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The Leninist Protests Too Much: A response to Herb Gamberg

Liam Swenson

Platypus Review 65 | April 2014

Protesters at the G8 meeting in Hamburg, Germany in 2007 marched for "Total Freedom" and against globalization.

Protesters at the G8 meeting in Hamburg, Germany in 2007 marched for "Total Freedom" and against globalization.

Herb Gamberg’s article “Anarchism through Bakunin: A Marxist Assessment” opens by claiming that anarchist theory has had little to no historical development since the 19th century, and that, apparently, “anarchism possesses no really developed theory in the first place”.1 So what is anarchism, then? Gamberg differentiates between the conservative view, which sees anarchism as “pathological violence and arbitrary terrorism” and the Marxist view, which is… the same as the conservative view. “Since anarchism lacks any unifying body of principles, perhaps it is best summed up as a particular mood or temperamental predisposition”, in other words: pathology. This reductionist bumble is fortunately complicated by the argument that anarchism is actually a run-away type of liberalism.

Indeed, Gamberg asserts that anarchism comes from somewhere or, rather, that “psychological predispositions like anarchism have social roots and definite socio-political consequences”. Thus, anarchists are in a state of permanent revolt against authority caused by a holdover from the bourgeois revolution. We anarchists want liberalism to be more liberal, it seems. Somehow “anarchism carries the liberal project to its logical conclusion by rejecting authority in all its forms”.

If I negate powdered pigtails, I am still left with unpowdered pigtails—Karl Marx2

Even if anarchism rejects all authority, this does not make it liberal. The liberal revolution was revolution against only a specific type of authority—that of the misuse of state power by kings. The king, who at first secured law and sovereignty from the despotism of the feudal lords, became the symbol of law’s degeneracy; anarchists, of course, stand against law, and not just against kings. Anarchists might take the psychoanalytic route and speak of the omnipresence of law and transgression (and therefore the necessity of overcoming both), or we can take the Foucaultian route and say that we are not finished beheading the king. Either way points towards anarchy as revolution and not, therefore, as the deepening of the liberal project, which is the formation of the individual as a bio-political agent, or the deepening of control through individuation/subjectivization.

Gamberg’s obfuscation is not new. Leninists often accuse anarchists of being petit-bourgeois. It should suffice to recall that anarchists do not want a community of small capitalists, small governments, domestic relations of production, etc. Perhaps the only thing more heinous than massive factories and states populated by the liberal individual is the petit-bourgeois domination of life—“small property ideology,” as Gamberg calls it. Admittedly, the anarchist milieu has contributed to this confusion with such texts as Laure Akai’s “Individualism vs. Individualism”.3 Akai tries to draw a line between anarchist or revolutionary individualism and bourgeois or hedonist individualism, but ends in the right libertarian camp, describing the state as a cancerous growth on society proper, placed there to maintain order, repress natural drives, etc. This type of “monarchist” individualism links nicely with the decided non-revolution of communalism. Let us be clear: individualism is only anarchist when it uses the individual, a category at first proper to the state and the bourgeois, against the Existent (as in Stirner’s confederation of egos, for example). Individualism is anarchist when it turns the ruling order on its head, using individualism to destroy the individual. As such, anarchists in every sense (either communist or individualist) are revolutionists; we are for the agitation and explosion of class tension.

It [anarchist leaderless-ness] is like trying to maintain a child in a state of childishness, so that it is forever unable to talk, walk, and think for itself.—Alan Woods, “Marxism and Anarchism–Part One.”4

Gamberg writes,

Lenin saw the growth and influence of anarchism as due to the immaturity of the working class movement; according to Lenin, anarchism was a passing thing which would disappear with the growing strength and political maturity of the working class.5

Woods and Lenin throw about trite and well-worn metaphors in an attempt to cover up a lack of actual critique, which should take on the issue of the state, of its machinery and its power (as Lenin, and later Althusser, put it). The charge of anarchism as childishness parallels closely the charge of left-wing communism as infantilism. It would be enough to turn the charge around to show how useless such formulations are: “Bolshevism is a passing fad, a sign of infancy in the working class movement. The workers are hardly affected now but they will soon turn to anarchism once they mature past authoritarian obscurantism and into actual revolutionism.”

