A response to a couple of articles in the Socialist Worker, brought to my attention by a friend:
How do anarchists see change happening?
I think this is a very interesting discussion. It is a discussion that does not enter the respectable canon, but I think it is important. And, it is a discussion that, in my experience, often takes place in a less than satisfactory fashion. Sadly, this series of articles I find less than satisfactory, although I can understand how existing conditions and the present situation lead to such unsatisfactory discussion. So, I’m happy to offer my thoughts on these questions.
This is long. Apologies if it’s too long for you, so feel free not to read — or to delay reading to some unspecified point in the distant future — but since it’s an advanced question, it needs a bit of time.
1. The question
I see this is an instance of the question: What to do? Assuming we agree that the present economic system is terrible, intolerable, exploitative, inhuman, and destructive of the human body and the human spirit, then what should we do about it? There are several aspects to this question: What do we want instead, and how do we decide what we want? This is the question of vision. What processes should we implement, what is the social trajectory that will lead us towards a better society? This is the question of strategy. What types of actions should we engage in right now, in order to set in motion the social trajectory towards a better society? This is the question of tactics.
These questions are all impossible, I would say. So, you can’t answer them, human societies are far too complicated, the best you can do is offer your informed, inevitably feeble, assessment of the situation and engage in this discussion with others, in the hope that together we can find a way forward. It is on this basis that I think we have to proceed for these questions.
2. Definitional problems
Trostkyism and anarchism are two labels that have arisen to particular sets of answers to these questions. They are worth debating between, I would say, though they are most certainly not all the possible answers. But the first problem, and a massive problem, is that it’s not clear what the words mean. This is a crucial part of why I consider most discussion of the question, and this set of articles in particular, so unsatisfactory. To have a debate between Trotskyists and anarchists where neither properly defines what their positions mean, is likely going to end up with talking past each other, unfounded denuncations, and is not going to advance socialism or the understanding of the debaters or the audience. This is my experience, and it appears to have happened in this series of articles.
I would say that Trostkyism is much more well-defined than anarchism. Trotskyism is a tradition that traces its origin fairly directly through Marx, Lenin, the Russian revolution, and of course Trotsky. It
has, I would say, some institutional programme that you can point to, some canonical texts, some organizations which claim the label, and so on. For instance, you could say uncontroversially that the International Socialist Organization is Trotskyist, and you can say that the Socialist Worker is a publication that is essentially Trotskyist in orientation. Therefore, there is certainly an interest in the Socialist Worker to promote Trotskyism and critique other
ideologies and visions.
Anarchism is a much more nebulous phenomenon. The origin is much more dispersed and contested, and indeed it may be that there are as many versions of anarchism as there are anarchists. This makes it much harder to pin down what anarchism stands for, what it seeks, what society it envisions, and so on. There are even capitalists who claim the label – “anarcho-capitalists”. But such politics are not worth discussing in this context. In my view anarchism is a subset of socialism, just as Trostskyism is a subset of socialism. Within that context, I think there is something of a history which one can point to as the anarchist tradition or heritage: Bakunin, Kropotkin, Proudhon, Rocker, Malatesta, for instance. There are fewer organisations which one can count as anarchist, especially today, but I would include the Spanish CNT, and the IWW, in this tradition. Note d’Amato calls the IWW “syndicalist”, rather than “anarchist”. This is part of the definitional problem, not one d’Amato addresses in any
satisfactory way, in my opinion.
It follows that d’Amato has a much more difficult task in critiquing “anarchism”, whatever that means, than he would have if he were critiquing Trotskyism, purely from the point of view of what the task means. In this sense I sympathize with him. However, this does not excuse him from the responsibility of defining what he is talking about, something he fails to do anywhere near adequately, I would say. Not doing this means running the risk of insulting and marginalizing people who might label themselves anarchist but not fit into his definition. That includes people like me. (Not that I took his article personally!) And this vagueness of “anarchism” makes your task easier, if you are writing a sectarian critique, because it allows you to find straw men to knock down; and at times, to me this is how it reads.
