[Book] Marxism and Anarchism


Alan Woods

The present period is the most stormy and convulsive period in history. Globalisation now manifests itself as a global crisis of capitalism. Given the depth of the crisis and the worsening conditions, things are developing very quickly. The stage is set for a general revival of the class struggle, and in fact, this process has already begun.

The most striking manifestation of the changed situation is the emergence of a worldwide protest movement that is rejecting capitalism and all of its works. A growing number of people are reacting against the crying injustice of the existing order: the unemployment that condemns millions to enforced inactivity; the gross inequality, which concentrates obscene wealth and impoverishment for the vast majority of the world’s population; and the endless wars, racism, and restrictions on “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

The top one percent of the USA owns 34.6% of the wealth in total net worth; the next 19% owns 50.5%; the bottom 80% owns only 15%. In financial wealth, the figures are even more startling: 42.7%, 50.3%, and 7.0% respectively. These statistics are from 2007, but the most recent complete data show that the recession has meant a massive drop of 36.1% in median household wealth as compared to 11.1% for the top one percent, further widening the gulf between the obscenely rich and the rest of us—the 99%.

The 2008–09 recession has meant an even greater increase in inequality: further enrichment for the super-rich and more poverty for the poorest. The revolting spectacle of wealthy bankers walking away from the crisis with billions of dollars of public money while over 10 million mortgages are set to default and the unemployed stand in line for food handouts is stoking the fires of mass indignation.

In “normal” circumstances most people do not protest. They remain passive spectators of a historic drama that is played out before their eyes, in which they play no part but which determines their lives and fate. But every once in a while, people are shaken out of their apparent apathy by great events—such as a war or an economic crisis. They begin to take action, to take an interest in politics and to try to regain control over their lives.

Such moments in history have a name: they are called revolutions. Such was the American Revolution of 1776; the French Revolution of 1789–93; the revolutionary movements in Europe in 1848; the Paris Commune of 1871; the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917; the Spanish Revolution of 1931–37; and more recently, the Egyptian and Tunisian Revolutions.

The events that are unfolding before our eyes have many of the features of the early stages of a revolutionary situation. Many people who hitherto took little or no interest in politics now find themselves in the streets protesting and demonstrating against a social and political order that has become intolerable.

There is an old saying: “life teaches.” This is very true. The workers and students in Tahrir Square learned more in 24 hours of struggle than in twenty years of “normal” existence. Similarly, the experience of the participants of the Occupy movement in the USA and other countries is being compressed time-wise. It will not take 20 years for them to absorb the lessons. People are learning fast.

Under these conditions, the ideas of libertarianism, anarchism, and socialism are all making a revival, as the youth and workers search for an explanation of the crisis and a road forward. The heroic “glory days” of the Industrial Workers of the World are being revived in the minds of many young people as they fight to form unions in their minimum-wage workplaces. Anarchist writers such as Proudhon, Kropotkin, Bakunin and Durruti are being rediscovered by new layers of youth. Authors such as Howard Zinn, Michael Albert, and Noam Chomsky, who expose the evils of imperialism and capitalism, are being eagerly read by a new generation.

Insofar as they open peoples’ eyes as to the undemocratic and exploitative nature of capitalist society, the growing interest in these ideas is extremely positive. Anarchism is appealing to many young people due to its simplicity: to reject anything and everything to do with the status quo. But upon deeper examination, there is a pervasive lack of real substance and depth of analysis in these ideas. Above all, there is very little in the way of an actually viable solution to the crisis of capitalism. After reading their material, one is inevitably left asking: “but what is to replace capitalism, and how can we make this a reality, starting from the conditions actually existing today?”

It is this author’s contention that only the ideas of Marxism can provide a theoretical guide to action that can actually harness the movement’s energy into the revolutionary transformation of society. Not Stalinism—that bureaucratic, undemocratic, totalitarian caricature of socialism; and not the lifeless, mechanical, deterministic “Marxism” of the academic world—but genuine Marxism: the most modern, dynamic, and all-encompassing tools of social analysis yet developed by humanity. Only these ideas can provide not only an analysis, but a revolutionary socialist solution to the crisis facing the world working class.

The publication of this volume marks an important step forward in the theoretical arming of a new generation of class fighters in the US The question of Marxism vs Anarchism has long been discussed. It is no accident that as the class struggle again boils to the surface, the old debates are being revived. Many people newly awakening to political life imagine that they are involved in something entirely new and original; but as the Bible says, there is nothing new under the sun. And although they do not know it, many of these debates have already taken place in the past.

There are many misconceptions about the history, genesis, and real content of both Marxism and anarchism. We can and should learn from the collective experience of our class; from what has worked and what has not worked. This collection of writings will go a long way towards clarifying the Marxist perspective on the limitations of anarchism, and the need for a party, theory, programme, perspectives, organisation, internal democracy, and accountability.

Limits of spontaneity

The millions of people who have come out onto the streets and squares of Spain and Greece to oppose the policy of cuts and austerity do not trust the politicians and trade union leaders. And who can blame them? In both Greece and Spain the governments that carried out these attacks were supposed to be “socialist.” The masses deposited their confidence in them, and found themselves betrayed. They conclude that in order to defend their interests they must not leave things to the politicians but take action themselves.

This shows a correct revolutionary instinct. Those who sneer at the movement as “merely spontaneous” display their ignorance of the essence of a revolution, which is precisely the direct intervention of the masses in politics. This spontaneity is an enormous strength—but at a certain point it will become a fatal weakness of the movement.

Those who criticise the protest movement because it lacks a clear programme show their ignorance of what a revolution is. This kind of approach is worthy of a pedant and a snob, but never a revolutionary. A revolution, by its very essence, stirs society up to the depths, arousing even the most backward and “apolitical” layers into direct action. To demand of the masses a perfect understanding of what is required is to demand the impossible.

Of course, the mass movement will necessarily suffer from confusion in its initial stages. The masses can only overcome these shortcomings through their direct experience of the struggle. But if we are to succeed, it is absolutely necessary to pass beyond the initial confusion and naïveté, to grow and mature, and to draw the correct conclusions.

Those “anarchist” leaders—yes, the anarchists also have leaders, or people who aspire to lead—who believe that confusion, organisational amorphousness, and the absence of ideological definition and are both positive and necessary, play a pernicious role. It is like trying to maintain a child in a state of childishness, so that it is forever unable to talk, walk, and think for itself.

Many times in the history of warfare, a big army composed of brave but untrained soldiers has been defeated by a smaller force of disciplined and well-trained professional troops led by skilled and experienced officers. To occupy the squares is a means of mobilising the masses in action. But in itself it is not enough. The ruling class may not be able to evict the protesters initially by force, but they can afford to wait until the movement begins to die down, and then act decisively to put an end to the “disturbances.”

It goes without saying that the Marxists will always be in the first line of any battle to improve the conditions of the working class. We will fight for any conquest, no matter how small, because the fight for socialism would be unthinkable without the day-to-day struggle for advances under capitalism. Only through a series of partial struggles, of a defensive and offensive character, can the masses discover their own strength and acquire the confidence necessary to fight to the end. There are certain circumstances in which strikes and mass demonstrations can force the ruling class to make concessions. But in the conditions prevailing today, this is not one of them.

In order to succeed it is necessary to take the movement to a higher level. This can only be done by linking it firmly to the movement of the workers in the factories and the trade unions. The slogan of the general strike has already come to the fore in an embryonic form. But even a general strike in and of itself cannot solve the problems of society. It must eventually be linked to the need for an indefinite general strike, which directly poses the question of state power.

