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Marxism and Anarchism
The document which follows is a rough outline of our introductory remarks in our meeting in the London Anarchist Bookfair. We say “rough” since we had intended to record the meeting but failed to do so. We have since had quite a few requests (even criticisms of our failure), from those not present, to make some kind of account of the meeting. The document is also not completely faithful to what was said, as the speaker digressed from the prepared introduction to deal with a couple of [positive] interjections from the floor of the meeting. The result of this was the introduction went on far beyond our intentions and took 40 minutes of a one hour meeting. It was in fact too ambitious an undertaking to tackle what amounts to the entire history of the working class in one hour even though the text can only be described as a quite superficial gloss on the big issues. This put enormous pressure on the comrade moderating the discussion as he tried to get as many different viewpoints from what was a very packed meeting (despite being allocated one of the larger rooms people were standing several deep in the corridor and many went away when they realised they were too distant from the room). To say that the interest shown rather surprised us would be an understatement but the impressive thing noted by our comrade in the summing up was the self-discipline of everyone despite the fact that we still have enormous disagreements on how the working class can achieve its liberation. It made you feel that here were people of the same class who could calmly and rationally debate prefiguring in themselves a society without classes or states.
Of course not all was sweetness and light. Some anarchist comrades said they could not accept that the Bolsheviks had no real plans in 1917 and that the Bolsheviks were the party of counter-revolution. Some argued that the Bolsheviks had suppressed the spontaneous movement of the class. A comrade from AF said that they actually carried out the programme that Marx had later rejected at the end of the Communist Manifesto alluded to in the introduction. Some of this was countered by a young Canadian comrade of the ICT and an ICC comrade supported him by focussing on the international issue in the Russian Revolution starting with the famous quote from Rosa Luxemburg that the Russian revolution could only pose the question of socialism. It could only be answered by international revolution. He particularly agreed with the presentation on the question of the disaster in Spain of accepting anti-fascism instead of maintaining proletarian autonomy. Someone from Occupy London also took issue with the characterisation of their movement as inter-classist whilst one anarchist comrade seriously posed the question of the inability of anarchists to get together to organise amongst themselves let alone with revolutionary marxists given the prevalence of individualism amongst them. Perhaps most surprisingly was the contribution from the International Bolshevik Tendency which agreed with the presentation and said they were against state capitalism too!
All this was very politely and cogently argued. In summing up we ignored the Russian Revolution issue to focus on today and the issues that are being posed to the working class everywhere which required that real revolutionaries work on the ground to oppose not only austerity but also those who had no idea of a different world such as the Left unity campaigns of the traditional left. The meeting certainly encouraged the idea that this was not a plea which had fallen of deaf ears and that made more likely the prospect of communism or if you preferred a-narchy. Both the introduction and the conclusion were greeted with warm applause.
The real divide amongst revolutionaries
When we first suggested a public meeting on “Marxism and Anarchism” someone on Facebook immediately changed the title to “Marxism versus anarchism” so we had to quickly point out that this was not a repeat of the sloganised bunfights of the past where one side would counter one Kronstadt with two Barcelonas or whatever. Nor do we wish to investigate the origin of the split between Marxism and Bakuninism in the years of the First International (useful though that can be). No, our starting point came from reading Fighting for Ourselves by the Solidarity Federation which we bought here last year. We’ll refer to this later but what struck us in that work was the course of anarchist and anarcho-syndicalist history politically has certain parallels with the course that Marxism has followed. Our starting premise is that of Daniel Guerin "Anarchism and Marxism at the start, drank at the same proletarian spring". And anarchists today quite happily quote the Communist Manifesto that we are aiming for a society of “freely associated producers” although if you are the likes of David Graeber you don’t acknowledge that this is Marx. Where we hope to end up is that the history of the working class up to now has refined the meaning of what its revolution is, and the real divide is not so much between Marxism and Anarchism per se, but between those revolutionaries who see a future as a cooperative collective one without classes and without a state and those who claim the title of Marxist or Anarchist but either defend a distorted version of capitalism, or are quite happy to pursue a lifestyle within it without challenging the bases of the state or class rule.
Marxism and the State
There is no doubt that the Marxists have had the greater baggage to ditch in this respect. For many so-called Marxists of Trotskyist and Stalinist persuasion the only work they have really read and understood is the Communist Manifesto.
In the Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels laid out the basic premises of a communist society as a system of “freely associated producers” but surprisingly wrote nothing about the state, even if its disappearance is implied in the phrase. On the contrary they argued that the State could be used to arrive at communism. Having stated
We have seen above, that the first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class to win the battle of democracy.
The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degree, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class; and to increase the total productive forces as rapidly as possible.
Then follows a list which includes
_5. Centralisation of credit in the hands of the state, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly.
- Centralisation of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State.
- Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the State; the bringing into cultivation of waste-lands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan.
- Equal liability of all to work. Establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture._
However the method of Marxism, as we understand it, is historical materialism and this means also learning from the real experience of the proletariat. This equally applied to Marx and Engels. After the Paris Commune Marx and Engels quickly recognised two things. They first recognised that the programmatic list at the end of the Communist Manifesto was inadequate.
