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Anarchism and Marxism, or Karl Marx was a Totalitarian

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In the mid and late nineteenth century, the radical left - that is, critics of rapacious capitalism and advocates of the liberation of the industrial worker -were divided into two main factions: the Marxists and the anarchists. Roughly (and this a tremendously complex story), the Marxists won, and all the successful leftist revolutions of the twentieth century - Russian, Chinese, and Cuban, for example - professed their adherence to Marxist principles.

Anarchism and Marxism, or Karl Marx was a Totalitarian

by Crispin Sartwell

In the mid and late nineteenth century, the radical left - that is, critics of rapacious capitalism and advocates of the liberation of the industrial worker -were divided into two main factions: the Marxists and the anarchists. Roughly (and this a tremendously complex story), the Marxists won, and all the successful leftist revolutions of the twentieth century - Russian, Chinese, and Cuban, for example - professed their adherence to Marxist principles.

The battle between Marxists and anarchists is at this point more an historical curiosity than a going concern. The only really unrepentant or uncritical Marxists left are Kim Jong Il and a few intellectuals and professors here and there. And anarchism as a viable social movement had utterly petered out by the Second World War, though it has had something of a revival in the anti-globalization movement and other radicalisms of our time.

And yet in its time this battle was - for Marx among others - a matter of life and death, and Marxism was probably as defined by its opposition to anarchism as by its opposition to capitalism. Indeed, Marx's authorship was to an almost absurd extent driven by his attacks on anarchism. Much of Marx's book The German Ideology - hundreds of pages - is an attack on the egoist/anarchist Max Stirner. The Poverty of Philosophy is a vast polemic against Proudhon. Marx spent an enormous amount of time and energy attacking Bakunin: "the ass!" "a monster, a huge mass of flesh and fat," "sexually perverse" etc. : these phrases are typical of Marx against his rivals: his authorship is half scientific treatise, half verbal abuse. Perhaps less amusing to Bakunin himself was Marx's constant accusation over decades, in his own voice or using various mouthpieces, that Bakunin was a police informant, and Marx's successful attempts to have Bakunin purged from the International Workingmen's Thingummy.

Perhaps it's already obvious from my reference to Kim Jong Il, but my sympathies are with the anarchists in this battle. But let me say that, first of all, Karl Marx was a vastly better thinker than any of his anarchist opponents. Marx's philosophy and economics are entirely indispensable in the history of ideas. His historical materialism, for example the idea that intellectual or aesthetic or religious products of a society reflect its material arrangements and conditions of production, is not an idea we can do without, even if it is also an oversimplification. Marx made many contributions without which the contemporary intellectual and political landscapes are incomprehensible. He was intensely and astonishingly systematic, learned, original, and radical as a thinker.

The anarchists, on the other hand, are a big old mess. Proudhon's philosophy is an enormous slag heap: some bits are sharp and useful, some just contradictory or bizarre. It's not even clear whether Proudhon was a reactionary or a progressive (if we want to think in these terms, which I don't, actually), and reading him on the topic of gender, for example, is enough to make any radical hurl. Bakunin's philosophy is at least as bad a mess. First of all, and as he acknowledged, his basic historical and economic analysis derives directly from Marx, and his politics ultimately is a pastiche of Marx and Proudhon.

So that was one problem: if you were a radical in 1870 looking for an explanation or a sensible intellectual structure into which to fit a liberatory political movement, Marx was the obviously superior article, and the scope, consistency, and originality of Marx's system were incomparable. The anarchists were a philosophical mediocrity - at least until Kropotkin's more useful version, but even then. Maybe we should expect no better from anarchists, whose theory is apparently as chaotic as their proposed future. But I think this has to do more with the fact that intellectuals of Marx's caliber are extremely rare; few social movements have one.

Indeed, the communist anarchism of Bakunin, Kropotkin, and Emma Goldman, owed a vast debt to Marx, which was acknowledged. For all these figures, history was the history of class struggle. The enemy was capitalism. The revolutionary class was the industrial proletariat. All of them gladly aligned themselves with Marxists in order to push forward the revolution.

But here's the problem: Marx was a totalitarian. This evening, I am the most recent in a long line of anarchists who have been saying that since the 1840s. But I say it flatly. Marx was a totalitarian. Marx was a totalitarian. Marx was a totalitarian. My view is that such administrations as Stalin's or Mao's - which among other things were murderous on the scale of tens of millions - were as true as they could be, given their conditions, to Marx's ideology. They were perfectly sincere expressions of Marxism, and pretty accurate expressions to boot.

