Anarcho-Marxism, Anyone?

Paul Buhle

Revolutionary Affinities:
Toward a Marxist-Anarchist Solidarity
By Michael Löwy and Olivier Besancenot, Translated by David Campbell
Oakland: PM Press, 2023, 192 pages, $18.95 paper.

WHAT HAPPENED TO the anarchists? Or the sometimes — seemingly strong — links between anarchists and socialists in specific struggles and on specific issues?

We could ask the question across much of the past century, not just in the United States or Europe but across parts of Latin America, Asia and the Global South as well as before and after 1920.

Up until the First World War — it is fair to generalize — an optimism about a post-capitalist future, and a kind of good-cheered openness of radical perspectives existed quite despite all the polemics and the usual factional brawling.

The War cast a dark shadow upon optimism. The Russian Revolution raised hopes in ways that only the Paris Commune had done earlier. But years before Stalin secured his grip, it had become clear that capitalism as a system had held on, that Washington was in charge of the world system, and that revolution there was likely to remain severely problematic.

The economic crisis and the Great Depression, the threatened collapse of capitalism at large or in the United States, did not restore the pre-1920 moods. Goodbye to the grandest dreams of anarchism, or that is my own short version of radical history.

Exceptions abound, even apart from the Spanish 1930s. Politics and culture during the 1960s; the near-decade between the collapse of the East Bloc and the aftermath of the “Teamsters and Turtles” protests (around the World Trade Organization) in Seattle, 1999; and the sudden appearance/disappearance of Occupy all offered moments.

The moments did not endure. Anarchism, and the links to the Marxist Left, seemed only to appear in order to vanish, or rather, vanish into the intellectual world, hardly ever to return.

A Difficult Unity

Michael Löwy and Olivier Besancenot seek to cast new light on the subject, and while their arguments are more suggestive than persuasive, that’s fine. We need more suggestive ideas these days.

Since its original publication in France nine years ago, the book has been updated with new material that covers the extraordinary anarchist-Marxist collaboration in Rojava (the Kurdish part of northern Syria), with a strong female presence and the inspiration of deep-ecologist Murray Bookchin.

The authors’ aim is not just to “put things in a new light,” but to promote a “Red-Black Future”; that is, to encourage collaboration of Marxists and anarchists to unify against the new, neo-fascist Right, as they have already started doing in places in Europe. The authors believe that there is an earlier hidden tradition of such a convergence (revealed by looking at the Paris Commune, rethinking Kronstadt, examining Louise Michel, Andre Breton, Walter Benjamin, and the Zapatistas’ Subcommandante Marcos among others).

Löwy is a prolific author of wide-ranging works on Marxism, liberation theology and ecosocialism among other topics. Besancenot is a veteran trade unionist, former postal worker and revolutionary socialist French presidential candidate and founding member of the New Anticapitalist Party.

A chapter of this book on the Russian Revolution helpfully complicates our ideas about the Kronstadt Rebellion (1921) and the whole relationship of the vast social conflicts, including the very real anarchist influences in Russia, and how the stresses of the moment (above all the threat of the counterrevolutionary Whites, supported by the United States) narrowed the possibilities dramatically.

C.L.R. James argued, intermittently, not so much that the Bolshevik leadership was mistaken but that it had chosen the path of iron discipline too easily. This is the general drift of the argument in Revolutionary Affinities as well, and for me a convincing one.

Had the Revolution not been attacked so severely from the outside, alternatives would not likely have been seen as representing the mortal dangers from the Whites. Fighting “(t)he common enemy of the black and red together” (89) illustrated by the anarchists’ armed defense of the offices of Pravda, might have been viewed as the act of comrades.

One cannot quite imagine Lenin, who met and praised Ukrainian anarchist Nester Makhno, making a pact with him, or the Bolsheviks coming to a common front with the Jewish Bund, in anything except common resistance to the Whites — but we cannot say.

This theme of possible unity/solidarity carries over to other subjects and historical periods in curious and intriguing ways. Many moments in history presented real options, especially to the ordinary Leninist or anarchist or social democrat or unaffiliated worker who might have felt an unspecific attachment to all of them as comrades in the struggle.

I wish they had taken up the Scottish syndicalists, revolutionaries on the Clydeside during the First World War, passing later through the British Communist Party uncomfortably because Scottish/Gaelic nationalism was shunted aside and because the erstwhile syndicalists did not fit anywhere, least of all in Stalinist movements.

Radical Idea of Freedom

The authors point, notably, toward Surrealism. Walter Benjamin, who has been too little considered as somewhere between Marxism and Anarchism, observed that “since Bakunin, Europe has lacked a radical idea of freedom. The Surrealists have one.” (111)

By the later 1930s, Trotsky specifically looked to Surrealists to create a new cultural front in the formation of the International Federation for Independent Revolutionary Art. An idea too little and too late, it lacked the common aesthetic tastes of radicalized workers, but also the organic qualities of the Popular Front’s (and CIO’s) real ethnic working-class base.

That is to say, within the United States, especially but not only Slavs, Jews, Greeks and Hungarians shared a more realist-oriented folk culture carried over into popular culture, sometimes evoked very successfully by Woody Guthrie or New Deal theater a la “Pins and Needles.”

Under different circumstances, surrealism might have found its footing in the postwar world of Bohemians, later Beatniks and 1960s rebels. Or at least the surrealists of later times, up to the present, have believed.

Anarchism had an especially cultural renaissance immediately following the Second World War, with a strong sympathy or affiliation in the new Pacifica Network and among sparkling young poets. It would be difficult, it was difficult, to pin the “anarchist” label upon the new left, but Student Syndicalism hinted at the underlying sentiment of experimentalism. Perhaps — personally speaking — so did the use of marijuana between demonstrations and alongside all kinds of campaigns. The desire to reach beyond the limits of political ideas hinted at possibilities that faded too early and too easily.

Along the road to recovering what amounts to bits and pieces, the authors come to the Zapatistas and argue effectively that the willingness not to seize power or maintain armed struggle points to some different possibility ahead.

Ecological survival demands new forms, new ideas, a new degree of patience in working out the possibilities of collective decisions and resistance to rule from above, even rule from above with the best intent. If there is something especially admirable about this small volume, it must be the unwillingness to share the pessimism that sweeps upon many of us, with the direness of the present scene.

Löwy and Besancenot prove themselves able to look at discrete moments, at discrete movements, and see connections that we would otherwise miss. This is a book to read and ponder.

September-October 2023, ATC 226


  1. Paul B… ever the optimist or optometrist? What he sees and writes about he like, OK. we love to read about fantasies especially those used in the empires belly or the beast of the belly. There is another offering for a different left or a different Communist Party… Zizek and Badiou have at least three books on”The Idea of Communism” of course its more intellectually rigorous then our friend Buhle. Articles from conferences had in NYC,. South Korea… one in Africa?? Thus there is some need for more then the the existing left-lib constructions, However any think such develoopment is possible inside the EMPIRE? Any example? Best, rgd

  2. Comrades,
    May I suggest that you read an interview with René Berthier, who has written a response, or rather a critical commentary, on the Besancenot-Löwry book.

    Berthier’s book is entitled “Affinités non électives, Pour un dialogue sans langue de bois entre marxistes et anarchistes” (“Non-elective affinities. – For a dialogue without political cant between Marxists and anarchists”) (Editions du Monde libertaire).

    The interview with the author can be found here:

    In solidarity
    Eric Vilain

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