J. V. Stalin. “Anarchism or Socialism?J. V. Stalin Collected Works, Vol. 1. Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1954, pp. 297-372.


During the period between the summer of 1906 and the winter of early 1907, a relatively young Georgian Bolshevik by the name of Ioseb Besarionis dze Jugashvili – then also known as “Koba,” later to become known to history as Josef Vissarionovich Stalin – published a series of articles under the general heading, Anarchism or Socialism? As leader of the Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party in Transcaucasia, Jugashvili’s aims were (1) to polemicize against a certain group of Georgian anarchists then carrying on a prolonged propaganda campaign against the Social-Democrats, and (2) to clearly and simply explain to Georgian workers the main ideas of Marxism. Sadly incomplete, Jugashvili’s Anarchism or Socialism? nevertheless compellingly refutes the slanderous criticism of the Social-Democrats by the Georgian anarchists while also providing a clear and concise introduction to Marxism’s dialectical method and materialist theory as well as the general strategy and tactics of proletarian socialism.

Anarchism or Socialism? is divided into three sections. In the first section, which outlines the main points of Marxism’s dialectical method, Jugashvili explains that Marxists regard everything in nature and society as existing in a state of perpetual motion, of constant change and development, caught up in an unending process of destruction and creation. Jugashvili contrasts dialectical reasoning with metaphysical reasoning, which essentially regards nature and society as stagnant and immutable. Finally, Jugashvili refutes anarchist accusations that dialectics is a form of metaphysics.

In the next section, which deals with materialist theory, Jugashvili goes on to explain that, concerning changes that take place in nature and society, Marxists regard changes in matter, or “nature,” as preceding changes in consciousness, or “society.” The opposite of materialism is idealism, which holds that changes in consciousness precede changes in matter. Thus, from a Marxist perspective, the real basis for people’s beliefs and ideas isn’t to be found in their minds, but in the development of their economic conditions. The only ideas that are acceptably materialist are those based on a study of the development of economic conditions. Furthermore, radically changing society (i.e., the habits, customs, and political system) requires that we first radically change the nature of our economic relations.

Finally, in the third and longest section, Jugashvili details the practical connections between proletarian socialism and the dialectical materialism outlined in the first two sections. First, he outlines the general features of capitalist production as well as those of future socialist society, describes the transition from socialism to communism, and offers a materialist argument for the inevitability of socialism.

Next, Jugashvili outlines the general strategy and tactics of proletarian socialism. First, he describes the material and social conditions necessary for establishing socialism. Jugashvili then goes on to argue for the necessity of class struggle, which ultimately culminates in the socialist revolution, as the means for establishing socialism. The first stage of this socialist revolution, he argues, is characterized by the socialist dictatorship of the proletariat, i.e., the political domination of the working class over the bourgeoisie. In order to carry out this revolution successfully, Jugashvili concludes, the working class needs an international proletarian revolutionary party, in this case, the Social-Democratic Party.

Jugashvili then addresses a handful of accusations leveled by anarchists against proletarian socialism generally and Social-Democrats specifically. The initial, and also the most frivolous, accusation is that Marx and Engels plagiarized their contemporary, the 19th century French utopian socialist, Victor Considérant, while drafting their Manifesto, a charge which Jugashvili easily disproves. The three more substantial accusations which Jugashvili answers are, first, that the Social-Democrats aren’t genuine socialists because the socialist society they seek to establish would retain two key institutions upon which capitalism is founded, viz., the state and wage-labor; second, that the Social-Democrats aren’t revolutionary, but instead seek to establish socialism solely by means of elections and parliamentarism; and third, that the Social-Democrats’ doctrine of the socialist dictatorship of the proletariat proves that Social-Democracy in general isn’t a popular movement and that Social-Democrats themselves merely seek to establish their own dictatorship over the working class.

With regards to the two major aims motivating his series of articles – viz., to polemicize against the Georgian anarchists and to clearly and simply explain the main ideas of Marxism to Georgian workers – Jugashvili more or less accomplishes what he set out to do.

Where the anarchists’ accusations and criticisms amount to little more than slander, as is the case with the anarchists’ accusation of plagiarism against Marx and Engels as well as their accusation that Social-Democrats seek to establish socialism solely through elections and parliamentarism, Jugashvili reveals them for what they are in short order. Where their accusations and criticisms are more substantial, arising from a more fundamental disagreement as to the nature of socialism and the necessary historical processes through which it must pass and develop, as is the case with the anarchists’ charges against the Social-Democrats that they aren’t real socialists and that Social-Democracy isn’t really a popular movement, Jugashvili attempts to refute those accusations by briefly expounding upon the contemporary Marxist (Bolshevik) theory of socialist revolution. On just about every point, Jugashvili reveals the anarchists’ criticisms as either pure slander or else as resulting from a demonstrable lack of theoretical insight and a generally unsystematic world outlook.

