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Questioning authority today

by Brian McCarvill
(from Communist Voice #27, September 2001)


. The following essay was submitted for publication to Communist Voice in order to make an "Anarchist-Communist comparison/contrast". CV comments on it below in "Authority and the material conditions for liberation".

. Introduction

. The December-January issue of the International Socialist Review, a Trotsky oriented publication, set me to thinking when it reprinted an article by Frederick Engels, entitled, "On Authority," which had been first published in, "Almanacco Republicano," in 1874. My being a communist on the one hand (unrevised) and identifying with certain Anarchist ideologies on the other (in the end not so terribly contradictory, as we shall see), Engels' article raises some very profound, contradictory, questions for me. I contacted some wonderfully dedicated friends in the Oregon Anarchist communities, with copies of Engels' article, asking for comment. No particular aspect of Engels' article was asked to be commented on. I should like to set out some of these comments, without compromising them (for that would be unwarranted authoritarianism in its own right), and some thoughts of my own. Hopefully, you, the reader, will have cause for reflection by the end of this essay.

. Background

. Engels and Marx formed the First International Workingmen's Association in 1864. Michael Bakunin, a Russian revolutionary, and a founder of Anarchism, was a member of that First International. The first Russian translation of the Communist Manifesto was made by Bakunin circa 1863. Essentially, Communism and Anarchism formed together as opposition to the industrial revolution and the rise of capital. At the Hague Congress of the International Workingmen's Association in 1872, disputes between Bakunin and Marx caused that association to split and eventually dissolve in 1874. The disputes between the Bakunin Anarchists and the Marxian Communists centered around the "principle of authority. " Thus, Engels was prompted to draft, "On Authority. "

. Engels' Position (with Author Participation)

. Engels begins by defining authority as, "The imposition of will of another upon ours;" or, "authority presupposes subordination. " Engels states that, "A number of Socialists have latterly launched a regular crusade against what they call the PRINCIPLE OF AUTHORITY. It suffices to tell them that this or that act is AUTHORITARIAN for it to be condemned. " Recognizing that the words "AUTHORITY" and "SUBORDINATION," taken alone but together, sound disagreeable to the subordinated individual, Engels frames his discussion within, "the conditions of present-day society [1874]," and asks whether, "we could not create another social system, in which this authority would be given no scope any longer and would consequently have to disappear. "

. True non-opportunist communists strive for the day, and a society, where such authority has disappeared. Anarchists likewise seek the abolition of this authority. Is it possible that day has arrived? Before discussing the differences, and likenesses of these positions, let's finish looking at Engels' 1874 analysis.

. Engels, in 1874, found himself fifty to sixty years into the well-established industrial revolution. Industry, an initial product of capital, and vice versa, had, in a very short time, transformed the face of society as to human interaction. Of course we now know that the industrial revolution, driven by capital, transformed, and continues to transform, ecology. These are two separate and distinct transformations imposed by industry/capital. The human interaction societal transformations (HIST's) wrought by industry in 1874 are essentially the same transformations present today in 2001. While there have been constant scientific advances in industry, changing the face of industry, capital remains firmly in control. The HIST aspect fashioned by industry has remained static over time. The ecological impact of industry is continually in flux, albeit a ravaging flux. True Communists and Anarchists remain at odds over these two environmental concerns (HIST and ecology are both environmental concerns). Let's go back to Engels' overview at this point.

. Engels rightly identifies the industrial revolution as replacing isolated actions of individuals with combined action in factories, mills, even agriculture, the advent of the division of labor. Here is where Engels questions whether or not it is possible to have combined action, which necessarily includes organization, without authority. This is a question pertinent to today. Engels presents a hypothetical situation in which the capitalist industrialists have been dethroned in a social revolution wherein the land and industry have become the collective property of the workers who will use them. Engels asks, under these conditions, "Will authority have disappeared or will it have changed its form?"

. Engels sets out as an example a cotton spinning mill. The mill functions through a series of events, taking raw cotton in one door, processing it through successive operations, each necessary for efficient production, establishing specialized division of labor. Coordination of the division of labor is essential to efficiently produce the thread. Coordination requires coordinators. The workers, who own the means of production, when they allow themselves to be, "coordinated," subject themselves to the authority of the coordinator(s). Engels wraps up this example with a maxim:

. "Wanting to abolish authority in large-scale industry is tantamount to wanting to abolish industry itself, to destroy the power loom in order to return to the spinning wheel. "

This maxim sets forth, exactly on point, the ideology of many of my Anarchist friends, we will get to that.

