Recently, the Communist Party USA was meeting in Chicago, where it was founded in 1919. The CPUSA has liked to meet in Chicago to commemorate the Haymarket Riot of 1886 and the execution of some socialist anarchists who were falsely convicted of throwing a bomb into the Haymarket crowd of union strikers and policemen. The communists visited the Haymarket monument, on Desplaines Street between Randolph and Lake streets, to show their solidarity with the Haymarket martyrs. The anarchists who were executed were buried in Forest Home Cemetery. Out of respect for them, other anarchists--including Emma Goldman--chose to be buried there.
This suggests two questions. Is communism still defensible today, despite the history of communist regimes that have failed? And what is the relationship between communism and anarchism?
Since the collapse of Soviet Communism and of the Maoist communist regime in China, it has been common to assume that Marxist communism no longer has any popular appeal, which has led Frank Fukuyama to declare the "end of history" with the triumph of liberal democracy over its illiberal adversaries. And yet, over the past ten years, some people have argued that as liberal democracy faces new crises, we are seeing the "return of history," and we need to look for a "new communism."
One sign of this new thinking was the conference on "The Idea of Communism," organized by the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities in London in March of 2009. The organizers--Costas Douzinas and Slavoj Zizek--were expecting only a small audience. When over a thousand people registered for the event, they had to move to larger rooms to handle the overflow crowd. The keynote lecture was Alain Badiou's "The Idea of Communism." The conference papers were published as a book--The Idea of Communism (Verso, 2010)--and Badiou elaborated his reasoning in another book--The Communist Hypothesis (Verso, 2010)--bound as a little red book, evoking memories of Mao. Badiou identifies himself as a Platonic philosopher who has translated Plato's Republic, and for him communism is an eternal Platonic Idea (5, 66-67, 229-30, 254).
Badiou's book develops two lines of reasoning--a mathematical analogy and a historical argument. To show how the "communist hypothesis" has not ended in complete failure, because its failure "simply proves that it was not the right way to resolve the initial problem," Badiou compares the hypothetical truth of communism with "Fermat's theorem":
"Countless attempts were made to prove this, from Fermat, who formulated the hypothesis . . . to Wiles, the English mathematician, who really did prove it a few years ago. Many of these attempts became the starting point for mathematical developments of great import, even though they did not succeed in solving the problem itself. It was therefore vital not to abandon the hypothesis for the three hundred years during which it was impossible to prove it. The lessons of all the failures, and the process of examining them and their implications, were the lifeblood of mathematics. In that sense, failure is nothing more than the history of the proof of the hypothesis, provided that the hypothesis is not abandoned. As Mao puts it, the logic of imperialists and all reactionaries the world over is 'make trouble, fail, make trouble again,' but the logic of the people is 'fight, fail, fail again, fight again . . . until their victory." (6-7)There are two reasons why this is a bad analogy. First, while Badiou is right that a failure to prove a hypothesis is not a proof of its falsity, there's a good argument that socialism has been proven to be false by Ludwig von Mises, who showed that socialism could not solve the problem of economic calculation. Pure socialism, as Marx indicated, would have to abolish money and all buying and selling. If this were done, it would be impossible to organize any large industrialized economy, because no one would be able to calculate economic value without prices. Lenin discovered this when the Russian socialist economy of 1917-1921 collapsed, and he had to reintroduce limited markets as the "New Economic Policy." Socialist planners in modern economies can limit but they cannot completely abolish market pricing, which shows that Mises was right. Badiou makes no attempt to refute Mises's reasoning.
The other reason why Badiou's mathematical analogy is bad is that the many failed attempts to prove Fermat's theorem did not kill anyone! By contrast, the many failed attempts to prove the communist hypothesis have killed many people in some of the greatest atrocities of human history. In fact, Badiou casually mentions that some historians estimate that Mao killed seventy million people, and Badiou is not bothered by this at all (265). Badiou and Zizek have been identified by one French writer as "philosophers of Terror." Badiou accepts the label.
Badiou's second line of reasoning is the historical argument that the idea of communism has been clarified through three historical episodes--the Paris Commune of 1871, the Cultural Revolution in China (1965-1976), and the general strike of students and workers in France in May of 1968. What Badiou sees here are three attempts to move away from the centralized power of the "party-state" towards a mass mobilization of the people for decentralized self-management by which the State is abolished. This suggests that the true idea of communism would be fulfilled in socialist anarchy (23, 69-71, 87-88, 108, 113-56, 177-228, 240, 248, 253, 275). Badiou is confusing about this, however, because in referring to the "ineffective anarchy" of the Paris Commune, he implies that he cannot embrace anarchism (134, 180-81).
