Marxism against Marxism

Well, it’s that time once again for ‘Marxism vs. Anarchism’ debates, and the further polarising of the left. This essay queries the necessity of this approach.

It does so not least in light of the inevitable construction of a strawmen to tear down for the benefit of the party rank and file. It’s totally fine to pick on Proudhon as if any anarchist is wont (a) to quote him chapter and verse or (b) identify as a Proudhonist.

Taking Stalin as representative of the entire Marxist tradition, to cherrypick his authoritarian excesses and ignore the Marxist critique of the commodity form is, on the contrary, absolutely opportunistic and disingenuous. No one with a shred of honesty would go there.

Attending the sorts of conspicuous double standards associated with these polarised debates is the assumption that anarchists automatically assume the correctness of every pronouncement from an anarchist figurehead. Such assumptions arguably say more about the person making the claims than their targets.

Projection is, after all, a thing, the basis for the apparent pretence that the shortcomings of anarchism (of which there are many) excuse those of Leninism (of which there are many). Maybe the real difference is that anarchists are capable of disavowing the shortcomings of a Proudhon, where Leninists are apparently incapable of hearing criticism at all.

Maybe that’s why orthodox Marxists dodge Brinton’s The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control as though it’s a worker who doesn’t feel like fighting to defend rights and advance interests limits them to a trade union consciousness.

If you think for yourself or doubt the judgement of the self-appointed vanguard of the working class, the petit-bourgeois deviationists win (nothing bourgeois about this sort of ‘if you think for yourself, the communists win’ with-us-or-against-us-type logic).

The fact of the matter is that one doesn’t even need to be an anarchist to critique Leninism. A dialectical approach to the entire issue of left politics is (or should be) capable of recognising and dealing with a plurality of perspectives. If Marxism cannot be heterodox, it surely has more in common with revealed religion than a means of critical understanding and emancipation from the injustice and insanity of class and social hierarchies.

Marx’s dialectics were based on the thesis-antithesis-synthesis model — a fundamentally honest mode of enquiry insofar as it sought to account for more side of an idea than the preferred and come to rational, soundly empirical conclusions having done so.

The alternative was idealism, the attempt to make shit up as you go and force reality to fit your thought experiments. Organised religion and laissez-faire capitalism are perfect examples; god and money are just claims on reality, performatively embedded within social relations and shielded from criticism by cultishness and pressure to conform ideologically.

Cultish idealists conflate being criticised and being attacked and play the victim to avoid being held accountable for faulty reasoning. If you say bad things about US foreign policy, the terrorists win. Doubting the majesty of the Lockean assumption that not exploiting land for profit is as good as wasting it is downright treasonous.

Idealism and its thought experiments and magical thinking were necessarily binary—reality is A, and anything that departs from A is deviant and evil. As research into moral panics and panic-driven scapegoating by Marxists like Stuart Hall demonstrates, however, deviance is a matter of who has hegemonic power to control popular understandings of deviance, not characteristics of anyone so labelled.

Throughout the history of Marxism and Communism, ‘Othering’ (or the construction of an exclusionary, ‘Self vs. Other’ binary) has been deployed as an ideological mechanism of ‘deviance production,’ demonisation of critics and dissidents and social control.

Marx was not lying when he said a spectre was haunting Europe; the Othering of Communism was all about neutralising popular threats to the autocratic class hierarchies inherent to capitalist social relations and the commodity form.
As if to demonstrate his own bourgeois proclivities, Stalin used Othering of Trotskyists in exemplary fashion, using the (completely mysterious) assassination of Sergei Kirov in 1934 as a pretext for a crackdown on ‘counter-revolutionary, petit-bourgeois Trotskyist terrorists.’

If you say bad things about totalitarianism, the enemies of the revolution win. Such was the fundamental binary logic of the Moscow Show Trials.

We find binary logic turning up in other places to justify idealist teleology and magical thinking in the name of the revolution. Not least of these was Engels’ invocation of the ‘Scientific vs. Utopian Socialist’ binary.

