Conversation With An Anarchist
Democracy, Authoritarianism & Revolution
1917 No.29 (1917): The Platformists dismissed those who took individual autonomy to extremes with the observation that a serious revolutionary organization can only function on the basis of majority rule.
Anarchist Comrade (AC): I agree that majority rule is the way to do things. But my understanding of a Leninist party is that decisions are made by majority rule of its leaders, not the entire membership. Perhaps I’m mistaken on this. In any case, I’m certain that a Leninist party’s goal is to take State power, and through the State decisions are made by majority rule of representatives, rather than majority rule of the masses through direct democracy. So as I see it, although both platform-anarchists and Leninists/Trotskyists agree with the slogan “majority rules” we disagree on its definition.
Josh D.-IBT (JD): As a rule, a Leninist organization elects its leaders on the basis of majority vote (though room is made for minority views on the leadership body), and they are subject to recall at any time. However, the issue you are concerned about is not how leaders are elected, but what decisions they are empowered to make on behalf of the members who elect them. Let me start by noting that a healthy democratic-centralist (i.e., Leninist) organization operating under conditions of legality and relatively minimal state persecution is able to (and in fact really does) involve the general membership in the decision-making process to varying degrees. I say “to varying degrees” because this is partly a function of the size and scope of the Leninist group, which can range from a handful of comrades living in the same city to a mass international party involving millions of members. Even in the latter case there are smaller units (branches, locals, cells) where various tactical and operational decisions are made more or less by consensus or majority vote.
The highest body is the regularly scheduled international conference where delegates from each section meet to review the work of the preceding period, determine future priorities and decide any outstanding questions of program, organization or personnel. The conference elects a body to lead the work of the group between conferences. This body will, ideally, be politically authoritative, balanced in composition, possess a division of labor and have contact with comrades in all localities and major areas of political work. The elected leadership is empowered to direct the work of the organization and make decisions on political questions in accordance with the policies set by the international conference. The membership is bound to carry out these decisions, although, if a significant minority has serious objections, they have the right to demand an emergency conference to review the disputed question and, potentially, replace some or all of the existing leaders. Subordinate bodies—whether national sections or local branches—also elect their own leadership.
For Leninists, the term “majority rule” refers to the will of the majority of the membership, as expressed (sometimes imperfectly, but always in a correctable manner) through the election of conference delegates and members of the leadership bodies. This is preferable to settling disputes through membership referendums for two reasons. First, even with the internet, it is simply not practical to submit most questions to the entire membership. Decisions of all sorts have to be made every single day—most of them of a minor administrative character (e.g., how many posters to print up, who is assigned to post them, when, where and with what, etc.). To do even simple things like this efficiently requires a division of labor—with one or more comrades being assigned the responsibility of organizing the activities of other members of the collective. As a rule, groups try to select people who are likely to do the best job, and by utilizing people’s varying capacities, it is possible for the whole to be greater than the sum of its parts. No one wants to participate in discussions about every little detail—we trust people to use their best judgment, and if they don’t do a good job, we attempt to find someone who will do better.
The second problem (which you may find more objectionable) is that members are not all equal in experience and capacity, and some comrades are simply better qualified to make certain decisions. Most of the time their decisions will correspond to the views of the membership who elect them, but sometimes they won’t. In those cases, if the members feel strongly enough that a terrible decision has been made, they have the power to replace the leadership. This democratic check exists and must exist if the organization is not to become sterile and bureaucratically-controlled. So long as the leadership has the confidence of the organization, they should be permitted to make decisions on its behalf, subject to strict monitoring and recall by the membership.
1917: In his article, Price concedes that majority rule inevitably requires an element of centralization:
“To be sure, an anarchist federation also has a degree of ‘centralization,’ that is, specific bodies and individuals are assigned specific tasks by the whole membership. These central groupings are elected and are recallable at any time, with a rotation of tasks among members. By definition, a federation balances centralization with decentralization, with—among anarchists—only as much centralization as is absolutely needed, and as much decentralization as is maximally possible.”
AC: I think the point “assigned specific tasks” is key because in a representative “democracy,” the representatives are given decision-making authority over all political and/or economic decisions for the region they represent. Anarchists may condone representatives having some decision-making authority but only for a specific thing or small number of things for which centralized decision making “is absolutely needed.” (Personally, the only realm where I think anything less than direct democracy is absolutely needed is war decisions, which need to be made without hesitation. The anarchist militias in Spain gave their [elected] generals command authority. I accept that there might be other realms besides war where less than direct democracy is absolutely needed, but I can’t think of any. [If you can think of any, please tell me! This isn’t an empty rhetorical challenge… I’d really like to know of others if they exist!] Although less than ideal, I’d be ok with delegates making some decisions as long as the population of their region and/or workers of their industry could veto those decisions.)
JD: I think Price was referring to an anarchist political organization rather than a society (or the types of extra-party formations you talk about, e.g., workers’ militia), but to answer your question: vesting decision-making authority in a subset of the total membership is necessary in both the party and the state. Real and effective workers’ democratic control of economic and social policy (whatever terms we use to express this idea) requires a balance between mass participation and delegation/centralization. Of course the sort of representative democracy we have in bourgeois society essentially represents the interests of the bourgeoisie, as I’m sure we can agree. But the alternative is not some sort of permanent “general assembly” of the population as a whole.
It seems that we agree that tactical military decisions (e.g., how many soldiers should be sent to protect the west side of a fortification) have to be made by someone on the spot with the authority to assess the situation and make an immediate decision. But what about questions of military strategy—does it make sense to try to decide them by a general consultation? Victory or defeat can hinge on issues of where troops should be concentrated, or whether the situation calls for an offensive or a strategic retreat. But to openly discuss and debate such options in the heat of the struggle would obviously provide the enemy an opportunity to anticipate our actions and prepare accordingly. Surely we can agree that in such situations some sort of centralized military/political command is necessary.
If some sort of centralization (or “delegation”) of decision-making power is necessary in military affairs, what about related decisions which may not, strictly speaking, be military but are nonetheless of vital importance? Who decides how much weaponry and ammunition get produced in the factories (or whether a given factory produces war materiel at all)? Or whether food shipments or industrial inputs get priority on the railways? Should the thousands of decisions of this sort be made every day or every week by millions of people across the country in a referendum? Clearly that would be impractical. It would, moreover, be undemocratic from the standpoint of the working class as a whole to let each enterprise produce whatever they wish without regard for what is most urgently needed. A modern industrial economy is an integrated totality of mutually interdependent components, and that implies the need for overall coordination—which brings us back to the necessity of some form of delegation of decision-making power by workers’ representatives entrusted with the responsibility of setting priorities and allocating resources accordingly.
