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The following talk was given on 21 July 2018 to a two-day seminar at York University entitled “Historical perspectives on united fronts against fascism and the far right.”The framework for our panel this morning is “Unity against the Right: A historical approach.”
There are in fact many histories of such united resistance, each with its own lineage. We could talk of how Louis Riel united Métis, First Nations, and many colonial settlers to battle for democracy and aboriginal rights. Or of how women debated how to find allies in their liberation struggle and the trade-off with partnerships with the sectors of the elite or of the subaltern masses. But I will not speak of this. I will also set aside the struggle of colonized peoples for unity against imperialism, so central to the socialist movement of the last century.
My topic relates to the origin of Fascism. It was born in Europe as an expression of the ideology of European supremacy, and my focus will thus necessarily be European as well. I’m going to speak of events in Italy a century ago, not simply because of their objective importance but because they carry great weight in our political memory and imagination.
Italy – Between the Wars
Italy then ranked as an imperialist power, although a weak and unstable one, the product of an incomplete bourgeois revolution in which owners of large estates and the Catholic Church held great power, while the majority of Italy’s immense peasantry were landless. A sizable industrial working class was largely socialist in conviction, and the Italian Socialist Party governed more than 2,000 municipalities.
Formally a winner in the First World War (28 July 1914 to 11 November 1918), the Italian ruling class had been weakened by the impact of great human and material destruction in this conflict. The war’s end brought economic crisis, the ruin of middle layers, a mass of discharged soldiers with no visible future, and a militant workers’ upsurge that for a moment seemed about to sweep all before it.
In September 1920 a great wave of factory occupations brought the country to the brink of revolution. However, the Socialists gave no leadership and the movement foundered, opening the gates to counterrevolution.
A wave of reaction was then sweeping across much of Europe. It brought many rightist dictatorial regimes to power, as in Hungary, where the regime executed 5,000 supposed Reds. The Hungarian regime was aristocratic in nature, a military dictatorship based on upper-class cadres. Italy was different: the reactionary movement seemed to emerge from among the masses themselves.
Commandos Right and Left
In Italy, after the war ended, the spearhead of reaction emerged: the Arditi, or “commandos,” a network of anti-labour mercenaries led mainly by former army officers. But the most successful such force, the Fascists, was plebeian. Its leader, Benito Mussolini, had been a left-wing Socialist; the group, founded in 1919, posed as supporters of strikes and workers’ management and of land to the peasants. Yet their ideology was pro-capitalist, rooted in worship of the state and the nation. They acted as murderous anti-labour militia, financed by elements of the ruling class and tolerated or supported by the police and army. The Fascists backed up violence with a forceful ideology rejecting reason and fact while appealing to mysticism and religious-like idolatry of the state and the “man from destiny.”
By mid-1921 Fascism was a menacing mass movement. How did its opponents respond?
At the end of 1922, the Fascists consummated their one-sided civil war with a parliamentary deal, in which they were appointed to government by the king and mainstream capitalist parties. During the half-decade that followed, the Fascist regime hardened into a totalitarian dictatorship that lasted until 1943.
Two conclusions jump out from this depressing story:
During the years of Mussolini’s rise, however, the policy of the Communist International on alliances evolved greatly in a direction that, if applied in Italy, might well have changed the outcome. Five stages in this process should be noted:
a. First, in 1920, far-right generals in Germany carried out a coup against the republican government. Social-democratic trade union leaders called a general strike that swept the country, while workers in many areas took up arms and gained effective control. The coup lasted only four days. This outcome proved the power of united workers’ resistance to the far right.
b. After the coup collapsed, workers refused to end their strike and demanded effective protection against the far-right conspirators. The social-democratic trade-union leaders then came up with a novel proposal: a workers’ government including all workers’ parties and based on the unions. Although that government did not come to be, the idea behind it gained support and the Communist movement took note.
c. The next year, the Communist International (Comintern) adopted the policy that had found expression in resistance to the German putsch, calling on workers’ parties to unite in struggle against the far right and for basic demands they had in common. This policy was known as the “united front.” It was not applied in Italy. Internationally, it met with resistance from Social Democratic leaderships. Why was this policy not applied by the Italian Communists? Their failure to conform indicates that descriptions of the Comintern’s supposedly excessive “centralism” in that period are often exaggerated.
d. Another year passed, and the Comintern adopted the workers’ government approach broached during the great German general strike of 1920. Such a government would be sustained by the workers movement, not the state, and could serve as a transitional stage to revolution. A workers’ and peasants’ government of this general type was actually established by the October 1917 Russian revolution.
e. Finally, in 1923, the Comintern adopted a strategy for resisting fascism. It was elaborated and presented by Clara Zetkin, drawing on the experience above all of the German workers’ movement. Her plan consisted of four major propositions:
i. Workers self-defence against fascist violence: not through individual terror, but through “the power of the revolutionary organized proletarian class struggle.”
ii. United front action against fascism “involving all working-class organizations and currents regardless of political differences.” By endorsing the Arditi del Popolo, the Comintern indicated willingness to join in anti-fascist struggle with non-working-class forces. They rejected, however, the perspective of a bloc with capitalist parties for government.
iii. An ideological campaign to reach the best of the young people influenced by fascism who, in Zetkin’s words, “are seeking an escape from deep anguish of the soul. We must show them a solution that does not lead backward but rather forward to communism.”
iv. Demonstration of “absolute determination to fight to take power out of the hands of the bourgeoisie in order to resolve capitalism’s social crisis,” including by “cementing the alliances necessary to do so.” Zetkin insisted that the perspective of a workers’ and peasants’ government “is virtually a requirement for the struggle to defeat fascism.”
