(DIARIST'S NOTE: This diary was originally written in the 1990's as part of a book manuscript. But it remains as relevant today as it was back then.)
The longest-running and, perhaps, the most bitter debate within the radical leftist movement has been that between the Marxists and the anarchists. In the early history of the radical labor movement, anarchism and its variants were the single greatest competitor to Marxian socialism and, in Spain, Italy and France, anarchism and anarcho-syndicalism rose to domination over the Marxist “workers’ parties”. The two most famous proponents, Karl Marx and Mikhail Bakunin, carried on an interminable series of ideological debates that, while they often devolved into petty personal attacks and bureaucratic intrigues, were never resolved, and which still find their modern echo in current ideological debate within the radical Left (it was a fundamental feature of the Occupy Movement): do radical movements work best when they are centralized and directed from the top, or do they work best when they are decentralized and run from the bottom?
The conflict between the Marxists and the anarchists centers around the role of authority and centralized control, particularly as it applies to the institution of the state. In the traditional Marxian view, the capitalist republic is a mere tool of the ruling class, and is used by the capitalists to safeguard their position of economic and social privilege. Marx writes that the modern state is “nothing more than the form of organization which the bourgeoisie necessarily adopt for the mutual guarantee of their property and interests.”
Since the political state is the tool of the ruling class, Marx concluded, the way to overthrow the capitalists was to organize the working class and take over the state machinery, denying its use to the bourgeoisie and converting the state into an instrument of worker control over the economy. “We want the abolition of classes,” Engels writes. “How can this be achieved? By the political domination of the proletariat.” Marx echoes, “The conquest of political power is the first task of the proletariat.” In an address to the Communist League in 1850, Marx declared that the revolutionary movement must strive towards “the most decisive centralization of power in the hands of the state authority.”
Marx, as a revolutionary, firmly believed that, in most cases, the working class would never be able to capture the state except through violent rebellion. However, he always held out the possibility that the state could be captured through electoral politics in some countries, and was a tireless fighter for universal suffrage, concluding that the working class might be able to win at the ballot box if it could not win in the streets. “We do not deny,” he told a gathering of Dutch radicals, “that there are countries such as America, England, and I would add Holland if I knew your institutions better, where the working people may achieve their goal by peaceful means.” In any case, Marx concluded, the goal of the proletariat was, using whatever method was practical, to capture the machinery of government and turn it against the capitalists, placing it in the hands of a working-class dominated state.
Once the capitalist state was captured, the working class would be able to use this position of power to dismantle the old capitalist economic structures and install a new communist system in its place. Marx referred to this period of transition as “the dictatorship of the proletariat”:
Between capitalist and communist society lies a period of revolutionary transformation from one form to the other. There is a corresponding period of transition in the political sphere, and in this period the state can only take the form of a revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.To the anarchists, this was complete heresy. In contrast to Marx, who argued that the domination of the state by the capitalists was a direct result of their economic domination of the working class, Mikhail Bakunin, a Russian radical, countered that it was the political domination of the bourgeoisie, through its state apparatus, that enabled it to exert economic control. Instead of wresting control of the state from the bourgeoisie and using it to dismantle capitalist economics, as Marx proposed, Bakunin advocated dismantling the entire state apparatus, and thus remove the bourgeoisie’s ability to use coercion and authority to dominate economic relationships. “We believe,” Bakunin countered, “that the policy of the proletariat, necessarily revolutionary, should have the destruction of the state for its immediate and only goal.”
Bakunin bitterly attacked the Marxian program of state control of the economy (under the domination of the working class), arguing that such an authority structure would, even if formed with the best of intentions, inevitably lead to a new form of economic domination. In a prescient passage, Bakunin predicted:
The leaders of the Communist Party, namely Mr. Marx and his followers, will proceed to liberate humanity in their own way. They will concentrate the reins of government in a strong hand . . . under the direct command of state engineers, who will constitute a new privileged scientific and political class.To Bakunin, the existence of any state, even a “proletarian” one, was intolerable: “The trouble lies not in any particular form of government, but in the very existence of government itself.”
