Six points in reply to Iain McKay

Submitted by martin on 25 December, 2011 - 5:13

A response by Martin Thomas to Iain McKay's bulletin, "The AWL versus anarchism", circulated at AWL summer school 2011.

1: "Bakunin, Kropotkin, and Malatesta were not so naive as to believe that anarchism could be established overnight..."

Certainly sometimes they wrote that the road to an anarchist society would be long. But always, as far I know, they insisted that anarchists should dispute, resist, and disrupt moves by workers to create a strong, centralised, democratic authority of their own - a workers' state or semi-state - during or after the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist class.

In practice, during revolutions, anarchists have often supported some revolutionary power (the Paris Commune, if you count the left-Proudhonists like Varlin as anarchists; the Council of People's Commissars in November 1917). In the Spanish revolution of 1936-7, the strongest anarchist-led movement ever to exist, the CNT/ FAI, responded to the need for coordination against the counter-revolution (the fascists) by entering the bourgeois governments of Catalonia and the Spanish Republic.

In revolutionary times, anarchists must abandon their anti-government dogma, or else box themselves into inadvertently helping counter-revolution by their efforts to disrupt the creation of a revolutionary power. The trouble is that then they have no criteria as to "how much" to abandon it. If all government is bad, but you are forced by the needs of struggle against counter-revolution to recognise some government as a necessary evil, then a workers' government appears no less evil than a bourgeois-republican one, and a bourgeois-republican government no less necessary than a workers' one.

How does anarchist writers' "theoretical" line of insisting on the immediate abolition of all government in a revolution square with their admission that anarchism cannot be established overnight?

For mqny anarchists, and probably most anarchists today, it is not a problem. They regard anarchism as a distant ideal. Action is not gauged so as quickly to realise the ideal, but to bring it closer by pushing bit-by-bit in an anti-government direction.

There were periods, though, when Bakunin and Kropotkin were confident about early prospects of revolution. Then, they wrote of the abolition of government as something which could be achieved immediately, in the coming revolution, and which must be achieved, or else the revolution would be fruitless. They did claim that the abolition of government could be achieved "overnight", or after a brief but fruitful period of chaos.

Anarchists' ideas about revolution are less problematic when revolution is distant both in reality and, even more so, in the minds of the anarchists. They are harmful and disruptive when revolution is close. [See also McKay's sections on "Anarchism and defence of the revolution", and "Anarchism and revolution"].

2. Anarchists and working-class struggle

I wrote (Solidarity 3/195): "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 and create a new society; but most do not". For the purpose of "refuting" this statement, Iain McKay first converts it into something significantly different.

His version of what I wrote is: "Some anarchists do [support class struggle]. Those are the anarcho-syndicalists, who on this issue have the same idea as Marxists do... but most schools of anarchism do not".

I wrote "primarily" (i.e. not only) the anarcho-syndicalists. McKay has me saying that it is only the anarcho-syndicalists. I wrote that the anarcho-syndicalists and some other anarchists "identify with the working class as the force to defeat the capitalist state and create a new society", while yet other anarchists do not. McKay has me saying something different: that anarchists other than anarcho-syndicalists do not even "support class struggle".

As Yves Coleman writes in a sympathetic account of "today's young anarchists" (Solidarity 224): "The most 'physical'... anarchists want to confront physically the cops, to throw Molotov cocktails... etc. The more 'peaceful' ones... want to build new human relationships here and now... organising squats or communes [etc.]"

Pretty much all of them welcome unrest, strife, rebellion, strikes. No question about that. They support class struggle in that sense. But their focus is not on class struggle.

Even some anarchists who (like the Anarchist Federation) describe themselves as "class-struggle anarchists", to distinguish themselves from other anarchists, do not quite share the same view as anarcho-syndicalists or Marxists.

The AF's strategy is based on two great values: "direct action" and "self-organisation", also summed up as "a culture of resistance". The AF sympathises with the working class and favours biff and strife. But if you unpick its arguments, you see that biff is valued primarily as "direct", "self-organised", and "local", rather than primarily as working-class.

Most anarchists criticise Marxists for differentiating between the wage-working class and, on the other hand, the peasantry and the lumpenproletariat. They are sympathetic to the wage-working class, but regard the peasantry and lumpenproletariat as equally, or sometimes more, the forces for revolution.

Today in Britain, anarchism broadly defined probably has more energetic young people then the aggregate of all the would-be Trotskyist activist groups. Yet visibly the impact of anarchists in working-class struggles is less than the impact (for good, or sometimes for worse) of even one of the main would-be Trotskyist groups. That is partly because of many anarchists' distaste for systematic long-term organising beyond small "affinity groups", but partly also because of priorities.

3. Anarchism and anarcho-syndicalism

McKay then claims, or seems to claim, that almost all anarchism, at least after Bakunin, is anarcho-syndicalism anyway.

