Anarchism and socialism: what’s the difference?

Critics of the Socialist Party have sometimes called us the ‘Anarcho-Socialist Party of Great Britain’ implying that what we call socialism is actually a form of anarchism. What they are referring to here is the idea that, like some anarchists, we want to do away with the state, we’re against the idea of vanguards leading the workers and telling them what to do, and we want a democratic, cooperative society of common ownership.

Of course there are anarchists and anarchists (just as there are socialists and socialists). Some anarchists (so-called ‘anarcho-syndicalists’), while wanting to see the end of the wages system, focus on the idea that it needs to come about by workers organising in the workplace and in trade unions to eventually take over production. Others advocate armed risings against the state to bring about common ownership. Then others (‘so called ‘mutualists’) oppose common ownership altogether on the grounds that it stifles individualism, and embrace the idea of a free-market economy seeing democracy and majority decision-making as tyranny. Yet there is undoubtedly a good deal in common between Socialist Party socialists and those anarchists who favour the same kind of classless, stateless, marketless, moneyless society that we do, a society based on ‘from each according to abilities, to each according to need’. If there are differences, these tend to be in the means of achieving this. While we see this change of society as coming through majority democratic action including via the ballot box, anarchists tend to see it being achieved in some other way, maybe a widespread popular uprising or a general strike or mass workplace occupations.

Both these similarities and differences are well illustrated in a recent publication by the anarchist group, Rebel City Collective. Their booklet, For a Future Made by Us All. Questions and Answers about Anarchism (PMPress, 2023, 92pp.), is explicitly aimed at young people in schools and colleges and arose, they say, from discussion with and questions from students about anarchism and what it means. It is written in clear and accessible language and structured as a series of ‘leading’ questions about how a stateless, moneyless society without markets could operate. Examples of these are:

  • Isn’t anarchism all about chaos and disorder?
  • What’s the difference between anarchism and socialism?
  • How would anarchists organise locally, nationally, globally to get things done?
  • Without money, what would motivate people to work?
  • How would you deal with anti-social behaviour?
  • Would people be able to have property?
  • How would you deal with the climate and environmental crisis?
  • How do we distribute resources fairly?
  • Shouldn’t we gradually reform what we have rather than changing everything?
  • Isn’t it ‘human nature’ to compete with others?
  • How would we get the rich to give up their wealth?

Socialists will of course recognise these as some of the familiar questions we often get asked when we put to people the idea of a socialist society without buying and selling based on voluntary work. And, given that it’s precisely this kind of society that’s advocated in the booklet, it shouldn’t be surprising that we find these questions. Any differences are largely of terminology, eg, the society advocated being called ‘anarchism’ rather than ‘socialism’. In fact, the booklet itself explains this different terminology by saying that ‘originally there was no difference between them’ (ie, anarchism, socialism and communism) and that only later did authoritarian state rule become known as ‘state-run socialism’ (something we would, however, call ‘state capitalism’). That’s why, although we prefer to stick with the word ‘socialism’ and emphasise its original meaning, we do experience some difficulty with its association in many people’s minds with the Labour Party in this country, and with authoritarian tyrannies like the old Soviet Union or places like China or Cuba or Venezuela, which are in reality just different models of capitalism – and so all diametrically opposed to what we mean by socialism

Of course, this booklet also provides answers – usually illuminating ones – to the questions it poses, and it would be possible to quote at length from these. But just to give a few examples:

  • Everybody will have an opportunity to discuss and be part of the decision-making process on anything that is important to them
  • Borders are just lines drawn on the world map to separate countries [and] have changed many times as one leader grabs land from another generally by force [and]) often … whole communities get split up and separated into different countries
  • We would hope that everyone would see themselves as part of the ‘human race’ not British, Cuban, Nigerian or any other nationality
  • Money allows people to hoard resources as individual wealth
  • Many things we do as humans are organised without anyone making us or any direct financial motivation
  • Presently, different identities or groups are frequently played off against each other
  • It does seem strange to us that anyone would want to let a god or gods, priest, master or anyone else tell them what to do or think
  • Education … should be broad, lifelong, non-hierarchical, diverse, person centred and voluntary
  • We could design systems for efficient democratic decision making
  • Everyone should be allowed to do what they want as long as it doesn’t harm others
  • The more people get used to working and organising together, the better placed we will be to create a well organised new society that will be global
  • There is increasing evidence, and more people, that question if human nature was ever actually competitive or selfish.

These examples illustrate the striking and welcome similarities to our own case. But it must also be added that there are some parts of their arguments, coming largely in the booklet’s final section entitled ‘How do we get from here to there’, that we would want to question. What is suggested there is that the society they advocate would be established via acts of protest, sharing and local democratic self-organisation and, above all, by ‘direct action’ (eg, taking over workplaces, redistributing hoarded goods, possibly – and somewhat alarmingly – ‘at the point of a gun’) which, it is anticipated, will eventually spread and lead to a situation where a new cooperative society can be brought into being. But what if, at some point and in the final analysis, the rich don’t want to give up their wealth? How are they to be persuaded? Are they to be shot? This needs to be mentioned, since the ‘strategy’ advocated here seems to eschew the kind of democratic political action via the ballot box that the Socialist Party sees as the most effective route once the necessary spreading of consciousness has been achieved. Without that particular form of direct action (ie, the ballot box), it is difficult to see how a socially conscious working class can take the power necessary to abolish capitalism and set about organising a genuine socialist (or anarchist) society. So, there is a clear difference in ‘strategy’ between anarchists and socialists here, even if the desired result is very much the same.

Despite this difference of view, however, there can be no doubt about the value of this particular booklet, putting centre-stage as it does the idea of dispensing with capitalism and establishing a new society based on collective production for direct use. In spite of certain references, it goes a long way towards dispelling the popular image of anarchists as chaos-mongers and, written in simple and accessible language as it is, with a warm and friendly tone complemented by attractive and useful illustrations, it answers most of the questions it poses with clarity and competence. It will be appreciated not just by the school and college students to whom it is directed but also by the average reader wishing to be enlightened about such matters. So it is, all in all, a strongly recommended breath of fresh air and an admirable initiative. Perhaps we should consider taking a leaf from this book ourselves and produce a publication specifically aimed at the young and presenting in simple terms what is actually a very simple idea – organising the Earth’s resources collectively and democratically on the basis of needs not profit.


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