Anarchist Media Meeting at the London Anarchist Bookfair (19/10/2013)

Well, it is that time of the year again – the London Anarchist bookfair is just a month or so away! I am going through the proof-edited version of my Kropotkin Anthology Direct Struggle Against Capital: A Peter Kropotkin Anthology (AK Press America have it on their webpage, with cover). The aim is for publication in the spring of 2014 and that is still on course, glad to say. I’m excited about it – it should be the definitive anthology of Kropotkin and show him for what has was, a practical revolutionary and class warrior, rather than the “gentle prince of co-operation” nonsense. Whether I succeed will depend on the reader!

The 2013 London Anarchist Bookfair will be on Saturday 19th October, from 10am to 7pm, at Queen Mary, University of London, Mile End Road, London, E1 4NS.

I will be hosting a meeting there for I am, for my sins, a member of the Black Flag editorial collective and have been since I moved away from Glasgow. The magazine had a break about five years ago and was re-launched after a call for help created a bigger editorial collective. While still small, we got the magazine out twice a year for over 5 years. Sadly, all three members had various crises at the same time and we had to put it back into hiatus. I’ve organised a meeting at the bookfair to discuss the future of Black Flag and anarchist print media in general:

2.00pm – 3.00pm, Room 3.20

Where now for Anarchist Print Media?

A movement needs its media but we need print media in the 21st century? Black Flag has been our movement’s independent journal for over 40 years. It is currently on a hiatus initiated by a combination of personal crises in its too small editorial collective. Should it be restarted? Do you want to help restart it? Should we co-operate with the national federations and become a journal of the movement? Join in our discussion of where now for anarchist journals and Black Flag in particular.

This a subject I have been keen to discuss for many years, namely rationalising and improving our movement’s publications by means of co-operation between magazines and federations. At the end of this blog there is an old (very old!) article on this subject which still reflects my perspective on anarchist print media.

Obviously the article is a bit dated (Direct Action has not appeared for a long time) and does not reflect the discussions we in Black Flag had with the Anarchist Federation (AF) about merging Organise! and Black Flag. Ironically, we were nearly there when the crisis which caused the pause in Black Flag production happened – if we had merged six months earlier then we would have been able to continue publication as resources would have been greater.

Anyways, the meeting will cover the ideas raised in this old article, seeking members for the editorial collective of Black Flag, people willing to write and, hopefully, discussing co-operation with the existing federations with the aim of merging magazines. Basically, if we were a mass movement with large federations I would be for a diversity of magazines but as we are not it makes sense to work together to produce a frequent, regular, quality magazine which people outside the movement would like to read. And that is the key point – no point just talking to ourselves (something I wish more comrades would remember!).

So unlike last year, I have only one meeting organised at the bookfair. For those interested in what the world is missing out on this year, here is a list of meetings I’ve held at the bookfair over the last two years:

This, unfortunately, the anarchist media meeting clashes with another meeting I would consider to attend held by the Communist Workers Organisation:

Is Anarchism v Marxism the Real Divide between Revolutionaries Today?

Marxists and Anarchists share the view that the antithesis to capitalism is a classless, stateless society. Less agreed is how this might come about. After the statist dead-ends of Social Democracy, Stalinism and Trotskyism real Marxists recognise the need to destroy the state not replace it. After Spain many Anarchists recognise that revolution from below needs a deeper material basis. Capitalism is in obvious crisis.  Is this time for a more fruitful exchange on revolution and the state than previously? The CWO (and Commune) has already posed this in the Sheffield Anarchist Bookfair. Let’s take the discussion further.  All welcome.

Not sure what “[a]fter Spain many Anarchists recognise that revolution from below needs a deeper material basis” is meant to mean. Most anarchists see the problem of Spain as simply a failure of anarchists to apply their ideas in extremely difficult circumstances (the leadership and many members of the CNT placing anti-fascist unity above the need to consolidate the revolution).