Essence of Fascist Doctrine
There’s something missing here: an analysis of the racist and xenophobic essence of fascist doctrine. It was the reverse side of the fascists’ worship of an aggressive nationalism, which rested on plans for conquest of south Slavs, Greeks, Turks, Africans – all viewed as inferior peoples. In German fascism, such racial stereotyping became more explicit, maturing into a project of genocide against Jews, Poles, Russians, Roma, and other peoples.
Despite this weakness, Zetkin’s report and resolution, adopted by the Comintern in June 1923, stand as the outstanding exposition of a Marxist response to fascism during its heyday in the 1920s and 1930s. It theorized the lesson of the Italian Arditi del Popolo experience while fusing it with a perspective for workers’ power. Alternatively, the Comintern position can be seen, as Leon Trotsky later insisted, as an application of the Bolsheviks’ united front policies in the run-up to the Russian October revolution of 1917.
Given the strategic force of this position, it may seem surprising it was applied during only two brief periods of Comintern history. Comintern anti-fascist policy proved to be unstable, going through no less than six reversals up to the International’s dissolution in 1943. Two of these turnabouts were particularly significant:
In my opinion, the 1935 policy, known as “popular frontism,” brought the Comintern into broad alignment with Social Democracy as regards the strategic alternative to fascism. The goal of socialist revolution was set aside in favour of a project for defense of democratic capitalism and alliance with forces within the imperialist ruling class.
This occurred at the height of Stalin’s murderous repression of Bolshevik cadres, and this witch-hunt also infected the Comintern and its “people’s front.”
To conclude, the responses of socialists to the first 15 years of fascism fall into three categories: sectarian isolation, an alliance for progressive reform, or a united front to bring working people to power. Despite the immense transformation in social structure and global geopolitics, these divergent impulses continue to find expression today, as we feel our way toward an effective defense against fascist dangers today. •
A Note on Sources
Some of the material in this text is also discussed in Fumble and late recovery: The Comintern response to Italian fascism.
Clara Zetkin’s contribution to developing the Marxist position on Fascism is documented in Clara Zetkin, Fighting Fascism: How to Struggle and How to Win, Mike Taber and John Riddell, ed., Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017. For the introduction to this book, see “Clara Zetkin and the struggle against fascism.”
Sources for this text include:
Tom Behan, The Resistible Rise of Benito Mussolini, Bookmarks: London, 2003.
Jonathan Dunnage, The Italian Police and the Rise of Fascism: A Case Study of the Province of Bologna, 1897-1925, Westport Conn: Praeger, 1997.
Georgio Galli, Storia del socialism italiano, Milan: Baldini Castoldi Dalai, 2008.
Daniel Guérin, Fascism and Big Business, New York: Monad, 1973 (1939).
Rossi (Angelo Tasca), The Rise of Italian Fascism 1918-1922, New York: Howard Fertig, 1966 (1938).
Paolo Spriano, Storia del Partito comunista italiano, Turin: Einaudi, 1967.
... Από τη στιγμή που θεωρούν οι ίδιοι πως είναι ίσοι μεταξύ τους, με το ίδιο δικαίωμα στη Μητέρα Γη, δεν χρειάζονται αφεντικό για να προστατεύσουν τους προνομιούχους ενάντια σε αυτούς χωρίς προνόμια, επειδή όλοι είναι προνομιούχοι.Το να θες αφεντικά και ταυτόχρονα να επιθυμείς και την ελευθερία, είναι να επιθυμείς το ανέφικτο.
