Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Monday, March 15, 2010

On Marxism and Anarchism

"Crowned heads, wealth and privilege may well tremble should ever again the Black and Red unite!"
-Otto Von Bismarck

Bismarck's quote - which was recently used to advertise an academic conference on the relationship between Marxism and Anarchism, Is Black and Red Dead? - was made after the defeat of the Paris Commune and the subsequent collapse of the First International, in which both 'Marxists' (well Marx and Engels at least) and Anarchists (including Bakunin) had participated. That ever since a kind of sectarian hostility between Marxism and Anarchism has tended to be the most common form of 'dialogue' between the two traditions of thought has to be seen as a matter of regret, not least because at their best both traditions have much that is critical to contribute to the rebirth of a genuinely revolutionary tradition inside the wider anti-capitalist and anti-war movements. Indeed they are both often seen as the most consistent forms of what is often called 'libertarian socialism' (as opposed to the opportunism and betrayals of social democracy and the distortions and criminal bureaucratic dictatorships of Stalinism). In fact, I will (unsurprisingly) argue here (albeit in an undoubtedly brief and schematic fashion) - that Marxism is preferable to anarchism.

By 'anarchism', I intend to concern myself with what I am going to call 'classical anarchism' - rather than autonomism (a kind of fusion of Marxism and anarchism which because it is 'newer' -owing its historical roots to the post-Second World War period - is much more fashionable than either classical form). The current marginality of 'classical anarchism' in Britain - seen for example by the relative lack of attention given to the death of perhaps the most important anarchist in post-war Britain last month - Colin Ward - is nothing new. As anarchist historian David Goodway notes in Anarchist Seeds Beneath the Snow (2007), Britain was an ‘anarchist backwater’ at the time when the historic anarchist movement as a current within the international working class was flourishing from the 1860s until the crushing of the Spanish Revolution in the 1930s. Anarchism in this period, Goodway notes, was ‘embedded in the artisan response to industrialization, first in France, followed by Italy and finally, in the early-twentieth century, by Russia and Spain’ but this ‘artisan response’ in Britain had already been and gone, dying out with the end of Chartism. Accordingly, ‘in Britain anarchism as a social movement never amounted to much, except among the Yiddish-speaking Jews of East London and – for reasons still to be explained – on Clydeside’.

Yet the intellectual appeal of anarchism to young anti-capitalists today – even in Britain - cannot be denied – when I was a teenager and only just discovering anticapitalism, my first arguments as a revolutionary socialist revolved largely around the debate between Marxism and anarchism – both seemed to offer so much and surely some sort of synthesis was desirable. Though at school my friend read Noam Chomsky while I read Leon Trotsky, together we set up a school political debating society, ‘the Commune’ – named after the Paris Commune of 1871 which as we have seen was welcomed by both Marx and Bakunin.

In this spirit of fraternal Marxist criticism of anarchism, I am going to use an anarchist's definition of anarchism. In Anarchist Seeds Beneath the Snow, Goodway defines anarchism as follows:

‘unremitting hostility to the State and parliamentarianism, employment of direct action as the means of attaining desired goals, and organisation through co-operative associations, built and federated from the bottom upwards’

I will briefly take each of these themes in turn – discussing their strengths and weaknesses in comparison with Marxism- and drawing mainly for argument from Paul Blackledge's recent article on Marxism and Anarchism and Paul Le Blanc's Marx, Lenin and the Revolutionary Experience. I am also indebted to Ian Birchall for sending me his 'comments' on Blackledge's article, which should be published in the next issue of International Socialism.

1. ‘Unremitting hostility to the State and Parliamentarianism’.

This is often seen as the rational core and a great strength of anarchism – the desire to immunise the wider movement from corruption and co-option by the forces of the capitalist state – and reformist politics. It suggests the need for revolutionary politics – and to 'smash the state'. Perhaps my favourite 'anarchist quotes' attack 'the venal and rotten parliamentarianism of bourgeois society' and note that ‘to decide once every few years which member of the ruling class is to repress and crush the people through parliament – this is the real essence of bourgeois parliamentarism not only in the parliamentary-constitutional monarchies, but also in the most democratic republics’. There is just one problem here - contrary to the accusation that Marxists are pro- ‘statism’ ( Mikhail Bakunin called Marx an ‘advocate of state communism’) and pro-‘parliamentarianism’ just because we tend to endorse standing in elections and taking electoral politics seriously, the quotes in question are from Lenin's classic The State and Revolution. In this great work - which resurrected the Paris Commune and elevated it to its rightful place of critical importance within the Marxist tradition - Lenin also went on to quote Marx insisting that ‘the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes’, and noted that ‘Marx agreed with Proudhon in that they both stood for the “smashing” of the modern state machine’, noting ‘we do not at all differ with the anarchists on the question of the abolition of the state as aim’. Indeed, to quote from Lenin again, 'where there is a state there is no freedom - where there is freedom there will be no state'.

