Yet another SWP numpty on anarchism (part 3)

In part 1 of this series, I discussed how Blackledge’s claims on how Marx embraced new forms of democracy ignored the awkward fact that anarchists had done so years before Marx did in 1871. In part 2, I discussed the ambiguities of democracy and the relation of anarchism and Marxism to it. Now, in part 3, I will be discussing Marxism and the state plus the related issue of Social Democracy and its links to Marxism.

First, however, I should mention my new article “Proudhon: Neither Washington nor Richmond.” This aims to show that Proudhon’s views on race (like so many) have been systematically distorted by the likes of Schapiro and Draper and that his opposition to slavery was bound up with his opposition to wage-labour. So rather than support the South (as Draper and Schapiro claimed), his position was that the North and South were fighting over the form of exploitation and the North did not seek to emancipate the slaves but, rather, to turn them into wage-slaves. The Union could only be saved by genuine emancipation – full civil rights to Blacks and abolition of both slavery and the proletariat.

This does not mean Proudhon’s position cannot be critiqued, simply that most people are not aware of what he actually argued during the American Civil War. Thanks to Ian Harvey’s kindness in translating a key chapter from The Federative Principle, we now know. And, of course, his position – like that of Marx and Engels – reflected the times he was part of although in terms of his position of racial equality he was far in advance of Lincoln (as the article shows). I should also thank Alex Prichard for his constructive comments on my article (I should also note I am reading his book Justice, Order and Anarchy: The International Political Theory of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and will be reviewing it shortly. Suffice to say, it is heavy going but very good. He knows his subject and the book will help ensure Proudhon is better understood and taken more seriously. Full disclosure, it says nice things about my Proudhon anthology Property is Theft!!)

I’ve been thinking of doing a reply to Schapiro and Draper for some time (in the original, far too long, introduction to Property is Theft! I did, incompletely). However, been far too busy. However, as is often the case I saw a very bad article in the American Socialist Worker webpage and penned this letter:

“Dear Socialist Worker

“Regarding “The Poverty of Proudhon’s Anarchism”, Proudhon never ‘openly’ advocated the ‘stridently anti-Semitic views’ quoted. These words were written in his private notebooks and unknown until the 1960s. So while despicable, they never made ‘Proudhon popular’ as they were never ‘openly popularised’ (or repeated). To fail to mention these relevant facts distorts Proudhon’s ideas and influence. It also fails to mention how Marx’s book utilised selective quoting and false attribution. As my anthology Property is Theft! shows, Proudhon was right to proclaim it ‘a tissue of vulgarity, of calumny, of falsification and of plagiarism.’ There is far more to Proudhon than this article or The Poverty of Philosophy would suggest.

“Marx was right on Proudhon’s reformism and opposition to strikes, but he was wrong to push the labour movement towards electioneering. Social Democracy showed that Proudhon was right: the state ‘finds itself inevitably enchained to capital and directed against the proletariat’ and so workers had to form ‘an agricultural and industrial combination’ to wage ‘a war of labour against capital’. He failed to recognise that the labour movement was the means of achieving this, unlike later anarchists such as Bakunin, Kropotkin, Parsons and Goldman who correctly argued we had to apply anarchist ideas within the unions to achieve social revolution.

“Yours sincerely

“Iain McKay

Unsurprisingly enough, while I used their “reply” button they did not decide to publish it on their webpage. This, I am afraid, shows the level of honest debate you can expect from most of the Leninist Left. As for historical accuracy, well, The Poverty of Philosophy sunk without trace after it was published and so to say it “won only a small handful of followers for Marx and Engels” is being generous. At best, it is far to say that Louis Blanc seemed to have liked it (mostly because of Proudhon being a rival and a clear critic of his state socialism) and so a few of his followers may have read it, however Proudhon’s influence in the French working class continued to grow and it was his followers who helped found the First International and give the Paris Commune its socialist and federalist aspects (as praised by Marx a mere 23 years after Proudhon raised them during the 1848 revolution).

Anyways, please read the article. You may find out some things about Proudhon which may make you question your assumptions about him (assuming you have not been following my work in this area!) – not to mention discovering some dodgy positions by Marx and Engels which, unsurprisingly, Marxists are generally not keen to discuss these days. Personally, I don’t think these frankly silly (but disturbing) comments by Marx and Engels equate to dismissing all they wrote (I don’t see why we should apply the flawed criteria of Leninists on Proudhon and Bakunin to them). I do, however, think they should be better known so that anarchists can use them if they get into silly “my dead thinker is cooler than yours” kind-of articles which the Leninist Left seem so keen to pass-off as “debates.”

Simply put, Proudhon like Marx and Engels was a man of his time and, as such, his arguments often reflect that. The question is whether these outdated and flawed aspects of their writings flow from the core of their ideas or not. Proudhon’s sexism and racism (the later, as shown by The Federative Principle, being no where near as bad as some claim) are in contradiction to the core of his ideas – as recognised by the likes of Bakunin, Kropotkin, etc. The same with the dodgy positions of Marx and Engels on a whole number of issues (some of which drove Lenin’s notion of imperialism as a new epoch so allowing him to ignore the numerous quotes of Marx and Engels on war with Russia which were repeated by the Social Democrats in 1914 to justify their siding with their ruling class).

