Anarchism’s track record: What is militancy without a winning program?

Feb 1, 2008

The 1917 victory of Lenin and the Bolshevik Party in Russia tilted the balance against anarchism.

In the struggle for a better world, the working-class movement often faces the question: Which way forward?

It may be in a strike, where the bosses are threatening to bring in scabs. It may be in a demonstration, when the cops are preparing to disperse the crowd. Or it may be in the heat of street battles, with the government on the verge of collapse.

Workers organize to have a way of making those decisions in the heat of battle. In the class struggle, a moment’s vacillation can make the difference between success and failure.

It is also the basis for political theory. Revolutionary theory or ideology in particular is the distilled lessons of the struggles of oppressed people throughout history, especially the lessons of the working class and oppressed people against capitalism and imperialism.

Marxism, or revolutionary socialism, emerged soon after the birth of the modern working class itself. But it was not the only revolutionary ideology to emerge in the course of the class struggle.

Anarchism grew up alongside socialism in the working-class movement in Europe in the 19th century. Almost unrecognizable from its proponents today, most of whom have only been attracted to cultural or lifestyle trends attributed to the movement, anarchism at one time had deep roots in the revolutionary working-class movement.

From the outset, anarchism was a revolutionary ideology. It stood for the end of the capitalist system and for a new society free from exploitation.

Like communists, anarchists recognize that the capitalist system, founded on brutal exploitation, must be overthrown. Like revolutionary Marxists, they oppose reformist and pacifist illusions that the capitalist state can be gradually or peacefully transformed into something that can benefit the working class.

Yet on a few fundamental questions—questions related to the way forward—anarchism and communism part ways.

Anarchism is not a homogeneous theory or practice. Different movements in different parts of the world have called themselves or have been called anarchist despite divergent perspectives. However, most currents of anarchism share some basic similarities. Anarchism advocates the destruction of the capitalist system in order to realize a classless society. Anarchism wholly rejects the role of the state as an institution of force and violence against the majority of society. It rejects political action—voting, lobbying, or appealing to politicians—as a means of achieving revolution.

Origins of anarchism

Among the first to describe anarchism as a political philosophy was Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. In his 1840 pamphlet “What is Property?”—he answered, “Property is theft.” This had a significant impact on the growing radical movement. When Karl Marx met Proudhon in Paris, he challenged him on several key points, especially his belief in “mutualism,” that the primary role of the worker is as an individual producer with property rights to what was produced.

Despite Proudhon’s clearly petty-bourgeois schemes, his critique of capitalist society won many supporters in France. During the 1871 Paris Commune, the first seizure of power by the working class, his supporters played key roles in both the successes and the defeats.

In 1864, a number of socialist and working-class organizations united to form the International Workers’ Association—the First International. The IWA held its first congress in 1866 in Geneva, Switzerland. It was a coalition among working-class forces representing a variety of political and philosophical viewpoints. Marx was among the founding and leading members.

The members of the IWA were not merely political theorists. They were engaged in the revolutions of the mid-1800s. Proudhon’s Mutualists were represented. So were representatives of the militant Chartist trade-union movement from England.

In 1868, Russian revolutionist Mikhail Bakunin joined the IWA. Bakunin was a veteran of countless revolutionary struggles and had served time in the Czarist prisons. He had been the first to translate Marx’s “Capital” into Russian. But his views on political action were more in keeping with Proudhon than Marx.

Bakunin and his supporters in the First International argued against socialists taking part in elections. Marx and his supporters advocated participation in bourgeois elections as an opportunity to unite the working class politically and on a class basis. In 1872, after fierce debates on the subject, the majority in the IWA expelled Bakunin and his supporters.

Bakunin opened a wider criticism of Marxism, arguing in particular against the dictatorship of the proletariat and counterposing the “spontaneous federation of communes,” local collectives of workers and peasants who would govern themselves and coordinate on a federation level.

“A fundamental division arises between the socialists and revolutionary collectivists [anarchists] on the one hand and the authoritarian communists [Marxists] on the other,” Bakunin wrote in the 1871 pamphlet, “The Paris Commune and the Idea of the State.” “The difference is only that the communists imagine they can attain their goal by the development and organization of political power of the working classes. … The revolutionary socialists [anarchists], on the other hand, believe they can succeed only through the development of the non-political and anti-political social power of the working classes in the city and country.”

In summary, Bakunin and other anarchists counterposed “direct action”—in some cases strikes, in other cases individual attacks against bosses and politicians—to the “political” work of organizing legally into political parties. They rejected outright the possibility of workers creating their own state to defend their gains in the course of revolution, arguing that it would inevitably become a tool of repression against the workers themselves.

U.S. anarchism: Socialists and Wobblies

The split in the First International was reflected within the working-class movements around the world. In most countries, one or another wing dominated: Socialism in Germany, anarchism in Spain and Italy. One place where both wings organized side-by-side, if in competition, was the United States.

