The Poverty of Historicism

daring future

Continuing with the installments from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, in which I survey the historical development and evolution of anarchist ideas, here I summarize the anarchist critique of theories of history, such as Marx’s theory of historical materialism, which posit stages of historical development culminating in the achievement of socialism, with the working class being the agent of this historical process of revolutionary transformation.

poverty of statism

The Poverty of Historicism

The Impulso group remained committed to an essentially Marxist view of progressive historical development, the kind of view that Dwight Macdonald argued had literally been exploded by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (Volume Two, Selection 13). One can no longer claim that from “out of present evil will come future good,” wrote Macdonald, when “for the first time in history, humanity faces the possibility that its own activity may result in the destruction not of some people or some part of the world, but of all people and the whole world for all time” (Volume Two, Selection 13).

The Impulso group clung to the view that as the result of an objective historical process, the working class developed “unitary, ongoing interests,” impelling it to fulfill its “historical role” of abolishing capitalism (Volume Two, Selection 38). That the working class has unitary interests is a concept that has been criticized by other anarchists since at least the time of Bakunin, who argued against Marx that city workers “who earn more and live more comfortably than all the other workers,” by virtue of their “relative well-being and semibourgeois position” form a kind of “aristocracy of labour… unfortunately only too deeply saturated with all the political and social prejudices and all the narrow aspirations and pretensions of the bourgeoisie” (1872: 294).

Macdonald pointed to the post-War “failure of the European masses to get excited about socialist slogans and programs,” suggesting that the “man in the street” feels “as powerless and manipulated vis-à-vis his socialist mass-organization as… towards his capitalistic employers and their social and legal institutions” (Volume Two, Selection 13). For Louis Mercier Vega (1914-1977), social stratification within the “working class” makes it necessary “to speak of several working classes,” each with conflicting interests. “Wage differentials,” for example, “make class consciousness that much harder to achieve… encouraging collusion between (private or state) management and privileged brackets of wage-earners. They accentuate rather than curtail the tendency to retain a sub-proletariat reduced to low wages and readily disposed of in the event of a crisis or economic slow-down, alongside groups of workers, employees and officials locked into complex [regulatory] arrangements wherein their docility and diligence are reflected in their wage levels” (Volume Two, Selection 45).

Marx's theory of history

Marx’s theory of history

The Impulso group implicitly accepted the Marxist view of historical stages of development which other anarchists, from Bakunin onward, have also challenged. Even before Bakunin’s conflict with Marx in the First International, one of the points of disagreement between Marx and Proudhon was whether an anarchist form of socialism could be achieved before capitalism created the technology that would produce an abundance of goods allegedly necessary to sustain a socialist society (Marx, 1847). Anarchists promoted peasant revolutions in a variety of circumstances, rather than waiting for the development of an urban proletariat as suggested by the Marxist view of history.

Gustav Landauer rejected that “artifice of historical development, by which—as a matter of historical necessity—the working class, to one extent or another, is called by Providence to take for itself the role of the present day ruling class” (Volume One, Selection 40). For Landauer, “the miracle that materialism and mechanism assume—that… fully-grown socialism grows not out of the childhood beginnings of socialism, but out of the colossal deformed body of capitalism—this miracle will not come, and soon people will no longer believe in it” (Volume One, Selection 49). Huang Lingshuang and Rudolf Rocker later put forward similar critiques of the Marxist theory of history.

popper poverty of historicism

In the 1950s, some anarchists were influenced by the contemporaneous critique of Marxist “historicism” that was being developed by philosophers such as Karl Popper (1957). Writing in the early 1960s, the Chilean anarchist Lain Diez urged anarchists to reject all “historicist systems” based on “the supremacy (in terms of decision making in men’s affairs) of History… which, unknown to men, supposedly foists its law upon them,” for this “new and jealous divinity has its intermediaries who, like the priests of the ancient religions, interpret its intentions, prophesying as they did and issuing thunderous anathemas against miscreants refusing to be awed by their revelations” (Volume Two, Selection 47). More recently, Alan Carter has presented a thoroughgoing anarchist critique of Marxist “technological determinism” (1988), emphasizing the role of the state in creating and enforcing “the relations of production that lead to the creation of the surplus that the state requires” to finance the “forces of coercion” necessary to maintain state power, turning Marx’s theory of history on its head (Volume Three, Selection 19).

Robert Graham

Alan Carter's anarchist critique of Marxism

Alan Carter’s anarchist critique of Marxism

Fascism: The Preventive Counter-Revolution

The Fascist Counter-Revolution

The Fascist Counter-Revolution

Returning to my installments from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, in this section I discuss anarchist responses to and analyses of fascism. Despite common misconceptions in “ultra-leftist” circles, the anarchists did not fail to develop a response to fascism, nor to set forth a critical analysis of the spread of fascism in Europe. In fact, one of the first and best analyses of fascism, Fascism: The Preventive Counter-Revolution, was written by the Italian anarchist, Luigi Fabbri, in 1921-1922,  just as the Fascists were seizing power in Italy. Not being tied to a Marxist theory of historical materialism, which had difficulty explaining the appeal of fascism to many workers, anarchists drew on the emerging ideas of radical psychoanalysis to help explain the popularity of fascism, while keeping fascism’s counter-revolutionary role in the service of capitalism at the forefront of their analysis. Most of the material cited in this section can be found in Volume One of the Anarchism anthology.

