Anarchist vs. Marxist-Leninist Thought on the Organization of Society
by Lorenzo Komboa Ervin
Historically, there have been three major forms of socialism — Libertarian Socialism (Anarchism), Authoritarian Socialism (Marxist Communism), and Democratic Socialism (electoral social democracy). The non-Anarchist Left has echoed the bourgeoisie’s portrayal of Anarchism as an ideology of chaos and lunacy. But Anarchism, and especially Anarchist-Communism, has nothing in common with this image. It is false and made up by it’s ideological opponents, the Marxist-Leninists.
It is very difficult for the Marxist-Leninists to make an objective criticism of Anarchism as such, because by its very nature it undermines all suppositions basic to Marxism. If Marxism and Leninism (its variant which emerged during the Russian Revolution) is held out to be the working class philosophy and the proletariat cannot owe its emancipation to anyone but the Communist Party, it is hard to go back on it and say that the working class is not yet ready to dispense with authority over it. Lenin came up with the idea of the transitional State, which would ‘wither away’ over time, to go along with Marx’s “dictatorship of the proletariat.” The Anarchists expose this line as counter-revolutionary and sheer power-grabbing, and over 75 years of Marxist-Leninist practice have proven us right. These so-called Socialist States produced by Marxist-Leninist doctrine have only produced Stalinist police states, where workers have no rights, and a new ruling class of technocrats and party politicians have emerged, and the class differential between those the State favored over those it didn’t created widespread deprivation among the masses and another class struggle. But instead of meeting such criticisms head on, they have concentrated their attacks not on the doctrine of Anarchism, but on particular Anarchist historical figures, especially Bakunin (Marx’s main opponent in the First International).
Anarchists are social revolutionaries who seek a stateless, classless, voluntary, cooperative federation of decentralized communities based upon social ownership, individual liberty and autonomous self-management of social and economic life.
The Anarchists differ with the Marxist-Leninists in many areas, but especially in organization building. They differ from the authoritarian socialists in primarily three way: they reject the Marxist-Leninist notions of the vanguard party, democratic centralism, and the dictatorship of the proletariat, and Anarchists have alternatives for each of them. The problem is that almost the entire Left (including some Anarchists) is completely unaware of Anarchism’s tangible structural alternatives of the catalyst group, Anarchist consensus, and the mass commune.
The Anarchist alternative to the vanguard party is the catalyst group. The catalyst group is merely an Anarchist-Communist federation of affinity groups in action. The catalyst group, or revolutionary anarchist federation, would meet on a regular basis or only when necessary, depending on the wishes of the membership and the urgency of social conditions. It would be made up of representatives from the affinity group (or the affinity group itself), with full voting rights, privileges, and responsibilities. It would both set policies and future actions to be performed. It would produce both Anarchist-Communist theory and social practice. It believes in the class struggle and the necessity to overthrow Capitalist rule. It organizes in the communities and workplaces. It is democratic and has no authority figures like a party boss or central committee.
In order to make a revolution, large-scale, coordinated movements are necessary, and their formation is in no way counter to Anarchism. What Anarchists are opposed to is hierarchical, power-tripping leadership which suppresses the creative urge of the bulk of those involved, and forces an agenda down their throats. Members of such groups are mere servants and worshippers of the party leadership. But although Anarchists reject this type of domineering leadership, they do recognize that some people are more experienced, articulate, or skilled than others, and these people will play leadership action roles. These persons are not authority figures, and can be removed at the will of the body. There is also a conscious attempt to routinely rotate responsibility and to pass on these skills to each other, especially to women and people of color, who would ordinarily not get the chance. The experience of these persons, who are usually veteran activists or better qualified than most at the moment, can help form and drive forward movements, and even help to crystallize the potential for revolutionary change in the popular movement. What they cannot do is take over the initiative of the movement itself. The members of these groups reject hierarchical positions (anyone having more official authority than others), and unlike the Marxist-Leninist vanguard parties, the Anarchist groups won’t be allowed to perpetuate their leadership through a dictatorship after the revolution. Instead, the catalyst group itself will be dissolved and its members, when they are ready, will be absorbed into the new society’s collective decision-making process. Therefore, these Anarchists are not leaders, but merely advisors and organizers for a mass movement.
