Noam Chomsky and Marxism
On the roots of modern ‘authoritarianism’
By Heiko Khoo
Noam Chomsky considers himself to be a ‘libertarian anarchist’. By this he means one who challenges and calls for the dismantling of all unjustified authority and oppression, one who fights for the realisation of the full development of each individual and the collective, through a government of “industrial organisation” or ‘council communism’.
Chomsky’s “anarchism” derives inspiration from a number of enlightenment thinkers. He claims this encompasses a tradition, which includes Humboldt, Jefferson, Bakunin and Rosa Luxemburg. Whilst one does not find any specific critique of Marx’s writings (Chomsky admits he is not a Marx “scholar”), there are a number of inferences in his writings that Marxism represents an authoritarian tradition, although this is qualified by regular references to a supposed “left libertarian tradition” within Marxism, which Chomsky sees as being represented by Matick, Pannekoek, and Luxemburg.
Chomsky argues that, “We are in a period of corporatization of power, consolidation of power, centralization. That’s supposed to be good if you’re a progressive, like a Marxist-Leninist. Out of the same background came three major things, fascism, Bolshevism, and corporate tyranny. They all grew out of the same more or less Hegelian roots." (Chomsky, Class Warfare, p.23)
It is Chomsky’s belief that the centralisation of the means of production was not inherent to the dynamics of the Capitalist economic system. Instead, “lawyers and courts designed a new socio-economic system”. Chomsky says that for Marxist-Leninists centralisation is “supposed to be good.” For Marxists the issue is not that centralisation is “good” in itself. What Marx and his adherents said is that to create a socialist society it was necessary to greatly develop the means of production and this was best done through centralisation. The greater the productive capacity of the economy, the more rapidly humankind’s economic enslavement can be eradicated.
One can infer from Chomsky that Hegelianism as a body of ideas created the processes of centralisation described. Chomsky’s outlook can be surmised in the following statement, the philosophers have created the world in various ways, the point however is to change the philosophy. Chomsky writes that in the latter part of the 19th century, “the courts and lawyers came along and created a whole new body of doctrine, which gave corporations authority and power that they never had before. If you look at the background of it, it’s the same background that led to fascism and Bolshevism.” (ibid. p.23)
Marxism does not exclude the influence of the role of lawyers and courts in shaping the specific framework of social relations, but it explains that the forces of the economy and environment within which they act limit their independence. Chomsky seeks to elevate the doctrinal background created by courts and lawyers to be the determining factor in modern socio-political formations.
Marxists see the dynamic towards centralisation as rooted in the capitalist mode of production. Given that centralisation – better said monopolization – has been a universal economic process over the last hundred and fifty years regardless of the influence of Hegel, one must wonder what exactly Chomsky is trying to say. Centralisation and monopolization flow from economies of scale in industrialisation.
Obviously human beings can shape socio-economic systems, but only within certain material limits circumscribed by the class relations and material development of society. One result of the centralisation of capitalist economy is urbanisation. Are we to assume this too to be the product of Hegelian ideas? Is the world domination of the cities over the countryside the product of Hegelian design? In fact Chomsky, like Hegel, makes ‘the idea’ the driving force of economy and society.
Chomsky implies that lawyers and courts could have designed any other socio-economic system in the late 19th century. According to this thought stream there appears to be no more powerful impulsion than ideas, in this case primarily the idea to abandon classical liberalism. If only they had stuck to the ideas of the classical liberals like “Adam Smith or Jefferson or anyone like that” things would have been much better, and perhaps the horrors of the twentieth century could have been entirely avoided.
Chomsky tells us that what took place would have “horrified” and “scandalised” the classical liberals. Sadly the architects of the new socio-economic system managed to consolidate corporate and state power against the popular will.
That in essence is Chomsky’s view of how we ended up where we are. And to round out the argument Chomsky says that centralised corporate capitalism (read all capitalist democracies), fascism (read every right-wing regime) and Bolshevism (read every so called communist state) all come “more or less” from Hegel’s mind.
That these processes of centralisation of corporate power occurred in all capitalist countries regardless of the “Hegelianism” of the human agents would tend to indicate that the economic dynamic towards centralisation was inherent to the developmental laws of capitalism. To be fair, professor Chomsky qualified his assertion in that he states that tyranny comes, “more or less” from Hegelian roots. Presumably Japanese economic centralisation is at the “less” end of the spectrum, and poor old Germany suffered the full weight of Hegelian ideological tyranny, corporate, fascist and Stalinist.
Contrast this to the method employed by Marx. In Das Kapital he studied and described the various phases in the development of the capitalist mode of production and observed the process of imperialist monopolisation in embryo. Lenin with others at the start of the twentieth century by observation of the economic processes taking place, investigated the developmental dynamics of monopoly capitalism. Lenin’s book Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism sought to provide a means of understanding the dynamics of world capitalism, e.g. the domination of finance capital over industrial capital, the nature of the relations between the most powerful imperialist countries and the colonial and economically backward countries and the reasons for the world war.
The world division of labour brought the world into a single whole, Marxism considers this progressive because it paves the way economically and culturally for the socialist unification of the world. However imperialism maintains the division of the world into capitalist nation states, each grabbing the loot or protecting it from the others, producing wars, revolutions and counter-revolutions. Professor Chomsky does not bother to explain why or how a “Marxist-Leninist” allegedly considers “corporatization of power, consolidation of power, centralization”… “good”. In relation to this question Chomsky provides assertion as proof.