Jugashvili is at his strongest, however, when he resorts to a clear and simple illustration so as to render a complex concept easily understandable. This strength is nowhere more evident than when Jugashvili famously resorts to the semi-autobiographical example of the déclassé – or, in Marxist terms, proletarianized – Georgian shoemaker so as to illustrate how changes in external material conditions precede changes in consciousness. The basis for Jugashvili’s Georgian shoemaker is, of course, his own father Besarion Vanovis Jugashvili, or “Beso.” For a time, Beso Jugashvili had indeed been an independent shoemaker with his own shop in Gori until his expulsion (on account of his being a disorderly, violent drunk) forced him and his family to move to Tbilisi, where Beso then took up work at the Adelkhanov Shoe Factory.

Indeed, according to one (anti-communist) historian, the last recorded contact between Beso Jugashvili and his son occurred in May 1900, while “Koba” Jugashvili was organizing a mass strike that would eventually include the Adelkhanov Shoe Factory where Beso worked. By all accounts, Beso had always resented his son’s refusal to follow in his footsteps and become a shoemaker. Thus, when he saw “Koba” coming around to address his fellow workers and stir them to action, Beso reproached his son: “Why aren’t you learning a trade?” Shortly after this, Beso lost his job at the factory and sank even deeper into alcoholism and poverty, eventually dying in August 1909.

But whereas Beso’s consciousness seems never to have adapted to match the changes in his material conditions, the younger Jugashvili’s unnamed Georgian shoemaker is spared the same fate. Instead, Jugashvili’s unnamed Georgian shoemaker effectively not only achieves the redemption in myth which had eluded Beso in life, but he does so precisely by completing that process of development of consciousness which Beso himself had never been able to accomplish.

Here, we can feel the pulse, the beating heart inside of Marxist dialectical materialism: a younger generation hopes and strives to redeem themselves – and perhaps, by extension, to also retroactively justify all those older generations from whom they’ve descended – by critically summing up, understanding, and thereby learning how to avoid the mistakes of the past so as to consciously and deliberately change their present conditions and lay the foundations for a better future.

According to Jugashvili, and Marxists in general, the foundations for a better future are the foundations of socialism. It would, of course, be quite comforting to believe in the historical inevitability of socialism. And indeed, Jugashvili attempts to put forward a two-part materialist argument for just that inevitability. But this is precisely the point where Jugashvili is at his weakest.

The first part of Jugashvili’s overall argument consists in a materialist case for the inevitability of socialism, and for the most part it’s quite strong. Jugashvili argues that history itself, specifically the historical development in forms of social production, demonstrates that changes in the form of social production inevitably spur changes in the form of property. This confirms the Marxist view that changes in matter precede changes in consciousness: changes in the material form of production precede changes in social consciousness vis-à-vis property relations. As the character of capitalist production has changed over time – from an individual, private form of production (e.g., the artisan in his shop) to a social, collective form (e.g., workers in a factory) – modern capitalism’s increasingly social, collective form of production has come increasingly into conflict with the individual, private form of property. Thus, as the argument goes, the development of a social, collective form of production must eventually, but inevitably, lead to the development of a correspondingly social, collective form of property. Furthermore, the periodic industrial crises which plague modern capitalism demonstrate that capitalism itself is already in the process of decay. As Jugashvili explains, Marxists predicate their doctrine of the inevitability of socialism on this scientific understanding of history, and not on sentiment or abstract notions of justice.

The second part of Jugashvili’s overall argument, however, consists in his attempt to put forward a materialist case for the inevitability of proletarian socialism, and this is where his position is remarkably weaker. According to Jugashvili, history shows that the class which “plays the principal role in social production and performs the main functions in production must, in the course of time, inevitably take control of that production.” The problem is that, unlike the first part of Jugashvili’s argument, where a scientific analysis of history actually supports the Marxist conclusion that changes in the form of social production eventually spur changes in the form of property, here history just support Jugashvili’s conclusion.

The defining characteristic of class society, i.e., exploitative societies, is that one class (e.g., slave-owners, feudal lords, capitalists, etc.) “controls production” while another class (e.g., slaves, serfs, workers, etc.) “plays the principal role” and “performs the main functions in production.”