However, back to Blackledge…

While Blackledge invokes the Paris Commune repeatedly, he fails to note two things. First, the awkward fact that it applied in practice ideas anarchists had been raising since 1848. Second, that it points to another key problem with Blackledge’s article – his attempts to distance Marxism from Social Democracy. This can be seen when he quotes (28) from the unpublished drafts of Marx’s The Civil War in France to bolster his case on the “anti-statist” nature of his ideology. This is significant as Bakunin, Kropotkin, etc. would not have access to these drafts yet Blackledge feels able to lambast them for not taking into account such works: how can you engage with a text which finally appears in public long after your death? Not that this particular text helps his case as these drafts also contain the following words:

“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.” (Collected Works 22: 533)

Note the word: transform. In 1884 Engels was asked what Marx meant by those very famous words from The Civil War in France (“the working class cannot simply lay hold of ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes”) on which Blackledge, like Lenin, hangs most of his case and replied:

“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, 47: 74)

It is interesting to compare Engels’ words (and Marx’s unpublished notes) to Marx’s famous work The 18th Brumaire of Louis-Napoleon and its final section which Marx references in relation to the Commune in 1871:

“Finally the parliamentary republic, in its struggle against the revolution, found itself compelled to strengthen the means and the centralization of governmental power with repressive measures. All revolutions perfected this machine instead of breaking it. The parties, which alternately contended for domination, regarded the possession of this huge state structure as the chief spoils of the victor.”

We see the same notion that the “state machinery” is fought over by the competing parties and that the task of the proletarian revolution is not to keep it intact. As such, there is a significant continuity in meaning although the words (breaking, transform, etc.) change – namely, that the state is captured and its bureaucracy is ended. The difference between Marxist (revolutionary) social democracy and reformist social democracy is that the latter simply regard “possession of this huge state structure” as the means of introducing socialism and so keep it tact. The former aimed to smash the bureaucracy and transform the state into a body which could be used by the working class (whether such a hierarchical body could achieve this goal is where anarchists differ – even a reformed state still empowers the few at the expense of the many and so we need to smash the state and replace it with a new form of social organisation).

And as a writer myself, I should note that this is the thing about drafts – they change and evolve, you express yourself in ways which you may not feel on later reflection should be expressed publicly. An initial draft is modified to express your ideas better and if it is not in the final version then it is a good bet that it does not genuinely reflect the author’s ideas accurately. This seems definitely to be the case with the quote Blackledge uses – it did not survive to the second draft. Given the links to previous and latter writings by Marx and Engels, the “transform” quote from the drafts is far more indicative of their politics than the one Blackledge utilises (see also this article by a member of the Marxist Socialist Party of Great Britain on this subject: Lenin v Marx on the State).

This can be seen from a letter written shortly before his death, in which Engels was even more explicit that a “republic, in relation to the proletariat, differs from a monarchy only in that it is the ready-made political form for the future rule of the proletariat. You [in France] have the advantage of us in that it is already in being; we, for our part, shall have to waste 24 hours creating it…” (Collected Works 50: 276)

Engels is clearly presenting a position Blackledge considers as non-Marxist, namely that the current state is captured and transformed/refashioned by the working class. Social Democracy, Blackledge thunders, “evolved on the basis of fudging this question” as “Marx and Engels insisted that socialism could only be won through a revolutionary ‘smashing’ of the old state.” (29) As can be seen, this is not the case. Indeed, Blackledge himself quotes Engels stating this quite clearly: “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.” (29) Sadly he truncates Engels sentence and chops off the words “as the Great French Revolution has already shown.” (Collected Works 27: 227) In other words, in 1892 Engels repeated his comments from 1884 on how the existing state had to be captured and transformed.

Could Engels have meant something else? No. Even Lenin did not try to claim that by “the Great French Revolution” Engels meant the Paris Commune (unlike that numpty Hal Draper), particularly as Engels went 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.” He stressed that “the proletariat can only use the form of the one and indivisible republic” with “self-government” meaning “officials elected by universal suffrage.” (227-9)

Of course, it could be objected that Engels is being quoted here after Marx died and so he was no longer a Marxist (Blackledge cannot, as he makes no such suggestion). Sadly, in this he was repeating both his earlier comments from the late 1840s as well as Marx. Thus we find the latter stating a few months after the defeat of the Paris Commune 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 22: 602) In 1872, a year after the Paris Commune showed him the necessity of smashing the state, he reiterated this position:

“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 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.” (Collected Works 23: 255)

Given that Blackledge attacks us anarchists for lacking a historical perspective, it should be noted that to understand Marx and Engels we need to place their words in a historical context. Both had argued that the French state was not a genuine bourgeois state but was rather marked by a bureaucracy which it had inherited from the Absolutist regime. It was this bureaucracy which had to be got rid of and this can be seen from the actual words Marx used – “the ready-made state machinery” rather than “the ready-made state.”

Engels was quite clear when he argued in April 1883 that while he and Marx saw  “the gradual dissolution and ultimate disappearance” of the state 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 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.” (my emphasis, Collected Works 47: 10)

How can something which has been, allegedly, “smashed” also be “ready-made for use”?

Engels also stated in 1891 that the Paris Commune showed a “shattering of the former state power and its replacement by a new and really democratic one” yet Blackledge suggests that the Paris Commune refutes Bakunin’s “claim that Marx was a state socialist.” (27) It is significant that Engels talks of “shattering” the “former state power” and “its replacement by a new and really democratic one” – that, is a new “state power” rather than a new state. This is a significant, if subtle, difference as becomes clear when Engels continues:

“the state is nothing but a machine for the oppression of one class by another, and indeed in the democratic republic no less than in the monarchy; and at best an evil inherited by the proletariat after its victorious struggle for class supremacy, whose worst sides the proletariat, just like the Commune, cannot avoid having to lop off at the earliest possible moment, until such time as a new generation, reared in new and free social conditions, will be able to throw the entire lumber of the state on the scrap-heap.”

