Well, I’ve had debate with on “Marxism and Anarchism” with the AWL. This is an informal report on it. My great memory will be when a Liverpool AWL member proclaimed (and I’m quoting from memory here) that “if anarchists continue to talk like that after a revolution then you had better watch out”! Yes, really, a veiled threat of a visit from the Cheka under the wonderfully democratic workers’ state. Talk about making my point for me…
But I am getting ahead of myself. I have to admit to being less than enthusiastic about the event (details here). Particularly as I was going to miss my children’s summer fete at French school (I had agreed to the debate not knowing that was on – so I’m only a semi-bad parent!). After carrying lots of books (thanks to Freedom Bookshop), Black Flags, Anarcho-Syndicalist Reviews and a special “AWL versus Anarchism” leaflet to the event, I was sitting at my bookstall thinking “why am I here?” for the first hour or so. Then a comrade down from Liverpool came up and was extremely happy to see an anarchist stall. After talking with him, I got more optimistic about being there. That feeling grew as the day went on as I talked to others.
I had back-copies of Freedom and Black Flag, which I was handing out for free. I also had my leaflet. Interestingly, getting AWL members to take them proved to be somewhat difficult. The same thing happened when I’m been outside Marxism in the past. In spite of being there to discuss ideas, our party comrades seemed very unwilling to take leaflets from others. I guess they had already made their minds up – I guess they had read all they needed to read from the four (terrible!) articles on anarchism which appeared in the paper recently. I don’t understand that mentality, as I’m interested in what others have to say and I would have jumped at the chance of getting the AWL equivalent of Black Flag for free.
Still, given how many AWL members simply repeated what I said in my talk but apparently thinking this was “Marxism” shows that unwillingness to engage with libertarian ideas is pretty deep. But, again, I get in front of myself…
I did get into a longish discussion with an AWL member on full-timers within the socialist movement, which was interesting. He argued that full-timers may not become isolated from the working class if they, for example, live in working class areas rather than actually work. In short, there is no single working class experience (true) but that does not mean Lenin was right to argue for “professional” revolutionaries. I was just discussing how the CNT went bureaucratic when it got a layer of full-timers after the revolution and I got a phone-call and the discussion stopped. Ah, well. I still think that Durruti is still a model – full-time revolutionary when required, then back to being a worker and CNT member or looking after his daughter when he could not get a job and his partner did.
I also had a short discussion on Maurice Brinton (thanks to a copy of For Workers’ Power the stall had) and Solidarity with someone else. We both agreed they were an important group (and I would highly recommend this anthology – as my review indicates, it is a great work).
Eventually a comrade from the Anarchist Federation turned up. I picked up a leaflet called “10 reasons you should join Workers’ Liberty” and read the following classic line: “Others on the left see socialism as something handed down to workers by a government they do not control.” I then wondered why, in that case, the AWL supported the Bolsheviks. An AWL member overheard this and decided to debate with us (given how quickly he took umbrage to my passing comment, I get the impression he was looking for an opportunity to do so). And so started the strangest discussion I’ve had in some time.
I won’t be able to cover it all, but I started by asking how he reconciled this party statement with support for Lenin and Trotsky. Surely disbanding soviets, advocating party dictatorship and so forth simply made that an impossibility. He suggested that using “one quote” from Trotsky to dismiss Leninism was unfair. I pointed out that it was far more than one quote, there were multiple quotes over two decades. That is a significant ideological commitment to the position – not to mention actually imposing it in 1918! How to reconcile a proclaimed support for democratic socialism with a proclaimed support for a tendency which implemented and advocated party dictatorship? He strangely took objection to me saying that the Bolsheviks “smashed” soviets – a word applicable, surely, if you disband soviets by force?
I quoted Trotsky from 1918 defending the need for appointments from above by the argument the government was “better able to judge in the matter than you” (the masses) and that he argued (I somewhat paraphrased this one!) “how could the soldiers who have just entered the army choose the chiefs! Have they have any vote to go by? They have none. And therefore elections are impossible” before joking if only the Tsar had thought of that one!
I then got a very serious “are you comparing Lenin and Trotsky to the Tsar?” No, I said, although both the Tsar and the Bolsheviks did disband soviets, break strikes and imprison socialists, anarchists, workers and peasants – but not, of course, in the name of socialism in the case of the Tsar nor did his regime proclaim the necessity for party dictatorship to the world socialist movement (as Zinoviev did in 1920 – our AWLer had an issue with Zinoviev, not being that happy to include this leading Bolshevik in the Leninist family tree but grudgingly doing so in the end).
He was at pains explaining to me what I had said, even though no such thing came from my lips, namely that the anarchist analysis I had presented (not that I had said any of this analysis he claimed I had) was the same as the “right-wing” one, namely denying the Bolsheviks had popular support and that it was an alien body inflicted upon the Russian workers. When I got the chance, I repeated that the Bolsheviks did have popular support in 1917 – but that they lost it in the winter of 1917/8 (see section H.5.12 of An Anarchist FAQ). The party membership collapsed and the Bolsheviks were alienated from the masses (something the Bolshevik leadership themselves admitted at the time). My comrade from the Anarchist Federation noted later while the membership in 1917 had been working class, the leadership remained non-worker in origin. In response, they gerrymandered and disbanded soviets (see section H.6.1) including the 5th All-Russian Congress (see Rabinowitch’s excellent book The Bolsheviks in Power on this and the gerrymandering of the Petrograd soviet – see my review for a summary). Which our AWLer did not deny, but did not wish to dwell on.
I stressed that the Bolsheviks said one thing and did the exact opposite. For example, arguing for the fusion of executive and legislative powers in the soviets and then, on the night of seizing power, creating an executive body (a Bolshevik government) over the soviets. That was not in Lenin’s State and Revolution (see section H.1.7). It would be like Tony Blair asking us to look at Labour’s Manifesto commitment not to introduce Student Fees when asked about why they introduced them. To which I got the reply “Are you saying that Lenin is like Blair?” Obviously not, I replied, but both promised one thing and did the opposite. It is the action, not the analogy, which matters!