In matrilineal society, due to a more or less equal division of labor whereby, generally speaking, men hunted while women gathered, and thus both men and women shared the principal role and performed the main functions of social production together. On top of that, women also played the principal role and performed the main function of social reproduction, i.e., the bearing of children and, thus, the production of subsequent generations of society’s producers. Furthermore, women in matrilineal society played the principal role and performed the main function of social reproduction at a time when only matrimony could be reliably ascertained. Therefore, all kinship at this time was necessarily reckoned according to the mother’s line. This is our starting point.

It must be kept in mind, however, that the two main reasons matrilineal society, which was also primitive communist society, was more egalitarian than later societies were (1) private property had not yet emerged as a form of social power which one class could concentrate in its own hands while largely dispossessing other classes of it; and (2) it’s only with the advent of agriculture and sedentary society that humans establish the economic basis to maintain inequality. Whereas a material basis for inequality between definite individuals in the same society may spontaneously emerge (e.g., as the result of various differences in genetics, circumstances, experience, etc.), the material basis for inequality between classes in the same society has to be built up over time. Nomadic hunter-gatherers don’t build up vast sums of wealth, and so have neither the means nor any use for a class of slaves.

As the primary form of production in matrilineal society underwent the transition from hunting and gathering to farming, settlement and increases in production not only made it possible for those societies to support larger populations, but they also began to establish the material basis for the emergence of private property. So began an accumulation of the economic basis for maintaining class inequality.

During this transition from hunting and gathering to farming, the customary division of labor which had previously existed in matrilineal society was augmented such that, as men in matrilineal society had once controlled those means of production suited to hunting (i.e., weapons and such), so men later came to control the means of production suited to farming (i.e., farm implements, tools, animals, etc.). Here, men used their exclusive control over the means of production and accumulation of the products of their labor, i.e., private property, as weapons in the overthrow of matrilineal society. As men increasingly accumulated private property, and the social power it conferred, they wanted to pass it on to their sons. Eventually, the entire center of matrilineal society shifted, and from then on kinship was reckoned according to the father’s line. At the same time, the monogamous family (which is to say, monogamy for women) supplanted the more traditional forms of the family so as to make determination of patrimony more reliable through the strict imposition upon women of various repressive, but largely surviving, sexual norms, roles, rules, etc. Thus, there emerged patriarchal society.

Afterwards, exploitative society: that society in which a class of people who control the means of production have accumulated enough property that they are able to compel, in one form or another, some other class of people to play the principal role and perform the main functions of social production in their stead.

In slave society, which is still patriarchal, a class of human slaves play the main role and perform the main functions in production, but they themselves also comprise the primary means of production, owned by and under the control of a class of mostly male slave-owners. Did the slave class in ancient slave society eventually come to take control of production? No, ancient slave society collapsed.

In feudal society, which is primarily agrarian, classes of serfs and peasants play the main role and perform the main functions of production, but the primary means of production is the land, which is owned and controlled by a class of feudal lords. Did the serf and peasant classes in feudal society come to take control of production? No, most of them were simply transformed into the modern proletariat.

In capitalist society, a class of proletarians plays the main role and performs the main functions of production, but the primary means of production, i.e., the land, tools, machinery, materials, etc., are owned and controlled by a class of capitalists. This is the situation in which we find ourselves today. Is it “inevitable” that workers will come to take control of production? Hardly. In fact, it’s just as plausible that capitalist society will culminate either, on the one hand, in what Marx and Engels referred to as “the common ruin of the contending classes” (as was the case with ancient slave society); or, on the other hand, in “a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large” (which was the case with the historical development and transition from feudal society to capitalist society).

It’s also conceivable that capitalist society, our current instantiation of exploitative society, will simply reconstitute itself in a new but nonetheless still exploitative form. Perhaps we’re even in the midst of doing so right now. In the era of imperialism, perhaps the relocation of capital and the reorientation and redefinition of the relation between capitalism’s centers and its peripheries, the result of decades of neoliberalism, will have an effect somewhat analogous to that of European growth and expansion during the period of early capitalism. Perhaps instead of constantly seeking out new markets, capitalism will develop some global system of rotation, analogous to crop rotation, only in terms of economic development and growth. And so on. The point here is that any number of possibilities are conceivable and there’s no reason to assume that capitalism is somehow “inevitably” the last link in the historical chain of exploitative society before the advent of socialism.

