All feathered up: a new defence of anarchism

Review of "Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism", by Michael Schmidt and Lucien van der Walt (AK Press).

Click here to download all three parts as pdf.
Variants of revolutionary syndicalism were major influences in the labour movements of several countries between the 1890s and World War One.

Their activists reckoned the work of the "political" socialists who spent much time on parliamentary electioneering to be deficient or even harmful, and focused effort on building up militant and democratic trade-union movements which they believed could be both the agency to overthrow capitalist power and the framework for future working-class administration of society. Some of them saw themselves as anarchists as well as syndicalists - "anarcho-syndicalists".

Schmidt and van der Walt, a journalist and an academic from Johannesburg, South Africa, tell us not only about the famous movements of France and Spain, Argentina and Mexico, but also about the less-known ones of China, Japan, and Korea.

Their book is not primarily a history. The authors reconstruct what the authors call a "broad anarchist tradition". They argued that it includes all of revolutionary syndicalism, not just the strands which called themselves anarchist. They present their own variant of "anarchism" as the most thorough and "sophisticated" development of the "tradition".

Their own version of anarchism is one in which the traditional points of dispute with Marxism are thinned down or, some of them, virtually given up; but it is accompanied by a horror of Marxism.

Schmidt and van der Walt never say straight out that they agree that a working class overthrowing capitalism must organise from among itself a strong revolutionary authority to combat counter-revolution and consolidate the new order. They never directly disavow the traditional anarchist doctrine of the immediate abolition of any form of state.

But they pointedly do not repeat Bakunin's doctrine that the task of anarchists on the day after any revolution must be (through, so Bakunin held, a "secret" network of "invisible pilots") to thwart, divert, disrupt the victorious workers in their moves to coordinate their efforts democratically by electing a revolutionary authority.


They agree with "taking power in society" and "creating a coordinated system of governance". They say "stateless governance", but the adjective "stateless", for them, seems to mean "radically democratic", "linked through delegates and mandates". In that sense, the Marxist-envisaged "workers' state" (or, in Lenin's term, "semi-state"), is "stateless".

They accept the term "Revolutionary Junta" or "Workers' Republic" for the new authority. Although in one passage they claim that "class no longer exists" once the workers' revolution wins, in other passages they concede that counter-revolutionary groups will not disappear instantly, and accept the need for the new authority to organise "coordinated military defence" with "the best weaponry" (i.e. not just scattered militia groups with hand-weapons).

They agree that revolutionaries must build "a coherent... organisation, with a common analysis, strategy, and tactics, along with a measure of collective responsibility, expressed in a programme". They use the term "party" sometimes and the term "vanguard" often for that.

They agree that the party must be disciplined and tight. They quote with approval an account of the Nabat organisation led by Nestor Makhno: "The secretariat... was not merely 'technically' executive... It was also the movement's ideological 'pilot core'... controlling and deploying the movement's resources and militants".

While many anarchists today see the fact that Marxist organisations stretch themselves to produce and circulate weekly papers as infamous, Schmidt and van der Walt report on the extensive newspaper-producing and newspaper-selling culture of late 19th century anarchists with approval and pride.

They agree that the process of the working class preparing itself for revolution must include struggle for reforms. They approvingly quote Bakunin's statement, from the time (1867-8) when he was focused on trying to win over the bourgeois League for Peace and Freedom, that "the most imperfect republic is a thousand times better than the most enlightened monarchy... The democratic regime lifts the masses up gradually to participation in public life". (Bakunin wrote different things later).

They emphasise that the value of the struggle for reforms lies in organisation from below in the struggle; but this is not a point of difference from Marxism. They explicitly dissent from the strands in anarchism which "refuse to deal with reforms, laws, and compromises".

Schmidt and van der Walt argue that revolutionary socialists should work systematically in trade unions, generally on building sustained and organised rank-and-file movements, and also sometimes contest elections for union office.

They agree that revolutionary socialists should take up battles for national liberation - "engage seriously with national liberation struggles and [aim] at supplanting nationalism, radicalising the struggle, and merging the national and class struggles in one revolutionary movement".

They oppose "identity politics" and the "cultural relativist" "claim made by some nationalists that certain rights are alien to their cultures and therefore unimportant or objectionable".

