As discussed in the last section, there is a contradiction at the heart of the Marxist theory of the state. On the one hand, it acknowledges that the state, historically, has always been an instrument of minority rule and is structured to ensure this. On the other, it argues that you can have a state (the “dictatorship of the proletariat”) which transcends this historical reality to express an abstract essence of the state as an “instrument of class rule.” This means that Marxism usually confuses two very different concepts, namely the state (a structure based on centralisation and delegated power) and the popular self-management and self-organisation required to create and defend a socialist society.

This confusion between two fundamentally different concepts proved to be disastrous when the Russian Revolution broke out. Confusing party power with working class power, the Bolsheviks aimed to create a “workers’ state” in which their party would be in power (see section H.3.3). As the state was an instrument of class rule, it did not matter if the new “workers’ state” was centralised, hierarchical and top-down like the old state as the structure of the state was considered irrelevant in evaluating its role in society. Thus, while Lenin seemed to promise a radical democracy in which the working class would directly manage its own affairs in his State and Revolution, in practice he implemented a “dictatorship of the proletariat” which was, in fact, “the organisation of the vanguard of the oppressed as the ruling class.” [Essential Works of Lenin, p. 337] In other words, the vanguard party in the position of head of the state, governing on behalf of the working class which, in turn, meant that the new “workers’ state” was fundamentally a state in the usual sense of the word. This quickly lead to a dictatorship over, not of, the proletariat (as Bakunin had predicted). This development did not come as a surprise to anarchists, who had long argued that a state is an instrument of minority rule and cannot change its nature. To use the state to affect socialist change is impossible, simply because it is not designed for such a task. As we argued in section B.2, the state is based on centralisation of power explicitly to ensure minority rule and for this reason has to be abolished during a social revolution.

As Voline summarised, there is “an explicit, irreconcilable contradiction between the very essence of State Socialist power (if it triumphs) and that of the true Social Revolutionary process.” This was because “the basis of State Socialism and delegated power is the explicit non-recognition of [the] principles of the Social Revolution. The characteristic traits of Socialist ideology and practice … do not belong to the future, but are wholly a part of the bourgeois past … Once this model has been applied, the true principles of the Revolution are fatally abandoned. Then follows, inevitably, the rebirth, under another name, of the exploitation of the labouring masses, with all its consequences.” Thus “the forward march of the revolutionary masses towards real emancipation, towards the creation of new forms of social life, is incompatible with the very principle of State power … the authoritarian principle and the revolutionary principle are diametrically opposed and mutually exclusive.” [The Unknown Revolution, p. 247 and p. 248]

Ironically, the theoretical lessons Leninists gained from the experience of the Russian Revolution confirm the anarchist analysis that the state structure exists to facilitate minority rule and marginalise and disempower the majority to achieve that rule. This can be seen from the significant revision of the Marxist position which occurred once the Bolshevik party become the ruling party. Simply put, after 1917 leading representatives of Leninism stressed that state power was not required to repress resistance by the ex-ruling class as such, but, in fact, was also necessitated by the divisions within the working class. In other words, state power was required because the working class was not able to govern itself and so required a grouping (the party) above it to ensure the success of the revolution and overcome any “wavering” within the masses themselves.

While we have discussed this position in section H.1.2 and so will be repeating ourselves to some degree, it is worth summarising again the arguments put forward to justify this revision. This is because they confirm what anarchists have always argued, namely that the state is an instrument of minority rule and not one by which working class people can manage their own affairs directly. As the quotations from leading Leninists make clear, it is precisely this feature of the state which recommends it for party (i.e. minority) power. The contradiction at the heart of the Marxist theory of the state we pointed out in the section H.3.7 has been resolved in Leninism. It supports the state precisely because it is “a public power distinct from the mass of the people,” rather than an instrument of working class self-management of society.

Needless to say, his latter day followers point to Lenin’s apparently democratic, even libertarian, sounding 1917 work, The State and Revolution when asked about the Leninist theory of the state. As our discussion in section H.1.7 proved, the ideas expounded in his pamphlet were rarely, if at all, applied in practice by the Bolsheviks. Moreover, it was written before the seizure of power. In order to see the validity of his argument we must compare it to his and his fellow Bolshevik leaders opinions once the revolution had “succeeded.” What lessons did they generalise from their experiences and how did these lessons relate to State and Revolution?

