Marxism-Leninism was by far the most widespread strain of socialist thought to emerge in the 20th century. It was the form of government that the Soviet Union took after the death of Vladimir Lenin, as Josef Stalin sought to combine Lenin’s philosophy with that of Karl Marx. The results were wildly successful for a time; at its height in the early to mid-1980s, thirty countries followed Marxist-Leninist principles when setting up their socialist governments. But today, only four are still considered bona fide Marxist-Leninist states: Vietnam, Laos, Cuba, and China. But did these states fail on their own merits, like capitalist propaganda would have us believe? Or did capitalism end up strangling the baby in its crib to stop the working class from seeing a better way?
Before we answer those questions, we must first examine what Marxist-Leninists actually believe. The main difference between Marx and Lenin was that Lenin thought that Marx had been mistaken when he predicted that the working class would achieve solidarity as poverty got worse and more jobs were replaced by machines. Lenin instead argued that by outsourcing hard labor to overseas colonies during the age of imperialism, the capitalist ruling class had managed to instill workers with a false sense of solidarity with the bourgeoisie. They did this mainly by providing the workers with enough benefits to satisfy them and forestall a populist uprising.
Lenin argued that the solution to this problem was to form a political party composed of intellectuals to show the misguided working class that their bourgeois solidarity is wasted on rich people who don’t care about them. With this vanguard party in place, a revolution would overthrow the old bourgeois class and be ruled under a dictatorship of the proletariat, which Marx predicted in his original writings. Lenin interpreted this “dictatorship of the proletariat” as a one-party political system that would determine what was good for the workers and establish a strong law enforcement arm to suppress counterrevolutionaries (something that many other socialist thinkers disagreed with; more on that later).
With all of this in place, the path to the classless, stateless society that Marx originally dreamed of would eventually be realized as the rest of the world saw how well the citizens of the Soviet Union were doing under the newer, better communist regime. But sadly, as history has demonstrated, capitalism doesn’t like competition as much as it claims it does.
History and Principle Figures
Russia did indeed have its socialist revolution in October of 1917 that established the very first non-capitalist nation in the modern-day. Some sources, like the Libertarian Socialist Wiki, have divided the subsequent history of Marxism-Leninism into six phases.
Phase One starts with the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 and ends with the invasion of the USSR by Nazi Germany in 1941. This period saw the establishment of the Soviet Union as a formal state in 1922, Josef Stalin coming to power in 1924 after Lenin’s untimely death, Mongolia becoming a socialist republic the same year, and Stalin pursuing a policy of isolationism as he pursued independent industrial development.
Phase Two lasted from 1941 to 1959. This period saw the Allied Powers’ defeat of Nazi Germany and the Japanese Empire with significant help from the Soviet Union and the beginning of the Cold War between the USSR and the United States. This period also saw the first big wave of new socialist republics as the USSR sought to spread its foreign influence. Yugoslavia was the first to join in 1943, followed by Poland (1945); Albania and Bulgaria (1946); Romania (1947); Czechslovakia (1948); East Germany, Hungary, and China (1949); North Korea (1950); and Cuba (1959). Stalin died in 1954, and his successor, Nikita Krushchev, pursued a policy of de-Stalinization. Meanwhile, the capitalist countries begin covert military operations to destabilize emerging communist governments like those in Iran (1953) and Guatemala (1954).
Phase Three lasted from 1960 to 1973 and saw the creation of several Marxist-Leninist organizations that failed to seize power in their home countries. Examples include the Naxalite movement in India, the Red Army Faction in West Germany, and the Japanese Red Army. Others successfully achieved socialism, like Yemen in 1967 and Congo and Somalia in 1969. It also saw tensions between the US and Soviet Union reach a fever pitch during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Meanwhile, tensions between the USSR and China led to the Sino-Soviet Split, as Mao Zedong accused Nikita Krushchev’s policies of de-Stalinization and attempts at peaceful coexistence with the West as a betrayal of Marxist principles. Even so, Mao himself eventually established friendly relations with the US after Nixon’s famous visit in 1972. During this period, the US would also pursue much more hostile relations with other Marxist-Leninist nations, most infamously with its toppling of Salvador Allende’s government in Chile in 1973 and the Vietnam War (1964-1975).
Phase Four lasted from 1974 to 1988 and saw the second big wave of states joining the Marxist-Leninist cause. These included Ethiopia in 1974; Benin, Angola, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and Mozambique in 1975; Afghanistan in 1978; Nicaragua and Grenada in 1979; and Burkina Faso in 1983. Indeed, one might call this the golden age of Marxism-Leninism, as not only did the philosophy hold sway over 30 nation-states at this time, but revolutionaries were conducting insurrections against their capitalist regimes all over the globe, albeit with little success. Meanwhile, the US continued its fight against the rise of communism. First, it seized upon the assassination of socialist prime minister Maurice Bishop to lead an invasion that toppled Grenada’s Marxist-Leninist government in 1983. Then it joined France, Libya, Israel, and several other nations in assassinating Burkina Faso’s Thomas Sankara in 1987. This period also saw American president Ronald Reagan become involved in the Iran-Contra affair, in which he was outed as using money from illegal arms sales in Iran to fund the Contra movement to oust the Communist government of Nicaragua.
