1980s >> 1987 >> no-998-october-1987

Socialism versus anarchism

The Socialist Party is opposed to anarchism. Why? At a superficial level, we seem to have something in common: we both want a stateless society. However, it is precisely on this point that socialism and anarchism differ and more besides. One way of bringing out these differences is to contrast the arguments of Karl Marx and his three main anarchist opponents: the individualist anarchism of Max Stirner, the mutualist anarchism of P. J. Proudhon and the collectivist anarchism of Michael Bakunin. This is not, however, an argument over dead men’s bones. Marx’s criticisms of anarchism in the nineteenth century are still broadly acceptable today.


Like Marx we accept the conceptual distinction between the state and society. Human existence is necessarily social existence but the state, as the social institutions and relationships of coercion, is not a necessary feature of human life. The state, in fact, is the outcome of a historically specific form of society: private property society. Capitalism is the latest phase of private property society in which the state serves the interests of the dominant social class. Socialists contend that capitalism does not function in workers’ interests and that in order to revolutionise society in their interests it is important that a majority of class conscious workers gain control of the state. Democratic socialist control of the state prior to its abolition enables workers to reorganise society in their interests: a classless, moneyless, stateless society based on common ownership. But in so far as anarchists can agree about anything, they all deny that workers should or can gain control of the state.


Whereas socialists see the source of oppression and exploitation in the social relationships of capitalism (which includes the state), anarchists tend to see it in authority in general and the state in particular. Max Stirner opposed all authority on egotistical grounds. But he took this line of argument to its logical conclusion. In his claims for absolute egoism he rejects not only the state but society itself. This nihilistic attitude was clearly expressed in his main work, The Ego and His Own (1844):

  I, the egoist, have not at heart the welfare of this “human society”. I sacrifice nothing to it. I only utilise it: but to be able to utilise it completely 1 must transform it rather into my property and my creature – i.e., I must annihilate it and form in its place the Union of Egoists.

Most of The German Ideology (1845). by Marx and Engels, is a reply to Stirner’s ideas. They ridiculed Stirner’s ”rebellious” egoism and argued for a socialist revolution in which the individual and his class are liberated. Socialism will be a set of social relationships in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all; it is not an attempt to subjugate the individual to some monstrous collectivity, as Marxism is so often portrayed in anarchist caricatures. As for Stirner, his ideas would be impossible to put into practice. The required “Union” undermines his egoist viewpoint. The cooperative nature of the modern productive process is inescapable. But this doesn’t stop so-called “libertarians” today making private property a virtue in the manner of Stirner, though they would rather not spell out his conclusions. By claiming that private property and the pursuit of selfishness are the proper goals of human life they well illustrate the alienating effects of capitalism. For private property is a ”right” against society; it is, in a very real sense, anti-social and anti-human.


The term “anarchism” was first introduced by P. J. Proudhon in his book What is Property? (1840), in which he gave the famous reply, “Property is theft”. However, he didn’t mean this phrase to be taken literally; he was in fact in favour of private ownership. Proudhon made a distinction between “property” and “possession”. He rejected property: the capitalist right to draw rent, interest and profit through owning something. He favoured possession: individuals could use land and tools on condition that they didn’t live on unearned income. In Proudhon’s conception of an anarchist society individuals would have an equal right to possess, based on a “mutualist” system of equivalent exchange between self-governing producers and financed by free credit. Marxian socialism, therefore, is rejected on the grounds that it would violate the right to possess by establishing common ownership.


Marx’s initial reaction to Proudhon’s work was favourable, calling it a “great scientific advance”, making possible for the first time “a real science of political economy” (The Holy Family, 1845). Proudhon’s main insight was to subject private property relationships to critical scrutiny. Nevertheless, his analysis was still inadequate; Marx wrote:

  Proudhon does not consider the further creations of private property, e.g.. wages, trade, value, price, money, etc. as forms of private property in themselves . . .

