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History & Theory

Anarchism: A Marxist Criticism by John Molyneux

Reviewed by Jason Kunin

Anarchism: A Marxist Criticism

It may be premature to declare capitalism in “crisis” while it remains firmly in control of virtually all levers of power in states around the world, but with popular revolts against the neo-liberal agenda springing up everywhere from Chile to Europe to Wall Street to Quebec, we may be seeing the rupturing of the passive, consensual relationship that bourgeois democracies have taken for granted between capitalism and the beleaguered populations who are its victims. In Quebec even grandmothers came out into the streets banging casserole pans to protest the Charest government’s draconian anti-protest law, Bill 78. Ordinary people are angry and willing to mobilize. The question to ask at this crucial juncture is: what are we mobilizing for?

Those who seriously seek an answer to this question might want to pick up John Molyneux’s slim and timely mini-book Anarchism: A Marxist Criticism (Bookmark Publications, 2011).

I should confess off the bat that my own identification with Marxism and anarchism has always been very fluid, as I imagine it is for many others on the left. I have variously identified as both a Marxist and an anarchist, and even, God help me, as a social democrat (as when, against my better judgment, I renewed my NDP membership.) The question over whether to pursue reform or revolution, as Rosa Luxemburg argued famously, is not an either-or, and many of us work simultaneously on several fronts.

John Molyneux is not one for such synchronic political positionings – he is a firm and committed Marxist – but he is a respectful and admiring critic of his subject. Anarchism, he concedes at the outset, is correct in its claim that for most of human history people have lived in societies with neither states nor governments and that these societies have been in most ways more balanced, harmonious, and orderly than our own.

The problem is not that human beings cannot live without states or large-scale systems of centralized authority; the problem is that these states already exist and are too powerful and violent to be dissolved unless a revolutionary movement makes recourse to means that are anathema to anarchists (central organization, leadership, and so forth). On that basis, Molyneux sums up his central argument in three words: “Anarchism cannot win.”

To make his point, he runs through a brief history of anarchism’s high points, which, he notes, were short-lived and invariably led to failure. The centerpieces of this argument are the 1921 Kronstadt revolt and the Spanish Civil War. By his own admission, his aim is not to offer a comprehensive account of these failures – his bibliography includes sources where one can find such accounts – but to drive home his point that anarchism’s weakness has always been its failure to meet the challenge of counter-revolution and “the inevitable resistance of the old ruling class.”

This same section is also used to make the point that anarchism’s eschewing of “leadership” has always left it vulnerable to domination by charismatic and authoritarian individuals who assume positions of leadership in all but name - both Bakunin and Makhno being examples.

As anyone who has been involved in popular organizing can attest, informal groups run as collectives can often see their agendas largely driven by those who shout the loudest or simply by those with the time to show up to the most meetings. The result of rejecting elected leadership, Molyneux contends, is that the result is usually not no leadership but unelected leadership which, because it is not elected, cannot be removed. Though he admits that elections are not an ideal system since they can be “rigged or unfairly influenced,” anarchism is no less prone to domination by a small group than any other movement with an elected leadership.

Molyneux spends some time dealing separately with different schools of anarchist thought, such as anarcho-syndicalism, autonomism, platform anarchism, and “lifestyle anarchism” (his term for an “amorphous ideology” that does not challenge the capitalist system but advocates a purely individual response of living within its “cracks”). Nevertheless, despite his attention to anarchism’s nuances and internal variety, he does single out certain general tendencies for criticism, such as the refusal to participate in official elections.

While Molyneux agrees with the anarchist assessment of parliamentary elections as “dominated by capital and the rich regardless of who wins” (an analysis shared by Marx), he argues that a refusal to participate even in this largely fraudulent process “abandons the whole field of politics to the bourgeoisie and to its faithful allies in the working class.” Elections, he believes, offer some “opportunity to put over socialist ideas to a large audience.” Moreover, “it is not beyond the realm of possibility for a revolutionary movement to find individuals with the political strength to serve the revolution and the working class inside the parliamentary citadels of power.”

Interestingly, similar arguments have been made for years by Noam Chomsky, an avowed anarchist, who has long held that movements of resistance have depended for their survival on committed dissidents from within the imperial center and that in systems of great power small differences among capitalist parties can have enormous impacts on the lives of vulnerable people. Just ask a Mexican or Roma refugee in Canada whether it makes a difference that the Conservatives and not the Liberals or NDP won the last election.

