Left Behind: Why Marxists Need Anarchists, and Vice Versa

By Malcolm HarrisDecember 20, 2015

Left Behind: Why Marxists Need Anarchists, and Vice Versa

Unruly Equality by Andrew Cornell

IN AN 1875 letter to German socialist politician August Bebel, Friedrich Engels complained — on behalf of himself and Karl Marx — about being teased by anarchists. Bebel’s Social Democratic Workers’ Party was merging with the General German Workers’ Association, the latter of which advocated a parliamentary road to socialism rather than a revolutionary one.

When the unified party forwarded their draft platform, Engels and Marx were embarrassed. They wanted to be clear about their theoretical position in this especially high-stakes situation. Germany was integral to international communist strategy, and if a unified front got off on the wrong foot it could have had catastrophic consequences for the movement. “Remember that abroad we [he and Marx] are held responsible for any and every statement and action of the German Social-Democratic Workers’ Party,” Engels writes to Bebel. “The people’s state has been flung in our teeth ad nauseam by the anarchists.”

He was right: the anarchists were doing some flinging. Engels specifically mentions Mikhail Bakunin, a prominent Russian anarchist who, in Statehood and Anarchy (1873), had criticized Marx’s “people’s state.” “No state [or republic], however democratic,” Bakunin writes in Statehood and Anarchy,

can ever give the people what they really want, i.e., the free self-organization and administration of their own affairs from the bottom upward, without any interference or violence from above, because every state, even the pseudo–People’s State concocted by Mr. Marx, is in essence only a machine ruling the masses from above, from a privileged minority of conceited intellectuals, who imagine that they know what the people need and want better than do the people themselves …

Marx was frustrated by anarchist criticism of his work, which he felt was based on a theoretical misunderstanding. In response to a rhetorical question from Bakunin (“There are about 40 million Germans. Does this mean that all 40 million will be members of the government?”), Marx wrote in his notes, “Certainly! For the system starts with the self-government of the communities.” Nonetheless, he and Engels took Bakunin’s objections seriously. To clarify their position on “the state” to Bebel and the Germans, Engels proposes a small but significant amendment to the platform’s language: “We would therefore suggest that Gemeinwesen [community] be universally substituted for state; it is a good old German word that can very well do service for the French ‘Commune.’” This is a major moment for the interpretation of Marxist thought, and it was spurred by anarchists that Marx and Engels couldn’t stand.

What seems strange, from a contemporary perspective, is that Marx and Engels would have taken anarchist challenges as seriously as they did. The German Social Democratic Party (SPD) merger went ahead and it is now among the world’s most venerable socialist organizations. Today the SPD governs Germany in a coalition with the Christian Democrats. Anarchists, by contrast, haven’t retained much political influence, and their critiques of socialist parliamentarianism are no longer considered internal.


Any history of anarchism — like Andrew Cornell’s new book Unruly Equality — is a third-place history of leftism. Anarchism’s leading figures are mostly excluded from both the Soviet communist tradition and from those social democratic elements that have been assimilated into the official American political system. But while the rift between socialists and anarchists has never healed, it has shaped the evolution of both traditions.

Cornell’s narrative begins a hundred years ago, in the heyday of American anarchism. The United States didn’t have any restrictions on European immigration until 1917, by which time whole communities of Italian, Spanish, Russian, and Yiddish-speaking anarchists had established themselves in the country. The early 20th century was a time of national upheaval, including the founding of the NAACP, Margaret Sanger’s promotion of birth control, and the fight for women’s suffrage. It was also a high point of labor struggle, with trade union membership quadrupling to 3 million between 1900 and 1917. In coastal and Midwestern industrial cities, immigrant laborers maintained radical unions and social organizations. They recruited workers who had intimate knowledge of the worst capitalists could do. (Cornell mentions that “[A]t least one survivor of the notorious 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory fire, Mary Abrams, became a revolutionary anarchist.”)

This period of American anarchism — Cornell calls it “classical” — was defined by an agenda that pitted workers against capitalists and their proxies in the state, church, schools, and media. The classical anarchists drew inspiration from theorists like Bakunin, Peter Kropotkin, and Errico Malatesta, but also Marx and Engels. The line separating anarchists from Marxists was fuzzy: the two sides not only shared the same goals but also advocated many of the same tactics, and were often conflated in the popular press.

