Marxist and Anarchist Theory

What distinguishes Marxism from Anarchism? Why two theories, by what are they distinguished from each other, what are their relative merits, and which of the two theories, or which combination of their ideas, is the best tool for fighting capitalism and the bourgeois state? Such a process of questioning is necessary for any revolutionary, as an attempt to grasp and conquer revolutionary theory.

Most anarchist theory expresses the same goal as Marxism – the establishment of a classless and stateless society. Marxism and Anarchism are united insofar as they participate in the movement against oppression and inequality in all forms. And it is very often the case that those becoming radicalised are sympathetic to both theories for this reason.

We believe that, although Marxist and Anarchist theory are united in their struggle to liberate humanity, whereas Anarchism paradoxically rejects theory as an accomplice of intellectual elitism or armchair inaction, Marxism is distinguished by utilising all the developments of scientific method and historical analysis so that the working class may understand society in order to change it.

Marxist theory is chiefly concerned with understanding inequality and oppression, why they exist, where they come from, what role they play, and under what conditions they may be overcome. And to understand them means not only to describe them, or to assert that the division of society into classes is unjust, and that the state apparatus is fundamentally repressive, but to explain them materially and historically.

Origins of Class and the State

Everywhere we look we see examples of extreme inequality, suffering and state oppression, so much so that we take them for granted, seeming like a natural state of affairs. Even the most ordinary individual lives under the yoke of the humiliating and endless power of money, and finds themselves compelled to organise their whole life around the task of making money for someone else, following their boss’s timetable and instructions.

As Rousseau said, everywhere man is in chains, and yet we are all born free, that is to say, the bonds we suffer are manmade, and what is more, they are the constructions of people fundamentally equal to ourselves – the capitalist class have no magic powers or superhuman strengths. So why do we suffer at all? Why do (and when did) the vast majority of people allow themselves to become powerless in the face of the apparently artificial power of a minority of people? There must be some condition we have to thank for being exploited by only a few. What is it?

As Marxists and materialists, we understand that the class struggle does not arise of itself, but is conditioned by the more general struggle for existence; it is an expression of the unavoidable struggle with nature, to use a rather crude expression. For before we are enslaved by our fellow man, we are at the whim of the all powerful laws of nature. Yes, each person is born into the world free, i.e. not with some rank preordained by God, but at the same time each person is born very much a prisoner of nature. As Marx said, mankind is a suffering, limited being; we feel our dependence on nature every second that we breathe, every time the involuntary muscles in our stomach compel us to look for a meal, every time our puny composition makes our bodies shudder with cold. If we did not have such pressing material needs, we would not need to go to the capitalist begging for work. So before we can understand the lack of freedom in our society, we must recognise this most fundamental of social laws – material conditions determine consciousness.

History knows all kind of strange transformations. For much of our history there was no oppressive state authority or class exploitation to speak of, and yet somehow out of such a situation exploitation and coercion have arisen. Furthermore, the forms of exploitation and state authority have transformed themselves many times, and with them the relative level of culture has changed also. What underlying mechanism or process ties all this together, what is the common thread that allows us to put them all under one and the same category ‘society’? For Marxists, it is the struggle for the economisation of labour, the development of the forces of production (or useful technology) to be wielded by one or another class as part of the struggle with nature. For when we develop useful technology, the immediate aim is always that someone may live better, may secure themselves in the struggle with nature. But such technology, developed and used socially, has unplanned social consequences, changing the structure of society, giving some power over others. Those who control the productive forces control society.

