Socialist Appeal - British section of the International Marxist Tendency

In this second part of the series on Marxism and Anarchism, Alan Woods examines the history and ideas behind Anarchist theory and practice.

The movement is still only at the beginning of the beginning. And in the beginning there is naturally a great deal of confusion, vacillations, and indecision. The Occupy movement, however contains many contradictory elements within it. There are those who wish to abolish capitalism, and others who only seek to reform it by such things as tinkering with the tax system and regulation of the banks. (Read part one)

The need for theory

Photo: Akbar SimPhoto: Akbar SimBy contrast, the rulers of society are implacable and determined. They can rely on decades of experience in handling protests and opposition movements. They combine media distortions and increasingly militarized police violence with more subtle methods: blackmail, bribery, deceit, and police provocateurs. The state has at its disposal the services of an army of hardened bureaucrats, cynical politicians, smart lawyers, lying journalists, learned academics, and cunning priests: all united to defend the status quo in which they all have a vested interest.

Marxists wholeheartedly support the Occupy movement and the collective search for solutions to the crisis of capitalism. It represents a new social awakening and is reflected in a renewed interest in ideas and theory.  Yet there are some who deride the very notion of theory. “We do not need outmoded political theories!” they say. “We are engaged in a great experiment and we will improvise and evolve our ideas as we go along.” These words, superficially appealing, conceal a profound contradiction.

In real life, no serious person would ever adopt such an attitude in their daily affairs. Just imagine going to the dentist with a toothache, and the dentist says: “Actually, I have never studied dentistry, but open your mouth anyway and I’ll give it a shot.” You would run out the door! Or a plumber knocks at the door and says: “I know nothing about plumbing, but let me get my hands on your septic system.” You would throw him out of your house.

But while we insist (quite rightly!) on a serious and professional attitude to everything in our daily life, when it comes to the revolutionary struggle against capitalism, we are asked to abandon all our critical faculties. Suddenly, anything goes. One idea is as good as any other idea, no matter how irrelevant or crazy. Everything is reduced to a permanent assembly of a hardened core of activists, which is thus debased to the level of an impotent talking shop.

Such a thing represents no threat to the capitalist system. It is no more than a minor inconvenience. It has even been seriously suggested that the bankers and capitalists, instead of violently dispersing the protests, ought to go along and participate in the debates, thus establishing a friendly dialogue with the young dissenters, and show them that the exploiters are really not so bad after all.

In this way the protest movement would lose its revolutionary character. It would be gradually integrated into the system it is supposed to be challenging. The most militant spokespersons of the protests can be taken to one side and enticed with flattery, jobs, and careers: “What an intelligent young person! Why, you almost convince me! You know, we need capable youngsters like you in business...” We have seen this happen many times before.

In order to avoid these pitfalls, an understanding of theory and the lessons of the past is an essential precondition for success. While most people will have to go through a painful process of learning by trial and error, Marxists base themselves on the lessons of the past. We can say what has worked and what hasn't and apply this knowledge to the present situation. We will still make some mistakes, and it is not as simple as looking up the answer in a revolutionary cookbook, but we really have no need to reinvent the wheel; it was invented a very long time ago!

Reformism or revolution?

In the past, the reformists were actually able to negotiate a few extra crumbs for the workers from the capitalists' table. However, the crisis of capitalism necessarily means the crisis of reformism. The way forward demands a serious struggle against reformism, a struggle to regenerate the mass organizations of the working class, beginning with the unions. They must be transformed into fighting organizations of the working class.

Marxists are not opposed to reforms. On the contrary, we will fight stubbornly for each and every reform that can help make life better for the majority. But under present conditions, no meaningful reforms can be won without an all-out struggle. The days when workers could get serious wage increases by merely threatening strike action are long gone. The bosses say they cannot afford even to maintain the present level of wages, let alone give additional concessions. The days when the right-wing trade union leaders could reach a cosy agreement with the employers and the state have passed into history.

In criticizing the present policies of the labor leaders, it is necessary to advance other, better policies. But the protest movement has not yet come up with a clear alternative to reformism. Attempts to limit speculation by imposing a tax on financial transactions is not an alternative to the capitalist system, only a half-hearted attempt to reform a system that cannot be reformed. This is merely another type of reformism. It is significant that even some capitalist politicians  support such taxes. That is sufficient to show that such a measure poses no threat whatsoever to capitalism. It will solve precisely nothing in the long run.

