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Against dogmatic abstraction

A critique of Cindy Milstein on anarchism and Marxism

Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review 25 | July 2010


AT THE LEFT FORUM 2010, held at Pace University in New York City in March, Cindy Milstein, director of the Institute for Anarchist Studies, spoke at a panel discussion on anarchism and Marxism, chaired by Andrej Grubacic, with fellow panelists Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Andrew Curley. The topic of Milstein’s talk was the prospect for the “synthesis of anarchism and Marxism” today.[1] The relation between anarchism and Marxism is a long-standing and vexing problem, for their developments have been inextricably intertwined.

Milstein began her talk by remarking on the sea-change that had occurred over the course of the last “10–20 years,” in which the “default pole on the Left” had gone from “authoritarian to libertarian,” so that now what she called “authoritarian perspectives” had to take seriously and respond to libertarian ones, rather than the reverse, which had been the case previously. Authoritarian Marxists now were on the defensive and had to answer to libertarian anarchists.[2] Milstein commented on her chagrin when she realized that a speaker she found favorable at a recent forum was in fact from the ISO (International Socialist Organization), because the speaker had “sounded like an anarchist.” For Milstein, this was important because it meant that, unlike in the past, the Left could now potentially proceed along essentially “libertarian” lines.

Milstein offered two opposed ways in which the potential synthesis of anarchism and Marxism has proceeded to date, both of which she critiqued and wanted to surpass. One was what she called the prevalent “anarchistic activism” today that found expression, for example, in the Invisible Committee’s 2005 pamphlet The Coming Insurrection and in the rash of campus occupations at the height of the recent financial crisis. While Milstein praised aspects of this contemporary expression of a certain anarchistic impulse, she expressed concern that it also replicated “the worst aspects of Marxism, its clandestine organizing and vanguardism.” Milstein found a complementary problem with the Marxist Left’s attempts (e.g., by the ISO, et al.) to “sound anarchist” in the present circumstances, for she thought that they did so dishonestly, in order to recruit new members to Marxism. The way Milstein posed these problems already says a great deal about her sympathies and actual purpose in posing the question of a potential synthesis of anarchism and Marxism. For, in her view, whereas the anarchistic Left of the Invisible Committee and campus activists makes an honest mistake, the Marxists have more nefarious motives.[3] Milstein’s critique of the contemporary anarchistic politics expressed by the Invisible Committee’s manifesto and associated ethic of “occupy everything” was that, in its extreme emphasis on “autonomy,” it is subject to what she called “individualist nihilism,” and so lost sight of the “collective.”

Milstein sought to reclaim the moniker of the “Left” exclusively for a revolutionary politics that does not include social democratic or liberal “reformist” political tendencies. (She made a special point, however, of saying that this did not mean excluding the history of “classical liberalism,” of Thomas Paine, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and others, which she still found relevant.) Her point was to raise the question of how it might be possible to achieve a non-authoritarian or “libertarian” version of “socialism,” or anti-capitalism informed by Marxism. Milstein identified the problem, common to both Marxism and present-day forms of anarchism, as the failure to properly prefigure an emancipated society of “libertarian socialism” in revolutionary politics. Marxism, on this view, retains a crucial role to play. Milstein asserted that anti-capitalism was the sine qua non of any purported revolutionary politics. According to Milstein, what was missing from contemporary anarchism, but which Marxism potentially provided, was the “socialist,” or revolutionary anti-capitalist dimension that could be found in Marx’s critical theoretical analysis of capitalism in Capital. To Milstein, this was the key basis for any possible rapprochement of anarchism and Marxism.

It is therefore necessary to address the different conceptions of capitalism, and thus anti-capitalism, that might lie behind anarchism and Marxism, in order to see if and how they could participate in a common “libertarian socialist” anti-capitalist politics, moving forward.

Historically, anarchists have complained of the split in the First International Workingmen’s Association, in which the Marxists predominated and expelled the anarchists. The history of the subsequent Second or Socialist International, which excluded the anarchists, was peppered with anarchist protest against their marginalization in this period of tremendous growth in the revolutionary socialist workers’ movement.[4] The crisis in the Second International that took place in the context of the First World War (1914–18) saw many former anarchists joining the radicals Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky in forming the Third International at the time of the Russian, German, Hungarian and Italian working class revolutions of 1917–19. (For instance, the preeminent American Trotskyist James P. Cannon had, prior to the Bolshevik Revolution, been an anarchist militant in the Industrial Workers of the World.)[5] To be sure, there were many anarchists who remained inimical to, sought to compete politically with, and even fought militarily against Marxism throughout this later period (as in the case of the Russian Civil War), but the splits and realignments among anarchists and Marxists at that time have been a bone of contention in the history of revolutionary socialism ever since then. These two moments, of the First and Third Internationals, are joined by the further trauma of the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, in which Marxists again fought anarchists.

