Double-dips, exploitation and inequality, Kropotkin and Proudhon on slavery

I have not blogged for some time. Sorry, although in the big scheme of things that is no big thing. Suffice to say, things are quite busy for me – particularly in work, with the union rep duties I now have. I aim to try and summarise my experiences in a Confessions of a Union Rep entitled blog/article, but I’m well aware there are other blogs I’ve promised and not done and a long list of articles and reviews I’ve started but not finished. So I plan to finish various things I have started (such as a review of Wayne Price’s very good The Abolition of the State). I also have one new article planned, on Proudhon (which I’ll discuss below).

So, I’m going to have to balance lots of activities – not least, hitting the archives for my Kropotkin Anthology. I’ve made some progress on this, but more needs to be done – I’ve put on-line a taster article, to which I’ll come to in due course. I have published a few new articles, though, so as usual I’ll summarise these before discussing a few issues.

One is an analysis of the economic crisis in Britain ( A cold economy encrusted by a half-baked ideology) and will appear (in I’m sure a much edited form) in the next Black Flag. Suffice to say, the announcement that the UK is now in a “double-dip” recession did not come as a great surprise to me (or, for that matter, anyone paying attention!). So we now have, thanks to austerity, double-dip recessions in Ireland, Britain and Spain. Sadly, it seems unlikely that our masters here in the UK will be changing track any time soon – unless forced to, of course, by mass rebellion. And equally sadly, it seems unlikely that we will be seeing much of that soon (I hope I am wrong!). We (working class people) have so much power in our hands and no real awareness of it (three decades worth of defeats have played their role in this).

And talking of which, I should mention the next article – a very edited version of the review article Syndicalism, Marxist Myth and Anarchist Reality. This will appear in the new issue of Black Flag (235). This is out this month (May 2012) and includes edited versions of A cold economy encrusted by a half-baked ideology and Pay Inequality: Where it comes from and what to do about it. My experiences as a union rep have confirmed the validity of the traditional revolutionary anarchist perspective on the labour movement as the main means of social change – as well as the dangers associated with it (bureaucracy, reformism, etc.).

Reading Kropotkin again just drives home how much nonsense the standard Marxist narrative on anarchism is, namely that it ignores the working class and collective class struggle (see, for example, the AWL’s nonsense from last year or any article by the SWP in any year). The Leninist notion that anarcho-syndicalism was a new development, an improvement over the ideas of Kropotkin and Bakunin, really is based on complete historical illiteracy. As becomes clear when reading Darlington’s book, this position is so ingrained in Leninists that there is no need to bother with anything as trivial as empirical evidence to support it. Yet anyone who actually bothers to read Bakunin or Kropotkin would soon see the facts of the matter. This is a theme of section H.2 of An Anarchist FAQ for those seeking to look into the matter. In addition, a reply to an article Darlington wrote for Anarchist Studies based on his book will be published in issue vol. 20, No. 1 (an older version is available on-line).

This can be seen from this issue of Black Flag. We have a regular feature called the revolutionary reprint (at least that is what I call it) and this issue has as its one Kropotkin’s 1890 article The Use of the Strike (this is included at the end of the Darlington review). Published in Freedom (April 1890), Kropotkin discusses the importance of strikes and unions in both improving conditions under capitalism but also in promoting revolutionary ideas and starting a social revolution. It is of note because it repeats long-standing anarchist ideas on the strike as well as raising these ideas long before French syndicalism was internationally known. As he put it elsewhere:

“Workmen’s organisations are the real force capable of accomplishing the social revolution – after the awakening of the proletariat has been accomplished, first by individual action, then by collective action, by strikes and revolts extending more and more; and where workmen’s organisations have not allowed themselves to be dominated by the gentlemen who advocate ‘the conquest of political power’, but have continued to walk hand in hand with anarchists – as they have done in Spain – they have obtained, on the one hand, immediate results (an eight-hour day in certain trades in Catalonia), and on the other have made good propaganda for the social revolution – the one to come, not from the efforts of those highly-placed gentlemen, but from below, from workmen’s organisations.”

