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Fragments on Marxism and anarchism

Grad student notes from 2010.— One of the advantages of Marx’s equation of progress with the expansion of productive capacity is that it provides a clear criterion for determining what is “progressive” (i.e., probably representative of the future, in light of powerful tendencies) and what is “reactionary.” Another criterion is the development of social and economic equality, but this one is probably less reliable than the first, partly because powerful interests always oppose equality whereas, in capitalism, they don’t oppose the expansion of productive forces (and neither do most other interests). So in capitalism there is a very clear tendency for productive forces to develop and a somewhat less clear tendency for social equality to spread. (Insofar as equality and democracy spread, it isn't because of capitalism's positive tendencies but because of working-class resistance to capitalist authoritarianism.)

Consider “the Reformation peasants of Germany in the 1520s who rose up to defend their common lands and village autonomy in the name of an authentic folk version of Christianity.” (From Murray Bookchin’s essay “The Ghost of Anarcho-Syndicalism” (1992).) As Bookchin says, their movement manifested a kind of anarchism. But surely it wasn’t “progressive” in the sense I mean: although it was “egalitarian,” it was, in effect, opposed to the long-term development of the productive forces, which by then was becoming almost unstoppable. The future lay in capitalism, and hence the nation-state, the destruction of village autonomy. It’s similar with the Knights of Labor in the 1880s. Insofar as they upheld the rights of the artisan against the encroachments of industry and mechanization, they weren’t progressive. But insofar as they advocated egalitarian causes, unity of the Black worker with the white, industrial unionism, etc., they were. (In the case of industrial unionism, which anticipated the IWW but especially the CIO, their project derived its ‘Marxist’ progressiveness from the fact that an expansion of nationwide industry would lead to unionism’s fruition fifty years later.) Economic cooperation, or reorganization of the economy along socialist lines, in the 1880s and 1890s probably wouldn’t have resulted in an expansion of the productive forces competitive with that under capitalism, and so capitalists elsewhere—perhaps in Europe or England—would have continued to spread their operations around the world, and in the end socialism in America would have succumbed to capitalism, as it (or “state socialism”) would later do in China, Russia, and other places.

The real is not exactly “the rational,” but, nevertheless, there is an overarching “rationality” or “probability” (perhaps a near-inevitability) in the real, if only in its broadest structures.


Bookchin takes issue with Marx’s emphasis on workers’ economic interest as the probable motive-force of the revolution, preferring to emphasize the moral force of anarchism as a necessary motivator if people are to overcome present authoritarian arrangements. He quotes Malatesta approvingly:

The real and immediate interests of organised workers, which is the Unions’ role to defend, are very often in conflict with their [i.e., revolutionaries’] ideals and forward-looking objectives; and the Union can only act in a revolutionary way if permeated by a spirit of sacrifice and to the extent that the ideal is given precedence over interest, that is, only if, and to the extent that, it ceases to be an economic Union and becomes a political and idealistic group.

There is some truth to those views. Think of Lenin’s critique of “pure and simple trade-unionism.” On the other hand, Marx was right that moral ideals will never be enough to motivate millions to overthrow power-relations. Only immediate practical interest can impel the masses toward a revolutionary or quasi-revolutionary project. (Think of the oppression and starvation that led workers, peasants and soldiers to overthrow the state in Russia and China.) If, in the end, it seems that industrial workers usually did not identify their immediate and practical interests with the overthrow of capitalism, that fact simply shows that Marx’s identification of the industrial proletariat as the sole agent of revolution was wrong—because, as Malatesta said, their economic interests turned out to be better satisfied by simple trade-unionism, reformism. But Malatesta and Bookchin are still wrong in appealing to the “morality” of anarchism, or rather it is pointless to make such an appeal, since the masses will never “give precedence to the ideal over interest.” (If they do occasionally become frenzied in their support for a moral ideal, it’s because they identify the ideal with their immediate interest. Think of the Black struggle for civil rights.) So we’re back to Marx’s claim: something like socialism will never happen unless people decide it is in their practical interest. Numberless groups of people will have to decide, and act on the decision, that arranging production democratically is in their immediate interest.

The “idealism” of anarchism, or at least most strains of anarchism, is its significant flaw. (On the other hand, Leninist voluntarism and vanguardism—“The will of a group of professional revolutionaries can get the job done!”—is also overly idealistic.)

