The Question of Democracy

Democracy is a question that will haunt humanity as long as the state is a factor of social existence. As long as there is need to provide social cohesion in world torn apart through class antagonism governance through the state will be inevitable. Under capitalist societies there is a tendency towards the democratic form of the state, while breaks from this form do often occur in periods of intense crisis. What is unique about the democratic state is that it aims to find a common unity between the rulers and the ruled through processes of formal elections. While the state is always an institution separate from the community as a whole that serves the interests of particular classes, the democratic state is formally designed to represent the interests of the entire national community. In the ideal democratic state all who are deemed citizens of the state are granted equal votes in determining the representatives that inhabit the executive bodies of the state. As a result the democratic state claims to derive its sovereignty from the entire people, not a particular class.

The vision of society beyond the state as some form of “pure democracy” where all humans have equal decision making power is a short-sighted vision to us. For us the abolition of the state means the abolition of democracy, as a classless society would have no need for formal processes to legitimate rule. When the proletariat seizes power its form of governance is ultimately that of dictatorship, for it has no intention of hiding its aims as a class ruling it its own interests by legitimating its actions to all other classes. While the proletariat as a ruling class will utilize egalitarian forms of decision making processes that are similar in spirit to democracy its class rule is nonetheless a dictatorship. It will use democratic forms, but ultimately must reject the democratic principle. In this regard Rosa Luxemburg is correct in stating that dictatorship of the proletariat extends democracy to the proletariat while exercising rule against the bourgeoisie.

But even proletarian democracy is wrapped up in the existence of a state sphere separate from civil society as whole (even if its tendency is to abolish this separation) and should only be seen as instruments in organizing the class dictatorship of the proletariat towards the abolition of all classes. Democratic forms are used because they allow for free political association and discussion that extends control of the political sphere to all proletarians, allowing for a political regime that can function to truly exercise the interests of the proletariat as an entire class. Their utilization is a radical step forward in ending the separation of state and civil society. But mere extension of democracy will not undermine class divisions and abolish the state, for this political power must be utilized in a way that transforms social relations of production on a communist basis.  Communism must aim to transcended democracy rather than be realization of its principle of formal equality.

So if democracy is merely a form of the state this brings us to the question of the state and how one defines it. Much has been said about the adequacy of traditional Marxist definitions that the state is merely the “executive committee of the bourgeoisie” or “a body of armed men”. Despite being incomplete these definitions do have a certain strength because they emphasize the class nature of the state, as well as its basis in repressive force. Anarchists often fall back on a bourgeois/Weberian definition of the state that emphasizes centralization and monopoly of force over a territory in an attempt to debunk the Marxist definition of the state. The problem with this definition is that not all historical states are necessarily centralized and the decisive role of class division in the constitution of the state is ignored. Any understanding of the state of revolutionary value must take into account the role of state institutions in the reproduction of certain classes through enforcing corresponding social-property relations. Yet it should also take into account the role of the state in providing social cohesion in a world traditional forms of community are broken down by the domination of capitalist relations.

An adequate definition of “state” would be the set of institutions external from the entire community that provide social cohesion in a territory where production is mediated by antagonistic class interests. These institutions mediate between the different classes in society yet overwhelmingly tend to represent the interests of the dominant class (if not directly controlled by this class). The state acts to enforce a set of social-property relations that reinforce the power of this dominant class, establishing these property relations through a monopoly on repressive forces and legal institutions. Communists believe that the state can be abolished because the transcendence of class antagonisms would mean that society has no need for an external body to impose social cohesion through repressive force.

“The state” of course has different forms throughout the history of class societies. The impersonal administrative bureaucracy that strives to derive its authority through democratic means is unique to capitalist society. In all class societies were there is a division between the class of direct producers and the class which appropriates their surplus we see the existence of repressive institutions that maintain social cohesion and the power of the dominant class. Yet with pre-capitalist forms of the state we see more personalized, decentralized and localized forms of rule, such as the feudal state which consisted of a conglomerate of often competing lords which ruled over their own sovereignties. In Feudalism and most other pre-capitalist formations the ability to appropriate surplus from producers directly integrated with ones ability to hold some form of direct power over the producers. The peasant produced for the lord because they existed under their jurisdiction, with the lord exercising legal controls over the movement of the peasantry in order to tie them to the land. The lord on the other hand was granted ownership of this land through the higher power of the nobility which the lords owed military services to. In this system there is no integration of all different ruling bodies into one centralized body but rather networks of personalized obligations exercised through direct relations of force. This “parcellization of sovereignty” as described by Perry Anderson is notably different from the centralized bureaucracy of the capitalist state, for it does not have the same formal separation of the political and economic that we see under capitalism. The peasant (unlike the waged proletarian) requires political subjugation to exploit, and hence it is through a monopoly of coercive force enforced through social institutions (for example debts and limitations on movement) that the landlord is able to squeeze the surplus product from the peasant.

As Heide Gerstenberger explains in her work Impersonal Power the transition from the feudal state to  bourgeois form of the state meant a “de-personalization” of power, where the monopoly on violent force held by the aristocracy is expropriated and centralized into administrative institutions formally separate from civil society/the economy. A patchwork of different relations of power exercised by the church, monarchy and nobility becomes increasing generalized and then de-personalized into the form of the bourgeois state. The appropriation of surplus is no longer dependent on one holding direct force over the producing classes, though these direct relations of force are not immediately abolished of course. Instead the material reproduction of society is increasinly governed through the laws of commodity exchange, where it is the ability to own private property and employ waged labor from the increasing proletarianized masses that gives the ruling class access to the social surplus. Rather than direct subjugating labor the state subjugates labor to the rule of market by divorcing labor from the means of production and enforcing the dominance of commodity relations. Bourgeois state power isn’t directly controlled by the capitalist employing waged labor but regardless of this acts to maintain property relations that reproduce the propertied bourgeoisie and the propertyless proletariat.

While the past class relations based on direct and personalized forms of domination are replaced by the economic class relation of capitalism there is still a need to reproduce this class relation through political power. In this sense the bourgeois state is unique in that it doesn’t directly enforce class domination but rather takes a position of formal “neutrality”. It presents itself as above the selfish interests of individual capitalists and instead as a stabile forum where the general social interest is determined and executed. It proclaims that all citizens are equal under law, that the whole community of the nation is represented through the democratic process. Yet the state is never independent from the class relation, from maintaining the social property relations that allow for the reproduction of the bourgeois and proletariat as classes. The bourgeois state presents itself as more than a protection racket for personal power interests, yet it is always the agent of reproducing the class dominant class relation. As a result this neutrality is ultimately a false neutrality, and this is revealed in times of heightened class conflict where the need to discipline the proletariat to the rule of capital takes on more repressive forms.

Democratic formality is the means of approaching this neutrality, of presenting the states decisions and laws as a true expression of the “general will” of the people. Yet it would be a vulgar liberal analysis to say that elections are just a mere formality to give legitimacy to a regime that is otherwise totalitarian, that the form of democracy is purely a symbolic way to entrance the masses into supporting the protection-racket state. The system of elections and party representation in parliaments allows for different factions of the capitalist class who otherwise compete at the economic level to have a common forum of representation in the state. It allows for competing capitalist interests to influence the state without directly holding control of it, so that when the interests of individual capitals collide with the needs of the reproduction of the system as a whole these individual capitals can be disciplined and the needs of the greater capitalist class addressed. The bourgeois form of the state is the most effective way for the bourgeoisie to execute its rule, and attempts to transcend the liberal-democratic form of the state while maintaining the capitalist economy (like various fascisms and such) have proven to be unstable social formations.

The bourgeois form of the state is not only the most effective way for various factions of the capitalist class within a nation to reproduce themselves as a class. As shown in the various “state-derivation debates” in the late 70’s/80’s the bourgeois form of the state also can be logically derived from the value-form. What this essentially means is the ideal democracy of formal equality (one citizen = one vote, all are equal under rule of law, ect) mirrors the ideal capitalist economy of equal exchange between values. What this basically means politically is that the very principles of democracy that most leftists equate with the very content of socialism are really the ideals of capitalism. This is very similar to the critique of democracy Italian Marxist Amadeo Bordiga, whose critique of democracy have been taken as crypto-Blanquism by his critics. For Bordiga the democratic principle meant that one could mystically equate the “peoples will” through counting votes and that this peoples will was somehow then legitimate. Programme was everything for Bordiga, and in place of “democratic centralism” Bordiga offered a conception of “organic centralism” where intransigent adherence to the communist programme was to always be upheld above majority vote. Central to Bordiga’s view was a critique of privileging certain democratic forms of organization (like councils) over content the actual political content these forms expressed: “There are therefore no bodies which are revolutionary because of their form; there are only social forces that are revolutionary through the direction in which they act, and these forces are organized in a party that fights with a program.”

This critique of democratic principles was in many ways inspired by the betrayal of the 2nd International over WWI. While the programme of the 2nd International claimed to uphold opposition to any imperialist war and militarism all but two the social-democratic parties of the 2nd International voted for war credits. This amounted to an embrace of militarism and nationalism by the ostensibly internationalist social-democratic movement and to Bordiga was perfect example of the flaws of the democratic principle. It was the formal rules of the democratic process (majority rule) winning out over the content of the communist programme, an example of how counting heads is not a correct to determine the correct political course of action. Also influential on Bordiga’s rejection of the democratic principle was the Bienno Rosso in Italy from 1919-1921, where a wave of general strikes saw factory occupations and the formation of rank-and-file factory councils. While many Marxists like Antonio Gramsci saw these councils as inherently revolutionary the movement ended up under the leadership of reformist socialists and syndicalists and was unable to unite the entire proletariat to seize power. Bordiga saw Gramsci as fetishizing the form of the factory councils as an appearance of socialism and ignoring the possibility that they could become a tool of reformism, arguing instead that a revolutionary party independent from the reformists was needed to unify the proletariat around a specifically communist programme.

