Marxism and Direct Action
The recent anti-capitalist demonstrations have brought together many different groups protesting against the destruction of the environment, racism, the exploitation of the third world, and also many ordinary young people protesting at the state of things in general. They have certainly shattered the myth that everyone is happy and that the capitalist system is accepted as the only possible form of society.
All around us we see the misery this system causes. Famine, war, unemployment, homelessness and despair; these are the violent acts that the system perpetrates against millions every day. Witnessing and experiencing this destruction and chaos, young people everywhere are driven to protest.
However, the idea of getting involved in a political organisation is a turn-off for many, who understandably want to do something, and do something now. In reality, the attempt to juxtapose organisation, discussion, and debate with “direct action” is pure sophistry. The ideas of Marxism are not the subject of academic study, they are precisely a guide to action. We are all in favour of action, but it must be clearly thought out, with definite aims and objectives, if it is to succeed. Otherwise we end up with directionless action. Furthermore, without political organisation, who decides what action is to be taken, when and where?
There can be no greater direct action than the seizing of control over our own lives by the vast majority of society. In that act lies the essence of revolution. Not just an aimless “direct action” but mass, democratic and conscious action, the struggle not just against capitalism, but for a new form of society, socialism.
The most recent demonstration, on May Day, was used by the bosses’ mouthpieces in the press to whip up their usual hysterical garbage. They made great play of the graffiti on the cenotaph and the daubing of Churchill’s statue. However, their party was somewhat spoiled by the news that the culprit was not some “yob,” but a former Royal Marine, now studying at Anglia University in Cambridge. Appearing before magistrates, he made a speech condemning imperialism and Churchill’s anti-Semitism. It had an impact on the magistrate, who demonstrated his own class position by mocking the young ex-soldier because of his dependence on a student loan: “you see, you can’t survive without capitalism,” he said.
It also appears that an Eton schoolboy participated in the smashing of a McDonalds window. This is not an accident. It is a symptom of the impasse of society that not only working class and middle class youth, but even these privileged layers rebel.
So, what comes next? The organisers of the demo tell us this was not a protest in order to secure changes, reforms apparently are a waste of time. No, simply by participating in what they call the “carnival” we become better people, and eventually more and more people will participate, until a critical mass is reached and we all ignore capitalism, don’t pay our bills, until they go away. What an infantile flight of fancy! The genuine intentions of those protesting is not open to question. However, the way to hell is paved with many such good intentions. Are we really to believe that while we all “place ourselves outside of capitalism,” the bosses will do nothing to defend their system? This ostrich-like tactic of burying our heads in the sand until they go away is not serious. Nor is it action. In reality, it is irresponsible, indirect inaction.
Anarchist organisations have always hidden behind a facade of “self-organisation.” They claim to have no leaders, no policy, etc. Yet who decides? If there was no leadership and no policy then there could be no action of any kind. The recent demonstrations have been highly organised and coordinated on an international scale. Good, so it should be. However, without organisation and democracy no one, except a clique at the top, has any say in why, where and when. Such a movement will never bring international capital trembling to its knees.
One of the best known anarchist groups in Britain, Reclaim the Streets, gave the game away in their spoof Mayday publication, Maybe. Incidentally, who wrote these articles, who decided what went in and what didn’t, who edited it, where did the money come from? Our intention here is not to accuse them of dodgy financing—simply to point out that this “no leaders” stuff is a self-organised myth.
On page 20 they announce, “Reclaim the Streets is non-hierarchical, spontaneous and self-organised. We have no leaders, no committee, no board of directors, no spokespeople. There is no centralised unit for decision making, strategic planning and production of ideology. There is no membership and no formalized commitment. There is no master plan and no predefined agenda.”
There are two problems here. Firstly who is “we,” who made the above statement, and who decided it? Secondly, if it were true, it would not be something of which to be proud. Whether you like it or not, there is no way the capitalist system will ever be overthrown by such a haphazard and slipshod method. There is no theory, no coherent analysis of society, no alternative programme. To brag of a lack of direction, a lack of purpose and a lack of coherence, in the face of such a highly organised and brutal enemy as international capital, is surely the height of irresponsibility.
In reality the leaders of these movements are not devoid of ideology, they are anarchists. Anarchism is not simply a term of abuse, it comes from the Greek word anarchos meaning “without government.” To anarchists, the state—the institutions of government, the army, police, courts, etc.—is the root cause of all that is wrong in the world. It must be destroyed and replaced, not with any new form of government, but the immediate introduction of a stateless society.
This opposition to the state and authority leads to a rejection of participation in any form of parliamentary activity, belonging to a political party, or fighting for any reforms; that is, political change through the state.
Of course, Marxism is opposed to the brutal domination of the capitalist state, too. Marx saw a future society without a state, but instead, “an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” That is, a self-governing people. The question, however, is how can this be achieved?
