23-Bolsheviks and Bullies
In October 1917 hope for social justice was once again kindled by the distant revolution in Russia, which revived in Séverine a passion that she thought had died out forever. She was swept away “like a dry leaf”.
Like many others in different camps she saw the revolution that she had dreamed of: a revolution without government, guided by those councils of workers, farmers and soldiers in a direct democracy electing representatives who could be revoked at any time. In reality it was only a temporary façade. As soon as the Bolsheviks arrived and took control of the movement, nothing remained of the Revolution except the name.
Between 1917-1920, however, the anarchists supported the Russian Revolution or at the very least stayed quiet. But the resistance to anarchists by the growing dictatorship was already visible. The 1st Congrès de l’Union Anarchiste in November 1920 appaluded the Russian Revolution. The second Congrès a year later in Villeurbanne, unanimously condemned the dictatorship of the proletariat. After the crushing defeat of the Kronstadt revolt in March 1921 and the violent reaction to Makhno’s insurrection in August it is easy to see why.
At first Séverine, too, adhered to the cause. In January 1921 the newspapers announced the solidarity of Anatole France, Henri Barbusse and Séverine to the newly formed French Communist Party. After all these years of fierce individualism, at 65 years old she was joined to a party, in the majority, and back in the fight. She was brought out as the grandmother for the good cause, an icon, assumed to be more passive and forgiving at her age. They wanted her to stay quiet and play along but they had forgotten who she was. Against their wishes, for example, she was the star witness in the trial of Souvarine and Loriot, fierce critics of Stalin.
The final straw for her came when the soviet leaders demanded the French Party get rid of intellectuals who belonged to bourgeois organizations like the Freemasons or the League of Human Rights. They were to renounce publicly or be banned from the Party. Well, Séverine had helped found the League of Human Rights back in 1898 during the Dreyfus Affair and would never give up her membership. Before the deadline came up she sent back her card—all illusions about Soviet Russia were lost.
Russia had adopted all the mechanisms of the State that were anathema to libertarian ideals: army, police, centralized administration, etc. Thus, Séverine, along with most anarchists and the disenchanted socialists, became anti-Bolshevik, anti-Stalin and eventually anti-Hitler, a tyrant as abominable as the Russian.
The anarchist movement itself was on the rise after 1918, perhaps more in numbers than in action. The revolutionary magnetism of the years 1880 to 1910 had faded, but rather than die an idle death, it transformed (as it does today) and its influence endured. But the image of the anarchist as a bomb-throwing, chaos-spewing nihilist persisted (as it does today) and they became easy scapegoats for the powers that be.
A tragic example: Sacco and Vanzetti, two Italian anarchist sent to the electric chair for a crime they did not commit. There’s no need to retell their story that has become part of international history; the accusation of murder in 1920 in Massachusetts, the speedy conviction, the appeals, false evidence, dozens of witnesses in their defense, the confession of the real criminal, etc. For seven years the case dragged on before the death sentence was finally set for August 23 1927.
Their innocence was obvious and protests were held in every major city in America and throughout the world. John Dos Passos, Dorothy Parker, Albert Einstein, HG Wells, George Bernard Shaw and others all spoke out for them. In Japan, Australia, South America and Europe they protested this travesty of justice. In their cells Sacco and Vanzetti were on hunger strike.
In France they held a meeting on July 24 1927 at the Cirque de Paris. 20,000 people squeezed in, 10,000 gathered outside. The organizers called on Séverine to preside over this unified demand for pardon from the American government. For a long time she had left Paris to reside in her home in Pierrefonds, but this cause brought her back into the fray, once again. If at 72 years old she could still serve for something, it would all be worth it.
After the meeting at the Cirque de Paris Séverine stayed in Paris. On July 26 she and Marguerite Durand were invited to lunch at the Maison des Jounalistes, the first time such an “honor” was accorded to women of the press. But the anarchist victims of American injustice were center stage.
To the global protests and calls for lenience America turned a deaf ear and sent the two innocents to the electric chair. Violent confrontation with the police broke out that night in Paris, 100 people wounded and 200 arrested. Séverine regretted this outburst of violence because it was too late—there was nobody to save.
In their final statements the two men tried to console and give hope to the countless men and women who had and would always devote their lives to the cause of freedom and justice: “The last moment belongs to us—that agony will be our triumph.”
Next: They Wanted It