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Nigel Harris

The Anarchist Argument

(January 1973)

Marx Engels Lenin: Anarchism and Anarcho-Syndicalism
Progress Publishers, Moscow 1972, 387pp. 90p

The difficulty in discussing anarchism is its incoherence. There are writings by individual anarchists – Bakunin, Kropotkin, Tolstoy, Malatesta, Gandhi and so on – but they disagree with each other at least as much as they agree. In practice, anarchism is more important as a mood than a creed, and men who call themselves anarchists range all the way from the utopian designers of the perfect school, the ideal community, the wistful reconstruction of a preindustrial village (Ebenezer Howard and his wretched New Towns belong here), through the bomb throwers to the serious but misguided working class militant.

Today, the overwhelming majority of anarchists would not recognise themselves under the label. For everyone who calls himself an anarchist, there are ten others who do not, but nevertheless share the same ideas and call themselves Marxist-Leninists. Maoism, as it exists outside China, Fidelismo outside Cuba, both important elements in the vague populism on the Left today, are equally vehicles of anarchist traditions. So muddled has the whole discussion become, that few know how savagely Marx, Engels and Lenin attacked as anarchism the ‘Marxism-Leninism’ so popular today. The publication of this book is therefore – as they say – ‘timely’, except that most of those who would gain from it will not read it. Only events can be their teacher.

Anarchist ideas have been popular throughout the ‘sixties for exactly the same sorts of reasons as anarcho-syndicalism flourished before the first World War. Then as now, objective conditions were moving towards a revolutionary crisis which, in the ‘sixties, affected the backward countries first. Yet in both cases, a revolutionary political alternative did not exist. Then as now, the parties which claimed to lead the revolutionary tradition (the Social Democrats then, the Communist Party now) were not revolutionary, but reformist and bureaucratic. They claimed a monopoly of authentic revolutionary theory, but entirely lacked revolutionary spirit, initiative or action.

As a result of this impasse, whole new movements embodying revolutionary struggle grew up outside the ranks of those who claimed to be the leadership of the proletariat. Whether explicitly (as with the anarcho-syndicalists before 1914) or implicitly (as with the advocates of pure rural guerilla warfare today), in rejecting the established Left parties, they also rejected Marxism. However, although the anarcho-syndicalists rejected Marxism, they nevertheless identified themselves completely with the industrial working class. The new rebels while claiming to be Marxists, nevertheless identified themselves not with workers but with peasants, students or lumpen proletarians. It took the October revolution of 1917 to restore the validity of Marxism in the eyes of the many anarcho-syndicalists who later joined the Communist International. Only an event of comparable importance would restore the unity of theory and practice for the majority of guerilla rebels.

1. The Argument

The anarchist revolt against the established leadership of the Left is natural and, in the first instance, healthy. Because the official Communist parties are reformist but claim to be revolutionary, their centralised organisation and bureaucracy are systematically deployed to channel the revolutionary aspirations of working people into reformist paths. It seems to many revolutionaries that all that is needed to revive the revolutionary struggle is spontaneity, a refusal to be trapped in argument or red tape: militancy.

Yet we have to develop the argument further. In particular, we have to explain why the established leadership is reformist if we want to avoid the same degeneration in the future. It is at, this point that the anarchist argument leads off in entirely wrong directions. Degenerate politics, it is argued, are the sole source of the betrayal of the movement, and occur wherever a centralised organisation creates an authority over and above the rank and file. Betrayal is intrinsic to the nature of leadership and organised power (all power corrupts etc.).

Anarchist solutions to the problem are various. Some oppose all forms of organisation; others refuse to allow any question to be decided without their active involvement, an attitude which paralyses any action if taken seriously. Yet others are concerned with organisational experiments which will prevent the concentration of power – co-operatives, communes, a federal system. Again, such decentralised units decisively weaken working class organisation. They can also be the pretext for the operation of secret elites. Bakunin’s ‘secret, brotherhood’ depended on there being no formal structures to control the leadership at all. Often the worst elitists come from the ranks of anarchism.

Yet others emphasise that immediate and continuous action will offset the tendency to degenerate. In the energy and drive of the revolutionaries, in their sheer flair, lie the safeguards. All is urgency and blind application until exhaustion sets in or the policeman trips the rebel.

