by Muhsin Yorulmaz
In writing this piece, I’m acutely aware of my own identity as a Marxist, which starts with the assumption that to be a Marxist is to be one of the most ruthless theoretical and practical critics of “the state”, and to conceive of “the state” as an enemy which can only be defeated by revolution. In fact, in the United States, which is the focus of the website on which I’m publishing, a great number of purported “Marxists” insist that they desire no such revolutionary overturn at all. Many even mock anarchists for using just such words as the ones I chose above.
This reality, to the sincere Marxist, is evidence of the widespread nature of “revisionism” of the essential claims of Marxism, by which Marxism is distanced from revolution and transformed into a “proper” statist ideology, like social democracy.
But confusing matters when we make this claim, is the fact that since the lifetime of Marx itself, anarchist opponents took issue with Marx’s analysis of the historical emergence and likely future of the state as entity. When Marxism in practice led to the formation of new state entities and these entities could convincingly be accused of repression, ultimately even of the interests they claimed to represent (namely, a revolution which would liberate humanity from exploitation and oppression), the anarchists felt themselves vindicated that our ideology effectively produces the same results as the status quo and is accordingly not worth considering as a revolutionary alternative.
This reality, of the historical and contemporary debate between anarchists and Marxists on “the state” in the abstract and the Soviet Union (at least in its early history) in the concrete, is evidence that Marxists are indeed demarcated from anarchists on theoretical grounds that include our conception of the state.
This piece will take up this contradiction and attempt an explanation of how our sincere difference with the anarchists was transformed into a lack of difference with social democracy. The point of this, of course, is not merely to weep about a past revolution, but to rearm ourselves and reaffirm our commitment to new revolutions which will, we hope, succeed in remaking the world sufficiently to pass beyond the state. I will rearticulate the basic Marxist understanding of revolution and the state (drawing heavily on Lenin’s “the State and Revolution”), and in this context, critique our 20th century history’s approach to both: it is my claim that there are concrete limitations when state and revolution have to continue in parallel, limitations that the party was ill-prepared for, and the inevitable result was the retreat of the Soviet Union’s revolutionary commitments, and the failure even of the “anti-revisionist” trend in Albania and China.
Class, Revolutions, and History
To Marx, the state was not a unique force of violence unto itself. It was the outcome and part of the objectified form of class struggle, a process which extended back to the beginnings of divisions of labor and property. The fact that the state’s own actions dictate part of the direction of class struggle is not unimportant, because the ruling classes are not a series of automatons, even if the profit motive often nearly reduces them to such.
But many anarchists would agree that to imagine a “stateless” society dictated by profits and capitalism is to imagine exploitative and oppressive social relations in control, which would itself mean the (re)construction of something we might reasonably call the state. For this reason, almost the entire anarchist movement rightly mocks “anarcho-capitalism”, and a growing number of anarchists likewise regard mutualism, with its claims to “egalitarian markets”, with suspicion. The variety of anarchists with whom most of us will find ourselves in debate, discourse, and indeed, practical politics, will be those who identify with “anarcho-syndicalism”, “anarcho-communism”, or “libertarian socialism”: they are profoundly anti-capitalist and anti-market in their ideology.
In general, such anarchists generally do not consider that the difference between them and us Marxists lies in their understanding of the relationship of capital to the state. While one might encounter the odd anarchist who says that there is capital (which is a social “ill”) and the state (which is a separate social “ill”), almost all would agree that it is the demands of capital under capitalism which dictate the terms of the state’s oppression of the majority of humanity.
The division, as anarchists are only too happy to offer, is that anarchists believe that the idea of a “proletarian state”, a “socialist state”, a “lower stage of communism” where the state persists, will only serve to recreate capital and capitalism, despite pretensions to the contrary. In fact, we should note, history somewhat vindicates this position: it is an observed fact that actually existing socialism did give way to capital re-seizing power through the state and reimposing itself.
And indeed, the “anti-revisionist” will counter, the problem is not with the observation, but in its negation: how do anarchists propose to build a truly stateless society in an immediate sense, while also restructuring productive relations so as to pass beyond capitalism? As Chairman Mao said when responding to the query “Don’t you want to abolish state power?”:
“Yes, we do, but not right now; we cannot do it yet. Why? Because imperialism still exists, because domestic reaction still exists, because classes still exist in our country.”
