i thought since socialism, the socialist party of malaysia, the current malaysian government, and the question of “democracy ” in the “public minds” – i should share this… taken from another website, not my writings… for more reading, click the link!
H.1 Have anarchists always opposed state socialism?
Yes. Anarchists have always argued that real socialism cannot be created using a state. The basic core of the argument is simple. Socialism implies equality, yet the state signifies inequality – inequality in terms of power. As we argued in section B.2, anarchists consider one of the defining aspects of the state is its hierarchical nature. In other words, the delegation of power into the hands of a few. As such, it violates a core idea of socialism, namely social equality. Those who make up the governing bodies in a state have more power than those who have elected them (see section I.1).
It is with this perspective that anarchists have combated the idea of state socialism and Marxism (although we should stress that libertarian forms of Marxism, such as council communism, have strong similarities to anarchism). In the case of the Russian Revolution, the anarchists were amongst the first on the left to be suppressed by the Bolsheviks. Indeed, the history of Marxism is, in part, a history of its struggles against anarchists just as the history of anarchism is also, in part, a history of its struggle against the various forms of Marxism and its offshoots.
While both Stirner and Proudhon wrote many pages against the evils and contradictions of state socialism, anarchists have only really been fighting the Marxist form of state socialism since Bakunin. This is because, until the First International, Marx and Engels were relatively unknown socialist thinkers. Proudhon was aware of Marx (they had meant in France in the 1840s and had corresponded) but Marxism was unknown in France during his life time and so Proudhon did not directly argue against Marxism (he did, however, critique Louis Blanc and other French state socialists). Similarly, when Stirner wrote The Ego and Its Own Marxism did not exist bar a few works by Marx and Engels. Indeed, it could be argued that Marxism finally took shape after Marx and Engels had read Stirner’s classic work and produced their notoriously inaccurate diatribe, The German Ideology, against him. However, like Proudhon, Stirner attacked other state socialists and communists.
Before discussing Bakunin’s opposition and critique of Marxism in the next section, we should consider the thoughts of Stirner and Proudhon on state socialism. These critiques contain may important ideas and so are worth summarising. However, it is worth noting that when both Stirner and Proudhon were writing communist ideas were all authoritarian in nature. Libertarian communism only developed after Bakunin’s death in 1876. This means that when Proudhon and Stirner were critiquing “communism” they were attacking a specific form of communism, the form which subordinated the individual to the community. Anarchist communists like Kropotkin and Malatesta also opposed such kinds of “communism.” As Kropotkin put it, “before and in 1848” communism “was put forward in such a shape as to fully account for Proudhon’s distrust as to its effect upon liberty. The old idea of Communism was the idea of monastic communities . . . The last vestiges of liberty and of individual energy would be destroyed, if humanity ever had to go through such a communism.” [Act for Yourselves, p. 98] Of course, it may be likely that Stirner and Proudhon would have rejected libertarian communism as well, but bear in mind that not all forms of “communism” are identical.
For Stirner, the key issue was that communism (or socialism), like liberalism, looked to the “human” rather than the unique. “To be looked upon as a mere part, part of society,” asserted Stirner, “the individual cannot bear – because he is more; his uniqueness puts from it this limited conception.” As such, his protest against socialism was similar to his protest against liberalism (indeed, he drew attention to their similarity by calling it “social liberalism”). Stirner was aware that capitalism was not the great defender of freedom it was claimed to be by its supporters. “Restless acquisition,” he argued, “does not let us take breath, take a calm enjoyment: we do not get the comfort of our possessions.” Communism, by the “organisation of labour,” can “bear its fruit” so that “we come to an agreement about human labours, that they may not, as under competition, claim all our time and toil.” However, communism “is silent” over “for whom is time to be gained.” He, in contrast, stresses that it is for the individual, “To take comfort in himself as the unique.” [The Ego and Its Own, p. 265 and pp. 268-9] Thus state socialism does not recognise that the purpose of association is to free the individual and instead subjects the individual to a new tyranny:
“it is not another State (such as a ‘people’s State’) that men aim at, but their union, uniting, this ever-fluid uniting of everything standing – A State exists even without my co-operation . . . the independent establishment of the State founds my lack of independence; its condition as a ‘natural growth,’ its organism, demands that my nature do not grow freely, but be cut to fit it.” [Op. Cit., p. 224]
Similarly, Stirner argued that “Communism, by the abolition of all personal property, only presses me back still more into dependence on another, to wit, on the generality or collectivity” which is “a condition hindering my free movement, a sovereign power over me. Communism rightly revolts against the pressure that I experience from individual proprietors; but still more horrible is the might that it puts in the hands of the collectivity.” [Op. Cit., p. 257] History has definitely confirmed this fear. By nationalising property, the various state socialist regimes turned the worker from a servant of the capitalist into a serf of the state. In contrast, communist-anarchists argue for free association and workers’ self-management as the means of ensuring that socialised property does not turn into the denial of freedom rather than as a means of ensuring it. As such, Stirner’s attack on what Marx termed “vulgar communism”is still important and finds echoes in communist-anarchist writings as well as the best works of Marx and his more libertarian followers (see section I.4 on how libertarian communism is not “silent” on these matters and incorporates Stirner’s legitimate concerns and arguments).
Similar arguments to Stirner’s can be found in Proudhon’s works against the various schemes of state socialism that existed in France in the middle of the nineteenth century. He particularly attacked the ideas of Louis Blanc. Blanc, whose most famous book wasOrganisation du Travail (Organisation of Work, first published in 1840) argued that social ills resulted from competition and they could be solved by means of eliminating it via government initiated and financed reforms. More specifically, Blanc argued that it was“necessary to use the whole power of the state” to ensure the creation and success of workers’ associations (or “social workshops”). Since that “which the proletarians lack to free themselves are the tools of labour,” the government “must furnish them” with these.“The state,” in short, “should place itself resolutely at the head of industry.” [quoted by K. Steven Vincent, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and the Rise of French Republican Socialism, p. 139] Capitalists would be encouraged to invest money in these workshops, for which they would be guaranteed interest payments but the workers would keep the remaining profits generated by the workshops. Such state-initiated workshops would soon prove to be more efficient than privately owned industry and, by charging lower prices, force privately owned industry either out of business or to change into social workshops, so eliminating competition.
Proudhon objected to this scheme on many levels. He argued that Blanc’s scheme appealed “to the state for its silent partnership; that is, he gets down on his knees before the capitalists and recognises the sovereignty of monopoly.” Given that Proudhon saw the state as an instrument of the capitalist class, asking that state to abolish capitalism was illogical and impossible. Moreover, by getting the funds for the “social workshop” from capitalists, Blanc’s scheme was hardly undermining their power. “Capital and power,”Proudhon argued, “secondary organs of society, are always the gods whom socialism adores; if capital and power did not exist, it would invent them.” [Property is Theft!, p. 215 and p. 217] He stressed the authoritarian nature of Blanc’s scheme:
“M. Blanc is never tired of appealing to authority, and socialism loudly declares itself anarchistic; M. Blanc places power above society, and socialism tends to subordinate it to society; M. Blanc makes social life descend from above, and socialism maintains that it springs up and grows from below; M. Blanc runs after politics, and socialism is in quest of science. No more hypocrisy, let me say to M. Blanc: you desire neither Catholicism nor monarchy nor nobility, but you must have a God, a religion, a dictatorship, a censorship, a hierarchy, distinctions, and ranks. For my part, I deny your God, your authority, your sovereignty, your judicial State, and all your representative mystifications.” [Op. Cit., p. 205]
Equally, Proudhon opposed the “top-down” nature of Blanc’s ideas. As it was run by the state, the system of workshops would hardly be libertarian as “hierarchy would result from the elective principle . . . as in constitutional politics . . . Who will make the law? The government.” Such a regime, Proudhon argued, would be unlikely to function well and the net result would be “all reforms ending, now in hierarchical corporation, now in State monopoly, or the tyranny of community.” [Op. Cit., p. 21 and p. 207] This was because of the perspective of state socialists:
“As you cannot conceive of society without hierarchy, you have made yourselves the apostles of authority; worshippers of power, you think only of strengthening it and muzzling liberty; your favourite maxim is that the welfare of the people must be achieved in spite of the people; instead of proceeding to social reform by the extermination of power and politics, you insist on a reconstruction of power and politics.” [Op. Cit., pp. 225-6]
Instead of reform from above, Proudhon stressed the need for working class people to organise themselves for their own liberation. As he put it, the “problem before the labouring classes . . . [is] not in capturing, but in subduing both power and monopoly, – that is, in generating from the bowels of the people, from the depths of labour, a greater authority, a more potent fact, which shall envelop capital and the state and subjugate them.” For, “to combat and reduce power, to put it in its proper place in society, it is of no use to change the holders of power or introduce some variation into its workings: an agricultural and industrial combination must be found by means of which power, today the ruler of society, shall become its slave.” This was because the state “finds itself inevitably enchained to capital and directed against the proletariat.” Unsurprisingly, Proudhon stressed in 1848 that “the proletariat must emancipate itself without the help of the government.” [Op. Cit., pp. 225-6 and p. 306] In addition, by guaranteeing interest payments, Blanc’s scheme insured the continued exploitation of labour by capital and, of course, while opposing capitalist competition, Proudhon did not consider it wise to abolish all forms of the market.
Proudhon argued for a two-way approach to undermining capitalism from below: the creation of workers associations and the organisation of credit. By creating mutual banks, which provided credit at cost, workers could create associations to compete with capitalist firms, drive them out of business and so eliminate exploitation once and for all by workers’ self-management. In this way, the working class would emancipate itself from capitalism and build a socialist society from below upwards by their own efforts and activities. Proudhon, as Marxist Paul Thomas notes, “believed fervently . . . in the salvation of working men, by their own efforts, through economic and social action alone . . . Proudhon advocated, and to a considerable extent inspired, the undercutting of this terrain [of the state] from without by means of autonomous working-class associations.” [Karl Marx and the Anarchists, pp. 177-8] Rejecting violent revolution (as well as strikes as counter-productive), Proudhon argued for economic means to end economic exploitation and, as such, he saw anarchism as coming about by reform (unlike later social anarchists, who were generally revolutionaries and argued that capitalism cannot be reformed away and so supported strikes and other forms of collective working class direct action, struggle and combative organisation).
Unsurprisingly, Proudhon’s ideas were shaped by the society he lived and agitated in. In the mid-nineteenth century, the bulk of the French working class were artisans and peasants and so such an approach reflected the social context in which it was proposed. With a predominance of small-scale industry, the notion of free credit provided by mutual banks as the means of securing working class people access to the means of production is theoretically feasible. It was this social context which informed Proudhon’s ideas (seesection H.2.3). He never failed to stress that association would be tyranny if imposed upon peasants and artisans (rather, he thought that associations would be freely embraced by these workers if they thought it was in their interests to do so). However, he did not ignore the rise of large-scale industry and explicitly proposed workers’ associations (i.e., co-operatives) for those industries which objectively needed it (i.e. capitalist industry) and for those other toilers who desired it. The net effect was the same, though, namely to abolish wage labour.
It was this opposition to wage labour which drove Proudhon’s critique of state socialism. He continually stressed that state ownership of the means of production was a danger to the liberty of the worker and simply the continuation of capitalism with the state as the new boss. As he put it in 1848, he “did not want to see the State confiscate the mines, canals and railways; that would add to monarchy, and more wage slavery. We want the mines, canals, railways handed over to democratically organised workers’ associations . . . these associations [will] be models for agriculture, industry and trade, the pioneering core of that vast federation of companies and societies woven into the common cloth of the democratic social Republic.” He contrasted workers’ associations run by and for their members to those “subsidised, commanded and directed by the State,” which would crush “all liberty and all wealth, precisely as the great limited companies are doing.” [No Gods, No Masters, vol. 1, p. 62 and p. 105]
Marx, of course, had replied to Proudhon’s work System of Economic Contradictions with his Poverty of Philosophy. However, Marx’s work aroused little interest when published although Proudhon did carefully read and annotate his copy of it, claiming it to be“a libel” and a “tissue of abuse, calumny, falsification and plagiarism” (he even called Marx “the tapeworm of Socialism.”) [quoted by Woodcock, Op. Cit., p. 102] Sadly, Proudhon did not reply publicly to Marx’s work due to an acute family crisis and then the start of the 1848 revolution in France. However, given his views of Louis Blanc and other socialists who saw socialism being introduced after the seizing of state power, he would hardly have been supportive of Marx’s ideas.
So while none of Proudhon’s and Stirner’s arguments were directly aimed at Marxism, their critiques are applicable to much of mainstream Marxism as this inherited many of the ideas of the state socialism they attacked. Much of their analysis was incorporated in the collectivist and communist ideas of the anarchists that followed them (some directly, as from Proudhon, some by co-incidence as Stirner’s work was quickly forgotten and only had an impact on the anarchist movement when he was rediscovered in the 1890s). This can be seen from the fact that Proudhon’s ideas on the management of production by workers’ associations, opposition to nationalisation as state-capitalism and the need for action from below by working people themselves, all found their place in communist-anarchism and anarcho-syndicalism and in their critique of mainstream Marxism (such as social democracy) and Leninism. Echoes of these critiques can be found Bakunin’s comments of 1868:
“I hate Communism because it is the negation of liberty and because for me humanity is unthinkable without liberty. I am not a Communist, because Communism concentrates and swallows up in itself for the benefit of the State all the forces of society, because it inevitably leads to the concentration of property in the hands of the State . . . I want to see society and collective or social property organised from below upwards, by way of free associations, not from above downwards, by means of any kind of authority whatsoever . . . That is the sense in which I am a Collectivist and not a Communist.” [quoted by K.J. Kenafick, Michael Bakunin and Karl Marx, pp. 67-8]
It is with Bakunin that Marxism and Anarchism came into direct conflict as it was Bakunin who lead the struggle against Marx in theInternational Workingmen’s Association between 1868 and 1872. It was in these exchanges that the two schools of socialism (the libertarian and the authoritarian) clarified themselves. With Bakunin, the anarchist critique of Marxism (and state socialism in general) starts to reach its mature form. We discuss Bakunin’s critique in the next section.
H.1.1 What was Bakunin’s critique of Marxism?
Bakunin and Marx famously clashed in the first International Working Men’s Association between 1868 and 1872. This conflict helped clarify the anarchist opposition to the ideas of Marxism and can be considered as the first major theoretical analysis and critique of Marxism by anarchists. Later critiques followed, of course, particularly after the degeneration of Social Democracy into reformism and the failure of the Russian Revolution (both of which allowed the theoretical critiques to be enriched by empirical evidence) but the Bakunin/Marx conflict laid the ground for what came after. As such, an overview of Bakunin’s critique is essential as anarchists continued to develop and expand upon it (particularly after the experiences of actual Marxist movements and revolutions confirmed it).
First, however, we must stress that Marx and Bakunin had many similar ideas. They both stressed the need for working people to organise themselves to overthrow capitalism by a social revolution. They argued for collective ownership of the means of production. They both constantly stressed that the emancipation of the workers must be the task of the workers themselves. They differed, of course, in exactly how these common points should be implemented in practice. Both, moreover, had a tendency to misrepresent the opinions of the other on certain issues (particularly as their struggle reached its climax). Anarchists, unsurprisingly, argue Bakunin has been proved right by history, so confirming the key aspects of his critique of Marx.
So what was Bakunin’s critique of Marxism? There are six main areas. Firstly, there is the question of current activity (i.e. whether the workers’ movement should participate in “politics” and the nature of revolutionary working class organisation). Secondly, there is the issue of the form of the revolution (i.e. whether it should be a political then an economic one, or whether it should be both at the same time). Thirdly, there is the prediction that state socialism will be exploitative, replacing the capitalist class with the state bureaucracy. Fourthly, there is the issue of the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” Fifthly, there is the question of whether political power can be seized by the working class as a whole or whether it can only be exercised by a small minority. Sixthly, there was the issue of whether the revolution be centralised or decentralised in nature. We shall discuss each in turn.
On the issue of current struggle, the differences between Marx and Bakunin are clear. For Marx, the proletariat had to take part in bourgeois elections as an organised political party. As the resolution of the (gerrymandered) Hague Congress of First International put it: “In its struggle against the collective power of the propertied classes the proletariat cannot act as a class except by constituting itself a political party, distinct from and opposed to, all old parties formed by the propertied classes . . . The conquest of political power has therefore become the great duty of the working class.” [Collected Works, vol. 23, p. 243]
This political party must stand for elections and win votes. As Marx argued in the preamble of the French Workers’ Party, the workers must turn the franchise “from a means of deception . . . into an instrument of emancipation.” This can be considered as part of the process outlined in the Communist Manifesto, where it was argued that the “immediate aim of the Communists is the same as that of all the other proletarian parties,” namely the “conquest of political power by the proletariat,” the “first step in the revolution by the working class” being “to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle of democracy.” Engels later stressed (in 1895) that the “Communist Manifesto had already proclaimed the winning of universal suffrage, of democracy, as one of the first and most important tasks of the militant proletariat” and that German Social Democracy had showed workers of all countries “how to make use of universal suffrage.” [Marx and Engels Reader, p. 566, p. 484, p. 490 and p. 565]
With this analysis in mind, Marxist influenced political parties have consistently argued for and taken part in election campaigns, seeking office as a means of spreading socialist ideas and as a means of pursuing the socialist revolution. The Social Democratic parties which were the first Marxist parties (and which developed under the watchful eyes of Marx and Engels) saw revolution in terms of winning a majority within Parliamentary elections and using this political power to abolish capitalism (once this was done, the state would “wither away” as classes would no longer exist). In effect, as we discuss in section H.3.10, these parties aimed to reproduce Marx’s account of the forming of the Paris Commune on the level of the national Parliament.
