Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Anarchism versus Marxism

by Richard from

Although anarchism and Marxism are both socialist political theories, and they share the view that a communal, participatory, voluntary, de-centralised society is an end goal worth pursuing, they differ in many respects, and should not be confused. Of course they are far from internally homogeneous theories themselves, but I’ll leave that issue to another entry. They tend to differ more when in comes to means, rather than ends. So they both criticise capitalist economy, bourgeois society, and the liberal democratic state, and they have both looked to the working class movement to bring their respective visions into fruition. But there differences are not trivial: for example, one of the most basic distinctions between Marxism and anarchism is that Marxists generally do not have an issue with organising themselves into hierarchies, whilst anarchists cannot countenance hierarchical structure within their organisations, they must always be based on equality and pure democracy.

In this entry I will discuss (in as few words as possible) the anarchist and Marxist views on: capitalism, class, the state, history, parliamentary reform, revolution and culture. I am an anarchist so I will not promise to be impartial or objective, but merely tell it how I see it.


Both anarchists and Marxists criticise capitalism as a cause of alienation and exploitation. This criticism of capitalism is probably where the two theories have most in common. Consumer society, the rise of the corporation, and the military-industrial complex are all considered intensely undesirable by both theories. Capitalism, anarchists and Marxists contend, causes an ugly cheapening of human life where many people are subject to wage slavery at the hands of dictator-like CEOs and management. Wants are created in capitalism by the huge power of the corporate media, which greatly influences today’s culture. Institutions such as the World Bank, the World Trade Organisation and the International Monetary Fund (along with the UN more covertly) hold down developing nations with the hypocritical myth of globalisation and free trade, to maintain the hegemony of the world’s superpowers.

Anarchists and Marxists believe that private property, profit, interest, rent and all other tools of the capitalist class should all be abolished, and the means of production taken over by the workers. The main difference between the two theories’ analysis of capitalism is that Marxists see it as an inevitable stage in the progression towards communism, while anarchists believe that anarchism can - and should - be achieved in any society, in other words, capitalism is not a necessary stage of the development of a society.


Marxists and anarchists see the agents of revolutionary change differently. Anarchists in general have a broader notion of the working class - which includes artisans, peasants, down-and-outs, and so on, because they do not tie the revolution to the development of the capitalist mode of production. And while Marxists consider factory workers or the ‘urban proletariat’ as the chief class of revolution, anarchists doubt whether they have the most revolutionary potential. Anarchists believe that revolutions are usually born of poverty and elemental passions. The urban working class is generally too well-cushioned materially and intellectually, so when they do revolt, it may be at the expense of other dispossessed classes, which they hold to be inferior.

Anarchists tend to concentrate much less on class analysis: they take it as a given that people are exploited and prefer to spend time considering how to overthrow capitalism than arbitrarily dividing people up into classes. For anarchists, it is simple: there are those with power, and those without; the latter need protecting and the former need removing. As Murray Bookchin says, those who ‘live subversive lives’, and are capable of recognising and rising up against exploitation, have revolutionary potential.

Marxists respond that the classes that anarchists look to are prone to radical shifts in political consciousness - they are politically fickle. However, the urban proletariat seems no less fickle - the urban proletariat do not seem to have any more revolutionary potential than any other class. Marxists say that classes such as the petty bourgeoisie and peasantry are doomed to be swept away by historical forces as large capitalist property absorbs small. This has happened in the case of the peasantry in developed nations (although ultra-low-paid work such as cleaning and farm labouring seem to have filled the gap somewhat). The petty bourgeoisie still very much exist, but their revolutionary potential is questionable anyway. But these are of course not the only classes anarchists look to.

View of State

Marxists view the nation-state as basically inseparable from capitalism - that is, the capitalist class also controls the state. Anarchists do not believe this to be entirely true, politicians can often be quite separate from the capitalists, although they are nonetheless often influenced by them. The Marxist view of the state is attacked by anarchists on the grounds that Marxists are unwilling to recognise that the state is able to escape the economically dominant class.

Marxists also believe in a transition state between capitalism and communism: the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, where the working classes take over repressive and ideological state apparatuses. Anarchists believe this to be the fatal flaw in Marxism; states always have certain properties by virtue of being states. Marx, anarchists claim, did not see what a state implied: foreign conquest, censorship, state education, police force, minority rule, and suppression of the individual. Retaining state power will simply lead to authoritarianism once again, and those who took power (even if they are workers) will not want to give it away and allow their state to simply ‘wither away’.

View of history

Marxists have a materialist view of history, as do some anarchists. Most anarchists, however, say that the notion of a series of historical stages is too inflexible and too deterministic (not to mention unfalsifiable in terms of a scientific theory) considering the revolutionary possibilities of different societies: societies at similar levels of economic development are/were far from equal in revolutionary potential. Historical materialism also underestimates the role of ideas and people in historical change and thus the importance of a ‘revolutionary shift’- this encourages a quiescent attitude which is anathema to anarchists.

Even though it is arguable whether Marx was a determinist in the normal sense, anarchists certainly reject the idea that revolution is inevitable - if it happens it will only because it is the people’s will.

