Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A Critique of Anarchism? – Not Really!

Usually the International Marxist Tendency produces high quality articles, but “Marxist and Anarchist Theory” (1) is not one of them. The author, Daniel Morley wants to critique anarchism, and to put it mildly, does not succeed. To criticize something you have to understand it and refrain from fallacious arguments. Morley cannot restrain himself from engaging in straw man tactics and confusing some anarchists with anarchism in general.

Anarchism, like Trotskyism, has many tendencies. Do we make a valid criticism of Trotskyism by implying that it is identical to the craziness of the Posadist flying saucer folk or the sectarianism of the Start-a-cyst League? Not at all, but this is the tactic our would-be critic uses.

It seems that anarchism paradoxically rejects theory. Yes, there are some people waving the black flag who seem to think that only action matters, but they are a minority, criticized by the majority of anarchists. The fact – please note my choice of words – that material conditions determine consciousness is trotted out as thought it were something previously unknown. But very few anarchists would disagree.

Yes, some anarchists do believe that the State came first, and that classes are an epiphenomenon. But once again, most of us do not share that view, seeing state and class arising simultaneously. All anarchists take a materialist stance in this instance. As but one example of an alternative to the Marxist position, the state as a result of conquest, this is about as materialist an act as you can get. No anarchist I know of regards the origin in an idealistic way, ie, seeing the state arising from an idea or some supposed will to dominate.

The vast majority of anarchists and not most, see the need to defend a revolution from reaction. The vast majority of these same anarchists see the need for an armed militia to accomplish this defence. The author does not fully comprehend the notion of coercion, when accusing revolutionary anarchists of being two-faced about the need for this armed defence. Is the woman who fights off her would-be rapist engaging in coercion? Hardly. Coercion involves an individual or group forcefully imposing their will on others, not defending yourself against those who would do this to you.

We are condemned as hypocrites since in revolutionary situations we have suppressed reaction, and thus supposedly instituted a state. But anarchists and orthodox Marxists have different views as to what constitutes a state. Marxists have an ontological (essentialist) analysis of the state. The state is essentially one class suppressing another. The anarchist analysis is a phenomenological (descriptive) analysis, i.e., the really existing state consists of an armed group separate from the workers, officials separate from the people, a bureaucracy etc. Thus, for anarchists, when power is not separate from the working population – through the use of worker assemblies, delegates and worker militias – the state no longer exists, or a most, exists in a vestigial or potential form.

No anarchist thinks that all representatives at all times will abuse their power. What we do believe is that with representation it is easy to abuse power. The anarchist way of overcoming the abuse of power is to replace representatives with recallable delegates. It is taking economic determinism to absurd lengths to claim that a form of governance has no important influence on what happens after a revolution. In contradistinction to the author's vulgar Marxism, anarchists see both class and organizational form as important factors in whether a revolution succeeds or degenerates.

No anarchist makes a fetish of right-wing trade union leaders, though we do criticize them. (And who doesn't?) This fetish is a left-social democratic or Communist Party attribute, not ours. The whole point of class struggle anarchism is to encourage rank and file activism, not ignore it, as the author claims.

Few anarchists, and certainly no class struggle anarchists, reject collectivism. Indeed, Bakunin's economy was called collectivist anarchism. What all anarchists do reject is top-down centralization. This was what Kropotkin was attacking, not the idea of a collective social and economic order. (He was an anarchist communist!) Few anarchists, and certainly no class struggle anarchists, are opposed to unity and co-ordination, but this is best done through delegation and a level of local control that makes functional sense, not top-down centralization.

Saying that Kropotkin favoured a simple economy is totally false. As a scientist, he was well aware of the technological advances of his era and how these could be applied in a future communist society. He showed that with the advent of AC current, the electric and petrol motor and intensive horticulture, most (but not all – be careful!) production could be done on a smaller, local scale without a loss in efficiency and productivity. Rather than a simple economy where people work long hours, he envisaged a complex, technologically advanced society that freed people from much of the burden of labour. (3)

The author gives an example from Russia of a worker-run factory where workers treated the work place and the machinery as their own private property. This is far removed from anarchism. Even Proudhon envisaged the abolition of private property and a kind of wheels within wheels system of industrial and agricultural federations.

The claim is made that Nestor Makhno opposed the working class, favoring peasants only, even going so far as to say they didn't need railways. This is untrue, and the supposed evidence for this is taken from Russian Civil War propaganda, hardly an objective source. (2) Furthermore, anarchists have never been peasant chauvinists, and have always sought to unite the two exploited classes in economic and political struggle.

It is correct that anarchists have tended to muddy the waters when criticizing leadership. But certainly for class struggle anarchists, leadership per se is not the problem, but bossism or coercive leadership. We are against the sort of leadership that manipulates and bullies the class and not the sort of leadership that leads by example, leads through honest discussion and debate, leads through the promotion of ideas and practice. Indeed, these are the aspects of true leadership.

It is also correct that the syndicalist union and the general strike proved incapable of completing the revolutionary process. Workers on a number of occasions, have brought themselves to the brink of revolution through their syndicalist movement, but have not succeeded in toppling the state and replacing it with popular power. What is needed is a political revolutionary force to encourage the workers to make that final step. Today, many syndicalists are aware of this need and we see the growth of Platformist and Especifist tendencies in working class anarchism. These tendencies do see the need for leadership and a revolutionary political movement.

A couple of final thoughts. Why was this written? Certainly not as a means to convince anarchists of the falsity of our views. If you want to convert us, shoddy polemics are not the way. I suspect it was written to bolster the troops, to keep the members from getting too cuddly with the anarchos. And by the way, it's not like we have all the answers or are right all the time. But if you want to critique us, do so with intelligence and refrain from fallacies. And if you want to know what our real problems are, feel free to write and I will tell you all about them.

  1. http://www.marxist.com/marxist-and-anarchist-theory.htm

    For an example of their usual quality of analysis click here

2. When the Makhnovists took over Alexandrovsk they form[ed] a Commission of Initiative composed of delegates of several active trade unions... Several members of the railwaymen's and shoemakers union declared they were ready to organize this Commission... The Commission went eagerly to work. Soon the railway workers got the trains running again, several factories opened their doors, several trade unions re-established, etc. (This was normal procedure for the Makhnovist Army) Volin, “The Unknown Revolution”, page 633.

3. The idea that the bulk of production must be large scale and centralized is a relic of the Age of Steam. Those who followed in Kropotkin's footsteps such as Ralph Borsodi, Murray Bookchin and Kevin Carson have advanced his concepts even further.



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