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The Future of State Politics: Transcending the Marxist / Anarchist Divide

“The anarchists are not so naïve as to dream that all the remnants of the State would disappear overnight, but they have the will to make them wither away as quickly as possible; while the authoritarians, on the other hand, are satisfied with the perspective of the indefinite survival of a “temporary” State, arbitrarily termed a “Workers State”.” [1]

  1. The revolutionary left is divided over the strategic use of the state.

  2. Anarchists and Marxists spend a lot of time and energy keeping this schism alive.

  3. This constitutes a great gift to elites and only helps to maintain the status quo.

  4. This division results from poor thinking about organising and is unnecessary.

  5. The assumption that no formal political system is required in a post-state/classless society is false.

  6. Policing is necessary and desirable – to do it well requires specialised training and the development of a particular knowledge and skill-set.

  7. It is possible to have a formal political system without reintroducing authoritarianism and the class system.

  8. Understanding these matters can help transcend the Marxist / Anarchist divide and with it reunite the revolutionary left.

  9. Having a clear position on law and order will also make the revolutionary left more appealing to the general public.

The modern revolutionary left has been divided over the strategic use of the state, more or less, since day one.[2] For the Marxists, engaging in state politics is typically seen as a crucial step in the revolutionary process. For the anarchists, engaging in state politics is usually understood as counter-revolutionary. From this we get the characterisation of Marxism as the “authoritarian” branch of the revolutionary left and anarchism as the “libertarian” branch.[3]

This schism has been kept alive by continued debate from and between both camps. Over the years, a lot of time and energy has been dedicated to trying to show why the revolutionary left must or must not engage in state politics. So much so, in fact, that it could be argued, without sounding too ridiculous, that some of the finest analysis generated by the revolutionary left, over the past 150 years or so, is not focused outwardly on the political and economic elites they oppose, but rather inwardly on themselves.

Despite this time, energy and focus, however, not much ground, if any, seems to have been made on either side. The only clear message that appears to emerge from this endeavor is that maintaining this division disempowers the revolutionary left. Furthermore, given that the primary function of elites is to divide and rule (a maxim that applies especially to those who constitute a genuine threat to power and privilege) it could reasonably be argued that the revolutionary left seem to be doing part of the job of elites for them. This, of course, constitutes a great gift to the elites who own and manage the state-capitalist system – a gift that also helps to ensure that the current system of social injustice is maintained.

But what if all of this is unnecessary? What if this fundamental disagreement over strategy results not from the taking of principled positions (as both the Marxists and anarchists seem to believe) but from poor thinking about organising? What if both sides had never seriously thought about what a post-state political system might look like and therefore never considered the actual strategic options for the revolutionary left? In short, what if the Marxists and the anarchists are both making the same basic mistake? But why would the revolutionary left make this collective error?

Despite their fundamental disagreement over the strategic use of the state, Marxists and anarchists have a lot of things in common. Perhaps the most important of these is the view that, ultimately, the state has to go. The reasoning behind this is that both authoritarian and libertarian socialists desire classlessness and understand the state to be the primary institution for maintaining private property and with it the class system.[4] In a post-state/classless society, it is assumed, free and equal citizens will identify and live by social norms. In a culture of free association, there will be no need for a formal political system that establishes and enforces laws.

It is this operational assumption – that no formal political system is necessary in a post-state/classless society – that both unites the revolutionary left and leads the Marxists and the anarchists to draw the conclusion that thinking about vision for a post-state politics is unnecessary. If politics continues to exist at all, in a classless society, then it will function along informal lines. Informal social norms will make redundant the need for formal laws. Maintaining or reintroducing formal politics means maintaining or reintroducing the class system. In short, formal politics is both unnecessary and undesirable.

But is this true? Is it possible that this generally agreed-upon assumption is not only false but also incredibly debilitating and divisive? Might it be the case that a formal political system, in a post-state/classless society, would remain necessary and even desirable?[5] According to Stephen Shalom, the answer is yes:

It can’t be assumed that once class conflict is abolished, all political issues disappear. Sexism, racism, and heterosexism are not simply functions of class relations; and it would be foolish to assume that issues such as abortion, compensatory justice, animal rights, and the rights of future generations will no longer vex us after the revolution.” [6]

If Shalom is correct – and it is hard to see how he could be wrong about this – then it seems that the need for a formal political system will continue even after the revolution. In other words, both the Marxists and the anarchists have been operating from a false assumption.

The real problem with this informal approach to politics, however, is that it fails to recognise what is actually involved in the establishment, reviewing and enforcement of laws. As Michael Albert has pointed out, “Sure, in a good society many reasons for crime would be eliminated and criminal acts would likely be far fewer, but that doesn’t mean there will be no crime at all”. He continues:

“And the idea that policing will be needed but can be done on an entirely voluntary basis makes no more sense than saying flying planes or doing brain surgery will be needed but can be done entirely on a voluntary basis. It fails to recognise that policing, and especially desirable policing, like flying planes or doing surgery, involves special skills and knowledge. It fails to recognise the need for training and likely also special rules to avoid misuse of police (or transport or medical) prerogatives.” [7]

The “special rules” that Albert refers to are usually laid out in professional codes of conduct. Whilst violations of these codes do not necessarily constitute crimes they can, nevertheless, have serious implications and consequences. A good example of this can be found in the nursing profession where violations of the code of conduct can lead to a removal from the register, which effectively makes it illegal to work as a nurse. Currently, this system is backed up by the authority of the state. However, there is no reason why the same system could not function within a post-state society and apply to all professions.

If Marxists and anarchists could see that a formal political system will still be necessary after the revolution and that it is possible to have formal politics without maintaining and/or reintroducing the authoritarianism of the class system then they could reunite the revolutionary left. This is what elites fear most. A united revolutionary left is also what the world needs most. Having a clear long-term position on law and order will also make the revolutionary left more appealing to the general public.[8] Without such support, the revolutionary left will remain an irrelevant or tyrannical minority.

[INITIAL SUBMISSION: Mark Evans | AUTHOR: Collective 20 (Andrej Grubacic, Brett Wilkins, Bridget Meehan, Cynthia Peters, Don Rojas, Emily Jones, Justin Podur, Mark Evans, Medea Benjamin, Michael Albert, Noam Chomsky, Oscar Chacon, Peter Bohmer, Savvina Chowdhury, Vincent Emanuele)]


  1. From Critique of Authoritarian Socialism in Daniel Guerin’s Anarchism.

  2. As doctrines, both marxism and anarchism emerged in the first half of the 19th century. By 1872 a significant split had occurred within the revolutionary left. It continues to this day.

  3. There are, however, examples of strands of marxism and anarchism that seem to converge – council-communism and anarcho-syndicalism, for example – but these seem to be exceptions to the rule.

  4. Seeing private property as the only source of the class system is another common error of the revolutionary left. Addressing this mistake, however, goes beyond the scope of the article.

  5. Michael Albert argues, in fact, that politics will not only be necessary and desirable but its importance will increase: “The structure of political life will transform, yes, but its relevance to citizens will intensify not diminish.” (Realizing Hope: Life Beyond Capitalism, p32).

  6. From: The Politics of a Good Society

  7. From Chapter 2 of Realizing Hope: Life Beyond Capitalism.

  8. For a good discussion on this see:


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