Marxisms, Anarchisms, schisms and suppositions: report from Ben Franks’ talk

Glasgow University Academic, anarchist and wobbly Benjamin Franks was in Edinburgh this week giving a talk to the university anarchist society on Marxisms and Anarchisms: the beginnings and ends of the schism? I managed to sneak out of work a bit early and make it along and it was well worthwhile. The talk was more academic, and philosophical than I had expected but offered a fascinating description of how the early Marxist and anarchist movements split and how Franks’ own work in political philosophy can help us understand the theoretical differences and re-discover our commonalities.

Till 1917, Franks told us, there were disagreements between anarchists and Marxists, over the role of the state, political representation and so on, but no totalising schism. Indeed, in many cases the terms communist and anarchist were used almost interchangeably, while it was common to see socialist groups selling pamphlets by Kropotkin alongside those by Marx, communists would have pictures of Marx next to ones of Bakunin in their homes and organisations worked together and held joint meetings.

Kropotkin noted a change, however, after 1907, with the increasing development of the vanguard party form – both the formation of socialist parties and more explicitly communist ones. Even so, there was still a great degree of co-operation and mutual respect until the real flashpoint of 1917: the Russian revolution and the seizure of power by the Bolshevik party. (Of course if should be noted that even then more heterodox Marxists realised the problems of the Bolsheviks centralising, bureaucratic and anti-communist tendencies; an SPGB member in the audience proudly told us they’d recognised the revolution was no longer communist by June 1918!)

Franks compared the critique of anarchism from orthodox Marxism – giving us historical quotes from Plekhanov, Lenin and Stalin (the latter two sounding almost identical) and more recent criticisms from members of the AWL and SWP – with the caricature from analytic philosophy (the tradition from which his own philosophy develops). The orthodox Marxist critique accuses anarchism of idealism, rather than materialism, of ineffectuality, of essentialism, or anti-organisation (i.e. a rejection of the vanguard party). The analytic tradition attempts to find a number of necessary and sufficient criteria to define a political philosophy, for anarchism they suggest an opposition to coercion. That’s it. From that opposition to states, police, capital and so on flow, but from that simplistic criteria it becomes easy to accuse anarchism of, therefore, believing in an essentially good human nature, such that coercion will never be necessary and an inability to deal with opposition or anti-social behaviour. Of course, these simple critiques are really straw-men, or straw-women, based on a flawed understanding of anarchism biased by the critic’s own ideology.

Following the work of Michael Freeden, Franks attempts to build an alternative framework to analyses the philosophies, based around a number of core and peripheral beliefs that must be understood as an interacting constellation, none of which can be examined on their own. For example he says the concept of liberty changes with which other beliefs are paired with it, neoliberalism places liberty with private property, Mills’ liberty is placed with self-development, and anarchist conception might be placed with equality or society. In each of these cases what we mean by liberty is thereby changed by the other beliefs that accompany it.

Franks sets out four core beliefs for anarchism: opposition to hierarchy, with associated conceptions of anti-statism and anti-capitalism, anti-mediation (a rejection of representation; the oppressed must liberate themselves), a social view of the individual and prefiguration (direct action). The interactions between this network of conceptions build the anarchist political philosophy.

Using this framework Franks describes that initially anarchism and Marxism shared many of the same core conceptions, but with the rise of the vanguard party form, Marxism’s conception of the state moved from a peripheral belief (on which Marx himself had varying positions over the course of his lifetime) to a central tenet. Marxism-Leninism begins to dominate as the orthodox Marxism, capturing state power becomes more important and they turn more hostile to anarchists and other non-Leninist socialists and communists. At this point anarchists in turn begin to define themselves more explicitly against Marxism. If Leninism is Marxism, we want nothing to do with it (of course it isn’t, but it’s understandable in the circumstances that people began to see it that way).

As the Soviet Union begins to be exposed, after 1936, particularly after 1956 and again after 1968, many orthodox Marxists break with the USSR and with the rise of the New Left more libertarian forms of Marxism push to the fore, for a while. With the apparent failure of this movement in the 1970s, however, we see a "return to Marx", which is really a "return to Lenin" and potential regrouping fades.

In the end, it seems like much of orthodox Marxism is still wedded today to a party form we inherently oppose (see groups like the SWP or AWL e.g.) but perhaps with some of the student movements, the re-appearance of the IWW (once a bastion of class unity between Marxists and anarchists) and some of the other network focused, anti-hierarchical movements appearing today there is hope for renewed co-operation in future. On the basis of class unity, not a spurious "left unity", of course.