In On Authority, Engels pointed out the lack of substance behind the arguments about how involving the state in building socialism is wrong because this route would be "authoritarian." As he observed, any kind of revolution is authoritarian in nature, since it involves the forcible transfer of power. So the anarchists, liberals, and reactionaries who attacked Marxism for endorsing the state as a means to achieve socialism didn't really care about upholding "liberty." All of these groups believed in authority as a means for advancing their political goals, after all. They only cared about vindicating their own ideological camps.
The same hypocrisy is present in today's denunciations of socialist countries like China as "authoritarian," which of course come from the same political groups that decried the revolutionary theory of Marx throughout the 19th century. Since the Russian revolution of 1917, when Marxism started to be applied to the functionings of a large government, anti-communists from both the right and the left have tried to claim that reality has vindicated the "anti-authoritarian" critiques of Marxism. But all of these pronouncements about how Marxism leads to tyranny have depended on two dishonest arguing strategies: distortions of the truth about what socialist states have done, and blanket portrayals of the exercising of authority among socialist states as unjust.
Disputing the false claims about what these countries have done is as easy as pointing to the numerous factual holes in anti-communist atrocity propaganda. The Nazi-created lie about how Stalin starved Ukraine in an event called the "Holodomor," the fabricated claims about how many were held in the gulags and what their conditions were like, and the unscientific estimations of how many Uyghur Muslims are in China's anti-terrorism educational facilities (as well as the blatantly false claims about the conditions of these facilities) are all easy to point out.
The anti-communist argument that's harder to persuade people against pertains to a philosophical opposition towards the very idea of using the state to achieve socialism. For the "libertarians" of both the right and the left, there's something innately evil about utilizing the state to try to empower the proletariat. State coercion is viewed as unjust, or as a slippery slope towards tyranny which should be avoided.
But when all of the lies behind the "communism killed 100 million" meme are taken out of the conversation, the hollowness of these morality-based denunciations of Marxism becomes apparent. Anarchists have always sought to use authority, including authority that's imposed through violent revolutionary means, to carry out their goals. And the social democrats and rightists, who are directly helping orchestrate imperialist attacks against socialist countries, support authoritarianism for the benefit of their own goals in even more obvious ways.
When Bernie Sanders has denounced the socialist DPRK as "totalitarian" in order to call for imposing more sanctions on it, he's endorsed the authoritarian use of economic warfare in order to advance imperialist goals in the Korean Peninsula. When John Bolton has called Latin America's socialist states the "troika of tyranny" to promote regime change against them, he's endorsed the authoritarian imposition of Washington's will over the wills of the people in these countries who've democratically elected their governments. When Mike Pompeo announced in July that regime change is the Trump administration's goal for China while decrying China as "authoritarian," this type of irony was again apparent.
So is the case for the rightists who oppose communism because they're "libertarians" who want to fight for "freedom," but who support the suppression of the civil liberties of their political opponents if this makes communism less likely to win in the United States. "Libertarians" have come to glorify Joe McCarthy because they don't genuinely care about protecting freedom of thought and expression, things that McCarthy obviously didn't care about upholding; they only seek to root out class struggle by any means necessary. The Trump supporters who claim to love "freedom" have at the same time supported Trump's Gestapo-style arrests of protesters based on their political ideologies. As soon as class struggle escalates, the patriots who say they stand for "liberty" will join the effort to dictatorially crush the side of the anti-capitalists.
The logical conclusion of this political reaction is something like the regime of Augusto Pinochet, which also has some defenders who claim to love "freedom." In this last year in Bolivia, the hypocrisy of the anti-communist "libertarians" has been on display through the installment of a regime which emulates many of Pinochet's repressive policies. In November, the U.S. imperialists partnered with the Bolivian right to oust the Marxist-Leninist president Evo Morales, who they falsely claimed was "hurting democracy." Since then, the Christian fundamentalist regime which came to power after the coup has used death squads to massacre indigenous protesters, delayed elections three times, and tortured or assassinated many journalists and political dissidents.
The rightists and liberals who help carry out these kinds of state violence, as well as the anarchists who seek to use coercive measures to realize their societal vision, aren't opposed to authoritarianism. They only seek to use the term "authoritarianism" to vilify communists, while utilizing authoritarianism to further their own ideologies.
The term can be applied to any political ideology that's interested in influencing the current balance of power. But it's become most associated with communism because the idea of the proletariat exercising authority upon the bourgeoisie is abhorrent to the capitalist ruling class, and to all the individualistic and idealistic political strains which help prop up capitalism and imperialism.
It's because of this universality of how authoritarianism can be applied to politics that the discourse shouldn't focus on the "authoritarian vs libertarian" dichotomy. It should focus on which class is using authority to subdue the other. When one starts thinking in these terms-which is to say in the terms of a Marxist-they're able to recognize which systems and countries are doing the most material good for humankind.
The fact that China utilizes censorship doesn't prove that the Chinese government is an evil force which must be opposed; it shows that China has had to restrict the flow of all the bigoted propaganda that the imperialists put out. The fact that the DPRK forbids outside visitors from venturing from the approved tourist routes doesn't prove the country is a tyrannical dictatorship with something sinister to hide; it shows how cautious the country must be about potential spies and saboteurs amid a relentless CIA campaign to undermine Korean socialism. The censorship and laws of capitalist countries, though, work to enforce the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie over the poor and working classes.
Be skeptical whenever you hear someone describe socialist states or Marxism as "authoritarian." They're using a word that can be used to describe essentially any ideology or social system, and that's only directed towards communism to distort people's perceptions of what communism is.
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