I hate to resurrect the age-old debate amongst radicals—socialism or anarchism—but as a socialist, I’m somewhat perplexed by some of the rationale behind the anarchist arguments. This post, while certainly critical of anarchism, isn’t intended to dismiss it as a passing phase but rather to (hopefully) answer some of the questions I’ve had about it.

“What to do with the State?” has always been the debate that separates the socialist from the anarchist. The socialist argues that the creation of a socialist State is a provisional necessity in moving from our current system to an egalitarian system whereby the State quickly withers away. To the socialist, the State cannot be avoided. The anarchist, on the other hand, believes that the State can be rendered irrelevant—that through the mutual-aid of networked autonomous groups and collectives, State power will become insignificant. This, of course, is a simplified argument for both sides, but for the sake of this short essay, it will have to do.

Of course the anarchist and the socialist sides are both quite heterogeneous—to the point where calling oneself a “socialist” or “anarchist” means very little except within certain contexts. But I think most of us would agree that the debate over the State is what really separates the socialist from the anarchist.

From what I’ve read of anarchist arguments, their stance leans more towards a criticism of socialism than that of any serious proposal. Socialism, because it is concerned with State power, is either reduced into a reformist position whereby democratic socialist candidates, once elected, become but a small part of a bureaucratic machine and are thus stripped of their capacity for serious change—or, if that socialist movement is revolutionary, the State is always transformed into a totalitarian nation. In either case, socialism is handed down from above, rather than from below. Or so goes the argument.

The Russian Revolution is of course the prime example of socialist gone awry. But ignored in the anarchist’s argument are the historical contexts in which the revolution took place or any serious attempts at formulating an alternative solution. The main criticism, of course, is directed at the vanguardist element of the revolution’s leadership. This debate can fill a library, so I won’t even bother with it on this board.

But the devastating consequences of Stalinism have ultimately created the Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism connection whereby historical realities are ignored and instead almost all organizational components of serious revolutionary movements have been deemed “Vanguardist” or “Bureaucratic.” To solve this, anarchists place no emphasis on a singular element to seize state power and instead rely upon autonomous groups and mutual-aid. Fine. I’d prefer that revolutionary movements are exercised without vanguards too.

But we are left with the impression that socialists have never been concerned with concepts in line with “mutual-aid” or with autonomous independent groups. We are left with the impression that socialists are solely interested in obtaining power similarly to that of an upwardly-mobile Democratic candidate. Also ignored is the possibility that the revolutionary movement need not be bureaucratic—that “leaders” (or better yet “representatives”) are accountable to a large and democratic constituency and decision-making is made by this constituency. In fact, why can’t this movement be based on councils and localized grass-root “parties”—so to say?

If this framework sounds agreeable, the next question generally posed by the anarchist is, “Why is a ‘party’ interested in obtaining State power even necessary? We’ve seen the results of such actions.” The anarchist is interested in forming collectives and therefore, by definition, avoids any possibility for bureaucratic tendencies.

But what can be collectivized without engaging or fighting the State? Perhaps a bookstore, a café, an infoshop, small areas of land for farming, etc. But how are those propertiers obtained? Will affluent but generous members of society purchase these pieces of property and then turn it over for public use? Will groups of people pool their money to purchase these pieces of property? Doesn’t that leave out those without money? Or will anarchists simply settle on a piece of property—perhaps an abandoned building—and turn it into something useful. Doing so will certainly result in engaging with local police, which anarchists have never had a problem doing. But is this model feasible for a larger population or only for smaller groups of individuals, who, for various reasons, are fortunate enough to come across an abandoned piece of land or building? Isn't this anti-democratic in nature?

What is the anarchists position towards the collectivization of utilities propped up through State intervention—water supply, hospitals, electricity, etc? With the exception of primitivists, I’d have to assume we consider these elements rather necessary, no?

So now say that those that work in hospitals, water supply companies, power plants, etc are receptive of radical ideas. They accept that collectivizing their place of work is beneficial to both themselves and society. Surely socialists and anarchists are engaged in changing public opinion to varying degrees to persuade workers that radicalism is in their best interest. Socialists and anarcho-syndicalists both agree that radical unionism is necessary to shift power from the owners of those industries to those that work and benefit from those industries.

But can we expect that the State would be okay with this—that they wouldn’t try to impose with police and military force the return to bourgeois democratic norms? How can the anarchists simply evade engaging with the State on these issues? How can mutual-aid, in and of itself, solve these problems when certain necessities are tied up and enforced by the State?

This has always been my criticism of anarchism—that it doesn’t solve for these problems without resorting to certain forms of primitivism.

There needs to be some sort of movement, preferably one that is not simply interested in going through the electoral process—but a movement intended on engaging the State on these issues. It also needs to be international in scope.

I recommend anarchists and socialists alike read Hal Draper. I think he has always presented “Third Camp” Socialism in a light that makes it a rationale alternative to both capitalism and the vulgar totalitarian Communist regimes. Of course, like most socialists, it’s still rather vague in vision but I think Michael Albert understood that void and filled it nicely with “Parecom.”

I think dismissing socialism as antiquated is absurd. Or at least no more so than anarchism as both social tendencies date back 150 years ago. Arguably, socialists have been lacking is in their attempts to engage younger people and take advantage of emerging technologies—something that anarchists have never been shy of. But I think neither flaw of socialism justifies it being labeled antiquated.

I’ve also noticed a trend for radicals to dismiss both labels, anarchist and socialist, and have instead labeled themselves anti-globalization—or even more vague—activist. I never understood this. Certainly globalization is simply another tool in capitalism’s arsenal for exploitation, so why rally around a single-issue—or at least present yourself as rallying around a single-issue?

I recommend Hal Draper’s “Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution Volume IV: Critique of Other Socialisms?” and his “Socialism from Below.” The former is easier to find than the latter.

Additionally, I recommend the journal “New Politics” which provides a pretty wide-range of socialist opinions.

As far as anarchism goes, I’ve always thought Murray Bookchin’s arguments have been lucid—but that’s obvious enough coming from a socialist.