Do Anarchists and Marxists Want the Same Thing?

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Republished with permission.
Source: The Anarchist Library


Ultimately, the greatest myth of Marxism is the idea that anarchists and most Marxists want the same thing. Indeed, it could be argued that it is anarchist criticism of Marxism which has made them stress the similarity of long term goals with anarchism. “Our polemics against [the Marxists],” Bakunin argued, “have forced them to recognise that freedom, or anarchy — that is, the voluntary organisation of the workers from below upward — is the ultimate goal of social development.” He stressed that the means to this apparently similar end were different. The Marxists “say that [a] state yoke, [a] dictatorship, is a necessary transitional device for achieving the total liberation of the people: anarchy, or freedom, is the goal, and the state, or dictatorship, is the means ... We reply that no dictatorship can have any other objective than to perpetuate itself, and that it can engender and nurture only slavery in the people who endure it. Liberty can be created only by liberty, by an insurrection of all the people and the voluntary organisation of the workers from below upwards.” [Statism and Anarchy, p. 179]

As such, it is commonly taken for granted that the ends of both Marxists and Anarchists are the same, we just disagree over the means. However, within this general agreement over the ultimate end (a classless and stateless society), the details of such a society are somewhat different. This, perhaps, is to be expected given the differences in means. As is obvious from Bakunin’s argument, anarchists stress the unity of means and goals, that the means which are used affect the goal reached. This unity between means and ends is expressed well by Martin Buber’s observation that “[o]ne cannot in the nature of things expect a little tree that has been turned into a club to put forth leaves.” [Paths in Utopia, p. 127] In summary, we cannot expect to reach our end destination if we take a path going in the opposite direction. As such, the agreement on ends may not be as close as often imagined.

So when it is stated that anarchists and state socialists want the same thing, the following should be borne in mind. Firstly, there are key differences on the question of current tactics. Secondly, there is the question of the immediate aims of a revolution. Thirdly, there is the long term goals of such a revolution. These three aspects form a coherent whole, with each one logically following on from the last. As we will show, the anarchist and Marxist vision of each aspect are distinctly different, so suggesting that the short, medium and long term goals of each theory are, in fact, different. We will discuss each aspect in turn.

First, there is the question of the nature of the revolutionary movement. Here anarchists and most Marxists have distinctly opposing ideas. The former argue that both the revolutionary organisation (i.e. an anarchist federation) and the wider labour movement should be organised in line with the vision of society which inspires us. This means that it should be a federation of self-managed groups based on the direct participation of its membership in the decision making process. Power, therefore, is decentralised and there is no division between those who make the decisions and those who execute them. We reject the idea of others acting on our behalf or on behalf of the people and so urge the use of direct action and solidarity, based upon working class self-organisation, self-management and autonomy. Thus, anarchists apply their ideas in the struggle against the current system, arguing what is “efficient” from a hierarchical or class position is deeply inefficient from a revolutionary perspective.

Marxists disagree. Most Marxists are also Leninists. They argue that we must form a “vanguard” party based on the principles of “democratic centralism” complete with institutionalised and hierarchical leadership. They argue that how we organise today is independent of the kind of society we seek and that the party should aim to become the recognised leadership of the working class. Every thing they do is subordinated to this end, meaning that no struggle is seen as an end in itself but rather as a means to gaining membership and influence for the party until such time as it gathers enough support to seize power.

Obviously, in the short term anarchists and Leninists cannot be said to want the same thing. While we seek a revolutionary movement based on libertarian (i.e. revolutionary) principles, the Leninists seek a party based on distinctly bourgeois principles of centralisation, delegation of power and representative over direct democracy. Both, of course, argue that only their system of organisation is effective and efficient. The anarchist perspective is to see the revolutionary organisation as part of the working class, encouraging and helping those in struggle to clarify the ideas they draw from their own experiences and its role is to provide a lead rather than a new set of leaders to be followed. The Leninist perspective is to see the revolutionary party as the leadership of the working class, introducing socialist consciousness into a class which cannot generate itself.

Given the Leninist preference for centralisation and a leadership role by hierarchical organisation, it will come as no surprise that their ideas on the nature of post-revolutionary society are distinctly different from anarchists. While there is a tendency for Leninists to deny that anarchists have a clear idea of what will immediately be created by a revolution, we do have concrete ideas on the kind of society a revolution will immediately create. This vision is in almost every way different from that proposed by most Marxists.

