The end of dialectical materialism: An anarchist reply to the libertarian Marxists

P. Murtagh's 1978 critique of libertarian Marxism from The Red Menace.

By P. Murtaugh

Words I teach all mixed up in a devilish muddle,
Thus, anyone may think just what he chooses to think;
Never, at least, is he hemmed in by strict limitations.
Bubbling out of the flood, plummeting down from the cliff,
So are his beloved's words and thoughts that the poet devises;
He understands what he thinks, freely invents what he feels.
Thus, each may for himself suck wisdom's nourishing nectar;
Now you know all, since I've said plenty of nothing to you!

from 'On Hegel' by K. Marx

Libertarian Marxism is a rather recent development, as far as political theories and movements go. I suppose that a truly dedicated historian could dig up the bones of various defunct political groups and individuals who held similar views during the last two hundred years. Even the ever invoked shade of Karl Marx is dredged up, and once again we are treated to the spectacle of 'what Marx really meant'. This time though with a difference; through a libertarian Marxism. A Marxism that essentially reduces down to anarchist politics tied to Marxist philosophy. Is this mixture viable? I would say no, and the following paragraphs are my reasons.

What is libertarian Marxism? From my conversations with those who subscribe to this set of ideas it seems to me that there are basically two sincere reasons why people become libertarian Marxists and one insincere one. The sincere ones first.

People often move from 'pure' Marxism to libertarian marxism because of the obvious sterility and brutality of standard Marxist-Leninist practice. The first reaction is disgust with what their fellow Marxists have made of socialism. It is only later that these people work through the theoretical justification for their particular brand of Marxism. The problem is that in moving from a Marxist position to one of anarchist politics they meet not an organized serious anarchist movement, with its own theoretical apparatus but a fragmented, disorganized collection of small groups and individuals. In this vacuum libertarian Marxism grows as an alternative to the emptiness and vagueness of present day anarchism in this part of the world.

Other people approach libertarian Marxism from another direction, through anarchism. These people become fed up with the state of the present day anarchist movement and opt for libertarian Marxism, in the hope that it will provide some sort of coherant theory and guide to practice. This tendency has always been present in the anarchist movement, and is most particularity evident in those times and places where the emotional 'gut-feeling' idea of anarchism holds strong sway (i.e. the idea that theory, tactics, a plan, organization, etc. are unimportant and only a strong hatred of oppression is needed for the overthrow of the system). In these cases it is an inevitable reaction of anarchists to borrow their theory from the Marxists, in the hope of providing some sort of coherance. This particular borrowing has always disappeared when individual revolt turns to mass revolt and when anarchism ceases to be the resort of bohemians and becomes a mass movement. In such cases the anarchist movement has inevitably thrown up its own theoreticians — of equal calibre to those of the Marxists.

Now, we come to the clincher — the insincere reason why some people become 'libertarian Marxists', or any other flavour of Marxist for that matter. One of the things that Marxists fail to realize when they sit down to spin philosophy is that their insight that, in a class society, systems of thought also have a class character also applies to their own pet theory. For every theory of society is likely to be accepted by a particular class of people and not others, and every theory of society has certain objective effects if its acceptance becomes widespread. The effects of the widespread acceptance of Marxism are so obvious that only a blind man could fail to see them. Over fifty years of the bloodiest tyranny the world has ever seen gives ample proof of the nature of practical as opposed to theoretical Marxism.

Just as the theory of liberalism acted as a front for the rise of the capitalist class (and just as liberalism was not the only ideology suitable for this rise), so the theories of Marxism provide ample cover for the rise of a new ruling class. To serve such a purpose a class ideology must have certain characteristics. One, it must provide the oppressed class with a myth of the justice and rightness of the present set-up. Marxism's cover of abstractions about the 'proletarian dictatorship' obviously serve this function. Second, it must provide the ruling class with an acceptable 'moral' justification for their actions Class societies that are founded on nothing but naked power don't tend to produce the type of rulers who have a good survival rate. Morale is an important factor in the survival of any society, especially morale amongst its leaders. Once again, the function of Marxist rationalizations in this area are too obvious to be mentioned. The final important characteristic that a class ideology must have is that it very possession must itself make a substantial difference in the very nature of the person possessing it. While 'libertarian' Marxists may be able to escape the first few charges, it is this aspect that betrays certain of them as what they really are. Perhaps I should try to make what I am saying a little clearer.

