Anarchist Organization and Vanguardism

In Defense of Leninism

The question of what, if any, type of revolutionary organization is necessary has always been a thorny one for anarchists. The most hard-core “organizational” anarchist trend is “Platformism,” which takes its name from the 1926 Platform advanced by Nestor Makhno, Peter Arshinov, Ida Mett and several others associated with the Paris-based émigré Russian anarchist paper Dielo Truda. In drawing the lessons of Bolshevik success and anarchist failure in the Russian Revolution, the authors of the Platform concluded that it was necessary to form a disciplined, programmatically homogenous anarchist organization. They proclaimed: “It is time for anarchism to leave the swamp of disorganisation…and to operate an organised collective practice” on the basis of “precise positions: theoretical, tactical and organisational.”

In a January 2006 article, “Why an Anarchist Organiz-ation is Needed… But Not a ‘Vanguard Party’,” Wayne Price of the Northeastern Federation of Anarcho-Communists (NEFAC) addressed the long-standing accusation by Platformism’s anarchist critics that it amounts to little more than closet Leninism. Price’s article is, in part, a polemic against our 2002 pamphlet, “Platformism & Bolshevism,” which he refers to as the “only extended work by Leninists on the subject.”

The 1926 Platform advocated the creation of a “General Union of Anarchists” built on four organizational principles. In addition to the traditional anarchist preference for “federalism” over centralism, Makhno et al. favored “theoretical unity,” “tactical unity” and “collective responsibility.” Theoretical unity means that the anarchist organization should be based on a “homogeneous programme.” This presented a direct challenge to the “synthesist” view that anarchist groupings should be all-inclusive formations embracing ultra-individualists, syndicalists and every other sort of self-professed anarchist. “Tactical unity” (aka the “collective method of action”) requires members to coordinate their political activities and implement the democratically-arrived at decisions of the group. This overlaps somewhat with “collective responsibility,” which stipulates that members have both the right to participate in the collective decision-making process and the duty to abide by the majority view once a decision is reached. The anarchist collective, as envisioned by the authors of the 1926 Platform, “requires each member to undertake fixed organisation duties, and demands execution of communal decisions.”

The Platform’s authors proposed an executive committee as part of the division of labor within the projected “General Union of Anarchists”:

“With a view to the co-ordination of the activity of all the Union’s adherent organisations, a special organ will be created: the executive committee of the Union. The committee will be in charge of the following functions: the execution of decisions taken by the Union with which it is entrusted; the theoretical and organisational orientation of the activity of isolated organisations consistent with the theoretical positions and the general tactical line of the Union; the monitoring of the general state of the movement; the maintenance of working and organisational links between all the organisations in the Union; and with other organisations.”

The Platformists’ contemporary anarchist critics charged that this was tantamount to Leninism:

“What has happened to federalism? They are only one step away from Bolshevism, a step that the authors of the Platform do not dare to take. The similarity between the Bolsheviks and the ‘Platform anarchists’ is frightening to the Russian comrades. It makes no difference whether the supreme organ of the anarchist party is called Executive Committee, or if we call it Confederal Secretariat.”
—“Reply to the Platform (Synthesist),” April 1927,

The venerable Italian militant Errico Malatesta, a well-known champion of “pro-organizational” anarchism, denounced the Platformists’ idea of collective responsibility as “the absolute negation of any individual independence and freedom of initiative and action” (“A Project of Anarchist Organisation,” October 1927). Anticipating this critique, the Platform had noted: “[Q]uite often, the federalist principle has been deformed in anarchist ranks: it has too often been understood as the right, above all, to manifest one’s ‘ego’, without obligation to account for duties as regards the organisation.” 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:

“Almost always and almost everywhere, our movement’s practical problems are resolved by majority vote. At the same time, the minority can cling to its own views, but does not obstruct the decision; generally, and of its own volition, it makes concessions. This is perfectly understandable as there cannot be any other way of resolving problems for organizations that engage in practical activity. There is, anyway, no alternative if one really wants to act.”
—Peter Arshinov, “Elements Old and New in Anarchism: A Reply to Maria Isidine,” November- December 1928

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.”
Op. cit.

