Anarchism as a Way of Life

In 1925 the Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta wrote that,

Anarchy is a form of living together in society; a society in which people live as brothers and sisters without being able to oppress or exploit others and in which everyone has at their disposal whatever means the civilisation of the time can supply in order for them to attain the greatest possible moral and material development. And Anarchism is the method of reaching anarchy, through freedom, without government – that is, without those authoritarian institutions that impose their will on others by force . . . (Malatesta 1995, 52)

In this passage Malatesta distinguishes between anarchy as a goal and anarchism as a method of achieving this goal. One of the interesting features of Malatesta’s theory is that he views anarchy itself as both a goal and an on-going process. He refers to anarchy as a “form of living together in society” which has to be continuously produced and reproduced over time, rather than a static unchanging utopia. This idea can be clearly seen in Malatesta’s earlier writings. In 1891 he wrote that,

By the free association of all, a social organisation would arise through the spontaneous grouping of men according to their needs and sympathies, from the low to the high, from the simple to the complex, starting from the more immediate to arrive at the more distant and general interests. This organisation would have for its aim the greatest good and fullest liberty to all; it would embrace all humanity in one common brotherhood, and would be modified and improved as circumstances were modified and changed, according to the teachings of experience. This society of free men, this society of friends would be Anarchy. (Malatesta 2014, 128)

Since anarchy is a society which will be continuously modified and improved over time it follows that “Anarchy” is “above all, a method”. This method is, according to Malatesta, “the free initiative of all”, “free agreement” and “free association”. (Malatesta 2014, 141, 142) These two claims come together in the view that,

Anarchy, in common with socialism, has as its basis, its point of departure, its essential environment, equality of conditions; its beacon is solidarity and freedom is its method. It is not perfection, it is not the absolute ideal which like the horizon recedes as fast as we approach it; but it is the way open to all progress and improvements for the benefit of everybody. (Quoted in Turcato 2012, 56. For a different translation see Malatesta 2014, 143)

What Malatesta means by this is as follows. Anarchy’s point of departure is a stateless classless society in which the means of production are owned in common and no person has the institutionalised power to impose their will on others via force. This not only creates a situation in which people are no longer subject to domination and exploitation by the ruling classes. It, in addition to this, establishes the real possibility for all people to do and be a wide variety of different things since their ability to act is no longer limited by poverty, borders, government bureaucracy, having to work for a capitalist to survive etc. This equality of conditions is the social basis from which people can engage in an open-ended process of striving towards the goal of universal human co-operation at a societal level and the formation of bonds of mutual support and love at the level of our day to day lives with friends, family, partners and so on.

People living under anarchy will move towards the goal of solidarity through the method of forming voluntary horizontal associations. These voluntary horizontal associations will then enter into free agreements with one another and establish a decentralised network capable of co-ordinating action over a large scale. Although violence may sometimes be necessary to defend spaces of co-operation from external attack or to overthrow the ruling classes, force cannot be used to establish co-operation among equals. If one tries to impose decisions on others through force then the result will not be solidarity but conflict, strife and relations of command and obedience. The achievement of genuine solidarity requires that people come to agreements which best suit everyone involved and must therefore be established voluntarily.

This process of striving for solidarity through the method of freedom will result in a wide variety of experiments in different forms of life. Through a process of trial-and-error people will over time establish new social structures and relations which do a superior job of maximising the equality, solidarity and freedom of humanity. These new social structures and relations will, in turn, lay the foundations from which future improvements can occur and so on and on. As Malatesta wrote in 1899, “Anarchist ideals are . . . the experimental system brought from the field of research to that of social realisation”. (Malatesta 2014, 302)

Malatesta does not think that the establishment of anarchy will occur automatically or that humans naturally create anarchy. Anarchy only exists if it is consciously produced and reproduced by human action. As he wrote in 1897,

The belief in some natural law, whereby harmony is automatically established between men without any need for them to take conscious, deliberate action, is hollow and utterly refuted by the facts.

Even if the State and private property were to be done away with, harmony does not come to pass automatically, as if Nature busies herself with men’s blessings and misfortunes, but rather requires that men themselves create it. (Malatesta 2016, 81)

This exact point was repeated by Malatesta in 1925. He wrote, “Anarchy . . . is a human aspiration which is not founded on any true or supposed natural law, and which may or may not come about depending on human will.” (Malatesta 1995, 46) If anarchy is a product of human will, then it follows that anarchy could be ended if humans choose to oppress others and establish relations of domination and subordination. This is a danger that Malatesta was aware of. He wrote in 1899 that, “if anyone in some future society sought to oppress someone else, the latter would have the right to resist them and to fight force with force”. Anarchy was therefore a society based on “freedom for all and in everything, with no limit other than the equal freedom of others: which does not mean . . . that we embrace and wish to respect the ‘freedom’ to exploit, oppress, command, which is oppression and not freedom”. (Malatesta 2019, 148, 149).

A crucial aspect of reproducing anarchy as a social system is therefore ensuring that relations of domination and exploitation do not arise in the first place and that, if they do somehow arise, they are quickly defeated. Malatesta does not provide many details on how to do this because he thought this was a question which would be settled through large groups of people engaging in a process of experimentation with different forms of association. Modern anarchists can, however, look at anthropological evidence on how really existing stateless societies reproduce themselves. They do not provide exact blueprints which we can follow like an instruction manual for creating a free society, but they can be useful sources of inspiration. It should, in addition to this, be kept in mind that some stateless societies are hierarchical in other ways, such as men oppressing women or adults oppressing children.

There is a tendency for people raised in societies with states to assume that the true or correct end point of human cultural evolution is the creation of a society with a state. Those who live in stateless societies are therefore viewed as inferior people who have failed to realise the best way of organising society. In response to this way of thinking, the anthropologist Pierre Clastres has suggested that stateless societies should not be viewed as societies without a state, but instead as societies against the state. That is to say, people do not live in stateless societies by chance. They have instead developed political philosophies about the kind of society they want to live in and consciously created social structures to ensure that a society without rulers is reproduced. Members of stateless societies have not failed to realise the possibility of a society in which a ruling minority imposes their will on everyone else through violence. They have instead deliberately chosen to create a different kind of society. (Clastres 1989, 189-218) Clastres writes, in what I consider to be outdated and problematic language, that,

primitive societies do not have a State because they refuse it, because they refuse the division of the social body into the dominating and the dominated. The politics of the Savages is, in fact, to constantly hinder the appearance of a separate organ of power, to prevent the fatal meeting between the institution of chieftainship and the exercise of power. In primitive society, there is no separate organ of power, because power is not separated from society: society, as a single totality, holds power in order to maintain its undivided being, to ward off the appearance in its breast of the inequality between masters and subjects, between chief and tribe. . . The refusal of inequality and the refusal of separate power are the same, constant concern of primitive societies. (Clastres 1994, 91)

This point has recently been made in much greater depth by the anthropologist Christopher Boehm. He argues that egalitarian stateless societies are “the product of human intentionality” and that “the immediate cause of egalitarianism is conscious, and that deliberate social control is directed at preventing the expression of hierarchical tendencies”. (Boehm 2001, 12, 60) One of the main ways egalitarian stateless societies achieve this is through the use of horizontal decision-making processes in which the group make collective decisions through consensus between all involved. (Boehm 2001, 31, 113) Any leaders which do exist lack the power to impose decisions on others through coercion and must instead persuade others to act in a certain way through oratory skill alone. This usually goes alongside a variety of behavioural expectations which the leader has to conform to in order to remain in their position, such as the leader being modest, in control of their emotions, good at resolving disputes and generous. The emphasis on generosity can be so strong that leaders are expected to share large amounts of their possessions with others, especially those in need. This often results in leaders possessing the smallest number of things in the entire group due to them having to give so many items away. (Boehm 2001, 69-72)

Egalitarian stateless societies have, in addition to this, developed various mechanisms to respond to what Boehm labels ‘upstartism’. Upstartism includes any behaviour which threatens the autonomy and equality of the group, such as bullying, being selfishly greedy, issuing orders, taking on airs of superiority, engaging in acts of physical violence and so on. In order to implement the ethical values of the community, members of egalitarian stateless societies will respond to upstartism with a wide range of different social sanctions. This includes, but is not limited to, criticism, gossiping, public ridicule, ignoring what they say, ostracism, expulsion from the group and even, in some extreme cases, execution. Social sanctions are applied to all members of the group but leaders in particular. This is due to the fact that leaders are subject to a greater deal of public scrutiny and viewed as one of the main places where relations of domination and subordination could emerge. This, in turn, creates a situation where leaders will, in order to maintain their position and avoid being subject to sanctions, engage in the socially prescribed behaviour that is expected from them, such as sharing huge amounts of their belongings even if they would rather not do so. The system of sanctions therefore not only effectively counters acts of domination but also reproduces the horizontal structure of the group itself. (Boehm 2001, 3, 9-12, 43, 72-84)

The manner in which members of egalitarian stateless societies respond to upstartism can be subtle. Boehm gives the example of the !Kung, who have developed various ways of dealing with the problem of successful male hunters coming to think of themselves as superior to everyone else and, as a result, becoming more likely to engage in domination, especially murder. Firstly, large-game meat is shared equally among the group by the person who is credited with killing the animal. The credit for the kill does not go to the person who loosed the actual killing arrow, but instead to the owner of the first arrow to hit the animal. This will often not even be someone who went on the hunt due to the male hunters regularly trading arrows with one another. This social system ensures that credit for the hunt is randomized, unskilled or unlucky hunters are less likely to be envious of other hunters, every member of the group has access to protein, and the most skilled or lucky hunters are not able to easily use this fact to develop power and influence over others. (Boehm 2001, 46)

Secondly, the !Kung actively use humour and social etiquette to ensure that successful hunters do not put themselves on a pedestal. An unnamed member of the !Kung explains this as follows,

Say that a man has been hunting. He must not come home and announce like a braggart, ‘I have killed a big one in the bush!’ He must first sit down in silence until I or someone else comes up to his fire and asks, ‘What did you see today?’ He replies quietly, ‘Ah, I’m no good for hunting. I saw nothing at all . . . maybe just a tiny one.’ Then I smile to myself because I now know he has killed something big.

Even after the hunter has deliberately acted as if they haven’t been very successful, other members of the group will make jokes about them and express their disappointment. The unnamed member of the !Kung claims that when people go to collect the dead animal they will say things like,

You mean to say you have dragged us all the way out here to make us cart home your pile of bones? Oh, if I had known it was this thin I wouldn’t have come. People, to think I gave up a nice day in the shade for this. At home we may be hungry but at least we have nice cool water to drink.

The conscious motivation behind this behaviour is explained by a healer as follows,

When a young man kills much meat, he comes to think of himself as a chief or a big man, and he thinks of the rest of us as his servants or inferiors. We can’t accept this. We refuse one who boasts, for someday his pride will make him kill somebody. So we always speak of his meat as worthless. In this way we cool his heart and make him gentle. (Quoted in Boehm 2001, 45)

The !Kung have, in other words, intentionally developed a complex social system based on their political philosophy which ensures the reproduction of an egalitarian stateless society and actively prevents the rise of domination within their midst. It is important to note that Boehm’s account of the !Kung draws upon research conducted in the 1960s and early 1970s. Their society has significantly changed since then. In 1975 the anthropologist Patricia Draper claimed that,

the great majority of !Kung-speaking people have abandoned their traditional hunting and gathering way of life and are now living in sedentary and semi-squatter status in or near the villages of Bantu pastoralists and European ranchers. A minority of !Kung, amounting to a few thousand, are still living by traditional hunting and gathering technique. (Draper 1975, 79)

Although people living in industrial societies do not have to develop social norms around successful hunters, we do have our equivalents. For example, successful influencers sometimes let the fame get to their head, come to think of themselves as superior to other people, and then treat others as inferior to them and engage in acts of domination. Think Jake Paul. It is of course the case that those of us currently living under the domination of capitalism, the state, patriarchy, racism, queerphobia, ableism etc are most likely a long way away from achieving anarchy at a societal level. We are not confronted with the problem of reproducing anarchy as a stateless classless society. We instead face the challenge of living under oppressive systems, whilst attempting to implement the methods of anarchism within both our intimate relationships with friends, family, partners etc and social movements aimed at the abolition of all systems of domination and exploitation.

In order to do so we must establish horizontal social relations which are, as far as is possible, the same as those that would constitute anarchy. In so doing we can simultaneously (a) construct the world as we wish it was during our struggle against the world as it is and (b) develop through a process of experimentation in the present the real methods of organisation, decision-making and association that people in the future could use to achieve the states of affairs that characterise anarchy. If, as Malatesta argued, “tomorrow can only grow out of today” (Malatesta 2014, 163) then we must build organisations based “upon the will and in the interest of all their members” not only “tomorrow in order to meet all of the needs of social life” but also “today for the purposes of propaganda and struggle”. (Malatesta 2019, 63) We must, in other words, engage in prefigurative politics or, to use historical anarchist language, build “the embryo of the human society of the future”. (Graham 2005, 98. For more on prefigurative politics see Raekstad and Gradin 2020)

The pockets of freedom we manage to create within class society are of course not anarchy. Anarchy is a social system in which all forms of class rule have been abolished and socialism has been achieved. Anarchy cannot therefore be said to exist just because a horizontal association has been built within the cage of capitalism and the state. (Malatesta 2016, 358-60) Although horizontal associations within class society are not anarchy, they are the means through which anarchy can be achieved. That is to say, horizontal associations should be organs of class struggle which unite workers together in order to both win immediate improvements, such as higher wages or stopping the fossil fuel industry, and ultimately overthrow the ruling classes. Horizontal associations should, at the same time, be social structures which are constituted by forms of activity that develop their participants into the kinds of people who are both capable of, and driven to, establish and reproduce anarchy. For example, a group of workers form a tenant union, use direct action to prevent their landlord from evicting them, and at the same time learn how to make decisions within a general assembly. In changing the world, workers at the same time change themselves.

Given the insights of both historical anarchist theory and modern anthropology, a crucial aspect of laying the foundations from which anarchy could emerge in the future is establishing effective methods for maintaining the horizontality of a group. This includes at least,

(a) Deliberately structuring organisations so as to ensure that they are self-managed by their membership, such as making decisions through general assemblies in which everyone has a vote, co-ordinating action over a large scale via informal networks or formal federations, electing instantly recallable mandated delegates to perform specific tasks etc.

(b) Consciously developing a system of social sanctions which effectively and proportionally respond to situations where a member engages in what Boehm terms upstartism. This is especially necessary for when people attempt to establish themselves in positions of power at the top of an informal hierarchy or engage in an act of domination. One of the most important situations which a group must effectively respond to is when a member emotionally, physically or sexually abuses another person. It is, in addition to this, very important than any sanction system which is implemented is not itself a new form of domination disguised as mere opposition to the domination of others.

In summary, anarchy is a form of living together in society which must be consciously and intentionally produced and reproduced by human action. A crucial part of doing so is developing social structures and relations which maintain the horizontality of groups and prevent new forms of domination and exploitation from arising. Given modern anthropological evidence on how really existing stateless societies reproduce themselves, this will include developing social sanctions to respond to what Boehm terms upstartism. Although we do not currently live under anarchy, we must establish horizontal associations which engage in class struggle against the ruling classes and prefigure the methods of organisation, decision-making and association which would exist in a free society. This includes developing effective sanction systems which proportionally respond to behaviour that threatens the horizontality of the group. Doing so will, just like under anarchy, require a process of experimentation with different forms of life in order to figure out which solutions actually work and are compatible with anarchist goals and values.

In 1899 Malatesta wrote that “Anarchy cannot come but little by little – slowly, but surely, growing in intensity and extension. Therefore, the subject is not whether we accomplish Anarchy today, tomorrow or within ten centuries, but that we walk toward Anarchy today, tomorrow and always.” (Malatesta 2014, 300) Through the process of walking towards anarchy we must learn how to live as equals within a free horizontal association and in so doing become fit to establish a society with neither masters nor subjects. I am sure that we will make mistakes along the way, but these mistakes must be treated as opportunities to learn and develop, rather than reasons to abandon the march towards anarchy. In the words of the Spanish anarchist Isaac Puente,

Living in libertarian communism will be like learning to live. Its weak points and its failings will be shown up when it is introduced. If we were politicians we would paint a paradise brimful of perfections. Being human and being aware what human nature can be like, we trust that people will learn to walk the only way it is possible for them to learn: by walking. (Puente 1932)


Boehm, Christopher. 2001. Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behaviour. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Clastres, Pierre. 1989. Society Against the State: Essays in Political Anthropology. New York: Zone Books.

Clastres, Pierre. 1994. Archeology of Violence. Semiotext(e).

Draper, Patricia. 1975. “!Kung Women: Contrasts in Sexual Egalitarianism in Foraging and Sedentary Contexts” in Toward an Anthropology of Women, ed. R. R. Reiter. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Graham, Robert. 2005. Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Volume One: From Anarchy to Anarchism (300CE to 1939. Montréal: Black Rose Books.

Malatesta, Errico. 1995. The Anarchist Revolution: Polemical Articles 1924-1931. Edited by Vernon Richards. London: Freedom Press.

Malatesta, Errico. 2014. The Method of Freedom: An Errico Malatesta Reader. Edited by Davide Turcato. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

Malatesta, Errico. 2016. A Long and Patient Work: The Anarchist Socialism of L’Agitazione 1897-1898. Edited by Davide Turcato. Chico, CA: AK Press.

