Tuesday, January 15, 2002

The Occasion for Re-examining the Question

Barbara Epstein deserves our appreciation for her timely article ‘Anarchism & Anti-Globalization’ which appeared as the Review of the Month in the September 2001 issue of MR. Epstein’s article, based on a serious analysis of the real, existing movement, raises issues of concrete political importance. These require some hard thinking from Marxists who appreciate the importance of the anti-Globalization movement. Moreover, Epstein makes a sincere attempt to find ways to overcome inevitable tensions arising from the presence of anarchist sensibility and Marxist strategies, in one and the same movement. However, in her effort to reveal understanding for the prominence of anarchist style and technique in the anti-globalization movement, Epstein ignores or downplays a number of pressing theoretical and political issues whose solution is critical for the movement. For this purpose she invents an ‘actually existing’ Marxism which is supposed to have modified its opposition to anarchism and an ‘actually existing anarchism’ that supports the need for state power. One fears that with Epstein the wish is the parent of the thought since no such ‘actually existing’ Marxism or any such ‘actually existing’ anarchism really exist.

Epstein’s restraint in criticizing anarchist practice and theory reflects, in my opinion, a lack of assertiveness characteristic of many Marxists who fear that the Marxist theory on the state, revolutionary politics and the centralization has been invalidated by the Stalinist experience. However, even self-criticism must be critical. Serious and even agonized reflection on ‘what went wrong’ with the Bolshevik revolution and other revolutions inspired by the Marxist theory is vital. However, this kind of reflection demands analytical rigor, or at the least a concern about the danger of throwing out the baby with bathwater. The discussion on hopes for the radical transformation of modern society demands that we come up with the most reliable perspective. Marxist theses on the nature of state power and the preconditions for building socialism are essential for that perspective. Marxist theory and practice, despite inevitable limitations, tells us qualitatively more about future possibilities than anarchism, which offers us, as it were, history without pain and progress without sacrifice.

The wholesale dismissal of the principles of historical materialism actually leaves the field wide open for anarchist theory. For those who see no major problems with a synthesis between Marxism and anarchism, this forfeit of principle is quite acceptable. The difficulty is that this synthesis is not a question of good manners or reaching out to the other side, or even appreciating the contributions made by anarchists to revolutionary struggle. The synthesis is simply unsustainable. True, in this stage of the development of the movement against globalization, Marxism and anarchism must be defined as only tendencies. But both these tendencies have powerful historical associations and traditions, which cannot but influence the development of the movement.

Mass movements are guided by political theory and principle, evenat the stage in which theoretical issues seem remote or even irrelevant. In other words, the solution of practical day-to-day problems is influenced by the understanding of goals. Many anarchists are quite explicit on this point, demanding that all technical, organizational and strategic problems be addressed according to their very own principles and long-range goals.

An examination of a number of key issues in the movement against globalization should help avoid circumstances in which ‘anarchist clarity’ confronts and even seems a bit more convincing that a fuzzy kind of timid Marxism.

The Main Battle is Political

At the moment, the pivot of the debate with our anarchist colleagues relates to urgent, immediate concerns of the movement. The Marxist left understands that the movement against corporate capitalism, not to mention the campaign for revolutionary change, requires a broad based coalition and patient efforts to build unity. This alliance will be based on dialog and mutual respect among all sections of the movement. In this context, Marxists emphasize the qualitative importance of labor and the trade union movement as vital building blocks for movement politics and are openly willing ‘to wait and to compromise’ in order to achieve unity. Anarchists on the other hand are proud of their preference for the ‘Great Abstention’: from electoral politics, from trade union politics, from the fight for serious reforms, from building coalitions. They oppose any and all strategies that involve serious compromises and attempts to bring in new, less radical forces and to broaden their participation in the movement. The fight for deepening political struggle within the existing state formation is condemned as the ultimate sell-out.

