by Ellen Isaacs
“Fuck the police” or “let’s build cooperatives.” Does either anarchist slogan point to a pathway for changing the structure of society? This is the question we must ask in deciding whether to follow the anarchist road or aim for communist revolution. Is it essential to aim to replace the capitalist rulers of the world or is it enough to poke at the enforcers of their power or reorder the lives of small groups of individuals in an ideal way and hope for a gradual evolution of society? We hope to raise this broad question while not attempting an exhaustive investigation of the long history of multiple variations of anarchism.
The problem is that it is apparent today that the capitalist rulers of the world will destroy it through some combination of climate disaster and inter-imperialist wars, very possibly nuclear war. If we are to avoid these cataclysms, we must have a realistic plan for doing so, which involves arming workers, soldiers and students with ideas as well as weapons for a prolonged violent and ideological struggle that aims to actually destroy capitalism. This is much more difficult than trying to reorder the lives of any small group of workers to live a more ideal life.
Anarchists (whom some call autonomists) and communists have very similar visions of the societies they would like to see created in the end. Both wish to maximize the happiness and creativity of every person, to have production aimed at fulfilling human needs to have work made as satisfying and cooperative as possible. Both (or at least most anarchists) envision some form of centralized administration or planning to organize productive capacity and provide for widespread needs such as healthcare, housing, and sanitation, to name a few. (We will exclude libertarian anarchists, who worship private property and individualism.) If there are such striking similarities, we must ask, why are anarchists and communists so antagonistic and why have anarchists never made a revolution, never taken power?
There are many schools of thought and action within anarchism, and we do not pretend to present an exhaustive survey. Some concentrate on describing and aiming to build self-governing cooperative communities, some aim for self-sustaining individual homesteaders, and others talk mainly about disrupting the status quo through violent action. All of them are concerned with doing away with the state, by which is meant anything from the militarily empowered ruling class to any sort of central organization. The fundamental difference is that anarchists wish to proceed by building communities and cooperatives, clusters of homesteads, or nests of anti-state activists within a capitalist world and imagine that if they grow to sufficient size, they will somehow become the structure of society as a whole.
How to Do What Needs to Be Done
Communists understand that capitalists and the state, which represents capitalists’ interests, rule through the massive armed power of the military and the police and will never allow workers to take over their society without a struggle. Both mass participation and the willingness to forcibly overthrow capitalism are necessary to do so. Communists also understand that even if workers take power, there will be powerful forces of the deposed ruling class and its allies and ruling classes of other nations that will try to topple the revolutionary forces for a long period to come. Only after all or nearly all of those forces are defeated, can the revolution give up its own ability to fight.
The way in which a communist party operates, before and after a revolution, is democratic centralism. What that means is decisions about its positions or actions to be taken are discussed broadly, but that once a program has been decided on, all the members agree to carry it out until experience proves that adjustments must be made. Then the process can start again. Most of us actually use this process in groups to which we belong. A strategy or tactic is decided upon and then all the members carry it out, whether it is to demonstrate at a particular time or not interrupt a speaker until they are done. We all know that the military functions by demanding that each person obey orders, although there is no possibility to question those orders – no democracy. On the other hand, each soldier deciding whom, how and when to fight would accomplish nothing – no centralism.
The bitter anti-communism of anarchists today is largely based on the use of the word communist to describe the present day status of Russia and China, nations that made revolutions aimed at creating communist societies, but that have turned into repressive capitalist autocracies, a process accelerating after World War II in the USSR and after the cultural revolution in China. (We do not pretend to give any in depth analysis of this process in this article.) It is not what was envisioned by Marx’s collaborator, Friedrich Engels in his Socialism, Utopian and Scientific: “The first act by virtue of which the State really constitutes itself the representative of the whole of society—the taking possession of the means of production in the name of society—this is, at the same time, its last independent act as a State. State interference in social relations becomes, in one domain after another, superfluous and then dies out of itself; the government of persons is replaced by the administration of things, and by the conduct of processes of production. The State is not ‘abolished.’ It dies out.” (Sonnenschein edition, 1892, p. 76. The phrase “dies out” has sometimes been translated “withers away.”) And so the final goal is similar to what anarchists envision, although Engels would not envision the stage of “taking possession” could be accomplished by small autonomous groups, no matter how ideally structured.