Bakunin, in contrast, argued that while the communists “imagine they can attain their goal by the development and organisation of the political power of the working classes . . . aided by bourgeois radicalism” anarchists “believe they can succeed only through the development and organisation of the non-political or anti-political power of the working classes.” The Communists “believe it necessary to organise the workers’ forces in order to seize the political power of the State,” while anarchists “organise for the purpose of destroying it.” Bakunin saw this in terms of creating new organs of working class power in opposition to the state, organised “from the bottom up, by the free association or federation of workers, starting with the associations, then going on to the communes, the region, the nations, and, finally, culminating in a great international and universal federation.” In other words, a system of workers’ councils. As such, he constantly argued for workers, peasants and artisans to organise into unions and join the International Workingmen’s Association, so becoming “a real force . . . which knows what to do and is therefore capable of guiding the revolution in the direction marked out by the aspirations of the people: a serious international organisation of workers’ associations of all lands capable of replacing this departing world of states.“ [Bakunin on Anarchism, pp. 262-3, p. 270 and p. 174] To Marx’s argument that workers should organise politically (i.e., send their representations to Parliament) Bakunin realised that when“common workers” are sent “to Legislative Assemblies” the result is that the “worker-deputies, transplanted into a bourgeois environment, into an atmosphere of purely bourgeois ideas, will in fact cease to be workers and, becoming Statesmen, they will become bourgeois . . . For men do not make their situations; on the contrary, men are made by them.” [The Basic Bakunin, p. 108]
As far as history goes, the experience of Social Democracy confirmed Bakunin’s analysis. A few years after Engels death in 1895, German Social Democracy was racked by the “revisionism” debate. This debate did not spring from the minds of a few leaders, isolated from the movement, but rather expressed developments within the movement itself. In effect, the revisionists wanted to adjust the party rhetoric to what the party was actually doing and so the battle against the revisionists basically represented a battle between what the party said it was doing and its actual practice. As one of the most distinguished historians of this period put it, the“distinction between the contenders remained largely a subjective one, a difference of ideas in the evaluation of reality rather than a difference in the realm of action.” [C. Schorske, German Social Democracy, p. 38] By the start of the First World War, the Social Democrats had become so corrupted by their activities in bourgeois institutions they supported its state (and ruling class) and voted for war credits rather than denounce the war as Imperialist slaughter for profits. Clearly, Bakunin was proved right. (see also section J.2.6 for more discussion on the effect of electioneering on radical parties).
However, we must stress that because Bakunin rejected participating in bourgeois politics, it did not mean that he rejected “politics” or “political struggle” in general (see section J.2.10). Bakunin clearly advocated what would later be termed a syndicalist strategy (seesection H.2.8). This union movement would be complemented by a specific anarchist organisation which would work within it to influence it towards anarchist aims by the “natural influence” of its members (see section J.3.7).
Comparing Bakunin and Marx, it is clear whom history has validated. Even that anti-anarchist Stalinist hack Eric Hobsbawn could not avoid admitting “the remarkable achievement of Spanish anarchism which was to create a working-class movement that remained genuinely revolutionary. Social democratic and . . . even communist trade unions have rarely been able to escape either schizophrenia [i.e., revolutionary rhetoric hiding reformist practice] or betrayal of their socialist convictions.” [Revolutionaries, p. 104] This is probably the only accurate comment made in his various diatribes on anarchism but, of course, he did not allow the implications of his statement to bother his faith in Leninist ideology. So given the long history of reformism and betrayal of socialist principles by radicals utilising elections and political parties, it comes as no surprise that anarchists consider both Bakunin’s critique and alternative to be confirmed by experience (section J.2 discusses direct action and electioneering).
Which brings us to the second issue, namely the nature of the revolution itself. For Bakunin, a revolution meant a social revolution from below. This involved both the abolition of the state and the expropriation of capital. In his words, “the revolution must set out from the first radically and totally to destroy the State.” The “natural and necessary consequences” of which will be the “confiscation of all productive capital and means of production on behalf of workers’ associations, who are to put them to collective use . . . the federative Alliance of all working men’s associations . . . will constitute the Commune.” There “can no longer be any successful political . . . revolution unless the political revolution is transformed into social revolution.” [Michael Bakunin: Selected Writings, p. 170 and p. 171]
Which, incidentally, disproves Engels’ claims that Bakunin “does not regard capital . . . but the state as the main evil to be abolished”after which “capitalism will go to blazes of itself.” [The Marx-Engels Reader, p. 728] This misrepresents Bakunin’s position, as he always stressed that economic and political transformation “must be accomplished together and simultaneously.” [The Basic Bakunin, p. 106] Given that Bakunin thought the state was the protector of capitalism, no economic change could be achieved until such time as it was abolished. This also meant that Bakunin considered a political revolution before an economic one to mean the continued slavery of the workers. As he argued, “[t]o win political freedom first can signify no other thing but to win this freedom only, leaving for the first days at least economic and social relations in the same old state, – that is, leaving the proprietors and capitalists with their insolent wealth, and the workers with their poverty.” With capitalists’ economic power intact, could the workers’political power remain strong? As such, “every political revolution taking place prior to and consequently without a social revolution must necessarily be a bourgeois revolution, and a bourgeois revolution can only be instrumental in bringing about bourgeois Socialism – that is, it is bound to end in a new, more hypocritical and more skilful, but no less oppressive, exploitation of the proletariat by the bourgeois.” [The Political Philosophy of Bakunin, p. 294 and p. 289]
Did Marx and Engels hold this position? Apparently so. Discussing the Paris Commune, Marx noted that it was “the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economic emancipation of labour,” and as the “political rule of the producer cannot coexist with the perpetuation of his social slavery” the Commune was to “serve as a lever for uprooting the economic foundations upon which rests the existence of classes.” Engels argued that the “proletariat seizes the public power, and by means of this transforms the . . . means of production . . . into public property.” In the Communist Manifesto they argued that “the first step in the revolution by the working class” is “rais[ing] the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle of democracy.” The proletariat “will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeois, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e. of the proletariat organised as the ruling class.” [Op. Cit., p. 635, p. 717 and p. 490]
This is made even clearer in Engels’ “Principles of Communism” (often considered as a draft of the Manifesto). That document stressed that it was not possible for “private property to be abolished at one stroke”, arguing that “the proletarian revolution will transform existing society gradually.” The revolution “will establish a democratic constitution, and through this, the direct or indirect dominance of the proletariat. Direct in England, where the proletarians are already a majority of the people.” “Democracy”, Engels went on, “would be quite useless to the proletariat if it were not immediately used as a means of carrying through further measures directly attacking private ownership.” [Collected Works, vol. 6, p. 350] Decades later, when Marx discussed what the “dictatorship of the proletariat” meant, he argued (in reply to Bakunin’s question of “over whom will the proletariat rule?”) that it simply meant “that so long as other classes continue to exist, the capitalist class in particular, the proletariat fights it (for with the coming of the proletariat to power, its enemies will not yet have disappeared), it must use measures of force, hence governmental measures; if it itself still remains a class and the economic conditions on which the class struggle and the existence of classes have not yet disappeared, they must be forcibly removed or transformed, and the process of their transformation must be forcibly accelerated.” [The Marx-Engels Reader, pp. 542-3] Note, “capitalists,” not “former capitalists,” so implying that the members of the proletariat are, in fact, still proletarians after the “socialist” revolution and so still subject to wage slavery under economic masters. Which makes perfect sense, as otherwise the term “dictatorship of the proletariat” would be meaningless.
Then there is the issue of when the working class could seize political power. As Engels put it, the conflict “between bourgeoisie and proletariat can only be fought out in a republic” as this is “the form in which the struggle must be fought out.” Workers would have to create a republic in countries without one (such as Germany at the time). [Marx and Engels, The Socialist Revolution, p. 264] Decades previously, Engels had argued that the “first, fundamental condition for the introduction of community of property is the political liberation of the proletariat through a democratic constitution.” [Collected Works, vol. 6, p. 102] Thus the bourgeois revolution would come first, then the proletarian one. The Communist Manifesto had raised the possibility of a bourgeois revolution in Germany being “but a prelude to an immediately following proletarian revolution.” [Selected Writings, p. 63] Within two years, Marx and Engels argued that this was wrong, that a socialist revolution was not possible in Continental Europe for some time. Even in the 1880s, Engels was still arguing that a proletarian revolution was not immediately possible in Germany and the first results of any revolution would be a bourgeois republic within which the task of social democracy was to build its forces and influence.
Clearly, then, Marx and Engels considered the creation of a republic in a well developed capitalist economy as the basis for seizing of state power as the key event and, later, the expropriation of the expropriators would occur. Thus the economic power of the capitalists would remain, with the proletariat utilising political power to combat and reduce it. Anarchists argue that if the proletariat does not hold economic power, its political power would at best be insecure and would in fact degenerate. Would the capitalists just sit and wait while their economic power was gradually eliminated by political action? And what of the proletariat during this period? Will they patiently obey their bosses, continue to be oppressed and exploited by them until such time as the end of their “social slavery” has been worked out (and by whom)? Would they be happy to fight for a bourgeois republic first, then wait for an unspecified period of time before the party leadership proclaimed that the time was ripe to introduce socialism?
As the experience of the Russian Revolution showed, the position of Marx and Engels proved to be untenable. Bakunin’s perspective was repeated by a Russian worker in 1906 when he expressed his impatience with Menshevik strategy:
“Here [the Mensheviks] . . . tells us that the workers’ congress is the best means of assuring the independence of the proletariat in the bourgeois revolution; otherwise, we workers will play the role of cannon fodder in it. So I ask: what is the insurance for? Will we really make the bourgeois revolution? Is it possible that we will spill blood twice – once for the victory of the bourgeois revolution, and the time for the victory of our proletarian revolution? No, comrades, it is not to be found in the party programme [that this must be so]; but if we workers are to spill blood, then only once, for freedom and socialism.” [quoted by Abraham Ascher, The Mensheviks in the Russian Revolution, p. 43]
In 1917, this lesson was well learned and the Russian workers initially followed Bakunin’s path (mostly spontaneously and without significant influence by anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists). The Mensheviks repeated their mistakes of 1905 as they “proved unable to harness this revolutionary potential to any practical purpose. They were blinded by their rigid marxist formula of ‘bourgeois revolution first, socialist revolution later’ and tried to restrain the masses. They preached self-abnegation to them, told them to stand aside until such times as the bourgeoisie had built a solid capitalist system. This made no sense to workers and peasants – why should they renounce the power that was in their hands already?” Leading Menshevik Fedor Dan “admitted in 1946 that the Menshevik concept of the bourgeois revolution rested on ‘illusions'” [Vera Broido, Lenin and the Mensheviks, p 14 and p. 15] Once Lenin returned to Russia, the Bolsheviks broke with this previously shared perspective and started to support and encourage the radicalisation of the workers and so managed to gain popular support. However, they did so partially and incompletely and, as a consequence, finally held back and so fatally undermined the revolution.
After the February revolution paralysed the state, the workers organised factory committees and raised the idea and practice of workers self-management of production. The Russian anarchists supported this movement whole-heartedly, arguing that it should be pushed as far as it would go. In contrast, Lenin argued for “workers’ control over the capitalists.” [The Lenin Anthology, p. 402] This was, unsurprisingly, the policy applied immediately after the Bolshevik seizure of power. However, as one Leninist writer admits,“[t]wo overwhelmingly powerful forces obliged the Bolsheviks to abandon this ‘reformist’ course.” One was the start of the civil war, the other “was the fact that the capitalists used their remaining power to make the system unworkable. At the end of 1917 the All Russian Congress of employers declared that those ‘factories in which the control is exercised by means of active interference in the administration will be closed.’ The workers’ natural response to the wave of lockouts which followed was to demand that their [sic!] state nationalise the factories.” [John Rees, “In Defence of October”, pp. 3-82, International Socialism, no. 52, p. 42] By July 1918, only one-fifth of nationalised firms had been done so by the state, the rest by local committees from below (which, incidentally, shows the unresponsiveness of centralised power). Clearly, the idea that a social revolution can come after a political was shown to be a failure – the capitalist class used its powers to disrupt the economic life of Russia.
Faced with the predictable opposition by capitalists to their system of “control” the Bolsheviks nationalised the means of production. Sadly, within the nationalised workplace the situation of the worker remained essentially unchanged. Lenin had been arguing for one-man management (appointed from above and armed with “dictatorial” powers) since late April 1918 (see section H.3.14). This aimed at replacing the capitalists with state appointed managers, not workers self-management. In fact, as we discuss in section H.6.2 the party leaders repeatedly overruled the factory committees’ suggestions to build socialism based on their management of the economy in favour of centralised state control. Bakunin’s fear of what would happen if a political revolution preceded a social one came true. The working class continued to be exploited and oppressed as before, first by the bourgeoisie and then by the new bourgeoisie of state appointed managers armed with all the powers of the old ones (plus a few more). Russia confirmed Bakunin’s analysis that a revolution must immediately combine political and economic goals in order for it to be successful.
The experience of Bolshevik Russia also confirms Bakunin’s prediction that state socialism would simply be state capitalism. As Bakunin stressed, the state “is the government from above downwards of an immense number of men [and women], very different from the point of view of the degree of their culture, the nature of the countries or localities that they inhabit, the occupations they follow, the interests and aspirations directing them – the State is the government of all these by one or another minority.” The state“has always been the patrimony of some privileged class” and “when all other classes have exhausted themselves” it “becomes the patrimony of the bureaucratic class.” The Marxist state “will not content itself with administering and governing the masses politically” it will “also administer the masses economically, concentrating in the hands of the State the production and distribution of wealth.” This will result in “a new class, a new hierarchy of real and counterfeit scientists and scholars, and the world will be divided into a minority ruling in the name of knowledge, and an immense ignorant majority. And then, woe unto the mass of ignorant ones!”Thus exploitation by a new bureaucratic class would be the only result when the state becomes “the sole proprietor” and “the only banker, capitalist, organiser, and director of all national labour, and the distributor of all its products.” [Bakunin on Anarchism, pp. 317-8, p. 318 and p. 217] Subsequent anarchists have tended to call such a regime state capitalism (see section H.3.13).
The Bolshevik leadership’s rejection of the factory committees and their vision of socialism also confirmed Bakunin’s fear that Marxism urges the people “not only not abolish the State, but, on the contrary, they must strengthen it and enlarge it, and turn it over to . . . the leaders of the Communist party . . . who will then liberate them in their own way.” The economic regime imposed by the Bolsheviks, likewise, confirmed Bakunin critique as the state “control[led] all the commerce, industry, agriculture, and even science. The mass of the people will be divided into two armies, the agricultural and the industrial under the direct command of the state engineers, who will constitute the new privileged political-scientific class.” Unsurprisingly, this new state-run economy was a disaster which, again, confirmed his warning that unless this minority “were endowed with omniscience, omnipresence, and the omnipotence which the theologians attribute to God, [it] could not possibly know and foresee the needs of its people, or satisfy with an even justice those needs which are most legitimate and pressing.” [Op. Cit., p. 332, pp. 332-3 and p. 318]
Which brings us to the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” While many Marxists basically use this term to describe the defence of the revolution and so argue that anarchists do not see the need for that, this is incorrect. Anarchists from Bakunin onwards have argued that a revolution would have to defend itself from counter revolution and yet we reject the concept totally (see section H.2.1 for a refutation of claims that anarchists think a revolution does not need defending). To understand why Bakunin rejected the concept, we must provide some historical context.
Anarchists in the nineteenth century rejected the idea of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” in part because the proletariat was aminority of working class people at the time. To argue for a dictatorship of the proletariat meant to argue for the dictatorship of aminority class, a class which excluded the majority of toiling people. When Marx and Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto, for example, over 80% of the population of France and Germany were peasants or artisans – what they termed the “petit-bourgeois”. This meant that their claim that the “proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interests of the immense majority” was simply not true. Rather, for Marx’s life-time (and for many decades afterwards) the proletarian movement was like “[a]ll previous movements,” namely “movements of minorities, or in the interests of minorities.” Not that Marx and Engels were unaware of this for they also noted that “[i]n countries like France” the peasants “constitute far more than half of the population.” In 1875 Marx commented that “the majority of the ‘toiling people’ in Germany consists of peasants, and not of proletarians.” He stressed elsewhere around the same time that “the peasant . . . forms a more of less considerable majority . . . in the countries of the West European continent.” [The Marx-Engels Reader, p. 482, p. 493, p. 536 and p. 543]
Clearly, then, Marx and Engels vision of proletarian revolution was one which involved a minority dictating to the majority and so Bakunin rejected it. His opposition rested on the fact that a “dictatorship of the proletariat,” at the time, actually meant a dictatorship by a minority of working people and so a “revolution” which excluded the majority of working people (i.e. artisans and peasants). As he argued in 1873:
“If the proletariat is to be the ruling class . . . then whom will it rule? There must be yet another proletariat which will be subject to this new rule, this new state. It may be the peasant rabble . . . which, finding itself on a lower cultural level, will probably be governed by the urban and factory proletariat.” [Statism and Anarchy, pp. 177-8]
For Bakunin, to advocate the “dictatorship of the proletariat” in an environment where the vast majority of working people were peasants would be a disaster. It is only when we understand this social context that we can understand Bakunin’s opposition to Marx’s “dictatorship of the proletariat” – it would be a dictatorship of a minority class over the rest of the working population (he took it as a truism that the capitalist and landlord classes should be expropriated and stopped from destroying the revolution!). Bakunin continually stressed the need for a movement and revolution of all working class people (see section H.2.7) and that the peasants“will join cause with the city workers as soon as they become convinced that the latter do not pretend to impose their will or some political or social order invented by the cities for the greater happiness of the villages; they will join cause as soon as they are assured that the industrial workers will not take their lands away.” For an “uprising by the proletariat alone would not be enough; with that we would have only a political revolution which would necessarily produce a natural and legitimate reaction on the part of the peasants, and that reaction, or merely the indifference of the peasants, would strangle the revolution of the cities.” [The Political Philosophy of Bakunin, p. 401 and p. 378]
This explains why the anarchists at the St. Imier Congress argued that “every political state can be nothing but organised domination for the benefit of one class, to the detriment of the masses, and that should the proletariat itself seize power, it would in turn become a new dominating and exploiting class.” As the proletariat was a minority class at the time, their concerns can be understood. For anarchists then and now, a social revolution has to be truly popular and involve the majority of the population in order to succeed. Unsurprisingly, the congress stressed the role of the proletariat in the struggle for socialism, arguing that “the proletariat of all lands . . . must create the solidarity of revolutionary action . . . independently of and in opposition to all forms of bourgeois politics.”Moreover, the aim of the workers’ movement was “free organisations and federations . . . created by the spontaneous action of the proletariat itself, [that is, by] the trade bodies and the autonomous communes.” [quoted in Bakunin on Anarchism, p. 438, p. 439 and p. 438]
Hence Bakunin’s comment that “the designation of the proletariat, the world of the workers, as class rather than as mass“ was“deeply antipathetic to us revolutionary anarchists who unconditionally advocate full popular emancipation.” To do so, he argued, meant “[n]othing more or less than a new aristocracy, that of the urban and industrial workers, to the exclusion of the millions who make up the rural proletariat and who . . . will in effect become subjects of this great so-called popular State.” [Michael Bakunin: Selected Writings, pp. 253-4]
Again, the experiences of the Russian Revolution confirm Bakunin’s worries. The Bolsheviks implemented the dictatorship of the city over the countryside, with disastrous results (see section H.6.2 for more details).