The conflict between the Marxists and the Bakuninists began to boil over in 1864, when Bakunin, while visiting Marx in Paris, was invited to join Marx’s International Workingmen’s Association (the First International). Bakunin viewed the International as a small, poorly organized group, and instead formed his own organization, the Alliance of Revolutionary Socialists. While the International continued to advocate worker control of government as the first step towards communism, Bakunin’s Alliance followed an anarchist program of opposition to all state power.
In 1867, Bakunin became a member of the Central Committee of the Pacifist League for Peace and Freedom, and tried to take over the group by packing it with Alliance supporters. The attempt failed just as the militant strikes of 1867-1868 broke out. Bakunin turned to the International.
The first tiff to occur between Marx and Bakunin concerned the affiliation of the Alliance of Revolutionary Socialists with the International. Bakunin wanted the entire Alliance to be admitted as a bloc, but Marx and the International, fearing another takeover attempt, instead demanded that the Alliance dissolve itself and join the International’s various national sections. Reluctantly, Bakunin agreed to this.
Instead of disbanding, however, the Alliance continued to function as a caucus, and began to take steps to dominate the International and change it over to a Bakuninist program. First, Bakunin attempted to pack the International’s Central Council with his supporters. When he discovered that he would not be able to obtain a majority on the Council, he then argued for its disbandment, and concentrated his efforts on winning over the various national sections. In 1872, Bakunin was formally expelled from the International on the grounds that he had not disbanded the Alliance of Revolutionary Socialists as he had agreed.
Much of the debate between Marx and Bakunin centered around such pedantic nonsense as the definition of “authority”, or whether political actions by the workers should be avoided because it legitimizes the state. Much of the argument degenerated into petty name-calling and bureaucratic intrigue—Bakunin referred to Marx as “vain, perfidious and cunning”, described Engels as “adept at calumny, lying and intrigue”, and accused both of them of “boasting in theory and cowardice in practice”. Marx, for his part, referred to Bakunin as a “nonentity as a theoretician”, ridiculed his “papal authority”, and labeled his anarchist outlooks “petty bourgeois”. On several occasions, Marx repeated some old rumors that Bakunin was a Tsarist agent who had been sent to disrupt the radical movement.
Amidst all the invective, however, some important points managed to be raised and discussed. Bakunin pointed out that, in nearly every country, the industrial working class was far outnumbered by the peasantry and the agrarian workers. He vehemently rejected Marx’s claim that the industrial working class had to be the agents of communist revolution, and instead argued that revolution could come only from the countryside.
Marx, in turn, pointed out that Bakunin had not resolved the question of precisely how any organization, much less the loose, anti-authoritarian one proposed by the anarchists, could ever bring about a revolution. As a part of his revolutionary program, Bakunin had written:
The constructive tasks of the social revolution, the new forms of social life, can emerge only from the living experience of the grass- roots organizations which will themselves build the new society according to their manifold needs and desires.Noble sentiments, Marx admitted, but, he asked, how was a loose organization going to defeat the highly centralized and militarized capitalist state?
Bakunin himself grappled repeatedly with this question, and never fully answered it. The only solution he ever reached was, in light of his professed libertarianism, surprising:
For revolution to triumph over reaction, the unity of revolutionary thought and action must have an organ in the midst of the popular anarchy which will be the way of life and source of all the energy of the revolution. . . Our aim is the creation of a powerful but always invisible revolutionary association which will prepare and direct the revolution.
Ten, twenty, or thirty men, with a clear understanding and good organization, knowing what they want and where they are going, can easily carry with them a hundred, two hundred, three hundred or even more.Bakunin’s proposal for a small revolutionary elite that would direct the revolution sounds suspiciously like Lenin’s argument for the “vanguard party” which would carry out the revolution in behalf of the workers. Despite all of his libertarian and anti-authoritarian talk, in the end Bakunin was unable to move beyond the notion that the revolutionary elite would make the revolution, with the masses or without them.
The Paris Commune
The question was first put to a practical test in 1870, when the city of Paris rose in revolt and established the Paris Commune. Both Marx and Bakunin studied the Commune intently, and both were heavily influenced by it.