Είναι απαραίτητο να επιλέξετε μία και καλή ανάμεσα σε δύο πράγματα: είτε την ελευθερία, συνολικά, να αρνείστε κάθε εξουσία, ή να υποδουλωθείτε διαιωνίζοντας την εξουσία του ανθρώπου πάνω σε άνθρωπο. Το αφεντικό ή η κυβέρνηση είναι απαραίτητα μόνο κάτω από ένα σύστημα οικονομικής ανισότητας. Αν έχω περισσότερα από τον Πέδρο, φυσικά φοβάμαι ότι ο Πέδρο θα με αρπάξει από το λαιμό και θα πάρει από μένα αυτό που χρειάζεται. Σε αυτή την περίπτωση, χρειάζομαι μια κυβέρνηση ή έναν επόπτη για να με προστατεύσει από τις πιθανές επιθέσεις του Πέδρο. αλλά αν ο Πέδρο και εγώ είμαστε οικονομικοί ίσοι, αν και οι δύο έχουμε την ίδια ευκαιρία να επωφεληθούμε από τα πλούτη της φύσης, όπως η γη, οι υδροβιότοποι, τα ορυχεία και οτιδήποτε άλλο, όπως ακριβώς και από τα πλούτη που παράγονται από το χέρι του ανθρώπου, μηχανήματα, σπίτια, σιδηρόδρομοι και χίλιες και μία κατασκευές, η λογική λέει ότι θα ήταν αδύνατο ο Πέδρο και εγώ να τραβήξουμε ο ένας τον άλλον από τα μαλλιά, για να αμφισβητήσουμε τα πράγματα που κερδίζουμε και οι δύο και στην περίπτωση αυτή δεν υπάρχει λόγος να έχουμε αφεντικά.
Το να μιλάμε για αφεντικά μεταξύ ίσων είναι μια αντίφαση, εκτός αν μιλάμε για ίσους σε υποτέλεια, αδέλφια σε αλυσίδες, όπως εμείς οι εργάτες είμαστε τώρα. Υπάρχουν πολλοί που λένε ότι είναι αδύνατο να ζήσουμε χωρίς αφεντικά ή κυβέρνηση. Όταν είναι οι αστοί που τα λένε αυτά, παραδέχομαι ότι έχουν δίκιο στη λογική τους, επειδή φοβούνται ότι οι φτωχοί θα τους πιάσουν από τον λαιμό και θα αρπάξουν τα πλούτη τους που έχουν συσσωρεύσει κάνοντας τον εργάτη να ιδρώνει. αλλά για ποιο λόγο οι φτωχοί χρειάζονται αφεντικά ή κυβέρνηση;
Στο Μεξικό, είχαμε και έχουμε εκατοντάδες αποδείξεις ότι η ανθρωπότητα δεν χρειάζεται αφεντικά ή κυβέρνηση εκτός από την περίπτωση της οικονομικής ανισότητας. Στα αγροτικά χωριά και τις κοινότητες, ο λαός δεν αισθάνθηκε απαραίτητο να έχει μια κυβέρνηση. Μέχρι πρόσφατα, η γη, τα δάση, το νερό και τα χωράφια ήταν κοινή ιδιοκτησία του λαού της περιοχής. Όταν η κυβέρνηση μιλάει σε αυτούς τους απλούς ανθρώπους, αρχίζουν να τρέμουν γιατί για αυτούς η κυβέρνηση είναι η ίδια με έναν εκτελεστή. Σημαίνει το ίδιο με την τυραννία. Ζουν ευτυχώς στην ελευθερία τους, χωρίς να γνωρίζουν, σε πολλές περιπτώσεις, το όνομα του Προέδρου της Δημοκρατίας, και γνωρίζουν μόνο την ύπαρξη κυβέρνησης, όταν οι στρατιωτικοί περνούν από την περιοχή αναζητώντας άνδρες για στρατολόγηση, ή όταν ο ομοσπονδιακός εφοριακός έρχεται να εισπράξει φόρους. Η κυβέρνηση ήταν, λοιπόν, σε ένα μεγάλο μέρος του μεξικανικού πληθυσμού, ο τύραννος που τράβηξε τους εργάτες από τα σπίτια τους για να τους μετατρέψει σε στρατιώτες, ή να τους εκμεταλλευτούν άσχημα απειλώντας πως θα κάνουν κατασχέσεις στο όνομα της φορολογικής αρχής.
Οι πληθυσμοί αυτοί θα αισθανθούν την ανάγκη να έχουν κυβέρνηση; Δεν τη χρειάστηκαν για τίποτα και θα μπορούσαν να ζήσουν με αυτόν τον τρόπο για εκατοντάδες χρόνια, μέχρι που αφαιρέθηκαν τα υπάρχοντά τους προς όφελος των γειτονικών γαιοκτημόνων. Αυτοί δεν τρώγανε ο ένας τον άλλον, όπως φοβόντουσαν όσοι γνωρίζουν μόνο το καπιταλιστικό σύστημα. Ένα σύστημα στο οποίο ο άνθρωπος πρέπει να ανταγωνιστεί όλους τους άλλους για να βάλει ένα κομμάτι ψωμί στο στόμα του. Οι ισχυροί δεν ασκούν τυραννία πάνω από τους αδύναμους, όπως συμβαίνει κάτω από έναν καπιταλιστικό πολιτισμό, στον οποίο ο πιο αδρανής, άπληστος και έξυπνος εξουσιάζει τον τίμιο και καλό. Όλα ήταν αδέλφια σε αυτές τις κοινότητες. Υπήρχε αλληλοβοήθεια και η αίσθηση της ισότητας όπως ήταν πραγματικά, δεν χρειάζονταν αρχές για να παρακολουθήσουν τα συμφέροντα εκείνων που είχαν, φοβούμενοι πιθανές επιθέσεις εκείνων που δεν είχαν.