I also asked him when he thought Bolshevism went off the rails. He looked puzzled so I suggested the early 1920s. He agreed and I clarified 1923 and he again agreed. So the Bolshevik regime was, apparently, a workers’ state between 1918 and 1923 when there was first a de facto and then a happily proclaimed dictatorship of one party, when there was one-man management in production, no democratic military, a secret police, and so on. Hardly “workers’ liberty”… Nor did Trotsky’s Left Opposition question all of that – quite the reverse!
Strangely, he did not deny the Bolsheviks did all this. He just refused to allow these actions to define Leninism. Strange, as this was what they did when they were in power and so, surely, this counts far more than articles form 1917? I also suggested if you don’t look at all these issues then “Bolshevism” becomes, basically, what the Bolsheviks did between March and October 1917. And the AWL’s position means that socialism CAN be “handed down to workers by a government they do not control” as long as the right people are in power – namely, Lenin and Trotsky and, I assume, the AWL leadership. What other conclusion can you draw?
Of course, our Leninist denied this. So there we have it. The AWL are committed to “workers’ liberty” but, at the same time, make an exception for Lenin and Trotsky. Indeed, you can advocate party dictatorship for two decades (in and out of power) but can be a major influence on the AWL’s politics in spite of proclaiming and implementing policies which, according to their own leaflet, the AWL is totally opposed to. Strange.
How to marry these obviously contradictory positions? No attempt was made, other than to invoke the image of the Bolsheviks as being, well, great socialists… except great socialists who acted in the same way as the Stalinists who are, according to the AWL, not socialists at all… it seems to be a case of WHO does something as the key thing, not WHAT they do…
Altogether, a very surreal experience. It was very strange, as was the meeting (hence the title of this blog!). And then I had to get ready for the debate…
Before discussing the meeting, I should mention that the next day I noticed that leaflet proclaimed that the AWL rejected socialism being introduced and “based on a parliament (like the old-style Labour government in Britain).” Yet both Marx and Engels proclaimed that socialism could be voted in, using elections to parliament (see section H.3.10). They pointed to both America and Britain (Engels later added Holland and France). I assume they would not be allowed to join the Marxist AWL... As I noted in my speech, there is no call for workers organisations (whether unions or councils) to be the framework for a socialist society in Marx and Engels – they is in Bakunin and Kropotkin. I also noted that it took five decades for Marxists to catch up, namely Lenin’s State and Revolution – which I quoted (anarchists have “absolutely no idea of what the proletariat will put in [the state’s] place” – see section H.1.4) before stating the obvious: Lenin was clearly another Marxist who failed to read anarchist books before commenting on it!
The AWL leaflet also added: “Most socialist groups think that Stalinist ‘communism’ was, if not really socialism, at least a ‘degenerated’ form of workers’ rule. We disagree.” Which raises the question, why do they think Lenin’s regime WAS socialism? If socialism (according to their leaflet) is “a society in which the workplaces are owned collectively and run democratically for the benefit of everyone” then, clearly, the Bolshevik regime was never socialist (s tate capitalist would be better, as I suggested in the meeting)
Now to the meeting. It started late and, as a result, our allotted time fell from 25 to 20 minutes (I was given a range of 20-25 minutes and so aimed for 25 – I had a lot to cover!). This threw me, somewhat, I must admit, as I had to chop a fifth of my talk. I will be writing up my speech and will post it once I have done so, plus a pdf of my leaflet “AWL versus Anarchism.” Suffice to say, I did feel we were discussing different things. I presented a large-scale overview of anarchism and Marxism from the 1840s to the 1920s, concentrating on the Russian Revolution and Bolshevism in power (via th e 1848 revolution and the Paris Commune), while Martin Thomas focused on three apparently key issues – political action and elections, the need for a workers’ state and the need for a party.
Martin was a lot better than the previous AWL speaker I had 8 years ago (shame his articles on anarchism were so bad!). He argued that the AWL was in favour of organising political parties, standing for elections and winning political reforms. Strangely, he did not mention the fate of the first Marxists to do that – the Social Democratic Parties – nor their fate (the rise of opportunism and their descent into reformism). Unsurprisingly, I had mentioned that. I should also note that anarchists are also for passing political reforms – but by direct action. Anarchists do not ignore elections, we do organise anti-election campaigns to stress that real change does not come from the ballot-box but from the streets and workplaces. Sadly I failed to mention that during my summing up (in my defence, I had a lot to cover) so I’m doing so now.
He suggested that we don’t know enough about the future socialist society to organise in a liberation way now. Yet this ignores the obvious fact that the future is shaped by our struggle now (see section I.2.3). and our struggles are influenced by what we hate about the current system (see section H.1.6). Hence if we think that a key problem with the current system is that it is based on rule by the few (bosses, bureaucrats, politicians) then it is hardly hard to imagine that we should organise in a way that empowers all. Particularly as notions like mandating and recalling delegates (first raised by Proudhon in 1848) are now paid lip-service to by Leninists…
Much was made of anarchists “punching below our weight” and our fear of “vanguardism.” Just as he confused political organisation with political party, he confused anarchists calling their party The Vanguard with vanguardism – namely, the notions expounded by Lenin in What is to be done? (see section H.5). This is an important difference and one completely obscured by the AWL. And it kind of goes without sating that anarchists discuss political ideas in workplaces, struggles, etc. And so successfully the AWL have to debate us…
The third issue was simple – the workers’ state required because the old ruling class will regroup, need to counter centralised ruling class so need a “centralised” state. Interestingly, he defined the state as an “organisation for running society.” What? Surely when the state “withers away” as Engels promised there would still be an “organisation for running society”? Would that not be a state? If not, why not? So that definition simply confuses social organisation with the state. As Kropotkin put it in The State: Its Historic Role:
“There is, of course, the German school which takes pleasure in confusing State with Society. This confusion is to be found among the best German thinkers and many of the French who cannot visualize Society without a concentration of the State . . . to argue in this way . . . is to overlook the fact that Man lived in Societies for thousands of years before the State had been heard of . . . large numbers of people lived in communes and free federations.
