giovedì 3 ottobre 2013

Simon Choat: Postanarchism from a Marxist Perspective (From Anarchist Developments in Cultural Studies, Volume 2010.1)

Simon Choat: Postanarchism from a Marxist Perspective


Postanarchists have tended to portray Marxism as an anachronism, taking the alleged redundancy of Marxism as a starting point for their revitalization of classical anarchism via post-structuralism. Critical assessments of postanarchism have so far failed to interrogate this portrayal of Marxism. This is unfortunate, I argue, because Marxism plays an important function within the postanarchist project, and because it allows postanarchist characterizations of Marxism and post-structuralism to go unchallenged. The first part of this paper delineates the role of Marxism in postanarchism, before examining connections between post-structuralism and Marxism: I argue that Marx’s work anticipates post-structuralist concepts of power and subjectivity. The aim of the paper is not to offer a Marxist critique of postanarchism but to establish equal relevance for both anarchism and Marxism to contemporary political thought and practice.


The postanarchist attempt to revitalize classical anarchism by rereading it through the lens of post-structuralism has not gone unchallenged. Critics have raised questions concerning both the relevance of post-structuralism to anarchist thought and the accuracy of postanarchist readings of classical anarchism — questions which in turn bring up broader issues about the impact of post-structuralism, the direction and significance of contemporary anarchism, and the relations between theory and practice. One element that has remained largely unquestioned, however, is the place of Marxism within postanarchism. This is perhaps understandable: it is to be expected that not everyone will welcome a Marxist perspective on postanarchism; in fact, it is possibly the last thing that some anarchists want. When Marxists have intervened in debates around anarchism, they have often adopted the condescending and hectoring tone that Marx himself used when dealing with Bakunin, Proudhon, et al: anarchism has been derided by Marxists as a naive or utopian creed that fails to understand present conditions and is forced to resort to a crude voluntarism as its basis for political action. It is not my desire, however, to extend this patronizing dismissal of anarchism to cover postanarchism: to the contrary, it is my contention that postanarchists have been too quick to dismiss Marxism.
The lack of attention that has been given to Marxism’s role within postanarchism is troubling for at least two reasons. First, it effaces the extent to which — as I shall argue below — opposition to Marxism is a key component of the postanarchist project. Thus Marxism is not being introduced here as an alien perspective from which postanarchism can be measured, but elicited as a significant but under-discussed element of postanarchism itself. Second, uncritical acceptance of postanarchist assessments of Marxism obscures the fact that Marxism still has much to offer: Marxism, I argue, has been unfairly represented by postanarchism. This challenge to postanarchism’s understanding of Marxism should not be confused with a Marxist critique of postanarchism. There is much to respect in postanarchism, and its attempt to link contemporary post-structuralist theory with radical nineteenth-century currents of thought is admirable: the problem is that postanarchism’s reevaluation of classical anarchism comes at the expense of Marxism. My aim is not to prolong or revive the dispute between anarchists and Marxists that now stretches across three centuries, but rather to stake a claim for the importance of both anarchism and Marxism to contemporary political thought and practice. This is therefore a Marxist engagement with a current of anarchism that is offered in the spirit of reconciliation rather than denunciation. What follows is not meant to be an exhaustive analysis of the relations between postanarchism and Marxism: it is intended to open up an area of study that hitherto seems to have been closed, and is thus offered as a preliminary investigation rather than the final word. Drawing on postanarchism’s own characterization of post-structuralism as a theory that reconceptualizes power and subjectivity, I shall re-examine these concepts as they appear in the work of Marx, challenging postanarchism’s dismissal of Marxism and its reading of post-structuralism. I begin, however, by examining the place of Marxism within postanarchism, delineating three key functions that the critique of Marxism performs for postanarchism.

