Marxism Against Anarchism and the Politics of Violence

Violence has no place in any legitimate socialist political program or activity. It is neither a means of revolution or a necessary feature of a revolutionary situation.

Frederick Engels wrote a short introduction in 1895 to the Class Struggles in France on the ridiculousness of “street fighting” and barricades as a means to revolution, which is here quoted at length:

“…Rebellion in the old style, the street fight with barricades, which up to 1848 gave everywhere the final decision, was to a considerable extent obsolete.

….The chances, however, were in 1849 already pretty poor. Everywhere the bourgeoisie had thrown in its lot with the governments, “culture and property” had hailed and feasted the military moving against the insurrections. The spell of the barricade was broken; the soldier no longer saw behind it “the people,” but rebels, agitators, plunderers, levelers, the scum of society; the officer had in the course of time become versed in the tactical forms of street fighting… and… was now successful, with a little skill, in nine cases out of ten.

But since then there have been very many more changes, and all in favor of the military. If the big towns have become considerably bigger, the armies have become bigger still… The arming of this enormously increased number of troops has become incomparably more effective…

…On the other hand, all the conditions on the insurgents’ side have grown worse. An insurrection with which all sections of the people sympathize, will hardly recur; in the class struggle all the middle sections will never group themselves round the proletariat so exclusively that the reactionary parties gathered round the bourgeoisie well-nigh disappear. The “people,” therefore, will always appear divided, and with this a powerful lever, so extraordinarily effective in 1848, is lacking. Even if more soldiers who have seen service were to come over to the insurrectionists, the arming of them becomes so much the more difficult. …The revolutionary would have to be mad, who himself chose the working class districts in the North and East of Berlin for a barricade fight….

…Does the reader now understand… Why they so earnestly implore us to play for once the part of cannon fodder?

The gentlemen pour out their prayers and their challenges for nothing, for nothing at all. We are not so stupid… If the conditions have changed in the case of war between nations, this is no less true in the case of the class struggle. The time of surprise attacks, of revolutions carried through by small conscious minorities at the head of unconscious masses, is past. Where it is a question of a complete transformation of the social organization, the masses themselves must also be in it, must themselves already have grasped what is at stake, what they are going in for (with body and soul). The history of the last fifty years has taught us that. But in order that the masses may understand what is to be done, long, persistent work is required, and it is just this work which we are now pursuing, and with a success which drives the enemy to despair.”

The revolution will be a political revolution with the mass participation of the working class. A dual power will emerge between workers’ political organizations and the capitalist institutions in their crisis. It is not a matter of “fighting in the streets.”

Engels notes that even in the victories of street fighting in the mid 19th century:

“For them it was solely a question of making the troops yield to moral influences, which, in a fight between the armies of two warring countries do not come into play at all, or do so to a much less degree. If they succeed in this, then the troops fail to act, or the commanding officers lose their heads, and the insurrection wins.”

If the experiences of 1917 seems to contradict Engels it is to be remembered that 1) the bulk of the army came over to the revolution 2) the government already had fallen into disorder 3) street actions mainly did serve to make troops yield to moral influences or break ranks 4) the subject of study is backward Russia less than a quarter century after Engels wrote his assessment. Engels by no means excluded the use of force in certain historical circumstances:

“Does that mean that in the future the street fight will play no further role? Certainly not. It only means that the conditions since 1848 have become far more unfavorable for civil fights, far more favorable for the military. A future street fight can therefore only be victorious when this unfavorable situation is compensated by other factors. Accordingly, it will occur more seldom in the beginning of a great revolution than in its further progress, and will have to be undertaken with greater forces.”

Engels also wrote rebukes to those who tried to pan off his writings against violence as a means to revolution as an argument against workers coming to power through the abolition of the state and inroads into private property. Eventually legislative norms would have to be transgressed by the mass action of the people. These norms were only helpful at a certain historical juncture for projecting the strength of the party and measuring its gains at the moment.

