BOLSHEVISM IS A STRATEGY
Many anarchists immediately think of the worst atrocities, flaws, and repressions of the USSR when they hear the word “bolshevism.” Yeah, okay, I don’t entirely blame them; for a long time that’s why I identified primarily as an anarchist. I’d go so far as to say that many anarchists are really just socialists who are afraid of being tarred by the same brush as Stalinism.
What many are unaware of is that when many marxists say “bolshevism” or “leninism,” what they are actually talking about is a long-term revolutionary strategy, something many anarchists lack.
So what is the bolshevik strategy?
- To simply have an organization of radicals only, and to persistently spread propaganda regardless of whether the revolution seems immediate or impossible. The educational effort should be actually well-researched, not (always) cheap, sensational slogans. Obviously the education should be focused on our core thrust (systemic change, revolution, workers’ power, class & wealth inequality) as well as things that might seem unrelated but are actually crucial to building an all-inclusive workers’ movement (fighting racism, sexism, homophobia) as well as other random shit like political discussion of what’s going on in pop culture.
- To “get our hands dirty” in movements which appear “reformist” or “electoral” on the surface. One purpose is to train the organization in being a sort of nerve center that has a finger in every pie of the resistance and therefore becomes more capable of initiating, not reacting to, national events. Another purpose is to increase the intensity and imagination of the progressive demands in that movement, as well as encourage the tactic of mass demonstration, in order to create greater social tension between the populace and the system at every point possible. For this reason we also provide what logistical support we can, and what organizational advice anyone will care to listen to. The second purpose is that protest movements are a great place to discuss shades of opinion with other leftists (pulling liberals into radicalism) and to recruit (pulling isolated radicals into organizing). Firmness in principles, flexibility in tactics.
- When society reaches enough of a rebellious critical mass, brought about by a combo of spontaneous capitalist immiseration and long-term leftist educational subversion, to try to orient the Left toward an involvement in the labor movement. Furthermore, if the labor movement gets to enough of a critical mass, with union struggles boiling over into outright workplace mutinies where workers take over and democratically run their jobs, the organization(s) created earlier should call for the creation of a federation of workers’ councils, or of workplaces that have been seized by workers or contested by unions. (Before you think this is far-fetched, here are five instances of this actually happening from 1968 forward.) Democratic community/neighborhood councils could possibly be included; the Venezuelan movement has utilized a workplace-neighborhood alliance. This collection of delegates begins to act as a new, liberatory organizing center for society, standing as a counterweight to the old halls of power like Manhattan, Congress, the Pentagon or Langley. But such a dual-power situation cannot last long without one side taking the other out…
- The organization(s) must act as a resolute voice within the workers’ council federation, standing up for both (1) the continued existence and survival of the federation, against outside attacks or internal disintegration (2) the dispersal of the old governing powers (by popular riots or pre-dawn raids as you choose), with the tasks of economic coordination and policy-making now falling to the federation.
This organizational-strategic outline has some commonalities in anarchism with platformism and syndicalism, but frankly I don’t meet many anarchists who have things explicitly thought out this far. Which is a shame, because it’s necessary for revolutionary success. (Also note that, while the above strategy is a revolutionary strategy, it requires no illegal activity in present circumstances.)
DON’T HATE THE ENTIRE RUSSIAN REVOLUTION
The above also outlines another example of why anarchists should care about bolshevism: the above sequence of events actually happened. Not only did the strategy actually succeed in overthrowing both the Tsar’s monarchy AND the capitalist provisional government, but the result actually was a federation of workers’ self-management. (The word “soviet” is Russian for “council.”) While it’s true that the Communists eventually deteriorated into something horrible that no one should support (creating many theories on why!), the initial revolution created that very federation of workers’ councils which I think any sensible anarchist should see as the fulfillment of their ideas, and of course many anarchists at the time actually did.
MARXISM IS A COOL PHILOSOPHY
There is a huge, rich library of Marxist philosophy and historiography, and it’s really your loss if you don’t take advantage of it because you’re an anarchist afraid that opening a marxist book will brainwash you into being a Stalinist head-stomper. Perhaps there is too much academic marxism, but for the purpose of reaching some serious internal clarity, nothing beats it.
