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Review: International Socialist Review on “Contemporary Anarchism”
by Tom Wetzel
The word “anarchism” is a rather vague word that covers such a wide variety of political views and approaches it is often hard to see how they have anything in common. This means it is also probably not very productive to produce “critiques” of anarchism that lump the many different viewpoints together. This problem is on display in the most recent critique of “contemporary anarchism” offered up by the International Socialist Organization in their magazine ISR1. A weakness of the article is that it offers only brief pit stops at the various anarchist or libertarian socialist tendencies.
Unlike some previous ISO critiques, this article, written by Eric Kerl, does make an effort to discuss the historically dominant form of libertarian socialist politics — revolutionary syndicalism and, in general, forms of libertarian socialism oriented to working class struggle and mass organizing. But it’s treatment is superficial.
Syndicalism & Self-emancipation
A problem with Kerl’s discussion of revolutionary syndicalism is that he never says what it is. This is particularly relevant to our organization, Workers Solidarity Alliance, which describes itself as a “social anarchist organization in the syndicalist tradition.” (I use the terms “social anarchism” and “libertarian socialism” interchangeably.)
Libertarian (or anarcho-) syndicalism is based on the principle that “the emancipation of the working class is the work of the workers themselves.” This means workers need to have a movement they control in order to be able to change the society and gain power.
Syndicalism is both program and strategy. The goal of syndicalism is the creation of a form of self-managed socialism where workers manage the industries, the land and means of production are owned by the whole society, and the old hierarchical government apparatus is replaced with a new form of popular power — rooted in the direct democracy of assemblies in workplaces and neighborhoods. The profit system would be replaced by production for direct benefit.
To escape the present system of oppression and exploitation, syndicalists advocate for the development of a certain kind of labor movement — controlled by its members, works to widen solidarity, looks out for the interests of the working class as a whole, extends a hand across borders to coordinate struggles with workers in other countries, opposes racism and sexism, rejects “partnership” with the employers, remains independent of the political parties and professional politicians, rejects the imperialist policy of the American federal state, and works to develop an alliance with other social movements.
Although syndicalism of the early 1900s was focused on struggles at the point of production, libertarian socialism’s emphasis on mass struggle can also be applied to struggle and organizing in the community. This is why Lucien van der Walt and Michael Schmidt describe this tradition as “mass anarchism” in their recent book Black Flame.
Syndicalism is an alternative to the Leninist strategy of a political party capturing state power, and then implementing its program top-down through the hierarchies of the state. In our view, this would lead inevitably to the empowerment of a bureaucratic class. The working class would continue to be dominated and exploited.
Kerl states his agreement with the principle of “workers self-emancipation” but fails to acknowledge that this principle is central also for libertarian socialism. I think this leads him to misunderstand “prefigurative politics.” For revolutionary syndicalists, the development of a mass workers movement where the organizations and struggles are “self-managed” by the workers themselves is “prefigurative” of a society self-managed by the working class. This is why the IWW spoke of “building the new society in the shell of the old.”
Moreover, it’s hard to see how a socialism based on direct, democratic workers’ self-management of industry and society could come about if these practices are not first developed and gain deep support within the working class. Only if the working class becomes used to running its own organizations is it less likely to lead to “condescending saviors” ruling over us.
After discussing Black Flame‘s emphasis on syndicalism, Kerl objects by saying: “anarchism can’t be reduced to its class struggle wing.” The problem here is that Kerl is falling back on the ISO’s fallacious tendency to group together all those who call themselves “anarchists”…as if they were all singing the same song. The authors of Black Flame don’t say that mass/class struggle social anarchism is the only form of anarchism. What they do say, and what we say, is that support for syndicalism is based on an orientation to mass struggles of the working class and oppressed…and this is central to our social anarchism.
Eric Kerl’s article offers no criticism of revolutionary syndicalism as a strategy. Kerl’s only comment is that syndicalism is broader than anarchism because some revolutionary syndicalists have been Marxists. Examples are the IWW’s “Big Bill” Haywood or Antonio Gramsci during the mass upheavals in Italy in 1919-20. When they were syndicalists, both Haywood and Gramsci were in fact libertarian Marxists, not (yet) advocates of the sort of Leninist Marxism advocated by the ISO. Libertarian socialist ideas in fact had significant influence in the left-wing of various socialist parties in that era.
