Anarchists and Parliamentarianism: Elections and Social Change

This is the final article in a series of articles by Matt Crossin, ‘Critical Notes on Developments in the Anarchist Movement’.

[This article in other languages: Deutsch]

There are some who now consider themselves anarchists who tell us, ‘Yes, anarchy is our goal, but we are nowhere near achieving it and have to think about winning desperately needed reforms. That means campaigning for politicians, even running for office ourselves, so that laws can be passed in the interest of the working class.’

There are several problems with this. First, it is important to clarify that anarchism not only entails a belief in the ideal of anarchy – of a society without domination, the State, capitalism, etc. – but a method and theory of social change, based on a specific analysis of existing social relations, processes, and institutions.

Any communist, even the most enthusiastic champion of state power (held in the hands of ‘communists’, of course), can claim the abolition of capitalism and the State as their ‘ultimate goal’. They may even truly believe that their authoritarian tactics are the only ones capable of achieving it. Marx himself conceded that the ideal of anarchy was consistent with his vision of communism, though he advocated electoral politics and some form of ‘transitional revolutionary state’ as the means for doing so. It is important to reiterate, therefore, that what really distinguishes anarchism is not simply the goal, but rather our insistence on a necessary unity between means and ends; of the need to act outside of and against the State, rather than through it.

Equally mistaken is the idea that such a view is only relevant when revolution seems imminent, and that, in the meantime, we should directly involve ourselves in the politics of electoral campaigns, parliaments, and legislation, as these are “the only way to achieve reforms”.

Anarchists reject this understanding of how social change – even reformist social change –  occurs. Changes in governments and their policies are driven by the shifting needs of the State and capital, within parameters established by the existing balance of class forces. Reforms are not the product of good or bad ideas, politicians, or legislation, but are, instead, the result of the State serving the best interests of capitalism as a system. Where there is sustained pressure from below, directed against bosses and governments, the ruling class must adjust to the threat posed to profitability and stability. Where naked force is not enough to eliminate the danger of organised working class activity, the threat is pacified through concessions and recuperation.

Electoral and parliamentary victories (including referendums and constituent assemblies) are often touted as flawed, but necessary, culminations of social movement energy into ‘real power’. They should instead be understood as efforts to channel extra-parliamentary activity – the only real power we have – into manageable, legal, and, ultimately, non-threatening forms.

Anyone who seriously examines the historical record will find that it has always been direct struggle, and never legal politics, which has allowed us to achieve reform. As such, anarchists maintain that reform and revolution are the result of the same kind of activity. They cannot be separated, as though one were the natural domain of parliamentary politics, and the other self-organised direct action.

Strikes, sabotage, blockades, civil (and uncivil) disobedience, riots, insurrection: these are not only the tools of revolution, but the sole weapons available to us to change things within capitalism itself. They are also a bridge between the two objectives, reform and revolution, as it is in building our capacity to pressure the bosses and governments that we also develop our forces, our ideas, and our confidence to do away with all forms of oppression and exploitation, which we intend to replace with a free, socialist society.

Electoral campaigns, the day-to-day work of parliamentary bureaucracy, and the exercise of state power are all specific forms of activity which, due to their very nature, distract and pacify workers, diverting us from self-organisation and class struggle. They enmesh us in authoritarian models of organisation and task those who do manage to reach government with maintaining the interests of an exploitative property-owning class, whose interests (given their control over the economic life of society) the State must inevitably serve, and which any government (if it is to continue existing as a government, with the power to govern society as a privileged elite) must always reproduce.

Anarchists believe these tactics necessarily alter the behaviour of those who take part in them, whatever their personal beliefs or intentions. This is not a question of corruption, or betrayal, but rather systemic imperatives and institutional logics which can not be overcome by even the most radical of politicians.

Which brings us back to that principle at the very heart of anarchism: the necessary unity between means and ends. As I have said, this requires that we refuse participation in electoral politics, or the formation of any ‘new’ State, whatever its ‘revolutionary’ pretensions. However, it also means that we must organise, make decisions, and act in ways which both reflect the ideal we are working to establish and directly alter the balance of class forces, without deference to institutions or leaders of any kind. Our organisations must be freely constructed from the rank-and-file upward and our strategic orientation must be toward direct action against the bosses and government.

As a final comment, it is worth noting that this institutional analysis of the State extends to the local or municipal level, and that anarchism can’t be reconciled with such experiments in ‘direct’ or ‘town hall democracy’. Murray Bookchin’s eventual break with anarchism in the late 1990s seems to have been forgotten by ‘anarchists’ who now seek inspiration from his theory of municipalism.1 His followers mistakenly echo the municipalist belief that the structural imperatives of the capitalist state disappear the closer a governing body is to the population. Unfortunately for the municipalists, the organisational forms of parliamentary politics, the ways in which they alter us as people, and their function within capitalist society, all remain the same at the level of a city council. A localist state-socialism is still state-socialism.

Further articles in this series

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  1. For a good critique of Bookchin’s break with anarchism, see Iain McKay’s review of The Next Revolution (2015):