So how does this “ancient history” appear in the present? Milstein is content to continue a long tradition among anarchists and “left” or libertarian communists and socialists, in which anarchism is opposed to Marxism along the lines of libertarian versus authoritarian politics. But is this indeed the essential, crucial difference between anarchism and Marxism?

Although Milstein approached the question of a present-day synthesis of anarchism and Marxism in an apparently open way, her perspective was still that of a rather dogmatic anarchism, adhering to principles rather than historical perspectives. What Milstein offered was the possibility, not of a true synthesis, but rather of re-assimilating Marxism back into its pre- and non-Marxian or “socialist” historical background.

Two figures of historical anarchism not mentioned by Milstein in her talk, but who can be regarded in terms of the emergence and further development of Marx’s own perspectives on capitalism and socialism, are, respectively, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809–65) and Mikhail Bakunin (1814–76). Marx’s thought responded in its initial stages to the formulation of socialism by Proudhon, who was perhaps the most influential socialist at the time of Marx’s youth. Bakunin, on the other hand, started out as an admirer of Marx’s work, completing the first Russian translation the Communist Manifesto while also attempting to undertake a translation of Capital (the latter project was abandoned unfinished).

One figure Milstein did mention, Murray Bookchin (1921–2006), who taught her anarchism, was a famous critical interlocutor with Marxism, writing the New Left pamphlet Listen, Marxist! (1969, in Post-Scarcity Anarchism, 195-244). Bookchin was himself a former Marxist, first as a mainstream Third International Communist, later a Trotskyist, before ultimately turning to anarchism out of disenchantment with Marxism. More precisely, it was disenchantment with the practice of Marxist politics that motivated Bookchin’s turn to anarchism. Like her mentor, Milstein’s approach appears to be motivated by a Marxist anti-capitalism in theory and a libertarian anarchist politics in practice. But how does this relate to the actual historical differences between anarchism and Marxism, in both theory and practice?

Marx’s critique of capital was formulated and emerged strongly out of his critical engagement with Proudhon’s “anarchist” socialism. Proudhon could be considered the first “libertarian socialist.” Proudhon in fact invented the term “anarchism.” He also famously coined the phrase “property is theft.” Proudhon, like Marx, engaged and was influenced by not only British political economy and French socialism, but also Hegelian philosophy. Proudhon admitted to having only “three masters: the Bible, Adam Smith, and Hegel.” Marx’s personal relationship with Proudhon was broken by Marx’s critique of Proudhon’s 1847 book, System of Economical Contradictions: or, The Philosophy of Poverty. Marx’s book-length critique was titled, in his typically incisive style of dialectical reversal, The Poverty of Philosophy. It is significant that Marx worked towards a critique of Proudhonian socialism at the same time as he was beginning to elaborate a critique of the categories of political economy, through the case of Proudhon’s 1840 book What is Property?, in the unpublished 1844 Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts.

By addressing Proudhon’s opposition to capital as symptomatic, and trying to get at the shared presuppositions of both capitalist society and its discontents, as expressed by Proudhon, Marx attempted to grasp the historical essence of capital more fundamentally, and the possibility of capital being reproduced in and through the forms of discontent it generated. This meant taking a very historically specific view of capital that could regard how the prevailing forms of modern society and its characteristic forms of self-understanding in practice, and their discontents, in political ideology, shared a common historical moment in capital. Proudhon’s thought, Marx argued, was not simply mistaken, but, as an acute symptom of capital, necessitated a critical understanding of what Proudhon was trying to grasp and struggle through. Marx’s “critique of political economy,” and attempt to “get at the root” of capital in “humanity itself,” as a historical phenomenon, can thus be said to have begun with his critique of Proudhon.


Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and his children (1853), painting by Gustave Courbet.

For Marx, Proudhon offered not the overcoming, but rather the purest expression of the commodity form in capital, in the call to “abolish private property.” The unintended effect of the abolition of property would, according to Marx, actually render society itself into one great “universal capitalist” over its members. For Marx understood “capital” as the contradiction of modern society with itself.[6] Just as each member of capitalist society regarded himself as his own property, a commodity to be bought and sold, so society regarded itself as capital. As Marx put it, in the 1844 Manuscripts,

Communism is the position as the negation of the negation [of humanity in capital], and is hence the actual phase necessary for the next stage of historical development in the process of human emancipation and rehabilitation. Communism is the necessary form and the dynamic principle of the immediate future, but communism as such is not the goal of human development, the form of human society.[7]

This is what Proudhon, according to Marx, did not recognize about “socialism.”


Karl Marx in 1839.

