Before one can endanger a government using parliamentary means, one has to have 51% of the votes in Parliament or in the country.
That is the traditional social democratic way of “taking power” after the manner of the bourgeois parties. It clashes with the fact that the bourgeoisie will not allow itself to be governed to the detriment of its interests. Besides, the socialist voters themselves are nothing but a “lawful opposition” up as far as 49% support; they may be eager to reshuffle the system or influence it, but they have no desire to overthrow it. Grappling with an entire world of dangers and uncertainties is a quite different kettle of fish. So, in practice, it is all but impossible for them to get from 49% to the 51% mark (as witness the example of Austria, 1919-1933).
On the other hand, endangering the government through direct mass action (insurrection, tax boycotts, general strike) does not require a majority. Quality is what counts and 10% is more than enough.
This is the so-called “bolshevik” route, improperly so called as it was primarily the handiwork of the “anarchic” masses disowned by the Bolsheviks in July 1917, circumstantially supported by them in October and then sacrificed to consolidation of the State. Other examples might be Central Europe in 1918-1919, China in 1925-1930 and Spain 1933-1934. This route has been utterly abandoned by today’s Bolshevism which sticks exclusively to legal, parliamentary methods.
Access to sufficient means to overthrow the government does not necessarily mean that one can replace it in any lasting way.
Socialist parliamentarians run up against the “money wall”. To right-wing putschists, the issue is “worker resistance”. To anarchists wishing to do away with all government, the issue is the “new social organization” getting the better of the bourgeois reaction, etc. In short, politics here run up against economics (the latter being the proper sphere of direct action). One very well-known example would be the failure of the Kapp Putsch when economic life was brought to a standstill in Berlin in March 1920.
The only way of forcing a government on a significant minority practising direct action is to counter it with another minority resorting, to an even more violent extent, extra-legal violence, and that with the backing of the government.
As we know, fascism in Italy was spawned by the aping of revolutionary methods by the counter-revolution. Conversely, the Popular Front, should it come to power, could only cling on there, in the face of the hostile leagues, by surrounding itself with a “fascism of the left” designed to crush or neutralize the right-wing variety using the very same methods as the latter would employ, should it succeed. Besides, this has been demonstrated by the experience of the Bolshevik government fighting against supposedly “reactionary” peasants and striking terror into them by means of punitive expeditions.
Therefore, power can be gained and retained:
a) By lawful, parliamentary means, by accumulating 51% of the votes in parliament – as long as there is no hostile minority organized for the purposes of extra-legal action, or when that minority voluntarily withdraws from the fight;
In Germany, Hitlerite fascism, which in all likelihood would not have been able to retain power in the face of manly action on the part of the marxists, and would have had to fight ferocious battles in order to take it by storm, has profited from the corpse-like discipline and treachery of the leaders. It came to power by constitutional means, in spite of the Reichstag fire.
b) By the extra-parliamentary, dictatorship route, amassing a direct action force at least three times as big as its adversary’s and by seizing and retaining the initiative in the struggle.
In Italy, the forces of the left surrendered only partially and fascism was only able to install itself and achieve stability at the cost of protracted, bloody battles against the vanguard factions of the working class. Launched in 1922, the seizure of power was not actually completed until 1925. Compare this with the parallel consolidation of Russian Bolshevism.
If ever there is no party able to meet the conditions outlined above and where, for that very reason, a party government is not feasible, the principle of the continuity of government as an institution is either artificially prioritized over those parties which are willing to defer to the arbitration of some “government of truce” – or civil war is triggered, with no great prospect of success on one side or the other.
The latter circumstance applies to Germany in 1923, to Russia from July to October 1917, etc., etc. The first case is typified by the Giolitti, Brüning, Doumergue or Laval governments (governments of the “lesser evil” variety to those who would rather a bad government than no government at all). Such governments use force to cling to power, simply on account of the unpopularity of the measures they have to take.
In the event of a civil war without any prompt outcome, one arrives either at a position of “dual power” (two authorities competing over the same territory) or a position of “political decentralization” (with factions enforcing their own principles within different territories). At best, this situation may lead to the absence of all effective authority (“anarchy”) – and of any statist centralization (“federalism”).
The classic example of dual power is the “Constituent Assembly versus the Soviets”-type clash which surfaced in every popular revolution in the capitalist countries (France in 1871, Germany in 1918, etc.). History has shown that this clash could develop into political decentralization (communes, separatism) and make way for the eruption of an authentic spontaneous anarchy (such as in Makhnovist Ukraine, etc.,)
Writing as A.P. in Terre libre, (Nîmes) No 21, January 1936. From Un anarchisme hors norme (a collection of texts by André Prudhommeaux, published by Tumult https://tumult.noblogs.org/post/2020/02/15/un-anarchisme-hors-norme-andre-prudhommeaux/ )
Translated by: Paul Sharkey.