Yet there are problems with the anarchist reification of 'the State' as the main enemy of the freedom of the individual (itself merely a simplistic inversion of the traditional bourgeois focus on freedom only possibly existing through the state and parliamentary political action - because as Hobbes notes, without a strong state or Leviathan, human nature apparently dictated our lives would just be 'nasty, brutal and short'). Firstly, is this necessarily the case - what of the current struggle for health care reform in the US – is the British NHS really an enemy of freedom or a social good?

Secondly, all states are ultimately simply instruments of class domination, 'bodies of armed men, prisons etc' as Lenin noted, and so Marx argued that states are historical phenomena, tied up with specific relations of production and so the real need is to remove the underpinning relations of production. There is not just one type of ‘state’, but lots of different types of state – feudal states, capitalist states – what Lenin called the 'Commune state' of workers power, and then lots of different types of state within these forms – eg 'workers's states with bureaucratic distortions' as Lenin described the state which emerged initially from the Russian Revolution, the bureaucratic state capitalism of Stalinism, liberal democracies we know and love today and fascist states.

The exact type of state one is trying to overthrow plays an important role when it comes to determining revolutionary strategy and tactics. The opposition to 'the State' in general has historically led anarchism to underplay the importance of movements of national liberation against imperialism, while more critically their failure to distinguish between nascent emerging 'workers states' and capitalist states proved fatal in Spain in 1936, when a large section of the anarchists entered the liberal republican government to fight Franco rather than counterposing an embryonic 'Soviet state' in the form of workers committees to the liberal republic. The weakness of anarchism historically when it comes to the actual experience of revolution itself is linked to their failure to take politics and so the state seriously, while the hostility to even the germ of democracy represented by 'parliamentarism' is in its own way revealing of a 'democratic deficit' within anarchist thought itself (as the French anarchist Proudhon put it, ‘universal suffrage is the counter-revolution’) - which we will come onto later. As Blackledge notes, ‘the problem of the possibility of real democracy, sits at the core of the political disagreements about the relationship between freedom and authority, the issue of political organisation, and the character of the ethical critique of capitalism’ - ‘a widespread failing within anarchism to develop an adequate conceptualisation of democracy' is 'a weakness which is rooted in an incoherent model of human nature’.

2. ‘Direct action as the means of attaining desired goals’

Against other forms of more traditional political action, anarchists conceptualise revolution as ‘direct action’ to ‘transform’ society. Direct action is the practical implication of anarchist anti-statism - 'propaganda of the deed' as the old slogan put it.

While on first sight this seems very attractive, there are in fact lots of different types of 'direct action' – and so lots of different types of anarchist as a result. Those closest to Marxism favour mass direct action to give people a sense of their own power, but for many individual 'lifestyle' anarchists (deriving from Max Stirner's egotistical variant of anarchism), individual direct action will do. Another problem with the anarchist reification of direct action for Marxists is that direct action is a tactic – just as standing in parliamentary elections is a tactic – neither in themselves constitutes a direct threat in themselves to the system – and both are potentially elitist - with a focus on what you and your organisation are doing without an adequate dialogue with the wider movement or the needs of the working class. In fact, if just one tactic is adopted – by either reformist socialists or anarchists – then the danger of the pull of substitutionism, acting on behalf of the class as a self-appointed elite, is even greater.

3. ‘Organisation through co-operative associations, built and federated from the bottom upwards’

Anarchist ideas of organisation - when they exist - tend to emphasise the importance of 'non-hierachical', 'horizontal' forms of organisation, not vertical or centralised but 'pre-figurative' of the future society. Alongside this, anarchists tend to stress the critical dividing line politically is between 'authoritarians' and 'anti-authoritarians' or 'libertarians'.

The anarchist concern with attempting to imagine and 'prefigure' the new future society is not without value - and Le Blanc has praised some of Kropotkin's writings such as Mutual Aid and The Conquest of Bread along these lines. One problem however here is that prefigurative 'co-operative associations' do not tend to serve very well when it comes to revolutionary situations, or making successful revolutions. As Engels noted in 1872, in an article, 'On Authority', anti-authoritarians 'demand that the first act of the social revolution shall be the abolition of authority.'

