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On Anarchism and Marxism: In response to Price and Swenson

Herb Gamberg

Fidel Castro assumes power after ousting the Batista Government in 1959.

Fidel Castro assumes power after ousting the Batista Government in 1959.

Platypus Review 66 | May 2014

In response to the critiques of Wayne Price and Liam Swenson to my piece on anarchism in The Platypus Review #65, ((See Liam Swenson, “The Leninist Protests Too Much,” and “In Defense of Anarchism”, Platypus Review #65, April 2014. Available online at <>.)) I will reiterate what I consider the major differences between Marxist revolutionary theory and anarchism in general. I say in general because I see nothing to be gained by dealing with the great variety of differences within anarchism itself presented by these critiques. In fact their great variety proves the very fleeting and vacillating nature of the anarchist project.

The major difference with regard to revolutionary theory revolves around the anarchist interpretation of the two great revolutions of the twentieth century—the Russian and the Chinese. To the anarchist respondents, these revolutions were not revolutions at all since they simply substituted one kind of tyranny for another one. In fact, Price explicitly describes the Soviet regime as state capitalist from its very beginning. Moreover, the reasons given for this state of affairs is supposed to have resulted from the existence of a vanguard Leninist party as the leadership of these transformations. The very idea of such a party is anathema to the anarchist tradition and my critics are in easy agreement with this tradition.

Finally, they also categorically reject the ideas articulated by Marx and Engels in their discussion of the Paris Commune, reiterated in Lenin’s State and Revolution, that after a socialist insurrection takes power it must first abolish capitalist state power and initiate a new form of state power—a dictatorship of the working class necessary for the whole transitional period leading to a classless and stateless future. Since all this has been more or less implemented by all 20th century revolutions, one might think that our critics might have something to say about the actual history of these revolutions, whether they did anything progressive, what mistakes were made, why they were aborted, etc.

The one remaining socialist society, Cuba, is the exception that proves the rule. The Cuban insurrection took power without a party and almost immediately formed one with the pre-existing communist party. The successes of the Cuban revolution are clearly defined by the terms mentioned above and can easily be appreciated by anyone who has visited that embattled island (we Canadians have vacationed there by the thousands and even the most depoliticized of us realize that something very special and positive has been happening there.). Of course, it is possible that Cuba could turn revisionist since, as said before, these kind of societies are transitional and can go backwards as well as forwards. Are anarchists in their superior wisdom really prepared to declare that Cuba is a wretched place ruled by a Leninist tyranny?

There are real questions to be asked about contemporary revolutions, about how socialist they were since they all took place in backward, feudal conditions surrounded by hostile, more powerful capitalist nations where so many of their policies like land reform and building of a state administration (yes, I said “state”) had to be done with little experience or trained personnel. However, anarchists are so certain that these revolutions were doomed from the beginning for not living up to some still unfulfilled anarchist ideal of an explosive leap into the future that they are categorically rejected, their histories are wiped out and only anarchism is left to save us from blind authoritarianism.

What seems so striking politically is how well these anarchist positions dovetail with all conventional bourgeois opinion from Left to right. The left social democrat would condemn these revolutions because they happened in the wrong place at the wrong time, while liberals and conservatives would say that they were tyrannies because they did not implement a bourgeois electoral process. But all would agree with anarchists in their unquestioned rejection of the communist menace.

These differences between anarchism and revolutionary Marxism are so fundamental that I really have little else to say. At the level of history and theory we have been discussing, we simply disagree lock, stock, and barrel. After saying this, I don’t at all mean to suggest that it is impossible for Marxists and anarchists to unite in meeting some of the major issues of our time. It is often not general theory that determines actions necessary in specific contexts. The Bolsheviks, for example, allied with the left socialist revolutionaries (anarchists) right after the insurrection. In the contemporary context, such tactical alliances appear even more salient. I must admit that alliances with Platypus writers and its audience appear difficult because Platypus has little proclivity to activism. Consolidated intellectual anarchists like my respondents may be an even more difficult matter because, while Marxism at its best is quite open to criticism about historical problems and tactical differences, convinced anarchists tend to be quite dogmatic in positioning themselves beyond Marxism.

Anarchism and Marxism would probably agree in their common admiration for what might be called spontaneous militancy. On that score both find much that is positive in the recent Occupy movement. Although predisposed toward gestures and activities reminiscent of the older New Left, a Left that I would characterize as a clear example of anarchism, the occupiers are not as privileged as the older activists, they face a different and more difficult future, and more importantly, they and all of us face an unprecedented environmental crisis that threatens the very existence of the human species. A socialist revolution is the obvious solution to this crisis, but time is fleeting and, according to the best scientific evidence, we have little time. In its short existence, the movement has shown its commitment to a number of progressive problems and has even inserted some class content into the popular political lexicon (the 1%/99% division). I do think they are committed and seem more than willing to join a cross-class movement to save the species. I would suggest that we all join together in this necessary, overwhelming, and demanding cause. | P