In 1871, the working class of Paris succeeded in creating a revolutionary government that held power for a short time before being brutally and bloodily suppressed. And the very first act it carried out, much to Marx’s surprise, was to abandon the old governmental apparatus and build an entirely new political system. Marx writes:
From the outset, the Commune was compelled to recognize that the working class, once come to power, could not manage with the old state machine; that in order not to lose again its only just-conquered supremacy, the working class must, on the one hand, do away with all the old repressive machinery, previously used against itself, and on the other hand, safeguard itself against its own deputies and officials by declaring them all, without exception, subject to recall at any moment.Engels viewed the Commune as a “shattering of the former state power and its replacement by a new and really democratic state”, and concluded that it was “no longer a state in the proper sense of the word.” Bakunin, elated, viewed the Commune as a confirmation of his anti-state outlooks, and declared the Commune to be “a bold, clearly-formulated negation of the state”.
Not all governmental functions, however, disappeared under the Commune. There was still a need for such things as record-keeping and the enforcement of common criminal laws. These functions were, however, stripped of their political and class functions. Marx writes admiringly:
While the merely repressive organs of the old governmental power were to be amputated, its legitimate functions were to be wrested from an authority usurping pre-eminence over society itself, and restored to the responsible agents of society.
Against the transformation of the state and the agents of the state from the servants of society into the masters of society—an inevitable transformation in all previous states—the Commune made use of two infallible expedients. In the first place, it filled all posts—administrative, judicial and educational—by election on the basis of universal suffrage of all concerned, with the right of these same electors to recall their delegates at any time. And in the second place, all officials, high or low, were paid only the wages received by other workers.The Commune was an important event for Marx and Engels. Until 1871, they had assumed that the working class would be able to seize the existing institutions of the bourgeois republic and use them as the basis for a socialist government after the revolution.
The Commune, however, completely changed Marx’s thinking on this point, and made such a profound impact on him that he added an amendment to the Communist Manifesto on the matter. Marx also wrote an entire manuscript on the Commune, entitled The Civil War in France. The Commune was, he concluded, “the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economic emancipation of labor.”
Apparently, the Commune didn’t influence Engels as much as it did Marx. After Marx’s death, Engels went back to his criticisms of anarchism and instead advocated capturing the state through the election of a social democratic party.
The anarchist movement, meanwhile, began to turn away from organization and towards individual actions which defied the authority of the state, including the assassination of political figures. The motto of this movement of “propaganda of the deed” was put most succinctly by the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin: “Anything suits us that is alien to legality”. For the most part, these individual actions accomplished nothing more than killing a few government officials and landing many anarchists in jail.
Within a few years, Kropotkin realized that the anarchist assassins were merely isolating themselves from the working class and accomplishing nothing. It was an “illusion”, he concluded, to believe that “one can defeat the coalition of exploiters with a few pounds of explosives”. Instead, Kropotkin now argued, “One must be with the people, who no longer want isolated acts, but want men of action inside their ranks.” The individualist “propaganda of the deed” began to fade away, to be replaced by the collective anarchists or “anarcho-communists”. In Europe, the most militant of the collective anarchists were the council communists.
The Council Communists
The framework of the worker’s council was born in the turbulent upheavals in Europe between 1917 and 1920. In the wake of the Russian Revolution in 1917, a wave of radicalism swept over Europe. In February 1919, the Italian Federation of Metal Workers (FIOM) won a contractual right to form “Internal Commissions” of worker delegates in the factories. The militant metal workers then used a series of strikes and shutdowns to turn the Commissions into de facto managers, with the workers themselves running the plant through their elected representatives. Within a period of two years, the industrial workers of Turin and Genoa had seized a number of factories and paralyzed the authorities with a general strike.
In Germany, at the same time, the German Communist Party (KPD) split away from the German Communist Workers Party (KAPD) and began advocating Rate Kommunismus, or “council communism”. The KPD allied itself with a similar group in Holland, centered around the Dutch astronomer Anton Pannekoek. Pannekoek praised the worker’s councils, saying:
The goal of the working class is liberation from exploitation. This goal is not reached and cannot be reached by a new directing and governing class substituting itself for the bourgeoisie. It is only realized by the workers themselves being master over production.In Germany, the government tottered on the brink of collapse, as strikes and worker uprisings came within a hair’s breadth of seizing power. In Hungary, the government actually fell, and a “Soviet Government” held power for a short time. In all of these militant movements,the instrument of organization was the worker’s council, an elected body of workers from each plant who organized and carried out the rebellions. In many ways, the worker’s councils echoed the organizational structures of the Paris Commune.
