ANARCHIST COMMUNISTS: A QUESTION OF CLASS
Let us return to the extract from Marx and Engels which we quoted at the start of Chapter 4.1. Marx and Engels speak of concentrating all the means of production in the hands of the State. As we have already seen, that "by degree" was the justification used by German Social Democrats for the conquest of political power and the gradual transformation of capitalist society into a communist one (this is utopia, at least in its commonly-used sense of the unreachable goal, something which history has more than amply demonstrated). But what happens once the State has been taken over, on the crest of a revolutionary wave, no longer on the forced march through the institutions which eventually peters out to the point of exhausting the innovative energies of the self-proclaimed vanguard? What happens once the party of professional militants has for the moment achieved power without ever having come to any political compromises with the ruling class? Can the recipe still work? Even in this case, the history of all the revolutions of the 20th century and of their collapse leaves no room for doubt - the revolution is not betrayed (as claimed by Lev Davidovich Bronstein, a.k.a. Trotsky). It regularly fails to reach its intended goals and throws up another class society based on exploitation. But why?
Marx and Engels' phrase ends with a qualification of the State as "the proletariat organized as the ruling class". Here is the root of the causes of the failed revolutions which have been run by Marxists and it is on this point that Anarchist criticism has concentrated, beginning with Bakunin. He had foreseen these failures well before they ever happened. The question we should ask ourselves is a simple one: does the proletariat need the State to organize itself as the dominant class? The answer of Anarchist Communists is: no, for some very basic reasons.
4.4.1. The Problem of the Dominant Class
In 1868, when the Bakuninist International Alliance of Socialist Democracy applied to join the International Workingmen's Association (IWMA), Marx, apart from asking that it join as a local section and not as a structured international, requested a change in its statute: with heavy irony he pointed out that the phrase "equalization of the classes" was ambiguous and that it would have to be corrected to read "abolition of the classes". Bakunin agreed that the phrase was improper and agreed with the proposed change which better explained the goal of the revolution. But the error committed by Marx and Engels in 1848 was much greater and would be the cause of many negative consequences among his followers and on the revolutionary processes that they would be involved in.
What, in fact, can be meant by the proletariat constituting itself "as the dominant class"? First of all, if the proletariat has taken power, then the revolution or the change of hands with the bourgeoisie will already have taken place and as the aim of the revolution is, according to everyone, the abolition of classes (something which Marx himself reminded Bakunin of in 1868), the struggle of the proletariat becomes its own dissolution as a class together with all other classes, the bourgeoisie heading the list. In second place, class distinction is not a matter of ethics, somatics or ethnicity, but is based on the different positions which the individual members of a society have with regard to property relationships. At the moment in which individual property is abolished, to be substituted by the collective ownership of production, distribution and consumption, there is an effective end to all class-based social organization. The image is, therefore, of a real non-sense: is it possible that myriads of Marxist commentators have not realized it? Of course they have! But as it was convenient for controlling the process of revolution for their own ends, it was accepted without too much argument and justified by what seemed to be two strong points: the temporary survival of the enemies of the revolution and the need to begin the construction of communist society, something which no-one imagines can be done in a day.
4.4.2. The Defence of the Revolution
One fact which history has always amply demonstrated with the utmost clarity is that the society born from the revolutionary process will initially find itself clashing with those who up to then had enjoyed privileges and who will find no shortage of help from their counterparts in other countries as yet unaffected by such radical events. It is often the case that revolutions collapse for the very reason of outside interference. It will therefore be necessary for a while, often quite a long time, to defend the gains which the initial impetus brings.
For Marxists, this need is met by the State and by a disciplined army, run along lines developed throughout the long history of warfare. Despite all the pre-revolutionary chatter about the people's army, about the democratization of the armed forces, the election by the troops of their officers whose appointment can be revoked at any time, wherever bourgeois parties or Marx's followers have taken power, armies have always formed again under the same conditions as before with the higher ranks coming from the military academies, with their rigid hierarchies, with the usual discipline imposed from the top down, with the same professional nature resisting popular input. It should be remembered that when the sailors in Krontadt, the crème de la crème of revolutionary combatants in 1917, rebelled against the heavy discipline which it was sought to impose on them, the Bolshevik powers attacked them with the cadets, student officers from the military academy who were certainly no part of the proletariat. It can be added, too, that this was an entirely internal party matter seeing as how the Anarchists organized inside the fortress were a small minority.