The change can be seen from Trotsky, who argued quite explicitly that “the proletariat can take power only through its vanguard” and that “the necessity for state power arises from an insufficient cultural level of the masses and their heterogeneity.” Only with “support of the vanguard by the class” can there be the “conquest of power” and it was in “this sense the proletarian revolution and dictatorship are the work of the whole class, but only under the leadership of the vanguard.” Thus, rather than the working class as a whole seizing power, it is the “vanguard” which takes power — “a revolutionary party, even after seizing power … is still by no means the sovereign ruler of society.” Thus state power is required to govern the masses, who cannot exercise power themselves. As Trotsky put it, “[t]hose who propose the abstraction of Soviets to the party dictatorship should understand that only thanks to the Bolshevik leadership were the Soviets able to lift themselves out of the mud of reformism and attain the state form of the proletariat.” [Writings 1936–37, p. 490, p. 488 and p. 495]

Logically, though, this places the party in a privileged position. So what happens if the working class no longer supports the vanguard? Who takes priority? Unsurprisingly, in both theory and practice, the party is expected to rule over the masses. This idea that state power was required due to the limitations within the working class is reiterated a few years later in 1939. Moreover, the whole rationale for party dictatorship came from the fundamental rationale for democracy, namely that any government should reflect the changing opinions of the masses:

“The very same masses are at different times inspired by different moods and objectives. It is just for this reason that a centralised organisation of the vanguard is indispensable. Only a party, wielding the authority it has won, is capable of overcoming the vacillation of the masses themselves … if the dictatorship of the proletariat means anything at all, then it means that the vanguard of the proletariat is armed with the resources of the state in order to repel dangers, including those emanating from the backward layers of the proletariat itself.” [“The Moralists and Sycophants against Marxism”, pp. 53–66, Their Morals and Ours, p. 59]

Needless to say, by definition everyone is “backward” when compared to the “vanguard of the proletariat.” Moreover, as it is this “vanguard” which is “armed with the resources of the state” and not the proletariat as a whole we are left with one obvious conclusion, namely party dictatorship rather than working class democracy. How Trotsky’s position is compatible with the idea of the working class as the “ruling class” is not explained. However, it fits in well with the anarchist analysis of the state as an instrument designed to ensure minority rule.

Thus the possibility of party dictatorship exists if popular support fades. Which is, significantly, precisely what had happened when Lenin and Trotsky were in power. In fact, these arguments built upon other, equally elitist statement which had been expressed by Trotsky when he held the reins of power. In 1920, for example, he argued that while the Bolsheviks have “more than once been accused of having substituted for the dictatorship of the Soviets the dictatorship of the party,” in fact “it can be said with complete justice that the dictatorship of the Soviets became possible only by means of the dictatorship of the party.” This, just to state the obvious, was his argument seventeen years later. “In this ‘substitution’ of the power of the party for the power of the working class,” Trotsky added, “there is nothing accidental, and in reality there is no substitution at all. The Communists express the fundamental interests of the working class.” [Terrorism and Communism, p. 109] In early 1921, he argued again for Party dictatorship at the Tenth Party Congress:

“The Workers’ Opposition has come out with dangerous slogans, making a fetish of democratic principles! They place the workers’ right to elect representatives above the Party, as if the party were not entitled to assert its dictatorship even if that dictatorship temporarily clashed with the passing moods of the workers’ democracy. It is necessary to create amongst us the awareness of the revolutionary birthright of the party, which is obliged to maintain its dictatorship, regardless of temporary wavering even in the working classes. This awareness is for us the indispensable element. The dictatorship does not base itself at every given moment on the formal principle of a workers’ democracy.” [quoted by Samuel Farber, Before Stalinism, p. 209]

