Nestor Makhno. January 1932

The Paths of “Proletarian” Power

Source: Nestor Makhno, The struggle against the state and other essays, Alexandre Skirda (ed.). Translated by Paul Sharkey, 1996 by AK Press, Edinburgh & San Francisco;
First published: Probuzdeniye, No.18, January 1932, pp.45-48;
Transcribed: by

It is a long time now since the avant-garde socialist intelligentsia framed, in more or less rounded form, the aims of the historical struggle of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie and since proletarians, swallowing that formulation by the intelligentsia whole, entered the lists of that struggle under the intelligentsia’s leadership. There is no denying that this was a triumph for the intelligentsia which has thus set itself the target of leading the proletariat on to complete emancipation, by means of the destruction of bourgeois power and the bourgeois State, which are to be supplanted by a “proletarian” State and power.

Very naturally, neither the intelligentsia nor the proletariat itself has been stinting in its efforts and investigations designed to expose to the widest possible audience all the harm done by the bourgeois State. Thanks to which, they have been able to nurse and develop among the toiling masses the notion of a “proletarian” power that would supposedly resolve all their problems. According to this view, the proletariat, through its class power and State, would make use of the only existing means whereby it and other classes might free themselves of the bourgeoisie and introduce the principles of freedom and egalitarianism into the relations between people. Such a forecast of the destiny of “proletarian” power has always struck us anarchists as a crass error. In times gone by, our comrades constantly revolted against this notion and also demonstrated where the statists had gone wrong in differentiating between “proletarian” power and the State in general and in ascribing to the former a mission that was profoundly alien to it.

Statist socialists, however, remained true to their authoritarian tradition and it was armed with that outlook that they seized upon the Great Russian Revolution, a revolution of a depth and breadth in social implications for which History had seen no equal. As for us anarchists, we opposed their mistaken forecast about the destiny of “proletarian” power. In the course of the polemic between us, we showed the statists that any State, whether bourgeois or proletarian, tends, by its very nature, simply to exploit and oppress man, to destroy in each and every one of us all the natural qualities of the human spirit that strive for equality and for the solidarity that underpins it. Which earned us only greater hatred from the statist socialists. Now, the existence and practice of “proletarian” power in Russia have borne out and bear out the accuracy of our analysis. The “proletarian” State has increasingly betrayed its true nature and proved that its proletarian-ness was a mere figment, as proletarians have been able to appreciate since the early years of the revolution, the more so since they themselves helped install it. The fact that in the course of its degeneration the “proletarian” power has showed itself to be nothing more than a State power pure and simple is now beyond dispute and has induced it to desist from artful concealment of its real face. Its practice had abundantly proved that its goals and those of the Great Russian Revolution had absolutely nothing in common. Over all those years of hypocrisy, it has failed to subordinate the aims of the Russian Revolution to its own ends peaceably, and has had to confront all who threatened to expose its true essence - as a huge and festering ulcer upon the body of the revolution - the cowardice and treachery of which spell death and ruination to all without exception, and primarily to those who try to be independent and operate freely. One might ask oneself: how did all of this come to pass? According to Marx and Lenin, “proletarian” power ought not to bear any resemblance at all to bourgeois power. Does not some segment of the vanguard of the proletariat bear a share of the blame for this state of affairs?

Many anarchists tend to reckon that the proletariat counts for nothing in this, having been, so to speak, duped by the caste of socialist intellectuals, who supposedly aspire, over a series of purely socio-historical phenomena and by reason of the logic of inevitable amendments to the State, to replace the power of the bourgeoisie with their own power. It is supposedly on these grounds that the socialist intelligentsia would seek, on a permanent basis, to direct the struggle of the proletariat against the capitalist, bourgeois world.