On the one hand, the Socialists spread radical anti-capitalist consciousness far and wide across the country. They played a leading role in the 1877 railway strikes and dozens of other smaller strikes. By 1912, they had over 1,000 elected Socialist officeholders in 337 towns and cities.1 In 1917, they had some 80,000 members.2 Its most prominent leader, Eugene Debs, received nearly 1 million votes when he ran for president in 1920 while he was in prison for opposing World War I.

On the other hand, the Industrial Workers of the World held its founding convention in June 1905 in Chicago. Bill Haywood, the general secretary of the Western Federation of Miners, opened the founding convention of “Wobblies,” as IWW members were known, saying, “This is the Continental Congress of the working class. We are here to confederate the workers of this country into a working-class movement that shall have for its purpose the emancipation of the working class from the slave bondage of capitalism.” The IWW was a revolutionary labor movement that viewed the organization of industrial unions as a means to reach a goal—that of working-class revolution.

The IWW came from the anarchist tradition of the Haymarket struggle for the eight-hour day in Chicago in 1886. They led the famous 1912 “Bread and Roses” strike in Lawrence, Mass., as well as major strikes of silk workers in Patterson, N.J., in 1913 and iron miners in Minnesota in 1916. Some of the most outspoken workers’ leaders in the turn-of-the-century United States were Wobblies: Bill Haywood, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Joe Hill, Mother Jones, Emma Goldman and many others.

Both the Socialists and the IWW were part of a general radicalization of the U.S. working class. Both had failures as well as successes, even on their own terms. The Socialist Party’s emphasis on electoral politics gave rise to a right-wing opportunist wing, epitomized by New York City’s Morris Hillquit, a racist and pro-war “socialist.” The IWW’s rejection of what they called class-collaborationist union contracts led to short-lived gains, like the fact that most of the gains from their most successful strike in Lawrence were lost within the next two years.

The Russian Revolution

For as long as no decisive event impacted the working-class movement, the struggle between anarchists and socialists was largely in the realm of theory. On a world scale, both movements registered successes and failures as in the United States.

The decisive event that tipped the balance forever in favor of the Marxists was the 1917 Russian Revolution led by V.I. Lenin and the Bolshevik Party. Lenin’s Bolsheviks had practiced a form of revolutionary Marxism that was unlike the experience of the mass socialist parties of Western Europe. It blended the militant class warfare of the anarchists with the political action that characterized the Marxists.

The victory of the Russian Bolsheviks electrified workers and oppressed people across the world. It served as a pole of attraction for revolutionaries of many different political backgrounds. For example, in the United States, James Cannon, who had been an IWW organizer, was an original member at the 1921 founding convention of the Workers Party—the predecessor of the Communist Party. Also in attendance at the convention were Charles Ruthenberg, a Socialist, and William Foster, a former IWW organizer who had joined the more reformist American Federation of Labor unions. These were the first leaders of the Communist movement in the United States.

The gain for communism was a loss for anarchism and reformist socialism. Historian Theodore Draper notes that by 1925, “The Socialist Labor Party vegetated hopelessly. The IWW was no more than a shell of its old self and only 11 delegates attended its 1925 convention. The Socialist Party, its historian says … ‘did very little to attract the attention of the general public.’ The AFL had sunk into a decade-long torpor, its leaders blissfully oblivious to a dwindling membership and far more interested in imitating capitalism than organizing against it.”3

A similar realignment of forces took place around the world.

In Russia itself, anarchists had very little political space, since the Bolsheviks were implementing a policy of empowering the workers and building a state in their interests. The few scattered attempts by anarchists or anarchist-influenced movements to oppose the new Soviet government “from the left”—the Makhno movement after 1920 and the Kronstadt mutiny in 1921—won virtually no support from the broader working class.

The Spanish Civil War

The Spanish revolution and civil war of the 1930s was the last test of anarchism in practice.

Throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s, Spanish peasants and workers were engaged in almost constant struggle. Felix Morrow describes the beginning of this period well: “Four major revolutions before 1875, followed by four white terrors, were merely crescendos in an almost continuous tune of peasant revolts and army mutinies.”

Spain entered the world capitalist depression of the 1930s with a somewhat industrialized, somewhat feudal economy. Spain was far less developed than its counterparts in Europe. The capitalist class was allied with the monarchy, tied to feudal landholding roots and the reactionary Catholic Church hierarchy. The great majority of the population was tied to the land.

The anarcho-syndicalist National Labor Confederation (CNT) was the largest trade-union federation with 1.5 million members in 1931. It was also the most militant. The socialist General Workers Union (UGT) had several hundred thousand members. The Communist Party was relatively small, largely because it had formed after the CNT and the Socialists, both of which had respected and revolutionary traditions in the Spanish working class.

Mass protests, after the depression broke out, toppled dictator Gen. Miguel Primo de Rivera in 1930. Right-wing monarchist parties were soundly defeated in elections in 1931. The hopes of the masses were high.

