Marxism and anarchism – Part One

Socialist Appeal - British section of the International Marxist Tendency: the Marxist voice of labour and youth.

The present period is the most stormy and convulsive period in history. Globalization now manifests itself as a global crisis of capitalism. Given the depth of the crisis and the worsening conditions, things are developing very quickly. The stage is set for a general revival of the class struggle, and in fact, this process has already begun.

The present period is the most stormy and convulsive period in history. Globalization now manifests itself as a global crisis of capitalism. Given the depth of the crisis and the worsening conditions, things are developing very quickly. The stage is set for a general revival of the class struggle, and in fact, this process has already begun.

 

Nazis raus- Foto: Ralph AichingerThe most striking manifestation of the changed situation is the emergence of a worldwide protest movement that is rejecting capitalism and all its works. A growing number of people are reacting against the crying injustice of the existing order: the unemployment that condemns millions to enforced inactivity; the gross inequality, which concentrates obscene wealth and impoverishment for the vast majority of the world’s population; and the endless wars, racism, and restrictions on “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

The top one percent of the USA owns 34.6% of the wealth in total net worth; the next 19% owns 50.5%; the bottom 80% owns only 15%. In financial wealth, the figures are even more startling: 42.7%, 50.3%, and 7.0% respectively. These statistics are from 2007, but the most recent complete data show that the recession has meant a massive drop of 36.1% in median household wealth as compared to 11.1% for the top one percent, further widening the gulf between the obscenely rich and the rest of us—the 99%.

The 2008-09 recession has meant an even greater increase in inequality: further enrichment for the super rich and more poverty for the poorest. The revolting spectacle of wealthy bankers walking away from the crisis with billions of dollars of public money while over 10 million mortgages are set to default and the unemployed stand in line for food handouts is stoking the fires of mass indignation.

In “normal” circumstances most people do not protest. They remain passive spectators of an historic drama that is played out before their eyes, in which they play no part but which determines their lives and fate. But every once in a while, people are shaken out of their apparent apathy by great events—such as a war or an economic crisis. They begin to take action, to take an interest in politics and to try to regain control over their lives.

Such moments in history have a name: they are called revolutions. Such was the American Revolution of 1776; the French Revolution of 1789-93; the revolutionary movements in Europe in 1848; the Paris Commune of 1871; the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917; the Spanish Revolution of 1931-37; and more recently, the Egyptian and Tunisian Revolutions.

The events that are unfolding before our eyes have many of the features of the early stages of a revolutionary situation. Many people who hitherto took little or no interest in politics now find themselves on the streets protesting and demonstrating against a social and political order that has become intolerable.

There is an old saying: “life teaches.” This is very true. The workers and students on Tahrir Square learned more in 24 hours of struggle than in twenty years of “normal” existence.” Similarly, the experience of the participants of the Occupy movement in the USA and other countries is being compressed time-wise. It will not take 20 years for them to absorb the lessons. People are learning fast.

Under these conditions, the ideas of libertarianism, anarchism, and socialism are all making a revival, as the youth and workers search for an explanation of the crisis and a road forward. The heroic “glory days” of the Industrial Workers of the World are being revived in the minds of many young people as they fight to form unions in their minimum-wage workplaces. Anarchist writers such as Proudhon, Kropotkin, Bakunin and Durruti are being rediscovered by new layers of youth. Authors such as Howard Zinn, Michael Albert, and Noam Chomsky, who expose the evils of imperialism and capitalism, are being eagerly read by a new generation.

Insofar as they open people's eyes as to the undemocratic and exploitative nature of capitalist society, the growing interest in these ideas is extremely positive. Anarchism is appealing to many young people due to its simplicity: to reject anything and everything to do with the status quo. But upon deeper examination, there is a pervasive lack of real substance and depth of analysis in these ideas. Above all, there is very little in the way of an actually viable solution to the crisis of capitalism. After reading their material, one is inevitably left asking: “but what is to replace capitalism, and how can we make this a reality, starting from the conditions actually existing today?”

It is this author's contention that only the ideas of Marxism can provide a theoretical guide to action that can actually harness the movement's energy into the revolutionary transformation of society. Not Stalinism—that bureaucratic, undemocratic, totalitarian, caricature of socialism; and not the lifeless, mechanical, deterministic, “Marxism” of the academic world—but genuine Marxism: the most modern, dynamic, and all-encompassing tools of social analysis yet developed by humanity. Only these ideas can provide not only an analysis, but a revolutionary socialist solution to the crisis facing the world working class.