Most class ideologies are really not one but two ideologies. There is one ideology for the rulers and one for the ruled. To be brief and simplistic, under feudalism there is honour (and all the other ideological baggage of the lords) and salvation through meekness and obedience (and all the other Christian and patriarchal baggage). Under capitalism there is efficiency and justice. For the capitalist his system is best because it is efficient. The 'freedom' it provides suppossedly ensures the optimum allocation of all possible resources. The process of becoming a businessman is also a long process of initiation into the correct knowledge i.e. the rules of a certain gamble. In his most unguarded moments the successful businessman will readily concede that the huge chance factor proves that 'justice' plays little role in alloting rewards in capitalism. The intelligent conservative position (what used to be called liberal) is precisely this — freedom produces efficiency. To the working class, however, the justification for capitalism is that it somehow embodies justice, that 'hard work is rewarded'. The strenth of this conviction can be gauged by the fact that immense popular indignation can be whipped up against the unemployed or those on welfare, but anyone who tried to suggest that old age pensions should be cut would find himself on the quickest possible road to political oblivion.

Now, how does the possession of Marxist theory serve to divide people into rulers and ruled? A good idea can be gained by comparing the attitude of rank and file Marxists to 'what are the basic ideas of socialism' to the attitude of the leadership. To the average rank and file socialist socialism is about justice, equality, freedom, love — very simple and human ideas and ones capable of being expressed in plain language. If the average socialist does know anything at all about 'dialectical materialism' it is usually only the vaguest most mechanical bit of theory learned from popularizing tracts that his leadership thinks is proper fare for the rank and file. The socialism of the rank and file socialist is instinctive and not overlaid by a massive weight of theory. Usually he or she cares little for all the oppressive volume of tracts and theorizing turned out by the leadership. Your average Maoist cares more for the fairy tales of how happy are the workers and peasants in the Peoples' Shitworks and Prefabricated Outhouse Man-ufacturing Plant in Shitsang Province than he does for all the attempts of Maoist professors to prove the intellectual brilliance of Mao's thought.

Now, dialectical materialism is a very subtle and complicated system of abstractions and a method of mental calculus for manipulating the events of the world. Its successful practice usually requires the ability to quote obscure biblical texts at the drop of a polemic. Its use also requires the attainment of the mental habit of refusing to ask simple questions in ordinary English (or whatever language you speak). This sort of knowledge and habit is not picked up in a day. It usually requires a period of years of study — which means the leisure or infinite determination to make leisure to study. Whether the doubtful usefulness of dialectical materialism in solving practical problems is ever shown to be real or not (it certainly does provide all sorts of convenient methods of confusing issues, so it may be 'practical' after all, in a twisted sort of way) the fact is that its addition to the ideological baggage of the socialist movement has certainly made the self definition of various people, usually intellectuals, as 'revolutionary leaders' immensely easier. The immediate response of most non-intellectuals to a barrage of senseless words is "gee whiz are you ever wonderful Mr. Professor". The natural respect that people show for knowledge is easily taken advantage of by various charlatans who know well how to give the appearance of knowledge. Some, perhaps a majority, of people are convinced that anything they cannot understand must be really brilliant.

"... took a book of logarithyms, photographed a page at random, shone it high upon the blackboard, with the overhead projector.
Thirty seven, forty seven, from the Ampex Corporation.
Gleaming in its chromium plating, from the Ampex Corporation.
And they thought that he was very clever,
For they could not understand his logarithms."

-from Hiawatha's Lipid

The content of 'dialectical materialism' consists of unproved and unprovable assertions, along with enough obvious truisms to give it the air of plausibility. An argument about its 'correctness' could likely go on forever without any successful conclusion. The point is not whether this or that particular assertion is correct or not. The point is what the result of accepting a theory of byzantine complexity (with equally byzantine disagreements as to what is 'real' dialectics as the usual result) is on the socialist movement that accepts this theory as the truth. I would submit that it encourages the penetration of a certain type of individual into the socialist movement — the type who will procede to establish his control over the movement because of his presumed 'intellectual brilliance'. I think that the history of all Marxist movements show that I am right. I would be interested to see if any Libertarian Marxists can answer this charge. That Marxism is bifocal, like other class ideologies (Marxism for the masses versus Marxism for the leaders) is a charge that is not simply a personal attack or 'intellectual baiting', but an important question that will have repercussions on the type of movement we are going to build.

I do not consider that everything that Marx said was wrong, and I do not consider that all libertarian Marxists are sinister conspirators. Yet I would ask the sincere libertarian Marxists to consider the results of what they advocate. The theoretical discipline that they acquired while they were Marxists is needed in the anarchist movement. Their energies would be better used in the building of a coherent anarchist and modern theory than in trying to drag the rotting corpse of Hegel into the movement. I also do not consider that all intellectuals are somehow 'evil' and ever ready to take over a movement for socialism. I feel that our movement must do its best to attract the sincere seekers after truth among the intellectuals. We must, however, never allow any particular priesthood of 'those who understand to come to dominate the movement. I feel that we must abandon systems of thought that encourage such priesthoods if we are to attract the type of intellectuals who will be of the most benefit to the anarchist movement.


Published in Volume 2, Number 2 of The Red Menace, Spring 1978.

