Introduction to Socialism

Anarchism vs. Marxism

By The Organizer

anarchism-marxism

Anarchism has regained popularity in recent years. Substantial numbers of radicalizing youth today turn to anarchist politics in their fight for a world without bosses, war, racism, sexism, and all forms of oppression.

There are many branches of anarchist (or “libertarian”) theory and practice. The most common forms are individualist anarchism, which rejects any form of organization; “Black-bloc”-style anarchism, which favors “direct action” above all else; anarcho-syndicalism and libertarian communism, which orient to the working class; and “primitivist” and green anarchism, which seek to destroy (or escape) civilization.

Despite this political heterogeneity, certain basic political viewpoints are held by virtually all branches of anarchist thought, namely:

1) Opposition to all governments and states, including a government of the working class.

2) Opposition to all political parties, particularly revolutionary parties.

After the horrors of Stalinism and the collapse of the Soviet Union, anarchism appears to many to be the only untainted revolutionary perspective left standing. Most anarchists are sincere and passionate fighters for social change. But is anarchism a political perspective capable of leading to the overthrow of capitalism?

 

A Socialist Organizer Pamphlet

Anarchism has regained popularity in recent years. Substantial numbers
of radicalizing youth today turn to anarchist politics in their fight
for a world without bosses, war, racism, sexism, and all forms of
oppression.

It is not hard to understand the appeal of anarchism. Official politics —
as represented in the United States by the Republicrats — is a complete
sham, paid for and controlled lock, stock, and barrel by huge
multinational corporations. Anarchism raises the banner of freedom
against this corrupt, bankrupt capitalist system. Moreover, after the
horrors of Stalinism and the collapse of the Soviet Union, anarchism
appears to many to be the only untainted revolutionary perspective left
standing.

Most anarchists are sincere and passionate fighters for social change
and Socialist Organizer activists work with them in various specific
campaigns and struggles.

 

 

But is anarchism a political perspective capable of leading to the overthrow of capitalism? We don’t think so. In this article we will make the case that anarchism — despite its noble goals — is a political dead-end.

We will make our critique from the standpoint of revolutionary Marxism as expressed today by Socialist Organizer and the Fourth International, which stand in the best political traditions of Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky. As we will demonstrate, our politics are radically different from all forms of top-down Stalinism and ultra-left sectarianism that many honest anarchists identify with Marxism. We will make the case that Marxism is the only political perspective able to effectively help working people reach the classless and stateless society that both anarchists and socialists share as the ultimate goal.

 

Different Anarchist Traditions

There are many branches of anarchist (or “libertarian”) theory and practice. The most common forms are individualist anarchism, which rejects any form of organization; “Black-bloc”-style anarchism, which favors “direct action” above all else; anarcho-syndicalism and libertarian communism, which orient to the working class; and “primitivist” and green anarchism, which seek to destroy (or escape) civilization.

Despite this political heterogeneity, certain basic political viewpoints are held by virtually all branches of anarchist thought, namely:

1) Opposition to all governments and states, including a government of the working class.
2) Opposition to all political parties, particularly revolutionary parties.

We will begin by analyzing these two central points and conclude with a discussion of current anarchist practice.

 

The State

The term anarchy comes from Greek and translates as “without ruler” or “without authority.” The heart of anarchist thought is the idea that the state — that is, the armed organ of rule of a given social class to preserve a specific system of production — is an inherently oppressive instrument of subjugation of one group over another and, therefore, the state and all hierarchal institutions must be immediately abolished and replaced by the self-rule of the people: anarchy.

Many people find this perspective utopian. Without a central authority, the argument goes, human society would degenerate into chaos and the “law of the jungle.” Because of “human nature,” there will always be some individuals that seek and take power.

But on this point, it’s the anarchists who are right. Modern anthropologists have shown that for thousands of years — for most of human history — there was no state and no social classes. People lived communally in small bands, dividing up the work and the wealth in the interest of the group as a whole.

