“Modern Science and Anarchy” update, on “union bosses” and more

Well, not blogged for a while. Sorry, but as John Lennon said, “life is what happens when you are busy making other plans”. So a few words on “union bosses”, progress on Modern Science and Anarchy and a summary of the meetings from October – before the all-important wishing everyone a happy winter solstice and a better 2017!

First off, the Tory media is going into meltdown over various strikes – specifically the one on Southern Trains. It does not take long for the facade disappears. The last set of anti-union laws (from the party which proclaims its love of the “free market” and hatred of regulation!) was premised on the notion (a lie, of course, but let us repeat it) that a strike is so important that it needs a clear mandate from the membership – hence the increase in voting thresholds.

(needless to say, such rigorous voting thresholds were not mooted before the EU referendum nor in any other elections – apparently strike ballots are more significant and more important than voting to leave the EU!) .

The net effect of these new laws was, obviously, to make it harder for weaker unions to strike – the RMT and ASLEF strikes which were used to justify the new regulations would not have been affected. Yet rather than proclaim that these strikes were obviously the desire of the membership, reflecting strong feelings from below, the Tories and the right-wing media are now urging the banning of all strikes on “essential” services (as defined, of course, by themselves and the state). As I predicted beforehand (hardly a claim to fame as it was obvious).

The rhetoric used is of note – for the only people regularly called “bosses” these days are elected union officials seeking to implement a strike ballot. Actual bosses are busy rebranding themselves as “leaders” and rarely called bosses the media. But union officials… they are “bosses”, “barons”, etc., not to mention “militant” (with the press this weekend reporting how socialists elected to the officialdom of the RMT seek to transform society in a socialist manner!)

It is like they do not know of the anti-union laws they advocated, implemented and the regulations continually increase. It is extremely difficult to go on strike – they cannot be called by union officials. There is a need to organise a secret ballot (which takes time), it needs to be worded in such a way as to be legal (hence “political” strikes are impossible – and even if they were voted on by the members, the employer could successfully seek a court induction to stop it). Unions need to give seven (now more) days’ notice of the action (and so allowing the employer more than enough time to put contingency plans in place).

So the law stacks up against the workers – building upon objective benefits which accrues to wealth. And even when workers manage to jump these hurdles (and ignoring those the union officialdom places in addition to those), the Tories and the right-wing media urge more regulations!

And, worse, in the Southern train strike the company is being supported by the government – presumably, to allow them to “justify” new regulation of the labour market (in favour of the bosses, as usual – for if you regulate unions and strikes, you regulate the labour market – and as Adam Smith noted long ago, when the state regulates the labour market wages go down…). So the franchise, in spite of being incompetent, are being funded by the government regardless of the strike action – the company’s bottom-line is being protected regardless of the strike so the employer has no pressing financial interest in coming to an agreement…

(and, btw, those commentators who suggest that the workers should not strike but rather leave open the gates fail to understand this – and that most people travelling do so on monthly or annual travel-cards and so don’t pay for tickets on the day…)

And let us not forget that the media and the Tories – those who bleat “Brexit means Brexit”, that we must respect “the will of the people”, etc. – are wanting elected union officials to ignore the democratic majority expressed in the strike ballot rather than implement it. So the rhetoric of “union bosses” or “union barons” really annoys me – particularly coming from people whose basic position is that after an election or referendum (with a result they approve of) “the people have spoken” and any protest is “undemocratic”.

Given that this dispute is being driven by the government with the franchise agreement being such that the company will be funded regardless, why do so many leftists call for renationalisation of the railways? Yes, privatisation is a con – it is a money-making machine for shareholders and large Senior Management salaries, it fragments the transport network, increases overheads, etc. So, to rephrase, I understand why they seek an end to privatisation – but renationalisation? If this Tory government is using a private company as a shield to attack the railway unions (and it is), why would having the state as direct employer improve matters? As with Brexit and the (correct) argument this would be a Tory-Brexit, this would be a Tory renationalisation and we can imagine what that would be like…

Interestingly, Kropotkin discusses this issue a lot in Modern Science and Anarchy. He, rightly, notes that this the capitalist state the socialists seek to strengthen and ponders the wisdom in that. And subsequent events showed that he was right. And he did postulate an alternative:

“Well, it is to increase the capital owned by the modern bourgeois States that the radicals and socialists are working today. They did not even bother to discuss – like English co-operators asked me one day – if there were no way to hand over the railways directly to the railway-workers’ trade-unions, to free the enterprise from the yoke of the capitalist, instead of creating a new capitalist, even more dangerous than the bourgeois companies, the State.”

