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

by Jehu

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.