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You are here: Platypus /“Trotskyists drew a line at supporting the Democrats”: An interview with Wayne Price

“Trotskyists drew a line at supporting the Democrats”: An interview with Wayne Price

Spencer A. Leonard

Platypus Review 124 | March 2020

The following is an edited transcript of an interview with Wayne Price conducted on September 14th, 2019. Wayne Price is a former member of the International Socialists and the author of The Abolition of the State: Anarchist & Marxist Perspectives, Anarchism & Socialism: Reformism or Revolution? and Value of Radical Theory: An Anarchist Introduction to Marx’s Critique of Political Economy.

Spencer Leonard: Let’s begin at the beginning. How were you first politicized? When did that occur and what were your main motivations? What questions or events exercised you then?

Wayne Price: Well, I grew up in the anti-Vietnam War movement. That’s what affected everybody. I’m proud that in high school a friend and I sought out a group of anti-war activists around David McReynolds and the War Resisters League and gave out leaflets on the street in New York opposing U.S. intervention in Vietnam, with quotations from Senator Mike Mansfield stating how it was wrong to get involved. That must have been 1964. Nobody had even heard of Vietnam at that point.

SL: And after high school you began to get involved in more organized activity?

WP: Yes. I grew up in a liberal household. My parents had friends who were former Communists. So, while not quite a red-diaper baby, I was sort of a pink-diaper baby. I read I. F. Stone’s Weekly and the like. In high school my friends and I discovered anarchism, particularly Paul Goodman, the most well-known anarchist at the time. Also, Dwight Macdonald and Erich Fromm, the humanistic Marxist.My mother had Erich Fromm’s The Sane Society on her shelf, which is Fromm’s most radical book. In addition, we were in touch with some anarchist pacifists in New York City. We participated in the 1962 “Worldwide General Strike for Peace.” It meant nothing much, but we wore armbands. 

I stayed influenced by this sort of politics up until college, where I got involved with Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) at Queen’s College in New York City. There I met Jeff Mackler, who was a leader of the Socialist Workers Party’s Young Socialist Alliance. (Today, he’s the head of the Socialist Action political group.) The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) was then the biggest Trotskyist group in the U.S. Mackler talked me out of anarchist pacifism, arguing that there are some issues that must be fought out. If the Nazis had taken power, they would have crushed any non-violent movement. Respecting anarchism, he gave me literature on the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and the 1936–39 Spanish Civil War that argued that the workers’ councils and other associations democratically replaced the liberal bourgeois state. I agreed with replacing the bourgeois state with associations of councils and still believe in that, but I wouldn’t call it a state. So I became a sort of Trotskyist, although, much to Mackler’s dismay, I did not join the SWP. Because I thought the talk about the Soviet Union being somehow a “workers’ state,” despite the fact that the workers had not a smidgen of power, was just absurd. It was supposed to be a workers’ state just because they had nationalized industry. So I joined the left Shachtmanites, the group influenced by Hal Draper, though I didn’t meet him for a long time.

SL: Were the Independent Socialist Club (ISC) in competition with the SWP on campus?

WP: They were off campus, in New York City. I wrote to them and met Sy Landy and other leaders of the group. As I said,I had been persuaded by Mackler to a sort of Trotskyist perspective, but couldn’t accept their exact position. So I asked, “Well, who else is there who says something similar?” Then I came across Draper’s writings in the New Politics magazine, including “The Two Souls of Socialism” and his “Socialism from Below.”[1] I thought, “I agree with that! Is anybody advocating that?”

Landy was the founder of the New York group. I did not have contact with the team on the West Coast where the ISC first started until they had a conference, the one at which they formed the Independent Socialist Clubs of America. That’s when I saw Draper for the first time. 

SL: That was in 1967?

WP: Yes. I remember Draper advocating our siding with the National Liberation Front against U.S. imperialism — not politically, not supporting the Stalinist leadership, but being on the side of the people. I found that persuasive.

SL: As you understood it at that time, what was the Shachtmanite legacy that needed upholding even against Shachtman himself?

WP: I didn’t know much at the beginning, of course, and I never agreed with the bureaucratic collectivism theory as opposed to state capitalism. I had read Raya Dunayevskaya’s book Marxism and Freedom and I was persuaded on that point. But I agreed with supporting neither side in the Cold War, being for working-class revolution, and rejecting both the bureaucracy of the Soviet Union and the U.S. ruling class. That’s the stuff I agreed with. I was persuaded of the working-class perspective, as I still am. During the Cold War it was very hard for people not to take sides: the orthodox Trotskyists taking the side of the Soviet Union, and Shachtman and the social democrats eventually siding with American imperialism. Small groups of anarchists, radical pacifists, unconventional Trotskyists, and libertarian Marxists did not. So I was drawn to that general milieu.

