Thursday, October 29, 2009

What can we Learn from Lenin

I thought Don Hammerquist's Lenin, Leninism, and some leftovers was a very thoughtful article and enjoyed the response by Wetzel as well.

Some of the questions that are brought up, I believe do not yet have satisfactory answers in our movement. Particularly the methods that should be used in relation the trade unions in terms of being most effective in promoting libertarian struggle, and also in dealing with un-eveness in the development of the class. How to organise in light of these features needs serious investigation both theoretically and in terms of practical activity. Indeed, I think many of them can't be "solved" without essentially trying different approaches and seeing which are least problematic.

Such attempts however should be made consciously and in a coordinated manner. And reviewed periodically to assess how positive the gains are made and published in such a way that we can share our experiences and replicate what appears to be working. This is particularly difficult because of the great deal of difference that can be created by different social contexts. It seems that it would be most useful in someplace like the US which has some level of homogeneity.

I'm not sure what the particular fascination with Lenin is that compels someone to attempt to reclaim the legacy. Indeed, it seems to me that Lenin was such a polemical writer and strategically minded towards a "success" that he often just wrote whatever he thought would be most advantageous to the Bolsheviks at any given time. Often this means incorporating anarchist and syndicalist slogans without really incorporating their content in any meaningful way. This can allow a "libertarian" version of Lenin to be created by carefully chosen selective blindness. A Lenin which I don't believe ever really existed.

I do however agree that anarchists often make oversimplified caricatures of the Bolsheviks. This is a serious failing since comrades who are very knowledgeable of the time period will not be convinced by such ahistoric simplifications. The time period was complex, and while Leninist directions had permanent repercussions with negative results, its important that we look at it in more than a strictly idealist "negative" sense.

When confronted with the need to increase production rapidly in order to keep the delicate alliance of peasants and proletariat what should we do. When confronted with trade unions that are characterised by a historically professional character, how should we deal with them? Do we support the soviets or the factory councils? How do we reconcile the potentially conflictual power struggle between them without losing a section of the professional class which can not easily be replaced?

Obviously we need not concern ourselves in too much detail with a social context so removed from our own. But we can look at this history to see how in fact we need to be more strategically minded in relation to the method of struggle that we actually support in our own context without oversimplifying the complex character of the social landscape in which we are going to be fighting.

Hammerquist does seem to get confused by differences in language. In particular this quote:

I recently read a report by an Irish class struggle social anarchist about a tour he took around the U.S. and his impressions of the anarchist movement overall and in specific localities. One point that I noted with more than a little consternation was that he treated “insurrectionist anarchism” as little more than the anti-working class anarchist primitivism of the Eugene variant. It does seem that class struggle social anarchists tend to discount the politics of insurrection, ceding the issue to various “post-left” elements, including the “crazies” among the life style anarchists, where it becomes little more than an element of generational extremism, a theatrical pose that will evaporate in the face of any real repression, if not at the mere possibility of repression such as followed after 9/11.

This seems to merely be a misunderstanding of Insurrectionist. It seems to me that the vast majority of Social Anarchists that I've talked to fully believe in the necessity of some level of insurrectionary force. It's quite difficult to imagine scenarios in which this doesn't occur. The problem is strictly that "insurrection" is not a stand in for politics and political organising. Insurrection is merely a tactic that should only be used to facilitate libertarian struggle and is worthless if it isn't doing this. In some contexts it may do this, in others it may do exactly the opposite.

This is something that is particularly important in the Irish context where we have a history of Republicanism. We can see the IRA at various points as an insurrectionary force in search of a political ideology. Here it is important to point out the need to put the horse before the cart.

I'm sure Hammerquist would agree, but failed to understand what was being argued against.

(I have some experiences with all of the above, none particularly successful, but have always favored yet another option: organize a direct action mass grouping of workers at the point of production that can begin to understand the relevance of class issues beyond their particular shop floor--whatever the nature of the union or whether or not there is one. This approach has it problems as well, but they are a matter for a different discussion.)

I'd love to hear more about these experiences. The major problem (in my estimation) with current theory among anarchists is a lack of studies of actual attempts to use various strategies in relation to the unions.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Engaging with the Class

One of the deep insights of anarchist theory is that means and ends are inseparable. The method of struggle will have important repercussions on the realisable ends. The development of Anarchist theory and practice has been a search for liberatory methods that are likely to create the society that we hope to see. The role of the organisation then has to fall in line with those tactics and strategies that are liable to bring about a libertarian society.

"The Organisational Platform of the Libertarian Communists" [1] (Abbreviated: The Platform) was first written after the failure of the revolution in Russia and the Ukraine. An attempt was made to give solutions to those factors in the struggle which had lead to failure.

In 1936, a syndicalist revolution was attempted in Spain. This attempt also failed. The Friends of Durutti Group [3] formed in 1937 in an attempt to guard the ideological purity of anarchism, and to advocate against the regimentation of the military. This initiative however, came too late, after the argument had already been lost.

