Marxism versus Anarchism

Robbie Mahood

[Presented as on line educational sponsored by Ligue pour l’action socialiste (LAS)/Socialist Action/Canada. Montréal, April 23, 2021. SA/LAS is Socialist Action/USA sister party in the Canadian state]

The last few decades have seen a resurgence in anarchist thought and modes of organizing inspired by anarchism.  Decisions by consensus, diversity of tactics, affinity groups, and minority direct action are all borrowed from the anarchist playbook.

Much of this influence has been counterproductive in my view. But at the end of the day, anarchism’s purchase on the imagination of many radicalizing youth has to find an explanation in material conditions and in history. 

Origins of the Anarchist Current

As a modern term, anarchism’s origins go back to the French Revolution of 1789.  The ruling classes of Europe reacted in horror to the revolutionary events unfolding in Paris. Anarchy to them meant unthinkable chaos and disorder with  attacks on their privileges and autocratic power. They hoped to stir up fear and panic and turn it against the revolt from below.    

However, anarchy had the opposite connotation for those inspired by the Revolution.   One of England’s romantic poets, Percy Bysshe Shelley,   commemorated the 1819 Peterloo Massacre in Manchester, with a multi-stanza work he entitled, “The Mask of Anarchy”. The famous last verse, urging mass revolt against an oppressive order, was regularly recited by Jeremy Corbyn at rallies during his short-lived tenure as leader of the British Labour Party.

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865) was the first to declare himself an anarchist. A printer by trade and a self-taught intellectual, his 1840 book “On Property”,  popularized  the slogan, “Property is theft”, and created a sensation in France. To be sure, he meant the property of the rich.  Proudhon actually defended the right of small artisans and trades people to possess their own dwellings, land and tools that they needed to work and live.

 His program reflected the viewpoint of this stratum of self-sufficient petty proprietors. He saw the state in its role as a regulator rather than as an organ of class power. The state should be abolished and replaced by a decentralised federation based on free contractual relations between independent artisans. Proudhon opposed both working class political action and unions. 

In a second treatise, “The Philosophy of Poverty”,  he rejected communism for  what he termed ‘Mutualism’. This spurred the young Karl Marx to write a spirited reply which he titled, with intentional irony, “The Poverty of Philosophy”.

If any of you have seen Raul Peck’s  film, “The Young Marx”, you may remember the scenes where Marx challenges Proudhon and his acolytes for their moral rather than scientific critique of capitalism and their allergy to the state and political parties. If the film has escaped your attention, I highly recommend it.

The First International and After

Under the influence of Marx and Engels, the  First International, founded in 1864,  affirmed that the great duty of the working classes was to conquer political power. Against this  position was an anarchist minority led by the Russian aristocrat, Mikhail Bakunin, who wanted nothing to do with “the state in general” whatever its class character and therefore was adamantly opposed to political action. Marx and Engels regarded anarchism, first with Proudhon then with Bakunin,  as  an alien petit-bourgeois current in the working class movement, that would vacillate between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. 

The dispute between Marx with Engels and Bakunin paralyzed  the First International, leading to its dissolution in 1874. It was replaced by the Second International, which made rapid gains, especially in Germany, where the SPD (German Social Democratic Party) became a mass party of the working class.

Anarchist ideas of federalism and mutualism, however, established significant influence in France. And Bakunin-style anarchism found fertile ground in southern and eastern Europe as well as in the Americas. 

In the latter half of the 19th century, newly minted anarchists committed to the propaganda of the deed chalked up many attempts and quite a few successful assassinations of members of Europe’s royal families and prominent capitalist politicians of the day. 

Lenin’s elder brother, Sacha Ulyanov, active in the anarcho-populist Narodnaya Volya or Narodnik movement, was executed in 1887 for his involvement in a failed plot to kill Czar Alexander III.  King Umberto I of Italy fell to an assassin’s bullet in 1900. And, US President, William McKinley was shot by an anarchist in 1901.

