What history tells us about the revolutionary potential of Marxism versus anarchism

Anarchist contingent in the March for Women's Lives, April 25, 2004, Washington DC. Photo by Bunnie Diehl.
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The explosive protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle in 1999 raised the profile of anarchism. Anarchists were very involved in that profound upsurge, and the media cameras particularly focused on those with a penchant for breaking corporate windows.

Anarchism is positive in the sense that it is an enraged, eruptive reaction to oppression. Its revival among some youth is a barometer of their level of disgust with capitalism. But anarchism can cause a great deal of confusion in the movements for social change. In a revolutionary situation, it can even spell defeat — despite the best hopes of its adherents.

Where socialists and anarchists part ways. Anarchism is a political theory and movement based on the belief that all forms of governmental authority are unnecessary and undesirable. Anarchists advocate a society based on voluntary cooperation and free association between all individuals and groups. But once past these fundamentals, anarchists vary widely in their thinking and practices.

One typical key disagreement between revolutionary socialists and left anarchists is over the role of the working class in transforming society. Marxists see this as decisive. Influential U.S. anarchist Murray Bookchin, on the other hand, posited that technological advances have rendered the working class obsolete, and that modern radicals therefore should orient first and foremost to students and young people. Although many anti-authoritarians today may barely know Bookchin’s name, they too disregard the working class in favor of a focus on youth.

Anarchists and Marxists also characteristically diverge in their views about the relationship between the individual and the group. As Bookchin has acknowledged, anarchism has not resolved the tension between “a personalistic commitment to individual autonomy and a collectivist commitment to social freedom.” Russian revolutionist V.I. Lenin addressed this problem dialectically with the concept of democratic centralism — the constant motion between free discussion and democratic decision-making within an organization and the unified carrying out of the decisions taken.

But the defining difference between socialists and anarchists is the issue of the state. James P. Cannon, who was originally an anarchist but went on to become the main founder of U.S. Trotskyism, writes in America’s Road to Socialism:

The anarchist theory was that capitalism and the state would be abolished at the same time, in one operation. For them, the revolutionary victory was synonymous with the abolition of the state.

The Marxists said, No, you are running ahead of yourselves. Marxism also envisages a society in which there will be no classes and no state, but does not agree with the contention that the state can be abolished in one step at the moment of the workers’ victory. A transition period will follow … [during] which a victorious working class will take hold of society and set up its own government, its own state, and use all the concentrated power of this state to suppress any attempt at counter-revolution by the capitalists.

Lessons from history. Three examples from life notably contrast the Marxist and anarchist approaches to the state: the Paris Commune of 1871, the Russian Revolution of 1917, and the Spanish Civil War of 1930-1938.

The Paris Commune was the first time in history that ordinary working people tried to set up their own state and rule themselves. At the time, France was on the losing end of a war with Prussia. The workers of Paris, betrayed by the French government to the Prussians, rebelled and formed their own city-state.

The Commune established local control over economic, educational, cultural, political, and military affairs. It expropriated the clergy, abolished the police, and armed the people. It made public offices elective and limited salaries for these positions to the same amount as workers’ wages. It proved that workers were capable of running their own affairs.

But 10 weeks later, the revolution in one city was crushed, drowned in blood by national troops who massacred between 20,000 and 40,000 people.

A monumental event, the Paris Commune set the young workingclass movements of socialism and anarchism on fire. Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, and Mikhail Bakunin, a founder of anarchism, were totally engrossed in analyzing the Commune’s brief success and tragic failure. Both Marxists and anarchists agreed that the communards should have taken the offensive and spread their revolution throughout France. However, Marx argued that the Commune needed to develop a strong centralized workers state, capable of defending itself, while Bakunin remained adamantly against a state of any sort. For the first time the question arose, “What do we do after a proletarian revolution?”

During this debate, in a letter in 1883, Engels had this to say:

The anarchists put the thing upside down. They declare that the proletarian revolution must begin by doing away with the … state…. But to destroy it at such a moment would be to destroy the only organism by means of which the victorious proletariat can assert its newly conquered power, hold down its capitalist adversaries and carry out that economic revolution of society without which the whole victory must end in a … mass slaughter of the workers similar to those after the Paris Commune.

Nearly 50 years after the Commune, in February 1917, the Russian Revolution broke out, and socialists and anarchists all over the world offered their support. In Seattle, it was discovered that boxes labeled “sewing machines” were actually full of arms being sent to the counter-revolutionary forces seeking to overthrow the Bolsheviks! In response, the Industrial Workers of the World (anarchist in outlook, if not in name) helped to organize a general strike that lasted for more than a week.

Very soon, however, anarchists like Emma Goldman began to criticize the new Soviet state as coercive. And in fact, it was.

