The largest divide within the modern Left, especially within the United States, has been between the so-called “authoritarian” and so-called “libertarian” sides, as expressed on the y-axis of the traditional political compass:
On the most “authoritarian” side (and I’ll explain why I’m using scare quotes in a second), you have the hardcore defenders of using any means to discipline both capital and anyone who threatens the revolution by dissent or subversion. Unlike the “authoritarian” but still democratic socialists (e.g. the PSUV in Venezuela), at this far end are communists/socialists who have justified repression or outright abandonment of democracy. Usually the justification is based on parameters of crisis, especially dealing with imperialist invaders. As Stephen Gowans writes in his book “Washington’s Long War on Syria”:
Governments become totalitarian in times of grave crisis, no matter what their political stripe. However, totalitarianism has often been associated by liberal ideologues as the exclusive preserve of fascist and communist governments. But the exclusive association of totalitarianism with fascism and communism is an error. In times of danger, when strong leadership, unity of purpose and maintenance of the general will have been necessary, liberal democracies have become totalitarian…For oppressed people under the yoke of foreign domination, democracy is achieved the moment their oppression ends and they take control of their destiny — that is, the moment that rule by outside forces is replaced by a new type of society — one based on self-determination.
So that’s the extreme on the “authoritarian” side — what’s the counterpoint on the “libertarian” side? Well they are an easy target (as Syria is for the “authoritarian”) but few represent it quite as well as Crimethinc. To see what the “libertarian” side is about, let’s look at their infamous piece on shoplifting:
Nothing compares to the feeling of elation, of burdens being lifted and constraints escaped, that I feel when I walk out of a store with their products in my pockets. In a world where everything already belongs to someone else, where I am expected to sell away my life at work in order to get the money to pay for the minimum I need to survive, where I am surrounded by forces beyond my control or comprehension that obviously are not concerned about my needs or welfare, it is a way to carve out a little piece of the world for myself — to act back upon a world that acts so much upon me.
The difference is transparent even if I did not bold the persistent subject in the quote. Whereas Gowans talks about systems, “unity of purpose,” and “oppressed people,” Crimethinc talks about “my control,” “my needs,” and “carv[ing] out a little piece of the world for myself.” But the Crimethinc piece is no more advocating for democratic principles as Gowans based on the simple premise that there is no democracy of one. Gowans couches the repression of democracy as necessary to create the conditions under which democracy is possible, whereas self-described anarchist activist Uri Gordon notes that historically anarchists did not advocate for democracy since it was “representative government.”
It was only with Murray Bookchin that some anarchists attempted to claim democracy. As Uri Gordon points out, while the ultra-local participatory politics that Bookchin offers is somewhat anarchist, tying it to democracy necessarily implicates national liberation struggles. “It risks cementing the nationalist sentiments it seeks to undermine,” Gordon writes.
So why the scare quotes? It essentially draws back to one of the classic debates within Marxism that poses an especially difficult challenge to the “libertarian” side of Marxism: what does a “dictatorship of the proletariat” mean? As pointed out, at the extreme end of the “authoritarian” side of the Left is quite literally totalitarianism (before anyone attacks me, those are Gowans’s words, not mine). Conversely, at the extreme end of the “libertarian” side of the Left is a different sort of dictatorship: the dictatorship of the individual. So what comes in between? Is Gowans right that under the everlasting crisis of imperialist capitalism that states of every “political stripe…become totalitarian”?
Let’s return to Marx’s own definition of “dictatorship of the proletariat,” as laid out in his “Critique of the Gotha Program.” He called for the state to control the “proceeds of labour.” These proceeds would be used for the upkeep of “the means of production”, an “additional portion for expansion of production” and “insurance funds” to be used in emergencies such as natural disasters. Lastly those physically incapable of working should also be compensated from these proceeds. Then whatever remained would be distributed among the workers.
This sort of central planning has been critiqued by the libertarian socialists, and the Soviet Union’s example is often cited as how it does not work. However, as Marxist economist Joseph Ball writes:
After 1953, what was being “planned” was in fact capitalist commodity production. Therefore in essence the system after 1953 was capitalist, not socialist. We will find that, after 1953, the means of production in the Soviet Union were sold at their prices of production, like capitalist commodities… what emerged was a dysfunctional hybrid system, neither effectively planned from the center nor regulated by economic competition. Subsidies for purchasing new means of production had been used to facilitate the planned introduction of innovation up to 1953. Once this system of planning and subsidies was swept away, the incentive to innovate was largely eliminated, as economic competition did not exist to provide an alternative system of incentives. Progressive economic stagnation set in and there was the rapid growth of rent-seeking behaviour (seeking rewards unrelated to effort or quality of work) by enterprise managers and industrial ministries.
