The Key Differences Between Anarchism and Marxism

Errico Malatesta

Republished with permission.
Source: The Anarchist Library


There are, of course, important similarities between anarchism and Marxism. Both are socialist, oppose capitalism and the current state, support and encourage working class organisation and action and see class struggle as the means of creating a social revolution which will transform society into a new one. However, the differences between these socialist theories are equally important. In the words of Errico Malatesta:

“The important, fundamental dissension [between anarchists and Marxists] is [that] ... [Marxist] socialists are authoritarians, anarchists are libertarians.

“Socialists want power ... and once in power wish to impose their programme on the people... Anarchists instead maintain, that government cannot be other than harmful, and by its very nature it defends either an existing privileged class or creates a new one; and instead of inspiring to take the place of the existing government anarchists seek to destroy every organism which empowers some to impose their own ideas and interests on others, for they want to free the way for development towards better forms of human fellowship which will emerge from experience, by everyone being free and, having, of course, the economic means to make freedom possible as well as a reality.” [Errico Malatesta: His Life and Ideas, p. 142]

The other differences derive from this fundamental one. So while there are numerous ways in which anarchists and Marxists differ, their root lies in the question of power. Socialists seek power (in the name of the working class and usually hidden under rhetoric arguing that party and class power are the same). Anarchists seek to destroy hierarchical power in all its forms and ensure that everyone is free to manage their own affairs (both individually and collectively). From this comes the differences on the nature of a revolution, the way the working class movement should organise and the tactics it should apply and so on. A short list of these differences would include the question of the “dictatorship of the proletariat”, the standing of revolutionaries in elections, centralisation versus federalism, the role and organisation of revolutionaries, whether socialism can only come “from below” or whether it is possible for it come “from below” and “from above” and a host of others. Indeed, there are so many it is difficult to address them all here. As such, we can only concentrate on a few in this and the following sections.

One of the key issues is on the issue of confusing party power with popular power. The logic of the anarchist case is simple. In any system of hierarchical and centralised power (for example, in a state or governmental structure) then those at the top are in charge (i.e. are in positions of power). It is not “the people,” nor “the proletariat,” nor “the masses,” it is those who make up the government who have and exercise real power. As Malatesta argued, government means “the delegation of power, that is the abdication of initiative and sovereignty of all into the hands of a few” and “if ... , as do the authoritarians, one means government action when one talks of social action, then this is still the resultant of individual forces, but only of those individuals who form the government.” [Anarchy, p. 40 and p. 36] Therefore, anarchists argue, the replacement of party power for working class power is inevitable because of the nature of the state. In the words of Murray Bookchin:

“Anarchist critics of Marx pointed out with considerable effect that any system of representation would become a statist interest in its own right, one that at best would work against the interests of the working classes (including the peasantry), and that at worst would be a dictatorial power as vicious as the worst bourgeois state machines. Indeed, with political power reinforced by economic power in the form of a nationalised economy, a ‘workers’ republic’ might well prove to be a despotism (to use one of Bakunin’s more favourite terms) of unparalleled oppression ...

“Republican institutions, however much they are intended to express the interests of the workers, necessarily place policy-making in the hands of deputies and categorically do not constitute a ‘proletariat organised as a ruling class.’ If public policy, as distinguished from administrative activities, is not made by the people mobilised into assemblies and confederally co-ordinated by agents on a local, regional, and national basis, then a democracy in the precise sense of the term does not exist. The powers that people enjoy under such circumstances can be usurped without difficulty ... [I]f the people are to acquire real power over their lives and society, they must establish — and in the past they have, for brief periods of time established — well-ordered institutions in which they themselves directly formulate the policies of their communities and, in the case of their regions, elect confederal functionaries, revocable and strictly controllable, who will execute them. Only in this sense can a class, especially one committed to the abolition of classes, be mobilised as a class to manage society.” [“The Communist Manifesto: Insights and Problems”, pp. 14–17, Black Flag, no. 226, pp. 16–7]

This is why anarchists stress direct democracy (self-management) in free federations of free associations. It is the only way to ensure that power remains in the hands of the people and is not turned into an alien power above them. Thus Marxist support for statist forms of organisation will inevitably undermine the liberatory nature of the revolution.