‘Scientific socialism’ was of course predicated on claims regarding ‘iron laws of capitalist development’ which, in the Russian context, allegedly necessitated industrialisation and the development of an urban proletariat who could then struggle for socialism.

As Silvia Federici and others have demonstrated, however, the notion that capitalism ‘burst asunder’ the fetters of feudalism by virtue of its superior modal power is belied by the violence associated with the rise of mercantilism preceding the industrial revolution.

The three centuries of the European Witch Hunts suppressed peasant revolts and political tendencies based around the commons and created a suitably repressive environment for enclosure and ‘primitive accumulation.’

All that was solid melted into the air with the aid of ruling class terror and crimes against humanity like stake burnings and predatory colonialism. In the colonies, witch hunts were again deployed as tools of social control. In Marx’s own words, through the Opium Wars in China, British colonists forced the ‘barbarians’ obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate’ (The Communist Manifesto).

Where their proclivities for Othering are concerned, it would also seem that spectres haunt Marxism—petit-bourgeois reactionary Trotskyist dissidents, obstinate barbarians inured to the ‘Asiatic Mode of Production’ who won’t allow all that is solid melt to into air without the intervention of gunpowder, utopian socialists.

Such spectres are impossible without a teleological, idealist binary to underwrite the production of deviance. Where in
socialist thinking can we find a binary dualism other than that associated with ‘Science vs. Utopianism’ dualism.

Where is the incontrovertible proof that Marxist historiography—indeed, any approach to history—is a hard science? That anyone who doubts the scientific basis of Marxism is a Utopian? That this is one belief on which Trotskyists and Stalinists agree would appear to offer some insight into the degeneration of alleged proletarian dictatorships into totalitarian nightmares.

The state will wither away, except when Stalin feels like denouncing his critics as counter-revolutionary terrorists, and Trotsky his as petit-bourgeois deviationists in the pay of White Guardists operating out of Paris.

Similarly, the commodity form and the class-based social relations attached to it can be socialist because ‘socialism is nothing but state capitalism made to benefit the whole people’ (Lenin). Anyone who says otherwise is a hopeless Utopian.
The fact is that the alleged scientific foundation of nineteenth-century ‘iron laws of capitalist development’ dogma is a prior assumption; if you cast doubt on the claims to the contrary, the utopian deviationists win. The proof for ‘Scientific socialism’ thus rests on the same kind of deviance production that made possible Stalin’s persecution of Trotskyists dissidents in the 1920s and 30s.

As this fact tends to indicate, the same mechanism girds vanguardism as such against criticism—not least where it alleges underlying ‘laws of history’ comparable to laws of physics.

The beauty of these (unevidenced) claims, rooted in the naturalistic fallacy no less than Lockean ‘natural rights’ discourse, is that they require a secular, socialist priesthood to interpret them for the stupid masses. For their part, the latter are understood to be capable only of a ‘trade union consciousness’ (Lenin).

In his commentary on ‘Smug Politics,’ Jeff Sparrow argues that within a democracy, all votes were supposed to count equally. There were no ‘experts’ in the ballot box — and nor should there be. Yet in their (entirely justified) support for science, it became easy for progressives to equate technical expertise with political expertise — to imply that social issues had already been scientifically settled — and that anyone who disagreed was, by definition, an illiterate or a fool. The assertion of political expertise was another ironic mode, a form of compensation for disempowerment. If progressives couldn’t influence society, that was the fault of society — or, more exactly, the people who were too stupid and too venal to appreciate the objective correctness of progressive ideas (Trigger Warnings).

The same criticisms might be said to apply to orthodox Marxist discourse built on ‘Scientific vs Utopian Socialism’ binaries. The technical expertise in Marxist ideology is conflated with technical expertise in history, and those who fail to adequately conform to, or otherwise express doubt in, this equation, is, by definition, an illiterate or a fool—a Utopian, in other words.
If doubt and conformity are Utopian, deviationist prejudices, then we can learn nothing from the Soviet experience, other than a failure to adequately apply correct policy. The same logic holds that the climate emergency is a regulatory issue, a broken system in need of fixing, and not a hegemonic extractivist modality working exactly as intended for the transnational fossil corporate oligarchy.