SL: You believe that these different groups recognized their affinity even in the 1950s. Did you sense any kind of overlap between Draperite left Shachtmanism and the pacifism and anarchism to which you had originally been attracted?

WP: Yes, I felt that my values were the same. I saw the overlap. Some things, such as strategy, were different, but other areas — opposition to nuclear armament, opposition to both sides during the Cold War, anti-imperialism, working-class revolution — were similar. 

SL: What do you think Draper was trying to achieve with the ISCs? My sense is that he withdrew from politics altogether when he withdrew from the Socialist Party in the early 60s, only to be drawn back into politics by the student movement. Of course, in Berkeley Draper helped to build the New Left, but was he perhaps inspired by it as well? What was the ISC strategy in terms of intersecting SDS and the emerging generation of leftists?

WP: I know from my reading that he was critical of the Independent Socialist League dissolving into the Socialist Party in 1958, not in the abstract, but because he knew that Shachtman was going to move to the right. I know from reading memoirs that Sy Landy was in favor of putting up a fight about it, but Draper just gave up at a certain point. More left-wing types inside the Young People’s Socialist League had joined the orthodox Trotskyists back in 1958.

SL: You mean the people who went on to form the Spartacist League

WP: Yes, Robertson and those people. That’s their history. They were won over to orthodox Trotskyism.

SL: How did the ISC develop you as a young recruit?

WP: Well, that’s hard to remember. I didn’t experience the events on the West Coast. For example, in the Free Speech Movement the ISC made an impact. The ISC had forums on the Hungarian Revolution. Shachtman went out there for what was supposed to have been a great speech. Then there was the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, which is when they finally made their final break with Shachtman. He semi-supported the U.S. invasion of Cuba.[2] 

Meeting and talking with people, discussing politics, educated me. The ISC had no separate educational group. 

For me personally, the 1964 election had a big impact. I read the literature in New Politics magazine and Liberation on the election. Goldwater’s campaign was the beginning of the far-right capture of the Republican Party. Some said we should support Johnson, that that could lead to a Democratic reorientation toward the workers, the poor, and civil rights (I recall Michael Harrington and David McReynolds arguing that). At the time I thought that Harrington’s argument was correct: Goldwater had to be defeated. I was too young to vote, but I saw what happened, how Johnson escalated the war in Vietnam. So, in retrospect, I decided the anti-electoralists were right. That was another reason why I went looking for the ISC. They had some high-level intellectual discussions, particularly after 1968. I was a schoolteacher at the time of the 1968 New York City Teachers’ Strike. I crossed the picket line to support community control. I felt that the union was taking a racist position. I wasn’t happy about crossing the picket line and thought that both sides had problems, but the union took a bad stance on this. I still think that’s true. The Shachtmanites, Michael Harrington and Bayard Rustin, supported the striking teachers. The people who became the LaRouchites did too. But most of the Left did not. Most were on the side of the black population.

SL: The movement against the Vietnam War was a massive influence in politicizing an entire generation. That and the civil rights movement. Some Trotskyists uncritically celebrated and supported the regimes in Cuba and Vietnam. Arguably, an anti-imperialist impulse overrode all other considerations, so that decolonization and anti-imperialism drove a lot of people to Stalinism in your generation. How did reflection on imperialism as it was posed in the 60s and 70s presented not just a recruiting and clarification opportunity for the New Left, but an obstacle for it?

WP: On the one hand, the Vietnam War exposed the United States government. Here we had a more-or-less liberal Democratic president and government, and it was massacring peasants and poor people in faraway countries with all kinds of bullshit explanations. The liberals either supported the war or waffled about it. After all, it was their government. That led to a massive radicalization. Towards the end of the war, polls showed that up to one million Americans identified themselves as revolutionaries. On the other hand, anti-imperialism led to unclarity as to what you wanted for a revolution — what was the goal? People were uncritical of totalitarian regimes. The orthodox Trotskyists (the SWP) committed themselves entirely to Castro, giving up their historical perspective of saying that they supported the regimes, but supported overthrowing them for more democratic regimes. They gave up on that and became simply cheerleaders for Castro and, in fact, for the Vietnamese, even though the North Vietnamese had a history of massacring Trotskyists. So, the question was, “What are you for? What’s your vision?”  It was muddled. We would talk to people and say, “Well, you say you’re Marxist; we say we’re Marxist. To Marx the central thing was the struggle of the working class to establish proletarian democracy.” They didn’t give a shit. They wanted something like Vietnam, Cuba, or China (not so much Russia, because they thought Russia was somehow different). That made it difficult to be on the libertarian left. The Revolutionary Socialist League (RSL) was smaller than even the International Socialists, which became quite large in recent decades, up until now with the collapse of the International Socialists (ISO) into the Democratic Socialists of America. 

