According to the Finnish Bolshevik the Marxist perspective on the state is as follows,
The state is all the oppressive mechanisms like the police, the army and all that, secret police, intelligence service and then the bureaucracy which is needed to run things at this stage of development.”
“the state is the result of class society whether it be a society where the ruling class is the capitalist class or where the ruling class is the proletariat. When there’s no more class society, no more class conflicts, then we don’t need the state anymore.
The Finnish Bolshevik contrasts this Marxist analysis of the state with the anarchist analysis of the state. According to him anarchists,
say that the state is the root of all evil and that it should be abolished. This is incredibly naïve and denies class struggle. I’ve actually heard a very well known anarchist on youtube called anarchopac, who I actually have a lot of respect for, say that he stopped being a Marxist because anarchism supposedly offers a more in depth analysis than Marxism and dialectical materialism because anarchism according to him doesn’t restrict and reduce itself to only economics like he says that Marxism does, that anarchism doesn’t attribute inequality and all kinds of bad things to economic relations like Marxism does but to power relations.
This is actually completely backwards and not more in depth but much more simplistic. Power relations themselves don’t come from nowhere but are results of economic relations. . . Where do the bankers get their power? Do they just get their power magically and then they have money because of that? No. They have money and because of the money they have power. That’s wrong. Its not even just money. It’s the economic relations. Bankers control capital so they have power. Sure. Cops don’t control the economy but they serve the ruling class which gives them that power. Denying that social ills are the results of economic relations and saying they’re merely the result of power is denying the class nature of capitalist society, the class nature of the state, and denying class struggle itself.
Now we already know that anarchists deny the class nature of the state. The truth of the matter is though that states are controlled by people with class interests. States in themselves don’t do anything. This anarchist claim that states in themselves cause all problems helps the bourgeois in hiding the class nature of the capitalist state and propagating the myth that capitalist states represent the interests of all classes of society equally and not merely the interests of the capitalists. Anarchists and capitalists are ideologically the same boat here. They both deny the class nature of the state.
Elsewhere he expands on what he means by this,
When I said that anarchists deny the class nature of the state what I meant was that they see the state as such as being the root of all problems. You know, fascists believe in the state as such. Its generally a right wing conservative idea that the state is some kind of universal force which like goes beyond classes. There is no specific class nature of the state, that the state is some kinda power above classes that is a universal power for serving the interests of all classes. In typical anarchist fashion they take this right wing idea and they just turn it on its head. Traditional right wingers they say that the state is something objective, something that guards the interests of all classes. Anarchists, on the other hand, say that basically the total opposite of that. They say that the state is something that is bad in itself regardless of what class controls it. The state is some kind of independent force but instead of being an independent positive force its an independent negative force.
For the Finnish Bolshevik this way of thinking about the state leads to a false understanding of the USSR, China, Cuba and so on:
you guys think that the proletarian state and the capitalist state are the same thing. That is why you guys in your philosophical outlook are the same as right wingers.
The Finnish Bolshevik’s view can be summarized as follows: anarchists understand society in terms of power relations but fail to conceptualize the economic underpinnings of power. As a result, they ignore the class nature of the state and instead view it as an embodiment of power which exists independently of the economy and so of class society. This leads them to mistakenly think that, despite their different class character, workers’ states and capitalists’ states are the same since they are both embodiments of power. This negative evaluation of all states in turn reflects the false anarchist view that the state is the root of all problems in society.
The Finnish Bolshevik provides no textual evidence from anarchist authors to support this interpretation. His single source for this interpretation is two not very good videos I made several years ago called why I’m no longer a Marxist parts 1 and 2. I made the videos private once I realized that I was presenting a critique of a certain version of Marxism as a critique of Marxism as a whole. I re-watched the videos and I at no point say that we should ignore the economy and just talk about power. I at no point deny that many forms of oppression have an economic underpinning. I at no point say that the state isn’t connected to the economy or that the state is just an embodiment of power. I at no point deny the state’s role in reproducing class society. I actually barely talked about the state. All I said was that there are forms of domination, such as patriarchy, which cannot be reduced to or entirely explained by the structure of the economy. I then said that the problem with seizing state power is that the practice of exercising power over other people transforms the party leaders into tyrants concerned with preserving their power, rather than abolishing it. I would play a clip to prove this, but I find 18 year old me far too cringe inducing so you’re going to have to trust me.
