From FRFI 123 February / March 1995
Within many of today’s protest movements - on the environment, pollution, roads - anarchists sometimes play a significant role. Many young people, disgusted by the Labour Party and the sectarian drabness of Militant and the SWP, are turning to anarchism for direction. Conditions do exist for practical collaboration between anarchists and communists who share a hatred of the bourgeois state and the Labour Party. In the course of specific struggles differences will inevitably arise. But discussed and debated in a non-sectarian socialist movement they need not hinder and can even aid the revival of a revolutionary working class movement.
However a precondition for joint action and serious discussion is a rejection, by both camps, of caricatures that are widespread within the socialist movement. Communists do not dismiss all anarchists as a band of individualist and sectarian disrupters who are opposed to all organisation, discipline or collective action. Counterposed to Max Stirner’s reactionary individualism (see FRFI 122) Alexander Berkman (1870-1936), a Russian revolutionary active in the Russian revolution, argued that:
‘Man is a social being: he cannot exist alone: he lives in communities or societies. Mutual need and common interests result in certain arrangements to afford us security and comfort:
Errico Malatesta, an early 20th century Italian anarchist, proclaimed himself a communist:
‘…because communism…is the ideal to which mankind will aspire as love between men, and an abundance of production, will free them from the fear of hunger and will thus destroy the major obstacle to brotherhood between them.’
On organisation, the British journal Organise! for Class Struggle Anarchism (Organise!) argues that:
‘Not belonging to an…organisation hampers people’s theoretical development as they have no regular contact with like-minded individuals to discuss current issues with, or to learn from other comrades’ past experience.’
Anarchism: an Introduction, a 1992 British publication, states:
‘…organisers and leaders are not the same as bosses. Anarchists have no objection to people following instructions, provided they do so voluntarily.’
Anarchists who, like Stirner, are removed from the working class and have no care for the interests of ordinary people do uphold a reactionary individualism. But for those committed to the working class, the necessity of organisation and discipline poses itself inevitably. The issue is - what type of organisation, discipline and action? In responding to these questions, anarchism and Marxism have totally different starting points.
Individual versus class
Marxists examine society from the point of view of the working class as a whole. They judge every question - social, economic, political - on the basis of how it advances the interests of the majority. Communism is committed to the liberation of the individual, but recognises that such liberation demands the initial emancipation of the working class as a class.
In contrast to Marxism, anarchism approaches society from the standpoint of individual interests. Organise! argues that anarcho-communists: ‘place the individual at the centre of its approach, for only active, thinking persons can ever be free.’
Anarchism: an Introduction states: ‘Anarchists strive for a society which …provides individuals with the widest possible range of individual choices.’
For the anarchist, states, governments and political parties are coercive social organisations which suppress the individual and benefit only the few who control them. For Errico Malatesta government by its nature…defends either an existing privileged class or creates a new one.’
The state is loathed as ‘an abstraction devouring the life of the people’; ‘an immense cemetery where all the real aspirations and living forces of a country…allow themselves to be busied…’ (Bakunin)
Condemning political parties, which strive for state power, Voline, another prominent Russian anarchist says:
‘…no party, or political or ideological group…will ever succeed in emancipating the working class by placing itself above or outside them in order to govern or guide them.’
The anarchist starting point leads inevitably to wrong positions on actual revolutionary or progressive movements. For the anarchist, the Soviet Union was no different to Hitler’s Germany, it:
‘…has today grown into a frightful despotism and a new imperialism, which lags behind the tyranny of Fascist states in nothing.’ (Rudolf Rocker)
On Cuba, the British anarchist journal Freedom Press set the tone as far back as 1960:
‘Authority after authority – the more it changes the more it is the same. Fidel Castro had an opportunity to break the deadly pattern of tyranny, but by the time he had the power to do so, that power had corrupted him.’
Examining the Soviet Union and Cuba from the standpoint of what is most essential for the working class and peasantry as a whole health, education, housing, diet, culture - it is impossible not to register the enormous advantages, even accounting for the drawbacks, that socialism secured. On any objective scale - comparing the conditions of the Cuban and Soviet people with the major the of the world - the superiority of these systems over capitalism cannot be questioned.
Anarchists further equate imperialist violence with the violence of the oppressed fighting for freedom. Organise! condemns the IRA as just another ‘body of armed men’ alongside the British army. It welcomes the ceasefire because it ‘means that Irish libertarian activists have one less body of armed men to dodge.’
From an anarchist standpoint, one can pick out this or that failure, reject this or that feature one dislikes and attribute it to the inevitably tyrannical state or government and the unavoidably elitist political party. From then it is simple to condemn entire movements despite their undoubtedly progressive social and political significance for hundreds of millions of people. For after all, as Stirner put it, ‘there is no judge but myself’.