Kropotkin mentioned this letter in his article “Syndicalisme et parlementairisme” (“Trade Unionism and Parliamentarism”), Les Temps Nouveaux (13th October 1906) which argued “all the workers, engineers, stokers, etc., managing that industry themselves […] This is the future. For it is not going to be the ministers but rather the workers themselves who will see to the honest management of industry.” The task was “to build up a force capable of imposing better working conditions on the bosses, but also - indeed primarily - to create among the working classes the union structures that might some day replace the bosses and take into their own hands the production and management of every industry.” (This article is included in Direct Struggle Against Capital).

(and talking of Brexit, when I saw the results on the morning after the vote and saw Farage proclaim the need for a “Brexit government” I realised that we were facing a right-wing coup. The far-right margins of the Tory party plus UKip would be seeking to implement the dreams they could never get enough people to vote for by normal means. And so it has come to pass – we are not facing a Tory-Brexit but rather a UKip-Brext and all opposition will be answered with “the people have spoken – so it must now shut up”. All of which shows that Proudhon’s critique of “direct government” in General Idea of the Revolution was correct – in a centralised, unitarian state it simply empowers the executive for that determines both the question and how to interpret the answer).

But back to unions. Yes, being a union member I appreciate that the union officialdom has too much power – to ignore the membership, to make it hard to strike (even within the limits of the law) – but they are not “bosses” in the sense that my actual boss is (namely, unelected autocrats). And the anti-union laws do not empower members – they empower officials as they give yet more reasons for them to clamp down on collective decision making and direct action (to protect the assets of the union).

So the RMT is not being attacked for the officials being undemocratic but because it is being as democratic as the law allows… So I would urge anarchists to avoid the use of “union bosses” and go for something more accurate, like “union bureaucrats”. And get active in unions to make them more democratic and foster collective forms of decision making and actions at the base. This can be done, from my own experience. The major problem is that class conscience is low – even amongst union members. Forty-years of anti-union laws, regulations, propaganda have had their impact….

(they also seem to forget their own anti-union laws when they bemoan “the unions” for being “selfish” and concentrating only on their members “narrow” interests – given that the anti-union laws ban solidarity action, “political” strikes, etc., unions are forced by the anti-union laws themselves to focus on “narrow” interests! And, of course, what is wrong with being selfish?)

So the obvious point is that strike action was voted upon by ordinary members who are, of course, the same "ordinary people" whom the government proclaims "the unions" are showing "contempt" for. The major difference is that these "ordinary people" are standing up for themselves. And the real cause for any strike is the intransigence of the employer -- those in actual "official" power in the workplace. That some workers are not yet serfs in body and (more importantly) mind is obviously a concern for the Tories and the employing class they represent. But apparently it is always the workers who must always consider others, never the boss...

Which raises the question why the Tories and right-wing members so anti-union. I think that beyond wishing to put us workers in our place and secure the rightful (in their eyes) power and profits of the bosses, fundamentally, they are aware that it is in the unions – in collective struggle and self-organisation – people’s ideas change and they people start to free themselves from subservient attitudes and see that another world is possible. This also explains why the Tories are keen to outlaw all effective forms of action as soon as they appear. Which suggests that the anti-union laws have been a pretty effective piece of statist social engineering (so much for the “free market” and “leaving people alone” – Kropotkin makes this very point in Modern Science and Anarchy!).

Which brings me to Modern Science and Anarchy – which is taking far longer than I had expected. Hence the lack of blogging. Part I of the augmented 1913 French edition is substantially different to the 1912 British edition (extracts in Direct Struggle Against Capital) which, in turn, if different from the 1908 American edition (even ignoring the new chapters on “Anarchy”). There is usually more material and some bits are completely different. For example:

‘Developed in the course of history to establish and maintain the monopoly of land ownership in favour of one class – which, for that reason, became the ruling class par excellence – what means can the State provide to abolish this monopoly that the working class could not find in its own strength and groups? Then perfected during the course of the nineteenth century to ensure the monopoly of industrial property, trade and banking to new enriched classes, to which the State was supplying “arms” cheaply by stripping the land from the village communes and crushing the cultivators by tax – what advantages could the state provide for abolishing these same privileges? Could its governmental machine, developed for the creation and upholding of these privileges, now be used to abolish them? Would not the new function require new organs? And these new organs would they not have to be created by the workers themselves, in their unions, their federations, completely outside the State?’