As we have said, the first forms of society lacked a system of exploitation and a state apparatus, having arisen immediately out of ‘nature’, which knows nothing of formal rank and chains of command. Productivity would have been so low that society could not have afforded any privileged stratum. Although life in these conditions was undoubtedly tough, there must have been relative harmony within the community, since everyone would have had to ‘pull their weight’ in roughly equal measure. But this harmony finished at the geographical threshold of the tribe, outside of which we find other tribes. And, as the geographically dispersed communities developed their productive forces, so would they have expanded, and, ultimately, come into contact with other similar communities. Trade between them would have developed based on the different goods they were able to produce, such trade being used by each community to enrich themselves. Although within each community there may have been enormous unity and cooperation in production, between the communities there must have been little or none. The respective communities would not be interested in producing for the sake of the other, but to get something in return. And so not only would competition and antagonism develop between the communities, but more and more the internal life of each community would be determined by the need to produce more for exchange outside the community. We may surmise that those with more involvement in the process, e.g. elders who led production and were in contact with other communities, had an advantageous position. In addition, the struggle for resources and control of land must emerge from such a situation of geographical dispersion and antagonisms. War between communities for conquest of land and to use the labour power of other communities flows from such a situation. In this way, the communal struggle to develop the productive forces led to the dissolution of the community in favour of class divisions.

This is the material, economic basis for class and the state. There is a debate between Marxists and Anarchists as to whether class division arises first, followed by a coercive state apparatus tasked with protecting the ruling class (the Marxist position), or whether state power with its instruments of oppression developed first and gave rise to class division, which some Anarchists argue. But the question is not so much a chronological one, i.e. whether class or the state arose first, as one of form and content, i.e. whether state power is fundamental and class inequalities are merely the formal expression of the former, whose aim is simply the maintenance of state power (an Anarchist position), or alternatively whether the real content and basis for all political power, state authority and coercion is economic class relations, as Engels points out in polemic with Dühring (who was not an anarchist):

...even if we assume for a moment that Herr Dühring is right in saying that all past history can be traced back to the enslavement of man by man, we are still very far from having got to the bottom of the matter. For the question then arises: how did Crusoe come to enslave Friday? Just for the fun of it? By no means. On the contrary, we see that Friday “is compelled to render economic service as a slave or as a mere tool and is maintained also only as a tool” {D. C. 9}. Crusoe enslaved Friday only in order that Friday should work for Crusoe's benefit. And how can he derive any benefit for himself from Friday's labour? Only through Friday producing by his labour more of the necessaries of life than Crusoe has to give him to keep him fit to work... The childish example specially selected by Herr Dühring in order to prove that force is “historically the fundamental thing”, therefore, proves that force is only the means, and that the aim, on the contrary, is economic advantage. And “the more fundamental” the aim is than the means used to secure it, the more fundamental in history is the economic side of the relationship than the political side… Subjugation has always been—to use Herr Dühring's elegant expression—a “stomach-filling agency” (taking stomach-filling in a very wide sense), but never and nowhere a political grouping established “for its own sake”… Crusoe, “sword in hand” {D. C. 23}, makes Friday his slave. But in order to manage this, Crusoe needs something else besides his sword. Not everyone can make use of a slave. In order to be able to make use of a slave, one must possess two kinds of things: first, the instruments and material for his slave’s labour; and secondly, the means of bare subsistence for him. Therefore, before slavery becomes possible, a certain level of production must already have been reached and a certain inequality of distribution must already have appeared. (Engels, Anti-Duhring)

State authority, then, is not some arbitrary evil, existing for its own sake, and it does not gain its negative properties of oppression and inequality purely from itself, rather it arises out of developing economic inequality and plays a role dependent upon the latter. And the state does not oppress all in society equally, indeed, in our society there are many capitalists who have no direct involvement with the state, and yet feel themselves very well represented by it. This is because, in the final analysis, the state gets its power from the ruling economic class, whom it serves by protecting their property and generally maintaining the social order.

