Let’s Talk About Another Burning Color: Black Flame vs. Red Fire Extinguisher?

Nate Hawthorne reviews the book, Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism in which he disagrees with the author's treatment of Marxism.

Submitted by Juan Conatz on April 3, 2012

In this article I discuss the treatment of marxism in a recent book on the anarchist tradition, Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism. I argue that the book’s treatment of marxism is not up to the book’s otherwise high standards. This is not simply a matter of historical interest. This relates to how left libertarian revolutionaries define the intellectual traditions we draw on and learn from. More importantly, this relates to what contemporary left currents we see as fellow travelers – who we talk to and who we see ourselves alongside. I call for more discussion between anarchists and marxists, particularly for discussion of particular works and ideas rather than speaking in generalities about capital ‘M’ capital ‘A’ Marxism and Anarchism and debates over which is better.

Michael Schmidt and Lucien van der Walt recent book characterizes anarchism as a black flame. The image is lovely – who wouldn’t love to see black fire? — and their book, Black Flame, is excellent. The book provides a thorough overview of the class struggle tradition in anarchism, and argues that this is the only actual type of anarchism. That is, for Black Flame “class struggle anarchist” is redundant, because there is no genuine anarchism other than class struggle anarchism. The book is so good that every anarchist should read it and set up discussion groups on it. The organization I belong to, the Workers Solidarity Alliance, and our sister organizations should hold speaking events for this book, where we present its main arguments and encourage people to read it. We should also discuss the book more in our movements’ publications, both carrying out further analysis using the book’s framework as well as debating the framework. I mean all this sincerely: go read the book. At the same time, in this article I’m going to talk about one area where the book is not as good, which is Black Flame’s treatment of marxism.

If anarchism is a black flame, then on Schmidt and Van der Walt’s treatment, marxism is a red fire extinguisher. The fire extinguisher may have a picture of a flame on the side but that doesn’t mean it serves our burning desire for revolutionary working class liberation. To put it schematically, the authors use these categories: there is socialism as a movement, starting in the mid-19th century. Within socialism, there’s the flame-retardant kind, political socialism, and the burning kind, libertarian socialism. Within libertarian socialism, the biggest and best flame is the black one, anarchism. Within political socialism, the worst kind for the authors seems to have been what they call classical marxism. They call classical marxism “a form of political socialism.” Libertarian socialism, unlike classical marxism, “rejected the view that fundamental social transformation could come about through the state apparatus or that socialism could be created from above.” Libertarian socialism was “[a]bove all … represented by the broad anarchist tradition.” (25.)

The authors write that “there were also libertarian Marxists” such as the council communists and so-called autonomist Marxists. (25.) They also write that “ambiguities and contradictions in Marx’s thought (…) can be interpreted as ‘Two Marxisms’: a ‘Scientific Marxism’ centered on a determinist and teleological approach, and a ‘Critical Marxism’ that stressed human agency and will.” (93.) They say that “scientific Marxism (…) was at odds with the strand of critical Marxism in Marx’s thought, and a number of Marxists have developed Marx’s theories along more humanistic lines.” (105.) These are important points, but they are made quickly and not well-developed. Over all, for the most part when Marx and marxists appear in the book they are outside and against anarchism and libertarian socialism.

Black Flame recognizes that Marx and marxism were influences on the anarchist tradition, and some of the figures the book discusses had strong marxist leanings. The book details at length marxist analyses of capitalism and the influence of this analysis on writers like Bakunin and Kropotkin – the two principle classical ‘sages’ of anarchism that the book accepts; the authors argue that other writers like Stirner and Proudhon have been wrongly labeled anarchists. The authors also argue that anarchists made significant advances in marxist critical analysis of capitalism.

