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Wednesday, April 27, 2011


Chris asks me how I can square my anarchism with my Marxism. A number of people have asked me that over the years, so perhaps I ought to have a shot at replying. At the risk of sounding like Bill Clinton, it turns on what I mean by "anarchism" and "Marxism."

First of all, when I call myself an anarchist, I mean just exactly what I explained in my little book In Defense of Anarchism. I deny that there is or could be a de jure legitimate state. That is the sum and substance of what I call in that book my "philosophical anarchism." This is a limited claim, but not at all a trivial one. Forty years ago I debated Eugene V. Rostow, former Dean of Yale Law School, at a celebration of the centenary of the New York City Bar Association. This was in the depths of the Viet Nam War, when conscientious young men were torn between their opposition to the war and their loyalty to what they believed was a democratic government. Rostow argued that those men had a moral [not just a legal] obligation to serve in the army if drafted, because the war was approved and voted by a legislature and president chosen by the people, and hence legitimate. I argued the negative. No one at that meeting thought we were nit picking.

My Marxism, as I have many times explained, is not a form of secular religious faith, but a conviction that Marx was correct when he argued that capitalism rests essentially on the exploitation of the working class. Marx was a social scientist, among many other things, and he advanced his theses on the basis of facts and arguments. Some of his theses were correct and some were wrong. Some of his arguments were incorrect [although fewer than is generally supposed] and his assemblage of facts, although way ahead of his time, has now been folded into and in some cases corrected by the work of subsequent generations of historians and economists.

I am not a libertarian, and I consider the arguments of people like Hayek, Friedman, Nozick and others to be incorrect. The pseudo-arguments of Ayn Rand and her epigones are absurd. I can see no conflict whatsoever between philosophical anarchism and Marxian socialism. The citizens of a socialist society, were one ever to come into existence [Gott sei dank!], would have no more obligation to obey the laws of that state, merely because it was socialist, than they have now to obey the laws of the United States, merely because America is [let us grant for the sake of argument] democratic. Both groups of citizens would stand under the universal duty of judging for themselves whether what the laws command is something that on independent grounds it is good to do. There is no duty, prima facie or otherwise, to obey the law simply because it is the law.

Does this clear things up?


Chris said...

Unfortunately it does not really clear things up. But I'm short of time for a rebuttal. I will get to it later.

Mike said...

Does anyone think there is a duty to obey the law MERELY because it's the law? Even Rostow, it seems, would say that this duty depends on the law's origins. Or so I gather from your brief account of his position.

Anonymous Philosophy ABD said...

I doubt there are many people who think there's a duty obey the law "merely because it's the law". The disagreement is between those who think the provenance of the law can give rise to a duty to to obey it (such as Rostow) and those who don't. The latter are anarchists in Wolff's sense of the word. Rostow, for example, thinks that a citizen of a democratic state has a duty to obey the law *because* the state whose law it is is democratic. Lots of people agree with this position. There is a more moderate view which is even more widespread -- and which Wolff presumably also rejects -- namely that while you may not have a duty to obey a democratic state's law in all circumstances, in circumstances in which lawbreaking is permissible, the lawbreaker has a duty to submit to the legal penalty for his or her lawbreaking. That is a very common position on civil disobedience, and you'll find many commentators across the political spectrum taking that position recently on the WikiLeaks affair wrt. Bradley Manning. Wolff's anarchism is hardly a trivial position.

Anonymous Philosophy ABD said...

And Chris, how does this reply not clear things up? You may not agree with the position -- that is presumably why, given time, you would like to write a "rebuttal" -- but surely you understand it and find it clear. It's stated in plain language and it isn't internally incoherent. There's nothing inconsistent about both thinking that we ought to have a socialist state and that no one would have a duty to obey the socialist state's laws if we did have one simply because of the character of the state. You could even think that it's inevitable that there will be a state of some sort -- in which case you wouldn't be advocating the dissolution of the state -- and think that the state is illegitimate in the sense of Wolff's post, viz., that there is no duty... etc. These combinations of views are not inconsistent. They may be wrong, but they're consistent and clear enough.

Chris said...

Alright, the inconsistency, that I see, without putting much thought into this, is that the Marxist notions of justice, disobedience, political struggle, etc, greatly risk subjecting equally ration and autonomous individuals, to illegitimate force they can pose through the state.

