Lenin’s Theory of the Vanguard Party: Do Movements Need Leadership?

In a previous essay, I argued that the Left should abandon prefigurative politics in favor of a direct challenge to capital. My argument is that the leaderless movements favored by the modern left are insufficient. They do not challenge capitalism directly. Instead, they attempt to work as though it does not exist, building islands of liberation amidst a sea of hostility. What we need to do is confront the ruling class head-on. We cannot be concerned with creating the new society at present. Instead, we must smash the old. Doing this requires leadership. In this essay, I want to argue that Russian Revolutionary Vladimir Lenin’s theory of the Vanguard Party is the only form of organization that can actually do away with capitalism.

I should clarify that when I talk about leadership, or even ‘leaders’ in this context, I do not mean an individual leader. I wholeheartedly reject the notion that great men make history. The Russian Revolution, for example, was not the work of Vladimir Lenin. It was the result of the mass struggle from which Lenin arose. I will argue not that we need a titanic figure who can make excellent speeches in order to win. We need an organization that can unify the masses. Leadership is about pulling together those who share the vision of a new society and uniting them to fight against the old. This is the concept of a vanguard.

To understand this aspect of theory, we must be aware of the context in which Lenin developed it. Lenin was active at a time when Marxism had become an orthodoxy. Orthodox Marxists universally deferred to one group of experts. In Russia, one such theorist was Plekhanov. He was not willing to move forward with revolutionary insurrection, the seizure of the state, or Party discipline. The other major figure of the time, German Marxist Karl Kautsky, was not willing to denounce World War One or imperialism generally. Lenin rejected the ideas espoused by both these men, and wrote scathing polemics against them. Lenin represented a radical break with the Marxism that came before. He was something fundamentally new.

Before we get into the structure and tasks of the Party, it’s important to consider why Lenin felt a revolutionary vanguard was necessary. One vital reason is the differing degree of class consciousness found among workers. The capitalist class does everything in its power to ensure that the system remains the way it is. It will use propaganda and often outright violence to achieve its goals. Given the intensity and scope of these efforts, it is unreasonable to expect every worker to be interested in overthrowing capitalism and establishing socialism. Many workers believe that the best thing to do is agitate for reforms like higher wages or better working conditions. The majority of workers, held Lenin, want to make capitalism nicer rather than overthrow it. Hence it is necessary for the most advanced sections of the working class, those who lead struggle and have grasped the need to go beyond capitalism, to coalesce into a vanguard and educate the masses.

Given the all-pervasive elements of bourgeois ideology in capitalist society, Lenin writes, “the adherents of the ‘labor movement pure and simple’, . . .opponents of any non-worker intelligentsia (even a socialist intelligentsia), are compelled, in order to defend their positions, to resort to arguments of the bourgeois ‘pure trade-unionists’. . .All worship of the spontaneity of the working-class movement, all belittling of the role of the ‘conscious element’, of the role of Social Democracy, means, quite independently of whether he who belittles that role desires it or not, a strengthening of the influence of bourgeois ideology upon the workers.”

Although Lenin argued that the working class could not develop socialist consciousness on its own, he stressed that this is not the fault of the workers. It is the fault of the capitalist class which oppresses them. Workers do not see the need to go beyond capitalism because the bourgeoisie  tells them that doing so is impossible. Workers see trade-union consciousness as their best bet because they are told that this is the case by those in power. Workers spontaneously gravitate towards socialism, according to Lenin, because it explains solutions to the problems they face more accurately than any other theory. But, because the bourgeoisie is in power, the workers are influenced even more by bourgeois ideology.  Thus, they will have difficulty acting in their own interests immediately after the revolution.

This “problem of socialist transformation” can be best explained in terms of one important aspect, the contradiction between manual labor and mental, or intellectual, labor. The fact is that the tasks of leadership and administration, and more generally the various spheres of intellectual labor, have to be carried out in order for socialist society to function and go forward. Socialist society will be vastly more democratic than capitalism, but it will still need technical officials. Lenin argued this in State and Revolution. This requires people with the necessary training and skills to be able to carry out this work. While in socialist society we will be able to increasingly bring forward the masses to do this intellectual labor, we will not be able to overcome this contradiction all at once, or in a very short period of time. Thus, we will not be able to do away with the need for a vanguard leadership in order for the masses to increasingly play their role as masters of society. We will not be able to advance beyond the need for that except through a whole historical process of uprooting and transforming the underlying material conditions (or contradictions) which make this kind of division of labor necessary.

If we abandon the revolutionary party in this process, bourgeois forces will play a leading and dominating role. They will take advantage of this contradiction (and other major social contradictions that “weigh like a nightmare on the brain of the living,” as Marx put it). They will seize on these contradictions and how they find expression politically and ideologically, then use them to resurrect the bourgeois state and the bourgeois mode of production.

The masses will often speak to this when discussing the possibility of revolution. They will say that they have no experience with scientific, medical, or administrative kinds of work. Sometimes, because of the incessant bourgeois propaganda and the constant promoting of its worldview and methodology, masses even doubt that they could learn how to do these things. But while, in fact, they can and will learn to master these spheres and all domains of society, they will just as certainly need leadership to enable them to progressively do so. Bourgeois ideology must be confronted and overcome, not ignored. Only a revolutionary Party is fit to undertake this task.

The masses cannot spontaneously learn to run society. It is and can only be a long and protracted process. Besides the important aspect of the masses needing to acquire the necessary experience, knowledge and skills in these spheres, there is another important dimension to this which is brought out in a statement by Lenin. He says that the masses have to learn that society is possible without the capitalist organization of the economy, and without the police and the army of the bourgeois state to maintain order and keep society functioning. The masses need to learn that society can be run in a qualitatively better way, in accordance with their own interests.

If the masses do not have a vanguard party to lead them in this process, they will have no choice but to fall back on, to accept subordination to, the only alternative way to make society and the economy function, namely, capitalist accumulation and the rule of the bourgeoisie, with all the torture and torment this involves. Without a vanguard that can organize society and lead the masses in its running, they will revert back to the capitalist mode of organization. That is what they have the most experience with. A Party is necessary not only to secure the victory of the revolution, but to ensure that it accomplishes its goal of establishing worker’s power. A party is necessary, also, to continuously collect the ideas of each and every part of the proletariat, especially the lowest and deepest sections, so that the proletariat has the best, fullest possible understanding of itself. Only with this comprehensive understanding can the proletariat consciously remake itself and the world, both physically and culturally, to proceed ever more fully toward communism.

The point, again, is not that the masses are incapable of becoming masters of the whole society, although they have been continually bombarded with bourgeois propaganda to the effect that they are incapable of this. The unfortunate truth, however, is that they are not going to be capable of doing all of these things all at once. It is going to require sustained, arduous and complex struggle in order for the masses to actually master these various spheres of society. This contradiction necessitates that the most advanced sections of the working class must be organized into a vanguard. This allows them exert more influence over the “average worker” and organize more effectively.

It helps to understand that Lenin is essentially rejecting the economic-determinist notion that workers will automatically become revolutionary socialists; rather, they must be similarly won to socialist ideas through the twin links of participatory struggle and the work of socialist agitators and organizers.

Lenin is not promoting ahistorical ideals, nor is he advocating that socialist ideas originate outside the working class movement. As I explained above, even the masses of the modern era are aware that administrative work is difficult, that it requires time to learn. This conception of the Party, therefore, is based on a deep understanding of mass consciousness rather than an ignorance of it. Communists who advocate party-building are not elitist. Rather, we wish to see the masses exercise their power to the fullest extent possible.

Lenin’s idea of the Party is based on a rigorous analysis of the historical context in which he was operating, and in which “we had both the spontaneous awakening of the working masses, their awakening to conscious life and conscious struggle, and a revolutionary youth, armed with Social-Democratic theory and straining towards the workers.” As Paul Le Blanc pointed out in Lenin and the Revolutionary Party, it is the “transcendence of this reality, not its celebration, that What Is To Be Done? was designed to facilitate.” That is, Lenin understood that there was an active working class movement in Russia. He was not blind to the fact that workers are drawn naturally to struggle. He did not want to impose struggle on the working class from without. Instead, he wanted to develop the struggle of the working class into a revolutionary one. To repeat the point I made above, the Party is not an organ that restricts the initiative of the masses, but instead one that seeks to help it flourish.

The understanding of Leninism as an elitist method of assessing working class movements and organization are, to put it mildly, misplaced. As an aside, Lenin wasn’t the organizational fetishist later militants assumed him to be. One of the key markers of Lenin’s political thought was the recognition that any revolutionary party or grouping must be capable of responding to the shifts of class society. This necessitated a form of organization capable of adaptation and flexibility, so as to better ensure the party’s longevity and responsiveness within the wider class struggle. So we may find in times of high political consciousness and action, Lenin urged party members to “open the gates” in order to more effectively facilitate the entry of greater numbers of workers into the revolutionary movement.

