by Anne Archist
The following is a very rough transcript of a discussion. I’ve tried to reproduce it as accurately as possible but some sections may be missing and I may have made mistakes at some point along the way. I gave the Anarchism section of the talk, while the Marxism section was given by Daniel Morley. I apologise in particular if I have misrepresented Daniel’s comments in any way. The debate that followed from the floor veered all over the place and plenty of it was off-topic. I haven’t included my contributions to that debate because I couldn’t write and speak at the same time.
The first thing I want to say is that I will be “taking sides”, and specifically I’m going to nail my colours to the mast and say that I’m not interested in any form of Anarchism that is friendly to capitalism. I’m not just fixing definitions to suit myself here; ‘anarchist’ is a label applied to many theories, but this doesn’t show that they share a common theoretical basis. I could argue at length about how so-called “anarcho”-capitalism and social anarchism have nothing in common but this is the Marxist Discussion Group, not the Adam Smith Institute, so I’ll leave it at that and hope that people are satisfied.
I want to start out by giving a brief history of anarchist thought, and though I won’t have time to go into everything, I’m going to focus on a few historically contentious discussions in ways that will hopefully undermine some of the myths spread about anarchists. My view is that anarchists and Marxists have more in common than is generally recognised, and I hope this discussion can help to break down some of the stereotypes and barriers between our traditions.
Much as Marxism was preceded by utopian, idealist and religious socialism of various forms, anarchism’s roots stretch back to Greek and Eastern philosophy. It’s generally considered to have become recognisable in its modern form in the writings of William Godwin, though he apparently drifted away from communism – later editions of ‘Political Justice’ were heavily edited. The first person to self-describe as an anarchist is Proudhon, and the key historical anarchist theorists from today’s point of view are probably Bakunin, Kropotkin, Goldman and Rocker.
Anarchism became an important organised political movement as a faction of the International Working Men’s Association, also known as the First International, founded in 1866. They preferred terms like “federalist” to describe their politics, and were led by Bakunin, though Kropotkin did join the International for a short period. Debates between this trend and the Marxists reached a head at the Hague Congress of 1872, and leading anarchists including Bakunin were expelled.
I want to clear up a few myths about anarchist theory. Despite its predecessors, modern anarchism rests on the same philosophical basis as Marxism – materialism. Bakunin said this in the clearest possible terms: “Undoubtedly the idealists are wrong and the materialists are right.” As for economic analysis, it is often suggested that anarchists have none, or more precisely that they have none of their own. Firstly, I’m not entirely sure why Marxists would consider it a criticism to point out that anarchists agree with the Marxist economic analysis.
Secondly, the idea that they have none at all is quickly disproven by the fact that Bakunin translated Marx’s magnum opus, ‘Capital’, into Russian (to the surprise of Marx, who overestimated the Russian working class’ backwardness); an abridged translation was published in Italian by an anarchist as well. Do we just have to admit we pinched Marx’s ideas, then? Well, no – Marx was heavily influence by Proudhon early in his career, whose book ‘What Is Property?’ was apparently the text that convinced Marx private property must be abolished. Anarchism and Marxism’s contributions to materialist analysis and anti-capitalist economics are intertwined. They form historically and conceptually inseparable parts of a whole – remove Proudhon’s ideas from Marx and you’re left with an economics not far off Adam Smith.
Don’t take it from me, though: “This work became possible only owing to the work of Proudhon himself”, say Marx and Engels in ‘The Holy Family’. They continue later: “Proudhon makes a critical investigation – the first resolute, ruthless, and at the same time scientific investigation – of the basis of political economy, private property. This is the great scientific advance he made, an advance which revolutionizes political economy and for the first time makes a real science of political economy possible.”
Proudhon’s economic theory was limited, but this is understandable given his historical circumstances; he was not a communist, preferring market-based forms of socialism that he believed could usurp capitalism through the development of co-operative industry funded through mutual free credit. This was called mutualism. The idea was – roughly speaking, since I’ve not really read any Proudhon first-hand – that workers could set up banks, creating money to fund the establishment of cooperatives and other workers’ organisations that would compete with the state and capitalist enterprises. A kind of economic dual-power would come about and then capitalism would be surpassed as the collectives would perform better on the market (due to the fact that they were under the control of the people who knew best how to run them, they re-invested money back into the business rather than cream it off in profits, they sold at a lower price, etc).