Mikhail Bakunin’s “anti-authoritarianism” versus Marxism
Chomsky sees Bakunin as one of the main sources of his political inspiration. Bakunin, “predicted that there would be two forms of modern intellectuals, what he called the ‘Red Bureaucracy’, who would use popular struggles to try to take control of state power and institute the most vicious and ruthless dictatorships in history, and the other group, who would see that there isn’t going to be an access to power that way and would therefore become the servants of private power and the state capitalist democracy, where they would, as Bakunin put it, ‘beat the people with the people’s stick,’ talk about democracy but beat the people with it. That’s actually one of the few predictions in the social sciences that’s come true, to my knowledge, and a pretty perceptive one.” (Chomsky, On Democracy and Education, p.248)
Bakunin was a colourful man whose views were a mixture of insightful inspiration and crazed ramblings. However, his severe attacks on Marx and the leadership of the First International appear to be at the core of Chomsky’s view of Leninism and his anarchist alternative. For much of his politically active life Bakunin was a pan-slavist, but he passed through various political and philosophical movements of 19th century Europe.
One factor that a cursory analysis of Bakunin’s political activity reveals is his total disregard for the creation of democratic structures and any accountability in every organisation he was involved in. Amusingly he would found one secret society after another. And the organisational principle he applied can be summarised best by the term personal dictatorship.
Daniel Guérin claims that, “His wild early career as a revolutionary conspirator was unconnected with anarchism. He embraced libertarian ideas only in 1864 after the failure of the Polish insurrection in which he played a part. His earlier writings have no place in anarchist anthology.” (Daniel Guérin, Anarchism, p.6)
Guerin’s contention does not stand up to investigation, E.H. Carr points out that long after 1864. Bakunin’s “secret Alliance” working inside the First International was nothing but a conspiratorial personal dictatorship run by Bakunin himself:
“The revolution was to be directed, ‘not by any visible power, but by the collective dictatorship of all members of the Alliance.’ For this purpose, members of the Alliance must be willing to submit their personal freedom to discipline as rigid as that of the Jesuits ‘ (my emphasis; Bakunin returns more than once to this comparison), whose strength lay in the ‘obliteration of the individual before the collective will, organisation and activity.’ (my emphasis) Bakunin could see nothing incompatible in demanding the loosest possible form of organisation for the International and the strictest possible discipline in the ranks of the Alliance.” (E.H. Carr, Bakunin, p.440)
As we shall see later, we find this dictatorial apparatus replicated in the FAI’s leadership of the Spanish anarchist movement. We also find that the most famous anarchist movements were named after one man, in the Ukraine the ‘Mahknovites’, in Spain the ‘friends of Durruti’ – hardly the indication of a “non-hierarchical movement” with no leaders, which in real life never exists.
E H Carr’s amusing biography of Bakunin summarised his work as follows, “Bakunin is known to the world as one of the founders of anarchism. It is less often remembered that he was the first originator of the conception of a select and closely organised revolutionary party, bound together not only by common ideals, but by the tie of implicit obedience to an absolute revolutionary dictator.” (Carr, Bakunin, p. 455, my emphasis) It should be noted that it is precisely for the concept of the “vanguard party” that Leninism is condemned by the anarchists!
It is our contention that most if not all, anarchist “non-hierarchical and anti authoritarian movements,” were in fact highly authoritarian, hierarchical secret conspiracies. Bakunin was totally obsessed by conspiratorial organisation, he believed that by creating tightly controlled organisations under his enlightened leadership, he would be able to guide revolutions towards his goals; variously bourgeois nationalism, Tsarist reformation, pan-Slavism, anti-Germanism and libertarian anarchism. Of course there is an element of conspiracy in all revolutionary movements, because the secret police and the state seek to undermine, infiltrate, monitor and control revolutionary threats. However, Bakunin took conspiracy to extreme levels.
In contrast to Bakunin’s organisational methods, Marxism works on the basis of adherence to ideas and creates organisational forms that correspond to the needs of the moment. At one time the organisation will be open and extremely democratic, at another centralised, adopting organisational forms as required. A characteristic of Leninism is that democratic control inside the revolutionary organisation is designed to be able to flexibly respond to the organisational exigencies of the day in response to the nature of the political tasks required. One cannot have the same organisational form in a bourgeois democracy and under a fascist dictatorship. To lead a movement of strikes over wages and to make an insurrection requires radically different structures.
Bakunin always applied his personal dictatorship to organisations he worked in, though many of his conspiratorial organisations were simply a figment of his imagination. Marx and Lenin on the other hand, always had to try to win support from the political movements they led by democratic procedure. Lenin spent much of the first decade of the 20th Century struggling to win a majority for his ideas and methods within the Russian Social Democratic Party, during the Russian Revolution voting took place even for the most strictly disciplined acts like the insurrection and the banning of factions in 1921.
Bakunin saw the peasantry as the main force of the coming revolution, which his secret societies would lead. The revolution was to encompass the peasants, the workers and criminal elements whose “evil” and “socialist passions” for destruction would bring down the existing order and state. In its place was to be nothing. Everything would self-regulate from day one.
What this meant in practice can be seen in 1870 in Lyon. A spontaneous popular rising had placed bourgeois radicals in command of the town, and Bakunin set up his own “Committee for the saving of France’ and at a public meeting on 24 September declared amongst other things that, “The administrative and governmental machine of the State, having become impotent, is abolished.”…and “All existing municipal organisations are suppressed, and are replaced in all federated communes by Committees for the Saving of France, which will exercise full powers under the immediate supervision of the people.”