Above all else, however, Lenin stressed the need for said workers to be active participants and leaders, both within all layers of the party and wider class. Perhaps most significantly, he expressed the need for all internal debates and disagreements occurring within the party to be aired publicly for all to see: “[A]ll theoretical errors and tactical deviations of the Party are most ruthlessly criticized by experience itself, which enlightens and educates the working class with unprecedented rapidity. At such a time, the duty of every Social Democrat is to strive to ensure that the ideological struggle within the Party on questions of theory and tactics is conducted as openly, widely and freely as possible, but that on no account does it disturb or hamper the unity of revolutionary action of the Social-Democratic proletariat. . .”

In periods of bourgeois reaction and repression, often coupled with a reversal of political consciousness amongst the class, Lenin spoke of the need to ‘close ranks’ and impose more stringent forms of party organizing so as to protect the membership from the threat of external manipulation (many revolutionary parties were confronted with the reality of state infiltration and sabotage, especially within tsarist Russia).

It should further be stressed here that Lenin was not elitist. He did not argue for a Vanguard Party because he thought workers were stupid. Lenin began his career with a small underground newspaper called Iskra, or “spark.” His goal was to use this platform to propagate socialist ideas and inspire the workers into action. The paper was literally meant to be a spark for revolution. If Lenin really thought workers were stupid, how did he expect a tiny newspaper to accomplish this?

In What is to be Done, Lenin writes, “The task of social democracy [by which he meant communism] is to combat spontaneity, to divert the working class movement from these spontaneous trade-unionist strivings, to […] bring it under the wing of revolutionary social democracy.” For Lenin, the most important task was to lead the masses to socialism rather than becoming subservient to the spontaneity of their struggles.

In fact, relying upon the spontaneity of the masses can have disastrous consequences. For an example of this, we need only to look at the German economic collapse of the 1920s and 30s.  Economic collapses generally cause the masses to become radicalized, and this was no different. However, the masses were not radicalized in a positive way. They became extraordinarily reactionary, and this eventually led to the rise of fascism. Part of the reason for this is that there was no cohesive, disciplined communist organization. There were many parties and activists, but all were very quickly done away with. They could not channel the rage of the masses into a revolutionary struggle. This, along with other examples discussed below, shows the need for a strong, militaristic communist Party to lead the revolution and ensure that the masses are radicalized in a productive sense.

The function of the vanguard is not only to organize trade-unionist struggles (although it will  also do this) but to analyze concrete conditions through a revolutionary lens and, from this, generate new struggles. Their aim is not just to make workers angry about the conditions of capitalism, but to mold them into a disciplined force capable of winning a revolution. This ability is what makes the members of the Party the most advanced members of the whole working class.

This element of discipline is absolutely necessary. We will never win a revolution if we do not carry out our plans with strict regulations in place. Even the Spanish Anarchists of 1936 understood this. The CNT-FAI militia sent out a bulletin to soldiers which read, in part, “He [the combatant] shall not act on his own in matters of war, and will accept without discussion any post…which he is assigned.” Discipline is such an integral component to successful revolutionary action that even the Anarchists were forced to abandon their principles of direct democracy and individual liberty in order to secure the gains they had made. If they had began with an emphasis on discipline and accountability from day one, as Lenin advocated, perhaps they would have been able to withstand the fascist onslaught in much the same way the USSR did.

Some sections of the Spanish anarchists, I will admit, were successful in many respects. They were able to lower rents by up to forty percent (40%), as well as crush a small uprising of generals in Barcelona. The most successful anarchists acted as the head of the working class, as its vanguard. For three years, the anarchists organized revolutionary committees that provided healthcare, food, and education. These committees were far from mass, spontaneous uprisings. Rather, they were the result of careful organizing by advanced workers and communists in the national committee of the CNT-FAI. Indeed, they arose initially in response to criticism by the anarchist Alexander Shapiro, who condemned “impromptu uprisings.” These committees were the result, then, of a criticism of spontaneity and an adoption of leadership, effectively an abandonment of anarchist principles.

There was much argument as to this abandonment within the CNT-FAI. Many affinity groups that made up this organization, such as Nosotros, recognized the need to “channel the upheaval” of the masses into revolution. In short, the most successful anarchists recognized the need to generate new struggles. These anarchists were even dubbed “anarcho-Bolsheviks.” Even the anarchists have recognized the necessity of the Party! Their failure to create such an organization was what ultimately led to the rise of fascism in Spain.

Many Anarchists assert that the Spanish Revolution was crushed not because of any shortcomings inherent in its mode of organization, but rather because it was a small, somewhat isolated territory besieged by much stronger military forces. The Russian Revolution, however, disproves this theory. It began in a single city: Saint Petersburg. While there was discontent throughout the nation, Saint Petersburg was the site of most revolutionary activities. This idea of a revolutionary city is something most leftists have forgotten. The city was alone as a revolutionary power against the White Army and several foreign powers. The Saint Petersburg communists organized in a disciplined force to match on Moscow. There were strict military regulations, and it was through these that there were eventually able to seize power. The Anarchists adopted discipline too late. It was not a part of their theory, and it was this that ultimately led to their downfall.

Discipline has made the difference between victory and defeat on more than just this occasion, however. In Cuba, the rebels were outmanned and outgunned, travelling to Havana on a small boat. The strict regulations in their organization went a long way in ensuring their victory. For more on this, see Christopher Minister’s “The Cuban Revolution.”

This is also true of the Chinese Revolution. In The Unknown Cultural Revolution, Dongping Han writes that the communist forces were “small and defeated,” and the Nationalist forces were much better equipped. Despite this, the communists were able to survive and build socialism in China. This is a testament to the power of Party organizing.

The final example I will cite in favor of discipline is the “failed revolution” in Germany from 1918-23.  This revolution did indeed fail, but a Party did exist that could have led it. This has led many anarchists and other socialists to conclude that Parties are too focused on “politics” and internal squabbling to effectively lead a revolution. In fact, the failed German revolution proves exactly the opposite. Working class movements absolutely require discipline and leadership in order to succeed. There was not even the embryo of a really mass-organized party capable of transmitting the political analyses of Rosa Luxemburg and others into the key sections of the class. Indeed, such was the lack of a tradition of coordinated revolutionary activity that Karl Liekbnecht simply ignored the decisions of the rest of the leadership of the newly formed party and, in the heat of the moment, put his name to a call for the forcible overthrow of the Social Democratic government. The result was that the most advanced layer of militants blundered into a premature struggle for power, which led to the annihilation of much of the Communist leadership. The German revolution failed not because leadership existed, but rather because the leadership that did exist was not willing to carry the struggle forward. The Party was not disciplined, and thus the revolution died.

The tragedy in Germany was that the disciplined party was not built until after the party had suffered major defeats and until after many of its best leaders had been murdered. Of course organization is useless without the correct politics. But correct politics is impotent without organization. To pretend otherwise is to guarantee in the future a repetition of many of the massive defeats of the past.

Finally, we have to remember that a small revolutionary organization is not the embryo of a new society. We do not exist as an island of socialism within capitalism, but as a voluntary organization of militants whose task is to lead the class as a whole to construct the new society. The aim of internal democracy is not to show the masses how things will work under socialism. If it were possible to do this, there would be no need to make revolution in the first place. Our real task is to tie the development of the Party to the concrete experiences of its militants in the workplaces.

The experience of not only Leninist revolution, but every revolution, proves that discipline is absolutely necessary, and that failure to abide by strict regulations will result in downfall.

Now that we understand the reasoning behind the vanguard party, we can look at how such an organization is structured. In addition to rank-and-file members, the Party is made up of what Lenin calls professional revolutionaries. These are workers who are already involved in the struggle to improve working conditions but who (as I said above) understand that we must overthrow capitalism. They are, according to Lenin, “all the principal leaders of the working class movement from among the workers themselves.” Professional revolutionaries will be freed from work and taken in by the Party so that they are able to devote their energy to furthering revolution. Lenin exhorts, “A worker-agitator who is at all gifted and ‘promising,’ must not be left to work…..” Rather, they must go out and lead the masses towards socialism. This can be done in a number of ways, from coordinating strikes and organizing unions to distributing leaflets.

Lenin’s reasoning for this is obvious. It is not easy to make a revolution, and it will never be done if revolutionaries are required to work for sixteen hours a day. Revolution is a cause which requires the full attention of its participants at all times.

Lenin’s aforementioned emphasis on discipline led him to determine that the Party should be structured on the basis of democratic centralism. This is a form of organization that combines two principles, democracy and centralism, in a shifting, dialectical relationship to one another. Thus, there is no definitive formula for the “correct” proportions of democracy and centralism. It is up to communists to determine the synthesis of these ideas which best provides leadership to the working class.

The democratic aspect of democratic centralism concerns the process of decision-making. It entails thorough discussion of all political questions, full airing of minority viewpoints, and criticism of all political work carried out by all sections of the party. Democracy in this context refers to decisions made by majority vote after a full, informed, and frank discussion. In this way, the Party ensures that it is more likely to reflect the interests of the working class.