“The State is only one of the forms assumed by society in the course of history. Why then make no distinction between what is permanent and what is accidental? . . . The State idea means . . . . the existence of a power situated above society, but also of a territorial concentration as well as the concentration in the hands of a few of many functions in the life of societies.”
Still, to be honest, the AWL don’t seem to have a problem with power being held by a minority – as long as it’s the likes of Lenin and Trotsky. Martin also confused the idea of the workers’ state with defence of the revolution (a position anarchists have long rejected – see section H.2.1) and so he argued that “substantial” sections of workers will want to defend a revolution. No shit, Sherlock! What do you think the CNT militias were? Or the Makhnovist Army? Why did I quote Bakunin advocating “a communal militia” and recognising that “no commune can defend itself in isolation” and so they must “federate . . . for common defence”?
Which raises an interesting question. In theory, given they praise Marx’s Civil War in France to the heavens, they should be agreeing with us anarchists on this issue of a federated communal militia (while grinding their teeth we argued it before 1871, as with so much else associated with the Commune). After all, Marx proclaims the “first decree of the Commune, therefore, was the suppression of the standing army, and the substitution for it of the armed people” and “in the rural districts the standing army was to be replaced by a national militia, with an extremely short term of service” This federal regime is described:
“The rural communities of every district were to administer their common affairs by an assembly of delegates in the central town, and these district assemblies were again to send deputies to the National Delegation in Paris, each delegate to be at any time revocable and bound by the mandat imperatif (formal instructions) of his constituents.”
“the Alliance of all labour associations . . . will constitute the Commune . . . there will be a standing federation of the barricades and a Revolutionary Communal Council . . . [made up of] delegates . . . invested with binding mandates and accountable and revocable at all times . . . all provinces, communes and associations . . . [will] delegate deputies to an agreed place of assembly (all . . . invested with binding mandated and accountable and subject to recall), in order to found the federation of insurgent associations, communes and provinces . . . and to organise a revolutionary force with the capacity of defeating the reaction . . . it is through the very act of extrapolation and organisation of the Revolution with an eye to the mutual defences of insurgent areas that the universality of the Revolution . . . will emerge triumphant.” (No Gods, No Masters, vol. 1, pp. 155-6)
So if this is wrong, then so is Marx… ah, but Marx talks of a “national militia.” True, but he also describes the Communards federal vision and Bakunin aims for a federated militia. There is no suggestion of a centralised party state with a centralised non-democratic army here.
Martin mentioned th e Spanish Revolution, arguing that either we organise our state or join existing state to defend against counter-revolution. In Spain we did the latter. Needless to say, this is a complete travesty of what happened in the revolution and what drove the decision to postpone the revolution (i.e., to operate with other anti-fascist groups). As I discuss this in section I.8.10, I’ve leave it there beyond noting he explains all this in terms of “anarchist theory” – an “anarchist theory” which I’ve never read (and said so in my summing up). I do find it significant that no Marxist ever discusses the circumstances facing the CNT on July 20th 1936 nor how the decision made flies completely in the face of anarchist ideas on social revolution (as expounded in the quote by Bakunin provided above). Nor, of course, does he mention the Council of Aragon (although I did in my summing up).
Then lots of AWL members lined up to speak. I think it is over 2 to 1 in terms of AWL members (whom the chair seemed to all know by name!) and non-AWL. The later were two people, if memory serves, associated with The Commune and one self-identified as a libertarian Marxist. They both made good points, one even pointing to my leaflet on the need to defend a revolution and that while anarchists generally recognise the mistakes made in Spain Leninists fail to acknowledge any problems associated with Bolshevism in power. And the AWL contributors proved that right – none discussed the examples of Bolshevik authoritarianism I outlined in my talk. No attempt was made to why the Bolsheviks imposed and argued for party dictatorship, one-man management and the many other actions which resulted in the destruction of socialism under Lenin and Trotsky. Also no discussion of my examples of centralisation failing (the Paris Commune and in Russia). Instead they concentrated on centralisation and the need for a workers’ state – and in my summing up I did state that if a workers’ state IS extremely democratic then the Bolshevik regime was no workers’ state…
This is completely understandable. For two reasons.
First, why should they let reality get mentioned? Leninism only has an appeal if you ignore the reality of Bolshevik power. Centralisation only has an appeal if you ignore the reality of concentrating decision making into a few hands (I raised examples in my talk, all ignored – see section H.6.2 for details as regards Russia).
Second, they obviously think defence of the revolution is the key weakness of anarchism and decided to concentrate on that. Strange, though, given that their defence of Bolshevik authoritarianism boils down, in the end, to arguing they had to do it because of the civil war. In short, like that American officer in Vietnam who proclaimed that the American military had to destroy a village to save it, the Bolsheviks had to destroy socialism in order to save it…
Much was made of the from above/from below distinction, stressing the need (as Lenin did back in 1905 on “from above” – see section H.3.3). In my talk (in a bit I skimmed a bit due to time), I had noted that as Bakunin argued, the state is top-down rule by a minority and that Lenin agreed when he argued that “pressure from above” was “pressure by the revolutionary government on the citizens.” I then would have quoted his comment to Cheka in 1920 that “revolutionary coercion is bound to be employed towards the wavering and unstable elements among the masses themselves.” Around the same time, he proclaimed that “the dictatorship of the proletariat cannot be exercised by a mass proletarian organisation.” Rather, it could be exercised “only by a vanguard.” Then I noted Trotsky argued in the late 1930s that vanguard seizes state-power and uses it against the “backward layers of the proletariat.”