When the republican government began to put down strikes and demonstrations, working-class mobilizations increased. General strikes took place in 1931 and 1934. Workers were seizing factories throughout the country.

In July 1936, Gen. Francisco Franco staged a coup with the support of the entire military and the Spanish ruling class. The workers’ organizations—anarchists, socialists and communists—distributed arms to defend themselves. For the next three years, the class struggle would take place in the streets and fields.

The anarchists had the strongest base in the working class. They had more workers under arms. Their program of direct action and putting power in the hands of the working class directly now had a chance of being realized. In some places, it was—at least initially.

In Catalonia, and especially in its capital city of Barcelona, workers took key government buildings and expropriated factories. The power really was in the hands of the workers.

But in September 1936, the anarchists joined the “democratic” capitalists in the republican government. They did so in the name of unity against Franco’s fascism—but it was unity behind a bourgeois program at the expense of their own program of workers’ power.

The results were catastrophic. The anarchist-led militias were disbanded. Despite more than two years of heroic fighting on the part of tens of thousands of workers from Spain and around the world, the bourgeois republican government surrendered to Franco in March 1939.

It would be unfair to put the loss of the Spanish Civil War at the feet of the anarchists. By that time, the Third Communist International had adopted the non-revolutionary “popular front” program of the Stalin leadership in the Soviet Union that pursued accommodation with the “democratic” capitalists out of lack of faith in the working class. This orientation crippled the Communist leadership in Spain.

The fact remains: The leadership of the largest anarchist movement since the Russian Revolution proved itself unable to guide the Spanish workers to victory at the moment when their power was greatest. At the decisive moment, the worshipping of trade unionism, even of the most militant form, bowed its head to political leadership, even of the most opportunistic form.

The price of defeat was heavy. Spain suffered under the fascist dictatorship of Francisco Franco until 1975.

Anarchism today

Today, the anarchist movement is a mere shadow of its historical self. Contemporary anarchism is primarily a cultural practice that glorifies individualism and is entirely divorced from the working-class movement.

Cultural anarchism intersects and diverges with a more militant contemporary strain of anarchism—itself also divorced from the working-class movement—that engages in isolated direct action against the manifestations of capitalism. It is loosely organized in affiliated groups that operate on the consensus of all present—with no consideration for experience, affirmative action, or class consciousness—that lends itself extremely well to police infiltration. Contemporary anarchism claims to reject any form of leadership as authoritarian—but its organizational form lends itself to the institutionalization of leadership by those who appoint themselves as such.

This form of anarchism, with no roots whatsoever in the working class, thrived for a short time after the destruction of the Soviet Union in the anti-globalization movement. The anti-globalization movement centered around high-profile, somewhat large-scale and loosely organized actions against the meetings of global capital, represented by the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the G8.

The anti-globalization movement engaged in street tactics that appealed to many as an answer to the destructive march of capital, unfettered by the obstacle of the socialist camp. It drew militant workers and young people into a series of battles against the cops who protected the capitalists.

Many organizations and individuals participated in that movement over two years, although the anarchists were the dominant force. Yet within days of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, the anti-globalization movement in the United States dissipated. The movement lacked the organization and leadership with a long-term perspective towards struggle against the capitalist class using all available means. Because of this, the intense pressure of the ruling-class reaction to the Sept.11, 2001 attacks overcame the anti-globalization movement. Its leaders did nothing in reaction to the racist attacks at home and drive toward war abroad. An explicitly anti-imperialist wing of the U.S. anti-globalization movement that included Marxists in the leadership quickly adjusted its tactics and slogans to launch the ANSWER Coalition–Act Now to Stop War and End Racism. That movement quickly forged alliances with the Arab-American and Muslim communities and revived a street-based mass movement that pushed back against the dominant pro-war hysteria that had swept the United States. Within a few months the anarchist leadership quickly withered and virtually vanished inside the U.S.

The same militancy that once won anarchism the respect of millions of workers still has an attraction for many youth who want to fight the system. It has been the responsibility of revolutionary communists since Lenin to match that militancy and at the same time to provide a program for victory.


1. Cannon, James, “The First 10 Years of American Communism,” Pathfinder, 1962, p. 260.

2. Draper, Theodor, “American Communism and Soviet Russia,” Vintage, 1986, p. 18.

3. Ibid, p. 150.

The colonial roots of Zionism

The colonial roots of Zionism

The following two-part series of The Socialist Program with Brian Becker delves into the real history of the Israeli state. Both episodes feature Richard Becker, author of Palestine, Israel and the U.S. Empire—a book for which Liberation School has a study and...

The colonial roots of Zionism

The colonial roots of Zionism

The following two-part series of The Socialist Program with Brian Becker delves into the real history of the Israeli state. Both episodes feature Richard Becker, author of Palestine, Israel and the U.S. Empire—a book for which Liberation School has a study and...