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Is Socialism Not a Struggle for Power?

Attempts to separate revolutionary authority from socialism mangle both the aims and history of socialism.

May 08, 2017

"Wrangel [a White general in the Civil War] is still alive, finish him off mercilessly!"

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Friedrich Engels once wrote, “A revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing there is.” In making this statement, Engels was explaining that a proletarian revolution could only be successful if the workers subdued their class enemies in the process of taking power. Engels understood that socialism was an inherently antagonistic project that pitted workers against their exploiters, and to pretend otherwise would be either an unwitting blunder or a conscious evasion.

Many in the United States and around the world are now contemplating the need and desirability of socialism, but all too often in a form that apparently does not require the revolutionary exercise of power. In particular, social democrats attempt to preserve an air of bourgeois respectability by distancing themselves from any notion that a workers’ state — the dictatorship of the proletariat, as it has been known since Marx — is a possible, necessary, or desirable aim for the working class. But since capitalism is an authoritarian relationship between capitalists and workers, social democrats who can’t see the need to organize workers to break down and supplant the power of capitalists fundamentally misconstrue the goals of socialism.

Inverting Engels, social democrats warn that “authoritarianism” — a term which serves as a stalking horse for criticizing the workers’ state — should be avoided as a practice and condemned in principle by socialists. For instance, Joseph M. Schwartz, a national vice chair of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), does precisely this in Jacobin’s recent publication The ABCs of Socialism:

Socialism, of all stripes, was conflated with the crimes of the Soviet Union and doomed to the trash heap of bad ideas. Yet many socialists were consistent opponents of authoritarianism of both left and right varieties.

In order to buttress his argument, Schwartz cites the writings of Rosa Luxemburg, Victor Serge, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. However, what these famous revolutionaries actually wrote regarding “authoritarianism” (as we briefly saw above from Engels) contradicts Schwartz’s position. Rosa Luxemburg and Victor Serge strongly supported the Bolsheviks’ revolutionary dictatorship against the capitalists who attempted, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, to “strangle Bolshevism in its cradle.” The Bolsheviks found justification for their actions in the writings of Marx and Engels, who advocated banishing capitalism via a “forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions.”

More generally, the spectre of the Russian Revolution and its subsequent civil war haunts social democracy, since that historical experience exposes the falsehood that capitalists will ever allow a peaceful transition to socialism. The vain aspiration to produce socialism by evolutionary means and peaceful elections is always derailed by the bourgeoisie through political manipulation, xenophobia, nationalism, and — when all their other means have failed — violent counterrevolution.

We can join Schwartz in a sincere opposition to capitalist “authoritarianism,” which aims to thwart the attempts of socialists to advance on the path to human liberation. However we strenuously object to his opposition to socialist “authoritarianism,” which is the only means by which the socialist dream could ever be realized [1]. Framing the struggles of socialists as ones of democracy counterposed to authoritarianism is a misunderstanding of the true stakes involved in a potential transition to socialism.

The Opposing Argument

Schwartz’s essay “Is Socialism Undemocratic?” appears both online and in ABCs of Socialism [2]. Schwartz argues that, in spite of the claims of the United States’ propaganda, socialists were not proponents of authoritarianism but, contrariwise, the most vigorous opponents of authoritarianism. To support this claim, he cites various textual evidence, including the Communist Manifesto, Rosa Luxemburg’s unfinished pamphlet on the Russian Revolution, and Victor Serge’s writings.

Schwartz also outlines two categories of historical events and phenomena, one of authoritarianism and the other of socialist struggle. In the first bucket, he drops the USSR, Latin American dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s, and presently existing putatively socialist states (Cuba, Vietnam, etc.). In the later bucket he puts the uprisings against the USSR in Eastern Europe (East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, etc.), the struggles of the First and Second Internationals in Europe, and the governments of Salvador Allende in Chile and Michael Manley in Jamaica. Schwartz writes, “While criticizing capitalism as antidemocratic, democratic socialists consistently opposed authoritarian governments that claimed to be socialist [3].”

This is certainly not the place to delve into the complicated and worthy topic of the nature of any of the regimes that Schwartz mentions to interrogate if they were/are actually socialist, an issue about which much has been written. The pertinent question here is if Schwartz is correct that being authoritarian necessarily disqualifies a government from legitimately claiming the socialist mantle.