So, let's take the workers consciousness raising as an example. Oftentimes Marxist, and I agree, feel those who occupy the exploitation end of the economic spectrum, should work together to seek justice of some sort. In so doing, unless somehow there's unanimous consent (an anarchist dream), a Marxist approach will inevitable throw some autonomous individuals onto the states coercive bandwagon. The same bandwagon, Wolff, and others, reject quite consistently. Essentially this is falling into the position of hypocrisy when state solutions are sought as a remedy, for Marxist means, by anarchist philosophers.

Is that clear? I'm sort of just germinating this thought out of a seedling of an idea I can feel, but not properly elucidate yet.

I mean to really nail the point home AP-ABD. I think there is a inconsistency in advocating for a socialist state, while letting others now, those who are under the coercion of the states force by Wolff's own state definition, that they are not morally bound to the state. Shouldn't the proper position be to have no state at all? A position more in line with libertarian-socialist, anarcho-syndicalist.

The reason I'm adamant about this question is that, like Wolff, I fashion myself an individual Anarchist, but quite a Marxist in political analysis. And it often leads me feeling hypocritical...

Ioanes said...

Didn´t Socrates (or Plato´s Socrates in the Apology) obeyed the law just because it was the law?

Ioanes said...

Wasn´t the Spanish revolution of 1936 politically anarchist and its economy Marxist? Wasn´t the alliance between CNT and POUM a good representation of that symbiosis?

Chris said...

P.s. Would love a copy of that debate!

Anonymous Philosophy ABD said...

Chris, I suspect that you are attributing to Wolff views that he doesn't hold, and you find inconsistency between those views and views he does hold. You seem to think that in calling the state illegitimate he means that the very existence of a state is somehow illegitimate. But he explains very clearly what he means in the post: he simply means the state's laws lack moral legitimacy: no one has a moral duty to obey them. This is entirely consistent with the view that there ought to be a socialist state -- indeed, it is even consistent with the view that there ought to be a state of exactly the kind we presently live under. Sure enough, it's also consistent with the view that there ought to be no state at all -- but only consistent; that view does not logically follow from Wolff's anarchist position as stated here.

You are raising a separate question here: "Shouldn't the proper position be to have no state at all?" Well, maybe it should be our position -- maybe Wolff is wrong -- but his position is not inconsistent. Whether a set of claims is consistent and whether it's true are two different questions, and we're not going to make any progress if we conflate them.

The view is consistent. You disagree with it. That is your right. If you want others to agree with you, maybe you could start by arguing for your claim that our goal ought to simply be: no state. You're going to need extra premises for that argument, because the conclusion doesn't follow from the anarchist position stated in Wolff's post. Since Wolff has spent many years time thinking about these matters, I doubt that the additional premises you use are going to be ones he accepts, so I doubt you're going to convince him that you're right. But maybe you'll convince someone else.

English Jerk said...

I think part of the confusion here results from the fact that Wolff uses the word "anarchism" somewhat idiosyncratically (to mean the view that there is no such thing as a de jure morally legitimate state). Normally people who describe themselves as "anarchists" agree on categorical opposition to the state in any form (though they often agree on little else), and this position is often how they distinguish themselves from Marxists (at least Marxists on the Lenin/Mao end of the spectrum--presumably workers councils and the like are okay). So I think it might just be a terminological issue.

It's worth noting also that there's no contradiction in thinking that the core elements of Marx's analysis of capitalism is correct but that his proposed remedies are immoral or imprudent. This is a typical "anarchist" (in the usual sense) approach to Marx, and it was essentially Bakunin's view.

But here's another way to put the issue: Wolff thinks that we have no moral obligation to obey the laws promulgated by the state, but, as Wolff argues, that doesn't mean that we don't have perfectly good prudential reasons to obey those laws. Conceiving his position in that way, the question of whether or not to obey the law simply ceases to be a moral question (since there's never a moral obligation of that kind) and becomes a purely tactical question. And as a tactical question, it is always going to be specific to the particular situation: some laws it might make sense to obey, some not; sometimes it might make sense to vote or campaign on behalf of some faction within bourgeois party politics, sometimes not.

