Organising for change - Anarchism V Leninism


Theoretically Marxists and anarchists have the same goal. A stateless, classless, communist society. Both of us realise that this state of affairs won’t come about spontaneously through revolution or through the intercession of Lenin’s or Bukarin’s ghost. Rather it requires organisation and work. And it is on this question, the manner of organising society, of fighting for change, and of organising as revolutionaries that major differences emerge

On February 11 the trotskyist Socialist Youth hosted a debate between SY and the Workers Solidarity Movement on Marxism v. Anarchism.
The debate was in two parts
1. How do we organise for change?
2. What's the alternative to capitalism?

This is the text of the second part, the author writes
I had planned to turn my speech into an article but I never got around to doing so. However, after reading Cian's analysis, I feel that I should post up what I actually said . In the interests of honesty (and laziness) I decidied to leave it as it was on the day despite its mistakes, grammatical errors and rhetorical flourishes.


To start I would like to thank Socialist Youth for inviting us along today and hopefully we will both learn something from our different traditions.

Theoretically Marxists and anarchists have the same goal. A stateless, classless, communist society. Both of us realise that this state of affairs won’t come about spontaneously through revolution or through the intercession of Lenin’s or Bukarin’s ghost. Rather it requires organisation and work. And it is on this question, the manner of organising society, of fighting for change, and of organising as revolutionaries that major differences emerge. In my talk I will try and cover the sort of actions that anarchists lay emphasis on and how we think we should organise to change society.

Anarchists believe that the methods you use to do something will affect the result you get. That is what we mean when we say means and ends are linked. So obviously the manner in which we organise is influenced by the society we want to create. While this post revolutionary society is the topic of this evening’s discussion I will briefly highlight the crucial element of an anarchist society. Anarchists want to no only abolish capitalism but we also want to abolish all relationships that involve subordination and domination. Our aim is a truly classless society that isn’t divided into bosses and workers, or order givers and order takers.

This is why anarchists oppose hierarchy. We feel that if you leave the running of any organisation or society up to a minority, even an elected one, that minority with use its power, its time and its energy to consolidate its control. Even if that minority didn’t abuse its power that type of organisation divides society into the majority that isn’t used to taking decisions and the majority that feels it has the experience and the knowledge to run society. How a self managing, communist society could ever to created out a system that perpetuates this division is beyond me.

We recognise that we are not going to, some day, far of into the future come across people ready made, with all the attributes needed to create socialism and run society. That’s why anarchists talk about creating the seeds of a new society within the old. We try and promote actions that actively transform those that take part in them. Actions that help people gain sense of their own powers and abilities and prepare them for the revolution and the communist society we want to create afterwards.

We feel that if you have experience organising in a libertarian manner, weather its in a union or an anti war group or a community organisation not only will you have had some training, no mater how small, in running your life, you will also be far less likely to believe that you need people to exercise power and control on your behalf in future. In this fashion we limit the possibility of a dictatorial clique seizing power after any revolution.

Direct Action

Another way that anarchists try to do this is by laying emphasis on direct action. While this is sometimes caricatured as a simply consisting of petrol bombing and breaking windows, by direct action we mean, the process by which people act for themselves rather that getting people to act on their behalf. Direct action can take many forms. It can take place when workers are on strike, when areas implement non collection, when fascists are beaten off the streets, when communities stop a pipe line being built on their area. While direct action takes a myriad of forms the crucial aspect is that people act for themselves. We favour direct action not only because it is effective but also because it transforms those who use it. In this sense it the process of organising and participating in direct action that is the crucial bit.

By working with your neighbours and fellow workers, by standing up against the state and capitalists people can gain a sense of their own collective strength. But if these actions are to have the desired empowering effects they must be self generated and democratically controlled. It is through the process of formulating ideas, arguing and debating for them and then democratically voting for them that people gain the confidence and experience needed to stand up for themselves and be confident in their own abilities. That is why we want direct action to be organised in a non hierarchical manner.

Direct action looses much of it power when the people on the streets getting arrested, or blocking trucks are simply following the dictates of a different leader. When the participants in a campaign are seen as foot soldiers following instructions.


