The latest issue of the ISR contains an article on Contemporary Anarchism by Eric Kerl. It does a reasonable job of surveying the major currents of anarchism in the US today (the picture in the Canadian state is pretty similar). Kerl is right to note that “anarchists of all types are currently debating new tactics, political shifts and reassessments of the anarchist tradition” and his stated aim of searching for “common ground with the best aspects of today’s anarchism” is laudable. But he still takes the conventional “Marxist versus anarchist” approach that many people who identify as Marxists or anarchists adopt, instead of trying to look beyond labels and get at people’s actual ideas and actions. Kerl’s article is about anarchism, but what it says about the Marxism of too many Marxists is also important.
If we’re interested in dialogue between serious revolutionaries from different traditions, it’s not helpful to make sweeping claims like “For decades, class struggle has been treated with indifference or outright contempt by anarchists” as Kerl does. That’s been true for many anarchists in the US and the Canadian state, but there have always been some anarchists who’ve supported workplace struggles and looked to class struggle to change society (including anarchist socialists — see a review of Kerl’s article from one such perspective).
There are a number of points where what Kerl writes about trends within anarchism seems suspect to me. For example, I think he exaggerates the influence among anarchists of the writings of Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri and John Holloway even though what he says about much of anarchism today is true: “What is different about the new anarchism is that it ignores rather than challenges state power; instead of the means prefiguring the ends, the means have become the ends” (for a really explicit example, see this piece written in the aftermath of the G-20 protests in Toronto). The “retreat from any goals-based, long-term strategy” by many anarchists is important (I think it’s one manifestation of a broader retreat from politics based on long-term strategy that’s happened in an era where the main left political projects of the 20th century — social democracy, Stalinism, “Third World” national liberation — have lost their credibility and radical alternatives based on mass struggle from below to transform society don’t have much appeal, especially where unions are weak and bureaucratized and other social movements are tiny or absent, but that’s a whole other topic…).
Kerl recognizes that the looser new current he calls “social movement anarchism” which “seeks to build a broader left and stronger social movements” has the broadest appeal to activists. But to simply say that this “represents the most diffuse and liberal wing of anarchist thought” just scratches the surface. It is loose and there are liberal elements, but in the Canadian state (and in the US, I’m sure) there are many serious radicals committed to migrant justice, anti-poverty, international solidarity and other kinds of activism who are part of this current and many more people who are influenced by it to some extent. Some are part of the discussions about “new tactics, political shifts and reassessments of the anarchist tradition” that Kerl acknowledges. I think this current is less influenced by any of the historical traditions within anarchism than other anarchist currents — which is a source of some of its strengths as well as some of its weaknesses. I think how this current evolves will quite important for the future of the anti-capitalist left.
Kerl confidently claims that “While it can be demonstrated that the heart of Marxism (as opposed to the socialist movement more broadly) is working-class self-emancipation, anarchism is a much broader church from which certain wings can only expelled arbitrarily, not because of something intrinsic to anarchist theory.” This is a bit dubious (as is the claim Kerl mentions by the anarcho-socialist authors of the recent book Black Flame that “the term anarchism should be reserved for a particular rationalist and revolutionary form of libertarian socialism”). Anarchists like the authors of Black Flame can make a coherent and convincing argument about how there is a gulf between their revolutionary socialist politics and the politics of other anarchists (trying to claim exclusive rights to the term anarchism is unconvincing). Marxists who are socialists committed to the self-emancipation of the working class can make a compelling case that our politics are enormously different from those of most other Marxists (hopefully by this point the common ground between such Marxists and some anarchists would be clear).
Kerl’s breezy claim gets to the problem that Marxism appears in the article as a coherent and unified single tradition (basically Trotskyism, though this isn’t made explicit), unchanging, not in need of renewal, while anarchism is treated as broad and diffuse. This is the usual way things are seen in the International Socialist tradition (for a theoretical presentation of this view, see here). This view rightly points out how different the politics of social democracy, Stalinism and Third World nationalism are from the politics of socialism from below (“the real Marxist tradition,” or what Kerl simply calls Marxism). It’s also right that Marx’s political project was not that of social democracy, Stalinism or anti-imperialist nationalism. But it’s wrong to equate socialism from below with Marxism (or, worse, Trotskyism), since this makes other supporters of socialism from below (some anarchists and anti-Stalinist Marxists who weren’t Trotskyists) disappear. This view also tends to treat Marxist politics as a finished product that only needs to be learned and applied, unlike anarchism. Its supporters also generally deny or underplay the undemocratic and substitutionist aspects of Bolshevism and Trotskyism (substitutionism happens when the actions of some other group of people — a party, political group, guerillas or masked street fighters, for example — are substituted for the self-organized struggles of exploited and oppressed people). Earlier would-be supporters of Marx and Marx himself are also often treated too uncritically.
At one point Kerl sounds a different note, but he doesn’t think through the implications. At the end of the article he says (and I agree) that “many of the revolutionary left’s most dedicated activists identify with the anarchist tradition and continue to make important contributions to the fight against oppression” and adds that “these anarchists have represented Marxism better than some of the so-called Marxists.” Isn’t the real point that such anarchists have done more for the cause of human emancipation than many Marxists? That cause has never been anyone’s property. Or, to put it another way, that these anarchists have practiced the politics of socialism better than many Marxists?
Can we get beyond anarchism vs marxism?
“Anarchism” vs “Marxism” is an extremely unhelpful way to discuss politics today. As I put it in an article in 2008, “People who accept these labels disagree among themselves more than they agree” (“Real Freedom,” in New Socialist 63). The more we can get beyond these so-often misleading labels and discuss real political questions, the better. I’m not suggesting that there are no disagreements among anarchist and Marxist libertarian socialists, but in the Canadian state and the US today these are just not all that significant. In the face of looming attacks in the name of deficit reduction and competitiveness, what’s most important are the discussions among all anti-capitalists who see people’s self-organized struggles as crucial about how we can best assist them to develop, in workplaces, in communities and on campuses. How to strengthen support for anti-capitalist & pro-liberation politics (especially outside the narrow circles where they’re still marginalized) is something else to discuss. It makes no sense to allow disagreements about issues that don’t arise in the present to be the basis of divisions.