An anarchist argument for left unity

splitters“Are you the Judean Peoples’ Front?”

 “ – Fuck off! We’re the People’s Front of Judea…” etc.

That sketch always gave me a proper belly laugh having been around Marxist groups in my youth which had a tendency to splinter into miniscule fragments before my eyes; but anarchists? – Surely not – oddly enough I had a very similar conversation with a group of delegates at a certain social centre last year.

I often think if the spooks are monitoring the internal e-mail discussions of anarchist organisations they must be pissing themselves laughing.

Since we identify ourselves as anarchists, by definition we’re all fiercely independent and ready to stand up for our opinions, but if we want results we need to make our theory and practice appeal to the class generally, all those disillusioned with the reformist left, ‘recovering trots’, and loads of generally pissed-off people who haven’t the time or inclination to read all the books – though I’d still encourage them to take a look. Some of them could come over to our position, but would be shot to bits as soon as they put finger to keyboard; personally I think comradely behaviour and common courtesy goes to the heart of anarchism.

I’m going to try and make a case for practical and honest co-operation between the libertarian and broader left – wherever we have common intent and such co-operation does not compromise our principles of consensus democracy, non-hierarchical organisation, direct action, and rejection of the state. We should start by combining the anarchist movement as far as possible, we don’t need to agree on everything, just demonstrate we can pull together and get the job done.

The Problem:

The historical antagonism between Marxists and anarchists dates back to the split in the First International, though anarchists played an important part in the social struggles of the early twentieth century – including the Russian revolution. Anarchists consistently fought on the side of the Bolsheviks against reactionary forces until they turned their guns on us. For the benefit of non-anarchists, I’ll start by setting out the main differences in our approach.

Most latter day UK Marxists are Trotskyites, who must somehow be apologists for the violent suppression of countless workers’ and peasants’ rebellions during the early years of the Bolshevik regime (the destruction of the Spanish Revolution can always be blamed on Stalin). Those rebels were fervent communists; it’s pretty clear that the Bolsheviks didn’t want communism and the communists didn’t want Bolshevism.

Here I define ‘communism’ as workers’ control and common ownership of the means of production – not its management on their behalf by a political elite. Marx wrote a great deal about capitalism but almost nothing about communism, so his adherents were free to define it as they wished, and remained confined by the ideological hegemony of their former masters.

However, most workers are not intimately acquainted with the history of the 20th century (If they were we wouldn’t have to deal with the more imminent threat from the far right.) I wonder how many practising Trots could still give a damn whether the former USSR was a ‘state capitalist’ or a ‘degenerated workers’ state?

The agenda of Marxists is to establish a revolutionary party that could seize control of the State on behalf of the mass of the working class, then act as caretaker until the proletariat is deemed capable of acting in its class interest. What’s worse, there’s an awful determinism about traditional Marxism; the contradictions inherent in capitalism make its collapse a foregone conclusion, so ‘revolutionary’ parties can be as conservative as they like and concentrate on increasing their membership while they wait for the compulsion of the dialectic to deliver socialism. There is a paradox here though; I don’t believe anyone joins a Marxist party and gives up all that time and energy because they really think socialism is inevitable!

Conversely our organisational praxis must be entirely pre-figurative of the post-revolutionary society; horizontal, directly democratic, devoid of coercion, deceit and subterfuge; disengaged from hierarchical or representational political structures. No revolutionary vanguard for us, just workers’ self-organisation federated into a mass movement for all.

In post-war Britain the Trotskyite modus operandi has been entryism and remote control of workers’ struggles. The ancestor of the Socialist Workers Party, Tony Cliff’s Socialist Review Group, initially had only 8 members so adopted the tactic of working and recruiting within the Labour Party. Through the Labour League of Youth, then the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Young Socialists, the SRG built its membership to 200 by1964, having been renamed the International Socialists. The Vietnam Solidarity Campaign and student activism further boosted it to over 1000 members in 1968.

The tactic became well established with a succession of front organisations – Anti-Nazi League, Right to work, Campaign Against Climate Change, Globalise Resistance, Stop the War Coalition, Unite Against Fascism. All single issue, broad-based campaigns designed to appeal to Labour party members and draw them into the SWP. The Socialist Party (formerly Militant tendency) and Alliance for Workers Liberty have their own front groups. This ‘Trojan Horse’ strategy has had a corrosive effect on the post-war British labour movement; it’s wryly amusing to hear the SP and SWP blaming each other for the collapse of class struggle initiatives such as the National Shop Stewards’ Network.

Support for the ‘revolutionary left’ in this country is tiny, such that the overthrow of capitalism by parliamentary means must remain a pipedream. In fact electoral victory by a revolutionary socialist party would be a catastrophe. By engaging with the political process and taking part in government the party would create the expectation of delivering capitalist ‘prosperity’ from a socialist economy operating under capitalist rules! It would either quickly resort to repression or face a backlash from the right – as it did in Chile. In fact when the social democracies of the late 20th century began, in their timid way, to deliver industrial democracy and allow the workers more than a tiny fraction of the wealth they created, this is precisely what happened.