On all these points Schmidt and van der Walt have, in effect, a criticism of most of what calls itself anarchism today different only in shading from what we in Workers' Liberty would say. They are further away from conventional anarchism than is a group like the avowedly-Marxist Socialist Workers Party today, with its "One Solution, Revolution" slogan and its pretence that all "direct action" against the established order, even if it be led by Islamist clerical-fascists, is revolutionary and progressive.

Schmidt and van der Walt seem to stick to the old anarchist dogma of boycotting all electoral politics - "this would apply regardless of the mandates given... the wages paid to the parliamentarians, or the existence of other mechanisms to keep the parliamentarians accountable to their constituents" - and their account of anarchists in Korea who were elected to parliament there in the 1920s is disapproving. But they make little fuss about that issue.

In one passage they uphold the old anarchist idea of "the revolutionary general strike" as the only and more or less self-sufficient path to socialist revolution. But they make little of it, and other passages in the book imply a much less "fetishistic" view of the general strike.


Their anti-Marxism is built not so much on a defence of traditional anarchist points as on a skewed presentation of Marxism. For them, Marxism from its earliest days was proto-Stalinism. They construct their picture of Marxism by "reading back" from Stalinism.

They concede that "in claiming that his theory was scientific, Marx was no different from say, Kropotkin or Reclus, who saw their own theories as scientific". But somehow they also think that Marx's claim to have worked some things out and got some things right was more sinister than the similar claim made by anyone who ventures to trouble the public with their writings.

"Classical Marxism purported to alone understand the movement of history and express the fundamental interests of the proletariat... When [this] claim to a unique truth was welded to the strategy of the dictatorship of the proletariat... the formula for a one-party dictatorship through an authoritarian state was written".

Marxist theory was also, the authors claim, "teleological", seeing history as progressing mechanically "in a straight line towards a better future", through predetermined "stages". Marx (so they allege, on the basis of out-of-context snippets from his writings on India) "considered colonialism to be progressive". The "two-stage" doctrine developed for poorer countries by the Stalinists - that workers should first support the "national bourgeoisie" in "bourgeois-democratic revolution", and look to socialist revolution only at a later "stage" - was authentic Marxism, or so Schmidt and van der Walt claim.

They say that Marx had a relatively conservative view of socialist economic organisation: "Marx believed that the law of value would operate after the 'abolition of the capitalist mode of production'... the distribution of consumer goods under socialism would be organised through... markets". On that basis they claim the ideal of communist economics - supersession of the wages system; from each according to their ability, to each according to their need - as having been pioneered by the anarchist writer Peter Kropotkin.

The poor quality of Schmidt's and van der Walt's polemic on such points can be judged from their quotations. For example, they claim that Marx was cool on trade-unions, and that it was the anarchists who explained and championed the potential of trade-union struggles.

"Marx complained that anarchists contended that workers 'must... organise themselves by trades-unions' to 'supplant the existing states'..."

This is the passage from Marx (in a letter to Paul Lafargue of April 1870) from which Schmidt and van der Walt quote their snippets:

"Bakunin's programme [held that] the working class must not occupy itself with politics. They must only organise themselves by trades-unions. One fine day, by means of the International, they will supplant the place of all existing states. You see what a caricature he [Bakunin] has made of my doctrines!

"As the transformation of the existing States into Associations is our last end, we must allow the governments, those great Trade-Unions of the ruling classes, to do as they like, because to occupy ourselves with them is to acknowledge them. Why! In the same way the old socialists said: You must not occupy yourselves with the wages question, because you want to abolish wages labour, and to struggle with the capitalist about the rate of wages is to acknowledge the wages system!

"The ass has not even seen that every class movement, as a class movement, is necessarily and was always a political movement".

Marx was not hostile or cool about workers organising in trade unions. On the contrary: he was probably (in "The Poverty of Philosophy", his polemic against Proudhon in 1846, at a time when trade unions existed only in infant form) the first socialist to argue that trade-union organisation could be central in working-class emancipation.

Marx's objection was not to organising in trade unions, but to Bakunin's claim that the working class should not also "occupy itself with politics" (i.e. struggles for political reforms, and electoral activity).

Trotsky fought Stalinism to the death. But Schmidt and van der Walt claim he "envisaged socialism as 'authoritarian leadership... centralised distribution of the labour force... the workers' state... entitled to send any worker wherever his labour may be needed', with dissenters sent to labour camps if necessary".