After McKinley’s assassination, his fellow Republican, Theodor Roosevelt,  declared: “compared to the suppression of anarchy, every other question sinks into insignificance.” Such anarcho-hysteria became a staple of the capitalist propaganda machine and was used to justify repression of the entire labour movement.

But while displaying an intermittent enthusiasm for terrorism, anarchism also found new roots in the burgeoning proletariat to which it was forced to adapt. What emerged was a fusion of anarchism and syndicalism, a kind of re-branding if you like. Anarcho-syndicalism abandoned its hostility to strikes and unions while retaining the traditional anarchist antipathy to political parties or running in  elections. 

The Wobblies

The IWW (International Workers of the World) was the foremost example of the militant anarcho-syndicalism that spread rapidly throughout the US and Canada  in the years prior to the First WW. The ‘Wobblies” (so-called) were indefatigable soap-boxers and itinerant organizers. They led important strikes of the largely immigrant industrial working class across North America, from women textile workers in Massachusetts and New Jersey, to miners and lumber workers in the West. They were often the target of violent repression by the bosses and the state with several martyrs to the cause.

The landmark John Sayles film, Matewan, re-creating an actual strike in the Appalachian coal fields, casts a young Chris Cooper in the role of a roving IWW type organizer who arrives in town to lead a multi-racial workforce locked in a violent struggle with the mining companies. 

The IWW lives on in the mythology of the labour movement and for good reason. But its shortcomings are often ignored. It had three major weaknesses:

First was its policy of dual unionism. It kept its distance from the rest of the labour movement that had more conservative methods and objectives. As a result, it was usually left to fight heroic but often losing battles on its own.

Secondly, it was a loose, unstructured movement, that could not mount a united response to the fierce state repression that came down on the socialist left during and after the First WW. Nor did it campaign consistently against this imperialist war, as did Eugene Debs of the American Socialist Party

And finally, the IWW and revolutionary anarcho-syndicalism as a whole, was not prepared for the electrifying news from Russia at the close of 1917. There, a mass disciplined party carried out a revolution in the name of workers councils or Soviets that did not abolish the state but instead, transformed its class character. 

   This flew in the face of anarchist doctrine.  After 1917, many wobblies joined  the Communist and Socialist parties. It must be said that there had always been  a significant overlap between revolutionary syndicalism and the socialism  promulgated by Marx and his followers. Most of the Chicago Haymarket martyrs, for instance, identified simultaneously with anarchism and socialism.

  In summary, despite its success in industrial organizing, the IWW lacked the strategic understanding of the need for a parallel struggle for working class power in the political arena. 

Anarchism and the Bolshevik Revolution 

Anarchism played a double-edged role in the Russian Revolution and the consolidation of the infant Soviet Republic. The anarchist-led sailors of the Kronstadt naval base were stalwarts of the revolution. But in 1921, when the country was exhausted from a brutal civil war and widespread starvation, the anarchists led a revolt at Kronstadt which was crushed by a volunteer Bolshevik army, after a desperate battle in the depths of winter. Likewise, during the civil war, the peasant guerilla leader, Nestor Makhno, initially allied with the Reds against the counter-revolutionary Whites but later fought an ultimately losing war against the Red Army to defend his autonomous peasant base in Ukraine.

Kronstadt and the Makhnovite insurgency are to this day, anti-Bolshevik rallying cries for the anarchist movement.  For anarchists they establish the continuity running from the bolshevism of Lenin and Trotsky to Stalinism. In this respect, the anarchist position is virtually indistinguishable from that of western anti-communist liberals and right wing social democrats.

It is to their credit that some anarchists moved into the Marxist camp after 1917. Victor Serge coming from the anarchist left, declared for the Bolshevik revolution. and later joined the Left Opposition to oppose the Stalinist counter-revolution. It was Serge who originated the evocative term, ‘Midnight of the Century’, referring to the twin defeats suffered by the working class , that of Nazism and Stalinism. 


Anarchism established mass influence in Spain, concentrated in the nascent industrial working class of Catalunya and the agricultural proletariat of Andalusia.

