Anarchism & Marxism: Their Similarities & Differences

Mark Vorpahl
For Anarchists, classes exist because of the state. Without the state, society would by definition be classless. Therefore, Anarchists main aim is to liquidate the state. Only after this will it be possible to build a classless society based on mutual cooperation. For Marxists, in contrast, the state arose as a result of class conflict […]

In discussing Anarchism and Marxism with U.S. activists, there is an immediate challenge. Even on the issues that have traditionally separated these ideologies, there are many variations among those who belong to either camp that can create confusion, especially for those new to the discussion. This situation can largely be explained by the current failure of either Anarchist or Marxist political traditions to take deep roots on a mass level in the U.S. working class. Without such roots, adherents to these two political trends are more prone to develop isolated variations in belief and practice that are at odds with their historical tenet because these variations do not have the opportunity to be tested in mass organizations. Consequently, for U.S. radicals, the distinguishing features of Anarchism and Marxism become muddled and appear remote from their day-to-day activity.
In spite of this, there are important similarities and differences between Anarchism and Marxism when it comes to revolutionary perspectives and social movement building. In this article, I will try to begin to describe these issues, recognizing that not all of the statements that are ascribed to those who call themselves Anarchists or Marxists will be recognized as statements that describe each individual’s beliefs.

Common Ground

  • Both Anarchism and Marxism were developed during the industrial revolution. They share a significant amount of common ground.
    Both Anarchism and Marxism are anti-capitalist. Their aim is not to reform capitalism into something kinder and gentler, but to eliminate it as a system because it is inherently based on worker exploitation and oppression.
  • Both Anarchists and Marxists believe it is the task of the oppressed to liberate themselves rather than trying to pressure the capitalist class to reform capitalism.
  • Both Anarchists and Marxists see the state as an instrument of class oppression. Therefore, both aim to completely dismantle the capitalist state.
  • Finally, both Anarchists and Marxists aim to create a classless and stateless society based on mutual cooperation.

Differing Revolutionary Perspectives

Some of the more fundamental differences between Anarchism and Marxism revolve around how to achieve a classless, stateless society. Before examining these differences, let’s explain what the state is so that everyone is on the same page.
Fundamentally, the state is special armed bodies and, behind them, the bureaucratic agencies, administrative and legislative bodies, laws, and jails, that act as coercive forces to defend and promote the interests of the ruling class against all others. During the times of Ancient Greek and Roman slaveocracy, the state would defend and promote the interests of the slave-holders against the slaves. In modern times, the state defends and promotes the interests of the capitalists against workers or wage slaves.
For Anarchists, classes exist because of the state. Without the state, society would by definition be classless. Therefore, Anarchists main aim is to liquidate the state. Only after this will it be possible to build a classless society based on mutual cooperation.
For Marxists, in contrast, the state arose as a result of class conflict to assure the victory of a powerful minority class against the majority. It was the development of different classes, arising out of societies evolving productive means and relationships, which necessitated the creation of the state.

Like Anarchists, Marxists aim to dismantle the capitalist state. In fact, for Marxists, this is what distinguishes working class revolution from the capitalist revolutions against feudalism. After the working class establishment of the Paris Commune in 1871, Marx observed that while with the capitalist revolutions the capitalists took control over the state armies and bureaucracies, workers do not have that option when combating the capitalists. In Marx’s words, the state must be smashed.

What After Capitalism’s Defeat?

Marxists and Anarchists start to diverge in their perspectives when it comes to what must be done after the capitalist state is defeated. Since this is the end game for Anarchists, they have no perspectives towards what is necessary after this victory. Marxists, on the other hand, do not believe it will be possible to immediately create a classless, stateless society after the defeat of capitalism. There will be, for a time, counterrevolutionaries that must not be allowed to succeed. Therefore, a state will be needed to repress them.
Furthermore, for Marx, Socialism would have to be based on more developed productive forces than what can be achieved under capitalism. Some kind of state will still be needed for a time to coordinate this develop ment until there is plenty for all and the struggle to fulfill individual material needs is a thing of the past.