Centralism includes leadership at all levels summing up the ideas and experiences of the membership, drawing up proposals and implementing policy, presenting arguments for said policy, and listening to the concerns of the working class. This is necessary to ensure that the organization’s decisions are carried out as planned, to combat the highly-centralized bourgeois state, and to create mechanisms through which the Party line can be evaluated swiftly. It also allows operational security to become a focus. Centralism assures that there are mechanisms in place that punish those who break the rules of the organization. This is not the case in decentralized, voluntary collectives, since members can simply opt out at any time. Centralism allows accountability.

This was proven effective during the Chinese revolution. Hong Pan writes that the Cultural Revolution would have been impossible without Mao’s support. Centralism here allowed the masses to empower themselves.

Even in the day-to-day struggle of the workers, the vitality of centralism is evident. If 51% of a union votes to go on strike, the entire union (even those who voted against the strike) are expected to comply. Any worker who breaks the strike is rightfully vilified and branded a “scab.” It is absolutely imperative that every worker obeys the decisions of the union in order to achieve victory. The same principle is at work in Party organizing.

Many centralized movement efforts—take the 1963 March on Washington or the giant national mobilizations against the Vietnam War—have been more effective in attaining their goals and empowering people than if those centralized efforts had not taken place. An ecologically “good society” would also require centralized efforts to implement economic priorities and to effectively coordinate production and distribution among different sectors of the economy that avoid duplication of effort and waste of precious resources with their deleterious effect on the quality of life. For example, the outputs of one factory are often inputs for another firm and must be coordinated by some more inclusive entity, and electrical and water services require extended networks to work efficiently and avoid the waste of resources. The same applies to the operation of railways, the most ecologically sound means of long-distance transport. While it is true that a self-managed society would by definition require a substantial degree of local decision-making, the real issue would not be centralization itself, but the type of relationship that existed between the rank and file and the leadership, and whether measures were implemented to ensure that the indispensable centralized efforts and institutions were subject to controls from below that are both democratic and rational in their use of relatively scarce resources.

Is it paradoxical that the advocates of “participatory democracy” often end up with a remarkably narrow conception of democracy: since “participatory democracy” is opposed to the delegation of functions, this often leads to lengthy discussions of trivial matters, displacing discussions of more political import. Democratic practice in this sense sometimes becomes reduced to democratically deciding who will clean up or bring the pizza. A democratic society depends most of all on a thoroughly politicized population, a population that is fully aware that politics affects everybody because it is ultimately about the power to decide over priorities for society as a whole. An opposition organization acting according to such a politicized perspective would be what Lenin called a “tribune of the people,” reacting to “every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it takes place, no matter what class or stratum of people it affects . . . he [the Social Democrat] must be able to take advantage of every petty event in order to explain his Socialistic convictions and his Social-Democratic demands to all.” It is this widespread autonomous politicization of a society, that is, public discussion and activity increasingly replacing passivity and apathy, which would create the overall political climate that is conducive to the democratic control of leaders.

Democracy is the compromise between the individual and authority; it allows the election of the skilled rank and file, thus eliminating unnecessary social distinctions.

But Democracy entails subordination [if not ‘absolute’, outside of the military] to the collective, the taking of orders from the elected rank and file, and the suspension of individual freedom [if not ‘basic democratic rights’ outside of the military], in the ‘course of social engagements’.

In short, social freedom requires the democratic compromise of individual freedom.

The Party line, briefly, refers to the program of the Party, both in the long and short terms. Party members develop the program  through rigorous analysis of material conditions. It involves understanding the needs of the working class, as well as noting the position of the capitalists. Only through this understanding can we come to win the revolution.

It is important to understand the interdependence of democracy and centralism. Without democracy, the party lacks accurate information about the actual unfolding of the class struggle as well as the needs and capabilities of the masses. Democracy means tapping into the creativity and experience of the whole working class to ensure that the Party line represents the development of class struggle.

Without centralism, the experiences of the masses and of the Party membership would remain scattered. Centralism is what enables the party to translate its knowledge into a material force. For Lenin, there could be no democracy without centralism and no centralism without democracy.

Often, ultra-leftists claim that centralism is not necessary to fulfill any of these tasks. They believe that decentralized militias composed of armed workers will suffice. Leninists-and indeed Marx and Engels themselves-hold that this is not the case. In “The Bakuninists at Work,” Engels writes of a time in 1873 when Spanish Anarchists took power in several towns across the nation. The Spanish capitalist class could muster nothing but a few thousand untrained troops. Their army was several orders of magnitude smaller than that of the Anarchists. And yet, the Anarchists still failed. Engels writes that “Each town acted on its own,” functioning as its own sort of miniature “nation.” This decentralization and fragmentation made a combined attack against the bourgeoisie impossible, and the Anarchists were soon crushed. Lenin analyzed historical experiences such as these and determined that a centralized revolutionary organization was necessary to defend the revolution against reactionary capitalist forces.

These are the basic features of Lenin’s vanguard party.

The question then becomes one of relevance. Lenin formed the idea of the vanguard roughly one hundred years ago, and material conditions have changed in the time since. Is there still merit to the concept? I argue that this is the case. The greatest threat to capitalism worldwide has come from Leninist groups, such as the Naxalites in India.

However, the relevance of Leninism also extends to the United States and other, more “advanced” areas. As I see it, there are two similarities between Lenin’s context and the context of these areas.

The first is that, when Lenin began his career with What is to be Done, there was a notable lack of revolutionary organization. They essentially had to start from scratch. This is also the case in America. Of course, there was once a large number of radical organizations and parties; but we don’t have that in the United States now. The most active and powerful communist party is the Party for Socialism and Liberation. I do not wish to disparage them or their work, but the Party is isolated. Its activities mostly take place on the West and East coasts. The situation that confronts us here in the United States is remarkably similar to that which confronted Lenin: there is a notable lack of cohesive revolutionary organization.

The second similarity is one I mentioned above. Lenin was besieged by an orthodoxy. This orthodoxy told him that it was not necessary to organize a Party centrally and with discipline. It said that rules, structure, and so on were unneeded. Right now, we live in the same kind of orthodoxy. It is an orthodoxy of ultra-leftism, commonly called Autonomism or anarchism. These ideas manifest in loose-knit collectives and movements that engage in what I see as narrow struggles. These efforts are valuable, but they often fizzle out without generating any substantial change. They do not pose a threat to the fundamental order of global capitalism.

As an example, let’s take Occupy Wall Street. The general assembly was open to everyone, and while this is a desirable goal, the lack of a unified plan and an insistence on one hundred percent consensus meant that the assembly was ripe for reactionary infiltration. Many left the movement disillusioned after general assemblies failed to expel police, fascist agents, or bigots. The movement lacked sufficient discipline. As a result, the movement was only able to gain a few concessions from the ruling class. To make this point, I want to quote from Jonathan Smucker’s book Hegemony How-To: A Roadmap for Radicals, in which he writes, “Because [the general assembly meetings] were so cumbersome and easily derailed…the real decision-making was pushed…to underground centers of informal power.” This gets at a key point: the purpose of a revolutionary organization is not to prefigure the new society, it is to make revolution. The Occupy movement was ultimately concerned more with idealistic values (freedom and peace) rather than action. This is why it crumbled. Occupy failed to make revolution (or even fundamentally alter the status quo) because the institutions erected in its name were not capable of doing so. The revolution is a question of power. It is about one class exercising power over another. In order to successfully carry through a revolution, we must forge an organization capable of seizing and wielding power. In short, we must form a Party.

Some might argue that this analysis misses the point, since Occupy was not aiming to overthrow capitalism in the first place. This is, however, exactly what I mean to communicate. When you remain subservient to the spontaneity of the masses, you end up with movements like Occupy: fragile movements that do not even attempt to attack the system itself, much less succeed in doing so.

Occupy showed many that consensus decision making strategies were viable, leading many to reject the ideas of Democratic Centralism and the Party. However, the accounts from which this conclusion is drawn are not the whole picture. Consensus decision making is a form of organization that strives to reach the agreement of everyone involved before proceeding with a given action. If you are in the general assembly and you want to organize a demonstration for a particular cause, you must get a hundred percent of the people involved to agree. All those involved must at least not object to the line of action you have proposed. If any object, the action cannot be carried out in the name of that body. Because of the emphasis on getting everyone to agree, this form of organizing attempts to come to unified proposals for action by incorporating different perspectives in order to make everyone happy with the outcome. Certainly, this process sounds nice on the surface. But the point of politics is not to make everyone happy, it is to accomplish goals. Decision making in movements happens among people who have drastically different ideas about what should be done, or even what the movement is aiming for to begin with. Sometimes there are situations in which one proposal will lead to victory and another to defeat. Outcomes matter, and when the people in your movement  disagree with each other, accomplishing particular political ends requires a struggle by political partisans against other political partisans. Democratic centralism allows this struggle to occur, without allowing it to take the place of concrete action. Occupy’s procedural processes are superficially appealing but in reality run counter to democracy. Decisions were in theory made by frequent General Assemblies open to all, where everyone who wanted was supposed to get a chance to express their views – although other procedural peculiarities often made that next to impossible. The format also demanded 90 percent agreement for “consensus,” which meant often that meetings lasted interminably or could not reach decisions because of insistent minority opposition. The consensus model was originally adopted by the initial Occupiers, and it turned into a convenient way of preventing almost any position or process from changing. That meant that 1% of the participants laid down ground rules that left the other 99% unable to make fundamental decisions about their movement. In this sense, consensus decision-making was the downfall of Occupy.

