This is an open letter addressed to anarchists, written by anarchist and Marxist World supporter Dennis Moore. Reproduced and slightly edited from the original blog post here.
Anarchism is a movement which seeks to overthrow the current social order in a revolution, establishing in its place a new society organised without hierarchy either in the form of exploitation, oppression or government.
On the other hand, not many of us are completely clear on the answer to the question “what is Marxism?”. That’s probably partly because Marxists don’t even all agree on this (and not all of them have even read much Marx). Marxism is a number of things but for simplicity I’m going to boil it down to two:
1. Marxism is a method of social analysis:
Marxists view Marx’s contribution to the method of social analysis called ‘historical materialism’ as being on the level of what Issac Newton was to physics.
Newton’s analyses of physical phenomena were so accurate that he was able to make predictions about events (such as the movement of the planets) based on his theories which turned out to be reliably and repeatably correct – from an objective point of view (meaning they could be tested and observed by numerous people who would agree on what they saw). ‘Newtonian Physics’ eventually became established as the only serious method of doing physics and so the discipline could go back to just being ‘physics’ (obviously it’s also still being developed and perfected).
Marx’s work Das Kapital came to conclusions about how society works, proposing numerous ‘laws’ (like Newton’s laws of physics) about the rise of capitalism, the crises within capitalism and predicting the eventual fall of capitalism. He didn’t get this theory out of the blue, he build on the ideas of people who came before him and his own ideas have been further developed after him but to Marxists he is really the seminal thinker (hence the name of their movement!)
2. Marxism is a proposal for a new society:
The first part of Marxism involves no inherent claims to be ideological, even if it’s usually used by people who do have a particular clear ideology. It’s supposed to be a scientific, or at least a ‘scientific style’ of study, a discipline rather than an ethical position or a proposal for what should happen in the future.
Nevertheless Marx did leave some writings about what kind of society might exist after the revolution but even when he did so he wasn’t really starting from scratch thinking up the coolest idea he could come up with for how everyone should live.
Marx suggested that the ideas and methods and even the core of the structure of the future society has to come out of the old, and also that the forces that will create it have to come from within the old society too. He sums it up in this beautiful passage:
Along with the constantly diminishing number of the magnates of capital, who usurp and monopolise all advantages of this process of transformation, grows the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation, exploitation; but with this too grows the revolt of the working class, a class always increasing in numbers, and disciplined, united, organised by the very mechanism of the process of capitalist production itself. The monopoly of capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production, which has sprung up and flourished along with, and under it. Centralisation of the means of production and socialisation of labour at last reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated. (Marx, Capital, 1867)
Marxism and Anarchism
Much of the discussion of Marxism and anarchism focuses on the original split or on how anarchists have been betrayed or persecuted by various ‘Marxist’ regimes. There is another side to the story.
Many Marxists were utterly opposed to Stalin and went into the gulags alongside the anarchists because of it (and many Marxist thinkers and activists today recognise that this would have been their fate too in that context). Marxists fought against the fascists in Spain alongside anarchists in open defiance of Stalin and repeatedly showed solidarity in anti-fascist struggles ever since. It was Marxists who were predominately involved in the Zapatista uprising in the beginning. Then we have Marxists like Henri Lefebvre who took up Marx’s tools and used them more holistically than they had been previously, or hero’s like Rosa Luxemburg who we all know and love who died for the cause.
There is also the fact that many anarchists travelled to Russia in the early days of the Soviet Union hoping to participate in the revolution, inspired by pamphlets such as Lenin’s ‘State and Revolution’ which planned for the withering away of the state to start immediately and any semi-state/ commune type arrangement to be solely used for defending the revolution not for ruling the newly liberated masses.
And this isn’t necessarily just fringe ‘council communists’ or those who specifically name themselves ‘libertarian Marxists’. Today those who call themselves ‘orthodox Marxists’ are just as likely to see the left-wing of Marxism throughout the 20th century as those who held true to the movement against the perversions of Stalin and co.
Another factor in all this is that we’ve got to live in the present. The USSR is gone. Endless debate over who did what to who and when exactly it went wrong (1918, 1924, 1956 or for the hardcore 1991) is potentially dangerous. The conditions that caused Lenin to make the decisions that he did are gone, the conditions that brought about the rise of Stalin are gone, the conditions that caused anarchism to go off into the wilderness after WW2 are gone… we live now.
All this has led me to the conclusion that the best of Marxism and the best of Anarchism are stood right next to each other and the worst of both are equally crap.