Then there is the question of the state. Anarchists, unsurprisingly enough, seek to destroy it. Simply put, while anarchists want a stateless and classless society and advocate the means appropriate to those ends, most Marxists argue that in order to reach a stateless society we need a new “workers’” state, a state, moreover, in which their party will be in charge. Trotsky, writing in 1906, made this clear: “Every political party deserving of the name aims at seizing governmental power and thus putting the state at the service of the class whose interests it represents.” [quoted by Israel Getzler, Marxist Revolutionaries and the Dilemma of Power, p. 105] This fits in with Marx’s and Engels’s repeated equation of universal suffrage with the political power or political supremacy of the working class. In other words, “political power” simply means the ability to nominate a government.

While Marxists like to portray this new government as “the dictatorship of the proletariat,” anarchist argue that, in fact, it will be the dictatorship over the proletariat. This is because if the working class is the ruling class (as Marxists claim) then, anarchists argue, how can they delegate their power to a government and remain so? Either the working class directly manages its own affairs (and so society) or the government does. Any state is simply rule by a few and so is incompatible with socialism. The obvious implication of this is that Marxism seeks party rule, not working class direct management of society.

Then there is the question of the building blocks of socialism. Yet again, there is a clear difference between anarchism and Marxism. Anarchists have always argued that the basis of socialism is working class organisations, created in the struggle against capitalism and the state. This applies to both the social and economic structure of a post-revolutionary society. For most forms of Marxism, a radically different picture has been the dominant one. Marxists only reached a similar vision for the political structure of socialism in 1917 when Lenin supported the soviets as the framework of his workers’ state. However,  he did so for instrumental purposes only, namely as the best means of assuring Bolshevik power. If the soviets clashed with the party, it was the latter which took precedence. Unsurprisingly, the Bolshevik mainstream moved from “All Power to the Soviets” to “dictatorship of the party” rather quickly. Thus, unlike anarchism, most forms of Marxism aim for party power, a “revolutionary” government above the organs of working class self-management.

Economically, there are also clear differences. Anarchists have consistently argued that the workers “ought to be the real managers of industries.” [Peter Kropotkin, Fields, Factories and Workshops Tomorrow, p. 157] To achieve this, we have pointed to various organisations over time, such as factory committees and labour unions.  Lenin, in contrast, saw socialism as being constructed on the basis of structures and techniques (including management ones) developed under capitalism. Rather than see socialism as being built around new, working class organisations, Lenin saw it being constructed on the basis of developments in capitalist organisation. “The Leninist road to socialism,” notes one expert on Lenin, “emphatically ran through the terrain of monopoly capitalism. It would, according to Lenin, abolish neither its advanced technological base nor its institutionalised means for allocating resources or structuring industry... The institutionalised framework of advanced capitalism could, to put it shortly, be utilised for realisation of specifically socialist goals. They were to become, indeed, the principal (almost exclusive) instruments of socialist transformation.” [Neil Harding, Leninism, p.145]

The role of workers’ in this vision was basically unchanged. Rather than demand, like anarchists, workers’ self-management of production in 1917, Lenin raised the demand for “country-wide, all-embracing workers’ control over the capitalists” (and this is the “important thing”, not “confiscation of the capitalists’ property”) [The Lenin Anthology, p. 402] Once the Bolsheviks were in power, the workers’ own organs (the factory committees) were integrated into a system of state control, losing whatever power they once held at the point of production. Lenin then modified this vision by replacing capitalists with (state appointed) “one-man management” over the workers. In other words, a form of state capitalism in which workers would still be wage slaves under bosses appointed by the state. Unsurprisingly, the “control” workers exercised over their bosses (i.e. those with real power in production) proved to be as elusive in production as it was in the state. In this, Lenin undoubtedly followed the lead of the Communist Manifesto which stressed state ownership of the means of production without a word about workers’ self-management of production. State “socialism” cannot help being “state capitalism” by its very nature.

Needless to say, as far as means go, few anarchists and syndicalists are complete pacifists. As syndicalist Emile Pouget argued, “[h]istory teaches that the privileged have never surrendered their privileges without having been compelled so to do and forced into it by their rebellious victims. It is unlikely that the bourgeoisie is blessed with an exceptional greatness of soul and will abdicate voluntarily” and so “[r]ecourse to force ... will be required.” [The Party Of Labour] This does not mean that libertarians glorify violence or argue that all forms of violence are acceptable (quite the reverse!), it simply means that for self-defence against violent opponents violence is, unfortunately, sometimes required.

