Is it possible to reconcile anarchism and marxism? (ICC reply to GLC - extracts)

Printer-friendly versionSend by email In Révolution Internationale n°300, we only cited the two most significant anarchist tendencies, those of its two “founding fathers”, Proudhon and Bakunin. We are not unaware of the other tendencies which emerged out of this dual matrix, but we think that the development of the most significant anarchist currents has to be placed in its historical context, which will be dealt with in other articles.

In this article, we criticise anarchism because it begins from “abstract eternal principles”. You reply that “Marx appears to us today as a libertarian, a moralist of freedom. He criticises a capitalism that denies the personality, and the freedom of the individual. A ‘marxist’ must defend liberty and respect the liberty of others”. And indeed there can be no real communism which is not driven by the ideal of freedom, by the will to rid society of all forms of oppression, of the whole weight of corruption and inhumanity produced by social relations based on the exploitation of man by man. Marx and Engels made this quite explicit, denouncing human alienation and the scale it had reached under capitalism, defining communism as the realm of freedom, an association of free and equal producers where the “free development of each is the condition for the free development of all” (Communist Manifesto) (…).

However, according to Marxism, the revolution will be carried out not in the name of individual freedom but as the emancipation of a class. How can this contradiction be resolved? The first element of this resolution is that the individual is not conceived as an abstract entity, which would leave intact the opposition of individual interests, but as the concrete manifestation of a social condition in which each individual sees the other as a reflection of himself. In contrast to primitive communism, the individual will no longer be subordinated to the community, nor to the majority as in bourgeois democracy. Communism is the resolution of the conflict between particular interest and general interest.

You know how hostile Marx and Engels were to the mouthing of empty phrases about “duty, rights, truth, morality, justice” etc. Why was this? Because these notions are not in any way the roots of human action. While human will and consciousness indeed play a considerable role, human beings are above all driven to act under the impulsion of material necessity. Sentiments about justice and equality animated the men of the French revolution, but this was a profoundly mystified form of consciousness for those who were about to consolidate a new society of exploitation. And the more fiery their phrases, the more sordid reality proved to be. Thus, the notions of freedom and equality do not have the same content nor do they occupy the same place for communists. Proletarian struggles and revolutions show concretely how moral values have been profoundly modified. What characterises the workers when they affirm themselves as a class is solidarity, the taste for combat, and consciousness. Thus we cannot go along with you in your reading of Marx here.

Anarchism has borrowed a lot from various other socialist schools and from marxism in particular. But what characterises it, what forms its basis, is the speculative method which it took over from the French materialists of the 18th century. According to this conception, if society is unjust it is because it does not conform to human nature. We can see what insoluble problems this position lands us in. Because nothing is more variable than this human nature. Man acts on external nature and in doing so transforms his own nature. Man is a rational, sensitive being, said the French materialists. But the fact is that man reasons and feels differently in different historical epochs and in different social classes. All the previous schools of thought up to Feuerbach, from the most moderate to the most radical, began from this notion of human nature and from concepts derived from it, such as education, the rights of man, the absolute idea, human passions, the human essence. Even those who saw history as a process regulated by laws, like Saint Simon and Hegel, always ended up appealing to some abstract eternal principle.

With Marx and the emergence of the modern proletariat we see things turned the right way round. It is not human nature that explains the historic movement, but the historic movement which fashions human nature in various ways. And this materialist conception is the only one which places itself firmly on the terrain of the class struggle. Anarchism by contrast has never managed to break from the speculative method and what it draws on from past philosophies is always their most idealist elements. What better abstraction could there be than the “Ego and its Own” that Stirner developed from his critique of Feuerbach! It was by imitating Kant that Proudhon arrived at the notion of “absolute liberty”, and then went on to forge beautiful abstractions at the level of economics - “constituted value” - and politics - “the free contract”. To the abstract principle of “liberty”, Bakunin, on the basis of what he had understood from Hegel, added that of “equality”. What has this in common with the historical materialism that you claim to defend?