That, I said, was not in State and Revolution and the key problem is that it is the vanguard gets to determines what is “wavering”— and that “wavering” seems to be defined as disagreeing with the vanguard. Worse, by definition everyone “backward” compared to vanguard and so gives party the right, nay the duty, to destroy workers liberty. This needs a state in the normal sense of the word in order to allow “from above” to occur, so confirming Bakunin’s analysis (in a quote I had to skip) that the state was “a machine ruling the masses from above, through a privileged minority of conceited intellectuals who imagine that they know what the people need and want better than do the people themselves.” How very true…
Still, that did not stop the AWL proclaiming the need for “from above” (i.e., top-down) structures and centralisation forcing, to use the example give, union branches to go on strike (of course, strikers going to picket out other branches is NOT “from above” but rather action “from below” but never mind!). I should have, but did not, give an example of the reality of this centralisation, this “from above” system, as desired by the AWL. I will do so now, by quoting Lenin from Left-Wing Communism:
“In Russia today, the connection between leaders, party, class and masses . . . are concretely as follows: the dictatorship is exercised by the proletariat organised in the Soviets and is guided by the Communist Party . . . The Party, which holds annual congresses . . ., is directed by a Central Committee of nineteen elected at the congress, while the current work in Moscow has to be carried on by [two] still smaller bodies . . . which are elected at the plenary sessions of the Central Committee, five members of the Central Committee to each bureau. This, it would appear, is a full-fledged ‘oligarchy.’ No important political or organisational question is decided by any state institution in our republic without the guidance of the Party’s Central Committee.
“In its work, the Party relies directly on the trade unions, which . . .have a membership of over four million and are formally non-Party. Actually, all the directing bodies of the vast majority of the unions . . . are made up of Communists, and carry out of all the directives of the Party. Thus . . . we have a formally non-communist . . . very powerful proletarian apparatus, by means of which the Party is closely linked up with the class and the masses, and by means of which, under the leadership of the Party, the class dictatorship of the class is exercised.” (The Lenin Anthology, pp. 571-2)
This was “the general mechanism of the proletarian state power viewed ‘from above,’ from the standpoint of the practical realisation of the dictatorship” and so “all this talk about ‘from above’ or ‘from below,’ about ‘the dictatorship of leaders’ or ‘the dictatorship of the masses,’” is “ridiculous and childish nonsense.” (p. 573) Lovely!
In short, centralisation meant 19 people making the decisions for millions. Lenin, of course, did not bother to view “proletarian” state power “from below,” from the viewpoint of the proletariat. If he had, perhaps he would have recounted (as I do in section H.6) the numerous strikes and protests broken by the Cheka under martial law, the gerrymandering and disbanding of soviets, the imposition of “dictatorial” one-man management onto the workers in production, the turning of the unions into agents of the state/party and the elimination of working class freedom by party power?
Which suggests that there are fundamental differences, at least for the masses, between “from above” and “from below.” Not, however, for the AWL.
So centralisation is hardly the unproblematic position Leninists think it is. I said as much in my talk – stressing it empowers the few and disempowers the many. I even noted that this is why the state is based on centralised and top-down structures – to ensure minority rule. And here is Lenin stressing that centralisation results in 19 people making all the important decisions! So confirming Bakunin’s comments (as quoted in my talk) that states are “machines governing the masses from above.”
Then there is the issue of centralisation within the labour movement, another unproblematic position for Leninists. To quote Rudolf Rocker (Chapte r 4 of Anarcho-Syndicalism):
“Just because the educational work of the Anarcho-Syndicalists is directed toward the development of independent thought and action, they are outspoken opponents of all those centralising tendencies which are so characteristic of all political labour parties. But centralism, that artificial organisation from above which turns over the affairs of everybody in a lump to a small minority, is always attended by barren official routine; and this crushes individual conviction, kills all personal initiative by lifeless discipline and bureaucratic ossification, and permits no independent action. The organisation of Anarcho-Syndicalism is based on the principles of Federalism, on free combination from below upward, putting the right of self-determination of every member above everything else and recognising only the organic agreement of all on the basis of like interests and common convictions.
“It has often been charged against federalism that it divides the forces and cripples the strength of organised resistance, and, very significantly, it has been just the representative of the political labour parties and of the trade unions under their influence who have kept repeating this charge to the point of nausea. But here, too, the facts of life have spoken more clearly than any theory. There was no country in the world where the whole labour movement was so completely centralised and the technique of organisation developed to such extreme perfection as in Germany before Hitler’s accession to power. A powerful bureaucratic apparatus covered the whole country and determined every political and economic expression of the organised workers. In the very last elections the Social Democratic and Communist parties united over twelve million voters for their candidates. But after Hitler seized power six million organised workers did not raise a finger to avert the catastrophe which had plunged Germany into the abyss, and which in a few months beat their organisation completely to pieces.
“But in Spain, where Anarcho-Syndicalism had maintained its hold upon organised labour from the days of the First International, and by untiring libertarian propaganda and sharp fighting had trained it to resistance, it was the powerful C.N.T. which by the boldness of its action frustrated the criminal plans of Franco and his numerous helpers at home and abroad, and by their heroic example spurred the Spanish workers and peasants to the battle against Fascism a fact which Franco himself has been compelled to acknowledge. Without the heroic resistance of the Anarcho-Syndicalist labour unions the Fascist reactions would in a few weeks have dominated the whole country.
