We publish here the third part in a series by Alan Woods looking at the theoretical differences between Marxism and anarchism. These articles were originally published as an open letter in response to an article by ‘Black Flag’, an anarchist group in Brazil, continuing the analysis presented in this earlier series on the ideas of Marxism vs anarchism.
In this third part, Alan looks at the ideas of Bakunin, one the key theoreticians behind anarchism, and discusses the role of the state within class society. In addition, Alan examines the historical limitations of anarchism and spontaneity, as shown by the Spanish Revolution and Egyptian Revolution respectively.
Let us dispense with the interpreting services of Black Flag for now, and allow Bakunin to speak for himself. In On Representative Government and Universal Suffrage, September 1870 he says:
“The whole system of representative government is an immense fraud resting on this fiction that the executive and legislative bodies elected by universal suffrage of the people must or even can possibly represent the will of the people. The people instinctively reach out for two things: the greatest possible prosperity coupled with the greatest possible freedom to live their own lives, to choose, to act. They want the best organization of their economic interests coupled with the complete absence of all political power and all political organization, since every political organization must inescapably nullify the freedom of the people. Such is the dynamic aspiration of all popular movements.”
And he goes on,
“To correct the obvious defects of this system, the radical democrats of the Zurich Canton introduced the referendum, direct legislation by the people. The referendum is also an ineffective remedy; another fraud. In order to vote intelligently on proposals made by legislators or measures advanced by interested groups, the people must have the time and the necessary, knowledge to study these measures thoroughly… The referendum is meaningful only on those rare occasions when the proposed legislation vitally affects and arouses all the people, and the issues involved are clearly understood by everyone. But almost all the proposed laws are so specialized, so intricate, that only political experts can grasp how they would ultimately affect the people. The people, of course, do not even begin to understand or pay attention to the proposed laws and vote for them blindly when urged to do so by their favourite orators.
“Even when the representative system is improved by referendum, there is still no popular control, and real liberty – under representative government masquerading as self-government – is an illusion. Due to their economic hardships, the people are ignorant and indifferent and are aware only of things closely affecting them. They understand and know how to conduct their daily affairs. Away from their familiar concerns they become confused, uncertain, and politically baffled. They have a healthy, practical common sense when it comes to communal affairs. They are fairly well informed and know how to select from their midst the most capable officials. Under such circumstances, effective control is quite possible, because the public business is conducted under the watchful eyes of the citizens and vitally and directly concerns their daily lives.
“This is why municipal elections always best reflect the real attitude and will of the people. Provincial and county governments, even when the latter are directly elected, are already less representative of the people. Most of the time, the people are not acquainted with the relevant political, juridical, and administrative measures; those are beyond their immediate concern and almost always escape their control. The men in charge of local and regional governments live in a different environment, far removed from the people, who know very little about them. They do not know these leaders’ characters personally, and judge them only by their public speeches, which are packed with lies to trick the people into supporting them… If popular control over regional and local affairs is exceedingly difficult, then popular control over the federal or national government is altogether impossible.
“Does this mean that we, the revolutionary socialists, do not want universal suffrage – that we prefer limited suffrage, or a single despot? Not at all. What we maintain is that universal suffrage, considered in itself and applied in a society based on economic and social inequality, will be nothing but a swindle and snare for the people; nothing but an odious lie of the bourgeois-democrats, the surest way to consolidate under the mantle of liberalism and justice the permanent domination of the people by the owning classes, to the detriment of popular liberty. We deny that universal suffrage could be used by the people for the conquest of economic and social equality. It must always and necessarily be an instrument hostile to the people, on which supports the de facto dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.”
Here the utopian nature of anarchism stands out very clearly. This scheme has nothing to do with modern society or the present day working class. It is the product of an economy of small producers, living in isolated communities with little or no contact between them: that is to say, the society of feudalism.
But the modern world does not consist of small isolated local communities but of huge cities and factories, a world in which even the biggest nation state cannot survive unless it participates on the world market. The task of the bourgeois revolution was to break down the limitedness of feudalism, to destroy the barriers imposed by local tolls, customs barriers and taxes and to establish the nation state. And despite the terribly oppressive nature of capitalism, that was a historically progressive mission.
