Communism through the eyes of corpses

The somewhat poetic title to this post comes from a status update I put on Facebook last week;

Best descriptor for Marxism and Leninism I’ve ever read has to be “analysing everything through the eyes of corpses.” Genius.

This was a reference to the tendency of nearly all groups and currents (though far from all individuals, I hasten to add) which identify as Marxist to treat the writings of Marx, Lenin, et al as gospel.

An image of Lenin beating a shackled worker with the words of Marx by Clifford Harper, from

Yes, some dead guys with beards said some things which are spot on. But they were still flawed people who got things wrong as well. That’s why anarchists are anarchists and not Proudhonists, Bakuninists, Kropotkinites, etc. If you use the fact that some revered thinker of the past said it as proof of your argument instead citing them as someone who made a particular point more articulately, then what you have is dogmatism and not reasoned argument.

History is something we should learn from, but we shouldn’t live our lives through it. Unless we’re after a career as an archaeologist.

Anyway, from this a much broader discussion emerged about anarchism, Marxism, and the varying ideas that different tendencies have on organising, class consciousness, and building a communist society in the wake of revolution. Because of the quality and sheer size of the discussion, it seemed a shame to let it disappear into the depths of my Facebook profile as time lapsed. This is therefore an attempt at sifting the content to produce a readable and hopefully interesting blog on the same subject.

I have covered this territory before, in Communism and the state, but hopefully the fact that this is drawn from a rather open-ended discussion with a Marxist will offer the topic some freshness.

In that previous post, I boiled down the difference between anarchists and other flavours of communist 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.

The most significant anarchist contention with Marxism is with the idea – solidified and put to brutal practice by Lenin, but originating with Marx – that the working class need a revolutionary leadership, and that rather than building the new world in the shell of the old we need this “transitional state” where a new elite takes over the state apparatus to run things in the interests of the workers before “true communism” can be achieved and the state magically “withers away”.

We know now that this doesn’t happen, and that the inevitable result is Stalin, Mao, Kim Jong-Il, and Castro. Had Franco been defeated, the putting down of the anarcho-syndicalist revolution in Spain would have guaranteed it there as well.

And this, as I say, stems back to Marx. Not his economics, but his politics. They are the politics by which a revolution drowns in blood and the new boss emerges even more brutal and corrupt than the old boss.

In response to this, the Marxist contention is that what I describe ” are not ‘inevitable result[s]’ of anything other than the total isolation of revolutions in underdeveloped economies, with the later ones having Stalinist policy imperatives thrown in for extras.”

It’s also a bone of contention that I “equate Marxism and Stalinism.” Though I would argue that I don’t equate Marxism and Stalinism. I do equate Leninism with Stalinism, the one being derived directly from the other, and think that Marx himself gained more authoritarian leanings as time passed which helped to inspire that. These two positions are similar, but not the same.

Returning to the main point, rather than the isolation of revolutions in “underdeveloped economies,” I contend that communism died in the USSR because Lenin killed it. Just as the CNT militias were winning against the fascists until the anarchist revolution was crushed, so the decentralised forces of the soviets might have won against the counter-revolution whilst genuine communism was built from the ground up. This, in turn, might have inspired greater success in revolutions elsewhere. But, because of the Bolshevik seizure of power, we’ll never know.

The short-lived Spanish revolution of 1936 demonstrated how 80 years of anarchist agitation and education could bring about a seemingly spontaneous revolution which utterly transformed society. It also demonstrates, again, the counter-revolutionary ethos of Leninism and the folly of trying to use existing government structures to your own end.

I’ll quote the Marxist counterpoint to this at length;

Marxists argue the need for a workers state. Why? Not because Marx dogmatically said we should (he didn’t), not because Lenin, the Bolsheviks, the Russian working class established one. We argue this because we recognise that the role of the state, at bottom, is to act as armed enforcers for the ruling class – in a period of revolutionary transition, in which like it or don’t, forces of reaction WILL use every violent means at their disposal to bring about counter revolution, the working class (and peasants etc where they still exist…) will need to enforce its will on the forces of counter revolution. We’ll also need some other functions – organisation, administration – but not nearly so much as has been the case in the past.

