Anarchism vs. Marxism: Science vs. Literature



Contrary to the stereotypes, I find that anarchism often attracts those with a more scientific, logical, mathematical, analytical mind - theoretical physicists like Carlo Rovelli and William Gillis, mathematicians like Alexander Grothendieck, Eugenia Cheng, and Mark Wolfmeyer, medical doctors like Hillel Solotaroff, Jacob Abraham Maryson, Paul Brousse, Ben Lewis Reitman and Paul Robinson (Errico Malatesta, too, was studying medicine until he was expelled for his political activism), logicians like Rudolf Carnap and Bertrand Russell, anthropologists like David Graeber, Celestin Bougle, A.R. Radcliffe-Brown, Pierre Clastres, Sal Restivo, and Alfred Brown, geographers like Elisee Reclus and Peter Kropotkin, and many others, like Noam Chomsky, who taught a quasi-mathematical form of linguistics at M.I.T..  Simone Weil, the political activist and philosopher, and Andre Weil, the important mathematician and founder of the Bourbaki group, were brother and sister, and he was always convinced that she could have been as important a mathematician as he, if she had so chosen.  There's John Gilmore, the internet pioneer, founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and translator of French anarchists like Francis Depui-Deri.  There's Michael Laufer, who's day job is a college math teacher, but who in his spare time has become a biohacker, developing ways for people to 3-d print epi-pens (normally, they'd cost about $650, but you can 3-d print one for less than $40 of materials).  And so on.

There's a long history to this: the split in the First International centered on the Jura Federation, a labor movement of mostly highly skilled laborers - artisans and engineers, many of whom worked in the Swiss watch industry of La-Chaux-des-Fonds.  It was these highly technical workers, educated in math and science, who sided with the anarchists and anti-authoritarians.  And of course, many anarchists today are primarily motivated by a science - that of ecology - and the disturbing data coming from this science, which warns of the dangers of global climate change, pollution, the depletion of natural resources and so on. 

On the other hand, Marxists, and especially Bolsheviks in specific, often come from the fields of poetry, literature, art, and other "liberal arts."  And some of the most bloodthirsty warriors were also the greatest poets.  Mao was a poet, as was Chen Duxiu, the co-founder of the Communist Party of China, who ran a poetry journal.  Ho Chi Minh, too, wrote poetry.  Pol Pot went to Paris in his youth and studied the poems of Rimbaud and Verlaine, some of which he committed to memory.  Stalin was a poet who published his poems under the pseudonym Soselo.  He loved Goethe and Shakespeare and could recite Walt Whitman poems from memory.  Gramsci was a student of literature who became a leader in the Italian Communist Party; Lukacs was a literary critic and theorist of the novel, as well as People's Commissar of the brief Hungarian Soviet Republic.  Of course there are many famous communist poets, playwrights, and novelists, such as Pablo Neruda, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Andre Gide, Jean-Paul Sartre, Andre Breton, Takiji Kobayashi, Miyamoto Yuriko, and debatably Ernest Hemingway.  Marx himself, of course, was a failed playwright and poet before he became a writer of communist theory, and he came out of a literary milieu: Georg Herwegh, Edgar Bauer, Marx's cousin Heinrich Heine, George Sand, etc., etc..  He also was profoundly influenced by literature and filled his works with allusions to Shakespeare, Balzac, and classical Greek writers.

There are indeed many Bolshevik visual artists - Picasso, Kahlo, and Rivera immediately come to mind - but in my opinion they are a minority, with an fascinating and distinctive perspective on Marxism.  By and large, the Bolshevik-inspired Marxism of the 20th century was a literary movement, a movement of people who think in words. 

