What Do We Mean By Anti-Capitalism?

category international | the left | opinion / analysis author Thursday April 27, 2006 01:28author by Wayne Price - NEFACauthor email drwdprice at aol dot com

Part 1 of The Nature of Stalinist Societies

If anti-capitalists want an alternative to capitalism, we need to examine the nature of countries of the type of the Soviet Union. There are three groups of theories about them. One is the idea that these societies are socialist or “workers’ states.” This will be compared with the original libertarian goals of classless socialism. This is the first of a 3 part series.

Many activists call themselves “anti-capitalist.” But this is a negative; what should we be for? Since anti-capitalists wish to find an alternative to the current system, it is necessary to examine the nature of societies which claim to have once replaced capitalism, namely the former Soviet Union and similar nations. There is a large left literature on this topic. Many radicals have sought to analyze the countries ruled by Communist (Marxist-Leninist) Parties, countries which called themselves “socialist” and which many of us on the far-left called “Stalinist.” However, to a lot of radicals today this area of theory seems old, being about a country far away which no longer exists. From 1989 to 1992 the Soviet Union and the Stalinist governments of Eastern Europe dissolved, in a combination of popular revolt and maneuvering by sections of the ruling bureaucracy. Therefore, many conclude that it is no longer relevant to study the nature of these states.

I strongly disagree with this attitude of uninterest. For one thing, Communist Party-ruled regimes continue to play a significant role in the world. The great nation of China affects today’s world economy, politics, and military balance. There are still a number of small Asian countries with Communist Party governments. This includes North Korea, whose nuclear armament affects international tensions. The Cuban government continues to play a major role in Latin American affairs, particularly in alliance with the Venezuelan regime of Hugo Chavez. The Marxist-Leninist FARC maintains a state within a state in Columbia. This has been a growing target of U.S. intervention. And many radicals are attracted to the Maoist rebellion in Nepal, which has a chance of coming to power. Finally, to understand the world, it is necessary to understand what is going on in the successor states to the Soviet Union, such as Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, etc., along with the new Eastern European states. This cannot be done without understanding their very recent history, the system they lived under until a few years ago.

To me, however, the most important reason for studying the nature of the Soviet Union and similar states is the light it sheds on what we mean by ANTI-CAPITALISM and by SOCIALISM. Whether we regard these states as socialist determines what we think is the alternative to capitalism. There are a great many radicals who are attracted to the model of the old Soviet Union or of Maoist China, who are impressed by Cuba today or by the Nepalese Maoists. They would like to create a world in which all countries are more-or-less like Cuba, including North America and Europe. They described the Soviet Union and Cuba as “really existing socialism.” That is, if you want socialism, this is the socialism which really existed, whatever you would have liked it to be, so anti-capitalists better accept it.

Conversely, the establishments of Western capitalism have been glad to agree that the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, etc. are/were “socialist” and “communist.” They say, capitalism may have faults, but this is the only “anti-capitalist” alternative which ever was or ever could be. These ugly, totalitarian, Stalinist states are the only socialism which could ever exist. So everyone must accept capitalism, they declare.

(I call these regimes “Stalinist.” This does not deny that Lenin and Trotsky laid the basis for Stalin’s totalitarianism. Nor do I deny that there were important changes in these countries after Stalin’s death. But I believe that this system became consolidated under Stalin’s rule, when the last remnants of the Russian revolution were destroyed, tens of millions of workers and peasants were exterminated, and the new bureaucratic ruling class was solidified. Russian totalitarianism became the program of all Communist Parties, such as the Chinese. So Stalinism is an appropriate label.)

Among radicals, particularly among anarchists, there are tendencies which reject the labels of socialist, of communist, and of the left. For them it is not a problem that the Soviet Union’s system is identified with socialism. They agree with this identification. I will not go further into these tendencies right now, except to point out that they reject not just state socialism but the whole of the socialist project.