The Finnish Bolshevik not only inaccurately represented what I thought but also inaccurately represented anarchist views on the state. To demonstrate this I will have to explain a) how anarchists define the state, b) what anarchists mean by the ruling class, and c) what anarchists think about really existing state socialist societies like the USSR. With this in place I shall show that anarchists do not consider the state to be the root of all problems in society.
Anarchist Definition of the State
The difficulty with explaining how anarchists define the state is that different anarchists use different terminology. Kropotkin sometimes distinguishes between government and the state and other times uses the terms as if they are equivalent. In some moods he says anarchism is self-government and in others says that anarchism is no-government. Malatesta, in comparison, thought that anarchists should speak of government rather than the state because the word state has many meanings that anarchists aren’t talking about. It is all very confusing. I will explain this in lots of detail in a future video. In this video I’m going to simplify things by only using the term state.
Anarchists generally define the state as a hierarchically and centrally organised institution which uses violence to reproduce class rule and is controlled by a ruling minority in their interests against the masses. Malatesta defines the state as “the aggregate of the governors”, such as “kings, presidents, ministers, members of parliament” who “have the power to make laws, to regulate the relations between men, and to force obedience to these laws.” In short, the power to force others to do as they, the minority of governors, wish. The state so understood is “the brutal, violent, arbitrary domination of the few over the many” which in addition acts as “an instrument ordained to secure domination and privilege to those who, by force, or cunning, or inheritance, have taken to themselves all the means of life, and first and foremost the soil, whereby they hold the people in servitude, making them work for their advantage.” (Malatesta 2014, 113, 115)
For Kropotkin, the state is “the force to which minorities resorted for establishing and organising their power over the masses.” The state therefore “not only includes the existence of a power situated above society, but also . . . a territorial concentration as well as the concentration in the hands of a few of many functions in the life of societies . . . A whole mechanism of legislation and of policing has to be developed in order to subject some classes to the domination of others.” (Kropotkin 1993, 160) It’s important to note here that anarchists do not define the state exclusively in terms of its function as an instrument of class rule but instead argue that in order to be a state an institution must in addition to this have a particular organisational form – it must be hierarchical, centralized and controlled by a minority.
For both Kropotkin and Bakunin the modern state, as opposed to ancient states like Rome, first emerged in the 16th century. (Bakunin 2005, 9; Kropotkin 1995, 94) Over the next few centuries there was a process of “military, police, and bureaucratic centralization” which occurred in parallel with the development of capitalism. This is because, as Bakunin put it, “modern capitalist production and bank speculation require enormous centralized states, which alone are capable of subjecting the many millions of laborers to their exploitation.” (Bakunin 2005, 26, 13) Or as Kropotkin wrote, the modern state developed as “a society of mutual insurance between the landlord, the military commander, the judge, the priest, and later on the capitalist, in order to support each other’s authority over the people.” Given this, anarchists held that “the State, considered as a political power, State-Justice, the Church, and Capitalism are facts and conceptions which we cannot separate from each other. In the course of history these institutions have developed, supporting and reinforcing each other.” (Kropotkin 1995, 94)
The idea that the state reproduces class society in general and capitalism in particular permeates the writings of the classical anarchists. Bakunin, for example, claims that “[t]he State is the organized authority, domination, and power of the possessing classes over the masses.” (Bakunin 1972, 256) Reclus likewise writes that “the present function of the state consists foremost of defending the interests of landowners and the “rights of capital,”” (Reclus 2013, 147) Malatesta argues that, “the landowners are able to claim that land and its produce as theirs and the capitalists are able to claim as theirs the instruments of labour and other capital created by human activity” because “the dominant class . . . has created laws to legitimize the usurpations that it has already perpetrated, and has made them a means of new appropriations.” (Malatesta 2005, 45) Berkman writes that, “the government needs laws, police and soldiers, courts and prisons to protect capitalism.” (Berkman 2003, 16) For Goldman “the State is necessary only to maintain or protect property and monopoly.” (Goldman 1996, 51) I could go on and on.
