Two talks in October (Glasgow and London)

Again, things have not went as intended. Kropotkin's Modern Science and Anarchy involves a lot more work than I expected. Simply put, the 1912 British edition is quite different to (Section I of) the 1913 French version. The latter was revised (along with the other sections) so there is quite a few additions. However, sometimes there are sentances in the British edition which do not exist in the French. Also, sometimes the words used by the translator are, well, interesting and sometimes the language is dated. So I am revising the whole essay "Modern Science and Anarchy" and the final book version will be significantly different from the 1912 version -- not least, because of the inclusion of material in the French edition not in it. Whether this was a abridgement or the French edition an expansion, I am not sure -- maybe both.

This has been taking up a lot of time -- but it will be worth it. I have also revised three newly translated chapters -- and they make interesting reading. I'm looking forward to seeing the section "The Modern State" fully translated and revised. A whole "new" Kropotkin pamphlet -- a whole new Kropotkin book! Who would have believed it...

I am thinking of adding some supplementary material -- Kropotkin's two part "Herbert Spencer on Co-operation: A Reply" (Freedom, December 1896 and January 1897) will be added. I was also thinking of including articles by Kropotkin on war before 1914 along side the debate in 1914-6. This, I think, would be useful -- but it is long. I'm not sure whether this would detract from the main work -- but it would help understand Kropotkin's position and show how at odds it was to his pre-1914 works as well as the bulk of the movement which stayed true to the anti-militarist and internationalist ideas he also advocated before that year. We will see... maybe it would be better as a separate book?

Anyways, I'm quote excited about this but it has meant that other tasks -- like writing articles, reviews and blogs -- have suffered as a result. I am, however, going to have to write and give two talks in October:

Not by the Book: Ten years of the RIB project

Saturday, 15th of October, 7-9pm

CCA: Centre for Contemporary Arts

Intermedia Gallery

350 Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow

Anarchist Organisation? WTF?

Anarchists are sadly all too used to it – people proclaiming anarchist organisation an oxymoron. Yet anarchists have spent a lot of time both discussing organisation, not least the differences between libertarian and authoritarian kinds, and building them. This is no contradiction – for organisation has been an inherent part of anarchism from the start. Join us as we explore the history of anarchism, its ideas on association and its vision of a social organisation without a state and, just as importantly, bosses, husbands, and other private hierarchies.

This is part of a wider and longer series of events in Glasgow ("Ten Years of the Radical Independent Bookfair Project") from the 6th to the 23th of October in Glasgow in the CCA (I remember when it was called the Third Eye Centre) including more talks by more famous people, books stalls, etc.

Next talk is my usual one for the London Anarchist Bookfair:

Saturday 29th October, 10am to 7pm.

Park View School, West Green Road, London, N15 3QR

The Bolshevik Myth Reloaded

Next year marks the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Before the flood of articles from Leninists on why it shows that their ideology is correct, now is the time to revisit the Bolshevik Myth. Discover how the Bolshevik Party in 1917 was not a centralised vanguard party; how the workers’ “semi”-state quickly became as alienated from, and repressive to, the working class as any “state in the usual sense”; how the Marxist vision of “socialism” harmed the revolution and deliberately shunted it towards state capitalism; and why Lenin’s promises in “State and Revolution” did not last a year.

I was originally going to do -- at the suggestion of a comrade from AK Press made in a pub in Edinburgh -- something along the lines of "Does History Matter?". But that quickly proved to be too wide a subject and, perhaps, too artifical. Few people argue that we should ignore history -- but vested interests do, of course, have an interest in ensuring certain unpleasant facts are forgotten.

Anyways, when I became an anarchist (nearly 30 years ago now!) I was very interested in the Russian Revolution -- mainly for two reasons. Firstly, how that revolution started seemed more like how one today would start for there is no equivalent of the CNT around in the UK (nor, sadly, much sign of one developing). So learning from it, learning how the Bolsheviks managed to gain such influence, seemed important. Second, this was the defining article of faith for most of the so-called "revolutionary left". The only reason why the Bolshevik-left today seems like an alternative (other than the weakness of anarchism!) is that they can point to a "successful" revolution and explain away its degeneration not by reference to the structures built or ideology applied but because of the civil war and the need to defend the revolution against counter-revolution.

On to other things. I came across this Anarchism: All Based on a Joke :

Edmund Burke's A Vindication of Natural Society is a satire, intending to ridicule Bolingbroke's deism with what Burke thought would be a great reductio: "Bolingbroke, if your right, then we should get rid of government as well!"

But then William Godwin decided to read Burke's satire at face value, and thus anarchism was born from a joke taken seriously.

Joe Sobran tried to explain this away: "[Burke's] argument for anarchy was too powerful, passionate, and cogent to be a joke." Sobran contends that "many" have doubted the satirical intention of Burke's work. By "many" he means... Murray Rothbard.

But as John Weston noted, not a single Burke scholar agrees with Rothbard, who notably was not a Burke scholar. The evidence against Rothbard is overwhelming: Burke himself declared the work a satire, and he was already expressing his typically conservative views at roughly the same time as the pamphlet's publication.

