Letter to Weekly Worker on Proudhon

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

Well, another month passes and I’ve not done as much as I would have liked. To be honest, I don’t seem to have enough time (or energy!) to do everything I want (or used to!). Even in terms of the Kropotkin anthology, I’ve not really got going on the introduction yet (although the bibliography is finished barring some new information coming my way). Still, I have some good news and some bad news.

First the bad news – there will be no Black Flag for the second half of this year (the London Anarchist bookfair issue). Simply put, life has overwhelmed the members of our little collective and it is impossible to produce an issue or do a stall this year. These things happen. Hopefully, perhaps, it may provoke some people to volunteer and join the collective – many people assume that if it appears then we don’t need the help (which is never true). If you want Black Flag, Britain’s longest running anarchist magazine (40 years plus) to continue, and are a class struggle anarchist (or close to that position) then drop us an email (blackflagmag[at]yahoo.co.uk) – we need people to write, edit, sell, etc.

Longest running after Freedom, of course! Although that is a newspaper rather than a magazine… And talking of which, they also need help with people writing articles and selling it – so visit their webpage for more information.

Simply put, anarchist media does not just write itself, it does not mysteriously appear, it needs anarchists to join in and help. That is what anarchism is all about – do it yourself, direct action. Sadly, though, there is what I’ve termed a consumerist attitude in the UK anarchist movement – too many libertarians seem all too happy just consuming the work of others and making no effort to participate in the work. So we seem to have a situation where a few anarchists do a lot of work (and many burn out) while many others either do nothing or moan about those who do…

Luckily, anarchism will not be created by anarchists but by the masses… our task now is creating the organisations, media, theory and attitude which will spread libertarian ideas and solidify the anarchistic ideas that always spring up during working class unrest.

And talking of which, there is an anti-austerity march in London on October 20th (18 months after the last one). I’ve suggested to the comrades of Freedom that they should not a 24 page paper than month but rather produce a 4 page leaflet in 8 times the number addressed specifically to the march and explaining libertarian ideas. We should organise a stall as a focus for people to pick up the leaflet and magazines to sell (like the last issue of Black Flag!). That we could make an impact, raise the profile of anarchism, Freedom and the bookfair (which takes place the following week). I hope they will take up my suggestion.

And talking of the London Anarchist bookfair, it is on the 27th of October (from 10am to 7pm) at Queen Mary’s, University of London on the Mile End Road. With no Black Flag stall I can go to meetings! I’m down for two – one is a panel meeting on Anarchist Economics (not got the blurb yet) inspired by new The Accumulation of Freedom book. While I contributed to it a chapter on Proudhon’s economics to that book, I will be discussing the economics of communist-anarchism. David Graeber may be there (currently reading Debt: The First 5,000 years, which is fascinating and recommended -- and it really drives home how unimaginative both economists and Fantasy/SF writers are given the many ways human culture has evolved, both just project bourgeois man back or forward!) and Michael Albert (given my views on Parecon that should be, well, interesting).

Suffice to say, I’ll be stressing that the notion we need to build models today is wrong and that Proudhon’s perspective (echoed by Kropotkin) is what we need – to study, analyse and critique what is happening now in order to get glimpses of possible futures.

We can sketch libertarian socialism, in other words, but we cannot build detailed models of it (as per Parecon). Looking at the rise of economics shows why -- Adam Smith was not building a model of an ideal economy, he was describing and analysing how an existing one works (and making recommendations based on that). Which makes sense -- theory should be based on the facts and so the theory of a socialist economy will develop as that economy is created. Model building came later, particularly with the rise of neo-classical economics and this was driven far more by justifying and defending capitalism than understanding it. Indeed, the assumptions of these models are simply silly (when not impossible) although that does not stop neo-classical economists urging that society confirm to their models in order to gain the benefits these models promise... Suffice to say, the comments by Proudhon against the utopian socialists System of Economic Contradictions (particularly in chapter 1) are very appropriate. Ultimately, trying to impress economists who take the impossibilities of neo-classical economic models seriously (as Parecon does) by building another model based on impossiblities is a waste of time -- indeed, counter-productive.

Oh, and talking of Graeber, it would be remiss of me not to mention his debate (if you call it that) with an Austrian economist:  “On the Invention of Money – Notes on Sex, Adventure, Monomaniacal Sociopathy and the True Function of Economics. A Reply to Robert Murphy’s ‘Have Anthropologists Overturned Menger?’” (which shows how up-to-date my blogging is, as this dates from a year ago!).

