Reviewed by Paul Raekstad and Oscar Addis
There is a new wave of anti-capitalist uprising underway worldwide, a renewed interest in radical political thought, and in particular in anarchism and its relations with Marxism. The two currents have much to discuss, including conceptions of praxis and the development of revolutionary subjectivity, what radical concepts like ‘real democracy’ and ‘communism’ can and should mean today, the experiences of revolutionary regions such as Chiapas and Rojava, worker self-management, whether political parties have a positive role to play, and how social movements can and should relate to the state. The publication of a collection aiming to clarify ‘the Marxist perspective on the limitations of anarchism’ (ix), in order to facilitate the ‘theoretical arming of a new generation of class fighters’ (ibid.), should therefore be timely.
The book includes essays on a number of topics: the Marx/Bakunin conflict; Participatory Economics; the Occupy movement; the Russian and Spanish revolutions; and even on (the bankruptcy of) individual terrorism. The contributors include a mix of classics by Engels, Plekhanov, Lenin and Trotsky, and contemporary writers such as Alan Woods, Phil Mitchinson, and Daniel Morley. The classics are historically important and influential. For instance, anti-organisationalism was and remains a recipe for political impotence; and the arguments for the political bankruptcy of individual terrorism for a progressive social movement were and are convincing. However, this historical breadth comes at some cost to contemporary relevance. Most of the classics are, understandably, directed at Russian anarchism, which is historically atypical and not among the most influential strands either historically or today, in part due to its anti-organisationalist streak. Trotsky’s commentary on the Spanish revolution suffers from his limited knowledge of the situation; and discussions of individual terrorism have largely been mute since the demise of insurrectionary strands of anarchism in the early 20th century (with particular exceptions in the cases of Russia and the US).
Still, the contemporary contributions broach a number of important topics, such as debates on the class character of anarchism, the value of theory, the nature and role of the state, and modes of revolutionary organisation, and it is these we will focus on. Here the contemporary authors make a number of claims about anarchism and its doctrines which stand in need of correction. Let us begin with the class character of historical anarchism. Alan Woods claims that anarchism “finds its class base in the petty-bourgeoisie and the lumpenproletariat” (82), while Phil Mitchinson writes that anarchism “represented a rebellion by a section of the petty-bourgeoisie at the loss of their position in society” (195). No evidence or argument for this is provided, and in fact it is contradicted by the documentary evidence of historical anarchist groups and by the best recent scholarship on the matter. Documents such as the constitutions and declarations of principles by major anarchist organisations like IWW, the IWMA, the current IWA, platformist groups (such as the network around Anarkismo) almost always state that anarchism seeks the liberation of all of humanity through the self-liberation of workers and peasants, the oppressed and alienated classes. As the eminent historian Eric Hobsbawm (1993, 72-3) writes, from 1905-14 and much beyond “the bulk of the revolutionary left was anarcho-syndicalist”, and based in radical proletarian unions. One of the best recent overviews agrees, writing that over “the past 15 decades, the global anarchist movement and its progeny, the syndicalist movement, have been comprised mainly of the industrial working class […] as well as of craftspeople such as shoemakers and printers, and of peasants and indentured labourers, with only a sprinkling of the middle classes, of doctors, scientists, déclassé intellectuals, and journalists.” (Schmidt 2013, 4-5)
Daniel Morley further characterises anarchism as rejecting the importance of theory, thus failing to root itself in a concrete analysis of modern societies and address its strategy and tactics thereto (3, 12-13). Morley supports this claim solely with a citation from Paul Avrich’s book The Russian Anarchists, in which we are told that anarchists “generally avoided careful analysis of social and economic conditions” and “in place of complex ideologies, they offered simple action-slogans”. Although accurate about parts of the Russian anarchist movement in the early 20th century, this does not extend to the majority of the historical anarchist movement. Any glance at, say, Malatesta’s selected works or monographs like Bakunin’s Statism and Anarchy, will reveal an analysis of their contemporary social and political conjuncture, situated within a wider materialist and historical framework, and use of this knowledge to inform their strategy and tactics. In fact, Bakunin produced the first Russian translation of Capital in order to counter Proudhon’s negative influence on these issues, and Malatesta spent much of his life arguing against the iron law of wages on the basis of its negative implications for the viability of syndicalist strategy.
Moving on to the nature and role of the state, Mitchinson remarks that anarchists think the state “is the root cause of all that is wrong in the world” and so hold that all “these problems will be resolved by the destruction of the state” (193). He too provides no supporting argument or evidence for this claim, and it too is mistaken. Minimally, anarchists throughout history have never believed that the abolition of the state alone will give rise to the free socialist society they advocate; rather, they have advocated a process of social revolution through which the working class and peasantry abolish capitalism, the state, and other structures of oppression through a process of collective self-emancipation, and this is consistently what is advocated in the writings of classical anarchists such as Bakunin, Kropotkin, Pouget, and Malatesta. Nor should we be surprised at this from a materialist point of view: radical workers’ and peasants’ movements would be unlikely to be naïve enough to think that the oppression and exploitation they were faced with has its only source in the state, when they are daily faced with the oppressive rule of capital, managers, and landlords.
