Anarchism vs. Marxism: The politics of Boots Riley’s ‘I’m a Virgo’
Kara Young, left, and Jharrel Jerome, third, as Jones and Cootie in 'I’m a Virgo.' | Amazon Prime Video

Boots Riley’s Amazon Prime Video series I’m A Virgo has naturally been cast as a coming-of-age story. It is, of course, a story about an individual ostracized by society—main character Cootie, a 13-foot-tall, 19-year-old Black man in Oakland, leaves the isolation of his home for the first time. But there is also a political narrative in the program that exposes differing methods of political action and mobilization in class struggle. It’s a pressing theme for Riley, a self-described communist.

In his 2018 film, Sorry to Bother You, the main character Cassius battles the prospect of becoming a capitalist in opposition to his unionizing co-workers. In I’m a Virgo, the main character Cootie is engaged in a battle primarily of methodology and ideology against multiple forces—the police, the media, a private energy company, and a religious cult.

His coming into the world for the first time pushes him toward strategies that could be construed as short-term in expectations, knee-jerk in their quick reactions, and hyper-localized in scope. This is set up in contrast to the methods of his friend Jones, who has a longer-term perspective rooted in the experience of mass organizing and political struggle.

Theirs is a debate that has been most regularly revisited in history, most notably in the conflict between the two ideologies of anarchism and Marxism. It’s a dispute that continues to rage today.

Filmmaker Boots Riley

How to blow up a movement

In the crescendo of I’m A Virgo, Cootie is on the run. After a season’s worth of growth and “coming of age,” he’s determined to go against the advice of his friend Jones and engage in direct action. To stop the constant electricity blackouts plaguing the Bay Area, Cootie devises a plan to break into the power company’s facilities and destroy the “regulator,” the mechanism which triggers the blackouts and regulates the energy flowing out to paying customers.

But once they return home from their act of industrial sabotage, the pair witness something that shatters their spirits: another blackout. The utility company, with all of its capital and influence, simply replaced the regulator. Nobody directly benefited from the flimsy plan, which had no long-term strategy or discipline. No one’s material conditions were improved; the blackouts continued unhindered.

This kind of spontaneous action is becoming increasingly attractive to some members of my generation who feel they have nothing to lose. Radicalized youth in the age of climate disaster have little patience for debates concerning methodology and ideology. Plagued by a planet on fire, the sluggishness and fruitlessness of liberalism and the two-party system have pushed many on the left either into utopian idealism or nearsighted fragmented spurts of localized direct action. Sometimes, it’s both.

A film like How to Blow Up a Pipeline (2022), based on the book by the same name, is a testament to this rage. The primary focus of the film was the development and execution of a plan to destroy a section of pipeline by a group of environmental activists. The climate vigilantes are certain that they’ve targeted a strategic location and that the disruption will cause gas prices to skyrocket. They believe this will spark copycat actions around the world, somehow coercing oil corporations to abandon fossil fuels, their most profitable commodity. The film ends with another group, inspired by the main characters’ action, blowing up a yacht. Fossil fuel extraction, meanwhile, carries on.

Back in I’m a Virgo, after the regulator plan fails, Jones tells Cootie, “I told you that Band-Aid shit won’t work!” Cootie, at a loss, responds, “I just thought I could give people inspiration to fight.” He believed it would “like, show ‘em we have power.”

Jones points to a picket line across the street. “We’re shutting shit down at the source of power,” she says in reference to a strike wave growing across the U.S. One can imagine an alternative ending to How to Blow Up a Pipeline where Jones delivers those same lines, not to deter the actions, but to expose a lack of strategy. “It’s not just about changing shit,” Jones says, “it’s how we change it.”

Proudhon to Catalonia

The debates between anarchism and Marxism have spanned two centuries. In the 19th century, the “father of anarchism,” Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, was trashed as a “petty-bourgeois” philosopher by Karl Marx in his book The Poverty of Philosophy (1847).

Friedrich Engels criticized the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin for his narrow emphasis on the state as the chief evil and for his refusal to engage in political struggle. Engels’ article, “On Authority,” is a brief but fatal blow to anarchists, who contradictorily call for revolution while expressing contempt for all forms of hierarchy and authority. As Engels reminded them, “A revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing there is.”

In the 20th century, the debate played out amidst actual revolutions and over the character of real-world revolutionary governments. V.I. Lenin wrote in 1905 that anarchists’ applications to participate in the Soviets of Workers’ and Peasants’ Deputies would be denied because anarchists didn’t believe in political struggle to begin with, therefore their inclusion in the alliance would result in counterproductive debates over the merits of the very existence of the organization.

Lenin refuted their philosophy as one, not of the future of society, but of the “present and even the past of that society.” He dismissed anarchism as a trend that sought to establish isolated bubbles within capitalism and romanticized the lifestyle of feudal and other pre-industrial class relations.

Anarchism and Marxism might share the goal of a stateless society, but they differ on what the term might mean and how we get there. Communists often advocate for strategies tailored to particular social, political, and economic situations. In Russia, for example, that entailed participating in unions, mass movements, and even reactionary parliamentary politics until a revolution became inevitable.

