Means and Ends: Anarchist vs Marxist praxis

“The very revolutionaries who claim that they are against the state, and for eliminating the state…see as their central task after a revolution to build up a state that is more solid, more centralized and more all-embracing than the old one.” – Ron Taber, 1988 (1).


By Mitch

The remarkably common attitude among revolutionaries of all stripes is that “the means justify the ends”. We’re told it is acceptable to embrace authoritarian organisational practices because these practices are necessary to achieve an anti-capitalist revolution. As Anarchists we argue that the theory and organisational practice of revolutionary groups must be consistent with the principles upon which we want a future society to be based. We believe that the praxis of groups which seek communism should point them toward communism, and not toward statism, authoritarianism, hierarchy, and centralism. This is not mere idealism, the cold hard fact is that “ends” do not justify “means”, rather “means create ends”. Revolutionaries that embrace “means” that are in contradiction with the kind of society they wish to create will consistently fail to create that society.

Amongst Marxist-Leninist political tendencies the contradiction between means and ends starts with the idea of the vanguard party as the vehicle for social change. The vanguard party is supposed to be comprised of the most enlightened and class-conscious members of the working class. In practice, the vanguard party begins as a self-selecting minority. It seeks to draw in the most militant elements of the working class, but its structure remains centralised and authoritarian. This minority occupies centralised leadership positions and directs the political activity, strategy and tactics of the party. Whether or not there is real democratic accountability within the vanguard party on some intermittent basis, the vanguard party is a command structure in which decisions are made by a minority, and the majority is expected to put the plans and desires of the leadership into action.

The end goal of the vanguard party is to prosecute a revolution and achieve control of a ‘workers’ state’. During a transitional period between capitalism and communism called, ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’, the vanguard would utilise this authoritarian, hierarchical, and centralised state, in order to coordinate the running of society.

The structure of the vanguard party prefigures the structure of the workers’ state after the revolution, but it does not achieve the directly democratic communist society it claims to aspire toward. As a centralised minority, the party would have gained control over all the working class in a society. The same working class that historically and necessarily did the grunt-work to bring the revolution to that point.

Vladimir Lenin himself said, “a party is the vanguard of a class, and its duty is to lead the masses and not merely to reflect the average political level of the masses” (2).

According to Leninists, the vanguard party is necessitated by the idea that the working class is too burdened by ‘the muck of ages’ to emancipate itself, for itself. This means that the ruling ideas of capitalism plague people’s ability to be satisfactorily class conscious. These ruling ideas include sexism, racism, homophobia, and nationalism.

This is the historically-selective and pessimistic base on which the enlightened vanguardists decide that their party is necessary.

Yet the vanguard, who set out on a convoluted road which is ‘diametrically opposed to communism’ are plagued by some muck of their own (3). The latent authoritarian and hierarchical nature of the capitalist state remain as unchecked cornerstones of the workers’ state.

As Murray Bookchin argued in ‘Listen, Marxist’, ‘…the deep-rooted conservatism of [so called] “revolutionaries” is almost painfully evident; the authoritarian leader and hierarchy replace the patriarch and the school bureaucracy; the discipline of the Movement replaces the discipline of bourgeois society; the authoritarian code of political obedience replaces the state; the credo of “proletarian morality” replaces the mores of puritanism and the work ethic. The old substance of exploitative society reappears in new forms, draped in a red flag, etc…’ (4).

Classical Marxist and Leninist analyses of the state fail to acknowledge the way that assuming state power changes any ‘workers’ who do so. Contrary to what Marx argued, workers cease being workers when they take control of a state. They become self-appointed managers of workers, and so they cement themselves as a new managerial class, entirely distinct from the working class.

Mikhail Bakunin was correct when he argued that the ‘workers state’, “will consist of ex-workers. And from the heights of the State they begin to look down upon the whole common world of the workers. From that time on they represent not the people but themselves” (5).

It’s a perversion and a contradiction of the politics that originate these theories that workers should die in droves to overthrow thousands of bosses and replace them all with one boss — the state. Especially when this boss conceals its class status; cloaks itself in the guise of a fellow worker, of a comrade. It deviously calls itself a worker and not a manager of workers to justify its authority.

Leon Trotsky was right when he complained of Stalinism that, “In a country where the sole employer is the State, opposition means death by slow starvation. The old principle: who does not work shall not eat, has been replaced by a new one: who does not obey shall not eat” (6). It is ironic that he saw no contradiction in this state of affairs when he was so intimately involved in constructing Russia’s one party state.