Suffice to say, there seems to be many, many articles by Kropotkin which have never been put into an anthology. Many, if not most, of his articles on the labour movement fall into this category, sad to say. However, works like Modern Science and Anarchism or his entry on anarchism in The Encyclopaedia Britannica summarises the revolutionary anarchist position very well so there is no excuse for Leninist ignorance. But, then, Leninists seem to have a whole swath of inventions about anarchism which no amount of evidence seems to disabuse them from repeating (for example, the notion that most anarchists supported the first world war when, in fact, it was most Marxists who did so). Then there is the habitual assertions anarchists do not see the need to defend a revolution. Here is Kropotkin from Revolutionary Studies:

“A people who know how to organise the accumulation of wealth and its reproduction in the interest of the whole of society, no longer need to be governed. A people who will itself be the armed force of the country and who will know how to give to armed citizens the necessary cohesion and unity of action will no longer need to be commanded.”

Revolutionary Studies was translated for the Socialist League paper, Commonwealth in 1891 and was subsequently released as a pamphlet. It is quite an important work, discussing aspects of the Paris Commune not covered elsewhere (for example). The second half was republished in France in 1914 as Anarchist Actionin the Revolution. It has never appeared in an anthology before.

And talking of Kropotkin, I did a review of leading Primatologist Frans de Waal’s The Age of Empathy. Since I did my introduction to the new Freedom Press edition of Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid (sadly rejected for being too long but now available thanks to AK Press UK as a pamphlet), I’ve been interested in evolutionary theory and, in particular, theories on the evolution of co-operation and altruism (not the same thing!). Suffice to say, Kropotkin seems to have been vindicated – assuming you bother to read Kropotkin’s work rather than the stereotypes inflicted upon it thanks to the assumptions the title seems to invoke in some people.

And talking of which, I saw an interesting (but, as usual, frustrating) documentary on one of the BBC digital channels on Richard Dawkins last week. He admitted that the title of The Selfish Gene may be the best one (although would it have been so popular if it weren’t that?) but also, as usual, expressed that he thought our political and social structures should be as far from Darwinian as possible. Dawkin’s often argues that co-operation and altruism are products of the Darwinian struggle for survival. Surely, then, to say that socially we must reject the Darwinian struggle in our lives implies, at some level, the belief that these features of animal life are somehow at odds with natural selection? I discuss this in my review, so will leave it there.

Lastly, there is a review of Ha-Joon Chang’s 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism. This was published in an edited form in Freedom. Interesting book, but really limited by its inability to envision anything other than types of capitalism.

So as well as austerity confirming the arguments summarised in section C.9 of An Anarchist FAQ (and in this article written just after the crisis broke out), I should state that there is no universal crisis reason. Unlike many Marxists who quote Marx to justify (so many different!) single cause of crisis theories, I think it is useful to group them together in two broad classes – those which are caused by the working class being too strong (the 1970s) and those caused by the working class being too weak (now). Yes, given that capitalism IS the crisis it could be argued that every crisis has the same cause, namely the contradictory nature of capitalism (see for example this article) but these contradictions express themselves in different ways at different times.

This board two-type approach is sketched in section C.7 of An Anarchist FAQ and so I won’t do that now, except to mention that the ruling classes’ response to the current crisis is still marked by the fear inflicted by the crisis of the 1970s and the memories of the power working class people had in the post-war period of near full-employment. How else to explain the Austerity fetish we are seeing? Yes, ideology plays its part (some sections of the ruling elite seem to actually believe their own neo-liberal rhetoric about the dynamic and self-correcting nature of free market capitalism!) but as 2008 showed, when push comes to shove then the state will intervene (as it always does). So why quick reversal from talking about Minsky and Keynes (while ignoring what they actually argued) to austerity? Because such talk suggests alternatives and that can produce hope and social movements, something the elite hate.

