Leninists are strange (part 2)

Okay, first things first. I’ve written up and posted my talk at this year’s London Anarchist Bookfair: Kropotkin Class Warrior. It is mostly the same as said on the day, but I have made a few slight changes and added a newly translated Kropotkin article (which I’ve already posted on my blog) at the end (“The action of the masses and the individual”). Anyone familiar with anarchism will not find anything too surprising in it, but those with a superficial knowledge – like most Marxists (I was going to link to an article on this but I’ve written so many it is hard to pick!) – may find it of interest. It should be read in conduction with a previous bookfair talk on anarchism and class struggle.

Talking of talks, I was asked to a panel debate by the Platypus group on Anarchism and Marxism recently. Two anarchists, three Marxists (SWP, AWL and IMT). Below are the notes I produced when informed that I had ten to twelve minutes to address six questions. On the night, we had eight minutes so I had to wing it. I’ve debated the AWL before and this discussion confirms my previous thoughts that Leninists are strange.

The AWL speaker was the best of the three Marxists (that is faint praise) but I was disappointed by his willingness to make stuff up about anarchism (but, then, they have done that before). The SWPer came across as a radical liberal (his attempts to portray himself as a normal person rather than a robotrot were used by the AWL to attack the SWP of course but any valid point was lost in feeling sorry for the SWPer). The IMT person came across as was reading chunks of Trotsky’s Transitional Programme (even down to nationalising big business as a “socialist” demand – although at the end he added “under workers’ control” after I noted nationalisation was completely compatible with capitalism and was the way to state capitalism – not that Bolshevism actually stands for genuine workers’ control). Leadership was apparently very important but he distanced himself from Lenin’s What is to be Done?, unlike the AWL chap who was happy with its elitist notion that revolutionary ideas had to be injected into the working class from the outside.

The summing up saw the SWP and AWL ranting about sects (i.e., what the others were and definitely not them!). Not very attractive and undermines the whole “you should be a Marxist” thing… I guess in the Bolshevik party this kind of infighting was behind closed doors (as I noted in my review of Avrich’s The Russian Anarchists, there may have been a lot of differing anarchists attacking each other but Lenin’s vanguard party had lots of heresies within it which he  had to combat). The IMT speaker seemed somewhat bemused by that and tended to try and rise above it. His theme for the day was the need for “leadership” – which, of course, anarchists don’t dispute as such, it is more a case of how you give a lead. Needless to say, the example of May 1968 was invoked as an example of why you need a vanguard party but it was my good self who pointed out that there were plenty of vanguard parties around at the time…

All the usual claims against anarchism and about Marxism were made --  for example, that anarchists think the bourgeois class will disappear (no, we don’t – I had stated the need to defend a revolution before the AWLer proclaimed this!) and that Lenin changed his ideas after What is to Be Done? (no, he did not). The AWLer tried to paint it as a debate between “anarchism and socialism”, as if anarchists did not consider themselves socialists from Proudhon onwards. Indeed, he excelled himself in making stuff up (as my notes below suggest and as I said at the meeting, this is the standard Marxist approach since 1847 and Marx’s The Poverty of Philosophy).

The AWLer presented Marx’s caricature of the 1870 Lyons revolt as if it were an objective account. Time precluded any response, but the same can be said of the Bolshevik 1905 Moscow uprising if you were that way inclined. Suffice to say, Bakunin was well aware that a revolt in one commune was not enough and it had to spread and so federate to co-ordinate its defence and other activities. I should note that Robert Graham’s new book on the First International discusses the Lyons events in a fair more accurate and balanced manner – he asked me to provide a blurb for it and was kind enough to send me some and then all of the chapters of the final draft, it is very good.