Endless meetings and indecision are alien to any genuine working-class movement. No worker with a 40-hour-or-more work week, let alone family responsibilities, could hope to even influence such processes. The fact is that working-class organizations need decisive leadership, and it is perfectly possible for this to be democratic and inclusive. This means not only that all have their say, but also that a majority can make decisions and hold elected leaders responsible for acting on them. Only a vanguard Party can provide this mode of organization. This is democratic centralism in action. The experience of Occupy ought to show us that without democratic centralism, without a Party, we cannot win.

An historical example is the May 1968 period in France. This was a spontaneous movement of workers and students that were angry about a variety of issues. They took to the streets and engaged in insurrectionary action with the intent to overthrow capitalism. Their efforts, while noble, were based on individual terror. They held that it was possible to overthrow capitalism based on zeal alone. They neglected to develop discipline or a unified theory. They, too, were only able to attain higher wages and the like. Many left communists would assert that this failure was the result of betrayal by the elitist socialist parties of France. This is certainly true. The Socialist Party colluded with police and union bureaucrats to stifle mass protests and other actions, leading to the eventual downfall of the movement. It is through this experience that we come to know the distinction between a Party and a Vanguard Party. A Vanguard Party, which is what I am advocating here, leads the working class movement. It does this by assessing where the masses are, immersing itself in their struggles, and formulating plans going forward. Its starting point must always be the sentiments of the masses. (see my post on the mass line for more on this).

The Socialist Party of France did not take as its starting point the will of the masses. Instead, it lagged behind them, twisting the movement to fit its own ideology. This is something Lenin wrote vehemently against, lambasting what he termed the “economist” or “right-opportunist” sections of the worker’s movement. The strategies enacted by the Socialist Party of France in 1968 have nothing to do with Lenin’s concept of the Vanguard Party. Because the French Socialist Party did not attempt to lead the working class, but rather hold it back, it cannot be considered a Vanguard. As such, it is unreasonable to use the experience of May 1968 to argue against the concept of the Vanguard Party.

The final movement I would like to address is the Horizontalism movement in Argentina. This derives from the neighborhood assemblies and piquetero protests that accompanied the collapse of neoliberalism in Argentina at the end of 2001. This collapse gave rise to a number of new and inspiring social movements. For many writers, it offers prime evidence of horizontal anti-party politics as a transformative social practice. These movements, perhaps best understood as experiments, included bartering clubs where workers and farmers exchanged goods and services without cash and recuperated factories in which workers managed the labor process free of hierarchy, centralization, or the like.

Here, I should explain something about the neighborhood assemblies. They arose almost spontaneously during protests and riots over privatization and social service cuts in Argentina. Their role was to focus popular participation during the high point of the uprising. The result of this was a moment in which people took to the streets under the slogan ‘throw them all out.’ Them, in this case, means politicians. These assemblies were deeply antagonistic to existing politics of almost any kind.

The problem with using this movement as an argument against the Leninist conception of the party is that it did not actually confront the state or capital directly. According to Argentinian left-wing economist Claudio Katz, the movements “did not grasp that the oppressors took advantage of a rebellion that took militant action but lacked militant organization, leadership, or ideological coherence.” For example, the neighborhood assemblies declined significantly when the ruling class regained the reins of power. Argentina went through four presidents in the space of two weeks, but as the government re-stabilized, the neighborhood assemblies lost focus, energy, and purpose. Because the assemblies arose spontaneously out of a situation in which the state was disorganized and fragmented, they had no political project to pursue once conditions changed. Lacking such a project, the assemblies were unable to exploit the crisis and end capitalism in Argentina, If they had been organized by a militant worker’s party, perhaps the vanguard could have developed the scattered concerns of those who took part in the assemblies into a political program with which to counter the organized bourgeois state.

As far as the economic experiments are concerned, the barter economy waned very quickly once the state became organized again. The self-managed shops suffered under competitive pressures brought about by a newly re-empowered Argentine bourgeoisie. The shops were essentially defensive formations developed in hard times. Bank accounts were frozen, there was very little money, and so on. As time went by, they found themselves more and more subject to competitive pressures in what remained a capitalist society. The state exerted these pressures on the shops. A failure to build a party which could take control of the state and create a social order which was conducive to self-management resulted in the ultimate failure of the movement to spread across the entire country.

The fact that the self-managed enterprises are subject to market pressures places limitations on the ability of the workers to self-determine. For example, their ability to decide what to produce is mitigated by market forces which compel them to produce based on what will make them the most money. If a socialist Party had taken power and instituted economic planning, workers would have a great deal more freedom in this regard. In this sense, socialist vanguard parties do not erode the freedom of workers, they allow it to bloom. It is only by creating a Party of this kind that we can liberate not only the working class, but the whole of humanity.

I would like to make one point completely clear before I conclude: these three movements-Occupy, May 1968, and Horizontalidad-were valuable and ultimately beneficial. They brought genuine gains to the working class, and inspired many to struggle against capitalism. The problem is that they did not go far enough. The system of exploitation did not come to an end as a result of any. By contrast, the Leninist method has lead to the destruction of capitalism in Cuba, the Soviet Union, China, and others. It is for this reason that I advocate a struggle in the tradition of these nations. Today, as yesterday, Leninism is the way forward.

Marxism on the State and Authority

Most people assume that the state is a political body whose purpose is to mediate conflict and give everyone in society a voice. However, the conception of the state laid out by Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and others holds that the opposite is true. In this essay, I will endeavor to explain what that means.

Marxists do not see the state as an impartial apparatus that is above class conflict. It does not exist to serve the population and is not, even in the most “democratic” society, accountable to the common people. The state is, writes Lenin in The State and Revolution, “A special organization of force; it is an organization for the suppression of some class.” Although Lenin never stated this outright, I argue that the “special” quality Lenin references here is a monopoly on the use of legitimate violence. My primary reason for arguing this is that it serves to further crystallize the Marxist concept of the state. If we define the state without this component, it would follow that Venezuela, for example, has two states. If the state is merely an organ of class rule, then both the Venezuelan government itself and the collectivos would constitute a state, since both act in such a way as to strip certain classes of their rights. The problem arises when we consider that in some cases, the government and the collectivos are opposed to one another. The notion that there can be two dueling states which both lay claim to one area is obvious nonsense. This muddying of the waters makes the Marxist idea of the state functionally useless. In order to effectively make use of Marxism, we must expand it in the way I have just described.

Regardless, the state is an organ of class rule. One class controls the state and uses it to repress one or more other classes.

Many anarchists would assert that this definition of the state is too narrow precisely because it focuses only on class. According to them, it ignores that the state often oppresses women, queer people, and people of color. These kinds of oppression are supposedly social in character rather than economic. Thus, the Marxist definition of the state is incorrect.

This analysis is based on a false dichotomy. The idea that oppression must be either social or economic is false. All oppression has both an economic and social component. Take racism, for example. It arose primarily as a justification for slavery. Pseudoscience such as phrenology was invented to separate black individuals from white individuals, and thus provide moral and legal justification for the former’s enslavement. The practice was seen as admissible because enslaved people were not regarded as human. Of course, slavery was a key part of the early American economy, and in some sense that is still true today. In modern times, the oppression of people of color still has an economic base. The Ferguson Report revealed a wide-reaching scheme of overcharging for traffic tickets and other forms of municipal plunder. Anti-black policing was and is an economic model. The war on drugs, which primarily targets people of color, serves the primary purpose of filling private prisons and providing cheap labor for major corporations. This reveals the economic component of an oppression which many people regard as being entirely social.

The same case can be made for marriage equality. It does not merely entail the right to embrace on the courthouse steps and pledge eternal love. It involves things such as tax breaks. Marriage discrimination is not bad simply because of the emotional harm it causes, though this is certainly a very important aspect of it. It is bad because it bars queer individuals from entering into a contract that protects the fruits of their labor. Again, we see that a supposedly social oppression has an economic facet.