In Reform or Revolution (1900), German socialist Rosa Luxemburg writes:

“When Engels, in his preface to the Class Struggles in France, revised the tactics of the modern labour movement and urged the legal struggle as opposed to the barricades, he did not have in mind – this comes out of every line of the preface – the question of a definite conquest of political power, but the contemporary daily struggle. He did not have in mind the attitude that the proletariat must take toward the capitalist State at the time of the seizure of power but the attitude of the proletariat while in the bounds of the capitalist State. Engels was giving directions to the proletariat oppressed, and not to the proletariat victorious.”

Keep in mind that in 1918-1923, Engels’ descriptions of the correlation of forces between determined military forces and the proletariat holds quite true for the country he was writing about, Germany! It is now 2017. The working class revolution will be political and form its own organs of government, not a military adventure and certainly not a giant riot or violent protests. Marxists are working off of a serious literary and historical heritage, not pop culture.

Luxemburg wrote similarly to Engels in her 1906 book Mass Strike:

“In the earlier bourgeois revolution where, on the one hand, the political training and the leadership of the revolutionary masses were undertaken by the bourgeois parties, and where, on the other hand, it was merely a question of overthrowing the old government, the brief battle at the barricades was the appropriate form of the revolutionary struggle. Today the working class must educate itself, marshal its forces, and direct itself in the course of the revolutionary struggle and thus the revolution is directed as much against capitalist exploitation… [I]n order to carry through a direct political struggle as a mass, the proletariat must first be assembled as a mass, and for this purpose they must come out of the factory and workshop, mine and foundry, must overcome the atomisation and decay to which they are condemned under the daily yoke of capitalism.”

German Socialist Democracy as a Viable Revolutionary Movement

From 1895-1914 the legislative and union minded Social Democracy was the form socialist politics took not because it was a vulgar electoral movement in itself. Social Democracy began building a de facto dual power in the unions and by cultivating the class consciousness of its working class electorate through parliamentary participation.  Social Democracy exploited the opportunities of the period after Bismark and his Anti-Socialist Laws to establish a huge and varied press and find a voice in the Reichstag and local government. Parliamentary opportunism not only gradually took hold in the German Social Democratic Party, but was in effect ruled out by the circumstances of German politics, as the Reichstag and local parliaments were mainly symbolic except for their one function of approving tax and revenue increases. For years Social Democracy maintained the rule of refusing to exercise this one power. A motto of the Social Democratic movement was “not a person nor a farthing for this system.”

Rosa Luxemburg explained in 1899 amid the revisionist controversy [Quoted in Rosa Luxemburg: Abridged Version, J.P. Nettl, Oxford University Press, 1969, Pp. 144]:

“The old tradition of the party is disrupted [by revisionists]. Not mandates but education has hitherto been the main object…”

Engels points out that eventually the capitalist order and state in Germany would try to cast off Social Democracy, only to find itself isolated and making the Social Democracy the actual government looked and supported by workers. That is, a dual power situation might emerge.

The forms of organization assumed by the dual power are of no consequence in themselves – they could and have taken many forms. The important aspect of the dual power is that it binds the working class together as the past shows with Soviets, Workers Councils, Parliamentary Socialist Parties, the Social Clubs and Trade Unions of the 19th century, etc.

Engels wrote in letters that the idea was that the Socialists would be expelled from the Reichstag or the Reichstag would be dissolved when the power of the Socialists became too strong.

“Look at our people in Germany… now the 36 dominate the Reichstag. Bebel writes saying: if we were 80 or a hundred (out of 400 members), the Reichstag would become an impossibility….”