Luxemburg vs Schwartz

It is unfortunate for Schwartz’s argument that he cites Rosa Luxemburg’s pamphlet on the Russian Revolution, since it contains many points that weigh against his position — and was written explicitly to rebut such positions. Critics of the Russian Revolution often mention this work to support their portrait of the Bolshevik regime as ill-conceived and immoral. In fact, Luxemburg wrote the pamphlet in support of the Bolsheviks — who, nobody will deny, instituted an authoritarian regime — and in reading it one is struck by the volume and tenor of her praise for the new socialist government. There is no doubt she raises criticisms of the Bolsheviks, but these are qualified by her insistence that “[i]t would be demanding something superhuman from Lenin and his comrades if we should expect of them that under such circumstances they should conjure forth the finest democracy, the most exemplary dictatorship of the proletariat and a flourishing socialist economy.”

Luxemburg speaks of a “basic error” that some make in counterposing “dictatorship to democracy.” Undoubtedly, this is the precise error that Schwartz makes, the same error which Kautsky (in his renegade phase) made before him. Continuing, Luxemburg argues in favor of both democracy and dictatorship: “Yes, dictatorship! But this dictatorship consists in the manner of applying democracy, not in its elimination, but in energetic, resolute attacks upon the well-entrenched rights and economic relationships of bourgeois society, without which a socialist transformation cannot be accomplished.” Thus we see that Luxemburg did not see a fundamental contradiction between “authoritarianism” and socialism.

Indeed, at times Luxemburg is fulsome in her praise of the Bolsheviks. In her pamphlet’s first chapter, she writes, “Whatever a party could offer of courage, revolutionary far-sightedness and consistency in an historic hour, Lenin, Trotsky and all the other comrades have given in good measure. All the revolutionary honor and capacity which western Social-Democracy lacked was represented by the Bolsheviks. Their October uprising was not only the actual salvation of the Russian Revolution; it was also the salvation of the honor of international socialism.” And in the final chapter she trumpets, “Lenin and Trotsky and their friends were the first, those who went ahead as an example to the proletariat of the world; they are still the only ones up to now who can cry with Hutten: ‘I have dared!’” These are not the words of someone who seeks to distance herself from the Bolshevik regime [4].

Ironically, it is the Second International ‘democratic’ socialists that Schwartz says he admires who were responsible for the murder of Luxemburg. No doubt this was an authoritarian action, but a most contemptible one, and a crime that sadly silenced one of the towering revolutionaries of the time. This is one of the many leaks that spring in Schwartz’s account of noble socialist democrats versus sinister socialist authoritarians.

Whatever her critiques of the Bolsheviks, as the German Revolution unfolded Luxemburg came to realize that a more organized party would be needed to lead the armed workers to a ‘socialist dictatorship’: “The crisis had a dual nature. The contradiction between the powerful, decisive, aggressive offensive of the Berlin masses on the one hand and the indecisive, half-hearted vacillation of the Berlin leadership on the other is the mark of this latest episode. The leadership failed. But a new leadership can and must be created by the masses and from the masses [5].” The revolution needed more authority to save her from the social democrats who, by killing her to protect German democracy, nurtured the most brutal authoritarianism of the century.

Serge vs Schwartz

Schwartz’s marshalling of Victor Serge is also counterproductive for his argument, since Serge was at one time among the most talented propagandists for the Bolshevik cause. In Year One of the Russian Revolution, Serge is willing to go even further than Luxemburg in defending the Bolsheviks.

One of the most controversial actions of the Bolsheviks was suppressing their enemies through ‘terror,’ or politically directed violence. Luxemburg, for one, criticized the Bolsheviks for their use of terror in her pamphlet. Serge, on the other hand, noting that “[t]here has never been... a revolution without terror,” provides a justification for the Bolsheviks’ actions: “Red terror... is not only a necessary and decisive weapon in the class war but also a terrible instrument for the inner purification of the proletarian dictatorship itself.” Serge calls on workers around the world to “defend the first Workers’ Republic” which he thinks is strengthened by means of these tactics.