Thus the real meaning of a workers state is simply that the party has the real power, not the workers. That is the nature of a state. Marxist rhetoric tends to hide this reality. As an example, we can point to Lenin’s comments in October, 1921. In an essay marking the fourth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, Lenin stated that the Soviet system “provides the maximum of democracy for the workers and peasants; at the same time, it marks a break with bourgeois democracy and the rise of a new, epoch-making type of democracy, namely, proletarian democracy, or the dictatorship of the proletariat.” [Collected Works, vol. 33, p. 55] Yet Lenin’s comments came just a few months after factions within the Communist Party had been banned and after the Kronstadt rebellion and a wave of strikes calling for free soviet elections had been repressed. It was written years after Lenin had asserted that “[w]hen we are reproached with having established a dictatorship of one party ... we say, ‘Yes, it is a dictatorship of one party! This is what we stand for and we shall not shift from that position ...’” [Op. Cit., vol. 29, p. 535] And, of course, they had not shifted from that position! Clearly, the term “proletarian democracy” had a drastically different meaning to Lenin than to most people!

The identification of party power and working class power reaches its height (or, more correctly, depth) in the works of Lenin and Trotsky. Lenin, for example, argued that “the Communists’ correct understanding of his tasks” lies in “correctly gauging the conditions and the moment when the vanguard of the proletariat can successfully assume power, when it will be able — during and after the seizure of power — to win adequate support from sufficiently broad strata of the working class and of the non-proletarian working masses, and when it is able thereafter to maintain, consolidate, and extend its rule by educating, training and attracting ever broader masses of the working people.” Note, the vanguard (the party) seizes power, not the masses. Indeed, he stressed that the “mere presentation of the question — ‘dictatorship of the party or dictatorship of the class: dictatorship (party) of the leaders or dictatorship (party) of the masses?’ — testifies to most incredible and hopelessly muddled thinking” and “[t]o go so far ... as to contrast, in general, the dictatorship of the masses with a dictatorship of the leaders is ridiculously absurd, and stupid.” [The Lenin Anthology, p. 575, p. 567 and p. 568]

Lenin stressed this idea numerous times. For example, he argued that “the dictatorship of the proletariat cannot be exercised through an organisation embracing the whole of the class, because in all capitalist countries (and not only over here, in one of the most backward) the proletariat is still so divided, so degraded, and so corrupted in parts ... that an organisation taking in the whole proletariat cannot directly exercise proletarian dictatorship. It can be exercised only by a vanguard ... Such is the basic mechanism of the dictatorship of the proletariat, and the essentials of transition from capitalism to communism ... for the dictatorship of the proletariat cannot be exercised by a mass proletarian organisation.” [Collected Works, vol. 32, p. 21] This position had became Communist orthodoxy both in Russia and internationally since early 1919. The American socialist John Reed, author of Ten Days that Shook the World, was a defender of “the value of centralisation” and “the dictatorship of a revolutionary minority” (noting that “the Communist Party is supreme in Russia”). [Shaking the World, p. 238] Similarly with the likes of Amedeo Bordiga, the first leader of the Communist Party in Italy.

Victor Serge, the ex-anarchist and enthusiastic convert to Bolshevism, argued this mainstream Bolshevik position until the mid-1930s. In 1919, it was a case that “dictatorship” was not some kind of “proletarian” dictatorship by the masses. He, like the leading Bolsheviks, explicitly argued against this. Yes, he wrote, “if we are looking at what should, that is at what ought to, be the case” but this “seems doubtful” in reality. “For it appears that by force of circumstances one group is obliged to impose itself on the others and to go ahead of them, breaking them if necessary, in order then to exercise exclusive dictatorship.” The militants “leading the masses ... cannot rely on the consciousness, the goodwill or the determination of those they have to deal with; for the masses who will follow them or surround them will be warped by the old regime, relatively uncultivated, often unaware, torn by feelings and instincts inherited from the past.” So “revolutionaries will have to take on the dictatorship without delay.” The experience of Russia “reveals an energetic and innovative minority which is compelled to make up for the deficiencies in the education of the backward masses by the use of compulsion.” And so the party “is in a sense the nervous system of the class. Simultaneously the consciousness and the active, physical organisation of the dispersed forces of the proletariat, which are often ignorant of themselves and often remain latent or express themselves contradictorily.” And what of the masses? What was their role? Serge was equally blunt. While the party is “supported by the entire working population,” strangely enough, “it maintains its unique situation in dictatorial fashion” while the workers are “[b]ehind” the communists, “sympathising instinctively with the party and carrying out the menial tasks required by the revolution.” [Revolution in Danger, p. 106, p. 92, p. 115, p. 67, p. 66 and p. 6]

Such are the joys of socialist liberation. The party thinks for the worker while they carry out the “menial tasks” of the revolution. Like doing the work and following the orders — as in any class system.