Phase Five, lasting from 1989 to 1992, was when the bottom dropped out of the old communist regimes, as the contradictions inherent in the centralized economies of places like the Soviet Union caused them to start falling apart, partly thanks to Mikael Gorbachev’s policies of perestroika and glasnost. The age of neoliberalism formally codified itself as authoritarian governments, communist or otherwise, were replaced by capitalist representative democracies. Only five countries still operated on Marxist-Leninist principles when it was all over; China, Vietnam, Laos, North Korea, and Cuba.
Phase Six, which started in 1993 and continues today, sees the remaining five socialist governments struggling to adapt to the neoliberal era. Vietnam, Laos, and Cuba remain steadfastly Marxist-Leninist despite often overbearing international pressure. Meanwhile, China has adopted more and more capitalist elements as the years have gone by, while North Korea devolved into an authoritarian hellscape. What major socialist movements are left have mostly turned to social democracy or libertarian socialism (like the Zapatista movement in Chiapas, Mexico, or the PKK and Rojava movement in Turkey, Iraq, and Syria).
I have rather complex feelings about the Marxist-Leninists. On the one hand, Marxism-Leninism has a lot to answer for in terms of some of their actions, some of which might even rise to human rights violations. Indeed, the millions of deaths that occurred under events like the Holodomor in Stalinist Russia, the great famines that happened under Mao Zedong’s watch in China, and the millions of people murdered by Pol Pot’s regime in Cambodia could make a strong case that trying to centralize the entire economy under government control never works.
Even many contemporary leftists had a lot of negative things to say about how Lenin and co. were handling things in Russia. For example, Polish communist Rosa Luxemburg heavily criticized Lenin’s idea of a vanguard, which she thought would lead to a one-party totalitarian state (something that would prove all too true once Stalin took power). My personal political hero, Pyotr Kropotkin, also criticized the Marxist-Leninists as being too centralized and authoritarian. The great American anarchist Emma Goldman, deported to Russia for her radical views, even wrote a two-volume book entitled My Disillusionment in Russia, in which she excoriated the Marxist-Leninists for their suppression of independent voices (something that was brilliantly depicted in the 1981 film Reds during her argument with John Reed (see my review of that film here)).
However, as my literacy of the history and philosophy of the political left has increased, I’ve also come to realize two things. The first is that, in many cases, the supposed crimes of the Marxist-Leninist regimes have often been grossly exaggerated or even outright fabricated by capitalist propagandists. Much capitalist propaganda would have us believe that all communist nations were Stalinist or Maoist hellholes where everyone was crushed under famine and economic stagnation and anyone who dared to speak out about it was deported to a life of hard labor in the gulags. Of course, this ignores the fact that the gulags were discontinued under Krushchev’s administration as part of his de-Stalinization policies. It also ignores the fact that the Soviet Union became an industrial superpower that vastly increased living standards. Many egalitarian achievements, in the form of social programs for education, housing, health, and jobs, helped lift up much of the population.
Speaking of which, that leads me to the second thing I’ve realized: that capitalism is far deadlier than communism could ever hope to be. Let’s say we take 1997’s The Black Book of Communism at its word and assume that communism has indeed killed 94 million people in the 100+ years since the Bolshevik Revolution. That doesn’t change the fact that capitalism kills just as many, if not more, people every five years!
Of course, that’s not including all the atrocities that capitalism wrought on the world during the age of imperialism. Let’s go through some of these atrocities one by one and see how long it takes to surpass The Black Book’s death toll, shall we?
The Atlantic slave trade is estimated to have directly killed around 17 million, according to the United Nations, although many estimates place the death toll much higher.
Colonial negligence by the British resulted in the Irish Potato Famine of 1845-1852, which some have estimated killed as many as 1.5 million.
The colonization of North America in the wake of Christopher Columbus’ arrival lead to genocide of the Indigenous population, resulting in anywhere from 50 to 100 million deaths.
King Leopold II of Belgium’s infamously brutal treatment of rubber laborers in the Congo Free State between 1885 and 1908 resulted in the deaths of 15 million, according to the highest estimates.
Adolf Hitler’s Holocaust against the Jews, the Romani, the homosexuals, the disabled, and several other groups (resulting in over six million deaths) is a direct legacy of the systems of racism created by capitalists to justify the Atlantic slave trade.
One direct rebuttal of The Black Book by noted leftist philospher Noam Chomsky noted how deaths from hunger in India typically exceeded 4 million deaths even in non-famine years, in contrast to the 15-55 million figure death toll often applied to China’s Great Famine of 1959-1961.
Of course, that doesn’t cover nearly all the people killed by capitalism and all the genocides, wars, and just plain negligent actions that it propagates, but the point still stands. In all, I think the last paragraph of this article from the eco-socialist journal Capitalism Nature Socialism puts it best:
Leftists who object to communism will hardly put an even infinitesimal dent on the capitalist killing machine by reproducing anti-communist propaganda. It only helps intensify the threat of burgeoning anti-communist legislation and fascist street actions against the left as a whole… Let us then consciously reorganize and struggle for economically tenable classless egalitarian ends before capitalists obliterate most of humanity and other beings with another world conflagration or simply conducting their regular buisness.
Indeed, from what I’ve gathered, it seems that the ultimate end goal of Marxist-Leninists and anarcho-communists is ultimately the same: a classless, stateless society devoid of any and all forms of coercive power. The former just disagree that such a society can be achieved without some form of centralized government, no matter the risk of it turning just as authoritarian and repressive as the capitalist society it is trying to replace.