With abstract contrasts like liberty/authority, federalism/centralism, not only do you lose sight of the historical movement and the material needs which are its basis, but you also end up turning the real, concrete contrast, between classes themselves, into an abstraction that can be corrected, limited, replaced by other abstractions, such as “Humanity” for example. This was also the method of “real socialism” in “The French socialist and communist literature (…) ceased in the hands of the German to express the struggle of one class with the other; he felt conscious of having overcome ‘French onesidedness’ and of representing, not true requirements, but the requirements of Truth; not the interests of the proletariat, but the interests of Human Nature, of Man in general, who belongs to no class, has no reality, who exists only in the misty realm of philosophical fantasy” (Communist Manifesto). In our view you fall into this kind of trap when you talk about “a position of principle which goes beyond the struggle of the proletariat” and which applies to primitive tribes, mothers and prostitutes.

Many anarchists were genuine working class militants, but because of their ideology they were constantly drawn towards abandoning the class terrain as soon as the proletariat was defeated or disappeared momentarily from the social scene. For anarchism, in the final analysis it is not the proletariat that is the revolutionary subject, but the people in general, which is yet another abstract, unreal notion. But what is behind the world ‘people’, which has lost all meaning in bourgeois society where classes have a much more distinct outline? Nothing other than the idealised petty bourgeois individual, an individual who oscillates between the two historic classes, sometimes towards the bourgeoisie, sometimes towards the proletariat, who would like to reconcile the classes, find an area of agreement, a slogan for a common struggle. Did Marx himself not say that all individuals in this society suffer from alienation? No doubt you know what conclusion he drew from this fact.[1] This was the origin for the demand for “the social and economic equalisation of classes” raised by Bakunin, and it was also why Proudhon and Stirner concluded their theses with a defence of small-scale property. In the genesis of anarchism you have the standpoint of the worker who has just been proletarianised and who rejects his new status with every fibre of his being. Having only just emerged from the peasantry or the artisans, often half-way between worker and artisan (like the Jura watchmakers for example[2]), these workers expressed a regret for the past faced with the drama of their descent into the condition of the working class. Their social aspiration was to turn the wheel of history backwards. At the heart of this conception was a nostalgia for small-scale property. This is why, following Marx, we analyse anarchism as the expression of the penetration of petty-bourgeois ideology into the ranks of the proletariat. The rejection of proletarianisation remains central to the anarchist movement today which reflects in general the enormous pressure on the proletariat coming from the intermediate strata which surround it, and from which it also derives to some extent. For these heterogeneous petty-bourgeois strata, lacking in any historical perspective, the dominant aspect, alongside despair and plaintive laments, is the spirit of every man for himself, of high self-opinion, impatience and immediatism, radical revolt that leads nowhere. These kinds of behaviour and ideology do have an influence on the proletariat, weakening its sense of solidarity and collective identity.

The healthiest components of anarchism, those who have been most involved in the workers’ movement, have always been obliged to demarcate themselves from those who have taken the logic of individualism to its conclusions. But without being able to get to the roots of the problem: “It is however necessary to demarcate ourselves resolutely from the purely individualist anarchists who see the strengthening and egoistic triumph of the person as the only way of negating the state and authority, and who reject socialism itself as well as any general organisation of society as a form of oppression of a self which can have no other foundation than itself” (…).[3]

