How anarchism parted ways with Marxism


This is the second part of a three-part review article on Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism, by Michael Schmidt and Lucien van der Walt. The first part (Solidarity 203) discussed the many point on which Schmidt's and van der Walt's version of anarchism is closer to Marxism than to traditional anarchism; their claim that Marxism equals proto-Stalinism; and their claim that "the broad anarchist tradition" is equivalent to "socialism from below".

Click here to download all three parts as pdf.
Schmidt and van der Walt insist that anarchism is a class-struggle movement - indeed, the class-struggle movement. Their evidence for this, however, comes down to nothing more than the fact that most anarchists, like most activists for radical change generally and for obvious reasons, have seen the disadvantaged and dissatisfied as their constituency, and welcome strife.

They claim (wrongly, I think) that is libel to say that Bakunin looked to the "lumpenproletariat" ("underclass", paupers, people who live from begging, theft, dole, etc.) as the agency of revolution, rather than the core wage-working class.

However, they are explicit in rejecting the Marxist views that the wage-working class - because of the way in which it is "trained, united, and organised by the very mechanism of the capitalist process of production" - is the unique and central agency of socialist revolution, and that the possibility of modern socialism depends on preconditions which are and can only be created by capitalism itself (the development of the human basis, the wage-working class, and of technology and communications).

For them, peasants are agents of socialist revolution just as much as wage-workers are, or more so. Schmidt and van der Walt quote Marx in polemic against Bakunin:

"He understands absolutely nothing about the social revolution, only its political phrases. Its economic conditions do not exist for him. As all hitherto existing economic forms, developed or undeveloped, involve the enslavement of the worker (whether in the form of wage-labourer, peasant etc.), he believes that a radical revolution is possible in all such forms alike.

"Still more! He wants the European social revolution, premised on the economic basis of capitalist production, to take place at the level of the Russian or Slavic agricultural and pastoral peoples, not to surpass this level... The will, and not the economic conditions, is the foundation of his social revolution".

And here they enter into dispute with the real Marx, not a proto-Stalinist "Marx" of their own invention. "There [is] no need for the capitalist stage to be completed or even begun... It [is] not necessary to wait for capitalism to create the material basis for freedom; freedom would create its own material basis".

Although, as we've seen, Schmidt and van der Walt, unlike most anarchists, uphold the need for a disciplined revolutionary socialist party with a definite programme and a press, they are like traditional anarchists in that their conception of the "party" has little or no dimension of it being (in Trotsky's phrase) "the memory of the working class".

They disapprove of the Spanish anarchists joining the bourgeois governments of Catalonia and republican Spain during the Spanish civil war, but offer no discussion of lessons to be learned, or differentiations necessary in future anarchist movements if they are to avoid such things (which arose from the fact that the anarchists, having "rejected" all government, did not have a clear awareness of the difference between workers' government and bourgeois government, and so, when faced with the need for some coordinated authority for the war against the fascists, collapsed into joining bourgeois governments).

They claim the Mexican syndicalist movement for their "broad anarchist tradition", but comment on that movement's military alliance in 1915 with the bourgeois politicians Obregon and Carranza against revolutionary peasant armies only by labelling it "tragic".

The whole scheme of "socialism from below" versus "socialism from above" has the same deficiencies in the hands of Schmidt and van der Walt as it has in those of Hal Draper, despite the many merits of Draper's writings using the same scheme.

Unlike Marx's differentiation, in the Communist Manifesto, of socialist currents into working-class communism and various strands of what he called "reactionary socialism" influenced by other classes (feudal remnants, do-gooding bourgeoisie, petty bourgeoisie, etc.), this is an idealist scheme. On the one hand, the good, generous, democratic-minded guys and girls who want their socialism to be "from below"; on the other hand, the bad guys who wish it "from above".