The way an anarchist revolution would defend itself also shows a key difference between anarchism and Marxism. Anarchists (regardless of Marxist claims) have always argued that a revolution needs to defend itself. This would be organised in a federal, bottom-up way as the social structure of a free society. It would be based on voluntary working class militias. This model of working class self-defence was applied successfully in both the Spanish and Ukrainian revolutions (by the CNT-FAI and the Makhnovists, respectively). In contrast, the Bolshevik method of defending a revolution was the top-down, hierarchical and centralised “Red Army”. As the example of the Makhnovists showed, the “Red Army” was not the only way the Russian Revolution could have been defended although it was the only way Bolshevik power could be.

So while Anarchists have consistently argued that socialism must be based on working class self-management of production and society based on working class organisations, the Leninist tradition has not supported this vision (although it has appropriated some of its imagery to gain popular support). Clearly, in terms of the immediate aftermath of a revolution, anarchists and Leninists do not seek the same thing. The former want a free society organised and run from below-upwards by the working class based on workers self-management of production while the latter seek party power in a new state structure which would preside over an essentially state capitalist economy.

Lastly, there is the question of the long term goal. Even in this vision of a classless and stateless society there is very little in common between anarchist communism and Marxist communism, beyond the similar terminology used to describe it. This is blurred by the differences in terminology used by both theories. Marx and Engels had raised in the 1840s the (long term) goal of “an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all” replacing “the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms,” in the Communist Manifesto. Before this “vast association of the whole nation” was possible, the proletariat would be “raise[d] ... to the position of ruling class” and “all capital” would be “centralise[d] ... in the hands of the State, i.e. of the proletariat organised as the ruling class.” As economic classes would no longer exist, “the public power would lose its political character” as political power “is merely the organised power of one class for oppressing another.” [Selected Works, p. 53]

It was this, the means to the end, which was the focus of much debate. However, it cannot be assumed that the ends desired by Marxists and anarchists are identical. The argument that the “public power” could stop being “political” (i.e. a state) is a tautology, and a particularly unconvincing one at that. After all, if “political power” is defined as being an instrument of class rule it automatically follows that a classless society would have a non-political “public power” and so be without a state! This does not imply that a “public power” would no longer exist as a structure within (or, more correctly, over) society, it just implies that its role would no longer be “political” (i.e. an instrument of class rule). Given that, according to the Manifesto, the state would centralise the means of production, credit and transportation and then organise it “in accordance with a common plan” using “industrial armies, especially for agriculture” this would suggest that the state structure would remain even after its “political” aspects had, to use Engels words, “die[d] out.” [Marx and Engels, Op. Cit., pp. 52–3 and p. 424]

From this perspective, the difference between anarchist communism and Marxist-communism is clear. “While both,” notes John Clark, “foresee the disappearance of the state, the achievement of social management of the economy, the end of class rule, and the attainment of human equality, to mention a few common goals, significant differences in ends still remain. Marxist thought has inherited a vision which looks to high development of technology with a corresponding degree of centralisation of social institutions which will continue even after the coming of the social revolution... The anarchist vision sees the human scale as essential, both in the techniques which are used for production, and for the institutions which arise from the new modes of association ... In addition, the anarchist ideal has a strong hedonistic element which has seen Germanic socialism as ascetic and Puritanical.” [The Anarchist Moment, p. 68] Thus Marx presents “a formulation that calls not for the ultimate abolition of the State but suggests that it will continue to exist (however differently it is reconstituted by the proletariat) as a ‘nonpolitical’ (i.e., administrative) source of authority.” [Murray Bookchin, The Ecology of Freedom, p. 196fn]