As Carl Levy documents in Gramsci and the Anarchists, the Italian Socialist Party was highly influenced by libertarian socialist ideas. This is why it was possible for Gramsci’s branch of the party to work closely with the social anarchist Turin Libertarian Group. The factory council movement built in Turin in 1918-20 — a radical shop stewards movement based on workplace assemblies — was based on this alliance. The construction of a “self-managing” worker mass movement was itself a living application of libertarian socialist ideas.
Kerl is trying to draw a hard and fast barrier between “Marxism” and libertarian socialism…as if the ISO’s Leninist brand of Marxism is the only choice for people who find value in Marx’s ideas. In fact there has been an historical two-way street of influence between Marxism and anarchism. Mark Leier’s sympathetic biography of Michael Bakunin argues that there was a substantial area of agreement between Bakunin and Marx…more than people usually realize.
In the wake of the Russian revolution, many of the libertarian Marxist syndicalists like Haywood and Gramsci did gravitate to Leninism. In an earlier ISR article, ISOer Lance Selfa put it this way:
“In a period when real world, revolutionary events put anarchist theories to the test, the theories came up short. That was why one group of anarchists whose libertarian ideas were most connected to workers’ struggles–people like Victor Serge, Alfred Rosmer, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Lucy Parsons, and Big Bill Haywood–actually left the ranks of anarchists and joined the Communist Parties. They, like thousands of rank-and-file IWW members, came to the conclusion that only collective, mass struggle could attain socialism and that only a revolutionary party could organize that struggle.” (April 2004)
Of course, “collective mass struggle” is what syndicalism and working class-based libertarian socialism is all about. Nor do we reject revolutionary political organization.
Before he became a Bolshevik, Victor Serge had been an individualist anarchist who backed activities like robbing banks — is this a form of “working people’s struggle”? Nor is there any proof that Lucy Parsons abandoned anarchism or joined the Communist Party. Nonetheless, Selfa has a point.
The Bolshevik regime in Russia was hyped as a form of “workers power” and a “successful revolution”. With the tide of radical left opinion running that way, quite a few syndicalists were drawn to the new Leninist parties. But now we have the advantage of a century of hindsight. The various Leninist party-controlled revolutions developed dismal bureaucratic class systems and one-party police states. It’s not so clear that Leninism has stood the test of time.
Nonetheless, it’s true that anarchists and syndicalists in the early 1900s often lacked an effective concept of political organization. Often they organized through loose networks around papers, or loose federations with disparate ideas that obstructed common action. But this is where it is useful to focus on how libertarian Left activists have learned from experience and worked to develop a more effective concept of political organization.
Kerl does mention an early effort in this direction — the “Organizational Platform of the Libertarian Communists,” published in 1926. After the Russian revolution a group of Russian exiles that included Ukrainian foundry worker and revolutionary Nestor Makhno came to the conclusion that a more politically cohesive and effective type of anarchist political organization was needed. The idea was that an organization that was united in terms of its ideas and approach would be better able to get members pushing in the same direction and be a more effective influence in mass movements.
Kerl claims the Platform had “minimal influence” in the wider anarchist movement until the 1990s. This is probably an exaggeration. Nonetheless, I don’t recall the Platform being discussed in libertarian socialist circles in the USA back in the ’70s and ’80s. All of the social anarchist groups that identify with the Platform in the USA have been formed in the past decade. Numerous activists interested in the idea of a more cohesive and mass struggle-oriented anarchism is, moreover, one of the recent trends in American libertarian Left politics.
Kerl says that the anarchist movement was “in ruins” by the end of World War 2. Kerl’s comment is a bit First World-centric. In reality, significant social anarchist organizations with influence in the labor movement continued to exist in a number of countries of South America after World War 2, especially Uruguay and Chile.
In the years leading up to the imposition of a harsh military regime in Uruguay in the ’70s, the Uruguayan Anarchist Federation played an important role in worker militancy and resistance to increasing repression. In those years the “anarcho-Marxist” FAU had members in many unions and helped create the National Workers Convention (CNT) and formed part of the leadership of this labor federation. One of the main influences on the FAU in those years was the Spanish anarchist exile Abraham Guillen.
When the FAU was rebuilt after the end of the dictatorship in the ’80s, its activists reflected on their experience in the earlier period. This led them to articulate an organizational theory called especifismo, based on that earlier experience.
