Yet another SWP numpty on anarchism (part 1)

First off, my latest book Direct Struggle Against Capital: A Peter Kropotkin Anthology has been sent to the publishers for proof-editing. AK Press are seeking to get it out for spring of 2014. The contents are as before and the introduction has been finished after being circulated to Lucien van der Walt, David Berry and Brian Morris (all of whose books I heartily recommend). Details will be published here once I know more.

Second, the next thing I need to work on is my talk at An Anarchist FAQ volume 2 event in London. This talk will be a brief history of anarchism and will reflect the work I’ve done for the introduction to the Kropotkin anthology (which has a section on “Anarchism before Kropotkin”) as well as my talk at last year’s London Anarchist book (click here). Details are as follows:

Everything you ever wanted to know about Anarchism, but were afraid to ask’

Wednesday 20th March
Housmans Bookshop
5 Caledonian Road
King’s Cross ,
London N1 9DX

There is an entry fee of £3 but it is redeemable against any purchase. More details can be found on the An Anarchist FAQ blog. If you are in or near London, hopefully see you there.

Third, one of the benefits of my work is that I can get review copies of academic books. Which is nice, although it can be frustrating when I read academics get basic things wrong (or not quite right, which is not the same thing!), ignore context, or show an ignorance of the subject matter. This applies to something I’ve read recently by a member of the SWP and I’m going to spend sometime indicating the problems with the “conventional wisdom” of Leninists with anarchism and, ironically, Marxism.

As will be obvious to anyone who reads my works, I have mixed feelings about Marx. I recognise his importance and contributions to socialism – particularly the critique of capitalism, even if it is confused at times and does not do justice to those who came before him (e.g., Proudhon). As I refuse to genuflect before him, some have claimed that I “hate” Marx. Far from it. However, while I have time for Marx I have far little time for Marxism and Marxists. Particularly when they write rubbish about anarchism. Except for Harry Cleaver’s excellent little article on Kropotkin, I would say that most Marxists do not let their ignorance of anarchism stop them expressing this in print. The SWP are infamous for this and here I discuss yet another SWP numpty attempt to criticise what they don’t understand.

I still remember my first experience of SWP lies on anarchism, 25 years ago when I was a student at Glasgow University (this was back when higher education was still subsidised for working class students). We had organised an anarchist group and the SWP had a meeting on anarchism as a response. I went in with comradely disagreement in mind and came out hating the lying bastards. And everything I’ve read the SWP write on anarchism since has confirmed this conclusion. My latest experience of this is a terrible article in an otherwise excellent academic book on the possible links between anarchism and Marxism called Libertarian Socialism: Politics in Black and Red (edited by Alex Prichard, Ruth Kinna, Saku Pinta and David Berry, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012)

This book is a collection of articles from a conference organised in 2009 called “Is Black and Red Dead?” at Nottingham University. It is an academic book, so pretty expensive (so get it through a library!) but being relatively well-known in anarchist circles I asked for and got a review copy. As I said, almost all of the book is very interesting. Dave Berry’s chapter on Daniel Guérin is excellent, as is Ruth Kinna’s one on William Morris and anarchism and others. A few are less good, with the one on Hardt and Negri being riddled with academic jargon (you should not need a dictionary to read something!). I discovered, for example, that C.L.R. James wrote that Proudhon was “the petty-bourgeois economist of a capitalism controlled by the state”! Which just reinforces my conclusion that Marxists simply do not read anarchists (particularly Proudhon). The first chapter, by Paul Blackledge of the SWP shows this well.

Blackledge’s chapter is the first one and the worse. Indeed, if you know anything about anarchism it may put you off reading the rest of the book (don’t let it, all the other chapters are worth reading!). It is entitled “Freedom and Democracy: Marxism, Anarchism and the Problem of Human Nature” and its aim explains why it is so bad. Blackledge wants to defend Marxism (or, more correctly, Leninism) from anarchism. Of course, there is a major problem with this – our critique of Marxism has been proven to be correct. As Bakunin predicted, social democracy became reformist while the dictatorship of the proletariat became the dictatorship over the proletariat.

