Oakland Forum on ‘Lessons of the Red States Teacher Strikes’ — A Report & Discussion

by Jack Gerson

Last Saturday (June 9), I attended the “Lessons of the Red States Teacher Strikes” forum featuring teacher leaders of the mass education strikes in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Arizona. The forum was held in Oakland, California at a local public high school (Oakland Tech) and was organized by the Oakland teachers union and co-sponsored by the San Francisco, Berkeley and Richmond (California) teachers unions. Here are my impressions and observations about this event (this is a first draft; I hope to polish and elaborate this, but probably not immediately.)

  1. The speakers were inspiring, individually and collectively. The women— all four are women— were courageous, resolute, and brilliant organizers. Most readers will probably already know this from the widespread coverage of the red state strikes. If not, I think that this summary, brief as it is, will make this clear.
  2. The stated aim of the event was to learn how the red state organizers had carried out the most impressive labor actions in decades despite what had hitherto been considered insurmountable obstacles— weak state unions, anti-strike legislation, lack of collective bargaining, no dues checkoff— and to build on these to launch coordinated local and / or statewide actions in California. The organizers had anticipated filling Oakland Tech’s 800-seat auditorium, and hoped for a large turnout from younger teachers and community, based on the overwhelmingly positive response to the red state strikes. But only somewhere between 200 and 300 showed up, very few under 50 years old. The majority were veteran Bay Area leftists.
  3. In any event, the talks by the red state teacher leaders were inspirational as well as educational. They each talked about how they were able overcome anti-strike legislation and build mass strikes despite the weakness of state and local unions. In all three states— West Virginia, Kentucky, Arizona (and I believe that this was true in Oklahoma and North Carolina too)— the organizers worked outside of the formal union structures, using social media to reach out to, and build networks of, initially hundreds, then thousands, and now tens of thousands (For example: ongoing networks of 24,000 in West Virginia, and of 55,000 in Arizona.) Although the core of these organizations are schoolworkers and have developed networks of school leaders at the local and school levels, they don’t restrict their membership to teachers: The networks include both union members and non-members; public school teachers and charter school teachers; certificated staff (teachers) and classified staff (clericals, janitors, food service workers, etc.). They don’t restrict themselves to traditional union issues, or even to strictly educational issues— for example, the West Virginia teachers demanded and won a 5% across the board pay increase for all West Virginia public employees, not just teachers, while one of the key issues taken up by the Kentucky movement is how to address gang violence.

In these ways, these organizations are breaking out of the insularity, conservatism, and bureaucratic inertia of virtually the entire union leadership at national, state, and even local levels. It’s reminiscent of Occupy in Fall 2011; of the Spring 2011 Oakland bank campaign (where Oakland teachers and community allies campaigned to “Bail Out Schools Not Banks and End Foreclosures, culminating in occupation of Wells Fargo’s downtown Oakland branch, where seven teachers were arrested (I was one of those seven); of the June / July 2012 sit-in to protest school closures at Oakland’s Lakeview Elementary, organized by teachers, parents, and community. (For those who remember, it’s reminiscent of the “struggle group” concept in the old IS circa 1970, which was counterposed to the traditional rank and file union caucus approach.) Importantly: it’s not just posing the need for teacher unions to “reach out to the community”, but rather the need for alternative forms of organization that can work inside and outside the union, uniting union members with non-members and with the community around demands that cut across traditional parochial / insular lines. But apparently local teacher union leaders are not taking away this lesson (for example, Oakland teacher union president-elect Keith Brown, who chaired the June 9 forum, began his concluding remarks by observing that the key lesson to be learned from the speakers is that “we need to reach out to the community”. I barely was able to restrain myself from yelling out “Oh come on Keith, you’ve known that all along.”)

Rather, to reemphasize at the risk of redundancy: the key lesson here is the importance of building what could be called “classwide organizations”— organizations that operate inside and outside the workplace, that include union members and non-members, teachers and non-teachers; that take up educational and non-educational issues (e.g., environmental issues); etc.

An equally important lesson is to not be constrained by the fear of strikes being labeled “illegal”. If the organization is strong enough, with enough support among school workers and enough support in the community, the courts and the legislature are likely to fold— as they did in the red state strikes.

  1. I think that the very weakness of their unions was a key to the strikes’ success. In states where teacher unions are strong, dues check-off is used to build full-time, often highly paid, central union staff whose worldview is closer to that of management than it is to the everyday worker. The officials and staffers far more often than not act as a brake on struggle, urging and, when they can, imposing a passive, legalistic strategy (at best). Case in point, the 3 million member National Education Association (NEA) and its largest affiliate, the 300,000-plus member California Teachers Association (CTA). CTA has used dues check-off (“the agency shop”) to funnel the bulk of member dues to its highly paid and privileged staff and officers. The hundreds of CTA staffers are paid nearly double the salaries of classroom teachers. For decades, they, argued that “we’re too weak” to organize effectively against charter schools; that we have to “collaborate” with big business and with school management; that strikes can’t win, so we have to “compromise” (read: agree to rotten contracts), etc. They stacked the deck, taking the lead in negotiating contracts that expire at different times in different districts, and then turning around and arguing that coordinated strikes are a non-starter because contracts expire at different times. Militants who argued for even building local strikes were labeled “strike-happy”. Most “progressives” and “progressive caucuses” fell in line. A few examples:
  • CTA pulled the plug on its 2003 initiative to reform California Proposition 13 to tax corporate property more heavily (they caved to pressure from the Chamber of Commerce, who behind the scenes threatened to go after dues check-off).
  • CTA staff and the Oakland teacher union president meekly and unilaterally called off a strike with a bad, last minute deal in spring 2006. Four years later, CTA staff and a different OEA president postponed striking for months, and then limited it to one day with no follow-up (despite its being over 90% effective, and despite the school district having imposed rotten terms on the union.)
  • The “progressive” leadership of the Los Angeles teachers union called off a walkout of tens of thousands of teachers when a judge issued an injunction with fines of $1 million / day if they struck.
  • In 2009, CTA sent staff from district to district, warning local unions to accept downsizing, including layoffs, in order to “protect our contractual gains”— i.e., wages and benefits.

The red state strikes show that there’s another way, a better way: organize to fight, for a classwide fight, an inclusive fight around classwide demands, rather than meek, legalistic acquiescence.

  1. Two more points:
    a. Mass media contrasts teacher salaries in California with those in the red states, and implies— or states outright— that strikes occurred in those states because teacher pay was so low. But when adjusted for inflation, average pay in California is not much higher than in, say, West Virginia— and average pay in several large urban districts (e.g., Oakland) is actually lower than the average in the red states. Moreover, the red state strikes were not just about teacher pay: a key unifying demand was more money for education. The mass media implies that California and other “blue” states put much more money per capita into education than the red states. Not so. California, despite having the fifth largest economy in the world (behind only China, the U.S., Germany and Japan) is 41st of the 50 states in education spending per capita— well behind, for example, West Virginia.
    b. The red state strikes blow apart the “lesser evil” argument in multiple ways: First, many strikers actually were / are Trump supporters, and see him as shaking up the status quo that has brought them lower wages, insecurity, raised their rents, taken away their homes, left their family members jobless and their children with poor prospects. Second, in blue states like California, the Democrats— far from being the opponents of privatization, charter schools and downsizing that they’ve been made out to be in the mass media, have been its advocates.

Take the example of Oakland, where I taught and was active in the teacher union. For the past 20 years, Oakland has been a laboratory for privatization: in 2003, the state put the Oakland public schools in receivership, a move orchestrated by Eli Broad (supported by his billionaire friends Reed Hastings and John Doerr) and his long-time ally, then-Oakland mayor and now California governor Jerry Brown; Broad, Bill Gates and company turned the Oakland schools into a laboratory for privatization: under the state takeover enrollment in charter schools more than quadrupled while enrollment in public schools fell by one-third; the state moved in ostensibly because of a $37 million budget deficit, and left seven years later after tripling it— turning it into a $110 million debt, which to this day the state insists that the district must repay in full with interest; more than half the schools in Oakland were closed or reorganized, the libraries were shut down in nearly all middle schools and in several high schools, custodial workers were laid off, etc. Under the state takeover, Oakland had per capita double the rate of outsourcing to private contractors and double the administrative overhead of the average California school district.

While Oakland was a laboratory, the Democrats nearly everywhere supported the policies of downsizing, charter schools, test-based accountability, school closures, outsourcing, and privatization. The assault on public education was bipartisan— its most ardent advocates included Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy and California Congressman George Miller (the two leading proponents of the No Child Left Behind legislation), and President Barack Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan.

It’s also important to consider that in the “red states” Republican legislators responded to mass pressure by at least partially caving, fearing that they’d lose their jobs and their legislative majorities in the next elections. But in “blue” California, the Republican Party has nearly collapsed in the most populous parts of the state. The Democrats have lockdown control of the state legislature as well as the governor, and they have little fear of losing same. So they feel little constraint to do more than pay lip service to education, and can be expected to continue the same policies that they have for decades: providing inadequate funding for education (again: California ranks 41st of the 50 states in that regard); supporting charter schools (or whatever comes down the pipe in place of charter schools, should the bloom come off that rose); supporting test-based accountability (or whatever repressive variant comes down that pipe); supporting state takeovers of local school districts, thus taking control out of the hands of the public (just as charter schools do— they receive public funding but are privately controlled). Is it any wonder that so many working class folks have been repelled by the Democrats’ austere neo-liberalism, and that at least some have turned to Trump?

  1. Problems: Where do they go from here? They know that they need to consolidate their gains and to spread them nationally. But who can they reach out to? They look to who they see— ostensible “progressive” locals, like Oakland and San Francisco and Los Angeles. But the teacher leaders in the sponsoring locals have a past and present connection to CTA and its policies. And their own records.

It’s important to see things as they really are. That can be a downer. So far too often, far too many leftists act as cheerleaders and, willfully or not, wind up contorting and distorting facts to fit their desires. Thus, Jeff Mackler, national secretary of the group Socialist Action, recently wrote an article hailing the Oakland teachers union (OEA) as the most militant teacher union in the country, saying that the union has launched five strikes over “the past decades”. Well, yes—if you go back far enough. But over the past 22 years, OEA has gone out for exactly one day, and the OEA officers and CTA staff resisted even that.

And OEA has been far from the worst—inadequate as it’s been, it’s still far better than most. Now, I don’t want to write off the newly elected OEA leadership out of hand. But they— and the other local union officials— are not going to act much differently than in the past UNLESS there’s an eruption from below. We certainly shouldn’t look to CTA or NEA or AFT to take the lead— quite the opposite, as we’ve argued above. And I’m not hopeful about the local leaders, either. Maybe some will be on the right side— but I think that will happen because they will be reacting to motion from below, not taking the lead in unleashing it.

  1. Meanwhile: How to proceed in places like Oakland, where the teacher union has been out of contract since last June. And in other California school districts— especially large urbans.
    First: Build a network, if possible with contacts in every school in your district. This has been a foundation for building towards strikes in the past: in Chicago in 2012; in Arizona earlier this year; etc. In the past, this has been best done by releasing several teachers from classroom duties temporarily to go from school to school, holding school meetings, making contacts, identifying teachers who can act as shop stewards / representatives for their schools, etc. Based on the red state teacher experiences, this probably ought to be combined with social media outreach.
    Second: Don’t base everything on waiting for the state and local union leaderships to act. As one of the red state teacher leaders said on Saturday, “They’re not our bosses. We’re their bosses.” Outline steps towards building a strike— including building a network with contacts in as many schools as possible, and reach out beyond union lines to non-members, teachers in other districts, classified school workers, community members, etc. Reach out beyond narrow bread and butter issues, and even beyond simply educational issues. And be ready for state, national, and local leaders to get in the way, unless / until you’ve built sufficient strength. For example, they may say that coordinated strikes would be illegal when many districts are still bound by contractual no-strike clauses (CTA, NEA, AFT, etc. have for decades had a passive, legalistic approach. That’s why there have been hardly any teacher strikes in California over the past twenty years. To repeat a point made earlier: Oakland, hailed as a model of teacher militancy by some “progressives”, has struck for exactly one day since 1996.)
  2. Finally, it’s time to draw some hard conclusions about the state of the unions, and not just teacher unions. For decades, the unions have operated on the “team concept”— collaboration with management and the state. The international union leaderships have, for the most part, supported— even participated in— U.S. imperialism’s exploitative international policies. At home, they have urged labor peace, acquiescing meekly to the bosses while turning a mailed fist towards rank and file militants. AFT President Randy Weingarten states this clearly in an open appeal to the ruling class to take the side of union leadership on the impending Janus court case, which if it carries would outlaw dues checkoff. Weingarten said:
    “The funders backing the Janus case and the Supreme Court justices who want to eliminate collective bargaining with the hope that such a move would silence workers need only to look at West Virginia for what will happen if they get their way. A loss of collective bargaining would lead to more activism and political action, not less. Collective bargaining exists as a way for workers and employers to peacefully solve labor relations.”

That’s a pretty clear statement of class collaboration, isn’t it? Weingarten says to the ruling class: “Look out, below. We union bureaucrats are what’s standing between you and the wrath of the masses.” In that regard, we should recall that the storied labor mass militancy of the 1930s was largely carried out, successfully, without collective bargaining and often “illegally”. And now the same is true for the red state teacher strikes. That should at least give us pause, and cause to think further about the deal that brought about labor peace at the end of the 1930s, exchanging collective bargaining and a piece of the pie for no-strike contracts, no-strike pledges, and permanent state intervention and regulation of labor.

Dues checkoff is double edged: the Janus case is part of a virulent right wing attempt to destroy unions, period. And this is something that we all need to oppose. But we need to be aware that if Janus is defeated, the union leaderships will continue with their course of using members’ dues to strengthen their bureaucratic stranglehold and to try to keep their foot on the neck of potential militant struggle. I think that the red state teacher strikes, and particularly their alternative forms of organizing and organization, inside and outside the unions, and their classwide membership and demands, poses an important alternative model. It’s one that we need to try to work with and deepen. We need to all look at ways to broaden and sustain such a model— hitherto, the model has been inspiring during the upsurge (e.g., the first few months of Occupy) but has not endured. Unions, on the other hand, have been able to consolidate the gains won in strikes and other contract struggles— but have done so by strengthening a central bureaucracy and by more and more collaborating with management and integrating with the state.


July 20

I found Jack’s essay to be an excellent review of the recent teachers’ strikes and a look at where we go from here. I am in agreement with his general assessment of the situation and in particular of his criticisms of the mainstream unions and their increasing willingness to collaborate with school administrations. I had a couple of points I want to raise in response.