The last sentence does not exist in the 1912 British edition – which is a shame as it is pretty important! It shows that Kropotkin saw the new society being based on workers’ self-organisation, created in the class struggle itself. As can be seen from this article from Les Temps Nouveaux in 1905:

“When newspapers no longer appeared in Petersburg, the Council of workers released its bulletin every day; you could see in the streets delegates of the council, who nobody knew the names or addresses of, but the assembled down-trodden listened [to them]. They were appointed by the workers themselves - just like the insurrectional Commune of August 10, 1792 - and an executive council of eight members had been taken from their midst.

“Today it appears that the 300,000 workers of Petersburg are divided in groups of 500 and each group appoints a delegate. This completely recalls, we see, the Central Committee which preceded the Paris Commune in 1871 and it is certain that workers across the country must organise themselves on this model. In any event, these councils represent the revolutionary strength of the working class.


“This is direct action at work and here its first results. Let no one come to proclaim to us that the workers of the Latin peoples, by preaching the general strike and direct action, were going down the wrong path. The Russian working people, by applying them itself, proved that their Western brothers were perfectly correct.


“A new force is thus constituted by the strike: the force of workers asserting themselves for the first time and putting in motion the lever of any revolution - direct action.


“Anyway, the bourgeois elements have already been removed after the two great forces of the peasants and workers, and the two great means of action have been the general strike and direct action.

“Everything suggests that the urban workers understand the strength that direct action added to the general strike confers and, imitating the rebellious peasants, they will likely be asked to put their hands on all that is necessary to live and produce. Then they can lay in the cities the initial foundations of the communist commune.” (“L’Action directe et la Grève générale en Russie", Les Temps Nouveaux, December 2nd, 1905)

This was, I assume, translated for (or from?) the Russian journal Listki 'Khleb i Volya' – as mentioned by Paul Avrich when he noted that the anarchists of Khleb i Volia "also likened the 1905 Petersburg Soviet - as a non-party mass organisation - to the central committee of the Paris Commune of 1871." (The Russian Anarchists, 80-1). Anyway, nice to see Kropotkin recognising the importance of the soviets so early – I think that he was the first to see their role as both a means of fighting the current system and the institutional framework which would replace it (see section I.2.3).

The Marxists, as usual, played catch up. Talking of which, Kropotkin argued in Modern Science and Anarchy:

"We see in the incapacity of the statist socialist to understand the true historical problem of socialism a gross error of judgement – a survival of absolutist and religious prejudices, and we fight against it. To tell the workers that they will be able to introduce the socialist system while retaining the machine of the State and only changing the men in power; to prevent the mind of the workers, instead of aiding it, progressing towards the search for new forms of life that would be their own – that is in our eyes a historic mistake which borders on the criminal."

So when Lenin finally saw the importance of the soviets – in 1917 – he was just repeating Kropotkin from over a decade previously (as he did in his opposition to both sides of the imperialist war, ironically enough). As my introduction will discuss, Lenin moved somewhat towards anarchism in 1917 but he combined the (correct) position on workers organisations as the framework of the new society with a Statist perspective -- so the regime was just (if not more!) centralised, top-down, as any previous state. And, as Kropotkin stressed, it recreated the minority class rule which the state form was developed to secure (see section H.2 for discussion - I should note that the quotes by Rocker from Anarcho-Syndicalism are actually repeating Kropotkin's arguments as expounded repeatedly in Modern Science and Anarchy).

