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An Anarchist Critique of Marx’s Critique of Political Economy

Anarchist Opinion

Both Marxism and anarchism come out of the 19th century workers’ and socialist movements. They shared certain goals: the end of classes and of capitalism, the end of the state, and of all oppression. They believed that these goals would be achieved through the international revolution of the working class, in alliance with all oppressed sections of society. They both advocated the formation of labor unions (their practical dispute was over whether to also form electoral workers’ parties). And they both have been historical failures, in that neither has led to successful, lasting, working class revolutions—so far. Yet they have been at odds since the bitter faction fight which blew up the First International, between the forces led by Karl Marx and those of Michael Bakunin, primary founder of anarchism as a movement.

An Anarchist Critique of Marx’s Critique of Political Economy

by Wayne Price
The North Star

Both Marxism and anarchism come out of the 19th century workers’ and socialist movements. They shared certain goals: the end of classes and of capitalism, the end of the state, and of all oppression. They believed that these goals would be achieved through the international revolution of the working class, in alliance with all oppressed sections of society. They both advocated the formation of labor unions (their practical dispute was over whether to also form electoral workers’ parties). And they both have been historical failures, in that neither has led to successful, lasting, working class revolutions—so far. Yet they have been at odds since the bitter faction fight which blew up the First International, between the forces led by Karl Marx and those of Michael Bakunin, primary founder of anarchism as a movement.

In discussing the relationship of anarchism and Marxism, it can be worthwhile to focus on their views of political economy. I write this although I am not a Marxist. I do not accept the whole of Marx’s world-view, even though I find much of it to be valuable. (And I am certainly not an economist of any sort.) I regard myself as a “Marxist-informed anarchist” (see Price 2013a; 2013b)

When I write of “Marxism,” I focus on the Marxism of Marx and Engels. In politics, this means those who believe that “the emancipation of the working class is the task of the working class itself.” In economic analysis, I look to what Murray Smith (1994) calls “fundamentalist value analysis.” He refers to those theorists who use Marx’s labor theory of value/law of value as well as the tendency of the rate of profit to fall—and, I would add, who accept Marx and Engels’ concept of state capitalism (for example, Paul Mattick Jr. [2011], Andrew Kliman [2012], Walter Daum [1990], and Loren Goldner [2009]).

By “anarchism,” I refer to what Schmidt & van der Walt (2009) in Black Flame call the “broad anarchist tradition,” of revolutionary, class-struggle, socialist-anarchism. This aims to replace the state with a federation of workplace councils and neighborhood assemblies and to replace capitalism with a federation of self-managing workplaces, industries, associations, and communities.

How Does Capitalism Work?

Radical political economy actually covers two related topics. (1) A critical analysis of how capitalism works, and (2) suggestions for alternate economic systems; visions of post-capitalist, post-revolution, economies. It is my opinion that Marx’s economic critique is highly useful for (1), and that the anarchist program is essential for (2). Of course, anarchism makes contributions to the first topic and Marxism has something to say about the second; it is a matter of emphasis.

As to “how capitalism works,” anarchists have never worked out a full system of political economy. Proudhon (the first person to call himself an anarchist) made a beginning, but neither he nor anyone else elaborated a developed system. Instead, anarchists have often used Marx’s economic theories. This has been true since Bakunin, despite his political conflicts with Marx. As Black Flame states,

“…Anarchism is deeply imprinted with elements of classical Marxism—specifically Marxist economics….In Bakunin’s view…a sufficiently rigorous analysis of capitalism…was to be found in Marx’s economic analyses, and Bakunin praised Marx’s economics as ‘an analysis so profound, so luminous, so scientific, so decisive…’ that no apologist for capitalism had yet succeeded in refuting it” (van der Walt & Schmidt, 2009; pp. 83, 85).

Suppose anarchists reject Marx’s critique of political economy, perhaps due to the evil history of Stalinism. Since there is no developed “anarchist economics” in this sense, the only alternative is bourgeois economics, in its liberal-Keynesian or its far-right versions. These approaches serve to justify capitalism, and to advise capitalist politicians to do what they want to do anyway. The system this endorses has its own monstrous evils, of wars, dictatorships, and ecological destruction. It is in no way superior to the crimes committed by Marxists. Its theories are much less accurate.