Of course, any group of anarchists worth its salt has factions. Strategically, classical anarchism divided between syndicalists and insurrectionaries. The syndicalists, organized principally by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), sought to build revolutionary trade unions to prepare for general strikes and to prefigure postcapitalist production. Insurrectionaries bristled at the idea of union bureaucracy, preferring “propaganda of the deed”: assassinations and targeted bombings against capitalists and politicians. After 28-year-old Midwestern-born Pole Leon Czolgosz assassinated President William McKinley in 1901, insurrectionary anarchists became national security threat number one.

Perhaps the most prominent figure among American anarchists of the early 20th century was Emma Goldman. Lecturing and writing in Yiddish and English, she inspired tens of thousands of people in person annually. With her vocal support for birth control, free speech, homosexuality, and women’s social rights she also recruited support from middle- and upper-class sympathizers, including Alden Freeman, a gay heir to Standard Oil money who appreciated her uncompromising advocacy. These connections helped finance the movement, but also presaged a shift away from class struggle as the exclusive focus of American anarchism.

During this time the anarchists suffered from too many enemies. World War I split the movement between those who saw the need to confront German militarism by any means and those who saw the war as just another imperialist game. Using the war as pretext, the state cracked down on anarchist insurgents with jailing and deportation. The Bolshevik Revolution in Russia first inspired then enraged anarchists as they saw their comrades jailed by the new regime. To top it off, they found themselves in frequent conflict with local fascist organizations. In 1924 in Portland, Maine, nearly 200 IWW-affiliated lumberjacks confronted a few dozen Ku Klux Klansmen attempting to organize in town. “We are going to stick,” state leader Bob Pease told the Portland Press Herald, “and if the Klan starts anything, the I.W.W. will finish it.”

This determination to fight every good fight around sets anarchists apart from other leftists, who tend to choose their battles carefully, but it can also undermine the movement’s larger strategy and momentum. Still smarting from World War I deportations, both strains of American anarchists spent much of the 1920s supporting prisoners at home and abroad. The arrest (and eventual execution) of the insurrectionaries Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti became a cause célèbre in this period, but some anarchist organizers claimed their defense soaked up energy from local efforts. Repression of Russian anarchists in the Soviet Union led their American compatriots to break decisively and definitively with their Marxist peers.

The Russian Revolution reinforced the ideological preconceptions of both sides of the left-wing schism. Statists saw a successful unfolding of their program. In his 1920 pamphlet “‘Left-Wing’ Communism: An Infantile Disorder,” Vladimir Lenin wrote that the Russian experience proved that participation in “bourgeois parliaments” and the use of a transitional workers’ state were vital parts of a successful revolutionary strategy. Anti-statists saw the fulfillment of their worst fears: a rigid and intolerant bureaucracy with the prisons run by former comrades. Throughout the 1930s, when the Great Depression would seem to provide an opportunity for rapprochement and consolidation, both sides only became further entrenched.


Cornell’s goal with Unruly Equality is to provide a prehistory of contemporary American anarchism. How did the ideology that drove Yiddish industrial labor organizers evolve into today’s black bloc? It’s an interesting question, but considering the development of American anarchism apart from the broader history of US politics is impossible. It’s like studying the movements of one star in a binary system. Anarchism didn’t develop in isolation, even when it attempted to do so.

Anarchism, Cornell writes, reached a low point in the 1930s, which “pitted an organizing anarchism without organizers against an insurrectionary anarchism without insurgents.” But, though Cornell doesn’t mention it, Marxists were having much more success during this period. It’s understandable why at the time someone with syndicalist or insurrectionary sympathies would have thrown in with the communists. The pivot of anarchists away from confrontation with the capitalist state and toward experimental publishing milieus in the 1940s — which Cornell describes as “the jumping-off point for contemporary U.S. anarchism” — is not an isolated phenomenon. It has to be understood in the context of the left-wing energy that went into building a popular-front socialist movement in the years immediately previous.

The particularities of the American political system don’t play much of a role in Unruly Equality, but they are essential to understanding the anarchist-Marxist schism. Without a parliamentary system, the question of revolutionary participation in the American electoral system along Bolshevik lines is largely moot. At the very least, in these past few years following a major financial crisis and a public crisis of confidence in capitalism, no left-wing party has emerged. Syndicalism’s prospects have declined with labor union participation and the rate of strikes. A softer insurrectionist strain had a moment in the sun with Occupy Wall Street and the sequence of local protests that followed, but it quickly ran up against the most advanced carceral state in human history. Meanwhile, anarchists and Marxists go to the same marches, attend the same conferences, and find reasons not to make common cause.

