Issue 246 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published November 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review



The anti-capitalist movement throws up many questions on how a different world can be built. Anarchism can seem very appealing, but is it a road worthy vehicle for human liberation? Pat Stack takes a test drive
An anti-capitalist protester up against police lines in the city of London, June 1999
An anti-capitalist protester up against police lines in the city of London, June 1999

The recent anti-capitalist protests raise many crucial questions, one of the most important of which is the nature of revolutionary change and of revolutionary organisation. Many involved in the protests come against a background of the collapse and discrediting of Stalinist 'socialist' regimes, the failure of reformist 'socialist' governments, and the apparent growth of new forms of organisation and mobilisation such as the internet.

In such circumstances the politics of anarchism can seem attractive. No party, no rules, no state--this all seems very appealing. The liberation of the individual can sound so much nicer than the dictatorship of the proletariat. So surely Marxism has had its day?

These questions are serious ones for a young and angry movement, and therefore Marxists have to provide serious answers. This is not always easy to do because there are nearly as many 'anarchisms' as there are 'anarchists'. Nevertheless there are some key points of divergence between all major anarchist trends and Marxism. Marxists and anarchists share a desire to tear the head off the bourgeoisie, but differ over the key question of how.

To answer this it is neccesary to outline briefly the Marxist view of capitalism, revolutionary change and the role of the state. Marx was not the first to believe inequality was unfair or oppression bad. What he was able to do was to put forward a view of the world that was not merely utopian. He showed how materially a different world could be built. In this sense Marx understood the historically progressive role of capitalism, and he understood that the development of the productive forces under capitalism meant that the material basis for socialism could be laid.

If, for example, people starved under feudalism because of crop failure or climatic disaster, human beings had little answer to such vagaries of nature. Under capitalism, however, nobody need starve as enough food is produced to feed the world many times over. Capitalism has the potential to unleash huge advances for humanity. Too often, however, this potential is not fulfilled because capitalism subordinates everything to profit, to the accumulation of capital.

Capitalism also draws those who actually produce wealth together in large groups. It gives them class coherence and a shared interest in a way that no previously exploited class has had. Hence, Marx argues, capitalism produces its own gravedigger. The collective nature of the working class gives it both its strength and points to its method of struggle and ultimately to its liberation. To win advances on a day to day basis workers must fight collectively. To change the world they must organise collectively. Capitalism though always seeks to divide and weaken workers, to erase the history of class struggle and to emphasise differences. Therefore within the working class there is great unevenness--some have a very clear understanding of the class nature of society, of the class struggle and of the need for solidarity. Some have little or no understanding of these things, and all their actions stand in contradiction to their class interests.

Fraud and force

Between these two groups stand the great majority of workers, who have uneven consciousness, acting in their class interests at one moment and against them at others, showing solidarity in one instance, but falling prey to racism, sexism or another of the many divisions thrown at them in another instance. It was for these reasons that Lenin's development of a Marxist theory of the party was so important. He understood the need for a party which starts by organising the most class conscious sections of the class. This party must seek to further the interests of workers in the struggles of today, and creates the revolutionary change necessary in the future. Such a party will be democratic, because democracy is the means and method by which experience is pooled and action decided upon. Such a party will also be centralised, in the sense that once it has voted on a course of action then all its members will follow that course, or once it has decided on a principle all its members will adhere to that principle. This centralised unity is crucial if the centralised system it is challenging is to be smashed.

Key to this is understanding how the capitalists, who make up a small minority of society hold on to their power and privilege. They do so by a mixture of fraud and force. The fraud involves everything from arguments about human nature to encouraging patriotism and jingoism. They are employed to justify capitalism and to divert the eyes of the exploited from their exploitation, frequently towards even more downtrodden and oppressed groups as the source of all their problems. However, the fraud is not always enough--at times it is exposed and the exploited and oppressed fight back. In such circumstances the element of force becomes crucial. Hence the existence of a state apparatus-- the army, the police, the judiciary and so on.

