Anarchist and autonomist ideas have influenced many recent movements, including Occupy. Lachlan Marshall takes a look at a new booklet that weighs up their merits.
Review: Anarchism: A Marxist Criticism, by John Molyneux, Bookmarks Publications, 2011.
At the Occupy Sydney camp at Martin Place amongst the banners and placards was a sign bearing the words, “Bakunin was right”. Nearby another said “Marx was right.”
As founders of the anarchist and Marxist traditions respectively, these two revolutionaries both articulated the hope for a different society that continues to appeal to new generations of activists.
The end goal for anarchists and Marxists is very similar, namely an equal and classless society free of oppression. It is in their approach to reaching that goal that they differ. In this short and very readable booklet, British Marxist John Molyneux outlines the philosophical and historical background to anarchist thought and practice and shows that despite its worthy aims, its approach cannot succeed.
Molyneux explores in five sections anarchist theory and its history in practice, appraises the types of anarchism found today and concludes with a discussion on the way forward.
He examines the recent revival of interest in anarchist politics, situating it particularly within the increasing realisation by many of the bankruptcy of parliamentary democracy.
In Spain and Greece mass youth unemployment has resulted from our rulers’ efforts to leave the working class with the burden of paying for the economic crisis.
For many of the marginalised youth of inner city areas experiencing unemployment and homelessness, “anarchism symbolises their rejection of a system that has rejected them.”
Despite anarchism’s diversity there are a number of features common to all its permutations: “(a) hostility to the state in all its forms, including the idea of a revolutionary state; (b) hostility to leadership in all its forms, including revolutionary leadership; (c) hostility to all political parties, including the idea of a revolutionary party; and (d) a tendency to individualism.” As Molyneux points out, the literal meaning of anarchism is “no rule”, so rejection of the state and government in all forms is elevated to the level of a creed.
Anarchism is correct in asserting that human societies can exist without hierarchies—as they did for the majority of the history of the human species.
When it comes to the state however, anarchism falls flat. At its core, the state is comprised of “special bodies of armed men”—the army and police, but also civil servants, judges and so on. Some anarchists dismiss any need to even recognise the state’s existence, espousing individual or collective abstention, for instance forming “autonomous” communities and communes. But these inevitably peter out under the broader pressures of capitalist society.
Those anarchists who advocate a revolutionary overthrow of the state by the masses have more in common with Marxism.
Marxists believe that workers must create a revolutionary state to ensure the continued progress of the revolution until the threats to its existence are removed and a state is no longer needed. Anarchism assumes that once the capitalist state has been destroyed, society can simply continue in a classless fashion.
Such an inadequate understanding of the state fails to see that the ruling class will inevitably resist its dispossession.
As Molyneux notes, “The history of every revolution shows that not only will the old ruling class stop at nothing to retain the power it has got, but will also stop at nothing to try to regain the power it has lost.” And in this endeavour it can rely on the support of ruling classes internationally.
Molyneux shows that in order to combat the reactionary opposition that it will inevitably face, a revolution requires centralisation and coordination—in short, a state.
He puts the question starkly: “Can a revolutionary people defend the revolution against such counter-revolutionary activity without the aid of a workers’ militia or army, without any form of legal system to ensure that the will of the people is respected, without a system of centralised decision making and authority, that is without creating a revolutionary form of state power? No, it cannot.”
However a revolutionary state, or workers’ state, would be radically different to a capitalist state.
Molyneux shows how previous periods of revolutionary upheaval have thrown up “organs of revolutionary power which are… both democratic and egalitarian” that can form the basis of a revolutionary state.
If this still doesn’t sound concrete enough, he offers a lucid comparison of a revolutionary state with struggle on a smaller scale, where organisation is just as vital: “In principle it is the same as when workers on strike organise a picket line to prevent a minority of their own ranks from scabbing. In the final analysis a workers’ state is simply a picket line raised to the highest possible level.”
