(1/3) (by /u/flesh_eating_turtle) “These gentlemen think that when they have changed the names of things they have changed the things themselves. This is how these profound thinkers mock at the whole world.” - Friedrich Engels

- Introduction -

While the phrase “left unity” has come into great fashion lately, it seems that this has done little to stem the tide of anarchist assaults on everyone and everything having to do with Leninism. Everybody reading this will no doubt be able to recall at least one occasion on which they were smeared as a “tankie”, “authoritarian”, or (most insultingly of all) a “red fascist”. This has left us with little choice but to respond, a task which we are often woefully unprepared for.

In the interests of protecting the legacy of socialism from these attacks, I have compiled this post addressing the various accusations and slanders put forth by our more utopian comrades.

Keep in mind that I am not attacking those anarchists who legitimately stand with Leninists and support socialist revolution; these anarchists are good comrades, even if we have theoretical differences. Rather, I am responding to those sectarian anarchists who, in the words of Michael Parenti, “support every revolution except the ones that succeed.”

- “Leninist States Were Nothing But Horrible Dictatorships!” -

Perhaps the most common allegation put forth by the anarchists is this one, that the USSR, Red China, etc. were little more than brutal dictatorships, with no participation by the workers themselves. However, the truth of the matter is far more complex. While the Leninist states did commit excesses, they were far less extreme than is usually claimed, and there was a great deal more participation by workers than anarchists generally like to admit. Let us focus on the USSR as an example.

For one thing, the common claim that Soviet gulags were political prisons used to silence dissenters is, for the most part, untrue. An excellent study on this was conducted by J. Arch Getty (and others), and published in the American Historical Review, the most prestigious historical journal in the world:

In addition to pointing out that the total number of gulag prisoners was far lower than previously thought, the study also states that:

The frequent assertion that most of the camp [gulag] prisoners were ‘political’ also seems not to be true.

The study found that between 12% and 33% of camp prisoners were imprisoned for political offenses, with the rest convicted of legitimate crimes. This is corroborated by a CIA report on the topic, which found that as many as 95% of prisoners in the camps they investigated were non-political:

As for the issue of mass participation and political repression, research by Robert Thurston (Professor emeritus at Miami University at Ohio), published in the Cambridge University Press’ Slavic Review, deals with this topic quite well:

Thurston remarks that:

Stalin, the press, and the Stakhanovite movement all regularly encouraged ordinary people to criticize those in authority.

He also points out that many arrests in the 1930’s were actually late punishments for genuine offenses, such as serving in the White Army during the Civil War. Thuston also puts forth the question “If the citizenry was supposed to be terrorized and stop thinking, why encourage criticism and input from below on a large scale?” He also states that “my evidence suggests that widespread fear did not exist in the case at hand [the Soviet “Great Terror” period].”

Thuston also wrote a good book on this topic, published by the Yale University Press:

In it, Thurston states that:

Stalin did not intend to terrorize the country and did not need to rule by fear. Memoirs and interviews with Soviet people indicate that many more believed in Stalin’s quest to eliminate internal enemies than were frightened by it.

The book also states that:

…between 1934 and 1936 police and court practice relaxed significantly. Then a series of events, together with the tense international situation and memories of real enemy activity during the savage Russian Civil War, combined to push leaders and people into a hysterical hunt for perceived ‘wreckers.’ After late 1938, however, the police and courts became dramatically milder.

One particular quote from Thuston demonstrates the entire point of this problem, and why we are hesitant to condemn the USSR for its excesses:

There was never a long period of Stalinism without a serious foreign threat, major internal dislocation, or both, which makes identifying its true nature impossible.

The genuine material conditions of the time (which anarchists consistently refuse to acknowledge) had an enormous impact on the functioning of these societies. The USSR, for example, dealt with sabotage, multiple invasions, constant infiltration and foreign threat, etc. And despite it all, they still managed to include a great deal of mass participation, even if this did not extend as far as we would like.