Trotsky agreed with this lesson and in 1926 opined that the “dictatorship of the party does not contradict the dictatorship of the class either theoretically or practically; but is the expression of it, if the regime of workers’ democracy is constantly developed more and more.” [The Challenge of the Left Opposition (1926–27), p. 76] The obvious contradictions and absurdities of this assertion are all too plain. Needless to say, when defending the concept of “the dictatorship of the party” he linked it to Lenin (and so to Leninist orthodoxy):

“Of course, the foundation of our regime is the dictatorship of a class. But this in turn assumes ... it is class that has come to self-consciousness through its vanguard, which is to say, through the party. Without this, the dictatorship could not exist ... Dictatorship is the most highly concentrated function of function of a class, and therefore the basic instrument of a dictatorship is a party. In the most fundamental aspects a class realises its dictatorship through a party. That is why Lenin spoke not only of the dictatorship of the class but also the dictatorship of the party and, in a certain sense, made them identical.” [Op. Cit., pp. 75–6]

He repeated this position on party dictatorship into the late 1930s, long after it had resulted in the horrors of Stalinism:

“The revolutionary dictatorship of a proletarian party is for me not a thing that one can freely accept or reject: It is an objective necessity imposed upon us by the social realities — the class struggle, the heterogeneity of the revolutionary class, the necessity for a selected vanguard in order to assure the victory. The dictatorship of a party belongs to the barbarian prehistory as does the state itself, but we can not jump over this chapter, which can open (not at one stroke) genuine human history... The revolutionary party (vanguard) which renounces its own dictatorship surrenders the masses to the counter-revolution ... Abstractly speaking, it would be very well if the party dictatorship could be replaced by the ‘dictatorship’ of the whole toiling people without any party, but this presupposes such a high level of political development among the masses that it can never be achieved under capitalist conditions. The reason for the revolution comes from the circumstance that capitalism does not permit the material and the moral development of the masses.” [Writings of Leon Trotsky 1936–37, pp. 513–4]

Significantly, this was the year after his apparent (and much belated) embrace of soviet democracy in The Revolution Betrayed. Moreover, he was just repeating the same arguments he had made while in power during the Russian Revolution. Nor was he the only one. Zinoviev, another leading Bolshevik, argued in 1920 along the same lines:

“soviet rule in Russia could not have been maintained for three years — not even three weeks — without the iron dictatorship of the Communist Party. Any class conscious worker must understand that the dictatorship of the working class can be achieved only by the dictatorship of its vanguard, i.e., by the Communist Party ... All questions of economic reconstruction, military organisation, education, food supply — all these questions, on which the fate of the proletarian revolution depends absolutely, are decided in Russia before all other matters and mostly in the framework of the party organisations ... Control by the party over soviet organs, over the trade unions, is the single durable guarantee that any measures taken will serve not special interests, but the interests of the entire proletariat.” [quoted by Oskar Anweiler, The Soviets, pp. 239–40]

Three years later, at the Communist Party’s congress, he made light of “comrades who think that the dictatorship of the party is a thing to be realised in practice but not spoken about.” He went on to argue that what was needed was “a single powerful central committee which is leader of everything ... in this is expressed the dictatorship of the party.” The Congress itself resolved that “the dictatorship of the working class cannot be assured otherwise than in the form of a dictatorship of its leading vanguard, i.e., the Communist Party.” [quoted by E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution 1917–1923, vol. 1, p. 236, pp. 236–7 and p. 237]

How these positions can be reconciled with workers’ democracy, power or freedom is not explained. As such, the idea that Leninism (usually considered as mainstream Marxism) is inherently democratic or a supporter of power to the people is clearly flawed. Equally flawed are the attempts by Leninists to distance themselves from, and rationalise, these positions in terms of the “objective circumstances” started before these problems began and continued long after they ended (in part because the policies pursued by the Bolshevik leadership had roots in their ideology and, as a result, that ideology itself played a key role in the failure of the revolution).

