Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Class Origin and Basis of Anarchist Ideology: A Marxist Appraisal, or, Anarchism as the ideology of middle-class alienation

Many young people today, repulsed by the militarized, exploitative, oppressive reality of our society, are drawn towards anarchist politics. To be sure, this is a positive development. Any step that people take in the direction away from a wholehearted acceptance of the ruling ideas and assumptions of our capitalist society is something to be supported.

However, as we all know, the matter does not end there. For after one decides to try to affect social change and enters the activist foray, it becomes clear that there are a number of anti-capitalist or non-capitalist ideas out there. Sometimes these ideas seem to overlap in their goals and methods; but it is also clear that they just as often diverge. In the end, one must figure out which ideology best seems able to achieve the kind of social change one has in mind.

As a revolutionary socialist, I want to offer a broad analysis explaining the class origins and basis of anarchism -- the primary anti-capitalist alternative to that of socialism -- and the drawbacks that inevitably flow from this reality. Specifically, my contention is that anarchist thought is the ideal expression of the social position of the various middle class(es) of history. Oppressed by the ruling class, yet unable to replace the ruling class' political dominance with that of its own, the middle class finds itself in a state of eternal rebellion against seemingly alien powers representing other classes' interests.

(NOTE: This is most certainly not to say that all people who consider themselves anarchist are necessarily middle class).

A quick word to avoid confusion. Oftentimes on the left, the term "middle class" is used as a sort of flip pejorative against a competing ideology. In many of these instances, such usage of the term is less born of an actual historical analysis of an opposing set of ideas, but rather as a simple means to end an unpleasant conversation. This is not how I employ the term. In this article, the term "middle class" is exclusively meant to describe those social layers of a given society that stand between or outside of the primary classes. By primary classes I mean those socioeconomic groups of people that wield palpable weight over the entirety of that society (either "from above" or "from below", actively or potentially), owing to their integral position within the dominant relations of economic production of that society (i.e., the way society is organized so as to meet its needs and physically reproduce itself).

Moreover, my aim in attempting a critical analysis of anarchism is not to discount the important efforts of many of today's activists who identify as anarchist, nor ignore the important historical contributions of the anarchist movement to the fight against oppression and exploitation. Neither am I attempting to claim that anarchism has never been espoused by working-class people -- even large groups of working-class people.

Nonetheless, a scientific attempt at understanding the material basis of an ideology cannot rest exclusively on what class or group of people may support it at a given moment. For instance, if in a moment of political reaction a group of workers come to support the anti-union ideology of their bosses, this does not mean that we must abandon the notion that this ideology is objectively an expression and product of the capitalist class. The true indication of an ideology's social counterpart in the material world is not who happens to espouse it, but rather whose interests it embodies; whose actual conditions of existence it is an ideal expression of.

To begin with, what is anarchism? Though there are myriad different strands of anarchism -- many of which would be loath to admit kinship with each other -- there is a commonality to them all. In essence, this commonality is a basic rejection of the state (i.e., government) and an opposition (at least in theory) to 'hierarchy' in the broadest sense; that is, to the authority exerted by one person or group over another.

In the words of the popular contemporary anarchist writer, Cindy Milstein, anarchism "stands for the absence of both domination (mastery or control over another) and hierarchy (ranked power relations of dominance and subordination)," and that "[f]rom its beginnings, anarchism's core aspiration has been to root out and eradicate all coercive, hierarchical social relations and dream up and establish consensual, egalitarian ones in every instance" (

Further, anarchists argue that the state is categorically destructive of all revolutionary ends, and that the exercise of official authority can never but ultimately result in the unqualified extension of human misery, servility, and oppression. "All power corrupts." Socialists -- and in particular, Marxists -- on the other hand, hold a different view. Socialists maintain that a limited form of government or state can, nay must, be wielded by the organized working-class in its majority in order to secure its triumph over its masters, the capitalist class (or "bourgeoisie"). This is the "dictatorship of the proletariat" in Marx.

