Anarchism, Marxism, and polemic

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”.

Absolute nonsense...

Iain McKay

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.



if anarchists are elitist, they cant reach a classless society

“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 (from the interview with an AF-activist)

I could watch this in a big german city for decades. There is an anarchist group who always makes their 10-person demonstrations, almost weekly, around subjects which are also those of a broader left, but they never inform any1 else b4 and never ask any other group for doin´something togetzher- while their place is surrounded by the offices of other groups, so that contacting each other was an easy thing to do. but remaining sectarian since decades....

why so much timewaste here with anarchists, while more important subjects have no takers?

Response to Tom

a) Didn't know you were operating "in secret", and don't see why, but if you wish... ok, done.

b) You refer us to Iain McKay, who does defend Proudhon as a champion of working-class struggle.

I've explained above why I don't think the "defences of Bakunin and Kropotkin" meet the mark.

The article is not a book-length survey of all anarchist writings. But it's an article, not a book.

I now have a copy of the book which "Dee" recommended, "Black Flame". I'll study it and see what I think. I notice, though, even on first glance, that the authors define themselves as articulating a body of ideas founded by Bakunin and Kropotkin. Their attitude is not at all "we are the real anarchists, everyone else is a fake, and anything you may say about Bakunin or Kropotkin is irrelevant, since their ideas have no sway with us".

c) I do not extrapolate from what most self-described anarchists to the essence of anarchism! Right at the start of the article I say that there are minority strands in anarchism which "cannot justly be condemned “by association” with the other anarchists"...

However, we have a coherent account (which you can dispute, of course) for why "Marxism" became a prestigious word annexed by bureaucracies like the Stalinist, and thus why lots of people call themselves "Marxist" who have little in common with Marxism as we understand it. Rather as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea has little in common with democracy as we understand it.

"Anarchism" has never been a prestigious word in that way, and it's not obvious why lots of people should want to call themselves anarchist other than by some identification (however loose, unformed, unclear, etc.) with ideas historically associated with anarchism.

I know there are anarchists different from the "loose anarchists" (defined by hostility to organisation, focus on one-off "actions" rather than long-term organising, fetish of consensus decision-making, etc.) whom form the big majority of self-described anarchists whom we meet. (And, Guenter, there are lots of them, and many of them young people open to discussion, not the ten-person cliques: that's a good reason to spend some time on the ideas).

I try both to explain why I think the "organising anarchists" are deficient, and why I think the "loose anarchists" describe themselves as anarchists because of a real logical connection between their ideas and the bedrock ideas of historic anarchism. And I try to do that without suggesting that the "organising anarchists" and the "loose anarchists" are the same, and without trying to knock either down by association with the other.

d) Read The Fate of the Russian Revolution. We defend the Bolsheviks on the whole, and where we think they made mistakes, we say why and what we think the mistake was. It is not remotely comparable to writing a page extolling the Spanish anarcho-syndicalists and then noting, in half a sentence, that as if by some oversight or mix-up they happened to join bourgeois governments.

Still a pretty big simplification

As I've said, I think the terms in which this debate are being framed are fundamentally not very useful. Still, I'll try to get round to writing a full reply in a few days. But just to pick you up on one major point - no-one had major problems with your criticism of CGT-style, pre-WWI apolitical syndicalism. The problem is that you still pretend the anarcho-syndicalist tradition just ends there. So, to take a fairly major point, when you say "Unions, if they are to be effective, must include as nearly as possible the whole workforce, excluding only strike-breakers. Under anywhere near normal conditions, they include many workers whose social ideas are conformist and bourgeois. To try to make the union a revolutionary-educational force is to narrow it down and make it ineffective as a union. The activists end up with neither an effective union, nor an effective party, but something which is botched in both respects." That's fair enough. But it's not an answer to the strategy promoted by contemporary anarcho-syndicalists, when they say "The role of anarcho-syndicalist networks and unions is not to try and recruit every worker, but to advocate and organise mass meetings of all workers involved in each struggle so that the workers involved retain control. Within these mass meetings anarcho-syndicalists argue for the principles of solidarity, direct action and self-organisation." That's clearly very different to the One Big Union approach. You could say that SolFed's idea of a revolutionary union is so unlike a normal trade union that their use of the word "union" confuses more than it clarifies, and I'd have some sympathy with you on that point, but they are manifestly not aiming to recruit all workers into their "union", and they clearly differentiate between it and a mass assembly/workers' council.
If you're actually interested in engaging with the practice of contemporary class-struggle anarchists, I'd recommend starting off with Winning the Class War, the AF's industrial strategy, this discussion piece that was produced as a follow-up, and maybe the AF's critical analysis of syndicalism as well.