Bordiga’s critique of democracy is convincing in many ways yet it also can be taken too far. For example in his 1965 text When the Party’s General Situation is Historically Unfavorable Bordiga suggests that all voting mechanisms should be done away with. While the voting mechanism shouldn’t be treated as some sacred principle it does seem quite idealistic to believe that a political organization could effectively make decisions without ever voting. When one thinks of attempts to replace the voting mechanism the experiences of general assemblies Occupy Wall Street come up, which used goofy hand signals instead as a means to somehow come to a complete consensus of the group as opposed to majority rule voting. Generally this approach just led to unaccountable informal leadership, co-option from liberals and political incoherence. Ironically something like Occupy seems tailor made to demonstrate the validity of Bordiga’s critique of the democratic principle, as Occupy generally viewed the formal rules of “consensus organization” and “horizontalism” as being radical as such, regardless of their actual political content. In many ways the council communists have similar mentality, where the form of workers councils rooted in production is inherently communist because they expand democracy to the working class while (supposably) excluding the bourgeoisie.

On this question I admittedly fall closer to Bordiga. We cannot wait for 51% of the population to vote for revolution, to allow the principle of democracy to take precedence over communist politics. Democracy is an instrument of class rule, not an ideal to be realized. Egalitarian forms of decision making can’t be completely dismissed as a tool of the proletariat in organizing as a class and exercising a class dictatorship. In fact such forms of association (Soviets being a historical example) are vital to the success of such a class dictatorship in allowing for the proletariat to take political control of society into its own hands and govern as a class. It is clear that the form of the state under a dictatorship of the proletariat must be (and has been) radically different from the alienating military-bureaucratic machine of the bourgeois state. Yet we do not kid ourselves that these forms are somehow the content of communism itself or immune to being utilized for reformist or reactionary ends. Councils/Soviets are ultimately proletarian parliaments, they are a state institution and are therefore transitory forms. The dissolution of classes means the dissolution of class rule, and hence any kind of “democracy” be it proletarian or bourgeois. Communism will be a society beyond equality – for what meaning would equality have in a world without class divisions or value?

Sorel’s Reflections on Violence and the Poverty of Voluntarism

Not exactly a fascist but certainly a nutjob.

George Sorel’s Reflections on Violence is a maddening work, giving the reader an insightful portrait of the chaotic and conflict ridden French workers movement. For this reason alone it is worth reading as a historical document, despite the authors dodgy politics. Sorel brilliantly depicts the tensions between revolutionaries and reformists, as well as the complexity created by the petty-bourgeoisie and religious institutions. This is actually quite surprising given his economistic vision of class struggle, where syndicates that are formed at the point of production will wage battle through strikes and then eventually a cataclysmic general strike (which Sorel likens to a Napoleonic battle). Sorel in many ways is simply responding to what is going on around him and the ongoing crisis of the French workers movement, in which divisions are increasingly antagonistic and old orthodoxies are being ruthlessly critiqued in a search for new ideas. I also found his vitriolic attacks on reformist figures quite entertaining and hard not to sympathize with.

This book is also fairly controversial, given that Mussolini declared Sorel to be one of his most important influences. In a 1937 interview Mussolini claimed “George Sorel has been my Master” when asked if he was influenced by Reflections on Violence. As a result Sorel is often dismissed as a harbinger of fascism or simply a fascist. For example in Jean-Paul Sartre’s intro to Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth Sorel’s work is dismissed outright as  “fascist chatter”. Now to be clear I have no interest in defending Sorel’s actual politics, which do have elements that were quite easily appropriated by fascism. Yet it is quite reductive and ignorant to simply dismiss Sorel as a fascist, at least from what is contained in Reflections on Violence. Sorel is clearly a syndicalist, and while he consistently bashes anarchists in this work his politics have more in common with the likes of Bakunin. In fact anarchists that are viewed as completely acceptable by the left today had ideas that have influenced and been appropriated by fascists (for example Proudhon’s integralist nationalism). The fact of the matter is that fascism was not a purely right wing phenomena, but a fusion of ideas from both the right and left.

Reflections on Violence more than anything is an attempt to theorize syndicalism as a political practice which can serve as a viable alternative to the reformist Marxism of the Social-Democrats. Consistent targets of Sorel’s polemics are the French Social-Democrat Jean Jaures and Karl Kautsky. By the time this book was published political rifts already existed between the revisionists, centrists and mass-action left in the Second International and Sorel seems to have little to say about the more radical leadership of social-democracy like Rosa Luxemburg and Anton Pannekoek. Yet as far as his critiques pertain to the reformists and center they are often quite dead on.

For Sorel the tactics of Parliamentary Socialism inherently lead to opportunism. In order to get votes and gain influence in the bourgeois state the Parliamentary Socialists seek to win the favor of classes other than the proletariat:

Parliamentary Socialists can only obtain great influence if they can manage, by the use of a very confused language, to impose themselves on diverse groups. For example, they must have working-men constituents simple enough to allow themselves to be duped by high-sounding phrases about future collectivism; they are compelled to represent themselves as profound philosophers to stupid middle-class people who wish to appear well informed about social questions; it is very necessary also for them to be able to exploit rich people who think that they are earning the gratitude of humanity by taking shares in the socialist politician.”

In the process of trying to win the favor of the middle classes the Parliamentary Socialists have to suppress the more radical and violent acts of the proletariat. This generally makes sense; as the opportunist social-democrats appeal to the favor of the populace in their election campaigns they must present themselves as keeping the public order and having the interest of the middle class at heart. Yet ultimately the middle-class have interests alien to the workers because they want to become the future administrators of society and so the workers party develops a caste of politicians who hold back the class struggle. This brings to mind the recent election campaign in Seattle of Trotskyist Kshama Sawant, who appealed to small business owners while claiming to run a “working class campaign”. I generally agree with this aspect of Sorel’s critique and prefer it to Kautky’s rants about how capitalism civilizes proles to use democracy instead of violence. Yet it is also a very limited critique that is more based on ethics than on a historical materialist understanding of how reformism is generated.

For Sorel the Parliamentary Socialists fear the general strike because it is an event they are incapable of controlling in which the middle class has nothing to gain. “With the General Strike,” says Sorel, “all the fine things disappear; the revolution appears as revolt….and no place is reserved for sociologists, for fashionable people who are in favour of social reforms, and for Intellectuals who have embraced the profession of thinking for the proletariat.” The general strike is raised to a cataclysmic event, where proletarian violence reaches a “Napoleonic level” and workers syndicates raise themselves to become the only authority in society. All other questions on how to organize society and develop socialism are gleefully ignored by Sorel, since he believes that the act of the general strike will morally purify the workers into a class capable of running society on its own. He claims that the entire content of socialism is contained in the general strike, “that by concentrating the whole of socialism in the drama of the general strike there is no longer any place for the reconciliation of contraries in the equivocations of professors; everything is clearly mapped out, so that only one interpretation of socialism is possible.”

This is frankly quite ridiculous stuff, and of course with Sorel it gets more ridiculous. But essentially what we have here is classic syndicalism, nothing much different from what Sol-Fed or IWW espouse these days. While Sorel correctly critiques the opportunism of the Parliamentary Socialists he fails to see how his own tactics can lead to opportunism. By simply only organizing syndicates at the point of production and refusing to engage with the bourgeois state Sorel believes that capitulation to opportunism can be avoided. Of course history has proven this to be wrong, and discussing the complex history of syndicalism will have to be done elsewhere. But ultimately Sorel fails to see how workers syndicates can also become incorporated into bourgeois order by their role as mediating the relations between employers and workers. He also fails to see how bureaucracies similar to parliamentary bureaucracies can develop in the workers syndicates, and how the short sighted nature of syndicalist tactics can lead to opportunism. Anton Pannekoek’s description of opportunism from his World Revolution and Communist Tactics pamphlet here is very useful, an in many ways is a perfect description of Sorel’s political strategy:

Opportunism does not necessarily mean a pliant, conciliatory attitude and vocabulary, nor radicalism a more acerbic manner; on the contrary, lack of clear, principled tactics is all too often concealed in rabidly strident language; and indeed, in revolutionary situations, it is characteristic of opportunism to suddenly set all its hopes on the great revolutionary deed. Its essence lies in always considering the immediate questions, not what lies in the future, and to fix on the superficial aspects of phenomena rather than seeing the determinant deeper bases.”

For Sorel the workers simply need to form syndicates until the entire class is organized and then carry out the general strike. The general strike will allow for the bypassing of  the political power of the bourgeoisie and the reformists, so therefore only an economic struggle against the employers is needed to prepare for the final cataclysmic event. Yet Sorel is perceptive enough to realize that the Parliamentary Socialists have a grip upon the mentality of the proletariat, and this is a hamper on their revolutionary potential. So what exactly will animate the proletariat into revolutionary action despite their reformist tendencies? Sorel rejects the thesis that capitalism has inherent contradictions that lead to collapse as overly positivistic, expressing disdain for rationalism and science. For Sorel the crisis theory of Marx is a source of complacency. Rather than crisis what will drive the proletariat into action is “myth”.

Sorel compares Marxism to early Christianity, claiming that the growth of Christianity was made possible by its proliferation of the myth of the second coming of Christ. While the myth wasn’t objectively true it inspired its followers to take action and make Christianity a dominant world power. For Sorel the ideology of the general strike is essentially the same. Capitalism isn’t going to collapse, but if we proliferate the myth that capitalism will collapse it will inspire the proletariat to act upon it an then cause the myth to become a reality. Hence the proletarian vanguard must spread the myth of the general strike as effectively as possible in order to compel it to act. While Sorel claims to be protecting the true marxist doctrine of class struggle in his often quite ludicrous rants it’s obvious that his ideas are fundamentally anti-marxist. Not only do they reduce the problems of revolution and class struggle to a matter of will to power and voluntarism they also make ideas the driving force of history. Communism is also not a matter of myth. It is in fact quite the opposite. Communism aims to demystify human society and break down ridiculous myths by destroying the material conditions that create them. Communists cannot trick the proletariat into acting in its own interests by creating myths, but instead must present their positions in as clear and honest of a way as possible.