SL: Though I know you had long since gone a different way, how did the 2019 collapse of the ISO into the DSA strike you? How do you see its trajectory in terms of its growth in the 1990s and the 2000s, then this collapse? Is it tragic that there is no organizational legacy of left Shachtmanism today?

WP: Part of the growth of the ISO in the United States was the discrediting of Stalinism with the collapse of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and the transformation of China to being openly pro-capitalist, even though it is still run by a Communist Party. This led to a decline of the pro-Stalinist wing of Marxism, including orthodox Trotskyism. The Socialist Workers Party vanished into a sectarian authoritarian group. So, there was an opening. 

It also had to do with the growth of anarchism, because of Marxism being discredited to a degree. Parallel to this was the growth of Third Camp, socialism-from-below, or what I would call left social-democratic tendencies. So the ISO became the big tent, influenced both by Draper, but also by the British Cliffite tradition. They melded together and grew to become a major far-left group, up until this recent upsurge of socialism, which has been channeled into the DSA and, to a degree, into the Democratic Party. On the specific issue of whether the ISO handled the accusations of sexual abuse and so forth properly, which is a real issue, it doesn’t seem to have been handled very well. But the major issue was the pull towards social democracy, towards “democratic socialism.” That affected all the socialist groups. The DSA even has an anarchist caucus for God’s sake! So, nobody could withstand it. The big difference between the Trotskyists and the Stalinists had been that the Trotskyists, even when they moved to the right, drew a line at supporting the Democratic Party. They might support a third capitalist party, but they would not join the Democrats. Now they have merged into them. 

SL: How do you think that social democracy absorbed the upsurge of anarchism that we saw with anti-globalization in the ‘90s and, later, with Occupy?

WP: Well, those who wanted to be radical and felt most offended by this system did not want to go towards Stalinism, “Marxism” as they saw it. The only alternative was either to become some militant democratic socialist or to become an anarchist. So it is part of the rejection of Stalinism. Probably most anarchists these days have some kind of reformist perspective of building new institutions that will gradually take over the system. There is a lot of reformism arising from the general rejection of authoritarianism. 

SL: So, to go back: In 1969 you were part of the founding conference of the International Socialists?

WP: Yes. After the 1969 split convention of the SDS, a group of radicals around Ron Tabor, Chris Hobson, and some others split off because they rejected Stalinism and Maoism. They had been at arm’s length from the ISC, because of the Shachtmanite legacy. They decided this was no longer significant and agreed to join, merging with the ISC to form the International Socialists. I was happy to participate in that. 

Tabor’s group had formed the Revolutionary Socialist Caucus inside the SDS. They were a minority group that tried to build themselves, but were swamped by the split between Progressive Labor (PL), on the one hand, and, on the other, the various Maoists — what became the Weathermen, the Revolutionary Communist Party, etc.  The IS tried to build its own pole of attraction for militants who did not want to be any kind of Maoist or orthodox Trotskyist.

SL: Then, within five years, the IS itself was split and the man who had inspired you to join that tradition in the first place, Hal Draper, had dropped out of it, indeed out of politics altogether. Why do you think Draper in the early 1970s walked away from what he had helped to build? How was that perceived within the IS at the time?

WP: He ended up focusing on research, writing his books on Karl Marx and politics. From what I gather from the writings at the time, he became disgruntled with the anti-union perspective that developed among some members of the IS. People were trying to grapple with how to relate to the working class, how to be pro-union while opposing the bureaucracy. How do revolutionary socialists both say what we believe and participate in the ongoing struggles, which, after all, tended to be very low-level? People were grappling with this and some became fairly anti-union. Draper seems to have just gotten fed up. He wrote some essays on that, which you have probably seen: the “Reorient Papers.” He persuaded himself that he could start a center that would put out literature, but that it was wrong to build a political organization. Part of this came out of the Shachtmanite tradition of saying, “Well, what counts is getting the working class moving. This will inevitably develop towards socialist consciousness.” That downplayed the need for consciousness being deliberately developed, the need for a revolutionary organization. And he was probably tired, I would guess.

SL: Was it a debate about party building? Was he essentially agnostic as to when the working class would demand the formation of a socialist party?

WP: Well, only a very small group of people agreed with him on this. The focus was not over party building, but unions. Nobody formed a caucus hostile to working in the unions. Our main perspective remained that we should stay inside unions and inside the working class. We thought that we should try to build groupings that were both inside and outside the unions. The Draperites disagreed with that. They wanted to say, “Why not caucus inside unions?” It was really unclear. People were trying things out, trying to experiment and build. Draper’s perspective remained (and he interpreted Marx as saying) that the movement itself would sort of take care of things, that the movement would become revolutionary if you just helped it along a bit. 