Malatesta, Errico. 2019. Towards Anarchy: Malatesta in America 1899-1900. Edited by Davide Turcato. Chico, CA: AK Press.

Puente, Isaac. 1932. Libertarian Communism.

Turcato, Davide. 2012. Making Sense of Anarchism: Errico Malatesta’s Experiments With Revolution, 1889-1900. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Raekstad, Paul, and Gradin, Sofa Saio. 2020. Prefigurative Politics: Building Tomorrow Today. Cambridge: Polity Press.

When Malatesta Got Shot

During the 1890s there was an intense debate in the Italian anarchist movement between organisationalists, who advocated formal organisations like federations, and anti-organisationalists, who only advocated affinity groups and thought formal organisation was incompatible with anarchist values and strategy. In the United States the main debate occurred between Errico Malatesta, who edited La Questione Sociale and advocated formal organisation, and Giuseppe Ciancabilla, who edited l’Aurora and rejected formal organisation. (Turcato 2012, 190-7)

Prior to this debate with Ciancabilla occurring, Malatesta attended a meeting of anarchists at the Tivola and Zucca Saloon in West Hoboken, New Jersey on 3rd September 1899. West Hoboken was one of the main areas where anti-organisationalist anarchism was popular. During the meeting Malatesta explained his organisationalist ideas and this greatly angered an anarchist barber called Domenico Pazzaglia, who was an anti-organisationalist. According to Armando Borghi, Pazzaglia was “unknown to most of the comrades and ignored by the few who knew him.” (Quoted in Malatesta 2015, 238) Pazzaglia became so enraged during Malatesta’s speech that he drew his revolver and shot Malatesta in the leg. Pazzaglia was then disarmed by Gaetano Bresci, who would go onto assassinate the king of Italy in 1900. The police arrived on the scene and decided to arrest Malatesta, the victim of the shooting. Malatesta responded in a truly anarchist fashion and refused to tell the police who had shot him. Upon being released from police custody, Malatesta decided to not publish an account of the shooting in the paper he edited, La Questione Sociale. (Malatesta 2019, xxiii. Nettlau claims the shot missed Malatesta but both Fabbri and Borghi claim he was shot in the leg)

The newspaper Il Progresso Italo-Americano published an article on September 6th in which they claim that,

Enrico Malatesta has proven he is a great soul again on this occasion. Not only has he refused to name the assailant, but he has also declared that he has forgiven him from the bottom of his heart.

‘I am sure – Malatesta said – that by now he regrets his actions.’ (Malatesta 2019, 258)

Shortly after the shooting Ciancabilla began the publication of l’Aurora on 16th September and launched a polemical campaign against Malatesta’s organisationalists ideas. Malatesta responded to this by writing a series of articles critiquing his opponents’ arguments. Even though Ciancabilla did not express public regret over the fact that Malatesta had been shot by an anti-organisationalist, Malatesta did not bring up the incident during the debate and focused on the arguments for and against formal organisation. Although it should be noted that Ciancabilla does appear to have been privately opposed to Pazzaglia’s actions. (Malatesta 2019, xxiii; Malatesta 2015, 238)

The one-time Malatesta did mention the shooting occurred when news of it spread from America to Italy. In response to the coverage of the events in the Italian socialist press, Malatesta published a brief note in La Questione Sociale on October 28th. It said,

Comrade Errico Malatesta – considering the protests being published in the Italian newspapers, as well as others that have reached us directly, regarding the slight accident that happened to him and which we believe is not even worth talking about – thanks the friends who have in such a manner expressed their sympathy with him, but begs them… to let that be the end of it. (Malatesta 2019, 120)

I have been unable to find many details about what happened to Pazzaglia after he shot Malatesta. According to Luigi Fabbri, the paper “L’Adunata dei Refrattari of New York (no. 5 of January 28, 1933) clarifies that Malatesta’s shooter had been an outcast who was not given any consideration among comrades; some Pazzaglia, who disappeared immediately after the movement and died a few years later.” (Fabbri 1936)

Malatesta could have used him being shot by an anti-organisationalist to wage a polemical war against his political opponents within the anarchist movement. He could have sought revenge and attempted to shoot Pazzaglia in retaliation. He instead chose to forgive his assailant and move on from these events. In other words, Malatesta killed the cop in his head. Have you?


Fabbri, Luigi. 1936. Life of Malatesta.

Malatesta, Errico. 2015. Life and Ideas: The Anarchist Writings of Errico Malatesta. Edited by Vernon Richards. Oakland, CA: PM Press.

Malatesta, Errico. 2019. Towards Anarchy: Malatesta in America 1899-1900. Edited by Davide Turcato. Chico, CA: AK Press.

Turcato, Davide. 2012. Making Sense of Anarchism: Errico Malatesta’s Experiments with Revolution 1889-1900. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Fun Kropotkin Facts

Peter Kropotkin was an anarcho-communist revolutionary. He is perhaps now most famous for developing the theory of mutual aid and writing the conquest of bread aka the bread book. In this video I’m going to go through some fun facts about him.

1. Kropotkin was born into the Russian nobility. His family were large landowners who exploited almost 1200 serfs. (Kropotkin 1989, 24) Due to this Kropotkin inherited the title of prince. This didn’t mean he was a member of the royal family. Prince was a rank in the Russian nobility. As a child Kropotkin abandoned the title of prince in response to the influence of his tutors. He recalls in his autobiography that,

The title of prince was used in our house with and without occasion. M. Poulain must have been shocked by it, for he began once to tell us what he knew of the great Revolution. I cannot now recall what he said, but one thing I remember, namely, that ‘Count Mirabeau’ and other nobles one day renounced their titles, and that Count Mirabeau, to show his contempt for aristocratic pretensions, opened a shop decorated with a signboard which bore the inscription, ‘Mirabeau, tailor.’ (I tell the story as I had it from M. Poulain.) For a long time after that I worried myself thinking what trade I should take up so as to write, ‘Kropótkin, such and such a handicraft man.’ Later on, my Russian teacher, Nikolái Pávlovich Smirnóff, and the general republican tone of Russian literature influenced me in the same way; and when I began to write novels — that is, in my twelfth year — I adopted the signature P. Kropótkin, which I never have departed from, notwithstanding the remonstrances of my chiefs when I was in the military service. (Kropotkin 1989, 43-4)

As an adult anarchist Kropotkin did not like being called a prince. Emma Goldman writes in her autobiography Living my Life,

I remembered the anecdote he had told us about his stay in Chicago, when his comrades had arranged for him to go to Waldheim to visit the graves of Parsons, Spies, and the other Haymarket martyrs. The same morning a group of society women, led by Mrs. Potter Palmer, invited him to a luncheon. ‘You will come, Prince, will you not?’ they pleaded. ‘I am sorry, ladies, but I have a previous engagement with my comrades,’ he excused himself. ‘Oh, no, Prince; you must come with us!’ Mrs. Palmer insisted. ‘Madam,’ Peter replied, ‘you may have the Prince, and I will go to my comrades.’ (Goldman 1970a, 361)

2. Kropotkin rode a penny farthing. His nephew Nicholas Alexeivich visited Kropotkin in 1886 as a child and later recalled in a 1931 article that, “I remember that our uncle astonished us with his adroitness in physical exercises, in bicycling, when that was still new in England”. Kropotkin rode a “penny-farthing”, “the wheel in front was enormous and the rear one very small”. (Quoted in Woodcock and Avakumovic 1990, 212)

3. Kropotkin spoke English in a Russian accent and mispronounced words. That Kropotkin spoke English in a strong accent is claimed by several eyewitness accounts, such as Philip Snowden and Roger Baldwin. (Woodcock and Avakumovic 1990, 226, 284) The longest description I’ve been able to find is by H.W. Nevinson. He writes that,

Anarchists do not have a chairman, but when enough of us had assembled a man stood up and began to speak. His pronunciation was queer until one grew accustomed to it (‘own’ rhymed with ‘town’, ‘law’ with ‘low’, and ‘the sluffter fields of Europe’ became a kindly joke among us). He began with the sentence, “Our first step must be the abolition of all ‘low’. I was a little startled. I had no exaggerated devotion to the law, but, as a first step, its abolition seemed rather a bound. Without a pause the speaker continued speaking, with rapidity, but with the difficulties of a foreigner who has to translate rushing thoughts as he goes along . . . (Quoted in Woodcock and Avakumovic 1990, 235-6)

Kropotkin was himself aware of the difficulties he had when speaking English. He writes in his autobiography that upon first moving to Edinburgh in 1876,

I may say that I had learned English in Russia, and, with my brother, had translated Page’s ‘Philosophy of Geology’ and Herbert Spencer’s ‘Principles of Biology.’ But I had learned it from books, and pronounced it very badly, so that I had the greatest difficulty in making myself understood by my Scotch landlady; her daughter and I used to write on scraps of paper what we had to say to each other; and as I had no idea of idiomatic English, I must have made the most amusing mistakes. I remember, at any rate, protesting once to her, in writing, that it was not a “cup of tea” that I expected at tea time, but many cups. I am afraid my landlady took me for a glutton, but I must say, by way of apology, that neither in the geological books I had read in English nor in Spencer’s ‘Biology’ was there any allusion to such an important matter as tea-drinking. (Kropotkin 1989, 355)

4. Kropotkin is sometimes depicted by later authors as a saintly figure or gentle sage. In reality he was a hardcore anarcho-communist revolutionary. This can be seen in several primary sources. For example, in 1881 he wrote that workers must “seize all of the wealth of society, if necessary doing so over the corpse of the bourgeoisie, with the intention of returning all of society’s wealth to those who produced it, the workers”. (Kropotkin 2014, 305) Decades later in 1914 he wrote that, “two things are necessary to be successful in a revolution . . . an idea in the head, and a bullet in the rifle! The force of action – guided by the force of Anarchist thought”.  (Ibid, 207)

Kropotkin’s hardcore militancy can also be seen in his actions. In 1877 a small armed band of twenty-six Italian anarchists, which included Malatesta, roamed the Matese mountains attempting to spread anarchist ideas through deeds. After failing to accomplish much beyond entering two small towns, burning some official government documents, and giving speeches to peasants on the need for a social revolution, the anarchists were arrested without firing a shot. (Pernicone 1993, 121-6) In response Kropotkin wrote a letter to Paul Robin where he said,

You can imagine how angry we are with the Italians. Seeing that they have allowed themselves to be surprised and have not defended themselves, I propose a vote for their exclusion from the International. The republic of [17]93 was quite capable of guillotining its generals when they gave proof of ineptitude. In my view, by allowing themselves to be surprised, to take fright, and by delivering up their weapons and ammunition to 42 men they have acted as cowards. (Quoted in Cahm 1989, 103)

Kropotkin may have changed his mind after James Guillaume wrote a letter explaining that the Italian anarchists had been unable to use their old rifles because heavy rain had made it too damp to fire. (ibid). In 1877 Kropotkin had himself attended a demonstration in St Imier, Switzerland armed with a “loaded revolver”. He was ready, in his own words, to “blow out the brains” of the police if they attacked. (Cahm 1989, 102, 104) Decades later in 1905 Kropotkin, who was in his 60s, responded to news of the Russian revolution by practising shooting with a rifle in case he returned to Russia and needed to participate in street fighting. (Woodcock and Avakumovic 1990, 365-6)

5. When living in England Kropotkin refused to toast the king. He recounts in a letter that,

A month ago I was invited to a banquet of the Royal Geographical Society of London. The chairman proposed, ‘The King’! Everybody rose and I alone remained seated. It was a painful moment. And I was thunderstruck when immediately afterwards the same chairman cried, ‘Long live Prince Kropotkin!’ And everybody, without exception, rose. (Quoted in Woodcock and Avakumovic 1990, 227)

6. Kropotkin called everything a prison before Foucault made it cool. Kropotkin argued in 1887 that insane asylums were prisons. He wrote,

There was a time when lunatics, considered as possessed by the devil, were treated in the most abominable manner. Chained in stalls like animals, they were dreaded even by their keepers. To break their chains, to set them free, would have been considered then as a folly. But a man came – Pinel – who dared to take off their chains, and to offer them brotherly words, brotherly treatment. And those who were looked upon as ready to devour the human being who dared to approach them, gathered round their liberator, and proved that he was right in his belief in the best features of human nature, even in those whose intelligence was darkened by disease. From that time the cause of humanity was won. The lunatic was no longer treated like a wild beast. Men recognized in him a brother.

The chains disappeared, but asylums – another name for prisons – remained, and within their walls a system as bad as that of the chains grew up by-and-by. (Kropotkin 1991, 369)

A decade later Kropotkin argued in 1899 that authoritarian schools were prisons. He wrote that in Germany “the Kindergarten . . . has often become a small prison for the little ones” where “teachers often make of it a kind of barrack in which each movement of the child is regulated beforehand”. (Kropotkin 1902, 193-4)

7. Kropotkin loved gardening. A wholesome example of this is Goldman’s description of her visit to Kropotkin during the Russian revolution. She writes,

we had visited Peter in July and had found him in good health and buoyant spirits. He seemed then younger and better than when we had seen him the previous March. The sparkle in his eyes and his vivacity had impressed us with his splendid condition. The Kropotkin place had looked lovely in the summer sunshine, with the flowers and Sophie’s vegetable garden in full bloom. With much pride Peter had spoken of his companion and her skill as a gardener. Taking Sasha and me by the hand, he had led us in boyish exuberance to the patch where Sophie had planted a special kind of lettuce. She had succeeded in raising heads as large as cabbages, their leaves crispy and luscious. He himself had also been digging in the soil, but it was Sophie, he had reiterated, who was the real expert. Her potato crop of the previous winter had been so large that there was enough left over to exchange for fodder for their cow and even to share with their Dmitrov neighbours, who had few vegetables. Our dear Peter had been frolicking in his garden and talking about these matters as if they were world events. Infectious had been the youthful spirit of our comrade, carrying us along by its freshness and charm. (Goldman 1970b, 863)

8. Kropotkin was apparently good at playing with kids. His nephew Nicholas Alexeivich claims that during his 1886 visit to Kropotkin, “[h]e taught us all the rules of fortification (a science to which he referred with great respect, regarding it indispensable for a revolutionary) and made fortifications in the snow. We arranged desperate battles with our comrades, little English boys, with my uncle’s benevolent assistance”. (Quoted in Woodcock and Avakumovic 1990, 212)

E.M Heath visited Kropotkin’s home as a child and recalled that “Kropotkin was gay and brimming over with life and interest in everything – very warm and affectionate. His vast knowledge, his vast experience and his great powers of thought, I was quite oblivious to them. It was enough for me to listen to his stories and play the delightful game he taught me, where he was a bull-fighter and I the bull, hurling myself in vain on him”. (Quoted in Woodcock and Avakumovic 1990, 222)

9. Kropotkin never met Michael Bakunin, who was one of the most influential anarchist theorists in the 19th The reason why is as follows. In 1872 Kropotkin visited Switzerland in order to meet socialists of various persuasions and learn about the 1st International. He initially met state socialists in Geneva, including one of Bakunin’s main opponents Nicholas Utin. After Utin attempted to stop workers from going on strike in order to protect the election of a bourgeois candidate, Kropotkin left in disgust and headed for the Jura Mountains. During his stay in the Jura he came into contact with anarchists for the first time and soon came to consider himself one. (Kropotkin 1989, 255-67) He attempted to meet Bakunin but Guillaume advised against this on the grounds that Bakunin was old and overwhelmed by the on-going conflict in the International with Marx and his supporters. (Cahm 1989, 27)

Kropotkin later wrote in his autobiography that “Bakunin was at that time at Locarno. I did not see him, and now regret it very much, because he was dead when I returned four years later to Switzerland.” (Kropotkin 1989, 267) What Kropotkin didn’t realise was that Bakunin had rejected him. Guillaume revealed to Max Nettlau that Bakunin had decided to not meet Kropotkin for what strike me as extremely bizarre reasons. Bakunin associated Peter Kropotkin with his politically moderate brother Alexander Kropotkin who was an associate of Peter Lavrov, one of Bakunin’s rivals. Bakunin was, in addition to this, suspicious of the fact that Kropotkin had stayed with Utin in Geneva for several weeks. (Cahm 1989, 27) At the time Bakunin, who was an antisemite, was convinced that Utin was part of a Jewish state socialist conspiracy against him that had been masterminded by Marx. As a result, Bakunin may have mistakenly believed that Kropotkin had sided with Utin or was being manipulated by him in some way. Unlike Bakunin we now know from Kropotkin’s memoirs that he disliked Utin and that this was a key reason why he had gone to meet the anarchists in the Jura.

10. Kropotkin didn’t only look like Santa Claus he was also aware of the fact. According to Ruth Kinna, Kropotkin contemplated dressing up as Santa Claus in order to expropriate toys from shops and give them away to children for free. Kropotkin wrote on the edge of one page, “[i]nfiltrate the stores, give away the toys!”. On the back of a postcard he wrote,

On the night before Christmas, we’ll all be about
While the people are sleeping, we’ll realise our clout
We’ll expropriate goods from the stores, ‘cos that’s fair
And distribute them widely, to those who need care.