It is most likely Sorel’s idea of myth that influenced and inspired Mussolini. Before fascism Mussolini was a member of the more radical wing of the Italian Socialist Party and was a proclaimed Internationalist, even getting arrested in a riot protesting Italian war with Tripoli in 1910. Yet when WWI came around Mussolini diverged from his internationalist position. After mingling with Italian syndicalism and the ideas of Sorel WWI showed Mussolini the effectiveness under which the masses could be mobilized in the name of nationalism. Ultimately the Sorelian myth that was actually utilized was not the general strike but the myth of the nation. While Sorel had ended his flirtation with nationalism by 1914 and returned to an internationalist stance Mussolini on the other hand aimed to turn the workers syndicates into a basis for mobilizing a revolutionary nationalist movement. Mussolini was able to convince the leadership of the Italian Syndicalist Union, or USI, to follow his nationalist politics and split from the USI to form purely nationalist union, the Italian Labor Union or UIL. In the workers syndicates Mussolini not only saw a basis for violent mobilization in the streets but also a corporatist reorganization of society that would unite workers and employers. This gives truth to Bordiga’s claim that “fascism steals from the proletariat its secret: organization.” 

From what I am able to find there is no evidence that Sorel ever supported Mussolini’s politics after this point. My intention here is not to blame Sorel for the rise of fascism, which was a complex phenomena that cannot be understood purely in terms of ideas. Fascism ultimately develops because capitalist crisis and class struggle make the democratic form of the state less viable as means to secure the conditions for capital accumulation. Yet fascism is not simply a conspiracy on the part of the bourgeoisie or more specifically finance capital. While fascism certainly survives and finds a material basis to function in support from big business and the petty-bourgeois it ultimately develops through spontaneous mass movements which often strive for autonomy from capital. The masses are not inherently internationalist or class conscious, which is a flawed assumption that many syndicalists and councilists make. By diverting anti-capitalist sentiments into nationalistic channels fascism by default valorizes capital, regardless of its proclaimed intentions for “national socialism” or rantings against the evils of finance. Fascism would exist regardless of Sorel and ultimately he is as much to blame for fascism as Proudhon, Bakunin, Stirner or Nietzsche.

However this is not to say that there is maybe something positive to learn from Sorel’s ideas on the myth. Ultimately Reflections on Violence and those it influenced exposes the poverty of voluntarism and demonstrates how attempts to force consciousness upon the working class ultimately fail and lead to reactionary politics. Today in many ways we are faced with the same difficulties that Sorel was responding to. Class consciousness and subjectivity are in a process of decomposition from the victory of capitalist counter-revolution, and as a result both reactionary and reformist ideas greatly influence the working class. In many ways we face a crisis of class consciousness. While Sorel’s conditions were vastly different he was dealing with similar problems of consciousness, responding to the dominance of reformist ideas in the French workers movement. For Sorel the proletarian vanguard would be able to use myth of the general strike to awaken the other workers from their Menshevik-slumber. Rationalism could not be used, for the workers could not be convinced by the bookish doctrines of scientific socialism. Instead the irrational would have to be tapped into, and hence the general strike would carry its own power as an idea.

For foolish militants eager to organize the proles today this idea may sound tempting. But ultimately this strategy cannot work to mobilize workers for communism. Communism is not a myth, it is a material necessity for humanity to continue its development. A Sorelian mass only driven by myth and irrationalism will not create communism but will only be a tool for capitalist reaction to manipulate. Resorting to myth-making or just populist demagoguery to somehow make our ideas more popular ultimately leads to the opportunism and reaction provided by the Parliamentary Socialists that Sorel so deeply despises. As Communists we should take the opposite approach, which is to explain our positions with clarity and engage the class in a principled manner no matter how difficult it is. There are no shortcuts to class consciousness that we can force upon workers. Yet at the same time questions of consciousness cannot be ignored in hope that the eventual crisis will fix everything and put the proles in their place. Sorel bravely attempts to explore the problems of consciousness in Reflections on Violence but turns to irrationalism in order to offer solutions that only lead to opportunism. 

Some notes on Marxism and Anarchism

This is a post I wrote for the blog Swamp Surfers about the possibility of a Marxist/Anarchist synthesis. 

There is much that is valuable in the history of Anarchism, an ideology that was often the banner of the most militant and class conscious proletarian movements in the 20th century. At its best Anarchism rejected legalism and embraced the direct action of the working class and anarcho-syndicalist unions were often far more proletarian than Social-Democratic parties in certain countries (Mexico and Spain come to mind). There is also much said on the similarities between various Marxists currents (left-communism, autonomous marxism, council communism, Johnson-Forest Tendency, ect.) and anarchism, as well as a how irrelevant historical splits between these currents are.

This is in many ways an admirable sentiment, and Scott Nappalos touches on it in his essay “The Dissolution of the Red and Black”. Nappalos calls for a “non-dialectical synthesis” between Marxism and anarchism, pointing out how Marxists and anarchists influenced each others practice and theory to the point where the only distinguishing factor at this point is old sectarian rivalries. His argument is simple: now even marxists recognize the truth in anarchist ideas like worker democracy, direct action and anti-statism, while anarchists just as often fall into reformism and class-collaboration these days as Marxists do.

There is much to agree on here. Unity shouldn’t be based on vague ideological identities like marxist or anarchist but instead ones actual politics. Marxists and anarchists who reject reformism, nationalism and class-collaboration have much more grounds for unity with each other than with other marxists/anarchists who offer Keynesian solutions or reformist trade unionism. Unneeded Red/Black sectarianism is simply boring and annoying and contributes nothing to theory or praxis. Yet at the same time it would be foolish to ignore the actual differences between Anarchism and Marxism and their worldviews. Simply pushing Marxism and Anarchism into a synthesis means ignoring that the historical rifts between these currents were often based on real ideological and political differences that still exist.

For example, is Marxism embracing worker democracy, anti-statism and reformist tactics really a new thing that can be traced to anarchist influence? I’d like to avoid an exercise in Marxology but it is very clear from works like Civil War in France and Conspectus on Bakunin’s Statism and Anarchy that Marx was opposed to using the bourgeois state as a means to communism. It’s clear that Marx envisioned the dreaded Dictatorship of the Proletariat not as a bureaucratic military machine but as the “self-government of the commune”. Other Marxists like Lenin, Luxemburg and Pannekoek have also made similar points in their polemics against reformist currents of Marxism. The differences between Anarchism and Marxism are deeper than the simple authoritarian/libertarian divide.

 In his writings on Italian syndicalism in his Tactics and Ethics collection the Marxist theorist György Lukács points out the syndicalist movement was able to gain influence because of its ethical rejection of the opportunism and class-collaboration of the old workers parties. Yet at the same time this rejection was merely ethical and syndicalism was incapable offering an alternative to the Marxist theory of the state and capital, therefore falling into much of the same opportunism and capitulation as the social-democratic parties. This in many ways explains the weaknesses of anarchist ideology. The anarchist theoretical framework is based of a rejection of authority as an abstract ethical principle, and from here comes to reject the state in all forms.

Of course many anarchists see this as the strength of Anarchism. Marxism is blind to ethics and tries to apply a “scientific” theoretical apparatus to all reality, therefore leading to an authoritarian dictatorship of marxist intellectuals and technocrats. Yet Marxism is not blind to ethics, even its most “authoritarian” variants. It’s just that ethics alone is not an effective guide to revolutionary action and we should understand ethics through a historical materialist lens rather than in terms of abstract transhistorical principles. What is “authoritarian” and what is “libertarian” is a very subjective thing and often comes down to an idealistic metaphysics of authority. Rather Marxism chooses class analysis and historical materialism, as well the critique of bourgeois political economy. Anarchism often borrows from these theoretical tools, but often rejects them as well looking for an alternatives that are frankly quite disappointing (like Iain McKays attempts to revive Proudhon’s political economy, or the semi-Keynesian ideas of Robert Hahnel). As result many anarchist end up supporting distorted forms of capitalism like PARECON and end up supporting gradualist non-revolutionary visions of change, where self-managed co-ops gradually replace monopolistic capitalism.

The truth is that anarchism has never really developed solid revolutionary theory of its own and in attempting to draw lessons from the past struggles of the proletariat is only capable of making moral judgements. Anarchists understand why capitalism is bad and immoral and unjust but don’t have a theory of how capitalism can be transcended. An example of this is how anarchists understand the state. Both anarchists and Marxists agree that the bourgeois state must be smashed. Yet anarchists claim that while Marxists propose a new “workers state” the anarchists will replace the state with a decentralized federation of communes. Yet the state is not a matter of centralization or decentralization, but a mediation between class antagonisms. The anarchist may replace the bourgeois state with a decentralized federation but this would still constitute a state until class antagonisms have been defeated (which requires a complex and uneven process of radically transforming society).

The truth is that both Anarchist and Marxist workers movements found themselves containing similar contradictions. Both the mass syndicalist and mass social-democratic movements of the late 19th/early 20th century found themselves falling into reformism and capitulation to the bourgeois state. While the example of the CNT-FAI is overused there is also the example of the Casa del Obrero Mundial in Mexico, an anarcho-syndicalist union that ended up helping the Constitutionalist state smash agrarian revolt. Without a materialist understanding of the concrete conditions that led to such capitulations to the bourgeoisie we can only make ethical judgements about the betrayal of leaders, the failure of workers to adhere strongly enough to anarchist ideals or perhaps not utilizing “horizontalist” forms of organization. What results is a voluntaristic understanding of politics and history, where ideas and the will to power are emphasized to the expense of more objective factors.

