(This is a slightly edited version of a posting I did on ZNet on 9/20/09. It has some relevance in these times.)
Not too long ago, I attended a panel discussion on Marxism vs. Anarchism. As someone with sympathies with both philosophies, I wanted to see if I would learn anything new by listening to what each side had to say. The panelists were all younger folks than myself, so I thought maybe some newer ideas had come into the discussions since I studied these ideas in depth over a decade and half ago.
While each panelist was serious and worked at sharing their view without hostility (not always a given at these sort of things), I found myself unable to embrace either viewpoint. One of the anarchists spoke affirmatively about the anarchist militias of 1930s Spain. The Marxists spoke approvingly of Lenin’s 1917 revolution. As a lifelong pacifist, one reason I have never bought into either viewpoint entirely is that I can’t see any scenario where an armed revolution would have any positive role in the United States or other modern nation. I might allow for some small-scale revolution in a very repressive nation, but even in many of those situations, nonviolent rebellions have won important victories.
Each side in the panel could recount a history of armed revolutions that they considered important events in their respective traditions. Pacifist radicals can point to another stream of uprisings which showed unarmed nonviolent tactics could win victories with less onerous consequences. Gandhi’s campaigns for Indian independence, Dr. King’s civil rights campaigns, the Phillipine People Power Revolution, and several others. None of these uprisings resulted in an entirely new society as pacifist radicals, anarchists, and Marxists desire, but that is also true of all, repeat that, all anarchist and Marxist uprisings.
Of course, what makes a nonviolent uprising different is that it never creates a cadre of armed fighters who become a power to themselves should the revolution actually topple the government. For anarchists and Marxists who each claim to be abolishing either classes or hierarchies, armed cadres are both of these things. One of the panelists tried to describe the anarchist militias of Spain as non-hierarchical, but I remain unconvinced. Militias have guns while the majority do not. Militias are trained in deadly weaponry, the majority are not so trained. Unless we want to mimic the National Rifle Association and put a gun in every household, lethal weaponry, by its very character as a commodity, product of unjust social production, specialized training requirements, and moral ambiguity cannot be an integral component of a democratic, classless, egalitarian revolution.
That does not mean that a pacifist radical can’t learn anything from the history of anarchist and Marxist revolutions. All of these uprisings had constructive aspects and did introduce into history important new possibilities. As I mentioned earlier, I don’t rule out every single armed revolution. Some political regimes are so repressive and inhumane that there is almost zero chance of a nonviolent uprising doing much good. Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge seems to have been one such regime, and they were ostensibly Marxist.
Politics ain’t beanbag, and violence always accompanies social change. However, just as anarchists desire to put an end to the persistent presence of social hierarchies, and Marxists desire to put an end to the persistent presence of economic exploitation, so do pacifist radicals seek to put an end to the persistent violence that underlies hierarchies and economic exploitation.