Bonus Fact

Kropotkin was not born with a large beard. Here is a picture of him from 1861. (Woodcock and Avakumovic 1990, 96)

Kropotkin 1861


Goldman, Emma. 1970a. Living My Life Volume 1. New York: Dover Publications.

Goldman, Emma. 1970b. Living My Life Volume 2. New York: Dover Publications.

Cahm, Caroline. 1989. Kropotkin and the Rise of Revolutionary Anarchism, 1872-1886. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kropotkin, Peter. 1902. Fields, Factories and Workshops: Industry Combined with Agriculture and Brain Work with Manual Work. New York: G.P Putnam’s Sons.

Kropotkin, Peter. 1989. Memoirs of a Revolutionist. Montréal: Black Rose Books.

Kropotkin, Peter. 1991. In Russian and French Prisons. Montréal: Black Rose Books.

Kropotkin, Peter 2014. Direct Struggle Against Capital: A Peter Kropotkin Anthology. Edited by Iain McKay. Oakland, CA: AK Press,

Pernicone, Nunzio. 1993. Italian Anarchism 1864-1892. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Woodcock, George, and Ivan Avakumović. Peter Kropotkin: From Prince to Rebel. Montréal: Black Rose Books, 1990.

The Best Feminist You’ve Never Heard Of: He-Yin Zhen

Discussions of historical feminists usually focus on figures like Mary Wollstonecraft or Emmeline Pankhurst. If you’re lucky anti-capitalist feminists like Emma Goldman, Voltairine de Cleyre and Eleanor Marx will be mentioned. In this video I’m going to be talking about a historical feminist you’ve probably never heard of: the Chinese anarchist feminist He-Yin Zhen, who during the early 20th century developed feminist theory which conceptualised the manner in which patriarchy, capitalism and the state intersected with one another to uniquely oppress working class women in China. 

He-Yin was born in 1884 to wealthy parents in China’s Jiangsu province and received a considerable childhood education. In 1904 she married the classical scholar Liu Shipei and subsequently fled to Tokyo with him in 1907 due to their opposition to Manchu rule in China. It was in Tokyo, where they lived among Chinese students and exiled revolutionaries in the Kanda district, that they first discovered and came to identify with anarchism. According to the historian Peter Zarrow, Liu and He-Yin were, alongside Zhang Ji, the first Chinese anarchists we know of living outside of Europe. That same year He-Yin co-founded ‘the Society for the Restoration of Women’s Rights’ and its accompanying journal, Natural Justice. The society’s bylaws prohibited supporting governments, acting in subservience to men, and becoming a concubine or second wife. The journal Natural Justice, which was edited by He-Yin, was in print for only two years but played a crucial role in spreading feminism, socialism, Marxism and anarchism among Chinese speakers. This can be seen in the fact that the journal published the earliest Chinese translation of large parts of the Communist Manifesto in 1908. (Zarrow 1988, 800; Zarrow 1990, 31, 33-4, 101-4, 130-1)

In the pages of Natural Justice He-Yin laid out her theory of how women’s oppression arose, was reproduced and could be abolished. Central to this theorising was the Confucian concept of nannü, which can be translated as ‘man-woman’. In Confucianism the concept of nannü was used by male thinkers to render the inequalities and differences between men and women as inherent aspects of the natural world which it was wrong to oppose or try to change. The White Tiger Discourse, for example, claims that “[t]he husband is high as the wife is low; the husband is to heaven as the wife is to earth. The wife cannot do without her husband as the earth cannot do without Heaven.” (Quoted in He-Yin 2013, 180) He-Yin responded to this intellectual context by taking the concept of nannü and using it to theorise how the inequalities and differences between men and women were inherently historical and socially produced, rather than natural, and so could be changed. In her usage the concept nannü refers to the social system under which human action continually produces and reproduces the division of men and women into distinct social categories with accompanying roles who stand in specific social relations to one another. (see the extended discussion on translating nannü by the editors in ibid, 10-17, 20)

There are two important features of nannü as a concept which must be stressed. Firstly, it holds that ‘men’ and ‘women’ cannot be understood in isolation of one another but must instead be understood in terms of the relations that they stand in with one another, such as the actual and socially prescribed relationships between husband and wife, father and daughter, male emperor and female concubine and so on. This relational view of men and women is similar to how Marx defines capitalist and worker in terms of their relationship with one another and the productive process which they both take part in.

Secondly, it holds that ‘men’ and ‘women’ are not static fixed entities but are rather on-going processes which change over time. What it is for an individual to be a ‘woman’ will change between the 16th and 19th century or will change as a woman moves from being a child to an adult and from unmarried to married to widowed. These changes to womanhood can crucially be brought about by women themselves, such as He-Yin changing her own sense of being a woman through the creation of feminist theory. This can be seen in He-Yin’s view that part of why women must emancipate themselves is because it develops their character as women and enables them to unlearn the passivity that they have been socialised into. (ibid, 63) The end point of such emancipation was for He-Yin the abolition of nannü as a social system. She writes that,

Men and women are both humans. By [saying] ‘men’ (nanxing) and ‘women’ (nuxing) we are not speaking of  ‘nature’, as each is but the outcome of differing social customs and education. If sons and daughters are treated equally, raised and educated in the same manner, then the responsibilities assumed by men and women will surely become equal. When that happens, the nouns ‘men’ and ‘women’ would no longer be necessary. This is ultimately the ‘equality of men and women’ of which we speak. (ibid, 184)

The history of how patriarchy arose was for He-Yin the history of how men “created political and moral institutions, the first priority of which was to separate man from woman” and thereby come to consider “the differentiation between man and woman” as “one of the major principles in heaven and on earth.” These divisions between men and women either did not exist prior to the creation of patriarchy, such as women’s subservience to men, or were built upon previously existing differences which hitherto had not been of supreme importance and did not determine a person’s social positioning within a relationship of domination and subordination, such as men’s control of women’s capacity to have children. Crucially, in both cases these divisions were created by human action and were not, as people under patriarchy thought, inherent in the natural order. (ibid, 53) 

The key social system which established and reproduced the division of men and women into separate social categories was men’s exclusive right to own property. She writes that “[f]or thousands of years, the world has been dominated by the rule of man. This rule is marked by class distinctions over which men – and men only – exert proprietary rights.” These “proprietary rights” consisted of, alongside the ownership of land and resources, the ownership of women as property. (ibid)   

He-Yin thought that prior to the creation of patriarchy through the enslavement of women, humans initially lived in egalitarian societies in which property was owned in common, both men and women had multiple sexual partners, and children inherited their mothers’ surname because it was not important who the father was. Women’s oppression arose due to a division of labour in which men were soldiers and women were not. The consequence of this division of labour was that when different groups of humans came into armed conflict with one another the victorious group cemented their military supremacy by killing the male soldiers, seizing communally owned property as their own private property, and enslaving the remaining men as labourers and the women as concubines. In so doing the victorious male soldiers established themselves as a ruling class who wielded power over both other men and women through the ownership of resources and human beings. The establishment of patriarchy and class society therefore not only coincided with one another but patriarchy itself was a gendered form of class society because women were owned as sex slaves. (ibid, 92, 108-9) He-Yin writes,

just as the systems of communal marriage and common property were linked, so were the systems of pillaging women for marriage and slavery also linked at their very birth. And so it was that brute force became the way to rule: separating the strong from the weak, creating division into two classes. Both women and men were the objects of brute force, suppressed by those men with strength and power. Henceforth, slavery became the mode of production: whereas the weak expended their strength, the strong enjoyed their successes without effort; and the extremes of wealth and poverty gradually became more severe. (ibid, 92-3)

The practice of owning women as sex slaves simultaneously led men to view women as inferior beings who should be treated as objects and led women to become “disposed to servitude” and following “the commands of men”. It was therefore not long before what He-Yin termed ‘the age of men’s plundering of women’ was supplanted by ‘the age of men’s trading of women’, in which men, rather than seizing women through armed conflict, bought and sold women from within their own and neighbouring communities. This development represented a shift from a society in which women captured through military conquest were thought of as inferior, to a society in which women as a whole were thought of as inferior because all women, rather than only some, became the property of men. Under such a system, men were humans and women were chattel. (ibid, 110-1, 178-80) 

The transition to patriarchy was therefore the process through which a previous matrilineal social system in which both men and women had multiple sexual partners was replaced by a social system in which men owned multiple women as property and prohibited women from having any other sexual partner but them. Under such a system of ownership women lost their surnames in favour of the surname of their husband and the children they gave birth to inherited the surname of the father, rather than the mother. (ibid, 111-2)

The oppression of women was subsequently reproduced through a series of social practices which continually marked out the division between men and women. These included but were not limited to: a gendered division of labour in which men left the household to earn a living whilst women were forced to remain at home and perform “the double task of raising children” and “managing the household”; inequality in the system of rites whereby a husband would have to mourn his wife for a year but a wife would have to mourn her husband for three years; inequality in education such that women were taught how to be wives but not intellectuals; and a vast array of Confucian scholarship written by men which established the ideological underpinnings of man’s oppression of women and was used as the basis for patriarchal laws. (ibid, 54, 181, 122-46, 148-9)

These gendered forms of oppression permeated the whole of society such that irrespective of your economic class and social status if you were a woman then there was some man who you were subordinate to. An upper class woman, for example, may hold power over lower class men but at the same time be subordinate to the power of her wealthy husband. As He-Yin writes,

there is not a single woman who has not been ill treated by some man . . . One cannot deny that an empress occupies a highly esteemed position, but she never questions her own subjugation to a man (men). At the other end of the hierarchy, one finds beggars whose social position cannot be more degraded, yet even a female beggar would not question her subjugation to a man (men). (ibid, 105)

Although all women were subordinate to some man, they did not share the same experiences of subordination due to their different positions within economic and political hierarchies. Lower class women, who were the majority of women, experienced patriarchal, economic and state oppression at the same time. Although He-Yin did not use the word intersectionality, which was coined by Kimberlee Crenshaw in 1989, she did nonetheless think in an intersectional way. (Crenshaw 1989; Collins and Bilge 2016, 2, 4, 26-7) For He-Yin structures of oppression are not separate discrete entities but instead mutually determine and define one another. On her view, patriarchal, economic and state oppression form an interlocking web in which each component is defined in terms of its relationship to every other component. There is no such thing as pure patriarchy because part of what patriarchy is as a really existing social phenomenon is the relations it stands in with other structures of oppression, such as economic oppression. A working-class woman does not experience patriarchal + economic + state oppression whereby each form of oppression is separate and independent from one another. She instead experiences the product of these three systems of oppression interacting with one another to create life experiences that cannot be reduced to any one of these oppressive systems but are instead the product of all three at once. To understand oppression is therefore to examine how a given person is socially positioned along multiple different axis, rather than focusing only on one axis which is taken to be the most important.

I shall first discuss the intersection of patriarchal and economic oppression, then the intersection of patriarchal and state oppression and then the intersection of all three. He-Yin gives three main examples of the intersection of patriarchal and economic oppression. Firstly, poor families could not live solely off of male labour and so lower class women were forced to, usually in addition to raising children and managing the household, work as farmers, factory workers, domestic servants, bond servants, concubines and sex workers. (He-Yin 2013, 55, 82) Although, unlike upper class women, they were free to leave the home this freedom was not a liberating one since they suffered “the most strenuous forms of labor, the most ruthless exploitation, and the most shameful humiliation”. (ibid, 55)

Secondly, patriarchal and economic oppression combined to create a society in which lower class women were forced by poverty to become sex workers who sold their bodies to men who viewed women as sex objects. Poor families, for example, would often sell their daughters, who due to patriarchy they valued less than their sons, as slaves to rich men or brothels visited primarily by rich men. Their poverty was in turn caused by these same rich men economically exploiting them. The upper class therefore both created the conditions under which lower class women were forced into sex work by poverty whilst at the same time being the primary users and owners of sex workers. In a society in which women were owned as property the sale of daughters by lower class families could be viewed, according to He-Yin, as an indirect means through which rich men both seized the property of the poor and raped the daughters of the poor. Even those women who found employment as factory workers or maids were forced to engage in sex work part time because their male employers did not pay them a living wage. (ibid, 74-5, 82-84, 88-9) He-Yin writes that,  

in a world where property is not equal, those who escape being a concubine may not escape being prostitutes; those who escape being a prostitute may not escape being a factory girl or a servant. Even if one is a factory girl or a servant in name, prostitution is the hidden reality. (ibid, 90)

Thirdly, in many cases lower class women, including those who did not engage in sex work, were raped or sexually harassed within the workplace by their male employer or manager and outside the workplace by upper class men who happened to notice them in public. In such situations both lower class women and their families were not in a position to do anything about what had happened because the perpetrator was wealthy and, if it occurred within the workplace, could make their life even worse by having them fired. This sexual violence therefore simultaneously had a gendered aspect, it was directed at them by a man, and an economic aspect, the man in question wielded class power over them. (ibid, 95-6, 100, 101)

A significant number of modern feminists would object to He-Yin’s description of sex work as women selling their bodies to men. She does nonetheless explicitly say that sex workers degrade their bodies not because they have sex with multiple men but because they, like all who must work for the wealthy in order to survive, sell their bodies for money. She therefore views capitalism as a social system in which the working classes in general sell their bodies to the rich, rather than thinking this is unique to sex work under capitalism. (ibid, 64, note 29, 80) Elsewhere He-Yin writes that those who “call prostitutes and concubines insulting names” are “pathetic”. (ibid, 84)

He-Yin does advocate the abolition of sex work, but she does not think this should occur through the violence of the state. She argued against the criminalisation of sex work on the grounds that such laws ignore that women engage in sex work in order to earn a living and will continue to do so as long as capitalism exists. She writes,

Although eliminating prostitution and concubinage is spoken of all over the country, neither public opinion nor legislative prohibition can stop poor women from becoming prostitutes and concubines. Nor can they stop the rich from patronizing prostitutes and keeping concubines. Even if the systems of prostitution and concubinage were eliminated in name, they would persist in reality. (ibid, 86)

According to He-Yin, the abolition of sex work could only come about through the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of a classless society. She advocates,

the implementation of communalized property, where there is no differentiation between the wealthy and the poor. This would allow poor women not to seek money by sacrificing their bodies and would prevent the rich from using their wealth to satisfy their desires. It would also eliminate the system of women’s employment, thus overturning the trend toward semiprostitution and semiconcubinage. In this way, one could save women from hardship. (ibid, 90)

This is not to say that He-Yin’s critique of involuntary sex work under capitalism is flawless. The way He-Yin talks about sex work gives the impression that her critique was underpinned by sexual prudishness. For example, she describes sex work as an “immoral profession” based on “the selling of lewdness and obscenity” which poor women “sink into”. She alleges that wealthy men who hire poor sex workers “ruin the virtue of women” and that “wealth is the root cause of lustful indulgence”. (ibid, 88, 97, 84, 96) He-Yin’s response to the idea that women should have multiple husbands in order to be equal with men who have multiple wives is particularly yikes. She writes that,

A woman who has multiple husbands is virtually a prostitute. Those women who are now advocating multiple husbands use the pretext of resisting men, but their real motivation is to give full rein to their personal lust, following the path of prostitutes. These women are traitors to womanhood. (ibid, 184)

Within another passage He-Yin complains about women who “appear to be liberated” but are instead merely “taking cover under freedom and equality to seek self-gratification and the fulfillment of sexual desire”. Some of these women are “driven by blind passion and some are seduced by men and fall into their snare.” She claims that “when liberation is mistaken for self-indulgence, a woman cannot think of a nobler task than sexual pleasure”. It should, however, be noted that He-Yin also writes that “free love is an exception” to this, where free love means a monogamous sexual relationship in which both partners are free and equal. It is, in addition the case that, she critiques these liberated women for conceiving of “liberation much too narrowly” and focusing on their own individual self-indulgence, rather than fundamental social change for everyone. (ibid, 63-4) Perhaps then He-Yin’s issue is not with the fact that these women are pursuing sex but with the fact that they are ignoring the need to achieve universal human emancipation and are being seduced by sexist men who treat them badly.

According to He-Yin, women were oppressed not only by the intersection of patriarchal and economic oppression, but also suffered due to the intersection of patriarchal and state oppression. This took the form of women being excluded from wielding political power and commanding armies. The consequence of this is that states were not merely institutions controlled by a ruling minority in their interests. They were controlled by a ruling minority who were specifically men and so had an interest in reproducing and expanding the oppression of women by men. In those rare moments when women did wield state power they would often have to entrust the affairs of state to their husband or brothers and would be viewed as a danger to the country by men. State power was therefore exercised to perpetuate not only economic and political oppression but also gender oppression. For He-Yin one of the prime examples of this was patriarchal laws which dictated that when a man committed a crime the punishment would be applied not only to the guilty man but also to the innocent women within his household, which included his wife, daughters, sisters and concubines. The consequence of this is that countless women were executed, banished or imprisoned by the state because of the crimes their husband, brother or father committed. The law treated women “as appendages of men” and so deprived them of life for crimes they did not commit simply because of who their father, brother or husband happened to be. (ibid, 59, 107, 147-8, 158-67)

The intersections of patriarchal, economic and state oppression came together in the form of state power being exercised to force large numbers of women to become the concubines of both the male head of state and male lords. Under this system the political ruling class was divided into ranks and the higher a man’s rank was the more sex slaves he could have. Although in some periods these women were from both upper class and lower class families it was nonetheless the case that the majority of the women coerced into sex slavery by the state were poor. In some cases the concubines of Emperors would even be killed and buried alongside the Emperor when he died. (ibid, 112-3, 153-8)

Equipped with this intersectional theory of women’s oppression He-Yin critiqued liberal feminists who sought to achieve women’s emancipation through winning the right to vote and electing women into parliament. Such a strategy ignored that the majority of women are simultaneously oppressed by patriarchy, capitalism and the state. As a result, liberal feminists would not achieve the emancipation of women as a whole but would merely establish a situation in which a minority of upper class women wielded state power alongside men to oppress the majority of the population, both male and female, in their class interests. He-Yin writes,

If gender equality simply means that a minority of women may take political office and maintain an equilibrium of power with a minority of men who hold similar office, we should try to explain how the following happens among men: namely, in today’s world where there is difference between men who rule over other men and men who are ruled by them, the majority of the ruled in the world of men are demanding a revolution. As for the idea of equal division of power between men and women, most people seem to believe that since there are power holders among men, there should be among women as well. But did such powerful female sovereigns as Queen Victoria of the British Empire or Empresses Lü Zhi and Empress Wu Zetian in the dynastic history of China ever bring the slightest benefits to the majority of women?

