Socialist Studies Socialist Studies


Socialist Studies Pamphlet: The Practical and Logical Impossibility of Anarchism


The word "anarchy" derives from the Greek word anarche meaning no-rule/no government/authority. One of the first anarchists was William Godwin.

In ENQUIRY CONCERNING POLITICAL JUSTICE (1793) his view was that the economic conditions, and specifically the excessive accumulation of private property in the means of production, had undermined "social justice", and that the State's function was to sustain economic unfairness through force and coercion. Remove the state, Godwin believed, and the way was open to restore a fair distribution of private property.

Like others of the 18th century (e.g. Helvetius "man is all education" and the French encyclopaedists Diderot and D'Alambert), Godwin's arguments started from a view of human nature. Also typical of the 18th century was his assertion that "society is nothing more than an aggregation of individuals", a dogma that was to become one of the key assumptions of capitalist political economy.

Engels, in SOCIALISM: UTOPIAN and SCIENTIFIC, dismissed as "utopian" writers such as Godwin for their use of philosophical abstractions like "Justice" and "Reason". The Utopian socialists naively appealed to the moral superiority and desirability of an alternative society rather than demonstrating scientifically that Socialism was a historical process which would come out of capitalism through class struggle.

Later, the Russian writer, Plekhanov, (in his pamphlet "ANARCHISM AND SOCIALISM", Kerr, 1918) defined as "Utopian": "one who, starting from an abstract principle seeks for a perfect social organisation" (p.21). In contrast to utopian speculation Marx set out three interconnected theories about capitalist society; a theory of history, known as the materialist conception of history, a labour theory of value and the political concept of the class struggle. These three interrelated theories were applied to capitalism where he demonstrated that generalised commodity production and exchange for profit could never work in the interests of all society. The revolutionary conclusion was for the working class to take conscious political action through a socialist party, abolish capitalism and replace the profit system with socialism.

Such a politics is anathema to all strands of anarchism.

Marx and Engels had asserted in 1848 that "every class struggle is a political struggle" (COMMUNIST MANIFESTO). They had put this point as part of the principles of the First International and re-asserted the need for political action emphatically throughout their political lives.

The key difference between Socialists and Anarchists was the Socialist understanding of the class role of the State. Since the State came into being to protect the property and the interests of the wealthy, and the modern capitalist State's core function was to defend the capitalist class's interests, if Socialism -the ending of the class system -was to be possible, then it could only be achieved by the Socialist Party gaining control over the machinery of government, including the police, armed forces, etc. Only that way could we ensure that these forces could not be used to crush the Socialist movement and set the clock back.

The Anarchists who claimed that they would "abolish the State" never explained just how they proposed to do this -assuming that the capitalist class were unlikely to go quietly, meekly surrendering their wealth and power.

Back to top

Various Strands of Anarchism Rejected

There is no one anarchist doctrine. However, anarchism is inconceivable without capitalism from which it sprang. Anarchism, despite its wild idealism, has its material historical roots in the response of the peasantry, feudal aristocracy, wild frontiersmen and petty traders to the development of capitalism, large scale capitalist industries and the rise of the working class. Below is a list of a common selection of anarchist positions which Socialists have periodically had to confront and repudiate. It is not exhaustive. There appear to be as many anarchist positions as there are anarchists.

i). Individualists, (Max Stirner THE INDIVIDUAL AND HIS OWN, 1845). According to Stirner, the only reality was the individual. "For me there is nothing above myself", no law, morality, family, religion or State. Stirner anticipated the trite consumerism of today with its celebration of individual commodity consumption as a series of autonomous private acts without regard for anyone else. There is more than a bit of Stirner in some 20th century anarchist movements e.g., in France there was Poujadism, in the US, the so-called neo-liberalism such organisations as the Cato Institute and the "frontier mythology" of the "patriots", who equated the Federal State with the devil.