The Jesuit Charlevoix made the following observation of the Native Americans of the so-called “New World”: “The brotherly sentiments of the Redskins are doubtless in part ascribable to the fact that the words mine and thine … are all unknown as yet to the (natives). The protection they extend to the orphans, the widows and the infirm, the hospitality which they exercise in so admirable a manner, are, in their eyes, but a consequence of the conviction which they hold that all things should be common to all.”

“Human nature” wasn’t different back then — the organization of society was. This simple fact — plus the continued existence today of egalitarian societies such as the !Kung people in Namibia and Botswana — disproves the claim that a stateless society is impossible.

Anarchists are also right when they argue that all states are organs of class rule. The rise of parliamentary democracy doesn’t change this, because real power today lies in institutions that are free of the influence of the vote. The people do not elect the heads of the military, the police chiefs, the bureaucrats of the top government departments, the judges, or the heads of the IMF and WTO. Big business calls the shots.

As we mentioned in the introduction, Marxists and anarchists agree on the goal of a stateless society. Our differences center around the following question: How can the existing state be eliminated?

Some anarchists think that it is possible to bypass or reject the state by building embryos of a new society today, refusing to buy from corporations, living in co-ops, and making similar lifestyle changes. But this theory ignores the fact that only a small minority of people in society have the ability (or desire) to “drop out” of mainstream society.

Working people, particularly working families, are materially tied to the wage-slave system by their need to survive through selling their labor power. In any case, the lifestyle of co-ops might appeal to some (mostly white middle-class) youth, but makes little sense to people struggling every day to feed their families and make ends meet.

Experience shows that it is impossible to build lasting islands of a new society in a sea of capitalism. All co-ops and similar experiments are subject to the pressure of “outside” society and, sooner or later, crumble under its weight. The capitalist state cannot simply be ignored, it needs to be dismantled and disarmed by the people.

 

The State and Revolution

More serious anarchists agree with Marxists that the existing state can only be overthrown through revolution — in other words, through a popular uprising that breaks up the army, the police, and the other institutions of the capitalist state.

But any insurrection that successfully smashes the old state machinery — such as Russia (February 1917), Spain (July 1936), Bolivia (April 1952), Nicaragua (July 1979) — is immediately faced with a question: What will replace the old state? Anarchists argue that self-governing communities without any central authority should be set up immediately after the overthrow of the old power.

This perspective sounds good on paper but is utopian for one basic reason — it doesn’t take into account the inevitable resistance of the old ruling class.

The class struggle does not end with the triumph of the insurrection. The history of all past revolutions (from the French Revolution of 1789 to the Nicaraguan Revolution of 1979) shows that not only will the ruling class not stop at anything to stay in power — it will do everything to take back its power once it loses it. The overthrown ruling class will also count on the support of whatever reactionary governments and forces remain in the rest of the world, seeing as a simultaneous world revolution is unlikely.

To withstand and defeat the inevitable armed resistance and economic sabotage of the capitalist reaction, the workers will need to organize a temporary alternative power, with a democratic system for making and implementing decisions, and with a coordinated workers’ militia and revolutionary courts. This alternative power — regardless of what it decides to call itself — is in essence a state, that is, an instrument to defend the interests of one class against another.

Lenin, in The State and Revolution, notes, “The proletariat needs the state only temporarily. We do not at all disagree with the anarchists on the question of the abolition of the state as the aim. We maintain that, to achieve this aim, we must temporarily make use of the instruments, resources, methods of state power against the exploiters.”

Here’s a hypothetical example. Imagine that in the United States, after a successful national insurrection, the capitalists and their lackeys have regrouped in Florida, Montana, and Maine and have begun a military offensive to take back the rest of the country. To defend itself, the revolution would have to decide what forces to send to each location and how to arm, transport, and feed the revolution’s troops. This coordination could only be undertaken within the framework of a national decision-making structure — a workers’ state. The failure to coordinate the defense of the revolution — in the name of the abstract rejection of “authority” — would be a guaranteed recipe for defeat.

