By Ira Berkovic
Yves Coleman’s article in Solidarity 224 Five things Trotskyists Should Know About Today’s Young ‘Anarchists’ is a little difficult to get to grips with, much like the politics of the people — “today’s young ‘anarchists’” — whose corner Yves has chosen to fight. The mirroring of content and form is a neat trick, but it doesn’t make a fruitful exchange particularly easy.
Yves objects to a recent series of articles (presumably Martin Thomas’s review of Lucien Van Der Walt and Michael Schmidt’s book Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism), which he found “too much centred on ‘old-style’ 19th-century anarchism and not on today’s diverse, confused libertarian and anarchist currents.”
As a point-of-departure, this is a little unfair; the series was a critical review of a recently-published book about the “anarchist tradition” which was recommended by an anarchist in debate with us as the best statement of anarchist views. The series did not pretend to be a comprehensive engagement with all of today’s currents. If Yves’s objection is that we have not devoted sufficient time to attempting such an engagement, I can only suggest that he takes another look at our recent work and written material. He might try, just for starters, Ed Maltby’s “How to organise to change the world”, Bob Sutton on the dissolution of Climate Camp or my own “Open letter to a direct-action militant” or “Can we build a revolutionary workers’ movement?”
He should also note our working in and building up networks like No Sweat, Workers’ Climate Action and Feminist Fightback — direct-action, activist coordinations that unite Trotskyists, anarchists and others to organise on the basis of shared class-struggle politics within wider anti-capitalist milieus. Perhaps Yves considers these efforts inadequate or politically misguided, but to suggest that we only engage with anarchists as if they were all nothing more than slavish acolytes of Bakunin and Proudhon is unreasonable.
Unlike other Trotskyist organisations (such as the SWP, whose dreadful recent series on “anarchism” used the term interchangeably with “autonomism”), we have attempted to engage critically with anarchism both in its form as a discrete theoretical tradition and in its more diffuse modern manifestation.
So Yves’s ostensible starting point (merely to chivvy the AWL, without agenda, into an engagement with a different expression of “anarchist” ideas) is at the very least, misplaced. What’s the article’s purpose? In a correspondence reproduced on the anarchist-dominated website LibCom, Yves writes: “If you read my conclusion with accurate glasses it seems clear (at least to me) that if Trotskyists want to discuss with anarchists they should question … their program and leave Trotskyism in the ‘dustbins of history’”. I have no problem with Yves attempting to persuade us to break with Trotskyism, but if this is his aim he should be upfront about it.
I know Yves is committed to real debate — non-sectarian but sharp and serious. Despite his warm words for young anarchists uninterested in old texts, he has given much of his own energy in recent years to digging out and publishing... old texts of anarchism and Marxism. He should write, therefore, so that we can debate the words on the page without “glasses” — “accurate" or otherwise.
I agree that there are specific politics and general ways-of-thinking that have become incorporated into “Trotskyist” common-sense (most of them inherited wholesale from Stalinism) that do belong in “the dustbin of history”. But exactly what specific ideas Yves thinks we should throw out, and what ideas from anarchist traditions — if any — we should replace them with remains a mystery. He doesn’t spell it out in his article (or maybe I’m just not wearing the right “glasses”).
He is not even clear about whether he agrees with the politics of “today’s young anarchists”, whose defender and advocate he has apparently appointed himself. On “militancy at work”, for example, Yves argues that “young anarchists” are more interested in “direct action in their community” rather than the workplace. The implication is that precariousness has shifted the nuclear core at which capitalism can be challenged away from struggles in workplaces and the organisations that grow out of them (that is, unions).
Yves describes a “Trotskyist” strategy of “infiltrating the trade union bureaucracy” (appearing to denote by this, not just activities oriented to positions in the official machine, like say the SP’s in PCS, but any systematic engagement with trade-union organisation) and says some anarchists share it, but highlights the fact that many anarchists maintain an overt hostility to established labour movements. Certainly, some anarchists do think this. But are they right to think it?
