Anarchism vs. Marxism: A few notes on an old theme

Anarchism vs. Marxism: A few notes on an old theme

Anarchism vs. Marxism: A few notes on an old theme

Anarchism vs. Marxism: A few notes on an old theme

A piece taking on some misconceptions of Marxism commonly held by some anarchists.

More than one hundred years after the socialist movement split into warring Marxist and anarchist factions, there are signs, at least on a small scale, that people calling themselves anarchists and people calling themselves Marxists or "libertarian socialists" are finding ways of working together fruitfully. Questions immediately present themselves: To what extent are the old labels still valid? Have their meanings changed in the course of the last century? How solid is the new basis of unity? Have the old divisions been transcended?

But is it necessary to re-examine the old labels and divisions at all? Would it not be best to let sleeping polemics lie and simply concentrate on working together?

The problem is that a socialist movement - or libertarian movement: what terms can we validly use? - that hopes to develop has to confront historical, strategic, and theoretical questions. A socialist movement worthy of the name has to do more than get together for simple actions. It has to ask itself where it is trying to go, and how it proposes to get there: precisely the issues which sparked the fateful anarchist-Marxist split in the 1870's, and which kept the movements separated until today. Political question which are ignored do not vanish, they only reappear with all that much more destructive impact at a later date. They must be dealt with frankly.

But this does not mean that we are fated to barrenly re-fight old battles and re-live the splits and hostilities of the past. The world has changed a great deal since the 1870's, and the experience of the socialist movement during the past century has changed the problems we face immeasurably. Of no little importance is the re-vitalization of a Marxist current that is militantly anti-Leninist, and the re-emergence of an anarcho-communist movement which accepts (although not necessarily consciously) a good deal of Marxist analysis. There is a good deal of common ground on which we can come together.

It should also be acknowledge that while the differences between Marxists and anarchists have been real, it has been the case that too often in the past the disputes between them have generated more heat than light. A problem in many polemics is that each side tends to take partial tendencies of the other side and extrapolates them to be the whole, and in that sense misrepresents. A serious analysis has to go beyond the simplicities of black and white (black and red?) argumentation. At the same time, it is true that posing questions sharply generally implies a polemical tone, so we should not shrink back from polemic if this means that important questions will be glossed over or ignored.

My own position is pro-marxist, and is in many respects quite critical of anarchism. It is therefore imperative to note two things: One, that there are many positive things about anarchism which I leave unacknowledged, because I am attempting, in this, and the subsequent article ("Bakunin vs. Marx"), to criticize certain specific aspects of the total doctrine which I think greatly weaken it. I am not purporting to give a balanced evaluation of anarchism as a whole. Two: I am far more critical of the "Marxism" of most "Marxist-Leninists" than I am of anarchism. While I regard most anarchists as comrades in the libertarian movement, I consider the very expression "Marxist-Leninist" to be a contradiction in terms, and consider "Marxism-Leninism" to be an ideology that is diametrically opposed to the emancipation of the working classes.1

It is not possible to cover the whole anarchist/marxist debate adequately in one or two articles. What I propose to do here, and in the accompanying notes on Marx and Bakunin, is to concentrate on the most common and basic anarchist objections to Marxism, and to examine them briefly. These notes should be seen as just that - notes that make a few basic points. I hope that they will provoke a lively discussion that will make it possible to examine the questions raised, and others, in much greater detail.

The impetus for seeking a debate on Marxism and anarchism comes primarily from reading a number of recently published pieces on anarchism which all seem to display an astonishing misunderstanding and ignorance of Marx and what he wrote and did. (e.g. Bakunin on Anarchy, with the Preface by Paul Avrich and the Introduction by Sam Dolgoff; Mark Brothers' article on Anarchy in Open Road No. 4; the piece on Bakunin in Open Road No.2, and P. Murtaugh's article in this issue of The Red Menace.) All of these - and most anarchist writings - expend a great deal of effort in attacking something called "Marxism". In every case, the "Marxism" that is attacked has little or nothing to do with the theories of Karl Marx. Reading these polemics against a "Marxism" that exists mainly in the minds of those attacking it, one can only mutter the phrase Marx himself is said to have repeated often in his later years, only regarding the works of his 'followers': "If this is Marxism, than all I know is that I am not a Marxist."

If there is to be any dialogue between Marxists and anarchists, if the negative and positive aspects of the Marxian and anarchist projects are to be critically analyzed, then it is incumbent upon those who oppose Marxism, as well as those who support it or seek to revise or transcend it to at least know what they are talking about. Nothing is solved by setting up and attacking a straw-man Marxism.