Of course we should not leave the deciding word to either Marx or the historical example of the Soviet Union. One important and specific formulation of the proletarian state was by Kwame Nkrumah in his seminal work “Neo-Colonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism.” Nkrumah explains at length throughout his book how capitalism’s conquering of the world has created a global crisis as class conflict has expanded from being intra-national to between nations, namely between the developed nations and Africa.
But, Nkrumah writes, a way out is possible. He explains that for the first time in history there was enough wealth to ensure good lives for all and the technological means to redistribute them (and keep in mind that this was in 1965 and how this is even more true now). Capitalism would not create this redistribution nor would it come from “appeals, however eloquent, or by arguments, however convincing.” Rather this realignment would be enacted by “deeds” sufficient to create a “counter pressure.” He alludes to the liberation struggles against colonialism and notes that sometimes an actual war was not even necessary but rather merely by the “organisation of the forces of independence within the colony sufficient to convince the imperial power that resistance to independence would be impossible.” He then reiterates the argument he laid out throughout the book, that capitalism had achieved a new level of power through multi-national firms “on a Pan-African scale.” “The only effective way to challenge this economic empire,” he concludes, “…is for us to also act on a Pan-African basis, through a Union Government.” Not just a state, but rather a transnational state of oppressed nations large enough to confront the “Pan-African” exploitation at every level.
In 1989, Catherine MacKinnon took on the question as well in the context of feminist liberation. The state, she wrote, was male both through its norms of “objectivity” and jurisprudentially (that the laws are written from the standpoint of men, i.e. the reasonable man standard). But the “negative state” no more guaranteed the liberation of women, and MacKinnon points out that this libertarianism is already what the state’s relationship generally is to women and the working class (citing the state action requirement for civil rights protections under the Constitution).
What is odd about the case of Catherine MacKinnon is that her political strategy based on these conclusions has been so lukewarm. Her earliest attempt to enact her theory was by shifting pornography from an issue of criminal obscenity to an issue of civil rights. The obvious question is how she thought that would be effective when she was so aware that under the patriarchal state that fundamentals such as the state action requirement were stumbling blocks meant to hamper its ability to aid women. A feminist state cannot be made simply by trying to carve one into the current patriarchal state — it has to be a complete revolution at the most fundamental level (in the US, the Constitution).
The libertarian socialist vision of the state is not one capable of overthrowing capitalism and subsequently defending socialism. That is not to say that the kind of mutual aid organizations it advocates for are bad (I myself have pushed hard for community land trusts in NYC) but rather they lack the power on their own to take on the international behemoth of modern capitalism.
Conversely the most authoritarian socialist vision of the state recognizes the essential function of the state but argues that democracy can only come once the state is fully in control and out of the threat of imperialism. That condition is a paradoxical one: for as long as the state does not have the power of the people through democracy, it will never be able to defeat imperialism once and for all. As Rosa Luxemburg wrote:
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. But this dictatorship must be the work of the class and not of a little leading minority in the name of the class — that is, it must proceed step by step out of the active participation of the masses; it must be under their direct influence, subjected to the control of complete public activity; it must arise out of the growing political training of the mass of the people.
That is not a prescription for Western parliamentarian democracy — but just because we should not limit ourselves to “democracy-as-usual” does not mean we should abandon its immediate pursuit. As Maurice Bishop once said: “It can only be relevant if appropriate grassroots mechanisms rooted in the people exist, through which the people can effectively participate, can make decisions, can receive reports from the leaders and eventually be trained for ruling and controlling that particular society. This is what democracy is all about.” This process has also been illustrated well by George Ciccariello-Maher’s book on Venezuela, “Building The Commune.”
A strong state able to overthrow capitalism and sustain socialism is not antithetical to democracy. The purpose of a “dictatorship of the proletariat” is not to be a dictatorship for the proletariat: without the working class participating and represented at every level, the power of the state becomes rooted in a party (i.e. the Ba’ath Party) or parties. Parties rarely last long or must change drastically to survive (i.e. the Ba’ath Party allowing the Popular Front for Change and Liberation to participate in elections in 2011, which proved to be ineffective to prevent the U.S.-backed regime change attempt). One of the most crucial points of Marxism is the recognition that the history of humanity is the history of class conflict. If capitalism is to be defeated, it will need both the strength of the state and the power of the class created by capitalism’s exploitation.