Still, though, Vietnam and Cuba seem to have managed to achieve stable systems under Marxist-Leninist principles, even despite pressure from the capitalist West to “reform,” so maybe I’m overstating my case. Even so, I still think it’s imperative to remind my dear readers that arguments about what kind of socialist government should replace the current capitalist world order should wait until after we gain the upper hand. Arguments over whether Marxists, anarchists, primitivists, or syndicalists are correct should wait until after we’ve extricated ourselves from under the crushing weight of income inequality and climate change. What matters now is that the capitalists are hurting people, and we need to make them stop!
And that’s another episode of The Complete Noob’s Guide to the Left in the bag! Join me in future installments as I look at the various communist ideologies that directly spun off from Marxism-Leninism, like Stalinism, Trotskyism, Maoism, Titoism, Guevarism, and others. Stay tuned for those, and maybe keep an eye for this year’s Christmas special sometime later this month. See you then, beautiful watchers!
Welcome to my new multi-part series on this blog! You could view this in some ways as a continuation of my “How Anarchism Works” post that I wrote way back around the time I first started this blog. I still think it holds up splendidly as an excellent introduction to the kind of things that anarchists like myself believe in.
However, I do feel there is one big issue with the piece as a whole: It’s far too narrow in scope, as it doesn’t cover the beliefs of every different strand of anarchist thought. In “How Anarchism Works,” I mostly only covered the strand known as “anarcho-communism” and its closely related partner “anarcho-syndicalism.” That’s not necessarily a bad thing. For starters, social anarchism, of which the above-stated ideologies are a part, is the most popular anarchist ideology. And, of course, trying to cover the beliefs of all anarchist doctrines would turn the post into a book, and that would be far beyond the scope of someone like myself who only discovered this stuff mere months before I started this blog.
For these reasons, I have decided to start a series dedicated to individually examining the different ideologies of the political left to see how they compare and contrast with one another. This won’t be restricted to just the libertarian socialist left, however. I also want to examine several leftist ideologies that don’t fall under the anarchist umbrella. I want to understand, for example, how the Marxist-Leninists differ from the Maoists, or Stalinists from Trotskyists, or what separates collectivist anarchism from mutualism. This is just as much for my benefit as for my readers since I’m still a complete noob at this myself. I fear that my affinity for anarcho-communism might make me somewhat biased in my coverage of several of these ideologies, especially non-anarchist ones. However, I still need to know, and I want to share whatever knowledge I have gained with whoever might be interested in hearing it.
But enough about explaining my motivations for starting this series. For now, let us begin with the very first ideology I wish to profile in this series: anarcho-primitivism.
Anarcho-primitivism is often considered to be the most extreme wing of the larger “green anarchism” movement. Green anarchism (which also includes schools of thought like anarcho-naturism, green syndicalism, and social ecology) is often contrasted with classical anarchism (sometimes referred to as “red anarchism”). Green anarchists tend to argue that classical anarchists do not place enough emphasis on the human relationship with the natural world and that we must think about how we may liberate the non-human plants and animals of the world from the same hierarchical forces that led humans to dominate other humans.
Anarcho-primitivists (who I will call “an-prims” for short from this point) go a bit further than that. Their basic thesis is that the problems with human civilization are rooted in the very creation of civilization itself. Specifically, they believe that the shift from hunter-gatherer to agricultural societies during the Neolithic Revolution is at the root of the widespread coercion, social alienation, and social stratification that socialists of every stripe want to see eliminated from human society.
An-prims thus advocate for eliminating all technology developed after the advent of agriculture and especially after the Industrial Revolution in favor of hand tools, minimalist housing, and wild food sources. It is from an-prims, as well as the green anarchist movement as a whole, that we get the term “rewilding,” which refers to the process of undoing not only the domestication that humans inflicted on wild plants and animals during the Neolithic Revolution but also the domestication that agricultural (and later industrial) societies have inflicted on humanity.
Suppose you want a picture of what an ideal an-prim society might look like. In that case, one essay I found in The Anarchist Library quotes a passage from Chuck Palahniuk’s classic novel Fight Club:
Picture yourself planting radishes and seed potatoes on the fifteenth green of a forgotten golf course. You’ll hunt elk through the deep canyon forests around the ruins of Rockefeller Center, and dig clams next to the skeleton of the Space Needle leaning at a forty-five degree angle. We’ll paint the skyscrapers with huge totem faces and goblin tikis, and everything what’s left of mankind will retreat to empty zoos and lock themselves in cages as protection against the bears and big cats and wolves that pace and watch us from outside the cage bars at night.
Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club, 1996 (pgs. 125-126)
Now, eliminating technology doesn’t necessarily mean “literally everything we’ve created since 12,000 BCE needs to be destroyed.” The primitivist view of technology tends to be more ambiguous than outright evil. They don’t tend to think that it’s their duty to take the destruction of modern civilization into their own hands. They tend to believe that our current technology-based society is inherently unsustainable and prone to collapse any day now. When that happens, they see themselves being there to lead the wayward sons and daughters of Mother Earth into a new and more harmonious age.
History and Prominent Figures
Some have argued that the roots of anarcho-primitivism go back to Henry David Thoreau’s classic Transcendentalist work Walden which advocates for a self-sufficient lifestyle in harmony with nature in opposition to the then-current Industrial Revolution. Thoreau’s work (and that of Leo Tolstoy and Elisee Reclus) would influence the anarcho-naturist movement in the early 1900s, which shocked more conservative onlookers in Europe and Cuba with their proclivities toward nudism and free love.