Two things of interest to us follow from this. If a class can wield economic power, then it can in principle control its own state apparatus, rather than being the victim of it, since the state power is in the final analysis dependent on economic relations. If the state apparatus is a tool with which to repress other classes, and if Marxists and Anarchists can agree that a working class led revolution will face active, organised opposition from the bourgeoisie (a fact many Anarchists recognise), then the working class can and must wield this state power, i.e. organise their own coercive apparatus to defend their revolution from counterrevolution. So long as the working class can collectively, democratically run and develop the economy in their own interests, through democratic workers’ committees, then they can maintain control of their state apparatus so long as they need it. For many anarchists representation itself as a political form contains the seeds of, or is, the problem. They say one cannot be genuinely represented, and that the representative will always abuse their position. But it is not the form that is the problem. As we said, if that were the case the bourgeoisie would always be oppressed by their own state representatives. A bourgeois parliament always fails to represent ‘the people’ not because representation per se is a sham, but because parliament is controlled by that class which controls the economy, the media etc. and that class’s interests do not coincide with ‘the people’s’.

The same applies to the workers own organisations. If the leadership of the unions and of workers’ parties sells out the working class, it is not so much because they are a leadership, but because they come under the enormous social pressure of the ruling class, whose ideology dominates society. The solution to such a problem is never to abandon the concept of leadership in the workers’ movement, but to wage a struggle against a leadership which has sold out to the bourgeois class. Ironically, despite professing a burning hatred of bureaucracy and leadership, the Anarchist movement has often displayed a tendency to make a fetish out of right-wing leadership and an ignorance of the working class rank and file – they tend to blame only the existence of a bureaucracy or participation in parliament for the degeneration of workers’ parties, ignoring the fact that the precondition for the rightward shift of the bureaucracy is always a lack of open class struggle, lack of pressure from below. But there is no remedy for this other than the mass movement of the working class and the struggle for revolutionary ideas within these organisations. That is how we remove a betraying leadership and replace it with a revolutionary one. If such a struggle in workers’ mass organisations does not take place, then it is inevitable that the top layers of such organisations become distant from the rank and file and will attempt to collaborate with the capitalists.

But a workers’ state, and genuine revolutionary working class leadership, is not the end goal for Marxists; we too see the need for a stateless society. That can exist only when the objective conditions that require a state apparatus (class struggle) have disappeared. In other words, when the working class has dissolved itself as a class by dissolving all classes, by uniting humanity in a global plan of production that leaves no lasting material antagonisms between classes or nations, and when production has attained such a level that the working week is sufficiently shortened so that all may participate in education and running society, then coercion and subjugation will have no objective role, and become worthless.

Objective Role of Leadership

Kropotkin, a famous Russian Anarchist, feared that should a socialist society be established through political leadership, and be organised centrally, on a large national or international scale, then the intellectual elite who led the revolution would install themselves as a new ruling group above the rest of society. In turn, the complexity of production for such a society would mean that ‘technocrats’ would be needed to guide and plan the process (the assumption being that it would be too complex for workers to get their head around), and they too would lord it over the workers:

“collectivism necessitated some authority within the workers’ association to measure individual performance and to supervise the distribution of goods and services accordingly. Consequently... a collectivist order contained the seeds of inequality and domination.” (Avrich, The Russian Anarchists, p.29)

But it is not ‘collectivism’ on a large and complex scale that contains the seeds of inequality and domination, but already existing material inequality and exploitation that give rise to the division between mental and manual labour in class society, where some have the luxury to study and others are told what to do. It is class exploitation and long hours of work that mean that in our society, workers cannot plan and direct production themselves, firstly because the capitalist class produces for their own private profit, and so cannot permit workers a say in controlling that profit, and secondly because workers do not have the time to democratically plan society. Kropotkin has the whole thing on its head, and so his solution – localism, federalism, and a ‘simple’ economy – would only reintroduce the problem on a small scale. Only a globalised economy, a global division of labour, which capitalism has made a fact, harmoniously planned on a global scale (whereas the globalised capitalist economy is not planned at all but full of regional imbalances and antagonisms) can liberate the working class and put ordinary people in control, since only the high productivity it creates, and the technological sophistication involved, can shorten the working week to allow for mass participation, and do away with the miserable struggle between people and nations for jobs, control of resources etc. Kropotkin actually ends up patronising workers by implying that the mass of people are incapable of planning the economy, when in reality it is only as exploited workers that they are prevented from doing so. ‘Technocrats’ are only able to fulfil their role above workers because, in a society based on exploiting the working class, workers are barred access to higher education – do away with that exploitation by nationalising the economy and this problem can be overcome, in fact, it is the only way to overcome it.

