Debate Reviews

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.

Political Organization

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.

  1. “Contemporary Anarchism,” July-August 2010, p. 38 []


  1. It’s very easy to build up a straw man only to knock him down.

    You should definitely read up on the Leninist conception of the party instead of regurgitating the same tired old anarchist slanders. Leninism is not “a political party capturing state power, and then implementing its program top-down through the hierarchies of the state”, no matter how much anarchists wish it were. I would also recommend the Haymarket Book catalog. They have a great number of titles on what Leninism is and what it isn’t.

  2. Zeb objects to my characterization of Leninism’s revolutionary strategy as “a political party capturing state power, and then implementing its program top-down through the hierarchies of the state”. Zeb links to an article specifically about Lenin, and ISO bases its politics on the practice and theory of Lenin’s Bolshevik Party in the Russian revolution. So, I think it’s fair, then, if we look at Bolshevik practice in that revolution. When we do, I think we’ll see that my characterization is in fact an accurate description.

    A key moment in the revolution was the Soviet Congress in October 1917. The unelected “provisional government” of Alexander Kerensky had lost what little legitimacy it had. Almost all of the Russian left supported the transfer of power from the “provisional government” to the Soviet Congress. The libertarian socialist left — anarchists, syndicalists, and others — gave “critical support” to this action. They believed they would still have the freedom to argue for deepening of control by the masses through their organizing in soviets, factory committees and unions.

    After this was approved at that congress, the moderates walked out in protest — giving the Bolsheviks a temporary majority. They used this as an opportunity to push through a proposal of Lenin to concentrate government power not in the country’s nominal legislature — the Central Executive Committee of the congress (a diverse body of representatives) — but in a smaller, separate executive committee, the Council of People’s Commissars (Sovnarkom).

    Right away this violated Marx’s proposal that the legislative and executive functions should be in the same body of delegates. Moreover, the Bolsheviks also moved to stack the Central Executive Committee with Bolshevik trade union bureaucrats — a violation of the soviet principle of direct election. This enabled Sovnarkom to start treating the legislature like a rubber stamp. Within a few months Sovnarkom was ruling by decree…not even bothering to get approval of the nominal legislature.

    During the first months after October the revolution was defended by militia bodies, both Red Guards and factory-based militias. Many anarchists were active in these militias. But by spring 1918 the Bolsheviks had decided to replace the militias with a conventional top-down Red Army, and they hired thousands of ex-Tsarist officers to run it. So now Sovnarkom had both the Cheka (political police) and its own army at its top-down beck and call, to enforce its will.

    Within a few weeks of the creation of Sovnarkom the Bolsheviks put through another important measure — the creation of the Supreme Council for National Economy with authority to do planning for the whole national economy. This council was stacked with Bolshevik stalwarts, union bureaucrats, managers and engineers…all apppointed from above. Within some months various industry and regional councils under this body were also created. Lenin insisted that workers could not elect more than one-third of the representatives. So these bodies would be dominated by Bolshevik party appointees and managers and experts from the old capitalist industry.

    What you see being set up here is a hierarchical state apparatus that would enable the Bolshevik party to control the country militarily and economically, top-down, through the state.

    The ISO also advocates statist central planning. In his book The Case for Socialism ISOer Alan Maass uses “democratic planning” as a euphemism for statist central planning. But statist central planning would subordinate workers. It is incompatible with workers self-management of production.

    In The State and Revolution Lenin had said that the German post office was a model for socialism, replete with its supervisors and officials. Lenin’s concept of “workers control” was laid out in the decree of November 1917. This called for workers to engage in “supervision” and “checking” of management, and required management to “open the books” to the workers. These were measures that the Russian working class had already achieved through the class struggle in 1917, so Lenin’s decree simply legalized these gains. But it is a poverty-stricken concept of “worker control” as it still envisions workers as subordinate, as subject to managerial authority.

    But if workers don’t manage the workplaces who will? If they are subject to managers, there is still a dominating class to which workers are subordinate. Workers continue to be an oppressed class.

