State and Revolution: 100 years later

One Hundred Years later, State and Revolution remains one of the most beloved works of Lenin. Yet what can we learn from the attempts to implement its vision in the Russian Revolution?

State and Revolution is one of the most beloved works of Lenin, and for good reason. It is perhaps the finest work of Marxology, where digging through the notebooks of Marx and Engels is done not to prove an academic thesis but to prove an important political point: that the proletariat cannot simply inherit the bourgeois state and use it to build socialism, but must smash it in order to create a new state based on workers rule. Lenin also utilizes Marx and Engels to discern how this state is fundamentally different to the bourgeois state, drawing from Marx’s work on the Paris Commune especially. From these conclusions Lenin takes a political gamble. His party leads an insurrection to overthrow the provisional government around the call for “all power to the Soviets”, calling for a new state in Russia based on the power of the Soviets, or regional councils of workers and soldiers that were being formed both spontaneously and by party militants.

For Lenin, “all power to the Soviets” only made sense as a political slogan and plan for action when the Bolsheviks and those agreeing with their general programme had a majority in the Soviets, which in a sense were alternative “parliaments” for the working class. When the Bolsheviks were able to build a majority coalition of their party, left-SRs, anarchists and Menshevik Internationalists in the Soviets who wanted the overthrow of the government, an end to the war, and land to the peasants then “all power to the Soviets” was a slogan that made perfect sense.

So for the Bolsheviks, State and Revolution provided a sort of initial guide to how they would approach the revolution and rebuild society. The Soviets would take state power with a revolutionary programme and the working class would be armed as the military and police were demolished, the working class to take command. This would eventually happen in Russia, but initially the Soviets and the parties working within them (the Bolsheviks being the leading party) had to figure out how to run a country and develop a proletarian rather than bourgeois civil society.

Before delving into how the ideals of State of Revolution came into contradiction with the concrete realities of the revolution and what one must learn from that, I will go over the basic arguments of the book, which mostly come from the works of Marx and Engels. For Lenin, the state is defined as a “product of the irreconcilability of classes”, meaning that as long as classes exist there will be some sort of state which ensures the reproduction of those class relations with the ruling class having political hegemony. The state is not a neutral territory where classes can “reconcile” but ultimately “a power standing above society and alienating itself more and more from it”. Why is the state alien to society? Because it is a protection racket for the minority of rich capitalists, not a means for the majority of society to actually exercise control over politics. It creates “order”, but this order is strictly a bourgeois law and order that codifies the domination of the ruling class.  

Further, the state is a “special body of armed men”, the military and police, who are able execute the rule of law. Lenin mostly seems to find this important because it shows that the state is based on force. It is based not just through force, but force as executed by a special body, i.e. a separate section of the social division of labor (cops and military). The abolition of the police and armed forces, is the destruction of that part of the bourgeois state which defends and underwrites that state-form’s character as being above society; alienated from humanity as a whole.

The state is also described by Lenin as an “instrument” through which the ruling class exploits the oppressed class. This has been criticized as seeing the state as a mere instrument that classes can simply wield. But this is taking the metaphor too seriously. The point is that as long as there are class divisions, state power will exist because there will be need for a body that ensures capitalist norms of order than allow the ruling class to operate (or a body to suppress the remnants of the capitalist order if a workers state). Lenin doesn’t exactly go deep into the structural mechanics of why the state, while aiming to appear to be neutral, ultimately serves the interests of the ruling class. Part of the reason why is that the state is a tribute/tax/rentier taking organization and reproduces by taxing capitalists; therefore it has an interest in capitalist development being as successful as possible. The state also connects a strong economy to a strong military, the military bureaucracy wishing to project the hegemony of a capitalist state as dominant in the world market. In general, the state reproduces the social division of labor, and it reproduces a capitalist social division of labor. Therefore the capitalist or bourgeois state cannot act in a way that doesn’t allow for the reproduction of capitalism, and essentially provides the framework through which this can occur.

Lenin goes on to argue that classes can be abolished (though without saying at a national or international level), hence ending the social antagonisms that lead to a state existing. Yet there will be a transitional state, or dictatorship of the proletariat, that will replace the old capitalist state, based on the power of the workers. This state is sometimes called a “semi-state” because it is a state in the process of overthrowing the very foundations upon which it is based. Engels is quoted as saying “The government of persons is replaced by the administration of things, and by that conduct the processes of production. The state is not “Abolished”. It Withers Away.Essentially, as the antagonisms of class divisions are transcended by communist relations, the state loses its power as a coercive force over society and simply becomes a means of administering society in harmonious way. This is contrary to the anarchist notion that the state itself will be abolished in an act of insurrection, or the Maoist notion that the withering of the state must be pushed along through “Cultural Revolution” or class struggle under socialism. While it is true this process will require struggle against bureaucrats, because the proletariat holds state power it can fight bureaucracy through transforming its actual roots, the social division of labor, and not just host purges to replace them with different bureaucrats.

This general outline, backed up quite sufficiently by quotes from Marx and Engels, is primarily an attack on the Social-Democrats like Kautsky and Bernstein who deny the need for a violent overthrow. While Lenin was a longtime admirer of Kautsky, by 1917 he had come to see Kautsky as not sufficiently stressing the need to smash the bourgeois state in earlier works like The Social Revolution and the Day After (1903). Kautsky instead saw the proletariat’s party essentially becoming a majority in parliament, and then making parliament into the main ruling body of the state. For Lenin, bourgeois parliament was simply not a fit form of representation for the working class. Yes, work in it, but do so to destroy it was his position. Lenin goes as far to say that violent insurrection is a determining point in whether a proletarian revolution has occurred or not; at this point Lenin has no illusions of the bourgeoisie peacefully surrendering its power. This position, that it was necessary to smash the state, was not always the opinion of Lenin. It was initially Bukharin and Pannekoek who would come to convince Lenin of the correctness of this position, that it was not an anarchist deviation from Marx.  

It is also an essentially correct general outline: the proletariat overthrows the bourgeois state, the proletariat becomes the new state, and this state withers away as classes whither away. Those who saw no rupture needed between the bourgeois state and proletarian state were simply reformists in the end, as they could not grasp a key element of revolution. Lenin backs up this reading using the piece Civil War in France by Marx, where the Paris Commune, considered by Marx and Engels to be a living example of the dictatorship of the proletariat, is examined.

The Commune becomes an object of study that is meant to show what kind of state will replace the bourgeois and facilitate the rule of the workers. Lenin argues the first and most important decree is the disarming of the ruling class and the arming of the workers, replacing the police and military with the armed working class. Since the state is at its core the general means of coercion, placing these means in the hands of the workers commences the smashing of the bourgeois state. Lenin also stresses the democratic nature of the Commune, pointing out how elected officials had strict term limits, recallability, and an average worker’s wage. He also argues for simplifying the process of government to the point where any worker could be called on to participate, summed up by the saying “every cook can govern.” For Lenin both parliament and the ‘parasite state’ are also wiped away, though elective and representative features still exist. It is just that the legislative and executive branch are merged and government bodies are working bodies, e.g representative-legislative with strictly subordinate executive committees.

Much of State and Revolution also comes as a response to the anarchists as well as the social-democrats. Lenin sees the anarchists idea of abolition of the state “muddled and non revolutionary” as the state is a product of the social division of labor which is not transformed overnight and cannot be left to be controlled by the servants of capital. The anarchists simply proclaim to be for the abolition of the state, but have no plan to actually abolish it. Those who simply say they will abolish the state immediately lack an understanding of the historical conditions that produced the state and lead to its existence. Many anarchists argue that simply decentralizing power will end the state, while Lenin stresses the need for centralism and unity in the proletarian state. Yet for Lenin democracy is just as important as centralism, just not sufficient on its own, and the two are not to be counterposed. One must “develop democracy to the utmost” but not separate from the actual tasks of economic transformation in the revolution. Yet while in the proletarian state democracy is developed to the utmost, Lenin cites Engels on the ‘overcoming of democracy’, stating that in a communist future the need for democratic decision making where the majority rules over the minority will no longer be needed because there will be no need for a state.