Does the proliferation of precarious work (call centres, service and retail sector jobs etc.), particularly amongst young people, somehow alter the fundamental analysis that sees the wage relation, in workplaces, specifically (rather than what some anarchists mystically describe as “hierarchy” or “power relations”, pervading diffusely throughout all of society and no more or less hegemonic in the workplace than in a classroom or on a housing estate) as the nuclear core of capitalism? We believe that it doesn’t. Certainly, the “shape” of the working class has changed since the 60s, 70s and 80s but the essential DNA of capitalism has not.
On the question of “direct action”, to give another example, the debate is not whether we should organise it “now” (which the anarchists want, apparently), or reject it until we achieve a “primitive accumulation of militants (or cadres) to build the party”: we can all agree that “direct action now” is necessary. The questions are what kind of direct action, by whom, and for what? Yves’s article doesn’t scratch the surface of those fundamental questions, and is rather poorer for it.
Part of Yves’s problem is that, in attempting to speak on behalf of a milieu that is, by definition and by his own admission, diffuse, contradictory and “confused”, he can only deal in impressionistic brush-strokes. The politics of the people Yves is attempting to describe are not fixed. They are on a journey — some towards more theoretically-concrete “classical anarchism”, some towards anarcho-syndicalism, some perhaps towards the revolutionary syndicalism which bears a great deal in common with our own politics, some away from working-class anti-capitalism altogether and towards individualist lifestylist utopianism.
When the AWL meets people at various stages of that political journey, we attempt to engage with them, and not by throwing critiques of Bakunin at them but by trying to identify shared politics to organise around. That common organisation sometimes involves us learning from them, but it also involves identifying where we think they’re wrong and attempting to persuade them of our ideas.
It is on that terrain, on the terrain of which ideas are right and which are wrong, that the engagement between “Trotskyists” and “today’s young ‘anarchists’” must take place. The fact that, according to Yves, some “young anarchists […] are not looking for a coherent, scientific point of view” doesn’t change this; it simply means that that, too, is an, idea which needs debating.
Many of the ideas Yves describes — a focus on building cooperatives or social centres, an emphasis on organising “non-traditional” groups of workers, a perspective that sees squatting a building as equally anti-capitalist/revolutionary as organising a strike — are modern echoes of pre-Marxist utopian socialism. You can see them, alive and well, in the Occupy movement, many of whose activists see the establishment and maintenance of the protest camps as an end in itself rather than a symbolic act or an action designed to provide leverage to win political demands (as per the epigraph on Yves’s article — “when I cook for the Occupy movement, I contribute to changing the world”.)
21st century utopians (which would perhaps be a better label than “anarchists” for the people Yves is describing, although anarchism has always had utopian elements) start from an opposition to capitalism, but often without a clear analysis of what it is or how it works, and a vague idea of an alternative, but without an identifiable agency for achieving it.
The AWL believes that capitalism is not simply an accumulation of its symptoms or bad effects, but a specific system predicated fundamentally on the exploitation of wage labour. It can only be disrupted and overthrown by subverting that exploitative relationship.
This means that workers’ self-organisation, at the point of exploitation, is “privileged” as a form of organisation. It means that strikes, sit-ins and other forms of class-struggle direct action are “privileged” as forms of action. It means that the organisations organically generated from capitalist class relations (trade unions) are key sites of struggle, no matter how bureaucratic or badly-led they may be. And it means that only workers’ self-organisation and struggle can provide a basis for building a new society.
“Today’s young ‘anarchists’” — our 21st century utopians — don’t agree, Yves tells us. Fine. But, to be perhaps a little blunter than Yves would like, they are wrong. The Marxist critique of such perspectives is as valid now as it was in 1848, and is one aspect of our tradition that we are not prepared to junk.
If Yves wants to contribute more productively to a continuing engagement between the AWL and anarchists of whatever stripe and school, he would do better to say precisely which ideas he believes are right and which wrong, rather than setting himself up as an ostensibly-neutral (but in fact partisan) conduit for the constantly-shifting ideas of a layer of activists with which we already have a long experience of engaging.
Enough with the glasses, Yves; let’s have the debate in plain view.
• Coleman article: here.
• Libcom exchange: here.
• Maltby: here.
• Sutton: here.