Anarchism is not as easy to pin down. Anarchists denounce all forms of “the state” and “hierarchy,” instead emphasizing the individual and the spontaneous revolutionary event, often opposing the revolutionary process. “The anarchist rejects any rule and any person or institution that endeavors to enforce it,” Corrine Jacker wrote in her book, The Blag Flag of Anarchism, “because rules endeavor to restrict an individual’s freedom.”

An anarchist symbol is spray-painted on the headquarters of the Democratic Party of Oregon after protesters carrying anti-Biden and anti-police signs marched in the streets on Jan. 20, 2021, in Portland, Ore. | Beth Nakamura / The Oregonian via AP

But anarchism wasn’t always a brick wall blocking the progressive ideological development of activists. For many in the 20th century, anarchism was their pipeline into Marxism. “The poetry, the strong passionate and naive ideology of that movement appealed to a literary adolescent,” the Communist writer Mike Gold reflected. Numerous union activists in the U.S. who came from more anarchist-leaning backgrounds—figures like Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Big Bill Haywood—eventually joined the Communist Party, helping to build mass movements and abandoning anarchism, which they came to see as a contradictory philosophy.

There are many historical cases of the messes anarchism’s contradictions can lead to. In the leadup to the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, anarchists rightfully opposed fascism, but they also originally opposed the democratic Spanish Republic and the Popular Front against fascism. As late as two months into the Civil War, anarchists refused to officially endorse the Popular Front or endorse fighting Franco.

In May 1937, during a fascist offensive, anarcho-Trotskyists (FAI-POUM) actually attempted to overthrow the Popular Front government of Catalonia, staging a counter-revolution that ultimately benefited the fascists. But anarchist trade union supporter Daniel Guérin actually blamed Communists for the fascist victory. In Ken Loach’s film Land and Freedom (1995), through an ahistorical revisionist lens, the Trotskyists of the POUM (Workers’ Party of Marxist Unifications) are actually represented as the protagonists and the Popular Front, with its Communist section, is portrayed as the bad guys.

Narratives of left history have been monopolized by anti-Communist leftists in recent decades. Whereas many have simply detached or distanced themselves from socialism and communism, figures like Noam Chomsky and the late David Graeber instead intentionally obscure the definition of socialism and communism. They craft their own version, painting all existing socialist countries past and present as distortions of “true” socialism.

Their definition of socialism—that is, idealist notions existing solely in their imagination and in isolated microscopic bubbles within capitalist countries—is seen as the only valid one.

Michael Parenti called these individuals the “pure socialists,” those who support socialist revolutions until those revolutions actually succeed, who fetishize the revolutionary event and then get bored with the revolutionary process of actually building socialism.

Marxist Gil Green, who was a leader of the Young Communist League in the U.S. during those years, wrote, “Whenever a setback or defeat takes place, there are some who rush to blame the Communists, but when revolutions succeed…the Communists are damned by the same people for taking state power.”

The poverty of new radicalism

Today’s increased interest in differing ideologies among young leftists is not dissimilar from the trend that emerged in the late 1960s known as the “New Left,” when segments of the student movement and other radical groups pushed anarchism as an alternative to Marxism and what they derided as the “Old Left.”

Courtesy of International Publishers

In Green’s 1971 book, The New Radicalism: Anarchist or Marxist?, he emphasizes the importance of America’s youth breaking with liberal illusions on the one hand, but on the other, he criticizes the failure of many radical youth to provide a coherent effective alternative. “Revolutionary rhetoric,” he argued, “has become a substitute for strategy and tactics and a cover-up for frustrations and failures.”

Green saw a lack of perspective in the various movements of the time, especially among the anarchist trends, for whom “the time element is reduced to the immediate moment, when there is no confidence that a mass movement of working people can be built,” and when the dire alternatives seemed to be either “drop out or to seek martyrdom.”

Green urged these movements to engage in arenas they had fundamentally opposed or, due to the middle-class nature of much of the student movement, never had a firm relationship with—particularly labor and organized politics. (Riley himself highlighted parallels today to the labor movement in the 1970s).

In recent years, there’s been a wave of films criticizing capitalism, but they tend to offer no solutionsThe Florida Project (2017), Roma (2018), Parasite (2019), Minari (2020), etc. But today, with films like Sorry to Bother You and How to Blow Up a Pipeline, a debate is taking place around strategies for action—it’s the argument we see Cootie and Jones have.

Two streams of thought and methodology—anarchism and Marxism—are again fighting it out. The abstract notion of revolution might be an agreed upon goal, but how to get there and what happens the day after remain contentious topics.

Mike Gold reflected on how he’d come to agree with Lenin after the idealism of his anarchist past. He said he arrived at an understanding of the “necessary historical steps” required to build socialism. He warned against being “mystic” and individualistic, neglecting the “daily class struggle.”

Gold advised, “To be mystic about [the revolution] means admitting it is only a dream, and can never be realized.”

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Taylor Dorrell
Taylor Dorrell

Taylor Dorrell is a freelance writer and photographer, contributing writer at the Cleveland Review of Books, reporter at the Columbus Free Press, columnist at Matter News, and organizer in the Freelance Solidarity Project union. Dorrell is based in Columbus, Ohio.