The task of the socialist revolution now is to sweep away all national barriers, abolish the nation state and achieve world socialism. Globalization means the crushing domination of the world market, which is the most decisive element in the world of the 21st century. It is also the material condition for the creation of a future world socialist federation – the achievement of which constitutes the great historical task of the proletariat. In the long run, the best guarantees of the success of communism will be its being built on a highly productive basis, so that there is material abundance for all and not a struggle over scarcity, and the elimination of national antagonisms. Both of these require a world revolution.
What does Bakunin say about this? What Bakunin is saying is that in great cities with hundreds of thousands or millions of inhabitants, real democracy is impossible. From this point of view, universal suffrage (voting in elections) is either futile or reactionary, or both. Elections are merely a hypocritical facade that disguises the tyranny of class rule.
The inescapable conclusion is that communism is only possible (and then only to a relative degree) in small or medium-sized communities where face-to-face democracy can be put into practice. It is no wonder that Bakunin found his main support among Swiss watchmakers and artisans, and in Spain and Italy, where capitalism had not yet taken firm root.
Moreover, the idea that democracy can only flourish in small local communities is false. There is no lack of bureaucracy, careerism and corruption in local town halls, in small villages just as in big towns. And what do we say about big factories? Is it really impossible for the workers in a Ford plant to elect people who genuinely represent their interests? We have seen how workers’ democracy can flourish in big factories in many strikes. In small workplaces, by contrast, the workers have a hard time even setting up a union. And the union representative in a small workplace is very likely to be a bosses’ stooge. The idea that there can be no bureaucracy in small circles where everybody knows each other is positively laughable. You can have a bureaucracy in a football club or an old ladies’ knitting circle. And yes, you can have a bureaucracy in an anarchist circle of five people who spend all their time discussing the evils of hierarchy.
Arguably in today’s society workers have a better grasp of the machinations of national politics and big questions such as austerity, than they do for the obscure details of local government. From the standpoint of the workers, contrary to the argument of the bourgeois economists, small is emphatically not beautiful.
Black Flag informs us that,
“The Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin who always fought against the centralization of power is accused of being a dictator.” [My emphasis].
We are genuinely surprised that the person claiming to be so well versed in the theory and history of anarchism is not aware that Bakunin, far from being opposed to the centralisation of power, established an organisation that was strictly centralised, hierarchic and controlled with an iron hand by one individual: Bakunin himself, or as he liked to call himself at the time, “citizen B”.
The charge of authoritarianism and dictatorial tendencies can with far greater justice be directed against Bakunin than against Marx. It is interesting to note that the “authoritarian” structures of the International that Bakunin protested against so vehemently in 1871 and 1872 were introduced to the International on the motion of Bakunin’s supporters, with Bakunin’s support. That was at a time when he was aiming to gain control of the International. Only when this plan failed did Bakunin suddenly discovered the “authoritarian” character of the International’s structure and rules.
Bakunin’s methods were completely exposed by the notorious Nechayev affair. Nechayev was a young fanatic, a revolutionary adventurer who turned up in Geneva in the spring of 1869, claiming to have escaped from the fortress of St. Peter-Paul. He also claimed to represent an all-powerful committee that would overthrow Tsarist Russia. This was a pure invention. He had never been in St. Peter-Paul and the Committee never existed.
Nevertheless, Bakunin was impressed by “the young savage,” “the young tiger” as he used to call Nechayev. Nechayev was a devoted disciple of Bakunin. But unlike his master, Nechayev was always characterized by an iron consistency. Bakunin had preached that the lumpenproletariat were the real carriers of the social revolution. He regarded criminals as desirable elements to be recruited into the revolutionary movement. So it was logical that his loyal disciple Nechayev should conclude that it was necessary to organize a group of lumpens for the purpose of “expropriation” in Switzerland.
In the autumn of 1869 Nechayev returned to Russia with a plan to set up a Bakuninist group there. There is no doubt that he went with Bakunin’s full support. He carried with him a written authorization from Bakunin which declared that he was the “accredited representative” of a so-called European Revolutionary Alliance – another invention of Bakunin. He even issued an appeal to the officers of the tsarist army calling on them to place themselves unconditionally at the disposal of the “Committee”, although in fact it did not exist.
This Bakuninist organization was absolutely hierarchical and dictatorial. Everything was decided by Nechayev and no dissent was allowed. When a member of Nechayev’s group, a student called Ivanov, began to doubt the existence of the secret Committee, Nechayev murdered him. This led to numerous arrests. The Nechayev trial opened in St. Petersburg in July, 1871 and the whole ghastly affair was publicly exposed. There were over eighty accused, mostly students, Nechayev himself having conveniently fled to Geneva where he was under the protection of his leader and teacher Bakunin.
