Anarchism, the best bits

I don’t really identify as an anarchist, partly for the reasons outlined in this post and partly because I think the historical impact of Syndicalism has been more significant.  However, when writing on an anarchist forum the other day about educational proposals I was putting to Liberty & Solidarity (as its education secretary) I was challenged as to why there was a lack of anarchist content in the courses.  This got me thinking, as much as I spend a lot of time critiquing aspects of anarchism and its movement, what are the positive contributions of Anarchism?

Sadly, clarity of definition is not one of these positive aspects.  Anarchism has a very confused identity and is associated with various diverse tenancies such as individualism and insurrectionism.  As a socialist naturally the school of Anarchism I find most relevant is social anarchism, the anarchism of the Spanish Revolution and Nestor Makhno.


One belief that social anarchism is well known for on the left is its opposition to participation in elections.  Whilst most socialists share with the anarchists a critique of democracy as it exists under capitalism, the anarchists typically have a more developed understanding.  For example, anarchists are crystal clear that lasting social change cannot come through the ballot box, and that through participating in elections socialists not only waste resources but risk legitimising a fundamentally flawed system.

Whilst socialist organisations often claim a similar viewpoint, this is frequently contradicted by their practice, throwing disproportionate resources into gaining electoral representation at the expense of other work.  Even in cases where socialists succeed at gaining representation, the compromises made to attain and retain that position often leads to corruption, moving to the right, or elected representatives having an undue influence over their respective party.  Examples of these trends can be seen across the globe such as Rifondazione Comunista senators voting in favour of continuing the Italian presence in Afghanistan or Tommy Sheridan using his power accrued as a member of parliament to turn on his own party when it refused to back him in his disastrous libel trial against a News of the World.

Boring old history


Whilst whether or not socialists should stand in elections or not is an immediate, practical consideration, social anarchists are also differentiated from other socialists by their interpretation of certain historical events.  Whilst many on the left may roll their eyes at the mention of the Russian revolution the fact remains that it was an event of huge significance. It shaped geo-politics for 75 years and continues to influence the left today.  This is why having an understanding of what happened in the early days of the Russian revolution, and crucially, what went wrong, is still important a century later.

I’m no historian, and I certainly can’t read Russian, but like many leftists I have done a fair bit of reading around the question of what transpired in Russia.  That the Bolsheviks failed to implement socialism there is no question, Lenin himself admitted as much with the introduction of the NEP.  So why did they fail?  For what I can make out, the events of October (or more accurately November) 1917 constituted a coup by a political party, not a worker’s revolution.  Now there is no doubt that this coup was popular, it would not have succeeded otherwise, but there reality of “all power to the soviets” was in fact “all power to the Bolshevik-controlled institutions”, with other arguably more democratic structures such as factory committees effectively hamstrung by the Bolsheviks.

Soon the Bolsheviks began to wield their power to shut down even soviets that would not tow the line.  Even before the outset of the civil war the Bolsheviks and their secret police were shutting down soviets that refused to return Bolshevik majorities.  This does not look a lot like worker’s democracy.


So why wasn’t there a workers revolution in Russia? Obviously this is a huge and multi-faceted question, but there is an overriding theoretical explanation from the anarchist camp.  Prefiguration is the idea that the new world needs to be built in the shell of the old.  This means building organisations that mirror the society we want to see.

Anarchists don’t advocate this for idealistic moral reasons.  People are socialised into organisations and cultures, if we want to see a democratic society after the revolution individuals need to be socialised into democracies today.  More importantly, revolutions and the administering of post-revolutionary societies are complex task requiring a lot of coordination.  To pull these off we need mature organisations capable of organising and marshalling the forces of the whole of our class as well as allowing democratic expression.  This is why anarchists are frequently the advocates of structural, democratic changes to trade unions, rather than simply seeking to elect a more radical leadership.

Anarchists have a sophisticated understanding of the role of organisations

From this understanding of prefiguration many anarchists (specifically Platformists and Espicifists) have developed a sophisticated understanding of the role of political organisations with regards to the prefigurative mass organisations that we hope will make the revolution.  Upon writing my own piece on the role of political organisations I was pleased to discover that several similar pieces had already been written, for example this one by José Antonio Gutiérrez.  Unlike say Trotskyists who typically have a confused conception of the “mass party” which is seemingly to be both simultaneously 100% socialist and representative of the working class at large (which is not socialist), Platformists and Espicifists see their organisations as existing to both help build mass organisation and spread their own ideas.  They do not aspire to become “mass” organisations in the way that socialist political parties do as they understand that such organisations are not sufficiently inclusive to represent the entirety of the working class, whatever its politics may be.

