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Some Thoughts on Synthesis and Political Identity

By Abbey Volcano

Theory in Action Special Issue: Building Bridges Between Anarchism and Marxism, William T. Armaline and Deric Shannon (eds.) Vol. 3, No. 4, October 2010

A Review of Wobblies & Zapatistas: Conversations on Anarchism, Marxism and Radical History, by Staughton Lynd and Andrej Grubacic

Wobblies & Zapatistas is a long and inspiring conversation between Andrej Grubacic, an anarchist historian from the Balkans, and Staughton Lynd, a longtime Marxist organizer from the U.S.  The conversation veers between many controversial and relevant topics for contemporary radicals. In this review, I will write about a few that stuck out to me for one reason or another.  Regardless of any criticism in this review, the book, overall, is very good and highly recommended reading for contemporary believers in other worlds organized more sanely and compassionately than our current one.

A major theme throughout these conversations between Grubacic and Lynd is the notion of a “synthesis” of anarchism and Marxism that will hopefully be able to revive and rebuild a radical Left movement in the States.  Grubacic writes, “We have insisted on the usefulness of reviving a synthesis between anarchism and Marxism that should combine prefigurative direct action and coherent structural understanding.[i]”  With this notion, the authors set the stage for anarchism to be articulated as a theory that lacks a “coherent structural understanding.”  “Anarchism” needs to be qualified here. After all, anarchism has been used to describe very different theories and practices that articulate their “anarchism” quite differently. The anarchist milieu is filled with many competing tendencies that are often at odds with each other: insurrectionary anarchism, green anarchism, primitivism, anti-civilization, individualist anarchism, social anarchism, class-struggle anarchism, pro-organizational anarchism, etc. The authors of Black Flame[ii] respond to this hodge-podge of theories by recognizing this problem and arguing for a “broad anarchist tradition” which places anarchism as a social movement that has its roots in the mid-19th century socialist Left, with writers such as Bakunin and Kropotkin. Interestingly, the authors of Black Flame have a fairly narrow definition for their “broad” anarchist definition which displaces (precludes?) figures such as Proudhon, Stirner, Tucker, and Tolstoy since they did not employ a class-struggle anarchism based in social movements.

Perhaps Lynd thinks that anarchism lacks coherence since the term can be used to describe so many different (anarchist) theories (although having points of unity such as anti-capitalism and anti-statism). That may be a valid point, but since there are so many different “anarchisms” then one cannot really write about “anarchism” as a monolithic and coherent theory and then try to critique it. Anarchism needs to be qualified in this sense. For instance, Lynd implies anarchism is merely anti-state:

…”anarchism” is an inadequate term to describe what the new movement, or movements, affirm. Like the Haymarket anarchists, like the IWW, those who travel long distances to confront the capitalists of the world at their periodic gatherings, are not only opposed to “the state.” They are equally opposed to capitalism, the wage system, and corporate imperialism[iii].

What distinguishes anarchism from other radical political theories is its rejection of hierarchy in and of itself. Anarchism is not merely anti-state or anti-capitalist. We are against domination, coercion and hierarchical control in all of their (sometimes invisible) manifestations. We struggle against white supremacy, patriarchy, heteronormativity, etc.  Anarchism calls for change on the structural, cultural and conceptual levels—of course we aim to destroy the state and capitalism, but we also aim to contract different and egalitarian social relationships that would make racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, etc. things of the past. We also create new social relationships, ones that mirror the future society we wish to live in, inasmuch as we can while living under the institutions that we have inherited. Conceptually, we aim to kill the cop in our head—a la the famous Situationist slogan.

Lynd explains why anarchism needs Marxism, but much of his argument is based on the misconception that anarchism is without theory and disorganized.  For instance, Lynd writes, “…I am worried that in the absence of theory, many of those who protest in the streets today may turn out to be sprinters rather than long-distance runners.[iv]”  In many instances Lynd would be correct, but his analysis erases certain strains of anarchism that are deeply committed to structural change and have coherent theories. Strategy is complex when it comes to anarchism. Unlike vulgar Marxism which has a clear trajectory and steps to arrive at “The Revolution,” anarchism is known for its self-reflexivity and our constant task of reassessing and, when in need, reformulating our goals and tactics and strategies to arrive at them. In this sense then, anarchism is in many ways experimentation, which does not translate into “theory-lessness” or incoherence.