The Solution:

Some would contend that unity of theory is necessary for unity of action; however, many social groups naturally operate on anarchist organisational principles without any political purpose or common ideology whatsoever. This is frequently seen in sports clubs and special interest societies where work is shared on a voluntary basis; decisions are made by consensus, differences are tolerated because members know and trust one another.

It’s unnecessary therefore to have everyone sign up to anarchist theory in order to practice anarchism. Our primary task is to build class-consciousness; a social class is a group with a common relationship to the means of production, but it doesn’t act as a class until its members recognise their common interest in relation to other classes; the bourgeoisie have recognised and acted in their common interest for about 300 years now.

So there are two kinds of people: those who have direct control over the means of production and those who don’t. As anarchists we would say those who wield power and those who have it wielded over them.* Marx further divided the latter class into proletariat, petty bourgeois, lumpen-proletariat and peasantry; the Bolsheviks sought to do away with the last three sections. Marx never recognised the revolutionary potential of the lumpen or ‘underclass’, but it was they who set London ablaze and confounded the State last summer. Haphazard and counter-productive though their actions may have been at times, like the Luddites and Swing before them they recognised their common interest without the benefit of a coherent ideology or a political education.

*Most who appear to wield power over others do so only as proxy for the bourgeoisie – elected politicians and police for example, this is a crude form of status that appeals to a few,  so the difference between the utility and cost (to the bourgeoisie) of such power is enormous.

A more useful division might be: those who are engaged in class struggle and those who aren’t; the bourgeoisie are, by definition, engaged in class struggle all the time, whereas most of our class are engaged in squabbling amongst ourselves, looking for someone to blame or someone to look down on. To be fair, we are heavily conditioned and encouraged to behave this way by our education system, the media etc.

It makes sense therefore to start by connecting militants of whatever stripe, at work and the wider community, within or without the unions and parties; draw in all the disgruntled and disaffected, then pick fights we can win, implementing anarchosyndicalist principles of mass participation and collective decision making.

Organise in affinity groups on the basis of common purpose rather than ideology; the more disparate the better, as the left’s micro-empires will not be able to function here. The more our interactions are based on social relationships rather than the pronouncements of dead people, the more effective our actions will be. The Anti Fascist Network and anti workfare campaigns have been brilliant for this. Ideological synthesis is not required when the theory is the practice and vice versa; the union structures and political hierarchies will be bypassed, and the ideologues will either turn a hand or they will have to get out of the way.

On the main battlefields of class war – anti-austerity, anti-fascism, environmental and anti-repression, as well as the workplace – the reformist and revolutionary agendas are already blurred. Small wonder the party leaders pull their demo’s away from ours, give them papers and placards to hold; we should cultivate these people, when they get charged by the filth or the fash they will run and/or fight like everyone else. Most rank and file leftists are not of the control freak tendency and don’t even understand where our antagonism comes from, they join trot organisations as I once did because it was the only game in town. To impress people with our organisational praxis we need to expose them to it, so we engage with individuals not their leaders.

Where economic infrastructures have already collapsed we’ve seen DIY mutual aid economies spring up spontaneously. Building our social network will give us a head start on that collapse. The reformists will be radicalised, but not by anarchists, the state is going to do it for us.

Winning credibility for class struggle anarchism means working with the politically naive and misdirected. Only last year I was arguing against Zeitgeist and ‘lawful rebellion’ on a daily basis with people who ought to have known better, hours wasted online and at the Occupation when we could have been planning something worthwhile, but as radicals within the working class movement we can’t be in the business of telling the class what it wants or ought to have. The centralist virus is everywhere and needs to be countered with patient, rational argument; people don’t like to be told they’re talking bollocks, even if they are – I came to the realisation on my own, and it was no easier for that, it took years.

When we go from a ‘scene’ to a movement we’re going to have all sorts of arseholes involved, meanwhile we work with other groups because we have to, and try and achieve consensus with them as we do with each other. Class-consciousness means just that, we act as a class not as a sect within a class, or, perish the thought, a vanguard.

Who wants to be a big fish in a small pond or part of a subculture? Better to be a face in a crowd of millions. I’d love to do away with ideology completely and rely on goodwill, fair play and common sense, then we can stop having and mediating these arguments.

Or as one placard at this year’s Tolpuddle march read:

The workers, united, can manage without parties!

One thought on “An anarchist argument for left unity

  1. You and I anyway are on the same wavelength and I too have been banging on about red, green and red-and-black unity… though as some anarchos do point out, Trotsky wanted to shoot us all! But at the end of the day, we’re all socialists, aren’t we?

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