The Nechayev affair did a lot of damage to the movement in Russia and internationally. It affected the International because Nechayev let people believe that he was acting in its name, whereas in fact he was operating in secret as an agent of Bakunin. Later, in order to explain away this wretched affair and absolve Bakunin from his personal responsibility for it, it had been claimed that Bakunin fell under the influence of Nechayev who tricked him and used him for his own purposes.
But it was Bakunin who provided him with fake documents that purported to be from the International and were signed by him. It was Bakunin who wrote most, if not all, the proclamations and manifestos of the non-existing “Committee” and it was Bakunin who defended Nechayev after he had fled from the scene of his crime, describing the murder of the unfortunate Ivanov as “a political act”. Meanwhile, the majority of the students that were put on trial were sentenced to long terms in prison or to a living death in the Siberian mines.
In order to muddy the waters further, our anarchist critic also drags in the question of Pan-Slavism. Now nobody can dispute the fact that Bakunin was a devoted supporter of this tendency, which he saw as a revolutionary movement. Marx and Engels on the contrary denounced it as a counterrevolutionary phenomenon.
Black Flag once again regales us with one of his innumerable semi-quotations, torn out of context and presented in a completely false and dishonest manner. He writes:
“Marxists usually accuse Bakunin of pan-Slavism, however he never said something that sounded like Engels when he stated that ‘In the sentimental verbiage about brotherhood, that here we are offered on behalf of the counterrevolutionary nations of Europe, we respond that hatred of Russia was and remains the first revolutionary passion of the Germans’ and that ‘we can only ensure the revolution if we turn to the most determined terrorism against these Slav peoples.’ He also calls for ‘Struggle, ‘relentless struggle of life and death’, against Slavism that betrays the revolution, destruction and fighting terrorism without contemplations, not in the interests of Germany, but in the interest of the revolution.’ Not being enough, ‘The generalized war that will soon be triggered will reduce to dust that particularistic League of Slavs and will even erase the name of all those little recalcitrant nations. The next world war will not only vanish from the globe classes and reactionary dynasties, but also entire reactionary peoples. And that will be progress.” (Engels, Democratic Pan-Slavism, The Magyar Struggle)”
The purpose here is to present Engels as a German racist and an anti-Slav. But anyone who reads Engels’s full text, which is easily available on the internet [see Democratic Pan-Slavism, February 1849], will find that there is no racism whatsoever.
Engels points out quite correctly that the national movements of the South Slavs were being used as a front for the counter-revolutionary intrigues of Russian tsarism. There is absolutely no doubt that this was the case at the time when Engels was writing. The Tsar posed as the Father of the Slavs, their Protector and Liberator. In reality, however, they were being used to promote Russian imperial expansion in Europe, particularly the Balkans.
The cynical falsehood of so-called Pan Slavism is shown by the fact that one of the most important Slav nations, Poland, was brutally crushed under the heel of Russian tsarism. For the Poles, the Tsar was neither a Protector nor a Liberator but a bloody tyrant. In the Revolutions of 1848-9, the Tsar used the services of the South Slavs (the Croats) to drown the movement in blood.
When the revolutions of 1848 took place in many European countries, Russia in particular was a bulwark of reaction, and it is clear that Engels is referring to the Russian tsarist regime, not to the Russian people as such. Anti-Slav anti-Russian racism did not enter into it. Let us reproduce the full paragraph which our Brazilian anarchist takes his quote from.
“To the sentimental phrases about brotherhood which we are being offered here on behalf of the most counter-revolutionary nations of Europe, we reply that hatred of Russians was and still is the primary revolutionary passion among Germans; that since the revolution hatred of Czechs and Croats has been added, and that only by the most determined use of terror against these Slav peoples can we, jointly with the Poles and Magyars, safeguard the revolution. We know where the enemies of the revolution are concentrated, viz. in Russia and the Slav regions of Austria, and no fine phrases, no allusions to an undefined democratic future for these countries can deter us from treating our enemies as enemies.”
It is not the Russian people that Engels regards as the enemy, but the counter-revolutionary role of tsarist Russia. And he names the Poles as one of the key revolutionary nations. But these also are Slavs! Later on the situation changed radically, with the development of a revolutionary movement in Russia itself. In later years there are many texts in which both Marx and Engels looked with enthusiasm to developments in Russia, as the situation changed.