In fact, at times Serge criticizes the Bolsheviks for being excessively lenient towards their enemies. One incident that he cites is the armed Bolshevik workers in Moscow allowing counter-revolutionary combattants to walk away after being captured, some even with their weapons: “The fighters of the counter-revolution, butchers of the Kremlin, who in victory would have shown no quarter whatever to the Reds – we have seen proof – went free. Foolish clemency! These very Junkers, these officers, these students, these socialists of counter-revolution, dispersed them-selves throughout the length and breadth of Russia, and there organized the civil war.”

Serge justified the Bolsheviks being absolutely ruthless during the Russian Civil War, noting that defeat in struggle meant the crushing of the proletariat, just as defeat in the Finnish Civil War led to the massacre of the revolutionary socialist workers. After discussing the White terror in Finland, Serge states, “The total extermination of all the advanced and conscious elements of the proletariat is, in short, the rational objective of the White terror. In this sense, a vanquished revolution – regardless of its tendency – will always cost the proletariat far more than a victorious revolution, no matter what sacrifices and rigours the latter may demand.” Serge is certainly not one to shy away from advocacy of authoritarian measures in the service of socialism!

In fairness, in some of Serge’s later writings he did not take such an unequivocal position towards the Bolsheviks (Schwartz does not mention which works of Serge he is drawing upon for inspiration). Nevertheless, even in his later years, after his persecution under Stalin’s reign, he would oppose the efforts of those who would invoke authoritarianism to crudely conflate quite different socialist (and non-socialist) legacies. In his essay “Thirty Years After the Russian Revolution,” [6] Serge writes: “What a poor excuse for logic, which – pointing accusingly at the dark spectacle of Stalinist Russia—attempts to prove the failure of Bolshevism and therefore of Marxism and even socialism.” And in Serge’s memoirs, he issues the verdict: “Bolshevism was, in my eyes, tremendously and visibly right. It marked a new point of departure in history [7].”

Marx and Engels vs Schwartz

As we have argued, the methods of dictatorship should not be abandoned by socialists. Rosa Luxemburg and Victor Serge certainly shared this opinion with regard to the Bolsheviks. Schwartz stumbles when naming these individuals in an attempt to sustain his own argument, since their writings contradict his claim. But even without them, it is mysterious what coherence a position of rejecting “authoritarianism” per se could have. A government, for instance, that refused to use coercion in one way or another is nigh unthinkable.

Schwartz is not the first to commit the error of disparaging “authoritarianism” per se, nor, we fear, will he be the last. Indeed, in a previous article we analyzed the DSA Left Caucus (LC) platform which said it was opposed to authoritarianism. Of course, this begs the question: which authoritarianism is the LC opposed to? The authoritarianism of North Korea? Of Cuba? Of the United States? Of Iran? Of the Bolsheviks? Clearly, the authoritarianism label often confuses more than it enlightens, as it conflates starkly different types of regimes.

Furthermore, Schwartz’s attempt to distance socialism from authoritarian methods obscures the real history and aims of socialism. He writes that the Communist Manifesto “ends with a clarion call for workers to win the battle for democracy against aristocratic and reactionary forces.” This is a strange, or at best incomplete, interpretation of the Manifesto’s call to “raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class to win the battle of democracy,” which, incidentally, occurs in the middle of the Manifesto, not the end [8]. What Marx and Engels are referring to here, as shown by their urging of the working class to displace the “ruling class,” is the working class’ taming of not only the aristocracy but the bourgeoisie. What follows that passage is consideration of methods by which the proletariat can make “despotic inroads on the rights of property.”

Moreover, Engels, in “On Authority,” makes the case that the revolutionary socialist project and authoritarianism are fundamentally inseparable: “A revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing there is; it is the act whereby one part of the population imposes its will upon the other part by means of rifles, bayonets and cannon — authoritarian means, if such there be at all; and if the victorious party does not want to have fought in vain, it must maintain this rule by means of the terror which its arms inspire in the reactionists.” These were the insights of revolutionaries who actually came close to seizing power from the capitalists, and sometimes succeeded. It may be less jarring to buy into peaceful, democratic socialism, but is there anything about our times to suggest that socialism will not meet intense opposition, and should we not be ready for it?