. Engels gives us two more examples of how authority is necessary within a society based upon the division of labor, a society inherited from capital. In the first, a railroad, Engels states, rightfully, that subordination to a dominant will is required in order that trains might be scheduled for both efficiency, need, and safety. Whether the dominant will is an individual or a committee there is a subordination to authority, a willing subordination, but nonetheless subordination, resulting in, by definition, authority. Engels' second example is that of a ship at sea wherein all the passengers and crew subject themselves, willingly, to the authority of the captain, particularly in times of danger, "when the lives of all depend on the instantaneous and absolute obedience of all to the will of one. "

. Engels tells us that when he tenders these examples to, "the most rabid anti-authoritarians" the answer that he always got was that authority was never conferred upon anyone or any committee, but that a "commission," had been entrusted. Engels' says these are one and the same and I agree, as must any rational person. (1)

. The reader must stay on point, which is, that Engels found himself, in 1874, as we find ourselves in 2001, in the midst of a complicated society, dependent upon the division of labor and the authority that it necessitates. Under these conditions Engels says:

. ".  .  . [l]t is absurd to speak of the principle of authority as being absolutely evil, and of the principal of autonomy as being absolutely good. Authority and autonomy are relevant things whose spheres vary with the various phases of the development of society [authority and autonomy would also be relevant to various phases of undevelopment]. If the autonomists confined themselves to saying that the social organization of the future would restrict authority solely to the limits within which the conditions of production render it inevitable, we could understand each other; but they are blind to all facts that make the thing necessary and they passionately fight the word. "

. Recall that Engels speaks from the view point of HIST's and the impact that society, plus industry, affects human social interaction. Again, lest today's reader factor it in, wrongfully, the question of ecological impact of humans, society and industry, was inconceivable as to its far reaching consequences, in 1874. Engels questions why anti-authoritarian do, ".  .  . not confine themselves to crying out against political authority, the state?" Indeed, Anarchists of today, and yesterday, do cry out against even the mere existence of the/a state. However, today, and in 1874 (but perhaps less so in 1874), to wake up on the morning after the revolution with an abrupt and total disappearance of the state would be so extensively chaotic that it would likely result in one, or many, totalitarian consolidations of power, and authority, the likes of which man has seldom seen. Engels addresses this problematic maxim when he states:

. "All Socialists are agreed that the political state, and with it political authority, will disappear as a result of the coming social revolution, that is, that public functions will lose their political character and be transformed into the simple administrative functions of watching over the true interests of society. "

. Here we have phraseology that really goes to the heart of our discussion, ".  .  . the true interests of society. " What are the true interests of society? The answers to this question are geometrically, logarithmically, legion. Anarchism expresses the true interests of society, in multiples of one, characterized as "desires. " Communism expresses the true interests of society as what is best for the common good. These two concepts are not as exclusive as they may, at first, sound; consider: "To each according to his needs, from each according to his abilities. " But today, recall that we, as a species, now are aware of the ecological limits of our earthly biosphere. Neither Anarchists as a whole, nor Communists, of 1874, were anti-industrial. (2) Today, "the interests of society," involve, as a common denominator, halting the destruction of our biosphere. Anarchism, as Green Anarchy and Primitive Anarchy are the vanguard criers in the struggle to reverse the destruction of our biosphere. The destruction of our biosphere can be expressed in units of impact upon our planet's biosphere by civilization and its resulting industrialization. Thus Anarchist calls to destroy civilization have breadth and depth for all of humanity to a large degree.

. Were Engels writing "On Authority" today he would certainly have factored in the ecological needs of society and humanity. In 1874 however, industrialization, and the science accompanying it, was seen as constantly raising the standard of living of the individual in society, and, as a result thereof, inherently good.