He also proclaimed that the “anti-state” anarchists like Durruti “wandered into the wilderness” after the CNT’s (wrong) decision to postpone the revolution in July 1936. I pointed out that Durruti organised workers’ militias to liberate Zaragoza where his comrades in the CNT were being taken out and shot after being rounded up into the bull-ring. I covered why the CNT made that decision and why it had nothing to do with anarchist theory (which was pretty clear on what was needed – a federation of workers’ councils). As I stated: “Marxism failed [in Russia] because Marxists applied it. Anarchism failed [in Spain] because Anarchists did not apply it.”

And that is the fundamental issue with the debate – the Marxists were arguing as if the last 150 years had never happened. They were talking of this wonderful democratic “workers’ state” as if the Bolshevik revolution had not happened and we have an example of one in action (perhaps because in practice it confirmed anarchist warnings?). We were urged to form a “political party” as if Social Democracy had not become reformist (perhaps because in practice this also confirmed anarchist warnings?). As my notes suggest, a genuine “scientific socialism” would look at the claims of Marx and Bakunin and conclude that the latter was right.

Ironically, after suggesting anarchism reflects a “peasant” mentality (in being just against “the state”) he then contrasted this to “Marxism” and its calls for workers to fight collectively at the point of production and then take over their workplaces. As I pointed out, I had read those arguments in Bakunin and Kropotkin. This nonsense came after I had argued that anarchists had, since Bakunin, argued that workers should organise in the workplace and federate together into workers’ councils to fight capitalism (in contrast to the Marxist suggestion of organising political parties and taking part in elections).

It should go without saying that Marx never suggested – as far as I am aware – that workers should seize their workplaces. Yes, he writes in Capital of the expropriators being expropriated but does not indicate by whom. In the Communist Manifesto it is the state which nationalises workplaces, not the workers themselves (and no talk of workers’ control of production, just “industrial armies”). In terms of the Paris Commune, again no vision of workers directly seizing their workplaces but rather the government would act to ensure “the surrender to associations of workmen, under reserve of compensation, of all closed workshops and factories, no matter whether the respective capitalists had absconded or preferred to strike work.”

I must stress here that a key aspect of Kropotkin’s writings on the Commune and why it failed was precisely that the means of life were not directly expropriated by the working class. As he argued, it “neither boldly declared itself socialist nor proceeded to the expropriation of capital nor the organization of labor.” The conclusion:

“They [the workers] will not wait to expropriate the holders of social capital by a [state] decree which necessarily would remain a dead letter if not accomplished in fact by the workers themselves. They will take possession on the spot and establish their rights by utilizing it without delay. They will organize themselves in the workshops to continue the work, but what they will produce will be what is wanted by the masses, not what gives the highest profit to employers. They will exchange their hovels for healthy dwellings in the houses of the rich; they will organize themselves to turn to immediate use the wealth stored up in the towns; they will take possession of it as if it had never been stolen from them by the middle class.”

See my article The Paris Commune, Marxism and Anarchism for more details.

So unlike Kropotkin and Bakunin, there are no references to the direct expropriation by the direct producers in Marx. Worse, the Bolsheviks explicitly argued against workers seizing their workplaces during 1917 and 1918 – dismissing this as anarchist (while distorting, of course, the anarchist position by proclaiming it socialism in one factory). Again, the preferred solution was for the state to nationalise the workplaces on behalf of the workers and run it via “dictatorial” one-man management and a centralised – and bureaucratic – structure based on the ones created under Tsarism (this is documented in Maurice Brinton’s The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control).

Then there is workers having to organise at the point of production, which is not what Marx stressed at all – the need was to form political parties. It was – as Marx himself noted (and mocked) – Bakunin who took a “point of production” position. For example:

“Workers, no longer count on anyone but yourselves. Do not demoralize and paralyze your rising power in foolish alliances with bourgeois radicalism. […]You bear within you today all the elements of the power that must renew the world. But the elements of the power are still not the power. To constitute a real force, they must be organized; and in order for that organization to be consistent in its basis and purpose, it must receive within it no foreign elements. […]

“Do the workers want to play the roles of dupes one more time? No. But in order not to be dupes what should they do? Abstain from all participation in bourgeois radicalism and organize outside of it the forces of the proletariat. The basis of that organization is entirely given: It is the workshops and the federation of the workshops; the creation of funds for resistance, instruments of struggle against the bourgeoisie, and their federation not just nationally, but internationally. The creation of chambres de travail [trades councils] as in Belgium.

