The dissolution of the red and the black

I’m going to hazard a historical thesis: that marxism and anarchism, the red and the black, have been superseded by history.

I’m speaking here not about subjectivity, how people think about these movements, but objectively, of movements and struggles. My reason is this, objectively speaking the divisions that existed between marxists and anarchists have blurred to such an extent, that it is no longer possible to speak realistically of separate movements merely on the historical basis of people drawing from those two traditions. Reasons:

I. Ideas

1. Those who call themselves marxists are overrun by anarchist concepts. 

Marxists today have to define themselves on the terms of anarchism, which is many ways has ascended to become the dominant revolutionary discourse consciously or not. You hear maoists talking about participatory democracy and autonomy, you hear trotskyists call Venezuelan government organs decentralized community councils, and you hear communists speak about anti-politics, anti-statism, the unity of capital and the state, the incoherence of the transition period, etc. 

2. Anarchists have been so deeply influenced and change by marxist ideology. 

Anarchists of all kind draw from, study, work with, etc., marxist concepts. Anarchist groups reframe lenin is supposedly libertarian terms, anarchists utilize marx’s thought (the good and the bad) on economics, marxists formulate libertarian organization in response to marxist debates, and annex marxists into the anarchist cannon. This is natural given that marxism produced the the greatest breadth and depth of thinking around revolution in the 20th century.

II. Action

1. Marxists have assumed anarchist practice under the banner of marxism.

Marxism, which once scorned direct action, affinity groups, direct democracy, etc. (and in some archaic or avant garde manner occasionally does), has embraced anarchist practice and reconfigured it to fall within the orthodoxy of marxism. Marxism in name, anarchist in practice. Or so it goes with many.

2. Anarchists have assumed marxist practice under the banner of anarchism. 

Guevarism, leninist organizational practice + assembly votes, national liberation, marxist practice of revolutionary struggle, etc., all find practice in the void filled by anarchists relative youth when it comes to practice. Correspondingly, we find reconceptualization of marxist struggle as though old concepts in libertarian clothing transforms the reinvention of dead struggles. Or even more bizarrely, the dressing up of social democracy, keynesianism, and reform as stepping stones to libertarianism. 

This is all at the level of appearances; reformists masquerade as revolutionaries, revolutionaries dress up as their favorite superheros, radicals afraid of change throw old names at new struggles and try to force todays wooden blocks into history’s circular hole. 

What is really going on is the emergence of a number of distinct tendencies arising from real struggles in the proletariat (broadly understood). 

1.The revolutionary farce

Liberalism expressed in its more raw and extreme form yearns for a revolutionary upheaval, but settles on revamping it in the form of improving capitalism. The left is extremely good at reproducing this revolutionary masquerade, and perhaps that constitutes nearly the whole of the left. Anarchist, marxist, socialist, or liberal, we can see the emergence of a pan-left movement which is diverse in ideology but united around supporting the left-wing of capital in the attempt to reform capital along humanistic lines.

2. Old moles blindly chewing pages under the mountain of dead texts

Likewise there are hangers on, prophets of the second coming of some hackneyed representative of authentic revolution who saw the light but wasn’t given the chance the make the revolution we are unwilling to make ourselves. Again the ideology diverges, but the practice is unitary. Education and propaganda, marketing and PR, these revolutionaries and their worship of political organization are in the business of selling ideas to masses held back by being duped by worse ideas. If they intervene at all, it is to try and influence ideas and further propagate the message, which if only it took hold in the masses would mean certain revolution. This concept of revolution is as old as revolution itself, and is a tragic comedy of the Waiting for Godot sort. Unlike the reformists above, these old moles will find no unity since they are united only by their love of their own ideas, party line, or commitment to the futile external propaganda of class that a million times more revolutionary than the self-proclaimed revolutionaries. 

3. The non-dialectical synthesis of marxism and anarchism

A sector of the marxist and anarchist movements are quickly finding themselves dissolved into one and another. On a practical basis, we literally see this in struggle. Revolutionary tendencies emerge less on the historical basis of identification with a particular history, than with the unity of practice and ideas in struggle. To this end we see both in the theory of libertarian revolutionary (consider the anarchism of the ultraleft and the marxism of communist anti-union anarchists) and the practice (networks of militants, workplace struggles that supersede unions, assemblies and councils, consciousness through action, and content in struggle beyond mere form).