    The important thing to keep in mind is that Lenin and Bolsheviks did not advocate for any form of direct, collective decision-making by rank and file workers or the masses. They did not advocate for workers self-management of the industries. Lenin regarded this as an “anarchist” or “syndicalist” position, which he opposed. Nor did they advocate for direct participation in governance. In his book Before Stalinism Marxist sociologist Sam Farber writes:

    “”After October…Lenin’s perspective [on workers’ role] in Russian factories never went beyond his…usual emphasis on accounting and inspection [“worker’s control”]…The underlying cause here was not, as some have claimed that Lenin and the Bolsheviks were cynically manipulating the factory committees and that once the party leaders ‘got power’ they had no more use for them…The key problem was that Lenin and the mainstream of the Bolshevik Party, or for that matter the Mensheviks, paid little if any attention to the need for a transformation and democratization of the daily life of the working class on the shopfloor and community…For Lenin the central problem and concern continued to be the revolutionary transformation of the central state.”

    If working class people in Russia had no mass democratic venue through which they got to make the decisions…over their neighborhoods, towns, workplaces…then this implies that decisions are made by others. when decision-making power is concentrated into the hands of a few, this is a hierarchy. For the Bolsheviks the important thing, as Farber notes, was control over the central state. And they then proceeded to try to implement plans and policies for Russia from the heights of state power.

    The local soviets in major cities had been set up by the Mensheviks (moderate socialists) in 1917. They were usually structured in a top-down way, with power concentrated in the executive committee, and then in an even smaller body called the Presidium. In Moscow and St. Petersburg (Petrograd) the executive committee, made up of party leaders, tended to treat the plenary sessions of delegates as a rubber stamp. (See Pete Rachleff, Soviets and Factory Committees in the Russian Revolution.)

    The Bolsheviks had gained majorities in major soviets in the fall of 1917. They retained the same top-down structure. The next elections were in the spring of 1918. In 19 cities in European Russia the Bolsheviks were defeated. But the Bolsheviks refused to leave office. They typically overthrew the soviet with military force or used force to keep their people in power. (This is recounted in The Mensheviks After October by Vladimir Brovkin and is also mentioned by Farber.)

    Lenin’s theory of the vanguard party held that the party itself is the seed of socialism. So state power of the party was seen as indispensable for the building of socialism. we can see here there is a direct conflict with Marx’s slogan, “the emancipation of the working class is the work of the workers themselves” — a slogan that anarcho-syndicalists also agree with. On the latter view, it is the direct empowerment of the working class that is the key.

    There were other alternatives available at that time. The Kronstadt Soviet provided one concrete example. The workers and sailors in Kronstadt had set up a highly democratic governance body. This was based on the direct democracy of weekly assemblies in workplaces and ships and military units. These assemblies elected their own shop committees as well as their delegate to the soviet. The Kronstadt soviet was run directly through the plenaries. The sailors and workers debated and worked out the policies themselves. But the Bolsheviks were not dominant in Kronstadt. An alliance between the Union of Social Revolutionaries-Maximalists and the Russian anarcho-syndicalists were the dominant political force. The Maximalists were a libertarian socialist organization that advocated a Toilers Republic, based on a horizontal federation of grassroots soviets like the soviet in Kronstadt. The maximalists and syndicalists worked together in alliance throughout the Russian revolution, not only at Kronstadt but elsewhere as well.

    Once the Bolsheviks got control in Kronstadt in the latter part of 1918, they did away with the assemblies, and they also did away with election of officers in the Baltic fleet of the Soviet Navy, instituting top-down appointment of officers.

    There was also an alternative to statist central planning. In the fall of 1917 the St. Petersburg Regional Soviet of Factory Committees put out a call for a national congress of factory committees. They proposed this body as the means to overall coordination, avoiding of duplication, and development of planning from below. But Bolshevik members in the factory committees and trade unions were able to block this proposal. This issue was fought out at the First All-Russian Trade Union Congress in January 1918. Anarcho-syndicalist Gregori Maximov put forward the proposal for a center of coordination that would be under the control of the factory committe movement, as an alternative to the top-down statist central planning advocated by the Bolsheviks. This was supported by the maximalist and syndicalist delegates but was defeated due to the combined opposition of Menshevik and Bolshevik delegates.

    Thus we have the following elements:

    1. Local soviets that were structured topdown, with power concentrated in executive committees of party leaders.

    2. A top-down army and police power controlled from the small executive power in the central state, Sovnarkom.

    3. A top-down central planning apparatus, with members appointed from above by the state executive, with power to develop a national economic plan.

    4. When workers tried to evict the Bolsheviks in local soviet elections, the Bolsheviks stayed in power through force. So workers didn’t even have control over who would be in office in the local soviet government.

    5. Neighborhood assemblies or worker assemblies with decision-making power were not part of the Bolshevik plan, so all decision-making was structured in a hierarchical way.