I sometimes think that one of the reasons that the world's first self-declared Marxist regime took hold in the former Russian Empire was its long literary history, going back several centuries.  Russia was the the empire of the novel, and reached a perfection in the writing of the novel that remains unmatched.  Turgenev, Goncharov, Chernyshevsky, Potekhin, Nekrasov, Gogol, Pushkin, Dostoyevsky... Chekhov wrote a novel, too, and six novellas, but he is better known for his plays and especially his short stories.  The Narodnik movement essentially started as a literary movement, with millions of fans of the novels of Gleb Uspensky, Pyotr Lavrov, and Nikolay Mikhaylovsky and so on, eventually forming terrorist organizations.  Nihilism, too started in the literary world.  Nadezhdin accused Pushkin of nihilism (falsely), and Bervi and Belinsky likewise attacked several other fellow novelists as supposed nihilists.  Turgenev wrote "Fathers and Sons" about a fictional character who was a nihilist, and then, although Turganev himself was no nihilist, several of his fans came to identify with the nihilist character and declared themselves nihilists, and among these were novelists like Shelgunov and Pisarev and then the nihilist fans of these authors too formed terrorist networks.  A young woman named Vera Zasulich shot at General Trepov, the governor of St. Petersburg, in a botched assassination attempt.  But, shocking the world, she was acquitted at her trial, which became a media frenzy in which Trepov was put on trial more than she was.  It evolved into a populist movement and a cause celebre around the world, especially in literary circles.  (A young Oscar Wilde wrote his first play, "Vera: or, the Nihilists" in response.)  She herself became a writer, famed for her unusual, pastiche-like style, and then translated Marx, starting a correspondence with Marx himself (one of his letters back to her has become enshrined as a fairly important piece of Marxist theory).  She founded The Emancipation of Labor with Georgi Plekhanov, which evolved into the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party.  In the early days people were drawn to the party because they were fascinated by intellectuals like Bogdanov and the playwright and literary critic Anatoly Lunacharsky.  When Lenin joined, his future wife Nadezhda Krupskaya, a schoolteacher with a profound learning in literature, was not the only one won over by the erudite quality of his writing and speeches, filled with literary allusions to the great tradition of Russian novels.  He had been a passionate lover of Chernychevsky in particular, and named one of his most famous pieces of revolutionary theory, "What is to be Done?" after the title of Chernychevsky's best known work, filling other writings with references and even long passages from Pisarev.  The novelist Bukharin became another important theoretician, and then there was Alexandra Kollentai, the highly cultured multilingual former aristocrat who became perhaps the most radical theorist of all.  The whole enterprise was funded by perhaps the most successful and important novelist of the time, Maxim Gorky.  The party split into the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, and eventually came the revolution(s) of 1917.  A wave of literary output emerged simultaneously - not only Gorky, but Alexander Blok, Korney Chukovsky, Nikolai Gumilev, Sergei Gorodetsky, Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelshtam, Viktor Shklovsky, and Boris Pasternak, for instance.  The young Vladimir Nabokov, whose father had served in the interim government after the abdication of the Czar, was forced to flee; Yevgeny Zamyatin began as a dedicated Bolshevik but soon turned sour on the regime and became a dissident, having to flee as well.  In any case, of course, the most important causes of the revolution were material and economic - but the literary aspect had a role to play as well, no matter how small.

There are people today who believe that the U.S.S.R. was excessively "scientistic," but I find this completely untrue.  Just because Stalinists sometimes label themselves as representing the "immortal science of dialectical materialism," this does not imply that they were actually scientific - indeed, usually when they are doing so, it is only to denounce or dismiss anyone who fails to conform to a certain rigid interpretation of Marx.  (Of course, there are as many interpretations of Marx as there are leaves on an autumn wind.)  I don't count scientists who happen to have lived in Marxist countries as Marxist scientists, though there are indeed a lot of them, from Alexandr Friedmann to Ivan Pavlov, because I don't think that the accident of their place of birth implies anything about their political convictions, and indeed many, like Andrei Sakharov, became dissidents, while others, like George Gamow, simply left.  In truth, science fared rather badly in the U.S.S.R. - witness the disaster of the Lysenko affair, in which rigid devotion to the strict principles of quasi-Marxist pseudoscience led to crop failure and mass starvation.  Lenin himself dogmatically clung to belief in the ether even as scientific inquiry was undermining such notions.  The ideological dogmatism of the U.S.S.R. was incompatible with the necessity of criticism, diversity of opinion, and willingness to experiment freely that are all absolute prerequisites of scientific discovery.  If anything, the problem with the U.S.S.R. was not that it was too scientific, but that it was not scientific enough.

It makes sense, in a way, that scientifically-minded people would be attracted to anarchism and similar authority-questioning ideologies, whereas literary-minded people would be attracted to Marxism.  After all, anarchism and science have in common a distrust of authority.  As the legendary theoretical physicist Richard Feynman once put it, "Science is belief in the ignorance of experts.  When someone says, 'Science teaches such and such,' he is using the word incorrectly."  From the time of Francis Bacon, a defining criterion of the scientific tradition has been its defiant refusal of the argument from authority.  Ever since, scientists have tended not to be people who simply take a concept as given but rather people who are capable of thinking for themselves, people who delight in thinking for themselves, people who can't help thinking for themselves, and often people who insist on thinking for themselves.  They are born tinkerers.  They can't sit still and simply accept a conceptual framework.  They have to experiment, pushing a concept to its limits and seeing where that leads.  Their salient personality trait and motivating impetus is an insatiable and irrepressible curiosity.  With them, it's always questions, questions, questions.  It drives everyone around them crazy, but we love them for it.

For the typical Marxist, on the other hand, all of this exposition seems tedious and self-indulgent.  They want to get to the action, to the plot - they want to cut to the chase.  Empiricism seems imperious, if not downright imperialist.  These endless questions seem academic and at a remove from the daily struggle of people's lives.  The detached perspective of the scientist seems cold and alienated, bordering on irresponsible, and they demand a life that is more engagée, actually helping other people rather than working on abstract problems.  Passion is not separated from practice: the point for them is not to describe the world, but to change it.