Confused and vacillating leaders are capable of producing only defeats and demoralisation. The struggle of the workers and youth would be infinitely easier if they were led by courageous and farsighted people. But such leaders do not fall from the skies. In the course of struggle, the masses will put to the test every tendency and leader. They will soon discover the deficiencies of those accidental figures that appear in the early stages of the revolutionary movement, like the foam that appears on the crest of the wave, and who will vanish as the waves crash into the shore, just like that foam.

These spontaneous movements are the consequence of decades of bureaucratic and reformist degeneration of the traditional parties and unions. In part, this represents a healthy reaction, as Lenin wrote in The State and Revolution, when he referred to the anarchists. Movements like the indignados in Spain arise because most workers and youth feel they are not represented by anybody. They are not anarchists. They display confusion and lack a clear programme. But then, where would they get clear ideas from?

The new movements are an expression of the deep crisis of the capitalist system. On the other hand, the new movements themselves have not understood the seriousness of the situation. For all their energy and élan, these movements have limitations that will quickly be exposed. The occupation of squares and parks, though it can be a potent statement, ultimately leads nowhere. More radical measures are necessary to bring about a root-and-branch transformation of society.

Unless the movement is taken to a higher level, at a certain stage, it will subside, leaving the people disappointed and demoralised. Upon reflection of their experience, an increasing number of activists will come to see the need for a consistent revolutionary programme. It is the contention of this writer that this can only be provided by Marxism.

Do we need a leadership?

The argument that we don’t need parties and leaders is false to the core. As a matter of fact it is not even logical. It is not enough to reject something you don’t like. You must say what is to be put in its place.

If my shoe pinches my foot, the answer is not to go barefoot, but to get a shoe that fits. If our food is bad, the conclusion is not that we must go without food altogether, but that we need decent, tasty, wholesome food. If I am not satisfied with my doctor, I look for a better one. Why should it be any different with a party or leadership?

The present leadership of the working class is very bad. We agree with the anarchists on this. But the conclusion is not that we do not need any leadership. It is that we must fight to replace the present leadership with one that really represents the interests and aspirations of the working class. We stand for the revolutionary transformation of society. The objective conditions for such a transformation are more than ripe. We firmly believe that the working class is equipped for such a task. How then can we doubt that the workers will be able to transform their own organisations into fighting vehicles to change society? If they cannot accomplish even that, how will they possibly overthrow the whole of capitalism itself?

Many young people, when they look at the existing organisations of the working class, the trade unions and especially the mass workers parties, are repelled by their bureaucratic structures and the conduct of their leaders, who are constantly hobnobbing with the bankers and capitalists. They appear to be just another part of the Establishment. In the US there is not yet even a mass party of labour. So it is no wonder that many people reject all parties and even claim to reject politics entirely.

However, this is a contradiction in terms. The Occupy movement itself is profoundly political. In rejecting the existing political parties, they immediately put themselves forward as an alternative. But what sort of an alternative? It is not enough to say: “we are against the present system because it is unjust, oppressive and inhumane.” It is necessary to propose an alternative system that would be just, egalitarian and humane.

Although they are still very weak, anarchist trends have been growing recently as a result of the bankruptcy of the reformist leaders of the mass workers organisations. The monstrous opportunism of the workers’ leaders gives rise to ultra-left and anarchist moods among a layer of the youth. As Lenin once said, ultra-leftism is the price the movement has to pay for opportunism.

At first sight the idea seems attractive: “Just look at the labour leaders! They are just a lot of bureaucrats and careerists who always sell us out. We don’t need leaders! We don’t need organisation!” Unfortunately, without organisation we can accomplish nothing. The trade unions may be far from perfect, but they are all that the workers have to prevent the capitalists from trampling them underfoot.

The bosses understand the danger posed to them by the unions. That is why they are always trying to undermine the unions, restrict their rights, and smash them altogether. We can see that with anti-union laws such as Taft-Hartley which have severely restricted the workers’ right to strike. Scott Walker, the Republican governor of Wisconsin, introduced anti-union legislation to disarm the workers in the face of savage cuts. In Ohio, a similar attempt was defeated in a referendum by the people, who understood the need to defend the unions.

“But the union leaders are bureaucrats! They are always striving to do deals with the bosses!” Maybe so, but what alternative do you propose? Can we do without the unions? That would reduce the working class to a collection of isolated atoms at the mercy of the bosses. Marx pointed out long ago that without organisation the working class is just raw material for exploitation. The task is not to throw out the baby with the bathwater, but to transform the unions into militant, fighting, class-struggle organisations.

More than at any other period in history, the leadership of the workers’ organisations has come under the pressure of the bourgeoisie. They have abandoned the ideas upon which the movement was founded and become divorced from the class they are supposed to represent. They represent the past, not the present or the future. The masses will push them to the left or sweep them aside in the stormy period that now opens up.

Without the aid of the reformists, Stalinists, and the class-collaborationist trade union leaders, it would not be possible to maintain the capitalist system for any length of time. This is an important idea which we have to stress continually. The leaders of the trade unions and reformist parties in all countries have colossal power in their hands—far greater than at any other time in history.

In the final analysis, the labour bureaucracy is the most conservative force in society. They use their authority to support the capitalist system. That is why Trotsky said that the crisis of humanity was reduced to a crisis of leadership of the proletariat. The fate of humanity depends on the resolution of this problem. But anarchism is not capable of resolving this problem, since it does not even accept that the problem exists.

It is necessary to fight to drive the bureaucrats and careerists from their positions, to purge the labour organisations of bourgeois elements, and replace them with men and women who are really prepared to fight for the working class. To advocate abstentionism, to refuse to fight for a change of leadership, is to advocate the perpetuation of the rule of the bureaucracy; that is, for the perpetuation of capitalist slavery. As Trotsky explained, to refuse to struggle for political or trade union power means to leave that power in the hands of those who now hold it.

“One big union”?

The IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) did outstanding work before the First World War organising the unorganised sections of the working class—the farm hands and unskilled workers, the dock workers, lumberjacks and the immigrants. The slogan “One Big Union” served as an inspiring rallying point in opposition to the conservative craft unionism of the old AFL.

The “Wobblies,” as they were known, led important strikes, starting with Goldfield, Nevada in 1906 and the Pressed Steel Car Strike of 1909 at McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania; the Lawrence textile strike in 1912; and the Paterson silk strike in 1913. They often faced ferocious repression, beatings and lynching. Joe Hill (Joel Hägglund), the “Wobbly bard” who wrote inspiring verses and songs, was accused of murder and was executed by the state of Utah in 1915 on the flimsiest of evidence.

At the founding convention of the IWW, Bill Haywood, then the General Secretary of the Western Federation of Miners, said: “This is the Continental Congress of the working class. We are here to confederate the workers of this country into a working class movement that shall have for its purpose the emancipation of the working class from the slave bondage of capitalism.” (Proceedings of the First Convention of the Industrial Workers of the World)

The IWW was consistently revolutionary and based itself on the most intransigent class struggle doctrines. It was never an anarchist organisation, but it lacked a coherent and consistent ideology. One might say that its ideology was a strange mixture of anarcho-syndicalism and Marxism. This contradiction was soon exposed in an early debate. Daniel De Leon, the pioneering American Marxist, was a founding member of the IWW in 1905. But he disagreed with the leaders of the IWW over their opposition to political action.

Whereas De Leon argued for support of political action via the Socialist Labour Party, other leaders, including Big Bill Haywood, argued instead for direct action. Haywood’s faction prevailed, and as a result the Preamble was altered to preclude “affiliation with any political party.”  De Leon’s followers left the IWW in protest. That was a mistake, because life itself made people like Big Bill Haywood change his mind.

