Anti-Capitalism or State Capitalism?

These are exciting but dangerous times. On the one hand, a vigorous new movement seems to be emerging which combines politics with a sense of imagination, one which is often explicitly anti-capitalist. On the other, the forces of reaction appear to be making in roads across Europe. Capitalism in its most naked form, neo-liberalism, is rampant [This was originally written in 2001, how times have changed!]

In such times, it is understandable that many say we must "unite" against them and so any criticism of each other's politics is "sectarian." Anarchists feel that such arguments are wrong (strangely, some who stress this need for "unity" have also criticised the politics and activities of other activists, often dishonestly1). To bury our differences in such a manner simply leads to mindless activism, action without understanding and, ultimately, the weakening of the struggle for freedom and equality. We argue that we need to learn the lessons of history in order not to repeat the same mistakes again.

Ironically, it is usually those who stress the role of their own party as the "memory of the working class," who talk the loudest about the "need for theory" and the "need to study history" who are also at the forefront of urging such "unity." This is not surprising, as it is precisely those parties (the would-be Bolsheviks) who have most to hide and most to lose if their forefather's ideas and activities be unearthed and explained by those with a coherent and libertarian alternative.

Many people are creating their own alternatives, many more are looking for one. Our leaflet is a contribution to that process. Some may dismiss our leaflet as irrelevant or sectarian. That is their loss. Hopefully, it will help create a movement which, by understanding and rejecting the failures of the past, can build a positive, constructive and truly anti-capitalist movement which can change the world for the better.

New Movements, Old Ideologies

When the anti-capitalist movement appeared, the old left was taken aback. London's J18 "Carnival Against Capitalism" saw the traditional "revolutionary" parties almost completely absent. In America, the Seattle demos likewise caught the various "vanguards" unprepared. Since then, they have sought to catch up. As with almost every revolution or mass struggle, we should note.

Are they aiming to join with this movement in order to learn from it, to contribute to its development as equals? No, far from it. Looking at the Socialist Workers Party, for example, we discover a somewhat different perspective. Chris Bamberry, a leading member, puts their aim clearly enough: "The test for the SWP will be how it shapes and directs the anti-capitalist movement." Another, Julie Waterson, knows precisely what they want out of it: "A cadre of Bolsheviks."

Given that the SWP and the various other "revolutionary" parties seek to recreate the Bolshevik experience, the questions obviously arise: what is Bolshevism and is it anti-capitalist? To answer that, we need to understand what capitalism is and then discuss what the leaders of Bolshevism aimed to create.

What is Capitalism?

For some, capitalism is "the market" or "private property." This perspective is flawed. As anarchists have long argued, capitalism is defined by a specific social relationship, that of wage labour. Capitalism is marked by a mass of people who do not own their own means of production and, therefore, "the worker sells his person and his liberty for a given time" and so "concluded for a term only and reserving to the worker the right to quit his employer, this contract constitutes a sort of voluntary and transitory serfdom."2 For this reason anarchists have called capitalism "wage slavery."

The employment contract must create a relationship of command and obedience between employer and worker. When the worker allegedly sells her labour power, she in fact sells command over the use of her body and herself. Workers are paid to obey. This means that wage slavery is not a consequence of exploitation, exploitation results from the worker's subordination. The capitalist is the master, he determines how the labour of the worker will be used and so can engage in exploitation. This explains why the anarchist Proudhon argued in What is Property? that it was "theft" and "despotism."

Capitalism, therefore, is marked by wage labour. If the means of production are managed by some group other than the direct producers then we have capitalism, regardless of who owns them. Unless the relations of production are revolutionised, the means of production can change hands (passing, for example, from private to state hands) without fundamentally changing the nature of society. Whatever the formal status of property, capitalism will still exist if workers are separated from the means of production and do not manage them directly.

Socialism or State Capitalism?

So what did the Bolsheviks aim to create in Russia? Lenin was clear, state capitalism. He argued this before and after the Bolsheviks seized power. For example, in 1917, he argued that "given a really revolutionary-democratic state, state-monopoly capitalism inevitably and unavoidably implies a step, and more than one step, towards socialism!" He stressed that "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."3

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, 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 capital

ists," 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."4

Once in power, Lenin implemented this vision of socialism being built upon the institutions created by monopoly capitalism. This was not gone accidentally or because no alternative existed. As one historian notes: "On three occasions in the first months of Soviet power, the [factory] committees leaders sought to bring their model [of workers' self-management of the economy] into being. At each point the party leadership overruled them. The Bolshevik alternative was to vest both managerial and control powers in organs of the state which were subordinate to the central authorities, and formed by them."5

Rather than base socialist reconstruction on working class self-organisation from below, the Bolsheviks started "to build, from the top, its 'unified administration'" based on central bodies created by the Tsarist government in 1915 and 1916.6 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." 7

Workers' Control or Controlled Workers?

It will be argued that Lenin advocated "workers' control." This is true, but a "workers' control" of a very limited nature. 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." In other words, "over the capitalists" who would still manage production. Over time, this would "to the second step towards socialism, i.e. to pass on to workers' regulation of production."8

This is not all, this "workers' control" was always placed in a statist context. 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." 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.'"9Thus "workers' control" would be exercised not by workers' organisations but rather by state capitalist institutions.

Once in power, the Bolsheviks implemented their version of workers' control and attacked other interpretations: "Accusations of 'anarcho-syndicalism' have always come in Russia from anti-worker, right-wing elements," one railroad committee spokesman put it, "how very strange that representatives of Bolshevik power now join in similar denunciations."10 The factory committees were hindered in their attempts to federate together and finally merged with the trade unions, bringing them under state control.