The council communists realized that the power of the bourgeoisie could not be broken as long as they controlled the state apparatus. However, they also realized that the workers would have to develop their own organizational methods to carry out the process of economic production and re-distribution. The Social Democrats, echoing Marx and Engels, still advocated capturing the existing state through electoral campaigns and then legislating for government ownership of industries—their definition of “socialism”.
This strategy was attacked by the council communists. “‘Statifying’ companies,” Pannekoek declared, “is not socialism; socialism is the power of the proletariat.” The Italian council communist Antonio Gramsci wrote that the worker’s councils were “organs suited to future communist management of both the individual factory and the whole society”.
Similar ideas were being tried in Russia. In 1917, the Russians had deposed the Tsar and the Provisional Government by organizing into soviets (from the Russian word for “council”). Throughout the new Soviet Union, anarchist and syndicalist workers were deposing their bosses and running the industries themselves, through elected worker Soviets. In Georgia, the anarchist Nestor Makhno set up a government of elected councils over a huge area.
The European council communists at first praised Lenin’s Bolsheviks and their Soviet form of government, believing it to be based on the direct democratic control of the workplace by worker’s councils. The Dutch communist Hermann Gorter pronounced, “This supple and flexible organism is the world’s first socialist regime.” The Italian anarchist Camillo Berneri declared the Soviets to be “the most practical experiment in integral democracy on the largest scale yet attempted.”
Lenin’s centralized Bolsheviks, however, did not tolerate the libertarian syndicalists for very long. Within a few years, it had become apparent that the Bolsheviks would carry the old Marxian dictum of “dictatorship of the proletariat” to its extreme. Rather than allowing the factories to continue to be run by elected worker’s councils, Lenin deposed the Soviets and centralized all political and economic control in the hands of his central state. Lenin turned the entire state apparatus to the single-minded goal of expanding industrial output, and regimented the working class for this task far more ruthlessly than the capitalists ever could have. Lenin declared:
A condition for economic revival is the raising of the working people’s discipline, their skills, their effectiveness, the intensity of labor and its better organization. . . We must raise the question of piecework and apply and test it in practice; we must raise the question of applying much of what is scientific and progressive in the Taylor system.In an incredibly frank assessment, Lenin declared that communism consisted of “nothing but state capitalist monopoly made to benefit the whole people. . . For a certain time, the workers’ state cannot be other than a bourgeois state without the bourgeoisie.” To the anarchists and the council communists, Lenin’s intentions were brutally clear; workplace democracy would have to wait. In the meantime, get back to work.
Word began to filter back to Europe about the Bolshevik brand of “democratic centralism”. In 1920, when Otto Rühle toured the Soviet Union as a delegate to the Second Congress of the Communist International, he reported that the Soviets were mere tools of the ruling Bolshevik Party, and were “not councils in a revolutionary sense”. Instead, he pointed out, the Leninists were ruling through “bureaucracy, the deadly enemy of the council system.”
The Italian anarchist Malatesta condemned the Bolsheviks as a “new government which has set itself up above the Revolution in order to bridle it and subject it to the purposes of a particular party.” Pannekoek wrote:
If the most important element of the revolution consists in the masses taking their own affairs—the management of society and production—in hand themselves, then any form of organization which does not permit control and direction by the masses themselves is counter-revolutionary and harmful.When the Bolsheviks, through the Third International, began to mold the other Communist Parties to their own image, the council movement responded with calls for internal democracy and rank-and-file control of the Party. Antonio Gramsci, from his prison cell in Italy, criticized the Italian Communists, calling for “a greater intervention of the proletarian elements in the life of the party and a diminution of the powers of the bureaucracy.”
