Anarchism & Marxism- We didn’t get along in the first international but can we get over that now? Thanks.

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.


About timothyscriven

I study philosophy at Sydney University. In the grand scheme, I'm not very important.
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8 Responses to Anarchism & Marxism- We didn’t get along in the first international but can we get over that now? Thanks.

  1. David says:

    What about the Kronstadt?

    • Nobody says:

      Yes, in the Kronstadt revolt, which side was closer to classical Marxism Tim?

      • Classical Marxism, or good Marxism? The boundaries are always a little unclear. The side closer to good Marxism was the sailors, and I think if Marx had lived to see it, there’s a good chance he’d have backed them.

  2. Wil Wallace says:

    An extract from Black Flame which I found quite interesting and that deals with a similar point:

    “”Anarchism” is often wrongly identified as chaos, disorganisation, and destruction.
    It is a type of socialism, and is against capitalism and landlordism, but it
    is also a libertarian type of socialism. For anarchism, individual freedom and individuality
    are extremely important, and are best developed in a context of democracy
    and equality. Individuals, however, are divided into classes based on exploitation
    and power under present-day systems of capitalism and landlordism. To end
    this situation it is necessary to engage in class struggle and revolution, creating a
    free socialist society based on common ownership, self-management, democratic
    planning from below, and production for need, not profit. Only such a social order
    makes individual freedom possible.

    Now, “every anarchist is a socialist, but not every socialist is an anarchist.”
    Since its emergence, socialism has been divided into two main tendencies: libertarian
    socialism, which rejects the state and hierarchy more generally; and political
    socialism, which advocates “a political battle against capitalism waged through …
    centrally organised workers’ parties aimed at seizing and utilising State power to
    usher in socialism.” Anarchism is an example of the first strand; classical Marxism
    is an example of revolutionary political socialism, while social democracy stands for
    a peaceful and gradual political socialism.”

  3. nickcarson says:

    In my short experience in this radical left world, Marxists with a libertarian bent seem pretty capable of getting along with the rest of the libertarian/anti-authoritarian left, including anarchists.

    The real divide is between the libertarian left (anarchists, lib communists, lib socialists, syndicalists, etc, [and softer forms of libertarian leftism like grassroots democrats, green politics, etc]) and what I would characterise as the “authoritarian left” (Marxist-Leninists, Trotskyists, Maoists, Stalinists, etc).

    While there is definitely still a shared territory between libertarian and authoritarian lefts, and possibilities for useful working relationships between them, the fundamental differences are ultimately irreconcilable. Marxist-Leninists and Trotskyists don’t see anything wrong with hierarchical organising and authoritarian tendencies, indeed they will deny it. They don’t understand that the Bolsheviks systematically destroyed socialism in Russia after 1917, they dismantled worker-run Soviets and murdered thousands of socialist and left-wing political opponents, of which Kronstadt was just one event. Indeed, it is perhaps too kind to acknowledge these ideologies as being socialist or left-wing at all! But we do. They say they are anti-state, but in the next breath preach the need to use the state as a tool, to turn it into a “workers state” to usher in socialism and blah blah blah. We need full communism! And we need it now. Marxist-Leninists and Trotskyists do not work towards full communism. They want power and control to impose new power structures.

    If it is sectarian to argue against the left authoritarian worldview, then it may as well be considered sectarian to advocate against a survivalist or hyper-individualist world view, given the shared territories across libertarianism and anti-authoritarianism. My point is the issue of sectarianism is a distraction from the important disagreements between libertarian and authoritarian left-wing theories and praxis. As someone who identifies with libertarian left ideas, part of my political practice is to win people to the libertarian left away from the authoritarian left, because I want full communism, not another Bolshevik vanguard party out to seize control of the state. This is “the divide” libertarian socialist, anarchists versus Marxist-Leninists, Trotskyists. We fundamentally want different things.

    • This is quite correct but it doesn’t disagree with anything I said.

      • nickcarson says:

        I just felt the need to delineate between a libertarian and an authoritarian left and suggest that “the divide” today between Marxist-Leninists and anarchists is not reconcilable through working on projects covering shared territory, rather the libertarian left needs to distinguish itself from Marxist-Leninism and identify its organisations as being inherently authoritarian, anti-socialist and power-hungry, and that such a thing is not sectarian, rather it seeks to strengthen the project of all those who seek the undermining of power structures on the direct path to full communism.

        Where Marxist-Leninists “play nice” and choose to organise non-hierarchically in a participatory way respecting the autonomy of diverse participators, useful work can happen. When they can’t, their organising tactics need to be contested and space for libertarian left organising needs to be created.

  4. redcatastrophe says:

    I feel exactly the same way, Tim.

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