Martin Thomas’s article in Solidarity 3-195, “Working-class struggle and anarchism”, has prompted a long debate on our website. We print excerpts from two contributions and a reply to the debate by Martin Thomas. The original article and entire debate can be found here.
The polemicists have invoked the Anarchist Federation as proof that my criticisms of anarchism in Solidarity 3/195 were unjust. Let’s see what the Anarchist Federation says.
Its website recommends an interview with an AF member which says:
“Too often the anarchist scene is incredibly elitist. There are loads of friendship groups doing things that exclude the participation of working-class people. They have no structures that allow people to join them, no internal democracy that places everyone on an equal footing. No point of contact for people new to anarchism. And ultimately no staying power”.
This is the AF itself, describing what most anarchist activity is like. (The AF, whatever its virtues, is a tiny minority among self-described “anarchists”).
It’s a harsher description than I made! And I stressed in the article that some anarchists are different. Some anarchists gear their activity to working-class struggle as Marxists do. They cannot justly be condemned “by association” with the other anarchists, and I did not try to condemn them that way.
One reason for writing the article is that on many issues we find some anarchists much closer to us, that is, much more oriented to an independent working-class standpoint, than many would-be Marxists and Trotskyists. We share with class-struggle anarchists an emphasis on rank-and-file organising (against an orientation to the “left” bureaucracies in the labour movement) and a rejection of the Stalinoid organisational norms still common on the left.
Like many class-struggle anarchists, we emphasise the struggles of those elements of the working class — undocumented and precarious workers, for example — often ignored by the mainstream labour movement. And on international issues, our perspective has more in common with the focus on international working-class solidarity of most class-struggle anarchists than it does with the “Trotskyists” who orient to Hamas or Hezbollah or the Muslim Brotherhood on grounds of supposed “anti-imperialism”.
In my Solidarity 3/195 article I stated that one sort of anarchists — anarcho-syndicalists — “focus on the wage-working class” and have a “coherent idea of what to do in un-revolutionary times”. They have ongoing, structured organisation.
But, I argued, anarcho-syndicalists’ dogmas constrain them to do their “political activity... with one hand tied behind their backs” and they conflate “the three distinct roles played in a Marxist perspective by three distinct sorts of organisation — the workers’ political party (or proto-party), the unions, and the workers’ councils”.
There’s been no comment on that criticism of anarcho-syndicalism. But some writers denounce my article on the grounds that there are variants of class-struggle anarchism other than anarcho-syndicalism. They say my article amounted to smearing non-syndicalist class-struggle anarchism by lumping it together with liberal or lifestyle-ist or utopian anarchism.
They have a fair point against the draft version of my article, which I posted on the web and which attracted the comment. In the final printed version, which I’d worked on more carefully, I wrote: “Some anarchists — primarily the anarcho-syndicalists, who on this issue have the same idea as Marxists do — identify with the working class as the force to defeat the capitalist state...” Primarily the anarcho-syndicalists; not exclusively the anarcho-syndicalists. I think “primarily” is right, and I’ll explain why in the course of this response.
"Dee" asserts that my critical comments on writers in the historic tradition of anarchism, Proudhon, Bakunin, Bookchin, etc., are malicious and arbitrary smears on today’s anarchists, because those writers have “no modern sway”.
Others respond in a contrary way, by arguing that Proudhon, Bakunin, etc. did focus on working-class struggle.
Anarchists polemicising with Trotskyists often concern themselves heavily with history — Trotskyists are damned because of what Trotsky did about Kronstadt in March 1921, or what he said in the Bolsheviks’ “trade union debate” in late 1920 — but plainly many anarchists today think that critical comments on Proudhon or Bakunin are just irrelevant point-scoring, because “no-one thinks that today”.
Our view, which we apply to our own tradition as well as to the anarchist tradition, is that everyone’s thought is heavily shaped by environment and tradition. As Keynes put it: “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.”
We can hope to escape being overwhelmed by the ideological influences around us — either directly, or indirectly, by forming our ideas by knee-jerk reaction — only by learning from an independent tradition which we study thoroughly and critically. We identify with the “Third Camp” Trotskyism of the Workers’ Party and the Independent Socialist League, and yet we argue that both Shachtman and Draper got some things seriously wrong.
