Well, yet another week and yet another letter to the CPGB! They have published my last one, plus a letter from the person who provoked my original letter. My reply is below.
I have to say that I am constantly impressed that the CPGB has such an open letters page and I applaud them for that. Unlike, say, the SWP, they do open their letters page to real discussions -- which is pretty unique on the Leninist left.
It does seem that Leninists have a somewhat contradictory position on the Russian and Spanish revolutions. For the former, the objective circumstances are stressed while, for the latter, they are utterly ignored. Not that I am surprised, as Leninists seem to think that their ideology is right.
Comparing Spain to Russia, I think the key difference is that the revolution failed because the CNT failed to implement its programme while, in Russia, it failed because the Bolsheviks did so. I think this is the real problem with the Workers Solidarity Movement's critique of syndicalism, where it blames the decisions of July 1936 on a caricature of syndicalism and, like the Leninists, ignore the objective circumstances the CNT-FAI faced.
And just to stress, while I argue that the circumstances of July 1936 explain the decisions made, they do not justify them. The CNT leadership made serious mistakes, but to blame it solely on their ideas is ridiculous. Particularly as they ignored sad ideas!
I also think that we need to do some research on the Spanish revolts of the early 1870s, to combat Engels "The Bakuninists at Work". The next release of the FAQ will contain theoretical rebuttals of some of Engels' assertions in that work, but it would be good to refute the actual events he presents. Given how he distorted Bakunin's ideas on the general strike and federalism, I'm guessing the actual revolts themselves are not accurately protrayed. Does anyone have any details on these?
I should also note that before hand, Engels explicitly urged workers not to revolt during these events, just as Marx had before the Paris Commune. As with Marx and France, Engels argued that workers should utilise the republic (i.e., vote) and not take part in any uprisings. So, if workers had listened to Marx and Engels then neither "The Bakuninists at Work" nor "The Civil War in France" would have been written...
In addition, I've put the final draft of my Mutual Aid introduction. I'm waiting for one more article, then I will make some additions, check again for typos and put up the final version. Hopefully in a couple of weeks. I've added more material on how Kropotkin prefigured "tit-for-tat" in plus something on the possible Proudhonian roots of the biological term "mutualism", plus other bits and pieces (such as fixing typos).
Dear Weekly Worker
Chris Strafford still seems to have missed the point of what provoked my critique of his rant against anarchism. Instead of pondering the stupidities of him repeating the errors of the Bolsheviks in 1905 he turns to defending Bolshevism and attacking anarchism. I am happy to response on these issues, taking his silence on that issue as implicit agreement.
He claims I “strangely” insinuate that “Leninists do not use free and open debate. His letter is living proof that he is wrong.” I am at a loss to see where I “insinuate[d]” that. He states that, for me, “anarchists invented workers’ councils and direct action.” I wrote nothing of the kind, but rather anarchists, not Marxists, “were the first to raise” them, which is true.
He claims that “workers’ councils . . . were supported by Marxists - if not all.” Not before 1917. Bakunin had argued for a federation of workplace delegates as the framework of a free society. Engels, in contrast, proclaimed that the democratic republic was the “specific form” of the dictatorship of the proletariat, that it was “the ready-for-use form for the future rule of the proletariat.” Marxists paid lip-service to workers’ councils a mere five decades after anarchists had drawn this conclusion from the class struggle. So, contra Strafford, I did not claim workers councils as “an anarchist invention” but rather that anarchists had advocated them since the 1860s – unlike Marxists.
Strafford then states that direct action “has existed as long as the working class has existed” and so it “is arrogant and stupid in equal measure to believe that anarchists have a monopoly on advocating” it. Except we have placed direct action at the centre of our ideas while Marxists placed “political action” at the centre of theirs. Given that Strafford had lectured anarchists on what direct action is, his arrogance on this is staggering!
He states that my “claim that the failure of the revolutions in Russia and Spain was all the Communist Party’s fault is ridiculous” and that it “is pathetic to blame Stalinists for the failure of the CNT to give adequate leadership to the working class.” Except I did not blame the Communists for that, but rather their explicitly counter-revolutionary role in reversing whatever gains the revolution had achieved – as in Russia.
Stafford states, without thought, that “instead of smashing the state, the anarchists defended it!” Does he not ponder why the CNT leadership did that, why they decided to ignore their own theories? Could it be the possibility that if they had not done so then they would have had to fight both Franco and the republic? Given these objective circumstances, it is understandable why certain decisions were made – which explains, but does not justify, them. Such recognition of the realities of the situation would undermine his fundamentally idealist critique of the CNT and so is conveniently not done.
Stafford states that “if the failure of the revolution lies with anyone, it is the leadership of the CNT.” As if any anarchist would disagree with that! However, for anarchists, the dilemmas of the situation that CNT faced cannot be so glibly forgotten as Stafford would like. To ignore the realities of a country-wide fascist-army coup and root any decisions made in the ideas of the CNT is the height of philosophical idealism.
In terms of Stafford’s “historical ‘titbit’ of the failure of the anarchists during 1873 revolution to give coordinated leadership to the working class is a prime example of the bankruptcy of federalism,” he wilfully confuses a situation where federalism was not applied with federalism itself. In this he follows Engels, who proclaimed that Bakunin’s federalism “consisted precisely in the fact that each town acted on its own, declaring that the important thing was not co-operation with other towns but separation from them, this precluding any possibility of a combined attack.” In reality, for Bakunin, the revolution must “foster the self-organisation of the masses into autonomous bodies, federated from the bottom upwards.” This meant that “the peasants, like the industrial city workers, should unite by federating the fighting battalions, district by district, assuring a common coordinated defence against internal and external enemies.” Engels was well aware of Bakunin’s actual position but, disgracefully, choose to distort it.
Stafford asserts that the Russian Revolution “highlights the necessity of a communist party” before admitting that key policies implemented by the Bolsheviks were “wrong”! Yet these were the ones imposed, with terrible results. He does, inadvertently, show that Bolshevism confuses party power with working class power. Earlier he asserted that in “the revolution of 1917 it was the democratic centralism of the Bolsheviks that enabled the working class to . . . take power.” Except the working class did not “take power” in 1917 – the Bolshevik party did. Which he later admits, stating that “if they [the communist party] had not taken power. . .”
Stafford proclaims that the “failure of the revolution in Russia lies more in the material conditions and isolation than in the mistakes of the Bolsheviks.” Except Bolshevik authoritarianism and state capitalism were clear from the start. By the time the civil war started in May 1918, the Bolsheviks had already usurped soviet power, started to gerrymander and disband soviets, advocated and imposed one-man management in the armed forces and workplaces, repressed the socialist opposition, and so on. Bolshevik ideology played its role in this, as did the centralised structures it preferred. A key problem with Leninism is that it does not consider this usurpation, the identification of Bolshevik power with working class power, as a mistake.