minority in the name of the class – that is, it must proceed step by step out of the active participation of the masses; it must be under their direct influence, subjected to the control of complete public activity; it must arise out of the growing political training of the mass of the people. Doubtless the Bolsheviks would have proceeded in this very way were it not that they suffered under the frightful compulsion of the world war, the German occupation and all the abnormal difficulties connected therewith, things which were inevitably bound to distort any socialist policy, however imbued it might be with the best intentions and the finest principles. (...) The danger begins only when they make a virtue of necessity and want to freeze into a complete theoretical system all the tactics forced upon them by these fatal circumstances, and want to recommend them to the international proletariat as a model of socialist tactics.[45]

Luxemburg did not refrain from criticism. Why did Goldman not follow the example of Rosa Luxemburg when, in her writings, she repeatedly expressed her sadness following the assassination in January 1919 of Luxemburg, whose positions she knew? Why in her pamphlet The Crushing of the Russian Revolution did she never make reference to Luxemburg’s criticisms written three years previously?

The reason is simple: she did not know of it. Indeed, Luxemburg's text became the victim of a gross fear of "stabbing the revolution in the back" and of playing the bourgeoisie's game in raising criticisms. The publication of Luxemburg's criticism of the Bolsheviks, which she wanted to make known immediately after drafting it, was deliberately withheld by her closest political friends and did not appear until four years later, in 1922.[46]

Unfortunately, Goldman did not have the opportunity to draw inspiration from Luxemburg's criticism of the Bolsheviks. Her excitement on arrival in Russia is understandable given the horrors in which the World War had plunged humanity. Goldman's “Soviet Russia! Sacred ground” and her subsequent utter disillusionment is also an example that euphoria is most of the time condemned to suffer great disappointment. It is not surprising that 13 years later she rejected as "naive" her initial defence of the Bolsheviks.

Luxemburg was never inclined to political excitement and formulated her criticism on the basis of the first experiences of the months following October 1917, concluding with the famous words that the future belongs to Bolshevism. Goldman wrote her criticism three years later, based on her own experience of a later phase of the revolution in Russia, after the workers' councils were dispossessed of their power at the time of the unleashing of the Cheka and the inescapable identification of the Bolshevik Party with the state apparatus. Nevertheless, it harboured great hopes: "Lenin and his retinue are sensing the danger. Their attack upon and the persecution of the Labour Opposition and the Anarcho-Syndicalists are continuing with even greater intensity. Is it that the Anarcho-Syndicalist star is rising in the east? Who knows- Russia is the land of miracles.”[47] What would have been Luxemburg's analysis at the end of 1921, after the onset of a clear degeneration and after Kronstadt? Sadly, we will never know.

Goldman oscillated between silence and her "I have to raise my voice against the crimes committed in the name of the Revolution”. But how should that happen? During her stay in Russia, the bourgeois newspaper World in New York repeatedly asked her to publish articles on Russia. Goldman at first refused, after hard discussions with Berkman, who was strictly against such an approach, with the argument that everything published in the bourgeois press could only be used in the service of the counter-revolution and proposed she produce her own leaflets for distribution to the workers. A few weeks later, as Goldman had left Russia at the end of 1921, she allowed World to publish her texts.

"I wrote her that I preferred to have my say in the liberal and labour press in the United States, and that I should be willing to have them publish my articles without any pay rather than have them appear in the New York World or similar publications. (…) Now that I knew the truth, was I to be forced to slay it and keep silent? No, I must protest. I must cry out against the gigantic deception posing as truth and justice.[48]

Goldman had waited a few months in Russia to make public her criticism because she did not want to "stab the revolution in the back". And because of this unthinking decision, she was pilloried from various directions:

My Communist accusers were not the only ones to cry ‘Crucify!’ There were also some anarchist voices in the chorus. They were the very people who had fought me on Ellis Island, on the Buford and the first year in Russia because I had refused to condemn the Bolsheviki before I had a chance to test their scheme. Daily the news from Russia about the continued political persecution strengthened every fact I had described in my articles and in my book. It was understandable that Communists should close their eyes to the reality, but it was reprehensible on the part of people who called themselves anarchists to do so, especially after the treatment Mollie Steimer had received in Russia after having valiantly fought in America for the Soviet régime.“[49]

The charge of treason by some parts of the American workers' movement had largely deprived her analysis and reflections of the attention and recognition they deserved. But in a world where two classes confront each other in an absolutely antagonistic way, it was a desperate act to criticise herself and to explain it from the fact that she had no other choice. Indeed it was extremely dangerous to want to use an instrument of the bourgeoisie, whatever it may be, even briefly, as a means of expressing a working class position. What a pity that such a strong militant had fallen into this trap!

What Goldman and Rosa Luxemburg have in common is undoubtedly the enormous desire to understand the problems of the Russian Revolution, to defend the revolutionary character of October 1917 and to not succumb to the dramatic situation without criticising. Goldman never accepted the tactical method of simply considering the Bolsheviks as a "lesser evil" and to support them only for the duration of the war against the white armies, a position openly defended in Russia by the anarchist Machajski in the journal The workers’ revolution.