The kind of state that Marx envisioned was a workers’ state, where the state would be democratically controlled by the working class as a whole. Marx often described this type of state as “the dictatorship of the proletariat.” For modern readers, after the experience of totalitarian regimes such as fascism and Stalinism, the term “dictatorship” seems to be just the opposite of democracy. However, in Marx’s day, this term had a different meaning. Marx would describe even the most democratic capitalist regimes as a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie (capitalist class). When Marx used the term “dictatorship of the proletariat” he meant that the working class would be firmly in control of the state. This working class control could not be effectively executed without workers’ democracy.
The working class would develop popular assemblies made up of elected delegates from work places, unions, and workers’ districts. These assemblies would be built up from the local to the national level. With the development of such a workers’ state, Marx recognized that there would be a possibility that those democratically charged with the functions of the state, such as the elected delegates or administrators, could develop interests that were not aligned with the interests of the entire working class. To combat the growth of such a bureaucracy Marx advocated that:

1. All elected delegates to the assemblies be subject to immediate recall by a simple majority vote when their base feels it is necessary.
2. That the delegates should make the same amount of income as the average skilled worker and no more than this.
3. Marx also advocated that these assemblies be actual working bodies, executive and legislative at the same time so that they would have the power to implement their policies.

In regards to this last point, Marx was contrasting the functioning of assemblies in a workers’ state to that of parliamentary bodies in capitalist democracies. Under capitalist democracy, representatives are elected to fool working people and create abstract laws, while the real functions of the state are executed behind the scenes in special departments, think tanks, and boards composed of capitalists. In contrast, the workers’ democracy Marx advocated, consisted of elected delegates charged with not only creating laws but executing them as well in a way that was completely transparent and accountable to those who had elected the commune delegates.

We see an example of this kind of workers’ democracy in Venezuela’s community councils and communas. (Communas are composed of elected delegates from the neighborhood organized community councils to deal with issues on a regionwide basis.) In these bodies, not only are decisions made regarding projects and political matters, the delegates are expected to get feedback from and organize their own base to accomplish the decisions. Through this practice of what has been called “Participatory Democracy” the artificial division of executive and legislative functions are dissolved, opening up the decision-making process to grass roots participation and control.

Marx also advocated that the standing army be replaced with an armed populace for their self-defense. In addition, he also advocated that the tasks of the state be simplified until they were no more than simple administrative tasks, determined by a democratically arrived at plan. In doing this, anyone would be capable of executing these tasks and the responsibility for doing this type of work, which had formerly been the responsibility of a handful of state bureaucrats, could be rotated through the populace.

A Temporary Measure

Anarchists oppose the formation of any kind of state because a state is by definition repressive. This is true. However, it must be pointed out that a healthy workers’ state would differ fundamentally from all others that have existed in history in that it would promote and defend the interests of the majority against the minority that had previously exploited and oppressed them. In this sense, it is a semi-state. Consequently, it is a temporary measure. Once the threat of counterrevolution is eliminated and material needs are guaranteed for everyone, and the tasks of the state are reduced to administrative measures, there is no more need for a state. It will wither away and be replaced by the free association of humanity where the freedom of each is dependent on the freedom of all.

In his book State and Revolution, Lenin stated: “The proletariat needs the state only temporarily. We do not at all disagree with the anarchists on the question of the abolition of the state as the aim. We maintain that, to achieve this aim, we must temporarily make use of the instruments resources and methods of state power against the exploiters.”

Similarly, Trotsky wrote in an essay Stalinism and Bolshevisms: “Marxists are wholly in agreement with the anarchists in regard to the final goal: the liquidation of the state. Marxists are statist only to the extent that one cannot achieve the liquidation of the state simply by ignoring it.”

Experience Teaches

It must be pointed out that there has never been an advanced revolutionary movement of working people that has not promoted an alternative form of state within the battle against a capitalist state.

For instance, Venezuela remains a capitalist state in the grips of a revolutionary process. We have seen how its Community Councils, Communas, and popular militias have been developing. These are embryonic forms of a new state — a workers’ state. While the revolution in Venezuela started relatively spontaneously, as it has matured the grass roots have developed more organized forms that have the potential to replace the parliamentary bodies created to serve the oligarchy.

In Oaxaca, Mexico in 2006, the capitalist state was chased out of the area by a spontaneous uprising. From there the people formed APPO (the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca) to help to coordinate the struggle and tend to people’s needs. Again, this was the beginning of another state fundamentally different than the capitalist one they were combating.

If the Oaxaca revolution had succeeded and if the Venezuelan one does, it is impossible to believe that those involved in these mass struggles would favor the immediate disbandment of the state bodies that had enabled them to take power. Any serious revolutionary, including many Anarchists in spite of their theoretically categorical rejection of all states, would oppose such a measure since it would result in the abandonment of their efforts to defeat any counterrevolutionary attempts to bring back the rule of a handful of capitalists.

