Anarchism, Marxism and the Lessons of the Paris Commune – III

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The Commune deserved better than to be used as a point of reference for those whose practice and ideology are in such direct contradiction to it.

“Nothing could be stranger…”

The main problem with Donny Gluckstein's book, The Paris Commune: A Revolutionary Democracy (Bookmarks), is that he tries to present Leninism (which he regards as "Marxism") as the champion of the Commune. In reality, this is not the case, and he demonstrates this when he quotes and approvingly paraphrases the essay Lessons from the Paris Commune, 1921, by Trotsky – although he repeats his conclusions more carefully than his author did. Needless to say, he is as selective in his use of this work as he is with anarchist works.

For Trotsky, the Commune was not problematic, because "we will find in it a single lesson: the leadership of a strong party is necessary". And that. As for the Communards itself, “what they lacked was clarity of method and an organization with centralized leadership. That's why they were defeated."[I] Thus, the Commune was a classic example of what not to do, more than a source of hope for a better society.

What about the Commune's goal of mass participation and direct democracy? Nonsense, the Commune "showed us the inability of the masses to choose their path, their indecision in the leadership of the movement, their fatal inclination to stop after the first success, thus allowing the enemy to catch his breath and re-establish his position". The party, not the class, is seen as the key “insofar as it is the accumulated and organized experience of the proletariat” and “theoretically foresees the paths of development, all its stages”. With the “help of the Party” the proletariat “frees itself from the need to always start over its history: its hesitations, its lack of decision, its mistakes”. Or, more directly, the proletariat gets rid of the need to govern itself and society: that can be left to “our party” which “seized power” in Russia.[ii] The growing democracy that Gluckstein hails is seen purely as a means of securing party power; once state power is taken, the working class can revert to its traditional role of following orders.

In reality, of course, only the party leadership holds effective power as Trotsky recognized. He notes that a member of the Central Committee demanded in October 1917 "the proclamation of the dictatorship of the Central Committee of the party", indicating that this was simply the "anticipation of the logic of the development of the struggle". Trotsky was against it only because the timing was not right, as it "would have caused great disorder at the time".[iii] Gluckstein (2006, p. 52), in agreement, cites Communards arguing for “communal France in federal form” and that the “triumph of the communal idea is… the social revolution”. For Trotsky, such aspirations were simply wrong. The notion that "each city has its sacred right of self-government" was "idealistic babble—of the same order as worldly anarchism." In reality, “more than any other” the French proletariat was “deceived” by the bourgeoisie, because the “autonomist formula” is “nothing more than an obstacle to the proletariat, impeding its progressive movement”. Opposition to centralism was “an inheritance of petty-bourgeois localism and autonomism” and “is undoubtedly the weak point of a certain sector of the French proletariat”. Autonomy "is the supreme guarantee of real activity and individual independence for certain revolutionaries", but in reality it was "a great mistake, deeply costly to the French proletariat". So, “the tendency to particularism, whatever form it may take, is an inheritance from a dead past. The sooner French communism – socialist communism and syndicalist communism – emancipates itself from this, the better it will be for the proletarian revolution.” “Passivity and indecision”, states Trotsky, “was supported in this case by the sacred principle of federation and autonomy… regional autonomy”.[iv] The same goes for the Commune, for having “planted the seeds of a new social world” (GLUCKSTEIN, 2006, p. 53).

For Marx, in 1871, the Communards were "storm in the sky"[v], for Trotsky they were nothing but crazed petty bourgeois, autonomist-federalists-anarchists. Still, to be fair to Trotsky, he could at least cite Marx to justify his rejection of the Communards and his vision of a federal France. Let us not forget, because Gluckstein will not remind us, that Marx argued forcefully in 1850, during the German Revolution, that: “the workers must not only fight for a single and indivisible German republic, but also… for the most decisive centralization of power in the hands of state authority. They must not be carried away by empty democratic talk about freedom of municipalities, self-government, etc. […] Revolutionary activity… can only be carried out with full efficiency from a central point… As in France in 1783, this is the task of the genuinely revolutionary party in Germany, to carry out the strictest centralization”.[vi]

Significantly, in 1872, Engels privately reiterated this view, suggesting that "it was the will to centralization and authority that cost the Paris Commune its life".[vii] Needless to say, it was from these writings and others like this that the Bolsheviks drew inspiration, and in this Trotsky, in 1921, at least had the merit of honesty.

And which of the popular organizations does Gluckstein hail so effusively? For Trostky, their role was simple: to provide a link through which the party could implement its decisions. Thus, “it was indispensable to have an organization embodying the political experience of the proletariat” and through the “Councils of Deputies… the party could, in continuous contact with the masses, know their mental state; its hard core could, every day, implement a slogan that, through party militants, would be introduced to the masses, unifying their thinking and their will”.[viii] The focus is at the top, and decisions flow downwards – just like in any class system – yet Gluckstein (2006 p. 47) hails the “anti-hierarchical attitude of the insurgents” of 1871.

Trotsky also discredited mass democracy in the National Guard, arguing that "before the great mass of soldiers had acquired the experience of good choice and selection of commanders, the revolution would be defeated by the enemy". This means that the “methods of formatless democracy (simple eligibility) must be supplemented and to some degree replaced by top selection measures. The revolution must create a body composed of experienced and reliable organizers[ix], in which one can have absolute confidence, giving him full powers to decide, designate and educate the command”.[X] Trotsky is being disingenuous here, since he was fully aware that the Bolsheviks did not “supplement” internal democracy in the armed forces, but in reality completely replaced it with appointments from above because it was he who abolished it – before the war ended. began – in March 1918: “the principle of election is politically unreasonable and technically inconvenient, and was, in practice, abolished by decree”.[xi] Gluckstein (2006 p. 141) reproduces this, suggesting that “in the early period of the Commune, direct democracy would have selected more effective leaders from its midst, but it did not survive long enough for this to happen”. Even so, he also states that the “internal democracy of the National Guard ensured that the coercive force belonged to the popular mass, instead of being used against it” (GLUCKSTEIN, 2006, p. 52). Trotsky asserted that such "internal democracy" could be substituted for appointment from above without apparently affecting the nature of the "coercive force". Gluckstein seems to agree – the military democracy he hails and to which he seeks to associate his ideology was not applied in the new Bolshevik state and was seen very clearly as non-essential: with the right people in power, apparently democracy can be deferred into the distant future. . Yet the Red Army itself demonstrated the need for “internal democracy” – because in practice it “belonged” to the party leaders, not the “popular mass” and was regularly “used against them” to maintain Bolshevik rule through repression of strikes and other protests.[xii] This occurs tacitly of course, but we find space to refer to Trotsky about the need for a “communist discipline” not based on the “stick” (GLUCSKSTEIN, p. 141) when, in reality, the Red Army was based on it, with its appointed officers possessing numerous techniques for forcing compliance, including firing squads.

