The fundamental difference between anarchist communists and any other kind of communist (Leninst, Trotskyist, Titoist, whatever) can be boiled down, ultimately, to two sentences from Karl Marx;
Between capitalist and communist society lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.
You can expand upon this, polemicise it, write gargantuan essays about it, (and – believe me – many have) but that’s about the crux of the thing.
Non-anarchist communists, from this point referred to as Communists for ease, believe that a workers’ state led by a workers’ party is the necessary transition from a capitalist society to a stateless, “true” communism.
Anarchists, on the other hand, believe that the state and capitalism must be dismantled simultaneously. All this does is supplant one upper class with another. And their self-appointed role as “vanguard of the proletariat” gives them justification for self-righteous tyranny.
In the words of Mikhail Bakunin, Marx’s anarchist contemporary;
We do not admit, even as a revolutionary transition, either National Conventions, or Constituent Assemblies, or so-called revolutionary dictatorships; because we are convinced that the revolutionary is only sincere, honest and real in the masses, and that when it is concentrated in the hands of some governing individuals, it naturally and inevitably becomes reaction.
The most obvious fulfilment of this prophecy comes in the form of Josef Stalin, with his murderous purges and the vast network of gulag slave labour camps. This is undeniable even to most Communists, who are more than eager to fling the term “Stalinist” at each other across party and factional lines.
But are the other Communist leaders they exalt any better? Though Stalin was the most extreme despot of any Communist regime, save perhaps Pol Pot and Mao Zedong, the fact is that they are just the thick end of the wedge.
The stage for Stalin was set by Vladimir Lenin.
I have, in other posts, cited Piotr Archinov’s The Two Octobers. Writing in 1927, he described how “Lenin’s point of view prevailed” amongst the Bolsheviks, and “the party threw itself into infiltrating the factory committees and the soviets of workers’ deputies, doing its best to obtain in these organs of self-management the most mandates possible in order to control their actions.”
Whilst the workers were set to “reinforcing and enlarging the already constituted organs of workers and peasants self-management,” the Bolsheviks sought to “to seize power and to subordinate all the revolutionary forces to the Party.”
This led to a number of left-wing and anarchist uprisings against the Bolsheviks, with the most notorious being the 1921 Kronstadt rebellion. Lenin saw Kronstadt as “a very petty incident” led by “fools or traitors.” After all, “there is nobody to take our place save butcher Generals and helpless bureaucrats who have already displayed their total incapacity for rule,” and “if people abroad exaggerate the importance of the rising in Kronstadt and give it support, it is because the world has broken up into two camps: capitalism abroad and Communist Russia.”
Lenin’s arrogant assertion that nobody else could rule would become Stalin’s iron-fisted tyranny. His fear-mongering that everyone who disagreed with him was with the capitalists would become Stalin’s paranoid, and bloody, purges.
We can look at Leon Trotsky similarly. Today, he is the thinker that most Marxists and Communists look to, his exile and death at the hands of a Stalinist agent lending him some credibility. Trotskyism is perhaps the largest wing of the Communist movement today, but the same flawed principles of vanguardism and dictatorship of the proletariat dominate.
For example, for Trotsky the mistake of the POUM in the Spanish Civil War was that they didn’t mobilise “the masses against the reformist leaders, including the Anarchists,” and “they did not form their own nuclei inside the CNT, and in general did not conduct any kind of work there.” In other words, they didn’t attempt an entryist takeover. This “isolat[ed] the revolutionary vanguard from the class” and so “rendered the vanguard impotent and left the class without leadership.”
Once again, the assertion that the working class need an elite (conveniently enough, the same people making this assertion) prevails, and even highly succesful bottom-up organisations like the CNT require a “nuclei” of vanguardists pulling the strings. Forgetting, of course, that it was the self-organised militias and collectives which were most succesful against the fascists, whilst the Liberal-Communist government was more concerned about destroying worker autonomy than about General Franco.
Trotsky’s attitude her matches Lenin’s to the Russian soviets. And, of course, he shared Lenin’s contempt for the rebels at Kronstadt.
As Bakunin once so astutely noted, “no dictatorship can have any other aim but that of self-perpetuation, and it can beget only slavery in the people tolerating it.” Those who follow the vanguardist path are the elite who will lead the workers to utopia and nothing else (especially free self-organisation, can be tolerated.
