Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Class Origin and Basis of Anarchist Ideology: A Marxist Appraisal, or, Anarchism as the ideology of middle-class alienation

Many young people today, repulsed by the militarized, exploitative, oppressive reality of our society, are drawn towards anarchist politics. To be sure, this is a positive development. Any step that people take in the direction away from a wholehearted acceptance of the ruling ideas and assumptions of our capitalist society is something to be supported.

However, as we all know, the matter does not end there. For after one decides to try to affect social change and enters the activist foray, it becomes clear that there are a number of anti-capitalist or non-capitalist ideas out there. Sometimes these ideas seem to overlap in their goals and methods; but it is also clear that they just as often diverge. In the end, one must figure out which ideology best seems able to achieve the kind of social change one has in mind.

As a revolutionary socialist, I want to offer a broad analysis explaining the class origins and basis of anarchism -- the primary anti-capitalist alternative to that of socialism -- and the drawbacks that inevitably flow from this reality. Specifically, my contention is that anarchist thought is the ideal expression of the social position of the various middle class(es) of history. Oppressed by the ruling class, yet unable to replace the ruling class' political dominance with that of its own, the middle class finds itself in a state of eternal rebellion against seemingly alien powers representing other classes' interests.

(NOTE: This is most certainly not to say that all people who consider themselves anarchist are necessarily middle class).

A quick word to avoid confusion. Oftentimes on the left, the term "middle class" is used as a sort of flip pejorative against a competing ideology. In many of these instances, such usage of the term is less born of an actual historical analysis of an opposing set of ideas, but rather as a simple means to end an unpleasant conversation. This is not how I employ the term. In this article, the term "middle class" is exclusively meant to describe those social layers of a given society that stand between or outside of the primary classes. By primary classes I mean those socioeconomic groups of people that wield palpable weight over the entirety of that society (either "from above" or "from below", actively or potentially), owing to their integral position within the dominant relations of economic production of that society (i.e., the way society is organized so as to meet its needs and physically reproduce itself).

Moreover, my aim in attempting a critical analysis of anarchism is not to discount the important efforts of many of today's activists who identify as anarchist, nor ignore the important historical contributions of the anarchist movement to the fight against oppression and exploitation. Neither am I attempting to claim that anarchism has never been espoused by working-class people -- even large groups of working-class people.

Nonetheless, a scientific attempt at understanding the material basis of an ideology cannot rest exclusively on what class or group of people may support it at a given moment. For instance, if in a moment of political reaction a group of workers come to support the anti-union ideology of their bosses, this does not mean that we must abandon the notion that this ideology is objectively an expression and product of the capitalist class. The true indication of an ideology's social counterpart in the material world is not who happens to espouse it, but rather whose interests it embodies; whose actual conditions of existence it is an ideal expression of.

To begin with, what is anarchism? Though there are myriad different strands of anarchism -- many of which would be loath to admit kinship with each other -- there is a commonality to them all. In essence, this commonality is a basic rejection of the state (i.e., government) and an opposition (at least in theory) to 'hierarchy' in the broadest sense; that is, to the authority exerted by one person or group over another.

In the words of the popular contemporary anarchist writer, Cindy Milstein, anarchism "stands for the absence of both domination (mastery or control over another) and hierarchy (ranked power relations of dominance and subordination)," and that "[f]rom its beginnings, anarchism's core aspiration has been to root out and eradicate all coercive, hierarchical social relations and dream up and establish consensual, egalitarian ones in every instance" (

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Marxism, feminism, and accusations of "class reductionism"

I recently engaged in a friendly debate with someone who was arguing that Marxism is antithetical to the contemporary struggle for women’s rights because Marx was a “class reductionist” who ignored women’s oppression as something to be dealt with “after the revolution.”

I felt I would reproduce a snippet of my comments here:


I just wanted to say a quick word as someone who identities as both a Marxist and a feminist.

In fact, Marx and Engels were well ahead of their time, viz., the stuggle for women’s emancipation. Even a terse reading of some of Marx’s collected works reveal him repeatedly inveighing against women’s oppression, both in society generally, and within the labor and socialist movements. Marx fought to have women included as full and equal members — including in leadership positions — in the various movements he engaged in as against many of his (bigoted) contemporaries.

He wrote that their could be no truly revolutionary movement without mass participation of women; indeed, he makes a point of saying that one can judge the level of development of any society by looking at the degree to which women have won their social emancipation in that society.

His collaborators, Frederick Engels and August Bebel, were among the first anti-capitalists to pen books specifically analyzing the history of women’s oppression. Along with Marx, they contend that a fundamental socio-economic revolution is impossible unless premised upon the complete liberation of the female half of the population (both from class exploitation and gender oppression).

Some of the first American feminists, including Margaret Sanger (the founder of Planned Parenthood), Helen Keller, and Lucy Parsons, were themselves members of the American Socialist Party, and they all cite the works of Marx & Engels as a central contributor to the development of their understanding of women’s oppression and liberation.

In sum, I think it’s wrong to say that Marxism is “class reductionist” or ignores the question of women’s rights as something to be dealt with “after the revolution.” Certainly there have been those who have historically claimed the label “Marxist” who have been guilty of such distortions. But then again, the terms “feminism”, “democracy”, and even “human rights” have also been historically subject to distortions by many of their supposed proponents. Just as we need to struggle against those who have tried to turn “feminism” into a dirty word, I personally think the same is true of “Marxism.”