    6. Industry itself was structured in such a way that workers would still be subordinate to a managerial hierarchy.

    Now, all of this seems clearly to imply that the aim of Lenin and the Bolsheviks in that situation was to secure control over top-down local and central state bodies, and then use these as the basis of their power in society. And this meant that policies and decisions would be made by them and then implemented through these top-down state and industrial hierarchies.

    Therefore, it seems to me that “a political party capturing state power, and then implementing its program top-down through the hierarchies of the state” is an accurate characterization of the politics and practice of Lenin and the Bolsheviks in the Russian revolution. This is not the first time I have laid out this argument. I have done so also in the following:

    But the ISO has never responded to these arguments.

  3. Thanks soo much for this Tom! Great piece – very accessible and concise explanation on the evolution of the historical cruxes: gives me hope that we might establish a coherent strain of thought on strategy for moving forward and surviving! Thank you Thank you Thank you.

  4. I like this piece Tom, thanks for writing it. I also like this other piece of yours –

    I noticed you cited Maurice Brinton’s Bolsheviks and Workers Control in one of your pieces. If people want to look at that, it’s online here –

    That reminds me of one of the things I thought was inadequate in the ISO statement. It argued that anarchism is not just the class struggle parts of anarchism, which is true, but it seemed to portray marxism and socialism as pretty homogenous. For one thing, I know many class struggle anarchists are strongly influenced by figures in the marxist tradition such as Brinton. I ended up an anarchist because of libertarian marxists.

    For another thing, the statement cites Hardt and Negri and John Holloway as problematic influences on contemporary anarchism. The thing is, those authors all come out of the marxist tradition and they still identify politically as marxists. Hardt and Negri explicitly say in one of their recent books that they’re not anarchists. I think the statement lumps all of anarchism because of some problematic anarchists and yet it implicitly writes some marxists out of the marxist tradition. Those are two different standards of interpretation, one for marxism/socialism that makes marxism look more attractive and unified and one for anarchism that makes it look less attractive and less unified.


    ps – I nearly forgot, the ISO statement is now online at the ISR web site here –

    That’s more readable than the Scribd version I linked to above.

  5. The only way the ISO can counter contemporary class struggle anarchism is to engage in straw man tactics. It doesn’t take a great deal of reading of contemporary anarchist works to see what we stand for ie, organization, mass involvement, program, and popular power. They seem to be spending a fair amount of time dissing us, so they must be afraid of our influence…

  6. I agree with Larry. I’ve been meaning to comment on an example of Kerl’s strawmanning.

    Kerl references the Chicago-based Brick Collective, part of the midwestern Federation of Revolutionary Anarchist Collectives (FRAC). Both Brick and FRAC are now defunct, but I know at least some of their member remain active in the anarchist movement and in anarchist organizations.

    Kerl provides a link to a 2003 statement by Brick, but it’s buried in his footnotes. Given how Kerl presents the statement, he does not encourage his readers to go read the Brick statement. Quite the opposite, the strong implication is that the Brick statement is not worth reading. In my opinion, the statement is worth reading in its entirety, both as an example of what some anarchists were saying a few years ago — I think the list of practical tasks at the end is still relevant today — as well as for its claims about the present, that are still worth considering today. Kerl should consider reading the statement. From his treatment of the statement it’s hard to believe he actually read it.
    Don’t take my word for it, though, go read the statement then see if you think Kerl presents Brick’s politics accurately. The statement is online here –

    Kerl uses Brick to open up his discussion of “Post-Leftism.” The heading is inaccurate of Brick’s political and theoretical perspectives. In fact, Brick was part of what Kerl calls “social movement anarchism”, and perhaps what he calls “class struggle anarchism.”

    Kerl claims that Brick are an example of “anarchists [who] draw a stark contrast between themselves and others on the left—even declaring that real anarchism must consider itself outside the left.” I don’t see anything in there that suggests that anarchists should see themselves as “outside the left.”

    Kerl quotes the Brick statement:
    “Roughly speaking we would divide the resistance into two camps: 1) authoritarian, and 2) autonomous and anarchist. The differences between the two general approaches and visions are significant, and cannot be bridged by a shared militancy. In fact, as anarchist revolutionaries, antifascists, and radical feminists we understand our situation as a three-way fight. Them, Them, and Us.” Kerl then adds that “According to this creed, the main division in society is not between classes, nor even between oppressor and oppressed, but between those who are “authoritarian” and those who are “anti-authoritarian.””

