State, Anarchism and Marx (fwd)

Jonathan P. Beasley-Murray jpb8 at
Thu Sep 29 12:42:05 MDT 1994

As you can see, this message has been sent to two lists already.
However, it didn't seem to arouse much in the way of response on the
Left-L list and (with the author's permission) I thought I'd see what
"marxismers" (?) made of it.  For me the last half is most interesting.

Apologies to those who've already seen this.


Jon Beasley-Murray
Literature Program
Duke University
jpb8 at

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Wed, 28 Sep 1994 17:32:23 +1200
From: Malcolm Maclean <Malcolm.MacLean at VUW.AC.NZ>
Subject: State, Anarchism and Marx

Before I start, my apologies to the social-l subscribers here who will have
seen this a previous (and indeed little different) form.  I've recently
joined up to this list and am relatively impressed with the quality of
debate - hell, there is a debate which is a breakthrough for a bunch of
lefties!  But not entirely impressed, there seems to be the intermittent
outburst of pettiness - Samual Day Fassbinder having a go a Paul Houle over
the title of _Marxism: U&S_ for instance.  Surely it is the content that is

Like Camilla , I make a distinction between Marx and his disciples.  Yep,
he had some damn good ideas, but some of them were really lousy.  The same
can be said for those who came in his wake.  Most importantly, both he, and
those who wrote in his name who we have tended to deify as the great
leaders, must be read in the contexts of their times.  They didn't lay down
the answer for all time, but focussed some tools to help us make sense of
the world.  To be useful, we gotta use them and must move beyond the output
of Progress Publishers and Pathfinder Press.  Marx and co. had a downer on
the utopians and the anarchists because they felt (amongst other things)
that they didn't provide the answers to the problems of the day.  Well,
hell, if that was the case, can we be sure that Marx provides us with the
answers for today.  His rejection of the 'utopian' socialists says he
can't.  So, it's hard work time as we invent our own analysis for the
conditions of the 1990s.

I believe that we need to start with two fundamental propositions:  the
struggle against capitalism must continue; and the destruction of
capitalism is not inevitable - it is not a stage society must pass
*through*.  A key element of Marxist political economy is that capitalism
sows the seeds of its own destruction - but if I may push the simile
further, there is no guarantee that those seeds will germinate.  They must
be fertilized, watered, tendered, cherished and supported while they sprout
and grow.

Socialist poitics, for me, is in large part about being this sort of
gardener - God knows I'm no good with real plants!  Marxism certainly is
not a failed philosophy, despite the attempts of some on the Left to see it
as such, and the rhetoric of Fukuyama, *Time*, and advocates of the end of
communism.  They might be a slightly firmer ground if they argued that
Marxist praxis has failed.  But only might.  More accurately, Marxist
praxis has failed in some of the manifestations it has adopted.  State
socialism, acting in the name of Marxism, has failed.  This as presented a
quandry for the Left: many of us hated the abuse of the world view we saw
touted as Marxist in the USSR, Eastern Block, China, North Korea and so on
and so forth.  The collapse of the Soviet Bloc is, therefore, a good thing.
 But, it also brought about a crisis of hope.  They may have been scumbags,
but they acted in our name, and many of us had once supported them.  They
showed there was a sort of alternative - now we can't be so sure.  Equally,
Trotskyist praxis may not have failed, but it hasn't gone far.  Most forms
of Trotskyism seem to have an ambiguous relationship with the working
class, which is concurrently inherently revolutionary and practically inert
(or worse).  Most Trotskyist approaches simply cannot cope with this, so
remain the property of small sects.

So, Trotskyist and Stalinist praxis have left the Left floundering.  But
why  toss out the whole kaboodle?  Because after 100 or so years of
Marxism, the world is still a nasty place and capitalism reigns supreme?
In the grand scheme of things, 100 years ain't that long.  Capitalism is
far more adaptable than feudalism, and capitalist (well, merchantilist)
in-roads to the feudal scheme began in North Italy in the late fourteenth
and early fifteenth centuries.  The change in Europe was gradual such that
we saw essentially feudal relations in parts of the continent (and Russia)
until this century.  It took about 500 years for feudalism to be
substantially replaced by capitalism in the European core - North Italy,
Germany, Netherlands, England and France.  There was no significant change
until the agricultural sector came under capitalist reconstruction.
Feudalism had serious trouble adapting to the demands of the emerging
capitalist classes.

