PDF version of Section H.
Ask most people what socialism means and they will point to the Soviet Union, China, Cuba and a host of other authoritarian, centralised, exploitative and oppressive party dictatorships. These regimes have in common two things. Firstly, the claim that their rulers are Marxists or socialists. Secondly, that they have successfully alienated millions of working class people from the very idea of socialism. Indeed, the supporters of capitalism simply had to describe the “socialist paradises” as they really are in order to put people off socialism. The Stalinist regimes and their various apologists (and even “opponents”, like the Trotskyists, who defended them as “degenerated workers’ states”) let the bourgeoisie have an easy time in dismissing all working-class demands and struggles as so many attempts to set up similar party dictatorships.
The association of “socialism” or “communism” with these dictatorships has often made anarchists wary of calling themselves socialists or communists in case our ideas are associated with them. As Errico Malatesta argued in 1924:
“I foresee the possibility that the communist anarchists will gradually abandon the term ‘communist’: it is growing in ambivalence and falling into disrepute as a result of Russian ‘communist’ despotism. If the term is eventually abandoned this will be a repetition of what happened with the word ‘socialist.’ We who, in Italy at least, were the first champions of socialism and maintained and still maintain that we are the true socialists in the broad and human sense of the word, ended by abandoning the term to avoid confusion with the many and various authoritarian and bourgeois deviations of socialism. Thus too we may have to abandon the term ‘communist’ for fear that our ideal of free human solidarity will be confused with the avaricious despotism which has for some time triumphed in Russia and which one party, inspired by the Russian example, seeks to impose world-wide.” [The Anarchist Revolution, p. 20]
That, to a large degree happened with anarchists simply calling themselves by that name (without adjectives) or libertarians to avoid confusion. This, sadly, resulted in two problems. Firstly, it gave Marxists even more potential to portray anarchism as being primarily against the state and not being as equally opposed to capitalism, hierarchy and inequality (as we argue in section H.2.4, anarchists have opposed the state as just one aspect of class and hierarchical society). Secondly, extreme right-wingers tried to appropriate the names “libertarian” and “anarchist” to describe their vision of extreme capitalism as “anarchism,” they claimed, was simply “anti-government” (see section F for discussion on why “anarcho”-capitalism is not anarchist). To counter these distortions of anarchist ideas, many anarchists have re-appropriated the use of the words “socialist” and “communist,” although always in combination with the words “anarchist” and “libertarian.”
Such combination of words is essential as the problem Malatesta predicted still remains. If one thing can be claimed for the 20th century, it is that it has seen the word “socialism” become narrowed and restricted into what anarchists call “state socialism” – socialism created and run from above, by the state (i.e. by the state bureaucracy and better described as state capitalism). This restriction of “socialism” has been supported by both Stalinist and Capitalist ruling elites, for their own reasons (the former to secure their own power and gain support by associating themselves with socialist ideals, the latter by discrediting those ideas by associating them with the horror of Stalinism). The Stalinist “leadership thus portrays itself as socialist to protect its right to wield the club, and Western ideologists adopt the same pretence in order to forestall the threat of a more free and just society.” The latter use it as “a powerful ideological weapon to enforce conformity and obedience,” to “ensure that the necessity to rent oneself to the owners and managers of these [capitalist] institutions will be regarded as virtually a natural law, the only alternative to the ‘socialist’ dungeon.” In reality, “if there is a relation” between Bolshevism and socialism, “it is the relation of contradiction.” [“The Soviet Union versus Socialism”, pp. 47-52, The Radical Papers, Dimitrios I. Roussopoulos (ed.), pp. 47-8]
This means that anarchists and other libertarian socialists have a major task on their hands – to reclaim the promise of socialism from the distortions inflicted upon it by both its enemies (Stalinists and capitalists) and its erstwhile and self-proclaimed supporters (Social Democracy and its offspring Bolshevism). A key aspect of this process is a critique of both the practice and ideology of Marxism and its various offshoots. Only by doing this can anarchists prove, to quote Rocker, that “Socialism will be free, or it will not be at all.” [Anarcho-Syndicalism, p. 14]
Such a critique raises the problem of which forms of “Marxism” to discuss. There is an extremely diverse range of Marxist viewpoints and groups in existence. Indeed, the different groups spend a lot of time indicating why all the others are not “real” Marxists (or Marxist-Leninists, or Trotskyists, and so on) and are just “sects” without “real” Marxist theory or ideas. This “diversity” is, of course, a major problem (and somewhat ironic, given that some Marxists like to insult anarchists by stating there are as many forms of anarchism as anarchists!). Equally, many Marxists go further than dismissing specific groups. Some even totally reject other branches of their movement as being non-Marxist (for example, some Marxists dismiss Leninism as having little, or nothing, to do with what they consider the “real” Marxist tradition to be). This means that discussing Marxism can be difficult as Marxists can argue that our FAQ does not address the arguments of this or that Marxist thinker, group or tendency.
With this in mind, this section of the FAQ will concentrate on the works of Marx and Engels (and so the movement they generated, namely Social Democracy) as well as the Bolshevik tradition started by Lenin and continued (by and large) by Trotsky. These are the core thinkers (and the recognised authorities) of most Marxists and so latter derivations of these tendencies can be ignored (for example Maoism, Castroism and so on). It should also be noted that even this grouping will produce dissent as some Marxists argue that the Bolshevik tradition is not part of Marxism. This perspective can be seen in the “impossiblist” tradition of Marxism (e.g. the Socialist Party of Great Britain and its sister parties) as well as in the left/council communist tradition (e.g. in the work of such Marxists as Anton Pannekoek and Paul Mattick). The arguments for their positions are strong and well worth reading (indeed, any honest analysis of Marxism and Leninism cannot help but show important differences between the two). However, as the vast majority of Marxists today are also Leninists, we have to reflect this in our FAQ (and, in general, we do so by referring to “mainstream Marxists” as opposed to the small minority of libertarian Marxists).
Another problem arises when we consider the differences not only between Marxist tendencies, but also within a specific tendency before and after its representatives seize power. For example, as Chomsky pointed out, “there are . . . very different strains of Leninism . . . there’s the Lenin of 1917, the Lenin of the ‘April Theses’ and State and Revolution. That’s one Lenin. And then there’s the Lenin who took power and acted in ways that are unrecognisable . . . compared with, say, the doctrines of ‘State and Revolution.’ . . . this [is] not very hard to explain. There’s a big difference between the libertarian doctrines of a person who is trying to associate himself with a mass popular movement to acquire power and the authoritarian power of somebody who’s taken power and is trying to consolidate it. . . that is true of Marx also. There are competing strains in Marx.” As such, this section of our FAQ will try and draw out the contradictions within Marxism and indicate what aspects of the doctrine aided the development of the “second” Lenin for the seeds from which authoritarianism grew post-October 1917 existed from the start. Anarchists agree with Chomsky, namely that he considered it “characteristic and unfortunate that the lesson that was drawn from Marx and Lenin for the later period was the authoritarian lesson. That is, it’s the authoritarian power of the vanguard party and destruction of all popular forums in the interests of the masses. That’s the Lenin who became know to later generations. Again, not very surprisingly, because that’s what Leninism really was in practice.” [Language and Politics, p. 152]
Ironically, given Marx’s own comments on the subject, a key hindrance to such an evaluation is the whole idea and history of Marxism itself. While, as Murray Bookchin noted “to his lasting credit,” Marx tried (to some degree) “to create a movement that looks to the future instead of to the past,” his followers have not done so. “Once again,” Bookchin argued, “the dead are walking in our midst – ironically, draped in the name of Marx, the man who tried to bury the dead of the nineteenth century. So the revolution of our own day can do nothing better than parody, in turn, the October Revolution of 1918 and the civil war of 1918-1920 . . . The complete, all-sided revolution of our own day . . . follows the partial, the incomplete, the one-sided revolutions of the past, which merely changed the form of the ‘social question,’ replacing one system of domination and hierarchy by another.” [Post-Scarcity Anarchism, p. 108 and p. 109] In Marx’s words, the “tradition of all the dead generations weighs down like a nightmare on the brain of the living.” Yet his own work, and the movements it inspired, now add to this dead-weight. In order to ensure, as Marx put it, the social revolution draws is poetry from the future rather than the past, Marxism itself must be transcended.
Which, of course, means evaluating both the theory and practice of Marxism. For anarchists, it seems strange that for a body of work whose followers stress is revolutionary and liberating, its results have been so bad. If Marxism is so obviously revolutionary and democratic, then why have so few of the people who read it drawn those conclusions? How could it be transmuted so easily into Stalinism? Why are there so few libertarian Marxists, if it were Lenin (or, following Lenin, Social Democracy) which “misinterpreted” Marx and Engels? So when Marxists argue that the problem is in the interpretation of the message not in the message itself, anarchists reply that the reason these numerous, allegedly false, interpretations exist at all simply suggests that there are limitations within Marxism as such rather than the readings it has been subjected to. When something repeatedly fails and produces such terrible results in the progress then there has to be a fundamental flaw somewhere. Thus Cornelius Castoriadis:
“Marx was, in fact, the first to stress that the significance of a theory cannot be grasped independently of the historical and social practice it inspires and initiates, to which it gives rise, in which it prolongs itself and under cover of which a given practice seeks to justify itself.
“Who, today, would dare proclaim that the only significance of Christianity for history is to be found in reading unaltered versions of the Gospels or that the historical practice of various Churches over a period of some 2,000 years can teach us nothing fundamental about the significance of this religious movement? A ‘faithfulness to Marx’ which would see the historical fate of Marxism as something unimportant would be just as laughable. It would in fact be quite ridiculous. Whereas for the Christian the revelations of the Gospels have a transcendental kernel and an intemporal validity, no theory could ever have such qualities in the eyes of a Marxist. To seek to discover the meaning of Marxism only in what Marx wrote (while keeping quiet about what the doctrine has become in history) is to pretend – in flagrant contradiction with the central ideas of that doctrine – that real history doesn’t count and that the truth of a theory is always and exclusively to be found ‘further on.’ It finally comes to replacing revolution by revelation and the understanding of events by the exegesis of texts.” [“The Fate of Marxism,” pp. 75-84 The Anarchist Papers, Dimitrios Roussopoulos (ed.), p. 77]
This does not mean forsaking the work of Marx and Engels. It means rejecting once and for all the idea that two people, writing over a period of decades over a hundred years ago have all the answers. As should be obvious! Ultimately, anarchists think we have to build upon the legacy of the past, not squeeze current events into it. We should stand on the shoulders of giants, not at their feet.
Thus this section of our FAQ will attempt to explain the various myths of Marxism and provide an anarchist critique of it and its offshoots. Of course, the ultimate myth of Marxism is what Alexander Berkman called “The Bolshevik Myth,” namely the idea that the Russian Revolution was a success. However, given the scope of this revolution, we will not discuss it fully here except when it provides useful empirical evidence for our critique (see section H.6 for more on the Russian Revolution). Our discussion here will concentrate for the most part on Marxist theory, showing its inadequacies, its problems, where it appropriated anarchist ideas and how anarchism and Marxism differ. This is a big task and this section of the FAQ can only be a small contribution to it.
As noted above, there are minority trends in Marxism which are libertarian in nature (i.e. close to anarchism). As such, it would be simplistic to say that anarchists are “anti-Marxist” and we generally do differentiate between the (minority) libertarian element and the authoritarian mainstream of Marxism (i.e. Social-Democracy and Leninism in its many forms). Without doubt, Marx contributed immensely to the enrichment of socialist ideas and analysis (as acknowledged by Bakunin, for example). His influence, as to be expected, was both positive and negative. For this reason he must be read and discussed critically. This FAQ is a contribution to this task of transcending the work of Marx. As with anarchist thinkers, we must take what is useful from Marx and reject the rubbish. But never forget that anarchists are anarchists precisely because we think that anarchist thinkers have got more right than wrong and we reject the idea of tying our politics to the name of a long dead thinker.
Ultimately, the greatest myth of Marxism is the idea that anarchists and most Marxists want the same thing. Indeed, it could be argued that it is anarchist criticism of Marxism which has made them stress the similarity of long term goals with anarchism. “Our polemics against [the Marxists],” Bakunin argued, “have forced them to recognise that freedom, or anarchy – that is, the voluntary organisation of the workers from below upward – is the ultimate goal of social development.” He stressed that the means to this apparently similar end were different. The Marxists “say that [a] state yoke, [a] dictatorship, is a necessary transitional device for achieving the total liberation of the people: anarchy, or freedom, is the goal, and the state, or dictatorship, is the means . . . We reply that no dictatorship can have any other objective than to perpetuate itself, and that it can engender and nurture only slavery in the people who endure it. Liberty can be created only by liberty, by an insurrection of all the people and the voluntary organisation of the workers from below upwards.” [Statism and Anarchy, p. 179]
As such, it is commonly taken for granted that the ends of both Marxists and Anarchists are the same, we just disagree over the means. However, within this general agreement over the ultimate end (a classless and stateless society), the details of such a society are somewhat different. This, perhaps, is to be expected given the differences in means. As is obvious from Bakunin’s argument, anarchists stress the unity of means and goals, that the means which are used affect the goal reached. This unity between means and ends is expressed well by Martin Buber’s observation that “[o]ne cannot in the nature of things expect a little tree that has been turned into a club to put forth leaves.” [Paths in Utopia, p. 127] In summary, we cannot expect to reach our end destination if we take a path going in the opposite direction. As such, the agreement on ends may not be as close as often imagined.
So when it is stated that anarchists and state socialists want the same thing, the following should be borne in mind. Firstly, there are key differences on the question of current tactics. Secondly, there is the question of the immediate aims of a revolution. Thirdly, there is the long term goals of such a revolution. These three aspects form a coherent whole, with each one logically following on from the last. As we will show, the anarchist and Marxist vision of each aspect are distinctly different, so suggesting that the short, medium and long term goals of each theory are, in fact, different. We will discuss each aspect in turn.
First, there is the question of the nature of the revolutionary movement. Here anarchists and most Marxists have distinctly opposing ideas. The former argue that both the revolutionary organisation (i.e. an anarchist federation) and the wider labour movement should be organised in line with the vision of society which inspires us. This means that it should be a federation of self-managed groups based on the direct participation of its membership in the decision making process. Power, therefore, is decentralised and there is no division between those who make the decisions and those who execute them. We reject the idea of others acting on our behalf or on behalf of the people and so urge the use of direct action and solidarity, based upon working class self-organisation, self-management and autonomy. Thus, anarchists apply their ideas in the struggle against the current system, arguing what is “efficient” from a hierarchical or class position is deeply inefficient from a revolutionary perspective.
Marxists disagree. Most Marxists are also Leninists. They argue that we must form a “vanguard” party based on the principles of “democratic centralism” complete with institutionalised and hierarchical leadership. They argue that how we organise today is independent of the kind of society we seek and that the party should aim to become the recognised leadership of the working class. Every thing they do is subordinated to this end, meaning that no struggle is seen as an end in itself but rather as a means to gaining membership and influence for the party until such time as it gathers enough support to seize power. As this is a key point of contention between anarchists and Leninists, we discuss this in some detail in section H.5 and its related sections and so not do so here.
Obviously, in the short term anarchists and Leninists cannot be said to want the same thing. While we seek a revolutionary movement based on libertarian (i.e. revolutionary) principles, the Leninists seek a party based on distinctly bourgeois principles of centralisation, delegation of power and representative over direct democracy. Both, of course, argue that only their system of organisation is effective and efficient (see section H.5.8 on a discussion why anarchists argue that the Leninist model is not effective from a revolutionary perspective). The anarchist perspective is to see the revolutionary organisation as part of the working class, encouraging and helping those in struggle to clarify the ideas they draw from their own experiences and its role is to provide a lead rather than a new set of leaders to be followed (see section J.3.6 for more on this). The Leninist perspective is to see the revolutionary party as the leadership of the working class, introducing socialist consciousness into a class which cannot generate itself (see section H.5.1).
Given the Leninist preference for centralisation and a leadership role by hierarchical organisation, it will come as no surprise that their ideas on the nature of post-revolutionary society are distinctly different from anarchists. While there is a tendency for Leninists to deny that anarchists have a clear idea of what will immediately be created by a revolution (see section H.1.4), we do have concrete ideas on the kind of society a revolution will immediately create. This vision is in almost every way different from that proposed by most Marxists.
Then there is the question of the state. Anarchists, unsurprisingly enough, seek to destroy it. Simply put, while anarchists want a stateless and classless society and advocate the means appropriate to those ends, most Marxists argue that in order to reach a stateless society we need a new “workers'” state, a state, moreover, in which their party will be in charge. Trotsky, writing in 1906, made this clear: “Every political party deserving of the name aims at seizing governmental power and thus putting the state at the service of the class whose interests it represents.” [quoted by Israel Getzler, Marxist Revolutionaries and the Dilemma of Power, p. 105] This fits in with Marx’s and Engels’s repeated equation of universal suffrage with the political power or political supremacy of the working class. In other words, “political power” simply means the ability to nominate a government (see section H.3.10).
While Marxists like to portray this new government as “the dictatorship of the proletariat,” anarchist argue that, in fact, it will be the dictatorship over the proletariat. This is because if the working class is the ruling class (as Marxists claim) then, anarchists argue, how can they delegate their power to a government and remain so? Either the working class directly manages its own affairs (and so society) or the government does. Any state is simply rule by a few and so is incompatible with socialism (we discuss this issue in section H.3.7). The obvious implication of this is that Marxism seeks party rule, not working class direct management of society (as we discuss in section H.3.8, the Leninist tradition is extremely clear on this matter).
Then there is the question of the building blocks of socialism. Yet again, there is a clear difference between anarchism and Marxism. Anarchists have always argued that the basis of socialism is working class organisations, created in the struggle against capitalism and the state. This applies to both the social and economic structure of a post-revolutionary society. For most forms of Marxism, a radically different picture has been the dominant one. As we discuss in section H.3.10, Marxists only reached a similar vision for the political structure of socialism in 1917 when Lenin supported the soviets as the framework of his workers’ state. However, as we prove in section H.3.11, he did so for instrumental purposes only, namely as the best means of assuring Bolshevik power. If the soviets clashed with the party, it was the latter which took precedence. Unsurprisingly, the Bolshevik mainstream moved from “All Power to the Soviets” to “dictatorship of the party” rather quickly. Thus, unlike anarchism, most forms of Marxism aim for party power, a “revolutionary” government above the organs of working class self-management.
Economically, there are also clear differences. Anarchists have consistently argued that the workers “ought to be the real managers of industries.” [Peter Kropotkin, Fields, Factories and Workshops Tomorrow, p. 157] To achieve this, we have pointed to various organisations over time, such as factory committees and labour unions. As we discuss in more detail in section H.3.12, Lenin, in contrast, saw socialism as being constructed on the basis of structures and techniques (including management ones) developed under capitalism. Rather than see socialism as being built around new, working class organisations, Lenin saw it being constructed on the basis of developments in capitalist organisation. “The Leninist road to socialism,” notes one expert on Lenin, “emphatically ran through the terrain of monopoly capitalism. It would, according to Lenin, abolish neither its advanced technological base nor its institutionalised means for allocating resources or structuring industry. . . The institutionalised framework of advanced capitalism could, to put it shortly, be utilised for realisation of specifically socialist goals. They were to become, indeed, the principal (almost exclusive) instruments of socialist transformation.” [Neil Harding, Leninism, p.145]
The role of workers’ in this vision was basically unchanged. Rather than demand, like anarchists, workers’ self-management of production in 1917, Lenin raised the demand for “country-wide, all-embracing workers’ control over the capitalists” (and this is the “important thing”, not “confiscation of the capitalists’ property”) [The Lenin Anthology, p. 402] Once the Bolsheviks were in power, the workers’ own organs (the factory committees) were integrated into a system of state control, losing whatever power they once held at the point of production. Lenin then modified this vision by replacing capitalists with (state appointed) “one-man management” over the workers (see section H.3.14). In other words, a form of state capitalism in which workers would still be wage slaves under bosses appointed by the state. Unsurprisingly, the “control” workers exercised over their bosses (i.e. those with real power in production) proved to be as elusive in production as it was in the state. In this, Lenin undoubtedly followed the lead of the Communist Manifesto which stressed state ownership of the means of production without a word about workers’ self-management of production. As we discuss in section H.3.13, state “socialism” cannot help being “state capitalism” by its very nature.
Needless to say, as far as means go, few anarchists and syndicalists are complete pacifists. As syndicalist Emile Pouget argued, “[h]istory teaches that the privileged have never surrendered their privileges without having been compelled so to do and forced into it by their rebellious victims. It is unlikely that the bourgeoisie is blessed with an exceptional greatness of soul and will abdicate voluntarily” and so “[r]ecourse to force . . . will be required.” [The Party Of Labour] This does not mean that libertarians glorify violence or argue that all forms of violence are acceptable (quite the reverse!), it simply means that for self-defence against violent opponents violence is, unfortunately, sometimes required.
The way an anarchist revolution would defend itself also shows a key difference between anarchism and Marxism. As we discussed in section H.2.1, anarchists (regardless of Marxist claims) have always argued that a revolution needs to defend itself. This would be organised in a federal, bottom-up way as the social structure of a free society. It would be based on voluntary working class militias. This model of working class self-defence was applied successfully in both the Spanish and Ukrainian revolutions (by the CNT-FAI and the Makhnovists, respectively). In contrast, the Bolshevik method of defending a revolution was the top-down, hierarchical and centralised “Red Army”. As the example of the Makhnovists showed, the “Red Army” was not the only way the Russian Revolution could have been defended although it was the only way Bolshevik power could be.
So while Anarchists have consistently argued that socialism must be based on working class self-management of production and society based on working class organisations, the Leninist tradition has not supported this vision (although it has appropriated some of its imagery to gain popular support). Clearly, in terms of the immediate aftermath of a revolution, anarchists and Leninists do not seek the same thing. The former want a free society organised and run from below-upwards by the working class based on workers self-management of production while the latter seek party power in a new state structure which would preside over an essentially state capitalist economy.
Lastly, there is the question of the long term goal. Even in this vision of a classless and stateless society there is very little in common between anarchist communism and Marxist communism, beyond the similar terminology used to describe it. This is blurred by the differences in terminology used by both theories. Marx and Engels had raised in the 1840s the (long term) goal of “an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all” replacing “the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms,” in the Communist Manifesto. Before this “vast association of the whole nation” was possible, the proletariat would be “raise[d] . . . to the position of ruling class” and “all capital” would be “centralise[d] . . . in the hands of the State, i.e. of the proletariat organised as the ruling class.” As economic classes would no longer exist, “the public power would lose its political character” as political power “is merely the organised power of one class for oppressing another.” [Selected Works, p. 53]
It was this, the means to the end, which was the focus of much debate (see section H.1.1 for details). However, it cannot be assumed that the ends desired by Marxists and anarchists are identical. The argument that the “public power” could stop being “political” (i.e. a state) is a tautology, and a particularly unconvincing one at that. After all, if “political power” is defined as being an instrument of class rule it automatically follows that a classless society would have a non-political “public power” and so be without a state! This does not imply that a “public power” would no longer exist as a structure within (or, more correctly, over) society, it just implies that its role would no longer be “political” (i.e. an instrument of class rule). Given that, according to the Manifesto, the state would centralise the means of production, credit and transportation and then organise it “in accordance with a common plan” using “industrial armies, especially for agriculture” this would suggest that the state structure would remain even after its “political” aspects had, to use Engels words, “die[d] out.” [Marx and Engels, Op. Cit., pp. 52-3 and p. 424]
From this perspective, the difference between anarchist communism and Marxist-communism is clear. “While both,” notes John Clark, “foresee the disappearance of the state, the achievement of social management of the economy, the end of class rule, and the attainment of human equality, to mention a few common goals, significant differences in ends still remain. Marxist thought has inherited a vision which looks to high development of technology with a corresponding degree of centralisation of social institutions which will continue even after the coming of the social revolution. . . . The anarchist vision sees the human scale as essential, both in the techniques which are used for production, and for the institutions which arise from the new modes of association . . . In addition, the anarchist ideal has a strong hedonistic element which has seen Germanic socialism as ascetic and Puritanical.” [The Anarchist Moment, p. 68] Thus Marx presents “a formulation that calls not for the ultimate abolition of the State but suggests that it will continue to exist (however differently it is reconstituted by the proletariat) as a ‘nonpolitical’ (i.e., administrative) source of authority.” [Murray Bookchin, The Ecology of Freedom, p. 196fn]
Moreover, it is unlikely that such a centralised system could become stateless and classless in actuality. As Bakunin argued, in the Marxist state “there will be no privileged class. Everybody will be equal, not only from the judicial and political but also from the economic standpoint. This is the promise at any rate . . . So there will be no more class, but a government, and, please note, an extremely complicated government which, not content with governing and administering the masses politically . . . will also administer them economically, by taking over the production and fair sharing of wealth, agriculture, the establishment and development of factories, the organisation and control of trade, and lastly the injection of capital into production by a single banker, the State.” Such a system would be, in reality, “the reign of the scientific mind, the most aristocratic, despotic, arrogant and contemptuous of all regimes” base on “a new class, a new hierarchy of real or bogus learning, and the world will be divided into a dominant, science-based minority and a vast, ignorant majority.” [Michael Bakunin: Selected Writings, p. 266]
George Barrett’s words also seem appropriate:
“The modern Socialist . . . have steadily worked for centralisation, and complete and perfect organisation and control by those in authority above the people. The anarchist, on the other hand, believes in the abolition of that central power, and expects the free society to grow into existence from below, starting with those organisations and free agreements among the people themselves. It is difficult to see how, by making a central power control everything, we can be making a step towards the abolition of that power.” [Objections to Anarchism, p. 348]
Indeed, by giving the state increased economic activities it ensures that this so-called “transitional” state grows with the implementation of the Marxist programme. Moreover, given the economic tasks the state now does it hardly makes much sense to assert it will “wither away” – unless you think that the centralised economic planning which this regime does also “withers away.” Marx argued that once the “abolition of classes” has “been attained” then “the power of the State . . . disappears, and the functions of government are transformed into simple administrative functions.” [Marx, Engels and Lenin, Anarchism and Anarcho-Syndicalism, p. 76] In other words, the state apparatus does not “wither away” rather its function as an instrument of class rule does. This is an automatic result of classes themselves withering away as private property is nationalised. Yet as class is defined as being rooted in ownership of the means of production, this becomes a meaningless tautology. Obviously, as the state centralises the means of production into its own hands then (the existing) economic classes cease to exist and, as a result, the state “disappears.” Yet the power and size of the State is, in fact, increased by this process and so the elimination of economic classes actually increases the power and size of the state machine.
As Brain Morris notes, “Bakunin’s fears that under Marx’s kind of socialism the workers would continue to labour under a regimented, mechanised, hierarchical system of production, without direct control over their labour, has been more than confirmed by the realities of the Bolshevik system. Thus, Bakunin’s critique of Marxism has taken on an increasing relevance in the age of bureaucratic State capitalism.” [Bakunin: The Philosophy of Freedom, p. 132] Thus the “central confusions of Marxist political theorists” are found in the discussion on the state in The Communist Manifesto. If class is “an exclusively economic category, and if the old conditions of production are changed so that there is no longer any private ownership of the means of production, then classes no longer exist by definition when they are defined in terms of . . . the private ownership of the means of production . . . If Marx also defines ‘political power’ as ‘the organised power of one [economic] class for oppressing another’, then the . . . argument is no more than a tautology, and is trivially true.” Unfortunately, as history has confirmed, “we cannot conclude . . . if it is a mere tautology, that with a condition of no private ownership of the means of production there could be no . . . dominant and subordinate strata.” [Alan Carter, Marx: A Radical Critique, p. 221 and pp. 221-2]
Unsurprisingly, therefore, anarchists are not convinced that a highly centralised structure (as a state is) managing the economic life of society can be part of a truly classless society. While economic class as defined in terms of ownership of the means of production may not exist, social classes (defined in terms of inequality of power, authority and control) will continue simply because the state is designed to create and protect minority rule (see section H.3.7). As Bolshevik and Stalinist Russia showed, nationalising the means of production does not end class society. As Malatesta argued:
“When F. Engels, perhaps to counter anarchist criticisms, said that once classes disappear the State as such has no raison d’être and transforms itself from a government of men into an administration of thing, he was merely playing with words. Whoever has power over things has power over men; whoever governs production also governs the producers; who determines consumption is master over the consumer.
“This is the question; either things are administered on the basis of free agreement of the interested parties, and this is anarchy; or they are administered according to laws made by administrators and this is government, it is the State, and inevitably it turns out to be tyrannical.
“It is not a question of the good intentions or the good will of this or that man, but of the inevitability of the situation, and of the tendencies which man generally develops in given circumstances.” [Errico Malatesta: His Life and Ideas, p. 145]
The anarchist vision of the future society, therefore, does not exactly match the state communist vision, as much as the latter would like to suggest it does. The difference between the two is authority, which cannot be anything but the largest difference possible. Anarchist economic and organisational theories are built around an anti-authoritarian core and this informs both our means and aims. For anarchists, the Leninist vision of socialism is unattractive. Lenin continually stressed that his conception of socialism and “state capitalism” were basically identical. Even in State and Revolution, allegedly Lenin’s most libertarian work, we discover this particularly unvisionary and uninspiring vision of “socialism”:
“All citizens are transformed into the salaried employees of the state . . . All citizens become employees and workers of a single national state ‘syndicate’ . . . The whole of society will have become a single office and a single factory with equality of work and equality of pay.” [Essential Works of Lenin, p. 348]
To which, anarchists point to Engels and his comments on the tyrannical and authoritarian character of the modern factory (as we discuss in section H.4.4). Clearly, Lenin’s idea of turning the world into one big factory takes on an extremely frightening nature given Engels’ lovely vision of the lack of freedom in the workplace.
For these reasons anarchists reject the simplistic Marxist analysis of inequality being rooted simply in economic class. Such an analysis, as the comments of Lenin and Engels prove, show that social inequality can be smuggled in by the backdoor of a proposed classless and stateless society. Thus Bookchin:
“Basic to anti-authoritarian Socialism –specifically, to Anarchist Communism – is the notion that hierarchy and domination cannot be subsumed by class rule and economic exploitation, indeed, that they are more fundamental to an understanding of the modern revolutionary project . . . Power of human over human long antedates the very formation of classes and economic modes of social oppression. . . . This much is clear: it will no longer do to insist that a classless society, freed from material exploitation, will necessarily be a liberated society. There is nothing in the social future to suggest that bureaucracy is incompatible with a classless society, the domination of women, the young, ethnic groups or even professional strata.” [Toward an Ecological Society, pp. 208-9]
Ultimately, anarchists see that “there is a realm of domination that is broader than the realm of material exploitation. The tragedy of the socialist movement is that, steeped in the past, it uses the methods of domination to try to ‘liberate’ us from material exploitation.” Needless to say, this is doomed to failure. Socialism “will simply mire us in a world we are trying to overcome. A non-hierarchical society, self-managed and free of domination in all its forms, stands on the agenda today, not a hierarchical system draped in a red flag.” [Bookchin, Op. Cit., p. 272 and pp. 273-4]
In summary, it cannot be said that anarchists and most Marxists want the same thing. While they often use the same terms, these terms often hide radically different concepts. Just because, say, anarchists and mainstream Marxists talk about “social revolution,” “socialism,” “all power to the soviets” and so on, it does not mean that we mean the same thing by them. For example, the phrase “all power to the soviets” for anarchists means exactly that (i.e. that the revolution must be directly managed by working class organs). Leninists mean “all power to a central government elected by a national soviet congress.” Similarly with other similar phrases (which shows the importance of looking at the details of any political theory and its history).
We have shown that discussion over ends is as important as discussion over means as they are related. As Kropotkin once pointed out, those who downplay the importance of discussing the “order of things which . . . should emerge from the coming revolution” in favour of concentrating on “practical things” are being less than honest as “far from making light of such theories, they propagate them, and all that they do now is a logical extension of their ideas. In the end those words ‘Let us not discuss theoretical questions’ really mean: ‘Do not subject our theory to discussion, but help us to put it into execution.'” [Words of a Rebel, p. 200]
Hence the need to critically evaluate both ends and means. This shows the weakness of the common argument that anarchists and Leftists share some common visions and so we should work with them to achieve those common things. Who knows what happens after that? As can be seen, this is not the case. Many aspects of anarchism and Marxism are in opposition and cannot be considered similar (for example, what a Leninist considers as socialism is extremely different to what an anarchist thinks it is). If you consider “socialism” as being a “workers’ state” presided over by a “revolutionary” government, then how can this be reconciled with the anarchist vision of a federation of self-managed communes and workers’ associations? As the Russian Revolution shows, only by the armed might of the “revolutionary” government crushing the anarchist vision.
The only thing we truly share with these groups is a mutual opposition to existing capitalism. Having a common enemy does not make someone friends. Hence anarchists, while willing to work on certain mutual struggles, are well aware there is substantial differences in both terms of means and goals. The lessons of revolution in the 20th Century is that once in power, Leninists will repress anarchists, their current allies against the capitalist system. This is does not occur by accident, it flows from the differences in vision between the two movements, both in terms of means and goals.
Some Marxists, such as the International Socialist Tendency, like to portray their tradition as being “socialism from below.” Under “socialism from below,” they place the ideas of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, arguing that they and they alone have continued this, the true, ideal of socialism (Hal Draper’s essay “The Two Souls of Socialism” seems to have been the first to argue along these lines). They contrast this idea of socialism “from below” with “socialism from above,” in which they place reformist socialism (social democracy, Labourism, etc.), elitist socialism (Lassalle and others who wanted educated and liberal members of the middle classes to liberate the working class) and Stalinism (bureaucratic dictatorship over the working class). Anarchism, it is argued, should be placed in the latter camp, with Proudhon and Bakunin showing that anarchist libertarianism simply a “myth”.
For those who uphold this idea, “Socialism from below” is simply the self-emancipation of the working class by its own efforts. To anarchist ears, the claim that Marxism (and in particular Leninism) is socialism “from below” sounds paradoxical, indeed laughable. This is because anarchists from Proudhon onwards have used the imagery of socialism being created and run from below upwards. They have been doing so for far longer than Marxists have. As such, “socialism from below” simply sums up the anarchist ideal!
Thus we find Proudhon in 1848 talking about being a “revolutionary from below“ and that every “serious and lasting Revolution” was “made from below, by the people.” A “Revolution from above“ was “pure governmentalism,” “the negation of collective activity, of popular spontaneity” and is “the oppression of the wills of those below.” [quoted by George Woodcock, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, p. 143] For Proudhon, the means of this revolution “from below” would be federations of working class associations for both credit (mutual banks) and production (workers’ associations or co-operatives) as well as federations of communes (democratically organised communities). The workers, “organised among themselves, without the assistance of the capitalist” would march by “[w]ork to the conquest of the world” by the “force of principle.” Thus capitalism would be reformed away by the actions of the workers themselves. The “problem of association,” Proudhon argued, “consists in organising . . . the producers, and by this subjecting capital and subordinating power. Such is the war of liberty against authority, a war of the producer against the non-producer; a war of equality against privilege . . . An agricultural and industrial combination must be found by means of which power, today the ruler of society, shall become its slave.” [quoted by K. Steven Vincent, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and the Rise of French Republican Socialism, p. 148 and p. 157] Ultimately, “any revolution, to be effective, must be spontaneous and emanate, not from the heads of authorities, but from the bowels of the people . . . the only connection between government and labour is that labour, in organising itself, has the abrogation of governments as its mission.” [Proudhon, No Gods, No Masters, vol. 1, p. 52]
Similarly, Bakunin saw an anarchist revolution as coming “from below.” As he put it, “liberty can be created only by liberty, by an insurrection of all the people and the voluntary organisation of the workers from below upward.” [Statism and Anarchy, p. 179] Elsewhere he wrote that “popular revolution” would “create its own organisation from the bottom upwards and from the circumference inwards, in accordance with the principle of liberty, and not from the top downwards and from the centre outwards, as in the way of authority.” [Michael Bakunin: Selected Writings, p. 170] His vision of revolution and revolutionary self-organisation and construction from below was a core aspect of his anarchist ideas and he argued repeatedly for “the free organisation of the people’s lives in accordance with their needs – not from the top down, as we have it in the State, but from the bottom up, an organisation formed by the people themselves . . . a free union of associations of agricultural and factory workers, of communes, regions, and nations.” He stressed that “the politics of the Social Revolution” was “the abolition of the State” and “the economic, altogether free organisation of the people, an organisation from below upward, by means of federation.” [The Political Philosophy of Bakunin, pp. 297-8]
While Proudhon wanted to revolutionise society, he rejected revolutionary means to do so (i.e. collective struggle, strikes, insurrection, etc.). Bakunin, however, was a revolutionary in this, the popular, sense of the word. Yet he shared with Proudhon the idea of socialism being created by the working class itself. As he put it, in “a social revolution, which in everything is diametrically opposed to a political revolution, the actions of individuals hardly count at all, whereas the spontaneous action of the masses is everything. All that individuals can do is clarify, propagate and work out the ideas corresponding to the popular instinct, and, what is more, to contribute their incessant efforts to revolutionary organisation of the natural power of the masses – but nothing else beyond that; the rest can and should be done by the people themselves . . . revolution can be waged and brought to its full development only through the spontaneous and continued mass action of groups and associations of the people.” [Op. Cit., pp. 298-9]
Therefore, the idea of “socialism from below” is a distinctly anarchist notion, one found in the works of Proudhon and Bakunin and repeated by anarchists ever since. As such, to hear Marxists appropriate this obviously anarchist terminology and imagery appears to many anarchists as opportunistic and attempt to cover the authoritarian reality of mainstream Marxism with anarchist rhetoric. Moreover, the attempt to suggest that anarchism is part of the elitist “socialism from above” school rests on little more that selective quoting of Proudhon and Bakunin (including from Bakunin’s pre-anarchist days) to present a picture of their ideas distinctly at odds with reality. However, there are “libertarian” strains of Marxism which are close to anarchism. Does this mean that there are no elements of a “socialism from below” to be found in Marx and Engels?
If we look at Marx, we get contradictory impressions. On the one hand, he argued that freedom “consists in converting the state from an organ superimposed upon society into one completely subordinate to it.” Combine this with his comments on the Paris Commune (see his “The Civil War in France”), we can say that there are clearly elements of “socialism from below” in Marx’s work. On the other hand, he often stresses the need for strict centralisation of power. In 1850, for example, he argued 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.” This was because “the path of revolutionary activity” can “proceed only from the centre.” This meant that the workers must be opposed to the “federative republic” planned by the democrats and “must not allow themselves to be misguided by the democratic talk of freedom for the communities, of self-government, etc.” This centralisation of power was essential to overcome local autonomy, which would allow “every village, every town and every province” to put “a new obstacle in the path” the revolution due to “local and provincial obstinacy.” Decades later, Marx dismissed Bakunin’s vision of “the free organisation of the worker masses from bottom to top” as “nonsense.” [Marx-Engels Reader, p. 537, p. 509 and p. 547]
Thus we have a contradiction. While arguing that the state must become subordinate to society, we have a central power imposing its will on “local and provincial obstinacy.” This implies a vision of revolution in which the centre (indeed, “the state authority”) forces its will on the population, which (by necessity) means that the centre power is “superimposed upon society” rather than “subordinate” to it. Given his dismissal of the idea of organisation from bottom to top, we cannot argue that by this he meant simply the co-ordination of local initiatives. Rather, we are struck by the “top-down” picture of revolution Marx presents. Indeed, his argument from 1850 suggests that Marx favoured centralism not only in order to prevent the masses from creating obstacles to the revolutionary activity of the “centre,” but also to prevent them from interfering with their own liberation.
