Kevin Harrison
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Marxism and anarchism

Starting with Marxism, this chapter examines Karl Marx's theories of history, economics and politics. It discusses the controversies within Marx-inspired political organisations in the nineteenth century, particularly the challenge mounted to orthodox Marxism by the 'revisionist' school. The chapter then analyses twentieth-century attempts to establish concrete political systems claiming 'Marxist' legitimacy, with particular attention to the rise and fall of the Soviet Union. It examines attempts to reinterpret Marxism to make it relevant to twenty-first-century social and economic conditions. Turning to the wide-ranging form of political thought known as anarchism, the chapter discusses anarchist views of human nature, the state, liberty and equality, and economic life. The chapter concludes with a critique of anarchism and some thoughts as to its relevance to modern politics.


  • Is Marxism correct in identifying class as the most important form of social identity and ‘class struggle’ as the driving force of history?
  • Does the importance of theory in Marxism undermine its potential for political action against capitalism by stimulating intra-Marxist strife and the proliferation of Marxist movements?
  • Has Marxism’s association with oppressive communist regimes in, say, the Soviet Union been damaging to its professed role as a liberating movement for the working classes? Or is Marxism inherently oppressive?
  • Are we too precipitate in dismissing anarchism’s analysis of the oppressive nature of the state?
  • Has anarchism’s importance as a political movement been undermined by its over-concentration on theory and its neglect of practical measures for reforming society?

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.

Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large or in the common ruin of the contending classes. (Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, 1848)

No conception of anarchism is further from the truth than that which regards it as an extreme form of democracy. Democracy advocates the sovereignty of the people. anarchism advocates the sovereignty of the person. (George Woodcock, Anarchism, 1962)

Revolutions have never lightened the burden of tyranny, they have only shifted it to another shoulder. (George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman, 1903)

Marxism and anarchism are very important parts of the socialist tradition but they differ so significantly from democratic socialism and social democracy as to be worth studying as distinct ideological movements.

The collapse of the USSR and its empire in Eastern Europe during 1989–91 is often hailed by Western conservatives as vindicating their belief that Marxism is a failed ideological system, unrealistic and of no value as a political movement or an ideological tool. However, for many Western Marxists the demise of the USSR removed an oppressive and corrupt form of Marxism that held back its potential as an anti-capitalist movement. They claim that Marxism remains a perceptive critique of capitalism and its class system – a critique that has, they believe, increasing value in the modern ‘globalised’ economy of multi-national businesses and international financial markets.

Anarchism in Northern Europe and the USA has always been a minor strain of socialism, though in Spain, Italy and France it has been very influential within both trade unions and socialist politics. Anarchism’s anti-state analysis has much value. Particularly interesting and important is anarchism’s critique of capitalism, social democracy and Marxism as state-oriented ideologies doomed to create and maintain political and economic systems that are fundamentally oppressive of the human spirit and its potential.


It is usual to regard ‘Marxism’ as a branch of socialism, but we have chosen to deal with it separately for a number of reasons:

  • Marxism constitutes by far the most internally consistent of socialist theories and forms an all-embracing ideology.
  • Although Marxists have sometimes suggested that their brand of socialism is uniquely valuable and authentic, there is, in fact, much more to the socialist tradition, especially in England.
  • The major divide in socialist thought is between evolutionary and revolutionary socialism: Marxism is the obvious example of the latter.
  • Marxism has had, for good or ill, a greater impact on human history than other strands of socialism, notably in the emergence in the twentieth century of the self-styled ‘socialist’ states of the Soviet Union, China, Cuba and Eastern Europe.
  • Karl Marx, who after all gave his name to the ideology, rather disliked the term ‘socialism’, which he associated with daydreaming and impracticality. From The Communist Manifesto (1848) to his final writings, Marx preferred the word ‘communist’ with its unambiguously revolutionary connotations.

As the term suggests, it is customary to regard Karl Marx as the only begetter of Marxism. It is worth mentioning, though, that most Marxists attribute a major influence on the development of his theory to his friend, patron and collaborator, Friedrich Engels. Some have even detected nuances of difference between the views of Marx and Engels, especially concerning the alleged ‘scientific’ basis of Marxism. Some argue that much of what we now describe as ‘Marxism’ was largely created by Engels’s writings after the death of his friend.

Although German, Marx spent most of his life in exile in England, after having been identified by the authorities in his homeland, denounced as a threat to public order and forced to flee. He devoted himself full-time to writing, revolutionary agitation and political organisation. Marx’s ideas made a substantial impact on nineteenth-century European political thought and in the twentieth century they profoundly influenced the course of world history.

By then, however, the processes of systematisation and reinterpretation by professed followers, such as Karl Kautsky and Georg Plekhanov, had arguably led to much distortion of the original message. Further distortions of Marxism were made by Lenin, Stalin, Mao and other Marxist revolutionaries during the twentieth century. The emergence of powerful totalitarian regimes, such as the Soviet Union and Communist China, which claimed Marxist legitimacy on the grounds that they were more authentic, exacerbated the process of reinterpretation.