We call ourselves Trotskyists and we think Trotsky was wrong to hold to the characterisation of the USSR as a “degenerated workers’ state” in the 1930s. We call ourselves Marxists, and many of us think Marx was wrong, for example, on the “tendency of the rate of profit to fall”.
We pore over the history because we believe, like Isaac Newton, that if we can see anything clearly it is because we stand on the shoulders of giants.
It’s the same reason why Marx spent so much effort unpicking the ideas of Feuerbach, Proudhon, Ricardo, and others, the people who for him were what Isaac Barrow was for Newton.
When we discuss other schools of thought — like anarchism — we have the same approach. We take the ideas seriously. We dig through the history. It is not gratuitous.
It could make sense to use Kropotkin’s term “anarchist communism” for your politics, while criticising Kropotkin on some issues — say, his support for World War One — and analysing how your criticisms relate to the core of Kropotkin’s ideas. But to us it makes no sense to say airily that the whole history of your own tradition is irrelevant because it has “no modern sway”.
Tom D and Iain McKay take the contrary tack: they defend Proudhon and the rest of the traditional anarchist writers as champions of working-class struggle.
That Kropotkin generally sympathised with “the people” and even with “the workers”, I don’t doubt. That “Bakunin supported unions and strikes” I wrote in so many words.
Proudhon’s statement that “the proletariat must emancipate itself without the help of the government” I quoted deliberately, so as to give the strongest evidence for the claim that Proudhon saw working-class struggle as the lever of change.
My argument was not that most anarchists fail to see working-class struggles as good examples of the “direct action” by “self-organised groups” against large-scale authority which they favour. It was that anarchism, where “the axis is the small local autonomous group (or even individuals) against (any) state, rather than workers against capital”, is constitutionally less able than Marxism to find a way that “the minority can act today so as best to contribute to majority action tomorrow [which can replace capitalism]”.
It is logical and a flaw, not an aberration and not a virtue, that most (not all) anarchists prefer “affinity” groups and one-off actions to ongoing organisation structured around definite political ideas.
In The Philosophy of Poverty — yes, I have read it, and not just Marx’s polemic against it — Proudhon writes of “liberty”, “equality”, “association”, “solidarity”, and even of “a war of labour against capital”.
Proudhon wishes well for the workers, in general. But he opposes strikes. His characteristic stance is that of the “man of science” pointing the way forward to be achieved by people in general understanding his enlightened views.
He seems to me to have the not-uncommon disdain of the self-consciously brainy self-educated skilled worker (which is what he was, though in later life he owned his own business and then worked as a manager) for the “average” worker.
“The day labourer has judged himself: he is content, provided he has bread, a pallet to sleep on, and plenty of liquor on Sunday. Any other condition would be prejudicial to him, and would endanger public order...”
Dockers he describes as grossly overpaid, “drunken, dissolute, brutal, insolent, selfish, and base”. “One of the first reforms to be effected among the working classes will be the reduction of the wages of some at the same time that we raise those of others”.
As for the rank and file in his own trade: “There are few men so weak-minded, so unlettered, as the mass of workers who follow the various branches of the typographic industry”. (And, for the anti-feminist Proudhon, even worse! “The employment of women has struck this noble industry to the heart, and consummated its degradation”).
He explains industrial profit as exclusively what mainstream economists would later call “pioneer’s profit” and “reward for risk”. “The net product belongs to [the man of enterprise] by the most sacred title recognised among men — labour and intelligence. It is useless to recall the fact that the net product is often exaggerated, either by fraudulently secured reductions of wages or in some other way. These are abuses... which remain outside the domain of the theory”.
As Daniel Guérin, a sympathetic commentator on Bakunin, puts it: “It was quite unjustly, reckoned Bakunin, that Marx and Engels spoke with the greatest distrust of the lumpenproletariat, of the slum proletariat, ‘for it is in it and in it alone, and not in the bourgeoisified layers of the worker masses, that the spirit and the force of the future revolution resides’.”
In relation to Bakunin, "Dee" accuses me of “going for the classic ‘anarchists only care about peasants’ line”. Where does he get that from? Anarchists, Bakunin included, tend not to differentiate much between peasants and the urban poor; the Zapatistas (not anarchists, but admired by many anarchists) are peasant-oriented; so was Makhno; so were the Russian Bakuninists when Plekhanov was their leading figure, before he became a Marxist.