In the wake of the revolution, a workers’ state will also be needed for a transitional period to help establish and coordinate the new economic system. Capitalism has created a national and international division of labor: What city or region today has access to all the resources it needs to survive? Once the workers take over industry and distribution, a framework will be needed to democratically decide how much food, clothes, etc. to produce and how to distribute these goods throughout the country. If each factory and farm produced whatever it wanted without coordination, the economy would inevitably slide back to the old capitalist norms of chaotic competition.

A final reason why a workers’ state will be needed for a time is that currently there are millions of elderly and sick people, among others, who completely depend on state financial help (Medicare, Social Security, etc.) to survive. Some form of authority will be needed, for a transitional period, to gather the taxes needed to provide these and other crucial public services.

 

The Test of the Spanish Revolution

The ideas and theories of all activists must ultimately be tested by experience and practice. So let’s take a look at the Spanish Revolution of 1936-37, during which the anarchists — organized into the powerful CNT anarcho-syndicalist union federation, which had more than 1.5 million members — were the leading force in the working class.

On July 18, 1936, the Spanish workers and peasants rose up in arms in opposition to the fascist coup d’etat of General Franco against the recently elected Popular Front government (a capitalist coalition of the “Republican” capitalists and the Communist and Socialist parties).

During the uprising, the old capitalist machinery collapsed, with most army officers joining the Fascists and the rank-and-file soldiers joining the revolution. Power passed into the hands of the anarchist trade unions and workers’ militias in Madrid and Catalonia — though the Popular Front still formally ruled Republican Spain, at least on paper.

Directly after the uprising, the head of the regional Popular Front government, Luis Companys, told the CNT leaders point blank, “Today you are masters of the city and of Catalonia. … You have conquered and everything is in your power; if you do not need or want me as president of Catalonia, tell me now.”

The choice was clear: Either the anarchists would overthrow the old capitalist government and set up a workers’ government (thus abandoning a central anarchist principle) or the Popular Front would continue its rule and step by step strangle both the revolution and the fight against the Fascists.

On July 23, the CNT leadership met to discuss this question — and decided overwhelmingly to hand power back to the capitalist state! Federica Montseny argued that “her conscience as an anarchist would not permit her to accept … the installation of an anarchist dictatorship, because it was a dictatorship (and thus) could never be anarchist.”

Looking back on the decision, anarchist leader Diego Abad de Santillán later noted, “We could have … declared the (capitalist government) null and void, and imposed the true power of the people in its place, but we did not believe in dictatorship when it was being exercised against us, and we did not want it when we could exercise it ourselves only at the expense of others.”

In response to this historic betrayal, the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky concluded:

“This self-justification that ‘we did not seize power not because we were unable but because we did not wish to, because we were against every kind of dictatorship,’ and the like, contains an irrevocable condemnation of anarchism as an utterly anti-revolutionary doctrine. To renounce the conquest of power is voluntarily to leave the power with those who wield it, the exploiters. The essence of every revolution consisted and consists in putting a new class in power, thus enabling it to realize its own program in life. It is impossible to wage war and to reject victory. It is impossible to lead the masses towards insurrection without preparing for the conquest of power.”

Even worse, in September 1936, the completely disoriented anarchists leaders took their capitulation to its logical conclusion by actually joining the capitalist state, with four CNT leaders taking posts in the Popular Front government!

The experience in Spain showed anarchism to be a revolutionary theory that did not work in revolutionary situations — and shattered the popularity of anarchist thought for many decades. Trotsky concluded that anarchism is like a raincoat full of holes: It only works when it is not needed.

 

The Workers’ State: Real Democracy

But what, you may ask, would a workers’ state look like?

Even in the early period before the definitive triumph of the world revolution, the workers´ state will be completely different from all past states. It will be a state directly run by the vast majority in the interest of the vast majority. Democratic rights such as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of association will be cornerstones of the new state.

Grassroots, multi-party, democratically run workers´ councils will decide all major economic, cultural, and societal questions. The councils in each workplace, school, and neighborhood will elect representatives to a local council; these local councils will delegate some of their members to a regional and a federal structure, with all power flowing from the bottom up.