Suffice to say, we can expect more self-defeating austerity measures until one of two things happens. One, the economic crisis starts to affect the elite again (as it once did in 2008) or, two, there is a social movement which uses direct action and solidarity to produce effective resistance. The second will, of course, bring the first home far sooner as our resistance wakes them up! Until then, we can expect the usual Austerity-mantra – with the help of neo-classical economists…

And talking of which, on my way to work I’ve re-read Proudhon’s System of Economic Contradictions (again). Sometimes a confusing book, but when he gets into the swing of it very enjoyable. I read this part today, and I thought I would share:

“Formerly the masters of the science began by putting far away from them every preconceived idea, and devoted themselves to tracing facts back to general laws, without ever altering or concealing them. The researches of Adam Smith, considering the time of their appearance, are a marvel of sagacity and lofty reasoning. The economic picture presented by Quesnay, wholly unintelligible as it appears, gives evidence of a profound sentiment of the general synthesis. The introduction to J. B. Say’s great treatise dwells exclusively upon the scientific characteristics of political economy, and in every line is to be seen how much the author felt the need of absolute ideas. The economists of the last century certainly did not constitute the science, but they sought this constitution ardently and honestly.

“How far we are today from these noble thoughts! No longer do they seek a science; they defend the interests of dynasty and caste. The more powerless routine becomes, the more stubbornly they adhere to it; they make use of the most venerated names to stamp abnormal phenomena with a quality of authenticity which they lack; they tax accusing facts with heresy; they calumniate the tendencies of the century; and nothing irritates an economist so much as to pretend to reason with him.”

And, sad to say, I chopped that out for Property is Theft! Shame on me...

It reminds me of Marx’s comment in Capital on vulgar economists. “It was henceforth,” wrote Marx, “no longer a question whether this theorem or that was true, but whether it was useful to capital or harmful, expedient or inexpedient, politically dangerous or not. Pure, selfless research gave way to battles between hired scribblers, and genuine scientific research was replaced by the bad conscience and the evil intent of apologetic” (Capital, vol. 1, p. 97)

Actually, a lot of what Proudhon wrote reminds me of Marx. Indeed, System of Economic Contradictions often reads like a first draft of Capital. This can be seen from Proudhon’s account of how exploitation happens in production due to wage-labour and the fact that labour can produce more than it gets paid in wages. I discuss this in many places, most notably in my talk at last years London Anarchist Bookfair and the article Pay Inequality: Where it comes from and what to do about it. Somewhat ironically, in Poverty of Philosophy, Marx mocks Proudhon for arguing that wage-labour (selling your labour to a boss) is the root cause of exploitation and so inequality.

Now if the anarchist theory of exploitation were true, we would expect to see productivity increase faster than wages as bosses monopolise more of the wealth workers produce but do not own. And this is precisely what has happened under neo-liberal capitalism. Rather than wages rising in-line with productivity, as predicted in neo-classical economic ideology, wages in America have stagnated while productivity has increase. I found this useful graph which shows this well:


The source of this graph is this useful report (mentioned by Paul Krugman as well) which summarises the situation in America:

“Income inequality has grown over the last 30 years or more driven by three dynamics: rising inequality of labor income (wages and compensation), rising inequality of capital income, and an increasing share of income going to capital income rather than labor income. As a consequence, examining market-based incomes one finds that “the top 1 percent of households have secured a very large share of all of the gains in income—59.9 percent of the gains from 1979–2007, while the top 0.1 percent seized an even more disproportionate share: 36 percent. In comparison, only 8.6 percent of income gains have gone to the bottom 90 percent”

But this mismatch between facts and ideology has, as discussed in section C of An Anarchist FAQ has marked neo-classical economics from the start.

And talking of the ideological nature of economics and Paul Krugman, there was an interesting exchange between him and post-Keynesian Steve Keen (author of the excellent Debunking Economics). I say interesting, more illuminating. Krugman is pretty much your typical neo-classical Keynesian economist and one of the best around (fault praise, admittedly). He does have some interesting things to say, particularly in-so-far as he grasps reality and recognises that it and economic ideology are often at odds (see my review of one of his books) but he seems unable to conclude that neo-classical economics itself is flawed. Unlike Keen, we shows the flaws in it extremely well. Suffice to say, Krugman denounces Keen for being ignorant of neo-classical economics but, in fact, misreads him. Rather than admit the obvious, he doubles-down and makes its worse. I would recommend Keen’s account of this spat, for those interested in such things.

