The End of Dialectical Materialism:
An anarchist reply to the libertarian Marxists
By P. Murtaugh
Words I teach all mixed up in a devilish muddle,
Thus, anyone may think just what he chooses to think;
Never, at least, is he hemmed in by strict limitations.
Bubbling out of the flood, plummeting down from the cliff,
So are his beloved's words and thoughts that the poet devises;
He understands what he thinks, freely invents what he feels.
Thus, each may for himself suck wisdom's nourishing nectar;
Now you know all, since I've said plenty of nothing to you!
from 'On Hegel' by K. Marx
Libertarian Marxism is a rather recent development, as far as political
theories and movements go. I suppose that a truly dedicated historian
could dig up the bones of various defunct political groups and individuals
who held similar views during the last two hundred years. Even the
ever invoked shade of Karl Marx is dredged up, and once again we
are treated to the spectacle of 'what Marx really meant'. This time
though with a difference; through a libertarian Marxism. A Marxism
that essentially reduces down to anarchist politics tied to Marxist
philosophy. Is this mixture viable? I would say no, and the following
paragraphs are my reasons.
What is libertarian Marxism? From my conversations with those who
subscribe to this set of ideas it seems to me that there are basically
two sincere reasons why people become libertarian Marxists and one
insincere one. The sincere ones first.
People often move from 'pure' Marxism to libertarian marxism because
of the obvious sterility and brutality of standard Marxist-Leninist
practice. The first reaction is disgust with what their fellow Marxists
have made of socialism. It is only later that these people work
through the theoretical justification for their particular brand
of Marxism. The problem is that in moving from a Marxist position
to one of anarchist politics they meet not an organized serious
anarchist movement, with its own theoretical apparatus but a fragmented,
disorganized collection of small groups and individuals. In this
vacuum libertarian Marxism grows as an alternative to the emptiness
and vagueness of present day anarchism in this part of the world.
Other people approach libertarian Marxism from another direction,
through anarchism. These people become fed up with the state of
the present day anarchist movement and opt for libertarian Marxism,
in the hope that it will provide some sort of coherant theory and
guide to practice. This tendency has always been present in the
anarchist movement, and is most particularity evident in those times
and places where the emotional 'gut-feeling' idea of anarchism holds
strong sway (i.e. the idea that theory, tactics, a plan, organization,
etc. are unimportant and only a strong hatred of oppression is needed
for the overthrow of the system). In these cases it is an inevitable
reaction of anarchists to borrow their theory from the Marxists,
in the hope of providing some sort of coherance. This particular
borrowing has always disappeared when individual revolt turns to
mass revolt and when anarchism ceases to be the resort of bohemians
and becomes a mass movement. In such cases the anarchist movement
has inevitably thrown up its own theoreticians of equal calibre
to those of the Marxists.
Now, we come to the clincher the insincere reason why some
people become 'libertarian Marxists', or any other flavour of Marxist
for that matter. One of the things that Marxists fail to realize
when they sit down to spin philosophy is that their insight that,
in a class society, systems of thought also have a class character
also applies to their own pet theory. For every theory of society
is likely to be accepted by a particular class of people and not
others, and every theory of society has certain objective effects
if its acceptance becomes widespread. The effects of the widespread
acceptance of Marxism are so obvious that only a blind man could
fail to see them. Over fifty years of the bloodiest tyranny the
world has ever seen gives ample proof of the nature of practical
as opposed to theoretical Marxism.
Just as the theory of liberalism acted as a front for the rise of
the capitalist class (and just as liberalism was not the only ideology
suitable for this rise), so the theories of Marxism provide ample
cover for the rise of a new ruling class. To serve such a purpose
a class ideology must have certain characteristics. One, it must
provide the oppressed class with a myth of the justice and rightness
of the present set-up. Marxism's cover of abstractions about the
'proletarian dictatorship' obviously serve this function. Second,
it must provide the ruling class with an acceptable 'moral' justification
for their actions Class societies that are founded on nothing but
naked power don't tend to produce the type of rulers who have a
good survival rate. Morale is an important factor in the survival
of any society, especially morale amongst its leaders. Once again,
the function of Marxist rationalizations in this area are too obvious
to be mentioned. The final important characteristic that a class
ideology must have is that it very possession must itself make a
substantial difference in the very nature of the person possessing
it. While 'libertarian' Marxists may be able to escape the first
few charges, it is this aspect that betrays certain of them as what
they really are. Perhaps I should try to make what I am saying a
Most class ideologies are really not one but two ideologies. There
is one ideology for the rulers and one for the ruled. To be brief
and simplistic, under feudalism there is honour (and all the other
ideological baggage of the lords) and salvation through meekness
and obedience (and all the other Christian and patriarchal baggage).
Under capitalism there is efficiency and justice. For the capitalist
his system is best because it is efficient. The 'freedom' it provides
suppossedly ensures the optimum allocation of all possible resources.
