Letters (on Anarchism)
Sharing the same aims?
I have been reading the Socialist Standard for a while now, and find myself in agreement with many of your views. I have taken a recent interest in anarchism, and I am curious as to where you would part ideological company with anarchists. Anarchism would appear to share your disdain for the state, and for the idea of vanguards to lead the plebs and tell them what to think. I would also agree with you in rejecting leaders. Do your differences go back to those between Marx and Proudhon or Bakunin? Can anarchists and socialists work together today?
JOHN HUBBARD, Sheffield
There are anarchists and anarchists. Some share our aim of a classless, stateless society of common ownership and popular participation where the principle of “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs” will apply and where money will be redundant This is the view put forward, in the past, by such anarchists as Kropotkin, Rudolf Rocker and Alexander Berkman and, today, by Murray Bookchin.
Other anarchists do not share this aim. The 19th century French anarchist Proudhon, for instance, didn’t. He was implacably opposed to common ownership and stood for a free market economy of small-scale producers. Another 19th century anarchist. Max Stirner, preached extreme individualism; to this day his followers argue that democracy is a tyranny as it involves an individual having to accept majority decisions they might not agree with. Bakunin was a joke, a typical romantic revolutionary forever hatching conspiracies and trying to stage immediate armed risings against the state. Then there are religiously-inspired anarchists, such as Tolstoy, and purely philosophical armchair anarchists, and reformist anarchists who limit themselves to seeking to extend the realm of individual intellectual and sexual freedom within capitalism. There are lifestyle anarchists, who put two fingers up to the rest of society, including the working class, and (less now than at one time) the anarchist bomb-throwers and terrorists.
We have nothing in common with any of these, but what about those anarchists who are in favour of socialism (as we prefer to call it) or communism (as they call it)?
The main differences between us and them is over how to get to a classless, stateless, moneyless society. We favour majority democratic action on the grounds that the establishment of a society based on voluntary co-operation and popular participation has to involve such co-operation and participation (i.e. democratic methods) and say that when such a majority comes into being it can use existing political institutions (the ballot box and parliament) to establish a socialist/ communist society. They are opposed to this, but are not able to offer a viable alternative (the anarcho-communists pose a spontaneous mass popular upsurge, the anarcho-syndicalists a general strike and mass factory occupations—both of which ignore the state and the need to at least neutralise it before trying to change society from capitalism).
Can we work with them? Well, if they can abandon their prejudice against democratic political action via elections, we invite them to join us in campaigning for a classless, stateless, moneyless society. • Editors
Shocked and disappointed
Like Andy Stephenson (May Socialist Standard), I find myself in broad agreement with many aspects of your organisation; its democracy and lack of leadership, its critique of capitalism and vanguardism and its view of socialism.
Yet I find myself shocked and disappointed by point six in your statement of principles: the “machinery of government” which I agree “exists to serve the capitalist class” can never be the instrument of working class emancipation. The State is. by its very nature, a fundamentally coercive set of institutions which must be removed immediately before anything like socialism can be established.
Perhaps the writers of the SPGB programme in 1904 did not foresee the abuse of power that inevitably emerges from socialists seizing the machinery of the State ostensibly to free the workers. The obvious example is that of State capitalism in Russia which came as a direct result of the seizure of State power by a political elite, the Bolshevik Party. As Bakunin predicted many years before the Russian revolution, the same events will produce the same results anywhere: merely the replacement of one set of rulers by another, with all the coercive power of the State at their disposal, which will not be used to release the workers from bondage but to shore up their own “dictatorship of the proletariat”.
Isn’t it about time that the SPGB stopped desperately clinging onto dogmas that experience has proven to be utterly self-defeating and accepted the fact that the capitalist state is nothing but an anti-socialist entity which must be removed, and that to try and use it to emancipate will in practice produce precisely the opposite effect?
LEWIS MATES, Newcastle
We agree that “the State is, by its very nature, a fundamentally coercive set of institutions which must be removed immediately before an/thing like socialism can be established”. The big question is: how? How can the State be removed?
We can only think of three possible ways, two of which in our view wouldn’t work. The first would be to try to smash the State in an armed uprising (as favoured by Bakunin). To do this the revolutionaries would have to be able to defeat militarily the forces of the State and so have to build up their own army, organised, as armies must be, on a hierarchical basis. In the event of victory this new coercive force would have to be dissolved; otherwise it would turn into a new State. And it would be back to square one. We have to say, however, that we see no prospect of an armed uprising being either successful or even likely in the developed capitalist parts of the world. In fact, for countries like Britain, it’s a quite mad idea.
A second possibility would be to refuse to co-operate with the State, to withdraw support from it so that it would just become an empty shell. This is the way advocated by other anarchists with a more pacifist bent than Bakunin and the bomb-throwers. It makes more sense than trying to defeat the State militarily but, to succeed, it would require the support of the overwhelming majority of the population. But in that case why not take the third way of using existing electoral and semi-democratic institutions— which, imperfect as they are and must be under capitalism, do still allow a majority to get its way—to win control of the State. Not, as you seem to think, to form some “socialist government” or “workers’ state”, but to dismantle it, by lopping off its coercive features and retaining and democratising any useful administrative features? That would be much easier, more direct and less risky. Which is why we favour it.
There is no need to lecture us of all people about what happened in Russia. Right from the start, we said that the outcome could not probe socialism. What the Bolsheviks thought they could do was to seize power as a minority—they didn’t think a majority were capable of understanding socialism—and then educate, lead and, if need be, coerce the majority into socialism. This was never going to succeed—a majority must want socialism before it can work—and especially not in an economically backward country such as Russia was in 1917. In the circumstances of the absence both of a majority political will for Socialism and of a developed industry capable of turning out plenty for everybody, all they could do was to develop capitalism in one form or another. In the event, the form that emerged was a State capitalism with some of the members of the ruling Bolshevik party as the new ruling class. We denounced this right from the start.