Socialist Worker

Is anarchism more radical than socialism?

Pat Stack makes the case for revolutionary Marxism rather than anarchism as the way of bringing about a better society

Issue No. 2260

Over the past few months we have witnessed a surge in political activity against Con-Dem government policies. Many of those coming new to the struggle will be asking questions—about the injustices being committed, but also about the whole capitalist system.

For those wanting to smash the system, as opposed to those who want to reform it, there will be two main alternatives—revolutionary Marxism or anarchism.

On the face of it there would appear to be much that is appealing about anarchist ideas.

A struggle waged with no leaders and no parties, and bringing about a society with no state and no rules, would seem to fit perfectly with acts of rebellion.

But if we want to rid ourselves of this rotten capitalist system we need to look beyond the superficially attractive, and try to understand just how such change can be brought about.

There are many different anarchist theories and practices that often appeal to people for quite diverse reasons.

So for some there is an exhilarating freedom in just taking action without waiting for the right conditions—just smash that bank window, clobber that cop.

For others there can be the very different appeal of “consensus”. Here voting in protests, such as student occupations, is banned because it is seen as coercive—majorities imposing their will on minorities.

Despite the variation of anarchist ideas and theories, there are four main areas of difference with revolutionary socialists: how the struggle is developed and led, the role of leadership, the role of the revolutionary party and the role of the state.


To understand how society can be changed we need to look back at Karl Marx’s view of capitalism.

Unlike the leading anarchists of the 19th century, Marx recognised the progress capitalism represented.

For the first time systems of production existed that created the potential for a society without fear of poverty, starvation and hopelessness.

For instance, if droughts brought about famine under feudalism, people starved because there simply wasn’t enough to eat.

Under capitalism enough food is produced many times over—there is nothing “natural” about the disasters that people in various parts of Africa and Asia face today.

But Marx went on to explain that this potential could never be fulfilled because capitalist society subordinates everything to profit.

He also understood that by drawing together large numbers of workers to make profits for them, the capitalists were potentially creating their own gravedigger—a working class that could only move forward if it moved forward collectively.

The key question then was how this class could be organised to challenge the system.

On the face of it, such change should be easy—the working class are many, the capitalists few.

Yet capitalism has lasted a long time. The capitalists retain their power through a combination of force and fraud.

The fraud takes many forms.

The greed of capitalism is portrayed as human nature.

We are told that capitalism is as good as it gets, and that there have to be rulers and ruled.

We are also continually being urged to turn our anger on each other in a variety of ways—skin colour, nationality, sexuality and gender are all used to divide us.

Workers in the private sector are told to blame workers in the public sector, the low paid to blame those on benefits and the unemployed to blame immigrants.

A consistent minority of workers reject all such fraud.

They see their class interests and their class enemies clearly and believe workers of the world should unite against the global system.

A consistent minority accept the fraud completely—they buy into the racism, scab on every occasion and always vote Tory or to the right of the Tories.

In the middle lie the majority who at times act in the interests of their class and at times fall for the fraud.

For Marxists the key to changing the world is the ability of the class conscious minority to win over the vast majority to act in their own interests.

This is what we mean by leadership.

This is not an important person giving orders or making grand pronouncements, but the most advanced sections of the class winning the majority.

For many anarchists such concepts of leadership are seen as elitist.

Yet in reality it is much more elitist for a self-appointed group of activists to carry out actions regardless of whether they are taking wider forces with them.

Leadership does however mean battling for ideas.

In every struggle there will be arguments about the way forward and about the right demands—and out of such conflicts comes clarity.

Consensus in such situations can only mean one of two things.

Either we work only with those who already agree with us, cutting ourselves off from the wider audience we want to draw into struggle. Or we only travel at the pace of the most cautious, limiting our ability to carry the struggle forward.


The question that arises out of this is how do the most advanced workers organise themselves to win the allegiance of the majority?

Here, the question of the revolutionary party becomes key.

Revolutionary Marxist parties are not like mainstream political parties.

They are not concerned about winning elections, dining with the Murdochs to win over the media or watering down their politics to gain popularity.

They are not made up of passive members dictated to by important leaders.

They are organised democratically and they act in a centralised way.

Democracy in a revolutionary party means the coming together of members to understand the world and debate a strategy.

It is vital to the possible success of the party.

And the centralism—unity in action—that comes out of this democracy is essential against a highly centralised and powerful class enemy.

For anarchists, the question of organisation remains a largely unanswered one.

Historically, organisation is either rejected outright or attempts to build it have floundered because of its loose and confused nature, or conversely because of the building of conspiratorial and elitist formations.

If fraud is one key weapon in capitalism’s armoury, the other is force.

The capitalist state is highly organised. The police, judiciary, armed forces and leading echelons of the civil service are not neutral—their role is to defend the status quo.

In periods where capitalists are losing the battle for ideas, force becomes more and more important.

The bosses will not surrender their wealth, power and privilege just because we have voted for them to do so.

They will fight to the death to defend their system. That is why they will have to be overthrown by force.

Here the question of violence is important. The system is violent in so many different ways. Millions have died in its wars, suffer torture and imprisonment, and experience the casual violence that daily exploitation brings.

So we should take no lectures from their media or politicians about violence.

At the same time we have to ensure that we take the widest possible forces with us in our actions.

Small elitist groups carrying out acts that make no sense to the majority who support their cause are likely to leave those supporters confused and demobilised.

If such elitist actions have a demobilising effect, then they do the class struggle real damage.

There is also another difference.

While Marxists see the state as an apparatus that acts to protect the class system, anarchists tend to see it as the enemy in and of itself. This can lead to utter confusion.

The father of anarchism, French socialist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, is most famous for stating that “all property is theft”.

But his alternative to the growing power of big capitalist firms was to look to small-scale production linked by a network of exchange of goods and services.

Proudhon went on to see private property as a bulwark against the “real enemy”—the state. He ended up describing private property as “Liberal, Centralist, Decentralising, Republican, Egalitarian, Progressive and Just”.

This view of the state leads anarchists to reject not just the capitalist state, but post-revolutionary workers’ states that would be necessary to defend the revolution against its capitalist enemies.

Revolutionary socialists and anarchists share a hatred of the current system and all the misery it brings.

However, how we end that misery and change the world is the key to our differences.

When it comes to questions of leadership, organisation and the state, the superficially attractive appeal of anarchism fails to provide a coherent strategy to change the world.

Marxism and Anarchism by Paul Blackledge in the International Socialism journal issue 125. Go to

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Tue 12 Jul 2011, 17:04 BST
Issue No. 2260
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