It is the same for democracy and dictatorship as it is for truth and liberty: taken as abstract principles they lose all meaning. These notions also have a class content: there is bourgeois dictatorship and the dictatorship of the proletariat, there is bourgeois democracy and workers’ democracy. We disagree with you when you write: “The phrase ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ no longer means anything today: the words have covered the facts. Facts have changed the meaning of the words”. The word “communism” has also been dragged through the mud. Should we therefore abandon it? The whole question lies in defining what we understand by the dictatorship of the proletariat. As you will see from reading our press, we share many of the criticisms that Rosa Luxemburg directed at the Bolsheviks and we defend workers’ democracy in the struggle and in the revolution.[4] Before discussing all the questions posed by the Russian experience, we have to begin with Marx’s definition of the dictatorship of the proletariat. For him the term meant the political regime established by the working class after the insurrection, and it implied that the proletariat was the only class that could carry through the transformation of society in the direction of communism. Therefore it had to guard its autonomy, its power and its weapons jealously vis-à-vis all other classes. It also implied that the proletariat must firmly suppress any attempt to re-establish the old order. For us the dictatorship of the proletariat is the most complete democracy for the proletariat and all the non-exploiting classes. The lessons of the Commune were confirmed and deepened by the emergence of workers’ councils and the 1917 insurrection. The proletarian revolution is indeed “a series of phases, each one engendering the next” as you say, quoting Pannekoek. The first phase is the mass strike which poses the problem of the internationalisation of struggles and which reaches its summit with the appearance of the councils. The second phase is characterised by a situation of dual power, which is resolved by the insurrection, the destruction of the bourgeois state and the unification of the power of the workers’ councils on a world scale. The third phase is the transition towards communism, the abolition of classes and the withering away of the semi-state which inevitably arises as long as classes still exist. In what sense can this sequence correspond to a bourgeois revolution? Because, according to Marx and the marxists, the political factor is still dominant? The slogan “all power to the soviets” launched by the working class in 1917 provides the most concrete demonstration of the primacy of politics in the proletarian revolution. Inversely, the occupation of the factories in Italy in 1920, the disastrous experience in Spain 1936, clearly show the impotence of the proletariat as long as it does not hold political power. In our view what was shown to be bankrupt here was self-management, not the dictatorship of the proletariat. A first difference with the bourgeois revolution can be seen here. The transition towards capitalism took place inside feudal society; the seizure of political power by the bourgeoisie was only the culmination of this transition. The proletarian revolution is quite different. Here the councilists commit the most classic kind of teleological error. According to them, the end of the 1920s saw the triumph of state capitalism in Russia, therefore the Russian revolution must have been bourgeois from the start.

The idealist method of anarchism is trapped in such inextricable contradictions that many anarchists have been forced to break with it at moments when the proletariat affirmed itself as a force to be reckoned with. Or else they had to twist the whole sacrosanct dogma. Thus in September 1919, in the midst of the revolutionary wave, Erich Muhsam[5] wrote: “The theoretical and practical theses of Lenin on the accomplishment of the revolution and the communist tasks of the proletariat have given a new basis to our action There are no more insurmountable obstacles to the unification of the entire revolutionary proletariat. It’s true that the anarchist communists have had to give ground on the most important disagreement between the two great tendencies in socialism: they have had to renounce Bakunin’s negative attitude towards the dictatorship of the proletariat and on this point rally to the opinion of Marx”.[6] Thus many anarchists joined the camp of communism. But the counter-revolution was a terrible test which saw numerous militants melt away like snow in the sun, and a profound distortion of communist principles. Many were those who returned to their old loves; this included a lot of anarchists, but also many communists who went back to the social democratic fold. Only the communist left was able to draw the lessons of the defeat while remaining loyal to Red October, and capable of distinguishing those elements in the experience of the revolution which belonged to a past period from those which remained very much alive for today and tomorrow. Here the combat of Gorter and Miasnikov was exemplary.[7]

You take up the theses of council communism from its main animator, Pannekoek. In The Dutch Left and the last issue of our International Review (no.101, “The council communists faced with the war in Spain”) you can acquaint yourselves with our criticisms of this current. But it was clearly an authentic component of the communist left. It remained faithful to proletarian internationalism during the Second World War whereas many anarchists and the whole Trotskyist current took the side of the allied imperialist camp, some even taking part in the resistance. Pannekoek remained a real Marxist when, in Lenin as Philosopher, he criticised the mechanistic conception which appears in Materialism and Empirio-criticism with the theory of reflection and you are right to say that Lenin “forgets the historical materialism of Marx expressed in the Theses on Feuerbach”. But Pannekoek himself left the terrain of historical materialism when, on the basis of theoretical error which he correctly detected in Lenin, he deduced from this the bourgeois nature of the Russian revolution. In our International Review we have republished a detailed reply to Pannekoek’s text (which appeared somewhat after the event in 1938[8]), by the Gauche Communiste de France. For us it is a serious error to confuse a proletarian revolution that has degenerated with a bourgeois revolution. This was never the position of Gorter and Miasnikov, nor was it that of Pannekoek at the beginning. For all militants, the overwhelming reality of the facts demonstrated without any possible doubt the proletarian nature of the revolutionary wave which gave rise to workers’ councils throughout central and eastern Europe (…).