We can see this even today, where accusations of being “sectarian” (that is, diverting from the party line) are not yet the first step on the road to the gulag. Taking Britain as my example, as usual it is the one I am most familiar with, we can see this most explicitly in what are currently the two biggest “left” parties: the Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers’ Party.
The former, in the 1980s, was the Militant Tendency faction of the Labour Party. Coming from Liverpool, where they had perhaps the most impact, I have to say that the first-hand accounts of their actions are not positive. My dad is one of many who remembers fleets of taxis delivering 90-day redundancy notices to council workers. As one critique puts it, “instead of the councillors standing on the line and giving a self-sacrificing lead in the fight for the city they offered up the workers instead, demanding that the 31,000 passively give up their jobs at the say-so of people who were unwilling to put their own heads on the block.”
Less sensationally, but more relevant to the topic, a comrade of mine who was active in the Militant recalls all of the serious activists being purged by the bureaucracy. However, those left behind lament that in their desire to “make Trotskyism a recognised legitimate section of the labour movement,” “the bureaucracy have succeeded in actually expelling only [emphasis mine] around 250 comrades.”
The present Socialist Party argues that its electoral policies are based on Trotsky’s transitional programme, and it is at the forefront of the Campaign For A New Workers’ Party. After all, “in the absence of a mass workers’ party that had the confidence of the working class to fight on their behalf,” workers – whose role is reduced to that of “voters” – are simply left with “a deep sense of powerlessness.”
The attitude which led to thousands of workers being used as pawns for the elite, their livelihoods threatened in the process, and any serious activists expelled as a threat still prevails. It should, given that they are proud of this past. But that means we know what to expect, should they return to any kind of power.
More overtly open to criticism are the SWP. Not just for their cheap and irrelevant stunts, or the engineering of pointless mini confrontations in order to appear “militant” or “radical.” They adhere to the vanguardist principle of “democratic centralism.” That is, traditional top-down authoritarianism and attacks on those who don’t adhere to the central party line.
I won’t expend a great deal of time drawing out the SWP’s laundry list of failures here, as they have been done to death a thousand times over. I will instead point, briefly, to members resigning over the lack of democracy and accountability, and its propensity for setting up front groups. The most notable of these, Unite Against Fascism, has a record of hijacking events [1, 2, 3, 4], ignoring local organisers and groups, and even of turning over activists who hold a different perspective to the police.
The one positive of the SWP’s behaviour is that, in making the same criticisms as anarchists, other vanguardists are careful to ensure that they do not appear in the same light. However, in holding the same insistence upon “revolutionary leadership,” and citing the same Communist leaders who had “beget[ting] only slavery in the people tolerating” them down to a fine art.
For instance, the behaviour of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty will be worth watching, should they succeed in taking the mantle of most visible Trot party from the SWP.
But, in the meantime, let’s return to that fundamental difference between anarchism and Marxism: bottom-up self-organisation versus the dictatorship of the proletariat in a transitional state. The latter is clearly a corruptible idea, but surely this doesn’t mean the idea itself is inherently flawed? After all, if it started with Lenin, he was only thirteen when Karl Marx died, and when he gained power the Communist Manifesto had been in print for 69 years!
This point falls down when we realise that, unlike Lenin, Bakunin was contemporaneous to Marx. More than that, he was open and vocal in his disagreement with him. The result was Bakunin’s expulsion from the International Workingmen’s Association, along with all those who supported his position.
We can only speculate what Bakunin’s fate might have been had their been a Communist revolution in Marx’s lifetime. Bakunin saw him as “a vain man, perfidious and crafty,” whilst noting that “the instinct of liberty is lacking in him; he remains from head to foot, an authoritarian.” It was, after all, Marx who provided the theoretical foundations upon which Leninism, Trotskyism, Stalinism, and Maoism are all built. It is Marx’s “revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat” to which those upholding that same mentality today aspire.
As Bakunin asserts;
If you took the most ardent revolutionary, vested him in absolute power, within a year he would be worse than the Tsar himself.
This is one reason why establishing a “workers’ state” will not lead to genuine, anarchist communism. If you establish “the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat,” Stalinist tyranny is the inevitable result.
True revolution must come from below.