The FAU works within the tradition of what social anarchists call “dual organizationalism.” This means we recognize distinct roles for the mass organizations and a libertarian socialist political organization. The political organization is put together on the basis of agreement with a specific, unitary political perspective. Because the political organization is said to have a “specific” program and perspective, this approach is called especifismo.
The FAU rejected individualist anarchist influences and the looser forms of anarchist organization of the past. The FAU emphasized horizontal discipline of a democratic organization, where the members are acccontable to each other. The political organization would try to articulate a strategy and path based on “rigorous analysis of society and the correlation of forces that are part of it.”
The FAU’s concept of “social insertion” means that working class members of the FAU should focus on organized activities in mass organizations and movements. The aim would not be to impose a party line or create hierarchical structures of control, but to encourage militancy and discourage bureaucratic or reformist tendencies. Kerl says that “this trend comes close to more Marxist conceptions of revolutionary organization.” But he makes the mistake of supposing this organizational perspective derives from the Platform. In fact it is an independent development of the South American social anarchists, based on their own experiences. I’ve focused here on especifismo partly because of its importance but also because I agree with it.
The WSA itself is a “specific” organizaton. We believe that such an organization should be based on horizontal democracy. We are the oldest social anarchist organization in the USA, having existed since the early ’80s. Our survival has been based in part on our efforts to maintain a supportive atmosphere for members. As we see it, the “specific” organization has a role in popular education, in development of people as activists and organizers. The WSA Where We Stand statement has this to say about the role of the political organization:
“Through organization activists can avoid isolation, participate in discussions with other activists who have different experiences, and get together for common political work. Through organization we can pool resources and sustain publications and other efforts to build a visible presence for our ideas.
We advocate an approach where activists work to spread widely within the rank and file of movements and mass organizations the self-confidence, knowledge, skills and opportunities for decision-making participation needed to make self-management an effective reality. We want mass organizations to be self-managing and we work for this aim in such organizations and to counteract bureaucratic or authoritarian tendencies.”
Power, State, Coercion
Kerl repeats the usual Trotskyist myth about the anarcho-syndicalists in the Spanish revolution “rejecting power.” As Jose Peirats says in Anarchists in the Spanish Revolution, it was clear in all the CNT papers of that era that the aim was “all social power in the hands of the proletariat.”
If the anarcho-syndicalists didn’t believe in “taking power” why did they take power in cities and regions? In the city of Hospitalet de Llobregat — a gritty industrial working class suburb of Barcelona — the CNT unions (strongly influenced by the CNT’s more radical wing) overthrew the city government and elected their own revolutionary committee to replace the city government. In the region of Aragon, the village CNT unions invoked a regional assembly of delegates from all the collectivized villages and elected a regional workers government, a Regional Defense Council.
To counter the drive of the Communist Party to rebuild a conventional hierarchical army and gain control of it, the radical tendency in the CNT (identified with militia leaders like Buenaventura Durruti and journalists like Jaime Balius and Eduardo de Guzman) persuaded the CNT federation to propose a joint taking of power by the two labor federations in Spain, the UGT and CNT. The proposed National Defense Council would run a unified people’s revolutionary militia. The Council would be elected by a National Workers Congress, made up of delegates elected from worker assemblies at the base. The CNT’s main concern was that the dominant armed force remain under the control of the organized working class.
In an interview for the oral history Blood of Spain, Eduardo de Guzman, editor of the CNT daily paper in Madrid, Castilla Libre, called this a “proletarian government”. The creation of the Regional Congress and Regional Defense Council in Aragon was an attempt to carry out this CNT program in one region.
But the UGT rejected the CNT proposal. Why? Because the Marxist parties in Spain (PSOE, POUM, PCE) preferred the Popular Front. That’s what happens from a practice of emphasizing “the party taking state power.” After the UGT rejected the CNT proposal, the various anarchist tendencies in the CNT split over what to do. The radical wing proposed taking power in the regions where the CNT had the power — this led to the formation of the Regional Defense Council in Aragon. Later, in March 1937, the Friends of Durruti group was formed to push for a revival of this proposal. This is what ISOer Geoff Bailey says about this in his ISR article:
“Some workers’ organizations understood the need to take power. The Friends of Durruti argued for…the overthrow of the government and the formation of a revolutionary junta.” (“Anarchists in the Spanish Civil War”, ISR, July 2002)
What Bailly doesn’t realize is that the “revolutionary junta” is the National Defense Council that was proposed by the CNT in September 1936. But Bailey can’t admit that because that would disprove the Trotskyist myth that the anarcho-syndicalists are against the working class taking power.