Amd talking of Modern Science and Anarchy, here is the contents of what I plan to publish:

Foreword (complete)

I: Modern Science and Anarchy (complete)

  • I The Origins of Anarchy
  • II The Intellectual Movement of the Eighteenth Century
  • III The Reaction at the beginning of the Nineteenth Century
  • IV The Positive Philosophy of Comte
  • V The Awakening in the Years 1856-1862
  • VI The Synthetic Philosophy of Hebert Spencer
  • VII The Role of Law in Society
  • VIII Position of Anarchy in Modern Science
  • IX The Anarchist Ideal and Previous Revolutions
  • X Anarchy
  • XI Anarchy (continued)
  • XII Anarchy (continued)
  • XIII Anarchy (continued)
  • XIV Some Conclusions of Anarchy
  • XV The Means of Action
  • XVI Conclusion

II: Communism and Anarchy (complete)

  • I Anarchist communism
  • II Authoritarian Communism – communist Communes
  • III Small communist communes – Causes of their failures
  • IV Does Communism imply the diminishing of the Individual?

III: The State: Its Historic Role (being revised)

VI: The Modern State (translated, mostly, need revision)

  • I The Essential Principle of modern Societies
  • II Serfs of the State
  • III Tax: Means of creating the powers of the State
  • IV Tax: Means of enriching the wealthy
  • V Monopolies
  • VI Monopolies in the 19th century
  • VII Monopolies in constitutional England – In Germany – Kings of Our Time
  • VIII War: Industrial rivalries – High Finance
  • IX War: War and Industry. Industrial crises due to the preparations of wars
  • X Essential Characteristics of the State
  • XI Can the State be used for the emancipation of the workers?
  • XII The modern constitutional State
  • XIII Is it reasonable to reinforce the existing state?
  • XIV Conclusions

Appendix: (complete, mostly)

  • Explicatory Notes
  • Herbert Spencer: His Philosophy

I also plan to include the following as “Supplementary Material” (complete):

  • Anarchy: Its Philosophy, Its Ideal
  • Co-operation: A Reply to Herbert Spencer

The latter appeared in Freedom and has never been republished while the former was one of the two lectures, the other being The State: Its Historic Role, which Kropotkin was stopped by the French police from giving in Paris 1896. I decided to include it here because of its obvious links with the themes of Modern Science and Anarchy. Moreover, the most easily accessible version of this text (in the anthologies Anarchism: A Collection of Revolutionary Writings and Fugitive Writings) is substantially edited (without indicating) resulting in over a quarter of the original being removed. In addition, the original English-language translation (by Freedom Press in 1897) was slightly abridged. We have slightly revised the 1897 translation and any missing text has been restored.

So a substantial contribution to our understand of Kropotkin with extra material which is relevant and of interest in itself. Plus I need to work on an introduction – which I am building up slowly but surely.

Finally, the meetings in October.

It was nice to be back in Glasgow and my talk went well (although some technical issues). I plan to revise the original, far-too-long, version of my article on Anarchist Organisation. I plan to add some quotes from Modern Science and Anarchy to the section on Kropotkin and add a new sub-section on “Majorities and Minorities” to cover that. I should note what we did discuss consensus at the talk, with a good point made by a comrade from AK Press. She suggested that consensus seems to have come into anarchism in the 1960s with the peace movement and Quakers. I think she is right – I have seen nothing on consensus in any of the “classic” anarchist thinkers.

Nothing in Proudhon, Bakunin, etc. Kropotkin mentions it twice, I think, and only in passing and only when reporting what Russian peasants did in the Mir. Interestingly, the very positive review of Direct Struggle Against Capital in the new Anarchist Studies states:

“Kropotkin is a valuable articulator of fundamental anarchist concepts and practices including: mutual aid, voluntary cooperation, direct action and consensus-decision-making among others.”

Not sure where the “consensus-decision-making” comes from – Kropotkin makes next-to-no mention of it. Indeed, his vision of social revolution and the part played by active minorities in pushing it forward goes against the notion of consensus (not to mention his comments on the positive role of disagreement, conflict, differences, etc.). And given he makes passing reference to the notion only when recounting what happens in Russian peasant villages, we can conclude it is not a key part of his politics and so it really is not part of “classical” anarchism.

I would go so far as to say that consensus should not be a part of modern anarchism either – sure, it could be valid in small groups (particularly of friends) but anarchism is about delegate democracy, not seeking to make everyone agree with every decision (try getting everyone to agree on strike action in any real union!). We need seek ways to increase participation in decision making, move towards self-management in assemblies and away from representative forms (a step forward from autocracy but why have elected kings when we can manage our own lives?). Even in terms of something to aspire to, it suggests a level of conformity which seems to me as unhealthy -- particularly on a large-scale. However, I think that "consensus" probably expresses a desire to encourage everyone to participate in decision making but taken too far and too literally, it does get in the way of action.