I don’t want to spend hours debating definitions about what is and isn’t Trotskyist or anarchist. My approach to this definitional problem, broadly, is usually to draw a distinction between two broad historical trends, or tendencies, or philosophies within socialism, and which is about the closest thing one can obtain to a neat categorisation. I usually call them authoritarian and libertarian socialism. Trotskyism is included in the former, anarchism in the latter; and the question of Trotskyism versus anarchism, to me, is in its essence the question of authoritarian and libertarian socialism. Many might disagree with this classification, and no doubt “authoritarian” is a pejorative term, which gives my opinion away immediately, but nonetheless I think there is, more or less, a fairly neat bifurcation.
Authoritarian socialism would include Trotskyists, Maoists, Leninists, Stalinists, Bolsheviks, communist parties, orthodox Marxists, and central planning economists, I would say. In fact, it seems likely that Marx and Lenin are the intellectual root of everything on this side of the bifurcation – Lenin is perhaps the unifying thread to this side, since Marx is claimed by many others. So, instead of the pejorative term “authoritarian”, one might prefer “Marxist-Leninist”. No doubt there are serious differences between these various tendencies – there have been many splits in socialist and communist parties! — and no doubt many socialists would question the socialism of the USSR and so on.
Nonetheless, I think, as an intellectual and historical heritage, it is distinct from libertarian socialism, in which I would include anarchists, syndicalists, libertarian municipalism, council communism, “left Marxism”, participatory economists, the IWW, and the CNT. Again there are serious differences within all these tendencies, but they all share an orientation fundamentally different from the above.
Note that this is not a complete or neat cleavage of socialism into two parts. “Market socialism” and the Yugoslav example does not fit neatly into either. “Feminist socialism” perhaps straddles both. Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian programme in Venezuela seems to include parts of both visions. It’s just a way to talk about the question, which is what you have to do in the social sciences, because social science is not mathematics.
3. Vanguard politics and prefigurative politics
I personally have little interest in the political distinctions between Trotskyists, Maoists, and various other authoritarian socialists; and I w
ould usually critique any of them on a common basis. For one thing, they all advocate a vanguard party seizing power. For another, insofar as they advocate a specific economic vision (and often they do not; Marx did not), it seems to amount to central planning, and this is the historical experience with communism, Yugoslavia aside. I find central planning pretty horrendous on many many grounds which I won’t go into here, but very broadly: it’s undemocratic, it retains authoritarian structures in the workplace, it produces an elite class of planners and coordinators, it does not give people control over their own lives, it does not lead to the full liberation of human potential. Many, however, follow Marx in not setting out any economic vision, and leaving it to the people themselves after the revolution; this seems to be d’Amato’s position, although he is not explicit in these articles. I have serious difficulties with this, as I think vision is essential for serious social change. Moreover, in this context, if the economy is to be left until after the revolution, when the vanguard party has seized control of the state, then I think this is a recipe for disaster, and then the reproduction of authoritarian structures is natural, predictable, and obvious. Anarchists were predicting the course of a revolution led by authoritarian socialists well before the Russian revolution, and on this point history proved them right.
That said, Leninists of various stripes may reply that that is a valid criticism, that Soviet Russia ceased to be socialist at some point (various points possible!) not long after 1917, and so on. They might argue that the vanguard strategy is the only feasible one; they might argue that the vanguard strategy, although it can lead to authoritarianism, need not always do so. To which I would reply, regardless, the risk of authoritarianism seems so great, and so natural, that I would look for a different strategy.