Given that the world includes bad guys and girls as well as good ones, one wonders about the basis for hoping that the good ones will win out within the broad stream of socialist thought. History so far, after all, and socialist history as presented by Draper and by Schmidt and van der Walt, has been more like the old verse:

The rain it raineth every day

Upon the just and unjust fella,

But more upon the just because

The unjust hath the just's umbrella.

The sorting-out of socialists into good and bad types in this scheme tends to be arbitrary. Draper put all anarchists in the "from above" bag, on the basis of the real logic of Bakunin's wish for "invisible pilots" to thwart workers' attempts at organising their own democratic authority after revolution, and some real citations from Proudhon, but in a way that is unfair to many real-life anarchists. Schmidt and van der Walt, as we've seen, want to disavow Proudhon and Stirner as not anarchists at all, and claim De Leon and Connolly as good guys, as "from below" types.

Since revolution is not just a counterposition of "below" to "above", but an activity in which those "below" move to become "above", "from below" versus "from above" is not an adequate paraphrase of "by class struggle" versus "by petitioning or by bureaucratic or military coup".

Lenin put it like this: "Limitation, in principle, of revolutionary action to pressure from below and renunciation of pressure also from above is anarchism... He who does not understand the new tasks in the epoch of revolution, the tasks of action from above, he who is unable to determine the conditions and the programme for such action, has no idea whatever of the tasks of the proletariat in every democratic revolution".

Schmidt and van der Walt are right about one thing. Anarchism as a movement (or maybe the word "movement" is too definite, and the French word "mouvance", which has no exact English equivalent, would be better) does date from the 1872 split in the First International. Bakunin and Kropotkin were much more its founders than Proudhon or Stirner.

But what was that split really about? Was it - as it would have to be, if Schmidt and van der Walt's broad scheme were correct - a split between proto-Stalinism on one side, and class-struggle socialism on the other?

It was not. The issues, as stated by both sides, were:

One: political action by the working class. Bakunin's wing objected to the following resolution of the Hague Congress of the International, in September 1872:

"In its struggle against the collective power of the propertied classes, the working class cannot act as a class except by constituting itself into a political party, distinct from and opposed to all old parties formed by the propertied classes.

"This constitution of the working class into a political party is indispensable in order to insure the triumph of the social revolution, and of its ultimate end, the abolition of classes.

"The combination of forces which the working class has already effected by its economical struggles ought, at the same time, to serve as a lever for its struggles against the political power of landlords and capitalists.

"The lords of land and the lords of capital will always use their political privileges for the defence and perpetuation of their economical monopolies, and for the enslavement of labour. The conquest of political power has therefore become the great duty of the working class".

Two: the organisation of the International itself. Marx argued for an extension of the powers of the General Council (actually very modest: it amounted to no more than giving the General Council power to suspend units of the International, subject to a raft of safeguards). The Bakunin wing held that the future society must have no elected central authority, and the International must "prefigure" that future.

"The future society must be nothing else than the universalisation of the organisation that the International has formed for itself. We must therefore strive to make this organisation as close as possible to our ideal. How could one expect an egalitarian society to emerge out of an authoritarian organisation? It is impossible. The International, embryo of the future society, must from now on faithfully reflect our principles of federation and liberty, and must reject any principle tending toward authority and dictatorship".

Marx remonstrated that this doctrine, despite all the "anti-authoritarians'" acclaim for grass-roots rebellion, meant trying to make the working-class struggle develop not according to its own logic but in subordination to "principles" deduced from the leaders' picture of an ideal future society.

"Had the Communards realised that the Commune was 'the embryo of the future human society', they would have thrown away all discipline and all weapons - things which must disappear as soon as there are no more wars..." "All arms with which to fight must be drawn from society as it is and the fatal conditions of this struggle have the misfortune of not being easily adapted to the idealistic fantasies which these doctors in social science have exalted as divinities, under the names of Freedom, Autonomy, Anarchy".