It is precisely such historical specification of the problems of capital and its discontents, and of any purported attempts to get beyond capital, that distinguishes Marx’s approach from that of anarchism and non-Marxian socialism. In his critique of capital and its discontents, Marx did not pose any principles against others, abstractly, but rather tried to understand the actual basis for the principles of (anti)capitalism from within.

This relates to Marx’s later dispute with his erstwhile admirer Bakunin. Bakunin was most opposed to what he believed to be Marx’s and Marx’s followers’ embrace of the “state” in their concept of political revolution leading to socialism. Where Bakunin, in characteristic anarchist manner, claimed to be opposed to the state per se, Marx and his best followers — such as that great demon for anarchists, Lenin,[8] in The State and Revolution (1917) — sought to grasp the necessity of the state as a function of capital, seeking to attack the conditions of possibility of the need for something like state authority in capital itself. Departing from regarding the state as an invidious cause of (political) unfreedom, Marx and the best Marxists sought to find out how the state, in its modern, capitalist, pathological, and self-contradictory form, was actually an effect of capital. The difference between Marxism and anarchism is in the understanding of the modern capitalist state as a historically specific phenomenon, a symptom, as opposed to a transhistorical evil.

Milstein’s mentor Bookchin provides a good example of this kind of problem in anarchism with respect to historical specificity in opposition to capitalism. Opposed to the individualistic “egoism” of Proudhonian anarchism and of others such as Max Stirner,[9] Bookchin sought to find an adequate form of social life that in principle could do away with any pernicious authority. Bookchin found this in the idea, taken from Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin (1842–1921), of local communitarian “mutualism,” as opposed to the tyranny of the capitalist state. For Bookchin, the anarchist opposition to capital comes down to a matter of the most anthropologically appropriate principle of society. (It is notable that Noam Chomsky offers a similar anarchist perspective on human nature as inherently socialist.)

Milstein’s diagnosis and prescription for what ails today’s Left is concerned with its supposed lack of, or otherwise bad principles for, proper political organizing, in terms of both an adequate practice of anti-capitalist revolutionary politics and the emancipated society of “libertarian socialism” towards which it strives.

The eminently practical political issue of “how to get there from here” involves an understanding and judgment of not only the “how” and the “there,” but also the “here” from which one imagines one is proceeding. The question is whether we live in a society that suffers from bad principles of organization, extreme hierarchy, and distantly centralized authority, or from a deeper and more obscure problem of social life in modern capitalism that makes hierarchy and centralization both possible and indeed necessary. Where Marx and a Marxian approach begin is with an examination of what anarchism only presupposes and treats a priori as the highest principle of proper human social life. Marxists seek to understand where the impulse towards “libertarian socialism” originates historically. Marxists consider “socialism” to be the historical product and not simply the antithesis of capitalism. Marxists ask, what necessity must be overcome in order to get beyond capital? For socialism would be not simply the negation, but also the completion of capitalism. Marx nonetheless endorsed it as such. This was the heart of Marx’s “dialectical” approach to capital.

By contrast, for Milstein, following Bookchin, socialism differs fundamentally in principle from capitalism. The problem with Marx and historical materialism was that it remained too subject to the exigencies of capitalism in the 19th to early 20th century era of industrialization. Similarly, the problem with the historical anarchism of Proudhon, Bakunin, and Kropotkin was that it had not yet adequately formulated the proper political principles for the relations of the individual in society. Bookchin thought that the possibility for this had been achieved in the late 20th century, in what he called “post-scarcity anarchism,” which would allow for a return to the social principles of the traditional human communities that had been destroyed by capitalism and the hierarchical civilizational forms that preceded it.[10] Even though Bookchin thought that Marx’s fundamental political perspective of proletarian socialism had been historically superseded, he nevertheless found support for his approach in Marx’s late ethnographic notebooks.[11]

On the contrary, an approach properly following Marx would try to understand and push further the aspiration towards a socialist society that comes historically as a result of and from within capital itself. Rather than taking one’s own supposed “anti-capitalism” simply as given, a Marxian approach seeks—as Marx put it in a famous 1843 letter to Arnold Ruge calling for the “ruthless criticism of everything existing,” including first and foremost the Left[12]—to “show the world why it is struggling, and [that] consciousness of this is a thing it must acquire whether it wishes or not.”[13]

For Milstein, the problems afflicting today’s “anti-capitalist movement” can be established and overcome in principle a priori. According to Milstein, the Left must only give up its “individualistic nihilism” and “conspiratorial vanguardism” in organized politics in order to achieve socialism. This means Marxists must give up their bad ideas and forms of organization and become anarchists, or “libertarian socialists,” if they are to serve rather than hinder the revolution against capital.

