Following on from a workshop presented on the same topic at their Marxism conference earlier this year, Socialist Alternative has published a critique of anarchism under the title “Marxism vs. anarchism: how can we save the environment?” in their paper Red Flag, written by Grace Hill.
Socialist Alternative is correct in a sense. Anarchism, when it is defined so narrowly as to exclude the vast majority of anarchists both past and present, offers no “radical alternative to capitalist environmental destruction”. True. It’s just that this understanding has no bearing on reality.
It would be easy to apply Hill’s rhetorical trick to “Marxism” itself. Despite Socialist Alternative representing one fairly small, niche tendency – Cliffite Trotskyism – they only ever really refer to themselves as Marxists. We know the Marxist label includes a whole lot more. It would be trivial to list all the cranks, authoritarians and liberals that claim the title; it would be just as easy to find examples of nonsensical things they say and thus conclude that Marxism offers nothing for the working class. True, they could respond and say that the Stalinists and reformists aren’t truly Marxists, but we could do pretty much the same thing! This is asinine.
Green anarchism and Bookchin
Hill makes some basic categorical errors in her description of anarchism. “Green anarchism” and primitivism are not synonymous; primitivism is only one green anarchist tendency, and it’s a fairly marginal one to boot. The impact of green anarchism has been felt across all forms of anarchism, to the extent that the term itself has become somewhat obsolete; most of its points have become integrated into the mainstream of anarchism, just like nearly all revolutionary socialists are already “eco-socialists”.
One of the founding texts of green anarchism broadly is Post-Scarcity Anarchism by Bookchin, the very author Hill cites as being a “less absurd” alternative to green anarchism. Whilst the author of this response is not particularly sympathetic to Bookchin – like most anarchists, I’m particularly critical of his shift away from the working-class, and eventually away from anarchism altogether – I do feel he has been hard done-by here, particularly as he is making a fairly mundane point. Hill rips Bookchin out of context in order to imply he thinks it’s not capitalism as such that is the problem, but the scale of it. When quoting Bookchin, Hill hides a sentence behind an ellipsis, thus mangling it:
A century ago it would have been possible to regard air pollution and water contamination as the result of the self-seeking activities of industrial barons and bureaucrats. Today, this moral explanation would be a gross oversimplification. It is doubtless true that most bourgeois enterprises are still guided by a public-be-damned attitude, as witness the reactions of power utilities, automobile concerns and steel corporations to pollution problems. But a more serious problem than the attitude of the owners is the size of the firms themselves—their enormous proportions, their location in a particular region, their density with respect to a community or waterway, their requirements for raw materials and water, and their role in the national division of labor.
The sentiment Bookchin is expressing here is clear: capitalist destruction of the environment does not exist because of evil fat-cats in top hats twirling their moustaches and plotting new environmental disasters. The threat to the environment doesn’t come from the moral attitudes of the owners, but from the way the modern production process manifests itself. Factories are built next to residential areas because they need cheap workers, processing plants are constructed on important waterways because they need lots of water, and so on. Modern industrial production is much more complex and destructive than industrial production in the 1870s. As such, mainstream environmentalism’s constant appeals to moralism are ultimately pointless.
Admitting this is not a form of nostalgia for the good old days of smaller-scale 19th century capitalism, it’s a fairly banal statement that capitalism has grown in both productive power and environmental destructiveness. Indeed, Bookchin stands out as one of the first anarchists to speculate on how the process of technological development that has facilitated this massive and grotesque expansion in capitalism could one day be transformed and used for positive social ends. Once socialism establishes itself, production no longer takes place for the inhuman needs of capital, but for the genuinely human needs of the community. Technologies can be developed and implemented that can gradually repair the damage wrought by capitalism.
Anarchism: the class struggle in full
Like most Marxists, Hill thinks anarchism has a “tendency towards liberalism”. The only evidence presented for this view is as follows:
Bookchin builds on the work of the 19th century Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin, whose theory of mutual aid put forward an alternative, liberal view of history against Marx’s historical materialism. Rather than history being shaped by class struggle, Kropotkin argued, it was a struggle between hierarchy, authority and centralisation on the one hand, and institutions of mutual aid representing freedom on the other. Kropotkin was a supporter of working-class struggle but saw the roots of domination not necessarily being exploitation and ruling class power, but people’s acceptance of authority and resulting lack of self-reliance. Kropotkin held up the peasant commune as an example of a cooperative alternative, in counter-position to workers’ power.