  1. Jack is right that teachers have to move beyond a narrow perspective of demanding higher wages and better benefits to a broader social approach that can attract the support of the wider society and of parents in particular. The demand for smaller class sizes could be an important part of such a broader program. This is a demand that immediately helps teachers and students and should be widely popular. Of course, teachers need to demand substantial pay increases to make up for years of stagnant pay and falling real wages.
  2. Smaller class sizes and higher pay for teachers cost money. Teacher militants need to start talking about the urgent need to tax the rich. Tackling the enormous income and wealth inequalities that characterize this system will lead directly to testing the limits of capitalism and the imperative necessity of creating a new society.
  3. Jack mentions the need to bring charter schoolteachers into the network of grass-roots militants. This is probably correct but it raises a difficult question. Certainly one of the demands of militant teachers must be an end to all charter schools and their absorption into the public school system. How do we square this with bringing teachers in these schools into the network of militants? Perhaps there should be a demand that teachers employed in the charter schools are given priority for jobs in the public school system.
  4. The right to strike is a fundamental right and an important one. Of course, the recent strikes in West Virginia and elsewhere show that just because strikes are illegal does not mean that teachers cannot go on strike. It is certainly important to make that point and to push for strike action in states like California where strikes are banned. Nevertheless, laws do matter and a prime demand should be to make it legal for all public sector employees except those engaged directly in emergency work to go on strike without hindrance.
  5. This leads to Jack’s point on the Oakland local leadership. Given his description, I am very doubtful that this set will be significantly different than the previous ones. Taking office in a large local is a tricky proposition for radicals but for sure it should only be done when its members are ready to vote for and support a radical program. One point in such a program would be a refusal to endorse any candidate for public office who does not support the right of teachers and other public employees to strike.


July 20

Thanks for these comments on Jack’s essay. I agree with most of your points, but have questions about two of them:

1) You say, “…one of the demands of militant teachers must be an end to all charter schools and their absorption into the public school system.” I understand that there are many problems with charter schools, including ways in which they undermine traditional public schools. That said, I am not convinced that an across-the-board insistence on making more uniform our deficient ‘one-size-fits all’ public school system is the way to go. I recognize that you would favor coupling this demand with other demands and proposals that would aim to create higher quality public schools, but I am nonetheless unsure whether I support what might be an overly categorical approach. Further comments from you and others would be helpful here.

2) You raise that taking office in large (union) local is a tricky proposition, and should take place only when members are ready to support a radical program. You then say, ‘One point in such a program would be a refusal to endorse any candidate for public office who does not support the right of teachers and other public employees to strike.” I recognize there is an implicit ‘united front’ approach here that I assume goes: “You may support voting for and working for the election of Democratic Party (and other) candidates, but let’s at least agree that there should be no support for such candidates unless they support the right of teachers and other public employees to strike.” I’d like to see some more discussion of this as well.

In solidarity,


July 20

First of all, I want to thank Eric for his comments on my report on the Red State teacher strikes forum. I think that the points he raises are good ones, and worthy of further discussion. I’m going to try to take them up, and in the process of doing so to respond to Rod’s response to Eric too.

I agree with Eric that we want to eliminate charter schools, and I have pushed for this for many years. I suspect that some on this list don’t have detailed knowledge of charter schools and their impact, so I’m going to provide a brief summary here:

Charter schools receive public money but are privately run. In effect, they are backdoor vouchers— getting public money without public control. And charter schools are exempted from large parts of state education codes— from both bureaucratic regulations and from regulations protective of students and teachers. They have been a favored vehicle of the assault on public education and heavily funded by Bill and Melinda Gates (Gates Foundation, Microsoft), Eli and Edythe Broad (Broad Foundation, Kaufman and Broad and AIG), Doris and Donald Fisher (Fisher Foundation; the Gap), the Walton Family (Walmart), etc, John Doerr (New School Venture Fund; Doerr is the leading venture capitalist in the Silicon Valley, and organized the initial funding for, among others, Google and Amazon); Reed Hastings (Netflix; Pure Software); etc. Oakland, where I taught for years, has been a laboratory for privatization of education in general and for charter schools in particular. Thus, when the state of California put the Oakland school district in receivership in 2003, the number of charter school students was quickly quadrupled (from 2,031 in 2003 to well over 8,000 by 2006), while the enrollment in public schools declined sharply (from 54,000 to 37,000). Charter school enrollment in Oakland has since increased to over 12,000, or about 1/3 of public school enrollment. Meanwhile, many public schools have been closed; many programs and services have been eliminated (libraries were closed in most middle schools and in several high schools; vocational programs were shut down in most high schools; adult education was cut by 95% (not a typo), etc. It’s generally acknowledged that the growth of charter schools has negatively impacted economies of scale for public schools, resulting in a negative downward spiral. In some cities, charter schools have become dominant (e.g., Detroit) or have even completely replaced public schools (New Orleans).

Here’s the difficult part: So long as public education fails a significant number of students— and there is no question but that it fails many students of color in high poverty communities (especially black students, but also many white students, especially in rural and semi-rural areas)— then parents will look for anything that provides hope for their kids. Parents whose children are assigned to schools which are under-resourced, crowded, dirty, and unsafe (e.g., where their kids are bullied and where staff respond inadequately if at all) will be attracted to the nearby charter school that is reputed to be clean, safe, and give kids a better chance of success. Never mind that overall, public schools have been shown to on average outperform charter schools. Never mind that the above-average charter school almost surely cherry picks students for admission and/or forces out struggling students, is given heavy, one-off funding by the billionaires’ foundations (funding which isn’t and won’t be replicated at most charter schools, and therefore this model doesn’t scale), etc.

How do we deal with the above? I think in three ways: First, we need to argue that public schools need to be freed of the arbitrary bureaucratic parts of state education codes that constrain authentic learning. And we have to insist that the protective parts of state education codes should be extended to students and staff at all schools— including charter schools (so long as they exist). Second, we need to argue— as Eric does— that all students need the opportunity to go to clean, safe, well-resourced schools with small class size and competent teachers. Finally, we need to reach out to charter school teachers, to draw them into common struggle (as was done successfully in the red state teacher strikes)— and as part of this we should not only advocate organizing them into teacher unions, but we should call for parity in compensation, benefits, working conditions and due process between public school teachers and charter school teachers. If charter schoolteachers’ pay, benefits, and working conditions were on a par with public school teachers, much of the billionaires’ enthusiasm for them would rapidly diminish. Then, we can campaign for converting charter schools to public schools, with all (qualified) teachers in those schools remaining in place.

I also agree with Eric that it’s important to campaign for funding. In California, the most obvious target is to amend Proposition 13, making it into a split-roll tax that eliminates the huge tax loopholes afforded corporations without increasing taxes on homeowners. This could provide funding to decrease class size (by hiring more teachers) and overall improve school facilities and resources. But I think that we need to be clear and “say what is”: while public education can be significantly improved— and we fight to improve it— we can’t solve the problems of public education for all under capitalism. Student achievement, as has been repeatedly shown, is strongly correlated with family affluence level, and this remains a function of class and race. Poverty won’t be eliminated under capitalism, and as a group poor students will always be at a disadvantage. We need to be clear on this and to explain to those who struggle alongside us that, unless we fight to reorganize all of society, no solution will work for all (and, as we have seen time and again, those parents whose kids remain in failed schools will be susceptible to the next schemes that the corporate “reformers” send down the pipe.)

On taking office in teacher unions: this requires a full and separate discussion. I will say: there’s a lot of similarity here to the problem of electoralism in general. How does a radical leadership administer the union day to day, once in power? The problems facing teacher unions, and indeed education as a whole, can only be confronted successfully by mass movements organizing from below. In case after case, groups that take over unions find themselves acting like just another leadership, despite their better intentions— similarly to what happens when reformers (aka sewer socialists) are elected to run a municipality under capitalism.

We have had several examples of insurgent “rank and file caucuses” taking power in local unions, and sometimes even at the state or national level: the PEAC caucus had a majority of the executive board in the Los Angeles teacher union from about 2005 to 2011, and its successor caucus (Union Power) controls both the executive board and the presidency of that local. The CORE caucus has controlled the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) for the past seven years. Thirty years ago TDU briefly had a majority of the Teamsters executive board. Etc. In each case, the insurgent group moved rightwards, towards the center, after taking power. To take the most widely hailed example: the CORE-led CTU strike of September 2012 has been held up as a model of militant trade unionism ever since. But before, during, and after the strike, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel said that more than 50 schools would be shut down. Six months after the one-week strike ended, Emmanuel did indeed close over 50 strikes. CTU did nothing (other than a toothless march in the Loop). Today, CTU’s strategy seems to be to try to take over the Chicago City Council— by supporting, and in some case running as, Democrats.

I don’t want to claim that there’s a total equivalence between running for local union office and running for local government office. But there are strong similarities. In my own experience, I served in various local union positions (executive board, bargaining team, etc.) and concluded that I was spending all my time trying to push a boulder up a mountain, fighting the (class) collaborationist state union leadership and their allies in the local’s leadership, and that my time could be better spent trying to organize from the outside in. And it was (maybe at some point I’ll put up a post describing my experience with the 2009-2010 public education mass movement in the Bay Area; with the spring 2011 campaign to bail out schools not banks and end foreclosures; and with the 2011-2012 Occupy Oakland education committee which organized the 17-day sit-in at Lakeview Elementary to protest school closures.)


July 22
Jack and all,

Last night I reread your article on teachers’ strikes. Very good. Comprehensive and comprehensible. I liked your emphasis on “seeing things as they really are” as we try to navigate the treacherous waters of capitalism.

I found the points about the sabotage of militant action by mainstream unions– and the details about the alternative organizing model the red state strikers created– particularly important. Being an IWW member, I appreciated the inclusive, non-hierarchical nature of their model, and the linking of teachers’ issues with those of other public sector workers, and with social issues like gang violence.

Below is a link to a leaflet you have seen before that others on this list might be interested in. A local graphic artist and I put it together for the Scottish Education Workers Network, an organizing/outreach project of the Clydeside/Glasgow branch of the IWW. It is entitled Letting Go of the Status Quo… Teachers and Learners for a New Society.

I think the impetus for the leaflet was akin to what the red states teacher strikers were striving for: to encourage and enable greater solidarity within the working class. Too often workplace organizing and peace and justice campaigning seem to inhabit different worlds, with each thinking that their approach is the central and vital one for social change. Instead, we need each other, and the leaflet tries to show how our interdependence could be expressed. (Maybe I should see if one of the peace and justice activists around here would like to write a version from their point of view.)

It could be that similar attempts like this, along with discussions and ongoing outreach and mutual support, would be one path to broadening and sustaining organizing models that are independent of mainstream unions, and based on socialist principles and a vision of a new society.

We also need to build certain factors into alternative organizing, right from the start. These include clarity of purpose (principles and goals), networks, coalitions, and diversity and simultaneity of tactics. This last one is the hardest. But I think it is a useful concept, and guide to action-one that means keeping all these factors in our minds, hearts, and plans at the same time. Experimenting with structures for this would be interesting.


July 25

Rod raises an important but complicated issue in his response to what I wrote. To be clear, my own position is not only for a total break with the Democratic Party but a rejection of the program of the liberal Democrats as well as a rejection of the argument for a broad, non-socialist labor party or something along the lines of the Greens. As radicals, I believe wherever we are, including acting as teacher union militants, we should be taking this position..

The hard part is developing a radical program that bridges the gap between our vision of a future society and the immediate situation. This is not an easy task. In this context, I suggested that one point of such a program for those involved in conflicts within a local teachers union would be the demand that the local not endorse any candidates who were not prepared to back the legalizing of public sector worker strikes. Many years ago, when actually confronted with this problem, I raised this issue and found that the candidate involved immediately dropped her plans to solicit our endorsement.

This was in Massachusetts. Jack knows more about the current scene in California, but my guess is that there would be very few Democrats interested in an endorsement on this basis.

In any case, this would only be one point of a broader radical program. Further points might be the demand for smaller class sizes, the ending of state wide tests for students prior to graduation and the end of all funding to charter and public schools. These are all demands that most progressive teachers would support so the push would be to say that as local leaders we will take these demands seriously by trying to win them through direct action but we will also not support candidates who do not support this educational vision. Needless to say, it will be obvious that this requires the rejection of the Democratic Party and we should explicitly say this.

Jack touches on a broader issue, our relation to the existing unions. I entirely agree with him about TDU. An entirely wasted effort that went nowhere. This is not just a tactical question. Underlying the TDU approach was the belief that the existing unions could be reformed, that electing a new leadership would resolve the problem. In reality, we need an entirely different form of workplace organization, one that is decentralized and where there are only a few full-time officials, paid at the rate of an average worker in that union, and where power rests with militants at the point of production.

The IWW in its heyday was such a union. Now it would seem that what is needed for a start is a network of militants acting independently of the union. The recent teacher strikes are an example but here in Britain we have recently had an even more organized protest within the higher ed union (UCU). Militants defeated a sell-out by the union leadership and then went on to form a network. This network discussed forming an independent union but for now remains within the existing framework but in total hostility to the leadership.

Again, in this context, militants need a program that goes beyond a more confrontational approach to management.

Finally, Susan raises another difficult problem. The Left is fragmented, with some activists working at the workplace and others on single-issue campaigns such as those opposing militarism. The two groups seem to work in a vacuum rather than as part of a broader movement for fundamental change. Susan’s leaflet is a step in breaking down that fragmentation but there needs to be more networks such as the Utopian where we can talk together and try to overcome the fragmentation.


July 25
Eric and all,

I hope to reply more fully to Eric’s thoughtful post soon. For now, though:

  1. Public worker strikes aren’t illegal in California. There’s the usual ritual though: the union has to be out of contract and have gone through a ritual conducted by the Public Employee Relations Board (PERB)— impasse, mediation, fact-finding panel— which is designed to maximize collaboration between management (the state) and the union leadership (especially the state union leadership), and note that the state has double representation (as management and as the ‘neutral’ mediators and fact-finding panel chairs). So strikes don’t occur too frequently— although there have been several at the University of California (Tanya was instrumental in many of these). Five years ago there was a BART (regional rail) strike. The longest and most militant over the past several decades was the Oakland teacher union (OEA) strike in 1996, which lasted nearly six weeks and was responsible for statewide class size reduction in public schools. [Following the OEA 1996 strike, the Gates and Broad Foundations poured money and people into Oakland, facilitating the state takeover of the Oakland schools in 1996, a gross increase in charter school enrollment, cuts in public school programs and staffing, etc. The OEA leadership, under the guidance of the state teacher union (CTA), pushed back against militant response— OEA has struck only once since 1996, and that was a one-day strike in April 2010).
  2. I agree completely with your characterization of TDU, and in particular with your observation that the goal needs to be a different form of workplace organization, rather than reforming the existing unions (I tried to get at some of this in my report on the red state teacher strikes).
  3. One thing that I’ve been thinking about, and hope that others have thoughts about, is how to approach the fact that when we call for funding public education— or for national health service, or other public programs— it is usually done in such a way that it will be delivered by, and thus in the process strengthen, the role of the state (that is, the bourgeois state). I have some ideas here, but would very much like to hear what others think.