Gorter and Miasnikov,[9] and Pannekoek to begin with, had the same attitude towards this degeneration: like true communists, they fought it to the end, without repudiating the proletarian revolution nor concluding over-hastily that the Bolshevik party had passed over to the bourgeois camp. The only responsible attitude is to fight the party’s opportunist course as a Fraction within it, to go on fighting even after being excluded, and until facts demonstrate incontrovertibly that the party has adopted the interests of capital. Only this attitude can save the original revolutionary programme and enrich it, to win over to its cause a number of militants, and to learn the lessons of defeat. Although he abandoned it later, Pannekoek adopted this attitude at first, following in this the example of Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg confronted with the betrayal of the Social-Democracy in 1914.

We are not Leninists,[10] but we come from Lenin’s tradition, especially as far as his unyielding internationalism at the outbreak of World War I is concerned. The Bolsheviks, and Rosa Luxemburg’s current to which Pannekoek belonged, fought against centrism and opportunism within the Social-Democracy before the war, and in doing so were an international and historical phenomenon of the greatest importance. We find the same tradition within the Left of the Communist International; we find it passed down from one generation to the next, and in much more difficult conditions, to the present day. The most creative currents, those who have bequeathed us the richest lessons, are those that remained firm on the proletarian nature of the Russian Revolution, and which were able to break with Trotsky’s Left Opposition, which quickly sank into opportunism.[11] You are right to bring up the existence of a centrist current, represented by Kautsky, within the pre-war Social-Democracy. But for us, centrism is only a variant on opportunism. Moreover, the fact that Lenin was slower than Luxemburg in identifying Kautsky’s centrism does not contradict the Bolsheviks’ membership of the Second International’s marxist current.

You write: “Lenin’s conception of an active minority of professional revolutionaries is opposed by Otto Ruhle, an anti-authoritarian marxist excluded from the KAPD on Moscow’s orders…”; for us, this passage contains two inaccuracies. The Communist International intervened on two organisational problems: the problem of Ruhle and other elements closer to revolutionary syndicalism than marxism, and that of Wolffheim and Laufenberg’s “National Bolshevik” current. But on both questions, the KAPD was in complete agreement with the CI. Pannekoek was the first to argue for the expulsion of the Hamburgers, whose anti-Semitic leanings were unacceptable. His attitude was radically different from Ruhle’s, and he adopted a clear party position when, with the rest of the KAPD, he considered himself a member in every sense of the CI, the symbol of internationalism and the world revolution. And in line with the party spirit, the KAPD was to struggle against the rise of opportunism within the CI, for the victory of its own positions, rather than deserting the combat.

The “orders from Moscow” that you mention are part of a myth, as is Ruhle’s description of the Bolshevik party which you adopt. The party was criss-crossed by innumerable discussions and crises which bear witness to its rich internal life. The elitist conception is completely foreign to Lenin, and the idea of a “professional revolutionary” is a contradiction in terms. What was important for the Bolshevik fraction was to fight the Mensheviks’ dilettantism and conceptions based on personal affinity. It demanded that the Party’s affairs be conducted with a minimum of coherence and seriousness. Substitutionism is another problem, and Lenin does indeed sometimes fall into Jacobin errors. We have criticised this conception at length in our press. Suffice it to say here that this was a conception shared by the all the marxists of the Second International, including Rosa Luxemburg.[12]