One last point on this subject. While anarchists reject the “dictatorship of the proletariat” we clearly do not reject the key role the proletariat must play in any social revolution (see section H.2.2 on why the Marxist assertion anarchists reject class struggle is false). We only reject the idea that the proletariat must dictate over other working people like peasants and artisans. We do not reject the need for working class people to defend a revolution, nor the need for them to expropriate the capitalist class nor for them to manage their own activities and so society.
Then there is the issue of whether, even if the proletariat does seize political power, whether the whole class can actually exercise it. Bakunin raised the obvious questions:
“For, even from the standpoint of that urban proletariat who are supposed to reap the sole reward of the seizure of political power, surely it is obvious that this power will never be anything but a sham? It is bound to be impossible for a few thousand, let alone tens or hundreds of thousands of men to wield that power effectively. It will have to be exercised by proxy, which means entrusting it to a group of men elected to represent and govern them, which in turn will unfailingly return them to all the deceit and subservience of representative or bourgeois rule. After a brief flash of liberty or orgiastic revolution, the citizens of the new State will wake up slaves, puppets and victims of a new group of ambitious men.” [Op. Cit., pp. 254-5]
He repeated this argument: “What does it mean, ‘the proletariat raised to a governing class?’ Will the entire proletariat head the government? The Germans number about 40 million. Will all 40 millions be members of the government? The entire nation will rule, but no one will be ruled. Then there will be no government, no state; but if there is a state, there will also be those who are ruled, there will be slaves.” Bakunin argued that Marxism resolves this dilemma “in a simple fashion. By popular government they mean government of the people by a small number of representatives elected by the people. So-called popular representatives and rulers of the state elected by the entire nation on the basis of universal suffrage – the last word of the Marxists, as well as the democratic school – is a lie behind which the despotism of a ruling minority is concealed, a lie all the more dangerous in that it represents itself as the expression of a sham popular will.” [Statism and Anarchy, p. 178]
So where does Marx stand on this question. Clearly, the self-proclaimed followers of Marx support the idea of “socialist” governments (indeed, many, including Lenin and Trotsky, went so far as to argue that party dictatorship was essential for the success of a revolution – see next section). Marx, however, is less clear. He argued, in reply to Bakunin’s question if all Germans would be members of the government, that “[c]ertainly, because the thing starts with the self-government of the township.” However, he also commented that “[c]an it really be that in a trade union, for example, the entire union forms its executive committee,” suggesting that there will be a division of labour between those who govern and those who obey in the Marxist system of socialism. [The Marx-Engels Reader, p. 545 and p. 544] Elsewhere he talks about “a socialist government” coming “to the helm in a country”. [Collected Works, vol. 46, p. 66] As we discuss in section H.3.10, both Marx and Engels saw universal suffrage in a republic as expressing the political power of the working class.
So Bakunin’s critique holds, as Marx clearly saw the “dictatorship of the proletariat” involving a socialist government having power. For Bakunin, like all anarchists, if a political party is the government, then clearly its leaders are in power, not the mass of working people they claim to represent. Anarchists have, from the beginning, argued that Marx made a grave mistake confusing working class power with the state. This is because the state is the means by which the management of people’s affairs is taken from them and placed into the hands of a few. It signifies delegated power. As such, the so-called “workers’ state” or “dictatorship of the proletariat” is a contradiction in terms. Instead of signifying the power of the working class to manage society it, in fact, signifies the opposite, namely the handing over of that power to a few party leaders at the top of a centralised structure. This is because “all State rule, all governments being by their very nature placed outside the people, must necessarily seek to subject it to customs and purposes entirely foreign to it. We therefore declare ourselves to be foes . . . of all State organisations as such, and believe that the people can be happy and free, when, organised from below upwards by means of its own autonomous and completely free associations, without the supervision of any guardians, it will create its own life.” [Bakunin, Marxism, Freedom and the State, p. 63] Hence Bakunin’s constant arguments for a decentralised, federal system of workers councils organised from the bottom-up. Again, the transformation of the Bolshevik government into a dictatorship over the proletariat during the early stages of the Russian Revolution supports Bakunin’s critique of Marxism.
Related to this issue is Bakunin’s argument that Marxism created a privileged position for socialist intellectuals in both the current social movement and in the social revolution. This was because Marx stressed that his theory was a “scientific socialism” and, Bakunin argued, that implied “because thought, theory and science, at least in our times, are in the possession of very few, these few ought to be the leaders of social life” and they, not the masses, should organise the revolution “by the dictatorial powers of this learned minority, which presumes to express the will of the people.” This would be “nothing but a despotic control of the populace by a new and not at all numerous aristocracy of real and pseudoscientists” and so there would “be a new [ruling] class, a new hierarchy of real and counterfeit scientists and scholars, and the world will be divided into a minority ruling in the name of knowledge, and an immense ignorant majority. And then, woe unto the mass of ignorant ones!” Thus “every state, even the pseudo-People’s State concocted by Mr. Marx, is in essence only a machine ruling the masses from above, through a privileged minority of conceited intellectuals who imagine that they know what the people need and want better than do the people themselves.” The Russian anarchist predicted that “the organisation and the rule of the new society by socialist savants” would be “the worse of all despotic governments!” [Bakunin on Anarchism, pp. 328-9, p. 331, p. 319, p. 338 and p. 295] History proved Bakunin right, with the Bolshevik regime being precisely that. As we discuss in section H.5, Lenin’s vanguardism did produce such a result, with the argument that the party leadership knew the objective needs of working class people better than they themselves did being used to justify party dictatorship and the strict centralisation of social life in the hands of its leadership.
Which brings us to the last issue, namely whether the revolution will be decentralised or centralised. For Marx, the issue is somewhat confused by his support for the Paris Commune and its federalist programme (written, we must note, by a follower of Proudhon). However, in 1850, Marx stood for extreme centralisation of power, arguing that the workers “must not only strive for a single and indivisible German republic, but also within this republic for the most determined centralisation of power in the hands of the state authority.” He argued that in a nation like Germany “where there are so many relics of the Middle Ages to be abolished” it “must under no circumstances be permitted that every village, every town and every province should put a new obstacle in the path of revolutionary activity, which can proceed with full force from the centre.” He stressed that “[a]s in France in 1793 so today in Germany it is the task of the really revolutionary party to carry through the strictest centralisation.” [The Marx-Engels Reader, pp. 509-10] Lenin followed this aspect of Marx’s ideas, arguing that “Marx was a centralist” and applying this perspective both in the party and once in power [The Essential Works of Lenin, p. 310]
Obviously, this issue dove-tails into the question of whether the whole class exercises power under the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” In a centralised system, obviously, power has to be exercised by a few (as Marx’s argument in 1850 showed). Centralism, by its very nature excludes the possibility of extensive participation in the decision making process. Moreover, the decisions reached by such a body could not reflect the real needs of society. In the words of Bakunin:
“What man, what group of individuals, no matter how great their genius, would dare to think themselves able to embrace and understand the plethora of interests, attitudes and activities so various in every country, every province, locality and profession.” [Michael Bakunin: Selected Writings, p. 240]
He stressed that “the revolution should be and should everywhere remain independent of the central point, which must be its expression and product – not its source, guide and cause . . . the awakening of all local passions and the awakening of spontaneous life at all points, must be well developed in order for the revolution to remain alive, real and powerful.” Anarchists reject centralisation because it destroys the mass participation a revolution requires in order to succeed. Therefore we do “not accept, even in the process of revolutionary transition, either constituent assemblies, provisional governments or so-called revolutionary dictatorships; because we are convinced that revolution is only sincere, honest and real in the hands of the masses, and that when it is concentrated in those of a few ruling individuals it inevitably and immediately becomes reaction.” Rather, the revolution “everywhere must be created by the people, and supreme control must always belong to the people organised into a free federation of agricultural and industrial associations . . . organised from the bottom upwards by means of revolutionary delegation.” [Op. Cit., pp. 179-80, p. 237 and p. 172]
This, we must stress, does not imply isolation. Bakunin always emphasised the importance of federal organisation to co-ordinate struggle and defence of the revolution. As he put it, all revolutionary communes would need to federate in order “to organise the necessary common services and arrangements for production and exchange, to establish the charter of equality, the basis of all liberty – a charter utterly negative in character, defining what has to be abolished for ever rather than the positive forms of local life which can be created only by the living practice of each locality – and to organise common defence against the enemies of the Revolution.” [Op. Cit., p. 179]
Ironically, it is a note by Engels to the 1885 edition of Marx’s 1850 article which shows the fallacy of the standard Marxist position on centralisation and the validity of Bakunin’s position. As Engels put it, “this passage is based on a misunderstanding” and it was now “a well known fact that throughout the whole [Great French] revolution . . . the whole administration of the departments, arrondissements and communes consisted of authorities elected by the respective constituents themselves, and that these authorities acted with complete freedom within general state laws [and] that precisely this provincial and local self-government . . . became the most powerful lever of the revolution.” [The Marx-Engels Reader, p. 510f] Marx’s original comments imply the imposition of freedom by the centre on a population not desiring it (and how could the centre be representative of the majority in such a case?). Moreover, how could a revolution be truly social if it was not occurring in the grassroots across a country? Unsurprisingly, local autonomy has played a key role in every real revolution.
As such, Bakunin has been proved right. Centralism has always killed a revolution and, as he always argued, real socialism can only be worked from below, by the people of every village, town, and city. The problems facing the world or a revolution cannot be solved by a few people at the top issuing decrees. They can only be solved by the active participation of the mass of working class people, the kind of participation centralism and government by their nature exclude.
Given Marx’s support for the federal ideas of the Paris Commune, it can be argued that Marxism is not committed to a policy of strict centralisation (although Lenin, of course, argued that Marx was a firm supporter of centralisation). What is true is, to quote Daniel Guérin, that Marx’s comments on the Commune differ “noticeably from Marx’s writings of before and after 1871” while Bakunin’s were “in fact quite consistent with the lines he adopted in his earlier writings.” [No Gods, No Masters, vol. 1, p. 167] Indeed, as Bakunin himself noted, while the Marxists “saw all their ideas upset by the uprising” of the Commune, they “found themselves compelled to take their hats off to it. They went even further, and proclaimed that its programme and purpose were their own, in face of the simplest logic and their own true sentiments.” This modification of ideas by Marx in the light of the Commune was not limited just to federalism, he also praised its system of mandating recallable delegates. This was a position which Bakunin had been arguing for a number of years previously but which Marx had never advocated. In 1868, for example, Bakunin was talking about a“Revolutionary Communal Council” composed of “delegates . . . vested with plenary but accountable and removable mandates.”[Michael Bakunin: Selected Writings, p. 261 and pp. 170-1] As such, the Paris Commune was a striking confirmation of Bakunin’s ideas on many levels, not Marx’s (who adjusted his ideas to bring them in line with Bakunin’s!).
Since Bakunin, anarchists have deepened this critique of Marxism and, with the experience of both Social-Democracy and Bolshevism, argue that he predicted key failures in Marx’s ideas. Given that his followers, particularly Lenin and Trotsky, have emphasised (although, in many ways, changed them) the centralisation and “socialist government” aspects of Marx’s thoughts, anarchists argue that Bakunin’s critique is as relevant as ever. Real socialism can only come from below.
For more on Bakunin’s critique of Marxism, Mark Leier’s excellent biography of the Russian Anarchist (Bakunin: The Creative Passion) is worth consulting, as is Brian Morris’s Bakunin: The Philosophy of Freedom. John Clark has two useful essays on this subject in his The Anarchist Moment while Richard B. Saltman’s The Social and Political Thought of Michael Bakunincontains an excellent chapter on Bakunin and Marx. A good academic account can be found in Alvin W. Gouldner’s “Marx’s Last Battle: Bakunin and the First International” (Theory and Society, Vol. 11, No. 6) which is a revised and shortened version of a chapter of his Against Fragmentation: the Origins of Marxism and the Sociology of Intellectuals. Obviously, though, Bakunin’s original writings should be the first starting point.
H.1.2 What are the key differences between Anarchists and Marxists?
There are, of course, important similarities between anarchism and Marxism. Both are socialist, oppose capitalism and the current state, support and encourage working class organisation and action and see class struggle as the means of creating a social revolution which will transform society into a new one. However, the differences between these socialist theories are equally important. In the words of Errico Malatesta:
“The important, fundamental dissension [between anarchists and Marxists] is [that] . . . [Marxist] socialists are authoritarians, anarchists are libertarians.
“Socialists want power . . . and once in power wish to impose their programme on the people. . . Anarchists instead maintain, that government cannot be other than harmful, and by its very nature it defends either an existing privileged class or creates a new one; and instead of inspiring to take the place of the existing government anarchists seek to destroy every organism which empowers some to impose their own ideas and interests on others, for they want to free the way for development towards better forms of human fellowship which will emerge from experience, by everyone being free and, having, of course, the economic means to make freedom possible as well as a reality.” [Errico Malatesta: His Life and Ideas, p. 142]
The other differences derive from this fundamental one. So while there are numerous ways in which anarchists and Marxists differ, their root lies in the question of power. Socialists seek power (in the name of the working class and usually hidden under rhetoric arguing that party and class power are the same). Anarchists seek to destroy hierarchical power in all its forms and ensure that everyone is free to manage their own affairs (both individually and collectively). From this comes the differences on the nature of a revolution, the way the working class movement should organise and the tactics it should apply and so on. A short list of these differences would include the question of the “dictatorship of the proletariat”, the standing of revolutionaries in elections, centralisation versus federalism, the role and organisation of revolutionaries, whether socialism can only come “from below” or whether it is possible for it come “from below” and “from above” and a host of others (i.e. some of the differences we indicated in thelast section during our discussion of Bakunin’s critique of Marxism). Indeed, there are so many it is difficult to address them all here. As such, we can only concentrate on a few in this and the following sections.
One of the key issues is on the issue of confusing party power with popular power. The logic of the anarchist case is simple. In any system of hierarchical and centralised power (for example, in a state or governmental structure) then those at the top are in charge (i.e. are in positions of power). It is not “the people,” nor “the proletariat,” nor “the masses,” it is those who make up the government who have and exercise real power. As Malatesta argued, government means “the delegation of power, that is the abdication of initiative and sovereignty of all into the hands of a few” and “if . . . , as do the authoritarians, one means government action when one talks of social action, then this is still the resultant of individual forces, but only of those individuals who form the government.” [Anarchy, p. 40 and p. 36] Therefore, anarchists argue, the replacement of party power for working class power is inevitable because of the nature of the state. In the words of Murray Bookchin:
“Anarchist critics of Marx pointed out with considerable effect that any system of representation would become a statist interest in its own right, one that at best would work against the interests of the working classes (including the peasantry), and that at worst would be a dictatorial power as vicious as the worst bourgeois state machines. Indeed, with political power reinforced by economic power in the form of a nationalised economy, a ‘workers’ republic’ might well prove to be a despotism (to use one of Bakunin’s more favourite terms) of unparalleled oppression . . .
“Republican institutions, however much they are intended to express the interests of the workers, necessarily place policy-making in the hands of deputies and categorically do not constitute a ‘proletariat organised as a ruling class.’ If public policy, as distinguished from administrative activities, is not made by the people mobilised into assemblies and confederally co-ordinated by agents on a local, regional, and national basis, then a democracy in the precise sense of the term does not exist. The powers that people enjoy under such circumstances can be usurped without difficulty . . . [I]f the people are to acquire real power over their lives and society, they must establish – and in the past they have, for brief periods of time established – well-ordered institutions in which they themselves directly formulate the policies of their communities and, in the case of their regions, elect confederal functionaries, revocable and strictly controllable, who will execute them. Only in this sense can a class, especially one committed to the abolition of classes, be mobilised as a class to manage society.” [“The Communist Manifesto: Insights and Problems”, pp. 14-17, Black Flag, no. 226, pp. 16-7]
This is why anarchists stress direct democracy (self-management) in free federations of free associations. It is the only way to ensure that power remains in the hands of the people and is not turned into an alien power above them. Thus Marxist support for statist forms of organisation will inevitably undermine the liberatory nature of the revolution.