Marx demolished Stirner's doctrine in THE GERMAN IDEOLOGY (1846) where the "Preface" amounts to an ironic but justified, paraphrase of Stirner's argument:

"Hitherto men have constantly made up for themselves false conceptions about themselves, about what they are and what they ought to be. They have arranged their relationships according to their ideas of God, of normal man, etc. The phantoms of their brains have got out of their hands. Let us liberate them from the chimeras, ideas, dogmas, imaginary beings under the yoke of which they are pining away. Let us revolt against the rule of thoughts" (cited in Paul Thomas: KARL MARX AND THE ANARCHISTS 1986 p. 126).

Plekhanov noted that "Stirner's is only the Utopia of a petty bourgeois in revolt".

ii). Small Property-owning anarchists (Proudhon, SYSTEM OF ECONOMIC CONTRADICTION). Proudhon wrote that "Since the "citizen" only seeks 'absolute' liberty in Government the State is nothing but a fiction"/p>

And Plekenhov replied: "Every class struggle is a political struggle. Whosoever repudiates the political struggle by this very act gives up all part and lot in the class struggle" (ANARCHISM AND SOCIALISM p. 62).

And Plekenhov went on to say how in 1848 Proudhon "preached the reconciliation of classes"; not a million miles from the "class partnership" advocated, today, by Tony Blair's Labour Government.
Marx saw Proudhon's anarchism as the theory of the petty bourgeoisie and responded accordingly in his POVERTY OF PHILOSOPHY in which he tore Proudhon to shreds from the position of the revolutionary working class with its own interests and own socialist objective. Proudhon's anarchism was a backward looking utopia articulating the interests of artisans and peasants unable to come to terms with the development of modern capitalism, competition and the class struggle.

iii). "Collectivism" through spontaneous armed revolt (Bakunin). Bakunin was as much opposed to the Church as to the State. He asserted that political power was oppressive whether it was held by the capitalist class or the working class. Unlike Socialists who saw the need to gain control of the machinery of government and use it as the agent of emancipation, Bakunin called for the immediate abolition of the State a slogan now echoed by the Clapham Socialist party. Marx and Engels both entered into sustained polemics against Bakunin and his supporters during and after the First International.

Plekhanov quoted at length from Bakunin's book "STATISM AND ANARCHY" (published in Russia 1873). Bakunin "desires the abolition of the State…this principle of authority", and "the abolition of property individually hereditary" (p.81). Bakunin declared against workers using politics erroneously believing that their representatives would "become bourgeois". Plekhanov replied:

"But the environment of the electors, the environment of a working-class party, conscious of its aim and well-organised, would this have no influence upon the elected of the proletariat?" (p.99).

Moreover, Bakunin's argument would make "a victory of the proletariat absolutely impossible". Bakunin and his followers were in a vicious circle, arguing that the workers, being morally enslaved, could not rise against the bourgeoisie, so if the economic revolution was necessary, this would never happen.

A spin off from Bakunin's anarchism was "Propaganda by Deed" which had its advocates in the 1970's in the futile gestures of the Red Brigade, the Beider-Meinhof group and the Angry Brigade. Violent direct action through "deed" was acts of terrorism, like throwing bombs in public places, and nowadays the suicide bombers in Israel and elsewhere whose strategy is to kill as many, men, women and children as possible.

"Propaganda by Deed" became notorious in the USA with the Chicago bomb blast. It was this strand in anarchism which became dominant in the Socialist League, to the point where even Morris had to get out of it. The point was made by Eleanor Marx Aveling (Preface to Plekhanov's ANARCHISM OR SOCIALISM), that this has the effect of justifying tougher police measures going on to note that such anarchists, if tolerated, would make Workers' congresses "a playground for reaction and international spydom". In our own day, the action of September 11th has enabled Bush and Blair to ride roughshod over existing civil liberties, legal and constitutional "rights".

iv). Anarcho-communism, (Prince Peter Kropotkin, FIELDS, FACTORIES AND WORKSHOPS, MUTUAL AID AND SOCIAL EVOLUTION, and THE CONQUEST OF BREAD). Kropotkins's political strategy was "Expropriation as the aim, and the general strike as the means to paralyse the bourgeois world in all countries at the same time" (quoted in Alain Pengam, ANARCHO-COMMUNISM p77 in NON MARKET SOCIALISM IN THE 19th AND 20th CENTURIES ed. M. Rubel (a supporter of Council Communism) and J. Crump (an Anarchist) a book which misleadingly and deceitfully linked the Socialist Party of Great Britain to anarchism).