Marx himself revised his ideas considerably over time. His earlier writings, for example, reveal a more humane, even liberal, Marx than the narrow determinist of his later years. Moreover, the prestige accorded to Marx by some of his followers led to his words being accorded the status of sacred scripture, rather than debatable propositions. Thus Marxism’s claim to be a ‘scientific’ analysis of society was somewhat weakened, to Marx’s irritation. He once famously asserted that if some of the latest ideas being described as ‘Marxist’ were indeed such, ‘I am not a Marxist’.

Marx’s ideas on historical development

It has been observed that Marxism is essentially a mixture of German Hegelian philosophy, English liberal political economy and French revolutionary politics. Marx emphasised the practical functions of his theories when, in his Theses on Feuerbach (1845), he said: ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.’1

Marx believed he had uncovered the laws governing human society by empirical, scientific investigation. The modern capitalist industrial society was emerging in Britain (especially in Manchester) during his lifetime. Britain was by far the most advanced capitalist society on earth. Industrialisation and the class system it spawned were the most developed in Europe. These economic and social trends would, Marx argued, be repeated in other industrialising countries in Europe and in the USA.

Marx’s starting point was the German idealist philosopher G. W. F. Hegel. According to Hegel, history was a process of self-realisation and unfolding by the ‘World Spirit’. It proceeded through conflict (‘dialectic’) between a given state of affairs (‘thesis’), which produced its opposite (‘anti-thesis’), a conflict resolved in a higher state (‘synthesis’), which in turn becomes another ‘thesis’, and so on. This mode of thinking is particularly alien to the Anglo-Saxon mind, to which Marx’s drastic remoulding of Hegel’s theory is somewhat more congenial, if still rather too theoretical and revolutionary for most Britons and Americans.

History was Marx’s preoccupation as well as Hegel’s but Marx held to a materialist theory in which the material conditions of human existence were fundamental, and which determined all other facets of life, such as philosophy, religion, art, culture and politics.

In Marx’s scheme of things each successive stage of history rested on economic foundations, called the ‘substructure’. Marx asserted that all humans must first earn a living and that all societies must therefore rest upon some system of wealth production. Thus the ‘mode of production’ played a key role. The mode of production was not just the type of technology prevalent at each stage but the associated economic system with its attendant social and cultural ‘superstructure’. Art, culture, ideology, politics, family structure and the rest all belong to the superstructure and change with the economic sub-structure.

The dynamic that drove human history onwards was the disfunction, or ‘contradiction’, within each mode of production. Each mode had its own definitive stage, which Marx identified in The German Ideology (1846) as ‘primitive communism’, ‘slavery’, ‘feudalism’ and ‘capitalism’. Each, apart from primitive communism, had a characteristic class system. As each mode developed, antagonism between the classes grew. In political terms, this class war always culminated in violent revolution. Thus the French Revolution (1789) was essentially a class struggle between serf and landowner in which the feudal system, established in the Middle Ages, was challenged and overthrown by the emerging capitalist system. In class terms, the bourgeoisie (the capitalist owners of the new means of production) emerged as the new ruling class who were soon engaged in class war with the proletariat (the newly created industrial working class).

It is important to realise that by ‘class’ Marx meant not social status as conferred by occupation, education or culture, but relationship to the means of production (specifically, the ownership or non-ownership of productive property). At the time Marx was writing, the bourgeoisie owned all the means of production – factories, banks, shops. The proletariat owned nothing. Conflict between the two classes was growing, driving history forward, and, Marx believed, would culminate in the violent overthrow of the capitalist class by the working class (the ‘grave-digger’ of capitalism) and the emergence of ‘socialism’.

Under socialism, property would be collectively owned, class would disappear and with it class conflict and the state, which was a crucial actor in this struggle. Socialism would then evolve peacefully into ‘communism’, a barely imaginable utopia, characterised by material and cultural abundance and an end to conflict, war, crime and all the miseries of the ages. Even if suffering, sickness and death remained, humanity would be equipped, scientifically, economically and politically, to at least ameliorate the worst of these afflictions of mankind.

Marxist economics

Much of the plausibility of Marxism derives from its economic theories which, supported by considerable statistical data, gave an apparently solid, down-toearth basis to its more abstruse philosophical dimensions. The most impressive manifestation of his work is Marx’s multi-volume Capital (Volume I: 1867, Volume II: 1885, Volume III: 1893–94), a magnificent, if now largely unread, early example of social science research.

Marx held to the ‘labour theory of value’. That is, the value of goods or services was not based on the interplay of supply and demand in a free market but on the amount of labour, physical and intellectual, invested in their production. The proletariat provided this investment, but they did not receive the full value of their labour, because capitalists creamed off a substantial part of the profits (known as ‘surplus value’). In effect, the workers were robbed by their employers.

