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Anarchism, Marxism, and Economics

Anarchism, Marxism, and Economics
(Based on a Red & Black Forum talk by Paul Rubner, 25 Oct, 2015.)

Although not a Marxist, I consider Marx’s writings as classics of revolutionary thought. Hence, coming to terms with Marx’s ideas – whether one agrees with them or not -- is important for anarchists, and left libertarians generally. Familiarising ourselves with Marx’s ideas through on-going study of the primary sources is, or should be, an essential part of our continuing self-education. In my view, this is just as important as studying, e.g., Bakunin, Kropotkin, Malatesta, Bookchin, etc.

Anarchists have sometimes accepted Marx’s economic analysis, although not Marxist politics. In recent years, especially since the Global Financial Crisis, there has been renewed interest in economic matters. This has included a renewed interest by some anarchists in Marxist economics generally and more specifically in Marx’s critique of political economy. However, given the traditional rivalry between the anarchist and Marxist traditions, whether or to what extent Marx’s economic ideas are compatible with anarchism and/or usable by anarchists remains a topic of live debate within anarchist circles.

On one side of this debate is Ron Tabor’s recent book: The Tyranny of Theory: A Contribution to the Anarchist Critique of Marxism.1 As the title indicates, Tabor’s book covers far more than Marx’s economic ideas and the types of economic theories based on them. On the other side of the debate amongst anarchists is Wayne Price’s 2013 publication, The Value of Radical Theory: an anarchist introduction to Marx’s critique of political economy.2 This book is more narrowly focused on Marx’s economic theories, albeit at an introductory level, and in it Wayne Price presents a fairly straightforward account of Marx’s economic ideas, of which he gives a generally positive assessment. Importantly, he makes the case for their compatibility with anarchist politics. By contrast, Ron Tabor’s The Tyranny of Theory is much more comprehensive in that it aims to critique Marxism as a whole, and its treatment of Marx’s economic theories is much more critical than Price’s.

As Tabor recognises, the collapse of European Communism and the partial turn towards corporate capitalism among the remaining nominally “socialist” countries have undermined faith in “Communism as an ideology and Marxism more broadly” and that this has “provided the libertarian tendencies on the left, particularly anarchism, with a significant historical opportunity”.  One might suppose that among “libertarian tendencies on the left” Tabor refers to, that he would include those heretical and libertarian versions of Marxism rejected by the Communist regimes and still considered anathema by exponents of orthodox Marxism, i.e., by those who claim adherence to Leninism and the Bolshevik heritage, e.g. Trotskyists. But Tabor pays no heed to libertarian versions of Marxism – such as Council Communism and Autonomist Marxism, and makes no reference to current research in fields studying Marx and Marxism, and Marxist-Anarchist relations. In so doing, Tabor’s account, from a scholarly point of view, is dated in its research, and from a political perspective, conforms to the stereotypical dichotomisation of anarchism and Marxism, ignoring the overlaps, mutual influences, and meeting-points between the two. He tends to see the Marxist tradition as monolithic, and as possessing no historical development or significant variations. In accordance with this perspective, he declares that although “one can argue that official Communist ideology should not be equated with Marxism, that ‘Marxism-Leninism’ is a parody of true Marxism, and that the Communist regimes were not what Marx had in mind”, that they had become “closely identified in fact”. By ignoring its ideological variations and its stages of historical development, Tabor’s conceptualisation of the Marxist tradition is deeply flawed.
The collapse of European Communism and the de-throning of official orthodox Marxism have certainly contributed to a revival of interest in anarchism, especially since the 1999 Seattle demonstrations against the WTO, and the anti-globalisation movement of the early 2000s. Given that anarchism and Marxism are conventionally seen as diametrically opposed political traditions, the revival of interest in anarchism has predictably led to a rise in friction between them, as each vies for radical influence.