I indicated above that I am thinking of doing a new article on Proudhon, perhaps for Anarchist Studies. I asked one of the translators (Ian Harvey) who volunteered on Property is Theft! to translate chapter IX of Part 3 (Slavery and the Proletariat ) from 1863’s The Federative Principle and the Necessity of Reconstituting the Party of the Revolution in which Proudhon discusses the American civil war and slavery at length. Given that J. Salwyn Schapiro (and via Leninist Hal Draper, many Marxists) argued that Proudhon considered black people as “as the lowest in the racial hierarchy” and “an inferior race, an example of the existence of inequality among the races of mankind,” finding out what Proudhon actually thought is important. Rather than being advocating a racial hierarchy, Proudhon explicitly calls for equality between races:

“To save the Union, two things were necessary through common accord and energetic will: 1) free the blacks and give them civil rights [droit de cité], of which the northern states only granted half and the southern states did not want to grant at all; 2) energetically resist the growing [size of the] proletariat, which entered into no one’s perspective…

“In a federal republic, the proletariat and slavery both seem unacceptable; the tendency must be to abolish them both… grant equal political rights to both the emancipated blacks and those kept in servitude until now… The federative principle here appears closely related to that of the social equality of races and the equilibrium of fortunes. The political problem, the economic problem and the problem of races are one and the same problem, and the same theory and jurisprudence can resolve that problem… with regard to black workers, that physiologists and ethnographers recognise them as part of the same species as whites; that religion declares them, along with the whites, the children of God and the church, redeemed by the blood of the same Christ and therefore spiritual brothers; that psychology sees no difference between the constitution of the Negro conscience and that of the white, no more than between the comprehension of one and the other… the principle of equality before the law must have as corollaries: 1) the principle of equality of races, 2) the principle of equal conditions and 3) the principle of increasingly similar, although never completely equal, fortunes”

Proudhon did not support the North (which is not the same thing as supporting the South) because he considered the war as a ruling class war, fighting over the form of exploitation working class people would be subjected to: “If Federalists and Confederates, fighting only over the type of servitude, must not be declared equally guilty blasphemers and betrayers of the federative principle and banned from all nations.” Thus he opposed “the conversion of black slaves to the proletariat that Mr. Lincoln proposed” in favour of “organising, alongside political guarantees, a system of economic guarantees” and abolishing both slavery and wage-slavery. His position seems to be: Neither Washington nor Richmond.

So much for Schapiro’s claims. Given how Schapiro and Draper systematically distorted Proudhon’s ideas, it will come as no surprise to discover Proudhon’s position was not what you would imagine. Needless to say, the position Proudhon argued in 1863 is consistent with his other, better known, works (unlike Schapiro’s claims). Still, for those seeking to dismiss Proudhon and his contribution to anarchism rest assured he was anti-feminist and anti-Semitic.

Finally, a few recommendations for articles to read. I’m currently reading The London Years by Rudolf Rocker, his excellent autobiography of his time as one of the leaders of Britain’s Jewish anarchist and labour movements. As this is the 100th anniversary of the general strike of 1912 and the solidarity actions of Jewish workers in support of striking dock workers, it seems appropriate. Even better, Rocker’s Anarchy and Organisation has been translated and is worth reading. I also recently discovered that Luigi Fabbri’s account of the rise of fascism is on-line, Preventative Counter-Revolution. The near revolution of 1920 in Italy is a period I’m interested in and there is simply so much research needed to be done on it. I’ve done some work on it (section A.5.5 of An Anarchist FAQ as well as my lengthy review of a SWP book on it). Someone should publish Fabbri’s account as soon as possible. I should also note that Fabbri also wrote one of the best anarchist replies to a Leninist attack on anarchism I’ve read.

Also, a translation of an article by Eugene Varlin has appeared. Varlin is not well known in English language circles, in spite of him being a leading members of the French First International and a martyr of the Paris Commune. A left-mutualist, he (like Bakunin) took Proudhon’s ideas and transformed them into revolutionary trade unionism (syndicates were the "natural elements" for the rebuilding of society as they “can easily be transformed into producer associations; it is they that can put into practice the retooling of society and the organisation of production") with a firm support for sexual equality. I mention him in the Introduction to Property is Theft!, sections A.3.2 and A.5.3 of An Anarchist FAQ as well as in my article The Paris Commune, Marxism and Anarchism. And Noam Chomsky’s thoughts on What next for Occupy? are in the Guardian today.

And, of course, May Day greetings to all!

Until I blog again, be seeing you!


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