A few comments on Corbyn, Locke and Rousseau

First off, I have posted my “A Few Thoughts on Anarchism” which has appeared in (I think) edited form in the new issue of Black Flag. It marks the 175th anniversary of Proudhon’s What is Property? and, as regular reader know, I do like marking anniversaries of the movement. It places anarchism in its intellectual and social context and disputes the notion that anarchism can be best considered as a fusion (or confusion) of liberalism and socialism. It is not.

Its main influences are Rousseau, the French Revolution and the French labour movement and so liberalism only counts in-so-far as it was what anarchism was critiquing as a bad thing. So if Proudhon can be considered the father of anarchism, then Rousseau was the grandfather – but, of course, his descendants are highly critical of some of his conclusions and point out they in practice deny what they are claimed to aim for.

As such, I don’t agree much with Rocker’s arguments in Nationalism and Culture. He is right to point to the authoritarian aspects of Rousseau’s ideas but to positively contrast liberalism – of all things! – to democracy is a complete misreading of liberalism. Liberalism does not seek to create (internally) free organisations but rather to justify and rationalise ones marked by master-servant, ruler-ruled social relationships – that is, authoritarian, oppressive and exploitative relations between individuals.

I’ve been asked to write a chapter on “organisation” for a new book on anarchism. I’m aiming to do a short history of anarchist theories on organisation from Proudhon to Kropotkin indicating its origins in the critique of liberalism and democracy (Rousseau) and the rise of capitalism and, more importantly, opposition to it. I will then argue that it is a core concept and use the example of "libertarianism" (Libertarians against “libertarianism” is one sub-title I have in mind) to show the farcical self-contradiction you get into if it is considered as unimportant.

This means that I am reading Locke just now and while I have to say I am impressed by the various sleight of hand tricks used -- plus the many wonderful uses “consent” is forced into -- I really fail to see the attraction for people who claim to believe in liberty. He is quite explicitly justifying authoritarian social relationship -- up to and including voluntary slavery - with the only limitation that the boss cannot kill or maim you (without good "defensive" reason).  

I can see the attraction of Locke for people who believe having masters and servants is the natural order, but not believers in liberty. Rousseau is much, much better – although, as Proudhon argued, not without his limitations – as can be seen, most obviously, in his Discourse on Inequality. As such, seeing Rocker complain that Rousseau wanted to change “human nature” is just strange simply because he was aware – like anarchists! – that undemocratic forms of social organisation degrade and corrupt those subject to them (both rulers and ruled). Locke did not mention changing “human nature” because he was happy with servant-master relationships and saw them continuing – in fact, universalised them by putting them into his so-called “state of nature”).

Proudhon, as is well known, attacked Rousseau in General Idea of the Revolution and so the notion that he was working in his tradition may seem paradoxical to some. However, Proudhon favourably quotes Rousseau on the nature of association before starting his (at times unjust) polemic. Proudhon's venom is explained by Rousseau failing to achieve the task he set himself. Proudhon's critique has two main themes:

First, that Rousseau limits his critique of liberalism to just the political sphere and so, by ignoring, the economic sphere ends up creating a class state, a state which defends the wealthy against the working class. Thus democratic principles must be extended to the workplace and this, in turn, would eliminate class differences and so the need for a state.

Second, that Rousseau's own political solution – a centralised, unitarian, indivisible republic – recreates the division between rulers and ruled which it claims to end. Thus the democratic principle is nullified in the one and indivisible Republic and the people exercise a mythical sovereignty rather than a real one.

The whole point of the critique is that Rousseau fails to produce a system which ensures its stated goal – which Proudhon shares. It is a critique of Rousseau by means of his own stated principles. This is possible with Rousseau but not with Locke as the former seeks a free association of equals (even if he does not achieve it) which the latter seeks an authoritarian association of unequals (and achieves it – see his infamous The Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina). Hence it is not surprising that those who work in the Lockean tradition – the so-called “anarcho”-capitalists – end up in obvious and farcical self-contradiction.

It is clear that What is Property? is aimed that Locke and shreds his arguments in all aspects – whether it is selling labour (liberty), who owns the product of labour (the worker or the boss), appropriation of resources and wealth/capital. Which explains why it appears no “anarcho”-capitalist who decides to comment on anarchist webpages has read Proudhon… too uncomfortable a read.

Of course, there is one real area of overlap between Proudhon and Locke and it is their support of patriarchy and, of course, I follow the section on Proudhon with one on Joseph Déjacque, André Léo and Eugène Varlin who pointed out the obvious contradiction of Proudhon denouncing wage-labour and statism while defending authoritarian social relationships in the home. Then I move onto Bakunin and Kropotkin, that is revolutionary anarchism. Anyway, if it works as I hope, it should be an interesting chapter.

My “Thoughts” article was for the next Black Flag which did – just! – arrive for this year’s London anarchist bookfair. The new venue was amazing and I have to say it was the best bookfair yet – well done to all involved. I hope we are in the same place as last year. Below is the full version of the editorial I produced for the new issue of Black Flag. It covers the aftermath of the general election and the somewhat surprising election of a left-wing leader of the Labour Party.