The similarities with his arguments of 1939 are obvious. Unsurprisingly, he maintained this position in the intervening years. He stated in 1922 that “we maintain the dictatorship of our party!” [The First Five Years of the Communist International, vol. 2, p. 255] The next year saw him arguing that “[i]f there is one question which basically not only does not require revision but does not so much as admit the thought of revision, it is the question of the dictatorship of the Party.” He stressed that “[o]ur party is the ruling party” and that “[t]o allow any changes whatever in this field” meant “bring[ing] into question all the achievements of the revolution and its future.” He indicated the fate of those who did question the party’s position: “Whoever makes an attempt on the party’s leading role will, I hope, be unanimously dumped by all of us on the other side of the barricade.” [Leon Trotsky Speaks, p. 158 and p. 160]

By 1927, when Trotsky was in the process of being “dumped” on the “other side of the barricade” by the ruling bureaucracy, he still argued for “the Leninist principle, inviolable for every Bolshevik, that the dictatorship of the proletariat is and can be realised only through the dictatorship of the party.” It was stressed that the “dictatorship of the proletariat [sic!] demands as its very core a single proletarian party.” [The Challenge of the Left Opposition (1926–7), p. 395 and p. 441] As we noted in section H.1.2, ten years later, he was still explicitly arguing for the “revolutionary dictatorship of a proletarian party”.

Thus, for Trotsky over a twenty year period, the “dictatorship of the proletariat” was fundamentally a “dictatorship of the party.” While the working class may be allowed some level of democracy, the rule of the party was repeatedly given precedence. While the party may be placed into power by a mass revolution, once there the party would maintain its position of power and dismiss attempts by the working class to replace it as “wavering” or “vacillation” due to the “insufficient cultural level of the masses and their heterogeneity.” In other words, the party dictatorship was required to protect working class people from themselves, their tendency to change their minds based on changing circumstances, evaluating the results of past decisions, debates between different political ideas and positions, make their own decisions, reject what is in their best interests (as determined by the party), and so on. Thus the underlying rationale for democracy (namely that it reflects the changing will of the voters, their “passing moods” so to speak) is used to justify party dictatorship!

The importance of party power over the working class was not limited to Trotsky. It was considered of general validity by all leading Bolsheviks and, moreover, quickly became mainstream Bolshevik ideology. In March 1923, for example, the Central Committee of the Communist Party in a statement issued to mark the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Bolshevik Party. This statement summarised the lessons gained from the Russian revolution. It stated that “the party of the Bolsheviks proved able to stand out fearlessly against the vacillations within its own class, vacillations which, with the slightest weakness in the vanguard, could turn into an unprecedented defeat for the proletariat.” Vacillations, of course, are expressed by workers’ democracy. Little wonder the statement rejects it: “The dictatorship of the working class finds its expression in the dictatorship of the party.” [“To the Workers of the USSR” in G. Zinoviev, History of the Bolshevik Party, p. 213 and p. 214]

Trotsky and other leading Bolsheviks were simply following Lenin’s lead, who had admitted at the end of 1920 that while “the dictatorship of the proletariat” was “inevitable” in the “transition of socialism,” it is “not exercised by an organisation which takes in all industrial workers.” The reason “is given in the theses of the Second Congress of the Communist International on the role of political parties” (more on which later). This means that “the Party, shall we say, absorbs the vanguard of the proletariat, and this vanguard exercises the dictatorship of the proletariat.” This was required because “in all capitalist countries … the proletariat is still so divided, so degraded, and so corrupted in parts” that it “can be exercised only by a vanguard … the dictatorship of the proletariat cannot be exercised by a mass proletarian organisation.” [Collected Works, vol. 32, p. 20 and p. 21] For Lenin, “revolutionary coercion is bound to be employed towards the wavering and unstable elements among the masses themselves.” [Op. Cit., vol. 42, p. 170] Needless to say, Lenin failed to mention this aspect of his system in The State and Revolution (a failure usually repeated by his followers). It is, however, a striking confirmation of Bakunin’s comments “the State cannot be sure of its own self-preservation without an armed force to defend it against its own internal enemies, against the discontent of its own people.” [Michael Bakunin: Selected Writings, p. 265]

Looking at the lessons leading leaders of Leninism gained from the experience of the Russian Revolution, we have to admit that the Leninist “workers’ state” will not be, in fact, a “new” kind of state, a “semi-state,” or, to quote Lenin, a “new state” which “is no longer a state in the proper sense of the word.” If, as Lenin argued in early 1917, the state “in the proper sense of the term is domination over the people by contingents of armed men divorced from the people,” then Bolshevism in power quickly saw the need for a state “in the proper sense.” [Op. Cit., vol. 24, p. 85] While this state “in the proper sense” had existed from the start of Bolshevik rule, it was only from early 1919 onwards (at the latest) that the leaders of Bolshevism had openly brought what they said into line with what they did. It was only by being a “state in the proper sense” could the Bolshevik party rule and exercise “the dictatorship of the party” over the “wavering” working class.