. Earlier we mentioned, "revolution. " Revolution is recognized as necessary, today, by Communists (of the true unrevised ilk) and Anarchists alike. Engels, in 1874, asked whether or not the anti-authoritarians had ever seen a revolution and illustrated his question by referring to the Communards of the Paris Commune. Engels states:

. "A revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing there is; it is the act whereby one part of the population imposes its will upon the other part by means of rifles, bayonets and canon -- authoritarian means, if such there be at all; and if the victorious party does not want to have fought in vain, it must maintain this rule by means of the terror which its arms inspire in the reactionaries. Would the Paris Commune have lasted a single day if it had not made use of this authority of the armed people against the bourgeois? Should we not, on the contrary, reproach it for not having used it freely enough?"

. Engels closes "On Authority" by stating:

. ".  .  . either the anti-authoritarians don't know what they are talking about, in which case they are creating nothing but confusion; or they do know, and in that case they are betraying the movement of the proletariat. In either case they serve the reaction. "

. I think that neither Engels nor the anti-authoritarians of 1874 knew, completely, what they were talking about, nor could they have. First, as I have repeatedly stated, neither was aware of the ecological impact industry would have on our biosphere. Communists, today, must recognize civilization's impact on the biosphere and factor this in as a common denominator to all philosophical and practical ideology. Anarchists today, must recognize that, for the revolution to be successful, and enduring, there must be some semblance of authority, call it organization if that term tastes better. Lenin, whom I know tastes bad to Anarchists by rote, nonetheless made an astute observation:

. ".  .  . anarchism denies the need for a state and state power in the period of transition from the rule of the bourgeoisie to the rule of the proletariat, whereas I, with a precision that precludes any possibility of misrepresentation, advocate the need for a state in this period, although in accordance with Marx and the lessons of the Paris Commune, I advocate not the usual parliamentary bourgeois state, but a state without a standing army, without a police opposed to the people, without an officialdom placed above the people. " "Letter on Tactics", Collected Works, [vol. 24], p. 49.

. This type of organizational authority is inherently necessary to maintain a revolution's stability against a bourgeois/capitalist tendency to seek to re-consolidate power. This is an element of Communism essential in today's revolution. Anarchism's fear of authority is an essential element of today's revolution as is that portion of Anarchy that is green and anti-civilization. Radicals of today need to be blending these lessons into a natural human/ecological balance and demanding its prevalence, by force where necessary.

. Let's see what comment some of my wonderful Anarchist friends had to say about Engels', "On Authority. "

. Ryan M

. The Engels article, "On Authority" is an anachronism. Engels tries to challenge anti-authoritarians by saying that machines in a factory are authority, so to keep the factory running, we must bow to the machines authority! Well, duh! That's why much of the Anarchist scene is anti-work and wanting to deconstruct industrialism. The article proves the point:

. ".  .  . wanting to abolish authority in large-scale industry is tantamount to wanting to abolish industry itself, to destroy the power-loom in order to return to the spinning wheel. "

. Go Luddites!

. Authority is always wrong. Everywhere we must exercise authority -- for Engels is right that we often must, especially in the authoritarian world -- we should not try to justify it, but acknowledge it so we can learn the lessons so as not to make that mistake again. Engels is dead, along with Emma Goldman and the like. What we are living now is different from their place in history.

. We cannot use industry to start the revolution or maintain it, because industry, industrialism, is killing the planet, poisoning us, destroying our ability to meet our own needs.

. John Z

. "On Authority" is one of my favorites. I've even read it on my radio show.

. As the article states, "Running a factory requires some kind of authority. " That reveals it clearly enough: the industrial system means no freedom. Plus drudgery, toxicity, the death of nature, to name a few other costs.

. At the heart of Marxism is production as highest value and goal. The word "progressive" in fact is defined as basically the progressive development of technology, the constant enlarging of the sphere of the means of production. This productionism is central to Marxism.

. As Green Anarchy or Anarcho-Primitivism gains in appeal and the price of techno-capitalism grows on every level, the left still refuses to question this central tenet. Relatedly, it has no interest in questioning division of labor, domestication, technology, civilization, or domination of labor.

. Socialists, too, try to sound "green" these days, without copping to how anti-green their fundamental philosophy is. This is one reason the left is becoming extinct, and should go extinct if there is no will to re-examine some of the institutions that we all used to take for granted.

. I definitely would not throw out all of Marx. Class struggle is a basic reality, and of course so is the fact that daily life is generally ruled by the two poles, wage labor and the commodity.