If democracy can be suppressed from the armed forces, would this argument not equally apply to the mass organizations created by the revolution? Trotsky's attacks on the Central Committee of the National Guard for organizing elections "to convey its power to the representatives of the Commune" as being "a great mistake at that period to play with elections"[xiii], together with his repeated defense of the party's dictatorship suggest as much. For example: “The Workers' Opposition came up with dangerous slogans, fetishizing democratic principles! They point to the right of workers to elect representatives above the Party, as if the Party were not in charge of claiming their dictatorship even if that dictatorship temporarily collided with the passing moods of workers' democracy. It is necessary to create among us an awareness of the revolutionary birthright of the party, which is obliged to maintain its dictatorship, regardless of possible fluctuations even within the working class. This awareness is, for us, an indispensable element. Dictatorship does not base itself at every given moment on the formal principle of a workers' democracy”.[xiv]

For Leninism, elections were means to achieve the end of party power, without value in themselves. “Electability, the democratic method”, Trotsky emphasises, “is only one of the instruments in the hands of the proletariat and its party” and should not be considered as “a fetish, a remedy for all ills. Methods of eligibility must be combined with those of nominations”. The key, therefore, was “that in command, beyond wards, districts, groups, there is a centralized apparatus united by an iron discipline”.[xv]  It is through elections, mandates and recall that the masses express their “fluctuation” and so, ultimately, for Trotsky in 1921, mass participation was seen as optional because it “reflects… the weakness of the masses… it manifests the spirit of indecision, of waiting, the tendency to inactivity after the first success”.[xvi] In what way could it be surprising, then, that the Bolsheviks concluded that the dictatorship of the proletariat could only be achieved by the dictatorship of the party, that is, the dictatorship over the proletariat that Bakunin had warned about? As Trotsky acknowledged in 1921: “We have been accused more than once of having replaced the dictatorship of the soviets by the dictatorship of our party. Yet it can be said with complete justice that the dictatorship of the soviets was made possible only through the dictatorship of the party… In this “replacement” of working-class power by party power there is nothing accidental and, in reality, any replacement. Communists express the fundamental interests of the working class.”[xvii]

Hence the flagrant contradiction between the reality of the so-called Proletarian State and Gluckstein's assertion (2006, p. 22) that the State “built from below needs to be founded on direct democracy with responsible representatives”. Then there is the issue of one-man rule, imposed by Lenin in the spring of 1918, which also stands in stark contrast to Gluckstein's (2006, p. 31) salute to the experiments in workers' control in Paris. For Trotsky, in 1920, it was the most absurd mistake to confuse the question of the supremacy of the proletariat with the question of the workers' councils in charge of the factories. The dictatorship of the proletariat is expressed in the abolition of private ownership of the means of production… and not at all in how individual economic enterprises are managed.”[xviii] It is impossible to reconcile this with Gluckstein's (2006, p. 207) exaltation that “the solutions” that the Commune “began to draft” regarding workers' control were “out of the box”, and that they “planted the seeds of a new social world” with his ideas about “workers' control of production” (GLUCKSTEIN 2006, p. 53). But he later fails to notice how Bolshevism simply created State Capitalism in Russia, instead he favored it by relating its rhetoric rather than the reality of its regime.[xx]

So, if, as Gluckstein (2006, p. 206) points out, “the Proudhonians realized that the involvement of the popular mass was essential for the creation of a new society”, the Leninists quickly realized that the involvement of the popular mass was an optional, something that could be abolished as long as the party had power – particularly if such mass participation clashed with party interests. With these views and the reality of Bolshevism in power, it seems incredible that Gluckstein could claim that Leninism "upholds direct democracy and the liberating characteristics so abundant in the Paris Commune."

Similarly, compare Marx's favorable note to the Council of the Commune as being "a workers' body and not a parliamentary one, executive and legislative at the same time"[xx] with Gluckstein's (2006, p. 151) comment that this “created a real dilemma for the Commune” due to the need to defend the revolution, which required secrecy that overrode public scrutiny. He suggests that the solution was “to trust… those responsible for military and security measures”, which seems naive and at great odds with his comments elsewhere; although, of course, he also concludes that the Commune “was right” to “silence saboteurs in its midst” through press censorship (GLUCKSTEIN, 2006, p. 152). Likewise, he fails to note that the first act of the Bolshevik regime was to create an executive body above the National Congress of Soviets, and that a few weeks later this executive simply enacted legislative power for itself. This was the exact opposite of the Commune and in direct contradiction to the State and Revolution from Lenin.[xxx] If, as Marx put it, “nothing could be more foreign to the spirit of the Commune than to replace universal suffrage by hierarchical investiture”[xxiii], then Leninism could not be regarded as anything but foreign to that spirit.

Missing the party?

It will, of course, be objected that it does not matter that the Bolsheviks implemented the opposite of what Gluckstein hailed about the Commune. After all, while the Commune was drowned in blood, the Russian Revolution successfully repelled White and Imperialist forces. This empowered Trotsky to pontificate on the weakness of the Commune, while, say, Varlin was murdered by the counterrevolution after surrendering.

It is lost sight of – for any genuine socialist – that the military victory obscures the fact that the revolution itself was lost within six months of the Bolshevik seizure of power. The counterrevolution was victorious, but it was covered with red flags and invoked the name of the Commune.[xxiii] Gluckstein corroborates the Bolshevik myth, and thus this unusual fact is not addressed in any meaningful way. Instead, the standard Leninist approach to the Commune is emphasized, namely that it lacked a vanguard party: “The problem was a lack of ideological clarity and the absence of good leadership” (GLUCKSTEIN, 2006, p. 149) .