Scientific socialism

Marxists consider their political theory ’scientific’ socialism, that is, using scientific methods to determine the optimal organisation of society. However, it can also mean a bunch of self-identified ’scientists’ can invent a theory and tell the people what’s good for them, justifying themselves with ’science’. It can lead to elitism because scientific truth is the preserve of the few.

Marxists respond by criticising anarchists for being too idealistic, with no idea of the social conditions required for revolution, and blind to the differences between the various economic modes of production found in history. They also criticise anarchists for offering a cult of ignorance and appealing strongly to people’s emotions rather than rationality. An anarchist could respond to this as Peter Kropotkin did: science can only show us how best to achieve the ends the people decide to pursue so the social scientist has no claim to direct the new movement, only inform it of what science has found. Anarchists do not ignore rationality, they just do not allow it as another tool of elitism and exploitation.

Parliament, elections and political parties

Anarchists don’t believe in a ‘worker’s party’ or ‘vanguard’, as many Marxist’s do, we instead advocate the direct expropriation of the means of production. We are against parliamentary reform because political parties must adjust their platform to reflect the current views of the proletariat, which are influenced by the imprint of dominant capitalist ideology. Even radical political parties end up being forced to present a moderate face to the electorate. In Kropotkin’s words, the radical politician becomes involved in ‘the sad comedy of elections’ which include, as we all know, false promises, bribery, patronage, nepotism, and out-right deception and corruption. Genuine socialists (if any at all) will be in a small minority because parliament is designed for the bourgeoisie by the bourgeoisie.


Although Marxists share the same general end goal as anarchists they choose to pursue means that are diametrically opposed to the spirit and practise of the goal they seek. They choose to delay the revolution by the implementation of a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ in which the state remains. Marx assumes that ‘a worker remains a worker’ when given these sort of powers, but this assumption is quite ridiculous from an anarchist standpoint. When a worker is given the powers of the state, what they lose is precisely their membership in the working class. The ‘worker’ who becomes a ‘ruler’, by definition, becomes a member of the ruling class. It is now in the worker’s interest to maintain his position and consolidate his powers rather than sharing them with the rest of society.

Even if this point is not granted (that the worker does not remain a worker when given state power), it is clear that when it comes to Marxist-Leninist revolution, it is not the actual proletariat that even takes power, it is an elite group of professional revolutionaries acting in their name. This is obviously even more cause for alarm; elitism exists here even before the revolution begins, which is surely not a recipe for a communistic society.

There have been many studies done on the effect power can have on the individual. It has been found to be a corrupting influence, leading the individual to ruthlessness and exploitation of others. A separation between rulers and the common man comes naturally with notions of superiority and elitism.

Anarchists do not believe that the state will just ‘wither away’, and as history has shown us the dictatorship of the proletariat invariably leads to authoritarianism and barbarism. Marxists believe in the conquest of state power, while anarchists believe in its total destruction.

Other classes

In their theories, Marxists tend to give priority to economic class, often at the expense of the position of other marginalised classes: members of different races, genders, sexualities, etc. The expression of these classes of people often occur independently of economic class. For example, a gay man who is also the member of the capitalist bourgeoisie can still be mistreated for his homosexuality, regardless of the fact that he owns capital.

Base and superstructure

Marxists believe that society can be strictly divided into base (economic means of production) and superstructure (the state, culture, morality, every other aspect of society). The economic base is seen as directly influencing the superstructure. Anarchists believe that they are certainly interrelated, but can be seen as quite independent also. Aspects of the superstructure have developed independently of the economic base. As I discussed earlier, even the state can sometimes escape capitalist influence. Society is simply too complex to be divided into two this way. This is certainly not to diminish the importance of capitalism, it is obviously the largest influence on other aspects of society, but not the only one.


Marxists often accuse anarchists of anti-intellectualism, and they see us as uncritically worshiping action over theory. This is not the case. Anarchists are not against intellectuals who genuinely try to find out about the world around them and develop ideas and theories on how to help people, but we are against members of the intellectual community who slavishly and dogmatically stick to ideology against better reason or those who use their intellectual might for exploitative means (such as nuclear physicists working for corporations developing nuclear weapons).

We should not overstate these differences; we can still achieve many socialist goals together - the Marxists just need to be re-educated! I generally avoid using the word ‘comrade’ (mainly because of it’s historical misuse), but they are our comrades and socialists do need to support one another in the most important goal: to overthrow capitalist society and bring about a socialist one.

If you’re a Marxist - or an anarchist for that matter - and feel I’ve left anything out or misrepresented your views please leave a comment and we can discuss it further. I realise many of these points require extrapolation.

Hi, this is my article. I don't mind you posting it on your site, but could you please acknowledge that I wrote it and provide a link to where it came from?

Richard A-B
Hi Richard, The link to the story is under the title. I tried to find the author's name when I read the articl, but couldn't, of course I will be happy to add, 'by Richard' to the post. It was informative, good writing. mistake..the link to your blog was not under the title..I'm surprised because I really thought that's where I read it from..I like your blog...But ok..I fixed it now...thanks again or the great article...
Hi Alice. Thanks for your support. I'm just writing to say that my blog's back up and running now after a long hiatus.

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