A raincoat full of holes

August 1, 2001


Marxism versus Anarchism
By Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, Leon Trotsky, John G. Wright and V.I. Lenin
Resistance Books, 2001
237 pages, $19.95


The series of actions against corporate globalisation, from Seattle in 1999 and the S11 protests in Melbourne last year to Genoa last month, has begun to force radical activists to develop their understanding of competing ideas, practices and organisational forms within the anti-capitalist movement.

The long-standing differences between anarchism and Marxism have re-emerged among the anti-capitalist activists. Marxists, for example, consider that cooperation in spite of differences of opinion — unity in action — can multiply the movement's force, while the "autonomy" advocated and enacted by anarchist-influenced elements has disorganised protests and held the movement back by making the majority subject to the results of the actions of unaccountable minorities.

The publication by Resistance Books of this selection of Marxist writings on anarchism is therefore timely. The writings — principally by Karl Marx, Frederick Engels and Leon Trotsky — lay bare the central weakness of anarchism: its failure to promote political action by working people on their own behalf, instead leaving them dependent for emancipation on more spontaneous forms of struggle. Anarchism does this because it rejects any struggle by the working class for state power.

The first section of Marxism versus Anarchism is on the First International and its struggle, led by Marx and Engels, against the anarchist currents inspired by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Mikhail Bakunin.

The second section helps to clarify the history of the crushing of the 1921 Kronstadt sailors' revolt by the Bolshevik-led Soviet government — a favourite shibboleth of the anarchists.

The final section, "The Spanish Revolution: The Decisive Test", illustrates the bankruptcy of anarchism in practice.

The book's introduction, by Nick Soudakoff, provides useful historical background to the 1930s Spanish revolution and civil war. Anarchism enjoyed significant support in Spain in the early and mid 1930s. The Federation of Iberian Anarchists (FAI) led the National Labour Federation (CNT), which claimed a membership of 1.5 million workers in 1931.

Strikes by the CNT union federation forced the resignation of the liberal-republican Madrid government in 1933. However, the FAI's abstention from the November 1933 elections helped to restore a reactionary right-wing government, which held office until February 1936 and inflicted a number of defeats on the Spanish working class.

In July 1936, the Spanish anarchist leaders called for a vote for the Popular Front, the liberal-left coalition of bourgeois republicans, Socialists and Communists, which won the 1936 elections. This result led to an enormous boost in the expectations of the workers and peasants.

The Spanish capitalists, fearing that the Populr Front government would be unable to contain the radicalisation of the workers and peasants, backed a fascist-inspired revolt by the army against the government. The Popular Front government, seeking to reassure the capitalists of its commitment to the maintenance of the social status quo, refused to arm the workers.

Only mass popular action defeated the fascists in large parts of the country. In Catalonia, Valencia, and parts of Aragon and Asturias, the CNT and the FAI took the lead in workers' factory occupations, creation of popular militias and peasant land redistributions.

This created a revolutionary situation. The anarchists then waited for the spontaneous revolutionary upsurge to proceed to sweep away all forms of state power. The fascists and the Popular Front government, meanwhile, both organised to sweep away the alternative power created by the workers and peasants. This strengthened the military position of the fascist armies.

The anarchist leaders then ditched in practice their anti-state doctrines to become ministers in the bourgeois-republican Popular Front. This government soon put an end to workers' control of the factories, reversed the land redistributions and suppressed the rank-and-file anarchists who defended Barcelona as a revolutionary stronghold.

Trotsky argued in his article "The Lessons of Spain": "Thus anarchism, which merely wanted to be apolitical, proved in reality to anti-revolutionary, and in the more critical moments — counterrevolutionary."

Marx and Engels' contribution to the theoretical understanding of anarchism is enlightening.

As socialist activists in the 19th century, Marx and Engels engaged in political activity with a broad range of forces. Many activists were influenced by the "mutualist" ideas of Proudhon, whose assertion "property is theft" was renowned. In the First International — the International Workingmen's Association (IWA) — Marx and Engels combatted the anarchist ideas of Proudhon's followers, particularly their hostility to trade union organisation and independent working-class political activity.

It was also during the period of the existence of the First International — 1864-74 — that Marx and Engels encountered the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin.

Bakunin's role in organising the Alliance of Socialist Democracy with the IWA so undermined the latter's work it was forced to expel the Bakuninists and to restrict the membership of the association to those in agreement with common principles, constitution and a general line of action with the ultimate aim of worldwide revolution. According to Marx and Engels, those forces which seek to undermine united working-class political action with "universal pan-destructive acts" are counterproductive to progressive struggle.

Adherents to anarchism uphold the necessity of abolishing the state — the special apparatus of coercion by which one class rules over others. Marx and Engels argued that this goal could only be achieved through the working class, the class of propertyless wage workers, becoming the ruling class and using its ruling position to eradicate the material conditions that divided society into classes. The working class, they argued, would need its own form of state power in order to suppress the resistance to the abolition of private ownership of the means of production by the defeated capitalist class.

The anarchists, by contrast, argued that state power should be abolished immediately by the workers' revolution against capitalism. Anarchists believe the existence of the state — regardless of which class it represents — necessarily oppresses the working population in the interest of a ruling minority. They therefore oppose the seizure of state power by the working class.

A result of anarchism's absolute opposition to the state — that is, to political power — is abstention from political struggle. Thus, the Spanish anarchists initially refused to lead the workers' political struggle, handing this over to the leadership of the reformist Socialists and anti-revolutionary Stalinists.

The Spanish anarchists' refusal to utilise the leadership they had won in the workers' past economic struggles to help the workers organise themselves into a new, working-class state power to suppress all opposition to their class interests, left the workers without revolutionary leadership in the struggle against both the fascists and the bourgeois republicans. As the exiled Russian Marxist Leon Trotsky observed at the time, anarchism is like a raincoat full of holes: it only works when it is not needed. Anarchism is a "revolutionary" theory that does not work in revolutionary situations.

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.