When asked to explain what those terms are supposed to mean, socialists argue as follows:
Socialism, like most ideologies, comes in different flavours. It comes in authoritarian varieties, such as Leninism. But it also comes in decidedly anti-authoritarian, anti-totalitarian varieties, associated with names like Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, Emma Goldman or Alexander Berkman. Leninists believe that a socialist society ought to be run by huge hierarchical, top-down state bureaucracy. But libertarian socialists believe in dismantling hierarchies, in grassroots democracy, and in self-emancipation. Most contemporary socialists see themselves in the latter tradition. They therefore believe that it is unfair when their opponents hold the dire results of Leninism, or other examples of authoritarian socialism, against them. As they see it, this has nothing to do with them. It’s a completely different type of socialism. Socialists believe that their opponents are either being disingenuous, or simply not clever enough to understand the differences between different varieties of socialism.
In this, as in so many other things, socialists are completely wrong. The distinction between a “libertarian socialism” on the one hand, and an “authoritarian socialism” on the other hand, is wholly illusory. Socialist projects always start with the intention of dismantling hierarchies, democratising the economy, and empowering working class people. Even Lenin started with such aspirations. Socialist projects always end up doing the opposite – but this is not because its protagonists believe in the “wrong kind” of socialism, an authoritarian as opposed to a libertarian socialism. It is because their theories are wrong, and a “libertarian socialism” cannot be achieved. The choice is not between an authoritarian and a libertarian socialism. The choice is between an authoritarian socialism, and no socialism at all. Faced with that choice, socialists always opt for the former.
A good illustration is Lenin’s seminal book The State and Revolution, in which he sets out his vision of a socialist society. The book was written in the months just before the October Revolution, so it cannot be dismissed as the writing of a younger, more naïve and more idealistic version of Lenin: this was the same Lenin who would go on to become the main architect of the Soviet Union. But neither was he in power just yet, so the book cannot be dismissed as regime propaganda either. It is the closest thing to a genuine Leninist manifesto.
The State and Revolution does not at all read like a blueprint for a totalitarian society. The type of society outlined in this book has next to nothing in common with the Soviet Union that actually existed. It is not that Lenin simply glosses over, or omits, the unpalatable aspects of the future Soviet Union, such as the bureaucratisation of society, or the mass arrests and mass executions. No: he specifically explains why the future Soviet state would not, and could not, develop any such features.
Echoing Marx and Engels, Lenin believes that the state is, always and everywhere, an instrument of class rule, an instrument of the ruling class. The flipside of this is that in a society without class antagonisms, there will be no need for a state. Socialism, of course, is all about the creation of a classless society. It would therefore ultimately lead to a stateless society – communism:
“[E]very state is a “special force” for the suppression of the oppressed class. Consequently, every state is not “free” and not a “people’s state […]
So long as the state exists there is no freedom. When there is freedom, there will be no state.”
This is a long-term aspiration. Lenin is not an anarchist; he believes that a state will still be necessary for some considerable time after the revolution. But, crucially, he believes that even during this transitional period, the Soviet state will not have to do very much. There is no mention of, for example, Five-Year Plans. Lenin believes that the new society will require a few administrative functions, but in the main, it will more or less just run itself:
“The means of production belong to the whole of society. Every member of society, performing a certain part of the socially-necessary work, receives a certificate from society to the effect that he has done a certain amount of work. And with this certificate he receives from the public store of consumer goods a corresponding quantity of products. […]
[T]he accounting and control necessary for this have been simplified by capitalism to the utmost and reduced to the extraordinarily simple operations – which any literate person can perform – of supervising and recording, knowledge of the four rules of arithmetic, and issuing appropriate receipts.”
A state bureaucracy as such will no longer be needed. State officialdom, in general, will be a thing of the past. The country will be run more like a large working men’s club:
“Instead of the special institutions of a privileged minority (privileged officialdom, the chiefs of the standing army), the majority itself can directly fulfil all these functions, and the more the functions of state power are performed by the people as a whole, the less need there is for the existence of this power. […]
[C]ontrol by society and by the state over the measure of labor and the measure of consumption […] must be exercised not by a state of bureaucrats, but by a state of armed workers […]
[U]nder socialism functionaries will cease to be “bureaucrats”, to be “officials” […]
Under socialism […] for the first time in the history of civilized society the mass of population will rise to taking an independent part, not only in voting and elections, but also in the everyday administration of the state. Under socialism all will govern in turn and will soon become accustomed to no one governing.”
