Anarchism and Socialism

Plekhanov’s book Anarchism and Socialism is a treasure. Not only did he clearly state the case against the anarchists of his day but he also analysed utopian socialism. For Plekhanov, Anarchism was a decadent form of utopianism. For Eleanor Marx Aveling, who translated his book in 1895, “under any circumstances Anarchism is but another word for reaction; and the more honest the men and women who play this reactionist game, the more tragic and dangerous it becomes for the whole working class movement”.


The book’s central point, made equally effectively in the translator’s preface and the introduction by Robert Rives La Monte, to the 1907 Kerr edition, is the importance of political action. Both Eleanor Marx and La Monte point to the failure of the Socialist League as evidence that “every revolt from the Socialist Party in America, which is based on disgust with the fact that it is a ‘pure and simple’ political party of ‘ballot-worshippers’ is destined to repeat the history of the Socialist League” (La Monte).


Plekhanov begins, however, not with the Anarchists at all but with an analysis of utopian socialism:-


The Utopian is one who, starting from an abstract principle, seeks for a perfect social organisation.


The abstract principle on which utopian socialists like Morelly, Fourier. Owen and Saint Simon based their arguments was “human nature.” But scientific socialism showed that this was not constant: “while man, in order to maintain his existence, acts upon nature outside himself, he alters his own naure”. Since Marx, wrote Plekhanov, the revolutionary socialist movement was no longer founded on an abstract principle or an ideal of a “perfect legislation” in total conformity with human nature, but on “a scientifically demonstrable economic necessity”. The struggle between workers and the capitalist class, he declared, must become a political one:-


Every class war is a political one. In order to do away with feudal society the bourgeoisie had to seize upon political power. In order to do away with capitalist society the proletariat must do the same. Its political task is therefore traced out for it beforehand by the force of events themselves, and not by any abstract consideration.


Rooted in the class struggle and the interests of the working class, Plekhanov lashed into the Anarchists, dealing in some depth with their naive, crazy notions. There was Max Stirner: “for me there is nothing above myself”. Stirner’s League of Egoists, wrote Plekhanov, was “the Utopia of a petty bourgeois in revolt”. Some of Stirner’s ideas still surface from time to time in eccentric Tory circles and leagues of small shopkeepers, imbued with the same spirit of “bourgeois individualism”.


Proudhon’s ideas on the social constitution and on ending capitalism without political action or class struggle are debunked by Plekhanov, who points out with irony the many blatant contradictions in Proudhon’s theories.


Bakunin is dealt with next. “I detest Communism, because it is the negation of liberty, and I cannot conceive anything human without liberty”, he declared, thus revealing his basic utopianism. “I am not a Communist, because Communism concentrates and causes all the forces of society to be absorbed by the State, because it necessarily ends in the centralisation of property in the hands of the State”.


Bakunin also expressed clearly the characteristic mistake of Anarchist thinking, that is, the idea that the State should be smashed since its oppression is the cause of exploitation. In this belief can be seen the Utopian’s ignorance of hard economic facts, of the historical process and of the role of the State, as necessary to class-based economic systems. As capitalism has become an intolerable fetter on the productive forces, the working class must abolish it. The State will not be abolished: it will wither away, like an uprooted weed. Rut as long as class ownership of wealth exists, smashing the State is futile—a new form of State will always arise, as weeds do when their roots are left in the soil.


The Anarchists are mistaken in believing the abolition of the State would achieve emancipation. The events of 1917, when Lenin, destroying the old State with his programme “All power to the Soviets”, only succeeded in creating a new form of State, and new methods of exploitation, are evidence of the futility of such tactics. Capitalism can only be ended by the working class taking political action, not to smash the State, but to abolish the wages system.


Bakunin distinguished between social revolution and political revolution. Plekhanov answered, in memorable terms:-


Every class struggle being necessarily a political struggle, it is evident that every political revolution, worthy of the name, is a social revolution; it is evident also that for the proletariat the political struggle is as much a necessity as it has always been for every class struggling to emancipate itself.


Adrift from political action. Bakunin and his followers encouraged terrorist tactics—the “propaganda by deed” which still sporadically hits the headlines in many countries—Italy, Spain, Germany, Japan. Mexico, Argentina, US and England.


“Error has its logic as well as truth. Once you reject the political action of the working-class, you are fatally driven —provided you do not wish to serve the bourgeois politicians—to accept the tactics of the Vaillants and the Henrys”, observed Plekhanov. After parliamentarism was discarded, the tactics of riots and isolated uprisings were abandoned since workers, sensibly, did not want anything to do with such suicidal tactics. What was left? For the Anarchist, either syndicalism (equally disastrous) or the individual gesture, the assassin with a bomb in his briefcase—”doing the work if not receiving the pay of a spy”, as La Monte put it.


The result of the Anarchist movement’s rejection of political struggle in favour of syndicalism or terrorism is to weaken the working class movement and to encourage the forces of reaction. Special police agents infiltrate all working class organisations, laws are passed and special measures enforced which handicap socialists in their activity. Workers become hostile and reactionary. Revolution becomes a dirty word. Socialism is seen as dangerous lunacy. As Plekhanov said, “An Anarchist is a man who—when he is not a police agent—is fated always and everywhere to attain the opposite of that which he attempts to achieve”.


For its chapter on scientific socialism alone, clear and concise, this book deserves to stand alongside the best-known works of Marx and Engels.

Charmian Skelton