Looking at Engels, we discover him writing that “[a]s soon as our Party is in possession of political power it has simply to expropriate the big landed proprietors just like the manufacturers in industry . . . thus restored to the community [they] are to be turned over by us to the rural workers who are already cultivating them and are to be organised into co-operatives.” He even states that this expropriation may “be compensated,” depending on “the circumstances which we obtain power, and particularly by the attitude adopted by these gentry.” [Selected Writings, pp. 638-9] Thus we have the party taking power, then expropriating the means of life for the workers and, lastly, “turning over” these to them. While this fits into the general scheme of the Communist Manifesto, it cannot be said to be “socialism from below” which can only signify the direct expropriation of the means of production by the workers themselves, organising themselves into free producer associations to do so.
It may be argued that Marx and Engels did not exclude such a solution to the social question. For example, we find Engels stating that “the question is not whether the proletariat when it comes to power will simply seize by force the tools of production, the raw materials and means of subsistence” or “whether it will redeem property therein by instalments spread over a long period.” To attempt to predict this “for all cases would be utopia-making.” [Collected Works, vol. 23, p. 386] However, Engels is assuming that the social revolution (the proletariat “com[ing] to power”) comes before the social revolution (the seizure of the means of production). In this, we can assume that it is the “revolutionary” government which does the seizing (or redeeming) rather than rebel workers.
This vision of revolution as the party coming to power can be seen from Engels’ warning that the “worse thing that can befall the leader of an extreme party is to be compelled to assume power at a time when the movement is not yet ripe for the domination of the class he represents and for the measures this domination implies.” [Op. Cit., vol. 10, p. 469] Needless to say, such a vision is hard to equate with “socialism from below” which implies the active participation of the working class in the direct management of society from the bottom-up. If the leaders “assume power” then they have the real power, not the class they claim to “represent.” Equally, it seems strange that socialism can be equated with a vision which equates “domination” of a class being achieved by the fact a leader “represents” it. Can the working class really be said to be the ruling class if its role in society is to select those who exercise power on its behalf (i.e. to elect representatives)? Bakunin quite rightly answered in the negative. While representative democracy may be acceptable to ensure bourgeois rule, it cannot be assumed that it can be utilised to create a socialist society. It was designed to defend class society and its centralised and top-down nature reflects this role.
Moreover, Marx and Engels had argued in The Holy Family that the “question is not what this or that proletarian, or even the whole of the proletariat at the moment considers as its aim. The question is what the proletariat is, and what, consequent on that being, it will be compelled to do.” [quoted by Murray Bookchin, The Spanish Anarchists, p. 280] As Murray Bookchin argued:
“These lines and others like them in Marx’s writings were to provide the rationale for asserting the authority of Marxist parties and their armed detachments over and even against the proletariat. Claiming a deeper and more informed comprehension of the situation than ‘even the whole of the proletariat at the given moment,’ Marxist parties went on to dissolve such revolutionary forms of proletarian organisation as factory committees and ultimately to totally regiment the proletariat according to lines established by the party leadership.” [Op. Cit., p. 289]
Thus the ideological underpinning of a “socialism from above” is expounded, one which dismisses what the members of the working class actually want or desire at a given point (a position which Trotsky, for one, explicitly argued). A few years later, they argued in The Communist Manifesto that “a portion of the bourgeois goes over to the proletariat, and in particular, a portion of the bourgeois ideologists, who have raised themselves to the level of comprehending theoretically the historical movement as a whole.” They also noted that the Communists are “the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties” and “they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the general results of the proletarian movement.” This gives a privileged place to the party (particularly the “bourgeois ideologists” who join it), a privileged place which their followers had no problem abusing in favour of party power and hierarchical leadership from above. As we discuss in section H.5, Lenin was just expressing orthodox Social-Democratic (i.e. Marxist) policy when he argued that socialist consciousness was created by bourgeois intellectuals and introduced into the working class from outside. Against this, we have to note that the Manifesto states that the proletarian movement was “the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interests of the immense majority” (although, as discussed in section H.1.1, when they wrote this the proletariat was a minority in all countries bar Britain). [Selected Works, p. 44, p. 46 and p. 45]
Looking at the tactics advocated by Marx and Engels, we see a strong support for “political action” in the sense of participating in elections. This support undoubtedly flows from Engels’s comments that universal suffrage “in an England two-thirds of whose inhabitants are industrial proletarians means the exclusive political rule of the working class with all the revolutionary changes in social conditions which are inseparable from it.” [Collected Works, vol. 10, p. 298] Marx, likewise, repeatedly argued along identical lines. For example, in 1855, he stated that “universal suffrage . . . implies the assumption of political power as means of satisfying [the workers’] social means” and, in Britain, “revolution is the direct content of universal suffrage.” [Op. Cit., vol. 11, pp. 335-6] Yet how could an entire class, the proletariat organised as a “movement” exercise its power under such a system? While the atomised voting to nominate representatives (who, in reality, held the real power in society) may be more than adequate to ensure bourgeois, i.e. minority, power, could it be used for working class, i.e. majority, power?
This seems highly unlikely because such institutions are designed to place policy-making in the hands of representatives and were created explicitly to exclude mass participation in order to ensure bourgeois control (see section B.2.5). They do not (indeed, cannot) constitute a “proletariat organised as a ruling class.” If public policy, as distinguished from administrative activities, is not made by the people themselves, in federations of self-managed assemblies, then a movement of the vast majority does not, cannot, exist. For people to acquire real power over their lives and society, they must establish institutions organised and run, as Bakunin constantly stressed, from below. This would necessitate that they themselves directly manage their own affairs, communities and workplaces and, for co-ordination, mandate federal assemblies of revocable and strictly controllable delegates, who will execute their decisions. Only in this sense can a majority class, especially one committed to the abolition of all classes, organise as a class to manage society.
As such, Marx and Engels tactics are at odds with any idea of “socialism from below.” While, correctly, supporting strikes and other forms of working class direct action (although, significantly, Engels dismissed the general strike) they placed that support within a general political strategy which emphasised electioneering and representative forms. This, however, is a form of struggle which can only really be carried out by means of leaders. The role of the masses is minor, that of voters. The focus of the struggle is at the top, in parliament, where the duly elected leaders are. As Luigi Galleani argued, this form of action involved the “ceding of power by all to someone, the delegate, the representative, individual or group.” This meant that rather than the anarchist tactic of “direct pressure put against the ruling classes by the masses,” the Socialist Party “substituted representation and the rigid discipline of the parliamentary socialists,” which inevitably resulted in it “adopt[ing] class collaboration in the legislative arena, without which all reforms would remain a vain hope.” It also resulted in the socialists needing “authoritarian organisations”, i.e. ones which are centralised and disciplined from above down. [The End of Anarchism?, p. 14, p. 12 and p. 14] The end result was the encouragement of a viewpoint that reforms (indeed, the revolution) would be the work of leaders acting on behalf of the masses whose role would be that of voters and followers, not active participants in the struggle (see section J.2 for a discussion on direct action and why anarchists reject electioneering).
By the 1890s, the top-down and essentially reformist nature of these tactics had made their mark in both Engels’ politics and the practical activities of the Social-Democratic parties. Engels “introduction” to Marx’s The Class Struggles in France indicated how far Marxism had progressed and undoubtedly influenced by the rise of Social-Democracy as an electoral power, it stressed the use of the ballot box as the ideal way, if not the only way, for the party to take power. He noted that “[w]e, the ‘revolutionists’, the ‘overthrowers'” were “thriving far better on legal methods than on illegal methods and overthrow” and the bourgeoisie “cry despairingly . . . legality is the death of us” and were “much more afraid of the legal than of the illegal action of the workers’ party, of the results of elections than of those of rebellion.” He argued that it was essential “not to fitter away this daily increasing shock force [of party voters] in vanguard skirmishes, but to keep it intact until the decisive day.” [Selected Writings, p. 656, p. 650 and p. 655]
The net effect of this would simply be keeping the class struggle within the bounds decided upon by the party leaders, so placing the emphasis on the activities and decisions of those at the top rather than the struggle and decisions of the mass of working class people themselves. As we noted in section H.1.1, when the party was racked by the “revisionism” controversy after Engels death, it was fundamentally a conflict between those who wanted the party’s rhetoric to reflect its reformist tactics and those who sought the illusion of radical words to cover the reformist practice. The decision of the Party leadership to support their state in the First World War simply proved that radical words cannot defeat reformist tactics.
Needless to say, from this contradictory inheritance Marxists had two ways of proceeding. Either they become explicitly anti-state (and so approach anarchism) or become explicitly in favour of party and state power and so, by necessity, “revolution from above.” The council communists and other libertarian Marxists followed the first path, the Bolsheviks and their followers the second. As we discuss in the next section, Lenin explicitly dismissed the idea that Marxism proceeded “only from below,” stating that this was an anarchist principle. Nor was he shy in equating party power with working class power. Indeed, this vision of socialism as involving party power was not alien to the mainstream social-democracy Leninism split from. The leading left-wing Menshevik Martov argued as follows:
“In a class struggle which has entered the phase of civil war, there are bound to be times when the advance guard of the revolutionary class, representing the interests of the broad masses but ahead of them in political consciousness, is obliged to exercise state power by means of a dictatorship of the revolutionary minority. Only a short-sighted and doctrinaire viewpoint would reject this prospect as such. The real question at stake is whether this dictatorship, which is unavoidable at a certain stage of any revolution, is exercised in such a way as to consolidate itself and create a system of institutions enabling it to become a permanent feature, or whether, on the contrary, it is replaced as soon as possible by the organised initiative and autonomy of the revolutionary class or classes as a whole. The second of these methods is that of the revolutionary Marxists who, for this reason, style themselves Social Democrats; the first is that of the Communists.” [The Mensheviks in the Russian Revolution, Abraham Ascher (ed.), p. 119]
All this is to be expected, given the weakness of the Marxist theory of the state. As we discuss in section H.3.7, Marxists have always had an a-historic perspective on the state, considering it as purely an instrument of class rule rather than what it is, an instrument of minority class rule. For anarchists, the “State is the minority government, from the top downward, of a vast quantity of men.” This automatically means that a socialism, like Marx’s, which aims for a socialist government and a workers’ state automatically becomes, against the wishes of its best activists, “socialism from above.” As Bakunin argued, Marxists are “worshippers of State power, and necessarily also prophets of political and social discipline and champions of order established from the top downwards, always in the name of universal suffrage and the sovereignty of the masses, for whom they save the honour and privilege of obeying leaders, elected masters.” [Michael Bakunin: Selected Writings, p. 265 and pp. 237-8]
For this reason anarchists from Bakunin onwards have argued for a bottom-up federation of workers’ councils as the basis of revolution and the means of managing society after capitalism and the state have been abolished. If these organs of workers’ self-management are co-opted into a state structure (as happened in Russia) then their power will be handed over to the real power in any state – the government and its bureaucracy. The state is the delegation of power – as such, it means that the idea of a “workers’ state” expressing “workers’ power” is a logical impossibility. If workers are running society then power rests in their hands. If a state exists then power rests in the hands of the handful of people at the top, not in the hands of all. The state was designed for minority rule. No state can be an organ of working class (i.e. majority) self-management due to its basic nature, structure and design.
So, while there are elements of “socialism from below” in the works of Marx and Engels they are placed within a distinctly centralised and authoritarian context which undermines them. As John Clark summarises, “in the context of Marx’s consistent advocacy of centralist programmes, and the part these programmes play in his theory of social development, the attempt to construct a libertarian Marxism by citing Marx’s own proposals for social change would seem to present insuperable difficulties.” [Op. Cit., p. 93]
As discussed in the last section, Marx and Engels left their followers with an ambiguous legacy. On the one hand, there are elements of “socialism from below” in their politics (most explicitly in Marx’s comments on the libertarian influenced Paris Commune). On the other, there are distinctly centralist and statist themes in their work.
From this legacy, Leninism took the statist themes. This explains why anarchists think the idea of Leninism being “socialism from below” is incredible. Simply put, the actual comments and actions of Lenin and his followers show that they had no commitment to a “socialism from below.” As we will indicate, Lenin disassociated himself repeatedly from the idea of politics “from below,” considering it (quite rightly) an anarchist idea. In contrast, he stressed the importance of a politics which somehow combined action “from above” and “from below.” For those Leninists who maintain that their tradition is “socialism from below” (indeed, the only “real” socialism “from below”), this is a major problem and, unsurprisingly, they generally fail to mention it.
So what was Lenin’s position on “from below”? In 1904, during the debate over the party split into Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, Lenin stated that the argument “[b]ureaucracy versus democracy is in fact centralism versus autonomism; it is the organisational principle of revolutionary Social-Democracy as opposed to the organisational principle of opportunist Social-Democracy. The latter strives to proceed from the bottom upward, and, therefore, wherever possible . . . upholds autonomism and ‘democracy,’ carried (by the overzealous) to the point of anarchism. The former strives to proceed from the top downward.” [Collected Works, vol. 7, pp. 396-7] Thus it is the non-Bolshevik (“opportunist”) wing of Marxism which bases itself on the “organisational principle” of “from the bottom upward,” not the Bolshevik tradition (as we note in section H.5.5, Lenin also rejected the “primitive democracy” of mass assemblies as the basis of the labour and revolutionary movements). Moreover, this vision of a party run from the top down was enshrined in the Bolshevik ideal of “democratic centralism”. How you can have “socialism from below” when your “organisational principle” is “from the top downward” is not explained by Leninist exponents of “socialism from below.”
Lenin repeated this argument in his discussion on the right tactics to apply during the near revolution of 1905. He mocked the Mensheviks for only wanting “pressure from below” which was “pressure by the citizens on the revolutionary government.” Instead, he argued for “pressure . . . from above as well as from below,” where “pressure from above” was “pressure by the revolutionary government on the citizens.” He notes that Engels “appreciated the importance of action from above” and that he saw the need for “the utilisation of the revolutionary governmental power.” Lenin summarised his position (which he considered as being in line with that of orthodox Marxism) by stating: “Limitation, in principle, of revolutionary action to pressure from below and renunciation of pressure also from above is anarchism.“ [Op. Cit., vol. 8, p. 474, p. 478, p. 480 and p. 481] This seems to have been a common Bolshevik position at the time, with Stalin stressing in the same year that “action only from ‘below'” was “an anarchist principle, which does, indeed, fundamentally contradict Social-Democratic tactics.” [Collected Works, vol. 1, p. 149]
It is in this context of “above and below” in which we must place Lenin’s comments in 1917 that socialism was “democracy from below, without a police, without a standing army, voluntary social duty by a militia formed from a universally armed people.” [Op. Cit., vol. 24, p. 170] Given that Lenin had rejected the idea of “only from below” as an anarchist principle (which it is), we need to bear in mind that this “democracy from below” was always placed in the context of a Bolshevik government. Lenin always stressed that the “Bolsheviks must assume power.” The Bolsheviks “can and must take state power into their own hands.” He raised the question of “will the Bolsheviks dare take over full state power alone?” and answered it: “I have already had occasion . . . to answer this question in the affirmative.” Moreover, “a political party . . . would have no right to exist, would be unworthy of the name of party . . . if it refused to take power when opportunity offers.” [Op. Cit., vol. 26, p. 19 and p. 90] Lenin’s “democracy from below” always meant representative government, not popular power or self-management. The role of the working class was that of voters and so the Bolsheviks’ first task was “to convince the majority of the people that its programme and tactics are correct.” The second task “that confronted our Party was to capture political power.” The third task was for “the Bolshevik Party” to “administer Russia,” to be the “governing party.” [Op. Cit., vol. 27, pp. 241-2] Thus Bolshevik power was equated with working class power.
Towards the end of 1917, he stressed this vision of a Bolshevik run “democracy from below” by arguing that since “the 1905 revolution Russia has been governed by 130,000 landowners . . . Yet we are told that the 240,000 members of the Bolshevik party will not be able to govern Russia, govern her in the interests of the poor.” He even equated rule by the party with rule by the class, noting that “proletarian revolutionary power” and Bolshevik power” are “now one the same thing.” He admitted that the proletariat could not actually govern itself for “[w]e know that an unskilled labourer or a cook cannot immediately get on with the job of state administration . . . We demand that training in th[is] work . . . be conducted by the class-conscious workers and soldiers.” The “class-conscious workers must lead, but for the work of administration they can enlist the vast mass of the working and oppressed people.” Thus democratic sounding rhetoric, in reality, hide the fact that the party would govern (i.e., have power) and working people would simply administer the means by which its decisions would be implemented. Lenin also indicated that once in power, the Bolsheviks “shall be fully and unreservedly in favour of a strong state power and of centralism.” [Op. Cit., vol. 26, p. 111, p. 179, p. 113, p. 114 and p. 116]
Clearly, Lenin’s position had not changed. The goal of the revolution was simply a Bolshevik government, which, if it were to be effective, had to have the real power in society. Thus, socialism would be implemented from above, by the “strong” and centralised government of the “class-conscious workers” who would “lead” and so the party would “govern” Russia, in the “interests” of the masses. Rather than govern themselves, they would be subject to “the power of the Bolsheviks”. While, eventually, the “working” masses would take part in the administration of state decisions, their role would be the same as under capitalism as, we must note, there is a difference between making policy and carrying it out, between the “work of administration” and governing, a difference Lenin obscures. In fact, the name of this essay clearly shows who would be in control under Lenin: “Can the Bolsheviks retain State Power?”
As one expert noted, the Bolsheviks made “a distinction between the execution of policy and the making of policy. The ‘broad masses’ were to be the executors of state decrees, not the formulators of legislation.” However, by “claiming to draw ‘all people’ into [the state] administration, the Bolsheviks claimed also that they were providing a greater degree of democracy than the parliamentary state.” [Frederick I. Kaplan, Bolshevik Ideology and the Ethics of Soviet Labor, p. 212] The difference is important. Ante Ciliga, once a political prisoner under Stalin, once noted how the secret police “liked to boast of the working class origin of its henchmen.” He quoted a fellow prisoner, and ex-Tsarist convict, who retorted: “You are wrong if you believe that in the days of the Tsar the gaolers were recruited from among dukes and the executioners from among the princes!” [The Russian Enigma, pp. 255-6]
All of which explains the famous leaflet addressed to the workers of Petrograd immediately after the October Revolution, informing them that “the revolution has won.” The workers were called upon to “show . . . the greatest firmness and endurance, in order to facilitate the execution of all the aims of the new People’s Government.” They were asked to “cease immediately all economic and political strikes, to take up your work, and do it in perfect order . . . All to your places” as the “best way to support the new Government of Soviets in these days” was “by doing your job.” [quoted by John Read, Ten Days that Shook the World, pp. 341-2] Which smacks far more of “socialism from above” than “socialism from below”!
The implications of Lenin’s position became clearer after the Bolsheviks had taken power. Now it was the concrete situation of a “revolutionary” government exercising power “from above” onto the very class it claimed to represent. As Lenin explained to his political police, the Cheka, in 1920:
“Without revolutionary coercion directed against the avowed enemies of the workers and peasants, it is impossible to break down the resistance of these exploiters. On the other hand, revolutionary coercion is bound to be employed towards the wavering and unstable elements among the masses themselves.” [Op. Cit., vol. 42, p. 170]
It could be argued that this position was forced on Lenin by the problems facing the Bolsheviks in the Civil War, but such an argument is flawed. This is for two main reasons. Firstly, according to Lenin himself civil war was inevitable and so, unsurprisingly, Lenin considered his comments as universally applicable. Secondly, this position fits in well with the idea of pressure “from above” exercised by the “revolutionary” government against the masses (and nothing to do with any sort of “socialism from below”). Indeed, “wavering” and “unstable” elements is just another way of saying “pressure from below,” the attempts by those subject to the “revolutionary” government to influence its policies. As we noted in section H.1.2, it was in this period (1919 and 1920) that the Bolsheviks openly argued that the “dictatorship of the proletariat” was, in fact, the “dictatorship of the party” (see section H.3.8 on how the Bolsheviks modified the Marxist theory of the state in line with this). Rather than the result of the problems facing Russia at the time, Lenin’s comments simply reflect the unfolding of certain aspects of his ideology when his party held power (as we make clear in section H.6″ the ideology of the ruling party and the ideas held by the masses are also factors in history).
To show that Lenin’s comments were not caused by circumstantial factors, we can turn to his infamous work Left-Wing Communism. In this 1920 tract, written for the Second Congress of the Communist International, Lenin lambasted those Marxists who argued for direct working class power against the idea of party rule (i.e. the various council communists around Europe). We have already noted in section H.1.2 that Lenin had argued in that work that it was “ridiculously absurd, and stupid” to “a contrast, in general, between the dictatorship of the masses and the dictatorship of the leaders.” [The Lenin Anthology, p. 568] Here we provide his description of the “top-down” nature of Bolshevik rule:
“In Russia today, the connection between leaders, party, class and masses . . . are concretely as follows: the dictatorship is exercised by the proletariat organised in the Soviets and is guided by the Communist Party . . . The Party, which holds annual congresses . . ., is directed by a Central Committee of nineteen elected at the congress, while the current work in Moscow has to be carried on by [two] still smaller bodies . . . which are elected at the plenary sessions of the Central Committee, five members of the Central Committee to each bureau. This, it would appear, is a full-fledged ‘oligarchy.’ No important political or organisational question is decided by any state institution in our republic [sic!] without the guidance of the Party’s Central Committee.
“In its work, the Party relies directly on the trade unions, which . . .have a membership of over four million and are formally non-Party. Actually, all the directing bodies of the vast majority of the unions . . . are made up of Communists, and carry out of all the directives of the Party. Thus . . . we have a formally non-communist . . . very powerful proletarian apparatus, by means of which the Party is closely linked up with the class and the masses, and by means of which, under the leadership of the Party, the class dictatorship of the class is exercised.” [Op. Cit., pp. 571-2]
This was “the general mechanism of the proletarian state power viewed ‘from above,’ from the standpoint of the practical realisation of the dictatorship” and so “all this talk about ‘from above’ or ‘from below,’ about ‘the dictatorship of leaders’ or ‘the dictatorship of the masses,'” is “ridiculous and childish nonsense.” [Op. Cit., p. 573] Lenin, of course, did not bother to view “proletarian” state power “from below,” from the viewpoint of the proletariat. If he had, perhaps he would have recounted the numerous strikes and protests broken by the Cheka under martial law, the gerrymandering and disbanding of soviets, the imposition of “one-man management” onto the workers in production, the turning of the unions into agents of the state/party and the elimination of working class freedom by party power? Which suggests that there are fundamental differences, at least for the masses, between “from above” and “from below.”
At the Comintern congress itself, Zinoviev announced that “the dictatorship of the proletariat is at the same time the dictatorship of the Communist Party.” [Proceedings and Documents of the Second Congress 1920, vol. 1, p. 152] Trotsky also universalised Lenin’s argument when he pondered the important decisions of the revolution and who would make them in his reply to the delegate from the Spanish anarcho-syndicalist union the CNT:
“Who decides this question [and others like it]? We have the Council of People’s Commissars but it has to be subject to some supervision. Whose supervision? That of the working class as an amorphous, chaotic mass? No. The Central Committee of the party is convened to discuss . . . and to decide . . . Who will solve these questions in Spain? The Communist Party of Spain.” [Op. Cit., p. 174]
As is obvious, Trotsky was drawing general lessons from the Russian Revolution for the international revolutionary movement. Needless to say, he still argued that the “working class, represented and led by the Communist Party, [was] in power here” in spite of it being “an amorphous, chaotic mass” which did not make any decisions on important questions affecting the revolution!
Incidentally, his and Lenin’s comments of 1920 disprove Trotsky’s later assertion that it was “[o]nly after the conquest of power, the end of the civil war, and the establishment of a stable regime” when “the Central Committee little by little begin to concentrate the leadership of Soviet activity in its hands. Then would come Stalin’s turn.” [Stalin, vol. 1, p. 328] While it was definitely the “conquest of power” by the Bolsheviks which lead to the marginalisation of the soviets, this event cannot be shunted to after the civil war as Trotsky would like (particularly as Trotsky admitted that in 1917 “[a]fter eight months of inertia and of democratic chaos, came the dictatorship of the Bolsheviks.” [Op. Cit., vol. 2, p. 242]). We must note Trotsky argued for the “objective necessity” of the “revolutionary dictatorship of a proletarian party” well into the 1930s (see section H.1.2) .
Clearly, the claim that Leninism (and its various off-shoots like Trotskyism) is “socialism from below” is hard to take seriously. As proven above, the Leninist tradition is explicitly against the idea of “only from below,” with Lenin explicitly stating that it was an “anarchist stand” to be for “‘action only from below’, not ‘from below and from above'” which was the position of Marxism. [Collected Works, vol. 9, p. 77] Once in power, Lenin and the Bolsheviks implemented this vision of “from below and from above,” with the highly unsurprising result that “from above” quickly repressed “from below” (which was dismissed as “wavering” by the masses). This was to be expected, for a government to enforce its laws, it has to have power over its citizens and so socialism “from above” is a necessary side-effect of Leninist theory.
Ironically, Lenin’s argument in State and Revolution comes back to haunt him. In that work he had argued that the “dictatorship of the proletariat” meant “democracy for the people” which “imposes a series of restrictions on the freedom of the oppressors, the exploiters, the capitalists.” These must be crushed “in order to free humanity from wage-slavery; 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.” [Essential Works of Lenin, pp. 337-8] If the working class itself is being subject to “suppression” then, clearly, there is “no freedom, no democracy” for that class – and the people “will feel no better if the stick with which they are being beaten is labelled ‘the people’s stick’.” [Bakunin, Bakunin on Anarchism, p. 338]
So when Leninists argue that they stand for the “principles of socialism from below” and state that this means the direct and democratic control of society by the working class then, clearly, they are being less than honest. Looking at the tradition they place themselves, the obvious conclusion which must be reached is that Leninism is not based on “socialism from below” in the sense of working class self-management of society (i.e. the only condition when the majority can “rule” and decisions truly flow from below upwards). At best, they subscribe to the distinctly bourgeois vision of “democracy” as being simply the majority designating (and trying to control) its rulers. At worse, they defend politics which have eliminated even this form of democracy in favour of party dictatorship and “one-man management” armed with “dictatorial” powers in industry (most members of such parties do not know how the Bolsheviks gerrymandered and disbanded soviets to maintain power, raised the dictatorship of the party to an ideological truism and wholeheartedly advocated “one-man management” rather than workers’ self-management of production). As we discuss in section H.5, this latter position flows easily from the underlying assumptions of vanguardism which Leninism is based on.
So, Lenin, Trotsky and so on simply cannot be considered as exponents of “socialism from below.” Any one who makes such a claim is either ignorant of the actual ideas and practice of Bolshevism or they seek to deceive. For anarchists, “socialism from below” can only be another name, like libertarian socialism, for anarchism (as Lenin, ironically enough, acknowledged). This does not mean that “socialism from below,” like “libertarian socialism,” is identical to anarchism, it simply means that libertarian Marxists and other socialists are far closer to anarchism than mainstream Marxism.
No, far from it. While it is impossible to quote everything a person or an ideology says, it is possible to summarise those aspects of a theory which influenced the way it developed in practice. As such, any account is “selective” in some sense, the question is whether this results in a critique rooted in the ideology and its practice or whether it presents a picture at odds with both. As Maurice Brinton put it in the introduction to his classic account of workers’ control in the Russian Revolution:
“Other charges will also be made. The quotations from Lenin and Trotsky will not be denied but it will be stated that they are ‘selective’ and that ‘other things, too’ were said. Again, we plead guilty. But we would stress that there are hagiographers enough in the trade whose ‘objectivity’ . . . is but a cloak for sophisticated apologetics . . . It therefore seems more relevant to quote those statements of the Bolshevik leaders of 1917 which helped determine Russia’s evolution [towards Stalinism] rather those other statements which, like the May Day speeches of Labour leaders, were forever to remain in the realm of rhetoric.” [The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control, p. xv]
Hence the need to discuss all aspects of Marxism rather than take what its adherents like to claim for it as granted. In this, we agree with Marx himself who argued that we cannot judge people by what they say about themselves but rather what they do. Unfortunately while many self-proclaimed Marxists (like Trotsky) may quote these comments, fewer apply them to their own ideology or actions (again, like Trotsky).
This can be seen from the almost ritualistic way many Marxists response to anarchist (or other) criticisms of their ideas. When they complain that anarchists “selectively” quote from the leading proponents of Marxism, they are usually at pains to point people to some document which they have selected as being more “representative” of their tradition. Leninists usually point to Lenin’s State and Revolution, for example, for a vision of what Lenin “really” wanted. To this anarchists reply by, as we discussed in section H.1.7, pointing out that much of that passes for ‘Marxism’ in State and Revolution is anarchist and, equally important, it was not applied in practice. This explains an apparent contradiction. Leninists point to the Russian Revolution as evidence for the democratic nature of their politics. Anarchists point to it as evidence of Leninism’s authoritarian nature. Both can do this because there is a substantial difference between Bolshevism before it took power and afterwards. While the Leninists ask you to judge them by their manifesto, anarchists say judge them by their record!
Simply put, Marxists quote selectively from their own tradition, ignoring those aspects of it which would be unappealing to potential recruits. While the leaders may know their tradition has skeletons in its closet, they try their best to ensure no one else gets to know. Which, of course, explains their hostility to anarchists doing so! That there is a deep divide between aspects of Marxist rhetoric and its practice and that even its rhetoric is not consistent we will now prove. By so doing, we can show that anarchists do not, in fact, quote Marxist’s “selectively.”
As an example, we can point to the leading Bolshevik Grigorii Zinoviev. In 1920, as head of the Communist International he wrote a letter to the Industrial Workers of the World, a revolutionary labour union, which stated that the “Russian Soviet Republic . . . is the most highly centralised government that exists. It is also the most democratic government in history. For all the organs of government are in constant touch with the working masses, and constantly sensitive to their will.” The same year he explained to the Second Congress of the Communist International that “[t]oday, people like Kautsky come along and say that in Russia you do not have the dictatorship of the working class but the dictatorship of the party. They think this is a reproach against us. Not in the least! We have a dictatorship of the working class and that is precisely why we also have a dictatorship of the Communist Party. The dictatorship of the Communist Party is only a function, an attribute, an expression of the dictatorship of the working class . . . [T]he dictatorship of the proletariat is at the same time the dictatorship of the Communist Party.” [Proceedings and Documents of the Second Congress 1920, vol. 2, p. 928 and pp. 151-2]
It seems redundant to note that the second quote is the accurate one, the one which matches the reality of Bolshevik Russia. Therefore it is hardly “selective” to quote the latter and not the former, as it expresses the reality of Bolshevism rather than its rhetoric.
This duality and the divergence between practice and rhetoric comes to the fore when Trotskyists discuss Stalinism and try to counter pose the Leninist tradition to it. For example, we find the British SWP’s Chris Harman arguing that the “whole experience of the workers’ movement internationally teaches that only by regular elections, combined with the right of recall by shop-floor meetings can rank-and-file delegates be made really responsible to those who elect them.” [Bureaucracy and Revolution in Eastern Europe, pp. 238-9] Significantly, Harman does not mention that both Lenin and Trotsky rejected this experience once in power. As we discuss in section H.3.8, Leninism came not only to practice but to argue theoretically for state power explicitly to eliminate such control from below. How can the numerous statements of leading Leninists (including Lenin and Trotsky) on the necessity of party dictatorship be reconciled with it?
The ironies do not stop there, of course. Harman correctly notes that under Stalinism, the “bureaucracy is characterised, like the private capitalist class in the West, by its control over the means of production.” [Op. Cit., p. 147] However, he fails to note that it was Lenin, in early 1918, who had raised and then implemented such “control” in the form of “one-man management.” As he put it: “Obedience, and unquestioning obedience at that, during work to the one-man decisions of Soviet directors, of the dictators elected or appointed by Soviet institutions, vested with dictatorial powers.” [Collected Works, vol. 27, p. 316] To fail to note this link between Lenin and the Stalinist bureaucracy on this issue is quoting “selectively.”
The contradictions pile up. Harman argues that “people who seriously believe that workers at the height of revolution need a police guard to stop them handing their factories over to capitalists certainly have no real faith in the possibilities of a socialist future.” [Op. Cit., p. 144] Yet this does not stop him praising the regime of Lenin and Trotsky and contrasting it with Stalinism, in spite of the fact that this was precisely what the Bolsheviks did from 1918 onwards! Indeed this tyrannical practice played a role in provoking the strikes in Petrograd which preceded the Kronstadt revolt in 1921, when “the workers wanted the special squads of armed Bolsheviks, who carried out a purely police function, withdrawn from the factories.” [Paul Avrich, Kronstadt 1921, p. 42] It seems equally strange that Harman denounces the Stalinist suppression of the Hungarian revolution for workers’ democracy and genuine socialism while he defends the Bolshevik suppression of the Kronstadt revolt for the same goals. Similarly, when Harman argues that if by “political party” it is “meant a party of the usual sort, in which a few leaders give orders and the masses merely obey . . . then certainly such organisations added nothing to the Hungarian revolution.” However, as we discuss in section H.5, such a party was precisely what Leninism argued for and applied in practice. Simply put, the Bolsheviks were never a party “that stood for the councils taking power.” [Op. Cit., p. 186 and p. 187] As Lenin repeatedly stressed, its aim was for the Bolshevik party to take power through the councils (see section H.3.11). Once in power, the councils were quickly marginalised and became little more than a fig-leaf for party rule.
This confusion between what was promised and what was done is a common feature of Leninism. Felix Morrow, for example, wrote what is usually considered the definitive Trotskyist work on the Spanish Revolution (in spite of it being, as we discuss in the appendix “Marxists and Spanish Anarchism,” deeply flawed). Morrow stated that the “essential points of a revolutionary program [are] all power to the working class, and democratic organs of the workers, peasants and combatants, as the expression of the workers’ power.” [Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Spain, p. 133] How this can be reconciled with, say, Trotsky’s opinion of ten years previously that “[w]ith us the dictatorship of the party (quite falsely disputed theoretically by Stalin) is the expression of the socialist dictatorship of the proletariat . . . The dictatorship of a party is a part of the socialist revolution”? [Leon Trotsky on China, p. 251] Or with Lenin’s and Trotsky’s repeated call for the party to seize and exercise power? Or their opinion that an organisation taking in the whole proletariat cannot directly exercise the proletarian dictatorship? How can the working class “have all power” if power is held not by mass organisations but rather by a vanguard party? Particularly, as we note in section H.1.2 when party dictatorship is placed at the heart of Leninist ideology.
Given all this, who is quoting who “selectively”? The Marxists who ignore what the Bolsheviks did when in power and repeatedly point to Lenin’s The State and Revolution or the anarchists who link what they did with what they said outside of that holy text? Considering this absolutely contradictory inheritance, anarchists feel entitled to ask the question “Will the real Leninist please stand up?” What is it to be, popular democracy or party rule? If we look at Bolshevik practice, the answer is the latter anarchists argue. Ironically, the likes of Lenin and Trotsky concurred, incorporating the necessity of party power into their ideology as a key lesson of the Russian revolution. As such, anarchists do not feel they are quoting Leninism “selectively” when they argue that it is based on party power, not working class self-management. That Leninists often publicly deny this aspect of their own ideology or, at best, try to rationalise and justify it, suggests that when push comes to shove (as it does in every revolution) they will make the same decisions and act in the same way.
In addition there is the question of what could be called the “social context.” Marxists often accuse anarchists of failing to place the quotations and actions of, say, the Bolsheviks into the circumstances which generated them. By this they mean that Bolshevik authoritarianism can be explained purely in terms of the massive problems facing them (i.e. the rigours of the Civil War, the economic collapse and chaos in Russia and so on). As we discuss this question in section H.6, we will simply summarise the anarchist reply by noting that this argument has three major problems with it. Firstly, there is the problem that Bolshevik authoritarianism started before the start of the Civil War and, moreover, intensified after its end. As such, the Civil War cannot be blamed. The second problem is simply that Lenin continually stressed that civil war and economic chaos was inevitable during a revolution. If Leninist politics cannot handle the inevitable then they are to be avoided. Equally, if Leninists blame what they should know is inevitable for the degeneration of the Bolshevik revolution it would suggest their understanding of what revolution entails is deeply flawed. The last problem is simply that the Bolsheviks did not care. As Samuel Farber notes, “there is no evidence indicating that Lenin or any of the mainstream Bolshevik leaders lamented the loss of workers’ control or of democracy in the soviets, or at least referred to these losses as a retreat, as Lenin declared with the replacement of War Communism by NEP in 1921. In fact . . . the very opposite is the case.” [Before Stalinism, p. 44] Hence the continuation (indeed, intensification) of Bolshevik authoritarianism after their victory in the civil war. Given this, it is significant that many of the quotes from Trotsky given above date from the late 1930s. To argue, therefore, that “social context” explains the politics and actions of the Bolsheviks seems incredulous.
Lastly, it seems ironic that Marxists accuse anarchists of quoting “selectively.” After all, as proven in section H.2, this is exactly what Marxists do to anarchism!
In summary, rather than quote “selectively” from the works and practice of Marxism, anarchists summarise those tendencies of both which, we argue, contribute to its continual failure in practice as a revolutionary theory. Moreover, Marxists themselves are equally as “selective” as anarchists in this respect. Firstly, as regards anarchist theory and practice and, secondly, as regards their own.
As is obvious in any account of the history of socialism, Marxists (of various schools) have appropriated key anarchist ideas and (often) present them as if Marxists thought of them first.
For example, as we discuss in section H.3.10, it was anarchists who first raised the idea of smashing the bourgeois state and replacing it with the fighting organisations of the working class (such as unions, workers’ councils, etc.). It was only in 1917, decades after anarchists had first raised the idea, that Marxists started to argue these ideas but, of course, with a twist. While anarchists meant that working class organisations would be the basis of a free society, Lenin saw these organs as the best means of achieving Bolshevik party power.
Similarly with the libertarian idea of the “militant minority.” By this, anarchists and syndicalists meant groups of workers who gave an example by their direct action which their fellow workers could imitate (for example by leading wildcat strikes which would use flying pickets to get other workers to join in). This “militant minority” would be at the forefront of social struggle and would show, by example, practice and discussion, that their ideas and tactics were the correct ones. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, Bolsheviks argued that this idea was similar to their idea of a vanguard party. This ignored two key differences. Firstly that the libertarian “militant minority” did not aim to take power on behalf of the working class but rather to encourage it, by example, to manage its own struggles and affairs (and, ultimately, society). Secondly, that “vanguard parties” are organised in hierarchical ways alien to the spirit of anarchism. While both the “militant minority” and “vanguard party” approaches are based on an appreciation of the uneven development of ideas within the working class, vanguardism transforms this into a justification for party rule over the working class by a so-called “advanced” minority (see section H.5 for a full discussion). Other concepts, such as “workers’ control,” direct action, and so on have suffered a similar fate.