Anarchist Communists, on the other hand, hold that the need to defend the gains of the revolution must be met in another way. The fighting forces must apply principles which go against the old hierarchical methods. Anyone who accepts the responsibility of command must enjoy the respect and trust of those who will carry out the commands at the risk of their lives. In other words, the appointment of commanders must be by election and must be revocable and only major decisions should be discussed and agreed upon by all. Moreover, the war should be carried out as a partisan war, with small, mobile units which are hard to localize and which enjoy the support of the local population. And these are not wild fantasies. We have seen how Makhno organized his revolutionary army in this way and was able to defeat Wrangel and Denikin, whose armies were financed by the Western capitalist powers and against whom even Trotsky's famed Red Army was forced to retreat. The very conception of war and how it should be waged was at the heart of the clash between the Marxist Communists and the Anarchist Communists in Spain in 1936-39: centralized command and discipline on the one hand (no matter that this weakened the strength of the international brigades which had come from all over the world to help the revolution), while on the other hand, participation and support from the local population (who were persuaded by the obvious advantages that a successful social revolution would bring them), a system which was able (in the symbolic figure of Buenaventura Durruti) even to withstand the strength of the Francoist troops at the gates of Madrid, to the point that the Generalissimo was forced to put off taking control of the capital until the end of the war.
The dispute is not only technical or tactical but goes much deeper, as it not only allows the old stalwarts of bourgeois command to recycle themselves as "experts" in the new social order, but also because behind these ideas (originally Lenin's) there lies the old statist mode of thinking - the same which led the Bolshevik leadership (though, it must be said, with the objections of Trotsky and Aleksandra Mikhailovna Kollontai) to sign the unilateral peace with the dying Germanic empire (at Brest-Litovsk in 1918). The declared reasons were the weakness and demoralization of the Russian troops with respect to the mighty German army, rendering any headway on the front improbable. In effect, this move did allow some respite for Germany (albeit short-lived), which was at that stage near capitulating. Ukraine was ceded (and had to liberate itself from the occupying forces and the nationalist bourgeoisie) and the Spartacist revolutionary vanguard of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht was abandoned to its own fate - the firing squad.
As far as the Anarchists were concerned (not to mention Trotsky and Kollontai), the war could and should have continued in the form of popular guerrilla warfare, something which would also have permitted the extension of the revolution westwards.
4.4.3. The Management of the Economy
Opinion is totally divided, too, on the organization of production. As we saw in the quotation from Marx and Engels, Marxists believe that economic power must be concentrated in the hands of the proletarian State. This is not only because, in their way of thinking, the State is the proletariat (or, the only general organization capable of discerning the collective good) but also because the decentralization of the system of production impedes that harmony of intent which alone can encourage growth in the volume of goods and allow supply to meet demand. This is how the Factory Committees in Soviet Russia were stripped of all power (1918), even though they had been the backbone of the expropriations of the capitalists and had guaranteed production in the first few turbulent months. In fact, only a third of their members were permitted to continue being elected from below, while the other two thirds were nominated from above. Power passed to the Central Soviet and the "All-Russian Soviet of Workers' Control", as the workers had (because of direct management) begun to "act as if they owned the factories" (Anna Mikhailovna Pankratova) -something which was an obstacle to the collective good. It is almost like listening to the tirades of a feudal lord in ancient China against the "egoism" of the peasants.
If the Petrograd workers who were the recognized vanguard of the Bolshevik revolution had become short-sighted due to small-scale possession and the greed dictated by their own interests, then what hope was there for solidarity from the peasant masses who had always been linked to the land and to the ownership of what their labour was able to wring from the earth?
This is where the Russian Revolution embarked on the slippery slope of the war economy, with raids on the countryside and forced collectivizations, with government functionaries deciding what was to be produced, five-year plans and decisions entrusted to economic experts (who were, naturally, recycled from the old social order). Former owners were even appointed as directors of the factories!
