Correspondence: anarchism, marxism, and the 'death of communism'.
We are publishing here a contribution from a comrade who describes it as "an attempt to clarify to myself why I broke with anarchism (or more specifically libertarian communism, having been a member of the Anarchist Federation)". We think that the text speaks for itself and will be very useful for many others who are currently seeking a way towards the clarity of communist positions.
Since the collapse of the eastern bloc in 1989 it would seem that the world has at last changed for the better. We can now look forward to a positive future free from the ideology of the past. It is as if a new morality has been born. ‘Democracy’ has replaced ‘tyranny’ in the old ‘Communist’ states with ‘humanitarian aid’ taking the place of imperialism on an international level. Involvement in foreign wars is justifiable when those involved are labelled fascists or terrorists and there are ‘neutral’ non-government organisations (e.g. Medecins Sans Frontiers) to mop up afterwards. Even the economy has been changed and modified with the introduction of e-commerce. In fact it is claimed that the "technology of the Internet and its generalised use by enterprises and individuals" is &rises and individuals" is "creating a technological revolution comparable in scope to the industrial revolution of the 18th century" (World Revolution 236 p.1). Some have put so much faith in the importance of the Internet that "it is even being compared to the invention of the steam engine" (World Revolution 236 p.1). With all this ‘progress’ in only eleven years it is unsurprising that the bourgeoisie’s claims about the ‘death of Communism’ and the victory of capitalism appear completely justified. In fact anyone questioning the current apparent optimism would have to be mad, wouldn’t they?
The simple answer is no. For those who are seeking to look beyond the current gloss, in which cracks are already beginning to appear, there are many examples of the continuing bankruptcy of capitalism. Whether it’s the on-going imperialist wars, the increasing number of ‘natural’ disasters or the continued attacks on workers’ living standards, it’s clear, to some at least, that capitalism’s crisis is still with us. For a better description of the new century and what capitalism has in store for us we can turn to the words of Trotsky. This is how he described the start of the 20th century "Hatred and murder, famine and blood... It seems as if the new century, this gigantic newcomer, were bent at the very moment of its appearance to drive the optimist into absolute pessimism [...] - Death to Utopia! Death to faith! Death to love! Death to hope! thunders the twentieth century in salvoes of fire and in the rumbling of guns." (from an article on 'Optimism and pessimism', cited in Deutscher's The Prophet Armed). Sound familiar? Essentially we face the same choice faced by revolutionaries at the beginning of the last century: socialism or barbarism. Either we accept that communism is dead and there will be no new society, or we remain optimistic and accept that the opportunity to create a truly human society is not dead but remains alive in the international working class, the gravediggers of capitalism.
The ideas and questions put forward above (and those that will follow) don’t exist in a vacuum and unfortunately many would disagree with them. While this is unfortunate it is also boringly predictable as the majority of those who consider themselves revolutionaries disagree with each other about the problems posed by capitalism. Whether it’s how the working class will create the social revolution if indeed they think this is required (some even question the existence of the working class!) or how capitalism itself ‘works’, confusion reigns among what passes for the revolutionary ‘movement’. This in turn creates an enormous amount of confusion among those younger militants and those unfamiliar with the ‘maddening’ world of so-called ‘revolutionary’ groups, who are seeking a clear explanation of the current situation.
While the bourgeoisie’s campaign around the ‘death of Communism’ has added to this confusion, the collapse of the eastern bloc had an even more fundamental effect on the ‘leftists’ (those groups who despite claiming to be ‘revolutionary’ represent the left wing of the bourgeoisie). The remaining ‘Stalinist’ groups have either collapsed or are in a state of terminal inertia unable to break with an ideology which was the negation of communism. The last ten years has also seen the Trotskyists (in Britain at least) ‘visibly’ move to the centre, joining the bourgeoisie in the parliamentary circus while continuing with their usual tactics of tail-ending single issue campaigns, constantly calling for the unions to act, or for ‘democracy’ to be defended, while all the time espousing their revolutionary credentials. Even the bourgeoisie’s most reliable friend, Social Democracy, has moved further to the right (or perhaps ceased to exist in any real sense?), this being most obvious in Britain with the emergence of ‘New Labour’. All of this may go some way to explaining why the working class seems to have deserted the organisations that claimed to defend its interests, either for the ‘joys’ of the consumer society or the ‘safety’ of religion (1).