Where I part ways with Wolff is really over some of these specific tactical questions. I'm happy to agree that the marginal differences between the parties might make it reasonable to vote for the lesser of the two evils (especially since voting once every four years is hardly time-consuming). But it's less clear to me that, as a matter of fact, the Democrats are actually the lesser of the two evils when we take into account (1) the full range of their policies and (2) their effects on the whole world's population (rather than just the US population). That being said, these tea party nuts are dangerous enough that if I thought they had any chance, even I'd vote for Obama. And if there's any lesson to be drawn from the history of the Frankfurt School, it's that sometimes smart people underestimate the crazies' chances of political success.

On Socrates: The Socrates figure in in Crito argues that we have a moral obligation to obey the state's laws, but he also describes in Apology one case in which he refused to obey the commands of the government (and he seems to think he was morally justified in doing so). The only way to reconcile these two passages that I can see is to assume that he only thought some states were morally legitimate, namely states that are "democracies" rather than oligarchies. So Plato's Socrates did not think that we should obey the law simply because it is the law.

Anonymous Philosophy ABD said...

English Jerk, I agree with everything else you say, but I don't think any part of the confusion results from Wolff's idiosyncratic use of the term "anarchist". The very first sentence of the post on which we are all commenting says that the answer to the question, "How can you be an anarchist and...?" depends on how the term "anarchism" is defined. He then goes on to very clearly explain what *he* means by "anarchism", as he has done elsewhere. The problem for those who find his position inconsistent, rather, arises from the fact that they weren't paying attention when he explained what he means by "anarchism" or that they chose to ignore it for whatever reason.

Like most political "ism" terms, "anarchism" is vague and ambiguous to the point of being useless unless we make some effort to define it in terms that are less vague and ambiguous. There can't be a serious dispute about how Wolff *ought* to define "anarchism". He can define it as he pleases, and the rest of us have an obligation to interpret his writing using the definition he gives, not some other definition.

Nor can there be, apart from the semantic question, a serious inquiry into what anarchism *really is*. Anarchism is not a natural kind with hidden essence which we may discover by empirical inquiry, the way we discovered that temperature is mean molecular kinetic energy, that water is H2O, etc. Its essence is whatever we define it to be.

Now let's try to have a discussion of the merits of Wolff's position and set aside silly disputes about how he ought to define his terms. Such disputes are "merely verbal" in the pejorative sense. The disagreement between Rostow and Wolff is substantive.

English Jerk said...

Anon Phil ABD:

I agree completely. I did not mean to suggest that Wolff was responsible in any way for the misunderstanding. His writing is admirably clear--so admirably clear that I aspire to emulate it in my own academic work. I was just trying to give an explanation (not a justification) for how a misunderstanding might have arisen, since he's using "anarchism" as a term of art when it has a (somewhat different) meaning in an existing discourse, which is all I meant by saying that his use is "idiosyncratic." He is, of course, free to define his terms at will. But, to the extent that he defines his terms in a way that deviates from broader usage within a speech community, he of course also risks being misunderstood by the members of that speech community--as I'm sure he knows perfectly well.

Ioanes said...

Quote: "The only way to reconcile these two passages that I can see is to assume that he only thought some states were morally legitimate, namely states that are "democracies" rather than oligarchies. So Plato's Socrates did not think that we should obey the law simply because it is the law"
Well, I ask again, in a Socratic way:
Didn´t Socrates obey the "democratic law" just because it was the "democratic law"?

Anonymous Philosophy ABD said...

Ioanes, you say: "Didn´t Socrates obey the "democratic law" just because it was the "democratic law"?"

If so, he took Rostow's position, not the position you suggested Socrates had when you asked, "Didn´t Socrates (or Plato´s Socrates in the Apology) obeye the law just because it was the law?"

formerly a wage slave said...

Without doing the proper work, I yet have a memory of Plato's "Crito".

There is a line about how Socrates would be harming the Laws insofar as it was in his power by leaving Athens.

The idea of avoiding harm is frequent in Socrates. Some speak of it as avoiding "wrong-doing".

I believe that Terry Penner (who advised my Ph.D. thesis on Plato) has now published an article on this, which I've not read. However, what he used to say by way of explicating the Socratic view was something like this:

Socrates didn't want to harm his mummie and daddy.

(If my memory serves me well.

I suppose at least part of the point of that is to deny that anything like a modern conception of the state is in view. I suppose that means rejecting a popular interpretation among many who work in political science/phllosophy.