Within 3 days the National Guard took over the headquarters of the rising. Bakunin’s adventurist attempt to abolish the state by decree had taken no account of the real relations of power, the mood of the masses or the social forces in play. He had simply rushed to Lyon, declared his own “Committee for the Saving of France” and the abolition of the State.
The State however, not having caught on to Bakunin’s liberatory wisdom, crushed the rebellion and arrested its leaders. Bakunin escaped to prepare new decrees and phantom committees in the future. (Carr, pp. 417-22)
What is surprising is that Chomsky should consider Bakunin as a liberal anti-authoritarian, when all evidence points to the contrary. Here again we see how Chomsky allows assertion to replace evidence.
Engels writing against the anti-authoritarianism of Bakunin’s followers neatly summarises all that is foolish in anarchist anti-authoritarianism: “…no communal action is possible without submission on the part of some to an external will, that is to say authority. Whether it be the will of a majority of voters, of a managing committee or of one man alone, it is invariably a will imposed on dissidents; but without that single controlling will, no cooperation is possible. Just try and get one of Barcelona’s big factories to function without control, that is to say without an authority! Or to run a railway without knowing for certain that every engineer, stoker etc. is at his post exactly when he ought to be! I should very much like to know whether the good Bakunin would entrust his portly frame to a railway carriage if the railway were administered on the principle that no one need be at his post unless he chose to submit to the authority of the regulations, regulations far more authoritarian in any conceivable state of society than those of the Congress of Basle! All these grandiloquent ultra-radical and revolutionary catchphrases serve only to conceal an abysmal ignorance of the conditions under which the daily life of society takes place. Just try abolishing ‘all authority, even by consent’, among the sailors on board a ship!“ (Engels to Lafargue, 30 December, 1871, Collected works, Vol. 44, p.286)
Chomsky on the Russian Revolution and Leninism
“Leninist doctrine holds that a vanguard Party should assume state power and drive the population to economic development, and, by some miracle that is unexplained, to freedom and justice. It is an ideology that naturally appeals greatly to the radical intelligentsia, to whom it affords a justification for their role as state managers. I can’t see any reason – either in logic or history – to take it seriously. Libertarian socialism (including a substantial mainstream of Marxism) dismissed all of this with contempt, quite rightly.” (Chomsky, http://www.zmag.org/chomsky/interviews/9612-anarchism.html)
“The Leninist intelligentsia … fit Marx’s description of the ‘conspirators’ who ‘pre-empt the developing revolutionary process’ and distort it to their own ends of domination”.
“Since its origins, the Soviet State has attempted to harness the energies of its own population and oppressed people everywhere in the service of the men who took advantage of the popular ferment in Russia in 1917 to seize State power.” (Chomsky, The Soviet Union Versus Socialism)
Although one finds very little written by Chomsky on Lenin or Trotsky, it is impossible not to be struck by how boldly Chomsky makes sweeping (and false) assertions concerning their ideas and actions. Chomsky, as we shall see, considers Lenin and Trotsky as both founders and supporters of the system of tyranny, which Marxists define as Stalinism. Chomsky’s contemptuous dismissal of “Leninism”, is based either on intellectual ignorance or deliberate falsification, and appears to emanate almost exclusively from secondary sources.
Preparation of a revolutionary movement
Bolshevism developed from 1903 onwards as the revolutionary wing of Russian Social-Democracy; it distinguished itself in respect of organisational and ideological preparation for revolution. The concept famously advanced by Lenin in 1903 was that Social Democracy must be the “vanguard party” of the working class. Lenin argued that the economic struggle was not sufficient, the workers also required political struggle.
There was a tendency among some layers of the Russian Social Democracy to ignore the political struggle. For them everything would flow from the trade union, the “economic” struggle. History has shown repeatedly that this is not the case. The working class needs a revolutionary leadership, a revolutionary party. This does not arise spontaneously, but must be consciously built by revolutionary Marxists.
The “Leninist intelligentsia” (i.e. the Bolshevik Party) sought to build up Social Democracy’s political base and influence amongst the workers, such that the working class would become the “vanguard fighter for democracy”. Lenin’s idea was to build a revolutionary movement capable of defeating the state machine of Russian Tsarism. This meant before the revolution Social Democracy would have to operate in both legal and illegal forms. Legality provides the opportunity for open and democratic structures, illegality inevitably brings with it conspiratorial organisational forms that cannot always base themselves on open democratic discussion about the task to be carried out.
The Bolsheviks used all channels that were open to them, including parliamentary opportunities. But they were also forced to use underground methods. Revolutionary work under a dictatorship requires conspiracy or it will be crushed. A successful revolution also requires preparation, including political, ideological and even military preparation.
In one sense Chomsky accepts this, for in relation to the Spanish revolution he writes, “The accomplishments of the popular revolution in Spain, in particular, were based on the patient work of many years of organization and education, one component of a long tradition of commitment and militancy.” So surely logic would tell us there is nothing wrong with preparing for a revolution, as the Bolsheviks did by a “long tradition of commitment and militancy.”
According to Chomsky the Bolsheviks pre-empted “the developing revolutionary process”. The implication is that the Bolsheviks should never have seized power because it was too early, the revolutionary crisis would have matured better if the Leninist conspirators had waited for the workers and peasants of Russia to institute “council communism” themselves. In fact, the irony of this position is that many of the old Bolshevik leadership actually opposed the insurrection proposed by Lenin because like Chomsky they felt it pre-empted the developing revolutionary process. On this question Chomsky finds himself in the same camp as many leading Bolsheviks like Kamenev, Zinoviev and even Stalin, who initially wavered on this question!
