First published in 1995 in France: Section One, “The Historical Balance Sheet” includes chapters on: communist movements throughout history; Marx and Engels and communism; “Real” vs. “Formal” domination of capital and the importance of this distinction for understanding the failure of the old workers movements (capitalism was not “obsolete” prior to 1945). Section Two, “Perspectives”, contains an extensive discussion of: the economic roots of capitalism’s current crisis (the “final stage of its cycle”); the communist revolution; and socialism.
Tomorrow, the Revolution
General Theory: The Socialist Revolution as Political Act
The goal of socialism is not political, but social. Its purpose is not, like the bourgeoisie, to reform the State; the bourgeoisie wants to reform the State in order to further entrench and perpetuate its class rule over society. Socialism’s goal is the suppression of classes and therefore ultimately the disappearance of the State that is, in turn, an institution for the rule of one class over another. As a result, socialism does not cultivate any illusions about politics. The State is not the arena for human emancipation (as some petit bourgeois democrats imagine, who dream of an ideal form of the State) but of oppression—whether open or disguised is of no importance. On the other hand, however, socialism understands that in order to achieve its goal, it has to confront the ruling class and its State apparatus. Which means that it has to carry out a political struggle to overthrow the bourgeois State and subjugate the bourgeois class for as long a time as is necessary to complete the social transformation and thus to make all classes disappear, which will render the State completely useless. This is what distinguishes socialism from anarchism, since the latter, for its part, makes an abstraction of the political or else considerably underestimates its scope, and falls into an illusion of the social: it either imagines that the workers need only take possession of their workplaces in order to make the State collapse and disappear; or else it maintains that the social revolution could be victorious on the sole condition of smashing the existing State with an insurrection, thus limiting the political act to “one big night”.
For socialism, the class that must carry out the revolution is the proletariat; not because it is a chosen or providential class, but because, placed in particular economic conditions, it will be compelled to do so. By doing so, the proletariat organizes as an autonomous class, that is, as a political party.1 In so far as this party does not appear separately and distinctly, the proletariat, as a revolutionary class, does not exist. But what does “party” mean in this context? This term is generally understood to mean a grouping of individuals who, having accepted a political program, attempt to champion certain interests within society. This is the sense in which representative-style bourgeois parties operate in the name of the social groups upon which they are based.
The proletarian party, in its profoundly Marxist sense, is not a so-called active minority, nor is it a more or less advanced fraction of the proletariat, and still less is it a sect; it is the real movement of the proletariat which, in its opposition to the bourgeoisie, strives to satisfy specific interests and organizes for that purpose. This movement can assume various organizational forms (trade unions, associations, councils, cooperatives); the essential point is that all of them, through their goals and objectives, stand in open and distinct opposition to the bourgeoisie; that is when the proletarian party appears. This is how the term was understood in the First International, which gathered together everything the proletariat had with regard to will, energy, and organizational force, for the furtherance of one supreme goal: the abolition of classes, that is, socialism.
The party understood in this sense obviates all speculation: to ponder whether or not the party is necessary makes no sense, since it is the spontaneous product of the class struggle, once the latter has reached a certain boiling point. It is “springing up naturally out of the soil of modern society”, Marx wrote to Freiligrath, overcoming all its vicissitudes: “This organization of the proletarians into a class, and consequently into a political party, is constantly being upset again and again by the competition between the workers themselves. But it ever rises up again, stronger, firmer, mightier.”2 It is true that Marx, in his letter to Freiligrath, while speaking of the party understood “in this wholly ephemeral sense”, also evoked “the party in the broad historical sense” that, for its part, endures regardless of the vicissitudes of the class struggle. But this latter “party” does not refer to a formal organization, but only to a communist fraction that preserves the theoretical thread of the general historical ends of socialism, and can be represented by a handful of individuals: thus, Marx and Engels called themselves, in the wake of 1848, the “party”, as understood in this latter sense. Such a communist fraction is also evoked in the Manifesto. There the party is not defined as “a separate party opposed to the other working-class parties”, since its goal is the same: “formation of the proletariat into a class, overthrow of the bourgeois supremacy, conquest of political power by the proletariat”, but as its “most advanced and resolute section”, the one that “pushes forward all others” and that “theoretically” has the advantage over the rest of the proletariat by “clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement”. It is, then, a vanguard of the proletarian party. This is how the Central Council, inspired by Marx, understood its role within the First International. Its role was not to replace the latter but to give it a clear direction, constantly reminding it of the goal to be attained, while also opposing any deviations that may arise.
The other great task of socialism is the conquest of political power. This is the condition sine qua non of socialism: in order for it to become a reality, it is necessary for the proletariat to assume “the position of ruling class”3 and then to use its “political supremacy” for the purpose of, by way of a whole series of enactments, “entirely revolutionising the mode of production”, that is, the capitalist mode of production and to ensure that, in place of bourgeois property, all production will be concentrated “in the hands of a vast association of the whole nation”. From then on public power will lose “its political character”: “Political power, properly so called, is merely the organized power of one class for the oppressing another. If the proletariat, during its contest with the bourgeoisie is compelled, by the force of circumstance, to organise itself as a class, if, by means of a revolution, it makes itself the ruling class, and, as such, sweeps away by force the old conditions of production, then it will, along with these conditions, have swept away the conditions for the existence of class antagonisms and of classes generally, and will thereby have abolished its own supremacy as a class. In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”
In The Civil War in France, Marx makes an important contribution based on the experience of the Commune: “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes”; it must destroy the old State apparatus (“its ubiquitous organs of standing army, police, bureaucracy, clergy, and judicature – organs wrought after the plan of a systematic and hierarchic division of labor”) and replace it with a State destined to disappear. Marx means to say that the modern State (which he had defined in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte as a “monstrous excrescence within bourgeois society”), once the proletariat takes power, will be immediately reduced to a lower status, its principle sources of income will be considerably curtailed (thus, those public functions that will still be carried out will be paid according to the standard of the “average wages of the workers”). In fact, this “cheap government” corresponds to a “semi-State”: the latter begins to dissolve as soon as its principle functions (police, courts, government), instead of being exercised by specialized bodies separate from the people, become the concern of the broad masses who, through a vast network of assemblies, elect delegates who are “mandated and revocable at any time”. This is what Marx called giving the State “a revolutionary and transitional form”. During this transitional stage, the State is still necessary because the resistance of the bourgeoisie must be overcome, the bourgeoisie must be stripped of its economic powers and its various privileges and it must be prevented from taking power again. This is the State of the dictatorship of the proletariat, which is a dictatorship with regard to the exploiters, the rich, the owning classes, the privileged and, at the same time, a democracy for the workers, the latter having “[won] the battle of democracy”,4 who were previously kept separate from public affairs (except on election day, which takes place once every four or five years), and then taking direct control over the legislative, judicial and executive powers.
Now that we have briefly summarized these political tasks, it remains to be seen whether they still have any validity; and if so, to examine how they can be applied in the future. Such diligence is all the more necessary now that political Marxism is in a state of crisis. By “political Marxism” we do not refer to the betrayed and falsified Marxism that was transmitted by the social democrats, the Stalinists and their various fellow travelers. That “Marxism” is dead. By “Marxism in crisis” we mean revolutionary Marxism, the Marxism that, for many years, has had neither voice nor vote, and which has taken refuge in tiny groups without any real influence which are known under various names: Trotskyists, Luxemburgists, Bordiguists, councilists. This Marxism is descended from the period of the Russian revolution and the early days of the Third International. That era was its “golden age”. From it a whole array of political and tactical experiences was passed down, and some imagined that they had found the philosopher’s stone, while having attempted to have drawn up a correct balance sheet—as various as the diverse sects—of the whole period that extends from the rise of Stalinism to the second world war. Today this current is stagnant, or else is tending to fall apart. The essential reason for this is the fact that many of its analyses have turned out to be mistaken and many of its political concepts no longer fit into present-day reality, that is, the reality of capitalism in the final stage of its cycle.