In essence we see that the historical destruction of the left by its own reformism and procapitalist stance, led to the dissolution of practice from theory, an anti-praxis of sorts. Alongside this, the birth of new struggles in the post-soviet era, began to undermine both the theory and the praxis. We now see the emergence of a new praxis, whose theory or praxis is absent or incomplete.

There is reason to be hopeful in the last case, with the emergence of a non-sectarian libertarian tendency that supercedes the historical limitations of marxism and anarchism, yet which utilizes the advances of both. There is hope here, because we can see in practice the advances of this in terms of both practice and theory on a global scale. Bizarrely, from a motley crew of parts of the SAC, the IWW, SolFed, working place resistance groups in the UK, workers struggles in France and Germany, to the industrial slums of India, we see a kind of dialogue unusual for groups of people who directly fight in struggles. This collective engagement transforms revolutionaries in struggle beyond their individual and grouplet bounds, and can open up space for the emergence of perspectives that can rupture the staleness of the left in our time. To this end, we are better served by open debate, reflection, and collaborative practice on the basis of this emerging praxis than we are by clinging to the fetish of identity-based historical associations, semantic and intellectually driven debates, and the reproduction of internet stances isolated from active strengths of an immanent proletariat.


10 thoughts on “The dissolution of the red and the black

  1. hey man, great to see you blogging so much, I hadn’t checked in a while and now I did and there’s way more than I can read right now! I’ll have to get back to you on this and a lot more. For now, I don’t find historical supercession a particularly helpful category/meta-category, not nearly as helpful as you seem to find it (ironically, because it’s a very hegelian type of move and you dislike the hegel stuff). I think anarchist vs marxist etc etc is largely a matter of perspective and has been for a while, in my limited knowledge of these traditions (I know more about the marxist side of things). To put it another way, this divide was more about hegemonic perspectives within different movement circles than it was about things internal to the ideas. There have been marxist anarchists and libertarian marxists for about as long as those terms made sense. They were marginal much of the time, but I don’t see why that means we should concede the terms – your take here (as with your take on the word ‘union’ in our arguments about that) seems to me to just sort of grant past hegemonic actors defining/owning the field of meanings of terms, rather than emphasize (or least note) the way those actors were contested. Know what I mean?

    All of that said, is there something to be gained by breaking down this division? For myself, I think there’s something to be gained by saying “hey these can overlap” but I worry that dissolving the differences entirely might let some folk off the hook who need to be schooled… πŸ™‚


  2. Glad to see you writing again. I skimmed this real quick and see your point a bit, but this sounds really close to the “anarchist/marxist synthesis” idea that Grubacic puts forward. I like allot of his writing, but I have some issues with this. It seems a bit ahistorical and given I think the pretty strong argument put forward in Black Flame, which is that Marxism as a framework of analysis was shared by class struggle anarchists (though critically). I think given the weight of the Black Flame argument, I think the synthesis folks have to answer for me to take their idea seriously. And as far as working together across the “red and black divide,” why be part of a political organization with folks who believe in the role of a state in a post-revolutionary society? Form the point of view of having theoretical unity, why would you want to be forced to split on the eve of the revolution over a question such as the state? Thats what I always thought re BTR…. let me know if I’m totally missing yr argument!

  3. Ok so, here’s my main thesis

    “objectively speaking the divisions that existed between marxists and anarchists have blurred to such an extent, that it is no longer possible to speak realistically of separate movements MERELY on the historical basis of people drawing from those two traditions”

    This isn’t normative, it’s merely a statement of fact. So historical supercision doesn’t mean we should toss the ideas, but rather than IN PRACTICE these divisions don’t exist. That is, practically there is unity where theoretically there is division (the left is in an acute state of dyspraxia).

    90% of this article is statement of fact. I think the groupings, sharing of info, etc., amongst anarchist and marxists groups has increased and that they are evolving together. Take freedom road, rev work in our times, us social forum, love and rage, nefac, the combo of insurrectionists with autonomist marxists, libcom itself, etc.

    The other 10%, the normative part:

    The main jab is “Revolutionary tendencies emerge less on the historical basis of identification with a particular history, than with the unity of practice and ideas in struggle.”

    example, syndicalism. Syndicalism developed in tandem with european anarchists, workers, and American marxists. There was greater and greater unity of action and praxis which eventually developed into an ideology anarchosyndicalism (with some related offshoots) that wasn’t merely a product of direct anarchist lineage.

