Anarchism is based on Marx’s concept of the abolition of the state (Marx and Lenin 1988) and on Lenin’s call during the October Revolution for “all power to the Soviets” (see “The Russian Revolution (October)” 1/23/2014 in the category Russian Revolution). The central idea of anarchy is that during revolutionary processes, workers develop popular councils (soviets), in which all issues of concern are debated, and decisions are made in accordance with the will of the majority. Moreover, as the popular councils develop, they increasingly are able to assume the technical and administrative functions of the companies. A parallel process of developing popular councils occurs in neighborhoods, where neighbors attend to issues of concern, including housing conditions, education, health, physical safety, and health. When revolutions triumph, power is transferred from the state and the companies to the popular councils, thus effecting the abolition of the state and the company bureaucracy. State and company hierarchies are eliminated, as workers and neighbors themselves make decisions collectively and fulfill technical and administrative duties. In accordance with this idea, anarchists tend to be critical of socialist governments, stating that they have not eliminated the hierarchies of capitalism, but have reproduced them in a different form. In general, anarchists consider that socialist governments have replaced rule by the capitalist class with rule by the state bureaucracy.
The problem with anarchism is that revolutionary processes, in reality, do not unfold according to the anarchist plan. When revolutions triumph, they generally have taken partial political power, so that they control some institutions and structures of the state and the civil society, but not others. This was true even of the Cuban Revolution, which triumphed with the overwhelming support of the people, and with the traditional political and state institutions totally discredited. Nonetheless, it had to proceed on the basis of partial control of state structures and the institutions of civil society. It declared the Cuban Constitution of 1940, a progressive constitution ignored by the Batista dictatorship, as the basis of its authority; and it further declared that the revolutionary government was abrogating the executive and legislative functions, because of the emergency created by the collapse of the Batista government. However, with these declarations, the revolutionary government was assuming directorship of and responsibility for major structures of the previously existing state, such as education and health. Moreover, there were major institutions that were beyond the scope of the directorship of the state. Important areas of the economy, in both industry and agriculture, were in private hands, mostly foreign corporations. The mass media also was privately owned. In addition, the Cuban revolutionary project had many powerful enemies in the world, who were mobilizing to undermine and overthrow it. In this situation, there was only one possible road. The revolutionary government had to use its partial control of the state to take decisive steps, with the support of the people, to accomplish a revolutionary transformation of the economy and society, in defense of the needs of the people and the sovereignty of the nation. That is to say, it had no option but to forge a national project of state-directed economic and social development.
Prior to the triumph of the Cuban revolution, popular councils had experienced limited development in Cuba. There were workers’ organization, which to a limited extent indeed did function, in part, as workers’ councils. And there were organizations formed by students and women. But the structures of popular council were not sufficiently developed to enable a transfer of power from the state to the popular councils, as envisioned by anarchist theory. What occurred instead was that the state encouraged and supported the creation of popular councils, among workers (in all fields, including professionals), peasants, students, women, and neighborhoods; and it forged effective links of the popular councils to the state with respect to elections and governance. But these popular councils never have been conceived in Cuba as a substitute for the state. The popular councils were being forged by a revolutionary state, as a dimension of its efforts to create structures of popular democracy and to accomplish a revolutionary transformation of the political-economic system and the society.
Utopianism is the advocacy of a particular kind of society that cannot be constructed from the existing political, economic, social or ideological base. It is idealistic, in that it advocates measures that are unworkable in the current political-economic-cultural context. North American intellectuals of the Left, for example, are indulging in utopian idealism when they advocate the further development of cooperatives in Cuba; the reduction of state ownership, which they view as hierarchical; and the reduction of a small-scale private property, which they view as individualistic. They have an ideal notion of what socialism is and ought to be, and cooperatives are, for them, its essence. But they do not take into account that any nation seeking to construct socialism must do so from a base of existing economic, political, and ideological conditions. They have observed that Cuba recently has expanded cooperatives, developing them in non-agricultural production and commerce, and they interpret this as signaling a Cuban commitment to reduce authoritarian top-down state enterprises. But they misinterpret Cuban dynamics. The Cuban government and the Cuban Communist Party are oriented above all to improve production, in order to satisfy better the material needs of the people. With this goal in mind, they indeed are expanding cooperatives, but they also are expanding self-employment and small-scale private property as well as the possibilities for foreign investment.