When the state of the economy reaches such a point that, finally, most people’s immediate practical interests will coincide with the (semi-gradual) supersession of capitalism—in such a way that cooperativism becomes not only an ideal but an apparently feasible goal—it’ll happen. Marx’s mistake was simply that he thought such “coinciding” would take place at an earlier stage of social evolution (and among a different, a more specific sector of the population) than it in fact will. Economic conditions are ripe for socialism only when the socialist project doesn’t face overwhelming odds, with all of society’s power-structures arrayed against it. Capitalism, too, emerged from feudalism only when the conservative feudal aristocracy was clearly in the throes of decline, with the legitimate means of violence already not always being used in its interest.

Here Bookchin agrees with what I’ve written elsewhere about Marxist illusions, what he calls the illusion of “proletarian hegemony” (revolutionary hegemony, i.e. the proletariat as the agent of revolution):

…The industrial working class, for all the oppression and exploitation to which it is subjected, may certainly engage in class struggles and exhibit considerable social militancy. But rarely does class struggle escalate into class war or social militancy explode into social revolution. The deadening tendency of Marxists and anarcho-syndicalists to mistake struggle for war and militancy for revolution has plagued radical theory and practice for over a century but most especially during the era of "proletarian socialism" par excellence, from 1848 to 1939, that gave rise to the myth of "proletarian hegemony." As Franz Borkenau contends, it is easier to arouse nationalist feeling in the working class than feelings of international class solidarity, especially in periods of warfare, as the two world wars of this century so vividly reveal. Given the steady diet of "betrayals" to which Marxists and anarcho-syndicalists attribute the failure of the proletariat to establish a new society, one may well ask if these "betrayals" are really evidence of a systemic factor that renders meaningless and obscure the kind of "proletariat" that Marxists and anarcho-syndicalists adduce as the basis for privileging the working class as a whole in the name of "proletarian hegemony."
Often lacking in explications of the notion of "proletarian hegemony" is a historically nuanced account of the workers who did raise barricades in Paris in June 1848, in Petrograd in 1905 and 1917, and in Spain between 1870 and 1936. These "proletarians" were most often craftspeople for whom the factory system was a culturally new phenomenon. Many others had an immediate peasant background and were only a generation or two removed from a rural way of life. Among these "proletarians," industrial discipline as well as confinement in factory buildings produced very unsettling cultural and psychological tensions. They lived in a force-field between a preindustrial, seasonally determined, largely relaxed craft or agrarian way of life on the one hand, and the factory or workshop system that stressed the maximum, highly rationalized exploitation, the inhuman rhythms of machinery, the barracks-like world of congested cities, and exceptionally brutal working conditions, on the other. Hence it is not at all surprising that this kind of working class was extremely incendiary, and that its riots could easily explode into near-insurrections.
…To the extent that wage-labor and capital do confront each other economically, their struggle—a very real one indeed—normally occurs within a thoroughly bourgeois framework, as Malatesta foresaw generations ago. The struggle of workers with capitalists is essentially a conflict between two interlocking interests that is nourished by the very capitalist nexus of contractual relationships in which both classes participate. It normally counterposes higher wages to higher profits, less exploitation to greater exploitation, and better working conditions to poorer working conditions. These patently negotiable conflicts turn around differences in degree, not in kind. They are fundamentally contractual differences, not social differences.
Precisely because the industrial proletariat is "disciplined, united, organised by the very mechanism of capitalist production itself," as Marx put it, it is also more amenable to rationalized systems of control and hierarchical systems of organization than were the precapitalist strata that historically became the proletariat. Before this proletariat became integrated into the factory system, it mounted uprisings in France, Spain, Russia, Italy, and other relatively unindustrialized countries that are now so legendary in radical history books. Factory hierarchies, with their elaborate structures of managerial supervision, were often carried over into trade unions, even professedly anarcho-syndicalist ones, where workers were unusually vulnerable to "labor bosses" of all kinds—a problem that still plagues the labor movement of our own day…

Maybe you can say there are two kinds of radicalism: the “radicalism of tradition” (in its confrontation with emergent industrial capitalism) and the radicalism that interested Marx, the radicalism that grows in thoroughly capitalist soil and can lead in the end to socialism. Marx mistook the former, in his lifetime, for the latter. That was his great mistake. To take the birth-pangs of industrial capitalism for its death-throes. The maturity of capitalism saw a period of relative stability, of bureaucratic hierarchies that disciplined and regimented the population, but that period is coming to an end now and will yield to the final, mature phase of radicalism, the phase of capitalism struggling against an emergent socialism. We can't know how this apocalyptic struggle will turn out.


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