Marx went away but Karl stayed behind*

Just the other day I was in the lounge of my school’s student union building minding my own business when I suddenly found myself surrounded by Marxists. It turned out that the Marxism class had been overly popular and the professor had needed to accomodate the handful of students who were unable to attend the regular class. So they were there in the student union lounge holding their own little Marxism class. I figured out what was going on and asked to sit in. The prof readily agreed after first jokingly asking if I was a Mountie spy (as in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who are essentially the national, provincial, and local police force for much of Canada, and who rarely mount anything with four legs nowadays).

It was because of this that I learned that at one point, a third of the Communist Party in the United States was composed of FBI agents. In fact, the reds in the US were to a certain extent subsidized by the FBI, since FBI agents could pay their membership dues, as opposed to many of the party’s poorer members. Of course, as the prof pointed out, it’s not easy to fake a genuine commitment to Marxism, and how well run can a Communist Party be if it can be so easily infiltrated by those hostile to it?

Now, this prof is an old school Marxist. He is all about the original Marx. I mentioned that I’d actually read more Neo-Marxism than classical Marxism (which is rather common in anthropology) and he started going on about what he called academic Marxism and how it had in practice given up revolution. Fair enough, but as he went on I was reminded why Neo-Marxists started writing in the first place. The love affair with development and progress (making it kin to capitalism), the ordering of societies along a continuum from primitive to modern, the idea of the vanguard elite bestowing Marxist enlightenment upon the ignorant masses, and the ideological commitment to violence — these were all things that stuck in my craw. I was only a guest who hadn’t read the required readings and it would have been inappropriate for me to bring in more-sophisticated criticisms when the undergrads the class was designed for were still learning the basics, so I mostly kept my trap shut (though I was actually the second-most talkative person then even despite my self-censorship).

The prof mentioned anarchism as a competing ideology contemporaneous with early Marxism. He described it as a utopian project since it mostly rejected violent revolution. Rather, anarchists set up areas where they live as if the state did not exist and by doing so hope to inspire people to give up the state system by their example. Put that way, anarchism does sound rather naive, though it’s changed quite a bit since the 19th century.

I found the professor’s remarks interesting because I’d only recently read David Graeber’s Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology. It’s a short little booklet outlining some ideas of what an anarchist world might look like given anthropological data on non-state anarchist societies. It’s not a scholarly work but a call to action and some proposals for anarchism. It really is just fragments of an anarchist anthropology and not a unified theoretical construct.

In Fragments, Graeber discusses hunter-gatherer groups such as the !Kung, who have — or rather, had — elaborate strictures and spiritual taboos designed to prevent the accumulation of surplus and the formation of hierarchy. He also brings in cases like Madagascar, where the government is so weak that in many places there exists an anarchist social order on the ground, while officially the areas are still under the control of the state. Graeber also discusses anarchism within industrialised state societies, especially in modern activism and Zapatismo.

Now, the more I study nations and the state, the more I get convinced that the state system is too inherently unjust to keep should we truly want to create a better world. I keep going closer and closer towards anarchism. So it was fortunate that a couple of days after my encounter with Marxism, I attended a talk given by my department’s new anthro prof about the Zapatistas and Zapatismo. One thing that I found particularly interesting was the elucidation of the relationship between Marxism, anarchism, and Zapatismo. Mexican leftists are of course quite steeped in Marxist thought, so when those cadres retreated to the jungles of Chiapas to foment rebellion, they tried to use Ye Olde Handbooke of Marxist Mobilization. Which didn’t really get them anywhere with the local people. The Chiapenos told them, “We understand your words but we don’t understand what you’re saying.” They could not see what kind of relevance to their everyday lives Marxist rhetoric could have. The leftist cadres had to change their strategy. What they came up with was Zapatismo.

Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos, the most visible of the Zapatista leaders, has referred to Zapatismo as an intuition. It is true that as a political philosophy it has no coherent theoretical whole. Rather, it seems to me that it is more like a set of general principles and methods. Zapatismo’s emphasis on practice over theory resembles some strains of anarchism, and its position that it will “Lead by obeying” certainly sounds anarchist (anarchy = “without leaders”). This is not surprising, since the Mexican leftists who helped found Zapatismo were also familiar with anarchism. However, the Zapatistas avowedly do not call themselves anarchists, but instead prefer to be simply called Zapatistas.

Zapatismo has of course spread beyond Mexico, becoming a symbol for the social justice movement in general (also called the anti-globalization movement by advocates of neoliberal globalization). It is not an ideological philosopher’s stone capable of healing all wounds and righting all injustices — in the talk on Zapatismo, for instance, my department’s new hire mentioned how women living in Zapatista territory appreciated the change in their lives: “Our husbands don’t drink as much and beat us less” — but I think it’s certainly a step in the right direction.

Anyway, that was what I did last week.

*This is the title of an ethnography by Caroline Humphreys about her work in post-Soviet Russia. It’s a joke made by one of her informants, who was referring to the sign of the farm she did her work in — the sign originally said “Collective Farm of Karl Marx”, but the famous last name had weathered away. I’ve only read the preface of the book, which is reprinted in The Anthropology of Politics: a reader in ethnography, theory and critique, Joan Vincent (ed.), Oxford: Berg, 2002, pp. 387-98.

4 Replies to “Marx went away but Karl stayed behind*”

  1. I read Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology this summer, but related to that, you should check out Benedict Anderson’s Under Three Flags (although you might have read it already). Its about anarchism not just in the Philippines, but also in Europe and how those two movements influenced the other.

  2. I’ll read it when I have time. I’ve read reviews, though, and they say it’s not as great as Anderson’s other work and that the anarchist linkages aren’t quite as strong as he argues.

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