Workers’ democracy is, above all, a class democracy. Bourgeois democracy really serves the interests of the capitalists, who exert control through ownership of the major elements of the economy, backed up by armed bodies dedicated to “serving and protecting” the status quo—if necessary against the “democratically elected” parliamentary bodies, as in Spain in the 1930s or Chile in the 1970s, etc. Workers’ democracy, on the other hand, involves worker-citizens in an active, rather than passive, democratic capacity. At the lowest level, workplace and neighborhood councils are a form of direct democracy (there is no equivalent under bourgeois rule), but they in turn elect delegates to local or regional bodies which in turn select representatives to participate in national or international soviets. At every level each delegate is immediately recallable by those who selected them. Under workers’ democracy centralization, delegation and representation are rooted in a form of direct control, made possible because it is also a representative system.
1917: The question of who is “in charge” ultimately depends on what mechanisms exist to allow the membership to overturn decisions or select a new leadership.
AC: I agree that if membership has the power to overturn/veto decisions made by representatives this gives them a decent level of control—although ideally they are the ones involved in making decisions, not representatives. Being able to select leaders who make decisions for you, without at least veto power over those decisions, does not put the membership in charge to a significant degree. If there was a revolutionary regime which gave the masses veto power but not decision-making power, I would not be so opposed to it that I would fight to overthrow it, but I would be opposed enough to push hard for real decision-making power to be put into everyone’s hands.
JD: In a Leninist organization the membership does not exactly have a “veto” over decisions made by the leadership, but members can push for a recall of the leadership if the issue is serious enough, which might address some of your concerns. This policy was also adopted by the Russian soviets.
1917: The repulsive personality cults of Stalin, Mao and Kim Il Sung adorned brittle, autarchic dictatorial regimes that ruthlessly crushed any dissent. But the Bolshevik Party in Lenin’s time operated very differently. Even under conditions of civil war there were vigorous debates on a wide range of issues of economic and social policy, and at times the central leadership itself was sharply divided (as, for example, over the terms of the predatory “peace” treaty imposed by German imperialism at Brest-Litovsk, or later over trade-union policy).
AC: I’m not a history expert, but I’ve read that when Lenin was leader he banned internal factions within the Bolsheviks and then banned all other political parties, jailed hundreds of anarchists, crushed the Ukrainian revolution, slaughtered the anarchist-led Kronstadt rebels rather than negotiate peacefully, and other anti-democratic things. If this is misinformation point me to sources which can support that.
JD: The overall picture you describe is not quite accurate. We do not accept that a “Ukrainian revolution” was crushed, although Nestor Makhno’s Ukrainian peasant forces were suppressed after turning their guns against the Red Army. As regards the Kronstadt rebellion, until the last minute, the Bolsheviks did attempt to resolve things without resort to arms. On 6 March 1921, the Petrograd Soviet asked the Kronstadt mutineers for permission to send a delegation of party and non-party members to visit the garrison and talk to the sailors. This request was rebuffed and the next day the assault commenced.
Soviet casualties were estimated at 10,000. Paul Avrich, the anarchist historian whose Kronstadt 1921 we regard as the definitive account, says that “Losses on the rebel side were fewer, but by no means inconsiderable.” I would recommend you read his book, if you haven’t already, as well as our pamphlet “Kronstadt & Counterrevolution,” which contains, among other things, polemics between Trotsky and Victor Serge on the question.
We addressed the issue of political repression in the period of the Russian civil war in “Platformism & Bolshevism,” which is what Wayne Price was replying to in his article. We wrote:
“Three years of civil war and blockade, following almost four years of world war, devastated Russian society. Hunger was rampant as agricultural output stood at roughly a third of its pre-war level, while industrial production (except for munitions) was less than a fifth. The peasantry had tolerated the forced requisitioning of their crops in order to feed the Red Army and the cities only because they knew that the victory of the Whites would mean the return of the landowners. The industrial working class, which had made the revolution, had been decimated. The most class-conscious elements had either been killed fighting the Whites or absorbed into the military or civilian apparatus where they worked alongside large numbers of displaced petty bourgeois elements, including many former Tsarist functionaries.
“The success of the October Revolution impelled many leftists, including Mensheviks, anarchists and left Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs) to join the Bolsheviks. During the course of the Civil War, the Communists gradually imposed tighter restrictions, and eventually outright bans on oppositional political formations. In most cases these were occasioned by their opponents’ involvement in armed resistance to the fledgling workers’ state. Finally, in 1921, factions were ‘temporarily’ banned within the Bolshevik party itself. These were desperate measures necessitated by a desperate situation. In 1938, Victor Serge, an anarchist who became a partisan of the October Revolution, recalled what things were like during the Civil War:
“‘In reality, a little direct contact with the people was enough to get an idea of the drama which, in the revolution, separated the communist party (and with it the dust of the other revolutionary groups) from the masses. At no time did the revolutionary workers form more than a trifling percentage of the masses themselves. In 1920-21, all that was energetic, militant, ever-so-little socialistic in the labor population and among the advanced elements of the countryside had already been drained by the communist party, which did not, for four years of civil war, stop its constant mobilization of the willing—down to the most vacillating….And since, in order to continue the revolution, it is necessary to continue the sacrifices, it comes about that the party enters into conflict with that rank and file. It is not the conflict of the bureaucracy and the revolutionary workers, it is the conflict of the organization of the revolutionists—and the backward ones, the laggards, the least conscious elements of the toiling masses. Under cover of this conflict and of the danger, the bureaucracy fortifies itself, no doubt.’
“Truth is always concrete and the necessary tactics for revolutionaries at any stage in the struggle must accord with the real possibilities that exist. In Russia in 1920 there were only two options—the victory of the Reds or the Whites. New elections to the Soviets would have produced a majority for parties that would have immediately taken steps to reintroduce capitalism. As Serge, and many other former anarchists, recognized, the maintenance of the rule of the Communist Party was the only alternative to the restoration of the Russian bourgeoisie.”
We dealt with this issue again in the 1917 No.29 article to which you are responding:
“Price admits that free elections could well have ‘permitted the rise of a proto-fascism,’ but comes to a diametrically opposite conclusion:
“‘However, this approach did not lead to socialism, but to Stalinism, the counterrevolution through the party. Stalinism was almost as brutal a totalitarianism as was Nazism. According to the I.B.T. pamphlet, the Bolshevik party was no longer revolutionary by 1924, not that long after the 1917 revolution. Therefore, I conclude, it would have been better for the Bolsheviks to have stuck to the revolutionary democracy of the original soviets, even if they were voted out of power. Nothing could have been worse than what happened.’