The real beef libertarian socialists and syndicalists have with Leninists like Kerl isn’t about power but about the state. Or to put it another way, the question is, Who will have power?
We believe that in a period of revolutionary transition, the working class needs to take over the running of the industries where they work, the buildings and land in their communities, push aside the managerial hierarchies and the old state apparatus, and build structures of worker self-management in industries…and replace the state with popular power, rooted in the direct democracy of assemblies in workplaces and neighborhoods. This is what we say about this in Where We Stand:
“Self-emancipation of the working class” requires that the working class gain power over society. But the working class can only actually exercise power by doing so collectively through institutions of popular self-management. A self-managing society needs a governance structure through which the people make and enforce the basic rules of the society and defend their social order. We envision regional and national congresses of delegates elected by the base assemblies that would have the basic power of making decisions about social rules and society-wide priorities. Proposals of the congresses that are particularly controversial or important should be referred back to the base assemblies for decision.”
How does this differ from a state? As Engels wrote in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, the state is an apparatus that is separated off from effective popular control, and rules over society. This is necessary if the state is to fulfill its function of guarding and promoting the interests of the dominating, exploiting classes. The direct rule of the masses through assemblies and congresses that are directly accountable to the base, and enforced by a popular militia under direct popular control, does not create a form of governance that exists as a separate hierarchical, commandist apparatus. This is why it isn’t a state.
Kerl’s article had started off on the wrong foot at the very beginning where he tries to define all anarchism as opposed to “any form of coercive authority.”
What about a syndicalist union using militant tactics to prevent scabs taking their jobs? If the workers agree collectively to pursue this approach, this is a collective form of exercise of coercive authority.
Moreover, in a revolutionary transformation of society mass organizations of the working class and oppressed may use coercive force to sweep aside the dominating classes and their oppressive institutions.
Social anarchists are opposed to hierarchical authority, not authority in general. Hierarchical structures of authority are institutions where power is concentrated in the hands of a relative few, and power is exercized over others who are thus dominated. This can be hierarchical concentration of authority based on property ownership, as with the capitalist class, or on the basis of control over organizational decision-making as in a corporation or the state or other top down structure.
Self-management is the antidote or opposite of hierarchical authority. Self-management refers to people having control over decisions to the extent they are affected or governed by them. As libertarian socialists, we advocate a society where the various forms of oppression are replaced by people controlling their lives.
ISOers like Kerl claim they are for “the self-emancipation of the working class.” How is this possible if they don’t support workers’ self-management? If workers aren’t managing the places where we work, who would would be managing them?
It’s hard to see how workers can be in power in society if they are still subordinated to bosses. This presents a dilemma for the ISO. The ISO are advcoates of a form of socialism based on statist central planning. Because an elected represenative body could only deal with some policies and major issues, the intricate details of economic planning for the whole economy would inevitably fall to a bureaucracy of elite planners. With information and decision-making concentrated at the top, the leaders, planners and experts at the center of the system would be in a very powerful position. They would issue orders in detail to the various groups of workers. There would be a tendency for them to want to have their own appointed managers on site to ensure that their orders are carried out. For Leninists like the ISO there is also the precedent of Lenin and Trotsky advocating “one-man management” — bosses appointed from above — and opposing workers’ self-management in the Russian revolution. What we see here is the basis for the emergence of a bureaucratic boss class.
Libertarian socialists, on the other hand, pose the alternative of a fight for an authentic socialism of direct workers’ management of industry and direct people power, rooted in the face-to-face democracy of assemblies in the workplaces and neighborhoods. The dynamic of mass participation of working people in mass struggles, and running their own organizations, helps to develop broadly among working people the confidence, knowledge and organizational capacity needed to get rid of the capitalist system and achieve liberation. Thus the politics of class struggle-oriented social anarchism poses an alternative to the statist and hierarchical approach of Leninists like the ISO while avoiding the errors of hyper-individualism, anti-organizationalism, and adventurism which we find in other varieties of anarchism.
- “Contemporary Anarchism,” July-August 2010, p. 38 [↩]