What we don’t want or need is a group of authoritarians leading the working class, then establishing themselves as a centralized decision-making command. Instead of “withering away”, Marxist-Leninist States have perpetuated authoritarian institutions (the secret police, labor bosses, and the Communist Party) to maintain their power. The apparent effectiveness of such organizations masks the way that revolutionaries who pattern themselves after Capitalist institutions become absorbed by bourgeois values, and completely isolated from the real needs and desires of ordinary people.
The reluctance of Marxist-Leninists to accept revolutionary social change is, however, above all seen in Lenin’s conception of the party. It is a prescription to nakedly seize power and put it in the hands of the Communist Party. The party that Leninists create today, they believe, should become the [only] Party of the Proletariat in which that class could organize and seize power. In practice, however, this meant personal and party dictatorship, which they felt gave them the right and duty to wipe out all other parties and political ideologies. Both Lenin (along with Trotsky) and Stalin killed millions of workers and peasants, their Left-wing ideological opponents, and even members of their own Bolshevik Party. This bloody and treacherous history is why there is so much rivalry and hostility between Marxist-Leninist and Trotskyist parties today, and it is why the “worker’s states”, whether in Cuba, China, Vietnam, or Korea, are such oppressive bureaucracies over their people. It is also why most of the Eastern European Stalinist countries had their governments overthrown by the petty bourgeoisie and ordinary citizens in the 1980’s. Maybe we are witnessing the eclipse of State communism entirely, since they have nothing new to say and will never get those governments back again.
While Anarchist groups reach decisions through Anarchist consensus, the Marxist-Leninists organize through so-called democratic centralism. Democratic centralism poses as a form of inner party democracy, but it is really just a hierarchy by which each member of a party — ultimately of a society — is subordinate to a higher member until one reaches the all-powerful party central committee and its Chairman. This is a totally undemocratic procedure, which puts the leadership above criticism, even if it is not above reproach. It is a bankrupt, corrupt method of internal operations for a political organization. You have no voice in such a party, and must be afraid to say any unflattering comments to or about the leaders.
In Anarchist groups, proposals are talked about by members (none of whom have authority over another), dissenting minorities are respected, and each individual’s participation is voluntary. Everyone has the right to agree or disagree over policy and actions, and everyone’s ideas are given equal weight and consideration. No decision may be made until each individual member or affiliated group that will be affected by that decision has had a chance to express their opinion on the issue. Individual members and affiliated groups retain the option to refuse support to specific federation activities. In true democratic fashion, decisions for the federation as a whole must be made by a majority of its members.
In most cases, there is no real need for formal meetings for the making of decisions, what is needed is coordination of the actions of the group. Of course, there are times when a decision has to be made, and sometimes very quickly. This will be rare, but sometimes it is unavoidable. The consensus, in that case, would then have to be among a much smaller circle than the general membership of hundreds or thousands. But ordinarily all that is needed is an exchange of information and trust among parties, and a decision reaffirming the original decision will be reached, if an emergency decision had to be made. Of course, during the discussion, there will be an endeavor to clarify any major differences and explore alternative courses of action. And their will be an attempt to arrive at a mutually agreed upon consensus between conflicting views. As always, if there should be an impasse or dissatisfaction with the consensus, a vote would be taken, and with two-thirds majority, the matter would be accepted, rejected, or rescinded.
This is totally contrary to the practice of Marxist-Leninist parties where the Central Committee unilaterally sets policy for the entire organization, and arbitrary authority reigns. Anarchists reject centralization of authority and the concept of the Central Committee. All groups are free associations formed out of a common need, not revolutionaries disciplined by fear of authority. When the size of the working groups (which could be formed around labor, fundraising, anti-racism, women’s rights, food and housing, etc.) becomes cumbersome, the organizations can be decentralized into two or more autonomous organizations, still united in one large federation. This enables the group to expand limitlessly while maintaining its anarchic form of decentralized self-management. It is (sort of) like the scientific theory of the biological cell, dividing and re-dividing, but in a political sense.
However, Anarchist groups aren’t necessarily organized loosely; Anarchism is flexible and structure can be practically non-existent or very tight, depending on the type of organization demanded by the social conditions being faced. For instance, organization would tighten during military operations or heightened political repression.