Later anarchists – those in the First International, for instance – largely sided with Marx’s economic analysis as he moved away from its Proudhonist origins. Bakunin argued that the working class should use a “revolutionary general strike” as the death blow to capitalism, seize the means of production, owning and controlling them collectively. It’s worth spending some time on this question under the current circumstances. In fact, the anarchists were advocating the general strike – and trying to turn it into reality – at a time when Engels was decrying it as unnecessary at best. At worst it was impossible, and most likely it would not result in revolution even if it could be carried out since it targeted individual bourgeois in their roles as employers, rather than the instrument of their class organised as such – the state.
Bakunin’s “federalist” inclinations led him to hold that the question of remuneration for labour was a matter to be decided by individual communities. The question of ownership was settled, but the question of distribution was a subject for experimentation; communities might choose markets with local currency, some form of labour-note based rationing, etc. This theory is generally referred to as anarcho-collectivism, or just collectivism, though distinctions are rarely drawn accurately or consistently from here on in and the term has also been applied to other socialist theories.
Some anarchists consider Bakunin’s ideas as a transitional state that will give way to full communism while others consider it an end in itself (since freedom of migration would allow people to choose which distributive system to live under, etc). Rocker suggests that the economic objectives of mutualism, collectivism, communism, and so on should be considered merely educated guesses at the best way of ensuring a free society, and says that people will likely experiment with different distributive methods.
As I said, the distinctions get less clear from this point, but Kropotkin says: “For the day on which old institutions will fall under the proletarian axe, voices will cry out: “Bread, shelter, ease for all!” And those voices will be listened to… we shall build in the name of Communism and Anarchy.” His point is that basic necessities should immediately be distributed along communist principles and be available to all without any distributive barrier. The key difference, then, is that they are willing to take sides in the debate about distribution – unsurprisingly, these people are called anarchist (or anarcho-) communists.
Kropotkin’s later thought also hinted towards aspects of syndicalism (which is not a specifically anarchist theory but anarcho-syndicalism, the anarchist version, is most common these days). He edited the passage I quoted earlier, to replace the slogan “in demolishing we shall build” with “in building we shall demolish”. This reflected what he felt were lessons learnt from the course of struggle – that simply overturning the status quo without any idea of what should follow it would leave the door open to a restoral of bourgeois order (or perhaps worse).
The syndicalist idea, like mutualism, is a strategy rather than a distributive principle. It says that some form of industrial union organising can be used in place of a political party in the traditional sense in order to bring about revolution. Syndicalists generally conceive of their task as building organisation in industry either through federating and coordinating pre-existing unions, setting up independent revolutionary unions, or otherwise strengthening the working class’ level of economically-based organisation.
This would then allow them to wage class war using primarily economic weapons such as the strike, and to eventually use general strikes and the seizure of the means of production by force if necessary to effect collectivisation. It’s a common misconception that anarchists, syndicalists, and particularly anarcho-syndicalists, reject political struggle per se, and think that revolution will somehow come about through the economistic development of trade union consciousness.
Rocker, who is often credited as the major anarcho-syndicalist theorist, said: “If Anarcho-Syndicalism nevertheless rejects the participation in the present national parliaments, it is not because they have no sympathy with political struggles in general, but because its adherents are of the opinion that this form of activity is the very weakest and most helpless form of the political struggle for the workers… Their method is that of direct action in both the economic and political struggle of the time. By direct action they mean every method of the immediate struggle by the workers against economic and political oppression. ”
Rocker goes on to talk about just a few methods of direct action, but makes it clear there are more. The tactic that best represents the relation between economics and politics is probably the social strike; this a strike undertaken with the interests of the whole community in mind, which may include demands such as the lowering of food prices or rent, the provision of services and welfare through employers’ acknowledgement of a “social responsibility”, etc. Similarly, the general strike was used as a weapon by the Chartists in their campaign for enfranchisement – this would presumably be a form of ‘social general strike’.