The idea of the general strike was first elaborated in the 1830's, in Britain, by William Benbow, who was associated with the "physical force" wing of Chartism. Socialist Party of Great Britain's position on the General Strike to achieve socialism has been quite clear; it is impracticable and political dangerous. No General Strike has achieved its desired end, neither in St Petersburg in October 1905, in Belfast in 1907, nor in Spain in 1917. The General strikes in 1919 did not bring Socialism any nearer. The General strike in Germany failed in its aims as did the French General strike in 1936, in East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956, Belgium in 1961 and France in 1968.

A General Strike as envisaged by the anarcho-communists would lead to confusion and chaos. In an integrated society how could the machinery of government be isolated or targeted by political industrial action in order to make it ineffective without disrupting production and distribution for the rest of society? Well-trained and armed troops and police would just seize what they needed, isolate strikers, and through immediate violence or a war of attrition over time starve the workers back into employment.

While Kropotkin claimed that his anarchism was definitely not utopian -"does not resort to metaphysical conceptions…" (THE STATE AND ITS HISTORIC ROLE p. 104 Freedom Press), he showed how he did exactly this:-

"The Anarchist party has proved its vitality…to attain to this, it has been necessary…for the party to hold its own in the domain of theory, to establish its ideal of the society of the future, to prove that this ideal is best…"(p 109-110).

As Plekhanov commented: "This hunt after the best ideal of the society of the future, is not this the Utopian method par excellence?" (p.110. ibid).

And he goes on to expose the contradiction between the anarchist insistence on the absolute liberty of the individual and Kropotkin's confused notions about how food etc. will be organised, produced, distributed, once the State has been abolished.

v). Council Communists (Herman Gorter, THE WORLD REVOLUTION, 1918 and Anton Pannekoek, WORKERS' COUNCILS, 1942). The Council Communists were fashionable icons for students in the 1960's and they republished their works which gained a wide circulation on the continent before being imported into Britain during the 1970's.

The Workers' Councils favoured by the anarchists were not the same type of Workers' Councils advocated by supporters of Lenin and Trotsky, although both share the same political fallacy; the rejection that Parliament can be used for a revolutionary purposes and that the aim of the class struggle should be the control by the working class of the machinery of government and not a confrontation with well armed troops at the barricades.

Anton Pannekoek was a Dutch astronomer. He represented a trend calling itself "Left Communism" which Lenin equated with masturbation in his pamphlet "Left wing Communism: an infantile disorder". Not that Lenin's politics produced anything fruitful. Bolshevism was an unmitigated disaster.

Pannekoek is now revered by anarchists such as Noam Chomsky (who wrote the substantial introduction to the republication in 2002 of WORKERS' COUNCILS, Pannekoek's most famous work). Adam Buick of the Clapham Party republished Pannekoek's pamphlet on crises (CAPITAL AND CLASS No 1 in 1977) claiming in a footnote "The only others to put forward a similar theory were the Socialist Party of Great Britain in Britain in the pamphlet 'Why Capitalism will not collapse' published in 1932". However, Buick did not tell his readers of the great theoretical and political chasm between Socialist Party of Great Britain and Pannekoek (who apparently tried to get the Party to publish one of his pamphlets in the late 1940's).

Socialist Party of Great Britain have always argued that the class struggle can only be furthered through a principled socialist political party. Pannekoek disagreed. He stated that "The belief in parties is the main reason for the impotence of the working class" (quoted in ANTI-PARLIAMENTARY COMMUNISM, Mark Shipway, Macmillan 1988 p. 184).

Pannekoek's politics represented a dangerous path to follow. He explicitly ruled out a political party as a means to achieve Socialism. Yet, without a political party the working class cannot capture the machinery of government, the capitalist state maintains class rule and Socialism cannot be established. Why revive a representative of a failed politics who should have been left in the dustbin of history?