The transition to Communism is also detailed, essentially taking the schema of dictatorship of the proletariat -> lower phase communism -> high phase communism from the the Marx’s Gothakritik. These sections essentially summarize how the development of communism from the ashes of capitalism will gradually make the state a relic of the past, replacing the rule of law via a coercive mechanism with the force of social norm in a real human community. Yet it also explains this will be a protracted process where elements of capitalism will remain and be phased out as possible. Lenin does mention the problems of bureaucracy, but acts as if simply putting them on an average salary will suffice to keep them in check.

So how does this all hold up today? First of all are the basics of Lenin’s theory of the state. The State under Capitalism is essentially a holdover of the centralized absolutist state renovated to meet the needs of capitalism and democratized to the extent popular struggles have pushed it to do so. That the state serves the ruling class is obvious, but the state also performs certain communal functions for society that cannot be left to private interests. It also has a military function that can’t be reduced to capital accumulation, as even a proletarian state would still need a military to defend itself from capitalist invasion. This is not to say these functions aren’t operated in a class biased matter, but that the state cannot simply be reduced to a body of armed men that defend the interest of the ruling class. There is a non-elected bureaucracy in the state that is not entirely parasitic but necessary for the day to day running of cities for example. Until their skills are redistributed, society will still need to rely on them, similar to how the Bolsheviks had to rely on Tsarist military generals. One could say that Lenin overestimates how quickly a complete break with the bourgeois state and its bureaucracy can take place, as if the Soviets can simply pop up and replace it once they are revolutionary enough. Yet while the Soviets can make important decisions, the actual running of the state on a day to day basis will still fall to the bureaucracy if the Soviets cannot perform their function.

This is not to say that “every cook cannot govern” contrary to Lenin, but that there are real embedded problems with bureaucracy that can’t simply be dealt with through force. Specialists and bureaucrats do contain monopolies of knowledge that allows them a privileged place in society as a result of that knowledge being necessary for society. Lenin doesn’t make a plan for dealing with this, but it becomes a problem on day one when the Red Guards have to break a Civil Servant strike opposed to the new Soviet regime. The same problem exists in industry and the military, with loyalists of the old regime being relied upon to keep society running and defending the workers republic. Relying on these specialists created problems for the proletarian state, as there was no plan to phase them out and collectivize their skills, creating the basis for a “red bureaucracy” that would become a force of conservatism in the new Soviet Republic. Some system must be developed to a) observe and control the bureaucrats and b) break down their knowledge monopolies and simplify the administration to make it so that they are easily replaceable. Breaking down these knowledge monopolies involves not only technological advances but also expansion of educational opportunities for the masses.

There is also the problem of “all power to the Soviets” as the solution to the state. Soviets are councils of workers that tend to form from strike committees in cross industry mass strikes to make decisions in those particular struggles. In a way they are “united fronts of the workers movement” where all different tendencies and trades in a region unite to make large scale political decisions in a mass struggle. After the mass struggle is over, the Soviets are no longer needed, and authority returns to the trade union and political parties. So therefore soviets have a sort of transient nature; they are not standing bodies that continuously meet to make decisions in most cases. Lenin’s aim was to turn the the Soviets into such organizations that would run society. The problem was that he ignored other important aspects of the state, such as the role of political parties.

If one has no political parties to choose from in voting for candidates, or only one, the result is that Soviets or other mass democratic assemblies simply will become rubber stamp organizations for the one ruling party. This is exactly what happened in the USSR – the Soviets tried to become the state but ultimately authority fell to the Bolshevik Party. It is similar for the local councils in Cuba. Lenin says nothing about the role of political parties in the new proletarian state in his essay, but as every political regime ever has revealed, the ruling party or parties largely determine the character of the regime. While the Bolsheviks did not seize power alone (they did so in alliance with the Left-SRs), their break with the Left SRs and the crisis of war communism sending proletarians to the front meant that the Soviets simply lost their ability to act as standing bodies of authority for the working class. By the mid 1920s Bolshevik delegates would dominate the soviets, the rest having no party affiliation with other parties being banned. No parties or even party factions meant workers had no real choices in voting for a political programme, but simply voted for the personalities of those running, or who could be best directed by the party to do their job.

A key insight that Lenin misses here, ironically enough, is the importance of the party. A Soviet democracy must actually be one where democratically organized mass parties collaborate. All states are essentially party-states to some degree, but this doesn’t mean they can’t be democratic. In general, a state is only as democratic as its ruling parties are. This means the internal regime of the those parties; do the rank and file meaningfully determine policy, are factions allowed? Even in a “one party state” different factions of the party can serve as different political options that people can vote for. This opportunity closed in 1921 with the banning of party factions. The nature of the soviets in a state where one monolithic party was ruling could only be to legitimize the rule of that party, and so any hope of bringing workers into the administration of society (which was still maintained in the course of the Civil War) was lost. The role of soviets became changed not because the Bolsheviks crushed them, but because conditions of the war, loss of interparty democracy, and the betrayal of the Left-SRs who launched a terror campaign against the signing of the Brest-Litovsk treaty (which also meant the armed wing of the revolution, the cheka, would become monopolized by the Bolsheviks). Whether soviets, citizens councils, or mass assemblies, these regional decision-making bodies on their own do not ensure democratic governance. This doesn’t mean rejecting such bodies, but realistically understanding their role, and the need for political parties that are themselves member-run and democratic.

An argument often made (see Brinton’s Bolsheviks and Workers Control) is that the Party essentially betrayed the Soviets by promoting its authority against their authority, overthrowing the authentic revolution. In this narrative the Soviets are basically “destroyed” by the Bolsheviks. What happened was moreso that the Soviets were hollowed out and the Bolshevik Party was the only force left to fill in the gap of authority. Ultimately, for the soviets to have governed, it would have been in partnership with a political party/parties and not in opposition to them. It is not possible to remove political parties from councils without banning parties outright, which would simply be a way to destroy programmatic politics and meaningful democracy. Political parties are not contrary to democracy, but essential for it, as no parties means no real political choices can be voted on, just personalities. Rather than looking at the question in terms of “do the Soviets govern or does the party govern” we should look at it in terms of “how will the parties and councils work together to ensure a government based on proletarian democracy.”

There is also the question of how useful the model of the “Soviet pyramid” for socialists governance is. To summarize, the model works where lower bodies elect delegates to regional bodies, and these delegates then elect the delegate of higher, central bodies. This idea is supposed to give more power to lower regional bodies but instead allows a single party to more easily concentrate power within the councils. This is because of a mediary regional council elects the central council, which creates a degree of separation between the voters and the central council. This ‘pyramid’ can have even more layers of mediation between the voters and the central gov, increasingly alienating the voters from their representatives. A more simple way to go would be to have local councils elected by locals and a central council elected universally that local councils are responsible to. While Soviet pyramid model is favored by Trotskyists, Council Communists, and Anarchists as “more democratic” it is actually less democratic.

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An example of the “Soviet Pyramid” model from Cornelius Castoriadis, 1972.