“And when the hour of the revolution sounds, the liquidation of the State and of bourgeois society, including all legal relations. Anarchy, that it to say the true, the open popular revolution: legal and political anarchy, and economic organization, from top to bottom and from the circumference to the center, of the triumphant world of the workers. (Letter to Albert Richard)

This is a common theme in Bakunin’s anarchist works once he joined the International and it reflected the common position in the organisation (raised by the Belgian section primarily – which was very influenced by Proudhon’s ideas – but quickly popularised in France, Spain, Italy, etc. – basically, everywhere other than Germany and Britain). There is nothing like it in Marx, beyond some positive references on the need for trade unions.

So the “Marxist” position proclaimed to the meeting was actually the anarchist one!

I do find it annoying when Marxists proclaim they understand anarchism better than anarchists while showing that they obviously don’t. They also seem to be unaware of their own tradition – but this is surely not the case. As Maurice Brinton noted way back in the 1960s when faced “with the bureaucratic monstrosity of Stalinist and post-Stalinist Russia, yet wishing to retain some credibility among their working class supporters, various strands of Bolshevism have sought posthumously to rehabilitate the concept of ‘workers’ control.’” The facts show that between 1917 and 1921 “all attempts by the working class to assert real power over production - or to transcend the narrow role allocated by to it by the Party - were smashed by the Bolsheviks, after first having been denounced as anarchist or anarcho-syndicalist deviations. Today workers’ control is presented as a sort of sugar coating to the pill of nationalisation of every Trotskyist or Leninist micro-bureaucrat on the make. Those who strangled the viable infant are now hawking the corpse around.” (For Workers’ Power, 165)

The Marxist tradition was one of creating mass political parties as political struggle (elections) was more important than economic struggle (direct action). This turns the focus of the struggle from the masses organised in their workplaces and communities taking action to entrusting a few representatives within bourgeois institutions to fight for us (with the masses called upon in a supporting role). The Bolsheviks operated within a quasi-feudal regime without real parliamentarian traditions or institutions and so they had to be more direct action focused but the aspiration was always German Social Democracy.

For those with a taste of irony, here is the father of Russian Marxism (Plekhanov) pontificating on why anarchism is wrong:

“The corrupting influence of the Parliamentary environment on working-class representatives is what the Anarchists have up to the present considered the strongest argument in their criticism of the political activity of Social-Democracy. We have seen what its theoretical value amounts to. And even a slight knowledge of the history of the German Socialist party will sufficiently show how in practical life the Anarchist apprehensions are answered.”

How every true! Anyone with even a slight knowledge of German Social Democracy would know that at the time (1909) it was racked by the “opportunism” debates, where some members argued that its politics should reflect its (reformist) practice and all the talk of “revolution” be dropped. By 1914, in practice this came to be – when it (like Plekhanov himself) sided with its ruling class and state in the imperialist war. Needless to say, Lenin was very surprised by this.

And here is Stalin in 1905 doing the same, proclaiming (as the Marxists at the meeting did) that there was “a dictatorship of the minority, the dictatorship of a small group . . . which is directed against the people . . . Marxists are the enemies of such a dictatorship, and they fight such a dictatorship far more stubbornly and self-sacrificingly than do our noisy Anarchists.”  “At the head” of the “dictatorship of the proletarian majority . . . stand the masses” it would be “the dictatorship of the streets, of the masses, a dictatorship directed against all oppressors” (Collected Works, vol. 1, p. 371-2)

Of course, it turned out that the anarchists were right… as I pointed out at the meeting, we have an example of a “workers’ state” and it was ruled by the party leadership who packed and disbanded soviets and soviet congresses, used troops against workers’ strikes, and created not the dictatorship of the proletariat but the dictatorship over the proletariat. This was carefully ignored – although at the end when I noted that, the IMT guy summarised the standard Trotskyist position of “difficult objective circumstances” in spite me noting that this repression started before and continued after the civil war and that Bolshevik ideology made these circumstances much, much worse (see section H.6 of An Anarchist FAQ for details).