According to Blackledge this completely correct prediction is not a sign of anarchism’s strength but rather exposes its weaknesses. It is an expression of “themes” which we “inherit” from liberalism and these “serve as a brake on the democratic aspirations of anarchist practice.”(17) Yet he singularly fails to do that and here I will show why. By coincidence, I was talking to a fellow union member at work recently and he brought up the SWP and its saying “the party is the memory of the class.” We both laughed when I suggested that while I agreed with the thrust of the saying, the SWP had Alzheimer’s. This is clearly the case in this article, which shows a shocking ignorance of both anarchism and Marxism, not to mention their histories and, indeed, the history of the world.

I plan to discuss various aspects of this chapter in a series of blogs. I plan to cover “human nature”, the realities of Bolshevism, the state, vanguardism, Proudhon and Stirner but this blog will start with the Paris Commune. I will be doing a proper review of the whole book but this will not be able to cover the issues in the depth required and still get published. Hence these blogs and, as such, it is written more informally than a proper review.

There are many problems with Blackledge’s account. There is the usual (is it mandatory?) selective quoting, the lambasting of anarchists for not recognising the insights of Marxism when, in fact, we said it first, the obvious lack of serious engagement with anarchist thinkers (like reading their bloody books!) and the ritualistic quoting of previous Marxists on anarchists as if they were objective and accurate references. Not to mention the assumption that anarchists are like Marxists, in-so-far as it is assumed the reason we are anarchists is simply because we have not read Marxist thinkers! Oh, and the avoidance of awkward facts, namely the actual history of Marxist parties and regimes  – which is quite ironic, given that Blackledge’s main gripe is that we lack “a fully historicised conception of [human] nature.” (18) Instead of “a fully historicised account” of Marxism we get the assumption that it is the benchmark against which all other theories are measured, an assumption which only can be asserted precisely if you avoid the history of that ideology.

This is unsurprising because when you do you soon have to draw the conclusion that it was not Marx who “was able to conceive of new forms of democracy” (19) but rather it was Proudhon and Bakunin who did that years before Marx finally drew some of the same conclusions they had. This can be seen, ironically, from what Blackledge clearly thinks is his key card – the Paris Commune.

However, before discussing why I need to cover some of the usual problems with SWP accounts of anarchism. My long experience of reading Marxist (particularly) SWP attacks on anarchism has shown the necessity of checking the references used – or more correctly, abused. Here are a few examples which are not relevant to my main argument but which should be mentioning.

Thus we find Blackledge claiming that Bakunin “went further than Proudhon in a collectivist direction” (27) with page 12 of Guérin’s Anarchism referenced as support. Knowing of Guérin’s high regard of Proudhon, that he regarded him as a collectivist and having read Anarchism, this came as a surprise. So I got out my copy and read page 12. Unsurprisingly, I discovered that Guérin did not refer to Proudhon but rather his followers, whom he indicated had split into “petty-bourgeois descendants” (mutualists) and collectivists after his death. As far as Proudhon goes, Guérin states that “with regard to large-scale modern industry… he was resolutely collectivist” and argued that it should be “managed by associations of workers.” (45) He also indicated that the debates over collectivisation in the international refers to land and that mutualists “in matters of industrial self-management actually demanded it.” (44) As Guérin put it elsewhere:

“Proudhon and Bakunin were ‘collectivists,’ which is to say they declared themselves without equivocation in favour of the common exploitation, not by the State but by associated workers of the large-scale means of production and of the public services. Proudhon has been quite wrongly presented as an exclusive enthusiast of private property.” (“From Proudhon to Bakunin”, The Radical Papers, Dimitrios I. Roussopoulos (ed.), 32)

But this would not fit in with the “conventional wisdom” of Marxists on Proudhon, so you can see why Blackledge misuses his source – it superficially gives his nonsense support by referencing someone anarchists recognise as knowing what he was talking about. Blackledge’s general contempt of Proudhon is also reflected by him managing to repeatedly reference the wrong book when quoting him – after much fruitless searching through my various editions of What is Property? (I have three!) I finally discovered that he was (selectively) quoting Proudhon’s General Idea of the Revolution.