Comments

infantiledisorders
May 20 2014 15:35

sorry, but I doubt that you have any serious understanding of anarchism nor marxism nor the fact that many of the ideas were produced collectively in a milieu of socialist revolutionaries of both anarchist and "marxist" leanings. Bakunin himself was a great admirer of Marx, but he had important critiques, i.e. "What is Authority?" That Marx sadly chose to ignore. You also clearly have no understanding of dialectics, nor that it was a critique of positivism/determinism that is a tool for analyzing how things interrelate and reciprocally affect each other. This mode of thought is popular among many anarchists. If you don't like philosophy and clearly don't know anything about it, don't go around bashing specific philosophies.

Your piece is polemical, sectarian and misinformed, and I'm saying that as someone who would never label himself "Marxist" or with any other individual's name.

ocelot
May 21 2014 16:34

*ahem* the piece was written in 1978 by someone who's not here to respond to you. This is the library not the forums...

Spikymike
May 21 2014 20:00

A quick look at the full edition does of course present the reader with alternative views to this particular article that was not reflective of the general approach of the Red Menace collective.
'infantiledisorders' personal rather irritable tone in their rebuff may be out of place but understandable.
Personally I would like to see a lot more considered discussion of various library texts on this site - I've tried to encourage this myself but not had much success so far in encouraging others to respond to my efforts.

syndicalist
May 22 2014 13:15

I'd be curious to folks reactions/opinions to Sam Dolgoff's traditional anarchist critique of dialectical materialism and marxism in in general.....

"A Critque of Marxism" http://wessexsolidarity.files.wordpress.com/2013/12/a_critique_of_marxism_sam_dolgoff.pdf

And.... http://www.connexions.org/RedMenace/Docs/RM4-DolgoffonBakuninvsMarx.htm

Pennoid
May 22 2014 17:02

I think, (I haven't finished the Zabalaza pamphlet just yet) but right off the bat we come to something of the nub of the dispute between Marxists and Anarchists classically, but as between Bakunin and Marx, and I think this is wrong for several reasons.

1) Bakunin and Dolgoff's characterization of the materialist conception of history is one where political questions, moral questions, all social questions and movements are limited by, or under the surface driven by an economic base. For Marx, the separation between the political and the economic under capitalism is a result of an underlying social logic and ideology, and in reality is one that doesn't fall into the neat categories of philosophers or Bourgeois economists. I think what Marx actually says is that the "economic" is all activity humanity does to produce and reproduce itself. From that point it becomes pretty plausible to suggest that the way we go about acquiring water, grain, etc. might have a unique influence on our consciousness especially as we have to find ways to arrange production socially in more complex ways. Taken in this light the "economic" under capitalism, is very political, though often informally so, but Marx is emphasizing a set of human activities as those that impact a society's social structure overwhelmingly.

2)As political Marxists have pointed out, the traditionally MARXIST, but I would argue not Marx's own, way of looking at these situations, is that the economic base determines the political/cultural superstructure. I think the Political Marxists (Brenner, Post, Wood) do a better job of making this distinction in historical investigations and providing richer analysis, pointing out where political decisions, laws, and in general class struggle, determined the political foundations that allow the economic to play out as capitalism. But my point here is also that Marx is one thing, the Second international tradition is another. Mostly bad, with a few goodies (Pannekoek, Rubin, others) that clarify in different ways Marx, or put it to practical use.

A final irony: Classic Marxists (and leninists) say the economic base determines all society, and struggle for political power to alter it. Anarchists say political power permeates all social fabric, but classically emphasize the economic struggle. More recently (thankfully) people have been clarifying the distinction, imagining political activity less as conquering state power and more as building independent working class power, and as indistinguishable from economic struggles.

Also, the pamphlet doesn't seem to rely much on Capital, which I would argue is where one has to start. I'm definitely an anarchist, but I don't see what's wrong with most of Marx's economics, or the materialist conception of history. As I understand it, the way we go about the production of things is at the same time the production of people and consciousness. Seems pretty anarchist to me.

Dialectics is bunk as "Theory" but Marx, in a late letter criticized heavily the notion that dialectics was employed in his work as anything more than a method of presentation.

syndicalist
May 22 2014 17:25

I see we're in the library.....self deleted

syndicalist
May 22 2014 17:24

self deleted

Pennoid
May 23 2014 00:16

Yeah, sorry, maybe we should make a forum about this?

ocelot
May 23 2014 14:13
Spikymike wrote:
Personally I would like to see a lot more considered discussion of various library texts on this site - I've tried to encourage this myself but not had much success so far in encouraging others to respond to my efforts.

I think discussions can definitely add value to texts. However I think what would be most valuable would be to take a collection of texts that either explicitly engage with each other, or are related by a specific question or topic to be discussed. Then you could lead off a forum thread on that discussion and just add a link to that discussion at the bottom of the referenced texts in the library. This way a given text could eventually be linked to more than one discussion on different topics, without the comment thread under the text itself getting unmanageable.

Just an idea.