The operative word in this quote is “cannot”. We are not “pro-state”, such that we “want” a world of states, with their repression and coercion etc., and thereby force them into the world. This position, which Mao is articulating, is similar to that articulated by Lenin in “the State and Revolution”, (itself drawing heavily on Engels). What Mao is trying to articulate, in the above quote, Mao is articulating a very orthodox Marxist position, that Marxism seeks the overthrow of the state, which is a class formation (just as we currently experience it under capitalism). Mao defends the idea of an ongoing revolutionary repression of class enemies of this revolution until the revolution triumphs in the country and across the world, at which point it will be possible for the state to be “abolished”. The “socialist state” is a transitionary form, which as Mao acknowledges elsewhere explicitly (see Li 2008, p.59), and implicitly in practice through the Cultural Revolution, is problematic because the transition can be reversed.
If, the day after the revolution, we were to not consider a “state-like” means of collectivizing self-defense, planning the economy, repressing reaction and enforcing liberating progress, it would simply mean willfully disorganizing our response to inevitable counter-revolution. Anarchists actually tend to accept that some means of overt violence would be necessary after overthrowing the bourgeois state, they simply claim that theirs would be a more generalized series of militias and councils, and not a “real” state. Of course, the very fact of “organizing” these would be perceived as “state-like” to their enemies and the outside world. In other words, the idea that organized violence in defense of the revolution would not constitute a “state” is actually very close to Engels’s claim that proletarian revolution “abolishes also the state as state”, leaving a “state” that should “wither away” by itself.
This argument, about the precise “amount” of state which is “too much state” is, to my mind, overly formulaic, and at any rate flattens the actual means by which force and coercion were used in actually existing socialism: “the socialist state” could repress reactionaries, and then, upon the apparent “interests” of the state changing, turn around and repress the masses of people, and revolutionaries upholding the line of the liberation of all poor and oppressed.
It is beneath the anarchists if they would respond to both forms of “violence” with liberal hand-wringing, and indeed most anarcho-syndicalists would not: they know as well as we do that there are justified forms of forceful intervention and reeducation, and our common work against fascism is a testament to this that any Marxist or anarchist who has left their armchair for sufficient time can call to mind.
The most crucial thing to grasp is that the state itself is a result of the class struggle, and so making it “stronger” to enforce revolutionary law can “backfire” if counter-revolution sets in. Making it “weaker” or “less state-like” or however else one wishes to approach the problem, strengthens the hand of counter-revolution to overturn this new order and return to the old, even if they have to rebuild the state machinery themselves. So the strength of the state, how “state-like” a “state-like” form of organization is, cannot rescue us from this problem: Anarchist or communist, none of us can deny that revolutions can be reversed. How does this happen?
Lenin’s “State and Revolution”: is the bourgeois state abolished?
Lenin summarizes the basic Marxist understanding of the state very clearly in his famous “State and Revolution”, namely that the state “is a product and a manifestation of the irreconcilability of class antagonisms. The state arises where, when and insofar as class antagonism objectively cannot be reconciled. And, conversely, the existence of the state proves that the class antagonisms are irreconcilable.”
The more clever anarchists will not only agree, they will counter that this is precisely their argument against “the proletarian state”: we can say that the proletariat is in power, but the very fact of the state shows that the “abolished” bourgeois state is not entirely “gone”, because the state itself is evidence of a class society in some sense. Actually, if more anarchists had actually read Lenin’s “the State and Revolution” (which, to be fair, most of our “Leninists” also refuse to read), they would know that none other than their supposed enemy Lenin says much the same. I will quote at length from Chapter 5 of “the State and Revolution”:
Marx not only most scrupulously takes account of the inevitable inequality of men, but he also takes into account the fact that the mere conversion of the means of production into the common property of the whole society (commonly called “socialism”) does not remove the defects of distribution and the inequality of “bourgeois laws” which continues to prevail so long as products are divided “according to the amount of labor performed”. Continuing, Marx says:
“But these defects are inevitable in the first phase of communist society as it is when it has just emerged, after prolonged birth pangs, from capitalist society. Law can never be higher than the economic structure of society and its cultural development conditioned thereby.”