Thus the real meaning of a workers state is simply that the party has the real power, not the workers. That is the nature of a state. Marxist rhetoric tends to hide this reality. As an example, we can point to Lenin’s comments in October, 1921. In an essay marking the fourth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, Lenin stated that the Soviet system “provides the maximum of democracy for the workers and peasants; at the same time, it marks a break with bourgeois democracy and the rise of a new, epoch-making type of democracy, namely, proletarian democracy, or the dictatorship of the proletariat.” [Collected Works, vol. 33, p. 55] Yet Lenin’s comments came just a few months after factions within the Communist Party had been banned and after the Kronstadt rebellion and a wave of strikes calling for free soviet elections had been repressed. It was written years after Lenin had asserted that “[w]hen we are reproached with having established a dictatorship of one party . . . we say, ‘Yes, it is a dictatorship of one party! This is what we stand for and we shall not shift from that position . . .'” [Op. Cit., vol. 29, p. 535] And, of course, they had not shifted from that position! Clearly, the term “proletarian democracy” had a drastically different meaning to Lenin than to most people!
The identification of party power and working class power reaches its height (or, more correctly, depth) in the works of Lenin and Trotsky. Lenin, for example, argued that “the Communists’ correct understanding of his tasks” lies in “correctly gauging the conditions and the moment when the vanguard of the proletariat can successfully assume power, when it will be able – during and after the seizure of power – to win adequate support from sufficiently broad strata of the working class and of the non-proletarian working masses, and when it is able thereafter to maintain, consolidate, and extend its rule by educating, training and attracting ever broader masses of the working people.” Note, the vanguard (the party) seizes power, not the masses. Indeed, he stressed that the“mere presentation of the question – ‘dictatorship of the party or dictatorship of the class: dictatorship (party) of the leaders ordictatorship (party) of the masses?’ – testifies to most incredible and hopelessly muddled thinking” and “[t]o go so far . . . as to contrast, in general, the dictatorship of the masses with a dictatorship of the leaders is ridiculously absurd, and stupid.” [The Lenin Anthology, p. 575, p. 567 and p. 568]
Lenin stressed this idea numerous times. For example, he argued that “the dictatorship of the proletariat cannot be exercised through an organisation embracing the whole of the class, because in all capitalist countries (and not only over here, in one of the most backward) the proletariat is still so divided, so degraded, and so corrupted in parts . . . that an organisation taking in the whole proletariat cannot directly exercise proletarian dictatorship. It can be exercised only by a vanguard . . . Such is the basic mechanism of the dictatorship of the proletariat, and the essentials of transition from capitalism to communism . . . for the dictatorship of the proletariat cannot be exercised by a mass proletarian organisation.” [Collected Works, vol. 32, p. 21] This position had become Communist orthodoxy both in Russia and internationally since early 1919. The American socialist John Reed, author of Ten Days that Shook the World, was a defender of “the value of centralisation” and “the dictatorship of a revolutionary minority” (noting that “the Communist Party is supreme in Russia”). [Shaking the World, p. 238] Similarly with the likes of Amedeo Bordiga, the first leader of the Communist Party in Italy.
Victor Serge, the ex-anarchist and enthusiastic convert to Bolshevism, argued this mainstream Bolshevik position until the mid-1930s. In 1919, it was a case that “dictatorship” was not some kind of “proletarian” dictatorship by the masses. He, like the leading Bolsheviks, explicitly argued against this. Yes, he wrote, “if we are looking at what should, that is at what ought to, be the case” but this “seems doubtful” in reality. “For it appears that by force of circumstances one group is obliged to impose itself on the others and to go ahead of them, breaking them if necessary, in order then to exercise exclusive dictatorship.” The militants “leading the masses . . . cannot rely on the consciousness, the goodwill or the determination of those they have to deal with; for the masses who will follow them or surround them will be warped by the old regime, relatively uncultivated, often unaware, torn by feelings and instincts inherited from the past.” So “revolutionaries will have to take on the dictatorship without delay.” The experience of Russia “reveals an energetic and innovative minority which is compelled to make up for the deficiencies in the education of the backward masses by the use of compulsion.” And so the party “is in a sense the nervous system of the class. Simultaneously the consciousness and the active, physical organisation of the dispersed forces of the proletariat, which are often ignorant of themselves and often remain latent or express themselves contradictorily.” And what of the masses? What was their role? Serge was equally blunt. While the party is“supported by the entire working population,” strangely enough, “it maintains its unique situation in dictatorial fashion” while the workers are “[b]ehind” the communists, “sympathising instinctively with the party and carrying out the menial tasks required by the revolution.” [Revolution in Danger, p. 106, p. 92, p. 115, p. 67, p. 66 and p. 6]
Such are the joys of socialist liberation. The party thinks for the worker while they carry out the “menial tasks” of the revolution. Like doing the work and following the orders – as in any class system.
Trotsky agreed with this lesson and in 1926 opined that the “dictatorship of the party does not contradict the dictatorship of the class either theoretically or practically; but is the expression of it, if the regime of workers’ democracy is constantly developed more and more.” [The Challenge of the Left Opposition (1926-27), p. 76] The obvious contradictions and absurdities of this assertion are all too plain. Needless to say, when defending the concept of “the dictatorship of the party” he linked it to Lenin (and so to Leninist orthodoxy):
“Of course, the foundation of our regime is the dictatorship of a class. But this in turn assumes . . . it is a class that has come to self-consciousness through its vanguard, which is to say, through the party. Without this, the dictatorship could not exist . . . Dictatorship is the most highly concentrated function of a class, and therefore the basic instrument of a dictatorship is a party. In the most fundamental aspects a class realises its dictatorship through a party. That is why Lenin spoke not only of the dictatorship of the class but also the dictatorship of the party and, in a certain sense, made them identical.” [Op. Cit., pp. 75-6]
He repeated this position on party dictatorship into the late 1930s, long after it had resulted in the horrors of Stalinism:
“The revolutionary dictatorship of a proletarian party is for me not a thing that one can freely accept or reject: It is an objective necessity imposed upon us by the social realities – the class struggle, the heterogeneity of the revolutionary class, the necessity for a selected vanguard in order to assure the victory. The dictatorship of a party belongs to the barbarian prehistory as does the state itself, but we can not jump over this chapter, which can open (not at one stroke) genuine human history. . . The revolutionary party (vanguard) which renounces its own dictatorship surrenders the masses to the counter-revolution . . . Abstractly speaking, it would be very well if the party dictatorship could be replaced by the ‘dictatorship’ of the whole toiling people without any party, but this presupposes such a high level of political development among the masses that it can never be achieved under capitalist conditions. The reason for the revolution comes from the circumstance that capitalism does not permit the material and the moral development of the masses.” [Writings of Leon Trotsky 1936-37, pp. 513-4]
Significantly, this was the year after his apparent (and much belated) embrace of soviet democracy in The Revolution Betrayed. Moreover, as we discuss in section H.3.8, he was just repeating the same arguments he had made while in power during the Russian Revolution. Nor was he the only one. Zinoviev, another leading Bolshevik, argued in 1920 along the same lines:
“soviet rule in Russia could not have been maintained for three years – not even three weeks – without the iron dictatorship of the Communist Party. Any class conscious worker must understand that the dictatorship of the working class can be achieved only by the dictatorship of its vanguard, i.e., by the Communist Party . . . All questions of economic reconstruction, military organisation, education, food supply – all these questions, on which the fate of the proletarian revolution depends absolutely, are decided in Russia before all other matters and mostly in the framework of the party organisations . . . Control by the party over soviet organs, over the trade unions, is the single durable guarantee that any measures taken will serve not special interests, but the interests of the entire proletariat.” [quoted by Oskar Anweiler, The Soviets, pp. 239-40]
Three years later, at the Communist Party’s congress, he made light of “comrades who think that the dictatorship of the party is a thing to be realised in practice but not spoken about.” He went on to argue that what was needed was “a single powerful central committee which is leader of everything . . . in this is expressed the dictatorship of the party.” The Congress itself resolved that “the dictatorship of the working class cannot be assured otherwise than in the form of a dictatorship of its leading vanguard, i.e., the Communist Party.” [quoted by E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution 1917-1923, vol. 1, p. 236, pp. 236-7 and p. 237]
How these positions can be reconciled with workers’ democracy, power or freedom is not explained. As such, the idea that Leninism (usually considered as mainstream Marxism) is inherently democratic or a supporter of power to the people is clearly flawed. Equally flawed are the attempts by Leninists to distance themselves from, and rationalise, these positions in terms of the “objective circumstances” (such as civil war) facing the Russian Revolution. As we discuss in section H.6, Bolshevik authoritarianism startedbefore these problems began and continued long after they ended (in part because the policies pursued by the Bolshevik leadership had roots in their ideology and, as a result, that ideology itself played a key role in the failure of the revolution).
Ultimately, though, the leading lights of Bolshevism concluded from their experiences that the dictatorship of the proletariat could only be achieved by the dictatorship of the party and they generalised this position for all revolutions. Even in the prison camps in the late 1920s and early 1930s, “almost all the Trotskyists continued to consider that ‘freedom of party’ would be ‘the end of the revolution.’ ‘Freedom to choose one’s party – that is Menshevism,’ was the Trotskyists’ final verdict.” [Ante Ciliga, The Russian Enigma, p. 280] While few Leninists today would subscribe to this position, the fact is when faced with the test of revolution the founders of their ideology not only practised the dictatorship of the party, they raised it to an ideological truism. Sadly, most modern day Trotskyists ignore this awkward fact in favour of inaccurate claims that Trotsky’s Left Opposition “framed a policy along [the] lines” of “returning to genuine workers’ democracy”. [Chris Harman, Bureaucracy and Revolution in Eastern Europe, p. 19] In reality, as “Left Oppositionist” Victor Serge pointed out, “the greatest reach of boldness of the Left Opposition in the Bolshevik Party was to demand the restoration of inner-Party democracy, and it never dared dispute the theory of single-party government – by this time, it was too late.” [The Serge-Trotsky Papers, p. 181]
Significantly, this position on party rule has its roots in the uneven political development within the working class (i.e. that the working class contains numerous political perspectives within it). As the party (according to Leninist theory) contains the most advanced ideas and (again according to Leninist theory) the working class cannot reach beyond a trade union consciousness by its own efforts, the party must take power to ensure that the masses do not make “mistakes” or “waver” (show “vacillation”) during a revolution. From such a perspective to the position of party dictatorship is not far (and a journey that all the leading Bolsheviks, including Lenin and Trotsky did in fact take).
These arguments by leading Bolsheviks confirm Bakunin’s fear that the Marxists aimed for “a tyranny of the minority over a majority in the name of the people – in the name of the stupidity of the many and the superior wisdom of the few.” [Marxism, Freedom and the State, p. 63]
In contrast, anarchists argue that precisely because of political differences we need the fullest possible democracy and freedom to discuss issues and reach agreements. Only by discussion and self-activity can the political perspectives of those in struggle develop and change. In other words, the fact Bolshevism uses to justify its support for party power is the strongest argument against it. For anarchists, the idea of a revolutionary government is a contradiction. As Malatesta put it, “if you consider these worthy electors as unable to look after their own interests themselves, how is it that they will know how to choose for themselves the shepherds who must guide them? And how will they be able to solve this problem of social alchemy, of producing a genius from the votes of a mass of fools?” [Anarchy, pp. 53-4] As such, anarchists think that power should be in the hands of the masses themselves. Only freedom or the struggle for freedom can be the school of freedom. That means that, to quote Bakunin, “since it is the people which must make the revolution everywhere . . . the ultimate direction of it must at all times be vested in the people organised into a free federation of agricultural and industrial organisations . . . organised from the bottom up through revolutionary delegation.” [No God, No Masters, vol. 1, pp. 155-6]
Clearly, then, the question of state/party power is one dividing anarchists and most Marxists. Again, though, we must stress that libertarian Marxists agree with anarchists on this subject and reject the whole idea that rule/dictatorship of a party equals the dictatorship of the working class. As such, the Marxist tradition as a whole does not confuse this issue, although the majority of it does. So not all Marxists are Leninists. A few (council communists, Situationists, and so on) are far closer to anarchism. They also reject the idea of party power/dictatorship and the use of elections and instead argue for direct action, the abolition of wage slavery by workers’ self-management of production and so on. They represent the best in Marx’s work and should not be lumped with the followers of Bolshevism. Sadly, they are in the minority.
Finally, we should indicate other important areas of difference as summarised by Lenin in his work The State and Revolution:
“The difference between the Marxists and the anarchists is this: 1) the former, while aiming at the complete abolition of the state, recognise that this aim can only be achieved after classes have been abolished by the socialist revolution, as the result of the establishment of socialism which leads to the withering away of the state. The latter want to abolish the state completely overnight, failing to understand the conditions under which the state can be abolished 2) the former recognise that after the proletariat has conquered political power it must utterly destroy the old state machine and substitute for it a new one consisting of the organisation of armed workers, after the type of the Commune. The latter, while advocating the destruction of the state machine, have absolutely no idea of what the proletariat will put in its place and how it will use its revolutionary power; the anarchists even deny that the revolutionary proletariat should utilise its state power, its revolutionary dictatorship; 3) the former demand that the proletariat be prepared for revolution by utilising the present state; the latter reject this.” [Essential Works of Lenin, p. 358]
We will discuss each of these points in the next three sections. Point one will be discussed in section H.1.3, the second in section H.1.4 and the third and final one in section H.1.5.
H.1.3 Why do anarchists wish to abolish the state “overnight”?
As indicated at the end of the last section, Lenin argued that while Marxists aimed “at the complete abolition of the state” they“recognise that this aim can only be achieved after classes have been abolished by the socialist revolution” while anarchists “want to abolish the state completely overnight.” This issue is usually summarised by Marxists arguing that a new state is required to replace the destroyed bourgeois one. This new state is called by Marxists “the dictatorship of the proletariat” or a workers’ state. Anarchists reject this transitional state while Marxists embrace it. Indeed, according to Lenin “a Marxist is one who extends the acceptance of the class struggle to the acceptance of the dictatorship of the proletariat.” [Essential Works of Lenin, p. 358 and p. 294]
So what does the “dictatorship of the proletariat” actually mean? Generally, Marxists seem to imply that this term simply means the defence of the revolution and so the anarchist rejection of the dictatorship of the proletariat means, for Marxists, the denial of the need to defend a revolution. This particular straw man was used by Lenin in The State and Revolution when he quoted Marx’s article “Indifference to Politics” to suggest that anarchists advocated workers “laying down their arms” after a successful revolution. Such a “laying down [of] their arms” would mean “abolishing the state” while keeping their arms “in order to crush the resistance of the bourgeoisie” would mean “giv[ing] the state a revolutionary and transitory form,” so setting up “their revolutionary dictatorship in place of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.” [Marx, quoted by Lenin, Op. Cit., p. 315]
That such an argument can be made, never mind repeated, suggests a lack of honesty. It assumes that the Marxist and Anarchist definitions of “the state” are identical. They are not. For anarchists the state, government, means “the delegation of power, that is the abdication of initiative and sovereignty of all into the hands of a few.” [Malatesta, Anarchy, p. 41] For Marxists, the state is “an organ of class rule, an organ for the oppression of one class by another.” [Lenin, Op. Cit., p. 274] That these definitions are in conflict is clear and unless this difference is made explicit, anarchist opposition to the “dictatorship of the proletariat” cannot be clearly understood.
Anarchists, of course, agree that the current state is the means by which the bourgeois class enforces its rule over society. In Bakunin’s words, “the political state has no other mission but to protect the exploitation of the people by the economically privileged classes.” [The Political Philosophy of Bakunin, p. 221] “Throughout history, just as in our time, government is either the brutal, violent, arbitrary rule of the few over the many or it is an organised instrument to ensure that domination and privilege will be in the hands of those who . . . have cornered all the means of life.” Under capitalism, as Malatesta succulently put, the state is “the bourgeoisie’s servant and gendarme.” [Op. Cit., p. 21 and p. 23] The reason why the state is marked by centralised power is due to its role as the protector of (minority) class rule. As such, a state cannot be anything but a defender of minority power as its centralised and hierarchical structure is designed for that purpose. If the working class really were running society, as Marxists claim they would be in the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” then it would not be a state. As Bakunin put it: “Where all rule, there are no more ruled, and there is no State.” [Op. Cit., p. 223]
The idea that anarchists, by rejecting the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” also reject defending a revolution is false. We do not equate the “dictatorship of the proletariat” with the need to defend a revolution or expropriating the capitalist class, ending capitalism and building socialism. Anarchists from Bakunin onwards have taken both of these necessities for granted. As we discuss this particular Marxist straw man in section H.2.1, we will leave our comments on anarchist awareness of the need to defend a revolution at this.
Anarchists, then, do not reject defending a revolution and our opposition to the so-called “revolutionary” or “socialist” state is not based on this, regardless of what Marx and Lenin asserted. Rather, we argue that the state can and must be abolished “overnight” during a social revolution because any state, including the so-called “dictatorship of the proletariat”, is marked by hierarchical power and can only empower the few at the expense of the many. The state will not “wither away” as Marxists claim simply because it excludes, by its very nature, the active participation of the bulk of the population and ensures a new class division in society: those in power (the party) and those subject to it (the working class). Georges Fontenis sums up anarchist concerns on this issue:
“The formula ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ has been used to mean many different things. If for no other reason it should be condemned as a cause of confusion. With Marx it can just as easily mean the centralised dictatorship of the party which claims to represent the proletariat as it can the federalist conception of the Commune.
