A Marxist Critique of Anarchism

Karl Marx and Mikhail Bakunin

Transcript of the opening remarks from a Marx Centenary special talk by Steve Coleman for the Socialist Party of Great Britain on 28 August 1982. Full audio recording also available online.

The political debate between Marxism and Anarchism is one which has never been characterised by a very high degree of theoretical and intellectual clarity. In the hundred years since Marx's death, the debate between those who accept the ideas of Marx and those who accept the ideas of the anarchist founders has been fierce; at times it has been quite vicious and thoughtless. But it is one in which the issues involved have been primarily assumed rather than stated.

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Posted By

Oct 3 2015 21:53


  • very often been the most vociferous in opposing Anarchism have been the people who have been the least well-read

    Steve Coleman


Oct 10 2015 14:58

It is not very good.

Oct 10 2015 17:43

Just curious, Anarcho, and I have no stake in this particular critique, but what do you consider a good critique of anarchism? What are your criticisms?

Nov 1 2015 14:11

l'll throw my two cents in here. One flaw of this argument is that the author draws upon a few texts. Then he proceeds under the assumption that these represent anarchist thought. But maybe the reality is more that anarchist thought is not one thing which comes from one person or one text like a Bible. l mean, maybe ask some anarchists whether or not they agree with everything Proudhon or Stirner has said.

For example, the author says things like Stirner had no conception of class. Well... l think if you asked 100 anarchists with some basic knowledge of anarchist history about this, probably 90 percent of them would barely disagree and would also criticize Stirner in this regard. So, that might be a normal criticism of Stirner, but not of all anarchists.

Ultimately, the fact that anarchism has refused to have like one thought can be criticized. Also many things written by anarchists can also be criticized. But any "critique of anarchism" that dwells on a few words from the 19th century, says nothing about modern anarchism, or about anarchists who maybe had some better notions of class... well...

Nov 1 2015 15:06

I think the only real ground worth fighting on between Marxism and anarchism is DotP. But I think the libertarian Marxist idea of DotP is the only one which could show itself as viable after the atrocities of the past century, and then Marxism becomes like platformist anarchism.

Nov 1 2015 16:20

DotP is not really an actual dictatorship, Johnny. Marx used it more as a figure of speech if anything (though I stand corrected). But in any case, the typical split between "Marxists" and anarchists is on the question of when the state will be abolish: immediately or will it wither away.

James MacBryde
Nov 1 2015 21:13

Marx writes:

'Between capitalist and communist society there lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.'

I don't claim to know how Marx viewed the dictatorship of the proletariat but in my humble opinion the period of transformation between capitalism and communism is ongoing. It ebbs and flows as we rise (2008-2012) and as we are put down (now) but a new cycle of uprising inevitably comes around. It is our nature.

As to the conflict between Marx's party and the party of Bakunin in the International, I think it has been overplayed and exploited by our enemies.

Nov 2 2015 09:37

Parts 2 and 3 of the audio recording cover these points in the discussion which is not transcribed.

James MacBryde
Nov 3 2015 06:20

Flaming: removed by user

James MacBryde
Nov 2 2015 10:27

1. A very long preamble;
2. An even longer ramble.
3. 'Now after all that comrade Chairman, there are still those people who will say that Marxists and anarchists are after all, after the same goal.'

We are.

Connor Owens
Nov 3 2015 15:24

Agree with akai.

It's very difficult to write a good critique of "anarchism" because there are so many disagreements on what the anarchist tradition is. For example, a class struggle anarchist would disagree that Max Stirner counts as an anarchist, whereas a "post-left" anarchist would reject the inclusion of many syndicalists.

Marxists (and even some anarchists) usually tend to view it as a single line of thought with an established canon, which then splits into some different hyphenated schools of practice along the way. In other words, they want to see it like a mirror of Marxism.

The reality however is more complicated and messy than that.

The truth is that while there are many people described as anarchists from before the founding of the First International - William Godwin and Max Stirner for example - they never actually used that word to identify themselves. Their inclusion as anarchists is very much retroactive labelling. So to attack Stirner as an anarchist is in fact quite like attacking Feuerbach as a Marxist. They should at least stick to thinkers who self-identified explicitly with anarchism instead of theorists who were later claimed as part of the same tradition.

(Personally I find Mark Bray's distinction between (self-described) anarchist and anarchistic thinkers/movements a good way to stress the importance of various libertarian tendencies to anarchism without including them as actual anarchists themselves)

If trying to compare anarchism and Marxism (itself made up of many hyphenated -isms) it would be best to contrast two distinct schools of thought - say, Marxism-Leninism and anarcho-syndicalism, or autonomism and platformism - than to speak of anarchism and Marxism as those are two all-encompassing categories.