The publication of this volume marks an important step forward in the theoretical arming of a new generation of class fighters in the U.S. The question of Marxism vs. anarchism has long been discussed. It is no accident that as the class struggle again boils to the surface, the old debates are being revived. Many people newly awakening to political life imagine that they are involved in something entirely new and original; but as the Bible says, there is nothing new under the sun. And although they do not know it, many of these debates have already taken place in the past.

There are many misconceptions about the history, genesis, and real content of both Marxism and anarchism. We can and should learn from the collective experience of our class; from what has worked and what has not worked. This collection of writings will go a long way towards clarifying the Marxist perspective on the limitations of anarchism, and the need for a party, theory, program, perspectives, organization, internal democracy, and accountability.

Limits of spontaneity

The millions of people who have come out onto the streets and squares of Spain and Greece to oppose the policy of cuts and austerity do not trust the politicians and trade union leaders. And who can blame them? In both Greece and Spain the governments that carried out these attacks were supposed to be “socialist.” The masses deposited their confidence in them, and found themselves betrayed. They conclude that in order to defend their interests they must not leave things to the politicians but take action themselves.

This shows a correct revolutionary instinct. Those who sneer at the movement as “merely spontaneous” display their ignorance of the essence of a revolution, which is precisely the direct intervention of the masses in politics. This spontaneity is an enormous strength—but at a certain point it will become a fatal weakness of the movement.

Those who criticise the protest movement because it lacks a clear programme show their ignorance of what a revolution is. This kind of approach is worthy of a pedant and a snob, but never a revolutionary. A revolution, by its very essence stirs society up to the depths, arousing even the most backward and “apolitical” layers into direct action. To demand of the masses a perfect understanding of what is required is to demand the impossible.

Of course, the mass movement will necessarily suffer from confusion in its initial stages. The masses can only overcome these shortcomings through their direct experience of the struggle. But if we are to succeed, it is absolutely necessary to pass beyond the initial confusion and naïveté, to grow and mature, and to draw the correct conclusions.

Those “anarchist” leaders—yes, the anarchists also have leaders, or people who aspire to lead—who believe that confusion, organizational amorphousness, and the absence of ideological definition and are both positive and necessary, play a pernicious role. It is like trying to maintain a child in a state of childishness, so that it is forever unable to talk, walk, and think for itself.

Many times in the history of warfare, a big army composed of brave but untrained soldiers has been defeated by a smaller force of disciplined and well-trained professional troops led by skilled and experienced officers. To occupy the squares is a means of mobilizing the masses in action. But in itself it is not enough. The ruling class may not be able to evict the protesters initially by force, but they can afford to wait until the movement begins to die down, and then act decisively to put an end to the “disturbances.”

It goes without saying that the Marxists will always be in the first line of any battle to improve the conditions of the working class. We will fight for any conquest, no matter how small, because the fight for socialism would be unthinkable without the day-to-day struggle for advances under capitalism. Only through a series of partial struggles, of a defensive and offensive character, can the masses discover their own strength and acquire the confidence necessary to fight to the end. There are certain circumstances in which strikes and mass demonstrations can force the ruling class to make concessions. But in the conditions prevailing today, this is not one of them.

In order to succeed it is necessary to take the movement to a higher level. This can only be done by linking it firmly to the movement of the workers in the factories and the trade unions. The slogan of the general strike has already come to the fore in an embryonic form. But even a general strike in and of itself cannot solve the problems of society. It must eventually be linked to the need for an indefinite general strike, which directly poses the question of state power.

Confused and vacillating leaders are capable of producing only defeats and demoralization. The struggle of the workers and youth would be infinitely easier if they were led by courageous and far-sighted people. But such leaders do not fall from the skies. In the course of struggle, the masses will put to the test every tendency and leader. They will soon discover the deficiencies of those accidental figures who appear in the early stages of the revolutionary movement, like the foam that appears on the crest of the wave, and who will vanish as the waves crash into the shore, just like that foam.

These spontaneous movements are the consequence of decades of bureaucratic and reformist degeneration of the traditional parties and unions. In part, this represents a healthy reaction, as Lenin wrote in State in Revolution, when he referred to the anarchists. Movements like the indignados in Spain arise because most workers and youth feel they are not represented by anybody. They are not anarchists. They display confusion and lack a clear program. But then, where would they get clear ideas from?

The new movements are an expression of the deep crisis of the capitalist system. On the other hand, the new movements themselves have not understood the seriousness of the situation. For all their energy and élan, these movements have limitations that will quickly be exposed. The occupation of squares and parks, though it can be a potent statement, ultimately leads nowhere. More radical measures are necessary to bring about a root-and-branch transformation of society.