But Bakunin saw the urban poor as the people most likely to organise spectacular, disruptive, localised “direct action” of the sort he considered most destructive to “authority”. Of course! Only, that’s different from having a strategy based on the material tendencies of capitalism and the specifically working-class struggles generated within it.
When Kropotkin came to write concise expositions of anarchism, he defined the driving force as the resurgence of a natural human order blocked only temporarily by the historical aberration of the State, and showing itself again in the way that “voluntary societies invade everything and are only impeded in their development by the State”. (A sort of left-wing version of David Cameron’s “Big Society”).
When young people call themselves “anarchist”, often all they mean is that they are left-wing but not yet sufficiently convinced to commit themselves to regular activity, instead preferring to join “actions” from time to time, or to gear their activity into a friendship group rather than a spelled-out strategy.
They have not studied Proudhon or Bakunin or Kropotkin. But those writers’ focus on the small local group against authority in general, filtered through anarchist culture over the decades, is surely what makes the label “anarchist” attractive to them.
The Anarchist Federation is as critical of that sort of loose anarchism as we are. So, what of AF anarchism?
The interview quoted above is recommended by the AF website to the reader who wants “to find out more about the kinds of things AF members get up to”.
“We’re working heavily on the anti-ID campaign... The London comrades [do mainly admin and journalistic stuff but] somehow they find time to go on the streets and do solidarity actions too! Some of our members are busy setting up or sustaining social centres. Others are busy in their local IWW branches. Then of course there’s asylum-seeker support...”
All good stuff, and all in broad terms “class struggle” activity. It differs from what the AWL does in its balance — in that we focus mainly on organising in workplaces and unions, and on self-education and the education of those around us. But that difference in focus is largely what my original article was about.
The bit of AF activity specifically focused on long-term working-class organisation (as distinct from more generic “the-people-against-power” stuff) is work in the IWW, a syndicalist organisation, suggesting that I wasn’t wrong to identify anarcho-syndicalism as the “primary” form of worker-focused anarchism.
The AF’s “Introduction to Anarchist Communism” extolls working-class struggle at length. But how does working-class struggle fit into AF strategy? And when the AF extolls working-class struggle, is that a roundabout way of extolling “direct action” in general, or a focus on the class character of struggle? That is less clear.
The AF states that the future society will be run by “local collectives and councils”. The AF pushes two things as the means for those “local collectives” to get strong enough to organise society: “direct action” and “self-organisation”, also summed up as “a culture of resistance”.
“Self-organised groups” are defined as those in which “everyone has an equal say and no one is given the right to represent anyone else. This kind of group is capable of deciding its own needs and taking direct action to meet them in a way that any hierarchical group based on representatives — like a political party or a trade union — cannot”.
No representatives. Not even the most democratically-elected and accountable representatives. So, the groups must indeed be “local”. Very local. It is hard to see how on the AF’s criteria even the workers of a single large factory could become a “self-organised group”. Even anarcho-syndicalist unions have not been able to do without elected delegates, committees, secretaries, stewards, and so on. (The AF praises workers’ councils as they they have existed in history, but makes no comment on the fact that these have been councils of... representatives).
How will the “local collectives” coordinate — as they must in any future society unless it is to try to reverse the development of productive forces within capitalism, which long ago went long beyond not only the small-workshop scale but even the national scale? Maybe the AF relies on Kropotkin’s argument that a natural human propensity to cooperate will solve the problem. I don’t know.
The anarcho-syndicalists, at the cost of some disrespect to anarchist dogma, had an answer to the question of coordination. Revolutionary unions — organising, through representative structures, far wider than locally — would do it.
Beyond doubt the AF, like Bakunin and Kropotkin, sympathises with the working class and favours biff and strife. And, because of anarcho-syndicalist influence I’d guess, it uses the term “working-class struggle” more than Bakunin or Kropotkin. But if you unpick the argument, you see that biff is valued primarily as “direct”, “self-organised”, and “local”, rather than primarily as working-class.
Indeed, Marxists see struggle as “class” in character partly to the extent that it goes beyond the “local” and the immediately “self-organised”. Logically, anarcho-syndicalists have, or should have, the same perception.
The AF’s strategic focus on working-class struggle is qualitatively less clear than that of anarcho-syndicalists.