And can you really not see why militant working-class activists might not want their full names put up on the internet? Do you work for a living? Do you imagine you might need to apply for a new job at any point? Do you imagine you might need to apply for a new job with an employer who knows how to use google at any point? Do you intend to organise in any future jobs you have, and do you think it's a good idea to let your boss know about that kind of thing in advance?

AF; names

Ok, I'll look into that AF stuff. But "to advocate and organise mass meetings of all workers involved in each struggle so that the workers involved retain control. Within these mass meetings... argue for the principles of solidarity, direct action and self-organisation" is in no way specific to anarcho-syndicalism. It is common-ground militant, democratic, rank-and-file trade-unionism. That is not where the difference lies between Trotskyism and anarcho-syndicalism.

On the "don't let anyone know my real name" stuff... Our AWL activists in many industries take care not to put their names to anything written about their own workplace or their own employer. But they appear at public meetings and demonstrations under their real names; they run in union and council or parliamentary elections under their real names; they sell papers on the streets; they publish articles, pamphlets, and even books under their real names...

Anyway, I notice that Tom, who objects to his real name being attached to his polemical comments against us, tells the whole world on his Facebook page that he is a leftie. So he thinks future employers would ignore his Facebook page, but refuse him employment on the grounds that... he has denounced Trotskyists? Dream on.

Trotskyism, anarcho-syndicalism, syndicalism

If Trotskyists agree with some anarcho-syndicalist tactics, that's nice to know. If you want to claim that this is "not where the difference lies between Trotskyism and anarcho-syndicalism", then sure, I'm not interested in disputing that. However, that's not what I was talking about; I was talking about the difference between classical CGT-style syndicalism, which you rightly critique for trying to "include as nearly as possible the whole workforce", and modern anarcho-syndicalism, which acknowledges that "the role of anarcho-syndicalist networks and unions is not to try and recruit every worker", in order to make the point that your "critique of syndicalism" doesn't have much relevance to what real live anarcho-syndicalists are actually trying to do today. I even directly quoted both those phrases so as to make it clear what I was talking about, so I really don't understand where you got the idea that I was talking about Trotskyism from.
I'm not that bothered about what AWL activists do or don't do under their real names; I just object fairly strongly to getting people to submit their names, telling them that it will be "kept private and will not be shown publicly", and then publishing it without asking them. I don't know Tom, I don't know his facebook privacy settings, but I take care to keep my facebook profile private, so I'd be pretty unhappy if you published my name as a revolutionary activist. I'm sure it was just thoughtlessness and not a conscious attempt to emulate Redwatch, but it's still unhelpful.

Names; "one interview"; Trotsky; varieties of anarchism

1. Some Trotskyists have the custom of using "party names" for internal affairs inside their organisation, so that people like Labour Party bureaucrats (in Britain) can't tag them with a particular organisational role as distinct from their general politics.

I don't know of any, in more or less stable bourgeois democracies, who do their public activity under pseudonyms. Even Lutte Ouvriere, the most secretive of the would-be Trotskyist groups, has its members running in elections and doing trade-union activity under their real names. Of course. And speaking under their real names in public meetings, too, which are (of course) advertised on the web...

In any case, let's drop the wild talk of "Stalinism" and "touting". No-one is going to get picked up by the police, or blacklisted by employers, for denouncing Trotskyism!