The libertarian approach, on the other hand, is that movements should be “prefigurative”, something d’Amato mentions. That is, the structure and organisation of movements for radical social change should prefigure the society they wish to build. They should begin to build a new society within the shell of the old. It follows that any organisations and movements we build should not have authoritarian structures, should not just seek a society based on the values we seek, but express these values, themselves, in their daily workings. I find this point absolutely unarguable, especially today and in the democracies; in the 19th century, or in repressive states, there is more of a need for radical movements to be more conspiratorial, secretive and hence hierarchical and authoritarian. Hence, libertarian movements today involve such structures as affinity groups, councils, collectives, federations, spokescouncils, and so on; and they advocate for such things as worker councils, consumer councils, participatory democracy, participatory economics, and so on. Moreover, prefigurative politics is not unique to libertarian socialism – the history of authoritarian socialism taking power is a case study! Hierarchical, disciplined, centralized, male-dominated, elitist, authoritarian party takes power and imposes hierarchical, disciplined, centralized, male-dominated, elitist, authoritarian state and economy.
The only argument remaining for authoritarian socialists that I can think of (I am trying to be generous), is that non-hierarchical, non-centralized type organisation is ineffective, that movements require strong central direction. That is an argument not based on principle, but based on expediency; and indeed, if we found in practice, empirically (I can think of no way this could be proved one way or the other, theoretically) that society, culture, and human nature were sufficiently lazy, immature, conflict-ridden, or directionless that anti-authoritarian organisation could not succeed, then we might well resign ourselves to centralized, authoritarian
organisation. But if so, that would be very sad, I would say, and we would have to do it with tears in our eyes; personally, I do not believe there is enough historical evidence to throw away the possibility of radical social change based on libertarian, anti-authoritarian organisation, and as long as that is the case we should strongly prefer it. (Even if the historical evidence were overwhelming that anti-authoritarian movements are ineffective, which I think it very much it is not, one could still reject authoritarian organisation on the grounds cited above, and hope for the best.)
Now, d’Amato argues against prefigurative politics, though quite surprisingly to me, he does not make this argument about effectiveness, which would be a valid argument, I would say, just one I would disagree with.
Rather, first, he ridicules prefigurative politics, as if it were self-evidently silly, and equates it to “lifestyle politics”. In this, I find it hard to believe he could take his own argument seriously. He describes prefigurative politics pretty much precisely as I just said, except that along with affinity groups and collectives he throws in vegetarianism, and then calls all this a “lifestyle approach”. I think there is something serious he is trying to say, which I will get to shortly, but this is really unsatisfactory, quite possibly demeaning to anyone who wants to consider these questions seriously.
There is really some confusion here, I think, and d’Amato is conflating prefigurative ideas in institutions with prefigurative ideas in everyday life. When we talk about prefigurative politics, we are talking about the structures of our organisations, its
decision-making processes, and so on. We are saying these, now, should emulate what we want them to be in the future. This is a point on which authoritarian and libertarian socialists differ. But what we are *not* talking about is pure interpersonal interactions and lifestyle. About this sort of “lifestyle politics”, one can argue whether some people put an undue emphasis on it, to the exclusion of other concerns. But that’s not what the question of prefigurative politics is about, at least not to me. And in this, I am not sure whether d’Amato is mistaken, or this is a lapse, a serious confusion, or he is being mean, or unthinkingly following the party line, or whatever.
The serious question d’Amato is getting at (rather than the question at hand!) is this question of whether people take “lifestyle politics” too far, and use it as an excuse for not engaging in broad social activism. Here I take “lifestyle politics” to include various things like vegetarianism, ethical consumerism, organic farming, radical self-reliance, drug use, dropping out, the hippie movement, and many other things, potentially. I don’t know precisely what he is referring to, but I do not take these to be the same as anarchism, or part of it; they partly overlap with it, surely, as they overlap with many other things, most notably I would say the environmental movement. Obviously, in his mind, anarchism involves some sort of “lifestyle politics”, and this surely arises from definitional difficulties. Clearly, the principle of acting in everyday life according to your principles is ethically inarguable; but if this means that one spends too much time thinking about one’s own actions for oneself, and not for the rest of society, that could be a problem. But these are just truisms, surely, and I don’t think they really bear upon the problem at hand.
He does then go on to make another argument against prefigurative politics, again not on the basis of expediency, but *on principle*:
“One does not expect the plow to prefigure the wheat; nor should we expect our methods of organizing to fight for a better world to prefigure or look exactly like the world we plan to achieve.”