Much like pacifists view violence as an inherently evil phenomenon to be avoided at all costs, so too do anarchists place a taboo on the state. As the renowned anarchist Mikhail Bakunin wrote in Statism and Anarchy,
If the State is needed to emancipate the workers, then the workers are not yet free ... Every state, not excepting [a] People's State, is a yoke, on the one hand giving rise to despotism and on the other to slavery. [Marxists] insist that only dictatorship (of course their own) [i.e., dictatorship of the proletariat] can create freedom for the people. We reply that all dictatorship has no objective other than self-perpetuation, and that slavery is all it can generate and instill in the people who suffer it. Freedom can be created only by freedom ... ( 
Of course, Bakunin's opposition to "all dictatorship" only included formal dictatorship or government. He had no problem with government or dictatorship as long as it was informal and concealed. As he wrote elsewhere, "[T]here is only one power and one dictatorship whose organisation is salutary and feasible: it is that collective, invisible dictatorship of those who are allied in the name of our principle," and stated that anarchists must be "like invisible pilots in the thick of the popular tempest. . . steer[ing] it [the revolution] not by any open power but by the collective dictatorship of all the allies -- a dictatorship without insignia, titles or official rights, and all the stronger for having none of the paraphernalia of power" (

Moreover, Bakunin, like many anarchists since, fetishized the use of violence in pursuit of anarchist freedom. To him, there was no contradiction between supporting violence and opposing all state authority. But what, in the final analysis, is the state if not the perfect expression of organized violence? What is government but the institutions of control and domination made to serve the interest of one part of society imposing its will, or authority, on the rest of society? The laws, the police, the courts, the politicians, etc., are all instruments of state control backed up by violence or the threat of violence.

Indeed, there are many parallels between the logic of pacifism and the logic of anarchism on this score. Violence, like the state, is a social phenomenon. However, it is primarily a tool to achieve some desired end. Whether it is the ruling class of one country militarily invading another, a police battalion attacking a protest, or a group of slaves rising up to slay their masters, violence is merely the physical imposition of one will (either individually or as a group) over another in pursuit of some definite material goal.

For Marxists, this is the essence of class struggle. The interests of the various social and economic classes of a given society clashing. By definition, the interests of various classes in a society are ultimately mutually exclusive. This was true of the slaves and plantation-owners, the peasants and the feudal lords, the bourgeoisie and the landed nobility, and presently, the workers and the capitalists. As long as one part of society is differentiated from all others owing primarily to its exclusive ownership of the wealth and resources of that society, this class antagonism is manifest.

The state in any epoch has ever been either the creation or the instrument of precisely the most socially and economically dominant class of people. It is the means by which this latter class reinforces its dominance. To all other classes, this state presents itself as an alien body over which they have no control and which exists to repress them.

However, it cannot be said, as the anarchists do, that all states are universally repressive. To the ruling class wielding the state, the state seems no more divorced from their interests than does the gun in the hand of its wielder. To the modern capitalist class, the state is a refined and responsive tool which serves its needs quite effectively. Even between competing sections of the capitalist class, the state is always "their" state, regardless of which particular fraction of capital, or which capitalist party, happens to be at the helm of the state at a given moment.

Modern history, once it had taken that giant leap away from the primitive, classless societies of our hunter-gatherer and nomadic forebears, has been marked by the constant dominance of a ruling class which comprises a minority of the total human population. Be it the tributary fiefdoms or empires of ancient Europe and Asia, the slave-holding societies of the Mediterranean or Americas, or the modern capitalist societies, humanity has been ruled by a class of people constituting a minority. Therefore, all of the states that history has thus far presented to us seem to embody the interests of only a minority which perpetually stand atop these various hierarchical societies.

Nonetheless, the basis of modern socialist thought is that this state of affairs need not continue forever. The recent historical emergence of capitalism as a dominant economic system has presented humanity for the first time with the prospect of establishing a classless society based on material abundance. Never before has there existed a class such as the modern working class (Marx's "proletariat"). Not only does it possess immense social weight owing to its indispensability within the system of capitalist production, it is also the most numerous class and, most importantly, its existence is not dependent on any class below it. In other words, the working class itself is not innately an exploiting or oppressing class.

If organized and united in purpose, this working class therefore has the social capacity to replace the current ruling class with an alternative sort of rule. However, the working class can only do this by collectively imposing its will on its former capitalist masters. And it is only through some mechanism of organized violence that this can be done. This mechanism, regardless of whether one calls it a system of workers' councils, popular assemblies, or factory committees, is for all intents and purposes nothing but a type of state, in the most basic sense of the word.

