Spontaneity, organisation and the role of the state: Marxism vs. Anarchism

Date: Monday 27th July
Time: 13:00 - 16:30 BST

Marxists and anarchists share many of the same objectives in common: fighting oppression, smashing the bourgeois state, creating a society without class exploitation and so on. However, there are also important differences in our ideas and methods, particularly related to the nature of power in general, and of state power in particular. In this talk, we will explore the differences between Marxism and anarchism. Our speaker, John Peterson, is a leading activist of Socialist Revolution, the US section of the IMT.




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John: As we saw in the discussion on World Perspectives, these are truly unprecedented times, and nowhere is this more evident than in the United States itself.

For weeks after the murder of George Floyd, mass protests raged and the state was thrown off balance. A police precinct in Minneapolis was burned down and the world’s most powerful man was forced to hide in a bunker; armed self-defence patrols sprung up in working-class neighbourhoods in many cities; the entire west coast and Canada was shut down by the longshore workers, by the dock workers; and a few blocks of the city of Seattle were declared an autonomous, police-free zone.

And so it seemed as though the George Floyd movement had endless reserves, as though the raging river would never recede back into its banks. The depth and breadth of the movement was really exhilarating. But we understood that if it was not given a revolutionary expression, it could not continue at that scale indefinitely. That’s number one lesson of dialectics – that nothing lasts forever.

And so, the mass movement inevitably ebbed in most areas, although it has flared up again over the weekend in some cities. But we’ve seen that the movement’s uncontrolled spontaneity was one of its greatest strengths – but it was also a fatal flaw. But who can deny the incredible potential that has been revealed? And who can’t image what would have been possible if there was a real and serious leadership in place?

With images of smashed windows and violent clashes between protesters and the police covering the televisions, our Dear Leader, Donald Trump declared the following, he said:

“We are now in the process of defeating the radical left, the Marxists, the anarchists, the agitators, the looters, and people who in many instances have absolutely no clue what they are doing.”

Since Donald Trump is an ignoramus, who in many instances has absolutely no clue what he is doing, he lumped the Marxists in with the anarchists. But anyone with any familiarity with the matter knows that nothing could be further from the truth.

Now, on the surface there are what appears to be many points of agreement. Both Marxists and anarchists envision a world without states, without religion, without money. But as we will see, Marxism and anarchism are fundamentally and irreconcilably opposed in both outlook and practice.

Now, this is a vast topic, and our time is very limited. So I’d like to focus on a few key themes, which we can then develop further in the discussion and the summing up. First off, we’ll look at the philosophical differences between these two trends, and we’ll compare the ideas of Marxism with those of people like Stirner, Proudhon, and Bakunin.

Then we’ll take up the question of the state, what it is, what it isn’t, whose interests does it represent, and how we can replace the capitalist state with something fundamentally different. We’ll also look at the question of organization. How can the workers best organize to prepare to confront the centralized power of the bourgeois state? Is the spontaneous energy of the masses enough?

And finally, we’ll take a look at the closely related question of political struggle. Is the way forward mass action, including political action, or individualism and abstention from politics altogether? Is political power something to fight for or is it something we should abstain from out of principle? How should leaders be elected and held accountable – or go we even need leaders at all?

To be sure, there is many variants, there’s schools, different organizations, and philosophies – there is virtually as many of these as there are individual anarchists. My intention is not to set up straw-man arguments or to caricature anarchism. But there are some generalizations we can make. 

The essence of modern anarchism is summed up clearly by the anarchists themselves in the widely available pamphlet called: “Anarchism, an Introduction” and they say:

“Anarchists believe that the point of society is to widen the choices of individuals. This is the axiom upon which the anarchist case is founded . . .”

“The ideal of anarchism is a society in which all individuals can do whatever they choose, except interfere with the ability of other individuals to do what they choose. This ideal is called anarchy, from the Greek anarchia, meaning absence of government.”

So there you have it. In the final analysis, it’s all about individuals, their self-interest, and their choices.

As with so many of the other political trends we are analysing over the course of this school, in essence, the difference between Marxism and anarchism boils down to materialism versus idealism; mass revolutionary working-class politics versus petty-bourgeois individualism; and the importance of having a strategy, program, tradition, and ideas that can actually change the world, versus unfocused anger and impotence.

In the final analysis, all philosophies express the viewpoint and interests of one or another class or layer of a class. As we still live in a society divided into classes, there is really nothing fundamentally new under the sun when it comes to ideology. What are presented as new or fresh ideas are really nothing but a rehash of pre-Marxist and anti-Marxist ideas.

As comrades know, Marxism is a materialist, dialectical theory. It is distilled from the real motion of nature and society, and is then reapplied to the living world, and in particular to the movement of the working class in its life-and-death struggle against capital. It is the most advanced form of human thinking yet developed, it’s an intellectual lightsabre that can show the way forward through the darkness and confusion, and slice through all ideological obstacles in its path. So Marxist theory is an indispensable weapon in the fight for world socialism. It embraces contradiction, change, and motion.

Now anarchist theory, on the other hand, is a form of subjective idealism, of utopian socialism, in which verbal radicalism is combined with paternalistic sectarianism. So anarchism is rooted in petty-bourgeois and even lumpen-proletarian individualism – and everything else flows from this.

As a class, the petty-bourgeoisie is squeezed between the titanic pressure of the big bourgeoisie and the workers. As a result, their outlook and ideas are unstable, inconsistent, confused, erratic – and very often outright hostile to the working class, and especially to the organized working class. And for all their apparent radicalism, anarchist ideas are in reality mired in insoluble contradictions.

Marx called Proudhon’s ideas absurd – and he was trying to be polite. And as Trotsky famously quipped, as Trotsky said, anarchist theory is like an umbrella full of holes – useless precisely when you need it.

As a form of subjective idealism, anarchism conceives of the world in abstract categories, divorced from contradiction and the real world. For example, concepts like “freedom” and “solidarity” are seen as eternal and inherent attributes of humans – as something universal, permanent, and fixed – and not as something conditioned by time and place, and on the overall social context we live in.

Although Pierre-Joseph Proudhon is often referred to as the “father of anarchism,” its real philosophical foundations can be traced to the former Young Hegelian, Max Stirner.