In fact, the IWW borrowed heavily from Marxism. The two main planks in its platform, the doctrine of the class struggle and the idea that the emancipation of the workers must be the task of the workers themselves, came straight from Marx. The truth is that the IWW was more than just a union. It was at the same time a militant industrial union and a revolutionary organisation—an embryonic revolutionary party. This was soon demonstrated by the stormy events surrounding the First World War and the Russian Revolution.

The IWW was internationalist to the core. They opposed the First World War, as did the Russian Bolsheviks. An IWW newspaper, the Industrial Worker, wrote just before the US declaration of war: “Capitalists of America, we will fight against you, not for you! There is not a power in the world that can make the working class fight if they refuse.” The organisation passed a resolution against the war at its convention in November 1916. Lenin took a lively interest in the IWW mainly for this reason.

The war and the Russian Revolution demonstrated that political action was not merely a question of parliament and votes, but the highest expression of the class struggle. The IWW could not ignore politics. America’s entry into the war in 1917, which unleashed a ferocious wave of state repression against the IWW and everyone who opposed the war, proved the need to fight the centralised power of the ruling class. And the Bolshevik Revolution showed how the old state power could be overthrown and replaced with the democratic rule of the workers themselves.

When the Russian workers took the state power into their own hands and used that power to expropriate the capitalists, it had a profound effect in the ranks of the Wobblies. Some of their most outstanding leaders, like Big Bill Haywood, James Cannon, and John Reed began to question many of their old assumptions. Understanding the need for a revolutionary political organisation, they went over to the side of Bolshevism.

The best elements in the IWW joined the young American Communist Party. In April 1921 Haywood said in an interview with Max Eastman, published in The Liberator:  “‘I feel as if I’d always been there,’ he said to me. ‘You remember I used to say that all we needed was fifty thousand real IWWs, and then about a million members to back them up? Well, isn’t that a similar idea? At least I always realised that the essential thing was to have an organisation of those who know.’”

The fact that the Stalinist degeneration of the Russian Revolution later distorted the development of the Communist Party takes nothing away from the courageous pioneers who began the task of organising the revolutionary vanguard in the USA in the teeth of the most terrible repression.

Those who refused to make the transition to Marxism led the IWW into a blind alley from which it never recovered. The sterile anti-political dogma doomed it to isolation from the great historical events that were taking place on a world scale. By the time of its fifteenth anniversary in 1920 the IWW had already entered into an irreversible decline. In 2005, the 100th anniversary of its founding, the IWW had about 5,000 members, compared to 13 million members in the AFL-CIO.

The idea of “One Big Union” still resonates with many. Young workers in particular are understandably frustrated with the endless divisions and infighting in the mainstream unions today, or they do not have a union at all. However, despite the heroic efforts of the Wobblies to organise a handful of coffee shops and fast food restaurants, building such a union one member at a time will never reach its goals. For this, the vast resources of the major unions are required. To change the policy of the current labour leadership will require a political struggle within the AFL-CIO and Change to Win unions, not on the fringes. Furthermore, the only way to really achieve this is through the coming to political power of the working class, the expropriation of the capitalists, and the passing of laws that guarantee every worker union rights, wages, and benefits. This would lay the basis for the realisation of “One Big Union,” as hundreds of millions of workers would be organised in a mass, united trade union federation.

Even in its decline, the IWW played a key role in inspiring the development of the modern industrial unionism, which resulted in the creation of the CIO in the 1930s. That was a tremendous achievement. But although in its ranks there are some very militant workers, nowadays the IWW is only a shadow of its former self.

The history of the IWW is an endless source of inspiration to the youth of today. We fully recognise the pioneering role played by the IWW in the early years and embrace wholeheartedly its militant class-consciousness and its revolutionary traditions. We recognise that its “anarcho-syndicalist” tendencies were only a superficial manifestation—the outer shell of an embryonic Bolshevism. We are proud to claim the IWW as an important part of our historical heritage.

No leaders?

At first sight, it seems an attractive idea. If all leaders sell out, why do we need leaders at all? Yet this notion does not bear the slightest critical analysis. Even in a strike of half an hour in a factory there is leadership. Somebody has to go into the boss’s office to put the workers’ demands. Who will the workers chose for this role? Will they leave it to chance, or maybe pull a name out of a hat?

No, it is too serious a business to be left to chance. The workers will elect the person who they know will defend their interests: a man or woman who has the necessary experience, intelligence, and courage to represent the people who elected him or her. These are the natural leaders of the working class, and they are present in every workplace. To deny this is to deny the facts of life, known to every worker.

While there have not been many successful, large-scale strikes in the recent period in the US, nonetheless, many workers have at the very least participated in a strike. But how many workers have lived through the experience of a revolutionary general strike or a mass insurrection? Very few have this experience, and are therefore unable to draw any conclusions or learn the lessons. This is only possible from the standpoint of theory and the past experience of our class.

In the animal world, the accumulated experience of past generations is passed on through the mechanism of genetic transmission. The animal knows instinctively how to react in a given situation. But human society is different from any other animal collective. Here culture and education play a more important role than genetics. How are the lessons of past generations passed on to the new generations? There is no automatic mechanism for this. The transmission must be performed through the mechanism of learning. And this takes time.

What is true of society in general is also true of the working class and the struggle for socialism. The revolutionary party is the mechanism whereby the lessons of the past are transmitted to the new generation in a generalised form (theory). This is the equivalent of genetic information. If the genetic information is correct and complete, it will lead to the formation of a healthy human being. If it is distorted, it will be stillborn.

It is the same with theory. A theory that correctly sums up the experience of the past can be of great help in allowing the new generation to avoid the mistakes of the past. But an erroneous theory will only cause confusion, disorientation, or worse. If we are serious about revolution, we must approach it seriously, not in a superficial and amateur fashion. Questions of strategy and tactics must occupy a central place in the considerations of the Marxists. Without tactics, all talk of the building of the revolutionary movement is idle chatter: it is like a knife without a blade.

The conception of revolutionary strategy flows from the influence of military terminology. There are many parallels between the class struggle and a war between nations. In order to overthrow the bourgeoisie, the working class and its vanguard must possess a powerful, centralised, and disciplined organisation. Its leading cadres must possess the necessary knowledge of when to advance and when to retreat, when to give battle and when to avoid it.

Such knowledge presupposes, in addition to experience, a careful and detailed study of past battles, victories, and defeats. In other words, it presupposes a knowledge of theory. A slipshod or dismissive attitude to theory is impermissible, because theory is, in part, the generalisation of the historical experience of the working class of all countries.

But is it not possible to improvise and make up new ideas on the basis of our living experience of the class struggle? Yes, of course it is possible. But there will be a price to pay. In a revolution, events move very swiftly. There is no time to improvise and blunder about like a blind man in a dark room. Every mistake we make will be paid for, and can cost us very dearly.

In denying the importance of organisation and leadership, the anarchists wish to keep the movement in an embryonic state, unorganised and amateurish. But the class struggle is not a child’s game and it must not be treated childishly. The American philosopher George Santayana once said, very wisely: “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” The history of revolutionary movements provides us with a rich treasury of examples, which deserve careful study if we do not wish to repeat the tragic mistakes and defeats of the past.

The need for theory

The movement is still only at the beginning of the beginning. And in the beginning there is naturally a great deal of confusion, vacillation, and indecision. The Occupy movement, however, contains many contradictory elements within it. There are those who wish to abolish capitalism, and others who only seek to reform it by such things as tinkering with the tax system and regulation of the banks.