It is self-evident that one cannot both be against all authority and also support the ability of the working class to impose its will (i.e., its authority) on the former ruling class through force of arms or coercion. One cannot both oppose all states and also support the ability of the organized working class to promulgate enforceable laws proscribing and curbing the liberties and freedoms of the former ruling class of capitalist exploiters.

Nonetheless, such a workers' state is inevitably very different from all preceding states. As Marx writes in the Communist Manifesto:
When, in the course of development, class distinctions have disappeared, and all production has been concentrated in the hands of a vast association of the whole nation, the public power will lose its political character. Political power [i.e., the state], properly so called, is merely the organised power of one class for oppressing another. If the proletariat during its contest with the bourgeoisie is compelled, by the force of circumstances, to organise itself as a class, if, by means of a revolution, it makes itself the ruling class, and, as such, sweeps away by force the old conditions of production, then it will, along with these conditions, have swept away the conditions for the existence of class antagonisms and of classes generally, and will thereby have abolished its own supremacy as a class (
Touching on a similar theme, Engels writes elsewhere:
The first act by which the state really comes forward as the representative of the whole of society — the taking possession of the means of production in the name of society — is also its last independent act as a state. State interference in social relations becomes, in one domain after another, superfluous, and then dies down of itself. The government of persons is replaced by the administration of things, and by the conduct of processes of production. The state is not 'abolished'. It withers away (
Finally, here's the Russian revolutionary V.I. Lenin commenting on the Paris Commune of 1871 (referred to by Marx as the first example of the dictatorship of the proletariat in action):
The Commune, therefore, appears to have replaced the smashed state machine "only" by fuller democracy: abolition of the standing army; all officials to be elected and subject to recall. But as a matter of fact, this "only" signifies a gigantic replacement of certain institutions by other institutions of a fundamentally different type. This is exactly a case of "quantity being transformed into quality"... The organ of suppression, however, is here the majority of the population, and not a minority, as was always the case under slavery, serfdom and wage slavery. And since the majority of people itself suppresses its oppressors, a "special force" of suppression is no longer necessary! In this sense, the state begins to wither away (
Having the capacity to create a new society in its own image, the working class would obviously be remiss to renounce in advance the use of any weapon which could help it achieve victory. But this is precisely the nub: that the working class actually has the capacity to construct a new form of social organization to replace the old. This is not true of many other classes throughout history.

In the course of analyzing the rise to power of Louis Bonaparte in The Eighteenth Brumaire, Marx offers an important insight into the social position of the peasantry in relation to society as a whole:
The small-holding peasants form an enormous mass whose members live in similar conditions but without entering into manifold relations with each other. Their mode of production isolates them from one another instead of bringing them into mutual intercourse.... Each individual peasant family is almost self-sufficient, directly produces most of its consumer needs, and thus acquires its means of life more through an exchange with nature than in intercourse with society. A small holding, the peasant and his family; beside it another small holding, another peasant and another family. A few score of these constitute a village, and a few score villages constitute a department. Thus the great mass of the French nation is formed by the simple addition of homologous magnitudes, much as potatoes in a sack form a sack of potatoes. Insofar as millions of families live under conditions of existence that separate their mode of life, their interests, and their culture from those of the other classes, and put them in hostile opposition to the latter, they form a class. Insofar as there is merely a local interconnection among these small-holding peasants, and the identity of their interests forms no community, no national bond, and no political organization among them, they do not constitute a class. They are therefore incapable of asserting their class interest in their own name, whether through a parliament or a convention. They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented (
The peasantry, in this regard, is somewhat analogous to other middle classes throughout history -- the craft artisan and journeyman of the late feudal and early capitalist epochs, or the quintessential self-employed small businessperson (or "petite-bourgeoisie") of advanced capitalism. These classes either play no or little central role in the dominant economic mode of their era, comprise too small a fraction of the total population of society, or lack sufficient social cohesion and interdependence among themselves to effectively vie for the right to rule society according to their collective interests.