For Stirner, religion, conscience, morality, law, the family, and the state – all these things – they are merely despotic abstractions imposed on the individual, which the “I,” the Ego, must struggle against by any means necessary. In short, it’s as though “I recognize nothing above myself, [that] is to say, I feel oppressed by every institution that imposes any duty upon me.” [Plekhanov] But, he is concerned not only with the individual’s Ego – but with the individual Ego and his property.

And as everybody knows, the world is basically like Mad Max out there! And an “Egoist” can only retain their property as long as other “Egoists” do not take it away from them! Flowing from this, Stirner opposes the state because it deprives the individual of absolute freedom and untrammelled access to individual property.

And of course as a result, he is vehemently opposed to communism. As a rabid defender of individual property, he rebels against any state that infringes on the rights of private property. So what this really reflects is the Utopia of the enraged petty bourgeois, who lash out blindly at forces beyond its control or comprehension.

Now if Stirner sounds a lot like the ranting of today’s radical right-wing libertarians, it’s because these ideas have precisely the same class origin. This is essentially the same worldview as people like Ludwig Von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. As the website of the Mises Institute declares: “If capitalism did not exist, it would be necessary to invent it – and its discovery would be rightly regarded as one of the great triumphs of the human mind.”

So, this is subjective idealism, pure and simple. And it is the very opposite of scientific socialism. It is not an accident that both the anarchists and the libertarian right use precisely the same playbook when it comes to attacking Marxism, equating Leninism with Stalinism, Bolshevism with tyranny, socialism with fascism and so on.

As for Proudhon, the other “father of anarchism.” He was also a Utopian. And as philosophical idealists, the Utopian socialists believe that ideas are primary, and so all that is needed to improve the world is for a “man of genius” to come along and discover a perfect social organization. Proudhon believed he was just such a man of genius.

But it was Marx who revealed the great secret to understanding human history: that is that the structure of society ultimately depends upon its class relations and the degree of development of its productive forces, and that in the final analysis, conditions determine consciousness, not the other way around.

Real social change results from objective changes in our material conditions, not through the mere subjective will of individuals. For example, Proudhon believed that God does not exist – that he is a figment of our imagination and a product of ignorance. And that’s fair enough, as a starting point. But he then applies the same logic to the state, which he considers to be a “phantasmagoria of our brain, which it would be the first duty of free reason to relegate to the museums and libraries.”

However, the state is something very real. Anyone who has been to a protest over the last few weeks knows this first hand. It has been developed and conditioned over hundreds and thousands of years to serve a definite purpose, as we will see. To view the state as a mere fiction may sound radical on the surface, but it is actually a totally impotent analysis. Because if we are unable to understand the real origins, evolution of the state, and above all, its class content and its role in society, we will be unable to successfully confront and overthrow it.

In fact, Proudhon’s worldview is completely devoid of class analysis. In his view, the “people” in the abstract should be reconciled and unite for the greater good under the influence of Pure Reason. As a representative of the petty bourgeoisie, Proudhon constantly oscillated between radicalism and conservatism – but always within the limits of individual private ownership of the means of production.

His “great” contribution was the idea of mutualism. This is the idea that every individual worker should receive back in exchange from the pool of social wealth exactly the amount of wealth he or she contributed to it. So in other words, it is a glorified barter system governed by the labour theory of value, the free market, and a system of mutual credits. Apparently society has no need for a social fund to pay for things like infrastructure, schools, health care, etc.!

Proudhon detests big capital and the state – because they deprive individuals of their freedom to enjoy 100% of the fruits of their labour. But he also rails against the idea of the working class expropriating the exploiters and establishing a democratically planned economy. For Proudhon, communism is an unjust tyranny and just as bad as capitalism.

So, it’s not a question of ending the system of commodity production par excellence –  capitalism, but of strengthening the hold that commodities have on society. And far from abolishing the state as an institution of class rule, Proudhon seeks to devolve its functions to a lower level, to the municipalities, the departments, and so on. So in place of one great centralized capitalist state, he advocates a vast number of small statelets.

But in a sea of small commodity producers, the laws of commodity production will eventually lead to the larger producers gobbling up the smaller ones, concentrating ever-greater economic power into fewer hands. And you’d see a similar process of concentration with all the little statelets.

So, instead of moving society forward by taking the existing means of production to next level by bringing them under democratic public control on a world scale, Proudhon wants to take society backwards to an idyllic, pre-capitalist, petty-bourgeois fantasy land which never actually existed in reality.

As for Bakunin, who is seen by many as the “Attila the Hun” of anarchism, we’ll see that it’s really just a reiteration of the same ideas with this or that modification. For example, he called it collectivism instead of mutualism. Though he tried to give anarchism a sort of materialist basis, he did this very superficially and very badly. He never understood dialectics. And in practice, he remained an idealist and a petty-bourgeois individualist.

And as his model for the new society, he had in mind the backwards small-scale artisans of rural Switzerland. For example, the watchmakers of the Jura region, as well as lumpens and peasants generally – all of whom were alleged to be more revolutionary than the working class, which had been corrupted by life in the big factories and cities. He called for “the economic and social equalization of classes.” So not the end of classes, but their “equalization”!

He put a lot of emphasis on the need to abolish the right of inheritance. He believed that the state was responsible for inventing this right, and that this is what perpetuates inequality. But of course, the right to inheritance is not something randomly invented by the state. It is a function of a society in which there is private property of the means of production and huge concentrations of wealth that can be passed on from generation to generation.

Now, Bakunin was an opportunist and an intriguer, and he had no problem working with nihilist lumpen sociopaths, like the infamous Sergei Nechayev. But he also had no problem working within bourgeois parties. In fact, it was only when he hit a dead end working in a bourgeois party that he turned his massive ego to the First International, where he made an unholy mess of things, and helped to bring about the destruction of the International after the Paris Commune.

So there you have it, comrades, these are the founding fathers of anarchism

Now one key lessons of the George Floyd movement is that you cannot meaningfully fight against the state without also fighting against capitalism. Because the state that oppresses us isn’t an abstract state – it is a capitalist state.

As we have seen, the anarchists believe that the state is simply “bad” – it’s an authoritarian infringement on their right to absolute personal liberty. But as the great Marxists explained, the state is a very real power, and it reflects very real economic and class interests. The state is a power rising from society, but placing itself above it, and alienating itself more and more from it.