A minority of women holding power is hardly sufficient to save the majority of women. In the case of Norway, for instance, the few aristocratic women who occupy political office do little in the way of bringing benefits to the general population. And as representatives of women from the upper classes and gentry families, these women have gained political rights and are assisting men from the upper classes in perpetrating damages even further. If their legislative work benefits upper-class women only, it deepens the suffering of lower-class women. (ibid, 66)

The emancipation of women as a whole could only be achieved by abolishing the three main social structures which intersected to oppress them: patriarchy, capitalism and the state. He-Yin writes that her “understanding of gender equality implies equality among all human beings, which refers to the prospect of not only men no longer oppressing women but also men no longer oppressed by other men and women no longer oppressed by other women.” Given this, “rather than wrest power from men, modern women should aim to overturn the rule of man by compelling men to renounce their privileges and power and humble themselves so man and woman can achieve equality on woman’s terms. . . the ultimate goal of women’s liberation is to free the world from the rule of man and from the rule of woman”. He-Yin was therefore “proposing not merely a women’s revolution but a complete social revolution” which abolished the state and capitalism in favour of an anarchist society based on communal ownership. Or as He-Yin writes elsewhere, “if you desire to realise a women’s revolution, you must begin with an economic revolution”. (ibid, 65-6, 70, 183, 103)

Doing so was necessary to abolish patriarchy because of the manner in which capitalism and the state underpinned and constituted patriarchy as a really existing social structure. In a classless egalitarian society based on production and distribution according to need women would no longer be subordinate to the whims of men who wielded economic and political power over them and forced women to engage in work, including sex work, in order to survive. In the absence of money women would marry for love rather than wealth and childcare could be organised communally rather than being the individual responsibility of mothers. This is not to say that abolishing capitalism and the state was sufficient to abolish patriarchy. He-Yin held that there must, in addition, be a transformation in gender relations such that sons and daughters were raised equally and given an equal education. As adults men and women were to shoulder the same responsibilities and all affairs in society were to become women’s concern. Overtime these changes would culminate in the abolition of nannü itself such that “the nouns “men” and “women” would no longer be necessary”. (ibid, 90-1, 103-4, 107-8, 182-4)

Within the modern context of the increasing popularity and ever-expanding influence of liberal and corporate feminism He-Yin’s intersectional anarchist feminism serves as an essential corrective. The emancipation of women cannot be achieved through electing woman presidents or having more women in boardrooms. Doing so would, as He-Yin argued over a century ago, merely bring about a more diverse ruling class and so create a situation in which the majority of women are oppressed by a small group of rich and powerful men and women, rather than only or largely men. The emancipation of women as a whole can only be achieved through a social revolution which overthrows the ruling classes and abolishes all forms of oppression, including patriarchy, capitalism and the state. If, as He-Yin wrote, “the question of women’s liberation is one of enabling each and every woman to partake in the joys of freedom” then women’s liberation can only be found in an anarchist society which brings the joys of freedom to all of humanity. (ibid, 70)


Collins, Patricia Hill, and Sirma Bilge. 2016. Intersectionality. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Crenshaw, Kimberle. 1989. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Anti-Racist Politics.” University of Chicago Legal Forum, no. 1: 139–67.

He-Yin Zhen. 2013. The Birth of Chinese Feminism: Essential Texts in Transnational Theory. New York: Columbia University Press. Edited by Lydia H Liu, Rebecca E Karl, and Dorothy Ko. 

Zarrow, Peter. 1988. “He Zhen and Anarcho-Feminism in China.” The Journal of Asian Studies 47, no. 4: 796–813.

Zarrow, Peter. 1990. Anarchism and Chinese Political Culture. New York: Columbia University Press.

NonCompete Doesn’t Understand Platformism

Non-compete, who has referred to himself as a “huge theory nerd”, made a video about platformism. Unfortunately, he doesn’t understand what platformism is. According to non-compete platformism is characterised by the following 5 positions.

  1. Platformism is an idea that was invented in 1926 by Russian anarchists living in exile in France within a text called the Organisational Platform of the General Union of Anarchists (draft). It holds that we should build organisations on the foundation of a platform, which is a set of principles, goals and strategies that everyone within the organisation agrees on. The platform will be based on theoretical unity, tactical unity, collective responsibility and federalism.

  2. Theoretical unity means that the platform will include specific theoretical positions which everyone who joins the organisation must agree to in order to be a member. An organisation’s platform will by its very nature be inclusive to some people becoming members, whilst excluding others. What theoretical positions should be in an organisation’s platform will vary depending upon its aims and function. An organisation which feeds the homeless, for example, won’t need to include a commitment to the social ownership of the means of production in their points of theoretical unity. As a result, it could have a broad platform which can unite liberals, anarchists and Marxist-Leninists together in order to achieve effective common action at feeding the homeless. In contrast, a trade union could, due to the kind of organisation it is, have a platform which explictly tackles class politics and is narrower than the platform of other organisations. Platformism therefore advocates forming multiple different kinds of organisation which have different platforms that contain different theoretical principles as points of unity.

  3. Tactical unity means that even if we don’t agree on everything, members of an organisation will agree to work together tactically towards goals that they share. The platform of an organisation will therefore include both the goals members of the organisation share and the strategies they advocate to achieve them. This tactical unity also applies to working with other organisations which have the same goals. If an anarchist organisation’s goal is to feed the homeless then they should have tactical unity with other organisations which also aim to feed the homeless. This applies even if the other organisations are liberal or Marxist-Leninist. Given this, tactical unity is a way for different people who have different ideologies to work together if they share a common goal.

  4. Collective responsibility means that every member is responsible for the actions of the organisation and the organisation is responsible for the actions of every member acting on behalf of the organisation. Individual members should be aware that what they say is reflective of the organisation and work towards the best interests of the organisation as defined in its platform. The consequence of this is that individuals should put the organisation ahead of themselves as an individual when making decisions. This means that if the organisation makes a decision which I as an individual don’t agree with, I should in general put my ego aside and go along with the rest of the organisation. If my disagreement is significant then I am free to leave the organisation and join a different one or create a new one with a distinct platform.

  5. Federalism, which is interconnected with tactical unity, means that different groups with different platforms can form coalitions and federate together in order to achieve common goals and work on projects, such as helping the homeless or organising strikes. This is the case even if their platforms don’t agree on everything.

Non-compete then argues that unnecessary conflict and division within the left are a major problem. Given points 1-5 platformism is an effective way of responding to this conflict and division. Different leftists can form distinct organisations with platforms that correspond to their specific ideas. These different organisations can then, despite having different platforms, work together in tactical unity via federations in order to achieve common goals. For example, leftists disagree about Joe Biden a lot and this leads to lots of pointless arguing. Instead of wasting their time arguing with each other, leftists who advocate voting for Joe Biden should form one platformist organisation and leftists who advocate not voting for Joe Biden should form a different platformist organisation. This way instead of achieving nothing through pointless internet arguments, different leftists can take action and build organisations that reflect their own viewpoints. Or leftists could choose to build a platformist organisation which has a very broad and inclusive platform. In so doing it would enable different leftists to work together within the same organisation due to it having a platform which they all agree on and choose to focus on, instead of them focusing on where they disagree and arguing with each other all the time.

In summarising non-compete’s 46 minute video I have as much as possible put things in his own words. I have also watched his video several times in order to make sure that I am accurately representing him. Unfortunately, almost every single thing non-compete says about platformism is false. He is correct about three things. It is true that,

(a) platformism was invented by Russian anarchists in 1926 within a text called the organisational platform of the general union of anarchists (draft)

(b) platformism argues that we should form organisations based on theoretical unity, tactical unity, collective responsibility and federalism.

(c) collective responsibility means that every member is responsible for the actions of the organisation and the organisation is responsible for the actions of every member acting on behalf of the organisation.

The problem with non-compete’s video is that he doesn’t understand what theoretical unity, tactical unity or federalism mean. To my knowledge nobody in the history of anarchism has interpreted platformism in the way that non-compete has and I don’t understand where he got his ideas from. In this video I’m going to explain what platformism actually is.

Before I do so it is important to clarify some terminology. In his video non-compete refers to Marxism-Leninism. This is a very broad category and means different things to different people, ranging from Lenin’s specific ideas to Trotskyism, Stalinism and Maoism. In order to avoid confusion, and narrow this video’s focus, I shall be using the term ‘Stalinism’ in order to pick out those individuals or movements who seek to implement the version of Marxism-Leninism most strongly associated with Stalin.

Programmes and Organisational Dualism

According to non-compete platformism holds that we should build organisations on the foundation of a platform, which is a set of principles that everyone within the organisation agrees on. As a result, you can have platformist organisations for any political purpose, from voting for Joe Biden to feeding the homeless. These different platformist organisations will have different platforms depending upon their aims and can therefore range from an anarchist only organisation to an organisation which unites liberals, anarchists and Stalinists together.

This is wrong. Platformism is not the idea that organisations in general should have a common programme which every member agrees with. If this was the case, then platformism would be saying nothing new. Socialist groups have had common programmes for as long as socialism has been a thing. This is the case for both Marxism and anarchism. To give a few examples, in 1880 Marx co-wrote the programme of the French Workers’ Party; in 1883 anarchists in the United States adopted the Pittsburgh proclamation at the founding congress of the International Working People’s Association; in 1891 the Social Democratic Party of Germany adopted the Erfurt programme; in 1906 the French General Confederation of Labour, which was a syndicalist trade union that anarchists played a key role in, adopted the Charter of Amiens; in 1919 the Free Workers’ Union of Germany, which was one of the earliest anarcho-syndicalist trade unions, adopted a declaration of principles written by Rudolf Rocker. I could go on and on.

Nor is platformism the idea that different organisations should have different programmes depending upon their aim. In 1872 Bakunin argued that the 1st International should have a broad programme which united as many workers as possible on the basis of their shared class interests, whilst the organisation of dedicated revolutionaries, the Alliance, should have a narrow explictly anarchist programme. He wrote,

the Alliance and the International, although they both seek the same final goals, follow, at one and the same time, different paths. One has a mission to bring together the labour masses – millions of workers – [reaching] across differences of trades or lands, across the frontier of every state into one single compact and immense body. The other, the Alliance has a mission to give a really revolutionary direction to these masses. The programmes of the one and the other, without in any way being opposed, are different, in keeping with the extent of the development of each. That of the International, if it is taken seriously contains in germ – but only in germ – the whole programme of the Alliance. The programme of the Alliance is the elaboration of the programme of the International. (Bakunin 2016, 210)

This strategy of forming a mass organisation, which has a broad programme and is open to all workers, and a specific anarchist organisation, which has a narrower programme and is open only to anarchist militants, is known as organisational dualism. It has been advocated by anarchists since the late 1860s and early 1870s. Platformism is a particular form of organisational dualism. As a result it advocates, just like anarchists did prior to 1926, the formation of both “trade unions” which unite “workers on a basis of production” in their “occupations” and “the anarchist organisation outside the union” which should “enter into revolutionary trade unions as an organised force” in order to “exercise our theoretical influence”. This same strategy of organisational dualism is advocated during the social revolution itself. The platform proposes that,

it is necessary to work in two directions: on the one hand towards the selection and grouping of revolutionary worker and peasant forces on a libertarian communist theoretical basis (a specifically libertarian communist organisation); on the other, towards regrouping revolutionary workers and peasants on an economic base of production and consumption (revolutionary workers and peasants organised around production: workers and free peasants co-operatives).

The authors of the platform make it very clear that their advocacy of theoretical unity, tactical unity, collective responsibility and federalism only applies to specific anarchist organisations, and not organisations in general. The platform begins by arguing that the Russian anarchist movement suffered from the lack of an effective specific anarchist organisation. In response to this failure, they propose the formation of “an organisation which, having gathered the majority of the participants of the anarchist movement, establishes in anarchism a general and tactical political line which would serve as a guide to the whole movement.” In order to achieve this, different “anarchist militants” must agree upon “a homogeneous programme” which contains “precise positions” on “theoretical, tactical and organisational” questions. They claim that, “[t]he elaboration of such a programme is one of the principal tasks imposed on anarchists by the social struggle of recent years. It is to this task that the group of Russian anarchists in exile dedicates an important part of its efforts.” They continue, “The Organisational Platform published below represents the outlines, the skeleton of such a programme. It must serve as the first step towards rallying libertarian forces into a single, active revolutionary collective capable of struggle: the General Union of Anarchists.”

Several pages later in the paragraphs preceding the advocacy of theoretical unity, tactical unity, collective responsibility and federalism, the authors of the platform make it very clear that they are only making proposals about how specific anarchist organisations should be structured. They write that the platform aims to “group around itself all the healthy elements of the anarchist movement into one general organisation, active and agitating on a permanent basis: the General Union of Anarchists. The forces of all anarchist militants should be orientated towards the creation of this organisation. The fundamental principles of organisation of a General Union of anarchists should be as follows:” They then list and explain theoretical unity, tactical unity, collective responsibility and federalism one after the other.

In case anyone listening is confused, when the authors of the platform refer to “the General Union of Anarchists” they mean a specific anarchist organisation and not a trade union. Referring to specific anarchist organisations as a “union of anarchists”, as opposed to a labour union open to all workers, was a normal expression within the anarchist movement at the time. For example, the Italian specific anarchist organisation which adopted Malatesta’s anarchist programme in 1920 was known as the Italian anarchist union. Or in France the main specific anarchist organisation at the time the platform was written was called the Anarchist Union. This language was not confusing to people at the time because they didn’t speak English and so didn’t use the word ‘trade union’. In France, for example, they distinguished between ‘syndicates’ and ‘the anarchist union’.

Given this, non-compete is wrong to argue that platformism is a proposal about organisations in general and that as a result you can have platformist groups composed of liberals, anarchists and Stalinists. The only groups which can be committed to platformism are specific anarchist organisations, which are organisations composed exclusively of anarchists. This fact can be found not only within the platform itself but also every single source I have ever read on the topic. The first sentence of the guide to platformism claims that “Platformism is a current within libertarian communism putting forward specific suggestions on the nature which anarchist organisation should take.” Workers Solidarity Movement’s position paper on platformism defines the “platformist model” as “a specific anarchist communist organisation, with high theoretical and tactical unity”. I could keep listing other examples, but I think you get the point.

Theoretical and Tactical Unity

This in turn entails that non-compete is wrong about what theoretical and tactical unity means within platformism. According to non-compete, theoretical unity means that the platform of an organisation should include positions which everyone who joins it must agree to in order to be a member. What positions are in an organisation’s platform will vary depending upon its aims or function such that it’s possible to have theoretical unity between liberals, anarchists and Stalinists within a single organisation. Non-compete similarly describes tactical unity as the position that members of a single organisation and members of different organisations should agree to work tactically towards goals that they share. Tactical unity can, in other words, take the form of liberals, anarchists and Stalinists agreeing on tactics within the same organisation or a specific anarchist organisation and a Stalinist party agreeing to engage in the same tactics towards a shared goal. Given this, theoretical and tactical unity are an effective way to overcome divisions on the left.

This is false. The platform defines theoretical unity as follows,

Theory represents the force which directs the activity of persons and organisations along a defined path towards a determined goal. Naturally it should be common to all the persons and organisations adhering to the General Union. All activity by the General Union, both overall and in its details, should be in perfect concord with the theoretical principles professed by the union.

Non-compete has misunderstood this as merely saying that an organisation should have a programme which everyone that joins the organisation must agree to in order to be a member. This interpretation makes no sense when the platform is located within its historical context. During this period there was a debate within the anarchist movement in France about how broad or narrow the programmes of specific anarchist organisations should be. Advocates of synthesis federations, such as Voline or Sébastien Faure, argued that specific anarchist organisations should unite all anarchists together in order to achieve common action, irrespective of whether or not they were individualist anarchists, anarcho-communists or anarcho-syndicalists, and then synthesize the ideas of different anarchists together into a new form of anarchism which combined the best of each. In response to these ideas the authors of the platform argued that synthesis federations would soon collapse due to internal disagreements over theory and practice. The introduction of the platform argues that,

We reject as theoretically and practically inept the idea of creating an organisation after the recipe of the ‘synthesis’, that is to say re-uniting the representatives of different tendencies of anarchism. Such an organisation, having incorporated heterogeneous theoretical and practical elements, would only be a mechanical assembly of individuals each having a different conception of all the questions of the anarchist movement, an assembly which would inevitably disintegrate on encountering reality.