The process of becoming a businessman is also a long process of
initiation into the correct knowledge i.e. the rules of a certain
gamble. In his most unguarded moments the successful businessman
will readily concede that the huge chance factor proves that 'justice'
plays little role in alloting rewards in capitalism. The intelligent
conservative position (what used to be called liberal) is precisely
this freedom produces efficiency. To the working class, however,
the justification for capitalism is that it somehow embodies justice,
that 'hard work is rewarded'. The strenth of this conviction can
be gauged by the fact that immense popular indignation can be whipped
up against the unemployed or those on welfare, but anyone who tried
to suggest that old age pensions should be cut would find himself
on the quickest possible road to political oblivion.
Now, how does the possession of Marxist theory serve to divide people
into rulers and ruled? A good idea can be gained by comparing the
attitude of rank and file Marxists to 'what are the basic ideas
of socialism' to the attitude of the leadership. To the average
rank and file socialist socialism is about justice, equality, freedom,
love very simple and human ideas and ones capable of being
expressed in plain language. If the average socialist does know
anything at all about 'dialectical materialism' it is usually only
the vaguest most mechanical bit of theory learned from popularizing
tracts that his leadership thinks is proper fare for the rank and
file. The socialism of the rank and file socialist is instinctive
and not overlaid by a massive weight of theory. Usually he or she
cares little for all the oppressive volume of tracts and theorizing
turned out by the leadership. Your average Maoist cares more for
the fairy tales of how happy are the workers and peasants in
the Peoples' Shitworks and Prefabricated Outhouse Man-ufacturing
Plant in Shitsang Province than he does for all the attempts
of Maoist professors to prove the intellectual brilliance of Mao's
Now, dialectical materialism is a very subtle and complicated system
of abstractions and a method of mental calculus for manipulating
the events of the world. Its successful practice usually requires
the ability to quote obscure biblical texts at the drop of a polemic.
Its use also requires the attainment of the mental habit of refusing
to ask simple questions in ordinary English (or whatever language
you speak). This sort of knowledge and habit is not picked up in
a day. It usually requires a period of years of study which
means the leisure or infinite determination to make leisure to study.
Whether the doubtful usefulness of dialectical materialism in solving
practical problems is ever shown to be real or not (it certainly
does provide all sorts of convenient methods of confusing issues,
so it may be 'practical' after all, in a twisted sort of way) the
fact is that its addition to the ideological baggage of the socialist
movement has certainly made the self definition of various people,
usually intellectuals, as 'revolutionary leaders' immensely easier.
The immediate response of most non-intellectuals to a barrage of
senseless words is "gee whiz are you ever wonderful Mr. Professor".
The natural respect that people show for knowledge is easily taken
advantage of by various charlatans who know well how to give the
appearance of knowledge. Some, perhaps a majority, of people are
convinced that anything they cannot understand must be really brilliant.
"... took a book of logarithyms, photographed a page at
random, shone it high upon the blackboard, with the overhead projector.
Thirty seven, forty seven, from the Ampex Corporation.
Gleaming in its chromium plating, from the Ampex Corporation.
And they thought that he was very clever,
For they could not understand his logarithms."
-from Hiawatha's Lipid
The content of 'dialectical materialism' consists of unproved and
unprovable assertions, along with enough obvious truisms to give
it the air of plausibility. An argument about its 'correctness'
could likely go on forever without any successful conclusion. The
point is not whether this or that particular assertion is correct
or not. The point is what the result of accepting a theory of byzantine
complexity (with equally byzantine disagreements as to what is 'real'
dialectics as the usual result) is on the socialist movement that
accepts this theory as the truth. I would submit that it
encourages the penetration of a certain type of individual into
the socialist movement the type who will procede to establish
his control over the movement because of his presumed 'intellectual
brilliance'. I think that the history of all Marxist movements
show that I am right. I would be interested to see if any Libertarian
Marxists can answer this charge. That Marxism is bifocal, like other
class ideologies (Marxism for the masses versus Marxism for the
leaders) is a charge that is not simply a personal attack or 'intellectual
baiting', but an important question that will have repercussions
on the type of movement we are going to build.
I do not consider that everything that Marx said was wrong, and
I do not consider that all libertarian Marxists are sinister conspirators.
Yet I would ask the sincere libertarian Marxists to consider the
results of what they advocate. The theoretical discipline that they
acquired while they were Marxists is needed in the anarchist movement.
Their energies would be better used in the building of a coherent
anarchist and modern theory than in trying to drag the rotting corpse
of Hegel into the movement. I also do not consider that all intellectuals
are somehow 'evil' and ever ready to take over a movement for socialism.
I feel that our movement must do its best to attract the sincere
seekers after truth among the intellectuals. We must, however, never
allow any particular priesthood of 'those who understand to come
to dominate the movement. I feel that we must abandon systems of
thought that encourage such priesthoods if we are to attract the
type of intellectuals who will be of the most benefit to the anarchist
Published in Volume 2, Number 2 of The
Red Menace, Spring 1978.
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