These sort of theoretical confusions don’t mean that anarchists and marxists who share similar political grounds shouldn’t work together. Anarchists and Marxists who are solidly internationalists and anti-state definitely have more in common with each other than Stalinists/Maoists or anarcho-liberals. Yet working together and having a dialogue also means recognizing differences. Overall both modern Anarchism and Marxism as political tendencies are a swamp. While Marxists groups today tend to be millenarian sects or bureaucratic rackets the anarchists tend to fall into a vague subcultural populism or reformist trade unionism. Being a tendency based on a vague assertion of anti-authority a sort of incoherence sets in, a politics of anything-goes. Opposition to any kind of centralism or even opposition to leadership as such leads to the development of an informal leadership that isn’t held accountable and denies its own role as leadership. Of course there are exceptions and many anarchists recognize these flaws and work against them. I’ll admit these are mostly generalizations based on my own experiences with the anarchist community in the past. Yet I do think part of what keeps Marxism and Anarchism divided is how miserable our respective organizational cultures are.

To take the position that anarchists are simply tools of reaction sewing confusion in the minds of the proletariat like Engels asserts in his polemic On Authority is certainly not necessary. While I have my doubts about how much anarchist theory offers us there is much of importance to learn from the actual history of anarchist movements which were a very important part of the workers movement. We also need to acknowledge that it is mostly anarchists who are experimenting with new forms of struggles and tactics today and are often at the forefront of various struggles. Anarchism’s uncompromising stances against the state and capital are certainly attractive to militants today who are alienated by the bureaucratic nature of Trot and M-L sects. Yet on its own Anarchism has failed to develop a real theoretical alternative to Marxism and often picks and chooses from the body of Marxist work to find a theoretical basis. Perhaps some kind of synthesis of anarchism’s emphasis on anti-statism and direct action with revolutionary Marxism is in order, though ultimately I think the strength of such a synthesis would come mostly from a solid Marxist framework.

Some thoughts on class

To simply say that capitalism creates communism is correct, though in an ambiguous way. Capitalist development must create a proletariat, a class of the dispossessed. The key to understanding what what defines capitalism is understanding its reliance on a pool of labor power that it can draw on as well as expel when necessary. While capital aims to reduce the proletariat to labor power in the abstract, a mere object for the creation of value, the proletariat asserts itself as a human class. The proletariat prefigures communism through class struggle, by asserting its humanity in the face of capitals violence of abstraction.

As a historical subject the proletariat can only fully escape the alienation of capital through the complete destruction and transcendence of class society. The proletariat is robbed of any mode of self-substinence independent of selling its labor-power to capital, separated from the own conditions of its existence. It is a propertyless class that can only achieve independence through collectively taking hold of the means of production and revolutionizing them, creating a free association of labor. While other classes have always participated in revolution the proletariat is the only class with the whose emancipation can only be achieved through communism. Capitalist development is a process of creating a proletariat, a process which sows the seeds of its own destruction.

The process of class struggle is often one of workers defeat, where capital has successfully divided and atomized what was once a conscious and organized historical subject. The proletariat is not a static entity, but a process of composition. It is too easy to look at the current political cynicism amongst workers in the United States in conjunction with intolerable working conditions and conclude that the proletariat no longer exists. This ignores the militancy of struggles in other parts of the globe (China, Bangladesh) and fails to acknowledge the uneven development of consciousness.  It also ignores that consciousness is never fixed but is always being shaped by material reality. Capitalist production is unique in that it must constantly revolutionize itself through violent processes of accumulation, its composition and structure never static. Because the proletariat is such a vital aspect of capitalist production it experiences these processes from a standpoint that inclines it to act. A low point in class consciousness is never permanent, for capital cannot exist as a fixed structure. Neo-liberal ideology becomes more and more laughable as global crisis becomes reality.

Ultimately it is action which precedes consciousness. Class consciousness arises from the everyday experience of existing in antagonism with capital, from the alienation of everyday life. It is not delivered to the workers via intellectuals. The proletariat will utilize revolutionary theory, but it does not define itself through an ideology as the Marxist-Leninist would have it. Class consciousness does not develop in a linear way, with specific stages and steps. It manifests itself through action more than stated ideas at first. Many make the mistake to believe that the workers are incapable of becoming class conscious because of deeply ingrained backwards attitudes. We should not ignore the reality of such backwards ideas in the proletariat, as they exist in all classes of society. Yet we should understand that people change, that ideas are not fixed and that the reality of class struggle challenges these ideas. While it may be stereotypical to draw on the Russian Revolution as an example, Martin Glaberman makes an excellent point on this subject:

“Marx believed that the conditions of life and work of the proletariat would force the working class to behave in ways that would ultimately transform society. In other words, what Marx said was: We’re not talking about going door-to-door and making workers into ideal socialists. You’ve got to take workers as they are, with all their contradictions, with all their nonsense. But the fact that society forces them to struggle begins to transform the working class. If white workers realize they can’t organize steel unless they organize black workers, that doesn’t mean they’re not racist. It means that they have to deal with their own reality, and that transforms them. Who were the workers who made the Russian Revolution? Sexists, nationalists, half of them illiterate. Who were the workers in Polish Solidarity? Anti-Semitic, whatever. That kind of struggle begins to transform people.”

What Glaberman captures is how class struggle forces workers to form a real human community. It is a community that is not defined by nationality, race, sexuality, culture, aesthetics, ect but a community that transcends identity. Many Marxist ideologues see class consciousness as a class identity, typically a workerist stereotype of what defines a “real prole”. To see class in terms of identity is to miss the point completely. Class unites people beyond identity, not according to identity or culture. The formation of a proletarian subject is the process of uniting across divisions, a process which emerges from organized revolt against capitalist development. As the class becomes more unified and centralized in its revolt bourgeois ideology breaks down for the living process of the class struggle reveals that capital is merely a historically specific social relation built on class antagonism.

Capitalist development only creates the possibility of communism because it creates its own anti-thesis. It creates a class that exists on an international scale, and therefore can only achieve liberation by acting as a world-historical phenomena. This necessitates political organization on an international level yet such organization cannot be called into existence by self proclaimed proletarian leaders (like Trotsky’s 4th International). It is created in the process of the struggles circulating and centralizing on larger and larger levels, developing new forms of organization to meet these needs. It is problematic to associate class consciousness with a specific organization, or form of organization, for organizations are never static in which roles they play in the struggle. The Bolshevik Party was revolutionary in 1917 yet quite clearly counter-revolutionary by 1921. Workers councils often become bureaucratized or taken over by reactionaries. However the brilliance of the Council Communists came with how they saw class struggle producing forms which prefigured the future society. Historical Workers Councils were far from perfect and devoid of hierarchy, yet they still showed an inclination towards increased social decision-making and unifying a class subject beyond the factory gates. Such forms are never perfect because they still exist in capitalist society but at the same time carry aspects of prefiguration to the extent that are animated by the proletarian struggle.

The proletariat defines itself through its activity, through its role as a progressive class creating a world in its own image. The revolt against work is only effective to the extent that it becomes a revolt against the social totality that reduces all life to work. It must become not merely the refusal of work but liberation from work. This implies not only revolt against the despotism of bosses and landlords but revolt against the despotism of the state. But lets us not forget that the state is not merely the rulers of ones own country but a global force, factionally divided as it may be. We must always avoid making a strictly national approach to our understanding of class consciousness, for capitalist society has always been a global society.

The Mythology of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution and the Chinese Ultra-left

The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution is claimed by many Maoists as the highest point of communism in the history of mankind. Maoists such as the RCP and Kasama and even anarchists like Michael Albert see the event as evidence of the liberatory potential of Maoist thought. Much of the New Left in general was enamored by the events in China and radical newspapers from the era are full of Mao portraits and quotes from the Little Red Book. “It is right to rebel” being taken up as a slogan made the Maoists seem like they were more anarchist than the anarchists, the “hardest” of the revolutionaries.

If anything, the Cultural Revolution exposes the poverty of Maoist politics. Maoism only promised “the right to rebel” to the extent that rebellion stayed within the confines of Maoism.

To call what happened during the years considered the height of the GPCR (66-69) a revolution, nonetheless a proletarian one, is certainly a misnomer. A more apt description would be that it was a bureaucratic power struggle that in many cases got out of hand. Gaps in authority were certainly created by Mao’s chaotic tactics of consolidating power and workers certainly took advantage of these gaps in authority. But in the end Mao’s Cultural Revolution wasn’t much different from Stalin’s – an attempt to solve the problems of socialism-in-one-country through purging the state leadership of corrupt “capitalist roaders” rather than changing the social relations that led these corrupt positions to develop in the first place.

The very concept of Cultural Revolution is foreign to Marx’s conception of revolution. Marx viewed proletarian revolution as a process that is not merely political but social. There is no separate category of Cultural Revolution differentiated from the revolution which transforms the totality of social relations.

Marxist-Leninist dogmatism claims that the expropriation of the bourgeoisie, nationalization of property and establishment of central planning under the rule of party eliminates the basis of class antagonisms. Yet it was clear that China in 1966 was no workers utopia that had rid itself of all social contradiction. In Mao’s eyes the remaining contradictions of society were contained strictly within the political/cultural superstructure, for the economic base no longer contained class antagonism. Maoist theory claimed that the superstructure was “relatively autonomous” from the base and hence a “cultural revolution” was needed to purge the revisionist leadership within the CCP. This was not a Marxist theory of revolution, but rather a populist theory that was not dissimilar from Bismark’s Kulturkamf.