And so, in the first phase of communist society (usually called socialism) “bourgeois law” is not abolished in its entirety, but only in part, only in proportion to the economic revolution so far attained, i.e., only in respect of the means of production. “Bourgeois law” recognizes them as the private property of individuals. Socialism converts them into common property. To that extent–and to that extent alone–“bourgeois law” disappears.
However, it persists as far as its other part is concerned; it persists in the capacity of regulator (determining factor) in the distribution of products and the allotment of labor among the members of society. The socialist principle, “He who does not work shall not eat”, is already realized; the other socialist principle, “An equal amount of products for an equal amount of labor”, is also already realized. But this is not yet communism, and it does not yet abolish “bourgeois law”, which gives unequal individuals, in return for unequal (really unequal) amounts of labor, equal amounts of products.
This is a “defect”, says Marx, but it is unavoidable in the first phase of communism; for if we are not to indulge in utopianism, we must not think that having overthrown capitalism people will at once learn to work for society without any rules of law. Besides, the abolition of capitalism does not immediately create the economic prerequisites for such a change.
Now, there are no other rules than those of “bourgeois law”. To this extent, therefore, there still remains the need for a state, which, while safeguarding the common ownership of the means of production, would safeguard equality in labor and in the distribution of products.
The state withers away insofar as there are no longer any capitalists, any classes, and, consequently, no class can be suppressed.
But the state has not yet completely withered away, since the still remains the safeguarding of “bourgeois law”, which sanctifies actual inequality. For the state to wither away completely, complete communism is necessary.
In other words, the bourgeois state is “abolished”, and yet it doesn’t immediately become as nothingness: it continues to exist in partial, retreating only so far as we push it, ultimately and potentially “withering” form in or at best beneath the form of the proletarian state.
It is worth noting at this juncture that the overuse of the references to “abolition” in Marxist texts in English is something of a poor translation of the concept of “Aufhebung”, the process of “sublation” via the negation of the negation. In German, “aufheben” is to take up, remove, and/or store away something. It expresses, for Hegel and his immediate successors, the complicated process of one thing negating the other, and thus, even in possibly “replacing” it, being shaped by its interaction and process of becoming through its dialectical opposite.
Thus, when the socialist revolution negates the bourgeois state, it also takes what it has negated into itself, in preserving the state form, which is “necessary” for reasons of material Realpolitik but necessarily still contradictory because the logic of bourgeois law and order has created it. The process of transformation and change necessary to overcome the class struggle in its totality, to undergo the total social transformation to which Lenin refers, is a much longer process, requiring the society itself to change (as Lenin emphasizes in great detail in Chapter 5, as quoted above and discussed in more detail in the source text).
Lenin is quite clear that
there remains for a time not only bourgeois law, but even the bourgeois state, without the bourgeoisie! […] But in fact, remnants of the old, surviving in the new, confront us in life at every step, both in nature and in society. And Marx did not arbitrarily insert a scrap of “bourgeois” law into communism, but indicated what is economically and politically inevitable in a society emerging out of the womb of capitalism.
We know that the “inevitable” “defect” of bourgeois statehood or something like it surviving under and through the dictatorship of the proletariat can be used to “excuse” “market socialism”. This text is not a fig leaf for economic similarity between socialism and capitalism (which is another subject of great importance), but rather a thorough criticism and discussion of the practical possibilities of revolutionary statecraft. Lenin’s writings (including the above much-quoted “State and Revolution” to some extent) are filled with attacks on those who attempt to reduce socialism and Marxism to mere state-centric reforms on capitalism, and the basic Marxist understanding of economics stands against the idea of “market socialism”.
The argument being made here is not one against seeing a difference between the pre- and post-revolutionary orders, but rather a warning that the revolution contains within itself the possibility of its own failure. It is a most revolutionary and self-critical text, nothing in common with those who wave their hands at all criticisms of anything deemed “actually existing socialism” by stating that “socialism isn’t full communism” (as if this means it need not demonstrate a difference with capitalism!). Indeed, and this will figure into the remainder of my argument, the lack of grasping of the role of the state and the danger it represents allowed for easier counter-revolution in those states with the most meaningful economic claims to being actually existing socialism.
