Anarchist and Marxian Paths to Praxis

As 2011 draws to an end we mark the conclusion of a momentous year of progressive social upheaval the world over. The revival of spontaneous popular/mass political mobilizations has erupted across Western and Southern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and – thanks to the tenacious efforts of #Occupy – even the United States, to name only the most visible flashpoints. The mass social movement as a political force seems to have returned with a vengeance, and, perhaps most importantly, all of its manifestations heretofore – #Occupy, The Arab Spring, the student movement in the U.K, the Spanish indignados, the Greek resistance to draconian neoliberal austerity, and many others – have shared at least one core element: an uncompromising rejection of the increasingly hollowed-out shell of liberal institutions and the feckless, parliamentary cretinism with which it is apparently indissociable. As was discussed in the previous post, this space of collective political invention has emerged against the historical horizon of a conjunctural crisis of world-capitalism – more specifically, the collapse of what is arguably the core dynamic of value-creation under neoliberal structures of accumulation. Since the steady growth of profits, or in other words the creation, expansion, and realization of value, is the one thing that cannot change and must be held as a fixed factor within capitalist society, the burden of shouldering the costs of the crisis ineluctably alights upon those who do not own capital – that is to say, the vast majority of people alive today. The resulting squeeze upon basic standards of living has the capacity to catalyze very different movements across the globe, as great swaths of humanity become seriously disillusioned with the status quo, for quite various reasons, and elements of the radical left see an opportunity for mass political education the likes of which haven’t been seen for a generation or more.

For the first time in perhaps half a century, a political space, a scene of practice has opened up that has injected renewed vigor into theoretical debates on the left over the forms of social praxis most conducive to an historically effective radical politics. In the U.S. front, this has been nowhere more evident than in the popular assemblies of the Occupy movement, specifically designed as they are to allow the most voices to be heard while institutionalizing procedures that can fairly be called directly democratic. While the rapid spread and spontaneous formation of the basic political forms of #Occupy across the United States (not to mention other countries) has been truly remarkable, the movement remains at the germinal stage, with many observers – sympathetic and hostile alike – chattering on about whether or not it is a harbinger of things to come, an effervescent but aimless burst of pent-up populist resentment, or the opening salvo in what probably will be a protracted ideological war-of-position for the duration of the world crisis. Those who have participated in it know that it is here to stay, with the only questions being how and whither, but this does not change the urgency of hashing out differences between competing political positions that have done so much to fragment the left throughout the history of anti-capitalist organization. I offer the following remarks on Anarchism and Marxism towards a reconciliation of two of the most important, but often the most antagonistic, forces in the radical socialist camp. While a discussion like this remains at the level of theory, and it is of course true that real differences between competing organizational visions can ultimately be mediated and effectively synthesized only within practical contexts, nevertheless the times are such that a clear articulation of vision is more important than any other time in recent memory, and it is in this spirit that I offer the following remarks. Some of the most elemental disagreements between Marxian and Anarchist political theory can be drawn out through a close look at what two of their respective classical paragons – Karl Marx and Mikhail Bakunin – thought of each other’s ideas, at least insofar as this can be found in their explicit writings on the subject. While I obviously cannot hope to do justice to the immense complexity of the historical relationship between these two revolutionary traditions within the confines of a single post, it will serve to lay a basis for opening a discussion on the topic.

In his notes on Bakunin[1] we have Marx right away confronting some of the key objections to the Marxist line as it was being argued circa 1874. Bakunin argues that Marx’s revolutionary program already contains in nuce an incipient form of social domination [2], to which Marx’s rejoinder is rich enough to reproduce and subsequently unpack in order to set up a theoretical comparison:

[The proletariat as ruling class] means, that as long as the other classes, and in particular the capitalist class, still exist, and as long as the proletariat is still struggling with it (because, with the proletariat’s conquest of governmental power its enemies and the old organization of society have not yet disappeared), it must use coercive means, hence governmental means; it is still a class and the economic conditions on which the class struggle and the existence of classes depend, have not yet disappeared and must be removed by force, or transformed and their process of transformation speeded up [sic] by force…A radical social revolution is tied to certain historical conditions of economic development; these are its prerequisites. It is therefore only possible where, with capitalist production, the industrial proletariat occupies at least a significant position among the mass of the people…Will, not economic conditions, is the foundation of [Bakunin’s] social revolution.

Several issues emerge here as the crux of disagreement: the status of economic and historical analysis within revolutionary theory; the question of the precise nature of the state, and its role within the revolutionary program; and attitudes towards authority, how it emerges, is reconstituted, or is transformed in the course of revolutionary practice, to name only a few central points of contention. Without too much simplification these are arguably still the core issues that divide many anarchists and marxists to this day, notwithstanding all that has changed since the time of Marx and Bakunin.

