why anarchists should care about bolshevism

Don’t worry, I have one going in the other direction too.


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?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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…
  4. 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.)


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.


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.)


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.

18 thoughts on “why anarchists should care about bolshevism

  1. Pingback: why socialists should care about anarchism | spreadtheinfestation

  2. i think you’ve misunderstood what an anarchist communist critique of vanguardism is

    its not that there we dont believe that an idea/philosophy can be good or better than another. its that the role of a revolutionary organisation is to agitate for and play a part within a mass movement of the working class. that could include arguing for certain ideas or methods within a mass movement, but ultimately the movement needs to be self governing and lead itself. hopefully prefiguring in the struggle desirable forms of organisation for a free future.

    vanguardism is the idea that a minority group of radicals should not only have their own idea of the best course of action but also needs to manipulate/control/take charge of a mass movements direction in order to get it to follow that idea. the organisational forms of small committees of professional revolutionaries/intellectuals being the spiritual/strategic gurus of the masses is totally inconsistent with the ideals of communism.

    • This is my first argumentative response to a comment. Please understand that it is intended for comradely debate and not a broad brushstroke that “all anarchists suck” or whatever. I wouldn’t say that because I’m increasingly identifying as one, but with particulars.

      I suppose there are different interpretations of what precisely “vanguardism” is.
      Here’s the thing: there is always going to be a competition of ideas over tactics, and there are some groups that argue within movements for certain tactics.
      The movement may vote to agree or disagree with their proposals.
      When proposals made by socialist groups win, many anarchists cry “vanguardism!”
      And yet, when proposals made by anarchist groups win (whether the group is a formal org or just a large, ideologically uniform scene), somehow that’s not “vanguardism.”

      If a group of any stripe uses *unfair* methods to steer a movement towards its proposals, that is a big problem. I admit that there are Stalinist-leaning groups that have no problem doing this and do it on a regular basis.
      But many socialist groups are accused of “vanguardism” simply for putting forward an organized socialist voice within a movement.
      To be blunt I think this is the leftovers of McCarthyism, and the unfair equation of all socialists with totalitarianism/authoritarianism.

      In Occupy Philly, not only did organized anarchist proposals win, but I think the methods by which they won were rigged and unfair. All the while they insisted that it was a “movement without leaders” while they were clearly the organized leadership. But “vanguardist” was never applied because it was done by anarchists.

      • I think the explanation of vanguardism is inaccurate and disingenuous. I’ve actually read Lenin, and he said a lot more than merely observing that some workers are more progressive and some workers who are more conservative. He said that revolutionary consciousness originates with intellectuals, not workers, that the vanguard party should be organized hierarchically, that it should have professional revolutionaries, and many other things. See his books “What is to Be Done” and “Left-Wing communism: an infantile disorder.” If vanguardism is all you make it out to be than Mensheviks would also be vanguardists, yet they disagreed with Lenin on this. There would be no real difference between a vanguard party and any other type of radical political party.

        I’ve noticed that Leninists, when interacting with anarchists, often put forth a watered-down version of vanguardism that removes all the controversial aspects. One so watered down that it essentially obliterates any difference between itself and other forms of radical political organization, such as menshevisim or specifismo. Once they’ve convinced people that this watered-down “vanguardism” is acceptable they pull a switcheroo and pretend that this means the kind of vanguard party Lenin advocated is justified. Merely accepting that revolutionaries should form their own organization does not mean that all the other ideas Lenin put forth, ideas that distinguish a vanguard party from other kinds of radical organization, are justified.

      • Yeah believe me I’ve read them, I consider myself a leninist precisely for these reasons.

        Professional revolutionaries means paid staff, which an organization will forever remain something that looks, well, unprofessional, like it was built out of someone’s garage, if they don’t hire. The question is, how you do you have paid staff in a non-authoritarian way? I think one big part is by putting term limits on them. I’ve been part of a leninist group, recently left, that has basically life-long paid staff, and yes I think it’s authoritarian and wrong. But without having any paid staff, I can’t imagine the organization even existing with the effectiveness that it does. I say make things rotate and get some younger people in there.