Engels here describes the tactic of using legal means in Germany in the same introduction to the Class Struggles in France:

“When Bismarck found himself compelled to introduce the franchise… our workers immediately took it in earnest and sent August Bebel to the first, constituent Reichstag. And from that day on, they have used the franchise in a way which has paid them a thousandfold and has served as a model to the workers of all countries. [They have] transformed [the franchise] from a means of deception, which it was heretofore, into an instrument of emancipation. And if universal suffrage had offered no other advantage than that it allowed us to count our numbers every three years; that by the regularly established, unexpectedly rapid rise in the number of votes it increased in equal measure the workers’ certainty of victory and the dismay of their opponents, and so became our best means of propaganda; that it accurately informed us concerning our own strength and that of all hostile parties, and thereby provided us with a measure of proportion for our actions second to none, safeguarding us from untimely timidity as much as from untimely foolhardiness—if this had been the only advantage we gained from the suffrage, then it would still have been more than enough. But it has done much more than this. In election agitation it provided us with a means, second to none, of getting in touch with the mass of the people, where they still stand aloof from us; of forcing all parties to defend their views and actions against our attacks before all the people; and, further, it opened to our representatives in the Reichstag a platform from which they could speak to their opponents in Parliament and to the masses without, with quite other authority and freedom than in the press or at meetings…”

Social Democracy declined after Engel’s death and in 1914 the Second International betrayed socialism forever by supporting the imperialist First World War and promising to be a prop for each section’s respective governments.

After the war, Social Democracy in Germany betrayed the November 1918 revolution. The 1918 revolution brought German Social Democracy into power on the basis of working class mass support, only for it to put down the revolution and eschew a program of revolution. It was after Engel’s death that the Social Democracy began implying they could come to power by the ballot box alone, without the independent intervention of the working class.

The First World War saw the integration of the Social Democrats into ruling circles. This happened, nonetheless, after years of decline and two splits of quality cadre from the Social Democrats during the war (the split between Social Democratic Party and the Independent Social Democrats, firstly, and between both of these parties and the Spartacus League).

The social democrat revisionists in power a little over 20 years after the death of Engels lost their popularity after a counterrevolutionary turn in office and the far-right eventually rose to fill the political vacuum left behind.

Anarchism Versus Marxism

The differences between the petty bourgeois ideology of Anarchism and Marxism go back to the earliest political conflicts between the Marxist movement and its rivals among the Proudhonists and Bakuninists.

Anarchism is a perspective that strips exploitation from the context of the capitalist economic system and revolution from the conditions of production and prevailing social relationships. The fundamental feature of anarchism is bourgeois individualism and the dismissal of the independent struggle of the proletariat as a class. Its militancy against “statism” is really skepticism that the working class can manage the state for itself in transition to a classless society. Lenin said in 1901 in Anarchism and Socialism:

Anarchism is a product of despair. The psychology of the unsettled intellectual or the vagabond and not of the proletarian…. [It has] no doctrine, revolutionary teaching, or theory.

Worse, “Anarchism” has for a long time been used as a front by the states of the world. It’s been almost a century since the heyday of the Industrial Workers of the World, for example, when anarchism might have aspired toward progressive politics.

In the Spanish Civil War the Anarchists rejected the program of Leon Trotsky and the Fourth International. The Anarchists collaborated with the Republican regime (and its Comintern allies) and put down the revolution in favor of this alliance, leading to the defeat of the Spanish Revolution and the victory of Franco.

An infamous image of anarchism is the “Black Blocs.” Workers will never admire petty-bourgeois, idea-bereft little men in black clothes and masks smashing windows. These goons are supplemented by an ungodly proportion of agents they unwittingly or callously let into their ranks or who just as likely form part of the leadership.

Anarchism is a farce. Anarchism has misled workers throughout its history. From the beginning Anarchism has been an opponent of working class struggle in favor of maneuvering the petty-bourgeoisie in the place of the working class and in their name.

“Antifa” and the “Black Blocs” are propped by the bourgeois media today because they represent all at once a safety valve for discontent for a minority, an unattractive image of left politics for the majority of the working class and an excuse for state intervention against genuine left wing endeavors.

The line of these organizations must be rejected, their activities critiqued and they must be sidelined by the working class

It is the task of the working masses to emancipate themselves and society as a whole as a class united in common cause.

This requires a peaceful, embracing appeal for the working class population to strive toward positive tactics of unity and common action as an organized and cohesive mass in marked contrast to the chaos and violence of the capitalist social order.


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