I discussed this with a few people – along with the Michael Schmidt developments (which I may discuss in my next blog) – and it clearly opens up some positive areas for anarchists while raising the possibility of good people becoming side-tracked into social democracy. So we need to tread carefully between cheerleading (which appears to be the Leninist-left) and being cynical (i.e., dismissing the hopes being somewhat misplaced in the Labour Party). I hope the editorial gets it across in terms of what I think we need to do – and we do have a lot to do.

Enough for today, I think. Until I blog again, be seeing you…

Black Flag: Editorial for Issue 237

Welcome to the new issue of Black Flag. We are still, unfortunately, appearing annually but we still want that to change. If you want us to become more frequent then we need your help – in writing, editing, distributing and selling. We are also thinking about changing format from A4 magazine to A5 journal from the next issue. What this space!

Two unexpected events occurred since our last issue. First, the Tories squeezed to a slight majority in Parliament based on 24% of votes. Talk about rewarding failure! But never forget that this was because the predictable and predicted destruction of the LibDems for working with the Tories, ironically, turned out to favour the Nasty Party. Needless to say, the Labour right – echoing the right-wing media – proclaimed that this was because Ed Miliband was too “left-wing” and drew the conclusion that the “centre” needed to be reclaimed. That this “centre” is moving rightwards as the Tories move further rightwards is lost on them – but, then, the second unexpected event showed where their loyalties lie and it is not with the members of their own party.

We are, of course, referring to veteran left-winger Jeremy Corbyn becoming the leader of Labour by a landslide. The absurd attacks began immediately and the onslaught is as large as it is silly. The irony of denouncing him for not singing “God Save the Queen” at the Battle of Britain event is striking: did people fight fascism so that we are forced to take part in the group singing of a servile dirge about an unelected head of state?

The reaction to Corbyn is expected and would have happened regardless of who Labour elected. Some people have clearly forgotten the “New Labour New Danger” demon-eyes poster from 1997. But why the hysteria? Perhaps because, in spite of over 30 years of neo-liberalism, the ruling class are still worried – indeed, afraid – that more and more people are starting to wake up to the fact that they have been conned? Neo-liberalism has not lived up to its public relations spin – which is hardly surprising, given that was always rhetoric to hide the real agenda of empowering and enriching the few at the expense of the many.

The hysteria shows that at least one class in society, the ruling class, is aware that socialism is not dead and that any alternative – regardless of its flaws – has appeal. Particularly if it has, like the trade unions, the potential power to change things – hence the pathetic but illustrative rush to regulate organised labour even more while, of course, proclaiming Tory opposition in principle to all regulations (for capital).

Regardless of what Chuka Umunna proclaimed in the Guardian, the “British people” did not go “to the polls and gave the Labour party a hammering”. Labour increased its share of votes and MPs in England and Wales while the slaughtering of Labour in Scotland did not occur because it was too left-wing. The shock that was felt hide this fact – and that shock was the product of the polls – and the fact that the Tories have a slim majority based on 24% of the vote.  This was no endorsement for the Tories.

Umunna suggested that “[s]creaming ‘you’re wrong’ at the electorate is not a good strategy for a party seeking to win back its trust.” Presumably, they were right to elect the Tories and Labour should simply go along with their plans? Why, then, bother with an opposition? He seems unaware that politics involves winning people to your ideas by debate and that means explaining why they are wrong. Still, to be fair, many anarchists seem to share his dislike of challenging people and winning them over to better ideas. The lack of substantial numbers of anarchists leafleting, selling papers and having stalls at the huge anti-Austerity march after the election shows this. That needs to change.

So we should welcome the resurgence in radical ideas that Corbyn represents while remaining critical. We need to convince Corbyn supporters to do more than just vote for a leader and go home. To win office, they need to win the battle of ideas and struggles in the workplace and community. They need to build not a labour party but rather a labour movement. In other words, they need to act as anarchists. And if they act as anarchists then it will be easier for them to become anarchists.

Our role is clear and two-fold. First, encourage extra-parliamentary struggle and organisation. Second, argue our politics and convince people that real power lies outside parliament – on both sides. While Corbyn may get into office, he will not be in power – the state bureaucracy and big business are – and to be effective he will need to be pressured from below, by a movement rooted in our communities and workplaces using direct action and solidarity as its weapons. More, we need to challenge the vision of socialism he is presenting – we must stress that socialism means workers’ control, that it means decentralisation and federalism, that socialism is libertarian or it is nothing.

The economic crisis slouches on. The Tory-delayed return to growth is fragile, as can be seen by interest rates continuing to flat-line. Corbyn, like the SNP tsunami, is a reflection of a groundswell that suggests people recognise that there is an alternative to neo-liberalism. We hope anarchists win their place at the front of this potential movement. We hope Black Flag can be of use in that struggle.


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