        In practice yes the thing about specifically revolutionary consciousness originating with intellectuals and not workers, this hasn’t been proven true by your own life? Typically what most workers have is class anger, but for it to go all the way from class anger to a new plan for society, it typically takes articulate writers spelling it out and popularizing the idea. Of course, Lenin was also writing back in Russia when there was way less overlap between workers and intellectuals; education is more democratized these days, though that’s an ongoing struggle. I also agree with Lenin’s idea that revolution doesn’t just come from the core conflict of ruling class vs. working class, but arises from the strain of all relations between all social sectors (“the sphere of the interrelations between all classes”). Intellectuals play a part in that.

        I don’t think Lenin ever flat-out said “the party should be hierarchical in general” but in certain instances, definitely. While functioning as an underground organization, yes absolutely. You can’t have a truly democratic organization when it’s a network of underground operatives where most of the members don’t even know each other for security reasons. It’s better just to subvert the regime and not get all bent out of shape about the methods. You’re all there for the same reason, to do the same thing, so you consent to working on a need-to-know basis. Remember when What Is To Be Done was written, it was under a fricking monarchy which used secret police. Lenin’s organizational recommendations got a lot more open when times were, well, more open.

        Everything I’ve written is from personal experience. I have personally wrangled with anarchists who retreated into some kind of postmodernist buddhist koans about nothing being knowable every time I actually tried to have a strategic conversation. This was not just a passing thing, but was the formative scene of people with whom I first switched from right to left, and when my primary political identity was anarchism.

  3. Pingback: why socialists should care about anarchism | Bristol Anarchist Federation

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  5. I would honestly say that, as an anarchist, the whole debacle with Nestor Makhno makes me extremely suspicious of colloboration with anyone extremely sympathetic with the Bolshevik approach, at least long-term. Especially since Makhno showed effective anarchistic-it needs to be admitted that he compromised on pure principles of anarchy but the needs of the time must be admitted especially with a genuine man of the people like he was by all reports that are not Trotskyist/Leninist lies. The fact his self-identity was as a semi-literate peasant also shows the lie to the idea that revolution must come first from the ‘intellectual’ class-my own personal experience also shows it as untrue since I was trying to think of ways to overthrow the government and all nonconsensual authority while organising things for the unrestricted needs of the working class since I was 11 and saw how screwed up things were, one year before I even knew the word anarchism(it felt relieving to finally have something to define myself as). While my own thoughts have obviously not lead us to revolution unfortunately, and my writing out a list as a kid of “plans to overthrow the government” and trying to convince the other kids in my class to revolt especially when I was ‘that weird kid’/total outsider was at best pathetically cute, it does show that revolutionary consciousness and planning can occur spontaneously among working class individuals. The fact that this does not generally lead to revolution is very unfortunate and I must admit that you make a very good point in that a good part of this is that anarchists are often very poor at organising ourselves, and I am personally disapointed that we are not trying out many different forms of organisation that follow anarchistic ideals.

    You’ve not shown in my opinion that even an adapted version of Lenins strategy is likely to be useful to anarchists without corrupting the very ideals that define anarchism however. In practice Leninism seems to stand for contempt for the working class by seperating ‘intellectuals’ into a class of their own implying that working class individuals are necassarily less intellectual than the so-called upper classes-a contempt that is exactly the problem and ironically enough one of the justifications people use for the current disgusting capitalist system(this is not to say that intellectuals do not exist, just that they’re not a class for themeselves in the same way the working class and the exploiter class are classes; instead intellectuals seem to be of two types, working intellectuals such as scribes, coders, paid writers, some engineers, some scientists, most teachers, library workers, etc-essentially everyone whose living conditions and working conditions are similar in varying ways to other WC folk but whose main tools of working deal with information/knowledge and then there are intellectuals who are part of the exploiter class, such as many participating in the university system, administrators of varying sorts, ‘think tank’ members, some scientists, politicians and in general those who are policy makers in one way or another for the corrupt, exploitive statist-capitalist system). To seperate intellectuals off as a seperate class, and then say they should be the leaders, is as I said contempt for working class people, doesn’t fundamentally change anything-people with certain ‘intellectual’ convictions setting themeselves up as leaders who the working class should obey, which is what generally happens with any form of party communism, is not a change at all regarding such important and fundamental issues as worker self-management.

    In conclusion, remember Makhnotvchina.

    • Heh I was totally that same kid who was wondering why my kindergarten class wasn’t run democratically if we live in a “democracy.”

      I don’t think anyone said intellectuals are a class unto themselves, just that different social layers play different roles. The most articulate section of the population is going to give the most articulate explanations of revolution, is really all I mean.