When these idealists come to Cuba in order to preach their gospel, they imagine themselves to be helping Cuba find the correct road to socialism. What they do not see is that the percentage of each of the various forms of property in Cuba is a matter of debate and reflection among Cubans themselves. To be sure, it would not be inappropriate for a visitor to Cuba to express some opinion on the question, formulated from afar. But above all, Leftist intellectuals from the North should come to Cuba to learn, for Cuba is a nation in which a popular revolution took power nearly sixty years ago, and since its triumph, it has developed structures to ensure that the decision-making process is in the hands of delegates elected by the people. We in the North should be asking how they did it. Focusing on this question, perhaps we might learn things of relevance for the popular movements in our own nations, where the popular movements often are divided and weak.
Identity politics. It is of course the case that all persons, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or gender orientation, possess full citizenship rights. Perhaps the forces of the Left in the United States ought to join forces for a constitutional amendment to this effect, completing the historic tasks and unfinished work of the movements with respect to the constitutional rights of blacks and women. However, calling for the constitutional rights of all persons cannot substituted for a comprehensive and scientifically informed construction of an American narrative that places the struggles of the people for democratic rights in a historic and global context. One must be careful with identity politics, because it can alienate people who do not pertain to the particular identity, or do not see their identities as central to their political proposals. Our task is to unite our people through the forging of a popular coalition on the basis of a platform defining our common interests and a manifesto proclaiming the meaning and the destiny of the nation to which we all belong. We must call all of our people to revolution, that is, to the taking of political power, so that from a position of partial state power, the delegates of the people can struggle, with popular support, for the transformation of political, economic, and social institutions, in defense of the needs and interests of the people, and in defense of the dignity of the nation. It is good to defend the rights of all persons historically excluded. But we must avoid getting lost there. When we are stuck at the level of identity politics, we weaken our capacity to move beyond to a larger and greater national agenda.
Liberalism. The great error of liberalism is to take as given the assumptions of bourgeois democracy and representative democracy. It assumes that elections among competing parties are ideal, even though the system of multiple party elections in the nations of the North has been corrupted by campaign contributions of the wealthy, placing political leaders in the debt of contributors; and even though the system of multiple party elections has been falling in legitimacy in the eyes of the people. And it assumes that the press and civil society have roles in tension or in conflict with the government; it is not able to imagine the cooperation of the state, the press, and the institutions of civil society in a national project of economic and social development. Liberals could learn from the example of Cuba, where non-governmental organizations are not anti-governmental, and where structures of popular power and mass organizations have replaced the bourgeois structures of representative democracy, creating a situation of national consensus and political stability. When liberals weigh in on Cuba in the public discourse of the nations of the North, they disseminate confusion and misinformation about an important socialist revolutionary project, undermining the educational work of revolutionaries in the North.
The history of triumphant revolutions in the Third World demonstrates that the key to triumph is the unity of the people, which is forged by a charismatic leader and a revolutionary vanguard on a foundation of scientific knowledge, common-sense wisdom, and political intelligence. In order to establish the foundation for a possible triumph of a popular revolution in the United States, we must critically engage the four anti-revolutionary currents of thought, explaining their defects to the people and establishing a foundation for a politically intelligent social movement that is able to take partial political power.
For more on the Cuban revolutionary project and the possibilities for popular revolution in the North, see The Evolution and Significance of the Cuban Revolution: The Light in the Darkness (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).
Marx, Karl and V.I. Lenin. 1988. Civil War in France: The Paris Commune. New York: International Publishers.