The libertarian/authoritarian dichotomy is less than useful for communist politics, writes Blake Nemo.
Getting interested in Leftist politics at a young age, I formed an interest in Marxism. Just as strongly as I wanted to proclaim the need for a strong worker’s movement, I felt a need to distance myself from the unsavory historical figures attached to mainstream Marxism. As well, I wanted to highlight the need for the defense of individual rights. With the Communist tradition misleadingly characterized by repressive regimes such as the Eastern Bloc or even Democratic Kampuchea (late – 1970s Cambodia), I declared myself a Libertarian Marxist. However, by reading from Marxists outside the tradition of Lenin’s “successors” I realized the faulty reasoning behind my specification as a libertarian along with my Marxist views (also, I learned it kinda isn’t a real thing). This distinction, the use of the terms libertarian and authoritarian, is ultimately improper, and I would argue is not useful in the context of revolutionary politics.
Those of the left that also describe themselves as libertarian socialists create the dichotomy that one either supports the destruction of the Capitalist mode of production and its social relations through a type of worker self-emancipation. With the other being the authoritarian position, characterized as a conspiratorial takeover of state authority by a party dictating the fashion in which class is dissolved in a society, but ultimately acting as a new class – a dictatorship over the proletariat rather than a dictatorship of the proletariat. I find this way of dividing the currents of Communism problematic. Though there is certainly a distinction in the viewpoints that advocate for Communism through revolution, I would put forward that the more accurate divide is between those who seek genuine eradication of class in society and those who would like to imitate the past regimes that were often cadre, nationalist takeovers of the state or merely manage capitalist relations in a different way, essentially the left-wing of capital.
This difference is much clearer in my view, as it is apparent that most who identify as Marxist-Leninist and its variants conceptualize revolution as a takeover of the state and the installation of a party regime that upholds the nation-state and substitutes a bureaucracy of professional revolutionaries for the rule of the actual proletariat. As Communists who understand that the proletariat is where the revolutionary potential is held, such ideas practically seem like a divorce from any notion of Socialism. This divergence of viewpoints is much greater and more important than the divide between those who would use centralized power and those who wouldn’t.
Another supposed distinction to Libertarian Socialist thought that is ultimately not exclusive, is the preservation of individual freedom. The existing forms of “socialist republics” have impeded on the civil liberties, often in reactionary ways, simply because they were in actuality capitalist nation-states. In a genuine revolutionary situation, even with a party, there would be no interest in the suppression of certain lifestyles unless they are tightly intertwined with Bourgeois society, in which they would ultimately be undermined by the dissolution of class. The classic view of states based on “Marxist beliefs” controlling the many facets of people’s lives was not inherently due to the presence of authority, but often the consolidation of power by an opportunistic party. In fact, in the early rule of the Bolsheviks traditional values were largely expelled from the rule of law, legalizing homosexuality and abortion. Not to say there were no authoritarian elements to pre-Stalin USSR, but the tighter grip on personal freedom came along with the active seeking of more Russian influence and the abandonment of international unity by class.
Marx himself critiqued authoritarian socialists of his time like Blanqui. He made himself clear in stating this: “We are not among those communists who are out to destroy personal liberty, who wish to turn the world into one huge barrack or into a gigantic workhouse. There certainly are some communists who, with an easy conscience, refuse to countenance personal liberty and would like to shuffle it out of the world because they consider that it is a hindrance to complete harmony. But we have no desire to exchange freedom for equality. We are convinced that in no social order will freedom be assured as in a society based upon communal ownership.” — Marx, Engels, et al., Communist Journal, 1847. Marx himself was a champion of individual freedom and had this as his ultimate goal his entire life.
This divide has existed since the Soviet Union became an obvious force of counter-revolution. Before the question was revolution or reform, but no one ever thought a reformist could play a revolutionary so well. For nearly the rest of the century Marxist-Leninist(Stalinist) parties quelled uprisings and worker’s strikes. These parties would convince workers to go back to work in exchange for good favor for their parties in the government and small reversible benefits for the workers, to use the PCF in May 68 uprising in France as an example. Today, the tradition continues with mediocre parties like CPUSA and Syriza, supporting Democrats and making alliances with anti-immigration organizations, respectively. Both act to appease capitalism, regardless of one being in power and the other not. They’ve simply turned in their portraits of Stalin for Obama bumper stickers.
The next major point that I believe makes the libertarian/authoritarian dichotomy a problematic one is the fact that revolution is inherently repressive and undemocratic against the ruling class and their supporters. To change the mode of production is a monumental task, one that, if successful, will directly change the nature of human experience as we know it. As proponents of revolution, we will not take into consideration the consent of those who keep the current social order and have a vested interest in Capitalism. To quote Engels, “A revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing there is” (On Authority, 1872).
Certainly, the programmatic and centralized suppression of bourgeois class interest could be called authoritarian, but realistically the entire movement would organically choose when to be lenient and when to act more aggressively. Even within examples of so-called Libertarian Socialism, workers militias acted as a major force of authority in their areas of operation. Instances of suppression against the church existed by Spanish Anarchist brigades and they were largely justified in doing so. The church, during the Spanish Civil War helped propagate for the Nationalists and help garner support for right-wing causes, consequently the revolutionary situation called for their suppression. In cases such as this worker self-defense was intense and vigorous and often meant taking the offensive against reactionaries. Yet in these scenarios these forces acted as the institutional authority and the real question is whether they acted as effective and legitimate forces of the proletariat. As advocates for revolution we should defend them for their merit as legitimate advancements in the way towards Communism, if they are so.
All in all, I believe Libertarian Socialism in the realm of revolutionary politics represents a need to separate one’s views from a tradition that had turned it’s back on proletarian revolution close to a century ago. However noble it is to separate ourselves from these regimes, the terminology of Libertarian implies that Communism on its own does not entail an end to the social order that controls our lives. Communists who want the empowerment of the proletariat to overthrow this existing social order should not have to make a distinction, it is the opportunist and LARPer left who should give up the label of Communist and Socialist. Nothing will maximize the possible liberties in life more than Full
Automated Luxury Yacht Communism.
Originally posted: June 28, 2015 at Communist League of Tampa