This brings us to your second inaccuracy. You say that Lenin’s envisaged the Party as an “active minority”. Now, you can heap every sin in the world on Lenin’s head, but not this: the notion of the “active minority” belongs to anarchism. Because anarchism is not based on historical materialism, which recognises the proletariat’s historic mission, but on the revolt of the oppressed masses against authority, it needs an enlightened minority to direct this heterogeneous mass towards the realm of absolute freedom. Just as the workers’ movement was breaking with the period of secret societies, Bakunin’s International Alliance for Socialist Democracy upheld the conception of an enlightened conspiratorial elite. For marxism, the proletariat in freeing itself will emancipate the whole of humanity, whereas for anarchism it is humanity that uses the proletarian struggle as a means to emancipate itself. For marxism, the revolutionary vanguard is the most conscious fraction of the proletariat, a part of the whole; for anarchism, the “active minority” transcends the class, expressing the “superior” interests of humanity seen as an abstract entity. This conception is expressed explicitly by Kropotkin and Malatesta, and summarised well by Max Nettlau: “Knowing the masses’ authoritarian habits, [Kropotkin] thought that the masses needed to be infiltrated and given an impetus by libertarian militants such as the Alliance within the International”.[13] You point out Bakunin’s Jacobin failings, so you know very well how hierarchically organised the Alliance was. It may have taken on different forms, but the theory of the “active minority” has remained a constant characteristic of anarchism. Once again, this conception sees the revolution as the work, not of a conscious class but of elementary forces, the most disinherited layers of society – poor peasants, the jobless, etc. – and of this enlightened elite which is to infiltrate the organs of the revolution to give them an impetus in the right direction; this elite is completely external to the proletariat, it is based on nothing other than “eternal principles”. This has nothing to do with the myriad links between the communists and the working class, which made the former a collective secretion of the latter, and which found expression in the open and frank political struggles within both the workers’ councils and the communist parties during the revolutionary wave. In the anarchist vision, two kinds of organisation come together: an enlightened minority which hides its positions and objectives – here it falls into monolithism and is deprived of the collective control and elaboration of positions by the general assembly of its militants – and a large and open organisation, where every group and individual is “free and autonomous” and obliged to accept no responsibility for its actions or positions. This conception explains why Muhsam and Landauer were prepared to cohabit with the worst opportunists during the Bavarian Council Republic. Political confrontation, collective militant responsibility, which make it possible to correct the organisation’s mistakes and to allow a minority position to triumph when it turns out to be correct, and to gather together on a clear basis the forces ready to resist the organisation’s degeneration – all these healthy organisational foundations are rejected by anarchism. This organisational conception of the “active minority” is at the antipodes of the anti-hierarchical ideas, the “organic” centralisation, the intense political life, which characterise marxist organisations (…).


[1]The propertied class and the class of the proletariat present the same human self-estrangement. But the former class feels at ease and strengthened in this self-estrangement, it recognises estrangement as its own power and has in it the semblance of human existence. The latter feels annihilated in estrangement; it sees in it its own powerlessness and the reality of an inhuman existence” (The Holy Family, Chapter 4).

[2] Within the IWA, the Jura Federation, whose membership was largely made up of watchmakers, was one of the most important supporters of Bakunin’s “Alliance for Socialist Democracy”.

[3] Vers une société libérée de l’Etat, La Digitale/Spartacus, Quimperle-Paris, 1999, pp94, 134.

[4] International Review nos.99-101, October 1999 – April 2000, “Understanding the defeat of the Russian Revolution”. Révolution Internationale no.57, January 1979, “Le démocratie ouvrière: pratique du proletariat”

[5] German anarchist who took part in the Bavarian Republic of Workers’ Councils in 1919.

[6] Quoted by Rosmer in Moscou sous Lénine, Petite Collection Maspéro, Paris 1970.

[7] Among the Communist Lefts, Gorter and Miasnikov were among the first to struggle within the International and the Communist Parties against the degeneration of the Russian Revolution.

[8] “Politics and philosophy from Lenin to Harper”, in International Review nos.25, 27, 28, 30: 1981-82.

[9] We have given an account of the struggle of Miasnikov and his “Worker’s Group” in an article published in International Review no.101, “1922-23: the communist fractions against the rise of the counter-revolution”, as well as in our newly published book: The Russian communist left.

[10] See “Have we become Leninists?” in International Review nos.96-97, 1999.

[11] See our book on The Italian Communist Left.

[12] See our pamphlet on Communist Organisations and Class Consciousness.

[13] Histoire de L’anarchie, Paris 1971