Monday, June 23, 2014

The Marxist Critique of Socialist Anarchism

Having surveyed the anarchist critique of Marxism in my previous post, I turn here to the Marxist side of this debate.  Then, in a third post, I will lay out my classical liberal critique of both Bakuninist and Marxist anarchism.

Thinking through this debate over the modern state and whether and how it could be abolished should be part of the current debate over the global crisis of the modern state and the call for "reinventing the state" (as in the new book by Micklethwait and Wooldridge).

This should be part of a Darwinian political science because it's all about the Darwinian evolution of government from the Paleolithic era to the present.

All the major texts of Marx, Engels, and Lenin on anarchism and socialism are collected in a book edited by N. Y. Kolpinsky.  A good summary of the Marxist critique of anarchism is an essay by Paul D'Amato.  (See the References below.)

This debate can be confusing if one does not distinguish the points of agreement and disagreement.  The Marxists and their anarchist critics agree that the end of the socialist revolution is anarchy.  They disagree about the means to that end.  For the anti-Marxist anarchists, the only proper means to anarchy is the immediate abolition of the state; and therefore the Marxist teaching about the need for a dictatorship of the proletariat through the rule of the communist party is simply a new form of statist oppression.  The Marxist anarchists contend, however, that the proletarian state is only the temporary but necessary means to eventually achieve the abolition of the state.

In The State and Revolution, V. I. Lenin explained:
"The proletariat needs the state only temporarily.  We do not at all differ with the anarchists on the question of the abolition of the state as the aim.  We maintain that, to achieve this aim, we must temporarily make use of the instruments, resources and methods of state power against the exploiters, just as the temporary dictatorship of the oppressed class is necessary for the abolition of classes.  Marx chooses the sharpest and clearest way of stating his case against the anarchists:  After overthrowing the yoke of the capitalists, should the workers 'lay down their arms,' or use them against the capitalists in order to crush their resistance?  But what is the systematic use of arms by one class against another if not a 'transient form' of state?" (Kolpinsky, 275-76)
Marxists and anarchists agree in aiming towards the classless and stateless society in which human beings will cooperate freely without governmental coercion and centralized bureaucratic power.  According to the anarchists, the means to achieve this must prefigure the end result; and so we must immediately begin organizing social life as a voluntary association free from any coercion.  According to the Marxists, this is a foolishly utopian idea that ignores the harsh necessity of socialist revolution today as the only means to achieve a future society of anarchy.

To eventually achieve a classless society, the Marxists insist, we need a revolutionary transformation in which the oppressed proletarian class becomes the ruling class and suppresses the class that has exploited them.  To eventually achieve a stateless society, we need a political revolution in which the communist party, leading a workers' democracy, can use highly centralized and dictatorial state power to crush all the opponents of the proletarian revolution.

Marxists see revolutionary anarchism as both theoretically incoherent and practically impotent.  It is theoretically incoherent, because the anarchist theory that all authority must be rejected makes revolution impossible.  It is practically impotent, because the anarchist practice of refusing to exercise political authority makes it impossible for anarchists to challenge the established state authority.

The theoretical incoherence of anarchism was identified by Engels:
"All Socialists are agreed that the political state, and with it political authority, will disappear as a result of the coming social revolution, that is, that public functions will lose their political character and be transformed into the simple administrative functions of watching over the true interests of society.  But the anti-authoritarians demand that the authoritarian political state be abolished at one stroke, even before the social conditions  that gave birth to it have been destroyed.  They demand that the first act of the social revolution shall be the abolition of authority.  Have these gentlemen ever seen a revolution?  A revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing there is; it is the act whereby one part of the population imposes its will upon the other part by means of rifles, bayonets and cannon--authoritarian means, if such there be at all; and if the victorious party does not want to have fought in vain, it must maintain this rule by  means of the terror which its arms inspire in the reactionaries.  Would the Paris Commune have lasted a single day if it had not made use of this authority of the armed people against the bourgeois?  Should we not, on the contrary, reproach it for not having used it freely enough?" (Kolpinsky, 103-104)
The anarchist theory of a revolutionary abolition of all authority is self-contradictory, because revolution itself is an exercise of authority, and a successful revolution must exercise the authority that comes from terrorizing its opponents.  So, for example, when anarchists like Emma Goldman condemned Lenin and Trotsky for smashing the Kronstadt revolt in 1921, they ignored the fact that this came after three years of civil war in which the Bolshevik Revolution was threatened with defeat, and the counterrevolutionaries were prepared to use the Kronstadt revolt to weaken the position of the communist government.  Years later, Trotsky explained this in his defense of the repression of the Kronstadt revolt (Trotsky, 1938).  And he pointed out the confusion in the minds of his anarchist critics, who professed to be revolutionaries, but who refused to accept the dictatorial means required for any successful revolution.

