Two Approaches to Social Revolution


By: Charna Fon



It is the author’s intent to provide here an accurate but succinct account of two ideological and methodological variations on revolutionism: Marxism-Leninism and Anarcho-Syndicalism. The author will attempt provide an account of the bourgeois state which takes into consideration the Anarchist position while also employing some objective aspects of Lenin’s analysis. The question of the state is answered differently between the Anarchist and the Marxist-Leninist tendencies but our mutual interest in combating capitalism puts us mutually at odds with the capitalist state. Therefore the author will dispel with caricatures of both Anarchism and Leninism in order to offer each one their own words respectively.

The Marxist-Leninist and Anarchist perspectives both provide revolutionaries with valuable tools for theoretical development as well as praxis toward the liberation of the oppressed. Additionally they have each produced heroic freedom struggles throughout history. The disagreements between the Marxist-Leninists and the Anarchists are primarily to do with the establishment of a workers’ state and the building of a revolutionary party. We part ways in certain aspects but in the most fundamental aspect–our mutual interest in overthrowing capitalism–we occupy the same field of battle.


On the State

The state is the executive, legislative, and juridical apparatus of capitalism. It maintains and enforces conditions which make class based society possible. Without class divisions the state would be obsolete and the oppression of one class by another (workers by capitalists in our epoch) would not be possible. The essential composition of the state is “special bodies of armed men” consisting of police, prisons, courts, national guard etc. The purpose of these special armed bodies is to impose the will of the ruling class onto the rest of society. Throughout history the state has always been the state of the ruling class of society. In a capitalist society where the ruling class consists of capitalists, it is the state of capital.


“Thus capitalism has created a form for the state and a system of law corresponding to its needs and harmonising with its own structure.” (Lukacs. History and Class Consciousness)


The two primary components of state machinery are a professional hierarchy of  bureaucrats and a standing army. These two components of the state ultimately serve the same purpose–the oppression of the working-class for our exploitation by the capitalist class–but they have different roles in carrying this out. The naked brutality of state violence is often a last resort when other methods of control are ineffective. 


“…the state is an organ of class rule, an organ for the oppression of one class by another; it is the creation of  “order”, which legalizes and perpetuates this oppression by moderating the conflict between classes.” (Lenin. The State and Revolution, The State: A Product of the Irreconcilability of Class Antagonisms)


The role of the state as “moderator” does not put the state in a neutral role–it is still the state of the capitalist class. From time to time the state moderates some of the most glaringly disastrous contradictions of capitalism in order to keep a standard of well-being among workers that enables us to continue working and consuming. Today this comes in the form of the National Labor Relations Board, food stamps, unemployment benefits etc. These are programs designed to secure a surplus labor force and mitigate the impetus for workers to struggle by putting our affairs into the hands of bureaucrats. While the NLRB, for example, may have to some extent legitimized workers right to organize, it has done so with the consequence of pouring water on the fire of militant workplace struggle.

The state disciplines the working-class through repression but also through petty. The authors of Dixie Be Damned discuss the role of the state as ‘moderator’ in this way following Southern riots in which working-class Blacks rebelled against racist policing and squalid housing conditions:


“No longer the strictly negative force of prohibition and repression, the state adapted to use social democracy and infrastructure development to physically and psychologically maneuver, manage and police oppressed populations”. (Stafford, Shirley. Dixie Be Damned)


The essential power of the state however rests in its monopoly on violence. The ability of the state to deploy devastating and targeted means of violent force is the domain of its standing army and police. At its heart and in its origin, the state is made up of these “special bodies of armed men” for the oppression of one class by another.


“Engels elucidates the concept of the ‘power’ which is called the state, a power which arose from society but places itself above it and alienates itself more and more from it. What does this power mainly consist of? It consists of special bodies of armed men having prisons, etc., at their command.” (Lenin. The State and Revolution. Special Bodies of Armed Men, Prisons, etc.

When we confront capitalism we are confronted by the capitalist state–an institution capable of and utilized for the most incredible acts of violence in known history. This institution is a powerful obstacle on the path to our collective liberation from capitalism. Our revolution must be able to stand up to and defeat the sheer force of state violence as well as undermine the state’s hegemony in our daily lives.


“…it is clear that the liberation of the oppressed class is impossible not only without a violent revolution, but also without the destruction of the apparatus of state power…” (Lenin. The State and Revolution. The State: A Product of the Irreconcilability of Class Antagonisms)


The Leninist Approach

For Lenin, the acquisition of state power by the working-class is the first and foremost objective of revolution. He articulates that the bourgeois state machinery must be smashed and in its place the victorious proletariat must set up a workers state. A workers’ state is not intended to be set above and outside the rest of society–this differentiates it from the bourgeois (capitalist) state. In The State and Revolution Lenin explains the workers’ state as an organization of armed workers functioning as little more than a workers self-defense organization (1). It is to be composed entirely of armed individuals from the masses. Administrators of the workers’ state are also entirely from the masses of the proletariat. They would receive “workman’s wages” and be immediately re-callable by the masses to prevent the rise of a special class of state bureaucrats.