Remarkably, except for a couple of references to Proudhon, Badiou never mentions any of the anarchist thinkers, and he is completely silent about the debates between anarchists and communists, including the debate between Marx and Mikhail Bakunin that broke up the First International (the International Working Men's Association) in 1872. And thus Badiou refuses to face the fact that Bakunin and other socialist anarchists correctly predicted that Marxist communism would establish a new form of centralized State power that would exploit the proletariat. Badiou repeatedly quotes Mao's remark that in a communist society, the bourgeoisie can be found hiding "right inside the Communist Party itself" (70, 113-14, 263). But Badiou does not acknowledge that this is exactly what Bakunin predicted--that the "Worker's State" of communism would actually become rule by the "red bourgeoisie."
Marx agreed with Bakunin that the fulfillment of socialist society would eventually require the "withering away of the state," and thus Marx was an anarchist as well as Bakunin. But Marx also insisted that the socialist revolution could not immediately abolish the State, as Bakunin argued, because there would have to be first a centralization of State power in the "dictatorship of the proletariat" under the leadership of the communist party, which would have the power to abolish the rule of the bourgeois class as preparation for the final stage of socialist anarchy.
In 1874, when Marx was reading Bakunin's Statism and Anarchy, he copied passages from the pamphlet and then wrote his rebuttal. In one passage, Bakunin predicts that in a communist party-state, where the rulers are elected by the workers, these rulers will become a new ruling class: "And they'll start looking down on all ordinary workers from the heights of the state: they will now represent not the people but themselves and their claims to govern the people. He who doubts this simply doesn't know human nature." To which Marx responded: "If Herr Bakunin knew even one thing about the situation of the manager of a workers' cooperative factory, all his hallucinations about domination would go to the devil. He would have to ask himself what form the functions of administration can assume on the basis of such a worker state, if it pleases him to call it that" (The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert Tucker, 546).
Peter Singer opens his Darwinian Left by quoting this and then arguing that the history of the Marxist regimes shows that Bakunin was right and Marx wrong, because it is a tendency of human nature that when people have unchecked centralized power over others, they will abuse that power. Singer then uses this as an illustration of how the left's utopian expectations have been frustrated by human nature, and then he proposes that a Darwinian science of human nature would provide the left with a scientific understanding of evolved human nature and the constraints that it puts on human social life.
We might wonder whether that evolved human nature permits a socialist anarchy. How do human beings organize their social life without a government or State? Anarchists have answered that in fact most of human evolutionary history has been anarchistic, in that our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived in stateless societies that organized social life without a centralized government or State exercising coercive authority over them.
But then we might wonder whether this is possible in the large industrialized societies that dominate the world today. Bakunin contended that this was possible if farmers and workers organized themselves into local self-governing communal groups that could organize themselves into federations of communes cooperating for common purposes. Instead of working for employers, workers would cooperatively manage their own workplaces. Although individuals would own personal property, the land and the means of production would be held as common property for all, and wage labor would be abolished. Thus, social order would emerge from the bottom up, and at each level of social organization, decisions would be made by social consensus or majority-rule. There would be no professional bureaucrats or politicians. And thus there would be no centralized government or State ruling over all.
Bakunin thought that the Paris Commune of 1871 was moving in this direction. After France was defeated by Prussia in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, the French Empire of Napoleon III fell, and a new French Republic was established. But then the working class population of Paris resisted the authority of the new government and demanded that Paris should be self-governing with its own elected council. Paris was the home of various radical groups, including socialists and anarchists. The largest armed force in Paris was the National Guard, composed of men with little training who were organized by neighborhoods, who resisted the French troops who entered Paris to attempt to take the cannon claimed by the National Guard. By March 18 of 1871, the French troops were forced to withdraw, and the National Guard assumed control of Paris.
The National Guard created a Central Committee of thirty-eight members that took over the functions of government and called elections for March 23. A Commune council of 92 members was elected, one member for each twenty thousand residents in a city of two million. There was no president, mayor, or commander-in-chief. Most of the council were radical republicans, and some were anarchists and socialists. The council declared that Paris was an independent commune and that all of France should be organized as a confederation of independent communes. All council members could be recalled at any moment by the voters. They were paid a wage equal to an average worker's wage. The council initiated proposals to turn workplaces into worker self-managed cooperatives. Every able-bodied man was considered a member of the National Guard. The officers of the National Guard were elected by the soldiers.
The Commune was under constant military threat. On May 21, troops of the French government entered the city. After seven days of savage street fighting, the Communards were defeated, and many were massacred. The Commune had lasted for only a short time, from March 18 to May 28.
