Marxist influences on the anarchists of the First International

Marx & Bakunin

Marx & Bakunin

My new book, ‘We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It’: The First International and the Origins of the Anarchist Movement, should be out this Monday, June 16, 2015. Published by AK Press, it’s a history of the debates and struggles with the International Workingmen’s Association (IWMA), which led to the creation of avowedly anarchist movements in Italy, Spain, France and Switzerland, and later in Russia and the Americas. Here, I include a brief excerpt from the conclusion regarding the influence of Marx’s political economy, but not his politics, on some of the anarchists involved in the International and what was to become an international anarchist movement.

marxism and anarchism cover final

Marxist influences on the emergent anarchist movement

Somewhat surprisingly, another part of the legacy of the International is the influence of Marxism on anarchism, albeit Marxism as a critique of capitalism and a theory of class struggle. Bakunin thought Marx’s Capital a much more incisive critique of capitalism than anything Proudhon ever wrote. Elisée Reclus was at one time in discussions with Marx about translating Capital into French. Johann Most produced a popular summary of Capital when he was still a Social Democrat, but Marx’s economic class analysis continued to have an influence on him after he became an anarchist. Carlo Cafiero prepared his own summary of Capital for Italian readers, and often referred to it in his anarchist writings. In the book that Albert Parsons put together while awaiting execution in a Chicago jail, Anarchism: Its Philosophy and Scientific Basis, he included lengthy excerpts from Marx’s Capital and the Communist Manifesto, together with the trial speeches of himself and the other Haymarket Martyrs, plus writings on anarchism by Kropotkin, Reclus and some other American anarchists.

Malatesta later remarked that the anarchists in the International, even those who had not read Marx, “were still too Marxist.” By this he meant that they had been too much influenced by Marx’s theory of history, according to which capitalism produced its own grave diggers, the revolutionary proletariat. For Malatesta, this had too much the air of inevitability to it, and it exaggerated the role of economic circumstance in creating class consciousness. It also underestimated the role of conscious choice and determination in revolutionary social transformation. Neither revolution nor anarchy was inevitable. They had to be fought for self-consciously, not as a merely instinctive revolt against oppression, which could just as easily result in some form of revolutionary dictatorship, or the restoration of the status quo, without the desire for freedom and clear ideas about how to achieve it.

But the anarchists in the International who admired Marx’s critique of capitalism, while rejecting his politics, never agreed with the Marxist view that classes and coercive political power as exemplified by the state would disappear once capitalism was abolished. Bakunin, Guillaume and other anarchists in the International argued, to the contrary, that if the state and other authoritarian institutions were not also abolished, a new ruling class would arise comprising those in control of the state. Although rarely given credit for it, this theory of the “new class” originated with the anarchists in the International, despite being appropriated, without acknowledgement, by some dissident Marxists after the advent of Stalinism.

Robert Graham

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  1. Reblogged this on sergiofalcone.


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