Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Marxism and Authoritarianism

In discussing Marxism, communism and revolution at this point in history, and in the U.S. especially, the question of authority, violence, and the accusation of authoritarianism is a major question to be resolved. I bring this issue up because of two recent happenings. First, at a recent gathering I was harshly criticized by several anarchist friends of mine for wearing a pin with the image of Lenin on it that I bought in Russia. A long conversation ensued on so-called authoritarian regimes and their defense by leftists. Second was an email from a reader of this site, stating "I think Marxism is a good philosophy but becomes totalitarian and abusive in practice." These are valid questions given the history of the twentieth century with regard to proletarian revolutions. These are not simple accusations easily dismissed as CIA propaganda. They must be answered with an examination of the evidence. Who did what? What were the conditions that contributed to the events in question? This is an enormous topic brought up here for the purpose of stimulating debate, not meaning to be exhaustive. I believe that my bias will be evident without being too explicit.

Ideally, we would want to be totally scientific about this issue and have a familiarity with all of the events that we are talking about. For a good overview and analysis read: Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes and The Age of Empire-two fairly long books on 19th and 20th century history. Unfortunately, many people are not familiar with the details and when they are these can be incomplete or out of context.

Why is this discussion important? What is at stake here? For people already adept in this discussion it may be review. What is at stake is the degree to which humans have progressed by workers and the oppressed taking power into their own hands. If you argue that no revolution has ever done any good you are basically saying that progress does not come about through struggle. This position is anti-Marxist. On the other extreme, if you argue that every revolution, including ones that really are not revolutions, have achieved human progress then the world is really close to leaping into socialism or all that is needed is a few more third world uprisings to tilt the balance. In addition if every revolution or everything a revolution does is progressive then one ends up having to excuse mass terror. A person’s position on revolution and change affects the way in which they interpret all other political events

To begin let me sketch out some of the arguments. First, the liberal democratic argument says that working class revolution and violence is not necessary, even when objective conditions for the poor and the workers are horrible, because liberal democracy and capitalism, if left to their own devices will develop society and maximize happiness and freedom for its citizens. From this perspective the only revolutions that need to happen were the bourgeois-democratic ones establishing democracy, like in France and the American colonies. For these critics the Paris Commune, the Bolshevik Revolution, the Chinese Revolution, Cuban Revolution etc. are unfortunate instances when democracy failed and dictators came to power. The outcome of this argument is that human progress is tied to the development of “nice” imperialist powers such as the United States or Britain. Examples of this argument can be found daily in the New York Times.

The anarchist critique is similar to the liberal democratic critique only in that it draws the line of what was necessary and authentic revolution and what was authoritarian overthrow of that revolution in a different place. The anarchist critique often recognizes the working class as an important (sometimes the only) agent for social change. They recognize Workers and Soldiers Soviets, the February Revolution, communes and other worker organizations, peasant uprisings, and other "spontaneous" organization of the exploited as the authentic revolutionary actions. They reject as subversions of revolution, and authoritarian takeover, things such as the Bolshevik Revolution. (See TEXT for of this argument) In their defense there is an historical record of violence and repression that at least needs to be explained and learned from, not rationalized or dismissed. However, the anarchist critique often misses the actual facts on the ground, the real situation, offers utopian or impossible solutions to very bad situations, and wants revolution without a revolution as Robespierre said. In other words they want all of the benefits without making all of the unfortunate but necessary sacrifices.

The Marxist-Leninist critique splits into several different camps. They agree that the Bolshevik Revolution was a necessary next step in the Russian Revolution, abolishing private property and giving power to the soviets. They differ however on what has happened since. The Soviets during and after Stalin and Chinese Maoists, all supportive of Stalinism, argue that revolution was preserved in the USSR and extended to every country that subsequently became communist. This means that the entire old "communist bloc" was an extension of the Bolshevik Revolution, and thus a progressive step. Murders and the oppression of workers by revolutionaries is often denied or rationalized.

Other Marxist-Leninists, in the opposition Trotskyist tradition hold different views on what happened in the Russian Revolution. Most, following Trotsky, argue that Stalin lead a bureaucratic take-over of the revolutionary state in the mid 1920's and it "degenerated” under Stalin's leadership away from revolutionary aims to seek accommodation with capitalism and imperialism. This state was then a "degenerated workers state" without private property, without capitalism, but with a treacherous and self-interested leadership. Thus it served the interests of the bureaucracy and not the workers, subverted revolution, murdered loyal citizens and good Bolsheviks, and did not achieve socialism and freedom. This position is exonerated from having to defend Stalin or Mao but is open to attack on the ground that the tactics they support lay the foundation for authoritarianism. SeeThe Revolution Betrayed by Trotsky at TEXT.

