Friday, April 16, 2010

Marxism vs. identity anarchism

Staughton Lynd, Wobblies & Zapatistas:

There is one other aspect to my insistence that anarchists need Marxism.  I think we need to take seriously the fact that most of humanity is in a different situation than footloose students and intellectuals, and is necessarily preoccupied with economic survival.

This was brought home to me as a graduate student in history when I took a long look at tenant farmers and artisans during the period of the American Revolution.  Most of my Left colleagues who sought to view history "from the bottom up" focused attention on the ideology of such groups.  I found otherwise.  Whether a tenant farmer was for or against the Revolution in the Hudson Valley of New York depended on the politics of his landlord: whatever the landlord supported, the tenant opposed, in the hope that if the landlord's political party was defeated the tenant might come to own his farm.  Similarly, artisans before and after the Revolutionary War favored whatever political party most effectively opposed the import of British manufactures: this meant the Sons of Liberty in 1763-1776 and Federalists including Alexander Hamilton, who wanted a national government with a strong tariff, in 1787-1788.

There was nothing ignoble about wanting to own the farm on which a tenant labored, or to preserve an artisan's livelihood in making shoes, or hats, or nails, or sails, or rope, or barrels.  But it is necessary to recognize the concern for economic survival that drove these lower class protagonists.  And Marxism appeared to do this more understandingly than does anarchism.

It's worth remembering that, for many of our tea-swilling, nativist friends, a time existed when a white, blue-collar man (and even a few unionized men of color) could raise a family on his income alone thanks to the patriarchal compact that existed between men in the factory, men in the executive suites, and men in government; all in the name of "industrial peace."

The "angry white man" that has surfaced since announced the betrayal of this compact, which has lowered the living standards of these men and their families, in their view, to a level commensurate with those at the lowest economic tier. They compete for jobs at 7-11 with Mexicans when they should be preparing to retire, as opposed to carrying on the middle-class tradition of their fathers and grandfathers, in other words. Unsurprisingly they want to "take back their country," which one can interpret as regaining their rightful place in the national hierarchy, characterized as it is by this economic component.

To simply point out that people in this situation have the wrong politics yields no insight into what might be done, and this is what Lynd hits at with his advocacy of Marxism. Anarchism, as Poumista writes, now being ascendant, is to my view increasingly an elaborate declaration of principles which seem to stand in the place of strategy, as if declaring that one is "anti-Leninist" is sufficient and all we have to do is find enough like-minded consumers of anarchist culture to hang out with to change the world.

Now, I say this because I do believe anarchism is ascendant, and the dark side of this is that it will become unreflective, in much the same way Marxism was in its day. After all, it believes in no hierarchy -- the solution is found! And yet a real world exists beyond the bounds of our beliefs and identities, and requires that we engage with it.


Jack Crow said...

I'm wary of "Marxism." Are you suggesting Marx's analytical tools might be useful, or are you suggesting that anarchists ought to embrace a Marxist program, on the way to some future anarchism?

JRB said...

I think we need to be wary of prevailing trends.

Jack Crow said...

The series of retreats into identity positions? Agreed. Was recently trying to wrap my head around "trigger warnings" and "cisgendered" because it seems to me that these are invitations to the sectarian, fractally diminishing schisms which consumed Marxism, after Marx...