    I posit that there’s a libertarian anti-state non-union current that has been coevolving. The reason I find that hopeful is that:
    1. we see experimentation, engagement in mass work, and an international project of trying to build this politics in practice (workplace organizing and housing mostly)
    2. there is a sharing of theory taking the best and leaving the rest (marxism armed with anti-state thought, organizational understanding, and power analysis, and anarchism developing the more nuanced economic analysis, strategic capability, and moving beyond populism).

    That isn’t to say we should abandon this or that theory, but that in practice this is a promising tendency which has the best likelihood for developing a praxis that can advance our struggles.

    Now on the contestation of terms, i’m not sympathetic to that move in general. Sure its true that some of this existed, but to what extent is it really relevant? We care about currents and traditions not as abstract ideologies, but as embedded in practice.

    I like Dauve a lot, but I’m not an ultraleft, and I don’t try to reclaim the term for a more engaged practice. Some people tried to contest marxism within a marxist framework, sure. Let’s say they were like 2% of the whole marxist movement across history. Objectively there’s been a shift. Now marxists have to take anarchists more seriously than they did, because of a historical change in the role of anarchism and its movement. Likewise those contesting marxism have objectively been pushed forward by these changes. Now we could try to cover over that by just saying it’s all been marxism and anarchism all along, or we could try to explain it.

    I think the outline of that move is not so good. You take common understandings of terms, which are based on concrete movements, you make a semantic move to try and reconstruct and reconnect with a history. The only reason I can see to do semantics is a kind of nostalgia about lineage, history, and thinkers, which I have little of. I also feel like that’s an uphill battle with little reward since we’re arguing against common usage, but only gain a term to our name.

  4. hi Todd,

    I think a lot of this is just about intuitions and sensibilities – I’m very rarely comfortable with claims to epochal shifts and historical overcomings, and you’re much more so (which is in a way a sensibility on your part that is similar to a lot of hegelians’ sensibilities, I think). Anyhow, I’m still not convinced on the claim to a shift here. I think you overstate the case about marxists. I think freedom road and solidarity have only some of that overlap, and you’re leaving out a lot of groups – ISO, RCP, SA, SWP, etc etc etc – and overemphasizing the unity of practice. There are important overlaps, but I’m not convinced that historical supercession is a useful way to understand what’s happening. That’s possible, but I think it’s also possible (and for some groups, more likely) that we’re seeing attempts by some groups to win hegemony over strata which are emerging as politicized nowadays and over the past 10 years, both less-consciously radical social movement people and more self-consciously radical folk. I also think that it’s likely that co-evolution always happened at least when these groups mattered (in a sense, even strong opposition to another group is co-evolution, if it involves real changes in practice)

    All of that aside, what’s the take away here in terms our practices? I don’t ask that rhetorically (a la “let’s cut through all this stuff and get down to brass tacks”), but sincerely – we sometimes disagree on theoretical routes (or theoretical descriptions of our routes) to get somewhere but usually agree on destinations and tactics once we’ve arrived.
    take care,

  5. this is great to read (i’m really getting into your blog and greatly appreciate the piece on women in revolutionary/political organization; your blog here is a serious contribution for those of us trying to open up these new ideas etc.).

    i have been trying to process issues of anarchism and marxism. i can’t claim much experience or knowledge with the historical or theoretical tradition of anarchism or marxist traditions of thought and struggle after marx (broadly, leninism, trotskyism, maoism, stalinism and stuff like that.)

    i today identify strongly as a marxist, but i am not in a ‘socialist’ organization (eg ISO), and never will be, though these groupings identify themselves as marxist–specifically as the continuation-heir of ‘the’ marxist tradition of thought and struggle. i believe that many ‘socialist’ or ‘communist’ organizations have theory and practice that are deeply in conflict with my readings of karl marx (specifically kapital, the book, of which i’ve only read the first volume–and i’m no advanced theorist at all, but this is how i see it.)