While some anarchists would deny the importance of theoretical clarity and direction, they reject the notion that such influence should be organized in Leninist fashion, simply because such parties underestimate the very social revolution they claim to bring about.[xxv] This can be seen through the Commune itself. Gluckstein (2006, p. 196) admits that Marx recommends the French not to revolt after the defeat of the Empire, in order to “not allow themselves to be deceived by the national memories of 1792”. He suggests that this was Marx not being a “stupid sycophant [of the Commune]. He [Marx] feared, for example, that the Parisian movement would be mesmerized by the Great Revolution”. Ignoring the strange fact that he said this before the uprising, Gluckstein (2006, p. 104) quotes a call from a commonard for the people "to form the Commune and save the Republic, as had been done in 1793" and fails to discuss the implications of this: that this was precisely the opposite of Marx's wishes, that Marx's call was clearly one calling on the French workers not to create a revolutionary commune – that means not to do what they did on March 18, 1871. Instead, he urged them to "exercise their duties as citizens... Let them calmly and resolutely improve the opportunities of republican liberty" .[xxiv] While Gluckstein (2006, p. 196) cites part of this passage to show that Marx was not the “infallible” sage of the Stalinist myth, he fails to note that this clarity meant organizing a political party, voting in the next election, and exercising the “action politics” – which was also his position shortly after the fall of the Commune, in which “the way to demonstrate political power is open to the working class” as in Great Britain, so an “insurrection would be folly where peaceful agitation could do the job faster and more resolutely”.[xxv]

This raises a problem regarding Leninism's support for "democratic centralism". Marx was opposed to every attempt at revolution in the name of the International, so if the Communards had they accepted democratic centralism and followed these comments then the Paris Commune would never have happened.[xxviii] What this says about the “efficiency” of centralized organization is unexplored, yet one would hope that we take seriously Marx's (and Trotsky's) praise of the role of the party.

Similarly, it was not “the Party” (ie Marx and Engels) that discovered the “political form” that Marxists have been paying lip service to ever since, but the masses themselves. Undoubtedly they were aided but not commanded by the revolutionaries in their midst – revolutionaries whose ideas were dismissed as rubbish by German socialists – but they were not organized in a Leninist way. In short, if the vanguard party is so important, then "how can we explain that the Commune, with its petty-bourgeois leadership, was able to introduce into the modern world the most advanced conceptions of proletarian democracy?"[xxviii] This does not change the fact, any more than the Bolsheviks opposing strikes and protests that supplanted the Tsar, that the Russian Revolution succeeded while the Commune, like Spain in 1936, was defeated; then, as Trotsky continually emphasizes, the role of the party must have been the deciding factor. Still, the central fact is that the Bolshevik regime was hardly socialist and, consequently, cannot be considered a “success” – because, concretely, the “success” of a socialist revolution is not measured if it creates the initial bases for the socialism? Lenin and Trotsky at the helm of a party dictatorship presiding over a state capitalist economy is not a successful revolution, it is the prelude to Stalinism.

Unsurprisingly, Gluckstein (2006, p. 201) presents the standard Leninist narrative of the degeneration of the Bolshevik Revolution. Thus, the "democratic system of the soviets was eventually exhausted by the civil war and destroyed by the internal counterrevolution" in 1928, ignoring the unusual fact that the Bolsheviks had effectively turned the soviets into irrelevant bodies through the centralization of state power in the hands of the Soviets. Bolshevik ministers from top to bottom and then infiltrating and falsifying (or abolishing) anyone who threatened to elect a non-Bolshevik majority before the civil war broke out in May 1918.[xxix]  

Somewhat contradictoryly, Gluckstein (2006, p. 202) claims that “the soviets overcame their initial weakness and won the civil war”, which is bullshit, insofar as the Kronstadt rebellion of 1921 was slaughtered precisely because it claimed genuine Soviet democracy. And what was this “initial weakness” and how was it “overcome”? He states that “Trotsky believed that the presence of the Bolshevik party within the soviets was crucial to their success”, more precisely “the party helped to overcome the 'weak point' of an inexperienced mass democracy and made the 'strong point' – the ability to represent and mobilize vast numbers to action and lead them to victory”. If by "overcoming" Gluckstein means "abolishing" then he is closer to the truth. The ideological confusions are clear, therefore. The main issue of direct democracy is not to "represent" the masses and allow a few party leaders to "mobilize" them, but to allow the masses to govern and act for themselves and, by that process, revolutionize themselves as well as society. . This is the “strong point” of mass democracy. In the Russian Revolution, “the Party” did away with “inexperienced direct mass democracy” and replaced it with Party rule.

This was a key lesson formulated by Bolshevik leaders from the Russian Revolution and, retroactively, from the Commune. Trotsky argued quite explicitly that "the proletariat can seize power only through its vanguard" and that "the need for state power arises from an insufficient cultural degree of the masses and their heterogeneity". Only with “class support for the vanguard” can there be “the conquest of power”, and it was “in this sense that the revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat are the work of the whole class, but only under the leadership of the vanguard”. Instead of the working class as a whole seizing power, it is the “vanguard” that seizes power – “a revolutionary party, even after seizing power… is still by no means the sovereign leader of society”.[xxx]

Thus, state power is required to govern the masses who cannot exercise power themselves: “Those who propose abstracting the soviets from the dictatorship of the party should understand that only thanks to the Bolshevik leadership were the soviets able to rise to power. out of the mud of reformism and reach the state form of the proletariat”.[xxxii] The inevitable side effect was that this put people back in their customary role of being ruled, oppressed and exploited. In other words, it recreated the very class system that the Commune had sought to eliminate, and precisely because the Communards implemented the imperative mandate, with impeachment and federalism – two of which Engels mocked when anarchists claimed them, and the third, impeachment, was fatally weakened by his pro-centralization bias.

The replacement of working-class power by party power follows logically both from the nature of the state and from the vanguardism at the heart of Leninism. The state, by its very nature, empowers those at its center and thus automatically replaces popular power with power in the hands of a few party leaders. And if the party is the deciding factor in a "successful" revolution, then anything that weakens its grip on power does nothing but threaten the revolution, including workers' democracy, for, as Trostky put it, "revolutionary dictatorship of a proletarian party is… an objective necessity” and the “revolutionary (vanguard) party that renounces its own dictatorship surrenders the masses to the counter-revolution”.[xxxi] This reflects his views in 1921, quoted above, when he was at the height of his power.