What, then, is the heart of the matter? The hierarchy of master-student hidden in this infancy-pedagogical symbolism, and the confusion between the Bolshevik formulation “socialism first, and then communism” and this formula’s hidden supplement “communism first, and then socialism,” are the issues at stake in this denunciation of anarchism.

If either anarchism or Leninism is to be useful, they both ought to reject the symbolization of political immaturity. Let us instead draw our battle lines along the more firm and respectable divisions: the dictatorship of the proletariat versus the dictatorship of the Party, the tension between the pathological Act and the rational Will when it comes to revolt, who shot at whom first in Kronstadt, what the anarchists could have done to prevent the Stalinist derailment of the Spanish Revolution, etc.

I well remember Lenin telling me with great satisfaction, “Your Grand Old Man, Enrico Malatesta, is for our soviets.” I hastened to say, “You mean free soviets, Comrade Lenin. I, too, am for them.”—Emma Goldman6

Why Bakunin?

Bakunin is the easiest target for Leninists because he stands with his ass in his clothing; it wouldn’t be interesting to laugh at the emperor with no clothes. Proudhon and Godwin, and also more modern anarchists Kropotkin, the Platformists, and even our current pseudo-anarchist Murray Bookchin, all stand naked before their eventual collapse into communalism, a sort of watered-down prescriptive utopian socialism, which smashes the state and capital and replaces it with, as Gamberg rightly contends, smaller government and smaller capitalism. Bakunin, on the other hand, is close enough to actual anarchist thought to be a worthy target, while being ridiculous enough to fall under sustained Marxist analysis, unlike some of the more sturdy thinkers like Stirner, our renegade Hegelian, or Malatesta, our Grand Old Man.

Anarchists (read: “Bakunin”) reject the materialist and dialectical being of revolution; for them, it is only about a spontaneous uprising of naturally free man against the unnatural shackles of the state apparatus and capital, those “complete negation[s] of humanity”.7 Inherent in this is a misreading of fetishism. The fetish transmits relation through things/people not as a debasement of the thing or the meaning of the relation, but as a mechanism that both closes a gap between otherwise unrelated people (“primitive fetishism”) and between otherwise unrelated things (“commodity fetishism”). As Žižek argues in The Plague of Fantasies, the symbolic order created through fetishism (in this case, imperialist humanism and its fight for freedom/democracy) contributes to dead Iraqis as much as the actual or transparent relation between people and things (Bush signing the orders, the bombers reaching their targets, etc.)8 For reality to exist at all, there must be a symbolic supplement to the empty horror of the “actual or transparent.” This rehashing of the old Marxian critique of utopian socialists can be extended to communalists like Bookchin or to the Parecon folks, but not to actual anarchists.

There are ways of abolishing the death penalty that can make one miss it—Raoul Vaneigem9

Gamberg's critique of anarchists is twofold: first, the critique of anarchist utopian-communalism, whereby anarchists look for transparent human relations at the end of capital and the fetish, and second, the critique of anarchism's hyper-valuation of spontaneity. Anarchists (read "Bakunin") are consistently accused of valuing spontaneity over organization. Gamberg goes further, placing this valuation at the center of anarchism:

The whole thrust of his theorizing is to be anti-theory; he expresses the anarchist credo as an aggregate of spontaneous passions. E.H. Carr seems to suggest that this confusion and incoherence is simply a matter of Bakunin’s personality or circumstance, but this is not the case. These characteristics appear intrinsic to the outlook for which Bakunin so clearly stands. This outlook is defined by this most representative practitioner, by his particular spirit and emotional texture; this texture then is undergirded by specific ideological components by which anarchism may be defined.10

Because anarchism is pathology, it is only a politics of freedom if this pathology arises spontaneously. But, the very question of spontaneity versus organization is a false and misleading one. The priests who support either side ought to be condemned. At its worst, the defense of spontaneity means a total reliance on material or historical determinism, whereby objective processes lead to revolutionary acts. As one side of the debates of the Soviet Constructivists shows, revolution as spontaneity is like volcanic eruption—the tectonic, geological processes writhe under the surface until the moment of the dialectical explosion. Lenin convincingly argues in State and Revolution that this sort of spontaneous leftism is actually a vulgar opportunism, where objective conditions, while seemingly calling for revolt at the right moment, actually postpone it infinitely. The point, as both Lenin and the insurrectionary anarchists will tell you, is to act. Thus, spontaneity is the realm of Kautskyites and various other vulgarizers of Marxism, and anarchism is actually less about spontaneity than it is about organization.11