By contrast, the rulers of society are implacable and determined. They can rely on decades of experience in handling protests and opposition movements. They combine media distortions and increasingly militarised police violence with more subtle methods: blackmail, bribery, deceit, and police provocateurs. The state has at its disposal the services of an army of hardened bureaucrats, cynical politicians, smart lawyers, lying journalists, learned academics, and cunning priests: all united to defend the status quo in which they all have a vested interest.

Marxists wholeheartedly support the Occupy movement and the collective search for solutions to the crisis of capitalism. It represents a new social awakening and is reflected in a renewed interest in ideas and theory.  Yet there are some who deride the very notion of theory. “We do not need outmoded political theories!” they say. “We are engaged in a great experiment and we will improvise and evolve our ideas as we go along.” These words, superficially appealing, conceal a profound contradiction.

In real life, no serious person would ever adopt such an attitude in their daily affairs. Just imagine going to the dentist with a toothache, and the dentist says: “Actually, I have never studied dentistry, but open your mouth anyway and I’ll give it a shot.” You would run out the door! Or a plumber knocks at the door and says: “I know nothing about plumbing, but let me get my hands on your septic system.” You would throw him out of your house.

But while we insist (quite rightly!) on a serious and professional attitude to everything in our daily life, when it comes to the revolutionary struggle against capitalism, we are asked to abandon all our critical faculties. Suddenly, anything goes. One idea is as good as any other idea, no matter how irrelevant or crazy. Everything is reduced to a permanent assembly of a hardened core of activists, which is thus debased to the level of an impotent talking shop.

Such a thing represents no threat to the capitalist system. It is no more than a minor inconvenience. It has even been seriously suggested that the bankers and capitalists, instead of violently dispersing the protests, ought to go along and participate in the debates, thus establishing a friendly dialogue with the young dissenters, and show them that the exploiters are really not so bad after all.

In this way the protest movement would lose its revolutionary character. It would be gradually integrated into the system it is supposed to be challenging. The most militant spokespersons of the protests can be taken to one side and enticed with flattery, jobs, and careers: “What an intelligent young person! Why, you almost convince me! You know, we need capable youngsters like you in business…” We have seen this happen many times before.

In order to avoid these pitfalls, an understanding of theory and the lessons of the past is an essential precondition for success. While most people will have to go through a painful process of learning by trial and error, Marxists base themselves on the lessons of the past. We can say what has worked and what hasn’t and apply this knowledge to the present situation. We will still make some mistakes, and it is not as simple as looking up the answer in a revolutionary cookbook, but we really have no need to reinvent the wheel; it was invented a very long time ago!

Reformism or revolution?

In the past, the reformists were actually able to negotiate a few extra crumbs for the workers from the capitalists’ table. However, the crisis of capitalism necessarily means the crisis of reformism. The way forward demands a serious struggle against reformism, a struggle to regenerate the mass organisations of the working class, beginning with the unions. They must be transformed into fighting organisations of the working class.

Marxists are not opposed to reforms. On the contrary, we will fight stubbornly for each and every reform that can help make life better for the majority. But under present conditions, no meaningful reforms can be won without an all-out struggle. The days when workers could get serious wage increases by merely threatening strike action are long gone. The bosses say they cannot afford even to maintain the present level of wages, let alone give additional concessions. The days when the right-wing trade union leaders could reach a cosy agreement with the employers and the state have passed into history.

In criticising the present policies of the labour leaders, it is necessary to advance other, better policies. But the protest movement has not yet come up with a clear alternative to reformism. Attempts to limit speculation by imposing a tax on financial transactions is not an alternative to the capitalist system, only a half-hearted attempt to reform a system that cannot be reformed. This is merely another type of reformism. It is significant that even some capitalist politicians  support such taxes. That is sufficient to show that such a measure poses no threat whatsoever to capitalism. It will solve precisely nothing in the long run.

Those who dream of solving the crisis through reforms are living in the past, in a phase of capitalism that has ceased to exist. It is they, not the Marxists, who are utopians! What we need is a full-blooded militancy and a revival of the class struggle.  But in the last analysis, militancy is not enough. Under conditions of capitalist crisis, even the gains of the working class cannot be long-lasting.

What the bosses concede with the left hand they will take back with the right, and vice versa. Wage increases are cancelled out by inflation or tax increases. Factories are closed and unemployment increases. The only way to ensure that reforms are not rolled back is by fighting for a radical change in society. Moreover, even the struggle for reforms can only succeed to the degree that it acquires the widest and most revolutionary scope. All history shows that the ruling class will only make serious concessions when it fears that it will lose everything.

It is not enough simply to say “no.” We must offer an alternative. Just as we need a viable alternative to capitalism, so we need a viable alternative to the old reformist leadership. We must fight against the right-wing bureaucratic leadership of the labour organisations. We must fight for a break with the Democrats and the Republicans and the formation of a labour party based on the unions. But in order to do this, it is absolutely necessary to organise, educate, and train revolutionary cadres who have drawn the correct conclusions from the whole history of the class struggle nationally and internationally.

The theory and practice of anarchism

It is true that in the ranks of the anarchists there have been many courageous fighters. This was especially true of Spain in the 1920s and 30s. But taken as a whole, the history of anarchism over the last hundred years shows clearly that it is a blind alley. The most striking fact is the stark contrast between theory and practice. Trotsky said that the theories of anarchism are like an umbrella full of holes: useless precisely when it rains. This can be shown time and time again.

As a theory, anarchism is confused and superficial. The ideas of Bakunin were cobbled together and plagiarised from the nineteenth century utopian socialists, particularly Proudhon.  Moreover, they were immediately contradicted by Bakunin’s practice. While preaching “freedom,” within his own organisation he introduced a ruthless centralism. Bakunin (or “Citizen B” as he was known) exercised a tyrannical personal dictatorship over his organisation. In his polemics against Marx, he did not hesitate to use the vilest methods, including anti-Semitism. This is further explored in the article  Marx versus Bakunin, included in this volume.1

Of far greater interest are the writings of Peter Kropotkin, a man of ideas who wrote one of the best histories of the French Revolution, which was greatly admired by Trotsky. Nevertheless, it must be pointed out that Kropotkin forgot all about his anarchist ideals in 1914, when he supported the Allies in World War I. He was not the only one.

In France, before World War I, the anarcho-syndicalists succeeded in dominating the main trade union confederation. Their main slogan was for the general strike, which they regarded as a panacea. This was a mistake. Although the general strike is one of the most powerful weapons in the arsenal of the class struggle, it cannot solve the central question: the question of state power.

An all-out general strike—as opposed to a one-day general strike, which is in effect only a demonstration—poses the question of power. It raises the issue: who runs society; you or us? Therefore, it logically must lead to the assumption of power by the working class, or else end in defeat. If the working class does not take state power, then the entire coercive apparatus of the army, police, courts, laws, etc., remains in the hands of the capitalists. This is something the anarchists could never understand, since for most of them, the question of state power is either irrelevant, or can simply be abolished from one day to the next. The anarchists may well “ignore” the state, but the state certainly does not ignore the workers struggling to change society!

Unfortunately, the question of the state, of who rules society, cannot be so easily disposed of. It cannot be ignored. Let us pose the question concretely. If the workers all go on strike, what will happen? All industry, transport, and communications will come to a halt. The factories, shops and banks will be shut. And then what? The capitalists can afford to wait. They are in no danger of starving. But the working class cannot wait indefinitely. They can be starved back to work. And if waiting the movement out does not suffice, the state has many reserves of repression that can be called on to complete the job. This has happened more than once in history. It is happening now with the Occupy movement.

In other words, if it is not linked to the perspective of the working class taking power, the question of the general strike is mere empty demagogy.