“When one compares the technique of the federalist organisation of the C.N.T. with the centralistic machine which the German workers had built for themselves, one is surprised by the simplicity of the former. In the smaller syndicates every task for the organisation was performed voluntarily. In the larger alliances, where naturally established official representatives were necessary, these were elected for one year only and received the same pay as the workers in their trade. Even the General Secretary of the C.N.T. was no exception to this rule. this is an old tradition which has been kept up in Spain since the days of the International. This simple form of organisation not only sufficed the Spanish workers for turning the C.N.T. into a fighting unit of the first rank, it also safeguarded them against any bureaucratic regime in their own ranks and helped them to display that irresistible spirit of solidarity and tenaciousness which is so characteristic of this organisation, and which one encounters in no other country.
“For the state centralisation is the appropriate form of organisation, since it aims at the greatest possible uniformity in social life for the maintenance of political and social equilibrium. But for a movement whose very existence depends on prompt action at any favourable moment and on the independent thought and action of its supporters, centralism could but be a curse by weakening its power of decision and systematically repressing all immediate action. If, for example, as was the case in Germany, every local strike had first to be approved by the Central, which was often hundreds of mils away and was not usually not in a position to pass a correct judgement on the local conditions, one cannot wonder that the inertia of the apparatus of organisation renders a quick attack quite impossible, and there thus arises a state of affairs where the energetic and intellectually alert groups no longer serve as patterns for the less active, but are condemned by these to inactivity, inevitably bringing the whole movement to stagnation. Organisation is, after all, only a means to an end. When it becomes an end in itself, it kills the spirit and the vital initiative of its members and sets up that domination by mediocrity which is the characteristic of all bureaucracies.
“Anarcho-Syndicalists are, therefore, of the opinion that trade union organisation should be of such a character as to afford workers the possibility of achieving the utmost in their struggle against the employers, and at the same time provide them with a basis from which they will be able in a revolutionary position to proceed with reshaping of economic and social life.”
I'm sure that many union activists, like myself, will see the validity of that analysis.
And the history of the British Labour movement confirms this. At the meeting the AWLers made much of the Miners’ strike and the assertion “the proletariat” always builds “democratic centralist” organisations was made in relation to that struggle by the National Union of Miners (NUM). I thought that was fishy at the time and I remembered the day after that the NUM was a federalist in structure.
Don’t take my word for it. According to the NUM’s own webpage: “The National Union of Mineworkers is a unique organisation in that it still has a federal structure, which is comprised of area unions covering the length and breadth of Britain.” A unique organisation indeed! And it produced the nearest we have had in Britain to a revolutionary union conducting mass militant strikes. Let me quote anarchist and NUM activist Dave Douglass (in an article which was in Black Flag):
“Almost universally the ‘left’ has cited the decentralised nature of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) as a weakness. This is a strange view indeed, without the semi-autonomy of the miners areas, the strike in the form it was launched could never have happened. Behind the view is a notion that some how the miners could simply be ordered out on strike by a national leadership running a national union. They would never have worn that, which is in part why the old Area structure and strong branch autonomies remained.”
The syndicalists had major influence before the First World War and the NUM’s federated structure, where branches and regions had a large degree of autonomy, reflected this. Thus each coalfield had a degree of autonomy, having its own District Association and its own President, General Secretary, and headquarters. Regions of the union could call their own strikes as could local branches. Strikes were taken without waiting for central officials to act and were spread by means of flying pickets (an example I used).
In short, the NUM confirms Rocker’s arguments. How ironic for the AWL – the example they gave to support their calls for centralism was a federalist and extremely decentralised union with significant branch autonomy… Opps.
As with any ideologue, reality always takes a back seat. Thus we find economists proclaiming because some economy (like South Korea) is booming it must be neo-classical (when it is not). Thus the NUM must be “democratic centralist” because it was Britain’s most radical and militant union. That it was federal in structure just does not compute…
And I should not that IF the workers HAD followed “democratic centralist” principles then both the Paris Commune AND the February Revolution of 1917 would not have happened. Marx, in the name of the International’s general council proclaimed that workers should NOT revolt but rather organise in the new republic to use its liberties (presumably to vote socialism in). In 1917, the local Bolsheviks argued against the strikes that resulted in the Tsarist regime falling. In addition, all through 1917 Lenin had to fight the party bureaucracy to get it to seize power. At the base, the membership usually just ignored the party centre. The notion of the permanently revolutionary central committee cannot be believed if you read what the Bolsheviks were actually like in 1917 (see section H.5.12).
But let us suppose “the proletariat” has always built “democratic centralist” organisations. If that were the case then that means our current trade unions were originally at some stage democratic centralist. The issue becomes why are they now bureaucratic, top-down structures which the rank-and-file have very limited control over? Could it be that the centralist aspect wins out over the democratic one? It did in the Bolshevik Party, so why not in our unions?
Interestingly, this defender of “democratic centralism” also argued that it was good that unions held positions that the majority of members opposed. He pointed to open-borders positions. Sadly, he failed to explain how a democratic organisation could have policies which the majority opposed… Finally, he proclaimed a SolFed member said to him that he wanted to have a “communist” union – which was, apparently, one run from the bottom-up by its members. Which was what I had said in my talk! I also pointed out in my summing up that an anarchist talking of a “communist” union is not strange – we are usually libertarian communists!
One AWL member tried to put a positive spin on Trotsky’s many quotes for party dictatorship I presented in my leaflet. Parties are required for democracy, apparently, although what that had to do with party dictatorship was not clear. Perhaps she was arguing that party dictatorship was really democratic after all? I was a bit lost on that contribution. Another AWL member then suggested a federation of workers councils/communes “sounds like a state” but a “weak one.” Unsurprisingly, we needed more centralisation and something to “run society” as well as organise self-defence of revolution. Which is, to repeat myself, a really silly definition of a state and one which flies in the face of Marxism and its so-called “scientific” definition of the state…
I should have remembered to quote Engels on this (as I do in section H.2.1) on the Native American Iroquois Confederacy. Engels noted that “organ of the Confederacy was a Federal Council” which was “elected . . . and could always be removed” by popular assemblies. There was “no chief executive” but “two supreme war chiefs” and “[w]hen war broke out it was carried on mainly by volunteers.” Yet this was “the organisation of a society which as yet knows no state.” In the anarchist commune there is a federal council elected and mandated by popular assemblies. These, in turn, are federated in a similar bottom-up manner. The means of production have been expropriated and held by society as a whole and so classes have been abolished. Volunteer militias have been organised for self-defence against counter-revolutionary attempts to subject the free people to authority.