In PARTY AND CLASS, Pannekoek stated "The belief in parties is the main reason for the impotence of the working class; therefore we avoid forming a new party - not because we are too few, but because a party is an organization that aims to lead and control the working class" (quoted in Bordiga versus Pannekoek no author Antagonism Press p. 31 2001).

A principled Socialist Party does no such thing. A Socialist party without leaders, based upon democratic practice and delegation does not aim to lead or control the working class. The Socialist Party has to foreshadow the social system is wants to establish. The Party has to be in control of the entire membership. And the Party cannot lead the working class. Workers have to voluntarily accept that capitalism cannot be organised in their interests. The working class cannot be forced to accept the Socialist case. For the simple reason that Socialism will be based upon a free association of men and women who will actively take part in the affairs of society./p>

Not that this has prevented the politically childish from adopting Pannekoek's ideas. The politics associated with non-parliamentary direct action and the rejection of political parties has made a comeback in the so-called "anti-capitalist" movement of recent years (see TWO HUNDRED PHAROHS: FIVE MILLION SLAVES by A. peacock).

Past lessons have not been learnt and in the face of water cannon, police bullets, truncheons and CS gas the same mistakes are being made again. In order to secure a socialist revolution the working class has to capture the machinery of government and to merely set up Workers' Councils within the workplace and confront the armed forces of the State is a recipe for disaster. Every attempt, from Russia (1905 and 1917) through to Hungary (1919) and Germany (1919) has ended with Workers' Councils being either crushed by the State or taken over by minority political factions for their own ends.

vi). Situationists (Guy Debord, THE SOCIETY OF THE SPECTACLE, Black and Red, 1977). This movement was largely made up of intellectuals, artists and architects. The prose style of their texts was largely unreadable, the slogans inane and the impact of their ideas of spontaneity negligible.

In the SOCIETY OF THE SPECTACLE, for example, we are told "In 1936 anarchism really did lead to social revolution, setting up the most advanced model of proletarian power ever realised". Where did Anarchism lead to social revolution in Spain? The history books show Franco's Fascism defeating the anarchists. As with much anarchist writing there is a huge gulf between anarchist thinking and historical reality.

vii). Academic anarchists. This insidious group fills the publications of such publishing houses as AK to end up as review fodder for magazines whose editors cannot think for themselves.

One example of academic anarchism is Murray Bookchin (REMAKING SOCIETY Black Rose 1989). Bookchin finds his supporters in the Clapham Socialist party (see an uncritical review of his ideas in the SOCIALIST STANDARD August 2002) yet Bookchin explicitly rejects the idea that the working class can be agents of revolutionary change.

In New Social Movements he claimed that "the proletariat is not only less susceptible to revolutionary ideas than it was in the past; worse, the proletariat itself is dwindling in numbers and in economic power" (FOR ANARCHISM: HISTORY, THEORY AND PRACTICE, ed. D. Goodway p. 272-3 1989). Evidently, Bookchin has a superficial and stereotypical view of the working class. They are all male, wear cloth caps and work in factories and mines!

Bookchin is also hostile to the political analysis and action of Socialist Party of Great Britain He rejects the strategy of using parliament or its equivalent as a means to attain revolution. And he opposes a working class majority using the machinery of government as the agent of emancipation. How then can the SOCIALIST STANDARD argue that and those like him would be suitable allies for socialists?

viii). Anarcho-capitalists: Murray Rothbard, (THE LIBERTARIAN MANIFESTO, 1977) and all the market anarchists centred on the Cato Institute, Heritage Institute and Mises Foundation). This is an anarchism associated with some large scale capitalists and their academic advisers. They look to a utopian world of free trade and no taxation in which there is no state and every transaction is a buying and selling one. They differ from the small cockcroach capitalists associated with Proudhon and his followers.

These market anarchists are for large scale multinationals and see nothing wrong in the destruction of small scale competitors. One of the number once stated that when even the air is privately owned, there won't be any crime!