So when Lenin stated that “Marxism differs from anarchism in that it recognises the need for a state for the purpose of the transition to socialism,” anarchists agree. [Op. Cit., vol. 24, p. 85] Insofar as “Marxism” aims for, to quote Lenin, the party to “take state power into [its] own hands,” to become “the governing party” and considers one of its key tasks for “our Party to capture political power” and to “administer” a country, then we can safely say that the state needed is a state “in the proper sense,” based on the centralisation and delegation of power into the hands of a few (see our discussion of Leninism as “socialism from above” in section H.3.3 for details).

This recreation of the state “in the proper sense” did not come about by chance or simply because of the “will to power” of the leaders of Bolshevism. Rather, there are strong institutional pressures at work within any state structure (even a so-called “semi-state”) to turn it back into a “proper” state. We discuss this in more detail in section H.3.9. However, we should not ignore that many of the roots of Bolshevik tyranny can be found in the contradictions of the Marxist theory of the state. As noted in the last section, for Engels, the seizure of power by the party meant that the working class was in power. The Leninist tradition builds on this confusion between party and class power. It is clear that the “dictatorship of the proletariat” is, in fact, rule by the party. In Lenin’s words:

“Engels speaks of a government that is required for the domination of a class … Applied to the proletariat, it consequently means a government that is required for the domination of the proletariat, i.e. the dictatorship of the proletariat for the effectuation of the socialist revolution.” [Op. Cit., vol. 8, p. 279]

The role of the working class in this state was also indicated, as “only a revolutionary dictatorship supported by the vast majority of the people can be at all durable.” [Op. Cit., p. 291] In other words the “revolutionary government” has the power, not the working class in whose name it governs. In 1921 he made this explicit: “To govern you need an army of steeled revolutionary Communists. We have it, and it is called the Party.” The “Party is the leader, the vanguard of the proletariat, which rules directly.” For Lenin, as “long as we, the Party’s Central Committee and the whole Party, continue to run things, that is govern we shall never — we cannot — dispense with … removals, transfers, appointments, dismissals, etc.” of workers, officials and party members from above. [Op. Cit., vol. 32, p. 62, p. 98 and p. 99] Unsurprisingly, these powers were used by Lenin, and then Stalin, to destroy opposition (although the latter applied coercive measures within the party which Lenin only applied to non-party opponents).

So much for “workers’ power,” “socialism from below” and other such rhetoric.

This vision of “socialism” being rooted in party power over the working class was the basis of the Communist International’s resolution of the role of the party. This resolution is, therefore, important and worth discussing. It argues that the Communist Party “is part of the working class,” namely its “most advanced, most class-conscious, and therefore most revolutionary part.” It is “distinguished from the working class as a whole in that it grasps the whole historic path of the working class in its entirety and at every bend in that road endeavours to defend not the interests of individual groups or occupations but the interests of the working class as a whole.” [Proceedings and Documents of the Second Congress 1920, vol. 1, p. 191] However, in response it can be argued that this simply means the “interests of the party” as only it can understand what “the interests of the working class as a whole” actually are. Thus we have the possibility of the party substituting its will for that of the working class simply because of what Leninists term the “uneven development” of the working class. As Alan Carter argues, these “conceptions of revolutionary organisation maintain political and ideological domination by retaining supervisory roles and notions of privileged access to knowledge … the term ‘class consciousness’ is employed to facilitate such domination over the workers. It is not what the workers think, but what the party leaders think they ought to think that constitutes the revolutionary consciousness imputed to the workers.” The ideological basis for a new class structure is created as the “Leninist revolutionary praxis … is carried forward to post-revolutionary institutions,” [Marx: A Radical Critique, p. 175]