In the United States, an-prim is generally best known for its association with the Philadelphia-based MOVE organization and Ted Kaczynski, better known as the Unabomber. MOVE, founded in 1972 by John Africa (born Vincent Leaphart), can be understood as the missing link between the Black Panthers and the naturalist communalism of the hippie movement. It is especially infamous for its involvement in the May 13, 1985 incident in which the Philadelphia Police Department dropped C-4 explosives on a house with thirteen MOVE members (six of them children) holed up inside, John Africa being one of them. Not only did the ensuing fire kill all but two of the MOVE members (Africa being one of them), but the fire department simply let it burn until sixty-five houses in the surrounding neighborhood burned with it. Unsurprisingly, subsequent investigations and lawsuits found that the city had used excessive force and violated the MOVE members’ Fourth Amendment rights.
As for Kaczynski, his writings, especially the 1995 essay “Industrial Society and Its Future,” were embraced by an-prims for its core thesis that the Industrial Revolution ushered in a harmful process that destroyed nature and human freedom by making them slaves to advanced technology. As such, his bombing campaign was his way of attempting to topple this industrialized society to mitigate the devastation it wrought. However, even though he was friends with prominent an-prim John Zerzan for several years, Kaczynski has criticized the primitivist movement as having an overly romanticized view of hunter-gatherer cultures, as well as leftists politics as a whole for, in his view, simply trying to replace the current organized, technological society with a different, collectivist one. As such, several eco-fascists like the Christchurch and El Paso shooters have cited Kaczynski as an inspiration, although Kaczynski has also condemned fascism as a “kook ideology.”
From what I’ve gathered, the most popular writers in the field of anarcho-primitivism are the aforementioned John Zerzan and Derrick Jensen (Daniel Quinn’s 1992 novel Ishmael also seems to be highly regarded amongst their ranks). Zerzan is best known for his essay collections, including a 1994 compilation of his own writings titled Future Primitive and Other Essays and 2005’s Against Civilization: Readings and Reflections, which collects writings of others who have influenced primitivist thought.
Derrick Jensen, for his part, is probably best known for his two-volume book Endgame, published in 2006, in which he advocates for the overthrow of our unsustainable civilization through violence, in a similar manner to the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. I confess that I haven’t read either of these men’s work, although even with the somewhat cursory research I’ve done on this philosophy, I feel comfortable in sharing my opinions on what I’ve seen.
As someone with strong romanticist leanings, I will admit that there is a certain appeal in the prospect of going back to a bygone age where humanity lived in harmony with nature instead of trying to strangle it into submission. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen abandoned houses or other buildings on the side of the road during a drive in the country and wished we would just let the buildings rot and let the lots they lie on be reabsorbed back into Gaia’s bosom. But when looking at the primitivists’ ultimate end goal, my rational side immediately kicks back and says, “Now hold your horses there, buddy”!
First of all, there’s no way of getting around the fact that achieving the kind of civilizational collapse that an-prims seek would undoubtedly condemn millions, if not billions, to premature death. True, an-prims generally don’t want to perpetrate deliberate genocide to achieve a Malthusian cull of human overpopulation. Still, the simple fact remains that they want to abolish the current technological infrastructure that has made modern living standards possible. Do an-prims seriously believe that humanity will just give up indoor plumbing just like that?
This brings me to my second significant objection: I find the entire foundation of the primitivist worldview, that all technological development since the Neolithic Revolution has been nothing but bad for humanity and the world, to be ridiculous on the face of it. I mentioned indoor plumbing above, and the modern medical system is another thing that has benefited humanity (well, at least when it’s not driven by profits like here in America). Yes, technology has several bad effects, like war and the harmful effects of social media, but it’s not civilization itself that is to blame here. It is the capitalist perversion of it, seeking human suffering and misery and ecological collapse on a scale we’ve never seen for the sake of the ruling class’s bank accounts.
Finally, an-prims don’t seem to realize (or don’t care) that systemic racism and classism inherent in the capitalist system would mean that marginalized communities would be disproportionally affected by the kind of civilizational collapse that the primitivists advocate for. Indeed, not only has the an-prim movement as a whole faced several accusations of transphobia in the past, but it often seems disturbingly easy to draw a direct line between anarcho-primitivism and eco-fascism, even if, as stated above, an-prims aren’t seeking deliberate genocide or to deny certain ethnic groups resources so the “superior race” can keep them for themselves.
All that said, though, I generally don’t think the an-prims are a significant threat to the world in the same way that fascism as a whole is. Even many an-prims seem to be self-aware that their philosophy is far too extreme even for most leftists and that it has more utility as a critique of late-stage capitalism than a practical alternative to it.
I’m still doggedly in the anarcho-communist camp myself, but I’m by no means dogmatic about it. Anyone who wants to make their own communes based on their own philosophies are free to do with them as they wish. Make it Marxist-Leninist if you wish, or black separatist, or even anarcho-primitivist. I really don’t care. I just care about overthrowing the capitalist system so we can finally be free to make those choices for ourselves.
So that was my first entry in this new series about leftist ideologies. Let me know how well I did, and join me for the next episode in the series. I haven’t decided what the next philosophy I will discuss is yet, although I have been leaning toward Marxism-Leninism. We’ll see about that, but first, Halloween is coming, so I will be delving back into the mysterious world of paranormal triangles for the next blog post. Until then, stay golden, my beautiful watchers!