Σε αυτές τις στιγμές, για ποιο λόγο οι ελεύθερες κοινότητες του Yaqui του Durango, του Νότου του Μεξικού και τόσες άλλες περιοχές στις οποίες ο λαός έχει πάρει την κατοχή της γης, χρειάζεται κυβέρνηση; Από τη στιγμή που θεωρούν οι ίδιοι πως είναι ίσοι μεταξύ τους, με το ίδιο δικαίωμα στη Μητέρα Γη, δεν χρειάζονται αφεντικό για να προστατεύσουν τους προνομιούχους ενάντια σε αυτούς χωρίς προνόμια, επειδή όλοι είναι προνομιούχοι.
Ας ανοίξουμε τα μάτια μας, προλεταριάτο: η κυβέρνηση πρέπει να υπάρχει μόνο όταν υπάρχει οικονομική ανισότητα. Υιοθετήστε ως ηθικό οδηγό, το Μανιφέστο της 23ης Σεπτεμβρίου 1911.
By Ricardo Flores Magon
Δημοσιεύτηκε στην Regeneración, Μάρτης 21, 1914
Καθήκον μας σήμερα να διαλυθούν κατά το δυνατόν αυτές οι «γκρίζες ζώνες», ο φονιάς και το θύμα να μην είναι αγκαλιά.Μιλώντας για τη «γκρίζα ζώνη» στο «Αυτοί που βούλιαξαν και αυτοί που σώθηκαν» ο Πρίμο Λέβι λέει ότι η πιο ακραία φιγούρα των στρατοπέδων συγκέντρωσης είναι οι Sonderkommando (ειδική ομάδα), οι Εβραίοι κρατούμενοι στους οποίους οι ναζί είχαν αναθέσει τη διαχείριση των θαλάμων αερίων και των κρεματορίων. Δουλειά τους ήταν να οδηγούν τους έγκλειστους στους θαλάμους αερίων, στη συνέχεια έσερναν έξω τα πτώματα, τα έπλεναν, έβγαζαν τα χρυσά δόντια, έκοβαν τα μαλλιά των γυναικών, έκαναν τη διαλογή ενδυμάτων και υποδημάτων, μετέφεραν τα πτώματα στα κρεματόρια και τέλος άδειαζαν τους φούρνους από τα υπολείμματα της στάχτης.
Η οργάνωση αυτών των ομάδων, ισχυρίζεται ο Πρίμο Λέβι, υπήρξε το δαιμονικότερο έγκλημα του ναζισμού, γιατί διέλυσε το παμπάλαιο δυαδικό σχήμα καλού-κακού που όλοι έχουμε στο μυαλό μας, αυτή την αφαίρεση με την οποία μπορούμε να ερμηνεύσουμε, απλοϊκά έστω, το δυσερμήνευτο όσων συμβαίνουν, γιατί δημιούργησε μια «γκρίζα ζώνη» με δυσδιάκριτο περίγραμμα που ταυτοχρόνως χωρίζει αλλά και συνδέει τους δύο κόσμους: τον κόσμο των δήμιων και τον κόσμο των θυμάτων (άλλωστε, οι ίδιο οι Sonderkommando δεν γλύτωναν από την κοινή μοίρα των εγκλείστων, καθώς οι ναζί φρόντιζαν με ιδιαίτερη επιμέλεια και τη δική τους εξόντωση).
Και αυτό το δυαδικό σχήμα, σε ψυχολογικό επίπεδο, επιτεύχθηκε με το να δημιουργηθούν δεσμοί συνενοχής.
Ο ουγγροεβραίος γιατρός Miklos Nyiszli, ένας από τους ελάχιστους επιζώντες Sonderkommando διέσωσε μια μοναδική μαρτυρία: παραβρέθηκε κάποτε σε κάποια «διάλειμμα από τη δουλειά», σε έναν ποδοσφαιρικό αγώνα μεταξύ μιας ομάδας των SS και μιας ομάδας των Sonderkommando. Στον ρόλο των θεατών, τα υπόλοιπα μέλη και των δύο ομάδων, που χειροκροτούν, ενθαρρύνουν ο καθένας την ομάδα του, στοιχηματίζουν ποιος θα νικήσει, ως εάν αυτός ο αγώνας να γινόταν σε ένα κανονικό επαρχιακό γήπεδο, κι όχι στην είσοδο της κόλασης.
Στο βάθος αυτής της «ανακωχής», αυτού του «διαλείμματος από τη δουλειά», λέει ο Miklos Nyiszli, ακούγεται ένα σατανικό γέλιο: «το κατορθώσαμε, δεν είστε πλέον η άλλη φυλή, η ενάντια φυλή, ο εχθρός του χιλιετούς Ράιχ. Σας αγκαλιάσαμε, σας διαφθείραμε, σας σύραμε στον πάτο μαζί μας. Είστε όμοιοί μας, κηλιδωμένοι από το ίδιο σας το αίμα, όπως εμείς. Κι εσείς, όπως εμείς, όπως ο Κάιν, φονεύσατε τον αδερφό σας. Ελάτε, μπορούμε να παίξουμε μαζί».