In no way was the GPCR a spontaneous event. After the enormous human toll of Mao’s failed policies in the Great Leap Forward much of the CCP took a more conservative stance on economic issues. Voluntaristic and extremist policies were avoided and Mao was reduced to a more symbolic “father of the country” style figure in the party, though his theories were still official state doctrine. Like the ruling bureaucracy of all the classic Stalinist nations we can see two general factions in the CCP – those like Mao who wanted to maintain autarky and a command economy, and those like Deng Xiaopeng who favored the continued existence of internal markets and gradual development. Mao had been looking for ways to purge the party of the more rightist faction years before the Cultural Revolution using internal party channels but there efforts were to no avail. Such a task would require mobilizing the masses outside the party, who had no shortage of reasons to gripe about the disconnect and corruption of the state bureaucracy. Yet it was not from the masses where the GPCR would have its origin, but from within the CCP with the founding of the Central Cultural Revolutionary Group. This group only had a limited influence with the party as it was only composed of Mao and his closest cohorts. By going outside of the party and channeling mass discontent Mao’s faction concocted a strategy to not only consolidate power but to further refine his ideological hold over the nation.

At first the Cultural Revolution was very similar to earlier anti-rightist campaigns that aimed to persecute former bourgeoisie. Many students engaged in criticisms of professors they viewed as overly traditional and conservative. Head of state Liu Shaoqi’s very much tried to keep the movement within these bounds, avoiding criticism of the party members themselves. It was in May 1966 when Mao suggested that rightism was a trend within the party itself, that party committees at all levels should be subject to criticism.

It was in the summer of 1966 when the Red Guards formed. These groups of youth were united by an ideological adherence to Mao-Zedong Thought and their legitimate grievances with the CCP. Many Red Guards were the children of state bureaucrats who saw themselves as the “cream of the crop” of China, while others came from more “lumpen” backgrounds. While the Red Guards were divided into many factions, some of them gang-like, one can make a general divide between the more revolutionary and conservative Red Guards, with the more revolutionary typically from less privileged strata of society. Some factions of Red Guards found themselves attacking party committees for rightism, while other Red Guards found themselves defending party committees from supposed rightists. Eventually the movement fell out of Liu Shaoqi’s control and Mao had many of the more conservative factions of the Red Guards banned.

As the movement grew social turmoil intensified and Red Guards began to to even carry more power than Party committees in some areas. Bureaucrats who were used to being unhindered lording over society were now being socially persecuted in public struggle sessions, some which were so intense that suicide was the final result. Mao was giving the masses a chance to express themselves while still ultimately maintaining the structure of the party-state. In Shanghai, December 1966 the movement spread beyond the criticism of bureaucrats into a mass strike of apprentices who were asking for better pay and working conditions. A movement that originated in the party to mobilize students and lumpen was now impacting the disaffected proletarians of China, with order in Shanghai now withering away.

Now that workers were engaged in struggle their demands were simply regarded as economistic for merely being wage demands. The ideological propaganda coming from Mao and cohorts now focused on attacking the “economism” of workers who were refusing to restore order. Red Guards were ordered “to take power” in Shanghai, but this was not a move to transcend the party-state but rather one aimed to quell the dissent of the working class. Millions of Chinese workers were temporary contract workers from the countryside that were denied the benefits that full time workers received, finding themselves in an economically un-stabile position. While the demands of these workers revolved around issues of egalitarianism and were essentially socialist in content they were dismissed by Mao as “rightist”. According to Maoist propaganda these workers were merely agents of rightist bureaucrats who were trying to restore “revisionism” to power. Yet it  is clear these temporary migrant workers were amongst the most exploited strata of the Chinese proletariat and were voicing legitimate demands that exposed the continued existence of class contradictions in China.

Mao’s orders for the Red Guards to “take power” in Shanghai was certainly a move that had more to do with consolidating authority and getting the workers to shut up than with establishing any kind of dictatorship of the proletariat. From attacking party bureaucracy in general to denouncing the “economism” of workers, Mao’s propaganda then went to urging Red Guards to “unite with all who can be united”. What this meant was making peace with the majority of party bureaucrats, for now it was just a handful of bad apples that needed to be worried about. “Narrowing the focus of attack” meant that criticism was now concentrated on Deng Xiaopeng and Liu Shaoqi and often went to absurd lengths. Any shared political positions that Mao and Liu had in the past were denied, for all positions that Liu held were inherently rightist. Focusing the political energy of the movement on attacks against Liu and Deng rather than a critique of social relations helped Mao further restore order and bring the Red Guards closer under the ideological control of his faction of the party-state. The real intentions of the movement became clearer when Deng and Liu were no longer influential in the CCP and Mao ordered an end to free transportation for Red Guards throughout the country. With the emergence of “ultra-left” currents that saw the need for actual revolutionary change Mao seemed to lose interest in the mass movements that had developed. The next step was to call in the army.

Lin Biao, the commander in chief of the People’s Liberation Army, had done much to indoctrinate his troops with the ideology of Mao-Zedong Thought. Lin was an ideologically dedicated Maoist, one of the bureaucrats most sympathetic to the extremist policies of the Great Leap Forward. He was also a key figure in crafting the Mao Cult as it existed during the Cultural Revolution by compiling what is known as the Little Red Book, a compilation of quotes by Chairman Mao that served as ideological poetry for the Red Guards. Though Lin Biao would later be accused of plotting a coup against Mao his allegiance to Mao meant that the PLA could be used to establish state authority amongst the political chaos that had taken over the country. In February of 67 New state organs called revolutionary committees, or three-in-one committees were ordered to be established throughout the country, containing 1) representatives from the army, 2) representatives of Red Guards and 3) old party bureaucrats.

Essentially the masses were now being called on to ally with the party bureaucrats they had so eagerly criticized and mobilized against when given the chance. As one can imagine the establishment of the revolutionary committees was met with mass opposition and it took a while for the state to fully establish authority. Mass demonstrations and strikes had to be put down violently in many cities. In Shanghai the revolutionary committees had to assure ascendance through the democratic mystifications of the “Shanghai People’s Commune”.

The founding of the Shanghai People’s Commune was not a product of a proletarian uprising like in the Commune of Paris 1870. It was founded as the result of compromises between factions of Red Guards and the restoration of order by the PLA. The founding of the Shanghai People’s Commune claimed to deliver the radical political democracy that the Cultural Revolution originally promised. Yet without the political content of actual proletarian rule the short-lived Shanghai People’s Commune could merely mimic the form of the legendary Paris Commune. Ultimately its authority was derived from Mao and the PLA. Point 9 of the 16-Point Decision written upon its founding promised:

a system of general elections, like that of the Paris Commune, for electing members to the cultural revolutionary groups and committees and delegates to the cultural revolutionary congresses. The lists of candidates should be put forward by the revolutionary masses after full discussion, and the elections should be held after the masses have discussed the lists over and over again. 

The elections never even happened, for the Shanghai People’s Commune lasted less than a month and was merely a way to transition into the rule of the three-in-one revolutionary committees.

After Deng Xiaopeng and Liu Shaoqui were no longer ideologically an influence in the CCP much propaganda from the Maoist Center focused on demonizing the growing “ultra-left” that took Mao’s call to rebel seriously. Any ruling group will never be able to fully establish the complete hegemony of its ideology and the Maoist bureaucracy was no exception. Army commanders aimed to fully incorporate Red Guards into the 3-in-1 committees but many refused, correctly seeing that these committees were not organs of proletarian dictatorship but class collaboration. This lead to clashes between “ultra-left” Red Guards and the army, complicated by the fact that many soldiers in the PLA were sympathetic to the ultra-left. By end of summer 67 Ultra-left Red Guards were in many cases taking the offensive, with tens of thousands of engaging in an organized siege of government buildings in Beijing for a month. By September Mao and Lin Biao made it clear that they were sympathetic to the army commanders aiming to restore order. Purges occurred and weapons were seized. The more rebellious Red Guards held off for a bit, consolidating themselves and organizing into more effective units. Others opportunistically vied for seats in the three-in-one committees.

Many on the ultra-left viewed much of the factional fighting between Red Guards as essentially gang warfare, which it essentially was in many cases. In many cases factional fighting between Red Guards simply amounted to which leaders would occupy seats in the three-in-one committees. Taking a break from the ruthless power politics of before meant a chance to reflect and refine theory. Many currents of thought developed, such “Communist Group” in Bejing, “October Revolution Group” in Shandong, Sheng-wu-lian in Hunan and the more peasant oriented Dei-jue-yang in Wuhan.

The Hunan Provincial Proletarian Revolutionary Great Alliance Committee, or Sheng-wu-lian, was the most influential and notable of the Ultra-left currents that developed. Sheng-wu-lian may have written in the language of Mao Ze-Dong Thought, yet clearly espoused ideas that threatened the political supremacy of Mao himself. The currents most famous document, Whither China, written by Yang Xiguang, made bold statements such as:

“What is the reality? ‘Peaceful transition’ is only another name for ‘peaceful evolution.’ It can only cause China to drift farther and farther away from the ‘Commune’ depicted in the May 7 Directive, and nearer and nearer to the existing society of the Soviet Union. . . ..The rule of the new bureaucratic bourgeoisie must be overthrown by force in order to solve the problem of political power. Empty shouting about realization of the May 7 Directive, without any reference to power seizure and complete smashing of the old state machinery, will truly be the ‘utopian’ dream.”

Whither China is full of references to Marxism-Leninism, revisionism, and Mao-Zedong Thought yet is more theoretically adept in its class analysis than the populist poetry of Mao. Mao merely called for the masses to criticize and perhaps replace the party bureaucrats that managed their exploitation, a program of populist reformism. Whither China called for revolution in permanence, for the continuance of the class struggle. Sheng-wu-lian saw the CCP as a “class of ‘Red’ capitalists” that had “become a decaying class that hindered the progress of history”. The three-in-one committees were merely a “product of bourgeois reformism” that would lead to a dictatorship of the army and bureaucracy if established. Worker struggles dismissed by the Maoist Center as “economistic” were granted support, for Sheng-wu-lian aimed to assert an actual class perspective in its analysis rather than the ideological muck of typical Maoist thought. Calls for the formation of a political party independent of the CCP were made, for it was clear the current state machinery was to smashed rather than reformed from within.