The fact that socialism must be defined by economic criteria and not merely by the approach to the state is one that is dealt with in criminally little detail in this piece, which chooses to focus on this question of the state for reasons of current discourse and historical analysis. None the less, the interested reader is directed to pedagogically sound introductory texts such as Bertell Ollman’s treatise “Marx’s Vision of Communism”, and, one should hope, for a more thoroughly economic understanding, Marx’s “Capital”, particularly the first volume.
But leaving these crucial questions aside for another time, let us assume that communist parties in power were familiar with the economic tasks (broad and specific) at hand and were armed with sufficient theoretical knowledge of economics to “fill in the blanks” of practice. If we really understand the state as a reflection of class struggle, and really consider, as Lenin did, that the party is itself a “vanguard” of this struggle, we ought to have something to say about how these “proletarian states” descended to the level of bourgeois statehood and accepted capitalist restoration: was it not the ruling party of the Soviet Union which voted to dissolve itself? Where did this process begin?
The 1924 Soviet Constitution in Context
The objective context for the Russian Revolution’s eventual reversal is to be found in the imperialist world system: following Russia’s exit from the inter-imperialist First World War, the recuperated Soviet forces attempted to spread the revolution westward, with the defeat in Poland being the first signal that, world revolutionary aspirations or not, the Soviet Union would be constrained by the power which capital as a global economic force had amassed, and had to, on some level, accept the system of states that existed in the world. Relatively “normal” international relations gradually set in and eventually the nascent Soviet republics formally declared a union, culminating in the Soviet Constitution of 1924. To some left communists, this was the beginning of the end of “the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat”, and the beginning of surrender to stagnation and statist status quoism.
Note, in defense of the left communists from the usual misrepresentation of their positions by amateur “Marxist-Leninists” on the internet, that the left communists absolutely upheld the idea of an organized system constructed on the dictatorial power of and representing the proletariat, and generally they defend the revolutionary credentials of the October Revolution at least until the early 1920s. Their position was not at all that Lenin was too “dictatorial”, but rather that the Soviet system was unable to sustain its own revolution.
The 1924 constitution is condemned by some left communists not because it is a constitution, but because the historical context in which the constitution was written made it a constitution of acceptance of the retreat that the material conditions imposed on the Soviet Union. It was the legal manifestation of the revolution’s “retreat”, which many left communists would claim this was “inevitable” given these conditions, and their criticism is of the party and theory of the Marxist-Leninists, and not of a state which they would claim anyway was the outcome of these factors.
I note the left communist position, although I disagree with it because I consider socialist construction was ongoing for several decades, but it is important to understand that we need some criterion for determining if a revolutionary process has reversed and has given birth to its own counter-revolution. And the state itself is where we find the ultimate proof: does the state, whose very existence is the result of a certain stage of class struggle, reflect the political power of the proletariat, struggling to overcome the material contradictions which make any “state” (as we understand the word) necessary?
If our only criterion for an ongoing revolutionary process and socialist construction is that a red-colored flag is still flying and a party with the word “communist” in its name is still in power, we could conceivably imagine a party, in power thanks to a much-beloved heritage, maintaining its formal identity as “communist” and keeping the word “socialism” in the constitution but completely accepting the capitalist world-system in its domestic and foreign policies, which of course, has no value to us at all. If our criteria for socialist revolution cannot necessarily exclude and overcome capitalism, we have a valueless theory of revolution indeed.
By contrast, the anti-revisionist Marxist-Leninists tend to emphasize the formal declaration of the end of the dictatorship of the proletariat during the Khrushchev era. Khrushchev did not posit that this was because the state was withering away, but that the Soviet Union had somehow maintained its statehood and also transcended class struggle (!), and now represented a government of all classes: in other words, the same reformist social democratic claim torn apart by Lenin in the very first section of “the State and Revolution”, and also accepted by defenders of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” (who are themselves at best social democrats anyway, their pretensions aside). Lenin and the left communists absolutely agree this is a flagrant revision of the revolutionary essence of Marxism.
And surely this formal ideal change resulted in some essential material changes to the economic and political system, which again, are worth rehashing in a more specifically economic piece, which is important given the ongoing relevance of a line of demarcation between the anti-revisionist trend and the scourge of the useless revisionist “communist parties” around the world who defend Eurocommunism and Dengism and every other sort of social democracy dressed up as Marxism, all the while abandoning the revolutionary economic and political tasks of Marxism both before and after the revolution.
