With Eric Kerl’s recent article entitled “Contemporary Anarchism” in issue 72 of the International Socialist Review we at long last have an example of the ISR putting forth some effort to take anarchism a bit more seriously than in the past. While there is much to be desired and quite a bit lacking from the article, there is acknowledgement of the growing international anarchist movement, the significant influence of anarchism within the global movements and the outstanding call for “Marxists and…anarchists” to “stand shoulder-to-shoulder in every aspect of struggle…” That is a call not seen from the ISR in the past and it is a very welcome one indeed.
There are a few central points Kerl proposes with regards to what he calls “contemporary anarchism.” Principle among them is the claim that contemporary anarchism has drifted from classical opposition to state power and now merely “attempts to resolve the problem of state power by going around it. It claims to do this by creating space independent of authoritarian control by establishing autonomous zones.” Kerl then cites as evidence an excerpt from Hakim Bey’s The Temporary Autonomous Zone wherein Bey essentially calls for the passive retreat into one’s self, what he conceives to be the real revolutionary arena, where one must not only, as Kerl observes, cease waiting for revolutionary transition, but cease wanting it.
While it is true that Bey has become very popular and even, during the 90’s, became something of a Priest of anarchy among certain segments, it is quite open to debate how much influence this tract of lifestylism has had upon the activist anarchist movement. It is certainly without dispute that various anarchists and anarchist groups have roundly critiqued Bey and the TAZ, one of the more notorious critiques, to be sure, being Murray Bookchin’s critique in his polemic Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism that Kerl is certainly aware of considering he cites it within another context.
Rudolf Rocker provides one of the best distillations of the anarchist conception of state power in his Anarcho-Syndicalism wherein he writes that “[a]s long as within society a possessing and a non-possessing group of human beings face one another in enmity, the state will be indispensable to the possessing minority for the protection of its privileges.”
Kerl proclaims that anarchists “wish away the demands of history, as if the state will either simply evaporate or become somehow irrelevant – with no alternative prepared to fill the needs of reconstructing society.” Such a statement indicates a severe absence of knowledge of anarchist history and, in particular, Spanish anarchist history.
Rocker writes that “the problem that is set for our time is that of freeing man from the curse of economic exploitation and political and social enslavement” and Noam Chomsky, discussing this in his famous Notes on Anarchism, explains that “the method is not the conquest and exercise of state power, nor stultifying parliamentarianism, but rather ‘to reconstruct the economic life of the peoples from the ground up and build it up in the spirit of Socialism.’”
Continuing on the subjects of anarchism with regards to state power and the way in which to dismantle it Chomsky writes that “prior to the outbreak of the [Spanish] revolution, the anarchosyndicalist economist Diego Abad de Santillan had written: ‘…in facing the problem of social transformation, the Revolution cannot consider the state as a medium, but must depend on the organization of producers. We have followed this norm and we find no need for the hypothesis of a superior power to organized labor, in order to establish a new order of things. We would thank anyone to point out to us what function, if any, the State can have in an economic organization, where private property has been abolished and in which parasitism and special privilege have no place. The suppression of the State cannot be a languid affair; it must be the task of the Revolution to finish with the State. Either the Revolution gives social wealth to the producers in which case the producers organize themselves for due collective distribution and the State has nothing to do; or the Revolution does not give social wealth to the producers, in which case the Revolution has been a lie and the State would continue. Our federal council of economy is not a political power but an economic and administrative regulating power. It receives its orientation from below and operates in accordance with the resolutions of the regional and national assemblies. It is a liaison corps and nothing else.’”
During the course of the Spanish Revolution, the so-called Civil War, Gaston Leval documented collectivization and appropriation of land and industry by the revolutionary CNT (Confederacion National del Trabajo) in his Collectives in the Spanish Civil War. In Catalonia three-fourths of the land had been collectivized and workers’ syndicates appropriated the administration of industry. While collectivization existed during the Revolution, essentially while libertarian socialism existed, the state had been rendered superfluous. It was the federal council of economy, manifested through the CNT that became the “economic and administrative regulating power” as Santillan had written.