Moreover, it is unlikely that such a centralised system could become stateless and classless in actuality. As Bakunin argued, in the Marxist state “there will be no privileged class. Everybody will be equal, not only from the judicial and political but also from the economic standpoint. This is the promise at any rate ... So there will be no more class, but a government, and, please note, an extremely complicated government which, not content with governing and administering the masses politically ... will also administer them economically, by taking over the production and fair sharing of wealth, agriculture, the establishment and development of factories, the organisation and control of trade, and lastly the injection of capital into production by a single banker, the State.” Such a system would be, in reality, “the reign of the scientific mind, the most aristocratic, despotic, arrogant and contemptuous of all regimes” base on “a new class, a new hierarchy of real or bogus learning, and the world will be divided into a dominant, science-based minority and a vast, ignorant majority.” [Michael Bakunin: Selected Writings, p. 266]

George Barrett’s words also seem appropriate:

“The modern Socialist ... have steadily worked for centralisation, and complete and perfect organisation and control by those in authority above the people. The anarchist, on the other hand, believes in the abolition of that central power, and expects the free society to grow into existence from below, starting with those organisations and free agreements among the people themselves. It is difficult to see how, by making a central power control everything, we can be making a step towards the abolition of that power.” [Objections to Anarchism, p. 348]

Indeed, by giving the state increased economic activities it ensures that this so-called “transitional” state grows with the implementation of the Marxist programme. Moreover, given the economic tasks the state now does it hardly makes much sense to assert it will “wither away” — unless you think that the centralised economic planning which this regime does also “withers away.” Marx argued that once the “abolition of classes” has “been attained” then “the power of the State ... disappears, and the functions of government are transformed into simple administrative functions.” [Marx, Engels and Lenin, Anarchism and Anarcho-Syndicalism, p. 76] In other words, the state apparatus does not “wither away” rather its function as an instrument of class rule does. This is an automatic result of classes themselves withering away as private property is nationalised. Yet as class is defined as being rooted in ownership of the means of production, this becomes a meaningless tautology. Obviously, as the state centralises the means of production into its own hands then (the existing) economic classes cease to exist and, as a result, the state “disappears.” Yet the power and size of the State is, in fact, increased by this process and so the elimination of economic classes actually increases the power and size of the state machine.

As Brain Morris notes, “Bakunin’s fears that under Marx’s kind of socialism the workers would continue to labour under a regimented, mechanised, hierarchical system of production, without direct control over their labour, has been more than confirmed by the realities of the Bolshevik system. Thus, Bakunin’s critique of Marxism has taken on an increasing relevance in the age of bureaucratic State capitalism.” [Bakunin: The Philosophy of Freedom, p. 132] Thus the “central confusions of Marxist political theorists” are found in the discussion on the state in The Communist Manifesto. If class is “an exclusively economic category, and if the old conditions of production are changed so that there is no longer any private ownership of the means of production, then classes no longer exist by definition when they are defined in terms of ... the private ownership of the means of production ... If Marx also defines ‘political power’ as ‘the organised power of one [economic] class for oppressing another’, then the ... argument is no more than a tautology, and is trivially true.” Unfortunately, as history has confirmed, “we cannot conclude ... if it is a mere tautology, that with a condition of no private ownership of the means of production there could be no ... dominant and subordinate strata.” [Alan Carter, Marx: A Radical Critique, p. 221 and pp. 221–2]

Unsurprisingly, therefore, anarchists are not convinced that a highly centralised structure (as a state is) managing the economic life of society can be part of a truly classless society. While economic class as defined in terms of ownership of the means of production may not exist, social classes (defined in terms of inequality of power, authority and control) will continue simply because the state is designed to create and protect minority rule. As Bolshevik and Stalinist Russia showed, nationalising the means of production does not end class society. As Malatesta argued:

“When F. Engels, perhaps to counter anarchist criticisms, said that once classes disappear the State as such has no raison d’être and transforms itself from a government of men into an administration of thing, he was merely playing with words. Whoever has power over things has power over men; whoever governs production also governs the producers; who determines consumption is master over the consumer.

“This is the question; either things are administered on the basis of free agreement of the interested parties, and this is anarchy; or they are administered according to laws made by administrators and this is government, it is the State, and inevitably it turns out to be tyrannical.

