Sunday, June 22, 2008

Marxism vs. anarchism

I have a confession to make. I change my mind on political affairs quite often.
This isn't a confession that I am now going to endorse John McCain for president or anything so insane as that. It's just that when I get into a topic, I tend to immerse myself in that topic and form opinions before I've emerged from my immersion. It's very easy for me to read, as I had for the last few months, nothing but anarchist material with regards to politics, and more or less ignore alternative views in the meantime.
Really, for the last year I'd been considering myself essentially "converted" to anarchism, if that's an appropriate word for it. Many of my blog posts are written from an anarchist perspective. But as I think back over that time, I've always been an "anarchist but..." I am not sure I've ever been entirely anarchist in my thinking, as reflected by how I described my anarchism as a critique of authority rather than a political ideology. I've freely admitted that I think there is a place for representative democracy, even while posting screeds against representation. I've been of dual minds about many fundamental components of anarchism, and I've come in the last few weeks to realize that I was only on the edge of anarchism at all.
In essence, as the title of my blog implies, I've continued to be a revolutionary socialist -- a Marxist. I've certainly taken a great deal away from my foray into anarchist thought, and I still consider it to be a valid and useful critique of authority, as I said. But the more I think about it, the less I think that it (and by it I mean of course the myriad interrelated strands of thought that go by the word) is actually an effective means to the sort of world I want to live in.
Here's the thing: anarchism, even in its most socialist forms, is an individualist political philosophy. If we take (as the Left has traditionally done) liberty, equality, and solidarity as our core values, anarchism doesn't strike the balance that I do between them, because anarchism privileges liberty over the others. Certainly, many anarchists would dispute this, and I grant that the situation isn't nearly as dire as other leftists might try to imply. But the fact remains that anarchists are generally in favor of radical decentralization, of small communities (even if they're near each other in what is presently a city) being independent of one another and confederated horizontally on an ad hoc basis for, among other things, trade, distribution of raw materials, and defense.
This doesn't sound so bad. The problem for me is in the anarchist conception of humanity's future. They see these small communities as being, for lack of a better word, sovereign. Autonomous. If a community doesn't want to be a part of a given project undertaken by the confederation as a whole, it is generally allowed to not do so, or even to dissociate from the confederation. And this applies not only to specific communities, but even to individuals within the community. Many, if not most, anarchist groups even favor consensus decision-making -- a laudable goal, but one that gives a single individual veto power over the wishes of as many members as make up the group by that individual simply refusing to consent. But even without such a decision-making process, anarchism allows individuals to just plain opt-out of whatever the disagree with. Individuals must always win over groups, because as soon as they don't, "authority" is introduced and the system is no longer anarchist.
Now, some may like this. I don't at all disagree that individual liberty is an important component of the ideal political system -- but it is only one component, not the system as a whole. Part of this revelation for me came about when I was reflecting on my last post, and I quoted anarchist anthropologist David Graeber about the hypothetical victory of the anarcho-syndicalists in the Spanish Revolution. His conclusion, and the one that I supported at the time that I made the post, was that we can't, and shouldn't, win through a revolution by a minority, because it would be impossible to force our beliefs on the majority without resorting to authoritarian methods that sacrifice our anarchist ideals.
I agree with that conclusion. An anarchist revolution (in the traditional sense) is destined to fail for precisely that reason. I also agree that a revolution needs at least some basic support of a majority to have any chance of success. But think of the American Civil War. Before the war, chattel slavery was legal in the South. A person could legally own slaves. After the war, it was illegal to own slaves. If most of the wealthy South had simple ignored this edict (as the hypothetical Spain of Graeber's thought experiment would ignore the disintegration of capitalism and the state) would it then be wrong to "impose" freedom of slaves on those slave-owners?
The anarchists say they wish to abolish the state as well as capitalism in one fell swoop, though most are reasonable to admit that this swoop might take some time. But I have to agree with the Marxists, who argue that the state is the only entity powerful enough to impose economic democracy on the capitalists. And yes, it would be an imposition. No capitalist is going to say, "Gee whiz, you guys win, here, take my multibillion-dollar company and I'll go dig ditches from now on."
Most anarchists seem to agree with this necessity in principle. They will freely say that it might take violence to wrest control of capital from the hands of capitalists. They want to do this without a state, which is a fine goal. But the Marxist definition of a state is simply "coercive force to maintain class rule." It says nothing of the composition, development, and functioning of this state. The only example Marx and Engles ever gave for how the "dictatorship* of the proletariat" was to function was the Paris Commune of 1871 -- one of the very institutions anarchists hold up as an example for their own purposes as well. If a democratically-organized confederation of workers and community councils was in place that prevented capitalists from hiring wage slaves through the threat of force, it would still be a state by the Marxist definition -- even while not being one by the anarchist.
Both Marxists and anarchists have the same goal: a stateless, communist society. The difference between them is in the role authority will play in getting there, and by extension, the order in which the twin demons will have to be exorcised. I am with the Marxists. We must, through revolution if necessary, democratize the state and use it to democratize the economy. When the class of exploiter no longer exists, and all are socially equal, the state will no longer be a state and its more objectionable functions will cease to be necessary. In the meantime, socialist ideas must be disseminated as widely as possible, which includes through the use of electoral politics as propaganda (if not as an end in themselves). But any political movement must retain democracy and for its own functioning operate with liberty, equality, and solidarity as paramount values.
* For the less seasoned readers, it is important to remember that in the 19th century, "dictator" didn't have its present connotations. A Roman dictator was in place for a temporary term. The idea of a "dictatorship of the proletariat" had no particular negative implication at the time, and could be entirely democratic. It was only a dictatorship in the sense that the proletariat now "dictated" that they could no longer be exploited by the bourgeoisie.

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