A classic example of this appropriation of anarchist ideas into Marxism is provided by the general strike. In 1905, Russia had a near revolution in which the general strike played a key role. Unsurprisingly, as anarchists had been arguing for the general strike since the 1870s, we embraced these events as a striking confirmation of our long held ideas on revolutionary change. Marxists had a harder task as such ideas were alien to mainstream Social Democracy. Yet faced with the success and power of the general strike in practice, the more radical Marxists, like Rosa Luxemburg, had to incorporate it into their politics.
Yet they faced a problem. The general strike was indelibly linked with such hearsays as anarchism and syndicalism. Had not Engels himself proclaimed the nonsense of the general strike in his diatribe “The Bakuninists at work”? Had his words not been repeated ad infinitum against anarchists (and radical socialists) who questioned the wisdom of social democratic tactics, its reformism and bureaucratic inertia? The Marxist radicals knew that Engels would again be invoked by the bureaucrats and reformists in the Social Democratic movement to throw cold water over any attempt to adjust Marxist politics to the economic power of the masses as expressed in mass strikes. The Social Democratic hierarchy would simply dismiss them as “anarchists.” This meant that Luxemburg was faced with the problem of proving Engels was right, even when he was wrong.
She did so in an ingenious way. Like Engels himself, she simply distorted what the anarchists thought about the general strike in order to make it acceptable to Social Democracy. Her argument was simple. Yes, Engels had been right to dismiss the “general strike” idea of the anarchists in the 1870s. But today, thirty years later, Social Democrats should support the general strike (or mass strike, as she called it) because the concepts were different. The anarchist “general strike” was utopian. The Marxist “mass strike” was practical.
To discover why, we need to see what Engels had argued in the 1870s. Engels, mocked the anarchists (or “Bakuninists”) for thinking that “a general strike is the lever employed by which the social revolution is started.” He accusing them of imagining that “[o]ne fine morning, all the workers in all the industries of a country, or even of the whole world, stop work, thus forcing the propertied classes either humbly to submit within four weeks at most, or to attack the workers, who would then have the right to defend themselves and use the opportunity to pull down the entire old society.” He stated that at the September 1 1873 Geneva congress of the anarchist Alliance of Social Democracy, it was “universally admitted that to carry out the general strike strategy, there had to be a perfect organisation of the working class and a plentiful funds.” He noted that that was “the rub” as no government would stand by and “allow the organisation or funds of the workers to reach such a level.” Moreover, the revolution would happen long before “such an ideal organisation” was set up and if they had been “there would be no need to use the roundabout way of a general strike” to achieve it. [Collected Works, vol. 23, pp. 584-5]
Rosa Luxemburg repeated Engels arguments in her essay “The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions” in order to show how her support for the general strike was in no way contrary to Marxism. [Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, pp. 153-218] Her “mass strike” was different from the anarchist “general strike” as mocked by Engels as it was dynamic process and could not be seen as one act, one isolated action which overthrows the bourgeoisie. Rather, the mass strike to the product of the everyday class struggle within society, leads to a direct confrontation with the capitalist state and so it was inseparable from the revolution.
The only problem with all this is that the anarchists did not actually argue along the lines Engels and Luxemburg claimed. Most obviously, as we indicated in section H.2.8, Bakunin saw the general strike as a dynamic process which would not be set for a specific date and did not need all workers to be organised before hand. As such, Bakunin’s ideas are totally at odds with Engels assertions on what anarchist ideas on the general strike were about (they, in fact, reflect what actually happened in 1905).
But what of the “Bakuninists”? Again, Engels account leaves a lot to be desired. Rather than the September 1873 Geneva congress being, as he claimed, of the (disbanded) Alliance of Social Democracy, it was in fact a meeting of the non-Marxist federations of the First International. Contra Engels, anarchists did not see the general strike as requiring all workers to be perfectly organised and then passively folding arms “one fine morning.” The Belgian libertarians who proposed the idea at the congress saw it as a tactic which could mobilise workers for revolution, “a means of bringing a movement onto the street and leading the workers to the barricades.” Moreover, leading anarchist James Guillaume explicitly rejected the idea that it had “to break out everywhere at an appointed day and hour” with a resounding “No!” In fact, he stressed that they did “not even need to bring up this question and suppose things could be like this. Such a supposition could lead to fatal mistakes. The revolution has to be contagious.” [quoted by Caroline Cahm, Kropotkin and the Rise of Revolutionary Anarchism 1872-1886, p. 223 and p. 224]
Another account of this meeting notes that how the general strike was to start was “left unsaid”, with Guillaume “recognis[ing] that it as impossible for the anarchists simply to set the hour for the general strike.” Another anarchist did “not believe that the strike was a sufficient means to win the social revolution” but could “set the stage for the success of an armed insurrection.” Only one delegate, regardless of Engels’ claims, thought it “demanded the utmost organisation of the working class” and if that were the case “then the general strike would not be necessary.” This was the delegate from the reformist British trade unions and he was “attack[ing]” the general strike as “an absurd and impractical proposition.” [Phil H. Goodstein, The Theory of the General Strike, pp. 43-5]
Perhaps this is why Engels did not bother to quote a single anarchist when recounting their position on this matter? Needless to say, Leninists continue to parrot Engels assertions to this day. The facts are somewhat different. Clearly, the “anarchist” strategy of overthrowing the bourgeoisie with one big general strike set for a specific date exists only in Marxist heads, nowhere else. Once we remove the distortions promulgated by Engels and repeated by Luxemburg, we see that the 1905 revolution and “historical dialectics” did not, as Luxemburg claim, validate Engels and disprove anarchism. Quite the reverse as the general strikes in Russia followed the anarchist ideas of a what a general strike would be like quite closely. Little wonder, then, that Kropotkin argued that the 1905 general strike “demonstrated” that the Latin workers who had been advocating the general strike “as a weapon which would irresistible in the hands of labour for imposing its will” had been “right.” [Selected Writings on Anarchism and Revolution, p. 288]
So, contra Luxemburg, “the fatherland of Bakunin” was not “the burial-place of [anarchism’s] teachings.” [Op. Cit., p. 157] As Nicholas Walter argued, while the numbers of actual anarchists was small, “the 1905 Revolution was objectively an anarchist revolution. The military mutinies, peasant uprisings and workers’ strikes (culminating in a general strike), led to the establishment of soldiers’ and workers’ councils . . . and peasants’ communes, and the beginning of agrarian and industrial expropriation – all along the lines suggested by anarchist writers since Bakunin.” [The Anarchist Past and Other Essays, p. 122] The real question must be when will Marxists realise that quoting Engels does not make it true?
Moreover, without becoming an insurrection, as anarchists had stressed, the limits of the general strike were exposed in 1905. Unlike the some of the syndicalists in the 1890s and 1900s, this limitation was understood by the earliest anarchists. Consequently, they saw the general strike as the start of a revolution and not as the revolution itself. So, for all the Leninist accounts of the 1905 revolution claiming it for their ideology, the facts suggest that it was anarchism, not Marxism, which was vindicated by it. Luxemburg was wrong. The “land of Bakunin’s birth” provided an unsurpassed example of how to make a revolution precisely because it applied (and confirmed) anarchist ideas on the general strike (and, it should be added, workers’ councils). Marxists (who had previously quoted Engels to dismiss such things) found themselves repudiating aspect upon aspect of their dogma to remain relevant. Luxemburg, as Bookchin noted, “grossly misrepresented the anarchist emphasis on the general strike after the 1905 revolution in Russia in order to make it acceptable to Social Democracy.” (he added that Lenin “was to engage in the same misrepresentation on the issue of popular control in State and Revolution“). [Towards an Ecological Society, p. 227fn]
As such, while Marxists have appropriated certain anarchist concepts, it does not automatically mean that they mean exactly the same thing by them. Rather, as history shows, radically different concepts can be hidden behind similar sounding rhetoric. As Murray Bookchin argued, many Marxist tendencies “attach basically alien ideas to the withering conceptual framework of Marxism – not to say anything new but to preserve something old with ideological formaldehyde – to the detriment of any intellectual growth that the distinctions are designed to foster. This is mystification at its worst, for it not only corrupts ideas but the very capacity of the mind to deal with them. If Marx’s work can be rescued for our time, it will be by dealing with it as an invaluable part of the development of ideas, not as pastiche that is legitimated as a ‘method’ or continually ‘updated’ by concepts that come from an alien zone of ideas.” [Op. Cit., p. 242f]
This is not some academic point. The ramifications of Marxists appropriating such “alien ideas” (or, more correctly, the rhetoric associated with those ideas) has had negative impacts on actual revolutionary movements. For example, Lenin’s definition of “workers’ control” was radically different than that current in the factory committee movement during the Russian Revolution (which had more in common with anarchist and syndicalist use of the term). The similarities in rhetoric allowed the factory committee movement to put its weight behind the Bolsheviks. Once in power, Lenin’s position was implemented while that of the factory committees was ignored. Ultimately, Lenin’s position was a key factor in creating state capitalism rather than socialism in Russia (see section H.3.14 for more details).
This, of course, does not stop modern day Leninists appropriating the term workers’ control “without bating an eyelid. Seeking to capitalise on the confusion now rampant in the movement, these people talk of ‘workers’ control’ as if a) they meant by those words what the politically unsophisticated mean (i.e. that working people should themselves decide about the fundamental matters relating to production) and b) as if they – and the Leninist doctrine to which they claim to adhere – had always supported demands of this kind, or as if Leninism had always seen in workers’ control the universally valid foundation of a new social order, rather than just a slogan to be used for manipulatory purposes in specific and very limited historical contexts.” [Maurice Brinton, The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control, p. iv] This clash between the popular idea of workers’ control and the Leninist one was a key reason for the failure of the Russian Revolution precisely because, once in power, the latter was imposed.
Thus the fact that Leninists have appropriated libertarian (and working class) ideas and demands does not, in fact, mean that we aim for the same thing (as we discussed in section H.3.1, this is far from the case). The use of anarchist/popular rhetoric and slogans means little and we need to look at the content of the ideas proposed. Given the legacy of the appropriation of libertarian terminology to popularise authoritarian parties and its subsequent jettison in favour of authoritarian policies once the party is in power, anarchists have strong grounds to take Leninist claims with a large pinch of salt!
Equally with examples of actual revolutions. As Martin Buber noted, while “Lenin praises Marx for having ‘not yet, in 1852, put the concrete question as to what should be set up in place of the State machinery after it had been abolished,'” Lenin argued that “it was only the Paris Commune that taught Marx this.” However, as Buber correctly pointed out, the Paris Commune “was the realisation of the thoughts of people who had put this question very concretely indeed . . . the historical experience of the Commune became possible only because in the hearts of passionate revolutionaries there lived the picture of a decentralised, very much ‘de-Stated’ society, which picture they undertook to translate into reality. The spiritual fathers of the Commune had such that ideal aiming at decentralisation which Marx and Engels did not have, and the leaders of the Revolution of 1871 tried, albeit with inadequate powers, to begin the realisation of that idea in the midst of revolution.” [Paths in Utopia, pp. 103-4] Thus, while the Paris Commune and other working class revolts are praised, their obvious anarchistic elements (which were usually often predicted by anarchist thinkers) are not mentioned. This results in some strange dichotomies. For example, Bakunin’s vision of revolution is based on a federation of workers’ councils, predating Marxist support for such bodies by decades, yet Marxists argue that Bakunin’s ideas have nothing to teach us. Or, the Paris Commune being praised by Marxists as the first “dictatorship of the proletariat” when it implements federalism, delegates being subjected to mandates and recall and raises the vision of a socialism of associations while anarchism is labelled “petit-bourgeois” in spite of the fact that these ideas can be found in works of Proudhon and Bakunin which predate the 1871 revolt!
From this, we can draw two facts. Firstly, anarchism has successfully predicted certain aspects of working class revolution. Anarchist K.J. Kenafick stated the obvious when he argues that any “comparison will show that the programme set out [by the Paris Commune] is . . . the system of Federalism, which Bakunin had been advocating for years, and which had first been enunciated by Proudhon. The Proudhonists . . . exercised considerable influence in the Commune. This ‘political form’ was therefore not ‘at last’ discovered; it had been discovered years ago; and now it was proven to be correct by the very fact that in the crisis the Paris workers adopted it almost automatically, under the pressure of circumstance, rather than as the result of theory, as being the form most suitable to express working class aspirations.” [Michael Bakunin and Karl Marx, pp. 212-3] Rather than being somehow alien to the working class and its struggle for freedom, anarchism in fact bases itself on the class struggle. This means that it should come as no surprise when the ideas of anarchism are developed and applied by those in struggle, for those ideas are just generalisations derived from past working class struggles! If anarchism ideas are applied spontaneously by those in struggle, it is because those involved are themselves drawing similar conclusions from their own experiences.
The other fact is that while mainstream Marxism often appropriated certain aspects of libertarian theory and practice, it does so selectively and places them into an authoritarian context which undermines their libertarian nature. Hence anarchist support for workers councils becomes transformed by Leninists into a means to ensure party power (i.e. state authority) rather than working class power or self-management (i.e. no authority). Similarly, anarchist support for leading by example becomes transformed into support for party rule (and often dictatorship). Ultimately, the practice of mainstream Marxism shows that libertarian ideas cannot be transplanted selectively into an authoritarian ideology and be expected to blossom.
Significantly, those Marxists who do apply anarchist ideas honestly are usually labelled by their orthodox comrades as “anarchists.” As an example of Marxists appropriating libertarian ideas honestly, we can point to the council communist and currents within Autonomist Marxism. The council communists broke with the Bolsheviks over the question of whether the party would exercise power or whether the workers’ councils would. Needless to say, Lenin labelled them an “anarchist deviation.” Currents within Autonomist Marxism have built upon the council communist tradition, stressing the importance of focusing analysis on working class struggle as the key dynamic in capitalist society.
In this they go against the mainstream Marxist orthodoxy and embrace a libertarian perspective. As libertarian socialist Cornelius Castoriadis argued, “the economic theory expounded [by Marx] in Capital is based on the postulate that capitalism has managed completely and effectively to transform the worker – who appears there only as labour power – into a commodity; therefore the use value of labour power – the use the capitalist makes of it – is, as for any commodity, completely determined by the use, since its exchange value – wages – is determined solely by the laws of the market . . . This postulate is necessary for there to be a ‘science of economics’ along the physico-mathematical model Marx followed . . . But he contradicts the most essential fact of capitalism, namely, that the use value and exchange value of labour power are objectively indeterminate; they are determined rather by the struggle between labour and capital both in production and in society. Here is the ultimate root of the ‘objective’ contradictions of capitalism . . . The paradox is that Marx, the ‘inventor’ of class struggle, wrote a monumental work on phenomena determined by this struggle in which the struggle itself was entirely absent.” [Political and Social Writings, vol. 2, pp. 202-3] Castoriadis explained the limitations of Marx’s vision most famously in his “Modern Capitalism and Revolution.” [Op. Cit., pp. 226-343]
By rejecting this heritage which mainstream Marxism bases itself on and stressing the role of class struggle, Autonomist Marxism breaks decisively with the Marxist mainstream and embraces a position previously associated with anarchists and other libertarian socialists. The key role of class struggle in invalidating all deterministic economic “laws” was expressed by French syndicalists at the start of the twentieth century. This insight predated the work of Castoriadis and the development of Autonomist Marxism by over 50 years and is worth quoting at length:
“the keystone of socialism . . . proclaimed that ‘as a general rule, the average wage would be no more than what the worker strictly required for survival’. And it was said: ‘That figure is governed by capitalist pressure alone and this can even push it below the minimum necessary for the working man’s subsistence . . . The only rule with regard to wage levels is the plentiful or scarce supply of man-power . . .’
“By way of evidence of the relentless operation of this law of wages, comparisons were made between the worker and a commodity: if there is a glut of potatoes on the market, they are cheap; if they are scarce, the price rises . . . It is the same with the working man, it was said: his wages fluctuate in accordance with the plentiful supply or dearth of labour!
“No voice was raised against the relentless arguments of this absurd reasoning: so the law of wages may be taken as right . . . for as long as the working man [or woman] is content to be a commodity! For as long as, like a sack of potatoes, she remains passive and inert and endures the fluctuations of the market . . . For as long as he bends his back and puts up with all of the bosses’ snubs, . . . the law of wages obtains.
“But things take a different turn the moment that a glimmer of consciousness stirs this worker-potato into life. When, instead off dooming himself to inertia, spinelessness, resignation and passivity, the worker wakes up to his worth as a human being and the spirit of revolt washes over him: when he bestirs himself, energetic, wilful and active . . . [and] once the labour bloc comes to life and bestirs itself . . . then, the laughable equilibrium of the law of wages is undone.” [Emile Pouget, Direct Action, pp. 9-10]
And Marx, indeed, had compared the worker to a commodity, stating that labour power “is a commodity, neither more nor less than sugar. The former is measured by the clock, the latter by the scale.” [Selected Works, p. 72] However, as Castoridias argued, unlike sugar the extraction of the use value of labour power “is not a technical operation; it is a process of bitter struggle in which half the time, so to speak, the capitalists turn out to be losers.” [Op. Cit., p. 248] A fact which Pouget stressed in his critique of the mainstream socialist position:
“A novel factor has appeared on the labour market: the will of the worker! And this factor, not pertinent when it comes to setting the price of a bushel of potatoes, has a bearing upon the setting of wages; its impact may be large or small, according to the degree of tension of the labour force which is a product of the accord of individual wills beating in unison – but, whether it be strong or weak, there is no denying it.
“Thus, worker cohesion conjures up against capitalist might a might capable of standing up to it. The inequality between the two adversaries – which cannot be denied when the exploiter is confronted only by the working man on his own – is redressed in proportion with the degree of cohesion achieved by the labour bloc. From then on, proletarian resistance, be it latent or acute, is an everyday phenomenon: disputes between labour and capital quicken and become more acute. Labour does not always emerge victorious from these partial struggles: however, even when defeated, the struggle workers still reap some benefit: resistance from them has obstructed pressure from the employers and often forced the employer to grant some of the demands put.” [Op. Cit., p. 10]
The best currents of Autonomist Marxism share this anarchist stress on the power of working people to transform society and to impact on how capitalism operates. Unsurprisingly, most Autonomist Marxists reject the idea of the vanguard party and instead, like the council communists, stress the need for autonomist working class self-organisation and self-activity (hence the name!). They agree with Pouget when he argued that direct action “spells liberation for the masses of humanity”, it “puts paid to the age of miracles – miracles from Heaven, miracles from the State – and, in contraposition to hopes vested in ‘providence’ (no matter what they may be) it announces that it will act upon the maxim: salvation lies within ourselves!” [Op. Cit., p. 3] As such, they draw upon anarchistic ideas and rhetoric (for many, undoubtedly unknowingly) and draw anarchistic conclusions. This can be seen from the works of the leading US Autonomist Marxist Harry Cleaver. His excellent essay “Kropotkin, Self-Valorisation and the Crisis of Marxism” is by far the best Marxist account of Kropotkin’s ideas and shows the similarities between communist-anarchism and Autonomist Marxism. [Anarchist Studies, vol.2 , no. 2, pp. 119-36] Both, he points out, share a “common perception and sympathy for the power of workers to act autonomously” regardless of the “substantial differences” on other issues. [Reading Capital Politically, p. 15]
As such, the links between the best Marxists and anarchism can be substantial. This means that some Marxists have taken on board many anarchist ideas and have forged a version of Marxism which is basically libertarian in nature. Unfortunately, such forms of Marxism have always been a minority current within it. Most cases have seen the appropriation of anarchist ideas by Marxists simply as part of an attempt to make mainstream, authoritarian Marxism more appealing and such borrowings have been quickly forgotten once power has been seized.
Therefore appropriation of rhetoric and labels should not be confused with similarity of goals and ideas. The list of groupings which have used inappropriate labels to associate their ideas with other, more appealing, ones is lengthy. Content is what counts. If libertarian sounding ideas are being raised, the question becomes one of whether they are being used simply to gain influence or whether they signify a change of heart. As Bookchin argued:
“Ultimately, a line will have to be drawn that, by definition, excludes any project that can tip decentralisation to the side of centralisation, direct democracy to the side of delegated power, libertarian institutions to the side of bureaucracy, and spontaneity to the side of authority. Such a line, like a physical barrier, must irrevocably separate a libertarian zone of theory and practice from the hybridised socialisms that tend to denature it. This zone must build its anti-authoritarian, utopian, and revolutionary commitments into the very recognition it has of itself, in short, into the very way it defines itself. . . . to admit of domination is to cross the line that separates the libertarian zone from the [state] socialist.” [Op. Cit., pp. 223-4]
Unless we know exactly what we aim for, how to get there and who our real allies are we will get a nasty surprise once our self-proclaimed “allies” take power. As such, any attempt to appropriate anarchist rhetoric into an authoritarian ideology will simply fail and become little more than a mask obscuring the real aims of the party in question. As history shows.
Some Marxists will dismiss our arguments, and anarchism, out of hand. This is because anarchism has not lead a “successful” revolution while Marxism has. The fact, they assert, that there has never been a serious anarchist revolutionary movement, let alone a successful anarchist revolution, in the whole of history proves that Marxism works. For some Marxists, practice determines validity. Whether something is true or not is not decided intellectually in wordy publications and debates, but in reality.
For Anarchists, such arguments simply show the ideological nature of most forms of Marxism. The fact is, of course, that there has been many anarchistic revolutions which, while ultimately defeated, show the validity of anarchist theory (the ones in Spain and in the Ukraine being the most significant). Moreover, there have been serious revolutionary anarchist movements across the world, the majority of them crushed by state repression (usually fascist or communist based). However, this is not the most important issue, which is the fate of these “successful” Marxist movements and revolutions. The fact that there has never been a “Marxist” revolution which has not become a party dictatorship proves the need to critique Marxism.
So, given that Marxists argue that Marxism is the revolutionary working class political theory, its actual track record has been appalling. After all, while many Marxist parties have taken part in revolutions and even seized power, the net effect of their “success” have been societies bearing little or no relationship to socialism. Rather, the net effect of these revolutions has been to discredit socialism by associating it with one-party states presiding over state capitalist economies.
Equally, the role of Marxism in the labour movement has also been less than successful. Looking at the first Marxist movement, social democracy, it ended by becoming reformist, betraying socialist ideas by (almost always) supporting their own state during the First World War and going so far as crushing the German revolution and betraying the Italian factory occupations in 1920. Indeed, Trotsky stated that the Bolshevik party was “the only revolutionary” section of the Second International, which is a damning indictment of Marxism. [Stalin, vol. 1, p. 248] Just as damning is the fact that neither Lenin or Trotsky noticed it before 1914! In fact, Lenin praised the “fundamentals of parliamentary tactics” of German and International Social Democracy, expressing the opinion that they were “at the same time implacable on questions of principle and always directed to the accomplishment of the final aim” in his obituary of August Bebel in 1913! [Collected Works, vol. 19, p. 298] For those that way inclined, some amusement can be gathered comparing Engels glowing predictions for these parties and their actual performance (in the case of Spain and Italy, his comments seem particularly ironic).
As regards Bolshevism itself, the one “revolutionary” party in the world, it avoided the fate of its sister parties simply because there no question of applying social democratic tactics within bourgeois institutions as these did not exist in Tsarist Russia. Moreover, the net result of its seizure of power was, first, a party dictatorship and state capitalism under Lenin, then their intensification under Stalin and the creation of a host of Trotskyist sects who spend a considerable amount of time justifying and rationalising the ideology and actions of the Bolsheviks which helped create the Stalinism. Given the fate of Bolshevism in power, Bookchin simply stated the obviously:
“None of the authoritarian technics of change has provided successful ‘paradigms’, unless we are prepared to ignore the harsh fact that the Russian, Chinese, and Cuban ‘revolutions’ were massive counterrevolutions that blight our entire century.” [The Ecology of Freedom, p. 446]
Clearly, a key myth of Marxism is the idea that it has been a successful movement. In reality, its failures have been consistent and devastating so suggesting it is time to re-evaluate the whole ideology and embrace a revolutionary theory like anarchism. Indeed, it would be no exaggeration to argue that every “success” of Marxism has, in fact, proved that the anarchist critique of Marxism was correct. Thus, as Bakunin predicted, the Social-Democratic parties became reformist and the “dictatorship of the proletariat” became the “dictatorship over the proletariat.” With “victories” like these, Marxism does not need failures! Thus Murray Bookchin:
“A theory which is so readily ‘vulgarised,’ ‘betrayed,’ or, more sinisterly, institutionalised into bureaucratic power by nearly all its adherents may well be one that lends itself to such ‘vulgarisations,’ ‘betrayals,’ and bureaucratic forms as a normal condition of its existence. What may seem to be ‘vulgarisations, ‘betrayals,’ and bureaucratic manifestations of its tenets in the heated light of doctrinal disputes may prove to be the fulfilment of its tenets in the cold light of historical development.” [Toward an Ecological Society, p. 196]
Hence the overwhelming need to critically evaluate Marxist ideas and history (such as the Russian Revolution – see section H.6). Unless we honestly discuss and evaluate all aspects of revolutionary ideas, we will never be able to build a positive and constructive revolutionary movement. By seeking the roots of Marxism’s problems, we can enrich anarchism by avoiding possible pitfalls and recognising and building upon its strengths (e.g., where anarchists have identified, however incompletely, problems in Marxism which bear on revolutionary ideas, practice and transformation).
If this is done, anarchists are sure that Marxist claims that Marxism is the revolutionary theory will be exposed for the baseless rhetoric they are.
For anarchists, the idea that a state (any state) can be used for socialist ends is simply ridiculous. This is because of the nature of the state as an instrument of minority class rule. As such, it precludes the mass participation required for socialism and would create a new form of class society.
As we discussed in section B.2, the state is defined by certain characteristics (most importantly, the centralisation of power into the hands of a few). Thus, for anarchists, “the word ‘State’ . . . should be reserved for those societies with the hierarchical system and centralisation.” [Peter Kropotkin, Ethics, p. 317f] This defining feature of the state has not come about by chance. As Kropotkin argued in his classic history of the state, “a social institution cannot lend itself to all the desired goals, since, as with every organ, [the state] developed according to the function it performed, in a definite direction and not in all possible directions.” This means, by “seeing the State as it has been in history, and as it is in essence today” the conclusion anarchists “arrive at is for the abolition of the State.” Thus the state has “developed in the history of human societies to prevent the direct association among men [and women] to shackle the development of local and individual initiative, to crush existing liberties, to prevent their new blossoming – all this in order to subject the masses to the will of minorities.” [The State: Its Historic Role, p. 56]
So if the state, as Kropotkin stressed, is defined by “the existence of a power situated above society, but also of a territorial concentration as well as the concentration in the hands of a few of many functions in the life of societies“ then such a structure has not evolved by chance. Therefore “the pyramidal organisation which is the essence of the State” simply “cannot lend itself to a function opposed to the one for which it was developed in the course of history,” such as the popular participation from below required by social revolution and socialism. [Op. Cit., p. 10, p. 59 and p. 56] Based on this evolutionary analysis of the state, Kropotkin, like all anarchists, drew the conclusion “that the State organisation, having been the force to which the minorities resorted for establishing and organising their power over the masses, cannot be the force which will serve to destroy these privileges.” [Evolution and Environment, p. 82]
This does not mean that anarchists dismiss differences between types of state, think the state has not changed over time or refuse to see that different states exist to defend different ruling minorities. Far from it. Anarchists argue that “[e]very economic phase has a political phase corresponding to it, and it would be impossible to touch private property unless a new mode of political life be found at the same time.” “A society founded on serfdom,” Kropotkin explained, “is in keeping with absolute monarchy; a society based on the wage system, and the exploitation of the masses by the capitalists finds it political expression in parliamentarianism.” As such, the state form changes and evolves, but its basic function (defender of minority rule) and structure (delegated power into the hands of a few) remains. Which means that “a free society regaining possession of the common inheritance must seek, in free groups and free federations of groups, a new organisation, in harmony with the new economic phase of history.” [The Conquest of Bread, p. 54]
As with any social structure, the state has evolved to ensure that it carries out its function. In other words, the state is centralised because it is an instrument of minority domination and oppression. Insofar as a social system is based on decentralisation of power, popular self-management, mass participation and free federation from below upwards, it is not a state. If a social system is, however, marked by delegated power and centralisation it is a state and cannot be, therefore, a instrument of social liberation. Rather it will become, slowly but surely, “whatever title it adopts and whatever its origin and organisation may be” what the state has always been, a instrument for “oppressing and exploiting the masses, of defending the oppressors and the exploiters.” [Malatesta, Anarchy, p. 23] Which, for obvious reasons, is why anarchists argue for the destruction of the state by a free federation of self-managed communes and workers’ councils (see section H.1.4 for further discussion).
This explains why anarchists reject the Marxist definition and theory of the state. For Marxists, “the state is nothing but a machine for the oppression of one class by another.” While it has been true that, historically, it is “the state of the most powerful, economically dominant class, which, through the medium of the state, becomes also the politically dominant class, and this acquires the means of holding down and exploiting the oppressed class,” this need not always be the case. The state is “at best an evil inherited by the proletariat after its victorious struggle for class supremacy,” although it “cannot avoid having to lop off at once as much as possible” of it “until such time as a generation reared in new, free social conditions is able to throw the entire lumber of the state on the scrap heap.” This new state, often called the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” would slowly “wither away” (or “dies out”) as classes disappear and the state “at last . . . becomes the real representative of the whole of society” and so “renders itself unnecessary.” Engels is at pains to differentiate this position from that of the anarchists, who demand “the abolition of the state out of hand.” [Selected Works, p. 258, pp. 577-8, p. 528 and p. 424]
For anarchists, this argument has deep flaws. Simply put, unlike the anarchist one, this is not an empirically based theory of the state. Rather, we find such a theory mixed up with a metaphysical, non-empirical, a-historic definition which is based not on what the state is but rather what is could be. Thus the argument that the state “is nothing but a machine for the oppression of one class by another” is trying to draw out an abstract essence of the state rather than ground what the state is on empirical evidence and analysis. This perspective, anarchists argue, simply confuses two very different things, namely the state and popular social organisation, with potentially disastrous results. By calling the popular self-organisation required by a social revolution the same name as a hierarchical and centralised body constructed for, and evolved to ensure, minority rule, the door is wide open to confuse popular power with party power, to confuse rule by the representatives of the working class with working class self-management of the revolution and society.
Indeed, at times, Marx seemed to suggest that any form of social organisation is a state. At one point he complained that the French mutualists argued that “[e]verything [was] to broken down into small ‘groupes‘ or ‘communes‘, which in turn form an ‘association’, but not a state.” [Collected Works, vol. 42, p. 287] Unsurprisingly, then, that Kropotkin noted “the German school which takes pleasure in confusing State with Society.” This was a “confusion” made by those “who cannot visualise Society without a concentration of the State.” Yet this “is to overlook the fact that Man lived in Societies for thousands of years before the State had been heard of” and that “communal life” had “been destroyed by the State.” So “large numbers of people [have] lived in communes and free federations” and these were not states as the state “is only one of the forms assumed by society in the course of history. Why then make no distinction between what is permanent and what is accidental?” [The State: Its Historic Role, pp. 9-10]
As we discussed in section H.2.1, anarchist opposition to the idea of a “dictatorship of the proletariat” should not be confused with idea that anarchists do not think that a social revolution needs to be defended. Rather, our opposition to the concept rests on the confusion which inevitably occurs when you mix up scientific analysis with metaphysical concepts. By drawing out an a-historic definition of the state, Engels helped ensure that the “dictatorship of the proletariat” became the “dictatorship over the proletariat” by implying that centralisation and delegated power into the hands of the few can be considered as an expression of popular power.
To explain why, we need only to study the works of Engels himself. Engels, in his famous account of the Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, defined the state as follows:
“The state is . . . by no means a power forced on society from without . . . Rather, it is a product of society at a certain stage of development; it is an admission . . . that it has split into irreconcilable antagonisms . . . in order that these antagonisms and classes with conflicting economic interests might not consume themselves and society in fruitless struggle, it became necessary to have power seemingly standing above society that would alleviate the conflict . . . this power, arisen out of society but placing itself above it, and alienating itself more and more from it, is the state.” [Selected Writings, p. 576]
The state has two distinguishing features, firstly (and least importantly) it “divides its subjects according to territory.“ The second “is the establishment of a public power which no longer directly coincides with the population organising itself as an armed force. This special public power is necessary because a self-acting armed organisation of the population has become impossible since the split into classes . . . This public power exists in every state; it consists not merely of armed men but also of material adjuncts, prisons and institutions of coercion of all kinds.” Thus “an essential feature of the state is a public power distinct from the mass of the people.” [Op. Cit., pp. 576-7 and pp. 535-6]
In this, the Marxist position concurs with the anarchist. Engels discussed the development of numerous ancient societies to prove his point. Talking of Greek society, he argued that it was based on a popular assembly which was “sovereign” plus a council. This social system was not a state because “when every adult male member of the tribe was a warrior, there was as yet no public authority separated from the people that could have been set up against it. Primitive democracy was still in full bloom, and this must remain the point of departure in judging power and the status of the council.” Discussing the descent of this society into classes, he argued that this required “an institution that would perpetuate, not only the newly-rising class division of society, but the right of the possessing class to exploit the non-possessing class and the rule of the former over the latter.” Unsurprisingly, “this institution arrived. The state was invented.” The original communal organs of society were “superseded by real governmental authorities” and the defence of society (“the actual ‘people in arms'”) was “taken by an armed ‘public power’ at the service of these authorities and, therefore, also available against the people.” With the rise of the state, the communal council was “transformed into a senate.” [Op. Cit., pp. 525-6, p. 528 and p. 525]
Thus the state arises specifically to exclude popular self-government, replacing it with minority rule conducted via a centralised, hierarchical top-down structure (“government . . . is the natural protector of capitalism and other exploiters of popular labour.” [Bakunin, Michael Bakunin: Selected Writings, p. 239]).
This account of the rise of the state is at direct odds with Engels argument that the state is simply an instrument of class rule. For the “dictatorship of the proletariat” to be a state, it would have to constitute a power above society, be different from the people armed, and so be “a public power distinct from the mass of the people.” However, Marx and Engels are at pains to stress that the “dictatorship of the proletariat” will not be such a regime. However, how can you have something (namely “a public power distinct from the mass of the people”) you consider as “an essential feature” of a state missing in an institution you call the same name? It is a bit like calling a mammal a “new kind of reptile” in spite of the former not being cold-blooded, something you consider as “an essential feature” of the latter!
This contradiction helps explains Engels comments that “[w]e would therefore propose to replace state everywhere by Gemeinwesen, a good old German word which can very well convey the meaning of the French word ‘commune’“ He even states that the Paris Commune “was no longer a state in the proper sense of the word.” However, this comment does not mean that Engels sought to remove any possible confusion on the matter, for he still talked of “the state” as “only a transitional institution which is used in the struggle, in the revolution, to hold down’s one’s adversaries by force . . . so long as the proletariat still uses the state, it does not use it the interests of freedom but in order to hold down its adversaries, and as soon as it becomes possible to speak of freedom the state as such ceases to exist.” [Op. Cit., p. 335] Thus the state would still exist and, furthermore, is not identified with the working class as a whole (“a self-acting armed organisation of the population”), rather it is an institution standing apart from the “people armed” which is used, by the proletariat, to crush its enemies.
(As an aside, we must stress that to state that it only becomes possible to “speak of freedom” after the state and classes cease to exist is a serious theoretical error. Firstly, it means to talk about “freedom” in the abstract, ignoring the reality of class and hierarchical society. To state the obvious, in class society working class people have their freedom restricted by the state, wage labour and other forms of social hierarchy. The aim of social revolution is the conquest of liberty by the working class by overthrowing hierarchical rule. Freedom for the working class, by definition, means stopping any attempts to restrict that freedom by its adversaries. To state the obvious, it is not a “restriction” of the freedom of would-be bosses to resist their attempts to impose their rule! As such, Engels failed to consider revolution from a working class perspective – see section H.4.7 for another example of this flaw. Moreover his comments have been used to justify restrictions on working class freedom, power and political rights by Marxist parties once they have seized power. “Whatever power the State gains,” correctly argued Bookchin, “it always does so at the expense of popular power. Conversely, whatever power the people gain, they always acquire at the expense of the State. To legitimate State power, in effect, is to delegitimate popular power.” [Remaking Society, p. 160])
Elsewhere, we have Engels arguing that “the characteristic attribute of the former state” is that while society “had created its own organs to look after its own special interests” in the course of time “these organs, at whose head was the state power, transformed themselves from the servants of society into the masters of society.” [Op. Cit., p. 257] Ignoring the obvious contradiction with his earlier claims that the state and communal organs were different, with the former destroying the latter, we are struck yet again by the idea of the state as being defined as an institution above society. Thus, if the post revolutionary society is marked by “the state” being dissolved into society, placed under its control, then it is not a state. To call it a “new and truly democratic” form of “state power” makes as little sense as calling a motorcar a “new” form of bicycle. As such, when Engels argues that the Paris Commune “was no longer a state in the proper sense of the word” or that when the proletariat seizes political power it “abolishes the state as state” we may be entitled to ask what it is, a state or not a state. [Op. Cit., p. 335 and p. 424] It cannot be both, it cannot be a “public power distinct from the mass of the people” and “a self-acting armed organisation of the population.” If it is the latter, then it does not have what Engels considered as “an essential feature of the state” and cannot be considered one. If it is the former, then any claim that such a regime is the rule of the working class is automatically invalidated. That Engels mocked the anarchists for seeking a revolution “without a provisional government and in the total absence of any state or state-like institution, which are to be destroyed” we can safely say that it is the former. [Marx, Engels and Lenin, Anarchism and Anarcho-Syndicalism, p. 156]
Given that “primitive democracy,” as Engels noted, defended itself against its adversaries without such an institution shows that to equate the defence of working class freedom with the state is not only unnecessary, it simply leads to confusion. For this reason anarchists do not confuse the necessary task of defending and organising a social revolution with creating a state. Thus, the problem for Marxism is that the empirical definition of the state collides with the metaphysical, the actual state with its Marxist essence. As Italian Anarchist Camillo Berneri argued: “‘The Proletariat’ which seizes the state, bestowing on it the complete ownership of the means of production and destroying itself as proletariat and the state ‘as the state’ is a metaphysical fantasy, a political hypostasis of social abstractions.” [“The Abolition and Extinction of the State,” pp. 50-1, Cienfuegos Press Anarchist Review, no. 4, p. 50]
This is no academic point, as we explain in the next section this confusion has been exploited to justify party power over the proletariat. Thus, as Berneri argued, Marxists “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 it represents the proletariat. The Anarchists allow the use of direct power by the proletariat, but they understand 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.” Thus “the Anarchists desire the destruction of the classes by means of a social revolution which eliminates, with the classes, the State.” [“Dictatorship of the Proletariat and State Socialism”, pp 51-2, Op. Cit., p. 52] Anarchists are opposed to the state because it is not neutral, it cannot be made to serve our interests. The structures of the state are only necessary when a minority seeks to rule over the majority. We argue that the working class can create our own structures, organised and run from below upwards, to ensure the efficient running of everyday life.