Kerl commits absolute violence against this history by dismissing the incredible heroism, diversity, nuance and achievement (however temporary) of the Spanish experiment with a few dismissive sentences. Kerl’s only source on this expansive subject appears to be the self-referential, he offers that for more on “the role anarchists played in the Spanish Civil War” we should look up Geoff Bailey’s “Anarchists in the Civil War’ in issue 24 of the ISR. Not a very promising prospect considering the ISR’s previous treatment, or mistreatment, of anarchism and anarchists. One would do much better by reading Murray Bookchin’s The Spanish Anarchists: The Heroic Years 1868-1936 and, in particular, the masterful Durruti in the Spanish Revolution by Abel Paz which offers one of the most in-depth accounts available.
Anarchism, in the libertarian socialist tradition, has quite definitive views about State power and how to dismantle it and they go well beyond theory and have in history entered into the realm of action and practice. It is ironically Marxism that never definitively deals with the dismantling of State power, leaving the problem, as with most socialist transformation and social organization within Marxism, to the dim, hazy future. Kerl illustrates this himself when he writes that “Marx once wrote, ‘All socialists see anarchy as the following program: Once the aim of the proletarian movement – i.e., abolition of classes – is attained, the power of the state, which serves to keep the great majority of producers in bondage to a very small exploiter minority, disappears, and the functions of government become simple administrative functions.’”
Marx only ever claims that the State will simply disappear, apparently by itself, with the abolition of classes. He does not explain how or why this is, he merely assumes it. However, the assumption, as Bakunin and others pointed out, was flawed. Bakunin wrote that “[n]o state, however democratic, not even the reddest republic – can ever give the people what they really want, i.e. the free self-organization and administration of their own affairs from the bottom upward, without any interference or violence from above, because every state, even the pseudo-People’s State concocted by Mr. Marx, is in essence only a machine ruling the masses from above, through a privileged minority of conceited intellectuals, who imagine that they know what the people need and want better than do the people themselves.(quoted in Chomsky’s Notes on Anarchism)”
The left-Marxist Anton Pannekoek (head of education for the international Marxist movement) agreed, writing in his Five Theses on the Class Struggle that “[t]he goal of the working class is liberation from exploitation. This goal is not reached and cannot be reached by a new directing and governing class substituting itself for the bourgeoisie. It is only realized by the workers themselves being master over production.” Chomsky quotes one of the better expressions of this view by William Paul (member of the Marxist-De Leonist Socialist Labor Party) writing in The State: its Origins and Function that “[t]he revolutionary Socialist denies that State ownership can end in anything other than a bureaucratic despotism…Industry can only be democratically owned and controlled by the workers electing directly from their own ranks industrial administrative committees.”
Anarchists contend that the State exists as Rocker wrote, to serve and secure the interests of those wielding State power and that whether they be the bourgeoisie or the vanguard of the radical intelligentsia they will perpetuate it for their own interests, for, as Bakunin observed, even workers entering into the bureaucracy of the state cease being members of the proletariat.
Preceding Kerl’s claim that anarchists have no alternative to seizing State power is a quote from Leon Trotsky on “dual power” and a quote from Engels asking whether the Paris Commune would have lasted “a single day” if not for the use of authority by the armed people. Kerl here goes awry. Firstly he conflates Bey’s TAZ with an anarchist failure to grasp Trotsky’s insightful analysis and, secondly, he conflates the authority of the collective people of the Paris Commune, presumably, with the State.
Having previously written a flawed review of Staughton Lynd’s and Andrej Grubacic’s Wobblies and Zapatistas and having here cited it Kerl should at least be aware of the notions of counter/dual power that exists within anarchism, that is what the Zapatista program is partially based upon: expanding the floor of the cage (to borrow a concept from Buenos Aires anarchists) while also creating autonomous sociopolitical space and Bey’s amorphous individualist TAZ does not constitute the latter, rather collective villages, municipalities, organizations and so on do. It is something of an irony that Kerl quotes Engels in this capacity for Engels also wrote, due to the fact that the Paris Commune demonstrated the fact that the Marxist notion that the State must first be seized was fallacious (which is what prompted Marx to write, in his pamphlet The Civil War in France, that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made State machinery and wield it for its own purposes”, among other things), that anarchists have “the thing upside down.” He observes that anarchists “declare that the proletarian revolution must begin by doing away with the political organization of the state” and that this “must end in a new defeat and in a mass slaughter of the workers similar to those after the Paris commune.” It should be here noted that it was Marx who altered the Communist Manifesto’s position on the State in his The Civil War in France pamphlet, about which Engels later, after Marx’s death, reversed back to the original premise.