He also suggests that the “tension between the idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat and Marx’s vision of socialism from below was labelled by Alexander Berkman as ‘the great contradiction of Marxian socialism.’” However, if you look up the reference Berkman was in fact arguing that electioneering, socialists who “seek office” within the current state, to introduce socialism, was “the great contradiction.” This was part of a searing critique of how this tactic led to reformism (Chapter XIII of What is Communist Anarchism?) and should be read as it is a materialist critique of Blackledge’s (implicitly stated) notion that it was the wrong ideas (Social Democracy not being Marxist) that produced opportunism within the Second International.

He also mentions John Holloway (23), although (as usual) fails to note he considers himself… a Marxist! He also proclaims “a minority of anarchist critics of Lenin accept that it was through the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat that Marx sought [and quoting Kojin Karatani] ‘a method of achieving the liberty that neither falls into chaos nor into state authority’“. (23) Having never heard of Karatani, I cannot say whether he is an anarchist or not. If he is, then that must be a minority of one!

So that out the way, I can return to my critique. What is Blackledge’s case? That anarchism’s analysis of “human nature” has “transhistorical” notions of egoism and co-operation which is expressed in our “ambiguities” over democracy.

The “problem for anarchism with this perspective is that liberalism falsely universalises a definite, historical conception of human essence.” This means that “social anarchism embeds one or other variations on the liberal conception of individual egoism/freedom” (30) and so “anarchism’s reduction of Marx’s politics to a new form of statism illuminates its own understand­ing of human essence.” (30) Thus “it is not so much that anarchists disagree with Marx on the state as they misunderstand his project, and this helps explain the tendency for anarchists and Marxists to talk past each other.” (29) Thanks to anarchism’s “liberalism” they cannot, unlike Marx, “conceive of new forms of democracy” (19) and, in fact, “the democratic impulse behind class-struggle anarchism tends towards Marxism.” (30)

I should state that it is unusual to see a critique of anarchism that proclaims its major problem is that it has a too pessimistic perspective of human nature! I will return to this in a later blog. Moreover, against Blackledge, I would suggest our critique of Marxism illuminates that anarchists have actually read Marx and placed his politics within the appropriate social and historical context. Which shows a key flaw in Blackledge’s account of Marxism’s “historical conception of human essence” (23) – it pretty much ignores history and so a historical account of the reality of Marxism is missing from his article. Moreover, when you look at the history he does present (namely the Paris Commune) it shows the opposite of what he claims – it is not that “the democratic impulse behind class-struggle anarchism tends towards Marxism” (30) but rather it is Marxism which tends towards anarchism by taking up ideas which anarchists had raised long before Marxists have.

Let me start with the claim of “anarchism's tendency to embed a transhistorical conception of human egoism acts as a barrier to its conceptualisation” conceiving “of new forms of democracy that overcame the capitalist separation of economic and politics” unlike Marx (19). He suggests that “although social anarchists reject Stirner's extreme individualism they tend not to make a root and branch critique of egoism but rather reify it as an important facet of human essence.” (21) This is reflected in anarchism’s rejection of all authority which “informs anarchism’s resis­tance to all forms of domination.” (21) This suggests that an “overlap between anarchism and liberalism is evident, for instance, in the parallels between Bakunin’s suggestion that ‘power corrupts the best’ and Lord Acton’s famous aphorism that ‘all power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely’” (17)

Blackledge then goes on to proclaim “it is less clear how Bakunin... is able to move from this standpoint to a more posi­tive project of building a democratic alternative to capitalism.” (21) Moreover, his “criticism does not begin to rise to the level demanded of the theoretical breakthrough underpinning Marx’s position… from the standpoint of the egoistic individual, the demand to smash the state can only be understood negatively as the removal of public power.” (28)

Yet Bakunin’s critique of the state was not based on the “standpoint of the egoistic individual” but rather an analysis of what the state has been historically, namely a top-down instrument of minority rule. In this he followed Proudhon. This will be discussed in a subsequent blog – here I will discuss what the logical conclusions of anarchism’s so-called “liberal” awareness that power corrupts leads us.