'Have these gentlemen ever seen a revolution? A revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing there is; it is the act whereby one part of the population imposes its will upon the other part by means of rifles, bayonets and cannon — authoritarian means, if such there be at all; and if the victorious party does not want to have fought in vain, it must maintain this rule by means of the terror which its arms inspire in the reactionists. Would the Paris Commune have lasted a single day if it had not made use of this authority of the armed people against the bourgeois? Should we not, on the contrary, reproach it for not having used it freely enough?'

As Chris Harman once noted, discussing 'the lost German Revolution of 1918-23' and the failure of revolutionary leadership (with particular respect to Rosa Luxemburg):

If the revolution went down to defeat it was not through ‘inadequacy of politics’ – it was because the politics of this leadership was not tied to a coherent ‘organisational structure’. There was not even the embryo of a party capable of transmitting the political analyses of Rosa into the key sections of the class. Indeed, such was the lack of a tradition of coordinated revolutionary activity that Karl Liekbnecht simply ignored the decisions of the rest of the leadership of the newly formed party and, in the heat of the moment, put his name to a call for the forcible overthrow of the Social Democratic government. The result was that the most advanced layer of militants blundered into a premature struggle for power, which led to the annihilation of much of the Communist leadership.

The tragedy in Gemany was that the democratic centralist party was not built until after the party had suffered major defeats and until after many of its best leaders had been murdered. Of course organisation is useless without the correct politics. But correct politics is impotent without organisation. To pretend otherwise is to guarantee in future a repetition of many of the massive defeats of the past.

Building a democratic and centralised revolutionary organisation is not an easy task. Our model cannot be the so-called ‘Marxist-Leninism’ that was elaborated after Lenin’s death by the new bureaucratic rulers of Russia. We have to develop forms of leadership that learn from the spontaneous struggles of workers, generalising the lessons, and feeding them back into the class...

Finally we have to remember that a small revolutionary organisation certainly is not the embryo of a new society. We do not exist as an island of socialism within capitalism, but as a voluntary organisation of militants whose task is to lead the class as a whole to construct the new society. So the aim of internal democracy is not to show ‘this is how things will work under socialism’, but to tie the development of the party to the concrete experiences of its militants in the workplaces.

Marx's vision of 'socialism from below' stressed that ‘the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself’, so Marxists recognise prefigurative elements of working class self-organisation and culture before the conquest of power – eg workers councils – but also recognise the inevitably uneven and fragmented consciousness of the working class under capitalism – even once workers' councils are in existence - and so the need for a revolutionary socialist party separate from the working class in order to try and overcome this division. Such a revolutionary organisation is not prefigurative but instrumental – a temporary instrument to win the majority of working class to socialist ideas and politics – and when that moment of victory is reached and the socialist revolution won, the revolutionary socialist party will disappear as its need and rationale will have disappeared.

If there is a dividing line in politics, then according to Hal Draper, it is not between 'authoritarians' and 'libertarians' but between those who stand for revolutionary democracy as against those who have an ultimately elitist contempt for the mass of working class people. If one believes that any attempt to build revolutionary socialist organisation is inevitably going to lead in despotism of one variety or other, (‘all political organisation is destined to end in the negation of freedom’ - Bakunin) then basically one believes that working class people are incapable of coming together to form democratic organisations without them being inherently corrupted - an elitist conclusion. As Duncan Hallas once noted,

The equation “centralised organisation equals bureaucracy equals degeneration” is in fact a secularised version of the original sin myth. Like its prototype it leads to profoundly reactionary conclusions. For what is really being implied is that working people are incapable of collective democratic control of their own organisations. Granted that in many cases this has proved to be true; to argue that it is necessarily, inevitably true is to argue that socialism is impossible because democracy, in the literal sense, is impossible.

Whereas anarchists say 'No Leaders!', Marxists - precisely because they have this belief in the creative capacity of working class people - say instead 'Everyone can be a leader!' - because we believe everyone can be a fighter against exploitation and oppression, against racism, sexism, homophobia, against all attempts to 'divide and rule' over the working class.

As Blackledge notes, for Marx, given his view on human nature, authority was inescapable, and so the choice was not a struggle against 'authority' but a struggle to smash an undemocratic form of authority (the state, corporate power) and replace it with a democratic alternative – the democratisation of social authority. So Marxism and anarchism do not stand for 'the same goals by different means' – for Marxists, freedom and authority are not necessarily directly opposite but actually are complementary.