Here is what Engels wrote in his 1875 article, Russia and the Social Revolution, published in Volksstaat, 21 April 1875:
“The future path of Russia is of the greatest importance to the German working class because the present Russian empire is the last great centre of support for all reactionary forces in Western Europe. This was proved conclusively in 1848 and 1849. Because Germany failed to create an insurrection in Poland in 1848 and to declare war against the Russian tsar (as had been demanded by the Neue Rheinische Zeitung from the beginning), this very same tsar could in 1849 crush the Hungarian revolution which had penetrated to the gates of Vienna, could in 1850 sit in judgement at Warsaw over Austria, Prussia and the smaller German states, and could finally re-establish the old German Bundestag. And only a few days ago – in the beginning of May 1875 – the Russian tsar received the homage of his vassals in Berlin and thus proved that he is today, as he was twenty-five years ago, still the arbiter of Europe. Therefore, no revolution in Western Europe can be definitely and finally victorious as long as the present Russian state exists at its side. Germany is its nearest neighbour. Germany must sustain the first shock from the armies of Russian reaction. The overthrow of the Russian tsarist state and the dissolution of the Russian empire is therefore one of the first conditions for the final victory of the German proletariat”
Some years later, in 1885 in a letter to Vera Zasulich he wrote:
“I am proud to know that there is a party among the youth of Russia which frankly and without equivocation accepts the great economic and historical theories of Marx and has definitely broken with all the anarchists and also the few existing Slavophil tendencies of its predecessors…. What I know or believe I know about the situation in Russia makes me think that the Russians are fast approaching their 1789. The revolution must break out any day. In these circumstances the country is like a charged mine which only needs a single match to be applied to it.” (Engels, Frederick; “Letter to Vera Ivanovna Zasulich in Geneva“; London April 23 1885; In: “Marx-Engels: Selected Correspondence”; Moscow; 1982; pp.361-363.)
Not satisfied with accusing Marx and Engels, without the slightest basis, of being anti-Slav, Black Flag now proceeds to plumb the depths of the already murky waters of his anti-Marxist diatribe. Now he informs us, without even blushing, that Karl Marx was an anti-Semite. The small detail that Marx himself happened to be a Jew does not appear to worry our friend in the slightest. Evidently he bases himself on the old journalists’ saying: “Never let the facts spoil a good story.” Let us now see how he performs this latest feat of intellectual acrobatics. He writes:
“Finally, let the opinion of Marx on Jews in The Jewish Question, to answer on the charge of anti-Semitism: ‘Only then could Judaism impose its general empire and alienate the alienated man and alienated nature, converting them into venal things in objects delivered to the subjection of selfish need, negotiation and usury’; ‘The social emancipation of the Jew is the emancipation of society from Judaism’.”
Our Brazilian anarchist is not the first to claim that Marx was anti-Semitic. Many anti-Communist right-wing writers have attempted to do the same, using exactly the same method, i.e. misquoting Marx’s On the Jewish Question (Autumn 1843). But anybody who takes the trouble to read Marx’s text will see that it is in fact a powerful defence of Jewish rights. It was written as a polemic against Bruno Bauer, who asked “How can Jews obtain Civil Rights until Germans themselves obtain Civil Rights?” Marx was in favour of giving full citizenship rights to Jews, whether they renounced their Jewishness or not.
“The German Jew, in particular, is confronted by the general absence of political emancipation and the strongly marked Christian character of the state. In Bauer’s conception, however, the Jewish question has a universal significance, independent of specifically German conditions. It is the question of the relation of religion to the state, of the contradiction between religious constraint and political emancipation. Emancipation from religion is laid down as a condition, both to the Jew who wants to be emancipated politically, and to the state which is to effect emancipation and is itself to be emancipated.”
Bruno Bauer was of the opinion that Jews had to renounce their Judaism, i.e. stop being Jews, before being granted full political rights. Marx was of the opposite opinion.
Later in Marx’s text we read:
“The political emancipation of the Jew, the Christian, and, in general, of religious man, is the emancipation of the state from Judaism, from Christianity, from religion in general.”