Historically anarchists considered themselves to be a part of the left--the extreme left of the left, that is, the most oppositional of those in opposition to capitalism and the state. They considered themselves as an extreme part of the socialist movement. In his famous article on “Anarchism” for the Encyclopedia Britannica, Kropotkin wrote of “...the anarchists, in common with all socialists, of whom they constitute the left wing...consider the wage-system and capitalist production altogether as an obstacle to progress.” (1975, p. 109)

The tendency with which I identify is revolutionary, class-struggle, pro-organizational, anarchism. By “anti-capitalism” we mean libertarian socialism and authentic communism. We advocate replacing capitalism with a cooperative network of self-managing producer and consumer associations and communes, which will produce goods for use, not for profit. It will be democratically planned from the bottom up. Society will be coordinated through these associations and communes, in a federation of workplace and community councils. The police and military will be replaced by a popular militia, so long as it is needed.

“In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” These are the stated goals of the Communist Manifesto of Marx and Engels. (1955, p. 32) They are the original goals of the socialist project, reflected both in the humanistic, libertarian tendency within Marxism and in revolutionary anarchism. Did the Stalinist regimes meet these goals? Were they even going in that direction? If not, what does it mean to call them “socialist?” These are questions I will discuss in this 3-part series.

The Three Theories About Stalinism

On the left, theories about the nature of the Soviet Union can be grouped into three trends.
One (to be considered in this part) is that it was a form of socialism, or tending toward socialism, or a “post-capitalist” society. Trotsky regarded the Soviet Union under Stalin as a “degenerated workers’ state.” After World War II his orthodox followers called the new Stalinist states, “deformed workers’ states” (since they could not be “degenerated” without having had actual workers’ revolutions; but most of these theorists regard Cuba as a “healthy workers’ state”). In any case, these theories regard the Stalinist system as better (more “progressive”) than capitalism .

A second group of theories regards Stalinism as a new, third, type of class society. It is, they claim, not socialism and not capitalism. The bureaucracy was a new ruling class which managed a nationalized, collectivized, economy. It exploited the workers in some fashion. This system is not better than capitalism and possibly is worse. Such a theory (called “bureaucratic collectivism”) was developed by some dissident Trotskyists. A version has been developed by the theorists of “Parecon.”

A third group of theories regards the system as a variant of capitalism, despite its apparent differences from traditional capitalism. Usually this is called “state capitalism.” The concept is rooted in the work of Marx and Engels. It has mostly been developed by dissident Trotskyists but anarchists have also used it. In my opinion this is the best analysis of this system.

I will discuss the new-type-of-class-society theories in Part 2 of this series, next month. State capitalism will be reviewed in Part 3 of the series.

Was the Soviet Union “Socialist”?

Whether to call the Soviet Union “socialist” may be a matter of definition. If people wish to define “socialism” as government-owned industry--which may be what most mean by “socialism”--then the Stalinist countries were indeed socialist. I cannot prove that a definition is “wrong.” However, the Marxism which the system’s supporters claim to follow describes socialism in a different way (at least Marx’s Marxism does). It insists on a class analysis of each society. In the very same section of the Communist Manifesto which was quoted above, Marx and Engels declared, “...The first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to establish democracy...the state, i.e....the proletariat organized as the ruling class....When in the course of development, class distinctions have disappeared...the public power will lose its political character.” (1955, pp. 31-32)

That is, to Marx, the working class and its allies (peasants, women, etc.) would take over society and establish true democracy, a “state” which is nothing but the self-organized working class. It will proceed (rapidly or slowly) to end all class distinctions and the state. (Libertarian Marxists believe that Marx became even more anti-statist after the Paris Commune.) I am not discussing here the validity of libertarian (autonomist) Marxism, just pointing to its overlap with class-struggle anarchism in the socialist project.

It is obvious that countries of the Soviet Union’s type do not meet these class criteria. There was (is) a bureaucracy of bosses on top, who ran everything and made the decisions. The state was the bureaucracy “organized as the ruling class.” In a planned economy, they did the planning. The workers were on the bottom, taking orders, doing what they were told, and resisting where they could--just as under capitalism. There was a vast system of police repression. Only one party was allowed; all others, even socialist parties, were outlawed. No opposition caucuses were permitted within the single party either. Organizing for other views, such as anarchism, was rewarded by jail, labor camps, mental hospitals, or death. Independent unions and strikes were banned. Therefore the working population had no choices and no way to control their “leaders.”