Instead of simply renouncing “federalism,” Platform anarchists have attempted to redefine it to include a “degree of centralization.” This has led other anarchists to charge that Platformism is just one end of an authoritarian continuum that runs all the way to Leninism. Price attempts to distinguish Platformist “centralization” from Leninist on the grounds that:

“‘Centralization’ is not just coordination, unification, or cooperation. Centralization (‘democratic’ or otherwise) means that everything is run from a center. A minority is in charge.”

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. There is no logical reason why an organization cannot be both centralized and democratic. Nor must centralization mean that “everything is run from a center.” To be effective, any organization (whether anarchist, Leninist, corporate or military) must strike a balance between centralized and local decision-making, and permit those on the ground the maximum amount of tactical flexibility in carrying out their assignments. There is also no reason why debate in a Leninist organization must automatically result in domination by authoritarian personalities and the atrophying of internal democracy, while the internal struggles of Platformists for “theoretical unity” can only proceed in an egalitarian, democratic fashion. Ultimately, the only guarantee against bureaucratism in any organization is the political consciousness of the membership.

Price attempts to skirt these issues by resorting to caricature:

“Among Leninists, the centralized party is justified philosophically. The party supposedly knows the Truth, knows ‘scientific socialism.’ The party is considered the embodiment of Proletarian Consciousness. Proletarian consciousness is not what the proletariat actually believes but what it should believe, what it must believe, which only the party knows for sure.”

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).

The October Revolution was only possible because the Bolshevik leadership was flexible enough to radically revise long-held positions in the light of new developments. In April 1917, the party abandoned its entire strategic conception of the “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry” and adopted a program originally associated with Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution, which Lenin had denounced for a dozen years. The party also dropped its long-standing agrarian policy in favor of the Social Revolutionaries’ call for breaking up the large landed estates and distributing them to individual peasant families.

NEFAC’s ‘Platformist Pretentions’

The original Platformists placed a high priority on political homogeneity:

“[A] whole swathe of individuals claiming to be anarchists has nothing in common with anarchism. Gathering these people (on the basis of what?) into ‘one family’ and describing that gathering as ‘anarchist organization’ would not only be nonsense, it would be positively harmful. If that were to happen by some mischance, all prospects for anarchism’s developing into a revolutionary social movement of toilers would be banished.

“It is not an undiscriminating mix, but rather a selection from the wholesome anarchist forces and the organization thereof into an anarchist-communist party that is vital to the movement; not a hotchpotch synthesis, but dif-ferentiation and exploration of the anarchist idea so as to bring them to a homogeneous movement program. That is the only way to rebuild and strengthen the movement in the laboring masses.”
—“Reply to Anarchism’s Confusionists,” August 1927

NEFAC claims to stand in the Platformist tradition, but it rejects the idea of a “homogenous 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.

Nicolas Phebus, one of NEFAC’s founding members, candidly described other ways in which his group falls short of the model put forward by Makhno, Arshinov et al.:

“Despite our ‘platformist’ pretensions, in many ways we are much more a network then [sic] a federation, or even an organization like Love & Rage was with ‘locals’ and so on. Our grassroots nodes (i.e. collectives) are truly autonomous and are in constant contact with all other nodes without having to go through a central filter.”
—“We Learn As We Walk: Looking Back on Five Years of NEFAC,” The Northeastern Anarchist, No.10 (Spring/Summer 2005)

According to Phebus, NEFAC has:

“been unable to create central positions that are elected and controlled by the whole membership. There’s no elected central structure in NEFAC; every task, even political tasks like producing the publications, are given with a vague mandate to various collectives.”

The absence of a “central structure” (i.e., a leadership body) has created predictable difficulties:

“We periodically have problems of collective respon-sibility 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.”