And I do not see how applying age-old notions from traditional peasant villages or religious sects equates to making anarchism more “modern” or making “classical” anarchism “up-to-date”! Quite the reverse. And, yes, there are dangers of “the tyranny of the majority” but making a fetish of consensus does not combat it. Anyway, hence the importance of the new addition on “majorities and minorities” and the paradox of “individualism” (to see your ideas always implemented means either the abolition of all groups or hierarchical, autocratic structures – so “individualism” for a few individuals, subservience for the many, as Kropotkin argued in Modern Science and Anarchy).

My talk on Bolshevism went okay – we had some SPGB people at it who were annoyed that I “equated” Marxism and Leninism (I did not such thing). Funny to hear them proclaim socialism was impossible in Russia as they did not have many telephones… there were no telephones when Marx wrote his handful of sentences on the necessity of central planning against Proudhon in 1847!

Talking of which, I have been asked to contribute a chapter on Leninism to a new book by AK Press to mark the 1917 Russian Revolution, so my talk covers that… and I also plan to do a review of Marx’s frankly terrible The Poverty of Philosophy next year – to make up for my stalling in my planned reply…

Finally, I went to a meeting on Parecon to try and talk some sense to its advocates. I made my usual point on the various obvious issues with the concept – not least, the notion that we present an aggregated list of goods (X litres of “alcohol”, etc.) while you need a de-aggregated list to actually produce anything as well as the difficulties in collecting the details of job complexes and implementing them (you would need to know detailed information down to who-has-what-allergies when making “balanced” job complexes across society). The presented answered my first point by saying “oh, you don’t need to give detailed information just aggregate data so it will work”, in other words he – as I said – did not understand the point being made! As for the second, well, I was informed there would not be cross workplace “balanced” job complexes! In spite of there being so in the model…

Someone did understand the point I made in terms of aggregation, and he admitted that it had been left unaddressed until now (that is, just decades after the model was mooted!). He said his book on “Anarchist Accounting” covered it. I did have a look at that book – and it seemed, well, overly complicated. I will need to have a closer look, but I don’t think the issue will be addressed – because it cannot. Either you have too much data or you have too little (and Parecon managed to do both in different parts of its schema!). Not to mention that the mathematics of the process has been shown to be flawed – it is based on the mathematics used to postulate the “auctioneer” of neo-classical economics and Steve Keen in his excellent book Debunking Economics indicates that our understanding of maths has progressed since Walrus – and the “auctioneer” cannot bring the multitude of equations to a solution….

Not to mention the wisdom of utilising an extremely abstract (and fundamentally wrong!) model of capitalism as the basis of an alternative to it. Replacing the fictional “auctioneer” of neo-classical economics with a series of “facilitation” boards will only conceive neo-classical economists who confuse their models with reality – or those activists who don’t study the ins-and-outs of real capitalism and think lots of equations and dogged advocacy equate to a viable alternative. It is repeating the mistakes of Lange and Taylor (whom Parecon actually name-check as positive examples of questioning capitalism) and replacing their central planners (who in turn replace the “auctioneer”) with facilitation boards.

Sure, many elements of Parecon are good – unsurprisingly, as they are usually found in anarchist thinkers from 1840 onwards. But the overall context within which they are placed will not work. Which is the point. And, sure, we need to sketch the future to some degree (see section I of AFAQ) – not least as our critique of capitalism implies an alternative in-and-of-itself – but we need to recognise that we build the future while fighting the current one, so libertarian socialism will be an emergent system not a detailed pre-modelled one. And we also need to recognise that computers are an aid – if your system, even in theory, needs computers to make it look remotely practical then it needs to be avoided. Computers are an aid and any socialist system needs to be able to work without them – because they go down, have bugs, etc. But even with the best computers in the world, Parecon will not work.

Anyway, I started to thinking about bringing all my critiques of Parecon into an article (called “Demanding the Impossible” – as in the literally impossible, not the impossible within capitalism) but never found the time. There are more important things to do… not least, having a life.

So on that note, have an excellent winter solstice and all the best for 2017 – I expect it to be a busy one for us all as we fight the ramifications of the bad outcomes of this year!

Until I blog again, be seeing you…


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