These forces form part of a state which protects the existing order. Marxism sees that such a state cannot be transformed or adjusted, but has to be smashed by workers' revolution and replaced with organisations and structures created by workers out of their own struggles. Marxists also understand that capitalism will not hand over its power and privilege meekly, but will fight with every sinew of its being to first retain, and if necessary regain, its power. Therefore the workers will have to create their own state apparatus, but one that serves the interests of the great majority, not those of the tiny minority. Unlike the capitalist state which functions beyond the reach of popular control, this state will be democratic and participatory. Once workers have taken power they will set about the task of creating a new world free from exploitation and class struggle. With the disappearance of classes comes the withering away of the state and all methods of coercion. These then are the central tenets of the Marxist view of revolutionary change. It's within this context that the anarchist alternative has to be viewed, both in its theory and practice.

Anarchism, far from understanding the advances that capitalism represented, tended to take a wistful look back. Anarchism shares with Marxism an abhorrence of the horrors of capitalism, but yearns for what has gone before. It despises the collectivity that Marx saw as the midwife of change, ignores material conditions, and sees the process of change almost as an act of will, regardless of circumstance.

By dismissing the importance of the collective nature of change anarchism, of necessity, downplays the centrality of a working class. This led Marx to dub Proudhon, the founder of modern anarchism, as 'the socialist of the small peasant or master craftsman'. Proudhon is best remembered for his statement that 'all property is theft'. Ironically, in his yearning for the past and his failure to understand the nature of capitalism, Proudhon was to come to see property in a very different light. He began to see private property as a bulwark against state tyranny. Here Proudhon was laying the basis for the idea that dominates anarchist thought, namely that the state is the main enemy, rather than identifying the state as one aspect of a class society that has to be destroyed. Therefore he was to argue that property is 'liberal, federalist, decentralising, republican, egalitarian, progressive and just'.

Similarly, the Russian anarchist leader Bakunin argued that it was the progress of capitalism that represented the fundamental problem. For him industrialisation was an evil. He believed it had created a decadent western Europe, and therefore had held up the more primitive, less industrialised Slav regions as the hope for change.

Propaganda of the deed

Peter Kropotkin, another famous anarchist leader to emerge in Russia, also looked backwards for change. He believed the ideal society would be based on small autonomous communities, devoted to small scale production. He had witnessed such communities among Siberian peasants and watchmakers in the Swiss mountains.

For all three anarchists, revolutions were not about material conditions, collective struggle or advance but were rather about acts of will or 'propaganda of the deed', as anarchists used to describe some of their more violent actions.

Because anarchists dismiss the importance of material reality, events such as the 1921 Kronstadt rising against the Bolshevik government in Russia can become a rallying cry. The revolutionary Victor Serge was not uncritical of the Bolshevik handling of the rising, but he poured scorn on anarchist claims for it when he wrote, 'The third revolution it was called by certain anarchists whose heads were stuffed by infantile delusions.'

This third revolution, it was argued, would follow the first one in February 1917 and the second in October. The second had swept away the attempts to create capitalist power, had given land to the peasants and had extracted Russia from the horrible imperialist carnage of the First World War. The revolution had introduced a huge literacy programme, granted women abortion rights, introduced divorce and accepted the rights of the various Russian republics to self determination. It had done so, however, against a background of a bloody and horrendous civil war where the old order tried to regain power. Sixteen imperialist powers sent armies against the regime, and trade embargoes were enforced.

Russian workers on the march in Petrograd, 1917
Russian workers on the march in Petrograd, 1917

The reality of such actions caused huge suffering throughout Russia. The regime was deprived of raw materials and fuel, transportation networks were destroyed, and the cities began running out of food. By 1919 the regime only had 10 percent of the fuel that was available in 1917, and the production of iron ore in the same year stood at 1.6 percent of that in 1914. By 1921 Petrograd had lost 57 percent of its population and Moscow 44.5 percent. Workers were either dead, on the frontline of the civil war, or were fleeing the starvation of the city. The force that had made the revolution possible was being decimated.

In such circumstances, in order to feed the workers, food had to be requisitioned from the peasants. In 1917 the peasants had enthusiastically supported the revolution, and as long as the threat of the old regime regaining power seemed immediate they put up with the food requisitions, albeit with growing discontent. Once the threat of the old order seemed to recede, anger with the revolutionary government began to grow rapidly. Lenin, the leader of the revolutionary regime, understood entirely the material nature of the Kronstadt rising. 'It was'. he said, 'the flash that lit up reality better than anything else.' Yet what could any 'third revolution' do, and who would gain from it?