Lenin’s assessment in October 1917 was that the army was mutinying, there were widespread peasant revolts, the Provisional Government was continuing the hated war, revolt was brewing in armies across Europe and the Bolsheviks had majority support in the main urban Soviets or workers’ councils.
Earlier, in July 1917, Trotsky had used all his personal and political authority to convince armed workers not to try to seize power, so as not to “pre-empt the developing revolutionary process.” At that time it was felt by Trotsky and Lenin that an insurrection would have led to defeat. The history of the struggle for socialism has been one in which there have been sharp divisions over whether and when to seize state power by insurrection or wait for the process "to fully mature.” We normally find that those who took the attitude of waiting for the “full maturation” of the objective and subjective conditions for socialism ended up in the reformist camp.
The founder of this “revisionist” movement, Eduard Bernstein, the ideological grandfather of Tony Blair and Gerhard Schroeder, argued that capitalism would evolve into socialism and, as socialism is logically the best system, when the masses understand this it will be brought into existence. Is this the “substantial mainstream of Marxism” to which Chomsky refers?
The State and Revolution
Chomsky believes “it is perverse to regard Bolshevism as ‘Marxism in Practice’, … ‘the left wing critique of Bolshevism, taking account of the historical circumstances surrounding the Russian Revolution, is far more to the point.” Chomsky then cites Paul Mattick who argues that the Bolsheviks “did not go far enough in exploiting the Russian upheavals for strictly proletarian ends”. (Chomsky, Notes on Anarchism)
Earlier we saw how Chomsky thought that the Leninist revolutionaries were premature, pre-empting “the developing revolutionary process” Now Chomsky changes tack and agrees with Mattick that the revolution was not premature, rather the Bolsheviks “did not go far enough”. Now it is the “Left wing critique of Bolshevism” that is to the point. Before, let us recall, it was the “substantial mainstream of Marxism”, i.e. reformism.
But let us not concern ourselves with consistency. The purpose is after all to make the ideas and action of Lenin and Trotsky appear to be beneath contempt and show how you can’t take them seriously. Thus Chomsky faces two ways in his attack, on the one hand the Bolsheviks should never have seized power, and on the other hand when they did, they did not go far enough for “strictly proletarian ends.” It appears that the essence of what Chomsky means is that the Bolsheviks should have instituted and promoted libertarian communism, or council communism immediately.
Lenin when in hiding in the summer of 1917 wrote State and Revolution, which Chomsky describes as “perhaps his most libertarian work”, but says this was an “intellectual deviation” to the left in 1917. We can infer that Chomsky agrees with the ideas contained in State and Revolution. Chomsky is arguing that Lenin made this “intellectual deviation” as a trick. Let us look into this question a little more closely. To be continued…
Noam Chomsky and Marxism
On the roots of modern ‘authoritarianism’
By Heiko Khoo
Was Lenin’s ‘State and Revolution’ an intellectual deviation?
In State and Revolution Lenin repeated Marx’s analysis of the Paris Commune supporting the suppression of the standing army and its replacement by an armed people, the election and right of immediate recall of all officials:
“…the abolition of all representation allowances, and of all monetary privileges to officials, the reduction of the remuneration of all servants of the state to the level of “workmen’s wages”. This shows more clearly than anything else the turn from bourgeois to proletarian democracy, from the democracy of the oppressors to that of the oppressed classes, from the state as a “special force” for the suppression of a particular class to the suppression of the oppressors by the general force of the majority of the people – the workers and the peasant”…and a rotation of administrative duties so all learn to administrate.
Chomsky argues that Lenin and Trotsky “took advantage of the popular ferment in Russia in 1917 to seize State power. One major ideological weapon employed to this end has been the claim that the state managers are leading their own society and the world towards the socialist ideal; an impossibility as any socialist – surely any serious Marxist – should have understood at once (many did), and a lie of mammoth proportions as history has revealed since the earliest days of the Bolshevik regime.” (Chomsky, Soviet Union Versus Socialism, 1986)
This is simply a falsification. The Bolsheviks did not claim that state managers were leading the world towards socialism. Lenin and Trotsky as ‘serious Marxists’ argued that Socialism in Russian was only possible when the level of economy and culture was developed to the level of the most advanced capitalist countries and this was not possible without the assistance of the world revolution. It was the backwardness of the economy which compelled them to rely on administrators, managers, engineers, and even much of the Tsarist officer caste.
Instead of carrying out the ideas of the State and Revolution the Bolsheviks were forced to accept privileges for these layers. Lenin and Trotsky explained openly that the revolution undertook contradictory tasks. To establish socialism required an educated, skilled and cultured working class, which did not exist in Russia. To develop the culture, skill and education of the working classes, the regime was dependent on the ‘state managers’ of the old Tsarist state.
Trotsky more than any other Marxist provided an ongoing analysis of the processes from 1917 affecting the Russian and world Revolution. In 1936 he wrote The Revolution Betrayed, which provides an analysis of how and why the revolution degenerated and the likely direction that would be taken by the Stalinist bureaucracy.
I shall give a brief overview of the ideas of The Revolution Betrayed as they relate directly to the questions raised by Chomsky.