Platformism was therefore opposed to trying to unite everybody who calls themselves an anarchist into a single organisation. They instead argued that specific anarchist organisations should be committed to theoretical and tactical unity such that they bring anarchists together under a single common programme which enables effective and co-ordinated action. In order for this to occur the common programme has to be much narrower than every member simply agreeing that capitalism should be abolished or that anarchism is good, let alone a position as broad as thinking the homeless should be fed. This interpretation of platformism was understood by anarchists at the time. For example, in 1927 the authors of the platform attempted to establish an international federation of different specific anarchist organisations which would put the ideas of the platform into practice. In response to this the Italian anarchists Luigi Fabbri, Camillo Berneri and Ugo Fedeli, who were members of the Italian Anarchist Union, wrote a letter in which they said,

there exists among you a spirit which is quite distant from that which underlies our way of conceiving an international anarchist organisation, that is one which is open to the greatest number of individuals, groups and federations who agree with the principles of struggle organized in an anarchist way against capitalism and the State, on a permanent national and international basis, but all this without any ideological or tactical exclusivism . . .

These Italian anarchists, in short, agreed with the platform that an international federation of specific anarchist organisations should have a common programme, but disagreed with the platformists that this programme should be narrow and thereby exclude lots of people who call themselves anarchists.

Non-compete is similarly wrong about what tactical unity means. The platform defines tactical unity as follows,

In the same way the tactical methods employed by separate members and groups within the Union should be unitary, that is, be in rigorous concord both with each other and with the general theory and tactic of the Union. A common tactical line in the movement is of decisive importance for the existence of the organisation and the whole movement: it removes the disastrous effect of several tactics in opposition to one another, it concentrates all the forces of the movement, gives them a common direction leading to a fixed objective.

Tactical unity is not the idea that members of a single organisation and members of different organisations should agree to work tactically towards goals that they share. Its instead the position that the individuals and groups which compose a specific anarchist organisation should agree to collectively implement a common set of tactics and strategies that are consistent with one another and thereby act effectively as an organisation. This is in order to avoid a situation where members follow distinct and incompatible strategies which result in wasted effort and goals not being achieved. The idea being that, for example, every group within the specific anarchist organisation agrees to participate in a trade union in order to spread anarchist ideas. Everybody in the specific anarchist organisation following this single tactical line is superior to a situation where five groups support working in trade unions, whilst three groups devote huge amounts of energy to persuading workers to leave trade unions and in so doing undermine the efforts of other anarchists within the same specific anarchist organisation.


Non-compete is not only wrong about what theoretical and tactical unity means. He also doesn’t understand what federalism is. According to non-compete, federalism within the platform means that different groups with different platforms can come together and form coalitions or federate in order to achieve common goals, even if their platforms don’t agree on everything. Such federalism, given non-compete’s previous points about tactical unity, would include anarchist and Stalinist organisations working together on common goals within a coalition or federation. This is false. I think non-compete has got this idea from a line in the platform where it says that, “federation signifies the free agreement of individuals and organisations to work collectively towards common objectives.” Non-compete has then combined this with his other misunderstandings of the platform to arrive at the conclusion that federalism entails fundamentally different kinds of socialist working together within a single federation and thereby overcoming unnecessary conflict on the left.

This interpretation makes no sense when you know anything about the authors of the platform. The platform was written by a group known as the Group of Russian Anarchists Abroad who published their ideas within a journal called Dielo Truda (The Cause of Labour). This group included Nestor Makhno and Peter Arshinov. Makhno and Arshinov had participated in the Russian revolution as key members of the Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army of Ukraine. The history of the Russian revolution is very complex and in this video I’m only going to focus on how the authors of the platform understood it.

In 1923 Arshinov published a history of the Makhnovist movement in which he gave his account of events. According to Arshinov, they initially formed a military alliance with the Bolsheviks against the counter-revolutionary Whites. After the Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army of Ukraine refused to be totally absorbed into the hierarchical structure of the Bolshevik one-party state and Red Army, the Bolsheviks took a different approach. During April and May 1919 the Bolsheviks spread misinformation and lies about the anarchists through the press, declared that the councils which had been created by the Ukrainian masses themselves were counter-revolutionary and illegal, attempted to assassinate Makhno and ensured that the anarchist militias did not receive ammunition with which to fight the White army. In June 1919 the Bolshevik Red Army, under the orders of Trotsky, violently disbanded general assemblies which had been created by the Ukrainian masses themselves and shot anarchist militants on the spot.

Several months later in early January 1920, the Bolsheviks ordered the Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army of Ukraine to move to the Polish front. The Ukrainian anarchists refused on the grounds that doing so would mean abandoning Ukraine to top-down rule by the Bolsheviks. In response the Bolsheviks declared the Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army of Ukraine to be bandits and outlaws and invaded Ukraine. During this invasion the Red Army fought against the anarchists, which was a guerrilla army, by arresting and then shooting large numbers of civilian peasants who were sympathetic with the anarchists. Anarchist fighters and their families, which included their fathers, mothers, wives and relatives, were either shot on the spot or tortured. Their homes were then plundered and destroyed.

The bloody war between the anarchists and the Bolsheviks continued for several months. In October 1920 the Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army of Ukraine and the Bolsheviks agreed to a truce in order to focus on defeating the counter-revolutionary White army. This truce did not, however, last long and in November the Bolsheviks launched a co-ordinated surprise attack against the Ukrainian anarchists. As part of this surprise attack the Bolsheviks invited the military commanders of the anarchist army to a meeting and then murdered them in cold blood. Just as had occurred previously, the Bolsheviks war against the anarchists was to a significant extent also a war against the civilian population which supported the anarchist guerrillas. This included not only the mass execution of peasants, but also members of the Cheka, the Bolshevik secret police, forcing mothers to hold their babies in their arms so that both mother and child could be killed in one blow. Makhno was himself shot and wounded several times during battles against the red army and witnessed or heard of the death of numerous comrades. (Arshinov 2005, 100-14, 123-34, 162-72, 176-80, 185-206)

Throughout the book Arshinov argues that the Bolsheviks established the minority rule of the state socialist intelligentsia over the working classes (ibid 39-41). He described this as a system of “economic slavery” in which the “state” and its “functionaries” are “everything” whilst “the working class is nothing”. He claims that the Bolsheviks turned “all of Russia into an immense prison” via “governmental terror” and that “in the Communist state the workers and peasants are socially enslaved, economically plundered, and politically deprived of all rights”. According to Arshinov, “in the name of the dictatorship of their Party, the Communists militarily crushed all the attempts of workers to realise their own self-direction – the basic goal of the Russian revolution – and thus crushed the revolutionary ferment in the country.” As a result, they “shattered the greatest revolutionary possibility that the workers had ever had in all history. And for this the proletarians of the whole world will forever nail them to the pillory.” (ibid 76-7, 80-1, 254)

Arshinov was not alone in having this attitude. In February 1926, which is a few months before the platform was published, Makhno wrote an article in which he critiqued the Bolsheviks for murdering and imprisoning anarchists. In his conclusion he wrote, “let us hope that the toilers of every country may draw the necessary conclusions and, in turn, finish with the Bolsheviks” who are “exponents of the idea of slavery and oppressors of labour”. (Makhno 1996, 45) Within the platform itself the Bolsheviks are critiqued on three occasions for establishing a state which, as anarchist theory had predicted, resulted in the establishment of a new minority political ruling class which oppressed the working classes, rather than achieving the emancipation of labour.

Given the above, it is very bizarre that non-compete interprets platformism as advocating or entailing anarchists and Stalinists working together within the same organisation or a federation of distinct organisations. To say that the authors of the platform weren’t fans of the Bolsheviks would be a massive understatement. I would go so far as to say that it’s messed up to suggest that platformism means working with Stalinists given that the founders of platformism had numerous friends and comrades who were murdered by the Bolsheviks and viewed Bolshevism as an ideology that would result in the rule of the intelligentsia over the working classes. Things only get worse when you know that Arshinov returned to the USSR in 1933 and was subsequently murdered in 1937 during Stalin’s great terror on the grounds that he had attempted to rebuild anarchism in Russia. (Skirda 2002, 140-1)

If federalism doesn’t mean anarchists and Stalinists working together, then what does it mean? Within anarchist theory federalism refers to a way of structuring organisations. Anarchists oppose centralised organisations, in which a minority at the centre make decisions which everyone else in the organisation has to follow, in favour of decentralised organisations which are networks of autonomous groups. Within this network each group makes their own decisions about how they operate and forms voluntary agreements with other groups in order to co-ordinate their activity over a large scale. This is what the platform is referring to when it says that “federation signifies the free agreement of individuals and organisations to work collectively towards common objectives.” There is, in other words, free agreement between the individuals which compose a local group, free agreement between the groups which compose a federation and free agreement between the federations which compose a confederation.

Within a federation or confederation co-ordination between groups is achieved through congresses which are attended by delegates representing all the groups in a given area. These delegates don’t have the power to independently make decisions and impose them on others. They are instead mandated by the group who elected them on how to vote during a congress. If a delegate does something that the group who elected them oppose, then the group can recall the delegate and elect a new one. Within anarchism there is a disagreement about whether or not congress resolutions should be binding on all groups within a federation or only those groups who voted in favour of the congress resolutions. The authors of the platform argued that in so far as a group is a member of a federation the collectively made decisions of congresses should be binding on them and they are expected to carry out the majority decision. The platform states that,

such an agreement and the federal union based on it, will only become reality, rather than fiction or illusion, on the conditions sine qua non that all the participants in the agreement and the Union fulfil most completely the duties undertaken, and conform to communal decisions. In a social project, however vast the federalist basis on which it is built, there can be no decisions without their execution. It is even less admissible in an anarchist organisation, which exclusively takes on obligations with regard to the workers and their social revolution. Consequently, the federalist type of anarchist organisation, while recognising each member’s rights to independence, free opinion, individual liberty and initiative, requires each member to undertake fixed organisation duties, and demands execution of communal decisions.

It’s important to note that this isn’t a uniquely platformist position. The CNT’s constitution which was printed on each membership card similarly insists that, “we recognise the sovereignty of the individual, but we accept and agree to carry out the collective mandate taken by majority decision. Without this there is no organisation.” (Peirats 1974, 19) Or, to give another example, the 1911 declaration of the 3rd congress of the Workers’ Federation of the Uruguayan Region (FORU) claims that “the accords of this Congress, unless rescinded by a majority of associations party to the compact, are to be binding upon all associations currently affiliated and any which may join hereafter.” (Graham 2005, 202)
Given the above, the platform’s advocacy of federalism is not about different groups with different and incompatible platforms working together. It is about groups of anarchists freely associating to form a specific anarchist organisation which has a single common programme and makes binding decisions via majority vote at congresses attended by mandated delegates. This specific anarchist organisation could form an international federation with specific anarchist organisations in other countries, but were this to occur they would also be bound together by a narrow common programme in order to achieve theoretical and tactical unity. And this is exactly what the authors of the platform unsuccessfully attempted to create in 1927.


In conclusion, non-compete does not understand what theoretical unity, tactical unity or federalism mean within platformism. Platformism is, contrary to what non-compete says, a form of organisational dualism which advocates the formation of a specific anarchist organisation and a mass organisation. Two of the key elements which makes platformism distinct from other forms of organisational dualism is its advocacy of a narrow theoretical and tactical programme and the advocacy of binding congress resolutions. Platformism is not the view that organisations should have a platform. It is not the view that anarchists, liberals and Stalinists could unite together under a common programme. It is not the idea that anarchists, liberals and Stalinists could work together on common aims, such as feeding the homeless, or form a federation in order to do so. Platformism is only a theory and practice about how anarchists should organise and participate in mass movements as an effective force in order to achieve specifically anarchist goals.

I did not make this video in order to attack non-compete as a person but in order to correct his errors. When reading historical anarchist sources, it is important to understand them on their own terms and not impose our distinct ideas onto them. Non-compete may be correct to argue that anarchists and Stalinists should work together within single organisations or federations of organisations that have extremely broad programmes. But this strategy is not platformism and in advocating this non-compete is advocating strategies which are incompatible with platformism.

I do not, however, believe that non-compete’s strategy to achieve social change and overcome leftist infighting is viable. This is because different forms of socialism are largely distinguished from one another by the methods they propose to achieve social change. It is true that anarchists and Stalinists may be able to work together in the short term on occasion, such as both attending an anti-fascist demonstration or participating in the same strike. But any more substantial collaboration would not be possible because we propose incompatible methods of organisation and decision making. Anarchists want to create federations of autonomous groups bonded together through free agreement. Stalinists want to implement democratic centralism and establish a central committee that controls organisations and movements from the top down. Anarchists want trade unions to be independent of all political parties. Stalinists want trade unions to be connected with and subordinate to communist parties. As a result, any organisation composed of both anarchists and Stalinists would not last long. If the anarchists have their way, the Stalinists will be dissatisfied and leave. If the Stalinists have their way, the anarchists will be dissatisfied and leave.

That this would occur is clear from history. After the 1917 Russian revolution, anarcho-syndicalist trade unions initially attempted to join and work within the Red International of Labour Unions (RILU), which was affiliated with the Bolshevik-led Communist International, in order to further the revolutionary cause. Anarcho-syndicalists, however, abandoned this position after they learned of the extent to which anarchist movements were being repressed in Russia and the congresses of the RILU and Comintern declared themselves in favour of core state socialist tenets which anarcho-syndicalists could not subscribe to. This included parliamentarism, the seizure of state power by a communist party, joining reformist unions, centralisation and the subordination of trade unions to communist parties. In response anarcho-syndicalists formed the International Workingmen’s Association (IWA) between December 1922 and January 1923 and adopted a declaration of principles which advocated the goal of libertarian communism and rejected the strategy of seizing state power. (Thorpe 1989, chapters 3-7; Graham 2005, 416-8)

The incompatibility between anarchism and Stalinism only becomes more apparent when one considers the topic of revolution. To speak like a 19th century anarchist for a moment, there can be no long-term alliance between those who advocate the achievement of anarchy via the method of freedom and those who are defenders of authority and minority rule by a political ruling class. During a revolutionary situation anarchist will seek to simultaneously destroy capitalism and the state in favour of federations of workplace and community assemblies and federations of workers’ militias. Stalinists, in comparison, will seek to seize state power and establish the rule of the communist party and its leadership. They will tell us that this minority rule is necessary until the abolition of classes has been achieved and the state withers away. We anarchists shall reply that the state cannot be used to abolish classes because the minority who actually wield state power constitute a distinct political ruling class and they will seek to preserve and expand their power over the working class at all costs. The state cannot wither away. It must be forcibly destroyed. The victory of this new minority ruling class shall, just as has already occurred historically, entail the death of the revolution and with it the brutal repression of all those who seek to build a society based on the free association of free producers. As a result, those of us who believe in freedom and the struggle for socialism from below will have no choice but to create whatever anarchist communities we can, refuse to recognise the legitimacy of whatever new state is created and continue to struggle against all forms of authority until we are defeated or emerge victorious. As the Korean anarchist federation wrote in 1928, “no matter what kind of form it takes, government is a tool for the minority with power to oppress the masses, and an obstacle that stands in the way of realising mutual human fraternity. Therefore, we do not allow for its existence . . . “(Graham 2005, 382)


Arshinov, Peter. 2005. History of the Makhnovist Movement: 1918-1921. London: Freedom Press.

Bakunin, Michael. 2016. Selected Texts 1868-1875. Edited by A. W. Zurbrugg. London: Anarres Editions.

Fabbri, Luigi, Camillo Berneri, and Ugo Fedeli. 1927. “Reply by the Pensiero e Volontà Group to an Invitation to Join the International Anarchist Communist Federation”.

Graham, Robert. 2005. Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Volume One: From Anarchy to Anarchism (300 CE to 1939). Montréal: Black Rose Books.

Makhno, Nestor. 1996. The Struggle Against the State and Other Essays. Edited by Alexandre Skirda. San Francisco, CA: AK Press.

Peirats, José. 1974. What is the C.N.T?. London: Simian.

Skirda, Alexandre. 2002. Facing the Enemy: A History of Anarchist Organisation from Proudhon to May 1968. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

The Group of Russian Anarchists Abroad. 1926. “The Organisational Platform of the General Union of Anarchists (Draft)”.

Thorpe, Wayne. 1989. “The Workers Themselves”: Revolutionary Syndicalism and International Labour 1913-1923. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

What Did Bakunin Think About Religion?

The anarchist Mikhail Bakunin is one of the most famous atheists of the 19th century. Almost a century and a half before rational men on youtube ruined anti-theism for everyone else Bakunin was advocating “the abolition of [religious] cults” and “the substitution of science for faith” (Bakunin 2016, 33). He argued that “if God really existed, it would be necessary to abolish him” (Bakunin 1973, 128) Why did Bakunin think this and what were his views on religion?