Σε όλη την καταγεγραμμένη ανθρώπινη ιστορία, αλλά και σήμερα, σε συνθήκες τόσο διαφορετικές κάθε φορά αλλά πάντα τραγικές, μπορούμε να διακρίνουμε άραγε αυτή την επικίνδυνη συνενοχή; Αντιλαμβανόμαστε ποιοι και πώς μπορούν να επιτελούν, ασυναίσθητα ενδεχομένως, τον ρόλο εκείνων των «ειδικών ομάδων»;
Στον Προμηθέα Δεσμώτη δεν υπάρχει μόνο ο Δίας και ο τιμωρημένος Προμηθέας. Υπάρχει ο γύπας, η Βία και ο Κράτος που αλυσοδένουν τον Προμηθέα, ο Ήφαιστος που έχει φτιάξει τις αλυσίδες…
Καθήκον μας σήμερα να διαλυθούν κατά το δυνατόν αυτές οι «γκρίζες ζώνες», ο φονιάς και το θύμα να μην είναι αγκαλιά.
Στον βράχο του Προμηθέα, ξέρουμε με ποιανού τη μοίρα ταυτιζόμαστε.
KSL: Bulletin of the Kate Sharpley Library No. 95, July 2018 has just been posted on our site. The PDF is up at: https://www.katesharpleylibrary.net/0gb6n3
Lenin is a-coming by Camillo Berneri "The working man needs to be told that Lenin will not be crossing the Alps like some 'great red bear' to liberate Italy"
Anarchism in the 1980s: an interview with another ex-member of Bristol Class War. "It made you feel confident and strong. It wasn’t us who should be worried. It was them! ‘Behold Your Future Executioners!’"
Portrait of the artist as a wanted man: Philip Ruff’s search for Peter the Painter by John Patten "Ruff has discovered the where and how of his last disappearance. The final words of the book reflect on Žāklis’s fate, but also show what Ruff has learned himself: ‘survival can demand as much bravery as the willingness to die for a noble cause’."
The Anarchists in London 1935-1955 : a Personal Memoir by Albert Meltzer [Review]. "When the second edition of 'The Albert Memorial' was being put together, I recall one of Albert’s comrades saying ‘I miss the old rascal’. Now we have a chance to enjoy some of his work again.
Anarchist History Roundup July 2018 The Rag-Pickers’ Puigcerdá Manifesto: Fight for History; Tyneside Anarchist Archive; Working Class History Podcast: John Barker Interview; Sparks of Hope; Anarchist history on screen
In order to understand government politics, it is necessary to have a theory of the state. The essay reviews classical anarchist and Marxist views of the class-based, pro-capitalist, nature of the state. But there are also non-class and non-capitalist influences on the state. These need to be integrated into a class theory of the state.For anarchists and other radicals to really understand the Trump administration, and what is generally happening in U.S. politics, requires an analysis of the U.S. government. This, in turn, requires a theoretical understanding of the state, the basic framework of government. Yet, as Kristian Williams writes, in Whither Anarchism? “For a group so fixated on countering…the state, it is surprising how rarely today’s anarchists have bothered to put forward a theory about [it]….The inability or unwillingness to develop a theory of the state (or more modestly, an analysis of states)…has repeatedly steered the anarchist movement into blind alleys.” (Williams 2018; 26-7)
Of the theories which place the state within the context of the capitalist economy and all other oppressions (patriarchy, racism, ecological destruction, etc.), anarchism and Marxism stand out. Yet few Marxists know anything of the anarchist view of the state, and few anarchists know anything of Marxist state theory. (For that matter, as Williams implies, few anarchists know much of any state theory.) For example, most Marxists believe that anarchism denies that class factors are important for the state—and that it contradicts anarchism to believe that they are. They see anarchism as focused solely on the state, ignoring factors of class and political economy. Meanwhile, many anarchists believe that Marxists see the state as simply a reflex of the wishes of the capitalist ruling class, with no independent interests of its own and no reaction to other class and non-class forces.
I am going to review the classical anarchist and Marxist theories about the nature of the state and its relationship to classes and political economy. By “classical anarchism,” I mean essentially the views of J-P Proudhon, Michael Bakunin, and Peter Kropotkin (and not the views of individualists, Stirnerites, or “post-left”/“post-anarchists”). By “classical Marxism,” I mean the views of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (and not the views of social democratic reformists or Stalinists).
When writing of “the state,” I do not include any and every means of social coordination, collective decision-making, settling of differences, or protection from anti-social agression. Humans lived for tens of thousands of years in hunter-gatherer societies (also called “primitive communism”) and early agricultural villages. They provided themselves with social coordination, etc., through communal self-management. What they did not have were states. The state is a bureaucratic-military institution, dominating a territory through specialized armed forces (police and military) and bureaucratic layers of people who make decisions, ruling over—and separate from—the rest of the population.