In the actual case, of the people involved, one was identified only by a first name, which won't be much use to the Google-happy employer (and I don't even know whether it's a real first name - it's just the name the writer chose to give when registering on this website); and one can be identified as a leftie from his Facebook page (yes, basic info is available to anyone logged in to Facebook). There is no question of "outing" undercover activists.

2. The "one interview on a blog" is not one interview on a blog, but the text recommended by the home page of the AF website as an introduction to what the AF does.

3. We just don't agree that Trotsky assisted "counter-revolution". It is not as if we say, oh, he did, but that was just "a mistake" on the same level as mis-spelling a word or getting a phone number wrong.

4. If no-one in this debate has "major problems with [my] criticism of CGT-style, pre-WWI apolitical syndicalism", then that's good. (In fact, I argued in the first article that to call the pre-1914 CGT "a-political" was unfair. It was political, only in a self-limiting way). But it does mean that we are debating here with, let's say, the "wing" of anarchism closest to Marxism.

That's all right; and it's all right, also, that the comrades ask us to look at their publications in more detail.

But it also has to be all right that we, as AWL, tackle the ideas of the big majority of the anarchists we find around us, especially if we said explicitly near the start of the first article that there are many variants of anarchism, and some (which we identify as "primarily anarcho-syndicalism") against whom many of the criticisms made of other anarchists are (we think) not valid.

In the National Coalition against Fees and Cuts, and in Workers' Climate Action, we have worked with and argued with lots of activists who consider themselves anarchists, and the basic issues of dispute there are such things as whether these organisations should have any sort of membership structure; indeed, whether any organisation with a defined membership becomes, by that very fact, bureaucratic.

We ourselves have pointed out before now that: "It's been left-anarchists who've kept Jo Freeman's critique The Tyranny of Structurelessness in circulation".

But it's all right for us to criticise other anarchists, too. And there are vastly more of them around than AFed types.

We're planning to follow up by studying, and dealing in more detail with, texts like the AFed publications recommended and "Black Flame"; but also by discussing further the ideas of the anti-organisation anarchists.

A reply

I've written out a reply here. I'll be interested to see if this one gets any response.


Dear "Cautiously Pessimistic" or however you want to be referred to,

Maybe your articles would stand a better chance of being responded to if you didn't write them in such a whiny tone. Your constant refrain is "oh, no-one really cares about this anyway, it's so long and boring, I've wasted my time by reading these articles, why am I even bothering?" If you feel that way, please feel free to stop writing.

And if the best you can do by way of an attempted critique of our politics is to denounce as as "bureaucratic nationalists" then I don't think you're in much of a position to lecture anyone about not engaging with the full breadth and depth of other people's politics. ("The AWL say they don't support Hamas and Hezbollah, but aha! They support the KLA! So really they're just as bad as the SWP and only anarchists have a working-class critique of 'anti-imperialism'. Job done!" It's not very impressive, is it?)

Secondly, the amount of fuss you're making about this whole name thing is bizarre. Anyone with an account on this website can see the details of anyone else with an account, so anyone who was logged-in and reading your comments could've seen that you'd put your first name as "Toby" just by clicking on your username. And, as people have pointed out, the idea that any employer/cop/whatever could somehow track you down and repress you because we put "Toby" on an article instead of "Dee" is just paranoid.

I don't think you want to engage in a serious debate. I think you just want to swear a lot (how radical of you!) and denounce AWL members as "Leninist sacks of shit" (is this meant to make us take you seriously as a critic?). If that makes you feel good, you carry on. If you think you're scoring a blow for your tradition against ours, fine. Carry on. But don't adopt the self-righteous posture about how your oh-so-important contributions aren't being properly responded to.