“The social revolution of the nineteenth century cannot take its poetry from the past but only from the future”, Marx wrote in 1850 in The Eighteenth Brumaire. The same is true of the coming century. The coming revolution cannot “begin with itself before it has stripped away all superstition about the past”. The social revolution of the 19th century had to free itself of the French Revolution of 1789-1794: of its language, its slogans, its customs, its names, which, in 1848, people like Caussidière, Louis Blanc and their supporters only had to imitate like parrots while playing at Montagnards in a way that could only be ridiculous, taking into account the historical period in which they played their part.
The social revolution that still has to be carried out must, for its part, free itself of the Russian revolution of 1917, of its heroes, the Lenins and the Trotskys, as well as of many of its concepts. Even today, some people persist in wanting to reproduce them, prisoners of a past that they fetishize and mystify, ready to once again perform the old drama that, from now on, can only be a burlesque comedy on the historical stage. In fact, this comedy was already enacted if one recalls May 1968 when various “leftist” groupuscules mobilized, red flags unfurled, to play the part of the Bolsheviks of 1917 while the anarchists, for their part, with black flags flying, thought they were in the Paris of 1871 or else in the Barcelona of 1936.
The End of the Party?
In The Third Day of Communism,5 Emmanuel Terray writes that from now on “the era of the ‘Party’ is over”. He furthermore maintains that this is true not only for the Party as defined by Lenin, but also for the Party as defined by Rosa Luxemburg. Even though the latter parted ways with Lenin by rejecting the reduction of the Party to a small minority organized as a vanguard, whose function is to lead the proletariat as one leads a military unit, both share the idea that the Party is “the permanent instrument for the understanding and coordination of workers struggles”. According to Rosa Luxemburg, “[t]he only role for the supposed ‘leaders’ of social democracy consists in instructing the masses regarding their historical mission”.6 Terray rejects this view as well. Why?
“Because there is no science of society or of history”, he responds; consequently, there can be no allegedly enlightened vanguard to guide the masses. As a result, since the Party no longer has any reason to exist, how can it lead the revolution? “Every person,” he writes, “wherever they live and work, can prepare for the birth of a different future. The confrontation of experience and the coordination of struggles can be secured by a network of multiform associations,” but he hastens to add, such an organization must be “quite decentralized and diversified (. . .) so that it will never succumb to the temptation to become a Party”.
In other words, everything will turn out for the best ... without knowing where we are going, we will nonetheless advance, but above all no one is going to tell us where we have to go, for no one knows! In fact, it is not hard to see what lies behind Terray’s “rejection of the Party”: indeterminism, that is, the absence of certainties regarding the future, and any attempt to delineate them is considered to be vain, derisory and pretentious; there is neither a science of history nor a science of society—Marxism is not a science of the future: it must restrict its efforts to analyzing what exists, without drawing any conclusions regarding the future. This is a perfect illustration of the characteristic trait of our time that we have already discussed: its inability to construct a clear and secure revolutionary perspective. As a result, the final crisis of capital’s cycle will have to be even more terrible for the dialectic of history to enter into people’s heads! But let us examine the idea of the Party rejected by Terray.
Without succumbing to the temptation to enter into a polemic with Terray, it can be said that he obviously has very little understanding of the idea of the Party. He has seen it essentially through the deformed prism of “Leninism”, which was in his case also further revised and augmented by his Maoist interpretation, resulting from his previous engagement with that tendency. It is true that, in his twilight years, he discovered Rosa Luxemburg, and especially Otto Rühle, whom he perceived—and rightly so—“despite his somewhat workerist language”—as the perfect theoretician of the “rejection of the Party”. What did the latter propose? Nothing less than another version of anarchosyndicalism anointed for the occasion as “factory organization”. In other words, it is anarchism, or at least one of its variants, which ultimately constitutes the solution for Terray. Anarchism, because it is deemed that no leadership and no Party is imposed, each person acting in accordance with his “free initiative” or “federating” with others if this is to his or her taste. So Terray finally arrives at anarchism via Rühle, and we see what the result of this leads to, at least on this plane.
It is perfectly true that according to the Marxist conception the proletarian party is led theoretically by a vanguard that has “the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement”.7 It has this advantage because revolutionary enthusiasm is not enough: science, perspicacity, good tactics and a broad view of things are also necessary. Anarchists and libertarians of every stripe will say that the masses possess all these qualities and that in order to verify this all that is necessary is to allow them to take the initiative, without any central leadership “that claims to direct its movement”. This claim sets forth the quite demagogic or else totally unreflective pretense that the masses have nothing to do with leadership. Such an assertion is purely gratuitous. The whole history of class struggle demonstrates that every time the masses have launched a revolt, they have provided themselves with leadership, even if only in the heat of the struggle. And if they have suffered from something it was not from too much leadership but from too little, as was the case during the Commune, when leadership was all too often absent. The anarchists, putting their faith only in the spontaneity of the masses—which no non-Leninist or non-Trotskyist Marxist would deny—have thus fashioned for themselves at little cost a reputation for being pure and hard-core revolutionaries, with hands that are always clean, never ceasing to repeat that “the emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class itself” (the motto of the First International found in its statutes, which were written, by the way, by Marx himself!). What, in fact, happened in practice, when they had to show what they were capable of doing? When, for once, in Spain, they actually found themselves presented with the opportunity to put their principles into effect, having inspired a syndicalist movement with 1.5 million members, they could do nothing but provide it with a more or less concealed orientation (the F.A.I. within the C.N.T.), a program (the Saragossa Program, published immediately prior to the civil war) and leaders (some of whom joined the bourgeois republican government in 1936-1937, but that is another story....), while within the C.N.T. they constantly maintained a zealous vigil to defend the principles of “libertarian communism” and excluded all more or less “Marxist” elements from the confederation. In other words, they did exactly the opposite of what libertarian theory proclaimed. The reason for this is simple: their theory was actually inapplicable; confronted by reality, it was revealed to be a mere intellectual opinion, pure speculation, concocted by a handful of “anti-authoritarian” philosophers who fabricated within their heads an ideal functioning system, but one that was quite incapable of proving its validity. In short, when confronted by reality, the anarchists were incapable of doing anything but reproducing a “party”—albeit an anarchist one—that is, precisely what they condemned the Marxists for doing! So the “libertarians” discovered they were “authoritarian” anarchists. All of this is logical. From the moment when a collective undertaking is formed and set in motion, it must necessarily give itself a leadership capable of expressing its aspirations as clearly as possible. This is not a matter of a leadership that is self-proclaimed in advance, but of one that is created in the course of the struggle and demonstrates to the entire collective the correctness of its views, capable of successfully putting them to the test in the heat of the struggle. It is true that Marx, as we have seen, speaks of the “historic party”, but he is quite clear that the latter, as a fraction that is the repository of communist principles, must be acknowledged as such by the masses in action, in order to be capable of assuming the role of their leadership. In fact, since communism can only be the fruit of conscious will, such a leadership, far from constituting an obstacle to the final self-government that will bring about the communist society that is fully conscious of itself, appears as a transitional means that allows the realization of this goal. One may object that the leaderships of proletarian parties seldom measured up to such a task. But this is not basically their fault, as if they were only there in order to ruin everything (it is this analysis—somewhat abbreviated—that is made by all the “anti-authoritarians”, all those who are “anti-party”). This is because, having arisen in a historical situation in which world capitalism was still predominant, these leaderships were incapable, objectively speaking, of fulfilling the demands of their principles. For we must not delude ourselves about the enemy: it was world capitalism that was really responsible for their failures, that impelled them to commit their errors and finally led them to betrayal and degeneration, as happened in Russia. The only thing that can be added to this is that from now on this failure will not recur: if one situates oneself in the historical perspective of the final stage of capitalism, the revolutionary dynamic will be of such a nature that the leadership will be able to limit its role to indicating the general road to follow, while the workers will directly take matters into their own hands.
Terray claims that we have seen “the end of the era of the party”. In order to establish just how valid such an assertion is, we shall examine, if only briefly, what this “era” amounted to in the past.