 

This is not to dismiss the importance of councils of workers and local assemblies of governance in the revolution. As Engels pointed out in a footnote to Marx’s 1850 Address to the Communist League, “local and provincial government” can become “the most powerful lever of the revolution”. He cites the example of the local assemblies and communes of governance in the French Revolution, which were able to fall within the general laws set by the national assembly while pushing the revolution forward. It was these types that were first destroyed in the Thermidor according to Engels. Furthermore Engels argues that such “local and provincial governance does not “stand in contradiction to political, national centralization.” Rather than seeing a strict dichotomy between the locals and central governance Engels sees them both playing a cooperative role.

There is no doubt that such organizations like the Soviets becoming hollowed out signified a defeat for the Russian Revolution. Yet one must understand that the power of the Soviets ultimately failed because the party regime failed, and both must work together to be truly democratic. Organizations like the citizens councils of the Paris Commune and the Russian Soviets where the masses partake in government are essential for any kind of “proletarian civil society” to exist. The point is that we cannot count on the spontaneous activities of councils to solve the problem of governance; they are not a solution to bureaucracy on their own.  

Of course one cannot blame the failures of the Bolsheviks to overcome bureaucracy on Lenin’s lack of clear vision or a theoretical blunder. Ultimately the question of bureaucracy comes down to class struggle, the battle for proletarians to control officials and specialists through democratic measures. Yet Russian proletarians faced a situation of being in a peasant dominated country with a lack of modernization, hoping their revolution would spread internationally. To quote Rosa Luxemburg: “It 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. By their determined revolutionary stand, their exemplary strength in action, and their unbreakable loyalty to international socialism, they have contributed whatever could possibly be contributed under such devilishly hard conditions. The danger begins only when they make a virtue of necessity and want to freeze into a complete theoretical system all the tactics forced upon them by these fatal circumstances, and want to recommend them to the international proletariat as a model of socialist tactics.”

Lenin wrote more about issues of bureaucracy in his latter years, after it became clear the vision of Soviet democracy was not the immediate outcome of the revolution. Instead the regime of the NEP, closer economically to Lenin’s original plans, took place of the unfeasible attempt at ‘war communism’ and Lenin began in his last days to try and solve the problem of bureaucracy. Ultimately, a full on Thermidor with the rise of Stalinism ensured these issues would never be properly dealt with, the NEP society that was the ultimate outcome of the revolution being destroyed in favor of a militaristic bureaucratic industrialism.

While State and Revolution is a masterpiece of communist theory, it has certain limitations that have been shown by the historical attempts to apply its ideas. It does provide a useful framework for thinking about the state, emphasizing the importance of its inherently class nature.What it doesn’t contain is all the answers about the complexity of the state during the transition to communism and exact answers to how one will construct the dictatorship of the proletariat. Rather than simply studying State and Revolution on its own we must study the Russian Revolution to see where its assumptions hold up, and when they don’t, why this is the case.

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How the Bolshevik Revolution Inspired Americans

The Bolshevik Revolution aimed to inspire workers of all countries to unite for the creation of a world soviet republic. Workers in the United States were no exception. 

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“Nowhere are all the means of political power so shamelessly purchasable as in America: administration, popular representation, courts, police and press; nowhere are they so directly dependent on the great capitalists. And nowhere is it more apparent than there that a proletariat with a Socialist conscience is the only means of saving the nation, which is falling even faster into complete servitude to the great capitalists than they are able to subjugate foreign countries.” – Karl Kautsky, 1902

Today it is hard to imagine the current neo-liberal regime going on as it has for much longer. The rise of populism from both the left and right has shown that the project to de-politicize society in favor of the rule of the market has failed. In both reactionary and progressive ways the masses are entering the stage of politics and rejecting the notion “there is no alternative”.

However, a crisis can simply mean another repeated cycle of barbarism as failed attempts to transcend capitalism are overtaken by reactionary forces, which we saw in the period from 1917-1945. While 1945 ended with a sort of class compromise, the gains that workers have been able to make have only been rolled back according to the imperatives of capitalism. The dream of social-democracy still lingers on however, as well as the dreams of regressing into a “simpler way of life” based on autonomous communes and/or small local communities. There are both right wing and left wing variants of these visions, but both ignore that that the destruction of capitalism can only result in an emancipatory society if it happens on a global scale.

Much of the left has given up on this project, its roots in the defeat of Bolshevism by Stalinism and other factors. The left has instead looked inward to the nation, looking for solutions to the problems of capitalism within the confines of the nation-state. It is of course very difficult to imagine a global communist revolution given the current popularity of nationalism (and the mere difficulty of organizing such a project), so it is no surprise that this vision for most of the left has been disregarded as utopian. Only small sects of Trotskyists and Left-communists still seem to have true internationalism at the core of their beliefs.

Yet in 1917 a section of the left didn’t take the path of least resistance, and launched a revolution that looked beyond national borders. The universalism of the Bolsheviks message was a true universalism meant for all of humanity, so it is little wonder reactionaries like Oswald Spengler saw the Bolshevik Revolution as signalling the death of “white civilization” as revolutionaries in the colonies took up the call to arms as well as in Europe. The message of global revolution resonated throughout the world, far beyond Lenin and company. It even inspired revolutionaries in the United States of America, where sociologist Werner Sombart previously claimed socialism could never get a foothold.

Of course, the Cold War historiography aims to deny this, painting Bolshevism as a sort of foreign contaminant to be rooted out of the real American nation that had no use for such ideas. Bolshevism was presented as completely alien to “real American life” with no real resonance beyond a few immigrants. The direction of this historiography (reflected in the works of Theodore Draper and Harvey Klehr) has been to paint all the activities of the Communist Parties as a sort of “foreign interference in our democratic process”, not a popular movement that attracted actual adherents. For many it could come as a surprise that Bolshevism did inspire many American workers, and it was often the experiences of workers as militants in the USA that attracted them to Bolshevism.

The experiences of John Reed as an American Bolshevik are generally well known; there are many more examples of Americans who were inspired by Bolshevism that are not. While John Reed was a famous intellectual, often forgotten are the mass actions of rank-and-file workers that were inspired by the Bolshevik Revolution, as well as the reactions of lesser known intellectuals and public figures.

While internationalist politics spread like a wildfire due to the Bolshevik Revolution, many American workers already had their own experiences of organizing on internationalist grounds in the syndicalist IWW. The IWW aspired to be One Big Union that would unite all workers regardless of race or gender and was directly influenced by syndicalist movements in France and Italy, as demonstrated by Salvatore Salerno’s Red November, Black November. Some members of the IWW even found themselves fighting alongside Mexican revolutionary Ricardo Flores Magon. The IWW had a vision of workers directly taking over production through industrial unions or syndicates formed in organized direct action against the employers. For members of the IWW, the Bolshevik Revolution’s promise of “soviet power” where workers councils would rule was linked to their own ideas of taking over production through syndicates.

The militancy and universalism of the IWW stood in stark contrast to the Socialist Party USA, which had denounced direct action and had instances of segregated locals. However the SPUSA did have a left wing, best personified by Eugene Debs who supported the IWW and intransigently opposed the First World War. By 1915 the left wing of the party formed the Socialist Propaganda League due to tensions with the reformist right. There was also Daniel DeLeon’s Socialist Labor Party, which was less of a political force but through its combination of industrial unionism and party politics attracted many radical workers. While Socialism in the USA was a divided force, there was no lack of a “vanguard” of workers who would be willing to take up the cause of the world revolution in the footsteps of the Bolsheviks.

Despite the conservatism of much of the Socialist Party, members like John Earl Haynes of the Cleveland Socialist Party issued statements of support for Bolshevik universalism. The Cleveland SP’s statement would praise “the Bolshevik effort to establish peace…without annexations and without indemnities” arguing that the alternative was the utter destruction of human civilization. The statement also pledges allegiance to the Bolshevik cause of wiping out imperialism to establish a world commonwealth without regards to nationality. This shows that almost instantly throughout the US the Bolshevik revolution resonated with certain groups in the left, many of them part of organizations whose conservatism held back the radical views of the rank-and-file. What is present is not an in depth knowledge of Bolshevik ideology and theory, but rather enthusiasm for the universalism of the cause that the revolution stood for.