“Price may consider the outcome of the struggle between the Reds and Whites a matter of indifference, but most of the Russian Mensheviks, anarchists and other leftist opponents of the regime understood that for them it was literally a matter of life and death, which is why they ended up backing the Bolsheviks, despite their misgivings.”
I can see no alternative to the policy of Lenin and Trotsky. For me, the tragic confrontation at Kronstadt and other repressive measures necessary to defend the revolution do not demonstrate the evils of “statism,” but rather the desperate situation the Bolsheviks faced.
1917: NEFAC claims to stand in the Platformist tradition, but it rejects the idea of a “homogeneous movement”:
“Let’s be clear, we do not believe that an organization is a movement in itself, and we do not pretend at all to represent [the] whole of the anarchist movement. While we have confidence in our ideas, we do not think we possess THE truth, and it is probable that we are wrong on this or that point. That [is] why we advocate revolutionary pluralism.”
—“The Question of the Revolutionary Anarchist Organization: A NEFAC Position Paper,” adopted 15 September 2002
The authors of the 1926 Platform, who asserted that anarchism “must gather its forces in one organisation” because “dispersion and scattering are ruinous,” recognized that “revolutionary pluralism” is a prescription for inefficiency and duplication of effort. In the absence of significant political differences, a single larger group, with a more sophisticated division of labor, has considerable advantages over several smaller ones. The existence of different organizations with nearly identical politics, each claiming a desire to do mass organizing, while clinging to its own separate small-circle existence, would hardly be likely to inspire confidence among radicalizing workers.
AC: I think this is a misunderstanding of what NEFAC means by “revolutionary pluralism.” I think they mean that they are trying to build a large federation of like-minded anarchist groups, but that there will probably be other organizations which have politics which are similar enough that they can work together on many things, but different enough that they can’t federate without one or both groups compromising certain positions. These differences may seem trivial or even invisible to plenty of people, but they are nonetheless too serious to compromise on or ignore. For instance, forgive me for saying this, but many people involved in the left who are familiar with both the IBT and “the Sparts” see your organizations as virtually identical, with any differences being so minor that they were not worth splitting over. But ask people within the IBT or Sparts and I’m sure you’ll get a very different answer! Unless you want to remerge with the Sparts, and merge with the various Trotskyist groups you call fake-Trotskyists, then you should be sympathetic rather than opposed to the pluralist position, which does not contradict The Platform, but instead affirms its call for unity of politics/principles within an organization.
JD: If we have misrepresented what was being said, then we are certainly prepared to say so. But I’m not sure we were wrong. What does “revolutionary pluralism” mean? I take it to be a plurality of revolutionary (anarchist) organizations within a common movement. If that is so, shouldn’t they fuse to produce a single, stronger, revolutionary organization (within which, inevitably, there will be various shades of opinion and differences over secondary questions)? On the other hand, if there are principled political differences that preclude unity, how can they all be genuinely revolutionary?
As you are probably aware, we do not consider the Spartacists and other “fake-Trotskyists” to be genuinely revolutionary. They are of course part of the left and we work with them on issues where there is common ground, but we agree with Lenin that revolutionaries should concentrate their forces in a single organization. This is why, for example, Trotsky’s Mezhraiontsy group fused with the Bolsheviks in July 1917.
1917: The absence of a “central structure” (i.e., a leadership body) [in NEFAC] has created predictable difficulties:
“We periodically have problems of collective responsibility at all levels. Since there’s no one in charge of coordinating the whole federation, we still have problems following mandates (even if we’re becoming increasingly better than when we first formed). Also, we collectively seem to have an aversion to budgeting. Of course we have a treasury and we are all supposed to pay regular dues, but the general functioning of the organization depends on the good will and self-discipline of our membership. While good will is almost always there, self-discipline is sometimes lacking.”
AC: That sucks. But I’m not sure how a central structure would cause the membership to be more disciplined so it can achieve its mandates? Unless the central leadership is tasked with reminding, coaxing, motivating, and nagging those who are not doing their mandated tasks? Even if coaxing, nagging, etc. would be helpful (it sometimes is, sometimes isn’t, depending on the person), this isn’t a reason to have a centralized leadership with decision-making authority. You can just mandate someone, or a few people, who show high self-discipline, with the task of motivating the membership to stay on task. Is there something else a centralized leadership could do to solve the problem of discipline?
JD: It’s not a matter of coaxing or nagging comrades; rather, what we were saying is that in a professional revolutionary organization, comrades have particular positions and responsibilities as part of a (centralized) leadership. Among these responsibilities are finances, which involves dues collection. If there is “no one in charge” of particular organizational functions, then you can’t count on things getting done, which is irresponsible to the members who make many sacrifices for the greater good and rightly expect other comrades to contribute their fair share. In a Leninist group there are rules that are binding on all members and a procedure for discussing and correcting mistakes and, if necessary, censuring violations of discipline. Those who do not wish to abide by the decisions of the group as a whole (for example, paying their dues or carrying out tasks assigned by the collective) put themselves outside the group and its discipline.
1917: Like it or not, any attempt to organize a nucleus of committed activists capable of providing leadership (“ideological” or otherwise) for the masses of working people boils down to “vanguardism.” Acknowledging this has always been difficult for Platformists. Price tries to finesse it by suggesting that those who provide a “leadership of ideas” are not really leaders at all.
AC: I wouldn’t say we aren’t leaders, and I don’t see a problem with leadership as long as it’s only leading through persuasion. The type of leadership platform-anarchists reject is leadership through decision-making authority—even if that leadership is elected.
JD: I addressed this point above, but I’ll just add a clarification: Leninists seek to persuade a majority of workers to support their ideas and the organization committed to carrying them through. An important part of this struggle can be winning workers’ support in contests for elected leadership positions in the organizations of the workers’ movement—whether trade unions or soviets.
1917: [Wayne Price] then tries to clinch his argument with crude caricature:
“I do not wish to quibble about definitions of words, when it is the concepts which matter…. But ‘vanguard’ has come to mean not only a group which has its own ideas, the revolutionary minority. It has come to mean those who think they have all the answers and therefore have the right to rule over others. This is what anarchists reject.”
AC: I can agree this is a crude caricature of you and the Trotskyists I know personally, and so I wouldn’t be surprised if this is a caricature of Trots in general today. But it’s clear to me that Lenin and Trotsky demonstrated this mentality when Lenin was in power, at least based on what I’ve read. However, because Trotskyists defend the authoritarian actions of Lenin, it seems to me there is a degree of truth behind the caricature, however crudely put. How else could such acts be defended?