SL: The ISC had a working-class orientation even within SDS. How distinctive was that?

WP: It was fairly distinctive. The PL also had such a perspective, though they did not quite know how to deal with it. During summers you could leave college and go and work for the summer. In that process, you would learn how to talk with workers. That was PL’s perspective. In general, the Maoists developed more of a working-class approach than did the Trotskyists. Still, the IS was a pioneer in making efforts to go to the working class and to participate in working-class struggles directly.

SL: When you look back on it, how do you understand the opportunity of your generation, the opportunity of the New Left? Was it missed or not? Are there gains to point to? How do you assess that?

WP: It’s a mixed bag. Certainly, there were gains. The consciousness and the culture were both affected. For quite a while after the Vietnam War, it was harder for the United States to undertake military interventions. This is what the bourgeoisie call the “Vietnam Syndrome.” In addition, the civil rights movement smashed legal segregation, which was no small victory. And other things followed from that — particularly the women’s movement and the gay movement. But these also just represent a general loosening of culture and morals, which was a good thing in many ways. On the other hand, it was all limited. 

SL: None of those things are counted by people today as the gains of socialism or as part of a project of socialism. They are just viewed as the gains of the Democrats or the advance of liberalism. 

WP: Well, all these gains are under attack, but I see your point. Let me say this, there were certain objective factors that limited the movement. The general prosperity of the 1950s and ‘60s limited the intervention of the working class. One thing that made it difficult for our perspective was not only the attraction of Stalinist revolutionaries, but the lack of a working-class struggle in the United States. That came by the 1970s somewhat, with the unionization of the healthcare industry and public employees, some wildcat strikes and so forth, but it was still limited. Then there was the fact that the Left had won victories: Jim Crow was abolished, and the Vietnam War ended. With the war over, the draft stopped. All those things made it difficult, even though by around 1970 the long postwar boom was over. Those were all objective limitations. 

SL: Were those objective limitations or were they, in a sense, limitations of leftist consciousness? It seems to me that these are examples of the Left underestimating capitalism: capitalism can’t deliver prosperity; capitalism can’t overcome Jim Crow; capitalism can’t stop its wars — but it proved able to do all those things. 

WP: Well, yes, except the prosperity did end. We’re now in the post-prosperity period and a lot of people are still at the bottom of society. And we’re still engaged in wars.

SL: I’m not trying to celebrate capitalism. I’m simply saying that the way history unfolded blindsided the Left.

WP: Yes. It’s an underestimation of the resilience of capitalism, as well as an underestimation of its weakness. Nobody predicted that there would be an end to the postwar prosperity. They hadn’t predicted postwar prosperity, but once it happened they assumed that it would go on indefinitely. Anyway, to go back to your earlier point, a key factor was Stalinism. The failure to pose an alternate vision of a different kind of society, of freedom, to make freedom an essential part of the vision of the Left — this was a certain limitation. After all, are you going to tell the workers, “We are going to do to you what Stalin did to the Russian workers or what Mao did to the Chinese workers?” All that put a limit on the Left and discouraged people. That’s a reason why, when the movement develops again as is happening now, or in the 1970s–80s, it takes a more libertarian-democratic perspective that ranges from social democracy to anarchism.

SL: To come back to the issue of party and politics, you went through the abortive founding of the Peace and Freedom Party in 1968. Retrospectively, you described it as a middle-class party initiative and asked, “Why did the U.S. really need another capitalist party?” So, what kind of strategy was involved there. The PFP aside, how were people in the IS thinking about the development of a political movement for socialism in the United States? Specifically, how did that figure into the Revolutionary Socialist League’s split with the IS?

WP: Draper’s method was “one step to the Left” — let’s move things a bit to the Left, and a bit more to the Left, and eventually you get to socialism. Get a movement going and it will get there with just a little bit of our — I wouldn’t say manipulation — influence. That was their perspective. They hoped to build out of the mass anti-war and black movements an independent political party that would break with the Democrats. This would eventually lead to a labor party or some kind of working-class party that would in turn lead to a socialist party, which would eventually lead to a revolutionary socialist party. It was step-to-step-to-step. Actually, things don’t necessarily develop that way. Sometimes they develop by great leaps. 