Also, while “deeper material basis” may sound very impressive, I’m not sure what it actually means. Which is a problem with much of the left-wing – the words used are jargon-riddled and really mean little (even if you have read a lot of the books!). I remember reading posts on libcom which were full of jargon – jargon which its user seemed very happy to invoke precisely because, I think, it allowed them to look dead intellectual – and avoid awkward questions because others were disarmed (so to speak) by the gibberish being used.

Hence my previous point about remembering to talk to people outside the movement – talking to ourselves, using ideologically correct jargon, soon results in people with their heads well and truly up their own arses. This is no way to build a working class movement! Something recognised by Kropotkin, who made sure his writings were accessible to the masses – something we should always aspire to. So we should not dumb-down but neither should we inflict pointless jargon as it alienates people (and the whole “jazz-hands” thing in meetings these days annoys me as well, as it comes across as people having their own private little language). If you cannot express your ideas in straightforward language then you are hiding something, something bad probably (as shown by the jargon used by management and politicians).

Then there is “[a]fter the statist dead-ends of Social Democracy, Stalinism and Trotskyism real Marxists recognise the need to destroy the state not replace it.” This raises numerous issues – most obviously the implication that most self-proclaimed Marxists are not actually (“real”) Marxists. Which raises the equally obvious questions of who determined that and on what basis?

This has always plagued Marxism – which is what you get for calling your ideas after a person. Do you base it on the writings of Marx and Engels? But Engels is often frowned upon by those seeking to save the “real” (presumably libertarian) Marx, so does that mean just Marx? If so, how do you square his quotes which point very clearly towards social-democracy with an interpretation of Marx as an anti-statist? And, if this is really the “real” Marx, why the conflict with Bakunin?

For example, a few months (June 1871) after the Commune apparently showed Marx that the capitalist state had to be smashed and replaced with a new one (according to Lenin and most Marxists today, Marx explained how in Britain, for example, “the way to show political power lies open to the working class. Insurrection would be madness where peaceful agitation would more swiftly and surely do the work.” (Collected Works, vol. 22, p. 602) He reiterated this the following year after the Hague Conference expelled Bakunin for (amongst other things) arguing for a syndicalist rather than a social democratic strategy:

“We know that the institutions, customs and traditions in the different countries must be taken into account; and we do not deny the existence of countries like America, England, and if I knew your institutions better I might add Holland, where the workers may achieve their aims by peaceful means. That being true, we must admit that in most countries on the continent it is force which must be the lever of our revolution; it is force which will have to be resorted to for a time in order to establish the rule of the workers.” (vol. 23, p. 255)

So, according to Lenin, Marx concluded that the state cannot be seized and transformed by electioneering – and then immediately changed his mind? Doubtful. Then there is Engels clarifying what Marx meant in The Civil War in France in 1884:

“It is simply a question of showing that the victorious proletariat must first refashion the old bureaucratic, administrative centralised state power before it can use it for its own purposes: whereas all bourgeois republicans since 1848 inveighed against this machinery so long as they were in the opposition, but once they were in the government they took it over without altering it and used it partly against the reaction but still more against the proletariat.” (vol. 47, p. 74)

Which is consistent with Marx’s comments from 1871 and 1872 (not to mention many comments long before the Paris Commune). However, it is very much at odds with Lenin’s account in State and Revolution.

As I discuss in section H.3.10 of An Anarchist FAQ, these apparently contradictory positions (i.e., Marx against most Marxists) can be simply explained once you read Marx and Engels closely and see that they do not talk of smashing the state (as Bakunin did) but only “the state machine” or “the state power” and, moreover, that they define this as the bureaucracy around the state (on Continental Europe) which predates bourgeois rule but when the bourgeoisie utilise to secure its position. Hence the idea of using “political action” (elections) to seize political power (i.e., the existing state) and the idea of “smashing” the state machinery are perfectly compatible.