So that’s a potted history of anarchist theory – there’s a lot more I could go into but I obviously don’t have the time. I hope it’s dispelled a few myths about anarchism: that anarchists don’t have any economic analysis or that they merely piggy-back on Marxism’s in a way that demonstrates a lack of theoretical completeness; that anarchists are idealists, don’t recognise the importance of class struggle, or don’t base themselves in the working class; that anarchists have commonly advocated unrealistic spontaneity or that their strategic and tactical understanding can be reduced to wishful thinking; that anarchists are opposed to organisation; and so forth.
It’s a common misconception on the part of anarchists that Marxists all want to take state power, in their own name and for their own nefarious ends, introducing something akin to the USSR. This is, of course, totally false – take, for instance, the International Communist Group, who say “the revolutionary dictatorship of our class will abolish the state”. On the other hand, it’s a common misconception on the part of Marxists that anarchists all want to live an individualistic utopian existence of utter freedom. This is just as false – Bakunin talks about “the republic as a commune, the republic as a federation, a Socialist and a genuine people’s republic” as “the system of Anarchism.”
So how do I think we should conceptualise the relationship between Marxism and anarchism? Well, I think that there is probably a wider gap between the extremes of those calling themselves Marxists than there is between the average materialist anarchist and the average Trotskyist. We need to pay attention to what people actually think, concretely and specifically, rather than what language they use to describe their ideas. I’d suggest that the types of anarchism I’ve discussed are probably best understood as contributions to the Marxist tradition – historically, philosophically, economically, etc. Obviously though, I’d also go so far as to say that at certain historical periods anarchists have been ahead of more orthodox or mainstream Marxists and that this contribution has been a vital factor in driving Marxism forward.
Marxism and anarchism obviously have a lot in common – they’re both theories that are against all forms of oppression and inequality, and they both aim to create a stateless and classless society in the long run. I think that the Marxist understanding of class society and the state are key to understanding the world around us. They are a theoretical focus that provides us with a guide to action; we can learn things about how to deal with them from the way we analyse and critique them. The first question we should ask is: “what are the origins and effects of oppression?” The history of human society has more or less been a list of oppression in varying different forms. Even today we are still surrounded by inequality – why is this, and why is it allowed to go on when it could be addressed so easily? So many people live below the poverty line while a relatively small number of people own vast fortunes that could easily provide for these people’s needs. Why isn’t this done?
The first antagonism was between man and nature. Human beings are poorly adapted to their environment – we can’t fly, we don’t have poisonous stings, etc. On the other hand, we are dependent on nature for our survival, since it ultimately provides our food, shelter, clothing, and so on. This is the first law of society – that we have to struggle against nature to fulfil our needs. We are materially conditioned by nature, not born free; the idea of people being totally “free” in a state of nature is a myth, because they can never be free from the demands of survival. This leads to a struggle to improve the forces of production in order to improve the conditions of existence.
How did the first state arise? Initially there was no need for a state, no state apparatus. Society was, however, divided into different groups such as tribes; these groups competed against each other in order to control resources, using trade, violence, intimidation, and so on. The struggle was both over nature’s bounty and over the subjugation of others’ labour power in the form of slavery. Often people ask about the nature of the link between this slavery and the establishment of state machinery – did classes come first and necessitate the creation of a state, or did the state come first and facilitate the subjugation of minorities into a different class? This isn’t really important. What matters is that when you strip power of its economic basis it becomes devoid of meaning, it becomes literally incomprehensible. What is the meaning of power free from exploitation of labour, control of resources, etc? Oppressing others for the sake of it is meaningless.
It follows from this that the state is not just an arbitrary evil that we can do away with once we realise its nature. It performs a certain social function – serving class interests – and it preserves the prevailing form of class rule. Marxists think that the proletarian state works in the same way – it defends the revolution by suppressing other classes. Even some anarchists would agree with this in a sense. So why did the state maintain itself historically in situations like in the USSR? What was the economic basis for this?