The critics accuse me of conflating anarcho-syndicalism and revolutionary syndicalism.
In my article, I argued that anarcho-syndicalism was the most Marxist-influenced strand of anarchism; and, in my view, Trotsky was right to describe revolutionary syndicalism in its great days as “a remarkable rough draft of revolutionary communism” (i.e. revolutionary syndicalism also influenced Bolshevik Marxism as it developed after 1917).
The spectrum of revolutionary syndicalism ranges from variants of anarchism more attentive to working-class struggle, but still fundamentally geared to a “spontaneous-local-group-versus-structured-central-authority” axis of thinking, through to politics only a shade different from revolutionary Marxism.
Revolutionary syndicalism is, so to speak, a “transitional” political category. I think the history bears out that view.
I believe that the term “anarcho-syndicalism” was (like many other labels in politics) first coined as a pejorative term by opponents — in France in the early 1920s, by Marxists (many of them former revolutionary syndicalists who had not abjured their past, but had moved on) in their battles against the “pure” revolutionary syndicalists inside the CGTU (the more left-wing union federation, formed by expulsion from the reformist-syndicalist CGT).
In the great days of revolutionary syndicalism, before 1914, in France (the CGT) and the USA (the IWW), there was a range of views. Daniel De Leon was a sort of “Marxist-syndicalist”. He took up syndicalists’ ideas about transforming the trade-union movement on the basis of its elemental struggles but insisted that such activity must be coupled with “political” party activity (so far, so good, I think; but he had not yet worked out how to integrate the two wings of his strategy fully). There were anarchists in the IWW, but most leading members were not anarchists. Many had a diluted version of De Leon’s scheme, being members of both the IWW and the Socialist Party but without fully integrating the two dimensions.
There were similar people in the CGT. Victor Griffuelhes, general secretary of the revolutionary syndicalist CGT in its great days, was a member of the Socialist Party (of its “Blanquist” faction). But two of the main writers of the CGT, Fernand Pelloutier and Emile Pouget, were anarchists. Pelloutier was also influenced by Marxism, having been an organised Marxist before he became an anarchist.
Some of my critics claim that anarcho-syndicalism can be sharply differentiated from revolutionary syndicalism; but historically it usually hasn’t been, and some anarchists claim revolutionary syndicalism as their own. Iain McKay, in his “Anarchist FAQ”, argues of “Bakunin and Kropotkin... that many of their ideas were identical to those of revolutionary syndicalism”.
To the (varying, and never total) extent that it stresses “direct action” above longer-term organising and education and shies away from “politics”, revolutionary syndicalism connects to anarchism. But revolutionary syndicalism of any sort inevitably involves some shift away from “pure” anarchism. How big that shift can be, and yet you still call yourself an “anarcho-syndicalist”, depends I think more on fashion and personal taste than any rigid demarcation.
By crediting anarcho-syndicalism, in my original article, with all the virtues of revolutionary syndicalism, I was giving anarcho-syndicalism its strongest case, before criticising it. I was doing the very opposite of smearing it by false association.
The experience of Spanish anarcho-syndicalism — and its leaders’ decision to join the bourgeois Republican governments during the Spanish Civil War — is well-trodden ground in debates between Marxists and anarchists. That’s why I essayed a new angle, referring to France instead.
But Spain is relevant to the “Isaac Barrow” question.
The AF “Introduction” has a page extolling the virtues of the Spanish anarcho-syndicalists in the 1930s. What about them joining the Barcelona and Madrid bourgeois governments? The AF refers to that in passing as a “mistake”.
Just that — a “mistake”, as if they’d dialled a wrong digit when making a phone call. No discussion of why the “mistake” was made and what should be learned from it.
Rudolf Rocker wrote a pamphlet about Spain at the time. He didn’t comment on the anarchists joining the government, but focused only on defending them against Stalinist smears. Murray Bookchin wrote a full-scale article looking back at Spain. Mainly he tells us that he finds the Spanish anarchists “admirable”. He, too, suggests that joining the bourgeois governments was a mistake, but without conclusions.
Where will I find a rigorous anarchist critique of Proudhon or Bakunin? Bakunin described his ideas as “Proudhonism, extensively expanded upon and taken to its logical consequences”, but quietly dropped Proudhon’s opposition to unions and strikes without any full critique. Kropotkin wrote surveys of the evolution of anarchist thought, but presenting it as a bland progress, with no real polemic. And so, I think, it goes on.