It consists of “special bodies of armed men” (and women) enjoying a monopoly of organized violence, with the support of prisons, courts and institutions of coercion of all kinds. It appears on the stage of history alongside the rise of classes. But far from reconciling divergent class interests, it is a product and manifestation of the irreconcilability nature of class antagonisms, and serves to defend the interests of one class in particular, the ruling class, over the rest of society. Our starting point must be to ask: which class interests does this or that state represent?

Bakunin also thought that the state is responsible for creating classes. And because of his ahistorical and idealist understanding of the state, he believed that even a workers’ state would lead inevitably to the rise of a new minority that would oppress the majority.

Marxists, on the other hand, understand the need for a workers’ state, as a transitional form. It would represent and defend the rule of the majority over the minority of former exploiters. It would serve to coordinate the transition to a nationalized, democratically planned economy.

Unlike the Russians a century ago, who inherited terrible backwardness and barbarism from tsarism, a modern socialist state would inherit an economy with a comparatively high level of development of the productive forces. It would mobilize the masses to defend the revolution.

On the basis of a rationally planned economy, society would have the capacity to provide more than enough for everyone in a very short space of time. And so, the coercive role of a state, like a capitalist state which represents the minority over the majority, would very rapidly diminish.

Over time, on the basis of equality of life for all, class distinctions themselves would begin to fade away – and I think what would happen quiet quickly, in my opinion, given the belated nature of the socialist revolution and the degree to which the productive forces have developed within capitalism, even if it has happened in a very distorted way. Once there is no longer an opposing class to coerce, the state as an instrument of class rule will “wither away,” and be replaced by the non-coercive “administration of things.”

So to get rid of the state, we have to get rid of classes. And you can’t just wish these things away. The ruling class will never give up its power without a fight. And furthermore, the capitalist state apparatus, cannot be simply taken over by the workers to serve our interests.

A very different kind of state is needed. Instead of a power standing above society, a workers’ state would be the organic expression of the majority. It would be comprised of democratically elected neighbourhood and workplace committees, these would be linked up locally, regionally, nationally. In the Russian Revolution these were known as soviets.

The four basic conditions for beginning the work of coordinating a workers’ state are as follows: the election and recall of public officials at all levels; no official to receive more pay than a skilled worker –all these positions to be rotated regularly; as Lenin put it, “every cook should be able to be prime minister.”

These measures alone would go a long way towards fighting careerism and bureaucracy. But the forth condition is that instead of a minority of specialized oppressors – as we have today – you would have the armed masses themselves, elected and accountable in defence of the revolution. And these kinds of organs rise in every revolutionary situation and situations of dual power.

And this is a qualitatively different kind of state. Given its vastly different class composition, it would in reality be a semi-state, as Engels put it. And so we as Marxists, are absolutely in favour of this kind of state.

In fact, one of the most exciting things about the recent protests was the organic emergence of neighbourhood defence committees. And, this represented the embryo of the embryo of dual power, of workers’ power. And its emergence in the US is really pregnant with revolutionary implications for the future.

But it’s not only a question of what the workers should do during the revolution or once they have won political power. It’s a question of preparing to win power in the first place. Like everything else we do, our strategy, tactics, and organizational methods flow from our class perspective. The working class is a collective class. And we base ourselves on the need for mass, collective, class-independent action.

Anarchism, on the other hand, bases itself on the individual as we’ve seen. It rejects the idea that we need leaders, that we need a disciplined organization, that we need to study theory and prepare for revolution. Instead, they rely almost entirely on spontaneity. But this has severe limits, as we have seen.

Instead of a party, prepared in advance, with a clear programme and transparent membership and leadership structures, Bakunin’s vision was that of a conspiracy, of an unelected “secret universal association of international brothers.” He believed that “two or three hundred revolutionaries are enough for the largest country’s organization.” And so, if that were all that was needed, many sections of the IMT would already be on the eve of power!

Bakunin accused Marx of “ruining the workers by making theorists out of them” – because apparently, all you need is instinct, not theory in order for the revolution to be victorious. And of course, this is the very opposite of Bolshevism. Yes, the energy of the masses is the motor force of the revolution. A small group cannot force the working class to move into action before its ready.

But the key point is this: in the heat of a revolution, there is no time to experiment or to learn by trial and error. Revolutions are not as rare as the bourgeois would have us believe, but they don’t come too often in any single country in any single lifetime. We can’t waste these opportunities, because failure and defeat can have disastrous, and even deadly consequences!

We understand revolutionary processes dialectically, and understand that the spontaneous energy of the masses needs to be channelled via an organization with a program, perspectives, strategy, and tactics worked out in advance. Which is rooted in the class – that’s a revolutionary party made up of Marxist cadres.

A cadre organization is like the muscle memory of the class. Cadre is a military term – the cadres are the commissioned and non-commissioned officers, specialists in military history, strategy and tactics. And they’re the ones that drill up and train the millions of raw recruits when there is a general mobilization for war.

It is similar with the class struggle. After a long period of hibernation, a prolonged ebb in the open class struggle, when the workers first begin to flex their muscles and to move into action, they will inevitably be disoriented and hesitant.

But, trained Bolshevik cadres can help rapidly and efficiently transmit the collective lessons of our class, the past victories and defeats, the theory and organizational forms – what works and what doesn’t work – and accelerate the process of training up the proletarian army for its confrontation with capital.

Now, although anarchist organizations or as they’re often called: collectives, do exist, they typically operate on the basis of consensus. Because of course, nobody wants to impose their view on anymore else. But of course, this means that any individual has veto power over the majority – and this is the most undemocratic organizational form possible. This is the kind of impotent, demoralizing structure that was at the heart of the Occupy movement, as well as in the CHAZ/CHOP occupation in Seattle.

Now of course, since anarchist organizations don’t have clearly defined structures (usually) they don’t have elected leaders who are accountable and so on, they are often run very undemocratically, often as the personal tyranny of the strongest personality, or through unelected cliques. The reality is that, in every human relationship, we must subordinate a part of our autonomy and “freedom.” But in exchange, we get a whole that is far greater and stronger than the sum of its parts.