Those who dream of solving the crisis through reforms are living in the past, in a phase of capitalism that has ceased to exist. It is they, not the Marxists, who are Utopians! What we need is a full-blooded militancy and a revival of the class struggle.  But in the last analysis, militancy is not enough. Under conditions of capitalist crisis, even the gains of the working class cannot be long-lasting.

What the bosses concede with the left hand they will take back with the right, and vice versa. Wage increases are cancelled out by inflation or tax increases. Factories are closed and unemployment increases. The only way to ensure that reforms are not rolled back is by fighting for a radical change in society. Moreover, even the struggle for reforms can only succeed to the degree that it acquires the widest and most revolutionary scope. All history shows that the ruling class will only make serious concessions when it fears that it will lose everything.

It is not enough simply to say “no.” We must offer an alternative. Just as we need a viable alternative to capitalism, so we need a viable alternative to the old reformist leadership. We must fight against the right wing bureaucratic leadership of the labor organizations. We must fight for a break with the Democrats and the Republicans and the formation of a labor party based on the unions. But in order to do this, it is absolutely necessary to organize, educate, and train revolutionary cadres who have drawn the correct conclusions from the whole history of the class struggle nationally and internationally.

The theory and practice of anarchism

It is true that in the ranks of the anarchists there have been many courageous fighters. This was especially true of Spain in the 1920s and 30s. But taken as a whole, the history of anarchism over the last hundred years shows clearly that it is a blind alley. The most striking fact is the stark contrast between theory and practice. Trotsky said that the theories of anarchism are like an umbrella full of holes: useless precisely when it rains. This can be shown time and time again.

As a theory, anarchism is confused and superficial. The ideas of Bakunin were cobbled together and plagiarized from the 19th century Utopian socialists, particularly Proudhon.  Moreover, they were immediately contradicted by Bakunin’s practice. While preaching “freedom,” within his own organization he introduced a ruthless centralism. Bakunin (or “Citizen B” as he was known) exercised a tyrannical personal dictatorship over his organization. In his polemics against Marx, he did not hesitate to use the vilest methods, including anti-Semitism. This is further explored in the article Marx vs. Bakunin, included in this volume.

Of far greater interest are the writings of Peter Kropotkin, a man of ideas who wrote one of the best histories of the French Revolution, which was greatly admired by Trotsky. Nevertheless, it must be pointed out that Kropotkin forgot all about his anarchist ideals in 1914, when he supported the Allies in the World War I. He was not the only one.

In France, before the World War I, the anarcho-syndicalists succeeded in dominating the main trade union confederation. Their main slogan was for the general strike, which they regarded as a panacea. This was a mistake. Although the general strike is one of the most powerful weapons in the arsenal of the class struggle, it cannot solve the central question: the question of state power.

An all-out general strike—as opposed to a one-day general strike, which is in effect only a demonstration—poses the question of power. It raises the issue: who runs society; you or us? Therefore, it logically must lead to the assumption ofpower by the working class, or else end in defeat. If the working class does not take state power, then the entire coercive apparatus of the army, police, courts, laws, etc. remain in the hands of the capitalists. This is something the anarchists could never understand, since for most of them, the question of state power is either irrelevant, or can simply be abolished from one day to the next. The anarchists may well “ignore” the state, but the state certainly does not ignore the workers struggling to change society!

Unfortunately, the question of the state, of who rules society, cannot be so easily disposed of. It cannot be ignored. Let us pose the question concretely. If the workers all go on strike, what will happen? All industry, transport, and communications will come to a halt. The factories, shops and banks will be shut. And then what? The capitalists can afford to wait. They are in no danger of starving. But the working class cannot wait indefinitely. They can be starved back to work. And if waiting the movement out does not suffice, the state has many reserves of repression that can be called on to complete the job. This has happened more than once in history. It is happening now with the Occupy movement.

In other words, if it is not linked to the perspective of the working class taking power, the question of the general strike is mere empty demagogy.

So how did matters with the anarcho-syndicalists in France turn out in practice? In 1914, as soon as France entered the World War I, the anarco-syndicalist trade union leaders immediately dropped their fine words about a general strike and entered a coalition government with the bourgeois parties, the Sacred Union (L’Union Sacrée), where they pursued a strike-breaking role for the duration of the War.