Anarchists do not go much for criticising their comrades rigorously. They often spray venom at Marxists, from a distance, and they sometimes criticise their own: I’ve quoted the AF criticising anti-organisation anarchists; Malatesta did the same; and Bookchin wrote criticisms of different strands of anarchism. But developed polemic is rare. Although, as far as I can make out, the cult of “consensus decision-making” comes more from Quakers and capitalist management-expert advocates of “ringiseido” than from anywhere on the left, some anarchists today have adopted it as a point of honour.
As the sympathetic Daniel Guérin puts it: “The traits of anarchism are difficult to circumscribe. Its masters have almost never condensed their thought into systematic treatises... Libertarians [are] particularly inclined to swear by ‘anti-dogmatism’... Anarchism is, above all, what you might call a gut revolt...”
But “don’t polemicise against those you work with” tends to mean also: don’t work with those who polemicise. Even the most considered critic, "Dee", declares that he’ll find it “very difficult to work with AWL members unless they disavow my article’s criticisms.
Trotskyists are often accused of sectarianism and factionalism. Yet no AWL member would shy away from working in an anti-cuts committee or a stewards’ committee or a union caucus with SWPers or SPers — or Labour loyalists, or anarchists — on the grounds that those groups make polemics against us much ruder than mine against anarchism!
We take it for granted that political and polemical differ by only two letters...
Anarchists don’t. That is why the demarcations among anarchists are chronically unclear (despite Tom D’s assertion that they are “as clear as in any other field”). That is why anarchist organising (even for those anarchists who do organise) can never adequately form a “memory of the working class” — never adequately and systematically work over the lessons of past struggles to bring ideas from them to new struggles.
Excerpts from the web debate
Proudhon and Bakunin maligned
“[Proudhon] did not even see industrial capital as exploitative. In his view only financial and merchant capital were exploitative”.
Not remotely true — Proudhon was quite explicit that exploitation was a product of wage-labour, of workers selling their labour/liberty to a boss, that it happened in production. Indeed, his theory of why industrial capital is exploitative is similar to Marx’s — except that Proudhon argued it first.
Only someone utterly ignorant of Proudhon’s ideas would make such a statement — I guess that they have been spending too much time reading The Poverty of Philosophy rather than Proudhon!
And, let us be honest, there are very, very few mutualists around — invoking Proudhon is irrelevant because most anarchists are revolutionaries, not reformists! But I guess it sets the tone for what comes next.
“Bakunin did not see the working class as the central agent of revolution. He considered peasants and the urban unemployed, beggars, petty criminals, etc. to be much more potent revolutionary forces”.
Anarchists are class-struggle people
Just as not every self-styled socialist can actually be considered a socialist — so too it is with anarchism. See for example, “Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism”, which argues with some evidence that the only type of anarchism is class struggle anarchism — hence Proudhon, Bookchin, as well as primitivist, individualist, utopian “anarchists” cannot be considered anarchist.
“Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the ‘father of anarchism’, was opposed to unions, strikes, and class struggle”. Right, given that his ideas on unions, strikes and class struggle (or any of his ridiculous petty-bourgeois mutualist ideas) have literally zero sway in contemporary anarchist thought, the relevance of this is...?
For what it’s worth, in anarchist circles I’ve been involved with, the only ideas of Proudhon’s given any notice are his ideas on surplus value — ideas which Marx (who, in the opinion of almost every anarchist I’ve met, is an infinitely better thinker and more useful and closer to our politics than Proudhon) was massively influenced by.
“Bakunin did not see the working class as the central agent of revolution. He considered peasants and the urban unemployed, beggars, petty criminals, etc. to be much more potent revolutionary forces.”
You’re going for the classic “anarchists only care about peasants” line. I didn’t realise that was still used against anarchists for real. You’ve got Bakunin wrong, as it happens. Having said that, I don’t know a single living anarchist who bases their ideas on his...
Why write a massive load on anarchist politics that have no modern sway? In doing so you make anarcho-syndicalism (and all other types of class struggle anarchism, which don’t seem to exist for you...) sound marginal — when actually the vast majority of anarchists and anarchist struggles have been class struggle in nature. You do it to malign anarchism, and that is the purpose of this essay, there is no honest intent to it.