Daniel Randall

Dear "AWL", or however you

Dear "AWL", or however you want to be referred to,
I've explained why I bother replying to your articles. As an open-minded anarchist, I'm interested in criticism of my ideas. That doesn't mean I'm under any obligation to pretend that I think any given piece of criticism is worthwhile, well-written, or makes any valid points. I'll stop replying to articles I find unimpressive when you stop writing articles on political traditions that you clearly find contemptible. I called you bureaucratic nationalists because you're keen on specific sections of the Labour movement bureaucracy, and because you're keen on specific nationalists, and provided links to pieces you'd written to support that claim. If you don't think that's a valid critique, then I can't make you change your mind, but I thought it might be helpful for both of us to talk about the areas where our politics actually differ, rather than just throwing about a bunch of insults on the level of "anarchists don't believe in the working class" "no, but Leninists did Kronstadt/Stalinism." I acknowledge that you're not the same as the SWP, but there's still real differences between our positions on the national question: you support the right of nations to self-determination - which is a nationalist position whether you like it or not - anarchists, or at least the anarchist tradition that I identify with - think that nationalism is always a cross-class ideology which should be combatted, and that self-determination is meaningless in an imperialist age.

I'm not sure about this "anyone with an account on this website can see the details of anyone else with an account" claim you make. As a non-AWL member, I certainly can't see anyone else's name, and I've clicked on several profiles to check this. I think that, as the signup form promises, it's a hidden piece of information only accessible to certain verified members, so taking that sensitive information and putting it into the public domain is a breach of trust. And that's before we even begin to consider the massive, massive difference between "anyone with an account on the AWL website" and "anyone who happens to google Tom's full name and go through enough pages".
And that's not my name - there's more than one anarchist in the world, believe it or not - but nice work making Dee's real name public again after all mention of it in the original article had been hidden. I'm prepared to accept the initial naming as thoughtlessness, but to carry on doing it is clearly malicious. And rather clumsy, given that, as I've said, I'm not Dee.
Congratulations on reading my mind, though. I thought that, by writing two thousand words engaging with the points you raised, in the course of which I happened to use a few naughty words - probably considerably less than I'd use in a real-life conversation of the same length - I might trick people into thinking that I was interested in a serious debate, but you saw right through me. Clearly, no-one who takes ideas seriously would ever swear or use a jokey allegory. I should've remembered that politics is a specialist subject, to be discussed only by those political specialists who employ the correct formal tone. This battle of ideas stuff is so much simpler when you concentrate on the style instead of that boring "ideas" bit.


Given that the Kosovars were facing a war of extermination from Serbian nationalists I see no problem with militarily supporting the KLA. Their politics petit-bourgeoius nationalism is quite another thing but when people are being attacked by fascist gangs surely it is only right to support armed self-defence?

NATO of course were no friends of the Kosovars and ensured that Kosova remained subjugated. It is possible to oppose imperialism and ethnic chauvinism at the same time.

Likewise we should support the rebels and revolutionaries in Libya without giving support to the bourgeois or petit-bourgeois elements of the Libyan opposiiton- for arms and support to the Libyan rebels, for a working class (and small famrers') revolution across North Africa and the Middle East.

Where do you draw the line?

"Given that the Palestinians were facing a war of extermination from the Israeli state I see no problem with militarily supporting Hamas. Their reactionary religious fundamentalism is quite another thing but when people are being attacked by imperialist armies surely it is only right to support armed self-defence?"

I agree that it is possible to oppose imperialism and ethnic chauvinism at the same time, I just don't see how it's possible to oppose ethnic chauvinism and support a group that carries out ethnic cleansing at the same time.
So we should not give support to the bourgeois or petit-bourgeois elements of the Libyan opposition, but we should give support to a Kosovar group that you yourself describe as petit-bourgeois? I understand politics is a tricky business at the best of times, but I really don't think that "Libyan petit-bourgeois forces bad, Kosovan petit-bourgeois forces good" is a coherent position.

"engaging with full politics"

To the activist known as Cautiously Pessmistic:

Daniel (oh no! outed! MI5 will surely be hunting him down as I type!) has said just about all that's worth pointing out on your article.

The distinction you draw between "syndicalism" and "anarcho-syndicalism" is interesting, but from what I've read on the subject, I take the view that the difference is superficial. However, if you'd care to explain the difference more fully, I'd be interested to read.