Trotsky also pointed to the practical impotence of anarchism as illustrated by the failure of the anarchist revolution in the Spanish Civil War.  In February of 1936, a new government, called the Popular Front, was elected.  This had been preceded by workers' strikes and peasant rebellions, and most workers and peasants saw the Popular Front as advancing their cause.  On July 17, a coalition of army officers, monarchists, and fascists initiated a military coup led by General Francisco Franco.  The Popular Front government attempted to avoid confrontation, but the workers and peasants acted on their own.  Workers took over factories and organized them through committees of workers.  Workers formed militias to fight against the fascists.  Peasants took control of the land, expropriating big landowners, and putting much of the land into the collective management of communal organizations. 

The Confederacion Nacional del Trabajo (CNT)--the National Confederation of Workers--was an anarchist trade union organization with more than a million members dedicated to the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism.  The CNT gained control of much of anti-fascist Spain.  The Catalonian Popular Front governor Luis Companys called the CNT leaders into his office in Barcelona.  He told them that since they had the support of the people, they could decide whether he was to remain in power, or they could take over.  The CNT decided that they would have to leave him in office, because if they replaced him with a workers' government, this would be a dictatorship, which would contradict their anarchist principle of never exercising state power.  But then having renounced any overthrowing of the state, they later decided to collaborate with the Popular Front government for the sake of fighting against the fascists.  As the communists gained power in the Popular Front, they turned against the anarchists.  In May of 1937, the communists attacked the anarchists in Barcelona and defeated them.  Then, on January 26, 1938, Franco's troops conquered Barcelona.

Socialist anarchists have never been as close to leading an anarchist revolution as they were in Spain in 1936.  They failed, the Marxists would say, because an anarchist revolution is inherently self-contradictory:  any revolution requires the exercise of coercive authority, but that denies the anti-authoritarian principles of anarchism.  Either the anarchists remain true to their principles by refusing to engage in revolutionary politics, and thus they become impotent; or they engage in revolutionary politics, and thus they give up their principles.


Bailey, Geoff, "Anarchists in the Spanish Civil War," International Socialist Review, 24 (July-August 2002).  Available online.

D'Amato, Paul, "Anarchism: How Not to Make a Revolution," International Socialist Review, (Winter, 1997).  Available online.

Kolpinsky, N. Y., ed., Marx, Engels, Lenin: Anarchism and Anarcho-Syndicalism (New York: International Publishers, 1972).

Micklethwait, John, and Adrian Wooldridge, The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State (New York: Penguin Press, 2014).

Selfa, Lance, "Emma Goldman: A Life of Controversy," International Socialist Review, 34 (March-April, 2004).  Available online.

Trotsky, Leon, "Hue and Cry Over Kronstadt," The New International, 4 (April 1938): 103-106.  Available online.


Anonymous said...

What you ignore is that the Kronstadt rebellion wouldn't have happened if the sailors had been given the autonomy and respect they deserved. It wouldn't have happened if Lenin had implemented a more decentralized and genuinely socialist program; initiatives that would have strengthened rather than undermined the defense against counterrevolutionary elements. Instead, the Bolsheviks themselves became counterrevolutionary themselves (no later than Kronstadt and certainly after).

Larry Arnhart said...

Yes, if the "New Economic Policy" had been initiated earlier, the Kronstadt rebellion might have been avoided.