In a Bolshevik organization we voluntarily agree to abide by the majority decision after having had a free and democratic opportunity to make the case for our ideas and positions. But our collective strength flows from our unity of action, and undermining this collective strength in the name of “the rights of the individual” is basically like strike-breaking and sabotage.

Another conception of anarchism is that the organization should be a microcosm of the future society. Many anarchists seem to think it is possible to live without classes or the state or money in a miniature bubble. Starting with themselves of course, liberating themselves within capitalism itself, in a collective or a commune, or through so-called “guerrilla gardening.”

But Marxists view the revolutionary organization very differently. We understand that it is a specialized and essential tool that is needed by the working class to smash through the barriers of capitalism so we can start building a new society, but it is not the new society itself.

Now, most anarchists believe that workers should be in unions – though they often create their own unions, like the IWW. But they transform this basically correct idea into a magic key that can supposedly solve all questions. Because as important as they are, unions are not in and of themselves enough. As Marx explained, to fight as a class, in the interests of all workers against the interests of all capitalists, we also need political struggle.

This is why the demand of some anarchists – ”One Big Union” – cannot in and of itself end capitalist exploitation and oppression. Workers’ control over production on the shop floor is not enough. And worker-owned cooperatives are definitely not enough. You cannot artificially separate economic and political struggle.

Now, it is absolutely true that workers’ organizations and parties can be bureaucratized, they can degenerate. Individual leaders can be bought off, they can wear out. And unfortunately, there is no one-hundred percent guarantee that this won’t happen – just as there’s no guarantee that your knife won’t get dull if you don’t care for it and keep it sharp.

But, we don’t throw the baby out with the bath water! We fight reformism with revolution, we fight against corruption with accountability, against cliques and secrets with transparency and internal democracy.

But the anarchists lump all parties into the same category, whether they are liberal or conservative bourgeois parties; whether they are reformist, or bureaucratized workers’ parties; or revolutionary Bolshevik parties – and condemn them all. Again, this is an ahistorical and very confused conception.

So of course, our aim is not to create a reformist parliamentary party that can negotiate the terms of our servitude with the capitalists. We aim to forge a political and organizational spear that can pierce the system’s heart and kill it once and for all.

A healthy revolutionary party requires an active and engaged membership. Above all, it requires a truly revolutionary program that transcends capitalism and has that historic strategic aim in mind.

Unless and until we are in a position to replace the farce of bourgeois democracy with mass revolutionary politics, we must in many cases participate in bourgeois elections – though we have no illusions that such elections can in and of themselves bring about fundamental change.

We do not abandon the workers to the reformists. We place positive demands on the reformist leaders and expose them in practice, not by merely denouncing them. And we never give acritical support to reformists, nor do we join bourgeois governments.

We participate in the workers’ struggles, and we put forward clear transitional demands that raise the political horizons of the workers in order to help them draw the conclusion that we need a socialist revolution. And it’s through this process that the limited nature of reforms and of the reformists are exposed.

But, most anarchists would argue that the right to vote shouldn’t be exercised – because it merely sows illusions in the system. Their approach is pretty straightforward. Basically they say: power is evil – don’t touch power or you will be tainted by evil!

But of course, as Trotsky explained, to abstain from the fight for political power is to leave power in the hands of those who currently have it. This is a completely sterile and reactionary position, and no one learns from this process.

A classic example of how mistakes in theory lead to disaster in practice was during the Spanish Revolution. In the midst of the revolution, the old state power collapsed under the pressure of the masses. But the leaders of the anarchist CNT refused to take power “out of principle.”

Later on, when the revolution was in a much worse situation, they joined the bourgeois government and this gave the government less cover, and it sewed enormous confusion among the workers. And this deeply undermined the struggle against Franco.

And most modern anarchists would accuse those CNT leaders of abandoning anarchist principles. But the real issue is that the CNT did not take power in the first place when it was there for the taking. And of course, a victorious socialist revolution in Spain in the 1930s would have changed the whole world.

When power is on the streets, you must be prepared to take it – you cannot hesitate, you cannot vacillate, you cannot respectfully hand it back to the bourgeoisie. To be prepared to act decisively at the decisive moment, your entire strategy and organizational psychology even must be aimed at the winning of power for the working class.

And it is not a question of imposing our will on the masses – which isn’t possible anyway! But insofar as our ideas correspond with the experience of the workers at a particular stage of the class struggle, insofar as we are seen as hard-working, honest, and rooted in the class, after a series of successive approximations, in which other parties and leaders are tested and found wanting, the masses will give our ideas a chance – if we are big enough for them to find us at that moment.

The workers can see with their own eyes that the world is on fire. Billions of people are looking for a way out. All we are doing is offering a clear exit from the burning building. But knowing the way out of the burning building, and having enough people in the right places to organize an orderly exit cannot be improvised.

The task of a revolutionary leadership prepared in advance is to accelerate the process – or if you like, to flatten the curve – of the revolutionary crisis and to lead it to a victorious conclusion as quickly, efficiently, and peacefully as possible.

I’ve only been able to touch the surface of this really vast topic. It has a lot of layers. Other comrades will come in and I can perhaps take up some more points in the summing up. But, hopefully, it has sparked comrades’ interest in learning more about Marxist theory generally, not just about Marxism versus anarchism. Because it’s all interconnected.

Comrades, people who are alive today have little or no previous experience of living through a revolution, or a general strike, or an uprising. But over the last few years, millions of people around the world have had precisely that experience. And now millions of Americans have joined their class sisters and brothers around the world in those experiences.

The key lessons is this: The state and the police do not exist in a vacuum. Political power and the economic power behind it cannot be simply ignored or wished away. A new power, a new state, on a new class basis, is the only way to successfully fight and replace the status quo.

The anarchist movement has produced some heroic and inspiring class fighters and martyrs. Many of the rank and file members of the CNT or in the North American IWW, the Wobblies contained within them the embryo of Bolshevism. But class instincts and the will to sacrifice are not enough. And to be frank, the class composition of the anarchist movement today is overwhelmingly petty bourgeois, if not in class background, then in class outlook. And while many of them may invoke the name of the working class, they have no understanding of the contradictory way in which the working class actually moves.

We should be friendly to young people who come to us and consider themselves anarchists. Given the legacy of Stalinism and the avalanche of lies about Marx and Lenin, it’s understandable that some young people will look to anarchism first.