Because revolutions themselves are about democratising authority - revolutionary democracy where workers in power are deciding things for themselves - the actual revolutionary experience - particularly that of the Russian Revolution of 1917 - has seen many anarchists come over to Marxism and to the fight to defend socialist revolution – most notably the revolutionary novelist Victor Serge. As Ian Birchall notes (in his 'comments on Paul Blackledge's "Marxism and Anarchism", forthcoming in International Socialism journal - people should if they can also dig out Birchall's review of Suzi Weissman's study of Serge The Course is Set on Hope in Historical Materialism journal), 'Serge argued there was no future for anarchism if it failed to integrate itself into the movement launched by the Bolshevik Revolution, but if it did participate it could make a significant contribution to that movement'. For Serge,

'Anarchist philosophy, which appeals to individuals, imposes on them attitudes in their private life and their inner life, proposes a morality, which is something that Marxism, a theory of class struggle, does not do to such a great extent. Armed with the spirit of free enquiry, more liberated than anyone else from bourgeois prejudices with regard to the family, honour, propriety, love, from worrying about "what people will say" and "what is expected", militants who see anarchism as "an individual way of life and activity", in the well-chosen phrase of some of the French comrades, will resist reaction in behaviour with their common sense and their courage in setting an example. While others become officers, functionaries, judges, sometimes joining the privileged elite, they will remain simply men, free workers, who can perform in a stoical fashion all the tasks that are necessary to plough up the old land, but who will never be intoxicated by rhetoric, or by success, or by the lure of profitable careers.' (Serge, Victor, Revolution in Danger, Redwords, 1997)

Overall, then, while anarchism in itself can provide important insights and anarchists like Serge who sided with revolution against counter-revolution have historically often made an immensely valuable contribution to the revolutionary movement, ultimately anarchism - unintegrated with a revolutionary working class movement consciously struggling for socialism such as that in Russia - is unable to act as a guide to action for those serious about revolutionary politics. The anarchist goal of trying to get to an ahistorical natural social harmony and freedom beyond the state, that is prefigured by loose federal organisations orientated solely on carrying out ‘direct action’ themselves, is an intellectually inferior vision to the Marxist goal – the struggle to democratise society against the state. Marxism accordingly necessitates a democratic and centralist combat organisation that orientatates anti-capitalist activism on politically winning the majority of the working class to socialism – and so takes a lead from the spontaneous activity of the working class at the point of production in the work places - and the task of building such an organisation has to remain the priority for those who would overcome what Hal Draper called 'the great problem of our age', 'the achievement of democratic control from below over the vast powers of modern social authority'.

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At 3:46 pm, Blogger Gajendra said...

Really good piece.

One thing that is often underestimated, or even ignored, is the role 'classical Anarchism' played in Chinese revolutionary thought and the precursors to the CCP.

That aside, I tend to agree with Hobsbawm, that Kropotkin is the one Anarchist theorist that politically active Marxists ought to read. Principally because of the warnings he gives of that moment after Revolution and of its dangers.

At 4:30 am, Blogger Larry Gambone said...

Sigh! Too many Marxist anti-anarchist cliches and straw men. Would be nice to have a real discussion about the two revolutionary movements.

At 12:38 pm, Blogger Snowball said...

Cheers Gajendra - I like the fact that Lenin paid tribute to the great anarchist Kropotkin by giving him a state funeral in 1921 - most fitting.

Larry - I am sorry if there are 'too many Marxist anti-anarchist cliches and straw men' for your liking - the problem with anarchism is that it is very difficult to generalise about it at all given its heterogeneity. The moment one tries to say 'anarchism says x, or this anarchist group did y' one can always find an example of an anarchist who said 'z' or a group who did 'a' or whatever. I did however try to avoid mention of say, Proudhon's racism and sexism, Bakunin's hostility to Germans and Jews, Kropotkin's support for WW1, etc etc, so as not to be sectarian.

I agree it would be nice to have a real discussion about the two movements, but particularly where anarchism is concerned this would have to be a historical discussion in the main as it hasn't really existed as a 'revolutionary movement' since the 1930s (and whether Marxism still constitutes a 'revolutionary movement' in one sense is also debatable). The danger then is that such a discussion can degenerate rapidly into one of historical controversies about who said what to whom in the First International, the dreaded 'K word', and so on and so on - controversies that can only have a chance of being settled through serious historical research. Whether or not such historical research leading to constructive discussion can be best disseminated through a blog post is also debatable, though if you know any good websites etc that have advanced the debate in such a manner I would of course be grateful to read them etc.

At 4:06 pm, Anonymous Bruce said...

Have you read the work of David Graeber? I think he does a good job of discussing anarchist's concerns with Marxism.

At 7:01 pm, Blogger Larry Gambone said...

"the problem with anarchism is that it is very difficult to generalise about it at all given its heterogeneity. The moment one tries to say 'anarchism says x, or this anarchist group did y' one can always find an example of an anarchist who said 'z' or a group who did 'a' or whatever."