Historically, Babouvism and Blanquism were the first attempts to create a party. These currents conceived of the party as a small, enlightened minority that had to organize itself outside the masses, who were judged to be ideologically immature. Its task was to prepare a “conspiracy” and then to launch a “coup d’état” at the moment the party considered to be opportune, in the belief that once the action was underway, the masses would join the initiative, which would allow the party to seize power. Then a “provisional dictatorship” of the party would follow, which would last as long as would be necessary for the masses to raise themselves to the intellectual level of this small enlightened minority. Despite various attempts, this project failed because the revolutions did not take place at the appointed moment. They broke out spontaneously and if they failed for the lack of clarity and organization on the part of their participants, this lack of preparation cannot be artificially supplied by the heroic force of a small active minority that substitutes itself for the masses. In fact, such a concept of the party—conspiratorial, based on the idea of a coup d’état and a dictatorship—corresponds to a historical situation in which the proletariat was only just in the process of formation. In these conditions, the revolution could not be understood as a class affair, but as the business of an elite: in fact, of a small fraction of déclassé elements who took the fate of socialism upon their shoulders. In short, in the best cases this was nothing but a revolutionary romantic vision of the vanguard. Which is equivalent to saying that it acted in the guise of a party of a non-existent class.
With the growth, however, of the working class in the second half of the nineteenth century, a tendency towards reconsolidation began to take shape. The Chartist party in England, prior to 1848, had already been a first attempt to proceed in this direction. The creation of the First International in 1864 was the first real beginning of the class party. “The International,” Marx wrote to Bolte (November 29, 1871), “was founded to replace the socialist or semi-socialist sects with an effective organization of the working class for the struggle”. The development of the sects, Marx emphasized, and that of the class party, stand in an inverse relationship: “As long as the sects are (historically) justified, the working class is not mature enough for an autonomous historical movement. From the moment when it achieves this maturity, all the sects are reactionary.” The fact that the Statutes of the International (written by Marx) proclaim that “the emancipation of the working class must be the task of the working class itself”, clearly indicates that the party cannot be reduced to the organization of a small minority that claims to represent the working class and that ultimately supplants it: the task of the working class is to organize itself and thus to proceed to constitute a vast class association, which will then produce a programmatic leadership and appropriate tactics. Although the International had this ambition, it nonetheless fell far short of achieving this goal. Despite all its efforts it never managed to organize more than a fraction of the working class. The crisis that came in 1872, which led to a split in its ranks, provided proof that, in reality, the situation was far from being ripe for the development of a real class party.
With the creation of the Second International in 1889 there would certainly be an improvement with regard to numbers. But such an association set itself the goal of reforms above all, as the revolutionaries formed a minority within it. Reformism emerged victorious because an expanding capitalism, far from having come to the end of its historical cycle, creates a favorable terrain for reforms. This is why, since it was simply a matter of bringing about reforms, it was sufficient for the party to allow itself to be led by parliamentary leaders and a bureaucratic apparatus—whose crowning achievement would be the German social democracy—which, in turn, would do everything that was needed, because reformism did not require the initiative of the masses—they only have to vote!—or that of the party rank and file—they only had to trust their leaders! As we shall see, reformism and bureaucratism are strictly linked. In short, this was not a real “autonomous historical movement of the working class” (Marx), but a “mass party”.
The example of the Russian Revolution of 1917 made it possible to believe that the world revolution was within reach and that a party of a new type would arise. In fact, as the situation was revealed to be much less favorable than had been originally thought, a rapid disillusionment ensued and the following analysis was formulated: if the European revolution was stillborn this was due to the “lack of a party”. This was the false idea that presided over the foundation of the Third International in 1919. It was false because if the party was lacking this is because the conditions that would have allowed it to arise were lacking. As a result, the party was destined to become a magical formula. Assuming the form of a historical demiurge, it had to be “built” in advance and in accordance with proven methods: those of the Bolsheviks, which led them to victory in October 1917. This was, in fact, a neo-Blanquism, disencumbered, it is true, of the most vulgar features that characterized this tendency in the 19th century with its conspiracies and coups, but a Blanquism nonetheless, insofar as the outbreak of the revolution was subordinated to the creation, or rather the “fine-tuning” of an organization called the “vanguard party”, segregated from the rest of the working class, whose task was to lead the latter in the same way a general staff leads its troops. This return to a somewhat renovated Blanquism only led to a split within the workers movement, with a reformist, social democratic majority, on the one side, and on the other a revolutionary, communist minority, the two tendencies displaying a ferocious mutual hostility. This division in the workers movement therefore signified that history, once again, had not opened up the way to a real class party. Afterwards, in the guise of the “revolutionary party”, there was a heavy relapse into caricatures of the latter in the form of revolutionary or semi-revolutionary sects. The Trotskyists, for their part, never ceased to carry out their ridiculous efforts to “build the party” stone by stone. All the preconditions were present; what was lacking was a “revolutionary leadership”: that was their motto. More than fifty years after this brilliant formulation (“the historical crisis of humanity can be reduced to the crisis of revolutionary leadership”—Trotsky, 1938), why is such a leadership still lacking, and why, under the pretense of creating this leadership we have instead a myriad of groupuscules that call themselves “Trotskyists” (that are in fact just so many fifth wheels of reformism) and compete among themselves? A mystery! The effort has either “gone wrong” or else the Will has not made its appearance.... As for the Bordiguists, they have hardly done any better, managing to find a way to proclaim that the “Party” in its two meanings, the “formal” and the “historical”, has continued to exist with them (that is, four panhandlers), independent of the historical situation, despite the fact that they consider said situation “unfavorable”. This quick overview therefore allows us to confirm one thing: to say that, “the era of the party is over”, when history shows that it has not really even begun, makes no sense.
What conclusion can we derive from the foregoing considerations? To rule out the idea of the party as the “council communists” have done since the 1930s would be a serious mistake. It is true that they confronted a new phenomenon. Whereas, during the 19th century, as soon as the class struggle had subsided (as, for example, after 1848 or 1871), the proletarian parties were destroyed and disappeared, in the 20th century they would survive, but in a degenerate form. This is what happened to the parties of the Second and Third Internationals, which came to be imbued with the bourgeois mentality, and became the prey of a multitude of careerists and bureaucrats who called themselves “communists” or “socialists”. The “council communists” did not understand the nature of this phenomenon. They attributed it to the party form, as if the latter had suffered some kind of crippling defect: “a party cannot be other than an organization aimed at directing and dominating the proletariat”, Anton Pannekoek wrote in 1936. In fact, it was capital’s real domination over society, which from then on had the effect of integrating the proletariat and therefore its organizations, which had led to such a mutilation of the idea of the party. Not having correctly perceived this process, the “council communists” then came to reject the very idea of the party, or else they only conceived of it in the form of a simple academic group “for study and discussion”. Such a “rejection” meant not understanding the party as self-organization of the class. To the contrary, by representing the party as an artificial creation, imposed by force on the proletariat, the position of the councilists was as voluntaristic as the “Leninist” position they denounced. By arbitrarily deciding that there can “no longer be” a party, they behaved as if the latter could be prohibited by decree! It will be said in their defense that they were faced with a working class that was totally integrated into capitalism and that it was therefore quite incapable of secreting its own class party. Their “rejection” of the party could thus be understood within the context of their time, although from a Marxist point of view it was not justified.
Our conclusion would be that the perspective of the party, far from being obsolete, is still valid. Starting from the moment when the end of capital’s cycle reaches a sufficiently advanced stage, the class struggle will necessarily resume. In order for such a process to take place, as we have pointed out above, it will be necessary for the workers to have nothing to lose but their chains. Once this condition is fulfilled, and the workers chains are no longer made of gold, the conservative movements whose task consists in defending “conquests”, not embodying any revolutionary dynamic, will lose their purpose for existence. The workers’ first reaction, of course, will be to want to fight for their most pressing demands, but given that the situation will hardly allow capitalism to make any concessions, these demands will rapidly take a radical turn insofar as the only means to achieve them will be to attack the capitalist system itself. To put it another way, by the very force of circumstances, the class struggle will become a struggle for the liquidation of capitalism. The workers will then constitute themselves as a class and therefore as a political party.