So how did matters with the anarcho-syndicalists in France turn out in practice? In 1914, as soon as France entered World War I, the anarcho-syndicalist trade union leaders immediately dropped their fine words about a general strike and entered a coalition government with the bourgeois parties, the Sacred Union (L’Union Sacrée), where they pursued a strike-breaking role for the duration of the war.

This contrast between theory and practice, between words and deeds, was absolutely typical of the history of anarchism from the very beginning. It had its most tragic consequences in Spain in the revolutionary period of the 1930s.

Anarchism in Spain

In Spain, the anarchists had behind them the flower of the working class. In their ranks there were many courageous and dedicated class fighters. The anarchist union, the CNT, was by far the biggest workers’ organisation in Spain. The anarchist workers were outstanding for their courage and militancy. Yet the Spanish Revolution of 1931–37 demonstrated the complete bankruptcy of anarchism as a guide for the workers on the road to a socialist society.

In the summer of 1936, when Franco declared a fascist military uprising against the Republic, the workers of Barcelona, mostly organised in the CNT, stormed the army barracks. Armed only with improvised weapons, they smashed the fascists before they could join Franco’s coup. By this courageous action, they prevented the victory of the fascists in 1936.

As a result of this insurrection, the anarchist workers had complete control of Barcelona. They elected workers’ committees to run the factories under workers’ control and established the workers’ militias. The old bourgeois state had ceased to exist. The sole power was the working class.

It would have been very easy to elect delegates from the factories and militias to a central committee, which could have proclaimed a workers’ government in Catalonia, appealing to the workers and peasants in the rest of Spain to follow their example.

But the leadership of the anarchists did not do this; they refused to form a workers’ government in Catalonia when they had the chance. Even when Lluís Companys, the President of the old bourgeois government of Catalonia (the Generalitat), invited them to take the power, they refused to do so. This was fatal to the revolution. Gradually, the bourgeoisie and the Stalinists rebuilt the old state power in Catalonia, and used it to disarm the popular militias and crush the elements of workers’ power.

Then what did the anarchist leaders do? The same ladies and gentlemen who had earlier refused to form a workers’ government later joined a bourgeois government and helped to shipwreck the revolution. There were actually anarchist ministers in the national bourgeois government in Valencia and the regional government in Catalonia. In practice, the CNT leadership served as a “red front” for the bourgeois government. These actions powerfully contributed to the defeat of the Spanish Revolution, and the people of Spain paid the price with four decades of fascist barbarism.

This was not the result of a “few bad apples” in the anarchist leadership, but flows from the weaknesses inherent in anarchist theory and practice. Without a firm theoretical compass to guide you through the storm and stress of a revolution, decisions are improvised on the fly. “Pragmatism” and empty demagogy rule the day. And without a strong, centralised, democratic, and accountable organisational structure, the leaders are not under the control of the membership and the organisation cannot act as a united, and thereby more powerful whole.

There was one notable exception to the rule, and that was José Buenaventura Durruti, an extraordinary revolutionary fighter who organised an army based on the workers’ militia. This army entered Aragon and waged a revolutionary war against the fascists, turning every village into a bastion of the revolution. But Durruti could only achieve these things to the degree that he broke from the old anarchist dogmas and in practice moved closer to revolutionary Marxism—to Bolshevism.

Although the rank-and-file anarchist workers were undoubtedly sincere and courageous, the balance sheet of the whole historical experience of anarchism was completely negative. That is why today, anarchism has been almost totally eradicated as a trend in the workers’ movement, and survives only in the margins of the student and protest movement, where it simply serves to sow confusion, as we shall see.

Anarchism in the anti-capitalist movement

What effect does the theory and practice of anarchism have in the anti-capitalist movement?

The first problem was the refusal to accept majority decisions. It is an elementary proposition of democracy that the minority must accept the decision of the majority. The anarchists object to this, since, for them, it represents the “tyranny” of the majority over the minority.

Unfortunately, since it is rarely possible in any collective to achieve 100% satisfaction for everybody, someone is bound to be displeased if their particular viewpoint is not accepted by the majority. But what is the alternative? The only alternative is the politics of consensus. What does this mean in practice?

If there are, say, a hundred people in an assembly, and 99 vote in favour of a proposition, and just one person votes against, what should happen? According to the democratic principle, the view of the 99 carries the day and the one dissenting individual accepts the decision. He or she is not required to change his or her views, and may reserve the right to continue to argue their case and attempt to get the majority to change its mind. But in the meantime, the decision of the majority stands.

Apart from making good sense from a strictly democratic point of view, this procedure has the advantage of allowing us to proceed from talking to action. This is at bottom a class question. The democratic procedure is well-known to workers and trade unionists. It can be seen in every strike. The discipline that is imposed on the worker through the capitalist system—through the division of labour and regimentation of production—is the very same discipline that the workers turn against the bosses through organisation into trade unions and political parties of labour.

In contrast to the workers, the middle classes are used to individualistic methods and have an individualistic mentality. An assembly of students can debate for hours, days, and weeks without ever coming to a conclusion. They have plenty of time and are accustomed to that kind of thing. But a factory mass meeting is an entirely different affair. Before a strike, the workers discuss, debate, and listen to different opinions. But at the end of the day, the issue must be decided. It is put to the vote and the majority decides.

This is clear and obvious to any worker. And nine times out of ten, the minority will voluntarily accept the decision of the majority. Once the decision to strike has been made, all the workers will abide by it. In most cases, even those who argued against a strike will support it and even play an active role on the picket line.

What about the anarchist method of consensus? It means, in practice, that if even one person disagrees, no decision can be reached. This signifies the tyranny of the minority over the majority, whose rights are being denied. It can even signify the dictatorship of a single individual—the very opposite of democracy from any point of view. This has absolutely nothing to do with democracy or socialism, but is a clear expression of petty-bourgeois individualism and egotism.

To see where this can lead, let us return to the example of a strike. There are always a few individuals who will try to go to work although their workmates have decided to drop tools. They complain that their individual rights have been violated by the “tyranny of the majority.” This is the same logic behind so-called “right to work” legislation. These people are always presented by the bourgeois press as “fighters for freedom and the rights of the individual.” The workers, however, have another name for such great individualists: they are called class traitors and scabs.

Here, in a nutshell, we have the difference between the proletarian-revolutionary standpoint, based on the collective will of the workers, and the standpoint of petty-bourgeois individualism.

A recipe for impotence

The recent experience of the protest movement provides many examples of the negative role of anarchist methods. To help illustrate this concretely, I have taken a random sample of comments written by participants in the Occupy movement, all of which I found on the Reddit website.

One participant wrote:

“So I went to our local Occupy Wall Street meeting called “Occupy Victoria.” There I discovered that anarchists couldn’t organise their way out of a box if their lives depended on it.”

Another person had this to say:

“Despite being led by a self-appointed committee, the local Occupy Wall Street group functions on what they refer to as ‘consensus based decision making’, which is where if one single person disagrees then they can derail the entire conversation and continue to debate, debate, debate until everybody agrees.”

In other words: The dictatorship of the lowest common denominator.

“It took an hour and a half before anybody was informed of what we were even thinking of doing this Saturday. Up until we were haphazardly/accidentally told what was going on, we had an endless parade of ultra-leftist fluff speeches, “moments of silence to reflect upon our feelings,” debating on whether or not we should allow photographs to be taken, arguing over the role of the police, whether or not we should officially endorse a declaration in solidarity with the first nations peoples, etc…it was a complete debacle and waste of time and in the 2 hours we were there, essentially nothing got done except we handed out a few posters for people to put up.

“The only conclusive decision that we came to was that we “would continue the discussion on the website.”