“Can it mean the exercise of political power by the victorious working class? No, because the exercise of political power in the recognised sense of the term can only take place through the agency of an exclusive group practising a monopoly of power, separating itself from the class and oppressing it. And this is how the attempt to use a State apparatus can reduce the dictatorship of the proletariat to the dictatorship of the party over the masses.
“But if by dictatorship of the proletariat is understood collective and direct exercise of ‘political power’, this would mean the disappearance of ‘political power’ since its distinctive characteristics are supremacy, exclusivity and monopoly. It is no longer a question of exercising or seizing political power, it is about doing away with it all together!
“If by dictatorship is meant the domination of the majority by a minority, then it is not a question of giving power to the proletariat but to a party, a distinct political group. If by dictatorship is meant the domination of a minority by the majority (domination by the victorious proletariat of the remnants of a bourgeoisie that has been defeated as a class) then the setting up of dictatorship means nothing but the need for the majority to efficiently arrange for its defence its own social Organisation.
“The terms ‘domination’, ‘dictatorship’ and ‘state’ are as little appropriate as the expression ‘taking power’ for the revolutionary act of the seizure of the factories by the workers.
We reject then as inaccurate and causes of confusion the expressions ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, ‘taking political power’, ‘workers state’, ‘socialist state’ and ‘proletarian state’.” [Manifesto of Libertarian Communism, pp. 22-3]
So anarchists argue that the state has to be abolished “overnight” simply because a state is marked by hierarchical power and the exclusion of the bulk of the population from the decision making process. It cannot be used to implement socialism simply because it is not designed that way. To extend and defend a revolution a state is not required. Indeed, it is a hindrance:
“The mistake of authoritarian communists in this connection is the belief that fighting and organising are impossible without submission to a government; and thus they regard anarchists . . . as the foes of all organisation and all co-ordinated struggle. We, on the other hand, maintain that not only are revolutionary struggle and revolutionary organisation possible outside and in spite of government interference but that, indeed, that is the only effective way to struggle and organise, for it has the active participation of all members of the collective unit, instead of their passively entrusting themselves to the authority of the supreme leaders.
“Any governing body is an impediment to the real organisation of the broad masses, the majority. Where a government exists, then the only really organised people are the minority who make up the government; and . . . if the masses do organise, they do so against it, outside it, or at the very least, independently of it. In ossifying into a government, the revolution as such would fall apart, on account of its awarding that government the monopoly of organisation and of the means of struggle.” [Luigi Fabbri, “Anarchy and ‘Scientific’ Communism”, pp. 13-49, The Poverty of Statism, Albert Meltzer (ed.), p. 27]
This is because of the hierarchical nature of the state, its delegation of power into the hands of the few and so a so-called “revolutionary” government can have no other result than a substitution of the few (the government) for the many (the masses). This, in turn, undermines the mass participation and action from below that a revolution needs to succeed and flourish. “Instead of acting for themselves,” Kropotkin argued, “instead of marching forward, instead of advancing in the direction of the new order of things, the people, confiding in their governors, entrusted to them the charge of taking the initiative.” However, social change is the product of “the people in action” and “the brain of a few individuals [are] absolutely incapable of finding solutions” to the problems it will face “which can only spring from the life of the people.” For anarchists, a revolution “is not a simple change of governors. It is the taking possession by the people of all social wealth” and this cannot be achieved “be decrees emanating from a government.” This“economic change” will be “so immense and so profound” that it is “impossible for one or any individual to elaborate the different social forms which must spring up in the society of the future. This elaboration of new social forms can only be made by the collective work of the masses” and “[a]ny authority external to it will only be an obstacle, a “drag on the action of the people.” A revolutionary state, therefore, “becomes the greatest obstacle to the revolution” and to “dislodge it” requires the people “to take up arms, to make another revolution.” [Anarchism, p. 240, p. 241, pp. 247-8, p. 248, p. 249, p. 241 and p. 242] Which, we should stress, was exactly what happened in Russia, where anarchists and others (such as the Kronstadt rebels) called for a “Third Revolution” against the Bolshevik state and the party dictatorship and state capitalism it had created.
For anarchists, the abolition of the state does not mean rejecting the need to extend or defend a revolution (quite the reverse!). It means rejecting a system of organisation designed by and for minorities to ensure their rule. To create a state (even a “workers’ state”) means to delegate power away from the working class and eliminate their power in favour of party power (“the principle error of the [Paris] Commune, an unavoidable error, since it derived from the very principle on which power was constituted, was precisely that of being a government, and of substituting itself for the people by force of circumstances.” [Elisée Reclus, quoted John P. Clark and Camille Martin, Anarchy, Geography, Modernity, p. 72]).
In place of a state anarchists’ argue for a free federation of workers’ organisations as the means of conducting a revolution (and the framework for its defence). Most Marxists seem to confuse centralism and federalism, with Lenin stating that “if the proletariat and the poor peasants take state power into their own hands, organise themselves quite freely in communes, and unite the action of all the communes in striking at capital . . . won’t that be centralism? Won’t that be the most consistent democratic centralism and, moreover, proletarian centralism?” No, it would be federalism, the most consistent federalism as advocated by Proudhon and Bakunin and, under the influence of the former, suggested by the Paris Commune. Lenin argued that some “simply cannot conceive of the possibility of voluntary centralism, of the voluntary fusion of the proletarian communes, for the sole purpose of destroying bourgeois rule and the bourgeois state machine.” [The Lenin Anthology, p. 348] Yet “voluntary centralism” is, at best, just another why of describing federalism – assuming that “voluntary” really means that, of course. At worst, and in practice, such centralism simply places all the decision making at the centre, at the top, and all that is left is for the communes to obey the decisions of a few party leaders.
As we discuss in the next section, anarchists see this federation of workers’ associations and communes (the framework of a free society) as being based on the organisations working class people create in their struggle against capitalism. These self-managed organisations, by refusing to become part of a centralised state, will ensure the success of a revolution.
H.1.4 Do anarchists have “absolutely no idea” of what to put in place of the state?
Lenin’s second claim was that anarchists, “while advocating the destruction of the state machine, have absolutely no idea of whatthe proletariat will put in its place” and compared this to the Marxists who argued for a new state machine “consisting of armed workers, after the type of the [Paris] Commune.” [Essential Works of Lenin, p. 358]
For anarchists, Lenin’s assertion simply shows his unfamiliarity with anarchist literature and need not be taken seriously – anyone familiar with anarchist theory would simply laugh at such comments. Sadly, most Marxists are not familiar with that theory, so we need to explain two things. Firstly, anarchists have very clear ideas on what to “replace” the state with (namely a federation of communes based on working class associations). Secondly, that this idea is based on the idea of armed workers, inspired by the Paris Commune (although predicted by Bakunin).
Moreover, for anarchists Lenin’s comment seems somewhat incredulous. As George Barrett put it, in reply to the question “if you abolish government, what will you put it its place,” this “seems to an Anarchist very much as if a patient asked the doctor, ‘If you take away my illness, what will you give me in its place?’ The Anarchist’s argument is that government fulfils no useful purpose . . . It is the headquarters of the profit-makers, the rent-takers, and of all those who take from but who do not give to society. When this class is abolished by the people so organising themselves to run the factories and use the land for the benefit of their free communities, i.e. for their own benefit, then the Government must also be swept away, since its purpose will be gone. The only thing then that will be put in the place of government will be the free organisation of the workers. When Tyranny is abolished, Liberty remains, just as when disease is eradicated health remains.” [Objections to Anarchism, p. 356]
Barrett’s answer contains the standard anarchist position on what will be the organisational basis of a revolutionary society, namely that the “only thing then that will be put in the place of government will be the free organisation of the workers.” This is a concise summary of anarchist theory and cannot be bettered. This vision, as we discuss in section I.2.3 in some detail, can be found in the work of Bakunin, Kropotkin, Malatesta and a host of other anarchist thinkers. Since anarchists from Bakunin onwards have stressed that a federation of workers’ associations would constitute the framework of a free society, to assert otherwise (as Lenin did) is little more than a joke or a slander. To quote Bakunin:
“The future social organisation must be made solely from the bottom up, by the free association or federation of workers, firstly in their unions, then in the communes, regions, nations and finally in a great federation, international and universal.” [Michael Bakunin: Selected Writings, p. 206]
Similar ideas can easily be found in the works of other anarchists. While the actual names and specific details of these federations of workers’ associations may change (for example, the factory committees and soviets in the Russian Revolution, the collectives in Spain, the section assemblies in the French Revolution are a few of them) the basic ideas are the same. Bakunin also pointed to the means of defence, a workers’ militia (the people armed, as per the Paris Commune – section H.2.1).
A major difference between anarchism and Marxism which Lenin points to is, clearly, false. Anarchists are well aware of what should“replace” the bourgeois state and have always been so. The real difference is simply that anarchists say what they mean while Lenin’s “new” state did not, in fact, mean working class power but rather party power.
As for Lenin’s comment that we have “absolutely no ideas” of how the working class “will use its revolutionary power” suggests more ignorance, as we have urged working people to expropriate the expropriators, reorganise production under workers’ self-management and start to construct society from the bottom upwards (a quick glance at Kropotkin’s Conquest of Bread, for example, would soon convince any reader of the inaccuracy of Lenin’s comment). This summary by the anarchist Jura Federation (written in 1880) gives a flavour of anarchist ideas on this subject:
“The bourgeoisie’s power over the popular masses springs from economic privileges, political domination and the enshrining of such privileges in the laws. So we must strike at the wellsprings of bourgeois power, as well as its various manifestations.
“The following measures strike us as essential to the welfare of the revolution, every bit as much as armed struggle against its enemies:
“The insurgents must confiscate social capital, landed estates, mines, housing, religious and public buildings, instruments of labour, raw materials, gems and precious stones and manufactured products:
“All political, administrative and judicial authorities are to be deposed . . . What should the organisational measures of the revolution be?
“Immediate and spontaneous establishment of trade bodies: provisional assumption by those of . . . social capital . . .: local federation of a trades bodies and labour organisation:
“Establishment of neighbourhood groups and federations of same . . .
“Organisation of the insurgent forces . . . the federation of all the revolutionary forces of the insurgent Communes . . . Federation of Communes and organisation of the masses, with an eye to the revolution’s enduring until such time as all reactionary activity has been completely eradicated . . . Once trade bodies have been have been established, the next step is to organise local life. The organ of this life is to be the federation of trades bodies and it is this local federation which is to constitute the future Commune.” [No Gods, No Masters, vol. 1, pp. 246-7]
Clearly, anarchists do have some ideas on what the working class will “replace” the state with and how it will use its “revolutionary power”!
Similarly, Lenin’s statement that “the anarchists even deny that the revolutionary proletariat should utilise its state power, its revolutionary dictatorship” again distorts the anarchist position. As we argued in the last section, our objection to the “state power” of the proletariat is precisely because it cannot, by its very nature as a state, actually allow the working class to manage society directly (and, of course, it automatically excludes other sections of the working masses, such as the peasantry and artisans). We argued that, in practice, it would simply mean the dictatorship of a few party leaders. This position, we must stress, was one Lenin himself was arguing in the year after completing State and Revolution and so the leading Bolsheviks confirmed the anarchist argument that the “dictatorship of the proletariat” would, in fact, become a dictatorship over the proletariat by the party.
Italian anarchist Camillo Berneri summed up the differences well:
“The Marxists . . . foresee the natural disappearance of the State as a consequence of the destruction of classes by the means of ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat,’ that is to say State Socialism, whereas the Anarchists desire the destruction of the classes by means of a social revolution which eliminates, with the classes, the State. The Marxists, moreover, do not propose the armed conquest of the Commune by the whole proletariat, but they propose the conquest of the State by the party which imagines that it represents the proletariat. The Anarchists allow the use of direct power by the proletariat, but they understand by the organ of this power to be formed by the entire corpus of systems of communist administration-corporate organisations [i.e. industrial unions], communal institutions, both regional and national-freely constituted outside and in opposition to all political monopoly by parties and endeavouring to a minimum administrational centralisation.” [“Dictatorship of the Proletariat and State Socialism”, pp. 51-2, Cienfuegos Press Anarchist Review, no. 4, p. 52]
Clearly, Lenin’s assertions are little more than straw men. Anarchists are not only well aware of the need for a federation of working class associations (workers’ councils or soviets) to replace the state, they were advocating it long before Lenin took up this perspective in 1917 (as we discuss in section H.3.10). The key difference being, of course, anarchists meant it while Lenin saw it as a means of securing Bolshevik party power.
Lastly, it should also be noted that Marxists, having taken so long to draw the same conclusions as anarchists like Proudhon and Bakunin, have tended to make a fetish of workers councils. As an example, we find Chris Harman of the British SWP complaining that the Argentinean masses organised themselves in the wrong way as part of their revolt against neo-liberalism which started in December 2001. He states that the “neighbourhood committees and popular assemblies” created by the revolt “express the need of those who have overthrown presidents to organise themselves” and notes “they have certain similarities with the characteristic forms of mass self organisation that arose in the great working class struggles of the 20th century – the workers’ councils or soviets.”But, he stressed, “they also have very important differences from these.” Yet Harman’s complaints show his own confusions, seriously arguing that “the popular assemblies are not yet bodies of delegates. The people at them represent themselves, but do not have an organic connection with some group of people who they represent – and who can recall them if they do not carry out their will.” [“Argentina: rebellion at the sharp end of the world crisis”, pp. 3-48, International Socialism, vol. 94, p. 25] That, of course, is the whole point – they are popular assemblies! A popular assembly does not “represent” anyone because its members govern themselves, i.e. are directly democratic. They are the elemental bodies which recall any delegates who do not implement their mandate! But given that Leninism aims at party power, this concern for representation is perfectly understandable, if lamentable.
So rather than celebrate this rise in mass self-management and self-organisation, Harman complains that these “popular assemblies are not anchored in the workplaces where millions of Argentineans are still drawn together on a daily basis to toil.” Need it be said that such an SWP approved organisation will automatically exclude the unemployed, housewives, the elderly, children and other working class people who were taking part in the struggle? In addition, any capitalist crisis is marked by rising unemployment, firms closing and so on. While workplaces must and have been seized by their workers, it is a law of revolutions that the economic disruption they cause results in increased unemployment (in this Kropotkin’s arguments in The Conquest of Bread have been confirmed time and time again). Significantly, Harman admits that they include “organisations of unemployed workers” as well as“that in some of the assemblies an important leading role is played by unemployed activists shaped by their role in past industrial struggles.” He does not, however, note that creating workers’ councils would end their active participation in the revolt. [Op. Cit., p. 25]
That the Argentine working class formed organs of power which were not totally dependent on the workplace was, therefore, a good sign. Factory assemblies and federations must be formed but as a complement to, rather than as a replacement of, the community assemblies. Harman states that the assemblies were “closer to the sections – the nightly district mass meetings – of the French Revolution than to the workers’ councils of 1905 and 1917 in Russia” and complains that a “21st century uprising was taking the form of the archetypal 18th century revolution!” [Op. Cit.. p. 25 and p. 22] Did the Argentineans not realise that a 21st century uprising should mimic “the great working class struggles of the 20th century”, particularly that which took place in a mostly pre-capitalist Tsarist regime which was barely out of the 18th century itself? Did they not realise that the leaders of the vanguard party know better than themselves how they should organise and conduct their struggles? That the people of the 21st century knew best how to organise their own revolts is lost on Harman, who prefers to squeeze the realities of modern struggles into the forms which Marxists took so long to recognise in the first place. Given that anarchists have been discussing the possibilities of community assemblies for some time, perhaps we can expect Leninists to recognise their importance in a few decades? After all, the Bolsheviks in Russia were slow to realise the significance of the soviets in 1905 so Harman’s position is hardly surprising.
So, it is easy to see what anarchists think of Lenin’s assertion that “Anarchism had failed to give anything even approaching a true solution of the concrete political problems, viz., must the old state machine be smashed? and what should supersede it?” [Op. Cit., p. 350] We simply point out that Lenin was utterly distorting the anarchist position on social revolution. Revolutionary anarchists had, since the 1860s, argued that workers’ councils (soviets) could be both a weapon of class struggle against capitalism and the state as well as the framework of the future (libertarian) socialist society. Lenin only came to superficially similar conclusions in 1917. Which means that when he talked of workers’ councils, Lenin was only repeating Bakunin – the difference being we anarchists mean it!
H.1.5 Why do anarchists reject “utilising the present state”?
This is another key issue, the question of Marxists demanding (in the words of Lenin) “that the proletariat be prepared for revolution by utilising the present state” while anarchists “reject this.” [Essential Works of Lenin, p. 358] By this, Lenin meant the taking part of socialists in bourgeois elections, standing candidates for office and having socialist representatives in Parliament and other local and national state bodies. In other words, what Marx termed “political action” and the Bolsheviks “revolutionary Parliamentarianism.”