Draper himself, if you read his earliest writings back in the 1930s, opposed the labor party slogan and program of the Trotskyists. The reason he gave was that a labor party, developing at a time of mass upsurge, would serve as a barrier for developing a revolutionary party. A labor party in its personnel and its program would in fact be no different from a liberal third party or third capitalist party, which the Trotskyists were against. It would have the same union bureaucrats, liberal politicians, and community leaders, and they would take on a reformist program. But, by the 1960s, he kept the analysis but flipped his position, probably due to discouragement. Obviously, the country was nowhere near a revolutionary perspective. So, we said, “Well, the Peace and Freedom Party’s liberal third-party program is no different than what a labor party’s would be, therefore we should support it, though it doesn’t fit the class criteria.” He flipped over but kept the analysis. I could agree with the analysis, but I wouldn’t flip over. In practice, it was no different than a liberal party, and could only develop in a situation of mass upheaval, where it would serve to misdirect the movement in a reformist and electoralist direction.

SL: And the RSL in the 1970s was raising the demand for a labor party?

WP: Yes, they advocated for a revolutionary program. It did not accept a third-party liberal perspective. That was wrong in retrospect, and the group that split off from us raised it as a criticism, calling instead for general strikes or non-parliamentary direct action. But yes, formally we were for a labor party. When the impeachment was raised for Nixon we said, “Yes, impeach him and replace him with a workers’ government” — that was our slogan.

SL: Did this differentiate the RSL from the IS? What were the issues in that split?

WP: The issues were really — how can I summarize it? — a matter of seriousness, a willingness to openly say we were for revolution. The IS itself was a very mixed bag. It had no clear theory. It never critiqued what happened to Shachtmanism, the method of the one-step-to-the-left approach, why that was wrong. It sent people into industry but tended to support liberal opposition caucuses without criticizing them in any way in the unions. This came to a head in the discussion of the Miners for Democracy in the miners’ union, where they became essentially cheerleaders for Arnold Miller and the liberal opposition. Our grouping said, yes, we should support it, but we should also criticize it, stating openly in our literature that there is no solution short of a revolutionary perspective. That became the dividing line and a major issue.

SL: Would you describe both of these as rank-and-file strategies? 

WP: Yes and no. Our criticism was of pure rank-and-file-ism. We said it was not enough to mobilize and get the rank-and-file moving, (though, again, this is how Draper interpreted Marx). You have to also be saying that those who become the revolutionary minority should organize themselves and try to persuade other people of a revolutionary perspective. It’s not enough to say, well, if the rank and file move, that makes things more militant, more democratic, etc. You need a revolutionary perspective, and, if you can organize for it, you should say so. This is the part that I continue to believe that we saw in Lenin and Trotskyism, this idea of “saying what is” when organizing. What I came to reject when I became an anarchist was the idea that this revolutionary organizational tendency should aim to take power for itself, to rule over the people and become the new bosses.

SL: From your perspective today, is it necessary to form a political party for socialism? I know that you argue against electoralism and against an organization that aims for state power. Do you reject the whole question of the democratic struggle and “the battle for democracy,” as Marx calls it in the Manifesto? How do you conduct that battle?

WP: I do not reject the idea that revolutionary socialists who agree with each other, in my case who agree on a basic socialist-anarchist perspective, should organize themselves into a collective grouping in order to coordinate their activities, undertake joint activities, and educate themselves. This perspective goes way back in anarchism to Bakunin’s Alliance for Socialist Democracy. Marx in fact opposed the anarchists because they built a political caucus inside the International. He objected to that and demanded that Bakunin disband the Alliance. The disagreement is, like I said, that this should be the party to take power in the name of the workers or to take the place of the workers, to build a new state. I define a state not as any kind of association or federation of workers’ councils and other mass organizations, but as a bureaucratic-military, socially alienated machine standing over and above society (which is a perfectly good Marxist definition of the state). I don’t agree with the goal of a state so defined, but I agree with the need to organize the working class and oppressed for self-management and self-liberation. 

Regarding the battle for democracy, don’t forget that when Marx was saying that, when he wrote the Communist Manifesto, he expected them to take over the British state as it was. Later, Engels published a preface saying, “What we learned since then and changed in our program, is that you can’t use the existing state. We learned from the Paris Commune in 1871 that we have to smash the existing state and replace it.” I agree with that perspective. Unfortunately, what Marx did after the Paris Commune was to wage a major campaign inside the International for every local to form a political party to try to get elected to power in the existing states. That was the main issue in the split between the Marxists and the anarchists, whether the parties should get elected in different states. I don’t agree with Marx on that. I don’t think it’s realistic. I don’t think you can use the existing state to move towards socialism. All history has demonstrated that.

SL: Would you say that Hal Draper had misgivings about Marx’s stated goal of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the way that it was taken up within Marxism? Did you, Tabor, and others extend Draper’s skepticism towards Marxism to include Marx and Engels themselves?