The Place of Marxism within Postanarchism

Although the number of writers and activists who identify themselves as postanarchists is relatively small, it is a surprisingly varied current of thought. The basic coordinates are clear enough: ‘the central contention of postanarchism is that classical anarchist philosophy must take account of new theoretical directions and cultural phenomena, in particular, postmodernity and poststructuralism.’ (Newman, 2008: 101) According to postanarchists, post-structuralism can be understood as a radicalization of classical anarchism — meaning both that post-structuralism is in the tradition of classical anarchism and that post-structuralism can act as a remedy to the faults and flaws of classical anarchism without betraying its spirit and aims. But this begs two obvious questions: what is meant by ‘post-structuralism’ and what is meant by ‘classical anarchism’? It is not insignificant that the leading representatives of this project have all given it a different name: Saul Newman refers to postanarchism, Todd May to post-structuralist anarchism, and Lewis Call to postmodern anarchism. These different labels in part reflect disagreement about who can be termed a ‘post-structuralist’. To take only one example: Jacques Lacan plays an important part in Newman’s postanarchism, but he is not discussed by May or Call. Similar problems greet attempts to define ‘classical anarchism’, itself a notoriously elusive category. Who were the classical anarchists, and what did they believe? For Newman (2005: 3), Max Stirner is a ‘sort of “proto-poststructuralist”’, whereas Call and May barely mention Stirner.
These disagreements over definitions and personnel are of course not specific to postanarchism: it is difficult to draw the boundaries of any intellectual movement, but particularly ones as fluid as post-structuralism and classical anarchism — difficulties that anyone will face, whether they are a postanarchist or not.  In turn, this fluidity is not a flaw of either post-structuralism or classical anarchism: one of the great strengths of both currents of thought is their variety and depth. Nor do I mean to suggest that the postanarchist project is incoherent from the start, or that postanarchists fail to define their terms adequately: on the whole they are all careful to explain what they mean by post-structuralism and classical anarchism, and themselves draw attention to the difficulties I have outlined. All I wish to argue here is that it is hard to define a movement in reference to intellectual currents as nebulous as post-structuralism and classical anarchism — or, at least, hard to define it only in reference to these. To say that postanarchism is (for instance) classical anarchism filtered through post-structuralism does not actually tell us much about what it is to be a postanarchist. Of course, this missing content is fleshed out in the detailed studies undertaken by the postanarchists — but these detailed studies differ from one postanarchist to the next. If we are to attribute any kind of unity to postanarchism, then we must look to other factors — one of which, I contend, is a common opposition to Marxism.
This, then, is the first function of Marxism within postanarchism, of three roles that I shall identify: it helps provide coherence to the postanarchist project. Though they may draw upon different thinkers and seek to combine anarchism and post-structuralism in varying fashions, the postanarchists are united in their rejection of Marxism. It might even be said that it is the (alleged) failure of Marxism that is the main motivation behind the entire postanarchist project. Marxism, it is claimed, is in terminal decline: the problems of exploitation and oppression that Marxism sought to address, however, have not gone away (and have if anything intensified). Hence there is a need, according to postanarchism, to rediscover and develop alternative avenues for radical thought and practice. The problem with Marxism, according to postanarchism, is not so much that it is no longer able to provide the appropriate critical resources, but that it was never able to do so: it is not that Marxism is outdated or took a wrong turn somewhere, but that from the start Marxism was on the wrong path. In May’s terms, Marxism is a ‘strategic’ rather than a ‘tactical’ philosophy: its analysis focuses on a central problematic and it aims at a single goal. For Marxism, ‘there is a single enemy: capitalism.’ (May, 1994: 26). Like all strategic philosophies, Marxism is reductive: there is one source of oppression (capitalism), only one theory that can accurately understand this oppression (Marxism), and only one possible agent of struggle (the proletariat, guided by a vanguard party). Tactical philosophies, in contrast, recognize that there is no single site of oppression, and that resistance must take the form of specific, local analyses and interventions. Marxism is thus reductive in two senses, postanarchists argue: it reduces the scope of political analysis by focusing only on capitalist economic relations, and it reduces politics to economics, effectively effacing politics altogether. In terms that May borrows from Jacques Rancière, Marxism is a form of ‘metapolitics’: the real truth of politics lies in economic relations, and political institutions and ideologies merely conceal that truth (May, 2008: 44–5).