What organizational form will such a party assume? In 1885 Engels wrote: “Today the German proletariat does not need any official organization any longer, either public or secret; the simple self-evident interconnection of like-minded class comrades suffices, without any statutes, committees, resolutions or other tangible forms, to shake the whole German Empire to its foundations.... And still more. The international movement of the European and American proletariat has become so much strengthened that not merely its first narrow form — the secret League — but even its second, infinitely wider form — the open International Working Men’s Association — has become a fetter for it, so that the simple feeling of solidarity based on the understanding of the identity of class position suffices to create and to hold together one and the same great party of the proletariat among the workers of all countries and tongues.”8
That was what Engels understood by the term “Party” in 1885. For him, its old forms, both the secret one, like the Communist League of 1848, as well as the public one, like the First International, had already been superseded. The fact that Engels had greatly overestimated the situation of his time, as the latter was actually far from capable of engendering a party such as he conceived it, would be demonstrated shortly thereafter with the creation of the Second International in 1889, which would prove to be reformist, bureaucratic, and formalist, that is, just the opposite of the party Engels sought. Although Engels, for the lack of anything better, finally supported such an organization by giving it his stamp of approval, this by no means invalidates the new party form that he conceived: in fact, when the workers as a whole found themselves collectively faced with the necessity of overthrowing capitalism, this simple association would suffice for them to constitute a party; this link would be strong enough to make it possible to speak of a really existing proletarian party; with such a party, it would not be necessary to “get a membership card” to be part of it, all that would be needed—and this would be the essential thing—would be to participate in the common struggle which, in turn, would then assume various organizational forms; in order to function, such a party would not need statutes or congresses, it would suffice for it to always have the same goal: the will to put an end to capitalism; it would, of course, require a clear and centralized leadership, without which it would be capable of nothing but disorderly and uncoordinated and, finally, sterile actions; but action calls for reflection, the needs of the struggle call for a better understanding of the facts, which will ultimately lead to the formation of a theoretical and political vanguard, a vanguard that would no longer see itself as if it were itself the proletarian party, so as to understand itself only as a fraction of that party, that is, its advance guard, with a clearer understanding of “the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement”9 ; a vanguard, finally, that will know that it is only provisional, fully conscious of the fact that as the movement becomes stronger and more inclusive and the nearer the revolutionary conclusion approaches, the more the situation will mature whereby it will work for its own disappearance, as the growing communist consciousness of the masses will render it superfluous. Such a party-movement will from now on be the only conceivable kind. It will constitute a supersession of the old party forms that prevailed in the times of the Second and Third Internationals and that corresponded to historical situations that were still immature. Arising spontaneously from the struggle, it will confound both the alleged party “builders” (who never built anything) as well as the “critics” of the party who want to prohibit it by decree.
No More Seizure of Power?
Based upon the “rejection of the party”, Terray naturally arrives at the idea that “it is the very notion of the seizure of power that must be questioned”. Long before him, the anarchists had already made this brilliant discovery. This is why, rather than discussing the solutions proposed by Terray that seek to replace the seizure of power, all of which share in a vulgar reformism (“Weaken power in the hope of destroying it”, “Share power between the two camps”) we shall examine, if only briefly, what such a “rejection of power” led to among the anarchists when they had the opportunity of putting their beautiful theory into practice.
There is at least one thing that the Marxists have in common with the anarchists: the recognition that the State, no matter what kind of State it is, is oppressive. Engels expressed this perfectly when he said that, “so long as the proletariat still uses the state, it does not use it in the interests of freedom but in order to hold down its adversaries, and as soon as it becomes possible to speak of freedom the state as such ceases to exist”.10 It is true that, in the so-called “legal” States, prosperous and based on bourgeois democracy, this oppressive character of the State is not always apparent to its subjects, that is, to the great masses of wage workers, who are more or less bourgeoisified, and deceived by the representative system and universal suffrage; but as economic affairs deteriorate, then class antagonisms, momentarily pacified, are awakened and the “legal” State withdraws all the rights it had granted in order to appear for what it really is: an apparatus of oppression in the service of the capitalist class. Where Marxists part ways with anarchists is when, due to the oppressive character of the State, the latter arrive at the idea of renouncing the use of the State in general, even if it assumes the form of the dictatorship of the proletariat. It is true that the best among them admit that the existing State, the bourgeois State, will not collapse on its own, but will have to be overthrown. As a result, they are in agreement with the Marxists, and even with the “Leninists”, regarding armed insurrection (they participated in October 1917), but not for the purpose of seizing power, but to destroy the State. In a great insurrectionary conflagration, the entire State edifice (army, police, courts, representative and administrative institutions, etc.) will be razed to the ground, so that not one stone will be left standing on another. Thus, according to Bakunin: “The political revolution, contemporary with and inseparable from the social revolution (. . .) will no longer be a transformation, but a great liquidation of the State.”11 The Marxists could, in a way, agree with this if, in this case, it was a matter of destroying the existing, that is, bourgeois, State, for the purpose of replacing it with a transitional State that will completely disappear with the classless society. The anarchists, however, will have none of that: the revolution they dream of seems like a magical spell that will make the State disappear at one stroke. To put this another way, for them the insurrection by no means signifies the seizure of power, but immediately putting an end to power. From that moment on, once this salutary and sublime act has been accomplished, the social revolution will be able to begin immediately, society having been liberated forever from the State. Such is the “great night” of the anarchist conception of the revolution. Such an idea of the revolution is obviously derived from their false theory of the State, according to which the State is the cause of all the evils suffered by society. In fact, while it is true that the State is oppressive (to a greater or lesser degree, since it can also be “protective” in certain instances, or even a “welfare state”, as in some periods of expansion of modern capitalism), this oppression must be understood as the political reflection of the antagonisms that exist in society; as society is composed of exploiting and exploited classes, the former need to maintain the latter in a condition of inferiority by means of an apparatus called the State, which is the guarantor of this social order: if the exploited classes occasionally rebel, they are immediately confronted by this State that, with its armed force, prevents them from carrying their rebellion to its conclusion. Under these circumstances it is quite clear that as long as social harmony does not reign in society, the State, in one form or another, will survive, even in the transitional stage that leads to communism, when the State will take the form of the dictatorship of the proletariat, that is, of the workers themselves who constitute themselves as the ruling class and subject the old exploiting classes to the new social order that is being established. The anarchists say that power “corrupts”. This does not mean much. Power means class power and its function is not to “corrupt” but to defend the general interests of that class. In this way, while it may be the case that some members of the bourgeoisie or their State functionaries might take advantage of State power for their own personal benefit, this is completely secondary in relation to the role played by the State as a political and economic instrument in the service of the entire bourgeoisie; to discover whether What’s His Name or So and So will be president or boss of the government might be of interest to a newspaper story, but this “battle of the bosses” for “good positions” has no more than a mediocre interest in comparison with the class power the bourgeoisie wields.
In fact, with its phobia of power, anarchism is completely inculcated with the idea of a “human nature” (a meaningless concept) that “thirsts for power” and that would have to be the object of a permanent mistrust out of fear that, from the moment that it has access to a portion of power, it will be predisposed to overstep its bounds due to its “natural tendency”. This amounts to saying that, if things turn out this way, there is no solution because whatever situation arises, there will always be “malignant bureaucrats” who, circumventing the vigilance of the workers, or else taking advantage of their negligence (since the workers are not without weaknesses), will manage to wreck everything.... In other words, considered from a revolutionary point of view, the anarchists’ perception of power leads to a dead end: in fact, the revolution is not possible, it will always be “betrayed”! This is, in effect, the conclusion that must be accepted from the moment that, for the lack of a materialist and class analysis of the State, one resorts to a metaphysics of man and power. But we shall refrain from further consideration of these general theoretical questions that would require more extensive examination, and pause to observe where this “rejection of power” led in Spain in 1936-1937 (Spain, which passes for the promised land of the anarchists, when it was instead their grave).