To be fair, Jugashvili could never have seen the world as we see it today, from the point of view of generations for whom the collapse of the Soviet Union and the full restoration of capitalism in China serve as twin heralds of nothing less that the End of History. Even so, over 100 years after the publication of Anarchism or Socialism?, all talk of the supposed “inevitability” of socialism (or for that matter, all talk of the supposed “immortality,” “invincibility,” or “omnipotence” of Marxism, or some subsequently higher stage thereof) comes across sounding more like idealism than a scientific conclusion resulting from our rigorously materialist analysis and study of history.

Contrary to Jugashvili’s assertion, history does not show that the class which “plays the principal role in social production and performs the main functions in production must, in the course of time, inevitably take control of that production.” Indeed, insofar as the history of class society is concerned, the major historical transitions from one form of social production to the next (viz., from slavery to feudalism, and from feudalism to capitalism) have not been characterized by the class of producers taking control of social production.

The historic mission of socialism is certainly that those who play the principal role and perform the main functions in production come to take control of that production – or more generally: the historic resolution of what Mao summarized as the basic contradiction “between the social character of production and the private character of ownership.” But just because resolving that contradiction is the mission of socialism, that doesn’t mean Marxists can go around telling everybody that history teaches us the accomplishment of our mission is “inevitable.” Instead, it means Marxists, armed with the insight of dialectical materialism, must explain why something so out of keeping with what readily appears to be history’s normal trajectory is nonetheless urgently necessary.

To this end, detailing as concretely as possible the strategy and tactics of proletarian socialism is crucial. Again, we today benefit from experience and knowledge Jugashvili could never have imagined, let alone considered. All the same, one senses a certain reluctance on Jugashvili’s part to admit to and confront even those seemingly imperfect aspects of socialism which he and his contemporary Marxists could have, and in some cases did imagine and consider: most notably, the marks capitalist society must inevitably leave upon any new socialist society to which it gives birth. This reluctance, coupled with Jugashvili’s claims as to the “inevitability” of socialism, suggest the possibility that Jugashvili himself idealized socialism to some extent.

One example of this emerges in response to the first anarchist accusation against the Social-Democrats, which is that the Social-Democrats aren’t genuine socialists because the socialist society they seek to establish would retain two key institutions upon which capitalism is founded, viz., the state and wage-labor. Jugashvili deftly answers the anarchists’ accusation on most points, but there is on point in particular he conspicuously appears to elide.

First, just to be clear as to what precisely is at issue, here is the anarchists’ accusation to which Jugashvili is responding:

In socialist society, in the opinion of the Social-Democrats, the distinction between “dirty” and “clean” work will be retained, the principle “to each according to his needs” will be rejected, and another principle will prevail, viz., “to each according to his services.”

Whereas Jugashvili readily admits, for example, that distinctions between work will continue under socialism, i.e., during the so-called lower phase of communist society, the period characterized by the socialist dictatorship of the proletariat; he nevertheless seems reluctant to admit that the principle governing distribution during that period, the period of socialism before the higher phase of communist society, can more or less be summed up exactly as the anarchists say: “to each according to his services.”

Jugashvili’s seeming reluctance on this point is rather odd given that Marx himself had already addressed it quite openly in his Critique of the Gotha Programme, a text which Jugashvili directly cites. Marx writes: “The same amount of labor which he [the worker] has given to society in one form, he receives back in another.” And shortly thereafter:

[A]s far as the distribution of the [individual means of consumption] among the individual producers is concerned, the same principle prevails as in the exchange of commodity equivalents: a given amount of labor in one form is exchanged for an equal amount of labor in another form.

And while it’s hardly fair to reproach Jugashvili for not being Lenin, it’s nonetheless worth pointing out that Lenin would eventually reassert Marx’s view in State and Revolution:

The means of production are no longer the private property of individuals. The means of production belong to the whole of society. Every member of society, performing a certain part of the socially-necessary work, receives a certificate from society to the effect that he has done a certain amount of work. And with this certificate he receives from the public store of consumer goods a corresponding quantity of products. After a deduction is made of the amount of labor which goes to the public fund, every worker, therefore, receives from society as much as he has given to it.

Stranger still, of course, is that Article 12 of the 1936 Constitution of the U.S.S.R. would eventually declare, in no uncertain terms: “The principle applied in the U.S.S.R. is that of socialism: ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his work.’”