How can the proletariat inherit and “lop off” its “worst sides” if the state has been shattered and replaced by a new one? This can be seen when Blackledge proclaims the Paris Commune as “a novel form of government and indeed a novel form of state” (28) without noting Marx recorded it was “formed of the municipal councillors, chosen by universal [male] suffrage in the various wards of the town responsible and revocable at short terms.” (Collected Works 22: 331) In other words, it was the Paris municipal council with mandates and recall added to it and the executive and legislative functions fused – as Proudhon had advocated in 1848. So the state was not “smashed”, it was captured at the local (municipal) level and reformed.

So in terms of Social Democracy, any serious analysis would show that Marx and Engels help positions which later Marxists apparently consider as non-Marxist. Blackledge states that “this inability to grasp the novel social content of Marx’s anti-statism informs the tendency within anarchism to conflate Marxism and social democracy” (29) yet this ignores the awkward fact that Social Democracy was “Marxism” until 1914. Engels praised the movement, for example commenting when the anarchists were expelled from the Second International in 1891 that the “Congress proved a brilliant success for us... And, best of all, the anarchists have been shown the door, just as they were at the Hague Congress. The new, incomparably larger and avowedly Marxist International is beginning again at the precise spot where its predecessor ended.” (Collected Works 49: 238)

This places Blackledge’s comment that we “misunderstand both the break between the two towards the end of the nineteenth century, and conversely the profundity of Lenin’s renewal of Marxism at the beginning of the twenti­eth century” (29) into context. Engels seemed unaware of this “break” between Marxism and Social Democracy – perhaps it happened after his death? Then we are talking about the “revisionism” debates in which the left defended the revolutionary rhetoric but reformist practice of the party against those seeking to change the rhetoric to match the activity. As for “Lenin’s renewal of Marxism” does that refer to What is to be Done? (1902) or The State and Revolution (1917)?

Looking at the later, Lenin makes some strange comments in it much at odds with Blackledge’s account of Marxism:

 “We are not utopians, we do not ‘dream’ of dispensing at once with all administration, with all subordination. These anarchist dreams, based upon incomprehension of the tasks of the proletarian dictatorship, are totally alien to Marxism, and, as a matter of fact, serve only to postpone the socialist revolution until people are different. No, we want the socialist revolution with people as they are now, with people who cannot dispense with subordination, control, and ‘foremen and accountants’.

“The subordination, however, must be to the armed vanguard of all the exploited and working people, i.e., to the proletariat.” (The State and Revolution)

So socialist revolution “with people as they are”, a revolution which cannot wait “until people are different.” Apparently he did not get the memo that “human nature” is transformed by struggle (but, then, The German Ideology was published years after his death). But there are confusions here (along with distortions – since when did we anarchists want to dispense “with all administration”?). The “people” who are subject to “subordination” to “the armed vanguard… to the proletariat”? What about within the proletariat itself? Is he suggesting that all the proletariat will become the vanguard? That does not fit in with Lenin’s stress on the party being the vanguard and it significant that the party does not get mentioned much in that work. This is the closest Lenin gets to discussing the role of the party in that work:

“By educating the workers’ party, Marxism educates the vanguard of the proletariat, capable of assuming power and leading the whole people to socialism, of directing and organizing the new system, of being the teacher, the guide, the leader of all the working and exploited people in organizing their social life without the bourgeoisie and against the bourgeoisie.”

Does this not mean that the vanguard equals the party which assumed power and so subordinates “people as they are”? That implies a state power above the people. As Lenin clarified in 1921:

“the dictatorship of the proletariat cannot be exercised through an organisation embracing the whole of the class, because in all capitalist countries (and not only over here, in one of the most backward) the proletariat is still so divided, so degraded, and so corrupted in parts . . . that an organisation taking in the whole proletariat cannot directly exercise proletarian dictatorship. It can be exercised only by a vanguard . . . Such is the basic mechanism of the dictatorship of the proletariat, and the essentials of transition from capitalism to communism . . . for the dictatorship of the proletariat cannot be exercised by a mass proletarian organisation.” (Collected Works 32: 21)

Then there is this same argument from 1939 by Trotsky:

“But the masses are by no means identical: there are revolutionary masses, there are passive masses, there are reactionary masses. The very same masses are at different times inspired by different moods and objectives. It is just for this reason that a centralized organization of the vanguard is indispensable. Only a party, wielding the authority it has won, is capable of overcoming the vacillation of the masses themselves. To invest the mass with traits of sanctity and to reduce one’s program to amorphous “democracy”, is to dissolve oneself in the class as it is, to turn from a vanguard into a rearguard, and by this very thing, to renounce revolutionary tasks. On the other hand, if the dictatorship of the proletariat means anything at all, then it means that the vanguard of the class 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”, Their Morals and Ours, 59)

Remember, according to Blackledge Marx’s key insight was that revolution “would involve not merely the removal of an alien form of public power that stands over society but also its replacement by a public authority that is ‘re-absorbed’ into society.” (29) However, this is hard to square with these quotes by Lenin and Trotsky which both, by necessity, implies a “public power” separate from the people (“masses”; “the proletariat”) and, indeed, Trotsky admits as much (“the vanguard of the class is armed with the resources of the state”). Who determines what “the backward layers of the proletariat” are? Apparently it is “the vanguard of the class” but them we have an obvious problem – everyone, by definition, is “backward” in comparison to the “vanguard.” This holds within it the dictatorship of the party, a position Trotsky was not shy in holding when he was holding (and using!) “the resources of the state.”