    It’s hard to see how Kerl gets this view from the Brick statement. Kerl misrepresents the statement in at least three ways.

    One, he suggests here that the Brick statement underemphasizes class. That’s a question worth discussing, but Kerl would have to actually engage with the politics of the statement if he wanted to have that discussion. Doing so would have to involve engaging with Brick’s analysis of, as they put it, the “offensive directed at the working classes internationally” and the “presents opportunities for class unity.”

    Another misrepresentation on Kerl’s part is his implication that the Brick statement is a static social vision — a matter of “the main division in society” — when actually the statement is an attempt at thinking dynamically and historically. That is, the Brick statement tries to lay out a particular moment in time with various forces operating. Immediately before the quote Kerl takes out of context, the statement says that “The world system of capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy, and the state is going thru a monumental reorganization which involves a great deal of inner-ruling class competition. This has temporarily weakened it at points, providing openings for resistance from below.”

    Kerl goes on to make his third misrepresentation. He writes that “Taken at face value, this means that the Brick Collective sees other individuals and organizations on the left, even if they are fighting for the same things (for example, against the war in Iraq or a G-8 summit), as enemies to be opposed every bit as much as the state. This sectarianism, in which these anarchists hold themselves to be the only “true” rebels, naturally puts them in a posture whereby they claim no accountability to other forces in the movement.”

    The implication here is that Brick was and similar anarchists are willing to fight others on the left — “enemies to be opposed every bit as much as the state.” If Brick saw the non-anarchist left as enemies at the same level of the state that would indeed make them a problem. I wonder how the ISO would handle such forces. I’m sure they don’t have a policy of turning the other cheek to people who would treat them as “enemies to be opposed every bit as much as the state.” I would say that left forces who treated other left forces as such enemies would themselves need to be dealt with harshly. It’s hard not to read Kerl as suggesting that Brick was a danger to the rest of the left. Fortunately, Brick didn’t actually believe what Kerl says. That makes his assertions about them decidedly uncomradely, even irresponsible. Again, it’s hard to believe Kerl read the Brick statement if this is what he really thinks it says.

    Brick say who they have in mind then they talk about what they call “authoritarian” movements. The Brick statement argues that the global situation included “a serious force committed to fighting and overturning the US government, other western governments and radically remaking society. But they are our enemies also. (…) The Taliban regime in Afghanistan gave us a glimpse of what this kind of force looks like in power.” Brick are quite clear that they are talking about “fundamentalism and fascism.” Obviously Kerl does not think that anyone on the left should ally with fundamentalists or fascists, on this he must agree with Brick. Kerl may disagree with Brick about whether or not these forces pose a challenge to the US government, the world order, and capitalist society.

    Brick include a third group under the authoritarian movements they reject – “Authoritarian communist and nationalists [who] continue as guerilla groups in several Third World countries and as opposition parties in the West.” Brick argue that while these groups “once may have seemed radical, [they] are now clearly about control by a party elite (usually middle-class intellectuals) of a revolutionary state, that in turn controls all of society.” Kerl may disagree with this too. These are debates worth having, but here too Kerl would have to actually engage with what the statement says, instead of conflating Brick with very different positions and using cherry-picked quotes to produce an easily dispatched strawman that doesn’t actually reflect Brick’s views.

    Here is how Brick defines the movements they are inspired by and feel affinity toward:

    “So who is the Us? Who do we stand with on this planet? The Zapatistas uprising, the Battle in Seattle, and Argentinas revolt. The anarchist and alternative unions in Europe, the land seizures in Brazil, and the heroism of RAWA. The anti-privatization movement in South Africa, the Belfast-based free-speech forum The Blanket, and the bonfires in Quebec City. Peoples Global Action, the IndyMedia Centers, and the
    International Libertarian Solidarity network.

    This sample of movements, organizations, actions, and projects may seem unwieldy, but it has a logic. As a movement, its main characteristics include: conscious anti-capitalism, a rejection of vanguardism and statecraft, a broad repertoire of militant direct action, a directly democratic process, an egalitarian vision, a commitment to autonomy, political and physical hostility to the fascists and fundamentalists, an ecological understanding, and deep reservations about the effects and effectiveness of an armed-struggle strategy- among others.

    Anarchism is a significant minority within these movements, better known and with more momentum than any time in the last sixty years. Marxists and ex-Marxists also exert significant influence.”

    The last sentence is significant: Brick included Marxists in the “Us” of the “autonomous” movements they identify with.

