Socialism: Scientific, Utopian, Anarchist, Statist, and Capitalist

Marx and Engels famously developed a distinction between scientific and utopian socialism. The difference could be captured in a metaphor used by G. A. Cohen: utopian socialists are engineers, who have privately drawn up a blueprint and now come before society demanding that people adopt it, while scientific socialists are midwives, who attend not to their own speculations but to the developments, dynamics, and trends of society itself, so as to identify which ones are disposed to ‘give birth to’ a new society, which they then try to coax out. To put it another way, utopian socialism is simply a vision, a goal; scientific socialism is an integrated conception of the goal, the means to producing it, and the way that those means will inevitably produce it.

I want to suggest that anarchist communist is the most natural position to take if one is a “scientific socialist”. I will first observe that scientific socialism (or Marxism, historical materialism, or, henceforth, SS) did in practice produce a near-endless succession of premature “it’s coming! the revolution is imminent!” proclamations, and that whether or not it’s true that socialism is a natural outcome of capitalism, it clearly wasn’t the outcome in the 20th century, and probably won’t be in the 21st century.

This needn’t be a refutation of SS. It might just mean that, like inexperienced midwives, socialists have interpreted each little pang, cramp, and labour pain as if it meant that the birth itself was just minutes away. Marx himself said that a society only collapses when it has fully developed itself, and it’s not hard to suggest that capitalism hadn’t fully developed itself in 1848 or in 1917. Full development would mean, for one thing, some sort of capitaist modernisation for every country in the world, and a radical transformation in the position of women. Maybe it will require other things as well.

Anyway, the reason I think that SS is inherently disposed towards anarchism is because its epistemic orientation is towards people in general, not towards the intellectual theorist in their superiority. It suggests, firstly, that the theorist is not as smart as they think they are, because they are the product of their society and its historical development (of course you don’t need Marxism to tell you this – just look back at how the greatest minds of Antiquity could still be so wrong about so many things. but people tend to be reluctant to apply it to themselves – Marxists included), and secondly, that the masses are not as stupid as some people might think they are, because their “unenlightened” movement is destined to solve the problems that Plato and Robert Owen couldn’t.

There are different ways of applying this (one of which is “my party understands Marxism-Leninism, and so we know how stuff works and you don’t, do as we say), but one way, and I think the best way, is to make it a collective parallel for the individual principle that each person is generally best-placed to sort out their own lives: the capacity of a group of people to develop structures that work to meet their collective needs will generally outstrip the capacity of any educated or enlightened thinkers to do so. As Marx himself expresses it, SS means not going to people and saying “HERE IS THE TRUTH! ON YOUR KNEES BEFORE IT!”

I want to counterpose this to talking about statism. For the purposes of this discussion, what’s definitional for a ‘state’ is commanding: one person issues commands which others have to obey, whether they agree or not, whether they like it or not.

Now what happens if the things that the power-holder (at whatever level) is telling people to do coincide, to whatever extent, with what they want to do anyway, so that they would act in the way they’re instructed to without anyone telling them too? Then the role of the power-holder becomes superfluous – considering the issuing of commands, abstracted from functions like administration or coordination, the person in charge is no longer needed.

Now, one possible result is that in proportion as everyone sees the superfluity of the power-holder, they stop listening to them, and ignore them. At this point the power-holder no longer holds any power, and has been, so to speak, ‘dissolved’. This is the possibility required for the state-socialist idea of the “withering away of the state” after the defeat of capitalism.

But an alternative possibility, perhaps (in many cases, to my mind) more likely possibility, is that the power-holder will resist their superfluity. This is because people become invested in their roles, their identities, their personas, and they struggle against threats to them. The power-holder doesn’t lose much, in material terms, from ceasing to hold power, but they may lose a huge amount if that’s what their ego is bound up with.

So in this case the power-holder will adjust their commands, consciously, subconsciously, or semi-consciously, to maintain a difference between what they command and what people want to do. Of course they won’t make this difference too big – then their success in producing obedience would be threatened. Like with any task, it must be made neither too hard, nor too easy. A moderate gap between command and desire is maintained.

There are two obvious ways in which such a gap could be produced or widened. One is by creating or exacerbating conflicts of interests between the governed. If they are systematically struggling against one another, then they will never all voluntarily abide by the framework of that struggle – some will react against it. The obvious way that socialists would apply this is to crime, among other things: in a society where masses of people are in fact getting screwed over, where people’s interests are systematically opposed, then inevitably many people will do anti-social things, whether legally or illegally. The government can then justify its existence by fighting them. But to actually remove them, through a classless society, would remove the government’s raison d’etre, and is thus resisted (there are other reasons why governments resist this, and why they tend to serve the interests of the capitalist class, but that’s another story).

But what if, for whatever reason, the conflict of interests between different people is weak. Or what if they already have ways to deal with that conflict, and the government isn’t involved. How then is that power to justify itself? By creating an ideal, something new and different from what people are already doing. An ideal, of course, that is ultimately to their benefit (if you admitted that it was just to make you feel better about yourself, you’d threaten your benevolent self-image) but nevertheless one they will not voluntarily implement.

This I think is part of the reason for the failure of the Russian Revolution (not the whole reason, but part of it). Having set up a state, that state sought a reason to exist, and found one in ‘progress’, ‘forward to socialism’, ‘industrialisation’, and so forth. Which isn’t to say there weren’t arguments for such a position – the narrowness, and collossal cost, of the USSR’s victory over Hitler is partly a testament to how well-grounded was the feeling that “if we do not industrialise they will crush us”. The point is, the way that the Bolshevik leaders took those arguments, the applications they made of them, were not simply based on the arguments but on the interaction between the arguments and the structural imperative that states must find an ideal to which to sacrifice their people.

That’s also not to deny that there was a conflict of interests to defend, between the bureaucracy and the people. But the weight and strength of the modernisation rhetoric, the counter-productive magnitude of the violence it generated, and it’s resemblance to third-world modernisation projects that had little interest in socialism, say to me that it was more than just ‘conservative’ repression to prop up a comfortable elite.

Hopefully the connection I’ve tried to draw out between scientific vs. utopian socialism, and anarchist vs. statist communism (not sure why one is socialism and one communism, it just seems to be how the words have landed, as ideologies they amount to the same thing) is already quite clear. States n0urish themselves on setting up ideals and killing people for them. It’s an integral part of what they are and how they maintain their relevance – and it’s likely to be correspondingly more vicious as the more normal conservative reason for states dwindles (namely, to prop up an unjust system of class antagonism). Utopianism is, so to speak, in their blood.

So if you’re a scientific socialist, and believe in socialism as the system that people (the working class(?)) will develop themselves, as the outgrowth of their own activity, supporting a state to help that along seems misplaced and counter-productive. It’s rather as though a Tutsi were to hire a member of the Interahamwe (the militia that massacred Tutsis in the 1994 genocide) as a bodyguard – however useful they may be, trusting them seems to fly in the face of understanding them.

Hence, Marxists should be anarchists.

A final note. Part of SS is the idea that major movements should be seen as being grounded in a social role, a movement of people of some sort. The best understanding I can see of the “real basis” of state socialism (given its best expression in Marxism-Leninism) is that it was suited to a movement of the aspiring, educated elites of developing countries, to provide them with a way to mobilise the masses for a modernising project to bring them up to the level of the developed capitalist countries. I.e. it served the goals of capitalism (even if against the wishes of many capitalists). Given this its blood-stained history should be no surprise.

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