For Bakunin religion was based on human beings subordinating themselves to a divine power which they themselves had imagined and attributed distinctly human characteristics to. Borrowing heavily from the German philosopher Feuerbach Bakunin wrote,

All religions, with their gods, their demigods and their prophets, their messiahs and their saints, were created by the credulous fancy of men who had not attainted the full development and full possession of their faculties. Consequently, the religious heaven is nothing but a mirage in which man, exalted by ignorance and faith, discovers his own image, but enlarged and reversed – that is, divinized. The history of religions, of the birth, grandeur and decline of the gods who have succeeded one another in human belief, is nothing, therefore, but the development of the collective intelligence and conscience of mankind. As fast as they discovered, in the course of their historically progressive advance, either in themselves or in external nature, a power, a quality, or even any great defect whatever, they attributed them to their gods, after having exaggerated and enlarged them beyond measure, after the manner of children, by an act of their religious fancy. Thanks to this modesty and pious generosity of believing and credulous men, heaven has grown rich with the spoils of the earth, and, by a necessary consequence, the richer heaven became, the more wretched became humanity and the earth. God once installed, he was naturally proclaimed the cause, reason, arbiter, and absolute disposer of all things: the world thenceforth was nothing, God was all; and man, his real creator, after having unknowingly extracted him from the void, bowed down before him, worshipped him, and avowed himself his creature and his slave. (Bakunin 1973, 124)

The genuine belief in this metaphysical subordination was then exploited by God’s self-proclaimed representatives on earth to justify their very real material oppression of others. He wrote,

God being everything, the real world and man are nothing. God being truth, justice, goodness, beauty, power and life, man is falsehood, iniquity, evil, ugliness, impotence and death. God being master, man is the slave. Incapable of finding justice, truth and eternal life by his own effort, he can attain them only through a divine revelation. But whoever says revelation says revealers, messiahs, prophets, priests and legislators inspired by God himself; and these, once recognized as the representatives of divinity on earth, as the holy instructors of humanity, chosen by God himself to direct it in the path of salvation, necessarily exercise absolute power. All men owe them passive and unlimited obedience; for against the divine reason there is no human reason, and against the justice of God no terrestrial justice holds. Slaves of God, men must also be slaves of Church and State, in so far as the State is consecrated by the Church. (Bakunin 1973, 124-5)

The harm of religion so understood was profound. For Bakunin religions destroy people’s

reason, the principle instrument of human emancipation, and reduce them to imbecility, the essential condition of their slavery. They dishonor human labour, and make it a sign and source of servitude. They kill the idea and sentiment of human justice, ever tipping the balance to the side of triumphant knaves, privileged objects of divine indulgence. They kill human pride and dignity, protecting only the cringing and humble. They stifle in the heart of nations every feeling of human fraternity, filling it with divine cruelty instead. All religions are cruel, all founded on blood; for all rest principally on the idea of sacrifice – that is, on the perpetual immolation of humanity to the insatiable vengeance of divinity. In this bloody mystery man is always the victim, and the priest – a man also, but a man privileged by grace – is the divine executioner. (Bakunin 1973, 126)

Bakunin did not, however, blame workers and peasants for believing in God but held it was a product of the society they lived in. According to Bakunin,

Nothing is more natural than that the belief in God, the creator, regulator, judge, master, curser, savior, and benefactor of the world, should still prevail among the people . . . The people, unfortunately, are still very ignorant, and are kept in ignorance by the systematic efforts of all the governments, who consider this ignorance, not without good reason, as one of the essential conditions of their own power. Weighted down by their daily labour, deprived of leisure, of intellectual intercourse, of reading, in short of all the means and a good portion of the stimulants that develop thought in men, the people generally accept religious traditions without criticism and in a lump. These traditions surround them from infancy in all the situations of life, and artificially sustained in their minds by a multitude of official poisoners of all sorts, priests and laymen, are transformed therein into a sort of mental and moral habit, too often more powerful even than their natural good sense. (Bakunin 1973, 117-8)

One of the main reasons why workers and peasants clung to religion was because it enabled them to escape from “the wretched situation to which they find themselves fatally condemned by the economic organization of society in the most civilized countries of Europe.” They were “reduced, intellectually and morally as well as materially, to the minimum of human existence, confined in their life like a prisoner in his prison, without horizon, without outlet, without even a future.” (Bakunin 1973, 118) Religious people should therefore not be blindly attacked but empathized with since their belief in God was grounded in “a deep discontent at heart” and “the instinctive and passionate protest of the human being against the narrownesses, the platitudes, the sorrows, and the shames of a wretched existence.” (Bakunin 1973, 123)

Bakunin was nonetheless an anti-theist who advocated the abolition of religion. In so doing he was not arguing that people should be forced to be atheists. In 1872 he advocated “the most profound and sincere respect for the freedom of conscience of all” and “the sacred right of all to propagate their ideas”. This of course also included his right to “attack the divine idea in its every manifestation – religious, metaphysical, political and juridical”. (Bakunin 2016, 218) Nor did Bakunin think that the socialist movement should exclude believers in God. He explicitly argued that the 1st International should not be officially committed to atheism because it had to attract the millions of workers who believe in God in order to become a genuine mass movement capable of overthrowing capitalism and the state. (Bakunin 2016, 211)

Bakunin instead held that the abolition of religion could only occur through transforming society as a whole because what people thought was a product of their daily experiences and the social structures they were a part of or effected by. He wrote, “thinking flows from life, and to modify thinking, one must transform life. Give a people a broad and humane life and it will astound you by the profound rationalism of its ideas.” (Bakunin 2016, 14) Given this, Bakunin argued that the abolition of religion could only be achieved by a social revolution which abolished capitalism and the state in favour of the free association of free producers. (Bakunin 1973, 123)

This is what Bakunin thought but what should we as modern anarchists make of Bakunin’s views on religion? I myself am an atheist and have been my entire life but I think Bakunin makes too strong a case. Religion does regularly coincide with authoritarianism but it can also result in emancipatory politics, as can be seen in the history of liberation theology in Latin America or, to give an earlier example, the true levelers in England who used the bible to advocate the abolition of class society in the 17th century hundreds of years before the anarchist movement even emerged. Nor am I convinced that religion would be abolished after a social revolution. This is because even under an anarchist society where suffering was greatly reduced people would still be drawn to religion in response to the inescapable suffering of human existence, such as death, heartbreak, and existential terror.


Bakunin, Michael. 2016. Selected Texts: 1868-1875. Edited by A W Zurbrugg. London: Anarres Editions.

Bakunin, Michael. 1973. Selected Writings. Edited by Arthur Lehning. London: Jonathan Cape.

Beyond the Bread Book

One of the main texts anarchists recommend to newcomers wanting to learn about anarchism is the Conquest of Bread by Kropotkin. Its itself become a massive meme. People refer to it as the bread book and reading it as being bread pilled. Bread tube is itself named in honour of Kropotkin’s book. Someone even made this amazing website for the book.

There’s a lot of love for Kropotkin and I understand why. He talks about the expropriation of the ruling classes and looks like Santa. What’s not to like? I’m myself a big Kropotkin fan and think the Conquest of Bread is one of his best books. But despite this I don’t think it should be the first thing we tell newcomers to anarchism to read. The Conquest of Bread was never meant to be a straight forward introduction to anarchism. It instead is an attempt to persuade readers that an anarcho-communist society is desirable and could be feasibly created during and immediately after a social revolution given the available technology at the time. It is an attempt to explain what an anarcho-communist social revolution would look like and the kinds of problems it will have to overcome if it is to be successful, such as organising food production. In effect Kropotkin is outlining what he thinks a successful Paris Commune would look like.

The Conquest of Bread was first published in 1892 in French and then translated into English in 1906. It was based on articles which were originally published in the anarchist paper Le Révolté after Kropotkin’s release from prison in 1886. As a result, there are lots of important aspects of anarchism Kropotkin doesn’t talk about in the book and if he does only briefly. The reason why is that Kropotkin assumes someone who reads these articles in Le Révolté will also read the other articles he wrote for the paper or which were published as separate pamphlets.

Modern readers aren’t aware of this context and so can easily misunderstand the Conquest of Bread due to reading it in isolation and without any background knowledge about 19th century anarchist and socialist theory. For example, people can assume from only reading it that Kropotkin thinks a revolution will spontaneously come out of nowhere and people will just automatically know how to organise effectively. But if you’d read Kropotkin’s other articles from the 1880s you’d know he doesn’t think this. Kropotkin instead held a revolution would emerge out of a prior evolutionary phase during which workers were transformed through their experiences of direct struggle against capital within trade unions and that, given this, anarchists should focus on participating within the trade union movement in order to spread anarchist values, goals and strategy.

This can be seen in a series of articles Kropotkin wrote for Le Révolté in 1881. According to Kropotkin anarchists do “not expect that the day of the revolution will simply fall from the sky”. Anarchists instead hold that “only by means of repeated acts of war, undertaken daily and at every opportunity” can “one prepare for the decisive battle” and “victory over capital”. To this end they must focus on “creating a vast workers’ organisation” which will become “a powerful force” and “on the day of the revolution, impose its will upon exploiters of every sort”. (Kropotkin 2014, 305-6, 311)

Kropotkin made this point again and again. He wrote that,

We have to organise the workers’ force – not to make them into a fourth party in Parliament, but in order to make them a formidable MACHINE OF STRUGGLE AGAINST CAPITAL. We have to group workers of all trades under this single purpose: “War on capitalist exploitation!” And we must prosecute that war relentlessly, day by day, by the strike, by agitation, by every revolutionary means.

And once we have worked on such organisation over two or three years, once the workers of every land have seen that organisation at work, taking the workers’ interests into its hands, waging unrelenting war on capital, castigating the employer at every opportunity; once the workers from every trade, from village and city alike, are united into a single union, inspired by an identical idea, that of destroying capital, and by an identical hatred, hatred of the exploiters – then, separation of bourgeoisie and worker being complete, we can be sure that it is on his own account that the worker will throw himself into the Revolution. Then, but only then, will he emerge from it victorious, having crushed the tyranny of Capital and State for good. (ibid, 294-5)

If you want to go beyond the bread book and learn more about what Kropotkin thought about revolutionary strategy I highly recommend you read the Kropotkin anthology Direct Struggle Against Capital. If you want to learn about Kropotkin’s analysis of the state and his critique of state socialism read the latest AK press edition of Modern Science and Anarchy.

You might now be thinking so if the Conquest of Bread isn’t an ideal introduction to anarchism what is? In my opinion the best two historic texts to read in order to learn about anarchism are Malatesta’s 1899 anarchist programme followed by his 1891 pamphlet anarchy. Both are in the method of freedom anthology. The reason why I recommend these texts is because they give a modern reader a very clear understanding of what anarchism is, why anarchists want to abolish capitalism and the state, what anarchism aims for and in-depth theory on how to bring about social change. They in addition have the benefit of being very clearly written and very short. Malatesta’s anarchist programme is only 14 pages and his pamphlet anarchy is only 39 pages. Compare that to the Conquest of Bread which is 195 pages and contains lots of stuff that feels very irrelevant to a modern reader such as Kropotkin talking about how amazing green houses and dish washers are.

What I’m trying to say is that although Malatesta’s beard was inferior to Kropotkin’s his work makes for a better introduction to anarchism, especially for an over-worked tired worker whose attention span has been ruined by spending too much time online with a ridiculous number of tabs open.


Kropotkin, Peter. 2014. Direct Struggle Against Capital: A Peter Kropotkin Anthology. Edited by Iain McKay. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

How Would Anarchism Work?

I’m an anarchist which means I want to abolish capitalism and the state in favour of the free association of free producers. In response to this people often ask me questions about how an anarchist society would solve all kinds of different social problems. People in the comment section be like hey anarchopac how will anarchism organise healthcare? How would an anarchist society respond to people who go drunk driving? How would an anarchist society deal with scientology or other dangerous cults? What would happen to murderers? And so on and on.

All these are very sensible questions and raise problems any society will have to overcome if it is function and guarantee human well-being. But I can’t answer these questions by myself. I’m just a nerd who has spent far too much time reading books on anarchism. If you want to know what anarchists historically argued on a certain topic I can tell you but I don’t have all the answers. I can’t tell you how people in the 21st century should solve all kinds of really complex problems like how to effectively organise public infrastructure because I myself know basically nothing about public infrastructure. These are the kinds of question which can only really be answered in practice by lots of different people with different kinds of expertise and life experiences who are organised on the ground. They’re not going to be solved by an anarchist youtube philosopher sitting in their room thinking about the topic. To suggest otherwise is to put myself on the pedestal and act as if everyone else should just listen to me.

Anarchist theory doesn’t tell you exactly how to solve social problems. Instead anarchism advocates a system of self-organisation through which people come together to solve the problems which arise in their specific situation. It proposes that people horizontally associate as equals and make decisions as a group through a system of direct democracy in which everyone has a vote and an equal say in decisions which affect them. These groups then associate with other groups to form federations at a regional, national and international level in order to co-ordinate action over a large area through regular congresses. These congresses would be attended by instantly recallable mandated delegates that councils had elected to represent them. Crucially, delegates would not be granted the power to make decisions independently and impose them on others. Decision making power would remain in the hands of the group who had elected them. This system of decision making isn’t something I invented in a study. It’s how anarchists and syndicalist trade unions with memberships in the hundreds of thousands actually organised in real life since the 19th century to the present. We know it works because it already has.

What decisions these groups make isn’t something anarchist theory can give you all the answers to. Instead they’ll have to work things out for themselves and decide on what they think the best course of action is. In other words, anarchist theory doesn’t tell you what decisions to make. It only indicates a method through which to make decisions yourselves and the values which these decisions should seek to promote, such as freedom, equality and solidarity.

This idea was explained in-depth by the Italian anarchist theorist Malatesta in his 1891 pamphlet anarchy, which you should read if you haven’t already. According to Malatesta,

All that you have said may be true, say some; Anarchy may be a perfect form of social life; but we have no desire to take a leap in the dark. Therefore, tell us how your society will be organised. Then follows a long string of questions, which would be very interesting if it were our business to study the problems that might arise in an emancipated society, but of which it is useless and absurd to imagine that we could now offer a definite solution. According to what method will children be taught? How will production and distribution be organised? Will there still be large cities? or will people spread equally over all the surface of the earth? Will all the inhabitants of Siberia winter at Nice? Will every one dine on partridges and drink champagne? Who will be the miners and sailors? Who will clear the drains? Will the sick be nursed at home or in hospitals? Who will arrange the railway time-table? What will happen if the engine-driver falls ill while the train is on its way? And so on, without end, as though we could prophesy all the knowledge and experience of the future time, or could, in the name of Anarchy, prescribe for the coming man what time he should go to bed, and on what days he should cut his nails!

Indeed if our readers expect from us an answer to these questions, or even to those among them really serious and important, which can be anything more than our own private opinion at this present hour, we must have succeeded badly in our endeavour to explain what Anarchy is. We are no more prophets than other men, and should we pretend to give an official solution to all the problems that will arise in the life of the future society, we should have indeed a curious idea of the abolition of government. We should then be describing a government, dictating, like the clergy, a universal code for the present and all future time. (Malatesta 2014, 139-40)

Anarchists can instead only indicate a method through which society would be organised and decisions would be made. For Malatesta the method of anarchism is

the free initiative of all and free agreement, when, after the revolutionary abolition of private property, every one will have equal power to dispose of social wealth. This method, not admitting the reestablishment of private property, must lead, by means of free association, to the complete triumph of the principles of solidarity.

Thus we see that all the problems put forward to combat the Anarchistic idea are on the contrary arguments in favor of Anarchy; because it alone indicates the way in which, by experience, those solutions which correspond to the dicta of science, and to the needs and wishes of all, can best be found.

How will children be educated? We do not know. What then? The parents, teachers and all, who are interested in the progress of the rising generation, will meet, discuss, agree and differ, and then divide according to their various opinions, putting into practice the methods which they respectively hold to be best. That method which, when tried, produces the best results will triumph in the end. And so for all the problems that may arise. (ibid, 142)

What Malatesta said was true in the 19th century and I think its only become more true in the 21st century. Society is larger and more complex than it used to be. I can’t create a detailed blueprint for how an anarchist society would function but I don’t need to. Anarchism isn’t about me telling you exactly how you will live in my ideal society. Its you and everyone else deciding for yourselves how you shall live through a decentralised system of self-management, rather than doing what a tiny minority of rulers, like bosses or politicians, tell you to do. I don’t have all the answers but collectively we can pool our shared knowledge, skills and experiences to solve the problems which we will have to overcome in an anarchist society. We won’t always make the best or the right decisions but it doesn’t have to be perfect, only better than what we currently have – which is an oligarchy that is currently driving all 7 billion of us towards total environmental collapse in order to make short term profits.


Malatesta, Errico. 2014. The Method of Freedom: An Errico Malatesta Reader. Edited by Davide Turcato. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

Learning About Marx with Jordan Peterson

During his debate with Zizek Jordan Peterson makes two main arguments against what he calls proposition number 1 of the communist manifesto: “history is to be viewed primarily as an economic class struggle.” Peterson appears to have derived this proposition from the opening sentence of the Communist Manifesto’s 1st chapter: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” (Marx and Engels 2002, 219)

First Argument

Peterson’s first argument is that Marx focuses on class struggle but ignores the human struggle for survival within the natural world. He says,

“The other thing that Marx didn’t seem to take into account is that there are far more reasons that human beings struggle than economic class struggle . . . we’re also actually always at odds with nature and this never seems to show up in Marx and it doesn’t show up in Marxism in general. It’s as if nature doesn’t exist. The primary conflict as far as I’m concerned, or a primary conflict human beings engage in, is the struggle for life in a cruel and harsh natural world and it’s as if that doesn’t exist in the Marxist domain. If human beings have a problem it’s because there’s a class struggle that’s essentially economic. No, humans beings have problems because we come into life starving and lonesome and we have to solve that problem continually and we make our social arrangements at least in part to ameliorate that.” 

