A Communist Left Critique of Platformism (Part II): The Platform and its Disciples

In Part I we examined the Free Territory, or Makhnovshchina, the revolutionary movement in Southern Ukraine 1918-21. It was neither a peasant counter-revolution as portrayed in Trotskyist and Stalinist propaganda, nor an anarchist utopia. Rather it was part and parcel of the bloody process of the rise and fall of the Russian Revolution, itself a part of the post-war revolutionary wave. In Part II we finally look at The Organisational Platform of the General Union of Anarchists or simply the Platform, and the Platformist tendency that it later inspired. Drafted in Paris in 1926 and signed by a group of anarchist exiles concentrated around the journal Dielo Truda (Workers' Cause) – Nestor Makhno, Peter Arshinov, Ida Mett, Isaak Gurfinkiel (a.k.a Jean Walecki) and Linsky – the Platform was the product of a collective reflection on the failures of anarchism during the Russian Revolution.

The Platform

The authors of the Platform were all, in one way or another, personally connected to the revolutionary events in the former Russian Empire, particularly in Ukraine and Poland. They all saw how the anarchist movement, despite at times its great self-sacrifice, failed to rise to the occasion as a whole. For every anarchist who fought for soviet power, there was another who disagreed with the premise of class struggle in the first place, or cried “statism” even at the idea of “free soviets”.

It was during the Russian Revolution of 1917 that the need for a general organisation was felt most deeply and most urgently. It was during this revolution that the libertarian movement showed the greatest decree of sectionalism and confusion. The absence of a general organisation led many active anarchist militants into the ranks of the Bolsheviks.

The Organisational Platform of the General Union of Anarchists, 1926

The Platform sought to rectify these individualist and anti-organisational errors and invited “Russian anarchist organisations dispersed in various countries of the world, and also isolated militants, to unite on the basis of a common organisational platform.” Although their reference point remained Bakunin and Kropotkin rather than Marx and Engels, the unacknowledged contribution of the authors of the Communist Manifesto is felt here by proxy. The Platform establishes that we live in a capitalist society, divided into two great classes: bourgeois and proletarian, ruling class and working class. The state is but the “executive organ of the bourgeoisie”, and even the most democratic system is in reality a veiled bourgeois dictatorship. The solution to the violence, exploitation, slavery and oppression inherent in capitalist society is to be found in the social revolution, whose forces are “the urban working class, the peasant masses and a section of the working intelligentsia.” It is only through class struggle that “a free and equal communist society founded on the principle from each according to his [sic] ability, to each according to his [sic] needs” can be achieved.

The Platform understood anarchism (or libertarian/anarchist communism) to be a product of the workers’ movement, not of humanitarian aspirations or some abstract reflections of intellectuals. It also presented a critique of the other main political currents in the workers’ movement at the time. Social Democracy, which sought to conquer power by peaceful means of reform and the ballot box, would never succeed as real political and economic power would still remain in the hands of the bourgeoisie. Meanwhile, they argued, those who sought to conquer power by revolutionary means (Bolsheviks, Left SRs), but still saw the need for a “proletarian state”, would only end up re-establishing the basis of capitalist power. As such, anarchists negate both the “state and authority” and reject the “dictatorship of the proletariat” and the “transition period”. The Platform also commented on syndicalism, which was not seen as at odds with anarchist communism, but rather as just one form of class struggle in which anarchists should have a presence (be that in anarchist or non-anarchist trade unions). In the constructive section, the Platform rejected the prefigurative politics common among anarchists today:

It is impossible to begin the building of a new economy and new social relations while the power of the state defending the regime of enslavement has not been smashed, while workers and peasants have not seized, as the object of the revolution, the industrial and agricultural economy. Consequently, the very first social revolutionary task is to smash the statist edifice of the capitalist system…