The USSR couldn’t produce sufficiently. The state can only be done away with once work is no longer a burden, which is brought about by the shortening of the work day due to increased employment and productivity. This allows people to take part in running their own affairs and therefore does away with the need for such centralisation and specialisation of administering society. The division of labour between mental and manual can’t just be wished away, it’s based on class inequality. Kropotkin feared that intellectuals and technicians would form a new ruling class – the division of labour provided the basis for a further class divide. Marxists, on the other hand, would identify this as a symptom of class society instead; it can be done away with as class divides are done away with.
Workers’ control failed in Russia because of the objective conditions, not because of the divide between mental and manual labour creating a new class. The workers weren’t capable of organising production properly and began to collectively exploit each other by charging high prices to other factories for their products. So is federalism or localism an answer, as a way of reducing the complexity of organising production (since each collective would only need to deal with local affairs, etc)? No, in fact the opposite. Russian workers couldn’t handle production because Russia was small and isolated – they needed to rely on a world division of labour.
[Something I didn’t really catch about medieval communes]
Potential exists to raise the standard of living internationally because of capitalism’s development of the productive forces and the process of globalisation. Today we are living in an epoch of revolution – there have been waves of unrest across the Middle East, inspired perhaps by the UK and Greece and so on. We are looking at an emerging world fightback.
T: You spoke about anarchism and Marxism being loose categorisations in terms of theory – I was wondering whether you could talk about the differences in praxis?
D: I think the role of party leadership is to popularise, preserve and develop theory and ideas. This is Marx did. Between the crisis periods he didn’t slog away inside pre-existing parties, he concentrated on developing theory that workers could draw on when they began to organise as a class. The chief problem of any revolutionary party is that there isn’t a revolution most of the time.
D2: The relationship of activists/revolutionaries to the working class is crucial. The other day I saw UKUncut walking through Boots, making a load of noise and so on… They alienated the workers there – I heard the workers complaining about them – and they didn’t really achieve anything. I would say to them that I agree with their aims, but I think they’d achieve a lot more if they went about it by speaking to the workers, making sure that they understand the situation, and encouraging and helping them to organise, because ultimately they’re the ones with the power in this situation. I think there’s a real divide between this – I think it’s called propaganda of the deed – kind of tactic, and the ideas of unionisation, organisation, etc.
L: I think it goes to show how loosely people use the terms these days that UKUncut could be called anarchists, I mean, they’re just not. The term propaganda of the deed comes from the sort of individual terrorism that some anarchists carried out at the end of the 19th century, but even at that time there were other anarchists who were in the International and organising in unions and so on. It’s an outdated idea – nobody really believes in it as a strategy any more – and it doesn’t reflect the greater part of the history of anarchism. It’s not something that has really been endorsed anarchists in the 20th century onwards.
D: This kind of individualism in tactics is based on objective factors like low levels of class struggle; it’s not something that inevitably stems from any theory, and it’s a pitfall that’s common to many theories, so you have groups like the Baader-Meinhof Gang in Germany or the Brigate Rosse in Italy who were ostensibly Marxist groups that followed the same kind of individualistic, conspiratorial terrorist tactics rather than class struggle. People respond to the objective circumstances they find themselves in and it’s often tempting to think that there is some kind of short-cut to revolution or class-consciousness when you’re in a lull period.
D2: You’re right about the term ‘anarchism’ losing its hard edge. I think maybe a more accurate term to describe these groups would be ‘autonomist’? I just worry that there’s a kind of logical escalation from these sort of publicity stunt tactics to terrorism and violence; they might think “oh well we did this and it didn’t work, so maybe we should try something more extreme, something that’s going to have a more direct effect or get more attention”.
T: I think the problem with trying to forego a party is that it puts the onus on the individual to do everything themselves – if you’re not in an organisation you have to try to educate yourself and so on. And maybe there’s an extent to which people who aren’t in parties treat the whole movement as a party of sorts, so instead of developing ideas and bouncing them off members of the same group, they throw them out to the movement as a whole, and so on…
X: What do people think about the election of Ed Miliband with the unions’ support? Does this provide some kind of possibility for change – I mean, he’s not been very militant so far but maybe knowing that he’s relying on the unions’ backing will motivate him to action.
H: If Ed Miliband was going to do anything, I think he would have done it by now, to be honest. I mean, he’s pretty shit.
X: I was just wondering whether maybe the economic situation made him more timid than he might otherwise be, it’s a difficult situation to be in as a leader.