Marxism, anarchism and the state
Communists are, like anarchists, uncompromisingly opposed to the bourgeois, capitalist state. They too think that liberation is: ‘impossible…without the destruction of the apparatus of state power which was created by the ruling class.’ (Lenin)
Marx wrote that the task is ‘no longer to transfer the bureaucratic-military machine from one hand to another, but to smash it.’ This is ‘a precondition for every real people’s revolution’.
Marx and Engels repeatedly spoke about the transition from socialism to communism leading to the ‘withering away of the state’.
Where Marxists part company with anarchists is on the nature and role of the state within class society, and the political struggle for state power that must arise between classes in a class society. In any society where a minority exploits and oppresses the majority, the minority can only maintain social order by suppressing the majority. The state thus emerges ‘as an organ of class rule, an organ for the oppression of one class by another.’
Politics is the organisation of classes engaged in a struggle for state power. It is a product of class society, with each class fighting to assert its dominance. Individuals can escape politics, but not whole classes. The working class, exploited and oppressed by the capitalist class, confronts the state as the ruthless and bloody defender of the wealth robbed by the minority. In these conditions it has no choice but to organise itself against the bourgeois state, and thus organise itself politically to seize power in society.
In contrast, for the anarchist the state is not the product but the cause of class society. The state ‘has to create certain artificial antagonisms in order to justify its existence’. It is imposed on society by authoritarian individuals for their own selfish ends. Destroy the state and classes, and all the ills that accompany them vanish. A working class state and political organisation is unnecessary.
History proves this wrong. Long after the workers destroyed the old Tsarist state, the old ruling class continued to exist. In alliance with imperialism, it launched a vicious civil war which exhausted the revolution. In Nicaragua, the Sandinistas came to power and destroyed the old state. But the old ruling class, in conjunction with US imperialism, responded with the savage Contras. Without exception, in every revolution the old ruling class resorts to devastating warfare to restore its privilege.
Against such forces the working class does need its own state power. Lenin argued that:
‘We do not at all differ 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…Marx chose the sharpest and clearest way of stating his case against the anarchists: After overthrowing the yoke of the capitalists, should the workers “lay down their arms”, or use them against the capitalists in order to crush their resistance?’
The working class and the state
This attitude is condemned by anarchists as ‘authoritarian socialism’. To sustain this charge they resort to outright distortions of the Marxist concept of the state and revolution. The introduction to anarchism quoted above claims Marxists believe that the first step towards a communist society ‘is to impose a very strong government, of people of good will who thoroughly understand the theory.’
‘Socialists…once in office, wish to impose their programme on the people by dictatorial or democratic means.’
Marxism is as far removed from such ‘authoritarian socialism’ as chalk is from cheese. Based on the historical experience of the working class during the Commune of 1871, the state power of the working class and its allies is an entirely new form of state. All old forms of state power reserved the use of force and violence for a minority and their lackeys. The new working class state would consist of the self-organised and armed majority. The state would be the whole people organised and armed to suppress the old ruling class minority. In this sense it would be a state already beginning to ‘wither away’.
The Paris Commune demonstrated the historic possibility of such a state. Its first decree was to abolish the standing army and replace it with the armed population. Lenin comments:
‘The Commune was ceasing to be a state since it had to suppress, not the majority of the population, but a minority, (the exploiters). It had smashed the bourgeois state machine. In place of a special coercive force the population itself came the scene. All this was a departure from the state in the proper sense of the word.’
The Paris Commune, though last only a few months, showed that during the period of transition to communism and a society without a state, the working class state will be:
‘Democracy for the vast majority of people, and suppression by force, ie exclusion from democracy, of the exploiters of the people…’
Alongside the state as an armed people, the Commune eliminated bourgeois, bureaucratic and anti democratic government, replacing it with revolutionary democracy: the abolition of Parliamentarianism and its replacement by direct working class democracy; the uniting of the legislative and executive arms of the state in the hands of an armed, self-governing working class; the payment of only the average working class wage to state functionaries working class delegates; the right of immediate recall for all state political personnel.
Karl Marx, in his brilliant pamphlet The Civil War in France, summarised the experience:
‘The Commune was a thoroughly expansive political form, while all previous forms of government had been emphatically repressive. Its true secret was this. It was essentially a working class government, the product of a struggle of the producing against the appropriating class, the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economic emancipation of labour.’
The anarchists reject this ‘political form’ or the need to develop a political movement to bring it about. However, today such fundamental differences between anarchism and Marxism need not prevent united struggles against the existing bourgeois state.