Anarchists seem to have no standard theory of history or theory of social change, whereas the very definition of “marxism” is precisely a specific theory of history and theory of social change (one which I happen to think is correct). Mostly, marxism holds that when it comes to the overwhelming majority of people, their political and cultural ideas are strongly influenced by the economic system they live under – whether we’re talking about their rotten ideas, which come from a rotten life and wealthy control of media/education, or we’re talking about their good ideas, which tend to originate from breakdowns in the system like recessions or scandals. Furthermore, continuing this materialist historical analysis is also a materialist theory of social change. Major shifts in consciousness are triggered by major events emanating from the economic base (2008), but ultimately the demographic most capable of actually implementing social change is the demographic responsible for the material sustenance of society: working people. This does not only apply to the core, “essential” workplaces like industry or transportation, but literally everything that produces profit for an owner, from raw materials to services and final sales. (Rule of thumb: if someone pays you to do it, it must create value somehow or a businessperson wouldn’t front the money for it.)
HOW DO YOU EVEN BREATHE WITHOUT “OPPRESSING” SOMEONE OR SOMETHING
Finally, this brings me to a clarification of “vanguardism.”
Anarchists often accuse bolsheviks of “vanguardism.” Depending on the context, this branches into three different results: (1) the bolsheviks are being dicks and the anarchists are just using a confusing word (2) the anarchists embrace vanguardism in practice without realizing or admitting it (3) the anarchists engage in all sorts of self-defeating silliness to avoid “being vanguardist.”
First, yeah there’s a long harsh history of Communists being assholes. The Russian Communist Party often used its self-appointed status as The Vanguard Party as a papal right to crush any dissident ideas. They then often exported this attitude to the Communist Parties of the world, which made creating unity within the Left very difficult internationally, with the Communists saying they had the sole right to represent the Left. This has a lot to do with why the Left failed to defeat the fascists in Spain and why the Greek Left is not governing Greece at the moment.
And it’s not just Communists/Stalinists. A lot of Trotskyists, often held up as the golden models of non-Stalinist, dissident marxism, also interpret their own group as the sole vanguard and place a horrific emphasis on stridently arguing with other groups rather than working together and building unity, or at least just keeping to themselves.
So what even is “vanguardism?”
It’s the idea that, among the working class, there are some workers who are more progressive and some workers who are more conservative. There are some workers who are radical and some workers who aren’t – or if you believe in mixed consciousness, which I do, all workers are radical but only some of them have realized it and purified themselves of the old reactionary horseshit.
In old military language, when there was a column of marching soldiers, the front was the “vanguard” and the back was the “rearguard.” It’s not an entirely helpful metaphor since all the soldiers marching in a column are on the same side, unlike in politics. But the idea is, the “vanguard” is a sub-section of the working class who has realized its position as workers and the necessity of resistance. Some leftists hope to create a “vanguard party,” or an organization which formalizes and roughly incorporates the vanguard layer of the working class. In practice this will probably be split among several parties, and marxists have often implied that the one organization that they most agree with is “the real vanguard” or “more vanguard-ish” (though I don’t know that anyone but me has used the word “vangaurdish”).
So, here comes a frequent anarchist critique: any evaluation of your own ideas as better than anyone else’s ideas is elitist. If you do it within the Left, it is vanguardism, it is authoritarian, and it is why the Russian Revolution derailed into Stalinism, which is basically identical to Leninism.
Besides disagreeing with that last part about how Stalinism happened, I have to ask – how is it possible to even walk down the street without thinking that some ideas are better than others? Isn’t it a bad idea to step in front of a moving car?
On the political level, this idea is still ridiculous. I think every anarchist would agree that Republican ideas are certainly horrible. Yes, I am creating a HIERARCHY of ideas (not of people!). My HIERARCHY of ideas places demographic tolerance, perhaps of gays, or Muslims, as a better idea than racism or homophobia. I think most anarchists even agree that it’s not just conservatism that deserves a low place on the hierarchy of ideas, but even liberalism needs to be criticized. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that many anarchists themselves apply vanguardist ideas by promoting anarchist literature and sharply denouncing bolshevism.
Amazingly, some anarchists are actually self-aware of their circular mind games to the point of elevating them to a systematic theory called “postmodernism,” basically the theory that the truth is unreachable so you might as well not try, and also that promoting any one idea is an oppressive act that creates totalitarian regimes. What’s more oppressive to you, allowing yourself to have an opinion, or holding to some theory that’s so restrictive that you’re not even allowed to form a thought without dismissing it as relativistic?
Give me “We are the 99%” any fucking day over this horseshit. Now that’s high theory!
To be blunt I think a lot of anarchists use this childish game of “no idea is better than any other” as a copout for the fact that they have no revolutionary strategy, and they are often intimidated by the marxists who do have one, but are afraid of joining the dark side because they think their choices boil down to anarchism vs. Stalinism.
This issue of vanguardism to me is one of the worst embodiments of purist silliness in anarchism, taking many different forms, which I think anarchism could do without, and for which I think bolshevism could serve as a structure-providing counterweight.