Contrast this with Engels's argument that the Commune demonstrated that the proletariat, "in order not to lose again its newly won supremacy", should, "to safeguard itself against its own representatives and functionaries, declare to all of them, without exception, subject to dismissal at any time.[xxxii] There is not much room for direct mass democracy, immediate dismissal and delegate mandates under Trotsky, whose regime, by definition, required an army separate from the people and a State in the usual sense of the word as a power existing separately from the general population and above her.

Ironically, Gluckstein (2006, p. 46) states that today's politicians “may be demagogic about democracy, but they seek to anesthetize the people with their words”. Considering Trotsky's criticisms of the Commune, repeated more diplomatically by Gluckstein, we could say the same about Leninism. However, Lenin's 1905 assessment that the Commune had "confused the tasks of fighting for a republic with that of fighting for socialism" and therefore "was a government such as ours ought not to be"[xxxv], seems all the more applicable when compared to the Paris Commune and the Bolshevik revolution and the lessons that Lenin and Trotsky drew from both.

Destroying the State Machine

Marx and Engels had been advocating a democratic republic since 1840. Engels, for example, argued in 1847 that revolution should "establish a democratic constitution and thereby, directly or indirectly, the preponderance of the proletariat"; the premise was that “the proletariat is already the majority of the people”.[xxxiv] Almost fifty years later, he found that the Communist Manifesto "had already proclaimed the victory of universal suffrage and democracy as one of the first and most important tasks of the militant proletariat."[xxxiv] Between these dates, both Marx and Engels had called on the working class to create a republic in which it would eventually achieve political predominance – that is, a working-class government. For example, in 1881, Engels argued that in Britain: “where the industrial and agricultural working class forms the immense majority of the people, democracy means the predominance of the working class, no more and no less. Let the working class afterwards prepare itself for the task in store for it - the government of this great Empire... and the best way to do this is to use the power already in hand, the real majority they possess... to send men of their own into parliament. segment. [He lamented the] workers' struggles everywhere for political power, for direct representation of their class in the legislature, everywhere except in Great Britain”.[xxxviii]

Still, for most Marxists, Marxism advocates the destruction of the current State and its replacement by a so-called new “Proletarian” State, as discussed in the State and the Revolution, by Lenin. The source of Marx's reinterpretation lies in his defense of the Paris Commune and the conclusion that "one thing was especially proved by the Commune": that "the working class cannot simply take over the state machinery automatically and wield it for its own purposes". ”.[xxxviii] Gluckstein, as a Trotskyist, repeats Lenin's interpretation.

However, a close reading of Marx's essay on the Commune demonstrates that Lenin's analysis is problematic. Marx recounts how the Commune was "formed by municipal councils, chosen by universal suffrage from various quarters of the city, accountable and revocable in strict terms". Centrally, it was about "amputating the merely repressive organs of the former governmental power".[xxxix] So Lenin's claim that Marxism advocates the destruction of the old state and its replacement by a new one based on workers' councils cannot be supported by the Paris Commune because it was not that kind of revolution. Rather, it was an elected municipal council that carried out a series of reforms that abolished aspects of the old state while retaining its structure (supplemented by direct democracy in popular associations).

Given this, there was reason for the mainstream of Marxism (social democracy) to adopt the view that revolution involves “political action” in which the party must seize power, reform the state, and introduce “socialism”; in other words, to repeat the Commune on a national level. This was the position of Marx and Engels, as the latter confirmed in a letter of 1884, when asked to clarify what the former had said in 1871: "It is simply a matter of demonstrating that the victorious proletariat must first reshape the old bureaucratic power administrative centralized state before it could use it for its purposes: consider that all bourgeois republicans criticized this machine while they were in opposition, but, as soon as they passed into government, they took it over without altering it and used it partly against reaction, but even more so against the proletariat.”[xl]

Engels was reproducing one of Marx's drafts for The Civil War in France: “But the proletariat cannot, as the ruling classes and their different rival factions did in the successive hours of their triumph, simply take hold of the existing body of state and wield it for their own purposes. The first condition for maintaining political power is to transform its operating machine and destroy it as an instrument of class domination”.[xi]

So the Commune did not crush the existing state and replace it with a new one. Instead, workers seized political power via elections and used their newly gained political power to “reshape” and “transform” the existing state by crushing its bureaucracy or “operating machine”. Then, not surprisingly, we find Trotsky repeating the orthodox Marxist position in 1906:

International socialism considers the republic to be the only possible form of socialist emancipation – on this condition, that the proletariat wrests it from the hands of the bourgeoisie and transforms it from “a machine for the oppression of one class by another” into a weapon for the socialist emancipation of mankind.[xliii]

This is acknowledged by Gluckstein, but not explored, when he mentions that the Commune was based on bourgeois electoral processes. He points out that the revolution used “elections under the old voting system to choose a communal council” and while “revolutionary direct democracy was built within an institutional format” in the National Guard, in the “legal” election for the Commune Council such direct democracy could still be expressed, but it was not deeply linked to the structure” (GLUCKSTEIN, 2006, p. 133). Thus, “the council emerged from a conventional electoral system, where there is no organic relationship between voter and representative” (GLUCKSTEIN, 2006, p. 134).

This perspective of revolution can be seen when Engels argued, in 1886, that while he and Marx saw "the gradual dissolution and conclusive disappearance of that political organization called the State" as "one of the final results of the future revolution", they "at the same time... have always maintained this... the proletarian class should first take for itself the organized political force of the State and with its help eradicate the resistance of the capitalist class and reorganize society”. The idea that the proletariat needs to “take over” the existing state is clearly stated; whereas anarchists “reversed the issue” by arguing that the revolution “must begin by abolishing the political organization of the State”, for Marxists “the only organization which the working class finds ready to use is that of the State. It may require adaptation to new functions, but to destroy it at such a time would be to destroy the only organism through which the working class can exercise its newly won power.”[xiii] Yet the only institution the working class 'finds ready to be used' is the bourgeois state, although, as Engels emphasises, it 'may require adaptation'. Naturally, in 1894, it was about the “republic being the ready-made political form for the future government of the proletariat” which, in France, “is already in motion”.[xiv] Indeed: “If one thing is certain, it is that our Party and the working class can only come to power in the form of a democratic republic. This is even the specific form for the dictatorship of the proletariat, as the Great French Revolution already demonstrated”.[xlv]        Naturally, when Lenin came to quote this passage in State and Revolution he immediately tried to obscure its meaning. "Engels," he wrote, "repeated here, in a particularly explicit form, the fundamental idea that runs through all of Marx's work, namely, that the democratic republic is the closest approximation to the dictatorship of the proletariat."[xlv] Engels obviously did nothing of the sort, but at least Lenin, unlike Hal Draper[xlv], does not suggest that he is talking about the Paris Commune when he only mentions the period “from 1792 to 1799”, “the first French Republic”, “the American model” and how “the proletariat can only use the form of a single and indivisible republic" with "self-government" meaning "officials elected by universal suffrage".[xlviii] 