Now if Joe McCarthy or John D. Rockefeller or Ronald Reagan said Marx was a totalitarian, you'd be suspicious: they're only serving their own interests; they are reactionary capitalist pigs, etc. But when Bakunin or Kropotkin or Emma Goldman says Marx is a totalitarian...that is a different matter. They are anti-capitalist revolutionaries. Each one of them called him/herself a communist. That is precisely why Marx and his followers had to take the objection seriously. Soon after the Russian revolution, Emma Goldman confronted Lenin in person with his totalitarianism. So did the great anarchist Nestor Makhno. One thing they found irritating was that Lenin was imprisoning and executing anarchists all over Russia at that moment. But these encounters, like those between Marx and Bakunin, confronted Marxism with the awful truth about itself, and set up an anti-capitalist and liberatory alternative based on freedom rather than subordination.

I'm going just to give a couple examples of things Marx said to support my claim, which I realize is widely rejected. In the "Communist Manifesto" Marx and Engels propose the immediate imposition of a dictatorship of the proletariat. Like Bakunin, I have no idea what that actually means, but I know it gives me the willies. At any rate, the dictatorship's program includes such items as the following:

The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e. of the proletariat organised as the ruling class; and to increase the total of productive forces as rapidly as possible. . .

[We propose] centralisation of credit in the hands of the State, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly. . . .

Centralisation of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State. . . .

Equal liability of all to labor. Establishment of industrial armies, particularly for agriculture.

Now these little items, which have that nice Khmer Rouge tang, are alternated with some reforms that have come to pass, such as universal free public education and a progressive income tax. Well I more or less regard those as despotic proposals too. But at any rate, once you have given the state a complete monopoly on communication, transport, and capital, you should anticipate being its victim. And only a quibbler could possibly hold that such proposals are not totalitarian. Nod along to forced labor for class enemies, give the state complete control of all production and all communication, throwing in transportation, banking, and education, and you have the very paradigm of a totalitarian state. the explicit guidelines of the Marxist nightmares that devoured the twentieth century.

It is revealing that, in response to Bakunin and many other anarchists' assertion that Marx was an "authoritarian socialist," Marx himself responded not that that was false, but that authority was necessary. You can't have large-scale industrial production without authority, said Marx, and Marx loved large-scale industrial production. You can't have a revolution without authority. You can't have a political situation without authority. Indeed, you can't have successful human life without authority. In other words, in response to the charge that he was an enthusiast about authority, Marx enthused about authority. "A revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing there is; it is the act whereby one part of the population imposes its will upon the other part by means of rifles, bayonets and cannon - authoritarian means, is such there be at all; and if the victorious party does not want to have fought in vain, it must maintain this rule by means of the terror which its arms inspire in reactionaries" (Reader 733).

According to Marx, the purpose of the state in history is to be the forcible mechanism of class repression. Monarchy is the state form in which the aristocracy represses the feudal peasant and tries to prevent the emergence of the bourgeoisie. Republican forms of government such as the American, are the mechanism by which the bourgeoisie - the capitalist ownership class - represses the proletariat. The dictatorship of the proletariat will be the mechanism by which the proletariat represses or "liquidates" the bourgeoisie, as well as whatever other stray classes may still be bopping about: you know, small landholders or "professionals," and so on. That will put an end to the class struggles that have driven history; then the state will no longer be necessary, or even possible, and it will "wither away."

Bakunin was among the first and sharpest critics of this, um, absurd position. He pointed out that a class cannot function as a dictator: you need an individual or perhaps a small committee. And then the state thus constituted itself becomes a center of power and the nexus of a class distinction between rulers and ruled. Those who effectively control state power will use it, among other things, to enrich themselves. Because Marx really was in a kind of theoretical thrall to his particular economic determinism, he could barely even acknowledge that people desire power for its own sake, and that any power, once it is constituted, tends to be abused. For Marx, by definition there could be no state after capitalism. Bakunin thought that was a silly position, and if the history of the twentieth century shows anything at all, it shows that: the communist parties in the Marxist dictatorships constituted a social class and ruled despotically for their own benefit. Once you have a sufficiently tyrannical power to eliminate social class, you have a power sufficient for total war, genocide, the degradation and dehumanization of entire captive populations. Marx demanded precisely that power. Bakunin wrote about Marx: "if there is a state, then necessarily there is domination and consequently slavery" (Leier 286). On Marx's view, according to Bakunin, "for the masses to be liberated they must first be enslaved" (287). It is impossible, Bakunin said, "for an egalitarian society to emerge out of an authoritarian organization" (264), by which he meant the Marxist state, but also Marx's way of directing the radical labor movement.

Bakunin's diagnosis of Marx went deeper, however. Really he thought the totalitarianism of Marx had its origin in Marx's Hegelianism: the notion that history has a certain discernible progressive and deterministic direction, and that I (Hegel or Marx) have detected the shape of the future. Thus if you're standing in my way, you're standing in the way of the inevitable progressive unfolding of history, and so history, or perhaps whatever means I have at my disposal, will remove you from the path of the glorious march to ecstasy. Like Hegel, Marx was a millennial thinker: he preached the permanent orgasm at the end of history, and claimed to know the way there. He claimed to speak for nature, for the world, or, we might say, as God. The monstrous hubris of this kind of view is an invitation to destroy your opponents and to establish a cult of personality. One of the best things we can say about anarchism is that it refuses to pretend to determine the future; it wants to let people go and see what happens.

