In the 90s an article written by political scientist Michael Parenti was circulated. This article was an attempt to show that that the non-Stalinist left (Anarchists, Trotskyists, and pretty much any leftist critical of the Soviet Union) were essentially for a left wing version of anti-communism. This anti-communism was like right wing anti-communism in that it supposedly opposed the communist project and sought to prevent it from being realized. Unlike right wing anti-communism so called “Left Anti-Communism” cloaked it’s opposition to communism in a leftist ideological veil. An example of this Michael Parenti gives is professor Noam Chomsky who despite giving very open and cutting critiques of US empire and propaganda, none the less says that the fall of the Soviet Union was actually “the best thing that ever could have happened for socialism”. In his essay “The Soviet Union vs Socialism” Chomsky argues that the Soviet Union was an authoritarian regime that used the word “socialism” and the imagery associated with it to garner support from socialists and revolutionaries and thus to hide the fact that in actuality (according to Chomsky) it was really a repressive capitalist state that exploited workers through wage labor in place of private capitalists. Anarchists, since the Bolsheviks consolidated their rule after the Russian Revolution, have argued that the state socialist regime in Russia lacked the direct control of society by freely associated self-managing producers required for genuine socialism. Parenti attacks this view as left anti-communist as well.
So why are these two positions anti-communist? According to Parenti because they attack the communist project in practice. Parenti argues that state-socialist regimes like the Soviet Union were the real experiments in socialism and communist revolution. They were the result of the in practice application of the ideas of the communist and socialist movement. As such, by attacking the communist project’s realization in practice state socialism’s critics are effectively putting down the communist project and arguing against it, and just as well, working to undermine it. “The pure socialists regularly blame the Left itself for every defeat it suffers. Their second-guessing is endless. So we hear that revolutionary struggles fail because their leaders wait too long or act too soon, are too timid or too impulsive, too stubborn or too easily swayed. We hear that revolutionary leaders are compromising or adventuristic, bureaucratic or opportunistic, rigidly organized or insufficiently organized, undemocratic or failing to provide strong leadership. But always the leaders fail because they do not put their trust in the “direct actions” of the workers, who apparently would withstand and overcome every adversity if only given the kind of leadership available from the left critic’s own groupuscule. Unfortunately, the critics seem unable to apply their own leadership genius to producing a successful revolutionary movement in their own country.” -Parenti
Parenti, as you may have gathered by now, is a defender of state socialism. He sees the regimes of the USSR, China, Cuba, ect. as something close to models of how socialism and communism are really enacted. In a speech given after the Soviet Union’s collapse Parenti argued that despite having layers of sometimes repressive bureaucracy that limited economic efficiency, despite Stalin being a bit despotic, the Soviet Union implemented socialism for the first time on a mass scale and created a generally prosperous and humane society. Followers of the state socialist model today, or as they call themselves “Marxist-Leninists”, or sometimes “Maoists” depending on what traditions they particularly fallow, echo this criticism throughout time. Despite the collapse of the USSR and sweeping market reforms in China and Vietnam modern day state socialists will accuse leftists who are critical of certain regimes as fundamentally anti-communist, working against socialist and communist goals rather than toward them. These regimes include Cuba, North Korea, the Syrian Baath government, Iran, and sometimes even China, or the Russian Federation.
