Yesterday I heard someone use the phrase “Anarcho-Marxist” for the first time. I’d previously heard the phrases “Anarcho-Stalinist” and “Anarcho-Trotskyist”, but always used in a negative way. It was pretty clear the speaker meant “Anarcho-Marxist” in a purely descriptive way- perhaps even a little positive. It got me thinking that I should write something up on a matter that has always irritated me, the unthinking assumption that one must either be a Marxist or an Anarchist.
Marxism is a theory and a practice concerned with the processes of the creation of a post-capitalist society. Among other diverse topics the Marxist is concerned with history, economics and politics. Anarchism is a view which opposes all hierarchy, a category in which it includes the state and capitalism.
To the extent that anarchists adopt a theory of history, or economics, or political processes, anarchists often “crib notes” very heavily from Marxists. It has also been argued that Marx himself drew heavily from Proudhon, a mutualist whom some regard as the first anarchist. Fierce debates are often carried out about degrees of indebtedness. This always seemed a little irrelevant to me though. When it comes to evaluating who is right, who plagiarised from whom is beside the point.
There is, as best as I can tell, no intellectual barrier to regarding oneself as both a Marxist and an Anarchist except history. Nothing in the Marxist approach to history, or economics, or even to some high degree politics contradicts Anarchism. Now the extent to which you think a thing’s present reality cannot be divorced from its history will inform whether or not you accept this as a valid rationale for the compatibility of Marxism and Anarchism. I’ve always thought that it’s incumbent on anyone who wants to argue that a thing is bound by its history to point to some feature of its present which carries the legacy so to speak.
But history has not been the only or main factor preventing the creation of a synthesis. Purely intellectual barriers have not been the primary problem. Rather it’s the unfortunate parts of Marxism, and the unfortunate parts of Anarchism.
On the Marxist side we see Leninism. Leninists are not the only Marxists who support state power, but they are the most prominent by far. Leninists, sad to say, form a clear majority of Marxists pretty much everywhere you might care to go. From an Anarchist perspective they’ve got two unforgivable flaws, a disturbing craving after state power, and a seemingly chronic inability to form organisations which tolerate a substantial and democratic plurality of opinions. They use the excuse of creating a common line so that their leadership can reinforce its own position (a pattern replicated everywhere from tiny university sects to the 1930’s Soviet Union.) Given that the anarchist defines themselves against the state; it’s hardly likely there could ever be a synthesis with Leninists.
On the other hand, non-Leninist Marxists are often wary of a synthesis with Anarchists because Anarchism is all too often a theoretical bog. Primitivism, lifestylism, disguised reformism and a lack of theoretical engagement are all substantial problems.
It seems to me that the most productive thing for the better parts of Marxism and the better parts of Anarchism to do would be to concentrate on supporting each other. An identity which captures their common resistance to authority, determination to change the world, commitment to communism, opposition to state power etc, would form the basis for a more fruitful grouping based on real similarities than either “Marxism” or “Anarchism” alone.
One of the reasons I’m so fond of Libcom is that it tries to forge exactly that identity; the best parts of Anarchism with the best parts of Libertarian and Left communism. It might seem that worrying about what identities we forge is a trivial issue- to some extent you’re probably right, but this is a blog, what did you expect? In any case, it’s not entirely trivial, there’s an enormous range of Libertarian Marxists and Anarchists who should be reading more of each other’s work and talking ideas more, but aren’t because of this silly division going back to the first Internationale.
Given that I’m strongly attracted to Marxist economics, history and political theory it almost seems like it would be dishonest of me not to own up to being a sort of Marxist. It is quite clear though that my sympathies also lie with Anarchism. Personally at least I can see no good reason why I cannot regard myself as both an Anarchist and a Marxist, and plan to do exactly that henceforth.
The secret is, the best stuff is in the middle.