Factory conditions further dehumanised the proletariat, who were oppressed not only physically but even spiritually by being alienated from the objects of their labour (which they did not own and whose production brought them no creative satisfaction) and from the society which created these conditions.

Even worse, the position of the proletariat would deteriorate, if not absolutely then relatively, since the capitalist system was inherently very unstable. Competition between capitalists increased the exploitation of the proletariat as it drove down wages and extended working hours to maintain profits. Alternatively, capitalists would combine in monopolies that pushed up prices. Society would be polarised into rich and poor, with growing class conflict.

The worst aspect of the capitalist system was its inevitable tendency to produce more than could be sold in an economic boom (‘a crisis of overproduction’), causing regular slumps of ever-increasing severity, length and unpredictability. The polarisation of society would intensify, the misery of the proletariat would grow and class conflict would become ever more intense.

Eventually, the proletariat would shed its illusions (which Marx described as ‘false consciousness’). Those illusions were political, moral, religious and cultural beliefs and values held by the working class but benefiting only the capitalists. Perceiving, at last, its own real interests the proletariat would organise itself and fight back through militant trade unionism. Finally, the proletariat would overthrow its oppressors by violent revolution. Towards the end of his life, however, Marx modified his position somewhat to allow for the possibility of a peaceful revolution.

Marxist politics

Marxist politics followed logically from Marxist historical theory and economics. The aim was to promote a proletarian revolution, which would overthrow the bourgeois state (run in the interests of the capitalist class) and usher in socialism (and a state run by and for the workers). For Marx, the contemporary liberal state was a class instrument, the means by which the bourgeoisie maintained its privileges and oppressed the proletariat. In strictly limited circumstances, as in the France of Emperor Napoleon III (1848–71), a balance of social forces could allow the state to develop something of a life of its own and hold the ring between conflicting classes. However, to Marx the state rarely maintained a role as a ‘referee’. The slightest challenge from the proletariat would cause the mask of neutrality to slip from the face of the bourgeois state, revealing the ugly reality of class power underpinning it.

Marx believed that the capitalist system would undergo a series of revolutionary crises that would create a revolutionary situation and cause the overthrow of the bourgeois state. A temporary ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ would establish itself to secure the revolution and govern in the interests of all the people. This proletarian state would soon ‘wither away’ as the new society, having no class conflicts, had no need for state instruments of bourgeois class repression, such as the army, the judiciary and the police. The new society would be communist, a society of harmony, prosperity and peace.

Marxism in the nineteenth century

Many commentators have pointed out that Marx was quintessentially a figure of the nineteenth century. Critics have claimed that Marx’s relevance to later historical periods is seriously limited, as his analysis is specific to mid-nineteenthcentury industrialisation.

Clearly, Marxism owed much of its impact to its effective blending of many elements of nineteenth-century culture: science, the belief in progress, the revolutionary and romantic traditions and a powerful moral critique of the industrial revolution and the civilisation derived from it. Moreover, Marxism was a European creed and strongly influenced socialist movements and thinkers across that continent. It provided the framework of language and ideas within which most socialist thought developed from the 1870s onward. It is important to realise that there was, and is, no one united Marxist party. There were many parties, groups and factions among which ferocious quarrels of interpretation and reinterpretation soon began. The German Social Democratic Party (SDP), the largest and most significant socialist party in Europe by the 1870s, was divided over ‘revisionism’, which was a reworking of Marxism associated with Eduard Bernstein. He argued that a socialist society could be brought about without violent revolution by political action within the existing framework of the Imperial German Constitution, a policy formally adopted by the SDP in its Gotha Programme (1875).

Attempts were made to hold the major Marxist and socialist parties together by means of international organisations. The International Working Men’s Association (known also as the First International, 1864–76) fell apart because of tensions between Marxists and anarchists. The Second International (1889– 1914) was divided by rows between revolutionary and revisionist socialists. These attempts at unity finally collapsed when most European socialist parties chose to support their individual national governments at the outbreak of the First World War. Contrary to the socialist belief that international working-class solidarity would halt a European war by calling a universal ‘general strike’, the events of 1914 demonstrated the superior hold of nationalism over socialism as an ideology in the hearts and minds of the working class.

Thus Marxism entered the twentieth century divided and has remained so to the present day, the doctrinal divisions over ‘true’ Marxism usually being sharpened by nationalism and national rivalries.

Marxism in the twentieth century: 1914–53

By far the most successful branch of Marxism in the early twentieth century was that associated with V. I. Lenin and the Bolshevik Party. Lenin developed Marxist thought by tailoring it to specifically Russian conditions. He led the Bolshevik Party as a revolutionary movement, seized power in 1917 and ultimately set up the world’s first socialist state in 1924. This state, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, survived until 1991.