In his book, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Frederick Engels drew on the work of early anthropologists to show how women’s oppression developed in pre-history when communal, matrilineal societies were violently replaced with patriarchal societies in which individual wealth and private property were key. (Patriarchal, profit-driven societies became dominant by conquest and colonialism, though remnants of matrilineal culture survived in tribal societies throughout the world.) From a position of early leadership and respect, women became powerless domestic slaves. Engels describes this as “the world historic defeat of the female sex.” Marx and Engels viewed women’s entry into the paid labor force as the first step toward liberating women from stifling dependence on men, though it does not free them from the class oppression they share with male workers. To achieve the full liberation of women and of the multi-racial, working class of all nations, international socialism is necessary, which is in essence a return in modern form to the cooperative egalitarian foundations of early human existence. The oppression of women is inextricably bound up in the oppression of the laboring class. While it is distinct from this oppression, and thus deserves special attention (as do all other oppressions), we cannot draw a clear dividing line between them.

These examples illustrate that all oppression is in some sense economic. Thus, the mere fact that the state oppresses minorities as well as working class people (who are often one and the same) is not evidence that the state is not primarily an organ of class power.

Because all class societies involve repression, all class societies are dictatorships. Societies in which the capitalist class is the ruling class (that is, in which they control the state) are dictatorships of the bourgeoisie. Societies in which the working class controls the state are dictatorships of the proletariat.

In capitalist societies, the capitalist class uses the state to suppress the working class or proletariat. This is most obvious during strikes, in which police officers violently prevent the workers from organizing against the capitalists. We also witness this in situations when the state prevents starving people from taking food to feed themselves. In essence, the state exists in capitalist society to prevent the poor from seizing the property of the rich or bourgeoisie, the class which controls the state.

This is not to say that the capitalist state never gives into the demands of the working class. Popular movements can obtain reforms and concessions from the state. The capitalist class usually resists the demands of popular movements due to the fear that these reforms could go too far, infringe on property and threaten their rule. Sometimes the reformers push their agenda and unleash radical demands for change from below. In these cases, capitalists will seek to undermine them. Paradoxically, some of these reforms can help the state maintain order and social cohesion. The reforms can keep the masses loyal to the prevailing regime. Yet many reforms, even if they serve this ideological role, are not enforced by the state because they would deal too great a blow to the profits of the capitalist class.

However, it is true that these laws, such as those that determine environmental regulations, are often enforced to the detriment of capitalist profits. Opponents of Marxism often cite this as evidence that the state does not act in the interests of the capitalist class on all occasions. What this analysis ignores is that the driving force of capitalism is the profit motive. Capitalists will often work against their long term interests in order to satisfy this need in the short term. For example, capitalism exploits the planet for raw materials like fossil fuels. This drives the earth ever closer to its destruction. While this enriches the capitalists immediately, it is actually disadvantageous in the long term. This is because it will result in the planet becoming uninhabitable, and one cannot make profits as a capitalist if there is no planet on which to practice capitalism. This is where the state steps in with environmental regulations. They do not do this because they care about the environment, but because they wish to prolong capitalism. The fact that environmental regulations often cut into profits is a necessary evil, because without them, capitalism could not continue to exist. Environmental regulations are not antithetical to capitalism. On the contrary, they enable the capitalists to continue drawing profits from the planet for a longer period. Even when it appears that the state is acting against the interests of the capitalist class, this is not the case.

Thus the state is coercive. It maintains the dominant property relations through violence (army, prisons, police, and the CIA). More than maintaining internal cohesion, the state also seeks an international advantage. Imperialist states such as the US and the UK seek cheap labor, raw materials and hegemony from the third world. They also want to prevent the threat of a good example which would encourage dominated states to break with capital and follow a different path. This fear leads imperialist states to destabilize or destroy leftist governments, even moderate ones, in places such as Latin America. This can be seen happening at the time of writing in Brazil and Cuba.

However, the state is not wholly coercive. According to Gramsci, part of the way the state maintains its domination (or hegemony) is through consent. There is a process of legitimization involved. This is the role of culture, ideology and its various organs: political parties, churches, media, non-radical unions, and other associations. States adhere to and promote ideologies to maintain social cohesion. The American Dream is one such ideology. These systems of ideology push ordinary people to accept their subordinate status, to see it as normal and to not question it. The state ensures that capitalism becomes common sense to the masses.

The state in socialist society wins the masses over to socialism and develops their cooperative tendencies. This is most often accomplished through education programs and the financing of cooperative projects such as community gardens. It ensures that the material conditions for communism, such as an abundance  of resources, exist. This occurs through increased funding to scientific firms and other groups that can innovate and develop the forces of production. Further, it protects burgeoning socialist countries from aggression by the aforementioned imperialist states through the use of the military. The state also provides material support to revolutionary movements (in the form of weapons, troops, food, and so on) in other parts of the world so as to hasten the downfall of global capitalism.

However, a socialist state’s primary function is to suppress the bourgeoisie, who will no doubt attempt to retake the property seized from them by the proletariat. The state will prevent capitalists from organizing demonstrations and amassing arms, and may even restrict their right to vote. While this may seem undemocratic, nothing could be further from the truth. It is the capitalists who want to restore an undemocratic system, in which power is concentrated in a small number of hands. In suppressing these anti-democratic elements, the State ensures that democracy will remain pure and free of corruption. It is also important to remember that this restriction will be carried out by the working class itself, through institutions of its own creation. These institutions, guided by the Party, will for the first time give the vast majority of people in society a voice.

It is vital that the proletariat does engage in the creation of new institutions. Marx stresses that the socialists cannot merely lay hands on the existing state machinery. This machinery was created by the capitalist class to serve its own purposes, outlined above. The socialists must smash the bourgeois state machine and substitute it for one of its own design. Marx upholds the Paris Commune as an example of such a state. The Paris Communards established their own state institutions in the capital, but did not fully smash the existing bourgeois state in France. The deposed capitalist class, therefore, was quickly able to regroup through the state and, as Marx put it, “drown the commune in [its] own blood.” The experience of the Paris Commune shows that if we want to establish socialism, we must break up the old state and create a new one in its place.

In this new state. writes Lenin, “All officials, without exception, [are] elected and subject to recall at any time, their salaries reduced to the level of ordinary ‘workmen’s wages.'” He continues: “The parliamentarians themselves have to work. […] and to account directly to their constituents.”

One example of these new institutions can be found in the Cuban electoral system. In Cuba, everyone elects local neighborhood officials. These officials then elect every other office. The neighborhood assembles, then, directly or indirectly every level above them.  All parties-including the Communist Party-are unable to spend money to publicly campaign. They must win elections through word-of-mouth campaigns and the support of their neighbors. This inability to spend money serves as a dictatorship against the capitalists and in favor of the workers. The electoral system undercuts any capitalist who would want to use money to alter things. It ensures that the poor masses of Cuba have a say in their government.

Thus, although socialist states will always engage in suppression of class enemies, they can be considered more democratic than capitalist ones. Yet it is not the case that democracy and dictatorship are mutually exclusive. Marxists understand that, in capitalist societies, the owning class has near complete authority in decision making. In this sense, democracy exists for the capitalists. Workers, as I mentioned previously, are suppressed time and again by the police and other arms of the state. Workers, therefore, live under a dictatorship in capitalist societies. What differentiates socialist societies from capitalist ones is that the class in control of the state is for the first time the majority class. Although the capitalist class will be suppressed, the masses of people will be in power. Dictatorships of the proletariat, then, are true examples of democracy in the sense in which it is commonly used.

Once the socialist state  completes these aforementioned functions, it has no material reason to exist and so withers away. The state “loses its political character,” as Marx put it, and becomes merely an administrative organ. This means that public functions similar to those performed by the state today, such as in the sphere of economic and cultural management, will be preserved under communism. However, their character will be radically different than under socialism. With time these institutions will  become organs of public self-management. The whole of society will use them to participate in the running of society. The purpose of the state is to educate the masses until they are knowledgeable enough to do this.

It would be incorrect, however, to assume that this process will take place suddenly. Unlike anarchists, Marxists do not want to abolish the state all at once. For them, the withering away of the state is a long, gradual process covering an entire epoch of history. Stalin argued that the State must in some sense become stronger at the height of class struggle, so that the bourgeoisie can be adequately suppressed. In this sense, the withering of the state is not a linear process. It will occur in fits and starts, depending on the material conditions of society and the strength of the deposed ruling class and the revolutionary proletariat.

This fact leads many to assume that the state cannot wither away. After all, power has a tendency to corrupt those who wield it. Those at the head of the state will be unlikely to give up the power their positions grant them. They will do whatever they can to hold onto it. Marxists do not necessarily disagree. It is true that power can corrupt. Just because the state has the potential to wither away does not mean that a new capitalist class cannot arise within it. Like the withering of the state itself, however, this process is uneven. Some individuals will be corrupted, while others will not. One cannot expect every head of state to ‘go bad’ all at once. There will always be some political actors who recognize that the state under socialism is meant to serve the people. The masses are the only force that can identify these members. They alone can tell when a head of state is turning down the capitalist road, serving themselves instead of the people.

The solution is the cultural revolution: call upon the masses to “bombard the headquarters,” pulling out and denouncing all corrupt party members and other people in authority, as well as criticizing all aspects of culture that these authorities use to try to legitimize their corrupt power. The  experience of the Chinese revolution has taught us that the state, while it can begin to wither away, will never completely end on its own. The people must help the process along. Cultural Revolution is a way of fostering that process by encouraging the masses to take initiative action and become emboldened to start running society themselves to an ever growing extent.