In Catalonia and Aragon, after the victory of the anarchists, supported by the working class, over the military rebellion of general Franco, it cannot be denied that the old republican State was, so to speak, dissolved. The Generalitat of Catalonia still existed but, deprived of all effective power, it only had a formal existence. From then on, the anarchists, having “destroyed the State”, could begin the social revolution as they understood it: collectivization of the land, creation of local “autonomous” communes, some of which decreed the abolition of money, expropriation of the capitalists in the factories, etc. “Libertarian communism” was therefore on the march and it seemed that nothing could stop it. “Power” was, from that moment on, in the factories, in the hands of the armed militiamen, who acted in a more or less uncontrolled manner and, above all, it was fragmented into a multitude of local committees which exercised power according to their own will, through their militias, granting the latter police powers and throwing all recalcitrant elements in prison where necessary.... But regardless of this misinterpretation of “libertarian” communism, what was essential was that the State, the accursed State, the centralized State that concentrated all power in its hands, had disappeared! It was replaced by Anarchy, that is, not the “Acracy” announced and promised after the disappearance of the State, but, in fact, a power that was fragmented into a multitude of hands and that acted without any coordination at all, each committee being the lord of its fief. In other words, we have in this case regressed to a kind of “new Middle Ages”, when the modern State did not yet exist, but where the local lord was omnipotent.
We therefore glean this first lesson: aiming at destroying the State in one blow does not represent progress, but rather regression, dragging society backward, only making it, instead of liberated from the burden of power, return to a stage where power is localized, undoubtedly handicapped, but no less arbitrary and discretionary, depending entirely on the good will of a “committee”. The anarchist leaders, or at least some of them, having become more or less aware of this anachronism (which is only, after all, a consequence of their doctrine), then posed the following alternative: either we impose a dictatorship, or else we collaborate with the bourgeois republican State that has remained master of the situation in Madrid. It is for this reason that García Oliver and others advocated ... the dictatorship of the proletariat, or in any event, of “the seizure of political, administrative and economic power, with the aid of its own trade unions.... As a transitional authority guaranteeing revolutionary order, it would not imply a dictatorship in the ordinary sense of the word: guided by libertarian ideology (and not by Marxism, a dogmatic teaching devoid of humanistic content) it would elevate popular liberty, the initiative of the masses, and would invite other leftist organizations to cooperate in its work of regeneration.”12 Despite all precautions regarding terminology (it would have been a “libertarian” and “humanistic” dictatorship, and therefore not a Marxist one) and the grab-bag nature of such a “dictatorship of the proletariat” (conflating “the other leftist organizations” with the “socialist” and “communist” parties, which were actually counterrevolutionary parties) this is already far advanced beyond the usual “anti-authoritarian” verbiage. Finally, in late September 1936, at a regional congress of syndicates attended by 505 delegates, the issue was resolved: it was decided to collaborate with the existing State in Madrid, which would result in the entry into the government of four anarchist ministers.... It was antifascism that tilted the balance in favor of collaboration, but it is quite evident that from then on the “destruction of the State” was no longer on the agenda.
This leads us to our second lesson: faced with the test of reality, the anarchist ideology did not stand fast but shattered into pieces, the “acratic ideas” were swept aside, overtaken by the tide of events and it was finally discovered that force does not escape the test of power. The “purists” of anarchism consoled themselves with the claim that they were “betrayed by a handful of leaders” who were fascinated and corrupted by power. This explains the subsequent turn of events in Catalonia and Aragon, where the central power had collapsed. In early May 1937, the Stalinists, supported by the government in Madrid, counterattacked and rapidly took control of the situation. It is true that, in Barcelona, there was a spontaneous response. The workers built barricades, but within a few days, after several hundred were killed, they were forced to capitulate. The Stalinists of the PSUC (the “communist” party in Catalonia) were then able to reestablish order in the entire region and began their “purge”. The CNT-FAI, by remaining passive and calling upon the workers to stay “calm”, were objective accomplices with such counterrevolutionary intrigue. But this was not the most important point. The real question was this: how to explain the fact that, while tens of thousands of militiamen were in arms in Catalonia and Aragon, the resistance was not more effective, and the Stalinists managed to achieve such an easy victory? The reason for this was that, in the absence of an established central revolutionary power, it proved to be a simple matter to put an end to the local committees. The workers reacted correctly, but without any coordination, not having previously established any revolutionary authority capable of unifying and centralizing their movement. Furthermore, having been conditioned for decades by the anarchist ideology that endlessly repeated the refrain that there was absolutely no need for the State, or for “Power”, or “Authority”, a “Center”, or the “Party” and that, to the contrary, everything must be taken care of by each individual’s initiative, in accordance with their temperament and their “affinities” with other individuals, all of them “freely federating”, they were actually incapable of creating their own central combat organization, which would have allowed them to offer serious resistance.
Here we arrive at our third lesson: the renunciation of the seizure of power necessarily allows the enemy, no matter what the circumstances, the opportunity of eventually seizing power without firing a single shot. This is what happened in Catalonia and Aragon where, in the absence of the dictatorship of the proletariat, the counterrevolutionary dictatorship was imposed instead, which wrote the epitaph of anarchism in letters of blood. In short, the whole experience of the anarchists in Spain constitutes a lesson regarding how not to make the revolution. Power must undoubtedly be seized, and the only serious questions are:
1. In our historical context, as of now, how can it be seized?
2. How can it be exercised?
Concerning the Seizure of Power
If we refer to Marx and Engels with regard to this question, we note that their views varied. In the Manifesto they asserted that the communists “openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions”. In 1853, however, Marx admitted that “for the English working class, universal suffrage and political power are synonymous”, given the fact that the working class represents “the great majority of the population”. In 1872, at the congress of the First International held in The Hague, he expressed the view that in certain highly advanced countries (England, the United States), “the workers can achieve their goal by peaceful means”, while elsewhere “force must be the springboard of our revolutions”. Later, Engels, in his 1895 preface to Marx’s Class Struggles in France, emphasized the difficulties that would be faced by armed revolutions of the 1848 type, with street battles and barricades, in view of the armaments the enemy had since acquired; in order to catch the enemy off-guard, it would be necessary for at least part of the army to go over to the insurgents (“become socialists”, as he wrote in one of his articles, “Socialism in Germany”).
As we have seen, the means employed varied in accordance with the historical situation. As a result, it is important to first of all grasp this fact in any consideration of how a seizure of power would be possible.
In her general discussion of the outlook for the future in The Accumulation of Capital: An Anti-Critique (1915), Rosa Luxemburg recalled that the class struggle, as the dynamic element that would allow for the advent of socialism, was the product “of the objective historical necessity of socialism, resulting from the objective impossibility of capitalism at a certain economic stage. Of course, that does not mean ... that the historical process has to be, or even could be, exhausted to the very limit of this economic impossibility. Long before this, the objective tendency of capitalist development in this direction is sufficient to produce such a social and political sharpening of contradictions in society that they must terminate”. She was wrong about this. As is easily confirmed today, capitalism has managed to exercise enough control over its development and has thus prevented the exacerbation of social and political conflicts that would have brought about its downfall. But Rosa Luxemburg was not mistaken when she pointed out that capitalism was heading towards a limit at which point it would become “an objective impossibility”: today it is possible to assert that it has historically entered this red zone. We have already referred to the final consequences: impoverishment of the great majority of the workers, increasingly devastating economic crises, and capitalism’s current inability—unlike the capitalism of the 1930s—to generate economic and social responses to the crisis; in a word, a situation of complete bankruptcy of the system. It is therefore within this framework that the seizure of power will take place.