The market anarchists' fundamental error is twofold. First, they hold that markets are harmonious, perfect and infallible. This dogma is shown to be false by capitalism's periodic depressions with periods of high unemployment, when the supposed "equilibrium" (where supply and demand, magically, are equal) clearly fails. Their second error is to suppose problems in capitalism only happen as a result of State interference. This brings them to the ridiculous position that you can have a pure and virgin capitalism without the capitalist state. That is no more possible than a tortoise existing without its shell.

ix). Finally there are the anarchists associated with the Freedom Press. The anarchist magazine FREEDOM stated that it is opposed to "every kind of coercive institution, including states, armies, slavery, the wages system, prisons, gangsters, nuclear bombs, money, patriarchy, matriarchy, theocracy and revolutionary governments".

Again, this object is utopian because it does not politically engage with the reality of capitalism. They might be for the abolition of the wages system but have no practical political means for achieving this object. They are like men and women who believe that you can get to the moon by thinking about it when, in effect, to get to the moon requires science, technology, a rocket and astronauts.

's many writers; Reed, Walford, Comfort, Waters et al were of a non-violent persuasion and had nothing to do with the strands of violent anarchism found attached to "re-claim the streets" and "anti-globalisation". Nevertheless their anarchism was just as idealistic, impractical and Utopian for rejecting the need for conscious political action through a principled socialist party towards the capture of the machinery of government.

Back to top

No anarchists are "near" to Socialist Party of Great Britain.

Socialists are often told that some anarchist groups, notably the anarcho-communists, council communists and situationists have an idea of social organisation like that envisaged by Socialist Party of Great Britain after the establishment of world socialism. Socialists are therefore asked to give them special consideration and not include them in the same category as the capitalist left. There is a logical flaw in this reasoning.

The socialist object is dependent upon an interrelated process of analysis, understanding and rejection of capitalism. From class awareness the working class takes political action through a principled socialist party. A socialist majority then sends delegates to Parliament with the express mandate of ensuring the machinery of government is removed from protecting private property ownership, thus allowing commodity production and exchange for profit to be replaced with production and distribution solely for social use.

The anarchists reject this political process. So how can they share the socialist object? How exactly, can they change society?

As regards the Party's principles, we start from a class-conscious understanding that capitalism can never be made to work in the interests of the working class, and that the machinery of government has as its core function the power to protect the interests of the capitalist class. It follows that, in order to achieve Socialism and in doing so to end the system of class exploitation, it is necessary for the Socialist movement to gain control over the machinery of government. Without this, the police and the armed forces would certainly be used to crush the challenge to the capitalists' class interests, power and privilege.

It is not enough to propose "common ownership" as a nice idea, a utopian ideal. It is better, surely to understand why Socialism is needed and how it can practically be achieved through conscious working class political action.

Yet we are told that Socialism is attainable by other processes and routes proposed by Situationists, anarcho-communists and council communists. Logically this cannot be so. These groups do not analyse capitalism correctly. They are hostile to political parties. They do not see that parliament can be used for a revolutionary purpose. And they have a misguided view of Parliament and the machinery of government in believing that these can only be associated with reformist politics and class oppression.

Anarchists hold that by taking part in elections, Socialists must become corrupted, tainted, a part of the system. The anarchists forget that it is not socialist representatives who will be sent to parliament by a socialist majority but socialist delegates with the express mandate of ensuring capitalist production gives way to socialist production and that the machinery of government will not be used to prevent the will of the majority being carried out. Once Socialism has been established and secured there will be no use for a Socialist political party, socialist delegates or machinery of government.

Back to top

You can't have capitalism without the effects of capitalism

What of the anarchists who want to retain capitalism but without the effects of capitalism? But you do not have to go to the anarchists to find the idea of local, democratic, cooperative organisation.

There have been scores or even hundreds of attempts to set up small, utopian communities based on co-operative, democratic self-supporting production. They have all failed.

Robert Owen spelled it out in his ideas for the co-operative movement which later degenerated into the modern trading co-operatives with their dividends on purchases. But that was not Owen's original idea. He wanted his followers to set up "Oases of production" in opposition to capitalist industry.

