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Anarchism is for the contemporary working classes

Marxism is not for the contemporary working classes.

Marxism claims to be for the contemporary working classes. But the intellectual foundations work to exclude the very people, like me, they claim to want to emancipate. As a movement, it inherently demands interacting with key writers and influential theorists. There is a lore that comes with Marxism which demands you interact with key theorists like Marx, Engels, Lenin, etc. You have to be clued up to adequately find your tiny niche of Marxism within the Left. You must read enough to defend this position unequivocally. When Marxists are confronted with critiques of Marx such as racism or misogyny, they argue that the movement continues to adapt. Yet Marxism militantly preserves the values and hierarchies of its movement that places Marx and Engels on an untouchable pedestal. You can have debate, so long as it complements Marx’s original teachings. Whatever so-called ‘evolution’ that does take place continues without the working classes, instead preserving the insular, academic, inaccessible writings originally created by Marx himself. Marxist writings are expensive and genuinely hard to grasp without having someone to educate or translate as you go. It seems, therefore, that for all its efforts, Marxism is inherently alienating to the working classes. I’m not saying that the working classes are somehow intellectually unable to read Marx – far from it. What I mean to say is that Marxism is designed to be exclusive, merely performatively representing us without including us. In the same way the legal system is designed to be illusive and confusing, Marxist literature demands a significant amount of time and energy dedicated to decoding it. Sure, Marx was never interested in alienating the working classes from his writing anyway – in Capital, he argued that capitalism alone was enough to destroy capitalism. But how can you claim to represent the best interests of working classes without bringing us along with you?

Anarchism can fall into these pitfalls too. Anarchism has a lore, there is no denying. Bakunin, Kropotkin, Proudhon are all seen as the readings to dip the toe into anarchy. And some other anarchist media I have read or watched have been accessible enough only because I’ve had the opportunity to spend three years getting used to reading academic language.

But the key difference is I can consider myself an anarchist without having read these writings.

Unlike Marxism, Anarchism doesn’t demand the investment into these key theorists. It encourages education through theory, and people driving the movement do a great job distributing (almost) free leaflets, newsletters and zines promoting anarchist values, but it equally recognises and legitimises living anarchically. Anarchism is action as much as it is education. Equally, as Ibáñez argues, unlike Marxism’s lack of compromise, Anarchism is inherently malleable, it is complex and multifaceted, it provides the space for critique and compromise, and it evolves. Because of this, it doesn’t immediately alienate the working class, rather providing them with the chance to explore, allowing them to help shape the aims of the movement, and most importantly, reach their own conclusions rather than be forced into one. Working class people are far from stupid. We are far from incapable. Marxism acts and reacts as though we are. How can Marxism promise to emancipate the masses whilst simultaneously suppressing us within their movement?

Importantly, this is not to completely write off the legitimacy of Marxist writings, or the achievements of working class Marxists and Communists. Many have carried out important work towards the emancipation of the working classes and have heavily influenced Anarchism. Unfortunately though, my experiences have proven that the majority of these people seek to tell other working class people what’s in our best interests rather than encouraging individual and community self-liberation. Equally, the movement is dominated by patronising middle class people with similar ambitions – ‘we know what’s best for you’ or the stereotype of those who have spent their lives reading and not doing.

Anarchism captures a lot of values or visions that many working class people admire – without calling themselves, or realising these values are, anarchic. The most striking from personal experience is the anger at the existence of money. I have painful experiences of consoling my mum as she wept, worrying about paying rent, bills, debts, begging for money to not exist, pleading for society to return to trading goods and services instead. Whatever your critiques of this position might be, it demonstrates the looming power that money holds over the working classes. The eradication of money, of wage slavery, is anarchic. Every working class person I have met have demonstrated the physical effects their work have had on their bodies – scars, mobility issues, mental exertion. Unlike a Marxist approach, which doesn’t actually try to emancipate workers from the power structures of waged labour, Anarchism aims for the emancipation of all people from the boot of employers. People like my mum dream of working, of doing something, anything, they actually enjoy, something creative and productive, instead of falling into something by happenstance and feeling stuck without an alternative. That is anarchic. My experiences have also proven the working classes stick together. They look out for each other. I may not have enjoyed it when I was younger (wishing I could live like the middle class kids I grew up around), but my mum and her friends shared resources between each other – the older kids handed clothes down to us younger kids, expensive technology like TVs or laptops were gifted when they were needed, we were taught how to sew up tears, family friends and neighbours taught each other the best ways to repair things like bikes or mould, families pooled food together and fed all of us at once. It was important to learn how to survive away from the State, who did more to work against us than support us. We did it because we learnt that self-sufficiency and community was more important to survival than voting for those who preferred to vilify us, patronise us, reform us.

For many working class people, these examples are our difficult, unstable realities. Therefore, it is because of our positioning, because we are forced to live these realities every day, working class people live anarchically. This, as much as the title of this piece, might seem like an obvious conclusion for some learned anarchists – historically, those at the forefront of the anarchist movement have been working class people. But as a working class person relatively new to the movement, these conclusions feel somewhat revolutionary. And this highlights a huge issue…

The issue Anarchism has is putting its name to these values in everyday contemporary working class life. A lot of work is needed in bridging the gap between the values I have mentioned and the relation to anarchy within the working classes. This bridging between Anarchism and working class people must happen soon. The climate breakdown becomes an unstoppable wildfire heading towards the working classes, and fascism continues to spread like a disease that targets the working class to both fuel their movement and exploit their labour. There are very few contemporary working class leftist role models, especially for men, which allows for the likes of Andrew Tate and others to spew their hatred uncontested. With hope in working class communities at rock bottom there’s no wonder some of these messages resonate. But the working classes need to know that what they are already living is an alternative way of existing. The working classes should know that thanks to their existence, there can be hope.

Anarchism can demonstrate an alternative. Direct action is powerful. It is effective. In working class communities, we can prove that the everyday instabilities the contemporary working classes live is living and breathing Anarchism. Direct action provides a chance to both realise class consciousness, as Marxism hopes for, whilst moving away from a patronising approach to allow the working classes the freedom to decide how to act and organise themselves. But without an alternative – that is, by doing nothing – there can be no education, only indoctrination.

Daniel Newton

Image: Guy Smallman

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