Why did Rothbard attempt this claim, in the face of all Burke scholarship? I think the reason is pretty obvious: The alternative to this ahistorical conclusion is that the most powerful, passionate, and cogent arguments for anarchism are... a joke.

Except, of course, for the awkward historical fact that Godwin had no impact on anarchism at all -- at least until the 1890s, when his work was discovered by a well-developed and well-established anarchist movement. And when after that, his impact was pretty minor -- little more than a historical footnote which includes those who come to anarchistic conclusions before anarchism arose.

Anarchism, it is well to remember, was born as part of the French Labour and Socialist movements of the 1830s and 1840s. Proudhon did not write What is Property? in isolation -- it was very much part of the rise of capitalism and oppositional movements against it. Neither Burke or Godwin had any impact on that work -- but Rousseau did. Likewise, modern, revolutionary, anarchism was born within the First International when mutualism evolved into first militant trade unionism and then revolutionary unionism. Bakunin did not invent this but rather took it up, championed it and deepened it. Kropotkin, in Modern Science and Anarchy reflects this -- Godwin has about a paragraph on him, Proudhon far more but there are many chapters (added to the original version) on Anarchy in the International. And rightly so.

In Modern Science and Anarchy Kropotkin does mention a few thinkers and popular movements in history before the 1860s which he calls anarchist. This is understandable for two reasons. First, he argued that anarchism was a science -- that is, the product of an analysis of the facts of society. A true science is discovered independently multiple times. Second, those subject to governments, masters, bosses and landlords will draw the conclusion that this is oppressive and exploitative as well as come to the conclusion that they are not needed. Particularly when the state is obviously the means by which the wealthy rule society.

So there were anarchistic thinkers and movements before the 1860s (or 1840s) but they were not self-identified as "anarchist" and only became identified as such once a well-developed anarchist movement discovered them (for example, Godwin and Stirner in the 1890s). In short, anarchism has a very specific history (part of the French and wider European labour and socialist movements, the anti-state faction) but anarchistic notions have a long history. However, it would be a mistake to grant these anarchistic thinkers and movements too large a mention (as Peter Marshall does) as it leads to ahistoric notice like that quoted above.

So this "anarchism based on a joke" notion is itself ahistoric. As for Rothbard, he was not an anarchist and seemed to have little grasp on anarchism and its history. He was a "classical" liberal (which anarchism was born fighting) and became increasingly conservative as he drew older -- there being, I would say, no contradiction as conservative seeks to defend "traditional" hierarchies which "classical" liberalism seeks to defend private hierarchies, the overlap between the two being significant these days.

Ultimately, the whole propertarian ideology is alien to anarchism -- it comes to exactly the opposite conclusions to genuine libertarian theory. The whole notion of "neither master nor slave", for example, is alien to it -- indeed, it has no problems with master-servant (or, for that matter, actual master-slave) relations. If it opposes the state, it is just because it does not defend property and its power well enough and does not seek to end its functions but simply to privatise them. This defence of private property and the power it generates is proclaimed "libertarian"!

Anarchism, of course, being as opposed to "traditional" hierarchies as private ones. And the "the most powerful, passionate and cogent arguments" for anarchism are found in Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin, etc. -- that is, the works of actual anarchists. Rothbard's writings, in comparison, are shockingly poor -- not least, internally self-contradictory. But what can you expect, he is seeking to protray subjection to private power (that associated with property) as "freedom".

What a contradiction! But since it has utility to the ruling class it is taken seriously. Unlike anarchism -- in spite of anarchism being far more coherent. Talking of which, I read one comment (I cannot remember where) proclaim the following:

'That's because Proudhoun is just a critic who only confuses himself and his followers.

'"Property is theft! Property is liberty! Property is impossible! And if you find any of this contradictory, well, you're just not nuanced enough!"


Clearly someone who does not understand Proudhon nor, for that matter, the world around them. Proudhon is not being "contradictory" but, rather, is discussing something -- property -- which has contradictory features. Property can be both "liberty" and "despotism" depending on who you are talking about. For the owner of the property (the boss), it is liberty. For the user of the property (the wage-worker), it is despotism. The same thing -- indeed, the same piece of property -- has contradictory outcomes depending on who we are looking at. Similarly with theft, for the worker property is theft because their employer keeps the full product of what they produce in return for a wage. Yet if the worker was self-employed, then it would not be as they would keep the full product of their labour.

This can be seen from Proudhon's Explanations Presented to the Public Minister (pdf) from 1842 (and thanks to Shawn Wilbur for getting this, and so much more, translated):

"If a laborer made three francs worth of products in a day, he is right to ask three francs for it. All deduction is a crime which cries vengeance, and do not forget it. Now, the world is full of people from whose daily wage a quarter, a third, or a half is retained every day, and that without the Code Napoleon, which certain people admire as the equal of the Decalogue, even anticipating the case.