Certainly no one today who wants to see the kind of society envisioned by Marx or Engels or aimed for by Lenin or Mao, would applaud what now exists in those lands where revolutions were once made. Even these figures would ask, as we must, what went wrong and can it be done better? Of course, neither Engels and Marx, nor even Lenin, could have foreseen the civil war and then the invasion by 17 foreign countries that tried to strangle the Soviet revolution at its inception, although certainly a period of struggle with the remnants of the bourgeoisie was to be expected. And the Chinese had to fight the Korean War as well as remnants of the capitalists under Chiang Kai-Shek. But fundamentally, both these revolutions, faced with the overwhelming needs of a largely impoverished population and bitter wars, sought to industrialize and meet immediate physical needs before attempting to construct communist relations and economies. First, bread, peace and land, then communism. This turned out to be a fatal mistake.
Even given this ultimately mistaken path, there were many areas where communist ideas were put into practice. In some factories, as described in Cement by Gladkov, workers did collectively run workplaces. Despite all the lies told about collectivization of agriculture, many poor peasants were in favor, as described by Ludo Martens in Another View of Stalin. In Fanshen, William Hinton describes the enthusiastic transformation of an impoverished Chinese village into a collective enterprise. Education was revolutionized to teach collective ideas to young children in both the Soviet Union and China. Masses of people were won to communist collectivity and also accepted democratic centralism, which allowed the rapid industrialization and defeat of the Nazis by the Soviet Union and the abolition of diseases like schistosomiasis in China, to name a few.
And the Anarchists.
The only time that anarchists even claim to have taken power was for a few months in Catalonia in1936 in the midst of the Spanish civil War. As related by prominent anarchist, Murray Bookchin, anarchists had made up the largest portion of the fighters opposing the fascist coup attempt of Generalisimo Francisco Franco in July, 1936. The alliance of the Anarchist Federation of Labor (FAI) and the National Confederation of Labor (CNT), formed in 1910, organized city dwellers into committees for defense, production, and transportation and rural dwellers into collectives. However, the anarchists were horrified by their own need to organize themselves, thinking that it resembled their proclaimed enemy – the state. Thus they effectively gave up power and formed a coalition with bourgeois liberals called the Anti-Fascist Militia Committee. While the anarchist alliance was able to criticize and fight fascism, it lacked any theory or willingness to organize to replace it. By May, 1937, Barcelona workers were violently suppressed and many were killed ( http://new-compass.net/articles/anarchism-power-and-government).
Another troubling aspect of the anarchists’ brief sojourn in power was a tremendous decrease in their participation in fighting fascists. One leaflet stated that: “We do not recognize military formations because this is the negation of anarchism….discipline…presupposes a negation of the personality.”( D. Ibarurri, They Shall Not Pass, New York, 1966,p 285). In Homage to Catalonia (p32-5), George Orwell said shortages of artillery, maps and difficult terrain made attacking fascists difficult, but the communists, who faced the same conditions in the same area in 1938, won major victories. After the war, an anarchist leader admitted that many arms were withheld from combat in order to fight other parties after their victory(Arthur Landis, Spain! The Unfinished Revolution, p321). Ibarurri quotes the Ambassador to Franco, who states that fascist agents worked in Barcelona to facilitate the anarchist takeover in order to weaken the opposition (p282).
The Spanish Communist Party (PCE) had been in coalition with socialists and anarchists in the Popular Front Government elected in 1936. The PCE recruited over 60,000 fighters, over half of whom were members, and communists were the main recruiters of about 40,000 foreigner volunteers. Soviet support never amounted to more than about 700 soldiers at one time. Nonetheless, to this day anarchists worldwide ascribe their defeat in Spain to communists, most specifically Stalinists, rather than their own inability to organize themselves or fight Franco effectively.