JD: Presumably when you say “Lenin and Trotsky demonstrated this mentality,” you are referring to the banning of factions and parties, the suppression of the Kronstadt mutiny and related matters addressed above. Leninists do not assert a right to “rule over others,” but rather seek to provide the victims of capitalism with the program and organizational framework with which to achieve their self-emancipation. In the 1917 article, we wrote:
“Leninists don’t claim to have ‘all the answers’ nor to have a ‘right to rule over others.’ What we do assert is that only the ideas of Marxism can politically arm the proletariat to successfully wage the class war. Leninists aspire to provide a ‘leadership of ideas’—i.e., to have the Marxist program embraced by the advanced layers of the working class and the oppressed. The Bolsheviks’ successful political struggle to win the support of a majority of the delegates to the workers’ and soldiers’ soviets in 1917 demonstrates how this can be achieved.”
1917: Leninists also uphold the right of a revolutionary majority to impose its will on scabs, reactionaries and other backward elements.
AC: I agree this is essential during a revolutionary war. But the question is, who gets to decide who are the “backward elements” and also decide what types of actions deserve repression and which don’t? As an anarchist, I would say these decisions, like all important decisions, need to be made by the masses through direct democracy. I suspect a Leninist/Trotskyist would say that these decisions are to be made by the party leadership. Is that a wrong assumption?
JD: The assumption is wrong insofar as the role of the party (including of course its leadership) is not to decide for the masses, but to attempt to help them to act in their own interests by convincing them of the validity of the party’s policy in a given situation. The Leninist position on dealing with scabs, police infiltrators, racists or other reactionary elements derives from generations of experience in the workers’ movement by our predecessors. Of course, general guidelines do not necessarily provide automatic answers in every case, and reality can be complicated as we observed, for example, in the case of the involvement of “backward elements” in the Lindsey oil refinery strike in Britain a couple of years ago (see “Militant Tactics & Poisonous Nationalism,” 1917 No.32).
Sometimes situations arise in a workplace that must be addressed before there is an opportunity to consult other comrades. In such cases, members on the spot have to respond as best they can. If it were later decided that the comrade had been mistaken, the group would have to make a correction. If you think about it, this too is a form of delegation—i.e., individual rank-and-file members are empowered to act on behalf of the group as a whole if necessary. A policy of doing nothing until either the leadership gives an instruction or the entire membership can meet, discuss and vote on a policy for every conceivable situation would severely limit the capacity of revolutionaries to effectively intervene in the day-to-day class struggle.
1917: It is not enough to fight the bosses or oppose a rotten contract pushed by the union brass—what is essential is to help the workers understand issues that go far beyond their immediate problems in the workplace. This means advancing a coherent revolutionary political alternative to “common sense” labor reformism, and fighting to root these ideas in the workers’ organizations.
AC: Very much agreed!
1917: Price rejects Leon Trotsky’s assertion in the Transitional Program that, in the final analysis, the crisis of humanity can be reduced to a crisis of working-class leadership.
AC: I agree with the statement that we have a crisis of leadership, but as I said earlier, I’m referring to leadership of persuasion, not leadership of decision-making authority. But I very much agree with the need for well organized and effective leadership (of persuasion) with good politics.
JD: Yes, we shouldn’t quibble about terms like “leadership” versus “leadership of ideas,” since the real difference is over our conception of workers’ democracy and the role of representation. But there is often a great deal of overlap between “leadership of persuasion” and “leadership of decision-making authority.” Those who are most persuasive are most likely to have their ideas accepted as the decisions of the group. What I have observed is that organizations that aim to avoid giving anyone decision-making authority often end up with an unelected group wielding a lot of influence in the background. Of course these are generally the same people who are seen to have the best judgment, which is to say the real, if unofficial, leaders of the group. We believe that it is better to have a leadership that is openly elected and subject to recall.
1917: The transformation of a revolutionary organization [the Bolshevik Party] in which the top leaders engaged in sharp political debates—even in the most critical periods—into “a fully centralized, bureaucratic, hierarchical machine” with an infallible leader and an intimidated and politically-atomized rank and file represented a qualitative degeneration.
AC: It seemed to me Price was indeed acknowledging the tolerance of internal pluralism of the Bolsheviks in 1917, but that he asserts this qualitative degeneration took place during Lenin’s rule.
JD: The process of turning the Bolshevik Party into a bureaucratic machine did not involve a semi-anarchist organization morphing into a Leninist-Stalinist nightmare, which is more or less what Price is arguing. Rather, as we pointed out in our response, the process of degeneration was one of turning away from Leninist norms:
“The Bolshevik Party under Lenin and Trotsky’s leadership was ‘riddled by factions’ precisely because a healthy democratic-centralist organization can only grapple with a complex and rapidly-changing social and political situation through vigorous internal discussion and debate. In his 1936 masterpiece, The Revolution Betrayed, Trotsky observed:
“‘The present doctrine that Bolshevism does not tolerate factions is a myth of the epoch of decline. In reality the history of Bolshevism is a history of the struggle of factions. And, indeed, how could a genuinely revolutionary organization, setting itself the task of overthrowing the world and uniting under its banner the most audacious iconoclasts, fighters and insurgents, live and develop without intellectual conflicts, without groupings and temporary factional formations?’”
The qualitative degeneration of the Bolshevik Party was indeed underway while Lenin was still alive and while Trotsky was still a leading member of the party (though outside of Stalin’s increasingly influential network). Both Lenin (who was gravely ill) and Trotsky tried to resist the growing bureaucratization. Indeed, Lenin’s last political fight was to bloc with Trotsky in an attempt to remove Stalin from his post (see Moshe Lewin’s Lenin’s Last Struggle). This fight was lost partly due to tactical errors but primarily because of the desperate material conditions in the Soviet Union at the time, as Trotsky argued in The Revolution Betrayed.
1917: The breakdown of communication between the center and local Bolshevik organizers was not a source of strength, because it tended to reduce the party’s ability to concentrate its forces and thereby maximize its influence.
AC: I agree that a breakdown between central and local communication is an organizational weakness. I’m all for efficient and effective communication and, as far as I see it, that’s one of the most important roles of those in central positions: facilitating communication between locals. But what I’m opposed to is people in these central positions having decision-making authority while the masses have no decision-making authority beyond the ability to decide who their leaders will be.
JD: I’ve addressed the importance of making the leadership subject to recall, and of recognizing the right of local groups, or even individual members, to make decisions on their own when necessary. In any organization, effective leadership is a two-way street. The “center” cannot possibly make the right decisions without the input and advice of those on the ground.
1917: Even in the most turbulent periods the party leadership retained the political confidence of its membership, and was therefore able to exert political control. This was particularly important during the July Days, when a premature confrontation with the Kerensky government could have resulted in bloody defeat.
