Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Carl Davidson

The bourgeois roots of anarchism

First Published: Guardian, April 25, 1970.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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When a number of Guardian workers and their supporters tried last week to seize control of the paper from the majority of those who work on it, including all the full-time office staff working for the paper more than four months, the Guardian characterized the attack as “an anti-Marxist political action” whose demands were “like the interminable programs of tiny anarchist sects temporarily recurrent throughout various stages of people’s struggles.”

The demands were not new to the Guardian. A number of previous workers as well as those who just walked out had also called for departmental autonomy, general undifferentiation of job function, abolition of serious “professional” technical work and reportage, the abolition of the four-month political probation period prior to becoming a voting member of the staff, the abolition of centralized direction of production and the substitution of departmental representation for the democratic election on the basis of politics and general competence. (Some have wanted to abolish any form of leadership, or “hierarchy” in their terms, altogether.)

The Guardian staff has discussed these and similar demands, usually grouped by their advocates under the rubric of “workers control and internal democracy,” many times in the past year or so; and has Democratically – at times unanimously – rejected them. At the same time, new workers were told, before hiring, that the Guardian was not an anarchist shop and if they couldn’t live with the modified democratic-centralist structure’ or the Marxist orientation of the paper’s political content and direction, then perhaps they should work for the movement elsewhere. If they wanted to work at the Guardian anyway, they were told they could argue their point of view in general staff meetings, but would have to go along with the majority view of the voting staff.

“Equal Vote For All”

Unable to win these demands democratically through this process, the “strikers” resorted to extremely undemocratic methods under the guise of winning an “equal vote for all.” The demand for the “equal” vote, made at a rump staff meeting the strikers called on the spot without all staff members present, was “non-negotiable,” and had to be decided by a “caucus” of the voting staff on hand in five minutes or production of the paper would be stopped.

The demand was undemocratic on two counts:

First, the move would have changed the Guardian’s political direction from Marxist to anarchist in five minutes even though the Guardian staff-members of the cooperative who have worked full-time at the’ Guardian for four months or more-are virtually unanimous in their rejection of anarchism. Agreement would have thrown the Guardian’s politics’ up for grabs, to ’be determined by how many people happened to have done some work for the newspaper, even an afternoon’s proofreading. There was no regard for those who actually are committed to the future of the paper enough to sign on as full time workers and remain at an admittedly hard and low-paying job for four months or more. It would have given equal parity to a one-week part-time worker with workers who have stuck with the Guardian many years, have been central to its continuing operations and who plan to remain for the long period necessary to create a better paper. The demand for “equality“ by part-time and volunteer workers – equality in deciding the Guardian’s politics and direction with those who, are devoting their full time and energies, to the paper, serves only to mask reality and turn the content of democracy into its opposite.

The second undemocratic aspect was the “decide-in-five-minutes-or-else” ultimatum in the context of a meeting not called in advance. Not everyone was there nor able to get there in a reasonable time-both those with votes and those without. Even if the time had been allowed, to be “fair” in the “strikers” terms, the voting staff would have had to call in the various part-time, temporary and volunteer workers supporting its point of view which would have been a majority against the demands even using the “strikers” definition of who should vote.

But this amounts to stacking meetings called on the spur of the moment with blocks of voters, many of whom would be unfamiliar with the day-to-day issues and operations involved the opposite of staff democracy and control and precisely what the Guardian’s structure is designed to prevent.

“Liberation” In One Shop

The “strikers” have argued that the Guardian should be reorganized in such a way that its internal structure would be an embryonic form of the future liberated society and that this is the only way it can serve the movement in an authentically revolutionary fashion.

While everyone on the Guardian staff would agree that revolutionaries must relate to others in a manner consistent with their revolutionary beliefs, they believe the Guardian best serves the movement through the quality of its political content, the readability and attractiveness of its format and its efficient production and distribution to its 30,000 readers.

While the Guardian’s internal structure is neither “bourgeois” nor without need of improvement its primary purpose is to serve these ends is summed up as its usefulness as a revolutionary propaganda weapon to its readers. The view that the structure exists primarily to serve as a utopian model with the first task of liberating those individuals who work within it has been rejected for several reasons.

First, because utopian structures are impossible to sustain on significant scale or length of time within the social relations and economic requirements of bourgeois society. Second, because the attempts along these lines which the staff has experimented with in the past have proved destructive of the primary end-the political and journalistic quality of what reaches the readers.

Personal Liberation

Finally, but most important, the task of building “personally liberating” utopian structures in the present has been rejected as politically wrong, since its content is rooted in the reactionary and anti-socialist outlook of petit-bourgeois anarchism. This is the point that some of the “strikers” could not understand, that to change the structure in the manner they desired would have resulted in a reversal of the paper’s political direction. (That this was true is indicated by the fact that the “strikers” have claimed to have all joined the anarcho-syndicalist IWW.)