Capitalism, as an individualistic system and world-view, is far more
adaptable, in that it is able to appropriate the Left's demands and appear,
in some respects, to meet them while acting to preseve itself.  Note how
the struggle against apartheid became transformed from a liberation
struggle to a human rights struggle.  These human rights became seen as
individual rights that could be met under capitalism, and now a black-led
regime in Pretoria is shoring up capitalism relations of production: the
very structures of which apartheid was an essential guarantee.  Or look at
the social democratic consensus in Europe and Australasia during the
1940s-mid '80s.

Capitalism's adaptabilty (its suitabilility for a fascist regime that is
replaced by multi-racial/social democratic one) is the key to its survival.
 Like Jonathon (Marxist And proud of it!) I think that Marxism has much to
offer, but it's not the only game in town.

The Left does need to reassess its work, however.  The crisis of class
politics, which seems to have absorbed us and destroyed our ability to act
is the key question.  The problem, however, is not that classes no longer
exist, but that they no longer provide the only or even principal key to
collective action.  The culture of collective action now relies on other
triggers - kinship, community, sexuality....  Culture provides the
connection, in that the Left needs to develop a system of collective
symbolic expression that makes sense of the world, of society and of
itself/oneself that is appropriate to the conditions of work, of the
specific circumstances of that work and of political action.  There cannot
be any over-arching, all embracing political culture (or cultural
politics), but the symbolic expression required must be developed in each
circumstance.  Marxism may not offer all the answers, but the desire to
abandon it in favour of an unspecified new game plan is extreme, and
exceptionally unsubtle.  Let's toss out the monolithic political apparatus
that has come to be associated with Leninist models of organization so we
can develop appropriate local strategies.  Let's abandon the reductionism
often associated with class politics (sure, many of us admit the key
struggles of women, colonized nations, gays and lesbians and so on, but
often with a tacit class-is-the-key-and-don't-you-forget-it attitude).

In short, let's exploit the analytical methods Marxism gives us and the
rich intellectual and activist tradition that has grown up with it to build
a better and more flexible strategic and tactical series of programmes.
But also, let's look to pre-Marxist socialist approaches to see what we can
learn from them: Fourier's feminism for instance; and to post-Marx
tendencies that have been unwritten; staying with women, how about
Kollontai.  None of them have the answer - all of the ideas we ignore at
our peril.  Hell, let's look beyond the socialists to the anarchists -
horror of horrors, they too might have something to contribute. (sarcastic
tone of voice here)

The early years of the USSR have given us two millstones.  Should we be
able to cast them off we will go further than we have gone in a long time.
The monolithic, all knowing party at the centre of things telling us how to
act is a key problem preventing greater success; and the petty internecine
squabbles that seem to be about knowing exactly where we are going before
we start.  (Hell if we know where we are going, why bother with the
journey?)  If we stop squabbling amongst ourselves and get on fighting
capitalism, and other agencies of oppression that have attached themselves
to it, by using flexible strategic and tactical approaches, who knows, we
might actually get somewhere.

This leaves unaddressed an enormous thorny question.  What about
dialectics?  Did it/they once work?  Are they applicable as a method to the
postmodern world?  Is it even post-modern?  Are Marxism, other socialisms,
or the multi-variant forms of anarchism subtle enough to cope with the fin
de seicle/millenium intellectual panic we are in during the 1990s?  Has the
spirit of '68 invaded our brains so we can't see other alternatives?

Of course, the other big one is about tactics.  If we toss out the
monolithic party and end the deification (and sanctification) of Karlo and
Freddy, what happens to the revolution?  What happens to revolutionary
discipline?  Hmm, we might just have to get on with the people we are
working with, talk with them and work through our ideas, show unity that
means something, not that prescribed by the central committee/guiding text.
 Who knows, then we might realise that the revolution ain't gonna be a big
bang.  But then, it was never even inevitable.

See ya on the streets
Malcolm MacLean
malcolm.maclean at


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