As such, Blackledge is rather naïve to suggest that “rather than Michels proving the iron law of oligarchy to be of universal signifi­cance, he merely showed… that it applies to those modern parties which aim to win state power.” (29) It does have a wider application, as can be seen. Blackledge, of course, fails to note who urged workers to create political parties and take part in elections – to give you a clue, it wasn’t Bakunin!

Thus we find Engels arguing in 1887 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. (Collected Works 26: 435, 437) He argued similar things for the UK, where “democracy means the dominion of the working class… 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.” 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.” This was because “[i]n 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.” (Collected Works, 24: 405, 386)

There were two revolutionary situations during the early 1870s and in both cases the advice of Marx and Engels was, basically, “stay home and wait to vote.” Faced with popular discontent after the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian war, Marx recommended that they do not rise but “perform their duties as citizens” and “calmly and resolutely improve the opportunities of republican liberty.” Suffice to say, if the Parisian workers had followed Marx then the Paris Commune would not have happened. Engels gave much the same advice to the Spanish workers a few years later in the “Bakuninists at Work”, rejecting the General Strike in favour of taking “part in the elections” and standing candidates for Parliament in order “to attack the State in which they live and which oppresses them.” This fits into Social Democratic practice – and the debates within the Second International against the radicals who argued for the General Strike and other tactics habitually condemned as anarchist by the bureaucrats of the party and trade unions.

Indeed, Engels later stressed (in 1895) that the “Communist Manifesto had already proclaimed the winning of universal suffrage, of democracy, as one of the first and most important tasks of the militant proletariat” and that German Social Democracy had showed workers of all countries “how to make use of universal suffrage.” (Marx and Engels Reader, 484, 490, 565)

So while Blackledge is right to suggest that “despite its rhetoric, the German Social Democratic Party was a reformist organisation” (29) he ignores that was not originally so and that it followed the recommendations of Marx and Engels on “political action” and “political power.” While this may be convenient for his argument, it is not historically accurate. As such it is untenable to proclaim that Lenin’s “critique of Kautskyism opens a space for a powerful challenge to Michels’ attempt to deploy German social democracy as a proxy for Marxism.” (29) Moreover, this does smack of philosophical idealism – is Blackledge really arguing that the bureaucratisation of Social Democracy is down to the party not having the right (Marxist) ideas? When he argues that it was “because Marx’s project cannot be reduced to these terms that Michels’ critique misses its target” (29) you cannot help but conclude so. And best not mention Lenin’s famous pamphlet on the “renegade” Kautsky, in which Lenin did not condemn him for never having a Marxist ideology but for no longer having one.

Thus we get the explanation of the failure of social democracy and its (as predicted by anarchists) descent into reformism by the claim it was not really Marxist after all! Thus we anarchists “conflate Marxism and social democracy” and so “misunderstand the break between the two towards the end of the nineteenth century.” It was Lenin who produced the “renewal of Marxism at the beginning of the twentieth century” and his “great contributions to Marxism” was to “recognise that German Social Democracy’s reformism (statism) had its roots in this elision over the issue of state power.” (29)

This is revisionism of the worse kind. There was no “break” at the end of the nineteenth century but rather the debates over opportunism. One wing of Social Democracy (around Bernstein) wished the rhetoric of the party to reflect its reformist practices while another (around Karl Kautsky) wished to keep the revolutionary rhetoric but retain the practice and a small left-wing minority wished to embrace the direct action ideas associated with anarchism (mostly the general strike, renamed “mass strike” to avoid the other wing quoting Engels against them!) to combat the obvious reformism and bureaucratisation of the party and trade unions. Lenin, it should be noted, considered himself part of the same wing as Kautsky and regular invoked his ideas to bolster his own claims to orthodoxy.

Do not take my word for it, here is Trotsky: “Lenin considered Kautsky as his teacher and stressed this everywhere he could. In Lenin’s work of that period as well as for a number of years following, one does not find even a trace of criticism in principle directed against the trend of Bebel-Kautsky.” The “beginning of the twentieth” saw Lenin infamously invoke Kautsky in What is to be Done? (see section H.5 of AFAQ) while “in December, 1906, Lenin… was proudly pointing out… that the trend of Kautsky in Germany and the trend of bolshevism in Russia were – identical.” (“Hands off Rosa Luxemburg”, Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, 442, 443). It took until 1914 for Lenin to see what anarchists had since in the 1870s onwards – the failure of social democracy.

And all this adds a new level of Marxist defeat – after all, Stalin defeated Trotsky (apparently by far his intellectual better) while Bernstein was the victor against Luxemburg’s superior intellect and argument. Now, apparently, the Lassalleans defeated the Marxists back in the 1870s and 1880s and Social Democracy was not really Marxist after all.

So what does that mean? That Marxism has never really existed. Between 1874 and 1914, Social Democracy was “Marxism” – but according to Blackledge it was not Marxist. By 1924, Trotsky was fighting the bureaucracy so that suggests from 1924 to 1989 Stalinism was the dominant form of Marxism – but that is not Marxist either. So we are left with a 10 year period, 1914 to 1924, which can be classed as Marxist. Yet even here we have problems – from mid-1918 onwards, the Soviet regime was a party dictatorship based on a state capitalist economy. Does that mean that genuine Marxism relates to just one year mid-1917 to the early part of 1918? After that the Bolsheviks lost popular support and simply destroyed soviet democracy to remain in power – which raises the question of why the Bolsheviks rejected what Marxists like Blackledge claim as the core of Marxism? Could it be because they were in position of power and, as Bakunin and Proudhon stressed, started changing as a result?