The more conservative anarchists find the curb to corruption in an absolute code of morality, in ‘principles’. If the principles are clear enough, it is suggested, if they are absolute, no compromise or concession should ever be possible. Yet others, more modestly, retire to reform the educational system so that the young will not learn the degeneracy of this society. The self-dependent commune, an isolated community, provides another retreat from corruption. But whatever the exit, all must oppose authority from wherever it comes, oppose centralised organisation and direction.

2. Anarchism and Marxism

At the risk of amalgamating different anarchist cases, let us take some of these points in turn, illustrating the Marxist comments from this book. For the anarchist, the source of evil is not the nature of class power and capitalism, but the psychology of the rulers. Conversely, the source of revolt is the morality and psychology of the rebels, not the structure of capitalist society (’The basis of Bakunin’s social revolution is the will, and not the economic conditions’, Marx, p.149). The personal characteristics of the revolutionaries are therefore of decisive importance, not their class identification or involvement. Heroes – like Che Guevara – replace the working class, and individual heroic acts are substituted for the long slow task of building class organisations. The acts may be designed to kill key members of the ruling class or wreak terror upon society. Or they may be a kind of pacifist terrorism, self-destruction, as in the fasts of Gandhi or the sit-downs of the Committee of 100. In both cases, they substitute for the development of self-dependent and self-conscious collective action by workers.

Some anarchists have believed that only violence guarantees the purity of morality of the revolutionary. The bomb, the knife, the revolver then become the instruments for attaining purity. The exclusion of politics in favour of military technique – witness the rash of books by Latin American revolutionaries on guerilla warfare – follows a similar path. The fragmentary nature of the battle, guerilla warfare, forced on the revolutionaries by their own weakness, now becomes raised to being a singular virtue. Even those who do not actually take up arms, emphasise the need to free themselves in morality from the corrupting practices of ‘bourgeois’ society:

’All the depravities in which the life of declassed persons ejected from the upper strata of society must inevitably became involved, are proclaimed to be so many ultra-revolutionary virtues’ (Marx and Engels, p.121).

If the moral stature of the revolutionaries is the sole factor of importance in the revolution, their deterioration can restore or create class society all over again in the post revolutionary situation. According to anarchists there is no structure of power which will ensure mass control. Only the abolition of power can achieve that. For much of the Left, the Chinese Cultural Revolution gained its charm precisely from these anarchist themes – the attempt to change men’s morality independently of material circumstances, to create organisations which would be decentralised enough to prevent corruption. In practice, these themes were no more than the froth on a naked struggle for power, but they were effective among romantics. The same can be said of the debate over moral incentives in Cuba.

In neither China nor Cuba was the division of labour characteristic of a poverty-stricken society seriously jeopardised. For to do that is to transform an anarchist myth into a radical threat to any society. To abolish the power of society, to make each man his own master, each petty community self-governing, is to abolish the possibility of life itself for the majority. The world cannot feed its population on the basis of each his own farm. Only the collective – and centralised – economy, the division of labour, organised and directed how you will, can do that. The division of labour is undoubtedly tyrannical:

’If man, by dint of his knowledge and inventive genius, has subdued the forces of nature, the latter avenge themselves upon him by subjecting him, in so far as he employs them, to a veritable despotism independent of all social organisation. Wanting to abolish authority in large-scale industry is tantamount to wanting to abolish industry itself, to destroy the power loom in order to return to the spinning wheel’ (Engels, p.102).

The anarchist line of thought leads to reactionary conclusions precisely because the objective world has been left outside. The source of the degeneration of working-class leadership lies not in some Original Sin that forces every person, by reason of being a leader, to sell out. Betrayal is only possible because of the nature of the system as a whole and its specific history. Where capitalism is able to meet some of the demands of the workers, where it booms and expands, collective power tends to disintegrate in private hopes; and worker leadership is free to do what it will. The analysis of reformism must be an analysis of the system as a whole and its history. That means ‘theory’ as well as practice: talk, argument and writing as well as militancy. Unless that takes place, the revolutionaries will miss the real opportunities that arise.

If all centralised organisation and leadership is bad, then the working class can never use the only power it has: its collective strength. In this case, the whole idea of a working class revolution becomes nonsensical. A revolutionary party, in addition, is crucial in the long process of building working class power:

’It is to enable the mass of a definite class to learn to understand its own interests and its position, to learn to conduct its own policy, that there must be an organisation of the advanced elements of the class, immediately and at all costs, even though at first these elements constitute only a tiny fraction of the class’ (Lenin, p.252).