Then there is Engels' 1891 introduction to The Civil War in France from Marx. Arguing that the State “is nothing but a machine for the oppression of one class by another”, he finds that it is “at best an evil inherited by the proletariat after its victorious struggle for class supremacy, the worst effects of which the proletariat, like the Commune, cannot avoid having to extirpate as much as possible at once.”[xlix] Simply put, if the proletariat creates a new social system to replace the bourgeois system, then how can it be “an inherited evil” by it? This explains why, at key points, Lenin had to clarify what Engels really meant.[l]

Political action and its alternatives

There is one aspect of the Commune that can be considered Marxist, namely, the participation of socialists in municipal council elections – as early as 1840, Marx and Engels had called on workers to support (and, where necessary, fight for) the creation of a republic. bourgeoisie and using “political action” (namely running in elections) within that. Here, however, there is an ambiguity in Gluckstein's position – as well as in Marx's. He points out (and presumably agrees) that Trotsky (like Marx[li]) was “critical of the abdication of power [of the Central Committee of the National Guard] right after the March 18 revolution” (GLUCKSTEIN, 2006, p. 201). This, he claims, “relieved the Committee itself of governmental responsibility and ceded power to the Commune Council… One consequence of this decision was to reduce the direct influence of the working class on the communal movement. Federal elections [in the National Guard] had a unique democratic character because the battalions met daily giving ample scope for the base guards to scrutinize the activities of the delegates and keep the interests of the working class at the forefront”. (GLUCKSTEIN, 2006, p. 133)

Yet, without a doubt, communal elections increased working-class participation in the Commune by broadening its social base (and daily popular assemblies could also be organized as they were in 1792). Giving power to the Central Committee would, by definition, have disenfranchised all persons outside the National Guard (such as most women, the elderly, workers, and so on).[liiii]

The same, of course, can be said about the argument for basing communal institutions within workplaces. Gluckstein argues that in Paris this was 'precluded by the minuscule size of most production units and the fact that many of them were closed anyway'. Which suggests that a purely workplace-based board system would, by definition, have excluded non-working-class people (ie, the unemployed, retirees, housewives, and so on).[iii]  The key role played by associations in the movement is pointed out by Gluckstein (2006, p. 48), but he points out that in later revolutions “workplaces became centers of mass debate”. Echoing Trotsky, he argues that “such small production units could not provide a collective focus for the working class. On the contrary, this came from the National Guard and the associations” (GLUCKSTEIN, 2006, p. 70). Not that you will learn this from this book, but Bakunin's arguments are repeated here that while Marxists sought the "organization of political power by the working class", anarchists promoted not the political organization, but the social one of power (and, therefore, anti-political) of the working masses” and, thus, “future social organization must be done only from the bottom up, by the free associations or federations of workers, first in their unions, then in communes, regions, nations and finally into a great international and universal federation”.[book]  

It seems a strange way of reasoning to claim that growing the popular base of a revolution actually means reducing the influence of the working class in it. Furthermore, like Marx and Trotsky, Gluckstein (2006, p. 132) does not discuss the contradiction between claiming that the Central Committee should retain power with lavish praise of the Commune as the “finally discovered way” to achieve the emancipation of labor. It may be correct to say that the Commune "would pay bitterly for not marching on Versailles and holding municipal elections instead", but then why praise the outcome of those elections, particularly when you think it "reduced the direct influence of the working class on the communal movement"? ”?

Marx's reserves were private; publicly, he proclaimed that the Communal Council "would serve as a lever to extirpate the economic foundations on which the existence of classes rested."[lv] This echoes the view expounded in the Communist Manifesto which argues that "the first step in revolution by the working class" is "to raise the proletariat to the position of the ruling class, to win the battle for democracy". The proletariat “will use its political supremacy to gradually take away all capital from the bourgeoisie, centralize the instruments of production in the hands of the State, that is, of the organized proletariat as the dominant class”.[lv] Gluckstein (2006, p. 8) ignores this – presumably because the Communards rejected this statist vision of socialism – and argues that “the insurgents had no previous experiences of a successful anti-capitalist movement to draw from. They were true pioneers and paved a new path for others.”

This is true in a sense, insofar as the “new way” was social democracy and the dominance of Marxism within the mainstream international socialist movement (before it was replaced by the reformism it had spawned by this same tactic). However, Engels' assertion in 1891 that the Commune "was specifically the grave of old French socialism, whereas it was the cradle of international communism, which is new to France" was exaggerated.[lviii] After his death, the decline of social democracy into opportunism, bureaucracy and reformism could not be avoided (though for some it took the outbreak of war in 1914 to see this through), and radical workers increasingly sought by federalist traditions in the First International that were kept alive by the anarchist movement and transformed into unionism with revolutionary intent[lviii] and industrial unionism. Only with the Russian Revolution (with the help of fascism) did Marxism (in its Leninist form) become the predominant tendency in the revolutionary left. The path of federalism from below, as it was held and developed by anarchists like Proudhon and Bakunin, lost ground before social democracy (in part due to the mistakes of the anarchists themselves).[lix] In this "new way" the Commune was relegated to an inspiration for being a democratically elected "workers' government", but mainly used as a warning of what might happen if a revolt occurs before the party is ready to secure power nationally. In 1895, Engels was hailing the legal success of Social Democracy in the elections and invoked the Commune only as “the only means by which the steady rise of the socialist fighting forces in Germany could be temporarily stopped, and even set back for a time: a confrontation with the army, a bloodshed like that of 1871 in Paris”. Now it was the case of a "successful utilization of universal suffrage", which had now been (quoting Marx's words) "transformed by them from a means of deception... into an instrument of emancipation".[lx] While insurrection was not entirely dismissed, it was clear that Engels' final article was a defense of the pacifist tactics of Social Democracy; tactics that provoked the debates of “revisionism” after his death (ie, the attempt by the right wing to align the party's rhetoric with its actual practice).