To the anarchist contention that a state would ossify into a privileged elite, Molyneux points to historical examples where certain principles arise that preclude this happening. One method is limiting the pay of public officials to that of an average worker and making them instantly recallable. Such was the case in 1871 during the Paris Commune, and again in the Russian soviets (workers’ councils) in 1905 and 1917. This limits the chances of attracting careerists or other opportunists into public office.
In the Russian revolution, it was not something inherent to the idea of a revolutionary state which produced its degeneration. Rather the context of a civil war against foreign capitalist armies left the country decimated and allowed Stalin to establish a dictatorship which led a counter-revolution that .
One of the clearest marks of the influence of anarchism on the Occupy movement is skepticism or outright hostility towards “leadership”. Again this sentiment is completely understandable, when for most people what is meant by “leadership” is the unprincipled and spineless behavior of elected politicians, or the conservatism of union officialdom.
But rejection of leadership does not make it disappear. Regardless of whether it is recognised or not, leadership is a fact. As Molyneux argues, it arises, “from the fact that people differ in their experiences, and therefore in their levels of political consciousness, commitment, knowledge, courage and so on.”
Rather than increasing democracy in the movement, claiming to abolish leadership merely conceals it and obstructs channels of accountability, ultimately undermining democracy. Failure to acknowledge this means unelected and unrecallable leaders. Moreover, as Molyneux asks, who are the famous anarchists if not leaders of anarchist movements? This is also explored in the famous article “The tyranny of structurelessness”.
The record of anarchism
Molyneux presents a scorecard on anarchism in various historical events that have tested anarchism at its strongest. He begins with Mikhail Bakunin, the famous 19th century anarchist who is sometimes called the father of anarchism.
Bakunin’s focus on radical actions isolated from a real mass support base led to him being serially incarcerated. One such action was a coup he conducted in Lyons in 1870, upon which he declared the state abolished. The state, unstirred, reacted promptly. He was arrested, and, “excluded from participation in the real workers’ revolution, the Paris Commune the following year.”
As an illustration of the contradictions inherent in anarchist attitudes to leadership, Molyneux relates how Bakunin headed a small, conspiratorial and hierarchical group based on absolute obedience to himself, despite his denunciations of organisation.
The Spanish civil war of 1936 revealed anarchism’s weakness in dismissing the notion of state power. During the war the anarchist trade union, the CNT, boasted a million members. Workers were effectively in power. But because the anarchist leaders lacked a clear orientation to the state, they did not encourage workers to destroy the old capitalist state and take over society. Some anarchist leaders even joined the Republican capitalist government.
This government proceeded to clamp down on the working class, claiming this was necessary to fight the war against fascism. This demobilised the one force that could have defeat the fascist General Franco—a working class fighting for its own liberation and control of society.
Molyneux’s comments on consensus decision making will resonate with many activists in the Occupy movement. Consensus is a form of decision making popular in some social movements, where decisions cannot be made unless everyone reaches agreement.
Of course, reaching maximum agreement is a worthy aim. But often consensus is not possible. In this case either a decision cannot be made or decisions are made by attrition where one group wears down another.
Molyneux’s observation that, “‘Consensus’ also allows a very small but inflexible minority to block and stymie a large majority and thereby paralyse a campaign or organisation” will be familiar to participants
in the often frustrating Occupy general assemblies.
For some in the Spanish “indignados” or “indignant” movement, the slogan of “real democracy now” applies exclusively to the plaza occupations, which are seen as embryos of “real democracy.” But wider society, the economy and the state remain outside of popular control. To realise “real democracy” requires a strategy for changing wider society. The path to real democracy requires, “at a minimum: (a) displacing or dismantling the existing state system and replacing it with one based on direct democracy; and (b) amassing and mobilising the popular power capable of bring about this change, i.e. a revolution.”
It demands reaching out from the occupations. This has begun happening in Spain, where indignados have reached out to workers, resulting in some teachers occupying their schools.
Molyneux’s booklet is valuable and timely reading for anarchists and Marxists alike, along with anyone who wants a better world. He shows that only a Marxist analysis can equip us to fight the system, and bring about a different society.