‘Marxism-Leninism’, as it was later officially styled, recognised that Russia was not economically, socially and politically advanced enough for a socialist revolution on the Marxist model. Marx had assumed that such a revolution would occur in the most developed capitalist societies of Western Europe and the United States. According to Lenin, historical conditions in which a ‘bourgeois’ revolution would precede a ‘socialist’ revolution by decades or even centuries could be telescoped into one dramatic event. This, as Lenin outlined in What is to be Done? (1902), could be accomplished if the proletariat were organised and led by a ‘vanguard’ of full-time, professional revolutionaries, highly disciplined and of sufficient commitment and intellectual calibre to devise and carry out an appropriate strategy. In Lenin’s view, expounded in Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916), revolution in the West had been temporarily postponed because the leading capitalist powers had exported the most acute forms of exploitation to their colonies and ‘semicolonies’, such as Russia.

The collapse of the Tsarist regime under the pressures of the First World War gave the Bolsheviks their chance. The bourgeois revolution in March 1917, led by liberals under Kerensky, overthrew the tsar but lost popular support through the new government’s commitment to continue the war. Russian military collapse followed and the Bolsheviks, very much a minority party, seized their opportunity. They began to establish their regime, accepted a humiliating peace with Germany in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (1918), and after years of civil war founded the Soviet Union (1924). The construction of socialism could at last begin.

Marx’s concept of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ was implemented, as was Lenin’s principle of strict party discipline (democratic centralism). Further justification of Bolshevik control was based on the claim of the party’s particular status as the vanguard of the working class. Because of the very real danger of internal ‘counter-revolution’ a dictatorship was set up, complete with all the apparatus of tyranny: secret police, censorship, control of the media and the suppression of all possible sources of opposition.

Stalin, Lenin’s successor, consolidated this system and emerged as absolute dictator. He liquidated all critics within the party, including most Old Bolsheviks, notably Leon Trotsky, in a series of purges known as the ‘Great Terror’. Trotsky had argued for a vigorous export of socialism to capitalist countries. Stalin, however, stressed the importance, as his slogan stated, of ‘socialism in one country’, and in a series of Five-Year Plans set about a massive programme of industrialisation. Military expansion was also undertaken to protect the Soviet Union from its capitalist and fascist enemies.

The creation and apparent success of the USSR meant that, with few exceptions, Marxism was effectively the same thing as Soviet communism. This process reached its zenith by about 1950. By this time the USSR had become a military and industrial superpower, the rival of the USA. It had overcome the Nazi invasion (1941–45) and had used the Red Army and compliant local communists to impose its ideology on Eastern Europe. Marxist parties throughout the world looked to the Soviet Union for inspiration and guidance. Some, like China, had their own communist revolution, and powerful communist parties emerged in Western countries like Italy and France.

The seeming success of Soviet communism, reinforced by intense propaganda at home and abroad, stifled criticism among Marxists and presented other socialist parties with a major problem. To what extent was the Soviet Union an exemplar for socialists everywhere? Some, such as the British socialist George Orwell, would have none of it. He denounced Soviet tyranny in uncompromising language in articles and novels. Others, notably the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), were far less condemnatory until the 1950s. The more pro-Soviet elements on the left and outside the CPGB became known as ‘fellow travellers’.

Marxism in the twentieth century: 1953–2000

Cracks appeared in the Soviet hegemony after the death of Stalin (1953). His successor, Nikita Khrushchev, denounced Stalin’s ‘cult of personality’ and other excesses, to the Twentieth Party Congress (1956), raising the hope of a more ‘liberal’ communism in Eastern Europe. A wave of disillusion swept through Western communist parties, exacerbated by the violent Soviet repression of the Hungarian Revolution (November 1956). Later Soviet actions in Czechoslovakia (1968), Poland (1979–80) and Afghanistan (1979) drove many Western communist parties to distance themselves from Russia and to modify their own ideologies in a more ‘Eurocommunist’ direction. The Italian, Spanish and French communist parties particularly stressed an ideological distancing from the Soviet party, emphasising individual as well as class rights and accepting parliamentary ‘roads to communism’.

The People’s Republic of China under Mao Zedong, meanwhile, had gone its own way after the death of Stalin. In Mao’s view revolutionary movements need not come from the industrial working class. They could be initiated by the peasants in non-industrial societies and create socialism in line with their class needs. This was an analysis particularly attractive to Marxist and revolutionary movements in developing countries, fighting colonialism and imperialism. By the early 1960s there was an open split between the Soviet and the Chinese communists over ideology and strategy.

Marxist groups elsewhere progressively withdrew from the Soviet model. Paradoxically, some of these groups became more significant the further they moved away from Soviet Communism, as exemplified in the multiplicity of Marxist groups involved in the revolutionary upheavals in Paris in 1968. In the Third World, orthodox communist parties were either crushed by the state, as in Indonesia in the 1960s, or evolved along lines of their own, as in Yugoslavia, North Korea and Albania.