And it is important to understand and know Marx not only because there are "libertarian Marxists" but because Marx is without dispute the central figure in the development of libertarianism and socialism. It is not possible to understand the development of any left-wing political movement or system of thought in the last century without knowing Marxism. It is not possible, in fact, to understand the development of any ideology in this century, or indeed, to understand the history of the last hundred years, without knowing something about Marxism. The political history of the twentieth century is to a very great extent a history of attempts to realize Marxism, attempts to defeat Marxism, attempts to go beyond or amend Marxism, attempts to develop alternatives to Marxism.

Anarchism is certainly no exception. It originally defined itself in opposition to Marxism, and continues to do so to the present day. Unfortunately, anarchists seem totally unaware - or unwilling to realize - that Marxism is not a monolith, that there are, and always have been, enormously different currents of thought calling themselves Marxist. Anarchist critiques invariably identify Marxism with Leninism, Leninism with Stalinism, Stalinism with Maoism, and all of them with Trotskyism as well. There is usually not a hint of guile in this remarkable bit of intellectual prestidigitation - your average anarchist simply thinks it is a universally accepted, established fact that all these political system are identical.2

This is not to say that it cannot be argued that all these political system are fundamentally the same, that their differences, no matter how violent, are secondary to certain essential features that all have in common. But the point is that it is necessary to argue the case, to marshal some evidence, to know a phenomenon before condemning it. One can't simply begin with the conclusion.

But the fact is that Marxism is not a monolith. Despite Murtaugh's uninformed assertion that "Libertarian Marxism is a rather recent development, as far as political theories and movements go", and despite the fact that the term "libertarian Marxism" is new - and unnecessary - the tradition goes back a long way. For example, Rosa Luxemburg - surely one of the central figures in any history of Marxism - was condemning Lenin's theories of the vanguard party and of centralized, hierarchical discipline three quarters of a century ago, in 1904. In 1918 - while many anarchists were rushing to join the Bolsheviks - she was criticizing the dictatorial methods of the Bolsheviks and warning of the miscarriage of the Russian Revolution. After her death there were other thinkers and movements that condemned Bolshevism as an authoritarian degeneration of Marxism: Anton Pannekoek, Karl Korsch, the Council Communists, the Frankfurt School, right up to the new left of the 1960's and 1970's. And even within the Leninist tradition there were thinkers who made contributions that challenged the hold of the dominant interpretation and helped to nourish a libertarian Marxism; for example, Georg Lukacs, Antonio Gramsci, and Wihelm Reich. A number of libertarian currents emerged from the Trotskyist movement in the 1940's and 1950's. Any liberation movement that proclaims itself the issue of a virgin birth in the 1970's, or that acknowledges only one thin anarchist strand as 'true' libertarianism through the ages, while cutting itself off - whether because of dogma or because of ignorance - from all other contributing currents, only impoverishes itself. Yet anarchists writing on Marxism seem to deliberately and almost perversely shut their eyes and ears to anything except the dominant Leninist tradition, and so manage always to reconfirm their own prejudices about Marxism.

All this does not prove of course that the libertarian interpretation of Marx is the correct one. But it should be possible to agree on a basic analytical point: if there is doubt about what Marx stood for, then it is necessary to read Marx, not to take the words of either his enemies, or those who claim, justifiably or not, to be his followers. Once this is accepted, and only then, is it possible to begin an anarchist/marxist dialogue on a serious level.

My own attitude to Marx is not unequivocally favourable. There are in my view serious questions to be raised about aspects of Marx's thought. Marxism, like everything else, must be subjected to criticism, criticism that may lead to transcending Marx, but not, I think, to rejecting him. "Marxism is a point of departure for us, not our pre-determined destination. We accept Marx's dictum that our criticism must fear nothing, including its own results. Our debt to Marxism will be no less if we find that we have to go beyond it." The essential point, however, is that the Marxian project must be the heart of any libertarian politics. It may possible and therefore necessary to transcend Marx, but to transcend him it is first necessary to absorb him. Without Marx and some of the best of the "Marxists", it is not possible to create a libertarian praxis and a libertarian world.

Finally in judging Marx's work, it is necessary to keep in mind that his writings and actions span some 40 years as a revolutionary, that he often wrote letters and made notes that represent partial insights which he was not able to return to and expand, that many of his works were polemics against particular doctrines and are one-sided because of that. It would be a mistake, therefore, to take each sentence and each quotation in the corpus of his work as finished holy writ, or to expect that his work is wholly consistent or that he thought the implications of all of his theories through to the end. Marx's work is an uncompleted, uneven, but enormously fruitful and brilliant contribution that must be approached as he himself approached everything: critically.