For anarchists, the Commune did indeed pose a question. After all, a key argument of anarchism is the abstention of "political action" as being irrelevant to creating socialism and opening up the possibility of reformism within the labor movement. As Kropotkin emphasized: “We have to organize the workers' forces – not to turn them into a fourth party in parliament, but with the aim of making them a formidable fighting machine against capital. We have to rally workers of all categories under this simple purpose: “War against capitalist exploitation!” And we must carry on this war relentlessly, day by day, by strike, by agitation, by all revolutionary means... once workers everywhere have seen this organization working, bringing the workers' interests into their hands, waging relentless war against capital… once workers of all ranks, village and town, are united in a unified union… destroying the tyranny of capital and state forever.”[lxi]

Yet here certainly is an example of "political action" that produced a revolution (even one as limited in its initial acts as the Commune!). Libertarian members of the International, such as Varlin, ran successfully in the elections. Does this mean, as Marx and Engels argued, that the anarchists' general position of abstaining from elections is wrong?

Clearly, the circumstances of the Commune elections were atypical in that they were conducted in a revolutionary situation (as opposed to the social democratic strategy). However, considering the limited nature of his reforms and the lack of dynamism of the Commune Council, Kropotkin concluded that any so-called "revolutionary government" should be avoided.[lxii] While supporting the initial revolution, anarchist action would later encourage the creation of popular self-organization in the community and the workplace, rather than seeking to focus the struggle on electing a few leaders to act on behalf of the working class. In other words: encouraging workers to build their own class organizations to influence events towards socialist goals directly, rather than waiting for representatives to act on their behalf through bourgeois institutions.

In short, instead of "letting them be hoisted to power, letting them cling to the side of a government" of those "who were hostile to the people's economic revolution", revolutionaries should "stay in the streets, in their own homes". districts, with the people – as propagandists and organizers of the de facto equality they all desire: joining the people, as they turn to their food, their livelihood and city defenses… to their interests, and rebuilding in the sections to life of society with them”.[lxiii] This means alongside “complete independence from the Commune, from the Federation of Free Communes and from the social revolution within the Commune; this means unions to replace, in production, the statist organization of society that exists today", just as only "groups by categories and by professions together with groups of neighborhoods" would bring "coordination to society... and would become instruments of liberation from masses, without resorting to the submission of all to the hierarchical pyramid of the State”.[lxiv]

So, rather than seeking election, the course of action should be to remain among the people and strengthen (or create) alternative forms of social organization that could (initially) complement and (ultimately) replace the elected city council. Such institutions existed, in such bodies as the associations and Delegations of the Twenty Boroughs (neighborhoods). The Delegation, an organization that brought together many associations and socialists, argued that it "should be the revolutionary Commune emerging from the associations and committees of Paris, a decision reaffirmed in the revolutionary socialist Declaration of Principles of February 19".[lxv] However, the desire to be more inclusive of moderate republicans and to present a common front against their enemies ensured that city council elections were organized instead of popular assemblies. Still, there was support for such a radical solution. As Gluckstein (2006, p. 46) points out, many “prominent insurgents encouraged mass involvement in the life of the new government and saw themselves as mandated delegates”. However, this was prevented by the bourgeois institutional arrangements they inherited. The only way forward would be to have created a federation of popular assemblies: in the words of one commonard, “People, govern yourself through public meetings” (GLUCKSTEIN, 2006, p. 50).

Some Communards saw this, with some pointing to 'the Districts, the primary assemblies' of the Great French Revolution as a means of guaranteeing the “permanent intervention of citizens in communal matters” (GLUCKSTEIN, 2006, p. 47). This was the position of Kropotkin, who later argued that this "Direct Self-Government" practiced "by means of these institutions [the Revolution] gained... immense power" and "enabled new forms of life to be worked out and established". These "popular means of administration...remained popular, and this is what produced the revolutionary power of these organizations", expressing "the principles of anarchism" which "had their origin, not in theoretical speculations, but in the actions of the Great French Revolution".[lxvi] Likewise, Proudhon, during the Revolution of 1848 argued that the "organization of popular societies was the pivot of democracy, the cornerstone of republican order" while "assemblies, popular a word, associations and meetings of all kinds and varieties ” were “the organization of universal suffrage in all its forms, of the very structure of Democracy itself”.[lxv]

Unfortunately, there appears to have been little popular support for such a radical solution in the immediate aftermath of the March 18 insurrection. Kropotkin lamented how instead of “acting on their own initiative… the people, trusting their rulers, delegated to them the power to take the initiative. Here was the first consequence – and indeed the fatal outcome of the elections.”[lxviii] Alternative groupings focused more on influencing the Council (thus increasing its accountability) than on creating socialism directly. This demonstrates the importance of libertarians being involved in social struggles and spreading their ideas among the masses of the general population during non-revolutionary times. As Bakunin pointed out, libertarians "felt the lack of support from the great masses of the people of Paris, and... the Jacobin majority” of the Commune Council.[lxix] With a deeper influence on popular organizations the result might have been different – ​​but that doesn't change the fact that the Communal Council started to become an impediment to the revolution rather than a help and the need for future revolutions not to repeat the mistake.


The Paris Commune and its lessons are important for today's revolutionaries, whether statist socialists or anarchists. Its short existence raised all sorts of key questions for those seeking to change the world: Should socialists participate in elections? How do we face the backlash? Can a government be revolutionary?... Sadly, Gluckstein's work does not present an accurate account of the lessons learned from the Commune. Too Leninist, he simply doesn't understand anarchist criticism or the libertarian position in general. As your nonsense about Proudhon demonstrates, many Marxists are not shy about exposing their ignorance of anarchism to the world. He is too compelled to repeat standard Marxist distortions of anarchist ideas and, as a result, does not provide his readers with an obvious means of assessing whether Kropotkin or Lenin were right. Ironically, for those familiar with the anarchist critique of the Commune, it actually demonstrates – in passing – that it was the former that was, in fact, correct and the later regime simply reinforced this analysis.

Finally, this is not a scientific socialism, as the objective is very clear, namely, to convert radicals – “the anti-capitalist movement today” (GLUCKSTEIN, 2006, p. 76) – to their own ideology. This marks almost all the approaches that Marxists have presented on anarchism, with Proudhon, for example, being associated with the greatest antagonist of the left in the agenda – by Hal Draper, in the post-war period; by Gluckstein (2006, p. 72), during the period of “anti-globalization” protests, “the forerunners of neoliberal economics today”. That the free-market capitalists of his time fought him as a man of the left, and he fought them back, is not mentioned. Gluckstein (2006, p.28) also does not explain why the Communards who 'opposed state action on principle' had a 'position [which, like Proudhon,] was not an expression of neoliberalism or laissez-faire attitudes, but just the opposite'.