Postanarchists claim that to an extent classical anarchism shares these problems with Marxism, though in a different way: whereas the reductionism of Marxism manifests itself as an urge to interpret everything in terms of economic relations, anarchism performs a statist rather than an economic reduction, tending to lapse into an analysis that focuses on the state as the primary locus of power. But in anarchism this tendency is in tension with another trend: anarchism wavers between strategic and tactical thought. Although it focuses on the state, classical anarchism recognizes that there are many other sites of power, and advocates diverse and specific small-scale struggles of resistance against power wherever it manifests itself. This ambivalence marks the advantage of classical anarchism over Marxism: despite its flaws, classical anarchism has advanced the analysis of power, making it a more suitable avenue for contemporary politics than Marxism. This leads us to the second role of Marxism within postanarchism that we can identify: the rejection of Marxism offers a link to classical anarchism.
As we have seen, classical anarchism is itself a diverse and fluid current of thought: in many ways it is easier to define it by reference to what it opposes rather than what it advocates. Newman (2005: 33), for example, suggests that anarchists are united ‘by a fundamental critique and rejection of political authority in all its forms.’ It is the rejection of political authority and representation (especially but not exclusively in the form of the state), rather than any positive political programme outlining an alternative vision of society, that is perhaps the key characteristic of classical anarchist thought. This is not to say that anarchists have failed to think about how a stateless society should be organized: to the contrary, they have offered an incredibly diverse range of visions for how stateless societies might be organized. But it is the very diversity of these visions that makes them poor candidates if we are looking for whatunites classical anarchists. The thread that binds anarchists is not a uniform political programme but a common opposition to political authority. Classical anarchism can be defined not only in terms of an opposition to authority, but also in opposition to other political ideologies, in particular Marxism. Anarchists are anarchists, we might even say, because they are not Marxists. This is not to denigrate the originality of anarchist thought — to suggest that it can only ever be a pale shadow of Marxism and defined in terms of the latter — but only to highlight the fact that one way to isolate the identity of anarchist thought is to distinguish it from Marxism. There is much common ground between Marxists and anarchists in the fight for a stateless society free from economic exploitation and political oppression, and historically most anarchists have been communists (with obvious and important exceptions such as Stirner). But anarchists have distanced themselves from Marxism’s organizational and revolutionary strategies: for classical anarchism, Marx is one those ‘doctrinaire revolutionaries’ identified by Bakunin (1990: 137), ‘whose objective is to overthrow existing governments and regimes so as to create their own dictatorships on their ruins’. Classical anarchists have argued that Marxism’s economic reductionism is dangerous in at least two ways. First, because it posits the state as a mere reflection of economic relations, it does not recognize that the state is a source of power in its own right, and so even a so-called ‘workers’ state’ will be oppressive. Second, the identification of the economic realm as the key site of oppression facilitates the emergence of a vanguard party distant from the oppressed masses — a point well made by May in some critical comments on Marxism: ‘If the fundamental site of oppression lies in the economy, it perhaps falls to those who are adept at economic analysis to take up the task of directing the revolution’ (May, 2008: 80).
These classical anarchist objections to Marxism anticipate those formulated by the postanarchists, who in turn have identified the strengths of classical anarchism in explicit contrast to Marxism. Whereas Marxism is supposedly economically reductionist, viewing all power as merely an expression of class domination, postanarchists argue that classical anarchism correctly saw that power must be analysed in its own right: irreducible to the workings of the economy, power relations exist throughout society and need to be analysed in their specificity, without reference to a uniform model of domination. While Marxism (it is claimed) privileges certain political actors — identifying the industrial working class as the sole possible instrument of political transformation, because of its unique place within the only kind of power