The Red Menace

The Continuing Debate

By Ulli Diemer

Before the discussion of anarchism and Marxism which began in the last issue of the Red Menace and which continues in this one is carried much further, it seems worth-while to pause and re-examine its purpose. Where is this debate heading? What is to be gained by continuing it?

My view is that we have little to gain if we — Marxists, anarchists, or whatever — view Marxism and anarchism in black and white terms, if we see the one as absolutely ‘correct’ and the other as absolutely wrong’. If we enter the discussion with this attitude, we are likely to produce little more than mutual denunciations which may be morally satisfying but which rarely convince anyone. It is still possible to produce useful analyses given this — though few seem to be forthcoming — but there seems little point in attempting a dialogue with each other.

What we should be doing is subjecting both Marxism and anarchism to a critical analysis, and thereby start to provide the basis for a libertarian revolutionary movement that relates adequately to the needs and problems of today.

I tried to make this point at the start of my two  articles in the last Red Menace, although perhaps I did not make it as well as I should have. It is certainly true that my articles were themselves one-sided, and for this the criticism that Greg Renault makes in his letter is at least partially justified. Nevertheless, it was necessary to be one-sided, given what I was attempting to do: i.e., to respond to the very one-sided view of Marx and Marxism that nearly all anarchists hold. One of the main problems of the anarchist approach, one that emerges very clearly in the articles and letters from anarchists printed in this issue, is that it does tend to pose everything in very moralistic, black-and-white terms. I tried to point out in my articles that there has been more than one interpretation and more than one strain of “Marxism”, and I indicated my view that there is a great deal of common ground between this libertarian interpretation of Marxism — which I argued is the only one consistent with Marx’s own writings — and other forms of libertarian thought, including anarchism. Dolgoff et al, however, will have none of this. They will not have the purity of their doctrine tainted with the idea that there might be any common ground at all between anarchism and any form of Marxism. This purist attitude is maintained by simply ignoring, by never acknowledging, the existence of any non-Leninist, non-Stalinist interpretation of Marxism. Some of the most important figures of the Marxist tradition — Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Korsch, Anton Pannekoek, the Frankfurt School, William Reich — are consequently simply dropped from history. Anarchists never mention them. A complementary approach is taken to Marx: his own works are rarely looked at (references are usually to interpreters writing after his death) and where they are, they are given the most vulgar Stalinist interpretation possible.

By thus insulating itself, anarchism tends to become a closed system to which nothing is ever added and from which nothing is ever taken away. This closed system is maintained in turn by a closed, self-perpetuating system of logic. Essential to this system of logic is a blatant double standard. Thus, the actions or writings of anyone who ever called himself a “Marxist” are charged to Marx's personal account, and held to be am essential part of the Marxist tradition, even though these actions or words may be in direct and demonstrable contradiction to Marx’s own position. The actions or writings of any inconvenient anarchist, on the other hand, are simply dismissed as being extraneous to anarchism. So, for example, the fact that there were Communists in the government of republican Spain (Spain is to anarchism what Russia is to Leninism) is taken as clear proof of the essentially statist nature of all forms of Marxism. The fact that the leaders of the anarchists were also members of the same government is dismissed as a ‘mistake’, or as irrelevant because they weren't ‘real’ anarchists. And the fact that the Marxist POUM opposed that government just as much as the most bonafide, pure, ‘real’ anarchists is conveniently ignored in discussions such as these.

This kind of attitude is hardly enlightening, and it tends to provoke a polemical and one-sided response. When this kind of blatant nonsense is being peddled, it necessarily becomes a priority to challenge it, even though one’s purpose is not at all to engage in a sterile and tedious battle of quotations and historical references. As long as fantasies and distortions prevail, it is impossible to come to grips with the real issues. Marxism, in particular, can only benefit from the most rigorous critical analysis - requires such an analysis - an analysis to which anarchists potentially have a great deal to offer, but the analysis cannot take place when it is a caricature of Marxism which is given currency.


Sam Dolgoff’s portrayal of Marxism is such a caricature. This is particularly unfortunate because Dolgoff is an outstanding revolutionary militant whose excellent work on anarchist collectives in Spain, in particular, indicates that he could contribute significantly to a real critical analysis of Marxism and its problematic areas if he was not so blindly dogmatic on the topic.

Nevertheless, most of his comments do represent serious misunderstandings or distortions, and thus they have to be dealt with, at least briefly:

Dolgoff is at pains to prove that there is “a fundamental, indissoluble connection between dialectics and Marxism”, and that Marx and Engels were materialists. In this, at least, we have no quarrel. To me, dialectics is the essence of Marxism. What I was trying to illustrate in the short footnote which attracted Dolgoff's extended ire is that anarchist critics are almost invariably unfamiliar with Marx’s own writings. The blithe use of a term, “Dialectical Materialism”, which was introduced after Marx’s death by one of his major perverters, as if it was employed by Marx, seems to indicate that the people using it are not overly familiar with Marx’s writings.