A particular brand of modern state socialist, Maoists, apply this principle to Stalinist guerrilla movements in the third world such as the Naxalites in India, the New People’s Army in the Philippines, the Shinning Path in Peru before it’s defeat by state forces, and sometimes the FARC in Columbia. In his reply to Left Communist working class historian Loren Goldner’s critical article on the Soviet Union, Mao’s China, and leftist support for Mao Maoist academic J. Moufawad-Paul calls on Loren’s publication, Insurgent Notes, to drop “insurgent” from it’s name. Moufawad-Paul argues that Maoists through their presence in the form of these aforementioned guerrilla groups are the people fighting for communism in modern times, by rejecting Maoism, Loren Goldner is in effect rejecting the communist movement itself. “Not so with Loren Goldner’s Notes Towards a Critique of Maoism which is not only insulting to maoists but also insults the intelligence of anyone who has bothered to critically investigate the history and theory of the communism that was influenced by the Chinese Revolution. And yet Insurgent Notes published this article that mocks the ideology of the only communist insurgencies that currently exist and have existed since the fall of the Soviet Union proving that it only cares about insurgency insofar as to denigrate actually existing revolution. Indeed, even Insurgent Notes’ general readership appears to wallow in the ignorance Goldner’s article promotes as evinced by many of the comments, all of which betray the same shallow understanding of the subject matter.”-J. Moufawad-Paul
So, how can I, a Libertarian Communist and someone who rejects state socialism respond to this claim? Well if we examine the actual facts of the legacy of state socialism we can formulate a response pretty easily, a response that shows that state socialism and it’s ideological support base are the real “left anti-communists”.
If we are to determine who indeed is the real anti-communist we must have a working understanding of what communism is. Communism is a term that has it’s roots in the word “commune” carrying the meaning of “communal”. It was most famously used by Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels to describe their politics. Since the word “socialism” was at the time being used by all kinds of people who Marx and Engels disagreed with fundamentally such as Ferdinand Lassalle and Pierre Joseph Proudhon Marx and Engels adopted the word “communism” to differentiate the socialism which they believed in from the socialism of these others. Socialism is a term with the root word “social”, just as communism has “commune”. These are words that imply social interaction and collective living. Socialism in the tradition of the socialist movement always meant a society organized socially, that is cooperatively without social hierarchy, where production is the property of the whole society and is carried out to directly meet it’s needs. Communism means basically the same thing with it’s similar emphasis on “communal” ideas. After Marx and Engels picked up the term to describe their socialism Anarchists such as Peter Kropotkin, Errico Malatesta, Elise Reclus, and Rudolf Rocker would use “Anarchist Communism”, or “Libertarian Communism”, (a synonym for both these terms was “Libertarian” as used in early French Anarchist circles) to refer to the socialism they were for. They used the word “communism” to describe the practical implementation of a socialist society where social organization of society and production is carried out through the free cooperation of self-organized producers forming horizontal networks of administration and producing to meet the needs of each individual in society.
From this bit of etymology and this history of the usage of these terms by respective movements we can infer that communism means a freely, but cooperatively organized society without any form of exploitation, or domination, where production is owned and carried on by the whole society to meet the general needs of all individuals.
The Practice of State Socialism
Starting in Russia in 1905 a wave of working class upheaval swept over eastern and western Europe. This eventually culminated in February 1917 when the Russian workers overthrew the Czarist regime that ruled the Russian Empire and October 1917 where workers overthrow the liberal replacement regime headed by Alexander Kerensky which continued Russian participation in WW1 that produced revolutionary anger among the workers and peasants in the first place, and the workers took over Russian cities through the Bolshevik party. In the proceeding months and years the Bolshevik party would construct a new Russian state that it presided over, in conjunction with this it would set up an international of communist parties that aligned themselves with the Bolshevik regime. Once Stalin came to power through gaming the Soviet party bureaucracy’s murderous and repressive tenancies he solidified the state socialist regime in Russia. He carried out his rule through secret police terror on the population, he declared that the nationalization of production and land created socialism in the USSR, and carried out huge state directed industrialization and collectivization projects. Through the Comintern international set up by the Bolsheviks, international relations with other countries, and outright invasion of other Eastern European countries the Soviet Union exported it’s state socialism internationally to countries like China, Vietnam, Korea, Cuba, Germany, Poland, Ukraine, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and China. This launched an era of “socialist” states competing with capitalist states such as the US and the members of NATO for global hegemony.