In the more recent past, the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) marked a turning point, in that one of the lessons of the GFC was that it demonstrated quite clearly the failure of orthodox bourgeois economics to predict, explain or prevent the GFC from occurring, or to deal adequately in a humane way with its social costs, or with continuing capitalist instability. It is this failure of bourgeois economics which partly explains why Marx’s economic theories and his critique of political economy have received increasing attention from many, including anarchists, and it is this increased attention which in turn has brought to the surface within anarchist circles a polarisation of attitudes in relation to Marx’s theoretical work, and as regards Marxism in general -- a polarisation which was always there to some extent, but which has welled up again in the current period.

Mutual attitudes of distrust and hostility between anarchism and Marxism have a long history, dating back to Marx’s critique of Proudhon in the 1840s and continuing through to the conflict between Marx and Bakunin in the First International – a history confirmed and intensified by the suppression of anarchists by the Bolsheviks in the wake of the Russian Revolution, and the conflict between anarchists and Communists in the Spanish Revolution and Civil War. Doubtless the historical memory of these events still plays a role in shaping anarchist attitudes to Marx and the Marxist tradition.

Along with some overlap and mutual influences between Marxism and anarchism, and certain commonalities in the contexts in which these two traditions developed, significant differences remain, some potentially bridgeable, and others not. As regards approaches to theory, generally speaking, in the anarchist tradition, there is a relatively flexible, sometimes ad hoc approach to theory, together with more or less firm adherence to anarchist fundamentals, such as those regarding attitudes to the State, etc. – whereas in the Marxist tradition, the writings of Marx, and also usually Engels, are central reference points, with the theoretical core usually acknowledged as Marx’s critique of political economy. Hence, in political praxis, i.e., political action informed by theory, analysis, and experience, the emphasis on the role of these respective elements differs between the two traditions. Even allowing for the fetishisation of one or other element, e.g. theory, it’s difficult to make an objective or impartial judgment in particular instances given the difference in attitudes between the two traditions.

In The Tyranny of Theory, Tabor states that “the main thesis” of his “critique of Marxism is that it is, and must be held, responsible for Communism”, that “the ideas of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels led directly to the establishment of totalitarian socio-economic systems in Russia, China, Eastern Europe, Vietnam, Cuba, North Korea, and elsewhere.” As Tabor sees it, “the emergence of such systems was not the result of accidents, of unfortunate interpretations of Marxism, of ‘unfavourable objective conditions’, or of some other external causes.” For Tabor, “[t]hese regimes represent the underlying logic of Marxism”, and he surmises that “the efforts of Marxists and Marxist organizations to create revolutionary societies in the future (should they get the chance) will, in all likelihood, lead to similar systems.” (p. 11)

Following this line of argument, in the final chapter of his book, Tabor concludes that “[t]he totalitarian potential of Marxism becomes actual when, after a successful revolution or some other event that enables them to seize state power, Marxist revolutionaries pursuing the strategy prescribed by their theory, set up a centralized, dictatorial state they call and believe to be the dictatorship of the proletariat. They then have both the opportunity and the power to impose their vision on the rest of society, including the workers. When the workers (or anyone else) resist, or even disagree, Marxists define them as suffering from ‘false consciousness’ (or label them as ‘counterrevolutionary) and repress them.” (p. 337)

Now whether or not one agrees with this as a description of what actually has happened in those places where Marxists have come to power, the question remains: What is this so-called “underlying logic of Marxism” Tabor refers to as containing “totalitarian potential”? Tabor identifies it as a kind of Idealism which stems from Hegel. In his view, Marx is not a materialist – a term, Marx’s meaning of which Tabor misunderstands as referring merely to physical matter3 – Marx is not a materialist, but an Idealist -- which Tabor understands as someone who substitutes concepts for reality and then attempts to make reality conform to them. For Tabor, Marxism is quite literally a type of Hegelianism. In my view, Tabor not only adopts an interpretation of Hegel’s philosophy which is questionable as well as dogmatic, he also displays little understanding of Marx’s complex relationship to Hegel’s ideas, itself a matter of continuing scholarly research and debate – and his analysis and critique of Marx’s economic ideas is similarly faulty. 

