Saving Marxism from Lenin

[This is an excerpt from Notes of an Underground Humanist.]

You should read Peter Kropotkin’s essay “The State: Its Historic Role.” L’état, c’est la guerre. One of the state’s historic roles, of course, has been to transplant the peasantry from the countryside to the cities so as to facilitate industrialization (i.e., to create Marx’s “reserve army of labor”) and make possible the exploitation of land for profit. This is one of the ways in which the nation-state and capitalist industrialization go hand-in-hand. China is doing it now, moving hundreds of millions of peasants to cities—the greatest urban-planning project in history. European states did it from the 1500s to the 1900s, in England with the enclosure acts, in France with the laborious destruction of the village communes, in Russia with Stolypin’s legislation and then Stalin’s Five-Year Plans, etc. There are other ways too. Chomsky discusses in one of his early essays the historic function of the Vietnam War in destroying on a colossal scale the peasant villages and sending former inhabitants to the cities, where they would become cheap labor for capital to exploit. This massive removal of the peasantry from the countryside is a prerequisite for capitalist development, indeed for industrialization of whatever kind. And it isn’t “automatic,” proceeding from purely market-driven causes, as bourgeois ideologists proclaim. It’s intentional, political, brutal, the forced uprooting of hundreds of millions.

Kropotkin was always right that the regeneration of society, the anti-capitalist social revolution, couldn’t be carried out primarily by the national state but rather by grassroots and quasi-grassroots movements (which of course can have leadership structures and some degree of power-centralization). The state is mainly an institution for domination, destruction, and “law and order”; it is not very socially creative, at least not on the required scale. Anarcho-syndicalism, likewise, was right that present economic structures will inevitably leave their mark on institutions built after the workers’ political revolution—and therefore that the social (economic) revolution must substantially take place before the final conquest of political power, not after it. In the latter case it will fail, since capitalist holdovers of domination and exploitation will influence the “new society.” (Cf. the history of the Soviet Union, even its earliest phases.[1])

But that truth is also implicit in Marx’s dictum that politics follows in the wake of economics. A post-capitalist social revolution can’t be politically imposed, because in that case economic relations are not ripe for it. The new relations have to have already “matured,” at least somewhat, under the old political regime, as happened during the transition from feudalism to capitalism. Rightly understood, then, Marx was a kind of modified anarcho-syndicalist—or rather he should have been, logically speaking.[2] From his premises, the proletarian dictatorship’s task could only be to finish the job, not to start it, as Lenin (and Stalin) tried. Workers’ groups would have to do much of the societal restructuring beforehand; their subsequent political decrees would formalize and consolidate the institutions that the workers had already begun to create. Otherwise, given the foundation of the political in the economic, the new government’s acts would inevitably have the taint of capitalist, bureaucratic structures that still survived. More than the “taint,” in fact.

In short, despite himself, Marx knew that the attempt to politically will new liberatory institutions into existence wouldn’t succeed (as Lenin, Stalin, and Mao tried). They have to emerge slowly, through popular struggle; otherwise they’re artificial, “inorganic,” bureaucratic, and coercive, since economic conditions aren’t ripe for them.

[1] Christopher Read has a good account in From Tsar to Soviets: The Russian People and Their Revolution, 1917–21 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).

[2] Anarcho-syndicalists believed that workers had to create in the womb of the old society the institutions of the new. Socialism, they thought, would be structured around workers’ councils and unions that had developed in the later stages of capitalism. They also rejected the idea of a “workers’ state,” proclaiming it to be impossible, and believed that the general strike was the most effective tool of revolution—two respects in which Marx would have disagreed with them. But arguably he shouldn’t have. From his perspective there is no good reason to disavow the use of the general strike. Even his support for the idea of a workers’ political party, which anarcho-syndicalists rejected (because they rejected all politics), is not particularly “Marxist,” since political parties are usually forced to work within the confines of the parliamentary system and thus make compromises that blur the antagonism between labor and capital, in the end leading to the co-optation of the labor movement as a prop for the stability of the system. This was a danger that Marx and Engels were aware of, but they didn’t take it seriously enough. Marx also should have made more explicit his support of direct action, which anarcho-syndicalists of course advocated. Nothing is more “Marxist” than direct action (which, like Marxist theory, tends to privilege material social relations over high-level politics).

On the other hand, I have to admit that Marx’s advocacy of political activity was in some ways more realistic and less “utopian” than the anarcho-syndicalist position. But it was either Scylla or Charybdis for him, and for the working class: either the syndicalist route, which didn’t work well in any country for a variety of reasons, or a workers’ party that would attempt to seize control of the state but in the process would inevitably make compromises and finally succumb to a moderate reformism and bureaucratism, as happened all over Europe throughout the twentieth century. (Alternatively, the party would become ruthlessly authoritarian and bureaucratic, like the Russian and Chinese Communist parties.)

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