In such a situation the immense working class majority will undergo a shift towards open and resolute opposition to the ruling bourgeois power. As a result, the latter will be considerably weakened, as it will no longer possess a social base that is broad enough and loyal enough to serve as a foundation for its rule. This will then be the beginning of the end for bourgeois power. It will, of course, still have at its command repressive forces with extremely sophisticated and effective armaments, ready to spring into action at the first alarm and to crush all armed opposition. We are aware of this. But this whole deadly arsenal—will it be able to save the ruling power, and thus the capitalist system, that is on its last legs? The wheels of history will not stop for it. In this connection, let us recall what Engels said at the end of the 19th century: “No doubt they will be the first ones to fire. One fine day the German bourgeois and their government, tired of standing with their arms folded, witnessing the ever increasing advances of socialism, will resort to illegality and violence. To what avail? With force it is possible to crush a small sect, at least in a restricted space but there is no force in the world which can wipe out a party of two million men spread out over the entire surface-area of a large empire. Counter-revolutionary violence will be able to slow down the victory of socialism by a few years; but only in order to make it all the more complete when it comes.”13 It is undeniable that Engels was then laboring under certain illusions, since his era was in fact not ripe for socialism. But if we replace the party of millions of men to which he referred, by the party of millions upon millions of workers in the European Union, for example (since the prospect of revolution will obviously no longer be posed on the scale of a single nation), then we will have a precise enough idea of what will happen: in fact, divided internally, up to the point of decomposition, the ruling power will be ready to capitulate, which will render it a simple matter to overthrow it. Exactly what form will this overthrow assume? Obviously, no one can know this in advance. But what we can say is that it is possible to guess that the seizure of power will be accomplished in a relatively non-violent manner. The ruling power will undoubtedly be tempted to establish a dictatorship, but will it still have enough power to do this, undermined, as it will be, from within? Admitting that it will do so, as Engels said, would result in a temporary setback for the revolutionary movement, but not its annihilation; a minority can be crushed in this way, but an immense majority that has decided to put an end to it cannot be restrained for very long; in the long run, the ruling power will be forced to surrender.
It is a question of revolution, but in a new way. In the past, such a possibility was excluded since, in even the best cases, the revolution could only attract a minority (the industrial proletariat), while the rest of the population (the mass of small proprietors of the city and countryside) sided with the bourgeoisie. In such a situation, if the proletariat, or certain fractions of the proletariat, considered launching an armed insurrection, it was immediately crushed by a powerful and compact counterrevolution, as in June 1848 and May 1871 in Paris, and January 1919 in Berlin. Some Marxists are still inspired by these revolutions of the past and thus advocate extreme violence against the ruling power and revolutionary civil war as the only possible roads to a successful revolution, while condemning as “opportunist” and “reformist” the more peaceful means to seize power that Marx himself, at the Hague Congress of 1872, suggested might be possible for the more advanced countries of his time. So was Marx an “opportunist” too? A Marx who ended up succumbing to “bourgeois democratic illusions”? In fact, what these “super-revolutionaries” have absolutely failed to understand is that these revolutions of the past, which they present as great examples, were in reality revolutions doomed in advance. What did Engels have to say about the insurrection of June 1848? He observed that it was the “revolution of desperation”. What did Marx say about the Commune of 1871 before it was proclaimed? He predicted it would be a desperate act of madness. What did Rosa Luxemburg say at the founding congress of the German Communist Party to the majority of the delegates who were resolved upon carrying out decisive and direct action against the ruling power? You do not have the great masses of the proletarians behind you and you will all be massacred, she explained.
There is obviously the “famous” October 1917 during the course of which the Bolsheviks, without too much destruction, seized power, which would acquire exemplary, if not mythological, status. But there is also the other side of the coin. Afterwards, for three years, civil war would devastate the entire country and leave it bloody, brutalized, ruined and destroyed. Obviously, the Americans, the English and the French, as well as the Japanese, that is, all the world’s great capitalist and imperialist predators, did not fail to take action; they intervened, either directly or indirectly, arming and supporting the white counterrevolution within Russia; this plunged all of Russia into flames, with summary executions on both sides and shootings of hostages; and during this time the European proletariat did not respond by playing the role assigned to it by the strategists of Moscow. Everyone knows the outcome of this civil war that was “won” by the Bolsheviks: a vast bloodbath that led to a brutalization of the country’s political life and the havoc wrought by Stalinist political methods.
As for the revolutionary events that took place in Spain in 1936-1937, they, too, loudly proclaim their lamentable results; there, too, blood ran in the streets, but for nothing, since the proletariat on the other side of the Pyrenees, the French proletariat, preferred in July 1936 to leave for their paid vacations rather than come to the aid of their Spanish counterparts....
All of these experiences came to a tragic end, since they did not have history on their side. This is why, since the contemporary balance of forces, on a national or international scale, was not in their favor, they had to resort to voluntarist methods, sometimes to violence and terror in all directions, in order to attempt to confront an enemy who was stronger in every way. From this, we learn another lesson: if the revolution were to have to once again assume the form of a bloody civil war (not to mention the fact that it would amount to a third world war) it would only demonstrate its immaturity. The revolution of the future will take place with a minimum of violence because the balance of forces will have been radically altered, and will be the movement of the immense majority against the interests of the tiny minority of exploiters, who will try to preserve an exhausted and obsolete system at all costs.
The Dictatorship of the Proletariat in the Past and in the Future
For Marxist theory, to exercise power only means to establish the famous “dictatorship of the proletariat”. Today this idea has been disfigured because of the allegedly socialist countries that claim to have realized it, thus providing grist for the mills of the ruling bourgeois ideology for which such a notion is indistinguishable from a monstrous “totalitarian project”. The idea of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” was not immediately transparent to Marx and Engels themselves. It is true that, during the period of 1848, they understood one thing: the working classes could very well dislodge the old ruling classes from their entrenched positions in power, but would be robbed of their victory if they were not to immediately establish a revolutionary dictatorship. But what form should this dictatorship assume? The only example they had was the French revolution that, in 1793-1794, had unleashed the Terror in order to annihilate all counterrevolutionary plots. It was this French example (that was, as everyone knows, marred by a great deal of useless violence, excesses and absurdities, all of which later provided abundant fuel for the fires of the anti-revolutionary ideology) that Marx and Engels had a tendency to transpose; the Jacobin model of dictatorship that had been adopted before them by Blanqui and Buonarroti, who, in his History of Babeuf’s Conspiracy for Equality (1828), had defended the need for a “revolutionary directorate”, composed of a small enlightened minority, as the people who were qualified to exercise the dictatorship. One can thus see the legacy that had been established after the French revolution, which Marx and Engels had perpetuated to one degree or another.
Only later did they modify their conception of the dictatorship of the proletariat, under the influence of a notable event: the Paris Commune. It is known that Marx did not welcome this insurrection, out of fear that it would provide an occasion for the Reaction to strike a blow at the revolutionary proletariat by organizing a large-scale massacre. The ensuing events proved that he was correct, but there is no ill wind that blows no good. The Commune would lead Marx to characterize it as “the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of labor”; and Engels, a little later, would state: “Look at the Paris Commune. That was the Dictatorship of the Proletariat”.
The Commune—the dictatorship of the proletariat? The anarchists, or at least some of them, instead had a tendency to see it as the grandiose commencement of the libertarian society, decentralized, without a State, and the enemy of all authority. But for Marx and Engels there was no doubt, it was surely a first practical example of “a working class government”: “Instead of deciding once in three or six years which member of the ruling class was to misrepresent the people in Parliament, universal suffrage was to serve the people, constituted in Communes, as individual suffrage serves every other employer in the search for the workmen and managers in his business.... each delegate to be at any time revocable and bound by the mandat imperatif (formal instructions) of his constituents.”14 In other words, what the Commune demonstrated during its brief existence was that the dictatorship of the proletariat is a proletarian democracy rather than the dictatorship of a small minority.
