Friday, September 23, 2011

John Molyneux - Anarchism: A Marxist Criticism

Whatever else it is remembered for, 2011 will remain the year that ordinary people once again took to the stage of history. The revolutions that shook Tunisia and then, most inspirationally Egypt have inspired millions of people around the globe. The protests, demonstrations and strikes in Europe this year have all had a little spirit of Egypt about them. Not a few times in recent workplace discussions have one or other trade union members said to me, words to the effect of "If they can do it in Egypt, we can do it here."

"It" in this context is stopping the austerity program imposed by governments across the world. The ruling class' response to the economic crisis. Their attempt to make working people pay, rather than the bankers and the wealthy. For revolutionaries, this is a truly exciting period. Millions of people have engaged in revolution. Millions more have been inspired.

But what is our strategy? Revolution is not an easy, nor a uniform process. There are twists and turns, moments when the movement goes forwards, stands still or must retreat. How should those, who are revolutionaries, who recognise the horrors of capitalism and want to build a new world, organise?

Marxism and Anarchism are the two major strands of anti-capitalist thinking. They have had, and continue to have, a stormy relationship. Anarchists, like Marxists hate capitalism - a society dominated by a tiny minority, who make the majority of us work for them, creaming off the wealth for their own use, and leaving us as little as possible. A system of war and racism, a system of alienation and poverty. A system that can only maintain its existence through the existence of the state, armed bodies of men, the judiciary and those others who hold us in our place.

The rejection of this state is natural for revolutionaries, as is the rejection of hierarchy and authority. Workers spend their lives being told that they must do this or that, by their "betters" or by someone with power over them. But this rejection of authority and hierarchy has dangers for those that want to organise against the system. Veteran Marxist John Molyneux here outlines the arguments against revolutionaries whose strategies to change the world are based on Anarchism, or often more recently called Autonomism.

Molyneux gives a potted history of Anarchism which I won't outline, and he gives a decent, if short critique of Anarchism's high points (the Spanish Revolution of 1936, when they joined the Popular Front government) and in the late 1870s. Most Anarchists I would argue, will be aware of the criticisms of these periods by Marxists, so I won't rehearse Molyneux's arguments here.

I want to briefly concentrate on two aspects of his arguments. The first is the role of the state, and implicit in this hierarchy. Firstly Molyneux puts that it is Utopian to believe that you can destroy capitalism and replace it with a stateless system over night. As the Egyptian revolutionaries have learnt since the fall of Mubarak, the system will come back to fight you and try to regain what it has lost. In the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, or the success of the Paris Commune in 1871, the old order didn't give up and go home. They organised to destroy the revolutions and the revolutionaries.

So organisation of revolutionaries is important. But so is the workers state in the aftermath of the revolution. The state is a force to maintain class rule. That's as true of the capitalist state as the workers state in the immediate aftermath of the revolution. Now Marxists don't believe that in a communist society, when the revolution has spread and embedded itself, that the state will continue to exist forever. Once the external threats to the revolution have vanished, so does the need for the state. Anarchists, in their hope that we can move from the system we live in now, to one without a state, leave out an intermediary step that is crucial if we are to win.

The rejection of hierarchy is another aspect to this. I've had my own experiences of organisations that are dominated by anarchist politics or strategies, and for all their criticism and suspicion "hierarchical organisations" like the SWP, they are often hierarchical themselves. This isn't in an organisational way, but a practical way. I remember many of the anti-capitalist mobilisations being dominated organisation by the same few individuals. Often ones (particularly in Prague in 2000) who had time and money to be able to drop out of normal society and spend a few months organising a protest. Such hierarchies are even less accountable than the ones that the anarchists claim to hate. They have no way of challenging these individuals, decisions are put off, or changed at future events with no reflection on the past and people come and go without any continuity to the organisational process.

Marxist organisations, as John Molyneux and I would be the first to admit, have their own weaknesses too. But certainly those in the Trotskyist tradition attempt to have accountability and the democratic process at their heart. This is because revolutionary organisation needs leadership, not in the sense of a know-all individual, but in the sense of a collective decision making process that results in agreement and movement together towards a common goal.

Molyneux's book is an excellent read. He doesn't patronise his subject nor the objects of his criticism. His starting point is that both Marxists and Anarchists want to change the world. He celebrates the heroes of Anarchism's past and the actions that they have tried to lead. But because the book is written in the spirit of a desire to "win" it is necessarily challenging towards those who call themselves Anarchists. Brief sections on decision making, differing attitudes to elections and direct action are also included.

One final point. I have no doubt that many people will read this review who class themselves as autonomists and anarchists. I urge them to read Molyneux's short book (it is after all, only £4). I don't do this out of a belief that people change their ideas overnight after reading a short 80 page book, but rather I do it because if you are serious about changing the world, then you need to be sure of your ideas. Our ideas, particularly for revolutionaries, are constantly being challenged. If you think you are an anarchist, then you should open up your ideas to the Marxist critique and see how they stand up. Perhaps you'll put some of your responses in the comments box below. A good polemic never did anyone any harm!

Related Reviews

Molyneux - Will the Revolution be Televised? A Marxist analysis of the Media


Anonymous said...

An interesting review. Any revolution requires anarchical state as a strategy, while to carry out a revolution, hierachical organization and good leadership are inevitable. This contradiction reminds me of "The Flood Invades My Spirit" (1912) by Kenzaburo Oe. This novel is about a revolutionary group which consists of young people who want to change the world. ( Actually Oe wrote this novel inspired by activities and bloody incidents caused by the United Red Army in Japan ) There occurs violence, lynching, murder though they are described as if carnival happend. ( this is even reminiscent of "Lord of the Flies" by W. Golding ) If they were well organized introducing strong leadership, would it be successful? It may depend on what kind of person becomes a leader. ( or not?) - a difficult problem. Thanks for thought-provoking post.

Anonymous said...

Hi, an interesting review. I do wonder a lot about the Marx v Bakunin split and what Michels called 'The Iron Law of Oligarchy.' I am sympathetic to anyone who believes in a more egalitarian world but feel that some Marxists have committed larger mistakes than most anarchists in terms of not being democratic. That said, this only means that Marxists going forward have to be clearer than anarchists about how they avoid bureaucrativ tyranny. This does not mean Marxists are wrong and anharchists are right. Personally, I believe that both Marx and Kropotkin were great individuals in terms of their thinking, but that both must be read critically.

Anonymous said...

Please allow me to put in a correction. "The Flood Invades My Spirit" was published in 1972. ( not 1912) I'm sorry.