Why is this not a society which “knows no state”? Is it because the anarchist commune is fighting against the capitalist class? If so, does this mean that the Iroquois Confederacy became a state when it waged war against those seeking to impose bourgeois rule on it? Surely not?
This contributor also pointed to the IWW and how it disappeared after the War (it needed to be more centralised, of course!). Strangely, he made no mention of state repression nor the activities of the new Communist Party in undermining its rival… He also suggested that the Makhnovists were hardly saints and we anarchists should not suggest otherwise. As if I suggested the Makhnovists had defeated the Whites by giving them hugs!
Yes, the Makhnovists could be brutal at times – they were fighting a war at the time. Yet they did not raise party dictatorship to an ideological truism, they defended and encouraged soviet democracy, freedom of speech, assembly, organisation and so on when the Bolsheviks crushed them. They also refused to dictate to workers, urging them to organise themselves to solve their own problems – while the Bolsheviks were approving Trotsky’s vision of the “militarisation of labour” and “Labour armies” (the latter, surely, suggested by The Communist Manifesto and so Trotsky’s comment: “the only solution to economic difficulties from the point of view of both principle and of practice is to treat the population of the whole country as the reservoir of the necessary labour power”?).
I do love the false equivalency I’ve seen invoked by the SWP, CPGB and now the AWL – because the Makhnovists did not totally live up to libertarian principles then they are as bad as the Bolsheviks who not only failed to live up to any of them, they also embraced their exact opposites! An extremely strange position to take but then, Leninists are strange…
Then the Liverpool AWL member got up. I mentioned her thinly veiled threat at the start of this blog. It was, how should I put it, refreshing (?) to hear that we anarchists, if we continue to talk like that after the revolution, would need to watch out. Sadly, I did not write down her exact words – partly because I somewhat surprised to hear someone say something like that – but that we can expect a visit from the Cheka was definitely the gist of what she was saying…
From what else she was saying, I assume she rationalised this in terms of us libertarians weakening the defence of the revolution by our talk (as Emma Goldman put it: “what [the Bolsheviks] called ‘defence of the Revolution’ was really only the defence of [their] party in power”). For that defence needed to be centralised by the workers’ state, and we needed to be “clear what the state is” – one class ruling another. As if! In my talk I had already stated what the state was – an instrument of minority class rule which had evolved various features (centralised, top-down, etc. to restrict popular participation) to ensure its function. A federation of workers councils/communes would be based on mass participation, it would be federal and decentralised to ensure that. Hence it was not a state. Rocker is good on this:
“social institutions . . . do not arise arbitrarily, but are called into being by special needs to serve definite purposes . . . The newly arisen possessing classes had need of a political instrument of power to maintain their economic and social privileges over the masses of their own people . . . Thus arose the appropriate social conditions for the evolution of the modern state, as the organ of political power of privileged castes and classes for the forcible subjugation and oppression of the non-possessing classes . . . Its external forms have altered in the course of its historical development, but its functions have always been the same . . . And just as the functions of the bodily organs of . . . animals cannot be arbitrarily altered, so that, for example, one cannot at will hear with his eyes and see with his ears, so also one cannot at pleasure transform an organ of social oppression into an instrument for the liberation of the oppressed. The state can only be what it is: the defender of mass-exploitation and social privileges, and creator of privileged classes” (Anarcho-Syndicalism)
Surely it is significant that the so-called workers’ state ended up empowering a few party leaders (and, thanks to centralisation, a massive bureaucracy – something else I mentioned which was not discussed!) and disempowering the masses? I’ve quoted Lenin’s summary of Bolshevism in 1920 from Left-Wing Communism and the subsequent rise of Stalinism just made explicit what was already there (as I discuss in my critique of the SWP explanation of “How the Revolution Was Lost”).
Obviously, though, she stressed that the new “workers’ state” would be “extremely democratic” – but, well, the actual workers’ state of the Bolsheviks wasn’t. An awkward fact she refused to mention, never mid discuss – as did all the other AWLers. She did point to Left-Wing Communism, arguing that we needed to use “all possible means” – and if workers have illusions in parliament then we should stand for election. In my summing up I did point out the Communist Parties did that – and it did not work!
I should also note that Lenin, in that work, argued that “the Communists’ correct understanding of his tasks” lies in “correctly gauging the conditions and the moment when the vanguard of the proletariat can successfully assume power, when it will be able - during and after the seizure of power - to win adequate support from sufficiently broad strata of the working class and of the non-proletarian working masses, and when it is able thereafter to maintain, consolidate, and extend its rule by educating, training and attracting ever broader masses of the working people.” Note, the vanguard (the party) seizes power, not the masses. Indeed, he stressed that the “mere presentation of the question - ‘dictatorship of the party or dictatorship of the class: dictatorship (party) of the leaders or dictatorship (party) of the masses?’ - testifies to most incredible and hopelessly muddled thinking” – “To go so far . . . as to contrast, in general, the dictatorship of the masses with a dictatorship of the leaders is ridiculously absurd, and stupid.” (p. 575, p. 567, p. 568)
Not really the best book to reference if you are trying to portray Leninism as “extremely democratic”! Particularly as, in that work, Lenin also pointed to “non-Party workers’ and peasants’ conferences” and Soviet Congresses as means by which the party secured its rule. Yet, if the congresses of soviets were “democratic institutions, the like of which even the best democratic republics of the bourgeois have never known”, the Bolsheviks would have no need to “support, develop and extend” non-Party conferences “to be able to observe the temper of the masses, come closer to them, meet their requirements, promote the best among them to state posts”. (p. 573) How the Bolsheviks met “their requirements” is extremely significant - they disbanded them, just as they had with soviets with non-Bolshevik majorities in 1918, because people voted for the wrong people (see section H.6 for details of both these and the ones in early 1918 organised because the Bolsheviks and soviets had both become isolated from the masses).