But here I wish to deflect attacks on the 1924 constitution by the left communists by turning to a more controversial assertion within my own, anti-revisionist milieu: the constitution which enabled Khrushchevite revisionism, which represented a weakness in the party and state approach already in place, was the Stalin-era 1936 constitution.
What is the relationship between party and state? – the 1936 constitution
I do not wish the section that follows to be understood purely in terms of my claiming that the early Stalin era (up until 1936) was “good” and then thereafter revisionism set in and the Soviet Union and the Bolshevik Party became “bad”. On the contrary, the reason for my interest in the 1936 constitution began with my frustration at an overly simplistic account of revisionism as having been made possible by the death of Comrade Stalin: it would not be much less of a “great man theory” to ascribe to the single moment of the 1936 constitution the entire directional change, the entire reemergence of capitalist productive relations, all retreats from revolutionary tasks, and all abandonment of the Marxist method, than it would be to ascribe all these same errors, flaws, or trends to the moment of Comrade Stalin’s death, or the moment of the “Secret Speech”, etc.
The era of the 1936 constitution was also the era where Gramsci and Dimitrov’s lines were vindicated in the anti-fascist struggle. The era of the 1936 constitution was the era of the victory of the Chinese and Albanian parties in their own struggles which would serve as the brightest hopes for a continued revolutionary practice for decades, against the undermining efforts by the Soviet Union (although the Chinese party’s ultimate direction served to undermine anti-imperialism and anti-fascism even more than the Soviet party). And of course, in economic terms, I continue to uphold the claim that socialist construction was continuously brought to higher heights during the late Stalin era.
So why am I criticizing the 1936 constitution? Because of what it implies for the Soviet Union as state and the Bolshevik Party as party, whose difference was obscured by this document. Unlike its predecessor, it reconstituted political power in a single “Supreme Soviet” which began to resemble the parliament of any other state while, at the same time, the constitution’s enshrining of the party blurred the line between party and state, creating the now infamous party-state. This, I claim, was the theoretical-political blueprint for the state of inertia which plagued Soviet-backed states which were constructed, and lies at the root of why so many of the state remnants of 20th century socialism seem so difficult to rescue today.
I have already restated the idea that “the socialist state” is, by virtue of being a state, already and always a potential site for the reemergence of capitalism, since capitalism defends itself by means of the state, and since states are themselves the manifestation of the dominance of a given class in the course of ongoing class struggle. The 1936 constitution did not introduce any of these problems, nor can it be blamed for exacerbating them: the dynamics which would render the Soviet Union more state than socialist, more stagnant than revolutionary, even if they became more apparent in the 1950s, were already in motion before 1936.
If we understand that the state is going to exist, we certainly cannot stand aloof from it and regard it as irrelevant. But on the other hand, if we understand that people make revolution, that it is the party’s task to lead the people, we should not mix up statecraft with the role of the party. And the 1936 constitution confuses these, not only by the new inclusion of the party as part of the constitution of the state, but further by declaring that the party “representing the leading core of all organizations of the working people, both public and state“.
The party, the state, and the masses
The Supreme Soviet as institution is often raised as the “central” problem here by Trotskyites, so as to lay all the blame at Comrade Stalin’s feet, rather than the process which led to the Supreme Soviet. Remember that left communists would identify in the Congress of Soviets as they actually existed before the 1936 constitution a similar trend, the material and ideological basis for the 1936 constitution and the Supreme Soviet. The horizons of revolutionary imagination represented in the party had been pulling back, and the Supreme Soviet was only a qualitative turning point in this process. The party had already begun and would continue to identify itself more and more with the state as such.
Let me be clear that mine is not the usual liberal complaints about multi-party democracy: I consider that the dictatorship of the proletariat must be a revolutionary stage, a ruthless stage when it comes to exercising authority over and repressing the forces of reaction. As Chairman Mao put it:
All the experience the Chinese people have accumulated through several decades teaches us to enforce the people’s democratic dictatorship, that is, to deprive the reactionaries of the right to speak and let the people alone have that right.