Supporters of the Stalinist system knew this, of course. They could hardly deny that the Soviet Union then and Cuba today are single-party dictatorships. They could only argue that these were benevolent dictatorships, good for the workers. They could point to real or imagined low-level workplace assemblies, for example (in which the workers could decide how to carry out their part of plans which had been made elsewhere, by others). Criticisms of the one-party dictatorships usually were answered by changing the topic, by pointing out that, after all, the U.S., with its two parties, is really a dictatorship of the big capitalists (true, but irrelevant to criticisms of Stalinism).

In fact, these supposedly benevolent dictatorships were enforced through massive terror. 20 million workers and peasants may have been murdered under Stalin’s rule, to solidify the bureaucracy. Millions more died under Mao, in the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. In Cambodia/Kampuchea, Pol Pot exterminated a fourth of the population. Many thousands have risked their lives fleeing from Vietnam, North Korea, Tibet, and Cuba. Even the less violent regimes, such as Cuba’s, are backed by enormous police forces and have a large number of political prisoners.

Clearly, in none of these states is the proletariat in the position of the ruling class, on the road to abolishing all class distinctions and the state. The most repressive regimes on earth, with states similar in structure to Nazi Germany’s, disguise themselves as the embodiment of the most advanced, liberating, socialist ideals! This is disgusting, although not without its logic. What is especially disgusting is that so many radicals let them get away with it, either by supporting these states or by rejecting the ideals of socialism. (To what extent Marxism led to such tyranny, i.e. what are the authoritarian aspects within Marxism, is another discussion.)

Also astonishing is the number of well-meaning radicals who are impressed with the Maoists of Nepal. The 60s and 70s have come and gone. We have seen this movie before. We know--or should know--how it comes out. We know what happens when movements with Marxist-Leninist (Stalinist) or radical nationalist leaders take power. The result is never the democratic rule of the working population.

Defense of Stalinism

The apologists argue that these societies were good for the working class, and therefore the workers did rule them, even if they didn’t. These supporters point out that the Soviet Union had full employment, guaranteed housing, and universal health care. This is compared to the unemployment and increased misery of the Russian people today. A similar argument is made about China, which once had the “iron rice bowl,” guaranteeing work and food for all Chinese. This has been abandoned by the current leadership (although the leadership remains a Communist Party, proclaims Marxism-Leninism as its ideology, and maintains a great deal of nationalized property--which makes it all confusing). Similar points are made about the health care and medical coverage of Cuba. Much of this is true--even if the Soviet Union’s jobs, health care, and housing were pretty low-quality in practice.

Every ruling class makes a de facto DEAL with its working population: If you let us rule, without rebellion, we will grant you some benefits and rights, to make life livable for you. In the U.S.A., for example, the top bourgeoisie gets to have wealth beyond the dreams of the emperors and pharaohs of old. They get to run society in their interest. In return, they had provided most U.S. workers (whites, anyway) with a fairly high standard of living, one better than their parents had, and with a moderate degree of political democracy and freedom. In this period, this deal has been dissolving, with a lowering of the standard of living and a decrease in freedom. A rise in discontent and rebelliousness may be predicted.