One question that occurs to me is why it is so important to folks for Marx not to turn out to be a totalitarian. Why not just say: well, there's so much good stuff there, but the dictatorship of the proletariat etc is just obviously wrong and has to go. Here's where I'm going to get a bit nasty. It's because Marxism, as well being as a philosophy, is precisely a cult of personality: ironic given that individual personalities have no real role in history according to Marx's philosophy. But the primary commitment of Marxists isn't to the truth or the world, but to the man. He just cannot turn out to be wrong. So since totalitarianism is wrong, Marx was not a totalitarian. QED. And when you've gotten to that point, I propose, you're no longer a thinker or whatever you might claim to be: you're merely a disciple. And that, we might say, is itself of the essence of totalitarianism.

Let me draw a parallel. The Republic of Plato is the founding document of Western political theory. It is of overwhelming importance and contains a hundred fundamental insights and foundational thoughts. But it is a directly totalitarian text. It endorses an intensely hierarchical or caste society. It says that philosophers should rule, and with absolute power. One of the recurring themes is that the rulers will have to lie to the people continuously in order to control them, and it says they ought to. It proposes that the rulers match people up for mating in a gigantic eugenics program designed to entrench the class structure more in each generation: mate shoemakers with shoemakers, male soldiers with female soldiers, philosopher kings with philosopher queens. It says unauthorized infants should be killed. And so on. Aristotle was the first to systematically attack the Republic on such grounds, and in a democratic era, we must find the basic ideas repugnant.

However, Plato is a great and admirable figure in many ways. People love him, devote their lives to elucidating his ideas. Now for such people, he just can't turn out to be wrong, especially as completely and dangerously and disgustingly wrong as the basic assertions of the Republic make it obvious that he was. So they go through conniptions trying to make it all come out alright. For example: the whole authorship is entirely ironic; every assertion means the opposite of what it says. Surely that's the counsel of desperation. Or: there are two teachings in Plato, the exoteric and the esoteric. What he wants the average ignorant person to believe and what he secretly believes himself are two entirely different things.

To be honest, I just do not understand the apologists for Plato or the apologists for Marx. The project of making Plato or Marx come out as right as possible is a silly project, and one entirely unworthy of an actual thinker. Take what's right; reject the rest. Why not? Why not just say he's wrong about "industrial armies" etc., but right about x, y, and z? Why? because you're a follower not a philosopher. In which case, I don't actually need to read what you write or think about what you say. I used to know some philosophers for whom the question of what is true and the question of what Wittgenstein really meant were equivalent questions. Well, first of all, even if Wittgenstein wasn't an insanely overrated obscurantist, that would be a slavish position, inimical to human thought. And second, then of course let me read Wittgenstein instead of you pinhead cultists.

You should read Marx exactly like you read any arguments, accounts, assertions: critically. You should take what you can use or what you can argue for or what works and leave all the rest without a moment's hesitation. Now one of my problems with Marx is that I sense that he wanted to be followed, not responded to with any critical distance, which is deeply ironic given the claims to science. But even Marx's scientism is in part an attempt to shut you up: you can't argue with science, bitch! as Marx said to Proudhon and Bakunin - and everyone else whom he considered an opponent or a rival - every few hours for decades.

Indeed, one of the many drawbacks of Marx's authorship is its extreme scientism, which is typical of its period. One might compare in this regard, for example, the writings of Auguste Comte. But Marx's lifetime coincides with a period in which science is the only engine of epistemological legitimacy, in which almost every thinker makes a claim to science or risks being dismissed entirely. But science itself is a structure of epistemological authority. When Marx sneers at every opponent as unscientific, he's saying: this is not my opinion. My expression of my values, my vision of a future for humanity are not the values and vision of any particular person. They are the voice of objective reality. This is a basic tension at the heart of Marx. The communist future he envisions is the inevitable outcome of the impersonal material forces of history. It is a kind of coincidence that this future is also obviously what Marx wants. So then why is he creating organizations to try to drive it forward? And why is he constantly trying to ridicule and delete alternative accounts and the people who put them forward? All he had to do was wait. Marxism is a vast system of moral and political ideals. Calling that a science is profoundly self-deluded, and it functions primarily as a claim to authority.