By confusing two radically different things, Marxism ensures that popular power is consumed and destroyed by the state, by a new ruling elite. In the words of Murray Bookchin:
“Marx, in his analysis of the Paris Commune of 1871, has done radical social theory a considerable disservice. The Commune’s combination of delegated policy-making with the execution of policy by its own administrators, a feature of the Commune which Marx celebrated, is a major failing of that body. Rousseau quite rightly emphasised that popular power cannot be delegated without being destroyed. One either has a fully empowered popular assembly or power belongs to the State.” [“Theses on Libertarian Municipalism”, pp. 9-22, The Anarchist Papers, Dimitrios Roussopoulos (ed.), p. 14]
If power belongs to the state, then the state is a public body distinct from the population and, therefore, not an instrument of working class power. Rather, as an institution designed to ensure minority rule, it would ensure its position within society and become either the ruling class itself or create a new class which instrument it would be. As we discuss in section H.3.9 the state cannot be considered as a neutral instrument of economic class rule, it has specific interests in itself which can and does mean it can play an oppressive and exploitative role in society independently of an economically dominant class.
Which brings us to the crux of the issue whether this “new” state will, in fact, be unlike any other state that has ever existed. Insofar as this “new” state is based on popular self-management and self-organisation, anarchists argue that such an organisation cannot be called a state as it is not based on delegated power. “As long as,” as Bookchin stressed, “the institutions of power consisted of armed workers and peasants as distinguished from a professional bureaucracy, police force, army, and cabal of politicians and judges, they were no[t] a State . . . These institutions, in fact comprised a revolutionary people in arms . . . not a professional apparatus that could be regarded as a State in any meaningful sense of the term.” [“Looking Back at Spain,” pp. 53-96, The Radical Papers, Dimitrios I. Roussopoulos (ed.), p. 86] This was why Bakunin was at pains to emphasis that a “federal organisation, from below upward, of workers’ associations, groups, communes, districts, and ultimately, regions and nations” could not be considered as the same as “centralised states” and were “contrary to their essence.” [Statism and Anarchy, p. 13]
So when Lenin argued in State and Revolution that in the “dictatorship of the proletariat” the “organ of suppression is now the majority of the population, and not the minority” and that “since the majority of the people itself suppresses its oppressors, a ‘special force’ for the suppression [of the bourgeoisie] is no longer necessary“ he is confusing two fundamentally different things. As Engels made clear, such a social system of “primitive democracy” is not a state. However, when Lenin argued that “the more the functions of state power devolve upon the people generally, the less need is there for the existence of this power,” he was implicitly arguing that there would be, in fact, a “public power distinct from mass of the people” and so a state in the normal sense of the word based on delegated power, “special forces” separate from the armed people and so on. [Essential Works of Lenin, p. 301]
That such a regime would not “wither away” has been proven by history. The state machine does not (indeed, cannot) represent the interests of the working classes due to its centralised, hierarchical and elitist nature – all it can do is represent the interests of the party in power, its own bureaucratic needs and privileges and slowly, but surely, remove itself from popular control. This, as anarchists have constantly stressed, is why the state is based on the delegation of power, on hierarchy and centralisation. The state is organised in this way to facilitate minority rule by excluding the mass of people from taking part in the decision making processes within society. If the masses actually did manage society directly, it would be impossible for a minority class to dominate it. Hence the need for a state. Which shows the central fallacy of the Marxist theory of the state, namely it argues that the rule of the proletariat will be conducted by a structure, the state, which is designed to exclude the popular participation such a concept demands!
Considered another way, “political power” (the state) is simply the power of minorities to enforce their wills. This means that a social revolution which aims to create socialism cannot use it to further its aims. After all, if the state (i.e. “political power”) has been created to further minority class rule (as Marxists and anarchists agree) then, surely, this function has determined how the organ which exercises it has developed. Therefore, we would expect organ and function to be related and impossible to separate. So when Marx argued that the conquest of political power had become the great duty of the working class because landlords and capitalists always make use of their political privileges to defend their economic monopolies and enslave labour, he drew the wrong conclusion.
Building on a historically based (and so evolutionary) understanding of the state, anarchists concluded that it was necessary not to seize political power (which could only be exercised by a minority within any state) but rather to destroy it, to dissipate power into the hands of the working class, the majority. By ending the regime of the powerful by destroying their instrument of rule, the power which was concentrated into their hands automatically falls back into the hands of society. Thus, working class power can only be concrete once “political power” is shattered and replaced by the social power of the working class based on its own class organisations (such as factory committees, workers’ councils, unions, neighbourhood assemblies and so on). As Murray Bookchin put it:
“the slogan ‘Power to the people’ can only be put into practice when the power exercised by social elites is dissolved into the people. Each individual can then take control of his [or her] daily life. If ‘Power to the people’ means nothing more than power to the ‘leaders’ of the people, then the people remain an undifferentiated, manipulated mass, as powerless after the revolution as they were before.” [Post-Scarcity Anarchism, p. xif]
In practice, this means that any valid social revolution needs to break the state and not replace it with another one. This is because, in order to be a state, any state structure must be based on delegated power, hierarchy and centralisation (“every State, even the most Republican and the most democratic . . . . are in essence only machines governing the masses from above” and “[i]f there is a State, there must necessarily be domination, and therefore slavery; a State without slavery, overt or concealed, is unthinkable – and that is why we are enemies of the State.” [Bakunin, The Political Philosophy of Bakunin, p. 211 and p. 287]). If power is devolved to the working class then the state no longer exists as its “essential feature” (of delegated power) is absent. What you have is a new form of the “primitive democracy” which existed before the rise of the state. While this new, modern, form of self-management will have to defend itself against those seeking to recreate minority power, this does not mean that it becomes a state. After all, the tribes with “primitive democracy” had to defend themselves against their adversaries and so that, in itself, does not means that these communities had a state (see section H.2.1). Thus defence of a revolution, as anarchists have constantly stressed, does not equate to a state as it fails to address the key issue, namely who has power in the system – the masses or their leaders.
This issue is fudged by Marx. When Bakunin, in “Statism and Anarchy”, asked the question “Will the entire proletariat head the government?”, Marx argued in response:
“Does in a trade union, for instance, the whole union constitute the executive committee? Will all division of labour in a factory disappear and also the various functions arising from it? And will everybody be at the top in Bakunin’s construction built from the bottom upwards? There will in fact be no below then. Will all members of the commune also administer the common affairs of the region? In that case there will be no difference between commune and region. ‘The Germans [says Bakunin] number nearly 40 million. Will, for example, all 40 million be members of the government?’ Certainly, for the thing begins with the self-government of the commune.” [Marx, Engels and Lenin, Anarchism and Anarcho-Syndicalism, pp. 150-1]
As Alan Carter argues, “this might have seemed to Marx [over] a century ago to be satisfactory rejoinder, but it can hardly do today. In the infancy of the trade unions, which is all Marx knew, the possibility of the executives of a trade union becoming divorced from the ordinary members may not have seemed to him to be a likely outcome, We, however, have behind us a long history of union leaders ‘selling out’ and being out of touch with their members. Time has ably demonstrated that to reject Bakunin’s fears on the basis of the practice of trade union officials constitutes a woeful complacency with regard to power and privilege – a complacency that was born ample fruit in the form of present Marxist parties and ‘communist’ societies . . . [His] dispute with Bakunin shows quite clearly that Marx did not stress the continued control of the revolution by the mass of the people as a prerequisite for the transcendence of all significant social antagonisms.” [Marx: A Radical Critique, pp. 217-8] Non-anarchists have also noticed the poverty of Marx’s response. For example, as David W. Lovell puts it, “[t]aken as a whole, Marx’s comments have dodged the issue. Bakunin is clearly grappling with the problems of Marx’s transition period, in particular the problem of leadership, while Marx refuses to discuss the political form of what must be (at least in part) class rule by the proletariat.” [From Marx to Lenin, p. 64]
As we discussed in section H.3.1, Marx’s “Address to the Communist League,” with its stress on “the most determined centralisation of power in the hands of the state authority” and that “the path of revolutionary activity . . . can only proceed with full force from the centre,” suggests that Bakunin’s fears were valid and Marx’s answer simply inadequate. [Marx-Engels Reader, p. 509] Simply put, if, as Engels argued, “an essential feature of the state is a public power distinct from the mass of the people,” then, clearly Marx’s argument of 1850 (and others like it) signifies a state in the usual sense of the word, one which has to be “distinct” from the mass of the population in order to ensure that the masses are prevented from interfering with their own revolution. This was not, of course, the desire of Marx and Engels but this result flows from their theory of the state and its fundamental flaws. These flaws can be best seen from their repeated assertion that the capitalist democratic state could be captured via universal suffrage and used to introduce socialism (see section H.3.10 but it equally applies to notions of creating new states based on the centralisation of power favoured by ruling elites since class society began.
As Kropotkin stressed, “one does not make an historical institution follow in the direction to which one points – that is in the opposite direction to the one it has taken over the centuries.” To expect this would be a “a sad and tragic mistake” simply because “the old machine, the old organisation, [was] slowly developed in the course of history to crush freedom, to crush the individual, to establish oppression on a legal basis, to create monopolists, to lead minds astray by accustoming them to servitude”. [The State: Its Historic Role, pp. 57-8] A social revolution needs new, non-statist, forms of social organisation to succeed:
“To give full scope to socialism entails rebuilding from top to bottom a society dominated by the narrow individualism of the shopkeeper. It is not as has sometimes been said by those indulging in metaphysical wooliness just a question of giving the worker ‘the total product of his labour’; it is a question of completely reshaping all relationships . . . In ever street, in every hamlet, in every group of men gathered around a factory or along a section of the railway line, the creative, constructive and organisational spirit must be awakened in order to rebuild life – in the factory, in the village, in the store, in production and in distribution of supplies. All relations between individuals and great centres of population have to be made all over again, from the very day, from the very moment one alters the existing commercial or administrative organisation.
“And they expect this immense task, requiring the free expression of popular genius, to be carried out within the framework of the State and the pyramidal organisation which is the essence of the State! They expect the State . . . to become the lever for the accomplishment of this immense transformation. They want to direct the renewal of a society by means of decrees and electoral majorities… How ridiculous!” [Kropotkin, Op. Cit., pp. 58-9]
Ultimately, the question, of course, is one of power. Does the “executive committee” have the fundamental decision making power in society, or does that power lie in the mass assemblies upon which a federal socialist society is built? If the former, we have rule by a few party leaders and the inevitable bureaucratisation of the society and a state in the accepted sense of the word. If the latter, we have a basic structure of a free and equal society and a new organisation of popular self-management which eliminates the existence of a public power above society. This is not playing with words. It signifies the key issue of social transformation, an issue which Marxism tends to ignore or confuse matters about when discussing. Bookchin clarified what is at stake:
“To some neo-Marxists who see centralisation and decentralisation merely as difference of degree, the word ‘centralisation’ may merely be an awkward way of denoting means for co-ordinating the decisions made by decentralised bodies. Marx, it is worth noting, greatly confused this distinction when he praised the Paris Commune as a ‘working, not a parliamentary body, executive and legislative at the same time.’ In point of fact, the consolidation of ‘executive and legislative’ functions in a single body was regressive. It simply identified the process of policy-making, a function that rightly should belong to the people in assembly, with the technical execution of these policies, a function that should be left to strictly administrative bodies subject to rotation, recall, limitations of tenure . . . Accordingly, the melding of policy formation with administration placed the institutional emphasis of classical [Marxist] socialism on centralised bodies, indeed, by an ironical twist of historical events, bestowing the privilege of formulating policy on the ‘higher bodies’ of socialist hierarchies and their execution precisely on the more popular ‘revolutionary committees’ below.” [Toward an Ecological Society, pp. 215-6]
By confusing co-ordination with the state (i.e. with delegation of power), Marxism opens the door wide open to the “dictatorship of the proletariat” being a state “in the proper sense.” In fact, not only does Marxism open that door, it even invites the state “in the proper sense” in! This can be seen from Engels comment that just as “each political party sets out to establish its rule in the state, so the German Social-Democratic Workers’ Party is striving to establish its rule, the rule of the working class.” [Collected Works, vol. 23, p. 372] By confusing rule by the party “in the state” with “rule of the working class,” Engels is confusing party power and popular power. For the party to “establish its rule,” the state in the normal sense (i.e. a structure based on the delegation of power) has to be maintained. As such, the “dictatorship of the proletariat” signifies the delegation of power by the proletariat into the hands of the party and that implies a “public power distinct from the mass of the people” and so minority rule. This aspect of Marxism, as we argue in the next section, was developed under the Bolsheviks and became “the dictatorship of the party” (i.e. the dictatorship over the proletariat):
“since Marx vigorously opposed Bakunin’s efforts to ensure that only libertarian and decentralist means were employed by revolutionaries so as to facilitate the revolution remaining in the hands of the mass of workers, he must accept a fair measure of culpability for the authoritarian outcome of the Russian Revolution . . .
“Bakunin was not satisfied with trusting revolutionary leaders to liberate the oppressed . . . The oppressed people had to made aware that the only security against replacing one repressive structure with another was the deliberate retaining of control of the revolution by the whole of the working classes, and not naively trusting it to some vanguard.” [Alan Carter, Marx: A Radical Critique pp. 218-9]
It is for this reason why anarchists are extremely critical of Marxist ideas of social revolution. As Alan Carter argues:
“It is to argue not against revolution, but against ‘revolutionary’ praxis employing central authority. It is to argue that any revolution must remain in the hands of the mass of people and that they must be aware of the dangers of allowing power to fall into the hands of a minority in the course of the revolution. Latent within Marxist theory . . . is the tacit condoning of political inequality in the course and aftermath of revolutionary praxis. Only when such inequality is openly and widely rejected can there be any hope of a libertarian communist revolution. The lesson to learn is that we must oppose not revolutionary practice, but authoritarian ‘revolutionary’ practice. Such authoritarian practice will continue to prevail in revolutionary circles as long as the Marxist theory of the state and the corresponding theory of power remain above criticism within them.” [Op. Cit., p. 231]
In summary, the Marxist theory of the state is simply a-historic and postulates some kind of state “essence” which exists independently of actual states and their role in society. To confuse the organ required by a minority class to execute and maintain its rule and that required by a majority class to manage society is to make a theoretical error of great magnitude. It opens the door to the idea of party power and even party dictatorship. As such, the Marxism of Marx and Engels is confused on the issue of the state. Their comments fluctuate between the anarchist definition of the state (based, as it is, on generalisations from historical examples) and the a-historic definition (based not on historical example but rather derived from a supra-historical analysis). Trying to combine the metaphysical with the scientific, the authoritarian with the libertarian, could only leave their followers with a confused legacy and that is what we find.
Since the death of the founding fathers of Marxism, their followers have diverged into two camps. The majority have embraced the metaphysical and authoritarian concept of the state and proclaimed their support for a “workers’ state.” This is represented by social-democracy and it radical offshoot, Leninism. As we discuss in the next section, this school has used the Marxist conception of the state to allow for rule over the working class by the “revolutionary” party. The minority has become increasingly and explicitly anti-state, recognising that the Marxist legacy is contradictory and that for the proletarian to directly manage society then there can be no power above them. To this camp belongs the libertarian Marxists of the council communist, Situationist and other schools of thought which are close to anarchism.
As discussed in the last section, there is a contradiction at the heart of the Marxist theory of the state. On the one hand, it acknowledges that the state, historically, has always been an instrument of minority rule and is structured to ensure this. On the other, it argues that you can have a state (the “dictatorship of the proletariat”) which transcends this historical reality to express an abstract essence of the state as an “instrument of class rule.” This means that Marxism usually confuses two very different concepts, namely the state (a structure based on centralisation and delegated power) and the popular self-management and self-organisation required to create and defend a socialist society.
This confusion between two fundamentally different concepts proved to be disastrous when the Russian Revolution broke out. Confusing party power with working class power, the Bolsheviks aimed to create a “workers’ state” in which their party would be in power (see section H.3.3). As the state was an instrument of class rule, it did not matter if the new “workers’ state” was centralised, hierarchical and top-down like the old state as the structure of the state was considered irrelevant in evaluating its role in society. Thus, while Lenin seemed to promise a radical democracy in which the working class would directly manage its own affairs in his State and Revolution, in practice he implemented a “dictatorship of the proletariat” which was, in fact, “the organisation of the vanguard of the oppressed as the ruling class.” [Essential Works of Lenin, p. 337] In other words, the vanguard party in the position of head of the state, governing on behalf of the working class which, in turn, meant that the new “workers’ state” was fundamentally a state in the usual sense of the word. This quickly lead to a dictatorship over, not of, the proletariat (as Bakunin had predicted). This development did not come as a surprise to anarchists, who had long argued that a state is an instrument of minority rule and cannot change its nature. To use the state to affect socialist change is impossible, simply because it is not designed for such a task. As we argued in section B.2, the state is based on centralisation of power explicitly to ensure minority rule and for this reason has to be abolished during a social revolution.
As Voline summarised, there is “an explicit, irreconcilable contradiction between the very essence of State Socialist power (if it triumphs) and that of the true Social Revolutionary process.” This was because “the basis of State Socialism and delegated power is the explicit non-recognition of [the] principles of the Social Revolution. The characteristic traits of Socialist ideology and practice . . . do not belong to the future, but are wholly a part of the bourgeois past . . . Once this model has been applied, the true principles of the Revolution are fatally abandoned. Then follows, inevitably, the rebirth, under another name, of the exploitation of the labouring masses, with all its consequences.” Thus “the forward march of the revolutionary masses towards real emancipation, towards the creation of new forms of social life, is incompatible with the very principle of State power . . . the authoritarian principle and the revolutionary principle are diametrically opposed and mutually exclusive.” [The Unknown Revolution, p. 247 and p. 248]
Ironically, the theoretical lessons Leninists gained from the experience of the Russian Revolution confirm the anarchist analysis that the state structure exists to facilitate minority rule and marginalise and disempower the majority to achieve that rule. This can be seen from the significant revision of the Marxist position which occurred once the Bolshevik party become the ruling party. Simply put, after 1917 leading representatives of Leninism stressed that state power was not required to repress resistance by the ex-ruling class as such, but, in fact, was also necessitated by the divisions within the working class. In other words, state power was required because the working class was not able to govern itself and so required a grouping (the party) above it to ensure the success of the revolution and overcome any “wavering” within the masses themselves.
While we have discussed this position in section H.1.2 and so will be repeating ourselves to some degree, it is worth summarising again the arguments put forward to justify this revision. This is because they confirm what anarchists have always argued, namely that the state is an instrument of minority rule and not one by which working class people can manage their own affairs directly. As the quotations from leading Leninists make clear, it is precisely this feature of the state which recommends it for party (i.e. minority) power. The contradiction at the heart of the Marxist theory of the state we pointed out in the section H.3.7 has been resolved in Leninism. It supports the state precisely because it is “a public power distinct from the mass of the people,” rather than an instrument of working class self-management of society.
Needless to say, his latter day followers point to Lenin’s apparently democratic, even libertarian, sounding 1917 work, The State and Revolution when asked about the Leninist theory of the state. As our discussion in section H.1.7 proved, the ideas expounded in his pamphlet were rarely, if at all, applied in practice by the Bolsheviks. Moreover, it was written before the seizure of power. In order to see the validity of his argument we must compare it to his and his fellow Bolshevik leaders opinions once the revolution had “succeeded.” What lessons did they generalise from their experiences and how did these lessons relate to State and Revolution?
The change can be seen from Trotsky, who argued quite explicitly that “the proletariat can take power only through its vanguard” and that “the necessity for state power arises from an insufficient cultural level of the masses and their heterogeneity.” Only with “support of the vanguard by the class” can there be the “conquest of power” and it was in “this sense the proletarian revolution and dictatorship are the work of the whole class, but only under the leadership of the vanguard.” Thus, rather than the working class as a whole seizing power, it is the “vanguard” which takes power – “a revolutionary party, even after seizing power . . . is still by no means the sovereign ruler of society.” Thus state power is required to govern the masses, who cannot exercise power themselves. As Trotsky put it, “[t]hose who propose the abstraction of Soviets to the party dictatorship should understand that only thanks to the Bolshevik leadership were the Soviets able to lift themselves out of the mud of reformism and attain the state form of the proletariat.” [Writings 1936-37, p. 490, p. 488 and p. 495]
Logically, though, this places the party in a privileged position. So what happens if the working class no longer supports the vanguard? Who takes priority? Unsurprisingly, in both theory and practice, the party is expected to rule over the masses. This idea that state power was required due to the limitations within the working class is reiterated a few years later in 1939. Moreover, the whole rationale for party dictatorship came from the fundamental rationale for democracy, namely that any government should reflect the changing opinions of the masses:
“The very same masses are at different times inspired by different moods and objectives. It is just for this reason that a centralised organisation of the vanguard is indispensable. Only a party, wielding the authority it has won, is capable of overcoming the vacillation of the masses themselves . . . if the dictatorship of the proletariat means anything at all, then it means that the vanguard of the proletariat is armed with the resources of the state in order to repel dangers, including those emanating from the backward layers of the proletariat itself.” [“The Moralists and Sycophants against Marxism”, pp. 53-66, Their Morals and Ours, p. 59]
Needless to say, by definition everyone is “backward” when compared to the “vanguard of the proletariat.” Moreover, as it is this “vanguard” which is “armed with the resources of the state” and not the proletariat as a whole we are left with one obvious conclusion, namely party dictatorship rather than working class democracy. How Trotsky’s position is compatible with the idea of the working class as the “ruling class” is not explained. However, it fits in well with the anarchist analysis of the state as an instrument designed to ensure minority rule.
Thus the possibility of party dictatorship exists if popular support fades. Which is, significantly, precisely what had happened when Lenin and Trotsky were in power. In fact, these arguments built upon other, equally elitist statement which had been expressed by Trotsky when he held the reins of power. In 1920, for example, he argued that while the Bolsheviks have “more than once been accused of having substituted for the dictatorship of the Soviets the dictatorship of the party,” in fact “it can be said with complete justice that the dictatorship of the Soviets became possible only by means of the dictatorship of the party.” This, just to state the obvious, was his argument seventeen years later. “In this ‘substitution’ of the power of the party for the power of the working class,” Trotsky added, “there is nothing accidental, and in reality there is no substitution at all. The Communists express the fundamental interests of the working class.” [Terrorism and Communism, p. 109] In early 1921, he argued again for Party dictatorship at the Tenth Party Congress:
“The Workers’ Opposition has come out with dangerous slogans, making a fetish of democratic principles! They place the workers’ right to elect representatives above the Party, as if the party were not entitled to assert its dictatorship even if that dictatorship temporarily clashed with the passing moods of the workers’ democracy. It is necessary to create amongst us the awareness of the revolutionary birthright of the party, which is obliged to maintain its dictatorship, regardless of temporary wavering even in the working classes. This awareness is for us the indispensable element. The dictatorship does not base itself at every given moment on the formal principle of a workers’ democracy.” [quoted by Samuel Farber, Before Stalinism, p. 209]
The similarities with his arguments of 1939 are obvious. Unsurprisingly, he maintained this position in the intervening years. He stated in 1922 that “we maintain the dictatorship of our party!” [The First Five Years of the Communist International, vol. 2, p. 255] The next year saw him arguing that “[i]f there is one question which basically not only does not require revision but does not so much as admit the thought of revision, it is the question of the dictatorship of the Party.” He stressed that “[o]ur party is the ruling party” and that “[t]o allow any changes whatever in this field” meant “bring[ing] into question all the achievements of the revolution and its future.” He indicated the fate of those who did question the party’s position: “Whoever makes an attempt on the party’s leading role will, I hope, be unanimously dumped by all of us on the other side of the barricade.” [Leon Trotsky Speaks, p. 158 and p. 160]
By 1927, when Trotsky was in the process of being “dumped” on the “other side of the barricade” by the ruling bureaucracy, he still argued for “the Leninist principle, inviolable for every Bolshevik, that the dictatorship of the proletariat is and can be realised only through the dictatorship of the party.” It was stressed that the “dictatorship of the proletariat [sic!] demands as its very core a single proletarian party.” [The Challenge of the Left Opposition (1926-7), p. 395 and p. 441] As we noted in section H.1.2, ten years later, he was still explicitly arguing for the “revolutionary dictatorship of a proletarian party”.
Thus, for Trotsky over a twenty year period, the “dictatorship of the proletariat” was fundamentally a “dictatorship of the party.” While the working class may be allowed some level of democracy, the rule of the party was repeatedly given precedence. While the party may be placed into power by a mass revolution, once there the party would maintain its position of power and dismiss attempts by the working class to replace it as “wavering” or “vacillation” due to the “insufficient cultural level of the masses and their heterogeneity.” In other words, the party dictatorship was required to protect working class people from themselves, their tendency to change their minds based on changing circumstances, evaluating the results of past decisions, debates between different political ideas and positions, make their own decisions, reject what is in their best interests (as determined by the party), and so on. Thus the underlying rationale for democracy (namely that it reflects the changing will of the voters, their “passing moods” so to speak) is used to justify party dictatorship!
The importance of party power over the working class was not limited to Trotsky. It was considered of general validity by all leading Bolsheviks and, moreover, quickly became mainstream Bolshevik ideology. In March 1923, for example, the Central Committee of the Communist Party in a statement issued to mark the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Bolshevik Party. This statement summarised the lessons gained from the Russian revolution. It stated that “the party of the Bolsheviks proved able to stand out fearlessly against the vacillations within its own class, vacillations which, with the slightest weakness in the vanguard, could turn into an unprecedented defeat for the proletariat.” Vacillations, of course, are expressed by workers’ democracy. Little wonder the statement rejects it: “The dictatorship of the working class finds its expression in the dictatorship of the party.” [“To the Workers of the USSR” in G. Zinoviev, History of the Bolshevik Party, p. 213 and p. 214]
Trotsky and other leading Bolsheviks were simply following Lenin’s lead, who had admitted at the end of 1920 that while “the dictatorship of the proletariat” was “inevitable” in the “transition of socialism,” it is “not exercised by an organisation which takes in all industrial workers.” The reason “is given in the theses of the Second Congress of the Communist International on the role of political parties” (more on which later). This means that “the Party, shall we say, absorbs the vanguard of the proletariat, and this vanguard exercises the dictatorship of the proletariat.” This was required because “in all capitalist countries . . . the proletariat is still so divided, so degraded, and so corrupted in parts” that it “can be exercised only by a vanguard . . . the dictatorship of the proletariat cannot be exercised by a mass proletarian organisation.” [Collected Works, vol. 32, p. 20 and p. 21] For Lenin, “revolutionary coercion is bound to be employed towards the wavering and unstable elements among the masses themselves.” [Op. Cit., vol. 42, p. 170] Needless to say, Lenin failed to mention this aspect of his system in The State and Revolution (a failure usually repeated by his followers). It is, however, a striking confirmation of Bakunin’s comments “the State cannot be sure of its own self-preservation without an armed force to defend it against its own internal enemies, against the discontent of its own people.” [Michael Bakunin: Selected Writings, p. 265]
Looking at the lessons leading leaders of Leninism gained from the experience of the Russian Revolution, we have to admit that the Leninist “workers’ state” will not be, in fact, a “new” kind of state, a “semi-state,” or, to quote Lenin, a “new state” which “is no longer a state in the proper sense of the word.” If, as Lenin argued in early 1917, the state “in the proper sense of the term is domination over the people by contingents of armed men divorced from the people,” then Bolshevism in power quickly saw the need for a state “in the proper sense.” [Op. Cit., vol. 24, p. 85] While this state “in the proper sense” had existed from the start of Bolshevik rule, it was only from early 1919 onwards (at the latest) that the leaders of Bolshevism had openly brought what they said into line with what they did. It was only by being a “state in the proper sense” could the Bolshevik party rule and exercise “the dictatorship of the party” over the “wavering” working class.
So when Lenin stated that “Marxism differs from anarchism in that it recognises the need for a state for the purpose of the transition to socialism,” anarchists agree. [Op. Cit., vol. 24, p. 85] Insofar as “Marxism” aims for, to quote Lenin, the party to “take state power into [its] own hands,” to become “the governing party” and considers one of its key tasks for “our Party to capture political power” and to “administer” a country, then we can safely say that the state needed is a state “in the proper sense,” based on the centralisation and delegation of power into the hands of a few (see our discussion of Leninism as “socialism from above” in section H.3.3 for details).
This recreation of the state “in the proper sense” did not come about by chance or simply because of the “will to power” of the leaders of Bolshevism. Rather, there are strong institutional pressures at work within any state structure (even a so-called “semi-state”) to turn it back into a “proper” state. We discuss this in more detail in section H.3.9. However, we should not ignore that many of the roots of Bolshevik tyranny can be found in the contradictions of the Marxist theory of the state. As noted in the last section, for Engels, the seizure of power by the party meant that the working class was in power. The Leninist tradition builds on this confusion between party and class power. It is clear that the “dictatorship of the proletariat” is, in fact, rule by the party. In Lenin’s words:
“Engels speaks of a government that is required for the domination of a class . . . Applied to the proletariat, it consequently means a government that is required for the domination of the proletariat, i.e. the dictatorship of the proletariat for the effectuation of the socialist revolution.” [Op. Cit., vol. 8, p. 279]
The role of the working class in this state was also indicated, as “only a revolutionary dictatorship supported by the vast majority of the people can be at all durable.” [Op. Cit., p. 291] In other words the “revolutionary government” has the power, not the working class in whose name it governs. In 1921 he made this explicit: “To govern you need an army of steeled revolutionary Communists. We have it, and it is called the Party.” The “Party is the leader, the vanguard of the proletariat, which rules directly.” For Lenin, as “long as we, the Party’s Central Committee and the whole Party, continue to run things, that is govern we shall never – we cannot – dispense with . . . removals, transfers, appointments, dismissals, etc.” of workers, officials and party members from above. [Op. Cit., vol. 32, p. 62, p. 98 and p. 99] Unsurprisingly, these powers were used by Lenin, and then Stalin, to destroy opposition (although the latter applied coercive measures within the party which Lenin only applied to non-party opponents).
So much for “workers’ power,” “socialism from below” and other such rhetoric.
This vision of “socialism” being rooted in party power over the working class was the basis of the Communist International’s resolution of the role of the party. This resolution is, therefore, important and worth discussing. It argues that the Communist Party “is part of the working class,” namely its “most advanced, most class-conscious, and therefore most revolutionary part.” It is “distinguished from the working class as a whole in that it grasps the whole historic path of the working class in its entirety and at every bend in that road endeavours to defend not the interests of individual groups or occupations but the interests of the working class as a whole.” [Proceedings and Documents of the Second Congress 1920, vol. 1, p. 191] However, in response it can be argued that this simply means the “interests of the party” as only it can understand what “the interests of the working class as a whole” actually are. Thus we have the possibility of the party substituting its will for that of the working class simply because of what Leninists term the “uneven development” of the working class. As Alan Carter argues, these “conceptions of revolutionary organisation maintain political and ideological domination by retaining supervisory roles and notions of privileged access to knowledge . . . the term ‘class consciousness’ is employed to facilitate such domination over the workers. It is not what the workers think, but what the party leaders think they ought to think that constitutes the revolutionary consciousness imputed to the workers.” The ideological basis for a new class structure is created as the “Leninist revolutionary praxis . . . is carried forward to post-revolutionary institutions,” [Marx: A Radical Critique, p. 175]
The resolution stresses that before the revolution, the party “will encompass . . . only a minority of the workers.” Even after the “seizure of power,” it will still “not be able to unite them all into its ranks organisationally.” It is only after the “final defeat of the bourgeois order” will “all or almost all workers begin to join” it. Thus the party is a minority of the working class. The resolution then goes on to state that “[e]very class struggle is a political struggle. This struggle, which inevitably becomes transformed into civil war, has as its goal the conquest of political power. Political power cannot be seized, organised, and directed other than by some kind of political party.” [Op. Cit., p. 192, p. 193] And as the party is a “part” of the working class which cannot “unite” all workers “into its ranks,” this means that political power can only be “seized, organised, and directed” by a minority.
Thus we have minority rule, with the party (or more correctly its leaders) exercising political power. The idea that the party “must dissolve into the councils, that the councils can replace the Communist Party” is “fundamentally wrong and reactionary.” This is because, to “enable the soviets to fulfil their historic tasks, there must . . . be a strong Communist Party, one that does not simply ‘adapt’ to the soviets but is able to make them renounce ‘adaptation’ to the bourgeoisie.” [Op. Cit., p. 196] Thus rather than the workers’ councils exercising power, their role is simply that of allowing the Communist Party to seize political party.
As we indicated in section H.3.4, the underlying assumption behind this resolution was made clear by Zinoviev during his introductory speech to the congress meeting which finally agreed the resolution: the dictatorship of the party was the dictatorship of the proletariat. Little wonder that Bertrand Russell, on his return from Lenin’s Russia in 1920, wrote that:
“Friends of Russia here [in Britain] think of the dictatorship of the proletariat as merely a new form of representative government, in which only working men and women have votes, and the constituencies are partly occupational, not geographical. They think that ‘proletariat’ means ‘proletariat,’ but ‘dictatorship’ does not quite mean ‘dictatorship.’ This is the opposite of the truth. When a Russian Communist speak of a dictatorship, he means the word literally, but when he speaks of the proletariat, he means the word in a Pickwickian sense. He means the ‘class-conscious’ part of the proletariat, i.e. the Communist Party. He includes people by no means proletarian (such as Lenin and Tchicherin) who have the right opinions, and he excludes such wage-earners as have not the right opinions, whom he classifies as lackeys of the bourgeoisie.“ [The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism, pp. 26-27]
Significantly, Russell pointed, like Lenin, to the Comintern resolution on the role of the Communist Party. In addition, he noted the reason why this party dictatorship was required: “No conceivable system of free elections would give majorities to the Communists, either in the town or country.” [Op. Cit., pp. 40-1]
Nor are followers of Bolshevism shy in repeating its elitist conclusions. Founder and leader of the British SWP, Tony Cliff, for example, showed his lack of commitment to working class democracy when he opined that the “actual level of democracy, as well as centralism, [during a revolution] depends on three basic factors: 1. the strength of the proletariat; 2. the material and cultural legacy left to it by the old regime; and 3. the strength of capitalist resistance. The level of democracy feasible must be in direct proportion to the first two factors, and in inverse proportion to the third. The captain of an ocean liner can allow football to be played on his vessel; on a tiny raft in a stormy sea the level of tolerance is far lower.” [Lenin, vol. 3, p. 179] That Cliff compares working class democracy to football says it all. Rather than seeing it as the core gain of a revolution, he relegates it to the level of a game, which may or may not be “tolerated”! And need we speculate who the paternalistic “captain” in charge of the ship of the state would be?
Replacing Cliff’s revealing analogies we get the following: “The party in charge of a workers’ state can allow democracy when the capitalist class is not resisting; when it is resisting strongly, the level of tolerance is far lower.” So, democracy will be “tolerated” in the extremely unlikely situation that the capitalist class will not resist a revolution! That the party has no right to “tolerate” democracy or not is not even entertained by Cliff, its right to negate the basic rights of the working class is taken as a given. Clearly the key factor is that the party is in power. It may “tolerate” democracy, but ultimately his analogy shows that Bolshevism considers it as an added extra whose (lack of) existence in no way determines the nature of the “workers’ state” (unless, of course, he is analysing Stalin’s regime rather than Lenin’s then it becomes of critical importance!). Perhaps, therefore, we may add another “basic factor” to Cliff’s three; namely “4. the strength of working class support for the party.” The level of democracy feasible must be in direct proportion to this factor, as the Bolsheviks made clear. As long as the workers vote for the party, then democracy is wonderful. If they do not, then their “wavering” and “passing moods” cannot be “tolerated” and democracy is replaced by the dictatorship of the party. Which is no democracy at all.
Obviously, then, if, as Engels argued, “an essential feature of the state is a public power distinct from the mass of the people” then the regime advocated by Bolshevism is not a “semi-state” but, in fact, a normal state. Trotsky and Lenin are equally clear that said state exists to ensure that the “mass of the people” do not participate in public power, which is exercised by a minority, the party (or, more correctly, the leaders of the party). One of the key aims of this new state is to repress the “backward” or “wavering” sections of the working class (although, by definition, all sections of the working class are “backward” in relation to the “vanguard”). Hence the need for a “public power distinct from the people” (as the suppression of the strike wave and Kronstadt in 1921 shows, elite troops are always needed to stop the army siding with their fellow workers). And as proven by Trotsky’s comments after he was squeezed out of power, this perspective was not considered as a product of “exceptional circumstances.” Rather it was considered a basic lesson of the revolution, a position which was applicable to all future revolutions. In this, Lenin and other leading Bolsheviks concurred.
The irony (and tragedy) of all this should not be lost. In his 1905 diatribe against anarchism, Stalin had denied that Marxists aimed for party dictatorship. He stressed that there was “a dictatorship of the minority, the dictatorship of a small group . . . which is directed against the people . . . Marxists are the enemies of such a dictatorship, and they fight such a dictatorship far more stubbornly and self-sacrificingly than do our noisy Anarchists.” The practice of Bolshevism and the ideological revisions it generated easily refutes Stalin’s claims. The practice of Bolshevism showed that his claim that “[a]t the head” of the “dictatorship of the proletarian majority . . . stand the masses” is in sharp contradiction with Bolshevik support for “revolutionary” governments. Either you have (to use Stalin’s expression) “the dictatorship of the streets, of the masses, a dictatorship directed against all oppressors” or you have party power in the name of the street, of the masses. [Collected Works, vol. 1, p. 371-2] The fundamental flaw in Leninism is that it confuses the two and so lays the ground for the very result anarchists predicted and Stalin denied.
While anarchists are well aware of the need to defend a revolution (see section H.2.1), we do not make the mistake of equating this with a state. Ultimately, the state cannot be used as an instrument of liberation – it is not designed for it. Which, incidentally, is why we have not discussed the impact of the Russian Civil War on the development of Bolshevik ideology. Simply put, the “workers’ state” is proposed, by Leninists, as the means to defend a revolution. As such, you cannot blame what it is meant to be designed to withstand (counter-revolution and civil war) for its “degeneration.” If the “workers’ state” cannot handle what its advocates claim it exists for, then its time to look for an alternative and dump the concept in the dustbin of history.
In summary, Bolshevism is based on a substantial revision of the Marxist theory of the state. While Marx and Engels were at pains to stress the accountability of their new state to the population under it, Leninism has made a virtue of the fact that the state has evolved to exclude that mass participation in order to ensure minority rule. Leninism has done so explicitly to allow the party to overcome the “wavering” of the working class, the very class it claims is the “ruling class” under socialism! In doing this, the Leninist tradition exploited the confused nature of the state theory of traditional Marxism. The Leninist theory of the state is flawed simply because it is based on creating a “state in the proper sense of the word,” with a public power distinct from the mass of the people. This was the major lesson gained by the leading Bolsheviks (including Lenin and Trotsky) from the Russian Revolution and has its roots in the common Marxist error of confusing party power with working class power. So when Leninists point to Lenin’s State and Revolution as the definitive Leninist theory of the state, anarchists simply point to the lessons Lenin himself gained from actually conducting a revolution. Once we do, the slippery slope to the Leninist solution to the contradictions inherit in the Marxist theory of the state can be seen, understood and combated.