Tabor rejects virtually all aspects of what he takes as Marxism; he approaches Marxism as if it is reducible to its orthodox versions, i.e., to the versions of Marxism which won out against competing versions and managed to achieve ideological hegemony within the Marxist tradition -- orthodox Marxism in his view being the only form of Marxism warranting interest, there being no point in exploring different forms and interpretations of Marxism which might be found to possess more validity.

By contrast, displaying a sympathetic approach at least to Marx’s economic ideas, while maintaining an explicitly anarchist political framework, Wayne Price’s book, The Value of Radical Theory: An Anarchist Introduction to Marx’s Critique of Political Economy takes up the challenge of attempting to convince anarchists of the value of this particular part of Marx’s writings. At the very least, this involves showing that Marx’s critique of political economy is relevant to our times, is a solid basis for explaining the basic mechanisms of the capitalist system, and is compatible with libertarian forms of socialism -- more specifically, with anarchism.

Price notes that in Capital and other writings, one of Marx’s main concerns is to develop a critical assessment of what was then known as “political economy”. In seeing the bourgeois political economists, e.g. Adam Smith, as apologists for capitalism, Marx was not only providing a critique of their writings, but was also opposing the capitalist system itself. It is out of this critique that Marx’s analysis of capitalism emerges, an analysis which Price
regards as the best explanation available of how capitalism actually works, and as forming the basis for understanding developments in today’s globalised capitalist system. However, despite his belief in the value of Marx’s economic theories, Price is definitely no Marxist. This book is not, and nor should be seen as, an attempt to persuade anarchists to become Marxists.

Despite their different approaches, Tabor and Price both fall into rather common misinterpretations of Marx’s ideas. They both take Marx’s base/superstructure metaphor literally, interpreting it to imply economic determinism. They both characterise Marx’s method merely as abstraction, neglecting the fact that this is only one aspect of Marx’s dialectical method – which they each in their own way misinterpret as implying strict inevitability, with Tabor keen to point to the false predictions inevitably arising therefrom. That said, despite their somewhat similar anarchist positions, it is clear that their approaches to Marx’s critique of political economy are vastly different.

Neither of these books represents my political position or interpretation of Marx’s critique of political economy -- especially not Tabor’s. As a continuing student of philosophy and a libertarian socialist, I have always inclined towards a philosophically humanistic and ethical interpretation of Marx’s critique of political economy. I do not see myself as a Marxist but regard Marx as a classical thinker in the revolutionary tradition; like all classical thinkers, his ideas retain their relevance -- in themselves, as points of reference, and as points of departure for new research. In my view, wholesale rejection of Marx and Marxism is not compatible with this approach.




1. Ronald D. Tabor, The Tyranny of Theory: A Contribution to the Anarchist Critique of Marxism. Edmonton, Canada: Black Cat Press, 2013.

2. Wayne Price, The Value of Radical Theory: An Introduction to Marx’s Critique of Political Economy. Oakland, CA & Edinburgh, Scotland: AK Press, 2013. See my review of Price’s book in Sedition, no. 2.

3. “Before Marx the word ‘materialism’ had long been used in opposition to idealism, for whereas idealistic philosophical systems assumed some spiritual principle, some ‘Absolute Idea’ as the primary basis of the world, the materialistic philosophies proceeded from the real material world. In the middle of the nineteenth century, another kind of materialism was current which considered physical matter as the primary basis from which all spiritual and mental phenomena must be derived. Most of the objections that have been raised against Marxism are due to the fact that it has not been sufficiently distinguished from this mechanical materialism.” Anton Pannekoek, “Society and Mind in Marxian Philosophy” (1937)