The resolution stresses that before the revolution, the party “will encompass … only a minority of the workers.” Even after the “seizure of power,” it will still “not be able to unite them all into its ranks organisationally.” It is only after the “final defeat of the bourgeois order” will “all or almost all workers begin to join” it. Thus the party is a minority of the working class. The resolution then goes on to state that “[e]very class struggle is a political struggle. This struggle, which inevitably becomes transformed into civil war, has as its goal the conquest of political power. Political power cannot be seized, organised, and directed other than by some kind of political party.” [Op. Cit., p. 192, p. 193] And as the party is a “part” of the working class which cannot “unite” all workers “into its ranks,” this means that political power can only be “seized, organised, and directed” by a minority.

Thus we have minority rule, with the party (or more correctly its leaders) exercising political power. The idea that the party “must dissolve into the councils, that the councils can replace the Communist Party” is “fundamentally wrong and reactionary.” This is because, to “enable the soviets to fulfil their historic tasks, there must … be a strong Communist Party, one that does not simply ‘adapt’ to the soviets but is able to make them renounce ‘adaptation’ to the bourgeoisie.” [Op. Cit., p. 196] Thus rather than the workers’ councils exercising power, their role is simply that of allowing the Communist Party to seize political power.

As we indicated in section H.3.4, the underlying assumption behind this resolution was made clear by Zinoviev during his introductory speech to the congress meeting which finally agreed the resolution: the dictatorship of the party was the dictatorship of the proletariat. Little wonder that Bertrand Russell, on his return from Lenin’s Russia in 1920, wrote that:

“Friends of Russia here [in Britain] think of the dictatorship of the proletariat as merely a new form of representative government, in which only working men and women have votes, and the constituencies are partly occupational, not geographical. They think that ‘proletariat’ means ‘proletariat,’ but ‘dictatorship’ does not quite mean ‘dictatorship.’ This is the opposite of the truth. When a Russian Communist speak of a dictatorship, he means the word literally, but when he speaks of the proletariat, he means the word in a Pickwickian sense. He means the ‘class-conscious’ part of the proletariat, i.e. the Communist Party. He includes people by no means proletarian (such as Lenin and Tchicherin) who have the right opinions, and he excludes such wage-earners as have not the right opinions, whom he classifies as lackeys of the bourgeoisie.” [The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism, pp. 26–27]

Significantly, Russell pointed, like Lenin, to the Comintern resolution on the role of the Communist Party. In addition, he noted the reason why this party dictatorship was required: “No conceivable system of free elections would give majorities to the Communists, either in the town or country.” [Op. Cit., pp. 40–1]

Nor are followers of Bolshevism shy in repeating its elitist conclusions. Founder and leader of the British SWP, Tony Cliff, for example, showed his lack of commitment to working class democracy when he opined that the “actual level of democracy, as well as centralism, [during a revolution] depends on three basic factors: 1. the strength of the proletariat; 2. the material and cultural legacy left to it by the old regime; and 3. the strength of capitalist resistance. The level of democracy feasible must be in direct proportion to the first two factors, and in inverse proportion to the third. The captain of an ocean liner can allow football to be played on his vessel; on a tiny raft in a stormy sea the level of tolerance is far lower.” [Lenin, vol. 3, p. 179] That Cliff compares working class democracy to football says it all. Rather than seeing it as the core gain of a revolution, he relegates it to the level of a game, which may or may not be “tolerated”! And need we speculate who the paternalistic “captain” in charge of the ship of the state would be?

Replacing Cliff’s revealing analogies we get the following: “The party in charge of a workers’ state can allow democracy when the capitalist class is not resisting; when it is resisting strongly, the level of tolerance is far lower.” So, democracy will be “tolerated” in the extremely unlikely situation that the capitalist class will not resist a revolution! That the party has no right to “tolerate” democracy or not is not even entertained by Cliff, its right to negate the basic rights of the working class is taken as a given. Clearly the key factor is that the party is in power. It may “tolerate” democracy, but ultimately his analogy shows that Bolshevism considers it as an added extra whose (lack of) existence in no way determines the nature of the “workers’ state” (unless, of course, he is analysing Stalin’s regime rather than Lenin’s then it becomes of critical importance!). Perhaps, therefore, we may add another “basic factor” to Cliff’s three; namely “4. the strength of working class support for the party.” The level of democracy feasible must be in direct proportion to this factor, as the Bolsheviks made clear. As long as the workers vote for the party, then democracy is wonderful. If they do not, then their “wavering” and “passing moods” cannot be “tolerated” and democracy is replaced by the dictatorship of the party. Which is no democracy at all.