Thoughts on Anarchy— A Personal Perspective

by Judy G.

(I have been working on a book for fifty years or more. That’s a long time. Anyone who sticks with it will realize that I think we humans are in a dire situation. Personal relationships are disappearing at the same time that degradation of our Mother Earth is accelerating. In what follows I present a brief summary of my vision for a way forward.)

As a life-long activist, the question that comes naturally to my mind is, “What can be done?” Many solutions have been suggested:

  • Various electoral programs have been proposed. The Democrats try to convince us that solutions lie in the direction of governmental and other social programs that more equitably distribute resources— healthcare, income, justice, education, food and such. Unfortunately, they have never been able to overcome the fact that all such programs are designed to treat everyone as if they are the same and are administered by individuals who are strangers to each other. ( I remember being astonished when my academic mentor, Merrill Jackson, told me that in some judicial systems the goal was to find potential judges who knew best the parties to the legal action. Unlike in the U. S. system, where judges are expected/required to recuse themselves if they know the parties.)

The Republicans seem to believe that the cream has risen to the top and that those who control the corporate system are naturally superior and, given free rein, will make the right choices for the future. The evidence seems to me to be conclusive that they are wrong. These are the people who have and do promote an economic system that allows those who own the resources, no matter how they have obtained them, to use and abuse those resources so as to maximize power for themselves, no matter the cost to others and to our Mother.

  1. I remember being astonished when my academic mentor, Merrill Jackson, told me that in some judicial systems the goal was to find potential judges who knew best the parties to the legal action. Unlike in the U. S. system, where judges are expected/required to recuse themselves if they know the parties.

Others vying for political/electoral power in the U. S. are variations on the theme: more or less ecologically destructive capitalism, more or less libertarian capitalism, more or less equal distribution of the fruits of the capitalist system. But it seems to me that no matter what form it takes, capitalism is primarily part of the problem. It teaches people to continually use more resources in order to make more products in order to make more profit. It teaches people to rely on wage labor to produce goods and services. As Marx correctly pointed out, wage labor leads to conflict between the owners of the means of production, who want to maximize their profits by minimizing what they pay “their” workers, and workers, who want to maximize their wages in order to live more comfortably. And everybody treats everybody else as a means to an end.

Whether “progressive” or “conservative”, the above solutions assume the viability of capitalism as the economic system in the U. S.

  • Socialism and Communism have long been posited as solutions to the problems created or exacerbated by capitalism. The thing that is missing in all of these putative solutions is that whether capitalist, socialist, or communist, these governing systems are all based on bureaucratic stranger relationships: that is, on relationships that are partial, instrumental, based on explicit or implicit roles, and, as history has repeatedly shown, tend toward the creation of an elite that believes in its own ethical and intellectual superiority and, thus, legitimacy.

In other words, all of the above systems depend on the existence of a state, whether it is conservative or liberal and capitalist or socialist or communist, each attempts to define the type of state it supports and defends. The appeal of anarchy, to me is that it eschews the existence of a state.

Now, I think it is self-evident that some people are more intelligent than others: are quicker to learn, quicker to gain insights, and quicker to develop consciousness of the nature of situations. Nonetheless, it seems to me that when people have been given the right to rule over others they have ultimately abused that power.

So, the question arises: is it simply in the nature of human beings that people take advantage of others? Is that just what we do? The answer, I think, is, no. It’s not in our nature if there are exceptions; and what I learned in the study of social science is that there are exceptions. Those exceptions exist in what anthropologists call “tribes”. I learned to define a tribe as “a group of kinfolk descended from a group of kinfolk in an unbroken line forever.” We humans have spent about 95% of our time on earth living in tribes. The majority of societies on earth today are tribes. And I think history shows people fighting like hell to remain in tribes.

To me the primary appeal of anarchy is that it envisions the possibility of social organizations based on personal relationships. I see it as a way to organize social relations on a personal basis. It’s a way to make decisions based on discussions among the people, who trust that viable directions/solutions will emerge from their personal interaction. I understand it to be essentially non-hierarchical.

Years ago, I read a book by the anthropologist Dorothy Lee called Freedom and Culture. It was a revelation because she described cultures and meanings that I had never encountered in my white, middle class upbringing. One thing she talked about was the Native American notion that “the chief stands with the people.” She said that many people encountering native peoples think that the “chief rules the people.” Not so, says Lee. The picture she paints is of the kin group talking over their challenges until a consensus emerges and is articulated by someone who has been listening careful to everyone and taking into account their viewpoints and their needs.

Some have argued that in many African and Polynesian tribes the chef does, indeed, rule the people. I have never seen evidence of this being true and would be grateful to see it-as it is always good, in my experience, to have one’s ignorance corrected.

Whether liberal democracies, fundamentalist theocracies, socialist or communist bureaucracies, the thing all other governmental forms have in common is that they are based on stranger relationships. If my social science colleagues and our forbearers are right, personal relationships are essentially different from stranger relationships and they produce essentially different types of people and societies.

As I detail at some length in my book, personal relationships are based on familiarity such that each one in the relationship knows the other well, knows them as whole people, perceives them to be unique, and feels them to be a part of one’s self. In contrast, stranger relationships exist among individuals who have only partial, role-based relationships with each other and the relationships themselves are instrumental. Even when one is doing it “for his/her own good” one can manipulate strangers.

Several things impressed me about what I read in the issue of Utopia Magazine that Jon sent to me. One was that the writers of the articles seemed to be fundamentally interested in what each other were saying-not in scoring ideological or intellectual points. No one seemed to be afraid of saying that they didn’t know something. And the writing was personal and specific, not abstract and highfalutin’

The mainstream media usually dismiss Anarchists as bomb-throwers who have no substantial contribution to make to political discourse. This should not be surprising, as the establishment owns the mainstream media.

On the contrary, anarchists seem to me to be the people most open to ideas that are compatible with my own thinking. Personal relationships are the most meaningful aspect of human life. We are a culture increasingly dependent on stranger relationships. For many of us, material possessions have become the symbol of our worth and the substitute for our personal relationships. We are drowning in our stuff-our material possessions and our garbage. We spend so much time looking at screens that we are forgetting how to hold conversations. This is particularly dangerous for children who have not yet learned to converse. Loneliness and depression are epidemic, and the suicide rate is steadily rising. We have dumped so much minute plastic in the oceans that it is killing sea life. Ice caps are melting and coastlines are flooding. And the poor fool in the White House is so intent on proving that he is important that he is willing to sacrifice our country, indeed the future of us and our children on the bonfire of his vanity.

Whom do you trust? Until we have familiarity with each other, until we know each other as whole people, until we become part of each other’s identity we don’t know whom we can trust.

Politics is a strange business. It’s about power-about giving power to people we don’t really know and can’t really trust. In this so-called democracy, we are asked to trust politicians on the basis of media propaganda, sound bites, and campaign speeches. I have had the experience of working with people for years, face-to-face, before I discovered they had been stabbing me in the back.

Anarchy is the only political approach I know that has the potential to be based on person-to-person relationships and is, therefore, the only one that appeals to me.

This brings me to the topic of strategy and tactics. My thoughts on strategy are two-fold. Firstly, I would like to see us always working toward creating communities, that is, networks of personal relationships, that are capable of sustaining the people when this whole house of cards collapses. Secondly, I think the less we cooperate with and participate in the bureaucratic planning system the more we will weaken it and strengthen ourselves. The one thing the system can’t abide is non-participation. Who’s going to do the work? Can you picture any of the 1% cleaning their own toilets?

This does raise the question of electoral politics. I am of two minds on that. On the one hand, I agree that to vote is only to encourage them. On the other, elections do have consequences; and, too often, it’s the least privileged among us who pay the price when the least progressive of the capitalist parties are successful at the ballot box. I agree with Ron that people have to make up their own minds about that.

Tactically, I think there are many choices. I gravitate toward education, consciousness raising and skill development.

  1. Education, I think, has two major components. The first is the basics taught in grammar school. Reading, writing, and arithmetic. Without them, one is lost in the modern world. A young man sometimes works for me in my garden who cannot do the arithmetic to determine if I am paying him correctly or not. I do, but he must take it on faith. What does one do in a modern urban setting if one cannot read a sign or fill out a job application? Beyond the basics, it’s my belief/prejudice that the better understanding one has of history, the better off one is. Our present society did not emerge full-blown, from nowhere and from nothing. It developed from particular social situations, from particular people and particular cultural meanings. If, for example, one knows nothing about the history of so-called “race” in America, one could be led to believe that African Americans are just bellyachin’— when nothing could be further from the truth. Without understanding the history of the European conquest of North America, one might think that the right to decide who can live here, on this stolen land, is legitimately in the hands of those who control the present political boundaries.
  2. I have a rather simple-minded view of consciousness. I think it is the ability to perceive relationships between and among social phenomena. For example, to be conscious of white skin privilege is to be aware of the ways in which one’s well-being is due to the exploitation or subjugation of another. Other examples: one could be said to be conscious of the interrelationship between wage stagnation and extreme wealth inequality, or among gerrymandered voting districts, corporate control of elections, and Republican control of state legislatures. In light of this perspective, I think that it behooves us to continually be about the task of raising consciousness, our own, each other’s, and that of the people with whom we engage in political/social/cultural discussion and analysis. As we realize relationships it’s a good thing to share those realizations and to check their validity with others.
  3. When I speak of skill development as a tactic, I am thinking of learning and teaching practical skills that help people to survive when, for one reason or another, they do not have others to call on. Growing food, cooking, maintaining clothing, basic first aid, helping those who cannot help themselves (particularly the young, the old, and the infirm), are all practical skills that must be mastered within any community that is going to thrive. By learning them and teaching them we nurture self-confidence and encourage ourselves and each other to take on and meet other challenges. Feelings of powerlessness are dangerous to our self-esteem.

The Enemy

It has taken me too long, to realize that we are really in a zero-sum game. My Christian upbringing leads me to want to love my neighbors and those who would despitefully use me. But, unfortunately, this isn’t about my actual neighbors. This is about people who would never dream of living in my neighborhood. To them it would be a nightmare. This is about people who will stop at nothing, nothing, to maintain their power and social position. This is about the Koch Brothers, the DeVoses, that poor fool in the White House, and others too numerous to mention, many whose names we don’t even know.

It’s about people who oppose U. N. resolutions recommending breast-feeding over corporate-produced formulas. It’s about people who refuse to permanently prevent Asian carp from entering the Great Lakes (the thirsty world’s largest single supply of fresh water). It’s about people who deny healthcare, healthful food, clean air and education to others just because those others are poor. It’s about people who feel they have the right to choose whether other women should have abortions, whether voting rights can be denied to others, whether soldiers should be sent into battle to protect oil supplies, and whether climate change should be taken seriously. These are people who will stop at nothing; they are merciless.

Maybe I am self-deluded. Undoubtedly I am self-deluded. (The problem with self-delusion being that one cannot see one’s own.) But I still think that both strategically and tactically the wise course is non-violence. To be the change we want to see in the world. I have said for years that I think it is revolutionary in America to be non-violent. And that the system will bring itself down. Our job is to find ways to get as many of our people out of it as possible before it collapses. By “our people” I mean those who are capable of empathy.

We humans are complicated creatures. Each of us is imprinted by our own experience. The world doesn’t mean exactly the same thing to any two of us. And none of us is completely evil just as none of us is completely good. I think we need to find ways to build communities that enable us, as the old song says, to “accentuate the positive.” I don’t believe we can ever eliminate the negative, but we can identify it, shine a spotlight on it, and minimize it. I know that’s possible because I am a Detroiter and I spend my life among numbers of people who do all they can to eliminate racism) That’s not an easy thing to do in America, and we Detroiters don’t get enough credit for the degree to which we accomplish that.

The urban agriculture community, of which I am a part, is as fine a group of people as I have known in my seventy-four years. People meet each other as persons, each of whom is unique and important in his or her own right. It’s a safe place to be where people freely help each other, share resources, and truly love to spend time together-working or playing. In fact, there are lots of times when we can truly be said to be doing both.

I regularly eat in a restaurant that is located in the most racist city I have ever known-Dearborn, Michigan. Yet even parts of Dearborn are turning around, and the M & M Café is a good example of what can happen as it does. The owners are a Polish and Lebanese couple who have been welcoming customers of all ethnicities and feeding them healthful (well, maybe the carrot cake isn’t so healthful, but it certainly is delicious), delicious food for thirty-five years. They have provided the nucleus around which a multi-racial, multi-cultural clientele has formed. I don’t know of another eating establishment anywhere as comfortable or diverse.

A couple of days a week I go to Fitness Works. It’s gym in Detroit that is predominantly African-American, is run by African-Americans and could not be more welcoming to my lily-white self. Again, I am treated as a person, not a thing. It really has become a happy place for me. It’s true there are a few there who treat me as white, but very few.

Being an aging, overweight, diabetic female, I have my share of health issues, which I take to the Henry Ford Health System. My primary care physician is an African-American Christian. I assume my ophthalmologist is a Jew. (I’m going by his last name; the subject has never come up.) My psychiatrist is from Pakistan and my Physical Therapist, Endocrinologist, and Ob/Gyn are all from India. (I don’t know who’s Muslim and who’s Hindu or whatever.) And the vast majority of nurses, nurse practitioners, and other support staff are African-American. Although it is a large, bureaucratic organization there are people in it who are capable of treating their patients as persons, not as numbers. I can’t imagine getting better healthcare anywhere.

The point here is that diversity is possible and desirable. We can just get along— as Rodney King wanted. Humans are capable of it; but, again, it’s a matter of accentuating the positive and meeting people where they are. We live in a culture that increasingly emphasizes and is dependent upon stranger relationships. Persons (those whose identities have been formed in personal relationships) are disappearing as individuals (those whose identities have been formed in stranger relationships) become more numerous.

There is a tendency in American culture, exemplified best by the Republican Party that encourages us to hate and fear and to be suspicious of one another. It teaches us to take advantage of one another and to embrace ideology and ignore science. As long as we are kept apart and ignorant of each other’s humanity, those who control the show will remain in charge and will continue to sell us down the river until there is nothing left to sell, and the river is so polluted that the fish can’t even live in it.

I think our response to climate change must wash away capitalism, materialism, and bureaucracy. We can no longer afford to use resources that are not badly needed by the people. We can no longer afford to allow material acquisition to be a substitute for personal relationships. And we can no longer afford rule by bureaucrats looking for advantages for themselves.

