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Patrick Cannon on anarchy and state.
One way Marx distinguished his type of communism from all the other socialist theories and party platforms around during his lifetime was by advocating a specific and prominent role for the state. He imagined government playing a key part in the transformation of society from capitalism to socialism, and then lastly into pure communism, which was to be a stateless, classless society. Here I seek to explain a criticism of Marx’s state theory that was best made by the anarchist thinker Mikhail Bakunin (1814-1876).
In their 1848 booklet The Manifesto of the Communist Party Marx and Engels sketched the initial consolidation of a proletarian government which would take back wealth and land for the public, institute severely progressive taxation, centralize credit by means of a national bank, establish a plan for nationwide economic development, integrate industrial manufacturing and agriculture, provide free education to all children, and carry out a number of other programs. This consolidation of power would create a powerful centralized government wielded by and for the benefit of the working class, supplanting the current bourgeois, capitalist government. Later, in the Critique of the Gotha Program (1877), Marx writes that this worker’s state would oversee the transmutation of society from capitalism into communism: “Between capitalist and communist society lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of one into the other. There corresponds to this also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.” The phrasing here is crucial, as ‘dictatorship’ connotes authoritarian rule. As Marx wrote in the Manifesto, political power is but the oppression of one group by another. In this case, then, this new dictatorship of the proletariat would oppress the bourgeois – thus reversing the current situation of bourgeois oppression of the proletariat. It should be noted that at the end of this ‘revolutionary transformation’ Marx saw the state as becoming superfluous, having served its purpose. Indeed, Engels clarifies in his book Anti-Dühring (1878) that “The state is not ‘abolished,’ [rather] it withers away.” Since true communism has no political or economic classes oppressing each other, there would be no need for a governmental apparatus or political power structures at all.
Marx’s contemporaries were often skeptical or downright critical of the means by which he proposed to reach this utopian end. Mikhail Bakunin, a one-time colleague of Marx, panned both Marx and his political enterprise as authoritarian. Worse yet, Bakunin, a staunch libertarian, thought of the whole idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat as counterproductive and insidious. He was all too prescient in this diagnosis, by which he seemingly prophesied the totalitarianism of the Soviet Union under Lenin and Stalin. In a letter written in 1866 he predicted the ‘Red Bureaucracy’ would be “the vilest and most dangerous lie of our century… Take the most radical of revolutionaries and place him on the throne of all the Russias or give him dictatorial powers… and before the year is out he will be worse than the Czar himself.” Anarchists such as Bakunin contended that the state ought to be done away with first, and free association and spontaneous economic activity would thereafter organize a classless society. But Engels was sharply critical of this idea, writing in an 1883 letter that “The anarchists put the thing upside down. They declare that the proletarian revolution must begin by doing away with the political organization of the state… But to destroy it at such a moment would be to destroy the only organism by means of which the victorious proletariat can assert its newly-conquered power” – thus ruining any chance for a successful revolution against the bourgeoisie.
Later, Marxist theorists such as Lenin arguably over-emphasized Marx’s insistence on dictatorial control. In Russia, Lenin created a single-party regime led by ‘professional revolutionaries’ – an elite clique of educated individuals committed to the proletarian cause. It is debatable whether Lenin’s power grab could be fully justified by orthodox Marxist thought, which does, nonetheless, provide some degree of support for it. During an 1872 socialist conference in The Hague, philosophical tensions between Marx and his followers and Bakunin and his anarchist contingent erupted. Bakunin and the other anarchists, finding themselves in the minority, were summarily expelled, and declared the conference null and void. This move by Marx was perceived as Machiavellian, and marked the division between Marxism and anarchism which exists to this day. The next summer, Bakunin wrote in his book Statism and Anarchy that Marxism proclaimed itself as democratic but “This is a lie, behind which lurks the despotism of the ruling minority, a lie all the more dangerous in that it appears to express the so-called will of the people.” Shortly after his expulsion Bakunin also wrote that this, as he saw it, elitist, authoritarian tendency in Marxism contradicted its goal of worker emancipation. Moreover, he posits that the “flower of the proletariat… the uncultivated, the disinherited, the miserable, and the illiterates, whom Engels and Marx would subject to their paternal rule by a strong government… [this] alone is powerful enough today to inaugurate and bring to triumph the Social Revolution.”
Marxism and anarchism have in mind the identical end goal of a stateless society, yet differ sharply on how to implement it. Marx and Engels thought that the most effective strategy would be the consolidation of a dictatorship of the proletariat. Bakunin and other anarchists responded that the Marxists were just elitists masquerading as proletarian revolutionaries. Marx’s vision for the state, in the opinion of anarchists like Bakunin, would simply substitute one ruling class (the bourgeoisie) for another (the proletariat), thereby defeating the purpose of the revolution entirely. Instead, and largely in response to their criticism of the Marxian dictatorship of the proletariat, anarchism saw the best strategy as the simultaneous withering away of both government and capitalism.
© Patrick Cannon 2019
Patrick Cannon studied philosophy at Oxford and lives in Santa Barbara, where he works in regulatory compliance and ethics.