Debating how to change the world

Wobblies and Zapatistas:

Conversations on Anarchism, Marxism, and Radical History

This volume brings together two radical intellectuals from alternative political traditions for an extended conversation about theory, activism, and the state of radical politics today. Throughout their conversation, Staughton Lynd, the civil rights organizer, antiwar activist, lawyer, and radical historian, responds to the probing questions of Andrej Grubacic, the radical sociologist and activist from the Balkans. Ostensibly, Lynd represents the Marxist tradition, while Grubacic injects contemporary anarchist thought in a dialogue that attempts to redevelop a synthesis of the two long-estranged radical traditions.

Arguing that neither approach is fully able to contend with the problems of capitalism or to build a movement capable of challenging the system, the authors seek “a fresh synthesis of what is best in Marxist and anarchist traditions.” Lynd and Grubacic use the historical example of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in the United States. and the more recent experience of the Zapatistas in the Mexican state of Chiapas to illustrate this synthesis.

The global justice movement at the turn of the millennium radicalized people around the world, outraged at the greedy excesses of international corporations and larger capitalist economies. The movement brought together a wide array of political backgrounds; liberal NGO activists, militant environmentalists, anarchists of all stripes, farmers, trade unionists, and Marxists. At its high points, the movement was able to disrupt the high-level meetings of the world capitalist elite. But for the activists involved in the organizing, few can forget the seemingly endless debates on process and tactics, an unbridgeable chasm that became apparent between anarchist strategies and the Marxist approach to the movement.

Lynd is rightly critical of much of the anarchists’ approach to the movement at the time, which emphasized action at the expense of ideas: The new movement did arrive, first in the pentecostal appearance of the Zapatistas in 1994, then in 1999 and after at Seattle, Quebec, Genoa, and Cancún. Moreover, mirabile dictu [wonderful to relate], it arrived not exactly with a theory, but at least with a rhetoric: the vocabulary of anarchism. Far be it from tell these splendid and heroic young people that they need more and better theory. I will just say that 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. Elsewhere, Lynd considers the summit-hopping trend that was the soup du jour for much of the anti-authoritarian left of the period:

Anarchism is now the reigning orthodoxy, propounded by theorists whose writing is incomprehensible and who have no discernible relationship to practice. As a life-long rebel against heavy-handed Marxist dogmatism I find myself defending Marx, and objecting to the so-called radicalism of one-weekend-a-year radicals who show up at a global confrontation and then talk about it for the rest of the year.

These criticisms don’t stop Lynd from upholding the Zapatista experience as the prime example of the promise for an ?anarcho-Marxist synthesis. Certainly, the Zapatista rebellion inspired millions around the world that another world was truly possible and should be fought for. While Subcomandante Marcos repeatedly stated that the Zapatistas were not a vanguard organization, they most certainly did play a leadership role in the rebellion against capitalist globalization. The book’s conversation, however, overlooks contradictions such as this, as well as many of the Zapatistas’ limitations and their ultimate isolation.

Most problematically, in following the anarchist fashion to “change the world without taking power,” the Zapatistas ultimately failed to challenge the power of the Mexican state. Lynd approvingly quotes the “Discussion Documents for the Founding Congress of the Zapatista Front of National Liberation,” which declared the EZLN “will not seek to take power...we are a political force that does not seek to take power, that does not pretend to be a vanguard of a specific class, or of society as a whole.” Subsequently, this approach to radical change had a profound effect on contemporary anarchist theorists who now posit building parallel power structures against the classical anarchist desire to smash the state. Confusingly, the EZLN’s namesake, Emiliano Zapata, was quite explicit about the need to challenge and replace the oppressive central state of Porfirio Díaz.

Later in the conversation, Lynd speaks of the important contributions from worker-intellectuals like Stan Weir, who wrote in a 1973 essay titled, “The Informal Work Group,”—“Someone who is revolutionary, in the literal sense of the term, is someone who is for changing society’s institutions.” Following this idea, Zapatismo is certainly not revolutionary, and it is questionable what contribution it could make to revolutionary Marxism.

Interestingly, the book’s discussion of the Haymarket radicals, the “Chicago Idea,” and the Industrial Workers of the World follows the discussion of the Zapatistas. While obviously not chronological, the political purpose is also unclear. The Chicago socialists and IWW militants were operating in an era of radicalism that predated the wider influence of explicitly Marxist thought in the United States. Socialists in these movements frequently referred to themselves as anarchists even though their ideas and writings sometimes illustrated a much closer affinity to Marxism. Only with the developments of the Russian Revolution in 1917 and the validation of the Bolsheviks’ implementation of Marxism did wider numbers of radicals in the U.S. become self-identified Marxists and develop new forms of organization.

The most interesting discussion in the book takes place in the sections titled “Burnham’s dilemma” and “Dual power.” Ensconced in these two discussions is the central, historical disagreement between anarchism and Marxism; anarchists are opposed to any form of state power, while Marxists seek to replace the capitalist state with a workers’ state in order to destroy class society along with the need for a state. Lynd summarizes Burnham’s dilemma:

[A]n ex-Trotskyist named James Burnham wrote a book entitled The Managerial Revolution in which he argued that the institutions of capitalist society—free cities, guilds, banks, corporations, Protestant congregations, courts, in the end, parliaments—developed within feudalism long before the bourgeoisie seized state power. Socialist institutions could not develop within capitalism, he contended: Notably, trade unions did not prefigure another world but were institutions that ameliorated capitalist excesses and thus stabilized capitalism.