What the middle class shares in common with the working class under capitalism is a hatred of the capitalist ruling class and its manifold institutions of state repression and domination. In relation to both of these former classes, the capitalist state presents itself as an alien force, standing above and outside of them, and which seems to corrupt all it touches. Therefore, as experienced by the majority of society, reality appears to confirm all of the common anarchist platitudes concerning the state as an unqualified bane.

Nonetheless, this shared experience of the middle class and the working class comes to an abrupt end during moments of heightened class struggle and especially in revolutionary moments. As the working class moves into united struggle against its common oppressor it can begin to get a sense of its own social weight and capacity to actually replace the old ruling class entirely. Not so the middle class.

Sandwiched between two primary classes of which it shares traits of each, yet is not fully either, the middle class retains its own identity but lacks its own capacity to form a national government organized around its unique interests. It neither has the strength to rule as a minority over society -- à la the capitalist class -- nor the numbers to rule as a democratic majority over society -- à la the working class. 

Therefore, in relation to the middle class, it can truly be said that all states are alien forces. All states are corrupt institutions which they do not control. All states do appear as unbridled authoritarianism serving interests not their own. At best, the middle class can hope to share power in a government constructed around the dominance of some other class. At worst, its interests are cast aside by the ruling power as so much refuse. In either event, the state remains an external force, sometimes benign, sometimes malignant. This is just as much true of a workers' state -- even the most democratic workers' state -- as it is of a capitalists' state. There can never be a state that the middle class would truly be able to call its own.

None of this is to say that the middle class can play no role whatsoever in social transformation. For example, in the instance of France cited above, the peasantry played a significant role in the rise of Bonaparte. Likewise with the conquest of power by the Communist Party in China in 1949. Even the rise of Hitler in Germany owed quite a great deal to the mobilization of the middle class.

But in none of these cases above was the end result a state that represented the hegemony of the peasantry or the middle class as the self-governing force holding sway over the rest of society. The middle class can be utilized by other forces towards a given end, but the middle class itself can never rule society. Even in those historical instances where neither of the primary classes have the strength to exert their own dominance over the others (either due to mutual exhaustion as a result of inconclusive class war, or otherwise), the middle class cannot simply step into the breach and construct a petite-bourgeois paradise. As with the rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy in Russia, the middle class can only take over the running of a society by shedding the essential traits of its own class. That is, by mimicking and ultimately becoming a social agent of either one or the other of the primary classes.

It is also for this reason that the middle class cannot simply be ignored by the working class. While the middle class may not be able to run society on its own, it nonetheless has the capacity -- if chronically disgruntled -- to create many problems for whichever class does happen to be running society.    

In sum, the middle class is the perfect embodiment of the anarchist ideology. Indeed, it is the only class from whose vantage point anarchism holds one-hundred percent true. Further, it offers to the middle class a philosophy which transforms its limitations into a virtue. For the middle class, all states are objectively alien forces. Therefore, the pursuit of state power is inherently a fool's game. The middle class universalizes its own conditions of existence -- its own impotence and inability to wield state power in the interest of all of society -- and projects this onto the rest of society in the form of a set of morals, values, and ethics, stamped with the ideological label, anarchism.

Unable to conclusively abolish the rule of the capitalists, the middle class is an embodiment of eternal rebellion against the formers' state. The anarchist mantra, "Rebel against all authority," is both a way of life and a never-ending curse of the middle class. Its salvation, and the salvation of all of humanity, lies in the hands of other classes outside of its control.

As an aside, it is therefore no surprise that the recognized founder of modern anarchism, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, imbued his writings with the unique ideological outlook of the middle class artisan (which he himself was). He opposed both the big bourgeoisie but also the incipient proletariat, condemning strikes, work stoppages, labor unions, and class struggle itself. He explicitly states that social transformation will be brought about by enlightened members of "la classe moyenne" [the middle class]. His stated economic aims were unmistakeably that of the petite-craftsman: the socialization of the tools for the use of the producers, but the privatization of the products of labor for the ownership by the individual craftsmen.* 

As Marx wrote of Proudhon: "He wants to soar as the man of science above the bourgeois and proletarians; he is merely the petty bourgeois, continually tossed back and forth between capital and labour, political economy and communism" (