Linked with this, and following on from it is the issue of absenteeism. Now I realise that the socialist party has the position that running for election gives the party a platform to promote its ideas and feel that it recognises its limitations. In the Dail Joe has certainly promoted a left wing message and in the recent situation involving Gamma did good work publicising the issue. So we do not claim that running for elections does not result in certain tactical benefits on occasion.

Anarchists look at things a bit differently. Because we oppose the concept of a minority wielding authority over a minority, we oppose the concept of picking that authority. But our objection is not an ideological conviction separated from the real world. We reject voting in elections for a number of reasons.

Firstly voting endorses this authoritarian power structure. It legitimises the bourgeoisie state. By not voting we strip away the democratic veneer of the state and reveal it for what it is, the representative, policeman and administrator of the ruling class.

Absenteeism allows us to put forward these arguments at election time and highlight the differences between what a politician promises and what he does when he gets into office. The difference between real democracy and the sham we have at the moment.

Also the election of left wing politicians into office can actually have a detrimental effect on social movements. By necessity the party and politician has to claim as much credit as possible in order to get elected next time. This can impact on the way that ordinary members in a campaign can look at the movement and themselves. Rather than seeing themselves, and their comrades, as the motor of change, and relying on their own energies, they now look to the politician to get things done. In my opinion this detracts from one of the most beneficial aspects of direct action.

Historically there has not been one party that upon gaining some semblance of power in a parliament that has not sold out. From ones organised along democratic centralist lines to social democratic ones, all end up being corrupted by the atmosphere of parliament and seduced by the power. One way of trying to combat this is to take the attitude of saying the elected official will only take the average industrial wage and donate most of the rest to the party. In my opinion this creates other problems. When a parties structure is heavily dependant on money from their representatives salary the party itself, especially the leadership, has an interest in not taking action that would jeopardise this income. Consciously or unconsciously they may take decisions that are more popular with the voters but are not necessarily the right ones from a revolutionary standpoint.

On a more positive note we feel by rejecting representative forms of organisation the space is opened up to direct and democratic forms of organising. So our rejection of voting is not a rejection of the political sphere of struggle as some claim. Rather it means that we want political struggles to be conducted in the same way as social and economic struggles. With direct action, solidarity and self organisation.

Lib Organisation

Libertarian organisation consists of a few basics. The meaningful participation of all those involved not only in implementing decisions but also in drawing up proposals and debating for them. Because we recognise the same policy cannot be implemented in different areas with different conditions we reject decisions that are made by a centre and imposed on the wider movement. At the same time we recognise that in order to increase the possibility of success a struggle has to be spread and those in struggle have to work together. We see the solution to this difficult problem as local autonomy matched with a wider federation.

Federalism is an organisational structure based on “the free agreement of individuals and organisations to work collectively towards a common objective”. All decisions are made by those affected by them as opposed to centralism, where decisions are made by a central committee for those affected by them.

So far I have spoken about some of the aspects of organising that anarchists promote. But now I am going to talk about anarchists and organisations. Throughout history anarchist communist have embraced different forms of organisation from the affinity group, to revolutionary cells, to anarchist syndicalism. I, and the WSM, consider ourselves within to fall within the platformist tradition. That means we have a concept called organisational dualism and it consists of two main parts. On the one hand you have the organisation of conscious revolutionaries willing to operate with the four main principles of Theoretical unity, tactical unity, collective action and discipline, and federalism.

I have already explained federalism so now I will briefly talk about the other principles.

Theoretical Unity meant simply that if you don’t agree with someone; don’t be in a political group with them! This doesn’t mean that everyone has to agree all the time (they won’t) but there does need to be a certain amount of ideological unity.

Tactical Unity meant that the members of an organisation should struggle together as an organised force rather than as individuals. Once a strategy has been agreed by the collective, all members should work towards ensuring its success saving resources and time concentrating in a common direction. So for example when we made a decision to prioritise the bin tax it became the main focus of our collective work.

Collective responsibility means that each member should take part in the collective decision-making process and respect the decisions of the collective.

In this manner we try to tackle some of the problems that faced the anarchist movement in the past, which I believe were partly due to lack of org, while at the same time being consistent with the liberation ideas of self management and democracy .