In terms taking part in elections she was right insofar as de Gaulle called a general election in 1968. He did so to undercut the mass strikes and occupations, to shift the struggle into save bourgeois forms. And it worked. And, of course, the French Trotskyists took part in the elections… Nice to know that the Leninists will do the same as they did in the 1920s, in 1968, and so on…
Which is something I stressed in my summing up. I noted that in my talk Marxists were seeking to repeat history – and that the AWL had confirmed that in their contributions. I quote Einstein on insanity – doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. I also noted rather than advocate all tactics anarchists argue for those that work! Strange but true, we consider the effectiveness of tactics when looking at them. We predicted in the First International that using elections would result in labour movements becoming reformist and tied to the bourgeois order. And that was confirmed. Here is Rocker (again from Anarcho-Syndicalism) in 1937:
“Participation in the politics of the bourgeois States has not brought the labour movement a hair’s-breadth nearer to Socialism, but thanks to this method, Socialism has almost been completely crushed and condemned to insignificance . . . Participation in parliamentary politics has affected the Socialist Labour movement like an insidious poison. It destroyed the belief in the necessity of constructive Socialist activity, and, worse of all, the impulse to self-help, by inoculating people with the ruinous delusion that salvation always comes from above.”
Hard not to disagree with… Ironically, Martin Thomas confirmed this in one of his anti-anarchist articles when he argued that the “Bakunin wing’s opposition . . . to electoral activity by socialists was not an exaggerated but understandable reaction against socialists allowing that activity to suck in too much of their energies and their hopes.” He then went on to acknowledge that “Socialists would allow electoral activity to suck in too much of their energies and their hopes” and that these parties ended up producing “socialists who in their majority turned out to be unprincipled parliamentary reformists.” Obviously these quotes were not positioned in such proximity in his articles – just as well for his argument! In short, he unknowingly confirmed that the “Bakunin wing’s opposition” to electioneering was proven right… Opps.
In my leaflet, after quoting those words, I quote Bakunin: “worker-deputies, transplanted into a bourgeois environment, into an atmosphere of purely bourgeois ideas, will in fact cease to be workers and, becoming Statesmen, they will become bourgeois . . . For men do not make their situations; on the contrary, men are made by them.” But, apparently, Bakunin being proven completely right is insufficient for Marxists to re-evaluate their dogmas…
Of course, time proclaimed discussing all that. I did, however, note that if a workers state IS extremely democratic then the Bolshevik regime was NOT a workers state. The AWL never seemed keen to discuss the reality of Bolshevism so I’m sure that obvious point fell on death ears. I also re-iterated my definition of the state, contrasting the anarchist scientific/evolutionary perspective to the Marxist metaphysical one (see section H.3.7 of An Anarchist FAQ). I also quickly summarised Spain, pointing out that the decision to embrace anti-fascist unity was not driven by anarchist theory (quite the reverse!) but by circumstances – fear of isolation and having to fight the republic and the fascists (as discussed in section I.8.10). I also said if anyone wished to discuss the matter then please come to our stall. Looking back, deciding to exclude Spain from my talk was unfortunate – particularly as the format of the meeting did not allow me opportunity to fully discuss it.
Martin Thomas then summed up. Apparently we don’t know what works, as we are not living in a socialist system. Still, we have over 100 years of Marxists urging us to vote in order to seize political power but apparently that is insufficient to draw any conclusions! Add in the German Greens, and all the rest, well, still insufficient evidence… if in doubt, ignore reality… He also showed his ignorance on the Spanish Revolution, proclaiming that when would be a better time to proclaim revolution than when workers were expropriating their workplaces. However, the decision to collaborate with other groups against fascism was taken on July 20th – the day after the defeat of the Army coup in Barcelona and before the expropriations started.
And so it ended.
Afterward, I did go up to Martin Thomas and asked something along the lines of “I’m not being cheeky, but have you actually read Bakunin?” He replied “yes, although not everything.” I did not say that I’ve read everything in English by him, but I did ask about his obvious syndicalist ideas. I pointed to the Marx quote than Bakunin argued that “must only organise themselves by trades-unions.” He suggested that by “trade unions” Bakunin did not mean trade unions as such things did not really exist then. I then pointed out that in Bern (where Bakunin was based for a while) there were unions and he talked about them and that (the future Communard) Varlin was a trade unionist, etc. Unfortunately, the conversation stopped for various reasons…
Thinking back, I have to ponder if unions did not exist back then what did Marx mean when he talked of trade unions? Thomas, in his review of Black Flame, pointed out that Marx was one of the first socialists to support trade unions (back in 1847 when he attacked Proudhon for NOT supporting them). So what were these “trades unions” which Bakunin supported, which Marx said Bakunin supported and which Marx advocated since 1847 which did not really exist?