Even a  preacher like Dr. John Haynes Holme could find inspiration in the October Revolution, who gave a sermon titled “Thank God For The Russian Revolution”. To reduce Holmes to a pastor would of course do disservice to his commitment to democratic freedoms: he was an early member of the NAACP (and white) as well as a founding member of the American Civil Liberties Union. Holmes’ sermon is a Thanksgiving Day prayer that declared a hope that “The spirit of Tolstoy today is ruling Russia” and is “not a thing we can give too much thanksgiving” as the “peasants of Russia have overthrown the Czar, and with him the spirit of autocracy, war, Siberia, and oppression.” The vision set forth by Holmes is one of pacifistic Christianity that has little in common with Marxism except a sense of universal human equality. The sermon is in fact rather naive; the Bolsheviks who saw liberation through heavy industry with the peasants as a historically doomed class couldn’t be further from Tolstoy’s vision. Yet the sermon shows a very key aspect to how the revolution struck a chord in people of all backgrounds and belief systems, resonating with those all around the world to all who identified with the struggle to end exploitation and oppression. One did not have to be Marxist to identify the abolition of Czardom and call to end WWI as historic breaking points in the struggle for a more equitable and free humanity.

While many individual socialists would praise the revolution with words, others would organize specifically to support it. The first pro-Bolshevik group in the United States formed within a month of the October Revolution, the Friends of the Russian Revolution. According to Theodore Draper the organization saw prominent participation from the left-wing of the Socialist Party. The organization’s main goals were to promote a peace without annexations, which saw them lobbying senators to prevent the damage the US would do to the new workers republic in Russia. Their demands were for “friendly relations between American and Russian democracy” which included fair play in commerce with the new Russian State and for a “peace parley” under Russian leadership to develop a peace without annexations worldwide. The demand for peace, as evidenced in the aforementioned examples, seems to have been one of the calls of the Bolsheviks that most clearly resonated to an international base. The Friends of the Russian Revolution also held mass demonstrations, including one in Carnegie Hall where after they changed their name to Friends of the New Russia. While police marshalls intimidated the gathering, ultimately the meeting attracted enough supporters around the cause of recognizing Revolutionary Russia to make police repression fruitless. Future Communist Party leader James Cannon would speak, arguing that international cooperation between nations would be needed to end war, calling on the United States to accumulate no territories or tolerate such from their allies.

These initial outburst of support in the US would eventually take organizational form beyond groups lobbying the Senate for fair play. A group calling themselves Red Guards with support from the Socialist Propaganda League would combine and throw together a group of 500 volunteers called Red Guards (after the institution in Russia) and send a delegation to ask the Wilsonian War Department for permission to go fight in Russia. Of course the venture was a failure, described by Theodore Draper as “inglorious” and “pathetic.” While the actual attempt failed, it did bring Richard Fraina, an idealistic internationalist, to the forefront of the pro-Bolshevik faction of the socialist movement, who would address a mass meeting in support of the Red Guard thats workers of all nations should “refuse to fight against the revolutionary workers and peasants of Russia, whose cause is their cause” and to “sweep aside the infamous, imperialistic socialism of Schneidemann and all the social patriots, and to rally around the standard of Karl Liebneckt and Rosa Luxemburg for the social revolution.” This internationalist call showed how partisans of Bolshevism aimed to spread the view that the success of the Russian Revolution was not a mere Russian matter, but the cause of workers of all nations. While ultimately the attempt to send a division of troops to Russia failed, one wonders whether it was meant to be successful at all or to reveal the real attitude of the US government to the Russian Revolution. Either way it showed a growing support for the revolution that was expressed not just in words but in deeds.


The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), arguably the most radical workers organization in the USA at the time, had no lack of members who were inspired or influenced by the Bolshevik Revolution. Many pamphlets were produced and distributed by IWW members praising the revolution, particularly in Tacoma. On January 26th, 1918, the IWW paper Industrial Worker would print “The trend of events in Russia sustains the IWW contention that power of the workers lies in industry and in their unions on the economic field.” While there was a contradiction between the emphasis the Bolsheviks had regarding the centrality of the revolutionary party and the focus on pure industrial action that the IWW espoused, this did little to prevent the IWW from showing strong solidarity with the Bolshevik Revolution. A pamphlet written by Harold Lord Varney, a proletarian militant with experience as acting secretary of the IWW, would write a pamphlet called Industrial Communism which aimed to prove Bolshevism had applied the principles of the IWW in Russia, would express this contradiction. For Varney “the communist proletariat are Bolshevists in Europe….in America, they are the Industrial Workers of the World”. He makes a direct comparison between the Soviets in Russia, that aimed to represent the entire working class in a given region and the Industrial Unionism of the IWW that aimed to build “one big union of all workers”. This idea of Soviet Power is seen as uniting the IWW and Bolshevism, which Varney admits come from different traditions of struggle, with the IWW a “spontaneous product of capitalist despotism” and Bolshevism “a sprout of political Socialism” with roots in the 2nd international He continues to argue that the IWW, as opposed to other global trade unions, is a thoroughly Marxist and Communist organization at the core.  


This document is very revealing for understanding how the October Revolution and Bolshevik Party were initially understood by militant American workers. While not ignoring their differences, Industrial Communism essentially projects onto Bolshevism the ideas of the IWW, seeing Soviet Power as the essence of Bolshevism and Soviet Power as essentially the same as the IWW. For Varney the two merely differ due to national circumstances, with Bolshevism more suited for Russia while the IWW was more suited for the United States. “All power the soviets” is translated to “all power to the IWW” for Varney, showing that he is looking at the revolution through the lens of his own radical tradition, almost seeing the Bolshevik Revolution as the dream of the IWW being put into practice.

Yet for Varney, the revolution that the IWW will usher forth is different from the Bolshevik Revolution in another key way – it will develop from the IWW forming the “new society” in the shell of the old and then coming to state power through mass strikes, not needing any kind of red terror in order to govern. For Varney the Bolsheviks were forced to terror because they came to power in a country where capitalism had yet to exhaust itself, while the American IWW will not make this mistake and see that capitalism evolves into socialism as peacefully as possible. Yet Varney does not make this argument to propose some form of American exceptionalism, claiming the red terror in Russia also could have been averted by learning from the Industrial Unionism of the IWW. These differences are less important for Varney than the practical task of unity between the IWW and Revolutionary Russia:  “The Russian Bolsheviki have given to the I. W. W. the thrill of success. They have given to the I. W. W. a great historic example of tactics….as the proletariat of America rally to the IWW they build an organization which shall rise in victory beyond Bolshevism to INDUSTRIAL COMMUNISM.” While the pamphlet can’t seem to decide whether to portray the IWW as American Bolsheviks or argue for the superiority of the IWW over the Bolsheviks, the point that workers in the IWW should rally for the cause of the Russian Revolution makes it clear he sees their struggles as intertwined and in solidarity. Varney also makes it clear the Bolshevik revolution provided an impetus for militancy, providing the “thrill of success” that has made the goal of a workers society not a mere abstraction but a reality to actively fight for in the now.

