Class, Power and Revolution—Anarchism or Marxism?

Anarchists and socialists share a common aim, but anarchism’s rejection of leadership, party organisation and the need for a workers’ state doom it to failure, writes Caitlin Doyle

Anarchists throughout history, like socialists, have fought for a different world based on the conviction that ordinary people can run society themselves. They believe that humans can live and work together in cooperation without a state to violently enforce the exploitation of one class by another.

The ideals of anarchism, like collectivism and anti-authoritarianism, appeal to activists who want to end the injustices of capitalism.

However, despite its ideals, anarchism consistently falls short, in both theory and practice as a strategy for changing the world.

There are many strands of anarchism, but common amongst all of them is a rejection of the need for a party, political leadership or any form of state, including a workers’ state.

It is around these important strategic questions that socialists and anarchists disagree.

Anarchists have a sociological, rather than a class, understanding of power in society, and reject of any kind of centralisation, which they regard as a form of authority that restricts individual freedom. “Consensus”, for example, is favoured over “centralised” voting, because a majority vote is seen as oppressive or coercive, because it imposes the majority decision on the “freedom” of the minority.

Leadership and organisation

For anyone who wants to smash capitalism, the idea of struggles without leaders for a society with no state and no rules seems very attractive.

Anarchists argue that political leadership necessarily leads to political corruption and hierarchy. They object to the idea of leadership, often in favour of “spontaneity”.

In the context of capitalism, where our lives are constantly subject to the un-elected authority of the boss, the police, judges, and so on, an instinctive rejection of authority and “leaders” is understandable.

But the unavoidable fact is that in any struggle for change there will always be leadership of one kind or another. Not because there is an innate human drive to have control or power over others, but because people have different levels of experience, political consciousness, confidence and commitment.

In any campaign group or trade union branch there will be some people that are more willing and able to take on responsibilities, and there will always be someone who argues for the political way forward.

When you look closely at apparently “spontaneous” events like protests and even riots, there will always be leadership of some sort—whether it’s the person who gives the call for action or an informal group of people who have argued over time at the pub that “we need to fight back”.

Writing in the 1930s, Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci, said, “it must be stressed that ‘pure’ spontaneity does not exist in history… In the ‘most spontaneous’ movement it is simply the case that the elements of ‘conscious leadership’ cannot be checked, have left no reliable document”.

Anarchists themselves often produce material—pamphlets, books and so on—about social change. These are an attempt to win leadership and influence people’s ideas.

So the question isn’t whether there will be leadership amongst the working class and campaigns, but what kind of leadership it will be? Is it accountable, conscious and democratic?

Abstaining from the fight for political leadership does not “liberate” people from leadership but leaves the way open for the most conservative ideas or those with the loudest voices to dominate.

The unwillingness to acknowledge leaders doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

Mikhail Bakunin, the Russian anarchist who was involved in the First International (the International Workingmen’s Association) alongside Karl Marx, publicly argued against leadership, but established a secret group of anarchist revolutionaries called “The International Brotherhood”, which had no democratic structures and whose leaders were completely unaccountable!

The party

Along with the anarchists’ rejection of leadership goes rejection of the need for an organised political party. But the building of a revolutionary party is absolutely essential—both for day-to-day struggles and in revolutionary situations.

Workers face an enemy that is highly organised and centralised. Even a successful struggle in the workplace requires unity and a certain level of organization—a worker who confronts the boss on her own is liable to be sacked or victimised.

On the level of society as a whole, the capitalist class is protected by the law, and by the centralised, armed institutions of the state, the police and the army. In order to confront this power, we have to be well organised ourselves.

People’s political consciousness develops unevenly. The media, education system, churches and other ideological institutions exert a lot of influence over people’s ideas. Marx argued that the ruling ideas are the ideas of the ruling class.

But workers will always hold a mix of the ideas pushed from above by those with power, like racism and homophobia, and ideas that come from their own experiences, which often contradict the former. A person might be a militant unionist, but hold homophobic views, for example.

Outside of periods of mass struggle, when thousands of people become radicalised, there are only a small minority of people who hold consistently anti-capitalist ideas.

It is essential to organise this minority in order to wage a battle amongst the working class in order to win a majority to act in their own class interests.

Organising the militant minority is important during times of struggle in order to fight for leadership and argue the way forward. But it is also important when campaigns retreat or fail that there is an organised political group of people that can draw the lessons of that defeat and continue to organise, rather than falling into inaction, or despair.

The state

For Marxists, the state is an apparatus that protects the capitalist class and manages the irreconcilable conflict between the capitalists and the working class that they exploit.

The Communist Manifesto says, “The executive of the modern state is nothing but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.”

Anarchists tend to see the state as an enemy in itself. That is why some anarchists (like the Black Blocs at some European demonstrations) place a particular importance on clashing with the police because they think this is directly confronting state power.

Understanding the class basis of the state and its role in maintaining the capitalist system is crucial to understanding why the state must be smashed and how we can lay the basis of building a society that produces for human need.

The state arose historically as an instrument of class rule; a force to maintain the control of a minority class over the majority of society.

Under capitalism, capitalists compete amongst themselves and exploit the working class to produce profits. Since the ruling class is a tiny minority of people exploiting the vast majority of people, it needs a way to enforce its rule.

The state performs this role in a number of ways, with laws that protect private property and a network of undemocratic institutions, run by un-elected judges and top government department secretaries or government ministries. And behind this, order is maintained by physical force and the coercion of the police, army and prisons.

Both Marxists and anarchists oppose the capitalist state and share the belief that ordinary people can run society themselves. But if we want to establish a stateless society, we’re confronted with the question of how to get rid of the existing state—and what to replace it with. It’s on this question that the fatal problems with anarchist theory emerge.