AC: What do you mean by “able to exert political control”? Do you mean they were able to persuade the majority of members to vote a particular way? Or do you mean the members cooperated with a decision that was made not by them but by the leaders? If it’s the former, then this is unproblematic to me. If it is the latter, then I condemn it (not the decision, but the pseudo-democratic way the decision was made).
JD: The term “political control” in this context involves both of the possibilities you mention. The concrete example is the July Days, during which a majority of the rank-and-file Bolsheviks, caught up in the revolutionary fervor, wanted to seize power immediately. The position of the leadership, in this instance, was in contradiction with that of the bulk of the membership: the leading Bolsheviks recognized that seizing power would have been disastrous because outside of Petrograd and Moscow the Bolsheviks did not have the support of the majority of the population (which was reflected by the domination of the soviets by Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries). Time was needed to secure a majority and thereby increase the likelihood of success. So it was necessary to “control” the base by exerting the political authority of the leadership. Of course, this was largely a matter of persuasion—the base might have revolted, but they wisely chose not to do so because they had confidence in their leaders’ judgment.
1917: The chief instance of “strong-willed militants” on the central committee choosing to “ignore party discipline” occurred when Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev, after failing to persuade a majority of the Bolshevik leadership that it was unwise to proceed with the overthrow of Kerensky, broke discipline and unsuccessfully sought to derail the entire project by leaking the plans to the press.
AC: As a platform-anarchist, I would condemn a member of an organization going against a decision which the majority of members had agreed to. But it’s a different case when a decision was made only by leaders and not the membership as a whole. Not to say I condone what Zinoviev and Kamenev did, either, but that’s besides the point.
JD: The general point about the relationship between members and leaders is addressed above, but I would point out that this is a case where any attempt to have an open discussion in “the membership as a whole” would have been near-suicidal. The leadership of the party was debating the timing of an insurrection to overturn the government—something that could not be openly discussed without endangering the revolution (and the lives of all those involved). The crime of Kamenev and Zinoviev was to publicize the deliberations. In our “Platformism & Bolshevism” we quote Paul Avrich’s account of the role of the Military Revolutionary Committee of the Petrograd Soviet which, “under Trotsky’s able leadership, was soon to engineer the overthrow of the Provisional Government.” This committee had a Bolshevik majority but also included 14 members of the Left Social Revolutionaries and four anarchists. The deliberations and plans of this committee were not general knowledge—otherwise the insurrection might easily have been defeated. To my knowledge, no anarchist ever complained about this, either at the time or since. It seems obvious that such activities must be organized on a strictly “need to know” basis.
1917: The exigencies of fighting a civil war (and foreign intervention) in a country already exhausted by three years of imperialist war required the Bolsheviks to govern on the basis of military expediency, i.e., not in accordance with the norms of socialist democracy. As the civil war dragged on, living standards fell, and popular support for the Bolshevik regime shrank as its working-class base was decimated. This posed a dilemma for the fledgling revolutionary government, as we noted:
“[W]e do not criticize the Bolsheviks for pursuing victory over the Whites in the civil war, despite the fact that in large areas of the country they could no longer claim the support of the majority of the population, or even of the working class.”
AC: I don’t fault them for pursuing victory over the Whites, either, but I do fault them for jailing anarchists, the Kronstadt massacre, the banning of the Workers Opposition and other internal factions, the one-party dictatorship, taking grain from peasants through violence and force, etc. Were these actions necessary to ward off counterrevolution? I don’t think so. But for arguments sake, let’s suppose they were. Nonetheless, I think that by taking these actions the Bolsheviks became the very counterrevolution they feared. If an external counterrevolution succeeds, that success can be challenged by revolutionaries and defeated later on. By staying true to their principles, and refusing to engage in totalitarian repression, they may lose power but will gain support as their credibility with the masses grows. They can organize with them to destroy the counterrevolution. There is still hope. But if revolutionaries become counterrevolutionaries (betray their own principles), then there is no hope, because they were that hope, and now they’ve destroyed it. Their authoritarian actions cause them to lose more support from the masses (as happened to the Bolsheviks). They discredit themselves and can never gain that credibility back. Therefore, if I had to choose between an external counterrevolution and becoming counterrevolutionary (authoritarian), I choose the former, because with the former there is still hope for an eventual victory, even if it’s not guaranteed. With the latter failure is certain.
Furthermore, I have heard it argued that there were other anti-capitalist parties in Russia at the time. If the Bolsheviks insisted on banning parties, why not just ban pro-capitalist parties and allow the anti-capitalist parties to remain? And why throw hundreds of anarchists in jail, when anarchists are clearly anti-capitalist? It seems to me Lenin and Trotsky’s interpretation of repressing counterrevolution meant repressing anything that might dilute Bolshevik power. It seems they viewed the Bolshevik party as synonymous with revolution, and thus any political tendency outside the party (or inside the party but outside its mainstream) as synonymous with counterrevolution, by definition.
Finally, I’m not convinced that these extenuating circumstances are the only reason, or even the main reason, that Lenin created and Trotsky condoned a one-party dictatorship. As Wayne Price says in his article “Revolutionary Socialist Anarchism”:
“Citing objective pressures, however real, does not disprove that Lenin and Trotsky had an authoritarian conception of socialism from the start. Did they, before the revolution, (in State and Revolution or elsewhere) advocate a multiparty/multitendency workers’ democracy? No. […]
“Did they, before the revolution, advocate workplace democracy to manage industry? No. Instead, the conception which Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin had of a planned, collectivized, economy, was of one directed from a center by experts, with the people at most giving feedback but not managing it (a concept inherited from the social democrats). For Lenin, ‘workers’ management’ was only a step toward centralized state planning; his model, he wrote repeatedly, was war-time Prussian state-monopoly capitalism.”
JD: You list some of the repressive actions of the Bolsheviks and ask if “these actions [were] necessary to ward off counterrevolution.” You suspect that they may not have been, but suggest that even if they were, they should not have been undertaken, as through these actions the Bolsheviks became “counterrevolutionaries.” I’m not sure you have thought through what a real counterrevolution would have looked like in 1920 in Soviet Russia. It would have meant the physical annihilation of the core cadres of all left-wing parties and groupings: Bolsheviks, anarchists, Mensheviks, SRs, etc. The White generals would have shot as many working-class militants as they could get their hands on. They would have outlawed any form of workers’ organization and ruthlessly crushed all strikes and demonstrations. Capitalism would have been restored and unspeakable misery would have been imposed upon the working class (which the capitalists had largely done anyway by invading and blockading Soviet Russia).
