Malcolm Harris on Unruly Equality : U.S. Anarchism in the Twentieth Century

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Left Behind: Why Marxists Need Anarchists, and Vice Versa

Malcolm Harris
December 20th, 2015
Los Angeles Review of Books

Unruly Equality : U.S. Anarchism in the Twentieth Century
Andrew Cornell
University of California Press
416 pages

IN AN 1875 letter to German socialist politician August Bebel, Friedrich Engels complained — on behalf of himself and Karl Marx — about being teased by anarchists. Bebel’s Social Democratic Workers’ Party was merging with the General German Workers’ Association, the latter of which advocated a parliamentary road to socialism rather than a revolutionary one.

When the unified party forwarded their draft platform, Engels and Marx were embarrassed. They wanted to be clear about their theoretical position in this especially high-stakes situation. Germany was integral to international communist strategy, and if a unified front got off on the wrong foot it could have had catastrophic consequences for the movement. “Remember that abroad we [he and Marx] are held responsible for any and every statement and action of the German Social-Democratic Workers’ Party,” Engels writes to Bebel. “The people’s state has been flung in our teeth ad nauseam by the anarchists.”

He was right: the anarchists were doing some flinging. Engels specifically mentions Mikhail Bakunin, a prominent Russian anarchist who, in Statehood and Anarchy (1873), had criticized Marx’s “people’s state.” “No state [or republic], however democratic,” Bakunin writes in Statehood and Anarchy,

can ever give the people what they really want, i.e., the free self-organization and administration of their own affairs from the bottom upward, without any interference or violence from above, because every state, even the pseudo–People’s State concocted by Mr. Marx, is in essence only a machine ruling the masses from above, from a privileged minority of conceited intellectuals, who imagine that they know what the people need and want better than do the people themselves …

Marx was frustrated by anarchist criticism of his work, which he felt was based on a theoretical misunderstanding. In response to a rhetorical question from Bakunin (“There are about 40 million Germans. Does this mean that all 40 million will be members of the government?”), Marx wrote in his notes, “Certainly! For the system starts with the self-government of the communities.” Nonetheless, he and Engels took Bakunin’s objections seriously. To clarify their position on “the state” to Bebel and the Germans, Engels proposes a small but significant amendment to the platform’s language: “We would therefore suggest that Gemeinwesen [community] be universally substituted for state; it is a good old German word that can very well do service for the French ‘Commune.’” This is a major moment for the interpretation of Marxist thought, and it was spurred by anarchists that Marx and Engels couldn’t stand.

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