Max Nettlau, The duty of radicals toward Soviet Russia — II (1924)

1924 Max Nettlau


My previous remarks are not dictated by lack of interest in movements outside the libertarian sphere where I fell at home; on the contrary I do all I can not to merit the reproach of narrowness and lack of sympathy, but I cannot fail to see that present-day socialism and mental evolution has arrived at a very crucial stage.

The point is to me that the evolution of social feelings, the vague desire for social justice has, under the pressure of capitalist exploitation, developed in a quicker rate and on a larger scale that the desire for freedom which has been denied to men throughout so many ages and which in the higher sense, as we foresee it, has never yet fully existed at all. People remember earlier stages of greater economic freedom, but they have no experience of past mental freedom, since ignorance and beliefs inoculated by priestcraft and Statecraft are their only recollection and mental emancipation by knowledge and free thought lays still before them and is only attempted by small numbers.

Consequently most of the socialism of earlier centuries and of the capitalist nineteenth century is tainted with authoritarianism and contains but very nominal calls for freedom, and a minority only, the real libertarians, saw and propagated the inseparability of socialism and complete freedom. They were in unison with science, but science also is up til now only the ambient air of a minority, whilst the majority continues to live in the sphere of superstition, tradition, ignorance or scant and superficial information. The future belongs to science and freedom, knowledge and research, as the past belongs to religion and authority, ignorance and tradition. Socialism, as I said, spreading so widely at this juncture, to the traditionalist majority becomes an authoritarian gospel, to the scientifically incline minority a libertarian hypothesis, to which natural growth and experience will by and by give a consistent basis and point out the direction of further evolution.

Our duty as students and lovers of freedom is to facilitate this process by effort, example, experiment and action of every kind. We must not be discouraged or ashamed to be in a minority,—it cannot be otherwise, as long as there is a necessity for our work, that is, as long as our desire for freedom and our will to work for it are larger than those of average people. This does not mean isolation to us; it means specialization and intensification, essential component parts of efficiency. No scientist ever felt lone, however far his research carried him from the throng of the day.

But it is of course an important part of our task to seek points of contact with the traditionalist authoritarian masses, be they in a state of indifference or be they touched to some degree by authoritarian socialism, and to win over those in whom our propaganda makes vibrate one of the chords of latent desire for freedom which every human breast virtually shelters.

What will be the attitude of authoritarian socialists? If they are not bigoted, they cannot fail to see that the cause of socialism is strengthened when men understand that intense and complete form of socialism which libertarian thought represents. But if they are narrow-minded and cheese-paring, they are bitter enemies of every propaganda [6] except their own. Unfortunately, though for some years in the ‘sixties the old International contained socialists of all descriptions, mostly even then looking daggers at each other, there was no time during a whole century to discuss this question in common: what to do with the different schools of socialism in the case of socialist possibilities and before then, in the course of propaganda. The war of everybody against all others in speeches, articles, pamphlets and books was the rule and the absolute want of mutual toleration, resulting in persecution and murder, as in Russia since at least 1918, was and is the absolute rule.

I still think that, hopeless as the task appears to be, efforts to come to an understanding will some day have to be made, as evidently the chance for a realization of socialism will not arise at precisely the moment when almost all socialists will be authoritarians of one single school, nor when almost all will be some kind of libertarians, but at some intermediary stage as in 1917, when socialists and libertarians of every description will coexist de facto as they do now. Is the dictatorial usurpation of 1917 to be the glorious predecessor in coming eventualities? Some fanatics no doubt will say: yes, by all means! But perhaps some may find it worth[while] to think this over. Anyhow, one of our real duties seems to be to set this point clear and to try to make common sense and common fairness prevail, I need not say here in which direction,—that of mutual agreement to disagree and to live as neighbors do, or that of fratricide.