. Morgan R

. What Engel's seems to be saying is, "Since the productive and technological forces on behalf of the capitalist class helped to disempower more rural-based small scale creative-productive activity, thereby becoming a determinative factor in the makeup of the modern city, we must accept the inherent authority of the machines or we will not be able to sustain large-scale industry. " How could such an imposition of technologically driven, capitalist-oriented "veritable despotism" have come about, as Engels claims, "independent of all social organization?" Does he mean to say that the process of mining and refining the raw materials of the Earth, which allowed for the construction of these factories in the interests of profit for the bosses and landowners, came about "independently of all social organization?" How could he have left such a blind-spot in his thinking and perception unless he was prejudiced in favor of the "employment of subduing the forces of nature" by means of "knowledge and inventive genius?" [I've already addressed the fact that, in 1874, industry was viewed as a means of improving the quality of life through receipt and use of its products -- Brian].

. Just because large portions of the world as it is today are dependent upon monolithic industrial and computerized coordination, corporate agriculture and the hierarchical authority serving the progress of the profit motive, doesn't mean that this state of affairs is the only way possible to live! As Engels would be aware, the ruling class would be aware, the ruling class imposed it's structure upon those expected to work within it, using both the force of arms and ideology. The relevant "excitement" and "newness" of high-powered division of labor, combined with less of an awareness of pollution furthered this process. The promise of a new financial and material abundance was enticing, especially for those who were in the position to grow wealthy or expand upon existing wealth, from this application of "knowledge and invective genius. "

. Thus the technoloqical development which is brought about by the urge to build and expand the forms of particular society -- at the expense of the earth and it's peoples and creatures -- created a new social context which Engels thought was here to stay and was necessary to sustain life, and probably "objectively needed in the dialectical movement of history. " No doubt that application of "knowledge and invective genius" has created the social reality we have now, including overpopulation -- which is invoked to obscure the more serious problems of imperialist agriculture (capitalist development schemes, export oriented economies). If Engels and others conceived of the industrial system as being "the life-support system of humanity," perhaps now, over a hundred years later, a more comprehensive picture has emerged.

. Once the conditions of existence do not belong to everyone equally, it becomes "necessary" to promote the idea of benevolent authorities making sure everyone produces "according to their abilities" and receives according to their needs" rather than waiting for a socialist or state capitalist government to provide this, indirectly, through it's ownership of these originally capitalist industries, Gilles Dauve, aka Jean Barrot has a better idea: "The best guarantee against the reappearance of a new structure of power over us is the deepest possible appropriation of the conditions of existence, at every level. " (Gilles Duave, WHEN INSURRECTIONS DIE, . p. 32 Antagonism Press, London, UK, 1979) [Are we not speaking of Communism here? - Brian].

. The personal and ecological/class consequences of industrialism are now more apparent than they were in Engels' time. How much of the complexity of modern life is a result of alienated labor? Are we willing to live without the status of "luxury?" Those who work daily for the current economy -- as a thing separate from, and in power over ourselves -- can answer that by looking within themselves and becoming conscious of the disparity between the possibilities of life and our present existence. Surely we are capable of a mutually beneficial exchange between us and the earth that will make COERCIVE [emphasis added by Brian] authority obsolete -- if only we are free to relate as something more than commodities-in-circulation ourselves.

. Some Conclusions

. There is no question that ecological concerns, as we know them to be, were largely unknown in Engels' time. Industrialization was born and perpetuated by capitalists. Communists, then, viewed the increased standard of living, expressed in units of comfort and convenience, resulting from capitalist industry, as inherently a step forward in the evolution of humanity. Engels and Marx, were they alive today, fortified with the knowledge we have at hand, would be singing the evils of the ecological disasters of the day, both brought about by the capitalist and state capitalist industry. Neither Communism nor Anarchism express any interest in ecological destruction. State capitalism is not Communism.

. Engels set forth that any society subject to the division of labor, by definition, is subject to various forms of authority. Recall that Nestor Makhno, a Russian Anarchist at Kronstadt, told Spanish Anarchists in 1927: "It is organization which assures the success in depth of all revolutions. " Morgan R___________, a Portland Oregon Anarchist friend of mine, characterizes unwanted authority as "coercive" authority. This brings us full circle, back to Engels, "willing subordination," or "acceptable authority. " So, it appears that Communists and Anarchists are, in reality, of the same mind as to acceptable forms of authority. We all should be aware of, and strive for, Lenin's transitional state that is:.  . . not the usual parliamentary bourgeois state, but a state without a standing army, without a police opposed to the people, without an officialdom placed above the people," and, upon attaining it, seek to convert it to limited democratic administrative confederation.