Althusser speaks, in his "Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists" of "the relations between scientific and literary disciplines" (page 88).  He identifies what he calls "savants" - his name for scientists, or a particular type of scientists, who, untrained in philosophy, spontaneously become philosophers (page 109 and following) and consequently come into all sorts of ideological errors - idealism, spiritualism, subjectivism, pragmatism, empiricism, and so on - and that these errors are not merely philosophical but political errors - voluntarism, adventurism, quietism, or some kind of subtly or not so subtly conservative ideology, serving some sort of system of exploitation.  He even specifically cites Noam Chomsky as an example of a perpetrator of the spontaneous philosophy of the scientists (SPS), accusing him of "Cartesian mechanistic rationalism". (page 141)  (Of course, it must be remembered that as Althusser developed his theories further, he matured into an anarchist, himself - as had Sartre, before him.)

Of course there are exceptions, or at least partial exceptions.  There indeed have been important Marxist scientists, but most of them have been on the libertarian side of Marxism, rather than full-throated Bolsheviks.  A perfect example is the great astronomer and libertarian council communist Antonie Pannekoek, who influenced Lenin but then became one of his most trenchant critics.  Another example is Ernst Mach, one of the great scientists and Marxist theorists of the early 20th century, an important influence on Einstein, against whom Lenin wrote relentless tirades.  Or there's Plekhanov, who was partially an exception and partially followed the rule.  He was studying metallurgy when he dropped out to become a Marxist theorist, but he also wrote books on Uspensky and Chernychevsky's aesthetic theory, on French drama and Henrik Ibsen - and of course, after being Lenin's mentor, he became a furious opponent of the Bolsheviks.  Trotsky, too is a complex mixture - at one point, he considered pursuing a math degree, though it's not entirely clear that his abilities matched his ambitions.  He dropped out to become a full time professional revolutionary and an extreme authoritarian - and, later, a dedicated writer about art, who worked together with the surrealist novelist Andre Breton and had an affair with the painter Frida Kahlo. 

On the other side, we can point to some literary anarchists, like the mysterious novelist B. Traven, about whom little or nothing is known (they may well have had some technical knowledge, as certain passages in their books seem to indicate at least a passing understanding of the engineering of ships). 

Herzen is a complex figure: a great novelist and political thinker, he was influential in both the anarchist and Bolshevik traditions.  Lenin himself called him the "father of Russian socialism".  Then there's Bakunin, who never wrote a novel or a poem, and only one book, and that one in a rather scattered and unfinished form, but who perhaps fancied himself something of a writer.  He is usually cited as the example of an "anti-scientific" bias among anarchists, but I think this is largely a misreading.  It's not so much that he rejected science per se; he was simply extremely critical of the way that people like Marx and Dühring misused the word "science," and used a bit of over-the-top rhetoric in his denunciations.  And then again there's another aspect of this: for every quote one can mine where Bakunin says that we have to think critically about science, one can also find a quote from Marx where he, too, writes that we should criticize science.  For instance, in his famous letter to Ruge of 1843, where he calls for the "ruthless criticism of all that exists," he specifically names science as one of the things that should be criticized: "...But we have to pay just as much attention to the other aspect, to the theoretical existence of man, and therefore to make religion, science, etc., the object of our criticism."

Of course the major counter-example to my general thesis here is Leo Tolstoy.  But he, too is a complex exception, or semi-exception.  Obviously one of history's greatest novelists, Tolstoy had a conversion late in life, after many of his most beloved novels had been written.  He did not actually call himself an anarchist, but rather referred to this period as a spiritual awakening, centered on a profound, renewed devotion to his Christian faith, combined with a fascination with Buddhism, Confucianism, and Chinese culture in general, and immediately sparked by a reading of the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer.  He certainly was enormously influential among anarchists, especially among the Christian anarchist movement that swelled as a huge wave spreading out from him, but in his essay, "On Anarchy," (1900) he distanced himself slightly from anarchism, averring that anarchists were correct in their aims, but wrong in their revolutionary methods.  As for economics, he expressed sympathy for the Georgist "single tax" movement.  Meanwhile, Tolstoy in life and death was just as influential among the Narodniks, the socialists and the communists as he was among anarchists. Lenin's wife, Nedezhda Krupskaya, had been moved by Tolstoy very deeply and studied his work intensely.  After his death, Lenin himself wrote a brief essay about Tolstoy, at once sympathetic and critical.

(As an aside: besides literature and art - and, obviously, military careers - another field from which Marxists often arise is athletics.  Besides being a poet, Mao took an interest in physical education, and in fact his first book is a treatise on this subject.   C.L.R. James was both a record-breaking athlete and an author of books about sports; he also wrote fiction.  Che Guevara, too, was an athlete, playing many sports.  Even Lenin enjoyed weightlifting.  And of course Fidel Castro played baseball, although it's merely an urban legend that he was ever a professional baseball player.  Then, of course, there are the future Bolsheviks who considered a career in the priesthood, like Stalin.)

(Another aside: besides STEM fields, anarchists are often historians, like Paul Avrich or Howard Zinn; or, strangely enough, lawyers - like Volin or Bob Black.)


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