The Organisational Platform of the General Union of Anarchists, 1926

In the workers’ and peasants’ soviets and factory committees, as exemplified in the Russian Revolution, the Platform saw a “federalist system of workers’ organisations of production and consumption, united federatively and self-administrating.” It called for the creation of co-operatives and the implementation of communal and collective methods in industry and agriculture, although warned against exerting “outside pressure” on the peasantry. This was likely an admonishment of the Bolshevik kombeds, but the recognition that agriculture ultimately needs to be organised in a collective way lest a “private economy in agriculture leads, as in private industry, to commerce, accumulation, private property and the restoration of capital” was also a reflection of the difficulties the Makhnovshchina had in transforming social relations in the countryside. The Platform also stated that a “revolutionary army with a common command and plan of operations” will be needed, not as a point of principle, but in order to defend the revolution.

In terms of the kind of revolutionary organisation it proposed (a General Union of Anarchists), the Platform famously stressed the importance of theoretical and tactical unity, collective responsibility, and federalism. In order to co-ordinate activity, it proposed an executive committee responsible to the congress of the organisation, and a secretariat. The purpose of the revolutionary organisation was to “serve as a guide to the whole movement” and “become the organised vanguard of their emancipating process.” Towards that end, the revolutionary organisation had to be active within the various organs created by workers and peasants in the course of their struggle.

These are the lessons the authors gleamed from the Russian Revolution, which they understood to be a re-statement of the revolutionary kernel already found in Bakunin, Kropotkin and Malatesta. They made an effort to regroup the anarchist movement of their time on this basis, in opposition to the prevailing synthesis anarchist model (i.e. all anarchist tendencies united in one loose federation). In February 1927 an organising committee was selected – made up of Makhno, Beniamin Goldberg (a.k.a Maxime Ranko or Jerzy Borejsza) and Chen (a.k.a Wu Kegang) – for an upcoming international conference in Paris. The conference, intended to give birth to an International Union of Anarchists, took place soon after and was attended by Russian-speaking, Polish, Bulgarian, Italian, Chinese and Spanish anarchists. But many of the participants were reluctant to join this new organisation, and the meeting was disrupted by a police raid. Makhno and Arshinov had a bit more luck in the Union anarchiste communiste (UAC), which they joined and convinced to briefly adopt the Platform. Short-lived Platformist groups also emerged in Italy and Bulgaria. By the 1930s however it was clear that Platformism had failed to make the impact it intended. As we indicated in Part I, from the very beginning the Makhnovshchina was a controversial topic in anarchist circles. The publication of the Platform did not help matters; some saw it as just too specific to Russian conditions, others condemned it outright as an attempt by Makhno and Arshinov to "Bolshevise" anarchism. Voline and Gregori Maximoff – both Russian exiles involved with Nabat and then Dielo Truda – made extensive criticisms of the Platform from synthesis anarchist and anarcho-syndicalist perspectives. They drew the opposite, anti-party, conclusion from their experience of the Russian Revolution. Leading anarchist militants from across the world – Malatesta, Camillo Berneri, Luigi Fabbri, Sébastien Faure, Max Nettlau, Marie Goldsmith, Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman – all voiced their disapproval in different ways. We will not go into the various critiques here; suffice it to say the response was disheartening for the Platformists, and contributed to some unpleasant personal fall-outs.

One by one, former comrades abandoned Makhno for political and/or personal reasons. Voline, although he translated the Platform into French, categorically rejected its conclusions and their partnership ended. Makhno’s wife, Halyna Kouzmenko, divorced Makhno and tried to return to the USSR (allegedly even collaborating with secret services in the process). Arshinov, angry and frustrated at the response of the anarchist world to the Platform, renounced anarchism in the 1930s and was allowed back into the USSR thanks to Sergo Ordzhonikidze (his former cell-mate). He died in the purges. In the 1940s Goldberg ended up heading the cultural department of the Stalinist state in Poland, while Chen became a scholar of the cooperative movement in Taiwan. Mett and her husband Nicolas Lazarévitch also fell out with Makhno but they at least continued to be active anarchists until the Second World War. Dielo Truda was published until the 1950s, but now under the direction of the anarcho-syndicalist Maximoff. The pariah Makhno, isolated, destitute, and in poor health, corresponded with Spanish anarchists in his final years, encouraging them to take leadership of the popular movement unleashed by the crisis of 1931, warning them not to ally with any of the political parties, and calling them to establish “free soviets” and “peasants’ unions”. He did not live long enough to see the CNT-FAI join the Spanish Government instead. Come the Second World War, there was no organised Platformist presence to speak of.