This is no doubt true, but it’s not what prefigurative politics is about. Prefigurative politics is saying that we should employ methods of organising, not as we expect the world exactly to look like, but as we *think* it *mi
ght* look like, and how we *hope* it should look like, according to our best (though surely feeble) judgment. The fact that it’s a difficult question doesn’t give us an excuse to employ bad organisational structures – and in particular, authoritarian ones, that are arguably bad in principle, as well as likely to lead to bad results in practice. It might be true that prefigurative politics has a tendency towards producing blueprints for the future, which unnecessarily influence the present, and forgetting that the future is always highly uncertain. But this is not what d’Amato says: he shifts the discussion by describing prefigurative politics as organizing “exactly like the world we plan to achieve”. Again, I find it hard to believe a serious socialist like d’Amato could take this argument seriously.
Moreover, d’Amato does not address at all the serious problems with *non*-prefigurative politics in Trotskyism, which he does not defend at all. He raises a serious issue, which entails serious criticism of his own position, but then shifts the goalposts, two different ways, and moreover ridicules those who take an opposing view. I’m afraid I find this highly unimpressive, and all too reminiscent of my own experiences with Trotskyism.
The next argument is about consensus-based decision making. It’s true that non-hierarchical organisations often employ consensus procedures for decision-making procedures. A relevant (though cynical-sounding) remark is that this is often done to stop them getting taken over by an authoritarian socialist group which stacks a meeting and forms a majority. He notes various concerns with consensus, which I think are valid concerns. It can lead to long discussions, every individual person can hijack a meeting with their veto, and so on. The question, however, is what form of decision-making procedures are appropriate. It’s not at all clear to me that, at least in movement organisations, majority voting is much better. For then 49% of the group can be walked over, marginalised, not taken account of, and so on. In an organisation which is supposed to be composed of members sharing a generally similar outlook and working towards common goals, this is also highly problematic.
However, I would not identify anarchism with consensus decision-making. I would associate anarchism with some radical form of democracy, taking control of one’s own life, participation and so on; and this can be expressed in various ways, and often consensus, but not always. For instance, one operative principle I very much like, given by Albert and Hahnel in the context of participatory economics — which I would say is a libertarian socialist or anarchist economic vision — is that people should have decision-making power over any decision proportional to the degree they are affected by the decision. That’s a vague principle, and not given in the context of activist organisations, but it’s clearly not consensus. In activist organisations, consensus is not the only answer, and obstructionism might lead to a looser rule, like some supermajority rule; d’Amato concedes this.
But this is a core question about the sort of society we want to see: What is the appropriate way for people to have a say over decisions that affect them? I think consideration of this question leads inexorably towards a democratic economy, for instance, not only the abolition of private capital, but to workers councils and so on. And, I think it also leads to a rejection of central planning. It’s not a precise question, and the answer depends on circumstances; it’s certainly not the case that anarchism implies consensus implies bad. Anarchism (and socialism more generally) sometimes might like consensus for certain decisions; consensus might sometimes work or might not. In this, anarchists and Trotskyists confront precisely the same questions; I don’t see any necessary dogmatic attachment in either.
5. The Spanish experience and working with the State
D’Amato turns to the Spanish civil war, which is regarded as a high point of anarchism. Indeed, the economic system established in anarhcist-controlled parts of the country throughout the civil war is an extremely interesting episode, and arguably gives great hope for the possibility of establishing an economy not based on exploitation or greed, and neither on central planning and dictatorial direction. Moreover, the Spanish anarchists, though (at least at first) allied with the other socialist groupings against the fascists and other right-wing forces, were eventually turned upon by other authoritarian socialist forces – in particular, the PSUC, as I recall, which was funded by the Soviet Union. So, they were opposed not only by the fascists and the church, not only by the democracies (which refused to support them), but also by the authoritarian socialists. In that
context, the achievements of the anarchist movement in Spain are extremely impressive, in my view, and are completely at odds with d’Amato’s declaration that “as soon as [anarchist ideals] began to touch real-life situations, the principles would begin to be abandoned, one by one, grudgingly or otherwise.” Perhaps the conclusion is true, but it would be better to say “massacred” rather than “abandoned”, whether by authoritarian socialists or by the right.