Here our critic – once again – tries to throw dust in our eyes by quoting Marx completely out of context. Needless to say, the quotes above prove absolutely beyond any doubt that Marx was not anti-Semitic. However, one has to ask why he had to drag in this absurd argument about Marx’s alleged anti-Semitism? The reason is obvious. Black Flag wishes to draw attention away from the established fact that in his attacks against Marx Bakunin stooped to the lowest level of anti-Semitism.
For example, he wrote in 1872:
“It is possible that Marx might theoretically reach an even more rational system of liberty than that of Proudhon – but he lacks Proudhon’s instinct. As a German and a Jew he is authoritarian from head to foot. Hence come the two systems: the anarchist system of Proudhon broadened and developed by us and freed from all its metaphysical, idealist and doctrinaire baggage, accepting matter and social economy as the basis of all development in science and history. And the system of Marx, head of the German school of authoritarian communists.” [Quoted by James Joll fom Nettlau’s Bakunin und die Internationale in Italien, in his book The Anarchists, London, 1964, p. 90, My emphasis]
This is by no means an isolated example, although generally Bakunin preferred to attack Marx as a German, appealing to the national prejudices of the French in particular, following the horrors of the Franco-Prussian War. The London Conference of the IWA had given the General Council authority to disown all alleged organs of the International which, like the Progres and the Solidarité in the Jura, discussed internal questions of the International in public. The Bakuninists changed the name of Solidarité to La Révolution Sociale, which immediately began a ferocious attack on the General Council of the International, which it described as the “German Committee led by a brain à la Bismarck.”
This was a scandalous attempt to play on the anti-German prejudices of the French. Marx wrote to an American friend:
“It refers to the unpardonable fact that I was born a German and that I do in fact exercise a decisive intellectual influence on the General Council. Nota bene: the German element in the General Council is numerically two-thirds weaker than the English and the French. The crime is, therefore, that the English and French elements are dominated (!) in matters of theory by the German element and find this dominance, i.e., German science, useful and even indispensable.” (Marx to Friedrich Bolte In New York, November 23, 1871)
We pass over in silence the equally absurd accusations that Marx, in addition to being a racist, anti-Slav and anti-Semite, was also an imperialist (!). Life is really too short and we have already exhausted ourselves swimming in the muddy waters of insult and calumny. Let us return for a moment to serious political questions.
The state and revolution
In fighting against the capitalist state, anarchists argue that we do not need a state at all: the working class will merely overthrow capitalism and proceed directly to organise themselves spontaneously into a free association of producers. This is a very pleasant idea, but has absolutely nothing to do with reality. It overlooks a number of important facts – facts which should be known to any person who takes revolution seriously.
We agree with the anarchists that the bourgeois state is a monstrous instrument of oppression, a gigantic and bloated parasite that sucks the life blood out of society. There can be no question of reforming the state. It must be overthrown, destroyed, and completely eradicated. On this there is no difference between us. We also agree that in the future communist society there will be no state. The state will be dissolved and replaced with an entirely different form of organisation in which free men and women will determine their own destiny in a harmonious manner.
Yes, we agree on all this. But the question is posed: how does one achieve this end? How does one get from “A” to “B”? To this question our anarchist friends have never provided a satisfactory answer. Let us pose the question concretely.
The ruling class over centuries has built up a formidable apparatus – the state power – in order to defend its class rule. And all history shows us that the ruling class will never surrender its power, wealth and privileges without a struggle. The bankers and capitalists possess a centralised power based on the army, the police and intelligence services, the media, the education system, the church, the prisons, the judiciary etc. All of these things will be used in an attempt to prevent the workers from taking power into their own hands. These are the facts of life.
It should be evident to any thinking person that the overthrowing of the existing state will not be an easy task. It requires careful thought, planning and preparation. Of course, the revolution cannot be made by any small group of conspirators (the myth peddled by bourgeois opponents of the October revolution that it was a “coup” organised by Lenin and Trotsky is a piece of nonsense but does not bear the slightest examination). Revolutions are made by the masses, and the self-movement of the masses.
How many times in history has a numerous army composed of valiant and self-sacrificing fighters being defeated by a much smaller disciplined force of professional soldiers led by experienced and competent officers? It is sufficient to peruse the pages of Caesar’s Gallic Wars to find the answer to this question. Merely to rely upon the initiative of the masses – crucial though that is to the success of the revolution and the establishment of a democratic workers’ state – will not be sufficient to overthrow and defeat the centralised and disciplined forces at the disposal of the class enemy.