Obviously, then, if, as Engels argued, “an essential feature of the state is a public power distinct from the mass of the people” then the regime advocated by Bolshevism is not a “semi-state” but, in fact, a normal state. Trotsky and Lenin are equally clear that said state exists to ensure that the “mass of the people” do not participate in public power, which is exercised by a minority, the party (or, more correctly, the leaders of the party). One of the key aims of this new state is to repress the “backward” or “wavering” sections of the working class (although, by definition, all sections of the working class are “backward” in relation to the “vanguard”). Hence the need for a “public power distinct from the people” (as the suppression of the strike wave and Kronstadt in 1921 shows, elite troops are always needed to stop the army siding with their fellow workers). And as proven by Trotsky’s comments after he was squeezed out of power, this perspective was not considered as a product of “exceptional circumstances.” Rather it was considered a basic lesson of the revolution, a position which was applicable to all future revolutions. In this, Lenin and other leading Bolsheviks concurred.

The irony (and tragedy) of all this should not be lost. In his 1905 diatribe against anarchism, Stalin had denied that Marxists aimed for party dictatorship. He stressed that there was “a dictatorship of the minority, the dictatorship of a small group … which is directed against the people … Marxists are the enemies of such a dictatorship, and they fight such a dictatorship far more stubbornly and self-sacrificingly than do our noisy Anarchists.” The practice of Bolshevism and the ideological revisions it generated easily refutes Stalin’s claims. The practice of Bolshevism showed that his claim that “[a]t the head” of the “dictatorship of the proletarian majority … stand the masses” is in sharp contradiction with Bolshevik support for “revolutionary” governments. Either you have (to use Stalin’s expression) “the dictatorship of the streets, of the masses, a dictatorship directed against all oppressors” or you have party power in the name of the street, of the masses. [Collected Works, vol. 1, p. 371–2] The fundamental flaw in Leninism is that it confuses the two and so lays the ground for the very result anarchists predicted and Stalin denied.

While anarchists are well aware of the need to defend a revolution (see section H.2.1), we do not make the mistake of equating this with a state. Ultimately, the state cannot be used as an instrument of liberation — it is not designed for it. Which, incidentally, is why we have not discussed the impact of the Russian Civil War on the development of Bolshevik ideology. Simply put, the “workers’ state” is proposed, by Leninists, as the means to defend a revolution. As such, you cannot blame what it is meant to be designed to withstand (counter-revolution and civil war) for its “degeneration.” If the “workers’ state” cannot handle what its advocates claim it exists for, then its time to look for an alternative and dump the concept in the dustbin of history.

In summary, Bolshevism is based on a substantial revision of the Marxist theory of the state. While Marx and Engels were at pains to stress the accountability of their new state to the population under it, Leninism has made a virtue of the fact that the state has evolved to exclude that mass participation in order to ensure minority rule. Leninism has done so explicitly to allow the party to overcome the “wavering” of the working class, the very class it claims is the “ruling class” under socialism! In doing this, the Leninist tradition exploited the confused nature of the state theory of traditional Marxism. The Leninist theory of the state is flawed simply because it is based on creating a “state in the proper sense of the word,” with a public power distinct from the mass of the people. This was the major lesson gained by the leading Bolsheviks (including Lenin and Trotsky) from the Russian Revolution and has its roots in the common Marxist error of confusing party power with working class power. So when Leninists point to Lenin’s State and Revolution as the definitive Leninist theory of the state, anarchists simply point to the lessons Lenin himself gained from actually conducting a revolution. Once we do, the slippery slope to the Leninist solution to the contradictions inherit in the Marxist theory of the state can be seen, understood and combated.