You suggest that had the Bolsheviks not engaged in repressive measures and instead allowed the Whites to overthrow the revolution, then the Bolsheviks would have “gain[ed] support as their credibility with the masses [grew]. They [could have] organize[d] with them to destroy the counterrevolution.” The Bolsheviks would have gained support by allowing the masses to be pulverized by a fascist-like dictatorship under the Whites? I don’t think so. First of all, there would have been no Bolsheviks alive…and no anarchists or Mensheviks either. What “hope” would there have been then? (Recall that between 20,000 and 30,000 Communards were killed during the crushing of the Paris Commune in 1871, many of them simply lined up against a wall and shot. A similar fate was suffered by the German left after the Nazis took power in 1933, and by the Spanish workers’ movement after Franco’s victory.) Secondly, the masses would have (rightly) concluded that the Bolsheviks had capitulated to the class enemy so as not to contradict some abstract “democratic” principle. The working class would never have forgiven the Bolsheviks for such an utter betrayal.
The reason it was important to hold on was not in order to subsequently construct an isolated “socialist” police state, but rather because the existence of the Soviet republic was a major factor in the global balance of class forces. The Russian Revolution was not a stand-alone, isolated historic event. It inspired workers around the world. In Hungary and Bavaria, leftist workers seized power for a brief period of time. Even in far-away North America, its impact was felt with the 1919 general strikes in both Seattle and Winnipeg.
The reason the imperialist armies had to leave Russia and abandon the Whites was largely because their intervention was fueling the growth of revolutionary sentiments at home. British dockers dumped munitions in the sea rather than load them for the counterrevolution. There were several mutinies and near-mutinies among forces designated to fight the Reds. There was a real and imminent possibility of a further revolutionary breakthrough in Western Europe—particularly in Germany—which could have entirely changed the equation by providing immense material support for beleaguered and starving Russia. The existence of a “base area” for world revolution was an enormously important asset for the workers’ movement, and its defeat by the Whites would have been a disastrous setback.
As regards the suppression of other left parties and the establishment of “one-party” rule, this was clearly not the original intent of the Bolshevik leadership, which had worked side by side with anarchists and Left SRs in the Military Revolutionary Committee of the Petrograd Soviet in carrying out the insurrection. Initially, in fact, the Bolsheviks participated with the Left SRs in a coalition government:
“from November 1917 until July of the following year, the Left Social-revolutionaries, a peasant-based party led by idealistic intellectuals, did share power with the Bolsheviks. Moreover this coalition was broken not by the Bolsheviks, but by the Left Social-revolutionaries themselves, who on July 6, 1918 staged an armed coup in Moscow and proclaimed their intention to ‘govern alone’ in order to reopen the war against German imperialism. Their proclamation, which was broadcast over the airwaves that day, was the first declaration by any party of the intention to govern alone! However, they were defeated and it was left to the Bolsheviks to rule alone. ‘From that moment on,’ Serge concluded, ‘their responsibility increased, and their mentality changed.’”
—Richard Greenman, “Victor Serge and the Russian Revolution”
The anarchists, like the Left SRs, opposed the treaty of Brest-Litovsk which ended the war with Germany. In “Platformism & Bolshevism,” we cited the following account of the breakdown in relations between anarchists and Bolsheviks from Paul Avrich’s The Russian Anarchists:
“Partly in preparation for the anticipated guerrilla war against the Germans, and partly to discourage hostile maneuvers by the Soviet government, the local clubs of the Moscow Federation of Anarchists had been organizing detachments of ‘Black Guards’ (the black banner was the anarchist emblem), arming them with rifles, pistols and grenades. From their headquarters in the House of Anarchy, the leaders of the Federation tried to impose a measure of discipline on the Black Guardsmen and to limit the activities of the local clubs to the distribution of propaganda and the ‘requisitioning’ of private residences. This proved to be an impossible task; once armed, a number of groups and isolated individuals succumbed to the temptation of carrying out ‘expropriations’….
“After the stubborn anarchist campaign against the treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the formation of armed guards and their underworld excursions came as the last straw. The Bolshevik leadership decided to act. A convenient pretext was provided on 9 April, when a band of Moscow anarchists stole an automobile belonging to Colonel Raymond Robins, the representative of the American Red Cross and a sympathetic contact with the United States government.”
On the night of 11-12 April, Soviet authorities raided the anarchist headquarters and, according to Avrich, “A dozen Cheka agents were slain in the struggle, about 40 anarchists were killed or wounded, and more than 500 were taken prisoner.” In the months that followed, the SRs and anarchists carried out a series of assassinations and bombings. Avrich described one of the more spectacular attacks on 25 September 1918, when a joint Left SR-anarchist squad blew up the local headquarters of the Moscow Communist Party during a leadership plenary, killing 12 and wounding 55.
1917: The idea that Russia could develop into a socialist (i.e., classless) society on its own was dismissed as an autarchic and unrealizable fantasy by the entire Bolshevik leadership in Lenin’s time. Their whole strategy was based on viewing Russia as a staging area for proletarian revolution abroad, most importantly in Western Europe. The suspension of soviet democracy by the Bolsheviks, which was systematized and deepened by the Stalinist political counterrevolution, was initially seen as an extraordinary, short-term expedient to buy time. That is how it would have been remembered had there been successful revolutionary breakthroughs in the West.
AC: Regardless, I don’t think that suspending democracy helps to buy time—I think it turns people off from revolution, both within Russia and elsewhere in Europe. If Western Europe had been successful in revolution, then it would have sent revolutionary support to help defeat the counterrevolution in Russia. One way or another, whether the Bolsheviks were in power or not, Russia needed Western Europe to rescue it. And wouldn’t keeping democracy in tact only help boost morale among the Red Army, which would make it a better fighting force? Even if the Bolsheviks were displaced from the soviets, wouldn’t the Red Army remain loyal to the revolution and continue to fight? (These are serious, not rhetorical questions.) Also, if the Bolsheviks had become so unpopular, can this only be blamed on the prolonged war and devastated economy? Shouldn’t it also be blamed on their acts of repression against those who were not counterrevolutionaries? And if it was only these external factors that were causing the discontent, then if pro-capitalist parties had taken power, they would have soon become the unpopular ones, and the Bolsheviks would gain back their popularity.
In any case, to me the revolution is not just about replacing capitalism with socialism/communism but also replacing oligarchy with democracy. So I oppose oligarchy, particularly dictatorial oligarchy, on principle, regardless of whether it may be a means to the ends of defeating a counterrevolutionary army. Again, I prefer defeat by an external counterrevolution over me and my comrades becoming the counterrevolution, which is what I consider the suspension of democracy to be.
Trotskyists say that one-party dictatorship is necessary to defeat counterrevolution, anarchists say one-party dictatorship is a counterrevolution. Or, to twist the old saying, Trotskyists say the ends justify the means, anarchists say the means destroy the ends.