‘Localisation’ so to speak, did occur in the Russian revolution directly after 1917 and it was precisely part of the problem that led to Stalinism.

“The workingmen, the report [from a British trade union delegation to the USSR in 1924] said, had been transformed overnight into ‘a new body of shareholders.’ A similar observation was made by a Bolshevik commentator early in 1918: the workers [in factories now under their control], he wrote, considered tools and equipment ‘their own property’. Cases of pillage and theft were not uncommon... Individual factory committees sent ‘pushers’ into the provinces to purchase fuel and raw materials, sometimes for outrageous prices. Often they refused to share available supplies with other factories in direst need.” (Avrich, The Russian Anarchists, pp162-3)

Nestor Ivanovych Makhno (October 26, 1888–July 6, 1934)Nestor Ivanovych Makhno (October 26, 1888–July 6, 1934) What is the explanation for this? Is workers’ control in each local factory not possible? No, that is not the explanation. Instead it is the extreme economic chaos and poverty following the revolution in 1917, where German imperialism took the majority of Russian industry, already decimated by the war. The problem precisely was ‘localism’. The apparent autonomy of these sets of workers (in reality not autonomous at all, but under the firm control of the market, money and their empty stomachs) arose in response to the inability of the revolution (which was also ‘local’ in that it was isolated to Russia and thus starved of resources) to solve dire material problems overnight. The crushing weight of Stalinism is explained not by centralism and the complexity of the economy, but by the disintegration of the economy into regional antagonisms, between town and country, out of which the old Tsarist bureaucracy reasserted its control and privileges precisely because the same conditions of poverty persisted. The working class revolutionaries were too busy struggling for immediate survival, or fighting and dying in the Civil War, to collectively and harmoniously plan the economy. Makhno’s Anarchist movement in the Ukraine during the Russian Civil War was an expression of antagonisms between countryside and town, where the countryside could not afford to feed the town, and not a solution to it:

“Makhno led a peasant movement, and so never had a strong base of support in any of the cities. Most of the workers who lived in areas of the Ukraine under Makhno’s control sided either with the Bolsheviks or the Mensheviks. The following examples illustrate the attitude that Makhno had towards the working class. When railway and telegraph workers from the Ekaterinoslav-Sinelnikovo line were still suffering after a long period of starvation under Denikin’s occupation, they asked Makhno to pay them for their work. He responded with, ‘We are not like the Bolsheviks to feed you, we don’t need the railways; if you need money, take the bread from those who need your railways and telegraphs.’ In a separate incident, he told the workers of Briansk, ‘Because the workers do not want to support Makhno’s movement and demand pay for the repairs of the armoured car, I will take this armoured car for free and pay nothing’.” (The Makhno anarchists, Kronstadt and the position of the Russian peasants in post-revolutionary Russia)

The lack of class and state in primitive communities is not a result of ‘autonomy’, ‘localism’ or economic simplicity, but actually thanks to their internal ‘centralism’ or unity demanded by the material conditions. Everyone must work together to survive. Likewise, the way to do away with Kropotkin’s technocrats who will despotically tell the workers how much to produce and consume, is to develop production to such an extent that the need for such guidance disappears:

“The material premise of communism should be so high a development of the economic powers of man that productive labor, having ceased to be a burden, will not require any goad, and the distribution of life’s goods, existing in continual abundance, will not demand – as it does not now in any well-off family or “decent” boarding-house – any control except that of education, habit and social opinion.” (Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed)