As we discussed in section H.3.7, the Marxist theory of the state confuses an empirical analysis of the state with a metaphysical one. While Engels is aware that the state developed to ensure minority class rule and, as befits its task, evolved specific characteristics to execute that role, he also raised the idea that the state (“as a rule”) is “the state of the most powerful, economically dominant class” and “through the medium of the state, becomes also the politically dominant class.” Thus the state can be considered, in essence, as “nothing but a machine for the oppression of one class by another.” “At a certain stage of economic development”, Engels stressed, “which was necessarily bound up with the split in society into classes, the state became a necessity owning to this split.” [Selected Works, pp. 577-8, p. 579 and p. 258] For Lenin, this was “the basic idea of Marxism on the question of the historical role and meaning of the state,” namely that “the state is an organ of class rule, the organ for the oppression of one class by another.” [Essential Works of Lenin, p. 273 and p. 274]
The clear implication is that the state is simply an instrument, without special interests of its own. If this is the case, the use of a state by the proletariat is unproblematic (and so the confusion between working class self-organisation and the state we have discussed in various sections above is irrelevant). This argument can lead to simplistic conclusions, such as once a “revolutionary” government is in power in a “workers state” we need not worry about abuses of power or even civil liberties (this position was commonplace in Bolshevik ranks during the Russian Civil War, for example). It also is at the heart of Trotsky’s contortions with regards to Stalinism, refusing to see the state bureaucracy as a new ruling class simply because the state, by definition, could not play such a role.
For anarchists, this position is a fundamental weakness of Marxism, a sign that the mainstream Marxist position significantly misunderstands the nature of the state and the needs of social revolution. However, we must stress that anarchists would agree that the state generally does serve the interests of the economically dominant classes. Bakunin, for example, argued that the State “is authority, domination, and forced, organised by the property-owning and so-called enlightened classes against the masses.” He saw the social revolution as destroying capitalism and the state at the same time, that is “to overturn the State’s domination, and that of the privileged classes whom it solely represents.” [The Basic Bakunin, p. 140] However, anarchists do not reduce our analysis and understanding of the state to this simplistic Marxist level. While being well aware that the state is the means of ensuring the domination of an economic elite, as we discussed in section B.2.5, anarchists recognise that the state machine also has interests of its own. The state, for anarchists, is the delegation of power into the hands of a few. This creates, by its very nature, a privileged position for those at the top of the hierarchy:
“A government [or state], that is a group of people entrusted with making the laws and empowered to use the collective force to oblige each individual to obey them, is already a privileged class and cut off from the people. As any constituted body would do, it will instinctively seek to extend its powers, to be beyond public control, to impose its own policies and to give priority to its special interests. Having been put in a privileged position, the government is already at odds with the people whose strength it disposes of.” [Malatesta, Anarchy, p. 36]
The Bolshevik regime during the Russia revolution proved the validity of this analysis. The Bolsheviks seized power in the name of the soviets yet soon marginalised, gerrymandered and disbanded them to remain in power while imposing a vision of socialism (more correctly, state capitalism) at odds with popular aspirations.
Why this would be the case is not hard to discover. Given that the state is a highly centralised, top-down structure it is unsurprising that it develops around itself a privileged class, a bureaucracy, around it. The inequality in power implied by the state is a source of privilege and oppression independent of property and economic class. Those in charge of the state’s institutions would aim to protect (and expand) their area of operation, ensuring that they select individuals who share their perspectives and who they can pass on their positions. By controlling the flow of information, of personnel and resources, the members of the state’s higher circles can ensure its, and their own, survival and prosperity. As such, politicians who are elected are at a disadvantage. The state is the permanent collection of institutions that have entrenched power structures and interests. The politicians come and go while the power in the state lies in its institutions due to their permanence. It is to be expected that such institutions would have their own interests and would pursue them whenever they can.
This would not fundamentally change in a new “workers’ state” as it is, like all states, based on the delegation and centralisation of power into a few hands. Any “workers’ government” would need a new apparatus to enforce its laws and decrees. It would need effective means of gathering and collating information. It would thus create “an entirely new ladder of administration to extend it rule and make itself obeyed.” While a social revolution needs mass participation, the state limits initiative to the few who are in power and “it will be impossible for one or even a number of individuals to elaborate the social forms” required, which “can only be the collective work of the masses . . . Any kind of external authority will merely be an obstacle, a hindrance to the organic work that has to be accomplished; it will be no better than a source of discord and of hatreds.” [Kropotkin, Words of a Rebel, p. 169 and pp. 176-7]
Rather than “withering away,” any “workers’ state” would tend to grow in terms of administration and so the government creates around itself a class of bureaucrats whose position is different from the rest of society. This would apply to production as well. Being unable to manage everything, the state would have to re-introduce hierarchical management in order to ensure its orders are met and that a suitable surplus is extracted from the workers to feed the needs of the state machine. By creating an economically powerful class which it can rely on to discipline the workforce, it would simply recreate capitalism anew in the form of “state capitalism” (this is precisely what happened during the Russian Revolution). To enforce its will onto the people it claims to represent, specialised bodies of armed people (police, army) would be required and soon created. All of which is to be expected, as state socialism “entrusts to a few the management of social life and [so] leads to the exploitation and oppression of the masses by the few.” [Malatesta, Op. Cit., p. 47]
This process takes time. However, the tendency for government to escape from popular control and to generate privileged and powerful institutions around it can be seen in all revolutions, including the Paris Commune and the Russian Revolution. In the former, the Communal Council was “largely ignored . . . after it was installed. The insurrection, the actual management of the city’s affairs and finally the fighting against the Versaillese, were undertaken mainly by popular clubs, the neighbourhood vigilance committees, and the battalions of the National Guard. Had the Paris Commune (the Municipal Council) survived, it is extremely doubtful that it could have avoided conflict with these loosely formed street and militia formations. Indeed, by the end of April, some six weeks after the insurrection, the Commune constituted an ‘all-powerful’ Committee of Public Safety, a body redolent with memories of the Jacobin dictatorship and the Terror , which suppressed not only the right in the Great [French] Revolution of a century earlier, but also the left.” [Murray Bookchin, Post-Scarcity Anarchism, p. 90] A minority of council members (essentially those active in the International) stated that “the Paris Commune has surrendered its authority to a dictatorship” and it was “hiding behind a dictatorship that the electorate have not authorised us to accept or to recognise.” [The Paris Commune of 1871: The View from the Left, Eugene Schulkind (ed.), p. 187] The Commune was crushed before this process could fully unfold, but the omens were there (although it would have undoubtedly been hindered by the local scale of the institutions involved). As we discuss in section H.6, a similar process of a “revolutionary” government escaping from popular control occurred right from the start of the Russian Revolution. The fact the Bolshevik regime lasted longer and was more centralised (and covered a larger area) ensured that this process developed fully, with the “revolutionary” government creating around itself the institutions (the bureaucracy) which finally subjected the politicians and party leaders to its influence and then domination.
Simply put, the vision of the state as merely an instrument of class rule blinds its supporters to the dangers of political inequality in terms of power, the dangers inherent in giving a small group of people power over everyone else. The state has certain properties because it is a state and one of these is that it creates a bureaucratic class around it due to its centralised, hierarchical nature. Within capitalism, the state bureaucracy is (generally) under the control of the capitalist class. However, to generalise from this specific case is wrong as the state bureaucracy is a class in itself – and so trying to abolish classes without abolishing the state is doomed to failure:
“The State has always been the patrimony of some privileged class: the sacerdotal class, the nobility, the bourgeoisie – and finally, when all the other classes have exhausted themselves, the class of the bureaucracy enters upon the stage and then the State falls, or rises, if you please to the position of a machine.” [Bakunin, The Political Philosophy of Bakunin, p. 208]
Thus the state cannot simply be considered as an instrument of rule by economic classes. It can be quite an effective parasitical force in its own right, as both anthropological and historical evidence suggest. The former raises the possibility that the state arose before economic classes and that its roots are in inequalities in power (i.e. hierarchy) within society, not inequalities of wealth. The latter points to examples of societies in which the state was not, in fact, an instrument of (economic) class rule but rather pursued an interest of its own.
As regards anthropology, Michael Taylor summarises that the “evidence does not give [the Marxist] proposition [that the rise of economic classes caused the creation of the state] a great deal of support. Much of the evidence which has been offered in support of it shows only that the primary states, not long after their emergence, were economically stratified. But this is of course consistent also with the simultaneous rise . . . of political and economic stratification, or with the prior development of the state – i.e. of political stratification – and the creation of economic stratification by the ruling class.” [Community, Anarchy and Liberty, p. 132] He quotes Elman Service on this:
“In all of the archaic civilisations and historically known chiefdoms and primitive states the ‘stratification’ was . . . mainly of two classes, the governors and the governed – political strata, not strata of ownership groups.” [quoted by Taylor, Op. Cit., p. 133]
Taylor argues that it the “weakening of community and the development of gross inequalities are the concomitants and consequences of state formation.” He points to the “germ of state formation” being in the informal social hierarchies which exist in tribal societies. [Op. Cit., p. 133 and p. 134] Thus the state is not, initially, a product of economic classes but rather an independent development based on inequalities of social power. Harold Barclay, an anarchist who has studied anthropological evidence on this matter, concurs:
“In Marxist theory power derives primarily, if not exclusively, from control of the means of production and distribution of wealth, that is, from economic factors. Yet, it is evident that power derived from knowledge – and usually ‘religious’ style knowledge – is often highly significant, at least in the social dynamics of small societies. . . Economic factors are hardly the only source of power. Indeed, we see this in modern society as well, where the capitalist owner does not wield total power. Rather technicians and other specialists command it as well, not because of their economic wealth, but because of their knowledge.” [quoted by Alan Carter, Marx: A Radical Critique, p. 191]
If, as Bookchin summarises, “hierarchies precede classes” then trying to use a hierarchical structure like the state to abolish them is simply wishful thinking.
As regards more recent human history, there have been numerous examples of the state existing without being an instrument of (economic) class rule. Rather, the state was the ruling class. While the most obvious example is the Stalinist regimes where the state bureaucracy ruled over a state capitalist economy, there have been plenty of others, as Murray Bookchin pointed out:
“Each State is not necessarily an institutionalised system of violence in the interests of a specific ruling class, as Marxism would have us believe. There are many examples of States that were the ‘ruling class’ and whose own interests existed quite apart from – even in antagonism to – privileged, presumably ‘ruling’ classes in a given society. The ancient world bears witness to distinctly capitalistic classes, often highly privileged and exploitative, that were bilked by the State, circumscribed by it, and ultimately devoured by it – which is in part why a capitalist society never emerged out of the ancient world. Nor did the State ‘represent’ other class interests, such as landed nobles, merchants, craftsmen, and the like. The Ptolemaic State in Hellenistic Egypt was an interest in its own right and ‘represented’ no other interest than its own. The same is true of the Aztec and the Inca States until they were replaced by Spanish invaders. Under the Emperor Domitian, the Roman State became the principal ‘interest’ in the empire, superseding the interests of even the landed aristocracy which held such primacy in Mediterranean society. . .
“Near-Eastern State, like the Egyptian, Babylonian, and Persian, were virtually extended households of individual monarchs . . . Pharaohs, kings, and emperors nominally held the land (often co-jointly with the priesthood) in the trust of the deities, who were either embodied in the monarch or were represented by him. The empires of Asian and North African kings were ‘households’ and the population was seen as ‘servants of the palace’ . . .
“These ‘states,’ in effect, were not simply engines of exploitation or control in the interests of a privileged ‘class.’ . . . The Egyptian State was very real but it ‘represented’ nothing other than itself.” [Remaking Society, pp. 67-8]
Bakunin pointed to Turkish Serbia, where economically dominant classes “do not even exist – there is only a bureaucratic class. Thus, the Serbian state will crush the Serbian people for the sole purpose of enabling Serbian bureaucrats to live a fatter life.” [Statism and Anarchy, p. 54] Leninist Tony Cliff, in his attempt to prove that Stalinist Russia was state capitalist and its bureaucracy a ruling class, pointed to various societies which “had deep class differentiation, based not on private property but on state property. Such systems existed in Pharaonic Egypt, Moslem Egypt, Iraq, Persia and India.” He discusses the example of Arab feudalism in more detail, where “the feudal lord had no permanent domain of his own, but a member of a class which collectively controlled the land and had the right to appropriate rent.” This was “ownership of the land by the state” rather than by individuals. [State Capitalism in Russia, pp. 316-8] As such, the idea that the state is simply an instrument of class rule seems unsupportable. As Gaston Leval argued, “the State, by its nature, tends to have a life of its own.” [quoted by Sam Dolgoff, A Critique of Marxism, p. 10]
Marx’s “implicit theory of the state – a theory which, in reducing political power to the realisation of the interests of the dominant economic classes, precludes any concern with the potentially authoritarian and oppressive outcome of authoritarian and centralised revolutionary methods . . . This danger (namely, the dismissal of warranted fears concerning political power) is latent in the central features of Marx’s approach to politics.” [Alan Carter, Op. Cit., p. 219] To summarise the obvious conclusion:
“By focusing too much attention on the economic structure of society and insufficient attention on the problems of political power, Marx has left a legacy we would done better not to inherit. The perceived need for authoritarian and centralised revolutionary organisation is sanctioned by Marx’s theory because his theoretical subordination of political power to economic classes apparently renders post-revolutionary political power unproblematic.” [Op. Cit., p. 231]
Many factors contributed to Stalinism, including Marxism’s defective theory of the state. In stressing that socialism meant nationalising property, it lead to state management which, in turn, expropriated the working class as a vast managerial bureaucracy was required to run it. Moreover, Marxism disguised this new ruling class as it argues that the state ‘represents’ a class and had no interests of itself. Thus we have Trotsky’s utter inability to understand Stalinism and his insane formula that the proletariat remained the ruling class under Stalin (or, for that matter, under himself and Lenin)! Simply put, by arguing that the state was an instrument of class rule, Marxism ensured it presented a false theory of social change and could not analysis its resulting class rule when the inevitable consequences of this approach was implemented.
However, there is more to Marxism than its dominant theory of the state. Given this blindness of orthodox Marxism to this issue, it seems ironic that one of the people responsible for it also provides anarchists with evidence to back up our argument that the state is not simply an instrument of class rule but rather has interests of its own. Thus we find Engels arguing that proletariat, “in order not to lose again its only just conquered supremacy,” would have “to safeguard itself against its own deputies and officials, by declaring them all, without exception, subject to recall at any moment.” [Selected Works, p. 257] Yet, if the state was simply an instrument of class rule such precautions would not be necessary. Engels comments show an awareness that the state can have interests of its own, that it is not simply a machine of class rule.
Aware of the obvious contradiction, Engels argued that the state “is, as a rule, the state of the most powerful, economically dominant class which, through the medium of the state, becomes the politically dominant class . . . By way of exception, however, periods occur in which the warring classes balance each other, so nearly that the state power, as ostensible mediator, acquires, for the moment, a certain degree of independence of both.” He pointed to the “absolute monarchy of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries”, which held the balance between the nobility and the bourgeoisie against one another as well as “the Bonapartism of the First, and still more of the Second French Empire.” It should be noted that, elsewhere, Engels was more precise on how long the state was, in fact, controlled by the bourgeoisie, namely two years: “In France, where the bourgeoisie as such, as a class in its entirety, held power for only two years, 1849 and 1850, under the republic, it was able to continue its social existence only by abdicating its political power to Louis Bonaparte and the army.” [Op. Cit., pp. 577-8 and p. 238] So, in terms of French history, Engels argued that “by way of exception” accounted for over 250 hundred years, the 17th and 18th centuries and most of the 19th, bar a two year period! Even if we are generous and argue that the 1830 revolution placed one section of the bourgeoisie (finance capital) into political power, we are still left with over 200 hundred years of state “independence” from classes! Given this, it would be fair to suggest that the “exception” should be when it is an instrument of class rule, not when it is not!
This was no isolated case. In Prussia “members of the bourgeoisie have a majority in the Chamber . . . But where is their power over the state? . . . the mass of the bourgeoisie . . . does not want to rule.” [Op. Cit., pp. 236-7] And so, in Germany, there exists “alongside the basic condition of the old absolute monarchy – an equilibrium between the landowner aristocracy and the bourgeoisie – the basic condition of modern Bonapartism – an equilibrium between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.” This meant that “both in the old absolute monarchy and in the modern Bonapartist monarchy the real government power lies in the hands of a special caste of army officers and state officials” and so the “independence of this case, which appears to occupy a position outside and, so to speak, above society, gives the state the semblance of independence in relation to society.” However, this did not stop Engels asserting that the “state is nothing but the organised collective power of the exploiting classes, the landlords and the capitalists as against the exploited classes, the peasants and the workers. What the individual capitalists . . . do not want, their state also does not want.” [Collected Works, vol. 23, p. 363 and p. 362]
So, according to Engels, the executive of the state, like the state itself, can become independent from classes if the opposing classes were balanced. This analysis, it must be pointed out, was an improvement on the earliest assertions of Marx and Engels on the state. In the 1840s, it was a case of the “independence of the state is only found nowadays in those countries where the estates have not yet completely developed into classes . . . where consequently no section of the population can achieve dominance over the others.” [Op. Cit., vol. 5, p. 90] For Engels, “[f]rom the moment the state administration and legislature fall under the control of the bourgeoisie, the independence of the bureaucracy ceases to exist.” [Op. Cit., vol. 6, p. 88] It must, therefore, have come as a surprise for Marx and Engels when the state and its bureaucracy appeared to become independent in France under Napoleon III.
Talking of which, it should be noted that, initially for Marx, under Bonapartism “the state power is not suspended in mid air. Bonaparte represents a class, and the most numerous class of French society at that, the small-holding [Parzellen] peasants.” The Bonaparte “who dispersed the bourgeois parliament is the chosen of the peasantry.” However, this class is “incapable of enforcing their class interests in their own name . . . They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented. Their representative must at the same time appear as their master, as an authority over them, as an unlimited governmental power . . . The political influence of the small-holding peasants, therefore, finds its final expression in the executive power subordinating society to itself.” Yet Marx himself admits that this regime experienced “peasant risings in half of France”, organised “raids on the peasants by the army” and the “mass incarceration and transportation of peasants.” A strange form of class rule, when the class represented is oppressed by the regime! Rest assured, though, the “Bonaparte dynasty represents not the revolutionary, but the conservative peasant.” Then Marx, without comment, pronounced Bonaparte to be “the representative of the lumpenproletariat to which he himself, his entourage, his government and his army belong.” [Selected Works, p. 170, p. 171 and p. 176]
It would be fair to say that Marx’s analysis is somewhat confused and seems an ad hoc explanation to the fact that in a modern society the state appeared to become independent of the economically dominant class. Yet if a regime is systematically oppressing a class then it is fair to conclude that is not representing that class in any way. Bonaparte’s power did not, in other words, rest on the peasantry. Rather, like fascism, it was a means by which the bourgeoisie could break the power of the working class and secure its own class position against possible social revolution. As Bakunin argued, it was a “despotic imperial system” which the bourgeois “themselves founded out of fear of the Social Revolution.” [The Basic Bakunin, p. 63] Thus the abolition of bourgeois rule was more apparent than real:
“As soon as the people took equality and liberty seriously, the bourgeoisie . . . retreated into reaction . . . They began by suppressing universal suffrage . . . The fear of Social Revolution . . . . hurled this downfallen class . . . into the arms of the dictatorship of Napoleon III . . . We should not think that the Bourgeois Gentlemen were too inconvenienced . . . [Those who] applied themselves earnestly and exclusively to the great concern of the bourgeoisie, the exploitation of the people . . . were well protected and powerfully supported . . . All went well, according to the desires of the bourgeoisie.” [Op. Cit., pp. 62-3]
Somewhat ironically, then, a key example used by Marxists for the “independence” of the state is no such thing. Bonapartism did not represent a “balance” between the proletariat and bourgeoisie but rather the most naked form of state rule required in the fact of working class revolt. It was a counter-revolutionary regime which reflected a defeat for the working class, not a “balance” between it and the capitalist class.
Marx’s confusions arose from his belief that, for the bourgeoisie, the parliamentary republic “was the unavoidable condition of their common rule, the sole form of state in which their general class interest subjected itself at the same time both the claims of their particular factions and all the remaining classes of society.” [Selected Works, pp. 152-3] The abolition of the republic, the replacement of the government, was, for him, the end of the political rule of the bourgeoisie as he argued that “the industrial bourgeoisie applauds with servile bravos the coup d’état of December 2, the annihilation of parliament, the downfall of its own rule, the dictatorship of Bonaparte.” He repeated this identification: “Passing of the parliamentary regime and of bourgeois rule. Victory of Bonaparte.” [Selected Writings, pp. 164-5 and p. 166] Political rule was equated to which party held power and so, logically, universal suffrage was “the equivalent of political power for the working class . . . where the proletariat forms the large majority of the population.” Its “inevitable result would be “the political supremacy of the working class.” [Collected Works, vol. 11, pp. 335-6] This was, of course, simply wrong (on both counts) as he, himself, seemed to became aware of two decades later.
In 1871 he argued that “the State power assumed more and more the character of the national power of capital over labour, of a public force organised for social enslavement, of an engine of class despotism.” This meant that “in view of the threatened upheaval of the proletariat, [the bourgeoisie] now used that State power mercilessly and ostentatiously as the national war-engine of capital against labour” and so were “bound not only to invest the executive with continually increased powers of repression, but at the same time to divest their own parliamentary stronghold . . . of all its own means of defence against the Executive. The Executive, in the person of Louis Bonaparte, turned them out.” Marx now admitted that this regime only “professed to rest upon the peasantry” while, “[i]n reality, it was the only form of government possible at a time when the bourgeoisie had already lost, and the working class had not yet acquired, the faculty of ruling the nation.” However, “[u]nder its sway, bourgeois society, freed from political cares, attained a development unexpected even by itself.” [Selected Works, p. 285, p. 286, pp. 286-7 and p. 287]
Yet capitalists often do well under regimes which suppress the basic liberties of the working class and so the bourgeoisie remained the ruling class and the state remained its organ. In other words, there is no “balance” between classes under Bonapartism even if the political regime is not subject to electoral control by the bourgeoisie and has more independence to pursue its own agenda.
This is not the only confirmation of the anarchist critique of the Marxist theory of the state which can be found in Marxism itself. Marx, at times, also admitted the possibility of the state not being an instrument of (economic) class rule. For example, he mentioned the so-called “Asiatic Mode of Production” in which “there are no private landowners” but rather “the state . . . which confronts” the peasants “directly as simultaneously landowner and sovereign, rent and tax coincide . . . Here the state is the supreme landlord. Sovereignty here is landed property concentrated on a national scale.” [Capital, vol. 3, p. 927] Thus “the State [is] the real landlord” in the “Asiatic system” [Collected Works, vol. 12, p. 215] In other words, the ruling class could be a state bureaucracy and so be independent of economic classes. Unfortunately this analysis remained woefully undeveloped and no conclusions were drawn from these few comments, perhaps unsurprisingly as it undermines the claim that the state is merely the instrument of the economically dominant class. It also, of course, has applicability to state socialism and certain conclusions could be reached that suggested it, as Bakunin warned, would be a new form of class rule.
The state bureaucracy as the ruling class can be seen in Soviet Russia (and the other so-called “socialist” regimes such as China and Cuba). As libertarian socialist Ante Ciliga put it, “the manner in which Lenin organised industry had handed it over entirely into the hands of the bureaucracy,” and so the workers “became once more the wage-earning manpower in other people’s factories. Of socialism there remained in Russia no more than the word.” [The Russian Enigma, p. 280 and p. 286] Capitalism became state capitalism under Lenin and Trotsky and so the state, as Bakunin predicted and feared, became the new ruling class under Marxism (see section H.3.14 for more discussion of this).
The confusions of the Marxist theory of the state ensured that Trotsky, for example, failed to recognise the obvious, namely that the Stalinist state bureaucracy was a ruling class. Rather, it was the “new ruling caste”, or “the ruling stratum”. While admitting, at one stage, that the “transfer of the factories to the State changed the situation of the workers only juridically” Trotsky then ignored the obvious conclusion that this has left the working class as an exploited class under a (new) form of capitalism to assert that the “nature” of Stalinist Russia was “a proletarian State” because of its “nationalisation” of the means of life (which “constitute the basis of the Soviet social structure”). He admitted that the “Soviet Bureaucracy has expropriated the proletariat politically” but has done so “in order by methods of its own to defend the social conquests” of the October Revolution. He did not ponder too deeply the implications of admitting that the “means of production belong to the State. But the State, so to speak, ‘belongs’ to the bureaucracy.” [The Revolution Betrayed, p. 93, p. 136, p. 228, p. 235 and p. 236] If that is so, only ideology can stop the obvious confusion being drawn, namely that the state bureaucracy was the ruling class. But that is precisely what happened with Trotsky’s confusion expressing itself thusly:
“In no other regime has a bureaucracy ever achieved such a degree of independence from the dominating class . . . it is something more than a bureaucracy. It is in the full sense of the word the sole privileged and commanding stratum in the Soviet society.” [Op. Cit., p. 235]
By this, Trotsky suggested that the working class was the “dominating class” under Stalinism! In fact, the bureaucracy “continues to preserve State property only to the extent it fears the proletariat” while, at the same time, the bureaucracy has “become [society’s] lord” and “the Soviet state has acquired a totalitarian-bureaucratic character”! This nonsense is understandable, given the unwillingness to draw the obvious conclusion from the fact that the bureaucracy was “compelled to defend State property as the source of its power and its income. In this aspect of its activity it still remains a weapon of proletarian dictatorship.” [Op. Cit., p. 112, p. 107, p. 238 and p. 236] By commanding nationalised property, the bureaucracy, like private capitalists, could exploit the labour of the working class and did. That the state owned the means of production did not stop this being a form of class system.
It is simply nonsense to claim, as Trotsky did, that the “anatomy of society is determined by its economic relations. So long as the forms of property that have been created by the October Revolution are not overthrown, the proletariat remains the ruling class.” [Writings of Leon Trotsky 1933-34, p. 125] How could the proletariat be the “ruling class” if it were under the heel of a totalitarian dictatorship? State ownership of property was precisely the means by which the bureaucracy enforced its control over production and so the source of its economic power and privileges. To state the obvious, if the working class does not control the property it is claimed to own then someone else does. The economic relationship thus generated is a hierarchical one, in which the working class is an oppressed class.
Significantly, Trotsky combated those of his followers who drew the same conclusions as had anarchists and libertarian Marxists while he and Lenin held the reigns of power. Perhaps this ideological blindness is understandable, given Trotsky’s key role in creating the bureaucracy in the first place. So Trotsky did criticise, if in a confused manner, the Stalinist regime for its “injustice, oppression, differential consumption, and so on, even if he had supported them when he himself was in the elite.” [Neil C. Fernandez, Capitalism and Class Struggle in the USSR, p. 180]). Then there is the awkward conclusion that if the bureaucracy were a ruling class under Stalin then Russia was also state capitalist under Lenin and Trotsky for the economic relations were identical in both (this obvious conclusion haunts those, like the British SWP, who maintain that Stalinism was State Capitalist but not Bolshevism – see section H.3.13). Suffice to say, if the state itself can be the “economically dominant class” then the state cannot be a mere instrument of an economic class.
Moreover, Engels also presented another analysis of the state which suggested that it arose before economic classes appeared. In 1886 he wrote of how society “creates for itself an organ for the safeguarding of its common interests against internal and external attacks. This organ is the state power. Hardly come into being, this organ makes itself independent vis-à-vis society: and, indeed, the more so, the more it becomes the organ of a particular class, the more it directly enforces the supremacy of that class.” “Society”, he argued four years later, “gives rise to certain common function which it cannot dispense with. The persons appointed for this purpose form a new branch of the division of labour within society. This gives them particular interests, distinct, too, from the interests of those who empowered them; they make themselves independent of the latter and – the state is in being.” [Op. Cit., p. 617 and pp. 685-6] In this schema, the independence of the state comes first and is then captured by rising economically powerful class.
Regardless of when and how the state arises, the key thing is that Engels recognised that the state was “endowed with relative independence.” Rather than being a simple expression of economic classes and their interests, this “new independent power, while having in the main to follow the movement of production, reacts in its turn, by virtue of its inherent relative independence – that is, the relative independence once transferred to it and gradually further developed – upon the conditions and course of production. It is the interaction of two unequal forces: on the one hand, the economic movement, on the other, the new political power, which strives for as much independence as possible, and which, having once been established, is endowed with a movement of its own.” There were three types of “reaction of the state power upon economic development.” The state can act “in the same direction” and then it is “more rapid” or it can “oppose” it and “can do great damage to the economic development.” Finally, it can “prevent the economic development proceeding along certain lines, and prescribe other lines.” Finally he stated “why do we fight for the political dictatorship of the proletariat is political power is economically impotent? Force (that is, state power) is also an economic power!” [Op. Cit., p. 686 and p. 689]
Conversely, anarchists reply, why fight for “the political dictatorship of the proletariat” when you yourself admit that the state can become “independent” of the classes you claim it represents? Particularly when you increase its potential for becoming independent by centralising it even more and giving it economic powers to complement its political ones!
So the Marxist theory of the state is that is an instrument of class rule – except when it is not. Its origins lie in the rise of class antagonisms – except when it does not. It arises after the break up of society into classes – except when it does not. Which means, of course, the state is not just an instrument of class rule and, correspondingly, the anarchist critique is confirmed. This explains why the analysis of the “Asiatic Mode of Production” is so woefully underdeveloped in Marx and Engels as well as the confused and contradictory attempt to understand Bonapartism.
To summarise, if the state can become “independent” of economic classes or even exist without an economically dominant class, then that implies that it is no mere machine, no mere “instrument” of class rule. It implies the anarchist argument that the state has interests of its own, generated by its essential features and so, therefore, cannot be used by a majority class as part of its struggle for liberation is correct. Simply put, Anarchists have long “realised – feared – that any State structure, whether or not socialist or based on universal suffrage, has a certain independence from society, and so may serve the interests of those within State institutions rather than the people as a whole or the proletariat.” [Brian Morris, Bakunin: The Philosophy of Freedom, p. 134] Thus “the state certainly has interests of its own . . . [,] acts to protect [them] . . . and protects the interests of the bourgeoisie when these interests happen to coincide with its own, as, indeed, they usually do.” [Carter, Op. Cit., p. 226]
As Mark Leier quips, Marxism “has usually – save when battling anarchists – argued that the state has some ‘relative autonomy’ and is not a direct, simple reflex of a given economic system.” [Bakunin: The Constructive Passion, p. 275] The reason why the more sophisticated Marxist analysis of the state is forgotten when it comes to attacking anarchism should be obvious – it undermines the both the Marxist critique of anarchism and its own theory of the state. Ironically, arguments and warnings about the “independence” of the state by Marxists imply that the state has interests of its own and cannot be considered simply as an instrument of class rule. They suggest that the anarchist analysis of the state is correct, namely that any structure based on delegated power, centralisation and hierarchy must, inevitably, have a privileged class in charge of it, a class whose position enables it to not only exploit and oppress the rest of society but also to effectively escape from popular control and accountability. This is no accident. The state is structured to enforce minority rule and exclude the majority.
One of the most widespread myths associated with Marxism is the idea that Marxism has consistently aimed to smash the current (bourgeois) state and replace it by a “workers’ state” based on working class organisations created during a revolution.
This myth is sometimes expressed by those who should know better (i.e. Marxists). According to John Rees (of the British Socialist Workers Party) it has been a “cornerstone of revolutionary theory” that “the soviet is a superior form of democracy because it unifies political and economic power.” This “cornerstone” has, apparently, existed “since Marx’s writings on the Paris Commune.” [“In Defence of October,”, pp. 3-82, International Socialism, no. 52, p. 25] In fact, nothing could be further from the truth, as Marx’s writings on the Paris Commune prove beyond doubt.
The Paris Commune, as Marx himself noted, was “formed of the municipal councillors, chosen by universal suffrage in the various wards of the town.” [Selected Works, p. 287] As Marx made clear, it was definitely not based on delegates from workplaces and so could not unify political and economic power. Indeed, to state that the Paris Commune was a soviet is simply a joke, as is the claim that Marxists supported soviets as revolutionary organs to smash and replace the state from 1871. In fact Marxists did not subscribe to this “cornerstone of revolutionary theory” until 1917 when Lenin argued that the Soviets would be the best means of ensuring a Bolshevik government. Which explains why Lenin’s use of the slogan “All Power to the Soviets” and call for the destruction of the bourgeois state came as such a shock to his fellow Marxists. Unsurprisingly, given the long legacy of anarchist calls to smash the state and their vision of a socialist society built from below by workers councils, many Marxists called Lenin an anarchist! Therefore, the idea that Marxists have always supported workers councils’ is untrue and any attempt to push this support back to 1871 simply a farcical.
Not all Marxists are as ignorant of their political tradition as Rees. As his fellow party member Chris Harman recognised, “[e]ven the 1905 [Russian] revolution gave only the most embryonic expression of how a workers’ state would in fact be organised. The fundamental forms of workers’ power – the soviets (workers’ councils) – were not recognised.” It was “[n]ot until the February revolution [of 1917 that] soviets became central in Lenin’s writings and thought.” [Party and Class, p. 18 and p. 19] Before then, Marxists had held the position, to quote Karl Kautsky from 1909 (who is, in turn, quoting his own words from 1893), that the democratic republic “was the particular form of government in which alone socialism can be realised.” He added, after the Russian Revolution, that “not a single Marxist revolutionary repudiated me, neither Rosa Luxemburg nor Klara Zetkin, neither Lenin nor Trotsky.” [The Road to Power, p. 34 and p. xlviii]
Lenin himself, even after Social Democracy supported their respective states in the First World War and before his return to Russia, still argued that Kautsky’s work contained “a most complete exposition of the tasks of our times” and “it was most advantageous to the German Social-Democrats (in the sense of the promise they held out), and moreover came from the pen of the most eminent writer of the Second International . . . Social-Democracy . . . wants conquest of political power by the proletariat, the dictatorship of the proletariat.” [Collected Works, vol. 21, p. 94] There was no hint that Marxism stood for anything other than seizing power in a republic, as expounded by the likes of Kautsky.
Before continuing it should be stressed that Harman’s summary is correct only if we are talking about the Marxist movement. Looking at the wider revolutionary movement, two groups definitely recognised the importance of the soviets as a form of working class power and as the framework of a socialist society. These were the anarchists and the Social-Revolutionary Maximalists, both of whom “espoused views that corresponded almost word for word with Lenin’s April 1917 program of ‘All power to the soviets.'” The “aims of the revolutionary far left in 1905” Lenin “combined in his call for soviet power [in 1917], when he apparently assimilated the anarchist program to secure the support of the masses for the Bolsheviks.” [Oskar Anweiler, The Soviets, p. 94 and p. 96]
So before 1917, when Lenin claimed to have discovered what had eluded all the previous followers of Marx and Engels (including himself!), it was only anarchists (or those close to them such as the SR-Maximalists) who argued that the future socialist society would be structurally based around the organs working class people themselves created in the process of the class struggle and revolution. For example, the syndicalists “regarded the soviets . . . as admirable versions of the bourses du travail, but with a revolutionary function added to suit Russian conditions. Open to all leftist workers regardless of specific political affiliation, the soviets were to act as nonpartisan labour councils improvised ‘from below’ . . . with the aim of bringing down the old regime.” The anarchists of Khleb i Volia “also likened the 1905 Petersburg Soviet – as a non-party mass organisation – to the central committee of the Paris Commune of 1871.” [Paul Avrich, The Russian Anarchists, pp. 80-1] In 1907, it was concluded that the revolution required “the proclamation in villages and towns of workers’ communes with soviets of workers’ deputies . . . at their head.” [quoted by Alexandre Skirda, Facing the Enemy, p. 77] These ideas can be traced back to Bakunin, so, ironically, the idea of the superiority of workers’ councils has existed from around the time of the Paris Commune, but only in anarchist theory.
So, if Marxists did not support workers’ councils until 1917, what did Marxists argue should be the framework of a socialist society before this date? To discover this, we must look to Marx and Engels. Once we do, we discover that their works suggest that their vision of socialist transformation was fundamentally based on the bourgeois state, suitably modified and democratised to achieve this task. As such, rather than present the true account of the Marxist theory of the state Lenin interpreted various inexact and ambiguous statements by Marx and Engels (particularly from Marx’s defence of the Paris Commune) to justify his own actions in 1917. Whether his 1917 revision of Marxism in favour of workers’ councils as the means to socialism is in keeping with the spirit of Marx is another matter of course. For the Socialist Party of Great Britain and its sister parties, Lenin violated both the letter and the spirit of Marx and they stress his arguments in favour of utilising universal suffrage to introduce socialism (indeed, their analysis of Marx and critique of Lenin is substantially the same as the one presented here). For the council communists, who embraced the idea of workers’ councils but broke with the Bolsheviks over the issue of whether the councils or the party had power, Lenin’s analysis, while flawed in parts, is in the general spirit of Marx and they stress the need to smash the state and replace it with workers’ councils. In this, they express the best in Marx. When faced with the Paris Commune and its libertarian influences he embraced it, distancing himself (for a while at least) with many of his previous ideas.
So what was the original (orthodox) Marxist position? It can be seen from Lenin who, as late December 1916 argued that “Socialists are in favour of utilising the present state and its institutions in the struggle for the emancipation of the working class, maintaining also that the state should be used for a specific form of transition from capitalism to socialism.” Lenin attacked Bukharin for “erroneously ascribing this [the anarchist] view to the socialist” when he had stated socialists wanted to “abolish” the state or “blow it up.” He called this “transitional form” the dictatorship of the proletariat, “which is also a state.” [Collected Works, vol. 23, p. 165] In other words, the socialist party would aim to seize power within the existing republican state and, after making suitable modifications to it, use it to create socialism.
That this position was the orthodox one is hardly surprising, given the actual comments of both Marx and Engels. For example Engels argued in April 1883 while he and Marx saw “the gradual dissolution and ultimate disappearance of that political organisation called the State“ as “one of the final results of the future revolution,” they “at the same time . . . have always held that . . . the proletarian class will first have to possess itself of the organised political force of the State and with its aid stamp out the resistance of the Capitalist class and re-organise society.” The idea that the proletariat needs to “possess” the existing state is made clear when he notes that the anarchists “reverse the matter” by advocating that the revolution “has to begin by abolishing the political organisation of the State.” For Marxists “the only organisation the victorious working class finds ready-made for use, is that of the State. It may require adaptation to the new functions. But to destroy that at such a moment, would be to destroy the only organism by means of which the working class can exert its newly conquered power.” [our emphasis, Op. Cit., vol. 47, p. 10]
Obviously the only institution which the working class “finds ready-made for use” is the democratic (i.e., bourgeois) state, although, as Engels stressed, it “may require adaptation.” In Engels 1871 introduction to Marx’s “The Civil War in France”, this analysis is repeated when Engels asserted that the state “is nothing but a machine for the oppression of one class by another” and that it is “at best an evil inherited by the proletariat after its victorious struggle for class supremacy, whose worst sides the victorious proletariat, just like the Commune, cannot avoid having to lop off at once as much as possible.” [Selected Works, p. 258]
If the proletariat creates a new state to replace the bourgeois one, then how can it be “ready-made for use” and “an evil inherited” by it? If, as Lenin argued, Marx and Engels thought that the working class had to smash the bourgeois state and replace it with a new one, why would it have “to lop off at once as much as possible” from the state it had just “inherited”?