Anarchist-Communists reject the Marxist-Leninist concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat and a so-called “worker’s state,” in favor of a mass commune. Unlike members of Leninist parties, whose daily lives are generally similar to present bourgeoisie lifestyles, Anarchist organizational structures and lifestyles, through communal living arrangements, affinity groups, squatting, etc., attempt to reflect the liberated society of the future. Anarchists built all kinds of communes and collectives during the Spanish Civil War of the 1930’s, but they were crushed by the fascists and the Communists. Since the Marxist-Leninists don’t build cooperative structures (the nucleus of the new society) they can only see the world in bourgeois political terms. They want to seize State power and institute their own dictatorship over the people and the workers, instead of crushing State power and replacing it with a free, cooperative society. They insist that the party represents the proletariat, and that there is no need for them to organize themselves outside of the party. Yet, even in the former Soviet Union, the Communist Party membership only represented five percent of the population. This is elitism of the worst sort, and even makes the Capitalist parties look democratic by comparison.
What the Communist Party was intended to represent in terms of worker’s power is never made clear, but in true 1984 doublethink fashion, the results are 75 years of political repression and State slavery, instead of an era of glorious Communist rule. They must be held accountable politically for these crimes against the people, and we must reject their revolutionary political theory and practice. They have slandered the names of Socialism and Communism.
We reject the dictatorship of the proletariat, it is unbridled oppression, and the Marxist-Leninists and Stalinists must be made to answer for it. Millions have been murdered by Stalin in the name of fighting an internal class war, and millions more were murdered in China, Poland, Afghanistan, Cambodia, and other countries by Communist movements which followed Stalin’s prescription for revolutionary terror. We reject State communism as the worst aberration and tyranny. We can do better than this with the mass commune.
The Anarchist mass commune (sometimes called the Worker’s Council, although their are some differences) is a national, continental, or transitional federation of economic and political cooperatives and regional communal formations. Anarchists look to a world and a society in which real decision-making involves everyone who is involved with it — a mass commune — not a few discipline freaks pulling the strings on a so-called proletarian dictatorship. Any and all dictatorship is bad, it has no redeeming social features, yet that is what the Leninists tell us will protect us from counter-revolution. While Marxist-Leninists claim that this dictatorship is necessary in order to crush any bourgeois counter-revolutions led by the Capitalist class or right-wing reactionaries. Anarchists feel that this is itself part of the Marxist school of falsification. A centralized apparatus, such as a state, is a much easier target for opponents of the revolution than is an array of decentralized communes. And these communes would remain armed and prepared to defend the revolution against anyone who militarily moves against it. The key is to mobilize the people into defense guards, militias, and other military preparedness units.
The position by the Leninists of the necessity for a dictatorship to protect the revolution was not proven in the Civil War which followed the Russian Revolution; in fact, without the support of the Anarchists and other Left-wing forces, along with the Russian people, the Bolshevik government would have been defeated. And then true to any dictatorship, it turned around and wiped out the Russian and Ukrainian Anarchist movements, along with their Left-wing opponents like the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries, and even ideological opponents in the Bolshevik Party were imprisoned and put to death. Millions of Russian citizens were killed by Lenin and Trotsky right after the Civil War, when they were consolidating State power, which preceded Stalin’s bloody rule. The lesson is that we should not be tricked into surrendering the grassroots people’s power to dictators who pose as our friends and leaders.
We don’t need the Marxist-Leninists’ solutions, they are dangerous and deluding. There is another way, but to much of the Left and to many ordinary people, the choice has appeared to be Anarchic chaos or the Marxist Communist parties, however dogmatic and dictatorial. This is primarily the result of misunderstanding and propaganda. Anarchism, as an ideology, provides feasible organizational structures, as well as valid alternative revolutionary theory, which, if utilized, could be the basis for organization just as solid as the Marxist-Leninist (or even more so) only these organizations will be egalitarian and really for the benefit of the people, rather than the Communist leaders.
Anarchism is not confined to the ideas of a single theoretician, and it allows individual creativity to develop in collective groupings, instead of the characteristic dogmatism of the Marxist-Leninists. Therefore, not being cultist, it encourages a great deal of innovation and experimentation, prompting its adherents to respond realistically to contemporary conditions. It is the concept of making ideology fit the demands of life, rather than trying to make life fit the demands of ideology.
Therefore, Anarchists build organizations in order to build a new world, not perpetuate domination over the masses of people. We must build an organized, coordinated international movement aimed at transforming the globe into a mass commune. Such would be a great overleap in human evolution and a gigantic revolutionary stride. It would change the world as we know it and end the special problems long plaguing humankind. It would be a new era of freedom and fulfillment.
LET’S GET ON WITH IT,
WE’VE GOT A WORLD TO WIN!