This is why Engels soon thereafter distanced himself from Blanquism: “From Blanqui's assumption, that any revolution may be made by the outbreak of a small revolutionary minority, follows of itself the necessity of a dictatorship after the success of the venture. This is, of course, a dictatorship, not of the entire revolutionary class, the proletariat, but of the small minority that has made the revolution, and who are themselves previously organized under the dictatorship of one or several individuals.”15 Engels therefore condemned in advance all attempts carried out with the intention of making a party—understood as a small minority—the incarnation of the dictatorship of the proletariat. The latter is the affair of the class, not of a vanguard, no matter how enlightened it may be. Of course, in response to the anarchists who vilified “authority” in general and therefore rejected all dictatorship, he reminded them that, “if the victorious party does not want to have fought in vain, it must maintain this rule by means of the terror which its arms inspire in the reactionists. Would the Paris Commune have lasted a single day if it had not made use of this authority of the armed people against the bourgeois? Should we not, on the contrary, reproach it for not having used it freely enough?”16 But for Engels, the term “party” did not mean a minority organization; it was the Commune itself that was the “party”, that is, the “people in arms”. This having been said, if the Commune had been able to last longer than two and a half months, would it have been able to avoid being subjected to the dictatorship of a minority party? One could make a strong argument that it would not have been able to avoid being subjected to such guardianship, and that the Blanquist party would have taken affairs into its hands. This is what was clearly demonstrated a little later by the Russian revolution of 1917 which, based from its inception on the Commune’s founding principles (Lenin constantly referred to the Commune), rapidly congealed into the dictatorship of the Bolshevik Party. Judging from this experience, is this the fatal destiny that awaits every dictatorship of the proletariat? One cannot account for this phenomenon by resorting to the usual explanations concerning “the abuse of power” of a small number of individuals in the ever-present “bureaucracy” that is the “accursed share” of the revolution, arguments that do not explain much, but which lead to a growing pessimism regarding the belief in any revolutionary project. To explain this phenomenon one must refer to the materialist conception of history. Thus, we may have recourse to this very enlightening passage from Engels: “The cleavage of society into an exploiting and an exploited class, a ruling and an oppressed class, was the necessary outcome of the previous low development of production. Society is necessarily divided into classes as long as the total social labour only yields a product but slightly exceeding what is necessary for the bare existence of all as long as labour therefore claims all or almost all the time of the great majority of the members of society. Side by side with this great majority exclusively enthralled in toil, a class freed from direct productive labour is formed which manages the general business of society: the direction of labour, affairs of state, justice, science, art, and so forth.”17 It is precisely this division between a great majority devoted exclusively to material production and a small minority devoted to political affairs that the dictatorship of the proletariat proposes to abolish. But in order to implement this abolition, as this passage from Engels so clearly expresses, it is still necessary for society’s economic development to be advanced enough to allow it to take place. If society’s economic development is not sufficient, it is clear that the project to make public affairs the affair of the great majority of individuals will remain a dead letter. After a brief moment of poetic illusion, it will be necessary to face the facts: in order to continue to control the productive labor of the lives of the masses, power can only fall into the hands of a minority that will end up monopolizing all the commanding positions, while the old habits of political indifference, in which the masses had been educated, will soon return (due to the separation emphasized above by Engels).
This is the objective cause of the reduction of the dictatorship of the proletariat to a dictatorship of a minority party that monopolizes power, and thus quickly escapes all control. This is what happened in economically backward Russia after October 1917 and this is what would have taken place, given the fully pre-capitalist condition of France in 1871, if the Commune had not been drowned in blood by Versailles. Neither in the agrarian Russia of 1917 nor in the rural France of 1871 did favorable economic conditions exist that would have allowed the masses to exercise power on their own behalf. Although Paris provided a glimpse of such a possibility, it would nonetheless have transpired that, after a very brief period of enthusiasm, there would have been a relapse, and the dictatorship of the proletariat would have come to mean the dictatorship of a “specialized” minority, a minority party, and then soon it would have become the dictatorship of a handful of leaders. This is what Rosa Luxemburg would denounce the Bolshevik dictatorship for having done in 1918, but without seeing its objective roots, and placing too much emphasis on the responsibility of the subjective will of the Bolshevik leaders for this outcome. Lenin, for his part, admitted as much by exclaiming, “We are not utopians!”, meaning that the soviet regime was in fact inapplicable to backward Russia—he could have seen this before!—but in the meantime resigning himself to accepting the dictatorship of a few leaders, while nourishing the hope that a victorious revolution in the advanced countries of the west would soon take place and resolve this stalemate. We all know what happened next....
One other aspect must also be highlighted. We have already quoted Engels when he spoke of the necessity, for proletarian power, of preserving itself by means of “the terror which its arms inspire in the reactionists”. An ambitious program! Because the proletariat, in the low stage of development characteristic of that era, constituted a minority opposed to a hostile majority, composed of bourgeoisie and aristocratic elements and, above all, of the immense mass of the petit bourgeoisie of the cities and countryside who feared for their property, this meant that the proletarian dictatorship would have been forced to assume, although this was not its original intention, the character of a “red terror” over these other classes in their entirety, or else it would have been rapidly overthrown and drowned in blood. It is true that, in order to consolidate its social base, the proletarian power could have tried to form an alliance with the poorest layers of this bourgeoisie, striving to instill them with trust in the proletarian power and trying to make them understand that they had nothing to fear and that the proletarian power was prepared to make concessions to them. This is what the Bolsheviks did after 1917 with the peasants. This is why they christened their dictatorship the “democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasants”. But this alliance could only be insecure, pallid and fragile and, in fact, unnatural. Because the cities were starving, the necessities of the struggle soon obliged them to send workers’ detachments to the countryside to make requisitions and shoot anyone who resisted this “war communism”. This is what would have undoubtedly taken place in the rural France of 1871 if the Communards had defeated Versailles. The masses of the peasants clinging to their little parcels of land would have had to have been subjected to coercion and, where necessary, to red terror. The hatred for the “advocates of redistribution of the land” meant that it was the peasants who in fact served as the reserve force for the counterrevolution and who, enlisted in Thiers’ army, crushed the Commune. In short, during that era, with this opposition between the cities (the “red” minority) and the countryside (the “white” majority), any revolutionary power would have had to face the following choice: either to rule by means of terror or be massacred, to be either the victim or the executioner. History provides us with examples of both, one in 1918 with the establishment in Russia of a terrorist revolutionary power (with the Bolshevik Cheka), and the other in 1871 with the Bloody Week, when between 30,000 and 50,000 workers were massacred by reactionary troops. The anarchists, as we have seen, did not avoid having to face this alternative. With their rejection of the dictatorship of the proletariat in Catalonia and Aragon, the only thing they achieved was to facilitate the counterrevolutionary Stalinist repression that was unleashed in May 1937.