The "autonomous working men's sections" which the "anti-authoritarians" counterposed to an International led by the General Council would "become so many schools, with these gentlemen from the Alliance [Bakunin's friends] as their teachers. They formulate the idea through 'prolonged study'. They then 'bring it home to our working men's associations'. To them, the working class is so much raw material, a chaos which needs the breath of their Holy Spirit to give it form".

The 1872 split was not a clean sorting-out of "anti-authoritarians" even on Bakunin's definition. Many supported Bakunin, to one degree or another, who were not anarchists, but had grievances against a General Council which they saw as dominated by Marx - for example, George Eccarius, secretary of the International until May 1872; John Hales, his successor in that post; C├ęsar de Paepe in Belgium; and the "Lassalleans" in Germany, whom Marx had criticised in 1868 for wanting "dictatorialism" and an excessively centralised regime in the workers' movement!

Another strand was complaint against the General Council and Marx for being too "German". Schmidt and van der Walt pick up that strand, stressed at the time by Bakunin. "Classical Marxists [saw] particular states as 'progressive'... Marx and Engels tended to cast Germany in the role of champion of progress in Europe... Their preference for Germany arguably hid an 'irrational nationalism'..."

They make much of Marx and Engels, in private correspondence at the start of the Franco-Prussian war in 1870, suggesting that their German comrades should vote for war credits (as the Lassalleans did) because this was for Germany a "war to defend its national existence" which it had been "forced into" by the aggression of the French emperor, Bonaparte. In fact the war had been deliberately engineered by the Prussian chancellor, Bismarck. Although Marx and Engels did not know that, they quickly came to endorse and acclaim the stance of Wilhelm Liebknecht and August Bebel in refusing war credits, and approvingly quoted a German workers' declaration: "We declare the present war to be exclusively dynastic".

Marx and Engels were far from being German patriots. In the midst of the First International period, Marx wrote to Kugelmann: "Lassalle's successors oppose me... because they are aware of my avowed opposition to what the Germans call 'Realpolitik'. It is this sort of 'reality' which places Germany so far behind all civilised countries" (emphasis added).

The real issue was what Schmidt and van der Walt tactfully call "an occasional tendency [by Bakunin] to stereotype the Germans", and the anarchist historian Max Nettlau called Bakunin's "nationalist psychosis".

Whereas Marx, Engels, and their comrades quickly developed an independent working-class stance on the 1870 war, Bakunin explicitly sided with Imperial France. That difference did not become an issue in the split in the International, but Kropotkin's siding with France against Germany in World War One was a stance with real roots in anarchist tradition as well as a personal lapse.

In sum, the 1872 split was not between a Bakunin arguing for class-struggle socialism from below, and a Marx pressing towards Stalinism. The issues were those which Marxists since then have seen as central disputes with anarchism: whether workers should mobilise politically (in battles for political reform, and in independent working-class electoral activity), and whether workers should have a cohesive organisation based on the logic of class struggle within capitalism, or a loose network designed by reading back from a picture of an ideal future society.

A review of the background, in the trajectories of the First International and of Bakunin, confirms that assessment.

As Marx described it in his Inaugural Address for the First International, the defeat of the 1848 revolutions in Europe was followed by "an epoch of industrial fever, moral marasmus, and political reaction".

By the early 1860s, things were changing. The "industrial fever" had created sizeable industrial working classes in several countries, whereas in 1848 one had existed only in Britain.

The London Trades Council, though feeble by comparison with future trade-union organisations, became a force. The French workers gained some elbow-room. Oddly, in terms of the subsequent polemics, the major expression of this was an independent workers' candidature in March 1864 by Henri Tolain, who was a Proudhonist (proto-anarchist) and theoretically hostile to political action.

Solidarity with an uprising by the Polish people against Russian rule, in 1863, and with the North in the American Civil War (1861-5), further mobilised workers and the left.