Platformism Today

In the 1950s a new generation of militants, fed up with the same old individualist and anti-organisational trends within anarchism, revived Platformism in a completely different historical context. They also took influence from the failure of the Spanish “Revolution”, particularly the document Towards a Fresh Revolution by the Friends of Durruti.

In France, anarchist militants of the interwar years who sided with Makhno in the debates over the Platform, the likes of Louis Estève and André Daunis, joined hands with the young Georges Fontenis. They were dissatisfied with the individualists in the Fédération anarchiste (FA), and in order to expel them formed a clandestine group within the organisation (a method possibly inspired by Bakunin’s own clandestine International Brotherhood or Alliance). They were successful, although Fontenis earned a controversial reputation in the process. In 1953 the FA was transformed into the Fédération communiste libertaire (FCL), with the Manifesto of Libertarian Communism as its theoretical basis. In Italy, the Gruppi Anarchici di Azione Proletaria (GAAP) separated from the Federazione Anarchica Italiana (FAI) on a very similar basis. The FCL and the GAAP went on to found the short-lived Libertarian Communist International. However, the FCL dissolved soon after: the contentious decision to stand candidates in French elections divided its members, while their direct support for the Algerian independence movement, which earned them the support of Daniel Guérin, was met with increased state repression (and had Fontenis arrested). In the 1960s, the Organisation révolutionnaire anarchiste (ORA), joined by the Mouvement communiste libertaire (MCL) led by Fontenis and Guérin, would inspire other groups in the UK and Italy to discover the Platform again.

In Uruguay, the Federación Anarquista Uruguaya (FAU) was founded in 1956. It was a broad church organisation, uniting libertarians, syndicalists and radical liberals. A debate within the organisation arose on whether it should have a class-based approach (inspired by Bakunin and Malatesta) or a humanistic approach (inspired by Rudolf Rocker’s recent reformist turn). The Cuban “Revolution” in 1959 provided the catalyst for a split. The class struggle faction critically supported Fidel Castro’s 26th of July Movement, the humanists did not. The former kept the FAU name. The Uruguayan state was gradually heading towards a military dictatorship and in 1967 the FAU was outlawed, went underground, formed its own paramilitary (OPR-33), and further opened itself up to “Marxist-Leninist” doctrine. The FAU would later be re-founded returning to more anarchist principles, and with its model of social insertion into popular movements would influence what became especifismo. Similar groups would emerge across Latin America.

Today the idea of forming an international political organisation has given way to loose federations and networks. There are roughly two currents which take Platformism as a point of reference. One which has devoted itself to the practice of pushing trade unions and popular movements “to the left”, regardless of their class nature. Many of the groups mentioned here, or their offshoots, would eventually come together in the International Libertarian Solidarity network in 2001, which evolved into the Anarkismo network in 2005 and still exists in some form today. These groups are connected by their formal adherence to the ideas of the Platform but combined with all the confusions on the national question and trade unions reminiscent of Trotskyism. Throughout the last 50 years there has been no shortage of these: support for Algerian or Cuban independence (FCL and FAU), illusions in self-management in Yugoslavia and Algeria (Guérin), Federacion anarquista-comunista d'Occitania (FACO) becoming Occitanian separatists, the Workers Solidarity Movement (WSM) calling for a “no” vote in the 2009 Irish referendum on the Treaty of Lisbon, sympathies towards the PKK (Anarkismo network), etc. If anything, it demonstrates that Platformism, despite its emphasis on class struggle, is no cure for losing track of the class terrain on which revolutionaries should stand. The other current straggles the line between synthesis and Platformism, having also taken on board certain ideas from councilism, and groups like Socialisme ou Barbarie, Solidarity and Wildcat. The Anarchist Federation (AF) and today the Anarchist Communist Group (ACG) are its main representatives, and the second hand influence of the German-Dutch Left has provided them with a critique of trade unionism and national liberation.