But that will be discussed in a future instalment.

So unlike the anarchists none of the radical wing recognised the link between tactics used and the reformism that was growing in their party until the world war and the almost complete collapse of Social Democracy into support for their state made many rethink. Some, like the council communists, finally recognised the problems with parliamentarianism (and are usually labelled anarchists for it by Leninists!). The Bolsheviks, as good Social Democrats, insisted on “revolutionary” parliamentarianism and so showed that they had not learned the lessons of history – lessons which had confirmed the arguments of the likes of Bakunin and Kropotkin.

But enough of this, for those interested in more discussion can consult section H.3.10 of AFAQ. Suffice to say, Bakunin saw Marx and Engels destroy the International Working Men’s Association in order to impose the necessity of “political action” onto it. He was quite right to conclude Marx was a “state communist” and that he wished to use a state to introduce socialism. In this, Blackledge (in spite of all his bluster) agrees: “Marx was palpably correct: the Commune was a novel form of government and indeed a novel form of state.” (28) So why assert that Marx had an “anti-statist insistence that socialism could only come through the smashing of the old state”? So we have an “anti-statist” who argued for “a novel form of state”? And Blackledge complains that anarchists have an “inability to grasp the novel social content of Marx’s anti-statism”?!?!?! (29)

Blackledge seems to forget that he presents the Commune as a “novel form of state” in the very next sentence by asserting Marx “was able to square this perspective with his own anti-statist insistence that socialism could only come through the smashing of the old state on the basis of a deeper conception of the social.” (28) This is not “anti-statist” just “anti-THIS-statism”!

Blackledge of course smuggles in a distinction which allows his obvious contradiction to be ignored. Thus Marxism is “[f]ar from being a ‘statist’ project” as it “assumes the existing state must be ‘smashed’ and replaced by organs of workers’ power.” (31) Sadly, this is incoherent as he admits this is a new kind of state and so “statist” in the usual sense of the word – ignoring, as Blackledge does, that Marx and Engels repeated stated that the existing state could be captured and transformed (i.e., the state bureaucracy had to be “smashed” once the state itself was captured).

He also makes the common Marxist mistake of confusing self-defence against authority with authority itself. “Surely,” he proclaims echoing Engels’ nonsense (see section H.4.7 of AFAQ) this is “authoritarian in the sense that such an organisation must aim at suppressing the counter­revolution.” (31) Given this, perhaps it is unsurprising that Blackledge is keen to confuse the defence of the revolution with the “dictatorship of the proletariat” and quotes Black Flame author Lucien van der Walt (longer version here) as follows:

If (and I stress, only if) we concede such definitions, then we must argue that Bakunin, Kropotkin ... [and] the majority of the broad anarchist tra­dition were for the state - at least, that is, for the ‘workers’ state’ and for the ‘dictatorship’ of the proletariat”

Yet this is just repeating Malatesta’s comments when faced with the reality of the dictatorship of the Bolsheviks in Russia and so is hardly the case that “it is safe to say that this statement would be very contentious in anarchist circles”. Quite the reverse – this was never the source of anarchist opposition to Marxism. To quote Malatesta:

“But perhaps the truth is simply this: . . . [some] take the expression ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ to mean simply the revolutionary action of the workers in taking possession of the land and the instruments of labour, and trying to build a society and organise a way of life in which there will be no place for a class that exploits and oppresses the producers.

“Thus constructed, the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ would be the effective power of all workers trying to bring down capitalist society and would thus turn into Anarchy as soon as resistance from reactionaries would have ceased and no one can any longer seek to compel the masses by violence to obey and work for him. In which case, the discrepancy between us would be nothing more than a question of semantics. Dictatorship of the proletariat would signify the dictatorship of everyone, which is to say, it would be a dictatorship no longer, just as government by everybody is no longer a government in the authoritarian, historical and practical sense of the word.

“But the real supporters of ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ do not take that line, as they are making quite plain in Russia. Of course, the proletariat has a hand in this, just as the people has a part to play in democratic regimes, that is to say, to conceal the reality of things. In reality, what we have is the dictatorship of one party, or rather, of one party’s leaders: a genuine dictatorship, with its decrees, its penal sanctions, its henchmen and above all its armed forces, which are at present [1919] also deployed in the defence of the revolution against its external enemies, but which will tomorrow be used to impose the dictator’s will upon the workers, to apply a break on revolution, to consolidate the new interests in the process of emerging and protect a new privileged class against the masses.” (No Gods, No Masters 2: 38-9)

Hence the weakness of Blackledge’s attempt to suggest the notion that the workers’ state simply equates to the defence of the revolution by writing of how “the Commune organised itself as a military force or state” (28) and noting how Lucien van der Walt “argues that the revolution should be defended through workers’ own democratic organisations.” (28, 22) As if this were not Bakunin’s position! Or Kropotkin’s – to quote from the introduction to my new Kropotkin anthology Direct Struggle Against Capital:

‘So if “armed brigands attack a people, is not that same people, armed with good weapons, the surest rampart to oppose to the foreign aggressor?” Invaders can only “be repulsed by a popular rising alone.” [The Place of Anarchism in Socialistic Evolution: Address delivered in Paris (London: William Reeves, 1887), 10]

‘Kropotkin’s vision of revolution was based on the arming of the people: “the French people will seize the arms, and when the people of Paris is armed it acts. And its act will be the proclamation of the Commune.” [“Past and Future”, Freedom, April 1889] Freedom had to be defended and a “people who know how to organise the accumulation of wealth and its reproduction in the interest of the whole of society, no longer need to be governed. A people who will itself be the armed force of the country and who will know how to give to armed citizens the necessary cohesion and unity of action will no longer need to be commanded.” [Revolutionary Studies, 30. While not explicitly stating so, it is clear that Kropotkin had in mind the popular volunteer armies of the French Revolution which were based on “the system of the election of officers by the soldiers themselves.” This ensured the “reorganising” of the Republic’s “army on a democratic basis.” These “sans-culotte armies” needed “all the genius of the Revolution and all the youthful audacity of a people awakened from its long sleep, all the faith of the revolutionists in a future of equality, to persist, in the Titanic struggle which the sans-culottes had to carry on against the invaders and the traitors.” (The Great French Revolution, 380, 462).]’

This echoes Proudhon: “It is the right of the citizens to appoint the hierarchy of their military chiefs, the simple soldiers and national guards appointing the lower ranks of officers, the officers appointing their superiors… I have endeavoured to show how the People has to organise its military in such a way as to simultaneously guarantee its defence and its liberties.” (Property is Theft!, 443-4) So the idea of a self-managed militia to defend a free society is hardly alien to anarchism – in other words, this does not imply a state (see section H.2.1 of AFAQ for more discussion). And, I must note, it was Trotsky who abolished military democracy… in the spring of 1918, by decree (i.e., before the start of the civil war).

So, yes, if you mean that “the dictatorship of the proletariat” is simply a new form of social organisation and defence of it by the people armed then there could be a basis of agreement – however, the concept did not mean that. As such, we need to provide some historical context and iterate that the core debates were centred on “political action” and its implications. It meant, as Marx and Engels stressed, seizing “political power” within a representative state and introducing socialism, by necessity, from above – as Lenin and Trotsky quickly came to realise, becoming part of a government means that you have the power not the masses.

As such it is not enough to proclaim that “Marx the dictatorship of the proletariat meant the rule of the working class rather than a dictatorship of an elite” (28) as the point of Bakunin’s critique was that it would become that because it retained the state. Similarly, can we really ignore the fate of every Marxist revolution by asserting that “Bakunin’s criticism does not begin to rise to the level demanded of the theoretical breakthrough underpinning Marx’s position”? (28) Surely it is up to Marxists to explain Bakunin’s “inconvenient truth” rather than just assume it away?

And to state the bleeding obvious, Bakunin, Kropotkin, etc. did not fail to advocate defence of the revolution and “suppressing the counterrevolution” – what they argued that this is best done by federating communes and arming the people rather than creating a new state and a new army which could be used by the government to suppress the people. As Lenin put it 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.” (Collected Works 42: 170)

And who determines what is “wavering” and “unstable” and what is reflective of the will of the majority? But I raised this above with Trotsky’s identical argument from 1939 so I will not repeat myself. And in terms of rising to “the level demanded,” is would be fair to note that Bakunin’s critique did not rest on “the standpoint of the egoistic indi­vidual” nor his “demand to smash the state” based on an analysis which can be “understood negatively as the removal of public power.” (28)

So the claim that is “Marx is best understood not as the statist other to libertarian socialism, but as the most coherent exponent of human emancipation” (17) is not convincing, given his confusions on the state – as expressed by Blackledge maintaining he was both anti-statist and wanted to create a “novel” state. Particularly given the actual history of Marxist’s states.

And this is important. Given that Blackledge attacks us anarchists for lacking a historical perspective, this lack of engagement with the reality of Marxist regimes is significant. He moans that “Peter Marshall is so caught up in is rhetoric about Marx’s statism that he is quite unable to com­prehend how Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky and Luxemburg could embrace the Commune” (29) yet ignores that this would be due to the reality of every Marxist state and the centralised vision of socialism and socialist state they advocated. After all, Stalin verbally embraced the Commune (and Lenin’s The State and Revolution!) as did the USSR (the Soviet spaceflight Voskhod 1 carried part of a communard banner from the Paris Commune in 1964). For extra irony, after the Kronstadt rebellion of March 1921 the Bolsheviks renamed the dreadnought battleship Sevastopol to Paris Commune (I’ve blogged before on the Paris Commune and Kronstadt so will not do so here).

In other words, it is not 1871 and we have the experience of numerous Marxist revolutions to draw upon as well as the results of the “political action” Marx and Engels urged upon the labour movement! We cannot ignore that history of Marxism as a movement by suggesting they were not “really” Marxist (bar, apparently, the short period between spring of 1917 and 1918!).

It is all find and well to proclaim “Marx was able to conceive of new forms of democracy” (19) yet that begs the question – what do you mean by “democracy”? If “democracy” means, as it usually does, a representative democracy within a bourgeois republic then does sticking “new forms” in front of it really helps matters much? Do “new forms” of representative democracy fundamentally change the notion embedded in “democracy”? Can we use the same word (“democracy”) to refer to the direct decision-making of a union assembly and the ritualistic voting every four years for representatives who then do what they want?