What is strange about Whither China is the fact that Mao and Lin Bao are still treated with reverence as heroes. In historical perspective this makes sense – the tropes of Mao Zedong Thought were the only reference points to Marxist theory that were available at the time, so it makes sense that even the most ultra-left groups would be steeped in it. Ultra-lefts in the GPCR used the sayings of the “great teachers” in ways that were never intended. While these currents believed themselves to be accurately following the tenets of Mao-Zedong Thought they were actively working against Mao himself. As a result some explained the obviously counter-revolutionary actions of the Maoist Center as proof that Mao was being taken hostage by rightists.

The continued Maoist influence on Sheng-wu-lian was ultimately its greatest weakness. Maoism, being a variant of Stalinism, rigidly holds to the doctrine of “socialism-in-one country”, where national development is prioritized above internationalism. Throughout Whither China one finds no understanding of proletarian revolution as a phenomena that occurs on an international rather than national level. Of course one must keep in mind that during this period China was very isolated from the rest of the world, an autarky by all definitions. There was no contact between the Chinese working class and their comrades throughout the world, making the establishment of solidarity across national borders very difficult. It is easy to imagine that even if ultra-left currents were able to overthrow the CCP and PLA many of the same problems of Chinese society would remain, for China would still have to operate according to the laws of global capitalism. In fact 20 years later Yang Xiguang recognized this, claiming that what Sheng-wu-lian was advocating probably would have amounted to a mere “Dynastic change”.

Despite their flaws, the Chinese ultra-left demonstrated that a proletarian class perspective existed in China was willing to express itself through both theory and praxis when possible. One can only imagine how they would have further developed if it weren’t for state repression doing all it could to wipe them out.

Despite its proclaimed adherence to Mao, Whither China infuriated the Maoist Center, who proclaimed immediately that it was “counter-revolutionary big hotchpotch” and a “extremely reactionary trend of thought”. Ultra-leftism was viewed by Lin Bao as a force to be crushed, especially in the Hunan province. A major educational seminar set up by the Central Cultural Revolutionary Group early 1968 in Bejing focused much of its time denouncing ultra-leftism and Sheng-Wu-Lian. At this time the three-in-one revolutionary committees were hardly functioning as effective agents of state power in but a couple cities. Working class ferment was at a height with strikes and violent demonstrations spreading from Shanghai to other cities. What began as a purge led by Mao and his cohorts to consolidate influence in the state was spiraling into a movement that now terrified Mao.

The solution of course was to unleash a wave of state repression, with the army taking the initiative to crush the ultra-left nationwide. Leaders of Sheng-Wu-Lian were imprisoned or murdered and pockets of resistance were liquidated. Ultimately those who suffered the greatest during the Cultural Revolution were not those who wished to maintain capitalist relations, but those who aimed to transcend them.

This wave of repression was coupled with what some Maoists call “one of the greatest attempts to solve the capitalist division of labor.” Millions of students and youth were forced into the countryside to engage in manual labor, greatly dispersing the various political movements that had formed in the past two years. These “rustifcation” campaigns did nothing to actually change relations of production in agriculture but did put many youth to work and out of the streets.

The triumph of the revolutionary committees was ultimately the triumph of the PLA and the final establishment of a military dictatorship. The following years of Chinese political history are mostly internal bureaucratic squabbles and very confusing, leading to some very bizarre foreign policy such as being the only “socialist” nation to recognize Pinochet’s Chile. It was ultimately the PLA that won out in the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, a vital tool for assuring that working class activity never got out of hand. It is during the GPCR years when the Chinese working class was crushed to the point where Deng Xiaopeng’s market reforms could be instituted without major resistance.

Multiple 1st world leftist groups obsessed over the Cultural Revolution in the 60’s and early 70’s (see Max Elbaum’s Revolution in the Air), which seemed to coincide with events in Czechoslovakia, Paris and the US student movement. Yet the ideologies of third-worldism and the Mao cult that came to entrance much of the New Left was merely “the explosion point of ideology” to the Situationist International. For the Situationists what was occurring in China was the fracturing of the bureaucratic ruling class, a fracture that allowed the working class to assert itself as revolutionary force for the first time since 1927. Judging from much of the propaganda from the era they seem the exception to the rule, with even some Trotskyists from the era sympathetic to Maoism. The student New Left, formerly obsessed with participatory democracy, was now forming rigidly dogmatic anti-revisionist groupings, self appointed vanguards that would form what was known as the New Communist Movement.

The mystique that accompanied the Cultural Revolution did indeed make Maoism appear to many as a legitimate alternative to Stalinism and the Soviet Bloc, especially in its anti-bureaucratic rhetoric. Mao’s thought was held up as a less “deterministic” form of Marxism, even a synthesis of Marxism and anarchism. Yet many of these young leftists were unaware that Stalin also called for “Cultural Revolution” and called for attacks on managers and bureaucrats. While Stalin was able to purge political opponents using internal party mechanisms Mao called used the mystique of ideology to call on the masses for his purges. Both Mao and Stalin crushed whatever worker self-activity existed under their regimes and their calls for revolution from above were ultimately useless at addressing the real social antagonisms that existed in their societies.

It is important to not only look beyond the mystique of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution but to also look deeper into its social content. Both right-wing and left-wing narratives of the event often ignored that those who suffered most in the events were not rightists but rather revolutionary workers and youth who dared to venture beyond the confines of Mao’s power struggle. The militancy of many struggles during the GPCR shows how little the rule of CCP had actually transcended class relations in China, class relations with antagonisms that are still exploding in Chinese society to this day.

Further Reading:

Notes Towards a Critique of Maoism

The Explosion Point of Ideology in China

The Rise and suppression of the ‘ultra-left’ in the Chinese cultural revolution 

“New Trends of Thought” in the Cultural Revolution 

Whither China by the The Hunan Provincial Proletarian Revolutionary Great Alliance Committee, or Sheng-wu-lian

Some thoughts on Planning

The words “planned economy” instantly bring to mind visions of the decaying Soviet economy. As a result some marxists have taken the absurd position that a socialist society will never be able to overcome the market and therefore the market will have to be incorporated into any future society. Market socialism is an oxymoron, an absurd concept riddled with contradiction. Yet in the aftermath of Soviet collapse some came to the conclusion that all attempts for conscious planning to replace the market are inherently doomed to failure.

The economic calculation argument, first proposed by free-market zealot Ludwig Von Mises, proposes that without prices and therefore a market it is impossible to rationally translate subject needs into object information in order to properly allocate resources. Therefore as long as human society is a functioning entity we will have markets, money, and therefore capitalism. While such arguments were rightfully scoffed at by the left when first made in the 1920s today they are taken seriously, especially in light of the utter anarchy and inefficiency of Soviet Planning. Jacobin, in their article the The Red and the Black, make this argument and ultimately concede to bourgeois ideology, reducing the idea of a realistic alternative to capitalism to what is essentially a glorified welfare state.

On the other hand we have the classical conceptions of the 2nd International, which saw the utilizing of conscious planning in national economies during WWI (e.g. Germany) as evidence that the collapse of capitalism was inevitable. Conscious state planning was inherently a negation of capital’s rule and where it existed one could see the seeds of communism being sewn. All that was needed was proletarian revolution to blast away the final limitation of the growth of the productive forces (the bourgeoisie and private ownership of capital)  and rationalize the plan to perfection, allowing for a socially harmonious society to grow out the shell of the old.

This line of thought continued to haunt the mind of the left during the Soviet Union’s existence as a world power. As long as planning and nationalized property reigned in the USSR the objective, if not subjective, basis of “The end of exploitation of man by man” was established. Hence the Soviet Union, despite its failures, must be given at least critical support because it was an example of socialist property relations in action.

It is important that reject both of these concepts – that a society based on conscious organization and planning is impossible, as well as the idea that planning and nationalized property is inherently negatory to capitalism. Rather than framing the question in terms of planning vs. the market we should phrase it in terms of what is being planned: exploitation or a free association of labor? As Antonio Negri points out in Marx Beyond Marx:

“Communism is planning only In so far as it is the planned abolition of work. When the conditions and the objective of the abolition of work do not exist, planning is only a new form of capitalist command-its socialist form. It is here that the Marxist critique of socialism exerts all its force. Socialism is not-and can in no case be-a stage or a passage toward communism. Socialism is the highest form, the superior form of the economic rationality of capital, of the rationality of profit. It still thrives on the law of value, but carried to a degree of centralization and of general synthesis which connects the forms of socialist planned economic management to the functioning of the political and juridical machinery of the State. Socialism keeps alive, and generalizes, the law of value. The abolition of work is the inverse mark of the law of value.”

(it’s important to keep in mind that Negri, coming from a Leninist background, defines socialism in the same as Lenin circa 1920, which is state capitalism under workers control via the vanguard party)

Negri’s vision is consistent with that of Marx, who believed that communism was not merely the negation of the market, but it’s overcoming. Where Adam Smith saw an “invisible hand” of the regulatory mechanism of the capitalist market, Marx counterposed this with the “law of value”, where commodities are valued according to average socially necessary labor time and exchanged as equivalents. The law of value operates as an anarchic force, a “reified structure blindly imposing itself”. The irrationality of capitalist production is evident to all, especially in periods of crisis where we see things like homeless people crowding streets lined with abandoned buildings. When this blind irrationality began to drive the system into social crisis that threatened its ability to reproduce itself as a social totality state planning became seen as a viable option for more perceptive members of the bourgeoisie.

It is important to remember that while the capitalist class may have a common interest in preserving the capitalist system it is ultimately a class in competition amongst itself. Capitalists are typically only concerned with the individual profits on the enterprises and investments under their control. For this reason the interests of the capitalist class as a whole may come into conflict with individual capitalists. The role of the state is not to serve as a pure executive committee of the bourgeoisie that takes direct orders from capitalists, but rather to maintain cohesion in the social totality of capitalist society. For these reasons some factions of the capitalist class may welcome policies of planning, while others may violently oppose them. Because capital thrives on a fractured community which is built on separation  and competition the capitalist class finds itself incapable of cohesion.