Here’s the point though – Phil makes the point that it is inevitable that there will as a result of the very existence of that state be counter revolution, the establishment of authoritarian or totalitarian dictatorships, and makes the very strong argument of experience and empirical observation, citing Russia, Cuba, wherever else he mentioned, to back this up. The trouble is that’s mixing up correlation (B happened after A happened) with causality (B happened because A happened). For brevity just in the case of Russia; yes the revolution was ultimately overthrown (we could quibble about when, but WTF) – but I’d argue it became a deformed workers state, ruled by a privileged bureaucracy supported by a ruthless state machine because it was isolated, it started off from the point of being a backward, almost medieval economy, it’s best revolutionaries were killed off or exhausted in the civil war, and the purges put paid the rest – the reaction flowed from the failure of the revolution to spread. Had the revolution – as it so nearly did – taken hold in the industrialised west then we’d have seen a very different story.

However, I would challenge the notion of the “deformed workers state” arising purely because of “isolation” and other external factors. Rather than being forced to by “pragmatism” in difficult circumstances, Lenin’s deliberate destruction of the soviets and genuine communism was a tactic to seize power, for which external invaders served as a convenient excuse. Everyone was making it up as they went along. But working class self-organisation was being put into practice from the beginning of the revolution, and the Bolsheviks were the first to attack and undermine it for their own purposes.

Even if it were true that Lenin was driven by good intentions gone awry, rather than a desire to brutally secure power, the fact remains that nothing justifies slaughter and repression such as occurred at Kronstadt, for example. Not unless we are to accept the legitimacy of the USA PATRIOT Act and similar repressive legislation enacted by capitalist government in the name of the “war on terror.”

Nevertheless, my Marxist comrade contends that “if we remove the basis of the capitalist state (i.e. have a viable revolution on the basis of developed economy – how unlikely is simultaneous world revolution?” Thus, “the workers state exists only to protect this against counter-revolution and facilitate the development of new social structures based on common ownership, production and distribution.” Once that point comes, “withers away because it’s roots are dead, but it will still need to be dismantled carefully by a watchful working class.”

The only problem, as he concedes, is that there will be “people wanting to acquire and protect privilege for themselves.” However, surely “if the class has got it’s shit together sufficiently to overthrow capital,” then “how much of a threat can we seriously envision that being?” The problem is, referring to real-world events, that the only answer is “a lot.”

There was a suggestion that Marxists are referring to “a radical new species of ‘state’ which doesn’t fit the received usage of the word.” On which point, I can say that if you took a voluntarily federated system of self-organised community and workplace collectives and called it a “state,” because it served the function of governing society albeit in a libertarian and horizontal fashion, I would be fine with that. If that’s what Marxists mean by a “worker’s state,” then we’re probably on the same rough page.

However, if they mean a central government, operating in the same fashion as a central committee/steering committee/executive committee in a party or traditional trade union (even if it is nominally democratic) then we’re definitely not.

Political purges and forced labour camps, or gulags, are synonymous with Stalinism - to anarchists the inevitable result of vanguardist politics, to Marxists a "deformity" of Russia's failed transition from capitalism to communism

When discussing this issue, there’s often a presumption that anarchists believe in an instantaneous transformation of society. But that’s not the case.

We don’t believe in a transitional stage between capitalism and communism, true, for the very reason that if you overtake rather than dismantle existing structures and replace private proprietors with a public bureaucracy (state capitalism, as the means of production are still out of the hands of the producers) it becomes as self-perpetuating as the previous system was. But there is still obviously transition, even if it isn’t clearly delineated. If society spontaneously collapsed now, what rose in its place would likely be a horrendous nightmare world akin to Mad Max. The important issue is one of consciousness.