In sum, a rejection of authoritarian methods necessarily implies a repudiation of any kind of vision of socialist revolution or rule. This might be palatable to democratic socialists, who are at pains to shore up their credibility with liberals and conservatives by unconvincingly distancing themselves from “authoritarianism.” However, this is not the socialism of Rosa Luxemburg and Victor Serge, and most certainly not the socialism of Marx and Engels.

Lessons from the Past

To assert authoritarian methods are vital mechanisms for socialists in power is not to condone all repressive measures that socialists have taken throughout history, some of which have been indefensible, inhumane, and, indeed, anti-socialist. However, it is an admission that coercive measures are among the tools socialists will need to take over capitalist property and organize a workers’ state. It is also a call to study history and examine which tactics were useful and justified, and which were not, and which have applicability to the present situation. Truly, the devil is in the details.

We can illustrate the necessity of using authoritarian measures for a socialist project by reference to the experience of the Russian Revolution. Contrary to the “liberal myth” of a bloodless initial phase of the revolution, the events that overthrew Czar Nicholas II were quite violent indeed. Soldiers chucked police snipers shooting protesters from rooftops and killed senior officers who ordered them to suppress the demonstrations [9]. Before the Bolsheviks took power, they, along with other revolutionaries, organized a defense of Petrograd to prevent the counterrevolutionary general Kornilov from subduing the revolution [10]. Once in power, the Bolsheviks took many authoritarian actions to defend the revolution, including sending the Cheka to foil the coup attempts of the British envoy Lockhart, monarchists in various locations, and even the faction of Left Social Revolutionaries who wanted to reopen the war with Germany [11]. Perhaps the most authoritarian episode of all was the routing of the White forces through the five years of the Russian Civil War [12]. Even at the time, social democrats objected, but had the Bolsheviks not carried out these measures, the Russian Empire would have been ruled by something akin to a fascist dictatorship based on mass extermination of leftists and pogroms against Jews.

But we can also illustrate the necessity of pursuing revolutionary strategies by reference to historical episodes when socialists chose to do the opposite — that is, follow a path more palatable to social democrats. These failures provide an object lesson in why class compromise is a prescription for defeat. In 1927, pickets of Chinese workers in Shanghai put down their arms rather than fight for state power against the nationalists of Chiang Kai-Shek [13]. That choice, made at Stalin’s behest, did not save them from more than twenty years of civil war and imperialist depredation. How much better it would have been had, they, and the workers of the general strikes of 1923 in Germany and 1926 in Britain, had been properly organized to seize power [14]. The same can be said more recently for the workers of Indonesia, Chile, Iran, Egypt, and Syria. Democratic socialism will not save us from these choices and their consequences.

For a Workers’ State

A workers’ state worthy of the name is dictatorship of the working class which is run democratically by and for the workers. The Bolsheviks saw councils or soviets as a new kind of state, through which workers could rule, but which could succeed only if an international socialist revolution gave Russia the means to develop and continue the transition toward socialism. But the actual circumstances of the civil war and blockade against revolutionary Russia were disastrous. As Lars Lih discovered in Trotsky’s speeches from 1920, they knew that “Our situation is in the highest degree tragic [15].” The workers’ state served to carry out the fight against the capitalists, but it was not socialism and it did not do any good for the workers in the Soviet Union or the wider world when under Stalin it began to repress the oppositionists in the Party and workers who tried to preserve a measure of control in their workplaces.

Trotsky and others attempted, without much success, to restore democracy in the party and in the soviets, and that must be our starting point in defining how the dictatorship of the proletariat should function in the time it takes to prepare for the world revolution. Stalinism was not simply repressive, but destroyed the Communist Party’s ability to use democratic debate and decision making as a means of developing good revolutionary strategy. The historical circumstances of a revolution will always be extremely difficult both for human needs and for intelligent decision making, which means that the authority of a workers’ state in solving problems is absolutely indispensable – but a workers’ state that handles its decisions democratically and recognizes mistakes, not a Stalinist regime that falsely calls its mistakes ‘socialism.’