A state is still necessary during this time, and will be necessary until all the rest of the countries of the world have become socialist and no longer pose an external threat. Further, the internal economies and cultures of the world must be so transformed that “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need” is a realistic material possibility. Once that occurs, the state will disappear and the masses will run society directly. No other method but Cultural Revolution will allow society to reach this point. Until then,  the state must stay purely proletarian. Cultural Revolution is the process by which the masses purge the state of bourgeois elements and ensure that this is the case.

Many would assert that this is a pipe dream, because those in positions of power would never realistically call upon the masses to rebel against them. In fact, the argument goes, they will use all the power at their disposal to ensure that the masses remain docile and incapable of rebellion.

However, the Chinese Revolution disproves this theory. During the Cultural Revolution, the masses routinely used the Party’s own constitution to expose corruption. Their metric for what constituted a good Party member was how strictly they abided by the rules set forth in this constitution. It is important to remember that revolutions are carried out by the masses, and it is only after the revolutionary seizure of power that the masses tend to be superseded by capitalist-roaders. What this means is that the fundamental basis of the revolution, and indeed of socialism itself, will always be the masses. The historical memory of the revolutionary process is a weapon that the masses can wield against corruption in the Party.

Many Marxists, myself included, argue that the best substantiation of this conception of the state (as being a tool of class oppression that arises naturally from class antagonisms) can be found in the Anarchist movement as it has existed historically. It proves that the state arises naturally from class antagonisms.

As an example, let’s look at the Makhnovist movement of the 1920s. Despite an ideological opposition to the state, the revolutionaries set about creating institutions that accurately meet the definition of the state described above.

To begin, the Makhnovists engaged in political repression of counter-revolutionaries, such as the bourgeoisie from whom they expropriated land.  They regulated the press. Except for the Makhnovists, parties were banned from organizing for election to regional bodies. They banned authority with which they disagreed to “prevent those hostile to our political ideas from establishing themselves.” (A Makhnovist  bulletin stated: “…the cultivation, organization and erection by constraints on their part of any political authority hostile to the laboring people—which has nothing to do with the free expression of ideas—will in no ways be tolerated by the revolutionary insurgents.”) At various points, Bolsheviks and others were allowed to publish newspapers, but if they advocated specific policies with which the anarchists disagreed, they would be shut down. Whether one thinks this is valid is less important than recognizing that this behavior is “authoritarian” and “statist.” It clearly constitutes the suppression of a class (the capitalist owners) and the rule of another (the working class). This suppression and rule, as I said above, is the key component of a state in the Marxist tradition.

Further, they delegated broad authority to a “Regional Military-Revolutionary Council of Peasants, Workers and Insurgents.” This institution was the only one that was allowed to have a substantive number of weapons, and so had a functional monopoly on the use of violence. The Makhnovists used their military authority to suppress rival political ideas and organizations. Even the pro-anarchist historian Paul Avrich notes in his book Russian Anarchists, “the Military-Revolutionary Council, acting in conjunction with the Regional Congresses and the local soviets, in effect formed a loose-knit government in the territory surrounding Guliai-Pole.” (P. 214) It is telling that even anarchists admit that  the Makhnovists built a state.

A similar situation occurred in Anarchist Spain, which lasted from 1936-9.  On September 24, 1936 in a congress of the CNT’s Catalonia Regional Federation in which 500 delegates took part, the long debate in the anarcho-syndicalist movement between political and apolitical stance was for the first time clearly resolved in favor of the former. For the sake of antifascist war and syndicalist revolution, the congress decided to participate in the Generalitat cabinet. The Generalitat was the legislative power also known as the Parliament of Catalonia. The 1932 Statute of Autonomy granted Catalonia’s Parliament its own justice system with a High Court and its own police force. The Anarchists established a special body of armed men to carry out their will by force. What is this if not a state?

Indeed, the established liberal state volunteered to be dismantled. Leaders in the CNT-FAI were invited to a meeting with the head of the liberal government, who told them, “you have won and everything is in your power.” However, the anarchist’s nonsensical and idealist aversion to power caused them to refuse. The capitalist state was left intact with the hope that capitalism itself could be dismantled by ignoring the state and carrying out expropriation as if it did not exist. The fascists were able to take control of this state and use it to regroup, in remarkably similar fashion to the downfall of the Paris Commune in 1871. Juan Garcia Oliver, the Anarchist minister of justice, wrote that the anarchists would rather lose than establish the “anarchist dictatorship” of libertarian communism. It was precisely anarchist theory, with its idealist elevation of authority as the central evil, that lead to the ascendency of the fascists.

This is not simply a case of one historian or one anarchist having a subpar analysis. The leading Anarchist theorist Mikhail Bakunin said something similar about the Paris Commune of 1871. He wrote,  “They had to set up a revolutionary government and army against the government and army of Versailles. In order to fight the monarchist and clerical reaction, they were compelled to organize themselves in a Jacobin manner.” (quoted lin Louis Michael, Rebel Lives, p. 73). Bakunin justified the need for a state in a revolutionary situation, which should lend credence to the Marxist conception thereof.

History shows that all prominent anarchist movements have built states. They did not do this because they had consciously betrayed their principles. They created states because they were in a hostile situation, surrounded by enemies both internal and external. They could not help but establish states and, in so doing, affirm the correctness of Marx’s teachings on the subject. States are not only a requirement for revolution, they are an inevitability. The question is not whether we will take state power, but what that power will look like and how it will be used.

Throughout this essay, I have continually counterposed the Marxist view of the state with the Anarchist view. Here, I want to examine that more directly. Anarchists agree with Marxists that the state is, to quote Kropotkin, “the chief bulwark of capital.” However, the state has an added dimension for anarchists. It is the originator of authority and hierarchy in an abstract sense. The state is, for anarchists, viewed as an abstract and external power standing above society. Like liberals, anarchists view the state as being separate from the rest of society. Unlike liberals, who assume that the state exists to mediate conflict, anarchists assert that the state is the source of conflict. Ultimately, both of these conceptions are idealist and at odds with the facts.

Marxists see the state, as I have explained, as a political superstructure that rests upon an economic base of exploitation and class domination. Anarchist thought generally inverts this formulation. It does not start from the material basis of society, but from the forms to which the base has given expression. In other words, anarchists see the state not as an expression of class domination, but as the idea from which authority and domination flow in general. The Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta states, “the state is the impersonal, abstract expression of that state of affairs personified by government.” He goes on to say that the abolition of the state is “the abolition of political order based on authority.” The state as a political form is confused, in anarchist thought, with the idea of authority itself.

Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin takes this concept even further than Malatesta, describing the state as “the historical cause of all violence.” He further writes, “the source of…misfortunes lie[s]…in the very principle and fact of government.” This misses the fact that the state does not exist for the sake of domination alone. The state does not perpetuate violence and misfortunes for the sake of authority itself, but for the sake of economic exploitation. The anarchists recognize that the state has a strong relationship to class domination, but they regard this relationship as being inverted. It is on the basis of the state, anarchists argue, that the basis of class domination rests. Domination, therefore, precedes inequality. This is because, for Bakunin, ideas precede history. Throughout his work, the state is depicted as both the material apparatus that metes out actual harm, and as the concept of authority that obscures the concept of liberty.

Bakunin’s conception of social revolution is similarly idealist. Bakunin argues that liberty, obscured by the state, is a necessary precondition for socialist revolution. Social revolutionaries, therefore, should immediately remove both the abstract and concrete authority of the state. Then, left to their own devices, humans would, “make the spontaneous organization of labor.” Once everyone is convinced of the nebulous, transhistorical idea of liberty, they will carry out remaking the world on their own. The only thing that is necessary for social revolution, in the anarchist view, is provocation to revolt. Bakunin writes, “we are convinced that the masses carry in their instincts…all the elements of future social organization.” For Bakunin, humans are already prepared to act in their natural state of total freedom. The only thing stopping them is the state.

This seems to be in contradiction to Bakunin’s own views. The state is seen an all-encompassing force that abstracts liberty. Paradoxically, the state has no lasting effects on human behavior. Despite its authoritarianism and “blunting of the general will,” the state has not removed or mitigated the ability of humans to act spontaneously in ways that are conducive to freedom. There will be no need for a transition period in which, as Lenin put it, “workers become accustomed to self-government.” By confusing the state with authority itself, Bakunin actually underplays the ways in which the state negatively affects society. For Bakunin, the state matters and is trivial all at once.

The state and capitalism are both, in the anarchist formulation, unnatural attachments from outside, rather than products of definite human development. Since the state is both the expression of an idea and the idea itself, there can be no anarchist explanation as to how the state arose. Anarchists, intentionally or not, see the state as simply having dropped from the sky. This serves only to disarm genuine revolutionaries. If we do not understand where the state comes from, we cannot effectively combat it, much less reach a society in which it does not exist.