    I also want to point out that the “three way fight” part of Brick’s statement has strong Marxist roots. One important influence on this perspective has roots in the Chicago-based Marxist group the Sojourner Truth Organization. Readers interested in their analyses of fascism and of the role of white supremacy in the United States can consult STO documents here:

    In a recent article posted at the Marxist web site Kasama, here — — Matthew Lyons helpfully summarizes a variety of Marxist analyses of fascism, some of which informed the Brick collective’s analysis that global capitalism is creating a threat of an insurgent fascist movement.

    Readers might also see the blog Three Way Fight – – that site came after the Brick statement, but it offers a version of the “three way fight” analysis that Brick invoked. That sight also includes several articles by Don Hamerquist, a self-described Leninist who has been influential in shaping three way fight analysis.

    I’m not arguing for or against any of these positions. I’m merely pointing out that Brick drew upon Marxist analyses, in addition to seeing some Marxists as part of the “Us” of autonomous movements.

    How Kerl could read the Brick statement and conclude that “these anarchists hold themselves to be the only “true” rebels, naturally puts them in a posture whereby they claim no accountability to other forces in the movement” is beyond me… unless he had already concluded that before he read the statement.

    Kerl accuses Brick of sectarianism. Perhaps they are a bit sectarian with their offhanded statement “We are not the rigid, boring left and we don’t want to look like it.” At the risk of putting words in others’ mouths, I imagine that Brick would include Kerl’s group, the ISO, in the category “the rigid, boring left.” Still, nowhere in the statement is there any suggestion that Brick would treat others on the US left — that is, genuinely left forces who opposed the Iraw war and the G-8 — “as enemies to be opposed every bit as much as the state.” Kerl’s the sectarian here, misrepresenting others on the left grossly, and implying that they’d be willing to treat other leftists as enemies. Kerl’s misrepresentations of Brick are dishonest, or at best incredibly sloppy intellectually. Being merely rigid and boring would be an advance.

  7. One other follow up point, about the Brick Collective and class —

    Brick belonged to a federation named FRAC. One of the other FRAC collectives, Night Vision, held that FRAC needed “to be doing consistent organizing work among the most oppressed sectors of the working class” —

    In another statement, Brick called for “more discussion in FRAC as to how, as a Federation, we should approach the need to work more amongst working people and less amongst “activists.” The question is not whether to do this but how and by what means.” The statement continued, asserting “the need for FRAC to engage the labor movement (not just AFL-CIO, but yes, they are a part of what we mean by that)” and asked “What type of labor movement do we think is capable of building explicit working class resistance of an anti-capitalist nature?” Some Brick members were involved in work in their unions, work that Brick saw as “key to the development of the type of movement we wish to see.”

    And, FRAC’s first point of unity began “We are Anti-Capitalist. We are against capitalism” and specified that FRAC wanted capitalism to be replaced with “a cooperative, bottom-up, and democratic form of communism where those who work control the means of production. We go by the maxim: To each according to their need, from each according to their ability” —

    It seems clear from these remarks that Brick took class to be very important, despite Kerl’s assertion that they didn’t care about class and only cared about whether someone was anarchist or not.

    Interested readers can consult other material on FRAC’s old web site via the Wayback Machine:*/

    As I already said, Kerl misrepresented the Brick Collective. More than that, he misrepresented them with a very serious charges, that their political outlook would lead them to treat others on the left as enemies just as bad as the state. Given the gravity of this claim, Kerl should have done a lot more research before making that claim. I used to know some of the Brick members so I knew Kerl was inaccurate, so I knew to check his facts. That fact checking took me about half an hour. All I did was go to the URL of the Brick statement he included in his footnote. That statement included the URL of the FRAC web page. Given how big of an accusation he was making, and given how easy it was for me to look all this up, Kerl could have should have done his homework better. He should have investigated further into Brick’s politics before making the claims he did. I’m not generally prone to quoting Mao, but when it comes to accusations like Kerl’s, I think one Mao slogan is pretty good: “no investigation no right to speak.”

  8. Great article, really thought-provoking, excellent point-by-point argumentation, careful history. I consider myself a libertarian communist, used to call myself an anarcho-communist before I started organizing and have been wrestling with Lenin a lot recently. This piece, and the other fire extinguisher one on this site, are really helping me think about what anarchism, communism, marxism, socialism really mean, and how to disentagle all of the labeling issues without tossing the class struggle history of all of these terms.