These socialist states were not complete dystopian failures like the capitalist west painted them as in their media. They were quite successful in specific areas, specifically accomplishing the same urbanization, industrialization, and transforming of self-sufficient peasants into wage workers that western capitalism’s industrial revolution took many more decades to accomplish. On the front of repressiveness, these societies were bureaucratic police states. Stalin’s rule was probably the worst in any of these examples because he ruled Russia almost exclusively through the brutality of the secret police. After Stalin the Russian communist party resumed it’s function as the major authority in the socialist state (Stalin had circumvented it with his secret police terror), but the use of the secret police to keep people in line continued. These societies have been compared to Fascist regimes such as Italy under Mussolini and Germany under the Nazis. This even spawned a whole new theory of societies called “totalitarianism”. These sort of comparisons are often very misleading. The state socialist regimes were at least products of failed revolutions where the masses of people overthrew the existing state and ruling class, only for a small clique to take power, construct a new state, and solidify itself as the new ruling class. Fascist regimes were installed by moderate conservatives to protect the capitalist system from revolutionary movements and economic crises by killing and jailing all of it’s opponents.
So how did state socialism work? As previously stated these regimes came into being when there was a popular uprising that overthrew the old rulers and exploiters, typically semi-feudal empires(Russia, North Korea), nationalist warlord governments(China), or capitalist dictatorships backed by the west(Cuba, Vietnam). Once this was achieved a tiny group of bureaucrats, specifically within the communist party, appointed themselves the new ruling clique, set up their own state, and nationalized production to position themselves as the group with control over production – the ruling class.
As Anarchist Communists pointed out in almost a century of debate with Marxists; communism being a free society without class division and domination, could only be achieved through the action of the masses of oppressed and exploited people themselves. The state would have to be destroyed, and all ruling cliques and classes dethroned and replaced by collective popular power and administration. By consolidating themselves as the ruling class through setting up a new state that protected their power these revolutionary communists destroyed even the possibility of moving toward communism in the first place.
These regimes declared themselves “socialist” because they nationalized production and land, meaning they turned it over to the state. They claimed that communism would be reached at a later stage when socialist development was complete. “Real” socialism, as fought for by centuries of socialists meant that production and land be completely socialized becoming the property of all mankind, rather than just being handed over to the state. Socialism also isn’t possible without communism. If production is owned and controlled by the whole human race than it’s products must be distributed directly to satisfy their needs.
State socialist societies were organized first and for most, by the state. They were organized by the managerial bureaucracy within it, principally within the communist party. Since the state these bureaucrats ran owned all production they were the group with control over it. The vast majority of people owned no production and to get access to means of consumption and subsistence it produced had to work wage labor jobs for the state. What these workers produced above what they needed to survive was extracted by the managerial bureaucracy and used to develop the nation’s economy with part of it going to the bureaucrats subsistence. This is effectively the economic structure of capitalism. The only major differences are that what workers produce is reinvested into competing firms rather than the national economy and that the state owns production rather than private persons. However, the state firms that made up the state socialist economy competed with each other and capitalist property is not always the property of private individuals. State owned enterprises, or SOES have become a main fixture of the modern capitalist economy. An example would be postal services around the world, including the US Postal Service. State socialism was capitalism, developing state capitalism. State capitalism is a word Marx and Engels used to describe capital under state monopoly. Moreover because the state lead industrialization and collectivization was developing capital these societies were certainly not transitional to any kind of socialism, or communism.
State socialist governments were also quite fond of killing other communists. During the reign of the original Bolshevik party and government the Bolsheviks assassinated Mensheviks and Left Social Revolutionaries who campaigned for independent soviets and factory committees, and members of the Bolshevik party who disagreed with Bolshevik policy. Despite the fact that Russian Anarchists were largely friendly to the Bolshevik party (even at one point thinking that the Bolshevik “dictatorship of the proletariat” would advance the Anarchist idea of working class control of society) the Bolsheviks carried out Czarist like repression against them. Anarchists were disappeared, thrown in jail where they would often undergo hunger strikes for their rights, exiled, and murdered out right. Anarchist publications such as “The Voice of Labor” were also repressed and shut down.
