Letters: Debate: Is there common ground between socialists and anarchists?

The article “Socialism versus anarchism” which we published in the Socialist Standard of October 1987 provoked an interesting response. The theme was, briefly, that the article did not deal thoroughly enough with its subject and that there is much common ground between anarchists and socialists on which both viewpoints can be profitably debated. We publish two letters, with our comments.  First, John Crump argues that to attack anarchism is to give credence to a mirage; the only thing all “anarchists” have in common is their opposition to the state.


Dear Editors,

In the October 1987 issue of the Socialist Standard, there appeared an article by LEW on “Socialism versus anarchism”. Might I make one or two comments?

First, on a purely factual level, can LEW kindly provide evidence for his statement that Kropotkin “supported the Bolshevik revolution until his death in 1921”?

Second, I would suggest that in attacking anarchism. LEW is giving credence to a mirage. Those who are popularly regarded as “anarchists” have only one characteristic in common opposition to the state. Mere opposition to the state does not constitute an “-ism”, however, particularly when supposed “anarchists” can range from supporters of capitalist laissez-faire to advocates of a communist social organisation. This point can best be illustrated by considering “statism”, as the opposite of “anarchism”. Would it make sense to label indiscriminately all who see a role for the state as “statists”? Since such a category would range from defenders of capitalism, such as Margaret Thatcher, to advocates of communism, such as the SPGB. it would clearly have no more value than LEW’S catch-all rubric of “anarchism”.

Third. LEW devoted the overwhelming majority of his article to Stirner. Proudhon and Bakunin. Yet the most important characteristic these three shared was not their “anarchism”, but the fact that their ideas were compatible with capital accumulation and the wages system. Of course, it is a question of “socialism versus anarchism” when “anarchism” is represented by such a selection of pro-capitalist ideologues, but LEW then extends the argument (quite unjustifiably. in my view) as follows:

  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.

What is “apparent” about these similarities? Kropotkin, like the SPGB, stood for a new society without money, wages, classes, or the state. Not only do such similarities seem a good deal more real than apparent, but in an article which makes frequent reference to Marx, would it not be appropriate to mention that on some questions which the SPGB regards as crucial, Kropotkin had a clearer understanding than Marx? For example, did not Kropotkin’s criticism of Marx’s ideas on labour vouchers in the “first phase of communist society” (see The Conquest of Bread, chapter 13) precede the SPGB’s similar rejection of this method of distribution by several decades?

Finally, LEW argued that:

  . . . unless anarchists recognise the necessity for democratic revolutionary political action based on socialist understanding, they will never achieve a stateless society.

As far as achieving a stateless society is concerned, all we have to go on is the empirical evidence. The SPGB’s parliamentary approach has brought it scant success after more than 80 years, and the anarcho-communists have equally little to show for their efforts after more than 100 years. My own view is that the question of how we achieve the new society will be settled by the millions of men and women who will be the architects of the new world. It is just as pointless to attempt to lay down a blueprint now for the means of achieving the new society as it is to formulate a blueprint for the precise workings of that society. Our task here and now is to play our part in winning people over from a capitalist way of looking at the world to a communist way. The SPGB has a role to play here — and so have the anarcho-communists. I know this from personal experience, since both these currents influenced me on my way to becoming a communist.

Yours for communism.
John Crump 
University of York


 Second, PC objects that our article failed to deal with the range of anarchist thought and that there is such similarity between the viewpoints of socialists and anarchists that we should be debating with each other rather than standing in opposition.

Dear Editors,

Your article in October’s Standard entitled “Socialism versus anarchism” does little to dispel the misunderstandings that seem regularly to accompany a discussion on the subject of anarchist ideology. The writer of the article made little effort to deal with the vast range of anarchist thought on his chosen subjects, nor did he make reference to any developments in ideas that have taken place since 1876. when the last of his “victims” died; nor is he apologetic — indeed, his denial that his discussion is “not over dead men’s bones” leads one eventually to conclude that it is precisely so, for the sake of his argument.