In the Communist-run countries, the deal was that workers got full employment, housing, health care, education, etc. This was not as good as in the Scandinavian social democracies (under private capitalism), but still decent, considering their low level of productivity. In return, the bureaucracy got to have unlimited power and great riches for the upper crust (which lived far, far, better than the bottom workers). This does not mean that the workers ran the Soviet Union or run Cuba, any more than the workers run the U.S. or the Scandinavian countries. It was a class deal.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern European states, the workers had hoped that they would get the same deal as in Scandinavia or at least Western Europe: Germany or France, say. Instead, they were treated as if they lived in Africa or the poorer parts of Asia. The old bureaucrats turned bourgeoisie got very rich but the workers and farmers got very few benefits to replace those they had lost. Mostly they got an increase in political freedom (and not so much of that), which is good but cannot be eaten. Naturally many look back to the old deal with longing; at least there were jobs and food. But this does not prove that the Soviet Union had ever been anything but an exploitative, class-divided, totalitarian state. Nor can all the education or medical coverage in Cuba, as valuable as that is, make the state a workers’ democracy or Castro other than a dictator.

Class deals are not enough. The problem is that our standards are so low. Much more than decent schooling for children and good medical coverage is needed on a world scale if the human race is to avoid destruction by nuclear war or ecological catastrophe. What is needed is the vision which was demanded by the Utopian socialists, the original Marxists, and the anarchists. Nothing less will do.

Workers’ Rule Must be Democratic

Trotskyists and others point out that capitalism may be managed by a bourgeois-democratic state but that it also has functioned under various forms of dictatorship, such as monarchy, police states, or fascism. Similarly, they argue, working class rule (beginning socialism) may be through proletarian democracy, such as the Paris Commune or the original soviets, but it also may function under a dictatorship. Stalin, Mao, Kim Il Sung, and Castro all are supposed to have ruled “workers’ states,” not as good as the Commune system, no doubt, but still maintaining working class power, however indirectly. So they argue.

However, the analogy between capitalism and working class rule does not hold. Capitalists rule the workers primarily through the market. What they need from a state is protection of the market, enforcing of contracts, repression of the workers, and some regulation and economic intervention to keep the market on a steady course. This is best done through a capitalist democracy, but it is not a big problem if these tasks are carried out by some form of dictatorship. Neither Nazi Germany nor Pinochet’s Chile lowered capitalist profits--quite the contrary.

Unlike the capitalists (or other ruling classes, such as feudal lords or slaveholders), today’s workers do not own private property in the means of production. Modern workers cooperate in the process of production, at the workplace and in society as a whole. If the workers are to manage industry, they must do so cooperatively and collectively. Unlike the capitalists, they cannot rely on any automatic processes, such as the “invisible hand” of the market. They must make conscious decisions about how the economy (and everything else) is to be managed. They must engage in democratic planning, a matter of deliberate, conscious, collective, decision-making. If the working class and oppressed people are to rule, and develop a classless, oppressionless, society, it must be done through the most radical, thoroughgoing, participatory, democracy. This cannot be done through any kind of elite rule, let alone dictatorship, whether by one person or by a vanguard party. The Bolsheviks never understood this, and modern Leninists do not understand this now.

There is the same problem with Trotsky’s analogy between Stalin’s “workers’ state” and a bureaucratized, gangster-dominated, labor union. Both, he argued, are workers’ institutions, dominated by undemocratic forces, internal agents of capitalism. Like a bad union, the Stalinist state should be defended against the capitalists and capitalist states, while workers struggle to take it back. This analogy also does not hold. Even a bureaucratized union may still provide some protection for the workers against the bosses. But the Stalinist states directly exploit and oppress the workers. They are analogous to capitalist bosses, not to unions.

The Soviet Union and its descendants are not workers’ states, nor post-capitalist, nor socialist, nor tending toward socialism. They are totalitarian states with a bureaucratic ruling class and an exploited working class. They are no alternative to capitalism. Anti-capitalism must include the most democratic self-management, in the tradition of libertarian socialism, or it must fail.

[Attempts to describe the Communist Party-ruled system as a new class society will be discussed in next month’s essay.]


Kropotkin, Peter (1975). The essential Kropotkin. (E. Capouya & K. Tompkins, eds.). NY: Liveright.
Marx, Karl, & Engels, Friedrich (1955). The communist manifesto. (Samuel Beer, ed.). Northbrook, IL: AHM Publishing Corp.

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Part 2 The Bureaucratic Ruling Class vs. Democratic Self-Management can be found at

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