Sadly, these views are only held by a small minority of those who call themselves anarchists, however these are none the less positive contributions to understanding that I am grateful to the anarchist movement for.  Like many socialists anarchists are often prone to dogma, and taking the above observations (as well as others that I find less useful) as unflinching rules of nature is certainly something that can be frequently observed amongst social anarchists.  Overall though these observations and understandings can greatly strengthen a socialist analysis.  A focus of prefigurative mass organisation as opposed to electoral activity is hugely important and should enable us to build our new world in the here and now.


5 responses to “Anarchism, the best bits

  1. Platformism is really only a rediscovered form of Bakuninism, with its emphasis on combining mass work in unions (later called syndicalism) and a cadre group. Anarchism is a silly label and just not much use. Apart from the branding difficulties it engenders with the public, it also has enabled itself, through a paralysing fear of being hierarchical, to be penetrated by a virus of individualism. Hence the toleration of anti-civilisation, anti-union, and a load of thoroughly worthless strains. This makes it unattractive.

    Although I retain sympathy for the Bakuninists, who have the merit of being serious, I’m not sure that that strategy is sufficient today.

    The rise of syndicalism in the late 19th and early 20th century was generally accompanied by the rise of the Social Democratic parties. No doubt there were complicated reasons for this, e.g. the development of modern industrial capitalism, but the existence of SD parties helped create a context in which socialist ideas could penetrate unions. That is, the tendency in unions to level off as sort of guild associations content with being the defenders of workers under capitalism would have been accentuated without the perception of socialism as the coming thing.

    If unions can move beyond gas and water socialism on their own that would be great. But syndicalism (including platformist syndicalism) ploughs a difficult furrow because growing political struggles out of economic ones is very hard, even with regard to the current economic recession when the link between economics and politics should be pretty obvious to people.

    Unfortunately, almost all purely economic struggles find them isolated as sectional interests. This is negative in three ways: it prevents the struggle from broadening out and b) it reduces the effectiveness of workers power at the point of production and c) it inhibits the development of political class consciousness.

    In contrast, it is easier to deploy economic pressure in response to political demands, e.g. a dockers’ strike that refuses to load weapons. It is one of the oddities of humans that we respond to injustice as much as material pressure. The trick for socialists is to link the two and it is easier to make that link in the political –> economic direction rather than vice versa.
    The question of injustice is a political question. People might appreciate higher wages but unless they feel there is an injustice involved it can be pretty hard to get them to struggle for it. And that is only the starting point.

    It’s very hard to successfully take the revolutionary offensive. Revolutions generally occur in response to crisis and as Trotsky says somewhere, in order for the population to go on the offensive action you have to persuade them that is actually a necessary defensive action.

    A mass party is also probably more suitable than a union for organising outside of the workplaces.

    Kautsky and Lenin get lambasted for their “trade union” consciousness argument, but usually on the ground that they emphasised the role of bourgeois intellectuals in inputting socialist consciousness to the labour movement. Thus, the more important point regarding the need to consciously promote the goal of socialism if the labour movement is to become more than a mere defender of workers under capitalism.
    Bakuninism recognises this; therein lies the role the cadre group.

    But the pre-WW 1 Social Democratic approach has a much better track record in building the necessary preconditions of a strong labour movement and high level of political consciousness.

    The promotion of socialism is an inherently political task and this makes it difficult for a labour union to engage in it and it’s not one that a small cadre group is ever any good at (their niche is to work within mass organisations). That’s never to say never: a union might be able to; many unions had (and still have) formal commitments to securing for labour the means of production and the like. But it is difficult for them to engage meaningfully in it due to their very nature. The very presence of a mass socialist party would legitimise such goals and thus make it much easier for a union to work towards them.

    A mass party and radical unions are complimentary rather than exclusive strategies. Certainly, the greater the degree of prefiguration that can be achieved the greater the chances of success in any revolutionary upheaval. This is particularly the case for key industries which, because they are critical for the rest of society, will not only be key to post-capitalist regime’s survival, but also in providing an example to less organised workplaces.

    The Trotskyists usually want a mass party to be both revolutionary Marxist and have a mass membership. This is no more successful than the AIT’s similar fantasy for unions. Recently they have – perhaps unconsciously – stumbled upon a more fruitful path: a broad socialist party that doesn’t require members to tick a lot of revolutionary boxes. There will be continuing tension between their theory of a Leninist party (which has been a disaster throughout the west since the formation of the Communist Parties in 1919) and the success, albeit modest, they will meet with pursuing the mass party strategy.

    There can be a broadly, if vaguely, socialist party which houses various tendencies. It’s likely to be fairly radical at the outset as it will be set up by the revolutionary left. As it grows it will naturally take on the characteristics of its members, not all of whom will be of the same political views. The challenge then is to retain the strength of socialist tendencies so that when crises do arrive that its political vision is sufficiently embedded in both the party and the population that it can become a player when capitalism hits one of its crises.