But we have to be implacable when it comes to fighting against anarchist ideology. As we have seen, it is the ideology of an alien class. These ideas, they don’t help the struggle of the working class, but actually damages it and holds it back, these methods.

Marxists are also against authoritarianism. We are also against blindly following the leadership, we’re against having an unelected and unaccountable leadership. But we have no problem recognizing the political authority of a leadership that has proven the correctness of its ideas and its methods time and again, through its analysis of events, its participation in the struggles of the world working class.

This kind of authority – it has to be earned. It cannot be imposed from above – and we have no interest in imposing it from above.

The IMT is in the process of earning our political authority in the eyes of the masses, of earning the right to lead the working class. And I think that our political has never been higher, as exemplified by this extraordinary worldwide event. So we have to take the lessons of this discussion and the lessons from this school and redouble our efforts to overthrow this horrific system in the next historical period.

Comrades, long live the ideas of Marxism!

Long live the fight for socialism in our lifetime!

And long live the IMT and the world working class!


Adrián: I am Adrián, member of the Mexican section of the International Marxist Tendency. I’d like to thank John for his excellent leadoff on the ideas of anarchism. I think this Marxist University has been very stimulating for all the comrades in attendance.

Anarchism doesn’t enjoy anymore the mass influence it had back in the beginning of the 20th century in a series of countries such as Spain, Mexico, or Argentina. However, as we’ve explained in the past, today there are millions of young people who are looking for revolutionary alternatives as they are faced with a crisis and the failure of the capitalist system. And as they search for ideas, for revolutionary doctrine they might come across certain ideas that might sound very revolutionary on the surface. The appeal of these anarchist ideas to some extent reflects the bankruptcy of class collaboration and its healthy reflection of class liberation.

It’s also a rejection of the reformists’ attempts to manage capitalism. This is policy of the leaders of reformist parties and trade union bureaucracies. The ideas about revolutionary leadership and the revolutionary party, about political power, authority, the state, or the ideas about tactics, about spontaneity, and about mass action.

Marxists should strive to overcome impressionism and not to be astray by superficial impressions. And we have to seek to understand society scientifically in order to transform it, and put forward the genuine revolutionary alternative, that the vanguard of the youth and the working class is looking for.

The discussion about anarchism is still relevant because these ideas are still present in some sectors of the movement. Our analysis of the state has been one of the key zones of contention between Marxists and anarchists. It’s not entirely correct to say that Marxists are in favour of the state and that anarchists stand for its complete abolition. We both share the idea that the state must disappear at some point in history.

We reject the liberal idea that the state is representative of society as a whole. And we also reject the reformist notion that the state can be used as an instrument to transform society and to redistribute wealth.

The state is a product of class society. It’s an organ of class power, it’s an organ for the oppression of one class by another class. It represents the order, the state of things, and it provides a legal stamp to this oppression. And this instrument, this organism, has served the interests of the ruling class throughout history. And nowadays, the current state serves the interests of the capitalists.

We Marxists say that when classes disappear, the state wither away. But the anarchists demand that the state be abolished the day after the revolution. Proudhon thus sees the state as an instrument of the ruling class, but he appraises the state from the standpoint of the ruined petty-bourgeoisie, of the impoverished petty-artisans.

In the same way that both he and Kropotkin idolize the commune of the Middle Ages. They both state that this epoch, the Middle Ages, were a golden age where small-craftsmen flourished. And that within the medieval commune, there was no state. And they thus disregard the oppression and the exploitation by the feudal lords.

Stirner also talks about state oppression, but from the standpoint of the individual. He opposes the “I”, the Ego, to the state. This is a notion that the petty-bourgeois is currently rediscovering. The anarchists’ understanding of the state, as is the case with many of their ideas, can be traced back to the origins of the worker’s movement. Or even we can trace it back before the working class emerged as an organized movement. These are the ideas of the ruined artisans, the impoverished peasantry of the petty-bourgeoisie – but these are not the ideas of the working class.

However, the anarchists have been adapting their ideas as the capitalist system evolved. For instance, their opposition to political parties and political activity can be traced back to the epoch before working class parties took shape. And the working class was a plaything in the hands of the liberals and the conservatives.

The question is what is our alternative to the bourgeois state. The anarchists talk about the suppression of classes and of the state, but they don’t explain how to abolish these evils. They refuse to struggle for political power for the working class, and they thus, lack an instrument to defend the conquests of the revolution and to fightback against the old ruling classes when they stage their counterrevolution.

The bourgeoisie will not give up on its privileges, simply with moralistic calls for peace and reconciliation. This is why the working class needs a workers state, rather a semi-state, as Lenin described in “State and Revolution.” The standing army must be substituted by the people in arms, state officials must be elected by the working class which must have the right to recall them at any moment, and no official in our workers’ state can earn more than a skilled worker – this is one of the basic tenants of a workers’ state.

And I’ll sum up with one idea. Anarchists see the state in an idealistic and metaphysical way: as something that is ahistorical and does not change with time. Marxists instead see the state as it evolves throughout history in its different stages, and we identify its origins with the emergence of social classes.

Socialism will lay the foundations for an unprecedented development of the means of production, which in turn will prepare the ground for the withering away of social classes. And as classes wither away, so does the state, which becomes superfluous. An Engels said in a book that we should all read The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State, as society reorganizes production along different lines on the basis of a free and equal union of producers, of workers. It will send the entire state machinery to the place where it belongs: into the museum [of antiquity, by the spinning-wheel] and the bronze axe.

That’s all, thank you very much.

Antonio: Alright comrades, I wanted to say a few words about revolutionary leadership in the context of 2020. Because in the last two months the US has come closer to  an outright revolutionary situation than any other time in the memory of the living generation.

In a country where the idea of revolution was unthinkable, where people cannot imagine an uprising of the masses in the US. It’s estimated that 25 million people have come out to the streets in every city in the country.

Last year we saw mass movements, civil unrest, revolutionary uprisings, in a quarter of the countries on the earth’s surface. And given the number of countries represented in this meeting, we would have a lot of comrades participating that have lived through outright revolutionary situations.