The Socialist Alternative

The movement against globalization is not merely a movement for reform. In addition to the exposure of specific evils, it does promote serious criticism of what it calls ‘the system.’ Naturally enough, a movement in which many activists openly criticize ‘the system’ provides the setting for serious discussion of an alternative to the dominant capitalist social-economic system. In fact, anarchism and anarchists are quite keen about discussing this matter of an alternative regime since they propose the simplest of all solutions. The future is the absolute negation of the past – liberation will be achieved via the elimination of all organs of power and control. Small, federated communities (such as the hippie commune or the neo-tribal squatters’ colonies) will replace the giant multinational corporations. The elimination of the state is equated with the victory of freedom. Marxists do not need to place the replacement of capitalism on the intellectual agenda of the anti-globalization movement for the simple reason that it is already there.

Marxists recognize the existence of a series of absolutely vital and critical requirements for transforming capitalist society. Organs of genuine democratic rule must be established, the economy must be reorganized along with the introduction of socialist planning. There is an urgent need for the rational administration and global allocation of resources. The need for these and other indispensable measures is met with derision by anarchists and presented as the slippery slope down the Stalinist path. The anarchists deny the need to recognize the imperatives of revolutionary change and claim that once the capitalist state is dislodged, all of society (i.e., all the classes, without exception) will be guided by innate impulses towards cooperation and equality. In short, the anarchists propose a highly enticing theory of transformation without too many stresses and conflicts. Can serious socialists let this ‘alternative’ stand by default?

Social Transformations

The most cursory examination of three important revolutions in the last century, the Russian, the Chinese and the Cuban revolutions, shows how strikingly different the forms of revolution can be. But, in terms of content, there are inevitable regularities in any revolutionary process: a) the revolution cannot occur everywhere simultaneously; revolutionary struggle is protracted and involves outward expansion from a revolutionary center; b) organized force is mobilized to defend the revolution and to neutralize its enemies; c) the revolution develops and is lead by a strong core leadership. These universal elements are essential to any serious analysis of revolution.

The anarchist revolution, by bypassing or ignoring these characteristics, reduces itself to the status of an ideology of rebellion.Of course, Marxists do readily admit a need for caution when speaking about revolutionary transformations. Avoiding the pitfalls of centralization and the dangers stemming from the concentration of political and military power are genuine challenges. But these are difficulties that stem from the very nature of highly developed class formations and as such must be met head on. Success in overcoming these problems is possible only if the battle against them is based on a realistic and practical appreciation of the fact that processes such as centralization and the exercise of centralized political power will emerge. These contradictory advances hence, must be controlled democratically, because they cannot be bypassed or averted. There is and will be something ‘out there’ in social reality that has to be ‘checked and balanced’. It is necessary to find ways to ensure democratic controls and sensitivities precisely because there are dangers inherent in revolutionary action, because there has to be a strong, core leadership operating with force at its disposal. It is quite understandable that the experience of the revolutionary left with Stalinism has generated a serious, thoughtful (and often guilt ridden) desire to do everything and anything to avoid a repetition of that disaster. However, the left cannot realize this desire for deep and abiding self-criticism by ignoring and bypassing historical experience and lessons that were never refuted.

One could go on and examine further differences between Marxism and anarchism regarding other genuine, pressing issues. Epstein is right in suggesting that despite their differences, Marxists and anarchists, along with many others, can and will have to work together. However, it would be quite naïve to believe that our anarchist friends are preoccupied only with style and sensibilities which can indeed add color and dynamism to the movement. The anarchists will not forfeit their right to attempt to shape the theoretical character of the movement. The very existence of ideological differences in the anti globalization movement need not be divisive and can even be fruitful. There is certainly no place for theoretical domination or ideological uniformity in the movement. This is especially true in the face of the movement’s talent for unifying different forces - most of whom have as yet to formulate any long range policy goals beyond capitalism. Flexibility and honest efforts to built unity with all elements of the movement are the order of the day. However, hiding the valuable insights of Marxist experience, method and tradition under a bushel will rob the movement against globalization of an essential component.