You could say the same about Marxism. Try Stalin and Rosa Luxemburg, Kautsky and Pannekoek etc.

At 12:00 pm, Blogger Snowball said...

Larry, yes, but because Marxism stems from the revolutionary writings of Marx himself, one is able to counterpose later 'Marxists' to Marx, which helps one better make objective judgements about the 'Marxism' of Stalin or the later Kautsky.

Anarchism does not have such a referent and so what can pass for anarchism is (unfortunately for anarchism) pretty much anything.

At 8:36 pm, Blogger Larry Gambone said...

Yes, Snowball, that is true and it is a strength of Marxism, but also a weakness. Thousands of pages have been written debating just what Marx meant – you don't find anarchists doing the same with Malatesta or Kropotkin. In turn, anarchism's lack of a Marx can be seen as a weakness, but also a strength – it means we are less dogmatic. Anyway, we anarchists don't need a Marx, we have one – or rather most of us class struggle anarchists do – his name is Karl Marx. We accept Marx's critique of political economy and dialectical method, but we augment this with a sociology of power and authority. This latter is what anarchism really is, and is what separates us from what we see as the rather naive politics of social democracy and Marxist Leninism, keeping in mind that there were Marxists like Luxemburg, Pannekoek, Gorter, Mattick who have come to similar conclusions about political power that we have. Anyway, rather than writing rubbish about each other, anarchists and Marxists ought to to find a common ground and work together to eliminate capitalism.

At 4:25 pm, Blogger Snowball said...

Larry - okay, some good points and as for 'we ['class struggle anarchists'] augment this [Marx] with a sociology of power and authority' - this is true on one level I suppose.

My problem is when you follow this up by saying 'this latter is what anarchism really is' - as unfortunately it might be what 'class struggle anarchism really is' but it is not what anarchism per se really is. Anarchism per se does not consistently appreciate Marx and revolutionary Marxism's focus on class struggle and revolutionary politics - and while you are right that class struggle anarchists and Marxists 'ought to to find a common ground and work together to eliminate capitalism', it seems unfortunately likely that such a unity between anarchists in general and Marxists will rather more difficult to forge in practice.

At 1:59 am, Blogger Larry Gambone said...

Sorry for being appearing to be imprecise, Snowball. In "We accept Marx's critique of political economy and dialectical method, but we augment this with a sociology of power and authority. This latter is what anarchism really is..", I do not intend to claim that all anarchists accept Marx's political economy etc, but I do claim that anarchism in general - no matter what the type - is basically a sociology of power.

It is true that many anarchists are sectarian when it comes to Marx, but on the other hand, you can also draw up a pretty good list of anarchist thinkers who aren't that way such as Chomsky, Bookchin, Guerin, Graeber etc. I think it also of interest that one of the most important anarchist web sites and forums - LibCom - hosts a whole library of Marxist writings, albeit from a Luxembourgist and council communist perspective.

(I have been an "anarcho-marxist" from the word go. My reading of the "1844 Manuscripts" back in 1967 was what opened me to class struggle anarchism.)

At 10:14 am, Blogger Gabriel Idaho said...

Bruce mentioned David Graeber, who's one of my new favorite people. According to him,

1. Marxism has tended to be a theoretical or analytical discourse about revolutionary strategy.

2. Anarchism has tended to be an ethical discourse about revolutionary practice.

This seems like a really good first step towards uniting Red and Black. While I agree with pretty much all your criticisms of anarchism, I don't think this Marxism > anarchism formulation is a good way to bring about unity. A more productive approach, I think, is to recognize that Marxism and anarchism BOTH have critiques to make of the other, and both are good critiques. As I see it, Marxism and anarchism are complements. The latter preserves the utopian ideal that 'scientific socialism' disavows (I think to its peril), focuses our attentions on everyday praxis and an ethical commitment to not reproducing the same things we're trying to abolish, and offers a profound and redemptive critique (that we can appropriate!) of the horrors of really existing state socialism. I think the contradictions in anarchism push it inevitably towards something akin to Marxism (e.g. isn't the Party just a voluntary organization?), just as any genuine Marxist movement must constantly push itself towards the anarchist utopia or risk becoming exactly what it sought to destroy. I see them as yin vs. yang, head vs. heart, far-sighted but academic and prone to paralysis vs. short-sighted, earnest and decent. To assert once again, after it's been done so many times before, that Marxism is just better than anarchism is to miss the point.

At 10:20 am, Blogger Gabriel Idaho said...

Or perhaps an even better frame: What conniving bourgeois piece of shit came up with the fiendishly brilliant idea of dividing communism like that?


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