This anarchist definition of the state is as two things at once: the actual, physical apparatus, and the very concept of authority. It is both real, material things: courts, police, prisons, etc, and the idea of authority that prevents humans from acting in supposedly natural, libertarian ways.

This conception of the state as the originator of authority misses the point that the state is a specific set of institutions. What matters is not the fact that a state exists, but what kind of state it is. Is the department of labor made up of economists and academics or by labor unions? Despite the obvious class differences of these two formations, anarchists would hold that both are the same. Anarchists talk about the Soviet trade unions being “sucked into the state” as though the Soviet state could have existed without the trade unions. It is as though there is some platonic ideal of the state that can be uncovered if we strip away the specific institutions that make up the state. At the same time, however, anarchists regard the state as a specific set of historically-contingent institutions. The state is both an abstract idea and a material force, in the anarchist model.

The contradictory nature of the anarchist model  becomes very problematic when we look at how this theory of the state influenced anarchist praxis. Because of the supposed transhistorical nature of human liberty, the path from class society to classless society is one that is automatic, that can occur at any time. If ideas come before history, then we do not need to shape the world to change how we think, we just need to think differently. There is no need to learn anything new about how to create an entirely new society, because we already know how to do it. Bakunin argued along this line, stating that “it would be stupid” to teach the people, since “all we must do is incite them to revolt.”

There are two problems with this. The first is that, even if we know something, that does not mean that we are conscious of it. There are factors such as ideology that obscure even the most obvious truths. This is the issue with seeing the state as an abstract idea: it mitigates the effects that the state as an institution has on the material world, and thus cannot offer us a path to a stateless society. Anarchism, because of its idealism, is automatically limiting. This should be obvious since, as I described above, every self-described anarchist society has had a state.

The second problem is very much related to the first. It is that we would already be living in a classless society if this were the case. If the only thing stopping us from achieving communism is the idea of authority, we have we not already decided to change it? There are certainly enough people in the world who are dissatisfied with capitalism to make this possible, if anarchism holds true. The very fact that we do not live in a classless society proves that ideas are not enough to change reality. What we need is an organization that is capable of translating those ideas into the material world. What we need, in short, is a state.


Marxist Dialectical and Historical Materialism

On this blog, I have attempted to explain several core concepts of Marxist theory. The concept we’re looking at today is the philosophical core of Marxism, dialectical materialism.

At a very basic level, dialectical materialism (or diamat) is a way of understanding reality through the material world. As one might expect, it is the combination of dialectics and materialism. I will attempt to define and analyze each of these in turn.

Dialectics is a method of philosophical reasoning which aims to understand things as they exist concretely. It accounts for the movement and change of things, examining their contradictory sides in concert with one another.

There are three components of dialectics within Marxism. They are the law of the unity and conflict of opposites, the law of the passage of quantitative changes into qualitative changes, and the law of the negation of the negation.

The law of the unity and conflict of opposites, also called the law of the interpenetration of opposites, refers to the idea that there is no perfectly sharp division between opposite sides. There are borderline cases and contradictions between opposites. In physics, for example, changes in either the electrical field or the magnetic field will cause the other to change.

The next law is concerned with quality and quantity. A quality is a property that cannot be measured in numbers and does not come in degrees, such as being at war or unemployed. A quantity is a property that can be measured in numbers, such as hourly wage or rate of profit. Change of quantity usually goes through intermediate stages, but change of quality can happen without going through an intermediate stage. The general principle is that if a quantitative change occurs long enough, a qualitative change will occur. One example is the heating of water. The change in the temperature of water is quantitative, but the change from not-boiling to boiling is qualitative.

The last of these laws refers to Hegel’s idea that the thesis generates its negation in the antithesis. The synthesis is the resolution of the tension between the thesis and the antithesis. These laws have their roots in Ancient Greek philosophical thought, as well as ancient Chinese and sub-Saharan African philosophies. There is unity of dialectical thought across all philosophy, not just the west. It is worth noting that Hegel himself never used these three terms, they were simply used to describe his ideas later.

Dialecticians oppose the formal mode of thought which operates with a fixed definition of things according to their attributes. Let’s take the example of fish. The formal understanding of fish would be something like “a fish is an animal which lives in water and has no legs.” A more essential understanding, however, is dialectical in nature. Some animals living in water are not fish, and some fish have legs. To explain the nature of a fish, we must take the whole interconnected process of what makes a fish. That is, we must understand that a fish came from something and is evolving into something else. Only when we consider these two forms (and their contradictions) can we understand what a fish really is.

Dialecticians seek to go beyond the appearance of something and understand its  essence. Within formal thought, there is little if any difference between the form of a thing and the essence of a thing. A fish appears as something with no legs which lives in water, so that must be what a fish is. However, dialecticians study the existence of contradictions between form and content. A good example of this would be parliamentary democracy in capitalist societies. In form it is a system which allows the masses of people to determine the structure of society, but in content it is a way for the capitalist class to  monopolize this process. Democracy in form, dictatorship in content.

Dialecticians understand that there can be contradictions in the essence of things as well. Formal thought dictates that light must be either a wave or a particle, but the truth is that light can be either or both. Light acts dialectically.

In other words, dialecticians see the truth as the whole picture. Each understanding or aspect of this picture is one-sided and incomplete. Dialecticians seek to understand things by synthesizing the different aspects and looking at their contradictions.

Now let’s look at materialism. Thankfully, this is a much simpler concept than dialectics. It is  a mode of thought which stands in opposition to the notion that an idea can determine the world. For Marx and Engels, thoughts were not passive, independent reflections of the material world. Thoughts were the product of human labor, and contradictions within them had their roots in the contradictions of human society. This meant that dialectical materialism was not something that had been imposed from the outside. It could not be discovered merely by study or reason. It was a product of human labor changing the world; people changed and developed its form. It could only be understood by the struggle to overcome these contradictions, not merely in thought, but in practice. It sees the material world as primary. Our ideas are in large part determined by the way in which goods and services are coordinated within society. Being, matter, and nature are the base forces of society. Thinking, mind, and spirit are secondary to and derived from these. This concept serves to counteract idealism, which states that historical events are brought into existence when people act on their ideas. This is a flawed perspective because it does not explain how or why the idea came to exist in the first place. Through an analysis of productive forces, materialism does answer these questions.

Since dialectical materialism is concerned with practice, Marx and Engels were very interested in applying the philosophy to historical and political reality. The result of this process is known as historical materialism. Engels gave the best summary of this approach to history in his speech at Marx’s graveside. As he put it, “Marx discovered the law of human history. The simple fact, hitherto concealed by an overgrowth of ideology, that mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion and so on. That therefore the production of the immediate material means of subsistence, and consequently the degree of economic development attained by a given people or during a given epoch, form the foundation upon which the state institution, the legal conception, art, and even the ideas on religion of the people concerned, have been evolved.”

This is the basis of what Marx and Engels called the materialist conception of history, which later came to be called historical materialism. In order to survive, human beings must first meet their material needs. The way in which we go about meeting those needs profoundly shapes our society and the individuals in it. To take a contemporary example, the attitudes and beliefs of people who grow up in rural areas and engage in agricultural production are typically very different to those of the people who perform industrial labor in heavily populated urban areas.

In his speech, Engels calls the way production is organized and the level of economic development that a society has achieved the foundation on which other ideas and institutions rest. Elsewhere, he and Marx sometimes call it the base that supports a legal, political, and cultural superstructure. In using this metaphor of base and superstructure, Marx and Engels are not proposing that influence only goes in one direction. Legal, political, and even religion ideas can affect the way production is organized, and vise versa. These two things are constantly interacting with and shaping one another, in a dialectical relationship.

Over the long run, however, it is the productive base of a society that has the most profound effect on how that society develops. One reason why this is true is because human societies are and have been divided into classes. Those who are at the top of society will obviously use their considerable resources and influence to shape ideas and institutions in ways that benefit them. That is why Marx and Engels say in The German Ideology that “the ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class.” The power and wealth of the ruling class rests on their control of the economy. This is one important way in which the economic base and the material interests to which it gives rise determine the superstructure.

If the base in some way explains the superstructure, then we should expect fundamental changes in society as a whole to be due to changes in the base. Perhaps Marx’s most famous substantiation of this claim is contained in the preface to his 1859 book A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Here, he writes “in the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations which are independent of their will. Namely, relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of their relations of production constitute the economic structure of society, the real foundation on which arises a legal and political superstructure….It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.’

Marx uses a lot of technical terms in this passage, but the two most important ones are the forces of production (productive forces) and the relations of production. The forces of production are all the elements needed to engage in the labor process. In other words, the things humans use to act upon and change the natural world in any particular historical period. These things will obviously change depending on a variety of factors, but there are two components needed for any labor process. Human labor power and means of production.