Anarchism on the other hand has benefited from the ‘death of Communism’, with anarchist ideas and ‘organisations’ becoming fashionable once again. From Seattle to Prague the black flag of ‘revolution’ may have been raised but the same old lie is repeated "Marx, Lenin, Stalin – all the same enemy" (International Review 102 p.22). Why do anarchists echo the lies of the bourgeoisie and support consciously or unconsciously their campaign that the bankruptcy of ‘soviet’ Russia highlights the bankruptcy of marxism (and by default any other idea that questions capitalism’s authority)? Firstly we must ask those who identify themselves as anarchists what they mean by the term. Do they "mean an anarchist like Proudhon?" (World Revolution 170 p.6) Or are they a primitivist, syndicalist or anarcho-capitalist? Rather than define itself "in relation to historic currents on the vital questions which have faced the working class at important moments" (World Revolution 170 p.6), anarchism is made up of a range of different and often contradictory ideas which leads to confusion rather than clarification.
This incoherence is a consequence of anarchism’s origins. While anarchism may have borrowed ideas from other schools of socialism, it differs from these (and in particular marxism) ultimately as it was based from its beginnings on ‘abstract eternal principles’ (2) like ‘individual freedom’ and ‘absolute liberty’ (due to the influence of petit-bourgeois ideology). This characterised Proudhon’s theory and activity and, with more disastrous effects, Bakunin’s relationship with the 1st International and his criticism of the ‘authoritarian’ Marx. These ideas are the bedrock of anarchist thought and can still be found at the heart of ‘programmes’ (for want of a better phrase) put forward by today’s anarchists (see the article on Anarchism and Marxism in the current issue of Direct Action produced by the Solidarity Federation for an example of this) whether or not they have tried to distance themselves from ‘classical’ anarchism. Ahistorical idealism is always preferred to a more rigorous historical materialism and therefore confusion reigns.
The effect of this confusion is an inability to defend political positions while being able to dodge answering the difficult questions which arise from this vacillation. The evidence for the betrayal of class positions by anarchists is all too clear in the history of the workers’ movement. The real tests for revolutionaries arise during times of war and revolution, and anarchists have been found wanting on both occasions. Kropotkin’s support, along with the syndicalist CGT for the imperialist war in 1914, the CNT’s role in the popular front government during the Spanish ‘civil war’, and the general confusion amongst anarchists over the October revolution in 1917 are perhaps the most obvious examples of this betrayal. These examples also show how close anarchism is to its supposed enemy' leftism. While anarchists may claim to be the most ‘radical’ alternative to capitalism, they often fall into the same traps as leftist organisations. This is evident in their support for single-issue campaigns and their on and off relationship with the trade unions. There are groups and individuals that find all of this a bit difficult to defend and look to groups like the ‘Friends of Durruti’ for examples of how anarchism has remained loyal to the working class. Surely the failure of the Friends of Durruti group to break free from anarchism and the CNT lead to its ultimate fate?
Other groups (e.g. in Britain the Anarchist Federation (AF) and Class War (CW), in France Gauche Communiste Libertaire), faced with anarchism’s betrayal, have tried to form a syntheses between anarchism and marxism, to create a ‘libertarian communism’. In practice this involves plucking out ‘acceptable’ (i.e. not ‘Leninist’ as that would be ‘authoritarian’ and therefore unacceptable) political currents (in the case of the AF, Dutch and German ‘left communists’ like Pannekoek and the KAPD) from their historical context and adopting them as their own. The most obvious problem with this approach is that it is ‘sloppy’ history. But more importantly this is a dishonest attempt to pass off the theoretical breakthroughs of the communist left (those groups and individuals who broke with the 3rd International) on for, example, trade unions and national liberation as having something in common with the anarchist tradition. The "conviction that communism is the self-liberation of the working class emerges with marxism not with anarchism" (World Revolution 238) and left communism can never be part of the anarchist tradition. If it were, surely Bordiga would be worthy of a mention? Perhworthy of a mention? Perhaps because of his commitment to the party he is unacceptable? Anarchism’s real commitment is to ‘self liberation’ its "eternal principles liberty, equality and fraternity", as mentioned above, "originally borrowed from the bourgeoisie" (World Revolution 238). It is these principles which guide anarchist theory and practice and why particularly in the form of ‘libertarian communism’ anarchism can only add to the confusion already in the workers’ movement following the collapse of the eastern bloc (3).