Expressing open criticism of the policies of the Bolsheviks was from the outset less risky outside Russia than in Russia itself. But Goldman's doubts did not stem from fear or repressive measures against her. Owing to her status as a well-known American revolutionary, she enjoyed much greater protection than other revolutionary immigrants. Although she did not hide her sympathy for the Workers' Opposition and allied herself with the imprisoned anarchists (for example when she spoke at Kropotkin's funeral), she was only placed under "soft" surveillance by the Cheka, to intimidate her.

Would her criticisms have destroyed the shining example of the October revolution within the international working class? Certainly not. The alternative was posed not in the terms of "either being silent or denouncing the Bolsheviks". On the contrary, a mature political critique of Bolshevik policies at that time provided support for the entire international revolutionary wave. The working class is the class of consciousness, not of thoughtless action. Therefore, criticism of its own actions and mistakes is a legacy of the workers' movement which had to be maintained even in such tragic times. It is not part of the nature of the working class to conceal its problems, unlike the bourgeoisie. As Luxemburg’s text shows, criticism of the Bolsheviks must not be limited to indignation but should also be mature enough to support the struggle against the degeneration of the revolution. Later it was a criterion for the Italian Communist Left to refrain from expressing hasty analyses and criticisms that did not permit lessons to be drawn.

Goldman's analysis of the Russian Revolution went beyond mere indignation. But in different places, with its characterisation of Lenin and Trotsky as "cunning Jesuits", she slipped into a method of criticism which fixated on charismatic individuals, which cannot be justified by the great influence that these individuals had on the policy of the Bolsheviks. Lenin does not personify the disarming of the councils and their fusion with the state, any more than Trotsky personifies the crushing of Kronstadt.

Later on, Goldman developed the position vis-à-vis Trotsky that his actions – especially Kronstadt – were sufficient to make him a pioneer of Stalinism.[50] The use of violence that he had directed as commander of the Red Army at Kronstadt did not reflect his personal inclinations but was the implementation of a decision of the whole Bolshevik power and, let us again recall, was supported at the time by the entire marxist left. The tragic error of Kronstadt was an illustration of both the immaturity of the workers' movement on the question of violence (no violence within the working class) and the degenerate course of the revolution in Russia, which would much later end up in to the openly counter-revolutionary politics of socialism in one country and the emergence of Stalin as leader of the world counter-revolution. Whatever the inadequacies of Trotsky's political denunciation of Stalinism and its organised apparatus of repression aimed at the complete physical and ideological crushing of the working class, it nonetheless expressed a proletarian reaction against them.

The value of Goldman's analysis lies in her raising the central questions confronting the Russian Revolution. The contradictions in her analysis and the conclusions, that we absolutely do not share, are not a reason to reject or ignore her efforts altogether. On the contrary, they are the expression of the enormous difficulty of producing a complete analysis of the Russian problem since 1922. She was not alone in this matter. She has the merit of having rejected the fusion of the party with the state apparatus, the seizure of power by the party and the repression of Kronstadt.

In this sense, she made an important contribution to the working class, which must be welcomed but also criticised. Goldman never claimed that October 1917 ultimately gave birth to Stalinism, as the ruling class still does today, in its deceitful campaigns, but stubbornly defended the October Revolution.

Mario 07/01/2018



[1]. The Crushing of the Russian Revolution (1922), her first and most comprehensive analysis; My Disillusionment in Russia (1923/24); Living My Life (1931), Chapter 52.

[2]. This was a subject of great concern to her, which is understandable because the situation of children was catastrophic. In conditions of widespread misery, having lost one or both parents, often in war, they were the most vulnerable, especially when faced with the petty, unscrupulous and morally dehumanised bureaucrats. Perhaps she was more sensitive to this situation because she herself was a nurse and had had the opportunity to visit "model" institutions for children.

[3]. My Disillusionment in Russia, Preface to the first American edition.

[4]. “The Truth about the Bolsheviki”, Mother Earth, 1918.

[5]. Living My Life, Chapter 52.

[6]. Living My Life, loc. cit.

[7]. My Disillusionment in Russia, Chapter 32.

[8].  Introduction to The Crushing of the Russian Revolution.

[9]. Op. Cit., Chapter  “The Care of the Children“.

[10]. Title of the famous book by Nicolas Gogol in 1842. The methods and the parasitism of the state bureaucracy were an exact copy of certain techniques of personal enrichment under feudalism.

[11]. See our article “The degeneration of the Russian Revolution”, https://en.internationalism.org/node/2514

[12]. The Crushing of the Russian Revolution, Chapter “The Forces that Crushed the Revolution”.

[13]. Voline (W.M. Eichenbaum), The Unknown Revolution, 1917-1921, Chapter “Counter-Revolution”. Voline goes so far as to claim that the international intervention against Russia was largely exaggerated and transformed into a legend spread by Bolsheviks around the world.

[14]. See on this subject our article "The world bourgeoisie against the October revolution", https://en.internationalism.org/international-review/201805/15143/world-...