Unless the movement is taken to a higher level, at a certain stage, it will subside, leaving the people disappointed and demoralized. Upon reflection of their experience, an increasing number of activists will come to see the need for a consistent revolutionary program. It is the contention of this writer that this can only be provided by Marxism.

Do we need a leadership?

The argument that we don’t need parties and leaders is false to the core. As a matter of fact it is not even logical. It is not enough to reject something you don’t like. You must say what is to be put in its place.

If my shoe pinches my foot, the answer is not to go barefoot, but to get a shoe that fits. If our food is bad, the conclusion is not that we must go without food altogether, but that we need decent, tasty, wholesome food. If I am not satisfied with my doctor, I look for a better one. Why should it be any different with a party or leadership?

The present leadership of the working class is very bad. We agree with the anarchists on this. But the conclusion is not that we do not need any leadership. It is that we must fight to replace the present leadership with one that really represents the interests and aspirations of the working class. We stand for the revolutionary transformation of society. The objective conditions for such a transformation are more than ripe. We firmly believe that the working class is equipped for such a task. How then can we doubt that the workers will be able to transform their own organizations into fighting vehicles to change society? If they cannot accomplish even that, how will they possibly overthrow the whole of capitalism iteself?

Many young people, when they look at the existing organizations of the working class, the trade unions and especially the mass workers parties, are repelled by their bureaucratic structures and the conduct of their leaders, who are constantly hobnobbing with the bankers and capitalists. They appear to be just another part of the Establishment. In the U.S. there is not yet even a mass party of labour. So it is no wonder that many people reject all parties and even claim to reject politics entirely.

However, this is a contradiction in terms. The Occupy movement itself is profoundly political. In rejecting the existing political parties, they immediately put themselves forward as an alternative. But what sort of an alternative? It is not enough to say: “we are against the present system because it is unjust, oppressive and inhuman.” It is necessary to propose an alternative system that would be just, egalitarian and humane.

Although they are still very weak, anarchist trends have been growing recently as a result of the bankruptcy of the reformist leaders of the mass workers organizations. The monstrous opportunismof the workers' leaders gives rise to ultra-left and anarchist moods among a layer of the youth. As Lenin once said, ultra-leftism is the price the movement has to pay for opportunism.

At first sight the idea seems attractive: “Just look at the labour leaders! They are just a lot of bureaucrats and careerists who always sell us out. We don’t need leaders! We don’t need organization!” Unfortunately, without organization we can accomplish nothing. The trade unions may be far from perfect, but they are all that the workers have to prevent the capitalists from trampling them underfoot.

The bosses understand the danger posed to them by the unions. That is why they are always trying to undermine the unions, restrict their rights, and smash them altogether. We can see that with anti-union laws such as Taft-Hartley which have severely restricted the workers’ right to strike. Scott Walker, the Republican governor of Wisconsin, introduced anti-union legislation to disarm the workers in the face of savage cuts. In Ohio, a similar attempt was defeated in a referendum by the people, who understood the need to defend the unions.

“But the union leaders are bureaucrats! They are always striving to do deals with the bosses!” Maybe so, but what alternative do you propose? Can we do without the unions? That would reduce the working class to a collection of isolated atoms at the mercy of the bosses. Marx pointed out long ago that without organization the working class is just raw material for exploitation. The task is not to throw out the baby with the bathwater, but to transform the unions into militant, fighting, class struggle organizations.

More than at any other period in history, the leadership of the workers’ organizations has come under the pressure of the bourgeoisie. They have abandoned the ideas upon which the movement was founded and become divorced from the class they are supposed to represent. They represent the past, not the present or the future. The masses will push them to the left or sweep them aside in the stormy period that now opens up.

Without the aid of the reformists, Stalinists, and the class-collaborationist trade union leaders, it would not be possible to maintain the capitalist system for any length of time. This is an important idea which we have to stress continually. The leaders of the trade unions and reformist parties in all countries have colossal power in their hands—far greater than at any other time in history.

In the final analysis, the labour bureaucracy is the most conservative force in society. They use their authority to support the capitalist system. That is why Trotsky said that the crisis of humanity was reduced to a crisis of leadership of the proletariat. The fate of humanity depends on the resolution of this problem. But anarchism is not capable of resolving this problem, since it does not even accept that the problem exists.

It is necessary to fight to drive the bureaucrats and careerists from their positions, to purge the labor organizations of bourgeois elements and replace them with men and women who are really prepared to fight for the working class. To advocate abstentionism, to refuse to fight for a change of leadership, is to advocate the perpetuation of the rule of the bureaucracy; that is, for the perpetuation of capitalist slavery. As Trotsky explained, to refuse to struggle for political or trade union power means to leave that power in the hands of those who now hold it.

