Anarchism and Marxism

by Michael Estok, March 5, 1999


As Socialist ideas were developing in the middle 19th century, different economists and philosophers split into opposing factions under the same revolutionary banner. One particular branch, coined "anarchism" by its father Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, was particularly important in the Russian revolution, and would later become enemies of "Soviet-style" communism. The word anarchy is derived from Greek, meaning "without a chief or head." Its politics and economics are based on the belief that all forms of social hierarchy and authority are oppressive and evil. Like Socialists, anarchists view capitalism as exploitative and destructive, and work for its erasure. However, they also think that government is an equal evil, and if it were abolished, people would co-operate as equals in a harmonic, fair, and productive society.


This ideal was born in France by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. In his first work What is Property? in 1840, he further developed work by Englishmen Gerrard Winstanley and William Godwin, who believed that authority is unnatural. Proudhon promoted a theory, mutualism, in which ends are achieved through collective and cooperative action, as opposed to a ruler’s decision. He further argued for workers’ rights, such as the individual’s right to keep what he or she produces. Much of this work merged with Marxism, and Marx later used.  Animosity existed between the two economists, however. Proudhon maintained his holding that no political or governmental power should exist, whereas Marx was less clear, and spoke of "the dictatorship of the proletariat" which suggested a hierarchy, albeit a reverse hierarchy (3).


Pierre-Joseph Proudhon


A Russian anarchist, Mikhail Bakunin, worked with Proudhon and Marx extensively, and drew upon Hegelian dialectics to create his philosophy. Unlike Proudhon, he was a violent and revolutionary anarchist, who believed in the working class spontaneous revolt. Bakunin predicted that a centralized Marxist state would cause a "Red bureaucracy" that would be ineffective and frightening (4). In 1860, Bakunin was involved with a serious quarrel with Marx, which led to the dissolution of the First International. Though the two systems had similar ideas, the differences between anarchism and Marxism (and later, Leninism especially) proved irreconcilable.


Before analyzing these differences, it is important to determine mainstream anarchism. As early as Bakunin’s contributions, anarchism had taken multiple forms. As more anarchists followed later, the movement became even more diverse. The majority of anarchists are pacifists (most notably, Russian author Leo Tolstoy); however, as demonstrated by Bakunin, some are terrorists, including those who attempted to assassinate royalty of various countries. There are also socially-based and individually-based anarchists, as well as Communist-anarchists (no market or currency) and anarcho-capitalists (free market and trading). Anarcho-capitalists, or right-wing libertarians as they are now called, are for a laissez-faire market and no government; however, all other anarchists point out that capitalism is as destructive as a state. Thus, they do not include anarcho-capitalism in their movement.

Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy  


Anarcho-syndicalists strive for no government and a society based on trade unions. Their means are passive, and their mentality is of a social environment and mutual aid. They believe that the social basis should be voluntary only, and forcing people to do the same is a form of hierarchy. This segment highly corresponds to Proudhon’s work, and it will be used to compare Marxism and Anarchism.

Though many anarchists oppose Marx, their economic foundations are very similar, and sometimes identical. They are both thoroughly anti-capitalist and against the so-called "rugged individualism" of right wing parties. Their economics focus on the exploitation of the peasant and working classes and try to unleash "the fetters by which the capitalist relations of production shackled the forces of production" (5).

Private ownership and property are examples of these crippling relations of production. Ownership creates a hierarchical authority between the owner and worker that is coercive and elitist. It exploits the workers, as it takes the control out of those who use the land and places it in the hands of the capital-rich ruling class.

Landowners make their profit off other peoples’ work, and both Marxists and anarchists oppose such profit and interest payments. Anarchists call such exploitation "usury." This profit-taking exploitation is based on Adam Smith and David Ricardo’s labor theory of value. This theory indicates that labor is the essential factor in determining a commodity’s value. Thus, the laborers deserve the revenue that they created by producing the goods. However, the owner and manager maintain their income through this revenue, and Marxists and anarchists view this subsidization as pure working class exploitation. The two sides agree on other economic principles as well. For example, neither side uses marginal utility or general equilibrium in their economic analyses.


While the economics are similar, the two philosophies are diametrically opposed in areas of politics. Anarchism’s main goal is the abolition of exploitation of man by man. This exploitation comes in other fashions than ownership of relations of productions, and anarchism thinks that centralized states, as implied by Marx, conduct the worst oppression of all. As Bakunin said, "Do you want to make it impossible for anyone to oppress his fellow-man? Then make sure that no one shall possess power" (6). Just as capital oppresses labor, the state crushes liberty.