“Naturally, the exploiters are unable to suppress the people without a highly complex machine for performing this task, but the people can suppress the exploiters even with a very simple “machine”, almost without a “machine”, without a special apparatus, by the simple organization of the armed people…” (Lenin. The State and Revolution. The Transition from Capitalism to Communism)


As the state is a special body of armed persons for the repression of one class by another, a workers state would be an instrument by which the oppressed masses of the proletariat in turn repress the ruling class following workers’ seizure of the means of production.


“We must suppress them in order to free humanity from wage slavery, their resistance must be crushed by force…the dictatorship of the proletariat imposes a series of restrictions on the freedom of the oppressors, the exploiters, the capitalists.” (Lenin. The State and Revolution. The Transition from Capitalism to Communism)


The dictatorship of the proletariat in the form of the workers’ state would oversee a gradual process of moving toward a fully communist society–a society without classes. In this initial period directly following a workers revolution, full communism has not yet been achieved–bourgeois social order is maintained in part and class antagonism still persists.


“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.” (Lenin. The State and Revolution. The First Phase of Communist Society)


In the Marxist-Leninist tendency the establishment of a workers’ state and its ownership over the productive forces of society is the outcome of overthrowing capitalism. According to Lenin, the development of full communism, and therefore a society without the state, would require several generations living under socialism. Overtime the masses would unlearn the antisocial excesses of life in a capitalist society. This continual progression would result in the withering away of the state.


“With the removal of this chief cause [Bourgeois rule], excesses will inevitably begin to “wither away”. We do not know how quickly and in what succession, but we do know they will wither away. With their withering away the state will also wither away.” (Lenin. The State and Revolution. The Transition from Capitalism to Communism)


The Syndicalist Approach

Anarcho-Syndicalist revolution consists of a mass general strike (or multiple general strikes) carried out in order to stop the flow of the capitalist economy, as well as a swift insurrection to crush the pillars of bourgeois political power. For the Anarcho-Syndicalists the proletarian masses are to take the means of production by gaining immense social and economic hegemony in society through organizing revolutionary labor unions of a militant character. These labor unions would thus serve a similar political function of a revolutionary party–a mass organization–but with the economic stopping power of a union poised to strike. Economic production is at the mercy of organized labor which makes labor unions the ideal actors in seizing production for the working-class. The means of production could be taken in one stroke by a revolutionary labor union provided that it encompassed the sort of hegemony of the working-class necessary for such an undertaking.

The revolutionary masses would be immediately confronted by the might of the state in its attempts to break workers control over the productive forces of society. Therefore the proletariat must defeat, disarm and otherwise neutralize the police. The seizing of the means of production and the smashing of the police would mark an end to exploitation by the capitalist class and their ability to enforce their will upon the masses.

Anarcho-Syndicalism seeks to establish with its revolution not a workers’ state but autonomous workers councils organized on a federated basis (2). Once a revolution has succeeded and the bourgeois state is overthrown, the imperative for armed struggle no longer endures and as such neither does the imperative for proletarians to be armed–as we will then no longer be proletarians as counterposed to capitalists, but free people (abolishing classes means abolishing the ruling class and the oppressed class, the working-class and the capitalist class (3)). The role of a revolution of the working and oppressed masses, in the Anarchist view, is to socially and militarily wipe away all remnants of capitalist rule, including the institutions thereof ie: the state. The power and influence of the capitalist class would be abolished not by a workers’ state set up by revolutionaries but by the very making and winning of a revolution itself.

Anarchism asserts that since the state is an inextricable component of the capitalist machine, then the smashing of capitalism must include the simultaneous smashing of the state. Without fully abolishing the state in every form we would be leaving the model of class society in tact however much it is altered by a revolution. If our aim is a classless society then it must be a stateless society. This follows from the Anarchist interpretation of Engel’s words:


“The state was the official representative of society…so far as it was the state of that class which itself in each epoch represented society as a whole…[ie: the ruling class]” (Engels. The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State



Nevertheless, the fruits of a unified Marxist-Leninist and Anarchist tendency in strengthening the fighting power of the oppressed must not be relegated to matters of differing interpretation. Revolutionaries must work together to channel the activity of disparate factions toward conscientious, cohesive action rather than further competition and frivolous splintering. How this type of unity manifests remains for us to contemplate and attempt. These disparate forms developing relationships with one another could be the beginning of a new more powerful form much in the spirit of the First International; a coalition, a mass assembly, a workers congress or any manner of the like with the explicit goal of making a social revolution. In our present material conditions under capitalism, the Anarchists have a tremendous amount in common with the Leninists regarding our resistance to the state. Unity between the red and the black is not a sentimental longing for a revolutionary past, it is an imperative for having any hope of a revolutionary future.

(1) After the Bolsheviks had taken state power in Russia, some spheres of old Bourgeois power still remained and were perpetuated militarily by the ruling classes of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Britain and other capitalist countries. This still remaining Bourgeois military threat is largely what, for Lenin, necessitated special bodies of armed workers organized on the basis of a workers state. This new state was ostensibly engaged in defense against counterrevolution from the remaining Bourgeois elements of society.

(2) The dictatorship of the proletariat described by Lenin is an example of “centralism” in which power is ultimately vested in the central body of the workers’ state. Federalism of the Anarchist type puts power ultimately in the hands of autonomous but cooperative workers/farmers/neighborhood councils.

(3) “The proletariat only perfects itself by annihilating itself, by creating the classless society through the successful conclusion of its own class struggle.” (Lukacs. History and Class Consciousness)


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