Human labor power includes not just the efforts of individuals, but what Marx calls modes of cooperation. These are the ways in which individuals work together to produce something. The social relations of slavery entailed slaves working together with their own tools, whereas the modern factory sees a number of workers operating large machines, often in concert with one another. These are two fundamentally different modes of cooperation.

The labor process also requires means of production. Land, raw materials, and the technology created to use them. These are things like factories, farms, machinery, and offices. Essentially anything one would need to do work.

The labor process by itself, however, does not tell us what kind of society we have. As Marx put in it Capital Volume One, “the taste of porridge does not tell us who brewed the oats, and the production process we have presented does not reveal the conditions under which it takes place, whether it is happening under the slaveowners brutal lash or the anxious eye of the capitalist.”

This fact brings us to the relations of production. These have to do not with the inner workings of the labor process, but with who controls the labor process and its output. As we have already noted, human societies have been divided into antagonistic classes for the past several thousand years. The class structure of any given society might be quite complicated, but there are generally two central classes: those who produce for  not only for their own immediate needs but also produce a surplus, and those who control this surplus. In slave societies, slaves produced the surplus, which was then controlled by the slave owners. In feudal societies, peasants produced the surplus, which was controlled by lords. In capitalist societies, workers create surplus value, which is then controlled by capitalists.

It is these relations of production that define society. In the earliest human societies, there was little surplus produced. When there was a surplus, it was owned in common. These were primitive communist societies with no class differentiations. Since then, we have seen a variety of class societies emerge, including slave, feudal, and capitalist societies. Each one is distinguished by the specific way in which the rulers extract a surplus from the direct producers. The sum of all of a society’s relations of production constitutes what Marx calls its economic structure, or base. It is on this that the legal, political, and cultural superstructure rest.

There are two more things to say about the relations of production. First, in class societies, relations of production involve not just the specific relations of the ruling class to the producing class, but also the relationship of the members of the ruling class to each other. Members of the ruling class in one country want bigger market shares than members of the ruling class in another country, so their relationships are often antagonistic. However, different ruling classes may unite to combat a particular crisis or moment of intense class struggle. Fourteen capitalist nations were able to set aside their differences to invade the USSR and attempt to crush socialism, for example.

Second, there is an important relationship between the level of development of the forces of production and the specific relations of production that exist within a society. Marx says that the relations of production correspond to, or are appropriate to, specific stages in the development of the forces of production. What this means at a minimum is that not every set of relations of production is compatible with a given level of development in the forces of production. Modern industrial production is not compatible with chattel slavery, except at the margins. This is because it requires a workforce with the high level of technical knowledge necessary to operate complex machinery. This would be impossible in a chattel slave society. There, slaves must be kept ignorant so that they do not revolt against their masters. This is why it was illegal for slaves to learn to read in the American South prior to the civil war. This is also because a modern industrial workforce must be highly flexible, able to be shifted from one sector to another relatively quickly, or laid off when the economy slows down. This would not be possible if the ruling class owned the producers, because they could not be gotten rid of so easily.

Similarly, Marx argues that communism is impossible in a society in which the development of the forces of production is not high enough to produce relative abundance. Without a high level of abundance, scarcity cannot be abolished. The result would be, as Marx and Engels put it it in The German Ideology, that “want is merely made general, and with destitution, the struggle for necessities and all the old filthy business would necessarily be reproduced.” This is one reason why the transition period of socialism is necessary. It is in this period that the abundance necessary for communism is reached.

The forces of production, therefore, put limits on what relations of production are possible. Yet this is not all. As we will see, the forces of production can significantly affect the ways in which the forces of production develop. These, too, interact with and alter one another dialectically.

At any given point, the combination of the forces of production and the relations of production in a society make up what Marx called the mode of production in that society.

What is the point of all this terminology? The distinctions Marx draws are crucial for understanding the process of historical change. That is, how one economic structure, one network of social relations governing material production shift to a different structure. Put another way, how can a dominant class, be it feudal lords or modern capitalists, ever be removed from power given the vast amount of resources at its disposal? The ruling class not only has society’s ruling ideas in its favor, it also has control of the state and the armed men that come along with that.

Marx addresses this question of basic change in the above-mentioned 1859 preface. He writes “at a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production. From forms of development of the productive forces, these relations turn into their fetters. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.”

At a certain point, the development of the forces of production brings them into conflict with the existing relations of production. Relations that had previously been conducive to the development of the forces now hold them back. This results in a social crisis that weakens the power of the ruling class, and eventually results in its overthrow or transformation. This is how we went from slave society to capitalist society: the contradictions between the forces of production and the relations of production necessitated that this change take place.

According to this theory of historical materialism, the primitive communism of tribal societies represented the original thesis of human development. This in turn generated the antithesis of private ownership and class society (which came about through the development of productive forces). The synthesis of these ideas will be advanced communism, in which the workers own the means of production in an advanced industrial society. This can only emerge after various stages of development, such as slavery, feudalism, capitalism, and socialism.

Many people have interpreted this theory as being deterministic. They argue that, because developments in the forces of production are inevitable, communism must also be inevitable. At some point, the forces of production will develop to such a degree that socialism, and eventually communism, will come about naturally. There is no need, argue the determinists, to fight for socialism or communism, because history dictates that they will happen of their own accord.

But history is not an automatic process. Marx was well aware that there is no inevitability to human history. As he points out in the beginning of The Communist Manifesto, class struggle can culminate either in “a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.” Marx argued that the end of capitalism was inevitable, due to the development of the productive forces. But the end of capitalism is not the same as the beginning of socialism. If we do not actively struggle for socialism, capitalism will result in the destruction of the planet. It is, as Rosa Luxembourg put it, a question of “socialism or barbarism.”

Marx continually emphasized the role of class struggle in history. His most often-quoted line is again in The Communist Manifesto, in which he wrote “the history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles.” He did not believe that history could be reduced to impersonal economic forces. Rather it was the result of humanity acting, consciously or not, in the class interests dictated by its relationship to the means of production. In 1845, he wrote, “History does nothing. It possesses no immense wealth, wages no battles. It is man, real living man, who does all that, who possesses and fights. History is not, as it were, a person apart, using man as a means to achieve its own aims. History is nothing but the activities of man pursuing those aims.” Marx never denies the importance of human agency.

It follows from this that neither socialism nor communism are inevitable. The end of capitalism is likely inevitable due to the system’s need to progress and develop its forces of production. However, advanced communism will not come about in its own. The working class must first break free from the institutions of repression that capitalist society has created in order to perpetuate itself. This necessitates a violent revolution, ending in the establishment of socialism and the dictatorship of the proletariat.  This is a sudden qualitative change, coming about after a quantitative change in the number of class-conscious proletarians. Notice that this is in keeping with the second law of dialectics, the passage of quantitative change into qualitative change.

Dialectal Materialism has further implications for revolutionaries, beyond that which I have just mentioned. To explain what i mean by this, I would like to introduce a metaphor. Capitalism is seen as being similar to gravity, in the sense that it envelopes our world completely. It does this to such a degree that it is easy for us to forget about it entirely. One can go through an entire day without thinking about how gravity or capitalism operate, but both still hold sway over one’s life.

In fact, the two are seen as so important that attempts to distance oneself from them can result in serious injuries or death. No one would look at a staircase and think they could simply avoid the reality of descending that staircase. If one did believe this, they would in all likelihood break their neck.

By the same token, workers in capitalist societies do not believe that they can simply take home with them that which they produced. To do this would be to risk the threat of job loss or even incarceration.

A consequence of this metaphor, which is propagated nearly every day in all spheres of life, is that capitalism is seen as immutable and eternal. The power of capitalism to structure the social world, like gravity’s pull on everything around us, is so all-encompassing that many people never even become aware of it as a force with its own laws. Other than physicists, few could state Newton’s law of universal gravitation. Other than economists, few could articulate capitalism’s law of surplus value extraction. Capitalism, like gravity, is treated by the masses as simply something that happens, rather than something that can be escaped from or transcended.

Capitalism, of course, is unlike gravity in the sense that it can be transcended. Capitalism is a historically specific social structure, the product of thousands of years of prior human civilizations. It is a product of human activity that emerged out of thousands of years of historical development. Just like the fish, it came after something (feudalism) and comes before something else. With any luck, this will be Socialism.

The Dialectical method is a crucial tool, not only for understanding history, but for revealing the passing and transitory nature of a social system that, most of the time, appears to be a fact: as real and unmovable as the floor at the bottom of the staircase. As I said above, dialects takes as its starting point that the world is in a constant state of change, of motion. It follows from this that capitalism is a product of human activity that arises out of the material world.

If capitalism began as a result of human activity, then it stands to reason that it can be ended by human activity as well. Dialectal Materialism serves to make the working class conscious of its own power and, in so doing, push them towards socialism.
We can see from this that dialectical materialism has direct implications in revolutionary struggle. Dialectical materialism gives us new insight into politics, economics, all the major spheres of life. We can begin to understand, almost literally, what makes the world tick. Only by grasping this philosophy can the proletariat achieve its dream of a society that is free of exploitation.