In "The Paris Commune and the Idea of the State," written in 1871 shortly after the collapse of the Commune, Bakunin saw the Commune as the first demonstration of socialist anarchism in which the State could be abolished, and the people could spontaneously rule themselves cooperatively without government. He admitted, however, that the majority of the Parisians were Jacobin republicans who still believed in the need for government, and that the socialist anarchists were a small minority.
He thought the Commune had gone far enough towards anarchism to show that Marx was wrong to believe that a socialist revolution would have to first go through a period of proletarian dictatorship under the rule of the communist party. Marx's dictatorship of the proletariat, Bakunin argued, would create a new State with a ruling party elite that exploit the people under the pretext of serving the common welfare.
On May 30, Marx drafted a statement on the Paris Commune on behalf of the General Council of the First International. At this time, the International included both Marxists and Bakuninists, and Marx was trying to reconcile these two currents of thought in the International.
Contrary to what Bakunin said about the Commune as the abolition of government, Marx correctly saw that this was a democratic republic based on universal suffrage that was designed to replace the old repressive government with a "working men's government" that would emancipate labor and organize an economy based on cooperative production. Rather than abolishing the state power, the communards were trying to appropriate state power for the interests of a working men's society.
In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels had said that the "first step in the revolution by the working class, is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle of democracy" (Marx-Engels Reader, 490). In the Preface to the German edition of 1872, they identified the Paris Commune as illustrating the first step of the revolution, because "the proletariat for the first time held political power for two whole months" (470). Later, Engels declared that we now know what the Dictatorship of the Proletariat looks like. "Look at the Paris Commune. That was the Dictatorship of the Proletariat" (629).
Although Marx had a more accurate view of the Paris Commune than did Bakunin, the anarchists might still insist that Bakunin had a more accurate view of the tyrannical propensities of a Marxist dictatorship under communist party rule. After all, Bakunin's predictions were born out by the rule of Lenin's party in Russia. Following Marx's teaching, Lenin insisted that the dictatorial rule of the communist party would have to precede any "withering away of the state."
When Emma Goldman was deported from the United States to Russia in 1919, she saw confirmation of her anarchist suspicions of Marxist government. She saw that workers who tried to strike were crushed. In a dictatorship of the proletariat, she was told, workers cannot strike because they would be going on strike against themselves. She saw that anyone who criticized the brutality of the Party was imprisoned.
And, then, in 1921, she saw the ultimate expression of Leninist tyranny. Workers in Petrograd attempted to go on strike. The sailors on Kronstadt (a naval fortress in the harbor of Petrograd) expressed their solidarity with the strikers. The Kronstadt sailors were famous for their support of the Bolshevik revolution. But in response to their support of the strikers, the Party leaders authorized Leon Trotsky to launch a ten-day bombardment of Kronstadt. Then, on March 18, the 50th anniversary of the Paris Commune, Kronstadt fell to communist troops, and thousands of the sailors were massacred.
After leaving Russia, Goldman wrote My Disillusionment in Russia (1923) and My Further Disillusionment in Russia (1924); and thus she became one of the first people on the left to recognize that Soviet Russia had betrayed the promise of socialist revolution to emancipate the workers and the peasants, and that, on the contrary, it had become a new form of statist tyranny with the Communist Party as the ruling class.
But even if one is persuaded by the attack on Marxist socialism coming from anarchists like Bakunin and Goldman, one might then wonder whether the anarchists have any positive alternative of their own. How exactly can they bring about a socialist revolution that immediately abolishes the state without any need for a revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat?
For Goldman and other anarchists, the answer came in the Spanish Civil War, particularly during the ten months (from July of 1936 to May of 1937) when the anarchist union movement controlled the Catalonian region of Spain. Based on the principle that "the emancipation of the workers must be the work of the workers themselves," workers took control of the factories and workplaces, and peasants took control of their land, with workers and peasants organizing their lives cooperatively. And instead of armies and police forces, the enforcement of order was turned over to worker militias. This great anarchist experiment was finally crushed by Communists backed by the Soviet Union. This conflict between the Communists and the anarchists contributed to the final defeat of the republican forces by Francisco Franco's fascists.
And yet, although the socialist anarchists have been good critics of Marxist dictatorship, the Marxists have rightly pointed to the incoherence of anarchist theory and the impotence of anarchist practice, which will be the subject of my next post.
The best history of socialist anarchism is Peter Marshall, Demanding the Imposssible: A History of Anarchism (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2010). The best collection of socialist anarchist writing is Daniel Guerin's edited anthology, No Gods, No Masters: An Anthology of Anarchism (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2005).