Up until a few months ago this was not present in most people’s minds in the US. But now it’s no longer impossible for anyone to imagine a revolution in the US – what it would look like because they’ve had a glimpse now. So this discussion about anarchism, the question of the state, and the role of leadership, it’s no longer totally abstract for people in the US or for this new generation of youth.

In the past these debates were taking place among a small fringe, a minority of young people, removed from the daily thoughts and concerns of the masses. As John explained, today: millions of people are discussing revolutionary ideas.

Events like a global pandemic; a global crisis of the economy; a global wave of social unrest and discontent, obviously starts getting people thinking about the global picture. People are thinking about where society is headed.

And for everybody participating in this Marxist university, there are thousands of others in every country who are open to our ideas. Comrades have seen the polls in the US showing growing support for socialism – around 42% of the population supports some form of socialism. But even more interesting, as of last month, 20% of the population says they reject all forms of capitalism. Somewhere around 50 million people, that’s – most of them the younger generation – can’t see any future for themselves under this system.

And this discontent, this radicalization, it’s being fuelled by the impasse of the system. A revolutionary mood is taking hold of the masses. What does this mean for us as revolutionaries? It means we have a responsibility to prepare for a historic window of opening.

In normal times the idea of overthrowing capitalism, establishing workers governments around the world, this would be pretty extreme for most people. But when, when circumstances push millions to question capitalism and open up to a revolutionary perspective, that’s a rare special occasion. And what we want to ask: what does it mean to be prepared for it? What does it mean to have – what are the revolutionary leadership look like? We turn to the party of Lenin and Trotsky, the legacy and message of Bolshevism.

The beginning of 1917, the membership of the Bolshevik party was around 8000. That’s not much more than we have participating in this Marxist university online. And in 8 months, from February to October 1917, they grew from 8000 to a membership of 250,000. For every member of the Bolshevik party in February, 30 more members joined in the subsequent months.

Because they had correct methods, a relatively small group, was able to win over the working class as a whole to a socialist program. We’re talking about a Marxist organization that came together some 20 years before they were in power. This is an achievement that all revolutionaries should study.

Because those years before 1917 were years of preparation. Meticulous political discussions, small circles studying theory, philosophy, lessons of past struggles. The training they received is what allowed them to play that incredible role in 1917. Not just the political education which we are focusing on, but also political skills: agitation, propaganda.

Distinct groups in the working class, they became a point of reference and that’s what allowed them to put forward a socialist program at a moment when the masses were ready for it. In the context of the 2020s, being ready means having branches of trained cadre in every major city in the US and around the world. In the movement like the one we’re seeing in the US, we would be calling for the establishment of workers defence committees, organizing a general strike across the country, but above all: linking all pressing demands to the need for a workers government that can expropriate the major industries and plan the economy.

A socialist program would offer jobs for all, higher wages, a shorter work week, health care, education, housing. When the US working class is faced with this option, when they’re given this program on a massive scale across the county, we can be sure that this generation of the working class – the millions who are coming to revolutionary ideas and the millions who are moving, who are going to moving to this direction in the coming years. They will embrace this program and carry out their historic destiny to transform society.

Everything we do today is a preparation for that role, comrades. Thank you.

Francesco: Comrades, France is a key country to understand the revolutionary syndicalism, an important tendency with the semi-anarchist leanings.

At the end of the 19th century, industrial growth in France was slower than in Britain or in Germany. The working class was far less concentrated and the political heritage of Proudhon and Bakunin was still strong. This, of course, led to all sorts of localism and petit bourgeois utopianism.

So, in 1906, the foundation of a centralized trade union, the CGT, was a step forward. The revolutionary syndicalists won the control of the CGT. They declared themselves for class struggle and praised direct action. They also took a stand in favour of neutrality on the political field.

The final task of the trade union was set to be the revolutionary general strike. This so called “political neutrality”, was intended to separate themselves from the opportunism of the socialist party leaders.

However, in this political vacuum, ideological confusion grew up. Some leaders of the CGT went so far as to borrow ideas from George Sorel: the rationalist and anti-Marxist thinker. Moreover, the French syndicalists were convinced that the trade unionism had to be the effect of just an active minority. That idea prevented the CGT to organize and get in touch with the broader layers of the working class.

Anyway, with the outbreak of the First World War, all major political questions could not be escaped. Far from political neutrality, the top leaders of the CGT, didn’t resist the oppression of the bourgeoisie and joined the national unity.

Only a tiny internationalist minority led by Alfred Rosemar and Pierre Monat was allied. During the war, they had regular discussion with Russian socialists in exile, especially with Trotsky. Recalling the intervention made by Trotsky at that time, Rosemar wrote: “our horizons were broadening”.

But it was only the victory of the Russian Revolution, that sparked a general revision of the syndicalist eclecticism on the question of the party, on centralism, and on the need of proletarian dictatorship. For instance, the civil war in Russia, convinced many of them about the need of the proletarian dictatorship.

In France, many syndicalists joined the communist party, and were instrumental in reorienting it to the working class. Rosemar for instance, played a great role in the early days of the Communist International. Anyway, the ideological fusion with Bolshevism was not completed.

The idea of trade unionism as a reflection of the spontaneous action of an active minority was still circulating. And Trotsky’s reply was very sharp. He wrote that this line would create: “a substitute for the party and a substitute for the labour union.” The trade unions would be too amorphous to play the role of a party, and too little to play the role of a trade union. The rise of Stalin and the Bolshevization of the Comintern broke up all the discussion between communists and syndicalists.

Rosemar, Monat and others supported Trotsky and the battle of the Left Opposition, in the first instance. In November 1924, they were expelled from the French communist party as right wingers. Now they were at a crossroads: in the years to come, reacting to Stalinism, the syndicalists went back to their own political origin: to a semi-anarchist position.

They started a new paper: Proletarian Revolution. And refused to wage their struggle within the Communist International. So Trotsky warned them that this choice could, in the end, push them on the side of reaction.

In fact, without theory and a general strategy, they stood at the side-lines of all great events. During the ‘36 wave of factory occupations, they acted like left fellow travellers of the reformist government. During the Second World War they almost disappeared.

So, in conclusion, the failure to grasp the meaning of Stalinism, and the necessity of a general theory to understand the word doomed French syndicalism and explained quite well why this tendency completely collapsed. Workers spontaneity, in fact, is not enough to win in our fight for international socialism. Thanks

Daniel: I too agree with Francesco that anarchism lacks a coherent theory. In fact, it’s not even a theoretical approach to political questions at all.

