Book Reviews

Anarchism and Marxism

Anarchism, Marxism and the Future of the Left by Murray Bookchin. AK Press. 1999.

Murray Bookchin is on the same wavelength as us in that he, too, stands for a classless, stateless society of common ownership in which money becomes redundant and the principle “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs” applies.

But the agreement does not stop there. He recommends Marx’s analysis of how the capitalist economic system works (“As a study of the capitalist economy as a whole, it [Capital] has no equal today. Marx’s economic studies are central to any socialist analysis”). In this book, largely a collection of interviews, he also argues that, although capitalism can offer the occasional palliative, it can never be reformed so as to work in the interest of the majority. And he defends rationalism, science and technology against the current wave of New Age mysticism and self-indulgent life-stylism (including fighting the police on demonstrations) that has infected the Green and anarchist movements. He opposes so-called “identity politics”, seeing this as essentially seeking a better deal for women, gays and blacks within capitalism as well as being divisive.

So where do we disagree? As a boy Bookchin had been a member of the US Communist Party’s youth section, then he became a Trotskyist. By the 1960s he had come to call himself an anarchist and wrote a series of influential articles that were later published as Post-Scarcity Anarchism. His main argument was that current scientific knowledge and technology had made it possible to establish more or less immediately a decentralised society which would not only eliminate material want but also allow the state and hierarchies to be dissolved and money to be abolished.

In one of the essays called “Listen Marxist!” he gave the vanguardists with their advocacy of “proletarian dictatorships” and “transitional states” a real trouncing in the same sort of way we do. Only he mistakenly attributed the source of their views to Marx, whereas the essay should have more accurately been called “Listen Leninist!”. Interestingly enough, while still disagreeing with Marx (as over questions of history and the need to win control of the central state) he backtracks considerably in this book on his earlier criticisms.

The major disagreement between him and us is precisely over this last point of the need for the majority to win control of the central state in the course of establishing socialism. In classic anarchist fashion he opposes this on the grounds that, supposedly, it would lead to the perpetuation of the state under new management. He accepts that to win control of the state the majority would need a party but argues that any party must inevitably reflect the state.

He is on very weak ground here as, contrary to classical anarchism (indeed, some other anarchists regard him as not being an anarchist for this), he is in favour of those who want a decentralised, classless, stateless society participating in local elections. But this too involves organising as a party. But if such a party, operating at local level, can organise itself on democratic, non-hierarchical lines why can’t a party contesting national elections do so?

Bookchin does in fact advocate co-operation between local “libertarian municipalist” parties, so why couldn’t they constitute a federation based on the principles of delegated democracy to win control of central state power without becoming a statist party? And if they could, why not do it? Surely this would be a better strategy than working to win control of local councils in the hope that when a majority of them had been won “the nation-state’s power would be sufficiently diminished that people would withdraw their support from it, and it would collapse like a house of cards”? Far better, if only to minimise the risk of violence, to organise also to win a majority in parliament too, not to form a government of course but to end capitalism and dismantle the state.

Nationalist nonsense exposed

The Origins of Scottish Nationhood by Neil Davidson. Pluto Press 2000.

This book’s thesis is that Scotland as a nation-state does not stretch back into the very deepest dawn of time and only came into existence with the advent of the Union with England, and the rise to dominance of a Scottish capitalist class. As such it presents a fundamental challenge, from a Marxian perspective, to the totems and myths of the Scottish nationalists and their intellectual cheerleaders.

Davidson gives a clear account of the way in which Scotland did not come to the same situation of having a national absolutist government that England did (starting with Henry VIII), and thus entered the union as the junior partner, creating most of the national institutions (law, education and Kirk) that are traditionally listed as the reasons for Scotland’s “continued national identity”. Further, he demonstrates that the real divide was within Scotland, between Lowlanders and Highlanders, as the lowlands developed an urbanised élite. The idea that Scotland was a colonial subaltern of England also comes under withering assault, as Davidson shows how Scotland was not just a willing partner, but also a major force in promoting the British empire; and how the experience of Empire further helped shape Scotland as a “national identity”.

As such the book serves a worthy enough purpose, and on one level it achieves most of its ends; however its assiduity and worthiness is undermined by a number of failings. The book has a disturbing tendency towards arguing by assertion: in a discussion of the Declaration of Arbroath, Davidson simply says that its authors had a different meaning when they used the word nation (i.e. as a people/race) from the meaning it has in modern discourse. Considering this point was so important to the book’s case, this constitutes a serious weakness.

Quite often the theoretical expositions fail to adequately express their own application. Davidson’s definition of a nation simply as an “imaginary community” does not capture any notion of the relationship between nation and class interests, nor of its relationship to power. Yet, in his historical analysis, he often refers to national consciousness almost entirely in terms of it being the consciousness of the rising Scottish capitalist class. At other times this concept of national identity being tied to élite consciousness becomes confused, as when he attempts to engage with the arguments of contemporary Nationalists and tries to disprove mass consciousness of nationhood.

The desire to engage with the Nationalists further leads Davidson to make some elementary errors in analysis—in assessing the core/periphery thesis regarding Scotland and England he ends up reifying these supposed imaginary communities in order to show how an aggregate Scotland compares strongly with an aggregate England, none of which takes into account the unevenness within both territorial units, and the core/periphery relationships of provinces to the metropoles within each. In engaging closely with the Nationalists’ nonsense he accepts their flawed presuppositions in order to disprove the conclusions they base upon them.

A central theoretical point of the book is to make a distinction between nationalism and national consciousness—the former being a politics based upon national aims/structures, the latter simply being the knowledge of a common nationality. This distinction seems weak, since any dominant form of consciousness must surely find expression in social being. Thus if people denote their consciousness of subjectivity in terms of nationhood, then, surely, their politics will necessarily be guided by such national consciousness.

None of this, however, stops the book being right at a basic level, rather, it merely makes it weak for use in polemical terms. It often makes excellent points that expose the nonsense nationalists talk, and it builds a very strong case about the historical origins of the birth of “the Scottish nation”. This book is useful, in the main then, as a part of a much wider reading of the subject.
Pik Smeet

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