relations that really matter for Marxism, namely the relation of exploitation between labour and capital — classical anarchism, in contrast, does not limit revolutionary potential to a single class, instead supporting agents dismissed by Marx, such as the peasantry and lumpenproletariat. If Marxism privileges not only a particular revolutionary actor, but also a particular path to revolution, supporting an authoritarian party and proposing a dictatorship of the proletariat, classical anarchism on the other hand consistently opposes all state forms and all hierarchies, including those of the party. To a great extent, therefore, the postanarchist attitude towards Marxism replicates the standard anarchist criticisms of Marxism, centred on its supposedly reductive analysis of the political situation and its authoritarian organizational structures. Rejection of Marxism places postanarchism firmly in the anarchist tradition.
Where postanarchism goes beyond these standard criticisms, it draws its weapons from post-structuralism, which brings us to the third role that Marxism plays within postanarchism: it provides one point of engagement with post-structuralism. The postanarchists see in post-structuralism a model for their own anti-Marxism. Post-anarchism identifies two key characteristics of post-structuralism. First, is anti-humanist: rather than taking the human subject as something that is given, it reveals the textual and material practices that constitute the subject. As May (1994: 75) puts it: ‘If poststructuralist political thought could be summed up in a single prescription, it would be that radical political theory, if it is to achieve anything, must abandon humanism in all its forms.’ Secondly, it is argued that post-structuralism rethinks the concept and analysis of power: the aim is no longer to establish the legitimate boundaries of power, placing limits between the individual and the state, but to demonstrate that power is coextensive with social relations, acting not merely to suppress a pre-existing subject but also and more fundamentally to constitute subjects in the first place. Power and subjectivity are thus intimately linked within post-structuralist thought. This is contrasted by postanarchists with Marxist thought, where power and subjectivity are also linked, but in a very different way: instead of a productive power that is constitutive of subjectivity, Marxism conceives of a repressive power that constrains our essential nature as human subjects.
This view of power and subjectivity, argue postanarchists, is not unique to Marxism: it is shared by many of the philosophies that developed out of the Enlightenment, including classical anarchism. ‘Like Marxism and most other forms of nineteenth-century radical thinking, classical anarchism purports to liberate some kind of authentic human essence which has supposedly been repressed by capitalism and/or the state’ (Call, 2002: 14–15). Although it may broaden the scope of power, classical anarchists still see subjectivity as given and power as oppressive: like Marxism, postanarchists argue, classical anarchism posits a notion of human nature that both acts as a standard by which forms of power can be criticized and explains the existence of resistance to power. In classical anarchism (it is argued), the relation between subject and power is formulated as an opposition between two poles, with the naturality of the human subject within an organic community on one side and the artificial power of the state on the other. According to postanarchists, then, post-structuralism moves beyond both Marxism and classical anarchism. But classical anarchism, because it at least begins to rethink power — broadening the scope of analysis beyond both the state and the economy — retains its contemporary relevance where Marxism does not. A shared ‘anti-authoritarian ethos’ (Newman, 2007: 194) makes classical anarchism and post-structuralism appropriate partners, while Marxism is dismissed as incompatible with post-structuralism. Indeed, it is argued that to a great extent post-structuralism developed against Marxism: ‘thinkers in this tradition — including Foucault, Lyotard and Deleuze — were all deeply influenced by the political experience of May ’68, and they became critical of what they saw as the totalizing and universalizing logic of Marxist theory’ (Newman, 2007: 3). Whereas anarchism still has something to teach us, Marxism ‘is not nearly radical enough to confront adequately the exigencies of the postmodern condition’ (Call, 2002: 6). An opposition to Marxism therefore provides postanarchism with a point of contact with post-structuralism. It is true that this portrayal of post-structuralism as an anti-Marxist theory is often an implicit or undeveloped assumption within postanarchist writings — but this is perhaps because there is little textual support for the claim: as we shall see next, if one actually looks at what the post-structuralists say about Marx then one can see that they are very far from being anti-Marxist.  Read more @ The Anarchist Library

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