I’ve been an anarchist for 25 years this year. A quarter of a century. Wow. I’m not sure the exact date, but in 1987 I joined the Anarchist Communist Federation (now the Anarchist Federation) in the summer of 1987. The winter of 1986-7 saw me reading anarchist books in the Mitchell Library in Glasgow as a teenager and coming to the conclusion that the ideas in my head had a name – Anarchism.
Some context is required. I grew-up in one of the poorest parts of Glasgow, indeed Western Europe. However, I rarely mention this as experience suggests that those who go on about the working class the most rarely are – still, if I need to be “Prole-ier than Thou” then I can be. Which is beside the point – suffice to say, as a working class teenager I was thinking about what was wrong with the world. This was 8 years into Thatcherism, after the Miners’ strike and just before the poll-tax. I had come to the conclusion that the root of our problems lay in a lack of power for ordinary people – power was centralised and in the hands of the few. I was thinking in terms of decentralisation, devolving power (and, being Scottish, I had nationalistic streaks – some say I still do!).
At the same time I was a big SF and Fantasy fan (still am!). I was struggling through Lord of the Rings and decided it was a better use of my time to read all of Michael Moorcock’s books. Which I did and, in the process, came across references to Nestor Makhno – including a review of Michael Malet’s excellent book Nestor Makhno in the Russian Civil War. So I decided to go to the Mitchell Library to discover more. I read the extract from Archinov’s The History of the Makhnovist Movement in Woodcock’s The Anarchist Reader. This confirmed to me that Makhno should be investigated further, along with the ideas which drove him. I then read the introduction to the Woodcock book and, as I said, discovered that the ideas I had developed by myself were called Anarchism.
So then I read more, bought Alexander Berkman’s (classic) ABC of Anarchism and after reading it over a weekend contacted Freedom. They sent me a sample copy, which had a contact address for the Glasgow Anarchists in a bookshop (called Changes, if anyone remembers that). I then discovered a real anarchist paper Black Flag – and who would have guessed back then I would be in the editorial committee? I attended by first May Day March and meet the local anarchists. And the rest, as they say, is history…
I’m not going to bore people with the ins and outs of my time in various versions of the GAG (Glasgow Anarchist Group) or our attempt to form a Scottish-wide alliance (the Scottish Federation of Anarchists whose Aims and Principles I drafted) and its journal Scottish Anarchist. Nor will I discuss my time in Liverpool or my exile in London over the past decade and a bit. I will mention that I think the movement had made steady progress over the last 25 years. Freedom has become a decent anarchist newspaper again and the feud with Black Flag has ended. I hope my efforts contributed to that. So for some time now class struggle anarchism (whether communist-anarchism or anarcho-syndicalism, not that there is much difference!) is the mainstream of the movement now and have been for some time. Fads like primitivism surfaced for a while, got exposed for the silly nonsense they were, and disappeared (hopefully for good). New ones (like “post-anarchism”) will hopefully go the same way (currently that is just within academia). I've seen these developments over the last 25 years and have been very pleased by them. There is still a lot to go, though.
It is not all good news. The UK anarchist scene is still too influenced by ultra-leftism. This can be seen from the Anarchist Federation’s somewhat confusing position on unions (considering them counter-revolutionary but also being in them as well as active IWW organisers!). I remember reading someone posting the Solidarity Federation’s industrial strategy to libcom with the comment “I wonder what the ICC think of it?” – like that matters! My position is if the ICC agreed with me I would rethink my position… We need to be more confident in our own ideas and tradition (something I stressed at my talk at last year’s London bookfair).
I also think we still lack a positive strategy – it is all fine and well to have a good analysis of what is wrong and what to replace it with, but we need some practical things to go to apply the former and get to the latter. Without this, without something to do, we will not grow as much as we could and should. In addition, we should also be more critical of things like Parecon – particularly given its utter impracticalities and the obvious inability of its adherents to understand the points being made against it (it follows in the tradition of Oscar Lange and replaces the mythical Walrasian Auctioneer with actual Facilitation Councils). It also comes across far too cult-like, imho. Still, more work on anarchist economics both in terms of critique and vision is required. I hope we can do that so any appeal for Parecon disappears in the face of more realistic alternatives.