Kerl writes that “the fundamentals of Marxism are about full and complete human liberation – not so different from anarchist aspirations…However, political differences do exist, particularly over the means to achieve human liberation, and what social forces or classes can accomplish it.” It is true that the fundamentals of Marxism, conspicuously the writing of Marx himself and the left-Marxist tradition (Luxemburg, Pannekoek, Gorter, Ruhle, Korsch, Mattick, etcetera) consist of complete human liberation and it should further be argued that not only are they “not so different from anarchist aspirations,” they are the same aspirations and actually parallel remarkably (as I have written about with the specific examples of Rudolf Rocker, Anton Pannekoek, Rosa Luxemburg and Paul Mattick). The means to achieve liberation may differ in various ways, conspicuously with regards to seizing state power, although considering Marx’s writing on the Paris Commune, Marx himself came to agree more with the anarchists than many later self-professed “Marxists,” but the differences within the libertarian left (Marxist and anarchist) is more or less superficial and virtually negligible.
The single most significant difference between anarchism and Marxism would be that anarchism derives great strength from being a tradition or tendency that continually evolves, led by specific principles, and views revolutionary struggle as a ceaseless process rather than a doctrine and practice sealed by ideological and tactical limits and commandments. Past anarchist theorists and tacticians are understood to be flawed human beings working within the specific context of their historical and social reality who have offered great insight but who may have been wrong in various ways about a multitude of issues or whose insights may no longer apply to the constant flowing currents of history.
Marxism is similar to anarchism in having various tendencies and strains but is unlike anarchism in that it is defined by a single person, Karl Marx, who was merely a person rather than an omniscient god. In an interview entitled “The Manufacture of Consent” Noam Chomsky explains that “Marx was a major intellectual figure and it would be foolish not to learn from him or to value his contributions properly. He was, like anyone, limited in his perceptions and understanding.” He certainly wrote some of the most revolutionary analysis of capitalist production and relations, but it must be kept in mind that he did so in the 19th century and while much of it remains relevant, some of it is no longer. Treating everything Marx wrote and said as though it were the Gospel of the Lord quite simply has nothing to do with a rational scientific endeavor (Marxism self-proclaims to “scientific socialism”). For a rational science is not built upon a concrete theory set in stone that is not to be deviated from, science is actually predicated upon the attempt to falsify itself and established theory, it proceeds from various principles and axioms and is guided by theory and experimentation, discarding that which is found to be incorrect and misleading and accepting that which is found to be valid and of some pragmatic value.
As John Moore illustrates, instead of “being determined by a set of fixed theoretical and organizational concepts, anarchism develops within an ideological framework susceptible to dynamic and extensive transformations. Hence, while certain conceptual tendencies and continuities are perceptible, these are rarely permitted to ossify into dogmatic or static definition…” Anarchism here bears more resemblance to a scientific endeavor.
Perhaps an equally significant difference is that anarchism places hierarchy and domination at the center. All socially produced hierarchical relations are, unless justified in some fashion, critiqued and found to be in need of dismantling. Indeed, as Graham Purchase observes in his critique of post-modern anarchism, “anti-hierarchical ideology differentiates anarchism from All other major alternative political philosophies and practices.”
In what is perhaps Murray Bookchin’s enduring masterpiece, The Ecology of Freedom: The Emergence and Dissolution of Hierarchy, he demonstrates how anti-hierarchical ideology in anarchism differentiates it from Marxism by tracing the socially constructed origins of hierarchy back through patriarchic social constructions and gerontocracy, among other forms. Bookchin defines hierarchy as “the cultural, traditional and psychological systems of obedience and command, not merely the economic and political systems to which the terms class and State most appropriately refer. Accordingly, hierarchy and domination could easily continue to exist in a ‘classless’ or ‘Stateless’ society. I refer to the domination of the young by the old, of women by men, of one ethnic group by another, of ‘masses’ by bureaucrats who profess to speak in their ‘higher social interests,’ of countryside by town, and in a more subtle psychological sense, of body by mind, of spirit by a shallow instrumental rationality, and of nature by society and technology.” To be sure, for the sake of clarity for those unfamiliar, Bookchin was a conscious descendent of the secular Enlightenment and by sprit he meant a deep, conscious-feeling and awareness and contrasted reason with instrumental rationality, the former imparting “meaning and coherence to reality at all levels of existence” while the latter “reduced reason to rationalization…to a mere technique for achieving practical ends.” As the founder of social ecology he was also strongly opposed to anarcho-primitivism and its anti-technics, he insisted upon a rational, humane balance between natural ecology and human social technology.