This image of anarchists having a naïve view of the nature of the state as the sole root of oppression in society is probably linked to anarchism’s claimed underestimation of the state’s role vis-à-vis social classes and movements. According to Woods, for most anarchists “the question of state power is either irrelevant, or can simply be abolished from one day to the next” (xxi). This, he argues, fatefully ignores how capitalists will use the state apparatus to attack revolutionary social movements. This is an important point, and the argument would be damaging to anarchism if its interpretative premise were correct. However, historically anarchists have been very much aware of the coercive power of the state and, in response to such power, have traditionally advocated the creation of workers’ militias to defend the revolution, as was done in anarchist revolutions in the Ukraine, Spain, and elsewhere. Acknowledging this historical fact in the case of Spain, Woods ends up claiming that since, during the Spanish Civil War, the anarchist revolutionary Durruti “organised an army based on the workers’ militia”, he thereby “broke from the old anarchist dogmas” and “moved closer to … Bolshevism”(xxiii). This argument, however, misunderstands the anarchist conception of the state. For anarchists, states are not defined as ‘bodies of armed men’, but rather as a coercive institution that is hierarchically and centrally organised, concentrating power in the hands of a minority, and controlling the military, police, and legal system. The establishment of militias, provided they not governed by a hierarchically and centrally organised minority, is not sufficient to constitute a ‘state’ in the anarchist sense, and thus in no way moves them away from traditional anarchist doctrines and towards Bolshevism.
On the wider question of organisation, Woods provides a clear discussion of the critiques of consensus decision-making – e.g., for the potential for a tyranny of the minority, and for being intensely demanding in terms of time and energy, thereby excluding those who lack these resources. These are serious concerns for contemporary social movements. However, as a discussion of anarchist organisation in general it is highly misleading: consensus decision-making is a recent development especially in some US anarchism, particularly in the Global Justice Movement; it has not featured in any of the historically influential anarchist organisations, and the majority of contemporary ones (the IWW, the current members of the IWA such as the current CNT, Solidarity Federation in the UK, etc.) do not operate by consensus. This is a relevant and important argument, but it is one in which the author fails to get to grips with his target: anarchism.
This is connected with a misconstrual of anarchists’ opposition to centralism, in favour of what is traditionally called federalism. The contemporary contributors present centralism as, basically, any form of majority decision-making, in opposition to consensus (xxiii-xxiv, xxviii, 84-85); and anarchists’ opposition to centralism is cashed out as a disagreement between majority or consensus decision-making. But the historical anarchists’ opposition to centralism has never been about the need for majority decision-making, since this is something virtually all historical anarchist organisations have featured; they’ve been about how to make decisions. Anarchists have wanted to avoid the rule of a minority and ensure that the decisions of their organisations really reflect and result from the expressed wills of their participants. The means for this, federalism, have consisted in trying to make as many decisions as possible on the lowest possible levels of an organisation and electing delegates for short periods only and subjecting them to frequent rotation, mandating, and immediate recall. Anarchist organisations are federalist in this sense, as opposed to centralist organisations, such as most political parties, which elect a central committee which makes major decisions, sits for long periods of time, and whose members are not rotated, have no mandate they’re required to fulfil, and are often not immediately recallable.
Finally, we should note how this relates to the anarchist position on leadership. According to Woods, Mitchinson, and Morley, anarchists reject leadership, where leadership means such things as a person influencing others to do particular actions and developing revolutionary theory to guide mass movements (xvi-xvii, 98-101, 192-3, 10-11). Since such things are inevitable in one form or another, anarchists inevitably fail to implement their ideology consistently in practice (x). Here too we are given no evidence or discussion that this is what anarchist thinkers and activists have in mind when they are rejecting ‘leaders’, and, much like the discussion of the ‘state’, the argument builds on a failure to come to grips with the terminology. Anarchists in e.g. Occupy rejected ‘leaders’ in the sense of a centralist leadership: where some largely unaccountable ‘representatives’ make decisions on behalf of their membership. This is why the discussion within Occupy and its offshoots has shifted between describing themselves as ‘leaderless’ and ‘leaderful’: by avoiding the rule of a centralised minority the goal has been to ensure maximum involvement and empowerment of all the movement’s members (this is ably discussed by Mark Bray (2013) in the first and most complete survey of the organisers of OWS in New York). By contrast, historical and contemporary anarchism has not and does not oppose leadership in the sense of some people influencing others more, or developing ideas and advocating them within popular movements and organisations. There are, to be sure, critical debates among anarchists and Marxists about how to go about doing this; but this is a debate distinct from the Occupy slogan of ‘leaderlessness’.
Anarchism and Marxism are traditions that require serious discussion and elaboration in the years to come, but this is not a book that contributes meaningfully to this project. Its historical contributions are of limited relevance today, and the contemporary ones do not accurately portray any key anarchist movements, thinkers, or their ideas, as a result of which their major arguments miss their mark.
10 August 2015
- 2013 Translating Anarchy: The Anarchism of Occupy Wall Street (Winchester: Zero Books).
- 1993 Revolutionaries (London: Abacus).
- 2013 Cartography of Revolutionary Anarchism (Oakland, CA: AK Press).