Marx essentially accuses Bakunin of two major and related oversights: one, a kind of ‘voluntarist’ stance on political insurrection that pays no attention to economic and historical circumstances, and two, the lack of a historically and socially grounded critical theory – à la Capital –  that could adequately illuminate those circumstances. For Marx, the possibility of revolution is inextricably linked to a critical theory of society, one that not only can purportedly account for the historical preconditions of a radical social revolution, but that is also meant to serve as a practical force in the path of struggle leading up to that revolution. From Marx’s perspective, Bakunin and the anarchists’ revolutionary campaign is all heart and no brains, so to speak; in its unrelenting focus on the church and the state as the two fundamental institutions of oppression it remains stuck at a level of analysis that Marx takes himself – along with the socialist movement as a whole – to have already surpassed [3]. The critique of capitalism as a system of social relationships has to form the intellectual bedrock of any viable and enduring socialist movement.

The anarchist typically sees much of this talk of economic preconditions, coercion, correct theory and so on as rather suspect within the context of trying to imagine and enact radical social transformation. From this standpoint it is deeply problematic to predicate a revolutionary program upon some privileged theoretical or intellectual basis, as it would seem to open up a possibility for the distinction between a cadre of the knowing elite and the more or less benighted masses. Within the debates between classical anarchism and marxism this concern was not unrelated to the question of the state, and particularly whether or not it could be really supposed that seizure of state power and economic centralization could be seen as merely a means to the given end of class dissolution. Anarchists charged and still charge marxists with a grievous miscalculation on this score, arguing that Marx’s predilection to scientific socialism – oriented as it was toward illuminating the theoretical conditions for revolution – effectively diverted his attention from concrete questions of organizational structure and practical politics that are integral to the revolutionary project [4]. The critique has always been that, no matter how theoretically sophisticated, one cannot hope to occupy an institutional complex that is as deeply authoritarian in structure as the modern state apparatus, with surrounding class antagonisms still intact, and really expect its eventual self-cancellation. Rather, authoritarian and hierarchical relationships must be remade from below, starting at the level of everyday human experience, in a process wherein an organizational ethics informed by a shared assumption of equality reshapes the ways in which people interact, imagine collective existence, coordinate social production, and generally get things done [5]. The anarchist sees revolutionary possibility in the everyday social relationships through which people engage each other, in the potentially radically democratic content of interactions in which people treat each other not as superiors or inferiors, but as equals and ends in themselves.

This subject of the ethics of organizational praxis is one key element among others that anarchism can contribute to the reconstruction of a mass-left politics today.  Conversely, within this project the strengths of marxian social theory and political analysis cannot be ignored; these include not only the elaboration of a social theory that can potentially explain and help people to make sense of their world, but also the role that a theory of the deep-structure of capitalism can play in potentially orienting mass-movements and bringing a common goal into focus, thus maximizing the possibility for radical change. By continually encouraging a systemic, historical critique of the social formation within the context of directly-democratic social forms, marxian theory can contribute to a remediation of ‘common sense’ in which ideas like economic democracy and a de-stratified society are no longer abstract, utopian notions but actually live options within everyday consciousness and lived experience.

It is a sign of the interesting historical moment in which we find ourselves that such discussions are losing their status as “merely academic” for more and more people. Anyone who has participated in an Occupy assembly is aware of the myriad diversity of  viewpoints that can be brought to bear in any given meeting, and how difficult it can seem to articulate a sharp political vision when the twin imperatives of direct democratic organization and radically open participation must be maintained. Additionally, as with any movement in the United States aiming at mass inclusion, it must openly acknowledge and reflect on the classed, raced, and gendered aspects of its social constituency, though increasing numbers of talented organizers across the country are starting to do just that in order to overcome them. A huge step in addressing the obstacles to rekindling a popular capacity to imagine radical change has been initiated, in practical form, in the still developing popular assemblies, if for no other reason than showing people directly that they can organize and act in an effort to determine the basic conditions of their own existence. But at present the question of the theoretical content and the shape – if any – that a unified vision will assume for the movement is still largely up for grabs.

[1] See Marx’s notes on Bakunin’s Statism and Anarchy on

[2] Bakunin: “We have already stated our deep opposition to the theory of Lassalle and Marx, which recommends to the     workers… the foundation of a people’s state…the proletariat organized as ruling class…if the proletariat becomes the ruling class, over whom will it rule? It means that there will still remain another proletariat, which will be subject to this new domination, this new state,”

[3] Marx’s frustration at this seemingly regressive step in left-socialist Continental thought and practice in the last quarter of the 19th century also appears very explicitly in Critique of the Gotha Programme.

[4] I must leave aside the immense question of the political party in Marx, as well as its lasting impact as an aspect of revolutionary consciousness largely as a result of Lenin’s writings and the legacy of 1917. Obviously Marx and Engels saw a doctrinally-sound Communist Party as the definitive vehicle of working-class revolutionary consciousness, but as Marx never lived to see an actual “communist” revolution take place, we can only conjecture about what he would have made of something like the Bolshevik Revolution.

[5] This entails what Murray Bookchin would call “the physiology of freedom – of freedom as the process of communizing… [this is] those subjective dimensions that link the remaking of society to the remaking of the psyche.” Murray Bookchin, Post-Scarcity Anarchism (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2004) x.


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