And did Marx actually “conceive” new forms of democracy? No, he reported what was being done in the Paris Commune and referencing a document written for it by a mutualist. This document reflected the ideas Proudhon had raised during the 1848 revolution so in terms of conceiving “new forms of democracy” then the anarchists with their so-called “liberal” ideas did that, not Marx. So while it is true that “both Marx and Bakunin embraced the Paris Commune of 1871 as an example of real living socialism” (27) former had to significantly revise his ideas while the latter saw them to a large degree vindicated. This may be an inconvenient truth, but one which cannot be avoided when discussing anarchism and Marxism (see also my article “The Paris Commune, Marxism and Anarchism”)

There is a huge difference between the decentralised, participatory, bottom-up socialist democracy (as applied in part in the Paris Commune and advocated by Proudhon, Bakunin and Kropotkin) and the centralised, hierarchical, top-down statist democracy favoured by the bourgeoisie (and Leninism!) just breeds confusion – a “democracy” which simply empowers the nineteen members of the party’s Central Committee is not a worthy goal. The real issue is not complaining about Peter Marshall (and there is a lot to complain about in his book from a revolutionary anarchist perspective!) but rather seeking to explain why Lenin and Trotsky could also embrace party dictatorship as well as the Commune. That contradiction is left unexplored by Blackledge and this blindness is a key problem with the Leninist tradition. Unlike anarchists who do recognise the problem and seek to explain it in order to ensure we do not repeat the same mistakes again (see section H.6 of AFAQ for a discussion of Bolshevism in power and the impact of its ideology).

Lastly, there are elements of liberalism in Blackledge’s argument. He talks of “liberalism’s contradictory view of social organisation and thus the state as simultaneously alien and essential” (17) yet why confuse a social organisation with the state? Anarchists have stressed that the two are not synonymous and while liberalism may confuse the two, anarchists do not. Presumably Marxists should not either, what with their promise that the state will “wither away” (eventually). As Kropotkin argued, Moreover, the state has not always existed and to confuse all forms of social organisation with it would be a mistake made only by those “who cannot visualise Society without a concentration of the State.” To do so “is to overlook the fact that Man lived in Societies for thousands of years before the State had been heard of” and that “large numbers of people” have “lived in communes and free federations.” 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, 9-10) It was a particular form of social organisation and so “the word ‘State’… should be reserved for those societies with the hierarchical system and centralisation.” (Ethics, 317fn)

In this, Kropotkin followed Proudhon who had debated with utopian socialist Pierre Leroux and talked of “the over-arching group, comprising the nation in its entirety, what you term the State because you invest it in a representative body outside of society, but which, to me, is no longer the State.” This was because the state was “the external constitution of the social power” and so “the people does not govern itself.” Anarchists “deny government and the State, because we affirm that which the founders of States have never believed in, the personality and autonomy of the masses.” (Property is Theft!, 500, 482-3)

Which places Blackledge’s account of Proudhon’s ideas into more context. Suffice to say, he does not present a fair summary of Proudhon’s arguments. I will discuss this in the next instalment…

Until I blog again, be seeing you….


It's all very well to say

It's all very well to say that Social Democracy failed that the Bolsheviks ultimately failed to maintain their revolutionary principles (which, I imagine had the Left-SRs had formed the government in 1918, they would have suffered from the same bureaucratic deformations, authoritarianism, etc which the Bolsheviks did under the pressure of civil war, which ultimately degenerated into an explicit party dictatorship by 1921), and, as you would say, that this was 'predicted by Bakunin all along',

Except, of course, the Makhnovists managed to keep to their principles far more than the Bolsheviks in worse circumstances. Rather than embrace party dictatorship, they encouraged soviet democracy. And faced with the Makhnovists calling soviet congresses, Trotsky banned it and declared the Makhnovists enemies of the revolution (i.e., his monopoly of power). And, remember, Marxists are that social revolution will produce a civil war which makes the blaming of the inevitable for the Bolshevik failure unconvincing...

And the point is, the Bolsheviks did not let the Left-SRs form a government -- they packed the congress to stop that happening. Like they did locally. If they had not, I would guess the Bolsheviks would have simply disbanded the fifth all-Russian Congress like they did the local ones (before the start of the civil war in May, 1918).

but has not anarchism, in all its various forms (insurrectionism, syndicalism, mutualism, communism, or more generally, 'class struggle' or anarchist communism), from the point of view of its ultimate goals, been a total failure as well?

The Makhnovists were one of the bright aspects of the Russian Revolution and even Marxists prefer to point to the Spanish Revolution than the Bolshevik as what socialism looks like these days... But, yes, we do not have socialism yet -- but at least we did not create horrific regimes which have put people off of socialism. The degree of failure is not comparable -- we need to learn from previous mistakes rather than seek to explain them away...

After all, plenty of people have predicted that anarchism is utopian, impossible, ridiculous, unnatural, etc- in line with general critiques of any kind of democratic socialism being possible...

Usually these claims are simply silly, based on some strange notions of what anarchism is. And for an "impossible" idea it has produced long lasting organisations of significant size.

- and the fact that there exists nothing like a libertarian socialist society in the entire world, and has not in the whole history since anarchism as an ideal was elaborated and fought for

And how many democracies were they when Rousseau wrote?

(unless you want to count a period of time between 1936 and 1937 in Spain where it existed on a limited basis- lasting maybe a little longer before the Bolsheviks began to compromise themselves- or unless you want to count 'primitive communism' as an example, which was a hell of a long time ago)

well, if you think anarchism is "impossible" then "primtive communism" is hard to explain... but there are many examples of self-managed unions, workplaces, organisations, etc. which show anarchism is possible...