The Communist Left

The authors of the Platform were not the only revolutionaries who sought to draw political lessons from the experience of the Russian Revolution. The Communist Left was likewise a product of that process. It first emerged out of the revolutionary elements of Social Democracy, was key in the formation of the various Communist Parties around the world, but was gradually expelled from the ranks of the Third International as the revolutionary wave subsided. Its most notable tendencies developed in Russia, Germany/Netherlands and Italy. They all analysed the new reality from a Marxist perspective, but came to different conclusions. We have written recently on the Bolsheviks around the journal Kommunist who already in 1918 attempted to chart a different course to the one in which the Russian Revolution was heading. Some, like Gavril Miasnikov, continued their fight outside of Russia, in exile, where he drafted his own Draft Platform of the Communist Workers’ International in 1930. The aforementioned Germans and the Dutch coalesced around the KAPD, only to splinter and begin questioning the need for a party in the first place. In Italy, the Communist Left uniquely held sway over the Communist Party until the mid-1920s, only to end up in exile or in fascist prisons, where nevertheless they managed to regroup, first around journals like Bilan and Prometeo, and then in the Internationalist Communist Party (PCInt) founded in the wake of strikes at the end of the Second World War. It is to the Italian Left in particular that we in the ICT owe our living organisational link to the struggles of the past, its lessons and experiences.

What then distinguishes us from modern day Platformism? Let us pick out just a few points of diversion.