“The State…not only includes the existence of a power situated above society, but also of a territorial concentration as well as the concentration in the hands of a few of many functions in the life of societies….A whole mechanism of legislation and of policing has to be developed….”
(Kropotkin 2014; 254) The state is a “public force [which] consists not merely of armed men but also of material appendages, prisons, and coercive institutions of all kinds…organs of society standing above society…representatives of a power which estranges them from society….” (Engels 1972; 230-1) This is the view of both Kropotkin and Engels. When speaking of the end of the state under socialism/communism, they did not mean the end of all collective decision-making, etc., but the end of this bureaucratic-military, socially-alienated, elite institution.
The Views of the Classical Anarchists
The first person to call himself an “anarchist,” Proudhon, wrote, “In a society based on inequality of conditions, government, whatever it is, feudal, theocratic, bourgeois, imperial, is reduced, in last analysis, to a system of insurance for the class which exploits and owns against that which is exploited and owns nothing.” The state “finds itself inevitably enchained to capital and directed against the proletariat.” (Proudhon 2011; 18)
Bakunin, who as much as anyone initiated anarchism as a movement, wrote, “The State has always been the patrimony of some privileged class: the sacerdotal class, the nobility, the bourgeoisie—and finally…the class of bureaucracy….” And “Modern capitalist production and banking speculations demand for their full development a vast centralized State apparatus which alone is capable of subjecting the millions of toilers to their exploitation.” (quoted in Morris 1993; 99)
Kropotkin elaborated anarchist theory: “All legislation made within the State…always has been made with regard to the interests of the privileged classes….The State is an institution which was developed for the very purpose of establishing monopolies in favor of the slave and serf owners, the landed proprietors,…the merchant guilds and the moneylenders, the kings, the military commanders, the ‘noblemen,’ and finally, in the nineteenth century, the industrial capitalists, whom the State supplied with ‘hands’ driven from the land. Consequently, the State would be…a useless institution, once these [class] monopolies ceased to exist.” (2014; 186-8)
In brief, the classical anarchists saw a direct connection between the state and exploitative class society, serving the various upper classes as they lived off the lower, working, classes. This is the “class theory” of the state, also called the “materialist” or “historical materialist” state theory.
The class theory of the state is frequently criticized as a “reductionist,” “instrumentalist,” theory, which crudely reduces all government activity to the desires of the capitalist class. It is criticized for allegedly ignoring conflicts within that class, the pressures of other classes (such as lobbying by unions), and non-class forces. Non-class forces include all subsystems of oppression: sexism, racism, sexual orientation, national oppression, etc.—each, in its own way, maintained by the state. There are other pressures on the state, such as by the churches. As an institution, with its personnel, the state has its own interests. Supposedly, the materialist or class state theory ignores all this. In my opinion, it is this criticism which is itself oversimplified, as I will try to show.
The Views of the Classical Marxists
As with the anarchists, the Marxist form of the class theory of the state has been accused of being class reductionist, oversimplified, and mechanical.
In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels wrote, “The executive of the modern State is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.” (in Draper 1998; 111) Draper calls this sentence, “the most succinctly aphoristic statement by Marx of his theory of the state.” (same; 207)
This is often taken to mean that the state is merely a passive reflex of the capitalist class, with all the influence going from the bourgeoisie to the state. In fact, the sentence says that the state—or rather its executive branch—actively manages the interests of the bourgeoisie, as opposed to merely reflecting them. In any case, it is a brief and condensed (“succinctly aphoristic”) statement, by no means a whole exposition of a theory.
Over the years, Marx and Engels developed their analysis of the state (an excellent overview is in Draper 1977). Marx’s major work on the state appears in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. It was written in 1852 and covered French politics leading up to the elected president, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte (nephew of the Emperor Napoleon), seizing power and establishing his dictatorship (Marx 2002). Here and in other works he goes into the details of French politics. It become clear that Marx regards the state as full of conflicts among classes, fractions of classes, and agents of fractions of classes.
He uncovered the political-economic conflicts among the financial aristocracy (who supported one claimant to the monarchy), the large landowners (who supported another), the manufacturing bourgeoisie, the “republican” bourgeoisie (an ideological current within the bourgeoisie), the “democratic-republican” petty-bourgeoisie, and, below them all, the proletariat (mostly passive due to a recent major defeat), and the peasantry (who gave their support to the conman Louis-Napoleon, partially due to his name). There were splits within each of these forces. Marx also included the government officials and the army officers (all seeking money). He was clear that there were personal hostilities, ideological commitments, prejudices, and ambitions through which these conflicts worked themselves out.
Applying this approach to the current U.S. government would analyze the differing fractions of the capitalist class and its ideological and political agents and hangers-on, in their conflicting relations with each other and with sections of the middle and working classes.
