“How many ways to get what you want?”

Issue: 133

Robin Burrett

John Molyneux, Anarchism: A Marxist Criticism (Bookmarks, 2011), £4

John Molyneux’s book is timely for two reasons. Firstly, we are living in the time of mass revolt in Europe and revolutionary change in the Middle East. What activists do, be they reformists, anarchists or revolutionary socialists, matters because it makes a difference.

This means the questions over which Marxism and anarchism have clashed are now questions that are posed directly the involvement of millions in struggle: Where does power lie in society? How do you organise effectively? How do you relate to non-radicals? What type of “action” can win? These are the questions that Molyneux describes as being posed by the actions in the squares of Spain, the Occupy movement and the Arab revolutions.

Secondly, in Europe, these struggles take place in the context of the bankruptcy of social democratic parties. Whether in Athens, Madrid or London, traditional parties of the left are implicated in austerity. While mass reformist consciousness still exists, mass reformist parties are in decline. Into this gap anarchism comes equipped with two explanations that appeal to the common sense of many: a generalised critique of power (or hierarchy) that can be applied to “failed” traditional organisations, and a focus on direct action now, rather than waiting for a bankrupt official leadership.

For this reason, whether in the student movement in the UK, or in the Spanish squares, anarchist ideas have chimed with the common sense of the movement. These ideas go on to inform the tactical debates of activists. An understanding of the origin, strengths, and weaknesses of these ideas is essential, and so Molyneux’s book is more than timely.

Molyneux attempts an engagement with the breadth of anarchist thought. This inevitably comes at a cost in terms of depth, but the point of the polemic is to draw together what the different strands of anarchist thought have in common, and describe to the tactical implications of these commonalities. For those familiar with Molyneux’s writing, this is done with characteristic force and clarity. This makes it a book that should be read and discussed with a thought to the movements we have seen over the last 12 months.

It is with this in mind, however, that the book feels like a bit of missed opportunity. It feels a little distant from the key questions the movement has faced, and quite some distance from the many for whom some anarchist thought appears as common sense, much of it often “good” sense to boot.

Structuring the book around the central questions of the movement would have avoided a problem which Molyneux correctly identifies as one faced by revolutionary socialists when arguing with anarchists—that of accounting for a “moving target” of different ideas, in different historical circumstances, which anarchists can fall back on. This is not a technical criticism, but a political one about engagement with the movement as it exists today.

For this reason I think the book would struggle to convince activists influenced by anarchist ideas. To do this, we need to convince people about the collective power of our class: Do the working class have the power to reshape society? Are working class people capable of owning and running their own party to this end? The mass strike of 30 November points toward a better political terrain upon which to convince this layer that the answer to these questions are a resolute yes, but only if we able to engage with the debates in the movement as they exist now.