This contrast between theory and practice, between words and deeds, was absolutely typical of the history of anarchism from the very beginning. It had its most tragic consequences in Spain in the revolutionary period of the 1930s.

Anarchism in Spain

In Spain, the anarchists had behind them the flower of the working class. In their ranks there were many courageous and dedicated class fighters. The anarchist union, the CNT, was by far the biggest workers’ organization in Spain. The anarchist workers were outstanding for their courage and militancy. Yet the Spanish Revolution of 1931-37 demonstrated the complete bankruptcy of anarchism as a guide to the workers on the road to a socialist society.

In the summer of 1936, when Franco declared a fascist military uprising against the Republic, the workers of Barcelona, mostly organized in the CNT, stormed the army barracks. Armed only with improvised weapons, they smashed the fascists before they could join Franco’s coup. By this courageous action, they prevented the victory of the fascists in 1936.

As a result of this insurrection, the anarchist workers had complete control of Barcelona. They elected workers’ committees to run the factories under workers’ control and established the workers’ militias. The old bourgeois state had ceased to exist. The sole power was the working class.

It would have been very easy to elect delegates from the factories and militias to a central committee, which could have proclaimed a workers’ government in Catalonia, appealing to the workers and peasants in the rest of Spain to follow their example.

But the leadership of the anarchists did not do this; they refused to form a workers' government in Catalonia when they had the chance. Even when Lluis Companys, the President of the old bourgeois government of Catalonia (the Generalitat), invited them to take the power, they refused to do so. This was fatal to the revolution. Gradually, the bourgeoisie and the Stalinists rebuilt the old state power in Catalonia, and used it to disarm the popular militias and crush the elements of workers’ power.

Then what did the anarchist leaders do? The same ladies and gentlemen who had earlier refused to form a workers’ government later joined a bourgeois government and helped to shipwreck the revolution. There were actually anarchist ministers in the national bourgeois government in the Valencia and the regional government in Catalonia. In practice, the CNT leadership served as a “red front” for the bourgeois government. These actions powerfully contributed to the defeat of the Spanish Revolution, and the people of Spain paid the price with four decades of fascist barbarism.

This was not the result of a “few bad apples” in the anarchist leadership, but flows from the weaknesses inherent in anarchist theory and practice. Without a firm theoretical compass to guide you through the storm and stress of a revolution, decisions are improvised on the fly. “Pragmatism” and empty demagogy rule the day. And without a strong, centralized, democratic, and accountable organizational structure, the leaders are not under the control of the membership and the organization cannot act as a united, and thereby more powerful whole.

There was one notable exception to the rule, and that was José Buenaventura Durruti, an extraordinary revolutionary fighter who organized an army based on the workers’ militia. This army entered Aragon and waged a revolutionary war against the fascists, turning every village into a bastion of the revolution. But Durruti could only achieve these things to the degree that he broke from the old anarchist dogmas and in practice moved closer to revolutionary Marxism—to Bolshevism.

Although the rank and file anarchist workers were undoubtedly sincere and courageous, the balance sheet of the whole historical experience of anarchism was completely negative. That is why today, anarchism has been almost totally eradicated as a trend in the workers’ movement, and survives only in the margins of the student and protest movement, where it serves only to sow confusion, as we shall see.

Anarchism in the anti-capitalist movement

What effect does the theory and practice of anarchism have in the anti-capitalist movement?

The first problem was the refusal to accept majority decisions. It is an elementary proposition of democracy is that the minority must accept the decision of the majority. The anarchists object to this, since, for them it represents the “tyranny” of the majority over the minority.

Unfortunately, since it is rarely possible in any collective to achieve 100% satisfaction for everybody, someone is bound to be displeased if their particular viewpoint is not accepted by the majority. But what is the alternative? The only alternative is the politics of consensus. What does this mean in practice?

If there are, say, a hundred people in an assembly, and 99 vote in favour of a proposition, and just one person votes against, what should happen? According to the democratic principle, the view of the 99 carries the day and the one dissenting individual accepts the decision. He or she is not required to change his or her views, and may reserve the right to continue to argue their case and attempt to get the majority to change its mind. But in the meantime, the decision of the majority stands.