Spain experienced a revolutionary upsurge in the mid- 1930’s, culminating in mass factory occupations and confiscation of large estates and enterprises. There was a radical land distribution in the countryside. The anarchists were in a commanding position in Barcelona, the epicentre of this mass uprising.

Yet, in 1937, at the crucial moment when power had effectively passed into the hands of workers and poor peasants, the leadership of the large anarchist organizations drew back and ceded power to the bourgeoisie and its Stalinist allies. They could not countenance the formation of a state based on a new class power. In the end, they even joined the bourgeois republican government and were active participants in the demobilization and violent repression of revolutionary workers and rural labourers who did not want to abandon their gains. At that moment, the struggle to defeat Franco was lost. The result: 36 years of a fascist dictatorship.

  The young George Orwell was an eyewitness to the crushing of the Barcelona commune, supported by the anarchist leadership and coordinated by Spanish Stalinists following Moscow’s orders. This is vividly described in his well known memoir, “Homage to Catalonia”.

Another great film that gets to the heart of the tragic defeat in Spain is “Land and Freedom”by the British director, Ken Loach.

Anarchism, for all its grand posturing of abolishing the state, displayed its ambiguous class nature when put to the test in Spain.

It is true that a small minority refused to go along with the official anarchist organizations, the Friends of Durruti and others. Unfortunately, their weight was insufficient to alter the course set by their leaders. 

Anarchism: Contemporary Resurgence?

Anarchism has once more asserted its influence in our own time. The collapse of the Soviet Union, the Chinese bureaucracy’s turn to capitalism, the wholesale retreat by the trade union and social democratic leaderships and the weakening of the revolutionary left led to a decline in Marxist influence. The result was a  political vacuum on the left, that at the end of the 20th and into the 21st century, anarchism was able to fill.

It offered a reference point for the anti-globalization movement and various autonomist currents such as the Zapatistas who offered the prospect of radical, anti-capitalist and even revolutionary change without seizing power.

The Occupy Movement of 2011 was arguably the most advanced expression of this anarchist influenced trend, coming on the heels of the 2008 financial meltdown and buoyed up by the Arab Spring and the Movement of the Squares in Spain and other European countries.

The late David Graeber was a talented anarchist intellectual and activist who served as an unofficial leader of Occupy Wall Street, the New York epicentre of the occupy movement. He coined the slogan “We are the 99%” and successfully advocated   for anarchist principles and organizing methods in the Occupy movement. This was reflected in Occupy’s refusal to make political demands, its occupation of parks or other marginal spaces, assemblies run by consensus and deferral to autonomous affinity groups when it was not possible to reach consensus (never voting by majority rule).

What is the legacy of the Occupy movement? 

Daniel Taylor of Socialist Alternative, Australia (not to be confused with the group in the U.S. and Canada with the same name) recently penned a critique of Occupy published in SA’s journal, Red Flag. His own radicalization came through his involvement in the Occupy movement in Melbourne. He offers some important insights into the movement and Graeber’s role.

  Graeber argued that Occupy’s success was because of, not despite, its anarchist principles. By refusing to make demands, Occupy  refused to recognize the legitimacy of the existing political order. In Graeber’s words:  “Direct action is ultimately, the defiant insistence on acting as if one is already free.”

  It is certainly true that Occupy exerted a powerful attraction based on widespread disillusionment with the current political order. Capitalism’s decaying institutions and phony claims of democracy were increasingly exposed.  Many saw in the occupations of the parks and the lengthy General Assemblies, a route to collective democratic decision-making for the majority of society, not the capitalist minority.

    But Occupy could not live up to its promise of radical democracy. Taylor makes the telling point that the movement inspired long discussions about democracy but without actually making any collective democratic decisions. As he puts it, “(Occupy) became the powerless mirror of bureaucratic capitalist politics: real decisions could only be made by the tiniest unelected and unaccountable groups”.

   In the end, the movement collapsed rapidly when Obama ordered the Department of Homeland Security to clear the camps.

Between Anarchism and Reformism

In the aftermath of Occupy, many activists veered over to the opposite extreme.