This is a very typical example of how “consensus politics” serves to paralyse the protest movement, to reduce it to a mere talking shop and prevent it from taking a single step forward. Just because a small group is not satisfied, the meeting is condemned to go round and round in circles: “We must discuss more! We must discuss more!” And as a result we never actually do anything. This is like a man who tries to quench his thirst by drinking salt water.

Another person had this observation:

“One problem with consensus is that dissenting views actually get papered over. Because everyone has to agree, or at least pretend to agree, dissenting views cannot continue to be clearly expressed, for fear of upsetting the “consensus.” It ends up becoming a war of attrition—who’s willing to hold out the longest to their position—and necessarily drives away larger numbers of people, since most people don’t have the time or inclination to put up with this type of process.

“In practice, consensus ends up being the dictatorship of the minority—sometimes a minority of one—over the majority. It’s completely undemocratic and holds back organising and political development.

“It allows for a couple people to derail the process. All voices can be heard under democracy, but that a small minority disagrees strongly is not an argument for why they should be able to stall further decision making.

“Also, if one or two people have a strong ethical objection to a proposal, it suggests a principled difference with the broader group, which raises the question of whether the group is a logical one for them to be part of in the first place.”


This kind of thing naturally generates frustration among those for whom the protest movement should be more than a talking shop. Sadly, the experience will be only too familiar to many participants in the protest movement. Here is another account, this time from Florida:

“It’s exactly the same thing with Occupy Florida. The self-appointed administrator/volunteer who runs the Facebook group of the local chapter of this leaderless movement speaks for the entire group, and the ideology of this dictator is that the problem comes down to corporatism (how it’s misused in the vernacular). Capitalism isn’t even discussed as possibly being the culprit.

“I interjected with: ‘It’s the system, stupid. I’m sorry but I don’t think that fighting corporatism is enough when…’

The dictator replies with: ‘Don’t call me stupid! And then don’t go on to apologise for it…’”

These crying contradictions are recognised by honest anarchists, as the following comment shows:

“I’m an anarchist and I absolutely agree with you. I had exactly the same experience at a local protest. We spent over two hours discussing the formation of work groups, and the majority of that discussion was a meta-discussion about how we should discuss the formation of work groups. I ultimately ran out of time and had to leave, and I was kind of happy about it because that organisation process was like pulling teeth.”

Another Reddit user gave vent to the sense of frustration felt by many:

“Are all anarchist groups this completely f***ing useless? Has anybody else had a similar experience?”

The whole point of democracy is majority rule. As someone wittily observed: “If everyone has to agree about everything, maybe we should change the slogan to: ‘We are the 100%’!” With all its limitations, the democratic system is the only one that allows a genuine participation of the masses. There must be a full and free debate, with every viewpoint freely expressed. But if it is not to degenerate into a mere talking shop, debate must end in a vote in which the majority must decide, and the minority must accept the decision of the majority.

The imposition of consensus leads inevitably to inaction, frustration, time-wasting and, eventually, to a falling-off of participation. Many people who took part in the initial Occupy meetings drift away and leave the organising committees because they are frustrated with the endless debates and discussions that are going nowhere.

The methods that seemed so democratic, that were supposed to encourage the maximum of participation, in the end only succeed in alienating people and undermining the movement. A different method is needed, a genuinely democratic method which allows everyone to speak their mind freely, but which at the end of the day leads to clear-cut decisions and positive action.

Self-appointed cliques

The Russian Bolshevik Bukharin once joked that anarchism has two rules: the first rule is that you must not form a party; the second rule is that nobody must obey the first rule! Although in theory these anarchist methods are ultra-democratic, in practice they produce the worst kind of bureaucracy: the rule of self-appointed cliques. The contradictory nature of this position is clear to the more thinking elements among the anarchists:

“I’m an anarchist and I agree with the critique of consensus decision-making. Allowing everyone in a large group to have a veto is paralysing. Mass assemblies, especially without a well-set agenda, tend to veer far off-topic.

“I’ve been to activist meetings that have been made up of mostly anarchists where consensus decision-making was used. There were problems, but the group tried very hard to be aware of these issues and they did manage to get things done. I learned a number of different things from this experience.

“Though there were obviously no official leaders in the group, a de facto leadership of 3 people emerged, who dominated the discourse and decision-making by simply being older, more experienced, and more confident. There was even one person (a white guy, surprise surprise) who was particularly leading the group. There was a lot of drama over this, and I was actually happy that people were pointing out discussing the effects of race, class, and gender on decision-making and leadership, but nevertheless the group collapsed due to all of the discontent.

“This was a group of like 9 people, and even that low number of people had a tough time getting their sh*t together through consensus decision-making. It seemed like a lot of things passed simply because the younger, less confident members were too nervous to object or to stall a decision. Again, I applaud them for trying to be aware of these problems but the problems still persisted, often unspoken of except for in small groups of members.”

The anarchist methods of organisation invariably turns into their opposite. The “anti-leader,” “anti-centralist,” and “anti-bureaucratic” tendency turns out to be the most bureaucratic and undemocratic system of all. We have seen this many times. Behind the apparently democratic anarchy of a formless assembly with no rules, no structure, and (theoretically) no leaders, someone always makes decisions. But this “someone” is not elected by anybody—“Elections? By majority vote? God forbid!”—and is therefore not responsible to anybody.

Behind the scenes, these “non-bureaucratic” setups are run by self-appointed cliques of individuals (very often anarchists). This, in practice, is the worst form of bureaucracy—an irresponsible bureaucracy that can do just what it likes because there is no formal democratic method of control.

The state

The question of the state is one of the points that have traditionally divided Marxism and anarchism. So just what is the state? Marxism explains that the state is a product and a manifestation of the irreconcilability of class antagonisms in society. It arises where, when, and insofar as class antagonisms cannot be reconciled. Conversely, the very existence of the state proves that the class antagonisms are irreconcilable.

Summing up his historical analysis of the state, Frederick Engels says:

“The state is, therefore, by no means a power forced on society from without; just as little is it “the reality of the ethical idea,” “the image and reality of reason,” as Hegel maintains. Rather, it is a product of society at a certain stage of development; it is the admission that this society has become entangled in an insoluble contradiction with itself, that it has split into irreconcilable antagonisms which it is powerless to dispel. But in order that these antagonisms, these classes with conflicting economic interests, might not consume themselves and society in fruitless struggle, it became necessary to have a power, seemingly standing above society, that would alleviate the conflict and keep it within the bounds of “order”; and this power, arisen out of society but placing itself above it, and alienating itself more and more from it, is the state.”2

The modern state is a bureaucratic behemoth that devours a colossal amount of the wealth produced by the working class. Marxists and anarchists agree that the state is a monstrous instrument of oppression that must be eliminated. The question is: How? By whom? And what will replace it? This is a fundamental question for any revolution. In a speech on anarchism during the Russian Civil War, Trotsky summarized very well the Marxist position on the state:

“The bourgeoisie says: don’t touch the state power; it is the sacred hereditary privilege of the educated classes. But the Anarchists say: don’t touch it; it is an infernal invention, a diabolical device, don’t have anything to do with it. The bourgeoisie says don’t touch it because it’s sacred. The Anarchists say: don’t touch it, because it’s sinful. Both say: don’t touch it. But we say: don’t just touch it, take it in your hands, and set it to work in your own interests, for the abolition of private ownership and the emancipation of the working class.”3

Marxism explains that that the state consists ultimately of armed bodies of men: of the army, police, courts, and jails. It is an instrument of the ruling class for the oppression of other classes. Against the confused ideas of the anarchists, Marx argued that the workers need a state to overcome the resistance of the exploiting classes. But that argument of Marx has been distorted by both the bourgeois and the anarchists.