For anarchists, the use of elections does not “prepare” the working class for revolution (i.e. managing their own affairs and society). Rather, it prepares them to follow leaders and let others act for them. In the words of Rudolf Rocker:
“Participation in the politics of the bourgeois States has not brought the labour movement a hair’s-breadth nearer to Socialism, but thanks to this method, Socialism has almost been completely crushed and condemned to insignificance . . . Participation in parliamentary politics has affected the Socialist Labour movement like an insidious poison. It destroyed the belief in the necessity of constructive Socialist activity, and, worse of all, the impulse to self-help, by inoculating people with the ruinous delusion that salvation always comes from above.” [Anarcho-Syndicalism, p. 54]
While electoral (“political”) activity ensures that the masses become accustomed to following leaders and letting them act on their behalf, anarchists’ support direct action as “the best available means for preparing the masses to manage their own personal and collective interests; and besides, anarchists feel that even now the working people are fully capable of handling their own political and administrative interests.” Political action, in contrast, needs centralised “authoritarian organisations” and results in “ceding power by all to someone, the delegate, the representative”. “For direct pressure put against the ruling classes by the masses, the Socialist Party has substituted representation” and “instead of fostering the class struggle . . . it has adopted class collaboration in the legislative arena, without which all reforms would remain a vain hope.” [Luigi Galleani, The End of Anarchism?, pp. 13-4, p. 14 and p. 12]
Anarchists, therefore, argue that we need to reclaim the power which has been concentrated into the hands of the state. That is why we stress direct action. Direct action means action by the people themselves, that is action directly taken by those directly affected. Through direct action, we dominate our own struggles, it is we who conduct it, organise it, manage it. We do not hand over to others our own acts and task of self-liberation. That way, we become accustomed to managing our own affairs, creating alternative, libertarian, forms of social organisation which can become a force to resist the state, win reforms and, ultimately, become the framework of a free society. In other words, direct action creates organs of self-activity (such as community assemblies, factory committees, workers’ councils, and so on) which, to use Bakunin’s words, are “creating not only the ideas but also the facts of the future itself.”
The idea that socialists standing for elections somehow prepares working class people for revolution is simply wrong. Utilising the state, standing in elections, only prepares people for following leaders – it does not encourage the self-activity, self-organisation, direct action and mass struggle required for a social revolution. Moreover, as Bakunin predicted, participation in elections has a corrupting effect on those who do so. The history of radicals using elections has been a long one of betrayal and the transformation of revolutionary parties into reformist ones (see section J.2.6 for more discussion). Using the existing state ensures that the division at the heart of existing society (namely a few who govern and the many who obey) is reproduced in the movements trying to abolish it. It boils down to handing effective leadership to special people, to “leaders,” just when the situation requires working people to solve their own problems and take matters into their own hands:
“The Social Question will be put . . . long before the Socialists have conquered a few seats in Parliament, and thus the solution of the question will be actually in the hands of the workmen [and women] themselves . . .
“Under the influence of government worship, they may try to nominate a new government . . . and they may entrust it with the solution of all difficulties. It is so simple, so easy, to throw a vote into the ballot-box, and to return home! So gratifying to know that there is somebody who will arrange your own affairs for the best, while you are quietly smoking your pipe and waiting for orders which you have only to execute, not to reason about.” [Kropotkin, Act for Yourselves, p. 34]
Only the struggle for freedom (or freedom itself) can be the school for freedom, and by placing power into the hands of leaders, utilising the existing state ensures that socialism is postponed rather than prepared for. As such, strikes and other forms of direct action “are of enormous value; they create, organise, and form a workers’ army, an army which is bound to break down the power of the bourgeoisie and the State, and lay the ground for a new world.” [Bakunin, The Political Philosophy of Bakunin, pp. 384-5] In contrast, utilising the present state only trains people in following leaders and so socialism “lost its creative initiative and became an ordinary reform movement . . . content with success at the polls, and no longer attributed any importance to social upbuilding.”[Rocker, Op. Cit., p. 55]
Which highlights another key problem with the notion of utilising the present state as Marxist support for electioneering is somewhat at odds with their claims of being in favour of collective, mass action. There is nothing more isolated, atomised and individualistic than voting. It is the act of one person in a box by themselves. It is the total opposite of collective struggle. The individual is alone before, during and after the act of voting. Indeed, unlike direct action, which, by its very nature, throws up new forms of organisation in order to manage and co-ordinate the struggle, voting creates no alternative social structures. Nor can it as it is not based on nor does it create collective action or organisation. It simply empowers an individual (the elected representative) to act on behalf of a collection of other individuals (the voters). This will hinder collective organisation and action as the voters expect their representative to act and fight for them – if they did not, they would not vote for them in the first place!
Given that Marxists usually slander anarchists as “individualists” the irony is delicious!
If we look at the anti-Poll-Tax campaign in the UK in the late 1980s and early 1990s, we can see what would happen to a mass movement which utilised electioneering. Various left-wing parties spent a lot of time and effort lobbying Labour Councillors not to implement the tax (with no success). Let us assume they had succeeded and the Labour Councillors had refused to implement the tax (or “socialist” candidates had been elected to stop it). What would have happened? Simply that there would not have been a mass movement or mass organisation based on non-payment, nor self-organised direct action to resist warrant sales, nor community activism of any form. Rather, the campaign would have consisted of supporting the councillors in their actions, mass rallies in which the leaders would have informed us of their activities on our behalf and, perhaps, rallies and marches to protest any action the government had inflicted on them. The leaders may have called for some form of mass action but this action would not have come from below and so not be a product of working class self-organisation, self-activity and self-reliance. Rather, it would have been purely re-active and a case of follow the leader, without the empowering and liberating aspects of taking action by yourself, as a conscious and organised group. It would have replaced the struggle of millions with the actions of a handful of leaders.
Of course, even discussing this possibility indicates how remote it is from reality. The Labour Councillors were not going to act – they were far too “practical” for that. Years of working within the system, of using elections, had taken their toll decades ago. Anarchists, of course, saw the usefulness of picketing the council meetings, of protesting against the Councillors and showing them a small example of the power that existed to resist them if they implemented the tax. As such, the picket would have been an expression of direct action, as it was based on showing the power of our direct action and class organisations. Lobbying, however, was building illusions in “leaders” acting for us and based on pleading rather than defiance. But, then again, Militant desired to replace the current leaders with themselves and so had an interest in promoting such tactics and focusing the struggle on leaders and whether they would act for people or not.
Unfortunately, the Socialists never really questioned why they had to lobby the councillors in the first place – if utilising the existing state was a valid radical or revolutionary tactic, why has it always resulted in a de-radicalising of those who use it? This would be the inevitable result of any movement which “complements” direct action with electioneering. The focus of the movement will change from the base to the top, from self-organisation and direct action from below to passively supporting the leaders. This may not happen instantly, but over time, just as the party degenerates by working within the system, the mass movement will be turned into an electoral machine for the party – even arguing against direct action in case it harms the election chances of the leaders. Just as the trade union leaders have done again and again in Britain and elsewhere.
So anarchists point to the actual record of Marxists “utilising the present state”. Murray Bookchin’s comments about the German Social Democrats are appropriate here:
“the party’s preoccupation with parliamentarism was taking it ever away from anything Marx had envisioned. Instead of working to overthrow the bourgeois state, the SPD, with its intense focus on elections, had virtually become an engine for getting votes and increasing its Reichstag representation within the bourgeois state . . . The more artful the SPD became in these realms, the more its membership and electorate increased and, with the growth of new pragmatic and opportunistic adherents, the more it came to resemble a bureaucratic machine for acquiring power under capitalism rather than a revolutionary organisation to eliminate it.” [The Third Revolution, vol. 2, p. 300]
The reality of working within the state soon transformed the party and its leadership, as Bakunin predicted. If we look at Leninism, we discover a similar failure to consider the evidence:
“From the early 1920s on, the Leninist attachment to pre-WWI social democratic tactics such as electoral politics and political activity within pro-capitalist labour unions dominated the perspectives of the so-called Communists. But if these tactics were correct ones, why didn’t they lead to a less dismal set of results? We must be materialists, not idealists. What was the actual outcome of the Leninist strategies? Did Leninist strategies result in successful proletarian revolutions, giving rise to societies worthy of the human beings that live in them? The revolutionary movement in the inter-war period was defeated.” [Max Anger, “The Spartacist School of Falsification”, pp. 50-2, Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed, no. 43, pp. 51-2]
As Scottish Anarchist Ethel McDonald argued in 1937, the tactics urged by Lenin were a disaster in practice:
“At the Second Congress of the Third International, Moscow, a comrade who is with us now in Spain, answering Zinoviev, urged faith in the syndicalist movement in Germany and the end of parliamentary communism. He was ridiculed. Parliamentarianism, communist parliamentarianism, but still parliamentarianism would save Germany. And it did . . . Saved it from Socialism. Saved it for Fascism. Parliamentary social democracy and parliamentary communism have destroyed the socialist hope of Europe, has made a carnage of human liberty. In Britain, parliamentarianism saved the workers from Socialism . . . Have you not had enough of this huge deception? Are you still prepared to continue in the same old way, along the same old lines, talking and talking and doing nothing?” [“The Volunteer Ban”, pp. 72-5,Workers City, Farquhar McLay (ed.), p. 74]
When the Nazis took power in 1933 in Germany the 12 million Socialist and Communist voters and 6 million organised workers took no action. In Spain, it was the anarcho-syndicalist CNT which lead the battle against fascism on the streets and helped create one of the most important social revolutions the world has seen. The contrast could not be more clear. And many Marxists urge us to follow Lenin’s advice today!
All in all, the history of socialists actually using elections has been a dismal failure and was obviously a failure long before 1917. Subsequent experience has only confirmed that conclusion. Rather than prepare the masses for revolution, it has done the opposite. As we argue in section J.2, this is to be expected. That Lenin could still argue along these lines even after the rise of reformism (“revisionism”) in the 1890s and the betrayal of social democracy in 1914 indicates a lack of desire to learn the lessons of history.
The negative effects of “utilising” the present state are, sometimes, acknowledged by Marxists although this rarely interferes with their support for standing in elections. Thus we find that advocate of “revolutionary” parliamentarianism, Trotsky, noting that [i]f parliamentarianism served the proletariat to a certain extent as a training school for revolution, then it also served the bourgeoisie to a far greater extent as the school of counter-revolutionary strategy. Suffice it to say that by means of parliamentarianism the bourgeoisie was able so to educate the Social Democracy that it is today  the main prop of private property.” [Lessons of October, pp. 170-1] Of course, the followers of Lenin and Trotsky are made of sterner stuff than those of Marx and Engels and so utilising the same tactics will have a different outcome. As one-time syndicalist William Gallacher put it in reply to Lenin’s question “[i]f the workers sent you to represent them in Parliament, would you become corrupt?”: “No, I’m sure that under no circumstances could the bourgeoisie corrupt me.” [quoted by Mark Shipway, Anti-Parliamentary Communism, p. 21] Mere will-power, apparently, is sufficient to counteract the pressures and influences of parliamentarianism which Marx and Engels, unlike Bakunin, failed to predict but whose legacy still haunts the minds of those who claim to be “scientific socialists” and so, presumably, base their politics on facts and experience rather than wishful thinking.
This is why anarchists reject the notion of radicals utilising the existing state and instead urge direct action and solidarity outside of bourgeois institutions. Only this kind of struggle creates the spirit of revolt and new popular forms of organisation which can fight and replace the hierarchical structures of capitalist society. Hence anarchists stress the need of working class people to “rely on themselves to get rid of the oppression of Capital, without expecting that the same thing can be done for them by anybody else. The emancipation of the workmen [and women] must be the act of the workmen [and women] themselves.” [Kropotkin, Op. Cit., p. 32] Only this kind of movement and struggle can maximise the revolutionary potential of struggles for reforms within capitalism. As history shows, the alternative has repeatedly failed.
It should be noted, however, that not all Marxists have refused to recognise the lessons of history. Libertarian Marxists, such as council communists, also reject “utilising the present state” to train the proletariat for revolution (i.e. for socialists to stand for elections). Lenin attacked these Marxists who had drawn similar conclusions as the anarchists (after the failure of social-democracy) in his 1920 diatribe Left-wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder. In that pamphlet he used the experiences of the Bolsheviks in semi-Feudal Tsarist Russia to combat the conclusions drawn by socialists in the advanced capitalist countries with sizeable social democratic parties. Lenin’s arguments for revolutionary Parliamentarianism did not convince the anti-Parliamentarians who argued that its “significance lies not in its content, but in the person of the author, for the arguments are scarcely original and have for the most part already been used by others . . . their fallacy resides mainly in the equation of the conditions, parties, organisations and parliamentary practice of Western Europe with their Russian counterparts.” [Anton Pannekoek, Pannekoek and Gorter’s Marxism, p. 143] While anarchists would disagree with the underlying assumption that Marx was right in considering parliamentarianism as essential and it only became problematic later, we would agree whole-heartedly with the critique presented (unsurprisingly, as we made it first).
Pannekoek’s article along with Herman Gorter’s Open Letter to Comrade Lenin are essential reading for those who are taken in with Lenin’s arguments, along with the chapter on “Socialism” in Alexander Berkman’s What is Anarchism?. Interestingly, the Comintern asked Berkman to translate Lenin’s Left-Wing Communism and he agreed until he read its contents. He then said he would continue if he could write a rebuttal, a request which was rejected. For anarchists, placing the word “revolutionary” in front of “parliamentarianism” does not provide a shield against the negative influences and pressures which naturally arise by utilising that tactic. Given the sorry history of radicals doing so, this is unsurprising. What is surprising is how so many Marxists are willing to ignore that history in favour of Lenin’s pamphlet.
H.1.6 Why do anarchists try to “build the new world in the shell of the old”?
Another key difference between anarchists and Marxists is on how the movement against capitalism should organise in the here and now. Anarchists argue that it should prefigure the society we desire – namely it should be self-managed, decentralised, built and organised from the bottom-up in a federal structure. This perspective can be seen from the justly famous “Circular of the Sixteen”issued at the Sonvillier congress by the libertarian wing of the First International:
“The future society must be nothing else than the universalisation of the organisation that the International has formed for itself. We must therefore take care to make this organisation as close as possible to our ideal. How could one want an equalitarian and free society to issue from an authoritarian organisation? It is impossible. The International, the embryo of the future human society is held to be henceforward, the faithful image of our principles of liberty and of federation, and is considered to reject any principle tending to authority and dictatorship.” [quoted by K.J. Kenafick, Michael Bakunin and Karl Marx, pp. 262-3]
Anarchists apply this insight to all organisations they take part in, stressing that the only way we can create a self-managed society is by self-managing our own struggles and organisations today. It is an essential part of our politics that we encourage people to “learn how to participate in the life of the organisation and to do without leaders and permanent officials” and “practice direct action, decentralisation, autonomy and free initiative.” This flows logically from our politics, as it is “obvious that anarchists should seek to apply to their personal and political lives this same principle upon which, they believe, the whole of human society should be based.”[Malatesta, The Anarchist Revolution, p. 94] In this way we turn our class organisations (indeed, the class struggle itself) into practical and effective “schools of anarchism” in which we learn to manage our own affairs without hierarchy and bosses and so popular organisations become the cells of the new society:
“Libertarian forms of organisation have the enormous responsibility of trying to resemble the society they are seeking to develop. They can tolerate no disjunction between ends and means. Direct action, so integral to the management of a future society, has its parallel in the use of direct action to change society. Communal forms, so integral to the structure of a future society, have their parallel in the use of communal forms – collectives, affinity groups, and the like – to change society. The ecological ethics, confederal relationships, and decentralised structures we would expect to find in a future society, are fostered by the values and networks we try to use in achieving an ecological society.” [Murray Bookchin, The Ecology of Freedom, pp. 446-7]
Marxists reject this argument. Instead they stress the importance of centralisation and consider the anarchist argument as utopian. For effective struggle, strict centralisation is required as the capitalist class and state is also centralised. In other words, to fight for socialism there is a need to organise in a way which the capitalists have utilised – to fight fire with fire. Unfortunately they forget to extinguish a fire you have to use water. Adding more flame will only increase the combustion, not put it out!
Of course, Marx and Engels misrepresented the anarchist position. They asserted that the anarchist position implied that the Paris Communards “would not have failed if they had understood that the Commune was ‘the embryo of the future human society’ and had cast away all discipline and all arms, that is, the things which must disappear when there are no more wars!” [Collected Works, vol. 23, p. 115] Needless to say this is simply a slander on the anarchist position particularly as anarchists are well aware of the need to defend a revolution (see section H.2.1) and the need for self-discipline (see section H.4). Anarchists, as the Circular makes clear, recognise that we cannot totally reflect the future and so the current movement can only be “as near as possible to our ideal.” Thus we have to do things, such as fighting the bosses, rising in insurrection, smashing the state or defending a revolution, which we would not have to do in a socialist society. However, we can do these things in a manner which is consistent with our values and our aims. For example, a strike can be run in two ways. Either it can be managed via assemblies of strikers and co-ordinated by councils of elected, mandated and recallable delegates or it can be run from the top-down by a few trade union leaders. The former, of course, is the anarchist way and it reflects “the future human society” (and, ironically, is paid lip-service to by Marxists).
Such common sense, unfortunately, was lacking in Marx and Engels, who instead decided to utter nonsense for a cheap polemical point. Neither answered the basic point – how do people become able to manage society if they do not directly manage their own organisations and struggles today? How can a self-managed society come about unless people practice it in the here and now? Can people create a socialist society if they do not implement its basic ideas in their current struggles and organisations? Equally, it would be churlish to note that the Commune’s system of federalism by mandated delegates had been advocated by Bakunin for a number of years before 1871 and, unsurprisingly, he took the revolt as a striking, if incomplete, confirmation of anarchism (see section A.5.1).