It is, indeed, a life or death struggle for our species. It makes me very sad to think our amazing species may cause its own extinction.

Explorations in the Russian Revolution, Part IV: Lenin’s Vision of the Bolshevik State

By Ron Tabor

When the Bolsheviks overthrew the Provisional Government in Russia and seized state power on October 25, 1917, they established what they variously called a “Workers’ and Peasants’ Government”, a “Government of the Workers and Poor Peasants”, and a “Government of the Workers and Laboring Peasants.” In theoretical terms, they considered it to be the “Dictatorship of the Proletariat.”

Revolutionary Marxists of various kinds consider the early Bolshevik regime to have been a “workers’ democracy” which, had it not had to contend with the counterrevolutionary and imperialist forces arrayed against it and had proletarian revolutions broken out in Europe as the Bolsheviks predicted, would have led Russia to become a truly democratic socialist society. This assessment is based, to a considerable degree, on their interpretation of Lenin’s conception of the state the Bolsheviks aimed to establish, as laid out in his pamphlet, The State and Revolution, and in other writings written in the summer and fall of 1917.

It is my contention, however, that, even had events evolved as Lenin and the other Bolsheviks expected, the outcome would not have been a democratic workers’ government but instead a bureaucratic, authoritarian, even totalitarian, regime similar to the one that actually emerged. This is because I believe that Lenin’s conception of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” is itself bureaucratic, authoritarian, and totalitarian. To see this, it will be necessary to look closely at The State and Revolution and at the other works in which Lenin laid out his plan. However, to make sense of them, we first need to look at the theoretical background in the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels that served as Lenin’s point of departure and on which he based his own conception.

The Dictatorship of the Proletariat— Marx’ and Engels’ View

As many people know, both the term and the concept of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” were coined by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. The notion was central to their revolutionary program and strategy, and clearly differentiated their views from those of other socialist thinkers, particularly, the anarchists.

Marx’ and Engels’ conception of the dictatorship of the proletariat evolved over time. However, two major phases can be identified, divided by the Paris Commune of 1871. In the first period (from late 1847 to early 1871), while Marx and Engels insisted that the proletariat/working class should seize political power, they left vague the actions the workers needed to take vis a vis the existing, capitalist, state; specifically, they left open the idea that the workers might be able to take over the capitalist state and use it for their own purposes. In the aftermath of the Commune, however, their views on this and related questions became much more defined. (This pertained to the countries of continental Europe. Marx and Engels continued to believe that in England and the United States, where, in their view, there were no militarist cliques and the state bureaucracies were small, the workers might be able to come to power peacefully, through the electoral process). So important was the Commune to the development of their position that Marx and Engels saw fit to make a correction to The Communist Manifesto, written 25 years before. In what Lenin described as the “last preface to the new German edition of the Manifesto, dated June 24, 1872”, Marx and Engels wrote: “…One thing especially was proved by the Commune, viz., that ‘the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes’….” (The State and Revolution, Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 25, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1964, p. 414.) The words in single quotation marks are from Marx’s book on the Commune, The Civil War in France. (Note: In the interests of convenience, throughout this article, I have eliminated the emphases, printed in italics, that Marx, Engels, and Lenin often utilized in their writings.)

Rue Rivoli, Paris 1871

In what follows, I will present and analyze what I consider to be Marx’ and Engels’ mature, post-Commune, position, since this is the one on which Lenin based his own conception.

Marx and Engels believed that the fundamental strategic task of the working class in any given country is to seize state power, smash the capitalist state (particularly its bureaucratic and military apparatuses), and replace it with a state of its own, what they called the “revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.” Although Marx and Engels did not describe this proletarian state in great detail, they did make their overall notion of it clear. At the risk of simplification, I will list its central characteristics:

  1. The establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat is inevitable; it is the logical and necessary outcome of the class struggle under capitalism (and all history). Or, as Marx wrote: “… the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat….” (Marx, letter to Weydemeyer, The State and Revolution, op. cit., p. 411.)
  2. The dictatorship of the proletariat is a state. Although four years after the Paris Commune, Engels proposed, in a private letter to August Bebel, the leader of German Social Democrats, that was only made public in 1911 (The State and Revolution, op. cit., p. 440.), that he, Marx, and their followers refer to the post-revolutionary state as a “community”, Marx and Engels publicly remained loyal to their previous terminology: the “dictatorship of the proletariat” is (and has to be) a state.
  3. The principal tasks of this dictatorship are to suppress the capitalists (and, where they still exist, the other oppressing classes), nationalize the means of production, and proceed to construct the class-less and state-less communist society.
  4. The dictatorship of the proletariat is centralized, based on the nationalization of the means of production. Under it, the workers are to move toward the establishment of a planned economy (although Marx and Engels never clarified their views about who is to do the planning and according to what principles such planning is to occur).
  5. The dictatorship of the proletariat is democratic. It represents, in Marx’ and Engels’ various phrases, a “state of the armed workers”, the “proletariat organized as the ruling class”, and the “establishment of democracy.” Its establishment means to “win the battle of democracy.” (The Communist Manifesto, in The State and Revolution, op. cit., p. 402.) Because of this, the dictatorship of the proletariat is not a state “in the proper sense of the term.” All previous states were instruments of tiny minorities that ruled over, oppressed, and exploited the vast majority. In contrast, the dictatorship of the proletariat is an instrument of the vast majority, who will use it to suppress the former ruling minority and to establish the conditions for the emergence of communism.
  6. The dictatorship of the proletariat is not only democratic in this general sense; it also entails democratic decision-making by the workers themselves.
  7. Marx and Engels based their mature conception of the proletarian dictatorship on the experience of the Paris Commune. The Commune was established in the aftermath of the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and in the context of the political and economic disarray the conflict brought in its wake. Facing starvation, in March 1871 the workers and other plebian elements of Paris, led by the Central Committee of the National Guard, rose up, seized control of the city, and ruled it for over two months (March 18-May 28). Eventually, the city was invaded by the French army, and in extremely brutal fighting, the Commune was overthrown and the Communards massacred. (One recent estimate is that 10,000 were killed: La Commune de 1871, by Jacques Rougerie, Presses universitaires de France, Paris, 2014). While it lasted, the Commune consisted of municipal councilors elected by universal (male) suffrage from the various wards of Paris. It was a working, not a parliamentary, body, handling both legislative and executive tasks, thus eliminating a professional state bureaucracy. All its members were workers or what Marx called “acknowledged representatives of the working class.” Various “commissions” were established to manage the affairs of the city. All officials, including the councilors and the judicial and educational functionaries, were paid no more than an average worker’s salary; they were all elected, responsible, and subject to immediate recall. The Commune passed decrees abolishing the standing army and the police. All male residents of Paris were required to join the National Guard, thus establishing a workers’ militia. The Commune took other radical steps, such as the complete separation of church and state, the abolition of the death penalty, the establishment of a 10-hour workday, and the abolition of night work for bakers.
  8. Seen in the context of this history, the term “dictatorship of the proletariat” to describe the proletarian state has a somewhat metaphoric and essentialist character. Since, according to Marxist theory, all states are, at bottom (that is, in their essence), dictatorships of one class to rule over others, the state the workers establish is (essentially) a dictatorship. Thus, Marx and Engels’ use of the term “dictatorship of the proletariat” did not mean that, in their view, the proletarian state was to be a dictatorship of one party or one person.
  9. According to Marx’ and Engels’ projection, in the first stage of communist society, the workers (and everybody else, who, because of the nationalization of the means of production, have become workers) are to be paid according to the principle: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his work.” In other words, all members of society are to receive salaries that are proportionate to how much they produce. This principle (basically, piece-work) is a carryover from and a legacy of capitalist society; it is a form of what Marx and Engels called “bourgeois right.” (Marx, Critique of the Gotha Program, in The State and Revolution, op. cit., p. 465.) Although on a formal level, the principle represents equality and, hence, justice, on a more concrete level, it is unfair and unjust, since people’s abilities and needs differ. Moreover, according to Marx and Engels, for as long as the workers need to enforce this principle, they require a state to do so.
  10. Eventually, as the collective and planned economy becomes increasingly productive, as relative scarcity and the division between mental and manual labor are overcome, and as the habits of collective and cooperative life become ingrained in the population, society moves toward the establishment of full communism. This class-less and state-less society will be based on the principle: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”
  11. As this occurs, the proletarian state “withers away.” The state is not dismantled or abolished; it dies of its own accord.

Critical Remarks on Marx’ and Engels’ Conception of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat

From an anarchist point of view, there are serious problems with Marx’ and Engels’ perspective. The most obvious one is this: Marxists insist that the only way to abolish the state (in general) is by smashing the existing (capitalist) state and replacing it with a new, proletarian, one. Moreover, this new state is to be extremely centralized and powerful, since it will be based on the nationalization of the entirety of society’s means of production and on the fact that, as a revolutionary dictatorship, it will not be bound by any legal norms. Once established and the old ruling classes eliminated, this revolutionary dictatorship will, according to Marx’ and Engels’ theory, eventually “wither away.” Those of us who do not subscribe to the Marxist variant of Hegelian dialectics might be permitted to be skeptical. And, so it seems to me, the results of history bear out this skepticism. The outcomes of all Marxist-led revolutions have not been the elimination of the state, one of the proclaimed goals of Marxists, but the establishment of monstrous state-dominated regimes that attempted not only to manage all the economic, social, and political affairs of society but also to control the thought processes of each and every one of their citizens. To begin to grasp why and how this happened, it is worth looking at Marx’ and Engels’ notion of the dictatorship of the proletariat in more detail.

First, Marx’ and Engels’ attempt to appropriate the legacy of the Paris Commune is questionable, on several grounds.

  1. The uprising that created the Commune was not carried out by the “proletariat”, in the Marxist sense of the term. Such a proletariat, that is, an army of mostly unskilled laborers employed in large industrial establishments, hardly existed in France at the time and was not to exist on any significant scale for at least two decades. Instead, the vast majority of Parisian workers were skilled, semi-skilled, and unskilled workers working in small workshops, work crews, or as individual artisans. Moreover, in carrying out the insurrection, such workers were joined by other lower-class elements, including small businesspersons. Among the leaders of the Commune were intellectuals of a variety of ideological persuasions, including radical republicans, reformist and revolutionary socialists, and different types of anarchists; very few, if any, of these figures were Marxists.
  2. The Commune did not, in fact, smash the bourgeois state (although, judging from its own structure, it is reasonable to assume that it would have if it could have). During the course of the war, the French government had abandoned Paris and established itself first in Bordeaux, in the southwest of the country, and then in Versailles, the residence of the French monarchs from the time of Louis XIV, located about 20 miles northwest of Paris. The government continued to rule the part of the country that was not under occupation by the Prussian army through the centralized bureaucratic apparatus that remained intact. Most important, the government retained full control of the army, which would eventually, under the watchful eyes of the Prussian army that surrounded most of Paris, invade the city and overthrow the Commune.
  3. The Commune did not nationalize the means of production. It had no power outside of Paris, and even within the city, it left economic establishments in the hands of their owners. The closest it came to nationalizing property was to authorize workers in enterprises that had been abandoned by their owners to take over and run them cooperatively.
  4. The political vision of the Commune, to the degree that it had time to elaborate one, was decidedly decentralist, specifically, a network of regional and local communes, down to the level of the villages, each of which was to have maximum local autonomy. This reflected the fact that key leaders of the Commune were followers of the mutualist, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, and other anarchists, who advocated this type of decentralized social structure. In contrast, Marx and Engels were militant centralists, reflecting their view that the logic of capitalist development was to concentrate and centralize the means of production in ever fewer hands and eventually under the control of the state. In their writings on the Commune, Marx and Engels fudged this crucial issue. Although they admitted that, in the Communards’ sketch of their plan for the political structure of the country, “very few” tasks were to be left to the central government, they simply asserted that this was consistent with centralism because “national unity was not to be broken.” (Marx, The Civil War in France, in The State and Revolution, op. cit., p. 427.)
  5. All this suggests that, despite Marx’ and Engels’ claims, the Commune was not quite the model of the “dictatorship of the proletariat”, as they conceived it.
    Second, the notion that the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat (or, in fact, any other event in history) is inevitable is absurd. It reflects an archaic conception of science that, in light of the development of quantum mechanics, modern genetics, and other scientific developments, can no longer be reasonably sustained. It is also (as I discuss in my book, The Tyranny of Theory, A Contribution to the Anarchist Critique of Marxism) one of the main sources of the authoritarianism and totalitarianism that characterizes Marxist ideology and the Marxist movement as a whole.

Third, the conception of the dictatorship of the proletariat as a state that embodies the direct and democratic rule of the entire working class is a contradiction in terms. As a centralized apparatus, particularly one that is as centralized as the “dictatorship of the proletariat” in Marx’ and Engels’ conception, the state can only be controlled by a minority. The state represents— indeed, is the very embodiment of— the existence of a political division of labor in society, that between a minority which rules and a majority that is ruled. As a result, to the degree that the proletarian dictatorship is a state is the degree to which it does not and cannot embody the rule of the entire working class; and to the degree that it does embody the rule of the entire working class is the degree to which it is not a state. Thus, a “dictatorship of the proletariat” that is a state can, at best, represent the rule of a minority of the working class, or more likely, a party that claims to represent the working class—supported, perhaps, by a layer of the working class— over the majority of that class.

Fourth, even if we (temporarily) disregard this point, Marx’ and Engels’ notion of the dictatorship of the proletariat rests on a problematic conception of democracy. In fact, it rests on two contradictory conceptions of democracy that are never made explicit and are never clearly separated. On the one hand, Marx and Engels appear to accept what is perhaps the most basic notion of the term, that is, that all members of a given society have an equal right to control the political and other processes of that society. On the other hand, Marx and Engels seem to argue that, by virtue of its historic destiny (the notion that the working class is ordained, by the dynamics of capitalism and, more broadly, by the laws of history, to establish the dictatorship of the proletariat), the working class is the historic embodiment of social progress, and therefore the very establishment of working-class rule, in the form of the dictatorship of the proletariat, necessarily establishes democracy. The contradiction between these two conceptions is blurred by the fact that, in Marx’ and Engels’ view, the dynamics of capitalism will eventually turn the vast majority of people of a given society into proletarians, members of the working class. As this process develops, the two notions of democracy will tend to converge, thus eliminating, or appearing to eliminate, the contradiction between them. In other words, as the working class becomes the overwhelming majority of society, establishing the “dictatorship of the proletariat” means the “establishment of democracy” in the traditional sense of the term.