There are several problems with what Peterson says here. Firstly, Peterson is wrong to claim that “it’s as if nature doesn’t exist” in Marx. This is because Marx consistently argues within both his early and later writings that in order to survive humans must engage in labour which uses or transforms the natural world. In The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 Marx claims that, “[t]he worker can create nothing without nature, without the sensuous external world” because “nature provides labour with the means of life in the sense that labour cannot live without objects on which to exercise itself, so also it provides the means of life in the narrower sense, namely the means of physical subsistence of the worker.” (Marx 1992a, 325)

Within his economic notebooks of 1857-8, which were published under the title The Grundrisse, Marx refers to the “obvious, trite notion” that “in production the members of society appropriate (create, shape) the products of nature in accord with human needs.” (Marx 1993, 88)

A decade later in Capital Volume 1 Marx writes that “labour is . . . a process between man and nature, a process by which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates and controls the metabolism between himself and nature. He confronts the materials of nature as a force of nature. He sets in motion the natural forces which belong to his own body, his arms, legs, head and hands, in order to appropriate the materials of nature in a form adapted to his own needs.” For Marx the “labour process” so understood “is the universal condition for the metabolic interaction between man and nature, the everlasting nature-imposed condition of human existence, and it is therefore independent of every form of that existence, or rather it is common to all forms of society in which human beings live.” (Marx 1990, 283, 290)

Marx reiterates this point in Capital Volume 3 when he writes that human beings “must wrestle with nature to satisfy his needs, to maintain and reproduce his life” and “he must do so in all forms of society and under all possible modes of production.” (Marx 1991, 959)

The importance Marx placed on the fact that humans must struggle for survival within the natural world through engaging in acts of production can be seen not only in the fact that Marx consistently advocates this position across both his early and later writings. It can also be demonstrated by the fact that within the German Ideology, which is an edited compilation of manuscripts that were written by Marx and Engels between 1845-6, he critiques previous historians for over focusing on the history of states, religions or ideas and in so doing excluding “the relation of man to nature” and “the real production of life” from history. (Marx 2000, 189)

Secondly, Marx talks about nature in chapter 1 of the Communist Manifesto. This is both the specific text Peterson claimed to have read in preparation for the debate and the specific chapter from which Peterson derives the proposition that he is responding to in this section of his speech. A few pages after saying that “[t]he history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” Marx describes how capitalism has created technology and human capacities which enable human beings to have a historically unprecedented ability to transform the natural world. He writes,

The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together. Subjection of Nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam-navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalisation of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground — what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labour? (Marx and Engels 2002, 224-5)

The fact that Peterson claims that “it’s as if nature doesn’t exist” in Marx therefore demonstrates not only the fact that Peterson has failed to read The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, The German Ideology, the Grundrisse, Capital Volume 1 and Capital Volume 3. It also shows that he failed to pay attention when reading the Communist Manifesto.

Thirdly, Peterson is wrong to claim that the relationship between humans and the natural world “doesn’t show up in Marxism in general.” Ecology has in fact been one of the main topics discussed in the recent academic literature on Marx. Peterson has clearly never heard of, let alone read, John Bellamy Foster’s 2010 book Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature, Foster and Paul Burkett’s 2017 book Marx and the Earth: An Anti-Critique and Kohei Saito’s 2017 book Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism: Capital, Nature, and the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy. Peterson has in addition to this failed to familiarize himself with ecological Marxist texts more broadly, such as Jason Moore’s 2015 book Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital.

Given the above, in saying that Marx specifically and Marxism in general ignore nature and the fact that humans must struggle to survive within the harsh natural world Peterson was only demonstrating how little he knows about Marx.

2nd Argument

Peterson’s 2nd argument is that human beings are not motivated purely by economics and that Marx ignores non-economic motivations. He says, “there are many other motivations that drive human beings than economics and those have to be taken into account, especially that drive people other than economic competition, like economic co-operation for example. So that’s a problem.”

There are once again several problems with Peterson’s argument. Firstly, Peterson is claiming to be refuting Marx’s notion that “history is to be viewed primarily as an economic class struggle.” Yet in this section of his speech he’s instead making an argument against the distinct idea that people are motivated solely or primarily by economic motivations. This ignores the fact that it doesn’t follow from the proposition that the main driving force of history is economic class struggle that the human beings who engage in class struggle do so because they are purely or largely motivated to do so by economic motivations. People could be psychologically motivated to participate in class struggle for non-economic reasons. For example, a person could be driven to overthrow capitalism because they empathise with the suffering of others or could decide to become a capitalist because they want to impress their conservative father who has read a dangerous amount of Ludwig von Mises.

Secondly, although Peterson is correct to say that Marx talks about economic competition as a feature of capitalism, such as in the Communist Manifesto (Marx and Engels 2002, 225), Peterson is wrong to claim that Marx ignores economic co-operation. In chapter 13 of Capital Volume 1, which is called co-operation, Marx writes that, “when numerous workers work together side by side in accordance with a plan, whether in the same process, or in different but connected processes, this form of labour is called co-operation.” For Marx such co-operation results in “an increase in the productive power of the individual” and “the creation of a new productive power, which is intrinsically a collective one.” (Marx 1990, 443) Marx returns to this idea in Capital Volume 2 when he claims that under capitalism “the working period . . . can be shortened in some branches simply by an extension of cooperation”, such as “the completion of a railway” being “hastened by setting afoot great armies of workers and tackling the job from many different points in space.” (Marx 1992b, 312)

Thirdly, Marx did not hold that people are motivated solely or primarily by economic motivations. Marx instead held that people deploy their powers, by which he meant capacities, to satisfy their needs. Although Marx thought that some very important needs within his society were economic, such as a worker’s need for a job in order to earn money or a capitalist’s need to out-compete other businesses, he did not specify that human needs as a whole are only or largely economic and in fact gives several examples of non-economic needs.

Peterson would know this if he’d been intellectually responsible and read the recent academic literature on Marx before publicly speaking on the matter to an incredibly large audience. According to David Leopold in his 2007 book The Young Karl Marx: German Philosophy, Modern Politics and Human Flourishing Marx refers to a variety of basic and complex human needs. Basic human needs are such things as,

a human need for sustenance (he talks about ‘eating, drinking’ and, more generally, ‘nourishment’), for warmth and shelter (he lists ‘heating’ and ‘clothing’ as well as a ‘dwelling’), for certain climatic conditions (he mentions both ‘light’ and ‘air’), for physical exercise (the need ‘to move about’ and the need for ‘physical exercise’), for basic hygiene (‘the simplest animal cleanliness’), and for reproduction and (heterosexual) sexual activity (he writes of ‘procreation’ and describes sexual relationships between women and men as characteristic of the ‘species’). (Leopold 2007, 228)

Complex needs, in comparison, are things like the,

human need for recreation (to ‘go drinking’, to ‘go dancing’, to ‘fence’, to ‘sing’), for culture (to ‘go to the theatre’), for education and intellectual exercise (to ‘think’, to ‘theorise’, to ‘buy books’, to engage in ‘learning’), for artistic expression (to ‘paint’), for emotional fulfilment (to ‘love’), and for aesthetic pleasure (Marx identifies ‘a musical ear, an eye for the beauty of form’ as among our essential human capacities and powers). (Leopold 2007, 229)

Some of the basic needs, such as needing food, could be construed as economic motivations in a broad sense. Others, such as needing to exercise or have sex, cannot. None of the complex needs Marx mentions can be construed as strictly speaking economic needs. Even those needs whose satisfaction within our society rests on the exchange of money, such as buying alcohol to drink or buying books from a shop, are entangled with other non-economic needs such as the desire to get drunk in order to have fun or the desire to read a book in order to learn about the history of socks.

Fourthly, although Marx did subscribe to the view that the economy plays a key role in shaping society he did not conceptualize this primacy in terms of the idea that people are primarily motivated by economic needs. In his 1859 preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy Marx wrote a highly condensed and simplified summary of his theory of history. According to Marx,

In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political, and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness. (Marx 2000, 425)

In claiming that the “economic structure of society” is the “real foundation” upon “which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness” Marx was not, as is often falsely asserted, committing himself to the view that the economy is always the main determining element of all other aspects of society throughout all of human history. This is clearly demonstrated by the fact that within Capital Volume 1 Marx writes in a footnote that “the Middle ages could not live on Catholicism, nor could the ancient world on politics. On the contrary, it is the manner in which they gained their livelihood which explains why in one case politics, in the other case Catholicism, played the chief part.” (Marx 1990, 176)

In this passage Marx explicitly states that politics played “the chief part” in the ancient world and that Catholicism played “the chief part” in the middle ages. Marx was therefore not a strong economic determinist who ignored that other aspects of society are important or can play a more important role than the economy at certain historic moments. Marx was instead committed to the weaker view that the economy provides the “real foundation” of other elements of society. What does this mean? On my reading Marx holds that the economy provides the “real foundation” of other elements of society in three main ways which I shall discuss in turn.

(a) the economy produces the necessities of life and so guarantees the survival of humans. The consequence of this fact is that although humans can survive without social structures like religion or the state they cannot survive without an economy because in the absence of production humans would die. As Marx writes in the German Ideology, “the first premiss of all human existence and, therefore, of all history” is “that men must be in a position to live in order to be able to ‘make history’. But life involves before everything else eating and drinking, a habitation, clothing, and many other things. The first historical act is thus the production of the means to satisfy these needs, the production of material life itself.” (Marx 2000, 181) There is therefore a sense in which other social structures rest on the economy because the economy is a necessary condition for human existence over time in a way that other social structures are not.

(b) the production of material life itself is a concrete form of activity which necessarily shapes those who engage in it in significant ways. Marx writes that the “mode of production must not be considered simply as being the production of the physical existence of the individuals. Rather it is a definite form of activity of these individuals, a definite form of expressing their life, a definite mode of life on their part. As individuals express their life, so they are. What they are, therefore, coincides with their production, both with what they produce and with how they produce.” (Marx 2000, 177)

(c) the economy establishes the real possibilities for other forms of human action and thereby sets the parameters in which other social structures exist. One of the main reasons why Marx thinks that the economy plays this role is because what social structures humans can potentially establish are inherently limited by what technology and skills to use this technology humans possess. The manner in which a modern state is organised for example is only made possible due to computers, the internet, email etc and the ability to use this technology, such as knowing how to use Microsoft office. In the absence of these necessary productive forces the modern state would have to be organised in a very different manner or could not even exist in the first place. Hunter gatherers living in the Palaeolithic, for example, would not be able to create a modern state and its accompanying bureaucracy even if they somehow wanted to due to lacking key productive forces, such as writing or the mass production of pens and paper.

It is in turn the case that the development of new productive forces transforms how society is organised due to the new real possibilities for human action they enable. The invention of instant messaging for example transformed how humans were able to socially relate to one another and thereby transformed how society was structured. The technology and its application provided humans with the real possibility to enter into sexual relationships through tinder or grindr, rather than previous methods which were limited by earlier forms of technology, such as arranged marriages established through letters or dates organised via adverts in lonely hearts sections of newspapers. As Marx writes in the Poverty of Philosophy,

Social relations are closely bound up with productive forces. In acquiring new productive forces men change their mode of production; and in changing their mode of production, in changing the way of earning their living, they change all their social relations. The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill society with the industrial capitalist. (Marx 1955, chapter 2: second observation)


Given the above, Jordan Peterson’s two main arguments against the idea that “history is to be viewed primarily as an economic class struggle” are wrong and rest on an entirely inaccurate understanding of Marx. Peterson made these false claims about what Marx thought with total confidence despite the fact that he himself knew that his understanding of Marx is based on reading the Communist Manifesto, rather than an extended study of Marx’s other major and much longer works, such as volumes 1 to 3 of Capital, The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts or the Grundrisse.

Jordan Peterson fans often complain that critics of Peterson have not read his most scholarly book Maps of Meaning and so do not understand his worldview. But for some reason they have not to my knowledge applied this same standard to Peterson himself who has publicly critiqued Marx to a huge audience without actually bothering to find out what Marx thought. In 12 Rules for Life Peterson argues that “in societies that are well-functioning . . . competence, not power, is a prime determiner of status.” (Peterson, 2018) If we apply this yardstick to Peterson we are forced to conclude that in a well-functioning society he would exist at the bottom of the knowing things about Marx competence hierarchy. The fact that so many people in our society wrongly view Peterson as a source of knowledge on Marx who has raised a number of powerful objections to Marx’s worldview only demonstrates the extent to which society has failed to conform to Peterson’s own ideals.


Leopold, David. 2007. The Young Karl Marx: German Philosophy, Modern Politics and Human Flourishing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich. 2002. The Communist Manifesto. London: Penguin.

Marx, Karl. 1955. The Poverty of Philosophy. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Marx, Karl. 1990. Capital Volume 1. London: Penguin.

Marx, Karl. 1991. Capital Volume 3. London: Penguin.

Marx, Karl. 1992a. Early Writings. London: Penguin.

Marx, Karl. 1992b. Capital Volume 2. London: Penguin.

Marx, Karl. 1993. The Grundrisse. London: Penguin.

Marx, Karl. 2000. Karl Marx: Selected Writings 2nd Edition. Edited by David McLellan. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Peterson, Jordan. 2018. Maps of Meaning. Allen Lane.

Maoist Rebel News Does Not Understand Marx

Maoist Rebel News and Muke had a debate on whether or not the Soviet Union was socialist. During this debate they had the following exchange:

MRN: Marx doesn’t necessarily stand against the existence of profit inside of socialism because Marx didn’t actually write very much about what socialism is, he wrote more about what communism is than what socialism is.

Muke: . . . Marx says quite specifically almost in the critique of the gotha programme, one of the few places where he does talk about lower phase and higher phase communism, which, by the way he never made a distinction between socialism and communism.

MRN: socialism, communism are two different things

Muke: Well for Marx they’re not, he never made that distinction. There’s only lower phase communism and there’s

MRN: That’s not true

Muke: Really? Where does he?

MRN: Mode of production of socialism is transitory period between the two.

Muke: Um… No. He never said that.

MRN: Do you want a quote?

Muke: I’d love a quote

MRN: “Between capitalist and communist society there lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.”

Muke: Yer so that’s from part 4 or 3 of critique of the Gotha? At no point does he use the term socialist there. I totally admit that there is a transitionary period between capitalism and lower phase communism and that is the dictatorship of the proletariat. But Marx never said that this phase was socialism. That’s something Lenin introduced himself.

MRN: Even if that were true, that its something which Lenin invented, which I don’t believe is true, it would be an irrelevant point.

After the debate Maoist Rebel News wrote a blog post in which he said,

Communism and Socialism are not the same things. His assertion that they are, is totally false. While Marx did not specifically theorize both of these stages of development, it is clear he was referring to two different things.

Communism is a stateless classless society, while he specifically says, “Between capitalist and communist society there lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.” (Marx, Critique of the Gotha Program (1875))

This is clearly differentiating between two things. One cannot have a state and not have a state at the same time. This is referring to two different periods of development. The state is part of the development towards communism.

He continues,

Finally, I will deal with the very core of Xexizy’s argument, which relies on one hugely incorrect idea: communism and socialism are the same things. This claim essentially erases the transitory period between capitalism and communism even if Xexizy claims he doesn’t. He has done so by refusing to acknowledge them as two different things. Essentially, if the society doesn’t conform to the end result of communism, then, therefore, it is capitalism. Such a transformation cannot be carried out instantaneously, this is utopian anarchist garbage. A transitory period in which perfection does not exist is necessary. A building under construction is still a building even if you want to nitpick that it is not the final product. This almost a Nirvana fallacy. If we take him at his word that they are the same, then a higher and lower stage doesn’t exist according to him. He would do well to study quantity into quality as well.

Maoist Rebel New’s view can be summarized as follows: Muke is wrong to think that Marx does not distinguish between socialism and communism because if communism is a stateless society and if Marx advocates a revolutionary state during the transition from capitalism to communism then there must be a mode of production in-between capitalism and communism which has a state. A mode of production cannot after all simultaneously be stateless and have a state. The mode of production which contains the dictatorship of the proletariat is socialism. Given this, Marx holds that the achievement of communism is a three step process during which society transitions from the capitalist mode of production to the socialist mode of production and from the socialist mode of production to the communist mode of production.

In arguing this Maoist Rebel News is operating on the false assumption that the only way to conceptualize the transition from capitalism to fully fledged communism is through the notion of an intermediary mode of production called socialism. Marx himself, as Muke correctly pointed out, did not distinguish between socialism and communism. Marx instead held that there was a single mode of production – communism – at two different moments of its development: communism during its phase of becoming, when it is arising out of capitalism and contains the dictatorship of the proletariat, and communism during its phase of being, when it is stateless. To explain what this means I will have to explain a) how Marx thinks about society, b) what Marx thought about the transition from feudalism to capitalism and c) what Marx thought about the transition from capitalism to communism. I shall discuss each in turn. Before I do so its important to note that the ideas presented here do not stem entirely from my own original research but are rather largely based on the ideas presented by the Marxist theorist Michael Lebowitz in his books The Socialist Alternative: Real Human Development and The Socialist Imperative: From Gotha to Now, which I highly recommend.