JD: The question is not whether the Bolsheviks’ repressive measures turned people off revolution—that was probably true in some cases, and certainly the social democrats tried to play it up as much as possible. Victor Serge, probably the most prominent anarchist to side with the Bolsheviks, pointed to the qualitative distinction between the measures taken in the early 1920s under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky and the bloody purges carried out by Stalin in the mid-1930s:
“In Russia the civil war and the encirclement created an atmosphere of mortal peril in which were dictated measures of public safety, sometimes terrible ones, but no less terrible for the party in power (alone in power because of the defection of certain dissidents) than for its adversaries in the ranks of the revolution. If the dictatorship of the proletariat refused the Mensheviks and the anarchists the right to sabotage, even with the best intentions, the defence of a commune threatened at every moment with the worst fate, it showed itself no less severe towards the deficiencies of the members, of the Communist party. It never refused the right of criticism to its dissidents, it never thought of refusing them the right to existence. It can, moreover, be asserted that if the Bolshevik party had declared at the beginning that it meant to build up a totalitarian régime excluding all freedom of opinion to the workers it would not have triumphed—the masses do not battle in order to go to prison; we know that, on the contrary, it announced the broadest labour democracy. On the morrow of the disarming of the anarchist Black Guards in Moscow (1918) the anarchist-syndicalist daily newspaper continued to appear; the anarchist-syndicalist publishing house of the Voice of Labour (Golos Truda) disappeared only in 1925 or 1926; at the same time, that is, after the victory of the bureaucratic reaction, there also disappeared the organ of the left-wing Social Revolutionaries, The Banner of Labour (Znamia Truda). The anarchist paper Pochin (The Beginning) and The Maximalist succumbed a little earlier. The Menshevik party had a daily newspaper in Moscow in 1919, Vperyod (Forward). Its fractions maintained themselves in the soviets until 1923. The year 1927 must first be reached, at the moment when the bureaucracy consummates its victory in the party by the expulsion of the Trotskyists, before one can hear Tomsky and Bukharin proclaim with a single voice: ‘Under the dictatorship of the proletariat, two, three or four parties may exist, but on the single condition that one of them is in power and the others in prison.’”
The repressive measures in the early years were necessary because popular support for the revolution had waned—the mass of the population was starving, desperate and unresponsive to revolutionary appeals. The imperialists and the Whites were eager to turn such sentiments into a weapon to overthrow the regime. The proletariat, through the soviets, had taken political power under conditions that posed a difficult choice: either permit those prepared to collaborate with imperialist and capitalist-restorationist forces to operate freely, or repress them, in order to hold on to power and buy time, to help organize and spread the revolution abroad, particularly to Western Europe.
The measures used to hold power helped facilitate the triumph of the conservative, nationalist bureaucracy headed by Stalin, but they might also have enabled the revolutionary overturns abroad that the Bolsheviks were counting on. The Soviet Union did become a staging ground for revolutions elsewhere, particularly in Europe. The Communist International, which was headquartered in Moscow, provided both material aid and political guidance to revolutionary movements around the world.
The bureaucratic degeneration of the revolution after Lenin, which Serge vividly depicts, was not inevitable, and the period of repression would have been remembered as a temporary expedient had the potentially revolutionary upheavals in Western Europe succeeded. Yet the only possible outcome of putting formal democratic principles before survival would have been a regime of White terror.
1917: [Quoting Victor Serge] “… [Leninists] cannot abandon the rigorous discipline of action without which no victory is possible, or the advantages of collective thought, any more than they can renounce imposing within the toiling class the will of the majority and, at certain turning points, the will of the vanguard upon that of the rearguard which is at once fearful, disabled, corrupted, and manoeuvred by the bourgeoisie.”
AC: I vehemently disagree with this last point. However politically backwards the rearguard may be, I don’t accept imposing the will of a minority on the will of a majority. And it’s these kinds of statements that make me suspect that there is a degree of truth to the admittedly crude characterization of Leninists and Trotskyists as believing they have all the answers and therefore the right to rule without consent. And this quote from Serge reflects this exact view in its crudest and most naked form.
JD: Imposing the will of a revolutionary minority on a politically backward majority is not usually a good idea—not because it violates abstract democratic principle (as materialists, our actions are guided by practical realities, not moral abstractions) but because it almost never works. Only with the active participation of a politically conscious majority of the working class can a regime be established that will be capable of creating the conditions for the birth of a truly socialist (i.e., classless) society. There are, however, unusual situations where it is necessary for the advanced minority to impose its will on the backward majority. Serge was highlighting the need to maintain the workers’ state even when a majority of the working class itself has become so demoralized through civil war and desperate hardship as to withdraw their support from the only party refusing to capitulate to counterrevolution. The passage immediately following the one you quote makes clear that Serge (and the Bolsheviks) were well aware that compulsion can only be a temporary expedient, and that it is, on a general level, counterposed to the course of socialist development:
“They [those in the vanguard] also know that socialism cannot live and grow without living thought, that is, without freedom of opinion, divergences, criticism by the masses, active public opinion, contrast of ideas….On these points Stalinism has done immense damage to the working-class world, which the proletariat of the West alone can remedy. In theory and practice, the prison-state has nothing in common with the measures of public safety of the commune-state in the period of the battles: it is the work of the triumphant bureaucrats who, in order to impose their usurpation, are forced to break with the essential principles of socialism and to refuse the workers any freedom at all.”
—Russia Twenty Years After
1917: Instead of seeking to push the struggle [i.e., the Spanish revolution] forward through expropriating the capitalists and creating organs of direct working-class power, as the Bolsheviks had done, the CNT/FAI leadership, which prided itself on its refusal to get involved in “politics,” politically supported the “democratic” bourgeois government.
AC: Yes, a huge fuckup, which virtually all anarchists concede to now. I wish Trotskyists would concede to the mistakes of the pre-Stalin Bolsheviks!
JD: We acknowledge that the “pre-Stalin Bolsheviks” made mistakes—such things are inevitable in the course of a long and brutal civil war. But the basic policy of the Bolsheviks was correct—to create organs of workers power and expropriate the capitalists—whereas the “apolitical” policy of the CNT/FAI was fundamentally flawed. Their “fuckup” flowed directly from an anarchist aversion to imposing the revolutionary authority of the working class—shattering the instruments of bourgeois political power and replacing them with the rule (aka “dictatorship”) of workers’ councils. You can’t make a revolution—or at least see one through—if you are not prepared to lead the workers to fight for power. The capitalists and their partisans of course denounce this as “authoritarian” or worse, but Leninists have no qualms about the proletariat imposing its will by any means necessary.