Simply put, an aware that power corrupts implies that we must decentralise power and put it in the hands of the masses, eliminate giving power to a few representatives in favour of workplace and community assemblies that elect and mandate delegates who are subject to recall within federal structures. It would advocate workers self-management and oppose one-man management. It would reject party dictatorship as being inherently opposed to socialist principles. It would stress decision making from the bottom-up. It would recognise socialism from below is the only genuine form of socialism, the only thing worthy of its name.

And the logical conclusion of Blackledge’s “Marxist” notion that human nature is malleable is that it does not matter whether power is in a few hands – particularly if the “right” economic structures are in place (namely, nationalisation of the means of production). This means it is unproblematic if power is centralised into a few hands and so there is no real need for elections, mandates and recall. Nor does it matter if you replace workers’ control with (to use Lenin’s word) “dictatorial” one-man management (see section H.3.14 of An Anarchist FAQ). It means that gerrymandering and disbanding soviets and implementing a one-party state is of little concern. It means you can, like Zinoviev, advocate party dictatorship at the Second Congress of the Comintern without batting an eye (see section H.3.4 of An Anarchist FAQ). It means you can argue, as Lenin did, that centralism is the “organisational principle of revolutionary Social-Democracy” (he clearly had not got the memo on Social Democracy not being Marxism!) and it “strives to proceed from the top downward.” (Collected Works, vol. 7, 396-7) In short, you end up with socialism from above (see section H.3.3 of An Anarchist FAQ).

If anarchists are wrong then no big deal – libertarian safeguards would not be invoked and our federal structures would function as intended. If Marxists are wrong then, well, you get… Stalinism.

As such, both the “negative” and “positive” implications of anarchism are clear. So claims like Blackledge’s simply suggest that if you have not actually read Bakunin (or Proudhon or Kropotkin…). Bakunin, like Proudhon whom he echoes, is very clear on the “positive project” and states clearly the need for self-management, federalism, decentralisation and so on.

This can be seen from the first work of anarchism, Proudhon’s What is Property?, is clear that “leaders, instructors, superintendents… must be chosen from the workers by the workers themselves, and must fulfil the conditions of eligibility. It is the same with all public functions, whether of administration or instruction.” (Property is Theft!, 119) Compare this to The Manifesto of the Communist Party which makes no mention of workers’ self-management or economic democracy (instead there is talk of state ownership and “industrial armies”). Significantly, Proudhon repeatedly returns to workplace democracy (for example, writing in 1851 he notes “all positions are elective, and the by-laws subject to the approval of the members” (586)). The same can be said of Bakunin. And both argued for a federation of workers’ councils based on mandated and recallable delegates. To quote Proudhon from 1848:

“In the end, we are all voters; we can choose the most worthy.

“We can do more; we can follow them step-by-step in their legislative acts and their votes; we will make them transmit our arguments and our documents; we will suggest our will to them, and when we are discontented, we will recall and dismiss them.

“The choice of talents, the imperative mandate [mandate impertif], and permanent revocability are the most immediate and incontestable consequences of the electoral principle. It is the inevitable program of all democracy.” (“Solution of the Social Problem”, Property is Theft!, 273)

And later the same year in an election manifesto he added the need to combine legislative and executive powers in the hands of those elected:

“It is up to the National Assembly, through organisation of its committees, to exercise executive power, just the way it exercises legislative power through its joint deliberations and votes…

“Besides universal suffrage and as a consequence of universal suffrage, we want implementation of the imperative mandate [mandat impératif]. Politicians balk at it! Which means that in their eyes, the people, in electing representatives, do not appoint mandatories but rather abjure their sovereignty!... That is assuredly not socialism: it is not even democracy.” (“Election Manifesto of Le Peuple”, Property is Theft!, 378-9)

