Review: A Critique of State Socialism

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In science, the validity of a theory is generally proven by its predictive abilities. A theory suggests certain outcomes and if those predictions come to be then it becomes accepted as valid. Strangely, while proclaiming itself "scientific socialism" (something, like so much else, appropriated from Proudhon), Marxists refuse to apply that criteria to the socialist movement.

Wisely, for Marxism has simply proven Bakunin’s analysis of it correct. Against Marx, he argued, firstly, that socialists standing for election would produce reformism, not revolution, and, secondly, that the "dictatorship of the proletariat" would be simply a dictatorship over the proletariat. Both came to pass.

If the left were actually scientific, Marxism would be dead and those few left would be viewed like creationists or, at best, defenders of Lamarckism. Sadly, though, Marxists eschew Marx’s materialism and scientific pretensions in favour of confirming his passing remark that history repeats itself, first time as tragedy and second time as farce. So we find Marxists continuing to advocate participation in elections and the so-called workers’ state as if the last 150-odd years have never happened. A truly farcical situation.

So while Marxists ignore it, the awkward fact is that Bakunin was right. This makes A Critique of State Socialism is a very welcome reprint, albeit an extremely expensive one. Originally published by Cienfuegos Press in 1981, I fondly remember getting the B Books 1986 reprint when I just became an anarchist in 1988. It combines extracts from Bakunin’s critique of Marx and other state socialists with wonderfully witty illustrations by Richard Warren. Joe King provides an excellent short introduction to Bakunin’s life and ideas.

Do not be put-off by the extremely dated cover (the New Labour Party and SDP being stooges of a Soviet invasion of a revolutionary Britain which Thatcher had fled in 1984!) this comic is a masterpiece of relevant political polemic. Bakunin’s analysis of socialism, both libertarian and authoritarian, is combined with wonderful cartoons by Warren Richards and appropriate actual quotes from the likes of Marx, Engels and Lenin to illustrate Bakunin’s arguments. Bakunin’s words, it should be noted, come from different sources – 1867’s Federalism, Socialism and Anti-Theologism (on the history of socialism) and 1873’s Statism and Anarchy (on Marxism). Humour is well used to underline the serious points being made.

It starts with Bakunin sketching the origins of socialism, starting with French Revolution, then moves onto the conspiracies of Baboeuf and Blanqui ("So where are the masses?" "Maybe we kept the conspiracy too secret...?") before passing through the (highly regulated) visions of utopians like Fourier and Saint-Simon ("Fancy sneaking out to the pub tonight?" asks one bored member of a Fourierist perfect community). This account is short and the bulk of the book, rightly, deals with Marx and Lenin.

There is such a wealth of material it is difficult to summarise. Warren’s pictures (14) showing the differences between peaceful socialists ("we’ll have to do it bit by bit. so you may not notice it to begin with..."), revolutionary state socialists ("of course, we’’ll have to give the orders for a while...") and anarchists ("Admittedly, it might take a long time for this to happen...’) is my personal favourite. This is closely followed by his skilful summary (21) of how easy it could be for Lenin to rationalise centralisation of power from the proclaimed dictatorship of the workers and peasants, via the party, to his own (and, sadly, it does echo actual Bolshevik rationales). It would also be remiss not to mention Warren’s contrast (23) between Lenin in 1917 and after, utilising his actual quotes (along with the suggestion that Lenin got his 1917 visions from Bakunin and Kropotkin!).

However, pointing out just one page amidst so many wonderful ones is hard – as can be seen. Ironically, given the devastating nature of this critique it could be argued that Warren gives the Trotskyists an easy time of it. He concentrates on Lenin, so there is no quoting of Trotsky’s arguments for party dictatorship. Given that these span two decades and were expressed before, during and after the rise of Stalin this is a rich source of embarrassing quotes Warren could have utilised – and libertarians really should be aware of! Similarly, Trotsky’s classic Terrorism and Communism is also good for quotes but is not used here.