Labor movement support for the Bolsheviks went beyond the radical IWW, though often pushing against conservative labor leader. The general view of Bolshevism by union bureaucrats like Samuel Gompers was negative, trying to hold back worker militancy. Gompers initial reaction to the Bolshevik Revolution was condemnation. Yet this came up against opposition from the rank and file, with delegates at the AFL convention on 1919 in Atlantic City making resolutions that called for an end to US intervention in Russia, with a delegation from Seattle claiming “The workers of Russia are endeavoring to establish in their country a government of and by the workers; and the capitalist of the world are seeking to annul their efforts.” The resolutions weren’t passed, but the AFL leadership eventually compromised with a resolution that called for the withdrawal of US “at the earliest possible moment.” On the other hand the ILGWU were able to pass resolutions that condemned the US blockade and a reestablishment with trade with Russia. The Amalgamated Clothing Workers (ACA) was even more supportive of the revolution, denouncing the American blockade and calling for solidarity with the Soviet Republic. Yet the AWC was not affiliated with the AFL and therefore not responsible to Gompers, who would criticize their position. The labor bureaucracy, as capitals last line of defense, was quick to denounce Bolshevism. However, according to Philip Foner, the rank-and-file of the AFL was supportive of the Bolshevik Revolution and campaigns to stop US intervention. Lenin himself would note that “In the United States, the strongest and youngest capitalist country, workers have tremendous sympathy with the Soviets.”

The rise of Soviet Power and Bolshevism in Russia most importantly impacted the labor movement in the Seattle General Strike. In 1919 workers in Seattle essentially attempted to take power over the city in a mass strike led by the AFL Metal Trades Council and IWW that shut down the city. The strike erupted out of a series of labor disputes that developed to the point where workers across industries agreed to strike. A strike committee composed of delegates elected from each local was put in control of the city once all major industry was shut down, a situation similar to the idea of workers councils running society. According to Jeremy Brecher, the lead up to the strike saw distribution of massive amounts of propaganda about how workers had taken power in the Bolshevik Revolution with even the more conservative members of the Seattle Labor Movement supporting the revolution and US intervention. There can be little doubt that the militancy of the strike action was spurred not only by the strike wave hitting the nation as a whole that year but also by example of the Bolshevik Revolution. One leaflet stated quite clearly that “The Russians have shown the way out,” urging workers to take full control over industry and begin establishing a socialist society. Yet the Seattle General Strike could only last for so long without a national plan to take power, something the Bolsheviks had that the Seattle strikers didn’t. Eventually the delegates elected to the strike committee in charge decided to end the strike. However without the precedent set by the Bolshevik Revolution, it is hard to imagine workers going as far as they did.

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The Seattle General Strike can be seen as an attempt of American workers trying to create a version of “soviet power” in their own city. What was inspirational to workers was not so much the sophisticated Marxism of the Bolsheviks but their rhetoric of workers control and soviet power, which seemed amenable to the syndicalist ideology of the IWW. Also inspiring was the internationalism of the Bolsheviks, which told workers across the ocean that they were essentially engaged in the same struggle. This appealed to workers across political divisions who thought that the American Socialist movement was too nationalist and narrow in its concerns. The Seattle General Strike showed the militancy that American workers were capable of, yet whether they were able to organize into a force able to take state power was another question. Bolshevism, with its emphasis on the proletarian party, would provide an answer for workers who wanted the militancy of syndicalism but the benefits of party organization.

The Seattle General Strike was not the only workers revolt inspired by Soviet Power however. In 1919 Local 25 of International Lady Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) saw female insurgents organize “workers councils” like the Soviets of Russia in a rebellion against the male leadership which they deemed as conservative. This uprising was linked to a general factional conflict in the ILGWU that reached an apogee in the 1920 between communists and more conservative leaders. Local 25 was considered a “girls local” by the conservative leadership, but in the period of 1909-1919 the union saw major growth. Yet women wanted more of a voice in the union, and looked to the model of the Russian workers councils as a means to challenge this lack of democracy. In this case women workers took the ideas of “soviet power” to challenge the sexism within their union, within a male dominated labor movement that often simply cared about “pure and simple” trade unionism. The victory for women’s rights in the Bolshevik Revolution, which saw female suffrage introduced before the US, acted as inspiration for proletarian women to challenge the male dominated labor movement.

Black radicals were also driven to militancy by the Bolshevik Revolution with its call for an end to colonialism and freedom for the oppressed in all nations. Black Americans were often sidelined and ignored by the US Left, with Socialist Party locals in the South often being segregated. As noted by Mark Solomon, the outbreak of the Bolshevik Revolution saw independent socialist currents emerging in black Harlem such as the 21st AD Socialist Club and the Peoples Education Forum. Intellectuals such as Hubert Harrison, Cyril Briggs and Claude McKay were all inspired by both the Irish Struggle for independence and the Russian Revolution and would go on to form the African Blood Brotherhood, which “sought to draw together the themes of race patriotism, anti-capitalism, anti-colonialism, and organized defense against racist assault.” The African Blood  Brotherhood would work in alliance with the early Communist Party, aiming to apply a politics that reflected the influence of Bolshevik class struggle and its broader anti-colonial call with the experiences of Black proletarians in Harlem. Claude McKay would also speak to the Comintern on the specific topic of racial oppression in the US in 1921, and was inspired by the fight in Russia against anti-semitism to link the struggle against racism with the organization of the working class. He stated that: 

“Every Negro…should make a study of Bolshevism and explain its meaning for the colored masses. It is the greatest idea afloat in the world today. 

Bolshevism has made Russia safe for the Jew…it might make these United States safe for the Negro. If the Russian idea should take hold on the white masses of the western world then the black toilers will automatically be free.” 

Like the Wobblies who applied the idea of Soviet Power to their own ideas on Industrial Unionism, groups like the African Blood Brotherhood would apply the rhetoric of international revolution and self-determination associated with the Bolsheviks to their experiences as oppressed black Americans. The African Black Brotherhood, while coming from a black nationalist background, would come to communist positions and in their manifesto call for alliances with “the class conscious white workers who have spoken out in favor of African liberation and have a willingness to back with action their expressed sentiments.”

Winning white workers, even communists, to the struggle against racism would prove no easy task. Communists in the US were not free of race prejudice, and the anti-colonial clarion call of the Bolshevik revolution would not cleanse the US communist left of its racism. In his 1921 speech to the Comintern, Claude McKay would say “the Socialists and Communists have fought very shy of it because there is a great element of prejudice among the Socialists and Communists of America. They are not willing to face the Negro question,” leaving the task to the “reformist bourgeoisie.” It would take Comintern intervention to get the US Communist Party to actively fight for civil rights rather than simply treating race as a subsidiary of the labor question. This entailed a struggle within the US labor and communist movement against white supremacy, one which would see the Communist Party eventually become a strident crusader for black rights. Ultimately the fears of white supremacists like Oswald Spengler were correct about the Bolshevik Revolution being a threat to global white supremacy.

Attempts to actually form a Communist Party aligned with the Comintern that came out of the Russian revolution would of course prove to be no easy task, and many IWW militants who were initially attracted to Bolshevism would become alienated by the bureaucracy of the Comintern who chose to work within the AFL instead of the IWW. While a functioning Communist Party would eventually form, it was not because of a lack of support from the militant working class for the mission of the Bolsheviks to spread worldwide communism. With the consolidation of a military dictatorship in the USSR, many workers probably saw the ideals of “soviet power” once embraced by the Bolsheviks as having been betrayed.  While John Reed would claim in 1918 that “Nothing is farther from the normal desires of the American Socialist party than a Revolution. It is really the refuge of almost all intelligent humble people who believe in the principles on which the American Republic was founded” events like the Seattle General Strike showed that a growing revolutionary trend inspired by the Bolshevik Revolution was picking up steam. Where the US left may have been behind the European left in radicalism, lacking a militant movement like those that existed in Germany, Italy, or Finland, a tradition of radicalism that existed in the US working class was certainly invigorated by the Bolshevik Revolution to pursue a more militant and radical course. Ultimately it was the example of Internationalism in action as pursued by the Bolsheviks in the October Revolution that showed the possibilities of socialist internationalism as a possibility and not simply an empty slogan. Why revolution never broke out is another question that requires further investigation.