Several people Black Flame identifies as anarchists actually identified as marxists and, as the authors recognize, accepted some marxist doctrines that most anarchists rejected – Daniel De Leon, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, and William Haywood, for example. Black Flame also counts the Industrial Workers of the World as an anarchist organization. Among other things, the IWW’s preamble contains quotes from Marx, its early publication the Industrial Union Bulletin regularly ran a column of marxist analysis called “Economic Determinism”, they published marxist pamphlets by Austin Lewis, and they sold Marx’s Capital and related works. For some reason, though, the authors imply that these figures were not marxists, even if they sometimes thought they were. The authors seem to be saying to some long dead revolutionaries, “you might think you’re a marxist, but you’re not. You’re actually an anarchist.” For instance, they write that “many prominent IWW figures like Haywood and Trautmann admired Marx, identified as Marxian socialists, accepted Marx’s economic determinism to an extent unmatched by most other anarchists and syndicalists, and sometimes denounced anarchism.” Nonetheless, Black Flame counts them as anarchists, because “self-identification as a Marxist or an anarchist is less important than the content of the ideas adopted.” This means “their syndicalism was anarchist in itself, for syndicalism was a type of anarchism.” (160.)

Now, I’m all for claiming Haywood, Trautmann, and the IWW over all for the anarchist tradition. (I’m not so sure about claiming De Leon and I don’t see how Elizabeth Gurley Flynn counts as an anarchist, given her career in the Communist Party.) I do think it’s a bit curious to call them anarchists when they did not identify as anarchists themselves. We could just consider them part of the larger tradition of libertarian socialism which the authors see as being mostly but not entirely made up of anarchists. Still, even if we go along with Black Flame and see these figures as anarchists, I don’t see why we have to write them out of marxism in order to write them into anarchism. The authors discount “the view that the IWW was more Marxist than syndicalist.” (159.) Rudolf Rocker, for example, held this view, writing in his famous Anarcho-Syndicalism that “[w]hat chiefly distinguished the I.W.W. from the European Syndicalists was its strongly defined Marxist views, which were impressed on it more particularly by Daniel De Leon.” (Rocker, Anarcho-Syndicalism: Theory and Practice, 93.) Asking whether the IWW was more syndicalist or more marxist relies on a false dichotomy, at least as understood by some of the actual historical actors involved. Marxism and syndicalism do not necessarily contradict each other. Certainly Haywood and Trautmann didn’t think syndicalism and marxism contradicted each other, since as Black Flame argues they were both syndicalists and “identified as Marxian socialists.”(160.)

While the authors make a distinction between classical marxism and libertarian marxism, they don’t really put this distinction to much good use. For the most part, they write as if marxism is reducible to its bad elements or to what they call classical marxism. In some cases, they slip between terms. For example, they criticize “the view that the IWW was Marxist” and later characterize this view as “[t]he notion that the IWW was classically Marxist.” (159.) The marxism that the authors seem really interested in is classical marxism. They’re interested in that primarily in order to reject it, and they show only minimal interest in distinguishing classical marxism from any other marxism.

What makes some marxism “classical” anyway? They refer to “the other major revolutionary class-based movement: classical Marxism, also known as Bolshevism, and associated with Marx, Engels, Karl Kautsky, Lenin, Leon Trotsky, Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse-Tung, and others.” This makes it particularly curious when the authors criticize “[t]he notion that the IWW was classically Marxist.” The IWW was founded in 1905, following at least a year of correspondence and organizing among revolutionary syndicalists. The ascendance of the Bolsheviks came well after the IWW’s founding. As such, the idea that the IWW was shaped by “classical Marxism, also known as Bolshevism” is clearly inaccurate. It’s not clear who thinks the IWW was “classically Marxist,” though, because the authors don’t quote anyone who makes this claim. In any case, the fact that the IWW was not what Black Flame calls “classically Marxist,” meaning Bolshevist, is not a convincing argument for writing IWW members who “identified as Marxian socialists” out of marxism and into anarchism. Why not consider them both anarchists – as Black Flame argues they were – and also marxists – as they thought they were themselves?

Karl Kautsky is an instructive example for discussing Black Flame‘s definition of classical marxism. Kautksy was a highly influential and widely read marxist at one point. I am not at all defending Kautsky or putting him forward as someone who was in any way an anarchist or otherwise laudable. Looking closely at Kautsky’s writing after the Bolshevik revolution, however, makes it hard to see how Kautsky was a Bolshevik. This suggests that Black Flame‘s category of classical marxism as Bolshevism should be questioned, as should their use of this category.

