the power to make change for ourselves

8 11 2011

David Broder was unconvinced by ‘Anarchism: a Marxist Critique’ by John Molyneux

There’s a bloke who sells the News Line at Broadway Market on Saturdays: Britain’s first-ever colour daily paper is still going strong, it seems. Only thing is, the News Line is the paper of a small Trotskyist group called the WRP, and it could only afford to go full-colour because Colonel Gaddafi was paying for it. So seeing the seller as I walked to the Anarchist Bookfair on the 22nd – two days after the Libyan dictator met his end – I was keen to debate the merits and demerits of this news. He stuck to his (pro-Gaddafi) guns, angrily telling me I “didn’t understand the Marxist theory of the state” and was an “anarchist”.

Some people don't make a great case for the school of thought they claim to uphold

After the bookfair us Communards went for some much-needed refreshments at the Wetherspoons. At the pub a slightly drunk ‘anarchist’ started chewing my ear off about how much he hated Marxism (“Marx was a totalitarian”) but also his sadness about the passing of Colonel Gaddafi, who had, at least, built lots of hospitals. I wondered whether either this anarchist or my Broadway Market Marxist were particularly good representatives of their schools of thought, or indeed honest in their criticisms of others.

A similar thought came to mind as I read ‘Anarchism: A Marxist Criticism’ by the Socialist Workers’ Party’s John Molyneux. While I don’t call myself an anarchist, I was bemused by this cheap polemic, based as it is on a series of arguments against straw-man anarchist positions, while at the same time revealing the author’s reformist, hierarchical and statist vision of Marxism.

Egyptian anarchists

Molyneux identifies anarchism with “rejection of leadership, even revolutionary leadership” and “rejection of political organisation”. He understands objections to “corrupt parliamentary politics” and “self-serving political parties”, but this only prepares his defence of parliamentary politics and political parties (just not ‘corrupt’ or ‘self-serving’ ones). This is a shallow understanding of the anarchist critique of  parliamentary politics, which is not about politicians being ‘corrupt’, but rather about the power structures themselves – hierarchical, bureaucratic, and with most people unable to control the state and market which decide how they must live. These  structures cannot be run in a ‘left-wing’ way: they are  the problem itself.

Moreover, few anarchists would reject ‘leadership’ in the sense of ‘initiative’, still less ‘political organisation’: but what many have done is recognise that hierarchical means of struggle and organisation can never produce an egalitarian, free society. Some Marxist currents have also recognised this, and there are echoes of it in the writings of Karl Marx himself (“an end which requires unjustified means is no justified end”). But such insight stands far from the practice of the mainstream Marxist left, or indeed the SWP.

This is clearly demonstrated in Molyneux’s discussion of the Arab Spring. While events in Egypt “might seem to confirm anarchism’s wildest dreams: a hated tyrant brought down by a mass spontaneous revolt of the people”, Molyneux devotes a whole page to the “heroic” organising role of the Muslim Brotherhood, allegedly part of a coalition of forces which “calls for the pace of the revolution to be speeded up”. Of course we can all agree that the revolution did not really happen on Twitter and some people took the initiative. But anarchists also have an end goal, intertwined with the  hoped-for participatory means of struggle – the creation of a society in which all are empowered and none are oppressed. This is hardly on show in today’s Egypt, where under mass pressure the army threw President Mubarak overboard precisely in order to stave off any substantial democratic reform. Indeed it is the Muslim Brotherhood, which the SWP have long championed, which has made a deal with the army to help this process along, selling out the revolution in exchange for a privileged position in the state. This surely only further highlights the unprincipled character of leftist collaboration with bourgeois forces in the name of democracy.

‘Not in my name’

Molyneux’s central goal is to develop the SWP, “engaged in a struggle for the consciousness of the working class”. To this end it makes a series of alliances, manoeuvring in the trade unions, social movements and electoral politics as to increase its influence. But if indeed “Marxism is a generalisation from the historical experience of class struggle” then we might perhaps expect some reflection on its record in doing so. Alas there is no mention at all of the SWP’s recent experience of electioneering (Respect, where George Galloway MP did whatever he pleased, from spouting his sexist opinions to parading himself on Big Brother to build his media career), or indeed the long and ignoble tradition of left-wing officials in trade unions being sucked into bureaucratic routinism.

One insight does come however when Molyneux discusses the merits of peaceful campaign marches. While direct action is admissible in some cases, when the issues really matter the movement has to be kept as broad as possible – a ‘gate-receipts’ idea of struggle, where only numbers count. So we are told “The fact that many millions marched against the Iraq war in 2002-03, even though they did not prevent the war, sent an important message to the people of the Middle East that the mass of ordinary people in the West did not support the imperialist aggression of their governments.” Stopping the war fades into the background – Stop the War can be judged a success because it mobilised lots of people. But to what end? Of course, really the point of big numbers is lots of potential recruits for the SWP itself, whose growth is after all the primary means of building for revolution.

The issue now  – and the author’s stated motive for writing the book –  is that as resistance to austerity spreads, many people are seeing the need for non-hierarchical means of struggle. Few of the newly-radicalised will accept the SWP’s message of working with (even pro-cuts) Labour MPs against the Tories. People who want to have more of a say in their lives  resent being told what to do by self-appointed leaders, and want to control their own  struggles. Certainly there are also some self-proclaimed anarchists who throw their weight about in Occupy, and worse still the representatives of Zeitgeist, the ‘anti-political’ outlook advocating conspiracy theories and the liberatory power of ‘technical progress’ (not human beings ourselves). But when such people propose a means of struggle which do not empower us all, they are no more ‘anarchist’ than this book is ‘Marxist’.

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One response

24 11 2012
Ollie S

Excellent piece




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