- speaking historically, those who say a democratic and libertarian socialism is impossible, or near-impossible, have sadly been proved correct, at least in the last 150 years or so.

So avoiding the awkward fact that we never created something the exact opposite of what we argued we stood for, as the Bolsheviks did... which is the point, surely?

Perhaps the fact that sincere anarchists, Marxists, and libertarian socialists more generally set themselves such a bloody difficult and near impossible goal (a global classless and stateless society of freedom and abundance) means that the constant failures these movements have experienced derived from the enormous ambitions they set for themselves, going beyond the limitations of specific ideas of each particular political current in its various manifestations?

Perhaps, perhaps. However, the question is tailoring ambitions to objective realities and recognising that there are no instant utopias. The question being raised in this blog is simply whether Marxism is up to the task of creating a viable revolutionary working class movement (Social Democracy suggests not) or fighting a revolution in the face of predictable and predicted (by Lenin! not to mention Bakunin and Kropotkin) events (Bolshevism suggests not). Our ambitions, as Emma Goldman noted in My Disillusionment in Russia, was not that the Bolsheviks had created communism but whether they were creating the preconditions for an evolution to full (libertarian) communism -- workers self-management, free social organisation, decentralisation and federalism, etc. They had not and, worse, their actions and ideology were pointing in the wrong direction.

Ultimately, yes, compared to the hopes of Bakunin and Kropotkin we have failed -- the question is whether we learn from those failures and inform political structure today. Leninists, because they do not recognise that Bolshevism failed because of a combination of objective and ideological reasons, are holding socialist progress back. The way forwards is to recognise the failings of Leninism in order to build the socialist ideas which have held up best over the last 150 years, anarchism.


Don't get me wrong, I would

Don't get me wrong, I would really like to see a democratic and libertarian socialist society. It sounds great - and from what I understand of the enormous problems facing humanity at the moment- probably the greatest in human history- I don't see how anything less than a dramatically different social system based on, as far as possible, those fine ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity could even attempt to solve issues around social justice, individual and collective freedoms, ecological sustainability, material plenty for all, dramatic reductions in the working day and expansion of free time, etc. The sense of impossibility I have of these goals in increased by a certain tendency among many on the radical left who tend to spend more time denouncing every other tendency of the radical left as irredeemable, wrong, not as good as us, etc etc, and ignoring often massive agreement on most issues, and letting that get in the way of real practical, pluralist and democratic collaborations which could occur. Also, I'm not a fan of ultra-leftism (all unions are evil, the worst insult is 'reformist' etc). I'll take militant reformism over revolutionary purism anyday.

It's all very well to say

It's all very well to say that Social Democracy failed that the Bolsheviks ultimately failed to maintain their revolutionary principles (which, I imagine had the Left-SRs had formed the government in 1918, they would have suffered from the same bureaucratic deformations, authoritarianism, etc which the Bolsheviks did under the pressure of civil war, which ultimately degenerated into an explicit party dictatorship by 1921), and, as you would say, that this was 'predicted by Bakunin all along', but has not anarchism, in all its various forms (insurrectionism, syndicalism, mutualism, communism, or more generally, 'class struggle' or anarchist communism), from the point of view of its ultimate goals, been a total failure as well? After all, plenty of people have predicted that anarchism is utopian, impossible, ridiculous, unnatural, etc- in line with general critiques of any kind of democratic socialism being possible - and the fact that there exists nothing like a libertarian socialist society in the entire world, and has not in the whole history since anarchism as an ideal was elaborated and fought for (unless you want to count a period of time between 1936 and 1937 in Spain where it existed on a limited basis- lasting maybe a little longer before the Bolsheviks began to compromise themselves- or unless you want to count 'primitive communism' as an example, which was a hell of a long time ago) - speaking historically, those who say a democratic and libertarian socialism is impossible, or near-impossible, have sadly been proved correct, at least in the last 150 years or so. Perhaps the fact that sincere anarchists, Marxists, and libertarian socialists more generally set themselves such a bloody difficult and near impossible goal (a global classless and stateless society of freedom and abundance) means that the constant failures these movements have experienced derived from the enormous ambitions they set for themselves, going beyond the limitations of specific ideas of each particular political current in its various manifestations?

You suggest there was no

You suggest there was no dictatorship in Russia in the first half of 1918.
Was that your intention?

The Bolsheviks did have majority support (just) by November 1917, however they started to lose it by the spring of 1918. In response, the Bolsheviks started to pack (gerrymander) soviets and disband any which did manage to get a non-Bolshevik majority elected. At the national level, they gerrymandered the Fifth-all Russian Congress of Soviets in early July 1918 -- this marks the definite move to party dictatorship.

So, yes-and-no -- there were definite authoritarian tendencies in the first half of 1918 which fed into the actions at the national level in July which consolidated them. In theory, if the Left-SRs had formed the government in July 1918 (as they should have given their numbers at the Congress) then they could have acted to reverse the local authoritarian actions of the Bolsheviks which had taken place in the spring of 1918.

This is discussed in section H.6 of An Anarchist FAQ. The Fifth All-Russian Congress marks the point of no-return as it consolidated all the authoritarian actions by Bolsheviks locally in the spring of 1918.

Hope that helps.


You suggest there was no

You suggest there was no dictatorship in Russia in the first half of 1918.
Was that your intention?

Signed pro2rat@etc


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