1917: Santillán, who was subsequently elevated to the post of Minister of Economy, explained the CNT/FAI’s leadership’s capitulation as the logical consequence of its “apolitical” and “anti-authoritarian” ideology:
“We could have remained alone, imposed our absolute will, declared the Generalidad null and void, and imposed the true power of the people in its place, but we did not believe in dictatorship when it was being exercised against us, and we did not want it when we could exercise it ourselves only at the expense of others. The Generalidad would remain in force with President Companys at its head….”
AC: What ignorance from these (mis)leaders! I’m embarrassed that this statement comes from my political ancestor. It’s a false dichotomy to say that it is a choice between a revolutionary dictatorship or bourgeois “democracy.” The third choice was revolutionary democracy, by federating the militias, the factory committees, and the rural communes via councils of elected delegates who would facilitate direct democracy of the masses (how this might be achieved is explained in section I.5 of An Anarchist FAQ and in Stephen Shalom’s article “ParPolity: Political Vision for a Good Society”). NEFAC member Wayne Price makes this argument in his book The Abolition of the State in the chapter on the Spanish civil war. I wonder why this option was not obvious to them?
JD: Let me first point out that the idea of “councils of elected delegates” facilitating the “direct democracy of the masses” is one that we agree with, for reasons outlined above.
The idea of transferring all political power to organs of working-class democracy represents a big step in the direction of Leninism. As such, it violates some of the fundamental precepts of classical anarchist doctrine, which is why anarchists who advocate it are generally uncomfortable with pursuing such a strategy to its logical, “dictatorial,” conclusion: the suppression of the counterrevolution by a centralized revolutionary proletarian state composed of a hierarchy of workers’ councils. Platform anarchism is indeed a sort of halfway house between classic anarchism and Bolshevism, but it cannot succeed in overcoming the problems it was created to address without embracing the conclusions that flow from the recognition of the need for organized proletarian force and planning.
Victor Serge, and many other Russian anarchists, sided with the Bolsheviks in 1917 rather than embrace the same bankrupt policy put forward 20 years later by the CNT/FAI in Spain:
“The most authoritative group [of anarchists in 1917], in the sense that it was the only one to possess any semblance of doctrine, a valuable collection of militants and a widely distributed journal, Golos Truda, which at one time competed with Pravda in the factories of Petrograd, two or three days before the October Revolution published a declaration which…foresaw that the uprising could only end in the formation of a new power. Since they were opponents of any power, they would abstain to begin with. But if the toiling masses followed the movement, they themselves would follow the toiling masses.…A more complete and pitiful political abdication would be hard to imagine.”
—Victor Serge, “Lenin in 1917”
1917: The left-anarchist “Friends of Durruti,” who denounced the capitulation of the CNT/FAI leadership, forthrightly asserted that “revolutions are totalitarian,” and concluded that it is not enough to destroy the capitalists’ state—it is also necessary to replace it with a revolutionary “junta” of workers’ representatives. As we commented in our pamphlet, this amounted to advocating “the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ in everything but name.” Comrade Price did not choose to comment on this.
AC: I don’t think the Friends of Durruti’s proposal was democratic enough, although it was on the right track, and I would have preferred it over the blunders by the CNT/FAI. Even still, I don’t think this would have been a dictatorship of the proletariat, or a state. The junta was to have control over the militias and international relations. That leaves most political decisions for the masses to make via direct democracy and control of the economy to the self-managed factory committees and farming collectives.
JD: Within the Friends of Durruti’s “junta” there would necessarily have been elections of delegates to decision-making bodies at local, regional and national levels. It is simply impossible to decide questions via meetings of 100,000 people where everyone gets to talk and share experiences and then vote. Even the CNT, as a trade union, had delegates—it did not attempt to make all decisions through some sort of “direct democracy.” The IWW functioned in a similar fashion. If all the important decisions in society—from the international right down to the local level—are made by bodies composed of workers’ delegates, the door is open to organizing economic and social life on a new, egalitarian, socialist basis. Anarchist participants might choose not to call it a state, but that’s what it would be.*
The Friends of Durruti—who, unlike the CNT/FAI leaders, are generally held in high regard by anarchists today—advocated a “workers’ junta” to pursue a “totalitarian” revolution against the capitalists and their agents. Why? Because they recognized that the only way to defeat the Francoists was not to conciliate the bourgeoisie, but to crush its resistance. What was posed in Spain, as in Russia two decades earlier, was the question of which class would “dictate”—either the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie or the dictatorship over the bourgeoisie (i.e., the dictatorship of the proletariat).
The attempt to implement completely “non-authoritarian” principles in the various Occupy encampments in recent months has led many anarchist militants to confront harsh realities about the need to enforce certain rules, including that of the right of the majority to control, or if necessary expel, hostile or dangerous individuals. In a revolutionary situation the same contradiction between ultra-libertarianism and the practical demands of the class struggle requires anarchists to choose between two fundamental policies—the dictatorship of the proletariat (which is essentially what the Friends of Durruti were advocating) or the “anti-authoritarian” capitulationism of Santillán.
*The Irish Workers Solidarity Movement, the foremost anarchist organization identifying with the Platformist tradition, recently attempted to get around this by redefining the term “state” to mean minority class rule:
“The State only serves a purpose when a small class of bosses rules. It is a means of keeping a minority in charge. It has no other use.
“Socialism is about the working class taking control of industry and doing away with exploitation. It is about production to meet needs, co-operation and workers’ direct control.
“Can this new society be ruled by a small grouping organised in a state structure? Of course not. How could anyone seriously propose that a minority rule a society where there would be no rule by minorities!
“But there will always be a need for administration, planning, defence and so on. We don’t need the old structures for this. The way we will tackle these tasks will have to reflect the new society. Certainly specialists will work at their jobs but they will be under the supervision of delegates elected from the workers’ councils. Power will come from below with everyone able to have their say about decisions that affect them.
“Delegates will carry the decisions to [the] local, national and eventually international level. If the delegates don’t do their job they will be stood down and new ones elected. In this structure there is no way that any gang of power-seekers could take over, yet the affairs of society can be organised in a most efficient manner.”
—Workers Solidarity No.121, May 2011
This description of rule by recallable delegates from workers’councils is substantially similar to the Marxist model of a workers’ state. It is also essentially how the early Soviet regime operated. Such a mechanism “serves a purpose” by providing the organizational framework to implement the principles of “production to meet needs, co-operation and workers’ direct control.” The fact that it operates in the interests of the overwhelming majority of the oppressed and exploited, rather than a minority of exploiters, does not make it any less a machine for enforcing the rule of one social class over its enemies.