The Finnish Bolshevik is therefore entirely wrong to claim that anarchists ignore the class nature of the state. Far from ignoring it anarchists hold that one of the defining aspects of the state is its role in reproducing class rule and serving the interests of the capitalist class.
Who are the Ruling Classes?
Anarchists do not, however, think that capitalists are the only class which composes the ruling class. According to the modern anarchist theorist and historian Lucian van der Walt the ruling class is composed of two groups: economic elites “who own or control the means of production through private (and state) companies”, such as the CEO of Apple or the top managers of state owned companies like China Tobacco, and political elites “who own or control the means of administration and coercion, mainly through the state apparatus” such as generals, politicians, ministers and high ranking civil servants. Given this, the power of the ruling class “rests on two institutions that centralize power and wealth so that this minority can rule the majority, the popular classes. And these two institutions are the corporation and the state, which share the basic features of top-down rule by and for an elite, exploitation of workers, the priority of ruling class interests.” (van der Walt 2016, 257) This is not a new perspective in anarchist theory. Malatesta argued in 1897 that while “the State is the defender, the agent, and the servant of the propertied class” it “also constitutes a class by itself, with its own interests and passions. When the State, the Government, is not helping the propertied to oppress and rob people, it oppresses and robs them on its own behalf.” (Malatesta 2016, 213) Political elites “constitute a class” who “are to politics as property-owning classes are to economics.” (Malatesta 2016, 123)
Given that the state is a hierarchically and centrally organized institution wielded by a political elite in their interests it follows that, to quote Bakunin, the state “is placed by its very nature and position above and outside the people and must inevitable work to subordinate the people under rules and for objectives foreign to them.” (Bakunin 2016, 15) Or as Bakunin writes elsewhere, states “are in essence only machines governing the masses from above, through . . . a privileged minority, allegedly knowing the genuine interests of the people better than the people themselves.” (Bakunin 1964, 211) As a result, “the State has always been the patrimony of some privileged class or other; a priestly class, an aristocratic class, a bourgeois class” and eventually a “bureaucratic class”. (Bakunin 1972, 318)
Anarchist Analysis of USSR etc
This leads us to the anarchist analysis of state socialist societies like the USSR, China and Cuba. Most anarchists argue that these societies were not in fact socialist but were instead state capitalist. They do so for the following reasons. Anarchists view capitalism as an economic system based on a division between capitalists – who own the means of production and direct the productive process – and workers – who do not own the means of production and must engage in work as instructed by the capitalist. Socialism, in contrast, is understood as a society in which this division is collapsed. Workers both own the means of production and direct the productive process themselves.
Given these definitions, socialism cannot in practice be achieved through the state. The state is a hierarchically and centrally organization institution ruled by a political elite. If the state becomes the owner and manager of the economy then the economy will in practice be owned and managed by the elite who controls the state. The elite may proclaim that the working class are the ruling class and that the means of production are collectively owned but this is false. The state owns the means of production and the state is ruled by the self-proclaimed leaders or representatives of the working class, rather than by the working class themselves. This contradiction between rhetoric and reality is similar to how under Western representative democracies politicians claim that they represent and serve the people when they actually represent and serve the rich and powerful.
State socialist economies therefore rest on the same capitalist division between those who own and command and those who do not own and obey. The rulers of the state, such as the USSR’s central committee, politburo and general secretary, perform the same role as that of the capitalist: owning and managing the economy. Under market capitalism the economic elite and the political elite are largely two separate groups that exercise power through two distinct institutions – the corporation and the state. Under state capitalism the economic elite and political elite exercise power through the same institution – the state – and are frequently the same group of people. Market capitalism and state capitalism are not the exact same economic system but they do share an important common characteristic: a ruling minority who economically oppress the working class through hierarchical and centralized institutions based on relationships of command and obedience.