I quote here from my Proudhon anthology Property is Theft! and it will be objected, rightly, that it is unfair to complain that Blackledge did not consult a work which did not exist when the conference was held. True, but the key text (“Election Manifesto of Le Peuple) was (mostly) translated in No Gods, No Masters (volume 1) back in 1998 (see pages 63-4 for the above quote). Needless to say, this absolutely essential anthology of anarchism does not feature in his references. As such, Blackledge does not need to ponder these words of Bakunin and how they impact on his analysis:

“the Alliance of all labour associations . . . will constitute the Commune . . . there will be a standing federation of the barricades and a Revolutionary Communal Council . . . [made up of] delegates . . . invested with binding mandates and accountable and revocable at all times . . . all provinces, communes and associations . . . [will] delegate deputies to an agreed place of assembly (all . . . invested with binding mandated and accountable and subject to recall), in order to found the federation of insurgent associations, communes and provinces . . . and to organise a revolutionary force with the capacity of defeating the reaction . . . it is through the very act of extrapolation and organisation of the Revolution with an eye to the mutual defences of insurgent areas that the universality of the Revolution . . . will emerge triumphant.” (No Gods, No Masters, vol. 1, 155-6)

I guess that this may be dismissed as an a priori insight by the Russian but for any one not blinded by Marxist ideology would see that this was confirmed in part during the Paris Commune and by the Russian soviets of 1905 and 1917. Simply put, anarchism’s alleged “transhistorical” perspective has been quite constructive in its visions of a free socialist society, unlike Marx.

And here we need to put in some historical context. Blackledge is simply wrong – Marx was not “able to conceive of new forms of democracy that overcame the capitalist separation of economic and politics” (19) but rather eventually repeats the ideas expressed by Proudhon decades previously (and championed by Bakunin) after seeing them in action in the Paris Commune. K.J. Kenafick states the obvious:

“comparison will show that the programme set out [by the Paris Commune] is . . . the system of Federalism, which Bakunin had been advocating for years, and which had first been enunciated by Proudhon. The Proudhonists . . . exercised considerable influence in the Commune. This ‘political form’ was therefore not ‘at last’ discovered [as Marx claimed]; it had been discovered years ago; and now it was proven to be correct by the very fact that in the crisis the Paris workers adopted it almost automatically, under the pressure of circumstance, rather than as the result of theory, as being the form most suitable to express working class aspirations.” (Michael Bakunin and Karl Marx, 212-3)

In other words, Blackledge gets it complete back-to-front. It is not the case that “the democratic impulse behind class struggle anarchism tends towards Marxism” (30) but rather it is Marxism that finally catches up with the libertarian ideas advocated by anarchists years (often decades) previously.

As an aside, I must stress that I’m not suggesting that anarchist thinkers invented these ideas. Far from me such Leninist notions that workers cannot produce socialist theory (see section H.5 of An Anarchist FAQ – needless to say, Blackledge does not discuss this aspect of vanguardism in his defence of it). Proudhon was not some isolated thinker but rather an engaged participant in the debates of his time within the socialist and workers movements (and was, regardless of some claims, working class himself). He popularised ideas common within the working class (like calling his ideas mutualism after staying in Lyons and seeing the workers movement there) and he, in turn, influenced workers (as can be seen in the French sections of the First International and the Paris Commune). The same can be said of Bakunin, who advocated many ideas already raised in the International before he joined (see my talk at last year’s London Anarchist bookfair).

So, yes, Marx’s The Civil War in France is his most appealing work but what many forget (particularly Marxists) that it is mostly a work reporting what was being done in Paris, summarising its actions and proclamations. And these were being done and being written, in the main, by mutualists, by followers of Proudhon (see the introduction to Property is Theft! or section A.5.1 of An Anarchist FAQ). This means that the vision Marx is presenting is fundamentally a libertarian one, one which applied ideas which had been raised by the French anarchist in the decades before 1871 (and, I must add, by Bakunin in the late 1860s).