I myself am not inclined to agree that Socrates was simply endorsing the decision of the state--democratic or not. (I think I agree with previous comment that Socrates was willing to disobey the state on the question of practicing philosophy. But given the Socratic thought that a good man does not do bad things, and that by failing to practice philosophy, he'd harm himself, there is a consistency in the pattern of thought---even if it seems bizarre or wrong headed to us.)

I doubt whether "democracy" enters in, however.

Rather, I would suggest the operative principle is something like this:

Insofar as the Athenian State (or any entity) decides in the direction of or for the sake of what is best--what will help rather than hurt---the decisions
are worthy of support.

That's to replace a suggested principle involving the notion of democracy....perhaps: insofar as a decision/law is reached democratically, one should follow it....

On a more cynical note: I do think I have met some police officers who (at least officially and not after they have had a few beers) would tell me that I had better obey the law "because it's the law". Additionally, they seem unwilling to go into thinking about why they've been given a particular order.

In saying that I draw upon unpleasant experiences in El Paso TExas in the past year and a half.

formerly a wage slave said...

My above comment now seems too hasty. I've also found that the essay by Penner can be partially viewed via Google books. If anyone is interested it is in
the "Cambridge History of Greek and Roman Political Thought".
The title is "Socrates".

I will not attempt to summarize Penner's view, or to fully correct my hasty remark. However, I will say that the point of my remark was (following Penner) to move the discussion out of the realm of "right" versus "wrong" a la deontological ethical theories.
I follow Penner in supposing that Socratic ethics is wholly unlike the deontological approach common today. (It's not an account in terms of "right" and "wrong" but in terms of good and bad, or helping and hurting.)
If it's ever right to follow the state, that can only be justified in terms of the good that thereby results or bad that is thereby avoided. --I take that to be a Socratic thought, and one which I don't think previous commentators here had mentioned.

Even this second comment is inadequate, I am sure. But I do have other things I must do.

Chris said...

In general the problem is this. Duty has a corollary of rights in a system of Kantian ethics. That's The system Wolff works within when stating one is a morally autonomous individual with the right to follow one's own moral rationality. One has a right to do this, and others have a duty to respect this. This would be Kant's classic position of treating others as ends and not means. In so doing, that qualifies as legitimate morality in action. Since the state does not observe one's right to be morally autonomous, it is acting against a rational duty, and is therefore illegitimate. Instead the state has it's way via force, as Wolff points out, which is never a legitimate form of persuasion, as It's not rational, it denies one's autonomy, and it treats others as means to an end. Ergo, the state has no right to use force as a means of coercion, and we have a duty to resist, as morally autonomous rational individuals. Especially when the states forice is conspicously irrational. So the problem comes when Wolff advocates Marxism and Marxist methods as a means to various solutions in the realm of economics and politics*. By applying this method he hopes to grant the illegitimate state, which has no right to do so, the ability to enforce DE JURE laws of his choosing. But if he and other rationaly autonomous individuals has a duty to resist these laws -especially when conflicting with their autunomous decisions- and the state has no right to implement them, where comes his right to influence laws in the state? Has he not violated his autonomous duty, by violating the rights of other autonomous individuals via the states coercive influence?

Chris said...

*As a caveat, although I like to arm-chair about dreaming of some anarchist utopia, I primarily analyze and philosophize in a left-wing Marxist fashion. Hence why I find this particular question of the upmost importance.

Mark said...

The philosophical arguments aside, many people are quite happy to square Anarchism and Marxism to varying degrees. [Bear in mind that I'm writing from the UK - outside the US individualist anarchists and the misnamed 'anarcho-capitalists' are a very rare breed in any organised sense.]

Most class struggle anarchists would have few problems with the broad economics of Capital. As an example, many users of would fall into such a category (most admins being members of one or other of the main UK anarchist organisations). Similarly many anarchists would be happy to read stuff by non-Leninist Marxist writers such as Korsch, Pannekoek, Mattick, Dauve and so on.

I also think the association of Marx with statism is more ambiguous than is commonly supposed (even by many marxists). I'm not saying he was an out and out libertarian, but there are definitely libertarian aspects to his thought, especially after the Commune. I guess I would have taken Bakunin's side in the International, but like Bakunin, it's Marx I would have turned to for economics, and I'd wager that it's Marx that most class struggle anarchists would read from that era, not B.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Rubel's 'Marx: Theoretician of Anarchism':

Chris said...

Marx said in critique of the gotha program that a "free state" is an oxymoron.