But this raises several questions: What happens in countries in which the majority of the people are not workers? Does the establishment of the dictatorship of proletariat in those societies still represent “establishing (or winning the battle of) democracy”? Does the working class in such countries have the right, by virtue of its historic destiny, to establish its dictatorship over the rest (the majority) of the population, even if that majority does not want to be ruled by the proletariat? Also, is the establishment of such a dictatorship justified on the grounds that it represent a “higher form” of democracy than the conception of democracy as “one person one vote”? At the time Marx and Engels wrote, the proletariat was a small minority of the world’s population, concentrated mostly in the countries of northwestern Europe, in fact, mostly in one, Great Britain. The majority of the world’s population were then peasants, that is, small farmers. (It has only been relatively recently that the majority of the global population has become proletarian, even in a very broad sense of the term.) Yet, Marx and Engels called for an international socialist revolution. Does this entail the establishment of the international rule of the proletarian minority over the peasants and other members of the non-proletarian majority? And is this to be justified by the Marxian claim that Marxism is scientific, that the establishment of international communism is inevitable, and that the working class is the historical embodiment of social progress? Marx and Engels believed that the peasants are incapable of leading themselves and must inevitably come under the tutelage of an urban class, either the capitalists or the workers. In his writings on the Commune, Marx wrote that “The Communal Constitution would have brought the rural producers under the intellectual lead of the central towns of their districts, and there secured to them, in the town working men, the natural trustees of their interests.” (The Civil War in France, in The State and Revolution, op. cit., p. 431.) Elsewhere, Marx and Engels argued that the workers, once in power, would lead the peasants toward socialism by demonstrating the economic advantages of modern agriculture, based on the latest agronomic techniques and machine technology, that socialism, with its large-scale collective means of production, would make possible. But what if the peasants do not wish to come under the “intellectual lead” of the workers and/or otherwise be “led” toward socialism, or at least not toward the form of socialism advocated by Marxists, specifically, one in which all property would be owned and controlled by the state?

Fifth, Marx’ and Engels’ phraseology concerning the dictatorship of the proletariat is extremely vague and ambiguous, at times even contradictory. This ambiguity centers on two interrelated issues: First, is the “dictatorship of the proletariat” a state or isn’t it? On the one hand, Marx and Engels insisted throughout their political careers that the workers have to seize political power and take control over or establish a state. (This was one of the main points of contention in their disputes with Proudhon, Mikhail Bakunin, and other anarchists that ultimately led to a split in and the eventual demise of the First International and continued beyond that.) On the other hand, Marx and Engels claimed that this state is not a state in the “proper sense of the term”; it is a state that is in the process of becoming a non-state, a state that is “withering away.” Second, when, precisely, does the “dictatorship of the proletariat” start to “wither away” and how long does such “withering” take? Some of Marx’ and Engels’ formulations imply that the process begins immediately upon the establishment of the proletarian dictatorship and proceeds rather rapidly. Elsewhere, their phrasing implies that they believe the state will linger on for a considerable period of time. In one place, Engels suggests that it will take an indefinite period, requiring a “generation reared in new, free social conditions”, before the state will completely disappear. (Preface, dated March 18, 1891, to the third edition of The Civil War in France, in The State and Revolution, op. cit., p. 453.) In fact, in Engels’ book, Herr Duhring’s Revolution in Science (Anti-Duhring), such ambiguities seem to occur in the very same passage: “The proletariat seizes state power and turns the means of production into state property to begin with. But thereby it abolishes itself as the proletariat, abolishes all class distinctions, and abolishes also the state as state.”

But: “The first act by which the state really comes forward as the representative of the whole of society— the taking possession of the means of production in the name of society— is also its last independent act as a state. State interference in social relations becomes, in one domain after another, superfluous, and then dies down of itself. The government of persons is replaced by the administration of things, and by the conduct of processes of production. The state is not ‘abolished’. It withers away.” (The State and Revolution, op. cit., pp. 395-6)

This kind of vague, ambiguous, and contradictory terminology can be found throughout Marx’ and Engels’ writings; it is, in fact, a crucial, though unacknowledged, characteristic of their thinking. For example, they insisted that “social being determines social consciousness”; but they also contended that consciousness is not merely a passive reflex of social development but reacts back upon that process. Similarly, they argued that while the economic base determines the superstructure, the superstructure reacts upon the base; as Engels once put it, the economic base determines the superstructure (and hence the evolution of the entire society) only in the “last analysis.” On a more philosophical level, Marx and Engels imply that history is simultaneously contingent, and therefore open and unpredictable, and determined, and therefore predictable. On these and other questions, Marx and Engels want to “have their cake and eat it, too”, or to put it differently, to walk on both sides of the street at the same time.

All this reflects the Hegelian background and substratum of Marx’ and Engels’ worldview. The essence of Hegel’s philosophical project was to synthesize freedom and necessity. And, in fact, Marx and Engels claimed to have done the same thing, but on a materialist and therefore scientific basis, in contrast to Hegel’s avowed idealism. Engels, quoting Hegel’s dictum, described freedom as the “recognition (or appreciation) of necessity.” At the least, these vague, ambiguous, and contradictory concepts reflect Marx’ and Engels’ intellectual sloppiness and irresponsibility (some might call it dishonesty). But such ambiguities serve a crucial purpose, one that has been revealed throughout the history of Marxism. The libertarian-sounding phrases serve as ideological cover for a profoundly authoritarian, even totalitarian, content, specifically, Marx’ and Engels’ claim that their conception of socialism is scientific; that their views represent the “true” consciousness of the proletariat, and therefore that all other conceptions of socialism represent mere ideologies— “false” or “petit bourgeois” consciousness— and are therefore wrong. Beyond serving as ideological cover, Marx’ and Engels’ vague, ambiguous, and contradictory phraseology also enables Marxists to refuse to accept responsibility for both Marxian theory and the historical results of Marxists’ practice. When critics point to the many examples of Marx’ and Engels’ determinist terminology (for example, their frequent use of the terms “inevitably”, “inexorably”, and “necessarily”), Marxist apologists can always point to the (far fewer) phrases that imply the opposite. Likewise, when critics argue that Marxism must take responsibility for the horrors that have been wrought by Marxists, the apologists generally place the blame elsewhere, usually on “objective conditions.”

Most relevant to our discussion, Marx’ and Engels’ ambiguous formulations concerning the dictatorship of the proletariat lead to the paradox that while Marxists insist that they are militant opponents of the state (after all, one of their proclaimed long-term goals is to eliminate it entirely), in the short and medium run, they advocate building up the state, both under capitalism, and even more so, after the proletarian revolution. In this way, Marx’ and Engels’ claim that, after the dictatorship of the proletariat is established, the state will automatically “wither away” serves to obscure what is a profoundly statist theory and practice. While in theory, Marxists are against the state and call for its elimination, in practice, they are militantly pro-state. This is not conscious deception. Marxists truly believe that the more thoroughly they build up the state, and the sooner that state eliminates the capitalists and the other oppressing class, takes over all property, and crushes all resistance, the sooner the state will disappear. (We’re still waiting.)

Sixth, the determinist character of Marxist theory is revealed in Marx’ and Engels’ insistence that, during what they called the first stage of communism (“socialism”), the workers will be paid according to the principle, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his work.” But, one might ask: Who says so? How do Marx and Engels know this? Who and/or what decides that this is what will happen? Is this, too, inevitable? Yet, if the dictatorship of the proletariat is really the “proletariat organized as the ruling class”, if it really means the “establishment of democracy”, why can’t the workers decide, collectively and democratically, how they will be paid, or, better said, according to what principle they will pay themselves? Why are they obligated to be paid according to what Marx and Engels explicitly claim is a bourgeois principle? Moreover, why do they need a state to enforce this? And who is to control this state and enforce this principle? From the standpoint of Marxism, the basis for Marx’s assertions on these (and on other) questions is that all this is the expression of the “laws” of history as they will be expressed in the transition from capitalism to socialism, with socialism bearing the scars of its origins. Consequently, in this view, even after the socialist revolution, even after the establishment of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” (the “proletariat organized as the ruling class”, the “establishment of democracy”, winning “the battle of democracy”), history is still determined. In other words, social development is still governed by historical laws that guarantee that, regardless of the workers’ consciousness or desires, they will continue to be paid according to bourgeois norms, norms that will be enforced by a state. In this conception, even after the socialist revolution, which one would think (and hope) should be an act of consummate freedom, the workers are not free; they are governed by— indeed, are the mindless playthings of— historical necessity. It seems that only at the very end of this long, historically-ordained process are the workers to be free. In this conception, then, freedom is determined. But how can freedom be the result of determinism? In a world that is determined, there is not, cannot be, and never will be, true freedom. Is it any wonder that when people who hold to such views come to power and seize control of a state, moreover, a state that controls all of society’s means of production, what they will build will not be a free society, but instead a totalitarian nightmare? (You don’t understand comrade, it’s dialectical.)

Finally, to return to my initial point, why on Earth would a state, a revolutionary dictatorship that owns and controls all of society’s means of production, “wither away”? Even at their most minimal, states are ramified organizational apparatuses that are staffed by real people. Isn’t it possible, even rather probable, that, once in power, the people who occupy positions in the state would struggle to hold onto these positions and seek to concentrate even more power in their hands? Wouldn’t this be even more likely the more centralized, and hence the more powerful, the state apparatus is? And isn’t this what happened in Russia in the aftermath of the October Revolution?

With all this as background, we can now proceed to an examination of Lenin’s views.

Lenin’s Conception of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat

V. I. Lenin, the founder and leader of the Bolshevik Party, saw himself, and always tried to present himself, as the faithful follower of Marx and Engels. In fact, where he differed from other Marxists, he insisted that he, and only he, was the true interpreter of Marxism and that everyone else was a “renegade”, in fact, a promoter of “petty bourgeois ideology.” This was certainly the case with his conception of the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” Lenin’s views on this and related questions were most concisely expressed in his pamphlet, The State and Revolution. This work was written during July and early August of 1917, while Lenin was in hiding after the semi-insurrectional July Days and the government repression that followed it; it was published in early 1918, after the Bolsheviks had seized power. Lenin’s concern in writing The State and Revolution was to establish the Marxist bona fides of the Bolshevik strategy of overthrowing the Provisional Government, smashing the existing (Tsarist/bourgeois) state, and building a new, proletarian, state based on the soviets. In other words, Lenin wrote The State and Revolution to demonstrate that the Bolshevik-led revolution was to be a true proletarian socialist revolution and, in fact, the fulfillment of Marxism.

Consistent with this, The State and Revolution has two interrelated polemical thrusts. The most important was to debunk the Mensheviks’ claim, which they based on Marx’ and Engels’ early, and vague, formulations on the state, that their policy of supporting and taking positions in the Provisional Government was the correct interpretation of the Marxian strategy. The other was to differentiate the Bolsheviks’ views from those of the anarchists, who demanded the immediate abolition of the state.

In its outlines, the conception Lenin lays out in The State and Revolution and in his other writings of the period is consistent with the position advanced by Marx and Engels in the aftermath of the Paris Commune. However, he does elaborate on Marx’ and Engels’ views and extends them to what I see as their logical conclusions. Here is my attempt at a summary:

  1. Lenin insisted that the “dictatorship of the proletariat” is the fundamental concept of Marxism: “A Marxist is solely someone who extends the recognition of the class struggle to the recognition of the dictatorship of the proletariat.” (The State and Revolution, op. cit., p. 412.)
  2. Lenin noted that the “dictatorship of the proletariat” is the dictatorship of a “single class.”
  3. Lenin proposed that, in the context of the conditions prevailing in Russia at the time (1917), the soviet, rather than the commune, should be the fundamental organizational form of the proletarian dictatorship in Russia, specifically, that the national network of soviets constitute the basic structure of the Bolshevik state.
  4. Like Marx and Engels, Lenin argued that the dictatorship of the proletariat in Russia would do away with a standing army and a separate police force, both of which would be replaced by the “armed workers.”
  5. Lenin claimed that after the workers smash the old bureaucratic machine, they need to construct a new “bureaucratic machinery”, which will, he believed, make possible the gradual abolition of all bureaucracy. By way of explanation, Lenin wrote, “We are not utopians, we do not ‘dream’ of dispensing at once with all administration, with all subordination…. No, we want the socialist revolution with people as they are now, with people who cannot dispense with subordination, control, and ‘foremen’ and accountants. This subordination, however, must be to the armed vanguard of all the exploited and working people, i.e., to the proletariat.” (The State and Revolution, op. cit., pp. 425-6.)
  6. Lenin’s model for how he proposes to organize the Russian economy under the dictatorship of the proletariat was the German postal service, which he described as a “business organized along the lines of a state capitalist monopoly.” “To organize the whole economy on the lines of the postal service so that all technicians, foremen and accountants, as well as all officials, shall receive salaries no higher than a workman’s wage, all under the control and leadership of the armed proletariat— this is our immediate aim.” (The State and Revolution, op. cit., pp. 426-7.) Elsewhere, he writes: “[T]he vital and burning question of present-day politics” is “the expropriation of the capitalists, the conversion of all citizens into workers and other employees of one huge ‘syndicate’— the whole state— and the complete subordination of the entire work of this syndicate to a genuinely democratic state, the state of the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies.” (The State and Revolution, op. cit., p. 470.)
  7. Lenin contended that one of the main purposes of this “bureaucratic machinery” would be the establishment of the “strictest accounting and control” over the production, distribution, and consumption of economic goods. This, in turn, would require the centralized and compulsory organization of all economic life in Russia. Lenin believed that the combined political, economic, and organizational structure of the dictatorship of the proletariat in Russia would be the embodiment of the “most consistent democratic centralism and, moreover, proletarian centralism.” (The State and Revolution, op. cit., pp. 429-430.)
  8. Lenin claimed that the dictatorship of the proletariat” would be based on “iron discipline.”
  9. Lenin recognized that the state that continues to exist during the first phase of communism (socialism) and that enforces “bourgeois right” in the distribution of consumer goods is, in fact, a bourgeois state. “Of course, bourgeois right in regard to the distribution of consumer goods inevitably presupposes the existence of the bourgeois state, for right is nothing without an apparatus capable of enforcing the observance of the standards of right.
    “It follows that under communism there remains for a time not only bourgeois right, but even the bourgeois state, without the bourgeoisie!” (The State and Revolution, op. cit., p. 471.) In other words, the “dictatorship of the proletariat”, in Lenin’s conception, is a bourgeois state, although one controlled by the armed workers.
  10. Lenin argued that the dictatorship of the proletariat and the bureaucratic machinery through which it manages the economy can be controlled from below by the workers and peasants, not only through the soviets, but also through the other mass democratic organizations, such as the trade unions, and through periodic conferences of the employees of the various enterprises where they worked. Such rank and file control would also be made effective by the fact that all functionaries would be paid no more than an average worker’s salary and be subject to immediate recall.
  11. Lenin believed that the dictatorship of the proletariat would last for the “entire historical period which separates capitalism from ‘classless society’, from communism.” (The State and Revolution, op. cit., p. 413.) This period will be one of “unprecedentedly violent class struggle in unprecedentedly acute forms.” (The State and Revolution, op. cit., p. 412.) Consistent with this, Lenin admits that the “withering away” of the state “will obviously be a lengthy process.” (The State and Revolution, op. cit., p. 457.)
  12. Finally, Lenin argued that the Russian working class, even though it represented only a tiny minority of the population of the country, could and had to seize power and establish its revolutionary dictatorship, as the first stage of an international socialist revolution. In his conception, the workers in Russia, where political conditions were ripe, would start the revolution, which would, as political conditions matured elsewhere, shortly be followed by revolutions in Germany and other countries of Western Europe.

