Marxism and Anarchism in Canada Today

Darrell Rankin

The early 1990s marked a stagnation of working class struggles in Canada. The intensity of the corporate offensive was one of the main reasons contributing to the decline. A period of disunity and inactivity began from which we are only now emerging. This recent period has been marked by global setbacks to working people and socialism.

As a tendency in some circles, anarchism became stronger. During this time Marxism went through a difficult re-assessment which brought to the fore basic questions and the study of recent experiences.

In the mass democratic upsurge beginning in the 1970s, communist-led unions, expelled during the Cold War, were re-admitted to the Canadian Labour Congress. Social democratic reformists, who led the majority of the labour movement, and Marxists both became increasingly active. Communists led several large labour councils and the Alberta Federation of Labour, and they strongly challenged NDP backed trade union leaders in other provincial labour federations and in the CLC itself.

But the restoration of capitalism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, and defeats in the fight against free trade and the fight to prevent the 1990 Gulf War demoralized a small but vital section of the Communist Party (mainly the leadership which emerged in the 1980s), part of which tried to liquidate the party. Meanwhile, the NDP weakened labour’s fightback more by breaking collective agreements with public sector workers in Ontario and supporting the corporate agenda in other ways.

During the crisis in the Communist Party and other left forces, anarchist ideas found reflection in different political movements (e.g., the Reform Party’s “distrust” of politicians) and gained popularity among people just entering political activity. Anarchism, however, has the harmful effect of subordinating the working class to bourgeois politics.


Not since the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike has anarchism been influential as an organized movement; it appeared then as anarcho-syndicalism in the trade union movement. But today it is part of the social psychology of many young people and of a part of the labour movement which rejects the opportunist errors of the NDP.

We should not be surprised in the growth of despair, anger and even anarchism among many people, it is nothing new. Lenin noted that certain people who were inattentive to the conditions for preparing and developing the mass struggle were “driven to despair and anarchism by the lengthy delays in the decisive struggle against capitalism in Europe.” (Collected Works, Vol. 18, p. 584).

Indeed, feelings of despair and wretchedness often combine with anarchism. They combine with the nihilism commonly found among younger people today, but also among the oppressed and the betrayed in the labour movement, the “victims” of opportunism. (I use the word “nihilism” for a rejection of the dominant culture or morality here in a revolutionary, not an opportunist, sense.)

U.S. academic Noam Chomsky is one of the chief critics of this “wretched” world: “The more you can increase fear of drugs and crime, welfare mothers, immigrants and aliens, the more you control all the people.” We read in a Food Not Bombs newsletter: “Sometimes I feel defeated because I realize they have the power on their side. But most of the time I just feel a bitter hatred towards those who have to use illegal and immoral measures to try and squelch our strength.”

I would use the term “anarcho-nihilism” to describe today’s anarchism, since its main trend is rejection, although some anarchists while disagreeing with the system act as stoics, without alternatives. It should be noted anarchist “alternatives” often concern a single issue or amount to simple “rejection” what is one colour should be another, etc.

Georgi Plekhanov, a 19th century Russian Marxist, made the apt observation that anarchists are the “children of the bourgeoisie.” They derive from bourgeois individualism an inability to work together to achieve real change, making different trends inevitable. In fact, capitalists promote the view that each individual is absolutely “independent” or “free” to defend the continued exploitation of labour.

The individualism of anarchism, its love of “freedom” and “independence,” ignores Frederick Engels’ correct view that freedom requires knowledge of necessity, or of objective laws of nature and society.

It is useful to compare today’s sense of wretchedness with the dominant sense of contentedness, the consumerism, hedonism, New Age mysticism, irrationalism and other dead end philosophies that objectively serve to prop up capitalism today.

Today’s anarcho-nihilist believes that the world is quite absurd. But those who are content with the world, and simply seek pleasure (one could call them anarcho-hedonists) feel the world is well ordered.

Both the nihilist and the hedonist believe the state-corporate system is profoundly effective and pervasive. This attitude, common to both, leads to renunciation of the struggle to overthrow capitalism.

Both rely on self-improvement (the hedonist through commodities, the other through either stoicism or hope-inspired individual moralistic actions). Take the act of providing free food as a “force of example”: it encourages passive waiting for the next act of generosity rather than rebellion, it mimics the behaviour of the big capitalist “philanthropists.”

This is why Marxists say reliance on the role of the individual rather than the masses is a common feature of anarchism. The individualism of today’s anarcho-hedonist is, in the end, found also in the nihilist.

Extreme nihilism has in the past led to violent rejection and terrorism; for example, the bombing of a cruise missile factory by the group Direct Action in the early 1980s, or Earth First!’s tree spiking, both affecting workers more than owners, both failing to mobilize the forces needed to achieve real change.

Conservative, neo-fascist political forces use such terrorism to inflame fear among backward, non-political sections of the population, preventing them from supporting ideas for real change.


The 1996 Ontario days of action saw over one million people stop work in Toronto alone. Class conscious, organized mass struggle, the main form of struggle of Marxism in the labour movement, is reviving.

Marxists still believe the emancipation of workers from class divided society will not happen unless workers themselves become class conscious and organized, trained and educated in the class struggle. This involves adopting a scientific ideology, developing a definite program for state power (immediate and long term), a serious assessment of the class forces, and patient, organized political work among the masses, all of which requires confidence in the masses.

This approach differs fundamentally from reliance on spontaneous change found in anarchism and social democracy; in the case of the NDP this reliance is opportunist. (The NDP is social democratic since it does not officially aim to replace capitalism with socialism.)

Social democrats attribute to themselves great “political” abilities, relegating labour to limited “trade union” activities. Even Svend Robinson, M.P. “underestimated” the importance of conscious struggle by labour in the platform for his 1995 NDP leadership bid: “Labour must have a strong political voice and only the NDP can fulfil that role.”

Lenin rightly called anarchism “a kind of penalty for the opportunist sins the working class movement,” calling anarchism and opportunism complementary “monstrosities.” The Reform Party is taking advantage of the NDP’s opportunism, winning support among workers in cities such as Oshawa, former NDP leader Ed Broadbent’s old riding.

The decline of the petty bourgeoisie as a large class in Canada means that today’s anarchism is less likely to appear as an influential form of petty bourgeois revolutionism, especially in the working class. But among students and other multi-class movements, the situation is less favourable.

The big bourgeoisie, dominating the media and culture, are an increasingly important source of individualist ideas. They are elated when workers support Reform’s “anti-political” platform, which in reality is pro-capitalist and dangerously reactionary.

This brief examination of anarchism and Marxism should emphasize the importance of closely studying all the major political and ideological trends. Marxism attaches much importance to understanding the programs and class partisanship of different political movements, not least its own. This is what allows us to be consistent and organized in our struggle for definite democratic demands leading to socialism.

Spark! #11, pp. 34-37