So I think we are growing – as can be seen by the regularity the “left” write (almost always!) bad articles on anarchism. Talking of which, I was in Bookmarks (the SWP’s bookshop) and I noted that they had piles and piles of their new pamphlet “refuting” anarchism (I skimmed it and it is as bad as you would expect). Obviously not flying off the shelves! They even had a review of it in International Socialism which states “I think the book would struggle to convince activists influenced by anarchist ideas.” Well, yes, but not for the reasons I would give – namely, that anyone influenced by anarchist ideas will recognise that the SWP just don’t understand anarchism and so their critiques are deeply flawed. They are usually inaccurate, as can be seen from the reviewer continuing by stating “To do this, we need to convince people about the collective power of our class: Do the working class have the power to reshape society?” Well, yes, we do – we have always done so. If you actually read Bakunin, Kropotkin, Malatesta, Goldman, etc. you would know that!
Where we differ is in the next question raised by the reviewer: “Are working class people capable of owning and running their own party to this end?” Not a vanguard party, that is for sure – nor every Marxist party, for that matter. Of course, they conflate political organisation with a political party, just as they conflate the centralised, hierarchical top-down state with social organisation in general. And given the actual track-record of Marxism, some self-awareness of its repeated failures would be nice… Still, as more radicals become aware of the failings of Leninism in power, its appeal will continue to diminish and the left will finally be free of its baneful influence.
Still, that they produce nonsense like this pamphlet or articles always makes glad – it shows that we are growing and they are worried about it. Hopefully my many replies and critiques of articles by the likes of the SWP have helped us as a movement to expose the inaccuracies at the heart of the Leninist attacks on anarchism (the SWP specific ones are listed in this blog and who can forget the AWL, who inspired the very popular Leninists Are Strange blog).
One thing I think is true, almost of all the Marxist (so-called) critique of anarchism is based on myths. My favourite is the attempts to present Bakunin's anarchism (bad) as different from syndicalism (good) even though Bakunin advocated unions, economic collective direct action such as strikes, solidarity, the general strike and a host of other ideas proclaimed as “syndicalist” by Marxists! As I've said before, we have reached the stage that if you gave unattributed quotes by Bakunin to Marxists they would agree with them and denounce unattributed ones from Marx and Engels! Indeed, most of what passes for Marxism is quite alien to the ideas of Marx and Engels. Look at this argument by Engels from 1881. It is doubtful that any self-respecting Marxist (bar a member of the SPGB) would consider it Marxist:
“But a struggle between two great classes of society necessarily becomes a political struggle. So did the long battle between the middle or capitalist class and the landed aristocracy; so also does the fight between the working class and these same capitalists. In every struggle of class against class, the next end fought for is political power; the ruling class defends its political supremacy, that is to say its safe majority in the Legislature; the inferior class fights for, first a share, then the whole of that power, in order to become enabled to change existing laws in conformity with their own interests and requirements. Thus the working class of Great Britain for years fought ardently and even violently for the People's Charter, which was to give it that political power”
Worse for those who take their Marxism from Lenin's State and Revolution Engels states elsewhere (again in 1881) that “the labourer struggles for political power, for direct representation of his class in the Legislature” and “where the industrial and agricultural working class forms the immense majority of the people, democracy means the dominion of the working class, neither more nor less” and they must “use the power already in their hands, the actual majority they possess in every large town in the kingdom, to send to Parliament men of their own order.” As discussed in section H.3.10, this is consistent with Marx and very inconsistent with Lenin. While you would expect Lenin to distort anarchism in State and Revolution (and he does), you do not expect him to do likewise to Marxism!
Still, nice to know that we anarchists have won the debate on “political action” - so well in fact that few Marxists consider Marx and Engels position as being Marxist!
Which brings me to why I started this particular blog, namely looking back at my articles on Anarchist Writers and picking my top-eleven favourites. No real reason, other than its been a while since I blogged and it is always nice to point out articles you think readers may be interested in but which were posted ages ago (and so way at the back of any search of articles by Anarcho). This obviously means excluding both An Anarchist FAQ and Property is Theft! as well as blog postings.
So here are my top-eleven articles posted under Anarcho on this webpage… yes, I know, usually these kinds of lists go up to ten but this is “one more” (and, yes, I’ve just re-watched This is Spinal Tap). They are not in any particular order.