During the 1980s, change had begun in the USSR itself when Mikhail Gorbachev became leader. He attempted to reform the system by ‘glasnost’ (‘openness’) and ‘perestroika’ (‘modernisation’). This sent shock waves through the communist world, leading rapidly to the demise of pro-Soviet communist regimes in Eastern Europe. Communism then collapsed in the Soviet Union itself and the USSR fell apart under the pressure of long-suppressed nationalisms. It was dissolved in December 1991, giving birth to fifteen independent states.

At present only Cuba and North Korea can be regarded as old-style communist states. China purports to remain true to the faith but it is very definitely ‘communism with Chinese business characteristics’. One wonders how long the booming capitalist nature of the Chinese economy, and the new social groups it has generated, can be squared with the democratic centralism of the Chinese party.

Marxism in the twenty-first century

The collapse of Soviet communism caused many people to believe that Marxism itself would shortly be extinct: it had obviously failed. On the other hand, some Marxists rejoiced. Marxism was now liberated from its association with totalitarian regimes, both in theory and in practice, as well as in the popular mind. Already in the 1960s and 1970s some continental theorists, like

Georg Lukács and Louis Althusser, had attempted to reform Marxist theory. They softened the harsh features of the later Marx by stressing his pre-1848 writings which were less ‘scientific’ and more humanistic.

Of particular interest was Herbert Marcuse, who had considerable influence on the radical student movements of the 1960s. According to Marcuse, the capitalist class maintained its grip by absorbing into the system any opposition it could not crush: a strategy Marcuse called repressive tolerance. The working class was thus rendered impotent by means of material prosperity and trashy popular culture, which were orchestrated by the capitalist mass media. Indeed, most social institutions conspired in this invisible oppression, including schools, universities, churches, trade unions and the family. Only those excluded from the system could be expected even to dream of challenging it. Such elements included students, ethnic minorities and others on the fringes of society. Marcuse’s analysis held a particular attraction for young people, since he associated economic and political liberation with cultural and sexual freedom. By the 1990s, however, his influence had waned as economic crises within the capitalist system and the triumph of consumer capitalism undermined the revolutionary potential of the very groups he had identified as the new revolutionaries.

More conventional leftist politics, at least in Britain, was conducted by a new plethora of small, quarrelsome groups such as the Socialist Party of Great Britain, the Socialist Workers’ Party, the Workers’ Revolutionary Party, the Socialist Labour League, the Communist Party of Great Britain and the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist). Few of these had much impact. Most of their energies were consumed in constant splits, regroupings, purges and reorganisations. Some of them contested ‘bourgeois’ elections but gained derisory support.

An exception to this was Militant Tendency, a group that infiltrated the Labour Party in the 1970s and early 1980s under the guise of promoting a newspaper, the Militant. They gained control of Liverpool City Council and a number of Westminster MPs were said to be Militants. After bitter struggles in the early 1980s the Labour Party eventually proscribed Militant and its membership, purging them from the party and paving the way for the decidedly reformist ‘New’ Labour Party of the late 1990s.

Initial hopes that the fall of the USSR would liberate Marxism from Stalinism do not appear to have been realised, as global capitalism and liberal democracy seemed to carry all before them. This very triumph has aroused radical challenges, however, as exemplified in recent years by vigorous demonstrations against globalisation at European summits and meetings of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the G8 (the group of eight leading industrial economies). How far such challenges can be accurately described as ‘Marxist’ is questionable. One anticapitalist demonstrator in London (May 2001) wanted to ‘smash capitalism and replace it with something nicer’.

Marxism can be regarded as having, to some extent, escaped the narrow confines of party and state politics and as now being free to rethink its role. It influences the women’s movement, social and artistic analysis, environmentalism and, in the guise of liberation theology in the Third World, the Christian churches.

Encouraging though this may be to some, it leaves Marxist socialism without a clear ideological programme for revolutionary change in the modern world economy, which is characterised by growing social and economic inequalities at home and abroad.


In popular parlance today ‘anarchy’ is associated with terrorist violence, disorder and naive extremism. Historically, this understanding of the term has some validity. In fact, the word is Greek in origin and means ‘without a ruler’; it does not mean ‘chaos’. There has been a certain ambiguity in the term as it applies to politics. One interpretation is ‘without government’ (or, as modern anarchists say, ‘without the state’). Another interpretation, though, implies ‘without laws or rules’. It is, of course, possible to envisage societies without instruments of state coercion; religious communities or Israeli kibbutzim offer models of these. Anarchists have been inclined to attack authority of any kind as an intolerable oppression. This applies particularly to religious authority but may even extend to science, medicine, education and the family.

Although anarchists concur in their detestation of the state they present no generally agreed definition of that term, as one might expect from anarchists. A clear grasp of their thought is further complicated by the wide disagreement among anarchists themselves on even fundamental points, conflicts that they rather relish. It is, however, customary to divide anarchists, at least for the purposes of analysis, into those whose starting point is the individual, such as William Godwin and Max Stirner, and those whose starting point is the community, such as Peter Kropotkin. Another important difference is between those anarchists who advocate violence as a crucial tactic in advancing the cause, such as Georges Sorel, and those who absolutely reject it, such as Leo Tolstoy.