Leadership, Vanguards & Revolutionary Minorities

In 1926, in response to anarchist militant Maria Isidine, the Platform’s authors declared that it was their “duty to do all in our power to see that anarchism’s ideological influence upon the march of revolution is maximized” (“Supplement to the Organizational Platform [Questions and Answers],” November 1926). At the same time they cautioned that the “theoretical driving force” provided by anarchist ideas “should not be confused with the political leadership of the statist parties which leads finally to State Power.” Price explains this distinction as follows:

“With programmatic and tactical unity, members [of a Platformist group] would participate in broader, more heterogeneous, associations, such as labor unions, community organizations, antiwar groups, and—when they arise in a revolutionary period—workers’ and community councils. Such anarchist organizations would not be ‘parties,’ because they would not aim at achieving power for themselves. They would seek to lead by ideas and by example, not by taking over and ruling the popular organizations, let alone by taking state power.”
Op. cit.

Mainstream anarchists have always been suspicious of the Platformists’ desire to provide “leadership of ideas.” In 1927 some synthesist critics observed:

“We declare that juxtaposing the words ‘to lead’ with the adverb ‘ideologically’ does not change the position of the Platform’s authors significantly because they conceive the organization as a disciplined party.”
—“Reply to the Platform (Synthesist),” April 1927

It is no secret that revolutionary ideas do not currently enjoy mass popularity in most industrialized countries, and NEFAC members are well aware of the political backwardness of the North American working class. Changing this will require the efforts of those who already understand the necessity of revolutionary social change, as Price explains:

“In general, over the long haul, people become radicalized heterogeneously. In conservative times, people become revolutionary by ones and twos. As things become more radicalized, by groups and clusters. Then, as things move into a period of radicalization, layers become revolutionary. Finally, in periods of upheaval, whole populations rise up. But many or most newly radicalized people have not thought out their goals or strategies. They tend to be full of energy but to be confused and uncertain until they can sort out their ideas through experience. It is easy in these periods for reformists to mislead them back to the old ways, or for authoritarian groups to set up new rulers….

“As groupings and layers of working people and others become radicalized, they have the chance to organize themselves to effectively spread their ideas among the rest of the (not-yet-radicalized) population. This does not contradict the self-organization of the whole oppressed population. It is an integral part of that self-organization.”
Op. cit.

Price poses the problem in the following terms:

“The issue here is the relationship between the minority which has come to revolutionary conclusions, and the majority which, most of the time, is nonrevolutionary—except in revolutionary periods. (That the majority has become revolutionary is what, by definition, makes a period revolutionary!) Spontaneist and anti-organizational anarchists do not see this as an issue; they deny that it exists. To them, even talking about a revolutionary minority means being authoritarian. They live in a world of denial. It is only possible to counter dangers of authoritarianism if we admit that it may arise out of the split between a revolutionary minority and the majority.”

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. He 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.”

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. Leninists also uphold the right of a revolutionary majority to impose its will on scabs, reactionaries and other backward elements.

Much of the practical activity of contemporary Platformists seems to involve participation in anti-racist, anti-war or anti-poverty coalitions within which they seek to encourage “self activity” and “non-authoritarian” practices. The politics put forward by these formations does not appear to be a concern to NEFAC, even when it involves the promotion of abject reformism (see our letter to NEFAC’s Montreal collective on page 11). The important thing, according to Nicolas Phebus, is that:

“We do not see ourselves as ‘colonizers’ within social movements, but rather as fellow activists in search of the best strategies for our movements to win. This is how we approach our work as a political organization, and that’s why we say we don’t want leadership positions for ourselves but rather a ‘leadership of ideas’, which essentially means that we are going to fight demo-cratically within these movements to develop influence for anarchist ideas.”
Op. cit.

Jeff Shantz, also of NEFAC, makes the same point:

“It is clearly a mistake to approach movements either as recruitment grounds (as more formal organizations often do) or as social clubs (as is more typical for informal groups). For us the key is to be involved in a principled way that prioritizes building working class strength in our communities, neighbourhoods and workplaces rather than building our specific organization.”
Upping the Anti, No.1, 2005

NEFAC takes a similar approach in the unions:

“Unlike left groups that have focused their energies on running opposition slates in union elections or forming opposition caucuses, NEFAC unionists work to develop rank-and-file organization and [militancy.] We take the position that regardless of the union leadership, until we build a militant and mobilized rank-and-file movement, across locals and workplaces, the real power of organized labour will remain unrealized.”