They tend not to discuss political questions from the point of view of what is necessary, but more from the point of view of what would be good. As if anything you can think of is possible. One often finds anarchist exultations to be free, to live without masters, to make yourself ungovernable – which is a phrase you often see. As if it’s enough to want to do those things for them to happen, genuinely.

And, I think that the question of centralism is an example of this very important question. Most anarchists, if you ask them, they will admit that it is necessary to defend a successful revolution against bourgeois counterrevolution – which is of course, our justification for, or reason for the need for a workers’ state. The reason they say this is not to be a workers’ state is that it is not to be centralized; it’s rather to be a federal or an autonomous kind of structure.

And so they pose it always as if it is a simple matter of preference: so, the Marxists like centralism, they think it’s good, it’s just a desirable thing, so they put it forward. Whereas anarchists are in favour of more personal freedom and autonomy.

Whereas for us, it’s got nothing to do with that – it’s that it’s absolutely necessary for the victory of a revolution. If you have a revolution but there is a minority of the working class, for example, that is or a particular conservative trade union that opposes the revolution, how do you deal with that? And this is not at all a sort of hypothetical thing, it’s a very real situation that arises in nearly any revolution.

Take the example of the Russian Revolution, in which the Bolsheviks won, democratically won a majority in the soviets. Nevertheless, you still have the Vikzhel Union, which was the trade union of the train drivers. And because they opposed the Bolsheviks taking power, even though the majority of the workers were in favour, they basically threatened a strike in which they would not, there would be no train services for the revolutionary government, who would effectively cripple the revolutionary governments.

Now if you practise a strict federalism or a sort of principle of autonomy, it is impossible for the revolutionary workers’ government to do anything about the situation, because you’ve got to allow for the autonomy of that section of the working class, or that particular trade union.

But the actions of such a minority could potential destroy the revolution. And if it did, then in reality, you wouldn’t actually have autonomy for that group, but you would have that minority be imposing its autonomy onto the rest of the revolution, or the working class.

And that reveals that in bourgeois society, in capitalist society – especially the capitalist society that has laid the basis for socialism – there is no possibility of autonomy for any major section of society. Because every section of the working class is interdependent because of the nature of the capitalist economy.

But we also need centralism I think, in today’s struggles, and not just for a workers government, but in the organizations of the working class, and as we fight against capitalism. Those that refuse to have any central leadership ultimately, always any struggles based on that always peter out into sort of fruitlessness. In fact, we have a very recent example of this in the form of this Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone in Seattle.

I’ll just read out a quotation, which is, I apologize, is quite long, but it’s from an anarchist participant in this particular autonomous zone and I think, it’s very telling. They say the following:

“The victory of the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone soon came to be undone by the lack of political maturity of the movement to capitalize on victory. We lacked the ability to navigate political differences and move forward on shared interests for collective liberation. There was little ability to discuss the pressing, strategic and logistical concerns in this space. Instead, people just started doing things. Hundreds and thousands of people, working on hundreds of individual and collective projects. This included a community garden for Black and Indigenous lives, nightly concerts and political rallies, documentary film screenings, a decolonial café, and more. The biggest problem was there was no space to have collective decision making to shape agreed upon priorities. A General Assembly did emerge, but it was very difficult to get things down. It became more of a speak out, with people voicing impassioned testimonials. [and he sums up] The in-fighting we saw was rooted in a lack of decision-making process that made even the most basic agreements impossible to gain collective consent.”

It’s clear to me (that’s the end of the quotation) It’s clear to me that the only way out of such a scenario in movements like that is to have a well-organized political tendency that can put forward clear political demands and proposals and can attempt to win support for them democratically. But obviously, that involves leadership.

And finally, centralism is also vital for planning the economy, which is the only way to deliver socialism and real human freedom. Because of the emphasis on autonomy, a lot of anarchists end up, effectively what they support is just individual workers’ co-operatives which are run democratically, but they’re not linked up in a necessary plan.

Without such a plan, workers’ co-operatives just become a kind of collective capitalist against their own will, because of course, lacking any security of a plan, they will have to compete in a market because they cannot afford to go bust. They need to pay their own wages, so they’ll have to take decisions that are based on market forces, essentially.

And if that situation would generalize across the economy, you would see repeated all the features of a capitalist economy, including economic crises. And in such a crisis, workers would have to be laid off – and how would you decide who gets laid off and not.

The only way to overcome this is to have a centrally drawn up plan, which you know, all of the main industries factor into and are obliged to you know, to produce for that plan. It goes without saying that that plan must be drawn up by elected, you know, people and must be subject to democratic criticism. And it must be left to the workers in their own work places to elect their own managers and to decide democratically how best to meet that plan. And if they disagree with aspects of that plan, they can raise that in the democratically organized working class of the workers’ state.

But if strict autonomy is adhered to, then of course if those workers decide that don’t fancy producing actually, they want to stop working, or they want to work in a completely different way, there is nothing we can do to stop that and the plan can easily be sabotaged by any workers who happen to disagree.

Ultimately, socialism means establishing a harmonious and coordinated society to do away with the contradictions and inequalities and the anarchy of capitalism. And without centralism, that is absolutely impossible. That’s it.

Joel: OK, I would like to talk about how many anarchists, or many youth over the past number of years have been interested in anarchism. This is at least the case in North America, and probably in Europe as well, which is not difficult to understand why this is. Look around you: society stinks, it’s horrible. Even the movement – the unions, the left parties, the workers’ parties – are actively betraying and undermining the movement and betraying the masses. But really every major institution in bourgeois society stinks, is horrible.

So in general, we sympathize with the sentiment and also, what about what they know of Marxism. The so-called Marxists have created a totalitarian state in the Soviet Union. So you can understand why some people would think that the problem was authority or hierarchy in and of themselves. And a lot of youth would maybe consider themselves anarchists without having read Proudhon or Bakunin. So a lot of the time, it comes from a healthy sentiment against the state, against the trade union bureaucracy.