The three anarchists he deals with — Stirner. Proudhon and Bakunin — are all open to criticism and the author points this out with example and justification. However, while these three have had an undeniable influence on anarchist theory over the years, they certainly cannot be said to be necessarily representative of anarchists today.

Anarchists, like socialists, are imaginative people, and it requires little speculation that their beliefs and theories are as numerous as they. Books on anarchism by Miller, Guerin, Woodcock and Joll concede that their subject defies definition. As Miller says:

  Of all the major ideologies confronting the student of politics, anarchism must be the hardest to pin down. It resists straightforward definition. It is amorphous and full of paradoxes and contradictions.

Yet there is one main thread that runs through all anarchist thought — the love and pursuit of freedom. From it springs all the ideas that are most readily associated with anarchy: the abolition of authority and property; along with an unjustifiable reputation for violence born of the means by which a well-publicised minority have pursued their cause.

This century, however, has seen a number of anarchists developing theories as to the means of attaining freedom that have not been mentioned by your author.

For example, in contrast to Stirner’s egoism, a line of anarchist thought stretching beyond Stirner’s time has considered indispensable the need for social organisation and solidarity among all people. The train of debate includes Voline, who wrote: “Of course, say the anarchists, society must be organised. However, the new organisation . . . must be established freely, socially and, most of all, from below”. And Malatesta, who said:

  Social solidarity is a fact . . . it can be freely and consciously accepted and in consequence benefit all concerned, or it can be accepted willy-nilly, consciously or otherwise, in which case it manifests itself by the subjection of one to another, by the exploitation of some by others.

The author’s remarks on Proudhon’s weak reformism of property is justifiable. But are Proudhon’s ideas on the subject representative of anarchist thought? Again the number of anarchists who utterly oppose all property and its attendant wage-labour is far more significant. The anarchist school that springs from Kropotkin’s “libertarianism”, which includes Malatesta and Elisee Reclus, have long been arguing the horrors of capitalism. Kropotkin himself said: “When we observe the basic features of human societies . . . we find that the political regime to which they are subject is always the expression of the economic regime which stands at the heart of society”. Malatesta’s conclusion from this observation is that:


  The basic function of government everywhere in all times, whatever title it adopts and whatever its origin and organisation may be, is always that of oppressing and exploiting the masses, of defending the oppressors and the exploiters: and its principal, characteristic and indispensable, instruments are the police agent and the tax-collector, the soldier and the gaoler — to whom must be invariably added the trader in lies, be he priest or schoolmaster, remunerated or protected by the government to enslave minds and make them docilely accept the yoke.

This cannot be said to be a “dislike of certain aspects of capitalism” which “lacks rigour” as your author suggests. Besides, as Miller points out: “Much anarcho-communist writing (such as the above) starts with an attack on capitalist society not readily distinguishable from that found in Marxist literature. A vivid assault is launched upon the exploitative relationship between capitalist and worker, resulting in poverty, drudgery and the constant threat of unemployment for the latter, and idle luxury for the former”.

The debate on revolutionary action — democratic or otherwise — which is the instrument by which the author dismisses Bakunin, is still to run its course for anarchists and socialists alike. But rather than tie up the argument neatly and somewhat divisively as your author does, so perpetuating unnecessarily an enmity embodied in his title “Socialism versus anarchism” would it not be more rewarding to acknowledge the rich debate that both ideologies are able to present? For. in spite of your author’s sentiments. anarchists and socialists are not as divided as he would make out, and certainly not so irreconcilable that debate and the exchange of ideas is impossible. Have both sides made their final statements on all matters? The frustrations of inflexible dogma were expressed vividly by Bakunin when he said of Marx:

  As soon as an official truth is pronounced — having been scientifically discovered by this great brainy head labouring all alone — a truth proclaimed and imposed on the whole world from the summit of the Marxist Sinai, why discuss anything?