It seems the over-worked proletariat is destined to remain the over-worked proletariat but a few enlightened workers graduate to a privileged position where they coordinate what work will be done, by whom, and by when. The creativity, initiative, and the ideas the emancipated working class have for the new society are apparently disposable in the eyes of Marxists. At least, they’re not worth as much as the ideas of the vanguardists who make the familiar and misguided claim that they know what’s right for people better than people do themselves.

It is evident that the praxis of vanguardists doesn’t prefigure anything beyond their own ascent to power. After they have gained power, the so-called ‘withering away’ of the workers’ state is a barely developed and meaningless sentiment based on the false idea that no classes would exist after workers (read: ex-workers turned administrators of workers) take power. This means that the fixed state institutions; its armies; its centralised networks of production; its education and media facilities that fill the society with the state’s own ideas, would magically disappear with the abolition of class.

The workers’ state won’t and can’t wither away. All ruling minorities have an interest in maintaining their position as such. A newly installed ruling minority will use its power and authority to further justify and entrench its own power and authority. It will have under its thumb a monopoly over the legitimate use of violence in a society, which has historically been used to give the workers’ state the authority to eliminate the state’s non-reactionary dissenters. Instead of encouraging the expression of ideas for the betterment of society from all who make up that society, the workers’ state creates itself with its own elitism and belief in the superiority of the ideas of the ruling vanguard. This is a fundamental part of the praxis leading to it. In order to maintain its rule, the so-called workers’ state will actively combat any opposing ideas with propaganda through the centralised control of media outlets and educational facilities, if not with direct force.

Fabbri notes that the state has ‘bureaucratic, military and economic foundations…’ and that ‘…in a short space of time what one would have would not be the state abolished, but a state stronger and more energetic than its predecessor and which would come to exercise those functions proper to it – the ones Marx recognised as being such – “keeping the great majority of producers under the yoke of a numerically small exploiting minority”’ (3).

Anarchists argue that while a revolutionary force is being built to smash the capitalist state, we must also be building the kinds of prefigurative institutions that will make libertarian socialism possible. Our task is to argue for and build a practice of neighbourhood, community, and workers councils. The alternative to a vanguard party is the creation of federations of participatory democratic bodies, outside the control of this or that political faction. To the greatest extent possible, before, during, but most importantly, after a revolution, these directly democratic, horizontal, and decentralised institutions must replace the centralised, state-run equivalents. In this way, anarchists seek to build the embryo of communism within the capitalist system, with the aim of both providing for the people where the state can’t, and of building the new world in the shell of the old.

When the capitalist state is smashed by the popular uprising, these decentralised institutions and councils can continue functioning, and any remaining useful functions of the state become coordinated by further federated councils of workers and regular people. If we have built the practice of participatory democracy, a centralised workers’ state is never required.

Of course, there would be the need to defend the revolution, and to this end anarchists argue for a people’s militia ‘rooted in workplaces and communities… and directed overall by the federation of councils [would] enforce its will against armed counterrevolution or foreign invasion,’ according to Wayne Price (7).

If we are opposed to the domination of a ruling class, clique or party, we must build a libertarian socialism that involves the participation of the mass of society in the process of decision making, economic coordination, and military defence.

The partisans of the ‘workers’ state’ and the vanguard party have a revolutionary program committed to anything but communism. Given they propose a society where power and initiative are both necessarily centralised features belonging only to the state and not to every person equally, they are not creating the necessary basis for communism, but rather totalitarianism.

Anarchists wish to create a society where no one person can exploit another for their own gain, and so the stepladder to power that is the state must be knocked over so that it can’t be reassembled — Not left to stand, and certainly not used to govern with a pessimistic fear that the people necessary to the revolution’s success are incapable of creating a new society through their own organising efforts.

Further reading:

(1) Taking a Critical Look at Leninism by Ron Taber.

(2) Speech on the Agrarian Question November 14 by Vladimir Lenin

(3) The Poverty of Statism: Anarchism vs Marxism.

(4) Listen, Marxist! by Murray Bookchin

(5) Marxism, Freedom and the State by Mikhail Bakunin.

(6) The Revolution Betrayed by Leon Trotsky

(7) Confronting the Question of Power by Wayne Price

Position Statement: Against Authority and the State

1. Scope

A position statement outlining Anarchist Affinity’s understanding on the state and related issues. This position statement draws significantly from a handful of articles by Mikhail Bakunin. We agree with Bakunin to the extent that we have quoted, but we are far from uncritical defenders of the entirety of Bakunin’s work, writings or political action!

In our opinion Bakunin’s utility lays in the fact that his writings synthesize arguments around authority and the state that anarchists were having with Marxists during the First International. It is these questions and criticisms made by anarchists of the period, rather Bakunin as an individual, that we find useful and worth defending.