However, there is a fatal flaw in this idea whether it comes from Owen, Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin, or the various Spanish syndicalists and co-operatives.

The flaw in the anarchists' theory is that they cannot come to terms with the fact that capitalist society is dominated and protected by those who control the machinery of government, including the armed forces.

No non-capitalist form of social organisation can exist and flourish because those who control the machinery of government including the armed force will not permit this except on their terms of class power and class privilege. And none of the advocates of local self-governing non-capitalist communities have any solution for that problem.

There are in theory two ways in which this can be attempted: legal and illegal.

The legal way was Robert Owen's. The communities legally establish themselves, prosper, and eventually replace capitalist industry. This proposition was put forward by some in the Clapham Socialist Party. They replaced Owen's communities with co-operatives and they argued that setting up such co-operatives would serve as a model of how Socialism would work./p>

But to get started the communities and co-operatives have first to find the money capital with which to buy the raw resources, machinery and capital inputs needed and exchange commodities within a capitalist system.

But this is impossible. Their belief is that you can have islands of non-capitalist social relations, based on barter or production for use, within a capitalist society, with production for the market, for exchange in a money economy. Such a belief is naïve, and such experiments, even if tolerated in the margins of capitalist production, invariably fail.

The working class, who own less than one-tenth, cannot buy out the capitalists who own 90 per cent of the world's wealth.

Owen thought the small co-operative production groups could gradually replace capitalist industry by being more successful. It was a dream. They can't do it. After 170 years the cooperative self governing production units have been unable to compete with big business.

So that leaves the illegal way. This route has sent anarchists revolting in armed revolt against the capitalist state machine. A modern example is the childish antics of the anarchists in the so-called "anti-capitalist" movement who charge well-armed policemen who beat them to the ground, arrest them and then escort them to prison.

In the words of a joint declaration issued by the Spanish Anarcho-Syndicalist Federation of Labour, the Anarchist Federation of Labour and the Iberian Federation of Libertarian Youth:

" we should repulse the state, no matter what political and economic parties stood in the way…" (THREE YEARS OF STRUGGLE IN SPAIN, Freedom Press 1939).

In Spain between 1936 and 1939, the Spanish anarchists, because they could not succeed on their own, actually joined the Popular Front alongside all their enemies, as they admitted, in betrayal of their principles (see George Orwell HOMAGE TO CATALONIA).

The anarchists have always failed in their suicidal attempt to use armed force against those who control the state force. In the US, anarchists who attacked the State were imprisoned and executed. In Russia anarchists were crushed by military force, first by the Tsar's government, then by the Bolsheviks.

Back to top

The Futility of Violent and Peaceful Direct Action

Socialist Party of Great Britain has never advocated direct action. We have always insisted first on the need to get control of the machinery of government. So even if it were true that some anarchist ideas of social organisation after the establishment of socialism are similar to those proposed by Socialist Party of Great Britain they have no practical means to achieve the socialist objective and an objective. That they are sterile and hopelessly utopian. The various forms of anarchism to found hold doctrines that are simply suicidal for the working class to consider.

When the majority of workers become socialist there will be no need for an armed uprising. Workers will withdraw their support from capitalist parties and support the socialist party so that parliament, which controls the armed forces, will be composed of socialist delegates. If some capitalists did try to organise resistance they would reveal themselves as a small minority, lacking popular support, trying to create chaos in the furtherance of their sectional interest against the declared will of society: they would be bound to fail.

In Britain, Parliament has a complete and secure grip on the armed forces, and government interventions in the strikes and disturbances of recent years have shown on whose side they act. The anti-capitalists have failed miserably just as other childish displays of political immaturity have failed to achieve their object.

These failures were a forceful illustration of how necessary it is for workers to obtain control of Parliament in order to be able to overthrow the capitalist system. The only way to obtain control is by sending socialist delegates to Parliament with the expressed mandate to gain control of the machinery of government so that it "may be converted from an instrument of oppression into the agent of emancipation and the overthrow of privilege, aristocratic and plutocratic" (Clause 6 Declarations of Principles of Socialist Party of Great Britain).

Back to top

Socialist Studies

email: |