Three years later, Engels made his position clear: “With respect to the proletariat the republic differs from the monarchy only in that it is the ready-for-use form for the future rule of the proletariat.” He went on to state that the French socialists “are at an advantage compared to us in already having it” and warned against “baseless” illusions such as seeking to “entrust socialist tasks to it while it is dominated by the bourgeoisie.” [Marx and Engels, The Socialist Revolution, p. 296] This was, significantly, simply repeating Engels 1891 argument from his critique of the draft of the Erfurt program of the German Social Democrats:
“If one thing is certain it is that our Party and the working class can only come to power under the form of a democratic republic. This is even the specific form for the dictatorship of the proletariat, as the Great French Revolution has already shown.” [Collected Works, vol. 27, p. 227]
Clearly Engels does not speak of a “commune-republic” or anything close to a soviet republic, as expressed in Bakunin’s work or the libertarian wing of the First International with their ideas of a “trade-union republic” or a free federation of workers’ associations. Clearly and explicitly he speaks of the democratic republic, the current state (“an evil inherited by the proletariat”) which is to be seized and transformed.
Unsurprisingly, when Lenin came to quote this passage in State and Revolution he immediately tried to obscure its meaning. “Engels,” he wrote, “repeated here in a particularly striking form the fundamental idea which runs through all of Marx’s work, namely, that the democratic republic is the nearest approach to the dictatorship of the proletariat.” [The Lenin Anthology, p. 360] However, obviously Engels did nothing of the kind. He did not speak of the political form which “is the nearest approach” to the dictatorship, rather he wrote only of “the specific form” of the dictatorship, the “only” form in which “our Party” can come to power. Hal Draper, likewise, denied that Engels meant what he clearly wrote, arguing that he really meant the Paris Commune. “Because of the expression ‘great French revolution,'” Draper asserted, “the assumption has often been made that Engels meant the French Revolution of 1789; but the idea that he, or anyone else, could view 1789 (or 1793) as a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ is too absurd to entertain.” [The ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ from Marx to Lenin, p. 37fn]
Yet, contextually, no evidence exists to support such a claim and what does disputes it – Engels discusses French history and makes no mention of the Commune but does mention the republic of 1792 to 1799 (significantly, Lenin makes no attempt to suggest that Engels meant the Paris Commune or anything else bar a democratic republic). In fact, Engels goes on to argue that “[f]rom 1792 to 1799 each French department, each commune, enjoyed complete self-government on the American model, and this is what we too must have. How self-government is to be organised and how we can manage without a bureaucracy has been shown to us by America and the first French Republic.” Significantly, Engels was explicitly discussing the need for a “republican party programme”, commenting that it would be impossible for “our best people to become ministers” under an Emperor and arguing that, in Germany at the time, they could not call for a republic and had to raise the “demand for the concentration of all political power in the hands of the people’s representatives.” Engels stressed that “the proletariat can only use the form of the one and indivisible republic” with “self-government” meaning “officials elected by universal suffrage”. [Op. Cit., pp. 227-9]
Clearly, the “assumption” Draper denounced makes more sense than his own or Lenin’s. This is particularly the case when it is clear that both Marx and Engels viewed the French Republic under the Jacobins as a situation where the proletariat held political power (although, like Marx with the Paris Commune, they do not use the term “dictatorship of the proletariat” to describe it). Engels wrote of “the rule of the Mountain party” as being “the short time when the proletariat was at the helm of the state in the French Revolution” and “from May 31, 1793 to July 26, 1794 . . . not a single bourgeois dared show his face in the whole of France.” Marx, similarly, wrote of this period as one in which “the proletariat overthrows the political rule of the bourgeoisie” but due to the “material conditions” its acts were “in service” of the bourgeois revolution. The “bloody action of the people” only “prepared the way for” the bourgeoisie by destroying feudalism, something which the bourgeoisie was not capable of. [Op. Cit., vol. 6, p. 373, p. 5 and p. 319]
Apparently Engels did not consider it “too absurd to entertain” that the French Republic of 1793 was “a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat'” and, ironically, Draper’s “anyone else” turned out to be Marx! Moreover, this was well known in Marxist circles long before Draper made his assertion. Julius Martov (for example) after quoting Marx on this issue summarised that, for Marx and Engels, the “Reign of Terror in France was the momentary domination of the democratic petty bourgeoisie and the proletariat over all the possessing classes, including the authentic bourgeoisie.” [The State and Socialist Revolution, p. 51]
Similarly, Lenin quoted Engels on the proletariat seizing “state power” and nationalising the means of production, an act by which it “abolishes itself as proletariat” and “abolishes the state as state.” Significantly, it is Lenin who has to write that “Engels speaks here of the proletarian revolution ‘abolishing’ the bourgeois state, while the words about the state withering away refer to the remnants of the proletariat state after the socialist revolution.” Yet Engels himself makes no such differentiation and talks purely of “the state” and it “becom[ing] the real representative of the whole of society” by “taking possession of the means of production in the name of society.” Perhaps Lenin was right and Engels really meant two different states but, sadly, he failed to make that point explicitly, so allowing Marxism, to use Lenin’s words, to be subjected to “the crudest distortion” by its followers, “prune[d]” and “reduc[ed] . . . to opportunism.” [Op. Cit., pp. 320-2]
Then there are Engels 1887 comments that in the USA the workers “next step towards their deliverance” was “the formation of a political workingmen’s party, with a platform of its own, and the conquest of the Capitol and the White House for its goal.” This new party “like all political parties everywhere . . . aspires to the conquest of political power.” Engels then discusses the “electoral battle” going on in America. [Marx and Engels, Collected Works, vol. 26, p. 435 and p. 437] Significantly, 40 years previously in 1847, Engels had argued that the revolution “will establish a democratic constitution, and through this, the direct . . . dominance of the proletariat” where “the proletarians are already a majority of the people.” He noted that “a democratic constitution has been introduced” in America. [Op. Cit., vol. 6, p. 350 and p. 356] The continuity is significant, particularly as these identical arguments come before and after the Paris Commune of 1871.
This was no isolated statement. Engels had argued along the same lines (and, likewise, echoed early statements) as regards Britain in 1881, “where the industrial and agricultural working class forms the immense majority of the people, democracy means the dominion of the working class, neither more nor less. Let, then, that working class prepare itself for the task in store for it – the ruling of this great Empire . . . And the best way to do this is to use the power already in their hands, the actual majority they possess . . . to send to Parliament men of their own order.” In case this was not clear enough, he lamented that “[e]verywhere the labourer struggles for political power, for direct representation of his class in the legislature – everywhere but in Great Britain.” [Op. Cit., vol. 24, p. 405] For Engels:
“In every struggle of class against class, the next end fought for is political power; the ruling class defends its political supremacy, that is to say its safe majority in the Legislature; the inferior class fights for, first a share, then the whole of that power, in order to become enabled to change existing laws in conformity with their own interests and requirements. Thus the working class of Great Britain for years fought ardently and even violently for the People’s Charter [which demanded universal suffrage and yearly general elections], which was to give it that political power.” [Op. Cit., p. 386]
The 1st of May, 1893, saw Engels argue that the task of the British working class was not only to pursue economic struggles “but above all in winning political rights, parliament, through the working class organised into an independent party” (significantly, the original manuscript stated “but in winning parliament, the political power”). He went on to state that the 1892 general election saw the workers give a “taste of their power, hitherto unexerted.” [Op. Cit., vol. 27, p. 395] This, significantly, is in line with his 1870 comment that in Britain “the bourgeoisie could only get its real representative . . . into government only by extension of the franchise, whose consequences are bound to put an end to all bourgeois rule.” [Selected Works, p. 238]
Marx seems to see voting for a government as being the same as political power as the “fundamental contradiction” of a democracy under capitalism is that the classes “whose social slavery the constitution is to perpetuate” it “puts in possession of political power through universal suffrage.” [Collected Works, vol. 10, p. 79] For Engels in 1847, “democracy has as its necessary consequence the political rule of the proletariat.” Universal suffrage would “make political power pass from the middle class to the working class” and so “the democratic movement” is “striving for the political domination of the proletariat.” [Op. Cit., vol. 7, p. 299, p. 440 and p. 368] As noted in section H.3.9, Marx concluded that Bonaparte’s coup ended the political power of the bourgeoisie and, for Engels, “the whole bourgeoisie ruled, but for three years only” during the Second French Republic of 1848-51. Significantly, during the previous regime of Louis-Philippe (1830-48) “a very small portion of the bourgeois ruled the kingdom” as “by far the larger part were excluded from the suffrage by high [property] qualifications.” [Op. Cit., vol. 27, p. 297]
All of which, of course, fits into Marx’s account of the Paris Commune where, as noted above, the Commune “was formed of the municipal councillors” who had been “chosen by universal suffrage in the various wards of the town” in the municipal elections held on March 26th, 1871. Once voted into office, the Commune then smashed the state machine inherited by it, recognising that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.” The “first decree of the Commune . . . was the suppression of the standing army, and the substitution for it of the armed people.” Thus the Commune lops off one of the “ubiquitous organs” associated with the “centralised State power” once it had inherited the state via elections. [Selected Works, p. 287, p. 285, p. 287 and p. 285] Indeed, this is precisely what was meant, as confirmed by Engels in a letter written in 1884 clarifying what Marx meant:
“It is simply a question of showing that the victorious proletariat must first refashion the old bureaucratic, administrative centralised state power before it can use it for its own purposes: whereas all bourgeois republicans since 1848 inveighed against this machinery so long as they were in the opposition, but once they were in the government they took it over without altering it and used it partly against the reaction but still more against the proletariat.” [Collected Works, vol. 47, p. 74]
Interestingly, in the second outline of the Civil War in France, Marx used words almost identical to Engels latter explanation:
“But the proletariat cannot, as the ruling classes and their different rival fractions have done in the successive hours of their triumph, simply lay hold on the existent State body and wield this ready-made agency for their own purpose. The first condition for the holding of political power, is to transform its working machinery and destroy it as an instrument of class rule.” [our emphasis, Collected Works, vol. 22, p. 533]
It is, of course, true that Marx expressed in his defence of the Commune the opinion that new “Communal Constitution” was to become a “reality by the destruction of the State power” yet he immediately argues that “the merely repressive organs of the old government power were to be amputated” and “its legitimate functions were to be wrestles from” it and “restored to the responsible agents of society.” [Selected Works, pp. 288-9] This corresponds to Engels arguments about removing aspects from the state inherited by the proletariat and signifies the “destruction” of the state machinery (its bureaucratic-military aspects) rather than the republic itself.
In other words, Lenin was right to state that “Marx’s idea is that the working class must break up, smash the ‘ready-made state machinery,’ and not confine itself to merely laying hold of it.” This was never denied by thinkers like Karl Kautsky, rather they stressed that for Marx and Engels universal suffrage was the means by which political power would be seized (at least in a republic) while violent revolution would be the means to create a republic and to defend it against attempts to restore the old order. As Engels put it in 1886, Marx had drawn “the conclusion that, at least in Europe, England is the only country where the inevitable social revolution might be effected entirely by peaceful and legal means. He certainly never forgot to add that he hardly expected the English ruling classes to submit, without a ‘pro-slavery rebellion,’ to this peaceful and legal revolution.” [“Preface to the English edition” in Marx, Capital, vol. 1, p. 113] Thus Kautsky stressed that the abolition of the standing army was “absolutely necessary if the state is to be able to carry out significant social reforms” once the party of the proletariat was in a position to “control legislation.” This would mean “the most complete democracy, a militia system” after, echoing the Communist Manifesto, “the conquest of democracy” had been achieved. [The Road to Power, p. 69, p. 70 and p. 72]
Essentially, then, Lenin was utilising a confusion between smashing the state and smashing the state machine once the workers’ party had achieved a majority within a democratic republic. In other words, Lenin was wrong to assert that “this lesson . . . had not only been completely ignored, but positively distorted by the prevailing, Kautskyite, ‘interpretation’ of Marxism.” As we have proved “the false notion that universal suffrage ‘in the present-day state’ is really capable of revealing the will of the majority of the working people and of securing its realisation” was not invented by the “petty-bourgeois democrats” nor “the social-chauvinists and opportunists.” It can be found repeatedly in the works of Engels and Marx themselves and so “Engels’s perfectly clear, concise and concrete statement is distorted at every step” not only “at every step in the propaganda and agitation of the ‘official’ (i.e., opportunist) socialist parties” but also by Engels himself! [Op. Cit. p. 336 and pp. 319-20]
Significantly, we find Marx recounting in 1852 how the “executive power with its enormous bureaucratic and military organisation, with its wide-ranging and ingenious state machinery . . . sprang up in the days of the absolute monarchy, with the decay of the feudal system which it had helped to hasten.” After 1848, “in its struggle against the revolution, the parliamentary republic found itself compelled to strengthen, along with the repressive, the resources and centralisation of governmental power. All revolutions perfected this machine instead of smashing it. The parties that contended in turn for domination regarded the possession of this huge state edifice as the principal spoils of the victor.” However, “under the absolute monarchy, during the first Revolution, under Napoleon, bureaucracy was only the means of preparing the class rule of the bourgeoisie. Under the Restoration, under Louis Philippe, under the parliamentary republic, it was the instrument of the ruling class, however much it strove for power of its own.” It was “[o]nly under the second Bonaparte does the state seem to have made itself completely independent.” [Selected Works, pp. 169-70]
This analysis is repeated in The Civil War in France, except the expression “the State power” is used as an equivalent to the “state machinery.” Again, the state machine/power is portrayed as coming into existence before the republic: “The centralised state power, with its ubiquitous organs of standing army, police, bureaucracy, clergy, and judicature . . . originates from the days of absolute monarchy.” Again, the “bourgeois republicans . . . took the state power” and used it to repress the working class. Again, Marx called for “the destruction of the state power” and noted that the Commune abolished the standing army, the privileged role of the clergy, and so on. The Commune’s “very existence presupposed the non-existence of monarchy, which, in Europe at least, is the normal encumbrance and indispensable cloak of class rule. It supplied the republic with the basis of really democratic institutions.” [Op. Cit. p. 285, p. 286, p. 288 and p. 290]
Obviously, then, what the socialist revolution had to smash existed before the republican state was created and was an inheritance of pre-bourgeois rule (even if the bourgeoisie utilised it for its own ends). How this machine was to be smashed was left unspecified but given that it was not identical to the “parliamentary republic” Marx’s arguments cannot be taken as evidence that the democratic state needed to be smashed or destroyed rather than seized by means of universal suffrage (and reformed appropriately, by “smashing” the “state machinery” as well as including recall of representatives and the combining of administrative and legislative tasks into their hands). Clearly, Lenin’s attempt to equate the “parliamentary republic” with the “state machinery” cannot be supported in Marx’s account. At best, it could be argued that it is the spirit of Marx’s analysis, perhaps bringing it up to date. However, this was not Lenin’s position (he maintained that social democracy had hidden Marx’s clear call to smash the bourgeois democratic state).
Unsurprisingly, Lenin does not discuss the numerous quotes by Marx and Engels on this matter which clearly contradict his thesis. Nor mention that in 1871, a few months after the Commune, Marx argued that in Britain, “the way to show [i.e., manifest] political power lies open to the working class. Insurrection would be madness where peaceful agitation would more swiftly and surely do the work.” [Collected Works, vol. 22, p. 602] The following year, saw him suggest that America could join it as “the workers can achieve their aims by peaceful means” there as well [Op. Cit., vol. 23, p. 255] How if Marx had concluded that the capitalist state had to be destroyed rather than captured and refashioned then he quickly changed his mind! In fact, during the Commune itself, in April 1871, Marx had written to his friend Ludwig Kugelman “[i]f you look at the last chapter of my Eighteenth Brumaire you will find that I say that the next attempt of the French revolution will be no longer, as before, to transfer the bureaucratic military machine from one hand to another, but to break it, and that is essential for every real people’s revolution on the Continent. And this is what our heroic Party [sic!] comrades in Paris are attempting.” [Op. Cit., vol. 44, p. 131] As noted above, Marx explicitly noted that the bureaucratic military machine predated the republic and was, in effect, inherited by it.
Lenin did note that Marx “restricts his conclusion to the Continent” on the issue of smashing the state machine, but does not list an obvious factor, that the UK approximated universal suffrage, in why this was the case (thus Lenin did not note that Engels, in 1891, added “democratic republics like France” to the list of states where “the old society may peacefully evolve into the new.” [Op. Cit., vol. 27, p. 226]). In 1917, Lenin argued, “this restriction” was “no longer valid” as both Britain and America had “completely sunk into the all-European filthy, bloody morass of bureaucratic-military institutions.” [Op. Cit., pp. 336-7] Subsequently, he repeated this claim in his polemic against Karl Kautsky, stating that notions that reforming the state were now out of date because of “the existence of militarism and a bureaucracy“ which “were non-existent in Britain and America” in the 1870s. He pointed to how “the most democratic and republican bourgeoisie in America . . . deal with workers on strike” as further proof of his position. [Collected Works, vol. 28, p. 238 and p. 244] However, this does not impact on the question of whether universal suffrage could be utilised in order to be in a position to smash this state machine or not. Equally, Lenin failed to acknowledge the violent repression of strikes in the 1870s and 1880s in America (such as the Great Upheaval of 1877 or the crushing of the 8 hour day movement after the Haymarket police riot of 1886). As Martov argued correctly:
“The theoretic possibility [of peaceful reform] has not revealed itself in reality. But the sole fact that he admitted such a possibility shows us clearly Marx’s opinion, leaving no room for arbitrary interpretation. What Marx designated as the ‘destruction of the State machine’ . . . was the destruction of the military and bureaucratic apparatus that the bourgeois democracy had inherited from the monarchy and perfected in the process of consolidating the rule of the bourgeois class. There is nothing in Marx’s reasoning that even suggests the destruction of the State organisation as such and the replacement of the State during the revolutionary period, that is during the dictatorship of the proletariat, with a social bond formed on a principle opposed to that of the State. Marx and Engels foresaw such a substitution only at the end of a process of ‘a progressive withering away’ of the State and all the functions of social coercion. They foresaw this atrophy of the State and the functions of social coercion to be the result of the prolonged existence of the socialist regime.” [Op. Cit., p. 31]
It should also be remembered that Marx’s comments on smashing the state machine were made in response to developments in France, a regime that Marx and Engels viewed as not being purely bourgeois. Marx notes in his account of the Commune how, in France, “[p]eculiar historical circumstances” had “prevented the classical development . . . of the bourgeois form of government.” [Selected Works, p. 289] For Engels, Proudhon “confuses the French Bureaucratic government with the normal state of a bourgeoisie that rules both itself and the proletariat.” [Collected Works, vol. 11, p. 548] In the 1870s, Marx considered Holland, Britain and the USA to have “the genuine capitalist state.” [Op. Cit., vol. 24, p. 499] Significantly, it was precisely these states in which Marx had previously stated a peaceful revolution could occur:
“We know that the institutions, customs and traditions in the different countries must be taken into account; and we do not deny the existence of countries like America, England, and if I knew your institutions better I might add Holland, where the workers may achieve their aims by peaceful means. That being the true, we must admit that in most countries on the continent it is force which must be the lever of our revolution; it is force which will have to be resorted to for a time in order to establish the rule of the workers.” [Op. Cit., vol. 23, p. 255]
Interestingly, in 1886, Engels expanded on Marx’s speculation as regards Holland and confirmed it. Holland, he argued, as well as “a residue of local and provincial self-government” also had “an absence of any real bureaucracy in the French or Prussian sense” because, alone in Western Europe, it did not have an “absolute monarchy” between the 16th and 18th century. This meant that “only a few changes will have to be made to establish that free self-government by the working [people] which will necessarily be our best tool in the organisation of the mode of production.” [Op. Cit., vol. 47, pp. 397-8] Few would argue that smashing the state and its replacement with a new workers’ one would really constitute a “few changes”! However, Engels position does fit in with the notion that the “state machine” to be smashed is a legacy of absolute monarchy rather than the state structure of a bourgeois democratic republic. It also shows the nature of a Marxist revolution in a republic, in a “genuine capitalist state” of the type Marx and Engels expected to be the result of the first stage of any revolt.
The source of Lenin’s restatement of the Marxist theory of the state which came as such a shock to so many Marxists can be found in the nature of the Paris Commune. After all, the major influence in terms of “political vision” of the Commune was anarchism. The “rough sketch of national organisation which the Commune had no time to develop” which Marx praises but does not quote was written by a follower of Proudhon. [Selected Works, p. 288] It expounded a clearly federalist and “bottom-up” organisational structure. It clearly implied “the destruction of the State power” rather than seeking to “inherit” it. Based on this libertarian revolt, it is unsurprising that Marx’s defence of it took on a libertarian twist. As noted by Bakunin, who argued that its “general effect was so striking that the Marxists themselves, who saw their ideas upset by the uprising, found themselves compelled to take their hats off to it. They went further, and proclaimed that its programme and purpose where their own, in face of the simplest logic . . . This was a truly farcical change of costume, but they were bound to make it, for fear of being overtaken and left behind in the wave of feeling which the rising produced throughout the world.” [Michael Bakunin: Selected Writings, p. 261]
The nature of The Civil War in France and the circumstances in which it was written explains why. Marx, while publicly opposing any kind of revolt before hand, did support the Commune once it began. His essay is primarily a propaganda piece in defence of it and is, fundamentally, reporting on what the Commune actually did and advocated. Thus, as well as reporting the Communal Constitution’s vision of a federation of communes, we find Marx noting, also without comment, that Commune decreed “the surrender to associations of workmen, under reserve of compensation, of all closed workshops and factories.” [Op. Cit., p. 294] While Engels, at times, suggested that this could be a possible policy for a socialist government, it is fair to say that few Marxists consider Marx’s reporting of this particular aspect of the Commune as being a key aspect of his ideology. As Marx’s account reports on the facts of the Commune it could hardly not reflect the libertarian ideas which were so strong in both it and the French sections of the International – ideas he had spent much time and energy opposing. Moreover, given the frenzy of abuse the Communards were subject to it by the bourgeoisie, it was unlikely that Marx would have aided the reaction by being overly critical. Equally, given how positively the Commune had been received in working class and radical circles Marx would have been keen to gain maximum benefit from it for both the International and his own ideology and influence. This would also have ensured that Marx kept his criticisms quiet, particularly as he was writing on behalf of an organisation which was not Marxist and included various different socialist tendencies.
This means that to fully understand Marx and Engels, we need to look at all their writings, before and after the Paris Commune. It is, therefore, significant that immediately after the Commune Marx stated that workers could achieve socialism by utilising existing democratic states and that the labour movement should take part in political action and send workers to Parliament. There is no mention of a federation of communes in these proposals and they reflect ideas both he and Engels had expressed since the 1840s. Ten years after the Commune, Marx stated that it was “merely an uprising of one city in exceptional circumstances. [Collected Works, vol. 46, p. 66] Similarly, a mere 3 years after the Commune, Engels argued that the key thing in Britain was “to form anew a strong workers’ party with a definite programme, and the best political programme they could wish for was the People’s Charter.” [Op. Cit., vol. 23, p. 614] The Commune was not mentioned and, significantly, Marx had previously defined this programme in 1855 as being “to increase and extend the omnipotence of Parliament by elevating it to people’s power. They [the Chartists] are not breaking up parliamentarism but are raising it to a higher power.” [Op. Cit., vol. 14, p. 243]
As such, Marx’s defence of the Commune should not mean ignoring the whole body of his and Engels work, nor should Marx’s conclusion that the “state machinery” must be smashed in a successful revolution be considered to be in contradiction with his comments on utilising the existing democratic republic. It does, however, suggest that Marx’s reporting of the Proudhon-influenced ideas of the Communards cannot be taken as a definitive account of his ideas on social transformation.
The fact that Marx did not mention anything about abolishing the existing state and replacing it with a new one in his contribution to the “Program of the French Workers Party” in 1880 is significant. It said that the “collective appropriation” of the means of production “can only proceed from a revolutionary action of the class of producers – the proletariat – organised in an independent political party.” This would be “pursued by all the means the proletariat has at its disposal including universal suffrage which will thus be transformed from the instrument of deception that it has been until now into an instrument of emancipation.” [Op. Cit., vol. 24, p. 340] There is nothing about overthrowing the existing state and replacing it with a new state, rather the obvious conclusion which is to be drawn is that universal suffrage was the tool by which the workers would achieve socialism. It does fit in, however, with Marx’s repeated comments that universal suffrage was the equivalent of political power for the working class where the proletariat was the majority of the population. Or, indeed, Engels numerous similar comments. It explains the repeated suggestion by Marx that there were countries like America and Britain “where the workers can achieve their aims by peaceful means.” There is Engels:
“One can imagine that the old society could peacefully grow into the new in countries where all power is concentrated in the people’s representatives, where one can constitutionally do as one pleases as soon as a majority of the people give their support; in democratic republics like France and America, in monarchies such as England, where the dynasty is powerless against the popular will. But in Germany, where the government is virtually all-powerful and the Reichstag and other representative bodies are without real power, to proclaim likewise in Germany . . . is to accept the fig leaf of absolutism and to bind oneself to it.” [Op. Cit., vol. 27, p. 226]
This, significantly, repeats Marx’s comments in an unpublished article from 1878 on the Reichstag debates on the anti-socialist laws where, in part, he suggested that “[i]f in England . . . or the United States, the working class were to gain a majority in Parliament or Congress, they could by lawful means, rid themselves of such laws and institutions as impeded their development . . . However, the ‘peaceful’ movement might be transformed into a ‘forcible’ one by resistance on the part of those interested in restoring the former state of affairs; if . . . they are put down by force, it is as rebels against ‘lawful’ force.” [Op. Cit., vol. 24, p. 248] Sadly, he never finished and published it but it is in line with many of his public pronouncements on this subject.
Marx also excluded countries on the European mainland (with the possible exception of Holland) from his suggestions of peaceful reform. In those countries, presumably, the first stage of the revolution would be, as stressed in the Communist Manifesto, creating a fully democratic republic (“to win the battle for democracy” – see section H.1.1). As Engels put it, “the first and direct result of the revolution with regard to the form can and must be nothing but the bourgeois republic. But this will be here only a brief transitional period . . . The bourgeois republic . . . will enable us to win over the great masses of the workers to revolutionary socialism . . . Only them can we successfully take over.” The “proletariat can only use the form of the one and indivisible republic” for it is “the sole political form in which the struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie can be fought to a finish.” [Marx and Engels, The Socialist Revolution, p. 265, p. 283 and p. 294] As he summarised:
“Marx and I, for forty years, repeated ad nauseam that for us the democratic republic is the only political form in which the struggle between the working class and the capitalist class can first be universalised and then culminate in the decisive victory of the proletariat.” [Collected Works, vol. 27, p. 271]
It is for these reasons that orthodox Marxism up until 1917 held the position that the socialist revolution would be commenced by seizing the existing state (usually by the ballot box, or by insurrection if that was impossible). Martov in his discussion of Lenin’s “discovery” of the “real” Marxist theory on the state (in State and Revolution) stressed that the idea that the state should be smashed by the workers who would then “transplant into the structure of society the forms of their own combat organisations” was a libertarian idea, alien to Marx and Engels. While acknowledging that “in our time, working people take to ‘the idea of the soviets’ after knowing them as combat organisations formed in the process of the class struggle at a sharp revolutionary stage,” he distanced Marx and Engels quite successfully from such a position. [Op. Cit., p. 42] As such, he makes a valid contribution to Marxism and presents a necessary counter-argument to Lenin’s claims (at which point, we are sure, nine out of ten Leninists will dismiss our argument regardless of how well it explains apparent contradictions in Marx and Engels or how much evidence can be presented in support of it!).
This position should not be confused with a totally reformist position, as social-democracy became. Marx and Engels were well aware that a revolution would be needed to create and defend a republic. Engels, for example, noted “how totally mistaken is the belief that a republic, and not only a republic, but also a communist society, can be established in a cosy, peaceful way.” Thus violent revolution was required to create a republic – Marx and Engels were revolutionaries, after all. Within a republic, both recognised that insurrection would be required to defend democratic government against attempts by the capitalist class to maintain its economic position. Universal suffrage was, to quote Engels, “a splendid weapon” which, while “slower and more boring than the call to revolution”, was “ten times more sure and what is even better, it indicates with the most perfect accuracy the day when a call to armed revolution has to be made.” This was because it was “even ten to one that universal suffrage, intelligently used by the workers, will drive the rulers to overthrow legality, that is, to put us in the most favourable position to make revolution.” “The big mistake”, Engels argued, was “to think that the revolution is something that can be made overnight. As a matter of fact it is a process of development of the masses that takes several years even under conditions accelerating this process.” Thus it was a case of, “as a revolutionary, any means which leads to the goal is suitable, including the most violent and the most pacific.” [Marx and Engels, The Socialist Revolution, p. 283, p. 189, p. 265 and p. 274] However, over time and as social democratic parties and universal suffrage spread, the emphasis did change from insurrection (the Communist Manifesto‘s “violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie”) to Engels last pronouncement that “the conditions of struggle had essentially changed. Rebellion in the old style, street fighting with barricades . . . , was to a considerable extent obsolete.” [Selected Works, p. 45 and pp. 653-4]
Obviously, neither Marx nor Engels (unlike Bakunin, significantly) saw the rise of reformism which usually made this need for the ruling class to “overthrow legality” redundant. Nor, for that matter, did they see the effect of economic power in controlling workers parties once in office. Sure, armed coups have taken place to overthrow even slightly reformist governments but, thanks to the use of “political action”, the working class was in no position to “make revolution” in response. Not, of course, that these have been required in most republics as utilising Marxist methods have made many radical parties so reformist that the capitalists can easily tolerate their taking office or can utilise economic and bureaucratic pressures to control them.
So far from arguing, as Lenin suggested, for the destruction of the capitalist state, Marx and Engels consistently advocated the use of universal suffrage to gain control over the state, control which then would be used to smash or shatter the “state machine.” Revolution would be required to create a republic and to defend it against reaction, but the key was the utilisation of political action to take political power within a democratic state. The closest that Marx or Engels came to advocating workers councils was in 1850 when Marx suggested that the German workers “establish their own revolutionary workers’ governments” alongside of the “new official governments”. These could be of two forms, either of “municipal committees and municipal councils” or “workers’ clubs or workers’ committees.” There is no mention of how these would be organised but their aim would be to supervise and threaten the official governments “by authorities backed by the whole mass of the workers.” These clubs would be “centralised”. In addition, “workers candidates are [to be] put up alongside of the bourgeois-democratic candidates” to “preserve their independence”. (although this “independence” meant taking part in bourgeois institutions so that “the demands of the workers must everywhere be governed by the concessions and measures of the democrats.”). [The Marx-Engels Reader, p. 507, p. 508 and p. 510] So while these “workers’ committees” could, in theory, be elected from the workplace Marx made no mention of this possibility (talk of “municipal councils” suggests that such a possibility was alien to him). It also should be noted that Marx was echoing Proudhon who, the year before, had argued that the clubs “had to be organised. The organisation of popular societies was the fulcrum of democracy, the corner-stone of the republican order.” [No Gods, No Masters, vol. 1, p. 48] So, as with the soviets, even the idea of workers’ clubs as a means of ensuring mass participation was first raised by anarchists (although, of course, inspired by working class self-organisation during the 1848 French revolution).
All this may seem a bit academic to many. Does it matter? After all, most Marxists today subscribe to some variation of Lenin’s position and so, in some aspects, what Marx and Engels really thought is irrelevant. Indeed, it is possible that Marx faced with workers’ councils, as he was with the Commune, would have embraced them (perhaps not, as he was dismissive of similar ideas expressed in the libertarian wing of the First International). After all, the Mensheviks used Marx’s 1850s arguments to support their activities in the soviets in 1905 (while the Bolshevik’s expressed hostility to both the policy and the soviets) and, of course, there is nothing in them to exclude such a position. What is important is that the idea that Marxists have always subscribed to the idea that a social revolution would be based on the workers’ own combat organisations (be they unions, soviets or whatever) is a relatively new one to the ideology. If, as John Rees asserts, “the socialist revolution must counterpoise the soviet to parliament . . . precisely because it needs an organ which combines economic power – the power to strike and take control of the workplaces – with an insurrectionary bid for political power” and “breaking the old state” then the ironic thing is that it was Bakunin, not Marx, who advocated such a position. [Op. Cit., p. 25] Given this, the shock which met Lenin’s arguments in 1917 can be easily understood.
Rather than being rooted in the Marxist vision of revolution, as it has been in anarchism since at least the 1860s, workers councils have played, rhetoric aside, the role of fig-leaf for party power (libertarian Marxism being a notable exception). They have been embraced by its Leninist wing purely as a means of ensuring party power. Rather than being seen as the most important gain of a revolution as they allow mass participation, workers’ councils have been seen, and used, simply as a means by which the party can seize power. Once this is achieved, the soviets can be marginalised and ignored without affecting the “proletarian” nature of the revolution in the eyes of the party:
“while it is true that Lenin recognised the different functions and democratic raison d’être for both the soviets and his party, in the last analysis it was the party that was more important than the soviets. In other words, the party was the final repository of working-class sovereignty. Thus, Lenin did not seem to have been reflected on or have been particularly perturbed by the decline of the soviets after 1918.” [Samuel Farber, Before Stalinism, p. 212]
This perspective can be traced back to the lack of interest Marx and Engels expressed in the forms which a proletarian revolution would take, as exemplified by Engels comments on having to “lop off” aspects of the state “inherited” by the working class. The idea that the organisations people create in their struggle for freedom may help determine the outcome of the revolution is missing. Rather, the idea that any structure can be appropriated and (after suitable modification) used to rebuild society is clear. This cannot but flow from the flawed Marxist theory of the state we discussed in section H.3.7. If, as Marx and Engels argued, the state is simply an instrument of class rule then it becomes unproblematic to utilise the existing republican state or create a new form of state complete with representative structures. The Marxist perspective, moreover, cannot help take emphasis away from the mass working class organisations required to rebuild society in a socialist manner and place it on the group who will “inherit” the state and “lop off” its negative aspects, namely the party and the leaders in charge of both it and the new “workers’ state.”
This focus towards the party became, under Lenin (and the Bolsheviks in general) a purely instrumental perspective on workers’ councils and other organisations. They were of use purely in so far as they allowed the Bolshevik party to take power (indeed Lenin constantly identified workers’ power and soviet power with Bolshevik power and as Martin Buber noted, for Lenin “All power to the Soviets!” meant, at bottom, “All power to the Party through the Soviets!”). It can, therefore, be argued that his book State and Revolution was a means to use Marx and Engels to support his new found idea of the soviets as being the basis of creating a Bolshevik government rather than a principled defence of workers’ councils as the framework of a socialist revolution. We discuss this issue in the next section.
The short answer depends on which branch of Marxism you mean.
If you are talking about libertarian Marxists such as council communists, Situationists and so on, then the answer is a resounding “yes.” Like anarchists, these Marxists see a social revolution as being based on working class self-management and, indeed, criticised (and broke with) Bolshevism precisely on this question. Some Marxists, like the Socialist Party of Great Britain, stay true to Marx and Engels and argue for using the ballot box (see last section) although this not exclude utilising such organs once political power is seized by those means. However, if we look at the mainstream Marxist tradition (namely Leninism), the answer has to be an empathic “no.”
As we noted in section H.1.4, anarchists have long argued that the organisations created by the working class in struggle would be the initial framework of a free society. These organs, created to resist capitalism and the state, would be the means to overthrow both as well as extending and defending the revolution (such bodies have included the “soviets” and “factory committees” of the Russian Revolution, the collectives in the Spanish revolution, popular assemblies of the 2001 Argentine revolt against neo-liberalism and the French Revolution, revolutionary unions and so on). Thus working class self-management is at the core of the anarchist vision and so we stress the importance (and autonomy) of working class organisations in the revolutionary movement and the revolution itself. Anarchists work within such bodies at the base, in the mass assemblies, and do not seek to replace their power with that of their own organisation (see section J.3.6).
Leninists, in contrast, have a different perspective on such bodies. Rather than placing them at the heart of the revolution, Leninism views them purely in instrumental terms – namely, as a means of achieving party power. Writing in 1907, Lenin argued that “Social-Democratic Party organisations may, in case of necessity, participate in inter-party Soviets of Workers’ Delegates . . . and in congresses . . . of these organisations, and may organise such institutions, provided this is done on strict Party lines for the purpose of developing and strengthening the Social-Democratic Labour Party”, that is “utilise” such organs “for the purpose of developing the Social-Democratic movement.” Significantly, given the fate of the soviets post-1917, Lenin noted that the party “must bear in mind that if Social-Democratic activities among the proletarian masses are properly, effectively and widely organised, such institutions may actually become superfluous.” [Collected Works, vol. 12, pp. 143-4] Thus the means by which working class can manage their own affairs would become “superfluous” once the party was in power. How the working class could be considered the “ruling class” in such a society is hard to understand.
As Oscar Anweiler summarises in his account of the soviets during the two Russian Revolutions:
“The drawback of the new ‘soviet democracy’ hailed by Lenin in 1906 is that he could envisage the soviets only as controlled organisations; for him they were instruments by which the party controlled the working masses, rather than true forms of a workers democracy. The basic contradiction of the Bolshevik soviet system – which purports to be a democracy of all working people but in reality recognises only the rule of one party – is already contained in Lenin’s interpretation of the soviets during the first Russian revolution.” [The Soviets, p. 85]
Thirteen years later, Lenin repeated this same vision of party power as the goal of revolution in his infamous diatribe against “Left-wing” Communism (i.e. those Marxists close to anarchism) as we noted in section H.3.3. The Bolsheviks had, by this stage, explicitly argued for party dictatorship and considered it a truism that the whole proletariat could not rule nor could the proletarian dictatorship be exercised by a mass working class organisation. Therefore, rather than seeing revolution being based upon the empowerment of working class organisation and the socialist society being based on this, Leninists see workers organisations in purely instrumental terms as the means of achieving a Leninist government:
“With all the idealised glorification of the soviets as a new, higher, and more democratic type of state, Lenin’s principal aim was revolutionary-strategic rather than social-structural . . . The slogan of the soviets was primarily tactical in nature; the soviets were in theory organs of mass democracy, but in practice tools for the Bolshevik Party. In 1917 Lenin outlined his transitional utopia without naming the definitive factor: the party. To understand the soviets’ true place in Bolshevism, it is not enough, therefore, to accept the idealised picture in Lenin’s state theory. Only an examination of the actual give-and-take between Bolsheviks and soviets during the revolution allows a correct understanding of their relationship.” [Oscar Anweiler, Op. Cit., pp. 160-1]
Simply out, Leninism confuses the party power and workers’ power. An example of this “confusion” can be found in most Leninist works. For example, John Rees argues that “the essence of the Bolsheviks’ strategy . . . was to take power from the Provisional government and put it in the hands of popular organs of working class power – a point later made explicit by Trotsky in his Lessons of October.” [“In Defence of October”, pp. 3-82, International Socialism, no. 52, p. 73] However, in reality Lenin had always been clear that the essence of the Bolsheviks’ strategy was the taking of power by the Bolshevik party itself. He explicitly argued for Bolshevik power during 1917, considering the soviets as the best means of achieving this. He constantly equated Bolshevik rule with working class rule. Once in power, this identification did not change. As such, rather than argue for power to be placed into “the hands of popular organs of working class power” Lenin argued this only insofar as he was sure that these organs would then immediately pass that power into the hands of a Bolshevik government.