As well as critique, the libertarian alternative is also presented. Proudhon covered in two pages (10-1) although I have to object to Proudhon's mutualism being described as having "the individual, not the collective, as the basic social unit" (Bakunin is quoted, correctly, stating that "Proudhon’s socialism was based upon individual and collective freedom"). Makhno and his struggle against white and red dictatorship gets 3 pages (30-2), followed by one on Kronstadt. (33). The Spanish Revolution, plus the Communist’s counter-revolutionary role, gets 3 pages (36-7 and 45) and it sums up the CNT’s mistake well ("We didn’t seize political power. But neither did we destroy it!!"). Zapata in Mexico (44), Hungary 56 and other revolts against Stalinism (46-7) rightfully get mentions.

Of course, as with any short critique, much is left out. For example, it does not mention directly that Bakunin recognised the necessity of organising a federated militia to defend a revolution but the account of the Makhnovists should indicate this to anybody with basic common sense. Similarly, while Bakunin is quoted speculating that the peasantry might be "subjected" to a "new domination" by the proletariat when it is "the ruling class" (33) it helps immensely to know that when Bakunin wrote this in 1873 the proletariat was very much the minority of the working classes in Western Europe (as it was in 1917 in Russia). So to call for, as Marx did, for a "dictatorship of the proletariat" was to argue for rule by a minority, not the majority.

Moreover, this quote does distract slightly from the real focus and power of Bakunin’s critique, namely that even the proletariat would be ruled by a few party leaders under this statist regime – because of the nature of state structures. As Joe King summarises, "Bakunin understood that government is the means by which a minority rules" based on "the concentration of authority in a few hands." The state and to be abolished to "place power in the hands of the masses through their own federation of voluntary organisations." As Bakunin argued, the so-called workers’ state would be "a ridiculous contradiction" as the state "will always be an institution of domination and exploitation" of the many by the few. (27) When "the whole people govern" then "there can be no State" (36-7) and so anarchists urge "the free organisation of the working masses from below upwards." (46)

Needless to say, the die-hard Leninist will not let this excellent little book dent his faith. Much muttering while be voiced on how Warren ignores the "objective circumstances" facing the Bolsheviks – civil war, economic collapse, isolation and so forth. Ironically, this Leninist fixation on "objective circumstances" results in a strange irony – downplaying the importance of Leninist ideology. Logically, this determinism means that the ideas of the leading Bolsheviks (i.e., the people making the decisions) made no impact on the revolution. A strange position to take, to proclaim that you should become a Leninist while also maintaining that your ideology was irrelevant during an apparently "successful" revolution (as if Bolshevik imposition of party dictatorship and state capitalism can be considered a success by non-ideologues!). Still, such contradiction is hardly rare – they also maintain that civil war and economic disruption caused the degeneration of Leninism while Lenin himself proclaimed both were inevitable aspects of a revolution!

Worse, the awkward fact is that Bolshevik authoritarianism started before the outbreak of the civil war. The Bolsheviks were producing executives above the soviets, creating the Cheka, gerrymandering and disbanding soviets, imposing one-man management, repressing strikes and opposition socialists/anarchists, etc. long before revolt of the Czechoslovak Legion in late May 1918. Moreover, Bolshevik ideology and vision of socialism as centralised state-planning made the economic crisis worse and destroyed the socialistic tendencies that existed (by, for example, preferring Tsarist state-capitalist economic structures over the factory committees). And so on. In short, ideas matter – particularly the ideology of the ruling elite as this will impact on the decisions made and structures favoured.

The notion that Bolshevik ideology and the centralised top-down structures their ideology preferred had no impact of the development of the revolution simply cannot be maintained once you know the facts. Admittedly, all this would be hard to squeeze into comic format – it is hard enough to summarise in text form (see section H of An Anarchist FAQ for details). Suffice to say, this book gives you a taster to the subject matter – and does so in a memorable and extremely enjoyable manner.

Finally, this does not mean we reject everything Marx wrote – Bakunin was, after all, very complementary about Marx’s critique of capitalism. It just means that Marx got more wrong than right and that libertarians, not limited by calling our ideas after a dead-guy with a beard, are in a position to appreciate this and incorporate his better ideas in our theories. Just as we do with the likes of Proudhon, Bakunin and Kropotkin. We are also better placed to appreciate the contributions of others to the socialist project and see when Marx appropriated their ideas into his own (usually, as with Proudhon, without mentioning the source – but that is another issue).