However, further complicating matters, Lenin confuses objectivism and subjectivism when he declares workers’ liberalism to be pathological, therefore positing his own (subjective) determination of conditions as the objective truth above or beyond pathology. As Slavoj Žižek says in “Can Lenin Tell Us About Freedom Today?” Lenin’s obfuscation of subjectivism and objectivism,

…reduces a historical constellation to a closed, fully contextualized situation in which the “objective” consequences of one’s acts are fully determined (“independently of your intentions, what you are doing now objectively serves...”); secondly, the position of enunciation of such statements usurp the right to decide what your acts “objectively mean,” so that their apparent “objectivism” (the focus on “objective meaning”) is the form of appearance of its opposite…

Against this full contextualization, one should emphasize that freedom is “actual” precisely and only as the capacity to “transcend” the coordinates of a given situation, to “posit the presuppositions” of one’s activity (as Hegel would have put it), i.e. to redefine the very situation within which one is active.12

This takes us back to one of the real issues at stake in the division between anarchism and Marxism: the tension between Lenin as objective holder of revolutionary truth and Lenin as subjective wielder of proletarian power.

Gamberg tells us Bakunin, as his quintessential anarchist, sought to resolve this tension through the secret society of revolutionaries that “influences rather than commands the already revolutionary ideas of the populace”.13 Gamberg argues this is cheating; in effect, Bakunin wishes anarchists to become an anonymous vanguard party, one that disappears after the revolution. In other words, he formulates a state that withers away once it is no longer needed. Bakunin’s failed attempt to divine a path through the tension of the dictatorship of the proletariat versus the dictatorship of the Party is thus held up as a failure of anarchism. If so, it is simultaneously Leninism's failure, a gap shared by our two traditions.14

Perhaps, though, the gap is the answer in itself. What if spontaneity comes from nowhere, is some sort of void thrown into the realm of the positive? The working class itself is a sort of void, deprived of content through various mechanisms—wage labor, the ideological state apparatus—but these mechanisms also give it positive content. So, this simplified Hegelian formula for revolution, with worker as void, breaks down under a Foucaultian analysis—the state is a positive institution (creating identities, social codes and relations) as well as a negative one (blocking and re-directing life flows). The boundaries between these two sides of the state cannot readily be drawn, just as the boundaries between the two sides of revolution, spontaneity and organization cannot be easily separated. Attempts to combine the two into a single revolutionary practice—though commendable in their own ways—have been disastrous: the Cultural Revolution attempted to extinguish the bourgeois society immanent to the Chinese Communist Party (see Badiou and Balso in The Idea of Communism), while Stalin’s revolution from above sought to empower peasants and workers against bureaucrats.15 The Cultural Revolution failed precisely in its goal and the Stalinist revolution degenerated into bureaucrats murdering bureaucrats while everyone else suffered.

In terms of clearly delineating an actual revolutionary anarchism, perhaps the only good thing the right libertarians have done is to remind us of what we are not. They reveal their identities with their Guy Fawkes masks at protests—a man who tried to blow up Parliament because he wanted different people to run it, an excellent confirmation of Bob Black's thesis on libertarians ( see “The Libertarian as Conservative”).16

This brings us to the tension between communism and anarchy. The Stalin-era play An Optimistic Tragedy tells the story of a group of anarchist sailor-soldiers in the Civil War, ill-disciplined and unconcerned with the outcome of war, placed under the command of a female Bolshevik commissar.17 The rowdy bunch approach her with sexual, hairy aggression, only to be turned by her civilized, maternal side. From this position, the men can fight for soviet power. The commissar is eventually killed and ascends to the heavens, her work done, apparently, since the anarchist men have journeyed through the Bolshevik woman and therefore found the un-sexed position of revolutionary (this is perhaps played out better in art than in life, since as Bini Adamczak argues in Platypus Review 62, the Soviet New Man was a drag king, woman becoming man, but the revolution could not stand man becoming woman).18