This perspective can be seen throughout anarchist discussions of state socialism. According to Bakunin the leaders of the communist party will “create a single state bank, concentrating in their own hands all commercial, industrial, agricultural, and even scientific production, and will divide the people into two armies, one industrial and one agrarian, under the direct command of state engineers, who will form a new privileged scientific and political class.” (Bakunin 2005, 181) Kropotkin wrote that anarchists “cannot look upon the coming revolution as a mere substitution of . . . the State as the universal capitalist for the present capitalists.” (Kropotkin 1995, 106) Elsewhere Kropotkin concluded that,
to hand over to the State all the main sources of economical life—the land, the mines, the railways, banking, insurance, and so on—as also the management of all the main branches of industry, in addition to all the functions already accumulated in its hands (education, State-supported religions, defence of the territory, etc.), would mean to create a new instrument of tyranny. State capitalism would only increase the powers of bureaucracy and capitalism. (Kropotkin 2014, 165)
Malatesta similarly wrote that,
Whoever has power over things has power over men; whoever governs production also governs the producers; who determines consumption is master over the consumer. This is the question; either things are administered on the basis of free agreement among the interested parties, and this is anarchy; or they are administered according to laws made by administrators and this is government, it is the State, and inevitably it turns out to be tyrannical. (Malatesta 2015, 138)
The consequence of this is that a dictatorship of the proletariat that was institutionalized through the state would in reality “be the dictatorship of “Party” over people, and of a handful of men over “Party””. (Malatesta 2016, 27)
If a self-proclaimed workers’ state was based on the workers’ themselves directly owning the means of production and collectively organising the economy in particular and society in general then it would not be a state in the anarchist sense of the word. This is because it would be based on the collective self-determination of the majority, rather than minority rule. Bakunin makes this very clear in Statism and Anarchy. He writes,
What does it mean, “the proletariat raised to a governing class?” Will the entire proletariat head the government? The Germans number about 40 million. Will all 40 million be members of the government? The entire nation will rule, but no one will be ruled. Then there will be no government, there will be no state; but if there is a state, there will also be those who are ruled, there will be slaves. (Bakunin 2005, 178)
We can now see how misleading the Finnish Bolshevik’s claims are. Anarchists do not ignore the different class character of workers’ states and capitalist states because they view the state as an embodiment of power that exists independently of the economy. Anarchists actually argue that these workers’ states were workers’ states in name only because they were controlled by a ruling class of economic and political elites, rather than by the workers themselves. From the anarchist perspective their rejection of really existing state socialism is based on an accurate understanding of the class nature of these states and of the relationship between these states and the economy they controlled and the working class that they oppressed along both economic and political dimensions. Anarchists do not ignore what class controls the state but instead point out that the working class do not.
The Finnish Bolshevik might respond to this by arguing that the anarchist characterization of really existing state socialist societies is historically inaccurate. Doing so would entirely miss my point. All I am arguing here is that the Finnish Bolshevik inaccurately portrayed anarchist views on the state, not that the anarchist views are themselves accurate. That is a separate question.
Is the State the Root of All Problems?
We can now turn to whether or not anarchists think that the state is the root of all problems. The short answer is: no. Anarchists consider the root of social problems to be oppressive hierarchical social relationships and argue that two of the most damaging hierarchical social structures are capitalism and the state. Importantly, they hold that these two social structures are inter-connected with one another because capitalism relies upon the state to reproduce itself. This can be seen in Kropotkin’s claim that,
anarchists, in common with all socialists, of whom they constitute the left wing, maintain that the now prevailing system of private ownership in land, and our capitalist production for the sake of profits, represent a monopoly which runs against both the principles of justice and the dictates of utility. They are the main obstacle which prevents the successes of modern technics from being brought into the service of all, so as to produce general well-being. The anarchists consider the wage-system and capitalist production altogether as an obstacle to progress. But they point out also that the State was, and continues to be, the chief instrument for permitting the few to monopolise the land, and the capitalists to appropriate for themselves a quite disproportionate share of the yearly accumulated surplus of production. Consequently, while combating the present monopolisation of land, and capitalism altogether, the anarchists combat with the same energy the State, as the main support of that system. Not this or that special form, but the State altogether, whether it be a monarchy or even a republic governed by means of the referendum.(Kropotkin 2014, 164)
The great importance that anarchists placed on abolishing capitalism can be seen in the fact that the first point of Malatesta’s anarchist programme of 1899 was the “[a]bolition of private property in land, in raw materials and the instruments of labour, so that no one shall have the means of living by the exploitation of the labour of others”. It is only after this point that Malatesta calls for the “[a]bolition of government and of every power which makes the law and imposes it on others”. (Malatesta 2014, 281) If anarchists, as the Finnish Bolshevik claimed, viewed the state as the root of all problems then surely Malatesta would not have done this.
