Socialism and strategy: a libertarian critique of Leninism.

Author:Zurbrugg, Anthony

Socialists seeking strategies for a better future have to consider what forms of organisation --now and in the future--may promote a new equitable society. It is natural that they should reconsider which facets of their traditions are useful and worth preserving, and which are not. This text considers some contrasting features of the strategic thinking of particular libertarians and Marxists. It reviews recent contributions by two writers in this area, both advocating an ongoing value for the Leninist tradition: the first by Charles Post, in Socialist Register 2013, who suggests that there is a rational core in Leninism (2) and secondly two texts by Paul Blackledge, on Marxism and Anarchism, in International Socialism. (3) This text considers the content of socialism and touches on aspects of gender, authority, (trade) unions, parties, and councils. Following Malatesta, it assumes that libertarians are socialists, who look for cooperation:

when the Socialist Party rests on the terrain of revolution, when workers' organisations remain organisations of struggle against the bosses, when co-operatives are experiments in workers' direct management, for the benefit of the collective, in short when socialist institutions remain really socialist, our entire sympathy and co-operation is won thereby. Also because for the moment we cannot by our own efforts alone begin or make the revolution triumph. And because we are convinced that socialism if it is really socialism will necessarily merge itself with anarchism. (4) In writing about libertarian thinking it has to be noted that syndicalism and Industrial Unionism took varied forms both in the past and in more recent times, (5) and developed various sets of priorities in different contexts. Anarchism was even more variegated. For the most part the particular strand of anarchism that is referred to below draws on the anarchist communism of Errico Malatesta and Luigi Fabbri. (6)

Whatever one may think of it, Leninism(s) has some strength. It looks for strategies and seeks clarity as to the way forward; it discusses issues of unity in struggles among working people; it embraces some tactical flexibility allowing for tactics to be modified in the light of circumstance. Before going further one should also recognise that writing about one Leninism--just as much as writing about one anarchism or one syndicalism--is problematic. Bolshevism, to name the party rather than to focus on one man, took many forms: for the most part, early in 1917, it tended to view the revolution that had come in February 1917 as predominantly bourgeois; later in 1917 the stress was for 'All Power to the Councils'; in 1918 the stress changed to 'iron discipline'; thereafter, party factions were banned, and those who had taken to heart the clause in the party programme on unions managing the economy were condemned as syndicalists. (7) Over time there were some changes in the contents of the Bolshevisms and Leninisms codified and propagated by the Third International to influence the labour movement in Western Europe and the wider world, but there were also constant themes, not the least of these being the necessity of following the line set by leaders in Moscow.


It is sometimes said that there is a libertarian Lenin, and this moment in his thought is represented in State and Revolution. (8) A quick glance at it will show that Lenin re- defined some aspects Marxist theory, but left much else intact. Lenin is famous for redirecting Bolshevik priorities in April 1917. Some six months after the first February revolution he wrote:

For socialism is merely the next step forward from state-capitalist monopoly. Or, in other words, socialism is merely state-capitalist monopoly which is made to serve the interests of the whole people and has to that extent ceased to be capitalist monopoly. [And further:] state-monopoly capitalism is a complete material preparation for socialism, the threshold of socialism, a rung on the ladder of history between which and the rung called socialism there are no intermediate rungs. (9) For the Bolsheviks, large scale industry was the foundation of socialism. This was set out in their party programme. 'We must promote the painless transition of this obsolete form of production [in the home or on a small scale] into the higher forms of large-scale machinofacture.' (10) Luigi Fabbri condemned a belief that relied only on large scale factory production; in his view according to circumstance, a mixture of large and small scale production was appropriate and decisions in this matter should be taken by the workers concerned. (11) Lenin had set out a strategy involving everyone working for the state as employees of the national state syndicate. He argued in State and Revolution:

At present the [German] postal service is a business organized on the lines of a state-capitalist monopoly. Imperialism is gradually transforming all trusts into organizations of a similar type, in which, standing over the 'common' toilers, who are overworked and starved, is the same bourgeois bureaucracy. But the mechanism of social management is here already to hand. We have but to overthrow the capitalists, to crush the resistance of these exploiters with the iron hand of the armed workers, to smash the bureaucratic machine of the modern state--and we shall have a splendidly-equipped mechanism, freed from the 'parasite', a mechanism which can very well be set going by the united workers themselves ... (12) Characteristics of the German Post Office deserve to be noticed: particularly that most employees expected respect for their uniform and authority--as 'Beamte'--state officials. Many ex-soldiers, habituated to obedience and compliance, were employed. Such people may have been accustomed to taking orders. What was on Lenin's agenda was the promotion of a modern efficient industrial economy, patterned on the model of German capitalism.

Although he talked about checking and accounting by workers, Lenin's agenda did not prioritise measures to promote workers' power at work--socialist features desired by many syndicalists, Industrial Unionists and socialists. Between the beginning of the century and 1914, many of those to the left of mainstream social- democracy had a very different vision of socialism than Lenin's, and looked for a wider agenda. It is worth pausing here and reminding ourselves what was on the agenda of other socialists in this era. Take James Connolly, for example:

Political institutions are not adapted to the administration of industry. Here is a statement that no Socialist with a clear knowledge of the essentials of his doctrine can dispute. The political institutions of today are simply the coercive forces of capitalist society they have grown up out of, and are based upon, territorial divisions of power in the hands of the ruling class in past ages, and were carried over into capitalist society to suit the needs of the capitalist class when that class overthrew the dominion of its predecessors ... In short, social democracy, as its name implies, is the application to industry, or to the social life of the nation, of the fundamental principles of democracy. Such application will necessarily have to begin in the workshop, and proceed logically and consecutively upward through all the grades of industrial organization until it reaches the culminating point of national executive power and direction. In other words, social democracy must proceed from the bottom upward, whereas capitalist political society is organized from above downward. Social democracy will be administered by a committee of experts elected from the industries and professions of the land; capitalist society is governed by representatives elected from districts, and is based upon territorial division ... every fresh shop or factory organized under its banner is a fort wrenched from the control of the capitalist class and manned with the soldiers of the revolution to be held by them for the workers. (13) Connolly's vision--of workers warrening industry, (14) and using that economic organisation as a lever to destroy capitalism and create socialism--drew on American traditions of revolutionary Industrial Unionism. Revolutionary Syndicalism had a similar and greater impact than Industrial Unionism in much of Europe and Latin America.

William Paul, of the British Socialist Labour Party, wrote in similar vein: 'Capitalism cannot be controlled. But it can be destroyed and replaced by a workers' Industrial Republic.' He also argues: 'Industrial Unionism's most important function is to unite all the workers for the great and glorious task of carrying on the production of wealth under Socialism on behalf of the community. The work of the political weapon is purely destructive, to destroy the capitalist system ... [i]ndustrial Unionism is the constructive weapon in the coming social revolution.' Paul continues:

When the revolutionary working class captures the State, when it overthrows Capitalism, it will not, like all previous revolutionary classes, use the State to enforce its will upon either a subject or an enslaved class. Since the working class is both an enslaved and a subject class, and since there is no lower class in society, its emancipation will mean the emancipation of all classes. The triumph of the proletarian revolution will mean true economic and political freedom; it will mean the abolition of all classes and propertied conflicts. The revolutionary Socialist denies that State ownership can end in anything other than a bureaucratic despotism. We have seen why the State cannot democratically control industry. Industry can only be democratically owned and controlled by the workers electing directly from their own ranks industrial administrative committees. Socialism will be fundamentally an industrial system; its constituencies will be of an industrial character. Thus...

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