WP: No, such a statement would be grossly unfair, because Draper wrote one of his major books on Marx’s concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Far from disagreeing with Marx, Draper said that what Marx meant by it, in the eleven or twelve times Marx or Engels used the phrase, was not the formation of a particular kind of authoritarian state, but rather the taking of power by the workers, a “workers’ state,” by which Marx meant more or less a radically democratic state. Another of Draper’s books criticizes the prevailing interpretations of “dictatorship,” whereby it came to mean the rule of a minority in a particular type of state. He never reinvented Marx on this, but rather defended Marx’s democratic conception. Draper abandoned the phrase “dictatorship of the proletariat” for our time, of course, but he never meant that as a criticism of Marx. 

I would criticize Marx for his notion of the workers taking power democratically. Marx’s notion seemed to be a very democratic form of representative democracy even in his most libertarian writings on, say, the Paris Commune. He had no conception of direct democracy, of people directly deciding things, whether in the neighborhood or the workplace. They have delegates passing decision-making on to higher levels, but this should be rooted in direct, face-to-face democracy — Marx has no conception of this (neither did Draper). That is my criticism of Marx. I don’t believe he was totalitarian, certainly Draper never thought so. Draper criticized the followers of Marx: The only ones he doesn’t see as distorting Marx’s thinking and taking it in an authoritarian direction were Rosa Luxemburg and William Morris.

SL: Do you think there is an ambiguity within Marx that was realized within Marxism?

WP: Yes. That I do believe. There are authoritarian aspects of Marxism. One is the program, the idea of workers taking over the state, either being elected to the existing state or overthrowing it and establishing their own state as a centralized machine. Even in the Communist Manifesto, when he talks about the state withering away, he expects it to be replaced by some kind of centralized, but not political, institution. That is the immediate thing. If you focus on taking over the state and building state power, it’s not surprising if you end up with social democracy and Stalinism. The other problem is more philosophical, the deterministic or teleological aspect, the idea that socialism and revolution is inevitable. This is ambivalent in Marx. He says this a lot and he says the opposite. He says at least the equivalent of the “socialism or barbarism” conception. Even the Communist Manifesto, for example, ends by saying socialism and revolution is inevitable, after beginning by saying that sometimes class struggle ends in the common defeat of both classes. There is a powerfully democratic aspect of Marxism, which I still believe in and which Draper focused on, but the authoritarian aspects are what became the dominant tendency. That’s part of the argument: if Marx was so democratic, then how come his followers end up as social democrats and then as Stalinist totalitarians? Certainly, objective factors pressured development in that direction, but what was there in Marxism that lent itself to these interpretations?

SL: To defend Marx and Marxism, one might say that the fundamental ambiguities or, rather, contradictions arise from, in a sense, capitalism itself, given that the question is one of overcoming capitalism on the basis of capitalism itself, that the project is to push capitalism’s own innermost tendencies, and that includes, ultimately, realizing proletarian society in order overcome it.

WP: Well, if that means we recognize whatever capitalism has, and start from where we are, I can’t disagree with that. But capitalism’s drive to centralization, is a capitalist drive. It does not produce in this way because this is the most effective way of producing useful goods. No. Capitalism is not geared for producing use-values, but for producing surplus-value, and the most effective way to produce surplus-value isn’t necessarily the most effective way to produce useful goods. This is, again, an old discussion about technology. We see right now some of Marx’s critics, the “communizers,” saying, “now it’s become hard to organize workers precisely because capitalism has been turning against the large industries, the large factories, and trying to produce smaller factories in order to weaken the working class.” And, of course, capitalism can produce in small enterprises, small workshops and factories. They coordinate and centralize through the internet and other means of mass communication. It is not necessarily true that centralized methods are the most effective in terms of, again, producing useful goods. In fact, the effects, the side-effects of capitalist forms of production have been disastrous, as everyone knows, in terms of ecology and the climate. 

We have to start wherever we are: if we have big factories, then the workers should take them over; small factories, take them over. We must learn how to coordinate them, how to re-tool and reorganize them, to generate a more democratic, creative, ecologically balanced form of technology. We can’t just argue that, since capitalism centralizes, we want a centralized system. A coordinated system, yes. There is going to have to be some kind of democratic planning from below, coordination from many different sides, which is, in fact, more possible than ever before.

SL: In your article for the Platypus Review, you wrote that it’s “wrong to claim that anarchists believe ‘the state is the source and origin of all evil,’ as distinct from the exploitative class system and other forms of oppression. But it is certainly true that anarchists are opposed to the state (as part of the overall system of domination) and reject the Marxist program of a ‘transitional’ or ‘workers’ state.”[3] You mention that the person that you’re polemicizing against, Herb Gamberg, “correctly quotes Bakunin as predicting that a revolution constructs ‘a powerfully centralized revolutionary state that would inevitably result in military dictatorship and a new master.’”[4] But doesn’t the question that Marx would pose turn on the relationship of the state and society under capital? Isn’t the bonapartist state, the capitalist state, with its basis in modern democracy, symptomatic of the self-contradiction of society? Is it not the case that the state emerges to manage the contradictions of society? That is where I feel like the real question between anarchists and Marxists lies.