The other main theme of Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire is the increasing independence of the state from all classes, including all sections of the bourgeoisie. Balancing between conflicting class forces, the executive branch of the state tends to rise above them all. Marx called this “Bonapartism,” and it has been discussed as the “relative autonomy” of the state. With the dictator’s abolition of the legislature and its political parties, as well as censorship over political discussion, the bourgeoisie lost direct control over the government. The capitalists were made to focus on running their businesses and making money, while Louis Bonaparte ran the state (declaring himself the new “Emperor”). This he did through the state bureaucracy, the army, and a quasi-fascist-like mass movement, as well as with popular support from the peasants.
In Defense of the Class Theory of the State
So, there are many fractions of the capitalist class, other classes, and non-class forces all competing for state influence. And the state itself has its own interests and a degree of autonomy from even the bourgeoisie. Does this mean that the class theory of the state is wrong?
I do not think so. In itself, that there may be multiple determinants of something does not decide the relative weights or importance of each determinant. There are many influences on the state, all of which may have some effect. Still, the overall need of a capitalist society is to maintain the capitalist economy, the growth and accumulation of capital, the continued rule of the capitalist class. Without the surplus wealth pumped out of the working population, the state and the rest of the system cannot last. This is the primary need of the society and the primary task of the state. Even if the bourgeoisie has little or no direct control of the government (as under Bonapartism or fascist totalitarianism), the state must keep the capitalist system going, the capitalists driving the proletariat to work, and profits being produced. The extreme example of this was under Stalinist state capitalism (in the USSR, Maoist China, etc.). The stock-owning bourgeoisie was abolished, yet the collective state bureaucracy continued to manage the accumulation of capital through state exploitation of the working class. (That is, until it fell back into traditional capitalism.)
This has been elaborated by Wetherly (2002; 2005). The class theory “involves a claim that the capitalist class is able to wield more potent power resources over against pressure from below and the capacity for independent action on the part of the state itself….The political sway of the capitalist class [is] not exclusive but predominant.” (Wetherly 2002; 197) “It does not claim that the economic structure exclusively explains the character of the state, but it assigns these other influences a minor role….Economic causation plays a primary role in explaining state action to sustain accumulation as a general feature of capitalist society. The state normally sustains accumulation and this is largely explained by the nature of the economic structure.” (same; 204-5)
Others have theorized the interactions and overlapping of oppressions with each other and with class exploitation as “social reproductive theory” (Bhattacharya 2017). The different oppressions are not simply separate while occasionally intersecting; rather, they co-produce each other, within the overall drive of the whole system to reproduce and accumulate capital. For example, the oppression of women is directly related to the need for the system to reproduce the labor power of all workers (a necessity for capitalist production), which is done through the family. Similarly, Africans were enslaved to create a source of cheap labor. African-Americans remain racially oppressed in order to maintain a pool of cheap (super-exploited) labor, as well as to split and weaken the working class as a whole through white racism. (These factors are not the whole of sexism or racism, but are their essential overlap with capitalist exploitation.)
The state is not something added onto the capitalist economy, but a necessity if the capital/labor process is to go (relatively) smoothly—just as (reciprocally) the efficient functioning of the capitalist production process is necessary for the state to exist.
Primitive Accumulation and the State
The classical bourgeois economists, such as Adam Smith and David Riccardo, had speculated that capitalism began by artisans and small merchants gradually building up their capital, until they had enough to hire employees. This was called “primitive (or primary) accumulation.” Marx rejected this fairy tale, showing how the state and other non-market forces played major roles in the early accumulation of wealth. There was state-supported dispossession of European peasants; slavery of Africans and Native Americans; looting of Ireland, India, and South America; piracy; and plunder of the natural environment. In Capital, Marx wrote of “the power of the state, the concentrated and organized force of society, to hasten, hothouse fashion, the process of transformation of the feudal mode of production into the capitalist mode….Force is…itself an economic power.” (Marx 1906; 823-4)
Kropotkin criticized Marx’s concept of primitive accumulation—not because he disagreed that state coercion played a major role in the development of capitalism! He completely agreed with Marx on that point. Rather, Kropotkin insisted that state support for capitalism had never stopped; there was no distinct period of early accumulation, followed by a period of state non-intervention in the economy.
“What, then, is the use of talking, with Marx, about the ‘primitive accumulation’—as if this ‘push’ given to capitalists were a thing of the past?….The State has always interfered in the economic life in favor of the capitalist exploiter. It has always granted him protection in robbery, given aid and support for further enrichment. And it could not be otherwise. To do so was one of the functions—the chief mission—of the State.” (Kropotkin 2014; 193)
Similarly, the Marxist feminist Silvia Federici writes, “The need of a gendered perspective on the history of capitalism…led me, among others, to rethink Marx’s account of primitive accumulation….Contrary to Marx’s anticipation, primitive accumulation has become a permanent process….” (2017; 93)
However, Marx had expected that once capitalism had reached its final development, its epoch of decline, it would once again rely heavily on non-market and state forces. In his Grundrisse, he wrote, “As soon as [capital] begins to sense itself as a barrier to development, it seeks refuge in forms which, by restricting free competition…are…the heralds of its dissolution ….” (quoted in Price 2013; 69)
In any case, no one could deny today that government intervention is an essential part of the economy—from massive armaments expenditures to central banks to regulation of the stock exchange, etc. The key point is that the state is not an institution truly distinct from the capitalist economy. On the contrary, it is a central instrument in the creation, development, accumulation, and eventual decay of capitalism. “Force is itself an economic power.”