Lenin soon turned away from this limited vision of workers' control and raised the idea of "one-man management." This involved granting state appointed "individual executives dictatorial powers (or 'unlimited' powers)." Large-scale industry ("the foundation of socialism") 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" are 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."11

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."12 Techniques designed and used by management to break the collective power of workers at the point of production were now considered somehow "neutral" when imposed by the Party.

The Civil War

It will be objected that we have not discussed the Civil War, which erupted in late May 1918 and exhausted an already weakened society. For most modern day supporters of Bolshevism, this event is used to justify and rationalise Bolshevik practice. And we agree. We have not discussed it, for the good reason that the policies we have documented are from before it started. It is difficult to blame an event which had not yet begun for the state capitalist policies applied by the Bolsheviks.

The start of the civil war merely accelerated these policies. With "workers' control" of capitalists a failure and pressure and opposition from the workers rising, the Bolsheviks nationalised large-scale industry as a defence against both classes. But the vision of socialism based on "one-man" management continued, with Trotsky noting that "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."13 Indeed, "the apogee of the War Communism economy occurred after the Civil War was effectively over" because "in early 1920 the Communist Party leadership was no longer distracted by [it] from concentrating its thoughts and efforts on the formulation and implementation of its labour policies."14 By the end of that year, nearly 90% of factories were under one-man management.

Trotsky also discussed his ideas on "the organisation of labour" in the "new society." This was based on the "militarisation of labour" under "one-man management," treating "the population of the whole country as the reservoir of the necessary labour power" and with the unions role to "discipline the workers and teach them to place the needs of production above their own needs and demands." This was "correct from the point of view of both principle and of practice" to overcome "economic difficulties."15 With full party leadership backing, he applied his ideas on the railway workers in September 1920. His top-down rule helped to cause the disastrous collapse of the railway network in the winter of 1920-1. Faced with increasing working class protest, the party leadership dissociated itself with the "militarisation of labour" in November, 1920.

Big is Beautiful

In summary, the Bolshevik tradition is based on utilising the organisational structures of capitalism and making them bigger and more centralised rather than creating alternative, socialist, ones. It would use the same management techniques (such as Taylorism) and management structures (such as "one-man management"). The only difference is the means of production and any profit generated will be owned by the state. This, as anarchists argued, was no difference at all:

"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."16

While most in the anti-capitalist movement are inspired by a vision of a non-capitalist, decentralised, diverse society based on appropriate technology and appropriate scale, Bolshevism is not. Rather, it sees the problem with capitalism is that its institutions are not centralised and big enough. Hence Lenin: "All 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."17 Given that Engels had argued against the anarchists 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 aspect. 18 As anarchist Alexander Berkman correctly argued in 1927:

"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."19

That Bolshevism 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 can attain tremendous proportions, as economic science teaches us."20 Yes, capitalist economic science, based on capitalist definitions of efficiency and economy! 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.

An alternative vision

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 Bolshevism. 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 listed by his followers as evils of Stalinism and as proof of its anti-socialist nature. Clearly, Bolshevik policies had a decisive impact on how the revolution developed.

However, there is another vision of socialism. This alternative vision existed in Russia at the time, a vision which the Bolsheviks had to crush by state action.This vision has anarchism as its leading proponent.

Aspects of this vision were being created during the Russian Revolution. While Lenin was arguing for "workers' control," across Russia workers had created factory committees, federated them together, organised conferences and raised the idea of workers' self-management of production and started to implement it. In the Ukraine, the Makhnovist anarchist insurgents fought for free soviets and workers' and peasant self-management against both White and Red dictatorship. Unfortunately, Lenin's state capitalism prevailed, undermining the factory committees, crushing the anarchists and betraying the Makhnovists.

At the dawn of the 21st century, let us ensure history does not repeat itself. This means rejecting the state capitalism of Bolshevism in favour of a real anti-capitalism, one rooted in working class struggle, self-organisation, solidarity, direct action and self-liberation. One which does not aim to replace the old boss with a new one.


1 See, for example, the leaflet "The SWP's very peculiar anarchism" in reply to Pat Stack's article "Anarchy in the UK?" in Socialist Review available at
2 Bakunin, The Political Philosophy of Bakunin, p. 187
3 Lenin, Selected Works, Vol. 2, p. 211
4 Ibid., p. 365 and p. 369
5 Thomas F. Remington, Building Socialism in Bolshevik Russia, p. 38
6 Maurice Brinton, The Bolsheviks and Workers' Control, p. 36
7Lenin, Selected Works, Vol. 2, p. 365
8 Ibid., pp. 364-5 and p. 366
9 Ibid., p. 112, p. 367 and p. 599
10 quoted, Daniel H. Kaiser (ed.), The Workers' Revolution in Russia, 1917 , pp. 116-7
11 Lenin, Op. Cit., p. 610, p. 611, p. 612
12 Ibid., pp. 602-3
13 quoted by M. Brinton, Op. Cit., pp. 66-7
14 J. Aves, Workers Against Lenin, p. 17
15 quoted by M. Brinton, Op. Cit., p. 66
16 Peter Arshinov, History of the Makhnovist Movement, p. 71
17 Lenin, Ibid., p. 312
18 Marx-Engels Reader, p. 731
19 The ABC of Anarchism, pp. 80-1
20 Lenin, Op. Cit., p. 200


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