Democracy and revolution

December 10, 2014

Paul D’Amato has been a regular writer from the earliest issues of Socialist Worker. He has completed an expanded and updated version of his book The Meaning of Marxism. The book ends with a collection of answers to the most commonly voiced objections to socialism and Marxism. SW is serializing this section from The Meaning of Marxism--in part three, he considers some criticisms of how socialists hope to achieve socialism.

Socialists believe that the ends justify the means

In one of our many fruitless arguments, I remember my father attacking Marxism for believing that "the ends justify the means." By this, he meant that Marxists have no moral scruples and will stop at nothing to achieve their goals. Ironically, this is the same person who once told me, with a straight face, that the United States had to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki "to save lives."

In fact, every ruling class in the world operates on the assumption that the ends justify the means. In every war, these rulers risk the lives of millions of ordinary soldiers in the pursuit of their goals. The US government stands poised to use the world's most terrible weapons of mass destruction if it deems their use necessary. Asked by a reporter in 1995 if US-imposed economic sanctions against Iraq that had killed half a million Iraqi children were "worth it," Madeleine Albright, then the US ambassador to the UN, responded that "the price, we think, is worth it."[24] The end justified the means.

"The ruling class," wrote Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky in his book Their Morals and Ours, "forces its ends upon society and habituates it to considering all those means which contradict its ends as immoral. That is the chief function of official morality."[25] It is therefore "immoral" to kill in peacetime, but a sacred duty to kill in wartime. It is impermissible for strikers to use force to stop a scab crossing a picket line, but perfectly acceptable for a police officer to use force to break up that same picket line. The president can decry a US school shooting massacre on one day, and order a drone strike on a village in Yemen the next.

CIA and military leaders defend lying and deception as indispensable means to confuse and disorient other governments, while children are told that lying and cheating is immoral. The 1936 Flint sit-down strikers could not have won a victory over the auto bosses if they had not employed deception, creating a diversion that led law enforcement officials and company goons to the wrong plant, while workers occupied another plant.

The real question for socialists is this: What justifies the ends? In the US Civil War, for example, both sides engaged in similar acts of violence. But one side was fighting to defend slavery and the other to end it. In Russia, the soldiers who turned on their officers and joined the working-class struggle to overthrow tsarism were justified, whereas the officers who defended the tsar by shooting at workers were not. As Trotsky wrote: "Armies in combat are always more or less symmetrical; were there nothing in common in their methods, they could not inflict blows upon each other."[26]

If all lying and violence are considered out of bounds, then of course humanity must renounce revolution and accept things as they are. In practice, not even struggles committed to nonviolence can refrain from it in the face of the violence committed against them. During the civil rights movement, for example, nearly all the Black Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) activists in the Deep South, facing the daily threat of deadly white violence, were armed.[27] The Deacons of Defense, an armed self-defense group, protected many nonviolent protests from the Klan and racist police.[28]

Nevertheless, we cannot for a minute forget that not only the aims but also the methods that ordinary people use in fighting for their freedom are fundamentally different from the methods of the ruling class. Workers' power depends on collective rather than individual action, democratic debate and action rather than mutual deceit. While it may be tactically necessary to lie to the bosses during a strike, mass movements must not lie to themselves.

Ends and means are dialectically interrelated. The violence of a revolution, though necessary to break the will of the dominant classes, does not prefigure the future society that it aims to establish--that is, one that is free of all coercion. Nevertheless, as the failure of the Russian Revolution shows, the means must be subordinated to the ends. If a workers' state, in its desperate isolation, requires too much coercion to maintain its rule, then the means can overwhelm and smother the ends.

"A means can only be justified by its end," concluded Trotsky. "But the end in turn needs to be justified."[29] For Marxists,

The end is justified if it leads to increasing the power of humanity over nature and to the abolition of the power of one person over another. Permissible and obligatory are those and only those means, we answer, which unite the revolutionary proletariat, fill their hearts with irreconcilable hostility to oppression...imbue them with consciousness of their own historic mission, raise their courage and spirit of self-sacrifice in the struggle. Precisely from this, it flows that not all means are permissible. When we say that the end justifies the means, then for us, the conclusion follows that the great revolutionary end spurns those base means and ways which set one part of the working class against other parts; or attempt to make the masses happy without their participation; or lower the faith of the masses in themselves and their organization, replacing it by worship for the "leaders."[30]

Marxism is "authoritarian"

This is a common criticism leveled at us by anarchists. On one level, anarchists and Marxists want the same thing--in the words of Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta, a society "without bosses and without gendarmes."[31] Both anarchists and socialists agree that some types of authority--the authority of the rich minority of exploiters over the exploited majority, the authority of the capitalist state--should be abolished. Both oppose the authority of the cop who brutalizes people of color and the poor, the judge who serves the wealthy, and the manager who tries to squeeze more work out of us.

It has been sufficiently elucidated in previous chapters that Marx and Engels did not equate socialism with state ownership. Nevertheless, it is true that they had different attitudes toward the question of authority and the need for a workers' state than did anarchists. Whereas anarchists oppose "authority" in general--indeed, seeing it as the chief evil, Marxists are only opposed to certain kinds of authority.