Marx attacked his critics in the First International (an early attempt to create a united international revolutionary organisation), notably Michael Bakunin, as ‘anarchists’ for their opposition to organisation in the socialist movement. The French revolutionary Pierre-Joseph Proudhon described himself as an ‘anarchist’ when he proclaimed a coherent set of recognisably anarchist ideas in What is Property? (1840) and The Federal Principle (1863).

Unlike most political ideologies, anarchism has never really been put to the test of achieving power in the modern state. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, however, anarchism had some influence in Russia, France, Italy, the USA and Latin America. During the Spanish Civil War (1936–39) interesting social experiments were attempted in Catalonia and Andalusia by a strong anarchist movement. Anarchist movements, writers and communes still exist today and have some influence as profoundly radical challenges to the existing Western social and political order. Increasingly, though, anarchism is a rather marginal movement within socialism and is often associated with radical individualism rather than with socialism.

Main themes

There are a number of themes that most anarchists share, although with considerable differences in emphasis:

  • human nature;
  • the state;
  • liberty and equality;
  • economic life.

Human nature

Generally speaking anarchists have taken a highly optimistic view of human nature, seeing it as capable of almost unlimited development. However, they regard it as having been radically warped by systems of economic, political and intellectual control.

The central objective of anarchist movements, therefore, is to destroy these obstacles to human fulfilment. Exactly how this is to be done varies according to different thinkers’ perspectives. William Godwin, in An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793), observed human nature as determined by the environment but perceived human existence as the product not of nature but of reason. Rational beings were capable of individuality, but this could flourish only in conditions of freedom. Taken to its logical conclusion, this meant that almost any form of joint endeavour, even a theatrical performance, since it involved authority, direction and rules on the part of those involved, constituted an infringement of the individual’s liberty.

Peter Kropotkin, in Mutual Aid (1897), believed that the development of human liberty and co-operation was a biological imperative. From his studies of animal and primitive human behaviour in Siberia he concluded that the Darwinian account of endless competition and conflict among species required drastic modification. In Kropotkin’s view, animal species survived and developed through a process of spontaneous, natural co-operation without the equivalent of government. This idea re-emerged in late twentieth-century ecological theories and powerfully influenced the Green movement.

The state

While most ideologies have taken a positive attitude to the state, or regarded it as a necessary evil, to anarchists it is anathema since it is, by its very nature, coercive. State power is in principle, and frequently in practice, absolute. Potentially no area of life is free from the state’s interference. To anarchists its taxes rob the citizen and its agents and laws oppress him.

Basically, then, the state is ‘anti-human’. Its ultimate expression is war. This is not merely a critique of totalitarian states: even liberal democracies constitute a systematic oppression of individuals. Indeed, liberal and representative democracy is especially reviled as fraudulent. Democratic majorities are likely to be as tyrannical as dictatorships. Majorities can be easily manipulated by elites, who use them to impose a subtle form of social control (Marcuse’s ‘repressive tolerance’). From the anarchist perspective the individual has inalienable rights which cannot be transferred to a democratically elected assembly, or even infringed by the decisions of a direct democracy, which includes the active participation of all citizens.

Such radical rejection of the state raises acute problems. First, there is the practical question of how anarchists can be tolerated by a political system from which they are so deeply alienated and which they seek to overthrow. Moreover, anarchists eschew the option of political action within a democratic state – except perhaps as a means of propaganda. Anarchists do not usually participate in the democratic process to change government since their object is to destroy government altogether. The logical anarchist alternative, therefore, is the overthrow of the state by revolution. Some, like Godwin, have argued this could be by peaceful means through rational argument, while others have advocated various forms of illegal, if non-violent, direct action. Yet others, such as Georges Sorel, in Reflections on Violence (1905), asserted that the general strike, in which organised labour would demolish the economic and political system by refusing to work, would be an effective form of such action. Still others, following the ideas of Sergei Nechaev, go the whole way in urging outright revolutionary violence, utterly unrestrained by moral or humanitarian considerations.

Not surprisingly, this hostile attitude to the state is counter-productive since even the most liberal of regimes, when faced with a serious revolutionary threat, would take firm steps to suppress it. Even apparently innocuous interaction with the authorities could be construed as collaboration with the detested state. On these grounds, demonstrators against capitalism in London (May Day 2001) refused to negotiate arrangements with police for an orderly march; predictably, the demonstration ended in turmoil.

Given their intense dislike of organisation, authority and discipline it is not surprising that anarchists have, with few exceptions, been unable to mobilise themselves effectively.

A further difficulty with anarchism is that although its advocates are very clear about the need to abolish the state, they are far less clear about its replacement. Anarchists of a liberal or individualist perspective argue that a system of ‘market forces’ would emerge in which even law enforcement would be, in effect, revenge carried out by the victims of criminals or by agents hired for that purpose. Those of a ‘collectivist’ inclination try to devise federations of small self-governing communities or, like Proudhon, place their faith in the emergence of a constellation of voluntary organisations, which they envisage springing up spontaneously.