Let’s review some of the crap so we can be clear about who drags both of our movements down. That way the serious revolutionaries who are left should feel released from the burden of constantly feeling the need to apologise for their embarrassing hangers on:
Some anarchists seem to think that dressing up in black bloc, eating out of bins and listening to punk music all feels very revolutionary and if it feels revolutionary and looks/ sounds a bit revolutionary then it must really be revolutionary (not that there is any problem with doing these things or with any kind of non-oppressive lifestyle, it’s just that it’s a lifestyle, not a revolutionary movement).
These, the people who think that the anarchist aesthetic is the movement, are the people who turn up to an action and they’re already high, that expect the right to do whatever they feel like with no accountability to the movement because they “believe in freedom” and “only answer to themselves”. Unfortunately it doesn’t work like that. We can’t conjure up revolution through rituals as social anarchist Murray Bookchin pointed out:
What is most troubling is that the self-indulgent aesthetic vagaries of lifestyle anarchism significantly erode the socialist core of a left-libertarian ideology that once could claim social relevance and weight precisely for its uncompromising commitment to emancipation — not outside of history, in the realm of the subjective, but within history, in the realm of the objective. (Bookchin, Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism: An Unbridgeable Chasm, 1995)
Lifestylism can also sneak into the Marxist movement too: Regimented marching, the hammer and sickle flag (ripped from it’s original context) – [we’ll get to the big Stalin banner next]… We don’t get an inch closer to communism just by adopting it’s apparent trappings.
Stalinism should be irrelevant. Stalin has been dead for 64 years and the Soviet Union has been history for 26 years. There is no Stalin to be a supporter of. It now seems to manifest itself as a slavish devotion on the fringes of the Marxist movement to any “communist” regime no matter how completely they’ve completely degenerated/morphed into something else.
These are the people who are still desperately trying to whip up support for the Chinese state on the basis of anti-imperialism no matter how internally repressive the Chinese government acts, no matter how many Chinese billionaires there are with close ties to the state and how ruthlessly they exploit the Chinese working class… they even support China in the face of it’s own imperialism and domination of it’s near neighbours. Stalinism is firmly crap.
One that some anarchists get a bit tempted by; the idea of anarchism as just a really good philosophy or even just a moral code for the whole world to follow. These are the people who seek out seemingly enlightened or progressive elements of the ruling class and try to influence them with anarchist ideals.
Waste of time. You’ll either have the dogs set on you or you’ll end up being adopted as a pet radical to parade around. The ruling class have no interest in changing the system that gives them all the power and wealth they currently enjoy.
Kropotkin ended up falling into this trap, being a favourite guest at progressive dinner parties later in life, however it was already partly visible in ‘Conquest of Bread’ too. He writes of his bedazzlement at the capitalist railway companies co-operating to cover Europe in a rail network as proof that humans don’t need government to make them co-operate:
If a man had foreseen or predicted it fifty years ago, our grandfathers would have thought him idiotic or mad. They would have said: “Never will you be able to make the shareholders of a hundred companies listen to reason ! It is a Utopia, a fairy tale. A central Government, with an ‘iron’ director, can alone enforce it.” (Kropotkin, Conquest of Bread, 1892)
It should be fairly obvious what’s wrong with that example…
Maybe it’s because they don’t usually eat out of bins, maybe it’s because they’ve read so many fancy books but for one reason or another some Marxists end up wanting to be ‘legitimised’. To seek legitimacy means that in return for no longer being arrested, sacked from their jobs, slandered in the press or spied on, they drop their talk about revolution and limit their ambitions to reforms within capitalism. They then take their place helping to manage the rowdiest elements of the working class and ensuring they don’t step over the mark and ruin the legitimacy that has been achieved. The rest of the Marxist movement doesn’t welcome this kind of behaviour.
Both Marxists and anarchists seem to be equally at risk of bitter sectarianism. Sectarianism might be something that can be indulged in when the struggle goes quiet and there is little opportunity and little at stake. Anyone failing to read even the most basics signs of the times right now and falling into unnecessary squabbles while the world burns around them is a distraction and a hindrance to our progress. Sectarianism is much more than being clear and resolute about your views it’s prime manifestation is those people whose allegiance is not to the working class but to their particular organisation or even just their favourite set of ideas.
Anarchists have also already got a long tradition of using Marxist tools for analysis or even relying on the analysis that Marxists have already done to see where there is scope for the class struggle to improve and expand and for general education.
Many Marxists also recognise and respect the anarchist movement where it is strongest for bringing out some of the most militant and active sections of the working class and getting shit done.