Frederick Engels went to the heart of the question when he wrote about the followers of one of the early founders of anarchism, Mikhail Bakunin, "As soon as something displeases the Bakuninists," wrote Engels, "they say: it's authoritarian, and thereby imagine that they have damned it forever." But some kind of authority, no matter what type of society we are discussing, is indispensable. As Engels argued, "No joint action of any sort is possible without imposing on some an extraneous will, i.e., an authority. Whether it is the will of a majority of voters, of a leading committee or of one man, it is still a will imposed on the dissentients; but without that single and directing will, no cooperation is possible."[32] Engels asked if Bakunin would get on a train if the switchmen and conductors could come and go as they pleased and weren't willing to abide by strict scheduling, safety, and operational rules.

The question of how to transform society comes down to one of power--the power of the majority of ordinary workers versus the power of big corporations and the institutions they rely on to rule. We therefore can't agree with the argument made by anarchists that power (and what is power if not authority?) corrupts those who use it. The problem is that, in our society, the majority of people are deprived of power--the power to make decisions that affect their lives, the power to determine their own destinies. They should have more power, not less.

Anarchists who sincerely believe in the creative potential of ordinary people to build a new society--a potential that can't be realized unless they use their collective power--can't reconcile this view with the idea that all forms of power corrupt.

In an unequal, class-divided society, authority can't simply be "abolished." If striking workers renounced the authority of the majority over the minority, then they would have to renounce the strike as a weapon. For what is a strike if not the imposition of the authority of the majority who vote to strike over the minority who vote not to strike? And if the workers are to win, they must organize picket lines that are large and militant in order to discourage scabs from exercising their "right" work during the strike.

We could find any number of statements by renowned anarchists, from Proudhon to Emma Goldman to Malatesta, to the effect that it is a principle of anarchism to oppose the imposition of the will of the majority over the minority. Logically, anarchists must also oppose democracy, which by definition is majority rule. In one essay, Goldman is positively disdainful of the masses, arguing, "Always, at every period, the few were the banner bearers of a great idea, of liberating effort. Not so the mass, the leaden weight of which does not let it move," an argument in flat contradictions to anarchism's claim to be against elitism.[33]

Revolutionary "authority"--the imposition of the will of the majority over the minority--is necessary as long as the forces of the old order continue to resist the new. Engels's arguments remain the strongest refutation of the anarchists' blanket condemnation of authority. First, Engels dispels the myth that he and Marx were "state" socialists:

Why do the anti-authoritarians not confine themselves to crying out against political authority, the state? All Socialists are agreed that the political state, and with it political authority, will disappear as a result of the coming social revolution, that is, that public functions will lose their political character and will be transformed into the simple administrative functions of watching over the true interests of society.

Then he points out that to renounce authority before the social revolution means renouncing the social revolution:

But the anti-authoritarians demand that the political state be abolished at one stroke, even before the social conditions that gave birth to it have been destroyed. They demand that the first act of the social revolution shall be the abolition of authority. Have these gentlemen ever seen a revolution? A revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing there is; it is the act whereby one part of the population imposes its will upon the other part by means of rifles, bayonets and cannon--authoritarian means, if such there be at all; and if the victorious party does not want to have fought in vain, it must maintain this rule by means of the terror which its arms inspire in the reactionaries.[34]

For anarchists, force, authority, and the hierarchical state are the causes of class inequality. Abolition of authority is their watchword. For Marxists, the state is a byproduct of class antagonism--and can only disappear when class antagonisms disappear. Anarchy--a society without the state--can only come when classes are abolished, not before. Marx and Engels expressed this most clearly: "What all socialists understand by anarchy is this: once the aim of the proletarian movement, the abolition of classes, has been attained, the power of the state, which serves to keep the great majority of producers under the yoke of a numerically small exploiting minority, disappears, and the functions of government are transformed into simple administrative functions."[35]


24. Madeleine Albright, interview by Leslie Stahl, 60 Minutes, CBS, May 12, 1996.
25. Leon Trotsky, Their Morals and Ours (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1992), 20–21.
26. Ibid., 14.
27. Clayborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981), 164.
28. Charles R. Sims, Deacons of Defense leader from Bogalusa, Louisiana, in Howell Raines, My Soul Is Rested: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement in the Deep South (London: Penguin Books, 1987), 416–23.
29. Trotsky, Their Morals and Ours, 48.
30. Ibid., 49.
31. Errico Malatesta, "Anarchist Propaganda," Anarchist Library.
32. Engels to P. Lafargue, December 30, 1871, in Anarchism and Anarcho-Syndicalism (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1972), 58.
33. Emma Goldman, "Minorities versus Majorities," in Anarchism and Other Essays (Old Chelsea Station, NY: Cosimo, Inc., 2005), 81.
34. Engels, "On Authority," in Anarchism and Anarcho-Syndicalism, 103.
35. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, "Fictitious Splits in the International," Anarchism and Anarcho-Syndicalism, 74.
36. "Class Matters" series, New York Times, April–May 2005.
37. Frederick Engels, "Appendix to the American edition of The Condition of the Working Class in England," in MECW, vol. 26, 403.

Further Reading

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