“The material premise of communism should be so high a development of the economic powers of man that productive labour, having ceased to be a burden, will not require any goad, and the distribution of life’s goods, existing in continual abundance, will not demand – as it does not now in any well-off family or decent boarding house – any control except that of education, habit and social opinion.” (Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, p. 36)
Russia’s condition was pitiful; a nation ravaged by war and famine, the immediate introduction of communism was impossible. In order to develop the economy to the level required for the building of socialism, to a level of such abundance, capitalist methods of wage payment could not be avoided. Not “from each according to their abilities… to each according to their needs”, but to each according to their work.
“After the overthrow of the exploiting classes – he (Lenin) repeats and explains in every chapter of State and Revolution – the proletariat will shatter the old bureaucratic machine and create its own apparatus out of employees and workers. And it will take measures against their turning into bureaucrats – ‘measures analysed in detail by Marx and Engels. (1) not only election but recall at any time; (2) payment no higher than the wages of a worker; (3) immediate transition to a regime in which all will fulfil the functions of control and supervision so that all may for a time become a bureaucrat.’ You must not think that Lenin was talking about problems of a decade. No, this was the first step with which ‘we should and must begin upon achieving a proletarian revolution’.
“The material power, together with the weapons, goes over directly and immediately to the hands of the workers’ organisations such as the soviets. The State as a bureaucratic apparatus begins to die away the first day of the proletarian dictatorship.” (Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, pp. 39-40)
Trotsky saw the dictatorship of the proletariat as a bridge between capitalist and socialist society. The workers state must prepare it’s own dissolution:
“The degree of realisation of this ‘incidental’ task is to some extent, a measure of its success in the fulfilment of its fundamental vision: the construction of a society without classes and without material contradictions. Bureaucracy and social harmony are inversely proportional to each other.” (Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, p.41)
The Revolution Betrayed was written in 1936, yet according to Chomsky, Trotsky and Lenin betrayed the revolution immediately on seizing state power. If you read the writings of Lenin and Trotsky they never abandoned the perspective of a classless society with no bureaucratic apparatus and yes… with no state. One is then forced to ask why Chomsky falsely alleges that Lenin and Trotsky sought to establish a dictatorial tyranny from day one? All the documentary evidence in the collected writings of Lenin and Trotsky prove that they intended to bring about the society outlined in State and Revolution right until their deaths. Thus Chomsky’s contention that the State and Revolution by Lenin – his “most libertarian work” – was an “intellectual deviation”’ cannot be maintained. In fact it is probably one of his most important contributions to Marxism.
Material Backwardness and its effect on the Russian Revolution
‘you gentlemen who think you have a mission
to teach us of the 7 deadly sins
should first sort out the basic food position
then do your preaching that’s where it begins’
(Brecht, Three Penny Opera)
Russia was confronted by real material conditions, those of famine, and economic backwardness. The revolutionary state had to stimulate the maximum effort using bourgeois methods of wage payment:
“…under communism not only will bourgeois law survive for a certain time, but also even a bourgeois state without the bourgeoisie!
“The state assumes directly a dual character: socialistic, insofar as it defends social property in the means of production; bourgeois, insofar as the distribution of life’s goods is carried out with a capitalistic measure of value and all the consequences ensuing therefrom.” (Trotsky, Revolution Betrayed, p. 43)
“The tendencies of bureaucratism, which strangles the workers’ movement in capitalist countries, would everywhere show themselves even after a proletarian revolution. But it is perfectly obvious that the poorer a society which issues from a revolution, the sterner and more naked would be the expression of this ‘law’ the more crude would be the forms assumed by bureaucratism, and the more dangerous would it become for socialist development.” (Trotsky, Revolution Betrayed, p. 44)
As any serious Marxist knows – and any serious scholar should know – the essence of the question as to why the Russian Revolution degenerated is not to be found in any politico-organisational form, not in the intentions or ideas of the leaders, or in their desires to dominate, control and be tyrants. In the words of a famous American “it’s the economy stupid”.
In the last instance economic backwardness determined the fate of the Russian revolution. Economic backwardness has innumerable consequences, not least of which is cultural backwardness, measurable in illiteracy, the lack of technical and scientific skill etc. Without the masses possessing such skills they could not manage society through the democratic Soviets (“council communism”), or any other way. Someone who had these skills would manage “on behalf” of the masses. Even in the best cases this someone demanded higher pay, better conditions, and power over the masses to impel economic development.
The Bolsheviks could not escape this fact. The only way of avoiding such a dilemma would have been through a successful socialist revolution in Germany and in the other more advanced capitalist countries. The more skilled and educated workers of these countries, with the most advanced technology in their hands, would have been able to help their Russian brothers to speedily develop modern industry. On that basis there could have been a harmonious movement towards genuine socialism. Unfortunately the revolution in Germany and elsewhere was defeated. That is the starting point of the degeneration of the Russian Revolution.
These “state managers” to which Chomsky refers, were precisely the ‘bureaucracy’, which Lenin fought against till his death. Trotsky spent the remainder of his life in mortal combat with this system of bureaucratic dictatorship. This conservative bureaucratic caste found its political representative in Joseph Stalin.
Stalin’s first ideological innovation in 1924 directly corresponded to the interests of the bureaucratic caste; it was to abandon world revolution in favour of the doctrine of ‘socialism in one country’. This was to become the ideology of every Stalinist dictatorship since that time. With world revolution abandoned, deals could be made with various capitalist governments, while the “external threat” was used to justify internal repression, and dictatorial control over the masses by the bureaucracy allowed them to consolidate a system based on privileges and extend their power in the name of internal “peaceful” economic development.
