The following essay in no way represents KSU’s point of view on anarchism or Marxism. It is merely a personal opinion of one of KSU’s members. KSU is an open collective with no official affiliation towards Marxism, anarchism or other ideologies. This is the reason why within KSU we have a plurality of opinions. The following essay is only meant for internal discussion and polemics or for anyone interested.
The present paper has as its aim to show the nature, inconsistencies and the myths surrounding anarchism from a Marxist point of perspective, which makes it appealing to some people on the radical left. As is understandable this work will focus on the leftist, or more specifically anti-capitalist tendency of anarchism (libertarians, anarcho-communists, anarcho-syndicalism etc.); so anarchism will not refer in this work to those tendencies which are labeled as anarcho-capitalism (an extreme version of the neo-liberal policy where the state has no control whatsoever on the economic domain) or anarcho-primitivism and the like. Also the lifestyle anarchism which is popular among many leftist environmentalist activists with it’s own made up ethical imperatives (like veganism etc.) which are often imposed on others when they enter their domain (a very anti-democratic and authoritarian tendency from the chevaliers of ‘liberty for all’) will not be the focus of this work.
The purpose of this work is not to give an alternative to the anarchist ideology and movement. Alternatives already exist, whether from a radical left perspective or the bourgeois alternative of free-market capitalism. What I want to show is that given the premisses and implicit assumptions, anarchism will always be, as it has been historically, on the margins of the left and will not only be counter-productive but also dangerous to any kind of society in which the working class has gained the power i.e. socialism. The achievement of this goal will be done in more than one part. Part 1 will focus on the historical foundations of anarchism and its assumptions and why they are inherently false. Part 2 will focus on the more recent anarchist history with a focus on anarchist movements in the 20th century. Finally, part 3 will be a thorough analysis and critique of the present-day anarchist tendencies with their models of action and decision-making (for example the consenus-model, the affinity group structure of action etc.)
I will start by giving a short account of the origins of anarchism as a separate ideology and movement. I will focus on the founding fathers of anarchism in the nineteenth century. They will be divided in two groups: on the one hand we have the ideologues of anarchism, of which most of them didn’t call themselves anarchist or even anti-capitalist; on the other hand I will describe the forming of anarchism as a distinct ideology and movement in the 1860s and 1870s especially under influence of Bakunin. These accounts will not only be descriptive. On the contrary, the description itself will contain the critique.
1. The theoretical foundations of Anarchism: nineteenth century thinkers and the Proudhonian model
Before it’s appearance as a movement, the basic idea’s of anarchism had their foundations in the works of many nineteenth century thinkers, notably Godwin, Stirner and Proudhon. Although none of them explicitly called their views anarchist, except the use of the concept an–archy by Proudhon towards the end of his intellectual life, nor were they against capital in principle, they were able to introduce the idea of the abolition of the state, or antistatism in a new jacket. Antistatism was already existent in various forms. One could find antistatist ideas in the works of Adam Smith and other liberal thinkers where the state machine was seen as too much unproductive and a drain on civil society.
But it was Godwin, from whom for the first time a fully-fledged antistatist theory appeared on paper. Godwin sought the abolition of the state as the aim of society where the small enterprises were able to preform and compete without any restriction from the laws imposed by the state. It was the primal scream of the petty-bourgeois in a squeeze.
The pre-Marx socialism had always been defined by its hostility towards politics in general and politicians in particular. The main implicit assumption (which was never theorized) was that the state was the institution which defined the nature of society and not the other way around. According to Marx it is in fact the social relations of production and the cultural and historical context of the society which forms the state and its nature. It also assumed that the state only preformed negative functions and was a kind of cancer for society. State itself became synonymous to despotism and the antistatists weren’t able to see that the state had been a societal necessity in every class society and that it could preform positive functions as well. Furthermore, it was implicitly assumed that a state enjoying democratic freedoms was a nonstate. Neither was any alternative given for these positive functions in the form of an institution or organ which could preform these functions in a stateless society.
