Book Review: Wobblies and Zapatistas

Wobblies and Zapatistas: Conversations on Anarchism, Marxism and Radical History

By Ernesto Aguilar
Political Affairs Magazine

From the moment Marxists and anarchists parted ways in 1872, the peculiar and occasionally rancorous tension between the divergent schools of socialism has been the subject of many a debate, study group and protest. For anarchists, as Mikhail Bakunin articulated, Marxism’s ascension would virtually necessitate it would become as oppressive as the capitalist state. For Marxists, anarchism’s impulse to support no one having power meant the well-connected in-crowd, mostly well-heeled and white, would exert their power in other ways and with the tacit support of the core of the people. From these early conflicts came years of characterizations – as often fair as misguided – of a host of Anarchism’s motivations and political aspirations, and about organizing and the lack thereof.

Still, it would be a sin of omission to avoid saying there was not at least a hint of admiration at times on the part of Marxists for anarchism’s flair for harnessing the creative energies of youth, or by anarchists, who secretly desired to have the credibility to organize broadly, with clarity and among communities of color. The admiration is spotty though. Marxism and anarchism have historically had a love-hate relationship as impassioned and tragic as anything Euripides ever penned.

Anti-globalization currents, and both tendencies’ struggles to turn early protests into a massive anti-capitalist mobilization, have rekindled discussions of the kind found in Wobblies and Zapatistas: Conversations on Anarchism, Marxism and Radical History. Granted, few of these dialogues have involved luminaries of Staughton Lynd’s stature, yet they represent a starting place – not only about differences, but also about commonalities, shared values, and hopes for a better world.

Wobblies and Zapatistas puts Lynd at the table with Andrej Grubacic, a Northern California anarchist by way of the Balkans, for extensive exchanges about history, political theory and practical reality. Removed from these talks are some of the stranger hues of Marxism and anarchism – extreme sectarianism and “post left” posturing among them – nor is this book intended to blast one idea or the other. Instead, Lynd and Grubacic are aiming squarely for those looking to build bridges between the two camps.

Their conversation about the Zapatistas’ militancy emerges an intriguing discourse, flowing throughout the book, about how politics over the last generation has fundamentally changed. For this reason, how activists and radical partisans in the struggle see themselves and their orientations must also change, with an eye to rejecting old labels. This is not a new revelation. The New Left has postulated such ideas for some time, and the aforementioned anti-globalization clashes and demonstrations have often eschewed ideological tags. In Lynd and Grubacic’s estimation, internationalism is as much of the heart as it is about politics. One could derisively call this misty idealism, although one cannot discount the earnestness of such beliefs.

Both are correct in seeing the importance of “big-picture” ideas when it comes to putting forward a political vision. For example, proclaiming that Joe Hill would have seen himself as a Palestinian conjures up effective imagery, and a fertile discussion arises from this point. Lynd seems to acknowledge the amount of work that remains to be done when he argues that the movements of today face difficulties concerning strategy. Compare this with the South’s fight over African American disenfranchisement and the North’s battle against the war in Vietnam in the 1960s-70s, which galvanized disparate forces. Yet, the bulk of the book suggests a bigger problem is the reliance on old ways of doing thins. What gets a little downplayed here is an assessment of the amount of work involved in moving towards these “big-picture” moments.

Lynd’s remark that anarchism and Marxism are not mutually exclusive alternatives, but Hegelian moments split by personality clashes with the First International, seem simplistic, and comments in the book too often dismissively reduce significant and substantive splits to mere sleights of hand. At the same time, engaging critiques, such as seeing anti-imperialism not as a rejection of everything American but as embracing the best in American radical traditions, abound. Reexaminations of the Haymarket affair and the Industrial Workers of the World (“the Zapatistas of yesteryear,” as Lynd calls them) are sure to make one look upon these memorable revolutionary surges in a new light. Chalk that up to Lynd’s take on history, which is richly textured and buoyed by the weight of experience.

One cannot address the ideas presented here without appreciating Lynd’s remarkable life. From his expulsion from the military to his directorship of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s Freedom Schools, to his engagement in the Youngstown steel mill struggle in the 1970s and beyond, Lynd has been a critical figure on the left. He has also been a vibrant socialist, albeit one who has embraced socialism’s diversity over dogmatism. His genuine love for humanity shines through, and it is doubtful such a that this dialogue could be so arresting without his compassion.

Noted German statesman Otto von Bismarck was famously quoted as saying after the First International split that “crowned heads, wealth and privilege may well tremble should ever again the black and red unite.” In the pages of Wobblies and Zapatistas, such a possibility seems not so far away. 

Back to Denis O’Hearn’s Author Page | Back to Staughton Lynd’s Author Page | Back to Andrej Grubacic’s Author Page