Hermann Gorter bluntly declared, “The Russian tactics of dictatorship by party and leadership cannot possibly be correct here.” Berneri labeled the Leninists as “a new state, inevitably centralized and authoritarian”. Lenin responded to all of these criticisms with a work entitled Left-Wing Communism; An Infantile Disorder, which attacked Pannekoek and the council communists as “anarchist” and “undisciplined”.
In 1921, when the sailors at the Kronstadt Fortress mutinied and workers in Petrograd struck in an attempt to overthrow the Bolsheviks and re-institute the Soviets and direct worker control, the council communists cheered them on. Alexander Berkman declared, “Kronstadt blew sky high the myth of the proletarian state; it proved that the dictatorship of the Communist Party and the Revolution were really incompatible.” “Now that the proletariat has risen up against you, the communist party,” Gorter wrote, “now that you have had to declare a state of emergency in Petrograd against the proletariat . . . has the thought still not occurred to you, even now, that dictatorship by the proletariat is really preferable to dictatorship by the party?” Gorter bitterly concluded:
Your real fault, which neither we nor history can forgive, is to have foisted a counter-revolutionary program and tactics upon the world proletariat, and to have rejected the really revolutionary ones which could have saved us.The protests of the council movement were in vain, however. The Bolsheviks succeeded in imposing a program of “21 Points” upon the Communist International parties, which effectively reduced them to instruments of Stalin’s Central Committee. The “left-wing” council communists were expelled from the party, and most went into exile and obscurity. The ruling Bolsheviks removed the last vestiges of the Soviet government, crushed rank-and-file rebellions led by the Kronstadt sailors and by the Ukrainian councilist Makhno, and expelled and purged the councilist “Worker’s Opposition” within the Communist Government. By 1925, the council communist movement had all but ceased to exist.
Marxism, Leninism, and Syndicalism
Modern anarchists and syndicalists have applied the same criticisms to the Leninist reliance on state control as Bakunin had applied to Marx. The Spanish anarchist Angel Pestana bluntly concluded, “The revolution is not, and cannot be, the work of a party. The most a party can do is foment a coup d’etat. But a coup d’etat is not a revolution.” Eco-anarchist Murray Bookchin echoed:
The party is structured along hierarchical lines that reflect the very society it professes to oppose. Despite its theoretical pretensions, it is a bourgeois organism, a miniature state, with an apparatus and a cadre whose function is to seize power, not dissolve power.Anarchists point with alarm at the hierarchical structure of the Leninist parties, and at the rampant thought control and repression that permeates Leninist states. Bakunin, we might conclude, may have exaggerated the authoritarian aspect of Marx’s strategy, but his fears came completely to life in Leninism.
It is not correct to say, however, that the authoritarian and repressive aspects of Leninism resulted solely from its Marxian theoretical base. There are pressing economic reasons why the Leninist state was inexorably drawn into rigid centralized control. In every instance, Leninist parties came to power in nations with underdeveloped economies, and the first task of the Leninist state had to be to develop an industrial base as rapidly as possible. This could only have been done by a central state authority that monopolized all economic resources, and that rigorously planned their development to produce the swiftest growth possible. In a very real sense, it was the lack of economic resources, rather than any political or ideological causes, that compelled the Leninists to resort to central state authority.
The conflict between the Marxists and the Bakuninists can be seen, then, at its most basic level, to center around the problem of economic scarcity. The assumed “scarcity of resources” lies at the very heart of capitalism. If there are not enough economic resources to go around, some method must be found to decide who gets access to them and who must go without. Under capitalism, ownership of property decides this—wealthy people have unlimited access to resources, while poor people have severely limited access.
To be successful, socialism must have at its disposal sufficient economic resources to insure that every member of society can be provided for, and this can only take place in an economy where productivity and economic ability are extremely high. Marx, however, was writing at a time when the productive forces of capitalism were just beginning to develop, and no one could be sure how quickly or how far this productive capacity would be able to expand. Marx was able to see the potentially rapid expansion of resources under capitalism, but he never saw the actual immense productive ability which developed under monopoly corporatism.