Revolution, then, is the interplay between explosion and systematization, an anarchist communism or a communist anarchism. It is both the rampant assassinations of Czarist officials, landlords, etc. and the formation of soviet power. Excess and integration: these are the revolutionary problems. Bolsheviks admit this to a point, but they fail precisely in that their systematization creates a hierarchy—spontaneous revolt first, and then this is captured, put to actual use by Leninist practice. This is why Bolsheviks accept anarchists only on the condition that they join the correct, objective course of history, and sooner rather than later. This flips the usual formula to: first communist anarchy, then the dialectical shift to (state) socialism. In this sense, we can see the depth of Andrei Platonov’s despair when he perceived the nature of the so-called tactical retreat of the New Economic Policy era.

Indeed, it is not enough to focus on the objective conditions of revolution, just as it is not enough to focus on the subjective conditions. Taken crudely, a purely objective approach to revolution would reduce revolution to a series of events with some wishy-washy causal links between them. Such a thing would reduce revolution out of existence or possibility. Further, a purely subjective approach to revolution would, as Gamberg rightly asserts, reduce revolution even further to a sort of “wandering spirit” motif, wherein humankind must fight forever to achieve what it already has in the form of spectral freedom. Leninism, by positing anarchism as the latter mistake, sets itself up as the former.

In anarchist discourse, Leninists are frequently cast as “movement-ists” and reformists who ally themselves with the police against the working class. This is perhaps true of the ANSWER coalition, certain Revolutionary Communist Party fronts, etc., but many Leninists are true communists. Anarchists are frequently cast as childish, randomly violent “manarchists” (the equivalent to “brocialists”) and liberal-left rejects who are scared of revolution. This is certainly true of Bookchin and other bores within the anarchist milieu, but serious anarchists are left untouched by such simple critique—Bob Black’s entertaining and fascinating combination of law, anthropology of non-state peoples, and anti-work politics, Alfredo Bonanno’s analyses of the Italian Years of Lead, with his unique position against the reformists but also against the fetishization of armed resistance presented by the Red Brigades, Malatesta’s clear anarchist pronouncements, Zo D’Axa’s poetry and biting critique of morality under capitalism, Raoul Vaneigem’s lovely blend of anarchist and situationist thought… Anarchism is not born and does not die with Bakunin (or Godwin and Kropotkin); Leninists would do well to remember this the next time they try to draw battle lines.

I end, as Gamberg does, with a discussion of freedom. Gamberg writes that whenever anarchism “finds itself in the socialist camp, it carefully delineates itself from other socialism by declaring itself libertarian socialist”.19 This libertarianism is not the practical or material freedom of Marxism which sees its roots in the overcoming of scarcity (or, more precisely, the overcoming of the traumatic kernel—class society—covered up by the story of scarcity); instead, it is the “disembodied mystique of pure voluntary will”.20

Apparently, this libertarian mystique leads the anarchist to reject the freedom gained through social organization (the basis of communism-as-freedom), since anarchist freedom is the freedom to give in to “individual want, need, or whim”. This is consistent with Gamberg’s charge of anarchism as pathology, but it is precisely in that whims, wants, and needs are pathologies that they must be overthrown as restrictive to freedom.

This is one of the great additions made to radical politics by the political party in the 20th century—a move away from the dictatorship of whim/pathology as the referent for freedom and towards the horizon of communist/social freedom by submitting the individual party members’ wills to the will of the “big Other”, the radical party. The anarchist solution to party, as “big Other” (the big Other does not exist, yet without it the symbolic order collapses) is affinity-based politics and consensus. The Occupy movements brought these mid/late 20th century anarchist ideas into contemporary popular discourse, meeting with sympathetic articles about anarchist influence on Occupy in Al Jazeera, followed by Chris Hedges’ not-so-sympathetic liberal-left whining over black blocs and articles by Leninist parties on the pitfalls of consensus.212223