Gluckstein also fails to critically assess his own ideological leadership, that is, he fails to discuss the obvious contradictions between Marxist approaches and what actually happened. Inconvenient arguments and conclusions are ignored, presenting a false picture of Leninism and its relationship with the Commune. Significantly, he does not mention Marx's 1881 assessment that the Commune was "merely the emergence of a city under special conditions, the majority of the Commune was by no means socialist, nor could it be".[lxx] In this way, it is difficult not to agree with Bakunin: “Its general effects were so impactful that the very Marxists who saw their ideas shaken by the uprising found themselves compelled to take their hats off to it. They went further and proclaimed that their program and purpose were their own in the face of the simplest logic and their own true feelings. This was a real farcical change of heart, but they were committed to making it for fear of being overwhelmed and left behind in the wave of emotions that the upheaval produced across the world.”[lxxi]

This can be seen in Gluckstein's repeated – albeit often muted – agreement with Blanquist positions on elections, centralisation, terror and so on; in his selective quotations from Trosky and banishment of any reference to the party dictatorship; in his inadequate understanding of the Russian Revolution and how the history of the Commune prefigured its evolution from a people's revolt to a people's state and on to party dictatorship.

In terms of presenting a general history of the Commune, it is adequate. But, ironically, it presents enough evidence to refute the predetermined conclusions that were written to reinforce them. In terms of learning from his lessons and presenting an accurate take on libertarian criticism, he fails (sometimes hopelessly). While Gluckstein (2006, p. 206) maintains that “Marxism learns more from mass struggles than from preached sermons” he seems unwilling to learn more from the Commune beyond the urgent need for a vanguard party to take over. the power.

Gluckstein's work demonstrates that the anarchist critique of the Commune and Marxism remains valid. Anarchists must take into account that the ideas we have been expounding since the 1840s were successfully applied, albeit in a limited way, in the Commune as well as in later revolutions. We must further emphasize, even though Marxists have subsequently adopted many of them (at least theoretically), that we championed them first. The Commune demonstrated that these libertarian principles cannot, however, be combined with statism. Maintaining a state structure, even one supplemented by popular institutions, simply cannot deal with the numerous problems facing a revolution, as Gluckstein himself had to admit even if he cannot bring himself to discuss these occasional distortions of reality: the notion Marxist policy of political action to secure workers' government, even in the unusual circumstances of post-insurrection Paris, isolates revolutionaries from the masses and places barriers in the way of social change.

The Russian Revolution confirms this; even though it was based (in theory) on workers' organizations (soviets), it retained the essential features of the bourgeois state (centralism, top-down, unitarism) which evolved precisely to ensure minority rule. Thus, we should not be surprised that this has created a new class system based on the party, state and economic bureaucracy that centralism inevitably produces. Free federations of self-organizing groups can be the only basis for a successful revolution, inasmuch as a revolution whose basis is the self-liberation of the working class needs to be based on its class organisations.

Some might question the wisdom of producing an extensive review of a problematic book by an obscure Leninist party member. However, we hope to have demonstrated that it is important to do so in order to learn the lessons of the past and to correct the mistakes and distortions of those who try to appropriate revolts that are, at their core, libertarian in nature. The distorted Leninist approach to the Commune, anarchism and Marxism remained unchallenged for so long that it became, for many honest revolutionaries, the only analysis. As we can see, this is not true.

So yes, we can agree with Gluckstein (2006, p. 7-8) that the Commune “deserved to be more than an obscure, perhaps inspiring, point of reference”; but she also deserved better than to be used as a point of reference for those whose practice and ideology are in such direct contradiction to her. After all, it's hard not to conclude that he's like a fan of a killer writing a biography about his victim's mother.

*Iain McKay is a writer and anarchist. Author, among other books, of Anarchism, Anarchist Communism, and the State: Three Essays (PM Press).

Translation: Ivan Thomaz Leite de Oliveira e Claudio Ricardo Martins dos Reis.

Originally published in the magazine Anarcho-Syndicalist Review.

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[I]           TROTSKY, 1970, p. 61.

[ii]         TROTSKY, 1970, p. 52, 53, 58.

[iii]        TROTSKY, 1970, p. 58.

[iv]         TROTSKY, 1970, p. 55, 61, 55-56.

[v]          MARX, 1971, p. 284.

[vi]         MARX, 1978a, p. 509-510.

[vii]       ENGELS, 1971, p. 292.

[viii]      TROTSKY, 1970, p. 54-55.

[ix]         “Who are these anonymous and mysterious people? Who should place “absolute trust” in the revolutionary organ and in the revolutionary organizers? The masses? The party acting in the interests of the masses? Party leaders acting in the interests of the party as a whole? Is Trotsky's ambiguity in this respect entirely accidental? Cf. BRINTON, Maurice; GUILLAUME, Philippe. The Commune, Paris 1871. In: For Workers' Power: The Selected Writings of Maurice Brinton. David Goodway(ed.). AK Press, 2004, p. 60.

[X]          TROTSKY, 1970, p. 60.

[xi]         TROTSKY, Leon. How the Revolution Armed: The Military Writings and Speeches of Leon Trotsky, vol. 1 London: New Park Publications, 1979, p. 47.

[xii]       For a discussion of workers' protests and their repression by the so-called Proletarian State under Lenin and Trotsky, see section H.6.3 of An Anarchist FAQ.

[xiii]      TROTSKY, 1970, p. 60-61.

[xiv]       Quoted by FARBER, 1990, p. 209. It must be emphasized that the Workers' Opposition did not, in fact, oppose the party dictatorship. Their support for “democratic principles” was limited to economic bodies, subject to party tutelage, manipulation and veto. Cf. AVRICH, Paul. Kronstadt 1921. WW. Norton & Co., 1970, p. 182-83.

[xv]        TROTSKY, 1970, p. 61, 56.

[xvi]       TROTSKY, 1970, p. 54.

[xvii]     TROTSKY, Leon. Terrorism and Communism: A reply to Karl Kautsky (University of Michigan Press, 1961), p. 109.