But none of the above mentioned ideas were seen as anarchistic. Since anarchism is indubitably antipolitical, it is sometimes assumed by a lapse in logic that early antipoliticalism was anarchistic. But the idea that the future social order would do away with the state was common platitudes of early socialism. Only with the publication of Striner’s The Ego and its own and the ideas of Proudhon, anarchism started to distinguish itself from mere antistatism which was even present in the ideas of Marx and Engels even before anarchism was known as an ideology.
Stirner’s famous book did have an influence, albeit a short one, on many antistatist radicals of the nineteenth century, most notably Bakunin. According to Stirner the Ego (the self, the I) was in its natural state when it wasn’t restricted by any external limitation. It was and had to be a sovereign of itself. The sovereign individual shouldn’t be restricted by social morality. Stirner’s contribution was in the end to carry the tendency of individual freedom and antistatism to a bizarre end: with Egoism unleashed, everything disappeared. His theory even rejected political and social revolution in favor of the ego-rebellion, and true to his principles he only observed the revolution of 1848 with a cigar in one hand and a glass of wine in the other: the archetype of the ego detached.
Another major contribution, one not so bizarre as Stirner’s, were the ideas of Proudhon. At the core of Proudhon’s theory lies the idea that the state is an unnatural phenomenon which restricts the individual. The alternative was it’s abolition and the creation of a Mutual Credit Society which would eventually take over society and give credits without any interest to every man for the purpose of investment. So the alternative for the bourgeois society was to make every man a bourgeois.
As stated above, it was not antistatism that marked anarchism as something new. It was something implicit (later made more explicit) in the ideas of Stirner and Proudhon: they put forward a particular rationale for their attack on the state by means of a line of thought about “authority”. It is the concepts of antistatism and authority which lie at the core of the anarchist ideology. Antistatism was already present in Marx’s writings of the 1840s. But the main difference with the more an-archic tendencies was that for Marx the ultimate aim of the revolution was the withering away of the state. For Proudhon and the like it was the first word of the revolution. This is a great and significant difference. According to Marx it is the class structure of society along with the social relations of productions which gives the state its essential features and structure. So we need to have a transient period where the class antagonisms are abolished and the function of the state is only the management of the production and it is only then that the state will wither away. There is no need in a classless society for one class to use the state as the repressive mechanism for its rule of another.
On the contrary, for Proudhon, and to some extent Stirner and Godwin, it is the state which lies at the root of all evil. State itself is the synonym of despotism and it is only through the immediate abolition of it, that society in general and the sovereign individual Ego in particular is able to be free from every facet of authority. Implicit within this approach is that the state precedes society and class structure, not the other way around. There is no need to explain why this approach is false, because it has been done by many writers.
Before we go on to the section on the formation of anarchism as a movement by Bakunin, it is noteworthy to draw some conclusions for the sake of clarity. First and foremost it is clear that the idea of antistatism itself existed long before any anarchist movement or ideology was present. So it is not antistatism that defines anarchism. Rather it is the combination of antistatism with the rejection of authority which is characteristic of anarchism even to our own day. The inconsistency and falsity of the anti-authoritarian stance will be given a thorough analysis in the next chapter.
Secondly, anarchism need not be an anti-capitalist ideology as it was not for Godwin, Stirner or even Proudhon. Only with the ideas of Bakunin, building upon the mixture of Proudhonianism and socialist elements which created an anti-capitalist anarchist tendency in the 1860s. It is to this episode that we now turn.
2. Bakunin and the illusory anarchist creed: “immediate abolition of the state and all authority“
Michael Bakunin could be seen as the founding father of anti-capitalist anarchism. For this purpose he combined three ingredients, loosely mixed:
A social theory based on the ideas of Proudhon and Stirner.
A socioeconomic program which was a version of the anti-capitalist collectivism current in socialist circles, including borrowings from Marxian theory.
A political strategy characterized by conspiratorial putschism, mixed with a kind of Russian-accented terroristic nihilism.