Critical Remarks on Lenin’s Conception of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat

First, although the soviets have often been touted by Marxists as an intrinsically democratic and proletarian structure, this is not quite the case. As I discussed in earlier articles, the soviets were not the purely spontaneous creations of the workers, soldiers, and peasants; they were also, at the least, semi-hierarchical in structure. While, under certain circumstances, they might have served as the basis for a truly worker- and peasant-run society, they might also, under other circumstances, have served as the basis for the establishment of the rule of revolutionary intellectuals and bureaucrats over the workers, peasants, and other members of society. A great deal depended on whether the soviets retained the fluid and highly de-centralized structure they had in the period between the February Revolution and the October Insurrection or whether they were centralized and thus turned into an organizational apparatus under the control of the Bolshevik Party. And, as we have seen, the Bolsheviks were fervent advocates of centralization.

Second, although Marx and Engels insisted that the working class, in the aftermath of a successful proletarian revolution, needed to establish a state, they did not, to my knowledge, ever explicitly state that the workers should create a new “bureaucratic machinery.” However, in light of Marx’ and Engels’ discussions of the continued existence of the state after the workers’ insurrection and, in particular, their insistence that the workers need a state to enforce the “bourgeois right” of being paid according to one’s work, this was, I believe, a reasonable deduction on Lenin’s part.

Third, Lenin’s conviction that one of the main tasks of the “bureaucratic machinery” that the workers, upon their seizure of power, needed to set up was to establish the strictest “accounting and control” of the economy, was also a logical deduction of Marx’ and Engels’ conception of the dictatorship of the proletariat. In Marx’ and Engels’ view, one of the advantages of socialism, as they conceived it, was that under such a system, the economy could be planned. Specifically, establishing a centrally planned economy was the main way that society, under the rule of the working class, would eliminate the “anarchy of production” that was characteristic of capitalism and which was one of the chief causes of the periodic, and extremely destructive, crises that plagued the system. In fact, Lenin had a fairly specific conception of what this “bureaucratic machinery” would look like. In his pamphlet, The Impending Catastrophe and How to Combat It, which was written after The State and Revolution but before the October Insurrection, Lenin laid out his main ideas. These included a series of compulsory measures directed not only against the capitalists and the bankers, such as the nationalization of the banks and the compulsory formation of industrial syndicates, which were to be united in one national syndicate, but also against all other classes, including the peasants and workers. Among these latter measures were: the compulsory unionization of all members of society; the compulsory organization of all members of society into consumer cooperatives; the insistence that all members of society be subject to compulsory labor, or what Lenin called “universal labor conscription.” (The Impending Catastrophe and How to Combat It, in Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 25, op. cit., p. 359.) The result would be the formation of a nation-wide administrative/bureaucratic apparatus that, in Lenin’s view, would be under the direct control of the soviets and the other mass democratic organizations of the workers and the peasants.

The need to establish the “strictest accounting and control” over the production, distribution, and sale of all goods, “down to the last pood (36.11 lbs.) of grain”, was a constant refrain of Lenin’s in the period leading up to and after the Bolsheviks’ seizure of power. But imagine what this means! Russia at that time was (and still is today) an enormous country, by far, the largest in the world. From north to south, it covers five distinct geographic belts (for those who are interested: tundra, taiga, forest, steppe, and desert) and, at the time of the revolution, 11 time zones. (In contrast, the continental United States has four.) To establish the “strictest accounting and control” over the production, distribution, and sale of all goods (down to the last pood of grain) in a country as large as this would require a bureaucratic apparatus of enormous proportions, far larger than the Tsarist state bureaucracy Lenin pledged to smash, one staffed by tens of thousands of people who would have to handle (fill out and sign) enormous quantities of paper forms. Lenin argued that, under the control of the soviets, the job of ensuring the “strictest accounting and control” could be reduced to such simple tasks that even an ordinary worker could perform them. But in this he was either delusional or dishonest. As he well knew, many workers (and a majority of the peasants) were neither literate nor numerate, and many of those who were literate and numerate were barely so. Also, establishing and maintaining the “strictest accounting and control” over the production, distribution, and sale of goods would require, not part-time workers, splitting their time between their regular jobs and their soviet tasks (and subject to immediate recall), as Lenin described, but full-time state officials (that is, bureaucrats), many if not most of whom, at least in the early stages of the revolutionary regime, would be former Tsarist office-holders or members of the intelligentsia. (Of course, after some period of time, during which the new government would educate the population, such officials might well be recruited from among the workers and even the peasants, but eventually, such individuals would become, in their life-style and their social attitudes, not workers at the bench or peasants tilling their fields, but full-time bureaucrats. In fact, such a “proletarian” and “peasant” bureaucracy did emerge in Russia. It was to provide the mass base for Stalin and his regime.) And, I would argue, this would be the case even if proletarian revolutions did break out in Western Europe and were both able and willing to provide substantial economic aid to economically underdeveloped Russia. Moreover, establishing the “strictest accounting and control” would require not merely keeping track of all economic products (down to the last pood of grain), but also keeping tabs on all the human beings involved in the production, distribution, and sale of these products. It would thus be a logical, and short, step to the establishment of internal passports, workbooks, and other measures designed to restrict the independent movement of the population, including the workers and peasants themselves.

Fourth, Lenin believed that for the revolution to succeed, the workers would require “iron discipline.” In the immediate aftermath of the October seizure of power, Lenin praised the workers for the unity, solidarity, and discipline they had displayed in carrying out the revolution. Like his insistence on the need to establish the “strictest accounting and control,” this was a theme Lenin kept returning to in the months after October. And it, too, was a reasonable deduction from the writings of Marx and Engels. One of the chief reasons why Marx and Engels considered the proletariat to be the only consistently revolutionary class, the only class capable of overthrowing capitalism and establishing socialism, is that they believed that the working class, in contrast to the peasants and other non-proletarian classes, would be trained in collective action and disciplined by the capitalist production process itself, which they saw as moving toward the formation of ever-larger industrial establishments employing ever-larger armies of workers. Such “proletarian discipline” would be instilled, for example, by the requirement that the workers be at their work stations, and begin and end work, at precise times and by the need to subordinate their labor to the “iron” rhythms of assembly lines and other production mechanisms. Yet, discipline is a double-edged concept. To be more precise, self-discipline (or voluntary discipline) is one thing; discipline that is externally imposed is quite another. What might start out as self-discipline, can, under certain circumstances, morph into something else, namely, the tyranny of those at the top of a political and economic hierarchy over those beneath them, and especially over those at the bottom.

Fifth, Lenin’s belief that the transition from capitalism to the classless society of communism would take an entire historical period, which he elsewhere described as an “epoch of wars and revolutions”, implies that, in his view, the dictatorship of the proletariat, in Russia and in other countries, would last for a long period of time, indeed, for an entire historical epoch. If so, then the dictatorship, based on the new “bureaucratic machinery”, that the armed workers are to create and control, would not be the temporary, almost fleeting, phenomenon that seems to be implied by some of Marx’ and Engels’ (and even Lenin’s) vague and ambiguous formulations— a state that is “not a state in the proper sense of the term”, a state that is in the process of “withering away”— but a long-standing, bureaucratic state apparatus, a kind of mass, hierarchical, combat organization, that, Lenin believed, the proletariat would wield in its fateful struggle against the capitalists and the other oppressing classes. Can anyone but a confirmed (and dogmatically-blinded) Leninist serious believe that such a militaristic apparatus, based on “democratic centralism”, “iron discipline”, and strict subordination, could actually be controlled by the broad layers of the workers, that is, by the working class as a whole? Isn’t it much more likely to be controlled by those who sit at the top of this enormous, nation-wide, “bureaucratic machinery”, specifically, in the case of Russia, the Bolshevik Party, and in fact, by the leaders of the party? And isn’t it possible, even likely, that if political and economic developments did not proceed as envisioned by the Bolshevik leaders, this apparatus would be used not only against the capitalists, the landlords, and their allies and hangers-on, but also against those members of the oppressed classes, the peasants and even the working class itself, who do not agree to subordinate themselves to the “iron discipline” of the leaders, who do not agree to obediently follow the policies, decrees, and orders of the supposedly “proletarian” leadership?

Finally, Lenin’s insistence that the Russian workers had to seize power in Russia, a semi-medieval society whose capitalist economy was still in its infancy, represented a substantial departure from what was then Marxist orthodoxy, specifically, the conception adopted by the Second (or “Socialist”) International under Engels’ intellectual leadership. This position was that the proletarian revolution would and had to occur first in the advanced capitalist countries in which the economic, social, and political conditions were ripe for the establishment of socialist society. These conditions were, first, the existence of modern industry based on the most advanced technology, in which the process of the concentration and centralization of capital was highly advanced, and in which the trusts and the state had already introduced elements of economic planning. Only in such economies would it be feasible to nationalize the means of production and move to a centrally planned economy. Only this, in turn, would make possible the rapid development of the means of production that would eventually eliminate relative scarcity, the material basis for the competitive, dog-eat-dog, social relations that characterize capitalism. And only this would make possible overcoming the divisions between mental and manual labor and between town and country, and thus lay the basis for a planned, cooperative, communist society. The second condition necessary for the establishment of socialism was implied by the first, specifically, the existence of an industrial working class that would constitute the majority, or close to a majority, of society, and which would be disciplined by working cooperatively in large industrial enterprises and politically educated and steeled in the class struggle that would lead up to the proletarian socialist revolution. Eventually, on a state-by-state basis, the international capitalist system would be overthrown and communism established on a world scale. This orthodox perspective suggests that the workers in countries in which capitalism is not fully developed should not attempt to carry out socialist revolutions but should instead seek to support bourgeois revolutions in which the capitalist class would seize power, establish bourgeois states, and create the conditions for the freest and fullest development of capitalism. Only after a considerable period of time, during which capitalist production would create the economic prerequisites for establishing socialism, should the workers in these countries attempt to carry out socialist revolutions and seize power for themselves. (This was the perspective of the Mensheviks.)

Lenin’s strategy was a radical (it would probably be more accurate to say “revolutionary”) break with this perspective. (In fact, Lenin’s approach, in broad outline, was first raised by Leon Trotsky and Parvus [Alexander Helphand], at the time of the 1905 revolution, under the term “the permanent revolution.”) Lenin based his new perspective on his analysis of the capitalism of his day, as laid out in his pamphlet, Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism, written in 1916. Without going into details, it is sufficient to say that Lenin believed that, beginning with (and as exemplified by) World War I, the capitalist system had entered into a profound, systemic, international crisis. Such a crisis would make possible, not gradual, state-by-state proletarian revolutions, but more or less simultaneous revolutions in a number of countries and eventually on a world scale. In this context and because of the unique political circumstances in Russia, Lenin saw the Russian workers as leading the way politically, seizing state power and establishing their dictatorship, and seeking to hold on until proletarian revolutions broke out in Germany and in other advanced capitalist countries, eventually leading to a truly international revolutionary transformation of society.

Yet, in putting forth this daring strategy, Lenin was proposing, in fact, to establish, even if only temporarily, a revolutionary dictatorship of a small minority of the population of Russia over the rest of the Russian people. This undemocratic situation was to be mitigated by Lenin’s belief that the proletarian dictatorship would be able to count on the at-least passive support of the majority of the peasants, who constituted over 80% of Russia’s population. Yet, Lenin knew that this support, already tenuous, would be temporary, because he recognized that the peasants, deeply attached to the land that they and their families had farmed for generations, were likely to be militant opponents of the Bolsheviks’ (and in fact all Marxists’) conception of socialism— the complete and total ownership and control of the economy, down to the “last pood of grain”, by the state. (Although in 1917, Lenin did promise not to expropriate the small peasants, in light of the long-standing Marxist commitment to the complete centralization of the means of production in the hands of the state, the peasants might have had good reasons to be suspicious.) To make matters worse, the Russian working class did not even constitute a majority of the population in the cities.* So, right from the beginning, even under the most ideal circumstances, that is, the entire working class united behind the Bolshevik strategy (which was never in fact the case), establishing the “dictatorship of the proletariat” in Russia meant constructing a dictatorship of a tiny minority over the majority of the urban population and the even larger majority of the peasants, in other words, over the vast majority of the people of the country. This was to be justified by the Marxist proposition that the proletariat is the only consistently revolutionary class, that it is a class that is destined, by its position within capitalist society and by the “laws of motion” of that system, to overthrow capitalism and establish international socialism. In Lenin’s view, the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat, even in circumstances in which it did not constitute the majority of the population, meant, by definition, the “establishment of democracy.”

(*Some statistics: In 1917, the population of Russia was 182 million, 85% of whom lived in rural areas. The total number of workers employed in industry and mining was 3.4 million. The population of Petrograd, the capital and the country’s largest city, was 2.4 million, of whom roughly 400,000 were industrial workers. Source: S. A. Smith, Red Petrograd: Revolution in the Factories, 1917- 1918, Cambridge University Press, 1983.)


It has been my purpose that show that Lenin’s conception of the state the Bolsheviks intended to establish once they had seized state power does not represent the libertarian proletarian vision that it has often been claimed to be. It is not a state in the process of “withering away.” It is not a state that is “no longer a state in the proper sense of the term.” It is not a vision of a flexible, de-centralized, truly democratic political arrangement that might have enabled the Russian workers, peasants, and people of Russia to cooperatively manage the economy and all of society. Instead, basing himself on Marx’ and Engels’ conception of the dictatorship of the proletariat, particularly their insistence that this required the centralization of all the means of production in the hands of the state, and his belief in the scientific nature— and hence, certainty— of Marxism, Lenin envisioned building a massive, nation-wide bureaucratic apparatus. This “bureaucratic machinery”, built around the soviets and other popular organizations and supposedly controlled from below, would be organized on militaristic principles— “strict subordination” and “iron discipline”— with the workers as shock troops, and would manage a completely centralized state-owned economy: all citizens reduced to employees of one national syndicate, organized along the lines of a state-capitalist monopoly. With this apparatus as an organizational extension of the Bolshevik Party and based on the principle of “democratic centralism”, Lenin aimed to establish the “strictest accounting and control” over the entire Russian economy and also, as the logical implication of his conception, to impose “iron discipline” over the entire population of the country. This was a vision of a mass, and highly disciplined, proletarian army, with Lenin, the only correct interpreter of Marxism and hence the embodiment of true “proletarian consciousness”, as commander-in-chief. Even under the best of circumstances, this would have been a blueprint for a bureaucratic nightmare: a state capitalist monstrosity presenting itself as “proletarian.” In the concrete circumstances of Russia at the time, that is, over three years of war; a collapsing economy (factories idle, people fleeing the cities, millions on the road trying to survive as best they could); the breakdown of social life (an explosion of crime, rampant vigilantism, an orgy of alcoholism); and looming famine— Lenin’s vision was a recipe for disaster.