Thus, objectively speaking, the “dictatorship of the proletariat” could only have been that of a minority party representing the proletariat and would soon have been forced to rule by terror if it wanted to maintain its hold on power. It was this form, the only one possible in the conditions of the time—history has provided no other examples—that was realized by the Bolsheviks in Russia between 1917 and 1921, in an obviously truncated and totally unsatisfactory manner, and there can be no question of it being reproduced in the more advanced conditions that now prevail. For if we shift to a consideration of our current situation, what do we find? Now that capitalism has raised the productive forces as well as the productivity of labor to a very high level of development, it has been compelled to reduce the labor time of the majority of the population.18 This is why it is obliged to fill up the free time thus liberated with a wide variety of recreational activities, diversions, spectacles and games, one as empty as the other, but which allow it to continue to distract the masses from public affairs, the res publica, leaving the latter to be permanently monopolized by a “political class”. What does such a state of affairs imply? It leads to a still more extensive depoliticization of the masses, but also, paradoxically, it shows that the division between a tiny minority that is in charge of public affairs and a vast majority separated from involvement in them is only artificial and can no longer be justified. Hence the discredit that is increasingly directed at “the political class”, which has become an object of derision on some television programs. From another perspective, this means that the material conditions required for a government directly administered by the workers themselves are present: when the bourgeoisie and its “political class” are evicted from power, the “free” time that is now filled up with “bread and circuses” will really be liberated (and even increased, since travel time eats up so much of the everyday life of the workers), which will thus allow a real proletarian power to emerge. A utopia? If there is a revolution, it will necessarily set the masses in motion. It is true that, as the masses have been conditioned by an almost religious habituation (whose objective causes we have already discussed) to “not bother with politics” (even in the bourgeois democracies that claim to have raised the masses up to the level of “citizens” because they invite them to deposit a ballot in a box every now and then) they might at first consider themselves too inexperienced to take affairs directly into their hands. But who cares, the revolution will be the school that will teach them to free themselves from a certain number of prejudices with which they have been imbued and will also allow them to acquire through practice the necessary skills: “Both for the production on a mass scale of this communist consciousness, and for the success of the cause itself, the alteration of men on a mass scale is, necessary, an alteration which can only take place in a practical movement, a revolution; this revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.”19
There still remains the question of the properly dictatorial aspect of such power. The dissolution of the bourgeois parliament and the parties, both right wing and left wing, will obviously be necessary, since these institutions, as organs for the preservation of capitalism, will no longer have any reason for existence in the revolutionary perspective of the passage to socialism. Rosa Luxemburg reproached the Bolsheviks for having dissolved the Russian Constituent Assembly in favor of the Soviets. She was mistaken, especially since she had herself posed the problem of power in Germany in 1918 in the following terms: “The National Assembly or all power to the workers and soldiers councils; abandonment of socialism or a more resolute class struggle on the part of the armed proletariat against the bourgeoisie, that is the question.”20 As for the repressive dimension of the dictatorship of the proletariat, it is clear that this aspect will be considerably attenuated in the future. For what significant social force will still be capable of opposing it? The bourgeoisie? Like their economic system, their best days are behind them. In the past, the bourgeoisie possessed the means to organize an effective counterrevolution because it could still rely on the petit bourgeois masses and could thus place the proletariat in a distinctly inferior position. Today, capitalism has economically undermined these traditional petit bourgeois masses and has transformed the great majority of them into wage workers. One could, of course, consider those intermediate layers that still exist within the modern wage labor force—technical specialists, for example—as substitutes for the old petit bourgeoisie. One must keep one thing in mind, however: this new petit bourgeoisie is even more dependent on capital than the old one, and finds itself in hot water as soon as capital encounters difficulties, as in the case of those technical specialists who have been definitively ejected from the labor market with the aggravation of capitalism’s plunge into the final stage of its cycle. As one can now begin to confirm, besides the large numbers of college graduates that cannot find jobs, there are entire layers of these wage workers who have until now been tied down with especially heavy golden chains, who will find themselves in the position of precarious contract workers, impoverished and finally proletarianized. The dictatorship of the proletariat will consequently certainly be that of the immense majority to the detriment of the tiny bourgeois minority, which will no longer find any considerable social forces upon which it can rely for support. Under such conditions, a dictatorship of this kind could permit itself the luxury of being “generous” and “tolerant” towards its bourgeois opponents, as the latter will no longer represent a major threat. It will be so powerful and sure of itself that it will no longer need—save in exceptional cases—to deprive them of the freedom of speech and the press. We shall note, by the way, that it is this type of dictatorship which has been implemented in the highly developed countries: by gaining the support of the great majority of the wage workers it has achieved such a degree of consensus that it can allow its few remaining revolutionary opponents the freedom to express themselves, as the latter are not a threat, which allows it to strut and preen itself by speaking of the “legal” State and “human rights”, etc. In its own way, the dictatorship of the proletariat will proceed likewise. Without underestimating what its opponents are capable of, it will be able to allow them to go on ranting against socialism, professing their anticommunist faith by conjuring the specter of the “gulag”: they will only be smothered in ridicule and uproarious laughter!
As will be understood, the dictatorship of the proletariat will have lost, so to speak, all of its properly terrorist character, because it will hardly feel the need for it. In the past, the bourgeoisie ruled with the help of restricted suffrage based on property qualifications, censorship of the opposition press and the dispatch of revolutionaries to penal servitude. Later, once its power was secure, it governed with the consent of the great majority, by means of universal suffrage, thus peacefully assuring its rule and fully realizing its democracy. The dictatorship of the proletariat, after some restrictions in the beginning, will also fully realize democracy by gaining the support of the great majority, but with a very different goal: instead of being oriented to the preservation of capitalism like bourgeois democracy (that is why it is bourgeois democracy), it will be directed toward the suppression of the latter in order to allow the emergence of a new social form, communism.
Rosa Luxemburg was therefore correct when she proclaimed: “Yes, dictatorship! But this dictatorship consists in the manner of applying democracy, not in its elimination, in energetic, resolute attacks upon the well-entrenched rights and economic relationships of bourgeois society, without which a socialist transformation cannot be accomplished.”21 Carrying out a social transformation in the shortest possible span of time by despotically intervening in the capitalist relations of production, such is undoubtedly the essential task of the dictatorship of the proletariat, and not the physical elimination of its enemies, shootings, “beheadings”, re-education camps and other procedures that constitute part of the panoply of the museum of horrors that its enemies are attempting to associate it with at any cost. Of course, in order to realize this task, a political will is required whose authority is incontestable: there will be no question of returning to the past! Only the advance to communism will be its goal. Which leads us to address those social tasks that will have to be implemented.
- 1Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, in The Marx-Engels Reader, Second Edition, W. W. Norton & Co., New York, 1978, p. 481.
- 2Ibid., p. 481.
- 3Ibid., p. 490.
- 5Emmanuel Terray, Le troisième jour du communisme, Ed. Actes Sud, Le Mejan, Arles, 1992.
- 6Rosa Luxemburg, “Centralisme et democratie”, in Marxisme contre dictature: centralisme et democratie, masse et chefs, liberté de la critique et de la science, Ed. Spartacus, Paris, 1946, p. 37.
- 7Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, op. cit., p. 484.
- 8Frederick Engels, “The History of the Communist League”, in Karl Marx: Selected Works, Volume II, International Publishers, New York, n.d., pp. 26-27.
- 9Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The Manifesto of the Communist Party, op. cit., p. 484.
- 10Letter from Engels to Bebel dated March 28, 1875, in Karl Marx: Selected Works, Volume II, International Publishers, New York, n.d., pp. 591-592.
- 11Michael Bakunin, Selected Texts, Ed. Jean-Jacques Pauvert, Paris, 1965, p. 223.
- 12Quoted by Alexandre Skirda in Facing the Enemy: A History of Anarchist Organization from Proudhon to May 1968, AK Press, Oakland, 2002, p. 146 (English translation of Autonomie individuelle et force collective : les anarchistes et l’organisation de Proudhon à nos jours, Spartacus, Paris, 1987).
- 13Frederick Engels, Socialism in Germany, available at the Marx-Engels Internet Archive:
- 14Karl Marx, The Civil War in France, Foreign Languages Press, Peking, 1970, pp. 69-70.
- 15Frederick Engels, “The Program of the Blanquist Fugitives from the Commune”, at: http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1874/06/26.htm. During the same period, Engels wrote, “what the bourgeois democracy of 1848 could not accomplish, precisely because it was bourgeois and not proletarian, namely, to give the labouring masses a will whose content corresponds with their class position—socialism will secure without fail” (Anti-Dühring, Foreign Languages Press, Peking, 1976, p. 218).
- 16Frederick Engels, “On Authority,” at: http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1872/10/authority.htm
- 17Frederick Engels, op. cit., p. 364.
- 18In 1900, the average worker worked 3,000 hours per year; in 1960, 2,100; in 1985, only 1,600.
- 19Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The German Ideology, Part I: Feuerbach, Section D—Proletarians and Communists, at: http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/german-ideology/ch01d.htm
- 20Rosa Luxemburg, National Assembly or Council Government, quoted by Michael Löwy in Marxisme et romantisme revolutionnaire: Essais sur Lukacs et Rosa Luxemburg, Ed. Le Sycomore, Paris, 1979, p. 179.
- 21Rosa Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution, in The Russian Revolution and Leninism or Marxism?, The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1961, pp. 77-78.