He gives a highly compressed version of a passage from Marx in which Marx seems to attribute anarcho-syndicalism to Bakunin.

McKay's version: "Bakunin's programme [is that] the working class must not occupy itself with politics. They must only organise themselves by trades-unions [and] by means of the International, they will supplant the place of all existing states".

Marx's original: "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".

In the disputes in the First International around 1870, Bakunin's faction, the anarchists-to-be, made opposition to political and electoral activity by the working class their point of honour. Arguing as they were from within the First International, their opposition to political activity more or less automatically defined economic and trade-union activity for them as the only road to liberation.

Some of what they wrote reads with hindsight like an early statement of the later anarcho-syndicalist idea. I think the apparent identity is an anachronistic illusion. Around 1870 trade unions everywhere were weak. Where they were strongest, in Britain, they tended more to Liberalism than to anarchism or Marxism. No-one really could or did have a short-term practical project of expanding and improving them so that they could quickly become strong enough to hollow out and throw off the capitalist state and the employing class.

Equally, it is anachronistic to read references by Bakunin and Kropotkin to "workers' associations" and so on as descriptions-in-advance of the workers' councils (soviets) which first emerged in Russia in 1905 [cf: McKay's section, "Anarchism and Workers' Councils"]. Proudhon, whom both Bakunin and Kropotkin frequently acknowledged as their teacher, had limned a future society composed of local economic cooperatives interacting through trade (on equal terms) rather than with coordination by a wider-than-local workers' authority. "Workers' associations" was a description of the basic economic and social units of the new society.

After 1872 the anarchists-to-be separated from the Marxists and, bit by bit, from the non-anarchist allies they'd had in their factional battle in the First International. Over the 1870s anarchism emerged as a distinct current in political activity (albeit one which protested that its political activity avoided politics). Nothing like anarcho-syndicalism emerged at first. For two decades, until the mid 1890s, its dominant concern was not building workers' unions, but "propaganda by the deed".

In 1895, Fernand Pelloutier wrote an article, "Anarchism and the Workers' Union", urging anarchists to plunge into the unions. His article shows a writer aware that he is arguing for a change of direction, not someone just reminding anarchists of old common-stock ideas.

The French CGT did not emerge in full form until 1902, and the Spanish CNT until 1910. With them, anarcho-syndicalism became for a while the most vigorous, though still not the only, strand of anarchism. Since the decay of the French CGT into reformist syndicalism, in the years up to 1914, and the political collapse of the CNT with the entry of the Spanish anarchists into bourgeois governments in 1936, anarcho-syndicalism has been a subordinate strand among many in anarchism.

4. Anarchism and the medieval commune

McKay quotes a couple of sentences from Bakunin, and one from Kropotkin, indicating awareness of differences between medieval communes and the Paris Commune. Those should be read together with the much greater number of sentences in which they emphasised what the commune of the future would have in common with the medieval commune of the past, both of them representing the supposed trend of human nature when freed from the unnatural constraint of an organised state machine.

5. Anarchism and capitalism

Iain McKay has written a lot against pro-capitalist individualists in the USA who claim to be anarchists. I'd happily second his wish to disqualify those right-wingers who attempt to steal a self-description used by pro-working-class, socialistic activists. I ask only that he would recognise that the "Marxists" running Stalinist states had and have even less right to steal the descriptions "communist", "Marxist", or "revolutionary socialist". (But he doesn't recognise that: see below, "equating Trotskyism with Stalinism").

McKay seems to want to claim that I equate his anarchism with those pro-capitalist individualists. I don't.

I wrote that in Bakunin's activity in the League for Peace and Freedom, in 1867-8 - probably his largest-scale activity, and the only one for which he wrote a more or less comprehensive manifesto - he "made no demand for the expropriation of capitalist property or the collective ownership of the means of production" and remonstrated that "the majority of decent, industrious bourgeois" could quite well support his programme.

McKay quotes a snippet as if I were denying that Bakunin subsequently moved to the left. I do not deny that. I wrote that Bakunin's "writings of [his first months in the First International, 1868-9] suggest that he was genuinely won over by Marx's ideas as transmitted through the International. They read as paraphrases - with a particular bias and twist, but paraphrases - of the general ideas of the International".

I quoted Proudhon from "The Philosophy of Poverty": "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".

McKay disputes my summary comment that "Proudhon did not even see industrial capital as exploitative" by offering another quote from Proudhon talking about revenue being "confiscated by the entrepreneur".

McKay's quote also comes from "The Philosophy of Poverty". It comes between a passage in which Proudhon complains about lending at interest as apparently the prime form of exploitation, and a passage where he repeats his key idea that trade should by its essence be between equal values but due to some perversion is not: "commerce, the exchange of essentially equal values, is only the art of buying for three francs what is worth six, and selling for six francs what is worth three".