The expansion of direct democracy depends primarily on a reduction in the workday, which will be possible once international production is organized on a planned basis and put towards the fulfillment of human needs. Real democracy is impossible when most people are obliged to work 50 or more hours a week to survive.

V.I. Lenin put forward four key points to ensuring the democratic functioning of the workers´ state:

1) All positions in the government must be freely elected and subject at all times to recall.
2) No official can receive a wage higher than a skilled worker.
3) There will be no permanent, standing army.
4) Gradually, the tasks of administering the workers’ state will be more and more rotated. As Lenin put it, “When everyone is a bureaucrat, no-one is a bureaucrat.”

“We shall reduce the role of state officials,” wrote Lenin, “to that of simply carrying out (the people’s) instructions as responsible, revocable, modestly paid ‘foremen and accountants’ (of course, with the aid of technicians of all sorts, types and degrees).”

 

Differences Between Russia and the U.S.

Anarchists and others argue that the Marxist perspective on the workers’ state is utopian and was disproved by the experience of the Russian revolution. But if you understand the socio-economic roots of Stalinism, then you can see why what happened in Russia wouldn’t happen in the United States, the richest, most technologically advanced country in the world.

Socialism cannot be built within the borders of one country — especially not a poor, peasant country like Russia (or Cuba, China, etc.). This is why Lenin and Trotsky, and their Bolshevik Party, saw Russia as “the advanced outpost of the world revolution” and sought to spread the revolution internationally.

A massive revolutionary wave did sweep over Europe and the world after 1917, but the workers’ revolutions in Hungary (1918), Italy (1919-20) and, most importantly, Germany (1918-23) were crushed and drowned in blood, due to the absence of revolutionary parties capable of leading the struggle to victory.

During this period, the imperialist powers did everything they could to crush the Russian workers: 14 countries invaded Russia, funded the military reactionaries (the “Whites”) in what became a protracted civil war (1918-22), and barred all trade with the Russian government.

The workers’ government survived this onslaught but found itself in charge of a country in ruins. The most resolute revolutionary layer of workers and peasants had been killed in the civil war, the majority of workers had fled to the countryside to look for work, and hunger and disease were rampant — to point that cannibalism spread throughout the countryside.

The tremendous scarcity of essentials like food and clothing led some government functionaries to begin to siphon off goods for themselves and their families. In order to secure its privileged position, this emerging bureaucracy, led by Joseph Stalin, had to eliminate all organs of democracy in the party and the government. V.I. Lenin, Leon Trotsky, and their co-thinkers put up a heroic struggle against Stalinism, but only the expansion of the productive forces in Russia through the spread of the revolution to economically advanced capitalist countries could have reversed this tendency to bureaucratization.

But things will go differently in the United States. As the well-known American socialist James P. Cannon explained:

“Where Russia was poor and industrially backward, America is rich and highly developed. Capitalism has done its work here, so that when the workers come to power they will fall heir not to a ruined, backward, hungry country, but to the richest country with the most highly developed productive capabilities in the whole world.

“When there is plenty for all, there is no material basis for a privileged bureaucracy and the danger, therefore, is largely eliminated. That will be the situation in rich and highly developed America under the workers’ rule. There will be democracy, flowering as never before in the history of the world, democracy in all spheres of communal life from A to Z.”

 

The Rise and Fall of the State

Anarchists fail to understand the economic roots of the rise of the state and the economic preconditions necessary to get rid of it.

The end of the era of primitive communism and the rise of social classes came about when people ceased to live solely off of hunting and gathering. When humanity began planning agricultural production, domesticating animals, sowing seed, etc., society was for the first time able to produce a small surplus of goods, enabling a minority of the population to survive off the extra products produced by the labor of others. The small minority that appropriated this wealth created an instrument — the state — to defend their privileges against the majority.