There is no contradiction, once this is understood. Which means, of course, that Lenin’s State and Revolution distorts the Marxist position (along with the anarchist one!). This was argued by Martov at the time and the Socialist Party of Great Britain (SPGB) to this day. Simply put, Marx did not conclude the state had to be smashed in 1871 and then immediately change his mind! Particularly when you remember that the Paris Commune itself was created by elections to the existing municipal council – but with various ideas raised by Proudhon (such as mandates and recall) in 1848 added by his numerous followers in Paris. So we have Marx praising the ideas advanced by mutualists in Paris while, at the same time, failing to mention that these ideas had their roots in Proudhon…

Of course you could argue, and many do, that if Marx had lived to see the degeneration of social democracy and the failure of the Russian Revolution he would have concluded that “real Marxists recognise the need to destroy the state not replace it.” Fine, but why not state the obvious – that Marx would have drawn anarchist conclusions?

In short, to argue that the state is a specific social structure which is marked by specific features (centralisation, hierarchy, etc.) to ensure minority rule and has its own (class) interests then you have an anarchist analysis of the state.  As Mark Leier quips, Marxism “has usually - save when battling anarchists - argued that the state has some ‘relative autonomy’ and is not a direct, simple reflex of a given economic system.”(Bakunin: The Constructive Passion, p. 275)). As discussed in section H.3.9 of An Anarchist FAQ the notion that the state produces classes (the bureaucracy) is an important insight for which we anarchists have long recognised. That some “real” Marxists have caught up with us is all very nice, but why use “Marxist”?

Then there is the “real” Marxist position on the general strike and imperialist wars.

The former was summarised by Engels in “The Bakuninists at Work” and in various letters and it was fundamentally hostile. When the radicals in the Second International, reflecting the work of syndicalists and anarchists, raised the issue they were subject to quotes from Engels on how it was a silly idea unbefitting of a “real” Marxist to support. Rosa Luxemburg managed to get around this by, firstly, by asserting that the Marxist “Mass Strike” was different from the anarchist “General Strike” (and failing to mention that Engels, as usual, distorted the anarchist position on it – see section H.3.5 of An Anarchist FAQ for details) and, secondly, noting that Engels was writing at the dawn of the labour movement.

Thus Engels was right in his opinions on the general strike and those who quoted those opinions now were wrong! True dialectics in action…

The latter shows this as well, with the orthodox Social Democrats happily quoting Marx and Engels on the need for socialists to defend the fatherland against Tsarist reaction (and the French republic if that were its ally, as was the case when Engels wrote in the early 1890s). Which, of course, caused major problems for Lenin seeking to show his orthodoxy in refusing to take sides in the slaughter. The solution? Easy, argue that capitalism was now in a new stage of development which, happily, appeared a few years after the death of Engels (around 1900). That this new epoch of capitalism went unnoticed by Lenin before 1914 (and that the precise date took some time to narrow down) is beside the point.

Thus Marx and Engels, living as they were in an era when capitalism was progressive, was right to take sides in capitalist wars and those who quoted those opinions now were wrong! Happy coincidence that Lenin finally recognised that this era started after Engels died…

Needless to say, when Kropotkin sided with the Allies in 1914 the likes of Malatesta, Rocker, Goldman and Berkman did not have to invent new epochs of capitalism to argue he was wrong – they simply argued from first principles of class struggle anarchism (something Kropotkin himself had argued from 1872 to 1913 – and which they did not fail to quote or remind him of!). And I know which one is the healthy position which allows further development of revolutionary theory...

Anyways, to cut a long story short, I would argue that Marxism today – in almost all of its forms – is an ideology Marx would have some difficulty recognising as his. Even the SPGB, which I would argue is closest to Marx’s position, rejects his position on using parliament to win reforms (correct me if I’m wrong!) as they, rightly, recognise this as the path to opportunism and reformism – not to mention their position on labour notes and “transitional” periods. Those Marxists who are libertarian essentially agree with Bakunin on most things – primary focus on economic struggle and organisation, anti-parliamentarianism, smashing the state, etc. In terms of the Leninists, they reject his ideas on “political action” and consider the state as being closed to capture and reform (by smashing the state machine) – in this, they follow Proudhon and not Marx!