Some anarchists think they can reject authority and sidestep the question of the state completely with personal attitudes and lifestyle, or that society can be changed by creating alternative, or diverse, power structures within capitalism.

The father of anarchism, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, outlined this theory that alternative power could be built within the spaces of capitalism in the mid-1800s: “Beneath the governmental machinery, in the shadow of political institutions, out of the sight of statesmen and priests, society is producing its own organism, slowly and silently; and constructing a new order, the expression of its vitality and autonomy.”

Similar ideas were theorised by John Holloway in his book Change the world without taking power. It was popular within the anti-globalisation movement in the 1990s and again in the Occupy movement of 2011, where the occupation of city squares became an end in itself.

It was the Occupy movement that popularised the slogan of the 99 per cent. But one of the best known anarchist theorists, Noam Chomsky, who often addressed Occupy meetings had little to offer the movement that was electrifying US society.

He rejected the idea that Occupy should cohere around some key demands. Addressing Occupy Boston, he said, “I think that maybe, in many ways, the most exciting aspect of the Occupy movement is the construction of the associations, bonds, link-ages and networks that are taking place all over—whether it’s a collaborative kitchen or something else.”

Similarly, he more recently argued that worker buy-outs of non-profitable multinational companies might be a strategy to move toward democratising the US economy: “If you have, say, worker-owned and -managed production facilities in communities which have popular budgeting and true democratic functioning, those support each other, and they can spread.”

It was the experience of the Paris Commune of 1871 that led Marx to conclude that workers could not seize the existing state and use it for their own ends—the existing state had to be smashed.

In its place a truly democratic state could be established—all public officials would be elected, not for three or four years, but subject to immediate recall, so they are were truly accountable to those that elect them.

Workers representatives would be paid workers’ wages to remove careerism and prevent the development of a privileged layer of bureaucrats. The old army would be abolished and workers’ militias created in their place.

The Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin drew on Marx and the Paris Commune when he wrote State and Revolution in the throes of the 1917 Russian revolution.

He argued that the essence of revolution was the smashing of the state machine by the working class, as opposed to trying to gain control of it or reforming it through parliament.

Lenin argued that in the process of transforming society, the working class itself would be transformed, and become capable of running society themselves. But he also recognised that in order to defend the revolution from the inevitable resistance of the old ruling class, and to begin the transition to a classless society, workers would first have to establish their own state.

Like the Paris Commune, the workers’ state would be of an entirely different kind to that of capitalism. Controlled from below, the workers’ state would for the first time in history allow the majority to begin to control society.

The state would not be based on rule by any party but on new directly-elected organs of revolutionary power. The soviets, or workers’ councils, that emerged during the 1917 Russian Revolution elected delegates from workplaces; representatives who were immediately accountable to the workers and peasants that had elected them.

Workers’ councils have arisen spontaneously out of mass revolutionary struggles throughout history—Italy in 1920, Spain in 1936, Hungary in 1956, Iran in 1979, even embryonic examples in Egypt in 2011. They represent the core of the new workers’ state with the potential to replace the old bourgeois state.

This type of state based on workers’ power would be completely different to parliamentary democracy, in which people vote only once every three or four years and can’t control what their representative does in parliament.

Spain 1936

But the anarchists’ confusion about the state and authority led to disaster in Spain in 1936, when workers and peasants rose in rebellion against Franco’s fascist coup.

In Barcelona, Lluis Companys, head of the Catalan regional government, told the leaders of the anarchist union, the CNT, “Today you are masters of the city and of Catalonia… You have conquered and everything is in your power; if you do not need or want me as president of Catalonia, tell me now.”

But the CNT regional committee voted against removing Companys and taking power. They argued that a workers’ state would just mean substituting one form of dictatorship for another, and they were not prepared to take on “dictatorial powers” of a workers’ state. Instead, the anarchist leaders left power in the hands of a weak bourgeois government, dashing the hopes of defeating Franco and transforming society. Franco’s brutal regime came to power and remained until 1975.

The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky was scathing of the Spanish anarchists’ decision: “to renounce the conquest of power is voluntarily to leave the power with those who wield it, the exploiters,” he wrote. “The essence of every revolution consisted and consists in putting a new class in power, thus enabling it to realise its own programme in life. It is impossible to wage war and to reject victory.”

The workers’ state

When the working class has just taken power it will face many challenges from remnants of the old order, from economic sabotage to armed resistance and possibly civil war.

The savage repression we have seen so often unleashed against workers such as in Spain, or in Chile in 1973, shows the violence that the capitalist class is prepared to use to keep its power. An organised, centralised force of workers’ power is needed to counter such an offensive from the old ruling class.

People’s ideas change rapidly and profoundly in the process of a revolution. Their political and social consciousness and sense of themselves as part of a collective expands enormously. But the backward ideas of capitalism are not immediately shrugged off. There will need to be a conscious struggle against the old habits and the ideas of nationalism, sexism and racism.

A revolutionary state would be essential to establishing a new economic order coordinating production and exchange, and establishing new priorities to meet social needs.

When socialism has become international, production has reached a point where all of humanity’s basic needs are taken care of and work for the collective good has become second nature, then the state, as such, will lose its political functions and begin to wither away.

In a world where eight people own as much wealth as half of the global population, and where the threat of imperialist war and climate catastrophe hang over our heads, the need to radically transform society is as urgent as ever.

But to overthrow the capitalist system, the working class needs what the anarchists reject—a coherent and effective strategy and revolutionary organisation based on clear ideas determined to build the struggles that hold the hope of a new world based on democracy and freedom.


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