I am in no way advocating the policy of the so-called unique front,—by no means. In a case of real action it is self-evident that all revolutionary forces will take part, but even then those working for a dictatorship or a revolutionary parliament and government, cannot form a unique front with those determined not to admit authoritarian reconstructions such as these. What will be done on such occasions, cannot be foresee and must depend of the relative strength of each faction and on this, whether they have previously reasoned out themselves and discussed with the other side what they will do or whether, as heretofore, everything will be left to haphazard. In ordinary times we have, I believe, much better work to do to expand and fortify our own front, than to work with those from whom we are radically separated.

The principle of authority and freedom marks a deeper separation than is often imagined. At this point really past and future divide. There is only one line of evolution, the natural one, but in the remote past the mildew of authority fell on the minds of primitive people, ignorant and afraid of the unknown, and it has since then infected and poisoned all their institutions. With the greatest difficulties and sacrifices a few instincts, that of solidarity and voluntary association and that of independence and revolt, also that of free research and experiment were preserved untainted here and there and with their help by and by, very slowly, free thought, free science and the desire of independence and free co-operation, as expressed in our libertarian ideas, were restored and are now small beds of really humanitarian germs from which the free society of the future will arise, come what may. This sphere is our real home and it is important above all that it be preserved against all inroads of the authoritarian thought which belongs to the past, be it painted red all over as some variety [7] of authoritarian socialism or communism.

Class feeling, solidarity, the contact of everyday life and work, are inevitable and normal; we must not desert our milieu, but we must not be absorbed by it. Libertarians often give too much to neighboring, parallel causes and make too little of their own. Being small in numbers this still reduces their efficiency. There is so much to do on our own side, if only our idea is property expanded. Freedom is so full of contents, of possibilities, of application and its application to social matters, producing the different affirmations of anarchism (individualist, communist and other varieties) is but one of its various applications: it must enter into every form of human individual and collective feeling and activity and banish from them the spirit of authority and that absence of any spirit, dull routine. Our task and duty is to persuade people of this by intelligent reasoning and our own example, if we can, and not to limit ourselves to preconise a system of economic arrangements supposed to bar authority forever. No, we must attack and track authority and more thoroughly, in mind, in daily life, in all feelings and actions, ours and those of everyone in our sphere of influence. To the worldwide party of authority, extending from conservatives and militarists, nay fascists to communists, we must at last oppose the manifold groups of human manifestations of freedom, free thought, free art, moral and sexual freedom, free science, voluntary association, private and personal freedom to those groups applying freedom to social co-operation, the various libertarian and anarchist groups, be they revolutionist, syndicalist, educationalist, experimentalist or otherwise more or less specialized. This I feel to be a prime duty to our cause.

This is not meant in the sense of an organization or even a loose federation of all these element often little known to each other and separated, as inevitable, by differences of opinion, also of interests. We can begin, informally, to get in touch with those whom we recognize as genuine practisers of freedom, be it in a limited sphere, we can encourage them, enlarge their views, but we must not doctrinairize them; some will evolve further under such efforts, others may not. If we cannot rouse them to action, we may rouse their opinion, their temperament, make them speak up, stand up for freedom as best as they can. We have lost nearly everything, no end of socialists and syndicalists who formerly seemed to patronize freedom, when it stood before them in the brilliant personalities and writings of Elisée Reclus, Kropotkine and Tolstoy, when the war and dictatorial communism had not poisoned their minds,—many of these weak and wayward lingerers who would not have opposed freedom formerly, are now again believers in authority which is so much more familiar to them. We must reconstruct radical, if possible libertarian, public opinion almost from the beginning, though, I fondly hope, when a real start has been made, it will grow by leaps and bounds, rallying the many who are disgusted with the present orgies of authority and stand aside.

All this must be done in unconspicuous forms, but with a will and the harvest of this libertarian initiative may be rich. New blood, new ideas will come to our more intimate ranks and we need them. The immense rally of authority these last years certainly calls for a rally of freedom. We can hardly to imagine how good, but also how wide, large, deep and all important to mankind our cause is and shall be, but we must rise up to it and help on it fullest manifestation. This I consider our paramount duty to our cause and the present moment and flirtations with Soviet Russia are lamentably out of date in this age of deadly struggle between slavery and freedom.

October 16, 1924.

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