Marxists may be surprised to learn than most anarchists are serious about class struggle and are actually fairly well read. Anarchists may be surprised to learn than most Marxists are serious about smashing the state and are resolutely anti-oppression too, not just anti-exploitation.
But where do we go from here, an alliance? A truce? A synthesis? No. All of those are either weak or horrible ideas. Left unity is based on the mistaken notion that it’s people with similar ideas or beliefs that have interests in common and cause to unite. The remedy is class unity.
Class unity doesn’t demand that anyone ‘put their differences aside’ it demands instead that we act in the already shared interests of the working class. Unity arises from our shared class position and it takes it’s primary form in joint action, not joint dogma.
And yet none of this is to write ideas, dreams, goals, beliefs or ethical codes off as being nothing. Obviously none of us would bother if we didn’t have ideals. We can learn from each other and will benefit from doing so. It’s also not to say that anyone should give up on calling themselves an anarchist or try to deny what they love about the anarchist ideal.
Learning from Marxism
It’s my opinion that anarchists would benefit hugely from reading both ‘Capital’ by Marx and ‘State and Revolution’ by Lenin and really getting to grips with them (you probably won’t have read anything like them). This would unite us around a basic understanding, clear up some of the muddled thinking we have in our midst and give us a general direction to head in and some expectations of what is likely to happen at each stage.
We need to learn that describing the perfect society, even if we stay up all night and read ‘Conquest of Bread’ twice over, isn’t going to make it real. Getting there is all important. This doesn’t have to make us boring ‘realists’ in the sense that we should limit our ambitions, it’s just that they need to become more than just ambitions.
So how might we make it all real?
A simplified Marxist programme:
1: Revolution (smashing the state, expropriating the capitalists)
According to Engels, the bourgeois state does not “wither away”, but is “abolished” by the proletariat in the course of the revolution. What withers away after this revolution is the proletarian state or semi-state. (Lenin, State and Revolution, 1917)
From the Paris Commune onward Marx became convinced that the working class had no use for the capitalists’ state machinery. What to replace it with (and what to call it’s replacement), is stage 2:
2: Replace it with a commune type arrangement to protect the gains of the revolution
As the state is only a transitional institution which is used in the struggle, in the revolution, to hold down one’s adversaries by force, it is sheer nonsense to talk of a ‘free people’s state’; so long as the proletariat still needs the state, it does not need it in the interests of freedom but in order to hold down its adversaries, and as soon as it becomes possible to speak of freedom the state as such ceases to exist. We would therefore propose replacing the state everywhere by Gemeinwesen, a good old German word which can very well take the place of the French word commune.
The free people’s state has been transferred into the free state. Taken in its grammatical sense, a free state is one where the state is free in relation to its citizens, hence a state with a despotic government. The whole talk about the state should be dropped, especially since the Commune, which was no longer a state in the proper sense of the word. The ‘people’s state’ has been thrown in our faces by the anarchists to the point of disgust…
Both of the above are quotes from a letter sent from Engels to August Babel (leader of the German workers’ party) in 1875.
So long as the state exists there is no freedom. When there is freedom, there will be no state. (Lenin, State and Revolution, 1917)
Marxists talk about the use of a state as a transitional stage. As can be seen from the quotations above they’re not really talking about a state. They are talking about the need to maintain some level of organisation after the revolution in order to protect what has been gained. Not an organisation to re-establish rule over the newly liberated working class.
3: Dismantle even this level of political organisation
Finally develop society freely and directly democratically, (having now completely suppressed any attempt at counter revolution) towards a post-scarcity and what we call anarchy/ anarchist communism/ luxury communism or what they (Marxists) just call communism (we won’t care by that point, we’ll just get the robots to make us another drink while we chill on the veranda).
Could anarchists and Marxists unite around this? I think they probably could. Is any of it really a deal breaker for anarchists? Probably not for most.
Obviously anarchists will want to have an influence and ensure that each stage is as libertarian as possible and Marxists should respect that many workers are attracted to anarchism and anarchist-type ideas precisely because they are suspicious of authority and having decisions made for them. At this point anarchism and Marxism could become tendencies within a revolutionary workers movement instead of separate competing ideologies.
The past is the past. Many of the disputes are exaggerated, distorted or the product of conditions or even specific personalities that are long gone.
This generation has to forge something new to deal with the challenges of what seems like it could be capitalism’s final decades. Many of us will probably live long enough to see either collapse into war, famine and environmental destruction or revolution.