Marxism vs. Anarchism

*This article is a slightly edited version of an article run by Socialist Action’s Fourth International comrades in the British newspaper Socialist Resistance.

In the worldwide movement for social justice, many young people are attracted by the ideas of anarchism – even if they don’t call themselves anarchists. Anarchists seem to stand for the same thing we Marxists do – a classless society, a self-organized and self-managed society – what we often sum up with the phrase ‘workers’ power’. Like us, many anarchists say they stand for revolution. No bosses, no police, social equality, no rich and no nuclear bombs. People not profit.
If we stand for the same goal, the same objectives as them, what’s the difference? Why the hostility between Marxists and anarchists?

There are two fundamental differences. The first is the party, the second is the state. Anarchists are against forming a political party; we say the working class needs a political party to lead the struggle against capitalism. Why do we insist on the formation of a revolutionary political party?

Let’s look at what happened in Russia in 1917. The deprivations of world war had driven millions of workers to hostility against the Russian state and capitalists. Millions of peasants, held in semi-feudal bondage, demanded land and freedom. During and after the first revolution (February 1917) the workers set up their own organizations to try to govern – the soviets.

But a pro-capitalist government continued to exist, the Provisional Government. Between February and October the most consistent revolutionary party, the Bolsheviks led by Lenin and Trotsky, grew by tens of thousands. This party was able to lead the soviets to take power and overthrow the Provisional Government.

History has shown many examples of the self-organization of the workers, of workers and peasants councils being established. But many political trends exist within them. The most consistent revolutionaries need to organize to give leadership, to fight for a perspective of taking power.

Another example is Spain in 1936-7. When the fascists attempted to seize power with the army, the workers set up their own workers councils. In Catalonia, with Barcelona at its center, the workers collectivized businesses and brought them under their own control. However, on the anti-fascist side, there were important pro-capitalist parties, supported by the Stalinist Communist party, who said “first fight the fascists, leave aside socialism till later”.

In Catalonia, a Popular Front government was set up with pro-capitalist parties. The CNT anarchists, the biggest anarchist movement in the world, joined the government!

They showed they were completely confused about the question of power. Like the Communists, they didn’t understand the best way to defeat the fascists was to carry through the revolution, undercutting the fascist mass base in the countryside. No consistent revolutionary force existed to give alternative leadership.

Isn’t the idea of leadership authoritarian and bureaucratic? This is a key slogan of the anarchists – “we reject all leadership”. When Marxists talk about leadership they are not talking about a group of wise individuals leading the movement, but something more straightforward and obvious. Whenever we give out a leaflet, propose a resolution in a trade union, organize a demonstration or produce a newspaper, we are engaged in giving leadership.

However, we say the revolutionaries, the consistent socialists, need to organize together to work out collectively and democratically how to fight against the bosses, the state and the right wing in the labor movement. This may seem obvious in a trade union or a student group, but Marxists say that the socialists have to do it at a national level, and if possible, internationally. If we leave things to happen ‘spontaneously’, we will organize ourselves at a local level, the right wing will organize nationally and always beat us.

We need a nationally coordinated organization, a party. It is not true that political parties are always undemocratic and authoritarian. Often anarchist movements are much more undemocratic than socialist parties, because they lack the democratic procedures to make majority decisions. Instead you get the ‘tyranny of structurelessness’ – where the best speakers (or the loudest!), those with the best informal clique links, are able to manipulate and dominate the movement. When you have formless movements, you don’t have accountability, regular elections or a collective overview of whether decisions have been implemented.


Anarchists are opposed to standing in elections, or supporting any political party. Since parliamentary capitalism is undemocratic, they refuse to participate. This is called cutting off your nose to spite your face. Fighting elections, or even getting people elected, is an important way to get our ideas known and expose the capitalists.

Socialists have no illusions in capitalist parliaments. The example of the military coup in Chile in 1973 showed – one of many examples – that if an elected left wing government goes ‘too far’ the capitalists will attempt to remove it by force. What counts is not a left wing parliamentary majority, but the workers taking power through their own organizations. But if that happens, what happens next?

The State 

We want to abolish the state, but it can’t happen on the day after the revolution. The system we want – a worker’s government and worker’s power – means the people deciding themselves at local level how to run their cities, their transport systems, their communities, and of course their workplaces. This will require workplaces and community councils, modern forms of soviets.

However, the slogan ‘think local, act local’ is not enough for workers power. In addition, the local institutions of democracy need to co-ordinate themselves at a regional and national level, to take the big decisions about how to build socialism nationally and internationally. The anarchists can’t answer one crucial question. On day one of the revolution, the workers in power will face many enemies, at home and abroad. Frederick Engels, who together with Karl Marx founded modern socialism, called the state fundamentally “a body of armed men” (police, the army etc).

Revolution in the U.S. would require our own bodies of armed people – workers’ militias, nationally coordinated, to fight off imperialism and defeat attempts at armed counter-revolution. If radicals say they are anarchists we should ask them this – ‘are you revolutionary or reformist?’ If they say they are ‘revolutionary’ we should ask them this – ‘are you serious’? If the answer to both is ‘yes’, there is a logical conclusion. You need an organization, national and if possible international, democratically organized, uniting workers, students, home makers, unemployed, retired people, black people and white people, gay and straight, young and old around a common goal, able to work together on a consistent long-term basis for an alternative society – for revolution: a Marxist, revolutionary, working class party.

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