 

Lessons of Party and Class from the Russian Revolution

What are the fundamental lessons regarding the relationship between party and class to be learned from the Russian Revolution? Is “All Power to the Soviets” a real alternative to the rule of political parties? 

In one of their recent correspondences, the ICC asked me to explained what in my views were the fundamental lessons to be learned about the relationship between party and class from the October Revolution. This is an extremely complex topic of course, not one that can simply be answered without a total historical dissection of the revolution and its outcomes. One could accuse this of just another old debate about “old dead russian men” that is not relevant, but if you ask the average person on the street in the USA if they have questions about communism usually “old dead russian men” like Lenin and Stalin come up. The October revolution also is not ancient history; it was almost 100 years ago when the Red Guards seized the Winter Palace and the Revolutionary Military Committee announced the overthrow of Kerensky’s government, putting in motion a chain reaction of events that are essentially the reason “communism” is even a household name.

Of course, there are many lessons to learn from the successes and failures of the Russian Revolution, and one of course can’t explain the failure of the revolution to produce communism with a single simple reason. The questions of geo-politics, productive forces, the peasantry, gender, national oppression and alienation all have roles to play. Why the Bolshevik seizure of power led to Stalinism is a question that must be answered with a variety of factors in mind. So to say that the failure of the Russian Revolution in the long term was due to a mistaken conception of the party in relation to the class is historically lazy. The Bolshevik’s conception of the party was not the same as it was after “War Communism” as it was before. I would argue that essentially the Bolsheviks had a correct interpretation of the party (a mass party of the working class and its allies committed to revolution). However the experience of it becoming a party for mobilizing peasants in the Russian Civil War and losing urban working class support in the course of the war created the notion of a militarized “vanguard party” where the Comintern was the “general staff” of the world revolution. What is understood to be Bolshevik forms of organization are moreso Comintern forms of organizations.

So what exactly are the lessons to learn then? “Substitutionism”, where a minority party rules in the name of the working class, was not the ideology of the Bolsheviks who came to power through mass support, not a coup. They also came to power in a whole alliance of the revolutionary left, which included the Left wing of the Social-Revolutionsts and various anarchists and dissident Mensheviks. It was not the Bolsheviks who came into power in October but the Revolutionary Military Committee. The Bolshevik’s aim was for an alliance of socialist parties to rule cooperatively  through the system of soviets. However after the concessions of Brest-Litovsk, which some Bolsheviks themselves opposed, the Left Social-Revolutionaries  began a terrorism campaign against the Bolsheviks, leaving them the only party to rule in the Soviets. (See Alexander Rabinowtich’s Bolsheviks Come to Power and Bolsheviks In Power for a historically in-depth look at these events). Rather than the dangers of “subsitutionism” being the lessons of October, I would argue the following lessons make more sense:

1. The dictatorship of the proletariat essentially takes the form of the Communist Party(ies) ruling through a commune-state.

This is a tough pill to swallow for some, who would counterpose “all power to the soviets” to this vision. However, this is based on a misunderstanding of the soviets and the reason “all power to the soviets” was a Bolshevik slogan. The Soviets of 1917 were formed by right wing Mensheviks who supported the war. Before the Soviets could be revolutionary, revolutionary parties had to win them over. The Bolsheviks would never have argued “all power to the soviets” if the Soviets were dominated by right-wing parties; it was when the majority in the Soviets supported the overthrow of the Provisional Government that the Bolsheviks used this slogan. And correctly so. Soviet rule is still a form of party rule, just mediated through radical political democracy. Workers in the organs of the new workers state will belong to political parties and factions of them, and policy will come from these various parties. The only alternative would be to ban political parties altogether, which would just mean that people would be voting for personalities rather than programmes.

The idea of Soviets ruling with a small vanguard party merely “advising” the correct path is a way to let the right-wing labor bureaucracy, which is hegemonic, take power and then restore capitalism. “All Power to the Soviets” does not answer the question of power, because ultimately a political party with a programme and mass support is needed to keep revolutionary councils or communes from becoming tools of reactionaries and reformists. The aim of a party is not to act as the holy carriers of wisdom to guide the class, but to represent the class and politically train the class to run society.

By Commune-state, I mean simply a workers republic that has the basic radical democratic features of the Paris Commune: representation through directly elected delegation, short term limits, immediate recall of reps, merging of executive and legislative branches, and general free political association. The early Soviet Republic established in October aimed to carry on many of these political principles.

2. A party must have mass support from the politically active working class to take power; otherwise revolution is not possible.

This is related to the question of soviet rule as counter-posed to party rule mentioned above. Mass support and legitimacy do matter, and communist revolutionaries need to build up institutions with legitimacy as a real alternative for rule. This means that the party must rule with some form of democratic mandate, not as a coup imposed upon the people. The Bolsheviks were able to do this with their years of building support from workers in factories and other industries, as well as their role in fighting against the despotism of czarism. Therefore when crisis did create a power vacuum, they were able to win enough support from the working class to overthrow the provisional government and form a workers state. If the party regime doesn’t have enough mass support to legitimately rule it will have to make assaults on democracy to stay in power, as demonstrated by the Bolsheviks in their retreat from soviet democracy.

3. A political regime is only as democratic as the ruling party or parties.

The loss of democracy within the Bolshevik party, with the ban on factions, was ultimately the end of the Russian Revolution that sealed the rise of Stalinism. This means mass membership based political parties where there is open debate amongst the membership and decision-making distributed to the membership. This is a general rule for political regimes of all types, but since the working class needs democracy like oxygen it must control its own parties and keep them accountable to the class at large.

In the United States, full suffrage means little when one’s choices are limited to political parties that are just fundraising machines for different factions of capital to win campaigns to stay in power. Rather than ruling parties that operate like this, we need parties where the membership develops and hold representatives accountable to a real program.

This means free discussion and debate in the revolutionary press as well. The Bolshevik Party in its heroic period (before the Russian Civil War)  was as radically democratic as possible, especially considering the repressive conditions it worked under. To quote veteran Bolshevik Vladimir Nevsky, it was a party where “Free discussion, a lively exchange of opinions, consideration not only of local, but also of all-Russian issues, an unusually lively interest in current issues, an absolutely universal participation in discussing and deciding these issues, the absence of any bureaucratic attitude to getting things done – in a word, the active participation of emphatically all members in the affairs of the organisation – were the distinctive features of our cells and committees.” We need a party which embodies this same spirit of democracy, both outside and in power.

4. The party doesn’t die, it betrays

The Bolshevik party over the course of 10 years had become an oppressor of the working class rather their champions. By the 1940s none of the old Bolsheviks except Stalin and select few of his cronies remained. The SPD, which was also at one point a heroic revolutionary party, would transform into a party that sought to manage capitalism rather than overthrow it. The party and class are different from each other, and the class-party can become a “party of order” due to its own internal dynamics.

The problem is that mass political parties require bureaucracy, or paid officials with decision-making authority. Eventually the scale of organization and activity require bureaucrats, yet these bureaucrats are essentially petty-bourgeois because of their position of control over information and authority in the party. Therefore this petty-bourgeois bureaucratic strata must be kept under the democratic rule of the working class, as they will develop class interested opposed to the rest of party and lead toward a growing conservative and opportunism. This growing conservatism due to antagonistic class interests within organizations is the cause of “betrayal.” So therefore the proletariat must not only struggle against the bosses, but also the bureaucracy in their own organizations.