Stalin’s Bureaucratic Counter-Revolution
“Since its origins, the Soviet State has attempted to harness the energies of its own population and oppressed people everywhere in the service of the men who took advantage of the popular ferment in Russia in 1917 to seize State power.” (Chomsky, The Soviet Union Versus Socialism)
Chomsky appears to be totally ignorant of Russian history. When he says the men who took power in 1917 he must be referring to the leadership of the Bolshevik Party, yet every history student knows that by 1940, of the Bolshevik Central Committee of 1917 only Stalin and Alexandra Kollontai remained alive. Most had been murdered by the Stalinist regime! Therefore, how does Chomsky arrive at the statement that the Soviet State from the start until its demise, attempted to serve those men who seized power in 1917? Chomsky’s aim is clearly to present Stalinism and Bolshevism as one and the same thing. He ignores historical facts and distorts reality to suit this aim!
Trotsky (and Lenin could clearly see this as well) explained that the State in the Soviet Union was not a workers’ state, but a deformed workers’ state, deformed due to the concrete circumstances of the revolution, conditions of civil war, famine, of economic and cultural backwardness. This is not as Chomsky claims “a lie of mammoth proportions”. Trotsky and Lenin honestly explained the dual nature of the Russian Revolutionary state again and again. They honestly explained the backwardness not only of the country but also of the state managers.
With Chomsky we arrive at the position that the entire Russian Revolution was simply a takeover by “Red Bureaucrats”, to use the words of Bakunin, whom Chomsky cites from 1870. According to Bakunin, this Red Bureaucracy would prove “the most vile and terrible lie of the century”. In fact it is this argument, which is a lie of mammoth proportions. Chomsky is simply repeating the Stalinist lie that Stalin’s regime was merely a “further moulding”of the Soviet State.
Chomsky states, “when the world’s two great propaganda systems agree on some doctrine, it requires some intellectual effort to escape its shackles. One such doctrine is that the society created by Lenin and Trotsky and moulded further by Stalin and his successors has some relation to socialism in some meaningful or historically accurate sense of this concept. In fact if there is one, it is the relation of contradiction.” (Chomsky, Soviet Union Versus Socialism, 1986)
A cursory examination of the differences between the doctrines and practice of Stalin and the bureaucracy he and his successors represented, and those of Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks of 1917, reveals precisely a “relation of contradiction”. Stalin argued for “Socialism in One Country” an idea, which has no “relation to socialism in some meaningful or historically accurate sense of this concept.” Lenin and Trotsky never argued for such a reactionary doctrine. The idea of “Socialism in One Country” stemmed precisely from the desire on the part of the rising bureaucratic apparatus, the ‘state managers’ to use Chomsky’s phrase, to consolidate their position through the creation of a new doctrine, one which suited and represented their material interests.
Not only did Stalin and his successors change the Bolshevik doctrines, the people who led the revolution were physically eliminated, and their doctrines condemned as “Trotskyism”. The ideas of 1917 were banned and the leaders of 1917 eliminated. A totalitarian state was established, millions of people were interned, tortured, purged and murdered. Chomsky calls this a “further moulding”. Remember please, that here we are dealing with the world’s best known professor of linguistics. Therefore one would assume that his words have been chosen carefully!
Perhaps the reason why Chomsky cannot distinguish between these doctrines is that he believes that Socialism can be created by a revolution where the workers and peasants run society from day one through a system of self-management or council communism, regardless of the economic backwardness of the society. This new society will self-regulate with no political leadership and with no state power immediately. Thus we arrive at the doctrine of anarchism in a single country. In reality the doctrine of Chomsky itself is the same as Stalin’s ‘Socialism in one Country’. The Russian experience and that of China, Vietnam, etc., teaches us that such a revolution isolated in a backward country would end up either defeated by capitalist restoration or as a bureaucratised regime.
Anarchist Mythology – The Spanish Revolution
“The (Paris) commune was, of course, drowned in blood, as the anarchist communes in Spain were destroyed by fascist and communist armies. And it might be argued that more dictatorial structures would have defended the revolution against such forces. But I doubt this very much. At least in the case of Spain, it seems to me that a more consistent libertarian policy might have provided the only possible defense of the revolution. Of course this can be contested, and is a long story…” (Chomsky, Democracy and Education, p. 134)
For Chomsky the Spanish revolution is the best example of Anarchism in action. The Anarchists had been working in Spain since the time of Bakunin. By 1919 the Anarchist-led National Confederation of Workers (CNT) had over one million members. At their congress that year they adopted the policy of “libertarian communism”.
Initially sympathetic to the Russian Revolution their representatives went to Russia in 1920 and returned to Spain warning the CNT of the “dictatorship” of Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks. The Anarchists were split between moderate factions, which after the revolution of 1936 entered the bourgeois government and served as ministers, and ultra-left factions some of whom retained their anti-political and anti-state position to the end.
In 1927 the Iberian Anarchist Federation (FAI) was formed. The CNT proposed to: “Struggle only in the purely economic field, that is by direct action, untrammelled by any political or religious prejudice.”
“While all the anarchists of the FAI were members of the CNT not all members of the CNT were anarchists. Those in the CNT who rejected the idea of revolution and a movement led by an audacious minority like the FAI began to be expelled. The result was that from 1932 at least half of the Spanish trade union movement was being guided by a dedicated anarchist nucleus – Bakunin’s dream of a secret vanguard come true.” (Peter Marshall, Demanding the Impossible, p. 457)
Chomsky praises the FAI for taking Bakunin’s methods to heart:
“The phrase ‘spontaneous revolutionary action’ can be misleading. The anarcho-syndicalists, at least, took very seriously Bakunin’s remark that the workers’ organizations must create ‘not only the ideas but also the facts of the future itself’ in the pre-revolutionary period.” (Chomsky, Notes on Anarchism)
For a while the moderate factions broke away “criticizing the dictadura de la FAI”.