But the party stands at the vanguard of consciousness building for the organized proletariat struggling to seize power. The special role of vanguard is necessarily reserved for a minority because, if a general consciousness were achieved of the totality of class struggle, the need for a vanguard would disappear (because, quite simply, the need for organization as we know it would “wither away”). The party’s task of which they must be acutely conscious is, at every stage of the revolution, to identify the contradictions among the masses which will hinder or aid in raising their consciousness to push the revolution forward.
The state, by contrast, does not represent a minority of conscious militants, professional revolutionaries, nor even the “unconscious” proletariat: the state is the material border of the class struggle at a given moment. To be conscious of this border is to be aware of the need to cross it, and the party’s task is to be the most conscious actor. Even to the extent that a socialist state, a proletarian state, is “progressive”, it is so only in so far as it holds down reaction and counter-revolution, defending the progress that the popular masses have already achieved in the class struggle.
Even the most perfect and ideal proletarian state is the compromise which history and material reality have imposed on the oppressed masses, who are actually struggling to liberate themselves from the state, quoting Lenin again:
Only now can we fully appreciate the correctness of Engels’ remarks mercilessly ridiculing the absurdity of combining the words “freedom” and “state”. So long as the state exists there is no freedom. When there is freedom, there will be no state.
The party, by contrast, while it seeks to unite the proletariat and drive them forward, even in so far as it seeks to build structures, including whatever compromise state the advanced section of the working classes create in the process of revolution, does not exist because of this state. Rather it exists, separately from but in a similar way to the state, because the class struggle is ongoing.
The party seeks to bring the proletarian state into and indeed out of existence. The party cannot tie its fate up with the state: the state is necessarily a step behind the proletariat, as the state has been constituted based on a particular stage of revolutionary development. If the revolution continues to march forward, each particular stage must be overcome, so for a party to be revolutionary is for a party to question the state which it has itself had such a strong hand in building. The party is therefore meant to be a step ahead of the proletariat at large, seeing the contradictions in this stage of development which serve as the basis for potential further forward march by the revolution and the proletariat which leads the revolution.
There must be a mediation between the party and the state, they cannot be immediately understood as equivalent, because there is a dialectical tension between them, just as exists between the state and masses, or the party and the masses. The party’s own role in leading the revolution is entirely conditional on its identification with the masses in general and the advanced section of the proletariat in particular, and not with the state.
Why is there so little criticism among Marxist-Leninists of the merging of party and state even before the open revisionist reversals of the mid-20th century? Surely the fear of admitting that Comrade Stalin adopted a mistaken approach which played a role in a loss of revolutionary momentum cannot alone explain this: there are many Marxist-Leninists willing to criticize the adoption of Bukharin’s “Third Period” thesis. Perhaps Freire was right that many people simply wish to turn the revolution into their own “personal” revolution, where they are head of a state more than the masses are in power; perhaps Lenin and Marx’s exhortations to seize state power were read as a magic formula, and like a cargo cult, certain “Marxists” cling to the idea of the “socialist state” even when it is nowhere to be found; perhaps others think questions like these are too pedestrian to commit to writing in the form of a polemic, and that surely everyone understands Lenin without our having to release another article which quotes “the State and Revolution”.
Whatever the reason, I consider it supremely unhelpful to explaining the idea of and even working towards the reality of proletarian revolution that we do not discuss more how the party ultimately became co-equivalent with the state. Because the two have different roles, one of them still trapped in the old society, the other beckoning the masses towards the new society, it is possible (and as we have seen from the actual history, the general trend) that the progressive party, so enamored with the tasks of statecraft and the idea that it is in “control” of this state, begins to not merely accept as conjecturally necessary, but essentially identify with the state form.
The state is a remnant of the old society and a form which can only exist because the all-too-reversible revolutionary process is still underway. An identification with it, in moments of economic, political, and social crisis–which are all too likely given the enormous power of the forces of local reaction and international capital, imperialism, and fascism–can transform not only the state, but those who identify with it, into tools of reaction and restoration.
The proletarian state may be different in how we conceive of it and how it operates than the bourgeois state, but it is still a state, and as Lenin emphasized, it is still “economically and politically inevitable” that it still contain within itself “the bourgeois state without the bourgeoisie”. There would actually be no cause for abandoning hope at such junctures, if a ruthlessly critical party existed able to take a step back from the work of which it is so proud, through its revolutionary engagement with the experiences, needs, and contradictions of the revolutionary masses, rally itself to resume the work of changing the world.