H: Well, if anything the economic situation gives him more leeway, it should allow him to be more confident because everyone’s so pissed off with the tories.
D2: We have to understand the election of Ed Miliband is part of a dialectical process. He represents a move away from Blairism; the Blairites were literally weeping when it was announced that he had won the election, because they know that it represented a change of direction to some extent. If we keep applying pressure to them then we can force people in positions of leadership to step up to the plate.
D: We shouldn’t be too interested in the personality traits of this or that leader. As Marxists we base ourselves in the working class and the movement, not the figurehead that represents it in Parliament. The election of Ed does demonstrate the strength of the grassroots movement in Labour though – the unions could effectively control Labour if they wanted to, but they’re not exercising that power in a militant way and they won’t do unless their members push them to. Sadly there was no real left candidate in the election – that would have been John McDonnell, but the bureaucracy prevented him from standing – so we’ve got to put demands on the leaders to push them in that direction. Ed should have supported the student demos and he should not just march with us on the 26th but should be at the head of the march, leading it.
M: We shouldn’t underestimate the influence a mass movement can have on the leadership. Look at Chavez, he started off as (D: a follower of Tony Blair)… Yeah, but the movement pushed him to the left.
Y: As Marxists, why are we even talking about change through democratic means? Why are we even discussing the Labour Party, they’re not Marxist, they’re not Socialist and they won’t deliver Socialism. That’s not how it works, we believe in revolution, right?
A: We’re not talking about Labour getting into power to represent us, we’re talking about using Labour to build a mass movement. They are a mass organisation that we can intervene in as part of building the movement for that revolution.
Y: But why Labour? Surely there are better mass organisations?
T: There’s obviously lots of debate over the issue of Labour between Marxists, but ultimately parliament isn’t negligible. The Italian Communist Party for instance came out of the reformist Italian Socialist Party… There is potential to build something better out of it.
A: What better basis is there? I don’t see one. I mean, you can start to ask why should we still be based in the working class – some people influenced by Marxism did this, like Foucault and the Frankfurt School – but if you think the working class are the revolutionary agent then you need to base yourself in its mass organisations.
Y: But I think our key aim is to dispel false consciousness. The most important thing we can do is to make people aware of the extent of exploitation and oppression. They don’t realise how exploited they are, and they don’t realise the limitations of the Labour Party and so on. I worry that this sort of thing just reinforces these illusions.
L: Well, on the point of the Italian Communist Party and so on – building revolutionary parties out of reformist ones – they weren’t built in a party like Labour, and neither were the KPD. They aimed to pull people out of the reformist parties to build a mass movement outside them; that’s not what most socialists do with Labour. They try to fight through it and turn it into something it’s not.
D2: The only other mass party that has been to the left of Labour is the Communist Party, and their membership has fallen massively. Labour is the natural party of the working class. It’s just ultra-leftist and sectarian to try to set up a new party outside of the existing mass party of the class.
L: But wasn’t that exactly what the Third International did? And what about Die Linke in Germany? They’ve been successful following this tactic. I think there is a danger of perpetuating illusions in Labour by remaining in there long-term.
T: We shouldn’t concentrate on the snail’s-pace progress in Labour. We should look to students’ unions and trade unions. It’s dangerous to refuse to work through parliament, because people do actually have a lot of illusions in the real world. They look to parliament, they want to be represented in there. We have to work with people as they are but try to get them out of Labour in the long term.
D: Marx, interestingly, said that the working class could come to power through parliament in Britain. It’s not about putting pressure on the leaders to do this or do that; it’s about building a labour movement. There is no other organisation that can play the same role. How do you build a new mass party? It won’t be us here in this room that do it – it will be the working class. We should participate in the struggle through Labour to gain the ear of the working class. I disagree with the person that spoke before about our task being to dispel false consciousness; the working class don’t suffer from false consciousness, they know that politicians don’t do anything to help them, they know their job is shit and their boss is better off than them for no good reason. They just think that the existing structures serve them better compared to any other option they can see right now. There isn’t real mass participation in Labour, but this is just reflective of the low ebb of class struggle in general. There’s also no real participation in the unions for instance.