Contrary to Anarchist hopes, political leadership in our society is necessary for the working class. It could only be discarded, made superfluous, if the working class had the time and inclination to collectively develop revolutionary theory, collectively grasp the need for a revolution, and therefore organise it at once. The very existence of famous theorists such as Marx and Bakunin, who do play a leading role (whether they like it or not) by developing theory with which to educate the movement, is proof that in capitalist society this is not the case. Some Anarchists propose that, instead of a leadership of people, we have a leadership of ideas. Actually, this shows how the objective necessity for political leadership forces its way into Anarchist theory all the time. Only they give it another name instead. Anarchist theorists, themselves acting as leaders by developing theory to influence society, have variously made use of concepts such as ‘helpers’ of the working class, working class ‘spokesmen’, revolutionary ‘pathfinders’, the need for a ‘conscious minority in the trade unions’, or Bakunin’s concept of a disciplined Blanquist ‘directorate’ for the revolution. They use these terms but do not explain why they are necessary and how they really differ from political leadership. Why does the working class need helpers, pathfinders, a directorate, spokesmen, or a conscious minority? And what role would such people play? And if we merely have a leadership of ideas, then what of the people who developed those ideas (for they weren’t developed by the whole working class in a collective, uniform way), who presumably can explain them best, who can be most trusted to put the ideas forward in trade union negotiations, which, after all, cannot involve the whole working class at once? To change the name of something is not to change its essence.

Whenever Anarchists have found themselves with some influence in a real revolutionary movement, they have always had to reintroduce leadership or the state in some form. Makhno’s movement, in order to defend itself from the White Counterrevolution, “voted in favour of ‘voluntary mobilisation’, which in reality meant outright conscription, as all able bodied men were required to serve when called up.” With such military authority, they “allotted each commune livestock and farm implements confiscated from the neighbouring estates of the nobility”. In other words, under Makhno’s leadership they organised a state which repressed the counterrevolution and nobility, only one that was localised. Yes, they were autonomous from the Bolshevik government, but within their territory no one was autonomous. In addition, the movement had an extremely political character:

“the new council stimulated [i.e. led] the election of ‘free’ soviets in the towns and villages, that is, soviets from which members of political parties were excluded [in other words, it was a dictatorship of Makhno’s de facto party!]... the reigns of authority rested firmly with Makhno and his staff of commanders... Makhno appointed key officers”. (Avrich, The Russian Anarchists, pp214-5)

We do not say this in an attempt to besmirch his regime, rather to point out the way in which the crushing necessity of objective circumstances in a violent class struggle and Civil War forced the role of political and personal leadership onto Makhno.

Syndicalist Anarchists propose that a general strike, involving the vast majority of the working class, can be sufficient to overthrow capitalism, and moreover has the advantage of doing so without a party leadership. But the history of general strikes teaches otherwise – both in that on their own they are insufficient to overthrow capitalism (for we have had many general strikes but still have capitalism) and in that trade unions do have political leadership in them. Unfortunately, this leadership rarely has a determined revolutionary mission and tends to sell out general strikes. So the demand for a general strike must also be accompanied by a political struggle against the ideas of the reformist trade union leadership. But history has shown that such a struggle does not emerge, and certainly does not succeed, in a purely automatic fashion. In a general strike some organised political grouping must raise the idea of the need to use the strike as a launch pad to overthrow capitalism so that the working class can build socialism. And such an organisation would therefore be playing a leading role. Its task must be to win the struggle, to defeat the reformists by convincing the mass of the working class that its ideas are correct and necessary, in other words its task is to lead the working class to take power and overthrow capitalism.

Rejection of Theory

As has been suggested above, there is a strong tendency in Anarchism to reject theory as a scientific study of society, as they associate this with the intellectual elite and inaction. For this reason they tend to see all talk of ‘historical laws’ in society, and of the objective roles of various classes, as intellectual charlatanism, as an idealist (meaning putting ideas or theory before or above society) invention with which to confuse the masses into accepting our leadership,

“Only feeling, passion, and desire have moved and will move men to acts of heroism and self-sacrifice; only in the realm of passionate life, the life of feeling, do heroes and martyrs draw their strength... we do not recognise the inevitability of social phenomena; we regard with scepticism the scientific value of many so-called laws of sociology.” (Unknown author, from article in Russian Anarchist Journal ‘Burevestnik’ quoted in Avrich, The Russian Anarchists, p92)