Ghosts of Anarchist Past: a review of Kenyon Zimmer’s Immigrants Against the State

Kenyon Zimmer’s Immigrants Against the State provides an illuminating look into militant working class communities of immigrants in the United States but ultimately fails when it it comes to providing an explanatory narrative for their demise. 

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Kenyon Zimmer’s Immigrants Against the State (2015) came out at the tail-end of a surge in radicalism during which many young people found anarchist ideas of increasing relevance (or frustration). Anarchism continues to fascinate radicalized youth and Zimmer’s book does much to show that the ideology had a significant historic existence in the United States. He demonstrates that anarchist ideals were deeply embedded in certain militant working class communities, communities often dominated by immigrants with a specifically ethnic character.

Zimmer’s book was also published relatively recently, during a continuing hysteria over immigration (a key fixture in the national dialogue). Fear of “radicalized” refugees from the Middle East bringing terrorism to the country is consistently used by righitist to drum up xenophobia and immigrants are also used as a scapegoat for economic difficulties. One of the key arguments in Immigrants Against the State is that immigrants didn’t bring “radicalism” to the USA, but rather developed a fidelity to radical ideologies such as anarchism in response to the conditions of exploitation, ethnic oppression and social alienation they experienced as industrial workers. Nor was left-wing radicalization the “natural” and inevitable response of immigrants to these conditions; as Zimmer points out many Italian Immigrants chose to embrace fascism as a way to affirm white citizenship as opposed to a militant rejection of state and capital while many Jewish immigrants turned to Zionism. Many immigrants came to the United States expecting a democratic “city on a hill” often found the opposite of democracy in the part that dominated their life, work. Some would pursue integration, which in many cases meant joining the middle class and seeking to influence state structures for civil rights. Conservative and religious community leaders were just as much a part of working class immigrant communities as were militant anarchists and socialists. Zimmer correctly points out there was no “straight line” between immigration and radicalization, but a variety of factors at play, bringing nuance to the broader topic of immigration.

The book itself is structured around an exploration of three key strongholds of anarchism in the United States: the Yiddish speaking Jewish anarchists communities in NYC, particularly the Lower East Side, the Italian-American community of anarchists in Paterson New Jersey, and the multi-ethnic but smaller groupings in San Francisco. After dissecting each community in a chapter, Zimmer looks at the trans-national character of anarchism during the period and breaks down how connections formed through immigration and familial networks created possibilities for internationalist collaboration. One example raised is the collaboration of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) with Partido Liberal Mexicano (PLM) in an attempted insurrection in Baja California, ultimately an unsuccessful putsch though somewhat admirable for its internationalist zeal. From here the book paints a picture of anarchism in decline, incapable of sustaining itself as a movement in face of authoritarian Soviet Communism and liberal capitalism. The overall timespan covered is from the late 19th century to around 1945.

The first half of the book is undoubtably the strongest. Zimmer’s exploration of these working class communities in a country where socialism supposedly “never happened” (according to the likes of Werner Sombart) gives the reader an insightful gaze into what militant working class communities dedicated to anarchist ideals looked like in the US during the first half of the 20th century. He also explores the roles that ethnic solidarities played in these communities, most specifically in Paterson and the Lower East Side. Zimmer points out that the kind of ethnic balkanization that marked the US anarchist (and broader labor movement) movement was not a matter of choice, but was imposed by the conditions workers found themselves in. In a situation where immigrant workers lived in close quarters (typically to be walking distance from their jobs) and spoke the same language while suffering discrimination in a xenophobic society, immigrant workers would develop a dual form of solidarity – one ethnic and one based on class.

This is exemplified by the entire culture of Yiddish speaking Jewish anarchists, a culture partially constructed by intelligentsia immigrant radicals who in the homeland saw Yiddish as primitive peasant talk. Yet to reach out to workers in Jewish communities one had to know Yiddish, causing these radial intelligentsia to embrace Yiddish in response and publish newspaper in that language. Yiddish anarchists were also bonded by a common experience of diaspora from pogroms in Eastern Europe, further creating a form of ethnic solidarity that went beyond a common language.

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Yiddish Anarchist newspaper Freie Arbeiter Stimme

Zimmer is also quick to point out that anarchist ideology was one which espoused a world without borders held together by a cosmopolitan brotherhood of man. Yet this ideal was not counter to ethnic and even national forms of solidarity and communalism for all anarchists, as Bakunin’s writings distinguish between a nation which is a natural collectivity of “a people”, and the state which is a centralized institution imposed on “a people” to form a false collectivity. Zimmer is fairly uncritical of Bakunin’s views regarding nationalism which in many ways aim to reconcile anti-statism and nationalism by positing an “organic nation” against an “inorganic state”. He quotes Bakunin in the introduction saying “the spontaneous and free union of the living forces of a nation has nothing in common with their artificial concentration at once mechanistic and forced in the political centralization of the unitary state.” This reveals that Bakunin’s fondness for decentralization and federalism can largely be seen as a way to leave a door open for nationalism within his ideal future society. Further, Bakunin prefigures reactionary integralist nationalism by positing a transhistoric “people” that exist beyond the institutional state. Lacking a critique of Bakunin’s weaknesses regarding nationalism is a major blindspot, as one of the major weaknesses of the workers movement in the 20th Century was a strategy of taking the path of least resistance with regards to nationalism. Anarchist ideology, as much as it proclaimed cosmopolitan and internationalist ideals, did not fully preclude that solidarities produced by national or ethnic ties were inherently in conflict to their vision.

The contradictory nature of this vision comes out clearly in the parts of Zimmer’s book that discuss “anarcho-zionism” and the desires of some Jewish anarchists to combine nationalism with their vision of anarchism. While Yiddish speaking Jewish anarchists had developed whole subcultures around mocking Jewish religious practices they were still victims of Anti-Semitism, making an embrace of Jewish nationalism tempting for some. One Jewish anarchist who embraced nationalism was Hillel Solotaroff, who devised an ideology of “territorialism” while proclaiming that the purist internationalism that many Jewish anarchists embraced would lead to the destruction of their people (see pages 38-40 of Zimmers book for details of Solotaroff and territorialism). Territorialism was not understood by Solotaroff as a state-building ideology but rather a “federation of self-administered communes”. This was coupled with writings that endorsed outright chauvinism against Palestinians with claims that the presence of Jewish settlers would lead to the “primitive” society of Palestine benefitting from Jewish settlement and their “superior” culture. While still proclaiming adherence to anti-statism and internationalism, Solotaroff was heavily criticized by fellow Jewish anarchists, one of whom posed the question of whether he was a “nationalistic anarchist or anarchistic nationalist” in the Yiddish anarchist newspaper Fraye Arbeter Shtime. While only winning over a small following before his death in 1921, Solotaroff would foreshadow the shift towards Zionism that Jewish anarchists increasingly made after the Holocaust.

Of exceptional interest in this book is Zimmer’s chapter on Paterson, which was a heavily Italian-American proletarian community of silk workers where anarchist ideals became a way of life during the early 20th century. Zimmer notes that in Biella, a community which many of these workers came from, it was common to own a small plot to help sustain subsistence. In Paterson no such option was possible and Italian-American immigrants (many of whom without citizenship) had no stake in the political machine. Anarchism, especially in syndicalist variants, was a sensible alternative to electoral or partyist socialism offered by the Socialist Party USA or Socialist Labor Party. Syndicalism’s emphasis on workers self-management also harkened back to a sense of control over the labor process that was lost through the processes of proletarianization and immigration. This meant the IWW would have a strong organizational presence and would be instrumental in mobilizing workers during the tumultuous wave of garment and textile strikes that would take hold from 1909 -1913. Beyond the mere organizational presence of the IWW was a presence of an anarchist culture that thrived on translational networks with other militants where anarchism became a way of life. The chapter on Paterson demonstrates that mass strikes don’t appear out of nowhere. For workers to see themselves as part of a class and strike in solidarity they have to be socialized in such a way as to do so. The presence of a strong culture of working class collectivity manifested through organization building in Paterson and the militancy of the cities strike wave was no coincidence.