Since anarchism sees in the state the root of all problems, it therefore believes these problems will be resolved by the destruction of the state. Marxism, meanwhile, sees the division of society into classes—a minority who own the means of producing wealth, and the majority of us whose labour is the source of that wealth—as the crux of the matter. It is this class division of society which gives rise to the state—because the minority need a special force to maintain their rule over the majority—which has evolved over thousands of years into the complicated structures we see today.
Abolition of the state
The modern capitalist state can wear many guises: monarchy, republic, dictatorship; but in the end its purpose remains the same, to maintain the minority rule of the capitalist class. Marxism’s goal, therefore, is not simply to abolish the state, but to put an end to class society.
The state was born with the split of society into classes to defend private property. So long as there are classes there will be a state. So, how can class society be ended?
Not by its denial, but only by the victory of one of the contending classes. Triumph for capitalism spells ruin for millions. As Marx once explained, the choice before us is not socialism or the status quo, but socialism or barbarism. The capitalists’ constant striving for profits will drive ever more millions into poverty and hunger. Their striving to control markets and raw materials will lead to endless war and destruction.
The victory of the working class can only mean the destruction of the capitalist state. Will the capitalists take defeat like sporting ladies and gentlemen, retiring quietly to the pavilion? No, all history suggests that they would not. The workers would need to create a new state, for the first time to defend the rule of the majority over the minority.
Lenin, in his masterpiece The State and Revolution argues, “The proletariat needs the state only temporarily. We do not at all disagree with the anarchists on the question of the abolition of the state as the aim. We maintain that, to achieve this aim, we must temporarily make use of the instruments resources and methods of state power against the exploiters.”
Similarly, Trotsky in Stalinism and Bolshevism explains, “Marxists are wholly in agreement with the anarchists in regard to the final goal: the liquidation of the state. Marxists are ‘stateist’ only to the extent that one cannot achieve the liquidation of the state simply by ignoring it.”
From the very beginning this would be like no previous state machine. From day one it would be in effect a semi-state. The task of all previous revolutions was to seize state power. From the experience of the Paris Commune of 1871, Marx and Engels concluded that it would not be possible for the workers to simply use the old state apparatus; they would instead have to replace it with an entirely new one, to serve the interests of the majority and lay the basis for a socialist society.
To ensure that the workers maintain control over this state, Lenin argued for the election of all officials, who should be held accountable and subject to recall, and paid no more than the wage of a skilled worker. All bureaucratic tasks should be rotated. There should be no special armed force standing apart from the people, and, we would add, all political parties except fascists should be allowed to organise.
The task of this state would be to develop the economy to eradicate want. Less need, means less need to govern society, less need for a state. Class society and the state will begin to wither away as the government of people, the rule of one class over another, is replaced by the administration of things, the planned use of resources to meet society’s needs
Anarchism’s utopian calls to abolish the state overnight demonstrates neither the understanding of what the state is, nor the programme of action necessary to achieve the goal it sets itself.
As a modern philosophy, anarchism developed in the nineteenth century alongside the explosive growth of capitalism and its state machine. It represented a rebellion by a section of the petty-bourgeoisie at the loss of their position in society, driven to the wall by the growth of monopoly.
Their case was argued by Mikhail Bakunin and his supporters in the First International. At an anarchist conference in 1872, they argued, “The aspirations of the proletariat can have no other aim than the creation of an absolutely free economic organisation and federation based on work and equality and wholly independent of any political government, and such an organisation can only come into being through the spontaneous action of the proletariat itself…no political organisation can be anything but the organisation of rule in the interests of a class and to the detriment of the masses…the proletariat, should it seize power, would become a ruling, and exploiting, class…”
Conquest of power
Although this sounds radical enough, it nonetheless amounts to a recipe for inaction and disaster. As Trotsky explained, “To renounce the conquest of power is voluntarily to leave the power with those who wield it, the exploiters. 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. It is impossible to lead the masses towards insurrection without preparing for the conquest of power.”
Anarchists see in the degeneration of the Soviet Union into a totalitarian dictatorship proof that Bakunin was right. In reality, only Leon Trotsky and Marxism have been able to explain the causes of that degeneration, finding its roots not in men’s heads or personalities, but in the real life conditions of civil war, armies of foreign intervention, and the defeat of revolution in Europe. The position of anarchism only serves to endorse the bourgeois slander that Stalinism was inherent in Bolshevism.
In its early days, this modern anarchism found a certain support among the workers. However, through the course of struggle, workers learned the need for organisation in the shape of the trade unions, and also for political organisation, which led to the building of the mass workers parties. Bakunin and co. denounced participation in parliament, or the fight for reforms, as a betrayal of the revolution; they “rejected all political action not having as its immediate and direct objective the triumph of the workers over capitalism, and as a consequence, the abolition of the state.”