There is probably no political philosophy in history that has been so thoroughly and completely misunderstood as anarchism. As with virtually every leftist philosophy, this is especially true in America. Ask any average Joe in my home country what anarchism is and what its adherents believe. Chances are that the answer will be something like this:
Basically, a bunch of people who have no real beliefs besides 1) total abolishment of all government and 2) everyone being free to do whatever the hell they want free from consequences.
Of course, it’s nowhere near as simple as that. As I have discovered the past several months, anarchism is actually a vibrant philosophy with very sophisticated ways of operating a socialist society that doesn’t suffer the centralized bureaucracies of places like Soviet Russia. Indeed, I have come to believe that this “libertarian socialism,” as some call it, might be the only way forward as capitalism slowly begins to collapse under its own weight. But first, a little of my personal history.
My Political History (Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Support Socialism)
Back in the years when I was still, as my grandfather calls it, a “brain-dead teenager,” I used to think that Glenn Beck was one of the greatest men who ever lived. He exposed me to shocking revelations about people like Barack Obama, George Soros, and Van Jones who were ruining our country with lies about global warming, systemic racism, and the need to redistribute wealth so they could undermine American freedoms. I loved tuning in every weekday at 5 to watch his entertaining deconstructions of everything that was consuming America from within like a gangrenous cancer. I even borrowed his novel The Overton Window as soon as it made its way to my local library. It seemed I was well on my way to becoming a full red-blooded Trump-supporting constitutional conservative like my father and his father before.
But then Beck left his daily show on Fox News in June of 2011, and I didn’t follow him onto the Internet where he continued his show. I did follow his online newspaper The Blaze for a little while, but I didn’t really know where to watch his new show, so I just drifted apart from him. I stopped paying attention to politics except whenever Dad ranted about something Obama did that pissed him off. Then I rediscovered Watership Down during my senior year of high school and decided to dedicate my following college tenure to honing my writing talents. Throughout much of my college tenure, I kept my center-right beliefs, safe in the knowledge that America would always remain the greatest country in the world.
Then everything changed when the MAGA nation attacked.
I didn’t leap to full-blown leftism immediately upon Trump’s election. It was a rather gradual process that didn’t complete itself until about a year after I graduated. I spent a rather large part of this period as a “social liberal, fiscal conservative” (i.e., right-wing libertarian) because while I found pretty much all conservative views on social issues like abortion, drug policy, criminal justice, and LGBTQ+ rights to be morally repugnant, I was still under the impression that the only economic alternative to capitalism was Soviet-style communism.
However, my pathological need to hear some of my favorite personalities on YouTube dunk on Trump eventually led me to the so-called “Breadtube” or “Lefttube” creators, who began introducing me to left-leaning philosophies that differed from the Soviet dystopia that Glenn Beck warned me that all leftists wanted to turn the U.S. into. The turning point for me came when Leon Thomas of Renegade Cut recommended a book called After Capitalism on a comment to one of his videos. Although he didn’t really specify which one he was talking about, I ended up choosing the one authored by Dada Mahesvarananda, which blew me away. And it’s all been downhill since.
But enough about me. Let’s actually talk about what anarchism is.
Why Anarchists Believe the Current System Blows
In contrast to its chaotic public perception, anarchism is really libertarian socialism, as opposed to the authoritarian socialist systems of places like Soviet Russia, Maoist China, and present-day North Korea. Whereas those places pretend to be collectivist societies while placing all economic and political decisions in a governing elite’s hands, anarchism proposes to place trust in the individual to make those decisions. You know, what American libertarianism pretends to do while actually handing power over to ruthless multinational corporations whose CEOs take all the profits for themselves while underpaying their workers and taking every loophole they can to avoid paying taxes?
“But how exactly do you anarchists propose to do that?” you might ask skeptically.
An anarchist society at its core rejects unjust hierarchies like the ones that have formed under capitalism. In their view, capitalism is inherently unjust because it naturally leads to a tiny number of people gathering an obscenely large amount of wealth.
Conservatives will argue that all that wealth is justified because they believe that more money in the rich’s hands means more money to invest in new business ideas. I remember Glenn Beck in particular (in his book Arguing withIdiots) comparing it to a mountain where water trickles down from the snowy top to sustain people’s villages below. Pretty nice metaphor, Glenn, but what happens when the rich decide to dam up that water so they can store it in tax havens and gamble it in the stock market instead of, you know, actually paying their workers?!
Seriously, what’s what the rich people of this world are. They’re like Immortan Joe from Max Max: Fury Road.
And do you know what all that money buys? Politicians, who will do whatever you want for all those sweet, sweet campaign donations. Want to build an oil pipeline that cuts through Native American land? Boom, done! Want to stop an uppity leftist political party from undermining your business prospects in a foreign country? Send in the military! Want to convince people that anthropogenic climate change is a hoax, despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary? You literally have all the money in the world! What the hell is stopping you?
Speaking of which, environmental devastation is also an inevitable consequence of a system like capitalism that is constantly seeking infinite growth in a finite system. The big multinationals are either too lazy or too uncaring to move away from oil and other nonrenewable resources because they have become increasingly averse to risk. That’s a big reason why they invest money in the stock market instead of new business ventures: most new businesses end up failing, so why risk losing money on something that probably won’t go anywhere?