As long as society is divided into social classes, a state will exist to regulate the distribution of the (limited) existing surplus. But capitalism has developed the productive forces and technology so much that now the potential exists to provide for the needs of all members of society, not just a privileged minority.

This is why the principal task of a workers’ state (after the military defeat of the counter-revolution on a world scale) is to do away with social classes and the state itself by organizing the economy to produce a super-abundance of goods.

Even capitalist institutions like the United Nations today admit that the resources already exist to provide for most of the basic needs of humanity. But even the fair distribution of our current resources will pale in comparison with the changes brought by having production run to provide for human needs and unleashing the tremendous potential of science and technology to create enough goods and services for all.

As economic scarcity diminishes and the threat of capitalist restoration disappears throughout the world, the workers’ state itself would whither away because it will cease to have any function to play. In the words of Frederick Engels, the government over people would be replaced by the administration of things (goods, services, etc.). Freed from the humiliating struggle for daily survival, human creativity and culture would blossom. A brilliant new chapter in human history would open up.

 

Opposition to Leadership

The second central point of unity among anarchists is their opposition to political parties, particularly a revolutionary socialist party. This perspective is integrally linked to their opposition to “leadership,” which they equate with “hierarchy.”

Again, it is easy to understand the appeal of this view. Our official political leaders are bold-faced liars in the pay of their corporate backers. Leadership is associated with arrogance, opportunism, and conservatism.

Moreover, in the U.S. and internationally, the current bought-off leaderships of the working class and the oppressed are the main obstacles in the struggle for social justice — and the responsibility for the failure of so many mass movements and revolutions during the last century rests on the shoulders of these sell-out apparatuses in the labor movement (particularly the Socialist and Communist leadership) who have done everything possible to prop up and rescue the dying capitalist system.

The problem with the anarchist perspective is that it is not actually possible to abolish leadership in our movements. Leadership exists (and will continue to exist) in all social struggles and organizations — including the most anarchist-inspired ones — because some people always take initiative.

Leadership doesn’t necessarily mean an elitist minority giving orders from above. Leadership is a relationship. When you pass out a flier or try to convince a friend to come to a protest, you are providing leadership. Even a spontaneous strike or spontaneous protest has leaders — somebody has to be the first person to walk off the job or make an impromptu speech.

Indeed, the anarchist movement has always had leaders. From Proudhon, Bakunin, Makhno, Goldman, and the CNT-FAI to our contemporary local anarchist activists, specific individuals and groups make fliers, write articles, raise demands, call demonstrations — in other words, they provide leadership.

The real question is: What kind of leadership is needed? Class-collaborationist or class-struggle leadership? Top-down bureaucratic leadership or leadership directly controlled by and accountable to the ranks?

Here’s the point: The current reactionary leaderships that preside over the labor movement cannot be given the boot by abstractly “rejecting leadership,” but only by creating an alternative leadership — not of a few “enlightened” individuals, but of hundreds of thousands of revolutionary activists worldwide dedicated to the liberation struggle of humanity and organized around a scientific political program, the Marxist program of the Fourth International.

Only through the empowering process of a victorious workers’ revolution — and the subsequent cultural and democratic flowering produced by the reduction of the workday and a vastly improved educational system — will all people be able to fulfill their potential and become leaders in whatever sphere of activity they choose.

 

Why a Revolutionary Socialist Party is Needed

Anarchists argue that all political parties — particularly revolutionary socialist parties — are inherently “authoritarian” and “hierarchal.” These organizations, the argument goes, reproduce the hierarchies of class society and therefore are incapable of leading to a free society.

This perspective seems plausible to many activists because of their negative experiences with so-called Leninist organizations in the United States like the Spartacist League or the RCP — not to mention the horrors of Stalinism. But these groups have very little in common with Socialist Organizer and the Fourth International.

Let’s briefly clarify the real nature of the Marxist case for a revolutionary socialist party and, in the process, respond to the anarchists’ various objections.