The Paris Commune of 1871 was one of the greatest and most inspiring episodes in the history of the working class. In a tremendous revolutionary movement, the working people of Paris replaced the capitalist state with their own organs of government and held political power until their downfall a few months later. The Parisian workers strove, in extremely difficult circumstances, to put an end to exploitation and oppression, and to reorganise society on an entirely new foundation.

The Commune was a glorious episode in the history of the world working class. For the first time, the popular masses, with the workers at their head, overthrew the old state and at least began the task of transforming society. With no clearly-defined plan of action, leadership or organisation, the masses displayed an astonishing degree of courage, initiative and creativity. Yet in the last analysis, the lack of a bold and far-wsighted leadership and a clear programme led to a terrible defeat. Marx and Engels followed the developments in France very closely and based themselves upon the experience to work out their theory of the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” which is merely a more scientifically precise term for “the political rule of the working class.”

Marx and Engels drew a thorough balance sheet of the Commune, pointing out its advances as well as its errors and deficiencies. These can almost all be traced to the failings of the leadership. The leaders of the Commune were a mixed bunch, ranging from a minority of Marxists to elements who stood closer to reformism or anarchism. One of the reasons the Commune failed was that it did not launch a revolutionary offensive against the reactionary government that had installed itself at Versailles. This gave time to the counterrevolutionary forces to rally and attack Paris. Over 30,000 people were butchered by the counterrevolution. The Commune was literally buried under a mound of corpses.

Summing up the experience of the Paris Commune, Marx and Engels explained: “One thing especially was proved by the Commune, viz., that ‘the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes’…”4

Stalinism or communism?

The bourgeois and its apologists wish to confuse the workers and youth by attempting to identify the idea of communism with the monstrous bureaucratic and totalitarian regime of Stalinist Russia. “Do you want Communism? Here it is! That is Communism! The Berlin Wall is Communism! Hungary 1956 is Communism! The Soviet gulags are Communism!” Unfortunately, the anarchists also echo these arguments.

This is a stupid calumny. The workers’ state established by the Bolshevik Revolution was neither bureaucratic nor totalitarian. On the contrary, before the Stalinist bureaucracy usurped control from the masses, it was the most democratic state that ever existed. The basic principles of the Soviet power were not invented by Marx or Lenin. They were based on the concrete experience of the Paris Commune, and later elaborated upon by Lenin.

The basic conditions for workers’ democracy were set forth in one of Lenin’s most important works: The State and Revolution.5 Ted Grant summarized Lenin’s ideas in the following four points:

  1. Free and democratic elections with the right of recall of all officials
  2. No official to receive a higher wage than a skilled worker.
  3. No standing army or police force, but the armed people.
  4. Gradually, all the administrative tasks to be done in turn by all. “Every cook should be able to be Prime Minister—When everyone is a ‘bureaucrat’ in turn, nobody can be a bureaucrat.”6

These were the conditions which Lenin laid down, not for full-fledged socialism or communism, but for the very first period of a workers’ state, at its inception—the period of the transition from capitalism to socialism.

The transition to socialism—a higher form of society based on genuine democracy and plenty for all—can only be accomplished by the active and conscious participation of the working class in the running of society, of industry, and of the state. It is not something that is kindly handed down to the workers by kindhearted capitalists or bureaucratic mandarins. The whole conception of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky was based upon this fact.

Under Lenin and Trotsky, the Soviet state was constructed as to facilitate the drawing of workers into the tasks of control and accounting, to ensure the uninterrupted progress of the reduction of the “special functions” of officialdom and of the power of the state. Strict limitations were placed upon the salaries, power, and privileges of officials in order to prevent the formation of a privileged caste.

The Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies were elected assemblies composed not of professional politicians and bureaucrats, but of ordinary workers, peasants, and soldiers. It was not an alien power standing over society, but a power based on the direct initiative of the people from below. Its laws were not like the laws enacted by a capitalist state power.

As Lenin explained:

“It is an entirely different kind of power from the one that generally exists in the parliamentary bourgeois-democratic republics of the usual type still prevailing in the advanced countries of Europe and America….This power is of the same type as the Paris Commune of 1871.

The fundamental characteristics of this type are: (1) the source of power is not a law previously discussed and enacted by parliament, but the direct initiative of the people from below, in their local areas—direct “seizure,” to use a current expression; (2) the replacement of the police and the army, which are institutions divorced from the people and set against the people, by the direct arming of the whole people; order in the state under such a power is maintained by the armed workers and peasants themselves, by the armed people themselves; (3) officialdom, the bureaucracy, are either similarly replaced by the direct rule of the people themselves or at least placed under special control; they not only become elected officials, but are also subject to recall at the people’s first demand; they are reduced to the position of simple agents; from a privileged group holding “jobs” remunerated on a high, bourgeois scale, they become workers of a special “arm of the service” whose remuneration does not exceed the ordinary pay of a competent worker.

This, and this alone, constitutes the essence of the Paris Commune as a special type of state.”7  

Lenin emphasised that the proletariat needs only a state that is “so constituted that it will at once begin to die away and cannot help dying away.” A genuine workers’ state has nothing in common with the bureaucratic monster that exists today, and even less the one that existed in Stalinist Russia.

The early Soviet Union was in fact not a state at all in the sense we normally understand it, but only the organised expression of the revolutionary power of the working people. To use the phrase of Marx, it was a “semi-state,” a state so designed that it would eventually wither away and be dissolved into society, giving way to the collective administration of society for the benefit of all, without force or coercion. That, and only that, is the genuine Marxist conception of a workers’ state.

Violence or non-violence?

The question of the state is naturally linked with the question of violence. The ruling class has at its disposal a vast apparatus of coercion: the army, the police, the intelligence services, the courts, the prisons, the lawyers, judges, and prison wardens. Many protesters have recently received a valuable education in the Marxist theory of the state—on the end of a policeman’s baton.

This should not really surprise us. All history shows that no ruling class ever gives up its wealth, power and privileges without a fight—and that usually means a fight with no holds barred. Every revolutionary movement will come up against this apparatus of state repression.

What is the Marxists’ attitude towards violence? The bourgeoisie and its defenders always accuse Marxists of advocating violence. This is highly ironic, considering the vast arsenals of weaponry that the ruling class has piled up, the armies of heavily armed troops, cops, prisons, and so on and so forth. The ruling class is not at all opposed to violence per se. In fact, its rule is based on violence in many different forms. The only violence that the ruling class abhors is when the poor, downtrodden, and exploited masses attempt to defend themselves against the organised violence of the bourgeois state.  That is, it is against any violence directed at its class rule, power, and property.

It goes without saying that we do not advocate violence. We are prepared to make use of each and every opening allowed to us by bourgeois democracy. But we should be under no illusions. Beneath the thin veneer of democracy there is the reality of the dictatorship of the banks and big corporations.

While the people are told that they can democratically decide the direction of the country through elections, in reality, all the real decisions are taken by the boards of directors. The interests of a tiny handful of bankers and capitalists carry much more weight than the votes of millions of ordinary citizens. The real meaning of formal bourgeois democracy is this: anyone can say (more or less) what they like, as long as big business decides what really happens.

This dictatorship of big business is normally concealed behind a smiling mask. But at critical moments, the smiling mask of “democracy” slips to reveal the ugly face of the dictatorship of capital. The question is whether “We, the People” have the right to fight against this dictatorship and strive to overthrow it.