The power of labor can only be realized to the extent that revolutionary political consciousness develops within the advanced layers of the working class—something that does not occur as a byproduct of simple rank-and-file activism in the workplace. Whether or not to run candidates in this or that union election is a secondary, tactical question which, depending on the concrete situation, may or may not advance the political struggle against the pernicious influence of the labor lieutenants of capital. 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.

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:

“The disadvantage of this conception of leadership is that it lends itself to seeing the leadership as the all-important thing. The task becomes to replace the bad leaders with the good leaders, the bad parties with the good party: the party with the right ideas. Instead of focusing on arousing the people, encouraging their independence and self-reliance, the implication is that all they need is to put the right leadership in power. At its worst, the party becomes a substitute for the working class.”
Op. cit.

This poses the struggle for revolutionary “leadership” in a very one-sided fashion. Trade-union careerists fight for personal power and material privileges within the framework of capitalism, but the revolutionary “struggle for leadership” hinges on masses of ordinary working people developing the ability to recognize their own objective class interests and, on that basis, to distinguish friend from foe.

The Russian Revolution: A Specter Haunting Anarchism

The political awakening of the proletarian masses is marked by their increasing sophistication in assessing the pronouncements of reformists and the left-talking centrists, quacks and cranks who appear in times of heightened social struggle. This is precisely what occurred between February and October 1917 in Russia, as the working class moved steadily to the left and tens of thousands of the most revolutionary-minded and dedicated militants, including many former adherents of rival leftist formations, joined the Bolsheviks.

The October Revolution was the first—and so far the only—successful seizure of power by the working class. Unlike the deformed workers’ states issuing from Soviet military occupation (Eastern Europe, North Korea) or insurrectionary peasant guerrilla armies (China, Vietnam, Yugoslavia and Cuba), the Russian workers’ state was created by a highly-politicized and sophisticated urban proletariat, led by a revolutionary party that was committed to the socialist transformation of society.

The Platformists of 1926 recognized that key elements of the traditional anarchist doctrine had been tested and decisively refuted in the course of Russia’s social revolution:

“It was during the Russian revolution of 1917 that the need for a general organisation was felt most deeply and most urgently. It was during this revolution that the libertarian movement showed the greatest degree of sectionalism and confusion. The absence of a general organisation led many active anarchist militants into the ranks of the Bolsheviks.”
Introduction to the 1926 Platform

Anarchist militants went over to the Bolsheviks not only because of their superior organization, but also because they were serious about destroying the repressive apparatus of the capitalist state and replacing its role in the organization of production and civil administration with directly-elected workers’ councils (or “soviets”). Comrade Price rejects the idea:

“…that the Russian revolution proves the need for a centralized, topdown, Bolshevik-type of vanguard party. Without that sort of party, it is said, there would not have been a socialist revolution. Therefore we need to build that kind of party today.”
Op. cit.

Yet, unlike most anarchists, Price neither denies the leading role the Bolsheviks played in the revolution nor the reality of the profound social transformation carried out under their leadership. Instead, he argues: “The Bolshevik Party made the Russian revolution when the party was most like an anarchist federation!” and cites the late Murray Bookchin’s observation that:

“The Bolshevik Party...was an illegal organization during most of the years leading up to the revolution. The party was continually being shattered and recon-stituted, with the result that until it took power it never really hardened into a fully centralized, bureaucratic, hierarchical machine. Moreover, it was riddled by factions...into the civil war.”

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 org-anization, 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 transformation of a revolutionary organization 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.

Price also cites Alexander Rabinowitch’s Prelude to Revolution: The Petrograd Bolsheviks and the July 1917 Uprising:

“that ‘...the near-monolithic unity and “iron discipline” of the Bolshevik Party in 1917 were largely myth....’ (1991, pp. viii-ix). The party’s Central Committee was unable to control the many regional and local organizations, and usually did not try to…. On the Central Committee there were strong-willed militants who fought for their views, sometimes ignoring party discipline. Meanwhile the party had opened itself to tens of thousands of new worker members, who shook things up considerably. When Lenin returned to Russia, he relied on these new rank-and-file members to overrule the conservative policies of the Old Bolsheviks. Rabinowitch concluded that these ‘decentralized and undisciplined’ (p. ix) divisions caused some difficulties, but overall they were vitally useful. ‘...The Bolsheviks’ organizational flexibility, their relative openness and responsiveness...were to be an important source of the party’s strength and ability to take power’ (1991, p. xi).”
Op. cit.