Apart from making good sense from a strictly democratic point of view, this procedure has the advantage of allowing us to proceed from talking to action. This is at bottom a class question. The democratic procedure is well-known to workers and trade unionists. It can be seen in every strike. The discipline that is imposed on the worker through the capitalist system—through the division of labour and regimentation of production—is the very same discipline that the workers turn against the bosses through organization into trade unions and political parties of labour.

In contrast to the workers, the middle classes are used to individualistic methods and have an individualistic mentality. An assembly of students can debate for hours, days, and weeks without ever coming to a conclusion. They have plenty of time and are accustomed to that kind of thing. But a factory mass meeting is an entirely different affair. Before a strike, the workers discuss, debate, and listen to different opinions. But at the end of the day, the issue must be decided. It is put to the vote and the majority decides.

This is clear and obvious to any worker. And nine times out of ten, the minority will voluntarily accept the decision of the majority. Once the decision to strike has been made, all the workers will abide by it. In most cases, even those who argued against a strike will support it and even play an active role on the picket line.

What about the anarchist method of consensus? It means, in practice, that if even one person disagrees, no decision can be reached. This signifies the tyranny of the minority over the majority, whose rights are being denied. It can even signify the dictatorship of a single individual—the very opposite of democracy from any point of view. This has absolutely nothing to do with democracy or socialism, but is a clear expression of petty-bourgeois individualism and egotism.

To see where this can lead, let us return to the example of a strike. There are always a few individuals who will try to go to work although their workmates have decided to drop tools. They complain that their individual rights have been violated by the “tyranny of the majority.” This is the same logic behind so-called “right to work” legislation. These people are always presented by the bourgeois press as “fighters for freedom and the rights of the individual.” The workers, however, have another name for such great individualists: they are called class traitors and scabs.

Here, in a nutshell, we have the difference between the proletarian-revolutionary standpoint, based on the collective will of the workers, and the standpoint of petty-bourgeois individualism.

A recipe for impotence

The recent experience of the protest movement provides many examples of the negative role of anarchist methods. To help illustrate this concretely, I have taken a random sample of comments written by participants in the Occupy movement, all of which I found on the Reddit website.

One participant wrote: “So I went to our local Occupy Wall Street meeting called 'Occupy Victoria'. There I discovered that anarchists couldn't organize their way out of a box if their lives depended on it.”

Another person had this to say: “Despite being lead by a self-appointed committee, the local Occupy Wall Street group functions on what they refer to as 'consensus based decision making,' which is where if one single person disagrees then they can derail the entire conversation and continue to debate, debate, debate until everybody agrees.

“In other words: The dictatorship of the lowest common denominator.

“It took an hour and a half before anybody was informed of what we were even thinking of doing this Saturday. Up until we were haphazardly/accidentally told what was going on, we had an endless parade of ultra-leftist fluff speeches, 'moments of silence to reflect upon our feelings,' debating on whether or not we should allow photographs to be taken, arguing over the role of the police, whether or not we should officially endorse a declaration in solidarity with the first nations peoples, was a complete debacle and waste of time and in the 2 hours we were there, essentially nothing got done except we handed out a few posters for people to put up.

“The only conclusive decision that we came to was that we 'would continue the discussion on the website.'”

This is a very typical example of how “consensus politics” serves to paralyse the protest movement, to reduce it to a mere talking shop and prevent it from taking a single step forward. Just because a small group is not satisfied, the meeting is condemned to go round and round in circles: “We must discuss more! We must discuss more!” And as a result we never actually do anything. This is like a man who tries to quench his thirst by drinking salt water.

Another person had this observation: “One problem with consensus is that dissenting views actually get papered over. Because everyone has to agree, or at least pretend to agree, dissenting views cannot continue to be clearly expressed, for fear of upsetting the ‘consensus.’ It ends up becoming a war of attrition—who's willing to hold out the longest to their position—and necessarily drives away larger numbers of people, since most people don't have the time or inclination to put up with this type of process.

“In practice, consensus ends up being the dictatorship of the minority—sometimes a minority of one—over the majority. It's completely undemocratic and holds back organizing and political development.

“It allows for a couple people to derail the process. All voices can be heard under democracy, but that a small minority disagrees strongly is not an argument for why they should be able to stall further decision making.

“Also, if one or two people have a strong ethical objection to a proposal, it suggests a principled difference with the broader group, which raises the question of whether the group is a logical one for them to be part of in the first place.”