Whereas Marxism is entirely predicated upon the economic realm of exploitation and oppression, anarchism is an open opposition to all forms of unjustified hierarchy and domination wherever the roots may lie.
Rudolf Rocker summarizes this well when he writes that anarchism “recognizes only the relative significance of ideas, institutions and social forms. It is, therefore, not a fixed, self-enclosed social system, but rather a definite trend in historical development of [human]kind, which, in contrast with the intellectual guardianship of all clerical and governmental institutions, strives for the free unhindered unfolding of all the individual and social forces in life. Even freedom is only a relative, not an absolute concept, since it tends constantly to become broader and to affect wider circles in more manifold ways. For the Anarchist, freedom is not an abstract philosophical concept, but the vital concrete possibility for every human being to bring to full development all the powers, capacities, and talents with which nature has endowed him[/her], and turn them to social account.”
The preceding representing differences and disagreements there is actually much of Kerl’s critique of contemporary anarchism that many anarchists would not only agree with but critique just as forcefully.
Coincidentally, while Kerl critiqued the trend in “contemporary anarchism” to espouse post-modern ideas and, in particular, the view that “the working class” is “just another socially constructed identity” with little to no revolutionary agency and potential. Graham Purchase made much the same critique in issue 54 of the Anarcho-Syndicalist Review within his “Post-anarchism and other blind spots.”
Kerl critiques the anarchist “black bloc” tactics of protest wherein a group of more or less lifestyle anarchists attempt to reach Bey’s TAZ by forming tight, militant groups for the engagement of property destruction (the smashing of corporate lobby windows, the burning of cars and so on) and street fights with the riot police in order to illustrate to the general public the hegemony of the State. While these tactics may be exciting for the lifestyle anarchists involved and make for good cannon fodder for the bourgeois press, they are wholly disengaged with the goal of attracting sympathy and good-will, raising consciousness and winning over more and more of the public.
Civil disobedience and protests are an integral aspect to any social transition and, in particular, American history. The purpose and utility behind protests is to raise the consciousness of the public, to awaken the mass slumber that is sleeping on various issues and to stir the public to mass action. Property destruction and violence prove to be the worst enemies of such a goal. The Civil Rights movement was incredibly effective because people have a general sympathy and inclination towards the nonviolent when confronted with violence. It is difficult for even a segregation sympathizer to witness the unleashing of police dogs, batons and harsh blasts of fire-hose water upon innocent, nonviolent black children. Conversely, even many of the radical left look upon adolescents throwing bricks through windows, burning cars and openly and aggressively challenging the police with disgust and regret.
While Kerl is correct when he writes that “[s]ometimes, confronting the police is necessary to win, or to defend our movement” and while there is no doubt that if there is ever to be socialist transformation there will come a point in time when the Movement will necessarily have to meet and defeat the reactionary violent retribution of the State, it remains true that unnecessary provocation that alienates and turns off the public and wonton, senseless destruction are nothing more than the self-defeating stuff of the oppositions wildest dreams.
Even the nonviolent, more passive elements of the global movement in many ways pose no real challenge or threat. Purchase writes that “[w]hile carnivals [against capital] may be fun, and certainly contain important elements of self-organization, many have become major tourist attractions that disrupt the normal flow of events (and sometimes assert diversity), but pose no real challenge to capital or the state. If the global capitalist offensive is to be contained and defeated, strategies that strike at its economic heart will have to be developed.”
Therefore many anarchists are in accord with Kerl when he writes that “[r]ather than emboldening and empowering the mass forces whose self-activity are at the heart of any successful struggle, these elitist, provocative tactics accomplish little more than offering an excuse for the state to justify its violence against social movements.”
There are, as Kerl writes, differences and disagreements between Marxists and anarchists on various issues, such as those described here, yet there are also similarities and agreements, far more than many realize. There needs to be a free, open and fair exchange of ideas and a fraternal discussion about differences (Kerl’s article is a worthy effort) and, above all, there needs to be solidarity in the struggle. For as one of the slogans of the Movement goes, “the people united will never be defeated.”