I note, however, that until this point, what you've written has taken the form of precious, adolescent sniffing, as if to say, "this is so obvious, it is below me to even point the distinction out". It is not, and it is not. Stoop to explain it, would you?

On the subject of engaging fully with the politics of the AWL on the question of the Labour Party - how do you square our relentless criticism of labour movement bureaucracy (and articles such as the editorial "Labour is a rotting corpse!") with the charge that our attitude to the LP is uncritical and bureaucratic? How do you square the charge of bureaucratism with the fact that our tendency is defined by the break it made with the local-government left (within which we were hegemonic) in the 1980s-90s? Could it be that our policy towards the LP is more complicated than simple bureaucratism?

For what it's worth, and this is a discussion for a different post:

1) Independent working-class political representation lies on the other side of the split in the Labour Party; an independent working-class political organisation cannot be willed into existence but must come about through battles in the existing organisations

2) Engaging with the political party, which, for better or worse, remains the only political expression of the labour movement, and which retains the identification of a substantial number of politically conscious working-class militants is not "sowing illusions". I think it's quite daft to view our policy as "sowing illusions" - a group of 150 people cannot, through engaging with the LP, "sow illusions" on such a massive level. We can, however, organise those most politically-advanced elements in the LP for a fight, nurture what 'green shoots' exist within the party, with the perspective of paving the way for a new organisation. Our policy is a recognition of the reality of the situation of working-class political representation: not enthusiastically making propaganda for the status quo. Surely you can tell the difference? Your hysterical denunciations and "exposing" of our Labourite sins are not impressive.

You can read about this in our pamphlet "Illusions of Power", available on the website. Likewise, our internal debates, conference documents and position papers on the LP question generally are available on this site.

And as for the way you portray our attitude to the KLA: "aha! I have discovered the secret second-campism within the AWL! They uncritically support the KLA!" The way you deal with this issue is profoundly dishonest and childish - searching for the non-existent trump card in a very bad hand. What we actually wrote on the KLA in the article you quote was a long way from uncritical support:

"We argued for independence for Kosova,
because of the oppression suffered by the
Albanian majority at the hands of Serbia over
centuries. We defended the right of Kosovars,
including the Kosova Liberation Army (KLA), to
defend themselves."

Is there any part of that you can honestly disagree with? Or are you just behaving like a petulant child?

Would the masked desperado calling himself Cautiously Pessimistic please grow up?