Liberty and equality

Anarchism has been described as an attempt to fuse together the two main values of post-French Revolutionary thought: liberty and equality.

Both the individualist and the collectivist wings of anarchism are agreed that the state is the main enemy of liberty and its abolition is, therefore, axiomatic. The individualist wing emphasises this negative liberty, in other words freedom from state or other social coercion. The collectivist outlook stresses positive freedom, freedom to pursue positive purposes through full human development. This, it is claimed, can only occur in a social context, since our authentic goals are derived from our communal nature.

As for equality, individualist anarchists argue that this is implicit in the belief that every human being is a rational creature, capable of deciding his own best interests. Collectivist anarchists argue that all human beings have needs – physical, mental and cultural – which society ought to be constituted to fulfil, recognising equality of entitlement.

There is clearly tension between the two schools of thought, since individualist anarchists regard any attempt to determine and supply these needs by the collective action of institutions as, in itself, a threat to freedom.

Some anarchists of Christian inspiration, such as Tolstoy, argue from the premise of the equality of man before God.

Economic life

One point on which all shades of anarchist thought are united is the rejection of ‘state socialism’, or the command economy, on the old Soviet model. Beyond this point, agreement breaks down. ‘Individualist anarchists’, a notable American anarchist strain, emphasise the merits of a totally unregulated market economy, to supply such usually collectivised services as policing, law enforcement, defence and fire protection. Each individual can do whatever he likes with his own property and freely exchange goods and services with others. Property in this context is taken to include his life and person. In this regard individualist anarchism resembles classical liberalism pushed to an extreme position.

Collectivist anarchists view this form of anarchism with utter horror. They denounce the injustice of a society in which the rich and powerful would flourish and the rest be trampled underfoot. Moreover, market transactions affect others with, for example, devastating effects on the environment and on the poor.

Collectivist anarchists begin with two assumptions: first, all wealth production is essentially social, rather than individual, involving collective effort; second, if they are to enjoy a free and full life, all individuals have needs which should be met by society.

For the achievement of these goals various models have been proposed, such as communes, co-operatives and mutual societies of all kinds, some modelled on the medieval guild system. Most of these models, however, remain at the level of vague aspirations. Nor is it clear how such a dramatic shift from existing economic arrangements could be made without catastrophic disruption to the economic system, with all that would imply for the poor – the supposed principal beneficiaries of an anarchist society.

Sub-species of anarchism

Just like other ideologies, anarchism has fragmented into numerous different and conflicting sub-groups.

One of the most important was ‘mutualism’. This assumed that groups can emerge from within society to conduct trade without exploitation and thus can form the nuclei of a new society. These ideas, articulated by Proudhon, were fashionable before the First World War and spilled over into socialist, cooperative, friendly society and similar movements. Harsh reality, however, caused mutualism to lose ground to the ‘anarcho-syndicalists’ who later merged their ideas with a type of revolutionary trade unionism known as ‘syndicalism’. Syndicalism was powerful in Britain before 1914 and in France, where it dominated the largest trade union, the CGT (Confédération Général du Travail). The key intention was to challenge and ultimately overthrow the existing order through militant trade unionism. Trade unions would channel the revolutionary aspirations of the working class into a general strike in which there would be a total withdrawal of labour by a united working class. The economies of the advanced capitalist states and their associated governmental apparatus would thereby be subverted. A new society would emerge on the basis of these syndicates, or ‘workers’ unions’. Notably, anarcho-syndicalism played a significant role in Spain during the Civil War (1936–39).

‘Anarcho-communism’ was a critique of the state capitalism that emerged in post-Revolutionary Russia among Bolshevik and non-Bolshevik socialists alike. A significant force in the period 1917–21, it was eliminated by Lenin and Stalin, though it survived as a hostile commentary on the Soviet Union in the West.

Critiques of anarchism

Many commentators have dismissed anarchism as peripheral to worthwhile political debate. Self-proclaimed anarchists manifesting their beliefs in street demonstrations are seen more as a public nuisance than a serious challenge to the status quo.

Anarchism has for many people seemed contrary to human experience. Anarchists have been unconvincing in their proposals as to how, in any society established on their principles, criminals, deviants and social misfits would be dealt with. Similarly, they have been strikingly weak in their concrete proposals for the construction of a just and efficient economic system. With doctrines that militate against any realistic application, anarchism has not only failed to change society but has never been tried.

There is, moreover, a deep-seated contradiction in that anarchism fails to reconcile the twin values of individual liberty and the common good. Even if the state were eliminated completely, experience of societies where the state has collapsed suggests that this would be followed not by utopia but by a period of chaos, swiftly succeeded by renewed tyranny. Those parts of the world where organised government has failed, such as parts of Africa and the former Yugoslavia, are scarcely evidence to support anarchist optimism for the end of the state.

