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.