  • Authority and State: the capitalist state has to be smashed on the eve of revolution, but, since the continuing existence of classes implies the existence of a state, the workers’ councils which replace it will inevitably exhibit certain “statist” functions while counter-revolution still looms over it. The more isolated and desperate the revolutionary bastion becomes, the more these “statist” functions will tend to re-assert themselves. Both Soviet Russia (with its Red Army and the Cheka) and the Makhnovshchina (with its Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army and the Kontrrazvedka) are illustrations of this. Only the former existed long enough for these organs to completely escape the control of the working class, but the same tensions were beginning to emerge in the latter. The only real guarantee of a different outcome is the extent of class consciousness among the working masses themselves and the continuous spreading of the international revolution.
  • Dictatorship of the Proletariat: “proletarian state”, “workers’ state”, “semi-state”, “dictatorship of the proletariat” – if by this we mean the power of the workers’ councils, yes, but if it means a power independent of or above the workers’ councils, then no. In Soviet Russia, the Sovnarkom, the Red Army, the Cheka and the Communist Party itself all gradually constituted themselves as such. There is however a more profound question here: what is the revolutionary subject in capitalist society? For us, it is the working class, not because it is necessarily the most “oppressed” but because of its unique position in the production of surplus value (other sections of society are only revolutionary to the degree that they align themselves with a working class movement). Whereas in the Platform, as in the Makhnovshchina, the peasant masses are put on par with the working classes. In fact, in his final years the desperate Makhno even began to partly blame the rise of the Bolsheviks on a section of the industrial working class which allegedly benefited from state capitalism, leading him to question the notion of “proletarian power” itself. Today of course the peasantry hardly exists as a class, but modern Platformists have likewise tried to broaden the revolutionary subject leading them to support all kinds of popular movements.
  • Period of Transition: Voline was in fact right that the Platform “denies the principle of the transition period in words yet accepts it as a fact”. If the building of a new economy and new social relations can only truly begin with the capitalist state out of the way, then it follows that this is not an immediate event (on the “eve of revolution”) but a gradual process which at all times depends on favourable material circumstances. Another illustration is that, despite its best intentions, the Makhnovshchina could not abolish money and wage labour. Class society, a product of millennia of human development, will not disappear overnight.
  • The Party: although in the Platform itself the authors avoid the use of the term “party”, in the resulting correspondence with Voline, they clarify that after twenty years of revolutionary activity in the anarchist movement, they now recognise the “necessity of a new comprehensive anarchist party organisation rooted in one homogeneous theory, policy and tactic.” Political organisation, revolutionary organisation, party – to us all these denote the same thing. What Makhno was grasping at with the Gulyai-Pole Anarcho-Communist Group and Arshinov with the Nabat, they were hoping to now realise in the General Union of Anarchists. For us, the lasting lesson of the Russian Revolution here is that the party is not a government in waiting but a guide in the struggle for a new world.
  • The Bolsheviks: from a tool for world revolution, to a tool of the counter-revolution. While, as Serge put it, the “totalitarian potential” may have been there, the Bolshevik Party was never the monolith of Stalin’s design (until it was made so by force). Up until the ban on factions, and even among some internal oppositionists of the mid-1920s, different conceptions of what Bolshevism meant persisted. We will let another Old Bolshevik have his word: “The Bolsheviks were not afraid of criticism, or of counter-criticism, or their consequences. Down with all icons! There is no prohibition of criticism in the congresses, conferences, local or central committees. To the contrary! … Between 1905 and 1917, this Bolshevik practice passed through the crucible of three revolutions. The internal structure of the party was strictly bound to the living forces of the revolution, and this led to the greatest and most glorious victories that the world has ever seen. What does this Bolshevism have in common with the grotesque parody enacted by Stalin, Bukharin & Co.?” (Miasnikov, The Latest Deception, 1930)
  • Federalism: the “federalism” of the Platform, with its executive committees and collective responsibility, is not all that different to how we understand “democratic centralism” (lower bodies elect all higher bodies and these are responsible to a general meeting of the organisation, collective decisions are binding on all members). Likewise, the Makhnovshchina, with its executive and revolutionary committees and military revolutionary councils, was not shy of centralisation where necessary. The power of the workers’ councils in the period of transition is the synthesis of authority and freedom.
  • Trade Unions and Self-Management: the role of trade unions within capitalism has changed over time. For us, not only were unions never revolutionary, but they have also been gradually integrated into the capitalist state. The Platform still conceived of a revolutionary syndicalism and deliberately left open the question whether production in the future will be organised by trade unions, factory committees or workers’ councils. Writing in 1926 and from the Russian context, where unions had only relatively recently become permanent economic bodies, this was understandable. Less so for modern day Platformists. Likewise, the question of self-management (which, under capitalism, translates to self-exploitation), only vaguely elaborated, led to confusions later on.
  • Internationalism: the missing piece of the Platform, clarified a bit in other articles by Makhno (A Few Words on the National Question in the Ukraine, 1928) and Arshinov (The Makhnovists on the National and Jewish Questions, 1923). Contrary to Trotskyist and Stalinist propaganda, Makhno was no nationalist. But the regional nature of his political activities in Gulyai-Pole, and the lack of an internationalist emphasis in the main document he is remembered for, the Platform, have left room for interpretation. We only need to mention the various national-anarchists and Ukrainian fascists who have re-imagined Makhno as some kind of Third Positionist fighting against both capitalism and communism – which he never was. More seriously, that ambiguity towards the national question became a birthmark of the Platformist tendency as it was revived in the 1950s.

In the 1950s our comrades in Italy held talks with the GAAP, which at the time was seeking realignment with Marxism. More recently in the UK we have also discussed with a small short-lived Platformist group in Wales. Ultimately nothing tangible has come of this limited collision of perspectives. Some of the points of diversion are a question of terminology, some represent real incompatibilities, which go to the core of the split between Marxism and anarchism, that only the re-emergence of a real movement will be able to resolve.

1 July 2021

Some Further Reading:

Friday, July 9, 2021