Friday, 7 October 2016

Lenin and the state - an anarchist perspective

State and Revolution - 99 years later from an anarchist perspective

In some ways reading through Lenin's 'State and Revolution' as an anarchist there are surprises. Although he specifically criticises anarchists on a number of occasions he's also very clear on his views of the state:
  • The workers should smash the existing capitalist state in the process of carrying out a violent socialist revolution.
  • In place of the state the workers should institute something called - 'the dictatorship of the proletariat'. This is nothing but a transitory form of social organisation designed to protect the achievements of the revolution from capitalist resistance (or is it, more on that later...). 
  • The state will wither away as the higher state of communism arrives. At this point it will be unnecessary. 
Lenin is adamant that the difference between Marxists and Anarchists cannot and should not be boiled down to the statement that Anarchists oppose the state whilst Marxists do not. The ideas about the use of a 'state' in a transitional period after a socialist revolution are obviously not the same as the anarchist ones but at least the overall picture amounts to something we can engage with unlike the idiots that he derides who have tried to either avoid the question of the state and the revolution altogether or have even gone as far as to show reverence for the state and a belief that gaining power in the current existing capitalist state is the goal. For Lenin the existence of the state is evidence that the class struggle is still unresolved. Once it is over then there will be absolutely no place in society for the state.

The use of a 'state' after the revolution

How would Lenin's 'state' be organised?


Lenin discusses the question of how to talk about this revolutionary workers-state (bearing in mind that it is a something of a paradox in itself and must only be seen as a transitory phase). He quotes Engels:
"The free people's state has been transferred into the free state. Taken in its grammatical sense, a free state is one where the state is free in relation to its citizens, hence a state with a despotic government. The whole talk about the state should be dropped, especially since the Commune, which was no longer a state in the proper sense of the word. The 'people's state' has been thrown in our faces by the anarchists to the point of disgust..."

It's interesting that Engels believed that what he and Marx were proposing may not have deserved the label of a 'state' at all but the labels that we decide to use for things are obviously far less important than the content behind them. What is it about the proletariat state (or commune) that Lenin was proposing would make it different to the existing capitalist state?
  • Wages would be flatter. There would not be any highly paid positions that would make the people that occupied them into a class above the rest of society (Lenin did not expect to be able to get rid of money and wages - of sorts - straight away).
  • There would be no distinction between the legislative and the political. All positions would be elected ones (this is as opposed to now where powerful 'civil servants' or bureaucrats make a lot of important decisions and are never subject to elections). 
  • All officials would be subject to immediate recall at any moment - there would be some mechanism whereby the mass of the people could remove officials they were unhappy with easily. 
  • There would be no possibility of using the honour gained from occupying an important position in the state to turn it into material gain, like "retiring" from politics only to walk straight into a very well paid job in the private sector (clearly this would be impossible anyway because we're talking about a society where the socialist revolution has already taken place). 
Is this enough to satisfy anarchists that what Lenin was proposing was not really a state at all (in the sense of the word that we use it, the sense in which the state is something bad, a tool for hierarchy and oppression)? 

I think the answer is no. Anarchism is broader than Marxism, it contains wider range of ideas under it's roof and there is slightly less need for intense debate about which of them are true anarchism and which are not. This means that there are some anarchists for whom Lenin's description of the differences between his 'state' and the current state would be almost enough to satisfy them. There are many others would would need to add some or all of the following principles of organisation in order to ensure that the method of organising society was not really a state (in the sense in which anarchists talk about it):
  • Not only should the officials be subject to immediate recall they should also be strictly delegates of the people, not representatives. The difference being that they exist to carry forward the expressed will of the people of their neighbourhood or industry, not to 'represent' them in a vague way that leaves room for making decisions on behalf of the people. 
  • Direct democracy should be prioritised over any kind of representative democracy, and consensus decision making is better again. Pragmatic anarchists of all types recognise that we will not always have luxury of insisting on consensus decision making which can be a long process but the technology that we have available to us today makes the prospect of widespread use of surveys and referendums on a huge range of issues very possible. 
  • The opportunity to be ignored. As mentioned above anarchists have a wide range of views but for many, even if begrudgingly, they will admit that an anarchist society musty offer individuals the chance to be left alone if that is what they really want. It is unlikely that many people will desire this, especially since those who refuse to participate cannot be allowed to be a cost to the society of those people who do join in.
There will be other points that I've neglected to mention but these serve as primary examples of the things that would be needed for anarchists to be satisfied that, whatever the label, the organisation of the post-revolutionary society was not going to risk becoming a tool for reinstating hierarchy, oppression and exploitation. 

What would Lenin's 'state' do?

In many parts of the book Lenin gives his 'state' very light duties. The most commonly repeated one is that it is mainly, or possibly solely in existence to protect the revolution from any capitalist resurgence or resistance. The idea that it is not to be seen as an instrument of force against the majority, the proletariat, but only to defend them from counter-revolutionaries. In this sense it represents the idea that workers will need to remain armed and organised after the revolution in order to ward off attacks. Despite the fact that Lenin seems to think that anarchists would have a problem with this I can't think of a single reason why anarchists would disagree. 

The problem comes as he begins to add in further duties to his 'state' as the book goes on. Taking a rather different tone he says:

"We, the workers, shall organize large-scale production on the basis of what capitalism has already created, relying on our own experience as workers, establishing strict, iron discipline backed up by the state power of the armed workers..."

Lenin is ultimately unclear and contradictory as to what it would do, he is clearer on how it would be organised. Anarchists now are likely to be backing off completely...

This kind of state is not the same thing as what he spoke about in passages earlier in the book where it was just armed and organised workers defending the revolution against any attempt to reinstate capitalism. This is not the kind of state that withers away. Lenin isn't particularly clear as to how the state would wither away anyway but at least if he'd just stuck to the one about how it existed only protect the revolution we could have agreed that on paper it should work. 

The real difference between anarchists and Marxists

The real difference between anarchists and Marxists isn't necessarily a 'difference' at all. Many anarchists completely agree with Marx's critique of Capitalism which he wrote about in Das Kapital, many anarchists would be comfortable with the left-communists or council-communists ideas about social organising (i.e. they would be satisfied that they were sufficiently libertarian to be generally acceptable). The difference is that anarchists don't limit their struggle to the economic struggle against capitalism. 

Anarchists are aware of and are against other sources of hierarchy and oppression in society such as social hierarchies by gender, race and sexuality and purely political hierarchies. Anarchists are aware of the links between the different forms of hierarchy, how they influence each other and feed off each other. They understand how the state was necessary to clear the way for capitalism and how it continues to maintain it and offer it stability, they also understand how the specific forms of social hierarchy such as modern racism have their roots in the history of capitalism and serve a place within capitalism to strengthen it and divide the working class.

But also, they will not forget the fact that patriarchy has existed for thousands of years in various forms, or that there exists a political class who often seek political power as a goal in itself and feed off their desire to wield power over other people to the detriment of other people etc. etc.

Anarchism is fundamentally different from Marxism not in it's approach to capitalism, not even necessarily in it's approach to socialism and revolution and (at a push) not necessarily even different in it's understanding of the state, both before and after the revolution. On a fundamental level it's different by degree, by the fact that it's fighting against a broader range of issues than Marxism sets out to tackle (only capitalism) which also influences the way in which it fights against any individual one (such as insisting that the fight against capitalism must not replace the current system with one which develops the chance for another source of hierarchy to strengthen itself and take hold of society in a new way that again will need to be fought against).