So, all in all, a classic polemic which every anarchist should have in order to give to any new recruit to or disillusioned member of a Leninist Party – although it is so good you may not get it back again! The only negative against it is its price – £12 seems excessive for the size of the book. However, if you can afford it then please buy it (alternatively, it would make an excellent present to give or receive!) as you will not be disappointed.

A Critique of State Socialism

Michael Bakunin and Richard Warren

Christie Books

£12

Comments

Question: Why does everyone hate the Trotskyists so much?

Over time, I have tended to notice an extreme antipathy on the radical left towards anyone who expresses any opinion of Trotsky that is not universally negative. People seem to get more angry about Trotskyists than crusty Stalinists turning up to demonstrations. Why is this? as with everything, there are problems with Trotskyism of all sorts, and I would be the first to admit it (myself, I'm a libertarian-democratic socialist who takes analysis and practice from all across the socialist/anarchist spectrum). But I mean, c'mon, they're not reformists- they're not nationalists- they are in favour of working class self emancipation and self management- for the social revolution- for an international solution-anti-fascist fighters- most are not stupid enough (excluding the wacko Sparts) to worship Trotsky like a god, put him beyond criticism, or to run around like fools still trying to justify Kronsdadt- they've broadened themselves, and even been willing to dissolve themselves to form part of a unified group or alliance (such as the French New Anticapitalist Party). And they've put up some downright heroic resistance to horrific forces across the world- probably the most brave and one of the most powerful were the Vietnamese Trotskyists- who managed to oppose colonialism, capitalism, and Stalinism at the same time, while fighting for a revolutionary democratic socialist alternative- and were eventually crushed by all three forces. This is well documented in the book by Ngo Van, called: Revolutionaries They Could Not Break- the fight for the fourth international in Indochina 1930-1945. Read that and still talk about them as if they were just the same as Stalinists (which so many 'holier than thou' radicals seem to think of them)- the Stalinists were actually quite convinced they were Trotskyite fascists. Or that they are authoritarian utopians, as the insipid liberals choose to describe them. At least show these brave comrades some respect for their struggle.

Trotsky's Original Theorectical Contributions

I would say the best of Trotsky's legacy is probably in his concepts of permanent revolution and combined and uneven development- absolutely essential, I think, for all radicals today attempting to understand the nature of development, and how to succesfully propose a systemic alternative on a world scale, let alone actually create one. Michael Lowy's book 'Politics of Combined and Uneven development' probably best explains the concepts. After that, his anti-fascist writings and strategies have a lot to offer us today. His writings on art and literature are pretty kick ass. Probably the most uniquely different and seperate in topics from the rest of his writings is collected in the volume 'Problems of Everyday Life' directed towards life in Revolutionary/post revolutionary Russia.

Against Utopianism

Also, Anarcho, I should thank you for attempting to popularise the notion that anarchism or some kind of libertarian socialism, and those who fight for it or think it worthwhile or attainable, are somehow deluded utopians. This vile calumny, popularised by all sorts of reactionaries and pseudo-democratic liberal and leftist reformists, has done huge damage to realising a democratic, emancipatory, and libertarian mass movement. Its probably the argument I most come up against when I meet average people or talk to friends. Apparently, we can send people to the moon and travel the stars, turn men into women and women into men, but the idea of social ownership, proven in both theory and practice as a practical and realisable form, is crazily utopian- let alone advocating an increase in healthcare or welfare spending. Or 'from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs' which has also been realised on different levels many times before, not as an oppressive social norm, but as perhaps the most democratic and libertarian, harmonising both self-interest and a basic collective responsibility that defends social freedoms- i.e. housing, shelter, education, etc, by definition simply an extension of individual freedom to all, a free union of a freely associating humanity- and a relatively more equal, democratic, libertarian and cooperative societies have been proven to produce better outcomes for human beings- see the book The Spirit Level. So the question remains- What is To be Done? If we don't start becoming hugely influentual soon, humanity is literally fucked. Conservative, liberal, and social democratic approaches seem entirely incapable of dealing with severe existential threats, and I would say they are the most solipsistic utopians of all. And the Far Right is gaining almost everywhere. How do we stop this? Also, check out my blog http://theredstartwinklesmischievously.wordpress.com/ A place of irrelevant wisdom, hilarious nonsense and revolutionary reflections.

