Monday, August 16, 2010

Libertarian Marxism?

A review of a new on-line journal of autonomous Marxism. What can anarchists learn from this trend of antistatist Marxism. What are its strengths and its weaknesses?

There has recently appeared a new on-line journal, Insurgent Notes: Journal of Communist Theory and Practice (June 2010). Produced by “less than a dozen [U.S.] intellectuals and militants,” it is committed to what has been called “libertarian” or “autonomous Marxism " This is also often called “libertarian communism” (a term which does not distinguish between libertarian Marxism and anarchist-communism).

Anarchists may see this journal as a sign of the increased interest in this Marxist trend (or rather, set of trends). The majority trend in world Marxism has been Marxist-Leninism (including Trotskyism and Maoism). It has been greatly discredited by the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites and by the developments in China. (Social democracy, the other main historical trend of Marxism, had given up its claim to Marxist theory by the 1950s. Its “socialist” or “labor” parties no longer claim to be in favor of a new, noncapitalist, society.)

At the same time, there has been the fundamental crisis of world capitalism since the 1970s (the end of the post-World War II boom). With the Great Recession of 2008 and after, the capitalist crisis has become plain for all to see. This has led many to look to the only radical theory which has an analysis of capitalism and its crises. Whatever the strengths of anarchism—which are many—only Marxism can do this. Without an understanding of the labor theory of value, of surplus value as the basis of profit, of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, and of the epoch of semi-monopolies, imperialism, and capitalist decay, it is not possible to understand what is going on in the world today. This has led to a revival of interest in this minority trend in Marxism.

Anarchists may object to any notion of a “libertarian Marxism.” Since the faction fight between Marx and Bakunin tore apart the First International, anarchism and Marxism have been bitter opponents. Marxists have murdered many anarchists in various countries. Marxism has resulted in totalitarian, mass murdering, inefficient, state capitalist regimes, the very opposite of the goals of libertarian communism (socialism).

However, many anarchists, from Bakunin onwards, have praised Marx’s economic critique of capitalism and other aspects of Marxist theory. It is reported in Black Flame, “Marx’s analysis of the core features of capitalism deeply impressed the early anarchists….[It was] a theory of unprecedented and still-unmatched analytic power. The imprint of Marx’s economic analysis can clearly be seen in the thinking of the anarchists….” (Schmidt & van der Walt, 2009; pp. 85 & 87). Yet, “the anarchists did not adopt Marx’s ideas unconditionally or uncritically….They sought to delink Marxist economics from Marxist politics….Many anarchists and syndicalists rejected the view that capitalism would inexorably lead to socialism” (same; pp. 87, & 96).

Many believed, as I do, that there were both libertarian-democratic and authoritarian sides to Marxism. “There are ambiguities and contradictions in Marx’s thought, which can be interpreted as ‘Two Marxisms’” (same, p. 93). This makes it meaningless to argue whether libertarian Marxism or Stalinism is the “true” Marxism—they are each validly based on different aspects of Marx’s Marxism.

Not every anarchist felt positively about parts of Marxism (Kropotkin did not), but many did. And many anarchists have seen value in integrating aspects of Marxist theory with anarchism, such as Daniel Guerin, who was highly influential in modern French anarchism. My point here is not that this partial integration is a valid approach (although I think that it is), just the fact that many genuinely revolutionary anarchists, from Bakunin to Guerin, have thought that it was.

At the same time, there has long been a libertarian minority within Marxism which was antiauthoritarian, antistatist, anit-Leninist, and genuinely for proletarian revolution. Perhaps the first libertarian Marxist was the great utopian thinker, William Morris, a friend of both Engels and Kropotkin (see Thompson, 1976). There have also been the council communists (who rejected Leninism), the Johnson-Forest Tendency (of C.L.R. James and Raya Dunayevskya), the early Socialisme ou Barbarie (of Castoriadis), the Italian autonomists, etc. These have built upon the libertarian side of Marx’s Marxism: the centrality of the working class while opposing all oppressions, the goal of a classless and stateless communist society, the belief that “the emancipation of the working class can only be conquered by the working class itself.” The politics of such Marxists is indistinguishable from anarchism in almost every way.

Again, my point is not that these libertarian Marxists are correct to be Marxists (I personally do not think they are, if “Marxist” is taken to mean totally adopting the whole world view of Marx). But it remains a fact that many revolutionaries have thought that it was correct, that they adopted Marx’s basic theories while sincerely believed in a program which was essentially the same as revolutionary, class-struggle, anarchist-communism.

Cleaver (who claims authorship of the term “autonomist Marxism”) says that he was influenced by Rosa Luxemburg and the council communists, as well as Emma Goldman and Peter Kropotkin, anarchist-communists. “That the former were ideologically ’Marxist’ and the latter were not, interested me less than their common perception and sympathy for the power of workers to act autonomously” (2000; pp. 14-15). Precisely.

Personally, when I first became an anarchist (of the anarchist-pacifist school), I was also greatly inspired by the work of Erich Fromm, the humanistic Marxist. Even after becoming a Trotskyist (of an unorthodox sort), I and my comrades were influenced by (among others) C.L.R. James and Dunayevskya, in our attitude toward Black Liberation and toward economics and the nature of the Soviet Union. We were also influenced by Paul Mattick, the council communist economist. I am still influenced by these sources (especially Mattick). I regard myself as a “Marxist-informed anarchist.”

Read the rest: Insurgent Notes: A New Libertarian Marxist Voice

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