These ingredients will be changed in the twentieth century by the forming of other anarchist tendencies, especially the anarcho-syndicalist one, but many of the essential elements will belong to nearly every anti-capitalist anarchist movement.
Authority, or the imposing of the will of an individual or a group (whether the majority, an individual or something between) on another, was the main concept in Bakuninist rhetoric. It was authority which should be abolished because of its restriction over the sovereign individual Ego. By this creed authority came to be seen by the Bakuninists as principally wrong and evil. This meant in practice that even as soon as a workers state was established by revolutionaries, the anarchists would set out to destroy it from within or without (for example the many anarchist uprisings during the civil war in Russia). Anarchism in this sense would become destructive to the working-class movement.
By the principle of authority, the consistent anarchists means the opposition of any kind of authority, even authority derived from the most complete democracy and exercised in completely democratic fashion. Indeed, democratic authority is one of the most evil forms of authority for the anarchist. So anarchism is fundamentally antidemocratic, at least in its initial form. But the question remains: what to do when people disagree in a society where there is no authority and where individuals have to live in concert? How do you decide what a social group is to do in an organized society? No anarchist thinker, even the recent ones, has answered this elementary question.
The common anarchist view is best illustrated by the analogy of the ant colony. When the state and all authority have been abolished, society will come to its natural form like an ant colony and will come to an automatic consensus in some way and be able to organize society. This is nothing more than assuming that there is something like a “magic unanimity”. To anyone who needs this nonsense refuted, we have nothing to say here. We only should point out that this “magic unanimity” is almost always the decree of totalitarian states.
So what then if people disagree? Humanity has devised various mechanisms to cope with this problem in society: whether an leviathan decides for society or a small number of rulers, or the majority makes this decisions from below, there have been many used models in history. For all of the complexity of this problem, anarchism turns it into a vulgar simplicity: abolish every authority in order not to impose social decisions on a single sovereign individual, let alone a minority who disagrees. This tendency is also visible in the recent adopted models of decision-making like the so called consensus-model where the dictator of the minority is made possible under the totally false assumption of total democracy and having a decision based on everyone’s opinion.
So anarchism rejects both democracy and despotism and tries to find a third alternative which does do away with authority but somehow magically permits society to exist. Needless to say that no such device has ever been found. Authoritarian, as involving authority, is now turned into a synonym for ‘undemocratic’ and ‘despotic’. It is interesting to see how all of these catchphrases were practiced by the paladin of liberty, Bakunin himself. To that we will come shortly.
The main historical and theoretical objection to the above anarchist theory is visible when we look at the way in which social production is organized. All social production, all cooperation in labor, indeed the very meaning of cooperation, involves the labor of supervision in some form, hence the existence of some authority (not a despotic one). This is only needed for the directing of the process. One can make the despotic aspect of this authority disappear by making the supervisors or managers directly chosen and controlled by the laborers themselves instead of representing capital.
Another way to demystify authority is by simplifying politics and the state machinery, and making the very source of authority itself transparent. This is a precondition for an effective control from below.
. . .
By now the meaning of the word authority was changed by the false assumptions of the anarchists. Moreover, what the anarchist alternative advocated was in reality the atomization of modern society into fragmented parts with no real interrelation among them (no authority or centralism but all kinds of councils). It is more of an irrelevant utopianism of a backward kind. This position was not only impractical an destructive, it was basically anti-democratic; by opposing any kind of authority, even “authority with consent” (the authority of majority over minority) it upheld the right of a small minority to impose its conceptions upon the majority, even by violence. This is exactly the what Bakunin was to do with the International and his (Bakunin’s) secret Brotherhood by their “Rule or Ruin” creed.
By stating that every individual or group should be autonomous the anarchists cannot answer how a society of even two people is possible unless each is willing to give up some of his autonomy. This is a question for which there is no definite answer in the anarchist literature. Is any organization actually possible without authority (or the full autonomy of its members)? Take again for example a factory where the workers decide about the working hours. Whether this is done by a delegate chosen (and able to be recalled) or by the majority of the workers, the individual will (of for example one individual or a couple of them) must subordinate itself to this decision for production to be possible. So the questions are settled in an authoritarian way.