The Paris Commune, it must be stressed, brought the contradictions of the Marxist attacks on anarchism to the surface. It is deeply sad to read, say, Engels attacking anarchists for holding certain positions yet praising the 1871 revolution when it implemented exactly the same ideas. For example, in his deeply inaccurate diatribe “The Bakuninists at Work”, Engels was keen to distort the federalist ideas of anarchism, dismissing “the so-called principles of anarchy, free federation of independent groups.” [Collected Works, vol. 23, p. 297] Compare this to his praise for the Paris Commune which, he gushed, refuted the Blanquist notion of a revolution sprung by a vanguard which would create “the strictest, dictatorial centralisation of all power in the hands of the new revolutionary government.” Instead the Commune “appealed to [the provinces] to form a free federation of all French Communes . . . a national organisation which for the first time was really created by the nation itself. It was precisely the oppressing power of the former centralised government . . . which was to fall everywhere, just as it had fallen in Paris.” [Selected Writings, pp. 256-7]
Likewise, Engels praised the fact that, to combat the independence of the state from society, the Commune introduced wages for officials the same as that “received by other workers” and the use of “the binding mandate to delegates to representative bodies.”[Op. Cit., p. 258] Compare this to Engels attack on anarchist support for binding mandates (which, like our support for free federation, pre-dated the Commune). Then it was a case of this being part of Bakunin’s plans to control the international “for a secret society . . . there is nothing more convenient than the imperative mandate” as all its members vote one way, while the others will“contradict one another.” Without these binding mandates, “the common sense of the independent delegates will swiftly unite them in a common party against the party of the secret society.” Obviously the notion that delegates from a group should reflect the wishes of that group was lost on Engels. He even questioned the utility of this system for “if all electors gave their delegates imperative mandates concerning all points in the agenda, meetings and debates of the delegates would be superfluous.” [Collected Works, vol. 22, p. 281 and p. 277] It should be noted that Trotsky shared Engels dislike of “representatives” being forced to actually represent the views of their constituents within the party. [In Defense of Marxism, pp. 80-1]
Clearly a “free federation” of Communes and binding mandates are bad when anarchists advocate them but excellent when workers in revolt implement them! Why this was the case Engels failed to explain. However, it does suggest that the anarchist idea that we must reflect the future in how we organise today is no hindrance to revolutionary change and, in fact, reflects what is required to turn a revolt into a genuine social revolution.
Engels asserted that the anarchist position meant that “the proletariat is told to organise not in accordance with the requirements of the struggle . . . but according to the vague notions of a future society entertained by some dreamers.” [Op. Cit., vol. 23, p. 66] In this he was wrong, as he failed to understand that the anarchist position was produced by the class struggle itself. He failed to understand how that struggle reflects our aspirations for a better world, how we see what is wrong with modern society and seek to organise to end such abuses rather than perpetuate them in new forms. Thus the trade unions which Bakunin argued would be the basis of a free society are organised from the bottom-up and based upon the direct participation of the workers. This form of organisation was not forced upon the workers by some intellectuals thinking they were a good idea. Rather they were created to fight the bosses and reflected the fact that workers were sick of being treating as servants and did not wish to see that repeated in their own organisations.
As Bakunin argued, when a union delegates authority to its officials it may be “very good for the committees, but [it is] not at all favourable for the social, intellectual, and moral progress of the collective power of the International.” The committees “substituted their own will and their own ideas for that of the membership” while the membership expressed “indifference to general problems”and left “all problems to the decisions of committees.” This could only be solved by “call[ing] general membership meetings,” that is“popular assemblies.” Bakunin goes on to argue that the “organisation of the International, having as its objective not the creation of new despotism but the uprooting of all domination, will take on an essentially different character than the organisation of the State.”This must be the “organisation of the trade sections and their representation by the Chambers of Labour” and these “bear in themselves the living seeds of the new society which is to replace the old world. They are creating not only the ideas, but also the facts of the future itself.” [Bakunin on Anarchism, pp. 246-7 and p. 255]
Ou Shengbai, a Chinese anarchist, argued that libertarians “deeply feel that the causes of popular misery are these: (1) Because of the present political system power is concentrated in a few hands with the result that the majority of the people do not have the opportunity for free participation. (2) Because of the capitalist system all means of production are concentrated in the hands of the capitalists with the results that the benefits that ought to accrue to labourers are usurped by capitalists. [quoted by Arif Dirlik,Anarchism in the Chinese Revolution, p. 235] Does it make much sense to organise in ways which reflect these problems? Surely the reason why people become socialists is because they seek to change society, to give the mass of the population an opportunity for free participation and to manage their own affairs. Why destroy those hopes and dreams by organising in a way which reflects the society we oppose rather than the one we desire?
Ultimately, Engels dismissed the practical experiences of working class people, dismissed our ability to create a better world and our ability to dream. In fact, he seems to think there is some division of labour between “the proletariat” who do the struggling and“some dreamers” who provide the ideas. The notion that working class people can both struggle and dream was lost on him, as was the notion that our dreams shape our struggles and our struggles shape our dreams. People resist oppression and exploitation because we want to determine what goes on in our lives and to manage our own affairs. In that process, we create new forms of organisation which allows that to happen, ones that reflect our dreams of a better world. This is not in opposition to the needs of the struggle, as Engels asserted, but is rather an expression of it. To dismiss this process, to advocate organisational methods which are the very antithesis of what working class people have shown, repeatedly, that they want, is the height of arrogance and, ultimately, little more than a dismissal of the hopes, dreams and creative self-activity of working class people. As libertarian socialist Cornelius Castoriadis put it:
“the organisation’s inspiration can come only from the socialist structures created by the working class in the course of its own history. It must let itself be guided by the principles on which the soviet and the factory council were founded . . . the principles of workers’ management must govern the operation and structure of the organisation. Apart from them, there are only capitalist principles, which, as we have seen, can only result in the establishment of capitalist relationships.” [Political and Social Writings, vol. 2, pp. 217-8]
Ironically enough, given their own and their followers claims of Marxism’s proletarian core, it was Marx and Engels who were at odds with the early labour movement, not Bakunin and the anarchists. Historian Gwyn A. Williams notes in the early British labour movement there were “to be no leaders” and the organisations were “consciously modelled on the civil society they wished to create.” [Artisans and Sans-Culottes, p. 72] Lenin, unsurprisingly, dismissed the fact that the British workers “thought it was an indispensable sign of democracy for all the members to do all the work of managing the unions” as “primitive democracy” and“absurd.” He also complained about “how widespread is the ‘primitive’ conception of democracy among the masses of the students and workers” in Russia. [Essential Works of Lenin, pp. 162-3] Clearly, the anarchist perspective reflects the ideas of the workers’ movement before it degenerates into reformism and bureaucracy while Marxism reflects it during this process of degeneration. Needless to say, the revolutionary nature of the early union movement clearly shows who was correct!
Anarchists, in other words, simply generalised the experiences of the workers in struggle and Bakunin and his followers were expressing a common position held by many in the International. Even Marx paid lip-service to this when he stated “in contrast to old society . . . a new society is springing up” and the “Pioneer of that new society is the International Working Men’s Association.”[Selected Works, p. 263] Clearly, considering the International as the embryo of the future society is worthy only of scorn as the correct position is to consider it merely as a pioneer!
As such, libertarians “lay no claims to originality in proposing this [kind of prefigurative organisation]. In every revolution, during most strikes and daily at the level of workshop organisation, the working class resorts to this type of direct democracy.” [Maurice Brinton,For Workers’ Power, p. 48] Given how Marxists pay lip-service to such forms of working class self-organisation, it seems amusing to hear them argue that this is correct for everyone else but not themselves and their own organisations! Apparently, the same workers who are expected to have the determination and consciousness necessary to overthrow capitalism and create a new world in the future are unable to organise themselves in a socialist manner today. Instead, we have to tolerate so-called “revolutionary” organisations which are just as hierarchical, top-down and centralised as the system which provoked our anger at its injustice in the first and which we are trying to end!
Related to this is the fact that Marxists (particularly Leninists) favour centralisation while anarchists favour decentralisation within a federal organisation. Anarchists do not think that decentralisation implies isolation or narrow localism. We have always stressed the importance of federalism to co-ordinate decisions. Power would be decentralised, but federalism ensures collective decisions and action. Under centralised systems, anarchists argue, power is placed into the hands of a few leaders. Rather than the real interests and needs of the people being co-ordinated, centralism simply means the imposition of the will of a handful of leaders, who claim to “represent” the masses. Co-ordination from below, in other words, is replaced by coercion from above in the centralised system and the needs and interests of all are replaced by those of a few leaders at the centre.
Such a centralised, inevitably top-down, system can only be counter-productive, both practically and in terms of generating socialist consciousness:
“Bolsheviks argue that to fight the highly centralised forces of modern capitalism requires an equally centralised type of party. This ignores the fact that capitalist centralisation is based on coercion and force and the exclusion of the overwhelming majority of the population from participating in any of its decisions . . .
“The very structure of these organisations ensures that their personnel do not think for themselves, but unquestioningly carry out the instructions of their superiors . . .
“Advocates of ‘democratic centralism’ insist that it is the only type of organisations which can function effectively under conditions of illegality. This is nonsense. The ‘democratic centralist’ organisation is particularly vulnerable to police persecution. When all power is concentrated in the hands of the leaders, their arrest immediately paralyses the whole organisation. Members trained to accept unquestioningly the instruction of an all-wise Central Committee will find it very difficult to think and act for themselves. The experiences of the German Communist Party [under the Nazis] confirm this. With their usual inconsistency, the Trotskyists even explain the demise of their Western European sections during World War II by telling people how their leaders were murdered by the Gestapo!” [Maurice Brinton, Op. Cit., p. 43]
As we discuss in depth in section H.5 the Leninist vanguard party does, ironically, create in embryo a new world simply because once in power it refashions society in its image. However, no anarchist would consider such a centralised, hierarchical top-down class system rooted in bureaucratic power as being remotely desirable or remotely socialist.
Therefore anarchists “recognised neither the state nor pyramidal organisation” Kropotkin argued, while Marxists “recognised the state and pyramidal methods of organisation” which “stifled the revolutionary spirit of the rank-and-file workers.” [Conquest of Bread and Other Writings, p. 212] The Marxist perspective inevitably places power into the hands of a few leaders, who then decree which movements to support and encourage based on what is best for the long term benefit of the party itself rather than the working class. Thus we find Engels arguing while Marxists were “obliged to support every real popular movement” they also had to ensure“that the scarcely formed nucleus of our proletarian Party is not sacrificed in vain and that the proletariat is not decimated in futile local revolts,” for example “a blood-letting like that of 1871 in Paris.” [Marx and Engels, The Socialist Revolution, p. 294 and p. 320] This produces a conservative approach to social struggle, with mass actions and revolutionary situations ignored or warned against because of the potential harm it could inflict on the party. Unsurprisingly, every popular revolution has occurred against the advice of the so-called “revolutionary” Marxist leadership including the Paris Commune and the 1917 February revolution in Russia (even the October seize of power was done in the face of resistance from the Bolshevik party machine).
It is for these reasons that anarchists “[a]s much as is humanly possible . . . try to reflect the liberated society they seek to achieve”and “not slavishly duplicate the prevailing system of hierarchy, class and authority.” Rather than being the abstract dreams of isolated thinkers, these “conclusions . . . emerge from an exacting study of past revolutions, of the impact centralised parties have had on the revolutionary process” and history has more than confirmed the anarchist warning that the “revolutionary party, by duplicating these centralistic, hierarchical features would reproduce hierarchy and centralism in the post revolutionary society.”[Murray Bookchin, Post-Scarcity Anarchism, p. 138, p. 139 and p. 137] Moreover, we base our arguments on how social movements should organise on the experiences of past struggles, of the forms of organisation spontaneously produced by those struggles and which, therefore, reflect the needs of those struggles and the desire for a better way of life which produced them. Ultimately, no one knows when a revolution turns the hopes and aspirations of today into tomorrow’s reality and it would be wise to have some experience of managing our own affairs before hand.
By failing to understand the importance of applying a vision of a free society to the current class struggle, Marxists help ensure that society never is created. By copying bourgeois methods within their “revolutionary” organisations (parties and unions) they ensure bourgeois ends (inequality and oppression).
H.1.7 Haven’t you read Lenin’s “State and Revolution”?
This question is often asked of people who critique Marxism, particularly its Leninist form. Lenin’s State and Revolution is often considered his most democratic work and Leninists are quick to point to it as proof that Lenin and those who follow his ideas are not authoritarian. As such, it is an important question. So how do anarchists reply when people point them to Lenin’s work as evidence of the democratic (even libertarian) nature of Marxism? Anarchists reply in two ways.
Firstly, we argue many of the essential features of Lenin’s ideas are to be found in anarchist theory and, in fact, had been aspects of anarchism for decades before Lenin put pen to paper. Bakunin, for example, talked about mandated delegates from workplaces federating into workers’ councils as the framework of a (libertarian) socialist society in the 1860s as well as popular militias to defend a revolution. Moreover, he was well aware that revolution was a process rather than an event and so would take time to develop and flourish. Hence Murray Bookchin:
“Bakunin, Kropotkin, and Malatesta were not so naive as to believe that anarchism could be established over night. In imputing this notion to Bakunin, Marx and Engels wilfully distorted the Russian anarchist’s views. Nor did the anarchists . . . believe that abolition of the state involved ‘laying down of arms’ immediately after the revolution, to use Marx’s obscurantist choice of terms, thoughtlessly repeated by Lenin in State and Revolution. Indeed, much that passes for ‘Marxism’ in State and Revolution is pure anarchism – for example, the substitution of revolutionary militias for professional armed bodies and the substitution of organs of self-management for parliamentary bodies. What is authentically Marxist in Lenin’s pamphlet is the demand for ‘strict centralism,’ the acceptance of a ‘new’ bureaucracy, and the identification of soviets with a state.” [Post-Scarcity Anarchism, p. 137]
That this is the case is hidden in Lenin’s work as he deliberately distorts anarchist ideas in it (see sections H.1.3 and H.1.4 for example). Therefore, when Marxists ask whether anarchists have read Lenin’s State and Revolution we reply by arguing that most of Lenin’s ideas were first expressed by anarchists and his work just strikes anarchists as little more than a re-hash of many of our own ideas but placed in a statist context which totally and utterly undermines them in favour of party rule.
Secondly, anarchists argue that regardless of what Lenin argued for in State and Revolution, he did not apply those ideas in practice (indeed, he did the exact opposite). Therefore, the question of whether we have read Lenin’s work simply drives home the ideological nature and theoretical bankruptcy of Leninism. This is because the person is asking you to evaluate their politics based on what they say rather than on what they do, like any politician.
To use an analogy, what would you say to a politician who has cut welfare spending by 50% and increased spending on the military and who argues that this act is irrelevant and that you should look at their manifesto which states that they were going to do the opposite? You would dismiss this argument as laughable and them as liars as you would evaluate them by their actions, not by what they say. Leninists, by urging you to read Lenin’s State and Revolution are asking you to evaluate them by what their manifesto says and ignore what they did. Anarchists, on the other hand, ask you to evaluate the Leninist manifesto by comparing it to what they actually did in power. Such an evaluation is the only means by which we can judge the validity of Leninist claims and politics.
As we discuss the role of Leninist ideology in the fate of the Russian Revolution in section H.6 we will provide a summary of Lenin’s claims in his famous work State and Revolution and what he did in practice here. Suffice to say the difference between reality and rhetoric was extremely large and, therefore, it is a damning indictment of Bolshevism. Post-October, the Bolsheviks not only failed to introduce the ideas of Lenin’s book, they in fact introduced the exact opposite. As one historian puts it:
“To consider ‘State and Revolution’ as the basic statement of Lenin’s political philosophy – which non-Communists as well as Communists usually do – is a serious error. Its argument for a utopian anarchism never actually became official policy. The Leninism of 1917 . . . came to grief in a few short years; it was the revived Leninism of 1902 which prevailed as the basis for the political development of the USSR.” [Robert V. Daniels, The Conscience of the Revolution, pp. 51-2]
Daniels is being far too lenient with the Bolsheviks. It was not, in fact, “a few short years” before the promises of 1917 were broken. In some cases, it was a few short hours. In others, a few short months. However, in a sense Daniels is right. It did take until 1921 before all hope for saving the Russian Revolution finally ended.
Simply put, if the State and Revolution is the manifesto of Bolshevism, then not a single promise in that work was kept by the Bolsheviks when they got into power. As such, Lenin’s work cannot be used to evaluate Bolshevik ideology as Bolshevism paid no attention to it once it had taken state power. While Lenin and his followers chant rhapsodies about the Soviet State (this ‘highest and most perfect system of democracy”) they quickly turned its democratic ideas into a fairy-tale, and an ugly fairy-tale at that, by simply ignoring it in favour of party power (and party dictatorship). To state the obvious, to quote theory and not relate it to the practice of those who claim to follow it is a joke. If you look at the actions of the Bolsheviks after the October Russian Revolution you cannot help draw the conclusion that Lenin’s State and Revolution has nothing to do with Bolshevik policy and presents a false image of what Leninists desire. As such, we must present a comparison between rhetoric and realty.
In order to show that this is the case, we need to summarise the main ideas contained in Lenin’s work. Moreover, we need to indicate what the Bolsheviks did, in fact, do. Finally, we need to see if the various rationales justifying these actions hold water.
So what did Lenin argue for in State and Revolution? Writing in the mid-1930s, anarchist Camillo Berneri summarised the main ideas of that work as follows:
“The Leninist programme of 1917 included these points: the discontinuance of the police and standing army, abolition of the professional bureaucracy, elections for all public positions and offices, revocability of all officials, equality of bureaucratic wages with workers’ wages, the maximum of democracy, peaceful competition among the parties within the soviets, abolition of the death penalty.” [“The Abolition and Extinction of the State,” pp. 50-1, Cienfuegos Press Anarchist Review, no. 4, p. 50]
As he noted, “[n]ot a single one of the points of this programme has been achieved.” This was, of course, under Stalinism and most Leninists will concur with Berneri. However what Leninists tend not to mention is that by the end of the 7 month period of Bolshevik rule before the start of the civil war (i.e., from November 1917 to May 1918) none of these points existed. So, as an example of what Bolshevism “really” stands for it seems strange to harp on about a work which was never really implemented when the its author was in a position to do so (i.e. before the onslaught of a civil war Lenin thought was inevitable anyway!). Similarly, if State and Revolution indicates the features a “workers’ state” must have then, by May 1918, Russia did not have such a state and so, logically, it can be considered as such only if we assume that the good intentions of its rulers somehow overcome its political and economic structure (which, sadly, is the basic Trotskyist defence of Leninism against Stalinism!).