Lynd attempts to resolve this dilemma, stating:

The answer, it now seems to me, is that the revolution to which we aspire need not and should not seek state power. Rather, its project should be to nurture a horizontal network of self-governing institutions down below, to which whoever holds state power will learn they have to be obedient and ?accountable.… It is not just that poor and oppressed people are preoccupied with economic survival.… 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…. How can we expect people to hunger and thirst for something new and different if they have never had even a moment to experience it, to taste it, to live inside it?

This is a multi-layered, but problematic approach to the problem. First, Lynd as a “from-below” historian of the American Revolution and Civil War should recognize the problem in this line of argument. What, for example, motivated African Americans to rebel against slavery, when they had known nothing else? Further, if we accept Lynd’s hypothesis, how could we explain any progress in history or science? Finally, Lynd seems implicitly to accept the permanence of the state and our job is to merely pressure that state to obey our demands from “down below.”

The subsequent chapters on “Dual power” and “Parallel institutions during the American Revolution” attempt to explore the same issue, but fall short. At some point, if the “horizontal networks of self-governing institutions” that Lynd puts forward are broadly successful, then the existing state’s power is necessarily threatened (e.g., the ability to regulate trade, to maintain “special bodies of armed men,” to enact and enforce laws, etc.). Consequently, a parallel center of power that has any effectiveness will come up immediately against the state’s opposition, and one of the two must emerge from the resulting struggle victorious; the two cannot exist in a harmonious balance indefinitely. Examining the experiences of the English, French, and Russian Revolutions, Leon Trotsky described dual power in his History of the Russian Revolution:

This double sovereignty does not presuppose—generally speaking, indeed, it excludes—the possibility of a division of the power into two equal halves, or indeed any formal equilibrium of forces whatever.… It implies that a destruction of the social equilibrium has already split the state superstructure. It arises when the hostile classes are already each relying upon essentially incompatible governmental organizations—the one outlived, the other in process of formation—which jostle against each other at every step in the sphere of government. The amount of power which falls to each of these struggling classes in such a situation, is determined by the correlation of forces in the course of the struggle.... By its very nature such a state of affairs cannot be stable.... The splitting of sovereignty foretells nothing less than a civil war.

Instead, the book’s discussion of dual power highlights a number of “parallel institutions” that never rose to the level of dual power—Southern Baptist congregations during the civil rights movement and various worker solidarity organizations in the 1970s and 1980s. Sadly, the actual experiences of dual power in revolutionary Russia and others altogether get brief mention in one lone paragraph. These examples could have provided a much more illustrative look at the validity of anarchism and Marxism applied to real revolutionary situations and the problems posed by dual power.

While Lynd gives substantial ground to anarchism on the question of the state, he does make a strong argument against the anti-intellectualism that permeates much of contemporary anarchist thought. Comparing today’s anarchists to the activists of the 1960s, who

mixed political gestures with alternative life styles, easily became discouraged when victory did not come quickly, and in their frustration, sometimes turned to senseless violence.… I perceive the new anarchism as a very similar movement. Well-intentioned individuals drift in a sea of vague idealism, but with little conception of how to get from Here to There.

Much of the second half of the book’s discussion deals with the role of intellectuals and historians, which generally has not been a great source of recent debate between anarchists and Marxists in the movements.

Ultimately, Lynd sees the division between anarchists and Marxists as almost trivial, wondering if there would have been a struggle in the First International without “some of the personalities involved.” Surely, the momentous struggle over the Spanish Revolution and the future of the Spanish section of the Communist International could not be reduced to personality differences.

Like many other comparisons of Marxism and anarchism, Lynd recognizes some of the “very anarchist in orientation” writings from the Marxist tradition. He cites Marx’s Civil War in France as well as Lenin’s pamphlet,State and Revolution, as examples. The problem with this perspective is that it views the ideas contained in these writings as some sort of departure from the rest of the Marxist canon. This has been written so frequently as to almost be taken for granted in radical circles. Less common is a discussion of the way in which Mikhail Bakunin and others appropriated Marx’s critique of political economy wholesale for their own program. Indeed, most serious anarchist analyses of capitalist economy draw unabashedly from Marx’s works.

While the book does have some useful insights of how Marxism and anarchism have coalesced in social movements throughout history, the central thesis falls quite short of developing the ideas needed to fundamentally challenge society. The existing capitalist states cannot be left in place, and current anarchist ideas (even if infused with the Marxist method) refuse to deal with this essential historical fact, as the crushing of the Paris Commune by the existing bourgeois state demonstrated in 1871.

Social movements require a general level of solidarity across ideological divisions in order to grow and win reforms. Periods of acute social unrest and generalized crises, however, require a radical solution. Either the old institutions will reassert their power in a more repressive fashion, or new social forces will fill the vacuum and offer new ways to organize and run society. These rare moments of revolutionary possibility require an unwavering method that is based on clarity and the concrete possibilities that the situation offers. A potpourri of Marxism and anarchism, ideas which have repeatedly waged combat with one another, can only offer more confusion and hesitation in the midst of these turning points of human history.


Issue #76

March 2011

Revolt in the Middle East: Another world is possible

Issue contents

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Critical Thinking


  • The crimes of occupation

    Jim Ramey reviews Aftermath: Following the Blood of America's Wars in the Muslim World by Nir Rosen
  • Gaza’s nightmare shows the truth about Israel

    Hadas Thier reviews Midnight on the Mavi Marmara: The Attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla and How It Changed the Course of the Israeli/Palestine Conflict by Moustafa Bayoumi and Gaza in Crisis: Reflections on Israel's War Against the Palestinians by Noam Chomsky and Ilan Pappé
  • The planet and the profit system

    Chris Williams reviews The Ecological Rift: Capitalism's War on the Earth by John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark and Richard York
  • Ways of resistance in Latin America

    Jason Farbman reviews Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America by Ben Dangl and Bolivia's Radical Tradition: Permanent Revolution in the Andes by S. Sándor John