The other organisation that we refer when new talk about organisational dualism is the mass organisation. These are the general organisations created by the working class in the process of the struggle. They consist of the unions, various campaign groups and other organs of struggle.

We see ourselves as operating with these mass organisations and arguing the anarchist line within them. We analyse history and the present day and try to learn from the past. We also try to elaborate a common strategy that attempts to link the various expressions of the class struggle.

In a sense we can be said to be a leadership of ideas but this does not mean we are some kind of all knowing teacher. We learn from the struggle and the people we interact with.

So while we see ourselves as offering leadership we reject the idea that we should become sort of institutional leaders or managers of the movement. We refuse to take positions of power that lifts us above the broad movement and gives us control over it. Instead we rely on the strength of our ideas, and the example we set, to convince people, rather than hoping our position on some hierarchical ladder will allow us to control the people below us.

So to summarise we don’t make the revolution for the proletariat, we don’t direct it in their interests and we don’t govern them for their own good. We simply exist as an organisation within the class and attempt to speed up its growth and emancipation.

Leninst Organisation

So far I have really concentrated on how Anarchists organise and fight for change. But seeing as this is a debate I suppose I should also have a look at the manner in which Leninists do the same.

Because I can’t go into everything here I will just offer an anarchist critique of the concept of a vanguard party and democratic centralism.

Doing this is quiet difficult because concepts change over time and in different situations, and pamphlets, the same phase seems to mean very different things. So to avoid confusion, seeing as I couldn’t find the S.Ps collectively agreed upon positions on line, I have stuck with what Lenin and Trotsky said on the matter, unless specifically refuted in an official document by the party.

Like an anarchist organisation the Leninist party sees itself as offering leadership to the class. But it is a leadership of a completely different sort. Because Lenin felt that the working class could never develop beyond “trade union consciousness” they need a leadership not only to instruct them but to govern them and channel their energies in the right direction. This is not simply a leadership of ideas; it consists of seizing control of organs of power and exercising them on behalf of the working class.

Trotsky’s transitional programme starts by saying the “The world political situation as a whole is chiefly characterized by a historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat.” and while it was written 50 something years ago I think the party feels the same way today. The assumption is that the old leadership, the Stalinists and Social Democrats, led the workers astray so what they need is new leadership in the form of the Trotskyist party. While all groups offer critiques of history the danger of seeing leadership as all important is that instead of focusing on rousing the people and encouraging their self reliance and independence what they need to do is put the right leadership in power and follow its commands.

I feel that this idea of democratically seizing the representative leadership positions, within campaigns, unions, and government reinforces the divisions between Leaders and led; those that come up with the orders and those that follow them.

Rather than electing the right leaders Anarchists feel that it is only by discussion, debate and the experience of democratic self management that the uneven development with our class can be overcome

Internally the Leninist party is organised on the basis of democratic centralism. There is a tendency within the left at the moment to equate this with democratic unity, simply meaning that collective decisions are enforced by the party as a whole. Lenin however disagreed with this and summarised democratic centralism by saying its most “important feature” was a system whereby the lower bodies elect the higher and the decision of the higher bodies could then be imposed on the lower unconditionally and without wavering between party conferences. He also said it had “a strong central party leadership whose authority over all leading party members is universally accepted”. This form of organisation is supposed to allow the party react quickly to events and remain democratic.

Needless to say Anarchists have many problems with this way of organising. As I have mentioned before anarchists want to try and create the seeds of a new society within the present system. Clearly organising in such a hierarchical and top down fashion is not conducive to training people in creative thinking, self management and democracy.


So to finish up while we have similar goals we have different ways of trying to get there. If we were playing at being revolutionaries or if we didn’t really believe in the possibility of a revolution these differences wouldn’t matter to the same extent. However, as people who do believe in a revolution, the manner in which we organise is crucially important. Too many times in the past the dreams of libratory movements have turned into the nightmare of totalitarian dictatorship. It is something that we must not allow to happen again. Its time that we truly took seriously the phrase “The emancipation of the working class must be the work of the workers themselves.”. I feel that this is the only way to avoid the mistakes of the past and reach the future that we both want to see.

Main Sources:
The Anarchist FAQ