But as Trotsky said, the truth is always concrete. It’s important, I think, that when you meet a young person who’s a bit anarchist or interested in anarchism, that you don’t discuss abstractly with them on whether or not authority is good or bad, for example. We should sympathize with the anti-authoritarian state sentiment actually. But then, use concrete examples to show that this idea taken to its logical conclusion is actually damaging to the movement.

For example, during a strike: how is it decided that you are going to go on strike. Well, they have a meeting, all of the points are put forward and discussed, a vote is held, and if the majority votes to go on strike – everyone goes on strike. It’s not consensus: if the minority wants to go to work, they aren’t allowed to go to work and they are stopped, using force actually.

Now I find when you pose it concretely like that, most anarchists or anarchist youths would totally agree. So what it really is, it’s a case of rejecting bourgeois authority, which is actually the authority of a minority. And we are completely opposed to this authority. But without the imposition of the authority of the majority onto this minority, no revolution would be possible.

As Engels said in a text he wrote called ‘On Authority,’ he said: “A revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing there is.” And precisely because it is one class imposing itself on the other.

Also, I think it’s important to note that one of the criticisms, the main criticisms that anarchists have against Marxists, is this idea of a vanguard, which quite often they’ll call it elitist. But then concretely, what does anarchist activity look like in the movement a lot of the time. For example, take the Black Bloc, for example. Well I don’t know an example of a more unaccountable, unrecallable, undemocratic vanguard, elitist group. But they act like this because they know that they can’t convince the majority. So, they’re really just protesting against being in a minority and lacking patience to patiently try to convince the majority of what needs to happen.

So, to finalize, I think it’s a concrete question: it’s actually easy to show you using concrete examples that this is a question of victory or defeat. For this reason, we need to wage war against anarchist ideas in the movement. As we quite often say, ultra-leftism and anarchism as a form of ultra-leftism, and opportunism are two sides of the same coin. Therefore, the best way to fight anarchism, to fight ultra-leftism is to provide a genuine Marxist expression for the anger of workers and youth today. Thank you.

Sum up

John: Well thanks comrades, to everyone who spoke for the excellent contributions and the book recommendations. And thank you to the birds for bringing their good cheer and song to the discussion.

Now, there was a lot of angles that we’re only able to touch on briefly. And one thing that often comes up when discussing Marxism and anarchism, is the question of Nestor Makhno and the Kronstadt uprising during the Russian Civil War. And for that we have some really wonderful articles on these topics on Marxist.com. I suggest everyone check them out.

But just briefly: We should be crystal clear about something. These people were not repressed by the Bolsheviks for being anarchists, not for their ideas, but for playing an objectively counterrevolutionary and reactionary role, for putting the interests of the petty bourgeoisie, and of the kulaks in particular, above the interests of the working class, because by extension, this represented the interests of the capitalists and imperialism, which was trying to crush the revolution.

After these and other groupings were disarmed and were no longer a potential conduit for capitalist intervention and restoration, the anarchists were allowed to publish and discuss anything they wanted to, at least in the early days of the Soviet Union, under Lenin and Trotsky.

As it has been noted, at root, anarchism lacks a coherent political theory. Their idea seems to be that if people would just open their eyes and stop believing this foolish nonsense, then things like the state and religion would just disappear. But can’t impose our reality on the real world, and the real world just doesn’t work that way.

Bakunin himself found this out the hard way in the farce of the Lyon uprising in 1870. After the fall of the Louis Bonaparte and his Empire, after the defeat of the French by the Prussians in the Franco-Prussian war, Bakunin rushed to Lyon, France, he installed himself in the Town Hall, and he declared the abolition of the state. He published a declaration to this effect.

He purposely didn’t post any guards around the building, because that would be a political act and a form of a state. But within hours, the National Guard showed up and drove them out in humiliation, because apparently, these armed bodies of men, the National Guard hadn’t read Bakunin’s declaration about the abolition of the state!

I mean, it really does get this ridiculous sometimes. And so, with all due respect, anarchism to me is a bit like immature, rebellious teen angst. It is genuinely and rightfully indignant at the state of the world. And this isn’t a surprise given the extreme discrediting of all the institutions, norms, and morality of the capitalist status quo. But instead of having a worked out, long-term plan of action, they lash out in the abstract against authority in any form. It is full of passion and energy and has the will to smash all obstacles. And to be sure, a lot of great music has come out of the anarchist movement, and this can be very appealing, especially to the youth.

And of course, energy, enthusiasm, and a willingness to sacrifice are very admirable qualities. But some obstacles, like the bourgeois state, cannot be smashed by sheer willpower or by individuals. But I think the overwhelming trend among young people today is not towards individualism, despite the atomization and extreme alienation of this rotten ripe system. With the iPhone, iPod, iPad, the so-called “me” generation.

Rather, I think the trend is towards collective, united action – especially among the youth. Not nationalism, but internationalism. Not the separating out of this or that oppressed layer, but unity in struggle. The fact that the demographics of the George Floyd protesters matched the overall population, I think, is a clear indication of this. And the power of mass collective action was on full display.

It’s not an accident that while the masses were on the streets, the state was paralyzed and on the back foot, on the defensive. And that it was only when the movement began to ebb that the state got the upper hand, that anonymous agents of the state can now corral isolated individuals and haul them off in unmarked vehicles. And again, this is just the beginning of a revolutionary process that has begun in this country. A worldwide process that is already raging in many other countries around the world.

Comrades, our international website is called In Defence of Marxism. We must defend Marxism from the influence of alien class ideas, whether this influence is conscious or unconscious. We should be very proud of these ideas, and proud of what our tendency has done to preserve their revolutionary essence, in a historic period where there has been enormous pressure on the working class, especially since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

So we should view this school as a springboard to help us go onto the offensive with these ideas. Millions of people worldwide are wide open to revolutionary ideas, and only Marxist can answer that. So, we have to get out there and spread them far and wide, with boldness, with confidence, and with audacity.

We have to continue to patiently and painstakingly build our cadre organization. If each and every one of us continues to study hard, to work hard – or efficiently – if we recognize, analyse, and correct any mistakes we make. Then with a certain convergence of factors, objective and subjective factors, a relatively small force can become a material force for mass social change, as our ideas connect with the needs and aspirations of the masses in struggle. So for every one of us participating in this University this weekend, we can become 30, 100, 1,000 or more! So let’s get out there and do it! Thank you.