The footnotes show that the words put in quote marks by Schmidt and van der Walt, as if they come from Trotsky, are culled not from Trotsky himself but from "pages 128, 132" of a book by one Wayne Thorpe.

Some of the words may have been taken by Thorpe from one of the polemics in which, in late 1920 - between the Bolsheviks' voting-down of Trotsky's first proposal in February 1920 of what would become the more liberal "New Economic Policy" and the adoption of the NEP itself, on Lenin's initiative, in early 1921 - Trotsky sought expedients to get the economy of revolutionary Russia into working order in the midst of civil war. None of the words was ever written by Trotsky as a statement of his vision of socialism. The quoted string of words was never written as a whole connected passage by Trotsky anywhere.

Schmidt and van der Walt claim further that: "The differences between [Stalinism and Trotskyism] should not be overstated: both embraced classical Marxism and its theories, both saw the USSR as post-capitalist and progressive, and both envisaged revolution by stages in less developed countries". A footnote dismisses Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution as "no break with stage theory... simply a compression of the time frame".

Although Trotsky sketched the permanent revolution theory around 1905, before Stalin became prominent in politics and before Mao Zedong was politically active at all, they call permanent revolution an "echo" of "the two-stage formulation of Stalin and Mao". Why? Apparently because Trotsky recognised that issues such as land reform, national independence, and the replacement of autocracy by elected and constitutional government would be central in the first stages of mass mobilisation in capitalistically-undeveloped countries, and could not be "skipped over".

Marxism and Trotskyism are equated to Stalinism by Schmidt and van der Walt in order to clear the way for defence of "the broad anarchist tradition", with the authors' particular variants presented as the most thorough version of that tradition. The book raises, and offers a distinctive and unusual answer to, the question: what exactly is anarchism?

Its headline argument is that "the anarchist tradition" is in history the libertarian, class-struggle, "from-below" wing of the broad socialist current of thought. The authors have the same scheme of the history of socialism as the Marxist Hal Draper's famous pamphlet "The Two Souls of Socialism" - "socialism from below" versus "socialism from above" - but for them, unlike Draper, "the broad anarchist tradition" is socialism from below, and Marxism a chief species of socialism from above.

Anarchism = unions?

Schmidt and van der Walt say that anarchism proper began only with the Bakunin wing of the First International, in the early 1870s. It was always a class-struggle movement. Anarcho-syndicalism was not a fringe development from anarchism. On the contrary, "the most important strand in anarchism has always been syndicalism: the view that unions... are crucial levers of revolution, and can even serve as the nucleus of a free socialist order".

The "broad anarchist tradition" is thus for them, so to speak, what the "broad labour movement" is to Marxists.

We know that our views are for now in a small minority, and I think Schmidt and van der Walt know that theirs are too. But we see ourselves as immersed in a broader movement which - despite all the follies and limitations which affect it now - is constantly pushed by its own activity, by its own logic and fundamentals, in our direction, for now in the shape of local flurries, and in future crises potentially wholesale.

For us, that broader movement is the labour movement; for Schmidt and van der Walt, it is the "broad anarchist tradition".

Their definition allows them to deal with what they effectively admit to be the follies of much anarchism either by defining them out - for them, Max Stirner and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon were not anarchists at all - or by seeing them as vagaries and immaturities which, with good work, will be dispelled by the logic of the movement itself.

It allows them to claim as de facto anarchists many heroes who in life did not consider themselves anarchists at all. They claim the whole of the pre-1914 revolutionary syndicalist movement in France, and the whole of the IWW, for anarchism, though most of the leaders of the French movement and of the IWW did not see themselves as anarchists, and some, like Victor Griffuelhes, secretary of the French CGT in its heroic period, were explicitly political socialists.

They claim the avowed Marxists Daniel De Leon and James Connolly as "anarchists" because of their syndicalistic views, and seem (though this is not so explicit) also to claim the "council communists" Herman Görter, Anton Pannekoek, and Otto Rühle, and modern "autonomist Marxists", for their own.

Having "secured their flank" polemically by dismissing Marxism as proto-Stalinism (all but a few Marxists whom they claim as having really been anarchists), and by portraying many traditional anarchist dogmas as mere immature errors of the movement, they free themselves to maintain some traditional anarchist tenets at a more "theoretical" level.