Proudhon, as Marx commented, fancied himself as a dialectician. Not only did his views change a lot over his life; even in a single book, as here in "The Philosophy of Poverty", he often contradicted himself and took pride in doing so.

The broad drift of Proudhon's thought can however be assessed from the facts that "free credit" became the hobby-horse of the Proudhonists, and that the Proudhonists formed the unsuccessful opposition in the First International to collective ownership of the means of production.

Finally, McKay quotes anarchists saying that the state protects capital as refuting my comment that the "fathers" of anarchism held that "human nature favours liberty and solidarity, the state is an artificial imposition, and capitalism is the product of the state". There is no refutation here. Bakunin and Kropotkin could quite consistently hold that the artificial imposition of the state had led to the rise of capital, and also that the state then protected capital.

6. Equating Trotskyism with Stalinism (and with social democracy?)

Much debate here started with me citing a string of words which the anarchist writers Schmidt and van der Walt "quote" as Trotsky's own description of a socialist future. I responded:

"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".

I challenged anarchists to provide evidence that the supposed "quote" was a valid summary of Trotsky's thought. "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".

In the section of his sheet headed "The AWL versus Marxism", Iain McKay quotes my challenge, and fails to answer it.

He does, however, try to dispute the idea that "Trotsky fought Stalinism to the death", after first suggesting that Marx and Engels favoured a parliamentary road to socialism, using the old bourgeois state machine and only adapting it a little.

At a time when the bourgeois state machine (standing army, bureaucracy, police) in England was very flimsy compared to what it had become by the end of the 19th century, and very flimsy compared to the state machines in some other countries in Europe, Marx thought that the ballot-box might let the working class win political supremacy. The bourgeoisie thought that too, which is why it resisted the working-class campaign for voting rights, and made concessions only in small doses and in proportion as it had consolidated a state machine and secured some political hegemony over the working class. Engels later commented that Marx had thought that "England [was] the only country where the inevitable social revolution might be effected entirely by peaceful and legal means. He certainly never forgot to add that he hardly expected the English ruling classes to submit, without a 'pro-slavery rebellion', to this peaceful and legal revolution".

Maybe Marx was wrong on that. It is a reasonable subject for debate. It has nothing to do with the alleged idea of taking over the existing bureaucratic state machine and using it, only slightly modified, to bring socialism. Marx's argument, right or wrong, was not about the suitability of the bureaucratic bourgeois state machine as an instrument for socialism, but about its flimsy and lightweight character in England in a certain period, and therefore the possible greater ease of replacing it by a radically different mode of government.

McKay quotes a sentence where he has Engels saying that in Holland "only a few changes [would] have to be made to establish that free self-government by the working class". I can't trace the quote and its context (McKay gives no source), and so can give no comment.

As for Trotsky and the other Bolsheviks, there is no question about it that they organised a harsh military regime during the Civil War after the Russian Revolution, 1917-22. They did it to defend the revolution.

That they made mistakes in the maelstrom is a reasonable claim. As Rosa Luxemburg wrote: "a model and faultless proletarian revolution in an isolated land, exhausted by world war, strangled by imperialism, betrayed by the international proletariat, would be a miracle".

Also reasonable is the claim that, in that maelstrom, the Bolsheviks sometimes elevated the exigencies or expedients of adversity into general rules. It is certain that some passages from what they wrote make that false elevation, and plausible that even taken in context those passages skew the arguments out of shape.

Not a reasonable assessment is the idea that when they made mistakes in the direction of being too brusque and too military, those mistakes stemmed from a systematic bias in Marxism and Bolshevism towards authoritarianism and undemocracy.

The Russian Marxists and Bolsheviks had fought the Tsarist state for over two decades primarily under the banners of "social democracy" and "consistent democracy". Most of them, until 1917, believed that a radical democratic revolution was the best possible outcome in Russia, and that a socialist revolution must come after a whole further development.

They had separated off from the previous radical movement in Russia, the populists, who were heavily anarchist-tinged, around two basic ideas: that formal-democratic laws and rights were worth fighting for, even short of socialism; and that the way to win them was mass self-controlling action by the workers, not conspiracies by a brave and small elite to strike down the leaders of the old regime. The urgency and importance of democratic rights were central to the cause for which they faced persecution, jail, and exile.

They also knew that no-one can go through history reading off all their actions from a pocketbook of democratic rules. They knew that civil wars require emergency measures. That their choice of emergency measures included mistakes is plausible, and in the circumstances almost certain to have been true.

A response to them which says: "Oh no! Things would have gone better if the Soviets had organised no central authority, no Red Army, no military discipline, and submitted to being slaughtered by the counter-revolutionaries with the consolation that they had proved themselves as democratic idealists" is, in effect if not in intention, an abandonment of practical revolutionary politics.