- Analysis of the Anarchist Revolution in Spain -

If we are to take anarchist critiques seriously, then they must present us with a genuine alternative to the Leninist model. However, a practical analysis of anarchist revolution shows that they have no such alternative to offer. Their successes have largely been due the adoption of Leninist tactics, while their failures have resulted from their own unique features.

For the sake of brevity, we will focus our analysis on Revolutionary Spain, the most famous of anarchist revolutions.

After the initial revolution, a system of courts were set up, which dispensed ruthless justice against fascist sympathizers and right-wingers. According to Juan Garcia Oliver, the Anarchist Minister of Justice (how’s that for a phrase!):

Everybody created his own justice and administered it himself…Some used to call this ‘taking a person for a ride’ [paseo] but I maintain that it was justice administered directly by the people in the complete absence of the regular judicial bodies.

Diego Abad de Santillan, editor of Solidaridad Obrera (the official CNT newspaper), said the following:

We do not wish to deny that the nineteenth of July brought with it an overflowing of passions and abuses, a natural phenomenon of the transfer of power from the hands of privileged to the hands of the people. It is possible that our victory resulted in the death by violence of four or five thousand inhabitants of Catalonia who were listed as rightists and were linked to political or ecclesiastical reaction.

The anarchists even implemented a system of labor camps for fascist sympathizers. Juan Garcia Oliver remarked:

The weeds must be torn out by their roots. There cannot be and must not be pity for the enemies of the people, but… their rehabilitation though work, and that is precisely what the new ministerial order creating “work camps” seeks… great irrigation canals, roads, and public works must be built immediately.

The book Workers Against Work: Labor in Paris and Barcelona During the Popular Fronts (used as a source by Libcom, incidentally) is useful for discussing this topic:

The book remarks:

The work camps were considered an integral part of the “constructive work of the Spanish Revolution,” and many anarcho-syndicalists took pride in the “progressive” character of the reforms by the CNT minister of justice. The CNT recruited guards for the “concentration camps”, as they were also called, from within its own ranks.

While the use of the term “concentration camps” is unfortunate (this was pre-Holocaust, remember), the use of a labor camp system hardly seems particularly anarchistic.

Now, let us discuss the economy. Our primary source for discussing the economy in Catalonia will be the book The Spanish Civil War: Revolution and Counterrevolution by Burnett Bolloten, which discussed the events from a pro-anarchist perspective:

After only a short time, the anarchists saw the need for organized economic planning, after completely decentralized self-management led to economic chaos. CNT member Albert Perez Bara commented:

After the first few days of euphoria, the workers returned to work and found themselves without responsible management. This resulted in the creation of workers’ committees in factories, workshops and warehouses, which tried to resume production with all the problems that a transformation of this kind entailed. Owing to inadequate training and the sabotage of some of the technicians who remained many others had fled with the owners the workers’ committees and other bodies that were improvised had to rely on the guidance of the unions… Lacking training in economic matters, the union leaders, with more good will than success, began to issue directives that spread confusion in the factory committees and enormous chaos in production. This was aggravated by the fact that each union… gave different and often contradictory instruction.


(2/3) This resulted in the CNT approving the decree on “Collectivization and Workers’ Control” on October 24, 1936. This decree required all firms with more than 100 workers to be collectivized (firms with less than 100 workers could collectivize if the workers agreed to it), and ordered them to join industrial councils, which were represented in the Economic Council of Catalonia, which would plan out the economy. In other words, the CNT introduced a form of central economic planning. While this system differed from the nationalization implemented by the USSR and other Leninist states, it was still quite different from the abstract “workplace democracy” espoused by many anarchists today.

After a short time, the unions (led by the CNT) began to deliberately restructure the economy, closing down hundreds of smaller plants, and refocusing their workers and capital towards larger, better-equipped ones. In Catalonia alone, more than seventy foundries were closed by the CNT, and production was focused on twenty-four larger foundries. In Barcelona, 905 smaller beauty shops and barbershops were closed down, their equipment and workers being focused on 212 larger shops.