Anarchists in America
To quote Bookchin again, “Pure anarchism seeks above all the emancipation of individual personality from all ethical, political, and social constraints…. anarchists have traditionally conceived of power as a malignant evil that must be destroyed. (http://new-compass.net/articles/anarchism-power-and-government). But as he points out, anarchists fail to consider how to destroy the power that rests in the capitalist state that they despise or to insure their own ascendancy in a period or revolutionary social upheaval. “Social revolutionaries, far from removing the problem of power from their field of vision, must address the problem of how to give power a concrete institutional emancipatory form.”
Errico Malatesta, the renowned Italian anarchist, says that “human perfectibility and anarchy would not be achieved even in a few thousand years, if first one did not create by the revolution.” (https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/errico-malatesta-the-anarchist-revolution). But then he says that the “destruction of all concentrations of political power is the first duty of oppressed people,” so we are left with the same inability to preserve the gains of the revolution as if all opposition to the overthrow of capitalism will just vanish overnight. He says that all people “should learn to think and act freely. It is to this task of liberation that anarchists must devote their attention. “ He actually expects that revolution will not be made by anarchists, but will evolve gradually, but that anarchists should remain the enemy of any new governing structure that is set up, whether it be that of capitalists or workers.
The most influential anarchist today, in the US anyway, is Noam Chomsky. On the one hand he is remarkable for the clarity with which he describes how capitalists rule the world. He clearly understands the relationship of corporations to the state, that the state represents the interests of the economic ruling class rather than being a separate entity. He clearly understands that liberalism, neoliberalism, neoconservatism, and conservatism are all just minor variations on the fundamental pattern of capitalist class relations. And he clearly understands that the capitalist ruling class maintains power through military might. “People who have come to realize that the just goals that they are trying to attain cannot be attained within the existing institutional structure because they will be beaten back by force.”(https://chomsky.info/20130312/)
Chomsky says of the society he desires that anarchism “does not limit its aims to democratic control by producers over production, but seeks to abolish all forms of domination and hierarchy in every aspect of social and personal life, an unending struggle, since progress in achieving a more just society will lead to new insight and understanding of forms of oppression that may be concealed in traditional practice and consciousness.” (http://www.socialanarchism.org/mod/magazine/display/23/index.php) In an hour long talk at MIT (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oB9rp_SAp2U), Chomsky talked of his goal of setting up cooperatives, and he gave examples to be emulated, which included Catalonia in 1936 and present day cooperatives in northern Mexico, some in the US rust belt, and among human rights activists and feminists. However, he later admitted that if workers try and buy businesses the owners will not allow it. He also admitted that the state or capitalists will use whatever means are available to them to maintain power. So what is remarkable is that he discussed no pathway to get from here to there, nor did anyone in the large student audience ask that question.
Chomsky does not completely rule out the use of violence, but says “if violence could be shown to lead to the over throw of lasting suppression of human life that now obtains in vast parts of the world, that would be a justification for violence. But this has not been shown at all, in my view.” He says the success of the Viet Cong in defeating the U.S. was a result of their building of cooperative organizations and even “if we look at revolutions that have taken place I think it’s not at all clear that the success has been based on the violence.” (https://www.peacenews.info/node/3867/chomsky-violence).
In the Street Today
Today there is increasing popularity, especially among the young, of violence for its own sake and operating as small affinity groups planning independent, uncoordinated actions. At Trump’s inauguration, a small group of anarchists attempted to disrupt the peaceful transition of power and damaged storefronts and property. The result was the arrest of over 200 demonstrators, most of whom were unaffiliated marchers.
In New York City, groups of people using the slogan Fuck the Police have run through subway stations and committed acts of sabotage like putting glue in card readers, in such a way that few are arrested. Their demands for free fare, full accessibility, and cops out of the subway are good, but they have no concept of the organizing that would be needed to actually mount a movement capable of winning these demands. They correctly blame Wall Street and racist settler colonialism as enemies, but a real strategy to build a movement of millions and that could actually overthrow the state is missing (https://decolonizethisplace.org/). Their ideology is reminiscent of the Weatherman faction of Students for a Democratic Society in the 1960s, who believed that if they blew up symbols of oppression, like army bases, masses of workers would rise up. Instead they blew up three of their own while trying to build a bomb in New York City.
