Revolutionary politics has been a site of struggle between Marxist and anarchist tendencies almost 150 years. This struggle comes from different theories of power, conceptions of freedom, and understandings of history. From these differences, different ideas of class and the state, organizational methods, and political strategies arise. Everything from the necessity of a revolutionary party and questions of individual activism to the interrelation of different types of oppression and exploitation is treated differently by Marxists and anarchists. It is necessary for every revolutionary to examine these differences in theoretical outlook and organizational method as, while many Marxist and anarchist movements share at least some aims in common, it is impossible to reconcile the competing lines of political policy. Marxists understand that despite the best intentions of the anarchists involved, the political strategy of anarchism often causes serious harm to the revolutionary movement and that anarchist political and economic theory can generate serious confusion among revolutionaries, leading to many anarchist ideas being abandoned in practice or to the collapse of the movement.
Power, Class, and the State
Anarchists share a conception of power with conservatives. For any anarchist brought up in the theoretical traditions of the movement, power rests in force of arms and the state is the ultimate expression of power. True power resides with the possessors of tanks and guns, the commanders of armies, and the administrators of prisons. Class society, according to this view, is created by the coercive force of the state and can only be abolished by overthrowing the state. Furthermore, since all oppression is ultimately caused by the existence of the state, once the state is overthrown oppression and exploitation will naturally come to an end without the need for additional struggle against hostile social groupings. This anarchistic view of power, however, is fatally flawed: armies need to be fed and trained, tanks and guns need to be manufactured and supplied with ammunition, and prisons must be built. Power, therefore, resides in control of the means of production and the possession of coercive force is a side-effect of such control.
This is the great insight of the Marxist conception of power. It is not the state that creates class society, but class society that creates the need for the state. The ruling class finds itself in need of coercive instruments in order to maintain its rule. Oppression and exploitation exist prior to the state and oppressors and exploiters develop the state to protect their interests against the revolt of the oppressed and exploited. The acts as an executive committee of the ruling class; it works to suppress dissent, determines when concessions must be made to prevent revolutionary change, and seeks to reign in the rapacity of individual members of the ruling class when it threatens the social system as a whole. The task of revolutions, therefore, is not simply to overthrow the state but to lead the working class in overthrowing the entire socio-economic system and seizing the means of production. Furthermore, Marxists acknowledge the abolition of all oppression and exploitation will not be achieved as a single act of insurrection but as part of a revolutionary process. Therefore, in addition to smashing the state machine of the ruling class, it is necessary for revolutionaries to create a new state, a state administered by and for the formerly oppressed and exploited masses. This revolutionary state will also serve as an instrument of suppression, as a mechanism of smashing the remnants of oppression and crushing the counterrevolutionary activities of the former ruling class. It is only victory in this struggle that will eliminate the coercive state as such; it will wither away as the governing of people is replaced by the administration of things.
Individual Action, Political Parties, and Revolutionary Strategy
The anarchist understanding of power being possession of armed force and the state being the source of oppression lead to a political strategy centered around armed conflict between anarchists and the state. In its most extreme form, this strategy has expressed itself in individual terrorism and assassinations of state officials. Marxists, however, understand that such tactics are foredoomed to failure. Individual terror only provides the state with ‘justification’ for a crackdown and leaves the masses alienated from politics, reduced to the role of mere observers in a struggle playing out around them. Furthermore, the idea that a small band of terrorists, freedom fighters, or assassins (whatever one wishes to call them) can overthrow the state and transform society is ludicrous, only the people in revolt can do that. Anarchists will argue that individual actions can provide inspiration and example for the masses of people, that a great deed carried out by a single individual can be the spark that lights the fire of revolution. This a nonsensical fantasy; the oppressed and exploited will not rise up because of some romantic deed, but because they recognize the conditions of their lives as being unacceptable, have been inspired with hope for a better world, and have gained political understanding and insight. The task of revolutionaries, then, is not to fight with the state ‘above’ the masses but to join them in struggle, to learn from them, to help build revolutionary organizations, and to provide as much of an education to them as possible. To do this, it is necessary for revolutionaries to create a vanguard political party.