This review article will be continued in future issues of Solidarity. Continuation articles will cover:

● The discrepancy between Schmidt's and van der Walt's definition of their politics as "class politics", and their views that peasantries are as good a basis for socialism as wage-working classes, or better, and that capitalist development is not a prerequisite for socialism;

● Why "socialism from below" is not an adequate political definition, and anyway cannot be equated with a "broad anarchist tradition";

● The real history of the separating-out of anarchism and Marxism as distinct currents in the labour movement after the Paris Commune.

Click here to download all three parts as pdf.


Trotsky in 1920

One (which) of the authors of "Black Flame" says that the whole passage attributed to Trotsky in their book was written by him as a connected passage, in "Terrorism and Communism".

Unfortunately he refers to the French edition of that book, although it is widely available in English, and doesn't tell us what French text he is translating into the English words given in "Black Flame". I don't have a copy of the French edition to hand to check. What are the words in French? What are the corresponding words in the widely available English version of "Terrorism and Communism"?

There is a long section in "Terrorism and Communism" on the "militarisation of labour". I cannot find anything in it which could be reasonably translated as the text which "Black Flame" gives.

It is certainly true that Trotsky advocated the "militarisation of labour" in "Terrorism and Communism". He did it in something like the spirit that, say, workers in a worker-occupied factory maintaining production and a distribution of essentials from stocks found in the factory might put themselves on a war footing to direct some workers to guard the factory perimeter against cops and strikebreakers, others to do essential production tasks, and yet others to distribute the essentials. He did it in the context of a civil war and a war-ruined economy, where the greatest exertions were necessary to sustain the workers' republic and protect from being overrun by the counter-revolutionaries.

In the same way as workers' leaders in that occupied factory would openly say to their fellow-workers that the collective should put itself on a war footing, and seek to convince them of that, Trotsky advocated the "militarisation of labour" openly and without glossing it up. It was an entirely different thing from the Stalinist imposition of forced labour under cover of propaganda about life in the USSR becoming joyful and easy.

Read this, for example. "General labor service has an obligatory character; but this does not mean at all that it represents violence done to the working class. If compulsory labor came up against the opposition of the majority of the workers it would turn out a broken reed, and with it the whole of the Soviet order. The militarization of labor, when the workers are opposed to it, is the State slavery of Arakeheyev. The militarization of labor by the will of the workers themselves is the Socialist dictatorship".

It is true that in "Terrorism or Communism" Trotsky tends also to present "militarisation of labour" as a norm of building a socialist society, rather than an emergency imperative. I think Trotsky was wrong about that. If we read Trotsky's "Revolution Betrayed" we have to conclude that Trotsky himself later decided he had been wrong about that.

Trotsky proposed the "militarisation of labour" after his proposal in February 1920 to "ease up" and move to something like the NEP had been defeated so clearly that he must have thought that it was not worth re-raising it soon. His proposal was vigorously disputed by many Bolsheviks and never adopted.

Then, in early 1921, faced by a new emergency, the Bolsheviks relatively suddenly swung over to the NEP, a new version of what Trotsky had proposed in February 1920. The whole debate about "militarisation of labour" was thrown off the agenda, and remained off it.

After 1929 Stalin would do things which seemed to mimic the expedients adopted or proposed under "war communism". But the context was radically different.

Trotsky 1920/ Trotsky on Stalinism/ Bolshevik regime

Some proposals of Trotsky's about "militarisation of labour" were adopted. But they were never implemented in any comprehensive way, partly, I guess, because the emergency conditions which generated the proposals in the first place also made their implementation difficult, and partly because of the opposition which was vocal, in the so-called "trade union debate".

Yes, Trotsky wrote of "militarisation of labour" being necessary in principle. In "Terrorism and Communism" he explains the "principle" as being the old socialist idea, "they who do not work, neither shall they eat".

He does seem to slip in "Terrorism and Communism" from that general principle to a defence "in principle" of what could only be emergency expedients. Fair point.

But the whole picture also includes the facts that:

  • The proposal was only made after a proposal to "ease up" and move to something like NEP had been defeated;
  • It was never implemented anything like comprehensively;
  • The whole idea was dropped from early 1921.

Did not Trotsky, for all his disgust at elements of Stalinism, not give (critical) support to the Five Year Plans?

I can't recall any text of Trotsky where he puts it quite like that. It is true that between 1928 and 1940 Trotsky's assessment of what was going on in the USSR tacked to and forth through a sort of process of successive approximations.