This explains his turn against the soviets after July 1917 when he considered it impossible for the Bolsheviks to gain a majority in them. It can be seen when the Bolshevik party’s Central Committee opposed the idea of a coalition government immediately after the overthrow of the Provisional Government in October 1917. As it explained, “a purely Bolshevik government” was “impossible to refuse” since “a majority at the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets . . . handed power over to this government.” [quoted by Robert V. Daniels, A Documentary History of Communism, pp. 127-8] A mere ten days after the October Revolution the Left Social Revolutionaries charged that the Bolshevik government was ignoring the Central Executive Committee of the Soviets, established by the second Congress of Soviets as the supreme organ in society. Lenin dismissed their charges, stating that “the new power could not take into account, in its activity, all the rigmarole which would set it on the road of the meticulous observation of all the formalities.” [quoted by Frederick I. Kaplan, Bolshevik Ideology and the Ethics of Soviet Labour, p. 124] Clearly, the soviets did not have “All Power,” they promptly handed it over to a Bolshevik government (and Lenin implies that he was not bound in any way to the supreme organ of the soviets in whose name he ruled). All of which places Rees’ assertions into the proper context and shows that the slogan “All Power to the Soviets” is used by Leninists in a radically different way than most people would understand by it! It also explains why soviets were disbanded if the opposition won majorities in them in early 1918 (see section H.6.1). The Bolsheviks only supported “Soviet power” when the soviets were Bolshevik. As was recognised by leading left-Menshevik Julius Martov, who argued that the Bolsheviks loved Soviets only when they were “in the hands of the Bolshevik party.” [quoted by Israel Getzler, Op. Cit., p. 174] Which explains Lenin’s comment that “[o]nly the development of this war [Kornilov’s counter-revolutionary rebellion in August 1917] can bring us to power but we must speak of this as little as possible in our agitation (remembering very well that even tomorrow events may put us in power and then we will not let it go).” [quoted by Neil Harding, Leninism, p. 253]
All this can be confirmed, unsurprisingly enough, by looking at the essay Rees references. When studying Trotsky’s work we find the same instrumentalist approach to the question of the “popular organs of working class power.” Yes, there is some discussion on whether soviets or “some of form of organisation” like factory committees could become “organs of state power” but this is always within the context of party power. This is stated quite clearly by Trotsky in his essay when he argued that the “essential aspect” of Bolshevism was the “training, tempering, and organisation of the proletarian vanguard as enables the latter to seize power, arms in hand.” [Lessons of October, p. 167 and p. 127] As such, the vanguard seizes power, not “popular organs of working class power.” Indeed, the idea that the working class can seize power itself is raised and dismissed:
“But the events have proved that without a party capable of directing the proletarian revolution, the revolution itself is rendered impossible. The proletariat cannot seize power by a spontaneous uprising . . . there is nothing else that can serve the proletariat as a substitute for its own party.” [Op. Cit., p. 117]
Hence soviets were not considered as the “essence” of Bolshevism, rather the “fundamental instrument of proletarian revolution is the party.” Popular organs are seen purely in instrumental terms, with such organs of “workers’ power” discussed in terms of the strategy and program of the party not in terms of the value that such organs have as forms of working class self-management of society. Why should he, when “the task of the Communist party is the conquest of power for the purpose of reconstructing society”? [Op. Cit., p. 118 and p. 174]
This can be clearly seen from Trotsky’s discussion of the “October Revolution” of 1917 in Lessons of October. Commenting on the Bolshevik Party conference of April 1917, he stated that the “whole of . . . [the] Conference was devoted to the following fundamental question: Are we heading toward the conquest of power in the name of the socialist revolution or are we helping (anybody and everybody) to complete the democratic revolution? . . . Lenin’s position was this: . . . the capture of the soviet majority; the overthrow of the Provisional Government; the seizure of power through the soviets.” [Op. Cit., p. 134] Note, through the soviets not by the soviets, thus showing that the Party would hold the real power, not the soviets of workers’ delegates. This is confirmed when Trotsky stated that “to prepare the insurrection and to carry it out under cover of preparing for the Second Soviet Congress and under the slogan of defending it, was of inestimable advantage to us” and that it was “one thing to prepare an armed insurrection under the naked slogan of the seizure of power by the party, and quite another thing to prepare and then carry out an insurrection under the slogan of defending the rights of the Congress of Soviets.” The Soviet Congress just provided “the legal cover” for the Bolshevik plans. [Op. Cit., p. 134, p. 158 and p. 161]
Thus we have the “seizure of power through the soviets” with “an armed insurrection” for “the seizure of power by the party” being hidden by “the slogan” (“the legal cover”) of defending the Soviets! Hardly a case of placing power in the hands of working class organisations. Trotsky did note that in 1917 the “soviets had to either disappear entirely or take real power into their hands.” However, he immediately added that “they could take power . . . only as the dictatorship of the proletariat directed by a single party.” [Op. Cit., p. 126] Clearly, the “single party” has the real power, not the soviets an unsurprisingly the rule of “a single party” also amounted to the soviets effectively disappearing as they quickly became mere ciphers it. Soon the “direction” by “a single party” became the dictatorship of that party over the soviets, which (it should be noted) Trotsky defended wholeheartedly when he wrote Lessons of October (and, indeed, into the 1930s).
This cannot be considered as a one-off. Trotsky repeated this analysis in his History of the Russian Revolution, when he stated that the “question, what mass organisations were to serve the party for leadership in the insurrection, did not permit an a priori, much less a categorical, answer.” Thus the “mass organisations” serve the party, not vice versa. This instrumentalist perspective can be seen when Trotsky noted that when “the Bolsheviks got a majority in the Petrograd Soviet, and afterward a number of others,” the “phrase ‘Power to the Soviets’ was not, therefore, again removed from the order of the day, but received a new meaning: All power to the Bolshevik soviets.” This meant that the “party was launched on the road of armed insurrection through the soviets and in the name of the soviets.” As he put it in his discussion of the July days in 1917, the army “was far from ready to raise an insurrection in order to give power to the Bolshevik Party” and so “the state of popular consciousness . . . made impossible the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks in July.” [vol. 2, p. 303, p. 307, p. 78 and p. 81] So much for “all power to the Soviets”! He even quotes Lenin: “The Bolsheviks have no right to await the Congress of Soviets. They ought to seize the power right now.“ Ultimately, the “Central Committee adopted the motion of Lenin as the only thinkable one: to form a government of the Bolsheviks only.” [vol. 3, pp. 131-2 and p. 299]
So where does this leave the assertion that the Bolsheviks aimed to put power into the hands of working class organisations? Clearly, Rees’ summary of both Trotsky’s essay and the “essence” of Bolshevism leave a lot to be desired. As can be seen, the “essence” of Trotsky’s essay and of Bolshevism is the importance of party power, not workers’ power (as recognised by another member of the SWP: “The masses needed to be profoundly convinced that there was no alternative to Bolshevik power.” [Tony Cliff, Lenin, vol. 2, p. 265]). Trotsky even provided us with an analogy which effectively and simply refutes Rees’ claims. “Just as the blacksmith cannot seize the red hot iron in his naked hand,” Trotsky asserted, “so the proletariat cannot directly seize power; it has to have an organisation accommodated to this task.” While paying lip service to the soviets as the organisation “by means of which the proletariat can both overthrow the old power and replace it,” he added that “the soviets by themselves do not settle the question” as they may “serve different goals according to the programme and leadership. The soviets receive their programme from the party . . . the revolutionary party represents the brain of the class. The problem of conquering the power can be solved only by a definite combination of party with soviets.” [The History of the Russian Revolution, vol. 3, pp. 160-1 and p. 163]
Thus the key organisation was the party, not the mass organisations of the working class. Indeed, Trotsky was quite explicit that such organisations could only become the state form of the proletariat under the party dictatorship. Significantly, Trotsky fails to indicate what would happen when these two powers clash. Certainly Trotsky’s role in the Russian revolution tells us that the power of the party was more important to him than democratic control by workers through mass bodies and as we have shown in section H.3.8, Trotsky explicitly argued that a state was required to overcome the “wavering” in the working class which could be expressed by democratic decision making.
Given this legacy of viewing workers’ organisations in purely instrumental terms, the opinion of Martov (the leading left-Menshevik during the Russian Revolution) seems appropriate. He argued that “[a]t the moment when the revolutionary masses expressed their emancipation from the centuries old yoke of the old State by forming ‘autonomous republics of Kronstadt’ and trying Anarchist experiments such as ‘workers’ control,’ etc. – at that moment, the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat and the poorest peasantry’ (said to be incarnated in the real dictatorship of the opposed ‘true’ interpreters of the proletariat and the poorest peasantry: the chosen of Bolshevist Communism) could only consolidate itself by first dressing itself in such Anarchist and anti-State ideology.” [The State and Socialist Revolution, p. 47] As can be seen, Martov had a point. As the text used as evidence that the Bolsheviks aimed to give power to workers organisations shows, this was not an aim of the Bolshevik party. Rather, such workers organs were seen purely as a means to the end of party power.
In contrast, anarchists argue for direct working class self-management of society. When we argue that working class organisations must be the framework of a free society we mean it. We do not equate party power with working class power or think that “All power to the Soviets” is possible if they immediately delegate that power to the leaders of the party. This is for obvious reasons:
“If the revolutionary means are out of their hands, if they are in the hands of a techno-bureaucratic elite, then such an elite will be in a position to direct to their own benefit not only the course of the revolution, but the future society as well. If the proletariat are to ensure that an elite will not control the future society, they must prevent them from controlling the course of the revolution.” [Alan Carter, Marx: A Radical Critique, p. 165]
Thus the slogan “All power to the Soviets” for anarchists means exactly that – organs for the working class to run society directly, based on mandated, recallable delegates. This slogan fitted perfectly with our ideas, as anarchists had been arguing since the 1860’s that such workers’ councils were both a weapon of class struggle against capitalism and the framework of the future libertarian society. For the Bolshevik tradition, that slogan simply means that a Bolshevik government will be formed over and above the soviets. The difference is important, “for the Anarchists declared, if ‘power’ really should belong to the soviets, it could not belong to the Bolshevik party, and if it should belong to that Party, as the Bolsheviks envisaged, it could not belong to the soviets.” [Voline, The Unknown Revolution, p. 213] Reducing the soviets to simply executing the decrees of the central (Bolshevik) government and having their All-Russian Congress be able to recall the government (i.e. those with real power) does not equal “all power,” quite the reverse – the soviets will simply be a fig-leaf for party power.
In summary, rather than aim to place power into the hands of workers’ organisations, most Marxists do not. Their aim is to place power into the hands of the party. Workers’ organisations are simply means to this end and, as the Bolshevik regime showed, if they clash with that goal, they will be simply be disbanded. However, we must stress that not all Marxist tendencies subscribe to this. The council communists, for example, broke with the Bolsheviks precisely over this issue, the difference between party and class power.
A key idea in most forms of Marxism is that the evolution of capitalism itself will create the preconditions for socialism. This is because capitalism tends to result in big business and, correspondingly, increased numbers of workers subject to the “socialised” production process within the workplace. The conflict between the socialised means of production and their private ownership is at the heart of the Marxist case for socialism:
“Then came the concentration of the means of production and of the producers in large workshops and manufactories, their transformation into actual socialised means of production and socialised producers. But the socialised producers and means of production and their products were still treated, after this change, just as they had been before . . . the owner of the instruments of labour . . . appropriated to himself . . . exclusively the product of the labour of others. Thus, the products now produced socially were not appropriated by those who actually set in motion the means of production and actually produced the commodities, but by the capitalists . . . The mode of production is subjected to this [individual or private] form of appropriation, although it abolishes the conditions upon which the latter rests.
“This contradiction, which gives to the new mode of production its capitalistic character, contains the germ of the whole of the social antagonisms of today.“ [Engels, Marx-Engels Reader, pp. 703-4]
It is the business cycle of capitalism which show this contradiction between socialised production and capitalist appropriation the best. Indeed, the “fact that the socialised organisation of production within the factory has developed so far that it has become incompatible with the anarchy of production in society, which exists side by side with and dominates it, is brought home to the capitalists themselves by the violent concentration of capital that occurs during crises.” The pressures of socialised production results in capitalists merging their properties “in a particular branch of industry in a particular country” into “a trust, a union for the purpose of regulating production.” In this way, “the production of capitalistic society capitulates to the production upon a definite plan of the invading socialistic society.” This “transformation” can take the form of “joint-stock companies and trusts, or into state ownership.” The later does not change the “capitalist relation” although it does have “concealed within it” the “technical conditions that form the elements of that solution.” This “shows itself the way to accomplishing this revolution. The proletariat seizes political power and turns the means of production into state property.“ [Op. Cit., p. 709, p. 710, p. 711, p. 712 and p. 713]
Thus the centralisation and concentration of production into bigger and bigger units, into big business, is seen as the evidence of the need for socialism. It provides the objective grounding for socialism, and, in fact, this analysis is what makes Marxism “scientific socialism.” This process explains how human society develops through time:
“In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness . . . At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces come in conflict with the existing relations of production or – what is but a legal expression for the same thing – with the property relations within which they have been at work hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an epoch of social revolution. With the change of the economic foundation the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed.” [Marx, Op. Cit., pp. 4-5]
The obvious conclusion to be drawn from this is that socialism will come about due to tendencies inherent within the development of capitalism. The “socialisation” implied by collective labour within a firm grows steadily as capitalist companies grow larger and larger. The objective need for socialism is therefore created and so, for most Marxists, “big is beautiful.” Indeed, some Leninists have invented terminology to describe this, which can be traced back to at least as far as Bolshevik (and Left Oppositionist) Evgeny Preobrazhensky (although his perspective, like most Leninist ones, has deep roots in the Social Democratic orthodoxy of the Second International). Preobrazhensky, as well as expounding the need for “primitive socialist accumulation” to build up Soviet Russia’s industry, also discussed “the contradiction of the law of planning and the law of value.” [Hillel Ticktin, “Leon Trotsky and the Social Forces Leading to Bureaucracy, 1923-29”, pp. 45-64, The Ideas of Leon Trotsky, Hillel Ticktin and Michael Cox (eds.), p. 45] Thus Marxists in this tradition (like Hillel Ticktin) argue that the increased size of capital means that more and more of the economy is subject to the despotism of the owners and managers of capital and so the “anarchy” of the market is slowly replaced with the conscious planning of resources. Marxists sometimes call this the “objective socialisation of labour” (to use Ernest Mandel’s term). Thus there is a tendency for Marxists to see the increased size and power of big business as providing objective evidence for socialism, which will bring these socialistic tendencies within capitalism to full light and full development. Needless to say, most will argue that socialism, while developing planning fully, will replace the autocratic and hierarchical planning of big business with democratic, society-wide planning.
This position, for anarchists, has certain problems associated with it. One key drawback, as we discuss in the next section, is it focuses attention away from the internal organisation within the workplace onto ownership and links between economic units. It ends up confusing capitalism with the market relations between firms rather than identifying it with its essence, wage slavery. This meant that many Marxists consider that the basis of a socialist economy was guaranteed once property was nationalised. This perspective tends to dismiss as irrelevant the way production is managed. The anarchist critique that this simply replaced a multitude of bosses with one, the state, was (and is) ignored. Rather than seeing socialism as being dependent on workers’ management of production, this position ends up seeing socialism as being dependent on organisational links between workplaces, as exemplified by big business under capitalism. Thus the “relations of production” which matter are not those associated with wage labour but rather those associated with the market. This can be seen from the famous comment in The Manifesto of the Communist Party that the bourgeoisie “cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society.” [Marx and Engels, Op. Cit., p. 476] But the one relation of production it cannot revolutionise is the one generated by the wage labour at the heart of capitalism, the hierarchical relations at the point of production. As such, it is clear that by “relations of production” Marx and Engels meant something else than wage slavery, namely, the internal organisation of what they term “socialised production.”
Capitalism is, in general, as dynamic as Marx and Engels stressed. It transforms the means of production, the structure of industry and the links between workplaces constantly. Yet it only modifies the form of the organisation of labour, not its content. No matter how it transforms machinery and the internal structure of companies, the workers are still wage slaves. At best, it simply transforms much of the hierarchy which governs the workforce into hired managers. This does not transform the fundamental social relationship of capitalism, however and so the “relations of production” which prefigure socialism are, precisely, those associated with the “socialisation of the labour process” which occurs within capitalism and are no way antagonistic to it.
This mirrors Marx’s famous prediction that the capitalist mode of production produces “the centralisation of capitals” as one capitalist “always strikes down many others.” This leads to “the further socialisation of labour and the further transformation of the soil and other means of production into socially exploited and therefore communal means of production takes on a new form.” Thus capitalist progress itself objectively produces the necessity for socialism as it socialises the production process and produces a working class “constantly increasing in numbers, and trained, united and organised by the very mechanism of the capitalist process of production. The monopolisation of capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production . . . The centralisation of the means of production and the socialisation of labour reach a point at which they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.” [Capital, vol. 1, pp. 928-9] Note, it is not the workers who organise themselves but rather they are “organised by the very mechanism of the capitalist process of production.” Even in his most libertarian work, “The Civil War in France”, this perspective can be found. He, rightly, praised attempts by the Communards to set up co-operatives (although distinctly failed to mention Proudhon’s obvious influence) but then went on to argue that the working class had “no ready-made utopias to introduce” and that “to work out their own emancipation, and along with it that that higher form to which present society is irresistibly tending by its own economical agencies” they simply had “to set free the elements of the new society with which old collapsing bourgeois society itself is pregnant.” [Marx-Engels Reader, pp. 635-6]
Then we have Marx, in his polemic against Proudhon, arguing that social relations “are closely bound up with productive forces. In acquiring new productive forces men change their mode of production; and in changing their mode of production, in changing the way of earning their living, they change their social relations. The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist.” [Collected Works, vol. 6, p. 166] On the face of it, this had better not be true. After all, the aim of socialism is to expropriate the property of the industrial capitalist. If the social relationships are dependent on the productive forces then, clearly, socialism is impossible as it will have to be based, initially, on the legacy of capitalism. Fortunately, the way a workplace is managed is not predetermined by the technological base of society. As is obvious, a steam-mill can be operated by a co-operative, so making the industrial capitalist redundant. That a given technological basis (or productive forces) can produces many different social and political systems can easily be seen from history. Murray Bookchin gives one example:
“Technics . . . does not fully or even adequately account for the institutional differences between a fairly democratic federation such as the Iroquois and a highly despotic empire such as the Inca. From a strictly instrumental viewpoint, the two structures were supported by almost identical ‘tool kits.’ Both engaged in horticultural practices that were organised around primitive implements and wooden hoes. Their weaving and metalworking techniques were very similar . . . At the community level, Iroquois and Inca populations were immensely similar . . .
“Yet at the political level of social life, a democratic confederal structure of five woodland tribes obviously differs decisively from a centralised, despotic structure of mountain Indian chiefdoms. The former, a highly libertarian confederation . . . The latter, a massively authoritarian state . . . Communal management of resources and produce among the Iroquois tribes occurred at the clan level. By contrast, Inca resources were largely state-owned, and much of the empire’s produce was simply confiscation . . . and their redistribution from central and local storehouses. The Iroquois worked together freely . . . the Inca peasantry provided corvee labour to a patently exploitative priesthood and state apparatus under a nearly industrial system of management.” [The Ecology of Freedom, pp. 331-2]
Marx’s claim that a given technological level implies a specific social structure is wrong. However, it does suggest that our comments that, for Marx and Engels, the new “social relationships” which develop under capitalism which imply socialism are relations between workplaces, not those between individuals and so classes are correct. The implications of this position became clear during the Russian revolution.
Later Marxists built upon this “scientific” groundwork. Lenin, for example, argued that “the difference between a socialist revolution and a bourgeois revolution is that in the latter case there are ready made forms of capitalist relationships; Soviet power [in Russia] does not inherit such ready made relationships, if we leave out of account the most developed forms of capitalism, which, strictly speaking, extended to a small top layer of industry and hardly touched agriculture.” [Collected Works, vol. 27, p. 90] Thus, for Lenin, “socialist” relationships are generated within big business, relationships “socialism” would “inherit” and universalise. As such, his comments fit in with the analysis of Marx and Engels we have presented above. However, his comments also reveal that Lenin had no idea that socialism meant the transformation of the relations of production, i.e. workers managing their own activity. This, undoubtedly, explains the systematic undermining of the factory committee movement by the Bolsheviks in favour of state control (see Maurice Brinton’s classic account of this process, The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control).
The idea that socialism involved simply taking over the state and nationalising the “objectively socialised” means of production can be seen in both mainstream social-democracy and its Leninist child. Rudolf Hilferding argued that capitalism was evolving into a highly centralised economy, run by big banks and big firms. All what was required to turn this into socialism would be its nationalisation:
“Once finance capital has brought the most important branches of production under its control, it is enough for society, through its conscious executive organ – the state conquered by the working class – to seize finance capital in order to gain immediate control of these branches of production . . . taking possession of six large Berlin banks would . . . greatly facilitate the initial phases of socialist policy during the transition period, when capitalist accounting might still prove useful.” [Finance Capital, pp. 367-8]
Lenin basically disagreed with this only in-so-far as the party of the proletariat would take power via revolution rather than by election (“the state conquered by the working class” equals the election of a socialist party). Lenin took it for granted that the difference between Marxists and anarchists is that “the former stand for centralised, large-scale communist production, while the latter stand for disconnected small production.” [Collected Works, vol. 23, p. 325] The obvious implication of this is that anarchist views “express, not the future of bourgeois society, which is striving with irresistible force towards the socialisation of labour, but the present and even the past of that society, the domination of blind chance over the scattered and isolated small producer.” [Op. Cit., vol. 10, p. 73]
Lenin applied this perspective during the Russian Revolution. For example, he argued in 1917 that his immediate aim was for a “state capitalist” economy, this being a necessary stage to socialism. As he put it, “socialism is merely the next step forward from state-capitalist monopoly . . . socialism is merely state-capitalist monopoly which is made to serve the interests of the whole people and has to that extent ceased to be capitalist monopoly.” [Op. Cit., vol. 25, p. 358] The Bolshevik road to “socialism” ran through the terrain of state capitalism and, in fact, simply built upon its institutionalised means of allocating recourses and structuring industry. As Lenin put it, “the modern state possesses an apparatus which has extremely close connections with the banks and syndicates [i.e., trusts] , an apparatus which performs an enormous amount of accounting and registration work . . . This apparatus must not, and should not, be smashed. It must be wrestled from the control of the capitalists,” it “must be subordinated to the proletarian Soviets” and “it must be expanded, made more comprehensive, and nation-wide.” This meant that the Bolsheviks would “not invent the organisational form of work, but take it ready-made from capitalism” and “borrow the best models furnished by the advanced countries.” [Op. Cit., vol. 26, pp. 105-6 and p. 110]
The institutional framework of capitalism would be utilised as the principal (almost exclusive) instruments of “socialist” transformation. “Without big banks Socialism would be impossible,“ argued Lenin, as they “are the ‘state apparatus’ which we need to bring about socialism, and which we take ready-made from capitalism; our task here is merely to lop off what capitalistically mutilates this excellent apparatus, to make it even bigger, even more democratic, even more comprehensive. A single State Bank, the biggest of the big . . . will constitute as much as nine-tenths of the socialist apparatus. This will be country-wide book-keeping, country-wide accounting of the production and distribution of goods.” While this is “not fully a state apparatus under capitalism,” it “will be so with us, under socialism.” For Lenin, building socialism was easy. This “nine-tenths of the socialist apparatus” would be created “at one stroke, by a single decree.” [Op. Cit., p. 106] Once in power, the Bolsheviks implemented this vision of socialism being built upon the institutions created by monopoly capitalism. Moreover, Lenin quickly started to advocate and implement the most sophisticated capitalist methods of organising labour, including “one-man management” of production, piece-rates and Taylorism (“scientific management”). This was not done accidentally or because no alternative existed (as we discuss in section H.6.2, workers were organising federations of factory committees which could have been, as anarchists argued at the time, the basis of a genuine socialist economy).
As Gustav Landuer commented, when mainstream Marxists “call the capitalist factory system a social production . . . we know the real implications of their socialist forms of labour.” [For Socialism, p. 70] As can be seen, this glorification of large-scale, state-capitalist structures can be traced back to Marx and Engels, while Lenin’s support for capitalist production techniques can be explained by mainstream Marxism’s lack of focus on the social relationships at the point of production.
For anarchists, the idea that socialism can be built on the framework provided to us by capitalism is simply ridiculous. Capitalism has developed industry and technology to further the ends of those with power, namely capitalists and managers. Why should they use that power to develop technology and industrial structures which lead to workers’ self-management and power rather than technologies and structures which enhance their own position vis-à-vis their workers and society as a whole? As such, technological and industrial development is not “neutral” or just the “application of science.” They are shaped by class struggle and class interest and cannot be used for different ends. Simply put, socialism will need to develop new forms of economic organisation based on socialist principles. The concept that monopoly capitalism paves the way for socialist society is rooted in the false assumption that the forms of social organisation accompanying capital concentration are identical with the socialisation of production, that the structures associated with collective labour under capitalism are the same as those required under socialism is achieve genuine socialisation. This false assumption, as can be seen, goes back to Engels and was shared by both Social Democracy and Leninism despite their other differences.
While anarchists are inspired by a vision of a non-capitalist, decentralised, diverse society based on appropriate technology and appropriate scale, mainstream Marxism is not. Rather, it sees the problem with capitalism is that its institutions are not centralised and big enough. As Alexander Berkman correctly argues:
“The role of industrial decentralisation in the revolution is unfortunately too little appreciated. . . Most people are still in the thraldom of the Marxian dogma that centralisation is ‘more efficient and economical.’ They close their eyes to the fact that the alleged ‘economy’ is achieved at the cost of the workers’ limb and life, that the ‘efficiency’ degrades him to a mere industrial cog, deadens his soul, kills his body. Furthermore, in a system of centralisation the administration of industry becomes constantly merged in fewer hands, producing a powerful bureaucracy of industrial overlords. It would indeed be the sheerest irony if the revolution were to aim at such a result. It would mean the creation of a new master class.” [What is Anarchism?, p. 229]
That mainstream Marxism is soaked in capitalist ideology can be seen from Lenin’s comments that when “the separate establishments are amalgamated into a single syndicate, this economy [of production] can attain tremendous proportions, as economic science teaches us.” [Op. Cit., vol. 25, p. 344] Yes, capitalist economic science, based on capitalist definitions of efficiency and economy and on capitalist criteria! That Bolshevism bases itself on centralised, large scale industry because it is more “efficient” and “economic” suggests nothing less than that its “socialism” will be based on the same priorities of capitalism. This can be seen from Lenin’s idea that Russia had to learn from the advanced capitalist countries, that there was only one way to develop production and that was by adopting capitalist methods of “rationalisation” and management. Thus, for Lenin in early 1918 “our task is to study the state capitalism of the Germans, to spare no effort in copying it and not to shrink from adopting dictorial methods to hasten the copying of it.” [Op. Cit., vol. 27, p. 340] In the words of Luigi Fabbri:
“Marxist communists, especially Russian ones, are beguiled by the distant mirage of big industry in the West or America and mistake for a system of production what is only a typically capitalist means of speculation, a means of exercising oppression all the more securely; and they do not appreciate that that sort of centralisation, far from fulfilling the real needs of production, is, on the contrary, precisely what restricts it, obstructs it and applies a brake to it in the interests of capital.
“Whenever [they] talk about ‘necessity of production’ they make no distinction between those necessities upon which hinge the procurement of a greater quantity and higher quality of products – this being all that matters from the social and communist point of view – and the necessities inherent in the bourgeois regime, the capitalists’ necessity to make more profit even should it mean producing less to do so. If capitalism tends to centralise its operations, it does so not for the sake of production, but only for the sake of making and accumulating more money.” [“Anarchy and ‘Scientific’ Communism”, pp. 13-49, The Poverty of Statism, Albert Meltzer (ed.), pp. 21-22]
Efficiency, in other words, does not exist independently of a given society or economy. What is considered “efficient” under capitalism may be the worse form of inefficiency in a free society. The idea that socialism may have different priorities, need different methods of organising production, have different visions of how an economy was structured than capitalism, is absent in mainstream Marxism. Lenin thought that the institutions of bourgeois economic power, industrial structure and capitalist technology and techniques could be “captured” and used for other ends. Ultimately, though, capitalist means and organisations can only generate capitalist ends. It is significant that the “one-man management,” piece-work, Taylorism, etc. advocated and implemented under Lenin are usually listed by his followers as evils of Stalinism and as proof of its anti-socialist nature.
Equally, it can be argued that part of the reason why large capitalist firms can “plan” production on a large scale is because they reduce the decision making criteria to a few variables, the most significant being profit and loss. That such simplification of input data may result in decisions which harm people and the environment goes without a saying. “The lack of context and particularity,” James C. Scott correctly notes, “is not an oversight; it is the necessary first premise of any large-scale planning exercise. To the degree that the subjects can be treated as standardised units, the power of resolution in the planning exercise is enhanced. Questions posed within these strict confines can have definitive, quantitative answers. The same logic applies to the transformation of the natural world. Questions about the volume of commercial wood or the yield of wheat in bushels permit more precise calculations than questions about, say, the quality of the soil, the versatility and taste of the grain, or the well-being of the community. The discipline of economics achieves its formidable resolving power by transforming what might otherwise be considered qualitative matters into quantitative issues with a single metric and, as it were, a bottom line: profit or loss.” [Seeing like a State, p. 346] Whether a socialist society could factor in all the important inputs which capitalism ignores within an even more centralised planning structure is an important question. It is extremely doubtful that there could be a positive answer to it. This does not mean, we just stress, that anarchists argue exclusively for “small-scale” production as many Marxists, like Lenin, assert (as we prove in section I.3.8, anarchists have always argued for appropriate levels of production and scale). It is simply to raise the possibility of what works under capitalism may be undesirable from a perspective which values people and planet instead of power and profit.
As should be obvious, anarchism is based on critical evaluation of technology and industrial structure, rejecting the whole capitalist notion of “progress” which has always been part of justifying the inhumanities of the status quo. Just because something is rewarded by capitalism it does not mean that it makes sense from a human or ecological perspective. This informs our vision of a free society and the current struggle. We have long argued that that capitalist methods cannot be used for socialist ends. In our battle to democratise and socialise the workplace, in our awareness of the importance of collective initiatives by the direct producers in transforming their work situation, we show that factories are not merely sites of production, but also of reproduction – the reproduction of a certain structure of social relations based on the division between those who give orders and those who take them, between those who direct and those who execute.
It goes without saying that anarchists recognise that a social revolution will have to start with the industry and technology which is left to it by capitalism and that this will have to be expropriated by the working class (this expropriation will, of course, involve transforming it and, in all likelihood, rejecting of numerous technologies, techniques and practices considered as “efficient” under capitalism). This is not the issue. The issue is who expropriates it and what happens to it next. For anarchists, the means of life are expropriated directly by society, for most Marxists they are expropriated by the state. For anarchists, such expropriation is based workers’ self-management and so the fundamental capitalist “relation of production” (wage labour) is abolished. For most Marxists, state ownership of production is considered sufficient to ensure the end of capitalism (with, if we are lucky, some form of “workers’ control” over those state officials who do management production – see section H.3.14).
In contrast to the mainstream Marxist vision of socialism being based around the institutions inherited from capitalism, anarchists have raised the idea that the “free commune” would be the “medium in which the ideas of modern Socialism may come to realisation.” These “communes would federate” into wider groupings. Labour unions (or other working class organs created in the class struggle such as factory committees) were “not only an instrument for the improvement of the conditions of labour, but also . . . an organisation which might . . . take into its hands the management of production.” Large labour associations would “come into existence for the inter-communal service[s].” Such communes and workers’ organisations as the basis of “Socialist forms of life could find a much easier realisation” than the “seizure of all industrial property by the State, and the State organisation of agriculture and industry.” Thus railway networks “could be much better handled by a Federated Union of railway employees, than by a State organisation.” Combined with co-operation “both for production and for distribution, both in industry and agriculture,” workers’ self-management of production would create “samples of the bricks” of the future society (“even samples of some of its rooms”). [Kropotkin, The Conquest of Bread, pp. 21-23]
This means that anarchists also root our arguments for socialism in a scientific analysis of tendencies within capitalism. However, in opposition to the analysis of mainstream Marxism which focuses on the objective tendencies within capitalist development, anarchists emphasis the oppositional nature of socialism to capitalism. Both the “law of value” and the “law of planning” are tendencies within capitalism, that is aspects of capitalism. Anarchists encourage class struggle, the direct conflict of working class people against the workings of all capitalism’s “laws”. This struggle produces mutual aid and the awareness that we can care best for our own welfare if we unite with others – what we can loosely term the “law of co-operation” or “law of mutual aid”. This law, in contrast to the Marxian “law of planning” is based on working class subjectively and develops within society only in opposition to capitalism. As such, it provides the necessary understanding of where socialism will come from, from below, in the spontaneous self-activity of the oppressed fighting for their freedom. This means that the basic structures of socialism will be the organs created by working class people in their struggles against exploitation and oppress (see section I.2.3 for more details). Gustav Landauer’s basic insight is correct (if his means were not totally so) when he wrote that “Socialism will not grow out of capitalism but away from it” [Op. Cit., p. 140] In other words, tendencies opposed to capitalism rather than ones which are part and parcel of it.
Anarchism’s recognition of the importance of these tendencies towards mutual aid within capitalism is a key to understanding what anarchists do in the here and now, as will be discussed in section J. In addition, it also laid the foundation of understanding the nature of an anarchist society and what creates the framework of such a society in the here and now. Anarchists do not abstractly place a better society (anarchy) against the current, oppressive one. Instead, we analysis what tendencies exist within current society and encourage those which empower and liberate people. Based on these tendencies, anarchists propose a society which develops them to their logical conclusion. Therefore an anarchist society is created not through the developments within capitalism, but in social struggle against it.
For anarchists, the idea that socialism can be achieved via state ownership is simply ridiculous. For reasons which will become abundantly clear, anarchists argue that any such “socialist” system would simply be a form of “state capitalism.” Such a regime would not fundamentally change the position of the working class, whose members would simply be wage slaves to the state bureaucracy rather than to the capitalist class. Marxism would, as Kropotkin predicted, be “the worship of the State, of authority and of State Socialism, which is in reality nothing but State capitalism.” [quoted by Ruth Kinna, “Kropotkin’s theory of Mutual Aid in Historical Context”, pp. 259-283, International Review of Social History, No. 40, p. 262]
However, before beginning our discussion of why anarchists think this we need to clarify our terminology. This is because the expression “state capitalism” has three distinct, if related, meanings in socialist (particularly Marxist) thought. Firstly, “state capitalism” was/is used to describe the current system of big business subject to extensive state control (particularly if, as in war, the capitalist state accrues extensive powers over industry). Secondly, it was used by Lenin to describe his immediate aims after the October Revolution, namely a regime in which the capitalists would remain but would be subject to a system of state control inherited by the new “proletarian” state from the old capitalist one. The third use of the term is to signify a regime in which the state replaces the capitalist class totally via nationalisation of the means of production. In such a regime, the state would own, manage and accumulate capital rather than individual capitalists.
Anarchists are opposed to all three systems described by the term “state capitalism.” Here we concentrate on the third definition, arguing that state socialism would be better described as “state capitalism” as state ownership of the means of life does not get to the heart of capitalism, namely wage labour. Rather it simply replaces private bosses with the state and changes the form of property (from private to state property) rather than getting rid of it.
The idea that socialism simply equals state ownership (nationalisation) is easy to find in the works of Marxism. The Communist Manifesto, for example, states that the “proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production into the hands of the State.” This meant the “[c]entralisation of credit in the hands of the State, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly,” the “[c]entralisation of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State,” “[e]xtension of factories and instruments of production owned by the State” and the “[e]stablishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture.” [Marx and Engels, Selected Works, pp. 52-3] Thus “feudal estates . . . mines, pits, and so forth, would become property of the state” as well as “[a]ll means of transport,” with “the running of large-scale industry and the railways by the state.” [Collected Works, vol. 7, p. 3, p. 4 and p. 299]
Engels repeats this formula thirty-two years later in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific by asserting that capitalism itself “forces on more and more the transformation of the vast means of production, already socialised, into state property. The proletariat seizes political power and turns the means of production into state property.“ Socialism is not equated with state ownership of productive forces by a capitalist state, “but concealed within it are the technical conditions that form the elements of that solution” to the social problem. It simply “shows itself the way to accomplishing this revolution. The proletariat seizes political power and turns the means of production into state property.“ Thus state ownership after the proletariat seizes power is the basis of socialism, when by this “first act” of the revolution the state “really constitutes itself as the representative of the whole of society.” [Marx-Engels Reader, p. 713, p. 712 and p. 713]
What is significant from these programmatic statements on the first steps of socialism is the total non-discussion of what is happening at the point of production, the non-discussion of the social relations in the workplace. Rather we are subjected to discussion of “the contradiction between socialised production and capitalist appropriation” and claims that while there is “socialised organisation of production within the factory,” this has become “incompatible with the anarchy of production in society.” The obvious conclusion to be drawn is that “socialism” will inherit, without change, the “socialised” workplace of capitalism and that the fundamental change is that of ownership: “The proletariat seized the public power, and by means of this transforms the socialised means of production . . . into public property. By this act, the proletariat frees the means of production from the character of capital they have thus far borne.” [Engels, Op. Cit., p. 709 and p. 717]
That the Marxist movement came to see state ownership rather than workers’ management of production as the key issue is hardly surprising. Thus we find leading Social-Democrats arguing that socialism basically meant the state, under Social-Democratic control of course, acquiring the means of production and nationalising them. Rudolf Hilferding presented what was Marxist orthodoxy at the time when he argued that in “a communist society” production “is consciously determined by the social central organ,” which would decide “what is to be produced and how much, where and by whom.” While this information is determined by the market forces under capitalism, in socialism it “is given to the members of the socialist society by their authorities . . . we must derive the undisturbed progress of the socialist economy from the laws, ordinances and regulations of socialist authorities.” [quoted by Nikolai Bukharin, Economy Theory of the Leisure Class, p. 157] The Bolsheviks inherited this concept of “socialism” and implemented it, with terrible results.