The Bolsheviks were fighting a civil war on 22 fronts, with every imperialist country in the world trying to overthrow them. The Soviet system could not have survived a day without using its army to crush the combined forces of the imperialists and the old czarist regime, and to resist the international embargo against the country. Starvation was so widespread that the Bolsheviks had to requisition food from the countryside to feed the workers in the city. Yet, anarchists engaged in acts of terrorism against the new state even as it was fighting to defend itself against the capitalists and czarists.

The desperate emergency measures taken to save the revolution were designed to be temporary. But the continuing hostility of the capitalist world and the failure of subsequent socialist revolutions outside the USSR, which the Soviets were relying on for political and material aid, eventually gave rise to the repressive Stalinist bureaucracy. Nonetheless, we see today, after the fall of the Soviet Union, what would have been the fate of Russian working people in 1917 had they not set up a state of their own: the robbing blind of their country by every major capitalist nation in the world.

During the Spanish Revolution, anarchists were the majority of unionists and of many peasant organizations as well. They had the chance to attempt to seize state power — but refused. Instead, they opted for joining a coalition government with the capitalists that ultimately sabotaged the revolution and paved the way for General Franco’s 40-year dictatorship (a result in which Stalin’s betrayals played at least as great a part).

In The First Ten Years of American Communism, James P. Cannon writes:

The impulses of the original anarchists were wonderful, but their theory was faulty, and it could not survive the test of war and revolution. It is shameful to recall that the Spanish anarchists became ministers in a bourgeois cabinet in the time of the Spanish Revolution; and that old-time American anarchists in New York … became social patriots in the Second World War. Nothing is so fatal as a false theory.

Anarchism in practice today. In the movements, anarchist anti-authoritarianism plays out dangerously. Anarchists typically defy leadership on principle, no matter if it is democratically elected or represents a logical policy. And they are quick to stoop to red-baiting when the leadership is socialist.

Most socialist activists can readily provide examples of this. Here’s one from this writer’s experience: At a demonstration several years ago for Mumia Abu-Jamal in California, Freedom Socialist Party (FSP) members providing security tried to keep riot cops from attacking the demonstration. For our trouble, one anarchist called a female FSPer a “commie bitch.” Another called a supporter a “cop” for being a responsible protest marshall. Yet another tried to keep demonstrators from following our lead in keeping the picket line moving by yelling, “Don’t let these commie Reds tell you what to do.”

To the credit of the vast majority of the demonstrators, including many young people sympathetic to anarchism, they did not throw good leadership overboard just when it was most needed. And this can be expected of most of today’s self-identified anarchists. Moreover, when working with democratic Marxists who can prove their effectiveness in sticking up for the working class against the ruling class, many anarchists may be persuaded of the virtues of revolutionary socialism.

Most U.S. anarchists are filled with righteous rage, but have very little knowledge of, or experience with, good leadership or class consciousness on the job or in the movements. And they know very little history. They are often anti-racist, but appear to have little experience organizing with people of color in a cooperative and mutually supportive way. And, for the most part, both men and women anarchists have a lot to learn about feminism.

Today’s anarchists do have a program. They want a society of local cooperatives organized on a city or local level. They are anti-industrial, anti-centralized economy, and anti-economic planning on a global or national level. This is why Greens are frequently anarchists.

But their vision of an egalitarian future is an honest one. And the vehicle of the united front is a marvelous avenue for socialists to engage in dialog with them, while working together on a mutual cause.

For cooperation toward a shared goal. One such common cause that Marxists and anti-statists undertook was the passionate, but finally unsuccessful, defense of Italian immigrant anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, who were framed and executed for their political ideas in the 1920s. And the FSP has its own more recent positive experiences of working with anarchists to defend each other from attacks by the state.

In a united front, groups and individuals of different political persuasions come together to organize around a specific workingclass issue. Any united front including socialists and left libertarians today must confront the question of individual acts of violence, such as those carried out by masked and hooded “black bloc” anarchists in the anti-globalization movement or by anarchist arsonists in the environmental and animal liberation movements.

Revolutionary socialists are not pacifists, but consider the use of violence a tactical question. We believe in the right of all oppressed people to self-defense, but do not believe violence can be the tool for building a mass movement. Why? For one thing, it’s too easy for the authorities to infiltrate, disrupt, discredit and ultimately isolate groups that build themselves around acts of violence.

Anarchists want to fight for freedom and justice. But it’s the unresolved tension in the philosophy of anarchism between the individual and the group, between freedom and necessity, that impedes effective direct action. In his First Ten Years, Cannon describes the problem and the solution:

Anarchism is all right when it is under the control of organization. This may seem a contradiction in terms, but if it were not for the anarchism in us as individuals we wouldn’t need the discipline of organization. The revolutionary party represents a dialectical unity of opposites. In one sense it is, in effect, the fusion of the rebel instincts of individuals with the intellectual recognition that their rebellion can be effective only when they are combined and united into a single striking force which only a disciplined organization can supply.

That fusion is what will allow the working class to take power in order to dump what we despise and create what we long for – a society whose nature makes universal human fulfillment possible.

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