The London Trades Council and Tolain's group organised a joint meeting in London in September 1864. The common account by biographers, and by Marx himself, is that Marx had withdrawn into his study and the British Library since the defeat of the 1848 movement. In fact he had remained involved in the affairs of the German worker-exiles in London (who were, given the repressive conditions in Germany, one of the nearest things there was a live German workers' movement). He was invited to the September 1864 meeting to represent the German workers.

He joined the General Council set up from the September 1864 meeting, bringing with him at least four veterans of his organisation from 1848, the Communist League.

In the earliest discussions, he was able to steer the new movement towards a class-struggle rather than just an abstract democratic political basis. He won acceptance for a "Preamble" to the Rules of the International which stated its aims in the following terms:

"The emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves... the struggle for the emancipation of the working classes means not a struggle for class privileges and monopolies, but for equal rights and duties, and the abolition of all class rule;

"The economical subjection of the man of labour to the monopoliser of the means of labour - that is, the source of life - lies at the bottom of servitude in all its forms, of all social misery, mental degradation, and political dependence;

"The economical emancipation of the working classes is therefore the great end to which every political movement ought to be subordinate as a means;

"All efforts aiming at the great end hitherto failed from the want of solidarity between the manifold divisions of labour in each country, and from the absence of a fraternal bond of union between the working classes of different countries" - and therefore the International should organise that bond of solidarity.

The third and final part of this review article will cover the history of the First International and the split of 1872, and the broad outlines of anarchist development since 1872.

Click here to download all three parts as pdf.


Lumpenproletariat, 1870 war, electoral activity, syndicalism

Bakunin: "Marx speaks disdainfully, but quite unjustly, of this lumpenproletariat. For in them, and only in them, and not in the bourgeois strata of workers, are there crystallised the entire intelligence and power of the coming Social Revolution". (From Statism and Anarchy).

The points below are also in the comments section on part three of this series, "Anarchism and the Commune"

To say "Bakunin supported France in the 1870 Franco-Prussian war" is a "quite disgraceful misrepresentation"?

The fact that Bakunin hoped to latch onto French peasants' hostility to the Prussian invaders so as simultaneously to unleash revolution does not undo his siding with France. (Also, his scenario for this revolution-unleashing is highly manipulative. He does not claim that the peasants want to make a social revolution: in fact, he reckons that in their majority they back Louis Bonaparte. But he thinks that their patriotic fervour can be manoeuvred into "unconsciously but effectively destroying the state institutions").

Bakunin proved right on electoral activity?

You might as well say that the utopian socialists who opposed all workers' trade unions and strikes have been proved right by the growth of the trade union bureaucracy, or the submergence of hundreds of thousands of people who were revolutionaries when young into petty trade-union routine as lay activists. Or that pacifists have been proved right by the large role of after-effects of the Russian civil war in the growth of Stalinism. Or that those who argue that socialists should not bother with books and study, but instead rely solely on instinct, have been proved right by the follies of academic Marxism.

Bakunin foreshadowed revolutionary syndicalism?

Bakunin often wrote pictures of the future like this: "an organization formed by the people themselves, apart from all governments and parliaments, a free union of associations of agricultural and factory workers, of communes, regions, and nations, and finally, in the more remote future; the universal human brotherhood..."

With hindsight you can read Bakunin's ideas about workers' associations as a premonition either of revolutionary syndicalism or of soviet (workers'-council) democracy. The fact that both readings are possible indicates that both are anachronistic.

In the 1860s and 1870s there were no trade unions anywhere near powerful enough that anyone could envisage them becoming, even after a huge leap forward, strong enough to administer the whole economy. The first workers' councils (soviets) were over 30 years in the future (1905).

A more common-sense reading: Bakunin, Kropotkin, and their comrades saw the future society as a spontaneous federation of small units, those small units in turn being formed by voluntary association of individuals. The small units would by definition be workers' associations.

The basic units of their future society were as much (or, as we've seen more) a reference-back to medieval villages (visualised as free associations of working people) as forward to the French CGT or the Russian workers' councils of 1905.