(I should note that the AWLer did not like me mentioning that Lenin publically wrote in 1905 on how he agreed with Stalin’s regurgitation of What is to be Done? He thought I was suggesting that Leninists were Stalinists rather than just recounting facts. It is hardly my fault that Stalin was an “old” Bolshevik!)

As I reiterated at the meeting, we need to learn from history rather than repeat it. The Marxists there seemed unwilling to do that or even engage in the failures of their movement – in spite of significant evidence against their claims being raised. As I suggested, ideas do matter – and Bolshevik ideology and its flaws and prejudices had an impact (see From bolshevism to the bureaucracy by Cornelius Castoriadis as well as section H.6 of An Anarchist FAQ). Also, of course, the position in the social hierarchy plays its part – something Marxists seem completely unaware of (which is strange given that they claim to be materialists!).

For all their claims that the “workers’ state” would be wonderfully democratic, the facts are it was not. It was centralised from the start, with the Bolsheviks creating an executive over the soviets from day one (that, like so many other things, is not in Lenin’s State and Revolution) top-down. The centralisation produced a top-down structure and a bureaucracy, the workers and peasants quickly became alienated from the new regime (partly because it could not solve the problems facing the revolution – this needed mass participation, not a few party leaders at the top deciding).

Ultimately, it all flows from the metaphysical nature of the Marxist analysis of the state – while every state has been an organ of a minority class (and anarchists argued evolved a structure to ensure this) Marxists think that there is an essence of the state as an instrument of class rule – so you can have a state which can be an organ of a majority class. This also implies that all forms of social organisation are states. Anarchists respond by saying that if a social organisation exists which empower the many then it is not a state and that confusing the two means facilitating creating structures which share common features of existing states and, inevitably, these new structures will produce a new ruling class. Also, while states do protect economic classes they also have interests of their own (due to the hierarchical, bureaucratic, top-down nature of the state structures).

This may seem like semantics, but it is not – as I stressed at the meeting, ideas have consequences and not recognising that statist forms undermine the egalitarian and participatory needs of a revolution helps create a new form of class society. That is why anarchists wish to abolish the state “overnight” while recognising the need to defend a revolution in a co-ordinated manner (federalism!) within a framework of working class organisations.

As I ended on the day, what a “workers’ state” means in practice is giving state power to the central committee of the SWP. I choose this because the AWLer spent some time on the crisis in the SWP (even attempting to blame by implication anarchists for a motion at Goldsmith’s Student Union banning SWSS – needless to say, he would not actually state that anarchists were involved on any level). And that, when it comes down to it, is the issue. Do you want to give state power to the leadership of one of the various vanguard parties currently around? On the experience of the last time that happened, I hope the answer is “no” – if not, then you really have not been paying attention…

Anyway, to conclude… section H of An Anarchist FAQ discusses all this in some detail (it is in volume 2 of the book version).  I’ll apologise now for those Marxists who (with good reason) do not consider Leninism as Marxist – particularly those (like council communists) who are close to anarchism.

I started by eight minutes by disputing the notion of anarchist ideology by quoting that great saying: “theory is where you have ideas, ideology is where ideas have you” (see The Joy of Revolution). The discussion showed how true that is, with the Leninists presenting an idealised account of their ideology blissfully untroubled by history nor the need to learn from it. This is not to suggest anarchism is perfect (as I said at the meeting, as we are not living in a socialist society both anarchism and Marxism have failed – anarchism has failed less badly!) but it is the basis for any future socialist revival (to use Kropotkin’s term from a series of articles and then pamphlet from 110 years ago!) not only as a means of struggle and organisation but also for a vision of socialism which is attractive.

