Bakunin’s Simple Point: An Appeal to our Sincere Socialist and Communist Friends

14 Dec

The Boston Anti-Authoritarian Movement Newsletter, Issue # 34 – June 2010

…[T]here are those who still insist in telling us that the conquest of powers in the State, by the people, will suffice to accomplish the social revolution! – that the old machine, the old organization, slowly developed in the course of history to crush freedom, to crush the individual, to establish oppression on a legal basis, to create monopolists, to lead minds astray by accustoming them to servitude – will lend itself perfectly to its new functions: that it will become the instrument, the framework for the germination of a new life, to found freedom and equality on economic bases, the destruction of monopolies, the awakening of society and towards the achievement of a future of freedom and equality!” Peter Kropotkin, The State: It’s Historic Role. 1896

Fewer than 150 years ago, we who today identify with various factions, including modern socialists, anarchists, marxists, trotskyists, and so on, were all socialists. While these divisions originated from a disagreement on how to achieve socialism, today our ideological chasms seem insurmountable because the word socialism no longer means what it once did.

Early socialists of all stripes sought a classless, stateless society, where individuals would be producing and distributing based on their ability; consuming based on their need; and living in cooperative, self-governing communities. Socialism, thus, was the ultimate victory of the united workers and oppressed: freedom (political and social liberty of individuals and groups) and equality (classlessness—equal access to necessities, opportunities, and participation in political decisions).

The First International split around 1872 between two ideas proclaiming different tactics to achieve socialism. Marx led those who believed a central political party could, either by seizing power in revolt or through elections, create a “workers’ government,” or a “dictatorship of the proletariat.” They thought the working class needed this government to build the new society, and that government would wither away, leaving autonomous communities to live and work cooperatively.

Mikhail Bakunin, a veteran of many early republican and socialist uprisings, allied with the second tendency, pointing out the fundamental flaw in this logic, a flaw Marx’s group stubbornly ignored: POWER CORRUPTS. This fact has been apparent as long as the few have wielded power over the many. Lord Acton wrote in 1887: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” This statement does not spare the “dictatorship of the proletariat.”

Bakunin and others were skeptical that a workers’ “dictatorship” could dissolve itself, and they were soon known as anarchists for their belief that socialism should come, not from a government or party, but from a mass movement of people building the new world as they tore down the old one. Any government, they argued, even an alleged workers’ one, favors a higher class of people who hold political power. Regardless of earlier employment, they become nothing more than professional politicians and bureaucrats. They become authorities. As Bakunin correctly pointed out, those in power will fight to preserve that power. Government has been perpetuated and defended on this basis for thousands of years of poverty, war, and suffering.

Soon after this point was raised, Marx proved it. His power as ideological leader of the International was threatened by an idea with more merit. He used his power to preserve his power: he expelled Bakunin and the other anarchists.

Since that day, Bakunin’s simple point has been proven time and again, each time a communist or socialist party gains governmental power. From Russia to Vietnam, Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea, no government claiming socialism as its goal has made concrete steps toward true socialism. Most take symbolic steps—nationalizing certain industries, equalizing pay, providing healthcare, and sometimes coercing people into inorganic, state-mandated communes—but the working class itself forced the best of these reforms on the government during the days of rebellion, only to see them stripped away by the state later.

In order to preserve their power, socialist authorities have changed the definition of the term socialism. They had to because when a state takes steps toward true socialism, it surrenders power and renders itself irrelevant. Thus, no self-proclaimed socialist or communist government has ever allowed self-governing, autonomous communes, or given industry to worker self-management, or taken any other steps toward dissolution. Conversely, during anarchist and other horizontal uprisings, workers have abolished money and property, collectivized workplaces and land, and redistributed political power to people’s popular assemblies. When workers demand these things of socialist governments or take them for themselves, the state brands them counterrevolutionaries, criminals, petite bourgeois, or terrorists, and heaps a host of lies on them. Socialist states have slandered, attacked, and killed some of the finest figures in the history of our struggles because like all rulers they are more concerned with preserving their power than creating a better world. The Bolsheviks were the first to prove this point, rounding up anarchists and other socialists, sending them to the gulags, deceiving and betraying autonomous revolutionary movements in Southern Ukraine and Siberia, and obliterating the sailors of Kronstadt. From China to Spain to Mexico, the evidence of such repression is written in blood.

Socialist governments move in the opposite direction of true socialism: toward increased centralization of industry, resources, and decision making—and thus toward hierarchy and less freedom. These governments, never moving toward Marxian dissolution, (that famous “withering away of the state”) only strengthen and consolidate power at every chance. Irrespective of their intentions, socialists in power behave so badly that socialism no longer retains its original meaning.

Today, socialism is known as a system with a strong, centralized government that may nationalize industries and provide increased social services, but will still participate in global capitalism and reproduce capitalist structures by maintaining distinctions between workers, managers, owners, politicians, and subjects. We should consider those who desire such a system socialists as much as we consider anarcho-capitalists anarchists, which is to say not at all. Hierarchy, as inherent to government as it is to capitalism, has no place in real socialism with its pillars of freedom and equality. Hierarchy must be combated like the plague, because it is a contagious disease not easily cured.

Perhaps if Marx were alive today, he would look at the last one hundred years and admit that he was wrong, recognizing that the best steps taken toward socialism were indeed taken by the masses in struggle and revolt to win freedom for themselves, and that the worst, most damaging actions taken to the detriment of socialism have been taken by the so-called socialists in power.

However, Marx is not here. He is dead, and the future of the movement is up to us, sisters and brothers. Our task is to reclaim the original meaning of socialism, and evaluate our historical failures and victories. If we want to win, we must struggle from within the class and not from in front of or above it. We should abandon the misguided attempts to create a socialist government; it has never come close to granting us true socialism and it never will.

This is not an appeal for socialists to proclaim themselves anarchists, because the word anarchism has been almost as badly slandered and twisted as socialism. This is a call to re-affirm the commitment to bringing socialism to life by uniting together within the viable strategy of anti-authoritarian and horizontal movement building. Our obligations to the past settled, we can be the same again—communists, socialists, and anarchists, ready to make the worst fears of Otto Von Bismarck come true, who said at the splitting of the First International, “the International is dead; but woe be to the crowned heads of Europe should red and black ever be reunited.”

If we are to accomplish this, our ultimate goal must be the original socialism of equality and freedom, not the socialism proclaimed by those who see the state as both the means and the ends, who wish to preserve the unnatural hierarchy of overseer over worker and party bureaucrat over person. Those gripped by the insurgent global trend of anti-authoritarianism will not lend their energies to the establishment of any government. Our generation of revolutionary workers will not be duped into lifting rulers up on our shoulders and into seats of power in the name of equality, as we have in the past. Bakunin’s simple point must be taken into account if we are to reach the final stage of socialism, because as he said, “Freedom without Socialism is privilege and injustice and Socialism without freedom is slavery and brutality.”

We must base our movements on daily practice because the ends always have and always will reflect the means. In other words, purporting to build socialism through a dictatorship will give us a dictatorship, just as building socialism through a horizontal movement of comrades, free and equal, will give us what all socialists avowedly want.

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