The practical application of the principles will depend, as the Manifesto itself states, everywhere and at all times, on the historical conditions for the time being existing, and, for that reason, no special stress is laid on the revolutionary measures proposed at the end of Section II.
Marx went on to add:
That passage would, in many respects, be very differently worded today. In view of the gigantic strides of Modern Industry since 1848, and of the accompanying improved and extended organisation of the working class, in view of the practical experience gained, first in the February Revolution, and then, still more, in the Paris Commune, where the proletariat for the first time held political power for two whole months, this programme has in some details been antiquated.
Secondly, Marx and Engels’ conception of the state had changed.
One thing especially was proved by the Commune, viz., that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.”
Or as Engels put it in On Authority “the political state and with it its political authority will disappear as a result of the socialist revolution".[i]
Social Democracy and Statism
But this was not understood by their followers in Germany and France. They elevated the conquest of political power via parliamentary means to the main aim of their activity. They ignored what Marx and Engels amended in the Communist _Manifesto_. Marx later remarked about the French Parti Ouvrier that all he knew was that if they were “Marxists” then he was not. In the Critique of the Gotha Programme in 1875 (but not published in German until 1891 when the Social Democrats could say it was out-of-date as they now had the new Erfurt Programme – a programme which elevated reformism whilst revolution was relegated to a distant future) Marx laid into the reformism of the German Social Democrats especially in accepting the Lassallean notion of a “free People’s state” as a contradiction in terms, But Marx and Engels both thought that time and experience would alter the course of social democracy. It did not; and Engels, in one of his last writings in the 1895 complained that the editors of Vorwarts had edited out everything revolutionary in what he was writing. Indeed he died not knowing that Kautsky had also edited out his call for “streetfighting” to attack the bourgeois state.
The debate in SD was thus mainly about how to achieve state power for the parties of the Second International. The best, revolutionary elements in the Second international were more concerned about internationalism and the threat of imperialist war than anything else and they were in a minority.
It was only the failure of the revolutionary wave and in particular the erection of a state capitalist regime in the USSR that forced some Marxist minorities to reappraise the role of the state in the revolutionary process. The publication of more of Marx’s writings on the state and revolution AFTER the First World War also assisted in this but the biggest inspiration for re-examination came with the formation of workers’ councils in Russia and other places after 1905. Here was a historically discovered solution to the question of how to smash the bourgeois state without re-erecting a permanent repressive body. Unfortunately the Bolsheviks, despite being the most revolutionary of the Social Democrats followed the example set by the Mensheviks and SRs who had imposed a cabinet (the Provisional Government) on top of the soviet structure in the period of so-called “dual power”. The founding of Sovnarkom (the Council of Peoples Commissars which was going to be called Ministers until Trotsky suggested “commissars” sounded more revolutionary!) meant that the Bolsheviks carried on the same process. At the time the Bolsheviks were not worried as they assumed that the revolution in Russia was only the first step in the international revolution. Many Bolsheviks leaders stated that without such they were doomed. The April theses may have led the Bolsheviks to ditch their old Social Democratic two-stages programme but they had not replaced it with another and responded to situations rather than had a programme. However as the Russian proletariat remained isolated the social democratic idea that the party takes power on behalf of the proletariat and decrees socialism re-asserted itself and continued to be the basis on which the Third International operated. Indeed for Stalinists, Castroists, Maoists and Trotskyists it remains true to the present but it is no longer true for those who base themselves on Marx’s revolutionary method and principles. We should not forget too that it was the Left Communists in Russia who published 5 issues of the paper Kommunist (now available in French) from March-May 1918 who were the first to condemn the direction of the revolution as heading towards state capitalism (something with which Lenin agreed but he argued that this was a good thing). In the person of Radek (later to abandon left communism for national bolshevism) they even voiced the idea that a military victory which did not bring about socialism would be a bigger disaster than outright defeat. Their principled opposition though died a death with the onset of the very civil war they feared.
After the failure of the Russian Revolution many Marxists (particularly those coming from German left communism) now rejected the party form and insisted that the only route to revolution was via councils. Today there are few who call themselves councilist but councilism has had an effect on both marxists and anarchists since then. Italian Left communism was slower to come to an understanding of the role of the state and the nature of revolution. Bordiga had always argued for a party dictatorship even in the councils so it was not until the Internationalist Communist Party emerged in the aftermath of the Second World War that a full reappraisal was made. The party eventually split with a Bordiga who still denied that Russia was state capitalist. In its 1952 Platform it declared that the working class does not delegate to anyone not even to its revolutionary party the task of establishing socialism. Revolutionaries might lead the way, might fight in the class-wide organs for an autonomous proletarian perspective but they cannot finish the process since socialism demands the active participation of everyone if it is to function at all. The working class internationally will have to establish whatever bodies it can (factory committees, local bodies, councils or whatever). It really will be the Big Society stripped of class antagonism, patronage, money, national frontiers, and standing armies. Mass activity is the only guarantee against the revival of a statist repressive organ.