Much confusion has resulted from this sloppy transfer of anarchist politics into the realm of 21st century “post-politics’” social movements. Indeed, Gamberg has confused anarchists with our profoundly annoying New Age obscurantists, those anti-revolutionists who have embraced anarchist-sounding things like the general assembly and consensus-based decision making.24

Occupy, like the right libertarians, shows us what we are not. For anarchists, organizing around affinity and consensus does not give us freedom through everyone agreeing with all, or because acts only take place under strict unity of will. In Occupy, the fact that nobody did anything if consensus could not be reached should be enough to show how this was not anarchism, but a form of shackling ultra-democracy where everyone bends their will to the ultimate majority of all (or nothing). Anarchist consensus, on the other hand, requires splintering and regrouping around points of affinity. The rupture is key; rather than simply chaining everyone to the inertia of all, anarchist consensus acts as a sort of rhizomatic or horizontal take on Leninist party discipline. In rupture and reformation, anarchist affinity groups reappraise praxis in light of shifting material conditions. The mistake was transposing this to movement activism when anarchism is properly a revolutionary politics. Getting what everyone wants for all is not revolution. Changing the field entirely, changing what can be wanted, that is revolution.| P


  1. Herb Gamberg, “Anarchism through Bakunin: A Marxist Assessment,” Platypus Review 64 (March 2014). Available online at: /2014/03/02/anarchism-bakunin-marxist-assessment/ 

  2. Karl Marx, “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right,” Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher (February 1844). Available online at: 

  3. Laure Akai, “Individualism vs. Individualism,” in Osvobohkdyeneyi Leechonostee (“The Liberation of the Individual”), (1992). Available online at: 

  4. Alan Woods, “Marxism and Anarchism–Part One ,” (January 2012). Available online at: 

  5. Herb Gamberg, “Anarchism through Bakunin.” 

  6. Emma Goldman, “Trotsky Protests Too Much,” Vanguard (July 1938). Available online at: 

  7. Mikhail Bakunin, “Federalism, Socialism, Anti-Theologism” in Bakunin on Anarchy, Dolgoff (ed.), 133. (As cited in Herb Gamberg, ibid). 

  8. Slavoj Žižek, The Plague of Fantasies (New York: Verso Books, 1997), 100. 

  9. Raoul Vaneigem, “Basic Banalities,” Internationale Situationniste, no. 8 (1963). Available online at:

  10. Herb Gamberg, “Anarchism through Bakunin.” 

  11. Vladimir Lenin, The State and Revolution (1917). See Chapter 6, “The Vulgarisation of Marxism by Opportunists,” available online at: 

  12. Slavoj Žižek, “Can Lenin Tell Us About Freedom Today?” Available online at: 

  13. Herb Gamberg, “Anarchism through Bakunin.” 

  14. See Alfredo M. Bonanno, “Why a Vanguard?,” Movimento e progetto rivoluzionaria (1977). Available online at: 

  15. Alain Badiou, “The Idea of Communism,” and Judith Balso, “To Present Oneself to the Present,” in The Idea of Communism (New York: Verso Books, 2010). 

  16. Bob Black, “The Libertarian as Conservative” (1984). Available online at: 

  17. Vsevolod Vishnevsky, “An Optimistic Tragedy”, in Classic Soviet Plays (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1979). 

  18. Bini Adamczak, “Gender and the new man: Emancipation and the Russian Revolution?,” Platypus Review 62 (December-January 2013). Available online at: /2013/12/01/gender-and-the-new-man/ 

  19. E.H. Carr, Michael Bakunin (London: Macmillan and Co., 1937), as referred to in Herb Gamberg, “Anarchism through Bakunin”. 

  20. Ibid. 

  21. David Graeber, “Occupy Wall Street's anarchist roots,” Al Jazeera, November 30, 2011. Available online at: 

  22. Chris Hedges, “The Cancer in Occupy,” Truthdig, February 6, 2012. Available online at: 

  23. Alan Woods, “Marxism and Anarchism–Part Two ,” In Defence of  Marxism, January 2012. Available online at: 

  24. For further reading, and in reference to Gamberg's positioning of anarchism as a tendency within the New Left, see Bruno Bosteels, “The Leftist Hypothesis” in The Idea of Communism (New York: Verso Books, 2010).(New York: Verso Books, 2010). 

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