Throughout the Western world, the strain of radical politics that many people initially get enamored with is anarchism. This is because at first glance, anarchism can easily look like an adequate tool for fighting oppressive power structures. But support for it is in fact based on a myopic view of class dynamics, and on a misunderstanding of what revolution entails.
I don’t judge anyone for being drawn towards anarchism, because it’s the standard gateway to radicalism within the imperial core. In the environment where Americans have grown up, communism-especially communism that aligns with actually existing socialist nations-is made to feel inherently suspect. We’re taught that China, the DPRK, Cuba, and their predecessor the USSR are unambiguously tyrannical, warranting one to distance oneself from these countries if they want to call themselves a socialist. Anarchism reflects the type of socialism that most leftist Westerners initially feel comfortable with embracing: detached from America’s enemy states and highly focused on the freedom of the individual.
I’ve talked in person with an anarchist who’s thoroughly thought through their ideology, and they’ve told me understandable reasons why they embrace this model over Marxism-Leninism. They say that anarchists can successfully defeat the power of the bourgeoisie if they create strong enough communes, and that this route is better than trying to build socialism through a state apparatus. Governmental apparatuses are so imperfect, anarchists figure, that they should be avoided altogether in favor of merely building non-governmental community institutions.
Yet this reasoning unavoidably stems from the same fallacious attitude behind libertarianism and “anarcho-capitalism”: that government can’t be trusted to solve anything, and that any alternative is therefore better. The alternative that anarchists offer isn’t corporate dictatorship, but upon honestly assessing it, it’s incapable of giving material help to the billions of people who are suffering amid poverty, imperialist wars, and environmental degradation.
The last century’s history of class struggle has shown how far anarchism can realistically go in a world dominated by imperialism. The short-lived anarchist enclaves in Spain and Ukraine have been the main anarchist attempts at seizing territory, with anarchism otherwise largely consisting of small-scale collectives. The idea that anarchist-run territories can be expanded much more substantially than this lacks compelling evidence; not only does the history of anarchism show it to be ineffectual at gaining land, but the core ideals of anarchism are at odds with the goal of winning vast amounts of territory from the bourgeoisie.
There’s a reason why no anarchist revolution has been able to make itself anywhere near as large-scale as the communist states, and why anarchist-run territories are more often than not conquered: anarchism’s focus on individualism prevents anarchist movements from taking the “authoritarian” route of wholly replacing capitalist regimes. By this, I mean anarchist revolutions always only partially deprive a capitalist state of its land, making the capitalists able to either stop the anarchists from gaining much more land or retake the anarchist territories.
This is what we’ve seen once again with the anarchism-oriented enclave that the Zapatistas have formed. The Zapatistas have been unwilling to expand their fight to the broader Mexico, instead making a compromise with the bourgeois Mexican state that will likely make their egalitarian community unable to significantly grow in the coming decades. While the Zapatistas deserve respect for freeing their people from brutal colonial exploitation, they’ve consciously chosen to limit the scope of their revolutionary project.
And while the Zapatistas’ anarchist admirers wouldn’t like to admit it, they’ve chosen this isolated path because of their narrow focus on achieving individual autonomy. Modern anarchists might imagine that as the current global worker-peasant backlash against neoliberalism continues, more and more people will take up the anarchist mission of forming fortified communes, eventually creating a socialist-dominated world order without the messy business of forming new governments beforehand. But history has shown that when socialists try to avoid forming states, and try to overcome capitalism and imperialism through isolated attempts at achieving utopia, they sacrifice effectiveness for ideological purity.
And the ideal that anarchists view as so crucial-which is the rejection of hierarchy-isn’t even an ideal that necessarily corresponds to the needs of class struggle. As Mao assessed, a state apparatus is crucial for defending the interests of the masses during an era of imperialism and capitalist reaction: “Our state is a people’s democratic dictatorship led by the working class and based on the worker-peasant alliance. What is this dictatorship for? Its first function is internal, namely, to suppress the reactionary classes and elements and those exploiters who resist the socialist revolution, to suppress those who try to wreck our socialist construction, or in other words, to resolve the contradictions between ourselves and the internal enemy…The second function of this dictatorship is to protect our country from subversion and possible aggression by external enemies.”
Some anarchists have taken the rejection of this disciplined approach for revolution a step further, becoming suspicious not just of government but of cohesive organizing. These strains of postmodernist anarchism say that people should abandon organizations and structures because they’re “authoritarian,” advocating “de-recruitment” from these groups. This is where anarchism’s philosophy of individualism ultimately leads to.
More often, and even more dangerously, anarchism’s desire to tear down social structures has resulted in anarchists supporting U.S. imperialist narratives against states that anarchists dislike. The 1999 NATO war against Yugoslavian social democracy gained support from anarchists because it was seen as a blow to Stalinist communism. In 2014, when the Western imperialists persuaded one of the co-presidents of the YGP that he would become head of a new state if he were to re-create Kurdistan in Syria, many anarchists cheered on this underhanded project to form anarchist NATO brigades. As the National Endowment for Democracy has incited fascistic and often violent protests in Hong Kong with the purpose of recolonizing the island, anarchists around the world have praised these CIA destabilization efforts as a righteous blow to Chinese “authoritarianism.”
Do Marxist-Leninists never struggle with disorganization, Western chauvinism, or ignorance of revolutionary theory? Of course not. But unlike anarchism, which essentially gets its ideas from individualism, Marxism-Leninism is founded upon the idea that the people deserve to run their own democratic state. Instead of reinforcing the reactionary argument that human beings are naturally selfish and aren’t able to function as a collective, Marxism-Leninism affirms that we’re capable of determining our own destiny as a cooperative organism. Juche, the Korean strain of Marxism-Leninism, articulates this belief by asserting that “Man is the master of everything and decides everything.”
It’s no surprise that as the class struggle develops in 2020s neoliberal America, Marxist-Leninist parties have already gained a better foothold than the scattered anarchist organizations. The Party for Socialism and Liberation, among the best established communist parties in the country, has been inserting its principled anti-imperialism into the American socialist movement.
When America’s potential for unrest comes to a head, as it has in France, Iraq, and other neoliberal countries throughout the last year, the anarchists very likely won’t be the faction that begins to guide the protest movement towards overthrowing the bourgeois state. As has been the case in many of the recently unstable countries (especially France and Iraq), one of the emerging strains will be the communists. How far they get in their goal of creating a proletariat dictatorship will be for us to decide; will we join the communists in carving out a strong new nation for the victims of capitalism and colonialism, or will we let anarchism weigh down the movement with its liberal ideas?
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