Luigi Fabbri Memorial Plaque

Luigi Fabbri Memorial Plaque

Fascism: The Preventive Counter-Revolution

Those anarchists who were not seduced by the seeming “success” of the Bolsheviks in Russia were faced with an equally formidable opponent in the various fascist movements that arose in the aftermath of the First World War. As with the Communists, the Fascists championed centralized command and technology, and did not hesitate to use the most brutal methods to suppress and annihilate their opponents. One of the first and most perceptive critics of fascism was the Italian anarchist, Luigi Fabbri (1877-1935), who aptly described it as “the preventive counter-revolution.” For him, fascism constituted “a sort of militia and rallying point” for the “conservative forces in society,” “the organization and agent of the violent armed defence of the ruling class against the proletariat.” Fascism arose from the militarization of European societies during the First World War, which the ruling classes had hoped would decapitate “a working class that had become overly strong, [by] defusing popular resistance through blood-letting on a vast scale” (Volume One, Selection 113).

Fascism put the lie to the notion of a “democratic” state, with the Italian judiciary, police and military turning a blind eye to fascist violence while prosecuting and imprisoning those who sought to defend themselves against it. Consequently, Fabbri regarded a narrow “anti-fascist” approach as being completely inadequate. Seeing the fascists as the only enemy “would be like stripping the branches from a poisonous tree while leaving the trunk intact… The fight against fascism can only be waged effectively if it is struck through the political and economic institutions of which it is an outgrowth and from which it draws sustenance,” namely “capitalism and the state.” While “capitalism uses fascism to blackmail the state, the state itself uses fascism to blackmail the proletariat,” dangling fascism “over the heads of the working classes” like “some sword of Damocles,” leaving the working class “forever fearful of its rights being violated by some unforeseen and arbitrary violence” (Volume One, Selection 113).

The anarchist pacifist Bart de Ligt regarded fascism as “a politico-economic state where the ruling class of each country behaves towards its own people as for several centuries it has behaved to the colonial peoples under its heel,” an inverted imperialism “turned against its own people.” Yet fascism was not based on violence alone and enjoyed popular support. As de Ligt noted, fascism “takes advantage of the people’s increasing misery to seduce them by a new Messianism: belief in the Strong Man, the Duce, the Führer” (Volume One, Selection 120).

The veteran anarcho-syndicalist, Rudolf Rocker (1873-1958), argued that fascism was the combined result of the capitalists’ urge to dominate workers, nations and the natural world, the anonymity and powerlessness of “mass man,” the development of modern mass technology and production techniques, mass propaganda and the substitution of bureaucratic state control over every aspect of social life for personal responsibility and communal self-regulation, resulting in the dissolution of “society into its separate parts” and their incorporation “as lifeless accessories into the gears of the political machine.” The reduction of the individual to a mere cog in the machine, together with the constant “tutelage of our acting and thinking,” make us “weak and irresponsible,” Rocker wrote, “hence, the continued cry for the strong man who is to put an end to our distress” (Volume One, Selection 121). Drawing on Freud, Herbert Read argued that it is the “obsessive fear of the father which is the psychological basis of tyranny” and “at the same time the weakness of which the tyrant takes advantage” (Volume One, Selection 130).

Rocker Nationalism and Culture

The Triumph of the Irrational

Rocker noted how in Germany fascism had assumed a brutally racist character, with German capitalists citing Nazi doctrines of racial superiority to justify their own domination and to dismiss human equality, and therefore socialism, as biological impossibilities. Writing in 1937, Rocker foresaw the genocidal atrocities which were to follow, citing this comment by the Nazi ideologue, Ernst Mann: “Suicide is the one heroic deed available to invalids and weaklings” (Volume One, Selection 121).

The Italian anarchist, Camillo Berneri (1897-1937), described fascism as “the triumph of the irrational.” He documented and dissected the noxious racial doctrines of the Nazis, which, on the one hand, portrayed the “Aryan” and “Nordic” German people as a superior race, but then, in order to justify rule by an elite, had to argue that the “ruling strata” were of purer blood (Berneri, 1935). As Rocker observed, “every class that has thus far attained to power has felt the need of stamping their rulership with the mark of the unalterable and predestined.” The idea that the ruling class is a “special breed,” Rocker pointed out, originated among the Spanish nobility, whose “blue blood” was supposed to distinguish them from those they ruled (Volume One, Selection 121). It was in Spain that the conflict between the “blue bloods,” capitalists and fascists, on the one hand, and the anarchists, socialists and republicans, on the other, was to reach a bloody crescendo when revolution and civil war broke out there in July 1936.

The CNT fights fascism in Spain

The CNT fights fascism in Spain