There are passages like chapter one of "Revolution Betrayed", which Iain quotes, which seem completely out of kilter with others (for example, with the rest of "Revolution Betrayed") and which, in isolation, you could read as a sort of "critical support to the Five Year Plans".

Trotsky was trying to come to grips with a new and unforeseen development, and to do it as the development constantly threw up new unexpected twists.

It was his assessment that the peasant majority of Russia, now thinking that the return of the landlords was very unlikely, had been fairly hostile to the Bolsheviks ever since the end of the civil war. It would readily rally to any plausible counter-revolutionary force, and the result of the victory of that counter-revolutionary force would be a Russian version of fascism, the mass slaughter of all the leading working-class activists (oppositionists as well as Stalinists, and including many workers caught up in it just by bad luck), and the demoralisation and dispersal of the revolutionary workers' movement outside Russia.

That conditioned all his responses. Yet as early as April 1933, for example, in the article "Theory of Degeneration and the Degeneration of Theory", Trotsky indicted Stalinism as a "regime of terror against the party and the proletariat", "neither a monetary nor a planned [economy] but an almost purely bureaucratic economy", which had "lost the ability to satisfy human wants even to the degree to which it had been accomplished by the less-developed capitalist industry".

He was not just criticising "elements of Stalinism".

The Bolsheviks

No workers' revolution will be made without also eliciting attempts at counter-revolution. The bourgeoisie will not give up easily.

Just as in strikes, the strike-breakers and scabs mobilised by the employers are workers, not capitalists - and indeed the police also used against strikes are mostly recruited from working-class backgrounds - so also it is inevitable that the bourgeoisie will be able to recruit plebeians to the counter-revolution.

Acting against strike-breakers and scabs, including by violence, or for that matter warning wavering strikers that things will go badly for them if they defect, is not a matter of declaring them "backward" as compared to the strike committee. It is a matter of them being on, or wavering towards, the other side of the struggle.

That is what Lenin meant by using "coercion towards the wavering and unstable elements".

The Menshevik leadership of the railworkers' union tried to sabotage the October revolution by calling a strike. Some local soviets led by Mensheviks and Social-Revolutionaries tried to sabotage the Bolshevik-led efforts in the civil war. So the Bolsheviks acted against them.

All this happened "before the start of the civil war"? Only if you put the start of the civil war back to April 1918. The first attempts at military overthrow of the Soviet regime came on 27 October and 31 October 1917, a few days after it was declared on 25 October.

Those were small attempts? Yes, by comparison with the later full-scale civil war. But the Soviet regime at that time was "small" too. It consisted only of a committee elected by a congress in St Petersburg. It had no commissariats or ministries, no administrative structure, no well-organised armed forces of its own, etc. The party apparatus was even smaller. The Bolshevik party's central files consisted mainly of notebooks in the pockets of one man, Jacob Sverdlov, helped by a few assistants.

The picture of the Bolsheviks as possessed by a demonic urge to "maintain the party's power" makes no sense. If "power" was all the leading Bolsheviks wanted, why didn't they make careers in the Tsarist system, as many of them could have done? Or make careers in one of the West European countries where they lived in exile, as Alexander Helfand (Parvus) did? Why did they dedicate their lives to a party whose doctrine, until a few months before October 1917, held that it was impossible for the coming revolution to bring their own party to supremacy? And whose leaders even after October 1917 were jubilantly startled to have lasted out longer than the nine weeks of the Paris Commune?

A picture of them as striving to sustain the revolution, understanding that it could not be done just by "federation of communes" and "strikes", doing their heroic best in a maelstrom, and, to be sure, making mistakes along the way, makes more sense.

And what about the quote from "Terrorism & Communism"?

Above, Iain posted a claim from "one of the authors" of "Black Flame" that the passage which they attribute to Trotsky (describing socialism as "authoritarian", etc.), but in fact quote from one Wayne Thorpe, is actually to be found in Trotsky's "Terrorism and Communism".

Only, the claim refers us to the French translation of "Terrorism and Communism" - "passage is from Leon Trotsky, Terrorisme et communisme (Paris, 1963...), p. 215".

I do not have the French translation to hand. I asked:

1. What is the corresponding passage in the (widely available) English version of Trotsky's book?

2. What are the actual words in French?