"A pair of shoes is worth, I suppose, five francs. Estimating at two francs and fifty centimes the supplies which enter into the fabrication of a pair of shoes, the rest makes up the wage of the worker, the price of his day of labor. And allowing that the worker is free, that he receives his wage entirely, and that every day he makes a pair of shoes, we would say of his that he gains two francs and fifty centimes per day. But it frequently occurs that a worker is not known in the business, or else that he lacks the means to form an establishment; besides, it is with a clientele as with a piece of land; it is attached to individuals, transmitted from father to son, and not obtained by just anyone. The public has its habits. It gives itself to a boutique, to a sign; nothing is more capricious than its favor. In this case, the worker who is without work offers his services to another worker who is established, and who is called bourgeois.

"Like the other worker, the bourgeois sells his shoes for five francs. There is competition on one side, which prevents the indefinite increase of the price of merchandise; from the other, the value of supplies and the necessity to live, which prevents the lowering of prices below a certain level. If then, the bourgeois has work, it is probable that he will make his fellow labor, but on the condition that that fellow renounces a part of his wage, for it is necessary that the master gain from the worker. And so the worker will not receive all that is coming to him, every day he will see with his own eyes his product selling at a price higher than he has received, and all this without any right to reclaim the deduction."

"Wages must be equal to product."

This position is partly derived from Adam Smith's comment that the "produce of labour constitutes the natural recompense or wages of labour." (Wealth of Nations, book 1, chapter 8: "Of the Wages of Labour"). Smith continues (and is quoted by Proudhon in the conclusion of System of Economic Contradictions):

"In that original state of things, which precedes both the appropriation of land and the accumulation of stock, the whole produce of labour belongs to the labourer. He has neither landlord nor master to share with him.

"Had this state continued, the wages of labour would have augmented with all those improvements in its productive powers to which the division of labour gives occasion. All things would gradually have become cheaper. They would have been produced by a smaller quantity of labour"

"The justice that Adam Smith would like to establish," Proudhon wrote in the conclusion of System of Economic Contradictions, "is impracticable in the regime of property."

Hence the need for association -- to end master-servant relations in production so that workers could receive the full product of their labour as well as govern themselves (be free) during work. Hence abolishing property (which causes theft and despotism) ensures possession which secures the workers the property their labour creates as well as liberty -- which property promises in theory but denies in practice (at least to the many). Obviously communist-anarchists like Kropotkin disagreed with the idea of workers selling their product as being the best or most just arrangement (in favour of distribution according to need) but they agreed in the need to end wage-labour (property) by association and, of course, that workers should manage their own workplaces and labour.

(I discuss this, along with much else -- like Proudhon's theory of exploitation, in an article due in Anarchist Studies next year entitled "Proudhon’s constituted value and the myth of labour notes" -- I also hope to write a long review of Marx's The Poverty of Philosophy next year to mark 150 years since that lying rant was first published.)

Then there is Proudhon's opposition to democracy and his support for democratically-run associations and federations. There is no contradiction once you recognise that "democracy" can mean many things and when Proudhon attacks "democracy" he is referring to a specific form of it -- the centralised representative system associated with the bourgeois state. In this system, elections result in the minority being permanently subjected to the decisions of the majority (if you are lucky, it may just be the largest minority!) in terms of who governs -- and both majority itself is permanently subjected to the handful of people who are elected to Parliament and the even smaller number who form the government. And best not mention the formidable bureaucracy required to govern.

In constrast, an association, no one is permanently subjected whether to a boss (as in wage-labour) or to the majority (in practice, the minority entrusted by the majority to rule on their behalf). Decisions are made frequently (rather than who will rule you for the next four or five years) and so sometimes you are in the majority, sometimes not. If you are feeling subjected then it is easy to leave the association and find one more to your liking -- or form your own.

Ah, perhaps some will say, sometimes the sovereign individual does not get their own way -- they are "ruled" by others. True, in the abstract, but in practice the only way an individual can get their own way all the time is to be a boss or a dictator. Which, of course, is hardly "libertarian" for those subject to a master (unless you are a right-wing "libertarian", then it is the natural order and the exemplar of "freedom").

Ultimately, this is the contradiction of individualism -- for one individual never to be subjected to others they have to rule them. A fine liberation indeed.

Associating with others involves compromise and common sense recognises this -- that freedom means working with others as equals with the implied "give and take". Yet for some critics of anarchism (that means you, Engels!) common sense is an alien thing.

Ah, right, but what of an individual within an association who refuses to compromise, who always blocks decisions until they get their own way? Assuming such an arsehole really exists, then the solution is simple -- they are ejected from the association. Freedom to associate means the freedom NOT to associate -- something people seem to forget.

It works both ways -- individuals can escape from unreasonable associations, associations can escape from unreasonable individuals.

And what of those with expert skills or knowledge which the association needs? Well, the aim would be to expand the skills and knowledge of everyone and so equalise the power that implies. Hence anarchist concern over integral education from Proudhon onwards.

Sure, it is not perfect -- but whoever suggested a libertarian socialist society would be perfect? It would just be better than the current one!

I have never found Proudhon particularly confusing so I am somewhat amazed to see the knots some people get themselves into trying to understand him. It is not difficult -- or, perhaps given this, trying their best not to understand him...

On that note, until I blog again, be seeing you...


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