As I see it, such an argument is neither quite accurate nor is it really adequate. Russia’s revolutionary experience supplies us with objective data galore in this connection. It shows us beyond rebuttal that the proletariat was not at all homogeneous during the revolution. Thus, the urban proletariat, whenever it participated in the overthrow of the power of the class enemy - the bourgeoisie - in many towns, hesitated for a moment between the paths of the revolutions of February and October 1917. It was only after a time, after October’s military victory over February, that a significant fraction of the urban proletariat began to throw in its lot with the part of its brothers, the direct architects of the gains of October. Soon, that segment of the proletariat not only forgot to defend those gains for itself, but also was in more of a hurry to go over to the Bolshevik party on power, which was cute enough to flatter it immoderately, cultivating in it a certain taste for class privileges, political, economic and juridical. Drinking deeply of these class privileges, this segment of the proletariat fell equally in love with its “proletarian class State.” Self-evidently, the Bolshevik social democratic party wholly supported and encouraged it in this trend, for it offered the party great scope for implementation of its own program, which consisted of utilizing the practical struggle of the proletariat so as to bring the bulk of the proletariat to heel and then take over State power in its name. Along the way, the better to stand out from the crowd, the Bolshevik social democratic party turned itself into the “Bolshevik Communist” party, unashamedly resorting to the most brazen demagogy and shrinking from no ploy, not hesitating, as the need arose, to cannibalize the programs of other political groupings: all for the sole purpose of binding the proletariat (to which it pledged its unstinting help, when in fact it was pursuing its own ends alone) all the better to itself. In this sense, the party was the finest embodiment of the historical ambitions of the intellectual caste: supplanting the bourgeoisie in power and exercising that power, no matter the cost. A sizable segment of the proletariat failed to stand up to its views: indeed, quite the opposite, it identified with what it did and became its accomplice.

That segment of the proletariat had, however, been educated over generations to the notion that the proletariat would only emancipate itself from the bourgeoisie when it managed to break its power and destroy its state organization in order to clear the way for the construction of its own. Nevertheless, this fraction of the proletariat helped the Bolshevik-Communist party to organize its “proletarian power” and erect “its” class State.

The path taken and the means employed did not take long to assimilate that fraction of the proletariat in every particular to the overthrown bourgeoisie, rendering it every whit as impudent and arrogant, with no scruples about using the most savage violence to enforce its domination over the people and the revolution.

It goes without saying that this violence was second nature to the party’s intellectual caste, for it had been schooling itself in its use for many a long year and had become intoxicated with it. As for the bulk of the proletariat - yesterday’s mute slave - the violence deployed against its fellows is wholly alien to it. Busy with the building of its “class State,” part of the proletariat was thus induced to behave, through the use of violence, in a repugnant fashion with regard to the individual liberty, freedom of speech and expression of any revolutionary organization, the moment that the latter impudently took issue with “proletarian power.” That fraction of the proletariat scurried to ensconce themselves, under the leadership of the Bolshevik-Communist party, in the positions left vacant by the despots of the toppled bourgeoisie, becoming in their turn a tyrannical master-class, showing no hesitation, in pursuit of these ends, about using the ghastliest violence indiscriminately against all who opposed its designs. At the same time, this behavior was artfully concealed behind the “defense of the revolution.”

Such violence was employed above all against the body of the Russian revolution, for the exclusive benefit of the narrow interests of one fraction of the proletariat and of the Bolshevik-Communist party, and on behalf of their complete domination of all the other laboring classes. This cannot be regarded simply as the proletariat blown temporarily off course. Yet again, we can see very clearly how all State power brazenly shows what it is made of, with the adjective “proletarian” changing absolutely nothing.

As I see it, it is for all these reasons that all foreign comrades who have not had this first-hand experience, should carefully scrutinize all the stages of the Russian revolution, particularly the role played in it by the Bolshevik-Communist party and by that fraction of the proletariat that has followed it. This so that they may steer clear of the same errors, in the light of the shameless demagogy of the Bolsheviks and their supporters, regarding the serviceability of “proletarian power.”

It is equally true that the campaign currently being waged by all our comrades against Bolshevik lies should be deployed in support of reliable information concerning anything they might themselves put to the broad masses in replacement of this “proletarian power.” Fine slogans are not enough, although the masses are often not indifferent to them. This struggle is waged on the basis of concrete situations and continually leads to the posing of crucial and urgent questions: how and by which methods of social action should the toiling masses seek their complete emancipation?

Such questions should be answered as directly as possible and with the utmost clarity. That is a vital necessity, not only if an active struggle is to be conducted against the capitalist and bourgeois world, but also for our anarchist movement, for the influence of our ideas upon the launch and the outcome of that struggle hinges upon it. Which means that the proletariat must not repeat the mistake made by its brethren in Russia, which is to say, must not busy itself with the organizing of a “proletarian power” under the baton of any party, even should it label itself “proletarian,” but only with seeing to the satisfaction of everyone’s needs and defending the revolution against all manner of State authorities.