[xviii]    TROTSKY, 1970, p. 162.

[xx]       The best approach to the destruction of workers' self-management by the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution and its ideological roots remains: BRINTON, Maurice. The Bolsheviks and Workers' Control, 1917-1921: The State and Counter-Revolution. In: For Workers' Power: The Selected Writings of Maurice Brinton. David Goodway (ed.). AK Press, 2004, p. 293-378.

[xx]        MARX, 1971, p. 71.

[xxx]       FARBER, 1990, p. 20-21, 38.

[xxiii]     MARX, 1971, p. 73.

[xxiii]    One of the battleships whose sailors started Krontadt's Rebellion for Soviet democracy, the Sevastopol, was renamed the Paris Commune when the city was taken by the Red Army. GETZLER, Israel. Kronstadt 1917-1921: The Fate of a Soviet Democracy. Cambridge University Press, 1983, p. 244.

[xxv]     See section H.5 of An Anarchist FAQ.

[xxiv]      MARX, 1971, p. 47.

[xxv]     MARX, Carl. Marx-Engels Collected Works 22: p. 602.

[xxviii]   More likely, like the February 1917 revolution in Russia, it would have happened in the face of party opposition anyway.

[xxviii]  BRINTTON; GUILLAUME, 2004, p. 53.

[xxix]     For more details see section H.6.1 of An Anarchist FAQ.

[xxx]      GLUCKSTEIN, 2006, p. 202.

[xxxii]     TROTSKY, Leon. Writings 1936-37. New York: Pathfinder Press, 2002, p. 490, 488, 495.

[xxxi]   TROTSKY, 2002, p. 513-514.

[xxxii]  ENGELS, 1971, p. 32. Which raises an obvious question, if the state is merely an instrument of class rule then what is the "safeguard" to the contrary? If there is a possibility for the State, in the form of its “representatives and officials”, to abuse its power then clearly it is not merely that – it has a self-interest. Giving even more power to this body by handing society's economic affairs alongside political affairs may therefore not have been the smartest plan, as the Bolshevik regime proved.

[xxxv]   LENIN, Vladimir. Collected Works 9: p. 81.

[xxxiv]    MARX, Karl; ENGELS, Friedrich, Marx-Engels Collected Works 6: p. 350.

[xxxiv]   MARX, Karl; ENGELS, Friedrich. The Socialist Revolution. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1978b, p. 50, 313.

[xxxviii] LENIN, Vladimir. Collected Works 24: p. 405.

[xxxviii] From the 1872 preface to the German edition of the Communist Manifesto, which in turn quotes Marx's The Civil War in France (MARX; ENGELS, 1978b, p. 193).

[xxxix]   MARX, 1971, p. 71, 73.

[xl]         ENGELS, Friedrich. Marx-Engels Collected Works 47: p. 74.

[xi]       MARX, 1971, p. 202.

[xliii]      TROTSKY, 1970, p. 14.

[xiii]     ENGELS, 1978b, p. 262.

[xiv]     ENGELS, Frederick. Marx-Engels Collected Works 50: p. 276.

[xlv]       ENGELS, Frederick. Marx-Engels Collected Works 27: p. 227.

[xlv]     LENIN, Vladmir Collected Works 25: p. 450.

[xlv]    DRAPER, Hal. The dictatorship of the proletariat from Marx to Lenin. Monthly Review Press, 1987, p. 37.

[xlviii]   ENGELS, Frederick. Marx-Engels Collected Works 27: p. 227-229.

[xlix]     ENGELS, 1971, p. 34.

[l]           The Menshevik Julius Martov opportunely discusses this issue in a series of articles that have been collected in the book The State and the Socialist Revolution (London: Carl Slienger, 1977). This reading is essential to see how Lenin reinvented Marxism to distance it from the errors of social democracy, justify his own development away from mainstream Marxism, and his actions during 1917. For a similar approach, but from a more or less perspective orthodox Marxist, see: SARKER, Binay; BUICK, Adam. Marxism-Leninism — Poles Apart. Memari: Avenel Press, 2012.

[li]         “The Central Committee surrendered its power too soon to open the way for the Commune” (MARX, 1971, p. 284).

[liiii]        Gluckstein also compares the social composition of the Central Committee to the Communal Council when discussing the reduction of working-class influence. If the social base of those who make up a government helped determine its influence, what would that mean for Lenin's government?

[iii]       This is not applicable to Bakunin, who emphasizes the need to organize a federation of geographic organizations as well as federations based on workplaces. Thus, the importance of the creation of “federations of barricades” by workers “armed and organized by streets and neighborhoods, they will form the revolutionary federation of all neighborhoods, the federative commune” while “the workers who integrate associations carry out a clean sweep of all the instruments of work and all kinds of capital and facilities”. (BAKUNIN, 1973, p. 170-171, 179).

[book]       BAKUNIN, 1973, p. 197, 206.

[lv]         MARX, 1971, p. 75.

[lv]       MARX; ENGELS, 1978a, p. 490.

[lviii]      ENGELS, 1971, p. 294.

[lviii]     The term revolutionary intent unionism was formulated to differentiate, in Portuguese translations, two union perspectives described with different terms in English: the revolutionary perspectives of unionism (syndicalism) in relation to the reformists (unionism). Cf. CORRÊA, Felipe. Black flag. Curitiba: Prismas, 2015, p. 90. (NT)

[lix]       Such as giving up participating in the labor movement and other struggles for reforms in favor of an abstract revolutionary position that meant, in practice, isolation from the working class.

[lx]         ENGELS, 1978b, p. 320, 314.

[lxi]       KROPOTKIN, 2014, p. 294-295.

[lxii]      See “Revolutionary Government” at Words of a Rebel in which he uses the Commune as an example of an elected government. Significantly, Gluckstein makes no reference to this article.

[lxiii]     KROPOTKIN, 2014, p. 554.

[lxiv]     KROPOTKIN, 2018, p. 161, 350-351.

[lxv]       JOHNSON, 1996, p. 91.

[lxvi]     KROPOTKIN, 1989, p. 183, 180, 181, 184.

[lxv]    PROUDHON, 2011, p. 407, 461.

[lxviii]   KROPOTKIN, 1992, p. 168.

[lxix]     BAKUNIN, 1973, p. 202.

[lxx]       MARX, 1971, p. 293.

[lxxi]     BAKUNIN, 1973, p. 261.

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