At this point, it is necessary to confront one of anarchism's tragic flaws, one that has made it incapable of becoming a serious historical alternative: its strong tendency toward anti-intellectualism. With a very few exceptions (e.g. Kropotkin, Rocker, Bookchin) anarchism has failed to produce proponents interested in developing a rigorous analysis of capitalism, the state, bureaucracy, or authoritarianism. Consequently its opposition to these phenomena has tended to remain instinctive and emotional; whatever analyses it has produced have been eclectic, largely borrowed from Marxism, liberalism, and other sources, and rarely of serious intellectual quality. This is not an accidental failing - there has been no lack of intelligent anarchists. But anarchists, perhaps repelled by the cold-bloodedness of some 'official' Marxist intellectuals, perhaps sensing instinctively the germ of totalitarianism in any intellectual system that seeks to explain everything, have been consciously and often militantly opposed to intellectual endeavour as such. Their opposition has been not simply to particular analyses and theories, but to analyses and theory as such. Bakunin, for example, argued - in a manner reminiscent of the medieval Pope Gregory - that teaching workers theories would undermine their inherent revolutionary qualities. What happens when a movement's leading theorist is explicitly anti-intellectual?

The result for the anarchist movement have been crippling. Anarchism as a theory remains a patchwork of often conflicting insights that remain frustrating especially to critical sympathizers because the most fruitful threads rarely seem to be pursued. Most anarchist publications avoid any discussion of strategy, or any analysis of society as it is today, like the plague. (Even one of the best anarchist publications, The Open Road, remains essentially a cheer-leader for anything vaguely leftist or libertarian. People organizing unions and people organizing against unions receive equally uncritical coverage; pie-throwing and bomb-throwing are seen as equally valid activities, and no attempt is made to discuss the relative strategic merits of the one or the other in a given context.) Most anarchist publishing houses seem interested in nothing except (a) re-fighting the Spanish Civil War, (b) re-fighting Kronstadt and (c) trashing Marxist-Leninists yet one more time. Even these preoccupations, which have become routine as to make anarchism for the most part simply boring, are not pursued in such a way as to develop new insights relating to the history of capitalism, the revolutionary process, or Bolshevism, for example.

Rather, the same arguments are simply liturgically repeated. Rarely is there any serious political debate within the anarchist movement, while polemics against the bugbear of "Marxism" (as essential to anarchism as Satan is to the Church) are generally crippled by a principled refusal to find out anything about what is being attacked. Arguments are mostly carried on in terms of the vaguest generalities; quotations are never used because the works of the supposed enemy have never been read.

As a consequence of its anti-intellectualism, anarchism has never been able to develop its potential. A movement that disdains theory and uncritically worships action, anarchism remains a shaky edifice consisting essentially of various chunks of Marxist analysis underpinning a few inflexible tactical precepts. It is held together mainly by libertarian impulses - the best kind of impulses to have, to be sure - and by a fear of organization that is so great that it is virtually impossible for anarchists to every organize effectively on a long-term basis. This is truly a tragedy, for the libertarian movement cannot afford to have its members refusing to use their intellects in the battle to create a new world. As long as anarchism continues to promote anti-intellectualism, it is going nowhere.

  • 1. On the other hand, I do not see all "Marxists-Leninists" as counter-revolutionaries, as many anarchists seem to do. Many (particularly Trotskyists) are sincere revolutionaries who do not understand the implications of the ideology they adhere to. The fact that "Marxism-Leninism" as an ideology is counter-revolutionary does not mean that every "Marxist-Leninist" is a counter-revolutionary, any more than the fact that Christianity is reactionary makes every individual Christian a reactionary. Nor are the political differences that divide the left always as absolute as they are made out to be. There are of necessity always gray areas, where, for example, anarchism and Marxism begin to converge, or Marxism and Leninism, or - yes - anarchism and Leninism. Life does not always lend itself to analysis by the categories 'them' and 'us', if for no other reason than that all of us have internalized at least some of the repressive baggage of the dominant society. All of us have something of the 'counter-revolutionary' in us.
  • 2. For example, Mark Brothers in his article "Anarchy is liberty, not disorder" in Issue 4 of The Open Road, uses the terms 'Marxism' and 'Marxism'Leninism' interchangeably, and is either unaware or doesn't think it worth mentioning that two of the three concepts he criticizes - the vanguard party and democratic centralism - are nowhere to be found in Marx, while the third, dictatorship of the proletariat, was given completely different meanings by Marx and the Leninists. Similarly, Murtaugh (The End of Dialectical Materialism: An Anarchist Reply to the Libertarian Marxists) knows so little about Marxism that he does not even know that neither Marx nor Engels ever even used the term "dialectical materialism,", which he blithely supposes "libertarian marxists" adhere to, and which he disposes of in four pages. (Dialectical materialism made its first appearance eight years after Marx died, courtesy of Plekanov.)

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