Anarchism too has had to struggle against reformist tendencies. I won’t go into those earlier mutualists who thought you could have a socialist society based on money like Darimon but focus on the later and openly revolutionary anarcho-syndicalist movement which arose most strongly in those countries where the class war was so naked that social democratic gradualism made little sense. To take the example from France the Confederation General du Travail from 1895 seemed like an antidote to social democratic reformism. Intransigent bosses meant this was the era of the mass strike and you fought to win or lose but this was to change. To quote from the Solfed Pamphlet “Fighting for Ourselves”.
… in the early 20th century bosses and the state began to react to the gains of the CGT with a more conciliatory attitude. This increased the space for reformists to operate as class collaboration could be seen to bear fruit. By 1909 the growth of the union had put the revolutionaries in a minority (the CGT grew from 100,000 members in 1902 to 700,000 in 1912, out of a population of 7 million [? It was over 35 million CWO]). Victor Griffuelhes resigned as general secretary amidst machinations against him and Émile Pouget left the union disillusioned. The slide into class collaboration, reformism and bureaucratisation was crowned by the CGT’s support for the national war effort in 1914. This was the most decisive break with its revolutionary internationalist origins.
The CGT was not alone. Kropotkin like the vast majority of the so-called Marxists of the Second International came to the support of his country of Russian Tsarism as a counter to German militarism in 1914. And if Kronstadt was to be the greatest demonstration that proletarian revolution was nothing to do with statism then the Spanish Civil War demonstrated that abstract anarchist principles in themselves are not enough. Spain in 1936 was as isolated (perhaps more so) than revolutionary Russia had been in 1918. Because Spain had not taken part in the First World War its historical trajectory was different to most European states. A growing revolutionary movement came full square up against the impending imperialist war. A proletarian revolutionary situation was thus rapidly and dramatically turned into an arena for imperialist rivalry. Under the pressure to support a Stalinist Popular Front against fascism (i.e. to take sides in an imperialist conflict) the FAI-CNT leaders famously abandoned opposition to the state to join first the Barcelona and then the central Madrid government. The revolution was called off (despite what was happening on the ground in the collectives) and in supporting the supposed anti-fascist popular front dreamed up by the Third International the Spanish working class was handed over to Russian imperialism.
Revolutionaries for the Revolution
The weakness of both those marxists and anarchists can be traced back to an inadequate understanding of both class and the class struggle. If you don’t apply class criteria to any issue you end up in reformism. Today the statist “marxists” still make their calls for nationalisation, for united or even popular fronts with this or that national movement to find a quick fix to arrive at what they call socialism (but we call state capitalism). As Marxists we have nothing in common with them. They do not even share our vision of a communist society. Unless we get rid of money alongside exploitation (and exploitation is not about extra-low wages but about being denied the product of your own labour), unless we create structures which replace the repressive apparatus of the state, unless we have a revolution on a world scale we cannot arrive at communism.
And this seems to be more of the real issue. Reformism is currently rearing its head in many different forms. Obviously we still have the traditional trades’ union fair days’ wage demands but there is also the reformism of those who think that we can build communist economic or social bodies without destroying the power of the capitalist state. There is the reformism of the Occupy Movement (the populist 99% versus 1%) which does not recognise that the working class because it has no property to defend stands in a different relation to capitalism than many of the so-called 99%.
In the current global capitalist crisis the goal of human emancipation may not be as far away as we think. Although it is possible to talk of anti-capitalism now without being seen as certifiable, as a class we have hardly started in the process of opposition. What we now have is a rich experience of 200 years of struggle. It is an experience which remains unknown to most people today. It certainly has not yet been absorbed by the majority of the world working class.
The continuing high organic composition of capital means that years of austerity will reduce still further the ability of capitalism to integrate new generations of well-educated workers into production. This will provide opportunities for revolutionaries to take that awareness of our own past to wider and wider layers of the working class. This does not mean that all we have to do is pose the question of communism as a nice idea for the future and do nothing today. Theory and practice are not separate. We have to link the struggle for communism with the deprivation that capitalism is imposing now on workers. We have to make this link to the widest possible layers of the working class. There can be no real revolutionary movement which is not solidly based in the working class itself.
But this emphasises another real divide between revolutionaries and reformists. Whilst revolutionaries are calling for us not only to fight the cuts but to fight the system that causes them the reformists at best say only “fight the cuts” or “defend the NHS”. They don’t raise the question of the nature of the system. For the majority of those in the old labour movement from the Stalinists to the Trotskyists this is no accident. They want to support some electoral alternative (usually a return of Labour) to the Tories, not a revolutionary alternative to capitalism. They still support the state as the bulwark of their socialist credentials.
And this seems to be where the real divide exists today. Anti-state and anti-capitalist revolutionaries share a similar vision of a communist society. It is time that revolutionaries recognised this distinction and recognised each other. What we don’t share is the way that might be arrived at but that is up for debate (and until there is a real class movement worthy of the name then it is an open debate). To finish with something appropriate from the Solfed pamphlet they quote an alleged remark of Bismarck in the 1870s: “Crowned heads, wealth and privilege may well tremble should the Black and Red ever again unite.”
[i] In Marx-Engels Collected Works Volume 23 p.425 [Lawrence and Wishart 1988]
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