The influx of newly-radicalized workers, whose adherence ultimately made the Bolsheviks hegemonic within the Russian working class, undoubtedly loosened things up internally. But the Bolshevik party became the natural destination for radicalizing workers largely because of its courageous, and initially extremely unpopular, opposition to Russian intervention in World War I, and its unequivocal opposition to the left-talking liberal-bourgeois Provisional Government. Lenin’s reliance on “tens of thousands of new worker members” to overcome conservative resistance within the Bolshevik old guard is a model of how a revolutionary organization can correct mistakes and make abrupt changes in strategy through the mechanism of democratic internal political struggle.

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. But the same problem was faced by all of its competitors. 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.

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. Lenin wanted to expel the two “strikebreakers” for their betrayal, but no other member of the Central Committee supported his proposal. Isaac Deutscher observed: “It is quite impossible to square this and many similar episodes with the view that monolithic or totalitarian uniformity had reigned in the Bolshevik party ever since its inception” (The Prophet Armed).

While trying to paint Lenin’s party at the time of the October Revolution as quasi-anarchist, Price treats the social order it established as a “state capitalist” totalitarian nightmare. 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.”

. . .

“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.”
—“Platformism & Bolshevism

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.”
Op. cit.

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.

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.

There was nothing preordained about the triumph of the Stalinist oligarchy. The victory of the bureaucracy was, in the final analysis, a result of the defeat of the postwar revolutionary wave in Europe, and, in particular, the inability of the immature leadership of the German Communist Party to seize the opportunity presented by the crisis of 1923. An earlier and more decisive intervention by the Communist International might well have tipped the balance, and thereby changed the entire course of history.

Contemporary anarchists have a tendency to conflate the repressive measures undertaken by the Bolshevik regime in the early 1920s under Lenin and Trotsky with Stalin’s bloody purges of the mid-1930s. Yet there is a qualitative difference between them, as Victor Serge, a former anarchist who personally witnessed the transformation, vividly described:

“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.’

“… [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. They 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 or 1936: A Choice Between Victory and Defeat

Many young militants who see that the capitalist state operates as a mechanism of oppression and inequality are sympathetic to anarchist proposals for the abolition of all “authority” and state power. But, as many Russian anarchists discovered in 1917, such notions are useless in situations where the question of social revolution is actually posed. The lesson was again driven home less than two decades later in Spain by the political capitulation of the anarcho-syndicalist Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT) and the Federación Anarquista Ibérica (FAI) in July 1936 after the working class successfully insurrected against a rightist military coup led by General Francisco Franco. Instead of seeking to push the struggle 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.

A prominent FAI leader, Diego Abad de Santillán, described how, immediately after the workers’ uprising in Catalonia, President Luís Companys told the anarchist leaders:

“You are masters of the town and of Catalonia, because you defeated the Fascist soldiers on your own….You have won and everything is in your power. If you do not need me, if you do not want me as president, say so now, and I shall become just another soldier in the antifascist struggle. If, on the other hand, you believe me…then perhaps with my party comrades, my name, and my prestige, I can be of use to you….”
—cited in The Revolution and the Civil War in Spain, Pierre Broué and Emile Témime

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….”

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.

Karl Marx’s projection that under communism the “free development of each [will be] the condition for the free development of all” (The Communist Manifesto) requires organized, disciplined revolutionary struggle to break up the bourgeois machinery of social control and replace it with new, working-class institutions. The October Revolution in Russia, spearheaded by the Bolsheviks with the active support of anarchists, Left Social Revolutionaries and a variety of other leftists, is the only historical example of a successful overthrow of capitalist rule by the working class. Only those revolutionaries who embrace this experience and assimilate its lessons will be capable of winning new victories in the future.

Published: 1917 No.29 (January 2007)