[15]. The Crushing of the Russian Revolution, Loc. Cit.

[16]. Living My Life, Chapter 52.

[17]. Ibid.

[18]. The period of transition covers the entire period after the workers' councils take power until the state becomes extinct. During this period, a series of measures will have to be taken to eliminate wages and the money form, to socialise consumption and to meet needs (transport, leisure, rest, etc.). Read our article on “Problems of the Transition Period” in International Review nº 1. Although the measures to be taken right after the revolution are necessarily limited, certain measures however must be implemented immediately and with determination: for example, free transportation, immediate housing of homeless people in unneeded public buildings, homes of the rich, etc., but also the prohibition of child labour and any form of forced labour or prostitution.


[19]. The Crushing of the Russian Revolution, Chapter “A Visit to Peter Kropotkin”.

[20]. The Crushing of the Russian Revolution, Chapter “The Trade Unions”.

[21]. Op. Cit., Chapter “Dead Souls”.

[22]. My Disillusionment in Russia, Chapter 17.

[23]. Afterword to My Disillusionment in Russia.

[24]. Introduction to The Crushing of the Russian Revolution.

[25]. Op. Cit., Chapter “The forces that Crushed the Revolution”.

[26]. "The question of the state", Octobre nº 2, March 1938, quoted in “Some Answers from the ICC”, International Review nº 12, 1978, https://en.internationalism.org/node/2636

[27]. Rudolf Rocker, Uber das Wesen des Federalismus im Gegensatz zum Zentralismus,1922.

[28]. Goldman describes the Cheka very well with the following words: "Originally the Cheka was controlled by the Commissariat of the Interior, the Soviets and the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Gradually it became the most powerful organisation in Russia. It was not merely a state within the state; it was a state over a state. The whole of Russia is covered to the remotest village with a net of Chekas". (The Crushing of the Russian Revolution, Chapter “The Cheka”).

[29]. My Disillusionment in Russia, Chapter 28.

[30]. See our pamphlet, The Period of Transition, https://en.internationalism.org/pamphlets/transition.

[31]. The Crushing of the Russian Revolution, Chapters “The forces that Crushed the Revolution” and “The Soviets”. The Jesuit order is generally used as a symbol of a politics obsessed with power and ruthlessness according to the slogan “the end justifies the means”.

[32]. Living My Life, Chapter 52.

[33]. Ibid.

[34]. See our article, “Resolution on Terror, terrorism and class violence”, International Review, nº 15, https://en.internationalism.org/node/2649..

[35]. Voline went so far as to describe Lenin and Trotsky as brutal reformists who had never been revolutionaries and who used bourgeois methods (see The Unknown Revolution, Chapters “The Nature of the Bolshevik State” and “Counter-Revolution”).

[36]. This question is dealt with in detail in the book Moral Face of the Revolution (1923) by the People's Commissar for Justice until March 1918, Isaac Steinberg.

[37]. My Disillusionment in Russia, Chapter “Kronstadt”.

[38]. See International Review nº104, “1921: Understanding Kronstadt”, https://en.internationalism.org/ir/104_kronstadt.html.

[39]. Living My Life, Chapter 52.

[40]. In the spring of 1918 the question of relations with the Bolsheviks strongly polarised the anarchist milieu (already historically divided into pan-anarchists, individualist anarchists, anarcho-syndicalists and anarcho-communists, where the demarcations are equally difficult to define). The question of violence or the analysis of the nature of the October Revolution played a secondary role. From open support to the Bolsheviks (from the "anarchists of soviets") to the idea of the Bolsheviks as traitors to the revolution who must be fought, one finds all kind of intermediary positions.  See Paul Avrich, The Russian Anarchists (1967), Chapter on “The Anarchists and the Bolshevik regime”.

[41]. My Disillusionment in Russia, Chapter “In Kharkov”.

[42]. Living My Life, Chapter 52.

[43]. My Disillusionment in Russia, Chapter “Back in Petrograd”.

[44]. Introduction to The Crushing of the Russian Revolution.

[45]. The Russian Revolution.

[46]. Paul Frölich, one of her political allies, describes this legendary sequence of events in his biography Rosa Luxemburg. Her Life and Work (1939). Paul Levi published Luxemburg’s The Russian Revolution in the course of 1922 (hence after Goldman's pamphlet) after having broken with the KPD. Levi claimed that Leo Jogiches (who was opposed to publication, arguing that Luxemburg had subsequently changed her mind) had destroyed the manuscript. J.P. Nettl credibly asserts that it was Levi himself who put strong pressure on Luxemburg not to publish the text, arguing that the bourgeoisie would misuse it against the Bolsheviks. It is clear that Luxemburg's text was not accidentally passed over in the disarray of the revolution in Germany, but, quite the contrary, it was avoided in the storm of contusion over the need for open criticism!

[47]. The Crushing of the Russian Revolution, Chapter “The Trade Unions”.

[48]. Living My Life, Chapter 53.

[49]. Living My Life, Chapter 54.

[50]. Trotsky Protests Too Much, July 1938.


History of the Workers' Movement