Socialist Worker

Marxism and Anarchism

Issue No. 1714

Marxism and Anarchism

THE GREAT revolt against capitalism in Seattle last year, and similar demonstrations since, have attracted diverse groups of protesters. Anarchists, amongst others, have taken part in all of those protests. Anarchism is generally taken to mean a rejection of all authority.

We live in a world of bullying line managers, petty school rules, oppressive police, and governments that serve the rich and powerful. Everyone who hates that has, at least at times, felt a streak of "anarchist" revolt against authority.

Anarchism, however, is more than a personal reaction against the tyrannies of capitalism. It is a set of political beliefs which have been held up as an alternative to the revolutionary socialist ideas of Karl Marx. Anarchist ideas have, on occasion, had a mass influence on movements against capitalism.

Socialists and anarchists share a hatred of capitalism. They have often fought alongside each other in major battles against the capitalist system. They struggled together in the Europe-wide mass strikes at the end of the First World War and the inspiring Spanish Revolution in 1936, as well as in countless smaller battles today.

But there are differences between revolutionary socialism and anarchism. Both understand the need for organisation but disagree over what form that organisation takes.

EVERY struggle, from a local campaign against housing privatisation to a mass strike of millions of workers, raises the need for organisation. People come together and need mechanisms for deciding what to do and how to do it.

Anarchism says that organisation has nothing to do with centralisation. For anarchism, any form of centralisation is a type of authority, which is oppressive. But arguing with someone to join a struggle, and trying to put forward tactics and ideas that can take it forward are attempts to lead.

It is no good people coming together in a struggle, discussing what to do and then doing just what they feel like as if no discussion had taken place. We always need to take the best ideas and act on them in a united way. Not all authority is bad. A picket line is "authoritarian". It tries to impose the will of the striking workers on the boss, the police and on any workers who may be conned into scabbing on the strike.

Big workers' struggles throw up an alternative form of authority to the capitalist state. Militant mass strikes throw up workers' councils. These are democratic bodies, like strike committees. But they take on organising "state functions"-transport, food distribution, defence of picket lines and workers' areas from the police and army, and so on.

Such councils were a feature of the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917, the German Revolution after the First World War, the Spanish Revolution of 1936, and many other great struggles. Socialists argue that these democratic workers' organisations need to take power from the capitalists and break up their state.

This happened in Russia in October 1917 in a revolution led by the Bolshevik Party. It did not happen in Spain in 1936. The CNT, a trade union heavily influenced by anarchist ideas, led a workers' uprising in the city of Barcelona that year. Workers' councils effectively ran the city.

But the capitalist state machine did not simply disappear. The government and its army, which was fighting against Franco's fascist forces, remained, although it had no authority in Barcelona.

The government even offered to hand power over to the leaders of the CNT. But the CNT believed that any form of state was wrong. It turned down the possibility of forming a workers' state, which could have broken the fascists' coup and the capitalist state.

Worse, it accepted positions in a government that was dominated by pro-capitalist forces. That government crushed workers' power in Barcelona, and in doing so fatally undermined the fight against fascism.

In different ways, the lessons of Russia and Spain are the same. THE organisational questions thrown up in particular struggles are critical when it comes to the working class challenging capitalism. Workers face conflicting pressures. On the one hand, they are forced to compete in the labour market. They feel powerless, as an individual, against the boss.

That is why workers can accept the bosses' view of the world. At the same time constant attacks on workers' conditions create a need for workers to unite and fight back together.

These two pressures mean workers' ideas are uneven. Some see through the bosses' lies. Others can be largely taken in. Most part accept and part reject capitalist ideas. The overall consciousness of the working class is always shifting. People become involved in struggles which lead them to break with pro-capitalist ideas.

So there is always a battle of ideas within the working class. That is why political organisation is crucial. Socialists seek to build a revolutionary party not only to try to spread the lessons from one struggle to another.

They also want to organise those people who most clearly reject capitalism into a force that can fight for their ideas inside the working class as a whole. Such a party is democratic because its members constantly debate what is happening in today's struggles and the lessons that can be applied from past ones.

It is also centralised, as it arrives at decisions which everyone acts on. Without unity around decisions there would be no democracy-minorities would simply ignore majority decisions.

Centralism is needed above all because the capitalist state is centralised. The police, media moguls, employers, the state bureaucracy and governments act in a concerted way to protect the system.

Protesters put up several roadblocks during the major anti-capitalist demonstration in Washington in April of this year. The police tried to clear them. The question arose of what the protesters should do.

Some wanted to try to maintain the roadblocks. Others thought the best tactic was to reorganise the protests into one demonstration. Instead of coming to a clear decision and acting on it, the key organiser of the whole event told people at each roadblock to do what they thought was right.

The resulting confusion weakened all the protests. The police, needless to say, did not "decentralise" their decision making. They coordinated across the city to break the protests.

ANARCHISTS SAY a revolutionary party is at best unnecessary and at worst another form of authoritarianism. But they cannot avoid the problems that a revolutionary party addresses. Anarchism's attempts to deal with them have been far less effective and less democratic.

All the major anarchist organisations in history have been centralised but have operated in secret. The 19th century theorist of anarchism Mikhail Bakunin's organisation had a hierarchy of committees, with half a dozen people at the top, which were not under the democratic control of its members.

The anarchist organisation inside the Spanish CNT, the FAI, was centralised and secret. A revolutionary party thrives on open debate and common struggle with wider groups of workers.

Anarchists instead look to spontaneous upsurges by workers. In the struggle anarchists will declare themselves and urge the workers on. They hope this will lead to the toppling of capitalism. History is full of mass struggles which have been able to win significant gains, but which have not had a clear leadership that can carry the struggle over to victory against capitalism.

When struggles have not spontaneously broken capitalism, anarchists have tended to end up blaming workers for being insufficiently revolutionary. So 19th century French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon started off talking of his "love of the people" but ended up saying he "despised" humanity because they had not overthrown capitalism.

The biggest anarchist groups today, the "autonomists" in Europe, treat workers who have not fully broken with capitalist ideas as an enemy rather than a potential ally. Many anarchists understand the way that capitalism works and organise to change the world. But their rejection of centralisation means that at critical moments their intervention in the struggle is fatally flawed.

The working class needs what anarchism rejects-a clear and determined revolutionary party which can lead the working class as a whole, and is not afraid to overthrow capitalism and set up a workers' state.


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Sat 16 Sep 2000, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1714
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