    Many political parties dispense with the weapon of economic leverage to concentrate on elections. This makes sense if the goal is to take power in a capitalist system. If the goal is to successfully navigate a transition to socialism, then retaining that weapon becomes indispensable. If the goal is to replace capitalism then that strategic choice no longer makes sense.

    In effect we need a Sinn Fein/IRA duality. The cutting edge will necessarily be syndicalist, but without the political vision and the mobilisation of the population on a political basis it will not be possible to exercise that weapon.

    I don’t see the criticism of elections as being valid. Yes, it can be a strategic dead end. But then so can trade unionism. It’s a tactical question as to which aspect to emphasise and not one that we should harden into a principle. The bigger difficulty is that the party model that has dominated the far left has been a Leninist one. And that can never work.

  2. Thanks for the detailed comment. Will get back to you on the political vs economic stuff, but just quickly on the electoral side:

    This post sorta skimmed over my views on elections, I agree its a tactical consideration (hence the railing against any of these as been taken as iron laws of nature), just usually it isn’t worthwhile, and most of the socialist left over emphasises it hugely. I don’t think its just an issue with the Leninist party model either, the whole Tommy Sheridan thing was around the Scottish Socialist Party, which was more like your conception of abroad, multi-tendancy socialist party than the traditional Leninist conception.

  3. The trouble I have is that ordinary people identify politics with political institutions. They see parliament and council as where politics takes place, People see unions/campaign groups/pressure groups role to lobby these institutions to get their concerns taken seriously.

    I believe the working class need a party – firstly to connect the class to the institutions, and secondly to represent their interests within them. Sadly with the demise of the SSP to a shadow of its former self there is no such party.

    What do you think to the Bookchin’s concept of “Libertarian Mutualism”?

    If I understand it correctly it advocates radical organisations engaging with political institutions with a view to changing the manner in which they operate, linking together the political process with grassroots initiatives, with a view to democratise them out. He is also quite critical of syndicalism, as something which can become an alternative but ultimately non-radical power base, where workers protect their industrial power at the expense of the wider community’s needs being met.

  4. I agree with you about politics largely, it is certainly seen as being within the domain of the parliamentary system. I think though we have different goals.

    The problem with attempting to reform and work within the parliamentary system is that parliament’s power, indeed its very existence, rests on the consent of various other institutions which will likely prove hostile to any attempt at reform that serves to diminish their own influence. Should the business class, the senior civil servants and most crucially the army and police force, decide that your socialist program is not in their interests then you can expect a rather swift coup. Whilst they may be willing to tolerate different political factions competing in their bids to administer capitalism, I don’t think they will be so generous when it comes to a genuine socialist party which seeks to replace capitalism.

    So if capitalist institutions cannot be reformed into socialism, then they must be replaced. Consequently it would seem imprudent to want to connect the class to institutions that we will one day replace, a process involving the delegitimisation of said institution in the eyes of the populace.

    This is why I think syndicalism is important, it realises that much of the power in society ultimately flows from the economy and those who control of it, rather than the various administrators in Westminster. Consequently we seek to organise the working class around where they participate in the economy, in their workplace.

    With regards to syndicalism being “non-radical”, any attempt to organise a specific section of the working class (and all attempts must start somewhere, we cant organise the whole thing simultaneously) risks succumbing to the sectional interests of those workers who are being organised. Hence why Syndicalists have long crusaded against the evils of craft unionism and of dividing the class along other artificial lines such a gender and race. It seems clear from history however that such interests can and will be over come. A fantastic example is the New South Wales BLF’s adoption of green bans:

  5. With regards to ““Libertarian Mutualism”, as a schema for post revolutionary society it seems ok to me, however a couple of points:

    Said confederacy will need a bureaucracy to research and formulate policy and deal with day to day administration. This isn’t a problem, its entirely necessary, but it does look a little bit like a state to me…

    Policy making clearly isn’t local if regional confederations can override individual municipalities, so Bookchin appears to be contradicting himself. I don’t have a problem with this, in fact I think it is better some policy is inter-municipal so long as it is democratically arrived upon, but Bookchin seems to want to have it both ways…

    The critique of syndicalism he offers is hugely simplistic, evidence of “bureaucratisation” can just as readily be found in the various municipal structures he cites as they can in syndicalist unions.

    It is worth pointing out that the original syndicalist union, the CGT in France is still to this day a confederation. The syndicalist movement has long advocated the confederation as a model, simply using workplaces as the base-unit rather than municipalities. Ultimately though we need both local and economic government, and so I support (as I argued for in the community syndicalism piece on this blog) building community organisations such as residents associations with a view to creating confederations based on them in addition to syndicalist unions.

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