Book Review from the September 2004 issue of the Socialist Standard
Anarchism by Seán M. Sheehan. (Reaktion Books, 192 pp. £12.95)
The term “anarchism” covers a multitude of sins. From the egoism of Stirner, through the free market for small producers advocated by Proudhon, the revolutionary romanticism and posturings of Bakunin, Kroptotkin’s anarcho-communism, revolutionary syndicalism, to various avant-garde artists and writers.
Sheehan’s book was prompted by what he sees as the unconscious re-emergence of anarchist ideas and tactics in the “anti-globalisation” protests that began in Seattle in 1999. His aim is to present anarchism to such activists, even though not an anarchist himself. The result is a readable run-through of anarchist ideas.
Marx also comes into it Sheehan realises that there is a world of difference between Marx’s ideas and what in the 20th century came to be widely regarded as “Marxism”, i.e., the official doctrine of the Russian State, but which is more properly called Leninism and which, in its various forms, stands for state capitalism rather than socialism as understood by Marx.
Sheehan in fact pleads for a rapprochement between Marxism and anarchism. Certainly, those in the Marxist tradition and a minority of anarchists — the anarcho-communists and the class-struggle anarchists — share a common analysis of capitalism as a society based on the exploitation of the working class and want to see it replaced by a classless, stateless, moneyless, wageless society. But most anarchists today are into “direct action”, as an alternative to reformist electoral action, to try to get changes within capitalism and are not interested in longer-term, global change. When it comes down to it, they are just as reformist as any Labourite (or Liberal-Democrat) or Trotskyist, differing from them only in completely ruling out elections as a way to get reforms.
Marx, on the other hand, always insisted (as we do) on the need for the working class to win control of state power before attempting to change the basis of society from class ownership to common ownership. He also saw elections as one possible way of doing this. For anarchists, political action in this sense is anathema. The state must not be captured, it must be confronted. Anti-capitalists should not contest elections, they should boycott them. Confronting the state — as some of Sheehan's “anti-capitalists” tried in Genoa — is a senseless policy, especially when it’s a question of a minority confronting a state supported, even if only passively, by a majority. The state will always win in such confrontations since it has much more force at its disposable.
As to the time when there will be many, many more anti-capitalists (socialists), then boycotting elections — agreed there’s not much point in voting today, where all the candidates stand for the continuance of capitalism in one form or another — would also be senseless since this would be to leave state power in the hands of the pro-capitalists. Much more sensible would be to organise to take this power from them. That’s the difference between Marxian socialists and anarchism, a gap which, despite Sheehan, could only be bridged by anarchists dropping their dogmatic opposition to elections and political action. Hopefully, they will.