This vision of society in which the lives of the population are controlled by “authorities” in a “social central organ” which tells the workers what to do, while in line with the Communist Manifesto, seems less that appealing. It also shows why state socialism is not socialism at all. Thus George Barrett:
“If instead of the present capitalist class there were a set of officials appointed by the Government and set in a position to control our factories, it would bring about no revolutionary change. The officials would have to be paid, and we may depend that, in their privileged positions, they would expect good remuneration. The politicians would have to be paid, and we already know their tastes. You would, in fact, have a non-productive class dictating to the producers the conditions upon which they were allowed to use the means of production. As this is exactly what is wrong with the present system of society, we can see that State control would be no remedy, while it would bring with it a host of new troubles . . . under a governmental system of society, whether it is the capitalism of today or a more a perfected Government control of the Socialist State, the essential relationship between the governed and the governing, the worker and the controller, will be the same; and this relationship so long as it lasts can be maintained only by the bloody brutality of the policeman’s bludgeon and the soldier’s rifle.” [The Anarchist Revolution, pp. 8-9]
The key to seeing why state socialism is simply state capitalism can be found in the lack of change in the social relationships at the point of production. The workers are still wage slaves, employed by the state and subject to its orders. As Lenin stressed in State and Revolution, under Marxist Socialism “[a]ll citizens are transformed into hired employees of the state . . . All citizens become employees and workers of a single country-wide state ‘syndicate’ . . . The whole of society will have become a single office and a single factory, with equality of labour and pay.” [Collected Works, vol. 25, pp. 473-4] Given that Engels had argued, against anarchism, that a factory required subordination, authority, lack of freedom and “a veritable despotism independent of all social organisation,” Lenin’s idea of turning the world into one big factory takes on an extremely frightening nature. [Marx-Engels Reader, p. 731] A reality which one anarchist described in 1923 as being the case in Lenin’s Russia:
“The nationalisation of industry, removing the workers from the hands of individual capitalists, delivered them to the yet more rapacious hands of a single, ever-present capitalist boss, the State. The relations between the workers and this new boss are the same as earlier relations between labour and capital, with the sole difference that the Communist boss, the State, not only exploits the workers, but also punishes them himself . . . Wage labour has remained what it was before, except that it has taken on the character of an obligation to the State . . . It is clear that in all this we are dealing with a simple substitution of State capitalism for private capitalism.” [Peter Arshinov, History of the Makhnovist Movement, p. 71]
All of which makes Bakunin’s comments seem justified (as well as stunningly accurate):
“Labour financed by the State – such is the fundamental principle of authoritarian Communism, of State Socialism. The State, having become the sole proprietor . . . will have become sole capitalist, banker, money-lender, organiser, director of all national work, and the distributor of its profits.” [The Political Philosophy of Bakunin, p. 293]
Such a system, based on those countries “where modern capitalist development has reached its highest point of development” would see “the gradual or violent expropriation of the present landlords and capitalists, or of the appropriation of all land and capital by the State. In order to be able to carry out its great economic and social mission, this State will have to be very far-reaching, very powerful and highly centralised. It will administer and supervise agriculture by means of its appointed mangers, who will command armies of rural workers organised and disciplined for that purpose. At the same time, it will set up a single bank on the ruins of all existing banks.” Such a system, Bakunin correctly predicted, would be “a barracks regime for the proletariat, in which a standardised mass of men and women workers would wake, sleep, work and live by rote; a regime of privilege for the able and the clever.” [Michael Bakunin: Selected Writings, p. 258 and p. 259]
Proudhon, likewise was well aware that state ownership did not mean the end of private property, rather it meant a change in who ordered the working class about. “We do not want,” he stated, “to see the State confiscate the mines, canals and railways; that would be to add to monarchy, and more wage slavery. We want the mines, canals, railways handed over to democratically organised workers’ associations” which would be the start of a “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]
Simply put, if workers did not directly manage their own work then it matters little who formally owns the workplaces in which they toil. As Maurice Brinton argued, libertarian socialists “hold that the ‘relations of production’ – the relations which individuals or groups enter into with one another in the process of producing wealth – are the essential foundations of any society. A certain pattern of relations of production is the common denominator of all class societies. This pattern is one in which the producer does not dominate the means of production but on the contrary both is ‘separated from them’ and from the products of his [or her] own labour. In all class societies the producer is in a position of subordination to those who manage the productive process. Workers’ management of production – implying as it does the total domination of the producer over the productive process – is not for us a marginal matter. It is the core of our politics. It is the only means whereby authoritarian (order-giving, order-taking) relations in production can be transcended and a free, communist or anarchist, society introduced.” He went on to note that “the means of production may change hands (passing for instance from private hands into those of a bureaucracy, collectively owning them) without this revolutionising the relations of production. Under such circumstances – and whatever the formal status of property – the society is still a class society for production is still managed by an agency other than the producers themselves. Property relations, in other words, do not necessarily reflect the relations of production. They may serve to mask them – and in fact they often have.” [The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control, pp. vii-vii]
As such, for anarchists (and libertarian Marxists) the idea that state ownership of the means of life (the land, workplaces, factories, etc.) is the basis of socialism is simply wrong. Therefore, “Anarchism cannot look upon the coming revolution as a mere substitution . . . of the State as the universal capitalist for the present capitalists.” [Kropotkin, Evolution and Environment, p. 106] Given that the “State organisation having always been . . . the instrument for establishing monopolies in favour of the ruling minorities, [it] cannot be made to work for the destruction of these monopolies. The anarchists consider, therefore, that to hand over to the State all the main sources of economic life – the land, the mines, the railways, banking, insurance, and so on – as also the management of all the main branches of industry . . . would mean to create a new instrument of tyranny. State capitalism would only increase the powers of bureaucracy and capitalism.” [Kropotkin, Anarchism, p. 286] Needless to say, a society which was not democratic in the workplace would not remain democratic politically either. Either democracy would become as formal as it is within any capitalist republic or it would be replaced by dictatorship. So, without a firm base in the direct management of production, any “socialist” society would see working class social power (“political power”) and liberty wither and die, just like a flower ripped out of the soil.
Unsurprisingly, given all this, we discover throughout history the co-existence of private and state property. Indeed, the nationalisation of key services and industries has been implemented under all kinds of capitalist governments and within all kinds of capitalist states (which proves the non-socialist nature of state ownership). Moreover, anarchists can point to specific events where the capitalist class has used nationalisation to undermine revolutionary gains by the working class. The best example by far is in the Spanish Revolution, when the Catalan government used nationalisation against the wave of spontaneous, anarchist inspired, collectivisation which had placed most of industry into the direct hands of the workers. The government, under the guise of legalising the gains of the workers, placed them under state ownership to stop their development, ensure hierarchical control and so class society. A similar process occurred during the Russian Revolution under the Bolsheviks. Significantly, “many managers, at least those who remained, appear to have preferred nationalisation (state control) to workers’ control and co-operated with Bolshevik commissars to introduce it. Their motives are not too difficult to understand . . . The issue of who runs the plants – who makes decisions – is, and probably always will be, the crucial question for managers in any industrial relations system.” [Jay B. Sorenson, The Life and Death of Soviet Trade Unionism, pp. 67-8] As we discuss in the next section, the managers and capitalists were not the only ones who disliked “workers’ control,” the Bolsheviks did so as well, and they ensured that it was marginalised within a centralised system of state control based on nationalisation.
As such, anarchists think that a utterly false dichotomy has been built up in discussions of socialism, one which has served the interests of both capitalists and state bureaucrats. This dichotomy is simply that the economic choices available to humanity are “private” ownership of productive means (capitalism), or state ownership of productive means (usually defined as “socialism”). In this manner, capitalist nations used the Soviet Union, and continue to use autocracies like North Korea, China, and Cuba as examples of the evils of “public” ownership of productive assets. While the hostility of the capitalist class to such regimes is often used by Leninists as a rationale to defend them (as “degenerated workers’ states”, to use the Trotskyist term) this is a radically false conclusion. As one anarchist argued in 1940 against Trotsky (who first raised this notion):
“Expropriation of the capitalist class is naturally terrifying to ‘the bourgeoisie of the whole world,’ but that does not prove anything about a workers’ state . . . In Stalinist Russia expropriation is carried out . . . by, and ultimately for the benefit of, the bureaucracy, not by the workers at all. The bourgeoisie are afraid of expropriation, of power passing out of their hands, whoever seizes it from them. They will defend their property against any class or clique. The fact that they are indignant [about Stalinism] proves their fear – it tells us nothing at all about the agents inspiring that fear.” [J.H., “The Fourth International”, pp. 37-43, The Left and World War II, Vernon Richards (ed.), pp. 41-2]
Anarchists see little distinction between “private” ownership of the means of life and “state” ownership. This is because the state is a highly centralised structure specifically designed to exclude mass participation and so, therefore, necessarily composed of a ruling administrative body. As such, the “public” cannot actually “own” the property the state claims to hold in its name. The ownership and thus control of the productive means is then in the hands of a ruling elite, the state administration (i.e. bureaucracy). The “means of wealth production” are “owned by the state which represents, as always, a privileged class – the bureaucracy.” The workers “do not either individually or collectively own anything, and so, as elsewhere, are compelled to sell their labour power to the employer, in this case the state.” [“USSR – The Anarchist Position”, pp. 21-24, Op. Cit., p. 23] Thus, the means of production and land of a state “socialist” regime are not publicly owned – rather, they are owned by a bureaucratic elite, in the name of the people, a subtle but important distinction. As one Chinese anarchist put it:
“Marxian socialism advocates the centralisation not only of political power but also of capital. The centralisation of political power is dangerous enough in itself; add to that the placing of all sources of wealth in the hands of the government, and the so-called state socialism becomes merely state capitalism, with the state as the owner of the means of production and the workers as its labourers, who hand over the value produced by their labour. The bureaucrats are the masters, the workers their slaves. Even though they advocate a state of the dictatorship of workers, the rulers are bureaucrats who do not labour, while workers are the sole producers. Therefore, the suffering of workers under state socialism is no different from that under private capitalism.” [Ou Shengbai, quoted by Arif Dirlik, Anarchism in the Chinese Revolution, p. 224]
In this fashion, decisions about the allocation and use of the productive assets are not made by the people themselves, but by the administration, by economic planners. Similarly, in “private” capitalist economies, economic decisions are made by a coterie of managers. In both cases the managers make decisions which reflect their own interests and the interests of the owners (be it shareholders or the state bureaucracy) and not the workers involved or society as a whole. In both cases, economic decision-making is top-down in nature, made by an elite of administrators – bureaucrats in the state socialist economy, capitalists or managers in the “private” capitalist economy. The much-lauded distinction of capitalism is that unlike the monolithic, centralised state socialist bureaucracy it has a choice of bosses (and choosing a master is not freedom). And given the similarities in the relations of production between capitalism and state “socialism,” the obvious inequalities in wealth in so-called “socialist” states are easily explained. The relations of production and the relations of distribution are inter-linked and so inequality in terms of power in production means inequality in control of the social product, which will be reflected in inequality in terms of wealth. The mode of distributing the social product is inseparable from the mode of production and its social relationships. Which shows the fundamentally confused nature of Trotsky’s attempts to denounce the Stalinist regime’s privileges as “bourgeois” while defending its “socialist” economic base (see Cornelius Castoriadis, “The Relations of Production in Russia”, pp. 107-158, Political and Social Writings, vol. 1).
In other words, private property exists if some individuals (or groups) control/own things which are used by other people. This means, unsurprising, that state ownership is just a form of property rather than the negation of it. If you have a highly centralised structure (as the state is) which plans and decides about all things within production, then this central administrative would be the real owner because it has the exclusive right to decide how things are used, not those using them. The existence of this central administrative strata excludes the abolition of property, replacing socialism or communism with state owned “property,” i.e. state capitalism. As such, state ownership does not end wage labour and, therefore, social inequalities in terms of wealth and access to resources. Workers are still order-takers under state ownership (whose bureaucrats control the product of their labour and determine who gets what). The only difference between workers under private property and state property is the person telling them what to do. Simply put, the capitalist or company appointed manager is replaced by a state appointed one.
As anarcho-syndicalist Tom Brown stressed, when “the many control the means whereby they live, they will do so by abolishing private ownership and establishing common ownership of the means of production, with workers’ control of industry.” However, this is “not to be confused with nationalisation and state control” as “ownership is, in theory, said to be vested in the people” but, in fact “control is in the hands of a small class of bureaucrats.” Then “common ownership does not exist, but the labour market and wage labour go on, the worker remaining a wage slave to State capitalism.” Simply put, common ownership “demands common control. This is possible only in a condition of industrial democracy by workers’ control.” [Syndicalism, p. 94] In summary:
“Nationalisation is not Socialisation, but State Capitalism . . . Socialisation . . . is not State ownership, but the common, social ownership of the means of production, and social ownership implies control by the producers, not by new bosses. It implies Workers’ Control of Industry – and that is Syndicalism.” [Op. Cit., p. 111]
However, many Marxists (in particular Leninists) state they are in favour of both state ownership and “workers’ control.” As we discuss in more depth in next section, while they mean the same thing as anarchists do by the first term, they have a radically different meaning for the second (it is for this reason modern-day anarchists generally use the term “workers’ self-management”). To anarchist ears, the combination of nationalisation (state ownership) and “workers’ control” (and even more so, self-management) simply expresses political confusion, a mishmash of contradictory ideas which simply hides the reality that state ownership, by its very nature, precludes workers’ control. As such, anarchists reject such contradictory rhetoric in favour of “socialisation” and “workers’ self-management of production.” History shows that nationalisation will always undermine workers’ control at the point of production and such rhetoric always paves the way for state capitalism.
Therefore, anarchists are against both nationalisation and privatisation, recognising both as forms of capitalism, of wage slavery. We believe in genuine public ownership of productive assets, rather than corporate/private or state/bureaucratic control. Only in this manner can the public address their own economic needs. Thus, we see a third way that is distinct from the popular “either/or” options forwarded by capitalists and state socialists, a way that is entirely more democratic. This is workers’ self-management of production, based on social ownership of the means of life by federations of self-managed syndicates and communes.
Finally, it should be mentioned that some Leninists do have an analysis of Stalinism as “state capitalist,” most noticeably the British SWP. According to the creator of this theory, Tony Cliff, Stalinism had to be considered a class system because “[i]f the state is the repository of the means of production and the workers do not control it, they do not own the means of production, i.e., they are not the ruling class.” Which is fine, as far as it goes (anarchists would stress the social relations within production as part of our criteria for what counts as socialism). The problems start to accumulate when Cliff tries to explain why Stalinism was (state) capitalist.
For Cliff, internally the USSR could be viewed as one big factory and the division of labour driven by bureaucratic decree. Only when Stalinism was “viewed within the international economy the basic features of capitalism can be discerned.” Thus it is international competition which makes the USSR subject to “the law of value” and, consequently, capitalist. However, as international trade was tiny under Stalinism “competition with other countries is mainly military.” It is this indirect competition in military matters which made Stalinist Russia capitalist rather than any internal factor. [State capitalism in Russia, pp. 311-2, p. 221 and p. 223]
The weakness of this argument should be obvious. From an anarchist position, it fails to discuss the social relations within production and the obvious fact that workers could, and did, move workplaces (i.e., there was a market for labour). Cliff only mentions the fact that the Stalinist regime’s plans were never fulfilled when he shows up the inefficiencies of Stalinist mismanagement. With regards to labour, that appears to be divided according to the plan. Similarly,to explain Stalinism’s “capitalist” nature as being a product of military competition with other, more obviously, capitalist states is a joke. It is like arguing that Ford is a capitalist company because BMW is! As one libertarian Marxist put it: “One can only wonder as to the type of contortions Cliff might have got into if Soviet military competition had been with China alone!” [Neil C. Fernandez, Capitalism and Class Struggle in the USSR, p. 65] Significantly, Cliff raised the possibility of single world-wide Stalinist regime and concluded it would not be state capitalist, it would “be a system of exploitation not subject to the law of value and all its implications.” [Op. Cit., p. 225] As Fernandez correctly summarises:
“Cliff’s position appears untenable when it is remembered that whatever capitalism may or may not entail, what it is a mode of production, defined by a certain type of social production relations. If the USSR is capitalist simply because it produces weaponry to compete with those countries that themselves would have been capitalist even without such competition, then one might as well say the same about tribes whose production is directed to the provision of tomahawks in the fight against colonialism.” [Op. Cit., p. 65]
Strangely, as Marxist, Cliff seemed unaware that, for Marx, “competition” did not define capitalism. As far as trade goes, the “character of the production process from which [goods] derive is immaterial” and so on the market commodities come “from all modes of production” (for example, they could be “the produce of production based on slavery, the product of peasants . . ., of a community . . . , of state production (such as existed in earlier epochs of Russian history, based on serfdom) or half-savage hunting peoples”). [Capital, vol. 2, pp. 189-90] This means that trade “exploits a given mode of production but does not create it” and so relates “to the mode of production from outside.” [Capital, vol. 3, p. 745] Much the same can be said of military competition – it does not define the mode of production.
There are other problems with Cliff’s argument, namely that it implies that Lenin’s regime was also state capitalist (as anarchists stress, but Leninists deny). If, as Cliff suggests, a “workers’ state” is one in which “the proletariat has direct or indirect control, no matter how restricted, over the state power” then Lenin’s regime was not one within six months. Similarly, workers’ self-management was replaced by one-man management under Lenin, meaning that Stalin inherited the (capitalistic) relations of production rather than created them. Moreover, if it were military competition which made Stalinism “state capitalist” then, surely, so was Bolshevik Russia when it was fighting the White and Imperialist armies during the Civil War. Nor does Cliff prove that a proletariat actually existed under Stalinism, raising the clear contradiction that “[i]f there is only one employer, a ‘change of masters’ is impossible . . . a mere formality” while also attacking those who argued that Stalinism was “bureaucratic collectivism” because Russian workers were not proletarians but rather slaves. So this “mere formality” is used to explain that the Russian worker is a proletarian, not a slave, and so Russia was state capitalist in nature! [Cliff, Op. Cit., p. 310, p. 219, p. 350 and p. 348]
All in all, attempts to draw a clear line between Leninism and Stalinism as regards its state capitalist nature are doomed to failure. The similarities are far too obvious and simply support the anarchist critique of state socialism as nothing more than state capitalism. Ultimately, “Trotskyism merely promises socialism by adopting the same methods, and mistakes, which have produced Stalinism.” [J.H., “The Fourth International”, pp. 37-43, The Left and World War II, Vernon Richards (ed.), p. 43]
As we discussed in the last section, anarchists consider the usual association of state ownership with socialism to be false. We argue that it is just another form of the wages system, of capitalism, albeit with the state replacing the capitalist and so state ownership, for anarchists, is simply state capitalism. Instead we urge socialisation based on workers’ self-management of production. Libertarian Marxists concur.
Some mainstream Marxists, however, say they seek to combine state ownership with “workers’ control.” This can be seen from Trotsky, for example, who argued in 1938 for “workers’ control . . . the penetration of the workers’ eye into all open and concealed springs of capitalist economy . . . workers’ control becomes a school for planned economy. On the basis of the experience of control, the proletariat will prepare itself for direct management of nationalised industry when the hour for that eventuality strikes.” This, it is argued, proves that nationalisation (state ownership and control) is not “state capitalism” but rather “control is the first step along the road to the socialist guidance of economy.” [The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International, p. 73 and p. 74] This explains why many modern day Leninists are often heard voicing support for what anarchists consider an obvious oxymoron, namely “nationalisation under workers’ control.”
Anarchists are not convinced. This is because of two reasons. Firstly, because by the term “workers’ control” anarchists and Leninists mean two radically different things. Secondly, when in power Trotsky advocated radically different ideas. Based on these reasons, anarchists view Leninist calls for “workers’ control” simply as a means of gaining popular support, calls which will be ignored once the real aim, party power, has been achieved: it is an example of Trotsky’s comment that “[s]logans as well as organisational forms should be subordinated to the indices of the movement.” [Op. Cit., p. 72] In other words, rather than express a commitment to the ideas of worker’s control of production, mainstream Marxist use of the term “workers’ control” is simply an opportunistic technique aiming at securing support for the party’s seizure of power and once this is achieved it will be cast aside in favour of the first part of the demands, namely state ownership and so control. In making this claim anarchists feel they have more than enough evidence, evidence which many members of Leninist parties simply know nothing about.
We will look first at the question of terminology. Anarchists traditionally used the term “workers’ control” to mean workers’ full and direct control over their workplaces, and their work. However, after the Russian Revolution a certain ambiguity arose in using that term. This is because specific demands which were raised during that revolution were translated into English as “workers’ control” when, in fact, the Russian meaning of the word (kontrolia) was far closer to “supervision” or “steering.” Thus the term “workers’ control” is used to describe two radically different concepts.
This can be seen from Trotsky when he argued that the workers should “demand resumption, as public utilities, of work in private businesses closed as a result of the crisis. Workers’ control in such case would be replaced by direct workers’ management.” [Op. Cit., p. 73] Why workers’ employed in open capitalist firms were not considered suitable for “direct workers’ management” is not explained, but the fact remains Trotsky clearly differentiated between management and control. For him, “workers’ control” meant “workers supervision” over the capitalist who retained power. Thus the “slogan of workers’ control of production” was not equated to actual workers’ control over production. Rather, it was “a sort of economic dual power” which meant that “ownership and right of disposition remain in the hands of the capitalists.” This was because it was “obvious that the power is not yet in the hands of the proletariat, otherwise we would have not workers’ control of production but the control of production by the workers’ state as an introduction to a regime of state production on the foundations of nationalisation.” [Trotsky, The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany, p. 91 and p. 92]
This vision of “workers’ control” as simply supervision of the capitalist managers and a prelude to state control and, ultimately, nationalisation can be found in Lenin. Rather than seeing “workers’ control” as workers managing production directly, he always saw it in terms of workers’ “controlling” those who did. It simply meant “the country-wide, all-embracing, omnipresent, most precise and most conscientious accounting of the production and distribution of goods.” He clarified what he meant, arguing for “country-wide, all-embracing workers’ control over the capitalists” who would still manage production. Significantly, he considered that “as much as nine-tenths of the socialist apparatus” required for this “country-wide book-keeping, country-wide accounting of the production and distribution of goods” would be achieved by nationalising the “big banks,” which “are the ‘state apparatus’ which we need to bring about socialism” (indeed, this was considered “something in the nature of the skeleton of socialist society”). This structure would be taken intact from capitalism for “the modern state possesses an apparatus which has extremely close connection with the banks and [business] syndicates . . . this apparatus must not, and should not, be smashed.” [Collected Works, vol. 26, p. 105, p. 107, p. 106 and pp. 105-6] Over time, this system would move towards full socialism.
Thus, what Leninists mean by “workers’ control” is radically different than what anarchists traditionally meant by that term (indeed, it was radically different from the workers’ definition, as can be seen from a resolution of the Bolshevik dominated First Trade Union Congress which complained that “the workers misunderstand and falsely interpret workers’ control.” [quoted by M. Brinton, The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control, p. 32]). It is for this reason that from the 1960s English speaking anarchists and other libertarian socialists have been explicit and have used the term “workers’ self-management” rather than “workers’ control” to describe their aims. Mainstream Marxists, however have continued to use the latter slogan, undoubtedly, as we note in section H.3.5, to gain members from the confusion in meanings.
Secondly, there is the example of the Russian Revolution itself. As historian S.A. Smith correctly summarises, the Bolshevik party “had no position on the question of workers’ control prior to 1917.” The “factory committees launched the slogan of workers’ control of production quite independently of the Bolshevik party. It was not until May that the party began to take it up.” However, Lenin used “the term [‘workers’ control’] in a very different sense from that of the factory committees.” In fact Lenin’s proposals were “thoroughly statist and centralist in character, whereas the practice of the factory committees was essentially local and autonomous.” While those Bolsheviks “connected with the factory committees assigned responsibility for workers’ control of production chiefly to the committees” this “never became official Bolshevik party policy.” In fact, “the Bolsheviks never deviated before or after October from a commitment to a statist, centralised solution to economic disorder. The disagreement between the two wings of the socialist movement [i.e., the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks] was not about state control in the abstract, but what kind of state should co-ordinate control of the economy: a bourgeois state or a workers’ state?” They “did not disagree radically in the specific measures which they advocated for control of the economy.” Lenin “never developed a conception of workers’ self-management. Even after October, workers’ control remained for him fundamentally a matter of ‘inspection’ and ‘accounting’ . . . rather than as being necessary to the transformation of the process of production by the direct producers. For Lenin, the transformation of capitalist relations of production was achieved at central-state level, rather than at enterprise level. Progress to socialism was guaranteed by the character of the state and achieved through policies by the central state – not by the degree of power exercised by workers on the shop floor.” [Red Petrograd, p. 153, p. 154, p. 159, p. 153, p. 154 and p. 228]
Thus the Bolshevik vision of “workers’ control” was always placed in a statist context and it would be exercised not by workers’ organisations but rather by state capitalist institutions. This has nothing in common with control by the workers themselves and their own class organisations as advocated by anarchists. In May 1917, Lenin was arguing for the “establishment of state control over all banks, and their amalgamation into a single central bank; also control over the insurance agencies and big capitalist syndicates.” [Collected Works, vol. 24, p. 311] He reiterated this framework later that year, arguing that “the new means of control have been created not by us, but by capitalism in its military-imperialist stage” and so “the proletariat takes its weapons from capitalism and does not ‘invent’ or ‘create them out of nothing.'” The aim was “compulsory amalgamation in associations under state control,” “by workers’ control of the workers’ state.” [Op. Cit., vol. 26, p. 108, p. 109 and p. 108] The factory committees were added to this “state capitalist” system but they played only a very minor role in it. Indeed, this system of state control was designed to limit the power of the factory committees:
“One of the first decrees issues by the Bolshevik Government was the Decree on Workers’ Control of 27 November 1917. By this decree workers’ control was institutionalised . . . Workers’ control implied the persistence of private ownership of the means of production, though with a ‘diminished’ right of disposal. The organs of workers’ control, the factory committees, were not supposed to evolve into workers’ management organs after the nationalisation of the factories. The hierarchical structure of factory work was not questioned by Lenin . . . To the Bolshevik leadership the transfer of power to the working class meant power to its leadership, i.e. to the party. Central control was the main goal of the Bolshevik leadership. The hasty creation of the VSNKh (the Supreme Council of the National Economy) on 1 December 1917, with precise tasks in the economic field, was a significant indication of fact that decentralised management was not among the projects of the party, and that the Bolsheviks intended to counterpoise central direction of the economy to the possible evolution of workers’ control toward self-management.” [Silvana Malle, The Economic Organisation of War Communism, 1918-1921, p. 47]
Once in power, the Bolsheviks soon turned away from even this limited vision of workers’ control and in favour of “one-man management.” Lenin raised this idea in late April 1918 and it involved granting state appointed “individual executives dictatorial powers (or ‘unlimited’ powers).” Large-scale industry required “thousands subordinating their will to the will of one,” and so the revolution “demands” that “the people unquestioningly obey the single will of the leaders of labour.” Lenin’s “superior forms of labour discipline” were simply hyper-developed capitalist forms. The role of workers in production was the same, but with a novel twist, namely “unquestioning obedience to the orders of individual representatives of the Soviet government during the work.” This support for wage slavery was combined with support for capitalist management techniques. “We must raise the question of piece-work and apply and test it in practice,” argued Lenin, “we must raise the question of applying much of what is scientific and progressive in the Taylor system; we must make wages correspond to the total amount of goods turned out.” [Lenin, Op. Cit., vol. 27, p. 267, p. 269, p. 271 and p. 258]
This vision had already been applied in practice, with the “first decree on the management of nationalised enterprises in March 1918” which had “established two directors at the head of each enterprise . . . Both directors were appointed by the central administrators.” An “economic and administrative council” was also created in the workplace, but this “did not reflect a syndicalist concept of management.” Rather it included representatives of the employees, employers, engineers, trade unions, the local soviets, co-operatives, the local economic councils and peasants. This composition “weakened the impact of the factory workers on decision-making . . . The workers’ control organs [the factory committees] remained in a subordinate position with respect to the council.” Once the Civil War broke out in May 1918, this process was accelerated. By 1920, most workplaces were under one-man management and the Communist Party at its Ninth Congress had “promoted one-man management as the most suitable form of management.” [Malle, Op. Cit., p. 111, p. 112, p. 141 and p. 128] In other words, the manner in which Lenin organised industry had handed it over entirely into the hands of the bureaucracy.
Trotsky did not disagree with all this, quite the reverse – he wholeheartedly defended the imposing of “one-man management”. As he put it in 1920, “our Party Congress . . . expressed itself in favour of the principle of one-man management in the administration of industry . . . It would be the greatest possible mistake, however, to consider this decision as a blow to the independence of the working class. The independence of the workers is determined and measured not by whether three workers or one are placed at the head of a factory.” As such, it “would consequently be a most crying error to confuse the question as to the supremacy of the proletariat with the question of boards of workers at the head of factories. The dictatorship of the proletariat is expressed in the abolition of private property in the means of production, in the supremacy over the whole Soviet mechanism of the collective will of the workers, and not at all in the form in which individual economic enterprises are administered.” The term “collective will of the workers” is simply a euphemism for the Party which Trotsky had admitted had “substituted” its dictatorship for that of the Soviets (indeed, “there is nothing accidental” in this “‘substitution’ of the power of the party for the power of the working class” and “in reality there is no substitution at all.” The “dictatorship of the Soviets became possible only by means of the dictatorship of the party”). The unions “should discipline the workers and teach them to place the interests of production above their own needs and demands.” He even argued that “the only solution to economic difficulties from the point of view of both principle and of practice is to treat the population of the whole country as the reservoir of the necessary labour power . . . and to introduce strict order into the work of its registration, mobilisation and utilisation.” [Terrorism and Communism, p. 162, p. 109, p. 143 and p. 135]
Trotsky did not consider this a result of the Civil War. Again, the opposite was the case: “I consider if the civil war had not plundered our economic organs of all that was strongest, most independent, most endowed with initiative, we should undoubtedly have entered the path of one-man management in the sphere of economic administration much sooner and much less painfully.” [Op. Cit., pp. 162-3] Significantly, discussing developments in Russia since the N.E.P, Trotsky a few years later argued that it was “necessary for each state-owned factory, with its technical director and with its commercial director, to be subjected not only to control from the top – by the state organs – but also from below, by the market which will remain the regulator of the state economy for a long time to come.” Workers’ control, as can be seen, was not even mentioned, nor considered as an essential aspect of control “from below.” As Trotsky also stated that “[u]nder socialism economic life will be directed in a centralised manner,” our discussion of the state capitalist nature of mainstream Marxism we presented in the last section is confirmed. [The First Five Years of the Communist International, vol. 2, p. 237 and p. 229]
The contrast between what Trotsky did when he was in power and what he argued for after he had been expelled is obvious. Indeed, the arguments of 1938 and 1920 are in direct contradiction to each other. Needless to say, Leninists and Trotskyists today are fonder of quoting Trotsky and Lenin when they did not have state power rather than when they did. Rather than compare what they said to what they did, they simply repeat ambiguous slogans which meant radically different things to Lenin and Trotsky than to the workers’ who thrust them into power. For obvious reasons, we feel. Given the opportunity for latter day Leninists to exercise power, we wonder if a similar process would occur again? Who would be willing to take that chance?
As such, any claim that mainstream Marxism considers “workers’ control” as an essential feature of its politics is simply nonsense. For a comprehensive discussion of “workers’ control” during the Russian Revolution Maurice Brinton’s account cannot be bettered. As he stressed, “only the ignorant or those willing to be deceived can still kid themselves into believing that proletarian power at the point of production was ever a fundamental tenet or objective of Bolshevism.” [The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control, p. 14]
All this is not some academic point. As Brinton noted, faced “with the bureaucratic monstrosity of Stalinist and post-Stalinist Russia, yet wishing to retain some credibility among their working class supporters, various strands of Bolshevism have sought posthumously to rehabilitate the concept of ‘workers’ control.'” The facts show that between 1917 and 1921 “all attempts by the working class to assert real power over production – or to transcend the narrow role allocated by to it by the Party – were smashed by the Bolsheviks, after first having been denounced as anarchist or anarcho-syndicalist deviations. Today workers’ control is presented as a sort of sugar coating to the pill of nationalisation of every Trotskyist or Leninist micro-bureaucrat on the make. Those who strangled the viable infant are now hawking the corpse around “ [For Workers’ Power, p. 165] Little has changes since Brinton wrote those words in the 1960s, with Leninists today proclaiming with a straight face that they stand for “self-management”!
The roots of this confusion can be found in Marx and Engels. In the struggle between authentic socialism (i.e. workers’ self-management) and state capitalism (i.e. state ownership) there are elements of the correct solution to be found in their ideas, namely their support for co-operatives. For example, Marx praised the efforts made within the Paris Commune to create co-operatives, so “transforming the means of production, land and capital . . . into mere instruments of free and associated labour.” He argued that “[i]f co-operative production is not to remain a shame and a snare; if it is to supersede the Capitalist system; if united co-operative societies are to regulate national production upon a common plan, thus taking it under their own control, and putting an end to the constant anarchy and periodical convulsions which are the fatality of Capitalist production – what else . . . would it be but Communism, ‘possible’ Communism?” [Selected Works, pp. 290-1] In the 1880s, Engels suggested as a reform the putting of public works and state-owned land into the hands of workers’ co-operatives rather than capitalists. [Collected Works, vol. 47, p. 239]
These comments should not be taken as being totally without aspects of nationalisation. Engels argued for “the transfer – initially on lease – of large estates to autonomous co-operatives under state management and effected in such a way that the State retains ownership of the land.” He stated that neither he nor Marx “ever doubted that, in the course of transition to a wholly communist economy, widespread use would have to be made of co-operative management as an intermediate stage. Only it will mean so organising things that society, i.e. initially the State, retains ownership of the means of production and thus prevents the particular interests of the co-operatives from taking precedence over those of society as a whole.” [Op. Cit., p. 389] However, Engels comments simply bring home the impossibilities of trying to reconcile state ownership and workers’ self-management. While the advocacy of co-operatives is a positive step forward from the statist arguments of the Communist Manifesto, Engels squeezes these libertarian forms of organising production into typically statist structures. How “autonomous co-operatives” can co-exist with (and under!) “state management” and “ownership” is not explained, not to mention the fatal confusion of socialisation with nationalisation.
In addition, the differences between the comments of Marx and Engels are obvious. While Marx talks of “united co-operative societies,” Engels talks of “the State.” The former implies a free federation of co-operatives, the latter a centralised structure which the co-operatives are squeezed into and under. The former is socialist, the latter is state capitalist. From Engels argument, it is obvious that the stress is on state ownership and management rather than self-management. This confusion became a source of tragedy during the Russian Revolution when the workers, like their comrades during the Commune, started to form a federation of factory committees while the Bolsheviks squeezed these bodies into a system of state control which was designed to marginalise them.
Moreover, the aims of the Paris workers were at odds with the vision of the Communist Manifesto and in line with anarchism – most obviously Proudhon’s demands for workers associations to replace wage labour and what he called, in his Principle of Federation, an “agro-industrial federation.” Thus the Commune’s idea of co-operative production was a clear expression of what Proudhon explicitly called “industrial democracy,” a “reorganisation of industry, under the jurisdiction of all those who compose it.” [quoted by K. Steven Vincent, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and the Rise of French Republican Socialism, p. 225] Thus, while Engels (in part) echoes Proudhon’s ideas, he does not go fully towards a self-managed system of co-operation and co-ordination based on the workers’ own organisations. Significantly, Bakunin and later anarchists simply developed these ideas to their logical conclusion.
Marx, to his credit, supported these libertarian visions when applied in practice by the Paris workers during the Commune and promptly revised his ideas. This fact has been obscured somewhat by Engels historical revisionism in this matter. In his 1891 introduction to Marx’s “The Civil War in France”, Engels painted a picture of Proudhon being opposed to association (except for large-scale industry) and stressed that “to combine all these associations in one great union” was “the direct opposite of the Proudhon doctrine” and so “the Commune was the grave of the Proudhon doctrine.” [Selected Works, p. 256] However, as noted, this is nonsense. The forming of workers’ associations and their federation was a key aspect of Proudhon’s ideas and so the Communards were obviously acting in his spirit. Given that the Communist Manifesto stressed state ownership and failed to mention co-operatives at all, the claim that the Commune acted in its spirit seems a tad optimistic. He also argued that the “economic measures” of the Commune were driven not by “principles” but by “simple, practical needs.” This meant that “the confiscation of shut-down factories and workshops and handing them over to workers’ associations” were “not at all in accordance with the spirit of Proudhonism but certainly in accordance with the spirit of German scientific socialism”! This seems unlikely, given Proudhon’s well known and long-standing advocacy of co-operatives as well as Marx’s comment in 1866 that in France the workers (“particularly those of Paris”!) “are strongly attached, without knowing it [!], to the old rubbish” and that the “Parisian gentlemen had their heads full of the emptiest Proudhonist phrases.” [Marx, Engels, Lenin, Anarchism and Anarcho-Syndicalism, p. 92, p. 46 and p. 45]
What did this “old rubbish” consist of? Well, in 1869 the delegate of the Parisian Construction Workers’ Trade Union argued that “[a]ssociation of the different corporations [labour unions/associations] on the basis of town or country . . . leads to the commune of the future . . . Government is replaced by the assembled councils of the trade bodies, and by a committee of their respective delegates.” In addition, “a local grouping which allows the workers in the same area to liase on a day to day basis” and “a linking up of the various localities, fields, regions, etc.” (i.e. international trade or industrial union federations) would ensure that “labour organises for present and future by doing away with wage slavery.” This “mode of organisation leads to the labour representation of the future.” [No Gods, No Masters, vol. 1, p. 184]
To state the obvious, this had clear links with both Proudhon’s ideas and what the Commune did in practice. Rather than being the “grave” of Proudhon’s ideas on workers’ associations, the Commune saw their birth, i.e. their application. Rather than the Parisian workers becoming Marxists without knowing it, Marx had become a follower of Proudhon! The idea of socialism being based on a federation of workers’ associations was not buried with the Paris Commune. It was integrated into all forms of social anarchism (including communist-anarchism and anarcho-syndicalism) and recreated every time there is a social revolution.
In ending we must note that anarchists are well aware that individual workplaces could pursue aims at odds with the rest of society (to use Engels expression, their “particular interests”). This is often termed “localism.” Anarchists, however, argue that the mainstream Marxist solution is worse than the problem. By placing self-managed workplaces under state control (or ownership) they become subject to even worse “particular interests,” namely those of the state bureaucracy who will use their power to further their own interests. In contrast, anarchists advocate federations of self-managed workplaces to solve this problem. This is because the problem of “localism” and any other problems faced by a social revolution will be solved in the interests of the working class only if working class people solve them themselves. For this to happen it requires working class people to manage their own affairs directly and that implies self-managed organising from the bottom up (i.e. anarchism) rather than delegating power to a minority at the top, to a “revolutionary” party or state. This applies economically, socially and politically. As Bakunin argued, the “revolution should not only be made for the people’s sake; it should also be made by the people.” [No Gods, No Masters, vol. 1, p. 141]