There is further evidence to challenge the rosy view many anarchists have of the world of nature and primitive peoples. Kropotkin’s ideas of a co-operative animal commonwealth have not been upheld by studies of animal behaviour, particularly of primates. Anthropological investigation into ‘primitive’ societies shows them to be riddled with superstition, cruelty, hierarchy and arbitrary power, rather than tranquil oases of ‘noble savages’.

The basic premises of anarchism, it can be argued, are logically inconsistent. How, for example, could such an evil as the state have arisen in the first place if early man had, in fact, lived in a condition of innocent communistic bliss? There are ethical difficulties as well. Most people find the justifications of revolutionary violence advanced by some anarchists morally repugnant. Even advocacy of direct action by more moderate elements can be opposed as being an indefensible challenge to authority, at least in a liberal democracy. In any case, the practical outcome is always far short of an anarchist society and often enough the prelude to violence and a reaction by the authorities that erodes such liberty as already exists.

These criticisms suggest that anarchism is an ideological dead end, especially if narrowly defined. From a wider perspective, though, anarchist thought has spilled over into a whole range of political movements such as feminism, environmentalism, civil rights and challenges to globalisation. If anarchism does not provide answers, perhaps it raises some good questions, and if anarchism is but a dream, dreams are not without their value.


Marxism is rightly identified with one man, Karl Marx. Marx modified his ideas over time and other Marxist writers have contributed to the development of Marxist thought. Marx borrowed his philosophical methodology from Hegel, developing a theory of history in which the dynamic of progress was class conflict, a conflict that would ultimately result in the end of class altogether. Marx incorporated the concept of inherent conflict (‘contradictions’) into his theories of economics and politics. Whether or not ‘socialism’ could be achieved only by revolutionary means divided Marxists and democratic socialists during the late nineteenth century. The twentieth century appeared to vindicate aspects of Marxist theory. By the 1960s over one third of humanity lived under regimes that claimed to be ‘Marxist’. By the early twenty-first century, however, Marxist states had almost disappeared or had drastically modified their policies. Some might question whether Marxism has much to offer today. Marxists believe it still offers a valid critique of capitalist society in the modern globalised economy. Others believe it is a failed ideology associated with failed political experiments in the USSR and elsewhere.

Anarchism is associated in popular opinion with terrorism and chaos, or with unrealistic ‘utopian’ politics. This perception is largely inaccurate. Most anarchists have a very optimistic view of human nature; all detest the state; some reject all authority. Anarchists have proposed alternative ways of overthrowing the state, ranging from rational persuasion to a general strike, or even violent revolution. Liberty and equality are highly esteemed by all varieties of anarchist, and all reject the Soviet model of the ‘command economy’ in which all economic activity is controlled by the state. About the future structure of society anarchists are vague. They favour small-scale, co-operative social and economic units. Anarchist attitudes and ideas have influenced such movements as the ecologists and still provide a critique of Western society.


1 Lewis S. Feuer, Marx and Engles: Basic Writings on Politics and Philosophy (Fontana, 1976), p. 286; italics in original.

Berki, R. N. Modern Ideology: SOCIALISM (J. M. Dent, 1975).

Bottomore T. B. and Rubel, M. Karl Marx, Selected Writings in Sociology and Social Philosophy (Penguin, 1974).

Femia, J. V. ‘Marxism and Communism’, in R. Eatwell and A. Wright (eds.), Contemporary Political Ideologies (Pinter, 1993), pp. 100–26.

Goodwin, B. ‘Marxism’ and ‘Anarchism’, in B. Goodwin, Using Political Ideas (John Wiley and Sons, 2001), pp. 65–96 and pp. 121–45.

Jennings, J. ‘Anarchism’, in R. Eatwell and A. Wright (eds.), Contemporary Political Ideologies (Pinter, 1993), pp. 127–46.

Lichtheim, G. A Short History of Socialism (Fontana/Collins, 1977).

MacIntyre, A. Marxism and Christianity (Penguin, 1971).

Vincent, A. ‘Anarchism’, in A. Vincent, Modern Political Ideologies (Blackwell, 1996), pp. 114–40.

Woodcock, G. Anarchism (Penguin, 1983).

Wright Mills, C. The Marxists (Penguin, 1975).


1 Write a critical appraisal of the Marxist analysis of society and politics.

2 Is Marxism an inherently revolutionary creed?

3 ‘A discredited and obsolete ideology.’ Examine this view of Marxism.

4 How might anarchism be seen as part of the socialist tradition of politics? Is anarchism merely an extreme form of liberalism?

5 Does adherence to anarchist ideology render anarchist movements politically impotent?

6 ‘Anarchism is a political indulgence by the privileged, it has no relevance to the real issues involved in governing a society.’ To what extent would you agree with this condemnation of anarchism?

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Understanding political ideas and movements

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