The need for a revolutionary socialist party stems from the uneven development of class consciousness among working people. Different sections of the oppressed will radicalize (i.e., break free from capitalist illusions) at different times and tempos because the working class is not homogeneous — there are differences of nationality, gender, sexual orientation, occupation, etc.

Therefore workers and youth who come around to revolutionary ideas sooner than their peers must band together in a revolutionary organization to more effectively fight in day-to-day struggles for the interests of the workers and the oppressed as a whole and win more people over to a scientific revolutionary political perspective.

It’s that simple: Some people radicalize before others — and these revolutionaries (the vanguard) need to work together, on the basis of an effective political program, to aid the rest of the oppressed to reach higher levels of political thought and action.

(It is important to note that while anarchist organizations don’t use the word “party” or “vanguard,” they too try to win over people to their political ideas — and, in that sense, they are just as inherently “vanguardist” as Marxist organizations.)

In reality, there is nothing elitist or “substitutionist” about a revolutionary socialist party. A multinational socialist organization made up overwhelmingly of workers is of the working class, not “outside” it. It was Marx who coined the phrase “The emancipation of the working class is the task of the workers themselves.”

 

The Role of a Revolutionary Party

A revolutionary socialist party cannot (and should not try to) substitute itself for a movement “from below” of the mass of working people. The tragic example of Che Guevara and the guerrillas in Latin America demonstrates that a revolution cannot be made by a small minority of radicals.

Spontaneity is an essential and positive expression of the resistance of the oppressed. But, because of the opportunist leadership in our movement and the prevalence of capitalist ideas among working people, spontaneity is not enough.

While a revolutionary organization is important in all stages of the class struggle, its role becomes most decisive in times of revolutionary crisis. Working people storm onto the political stage with a definite sense that “things must change,” but without a clear perspective on how this change can be accomplished. This poses an obvious problem because revolutionary situations cannot last for long — no more than a few days, weeks or months at most. There is little time for experimenting or learning by trial and error. If the workers fail to strike when the iron is hot, demoralization will seep in and the counter-revolution will take the initiative.

This is why a revolutionary party — which acts as the workers’ collective memory by passing on the lessons learned through past struggles  — is needed. Trying to fight for revolution without the benefit of these lessons is like hiking at night without a map or a flashlight and hoping you will eventually make it to your destination.

In the same way that steam needs a piston to be effectively channeled, the mass upsurges of the oppressed can only result in victory when a revolutionary party exists that can effectively provide a plan toward taking power and can help the people overcome all the obstacles in their path.

 

Anarchist Organizations: Consensus and Structurelessness

Anarchists who have broken with pure individualism promote various forms of organization. Let’s take a critical look at one popular anarchist-inspired organization: the local collective or “affinity group” based on consensus.

First of all, being a purely local — as opposed to country-wide — organization is a hardly any sort of thing to be proud of or aim for. The capitalists are organized nationally. They have the centralized state repressive apparatus to fight for their interests and the national media to spread their ideas. When there is an important labor strike, for example, the capitalists and their government throw the weight of national structures and resources behind the bosses. Do you think we can defeat this massive machine if we are less organized than it is?

We need mass country-wide organizations for our side. To succeed, our struggle requires mass trade unions, a mass Labor Party, mass organizations of oppressed nationalities fighting for self-determination, and, fighting within these broader organizations and struggles, a revolutionary socialist organization. Locally based radical groups may be sufficient for working on single issues and criticizing capitalism, but they are insufficient to effectively fightback against it, let alone overthrow it.

Anarchists counter that these big organizations inevitably become bureaucratic and co-opted. It’s true that the danger of co-optation is a serious one: The capitalists are a tiny minority of the population and can only maintain their rule if they can keep our powerful mass organizations in check, through the transmission belt of bought-off leaderships.

But this constant corporate push for co-optation actually testifies to the tremendous potential power of our mass workers’ organizations under a militant leadership. (Understandably, the capitalists see very little need to co-opt tiny groups of anarchists.)