Proudhon had claimed that these forms of private property were an inevitable feature of human society and this was one of the criticisms Marx made in his own contribution to political economy in The Poverty of Philosophy (1847). Despite Proudhons insights and his interest in political economy he had failed to understand the workings of capitalism. His scheme for free credit, for example, was a complete non-starter; as Marx said:

 . . . wanting to preserve wage-labour and thus the basis of capital, as Proudhon does, and at the same time to eliminate the “drawbacks” by abolishing a secondary form of capital, reveals the novice. (Theories of Surplus Value, vol. 3).

Proudhon believed his anarchist proposals were anti-capitalist but in reality he only disliked some aspects of capitalism, the state in particular. The contradictory nature of his ideas meant that later anarcho-syndicalists. fascists and advocates of laissez-faire could all claim to derive their ideas from his. And this indicates both a strength and weakness of much anarchist thinking; the strength being its apparent anti-dogmatism and “flexibility” of thought; its weakness being a lack of rigour. A practical socialist society must be preceded by a practical socialist theory. Lacking a plausible explanation of how capitalism functions and what’s wrong with it. how can anarchists propose a non-capitalist alternative?


Bakunin opposed authority, not from an individualist point of view, but from that of a peasant and a member of the working class. He thought that a spontaneous uprising would sweep away capitalism and the state; his belief in the “cleansing” benefits of violence was mystical:

  Let us then put our trust in the eternal spirit which destroys and annihilates only because it is the unfathomable and eternally creative source of all life. The lust of destruction is also a creative lust. (The Reaction in Germany, 1842).

Revolutionary violence, it is claimed, would create a new society organised on federal lines and based on an individual’s income being equal to their work. Bakunin’s romantic adventurism brought him into conflict with Marx in the First International (The International Working Men’s Association). It ended with Bakunin being expelled in 1872. One consequence of this was that, to this day, anarchist criticism of Marxism centres on the alleged authoritarianism Marx displayed in the dispute. But the dispute was much more than a clash of personalities; in reality there were important differences of perspective on the state and society. In the first place. Bakunin shared Proudhon’s distaste for all forms of political action; Marx’s insistence on the need for a socialist party to gain political power was anathema. Secondly. Bakunin believed that the state must be destroyed by conspiratorial violence; Marx’s proposed “dictatorship of the proletariat” was rejected on the grounds that it would result in a new form of tyranny.


Since Marx’s day, however, the “dictatorship of the proletariat” has taken on a meaning which he never intended and anarchists have seized on this as proof of the authoritarian nature of Marxian socialism. But this is due to Lenin’s distortion of the concept in the aftermath of the Russian revolution. If Lenin’s dictatorship over the proletariat has resulted in a new form of tyranny (and it has), this is hardly surprising and doesn’t show Marxism to be at fault. For Marx the “dictatorship of the proletariat ” didn’t mean rule by a vanguard party; it did mean democratic control of the state by a politically organised working class. He put forward this concept in the circumstances prevailing in the nineteenth century which in certain respects no longer apply. In his Conspectus of Bakunin’s “Statism and Anarchy” (1874). Marx noted that, so long as a class of capitalists exists, the working class must make use of the state — “the general means of coercion” — to dispossess them of the means of production. This would be the only effective way of changing society because it minimises any violence. With a socialist working class in control of the states through their use of their socialist parties, international capitalism can be replaced by world socialism. It is of course a great irony that anarchists should condemn this proposed course of action as potentially authoritarian, given their recipe for bloody civil war by ignoring the state or waging violence against it. In this respect they are closer to the Leninists than they might realise.


Socialism not anarchism
While Bakunin did want to do away with capitalism and the state it would be incorrect to say that he and Marx agreed about the ends but differed over the means. In fact they disagreed on both the means and ends and many anarchists today would take Bakunin’s view. Even with “anarcho-communists” like Kropotkin the apparent similarities between his view of anarchist society and socialism should not blind us to the differences of approach. (He supported the Bolshevik revolution until his death in 1921). For unless anarchists recognise the necessity for democratic revolutionary political action based on socialist understanding, they will never achieve a stateless society.


Lew Higgins