Ten Theses on Authoritarian and Anti-authoritarian Socialism

Kronstadt_attack by Red Army

[An essay asking whether the term ‘socialism’ is still useful in terms of the deep social change needed today. The photo is of the attack on revolutionary anti-Bolshevik Kronstadt by the Red Army and Bolshevik Party volunteers in 1921, the last chapter of the Bolshevik counter-revolution and civil war that cost around 10 million lives.]

Ten Theses on Authoritarian and Anti-authoritarian Socialism

‘Socialism will be free, or it will not be at all’ (Rudolf Rocker)

1. Socialism, as an ideal, has had many deaths, right from its inception. Its probable last death occurred with the collapse of the so-called ‘real existing socialism’ of the Soviet empire in 1991. The latter totalitarian system is what most people came to identify with the word ‘socialism.’ Despite the last remaining versions in North Korea, Vietnam and Cuba, it has now to all intents and purposes disappeared from contemporary history. Does this matter?

2. This disappearance is ambivalent. On the one hand, good riddance indeed! Authoritarian (‘real’) socialism and its manifold oppressions certainly deserved to die and anti-authoritarian socialists should have been dancing on the streets at the collapse of the totalitarian Soviet empire. On the other hand, the disappearance of ANY ‘grand narrative’, ANY systemic critique, ANY alternative social ideals to capitalism and its puppets in parliamentary democracy also signifies an even stronger capitalist hegemony, fragmentation, alienation, commodification, meaninglessness.

3. Previous deaths of socialism can be briefly listed: the split within the First International between authoritarian Marxists and anti-authoritarian anarchists in 1872, the collapse of working class solidarity and the socialist Second International in August 1914 and the ensuing fratricidal slaughter of World War One, the Bolshevik coup d’état, Red Terror and counter-revolution, the working class defeats and self-defeats in Germany, Hungary, Italy 1917-1921, the German working class support for or non-resistance to Hitler’s take-over in 1933, the Stalinist terror-‘socialism’ with its totalitarian Gulag slave system and its imperial foreign policies, the Communist undermining, anarchist failures and fascist defeat of the Spanish Revolution in 1937-39, the inability to radically transform the capitalist and imperialist system after World War Two, the triumph of affluent consumerism and its economic neo-colonialism over any remnant socialist ‘ideology’ in the Keynesian warfare-welfare state and then in neoliberal globalization.

4. As anarchists pointed out from the beginning, from Babeuf, Buonarroti and Blanqui to Lassalle, Marx, Kautsky, Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin, mainstream socialism (Jacobin, Marxist, Social Democratic, Communist) has for the most part been authoritarian and autocratic from its inception. Even its parliamentary social democratic forms are autocratic parties in which the rank and file are, and always have been, completely subservient to the hierarchical party machines filled with upwardly mobile opportunists and careerists. In this authoritarianism and heteronomy socialism has partaken of the dialectic of its origins, the dialectic of the French Revolution and Enlightenment, of liberal bourgeois thought. Socialist authoritarianism and autocracy are also expressions of its bourgeois roots. Its opposition has also been capitalism’s continuation and strengthening. ‘What better excuse needs the European bourgeoisie for its reactionary methods than the ferocious dictatorship in Russia?’ (Russian writer Vladimir Korolenko c. 1921)

5. Like capitalism itself, liberal thought is both emancipatory and oppressive. Capitalism’s overthrow of feudalism via expropriation, enclosures and the generalisation of wage labour both frees and enslaves working people. Capitalism’s political form, the bourgeois state, declares human rights, the rule of law, political liberties and the sanctity of private property and capital but at the same time emphatically denies democracy and human rights in the economic sphere and always brutally suppresses those who actively seek them. This basic contradiction between legal-political freedom and economic autocracy and dictatorship ultimately defines the bourgeois state’s Janus face, the latent absolutism and dictatorship (culminating under certain crisis conditions in outright fascism) even within the liberal democratic state. In today’s increasing crises, the slide from the liberal to the post-liberal authoritarian state is well under way.

6. This fatal dialectic inherent in bourgeois thought and reality was played out in the bloody development of all bourgeois revolutions from the English to the French and Russian revolutions. Revolutionary attempts, however weak or partial, at economic democracy, egalitarianism and autonomy from below were always soon crushed by the ‘revolutionary’ bourgeois state from above: Cromwell, Robespierre and Napoleon, Lenin and Trotsky. Every bourgeois revolution is merely political, statist and Jacobin: as militants take over state power and become new ministers, it must have its own counter-revolution, its particular version of the Great Terror and Thermidor.

7. Socialism, as an idea and ideal arises, originally, from the critical insight that bourgeois liberty is also economic, structural, violence for the working people without land or capital, i.e. the ‘liberty’ to be dispossessed of land, to be bossed and exploited or else to starve. In this sense it can be seen as a result of the self-contradiction and failure of revolutionary bourgeois aspirations: it maintains that the liberté promised by the bourgeois revolution cannot be achieved without the concrete, social realisation of the égalité and fraternité also abstractly proclaimed in the Declaration of the Rights of Man (and later echoed in the post-1945 UN Charter).

8. The split between authoritarian and anti-authoritarian socialism can be located along this basic fault line: the former downplays or even explicitly rejects (as ‘bourgeois’) liberté while stressing some form of ‘equality’ and is willing to use the power, and often terror, of the authoritarian state, to enforce some degree of this from above. It always does this while, necessarily, instituting new inequality and oppression in the form of a new and privileged ruling caste or class to wield this state power. In contrast, anti-authoritarian socialism locates the spread of greater egalitarianism within greater liberty and fraternity/sorority, i.e. within the democratic free association and self-management of the people from below. Authoritarian socialism thus continues the ancient and brutal historical trajectory of the state, autocracy, bureaucracy, oligarchy, heteronomy, while libertarian socialism or anarchism is the revolutionary expression of popular egalitarianism, autonomy and self-management, i.e. the power to make the rules ourselves, free of rulers and bosses. It is the radical extension of liberty and democracy to economic decision-making.

9. Given the consequences of this disastrous history of authoritarian ‘socialism’ (aka ‘state capitalism’ or ‘red fascism’ by various libertarian critics) over the last two centuries, the untold millions of its victims in the slave labour gulags, Red/state terrors, terror famines and mass deportations, the notorious mass murderers like Stalin, Mao Tse-Tung or Pol Pot, given all that, terms like ‘socialism’, ‘communism’, ‒ even, given their co-tainting for various reasons, one could argue, ‘anarchism’ and ‘the left’ ‒ may now all be tainted beyond repair or else simply obsolete in terms of motivating and guiding any systemic social change.

10. Yet names and –isms are not the things themselves, not the inner drives, ideas and ideals. The latter ‒ just as much as the drive for herd-like conformity, obedience, voluntary slavery and heteronomy ‒ are probably as old as humanity itself. The inherent anthropological drive for justice, greater equality, solidarity and self-management can only be eradicated when humans themselves, at least as we have so far known them, are totally ‘re-wired’ or eradicated. The terms, the –isms, may change, the ideals will not.


~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on June 26, 2015.

2 Responses to “Ten Theses on Authoritarian and Anti-authoritarian Socialism”

  1. One could argue that authoritarian socialism is simply capitalist counter-revolution with lipstick, with the bureaucratic state as the new investor class and profit thinly disguised as quotas.

    • Yep. Dunno bout the lipstick. Staatskapitalistische Urspruengliche Akkumulation, as Marx might have said. Hopefully not too many wildfires in Montana and the trout bountiful?

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