To prevent any misuse of the authority given to the decision makers, again whether the representatives or the majority, we can democratize the delegation of authority and make their activities totally transparent. But we cannot prevent some degree of imposing the will of this majority on the specific individual. What we can do, and must do, is to restrict authority within the limits enforced by the necessities of production of social life. If the anarchist is consistent he will even oppose this. But if he is not a lunatic (and we find lunacy in many anarchist movements throughout history) he will have to admit that not every individual Ego can be satisfied.
Even revolution itself is an expression of authority. It is often a conscious part of society, which hopefully represents the interests of the majority, that has fulfilled the task of revolutionizing society. Never in history have we had revolutions in which the majority itself actually took part in it. And this doesn’t seem plausible either. Revolution is in the end the imposing of the will of a class on the ruling one, and it is exactly this that defines authority. A truly popular revolution can impose a democratic authority, which of course anarchists oppose on principle.
More importantly, we have to realize that autonomy and authority are relative things whose spheres vary with the various phases of the development of society. It is by no means possible to do away with them right after the revolution. Only by an development of society towards the end of class antagonisms it is possible that those “evil” things could be done away with. But to go on the details would be mere speculation. It is up to the future man to accomplish this task, not our fantasies.
2.2. An example of anarchy: Bakunin
As Bakunin is favored by many leftist anarchists as one of the founding fathers of anti-capitalist anarchism, and indeed like stated above it was Bakunin who first created an anarchist movement, it is useful to shortly review Bakunin’s own practicing of the anarchist idea’s of the immediate abolition of the state and authority. The contemporary anarchists are in no respect held responsible for his actions, and it is not my goal to blacken them by means of Bakunin’s practices. What I want to sketch is that in reality, and not in the realm of utopianism, anarchism cannot do otherwise, at least not in essence.
Bakunin was from the start a putchist who had an Prhoudhonian Stirneristic outlook of the world. So for him the way to accomplish the stateless society was by means of a secret society of revolutionaries, called the International Brotherhood, with no more than one hundred members (according to him this was more than enough for the Brotherhood to take over the world) whose identities were secret, and it was they who would make the revolution and realize anarchy.
What about authority inside this movement? From the start on it was obvious that the sole authority of the movement was Bakunin himself. It was only his ideas and his ways of doing things which were allowed. He even imposed capital punishment for whoever interfered, even among his own ranks, with the revolutionary communes of Lyon, where he was present and hoped to start with the foundations of the anarchist society. As there was no democratic sanction, or one desired within the movement, Bakunin’s own despotism was obvious. This manifested itself with his ad hoc decisions for the Brotherhood.
Also his activities inside the International were of the same essence. Bakunin first agreed, on Marx’s insistence, to enter the International. But as soon he entered he created a faction within the International called the International Alliance of Socialists. The only practical activity of this Alliance was the constant harassment of the General Council of the International (for example the demand of the Alliance to clear the hall at the Hague congress at the moment were the members were voting). Being true to their creed of “Rule or Ruin” the Alliance tried to take over the International. As the responses were not in their favor they began the process of its ruination. It is one of the marvels of the anarchists to call the defenders of democratic authority (for example Marxists) “authoritarian” while the autocratic perpetrators of the typical Bakuninist putsch are ticketed as “libertarian” and the paladin of Freedom. What a great illogical imagination anarchists have.
Seeking to ensure the Freedom of the sovereign individual Ego, Bakuninism in operation meant the imposition of its own authority in autocratic forms: the establishment of a special sort of despotis by a self-appointed secret elite who refused to call their dictatorship a “state”. One could not imagine a more rigidly centralized, authoritarian revolutionary organization formed strictly from the top downwards than the one Bakunin proposed, for carrying the destruction of authoritarianism. We see that anarchism in its first experiment was transformed into its logical opposite.