Marxism fights for the conquest of political power by the working class and the building of a socialist society, under which the state will wither away. Until then should workers refrain from political activity? Should they reject all reforms that might improve their existence? Nothing would please Blair or the bosses more. Of course not; we must advocate the struggle for every gain, no matter how minor, and use any and every field open to us. Only the dilettante can reject better wages or a health care system. Precisely through these struggles, and the struggles to transform the workers organisations, the unions and the parties, we learn and become more powerful and bring closer the day when it will be possible to transform society for good.
Reforms under capitalism
Marxists fight for every reform, while at the same time explaining that while capitalism continues none of these advances are safe. Only socialism can really solve the problems of society.
Our modern day anarchists, Reclaim the Streets and others, have no support in Britain amongst the organised workers. Some radicalised youth, however, are attracted to their “direct action” stance. There is a vacuum left by the absence of a mass Labour youth organisation which, fighting for a socialist programme, could attract these young workers and students. With no lead being given by the tops of the unions, and Labour in government attacking young people, that vacuum can be temporarily and partly filled by groups like Reclaim the Streets.
What action do they propose though? In their press statement (2/5/00) they explain, “We were not protesting. Under the shadow of an irrelevant parliament we were planting the seeds of a society where ordinary people are in control of their land, their resources, their food and their decision making. The garden symbolized an urge to be self-reliant rather than dependent on capitalism.”
The fact that parliament appears powerless to prevent job losses or the destruction of the environment only demonstrates that it serves the interests of capitalism. However, under pressure from below, it is possible to introduce reforms through parliament that are in the interests of ordinary people. It is no use declaring parliament to be irrelevant, and turning your back on it when the majority do not agree, and still look to government to make their lives better. This is the mirror image of the sects’ attitude to the Labour Party. Any and every avenue which can be used to improve our lives must be used.
In any case this “self-reliance” is no alternative. Self-reliance won’t get electricity into your house, educate your children, or treat you when you are ill. We have the resources to cater for all of society’s needs; the only problem is that we do not own them. Individualism (self-reliance) cannot be an alternative to socialism, where all the resources of society are at all of our disposal, and equally we all contribute what we can to society.
Guerrilla gardening, and its related varieties that have sprung up in various places, is nothing more than an offshoot of the old utopian idea of changing society by example. The roots of this scheme lie in idealist philosophy. Philosophical idealism refers to the notion that people’s actions are a consequence of their thoughts, that ideas and not our conditions of life determine our outlook. When, through a long process of accumulation, we change people’s minds, then they will live differently, capitalism will simply be redundant. The capitalist class themselves will presumably sit idly by and watch their system fall apart.
While believing in a revolutionary struggle to overthrow capitalism, anarchists argue that it must be replaced by…nothing. Yet with no central apparatus, no organisation, how would the trains run on time, how could organ transplants be organised, how could the world’s resources be channeled into permanently overcoming famine?
In their paper, Maybe, Reclaim the Streets tell us, “The radical social movements that are increasingly coming together don’t want to seize power but to dissolve it. They are dreaming up many autonomous alternative forms of social organisation, forms that are directly linked to the specific needs of locality. What might be an alternative to capitalism for people living currently in a housing estate in Croydon is completely different to what might be suitable for the inhabitants of the slums of Delhi.”
It cannot be of no concern to us what form a new society will take in different countries or even different regions. The economic power we have created over centuries can and must be used in a planned, rational way to eradicate hunger, disease and illiteracy. It must be used in the interests of the whole of society. That can only be achieved by the democratic planning of society, where the power at our fingertips could be used with due respect for the future of the planet, the conservation of its resources, our own working conditions, and living standards. Whether we like it or not, growing a few carrots on empty plots of land will not eradicate hunger and famine.
We have the power to do just that, but only if we combine new technology, industry and the talents and active participation of millions.
The economic power we have created can be compared to the destructive force of lightning, untamed and anarchic under the market, yet, organised into cables and wires, electricity transforms our lives. Industry is not the enemy, nor are machines. The state is, but it is a symptom, not the disease. It is capitalism and its ownership of the economy, its stewardship of society that we have to replace.
The task of our time is to combine the strength and experience of the working class and its mighty organisations with the power and energy of the youth internationally, on the basis of a clear understanding of what capitalism is, what the state is, and a programme for changing society. That requires a combination of theory and action. In that combination lies the strength of Marxism.
If you want to fight against capitalism, do so fully armed with a socialist programme and perspective. Join with us in the struggle for the socialist transformation of the planet.
1 Four Marxist Classics (St. Paul: Wellred, 2008), 124–25.
2 Writings of Leon Trotsky [1936–37] (New York: Pathfinder, 2010), 540.