Yet many anarchists claim to be against the organization of political parties. Parties, they claim signify acceptance of bourgeois political norms and have an elitist character in organizing revolutionary cadres separately from the masses. Both of these objections are based on serious misunderstandings. Firstly, a political party is simply any organization of people that desire to take power into their hands to implement some program or another. To renounce the organization of political parties means to either remain as isolated individuals or to exist simply as a discussion club without any real ambition to change society. Of course many anarchists do organize political parties, including those anarchists who fervently denounce the very idea of a party. All they have achieved is confusing matters by refusing to call things by their right name and introducing an element of disorganization by avoiding formal designations of responsibility within the party structure. Secondly, it is sheer dishonesty to avoid acknowledging that the party organizes a revolutionary vanguard. Simply glancing around the world ought to sufficient to demonstrate that not everyone is a revolutionary and that not all revolutionaries share the same political outlook. Rather most people accept the political and economic systems they live in- and those systems could not exist without this acceptance- and people in the process of rejecting those systems arrive at different conclusions at different times. It is obvious that the place to begin organizing is with those who own shares some ideas in common with and that the aim of such organization is to win other people over to that shared point of view. That is the revolutionary vanguard; it is not an elitist concept but a realist one, merely the collective of those who arrive at revolutionary conclusions first and uphold those conclusions most consistently. The revolutionary vanguard cannot become disconnected from the masses of oppressed and exploited people without destroying its revolutionary character anymore than a military vanguard can be sent into battle without the rest of the troops close behind.
It is easy to question why anarchists so often succumb to misunderstandings of the party and the vanguard, but the answer is ready to hand in their view of power and the political strategy. For them, the party and the vanguard are something like Seal Team Six, elite troopers storming in to take out the state. For Marxists, the party is much more than this. It is the historical memory, school, organization, tribune, and tool of the oppressed. The party absorbs the lessons of history and transmits them, along with the theoretical principles through which they can be understood to the oppressed. It amplifies their voices and takes up their concerns on a programic level and it serves as the instrument for the seizure of power by the oppressed. In the fire of revolution, the revolutionary party should become a mass organization; it should be the expression of the oppressed and exploited with its organization giving voice to their hopes and dreams, strength to their demands, and structure to their revolutionary initiatives.
The importance of the revolutionary party, and the revolutionary movement as a whole, should prompt people to think seriously about how it may be organized. Marxists do not insist on this or that organizational structure, such rigid conceptions could never survive in the storm of politics, rather Marxist propose the method of democratic centralism where comrades can discussion and shape the policies of the organization and are then responsible for carrying out the discussions made. Electing people to formal positions and taking formal votes on what sort of policies should be adopted are absolutely necessary. For political activity to be conducted seriously, specific people must have specific responsibilities. Yet anarchists tend to distain formal and democratic organizing. Instead, they often insist upon consensus organizing, where decisions must be agreed upon unanimously, thereby undermining the revolutionary movement. Consensus organizing is the method of failure; it silences dissent as people are afraid to speak out lest the organization decide on nothing at all, creates the dictatorship of irresponsible and unelected individuals by allowing anyone particularly loud and stubborn or with a large amount of spare time (generally individuals already fairly privileged) to establish control by simply being obnoxious and outlasting others, and it gives unlimited veto power to every police spy and provocateur that happens to show it. Furthermore, consensus organizing is unacceptable in principle as it exalts the individual above the collective allowing a single activist to veto the will the masses. Among those who portray themselves as left it is only ever leader cults, Stalinist groupings run by fear, and anarchist groups that are effectively dictatorships of a single individual that achieve perfect consensus once the movement encompasses more than a handful of individuals. Genuinely revolutionary organizations must be sites of healthy debate and internal democracy, and it is rather disturbing that the idea of consensus has such support among anarchists. This support comes from the idea of negative freedom shared by anarchist and bourgeois liberals alike.
Positive and Negative Freedom
Negative freedom is an idea of freedom based on coercion; people are free insofar as they are not being coerced to behave in a certain way and a free society is one where autonomous individuals can make individual choices without being coerced to decide a certain way. For bourgeois liberals means that capitalist society is free and alternatives to it stand in opposition to freedom whereas anarchists, to their credit, recognize the incoherence of that liberal suggestion and base their opposition to capitalist society and the bourgeois state on their coercive nature. Marxists, however, recognize that the autonomous individual does not exist. Rather individuals exist as part of social and environmental systems, constantly depending on and interacting with each other in a process of human becoming. The conception of freedom that arises out of this understanding is one of positive freedom, freedom based on capacity. A free society is one that democratically decides its own becoming and the subject of freedom is not the isolated individual, but society has a whole.
Although Marxists and anarchists fight for many of the same goals, they do so in very different ways and with very different visions in mind for what the world will look like when the battle is won. This should be kept in mind and, while Marxists and anarchists can work hand in hand on practical tasks, it must be recognized that the red and black flags represent two distinct programs and either the possibility of conflict will likely be realized in the storm of revolution or anarchists will be drawn over to the Marxist point of view as it is Marxism that provides the only consistently revolutionary and correct answers to the pressing questions of revolutionary theory and practice.