Some anarchists counterpoise to this the idea of a federal workers’ militia to defend the revolution, in which each local group enjoys autonomy and there is no ‘overbearing centre’ to dictate with authority. But revolutions are not simple affairs. The bourgeoisie will use all means at its disposal to confuse the masses. It will find points of support in more conservative layers of the population. Even the most democratic and popular of workers’ revolutions will find layers of counter-revolutionary sympathy in minorities of the working class. The bourgeoisie will attempt to utilise all such points of support in their struggle against the revolution. In such circumstances as, say, a revolutionary civil war, is the revolution to stand by and allow those minorities actively supporting the counter-revolution ‘autonomy’ to sabotage the revolution? Indeed, such a situation demonstrates that in modern conditions, there can be no real autonomy. Any group exercising their ‘autonomy’ to undermine the revolution is in fact imposing their authority onto the revolution, at least insofar as they have any success. For these reasons, the revolutionary power must be centralised and highly coordinated – on condition that this centre is under the democratic control of the revolutionary workers.
In order to defeat the bourgeois state, the proletariat needs to build its own army – a revolutionary army. Lenin explained that the state, stripped of all nonessentials, is armed bodies of men. In order to overthrow the bourgeois state, the workers must organise their own state power, based on the democratic organs of workers’ control and workers’ militias. This has nothing whatsoever to do with the monstrous oppressive state of the landlords and capitalists. But it is absolutely necessary to counterpose to that monster the alternative of a workers’ state.
The Spanish Revolution
The Spanish Revolution of 1931-37 is yet another tragic example of the consequences of lack of leadership in a revolutionary situation.
On the role of the CNT in the Spanish Revolution our critic again puts words into my mouth when he writes that:, “[Woods] claims that the CNT failed in not promoting the Revolution and being part of a bourgeois government.” To which he merely says, “We agree completely,” and adds that anarchists today “fully agree with the positions of Durruti”.
Black Flag in fact claims to be an admirer of that great Spanish revolutionary José Buenaventura Durruti. But Durruti acted not like an anarchist but as a Bolshevik. He organised a revolutionary army and waged a revolutionary war against the fascists. If his policy had been followed by the leaders of the CNT, the revolution could have succeeded, not only in Catalonia but in the rest of Spain also. It was for that reason that he was killed.
The wisdom of hindsight is of course the cheapest of all. It is a very easy thing to fight the old battles and win them all without firing a shot. But what has to be explained here is how the biggest anarchist movement in the world could betray the working class and wreck the Spanish revolution? Like the conduct of Kropotkin in 1914, this is dismissed by our critic as an “error of the CNT”, a simple mistake, such as anyone might make, like leaving one’s umbrella on the bus or putting on two different socks in the morning.
With such glib phrases we are expected to swallow the fact that the leaders of the main workers’ organisation in Spain in the moment of truth joined the bourgeois government, betrayed the revolution and even ordered the workers of Barcelona to hand over their weapons and deliver themselves defenceless into the hands of the Stalinist counterrevolution.
But don’t worry about this. Our anarchist friend has a very convenient explanation ready to hand. The conduct of the leaders of the CNT you see was “precisely the betrayal of one of the principles of anarchism, non-participation in the state.” This is an “explanation” that explains nothing at all. On the contrary, it was precisely the application of the anarchist theory of the state that was responsible for the defeat in Catalonia.
Anarchists simply reject the state in general and on principle. At first sight this position seems very revolutionary. But in practice it turns out to be precisely the opposite. To prove this point we must pass from the theory of anarchism to its practice. In 1936 the anarchist workers – the most courageous and revolutionary section of the Spanish working class – rose up in the insurrection in Barcelona and smashed the fascists who were preparing to join Franco’s rebellion.
In a short space of time the workers were in control. The factories were occupied under workers’ control and the only power in Barcelona were the armed militias of the anarchist CNT and the left-wing POUM. As a result of the heroic actions of the anarchist workers in Barcelona, the fascist reaction was smashed. The old bourgeois state was hanging in the air with no support. In reality, power was in the hands of the armed working class. All that was required was for the CNT to arrest the bourgeois government and declare that power was in the hands of the working class.
This fact was recognised by Companys, the president of the Generalitat, the bourgeois nationalist government of Catalonia. He invited the anarchist leaders into his office and addressed them in the following terms: “Well gentlemen, it seems you have the power. You ought to form a government.” The anarchist leaders indignantly rejected this proposal on the grounds that they were opposed to all governments. This was a fatal mistake that destroyed the revolution.