The three main principles of anarchism are liberty, equality, and solidarity. Liberty is imperative for true freedom and fairness. Anarchists believe that "liberty cannot exist without society and organization" of the workers, and that co-operation and self-management are the only effectual way of running a nation (7). Detractors often equate anarchism with chaos, arguing that a state maintains order in a consistent fashion. Anarchists say that true order can only spread in a nation from the bottom up. People can sufficiently control themselves, and they do not want to be ruled (8). As seen in Soviet-style communism, disorder imposed from the top down by authorities causes irrational rebellion and national disunity. This unhappiness causes the state to become stricter, which in turn leads to more exploitation.

Anarchists believe that the state is marked by three characteristics. First, there is a "monopoly of violence" in an area; second, that the violence is "professional" and institutional; and third, that the institution is hierarchical, centralized, and in the hands of a few (9). The few leaders pursue their own self-interests, and the only way to remove them from power is an overthrow. This overthrow places a new government in power, which will be as exploitative as the last. Furthermore, it is logistically impossible for a few economists to effectively simplify a nation enough to allocate all income and resources appropriately within.


The anarchist believes that the state destroys personal liberties, which was exemplified in the Lenin/Stalin periods. They also criticized this communism for in fact being so-called state capitalism. Here, capitalistic exploitation was performed by the state and leaders, instead of by private landowners.

The second main principle of anarchism is equality; thus, all classes, races, and genders should be in a flat, non-hierarchical society. The main argument for equality is that, without it, true liberty is impossible, as someone is being oppressed. In a hierarchical society, only the top level is truly free, and the rest of the population is therefore subjugated

The third principle is solidarity. This principle is the same as mutual aid and group co-operation that promotes community and fairness. Rugged individualism is the sharp opposite of solidarity. This competition inevitably results in winners and losers, and thus an elevated class of society. A society working together produces fair allocation of resources, and no exploitation by a ruling class.

Opponents might argue about the ability of humans to successfully execute this type of co-operating system. Anarchy defines human nature, in accordance with Marxism, in terms of materialism. Human nature is mostly determined by the social environment, and, like the environment, it is always changing. Therefore, even if greed pervades our society at the present, the future might prove otherwise. Anarchists believe that humans can think for themselves, so they do not need an external dictator. They hold that social solidarity is not a utopian belief, but a practical one. Since no human is perfect, then there is no reason to have society maintained by so few imperfect men.



With all the differences, anarchism and Marxism are the opposite sides of the same socialist coin. Some branches of anarchism are very close to Marxism, especially communism-anarchism. The Russian Peter Kropotkin was one of these thinkers generally opposed to markets. He wrote in many influential works that mutual aid is superior to competition. Kropotkin and the Russian anarchists worked with the socialists and Bolsheviks during the 1917 Russian Revolution to bring about change. However, after Lenin and his comrades seized power, Kropotkin turned against the Bolsheviks, feeling that their dictatorship was destructive. In turn, the Bolsheviks suppressed the anarchists by murder and exile. During the period 1917-1921 in Ukraine, the Makhnovist movement formed as a group of social self-determinists. They tried to implement an anarchist system in their domain, to set up peasant conferences, and to fight against the Bolsheviks. Again, the Bolsheviks attacked and eliminated this non-Party movement.

Peter Kropotkin  




On February 8, 1921, Kropotkin died in Moscow. At his funeral, 10,000 anarchists marched with the black flag of anarchy. Anarchism slowly dissolved in Russia, and there was not another movement there until 1987. Anarchism explains a detailed social system that is very ideological, but its followers maintain its practicality. Its argument is strengthened by the failure of the Marxist/Leninist movement in Russia, but there is no historical precedent upon which to analyze the efficacy of anarchism. Perhaps in the future, an innovative country will attempt its implementation.


Nestor Makhno



    (2) An Anarchist FAQ Webpage, Sec. A1
    (3) Marxism & Anarchism
    (4) An Anarchist FAQ Webpage, Sec. A1
    (5) Kyn, Oldrich, Lecture notes
    (6) An Anarchist FAQ Webpage, Sec. A1
    (7) An Anarchist FAQ Webpage, Sec. A2
    (8) An Anarchist FAQ Webpage, Sec. A1
    (9) An Anarchist FAQ Webpage, Sec. B2












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