arch/ive/ief (2000 - 2005)

a critique of revolutinary communism
by Nick Cooper Thursday, Sep. 23, 2004 at 6:00 PM

withering away the state

critique of revolutionary communism
© 2004 Nick Cooper

Many activists, progressives and even Republicans may be attracted to Engels' "withering away of the State." But, this goal (which also could be defined positively, as the empowerment of collectives, communities and individuals) hasn't been achieved, or even begun, in any communist state. Revolutionary Communists often attribute the indefinite delays of the planned withering to a need to respond coherently and forcefully to internal and external military pressures. But, there may be conflicts which are more fundamental in revolutionary communist thought itself. We should look beyond rhetoric, to observable patterns, structures, and methods, questioning communism's compatibility with reducing State power.

Communist thought relies on the template of Hegel's dialectic, in which progress is associated with moving first to the opposite. Those confronting oppression may prefer the direct to the dialectic, in order to avoid confusing themselves and to escape propaganda's abilities to co-opt creative ideas. Communists who might suggest that a period of oppression will bring us freedom, or that violence will bring us peace ultimately echo our warmonger leaders, and the techniques of the propaganda industry. In order to avoid this, clear words are needed in place of complex and abstract concepts.

It is difficult to have a full understanding of descriptions like "Republican," "right wing," "conservative," or systems like "imperialism" and "capitalism." These terms are abstract, and we can think more clearly and criticize more directly if we can first think about the opposite -- a state which has not been withered, but strengthened. Totalitarianism and fascism are also complex forms, so we can examine some of their elements -- in particular, nationalism (including racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, etc.), authoritarianism (along with the structure of hierarchies), and brutality. Communists are usually internationalists opposed to nationalism, but brutality and authoritarianism have consistently been found in communist movements, and are incompatible with withering away the state.

The very ideas of having a "vanguard" and a "chairman" are indicative of hierarchy. Initially, communists wish to see hierarchies not diminished, but switched to the workers in "the dictatorship of the proletariat." The idea of switching the dictatorship to the proletariat is seen as necessary to fight off the counter-revolution effectively, and as a transitory phase towards true communism. But it is in the nature of a system under such pressures to lack checks and balances. What force is there to avoid classifying any people voicing objections to the tendencies of the revolution as counter-revolutionaries? The desire to keep the revolution moving results in the silencing of dissent, criticism, debate, and ultimately, the undermining of the attempt to reduce oppression. The arrested, tortured and executed will soon include those who wanted nothing more than to keep the revolution honest.

Although perhaps less brutal than current States, the violence advocated by revolutionaries has tremendous potential to become personal, arbitrary and brutal. There are essential questions about whether a class uprising could win, and furthermore whether any violent revolution can usher in an era of peace. In a violent class war, the only escape from a brutal escalation is the possibility of one side backing down and surrendering. Which major world powers seem likely to be the one to back down to any internal military challenge? What State would see devastation of the country or the population too high a price to pay for putting down an armed revolution?

The use of violence could very well create situations worse than the current one. The "vanguard" would not be able to steer any widespread uprising, as many people might be as distrustful of the "vanguard" as any other group. Perhaps to some revolutionaries, violence seems like a shortcut, as if other radical methodologies such as non-compliance would require too much time. But, shortcuts have disadvantages, and can backfire. Even when successful, armed people's revolutions often replace brutal royalty with brutal individuals, without reducing oppression. The belief that proletarian leaders, once given power, will serve the proletariat has been disproven many times. It is possible to put in place systems of community empowerment which could counteract the corrupting tendencies of power. But, that is the essential struggle, because despite their commitment against oppression, those who are good at leading uprisings are not exempt from such tendencies.

Communists see politics as a function of class. They assume that those currently in power are serving their own interests and fail to acknowledge that the rights, interests and dreams of the bourgeoisie and aristocracy are not fulfilled. It is true that they have huge unfair advantages, privilege, comfort and power, and are better served by the state than anyone else. However, they are not exempt from the destruction of this planet which they might like to leave to their children. They are exposed to the same risks of terrorist backlash, some of the same diseases from our corrupted practices of health and food safety, and the same contamination of our resources as the rest of us. They are not exempt from breathing the air.

Policy decisions may be influenced by factors far more specific than class interests. If a policy is influenced by leaders wanting to get re-elected, or corporate CEOs needing to turn a quick profit, we must acknowledge that there are motivations in place which do not benefit the entire class. They are systemic but not monolitihic, powerful, but not necessarily consistent. Like black nationalists who often focus exclusively on racial oppression, communists often focus on class to the exclusion of many other dimensions of oppression. And both of these groups, and in fact, most activists, fail to address the irrational and psychological aspects of repression.

The fact that so many policies which the ruling class has influenced and implemented are detrimental to their own interests is a proof that they are contending with neurotic, authoritarian mindsets, and are trapped in destructive cycles. Though perhaps these are not the same mindsets and cycles as the proletariat, they have similar causes and create similar, though more comfortable, suffering. We can blame the middle and upper classes for the exploitations which make others suffer, but at the same time we can pity them for being miserable.

Although people may be familiar with questioning their own irrational motivations, and those of their friends, they often lose this insight when it comes to analyzing the actions of those in power. This inability itself is a manifestation of oppressive forces on our thinking. Moreso than any person or group, secret agencies are subject to act irrationally - they don't communicate openly even among themselves. It becomes much easier to understand things when we stop assuming that the CIA or the President is making decisions based on conscious motivations which could be articulated. Communist theories often have underlying assumptions of rationalism which make a complete questioning of true motives impossible. Those who assume that the forces in power are both rational and effectively self-serving, are missing significant aspects of how things work.

Trying to inspire people to throw off their economic oppression without challenging the oppressive constructs they have internalized is backwards. In the cases in which these people might succeed in economic / class liberation, they will only set up a new hierarchy that mirrors their own economic, family and cultural history. They will be ill-equipped to effect the withering away of the state.

Capitalism may be a "cancer," but the source is much deeper. Feudalism was also ill, as were monarchies. There are diseases more fundamental than the symptoms of one particular form of government. Oppression has been a force of human history since the agricultural revolution, and the opposition to oppression must be broader than the challenging of certain classes, certain structures, or even of capitalism.

People of our society who have not struggled with individual freedom can only recreate the authoritarian structure which has been drilled into them since infancy with whichever new powers they create - be they unions, warlords, senators, or czars. Only by challenging authoritarianism and oppression at every level can people learn to stop oppressing. Chairmen, members of proletariat, or the "vanguard" are no better equipped to effect withering away of the state than the Republican Party. But people who insist on organizing without the help, comfort or mythology of the State, can and do take care of themselves.

by Ilyan Tuesday, Sep. 28, 2004 at 4:57 PM

I came to this following a trail laid by IMC people who do not seem to know the difference between a Trotskyist and a Maoist.

My critique of the article is that it is written by one who wishes to prevent the unity essential to wreck the globalisation plans of the Fascists. There is a stupid attack on a major force essential to that end.

Once I found that, I stopped reading.

Go surf in Hawaii :
there are some useful URLs there.

Has there been a useful critique written since Pelagius wrote his "Critique of the Letter to the Romans" about 400AD?