For Anarchist Communists, the disastrous effects of this policy which history has laid plain for all to see were clearly foreseeable. We will soon come back to the effects which all this produced (and which could not have failed to produce) with regard to the reconstruction of a system of exploitation of the working classes. Above all, the masses' sense of detachment as a result of the above policies needs to be emphasized. The management from below of the production process is seen as being inevitably incoherent, chaotic and inefficient. The workers cannot organize themselves, and therefore someone must do it - in their interests (interests which this someone is evidently in a better position to understand). All this when history has furnished splendid examples of the ability of workers to manage themselves and of the natural solidarity between the exploited classes (witness Spain and also Ukraine, where a trainload of grain confiscated from the counter-revolutionary Whites was sent to Petrograd which was known to be starving). Not to mention the fact that, in the aftermath of the Paris Commune in 1871, even Marx had admitted the proletariat's ability to build its own social organization!
The first disastrous effect is the proletariat's distancing itself from the revolution, when it does not provide them with convincing answers. It happened in Russia from the start with the peasants, who were constantly preyed upon and failed to be convinced that they should co-operate with the city workers, and it happened later with the workers themselves who more often than not saw the same bourgeois elements they had expropriated returning to power. It happened in Spain in 1936, when the Marxists refused to link the masses to the civil war by starting the social revolution, and in fact impeded collectivization through force in order not to frighten off that section of the bourgeoisie that was in favour of the Republic: the two-stage policy (victory in the civil war first, revolution later) was responsible for the previously un-politicized masses not understanding the point of the struggle against Francoism, thus de-vitalizing the strength of opposition to the rampant obscurantism.
4.4.4. The Death of the State
If what is outlined above are the purposes for which Marxists claim that the State apparatus should survive after the revolution (defence of the gains obtained against external enemies and the organization of production and distribution), it immediately follows that these tasks are limited in time. Anarchist Communists, as we have said, do not share this way of resolving the two problems and have put forward concrete counter-proposals. There remains, however, the contradiction noted early on by Bakunin: "in this way, therefore, in order to liberate the popular masses, it is necessary to begin by enslaving them". The fact remains that the State, also for Marxists, should have a limited lifespan and extinguish itself once its duties have been carried out. The history of victorious revolutions of the 20th Century have made perfectly clear how rapidly the State stands aside to make way for that self-managing society that everyone says they want!
One look at events, in fact, is enough to do justice to the Marxian theory of the extinction of the State. In the USSR, the State became an omnivorous monster which devoured all personal freedom. Its exponential growth knew no bounds - the effect it had even within the private lives of individuals expanded beyond all measure. And when the moment came when its enormity led to a resounding implosion (1989-1992), it spat from within it an army of hungry locusts (the new bourgeoisie, mafia organizations, corrupt officials, unscrupulous nouveaux riches, etc.) that had lain hidden within it over the decades.
It was easy to foresee what regularly took place everywhere those theories which rely on taking possession of the State as a method of defending and organizing the revolution were put into practice. It was, in fact, foreseen by Bakunin, Kropotkin, Malatesta, Fabbri and many other libertarian thinkers. Invented by the bourgeoisie during its rise to power in the course of the 18th and 19th centuries as a weapon to protect the domination of its class, the apparatus of state is suited to this very task and nothing else. It is for this most simple of reasons that this superstructure, should it survive when the underlying structure for the organization of production is eliminated, tends to reproduce the exploitation it was based on. The old class domination which was destroyed is then reproduced in a modified form and regenerates a new exploiter class. Right up to his death, Trotsky laboured under the false illusion that the USSR was a "degenerated workers' state" - in other words, given that as the basis of ownership within society had changed (from bourgeois individual property to collective property under the control of the State), the revolution was irreversible, as Trotsky, good Marxist that he was, could never believe that an organizational superstructure could modify the structure of the production relationships. Instead, a new class (in the real sense) gave rise to a form of privileged appropriation of goods and so a new form of exploitation came into being wherever Marxist parties came into power and took control of the State apparatus. It is for this reason that the State never withered away having exhausted its usefulness as Marxism predicted it would, but instead the worst predictions about "barrack-house communism" (Bakunin) advanced by Anarchist Communists were to come true.