Lynd supports the idea of experimentation in relation to social movements and their tactics, but at the same time, he insists that this experimentation needs to be “supplemented” with a structural analysis, by which he means that anarchism (the experiment) needs Marxism (the structural analysis): “As the new movement grows in dozens of scattered settings, so the anarchist mode of putting down roots in a variety of locations will need to be supplemented by structural analysis that helps us to prioritize, to concentrate resources, to abandon unsuccessful experiments without condemning persons who undertook them on behalf of us all.[v]” This is problematic because it paints anarchism as a nice idea that needs help to function. This is the synthesis of anarchism and Marxism. Anarchism is the free-spirited idealist that has a big stake in making our means consistent with our ends (i.e. focusing on prefigurative politics), but we are vague and theory-less and therefore “require” Marxism, the theory-giver and strategy-maker (which is the point Lynd is making when he writes “…I am convinced that anarchism needs Marxism.[vi]”)

The main point I’m making here is that there are articulations of anarchism that have a strong structural analysis and visions for a future society and how to get there. I would name these articulations class-struggle, pro-organizational anarchisms that employ an intersectional analysis and that struggle against domination, coercion and hierarchical control on the structural, cultural and conceptual levels. I’m not sure why these articulations of anarchism would “need” Marxism.

A more interesting question is, Do we need to frame the debate in this way? Queer theory has shown us that identity is complex and not always useful or liberatory. In many ways, identity constrains us. For example, in the realm of sexuality, we are given three boxes with which to understand our sexuality: hetero, homo and bi. The confusion and angst experienced when one tries to “figure out” which box they belong in can be dismantled when we remove these boxes as well as the desire to have such boxes. For instance, there are many types of sexualities that are erased when we are (only) given these boxes to choose from. Some sexualities are organized around desires that aren’t necessarily gender-based (i.e., BDSM, non-monogamy, fetish-sex, etc). As well, we come to identify ourselves through our erotic (gendered) desires. Instead of sexuality being something you do/act/perform, it becomes something we are. We are lesbian, gay, or bi. Instead, we could be people that happen to perform certain sexual acts at some points and other sexual acts at other points—those acts need not define us. This is the difference between saying “I am” and “I do.” There is a huge potential for liberation and freedom within the seemingly simple change in orientation from “I am” to “I do.”

How does this pertain to Marxism and anarchism you may be wondering? Similar to the ways we’ve learned to identify (i.e., create static boxes that cage us and our potential) by our sexuality, we have also learned to identify by our political “identity.” The dialogue in Wobblies & Zapatistas uses a discourse where anarchism is put neatly into a box and Marxism is put neatly into another box. In reality, it is much more complex than that (just like with sexuality). What does it mean to say “this is anarchism” and “this is Marxism”? Doesn’t this just create neat little boxes with political identity now? Grubacic and Lynd are calling for a synthesis of the two traditions. This does bridge them, but it also reifies the rigidity of political ideology. In many ways, pro-organizational class-struggle anarchism is already doing what this synthesis calls for.