Marxism is a vast panoply of stuff, but there's way too much of that in it. It's an authoritarian structure on both sides, but what makes it effective is an enthusiasm for being dominated, an expression of totalitarian personality not in the sense of a crazed dictator but of people who finally want only to be intellectually subordinated. Don't defend Marx at all costs, or at any cost at all: take what's right and leave what's not: it doesn't matter. Marx is dead; he's not going to be impressed that you agree with him. The damn thing is supposed to be some kind of philosophy, science, history: not a religion that demands you're unquestioning capitulation to its myriad absurdities. Agreement with Marx's texts is no more sensible than obedience - now that their power is over - to Stalin or Pol Pot or Dick Cheney.

The victory of authoritarian/state/Marxist socialism over anarchism, which was more or less total in the twentieth century, was an utter disaster for the left and for the human species. Indeed, I would say that from the far left state socialism infected the entire lefthand side of the political spectrum. There is almost nothing, I propose to you, in American liberalism except enthusiasm for state power. There is no solution to any problem that does not consist of a new bureaucracy and increased coercion. That is what American liberalism is: love of the state as our savior, a theme we might call Hegelian, bent to the left by Marx. The architecture of the huge housing projects of the Great Society was Stalinist architecture, and the huge housing project was a top-down disaster, as can be seen by the fact that these buildings are being imploded all over the country. And one thing they accomplished was the utter destruction of previously-existing actual communities.

The idea of liberty has been abandoned to the right, and then ridiculed as reactionary and ridiculous. The only people who worry at all about liberty in America today are tea-partiers. That is really too bad, and if American leftism is driven by a desire to help people, and particularly the least fortunate among us etc., then I would strongly recommend that the first step would be to emphasize the autonomy and creativity of those people themselves, to listen to their own account of what's wrong and what they actually want. There needs, in other words, to be a revival of a libertarian left.

And as we emerge from our century of Marxist holocausts, I would think the left could look to the history of anarchism for a bit of inspiration. Anarchism in its best moments calls on each of us to liberate ourselves. It makes each of us responsible for our own freedom, rather than calling on an intellectual vanguard to drive the proletariat from its false consciousness into a collective millennium. It does not purport to know the shape of the future, or to impose a shape on the future: the totalitarian heart of all statist political philosophies. It imagines an open future which we create together, an improvisational collaborative work of art. It doesn't purport to understand everything: anarchism is not a science. It is a release.

That, I propose to you is the only liberation worth having: not the liberation in which we free you forcibly whether you want to be free or not, but a liberation in which we allow you to live as you like. Rousseau, who really is the origin of European leftism, said that people must be "forced to be free": the formula of the totalitarian left ever since. It's exactly as contradictory as it sounds, and all it yields is force, not freedom.

Here is our situation: we have been abandoned down here on this planet. We have been released to create our own lives, apart and together. We have no idea where we are headed: the world massively exceeds our control and our understanding. Indeed, we massively exceed our own control and understanding. It is a fearsomely risky situation. We can react to it in terrible fear - try to pretend we can know the future by divination or by "science," try to foreclose on it by violence and coercion. Or we can try to open ourselves to it or involve ourselves in its spontaneous self-creation. That is the anarchist alternative.

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Anarchism and Marxism, or Karl Marx was a Totalitarian | 2 comments | Create New Account
The following comments are owned by whomever posted them. This site is not responsible for what they say.
Anarchism and Marxism, or Karl Marx was a Totalitarian
Authored by: anarcho on Thursday, October 07 2010 @ 11:43 PM CDT

This is seriously rubbish. Marx was not a totalitarian -- he aimed for a centralised democratic state. However, the problem is that he confused party power with popular power and failed to see that a centralised state regime, particularly one with also ran the economy, would become totalitarian.

If you want to be taken seriously by anyone who has read Marx, get it right. This rant will only impress right-wingers who hate all forms of socialism and, perhaps, anarchists who don't read books.

May I suggest section H of An Anarchist FAQ.

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Anarchism and Marxism, or Karl Marx was a Totalitarian
Authored by: Marx Sucks on Saturday, March 26 2011 @ 09:24 PM CDT

>>This is seriously rubbish. Marx was not a totalitarian -- he aimed for a centralised democratic state.<<

THIS is the only rubbish here -except for maybe the author's argument that Marx's dogma had any actual value.

Marx's system is INHERENTLY totalitarian, he called for complete government control, the murder and imprisonment of anyone who dared think differently , and he thinly hid his intentions by deliberately conflating "The People" with "Oppressive Oligarchical Dictatorship formed by an elite class of people who worship my ideals". It's right there in his damn Ten Pillars, and all over his personal life, has you ever bothered to learn what a hypocrite and a thug he actually was.

Anybody attempting to argue that Marx's cult was not inherently totalitarian either knows nothing about it aside from the romantic image propagandists like Noam Chomsky wish to present, or has no idea what the wor "totalitarian" means. There's a good reason that every sinmgle incarnation of Marx's twisted ideology resulted directly in mass genocide, poverty and heinous oppression, without exception.

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