All of this adds up to pretty much everything that’s wrong with the world right now. Politicians are spending massive amounts of money on military interventions to satisfy their corporate backers’ whims. All that money ($721.5 billion, last time I checked) adds to our national debt ($25 trillion, last time I checked), which undermines our economic stability. Meanwhile, Congress passes tax cuts on the wealthiest individuals so they can steal more money from people who actually need it.
Poverty grows, and with it, crime. And instead of actually fixing the social problems that led to that increase in crime in the first place, America takes the easy way out by throwing them all in prison. And since prisons in this country are shitholes, they do not rehabilitate criminals. They just make them more violent and antisocial. Plus, America has a deeply racist past that it has failed to face up to time and time again, so about 60% of the male prison population consists of black and Hispanic men.
And the right wonders why we want a change.
How Anarchism Proposes to Fix It
But enough about how capitalism sucks. Why don’t we answer the real question here that I intended to answer in the last section but then got sidetracked by my anti-capitalist screed, which is this: What do anarchists believe is the best system to replace it?
That is, admittedly, kind of a tricky question for two reasons. The first is that no true anarchist society has managed to survive for a long period of time. This isn’t because of any flaws in the systems themselves. Usually, it’s because an outside power came along and destroyed it. Probably the most famous anarchist society was founded in Catalonia, Spain, during the Spanish Civil War. That one only lasted three years before the fascist government of Francisco Franco and Soviet volunteers sent by Josef Stalin crushed it in February 1939.
The Bolshevik revolutionaries also dismantled several worker-owned collectives in Russia in the wake of the 1917 overthrow of Nicholas II, including the Makhnovia Free Territory in Ukraine because it would not submit to the U.S.S.R.’s authoritarian regime. French troops also crushed the famous Paris Commune of 1871 in May of that year. Many indigenous tribes around the world also operated on what could be described in hindsight as anarchist principles until white European imperialists came along and “civilized” them.
The second reason is that many anarchists favor an experimental approach to forming new societies. I think Noam Chomsky put it best in response to an interview question in which he was asked what kind of society he would establish to replace capitalism:
I think that the economic institutions ought to be run democratically-by their participants and by the communities in which they live. And I think that through various forms of free association and federalism, it’s possible to imagine a society that works like that. I mean, I don’t think you can lay it out in detail- nobody’s smart enough to design a society; you’ve got to experiment. But reasonable principles on which to build such a society are quite clear.
Noam Chomsky, Understanding Power
What exactly are those principles? In Pyotr Kropotkin’s The Conquest of Bread (often considered the Bible of libertarian socialism), he argues for two main principles that an anarchist society should be based on; mutual aid and voluntary cooperation. This entails the flattening of all unjust hierarchies into a decentralized, egalitarian social order. Anarchists propose to achieve this via popular assemblies and worker-controlled cooperative enterprises.
Indeed, this is in every way the complete opposite of the “government should be run like a business” philosophy of many conservatives. In fact, many anarchists would argue that businesses should be run like the government. Wouldn’t it be amazing if workers were able to vote out their supervisors instead of simply suffering under incompetent or capricious ones?
Another way of explaining the basic philosophy of anarchism can be found in this essay from the website The Anarchist Library, which lists the tenants of anarchism as an escalating “if X then Y” statement that goes like this:
If mankind is born free, then slavery is murder. If slavery is murder, then property is theft. If property is theft, then government is tyranny. If government is tyranny, then anarchy is liberty.
Albert Meltzer, Anarchism: Arguments for and against
I should probably clarify that anarchism does not view all governments as tyrannical or even all hierarchies as unjust. Indeed, it would be hard to argue that, say, the captain of a ship doesn’t deserve his or her authority over their less experienced crew.
An anarchist government would probably be similar to the US Congress but on a much smaller scale. Societies would no longer be organized into countries. Rather, they would form into communes with a maximum population of about 10,000 each. These communes would be further divided into about 70 wards, with each sending two representatives to the commune’s governing council. This would result in a governing council totaling 150 representatives.
This model is based on the studies of anthropologist Robert Dunbar, who studied various human societies and how they were organized. He argues that the maximum number of humans that can successfully work together is 150.
Why is it limited at 150? The answer is twofold, actually. Partly, it’s a cognitive challenge just to keep track of more people. The other side of this is a time budgeting problem. You just don’t have time in everyday life to invest in each of those people to the extent where you can have a real relationship with them.
Another reason for this relatively small number is because issues with trust and familiarity tend to arise in larger groups.
Of course, communes can also join together in unions of communes, including millions or even billions of people. This is similar to the various cooperative enterprises that multinational corporations enter into under capitalism. Of course, the difference is that those cooperatives only help the capitalist class’ profits while anarchist cooperatives would work for the social welfare of everyone.
How Anarchist Workers Would… Well, Work
Unlike a capitalist workplace where a person is held under the whim of a boss who can fire you for basically any reason he or she can think of, an anarchist workplace would seek mutual aid for all parties. No person would be able to wield power over another.
Money would be abolished in favor of contracts. A new member joining an anarchist commune would make a contract with that commune, agreeing to perform a rotating series of jobs in return for life’s basic necessities. No one would be stuck in a single soul-sucking job for their entire life like they are under capitalism. A commune member will alternate relatively normal jobs like desk work and construction with the kind of stuff you’d see on Dirty Jobs, both to break up the monotony and out of fairness to the rest of the commune.