Almost no American leftists still believe in Bolshevik-style state socialism. The ones who remain call themselves “democratic centralists”; everyone else calls them “tankies.” The more meaningful division now has to do with the leftmost edge of the Democratic Party. In the fall issue of the long-running socialist journal Dissent, co-editor Michael Kazin argues that “Leftists Should Also Be Democrats.” His goals are not so different than those of the SPD’s original platform in 1875: lawful reform of a state that maintains worker protections, a progressive tax system, and political rights. Kazin believes nudging the Democratic Party from the left is the best way to secure these things, and he’s probably right. But this is the very program that so embarrassed Marx and Engels, that Bakunin and other anarchists of their time caricatured for its reformist timidity and lack of imagination.

“Since the state is merely a transitional institution of which use is made in the struggle, in the revolution, to keep down one’s enemies by force, it is utter nonsense to speak of a free people’s state,” Engels writes in his letter to Bebel. “[S]o long as the proletariat still makes use of the state, it makes use of it, not for the purpose of freedom, but of keeping down its enemies and, as soon as there can be any question of freedom, the state as such ceases to exist.” The “people’s state” is indeed a tool of repression, useful only for crushing the counterrevolution. Simply reforming the state to reflect the interests of the workers is not the point at all. This is the path that leads to governing with the Christian Democrats 14 decades later, or voting en bloc for Hillary Clinton. It leads to a reinforced and stabilized liberal capitalist democracy. Insofar as “the left” means anything, it can’t mean that.


Democrats like Kazin often criticize anarchists for splitting the left’s energy, and though I usually play the role of anarchist in these debates, Cornell’s book gave me a chance to reconsider the question and its implications. The refusal of Marxists and anarchists to plot out some unified strategy does more than reduce our numbers. The division separates us like a personality test, leaving both sides lacking in particular necessary energies. Marxists without anarchists have too much respect for law and authority, leaving them susceptible to co-optation by liberals. Anarchists without Marxists can be self-righteous about compromise and getting their hands dirty by interacting with existing power structures. Marxists without anarchists can lack flexibility and imagination, while anarchists without Marxists can lack discipline. Anarchists put on aesthetic performances that captivate and amuse the culture without convincing it, while Marxists craft airtight logical theories that are culturally irrelevant. Marxists don’t know shit about tactics and anarchists can’t strategize. Anarchists are too quick to act, Marxists too reluctant. There are plenty of exceptions to these rules, but they help determine who gravitates to which side, which only increases the problem: anarchists get the artists and tacticians, Marxists get the theorists and politicians.

Calls for “left unity” are generally used as a cudgel against anarchists by democratic socialists who want them to suck it up and vote. But this obscures the idea of what true extraparliamentary left unity would mean. First of all, a left that included anarchists but no Democrats would free up Kazin and company to nudge the Democrats from within full-time. Bernie Sanders’s popularity proves there’s a constituency for democratic socialist ideas within the long-centrist party; why waste time hectoring to the left when you can attract to the right?

Without the possibility of socialists making a meaningful political alliance with Democrats, the question of anarchism wouldn’t have the same importance. In a room where everyone agrees that the governmental line that extends from 1776 ought to be severed, who circles the A’s on their notebooks and who doesn’t is an internal debate. I don’t pretend to know what strategies, tactics, or forms of organization a unified extraparliamentary American left would come up with, but if they were effective by any measure they would likely aid Democrats by shifting the window of acceptable public debate in their direction.

Reading Unruly Equality with the unseen gravity of the broader left in mind, anarchism begins to look less like a politics than a set of sympathies. If American anarchists have more success in the 21st century than the 20th, I suspect it won’t be under that name. Cornell’s history chronicles a world in which anarchists are victims of history: noble prisoners of conscience and curious experimenters at the margins of society. But that isn’t the world in which the tradition’s heirs aspire to live. I hold out hope that this book, thought-provoking as it is, will soon be illegible.


Malcolm Harris is an editor at The New Inquiry and a freelance writer. He lives in Brooklyn.

LARB Contributor

Malcolm Harris is an editor at The New Inquiry and a freelance writer. He lives in Brooklyn.


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