Yes, times change and our ideas most change to reflect this. However, at some point an evolution produces new species. Which brings us to an obvious point – at what stage does Marxism stop being Marxism and become something else? If you recognise the need for decentralisation, anti-statism, reject “political action” and parties, embrace federalism and “bottom-up” decision-making, argue for workers’ councils to replace the state and for workers’ self-management of production, surely you have to admit at some stage that you are an anarchist? Why the fixation on “Marxism”? Because Marxists have so distorted anarchism (see section H.2 of An Anarchist FAQ and the introduction of Property is Theft! for Proudhon) that it is the only way to appear to be a “serious” or “real” revolutionary?

Take those who argue for market socialism – some suggest that if Marx had lived to see the failures of central planning in the USSR then he would have revised his ideas. Perhaps. After all, his comments on central planning are few and far between and sketchy (his two – yes, two! – sentences on it in The Poverty of Philosophy are a clear example of the fallacy of composition). And, if you look hard enough – and ignore enough awkward quotes – you could produce market socialism from Marx’s work – but would it be Marxism in any meaningful sense? Would it not be better (as I’ve suggested elsewhere) to stop trying to squeeze Marx into something he does not fit into and instead acknowledge that Proudhon was right after all when it came to markets against central planning?

(Acknowledging that Proudhon’s market socialism is superior to Marx’s central planning – insofar as it would actually work! – does not in any way imply that a decentralised and federal communism would not be better than both. So please do not read into the above paragraph the notion I favour mutualism over communist-anarchism. Although I am prepared to acknowledge that a mutualist/collectivist transition period may be required and, moreover, that mutualism may be the only viable anarchist economy as libertarian communism may not work – but we will only find out for sure when we try to create it. If it does not work then we should be grown-up enough to admit it – but this talking of the future, we need to get our act together in the here-and-now to help create the situation when we can see if it does or not. Thus who equate socialism with communism have a too narrow view, in my humble opinion. Life is complex and good ideas may just be that).

Anyways, Marxism has failed. Deal with it. This does not mean we reject everything Marx wrote, it simply means we look at him as a thinker amongst many and take what is useful and reject what is flawed. In a word, how anarchists treat Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin, etc. And, I would argue, anarchists are best placed to see what is of value in Marx’s work precisely because we don’t label ourselves after him! And once we do this, the revolutionary movement will be in a position to develop and grow (whether we do depends on us and our ability to apply our ideas in a constructive, empowering and sensible way).

And before ending, a short list of Marxist thinkers I consider worth reading and of value (in no particular order):

The first two are council communists, a position Lenin had no problem calling anarchist! For good reason, I would suggest, as the position is far closer to Bakunin and Kropotkin than Marx and Engels (indeed, one of the best articles on Kropotkin is by Harry Cleaver, an Autonomist Marxist close to the council communist position). I would have listed Cornelius Castoriadis but he rejected Marxism by the time he produced his most important works (no coincidence, I think!). The same can be said of Daniel Guèrin, who did become an anarchist.

Anyways, enough of that. Hopefully see yous on the 19th of October!

Until I blog again, be seeing you!

The Anarchist Media: Use it or Lose it

The next issue of Black Flag may be the last one. This is not due to lack of interest in the magazine. It is due to the fact that the existing editorial collective, for pressing personal reasons, cannot give it the time and energy required to maintain it. This should come as no surprise. It has gone from being quarterly to being annual in the last few years. Editorials have stressed the need for people to get involved on some level, with little success. Here I repeat that call.

This lack of participation is, I fear, a common problem with anarchist journals and papers. While many people are happy to consume a product (in the shape of a paper or journal) and complain about what it does or does not carry, fewer seem to be willing to get involved in actually producing them. Which is a shame, as without people willing to contribute in some way (such as writing, distributing, selling, etc.) then the work is simply handed to a few people who, sooner or later, either get burnt out or find they cannot continue to do it.