. The human interaction societal transformations (HIST's) wrought by industry and capital in 1874 remain static today although appearances may have changed. The ecological impact of industry, and civilization for that matter, remain in a ravaging flux. Ideologies must begin to align against common evils.

. I remain an avid Communist, but I recognize, as Engels and Marx would, the flux of civilization, industry, and society. When I suggested Communist methodology to my Anarchist friend Steven G___________, he summed up the problem facing all of us:

. "[S]ome communist methodology could be useful. .  .   But I think it is time to develop a .  .  .  . new strategy. Bioregionalism is practible and desirable, but totally defensive. I'm not sure what's the best strategy to implement anti-authoritarian ideas. But we've only got so much time before the biosphere rips open, hence we should really start thinking about these things. "

. We really should start thinking about these things.


(1) With the excpetions of the Luddites and possibly others like them. [BM] (Return to text)

CV replies:

Authority and the material conditions for liberation

by Joseph Green


. We received the above essay from a prisoner, Brian McCarvill, who is seriously trying to work through the implications of communism and anarchism. He recognizes the force of a number of points made by Engels in On Authority, and he raised them to his anarchist friends. But at the same time, he still seeks to reconcile anarchism and communism. Thus he thinks Engels is right on certain questions of authority, but that "Anarchism, as Green Anarchy and Primitive Anarchy are the vanguard criers in the struggle to reverse the destruction of our biosphere. " He reasons that Engels would have changed his views on large-scale industry and moved closer to the anarchists, if only he had lived to see the environmental issue, while the anarchists would accept some form of authority, if only they knew about Lenin's conception of the transitional state.

. Thus he believes that many of the issues separating anarchism and communism in the past no longer exist, and he repeatedly contrasts the present to 1874. But is this so? He claims, for example, that anarchism is in the vanguard on the environment. But what does anarchism propose that will help the environment? And is it really true that Marx and Engels ignored the environmental issues, although this was supposedly understandable because they lived in the 19th century.

. In his analysis of Capital, Marx wrote bitterly that

"In modern agriculture, as in the urban industries, the increased productiveness and quantity of the labour set in motion are bought at the cost of laying waste and consuming by disease labour-power itself. Moreover, all progress in capitalistic agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the labourer, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time, is a progress towards ruining the lasting sources of that fertility. The more a country starts its development on the foundation of modern industry, like the United States, for example, the more rapid is this process of destruction. Capitalist production, therefore, develops technology, and the combining together of various processes into a social whole, only by sapping the original sources of all wealth--the soil and the labourer. " (Capital, vol. I, part IV, Chapter XV, concluding passage of section 10, p555-6, Kerr edition, as reprinted by "Modern Library". )

. Similarly, Engels was worried about the environment, and wrote that

"The present poisoning of the air, water and land can only be put an end to by the fusion of town and country; and only this fusion will change the situation of the masses now languishing in the towns, and enable their excrement to be used for the production of plants instead of for the production of disease. " (Anti-Duhring, Part III. Socialism. Near the end of Chapter III. Production. )

. Marx and Engels did not, of course, know about some of the particular environmental problems of today. But they already regarded the problems of the 19th century as serious enough. They differ from the anarcho-primitivists of today not in ignoring the environment, but in their analysis of why this environmental destruction takes place, and in their prescription of what to do about it. Thus they analyzed that it was not technology and industrialism in itself, but capitalist production that caused the problem. Since all current industrialism was capitalist industrialism, this might seem like a minor difference. But if the problem is industrialism, then the world must go back to the pre-industrial days, and close its eyes to what really existed in those days, including the environmental devastation that can occur -- albeit at a slower pace than today -- with preindustrial methods. If the problem is capitalist production, then the issue is to change the existing social relations, so that industry and technology are not governed by the profit motive and marketplace relations. This would allow the population to employ science, industry and technology in a new way.

