A question of strategy


By Zanny Begg

The debate between anarchism and socialism is not one between "libertarian" and "authoritarian" models of change, as the anarchists claim. It is a debate about what strategy is needed to overturn the capitalist status quo.

Consciously Anarchists claim that the title "socialism versus anarchism" is an oxymoron because socialism "is anarchism". The real oxymoron is "authoritarian socialism". Socialism is the struggle to replace the capitalist system, which is run in the interests of a tiny wealthy minority, with what Lenin described as the "democracy of the poor". A socialist revolution is a profoundly democratic act because it brings the majority, who have been previously excluded from making decisions about their lives, into power.

Unlike the capitalist system, which ranges from "democracies for the rich" in places like Australia to brutally undemocratic regimes in Indonesia and Burma, socialism needs democracy. This is because socialism requires the reorganisation of society in the interests of the majority (workers and poor people), and this can be achieved only by these people themselves.

In the Soviet Union, Stalin's rise to power in the 1930s was a political defeat for the democratic traditions of the Russian Revolution and the Bolshevik party, not a continuation of them. Stalinism drove back the democratic gains of the revolution and consolidated an authoritarian state based on bureaucratic privilege which only posed as socialist.

It is the record of the Bolsheviks (prior to the rise of Stalin), however, which Consciously Anarchists choose to attack. They claim that after the revolution in 1917 the Bolsheviks "consolidated power" and "brutally suppressed" those who did not toe the "party line".

History tells a different story. The revolution was successful because millions of peasants and workers rose up and took state power into their own hands. They used this power to stop Russia's participation in World War I, to enact a massive transfer of land to the poor and landless peasants, to liberate the non-Russian nationalities locked up in the tsar's "prison house of nations", to establish an eight hour day and to transfer wealth into the hands of the majority.

For these "crimes", they were attacked by 20 capitalist nations in a brutal and costly war. Although the Bolsheviks won the war, the Russian people had been "thrashed to within an inch of their life", as Lenin put it.

To win the civil war, it was necessary for the workers' and peasants' soviets to maintain the Red Army and Navy — their state power. Any other course would have handed power back to the brutal and reactionary coalition of tsarist generals, feudal overlords and their imperialist backers.

The aim of the Bolsheviks, however, was to establish a new sort of state — one that would, as Lenin put it, begin to "wither away". Lenin argued "at all costs we must break the old, absurd, savage, despicable and disgusting prejudice that only the rich or those gone through the school of the rich are capable of administering the state and directing the organisational development of socialist society".

Lenin explained to the 1918 Congress of Soviets, "We really have an organisation of power which clearly indicates the complete abolition of power, of any state. This will be possible when every trace of exploitation has been abolished."

During the civil war years, there was collaboration between anarchist forces and the Bolsheviks in a common struggle to defend the revolution. But there were also disagreements. One group of anarchists participated in the blowing up of the headquarters of the Moscow Communist Party in 1919, killing 12 Bolsheviks and injuring Bukharin. Another anarchist tendency helped the Bolsheviks defend Petrograd when it was attacked by counter-revolutionary forces a month later.

The Bolshevik policy was to allow full freedom of organisation of all political tendencies as long as they defended the revolution. Parties were outlawed only if they engaged in criminal acts against the revolution. Since the Soviet workers and peasants were engaged in a full scale war against imperialists forces, this was the only possible policy.

The crushing of the rebellion at Kronstadt and the Makhnovite uprising in the Ukraine were both "tragic" (to quote Trotsky) illustrations of the limitations imposed upon political debate by the civil war. In both cases, the rebellions were potential stepping stones to the victory of invading counter-revolutionary armies. And let's not romanticise Nestor Makhno — for all his "anti-authoritarianism", he advocated banning all political parties in the Ukraine (including the Bolsheviks).

The Spanish Civil War presents similar lessons. In contrast to what Consciously Anarchists assert, in the period after 1936 two states existed in Spain — both controlled by the capitalist class. The revolutionary movement, locked in struggle with this state machine, had seized large areas and liberated them. There was thus a form of "dual power" in which two states existed, both struggling to gain the upper hand. The mistake the anarchists made was not in running "schools, hospitals, transport, communication systems" was in not pushing forward the revolution and taking state power in the republic.

Although clearly anti-system, anarchism represents an accommodation with the status quo because it deprives the revolutionary movement of a vehicle for achieving its goals, an organisation able to lead the mass of working people to take state power. Today some people disgusted with the crimes of capitalism, but repulsed by the authoritarian record of the Stalinist regimes, embrace anarchism. But anarchism speaks of "freedom" without a serious strategy for overcoming capitalist "privilege".