My other talk has been inspired by my work on the Kropotkin anthology and my exchange with the AWL last year:

“Direct Struggle Against Capital”, or Syndicalism and Anarchism

What is the relation between anarchism and syndicalism? According to Leninists, there is none as anarchism is petit-bourgeois individualism which rejects class organisation and struggle. In reality, revolutionary anarchism has class struggle at its heart. Join me as I explore the anarchist roots of syndicalism – or the “Direct struggle Against Capital”, a quote from Kropotkin used as the title of my new anthology of his writings due out next year from AK Press.

It will cover the history of anarchism, which has always been focused towards the working class (anyone reading Proudhon will see he addressed his own class) and, by the 1860s, specifically to the union movement. Anyone reading my reply to Darlington, or section H.2.8 of An Anarchist FAQ or my blog (for example,  “Communism and Syndicalism” or  “Synthesised” Marxism and Anarchism? My arse!) will know the basics of what I plan to cover, but with extra Kropotkin quotes…

And in other good news, volume 2 is An Anarchist FAQ is on its way to the printers… there will be an announcement on the AFAQ blog shortly.

Which brings me, at last, to the title of my blog – my letter in reply to the review of my Proudhon anthology which appeared in the Weekly Worker. It is a strange review – its strangeness matched only by them putting Proudhon on their front page! Sure, flattering I suppose, but, really, was it a slow news week? There are hardly many people who are that aware of who Proudhon is, never mind his ideas, to make that front-page material surely?

But then, Marxists do seem to see Proudhon everywhere – I remember reading one Marxist academic explain, in a straight tone, how Paul Krugman represented modern Proudhonism whilst stating that he was sure Krugman had never read Proudhon’s works, assuming he had even heard of him in the first place! Other examples Marxists have seen Proudhon’s influence in include fair-trade products and various greens urging “small-scale” technology. Suffice to say, Proudhon’s ideas cannot be reduced to fair exchange (for Proudhon, there can be no fair exchange as long as wage-labour existed) and, assertions by Marx not withstanding, he was not against large-scale industry.

Anyways, the review is a bit mental – downright weird at times. I have no idea what drives someone to start a review denying the obvious, and well known, fact that Proudhon was working class. Hell, he even admits that Proudhon had to work for a living (he was a print worker by trade). That is not a good start.

As for his speculation on how Proudhon’s politics drove his sexism, that is most strange – apparently men joining together into a commune or workplace association cannot be generalised to men and women joining together as a family! Hence my (and other anarchists’) point that Proudhon’s sexism is in contradiction to his politics rather an expression of them. Not to mention the statements on how Proudhon was opposed to “political democracy” which is downright misleading (and, of course, no mention of Proudhon’s ideas on democracy influenced the Paris Commune).

Also the tone is downright paranoid at times – speculating on the inclusion of Proudhon’s letter to Marx, wondering what I cut (easy to see, the books are available on-line!) and why I included the pieces I had done. As for the last point, my biographical sketch indicates in board terms why certain works are included (most speak for themselves, I would have thought). As for not including extracts from What is Property?, that is just a bizarre suggestion.

Still, I can honestly say that it is far better than the SPGB’s review from last year – at least this reviewer seems to have read some of the book unlike the SPGB one. I’m sure my letter will get a reply and, unlike the SPGB exchange which ended after a second letter, I won’t be snowed under by union work. Although saying that a piece is better than a terrible review written by someone who did not seem to have read the book is faint praise indeed…

Suffice to say, I’ve come to the conclusion that most Marxists will repeat their dogmas about anarchism and anarchists regardless of how much evidence you present to refute them. Also, the bad state of the labour and socialist movement in the UK is partly caused by these various Leninist sects – no genuine rank-and-file movement could develop here within it being invaded by a host of Leninists each trying sell papers and, in the process, kill the groups as they alienate the people who started them. Also, many unions at the base are full of Leninists (admittedly keeping the organisation going, doing important things like case work, etc.) but who seem to view the union as a means of selling papers rather than organisations fighting the class struggle.

Sadly, these people are inspired more by an inaccurate understanding of the Bolshevik party than an analysis of current events. If your politics is based on what you wish had happened in Tzarist Russia between 1900 and 1921 rather than what actually happened and what is happening now, you can see why nothing fruitful is happening now (hence far too many Marxists are not analysing the current crisis but rather explaining why their interpretation of Marx’s theory is right). Still, these parties would not be as big as they are (relative to us, of course!) if we could get our act together… and while progress in that direct is being made, it is still too slow for my liking.