4.4.5. Dictatorship and Bureaucracy
But where does this new class come from? Who is it composed of? How exactly does it appropriate and exploit? The answer is easy. It was equally easy one and a half centuries ago. When the Marxists began to talk about the "dictatorship of the proletariat" (exercised through the State), in order to respond to the two previously-seen needs of the immediate post-revolutionary period, the device was immediately criticized and it was clear from the start that it would become a dictatorship over the proletariat. Bakunin was already saying: "any difference between revolutionary dictatorship and statist centralization is only apparent. The two are substantially nothing but the same form of government by a minority over the majority in the name of the supposed stupidity of the latter and the supposed intelligence of the former".
The minority which would exercise this power (and which did, in fact, exercise it in democratic centralist regimes) was inevitably of bourgeois origin, since it was mostly the bourgeoisie who had the time and means to acquire a sufficient cultural level which would allow them to dominate the workers' parties, those parties which were supposed to represent the interests of the proletariat in the parliamentary circuses or in the abstruse doctrinaire dialectics of clandestine circles. In fact, as far as Lenin was concerned, it was for this very reason of being outside the class which guaranteed their revolutionary steadfastness, given that they were unconcerned with the needs of the moment, those needs which afflict the proletarian masses who, weighed down by poverty, would be more inclined to come to a compromise. This is how a group of bourgeois intellectuals, who were struggling to find a place which could satisfy their ambitions within the capitalist social order, began to impose themselves on the proletariat's struggles from the mid-1800s. As their way of conceiving the future society allowed them to conquer a certain prestige which they would otherwise be unable to enjoy, they borrowed from similar theories of others who had already been in the vanguard of the bourgeois revolutions of the previous century (Jacobins, Blanquists, etc.), with the same love for political struggle, for the winning of Statist power, for the use of the State in order to establish a vicious post-revolutionary dictatorship which they claimed would defeat the enemies of the revolution but which instead served only to keep them in power permanently.
Within the societies created by the revolutions managed by the Marxist parties, a new dominant class immediately formed which was made up of revolutionary intellectuals who had previously constituted the party (or better still, its group of leaders) and of the contributions by intellectuals, technicians and experts who had been active within the old order and who learnt to stay afloat thanks to the need the former had for them and their expertise. This new class was given the name "bureaucracy". Trotsky never recognized it as the dominant class, preferring to think of it as a rampant excrescence which, though sucking the life from the revolution, never changed its basic nature. In reality, the completely centralized control over distribution allowed the bureaucrats to acquire a privileged share of goods in accordance with their (at times inexistent and often harmful) role in the productive process. This, under the guise of the socialization of all the means of production, constituted a real form of exploitation and reproduced class society. When this society collapsed, the most dynamic members of the privileged classes rapidly converted to the new role of bourgeoisie to all effects.
Certain heretical Trotskyists (such as Bruno Rizzi) understood their master's mistakes and modified the theory by introducing a new class, the "techno-bureaucracy", which was designed to take account of the situation in Soviet Russia, but which contained two limitations. The new class had a double face, as it was positioned between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat and shared aspects of both. In second place, the nature of the new class was seen as the most advanced and appropriate for the running of planned economies which were at that time gaining popularity even within capitalist societies. Forty years later, these aspects fascinated anti-organizationalist and non-class struggle anarchists in Italy. They saw undeniable advantages in it, from their point of view, and they made it the basis of a new theory made up of classes which rise and fall where the techno-bureaucracy plays a primary role against a proletariat which has most to fear from the arrogant new enemy and against the declining bourgeoisie which is to all extents innocuous. It was their hope that all this would smash the rigid class-struggle dualism which was considered Marxist and water down the class struggle, shifting attention onto the cultural front. This also had the effect of marking out the USSR as the real enemy and reducing the importance of the capitalist enemy in Western countries, considered by this stage a system in decline and rapidly moving towards the eastern European system. The fall of the Soviet empire, the end of planned economies, the re-emergence of the power of money and of the controllers of international finance, the spread of Western (in particular US) imperialism, the re-appearance of an aggressive bourgeoisie in capitalist countries, the increasing intensification of the traditional class war - all these have put paid to these so-called new theories which heralded a new age of messianic Anarchism.
5. Why Anarchist Communist: what distinguishes us from anarchists