Global Warming, Youth, and the Democratic Party— A Conversation

July 2

Young people are rising up against so many horrors of this country: racism, gun violence, the immoral immigration policies, and now they’re coming out in protests against global warming!

While we’re not young people, we understand a lot about this system, and we have an important vision of the kind of world we believe would create equality, justice and freedom for all, and we can easily share our many organizing strategies (ways to connecting unions, communities, neighborhoods, organizations, & alliances, etc). I believe we all need to become more active, if people can, because these young people will learn from us & we will learn from them! And together we will have a far more substantial impact.

Honestly, whenever I speak up at rallies, whether it’s in the Bronx or at other locations, I always talk about the bigger picture, how both parties are financed by the rich, how it’s the system we live under that we have to change to make this a better world, and people always come up to me and ask for my phone number, and info so we can be connected. That’s why I think we should all be as active as we can be.


Here’s the message I received in my other email:
From: “Ilana Cohen &”
Date: July 2, 2018 at 1:02:58 PM EDT
To: “Mary Hemings”
Subject: Zero Hour for the climate
This is Zero Hour for the climate.
Young people are growing up in a world already shaken by the impacts of climate change— from year-round wildfires to Category 6 hurricanes to deadly heat waves year after year. These young people may also be the last generation who can do anything to stop the worst of this crisis.

That’s why, on July 21, a movement led by high schoolers of color will march in New York, DC, and around the country to demand our elected officials take bold action to protect young people and our futures— before it’s too late.

Sign up here to stand with young leaders and join the Zero Hour climate march in New York on July 21.

As the Trump administration disregards the dignity and human rights of young people and their families, we have a responsibility to stand with youth who are fighting to protect our collective future and prevent the worst impacts of climate change.

Zero Hour is a youth-led movement founded to center the diverse voices of young people in conversations about climate and environmental justice— and to advocate for the young people most affected by climate change. And here at, we are proud to be supporting their critical work.

On July 19, a wave of young activists will descend on Capitol Hill to lobby elected leaders for a just transition to a 100% renewable energy-powered future. Then, on Saturday, July 21, youth will march alongside thousands of supporters like you and demand an end to business as usual on climate change once and for all.

Join young leaders in calling for the just, bold climate action we need to protect our futures. March with Zero Hour in New York City on July 21.

The fossil free world we need is already on its way: from the explosive growth of renewables to the wave of cities and states voting to block dirty fossil fuel projects, you see signs that our movement is winning everywhere you look. Now, we need to push more leaders to step up before we’ve lost our chance to stop the worst of this crisis.

By keeping up a loud, steady drumbeat of demands for climate solutions — in the streets, in our communities, along the route of fossil fuel pipelines, at the ballot box, and everywhere in between— we’re sending a clear message that our movement is too big to be ignored.

They’re hearing us. Keep making noise. Join the youth-led Zero Hour climate march in New York on July 21.

With resolve,
Ilana Cohen, Zero Hour NYC Co-Coordinator
& the team
PS: Not in NYC? There are Zero Hour sister marches happening across the country on July 21. Check out the map of Zero Hour marches and find an action near you here.

July 20

Apparently the message that you forwarded is from a group associated with, which was founded by Bill McKibben. Have you had much contact with them? What’s your impression of and its practice?


July 20

A few years ago I joined Bronx Climate Justice North (BCJN), which is the Bronx affiliate of, because they were doing interesting work about a lot of important struggles. During my initial time with BCJN, we worked both locally in the Bronx and with 350 in NYC. Some of us went to a number of their protests in Manhattan and upstate NY, as well as to some of their meetings on the Upper West Side at NY Society for Ethical Culture where they hold meetings & events, so, I got to know a number of people who play significant leadership roles. And we participated in a number of protests with them at many different locations in the city and upstate. And they supported the struggle of the Standing Rock Sioux against the Dakota Pipeline, as did we.

In the last year or two, we’ve been more locally based in the work that we’re doing… Things like:
— Protests against police brutality when a cop punched a young man in the head 18 times & a video showed what he did.
— Work to defend a homeless facility that opened on Broadway in the Bronx that right-wing people protested.
— Local protests against the racists in Charlottesville awhile ago, and many recent protests for immigrants’ rights.
— Working with people in the Bronx, with Mychael Johnson form South Bronx Unite, Ray Figueroa from Brook Park & NYC Community Garden Coalition, friends in Marble Hill and Kingsbridge, and many clergy & religious leaders, where we’ve held events.

In the more recent period, BCJN has become part of a coalition of groups (North Bronx Racial Justice Coalition, NBRJ) that collectively wants to organize events together. Our recent event about youth & gun violence was pretty significant… held at a church in Marble Hill, had a number of young speakers who had different experiences & backgrounds, and were quite radical, including a young man who had been formerly incarcerated, as well as a woman from the youth committee of Black Lives Matter. And we had a great turnout, almost 100 people were there.

So to answer your question about, I feel it’s a pretty liberal group, but they take actions and organize around many important things, and by taking action and bringing people together to fight against many horrors, there’s room for more radical people to play a role. Their activities are often a great place to leaflet about a different approach or about upcoming activities.


July 3

Thanks for your reply.

I have no doubt that Bronx Climate Justice North has engaged in struggles at the local level, and I think that it’s important to engage in such struggles. Why would serious folks take us seriously if we didn’t? So thanks for engaging— that’s absolutely necessary.

Thanks for clarifying that BCJN is part of the network. I’d go beyond your characterization of it as “a pretty liberal group”, though I think that it is that. Here are a few thoughts and questions:

First, if I recall correctly, Bill McKibben was the principal founder of The name itself comes from McKibben’s claim— at the time— that it was absolutely critical to keep atmospheric carbon levels below 350 parts per million— or else face disaster. This is characteristic of what I see as a panic-mongering attempt to stampede folks by saying “This is it. If we lose this immediate fight, all will be lost.” This was said about holding atmospheric carbon to 350 ppm; then to 400ppm; it was said about the Keystone Pipeline (James Hansen, prominent atmospheric scientist connected with McKibben, stately flatly that if the Keystone Pipeline wasn’t blocked it would be “game over” for life as we know it). Statements like these will stampede folks— but after a while one has to wonder whether they aren’t manipulative and disingenuous, and whether they aren’t harmful to building a long term fight for what’s necessary: a complete reorganization of society from the bottom up, rather than short term “this is our last chance so follow us” approaches that lead to channeling activism into pressuring Democratic politicians. McKibben certainly orients to the Democrats in just this way, and I think that does, at least nationally.

So second, I’m interested as to how BCJN, as a affiliate, is influenced by the above. Is there any pressure from the national How do folks relate to the Democrats?

Third, and related: What’s the reaction to the election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez right in New York City? It seems to me that this is likely to be double-edged: it will likely encourage more activism, but much of this is likely to be channeled towards DSA, electoralism, and the Democrats (as we’ve seen so often). Ocasio-Cortez may well be a rising star for the “Bernies”— much younger (28), a Latina woman who’s bright and charismatic, and working inside the electoral system with the DSA and the Democrats. Will there be sentiment for the kind of local demos, actions, and groupings that you reported on to orient towards working inside the system, like Ocasio-Cortez, and orienting local actions towards pressuring politicians. How can we relate to (or counter) that tendency?

Fourth, is there an audience in BCNJ for the Utopian— for the Bulletin, for (say) Ron’s short book on Lenin, etc.? What could be done to help facilitate reaching folks (what kinds of articles, topics, etc.?)

I am not expecting definitive answers to my questions. I think, or at least hope, that we can share thoughts about questions like these and, through dialogue, help better understand how to combine activism with the need for libertarian socialism.


July 5
Hi Jack,

Your questions are great! Your comments about Bill McKibben are correct, but he lives in Vermont, and he’s not very involved with folks here in NYC, even though he’s the major leader of the 350 organization.

After marching in the huge NYC climate march in September of 2014 with a couple friends, I decided to get involved in the movement, so I found BCJN, which was located quite close to me here in the Bronx. Although a few of us initially went to many events in Manhattan, where 350 NYC holds its meetings, our focus was on both local organizing and major events, such as protests against the AIM pipeline, the Keystone pipeline, the Indian Point nuclear power plant, the Dakota Access Pipeline, in defense of the Standing Rock Sioux, etc., as well work for the farmworkers in NYS.

Initially there were quite a few people involved with BCJN, but now the number of active people is quite small. While we still have a large mailing list, and sometimes lots of folks will turn out for something, the active core is quite small. The coordinator, Jen, is pretty radical, and she’s a former friend of Joanne Landy. And Wayne has also been somewhat involved. As an organization, BCJN is not oriented to the DP, though one person on the steering ctte leans that way. So the core of the organization is to the left of the DP. Over time we’ve developed important relationships with various organizations and religious centers in the northwest section the Bronx, as well as with important allies in the south Bronx, including Ray from Brook Park, South Bronx Unite, and many others.

Our recent event about youth and gun violence was an amazing success because of the relevant topic, an amazing panel, extensive leafleting, and the coalition we created to bring this together: North Bronx Racial Justice Coalition.

I think Ocasio-Cortez’s victory is pretty interesting because it reflects the extent to which young people are rising up against the powers that be. Yes, she’s a democrat, so we’ll see what she does, but it may be interesting to see her response to the DP system, because it’s so corrupt and I’m sure she hopes to make a difference. The fact that she’s quite local makes me want to keep up with what she does.

I believe many people, especially young folks, want to do what they can to make this a better world, which is why so many are becoming active to try to do something. So i feel more of us should try to become involved in important actions & organizations that are doing relevant things. We all have a significant understanding of how this system works and the ability to connect to people who want to fight the horrors that are escalating. And I believe we could collectively have some impact on what is happening if we all became more active. I’ve been quite impressed by the number of people who have come up to me after I’ve made a few radical comments about this system at an event, which has happened several times in the last month. When I went to a protest against the horrible separation of immigrant families in New Rochelle a few days ago, after I spoke about the system we live under, several people came up to me and wanted information to stay in touch. So people are looking for a strategy, and trying to figure out what to do about this system. We have an answer, not an easy one, but one many people understand when we explain what democracy would look like from the bottom up, not the top down.

Yes, I do believe there’s an audience for the Utopian, but BCJN is quite small. I believe our outreach in the communities offers even more potential. And the NBRJ coalition includes someone who is joining BCJN & I feel has excellent potential. I also feel that it would be helpful for our work to create some pamphlets that address different issues, and to create a pamphlet about who we are. Yes, we need to combine activism with our understanding of what libertarian socialism could be!


July 5
Hi Mary,

Thanks for your reply.

I guess that must vary quite a bit from area to area. In the Bay Area, they seem to be pretty influenced by their national organization, and orient quite a bit to trying to pressure local and Congressional Democrats. In fact, most of the activism in the Bay Area is being influenced in one way or another by the Democrats. For example, in the city of Richmond (about 10 miles north of Oakland), the dominant political group is the Richmond Progressive Alliance, whose key organizer is Mike Parker (veteran IS leader, now in Solidarity) and includes other names that may be familiar (Ken Paff, Steve Early, Margaret Jordan— all in Solidarity). They are an open alliance of Greens, independents, and Democrats. In the 2016 presidential primary, Mike Parker (and others) changed their political affiliation from Green Party to Independent so that they could cross over and vote for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic Party primary. And the most rapidly growing group in the area is DSA, which recently held an East Bay (Oakland / Berkeley / Richmond) meeting of several hundred, and is if anything bigger in San Francisco. And the dominant faction in DSA out here believes in working with, endorsing and voting for “progressive” Democrats.

That’s really just a brief and very sketchy take, but from what I can make out similar things are happening elsewhere. I hear that DSA in Brooklyn has between 500 and 1,000 turning out for some of their events. Many are activists, and most orient in one way or another to the Democrats (many have an “inside and outside” approach, meaning support “good” Democrats and don’t support “not so good” ones). Some left groups that have traditionally opposed the Democrats and Republicans have become at best fuzzy on the question—for example, many members of Solidarity no longer see opposition to the Democrats as a principle and will support some Democrats (many of them supported Bernie Sanders, for example).

So I’m a little bit surprised that only one person in the BCJN steering committee orients towards the Democrats. I expect that the election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez will have some impact on this. She’s a really intelligent, young, engaging, articulate Latina woman and DSA member who advocates a pretty radical program: abolish ICE; national health care; universal public education through college; decent housing for all; etc. Already, left groups are lining up to support her (and, by extension, others who follow in her footsteps running as Democrats) or debating whether to do so: from what I can tell, most of Solidarity is in support; there’s a debate in ISO; Socialist Alternative (Kshama Sawant, the socialist Seattle City Council person, is in that group) supported Ocasio-Cortez from the ghetto; etc. I think that many, perhaps most, who have traditionally in principle opposed the Democrats may well cross over to supporting Ocasio-Cortez and other insurgents. Many traveled at least part way down this path with Bernie Sanders. Ocasio-Cortez may take this much further— I think that she’s more likely to appeal to activists, to people of color, to young people than Bernie.

So I think that it’s really important for us to be clear about where we stand vis a vis what I think is an emergent tendency to abandon opposition to the Democrats. I think that we need to review why we’ve been in principle opposed to the Democrats, but as well I think that we have to ask where the emerging movement is going and whether we ought to revise our long-time position given the current context. In particular, I think that we should ask: do we think that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (and others in the DSA) are likely to take over the Democratic Party, or to split it, or even to have a major influence on its policies. Or is it more likely that these activist / politicians will, consciously or not, help corral activists and movements within the confines of the Democratic Party, as has so often happened in the past. Or, are other courses likely. From how I’ve posed this, you can probably guess my position: principled opposition to the Democratic Party, while trying to find ways to engage with and fight alongside activists in united front fashion— fighting for what’s needed, but also being clear that we can’t really get what’s really needed without socialist reorganization of society.

I think that this is an important discussion, and hopefully we will get to discuss this at some length next month in New York, where I think that a discussion of how to relate to the Democratic Party is on the agenda.


July 6

I want to add a bit to what I wrote yesterday.

