The Real Movement

Communism is free time and nothing else!

Month: August, 2017

The first rule of strategy is don’t make dumb promises

Marxists who want to insist on their differences with anarchists can certainly find a lot of support for this position in Marx’s writings. Marx and Bakunin did not hesitate to make their differences known to the point it ultimately crippled and destroyed the first international.

The most important difference between them is in fact something they never actually had to grapple with in their own lifetimes: What social arrangement would exist after the bourgeois state was overthrown? Bakunin, a Proudhonist, believed nothing should replace the state. Marx insisted the present state would be replaced by an association.

Notice here that there was no difference between Bakunin and Marx with regards the existing state, the bourgeois state. Both thinkers agreed that it had to be overthrown. The question that separated them is what would happen next. While Bakunin thought a stateless society was possible immediately after the overthrow of the bourgeois state, Marx held that this would be unrealistic given the state of the productive forces of society.

For Marx, in the immediate aftermath of the overthrow of the bourgeois state, the working class would be forced to organize itself as a ruling class and impose its dictatorship over the old classes. This dictatorship would have two important tasks: (a) crush the resistance of the old classes; (b) expropriate their property and employ it to speed up the development of the productive forces.

The first task is probably uncontroversial. No one in their right mind would let capitalists keep their property, guns and political power, otherwise what is the point of making the revolution in the first place? Bakunin’s real objection to Marx’s argument likely hung on the idea that the workers commune would take all of this newly expropriated property under its control and manage it socially.

To give an example: there would be no distribution of land to the peasants; land would be nationalized and managed by the commune. The land of the aristocrats would be seized by the commune and its cultivation would be managed by the commune, not divided up again among the peasants. The commune would have a monopoly on ownership of land and this monopoly would be enforced by its political dictatorship.

As anyone can see, this is patently a state.

Between capitalism and communism

With all land monopolized by the commune, the most advanced techniques and scientific knowledge would be implemented to speed up agricultural development. This acceleration of the development of production in agriculture would be ensured by removing the barriers created by the drive for profit. The peasants would become social producers and their private means of production would be replaced by a new social production infrastructure.

According to Engels, Marx even speculated that the peasant’s interest in the land could be ‘bought out’ by the commune to ease the transition. This would be possible, since, in Marx’s view, the commune should also establish a monopoly over money. It could print up currency in whatever quantity was necessary to simply purchase the peasants interest in the land, much as the Fed does today with the toxic assets of the financial sector.

For Bakunin, of course, this sort of idea was anathema, a cursed attempt to replace one dictatorship with another. His (Proudhon’s?) idea seems to be that property would be distributed among the population and managed through a federation of producers. The goal Bakunin had in mind was to prevent the sort of central control that could give rise to the very sort of communal monopoly on the means of production Marx advocated.

There is, in my mind, some logic to this objection, because what Marx was actually proposing was to do exactly what capital was already doing. Capital was already in the process of monopolizing the land and subjecting it to the most advanced technical and scientific methods of production possible. The peasants and other intermediate classes would be brutally expropriated and forced into the ranks of the propertyless mass, the proletarians

Marx wasn’t promising peasants they could avoid this fate; he simply promised there would be no brutality; the peasants could be part of the commune and decide how to accomplish this transition. The peasants didn’t have to accept, of course. They could cling to their tiny plots of land. They could oppose the revolution. It didn’t matter. Even absent a proletarian revolution, capital would expropriate their small holding anyway. And capital wouldn’t negotiate how to get it done.

As Engels put it, “it is the duty of our Party to make clear to the peasants again and again that their position is absolutely hopeless as long as capitalism holds sway”. The peasant could climb on-board with the antisemites if they want, but it would not save them from their fate. The commune could not prevent the abolition of the small producers, it could only promise no force would be employed to do this.

There were two paths to the demise of the small producers and we all know which path they chose. To put this another way, Bakunin’s objection to Marx’s proletarian dictatorship was no objection at all in reality. Nothing anyone did could avoid what was going to happen to the peasants. Capital was going to expropriate the small producers and then capitals would turn on each other and kill each other off in a bloody conclusion to the capitalist epoch.

Don’t make dumb promises

However, I believe there is a second lesson in this example: There was no way Marx’s idea could ever work; it was the biggest ‘Hail Mary’ in socialist thinking. The real purpose of the idea (in my opinion) was never to actually implement this scheme, but to stop fucking communists from making dumb promises they could never fulfill.

No one could promise peasants they could be saved from extinction, unless you were the worst sort of charlatan. At best, you could promise them that the process would not be as brutal as it was going to get as capital entered the 20th century. It didn’t do anyone any good to make promises to peasants and other intermediate strata that we could protect them from what was coming. As Engels put it presciently in 1894,

“[We] can do no greater disservice to the Party as well as to the small peasants than to make promises that even only create the impression that we intend to preserve the small holdings permanently. It would mean directly to block the way of the peasants to their emancipation and to degrade the Party to the level of rowdy anti-Semitism.”

No, the communists could not save peasants from ‘Jewish bankers’ and we never even should try to engage them on that level. They were already extinct as a class; we could give them hospice, but no protection.

This isn’t a politically palatable position, (who runs on a platform that says, “Your economic position is hopeless and you have no future as a class, vote for me.”), but communists are not magicians; they cannot just promise everything will be an idyllic agrarian utopia if people just vote for them. They had to honestly state what was possible and what was not possible given the actual material state of society at the time.

If you are willing to lie to people to win, what sort of morality is this? At a time when progressives are offering a smorgasbord of false promises in the form of universal basic income, jobs guarantee or a $15 minimum wage as solutions for the social ills created by capital, it would do communists well to remember that nothing will prevent wages from going to zero and unemployment to 100%.