Marx, based on the studies he made at the time, expected that capitalism would never be able to fully develop its productive abilities on its own. This was not because he doubted capitalism’s capacity to continually expand its economic resources, but because he believed he was witnessing the contradictions and stresses that would soon tear capitalism apart. Until the end of his life, Marx expected that the socialist revolution would come very soon, and thus remove capitalism before it had a chance to fully develop its productive forces on its own.
Since, he assumed, capitalism would die before it was able to produce an economy of super-abundance, Marx expected that it would fall upon the socialist revolution to accomplish this task. After the revolution, Marx thought, the working class would have to carry out this task of expanding productive ability on its own. It would also have to carry out the process of fully integrating political and economic functions into one administrative apparatus, and developing these various structures into the communist mode of production.
This process of economic development, if it was to be done under the guidance of the working class, had to be accomplished through economic planning, and this necessitated a central authority which controlled and allocated all economic resources. This socialist system, Marx concluded, would have to remain until the planning apparatus was able to accomplish its task and produce the highly developed productive forces which were necessary for a communist system. Marx thus argued in favor of a period of “socialism”—a government of the proletariat—which would carry out the process of economic expansion before dying off and allowing “communism” to take over.
After the Paris Commune, Marx decided that the old bourgeois state apparatus was not suitable for the working class’s purposes, and that the workers would have to introduce their own transitional governmental structure; one which would be able to take control of the nation’s economic resources and expand them to the necessary levels.
Marx’s conflict with Bakunin centered around the structure of this “dictatorship of the proletariat”. In essence, Marx wanted to use a working class government to develop the productive forces which would be left by capitalism until they were strong enough for the super-abundance necessary for communist economic relationships. Bakunin, on the other hand, wanted to develop productive forces using independent communes, not a central planning apparatus administered by a socialist state.
The Leninists, who took power in a country that was economically weak and undeveloped, found the Marxian idea of the central “proletarian state” to be perfectly suited for their need for rapid industrialization. They were thus able to use Marxist phraseology to justify their centrally-planned industrialization program, which developed high productive levels in the economy, but did it in the class interests of the bureaucrats rather than the working class.
In retrospect, we can see that Marx was wrong, as modern capitalist development has made much of his reasoning irrelevant. Today, capitalism itself has already developed extraordinarily high levels of productivity, and has increased economic capacity far beyond anything which Marx could have imagined.
Given the incredible output that could result from the full utilization of our current productive capacity, it seems possible for an industrialized society to produce all of its needs while utilizing only a fraction of its present work force. Farming and food production has already undergone such an explosion of productivity under capitalism. While, under feudalism, nearly every member of society was engaged in producing food, under capitalism the impact of machinery has produced a society where more than enough food can be produced using only 5% of the population.
Similarly, manufacturing ability has expanded to the point where most people simply do not need to produce anything. The rise in employment in such non-manufacturing areas as service, advertising, sales and entertainment makes it clear that it is no longer necessary for a majority of the population to work in order to produce the economic necessities of life. In addition, the capitalist trend towards greater use of computer and robot technology introduces a means of reducing the working population still further, by replacing the human worker with machinery, automation and robot factories.
The Leninists and their modern apologists are still rooted in the past. By advocating a society of “full employment”, they demonstrate that they, too, are still caught in the illusions of scarcity. Instead of fighting for full employment, revolutionaries can begin to fight for a leisure society of full un-employment, without sacrificing any of our material standard of living.
There is, then, no need anymore to postulate a “socialist” state which replaces the capitalist state with a “dictatorship of the proletariat”. It is not necessary to plan for a rapid expansion of productive ability after the revolution, because modern monopoly corporate capitalism has already produced it, and has already brought about the development of an economy of super-abundance.
Today, the tasks of a socialist revolution consist of replacing bourgeois institutions and structures with social-ist ones, with new relationships of social hegemony that can carry on communist production and distribution from the start. The social relationships which carry out these tasks must be rooted in the institutions which were used by the working class to carry out the revolution; in other words, the revolutionary bodies must be capable of serving as the nucleus of the communist system.
In this manner, Marxism and anarcho-syndicalism can both be seen to be merely differing approaches to solving the same problem—that of building and running a social-ist society.