Movement Building

There are other differences between Anarchists and Marxists in relation to movement building as well. Most Anarchist groupings have been traditionally opposed to fighting for political reforms. They tend to believe that political reforms are a distraction from working people’s task of creating a new society and that the struggle for such reforms is corrupting. While they would, for instance, participate in individual strikes that called for a shortening of the workweek, Anarchists such as Bakunin would not participate in mobilizations that called for legislation to shorten the workweek on a national level.

In contrast, as long as the taking of power is not on the immediate agenda, Marxists support organizing for every reform that benefits workers. The organizing of workers independently of the capitalists on a national level in support of such reforms as full employment, a single payer health care plan, or the Employee Free Choice Act can heighten their class-consciousness and aid in the strengthening of their capacity to organize to struggle for more revolutionary demands.

Anarchists traditionally do not support the building of any party. Anarchists such as Bakunin advocated the building of secret revolutionary societies of a few hundred that would live among the masses and, once the masses went into action, the revolutionary societies would support and inflame their revolutionary instincts and act as a midwife to the smashing of the state.

Marxists, on the other hand, struggle for the building of workers’ or labor parties to oppose the capitalist parties. Even if such parties have a reformist leadership (as most do), the Marxists would struggle in these parties to promote putting up a fight against the capitalists, as opposed to merely seeking accommodation with them. It is this policy that differentiates revolutionaries from reformists and helps point working people in a revolutionary direction. The aim of this approach is to organize the entire working class against the capitalists, rather than a few hundred members of secret societies taking matters into their own hands. Furthermore, they would aim to transform such a workers’ party into a revolutionary party and prepare for workers to take state power and run society with democratic institutions of their own creation. For Marxists a socialist revolution is impossible unless it involves the unity of the great majority of the working class bonded together by a militant class-conscious democratic organization.

Immediate Struggles and Program

Finally, there is the issue of how revolutionaries approach immediate struggles. Today, this is where the line between Anarchists and Marxists gets very blurry in practice. Not infrequently, when faced with a living breathing struggle, conducted by real people, there are many Anarchists who act like exemplary Marxists in their approach, while, in contrast, there are many self- identified Marxists who are incapable of making a healthy contribution.

Genuine Marxists develop a program of demands that reflect the pressing needs of working people, like jobs for all unemployed and for the most basic democratic reforms, like taxing the rich to fully fund education and social services which can be a transition towards progressively more revolutionary demands, as working people’s fighting capacity and organizational strength grows in relation to the capitalists. They do this not to create an abstract literary recipe to be applied to all circumstances. Rather, they do this in anticipation of how social movements will mature in hopes of using a Marxist program of demands as a guide towards successfully promoting revolutionary action.

This approach was developed through historical experience. For instance, the desire to keep the democratically elected president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, in office gave rise to the mobilization of millions who demanded an end to the 2002 coup. Since then, as a result of the oligarchy’s and U.S. imperialism’s intransigent opposition to Chavez’s presidency, this demand, while still crucial, has been superseded by more revolutionary demands such as the development of Community Councils, workers’ control over workplaces, and to a growing degree, the nationalization of industry and finance under workers’ control. The experience of the people in fighting for the more minimal democratic demand empowered them to struggle for more revolutionary ones. This is because through their unity and mass struggle, the people were able to grow more confident and more aware of their potential power, what they wanted, and how to fight what they are against.

Therefore, even in the smallest union or working class community struggles, Marxists agitate around demands that the participants are willing to mobilize around and build wider unity that challenges the capitalist order. They do not aim to agitate around demands that workers do not yet understand or develop slogans to shock them in an attempt to be the left of the left. This latter ultra-left practice is too often the method of both self-described Marxists and Anarchists. Rather, Marxists focus on being the most committed organizers for what people want and what they are capable of taking action on now, realizing that it is through these experiences that workers develop class consciousness and the ability to fight for more revolutionary demands. Marxist do this with the aim of creating greater unity among workers against the capitalists as well as opening up workers minds to more revolutionary ideas.

In this approach, there is frequently a good amount of agreement between serious Anarchists and Marxists who want to do something. It is in the context of this kind of agreement in mass working class struggles that our other, less immediate differences can be discussed and tested in a comradely way.

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Mark Vorpahl is a unionist and anti-war activist and writer for Workers Action. He may be reached at portland@workerscompass.org