This system would not just uphold traditional human rights like freedom of speech and religion. Anarchists also believe in positive human rights, meaning that every human being is entitled to have their material needs met in full. This includes everything we humans need to survive, like food, water, shelter, clothing, electricity, running water, healthcare, Internet, etc. Any commune member would receive this through the form of a reasonable contribution, like working a maximum of 5 hours a day and participation in the local government, barring any physical, mental, or developmental disabilities or personal circumstances.
Naturally, a capitalist might balk at these ideas, accusing anarchists of rewarding lazy people who won’t work. Of course, the anarchists would argue that that argument stems from the Protestant work ethic, which states that being a hard worker means you are valuable in the eyes of God, something that certainly wouldn’t fly in a more secular anarchist society. They would also argue that the widespread laziness that conservatives decry in modern society is actually a product of capitalism. As those who struggle to keep up with the system eventually give up as they realize that they will never reap the rewards, they turn either to crime or the hikikomori lifestyle as a result.
This anarchist overhauling of the workplace would also help eliminate what anthropologist David Graeber rather bluntly calls “bullshit jobs” in his 2018 book of the same name. These “bullshit jobs,” like receptionists, telemarketers, lobbyists, survey administrators, and others, came about as a result of capitalism twisting the benefits of automation to their own ends, Graeber says. In contrast, an anarchist system would utilize automation in a way that helps take the burden off the working man, reducing his or her workday so that he or she has more time for leisure.
Anarchist Police and Military
As stated above, police officers are not the heroic defenders of the innocent that capitalist propaganda portrays them as. Rather, they are defenders of the capitalist hegemony, punching down at those who wish to change the system while protecting white-collar criminals from prosecution.
Anarchists propose a policing system based on these four principles: harm prevention, emergency response, forensics, and rehabilitation over revenge.
Harm prevention means preventing crimes before they happen by curing the social ills that cause them, like income inequality and a lack of social capital.
Emergency response will be needed to deal with sudden and unexpected acts of violence that will certainly be inevitable given the centuries of oppression and coercion that have preceded this current century.
Forensics will be essential in helping to solve violent crimes like murder and sexual assault.
And finally, rehabilitation over revenge means getting rid of prisons, where 2.3 million Americans are now detained, half of them due to drug offenses, non-violent or otherwise.
My grandfather has stated his belief that prisons should be places that you never want to go back to, that they need to be Hell on Earth because, otherwise, the prisoner gets so comfortable that they commit crimes upon release so that they can get back in. However, anyone who knows anything about human behavior would realize that it’s those harsh conditions that cause recidivism, not humanitarian aid.
Have not prisons- which kill at will and force of character in men, which enclose within their walls more vices than are met with in any spot on the globe- always been the universities of crime? Is not the court of a tribunal a school of ferocity?
Pyotr Kropotkin, Anarchism: Its Philosophy and Ideal
Again, though, America’s single-minded focus on individuality and personal responsibility means that all crime is viewed as a moral failing rather than a social illness.
Anarchists instead propose a law enforcement system that focuses on education and psychotherapy instead of vengeance and torture. They want to work with the criminal to understand why they did what they did instead of just locking them away and being done with it.
Of course, there will still be special hospitals for the Ted Bundys of the world who commit crimes out of incurable mental or biological defects rather than social ills.
As for the military, anarchists propose a service based on voluntary contracts rather than coercive drafts. Of course, hierarchy would be necessary for the military like it is now, but officers would be voted out if they abused their power.
George Orwell describes an anarchist military based on his experiences fighting for the anarcho-syndicalists of Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War:
The essential point of the system was social equality between officers and men. Everyone from the general to the private drew the same pay, ate the same food, wore the same clothes, and mingled on terms of complete equality. If you wanted to slap the commanding general on the back and ask him for a cigarette, you could do so, and no one thought it was curious. In theory, at any rate, each militia was a democracy and not a hierarchy… Of course, there was no perfect equality, but there was a nearer approach to it than I had ever seen or that I would have thought conceivable in time of war.
George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia
Other models for an anarchist military might include the Black Panthers, the American Indian Movement, Rojava’s freedom fighters, and many others.
At the most basic level, anarchists think both the military and police departments should operate more like the fire department. After all, firefighters don’t constantly patrol the streets looking for fires that might start. So why are the police doing the same with crime?
Art and Luxury Under Anarchism
Before I end this essay, I want to talk about art and luxury and how they might be achieved under anarchism.
Once again, capitalists may balk at such a suggestion. We’ve never had so much luxury under any other system, they might say. Did communism ever give their citizens king-size mattresses or pearl necklaces? Pyotr Kropotkin highlights similar critiques in chapter 9 of The Conquest of Bread:
How will men act in a society, whose members are properly fed, to satisfy certain individuals desirous of possessing a piece of Sevres china or a velvet dress?
Pyotr Kropotkin, The Conquest of Bread
If one was to replace “Sevres china” and “velvet dress” with, say, “PlayStation 4” or “iPhone,” you basically get what criticism of anarchist or any other leftist ideology might look like today.
Similarly, capitalists ask how artists would create art under a system that lacks capitalism’s nonconformist nature. They either don’t realize or don’t care about the fact that capitalism breeds its own form of conformity.
This type of conformity makes itself very clear in the realm of art and science. An artist can create art only if they have a lot of capital or are willing to sell their art to those who have the capital to commodify it as they see fit. Art as pure expression has no place in this system.