1. Laying the Foundations: Proudhon’s Contribution to Anarchist Economics. Yes, I know I’ve just posted this one but I’ve been sitting on it for quite a while (at least a year) and I like it. I’ve wished it was on-line on quite a few occasions so I could link to it when having arguments about Proudhon with anarchists. As should be clear by now, while I think getting many revolutionary anarchists to get past their Marxist-influenced view of Proudhon will be an uphill struggle, I think it is wise. Proudhon, for all his many faults, influenced anarchism immensely and should be given credit where credit is due.
2. Anarchist Theory – Use it or Lose it. This is a write up of my talk at the London Anarchist bookfair in 2011. It gives a small indication of why we anarchists should be proud of our movement and its ideas. It was well received – always end on a joke!
3. Syndicalism , Anarchism and Marxism. This is a critique of an article in Anarchist Studies written by Leninist Ralph Darlington which disputes the anarchist origins of syndicalism. Suffice to say, his work completely ignored Bakunin’s ideas and is somewhat self-contradictory. This critique will appear in a slightly revised form in Anarchist Studies later this year. I’m going to cheat slightly and mention my longer review of Darlington’s book, Sy ndicalism, Marxist Myth and Anarchist Reality as this goes into these issues in more detail.
4. The Revolutionary Ideas of Bakunin. This is a summary of Bakunin’s ideas. Bakunin, for all his faults, is one of my favourite anarchist thinkers and I consider it shameful the nonsense peddled by Marxists about him (much the same can be said of Proudhon). Here is an attempt to redress the balance.
5. The Paris Commune, Marxism and Anarchism. This lengthy review of an SWP book on the Paris Commune addresses the differences between authoritarian and libertarian socialism well, plus reclaiming (if you like) the commune for anarchism as well as showing why the critiques of Bakunin and Kropotkin as regards the Commune are still relevant today.
6. Mut ual Aid: An Introduction and Evaluation. I enjoyed doing this one, made a welcome break from reading Marxists (I was revising section H of An Anarchist FAQ at the time). Considered too long for Freedom Press and its recent edition of Mutual Aid but now available as a pamphlet from AK Press, it shows how Kropotkin was right and how he did not ignore class struggle in his classic.
7. Red Emma and the Reds. A lengthy critique of an ISO article on Emma Goldman. It was fun exposing the selective quoting and ignorance of anarchism at its heart. Suffice to say, only the ISO/SWP could discuss Goldman and not mention her advocacy of syndicalism! Not to mention is strange notion of how social progress happens – it ignores the obvious fact that progressive ideas are always initially held by minorities before they spread to the rest of society.
8. On the Bolshevik Myth. A critique of an ISO article on the Makhnovists, via the Haymarket Martyrs and Kronstadt. Given that I became aware of anarchism via Makhno, the Makhnovists have a special place in my heart. It also discusses the difference between social organisation and the state, not to mention that supporting unions and class struggle does not make you a Marxist – if it did then Bakunin, Kropotkin, Goldman, Malatesta, and so on were all Marxists!
9. The Irresistible Correctness of Anarchism. This is a lengthy review of an SWP book on the rise of fascism in Italy in the early 1920s. I consider this an important revolutionary period which is still relatively unknown in radical circles, so I took the opportunity of critiquing the SWP (and its usual nonsense about anarchism) to make people more aware of it.
10. Crisis and Capitalism’s Contradictions. This was inspired by reading the local free paper on the way home from work and thinking that the contradictory comments quoted in it from the head of the Bank of England would have been appreciated by Proudhon. It is ironic that the notion that capitalism is riddled by contradictions and will, as a result, be transcended by a new social-economy is attributed to Marx rather than Proudhon – particularly given a book entitled System of Economic Contradictions! Needless to say, I had fun pointing out the contradictions facing the managers of the system in the current crisis as well as applying Proudhon to modern events. As an extra bonus, you can saviour the irony of using Proudhon in an article whose conclusions he would have probably rejected…
11. T he Dead Dogma sketch. Inspired by my attendance at Marxism 2001 when, during the meeting on the Spanish Revolution, some SWPer proclaimed that we were “all individuals.” Which got me thinking about the surreal experience I was having and how Monty Python seemed appropriate (a more serious account can be found here). Anyways, I think it is funny.
That was my top eleven (or is that eleven and a half?). So, do you agree? Have I missed anything of note? Is your favourite not there? If so, what one is it? I should note that in terms of hits, The Economics of Anarchy is by far the most popular. While I do like it, I don’t consider it one of my best. But who am I to judge? That lies with the reader…
Until I blog again, be seeing you!