Is it not more constructive to build on those ideas that both ideologies have in common? Malatesta was convinced that “anarchy. as understood by the anarchists and as only they can interpret it, is based on socialism”, while Adolph Fischer claimed that “every anarchist is a socialist, but every socialist is [not] necessarily an anarchist”.

So long as both sides are dismissive of the other, misunderstanding and mistrust can be the only outcome. It is not enough to have parallel sentiments: they never seem to meet. Surely there is still both the time and the need for informative and educative debate, not just between these two groups, but with all people of all political and social persuasions?


Our comments are as follows:
The debate between socialists and anarchists has tended to be a rather sterile one. based far too often on a re-enactment of conflicts originating in the First International. The anarchists have quite mistakenly abused socialists-Marxists as being statists. This is nonsense. Marx was the first and most coherent political thinker to elaborate a theory which advocated a stateless society.

The Socialist Party stands in this tradition of seeking the abolition of all states, including government, the armed forces, national frontiers, prisons and all the other obscene features of an authoritarian, property-based society. We have never ceased to explain that those leftists who pose as socialists and then seek to establish state capitalism are enemies of all that socialists stand for. Anarchism is also a term which has historically been used in many ways. It has described the foolish antics of bomb-throwing and riot-supporting advocates of mindless rebellion against the state and so too has it described those individualists who have sought to take on the power of society by abstractly wishing themselves away from society.

In fact, these two types of anarchist outlook are far more representative of those who have called themselves anarchists than our correspondents might concede. Even today most of those who might describe themselves as anarchists have little more than a vague notion of fighting the establishment (whatever that may be) and smashing the state (however that might be done) and creating a free society (whatever freedom might mean). The same is true about many who call themselves socialists: there is no copyright on the term and it is used by all sorts of people in all sorts of confused ways. The difference between The Socialist Party and our correspondents is that we contend that socialism can only logically and scientifically mean one thing, whereas their concept of anarchism is so vague as to be meaningless.

For example. PC tells us that anarchism is a term which “defies definition”. Terms like “ghost” and “heaven” and “soul” tend to be of the same nature and therefore it is hardly surprising that they are not treated with great seriousness by scientific thinkers. John Crump states that what is popularly called anarchism is a “mirage” and that the only characteristic uniting anarchists is “opposition to the state”. Even that vague definition is misleading: some Russian anarchists gave full support to the Bolshevik seizure of state power in 1917 and played an active part in smashing the democratic Constituent Assembly in 1918 when the Bolsheviks lost the election. In Spain in the 1930s anarchists actually took part in the running of government. Let those who seek to defend anarchism tell us precisely what it is that they are defending and let them also tell us which “anarchists” have no right to call themselves anarchists. That is what The Socialist Party is required to do in relation to the term “socialism” and anarchists will be treated with little credibility unless they treat ideas with the same rigour and honesty.

Many anarchists have argued, and still do argue, in favour of a classless, propertyless, moneyless world society. Kropotkin is an example of a thinker in the anarchist tradition who held many ideas which socialists could agree with. His pamphlet, The Wages System, provided an acceptable refutation of the ideas being put by those who attempted to turn into a sacred dogma Marx’s mistaken ideas about the existence of exchange by labour vouchers in a socialist society. Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid is a fine work in the battle against those who insist that “human nature” is a barrier to socialism. But let us have no illusions about Kropotkin. He supported the slaughter of workers when war broke out in 1914; in 1917 he supported the revolution in Russia and, whilst not a supporter of Bolshevism until he died, was still able to commend the Bolsheviks for introducing greater equality in Russia — in his letter to Lenin as late as 1920. In the light of this, how much credence should we attach to PC’s quotation of the assertion that “every anarchist is a socialist”?