Molyneaux is also critical of what he feels is anarchism’s fetishizing of “direct action,” which he claims Marxism does support (contrary to charges that it does not), only that it sees direct action as one tactic among many that should be used strategically and not made into an end in itself. There has certainly been a tendency among some anarchist-inspired movements – the Occupy movement comes to mind – to move quickly into a self-congratulatory mode, where the focus turns inward and becomes more about documenting itself and modeling the ideal society (the academic term for this is “prefigurative community”) rather than bringing down the violent and exploitive one that already exists. He is perspicacious when he further argues,
…an obsession with direct action can lead to a separation between the dedicated minority and the less committed majority. The former can become cut off from the latter and develop the illusion that it is only the dramatic deeds of a tiny group of insiders that really count for anything.
Molyneux’s book does have its blind spots. Granted, this is a short work, yet his lack of attention to issues of race and gender in particular weaken, I think, his argument for revolution based on a revolutionary party of workers. In taking issue with autonomism’s narrow focus on the “precariat” – the criminalized, the unemployed, and those on the very edge of the capitalist system who work in insecure, unstable, low-wage jobs – Molyneux argues that an effective revolution must be based on a broader notion of the working class that includes not just those who do manual labour but white-collar waged professionals such as teachers, because only through the mobilization of those workers who have some degree of power within the capitalist system and whose labour is vital to its operation would a revolution be able to hit capitalism “where it hurts.”

I understand the tactical argument being made here. The problem is that a movement that bases its success on the centrality of its most powerful members will always be in danger of reproducing the same racial and gender imbalances that capitalism has so successfully entrenched within the working class. The “precariat,” after all, is where a disproportionate number of women and racialized workers are stuck. To assign them a secondary status within a working-class movement would merely ensure their continued marginalization. The effect would be to render women and workers of colour doubly alienated, first by capitalism, then by the very movement that promises them liberation. Indeed, this has all too often been the experience of women and people of colour in the labour movement.

Molyneux is also vulnerable to charges of engaging in the same sort of utopianism he identifies as a weakness of anarchism. He is critical, for example, of anarchism’s assumption that once the state is smashed one can simply establish small-scale self-governing communities with no central authority or government. This he dismisses as naïve, perhaps rightly so. His own belief, however, sounds no less Pollyannaish:
…once socialism has definitely established itself internationally and classes and class struggle have disappeared and production has reached a level where the necessities of life are provided for all and where habit of work for the collective good has become second nature, then the state will lose its function and whither away.
Perhaps in a longer work Molyneux would have laid out the intermediary processes leading up to the establishment of international socialism and the withering of the state, but left standing as it is this sounds no more realistic than anarchism’s plan for establishing small-scale, participatory communities.

Molyneux believes modern anarchist theory has internalized Nietzsche’s belief in an innate “will to power” by way of Michel Foucault, who gave it a “left gloss and a left appeal.” (Nietzsche himself was right-wing.) In Foucault’s analysis, every institution, every movement – including those that position themselves in opposition to power – are inevitably beset with the same power imbalances of the society from which they spring. Though Foucault himself eventually became pessimistic about the ability to challenge effectively the power relations of one’s own time, for anarchists who have been informed by Foucault’s analysis, power relations reproduce themselves everywhere and must continuously be resisted.

Molyneux complains that if this is anarchism, “the best that can be hoped for is endless resistance without any prospect for general liberation since the power struggles will always renew themselves.” Personally, I have less trouble with the notion that social transformation is a constant work in progress -- one that can achieve real transformations in social relations -- than with Molyneux’s faith in the possibility of a permanent state of liberation, something that reminds me uneasily of religious eschatology. The promise of a general liberation that is “just around the corner” can and has been used to justify all sorts of violent and repressive “interim” measures that eventually become permanent as liberation gets endlessly deferred. To use the state to smash the state will always bring with it the danger (likelihood?) of Stalinism. So I remain with one foot in the anarchist camp.

I nevertheless share Molyneux’s concern that in the struggle against the rapacious capitalism that is devouring the planet and consigning millions to misery, poverty, and death, it is not enough to be right. We must also win. Molyneux believes he know how win, and his ideas are worth hearing out.

Jason Kunin is a Toronto teacher and writer.