Any serious organisation requires discipline, and discipline does not at all come easily, particularly when it is not located in the collective discipline of the factory. It is not enough to have ‘the right polities’: one also has to have a serious practical orientation, and willingness to submit, in the ordinary course of events, to organisational discipline. The party is not at all the model of a future socialist society, not at all some kind of attempt at a commune, but a fighting organisation in conditions of combat not laid down by the party itself but by the ruling class. Centralisation, leadership, discipline are the preconditions for fighting this fight. Bakunin argued that the first International should be the model of the future society, and quite rightly Engels scorned the notion: ‘just now when we have to defend ourselves with all means at our disposal, the proletariat is told to organise not in accordance with the requirements of the struggle it is daily and hourly compelled to wage, but according to the vague notions of a future society entertained by some dreamers’ (p.63).

3. Principles

As for the code of morality, the absolute principles, this is a wisp of bourgeois mist to curb a hurricane. Yet the recurrent idea of a set of principles that are over and above the demands of the class struggle is very powerful on the Left despite its clear ancestry in Liberalism. ‘We can see the claim to absolute principles in a whole range of disputes on the Left – not least in the Brest Litovsk or trade union debates of the Bolshevik party. Yet Marxists have no ten commandments such as served Christians for so many hundreds of years provided they averted their gaze (Thou Shalt Not Kill, except in wartime or if you are the boss or if you have to, etc.). A set of principles only makes one ‘safe’ from corruption if one is in no way involved in real struggle. To grapple with real problems inevitably involves compromises and concessions from the crystal clear principles revolutionaries are supposed to have. The fighters invariably have to settle for less than the full claim this side of the socialist revolution, settle for a compromise. Marx is full of scorn for Bakunin’s claimed refusal to compromise – The workers must make no effort to establish a legal limit to the working day, since this is like making compromises with the bosses, who could then only exploit them for ten to twelve hours instead of fourteen to sixteen’ (p.9). Of course ‘all the arms to fight with must be taken from existing society’ (p.96). The same issues arose again over whether or not revolutionaries should participate in parliament

fundamentals of parliamentary tactics’, Lenin argues in praising the German Social Democrat, Bebel, ‘for German (and international) Social-Democracy, tactics that never yield an inch to the enemy, never miss the slightest opportunity to achieve even small improvements (emphasis added) for the workers and are at the same time implacable on questions of principle and always directed to the accomplishment of the final aim – the fundamentals of these tactics were elaborated by Bebel’ (p.248).

Marxists have no general universal principles, only a set of specific historical aims. Being ‘unprincipled’ means, if correctly used, betraying those future aims for illusory short term gains, not contradicting some universal law. The aims embody the interests and hopes of a class of people, the workers, not some individual morality. Revolutionary struggle is not one simply to transform psychologies, but is a struggle for power. The power of the ruling class depends upon its power to organise and centralise as well as its influence over men’s minds. While the revolutionaries remain simply at the level of trying to change minds, of making propaganda, they are no permanent threat to the ruling class. The rulers are threatened materially, not by opinions, but by an alternative power, stronger than their own.

These points bring out the basic individualism of anarchist thought. It is the Liberalism of the early capitalist class taken to its logical extreme, an extreme that is self-destructive both for the anarchists and any working class movement. Declassed elements reach instinctively, even as they reject society, for the kernel of bourgeois ideology. With characteristic force, Lenin diagnoses the source:

’Marxist theory has established – and the experience of all European revolutions and revolutionary movements has fully confirmed – that the petty proprietor, the small master ... who, under capitalism, always suffers oppression and very frequently a most acute and rapid deterioration in his conditions of life, and even ruin, easily goes to revolutionary extremes, but is incapable of perseverance, organisation, discipline and steadfastness. A petty bourgeois driven to frenzy by the horrors of capitalism is a social phenomenon which, like anarchism, is characteristic of all capitalist countries. The instability of such revolutionism, its barrenness, and its tendency to turn rapidly into submission, apathy, phantasms, and even a frenzied infatuation with one bourgeois fad or another – all this is common knowledge. However, a theoretical or abstract recognition of these truths does not at all rid revolutionary parties of old errors, which always crop up at unexpected occasions, in somewhat new forms ...’ (pp.304-5).

Moscow has published this volume for no good reasons – to protect the reformism of its Communist parties against revolutionary challenge. The notes illustrate the predilections of the publisher. But it is a valuable collection and well worth reading. For a hardback, it is also very cheap. It is a must for those who want to understand the Left today and the recurrence of the same arguments all over again.

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Last updated: 12.1.2008