“It is not a question of the good intentions or the good will of this or that man, but of the inevitability of the situation, and of the tendencies which man generally develops in given circumstances.” [Errico Malatesta: His Life and Ideas, p. 145]

The anarchist vision of the future society, therefore, does not exactly match the state communist vision, as much as the latter would like to suggest it does. The difference between the two is authority, which cannot be anything but the largest difference possible. Anarchist economic and organisational theories are built around an anti-authoritarian core and this informs both our means and aims. For anarchists, the Leninist vision of socialism is unattractive. Lenin continually stressed that his conception of socialism and “state capitalism” were basically identical. Even in State and Revolution, allegedly Lenin’s most libertarian work, we discover this particularly unvisionary and uninspiring vision of “socialism”:

All citizens are transformed into the salaried employees of the state ... All citizens become employees and workers of a single national state ‘syndicate’ ... The whole of society will have become a single office and a single factory with equality of work and equality of pay.” [Essential Works of Lenin, p. 348]

To which, anarchists point to Engels and his comments on the tyrannical and authoritarian character of the modern factory. Clearly, Lenin’s idea of turning the world into one big factory takes on an extremely frightening nature given Engels’ lovely vision of the lack of freedom in the workplace.

For these reasons anarchists reject the simplistic Marxist analysis of inequality being rooted simply in economic class. Such an analysis, as the comments of Lenin and Engels prove, show that social inequality can be smuggled in by the backdoor of a proposed classless and stateless society. Thus Bookchin:

“Basic to anti-authoritarian Socialism — specifically, to Anarchist Communism — is the notion that hierarchy and domination cannot be subsumed by class rule and economic exploitation, indeed, that they are more fundamental to an understanding of the modern revolutionary project ... Power of human over human long antedates the very formation of classes and economic modes of social oppression. ... This much is clear: it will no longer do to insist that a classless society, freed from material exploitation, will necessarily be a liberated society. There is nothing in the social future to suggest that bureaucracy is incompatible with a classless society, the domination of women, the young, ethnic groups or even professional strata.” [Toward an Ecological Society, pp. 208–9]

Ultimately, anarchists see that “there is a realm of domination that is broader than the realm of material exploitation. The tragedy of the socialist movement is that, steeped in the past, it uses the methods of domination to try to ‘liberate’ us from material exploitation.” Needless to say, this is doomed to failure. Socialism “will simply mire us in a world we are trying to overcome. A non-hierarchical society, self-managed and free of domination in all its forms, stands on the agenda today, not a hierarchical system draped in a red flag.” [Bookchin, Op. Cit., p. 272 and pp. 273–4]

In summary, it cannot be said that anarchists and most Marxists want the same thing. While they often use the same terms, these terms often hide radically different concepts. Just because, say, anarchists and mainstream Marxists talk about “social revolution,” “socialism,” “all power to the soviets” and so on, it does not mean that we mean the same thing by them. For example, the phrase “all power to the soviets” for anarchists means exactly that (i.e. that the revolution must be directly managed by working class organs). Leninists mean “all power to a central government elected by a national soviet congress.” Similarly with other similar phrases (which shows the importance of looking at the details of any political theory and its history).

We have shown that discussion over ends is as important as discussion over means as they are related. As Kropotkin once pointed out, those who downplay the importance of discussing the “order of things which ... should emerge from the coming revolution” in favour of concentrating on “practical things” are being less than honest as “far from making light of such theories, they propagate them, and all that they do now is a logical extension of their ideas. In the end those words ‘Let us not discuss theoretical questions’ really mean: ‘Do not subject our theory to discussion, but help us to put it into execution.’” [Words of a Rebel, p. 200]

Hence the need to critically evaluate both ends and means. This shows the weakness of the common argument that anarchists and Leftists share some common visions and so we should work with them to achieve those common things. Who knows what happens after that? As can be seen, this is not the case. Many aspects of anarchism and Marxism are in opposition and cannot be considered similar (for example, what a Leninist considers as socialism is extremely different to what an anarchist thinks it is). If you consider “socialism” as being a “workers’ state” presided over by a “revolutionary” government, then how can this be reconciled with the anarchist vision of a federation of self-managed communes and workers’ associations? As the Russian Revolution shows, only by the armed might of the “revolutionary” government crushing the anarchist vision.

The only thing we truly share with these groups is a mutual opposition to existing capitalism. Having a common enemy does not make someone friends. Hence anarchists, while willing to work on certain mutual struggles, are well aware there is substantial differences in both terms of means and goals. The lessons of revolution in the 20th Century is that once in power, Leninists will repress anarchists, their current allies against the capitalist system. This is does not occur by accident, it flows from the differences in vision between the two movements, both in terms of means and goals.



Freedom – Equality – Solidarity


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