There is a lot more to say about the Bakuninist experiment, but be that as it may, it is interesting to point at the inconsistencies of the fathers of anarchism and how they are viewed by some anarchists today to be the example of a good revolutionary. We haven’t even talked about Bakunin’s ridiculous activities in Sweden (his flirtations with the king of Sweden where he championed constitutional monarchy in a speech) or the Bakuninists in Spain (by participating in a bourgeois controlled government in 1873).
2.3. The state
Anarchist theory of the state is a very simple one, and we have already mentioned it above, namely: it is the state, and all political life, which is the devil and has engendered all social ills. The complexity of reality, as well as the positive tasks of a state together with the potential of the state not to be a despotic one, are simplified and vulgarized in the anarchist thought. They do not regard capital, i.e. the class antagonisms between capitalists and wage-laborers which itself has arisen through social development, which gives the state its specific characters. It is as if the state has created capital and that the capitalist has his capital through the grace of the state.
If the state is the source of all social ills, it is by its abolition that capital will magically vanish. According to Marxists do away with capital, the concentration of all means of production in the hands of the few, and the state will fall of itself. Despite the great number of historical and theoretical refutations of the anarchist position about the state, the “immediate abolition of the state” is the product of pure dogma, simply an unhistorical view of the relation between the state and the social order.
The alternative of the present day anarchist, is the breaking up of society in small groups, communes, councils etc. which in turn form an “association” but not a state. What the difference is theoretically, no one knows. But lets not call it a state, as if a name changes anything about the essence. Fooling yourself and others could be propagandically useful but not when one tries to organize a society. These are nothing more than the idealist fantasies of the “libertarians”, and nothing more remains to be said about this vulgar, simplified and caricaturist conception of society.
3. “Anarchists, know thy history and theory”
So lets conclude this essay by some final words. We saw that antistatism was something that existed long before the anarchist movement came to existence and was nothing new. The new dimension which anarchism gave to the discussion was the discussion of authority, which should be abolished in all of its manifestations. By this the state = authority = evil. There is no non-despotic state possible. So the first word of every movement and revolution should be the abolition of these two evils.
For the Marxist on the other hand the “abolition of the state” could about only at the end of a sufficient period of socialist reconstruction of society. So when a socialist government takes power, even in its most democratic form possible, the consistent anarchist must seek its instant destruction as an “authoritarian” menace. But this very act itself is somehow magically not authoritarian. Inconsistencies drip of anarchism in theory and practice.
Secondly, for Marxists the aim of the socialist movement is the democratization of political authority, indeed of all authority. For an anarchist, any and all authority, however ideally democratic, has to be destroyed. For Marxists, the abolition of state power does not necessarily entail the elimination of all kinds of authority (for example the authority of the head-engineer of the railroad, or the head surgeon of a hospital) in political and social life. But it is possible for society to evolve in the direction of the diminution of authority in general.
Last but not least, the difference of anarchism and Marxism lies in the definition of freedom. For the anarchist freedom is basically individual–solipsistic: it depends on the absolute inviolability of the sovereign Ego in relation to the outside world; it is the total impermissibility of any imposition of any authority. So anarchism is basically solipsism, whether or not the individual anarchist recognizes this consciously (as I am of the opinion that many anarchists do not). Freedom does not mean freedom through democracy or freedom in society, rather freedom from any democratic authority and in the end freedom from society.
The Marxist view of freedom is basically social in its reference. Freedom depends on the relation of the individual to his membership in the human species, which is historically organized in a society. Freedom is than the democratic freedom in society. This means that the relationship of the individual to the collectivity will involve the maximum extension of control from below. This control applies also to the determination through democratic institutions of the extent or degree to which the collectivity of society should exercise any control over its individual components.
In conclusion, for Marxists (classical)anarchism is not a beautiful vision of saintly dreamers but a sick social ideology. Not only impractical but dangerous in certain contexts (like when there is an actual workers government established). To the anarchists we have only, in the words of Plekhanov, this to say: “You will remain what you are now… bags emptied by history.”