One can try to join a neoliberal type “artistic improvement program,” but those usually focus on making the art more “marketable,” i.e., more palatable to the capitalist class. One can also go independent, but that would put you in a more financially precarious position unless you are willing to still work within market trends.
As for science, capitalism stymies that too, if any scientific innovations that happen under its watch are innovations they cannot profit from. For example, pharmaceutical companies will only fund drugs that they can profit from. Tech companies tend to focus on profit problems instead of technical ones. In particular, Uber notoriously stole workers from one of the nation’s top robotics labs to make better self-driving cars.
Most humans agree that we need art, entertainment, and scientific innovation to be truly happy. As Breadtuber Angie Speaks says:
…art serves a higher purpose that fulfills the abstract spiritual needs of human nature, but cannot be quantified by its material merit.
Angie Speaks, Dadaism: Art as a Political Weapon
Meeting material but not spiritual needs in humans works something like locking them up in solitary confinement. Sure, we give the prisoner materials to stay alive, but eventually, the solitude reduces them to caged and mentally unstable animals.
Capitalism, driven by the Protestant work ethic, seeks to make sure that whatever little free time the worker has is spent resting and or preparing for the next day’s work. While capitalism usually provides physical needs to those who work, it leaves little to no time for the worker to explore their own subjective needs. The Protestant work ethic stipulates that the act of just goofing off and having fun is a waste of time and a sin in the eyes of God. But it’s not! It’s a vital concern for any society to survive and thrive.
In the end, capitalism is so focused on profit that the worker’s identity is often reduced to how they make their money. It makes us waste our time on jobs we care little to nothing about instead of things we would much rather be doing, like spending time with our families, for instance.
No doubt, nowadays, when hundreds and thousands of human beings are in need of bread, coal, clothing, and shelter, luxury is a crime; to satisfy it the worker’s child must go without bread! But in a society in which all can eat sufficiently the needs which we consider luxuries today will be the more keenly felt.
Pyotr Kropotkin, The Conquest of Bread
Anarchists propose that artist/scientist-owned organizations not beholden to any larger government agency or corporation are the solution. Their members will be working members of the anarchist commune who pursue literature, musicianship, printing, painting, engraving, etc. They all pursue a common aim- the propagation of ideas that are dear to them.
The worker will discharge first his task in the field, the factory, and so on, which he owes to society as his contribution to the general production. And he will employ the second half to his day, his week, his year, to satisfy his artistic or scientific needs, or his hobbies. Thousands of societies will spring up to gratify every taste and every possible fancy.
Pyotr Kropotkin, The Conquest of Bread
Of course, capitalists would argue that certain people are just naturally destined to work all their lives in fields or sweatshops. If geniuses were equally distributed among all social classes in all nations, they say, then the system would surely recognize that talent and lift them out of their poverty. And yet none seem to show up in the inner city ghettos or the developing nations of the world.
However, these capitalists fail to recognize that it is not an inherent flaw in these people’s nature that keeps them in poverty. It’s the centuries of systemic racism that many countries (America especially) have failed to deal with properly. I think Stephen Jay Gould puts it best:
I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.
Stephen Jay Gould, “Wide hats and narrow minds,” New Scientist, March 8th, 1977 (pg. 777)
I hope, by now, I have made my case that better things are possible in a world beyond capitalism. I especially hope that I’ve convinced you that there is far more to socialist philosophy than what capitalist propaganda would have us believe. Make no mistake: capitalism is going to end someday, just like feudalism did before it. At this point, we have only two choices in the future: socialism and fascism.
Do we flatten the unjust hierarchies that have ruled over us for centuries, as leftists like myself want? Or do we double down on them even as they spiral further and further into chaos and discord, thus letting the capitalists rule over us forevermore?
I don’t know about you, but I think more happiness and less poverty is a good thing. A life of luxury and leisure is possible for more than just the privileged few. As Pyotr “Bread Santa” Kropotkin says once again in The Conquest of Bread:
We see that the worker compelled to struggle painfully for bare existence is reduced to ignorance of these higher delights, the highest within man’s reach, of science, and especially of scientific discovery; of art, and especially of artistic creation. It is in order to obtain these joys for all, which are now reserved for the few; in order to give leisure and the possibility of developing intellectual capacities, that the social revolution must guarantee daily bread to all. After the bread has been secured, leisure is the supreme aim.
Pyotr Kropotkin, The Conquest of Bread
Of course, Bread Santa’s book was only one of the inspirations that helped me write this piece. Emerican Johnson of the YouTube channel Non Compete was the one who really made this possible, as he explained anarchist societies better than anyone else I’d listened to over the years in his How Anarchism Works playlist.
If exploitation could be taken out of the equation, everyone could have a lot more fun. If we weren’t living so precariously close to financial ruin, we would all have much better faculties and much higher expectations for enjoying life.
Emerican Johnson, How do Anarchists LUXURY? How Anarchism Works Part 5
While his work wasn’t as big an influence on this article, I still want to give a shout-out to Matt from Thought Slime, who has been a major help in demystifying anarchist philosophy for me. Also, he has a segment on his show called “The Eyeball Zone,” which showcases small leftist projects on YouTube and elsewhere, which he thinks deserve more attention. So that’s pretty cool.
And that’s all I have to say about that, folks. Next time, I’ll talk about my own artistic endeavor I’ve been working on in the last few years; an epic urban fantasy/horror saga called The Divine Conspiracy. Until then, stay safe, take care, and death to capitalism!