Yet, it would misleading to believe that this disunity in the capitalist class is the core of anarchy in production and distribution and that if all capitalist property was nationalized, centralized and state-planned then harmony in production would reign. At the core of capitalist production is the separation of the immediate producers from the means of production. This entails the creation of a proletariat, a class of propertyless individuals who own no means of survival but their own labor to sell. By maintaining the separation of the proletariat from the means of producing material life capital ensures its domination, yet also ensure the existence of alienation and therefore the dominance of class antagonism.

Despite the replacement of private capitalist firms and the market by nationalized property and centralized planning the USSR was unable to overcome the vast irrationalities of capitalist production. Planning in the USSR was not the free association of labor envisioned by Marx but rather the planned extraction of surplus product from the immediate producers, “the despotic plan of capital” in the words of Raya Dunayevskaya. Soviet planning was imposed on the working class from above and only functioned through the destruction of any outlet for class organization independent from the state. It rested upon class antagonism yet sought to plan these antagonistic class relations through a hyper-rational centralized apparatus. The result was a vastly inefficient command economy where the “anarchy of the market” manifested itself in ways sometimes more absurd than market capitalism.

Italian Marxist Raniero Panzieri in his essay Surplus Value and Planning notes that planning is a central aspect of capitalism rather than a negation of it in itself. He goes on to claim that “capital utilizes planning at increasingly higher levels of the productive process – some simple cooperation to manufacture and to large-scale industry – in order to strengthen its command over labor power and obtain even larger access to it.” As capitalism develops its increasing scale and tendency to crisis in conjunction with the resistance of workers and the need for primitive accumulation through imperialism force capital to further integrate itself with the state and increase the level of conscious planning in the economy. Its despotic plan goes from the factory to society as a whole, leading to an increase in bureaucratic state authoritarianism. With this development the workers revolt has the potential to go from challenging the authority of managers shop-floor to the level of confronting the state itself.

By understanding the free association of producers as the basis of the overcoming of capital rather than planning and nationalized property we can escape conceptions which see socialism as the perfection and rationalization of “capitals despotic plan”. Communist society is certainly a planned society, yet this is only one side of the picture. It is the overcoming of human alienation and toil through the destruction of all exploitative production relations. To manage this exploitation from above or to “self-manage” it will only lead to bureaucratic nightmares or dead-ends.

On the Russian Experience

This is a speech I gave at a panel discussion on the Russian Revolution and USSR at University of South Florida. 

To quote the French Communist Theorist Jacques Camatte in 1974: “The Russian revolution and its involution are indeed some of the greatest events of our century. Thanks to them, a horde of thinkers, writers, and politicians are not unemployed. Among them is the first gang of speculators which asserts that the USSR is communist, the social relations there having been transformed.” Perhaps Camatte is a little too dismissive yet he speaks an undeniable truth, which is that the left has largely been fixated on the October Revolution and USSR, basing much of its theory and praxis on the methods of Bolshevism and words of Vladimir Lenin. As long as the exploitation of man by man truly had been overcome in the USSR through the methods of Lenin and later Stalin a source of identity was provided to countless leftists around the world. The USSR could be appealed to as living proof that Communism was in the process of being created and was a viable option for humanity. Stalinist industrialization, regardless of its human cost, had created the material basis for a world free of exploitation. The doctrine of Marxism-Leninism was the ideological creation of this system, appealed to as a science of revolution that was to be protected at all costs. Even those to believed that the system had degenerated still vowed to give it critical support, such as the orthodox Trotskyist.

One certainly doesn’t have to offer support the system that developed out of the Russian Revolution to appreciate it’s historical importance as an expression of the international proletariat at its most combative. It would be silly to say some ideological germ in the Bolshevik Party led to its inherently authoritarian practice and would be equally silly to say that the revolution thanks it success to the “proper leadership and line” provided by Lenin or any other great leader. In a sea of leftist opportunism the Bolsheviks upheld the line of proletarian internationalism as well as an adherence to necessity of armed revolution. For this reason they became a party that won the support of the most militant sections of the working class.

The Russian Revolution happened in the context of a mass workers movement that was beginning to politically express itself on an international level. It can never be stressed enough that the Bolsheviks, despite their flaws, had grasped Marxist theory well enough to understand that a proletarian revolution in Russia would only survive as part of a greater international revolutionary wave that was expressing itself through insurrectionary moments in Germany, Hungary, Turkey, Italy, Mexico and elsewhere. Lenin himself put it best when he described the October Revolution as a dual revolution, both democratic and proletarian. It was based on fragile alliance between the peasantry and the proletariat that wasn’t meant to last, with a transition to socialism only possible with the success of world revolution.

It is because of these Internationalist characteristics of the Bolshevik Revolution deserves to continue as a topic of dialogue amongst communists. For a window of time world communism seemed to truly be on the table, and it was this hope that millions would cling onto despite the increasingly visible degeneration of the revolution.

It’s no surprise that when the USSR fell in 1991 much of the left went through an identity crisis. Few saw the collapse coming, even those critical of the system. The most ideological Marxist-Leninist, the anti-revisionist, saw the degeneration of the system as a result of corrupt leadership deviating from the “correct path” set by the leadership of Lenin and Stalin. While theories of revisionism differ, the emphasis is generally placed on who carries leadership in the party. It is because opportunist “capitalist roaders” like Khruschev and Gorbachev are able to get power that the USSR fell, rather than any inherent antagonisms in the system. The myth of anti-revisionism is that the USSR could have continued to function under autocratic planning if only proper political repression was maintained. This essentially entails that society maintain a militaristic siege mentality where all forms of political expression independent of the state are forbidden. Whereas Marx found the radical political democracy of the Paris Commune to be the basis of a proletarian dictatorship or “workers state” in transition to communism, many Marxist-Leninist maintain that allowing any form of independent political expression allows the capitalist class to organize and assert itself. This may sound like the ideology of an all powerful totalitarian state, but reality it is the ideology of an elite that was constantly clinging onto its own power at all cost, all in the name of preserving a system that was clearly unstable.

Yet it is clear that market reforms were hardly a solution to the problems of the USSR. Retreating from centralized planning to liberal market reforms did nothing to end what is the core problem of any class society – the separation of the immediate producers from the means of production. To quote Karl Marx “The means of production have become capital only insofar as they have become separated from labor and confront labor as an independent force.” This is the core social relation of capital – the domination of living labor by dead labor, endured through this separation. It is through maintaining and expanding this separation that both capitalist and Soviet society operated/operated. Socialism can only be spoken of once this separation has ended, and this separation can only be ended through the self-organization of the proletariat as the dominating force in society, organizing production through a common plan based on non-alienated labor.

Marx defined modes of production not according to ideal categories like bourgeois sociologist, but understood them as dynamic systems in motion. So our aim here is not to prove that the USSR was capitalist according to the standards set in Capital. If set against existing ideal categories the USSR isn’t exactly capitalist. In capitalism the market regulates the distribution of resources through prices. In the USSR this was mostly done through centralized planning, though we use the term planning wearily. True planning, as defined by Marx, rests on a “free association of producers”. It requires the active participation through collective social control of the labor process through the direct producers and reliable inputs and outputs. To quote Donald Filtzer:

“It is impossible to have planning in any society based on exploitation, be it capitalist or Soviet, because so long as the needs or interests of those issuing instructions are in conflict with the needs or ‘interests’ of those supposed to implement them, the instruction-givers have no guarantee that the instruction-implementers will carry out instructions in the manner originally intended. On the contrary, they will adapt these instructions in their own needs and thereby distort the results beyond all recognition. No system, no matter how centralized, can prevent this.”

Marx understood that the market was a a result of the inherent class antagonisms of production itself. Where bourgeois economist blame the gross irrationalities of the capitalist market (“the anarchy of the market”) on a lack or excess of state regulation, Marx went to the root of the problem, which was in production. In the USSR planning tried to overcome the “anarchy of the market” through bureaucratically imposed plans from above while breaking down any form of collective organization on the part of workers. The results of this were incredibly unreliable inputs and outputs, with excesses of wasteful production and shortages of goods. The “anarchy of the market” still manifested itself in the USSR, sometimes in ways more absurd than market capitalism.

The theories of Hillel Ticktin, while somewhat flawed due to his adherence to certain assumption of Orthodox Trotskyism, offer many important insights into what I would call “the anarchy of Soviet Production”. The dynamics of the Soviet Economy were truly established by the completion of Stalin’s 5 Year Plans though they have their roots in both War Communism and the NEP (one man management of factories, integration of unions with state, banning of factions). On one end we have the atomization of the workers, robbed of any form of collective political organization outside the state. On the other end we have the soviet elite, which aims to control labor power and effectively extract surpluses. There were obstacles to this however – because there was full employment and no ‘buyers market’ for labor, bosses were not able to use the reserve army of the unemployed as a way to enforce work discipline. Workers were still able to control the labor process, albeit in a purely atomized and individualized way. This manifested itself in work indiscipline, sabotage (what the Marxist-Leninst blame on Trotskyiste wreckers) and absenteeism, individualist acts of work refusal. The result was that state planners were incapable of fully controlling the labor process and thus were incapable of controlling the product. Being forced to meet quotas set by the central state apparatus not only pushed bureaucrats to sacrifice quality for quantity, but also to lie about actual outputs and give unreliable data to the center. This led to shortages at other enterprises and excess amounts of faulty equipment which led to some enterprises using more labor power repairing equipment than actually producing goods. The result of shortages was to simply increase quotas and centralization which only exacerbated the problem.