Disagreement between Anarchists and Marxists on the State
Revolutionary anarchists and Marxists agree that the working class and the rest of the exploited and oppressed should overturn the power of the capitalist class. The workers and their allies should dismantle the capitalist state, capitalist businesses, and other forms of oppression, and organize a new society based on freedom, equality, and cooperation.
But they draw different conclusions from the class theory of the state. Marxists say that since the state is the instrument for a class to carry out its interests, then the workers and their allies need their own state. They need it in order to overthrow the capitalists and create a new socialist society of freedom and solidarity. The new state will either be created by taking over the old state (perhaps by elections) and modifying it, or by overthrowing the old state (through revolution) and building a new one. Over time, Marxists say, the task of holding down the capitalists and their agents will become less important, as the new society is solidified. Then the state will gradually decline. There may still be a centralized public power for social coordination, but it will become benevolent and no longer have coercive powers.
However, anarchists have a different conclusion. Since the state is a bureaucratic-military elite machine for class domination, it cannot be used for liberation. Such a supposed “workers’ state,” however it comes into existence, would only result in a new ruling class of bureaucrats, exploiting the workers as if the state was a capitalist corporation or set of corporations. This was predicted by Proudhon, Bakunin, and Kropotkin, way back in the beginning of the socialist movement. History has more than justified the prediction.
Instead, the anarchists propose that the workers and oppressed organize themselves through federations and networks of workplace assemblies, neighborhood councils, and voluntary associations. They should replace the police and military with a democratically-coordinated armed population (a militia), so long as this is still necessary. Such associations would provide all the coordination, decision-making, dispute-settling, economic planning, and self-defense necessary—without a state. It would not be a state, because it would not be a bureaucratic-military socially-alienated machine such as had served ruling minorities throughout history. Instead it would be the self-organization of the working people and formerly oppressed.
The class theory of the state claims that the bureaucratic-military social machine of the state exists primarily to develop and maintain capitalism, the capitalist upper class, and capital’s drive to accumulate. There are also other influences on the state. These include factional conflicts within the capitalist class, demands by the working and middle classes, pressures to maintain other oppressions (race, gender, etc.) and resistance by these oppressed, other non-class forces, ideologies, and also the self-interest of the state itself and its personnel. Yet these myriad forces work out within the context of the need for capitalism to maintain itself and to expand. Therefore the political sway of the capitalist class is not exclusive but it is predominant. The fight against the state, against capitalism, and against all oppressions is one fight. It is a struggle for a society of freedom, individual self-development, the end of the state and of classes, self-determination and self-management in every area of living.
Bhattacharya, Tithi (2017) (ed.). Social Reproductive Theory; Remapping Class, Recentering Oppression. London: Pluto Press.
Draper, Hal (1977). Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, Vol. 1; State and Bureaucracy. NY: Monthly Review Press.
Draper, Hal (1998) (ed.). The Adventures of the Communist Manifesto. Berkeley CA: Center for Socialist History.
Engels, Friedrich (1972). The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State (Ed.: E. Leacock). NY: International Publishers.
Federici, Silvia (2017). “Capital and Gender.” In Reading Capital Today; Marx After 150 Years. (Eds.: I. Schmidt & C. Fanelli). London: Pluto Press. Pp. 79—96.
Kropotkin, Peter (2014). Direct Struggle Against Capital; A Peter Kropotkin Anthology (Ed.: Iain McKay). Oakland CA: AK Press.
Marx, Karl (1906). Capital; A Critique of Political Economy; Vol. 1 (Ed.: F. Engels). NY: Modern Library.
Marx, Karl (2002). “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” (Trans.: T. Carver). In Cowling, M., & Martin, J. (eds.). Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire; (Post)modern Interpretations. London: Pluto Press. Pp. 19—109.
Morris, Brian (1993). Bakunin; The Philosophy of Freedom. Montreal/NY: Black Rose Books.
Price, Wayne (2013). The Value of Radical Theory; An Anarchist Introduction to Marx’s Critique of Political Economy. Oakland CA: AK Press.
Proudhon, Pierre-Joseph (2011). Property is Theft; A Pierre-Joseph Proudhon Anthology (Ed.: Iain McKay). Oakland CA: AK Press.
Wetherly, Paul (2002). “Making Sense of the ‘Relative Autonomy’ of the State.” In Cowling, M., & Martin, J. (eds.). Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire; (Post)modern Interpretations. London: Pluto Press. Pp. 195—208.
Wetherly, Paul (2005). Marxism and the State; An Analytical Approach. NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
Williams, Kristian (2018). Whither Anarchism? Chico CA: To The Point/AK Press.
*written for www.Anarchism.net
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