“Among its (the FAI’s) ranks numbered not only a criminal element but also a group of puritanical idealists who were the first to advocate the burning of the churches and the summary execution of priests and male prostitutes during the Civil War”
For all their declared anti-authoritarianism “the FAI undoubtedly had vanguardist tendencies”, admits Marshall. Dispensing with politics the CNT abstained from the 1933 elections which “undoubtedly led to the formation of a right wing government” whilst at the same time raising the ultra-left slogan “No Ballot Boxes but Social Revolution”. (Marshall p. 458)
In 1936 the Popular Front was elected with much of the CNT secretly voting for it. As the most powerful workers’ organisation the various tendencies within the workers movement expressed themselves within and through the CNT, in spite of the secret conspiracy run by the FAI leadership. But the reformist elements were readmitted at the CNT national congress in Zaragoza in May 1936 and attempts were made to make an alliance with the reformist Trade Union the UGT.
Yet Chomsky continues:
“The accomplishments of the popular revolution in Spain, in particular, were based on the patient work of many years of organization and education, one component of a long tradition of commitment and militancy. The resolutions of the Madrid Congress of June 1931 and the Saragossa Congress in May 1936 foreshadowed in many ways the acts of the revolution, as did the somewhat different ideas sketched by Santillan in his fairly specific account of the social and economic organization to be instituted by the revolution. Guérin writes, ‘The Spanish revolution was relatively mature in the minds of libertarian thinkers, as in the popular consciousness.’ And workers’ organizations existed with the structure, the experience, and the understanding to undertake the task of social reconstruction when, with the Franco coup, the turmoil of early 1936 exploded into social revolution. In his introduction to a collection of documents on collectivization in Spain, the anarchist Augustin Souchy writes: ‘For many years, the anarchists and the syndicalists of Spain considered their supreme task to be the social transformation of the society. In their assemblies of Syndicates and groups, in their journals, their brochures and books, the problem of the social revolution was discussed incessantly and in a systematic fashion. All of this lies behind the spontaneous achievements, the constructive work of the Spanish Revolution’.” (Chomsky, Notes on Anarchism)
The reality was however that the wonderful formulas of libertarian communism in May 1936, and the “patient work of organisation and education” did not prevent the dictatorial leadership of the FAI from shifting rapidly from the policy of abstentionism in politics, to direct participation in the capitalist government.
Let us look at how the anarchists fared in the cities. Almost immediately after the failure of the Fascist uprising led by Franco, revolutionary power was theirs to take, and yet the historian Hugh Thomas notes that:
“Power had by then given to the Anarchists of Barcelona a sense of responsibility which amazed those members of the middle classes still in the city. The CNT ordered all its members to return to work. Yet the CNT’s power itself was now considerable. It possessed its own radio station, eight daily newspapers, innumerable weeklies, and periodicals dealing with every aspect of society… This was the only occasion in history that an Anarchist movement has controlled a great city. It is remarkable what little use the Anarchists made of this opportunity.” (Thomas, The Spanish Civil War, p. 188, my emphasis)
After July 19th 1936 power in Barcelona was in the hands of the revolution. A Committee of Anti-Fascist Militias was set up to represent the workers’ organisations and various political parties and groupings. Only 7 days later on “July 26th the CNT of Catalunya formally instructed its members to ’look no further than the victory over Fascism’.” (Ibid, p.189)
This argument was precisely that used by the Stalinists to justify crushing all revolutionary action when they gained sufficient power. When confronted with the issue of dissolving the Generalitat – the Capitalist provisional government of Catalonia – the leaders of the CNT-FAI made the crucial decision to leave it intact and support its President Lluis Companys:
“The decision to collaborate with the Catalan government however put a brake on the further development of the Social Revolution. Within two months the Committee of Anti-Fascist Militias was abolished. On 27th September 1936 the anarchist leaders of the CNT-FAI entered the government of the Generalitat…”(Marshall, p. 461)
The anarchist’s participation in the capitalist government paralysed the movement towards “council communism and workers’ control.”
Guérin writes: “Self-management was also tried out in industry, especially in Catalonia, the most industrialised area of Spain.” (Guérin, Anarchism, p.136, my emphasis)
Factories whose employers had fled were managed by “revolutionary workers’ committees” for “more than four months” (my emphasis)
On October 24th 1936, the anarchist minister in the capitalist government of Catalonia instituted a decree which ensured, “a compromise between capitalism and socialism” ( Ibid, p.137) In self managed factories run by managerial committees of between 5 and 15 persons, “the committee appointed a manager to whom it delegated all or part of its own powers. In very large factories the selection of a manager required the approval of the supervisory organisation… a government controller was appointed to each management committee.”
According to Guérin, “it appeared in practice that workers’ self management tended to produce a sort of parochial egoism, a species of ‘bourgeois cooperativism’… “each production unit concerning itself only with its own interests. There were rich collectives and poor collectives”
By December 1936 the trade unions began to draw up plans “to avoid harmful competition and the dissipation of effort… “However, industrial centralization under trade union control could not be developed as rapidly and completely as the anarcho-syndicalist planners would have wished… In the meanwhile, credit and foreign trade had remained in the hands of the private sector because the Bourgeois Republican government wished it so… the CNT was imprisoned by the Popular Front and dared not go as far as that” (Guérin, pp.136-7)
Having no worthy or honourable record in Barcelona, anarchist mythology has to find another source of strength in the Spanish Revolution and it seeks it… in the peasantry.