As a further aside, it is telling that one can actually see an explicit reflection of precisely this above trait in contemporary anarchist thought as well. Again, to quote Milstein, "Anarchism is a synthesis of the best of liberalism and the best of communism," or, put differently, the best that bourgeois thought has to offer and the best that proletarian thought has to offer. We find ourselves once more firmly within the characteristic paradigm of the middle class -- neither bourgeois nor proletarian, but rather something in between; literally, in the middle (

In the years since Proudhon, anarchism has in turn taken root amongst a myriad of like middle classes: small peasants, bohemian petite-bourgeoisie, down-and-out former aristocrats, career students and intellectuals. Where anarchism has found currency among working classes, it is always in the degree to which it veers into Marxism and away from the political precepts most distinctly associated with the middle class from whence it comes.



  1. I appreciate that Marx was such an industrial worker while writing his manifesto...

  2. In defining anarchism, it might prove helpful to refer to what anarchists have to say on the matter. Particularly helpful when grasping to understand what anarchists have mean by "the state," as an anarchist definition entirely absent from this piece.

    People like Bakunin, Kropotkin, Bookchin, etc., were all clear about what they meant. An Anarchist FAQ sums it up pretty well:

    1) A "monopoly of violence" in a given territorial area;
    2) This violence having a "professional," institutional nature; and
    3) A hierarchical nature, centralisation of power and initiative into the hands of a few.

    Such a definition kind of requires a rewrite of this blogpost, because the middle class isn't actually "the perfect embodiment of the anarchist ideology". It's only through stretches of logic and language that you could possibly arrive there.

    You write: "However, it cannot be said, as the anarchists do, that all states are universally repressive. To the ruling class wielding the state, the state seems no more divorced from their interests than does the gun in the hand of its wielder." I'd be interested in finding an anarchist that believes the state is divorced from the interests of the ruling class wielding it; such a statement speaks to, I think, a larger confusion about the topics at hand.

    Within the Leninist milieu, Alan Maas' discussion of the middle class and its relation to the two primary classes is much closer to the truth: The middle class benefits immensely from the existence of the state, because their paymasters, the capitalists, do. That's why 9 times out of 10 they'll side with the capitalists against the proletariat — because, as Marx put it, they are the officers and sergeants in the industrial army of workmen, and they know where their orders come from.

    It's beyond disingenuous to write "It is self-evident that one cannot both be against all authority and also support the ability of the working class to impose its will (i.e., its authority) on the former ruling class through force of arms or coercion." The wordplay used to write that sentence was clever the first time a Marxist tried it, but it's gotten rather old. "Authority" is being used as clumsily as "the state" is in this piece. Both Marx and Bakunin were positively gaga, absolutely bonkers, over the Paris Commune. Doesn't that fact suggest, in at least a tiny way, that the problem at hand may not be the conclusion arrived at by literally millions of anti-capitalists, many of whom would sacrifice their lives for the goal of working class emancipation, but your immediate analysis of the concepts at hand?

    You end with "Where anarchism has found currency among working classes, it is always in the degree to which it veers into Marxism and away from the political precepts most distinctly associated with the middle class from whence it comes." If you told Spanish Marxists in the 1930s that anarchism was popular because it had veered into Marxism, they'd either be offended or have a hearty laugh. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

    The historical record shows that anarchism is a firmly working class-oriented ideology and system of practice, due to its opposition to capitalists, the state, and even the cultural mannerisms and values of the bourgeois and capitalist aspirants.

    Marx once wrote, "Not only does Proudhon write in the interest of the proletarians, he is himself a proletarian, an ouvrier. His work is a scientific manifesto of the French proletariat." As tempting as it may be, it's not wise to automatically believe whatever Leninists tell you about anarchism, just as anarchists shouldn't automatically believe whatever their comrades tell them about Leninism. One ends up saying silly things like Proudhon was against the proletariat.

  3. I will bake you into cookies you shit bag trot

    1. What a stupendous reply! You have truly engaged with the very essence of my theoretical argument!

      Either that, or you are merely trying to prove my original point. What does anarchism have to offer the working class? Cookies made from the flesh of their fellow workers and comrades who happen to espouse a differing revolutionary ideology!