Likewise, the danger of unaccountable leadership is present in any organization, whether it has 10 members or 10,000 members. But to argue that any mass organization will inevitably become bureaucratized (“hierarchal”), means saying that working people are incapable of collective democratic control of their own organizations — a very elitist idea, if you think about it.

Moreover, the methods of consensus and “structurelessness” typical in many anarchist circles are anything but democratic.

The process of “consensus” is anti-democratic to its core. It allows an intransigent minority (or even just one individual) to hold the majority hostage. Real organizational democracy requires a free and open discussion, with the guaranteed right to agree or disagree and not be pressured to accept uniformity, followed by a majority-rules vote. In addition, the method of consensus is often elitist because it usually excludes working people, who don’t have time for meetings that go on for four or five hours … or longer.

Without a transparent organizational structure, you cannot have accountability, regular elections, recall of representatives, or a collective overview of whether decisions have been implemented. What tends to emerge in anarchist-inspired groups is a “tyranny of structurelessness” where those with the best informal cliques or friend-groups are able to dominate the group.

A classic example of this kind of unaccountable leadership was the secret alliance that the anarchist leader Mikhail Bakunin formed within the First International in the early 1870s. Bakunin argued that the spontaneous action of the masses had to be supplemented by a small group of conspiratorial revolutionaries, like “invisible pilots in the thick of the popular tempest.” He wrote: “We must steer [the revolution] not by any open power but by the collective dictatorship of all the allies — a dictatorship without insignia, titles, or official rights, and all the stronger for having none of the paraphernalia of power.”

 

Anarcho-Syndicalism and the IWW

Of all the anarchist political traditions, anarcho-syndicalism (sometimes just called syndicalism) is one of the closest politically to Marxism.

We both see the organized working class as the central motor-force for revolutionary change. But anarcho-syndicalists think that the trade unions are the sole form of organization needed for the revolutionary transformation of society. Marxists think trade unions are crucially important — but not sufficient on their own to overthrow capitalism.

Trade unions are mass instruments for all workers in a given workplace or industry — workers from a wide range of political backgrounds, from revolutionaries to reactionaries — to fight for their specific interests and rights against the bosses. To effectively play this role, the union must aim to be as broad and inclusive as possible.

This broadness results in a constant battle of ideas within the trade unions. To effectively combat the misleaders and bourgeois influence in the labor movement, revolutionaries need to intervene in an organized manner — that is, through a revolutionary socialist organization.

The experience of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), the influential American syndicalist organization in the early 20th century, is very illuminating. James P. Cannon — an IWW leader who was eventually won over to Marxism — explains:

“One of the most important contradictions of the IWW was the dual role it assigned to itself. Not the least of the reasons for the eventual failure of the IWW was its attempt to be both a union of all workers and a propaganda society of selected revolutionists — in essence a revolutionary party. This duality hampered its effectiveness in both fields.

The IWW announced itself as an all-inclusive union; and any worker ready for organization on an everyday union basis was invited to join, regardless of their views and opinions on any other question.

The IWW at all times, even during strikes embracing masses of church-going, ordinarily conservative workers, acted as an organization of revolutionists. The ‘real IWW’s,’ the year-round activists, were nicknamed Wobblies — just when and why nobody knows — and the criterion of the Wobbly was their stand on the principle of the class struggle and its revolutionary goal and their readiness to commit their whole life to it.

As a union, the organization led many strikes which swelled the membership momentarily. But after the strikes were over, whether won or lost, stable union organization was not maintained. After every strike, the membership settled down again to the die-hard cadre united on principle…

(Today) the mass industrial unions of workers, by the fact of their existence, instinctively strive toward socialism. With a capitalist-minded leadership, they are a house divided against itself, half slave and half free. The building of a separate party organization of the socialist vanguard is the key to the resolution of the present contradiction of the labor movement.

The ruling bureaucrats, who preach and practice class collaboration, constitute in effect a pro-capitalist party in the trade unions. The party of the socialist vanguard represents the consciousness of the class. Its organization signifies not a split of the class movement of the workers, but a division of labor within it, to facilitate and effectuate its unification on a revolutionary basis.”