The spread of the Russian revolution to Ukraine created a peasant and worker movement that aimed to destroy states and redistribute land for collective use. An Anarchist Communist named Nestor Makhno was freed from prison by the insurgency and would end up becoming it’s prime military leader uniting the insurgency militarily against the opposing counter-revolutionary forces of the white army. Originally the Bolsheviks, who were trying to include Ukraine in their sphere of influence by fighting nationalists and the whites, collaborated with Makhno and his insurgency. The insurgency being a movement of anti-state workers and peasants it eventually could no longer harmoniously cooperate with the Bolsheviks and their interest in conquering Ukraine, however, after the first alliance was broken unity between the Bolsheviks and Makhnovists against the whites once again became tactically advantageous. The Bolsheviks wanted to subsume Makhno and his forces under their command to eliminate him as a threat while still profiting from his military value. Makhno refused this and the Bolsheviks mercilessly crushed the Ukrainian insurgency. This involved a particularly brutal incident where Bolsheviks captured a Makhnovist unit, the Makhnovists laid down their weapons and the Bolsheviks mowed them all down with machine guns. Trotsky was quoted as saying that the Makhnovists needed to be “wiped off the face of the earth”.
Later when Stalin took the seat of power the late 1930s were dominated by a period called “the great purge”. Historian J. Arch Getty compares it to the witch trials of the 15th century. Countless members of the communist party were tortured, disappeared, executed, and jailed. Their family’s right to housing would often be revoked and they would often be exiled from their community. The original Bolsheviks left after the Russian Civil War were slaughtered by this process. High profile Bolshevik Leon Trotsky fled to Mexico and was assassinated. Albert Meltzer points out that unlike Trotsky who fled with fan fair and an entourage almost equally high profile Bolshevik Nikolai Bukharin was quietly charged and killed. When the Soviet Union broke with Yugoslavia the former carried out a similar anti-Yugoslav purge of Eastern European communist parties of Soviet satellites, and the latter did the same with an anti-Soviet purge of it’s ruling party.
At the end of a long a bitter struggle within the Chinese Communist Party the “revisionists” lead by Deng Xiaoping who favored market reforms over continued state lead industrialization defeated the “gang of four” composed of Mao Tse-Tung loyalists including his wife. They were purged and one; former general Lin Biao, suspiciously died in a plain crash. When Ho Chi Minh took power in North Vietnam to do it he slaughtered the mass popular Trotskyist movement. It’s members were disappeared and killed. The list of violent acts that state socialist regimes have committed against communists continues, on and on.
The Anti-Communism of State Socialism
Michael Parenti argues that opponents of state socialism are really just opponents of communism. I counter argue that proponents of state socialism are proponents of an anti-communist ideology which dolls itself up in red flags and socialist realist art. State socialism was not communism, or socialism put into action. It was counter-revolution that used words like socialism, Marxism, Leninism, communism, and anti-imperialism to ideologically mask societies that differed from the west only in their political form. “Marxism-Leninism”, the ideology of state socialism, is the ideology of developing state capitalist societies. Like all other capitalist societies their rulers have a fundamental interest in masking their rule and repressing efforts at creating a free society which meets human needs. G.P. Maximoff called this “power communism”. Today’s state socialists, when they complain about “left anti-communism” are really just pushing an anti-communist agenda, attacking the actual communist project in the favor of a red liberalism. Will the real communists please stand up!?
What Was The USSR?, Aufheben
Loren Goldner on The Chinese Working Class and Global Crises July 2015
The Road to Terror: Stalin and the Self-Destruction of the Bolsheviks, 1932-1939, J. Arch Getty
Nestor Makhno: The Man and The Myth, Paul Averich
Nestor Makhno: Anarchy’s Cossack, Alexandre Skirda
My Further Disillusionment In Russia, Emma Goldman
And Now?, Ngo Van
Reflections on Anti-Communism, Ralph Miliband and Marcel Liebman
There Is No Communism In Russia, Emma Goldman
Bolshevism. It’s Class Character, Peter Arshinov
Sorghum and Steel: The Socialist Developmental regime and the Forging of China, Chuang
Communism and Anarchy, Peter Kropotkin
Anarchist Communism, Peter Kropotkin