Ultimately, though, the leading lights of Bolshevism concluded from their experiences that the dictatorship of the proletariat could only be achieved by the dictatorship of the party and they generalised this position for all revolutions. Even in the prison camps in the late 1920s and early 1930s, “almost all the Trotskyists continued to consider that ‘freedom of party’ would be ‘the end of the revolution.’ ‘Freedom to choose one’s party — that is Menshevism,’ was the Trotskyists’ final verdict.” [Ante Ciliga, The Russian Enigma, p. 280] While few Leninists today would subscribe to this position, the fact is when faced with the test of revolution the founders of their ideology not only practised the dictatorship of the party, they raised it to an ideological truism. Sadly, most modern day Trotskyists ignore this awkward fact in favour of inaccurate claims that Trotsky’s Left Opposition “framed a policy along [the] lines” of “returning to genuine workers’ democracy”. [Chris Harman, Bureaucracy and Revolution in Eastern Europe, p. 19] In reality, as “Left Oppositionist” Victor Serge pointed out, “the greatest reach of boldness of the Left Opposition in the Bolshevik Party was to demand the restoration of inner-Party democracy, and it never dared dispute the theory of single-party government — by this time, it was too late.” [The Serge-Trotsky Papers, p. 181]

Significantly, this position on party rule has its roots in the uneven political development within the working class (i.e. that the working class contains numerous political perspectives within it). As the party (according to Leninist theory) contains the most advanced ideas (and, again according to Leninist theory, the working class cannot reach beyond a trade union consciousness by its own efforts), the party must take power to ensure that the masses do not make “mistakes” or “waver” (show “vacillation”) during a revolution. From such a perspective to the position of party dictatorship is not far (and a journey that all the leading Bolsheviks, including Lenin and Trotsky did in fact take).

These arguments by leading Bolsheviks confirm Bakunin’s fear that the Marxists aimed for “a tyranny of the minority over a majority in the name of the people — in the name of the stupidity of the many and the superior wisdom of the few.” [Marxism, Freedom and the State, p. 63]

In contrast, anarchists argue that precisely because of political differences we need the fullest possible democracy and freedom to discuss issues and reach agreements. Only by discussion and self-activity can the political perspectives of those in struggle develop and change. In other words, the fact Bolshevism uses to justify its support for party power is the strongest argument against it. For anarchists, the idea of a revolutionary government is a contradiction. As Malatesta put it, “if you consider these worthy electors as unable to look after their own interests themselves, how is it that they will know how to choose for themselves the shepherds who must guide them? And how will they be able to solve this problem of social alchemy, of producing a genius from the votes of a mass of fools?” [Anarchy, pp. 53–4] As such, anarchists think that power should be in the hands of the masses themselves. Only freedom or the struggle for freedom can be the school of freedom. That means that, to quote Bakunin, “since it is the people which must make the revolution everywhere ... the ultimate direction of it must at all times be vested in the people organised into a free federation of agricultural and industrial organisations ... organised from the bottom up through revolutionary delegation.” [No God, No Masters, vol. 1, pp. 155–6]

Clearly, then, the question of state/party power is one dividing anarchists and most Marxists. Again, though, we must stress that libertarian Marxists agree with anarchists on this subject and reject the whole idea that rule/dictatorship of a party equals the dictatorship of the working class. As such, the Marxist tradition as a whole does not confuse this issue, although the majority of it does. So not all Marxists are Leninists. A few (council communists, Situationists, and so on) are far closer to anarchism. They also reject the idea of party power/dictatorship, the use of elections, for direct action, argue for the abolition of wage slavery by workers’ self-management of production and so on. They represent the best in Marx’s work and should not be lumped with the followers of Bolshevism. Sadly, they are in the minority.

Finally, we should indicate other important areas of difference as summarised by Lenin in his work The State and Revolution:

“The difference between the Marxists and the anarchists is this: 1) the former, while aiming at the complete abolition of the state, recognise that this aim can only be achieved after classes have been abolished by the socialist revolution, as the result of the establishment of socialism which leads to the withering away of the state. The latter want to abolish the state completely overnight, failing to understand the conditions under which the state can be abolished 2) the former recognise that after the proletariat has conquered political power it must utterly destroy the old state machine and substitute for it a new one consisting of the organisation of armed workers, after the type of the Commune. The latter, while advocating the destruction of the state machine, have absolutely no idea of what the proletariat will put in its place and how it will use its revolutionary power; the anarchists even deny that the revolutionary proletariat should utilise its state power, its revolutionary dictatorship; 3) the former demand that the proletariat be prepared for revolution by utilising the present state; the latter reject this.” [Essential Works of Lenin, p. 358]




Freedom – Equality – Solidarity


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