Thus Guérin writes that in Spain thanks to, “libertarian education and a collectivist tradition” the peasants turned “directly to socialism… It seems that social consciousness was even higher in the country than in the cities.” (Guérin, p. 131)
Guérin continues that even though in collectivised villages, “It appears that the units which applied collectivist principles of day wages were more solid than the comparatively few which tried to establish complete communism too quickly, taking no account of the egoism still deeply rooted in human nature especially amongst the women… the disadvantages of paralysing self-sufficiency made themselves felt.”
What is ignored here is that this was because the, ‘libertarian education’ and ‘collectivist tradition’ did not correspond with the interests of many small farmers. Although the measures to redistribute land, hold democratic village committees, provide socialised systems of production were laudable, they often added up to no more than bourgeois measures of land reform.
In addition, the “grass roots socialism was not the work of anarcho-syndicalists alone, as many people have supposed… the supporters of self-management were often ‘libertarians without knowing it’.” (Guérin, p.134)
Thus they did not in fact require “libertarian education and a collectivist tradition” In fact the peasants supported collectivist measures where it suited their interests, not where they had been trained in libertarian communism by various anarchists. In Catalonia, where the anarchists had their deepest base, their work amongst the peasants was totally ineffective.
“Catalonia was an area of small and medium sized farms, and the peasantry had a strong individualistic tradition, so that here there were no more than a few pilot collectives” Guérin explains (p.133). The anarchists’ power base created no more than ‘a few pilot collectives,’ in the countryside.
Without the world revolution, the ideals Lenin expressed in the State and Revolution (i.e. Libertarian communism, to use Chomsky’s words) were and are still impossible to realise.
The Bolshevik revolution provided a powerful impetus to revolutionary discontent within the troops and masses of Germany and elsewhere in the First World War. It carried out its promise to bring Russia out of the war.
On November 9th 1918 revolution broke out in Germany. Lenin and Trotsky always believed that the German revolution would be of far greater import for the creation of socialism than the Russian. Germany was to provide the model for the world revolution, and it very nearly happened according to plan.
The German working class set up workers’ councils and were challenging for power from November 1918 through to 1923. Unfortunately the murder of the leaders, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, had a very negative influence on the fate of the revolutionary struggle. Leadership is as decisive in revolution, class warfare, as it is in conventional war.
Lenin and Trotsky knew and repeatedly explained that it was not possible to create socialism in Russia, in other words for the workers and peasants of Russia to manage society themselves and raise the material well-being of all in conditions of economic backwardness. Lenin and Trotsky argued that this could only be overcome by revolutions in Western Europe, particularly Germany.
A Soviet Germany would create a unified plan of production with Soviet Russia. This would overcome Russian economic backwardness. When the German Revolution was lost in 1923 this left Soviet Russia isolated. The Soviet masses were exhausted and the idea of Soviet Democracy appeared to become a utopian dream. The bureaucracy increased its power inside the Soviet Union with each defeat of the world revolution. Further defeats followed in Britain 1926, China 1927. Finally Stalin’s insane policy of splitting the German working class by condemning the Social Democrats as “social fascists” led directly to the victory of Fascism in Germany.
Chomsky states that, “it’s essential that a powerful revolutionary movement exist in the United States if there are to be any reasonable possibilities for democratic social change of a radical sort anywhere in the capitalist world, and comparable remarks, I think undoubtedly hold for the Russian empire. Lenin till the end of his life stressed the idea that ‘it is an elementary truth of Marxism that the victory of socialism requires the joint efforts of workers in a number of advanced countries.’ At the very least it requires that the great centers of world imperialism be impeded by domestic pressures from counterrevolutionary intervention. Only such possibilities would permit any revolution to overthrow its own coercive state institutions as it tries to bring the economy under direct democratic control.” (Chomsky, On Democracy and Education, p.135)
Here at least for once it appears Chomsky agrees with Lenin! Let us imagine that the Venezuelan Revolution were immediately to expropriate the banks and monopolies under workers’ control and management. Would Venezuela be able to establish socialism if it were left alone?
The comparative economic backwardness of Venezuela and its isolation would inevitably mean that a bureaucratic degeneration of such a society would be possible, that is even if it were allowed to survive at all. Unless the revolution spreads to overcome the limitations of the nation state, the tendency towards bureaucratism would arise sooner or later, no matter how good the intentions of its leadership. In fact this same process would even be true of a revolution isolated in the United States of America, the most powerful country in the world.
Chomsky has made a name for himself and is admired by many on the left. Undoubtedly he has written many articles and books, and made many speeches, that provide some useful information. However, when it comes to analyzing the tasks the working class is facing he falls into a trap. He accepts many ideas about Marxism and the Russian revolution that are completely false. By doing this he does a disservice to himself and to the workers and the youth of the world who are looking for a way out of the present nightmare that capitalist society has created. He has every right to hold his views. No genuine socialist or communist would deny this. What he does not have the right to do is to distort and even falsify what genuine Marxism stands for. If he does this he is only helping the enemies of genuine socialism. The capitalist historians, the capitalist media, are constantly working away at trying to confuse the minds of millions of workers and youth. Our task is to combat all this.