The choice facing the regime in Russia was either to crush the uprising and save the revolution, or surrender to the rising and allow the forces of reaction to march in on their back. There was no material basis for a third way. A destroyed economy and infrastructure, a population faced with starvation and bloody war, and a hostile outside world were not circumstances in which the revolution could move forward. Great efforts would have to be made to solve these problems. There were no overnight solutions and preserving the revolutionary regime was crucial. Ultimately real solutions could only be found if the revolution were to spread internationally, but in the meantime to have any chance of success the regime had to survive. Only the right and the imperialist powers would have benefited from its destruction.

The central demand of the Kronstadt rising though was 'soviets without Bolsheviks'--in other words, the utter destruction of the workers' state. That is why even those who were critical of the Bolshevik regime at the time were unequivocal in their opposition to the rising. Many members of the Workers' Opposition faction within the Bolshevik Party, who had criticisms of the lack of democracy within the regime, were amongst the first to volunteer to take arms against the rising. Hence Victor Serge, despite his criticisms, explained that if the Bolsheviks fell 'it was only a short step to chaos, and through chaos a peasant rising, the massacre of the communists, the return of the émigrés, and in the end, through the sheer force of events, another dictatorship, this time anti-proletarian'. Even the anarchist sympathiser Avrich was able to recognise that Kronstadt 'presents a situation in which the historian can sympathise with the rebels and still concede that the Bolsheviks were justified in subduing them. To recognise this indeed is to grasp the full tragedy of Kronstadt'. Indeed , as Lenin explained of the rebels, 'they don't want the White guards or our government but there are no other choices'.

Anarchist intellectuals Bakunin(top), Kropotkin(middle), Proudhon(bottom)
Anarchist intellectuals Bakunin(top), Kropotkin(middle), Proudhon(bottom)

Instinctive socialism?

As for the forces of reaction, it is interesting to see what they had to say of the events. Miliukov, an arch-opponent of the regime, wrote, 'I am not sure whether the shift is to the right or the left, but I will support the slogan "soviets without Bolsheviks". Let us lay low and be patient. Our hour is coming.' The right wing saw Kronstadt as their opportunity and they would have had little problem with the slogan of the anarchist group Hurricane Death: 'Death to civilisation. Take up your axes and destroy every thing in sight. The Bolshevik dictatorship is the worst tyranny in history.'

The working class would have paid a huge price if the Kronstadt uprising had not been surpressed, yet the anarchists appear incapable of seeing this. In part this failure is a reflection of the failure of anarchism to understand the centrality of the working class itself. For Marx, the working class would change the world and in the process change itself. It would become the agent for social advance and human liberty. For Bakunin, who claimed a purely 'instinctive socialism', skilled artisans and organised factory workers, far from being the source of the destruction of capitalism, were 'tainted by pretensions and aspirations'. Instead Bakunin looked to those cast aside by capitalism, those most damaged, brutalised and marginalised. The lumpen proletariat, the outlaws, the 'uncivilised, disinherited, illiterate', as he put it, would be his agents for change.

In his Memoirs of a Revolutionary Victor Serge precisely identifies these groups as the suppliers of police spies and anti-revolutionary mobs. Therefore where Marx saw liberation as a 'festival of the oppressed' , Bakunin saw 'the infuriated mob driven by instinctive passion for revenge'. And the anachist Peter Kropotkin, far from seeing class conflict as the dynamic for social change as Marx did, saw cooperation being at the root of the social process. He believed the cooperation of what he termed 'mutual aid' was the natural order, which was disrupted by centralised states. Indeed in everything from public walkways and libraries through to the Red Cross, Kropotkin felt he was witnessing confirmation that society was moving towards his mutual aid, prevented only from completing the journey by the state. It follows that if class conflict is not the motor of change, the working class is not the agent and collective struggle not the means. Therefore everything from riot to bomb, and all that might become between the two, was legitimate when ranged against the state, each with equal merit.

It follows that if class is not the key to change, neither is it the key to organisation. Anarchism rejects the notion of a revolutionary party from two different directions. The first is to dismiss democratic centralism as undemocratic, sowing the seeds of dictatorship and stifling the will of the individual.