Bolletan notes that, while some joined voluntarily the communes, others, especially in the beginning of the revolution, were forced to join the collectives by anarchist militias. The CNT newspaper Solidaridad Obrera reported that: “Certain abuses have been committed that we consider counterproductive. We know that certain irresponsible elements have frightened the small peasants and that up to now a certain apathy has been noted in their daily labors.”

This form of economic planning (and the sometimes harsh measures by which is was established) resulted in remarkable (if short-lived) success. As Eddie Conlon wrote in a publication discussing agriculture for the Workers’ Solidarity Movement:

Production greatly increased. Technicians and agronomists helped the peasants to make better use of the land. Modern scientific methods were introduced and in some areas yields increased by as much as 50%. There was enough to feed the collectivists and the militias in their areas. Often there was enough for exchange with other collectives in the cities for machinery. In addition food was handed over to the supply committees who looked after distribution in the urban areas.

From all of this, it is clear that the CNT were not nearly as different from the Bolsheviks as they generally liked to claim. They implemented a court system, used labor camps for fascist sympathizers, introduced economic planning, forcibly collectivized industries, and used their planning committees to restructure the economy, closing down enterprises and refocusing labor and capital in accordance with the general needs of the people. While all of this is commendable, it is also virtually indistinguishable from the activities of Leninist revolutionaries.

- Achievements of Leninist Socialism -

What anarchists also typically fail to mention when discussing Leninist socialism are the massive gains in quality of life attained by the socialist states. Let us go into this topic in more detail.

General Achievements

According to a study conducted using World Bank data, socialist (Leninist) countries had a higher quality of life than capitalist countries when controlling for level of economic development. Quality of life was measured using criteria such as life expectancy, literacy, daily calorie consumption per capita, access to higher education, housing, etc. The study states that:

Our findings indicate that countries with socialist political-economic systems can make great strides toward meeting basic human needs, even without extensive economic resources. When much of the world’s population suffers from disease, early death, malnutrition, and illiteracy, these observations take on a meaning that goes beyond cold statistics.

According to a study by Vicente Navarro, Professor of Health and Public Policy at Johns Hopkins University:

…contrary to dominant ideology, socialism and socialist forces have been, for the most part, better able to improve health conditions than have capitalism and capitalist forces… the evidence presented in this article shows that the historical experience of socialism has not been one of failure. To the contrary: it has been, for the most part, more successful than capitalism in improving the health conditions of the world’s populations.

Now, let us discuss some particular countries.

Maoist China

Perhaps the best source on this topic is Perspectives on the Human and Economic Development of India and China, by Amartya Sen (Professor of Economics at Harvard University, and Chair of Trinity College at Cambridge). Sen won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for his work on famine and development economics, particularly his study of India and China:

According to Sen, Maoist China made enormous strides in increasing quality of life:

Because of its radical commitment to the elimination of poverty and to improving living conditions - a commitment in which Maoist as well as Marxist ideas and ideals played an important part - China did achieve many things that the Indian leadership failed to press for and pursue with any vigor. The elimination of widespread hunger, illiteracy, and ill health falls solidly in this category. When state action operates in the right direction, the results can be quite remarkable, as is illustrated by the social achievements of the pre-reform [Maoist] period.

According to Sen, in Maoist China a “remarkable reduction in undernourishment took place,” achieved via socialist policies:

The casual processes through which the reduction of undernourishment was achieved involved extensive state action including redistributive policies, nutritional support, and of course health care (since undernourishment is frequently caused by parasitic diseases and other illnesses).

On the issue of education, Sen notes that the huge improvements (including dramatic increases in literacy) can be attributed primary to the pre-reform Maoist period:

China’s breakthrough in the field of elementary education had already taken place before the process of economic reform was initiated at the end of the seventies. Census data indicate, for instance, that literacy rates in 1982 for the 15-19 age group were already as high as 96 percent for males and 85 percent for females.

China also massively improved healthcare during the Maoist period:

China’s achievements in the field of health during the pre-reform period include a dramatic reduction of infant and child mortality and a remarkable expansion of longevity.

A study from Stanford University and the National Bureau of Economic Research supports these claims:

The study states that:

China’s growth in life expectancy at birth from 35–40 years in 1949 to 65.5 years in 1980 is among the most rapid sustained increases in documented global history.