But, as the young, searching 25 year-old political radical Marx wrote (in his 1843 letter to Ruge),

In fact, the internal obstacles seem almost greater than external difficulties. For . . . the question “where to?” is a rich source of confusion . . . among the reformers, but also every individual must admit to himself that he has no precise idea about what ought to happen. . . . [However] we do not anticipate the world with our dogmas but instead attempt to discover the new world through the critique of the old. I am therefore not in favor of our hoisting a dogmatic banner. Quite the reverse. We must try to help the dogmatists to clarify their ideas. In particular, communism is a dogmatic abstraction and . . . only a particular manifestation of the humanistic principle and is infected by its opposite, private property. The abolition of private property is therefore by no means identical with communism and communism has seen other socialist theories, such as those of . . . Proudhon, rising up in opposition to it, not fortuitously but necessarily, because it is only a particular, one-sided realization of the principle of socialism. And by the same token, the whole principle of socialism is concerned only with one side, namely the reality of the true existence of man. . . . This does not mean that we shall confront the world with new doctrinaire principles and proclaim: Here is the truth, on your knees before it! It means that we shall develop for the world new principles from the existing principles of the world. . . . Our programme must be: the reform of consciousness not through dogmas but by analyzing . . . consciousness obscure to itself. . . . It will then become plain that the world has long since dreamed of something of which it needs only to become conscious for it to possess it in reality.[14]

Marx counterposed his own unique perspective sharply against that of other “socialists,” whom he found to be unwittingly bound up in the categories of capital against which they raged. This has remained the case for virtually all “anti-capitalists” up to the present. Marx grasped this problem of anti-capitalism at the dawn of the epoch of industrial capital that arose with the disintegration of traditional society, but to whose unprecedented and historically specific social and political problems we continue to be subject today.

Marx departed from anarchism and other forms of symptomatic “socialism” with reason, and this reason must not be forgotten. Marx’s task remains unfinished. Only this “clarification” of “consciousness obscure to itself” that Marx called for can fulfill the long “dream” of anarchism, which otherwise will remain denied in reality. |P

[1]. Video documentation of Milstein’s talk at the Left Forum 2010 can be found online at <>.

[2]. It is unclear by her “10–20 year” periodization whether Milstein meant this negatively, with the collapse of Stalinism or “authoritarian/state socialism” beginning in 1989, or positively, with the supposedly resurgent Left of the “anti/alter-globalization” movement exemplified by the 1999 protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle and the World Social Forum starting in 2001 at Porto Alegre, Brazil. Milstein was probably referencing both.

[3]. Ever since the Marx-Bakunin split in the International Workingmen’s Association or First International, anarchists have characterized Marxists as authoritarians hijacking the revolutionary movement.

[4]. See James Joll, The Second International 1889–1914 (New York: Praeger, 1956).

[5]. See Bryan D. Palmer, James P. Cannon and the Origins of the American Revolutionary Left 1890–1928 (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2007).

[6]. For example, Proudhon advocated replacing money with labor-time credits and so did not recognize, as Marx noted early on and elaborated in detail later in Capital, how, after the Industrial Revolution and the introduction of machine production, labor-time undermined itself as a measure of social value.

[7]. Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, in Robert C. Tucker, ed., Marx-Engels Reader (New York: Norton, 1978), 93. Also available online at <>.

[8]. Lenin wrote, in “Left-Wing” Communism — An Infantile Disorder (1920) that,

[D]riven to frenzy by the horrors of capitalism . . . anarchism is characteristic of all capitalist countries. The instability of such revolutionism, its barrenness, and its tendency to turn rapidly into submission, apathy, phantasms, and even a frenzied infatuation with one bourgeois fad or another — all this is common knowledge. . . .

Anarchism was not infrequently a kind of penalty for the opportunist sins of the working-class movement. The two monstrosities complemented each other. (Robert C. Tucker, ed., The Lenin Anthology (New York: Norton, 1975), 559–560.)

[9]. See Max Stirner, The Ego and its Own (London: Rebel Press, 1993). Originally published 1845. Sometimes translated as The Individual and his Property.

[10]. See Bookchin, Post-Scarcity Anarchism (1970); “Beyond Neo-Marxism,” Telos 36 (1979); and Toward an Ecological Society (1980).

[11]. These writings by Marx are also the subject of a recent book by the Marxist-Humanist Kevin B. Anderson, Marx at the Margins (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010).

[12]. Elsewhere, Marx wrote, “Our task is that of ruthless criticism, and much more against ostensible friends than against open enemies; and in maintaining this our position we gladly forego cheap democratic popularity.” (“Gottfried Kinkel,” in Neue Rheinische Zeitung: Politisch-Ökonomische Revue No. 4, 1850. Available online at <>).

[13]. Marx, letter to Arnold Ruge (September, 1843), in Tucker, ed., Marx-Engels Reader, 12–15. Also available online at <>.

[14]. Marx, letter to Ruge.