WP: Well, yes and no. I certainly agree that the state derives out of capitalism, or previous forms of class society. I’ve written a whole series of essays, in fact, arguing this with other anarchists, arguing for a class analysis of the state.[5] I argue there that mine is the perspective that the original anarchists, the classical anarchists, had — Kropotkin, Bakunin, and so on. 

The question is program. Because the state is based on divisions in society and it exists to serve to hold society together; in a society in which a minority rules you have to hold down the majority. In the event of an overthrow of the state, of smashing the bourgeois state, too, there needs to be central coordination. The various workers’ councils and committees, local assemblies, and popular militias need to coordinate with each other, to federate with each other. This requires various degrees of centralization, various kinds of coordination and conflict-resolution, especially given the immediate need to repress counterrevolutionaries. I agree completely. As you may know, during the Spanish Revolution the Friends of Durruti Group came to advocate something like that. The question is, is this a state? Should it be a separate institution standing above and over the rest of society? That’s what we disagree with, committing yourself to building a state. Because it is no longer a minority ruling over the majority, but the self-organization of a large majority of the population and is therefore qualitatively different from any kind of state that’s ever existed. No matter how democratic the bourgeois revolution was, a socialist revolution would be altogether unlike that. Because it would be in the name of the vast majority, the authoritarian (“statist”) aspects of coordinating associations will tend to wither away. But I am not denying there will be authoritarian aspects; there will always be some kind of structures, some kind of conflict-resolution, and so forth. That’s not the question. Most anarchists would agree with that. We are talking about radical democracy rather than total individualist freedom. 

SL: What about the tradition within anarchism that points beyond or criticizes democracy, that distinguishes the goal of anarchy from “democracy”?

WP: This was one of Draper’s arguments against anarchists, that they reject democracy. And the truth is that there is disagreement, theoretically, among anarchists. We have recently — I have been part of debates on democracy: those who reject it and those who are for it — those who see anarchism as rejecting democracy, and don’t see anarchism, as I do, as the most extreme form of democracy, as democracy without the state. Particularly those tending towards individualism tend to reject it, although, in fact, many of those who reject democracy really mean that they reject bourgeois democracy, representative democracy, which exists under capitalism. Instead of democracy they talk about self-management, autogestion and various terms that amount to democracy but are not using the word “democracy”. There is a very strong tradition that sees anarchism as extreme democracy. That tradition includes some in the United States — David Graeber, Paul Goodman, Noam Chomsky, Murray Bookchin, Cindy Milstein, and other well-known anarchists who have different points of view on anarchism, but nevertheless are all in favor of total democracy. So, it’s a question. Certainly, Bakunin’s position, going back to democracy, is not individualist. For him, it is a question of having to be part of a group — that human beings are social and social self-determination is essential for any kind of freedom. So yes, it’s an issue. And those who reject democracy talk as though social self-determination could be a choice rather than something we have to do. Then there are those like me who believe strongly that anarchism is the radical fulfilment of participatory democracy.

SL: I feel that Marx and Lenin agree that the goal is not the rule of the people but the rule of nobody. They agree with Enlightenment liberalism and anarchism on the goal being a world in which the freedom of each would be the basis of the freedom of all. 

WP: I love that slogan. A society where everyone rules is a society where no one rules: everybody is involved in making decisions, there’s no separate institution above people. I think of it not as the end of democracy, but as the expansion of it. There will always be some kind of collective decision-making. Whether it’s like what we did in the workshop this morning, where the workers get together in the morning and decide how to make things, or have people in the neighborhood making decisions about what consumption goods they want to order from the overall planning process, there can be no end of democracy or collective decision-making. It will always continue. I’d call a self-regulating society democracy. There’s bound to be clashes and disagreements: there will never be a perfect society. But, as to the goal, you can say that’s what Marx had in mind, although, as I said, he has a centralist perspective. He never saw face-to-face democracy as good for society. In the Communist Manifesto, he said that the state will be replaced by or evolve into an institution that plans the production of goods. As Engels put it, it will administer things rather than people — as though you can make that distinction! The problem is do you achieve self-regulating society by building, by taking over a state? If your focus is on building a state, then you end up with a state! If you assume that the withering away bit is going to happen by itself, then it never does! Our program should be as follows: To the extent that there are any centralized or authoritarian aspects to social coordination, which we would try to keep to a minimum, you work at decreasing them and reorganizing them.   Reorganizing them in a more decentralized direction, where the working people make their decisions without distinction between order-givers and order-takers. Lenin in The State and Revolution said the workers’ state won’t even really be a state, because it will be a state of a different sort which will immediately start to wither away. The problem is that, first, in Lenin’s view this was in the context of the economy being centralized on the model of the Prussian post office or wartime Germany’s centralized economy. Secondly, the problem was that he took power and established a one-party police state, laying the basis for Stalinist totalitarianism. That said, I don’t reject Marxism. Marxism overlaps with revolutionary anarchism in its belief in the need for a working-class revolution. We should agree on other certain key aspects, particularly Marx’s critique of political economy, which is very useful and necessary for understanding what’s happening in the world today. Another area of agreement is historical materialism as a general philosophy, if you leave out the determinism. There are major areas in which I agree with libertarian-humanistic Marxism. I’ve been criticized for that. There are other people from the old RSL who want to reject Marxism totally. 

