Plato, &c.

· 4 min read
Plato, &c.
Young Bakunin (1843).
By Blair Vidak.

Plato is normally regarded as an enemy of the anarchists. I suppose my own trajectory into anarchism has been highly unorthodox (having never been a trotskyist, I have duly been a member of a few trotskyist organisations, before finally shedding Libertarian Marxism altogether) so I was surprised to hear negative recollections of Plato reading from comrades.

If there is anything worth reading in Plato, it is actually within the much maligned _Republic_. It is true that Plato's text is primarily concerned with the quasi-theological deduction of an imagined perfect political State. However I would like to draw your attention to the very first book of the _Republic_. In it I think there is not very much Socrates is saying that would draw disagreement from my comrades:

Socrates Well; and has not the soul an end which nothing else can fulfil? for example, to superintend and command and deliberate and the like. Are not these functions proper to the soul, and can they rightly be assigned to any other?

Thrasymachus To no other.

And is not life to be reckoned among the ends of the soul?

Assuredly, he said.

And has not the soul an excellence also?


And can she or can she not fulfil her own ends when deprived of that excellence?

She cannot.

Then an evil soul must necessarily be an evil ruler and superintendent, and the good soul a good ruler?

Yes, necessarily.

And we have admitted that justice is the excellence of the soul, and injustice the defect of the soul?

That has been admitted.

Then the just soul and the just man will live well, and the unjust man will live ill?

That is what your argument proves.

And he who lives well is blessed and happy, and he who lives ill the reverse of happy?


Then the just is happy, and the unjust miserable?

So be it.

But happiness and not misery is profitable.

Of course.

Then, my blessed Thrasymachus, injustice can never be more profitable than justice.

Indeed! I think Socrates and by implication Plato, have an attractive formal argument for the objectivity, or perhaps better rendered necessity that we should love just as against injustice--evil, badness--what-have-you.

Deep within the heart of every anarchist, I see much that is in accordance with this aspect of Platonist thought: its moral realism. That is, a Platonist would defend a worldview in which some moral facts are true. Put another way: Platonists would agree that there is a good life, and that that good life was able to be known by humans.

I see, perhaps, some among you who may shrink from what I am saying--classically, isn't the substance of Plato's imagined perfect political state completely tyrannical and autocratic?

I would respond like this--I feel like Plato asks the right question, but gets the answer completely wrong. Do not confuse what I am saying for a defence of autocratic, and really, Paternalistic city-states.

Marx versus Bakunin

I did decide to read some of the dialogue between Bakunin and Marx and Engels, in order to settle this question for myself, or, perhaps, just shed the light of accountability of own weakenesses as an anarchist. I decided, first of all, not to read Engels's provocative tract On Authority (Oct, 1872).

It is not the strongest argument against anarchism. I find the allegation that factory or machine-directed production is intrinsically authoritarian to be something of a dubious straw man argument against anarchism. For if we cannot develop machinery within the context of massive amounts of leisure, the problem is with the machine, not the "species-beings" of humans!

No--I looked at Marx's margin-comments on Bakunin's Statehood and Anarchy (1873).

I think at some level the Marxists are guilty of helping themselves to a deduction not unknown to the Platonists.

The argument of the Marxists goes as follows--the state must be taken over in order to subordinate the bourgeoisie to the dictatorship of the proletariat. Ordinarily the story here becomes well-known, but it is worth mentioning even if in passing, that there are important gradations of Statists, each with their apologies and quixotic fumblings.

Isn't the argument of Socrates and Thrasymachus replicated in Marx? How can he help himself to agreeing with Socrates up until a point, and then in the end siding with Thrasymachus?

I once used to have an old anarchist addage repeated to me--you cannot disassemble the Master's house with the Master's tools. The irony would be that the Master's tools are the State, and its instruments of torture. I suppose that is the lesson.

However I feel the need to repeat maxims tiring sometimes. The problem in the Marxist argument is that (a) while yes, there is a wage-labour--capital relationship of class; (b) Marx is still not allowed, logically, to switch from evaluating to describing, and helping himself to concepts that were previously unavailable in the former line of argument.


  1. There is an oppressed class.
  2. It is the proletariat.
  3. It is oppressed because X, Y, Z.

but now!

  1. This oppressed class will take over the State.

This is perhaps why I always detested the mechanistic or deterministic flavours of communism. Perhaps the same goes for Economism, the deterministic bent of Marxism which Georg Lukacs was so careful to guard against, with the voluntaristic brand of Hegelian Marxism of his youth. I think there is much to commend in more voluntaristic brands of Marxism.

Their focus on the revolutionary class as a subject for change within society allows one to imagine the principles of anarchism, I feel. I think this is so because voluntaristic Marxism 'Hegelianises' Marx. Gone are the Thrasymachean elements of Leninism, for instance. Most importantly, what I call 'voluntaristic Marxism' comes down on the side of Agency, on the Structure--Agency conundrum. That is to say again that gone are the deterministic, and therefore authoritarian aspects of traditional Marxism, as it has been 'received' by the Marxist-Leninists.

But, as far as I can recall, no-one has ever criticised this brand of Marxism for being 'deterministic'. But, these Marxists--say, Lukacs, Sartre, Gramsci, Marcuse, Walter Benjamin--have been criticised for their commitment to a more subjective brand of Marxism. Better they should have become anarchists! Their kind would be well welcomed amongst the anarcho-communists, so long as their swore off Leninism and Statism.

Otherwise known as the 'Western Marxists', this philosophical legacy is concerned primarily with the themes of freedom and expressions of human flourishing. The doctrinaire mechanistic, and, really, Thrasymachean Leninism of most Marxisms does not apply here. I definitely feel that this Marxism is adaptable to the famous anarchist maxim--the social revolution must the act of the proletariat itself.