Significantly, Rocker in Chapte r 3 (The Forerunners of Syndicalism) of Anarcho-Syndicalism links syndicalism to the libertarian sections of the First International (as did both Malatesta and Monatte at the International Anarchist Congress in 1907). He notes at the Basel congress of the IWMA a report by the Belgian delegation argued that “the trade union organisations of the workers not only had a right to existence within the present society, but they were even more to be regarded as the social cells of a coming Socialist order.” This reflected the ideas of “the delegates from Spain, the Swiss Jura, and a considerable part of the French sections.” This report was by a mutualist argued that the International form unions (or syndicats) because “they are the means of resisting exploitation in the present” and because “the grouping of different trades in the city will form the commune of the future,” when “the government will be replaced by federated councils of syndicats, and by a committee of their respective delegates regulating the relation of labor this taking the place of politics.” (quoted by James Guillaume, L'Internationale, Documents et Souvenirs, Vol. I, p. 205)
Which sounds like syndicalism to me... not to mention Rocker, Kropotkin, Malatesta, Goldman, Guillaume and a host of others! Interestingly, I've come across part of an editorial from Freedom (November, 1912) which argued that while “previous movements were diverted from their economic action by political movements . . . This will not be the case with Syndicalism, with its direct action against Capitalism and the State. To act against the State means to attack, to destroy its political institutions, and to substitute for the State organisation the Industrial Unions of the producing classes...” Which sounds like Marx's summary of the ideas of Bakunin!
However, to return to the topic at hand... I can only assume this nonsense of Martin's on unions came via Hal Draper who, in a desire to distance Marx from revolutionary syndicalism, argued that those who advocated revolutionary unionism in the First International were not “really” syndicalists as trade unions did not really exist at the time. Except, I assume, those trade unions which set up the First International and those which affiliated to it and which supported each other when they took strike action?
But then, the AWL seemed keen to have it both ways the whole day. Thus we have the workers’ state being extremely democratic while, at the same time, extremely centralised (my leaflet had three great Zinoviev quotes on that!). Thus we would have workers liberty but if anarchists advocate anarchism then they had better watch out. Thus we have the AWL being opposed to “a government they do not control” while supporting Bolshevism, Lenin and Trotsky… All very strange… I assume the ability to hold two contradictory ideas at once is dialectics in action?
When I got back to our stall, it was going well. We sold, in total, £80 worth of books (which was approximately £80 more than I expected at the start). We got rid of nearly all the old Black Flags and all the old Freedoms plus about half the leaflets (the rest are now in Freedom Bookshop). Hopefully my talk helped a few people towards anarchism… I’m sure the AWL people not listening to my points and then repeating them as if I disagreed with them made some question Leninism. That and the not-too-veiled post-revolution threat by the Liverpool AWLer…
So, all in all, worth doing. Not perfect, but still a success. Next I will be writing up my talk, with appropriate links to An Anarchist FAQ sections (and this debate re-enforced that volume 2 needs to be published sooner rather than later!). I will also attach a pdf of my leaflet “The AWL versus Anarchism.” While this is not most aesthetically pleasing leaflet I’ve ever produced, it contains quotes from the AWL articles on what anarchism is and quotes from Bakunin, Kropotkin, Malatesta, Berkman, Goldman, etc. saying the exact opposite (for example, see section H.2.8 – or any part of section H.2). And as an added bonus, the last page is entitled “The AWL versus Marxism” and has quotes from Lenin and Trotsky the AWL would prefer us not to know… I hope that makes a few people look into the issues more.
I think that the significant thing was that the AWL intervention focused on centralisation and the workers’ state yet failed to even mention my account of the Bolshevik regime. Obviously they had decided before hand what to concentrate on and what to ignore. This is significant insofar as they seemed unwilling to defend Bolshevik authoritarianism – perhaps unsurprisingly because defending the gerrymandering and disbandment of soviets, imposing “dictatorial” one-man management, abolishing “by decree” democratic elections in the armed forces, creating a secret police, immediately creating an executive power above the soviets, and so on obviously contradictions their stated love of “Workers’ Liberty”… best not to dwell on the world’s only Marxist “workers’ state”!
And that, I think, explains the attraction of Leninism - particularly back in 1918/19. It appeared to have lead a successful revolution. But it soon became clear to those with eyes to see (such as Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman -- in My Disillusionment in Russia, The Bolshevik Myth and The Russian Tragedy) that it was no such thing. I suppose it depends on what you mean by success. Anarchists mean producing a socialist society, or at least moving in that direction. Leninists mean the seizure and holding of power by a vanguard party. Today, of course, with more and more information on Bolshevism in power available it is harder to believe in the Bolshevik Myth -- but some still do, even if it means refusing to discuss the regime of Lenin and Trotsky!
Also, before the event I was informed by email that “our normal practise is to give speakers who are speaking to a minority position (as you probably will be unless a lot of anarchists come) more time to respond to debate, so you’ll have extra time to deal with any questions or make any additional points.” On the day, after the second or third AWL contribution in a row I asked the chair if I could reply to the points being made. I was informed I would get my five minutes at the end. Now, as I seemed to be the only anarchist there that does seem to contradict “normal practise” – perhaps they let my main talk go over 20 minutes? But still, not letting me reply made it extremely one-sided. Yes, the two Commune people were allowed to contribute but they were not anarchists (one declared himself a libertarian Marxist). Yet this is in contrast to at least double the number of AWL contributors. This, I think, is significant too – and a backhanded complement on my talk and the issues it raised.
I would also have to say that lack of support from anarchists in London was unfortunate – the meeting was, as a result, extremely one-sided in contributions AND I had to remember to cover everything (which I failed to do). As was obvious at the meeting, not everyone attending the AWL conference was a convinced Leninist. My talk and stall made an impact, I am sure, but how much better it would have been for class struggle anarchists to made comments refuting the Leninist claims.
Hence this blog, an attempt to summarise what was being argued and to expand on issues I failed to do adequately on the day in my five minutes of summing up. It also raises the question of how strange it is to debate with Leninists – they seem to hold contradictory notions, best expressed when they proclaim themselves lovers of liberty and defenders of the Leninist regime. I find it strange that someone can hold such blatantly contradictory notions at once – as shown by my strange discussion at the stall…
Until I blog again, be seeing you…