SL: If we’re thinking in the longue durée, a century ago millions imminently anticipated a socialist revolution. Your generation at least had living contact with those who had that experience, whereas people nowadays are far more convinced of the imminence of ecological catastrophe than they are of socialism. What do you see as the challenges facing the project of reconstituting the Left in this generation, as opposed to the challenges your generation faced? 

WP: First of all, it’s become impossible to argue that socialism is inevitable. Clearly, it’s not. We face possible destruction, whether through ecological climate catastrophe or war. Nuclear bombs are still out there, and massive destruction may result from even a small war. While people have underestimated the resilience of capitalism, they also underestimate its vulnerability. Socialism would not simply be a nice thing. It is necessary if humanity is to go forward. At the same time, it is necessary for us to be clear about our goal, our idea of freedom, our vision of a radically free, democratic, cooperative society run by human beings for human beings. Part of the problem is getting beyond the cynicism, the belief that nothing can be done. One big strike, one general strike, one sit-in would change U.S. politics overnight. All of U.S. politics is organized so that it doesn’t happen. The demands of the people are kept limited. Take the Wisconsin events a couple of years ago: if that had become a general strike, it would have changed our politics. Instead, it was channeled into the Democratic Party. The issue is the development of the working-class struggle, which is breaking out but is still at too low a level. The crisis that is going to happen, the movement that is going to develop, will be a combination of the issues of the 1960s and of the 1930s, economic questions together with special oppressions and cultural issues. People will pull together, but it’s taking a while. The climate struggle has become the anti-Vietnam War issue of today. I saw a movie recently about organizing in Europe for the last big climate strike there. I was struck by the youth of the organizers. High school students across European countries, a high proportion of them young women, were doing the organizing. So, there’s a new generation being radicalized. How it will develop will be different from last time. And it’s not just that things go up and down. On one hand, there are out-and-out racist fascists marching in the streets proudly and not even being criticized by the President of the United States. On the other hand, the development of people seeing themselves as socialists. Polls show something between 30-40% of the population is willing to call themselves socialist. It’s much higher among young people and even higher among young black people. This is new, the polarization of the Left and the Right. Of course, the extreme fascists, the ones calling themselves Nazis, aren’t going to take power, and the socialists aren’t very socialist. They don’t even want to take away the wealth and power of the capitalist class or even the richest people. Nevertheless, there are openings. Will things develop before there’s too much destruction? I have absolutely no idea. I make no predictions. Predictions don’t work out too well anyway. But there will be change and upheaval and people looking for alternatives. It’s the job of people who see themselves as revolutionary libertarian socialists to find ways of talking to people, to organize ourselves, to make an impact in the movement in society. That’s all I can say.| P

Transcribed by Mike Atkinson, Efraim Carlebach, Ethan Linehan, Jason Roland, and Duyminh Tran.


[1] Hal Draper, “Two Souls of Socialism” New Politics (Winter 1966), 57–84. By “Socialism from Below,” Price may intend the earlier version of this piece published in Anvil in 1960 under the title “Socialism from Below as the Meaning of Socialism.”

[2] Hal Draper and Max Shachtman, Two Views of the Cuban Invasion ([Oakland, CA]: [Hal Draper], 1961).

[3] Wayne Price, “In defense of anarchism: A response to Herb Gamber” PR 65(April 2014) <https://platypus1917.org/2014/04/01/defense-anarchism-response-herb-gamberg/>.

[4] Ibid.

[5] See Wayne Price, “An Anarchist View of State Formation-- Review of Peter Gelderloos, Worshipping Power: An Anarchist View of Early State Formation” available at https://www.anarkismo.net/article/31226; “An Anarchist View of the Class Theory of the State” available at https://www.anarkismo.net/article/31082; and “Post-Anarchism on the State—An Anarchist Critique” available at https://www.anarkismo.net/article/31126.

One comment

  • Posted 15 days ago

    B.S.

    by Peggy on November 15, 2020 12:15 pm

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