This is perhaps the most convoluted paragraph of the entire article. The exact point of the anarchist perspective on class struggle is that it is a process that generates new social structures to serve itself; the development of capitalism, for instance, is joined at the hip with the development of centralised states. Nationalism, religion and law are utilised to bind workers to the interests of capitalists, encouraging them to submit to authority and deny their own potential to resist.
In the same vein, the working-class struggle generates its own social forms, both in the present and in the future: the working-class is not able to simply seize control of the state and use it for its own ends (whether the state is seized directly or is “smashed” and then reconstituted and relabelled as a workers’ state). It develops its own institutions, like workers’ councils and unions. A working-class ethos is developed through struggle, placing cooperation, solidarity and working-class independence at the core.
In a nutshell: it’s not a question of having a “pure” view of class struggle on one hand, and a view of a struggle between authority and freedom on the other. It’s that the class struggle itself has the character of a struggle between authority and freedom.
Hill herself seems to realise this, as she writes later in the article that workers’ struggle “has a tendency towards democracy”, because “collective control ensures collective participation, without which the workers’ movement is weakened”.
Anarchists wholeheartedly agree, albeit perhaps with reservations over the use of the term “democracy” to describe this process – particularly when it is used, as Hill uses it, to bind workers to another state: “workers’ victory requires […] the overthrow of the capitalist state and its replacement with a state based on workers’ own democratic institutions”. Anarchists have traditionally been critical of “democracy” as such for exactly these reasons, because it winds up being another philosophy encouraging the submission of workers to rulers. Bookchin abandoned anarchism precisely because he prioritised his commitment to vague democracy and citizenship over anarchy and the working-class.
Democracy becomes a vague yardstick – Hill believes anarchism is bad because it is unable to see through the “democratisation of all human labour”. What this means is anybody’s guess. It also becomes simple liberal bourgeois nonsense, as when “the workers’ state” is described as possessing a “legitimate authority over society” because it is based on “the authority of the majority”. I wonder then what Hill thinks of Bolshevism, a strategy founded on the working-class wielding state power in a country where they were barely a quarter of the population!
There are other issues with the paragraph too: Kropotkin’s “theory of mutual aid” was not put forward as an alternative to Marxist understandings of history, it was put forward as a scientific alternative to the theories of the competition-obsessed social-Darwinists, who denied the importance of cooperation as a factor in the evolution of species. He did not counterpose the peasant commune to “workers’ power”; like any revolutionary communist, he thought peasants should overthrow their landlords and bring the land under communal control, but he did not counterpose this to workers doing the equivalent in the cities. Precisely the opposite: the peasants in the countryside and workers in the city were to reinforce each others’ communist aspirations.
Beyond factual errors, parts of the article just don’t make sense – Kropotkin apparently saw the “roots of domination not necessarily being exploitation and ruling class power”. Does Hill think the root of domination – domination being understood as nothing else but ruling-class power – is ruling-class power?
Distinctively, this article puts forward no affirmative strategic points. The entire discussion of strategy consists of repeated points about how wrong anarchists are. There is no discussion of how to relate to Extinction Rebellion, climate strikes, school strikers, reformist environmentalists, workers concerned about job losses in mining, and so on; absolutely nothing about how we should be developing workers’ power in the present.
This is a bit mystifying, considering that Socialist Alternative members have been in meetings about climate with anarchists before. The anarchists involved have obviously put forward ideas that are about more than driving spikes into trees, growing your own food or starting decentralised municipalities. They know this. Perhaps it’s not mystifying – just cowardly…
It’s not like there aren’t any Australian anarchist perspectives on the environment that they could engage with – Black Flag Sydney has published at least two articles on the topic in their paper Mutiny (1, 2). They’ve avoided actually engaging for the same reason they’ve avoided invitations from anarchists to debate the differences in-person and on their podcast: it’s just easier to pretend we’re their irreconcilable opponents, and that we spout nonsense.
Socialist Alternative does not offer anything to the working-class on this issue, beyond nice, but fairly rhetorical Marxist platitudes. “Agriculture, transport, energy and construction” will need to be reorganised and rebuilt on a new basis, on the basis of “global proletarian cooperation”, which can only come about through placing “the whole world under proletarian control”. Why then be Marxists instead of anarchists, who think much the same thing? Because “Marxism is the politics of working-class power that provides a road map to this goal”. What the road map consists of is unstated.
The idea that one specific left group has a monopoly on the best way to move forward is an absurdity. What we need is open debate and discussion between working-class radicals to try and generate new and relevant tactics – which is exactly why it’s a shame that Socialist Alternative has hitherto avoided actually engaging with us.
It is fortunate that anarchists have a more open mind on the subject of their own philosophy than Marxists do on theirs.