Consider the New Economic Policy, which was put in place in the very years of the retreat leading up to the 1924 constitution, only for the party under Stalin to successfully reverse this policy and resume a revolutionary course through the five-year plans. I am not suggesting that no problems existed between 1930 and 1936, or that the Soviet Union became a “counter-revolutionary” structure in 1936. Simply that we see that a retreat, acknowledged by Lenin and Stalin, could be reversed during a certain period: this was because even though the state had entered a known inertia, the party still had the “fight” left in it to take on its own state.
Tragically, after the 1936 constitution, the party which years before had such a dynamic relationship with the state and masses, became increasingly “dizzy with success”. The bureaucratization which set in, like the New Economic Policy and the 1924 constitution before it, was very likely inevitable on a state level: they reflected the reality of class struggle at that point. Admitting this and combating it, imagining the continuation of class struggle and its being raised to still higher heights, however, was entirely within the realm of possibility for the party. There is good reason why Comrade Stalin identified “[t]he communist bureaucrat” as “the most dangerous type of bureaucrat”:
Why? Because he masks his bureaucracy with the title of Party member.
I hope the attentive reader sees the connection between this trend and the importance of actively separating the party from the state in our minds.
Conclusion: the 1936 Constitution and anti-revisionism
The anti-revisionist trend posits a certain praxis which is a direct response to the end result of the above trend. In China, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, and in Albania, the Cultural and Ideological Revolution, both served as proof of a will to revitalize the revolutionary struggle against regression within socialism itself. This will, and this practice, had, in my view, a common heritage which made their successes the height of post-Stalin Marxism-Leninism, and their failure a testament to the limitations of party-states modeled (to a great extent) on the 1936 constitution of the Soviet Union.
I do not wish to further lengthen this already long theoretical piece by digging up sources and quotes about the Albanian and the Chinese experiences, which anyway, cannot be denied to have both ultimately failed. I wish rather to state that, while obviously both experiences made a protracted and correct attack against the inertia of state bureaucracy which had seeped into the party, they were both undermined by an understanding of party and state which was already largely fused, inevitably for reasons of ideological heritage (both states were built after and in the image of the 1936 Soviet constitution) and material reality (the division of the socialist camp and the surrender to capitalism-imperialism brought about by various factors including the party-state structure).
Mao did not have an independent party structure to organize against the state: he was forced, by the sort of party he inherited from the Soviet direction of travel, to treat the party and the state as one and the same as an enemy, the “headquarters” to be “bombarded”. When he was forced into retreat, he had no structure to retreat to but the party-which-was-the-state. Whatever our criticisms of Mao in the 1970s, the best case scenario would have been silence, as there was no time in the short years leading up to his death to “rally the troops” when all the organized structures were unified against the “excesses” of the Cultural Revolution. Had the party been a vanguard organ which saw its destiny as separate from that of the state, perhaps things could have been otherwise. But the two had become too intertwined even before the Cultural Revolution, as was also the case in Albania, which too ultimately fell to economic encirclement.
At crucial junctures like the Cultural Revolution, the revolutionary party must not only be willing to break with business as usual: it should be a wake-up call to the party, of the dynamic contradictions among and power which springs from the revolutionary masses. But since the mid-20th century trend was towards party-states, it is a testament to the will of those elements of the party around Mao Zedong and Enver Hoxha that they were able to challenge the direction of the socialist states in general, towards counter-revolution.
When it comes to articulating an anti-revisionism which can explain the failings of both China and Albania, we must also be able to explain their common source. The heritage of the Soviet Union must be subjected, like everything else existing, to a ruthless criticism. This is not an attempt to discard this heritage, or distance ourselves from it. On the contrary, we can only be so remorseless and cruel in our criticisms among our comrades, because we must understand we are actually delivering a self-criticism in appropriating this heritage.
The basis of our analysis must be the weaponry of the Marxist logical method and the Leninist vanguard party which made revolutions like the October Revolution possible, and I must emphasize lest there has been any confusion that we are so concerned with these revolutions because we appropriate and identify with them. However, I hope it is crystal clear to all readers that the state does not figure into our weapons as conscious communists. Rather, it is one of our battlegrounds.
–Marx’s “Critique of the Gotha Programme”
–Lenin’s “the State and Revolution”