We have seen the investment of considerable energy in various reformist or liberal projects that pose demands within a narrow framework acceptable to the existing power structure and channel efforts into electoral politics.   Bernie Sanders’campaigns  herded activists into the US Democratic Party, while  Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece ended up demonstrating their commitment to managing the system through the capitalist state even if it meant betraying their working class base. 

   Occupy may have faded after its brief hour on the stage, but we see something of its modus operandi at the edges of the Climate movement where a broad mass action perspective with clear political demands is largely absent. 

   Extinction Rebellion appears thus far to duplicate many of the contradictions of the Occupy movement. There is exemplary activism but, unfortunately, as well, the absence of clear demands directed at the state and a democratic structure that would allow decisions to be made that can sustain the movement going forward. 

   Black Lives Matter and the movement to defund the police, on the other hand, have staked out clear demands but have proven vulnerable to cooptation and subordination to liberal or reformist electoral projects. 

 Reformism has returned to dominate the political horizon of the left. We see that in the rise of the DSA, and the emergence of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the “squad” in the US Congress.  In Canada, in the NDP, we have the growth of soft left groups like Courage and the programmatically more robust, Socialist Caucus, whose aim is to battle the pro-capitalist labour and social democratic leadership in its lair. Quebec Solidaire represents a distinct Quebec variant of this revival of reformism which has established an electoral presence.

Anarchism is still favoured as a badge of identity for many who are newly radicalizing. It lays a claim to transformative if not revolutionary politics but usually in an unexplored and superficial manner. Some self-proclaimed anarchists join socialist groups or embrace watered down reformist politics in the NDP or the Greens. Others retain the anti-political line of traditional anarchism. 

The contemporary IWW is an attempt to resurrect the golden age of anarcho-syndicalism of over a century ago. So far, it is a faint echo of its original namesake. It exerts appeal to some precarious low wage workers and it stands for working class internationalism but without any significant presence in the labour movement.  From principle, it does not conduct an oppositional battle within the official bureaucratized union movement.  Thus, its potential contribution to a badly needed resurgence of class struggle unionism is thwarted. Barring a resurgence of mass revolutionary syndicalism, its status as a current in the labour movement is likely to remain marginal.


Anarchism owes its attraction to its seeming radicalism. Anarchists say: dismantle  the state in order to move directly to communism.

Anarchism feeds on disillusionment with the reform pretensions of bourgeois liberalism and the degenerate social democratic and labour leaders who have thrown their lot in with capitalism.  But instead of challenging these misleaders and fake progressives, anarchism abandons the field to the class enemy and  accepts defeat. 

The anarchist current has led some heroic struggles, but its allergy to politics and seizing state power for the working class has contributed to some tragic outcomes. As Lenin put it, anarchism subordinates “the working class to bourgeois politics in the guise of negation of politics.”  

   The response to anarchist pretensions must lie with a rejuvenation of revolutionary Marxism.  Not only building working class counterpower at the point of production but adopting demands which can win mass support for a direct challenge to capitalist rule.   

   The perspective of an independent, mass action, united front is indispensable in avoiding the twin pitfalls that continue to mislead many: on the one hand, reliance on minority direct action and rejection of politics tout court and, on the other hand, the abandonment of independent working class politics in favour of various reformist schemes based on integration with the capitalist state.

Our objective is to infuse into spontaneous mass movements the crucial element of consciously and democratically planned and organized actions without which these movements, however impressive their scope, will falter.

This perspective requires a politically conscious leadership whose most advanced expression is a revolutionary vanguard party. That party must combine the fullest democracy in debate on political program and direction with disciplined common action, a principle that anarchism has always disavowed.  In the course of the struggle, some anarchists may come to accept this requirement and join in constructing such a party, as may others currently in the orbit of reformism. 

The crisis of global capitalism is not going to go away.  Its inherent and deadly contradictions are increasingly exposed whether from systemic racism, impending climate catastrophe, or enforced economic and social deprivation for millions across the globe. It is from within this tempest that the ranks of revolutionary fighters will grow, producing, in due course,  a mass revolutionary socialist party. That is our perspective in SA/LAS. If you agree, please join us.

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