The overt racism of Trump and increase in right wing racist violence has seen the emergence of Antifa, anti-fascists many of whom trace their origins back to European anarchists. They militantly attack right-wingers and meet violence with violence but operate as shock troops rather than builders of a mass movement. As Lenin said in Socialism and Anarchism, anarchists demonstrate “Failure to understand the class struggle of the proletariat…and failure to understand the role of the organization and the education of the workers.” (https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1901/dec/31.htm).
What Communists Believe
A revolution, the overthrow of the mighty militarized capitalist state, cannot be achieved peaceably, because the monster will fight back. Moreover, a large portion of the working class must feel that their lives are intolerable enough so that they must fight. The rulers must have also lost their ability to control the populace. But most important, there must be present a cadre of leaders of rebelling workers and a consciousness within many workers of what kind of society they want to build. For rebellion is not always successful or progressive, and can lead to defeat or fascism or a new capitalist order with different rulers.
Communists strive for a society where power is held by workers, and in which each person contributes according to ability and commitment and is remunerated based on need. Racism, sexism and all other forms of discrimination will be outlawed. Education, health care, housing and all social needs will be distributed equally and will be social priorities. Cooperation, participation, open communication, criticism and self-criticism will be encouraged in the classroom, workplace and family. Boring, dirty and undesirable work will be shared but valued, creativity among all will be encouraged, and each person will perform work which they enjoy and are able to do. These are of course ideals, but what we must maximize and strive for, through continued discussion, education and struggle in political and civic organizations, neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces. And of course, we must expect a period of conflict, probably armed, against the remnants and allies of the overthrown capitalist class.
The only two revolutions in which power has actually passed from the ruling class to the working class are in the Soviet Union and China. We do not count nationalist revolts, successful or not, where the colonialist bourgeoisie is replaced by a local bourgeoisie and capitalism continues. Both of these revolutions were built on a base of decades of organizing among workers in factories and soldiers and, in China, among peasants. Both revolutions occurred during periods of war, WWI and the struggle against Japanese occupation during WWII. Both of these revolutions were led by communist parties with a mass following and a clear understanding of the need to crush the ruling class, and who defeated liberal parliamentarians and nationalists, respectively. Both had to be prepared to fight after taking power against international and internal opposition.
Tragically, both of these revolutions did not end up with communist societies and workers’ empowerment. But that is because they made profound errors that we must try to understand and not repeat. Most fundamentally, they thought of communism as an ultimate but not an immediately achievable goal. Believing that the satisfaction of dire material needs was primary, they allowed many aspects of capitalist society to continue. Some examples are greater pay and privilege to better trained workers or professionals, lack of confidence in less educated workers to grasp communist principles, and emphasizing efficiency over worker control. Of course, the consequences of these errors were not apparent to those trying this great experiment for the first time under conditions of tremendous deprivation and war.
But now we see the urgency of overthrowing capitalism, a worldwide militarized behemoth with no regard for the quality of life of ordinary people. The ruling class is willing to sacrifice millions of lives in order to maintain its power and profits. It is not enough for us to look for ways to relate to each other in better ways in small collectives. In order to survive, we must build a large collective that understands what is at stake and what must be done – a revolutionary war. That means we must join the formations where workers are and on whom the elite rely – the military, the factories, the transportation sector, the schools –in order to build ties with and engage in struggle with our class sisters and brothers there. It is harder than bonding with our fellows in an ideal small group. It is harder than fighting small battles against the police or the far right. But it must be done. For now, before that day of actual reckoning is reached, we must engage in smaller anti-capitalist and anti-racist struggles to build ties, experience and ideas among our fellows. It is not enough to simply describe our final vision – we must be able to fight for and maintain it.