For Marxists, just as there is a clear transition between capitalism and communism, so “there is stratification of consciousness within the working class.” Thus, “the transformations in human relations and the human condition must inevitably be something that can only begin post-revolution.” Both of these ideas (whether intentional or not) pave the way towards vanguardism, the intellectual priesthood of the left claiming a monopoly on the correct consciousness and thus power over the proles.

But I believe that I could explain these ideas to someone who had no knowledge of politics (obviously avoiding unnecessarily complex terminology used by intellectuals purely to sound smart and keep their knowledge “specialist” rather than widespread) and they’d get it. Almost everybody can see the realities of the class system in their everyday lives. They also self-organise and operate collectively on a regular basis. The only difference is that this is unconscious, and at a conscious level there’s propaganda and the norms of capitalist society to contend with.

(Likewise, there’s no guarantee that the most politically conscious Marxist, having read everything by Marx, Engels, et al would “get it” when it came to the lived practice of communism. Passing your theory test when driving doesn’t guarantee you’ll pass your practical, and equally there are probably loads of established and good drivers who would fail the theory test.)

For anarchists, the process of raising consciousness also isn’t clearly delineated. Consciousness is raised through action – education, agitation, and organisation both before and after the revolution. This includes horizontal organisation in revolutionary unions and other bodies now, both as a way to challenge capital and to build working class confidence in our own power so that we can reorganise society in a horizontal, federal structure. The lived practice isn’t just a post-revolutionary thing. It grows through every day class struggle with bosses and landlords, it will grow further through revolutionary struggle against the system itself, and by the time you’ve ousted the old regime you’re over halfway there.

This is a transition. But you don’t need a formal transitional state, and you certainly don’t need to maintain the existing apparatus with new people at the top until people “level up” at some ill-defined point later on, and the embedded bureaucracy goes against its own nature to step aside for true communism. Or, as my Marxist comrade put it, “a state that exists for the sole purpose of hastening its own negation.”

That won’t happen, and is little more than a fairy tale. Any real revolutionary transition would happen far more organically. It would happen through struggle, our means in overthrowing the old society reflecting the way in which we build the new.

6 Responses to “Communism through the eyes of corpses”
  1. PixieDust says:

    I found this an interesting article. I don’t know much about Marx(ism), so it’d like to hear what you think about it. It seems to claim Marx was an anarchist thinker, which is something I’d never heard before.

  2. I think its not as simple as characterising it as centralisation/decentralised federalism. Whether some organisation needs to be more centralised or decentralised is usually contingent on circumstances, though decentralisation should generally be favoured over centralisation where possible. So, we have two options available to us by history then- we have the Red Army under Trotsky, a very effective, centralised force that succesfully beat back the Whites under his leadership. However, the elective principle of officers in the army was abolished, and it grew to resemble a traditional army with traditional structures which could exist over and above society just like the capitalist/bureaucratic state, as opposed to workers militia’s, etc. And it was also used, eventually, as a tool against the continuation of the Revolution, i.e., suppressing Kronsdadt. Then, we have the Spanish example. These organisations were much looser, much more decentralised, more democratic and so forth. And they were effective to the extent that the revolutionary spirit and sense of justice in their cause spurred these soldiers onward. However, they faced considerable difficulties facing the extremely centralised and well supplied fascists, despite very brave resistance. This lead many CNT members and leaders to join the bourgeois republican and Stalinist supported government, which had a centralised fighting force that was better supplied. Now, it is undoubted that the republican goverment and the Stalinists were central in the defeat of revolutionary Spain- however, this could perhaps have been avoided if the anarchist militas accepted the need for greater centralisation while consistently maintaining internal democracy, and remained an independent force, instead of part of their leadership joining the bourgeoise and the Stalinists and then helping to facilitate the disarming of the anarchist and socialist/POUM militias.

  3. greenshelios says:

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