The problem is not just that these criticisms are wrong, but how otherwise do revolutionaries organise? Apart from the serious efforts of anarcho-syndicalists to grapple with this problem, anarchists have failed to pose any serious alternative. In as much as they do, they have produced either the ineffective, the elitist or the downright bizarre. Bakunin's organisation, the Alliance of Social Democracy', managed all three: 'The organisation had two overlapping forms, one secret, involving only the "intimates", and one public, the Alliance of Social Democracy. Even in its open, public mode, the alliance was to be a highly centralised organisation, with all decisions on the national level approved by the Central Committee. Since it was the real controlling body, the secret organisation was even more tightly centralised...with first a Central Committee, then a "central Geneva section" acting as the "permanent delegation of the permanent Central Committee", and, finally, within the central Geneva section a "Central Bureau", which was to be both the "executive power...composed of three, or five, or even seven members" of the secret organisation and the executive directory of the public organisation.'

That this was far more elitist and less democratic than Lenin's model is clear, but what of the anarcho-syndicalists? They tended to look to the spontaneity and anti-statism of anarchism, the economic and materialist analysis of Marxism, and the organisational tools of trade unionism. Practically every serious anarchist organisation came from or leant on this tradition. The IWW (Wobblies) in the United States, the CNT in Spain and the CGT in France all claimed anarcho-syndicalist roots and influences. The huge advantage they had over other anarchists was their understanding of the power of the working class, the centrality of the point of production (the workplace) and the need for collective action.

Despite this, however, there were flaws to their understanding which were crucial. Firstly, they tended to dismiss political action. Although they were intensely political, they felt that 'political questions' would be resolved by industrial struggle. Similarly they believed that because the wealth of the capitalists lay at the point of production, if you beat them there then all the other elements, the financial institutions, trade, and most crucially the state, became powerless. If pure anarchism could only see the power of the state, anarcho-syndicalism tended only to see its impotence. Win at the factory gates and the rest would follow, or as one leading Wobbly put it, 'Less a seizure of power, more a ceding of it.'

Revolution betrayed

This question of state power, and which class holds it, was to prove crucial for revolutionaries during the Spanish Civil War and in particular during the revolutionary upheavals in Catalonia. Here anarchism faced its greatest test and greatest opportunity, yet it failed the former and therefore missed the latter.

When the government in the region under the leadership of Companys admitted its impotence and offered to dissolve, effectively handing power to the revolutionary forces, the anarchists turned them down. CNT leader and FAI [the leading Spanish anarchist organisation] militant Garcia Oliver explained, 'The CNT and the FAI decided on collaboration and democracy, renouncing revolutionary totalitarianism which would lead to the strangulation of the revolution by the anarchist and Confederal dictatorship. We had to choose, between Libertarian Communism, which meant anarchist dictatorship, and democracy, which meant collaboration.' The choice was between leaving the state intact and paving the way for Franco's victory or building a workers' government in Catalonia which could act as a focal point for the defeat of Franco and the creation of the structures of a new workers' state. In choosing the former the anarchists were refusing to distinguish between a capitalist state and a workers' state.

Having refused to create a workers' government, the anarchists were to compound the error by eventually serving in the Popular Front government, with four anarchists becoming ministers. Once this compromise had been made folly followed upon folly. The anarchists appealed for an end to street fighting, stood by while revolutionaries were persecuted, allowed for the dissolution of the militia, and recognised the state! The movement that started by refusing to build a workers' state ended up by recognising a capitalist one and betraying the revolution in the process.

Interestingly the one Spanish anarchist group that developed the most sophisticated critique of all this was the Friends of Durutti. As Felix Morrow points out, 'They represented a conscious break with the anti-statism of traditional anarchism. They explicitly declared the need for democratic organs of power, juntas or soviets, in the overthrow of capitalism, and the necessary state measures of repression against the counter-revolution.' The failure of the Spanish anarchists to understand exactly that these were the stark choices--workers' power, or capitalist power followed by reaction--are mirrored by anarchist attitudes to the Kronstadt uprising. The most important lesson that these two events show us is that whatever ideals and gut instincts individual anarchists may have, anarchism, both in word and deed, fails to provide a roadworthy vehicle for human liberation. Only Marxism, which sees the centrality of the working class under the leadership of a political party, is capable of leading the working class to victory.

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