Lenin quoted Kautsky in the beginning of “What is to be Done?” but later denounced Kautsky. He wrote in his 1918 work “The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky” that “Kautsky’s pamphlet, ‘The Dictatorship of the Proletariat,’ recently published in Vienna is a most lucid example of that utter and ignominious bankruptcy of the Second International.”

In “The Dictatorship of the Proletariat,” Kautsky criticized the Bolsheviks, writing that “Democracy is the essential basis for building up a Socialist system of production. (…) Not in dictatorship, but in democracy, lies the future of the Russian proletariat. (…) We have seen that the method of dictatorship does not promise good results for the proletariat, either from the standpoint of theory or from that of the special Russian conditions. (…) The “Social Traitors” are proletarians and Socialists, too, but they offer opposition, and are therefore to be deprived of rights like the bourgeois opposition. Would we not display the liveliest anger, and fight with all our strength in any case where a bourgeois government endeavoured to employ similar measures against its opposition? (…) The essential achievements of the Revolution will be saved, if dictatorship is opportunely replaced by democracy.”

In his 1925 work “The Lessons of the October Experiment,” Kautsky wrote that “What took place in October 1917 in St Petersburg was precisely not a spontaneous uprising of the masses, like that in February of the same year, but a coup d’état, which Lenin and Trotsky themselves staged (….) For Lenin and Trotsky, during the October days, it was basically a question only of personal power. (…) Lenin and Trotsky became autocrats to whom everyone submitted. Trotsky himself made the greatest contribution to the construction of that terrible apparatus of domination whose machinery crushes anyone that is prepared to defy the ruling elite.”

In his 1934 work “Marxism and Bolshevism,” Kautsky wrote that “the Moscow dictators” were engaged in an “effort to establish their dictatorship over the proletariat of the world and to drag it into adventures regardless of consequences.” He added, “Russia is ruled by a dictatorship seeking to subordinate to itself the proletariat of the whole world” and “[t]he rulers of Russia seem to be able to get along with the capitalists and capitalist governments and to do business with them.” Note as well that even in this work’s title – “Marxism and Bolshevism” – Kautsky distinguished between marxism and Bolshevism.

Again, I am not holding up Kautsky as any sort of laudable figure. I merely quote these passages to show that Black Flame‘s “classical Marxism” covers up important differences. One other line from Lenin’s polemic against Kautsky is relevant here. Lenin wrote that Kautsky made merely “a verbal recognition of Marxism” and was not really a marxist. Lenin basically said, “You may think you’re a marxist, but you’re not.” This may sound like I’m making a swipe at Black Flame in the … umm … classical anarchist style, “look! You’re doing something which is in some way comparable to Lenin! I denounce you!” That’s not what I’m trying to do. Instead, I point this out because I want to raise questions about Black Flame‘s term “classical” marxism. Given what I have quoted here about Kautsky, I think the category “classical Marxism, also known as Bolshevism” does as much to cover up differences as it does to identify similarities. In general, I think this probably what happens any time someone identifies something as classical.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word classical as “of the first rank or authority; constituting a standard or model; especially in literature” and as “designating the language, art, or culture of a period deemed to represent the most perfect flowering of the civilization that produced it.” The OED also notes that the term usually refers back to ancient Greece and Rome, part of a long history of seeing the ancient Greek and Romans as foundational to the best traditions of humanity. Now, certainly Black Flame doesn’t consider what they call “classical” marxism “the most perfect flowering” of anything, but they do seem to hold it up as “a standard or model.” The big question to my mind is why Bolshevist “classical Marxism” should be considered “a standard or model” for understanding the marxist tradition in the way that Black Flame uses the category. Particularly given that Black Flame does so in a way that covers over differences like those between Kautsky and Lenin.

As is clear by now, in my view Black Flame’s discussions of marxism are lackluster. Beyond that, I think Black Flame is excellent as I said, and you should all go read it. I just wish its treatment of marxism was up to the otherwise high standard of the book. On the one hand, my concerns are just a matter of the past – the weight of tradition which weighs nightmarishly on the brains of the living, to paraphrase Marx. On the other hand, my criticisms of Black Flame on this point are not simply about my being personally invested in Marx and some marxists. (I admit that this is part of it, though.)