Blackledge seems confused by Bakunin’s comments on the Paris Commune, proclaiming “his support for the Commune not only because it was made by ‘the spontaneous and contin­ued action of the masses’ but also because it was the ‘negation of the state’“ and that “problem for Bakunin was that Marx was palpably correct: the Commune was a novel form of government and indeed a novel form of state.” (27-8) Yet there is no contradiction as it is quite possible for the Paris Commune to negate the national state while maintaining a local form of it.

Which, of course, shows how wrong it is for Blackledge to assert that “the most consistent way to maintain the anarchist variant of an anti-statist position implied developing a much more critical perspec­tive on the Commune. This was Kropotkin’s perspective. He produced what was in effect an immanent critique of Bakunin’s analysis of the Commune.” (28) In reality, Kropotkin built upon and extended Bakunin’s analysis. So if as Blackledge notes “[f]or Kropotkin the Commune’s key failing was its embrace of a representative structure, which meant that it reproduced the typical vices of parliamentary governments” this just echoing Bakunin.

Here I shall quote from the introduction to my new Kropotkin Anthology as it is relevant:

‘This was the lesson of the Paris Commune, a revolt which Kropotkin analysed in detail and discussed many times. Central to his critique was that it retained a government within Paris whilst proclaiming the free federation of communes outwith. This was Bakunin’s position, who praised it as “a bold and outspoken negation of the State” but also noted that the Communards had set up “a revolutionary government” and so organised “themselves in reactionary Jacobin fashion, forgetting or sacrificing what they themselves knew were the first conditions of revolutionary socialism” rather than “by the free association or federation of workers, firstly in their unions, then in the communes, regions, nations and finally in a great federation, international and universal” organised “solely from the bottom upwards.” (Michael Bakunin: Selected Writings, 199, 202, 206)

‘Kropotkin expanded upon Bakunin’s analysis, arguing that while “proclaiming the free Commune, the people of Paris proclaimed an essential anarchist principle” but “they stopped mid-course” and gave “themselves a Communal Council copied from the old municipal councils.” Thus the Paris Commune did not “break with the tradition of the State, of representative government, and it did not attempt to achieve within the Commune that organisation from the simple to the complex it inaugurated by proclaiming the independence and free federation of the Communes.” Isolated in the town hall, the Commune council became “immobilised… by red tape” and lost “the sensitivity that comes from continued contact with the masses… Paralysed by their distancing from the revolutionary centre – the people – they themselves paralysed the popular initiative.” (“The Paris Commune”, Words of a Rebel, 97, 93, 97)

‘The other major flaw in the Commune was that it “treated the economic question as a secondary one, which would be attended to later on, after the triumph of the Commune… But the crushing defeat which soon followed, and the blood-thirsty revenge taken by the middle class, proved once more that the triumph of a popular Commune was materially impossible without a parallel triumph of the people in the economic field.” (“Modern Science and Anarchism”, 74)

‘For Kropotkin, then, the lessons of the Paris Commune were fourfold. Firstly, a decentralised confederation of communities is the necessary political form of a free society, “the point of departure for future revolutions” and “the precise and visible aim of the revolution.” (“The Paris Commune”, Words of a Rebel, 90) Secondly, “if no central government was needed to rule the independent communes, if national government is thrown overboard and national unity is obtained by free federation, then a central municipal government becomes equally useless and noxious. The same federative principle would do within the commune.” (“Modern Science and Anarchism”, 163-164) This meant the need for “a better means of agitating. The revolutionaries amongst the people appeared to understand that the Council of the Commune ought to be considered a useless show, a tribute paid to the traditions of the past; that the people not only should not disarm, but that they should maintain concurrently with the Council their intimate organisation, their federated groups, and that from these groups and not from the Hotel de-Ville should spring the necessary measures for the triumph of the revolution.” (Revolutionary Studies, 29-30) Any future Commune “must not repeat within itself the error of entrusting a few men with the management of all its affairs… It must organise itself on the principle of ‘no rulers’” (“A General View”, Act For Yourselves, 80) and be based on a confederation of neighbourhood and workplace assemblies freely co-operating. Thirdly, it is critically important to unify political and economic revolutions into a social revolution: “They tried to consolidate the Commune first and put off the social revolution until later, whereas the only way to proceed was to consolidate the Commune by means of the social revolution!” Economic revolution had to start immediately for “the insurgent people will not wait for any old government in its marvellous wisdom to decree economic reforms. They will abolish individual property by themselves taking possession, in the name of the whole people and by violent expropriation of the whole of social wealth… they will take possession and establish their rights of usufruct immediately. They will organise the workshops so that they will continue production.” (“The Paris Commune”, Words of a Rebel, 94. 97, 99) Fourthly, the rebelled communes needed to federate: “Let each commune free itself first; then the freed communes will be brought to unite their efforts.” Thus “each city, each village, was free to join the movement” and create “great federations of revolted communes.” (“The Paris Commune”, Freedom, April 1887)’