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IWW leader Bill Haywood and his squad in the streets of Paterson during the mass strike of 1913, a 6 month strike that ended in failure.

Not all anarchists in Paterson accepted organization building, with a trend of anti-organizational anarchists also existing in Paterson. The anti-organizationalists, while proclaiming the end goal of a federalist anarcho-communist society, argued that mass scale organization was inherently oppressive and that direct action by small groups (including but not limited to assassinations and bombings) would incite a spontaneous uprising of the masses that would abolish the state and capitalism immediately and inevitably spread worldwide. These political splits mirror those within the Marxist left as well, with the anti-organizationalist trends preceding the “councilist” tendency of ultra-left Marxism that places the spontaneous actions of workers at the point of production as the only authentic manifestation of legitimate working class organizations. By relying on a religious-like faith in spontaneity and hostility to organization both tendencies found similar fates of having little political importance, existing mostly as historical curiosities.

This brings to fore one of the main questions of revolutionary politics: how can organizations build up an existence within capitalism and gain influence without capitulating to the pressures of capitalist society and losing their revolutionary potential? Anarchists saw organization as either being the solution to this problem or the enemy itself. The anti-organizationalists put all their faith in the spontaneous action of the masses which would be sparked by the actions of the clandestine anarchist elite. On the other hand, the organizationalists tended toward syndicalism and believed that by only organizing unions they could keep “pure” by circumventing the political process and attract workers through their ability to win bread-and-butter demands, building up organizational strength to the point where a general strike could be called to shut down the city and transfer industry into the hands of the workers. Yet this strategy would also rely on a faith in mass spontaneity, as it is assumed and that the power vacuum created by a general strike would simply be left alone with an anarchist society freely arising in its wake. This ignores the political (as well as technical) complexities that come with organizing society in a revolutionary period, circumventing political power rather than grappling with its realities. How will people be won to an anti-capitalist programme for change? How will petty bourgeois specialists and civil servants whose needs are key to running society to be dealt with? Neither the organizationalists nor anti-organizationalists would be able to address, nonetheless answer, key political or practical questions and instead left their solution up to a faith spontaneity and the inherent goodness of mankind.

Zimmer’s politics certainly show in this work, which is in itself not a bad thing. Political partisanship is never reason itself to dismiss the value of a work. The fact that Zimmer has a strong affinity to anarchist ideology means his research is inspired to a certain extent by political passion and not entirely cynical careerism. Passion is no substitute for rigor however. Yet when it comes to constructing a narrative of the decline of anarchism in the US (and worldwide) Zimmer’s political leanings act as a blindspot. This is most apparent in the last chapter and conclusion of Immigrants Against the State, where Zimmer looks at the decline of US anarchism and its international counter-parts. However when it comes to producing a narratives that explains this decline Zimmer continues a flawed explanation that continues to haunt anarchist historians.

In Immigrants Against the State the blame for anarchism’s decline in the USA is ultimately put on Bolshevism and Stalinism (with little distinguish of course), whose rise to prominence meant one was stuck in a world where you either were in support of US imperialism or the USSR. Anarchists, victims of multiple betrayals from the Bolsheviks in Russia and the Stalinists in Spain, were therefore tragic victims of authoritarian forces which prevented the flourishing of anarchist libertarianism. This doesn’t mean Zimmer puts all the blame on anarchism’s Marxist rivals. Concerning the US Zimmer begins with the domestic repression of radicals in the period following the US’ entrance into WWI, the rise of Bolshevism and its factor in dividing the anarchist movement. The effects of domestic repression are not to be ignored; acts like the Anarchist Exclusion Act of 1918 banned anarchist immigrants and allowed naturalized radicals to be stripped of citizenship and then deported. In 1920 the Palmer Raids crippled the IWW and a budding Communist Party already torn apart by factional struggle. Zimmer is also willing to portray the Bolshevik Revolution as an energizing force in the United States, creating a vision of “soviet power” that many workers aimed (and attempted) to create. Yet the influence of Bolshevism on anarchism in the US is portrayed mostly as a negative one that divided the anarchist movement and sapped it of its energy.

Beyond the United States, anarchists were repressed in the USSR (though some still held office until Stalinist purges in the 1930s) and the CNT-FAI’s potential for leading a revolution in alliance with dissident Marxists was strangled by Stalinist repression and fascist defeat. Anarchist internationalism was in ruins at this point, ultimately having lost out to Stalinism and Liberalism as a dominating world ideologies post-WWII. Wherever anarchists had movements that threatened the prevailing authorities they certainly faced repression from the state, but this is to be expected. Repression alone cannot explain why movements fail.

No sane Marxist would argue that the failure of the USSR was due solely to external pressures from US imperialism and that the state had no internal flaws of its own that played a role in its demise. Yet Zimmer’s history of anarchism presents a narrative where anarchism has no internal flaws, only external failings due to the tragedies of state repression. This is a consistent theme in anarchist literature, echoed in the works like Sam Dolgoff’s The Anarchist Collectives or Ian Mackay’s collaborative Anarchist FAQ document. Rather than trying to understand the internal problems and flaws that may have led to the decline of anarchism, Zimmer places all of the blame on external authoritarians. This is of course reflected in Zimmer’s own ideology as a committed anarchist; if humans are simply left free of the state then they will be naturally inclined to act with good will and cooperate with “mutual aid”.

Marxists do not deny that human nature exists, but also understand that human nature is something that is historically constructed through an ensemble of social relations that develop historically, often through conflict. Anarchist ideology generally fails to see this and instead envisions an eternal instinct to freedom. Yes, the human is corrupted by institutions, but once such institutions are swept away humanity will return to a “natural state” of freedom says the anarchist. Yet Marxists realize that social relations must be transformed for human nature to be transformed, which means grasping with political, strategic and transitional questions.

Zimmer’s work shows the most positive aspects of historical anarchism: its ties to working class communities and its ability to fuel militant actions against capital and the state. His work is also a good starting place for those interested in immigrant anarchism in the United States as well as labor militancy in general. While anarchist history as a rule of thumb is far more interesting than anarchist theory, those unfamiliar with the theories behind anarchism and how they connect to practice will learn something from reading this book.

Where Immigrants Against the State falls short is explaining why the historical movement of anarchism has faded away, a question of importance to anyone who is a political partisan. If one accepts that external repression isn’t a sufficient answer on its own, then Zimmer fails to really add anything new when it comes to answering critical questions and instead simply paints a vibrant picture of a world long gone, where anarchists are tragic heroes in a corrupt world set against them. Its a history of “bad guys who are authoritarian” vs. “good guys who believe in freedom”, ideological but not critical. It aims to ignore rather than grapple with questions like political decision-making, authority, and developing mass constituency. This isn’t to say Zimmer is blind to any of the unsavory aspects of anarchism, with this critique of their backwards gender views regarding the “virile syndicalism” of the IWW as well as his willingness to discuss the connections between anarchism and Zionism. Yet like so much anarchist writing, Zimmer’s book sets out to prove that anarchism is more than bomb throwers and rebellious denials of authority. In doing so, it is more of the same in a long line of attempts to prove that anarchism is relevant- not the kind of serious attempt to explain and understand anarchism as a historical phenomena that we need.