The more important point is that this is a matter of who we see ourselves in discussion with in the present, and ultimately of who “we” are. I don’t agree with Black Flame that class struggle anarchists are the only anarchists. (On this and only this point I agree with Eric Kerl’s recent article on anarchism in International Socialist Review. For more on that see here: http://ideasandaction.info/2010/07/review-international-socialist-review-on-contemporary-anarchism/) Still, whether or not there are any anarchists other than class struggle anarchists is a debate that is definitely worth having. This is an important debate to have in large part because it is about who we are. I don’t agree about their definition of anarchism but I share the “we” that the book is trying to create. I consider myself a class struggle anarchist; I don’t consider myself part of any “we” that I care about that includes self-described anarchists who are not class struggle anarchists. Those other anarchists are free to call themselves anarchists but that doesn’t put me in any relationship to them. They may be anarchists, but that means little to me – we’re also two-legged mammals. So what? All of that said, I also consider myself part of a “we” beyond anarchists, a grouping that Black Flame characterizes as libertarian socialism.

Class struggle anarchists are not the only revolutionary forces on the left, and are not the only libertarian left revolutionary forces. In my opinion, anarchists can learn a lot from some marxists. Black Flame agrees to some extent, arguing that elements of marxism have been critically taken up within anarchism. Still, I think the treatment of marxism in Black Flame discourages “us” from engaging with the Marxist tradition, except as mediated through anarchist commentators, and doesn’t encourage anarchists to engage with marxists who don’t identify with the label “anarchist.” Against that, I would like to see more writing about the broader libertarian socialist tradition (I prefer the term “libertarian communist”). I would particularly like to see more response to Black Flame about this issue, as well as more articles about what class struggle anarchists can learn from other revolutionary left libertarian currents, including some marxists and some elements of Marx’s writing. The black flame of anarchism is incredibly important, but the fires of working class revolutionary communism burn in other colors as well.



Below are a few available examples of the sort of discussion that I said I would like to see more of. Readers should also check out the web site for Black Flame, including interviews with the authors and book reviews.

About marxism and anarchism — In recent writings, Andrej Grubacic and Staughton Lynd have suggested that marxism and anarchism should be in dialog more often. This is sometimes posed as a call for synthesis between the two traditions; I disagree with that way of phrasing matters since it poses marxism and anarchism as more discrete than I think they really were. Still, engagement among marxists and anarchists within the broad libertarian socialist tradition is a very positive thing and I recommend Grubacic and Lynd’s works. Readers should also consult the September, 2009, issue of the journal Working USA, dedicated to anarchism and labor unions. The issue also includes work on the relationship between anarchist and marxist tendencies.

Oisín Mac Giollamoir, “Left communism and its ideology.
This article surveys council communist ideas from an anarchist perspective.

Adam Weaver, “Three Spirits of Marx
Freedom argues that Marx’s work had contradictory elements, some of them useful for anarchists but some of them are incompatible with anarchism.

Scott Nappalos, “The Dissolution of the Red and Black
Nappalos argues that the distinction between marxist and anarchist is historically outmoded.

Wayne Price, “Insurgent Notes: A New Libertarian Marxist Voice
Price reviews a new marxist journal and the political positions it puts forward.

Wayne Price, “Anarchism & Socialism: Reformism or Revolution? by Wayne Price”

Wayne Price, “The Abolition of the State: Anarchist and Marxist Perspectives

Harry Cleaver, “Kropotkin, Self-valorization And The Crisis Of Marxism
Cleaver puts Kropotkin and some strains of marxism in dialog.

Harry Cleaver, “Introduction to Reading Capital Politically
The introduction to Cleaver’s book Reading Capital Politically provides an overview of what he calls autonomist marxism, tendencies that Black Flame identifies are libertarian socialist.

This is a review of Black Flame by fellow WSAer Deric Shannon:

In 2009, the UK Anarchist Studies Network held an academic conference on the relationship between Marxism and anarchism. Some of the papers presented there can be found online here: http://anarchist-studies-network.org.uk/Conference_Papers

Originally posted: August 24, 2010 at ideas & action