. If one discusses authority in the abstract, one gets nowhere. But there is the question of what type of authority is necessary if environmental issues are to be dealt with. Thus Engels concluded from the environmental problems of his day that

"Only a society which makes possible the harmonious co-operation of its productive forces on the basis of one single vast plan can allow industry to settle in whatever form of distribution over the whole country is best adapted to its own development and the maintenance of development of the other elements of production. " (Ibid. )

It was only thus that the separation between town and country could be abolished. And this would not involve imagining a return to earlier economies, which could only support a small part of the present population, nor would it involve impoverishing the mass of people. It would, however, mean that social planning (a type of authority) was necessary over not just whole localities, but whole regions. Indeed, translated into modern conditions, there is the need for such planning on a global scale.

. Thus environmental considerations show that neither individualism, nor even planning restricted to separate autonomous communes, suffices. Nor do the new developments since the time of Marx and Engels invalidate this view. The problem of greenhouse gases, of possible disruption to ocean flows such as the Gulf Stream, of the mass elimination of species, and so forth, only reinforces the need for broader social planning. It shows that what happens in one part of the world affects the rest of the globe; it shows that the present capitalist social relations must be replaced, and not simply by going back to an earlier, more primitive market; and it requires concentrating more of the scientific, technological and creative effort of humanity on solving these environmental issues. .

. Of course, it isn't sufficient just to imagine that industry, science, and technology might be employed differently than at present. The question is how is this achieved? Unlike the anarcho-primitivists, Marx and Engels didn't believe that one could get change by simply convincing people of the virtues of some utopia, no matter how desirable, or even by simply showing the evils of the present. It doesn't matter how emphatically one describes the present evils, nor whether one paints the possibility of the destruction of the world. Classes will continue to follow their class interest. One has to find the social forces, the class force, growing up in the midst of the capitalist system itself, that would provide a basis for change.

. Now, it is not the case that industry improved conditions for everyone prior to the 20th century, and only showed its negative side recently. In its early days, capitalist industry devastated the conditions of the workers. When Marx and Engels began their political activities in the 1840s, the industrial proletariat was looked on as simply a suffering mass, so broken and impoverished by capitalist industry that it was fit only to be pitied. Marx and Engels, however, didn't rely only on outward impressions. They showed that the modern proletariat would develop into the force capable of carrying out the most intense class struggle. And they helped this process alone: through encouraging unions; through developing a new type of political party, which hadn't been seen before; through promoting the international unity of the working class; through supporting revolutionary movements; through theoretical work which took account of the most advanced science of their time; etc.

. The anarcho-primitivists look at things mechanically. Industry has bad effects, so industry is just bad. The scientific establishment is in the service of capital, so science is just arrogance. The workers are disorganized today, so the workers movement is suspect, looked at perhaps as just a fight over how to rape the environment more. Marx and Engels looked at things dialectically. They saw the contradictions inherent in things. Industry, that same industry that created a living hell for millions of proletarians, was creating the material conditions for a liberated life, and it was creating that force, the modern working class, that would fight for that life.

. Given this history, how are the anarchists and the anarcho-primitivists vanguard criers on the environmental issue? They are concerned about the environment, which is to their credit. But neither are they the first to be concerned, and more importantly, nor do they have any serious idea about what to do about it. This is why they idealize primitive conditions. Primitivism is not a serious analysis, but the expression of a lack of analysis.

. Now, it might be said, at least they raise environmental issues, while the state-capitalist regimes that called themselves "socialist" were and are responsible for both oppressing the local workers and ruining the local environment. As McCarvill calls himself an "unrevised" communist and condemns the state-capitalist regimes, we have substantial agreement here, for we both see the revisionists as a hostile class force, and not as communists. Meanwhile the anarchists aren't of much help here, for they merely seek to discredit communism by reference to these impostor regimes.

. McCarvill asked questions of various of his anarchist friends, and recorded them. This was a useful approach, and the answers he records are interesting.

. They are all opposed to industry, and to large-scale production. They accept the identification of industry with a certain directing authority, but view this as a devastating argument against industry. Thus it is clear that they believe that the "more rural-based small scale creative-productive activity" will not be bound by any overall social planning, for it is precisely to eliminate such "authority" that they wish to establish it. But today's environmental problems require immense social planning, and the concentration of the efforts of all fields of endeavor on the issue.