John Crump is closer to the truth when he says that “opposition to the state” is what defines an anarchist. This included the so-called anarcho-capitalists of the Libertarian Alliance which is currently enjoying some popularity as a novelty act on the youth wing of the Conservative Party. The anarcho-capitalists argue that the state should be abolished so that capitalism can be run without any political interference: let market forces struggle in unrestrained freedom. What comes out of this extreme example is that it is not enough to simply oppose the state. To attack the state, and to demand that authority ceases to be used in society, without attacking the basis of the state or its authority is an example of the philosophical idealism which differentiates anarchists from historical materialists —from socialists. The idealist asserts that “authority is bad” and “co-operation would be a good idea”. The materialist is not opposed to authority but to the state machine which is a coercive instrument of the authority of class over class. Materialists do not advocate co-operation as “a fine idea”, but as the historically necessary next stage beyond class antagonism. Materialists do not oppose all authority but call for democratic control, the only form of authority which can be acceptable to the majority. So, even though some anarchists agree with socialists that we need to live in a stateless society, our reasoning is crucially different.

The anarchist seeks to abolish state power from which comes all social inequality, whereas the socialist seeks to abolish the existing material conditions (capitalism) which makes state power necessary. PC’s comment that a “main thread that runs through all anarchist thought” is “the abolition of authority” exemplifies this simplistic idealism. In a book review written by Marx and Engels in 1850 they dismiss the idealistic notion of abolishing state power without dealing with the material basis of such power:

  For Communists, abolition of the state makes sense only as the necessary result of the abolition of classes, with whose disappearance the need for the organised power of one class for the purpose of holding down the other classes, will automatically disappear. (Neue Rheinische Zeitung, 1850)

Without democratic authority (socialists prefer to speak of “democratic control”) no social organisation would exist. Now some anarchists — the individualists like Stimer who deride social organisation — can quite consistently support this opposition to the principle of authority. Why should these individualists care whether society organises itself or not? But anarchists who claim to favour the co-operative organisation of the world community are indulging in mere sloganising when they call for “the abolition of authority”.

Anarchists have traditionally opposed the need for political action in order to transform society. Socialists contend that the only way society will be materially transformed is for there to be a majority of workers who understand and want socialism. These workers must take away power from the capitalist minority. Just as workers give social power to the master class through the ballot box, so the ballot box can be used to show that a majority rejects capitalism and those who seek to run it. The ballot box will only be one part of the revolutionary process, the far greater part being the development of majority class consciousness and the building of an active movement by the revolutionary class. Unless political power is taken from the minority it will be used against the majority.

Of course, the precise details of the revolutionary change will differ from country to country depending on the political conditions (where legal ballots do not exist or cannot be trusted the workers must create our own) and it will also differ in accordance with different creative ideas about what needs to be done before the establishment of socialism which will emerge as the socialist movement grows. In this sense John Crump is quite right to say that “the millions of men and women who will be the architects of the new world” will decide the exact means by which the revolution is to occur. But. as we pointed out in the article in October 1987 Socialist Standard, the revolutionary process cannot avoid democratic political action and still produce socialism. Without democratic action there will be no democratic society: without political action the state will be used to crush a non-political “socialist” movement. Again. PC tells us that the debate as to whether revolutionary action is to be democratic or otherwise is still to run its course for both anarchists and socialists. This is untrue. Socialists can conceive of no way in which a socialist system of society will be established except by democratic means.

We agree with PC, that it is worthwhile for anarchists and socialists to engage in “informative and educative debate”. We should build on whatever ideas we have in common. It is pointless for workers who share a vision of a stateless society based on the uncompromised principles of socialism to be endlessly squabbling over the texts of the nineteenth century. If the ranks of the revolutionary movement can be swelled on the basis of principled unity it would be wrong for anyone to delay the process. Unfortunately, anarchists tend to be rather elusive characters and on those few occasions when we do encounter active anarchists they are reluctant to engage in open debate. When the few debates between The Socialist Party and anarchists have taken place such as those against Albert Meltzer, who told us in our last debate with him in Islington that anarchists must be involved in the struggle to reform capitalism because “that’s where the workers are” — most anarchists in the audience disowned the speaker. Which is all very confusing when one considers the claim that anarchism is so revolutionary that it cannot even be defined.