There have long been minorities among Marxists which base themselves on the libertarian, anti-statist, and radically democratic aspects of Marx’s work. This started with William Morris, the British friend of both Engels and Kropotkin. It included the Council Communists (denounced by Lenin as “infantile leftists”), the “Johnson-Forest Tendency” (C.L.R. James and Raya Dunayevskaya), the early Socialisme ou Barbarie, the Italian “workerists,” and others. Today they would be called “autonomous Marxists,” Left Communists, “libertarian communists,” or “libertarian Marxists.”

I am not arguing that this minority had a “correct” interpretation of Marx’s theories, as opposed, say, to Mao’s understanding. (In my opinion, both the libertarian and authoritarian Marxists root themselves in real aspects of Marx’s theory, which had both libertarian-humanistic-proletarian aspects and authoritarian-bureaucratic aspects.) Nor do I necessarily agree with all of their theories. I merely point to the empirical reality that it has been possible to hold to Marx’s economic theories while advocating a politics very close to that of revolutionary anarchism.

After Capitalism?

The second topic is that of a post-capitalist vision. Marxism is weak in this area on purpose. Agreeing with Marx, Draper states,

“…From early on, Marx and Engels habitually stated their political aim not in terms of a desired change in social system (socialism) but in terms of a change in class power (proletarian rule)….The revolutionary program is defined in terms of a new class ascendency;…the revolution is not the adoption of a certain social schema” (Draper, 1978; pp. 24, 27, 28).

But for the anarchists, there was no such gap between means and ends. For anarchists, the purpose of the “change in class power,” the winning of “a new class ascendency” of “proletarian rule,” was in order to “change [the] social system,” to adopt “a certain social schema,” namely libertarian socialism–and for no other reason. A good deal of discussion went into consideration of what such a society would be like, as opposed to the Marx”s view which sort of told the workers to take power and then we will see.

Like Marx, revolutionary anarchists are also for the workers and oppressed “taking power” and dismantling the state and capitalism. They were for the workers ruling through a non-state association of popular councils and an armed people (so long as is necessary). What they object to is “taking state power,” that is, setting up a new bureaucratic-military alienated social machine to rule over the workers and all others. This was not Marx’s goal, but it became what Marxists did. (See Price 2007.)

This is connected with Marx’s non-moralism. You may read through many volumes of Marx and Engels and never find a statement that socialism is morally right or that workers and others should be for socialism. In fact, their writings, like their lives, are full of moral passion, but it is not part of their theory. Anarchists, whatever their failings, always saw their social goals as justified in terms of moral values. Kropotkin tried to work out a naturalistic ethics. They did not counterpose this to the social pressures which push the working class toward socialist revolution, but neither did they feel that these historical processes are enough by themselves to justify a revolution.

Marx’s Critique of Political Economy

It is not possible to summarize Marx’s economic theories here (see Price 2013a). He sought to understand how capitalism worked, in order to explain it to the working class and its allies, to aid them in making a total revolution. He demonstrated how the workers were exploited by the capitalists; how capitalism had been established through looting and violence; why the economy went through business cycles, with crashes at the end; why firms became ever larger, more monopolistic, more merged with the state, and more financialized; and why industrial capitalism developed an ecological “rift” between humanity and its “metabolism” with nature. He demonstrated how capitalism created a technology which had an ever greater potential for plenty for all, increased leisure for all, unalienated craftswork, ecological balance, and the abolition of the class division between order givers and order takers. Yet this same technology was used by capitalism to increase oppression and alienation, to create vast pools of poverty throughout the world, to make possible total wars of vast devastation and ecological destruction beyond all imagining.

Finally, he showed how this system had produced an agent capable of saving humanity: the international working class or proletariat.

There is much dispute over whether Marx and Engels thought that proletarian revolution must inevitably happen, or whether they saw this as something which could happen, if the working class made a decision. They wrote things which could be interpreted either way. The classical social democratic Marxists and the later Stalinists interpreted them as saying that revolution was inevitable. Others believed that they saw it as a historical decision for the working class: “socialism or barbarism,” in the words of Rosa Luxemburg. Anarchists prefer the latter interpretation. But there is a strong trend toward teleological determinism in Marx’s work.

Marx presents socialism not just as something which would be nice, a pretty picture of a better society. His work tells us that socialist revolution is necessary, something we must have, if we are to avoid economic collapse, ecological/ environmental/ energy catastrophe, and/or ever worse wars–up to nuclear wars. The post-World War II “prosperity” has been over since about 1970 and society has returned to the conditions of the epoch of capitalist decay. (At this point, had I more space and time, I would go into a discussion of working class consciousness, the relation of a revolutionary minority to the broader majority, and related issues. See Price, 2010.)