    More and more I think a central question for considering Lenin and Leninism is the question “what is a state?” Early on in my political development I read State and Revolution with interest, liking the defense of Marx’s position in The Civil War in France that the working class has to organize to defend itself or be crushed by reaction. The problem is that this was and is actually a fairly common-sense point for revolutionaries these days, e.g. when I described Lenin’s argument for the dictatorship of the proletariat to a couple of class struggle anarchists I know they were basically like “duh”, but when I told them what I was describing they switched to “f**** that”.

    Alongside this correct (but more obvious these days) broadside against Bernstein and other gradualists Lenin sneaks in a confusing implicit argument that any organization for the suppression of counterrevolution is a “state”:

    “Furthermore, during the transition from capitalism to communism suppression is still necessary, but it is now the suppression of the exploiting minority by the exploited majority. A special apparatus, a special machine for suppression, the “state”, is still necessary, but this is now a transitional state. It is no longer a state in the proper sense of the word; for the suppression of the minority of exploiters by the majority of the wage slaves of yesterday is comparatively so easy, simple and natural a task that it will entail far less bloodshed than the suppression of the risings of slaves, serfs or wage-laborers, and it will cost mankind far less”

    He puts the scare quotes, but historically they get dropped and we’re screwed. A lot of Leninist indicts of anarchists rest on this theory of the state and the strawman that anarchists deny the need to organize against reaction. I see this theory of the state in use commonly by Trotskyists that I know (“the state is the suppression of one class by another, so we need to build our own of a different and non-exploitative type”) to be really impoverished and idealist. Specifically I think Lenin takes Engels’ (IMHO correct) argument that the state is the HISTORICAL product of the irreconcilability of class antagonisms and transplants it in appropriately to argue that the presence of class antagonisms necessitates a state. This is why I think this paragraph from Tom’s piece is so key, and deserves highlighting:

    “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.”

    I would love to see the ISO or other Trotskyists respond in depth to Tom’s long, detailed history of Bolshevik control over the “workers’ state” above, although I worry that they won’t. I think I’ll actually e-mail an ISO branch leader I know and ask him to though, since they once responded in-depth to a long critique of their politics that we wrote. Anyway thanks again!

    For a world of freely associating producers,
    The Fish

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  10. Actually, as far as I’m aware, the ISO are not advocates of statist central planning, as opposed to the International Marxist Tendency. Actually, ISO and related groups are advocates of something much more like Pat Devine’s model, which he explained in his book Democracy and Economic Planning, which is a model of a democratically planned, self-managed economy that relies on ‘negotiated co-ordination’ places an emphasis of relative decentralisation, and is intended to facilitate statelessness. I encourage you to read it. For an idea of how the ISO and related groups view themselves and how to move forward, Alex Callinicos of the SWP does an excellent summary on znet

  11. In his book “The Case for Socialism,” which is promoted by ISO, Alan Maass argues for what he calls “democratic planning.” He doesn’t spell out what this means, but from the context I inferred that he was talking about government planning. If the ISO has a more worked out position, I’ve not seen it.

    LeftInternationalist is right that it’s worthwhile examining the idea of a socialist economy built around negotiated coordination. The British guild socialists of the World War 1 era, such as GDH Cole, were the first advocates of this. Another version of negotiated coordination is the participatory planning advocated by Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel. The basic idea is that there are organizations for workers self-management and also organizations of people as residents of communities, citizens,
    and consumers, and each of these organizations are a means to people developing planning proposals, and then there is some process of interaction that enables an overall negotiated coordination between workers organizations and what people want produced.

    I was aware that Alex Callinicos was a fan of Pat Devine’s version of negotiated coordination. And I’ve read Devine’s book. But libertarian socialists are not likely to be very sympathetic to Devine’s proposal because it envisions a continued role for a government apparatus…a state, in other words…in the planning
    process. Devine also says he is in favor of a continued role for markets, but is against “market forces” governing the economy. I couldn’t figure out what this distinction amounted to. A general problem with Devine’s book is that it is written in a very general, abtract language that I found quite vague. He fails to illustrate his points with concrete examples to help the reader along. Perhaps this is a reason the book is out of print.

    Both GDH Cole’s guild socialism and the participatory economics of Albert and Hahnel are more sympathetic to libertarian socialism because neither requires the continued existence of a state. Albert and Hahnel’s values are opposed to hierarchy in general. Both Cole’s “Guild Socialism Restated” and the writings of Albert and Hahnel envision rebuilding the political life of society around the direct democracy of assemblies. I didn’t find this kind of emphasis in Devine.

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