What is Anarchism?

One of the difficulties in explaining the Socialist attitude to anarchism is that there are many different varieties of anarchism, some involving violence, some non-violence; some are anti-religious, some religious. Some anarchists are influenced by Freud; others by different schools of psychology. Some favour the setting up of anarchist communities now, as a transitional step. Others are individualistic, being mainly unconcerned about society’s problems. Most envisage the abolition of money, yet some are interested in monetary reforms. The list is endless. Each would have to be examined separately. The best procedure now would be to take a school of anarchism that appears to be close to our standpoint and discuss this.

Basically this form of anarchism envisages the abolition of the state, of buying and selling, of international trade, of frontiers and the like. Its aim would be a consciously regulated society where production would be to satisfy human need; where the workers in particular industries and plants are loosely associated with others in co-operating federations. The adherents of this school argue that the only way in which this state of affairs could be brought about would be by the growth of a majority sufficiently independent-minded to see the need for this kind of world and to begin to organise for it. This would mean withdrawing support from all political activity (parties, voting, etc.) and ultimately destroying the state and all related institutions, and building the nuclei of the new society within the old.

Our basic arguments against the anarchist attitude are these. Any movement concerned with the problems of society (and of the working class in particular) must have certain unified theoretical conceptions. It must have a theory embracing coherently the past and the present, the dynamics of social change, the nature of human behaviour and so on. Without such a unified theory it is not possible to take consistent action on a rational basis, or to modify it meaningfully in the light of experience. We argue that anarchists lack such a theoretical system. In fact the views of even a limited segment of anarchists such as that under discussion involve a wide variety of theories. Such eclecticism preludes the possibility of sound theory and therefore the possibility of sustained correct action. Of course, we are not suggesting that one should not examine and re-examine all relevant theories.

With regard to the attempt to establish a libertarian society by direct action without the ballot-box a number of points can be made.

Anarchists, in their criticism, tend to argue that all “parliamentary” parties, within which they include the Socialist Party of Great Britain, have in the past, and in the present, betrayed the working class; that Parliament is not the real seat of power (a “power-house”) but a “talking-shop” or “gas-house”; that the Socialist Party contests elections, aims at parliamentary majorities and so on; and that therefore it is and will be no different from all other parties. Also, the SPGB participates in all the activities which perpetuate what anarchists see as harmful illusions about law, the state and parliamentary democracy.

Our reply is that these anarchists fail to distinguish between the different content of the term “parliamentary” as applied to orthodox parties and to the Socialist Party. They do not see, or perhaps do not want to see, that we insist on the necessity of majority understanding behind Socialist delegates with a mandate for Socialism, merely using the state and parliament for one revolutionary act, after which the Socialist Party has no further existence, subsequent action being the responsibility of society.

We hold it to be absolutely essential that the transformation to a new society be started by formal democratic methods—that is, by persuasion and the secret ballot. For there is no other way of ascertaining accurately the views of the population. The result of a properly conducted ballot will make it clear, in the event of an overwhelming Socialist vote, to any minority that they are the minority and that any attempt to oppose the desires of the majority by violence would be futile. An attempt to establish an anarchist society by ignoring the democratic process thereby gives any recalcitrant minority, possibly violent, the excuse for anti-libertarian direct action itself. They could claim that the assumed majority did not in fact exist or that the assumed majority was not likely to be a consistent or decisive one. In any event there would be no secure justification for a radical change. There might well be unnecessary setbacks and disruptions of the revolutionary movement—possibly involving hardship or loss of life among the working class.

In general, the denigration in a sweeping fashion of Parliament and so on makes it easier for authoritarian movements of all kinds to lay the blame for social problems on democratic institutions instead of on capitalism—as, for instance, did the Nazis and so-called Communists in the Weimar Republic.

The anarchists propose to ignore the state saying, paradoxically, that it does not reflect real social power and that in the desired transformation of society its controllers would be corrupted. Socialists argue that it does reflect real social power and consciousness; that a majority of society comprising class-conscious Socialists would effectively control its mandated delegates who, having free access to things, would have no need of power (individually or as a group). Finally, the anarchist proposal to ignore the state is short-sighted in so far as the formal establishment of the Socialist majority’s control of the state does avoid the possibility of effective use of its forces against the revolutionary movement.

Anarchists also tend to refer to the regimes in Russia, Eastern Europe and Cuba as Marxist or Communist, saying that all the antisocial aspects of these systems arise directly or indirectly as a result of the ideas of Marx. In so doing, of course, they do a disservice to the truth.

(December 1967)

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