"Daniel (oh no! outed! MI5

"Daniel (oh no! outed! MI5 will surely be hunting him down as I type!) has said just about all that's worth pointing out on your article."
He also said "Your constant refrain is "...why am I even bothering?" If you feel that way, please feel free to stop writing." If you feel that there's nothing else worth saying about my article, you might want to follow his advice. Of course, you don't, so drop the pose please.
"The distinction you draw between "syndicalism" and "anarcho-syndicalism" is interesting, but from what I've read on the subject, I take the view that the difference is superficial. However, if you'd care to explain the difference more fully, I'd be interested to read." This piece is a decent short overview of the differences:
"Anarcho-syndicalism developed out of Revolutionary Syndicalism, however whereas Revolutionary Syndicalists rejected any politics in the union (in the 1906 Charter of Amiens), anarcho-syndicalists insisted that any organisation of workers must have explicitly revolutionary politics lest it lapse into reformism and collaboration with the ruling class. Following the Revolutionary Syndicalist CGT’s support for World War One, against the anarchist principle of international working class solidarity, the Spanish CNT voted in 1923 to adopt libertarian communism (anarchism) as its explicit goal.
While anarcho-syndicalists advocate similar tactics to syndicalists, their revolutionary politics mean they don't aim to recruit all workers into ‘One Big Union.’ Instead, they try and organise alongside non-anarcho-syndicalist workers by advocating mass meetings, factory committees and workers’ councils which unite all workers...
This use of assembilies and councils for all workers, union members or not, is one of the main factors distinguishing anarcho-syndicalism from simple syndicalism, which puts more effort into recruiting all workers into the union regardless of political beliefs.
Another important difference is that anarcho-syndicalists don’t limit themselves to workplace activity, seeing tactics such as rent strikes and unemployed organising as means to further working class demands outside the workplace, alongside the more typically syndicalist direct action of strikes, occupations and sabotage by workers at the point of production...
Anarcho-syndicalists believe that workers should take direct action to get better conditions at work and win social and political demands (while always having revolution and workers’ control as their final goal). An example of this would be the Spanish CNT (National Confederation of Labour) striking for the release of political prisoners in the beginning of the 20th Century, and British construction workers doing the same in the 1970s. Other recent political strikes include general strikes against the second Iraq war in Italy, Spain and Germany."
I don't think that you can equate organisations that explictly reject political positions and aim to be open to all workers with groups that explicitly adopt revolutionary political positions and accept that they will not become mass organisations at any point in the foreseeable future but instead seek to organise mass meetings, and ultimately workers' councils, open to all workers. Criticising the CGT for backing WWI is legitimate, just as much as criticising the classic social-democratic parties is; but pretending that the story of anarcho-syndicalism ends there is about as valid as pretending that the fate of the 2nd International proves Marxism failed. As someone with an active interest in anarchist and anarcho-syndicalist politics, the distinction is fairly clear to me; I accept that this may not be the case for someone who doesn't have that interest, but I'd assumed that anyone who took it on themselves to write an article on the subject would have a reasonable amount of knowledge on it.
I never claimed that your attitude is uncritically bureaucratic. Clearly, you oppose vast sections of the Labour movement bureaucracy, both in the Labour Party and in the trade unions. However, you believe that there are good things to be achieved by getting specific individuals appointed to specific positions within the bureaucracy - as seen by your championing of John McDonnell, and certain other figures within, for instance, the NUS - whereas I don't think these structures can be meaningly reformed. You may not think that this counts as bureaucratic, but there is clearly a real difference of opinion on the subject here. As for the idea of a split in the Labour Party, I'd think that the mass exodus of membership under Blair could be described as precisely that. More to the point, I also don't really think that you have to be part of an organisation to argue that people should leave it. In fact, I'd say the opposite makes considerably more sense. If someone's such a die-hard Labourite that they'll automatically reject your views for not being part of the party, then I don't think there's much hope of persuading them of the need for independent representation.
I can honestly say I disagree with both those sentences - I don't think that ethnic separatism is the correct response to racism, any more than I think the horrific oppression suffered by African-Americans means they need a separate black state, and I'm perfectly willing to support "the right of Kosovars to defend themselves" as an abstract principle, but when that takes the form of a group that carries out murderous attacks against Serb civilians, I think that communists should be honest about the fact that we don't see that as a helpful development. Do you support the KLA's right to defend themselves, but not their right to take part in war crimes? And what does that distinction actually mean in practice?

If you've got nothing to hide, you've got nothing to fear?

I realise that you're not very interested in this whole "debate" and "responding to critics" thing, but I just wondered what you'd make of this article? Obviously, just more proof that anyone who objects to your using their real name instead of a pseudonym, and wants to keep stuff they write online anonymous, is just wildly paranoid and unreasonable.


We have already amended the article (weeks ago). I would also reiterate the points already made that it is really pretty unlikely that any employer or the state could find out anything about you from the publication of a first name unattached to any other details.

I am sorry no-one consulted with you before attaching your first name to the article; sometimes things that should get done don't get done. Lesson learnt, it won't happen again.

I think the repeated accusations that we are unconcerned about activist security or the implication that this was a deliberate, malicious act are ridiculous.

I also think that you might wish to consider whether the lack of interest in responding to your "criticism" stems less from our general aversion to it (after all we did publish, voluntarily and unprompted, your initial critiques, whatever you think about the name attached to them) and more to the fact that you insist on calling us things like "dishonest Leninist sacks of shit" and on conducting the debate in a tone that goes beyond sharp critique/polemic and into vituperation.

Daniel Randall