. They have no conception that the further progress of modern science and technology and industry has the potential to help the very same environment that capitalist science and industry has put at risk. That industry and large-scale production ruins the environment is the limit of their thought, while individual activity and localism is allegedly the answer. Indeed, they may even be aware that they have no answer. This is no sin, in these days of confusion and disorientation. A passion to look further into issues is important. But they have to first have some analysis, before they can be regarded as being in the vanguard.

. They believe that industry exists as a simple political choice forced on the world by oppressors. It doesn't strike them that the development of the means of production is the underlying force that molds politics itself. Large-scale capitalist industry couldn't have been created in Biblical days, no matter what the kings and caesars might have wished, and the world can't return to pre-industrialism today (short of a holocaust of world proportions). These are not political choices; these are material realities forced on us. Large-scale production can be transformed, if there is a social revolution, but it cannot be simply set aside. The anarchists, while believing they have emancipated themselves from belief in the state, politics, and authority, attribute the entire course of world history, since the fall of primitivism, to arbitrary political choice.

. Take the example of one of the Prussian political strongmen of the 19th century, the "iron chancellor" Bismarck. He hated the cities, which were the source of socialist and proletarian contagion, but everything he did unwittingly contributed to their growth. Engels, when he talked about how environmental conditions would force the unification of town and country under socialism, joked that ".  .  . Bismarck can go to his grave with the proud consciousness that the desire of his heart will certainly be fulfilled: the great towns will perish. " (Ibid. ) But so long as capitalism continued to develop in Germany, the great towns swelled and swelled, and became more influential. As Germany unified, even though on the reactionary Bismarckian basis, capitalism spread, and the cities grew, and thereupon the proletariat and the red threat grew as well. Bismarck was subject to the economic conditions of his time, and so are the political leaders, and both the dominant and the oppressed classes, of our time.

. Of course, the anarcho-primitivists may accept certain things from Marxism. They may accept the criticism of capitalist production, when rephrased as a criticism of industrialism in itself. But they do not accept the Marxist dialectical method, which sees the contradictions inherent in things, in industrialism as much as anything else. They don't tend to be sympathetic to the workers movement, being unable to see beyond its present disorganized state. Indeed, many of them probably do not see how a struggle for higher wages can help the environment, since they can only see this as having more of the environment ruined by more consumer goods. And they do not have a materialist view of history and social change. They tend to be voluntarists, who don't see the dependence of ideas and movements and social change on the underlying conditions.

. McCarvill believes that the communism and anarchism can be reconciled, if only the anarchists accept that struggle against the reactionaries requires some authority. And it must be said that, in practice, anarchists do use authoritarian means. They are loathe to admit that they use authoritarian means because it undermines their rationale for the use of such compulsion, which is that they are destroying all authority, but they use these means anyway. McCarvill believes that if they can be gotten to recognize that they use such means, then they will converge with those communists who, in turn, recognize the importance of the environment. But, even were it possible to get some anarcho-primitivists to adopt "communist methodology" or, at least, terminology, this would change little as far as the fundamental differences between these trends. These differences hinge, in large part, on whether to have a materialist assessment of the course of social change as well as of what a future society would look like. The issue isn't simply recognizing the word "authority". Indeed, some anarchists have always been willing to talk about coercion in anarchist society, specifying only that this coercion is not done by the state or by a political party (an armed band, and a local commune, appear to these anarchists as having nothing to do with authority or politics).

. There is even the question of what does it mean to overcome capitalism and the marketplace? No doubt, the anarchists despise the present system. But wouldn't the localist system they desire result, despite their will, in marketplace relations developing between the independent, local units they dream of? The experience of the Spanish Civil War showed that many anarchists identified the overthrow of the old authorities with ending capitalism, yet marketplace relations persisted in anarchist-dominated areas.

. The anarchists may believe that nonrecognition of the "principle of authority" is the fundamental issue of activism, but it is simply their blindfold. It is necessary to remove this blindfold. But when one does so, one discovers a broad panorama of political and economic questions waiting to be seen, studied and judged,

. McCarvill is trying to shake things up, and to get the anarchists to remove the blindfold. He is pondering some of the key issues, and trying to have others address them. His essay may not achieve his goal of merging communism and anarchism, but it does help clarify the mode of thought of the anarcho-primitivists. In this case, the voyage itself is of value, even if the new world isn't discovered. We thank him for sending us his essay for publication, and we look forward to further discussion.

-- Joseph Green


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Last changed on October 15, 2001.