The inability — or unwillingness — to distinguish between Marx and his ‘followers’ (several of whom moved Marx to announce, a century ago, that “I am not a Marxist”) seems to be congenital among anarchists.

It lies at the root of Bakunin’s claims that Marx advocated a “Peoples’ State”, a claim which Dolgoff says was not a fabrication. (Dolgoff’s logic here is beyond me: he seems to be saying that the charge was not a fabrication because Marx’s denial came after Bakunin's accusation.) What had happened was that some of the German Social Democrats introduced the concept, and Bakunin, believing as he did that all Germans were the same, concluded that Marx accepted it as well. The fact that Marx have never advocated such a thing in his life, that he attacked the concept once it came into circulation, and that he rejected Bakunin’s claims to the contrary (well before 1873), made no impression on Bakunin.

Dolgoff suffers from the same inability to distinguish between Marx and Marx’s interpreters. Trying to prove that The Civil War in France does not represent Marx’s real views on the state, although the book is Marx’s major work on the topic, Dolgoff launches into a long quotation from Franz Mehring which he says “decisively refutes” my arguments. The trouble with Dolgoff's ‘decisive’ quotation, however, is that it is at best irrelevant. The fact that Mehring, writing after Marx’s death, thought that The Civil War in France contained the wrong view on the state may be interesting, but it says nothing about Marx’s views. Dolgoff’s presentation of the Mehring quote is also less than honest. Dolgoff refers to Mehring as Marx’s “authorized” biographer, as if this somehow made Mehring’s views more authentic. But Mehring's “authorization” came not from Marx, who was long dead, but from the leaders of the German SPD, the very people Marx so vigorously attacked over their views on the state. Moreover, Marx had been quite specifically critical of Mehring’s own views, including his views on the state. Mehring, as one of the leading figures in the SPD, was at pains to justify the SPD’s position and to downplay Marx's criticisms. He is hardly a reliable source when he proclaims that Marx didn’t really mean what he said.

It would unproductive to reply to Dolgoff’s many claims point by point, so a few more brief comments will have to suffice:

The idea that socialism implies the abolition of the state is repeated countless times in the works of Marx and Engels. It is one of the essential concepts of Marxism. The fact that they advocated the use of the state by the proletariat during the transition to socialism may very well be problematic, it may very well be dangerous, but it in no way alters the fact that for Marx and Engels socialism only existed when the state ceased to exist.

Economic determinism: How many times is it necessary to say that there is a difference between materialism and a theory that reduces everything to economic phenomena? In his inability to understand this difference, Dolgoff is not joined by many other anarchists, incidentally. Bakunin, for example, called Marx’s Capital a “magnificent work” and worked to translate it into Russian, while Kropotkin alleged that Marx had stolen his economic theories from the anarchists!

Dolgoff, because he is not a materialist, fails entirely to understand Marx’s analysis of slavery. As Dolgoff knows very well, Marx hated slavery. What Marx did, however, was to show that slavery was rooted in material conditions and that a purely moralistic opposition to it was impotent. To say that something is bad is not an analysis. In the same sense, Marx repeatedly said that capitalism had been “progressive”. Is there any doubt that Marx nevertheless opposed capitalism?

Dolgoff challenges a number of my references. Readers may turn to page 168 of Woodcock’s book for themselves, and the comment concerning Rothschild is reproduced in the footnote below. Of more interest, however, is Dolgoff’s denial that Bakunin himself advocated a post-revolutionary state. It is of interest because the denial illustrates the typically magical anarchist attitude to reality: the belief that changing the word changes the reality. For the point is that Bakunin advocated precisely such a state, complete with parliament, cabinet, army, police, etc. but gave it a different name, and thus managed to persuade himself that he had done away with it.

This attempt to do away with the reality by changing the word also characterizes the anarchist attitude to revolutionary organization. Anarchists may persuade themselves that a “network of secret cadres” who will be the “General Staff” of the revolution and who would serve as “intermediaries between the revolutionary ideas and the popular instincts” is a strictly benevolent structure which would serve the interests of the people and never oppress them.

The Bolsheviks once persuaded themselves of the same thing; they were all once as “sincere” as Bakunin’s “Secret Brotherhood”. And to put Bakunin’s naive prescription that members of his alliance would never be permitted “to take public office” into perspective, it is necessary only to recall that Stalin held no public office whatsoever until 1941.


Published in Volume 3, Number 1 of The Red Menace, Winter 1979.


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Subject Headings: Anarchism - Libertarian Politics - Marxism

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