Ironically, the very book Blackledge uses to attack anarchism on the Commune supports our analysis. He quotes Donny Gluckstein’s book The Paris Commune: A Revolutionary Democracy (which I have discussed in some detail) yet this shows the weakness of Blackledge’s assertion that “Kropotkin’s comments point to anarchist difficulties with the Com­mune” while “Marx shows that to embrace the Commune involved embracing a novel form of state.” (28)

For Gluckstein “[i]f the Commune had only been a moment from below, the anarchist interpretation might have been correct” but the insurrection “founded a new focus of power.” (The Paris Commune: A Revolutionary Democracy, 185) Quite – and anarchists at the time and subsequently have noted that this “power” was simply not up to the task at hand. This can be seen from Gluckstein’s own account. He himself admits that the Commune was “overwhelmed” by suggestions from other bodies, the “sheer volume” of which “created difficulties” and it “found it hard to cope with the stream of people who crammed into the offices.” (47-8) Even his conclusions against the “anarchist interpretation” are question begging:

“It was this combination of direct activity, plus an organised governmental structure (for all its inadequacies), that earned the Paris Commune its historic significance as the moment when an anti-capitalist movement was transformed into a power in its own right.” (p. 185)

Yes, “for all its inadequacies”! Rather than address whether “an organised governmental structure” undermines the “direct activity” of the masses and is up to solving the many tasks facing a social revolution as Kropotkin and other anarchists did, Gluckstein simply ignores the issue. He notes, in passing, the difficulties facing the Council trying to handle the numerous problems facing the revolution but does not draw any conclusions from them. Neither does Blackledge.

Simply put, Marxists have never analysed the Commune seriously. At best they praise aspects of it, link themselves to it (somewhat incredulously since there was, at best, one Marxist involved) but they don’t seek to understand lessons from it beyond either the obvious (don’t be isolated in a single town) or the wrong one (we need more centralisation!). As such, to wonder whether like Blackledge how “anarchists, like Marxists, are able to embrace the Paris Commune as a model of socialism” (23) is strange. We analyse revolutions to learn from them, reject the mistakes and “embrace” what works. That should be obvious and applies to the Paris Commune – we applaud its decentralist and federalist vision and its application of core anarchist ideas on elections, mandates and recall while, at the same time, noting that the Communal Council was simply not up to the tasks of a social revolution. We then look to learn the lessons and seek new forms of social organisation which can.

So while anarchists can agree with Marxists that the Paris Commune was crushed because it was isolated (Bakunin always stressed the need to federate for self-defence – see section H.2.1 of An Anarchist FAQ) they also analysed the dynamics of what was happening within Paris itself and drew conclusions which have been vindicated (as reported by Gluckstein). And, needless to say, the Marxist mantra for centralisation caused similar problems in Soviet Russia – but on a far larger scale (see section H.6 of An Anarchist FAQ for details).

The Paris Commune points to other key problems with Blackledge’s article – for example, his attempts to distance Marxism from Social Democracy, his assertions that it is an “anti-statist” ideology, what we mean by “democracy” and “state.” I will discuss these last two in my next blog.

To be continued…


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