There are two issues with this synthesis. First, anarchism is being discussed as though it is a monolithic political ideology that is essentially anti-state and not much else. Secondly, borders are being erected as to what anarchism and Marxism are and are not, and then it is concluded that they “need” each other. If we learn anything from queer theory it’s that identities are fluid and this includes political identities. What does it mean to have a bounded “Anarchism” and “Marxism” when these are ideas that already bleed into each other in practice? Furthermore, we need a bunch of theories to pull from if we are going to be able to address and struggle against the complex problems in today’s society. We will need to pull from queer theory, feminism, critical race theory, radical environmental theories, disability studies, etc. Grubacic touches on this when he writes, “…this would mean accepting the need for a diversity of high theoretical perspectives, united only by certain shared understandings.[vii]” As well, we can see with Staughton himself that a good deal of anarchist prefigurative politics and experimentation has bled into his Marxism when he writes, “Accordingly, we should be gentle with ourselves if solutions to such problems do not emerge overnight. A period of experimentation, of trial and error, seems to me inevitable[viii]” and “We must allow spontaneity and experiment without fear of humiliation and disgrace. Not only our organizing but our conduct toward one another must be paradigmatic in engineering a sense of truly being brothers and sisters.[ix]” So too, many of Lynd’s responses to Grubacic’s questions incorporate a heavy reliance on anarchist prefiguration: “You have asked me to set out my thoughts about, How can we rebuild the movement today? I do so with humility. The answers will be demonstrated in practice.[x]”

An important aspect of anarchism is, perhaps, best articulated in the old IWW axiom “building a new world in the shell of the old”. This is crucial for a couple of reasons. One, we need to experiment with new relationships and structures in the here-and-now so we can see what works and what doesn’t—what is useful and what is not.  In the same light, why would anyone fight for something they did not have faith in? The first question I get from people who ask me what anarchism is or what it means is usually “But, how would that work? What would that society look like?” After I give a few examples, the follow-up response is usually, “How would anything get done without someone being in charge?” This communicates two very important things. One, we need vision. Two, we need proof, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, that organization and decision-making is best left in the hands of those who are affected by the decisions. Lynd shares this sentiment well:

               Additionally, I believe passionately that it is unfair and unrealistic to expect poor and oppressed people, or, for that matter, anyone else, ardently to desire and sacrifice for something they have not experienced. We learn, as the poet John Keats once said, from what we experience “on our pulses.” How can we expect people to hunger and thirst for something new and different if they have never even had a moment to experience it, to taste it, to live inside it?[xi]

               I agree that there is needed a “vision,” but I do not think ordinary persons bleed and die for a vision that they have not experienced. I think the vision must be rooted in daily life, and if it is not, nothing will happen. If the vision is the seed, daily life is the soil.[xii]

Lynd gives some beautiful responses to complex questions from Grubacic about how to rebuild a relevant and revolutionary movement today. Lynd writes, “Lastly, something that neither Marxists or anarchist have been very good at: We need to proceed in a way that builds community.[xiii]” It is stressed throughout this conversation that what we need, as Marxists and/or anarchists, is to organize locally and relevantly in mass-oriented and diverse ways… something far beyond summit-hopping[xiv]. Another stressed notion is that of a need for a coherent and shared vision of a future society[xv]. Not shared as in “uniform,” but shared as in “diverse and complementary.”

Other themes visited throughout this conversation between Andrej Grubacic and Staughton Lynd are the notions of accompaniment and the role of radical intellectuals, the role of women in radical movements, class unity that sometimes exists despite white racism, etc. The book is packed with conversations about issues that directly impact modern radicals and visionaries. For this alone, it is well-worth the time investment to read it. The text is mainly Lynd answering difficult and relevant questions that Grubacic has posed with storytelling. We are lucky that someone has captured the stories of Staughton and Alice Lynd, two lovers who shared amazing experiences organizing and struggling along with thousands of other folks throughout the 1960s and into today. We have a lot to learn from Grubacic and Lynd, despite, perhaps, taking issue with their proposed synthesis.

[i] p. 103

[ii] Michael Schmidt and Lucien Van der Walt, Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2009).

[iii] p. 19

[iv] p. 42, emphasis added

[v] p. 114

[vi] p. 46

[vii] p. 43

[viii] p. 105

[ix] p. 115

[x] p. 104

[xi] p. 50

[xii] p. 99

[xiii] p. 114

[xiv] p. 88-90

[xv] p. 98

Buy this book now | Download e-Book now | Back to Andrej Grubacic's Page | Back to Staughton Lynd's Page

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