Anyways, at least the CPGB do print letters in full and have debates in their paper – unlike, say, the SWP. I’ve had quite a few letters published there. For example, an exchange on anarchists in Greece (first letter; second letter), on anarchism in general as well as providing material for critiques during the anti-globalisation protests in Genoa and their so-called alternative. My article on the 1905 Russian Revolution was an expanded letter to that paper and this eventually ended up in section H of An Anarchist FAQ. So not completely wasted time and energy…

But then I’m often prompted by such things – “150 years of libertarian” was prompted by a particularly clueless propertarian demanding on Anarkismo that we stop stealing the term “libertarian”! And An Anarchist FAQ itself was provoked by time apparently wasted by arguing with propertarians on line…

And, finally, I should note a little confirmation of anarchist theory. As discussed in section B of An Anarchist FAQ, the state is marked by centralisation -- to disempower the many in order to maintain elite wealth and power. As Kropotkin put it: “To attack the central power, to strip it of its prerogatives, to decentralise, to dissolve authority, would have been to abandon to the people the control of its affairs, to run the risk of a truly popular revolution. That is why the bourgeoisie sought to reinforce the central government even more. . .” (Words of a Rebel, p. 143) Previously the Tories made some comments about the importance of “Localism” but now we discover what it means -- Eric Pickles threatens to strip councils of planning powers: “Eric Pickles, the communities secretary, has warned he will strip local councils of their planning powers and hand them to a centralised planning inspectorate if they show a record of poor-quality or slow decision making.” And, needless to say, it will be Pickles, his political friends and his bureaucrats who will determine what is “poor-quality.” So “Localism” is used as a means of centralising yet more power in the hands of the state so that business can get its way... and just following Thatcher and her free market, strong state neo-liberal ideology.

Anyways, that is enough. I’m not sure when I’m going to blog again – I am trying to do one at least every 4 weeks or so, simply to show that I’m still around! I will be writing up bookfair talks and I may try and make a dent in my long list of articles/reviews I’ve started and not finished. However, I will need to get going on the Kropotkin introduction and that will take priority.

So, until I blog again… be seeing you!

Dear Weekly Worker

I am flattered you found my anthology of Proudhon of such interest (Mike Macnair, “No Guide to revolution”, Weekly Worker, July 19 2012). While it is nice to read that “overall McKay and his translator collaborators have done a significant service to the Anglophone left”, I fear that the review gets much wrong.

I am surprised that Macnair spends so much time disputing that Proudhon matches “the profile of a worker, artisan or peasant autodidact” given that he admits Proudhon “had to work for a living.” Macnair is alone in this: every writer on Proudhon  – including Marxist John Ehrenberg – acknowledges his working-class roots.

The facts are clear. His father was employed in a brewery and as a cooper and, after failing as a self-employed brewer-publican, worked the small family farm of his wife. Proudhon only attended secondary school thanks to a bursary arranged with the help of his father’s former employer, forced to leave in 1827 because of family poverty to become employed in a print shop. After a failed attempt to become a master printer and winning a scholarship, he became the employee of a transport company before, in 1848, finally becoming a full-time writer.

Is Macnair really suggesting that someone who had to sell his labour to capitalists is not a worker? Or is he taking Kautsky’s and Lenin’s elitist nonsense that workers cannot develop socialist theory to new lows? He is correct that being working class does not automatically make you right, but rather than leave it at that he denies that Proudhon was working class! Which should make you wonder how accurate the rest of his piece is. Sad to say, it is riddled with errors and often repeats distortions refuted in my introductory material.

For example, to proclaim “Proudhon was an opponent of political democracy as such” is simply nonsense. He was opposed to democracy limited to picking masters in a centralised political hierarchy, favouring one based on mandated and recallable delegates: as implemented, with praise from Marx, in the Paris Commune by Proudhon’s followers. (Property is Theft!, 28-9, 41) His summary of The social revolution demonstrated by the coup d’état of December 2shows he has not read it.

He is wrong to assert that “System of economic contradictions is a deeply incoherent book, precisely because of its methodology.” It is only “incoherent” if you fail to understand that he is analysing an economic system riddled with contradictions, aspects of which he discusses in turn. True, his presentation is flawed but with patience his argument becomes clear – particularly as it expands on the one presented in What is Property? Sadly, Macnair does not understand that work, proclaiming it an “internal critique of defences of rent-bearing property.” This is not the case, as it also explicitly addresses how surplus value is produced by wage-labour. (116-7).

