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Saving Marx from anarchist distortion

By Paul D'Amato | March 23, 2007 | Page 9

IN A letter in last week's Socialist Worker, Alex Fu claims that I have set up a straw man in order to criticize anarchism, explaining that, "There aren't any serious anarchists who are blanket 'anti-authoritarians.'"

What are we to make then of this statement from the "Anarchist FAQ"?: "Anarchists are people who reject all forms of government or coercive authority, all forms of hierarchy and domination."

Since some anarchists who accept this statement as an accurate statement of their basic beliefs are revolutionaries, they are forced to argue that revolution does not involve domination or coercive authority. "It isn't authoritarian to destroy the authority of a minority class," Alex insists. But this is just playing with words. Better to admit, as Marxists do, that coercive means, though necessary to achieve the overturn of society, do not prefigure the ends--a society free of coercion.

We could find any number of statements by renowned anarchists, from Proudhon to Emma Goldman, to the effect that it is a principle of anarchism to oppose the imposition of the will of the majority over the minority. "[Socialism] cannot be imposed on a minority by a majority," insisted Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta. Yet, Malatesta was a revolutionary.

"The revolution...must be violent because a transitional, revolutionary violence is the only way to put an end to the far greater, and permanent, violence which keeps the majority of mankind in servitude," he wrote. Clearly, there is a contradiction between the two statements, since a revolution, by definition, is the majority imposing its will on the minority.

Alex then concludes by resurrecting the tired argument that whereas anarchists wish to erect "new organs of society" to replace the state, Marxists (quoting Marx) strive for a society which is "still stamped with the birth marks of the old society from whose womb it emerges." We can only assume that what Alex is implying in (mis)quoting Marx is that he favored a revolution that takes over rather than replaces the existing state.

What Marx actually meant by the statement was that a revolution cannot do away with the old order in one stroke. The working class can overthrow the political power of the ruling class, but by doing so it has not thereby created the immediate conditions for a free and classless society. There will need to be a period of transition in which the old economic and social order is rooted out and human beings completely free themselves from the old ruling ideas and habits of deference.

The Social Democratic and Stalinist tradition both distorted Marx's teachings on the state to imply that Marx favored "taking over" the bourgeois state--and anarchists conveniently choose to represent Marx's teachings in the same way.
The 1871 Paris Commune taught Marx and Engels that the working class "cannot lay hold of the ready-made state machine and wield it for its own purposes" but must destroy the existing state and erect organs of direct democracy in its place.

For Marx, this "proletarian state" (that is, an instrument of organized coercion by the majority) would be necessary in order to do away with all the vestiges of the old society. Only with the disappearance of class division could the state "wither away."

In his marginal comments to a pamphlet by the anarchist Michael Bakunin, Marx developed these ideas quite clearly: "If the proletariat becomes the ruling class, over whom will it rule?" asks Bakunin.

Marx answers: "It means that so long as...the capitalist class, still exists, so long as the proletariat struggles with it (for when it attains government power its enemies and the old organization of society have not yet vanished), it must employ forcible means, hence governmental means.

"It is itself still a class and the economic conditions from which the class struggle and the existence of classes derive have still not disappeared and must forcibly be either removed out of the way or transformed, this transformation process being forcibly hastened."

Bakunin then asks: "What does it mean, the proletariat organized as ruling class?"

Marx answers: "It means that the proletariat, instead of struggling sectionally against the economically privileged class, has attained a sufficient strength and organization to employ general means of coercion in this struggle. It can however only use such economic means as abolish its own character as salariat, hence as class. With its complete victory its own rule thus also ends, as its class character has disappeared."

So long as the counterrevolution was not vanquished, one cannot speak of "abolishing" the state. This was demonstrated when Bakunin and his followers took over the town hall in Lyon, France, and issued a decree abolishing the state in September 1870. His forces were dispersed by two companies of the National Guard.

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