These four broad positions have very different views upon what kind of revolution, if any, is necessary for the progressive transformation of society into socialism or whatever next step is theorized, if indeed there is one. Each position argues for a different level of acceptable and necessary violence in accomplishing the revolution. I suggest that those interested should investigate for themselves the various positions; keeping in mind the various pitfalls outlined above, and compare these positions to what evidence and data suggest. I encourage discussion and criticism.


Renegade Eye said...

I found this blog surfing. Thank you for that well written post on an important subject.

I think that argument is less innocent than how it was presented. It is often presented as, "You start out with idealism, but in reality it doesn't work. Once in power, you become totalitarian." That type of argument is a smokescreen, for pure anticommunism.


Nicholas said...

Thank you for your kind words. I'm just trying out self publishing in the historial materialist tradition.

Yes alot of these arguments are covers for outright reaction. On the otherhand I have to be fair or even more than fair in presenting the other side.

Edie said...

Hi, I noticed your comments over at Renegade Eye's and wondered about you. Do I know you? Anyway, good post. I will add you to my links.

Kai! said...

So many anarchists are anti-Leninist because Lenin slaughtered a lot of workers at Kronstadt.

Nicholas said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Nicholas said...

Ah yes the great Hue and Cry over Kronstadt, as Trotsky would say. I suggest reading the latest edition of Spartacist at

The basic points are that the great Red fighters of Kronstadt in 1917 had been mostly killed in the Civil War or rose up in the bureaucracy by 1921. They were replaced by not so class conscious peasants and new workers. Second they were greatly influenced by former White generals as well as some white officers brought in from the outside. In addition many soldiers on Kronstadt who spoke out against rebellion were hushed up and threatened by the new workers council there. Anarchist do not like this fact. Third, after the uprising was crushed the leaders fled right into the ranks of the White generals in Finland, not the kind of company one would expect real revolutionaries to want to get help from. Why not flee to Germany where their was growing revolution?
The thing that fools many are the seemingly revolutionary phrases used by the mutineers. But sadly they are counter revolutionary in the larger view of the Russian Revolution. If you look at even the very conservative liberal groups during the revolution they make even the most liberal Democrat today sound like Hitler. The point is that during revolutionary times the whole political landscape changes.

Yes, the suppression of Kronstadt was I admit regrettable, it was however necessary to preserve the integrity of the new workers’ state and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat against further right wing attack.

Finally, this is a complex issue of history, one over which much ink and a little blood have been spilt. I encourage all to read history at length and use evidence, its there for us!

Comrade Martin said...

I think your last point about Trotskyism is the most important - because it leads us to the conceptualization of a "third" school of revolutionary thought: MARXISM ITSELF!

Too many self-described Marxists feel some urge to cling to the Bolshevik Revolution and its aftermath (giving up either after Stalin took power, Khrushchev took power, or when the whole damn thing imploded.) Is it not the most logical conclusion of our experience with the Bolshevik revolution that we have more to understand from its *failures* than from its temporary and ultimately pointless "victories"? After all, if it had really achieved anything, we would all be speaking Russian right now (metaphorically speaking, anyway.)

Yes, it showed what can be done with Proletarian power - if more so in the revolutionary process than the ensuing state. But just as much (if not more) so was the Paris Commune such an example. Why should we proclaim ourselves "Bolshevists" as many Trotskyists do? Are we not consigning ourselves to an event in the past which has ultimately ended up in the dustbin of history?

Marxism is based on a fluid, dynamic, and scientific approach. We analyze material reality and seek the most appropriate, historically applicable, and logically relevant answers to the world's complicated questions. It is on the heels of that kind of ideology that we can advance the call for a new world based on cooperation and power from the people below - not by hopelessly clinging to and seeking to resuscitate dead demogogues from 50 years or more ago. As Silvia Pankhurst put it, let's be done with these "Socialist popes."

Our path as Marxists is one that must be written on new tablets, defined by the environment of today, providing answers based on 21st century conditions. Marxism, by the very organic nature of its science, is advanced because of its inability to be anchored by fetishism of the past. Revolution will be possible the moment we look forward, instead of backwards.

Anonymous said...

Any revolution standing for a utopian future doesn't allow a forum of free discourse in which that vision of a utopian future can be disputed or derailed. That is why communism, socialism, all these things lead to dictatorship. Nature of the beast. Mixed capitalism is the best we can do to limit disparity and preserve individual economic freedom.