As materialists we must ask – which passions, whose passions, under what circumstances, in aid of what? Do they speak of the passion of a Russian aristocrat with his mistress, the frustrated Russian intellectual who passionately threw a bomb into a crowded cafe, or a striking worker? And how is the passion to be used to aid the revolution rather than be wasted? Marxist theory is idealist only if its social laws are arbitrarily invented, and that is something the Anarchists must themselves prove, and the only way to prove it is in society, by comparing Marxist theory with actual history. It is not sufficient to simply declare Marx’s theories as bad for the movement because he thought them up in a library and not in the street, passions blazing. Unfortunately, 20th Century history, with its industrialisation and mass workers parties, and general sidelining of all Anarchist tendencies, would suggest that Marx’s laws are not so arbitrary.

Because of their rejection of theory, many Anarchists have resorted to simply describing the problems of capitalist society, and proposing antidotes as superficial as the act of simply inverting the names they give to capitalist oppression,

“The Gordins [a prominent Russian Anarchist tendency in the early 20th Century] worked out a philosophy which they called ‘Pan-Anarchism’ and which prescribed five remedies for the five baneful institutions that tormented the five oppressed elements of modern society. The remedies for the state and capitalism were, simply enough, statelessness and communism; for the remaining three oppressors, however, the antidotes were rather more novel: ‘cosmism’ (the universal elimination of national persecution), ‘gyneantropism’ (the emancipation and humanisation of women), and ‘pedism’ (the liberation of the young from ‘the vice of slave education’)” (Avrich, The Russian Anarchists, p177)

“Visionary utopians, the anarchists paid scant attention to the practical needs of a rapidly changing world; they generally avoided careful analysis of social and economic conditions... in place of complex ideologies, they offered simple action-slogans”. (Avrich, The Russian Anarchists, p253)

Rather than study the causes for all these social problems, the Anarchists would treat them as arbitrary, and all that is needed to overcome them is for society to somehow collectively realise that it is suffering under some arbitrary injustice, and then collectively liberate itself. Political ideas, if they are complex (we actually hold that Marxism is not so complex or difficult to grasp), are complex because society itself is extremely complex, has a long history, and demands that serious attention be paid to it if it is to be changed in accordance with our wishes.

Anarchists mistakenly claim that Bakunin predicted Stalinism when he argued that, should the revolution be led by Marxists, it would inevitably degenerate into a dictatorship over the working class. But because of his lack of theory and materialist, historical analysis, Bakunin actually failed to understand the material basis for the state which he hated so much. He simply registered the fact that for much of human history, state oppression existed, and drew the simple conclusion that it may also exist again in the future, without understanding why. His theory does not explain Stalinism. In the same way, I may witness stormy weather and expect it to come around again in the future, without having the slightest idea of what causes stormy weather. A stopped clock is ‘right’ twice a day, but it cannot be used to tell the time.

As these lines are written, insurgents in Libya are waging a war with a counterrevolutionary state. But despite the obvious international implications and origins of this movement, they are struggling in isolation. Imperialism has now intervened, exploiting the lack of an international revolutionary organisation capable of intervening and offering revolutionary assistance. But the ‘West’ has only intervened to secure its own interests and not those of the Libyan masses. Thus the international, revolutionary proletariat has a duty to offer their own assistance which would be in the interests of the Libyan people. That ultimately means overthrowing imperialism in its heartland, so that the Libyans may never again feel its oppression. But to do that, a coordinated, worldwide struggle must be launched and fought to the finish. Only an international revolutionary leadership, drawing together the workers of the world, can live up to this task.

Bakunin said “for as long as political power exists, there will always be rulers and ruled, masters and slaves, exploiters and exploited.” We say “for as long as exploiters and exploited, masters and slaves exist, there will always be political power, rulers and the ruled.”

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