To see that Berneri’s summary is correct, we need to quote Lenin directly. Obviously the work is a wide ranging defence of Lenin’s interpretation of Marxist theory on the state. As it is an attempt to overturn decades of Marxist orthodoxy, much of the work is quotes from Marx and Engels and Lenin’s attempts to enlist them for his case (we discuss this issue in section H.3.10). Equally, we need to ignore the numerous straw men arguments about anarchism Lenin inflicts on his reader. Here we simply list the key points as regards Lenin’s arguments about his “workers’ state” and how the workers would maintain control of it:
1) Using the Paris Commune as a prototype, Lenin argued for the abolition of “parliamentarianism” by turning“representative institutions from mere ‘talking shops’ into working bodies.” This would be done by removing “the division of labour between the legislative and the executive.” [Essential Works of Lenin, p. 304 and p. 306]
2) “All officials, without exception, to be elected and subject to recall at any time“ and so “directly responsible to their constituents.” [Op. Cit., p. 302 and p. 306]
3) The “immediate introduction of control and superintendence by all, so that all shall become ‘bureaucrats’ for a time and so that, therefore, no one can become a ‘bureaucrat’.” Proletarian democracy would “take immediate steps to cut bureaucracy down to the roots . . . to the complete abolition of bureaucracy” as the “essence of bureaucracy” is officials becoming transformed” into privileged persons divorced from the masses and superior to the masses.” [Op. Cit., p. 355 and p. 360]
4) There should be no “special bodies of armed men” standing apart from the people “since the majority of the people itself suppresses its oppressors, a ‘special force’ is no longer necessary.” Using the example of the Paris Commune, Lenin suggested this meant “abolition of the standing army” by the “armed masses.” [Op. Cit., p. 275, p. 301 and p. 339]
5) The new (workers) state would be “the organisation of violence for the suppression of . . . the exploiting class, i.e. the bourgeoisie. The toilers need a state only to overcome the resistance of the exploiters” who are “an insignificant minority,” that is “the landlords and the capitalists.” This would see “an immense expansion of democracy . . . for the poor, democracy for the people” while, simultaneously, imposing “a series of restrictions on the freedom of the oppressors, the exploiters, the capitalists . . . their resistance must be broken by force: it is clear that where there is suppression there is also violence, there is no freedom, no democracy.” [Op. Cit., p. 287 and pp. 337-8]
This would be implemented after the current, bourgeois, state had been smashed. This would be the “dictatorship of the proletariat”and be “the introduction of complete democracy for the people.” [Op. Cit., p. 355] However, the key practical ideas on what the new “semi-state” would be are contained in these five points. He generalised these points, considering them valid for all countries.
The first point was the combining of legislative and executive functions in “working bodies”. The first body to be created by the Bolshevik revolution was the “Council of People’s Commissars” (CPC) This was a government separate from and above the Central Executive Committee (CEC) of the soviets congress which, in turn, was separate from and above the national soviet congress. It was an executive body elected by the soviet congress, but the soviets themselves were not turned into “working bodies.” The promises of Lenin’s State and Revolution did not last the night.
The Bolsheviks, it must be stressed, clearly recognised that the Soviets had alienated their power to this body with the party’s Central Committee arguing in November 1917 that “it is impossible to refuse a purely Bolshevik government without treason to the slogan of the power of the Soviets, since a majority at the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets . . . handed power over to this government.”[contained in Robert V. Daniels (ed.), A Documentary History of Communism, vol. 1, pp. 128-9] However, it could be argued that Lenin’s promises were kept as the new government simply gave itself legislative powers four days later. Sadly, this is not the case. In the Paris Commune the delegates of the people took executive power into their own hands. Lenin reversed this and his executive took legislative power from the hands of the people’s delegates. As we discuss in section H.6.1, this concentration of power into executive committees occurred at all levels of the soviet hierarchy.
What of the next principle, namely the election and recall of all officials? This lasted slightly longer, namely around 5 months. By March of 1918, the Bolsheviks started a systematic campaign against the elective principle in the workplace, in the military and even in the soviets. In the workplace, Lenin was arguing for appointed one-man managers “vested with dictatorial powers” by April 1918 (see section H.3.14). In the military, Trotsky simply decreed the end of elected officers in favour of appointed officers. As far as the soviets go, the Bolsheviks were refusing to hold elections because they “feared that the opposition parties would show gains.” When elections were held, “Bolshevik armed force usually overthrew the results” in provincial towns. Moreover, the Bolsheviks “pack[ed] local soviets” with representatives of organisations they controlled “once they could not longer count on an electoral majority.”[Samuel Farber, Before Stalinism, p. 22, p. 24 and p. 33] This kind of packing was even practised at the national level when the Bolsheviks gerrymandered a Bolshevik majority at the Fifth Congress of Soviets. So much for competition among the parties within the soviets! And as far as the right of recall went, the Bolsheviks only supported this when the workers were recalling the opponents of the Bolsheviks, not when the workers were recalling them.
Then there was the elimination of bureaucracy. The new state soon had a new bureaucratic and centralised system quickly emerge around it. Rather than immediately cutting the size and power of the bureaucracy, it “grew by leaps and bounds. Control over the new bureaucracy constantly diminished, partly because no genuine opposition existed. The alienation between ‘people’ and ‘officials,’ which the soviet system was supposed to remove, was back again. Beginning in 1918, complaints about ‘bureaucratic excesses,’ lack of contact with voters, and new proletarian bureaucrats grew louder and louder.” [Oskar Anweiler, The Soviets, p. 242] So the rise of a state bureaucracy started immediately with the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks, particularly as the state’s functions grew to include economic decisions as well as political ones. Instead of the state starting to “wither away” it grew:
“The old state’s political apparatus was ‘smashed,’ but in its place a new bureaucratic and centralised system emerged with extraordinary rapidity. After the transfer of government to Moscow in March 1918 it continued to expand . . . As the functions of the state expanded so did the bureaucracy, and by August 1918 nearly a third of Moscow’s working population were employed in offices. The great increase in the number of employees . . . took place in early to mid-1918 and, thereafter, despite many campaigns to reduce their number, they remained a steady proportion of the falling population” [Richard Sakwa, “The Commune State in Moscow in 1918,” pp. 429-449, Slavic Review, vol. 46, no. 3/4, pp. 437-8]
This, anarchists would stress, is an inherent feature of centralised systems. As such, this rise of bureaucracy confirmed anarchist predictions that centralisation will recreate bureaucracy. After all, some means were required to gather, collate and provide information by which the central bodies made their decisions. Overtime, this permanent collection of bodies would become the real power in the state, with the party members nominally in charge really under the control of an unelected and uncontrolled officialdom. Thus a necessary side-effect of Bolshevik centralism was bureaucracy and it soon became the real power in the state (and, ultimately, in the 1920s became the social base for the rise of Stalin). This is to be expected as any state “is already a privileged class and cut off from the people” and would “seek to extend its powers, to be beyond public control, to impose its own policies and to give priority to special interests.” Moreover, “what an all-powerful, oppressive, all-absorbing oligarchy must be one which has at its services, that is at its disposal, all social wealth, all public services.” [Malatesta, Anarchy, p. 36 and p. 37]
Then there is the fourth point, namely the elimination of the standing army, the suppression of “special bodies of armed men” by the“armed masses.” This promise did not last two months. On the 20th of December, 1917, the Council of People’s Commissars decreed the formation of a political (secret) police force, the “Extraordinary Commission to Fight Counter-Revolution.” This was more commonly known by the Russian initials of the first two terms of its official name: The Cheka.
While it was initially a small organisation, as 1918 progressed it grew in size and activity. The Cheka soon became a key instrument of Bolshevik rule and it was most definitely a “special body of armed men” and not the same as the “armed workers.” In other words, Lenin’s claims in State and Revolution did not last two months and in under six months the Bolshevik state had a mighty group of“armed men” to impose its will. This is not all. The Bolsheviks also conducted a sweeping transformation of the military within the first six months of taking power. During 1917, the soldiers and sailors (encouraged by the Bolsheviks and other revolutionaries) had formed their own committees and elected officers. In March 1918, Trotsky simply abolished all this by decree and replaced it with appointed officers (usually ex-Tsarist ones). In this way, the Red Army was turned from a workers’ militia (i.e. an armed people) into a“special body” separate from the general population.
So instead of eliminating a “special force” above the people, the Bolsheviks did the opposite by creating a political police force (the Cheka) and a standing army (in which elections were a set aside by decree). These were special, professional, armed forces standing apart from the people and unaccountable to them. Indeed, they were used to repress strikes and working class unrest which refutes the idea that Lenin’s “workers’ state” would simply be an instrument of violence directed at the exploiters. As the Bolsheviks lost popular support, they turned the violence of the “worker’s state” against the workers (and, of course, the peasants). When the Bolsheviks lost soviet elections, force was used to disband them. Faced with strikes and working class protest during this period, the Bolsheviks responded with state violence (see section H.6.3). So, as regards the claim that the new (“workers”) state would repress only the exploiters, the truth was that it was used to repress whoever opposed Bolshevik power, including workers and peasants. If, as Lenin stressed, “where there is suppression there is also violence, there is no freedom, no democracy” then there cannot be working class freedom or democracy if the “workers’ state” is suppressing that class.
As can be seen, after the first six months of Bolshevik rule not a single measure advocated by Lenin in State and Revolutionexisted in “revolutionary” Russia. Some of the promises were broken quite quickly (overnight, in one case). Most took longer. Yet Leninists may object by noting that many Bolshevik degrees did, in fact, reflect State and Revolution. For example, the democratisation of the armed forces was decreed in late December 1917. However, this was simply acknowledging the existing revolutionary gains of the military personnel. Similarly, the Bolsheviks passed a decree on workers’ control which, again, simply acknowledged the actual gains by the grassroots (and, in fact, limited them for further development).
Yet this cannot be taken as evidence of the democratic nature of Bolshevism as most governments faced with a revolutionary movement will acknowledge and “legalise” the facts on the ground (until such time as they can neutralise or destroy them). For example, the Provisional Government created after the February Revolution also legalised the revolutionary gains of the workers (for example, legalising the soviets, factory committees, unions, strikes and so forth). The real question is whether Bolshevism continued to encourage these revolutionary gains once it had consolidated its power. It did not. Indeed, it can be argued that the Bolsheviks simply managed to do what the Provisional Government it replaced had failed to do, namely destroy the various organs of popular self-management created by the revolutionary masses. So the significant fact is not that the Bolsheviks recognised the gains of the masses but that their toleration of the application of what their followers say were their real principles did not last long and, significantly, the leading Bolsheviks did not consider the abolition of such principles as harming the “communist” nature of the regime.
We have stressed this period for a reason. This was the period before the out-break of major Civil War and thus the policies applied show the actual nature of Bolshevism, it’s essence if you like. This is a significant period as most Leninists blame the failure of Lenin to live up to his promises on this event. In reality, the civil war was not the reason for these betrayals – simply because it had not started yet. Each of the promises were broken in turn months before the civil war happened. “All Power to the Soviets” became, very quickly, “All Power to the Bolsheviks.” Unsurprisingly, as this was Lenin’s aim all along and so we find him in 1917 continually repeating this basic idea (see section H.3.3).
Given this, the almost utter non-mention of the party and its role in State and Revolution is deeply significant. Given the emphasis that Lenin had always placed on the party, it’s absence is worrying. When the party is mentioned in that work, it is done so in an ambiguous manner. For example, Lenin noted that “[b]y educating the workers’ party, Marxism educates the vanguard of the proletariat which is capable of assuming power and of leading the whole people to socialism, of directing and organising the new order.” It is not clear whether it is the vanguard or the proletariat as a whole which assumes power. Later, he stated that “the dictatorship of the proletariat” was “the organisation of the vanguard of the oppressed as the ruling class for the purpose of crushing the oppressors.” [Essential Works of Lenin, p. 288 and p. 337] Based on subsequent Bolshevik practice after the party seized power, it seems clear that it is the vanguard which assumes power rather than the whole class.
As such, given this clear and unambiguous position throughout 1917 by Lenin, it seems incredulous, to say the least, for Leninist Tony Cliff to assert that “[t]o start with Lenin spoke of the proletariat, the class – not the Bolshevik Party – assuming state power.”[Lenin, vol. 3, p. 161] Surely the title of one of Lenin’s most famous pre-October essays, usually translated as “Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power?”, should have given the game away? As would, surely, quoting numerous calls by Lenin for the Bolsheviks to seize power? Apparently not.
Where does that leave Lenin’s State and Revolution? Well, modern-day Leninists still urge us to read it, considering it his greatest work and the best introduction to what Leninism really stands for. For example, we find Leninist Tony Cliff calling that book “Lenin’s real testament” while, at the same time, acknowledging that its “message . . . which was the guide for the first victorious proletarian revolution, was violated again and again during the civil war.” Not a very good “guide” or that convincing a “message” if it was not applicable in the very circumstances it was designed to be applied in (a bit like saying you have an excellent umbrella but it only works when it is not raining). Moreover, Cliff is factually incorrect. As we discuss in section H.6, the Bolsheviks “violated” that “guide” before the civil war started (i.e. when “the victories of the Czechoslovak troops over the Red Army in June 1918, that threatened the greatest danger to the Soviet republic,” to quote Cliff). [Op. Cit., p. 161 and p. 18] Similarly, much of the economic policies implemented by the Bolsheviks had their roots in that book and the other writings by Lenin from 1917.
The conclusions of dissident Marxist Samuel Farber seem appropriate here. As he puts it, “the very fact that a Sovnarkom had been created as a separate body from the CEC [Central Executive Committee] of the soviets clearly indicates that, Lenin’s State and Revolution notwithstanding, the separation of at least the top bodies of the executive and the legislative wings of the government remained in effect in the new Soviet system.” This suggests “that State and Revolution did not play a decisive role as a source of policy guidelines for ‘Leninism in power.'” After all, “immediately after the Revolution the Bolsheviks established an executive power . . . as a clearly separate body from the leading body of the legislature . . . Therefore, some sections of the contemporary Left appear to have greatly overestimated the importance that State and Revolution had for Lenin’s government. I would suggest that this document . . . can be better understood as a distant, although doubtless sincere [!], socio-political vision . . . as opposed to its having been a programmatic political statement, let alone a guide to action, for the period immediately after the successful seizure of power.”[Op. Cit., pp. 20-1 and p. 38]
That is one way of looking at it. Another would be to draw the conclusion that a “distant . . . socio-political vision” drawn up to sound like a “guide to action” which was then immediately ignored is, at worse, little more than a deception, or, at best, a theoretical justification for seizing power in the face of orthodox Marxist dogma. Whatever the rationale for Lenin writing his book, one thing is true – it was never implemented. Strange, then, that Leninists today urge us to read it to see what “Lenin really wanted.” Particularly given that so few of its promises were actually implemented (those that were just recognised the facts on the ground) and all of them were no longer applied in less than six months after the seize of power.
It will be objected in defence of Leninism that it is unfair to hold Lenin responsible for the failure to apply his ideas in practice. The terrible Civil War, in which Soviet Russia was attacked by numerous armies, and the resulting economic chaos meant that the objective circumstances made it impossible to implement his democratic ideas. This argument contains flaws. Firstly, as we indicated above, the undemocratic policies of the Bolsheviks started before the start of the Civil War (so suggesting that the hardships of the Civil War were not to blame). Secondly, Lenin himself mocked those who argued that revolution was out of the question because of difficult circumstances and so to blame these for the failure of the Bolsheviks to apply the ideas in State and Revolution means to argue that those ideas are inappropriate for a revolution (which, we must stress, is what the leading Bolsheviks actually did end up arguing by their support for party dictatorship). You cannot have it both ways.
Lenin at no time indicated in State and Revolution that it was impossible or inapplicable to apply those ideas during a revolution in Russia (quite the reverse!). Given that Marxists, including Lenin, argue that a “dictatorship of the proletariat” is required to defend the revolution against capitalist resistance it seems incredulous to argue that Lenin’s major theoretical work on that regime was impossible to apply in precisely the circumstances it was designed for.
All in all, discussing Lenin’s State and Revolution without indicating that the Bolsheviks failed to implement its ideas (indeed, did the exact opposite) suggests a lack of honesty. It also suggests that the libertarian ideas Lenin appropriated in that work could not survive being grafted onto the statist ideas of mainstream Marxism. In the words of historian Marc Ferro:
“In a way, The State and Revolution even laid the foundations and sketched out the essential features of an alternative to Bolshevik power, and only the pro-Leninist tradition has used it, almost to quieten its conscience, because Lenin, once in power, ignored its conclusions. The Bolsheviks, far from causing the state to wither away, found endless reasons for justifying its enforcement.” [October 1917, pp. 213-4]
Anarchists would suggest that this alternative was anarchism. The Russian Revolution shows that a workers state, as anarchists have long argued, means minority power, not working class self-management of society. As such, Lenin’s work indicates the contradictory nature of Marxism – while claiming to support democratic/libertarian ideals they promote structures (such as centralised states) which undermine those values in favour of party rule. The lesson is clear, only libertarian means can ensure libertarian ends and they have to be applied consistently within libertarian structures to work. To apply them to statist ones will simply fail.