The answer was given long ago when the American people rose up, arms in hand, to defend their rights against the tyranny of the English Crown. It is enshrined in the Second Amendment of the American Constitution, which defends the people’s right to bear arms as a guarantee of freedom. The “founding fathers” upheld the rights of the people to armed insurrection against a tyrannical government. The New Hampshire Constitution of 1784 tells us that “non-resistance against arbitrary power, and oppression, is absurd, slavish, and destructive of the good and happiness of mankind.”

Every revolution in history—including the American Revolution—shows the correctness of Marx’s words when he wrote that “force is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one.” Nonetheless, in the very first programmatic statement of Marxism, The Principles of Communism, Engels wrote the following:

“Question 16: Will it be possible to bring about the abolition of private property by peaceful means?

“Answer: It is to be desired that this could happen, and Communists certainly would be the last to resist it. The Communists know only too well that all conspiracies are not only futile but even harmful. They know only too well that revolutions are not made deliberately and arbitrarily, but that everywhere and at all times they were the essential outcome of circumstances quite independent of the will and the leadership of particular parties and entire classes. But they likewise perceive that the development of the proletariat is in nearly every civilised country forcibly suppressed, and that thereby the opponents of the Communists are tending in every way to promote revolution. Should the oppressed proletariat in the end be goaded into a revolution, we Communists will then defend the cause of the proletarians by deed as well as we do now by word.”8

The fact is that once the working class is organised and mobilised to change society, no state, army, or police can stop it. Nine times out of ten, any violence arising during a revolutionary situation is initiated by the ruling class, which is desperate to hold on to power. Therefore, the danger of violence is in inverse proportion to the willingness of the working class to fight to change society. As the ancient Romans used to say: Si pacem vis para bellumif you want peace, prepare for war.

However, that does not mean that we advocate sporadic acts of violence by groups or individuals: senseless rioting, breaking windows, arson, etc. Such things sometimes reflect the genuine anger and frustration felt by people, especially the unemployed and dispossessed youth, at the sheer injustice of class society. But these kinds of actions achieve nothing positive. They merely alienate the broader layers of the working class and give the ruling class an excuse to unleash the full force of the state, in order to crack down on the protest movement in general.

There is a force in society that is far stronger than even the most powerful state or army: that is the power of the working class, once it is organised and mobilised to change society. Not a wheel turns, not a phone rings, not a light bulb shines without the permission of the working class! Once this enormous power is mobilised, no force on earth can stop it.

Powerful union organisations exist that would be more than capable of overthrowing capitalism if the millions of workers they represent were mobilised to this end. The problem once again reduces itself to a problem of leadership of the working class and its organisations.

What is to be done?

The leadership of the mass organisations, beginning with the trade unions, is in a lamentable state everywhere. A panorama opens up not only of great battles, but also of defeats of the working class as a result of bad leadership. It is understandable that some young people, disgusted with the role of the current leaderships, look to anarchist ideas as a solution.

In most cases, however, those who describe themselves as anarchists have no knowledge either of the theories or history of anarchism. Their anarchism is not really anarchism at all, but it is a healthy reaction against bureaucracy and reformism. When they say: “we are against politics!” what they mean is: “we are against the existing politics, which do not represent the views of ordinary people!” When they say: “we do not need parties and leaders!” they mean: “we do not need the present political parties and leaders who are remote from society and only defend their own interests and the rich people who back them.”

This “anarchism” is in reality only the outer shell of an immature Bolshevism, of revolutionary Marxism. These are sincere young people who desire to transform society with all their heart. Many of them will come to understand the limitations of anarchist ideas and methods and will seek a more effective revolutionary alternative. The lack of an adequate leadership and a clear programme for action is already being felt by an increasing number of activists in the Occupy movement.

Through painful experience, the new generation of workers and youth are beginning to understand the nature of the problems that lie before them and are gradually beginning to grasp the need for radical solutions. The best elements are beginning to realise that the only way out of the impasse is through the revolutionary reconstruction of society from top to bottom.

It will not be easy to achieve this; but then, nothing worthwhile in life is ever easy. The first and most important step is to say no to the existing society, its institutions, values and morality. In many ways this is the easiest step. It is not difficult to protest and reject. But what is also necessary is to say positively what is to be done.

This underlines the need for clarity in ideas, programmes and tactics. Mistakes in theory inevitably lead to mistakes in practice. This is not an academic exercise. The class struggle is not a game, and history is full of examples where the lack of political clarity led to the most tragic consequences. Spain in the 1930s is a case in point.

The first stages of the revolution are inevitably accompanied by naïveté and all kinds of illusions. But such illusions will be destroyed by events. The movement is proceeding by trial and error. It needs time to learn. If a Marxist party already existed, with roots in the masses and political authority, the learning process would undoubtedly be much shorter, and there would be fewer defeats and setbacks. But such a party does not yet exist. It has to be built in the heat of events.

Confusion, the lack of a programme, and never-ending debate is no substitute for positive action. If the Occupy movement is to succeed, it must be armed with clear ideas and a consistent revolutionary programme. That can only be provided by Marxism. The workers and students have shown the most tremendous resourcefulness and initiative. All now depends on the ability of the most revolutionary elements of the workers and youth to draw all the necessary conclusions. Armed with a genuine socialist revolutionary programme, they would be invincible.

Fight for socialism!

Is it really true that there is no alternative to capitalism? No, it is not true! The alternative is a system based on production for the needs of the many and not the profits of the few; a system that replaces economic chaos and anarchy with harmonious planning; that replaces the rule of a minority of wealthy parasites with the rule of the majority who produce all the wealth of society. The name of this alternative is socialism.

Genuine socialism has nothing in common with the bureaucratic and totalitarian caricature that existed in Stalinist Russia. It is a genuine democracy based on the ownership, control and management of the key levers of the productive forces by the working class.

Some think it is utopian to suggest that the human race can take hold of its own fate and run society on the basis of a democratic plan of production. However, the need for a socialist planned economy is not an invention of Marx or any other thinker. It flows from objective necessity. The potential for world socialism flows from the present conditions of capitalism itself. All that is necessary is for the working class, which constitutes the majority, to take over the running of society, expropriate the banks and giant monopolies, and mobilise the vast unused and untapped productive potential to begin solving the problems we face.

In order that humanity can be free to realise its full potential, it is necessary to free industry, agriculture, science, and technology from the suffocating restraints of capitalism. Once the productive forces are free from these suffocating limitations, society would be capable of immediately satisfying all human wants and preparing the way for a gigantic advance for humanity.

We invite all those who are interested in fighting to change society to join with us, to discuss, debate our differences, and to test the viability of ideas and programmes in the practice of the class struggle. Only in this way can we put an end to the prevailing confusion and attain the ideological clarity and organisational cohesion that are necessary to achieve our final victory.


1 See this volume, 81-133.

2 F. Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, in Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 3, 326–27.

3 Leon Trotsky, How The Revolution Armed, Vol. 1, 1918 (London: New Park, 1979), 400–401.

4 Karl Marx, Preface to the 1872 German edition of Manifesto of the Communist Party, in Marx/Engels Collected Works, vol. 23 (New York: International, 1976), 175.

5 Lenin, “What is to Replace the Smashed State Machine?” in The State and Revolution, Four Marxist Classics (St. Paul: Wellred, 2008), 109–21.

6 Ted Grant, “Hungary and the Crisis in the Communist Party,” in Ted Grant: Selected Works, vol. 1 (St. Paul: Wellred, 2009), 150.

7 V.I. Lenin, The Dual Power in Collected Works, vol. 24 (Moscow: Progress, 1980), 38–39.

8 Engels, Principles of Communism, in Marx and Engels Selected Works, vol. 1 (Moscow: Progress, 1969), 89.

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