Nor do anarchists limit themselves to critiquing capitalism and the state. For Goldman “while all Anarchists agree that the main evil today is an economic one, they maintain that the solution of that evil can be brought about only through the consideration of every phase of life – individual, as well as the collective; the internal, as well as the external phases.” (Goldman 1996, 64) Kropotkin likewise argued that anarchists held “that the whole of the life of human societies, everything, from daily individual relationships between people to broader relationships between races across oceans, could and should be reformulated.” (Kropotkin 2014, 197-8) Historically this led anarchists to critique such things as organized religion, authoritarian schools, sexism, racism and homophobia.
In the modern anarchist movement combating patriarchy, queerphobia, ableism and racism has taken on an even greater importance than it did historically. Modern anarchists will place special emphasis on the way that these forms of oppression interact with and are perpetuated by capitalism and the state but they will not reduce them to capitalism and the state. Instead they will focus on the specific character of these forms of hierarchical social relationships and the specific mechanisms through which they are reproduced. Patriarchy, for example, is perpetuated through socialization into gender roles, the enforcement of the gender binary, and the subordination of women, trans and non-binary people. The state plays an important role in reproducing patriarchy, such as the Tory government in the UK cutting funding to domestic abuse shelters or the police victim blaming women who are raped, but the state is not the main cause of patriarchy. This way of theorizing makes zero sense if anarchists view the state as the root of all problems. The Finnish Bolshevik is once again entirely wrong.
I hope that listeners are noticing a pattern here. The Finnish Bolshevik says things about anarchism that are false and does so with a huge amount of confidence, despite providing zero textual evidence for his interpretation. This is all the more worrying when one considers that many of the points I’m making have already been made at length in the anarchist faq. I do not have a problem with Marxists critiquing anarchism. I merely wish that Marxists would first gain an accurate understanding of anarchism before they decided to try and critique it. To not do so is to lack basic intellectual integrity.
Bakunin, Michael. The Political Philosophy of Bakunin: Scientific Anarchism. Edited by G.P. Maximoff. New York: The Free Press of Glencoe, 1964.
Bakunin, Michael. Bakunin on Anarchy: Selected Works by the Activist-Founder of World Anarchism. Edited by Sam Dolgoff. New York: Vintage Books, 1972.
Bakunin, Michael. Statism and Anarchy. Edited by Marshall Shatz. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
Bakunin, Michael. Bakunin: Selected Texts 1868-1875. Edited by A W Zurbrugg. London: Merlin Press, 2016.
Berkman, Alexander. What Is Anarchism? Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2003.
Goldman, Emma. Red Emma Speaks: An Emma Goldman Reader. Edited by Alix Kates Shulman. 3rd ed. New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1996.
Malatesta, Errico. The Method of Freedom: An Errico Malatesta Reader. Edited by Davide Turcato. Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2014.
Malatesta, Errico. Life and Ideas: The Anarchist Writings of Errico Malatesta. Edited by Vernon Richards. Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2015.
Malatesta, Errico. A Long and Patient Work: The Anarchist Socialism of L’Agitazione 1897-1898. Edited by Davide Turcato. Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2016.
Reclus, Élisée. Anarchy, Geography, Modernity: Selected Writings of Élisée Reclus. Edited by John Clark and Camille Martin. Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2013.
Kropotkin, Peter. Fugitive Writings. Edited by George Woodcock. Montréal: Black Rose Books, 1993.
Kropotkin, Peter. Evolution and Environment. Edited by George Woodcock. Montréal: Black Rose Books, 1995.
Kropotkin, Peter. Direct Struggle Against Capital: A Peter Kropotkin Anthology. Edited by Iain McKay. Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2014.
Walt, Lucien van der. “Alternatives From the Ground Up: Globalization School Input on Anarchism/Syndicalism and (Black) Working Class Self-Emancipation in Postapartheid South Africa.” WorkingUSA: The Journal of Labour and Society 19, no. 2 (2016).