Until I blog again, be seeing you…

Platypus Panel Notes

How to sum up the differences between anarchism and Marxism?

The organisers of the London Anarchist bookfair went to ULU:

  • Told no and they asked why

    Because you believe in revolution

  • But, they said, you let Marxism be held here. The SWP believe in revolution
  • Ah, they replied, but you mean it!

Not useful to suggest Marxist theory and Anarchist practice

  • There is a well-established body of anarchist theory
  • Much of which Marxists latter appropriated without acknowledgement


1. What do Marxism and Anarchism have to say to those politicized today? Do they instruct us as to how we might act, now? Must we return to these orientations? If so, how?

What does anarchism have to say to those politicized today?

  • The state is an instrument of capital, it is not neutral
  • Do not rely on politicians to change things,
  • do it yourself by direct action and solidarity
  • build your own class organisations (fighting ones like unions and community groups as well as support ones like co-operative housing, credit, workplaces, etc.)

    do not view these in instrumental terms, simply as a means to party power…

  • Create the new world will fighting the current
  • Recognise that change takes time and have an appropriate strategy
  • Learn from history, do not repeat it

2. Many recent leftist groupings tend toward square occupation and leaderless horizontality, while retaining an unclear, even reformist, ideological orientation toward capitalism and the state. How do you understand the advent of these forms? Do they challenge traditional Marxist theory and ways of organizing? Are they affirmations of Anarchist modes of thinking and practice? In general, what forms of organization are necessitated by the theories we inherit and the tasks of today?

Every revolution and revolutionary movement “challenges” traditional Marxism

  • The Paris Commune

    Syndicalism and the general strike


    The Russian Soviets and factory committees  

  • The community assemblies and workplace occupations in Argentina

Anarchists saw our ideas affirmed by these.

  • Usually because we had been advocating it for some time or took a key part in them!


Horizontal organisations essential but need to be clearly and transparently organized


    Hence our principles of election, mandating and recall for all federal co-ordination bodies

  • Workers’ control of our struggles and organisations essential for workers’ control of society and economy
  • Need to go beyond occupations of squares into occupying workplaces, communities, etc.

Spontaneity is not sufficient

  • need anarchists to remain in our class and influence its struggles
  • organise as anarchists to do so
  • turn the unconscious anarchism of popular struggles into conscious anarchism

3. Can you briefly assess the most important splits and breaks between and within both traditions? Does the historical divide between Marxism and Anarchism still matter? What are the significant splits within Marxism and within Anarchism that continue to shape the context?

Yes, the historical divide still matters…

The important dates are:

  • 1847 Marx’s disgraceful Poverty of Philosophy distorts Proudhon’s ideas
    • template for later Marxist attacks on anarchism
  • 1848 and the publication of two manifestos
    • Proudhon’s with its self-management prefigured the Paris Commune
    • Marx’s with its nationalization and “industrial armies” prefigured Stalinism
  • 1872 and the expulsion of the libertarian majority from the First International
    • Ending of syndicalist International by Social Democracy
  • 1917 and Lenin’s misleading State and Revolution
    • Distorted Marxism and Anarchism!
    • Like anarchists since Bakunin had not written about:
      • need for workers’ councils, insurrection and general strike
      • defending a revolution by federations of militias
      • transforming capitalism into socialism takes time, no overnight revolutions!
  • 1918 and the creation of party dictatorship and one-man management
    • Confirming the importance of both ideology and social position
    • “socialism from above” inevitable when you rule at the top of a hierarchy
    • Ideas matter as Trotskyists stress when it comes to Spain in 1936…
    • Bolshevik ideology, its flaws and its prejudices influenced decisions and made a bad situation worse
    • 1920 when Zinoviev proclaimed the necessity of party dictatorship at the Comintern

All these still important as they focus on either the nature of struggle today or the vision of what constitutes socialism

4. What are the inalienable values and the end goals of radical politics? Are Marxism and Anarchism ideologies of freedom? Of democracy? Of the working class? How do they handle the objective contradictions of realizing these principles under the conditions of capitalist life?

