Karl Marx RIP

Karl Marx (1818-1883)

We have already had the 200th anniversaries of the births of two of the founding figures of modern anarchism, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (2009) and Michael Bakunin (2014). Now has come the turn of their younger and more famous contemporary, Karl Marx. Even some of the mainstream media have published articles on Marx’s revolutionary ideas, how prophetic his writings were, and how relevant his politics continue to be. Over the years, I have posted various anarchist critiques of Marx and Marxism, and will continue to do so. The first anarchist to criticize Marx’s approach was Proudhon himself, in a letter that he wrote to Marx in 1846, the year before Marx wrote his scathing (and unfair) critique of Proudhon, The Poverty of Philosophy. Proudhon sensed even then Marx’s tendency toward intellectual intolerance of conceptions of socialism contrary to his own, an intolerance that came to the fore in the International Workingmen’s Association, where Marx did everything he could to neutralize Proudhon’s followers, and the more explicitly revolutionary federalists and anti-authoritarians associated with Bakunin, engineering the expulsion of Bakunin and his comrade, James Guillaume, from the International in 1872 (something which I cover in more detail in my book, ‘We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It’ – The First International and the Origins of the Anarchist Movement).

Proudhon (1809-1865)

Proudhon’s Letter to Marx

My dear Monsieur Marx,

I gladly agree to become one of the recipients of your correspondence, whose aims and organization seem to me most useful. Yet I cannot promise to write often or at great length: my varied occupations, combined with a natural idleness, do not favour such epistolary efforts. I must also take the liberty of making certain qualifications which are suggested by various passages of your letter.

First, although my ideas in the matter of organization and realization are at this moment more or less settled, at least as regards principles, I believe it is my duty, as it is the duty of all socialists, to maintain for some time yet the critical or dubitive form; in short, I make profession in public of an almost absolute economic anti-dogmatism.

Let us seek together, if you wish, the laws of society, the manner in which these laws are realized, the process by which we shall succeed in discovering them; but, for God’s sake, after having demolished all the a priori dogmatisms, do not let us in our turn dream of indoctrinating the people; do not let us fall into the contradiction of your compatriot Martin Luther, who, having overthrown Catholic theology, at once set about, with excommunication and anathema, the foundation of a Protestant theology. For the last three centuries Germany has been mainly occupied in undoing Luther’s shoddy work; do not let us leave humanity with a similar mess to clear up as a result of our efforts. I applaud with all my heart your thought of bringing all opinions to light; let us carry on a good and loyal polemic; let us give the world an example of learned and far-sighted tolerance, but let us not, merely because we are at the head of a movement, make ourselves the leaders of a new intolerance, let us not pose as the apostles of a new religion, even if it be the religion of logic, the religion of reason. Let us gather together and encourage all protests, let us brand all exclusiveness, all mysticism; let us never regard a question as exhausted, and when we have used our last argument, let us begin again, if need be, with eloquence and irony. On that condition, I will gladly enter your association. Otherwise — no!

I have also some observations to make on this phrase of your letter: at the moment of action. Perhaps you still retain the opinion that no reform is at present possible without a coup de main, without what was formerly called a revolution and is really nothing but a shock. That opinion, which I understand, which I excuse, and would willingly discuss, having myself shared it for a long time, my most recent studies have made me abandon completely. I believe we have no need of it in order to succeed; and that consequently we should not put forward revolutionary action as a means of social reform, because that pretended means would simply be an appeal to force, to arbitrariness, in brief, a contradiction. I myself put the problem in this way: to bring about the return to society, by an economic combination, of the wealth which was withdrawn from society by another economic combination. In other words, through Political Economy to turn the theory of Property against Property in such a way as to engender what you German socialists call community and what I will limit myself for the moment to calling liberty or equality. But I believe that I know the means of solving this problem with only a short delay; I would therefore prefer to burn Property by a slow fire, rather than give it new strength by making a St Bartholomew’s night of the proprietors …

Your very devoted,

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

May 17, 1846


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