There is of course an alternative to all of this confusion and this alternative has been hinted at above. Marxism and the organisations it has created (the first three Internationals and, in particular, those ‘left communists’ who broke from the decaying 3rd International) offer a clear and coherent explanation of capitalism in crisis, communist organisation and the history of the workers’ movement. It would be foolish to pretend that communists are infallible. Marxism is not a religion to be passed down to enlightened members of the class. That said it is the ability of communists, using marxism as a tool, to learn from their mistakes and through discussion to build on theoretical ‘lessons’ that differentiates them from the anarchists. The best examples of this are the left communists like, for example, Bordiga or the Bilan group, who were able to identify the capitalist nature of Soviet Russia while remaining in the tradition of the October revolution. This is a political current which has never deserted the working class and always stuck to its internationalist principles whatever the consequence. This leads us to the conclusion that communism unlike anarchism is not a utopian dream but a living movement and perhaps the only perspective for humanity (4).
So what’s to be done? Firstly we must combat the ‘greatest lie of the 20th century’ that the collapse of the eastern bloc lead to the death of communism. The current ‘anti-capitalist’ demonstrations prove that many are not happy with capitalism in terminal crisis and are looking for an alternative. Unfortunately most of these protests have concentrated on the spectre of globalisation and in particular the IMF and WTO. This identification with one aspect of capitalism (capitalism became a global system a very long time ago) has meant that many of the protesters find themselves turning to the nation state and its ‘democratic systems’ for protection (the role of the US unions in the demonstrations in Seattle is an example of this), rather than realising that it is these national units not ‘multinationals’ that call the shots on the world money markets. The IMF and WTO act as forums for each nation, large or small, to fight it out with their competitors. Revolutionaries have nothing to gain by defending national interests. The fight begins with the battle against our own bosses and develops as workers begin to control their own struggles until eventually we are at a position where we can overthrow the state. This battle can only be won by the working class not by an ‘alliance’ of well-meaning do-gooders (e.g. greens, Christians, environmentalists) who represent the left wing of capitalism. The task for those revolutionaries who have not deserted the communist project or the working class (i.e. the communist left) is to intervene in this movement (especially with younger militants) and fight bourgeois mystification at every level. The working class has not gone away and neither has capitalism’s crisis. The ‘death of communism’ was an attempt at finally destroying the working class, which failed. The small but growing number of strikes (including an increasing number of wildcat and ‘unofficial’ ones ) proves this. The ultimate task is clear – Workers of all countries, Unite! Capitalism is dying, long live the communist revolution!
R (September/October 2000)
1). Perhaps the most alarming example of this is the growth in popularity, particularly among the young, of Islam and in particular the suggestion that it is a ‘revolutionary’ alternative to capitalism. Superstition and ‘tradition’ offer the working class nothing and revolutionaries must fight this return to medievalism.
2). While I realise that this statement doesn’t go very far in explaining all the differences between anarchism and marxism it does highlight the ‘moralism’ which is at the heart of all anarchist currents. The purpose of this ‘essay’ was to clarify to myself why I had broken from anarchism, not to provide an in-depth thesis. For a more detailed analysis of the argument see ‘Anarchism or Communism?’ in International Review 79 or the articles on anarchism in International Review 102, both of which I found useful when forced to re-evaluate my ideas.
3). Again I realise that this is not the whole story. What about organisation, substitutionism or dead-end activism? As I said above this ‘essay’ is an attempt to clarify to myself why I broke with anarchism (or more specifically libertarian communism having been a member of the AF) and I feel it is the commitment to ‘self liberation’ (which breeds an unhealthy moralism) which influences the rest of anarchist theory. The article in World Revolution 238 which deals with the AF points out the theoretical problems faced by an organisation trying to force two opposing ideas together. When this is tried the only outcome is incoherence. The other main problem is the question of organisation. Federalism is preferred because it avoids the ‘authoritarianism’ of the party. In reality an unofficial hierarchy of friends is created which has all the elements of the most undemocratic organisations while pretending to be ‘free’ and ‘democratic’. This effectively stifles debate and allows for only the most basic agreement on political positions. This perhaps explains why Anarchists prefer dead-end activism to more rigorous debate.
4). Once again I realise this is only a brief explanation. Any issue of World Revolution, International Review, Revolutionary Perspectives, Internationalist Communist or Communist Left will expand on these ideas.