“One Big Union?”

The IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) did outstanding work before the First World War organising the unorganized sections of the working class – the farm hands and unskilled workers, the dock workers, lumberjacks and the immigrants. The slogan One Big Union served as an inspiring rallying point in opposition to the conservative craft unionism of the old AFL.

The “wobblies”, as they were known, led important strikes, starting with Goldfield, Nevada in 1906 and the Pressed Steel Car Strike of 1909 at McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania, the Lawrence textile strike in1912) and the Paterson silk strike in1913. They often faced ferocious repression, beatings and lynching. Joe Hill (Joel Hägglund), the “wobbly bard” who wrote inspiring verses and songs, was accused of murder and was executed by the state of Utah in 1915 on the flimsiest of evidence.

At the Founding Convention of the IWW, Bill Haywood, then the General Secretary of the Western Federation of Miners, said: “This is the Continental Congress of the working class. We are here to confederate the workers of this country into a working class movement that shall have for its purpose the emancipation of the working class from the slave bondage of capitalism.” (Proceedings of the First Convention of the Industrial Workers of the World)

The IWW was consistently revolutionary and based itself on the most intransigent class struggle doctrines. It was never an anarchist organization, but it lacked a coherent and consistent ideology. One might say that its ideology was a strange mixture of anarcho-syndicalism and Marxism. This contradiction was soon exposed in an early debate. Daniel de Leon, the pioneering American Marxist, was a founder member of the IWW in 1905. But he disagreed with the leaders of the IWW over their opposition to political action.

Whereas De Leon argued for support of political action via the Socialist Labour Party, other leaders, including Big Bill Haywood, argued instead for direct action. Haywood's faction prevailed, and as a result the Preamble was altered to precluded "affiliation with any political party." De Leon's followers left the IWW in protest. That was a mistake, because life itself made people like Bib Bill Haywood change his mind.

In fact, the IWW borrowed heavily from Marxism. The two main planks in its platform, the doctrine of the class struggle and the idea that the emancipation of the workers must be the task of the workers themselves, came straight from Marx. The truth is that the IWW was more than just a union. It was at the same time a militant industrial union and a revolutionary organization – an embryonic revolutionary party. This was soon demonstrated by the stormy events surrounding the First World War and the Russian Revolution.

The IWW was internationalist to the core. They opposed the First World War, as did the Russian Bolsheviks. An IWW newspaper, the Industrial Worker, wrote just before the U.S. declaration of war: "Capitalists of America, we will fight against you, not for you! There is not a power in the world that can make the working class fight if they refuse." The organization passed a resolution against the war at its convention in November 1916. Lenin took a lively interest in the IWW mainly for this reason.

The War and the Russian Revolution demonstrated that political action was not merely a question of parliament and votes, but the highest expression of the class struggle. The IWW could not ignore politics. America’s entry into the War in 1917, which unleashed a ferocious wave of state repression against the IWW and everyone who opposed the War proved the need to fight the centralized power of the ruling class. And the Bolshevik Revolution showed how the old state power could be overthrown and replaced with the democratic rule of the workers themselves.

When the Russian workers took the state power into their own hands and used that power to expropriate the capitalists, it had a profound effect in the ranks of the wobblies. Some of their most outstanding leaders, like Big Bill Haywood, James Cannon and John Reed began to question many of their old assumptions. Understanding the need for a revolutionary political organization, they went over to the side of Bolshevism.

The best elements in the IWW joined the young American Communist Party. In April, 1921 Haywood said in an interview with Max Eastman, published in The Liberator: 'I feel as if I'd always been there,’ he said to me. ‘You remember I used to say that all we needed was fifty thousand real IWW’s, and then about a million members to back them up? Well, isn’t that a similar idea? At least I always realized that the essential thing was to have an organization of those who know’.”

The fact that the Stalinist degeneration of the Russian Revolution later distorted the development of the Communist Party takes nothing away from the courageous pioneers who began the task of organizing the revolutionary vanguard in the USA in the teeth of the most terrible repression.

Those who refused to make the transition to Marxism led the IWW into a blind alley from which it never recovered. The sterile anti-political dogma doomed it to isolation from the great historical events that were taking place on a world scale. By the time of its fifteenth anniversary in 1920 the IWW had already entered into an irreversible decline. In 2005, the 100th anniversary of its founding, the IWW had about 5,000 members, compared to 13 million members in the AFL/CIO.