Yet, in that period between the summer of 1906 and the winter of early 1907, when Jugashvili was writing and publishing Anarchism or Socialism?, he hardly dealt as frankly with the questions of vestigial wage-labor in socialist society, and whether or not the principle governing (lower phase) socialist distribution could more or less correctly be expressed as “to each according to his services.” Ostensibly, this was so he wouldn’t have to admit the anarchists were actually correctly describing “socialist society” in its lower phase, and that, therefore, the anarchists’ accusation against the Social-Democrats were also at least partially true.

What’s so puzzling about all this is that admitting the partial truth of the anarchists’ accusations wouldn’t be devastating either to Jugashvili’s defense in particular or to the Social-Democratic position in general. The principle of distribution, “to each according to his services” – which is to say, an equal exchange of one form of value for another – is still a progressive development since it abolishes the exploitation of labor under capitalism, whereby workers are compelled to exchange their labor for wages that amount to less than the value their labor creates. Thus, even during that period of socialist society where distribution would be governed by the principle, “to each according to his services,” Social-Democrats would favor replacing unequal exchange and exploitation with the fair and equal exchange of one form of labor for another.

To be sure, arguing along those lines means admitting Social-Democrats won’t actually realize the communist principle of distribution, “to each according to their needs,” at one stroke; but Social-Democrats never claimed they would, or that such a thing is even possible.

Another notable example of Jugashvili’s reluctance to deal frankly with those seemingly imperfect aspects of socialism emerges in response to the third anarchist accusation against the Social-Democrats, which is that the Social-Democrats’ doctrine of the socialist dictatorship of the proletariat proves that Social-Democracy in general isn’t really a popular movement and that Social-Democrats themselves merely seek to establish their own dictatorship over the working class.

It must be said that, regardless of what may have happened decades after the Georgian anarchists levelled these accusations, the Social-Democratic doctrine of the dictatorship of the proletariat had always been explicitly expressed and understood by Social-Democrats as a class dictatorship, as the democratic dictatorship of the majority over the minority, the go-to model for which (at least during the period Jugashvili was writing Anarchism or Socialism?) was the Paris Commune.

Marxists generally recognize two types of dictatorship: dictatorship of the minority (as exists, for example, under capitalism), and dictatorship of the majority (as would exist under socialism). Marxists support dictatorship of the majority, that is dictatorship of the working masses, which is also the first stage of socialist revolution. In his response, Jugashvili frankly says as much, and thereby competently answers and defends against the anarchists’ accusation.

And yet, one gets the sense here that although Jugashvili’s answer speaks to the charge, it does not, however, speak to the general concern behind the charge.

What’s missing is the link between, on the one hand, Jugashvili’s explanation of the Social-Democratic doctrine of the socialist dictatorship of the proletariat as a class dictatorship and, on the other hand, his earlier description of the Party: specifically, an acknowledgment that the socialist working-class dictatorship is just the proletarian form of democracy and, thus, is supposed to express the actual political will of the majority; and an account of exactly how and by what organizational principles the Party of the working class is supposed to both empower the working class while also guarding against a general degeneration of the class dictatorship into a personal or party dictatorship. But despite the fact Jugashvili himself briefly alluded to it earlier, the missing link, the linchpin that seems to have eluded Jugashvili is the organizational principle of democratic centralism.

In his defense, Jugashvili did intend to publish further installments to his Anarchism or Socialism? series, and judging from what he’d already published, it does indeed appear as though Jugashvili had a working understanding of proletarian democracy. It’s clear just how close Jugashvili really was to the center of the debates and struggles then driving forward developments in Marxist thought.

In such a position, Jugashvili displays both strengths and weaknesses. On the one hand, with regards to his goal of clearly and simply explaining the main ideas of Marxism, Jugashvili proves himself a master popularizer and teacher when the concepts he’s trying to explain and illustrate are more or less settled elements of Marxism. On the other hand, with regards to his goal of polemicizing against and answering the accusations of the Georgian anarchists, Jugashvili’s shakiness begins to show where innovation and filling in of gaps are required, where the concepts of proletarian socialism at issue aren’t as fully fleshed out or settled.

Ultimately, the weaknesses displayed in Anarchism or Socialism? can largely be attributed to the fact that the less well-defined aspects of the particular Bolshevik line Jugashvili was defending and upholding in 1906-1907 were all elements of a still nascent Bolshevism, an all-round development of Marxism that was then still in progress and which would only later come to be known as Marxism-Leninism, a higher stage of development of Marxism. At the same time, even these weaknesses are remarkable in that they nevertheless demonstrate just how closely, even in 1906-1907, Jugashvili’s expression and understanding of Bolshevism mirrored Lenin’s own.

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