      But without an overwhelming working majority whom actually has real living reasons to be drawn to radical articulations, yeah, the intellectuals really don’t mean shit.

      I think a lot of anarchists feel precisely in this fashion about Chomsky, or interact with him in this way. Without Chomsky they wouldn’t really know precisely what to say, but it’s their own lives as workers that draw them to people like Chomsky.

      Really I think your own experiences as a revolutionary thinker, who often sharply feels the alienation of having a yet-popular idea, is what I’m talking about. Love it or hate it, there is a considerable difference between the people who actually seek out revolutionary thought and most workers. It doesn’t mean the exceptional thinkers should be dictators, but it does mean they’re going to play a very significant role in the revolutionary process.

  6. Lot to comment on here, and I don’t really have the time to give this the reply that it deserves, but really quickly: Leninism is not just a strategy, it is a specific organisational form. I don’t think you’ve really made any arguments for why a “democratic centralist” organisation is best placed to carry out that strategy, and until you make that argument, you’re just making a broad case for strategy in general being a good thing – and believe me, I have no objection to the statement “anarchists should care about strategy” – and for why Leninist organisational forms are vital for that strategy.
    Also, Leninism =/= Marxism. A lot of anarchists I know are really interested in a lot of Marxist ideas – see, for instance, the discussion of council communism in Fighting for Ourselves, or the quotes from Marx in the IWW preamble – but that doesn’t have to mean buying into the Leninist tradition. I’d even go so far as to suggest that having a centralist organisational structure, where a small central committee, which in any reasonably-sized organisation will be made up of full-timers – that is to say, people who’re cut off from the day-to-day experience of working-class life – is expected to know what’s best for the working class, is contradictory to a historical materialist perspective, which sees precisely that experience of everyday life as being a crucial source of revolutionary praxis. Hopefully this makes sense, like I say it could do with being expanded on but I also need to go to bed now.

    • D’oh, where I say “you’re just making a broad case for strategy in general being a good thing… and for why Leninist organisational forms are vital for that strategy”, it should say “you’re just making a broad case for strategy in general being a good thing… and *not* for why Leninist organisational forms are vital for that strategy.” “Not” is a small word, but it’s pretty vital to the meaning of the sentence.

      • If people actually read about the process of building the RSDLP, they’ll find immense organizational wisdom that is hard to find anywhere else, even if you disagree with some facets such as full-timers etc. The amount of zig-zags they had to take between being a hardcore underground operation of illegal smugglers to being a large-scale mass-participatory party is kind of ridiculous (as just one example).

        I became an anarchist among a milieu that was so ridiculously hostile to even the most basic forms of organization: having a formal organization, running a tight ship enough to be effective, differentiating between members and others, having weekly meetings, asking anyone to do anything, and yet they had massive moralism around lifestyle choices. To me this naturally became the definition of anarchism. I’m opening myself to thinking it could be another way, but let me tell you, a lot of anarchists don’t help me with that. I re-encounter the same bullshit all the time.

        So yeah, I still hold that even if you disagree about certain organizational specifics, reading the history of the bolsheviks would be a great corrective to a lot of the nonsense I see in the anarchist scene. If you think anarchism is capable of having well-functioning organizational machines, strategy etc. that’s good, I hope so too. But it is honestly only a subfaction of anarchism that has it, if at all. **Whereas formal organization and strategy are baseline minimal requirements for bolshevism.** So I’m trying to take the best of everything.

        From personal experience, a lot of ISO “full-timers” are actually part-timers who do other work like loading trucks and secretary work so having pro staff is not irreconcilable with maintaining a working-class orientation.

  7. I understand your frustration, but I don’t think you’ve found some inherent problem with anarchism that needs to be worked around by bringing in non-anarchist ideas, I think you’ve just been unfortunate enough to encounter some flaky anarchists. I understand that contemporary US anarchism may be especially bad for these things – god knows that if some of the shit I’ve seen on @news is in any way representative, it’s a miracle that anyone sensible in the US identifies with anarchism at all – but if you take a broader international and historical perspective, then formal organisation and strategy aren’t just compatible with anarchism, they’ve often been integral parts of it.
    Have you encountered Common Struggle at all? I’m not trying to sign you up or anything, I’ve never had any direct contact with them myself, but they sort of sound like they might be what you’re looking for.

  8. Pingback: The Left: its own biggest obstacle? | spreadtheinfestation

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