To reduce Solution of the Social Problem to “a polemic against political democracy as involved in the solution to the social problem” is misleading. It is a critique of bourgeois representative democracy in favour of a delegate democracy based on mandates and recall (273). During 1848 he urged workers to go beyond political reform into social reform to secure the revolution – and so sought to extend democracy (crucially into the economy), making it genuine. (55)

It is also strange to see it proclaimed that Proudhon’s “political ideas were somewhat closer to the ‘small is beautiful’ (Schumacher) approach” when my book shows, Marxist myths not withstanding, that he was not against large-scale industry. To present him as urging peasant and artisan production is simply untenable. (10-1, 73) He also states that Proudhon thought “the right of withdrawal” could “provide the only real controls… against managerial power.” Yet Proudhon explicitly argued for industrial democracy, the election of management (11-2) – something Mondragon is deficient in.

Then there is the claim that I “sidestep Proudhon’s patriarchalism” while proclaiming that he sought “to hive off” family relations “by making them into a separate sphere handled by women, under the authority of men.” So rather than apply his ideas on federalism to relations between men and women as between communes and workplaces, he embraced the hierarchy he rejected elsewhere. Macnair misses the obvious: Proudhon’s sexism is, as I state, “in direct contradiction to his own libertarian and egalitarian ideas.” As for my alleged “discomfort” with it, in reality little discussion is needed to prove this (48) showing Macnair speculations to be false.

The “problem with Proudhon,” apparently, is that he does not avoid “the problem of political ordering.” Yet he repeatedly argued for socio-economic organisation – hence the “universal association” of the 1840s, which became the “agricultural-industrial federation” of the 1860s. Rather than the “tyranny of structurelessness,” Proudhon advocated non-statist federal socio-economic structures. And if Macnair considers that federations “immediately pose within themselves the same problems of political ordering as states” then he is implying that the state will never wither away…

Macnair wonders why the texts included were picked – my biographical sketch indicates why for the major works. As for the shorter pieces, those I felt those speak for themselves. As for What is Property?, how can you have a Proudhon anthology without it? It would be like excluding The Manifesto of the Communist Party from one on Marx.

As my book is about Proudhon, not Marx I did not spend too much time on works by Marx that he was not aware of. Apparently, I accuse “Marx of having in The poverty of philosophy misread Proudhon,” which is not true – I show how he repeatedly misrepresents Proudhon (and contradicts himself in later works). As I note, Marx at times does point to flaws in Proudhon’s ideas but to state my “objections to Marx’s critique are largely extremely secondary” fails to acknowledge that Marx does not meet the basic standards of honest debate. He also wonders if I included Proudhon’s letter to Marx as “as evidence of Marx’s sectarianism.” How paranoid to ponder the reasons for the inclusion of a famous letter between two giants of socialism!

Macnair concludes it “is worth reading Proudhon, then. But not in any sense as a guide, as McKay suggests, to the ‘general idea of the revolution in the 21st century.’” It sad that he takes my obvious rift on Proudhon’s General idea of the Revolution in the 19th Century to imply that I am urging people to accept all of his ideas when, being a revolutionary class-struggle anarchist, I explicitly did not: “we should not slavishly copy Proudhon’s ideas, we can take what is useful and, like Bakunin, Kropotkin and others, develop them further in order to inspire social change in the 21st century.” (51) Still, I hope your readers will take his advice – but spend more time actually reading what Proudhon (and I) wrote!

Finally, Macnair states that “Marx and Engels from 1846 onwards more or less constantly urged the organisation of the working class for political action.” He fails to discuss its outcome – unsurprisingly, given its utter failure. Perhaps because these dire results were predicted by anarchists helps explains the current rise in our ideas?

Yours sincerely,

Iain McKay

www.property-is-theft.org

Comments

I'm really interested in your

I'm really interested in your work on the Kropotkin Anthology. Please, let me know when it is going to be published. Without your work, I would never have known about AK Press.

Be seeing you,
FURB
managing editor

http://freedombookclub.com
making freedom a best seller

AddThis

  


Like what you are reading?  Get a notification whenever we post a new article to

Anarchist Writers via Facebook or Twitter

where you can also like and comment on our articles


 

Posting comments

 Like most sites we have a major problem with bots trying to post spam into the comments section.  While looking for a better solution we are reduced to only on turning on the ability to anonymously comment for brief periods around the posting of new articles.  But if you are a regular visitor you can comment at any time by creating an account on the site and logging in before posting. But the Spammers also set up accounts so to reduce the workload of deleting those we only turn on the ability to create accounts for brief periods which we announce on our Twitter & Facebook accounts so follow those to hear when we have that turned on.  We do want you to be able to engage with us via the comments and we are very sorry for the fact that we can't find a better way of dealing with spam.