Again, starting in 1956, we see the emergence of the FAU [6], also in rough agreement with the guidelines given by the Platform though likely developed quite independently. Later we see the FARJ [5] express a slightly more nuanced understanding of how the anarchist organisation should function in relation to the mass movement. This understanding was born out of the practice in working with various social groups, including the unions and students.

None of these initiatives were ultimately successful. However, the notion of Platformism, the Anarchist Vanguard group [2] [3] and Especifismo [4] have seen growing interest in recent years. This interest grows out of repeated failure by anarchists to gain traction since the failed revolution of '36 and a look at the (qualified) successes of the Especifismo approach.

In order to have a libertarian revolution, the manner in which the power of the state is dispensed with is essential. The "seizure of the state", as Leninist groups approach the problem, simply replaces one form of rule with another. In order to change the structures of power fundamentally, from the base, it is necessary to have a social revolution.


Specifism is an hypothesis. One which has not fully been tested or seen unqualified success. This hypothesis however is rooted in experience, of both success and failure, gained in real struggles. Since the working class is at such a disadvantage, we have not seen any unqualified successes, and therefore those techniques that look promising must be evaluated with a combination of theoretical probing and active attempts at implementation.

The hypothesis is that anarchists should organise into specific political organisations with the intention of promoting the development and radicalisation of elements in those sectors of society which can represent the interests of the working class. These sectors might include the unions, students, unemployed, community groups or anywhere else that strategic and tactical analysis would point towards as a promising sector.

This interaction with particular sectors, which we will call social engagement* involves the active participation of militants in these mass organisations and sectors in ways that will advance the class. The basic rule of thumb for determining advancement is summed up in the following maxim "anarchists should actively promote the increasing participation and power of the working class". That is, we would like to see self-actualisation, self-organisation and the building of prefigurative libertarian structures. This rule of thumb, however, is insufficient. We must attempt to express the libertarian worldview simultaneously. This can happen in the ideological vacuum that is a consequence of struggle, when the illegitimacy of the common sense notions that we inherit from capitalist society are exposed. We need to be bold in widening the division in thinking as the working class begin to see the bankruptcy of ruling class ideas.

Towards Non-Substitutive Engagement
Political revolution is the revolution of heroes, the revolution of a minority. Social revolution is the revolution of the common people, a revolution of the great masses. - Liu Shifu

Social engagement is an alternative to both the substitutionism of Lenin and Guevara, and its tacit rejection so often characterised by those who define themselves in opposition to Leninism in the anarchist milieu and the ultra-left. While not all Leninist or Guevarist tactics are substitutive, they tend to have no critique of the practice. If the revolutionary vanguard, the active or militant classes or the guerrilla armies substitute themselves for the working class then there is no libertarian revolution.

This is true because the elements who substitute can not know the aims of the working class. In the subjective sense, this class can't even be said to exist in the absence of the realisation of their own position in society. In the absence of their own consciousness of existence, they can't have any collective sense of needs. Their needs would then have to be assessed by a group that did not include them, but was outside them. Liberty is about the capacity to make choices. Any revolution in which decisions are made in ones stead, or on ones behalf, is not libertarian.

Neither can this substitutive element increase working class participation by acting in its stead. This participation is a crucial ingredient towards the creation of a new society run by the working class, for the working class. A substitutive group will eventually develop its own class interests.

History has born out this lesson with impressive regularity including the great "communist" revolutions of Russia and China. In the end, both Russia and China devolved into oligarchic capitalism as the substituted revolutionaries relaxed naturally into their position as the new ruling class.

The negation of the Leninist programme, which was first embraced by the ultra-left and later by many groups including the Forest-Johnson tendency, and various anarchist and other libertarian communist groups, is now widely accepted in the libertarian left.

This negation views Leninism's direct active participation in struggle as so dangerous that any sort of activity is in danger of being substitutive. Interaction bears a threat of infection. In this atmosphere most libertarian groups have become either closed or interact only through propaganda, attempting to enlighten the class, but not to guide them.

Social engagement however asks for a third path; interaction for the realisable gain of libertarian advantage. This means that anarchists would actively take part in organisations and communities attempting to build class power. They would argue in their unions for progressive politics and revolutionary goals. Pushing beyond arguments for improved conditions towards the complete removal of capitalism. They would argue in their schools for open access to education. They would argue in their communities to for common ownership of resources and services. All of this would be done by including and assisting cooperatively with the class.

* This has sometimes been called Social Insertion by South American comrades

[1] The Organisational Platform of the Libertarian Communists, Dielo Truda (Workers' Cause)
[2] The Manifesto of Libertarian Communism, Georges Fontenis
[3] The Friends of Durutti Group: 1937-1939, Agustin Guillamón
[4] Especifismo, NEFAC
[5] Interview with the Rio de Janeiro Anarchist Federation (FARJ)
[6] The FAU's Huerta Grande