To this latter mentality, property rights and ‘free gifts of nature’ (as the basis for primitive accumulation) are God-given; Genesis even grants humans dominion over the Earth. To its defenders, this is by no means an issue of root causes; only a dirty communist would challenge property rights as natural as the rising and setting of the sun.

If property rights are anything but natural, then so too perhaps is vanguardism.

Inded, as Marx himself pointed out, however, the working class is perfectly capable of making its own history, though patently not under conditions of our own choosing. If history is perfectly understandable to anyone who bothers looks at it, then the working class must not need the delegated politics (Sparrow) of the workers vanguard and its secular priesthood.

Perhaps this goes some way towards accounting for the binary logic at the heart of ‘Marxism vs. Anarchism’ debates. Polarising debates in this manner assumes that the two are mutually exclusive; Othering of critics as ‘Utopians,’ ‘dilettantes’ and ‘deviationists’ spares orthodox Marxism the trouble of critical self-reflection and dialectical analysis of past mistakes.
This would appear to be particularly true where acknowledging the mistake of divorcing means from outcomes is concerned. If it is a terminal fault of capitalism to perpetrate the myth that altruistic ends can be had from self-serving means (as per ‘trickle-down’ ideology, for example), then adopting this myth to counter it is patently self-defeating.

The original slogan of the First International, after all, was ‘the emancipation of the working class will be carried out by the workers themselves.’

This did not mean the delegated politics of electoral parties operating in the name of labour; it did not mean the delegated politics of vanguard parties operating in the name of the working class. It meant the mass of the workers (and by now, to be sure, unpaid, invisibilised and unrecognised care workers in the domestic sphere) acting for themselves, directly and collectively.

It meant developing new ways of thinking and relating to one another, building the material facts of a future grounded in class and social solidarity in the present—decolonising the self and the class as the groundwork for future emancipation from wage and debt slavery.

It meant learning to do what was right rather than what one was told to believe and standing in front of freedom and defending it for all, instead of hiding behind it like a coward. Hiding behind freedom could, after all, manifest equally as the freedom of capitalists to exploit, or the freedom of a Stalin to oppress.

In light of the continued insistence of orthodox Marxists to abandon dialectical marriage of opposites for polarised ‘Marxism vs. Anarchism’ binaries, perhaps there is more to be said for socialist reconstruction, based on a reconnecting of emancipatory means to emancipatory outcomes, than the ongoing assertion of nineteenth-century pseudoscience amidst the exodus of many amongst the working class to populist reaction and fascism.

Perhaps it makes sense for Marxists to worry less about the class composition of the Kronstadt garrison in 1921, and more about that of the Bolshevik Party in 1921 amidst the blowing out of the Moscovite bureaucracy. much less to say the class composition of a Marxist conference at an elite Australian university in 2022).

If the naturalistic fallacy expressed in ‘natural rights’ discourse engenders the arrogant aristocratic mentality of those who feel themselves ‘born to rule,’ then the naturalistic fallacy as expressed in ‘Scientific vs. Utopian Socialism’ discourse can hardly differ in outcomes.

Polarised ‘Marxism vs. Anarchism’ debates need not even acknowledge this argument, if anyone who acknowledges it can simply be dismissed as a ‘Utopian’ within ideologically pure echo chambers.

It was no less than the Marxist Paul Mattick who argued that ‘Marxism is the last refuge of the bourgeoisie.’ If he was a Utopian, then Marxism itself is Utopian. If he wasn’t a Utopian, then the binary should be abandoned—along with the avoidant attitude of orthodox Marxists towards the contradiction between their prior assumptions about the scientific basis of Marxism and its consequences historically.

Ben Debney is the author of The Oldest Trick in the Book: Panic-Driven Scapegoating in History and Recurring Patterns of Persecution (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020).