It would have been a simple matter to call upon the workers to elect representatives from the factory committees and the workers militias to a central council that would take over the running of society and appeal to the workers and peasants of the rest of Spain to follow their example. But they did not do so. Instead, they permitted the bourgeois government of Companys to continue to exist, allowing it sufficient time to build a base with the assistance of the Stalinists, and then to organise a counter-revolution and crush the workers.
If the anarchists did not like the word “state”, they could have called it a commune, or any other word they liked. In Russia it was known as Soviet power. What word you use is quite immaterial. But what is absolutely necessary in a revolution is for the working class to overthrow the old state and take power into its own hands. Refusal to do this inevitably leads to counter-revolution and the re-establishment of the old oppressive state power. That is precisely to play irresponsibly with revolution.
Was this really just a “tragic mistake” resulting from a failure to apply the anarchist theory of the state? Far from it! The anarchist leaders refused to organise a workers’ state precisely because of their anarchist prejudices against “all states in general”. They were in fact carrying out the anarchist theory of the state to the letter. They rejected politics, thinking that the workers’ control in factories simply meant they had a ‘new social economy’ and no need to take power. They argued for a mass general strike as an alternative to politics. Quite how the general strike goes on to dismantle the old government, army, police etc., and organise a publicly recognised and accepted new form of society and economy is always left vague, naturally.
To make matters worse, the same anarchist leaders who refused to establish workers’ state power subsequently entered as ministers in a bourgeois government – the very same government that strangled the revolution in May 1937. It is in actual fact that anarchist leaders like Federica Monseny (who was Minister of Health in the Republican government) personally went to Barcelona to persuade the anarchist workers to lay down their arms. The two betrayals are linked – their failure to seize power on a revolutionary basis caused them to later join, in desperation, the bourgeois government half-heartedly fighting Franco’s fascists. This constitutes betrayal carried to the nth degree.
Nowadays anarchists like Black Flag criticise the behaviour of the CNT leaders for entering a bourgeois government as a betrayal of anarchist principles. What they do not, and cannot explain is how the CNT, having power in its grasp, allowed that power to slip from their fingers and pass into the hands of the counter-revolution. That was the real betrayal of the revolution and the working class. And it flows directly from the false and disastrous theories of anarchism.
The Egyptian revolution
If the Russian revolution demonstrates the importance of leadership in a positive sense, many other experiences demonstrate the same thing in a negative and tragic manner. I am thinking mainly of the magnificent Egyptian revolution, where the masses moved spontaneously, without a party or leadership, to overthrow the tyrannical regime of Mubarak.
Here we have, on the one hand, a marvellous example of the power of a spontaneous mass movement involving millions of people. On the other hand, we see cruelly exposed the limitations of such a movement. The masses showed tremendous courage in confronting a brutal and dictatorial regime, risking their lives for the cause of revolution. They succeeded in overthrowing first Mubarak, and then Morsi.
In the latter case 17 million people came out onto the streets. This movement really has no parallel in history. The Egyptian masses overthrew the government. But what happened afterwards? In reality, power was lying in the streets waiting for somebody to pick it up. But in the absence of a guiding force, a revolutionary party and leadership, the masses allowed power to slip through their fingers. Instead of a workers’ and peasants’ government, Egypt ended up with a brutal military dictatorship.
If there had been present in Egypt at that time a revolutionary party like the Bolshevik Party, the entire situation would have been different. It would have been a simple matter to elect delegates from the workplaces and villages, uniting them in one revolutionary committee and proclaiming a revolutionary government. But this was not done, and revolution turned into counter-revolution with the most tragic consequences for the people of Egypt. And why? Only because of the lack of what Marxists call the subjective factor: the party and the leadership.
Could the Egyptian masses have acquired sufficient experience to draw the necessary conclusions to have taken power without a party? The question answers itself. They did not do so because they did not have the luxury of time in order to get a clear understanding of what was necessary. Without the necessary leadership, the masses were confused, hesitated and did not know what to do with the power that was in their hands.
Contrary to the confident assertions of Black Flag, the Egyptian masses did not “develop towards socialism.” Instead they were handed over bound hand and foot to the tender mercies of the counter-revolution. And the same thing has been seen time and time again in the history of the last hundred years in one country after another. Our anarchist friend cannot see any of this. But then there are none so blind as those who will not see.