Filtzer effectively illustrates the “anarchy of Soviet Production” during the 5 Year Plan: “The Breakdown of planning was the inevitable result of the bureaucratic way in which industrialization was imposed and the collapse of coherent economic relations under the strain of chronic shortages. So , too, was the demise of quality, as this was the quickest and simplest way to cut corners and meet otherwise impossible production targets. The decline in quality was everywhere. Sausages were found with bolts in them. The glass industry, while improving the quality of certain products in 29/30, was meeting its plan for window glass by making the glass extremely thin, thus leading to breakage.”

It was through forced collectivization that Soviet State aimed to create a proletariat for the process of capital accumulation it was undergoing. “Collectivization” is a misnomer, for the real aim was the primitive accumulation of capital. Millions of peasants were forced onto state farms which were meant to improve agricultural efficiency but resulting resistance to the gangster tactics used caused massive shortages in food. This further sent production into anarchy with peacetime famines that outdid those during the Civil War.

It is important to understand that the working class did not passively react to the 5 five year plan. Though initially excited to leave behind the NEP, reality dawned on them that the end of exploitation wasn’t near. This led to experiments in egalitarianism where workers would self-organize into labor collectives as well as a mutual aid societies to share their earnings and rations. These experiments of class self-activity were answered to by the party in 1931 with a speech by Stalin at the Conference of Managers which called for an “attack on egalitarianism and an increased emphasis for increasing wage differentials and intensifying the use of piece work”. This was as also coupled with outright worker resistance, the expression of a class that was being increasingly atomized and robbed of political expression. Most notable was a strike in Spring 1932 at the Ivonovo Industrial Region. Though the state blamed it on Trotskyite wreckers and counterrevolutionary elements the strike was a response to austerity in the name of capitalist development through exploitation. The strike was mostly composed of female textile workers who were bearing the worst burdens of rapid industrialization, many of whom were disillusioned Bolshevik militants.

Rather than emphasis egalitarianism the Soviet State urged workers to engage in what was called “socialist competition”. Shock workers, or Stakhnovites, were workers who went above the required norms or volunteered for extra work. Shock workers were given privileges in access to scarce goods and began to constitute an elite within the class. This increasingly atomized workers and robbed them of the ability to constitute themselves as an organized class, as well as sending production into further anarchy by wearing down already scarce equipment through excess usage.

Labor shortages also resulted from ineffective planning, causing managers to hoard laborers despite indiscipline. Because conditions at certain enterprises were so bad workers would purposely engage in absenteeism to get dismissed in hopes of being moved to another enterprise, only to find that the same problems existed elsewhere. The response to labor indiscipline from the state was of course to increase punishments, reaching a height in 1940 where corrective labor was assigned to workers as a punishment for absenteeism. At one end workers were like industrial serfs, attached to their point of labor, yet on the other hand a unintentional “sellers market” existed for labor. This dynamic points to another aspect of the Soviet System, which was the antagonisms between capitalist and pre-capitalist social formations, a contradiction that was as the forefront of Amadeo Bordiga’s theory. Bordiga saw that the failure of the world revolution left Russia to purely bourgeois tasks, such as the expropriation of the peasantry and development of industry. He had no romantic illusions about these tasks, understanding that Capitalist development was a barbaric and violent process that wasn’t to be celebrated on the merit that it adorned itself a red flag. Engels himself said that the expropriation of the peasantry was the task of the bourgeoisie, not the proletariat.

State propaganda turned to heroic tales of individual shock workers and great leaders, realizing that historical materialism and labor theory of value wouldn’t mobilize workers to accumulate for the state. Eventually the state turned to Russian Nationalism as a ideology, the logical conclusion of the policy “socialism in one country”. Stalin praised the Bolsheviks as the inheritors of a “Great Power” that was constructed by the Russian Tzars of past, though running the land for “the toilers” this time. This phenomena of National Bolshevism peaked during the “Great Patriotic War”, where a narrative of Russian national identity had a coherent basis due to the Nazi Invasion. Class societies rely on nationalism as a means to unite a society riddled with social contradictions. It is the ideology of a false community mobilizing for accumulation.

If soviet society was a class society, who exactly was the ruling class? Bordiga claimed that to look for a ruling class as it exists under capitalism was misleading; what defines a mode of production is the relations of production themselves. There certainly was a ruling elite in the Soviet Union, a section of society that had a greater control over the use of the extracted surplus product and privileged access to the social wealth. Yet the elite wasn’t fully able to fully constitute itself as a class because it was unable to fully control the labor process and and therefore the product of the labor process. Planners and managers were incapable of exercising complete command over workers, regardless of how much state terror and propaganda was utilized. The need to mobilize labor through command from above could only be done through a enormous bureaucracy, yet incapable of fulling exercising this command even individual bureaucrats hated the system. The USSR was capitalist in the sense that it was build on the domination and exploitation of producers, yet pre-capitalist in that it was incapable of fully subsuming labor to capital.

A common justification for the policies of the Soviet State during the Stalin period is that Soviet Planning policies were practical and effective at industrializing, allowing for success at defeating Hitler. Stalin’s excessive terror and purging of “fifth columnists” are all justified because it saved us from the greater evil – Fascism. Even the bourgeoisie will give credit to Stalin for his supposed accomplishments. Yet there are three key factors to how the USSR was able to win WWII: 1) Aid from the Western Bourgeoisie 2) Russia’s territorial nature and 3) Pure attrition and sacrifice. The one we will focus on most is the first, for it also helps us understand the general dynamic of Soviet foreign policy: sacrificing proletarian internationalism for the needs of national Soviet interests. In practice this meant selling out communist militants in order contain struggles and secure alliances with factions of the bourgeoisie. Arguably this dynamic goes all the way back to Brest-Litvosk, a peace treaty with the German state that arguably allowed Germany to focus on suppressing revolutionary forces. We see this dynamic in 1921, when the Comintern sided with Kemalist Nationalism in Turkey, a policy that proved disastrous. We also see it in China, when the Comintern’s policy was that communists should work under the bourgeois nationalist KMT, a policy which also proved disastrous for the working class.

After voluntaristically and irrationally swinging to the left in foreign policy during the first 5 Year Plan Soviet Foreign Policy primarily focused on securing alliances with the western bourgeoisie. This meant that Communist Parties took up organizing in alliances with liberal democrats instead of organizing the working class as an independent fighting force to take power. When class struggle that threatened these alliances did arise, like it did in Spain 1936 during an anti-fascist war, it was to be liquidated at all costs. Overall this Popular Front strategy reduced the Communist Parties associated with the Comintern to mere appendages of Soviet Foreign influence, promoting a class collaborationist doctrine that watered down communist politics.

As alliances with the Western bourgeoisie wore thin the USSR began to turn to third world nationalist for alliances. In the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s the third world elites in countries such as Ethiopia, Nicaragua, North Yemen, and Angola found “socialism in one country” as an attractive plan for development because it promised fast results and autocracy without consequence. While praised as one of the most significant political trends of the 20th century, these anti-colonial national liberation movements did very little to change the dominating global division of labor. This is even clearer today, in the era of neo-colonialism, where the elites of former colonial powers found that it was not viable to simply “opt-out” of global capitalism. By securing influence over third world nationalist the Soviet Union was also able to secure it’s location as a world power against the increasing pressure of Western Imperialism.

Trying to function as a nation-state in the world capitalist market forced the USSR to not only make concessions with the ruling class of various imperialist powers but also engage in a seemingly endless accumulation of military weaponry. The military sector of production was more reliable and effective that other sectors of Soviet industry, but it’s also important to keep in mind that workers in military firms worked under strict supervision. Even then Soviet Military technology was technologically behind the rest of the world and was at its most effective in the WWII era due an infusion of intellectual property from the West.

If there is one thing that is clear from the Russian Experience it is that one cannot understand capitalism in terms of individual national economies. It is idealist to think that one can simply “opt out” of world capitalism and construct a modern industrial society on socialist lines. Communism is the overcoming, the transcendence of the national form. Capitalism can only be overcome as a world system through proletarian internationalism, the unity of working class action across national boundaries. A prime error of the 20th century communist movement is that it obsessed over capturing state power on a national level, seeing the process of international revolution as a step-by-step project of seizing power in one individual nation at a time. In fact, it seems clear that before the question of seizing power can even be posed the working class must already be capable of politically expressing itself at an international level.

Yet many on the left view world revolution as a dated concept, an unrealistic worship of spontaneity. Internationalist Communists are derided as believing that full communism will magically emerge all at once, that the struggle will emerge victorious overnight without discipline and organization.

What these cynics forget is that revolutionary moments never occur isolated from the surrounding capitalist relations. Russia 1917 was not a strictly Russian Phenomena, but part of an eruption in revolutionary praxis and consciousness that terrified the bourgeoisie not only in Europe but in the United States and Latin America. Lenin and the Bolsheviks, whatever problems that they had, understood that it was in the context of an international revolution that their actions had meaning. We also shouldn’t forget that May 1968 in France was only the height of a wave of various revolts throughout the world with anti-capitalist content. Even the Occupy Movement, still in recent memory, found itself in solidarity with struggles across the globe. Yet many leftist today would have us dismissed as utopian idealists. For them internationalism means cheerleading for the latest third-world nationalist rather than concrete unity through struggles that reach across borders.

It would of course be silly to deny the existence of uneven development. An international division of labor certainly exists but this division is reproduced by international capitalism, not just a “late start” for less developed nations. Ending this international division of labor cannot be accomplished through independent national revolutions but through a coordinated assault on international capitalism as a whole.

Such uneven development is why a period of transition between capitalism and communism won’t exactly be immediate. Yet what is very important is that during this period of transition our aims are oriented towards the internationalization of revolution rather than the consolidation of state power in a single national territory.


Soviet Workers And Stalinist Industrialization by Donald Filtzer

Origins of the Crisis in the USSR by Hillel Ticktin

Marxian Concept of Capital and the Soviet Experience by Paresh Chattopadhyay

Bolshevism and Stalinism in the Epoch of Imperialist World War and Proletarian Revolution by Will Barnes

What Was the USSR? by Aufheben