Many shrink from addressing the question of the workers’ state, since it means taking responsibility for the very difficult and antagonistic actions that will have to be carried out in the course of the world revolution. The question is all the more unsettling in the context of socialism, as some of the most monstrous acts in history have admittedly been committed under red flags, a fact that has not gone unnoticed by socialism’s ideological opponents. Most of the ‘Communist’ Parties that have come to power have no right to call themselves socialist, but even so, to disavow the authoritarianism inherent in the struggles of, for instance, Chinese peasants against their imperialist, nationalist and landlord oppressors, or of the Vietnamese against the U.S. war machine, or the Bolsheviks against the counterrevolution, is to fundamentally misjudge what is needed to defeat systematically organized authoritarian repression by capitalists.

The unfortunate fact is that a political project that seeks to expropriate the owners of property has enemies — class enemies, to be precise. Therefore socialism is necessarily confrontational, and it is only prudent to think through questions of how to deal with the organized efforts of the workers’ adversaries. Socialists should squarely face issues of class dictatorship with the courage that a movement for total human emancipation demands.


[1] A note on terms: the economic systems often called ‘socialism’ or ‘communism,’ from Stalin’s regime onward, bear almost no resemblance to what Marx or even Lenin would describe as socialism, a society without classes. Surely they were all authoritarian, but the problem was not that the state used authority, but against whom it was used — the workers, peasants, and many sincere revolutionaries, rather than capitalists. In this sense, these false ‘socialisms’ were authoritarian states of the right, not the left. The closest humanity has come to socialism has been the first stages of the transition, under the dictatorship of the proletariat, as it was known in Russia, where quite a lot of authority was needed to organize the economy and suppress capitalist tendencies.

[2] In ABCs of Socialism Schwartz’s essay appears under the title “Doesn’t socialism always end up in dictatorship?”

[3] A real inadequacy of all these socialists esteemed by Schwartz, unfortunately, is that they did not organize the workers to have quite enough authoritarian power to smash reactionary elements in their local militaries and achieve state power! That would mean replacing the existing state, not working through it as Allende, Manley and the Scandinavian social democrats have done.

[4] As an aside, Luxemburg overstates the degree to which democracy had disappeared from Russia after the ascension of the Bolsheviks to power. As historian Sheila Fitzpatrick notes, the Bolsheviks developed their own version of parliamentary politics within the party, with well-organized factions with a mass base “playing the role of political parties in a multi-party system.” (Fitzpatrick, The Russian Revolution, 3rd Edition, p.100) Heated debates raged on a variety of issues, and were won by means of persuasion, not diktat (for instance, Lenin winning over the party on the issue of Brest-Litovsk). The degree of dissent available to those outside the party rose and fell with the fortunes of the Civil War. It was only after Luxemburg’s death that intraparty democracy ebbed, in 1921 with the ban on factions and in 1922 with Stalin’s rise to General Secretary. This is also to say nothing of the democracy within the soviets prior to that point.

[5] For background on Luxemburg’s changing politics in her last days, see Pierre Broué, The German Revolution 1917-1923, Chapter 12, “The Uprising of January 1919.”

[6] Sadly, “Thirty Years After the Russian Revolution” is not available online but one can find it in the Haymarket Books edition of Year One of the Russian Revolution, among other places.

[7] Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary, p.133

[8] The actual end of the Manifesto is still less a call for liberal, anti-authoritarian democracy: “The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions . Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution . The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.” Emphasis added, though it hardly need be.

[9] See Orlando Figes, A People’s Tragedy, Chapter 8, “Glorious February”; quote is from p.321.

[10] See Alexander Rabinowitch, The Bolsheviks Come to Power: The Revolution of 1917 in Petrograd, which contains a detailed discussion of the Kornilov Affair and the Bolshevik insurrection.

[11] See Alexander Rabinowitch, The Bolsheviks in Power: The First Year of Soviet Rule in Petrograd, which serves as an academic compliment to Serge’s more polemical (and excellent) Year One of the Russian Revolution.

[12] See Bruce Lincoln, Red Victory: A History of the Russian Civil War and also William Henry Chamberlin, The Russian Revolution, especially volume II.

[13] See Harold Isaacs, The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution

[14] See Isaac Deutscher, Stalin: A Political Biography, Chapter 10, “Foreign Policy and Comintern I, 1923-33.”

[15] See Lars Lih, “‘Our Position is in the Highest Degree Tragic:’ Bolshevik ‘Euphoria’ in 1920.” in History and Revolution: Refuting Revisionism. Haynes and Wolfreys, eds.


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