This position statement reflects our understanding at the time it was adopted. It is our intention to develop, expand on, and refine this position.

2. The Idea of Authority

A critique of authority and authoritarian relations, practices and structures, are central to anarchist political practice.

Anarchists are irrevocably opposed to the “principle of authority”, “that is to say on the … idea that the masses, always incapable of governing themselves, must submit at all times to the benevolent yoke of a wisdom and a justice, which in one way or another, is imposed on them from above” (Bakunin, ‘Marxism, Freedom and the State“).

We seek to replace the “principal of authority” with decision making that is decentralized, directly democratic and participatory. For example, decisions about a strike should be made by the workers on strike with all able to speak and participate. In contrast, decisions about the management of a river system should be made by and involve all people who depend on that river system, which may require a structure of re-callable delegates, meeting, debating and reporting back to affected communities.

Anarchists oppose “the abdication of initiative and sovereignty of all into the hands of a few” (Malatesta, ‘Anarchy’).

The idea that a minority should command and the majority should obey (however that minority is appointed and however the need is rationalized), always threatens to recreate structures of power that can ultimately solidify into a new class structure.

Authoritarian socialist critics of anarchism routinely misrepresent this critique of authority. The UK based Socialist Workers Party argued (in an article regurgitated by the IST tradition and it’s various descendants ever since) that “anarchism is generally taken to mean a rejection of all authority” but that “not all authority is bad”.

As an example of the “good authority” that authoritarian socialists claim anarchists reject, Socialist Worker argued that: “A picket line is ‘authoritarian.’ It tries to impose the will of the striking workers on the boss, the police and on any workers who may be conned into scabbing on the strike”.

This argument advanced by authoritarian socialists misrepresents both anarchism and the anarchist critique of the “principle of authority”. The picket line is not a ruling minority demanding from on high that the masses submit. A picket line of workers on strike, making decisions democratically and seeking to extract concession from the ruling class, is the antithesis of authoritarianism.

By confusing authoritarianism with its antithesis, the authoritarian socialists preserve the ‘principle of authority’ for their own use. The authoritarian socialists defend the idea that in some certain circumstance “the masses … incapable of governing themselves, must submit … to the benevolent yoke” of the party.

3. The State

There is an inseparable relationship between the state and class domination. The maintenance and reproduction of any system of class rule requires political and economic power structures, legitimating ideology, and recourse to the threat and use of violence.

We agree with Bakunin when he wrote that “The State is nothing else but this domination and exploitation regularized and systematized”. There is no class rule without some form of state apparatus. The inverse is also true.

“The State has always been the patrimony of some privileged class or other; a priestly class, and aristocratic class, a bourgeois class, a finally a bureaucratic class, when, all the other classes having become exhausted, the State falls or rises, as you will, to the condition of a machine; but it is absolutely necessary for the salvation of the State that there should be some privileged class or other which is interested in its existence. And it is precisely the united interest of this privileged class which is called Patriotism.” (Bakunin, Marxism, Freedom and the State).

The existence of a state apparatus in turn produces a privileged minority interested in its maintenance at the expense of the mass of the ruled.

Marxist critiques of this position may argue that it is possible to conceive of a ‘workers state’. Their position is mistaken.

In any situation where the working class successfully overthrows capitalism, one of two situations will emerge. Either a ruling minority will be entrusted (or more accurately will take power and claim to be entrusted) to make decisions on behalf of the majority, and will then claim the power to enforce those decisions where necessary, or there is no ruling minority and everyone in the ‘workers state’ will share in the decision making process, with equal access to this decision making process for all.

In the first situation the working class as a whole does not in fact rule, in the second there is no state. In either situation, the term ‘workers state’ is a lie. When authoritarian socialists trot out the lie of the ‘workers state’ they are ultimately defending the idea of minority rule.

We agree with Bakunin when he wrote (in Statism and Anarchy):

“But, the Marxists say, this minority [the government of the “workers’ State”] will consist of workers. Yes indeed, but of ex-workers who…cease to be workers. And from the heights of the State they begin to look down upon the whole common world of the workers. From that time on they represent not the people but themselves”.

Irrespective of the purported ideology of this or that state, all states are the enemies of human solidarity, and thus of any conception of socialism worth fighting for.

4. Further Reading

Anarcho, Marxism and “Anarchism”: A reply to the SWP,

Andrew Flood, An Introduction to the Russian revolution from an anarchist perspective,

Errico Malatesta, Anarchy,

Errico Malatesta, Reformism,

Mikhail Bakunin, Marxism, Freedom and the State,