This kind of thing naturally generates frustration among those for whom the protest movement should be more than a talking shop. Sadly, the experience will be only too familiar to many participants in the protest movement. Here is another account, this time from Florida:

“It's exactly the same thing with Occupy Florida. The self-appointed administrator/volunteer who runs the Facebook group of the local chapter of this leaderless movement speaks for the entire group, and the ideology of this dictator is that the problem comes down to corporatism (how it's misused in the vernacular). Capitalism isn't even discussed as possibly being the culprit.

I interjected with "It's the system, stupid. I'm sorry but I don't think that fighting corporatism is enough when..."

The dictator replies with: "Don't call me stupid! And then don't go on to apologize for it..."

These crying contradictions are recognized by honest anarchists, as the following comment shows:

“I'm an anarchist and I absolutely agree with you. I had exactly the same experience at a local protest. We spent over two hours discussing the formation of work groups, and the majority of that discussion was a meta-discussion about how we should discuss the formation of work groups. I ultimately ran out of time and had to leave, and I was kind of happy about it because that organization process was like pulling teeth.”

Another Reddit user gave vent to the sense of frustration felt by many: “Are all anarchist groups this completely f***ing useless? Has anybody else had a similar experience?”

The whole point of democracy is majority rule. As someone wittily observed: “If everyone has to agree about everything, maybe we should change the slogan to: ‘We are the 100%'!” With all its limitations, the democratic system is the only one that allows a genuine participation of the masses. There must be a full and free debate, with every viewpoint freely expressed. But if it is not to degenerate into a mere talking shop, debate must end in a vote in which the majority must decide, and the minority must accept the decision of the majority.

The imposition of consensus leads inevitably to inaction, frustration, time-wasting and eventually, to a falling-off of participation. Many people who took part the initial Occupy meetings drift away and leave the organizing committees because they are frustrated with the endless debates and discussions that are going nowhere.

The methods that seemed so democratic, that were supposed to encourage the maximum of participation, in the end only succeed in alienating people and undermining the movement. A different method is needed, a genuinely democratic method which allows everyone to speak their mind freely, but which at the end of the day leads to clear-cut decisions and positive action.

Self-appointed cliques

The Russian Bolshevik Bukharin once joked that anarchism has two rules: the first rule is that you must not form a party; the second rule is that nobody must obey the first rule! Although in theory these anarchist methods are ultra-democratic, in practice they produce the worst kind of bureaucracy: the rule of self-appointed cliques. The contradictory nature of this position is clear to the more thinking elements among the anarchists:

“I'm an anarchist and I agree with the critique of consensus decision making. Allowing everyone in a large group to have a veto is paralyzing. Mass assemblies, especially without a well-set agenda, tend to veer far off-topic.

“I've been to activist meetings that have been made up of mostly anarchists where consensus decision-making was used. There were problems, but the group tried very hard to be aware of these issues and they did manage to get things done. I learned a number of different things from this experience.

“Though there were obviously no official leaders in the group, a de facto leadership of 3 people emerged, who dominated the discourse and decision-making by simply being older, more experienced, and more confident. There was even one person (a white guy, surprise surprise) who was particularly leading the group. There was a lot of drama over this, and I was actually happy that people were pointing out discussing the effects of race, class, and gender on decision-making and leadership, but nevertheless the group collapsed due to all of the discontent.

“This was a group of like 9 people, and even that low number of people had a tough time getting their sh*t together through consensus decision-making. It seemed like a lot of things passed simply because the younger, less confident members were too nervous to object or to stall a decision. Again, I applaud them for trying to be aware of these problems but the problems still persisted, often unspoken of except for in small groups of members.”

The anarchist methods of organization invariably turns into their opposite. The “anti-leader,” anti-centralist,” and “anti-bureaucratic” tendency turns out to be the most bureaucratic and undemocratic system of all. We have seen this many times. Behind the apparently democratic anarchy of a formless assembly with no rules, no structure, and (theoretically) no leaders, someone always takes decisions. But this “someone” is not elected by anybody—“Elections? By majority vote? God forbid!”—and is therefore not responsible to anybody.

Behind the scenes, these “non-bureaucratic” set-ups are run by self-appointed cliques of individuals (very often anarchists). This, in practice, is the worst form of bureaucracy – an irresponsible bureaucracy that can do just what it likes because there is no formal democratic method of control.

Part three >