I’ve spent some time reading up on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and also just watched an hour or more of interviews with her via YouTube. She has gotten much attention for calling for abolishing ICE, and also for calling for impeaching Trump. But something else is clear: she is for a Keynesian New Deal: higher taxes on the “haves” to fund jobs and services: guaranteed jobs, universal free higher education, health care for all, etc. And she’s very clear that she thinks that the way to win this is by getting more Democrats elected, and by having a collaborative approach towards all Democrats (Pelosi included).

I think that we’re likely to see a groundswell of support for Ocasio-Cortez’s (and Bernie Sanders) approach: work collaboratively with the Democratic caucus in Congress (Ocasio-Cortez said this in each interview that I watched; Sanders has been part of the Democratic Caucus since 1990); call for a Keynesian welfare state / New Deal approach funded by higher and more progressive taxes (never mind that this won’t come close to providing the funding needed for Ocasio-Cortez’s program); and get this program adopted by electing more Democrats (in the process of doing so, almost surely the program will be watered down, in order to maintain “consensus” and “electability”.)

I hope that we’re all clear that this program can’t be implemented without a truly radical restructuring of society. Attempted solutions in K-12 education, to take one example, have repeatedly run into this barrier: it’s possible to improve conditions for some for a limited time, but those solutions don’t scale. Just to provide the needed smaller class size would, by my estimate, run into the trillions of dollars— and this doesn’t begin to deal with the massive problems in high poverty communities like the one in East Oakland (where I taught), where for some kids it’s a struggle just to make it to school intact, where many haven’t had a meal since school lunch the day before, where they’re exposed to lead in the environment, live in group homes, etc. So new programs are tried, they work for some but not for most, and many parents out of desperation opt for the next variant that is sent down the pipe by the billionaires (like Eli Broad and Bill Gates). In other words: the deep-seated problems in education are rooted in class and race, and won’t be solved under capitalism. We can fight to improve conditions, and we should (I did and still do), but we also need to be clear that lasting change for all (or even most) requires a radical reorganization of society (not a Keynesian welfare state, a la Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez).


July 8

I completely agree with your comments about Ocasio-Cortez, what she’s been trying to do, its impact on many others, as well as the limitations of her strategy. It’s the increase in the numbers of people, particularly young people, who are becoming active to try to make this a better world that I feel may lay the groundwork for a new kind of movement. Young people are fighting against many different issues: income inequality, poverty, the homeless situation, poor education, racism, police brutality, climate change, continuing wars, mass incarceration… and the list goes on. Most recently the significant protests around the country against the immoral immigration policies of this government, separating children from their parents, have mobilized many people who are holding protests all over. And the reality that there will be no easy way for many of these children to be reunited with their families makes me believe that this struggle will continue.

As I mentioned before, the activist young people who have become involved in these struggles are both liberals and radicals. And many of the deep problems in education are understood by these young people, many of whom are afraid that it won’t be solved under capitalism, but they do not know what else to do! So that’s why I believe that more of us should make connections to those who are continuing in these struggles, share our understanding about this system, what we believe is needed, how we envision a truly just and equitable society, what we need to do to get there, and our thoughts about how to build the movement we need to truly fight against this system. I know that many young people understand that a significant and lasting change for all will require a radical reorganization of society (not a Keynesian welfare state, a la Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez). Although many understand that the DP won’t get us there, they know of no other way, and that’s where we come in. We need to become more involved in various struggles, and areas where movements are building, so that we can help to make clear the need for a radical reorganization of society, not a Keynesian welfare state, including the need for a massive change to the education system so that all schools are as well organized as those of the elite with smaller class size, relevant instruction, interactive learning, etc..

To me the issue of the Democratic Party is its role in this society, as you clearly outlined in your email. They’re an essential part of the tyranny of this system, using their pretense for a better world to help enable the system to continue. So I feel what’s most important is to make clear the irrelevance of voting for them because they will not change anything of substance. But I also understand why a number of people will want to vote for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez because she’s for many good things greatly needed by people. So I feel we need to have conversations with those people to help them understand how this system works. I don’t care if people vote for democrats because they view the vote as a lesser evil, but I do care whether they understand the system and are willing to become part of the struggle against it. So while I agree with your stated principled opposition to the DP, I feel the most important aspect of that opposition is finding ways to have meaningful conversations with those who need to more fully understand the role the DP plays. We need to share strategies about how to engage in these struggles and fight along side other activists in the struggle.


July 9

Thanks for your reply. I have read it through, and think that I need to respond: I do care about whether people swallow lesser evilism; I don’t agree that voting for Democrats is irrelevant but think that it’s a trap. And while I myself have been an activist for years, I expect that there are several on the Utopian list who can best contribute in other ways. For example, I expect that Ron’s time is better spent in the thinking and writing that he does than it would be as an activist.

I think that we need to be clear on what’s going on: what does the mainstream of the Democratic Party represent; what do Warren, Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez represent; why are they in the same party; why are they not irrelevant; why is Ocasio-Cortez a Democrat, and what happens if we scratch the surface (for example: Ocasio-Cortez wants ICE abolished, but would have the Immigration and Naturalization Service take on ICE’s work); and why supporting Sanders / Ocasio-Cortez / … will lead to channeling whatever movements there are into focusing on the November elections and then, ultimately, demoralization. This— corralling people, and potential movements, into narrow electoral activity and convincing them that somehow the Democrats will deliver some of what they need and convincing them that neoliberalism (Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer…) is a “lesser evil”— is why voting for the Democrats is not irrelevant at all. It’s why we do need to be concerned about “lesser evilism.”

For example, take the red state teachers. I wrote a report on the meeting I attended in Oakland at which four leaders of strikes in West Virginia, Kentucky and Arizona spoke, and I found the event uplifting. But unfortunately, the strategy of the red state teacher leaders now is to run candidates in the November elections to try to take over local and state school boards, legislatures, etc. They will be running as Democrats. This is not irrelevant. It’s turning the movement— the most significant strikes in years— back in on itself, back into the system.

I appreciate that you understand and articulate that major enduring positive change requires reorganizing society from the bottom up— socialism, not capitalism. So I wouldn’t be emphasizing the points on why voting for the Democrats isn’t irrelevant and why we should care if people are voting for the Democrats as a lesser evil if I didn’t think that it’s critical for us to be as clear on these points as it is to be clear on the need for system change.


Guns, Gun Violence, Youth Liberation— Perspectives

Over the past year, The Utopian has carried discussions of guns, gun control, student actions around gun violence, self-defense of militant movements and armed self-defense of oppressed peoples.

We hope that two articles relevant to these issues will stimulate further discussion. One appears on the following pages. The other, “Anarchists and Guns,” appeared in the Summer 2018 issue of the Fifth Estate. The first article, ‘Gun Control? No, Youth Liberation! Mass Shootings—School Walkouts—Getting Free’ appeared in Crimethinc (March 20, 2018).


The John Brown Gun Club provides security to counter-protesters at a far-right rally in Seattle

Gun Control? No, Youth Liberation!

The New Normal

Another mass shooting. We’re horrified, but we can’t say we’re surprised. These shootings have been going on for as long as we can remember. The victims at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School weren’t even born when Columbine happened-and mass shootings have only gotten worse since then. Four of the ten deadliest mass shootings in American history have taken place in the last two years.

Why the last two years? The answer tells us a lot about this society. 2016 and 2017 saw a wave of backlash against the struggles and visibility of queer and trans people, women, and people of color, especially the Black Lives Matter movement. The reactions came in many forms: “men’s rights,” the alt-right, the Trump campaign. But all of them were based in the anxiety that straight, white men are losing their power over society-and it’s no secret that mass shooters tend to be angry white men with a history of hating women.

Dylann Roof, who killed nine people at a black church in South Carolina in 2015, left behind a manifesto claiming that black people are inferior and bewailing the supposed “disappearance” of the white race.

Omar Mateen, who killed 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando in 2016, was training to become a police officer. He had physically abused his former wife on a regular basis.

Stephen Paddock, the white Trump-supporting millionaire who carried out the deadliest civilian mass shooting in American history in 2017 in Las Vegas, was notorious for berating his girlfriend in public.

Devin Kelley, who beat his wife and stepchild while in the Air Force, looked up to Dylann Roof and copied his attack, entering a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas in 2017 and shooting over forty people— 25 of them fatally.

Nikolas Cruz, who killed 17 students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, posted comments online degrading Muslims and threatening to kill anti-fascists. His classmates knew that he wore a MAGA hat, had been abusive to his ex-girlfriend, and had assaulted her boyfriend and called him racial slurs. Later, it was discovered that Cruz carved swastikas into the ammunition magazines he used on the day of the shooting.

The Old Normal

The problem of mass shootings goes much deeper than just the last couple of years. It cuts to the heart of American culture. Our whole society is built on a competition to take power over others: rich over poor, politicians over citizens, men over women and gender non-conforming people, white people over people of color. Politicians on both sides of the gun control debate agree on the need for more resources to diagnose and treat mental illness; but the desire to have power over others is not a mental illness, it’s a social one. Mass shootings will continue as long as this competition for power is the basis of our society.

The US government is holding 2.3 million people captive in prison-as many people as there were in the Soviet gulag system at its peak. Police routinely brutalize and murder people of color with impunity. In 2017, cops shot and killed almost a thousand people, over twice the number of people who died in mass shootings that year. Where are the Democrats clamoring for gun control when cops routinely shoot unarmed teens?

The United States itself was founded on genocide, slavery, and white supremacy. Last year’s shooting in Las Vegas may have been the deadliest civilian shooting in US history, but the two deadliest gun massacres on American soil were carried out by the military-against former slaves in the Fort Pillow Massacre and against the Lakota Nation in the Wounded Knee Massacre. Soldiers shot between 200 and 300 people in each. We won’t even mention the countless invasions, coups, and massacres that the US has perpetrated elsewhere around the world.

White people have carried out some of the most violent acts in the history of the world, but you don’t hear them described as terrorists when they shoot up a school or bomb another country. Why? Violence directed down the hierarchy gets normalized and becomes invisible, while violence from those lower on the hierarchy against those above them provokes shock and outrage.

This is why those in power cannot offer real solutions-they’re too invested in the same system of power that causes mass shootings.

Breaking the Norms

What’s different this time is that instead of waiting for solutions from leaders, one of the groups targeted by mass shootings-students-took power back into their own hands. Not power over, but power with each other.

In the days after the Parkland shooting, teens across the country walked out of their schools. On the one-month anniversary, the largest school walkouts since the civil rights movement took place. It’s only thanks to disruptive direct action outside the normal political channels that the topic of mass shootings has remained part of the national conversation.
Authorities have responded by threatening suspension in some school districts and imposing limits on the walkouts in others. (“OK, but just for 17 minutes.”) In Florida, politicians and even the NRA hurriedly responded to student demands in order to seem relevant. Whether they were for or against gun control, they all wanted to send the same message: “You have to go through us to change things.”

It’s time to stop depending on adults who are invested in America’s system of power to solve the problems it produces. It’s time for young people to get together and set out on a different path.

Gun Control Is a False Solution

Gun control is a false solution-and not for the reasons you hear from the NRA. In fact, the NRA has backed the most significant steps towards gun control in order to impose limits on black people’s efforts to achieve liberation.

The NRA was founded in 1871, immediately after the original version of the KKK was outlawed. One of their primary goals was to keep guns out of the hands of recently freed slaves. Later, in the South, the NRA crafted the legislation and licensing schemes that denied Martin Luther King, Jr. the weapon he applied for after his house was firebombed. You’d never know it from NRA propaganda, but modern gun control began when the NRA backed Ronald Reagan in outlawing open carry in California in order to disarm the Black Panthers’ armed citizen patrols.

The United States government is racist— its cops are racist, its courts are racist, and any new laws they pass will be used chiefly against the poor people and people of color who are always targeted by the state. More laws won’t protect us when it’s the same racist system enforcing them.

School Security Is a False Solution

Making schools even more like prisons won’t give us freedom or safety. School is already violent. Teachers focus on obedience more than education, administrators control where you can be and when, school cops routinely brutalize and criminalize students. The cop at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School did nothing when he was needed most!

There is no safety without self-determination. The people who knew best about the threat that Nikolas Cruz posed were his own classmates-they knew about his bigotry, the threats he repeatedly made, and the way he was abusive to his ex-girlfriend. The solution is not to deputize students to report on each other to adults, but to take that power from teachers and administrators and school security and give it back to the students themselves. Students should have power over their lives and the conditions of their education

Mental health efforts aren’t enough. The alienation we feel from each other in a world mediated by technology and the ways the economy and the school system condition us to compete against each other can make anyone feel worthless, helpless, and desperate for power. We need to create a society in which our self-worth isn’t based on competition, in which each person’s well-being is understood to depend on everyone else’s.

Linking mental health efforts to state control, surveillance, and incarceration will just give the state another tool to increase incarceration and social control. The government doesn’t sincerely care about stopping mass shootings-they’ve been getting worse for decades now without any change coming from the halls of power.

What You(th) Can Do

Try youth liberation! If you can shut down your school, why not downtown? Why not the highway? The economy itself? The same people who are letting oil companies poison our water, helping racist police get away with murder, keeping us from getting the health care we need, and trying to force us back into the boxes of gender-they’re the ones who want students to stay in their place, obeying orders and conforming and regurgitating what teachers tell you. Administrators need students for their schools, but you don’t need them.

Start a secret club for the abolition of principals. Form a union to defend students from authoritarian administrators. Host viewing parties or reading groups about cool ideas and discuss what you would want to do and learn if you were in control of your own lives. Students like you have organized assemblies in Quebec, forced back police lines in Chile, shut down airports in Mexico, and stood up to tanks in Tiananmen Square. You can network with young people around the world who are rebelling against the same things. Talk to each other, learn from each other’s efforts, and take that inspiration to the place you live. Adults might be able to help you with these things-provided they’re not too busy trying to control everything-but they can’t do them for you.


The student-led fight to end mass shootings connects to lots of other struggles for liberation. People working against police oppression can tell you how cops perpetrate and exacerbate gun violence in black communities. Anti-fascists can tell you how they track white supremacists who aim to promote the toxic masculinity and white resentment that cause mass shootings. Agitators from worker-led unions can share ideas about how to organize and make decisions collectively. Women and gender non-conforming people who practice self-defense can share techniques that young people can use too.

Show up to other actions against oppression. See what you can learn-and what you can offer.

To the Students

Don’t hold back. You don’t have to wait until you’re 18— or for the elections if you’re over 18— to get organized and take action. This is your chance. RIGHT NOW. Don’t let adults set limits on your imagination. Don’t let political parties or school boards tell you what counts as appropriate protest. They can’t run those schools without you. Together, we can make the changes they never will.

Crimethinc (March 20, 2018)