Anarchism was born of the people and our struggles for freedom and justice

  • so it is a theory of the working class and a product of its struggle

  • only those at the bottom of a hierarchy have a real interest in liberty
  • whether economic (class), political (state), race, sex, sexuality – or party hierarchy

Anarchism is a theory of freedom, individual and collective

  • Hence our support for self-management and federalism
  • Without freedom and so self-management (“democracy”) socialism cannot exist

Marxism from its history can, at best, say freedom and democracy are optional to socialism

5. What should we fight for today - more state or less state?

Posing the question in this way is wrong

  • Shows lack of class analysis

What is the state?

  • An instrument of (minority) class rule
  • Evolved a structure to achieve this by excluding the many

State has to intervene to protect the system

  • Repression against the working class
  • Regulations to keep capitalists within bounds and provide support in an economic crisis
  • The ruling class is  for “more state” when it suits their interests

In short term:

  • For us working class people, “less state” for our organisations and struggles
  • For capital, “more state” due to pressure from outside Parliament by working class struggle

In long term:

  • No state as Lenin’s regime showed all states are “top-down” and produce bureaucracy, new ruling class

6. Has history vindicated Marxism or Anarchism or neither at all?

Last time I looked, we were not living in a free, classless society

  • So both have failed in that sense

Marxism proclaims itself a “scientific” socialism:

  • Analysis the facts, draw up theories, make predictions and see if confirmed

Marx argued:

  • workers to form political parties and take part in “political action” (electioneering)
  • capture state power and create “the dictatorship of the proletariat”

Bakunin argued that this would:

  • produce reformism
  • dictatorship over the proletariat by the party leaders and the bureaucracy

Bakunin was proved right…

  • Social Democracy became as reformist as predicted
  • They did not change the system, the system changed them…

Bolshevism: party dictatorship and state capitalism within a year of seizing power

  • Leninist excuses in contradiction to the facts
  • Objective factors cannot fully explain what went wrong
  • Ideology played its part as did the social and economic structures used

Anarchist failure, specifically Spain 1936:

  • CNT ended up joining the bourgeois government

Trotskyists present an idealist analysis of what went wrong

  • Anarchist ideas stopped them “seizing power” and creating a “workers’ state”
  • Best not mention Trotsky and the “objective necessity” for party dictatorship

This ignores the objective problems

  • Isolation in Spain (no knowledge of what was happening elsewhere)
  • The danger of fighting on at least two fronts (Fascist and Republican forces)

Explicitly decided to ignore anarchist principles and work with the Republic

  • Unlike the Makhnovists in Russian Revolution or the CNT in Aragon in 1936.

In short:

  • Anarchism failed because anarchists did not apply their ideas
  • Marxism failed because Marxists did apply their ideas

Final Comments

If we are to “to draw up the balance sheet of the 20th century” then

  • We need to admit that Marxism failed, big time.
  • It shows us what not to do
  • This failure was predicted by anarchists

We also presented an alternative to these failed policies at the time:

  • workers should organise and fight on the economic and social terrain
  • In the workplace and in the community
  • self-management of struggle and organisations now prepares us for socialism
  • replace state and capitalism with a federation of working class organisations run from the bottom-up
  • social and economic self-management

The General Idea of the Revolution in the 21st century must be libertarian


An excellent account. I was

An excellent account. I was also invited by Platypus to be on a panel discussing anarchism and Marxism in Chicago. I too was given a list of questions. Here are my pre-written comments:


Wayne Price


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