On Economics

to the guy talking about market socialism- yes, the model he proposes has a lot of good to it, but I think its ultimate result would be, at best, left social democracy, and end in another failed reformist route. Though that would be a welcome development over what we have today. Personally, I think the case for decentralised planning is much stronger, more democratic and libertarian. Democracy and Economic Planning, by Pat Devine, which Anarcho has reviewed, presents probably the best case for planning. A vision which, largely, seems acceptable to both socialists and anarchists, as it could work within a stateless context, and is intended to facilitate/produce that. I think anarcho communists are probably the tendency on the anarchist left to most consistently (and I think correctly) advocate for a decentralised planned economy. If anyone here can point me in the direction of an anarchist book that makes the case for/discusses a democratically planned decentralised economy that could complement Devine's on my bookshelf, let me know.

Alternatives

I don't propose Schweickart's market socialism as the end point of human economic development - just a very good overview of what could be achieved as a relatively moderate revolutionary tendency. I think it is far superior to "free market" capitalism, social democractic capitalism and state central planning.

Anarchists would defend the Western public health systems on the basis that the current alternative is far worse (US private health care). Likewise, while market socialism isn't the be all and end all, it represents something realistic that can be advocated.

Perceptions and history

Of course, it would have been perfectly acceptable to use quotes from Terrorism and Communism, and even actions on the part of Trotsky, to point to conclusions about Marxist authoritarianism. And anyone who ignores that is not seeking to have a real debate or grapple with some very serious questions of the upmost importance. But... I would agree with you if revolutionary socialists groups today regularly sought to justify the actions and conclusions elucidated in Terrorism and Communism. But they don't. In fact, Alex Callinicos of the SWP called it an awful book. Wouldn't it be just as unfair to dismiss anarchism on the part of terrorist and insurrectionist tendencies? Of course it wouldn't. That's not a slight against better anarchist tendencies- like anarcho-syndicalism or anarcho-communism. Even if these better tendencies take analysis from insurrectionists, or even take something from their political practice, that does not immediately disqualify them as authoritarian groups, nor are they neccesarily tainted by their engagement with them. Same thing for socialist organisations who take analysis or some sort of political practice from some controversial figures. It does not mean when anarcho communists 'take power' they will run around smashing things and rounding up the bourgeoise to be shot, because they might have some insurrectionist influences guiding their actions. I'm sure you'll correct me if I'm wrong here, but I'm quite certain that some anarchists have also justified the use of terror and revolutionary violence. So, that puts some anarchists in the same category as the Bolsheviks. Or groups like the Red Army Faction and the Red Brigades, who came into being despite the fact that plenty of well known and influentual Marxists argued against individual terrorism. So that's one part where they didn't stick to their own supposedly Marxist theories. Also, I always raise this question in debates on the Russian question. Thomas Jefferson was a slaveowner all throughout his life, got pretty close to advocating racial genocide against the Native Americans, and played a role in the expansion of a colonial settler state. And presided over a 'democracy' where only men with property qualifications got the vote. Did he contributed to ideas about freedom and justice? Absolutely. Does that absolve him for his crimes? of course not, but that doesn't mean we can't learn something from him. Most people don't think he was a rabid authoritarian because he pretty much advocated genocide, though that should stain his record far more than it does. But Trotsky, well, he was a totalitarian from beginning to end, and there are absolutely zero redeeming features about anything he ever did or said. Let alone a much better figure like Victor Serge. If we are to condemn these people entirely to the historical trash can and never look at them again, then we must do the same for Jefferson.

learning from the past, not repeating it

But... I would agree with you if revolutionary socialists groups today regularly sought to justify the actions and conclusions elucidated in Terrorism and Communism. But they don't. In fact, Alex Callinicos of the SWP called it an awful book.

And they turn round and rationalise and justify the Bolshevik dictatorship. In short, we can expect them to repeat the same decisions because they share the same ideology. If the likes of the SWP did not do this then there would be little point in discussing the Bolsheviks -- but they continue to suggest that the Bolsheviks were defeated only by "exceptional circumstances"

Wouldn't it be just as unfair to dismiss anarchism on the part of terrorist and insurrectionist tendencies? Of course it wouldn't.

And the SWP do, of course, do that -- while systematically lying about the likes of Bakunin and Kropotkin. Suffice to say, the SWP place themselves squarely in the Bolshevik tradition and simply refuse to question it.