It’s true that the CNT was offered a position in the Spanish government, as a result of their leading role in the armed resistance to fascist forces – as I recall, after the defence of Madrid. This was an extraordinary moment in history, an incredible dilemma for the anarchists. It’s true that they declined the offer, as I recall, I think for many reasons, complex and various reasons, but one of them being an opposition to the State itself per se as d’Amato says. It’s true that they were heavily criticised for this – but there were many arguments both way. I can’t recall all the details at this instance, but I do recall it was a complicated decision. Given the number of different factions and socialisms in the civil war, everything in that period of history was a complicated affair!
But the reverse has happened elsewhere. Proudhon was elected to the French parliament, and wrote about how becoming part of the state changed him, so that he did not even notice the plight of working people, consumed with state duties. The question of what to do is difficult, and it’s not an easy one. There are many examples one can turn to, but I certainly don’t think that they amount to d’Amato’s denunciation as principles which are hastily abandoned. This is not a sectarian question. Any movement has to decide how to interact with the State. Authoritarian socialists have regularly abandoned their principles upon taking power throughout history.
In any case, this is one episode from history, and no doubt it has sectarian value to bring it up, and no doubt it is interesting to imagine how history might have been otherwise. Trotskyists can go on about how to re-run the Russian revolution but avoid it turning bureaucratic; anarchists can go on about how to build a better world and their relationship to the state in the process. My view is that the structure of Trotskyist movements makes the accomplishment of their goals nigh impossible; so that one is left to libertarian structures. How to make that change happen, however, is still an open question, and libertarian approaches are open to a much wider range of strategies, if only because of the nebulousness of their formulation.
What I disagree with most forcefully here, and what I think is self-evidently wrong, is d’Amato’s insistence that anarchism will never collaborate with the state. The ideal of the State withering away is a long way off, but I think many socialists, authoritarian and libertarian, favour that ideal, even though it is a distant goal. Moreover, I think all socialists, of any stripe, would be in favour of *extending* the State in the short run, to provide universal health care, social security, and so on. Some libertarian socialists might believe that mass nationalizatio
n is the best way to turn industry over to workers’ control. Many libertarian socialists talk about seeking “non-reformist reforms”. These all seem valid approaches to me; again, the problem is that “anarchism” can mean almost anything, and d’Amato has defined away all these other approaches. The straw man prevails!
I would say that anarchism does have a mistrust and aversion to the State – and indeed to all forms of illegitimate power. I would not say that it is so purist as to never do anything involving the State, at least in the short run.
Most of the rest of the first article is beneath comment, although I’m happy to comment on anything else if you like. Any argument which runs along the lines of “my anarchist friends said this, therefore anarchism is bad”, cannot be taken seriously unless the things he’s referring to are characteristic of anarchism. How does one respond to the suggestion that anarchism (rather than his anarchist friends), a subset of socialism, dismisses the struggles of working people? It’s ridiculous, and best met with a dignified silence.
I cannot see how anyone who has seriously looked at anarchism, anarchist writings, and its history, could conclude that it just amounts to lifestyle choices – but this appears to be what d’Amato concludes, right before contradicting himself by talking about the CNT taking power in Spain.
Most of the new content in the second article is a discussion of Murray Bookchin. It seems that d’Amato, along with Bookchin, criticises “lifestyle anarchism”, on grounds that I would agree with. But I haven’t read Bookchin, although he is certainly on my many-hundreds-of-books-long reading list. I have read about his economic vision, which sounds not very promising to me; this probably explains why I haven’t read his books. I would be happy to discuss it if anybody else has read it. But since I haven’t read it, and since my comments are now extremely long, I will not comment any further.
Anyway, although I have strong disagreements with much of the article, and difficulties with the way the article proceeds, I think this is a useful discussion.