James MacBryde
Nov 7 2015 21:30

Marx wrote of 'the party of anarchy, of socialism, of communism'. So for Marx, at least, it is one unitary movement of the working class.

Nov 19 2015 12:52

Hey. No I agree with you, I think DotP is in fact very similar to what Kropotkin called the "transition period" of 5 or so years, if I remember right.

Marx thought DotP might take many different forms, the Paris Commune being his main example.

That was what I was saying- there's no real ground between Marxism and class-struggle anarchism as far as I'm concerned other than the more individualistic/morality-focussed view of the situation in anarchism. I view myself as more of a libertarian Marxist but I'm not so well-read yet.

Jun 4 2019 01:23
Now the nineteenth century anarchists either lacked any conception of class and this I would argue certainly the case with Max Stirner

Max Stirners Political Liberalism 1844

But the class of labourers, because unprotected in what they essentially are (for they do not enjoy the protection of the state as labourers, but as its subjects they have a share in the enjoyment of the police, a so-called protection of the law), remains a power hostile to this state, this state of possessors, this "citizen kingship." Its principle, labour, is not recognized as to its value; it is exploited [ausgebeutet], a spoil [Kriegsbeute] of the possessors, the enemy.

The labourers have the most enormous power in their hands, and, if they once became thoroughly conscious of it and used it, nothing would withstand them; they would only have to stop labour, regard the product of labour as theirs, and enjoy it. This is the sense of the labour disturbances which show themselves here and there.

The state rests on the - slavery of labour. If labour becomes free, the state is lost.

Red Marriott
Jun 4 2019 07:19
McLellan wrote:
Stirner's economic ideas are not clearly formulated (in keeping with the style of the book) but still many parallels to Marx are obvious.(31) These are chiefly found in the sections on political and social liberalism.(32) In the former there is a passage on the omnipotence of money that is closely parallel to the passage in the Paris MSS. where Marx quotes Shakespeare (Timon of Athens) and remarks: `What I as a man am unable to do, and thus what all my individual faculties are unable to do, is made possible for me by money.... In mediating thus money is a genuinely creative power'.

The passage in Stirner reads: `"Money governs the world" is the keynote of the bourgeois epoch. A destitute aristocrat and a destitute labourer amount to nothing so far as political significance is concerned. Birth and labour do not do it, but money brings consideration (Das Geld gibt Geltung)'.(33)

One place where Stirner seems to anticipate Marx is where he briefly mentions a doctrine which Marx will later make into one of the corner-stones of his economic theory - the doctrine of surplus value. Stirner says :

Under the regime of the commonalty (Burgertum) the labourers always fall into the hands of the possessors - that is of those who have at their disposal some bit of the state domains, especially money and land - of the capitalists therefore. The labourer cannot realise on his labour to the extent of the value that it has for the consumer. The capitalist has the greatest profit from it.

In the section on social liberalism (i.e. communism) Stirner has a passage analysing the bad effects of division of labour and the workers' deprivation of their products which is very like what Marx was writing at the same time:

When everyone is to cultivate himself into man, condemning a man to machine-like labour amounts to the same thing as slavery. If a factory worker must tire himself to death twelve hours or more, he is cut off from becoming man. Every labour is to have the intent that man be satisfied. Therefore he must become a master in it, too, that is be able to perform it as a totality. He who in a pin-factory only puts on the heads, only draws the wire, etc., works, as it were, mechanically, like a machine; he remains half-trained, does not become a master: his labour cannot satisfy him, by itself, has no object in itself, is nothing complete in itself; he labours only into another's hands and is used (exploited) by this other.(34)

Even the call of the Eleventh Feuerbach Thesis `to change the world' finds its echo here :

When, for example, a branch of industry is ruined and thousands of labourers become breadless, people think reasonably enough to acknowledge that it is not the individual who must bear the blame, but that `the evil lies in the situation'.

Let us change the situation, then, but let us change it thoroughly, so that its fortuity becomes powerless.(35)

It is difficult to show any direct influence of Stirner on Marx here, the more so as Stirner's book was to a large extent an amalgam of current cliches. What the above passages show is that the ideas of alienated labour and exploitation were by no means confined to Marx at this time, even among Germans. Both Stirner and Marx were probably much influenced by the ideas of Fourier. http://libcom.org/history/stirner-feurbach-marx-young-hegelians-david-mc...