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An attack on Anarchists (even though I love them dearly)

December 25, 2004

With the recent, post-Seattle ’99 resurgence of anarchism as a major political idea has come renewed claims by many activists about the long tradtion of the theory.
I have no respect whatever for any claims that anarchism is, or has ever had, a coherent philosophy. It is at best a confused mass of ideas, raging from the petit bourgeois libertarianism of Proudhon to the terrorist violence of some cells.
There are anarchist theorists with congruous theories (though I still believe these are intellectually weak), but it is my contention that coherent anarchist theory is borrowed or stolen from non-anarchists, especially Marx. Perhaps the theoretically best-developed anarchism is the platformism of the Workers’ Solidarity Movement in Ireland, the Anarchist Federation in the UK, and Zabalaza in South Africa.

It is true that there is something of a platformist tradition, a thread that goes back to Ukrainian anarchist forces, the Makhnovists who fought both the Red army and the White counter-revolution. They published in 1926 an ‘Organisational Platform of the Libertarian Communists’, which has been the basis of platformism ever since. This thread existed through the Spanish civil war and was championed by the Durutti Column against the disorganisation of the FAI, the CNT and Mujeres Libres.

But I have always seen platformism as a kind of soft Leninism, a vanguard that you are not forced to join. As such, it is way better than harder forms of vanguardism, but still presumes that it is the most advanced section of the working class, and that the latter should be cajoled into following it. I say, fuck revolutionaries. ‘The oppressed’ generally know better what is in their interest than professional revolutionaries do, even if they struggle to articulate it and quote chapter and verse of the revolutionary canon.

With regard to terrorism, the platformist ‘line’ is ‘you can’t blow up a social relation’. But I think they got that argument from Marxists.

When anarchists get their economic analysis right, it is usually because they have borrowed from Marx, all the while making personal attacks on him (when will they learn that Marx should be judged politically on the usefulness of his ideas, not on his personality. Just because he fucked his servant doesn’t mean his analysis of capital is weak).

Essentially anarchism becomes a principle rather than a body of theory – it’s a principle of non-hierarchical organising, of balancing the rights of the individual with those of the greater good, of rejecting Trotsky’s ethic (Their Morals and Ours) of sacrificing the individual for the greater good. So no ‘democratic centralism’ for anarchists, but attempts to reach consensus and the right to abstain from paths you don’t agree with.

And if your abstention causes the revolution to fail, so be it – struggles are won in different ways, and better for a libertarian revolution to fail than for a dictatorial one to triumph. The USSR set progressive politics back for the entire period of its history, and the stench of Stalin’s corpse still poisons many organisations, not least the ANC, who seem to me to have combined the worst aspects of several divergent political threads. ‘Stalinist neoliberalism’ is a bit of an extreme description, but it’s a tendency that does exist.

Revolutions should fail sometimes. It is a mistake to think that a revolution should win at all costs – as the Bolsheviks proved, winning at all costs changes the nature of what has won. Victor Serge demonstrates this admirably in his Conquered City, as well as other books like Birth of our Power.

So this principle of non-hierarchy – which I think is a fine one – is applied to other political movements, which is why from the outside anarchism seems like a mess. There are vegans, deep ecologists, trade unionists, first nations activists, animal rights people, feminists and every other stripe who all fit broadly under the anarchist umbrella simply because they don’t want to be told what to do.

And so it is for many of these reasons that I seldom refer to myself as an anarchist, though you might claim with some justification that this is due to intellectual slipperiness on my part – I don’t want to tie myself to something which is not intellectually defensible. But my real problem is that most anarchism is still part of modernist discourse, which I think should be attacked, and which I have done in two earlier pieces (Gnostic Liberation Theology and Commie Rant ).

Generally, I am more drawn to the autonomist and council communist tradition, which I think is intellectually sound, libertarian, unapologetic about its roots (Marxism), but also ready to reject anything which does not function in practice. I am behind on my autonomist reading, so I am not sure what to recommend, though Antonio Negri (Marx beyond Marx) and Pannekoek are worth checking out.

To an outsider, autonomists are anarchists, but their politics is (I feel) infinitely more subtle and nuanced. Or slippery – take your pick. But generally I think all left discourse is far too narrow, which is why I believe that one of the most constructive things we can do is to piss on all theories equally until they open up a bit – or shrivel and die.

Let many flowers bloom, indeed – but no need to pick any of them.

Trade unions, as they are now, are generally a dead loss – but I think it depends on the kind of unionism. Once a union is a powerful body that has status in society and can engage in collective bargaining, it has the power to win better material conditions, but at the expense of yielding ideologically to the status quo.

It is quite interesting to consider the history of radical unionism in the US, of the IWW and the CIO (before it affiliated to the conservative AFL). I have a lot of respect for syndicalism, but I think it should be no more than a tactic, as we have moved to post-Fordist modes of production and the working class is no longer an army of labour massed in a factory. Also, syndicalism – along with most anarchist, socialist and communist threads – disregards the importance to the class struggle of sabotage and refusal of work on an individual level, and even oppose it as ill-disciplined. It shocks me that even revolutionaries have internalised the work ethic of capital. Work hard, do your duty, be disciplined.

For some inspiring pomo radicalism, check out CrimethInc , especially the book Days of war, Nights of Love. It is not always coherently argued, but has a passionate and inspired vision of what anarchist living can encompass.

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