Same thing for socialist organisations who take analysis or some sort of political practice from some controversial figures.

Except, of course, they rationalise the activities of the Bolsheviks, refuse to link practice to politics.

I'm sure you'll correct me if I'm wrong here, but I'm quite certain that some anarchists have also justified the use of terror and revolutionary violence. So, that puts some anarchists in the same category as the Bolsheviks.

Revolutionary violence is hardly the same as party dictatorship and a clear policy of state terrorism.

Or groups like the Red Army Faction and the Red Brigades, who came into being despite the fact that plenty of well known and influentual Marxists argued against individual terrorism. So that's one part where they didn't stick to their own supposedly Marxist theories.

Anarchists, though, do not tend to point to these groups when discussing Marxism. Marxists generally point to "propaganda by deed" and forget that Kropotkin favoured revolutionary unionism, for example.

Also, I always raise this question in debates on the Russian question. Thomas Jefferson ... Did he contributed to ideas about freedom and justice? Absolutely. Does that absolve him for his crimes? of course not, but that doesn't mean we can't learn something from him.

And what can we learn from the Bolsheviks? Other than what NOT to do? Is it the need for the vanguard party? No thanks. The identification of workers power with party power? No thanks? The book Left-wing communism? Again, no. His notions on imperialism? Confused and incorrect. How to have a successful revolution? Well, no -- that was NOT a successful revolution (unless one-party rule and state-capitalism counts as success!).

But Trotsky, well, he was a totalitarian from beginning to end, and there are absolutely zero redeeming features about anything he ever did or said.

Now that IS unfair -- his early critique of Lenin is of interest.

Let alone a much better figure like Victor Serge.

Serge? An elitist individual anarchist who became an elitist Bolshevik? Yes, his positions of the mid-late 1930s are of interest but they are weak compared to those who he attacked in the 1920s for drawing more radical conclusions. For more details, see Red Emma and the Reds.

If we are to condemn these people entirely to the historical trash can and never look at them again, then we must do the same for Jefferson.

Personally, I don't really quote Jefferson very much. Thinkers came later who transcended the ideas he advocated. In terms of the Bolsheviks, thinkers were around at the time who pointed to their errors -- thinkers like Bakunin predicted the weaknesses of key aspects of Marxist ideas. Why move backwards in terms of theory?

Asking, We Walk

Yes, If you've got a link to Trotsky's early critique of Lenin I'd like to see it. Despite myself, whatever it is, I'm attracted to his writings, and even some of his arguments- yes, I know all the problems and severe issues there, I've read them on the AFAQ (which I must congratulate you on for how exhaustive the research is). But still, I thought the Transitional Program had some good ideas there, with some extremely democratic demands, and a coherent approach towards advancing the struggle. For example, when I read Wayne Price's Three Approaches to a Revolutionary Program, I thought he had synthesised a revolutionary anarchist perspective with insights from Revolutionary Marxism, esp the Transitional Program- which is unsurprising, given Wayne's background and his idea of himself as a Marxist-informed anarchist. I think that's constructive- but anarchists outside the platformist/libertarian communist tendency (especially the most close minded of them all, the primitivists) would call Wayne something ridiculous like a 'red fascist' for incorporating those insights. I do agree that the SWP and similar organisations have a pretty weak critique of anarchism- the only time they've made any pertinent points was the recent stuff they published in the debate in International Socialism. Speaking of Jefferson, Emma Goldman often liked to reach back into American history and quote from figures like Jefferson, Lincoln, etc, to show some kind of link between mainstream American ideas of liberty and her idea of anarchism- I think that's often a good approach to take to national figures, to extract from them what is worthwhile, while showing them up for their hypocrisy or failure to adhere to their own supposed values of liberty. And, speaking of revolutions- would you not say that key CNT leaders joining the bourgeois and Stalinist backed govenment in Spain, even in the horrific circumstances, was not 'contextually reasonable', with their actions both betraying the revolution and laying the path for the tank of fascism to roll over their skulls? Yes, the Spanish Revolution wasn't destroyed by party dictatorship or state terror- but I would say that action probably had almost the same brutal consequences in terms of human life and liberty as anything the Bolsheviks did, and I don't think we can just say Oops, it was just a mistake. I know many CNT members, Friends of Durruti, etc, were opposed to this action, but it happened nonetheless. And I would be the last person to put down the achievements of the CNT, which did so much, and I certainly wouldn't be complaining if CNT-like mass formations were a strong presence in my country and around the world. Of course Bakunin made some pertinent criticisms of Marxism (though sometimes I think he went a little overboard because of personal rivalries with Marx) and that's important to take on board. I've always been of the opinion that anarchists are the best critics of socialists, and socialists of anarchists- because of the fundamentally similar aspirations and goals. For example, anarchist criticisms of, say, the Bolsheviks ring true to me because they are also socialists, and saw that approach as fatally undermining the socialist revolution, as compared to conservative criticism, which is hostile to socialism altogether. I'd like to be able to find a copy of the program of the Left SR's if possible- I hear there were pretty good on the agrarian question, and had some interesting proposals which would have deepened the revolution and extended self-determination and self-management in a socialist framework. Actually, I'd like to see anarchists organisations doing what the Ortho Trots over at the IMT have done recently with Marxist classics- that is, compile anarchists classics into a single book, not too big, not too small, and at a cheap price (6 pounds in this case, see their bookshop Wellred Online Bookshop ) Now really is the best time to be mass distributing that kind of radical literature. People have began to wake up to the fact that they are the 99%- we need to get these radical left ideas being discussed, debated, and taken seriously as an approach to resolve the systemic issues which confront us.