The Goal of Socialism/Communism

The socialist-anarchist (anarchist-communist) goal of a new society would be cooperative, with production for use, and would be radically democratic. While there would be delegates and representatives where necessary in the larger society, democracy would be a “way of life” at the local level, with people taking part in direct, face-to-face self-management of their neighborhoods and their jobs and their voluntary associations. It would be an experimental society, with people trying out various ways of organizing themselves to achieve various ends. Different regions, different industries, different communities, would be free to try various ways of self-organizing. One region might be somewhat more centralized, another more decentralized; one would go directly to full communism and another might try paying workers with credits for hourly labor. One region may try out a participatory economics (“Parecon”) system and another may try out a system without money or credits. And so on.

Marx and Engels wrote little about the communist goal. They focused on the workers’ seizure of power and they expected the historical process to take care of socialism, once the workers were in power. But by scouring their work, it is possible to find a program. They expected the workers’ revolution to replace the capitalist state with a much more democratic state, but still a state. This would nationalize most of the industrial economy and develop a centralized economic plan. While they regarded nationalization by a capitalist state as state capitalism (because that state was an agency of capital accumulation and exploitation), this new institution would be a “workers’ state.” They expected this state to lose its coercive traits, as more people participated in its activities and as the former bourgeoisie die off or are assimilated. It would become a noncoercive “public authority” for coordinating the economy. (Again, this is not so much a program as a prediction of what would happen once the workers seized power.)

Anarchists have always thought that this approach, which they called “state socialism,” would in practice actually create “state capitalism.” Instead they advocated worker and community managed industries to federate from the bottom-up.

A problem with Marx’s approach appeared when history produced mass-murdering state capitalist regimes which called themselves “socialist” or “communist.” They were the product of the historical process. They had nationalized property (although the capital-labor relationship remained). Therefore most revolutionary socialists regarded them as “really existing socialism,” despite their shortcomings. Marxism had no moral standard by which to judge them.

Conclusion: Two Revolutions

The socialist revolution is qualitatively different from the bourgeois revolution. In the bourgeois revolution, what is centrally necessary is to clear away the obstacles to the semi-automatic workings of the market, releasing its “invisible hand” from the constraints of the bureaucratic state, the aristocracy, and the guilds. It dares not tell the truth to the people, that one ruling class will be replaced by another.

The socialist revolution is not automatic. It requires the working class and its allies among the oppressed to be fully conscious of what they are doing. It requires forethought, class consciousness, theoretical and practical awareness, and moral clarity. No one can stand in for the workers. No state, no vanguard, can “represent” them. They must attain freedom by themselves, for themselves. This is the program of libertarian socialism.

Daum, Walter (1990). The Life and Death of Stalinism; A Resurrection of Marxist Theory. NY: Socialist Voice Publishing Co.

Draper, Hal (1978). Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution; Vol. II: The Politics of Social Classes. NY: Monthly Review Press.

Goldner, Loren (2009). “On the October Surprise”. Situations. Vol. 3, no. 1. Pp. 35 – 64.

Kliman, Andrew (2012). The Failure of Capitalist Production; Underlying Causes of the Great Recession. NY: Pluto Press.

Mattick, Paul Jr. (2011). Business as Usual; The Economic Crisis and the Failure of Capitalism. London: Reaktion Books.

Price, Wayne (2007). The Abolition of the State: Anarchist and Marxist Perspectives. Bloomington IN: AuthorHouse.

Price, Wayne (2010). Anarchism and Socialism: Reformism or Revolution? Edmonton, Alberta: Thoughtcrime Ink.

Price, Wayne (2013a). The Value of Radical Theory; An Anarchist Introduction to Marx’s Critique of Political Economy. Oakland: AK Press.

Price, Wayne (2013b). “Living through the Decline of Capitalism”–Review of The Endless Crisis; How Monopoly-Finance Capital Produces Stagnation and Upheaval from the USA to China, by John Bellamy Foster & Robert W. McChesney

Smith, Murray E.G. (1994). Invisible Leviathan: The Marxist Critique of Market Despotism beyond Postmodernism. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Van der Walt, Lucien, & Schmidt, Michael (2009). Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism; Counterpower; Vol. 1. Oakland CA: AK Press.

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