The idea of “One Big Union” still resonates with many. Young workers in particular are understandably frustrated with the endless divisions and infighting in the mainstream unions today, or they do not have a union at all. However, despite the heroic efforts of the Wobblies to organize a handful of coffee shops and fast food restaurants, building such a union one member at a time will never reach its goals. For this, the vast resources of the major unions are required. To change the policy of the current labour leadership will require a political struggle within the AFL-CIO and Change to Win unions, not on the fringes. Furthermore, the only way to really achieve this is through the coming to political power of the working class, the expropriation of the capitalists, and the passing of laws that guarantee every worker union rights, wages, and benefits. This would lay the basis for the realization of “One Big Union,” as hundreds of millions of workers would be organized in a mass, united trade union federation.

Even in its decline, the IWW played a key role in inspiring the development of the modern industrial unionism, which resulted in the creation of the CIO in the 1930s. That was a tremendous achievement. But although in its ranks there are some very militant workers, nowadays the IWW is only a shadow of its former self.

The history of the IWW is an endless source of inspiration to the youth of today. We fully recognize the pioneering role played by the IWW in the early years and embrace wholeheartedly its militant class consciousness and its revolutionary traditions. We recognise that its “anarco-syndicalist” tendencies were only a superficial manifestation – the outer shell of an embryonic Bolshevism. We are proud to claim the IWW as an important part of our historical heritage.

No leaders?

At first sight, it seems an attractive idea. If all leaders sell out, why do we need leaders at all? Yet this notion does not bear the slightest critical analysis. Even in a strike of half an hour in a factory there is leadership. Somebody has to go into the bosses’ office to put the workers’ demands. Who will the workers chose for this role? Will they leave it to chance, or maybe pull a name out of a hat?

No, it is too serious a business to be left to chance. The workers will elect the person who they know will defend their interests: a man or woman who has the necessary experience, intelligence and courage to represent the people who elected him or her. These are the natural leaders of the working class, and they are present in every workplace. To deny this is to deny the facts of life, known to every worker.

While there have not been many successful, large-scale strikes in the recent period in the U.S. nonetheless, many workers have at the very least participated in a strike. But how many workers have lived through the experience of a revolutionary general strike or a mass insurrection? Very few have this experience, and are therefore unable to draw any conclusions or learn the lessons. This is only possible from the standpoint of theory and the past experience of our class.

In the animal world, the accumulated experience of past generations is passed on through the mechanism of genetic transmission. The animal knows instinctively how to react in a given situation. But human society is different from any other animal collective. Here culture and education play a more important role than genetics. How are the lessons of past generations passed on to the new generations? There is no automatic mechanism for this. The transmission must be performed through the mechanism of learning. And this takes time.

What is true of society in general is also true of the working class and the struggle for socialism. The revolutionary party is the mechanism whereby the lessons of the past are transmitted to the new generation in a generalized form (theory). This is the equivalent of genetic information. If the genetic information is correct and complete, it will lead to the formation of a healthy human being. If it is distorted, it will be still-born.

It is the same with theory. A theory that correctly sums up the experience of the past can be of great help in allowing the new generation to avoid the mistakes of the past. But an erroneous theory will only cause, confusion, disorientation, or worse. If we are serious about revolution, we must approach it seriously, not in a superficial and amateur fashion. Questions of strategy and tactics must occupy a central place in the considerations of the Marxists. Without tactics, all talk of the building of the revolutionary movement is idle chatter: it is like a knife without a blade.

The conception of revolutionary strategy flows from the influence of military terminology. There are many parallels between the class struggle and a war between nations. In order to overthrow the bourgeoisie, the working class and its vanguard must possess a powerful, centralized, and disciplined organization. Its leading cadres must possess the necessary knowledge of when to advance and when to retreat, when to give battle and when to avoid it.

Such knowledge presupposes, in addition to experience, a careful and detailed study of past battles, victories, and defeats. In other words, it presupposes a knowledge of theory. A slipshod or dismissive attitude to theory is impermissible, because theory is, in part, the generalization of the historical experience of the working class of all countries.

But is it not possible to improvise and make up new ideas on the basis of our living experience of the class struggle? Yes, of course it is possible. But there will be a price to pay. In a revolution, events move very swiftly. There is no time to improvise and blunder about like a blind man in a dark room. Every mistake we make will be paid for, and can cost us very dearly.

In denying the importance of organization and leadership, the anarchists wish to keep the movement in an embryonic state, unorganized and amateurish. But the class struggle is not a child’s game and it must not be treated childishly. The American philosopher George Santayana once said, very wisely: “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” The history of revolutionary movements provides us with a rich treasury of examples, which deserve careful study if we do not wish to repeat the tragic mistakes and defeats of the past.

Part two >

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