While the Guardian staff does not claim that its structure represents the ideal society, the “strikers” assert that their structural proposals would do so, if implemented. For that reason the proposals are worth examining to understand their implications for the movement as a whole.

The political ideas of workers’ self-management and control, decentralism and local autonomy, opposition to the division of labor and all forms of hierarchy did not originate with the new left. Their expression has been an undercurrent within and without working class and socialist movements from the beginnings 150 to 200 years ago, but were particularly widespread, in a variety of forms, during the earlier stages of capitalist development.

This is the clue to the class character of these trends, which Marxists have described as the reaction of petit-bourgeois craftsmen, artisans and peasants to the reorganization and growth of manufacturing at the beginning of the industrial revolution.

In the system of petty industry that preceded modern capitalism, production was widely dispersed in small workshops where craftsmen and artisans worked alone or in small groups with each individual doing the same thing. Each worker owned his own tools or “means of production,” worked at his own pace and on his own product from start to finish.

Individualist Roots

Local groups of workers in each shop formed into guilds that were both externally exclusive and internally unified for the purpose of setting the standards of their trade and training new apprentices. But the basic character of this form of production was its orientation to the individual: the individual ownership of tools, the individual face-to-face between customer and craftsmen and the start-to-finish shaping of each product by an individual craftsman to the individual needs of his customer (usually as fellow townsmen he knew or himself).

The growth of the factory system changed all this dramatically especially from the point of view of theworker-craftsman. His tools were rendered obsolete by the machinery of the factory owned by the capitalist. The production of a particular commodity was no longer completely his own handiwork, but divided among many workers, each performing a fraction of the process. No one individual could say, “I made that; this is my work.” With his own tools in the past he had set the pace of his own work; now the pace and conditions of his work and those alongside him were determined by the rhythm of the machines and the instructions of the supervisory overseers of their owner.

Within this context, the meaning of anarcho-syndicalist demands becomes much clearer, especially when noting that class consciousness generally lags behind the new social relations shaped by new modes of production. The militant workers in the new factories, drawn from the ranks of the displaced petty craftsmen and peasants, reacted against the new order with demands shaped by an outlook based on the petty industry of the guilds and small farming communities.

The Eternal Return

In this sense, the demand for “workers control” or “self-management” of this or that factory or workshop meant, in essence, “give us back the ownership of our tools.” The demand for “local autonomy” meant a return to the exclusiveness of the guilds or the self-contained isolation of the rural village. Opposition to the division of labor implied a return to the equality of the guilds where each individual did the similar but separate work.

Combined with this was the opposition to all hierarches, a reaction to the social organization and supervision in the individual factory. As for the state, the attitude was similar to that of all petty capitalists: the less of it – and its taxes and trade regulations – the better.

This hankering for the return of the old order now superceded by modern industry is why Marxists use the terms “reactionary” and “petit-bourgeois” to characterize anarcho-syndicalism. The real potential for human liberation is found by looking to the future, not to the past.

The task of revolutionaries is not to urge the reversal of the division of labor, but to base themselves on a view that sees it going even further-to the logical conclusion of full automation and cybernation.

But here the anarchists fail again. While modern capitalism is highly organized within a given factory or industry, the relations between capitalists, based on private appropriation, are characterized by the social anarchy of production. With the possible exception of the armed forces and some public utilities, the imperialist economy and state are neither centralized nor planned, but bureaucratized and dysfunctional. To the extent that planning is done by monopolies or the state, it is carried out to meet this or that immediate crisis, or for increased profits leading to further dysfunction and crisis.

One Means of Transformation

If this social anarchy of production for profit is to be transformed and socially regulated to meet human needs, the working class must win political power by smashing the imperialist bureaucratized state apparatus, establish the social ownership of the productive forces and carry out centralized planning with a vengeance through a new state of its own based on the armed power of the people.

Unlike the “post-scarcity anarchists” who argue that material abundance is already at hand, most of the world’s peoples face the present problem of increasing scarcity. In this context, the modern-day anarchist concern with “decentralism,” “local autonomy” and utopian structures isolated from social reality and struggle are revealed for what they are: a white petit-bourgeois ego trip.

What the Guardian “strikers” have done to the extent that they hold these views places their individual concern for self-expression above and in opposition to the need of the movement for a revolutionary propaganda weapon that has avoided sinking into the swamp. However imperfectly the Guardian staff and workers who opposed the reactionary “strike” may meet the educational and agitational needs of the international and domestic movements, it is absolutely certain that those with a political line that leads to substituting themselves and their individual concerns for the people and the needs of a socialist revolutionary movement will never come close.