    the term ‘marxist’ can be useful in some conversations and not in others. before i identified as a marxist i identified as an anarchist; this was the first school/tendency/tradition that i ever openly identified with politically. though i have NEVER read any serious anarchist text. i identified with a community of struggle that was vibrant, full of beautiful people i love and trust, that is uncompromising and ETHICALLY (and almost spiritually) powerful to me. i did not identify that much with the ‘scene’ politically–approaches to organizing and practical work were shared in many was but drastically divergent in others. but the ethical and principled fiber of this community is something that i think ‘marxist’ political tendencies really do need. and to a great extent these ‘scenes’ today (and pretty much all political scenes i know of) lack this kind of ‘fiber’. (not at all i hope to be confused with some idea of ‘moral fiber’ or some such shit. im thinking of ethics kind of like how you treat people you love and respect, how you walk the earth, what you value, your principles and stuff)

    before i ever identified as an anarchist i was seriously reading marx and thought that the kritik of political economy was really important. but i didn’t identify as a materialist then cuz i thought that meant class reductionism and anti-feminism. i don’t today think that at all….

    calling myself an anarchist and committing to that community was something of an experiment for me as well. i didn’t really understand how the differences between anarchist, socialist, communist etc really worked. i was further confused by discussions of ‘socialism’ and ‘communism’–meaning something like types of societies. like all the different schools or tendencies i talked to said they utlimately wanted a classless, stateless society–justice and an end to oppression and etc. but my politic was increasingly distinguishing itself from many of my partners in struggle, and i wanted to be able to mark that off. anarchism was my community and its major value was something like the full integration of ends and means. my beliefs are slightly different on that today, but the realtionship between ends and means is really important to me still.

    theoretically speaking i want to address the comment “And as far as working together across the β€œred and black divide,” why be part of a political organization with folks who believe in the role of a state in a post-revolutionary society? Form the point of view of having theoretical unity, why would you want to be forced to split on the eve of the revolution over a question such as the state?”

    i absolutely do NOT believe in ‘the role of a state in a post-revolutionary society.’ many marxists feel-think this way. i learned theoretically about the state from hegel’s writings, and then from marx’s. i think it is a seriously confusing word in the ‘marxist tradition.’ for example, one of two books i’ve read by lenin, state and revolution, defines the state in a somewhat helpful but ultimately incomplete and therefore incoherent manner–as a class/body for the oppression of other classes in society. it’s kind of ambiguous–is the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ (which lenin defines as a state) the class itself or an ‘organ’ of the class? it seems that lenin leaves out the role of the state as a body that is fully OF or IN society while appearing-acting in a way that stands above or outside of society. taking this as the definitive general characteristic of a state (which ultimately therefore includes a ‘monopoly on the means of violence’ etc), i believe that this is an ENEMY to the ideas and method of marxism–going back to marx. it is inherently a CLASS structure–because it stands ‘outside’ of class conflict, ‘mediating’ it while actually being a central motor in the reproduction of class power. without exception this type of formation can NEVER lead to justice, equity, mutuality. i am not a serious intellectual, and i haven’t read all of marx, so maybe he advocates using this type of formation. he probably also advocated electoral activity. he definitely used the term ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ (which i am not against–and do not think can be coherently defined as a state, and certainly can’t be pigeon-holed into being a ‘state’ of any kind, though it could be defined as such–and i would challenge such a definition.). i will say though that marx intended to write an entire volume of kapital (vol 4) only about the state. so his theoretical work on the state is incomplete, is only the beginning of a critique, and does not work out a systematic understanding of the totality of the state the way in which kapital works out a systematic understanding of the totality of capital. does anarchism offer such a theory of the state? like a das kapital for the state? i would love to read something like that, but what little anarchist theory about the state i have read just doesn’t seem to me to be the same kind of project.

    why do people identify with certain political labels? it often has very little or even nothing at all to do with a theoretical tradition or a history of stuggle (i’m an example of that, i think many new members of socialist-leninist type groups identify more with one or two people they’ve met and some work the group has done, usually on their college campus–which is part of the reason why these groups have such high turnover rates.) so, i call myself a marxist today because i think marx’s method is a theoretically coherent method for understanding the material (this is NOT a synonym for ‘economics’ which wasn’t a term-concept he ever used really and which really only post-dates him) functioning of capitalism, for understanding its ultimate requirements and weaknesses. i think it is a method without which i dont really have a concrete way of thinking about the fundamental dynamics of our society and how in a big sense history functions and billions of us will be able to attack the oppressor and destroy the state. i think it also offers some theoretical tools for understanding what kinds of social relations can inherently build mutuality and justice (in the opposite way of how capital inherently involves exploitation and oppression).

    anyway, without trying to launch a whole theoretical framework (which i couldn’t do anyway) i just wanted to open discussion and really appreciate this blog and the contributions it’s making. i think there are really important and dynamic dialogues emerging right now that represent the very beginning of a new revolutionary emergence.

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