This should not be the case as this consumerist mentality is totally against what anarchism stands for. Anarchism stands for mutual aid, participation, "doing it yourself." That should mean that anarchists should get involved in their media, whether it is selling it on demos or getting it into shops, writing reports on what they are doing or contributing articles on current events or anarchist theory and history. Yet this is not done as often as it should. I know that at times over the last year, Freedom editors have noted a lack of copy (this situation has improved) and a lack of help in doing the "boring" administrative tasks necessary to distribute the paper or maintain the bookshop. As far as Black Flag goes, we get better responses from comrades in other countries for articles than in the UK.

Yes, I know that the movement is not made up of "professional revolutionaries" and does not have full-timers. And it's a good job that is the case -- we are (usually) normal people trying to make the world better and long may it remain so. But correlated with this is the necessity of an increased sense of personal responsibility. The simple fact is that without active participation our media will die.

So the question is, if you like Black Flag and want to see it keep going consider getting involved in it. You don't need to be a writer, we just need people willing to do the many tasks required to produce and distribute any journal.

The Future

Of course, keeping Black Flag going does not address the wider subject of what the anarchist media should be doing. I think it could do a lot better. One good sign is that Freedom has become, at long last, a proper anarchist paper. Having a regular, good quality, newspaper is a boon to the movement and it's a resource we should ensure continues and grows.

However, looking at the other journals we could have, we are sorely lacking. We have three magazines (Direct Action, Organise! and Black Flag) all of which do roughly the same thing. That is a needless duplication. Why have three magazines with three editorial teams when one magazine could be used to complement Freedom with more in depth articles and analysis? By combining into one journal, we could increase its size, print run, regularity and pool of available articles and people willing to read and sell it. While I would prefer the title of any such journal to be Black Flag, I've aware that Direct Action is the most regular of the existing magazines and it would be more sensible to build on that success.

As well as a single quarterly (or even monthly!) magazine, we could also do with a yearly (or more frequent) journal along the lines of the old Cienfuegos Anarchist Press Review. As well as reprinting the best of anarchist writing (both from home and abroad) in the previous year, it could be the home of longer pieces on theory and history (whether classic reprints or new material). This could be called Black Flag (no surprises there!).

Then there is the pressing need for a free sheet for handing out at demos and elsewhere. Free sheets are essential means of getting our ideas across to people who then may be interested in getting involved in the movement. A free sheet which is regularly produced and distributed widely would raise interest in our ideas immensely. Something along the lines of the AF's Resistance would be the obvious choice, particularly as none of the other federation's free sheets are as regular or well-known.

Now I know that there may be a lot of resistance to such a proposal. It would involve some organisations working more closely together and dropping some of the minor differences between them. For example, the SolFed and AF would have to stop being divided over whether a (non-existent) syndicalist union would be better than a (non-existent) workplace resistance group and concentrate on what unites them (i.e. revolutionary anarchism). It would mean an outward looking attitude rather than the (often self-destructive) inward looking mentality we, as a movement, sometimes express. It would mean, basically, creating a media for the movement we could have (and should have). And it would mean objectively looking at the movement as it is now and seeing where it is wasting energy and resources in needless duplication.

Of course, this could be part of a wider gathering of forces. The creation of a single anarchist federation to support this unified media would make sense. This would involve creating a more inclusive AF which drops some of its controversial positions and language (for example, who cares if it's called a union or a workplace assembly if it is for direct action and self-management?). The opening of the SolFed's Industrial Networks to all rebel workers rather than just SolFed members would also make sense (and this would be the IWA affiliate in the UK). That would complete a united media.

In a nutshell, I think we should be practicing more mutual aid then we have been. If we do, I think we would reap the benefits in terms of both a healthy and respected anarchist media and a more dynamic and growing movement. Needless to say, those who think this is a good idea should plough on and start the ball rolling.

There will be a meeting at the bookfair on this subject so please come along and discuss the points I have raised. Or perhaps we can discuss it in the pages of Freedom. What happens next is in your hands.


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