It also points out the massive increases in the health system:

Physician and hospital supply grew dramatically under Mao due to a variety of factors (including increases in government financing, the introduction of social insurance for urban public employees, and the launch of China’s Rural Cooperative Medical System in the mid-1950’s). Rural Cooperative Medical Schemes (CMS) were vigorously promoted and became widespread in the late 1960’s as part of the Cultural Revolution.

The study confirms Sen’s analysis of education:

China made large strides in primary and secondary education under Mao.

It also quotes other research which found that the rapid gains in Chinese healthcare can be attributed to the specific socialist policies implemented:

China’s mortality decline between 1953 and 1957, which resembles that of the US between 1900 and 1930, was “primarily due to the unique social organisation of Chinese public health practices.”

There were also extremely successful mass vaccination campaigns:

Systematic efforts to vaccinate the population against polio, measles, diphtheria, whooping cough, scarlet fever, and cholera were rapid and reputedly successful (China nearly eradicated smallpox within the span of only three years, with the last documented cases occurring in Tibet and Yunnan in 1960).

Also, while the Great Chinese Famine (during the Great Leap Forward) was devastating, starvation in capitalist India during this same period killed over 100 million people, vastly surpassing the Chinese famine. This is discussed in another book by Amartya Sen:



…it is important to note that despite the gigantic size of excess mortality in the Chinese famine, the extra mortality in India from regular deprivation in normal times vastly overshadows the former. Comparing India’s death rate of 12 per thousand with China’s of 7 per thousand, and applying that difference to the Indian population of 781 million in 1986, we get an estimate of excess normal mortality in India of 3.9 million per year. This implies that every eight years or so more people die in India because of its higher regular death rate than died in China in the gigantic famine of 1958 – 61. India seems to manage to fill its cupboard with more skeletons every eight years than China put there in its years of shame.


As for the USSR, Robert C. Allen, Professor of Economic History at Oxford, states that “the Soviet economy performed well”, remarking that it achieved “high rates of capital accumulation, rapid GDP growth, and rising per capita consumption even in the 1930’s,” and that “recent research shows that the standard of living also increased briskly.” Also states that “This success would not have occurred without the 1917 revolution or the planned development of state owned industry.”

Researchers from Williams College performed a detailed analysis of living standards in the USSR, which found that the Soviet Union achieved “Remarkably large and rapid improvements in child height, adult stature and infant mortality,” using this data to state that “significant improvements likely occurred in the nutrition, sanitary practices, and public health infrastructure.” Also states that “the physical growth record of the Soviet population compares favorably with that of other European countries at a similar level of development in this period.” Finally, states that:

The conventional measures of GNP growth and household consumption indicate a long, uninterrupted upward climb in the Soviet standard of living from 1928 to 1985; even Western estimates of these measures support this view, albeit at a slower rate of growth than the Soviet measures.


According to the United Nations, Cuba is “at the forefront of developing nations” in terms of quality of life. It has a higher life expectancy and literacy rate than the USA, as well as one of the lowest rates of malnutrition in the world. It is also the first nation in the world to eliminate mother-to-child HIV and syphilis transmission, a remarkable healthcare achievement. The sources for these claims are as follows:


All of these enormous achievements show conclusively that socialism, as implemented in the 20th century, was able to vastly improve life for over a billion people. This does not even address nations such as Burkina Faso under Thomas Sankara, which made enormous improvements in nutrition, healthcare, and development. It is impossible to imagine how simply implementing “workers’ self-management” would have achieved these things, especially when even the CNT used economic planning (as shown above).

- Conclusion -

From all that has been discussed above, it is clear that Leninist socialism has achieved a great deal more than anarchism can claim, and has been the victim of a near-constant stream of slanders, even from those who are supposed to be our comrades.

While we should not cut ourselves off entirely from interacting with our anarchist friends, it is important that we always be ready to defend 20th century socialism, while acknowledging its genuine flaws, so that we may advance, and make use of the effective tactics of revolutionaries before us.

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