Marx’s View of Society

For Marx society is a totality, or as he sometimes calls it, an organic system, composed of parts which come together to form a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. The parts which form the whole are not separate independent entities but rather co-exist with one another, mutually determine one another, co-define one another and support, constrain or damage one another. This perspective can be seen in the Poverty of Philosophy where Marx writes that an organic system is one “in which all the elements co-exist simultaneously and support one another”. (Marx and Engels 1976, 167) Marx similarly claims in the Grundrisse that “production, distribution, exchange and consumption . . . all form the members of a totality” in which “[m]utual interaction takes place between the different moments”, as is “the case with every organic whole.” (Marx 1993, 99-100)

On this view, to understand one part of society you have to understand how it is related to other parts of society and visa versa. You cannot, for example, understand racism in isolation from the rest of society because racism permeates different aspects of society, such as how black women are depicted on television. To understand racism, you therefore have to understand the relations between racism and other parts of society, such as patriarchy and television. Likewise, you cannot fully understand what patriarchy or television are in our society unless you understand how they are related to racism. Crucially the relations that stand between different parts of society themselves constitute what these different parts are. It’s not just that there are relations between racism and patriarchy but that part of what racism is, is its relations with patriarchy and part of what patriarchy is, is its relations with racism. You cannot understand one without understanding the other.

Given this framework, Marx holds that we must think about economic systems as totalities composed of parts that presuppose one another because each part is constituted through its relations with all the other parts. This perspective can be seen throughout Marx’s work. In the Grundrisse Marx writes that,

 in the completed bourgeois system every economic relation presupposes every other in its bourgeois economic form, and everything posited is thus also a presupposition, this is the case with every organic system. (Marx 1993, 278)

Marx similarly writes in Wage Labour and Capital that,

 capital presupposes wage labour; wage labour presupposes capital. They reciprocally condition the existence of each other; they reciprocally bring forth each other. (Marx 2000, 283)

Capitalism is therefore reproduced in so far as a chain of interlocking parts, which presuppose one another, continually create the necessary social relations that not only stand between each part but in addition constitute them. For Marx one of the prime examples of this was the process whereby capitalism continually reproduces the division between capitalists and workers. As Marx writes in Capital Volume I,

The capitalist relation presupposes a complete separation between the workers and the ownership of the conditions for the realization of their labour. As soon as capitalist production stands on its own feet, it not only maintains this separation but reproduces it on a constantly extending scale. (Marx 1990, 874)

This process of reproduction begins with capitalists who own the means of production and seek to make profits, and workers, who do not own means of production and so must, in order to reproduce themselves, sell their labour to a capitalist in exchange for a wage. As a result, a worker enters the labour market and competes with other workers for jobs. Once a worker has a job they engage in labour under the direction of a capitalist, who in turn appropriates the products produced by the worker. The capitalist proceeds to sell these products as commodities and pays the worker less than the value that they produce. The worker uses up their wage to buy commodities and thereby reproduce themselves, while the capitalist re-invests their profits in the business and is thereby able to keep earning profits. The cycle then begins again with a worker needing a wage to reproduce themselves and a capitalist needing workers to make profits from.

This narrative can be seen in the Grundrisse where Marx writes that,

 the result of the process of production and realization is, above all, the reproduction and new production of the relation of capital and labour itself, of capitalist and worker. . . the worker produces himself as labour capacity, as well as the capital confronting him, while at the same time the capitalist produces himself as capital as well as the living labour capacity confronting him. Each reproduces itself, by reproducing its other, its negation. The capitalist produces labour as alien; labour produces the product as alien. The capitalist produces the worker, and the worker the capitalist etc. (Marx 1993, 458)

Marx likewise writes in Capital Volume 1 that,

 Capitalist production therefore reproduces in the course of its own process the separation between labour-power and the conditions of labour. It thereby reproduces and perpetuates the conditions under which the worker is exploited. It incessantly forces him to sell his labour-power in order to live, and enables the capitalist to purchase labour power in order that he may enrich himself. It is no longer a mere accident that capitalist and worker confront each other in the market as buyer and seller. It is the alternative rhythm of the process itself which throws the worker back onto the market again and again as a seller of his labour-power and continually transforms his own product into a means by which another man can purchase him. In reality, the worker belongs to capital before he has sold himself to the capitalist. His economic bondage is at once mediated through, and concealed by, the periodic renewal of the act by which he sells himself, his change of masters, and the oscillations in the market-price of his labour.

The capitalist process of production, therefore, seen as a total, connected process, i.e. a process of reproduction, produces not only commodities, not only surplus value, but also produces and reproduces the capital-relation itself; on the one hand the capitalist, on the other the wage labourer. (Marx 1990, 723-4)

For capitalism to be a dominant mode of production is therefore for every economic relation to presuppose every other in its capitalist form, such as the economic relation of selling labour power presupposing the existence of a labour market which in turn presupposes production for profit, the private ownership of the means of production by capitalists, and workers having nothing to sell but their labour power.

Marx on the Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism

Society has of course not always been capitalist. Rather, capitalism became the dominant mode of production by displacing a previous economic system – feudalism – in which a very different set of economic relations presupposed one another. To understand the development of capitalism is therefore to understand how it came to establish the chain of interlocking parts that simultaneously constitute and reproduce it as an economic system. From now I will refer to this process as an economy developing its own foundations.

In the Grundrisse Marx conceptualized an economy developing its own foundations as follows,

This organic system itself, as a totality, has its presuppositions, and its development to its totality consists precisely in subordinating all elements of society to itself, or in creating out of it the organs which it still lacks. This is historically how it becomes a totality. The process of becoming this totality forms a moment of its process, of its development. (Marx 1993, 278)

In this passage Marx distinguishes between two different moments: when an organic system is in the “process of becoming” a totality and when an organic system is a “totality” or, to use the language Marx uses later in the Grundrisse, is “being”, rather than “becoming”. What exactly Marx means by this can be seen in his discussion of the development of capitalism. When capitalism was in the phase of becoming it established new social relations within and in reaction to the previous organic system, feudalism. He writes that,

It must be kept in mind that the new forces of production and relations of production do not develop out of nothing, nor drop from the sky, nor from the womb of the self-positing Idea; but from within and in antithesis to the existing development of production and the inherited, traditional relations of property. (Marx 1993, 278)

This can be seen in continental Europe which suffered,

not only from the development of capitalist production, but also from the incompleteness of that development. Alongside the modern evils, we are oppressed by a whole series of inherited evils, arising from the passive survival of archaic and outmoded modes of production, with their accompanying train of anachronistic social and political relations. We suffer not only from the living, but from the dead.(Marx 1990, 91)

According to Marx when capitalism was becoming it rested on parts from the previous economic system but once it had reached the phase of being and developed its own foundations it rested on parts that it creates itself as an economic system. This perspective can be seen in the Grundrisse where he writes that a capitalist bringing “values into circulation which he created with his own labour”, as opposed to that of a wage labourer, belongs to capitalism’s “historic presuppositions, which, precisely as such historic presuppositions, are past and gone, and hence belong to the history of its formation, but in no way to its contemporary history, i.e. not to the real system of the mode of production ruled by it.” In a similar fashion, “the flight of serfs to the cities is one of the historic conditions and presuppositions of urbanism” but “is not a condition, not a moment of the reality of developed cities”. It “belongs rather to their past presuppositions, to the presuppositions of their becoming which are suspended in their being.” Given this, “[t]he conditions and presuppositions of the becoming, of the arising, of capital presuppose precisely that it is not yet in being but merely in becoming.” Such conditions and presuppositions of the becoming of capitalism “disappear as real capital arises” and capital “itself, on the basis of its own reality, posits the conditions for its realization.” (Marx 1993, 459)

Importantly, not all of the parts which acted as preconditions for the becoming of capitalism disappeared once capitalism reached the phase of being. Some parts that were once preconditions for its becoming were transformed into aspects of its being that it itself produces. To return to the earlier example, in order for capitalism to develop it was necessary for a division between capitalist and worker to be established. Once capitalism had reached the phase of being this division was continuously reproduced by capitalism itself. Marx states this explicitly in the Grundrisse, where he writes

capital creates its own presuppositions. . . by means of its own productive process. These presuppositions, which originally appeared as conditions for its becoming – and hence could not spring from its actions as capital – now appear as results of its own realisation, reality, as posited by it – not as conditions of its arising but as results of its presence. It no longer proceeds from presuppositions in order to become, but rather is itself presupposed, and proceeds from itself to create the conditions of its maintenance and growth. (Marx 1993, 460)

To become an organic system is therefore to undergo a process of development whereby the foundational parts of the system come to be produced by the system itself, rather than its foundation still resting on historical parts inherited from a previous organic system. For Marx one of the main foundational parts created during the becoming of capitalism was a working class who not only reproduce capitalism but also view capitalist social relations as an inevitable and natural part of life. Marx writes in Capital Volume 1 that,

The advance of capitalist production develops a working class which by education, training and habit looks upon the requirement of that mode of production as self-evident natural laws. The organization of the capitalist process of production, once it is fully developed, breaks down all resistance. The constant generation of a relative surplus population keeps the law of the supply and demand of labour, and therefore wages, within narrow limits which correspond to capital’s valorization requirements. The silent compulsion of economic relations sets the seal on the domination of the capitalist over the worker. Direct extra-economic force is still of course used, but only in exceptional cases. In the ordinary run of things, the worker can be left to the ‘natural laws of production’, i.e. it is possible to rely on his dependence on capital, which springs from the conditions of production themselves, and is guaranteed in perpetuity by them. (Marx 1990, 899)

The creation of a working class which meets the needs of capitalism as an organic system did not occur automatically. Instead, capitalism emerged out of a previous organic system, feudalism, in which workers did not look upon the requirements of capitalist production as “self-evident natural laws”. Instead, due to the education, training and habits they experienced under feudalism they considered the sale of their labour to a capitalist as unnatural. Given this,

Centuries are required before the ‘free’ worker, owing to the greater development of the capitalist mode of production, makes a voluntary agreement, i.e. is compelled by social conditions to sell the whole of his active life, his very capacity to labour, in return for the price of his customary means of subsistence, to sell his birthright for a mess of pottage. (Marx 1990, 382)

In other words, during its phase of becoming capitalism had yet to develop its own foundations and so lacked the interlocking chain of parts which through the “silent compulsion of economic relations” force people to be wage labourers. As a result, during its phase of becoming capitalism relied upon what Lebowitz terms the capitalist mode of regulation in order to make people conform to the needs of capitalism. This capitalist mode of regulation was the state. Marx writes in Capital Volume I that,

capital in its embryonic state, in its state of becoming, when it cannot yet use the sheer force of economic relations to secure its right to absorb a sufficient quantity of surplus labour, but must be aided by the power of the state. (Marx 1990, p382)

State violence was used to discipline the working class, remove alternatives to selling labour to a capitalist and crush working class resistance to the development of capitalism. Marx writes in Capital Volume I that,

during the historical genesis of capitalist production. . . [t]he rising bourgeoise needs the power of the state, and uses it to ‘regulate’ wages, i.e to force them into the limits suitable for making a profit, to lengthen the working day, and to keep the worker himself at his normal level of dependence. (Marx 1990, 899-900)

A few pages later Marx refers to,

the forcible creation of a class of free and rightless proletarians, the bloody discipline that turned them into-wage labourers, the disgraceful proceedings of the state which employed police methods to accelerate the accumulation of capital by increasing the degree of exploitation of labour . . . (Marx 1990, 905)

Marx on the Transition from Capitalism to Communism

With Marx’s views on society and on the transition from feudalism to capitalism in mind we can now turn to what Marx thought about the transition from capitalism to communism. In the Critique of the Gotha programme Marx writes,

What we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birth marks of the old society from whose womb it emerges. (Marx 2000, 614)

In this passage Marx distinguishes between communist society when “it has developed on its own foundations” and communist society “just as it emerges from capitalist society” and is “still stamped with the birth marks of the old society from whose womb it emerges”. What Marx means by this can be understood by re-phrasing what Marx said about capitalism as an organic system so that it refers to communism. Re-phrasing Marx quotes in this way is a standard practice among Marx specialists, such as Michael Lebowitz and Istvan Meszaros. Doing so is not anachronistic in this case since Marx explicitly says that the conceptual points he makes about capitalism as an organic system are “the case with every organic system.” (Marx 1993, 278)

According to Marx, communism has “developed on its own foundations” when “every economic relation presupposes every other in its communist economic form, and everything posited is thus also a presupposition”. That is to say, it is composed of a chain of interlocking parts that simultaneously constitute and reproduce it as an economic system. Communism’s development into an organic system with its own foundations “consists precisely in subordinating all elements of society to itself, or in creating out of it the organs which it still lacks.” It must come to create “its own presuppositions. . . by means of its own productive process” such that “it no longer proceeds from presuppositions in order to become, but rather is itself presupposed, and proceeds from itself to create the conditions of its maintenance and growth.” It must in short become self-reproducing.

In order to do so communism must pass through a “process of becoming” in which it arises out of capitalism and so initially exists in “its embryonic state”. During this phase it is “still stamped with the birth marks of the old society from whose womb it emerges”. That is to say, during its phase of becoming the foundation of communism rests on parts inherited from capitalism. This results in communist society initially being “oppressed by a whole series of inherited evils, arising from the passive survival of archaic and outmoded modes of production, with their accompanying train of anachronistic social and political relations.” For Marx one of the primary evils communism would inherent from capitalism is people being paid with labour vouchers per amount of labour performed, rather than receiving freely according to need. Marx holds that “these defects are inevitable in the first phase of communist society as it is when it has just emerged after prolonged birth pangs from capitalist society.” (Marx 2000, 615) As communism develops into a phase of being and establishes its own foundations these defects are removed. Marx writes,

In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labour, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labour, has vanished; after labour has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-round development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly – only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs! (Marx 2000, 615)

Communism will not of course develop its own foundations overnight. As a result, during its phase of becoming communism requires a communist mode of regulation which enables it to subordinate “all elements of society to itself” and create out of society “the organs which it still lacks”. For Marx the communist mode of regulation was the dictatorship of the proletariat. Marx writes,

Between capitalist and communist society lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat. (Marx 2000, 611)

Maoist Rebel News has read this passage as Marx describing a distinct mode of production called socialism. He has done so because he cannot see how a mode of production can simultaneously have a state and be stateless. If it is stateless it is communism, so if there is a state it cannot be communism and must be something else, namely socialism. This reading of Marx ignores his views on the being and becoming of an organic system. The dictatorship of the proletariat is a component of the becoming of communism which enables it to develop its own foundations and reach the phase of being. Once communism has developed into a phase of being the dictatorship of the proletariat will be dissolved. It is therefore a “historic presuppositions of communism, which, precisely as such historic presuppositions, are past and gone, and hence belong to the history of its formation, but in no way to its contemporary history, i.e. not to the real system of the mode of production ruled by it.” It “belongs rather to their past presuppositions, to the presuppositions of their becoming which are suspended in their being.”

Given this, there is no contradiction between saying that communism is a stateless society and saying that the dictatorship of the proletariat is part of communism. The dictatorship of the proletariat is a presupposition for the becoming of communism that is suspended in the being of communism and so is not a component of communism as an organic system which has developed its own foundations. It belongs to the “history of its formation” but not the “the real system of the mode of production ruled by it”. There is therefore no need to do as Maoist Rebel News has done and posit a distinct mode of production called socialism. Marx’s conceptual system enables us to simultaneously view communism as a stateless society and hold that a state will exist within communist society as it is emerging out of capitalist society.


Maoist Rebel News is, as I have shown, wrong to think that Marx posited a distinct intermediary mode of production called socialism. His error in part arises from his failure to understand the basic concepts through which Marx thinks about society, such as Marx’s notion of an organic system or his distinction between being and becoming or his views on how an economy becomes self-reproducing. This failure to understand Marx’s conceptual system is unfortunately widespread online. Internet Marxists consistently fail to read Marx on his own terms but instead read Marx through the lens constructed by later thinkers, such as Kautsky or Lenin. They are less concerned with understanding Marx himself and more concerned with perpetuating orthodoxy and intellectual stagnation. Marxism is, to re-phrase Marx, “oppressed by a whole series of inherited evils, arising from the passive survival of archaic and outmoded readings of Marx, with their accompanying train of anachronistic social and political relations.” If Marxism is to remain relevant it must engage in the “ruthless criticism of all that exists” (Marx 1843) and this includes a ruthless critique of those Marxists who have failed to understand Marx and spread only mis-information and stale theory.


Marx, Karl. 1843. Marx to Ruge, September.

Marx, Karl. 1990. Capital Volume 1. London: Penguin Books.

Marx, Karl. 1993. Grundrisse. London: Penguin Books.

Marx, Karl. 2000. Karl Marx: Selected Writings. Edited by David McLellan. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Marx, Karl and Engels, Frederick. 1976. Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 6.  London: Laurence and Wishart.