Self-management of society, without state bureaucrats, is not a vision for the distant future, but a short-term action plan:
“[I]t is quite possible, after the overthrow of the capitalists and the bureaucrats, to proceed immediately, overnight, to replace them in the control over production and distribution […] by the armed workers, by the whole of the armed population. […]
[T]he “state” which consists of the armed workers […] is “no longer a state in the proper sense of the word”.”
Lenin also believes that this entity, which he describes as a “proletarian state or semi-state”, will not be particularly oppressive. His reasoning is simple. Under capitalism, a small minority (the capitalist class) oppresses the vast majority of the population (the workers and the peasants). This is hard work. It therefore requires an elaborate state security apparatus: a police force, a prison system, a standing army, etc. Under socialism, on the other hand, state power is wielded directly by the workers and the peasants, and thus by the vast majority of the population. They only need to oppress a small minority, namely, the deposed capitalists. This is very easy. It therefore does not require an elaborate security apparatus, or even much of an apparatus at all:
“[U]nder capitalism we have the state in the proper sense of the word, that is, a special machine for the suppression of one class by another […] Naturally, […] such an undertaking as the systematic suppression of the exploited majority by the exploiting minority calls for the utmost ferocity and savagery in the matter of suppressing, it calls for seas of blood […]
[D]uring the transition […] suppression is still necessary, but it is now the suppression of the exploiting minority by the exploited majority. A special apparatus, a special machine for suppression, the “state”, is still necessary, but […] the suppression of the minority of exploiters by the majority of the wage slaves of yesterday is comparatively so easy, simple and natural a task that it will entail far less bloodshed […] Naturally, the exploiters are unable to suppress the people without a highly complex machine for performing this task, but the people can suppress the exploiters even with a very simple “machine”, almost without a “machine”, without a special apparatus, by the simple organization of the armed people”
In other words, Lenin does not claim that the revolution will be a walk in the park: he says, repeatedly and very clearly, that repressive measures will be required. But he also believes that there will be far less repression than under the previous system.
This, needless to say, is not quite what happened. In its worst year on record (1905, the year of the failed revolution), the Tsarist regime executed about 11,000 people. In a “normal” year, it executed fewer than 20 people. Under the Bolsheviks, the number of executions immediately jumped to about 28,000 per year (p. 82) – and this was before Stalin took over.
Similarly, while labour camps already existed under Tsarism, fewer than 30,000 people worked in them in 1917. In the years after the Revolution, that number quickly soared to 70,000 (p. 5) – and again, this is all before Stalin.
The Tsarist secret police was indeed dismantled after the revolution, but its socialist successor, the Cheka, was in a different league in terms of size, scope and brutality – also before Stalin.
Now, of course, you could claim that the entire book is just a big pack of lies. You could claim that Lenin always wanted to create the totalitarian hellhole that he did help create, and that he just sugarcoated his true intentions for PR reasons. Or you could claim that he may have held those convictions initially, but that they were only skin-deep, and that power quickly corrupted him. Or that adverse circumstances, such as the civil war, derailed his original plans.
But here’s a more plausible explanation: when Lenin wrote those words, he meant it. In his aspirations, Lenin was a “libertarian socialist”. But once he was in power, it soon turned out that you cannot just abolish market signals and market exchange, and expect society to somehow spontaneously organise itself without them. It soon turned out that “the working class” is just a Marxist abstraction, and that an abstraction does not suddenly spring to life, and act independently.
It is cheap, and easy, to claim that Lenin and so many others just had the wrong intentions, or that they just picked the “wrong kind” of socialism. The supposed distinction between “libertarian socialism” and “authoritarian socialism” is a post-hoc excuse to explain away socialism’s inevitable descent into authoritarianism.
Socialism is always “libertarian” in its aspirations. And it is always authoritarian in its actual practice. Had Lenin died during or just after the October Revolution, he would today be remembered as a great “Libertarian Socialist”, and socialists would be convinced that the Soviet Union would have turned out completely differently with him at the helm. Conversely, had the Spartacist Uprising in Germany succeeded, the whole of Germany would soon have turned into a very large GDR, and Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht would today be remembered as “authoritarian socialists” who “perverted” Marx’s ideals. “No, you just don’t understand”, socialists would argue today. “I’m a Libertarian Socialist – not a Luxemburgist!”