Ideas that promise this can be prevented are false and should not be part of our strategy.

Rethinking Marx’s Grand Strategy

Of the three men Marx, Bakunin and Lassalle, it might be helpful to think of their differences in terms of grand strategic thinking. Each of the three had a unique grand strategic idea.

Lassalle’s is probably easiest to describe as it is this way by Wikipedia:

“Lassalle considered the state as an independent entity, an instrument of justice essential for the achievement of the socialist program.”

This attitude toward the existing state is in marked contrast with that of both Bakunin and Marx. Despite their differences with Lassalle, however, Bakunin and Marx had entirely different strategic views of the existing state. Bakunin is generally held to have rejected any involvement with, or action in relation to, the existing state.

A Proudhonist in outlook, Bakunin’s view can likely be characterized this way in a quote from Graham:

“[Pretending] to establish order among men, [states] arrange them forthwith in hostile camps, and as their only occupation is to produce servitude at home, their art lies in maintaining war abroad, war in fact and war in prospect.” Governments arouse and manipulate nationalist feelings, such that the “oppression of peoples and their mutual hatred are two correlative, inseparable facts, which reproduce each other, and which cannot come to an end except simultaneously, by the destruction of their common cause, government.”

In the Proudhonist theory of the state, government was the “common cause” of social conflict and divisions; for Marx, it was the reverse: the state was not the cause of social divisions, but a product of those social divisions. As long as society remained divided by classes, classes would give rise to states that, essentially, were only dictatorships of one class over another:

“But whatever form they may have taken, one fact is common to all past ages, viz., the exploitation of one part of society by the other. No wonder, then, that the social consciousness of past ages, despite all the multiplicity and variety it displays, moves within certain common forms, or general ideas, which cannot completely vanish except with the total disappearance of class antagonisms. “

Three thinkers, three different views of the state, three different grand strategies.

Lassalle’s grand strategy is likely the easiest to understand: The working class should aim to gain control of the state through universal suffrage. It would then use the existing state to implement radical reforms in the form of a comprehensive practical program.

For Bakunin’s grand strategy, the working class should aim for the immediate abolition of the state. Since the state was itself the common cause of social conflict and divisions, abolition of the state was the common remedy.

Marx’s grand strategy is likely the least understood and most often misstated. Like Bakunin, Marx believed the working class should aim for the abolition of the existing state. However, in Marx’s opinion, the state was a product of class society and could not be completely abolished until class society was. In the best scenario, the working class could put an end to existing state and replace this state with its own association.

According to Marx, initially, the association would retain features of the old state it replaced in that it would still be an instrument of class repression. The working class would employ its association to repress its class enemies, with all the brutality this implies. But the state power would also be used to speed up the development of the productive forces by concentrating under its control all instruments of production. This latter effort would eventually result in abolition of social conflict and divisions; making possible the final abolition of the state.

This greatly complicates reducing Marx’s ideas to a bumper sticker. With Lassalle, it is easy to state his objective: Seize the state. With Bakunin, it is also easy to state his objective: Abolish the state. With Marx, it is nuanced: Abolish the existing state, replace it with our association, develop the productive forces and eventually the state will go away.

Try putting that on a bumper sticker.

While Lassalle wanted to seize the existing state, Marx wanted to abolish it. But while Bakunin also wanted to abolish the existing state, he argued that nothing should replace it, while Marx argued for an association.

Marx’s grand strategy after Marx

Here is where it start to get complicated; and where I think Marxists lose the thread of Marx’s thinking. Certainly Marx’s differences with Bakunin are fundamental: Marx thinks the state is a product of social conflict while Bakunin thinks the state is the cause of social conflict. However Marx’s differences with Bakunin is based on the actual material state of society. Which is to say, Marx thought the state had to be abolished, but did not think it could be abolished on the basis of then existing economic reality.

Marx’s differences with Bakunin, although resulting from a different analysis of the relation between class society and the state, had to change as society itself changed. If in 1874 the state could not be abolished because class society could not be abolished, this was by no means a permanent feature of society; rather, whether the state could be abolished was determined by the actual state of development of the productive forces.

It was possible that with the development of the productive forces of society, in theory at least, we could one day get to the point where both class society and the state could be immediately abolished in one and the same stroke. Development of the productive forces was the only way to put an end to classes and class society — and thus the only way to be finally rid of the state.

But — and this is what many Marxists miss — development of the productive forces is exactly what capital does. It is entirely possible that capital could develop the productive forces to such an extent that the simultaneous abolition of both class society and the state could be accomplished.

Marxists, however, have dropped the thread of Marx’s argument on this score. Ask a Marxist today and they will insist that there has to be a more or less extended period of time — the duration of which is never quite defined — where wage slavery has been abolished, but society is not ready for full communism. There is in fact nothing in Marx’s theory of the state that says this must be true.

To give this a practical example: Suppose in Marx’s day, the period of socialism would have lasted –say — 140 years, would it still be 140 years in the 1930s? Would it still be 140 years today — almost 140 years after Marx’s death? Does the proletariat get time served off its sentence of hard labor? In another 140 years from now, will it still take another 140 years?

Ask a Marxist this question and watch them gaze dully into the middle distance.

Marxists who, today, still reproach anarchists for seeking the immediate overthrow of the state in its entirety don’t have a leg to stand on; not because Bakunin was right in his dispute with Marx, but because it has been 134 years since that dispute played out.

Our grand strategy as communists today cannot look like Marx’s in 1848. To try to make it look the same would be to deny history itself. What sort of historical materialism is it that denies history?