 

Anarchist Practice: “Direct Action”

Another central point of contention between anarchists and Marxists revolves around our perspectives on direct action.

Of course, the urge to take direct action against the status quo is completely justified. But most anarchist direct action — such as confrontations with police, blocking traffic, and “property destruction” (e.g., smashing the window of a McDonalds) — cannot actually “block the gears of the capitalist machine” (i.e., disrupt the ability of the system to function).

You can surround a meeting of the IMF and maybe even occasionally prevent delegates from entering — but the next time they’ll just teleconference via satellite. You can block traffic — and piss off some people trying to get home from work. You can smash a Starbucks window — and within days, the company will have it fixed, with hardly a dent to their billion-dollar budget.

Anarchistic “direct action” tends to be a very elitist form of protest, attractive mostly to privileged, white, middle class activists. People of color who face the threat of police brutality every day are often not eager to give the cops another excuse to beat them up. Working people cannot necessarily afford to pay the hefty fines for getting arrested or miss a day of work to attend a court date.

The orientation of Marxists centers around mobilizing working people — particular its most oppressed sectors such as people of color, women, and youth — because workers have real power: Simply by not going to work, we can permanently shut down any business, city, or country. Strikes, in our opinion, are real direct action. But to get to the point where labor strikes, army mutinies, and other forms of working-class direct action are on the immediate agenda it is first necessary to build a mass movement.

That is why Socialist Organizer often promotes mass peaceful protests: they are important first steps for working people to get involved in social justice issues. And as the Vietnam anti-war movement and the recent immigrants’ rights protests in 2006 demonstrated, these protests can make a big impact.

We also sometimes support mass civil disobedience or support self-defense against police, scabs, or white supremacists. But we do so tactically, on a case-by-case basis, as part of a strategy of building a movement and mobilizing the majority around their own interests — not in order to allow small groups of youth to feel radical because they smashed a window.

 

Anarchist Practice: Elections

Anarchists and Marxists agree that the current state is an instrument of big business and that socialism cannot be introduced peacefully through the capitalist ballot box, as the tragic example of the Salvador Allende in Chile demonstrated.

But contrary to the claims of the anarchists, it is not unprincipled for revolutionaries to support (or run) independent candidates in elections. Elections are one of the few times that many working people engage in political discussion. We need independent working-class candidates to talk about our issues, to raise our demands, and to shift the terms of the debate. We see elections primarily as an opportunity to organize and to mobilize.

The anarchist “boycotts” of elections sound extremely radical, but they are essentially a passive adaptation to the two-party system: It will be impossible to break our mass organizations and movements from their subordination to the Democrats until a credible political alternative is created.

The majority of working people will lose their illusions in the capitalist state not through the propaganda of small groups of radicals, but through their lived experience in the class struggle and through their experience building their own political voice. That is why Socialist Organizer calls for the formation of a mass Labor Party, based on the trade unions and all the organizations of the oppressed.

 

Conclusion

A good critique of capitalism is useless without an effective strategy to get rid of it. Despite their sincere efforts and objectives, anarchists are similar to doctors who correctly diagnose a patient’s illness — but prescribe the wrong medication.

Looking back on his early years of political activity, James P. Cannon eloquently recalled:

“In my young days I was very friendly to the anarchists and was an anarchist myself by nature. I dearly loved that word ‘freedom,’ which was the biggest word in the anarchist vocabulary. The impulses of the original anarchists were wonderful, but their theory was faulty, and it could not survive the test of war and revolution.

My impulse to go all the way with them was blocked by recognition that the re-organization of society, which alone can make real freedom possible, cannot be achieved without a revolutionary party … the fusion of the rebel instincts of individuals with the intellectual recognition that their rebellion can be effective only when they are combined and united into a single striking force which only a disciplined organization can supply.”

We encourage all activists who want to effectively fight for a world free of oppression and exploitation to join Socialist Organizer. Nothing less than the fate of humanity is at stake.

 

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