Good call

As Anarcho has pointed out, two of the three major strands of left-wing politics/economics have failed: Marxism and social democracy, though the latter is much preferrable to the former.

Given the 100% failure rate of Marxist states (I'd like to know what a successful one is like), it is pointless for the left to continue down this road. Even if a population is agreeable to Marxism, and even if the dictatorship is somehow benevelent to the public, returning to the central planning model is a sure recipe for disaster. Have Marxists not learned anything from the last century? As most socialists tend to be Marxists, it is no wonder the left has lost a lot of influence and power in the last several decades.

Perhaps if Marxists were less dogmatic and placed much greater emphasis on market socialism (mixed-mode economy with government combined with worker-run and owned competitive markets), they could be more relevent, like David Schweickart. But I wouldn't pin my hopes on this happening any time soon.

Anarchist societies could have gained prominance if the two most promising experiments weren't crushed by Marxists during the 20th century, Spain and Russia.

Given that social democracy always degenerates into reformism, it appears that libertarian socialism is the only path available to the left that may yet produce something valuable.

Something I found funny:

...the City of Westminster police's "counter terrorist focus desk" called for anti-anarchist whistleblowers stating: "Anarchism is a political philosophy which considers the state undesirable, unnecessary, and harmful, and instead promotes a stateless society, or anarchy. Any information relating to anarchists should be reported to your local police."

http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/jul/31/westminster-police-anarchist-wh...

Philip

And?

I commented on twitter, about my reaction to this post to wit: "You know, for a group that has yet to realize its own model of communism, whatever the warts, you might be less cocksure." I am still waiting for this bottom up vision of socialism where no political action is necessary.

Jehu
on Twitter @ReThePeople

Simply confirming my point...

You know, for a group that has yet to realize its own model of communism, whatever the warts, you might be less cocksure.

You mean Marxists? Where have they realised their model of communism? They have created various party-dictatorship state-capitalist regimes but those were not the free, democratic, socialist regimes promised by the theory... So in terms of be "less cocksure", I think that applies to Marxists....

I am still waiting for this bottom up vision of socialism where no political action is necessary.

Perhaps because most socialists believed in Marxism and organised in a top-down way using political action? As the last 150 years have shown, this does not work -- but sadly Marxists seem to want to keep doing it, presumably in the hope that this time it will be different....

I know that anarchism has not been created (although there have been various close tries). I also know that Marxism has been tried. Social Democracy became as reformist as we predicted. Leninism became the dictatorship over the proletariat as we predicted. Still, let us not dwell on those awkward facts...

In short, this comment just confirms the point of my review.... Perhaps if socialists looked at the actual consequences of Marxism they would be more willing to try another approach? A theory which accurately predicted the failings of Marxism would be, surely, the first place to look?

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