First published by Soil of Liberty, Minneapolis, 1983
From the original:
The author has meant this pamphlet to be provocative, The Soil of Liberty staff is not in complete agreement with everything in the pamphlet but felt it should be printed. We welcome comments for future magazine issues of Soil of Liberty.
This pamphlet is the second published by Soil of Liberty. The first, “The Relevance of Anarchism to Modern Society”, is also by Sam Dolgoff and is available for 55¢, including postage. Bulk rates are available.
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This summation is written in response to young people seeking clarification of the main issues involved in the classic controversy between Marxists and anarchists. The subject matter is arranged in the form of extracts from relevant sources. The anarchists as well as the marxists speak for themselves in quotations culled from their works. Since the non-anarchist critique of Marxism has taken a libertarian direction, we have also included extracts from such writings.
Our critique excludes forgotten earlier writings disavowed by Marx and Engels and deals only with their mature works. In his preface to Marx’s Critique of Political Economy, Engels revealed that he and Marx had “…abandoned the manuscript of The German Ideology  to the gnawing criticism of the mice…” A Russian visitor, Alexis Vodin, who interviewed Engels in 1893, wrote that Engels “was very embarrassed when I expressed interest in Marx and Engels’ earlier writings…” (see David Mclellan, Marx Before Marxism, 1970, p. 208) Only in 1927 was an edition of the earlier writings published by the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow.
Passages marked in [brackets] are mine. Those marked in (parentheses) are the writer’s. References are also marked in (parentheses).
Marxism is based upon the theory of Economic Determinism (or its equivalent terms – Historical Materialism, Dialectical Materialism, Materialistic Conception of History, Scientific Socialism, etc.). Economic Determinism constitutes the essence of Marxism. It is defined by Engels in this famous passage from his introduction to Marx’s Critique of Political Economy:
“…all past history was the history of class struggles… these warring classes of society are always the products of the conditions of production and exchange, in a word, of the economic condition of the time; [Engels’ emphasis] therefore the economic structure of society always forms the real basis from which, in the last analysis, is to be explained, the whole superstructure of legal and political institutions [the state] as well as the religious, philosophical, and other conceptions of each historical period.. .all moral theories are the product, in the last analysis, of the economic stage which society reached at that particular epoch… with the same certainty, can we deduce the social revolution from the existing social conditions and the principles of political economy… now, a materialist conception of history has been propounded and the way found to explain man’s consciousness by his being, instead of his being by his consciousness…”
[Marx formulates this more concisely]
“..,it is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence – but their social existence which determines their consciousness…” (Critique of Political Economy)
“…the course of history is governed by inner laws operating in spite of the consciously desired aims of individuals...” (Engels, Ludwig Feurbach, p. 48, emphasis added)
Over a century ago Bakunin anticipated much the same arguments against Marx’s theory of Economic Determinism as did later writers. He stressed the point that causes and effects are continuously interacting and replacing themselves. Causes become effects. Effects, in turn, become causes. For example:
“…Marx holds that the political condition of each country is always.., the faithful expression of its economic situation…. He takes no account of other factors in history such as the ever-present reaction of political, juridical and religious institutions on the economic situation. He says poverty produces political slavery, the State, [but ignores the fact] that political slavery, the State, reproduces, in its turn, and maintains poverty as a condition for its own existence…. Marx ignores completely … a multitude of ethnological, climatological and historic causes,.., which independent of the economic conditions of each country, [Bakunin stresses the ‘spirit of revolt’] exert a considerable influence on its destinies and even on its economic development…” (Letter to La Liberte - 1872)
J.M. Cameron, English historian and sociologist:
“…it is not true that in history we are faced, first, with men associating together in economic life, and then with men worshipping the gods, inventing moral codes, .and justifying this or that political order…. We are faced with men engaged in all these activities at once. If we approach history without preconceptions, we have no means by which we can determine certain attitudes to be primary and others secondary. All we know is that they co-exist. As sociologists and historians we ought not single out certain phenomena and describe them as causes and other phenomena as effects. The only assumption that accords with the scientific is that we are faced with a developing whole the parts of which are continuously interacting…” (Scrutiny of Marxism, p. 28; 1948)
The article entitled “Dialectics” in the Encyclopedia Britannia (1969) also stresses the often decisive importance of non-economic factors in the shaping of history, grossly underestimated by Marx:
“…many economic facts are just as much effects as they are causes …changes in artistic tastes, in political institutions, in social traditions and even religious doctrines influence consumption of commodities and thereby become determinants of production and law is just as much a determinant as it is a product of economic life. Thus a maze of causal relationships results and with causes and effects indistinguishable in many instances, no social program could be built on this foundation….”
It may be objected that both Cameron and the Encyclopedia, are too conservative and unfair to Marxism. But R.H. Tawney, a social thinker and historian whose works are highly recommended by the Marxists, voices much the same criticism of Marx’s theory of Economic Determinism:
“…that men should have thought as they did is sometimes as significant as they should have acted as they did… there is an evolution of ideas as well as organisms, and the quality of civilization depends less on physical qualities, than on a complex structure of habits, knowledge and beliefs, the destruction of which would be followed in a year by the death of half the human race… there is a moral and religious, as well as material environment which sets its stamp on the individual… and the effects of changes in this environment are no less profound….” (Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, pp. 18-19)
Engels himself unintentionally (to be sure) pinpoints the major fallacy of Economic Determinism:
“…causes [the economic structure of society] and effects, [the whole legal, political, moral, etc. ‘superstructure’], are constantly changing places and what is now or here an effect becomes there or then a cause and vice-versa… truly, when a man is in possession of the final and ultimate truth, it is only natural that he should have a certain contempt for erring and unscientific humanity….” (Anti-Duhring, pp. 36, 29)
It follows from this that the fundamental dogma of Marxism, Economic Determinism – “the final and ultimate truth”, is, according to Engels himself, demonstrably false.
Economic Determinism: The Role of the Proletariat
Economic Determinism is a doctrine which in practice saps the revolutionary vitality of the masses, conditions them to accept capitalism and to co-operate with their rulers in their own enslavement. To effect social changes, the workers must, according to Marx, adapt themselves to the slow, progressive evolution of economic structures because “no social formation ever disappears before all the productive forces are developed for which it has room, and new higher relations of production never appear before the necessary material conditions are matured in the womb of the old society.” (Critique of Political Economy)
It takes a long time. “We say to the workers and the petty bourgeoisie; ‘suffer in bourgeois society which creates, by developing industry, the material means for the formation of the new society which will free all of you.’” [Marx on the lessons of the 1848 revolutions.] No matter how great the suffering, the workers are promoting progress because “in the evolution of society, ancient, asiatic, feudal and bourgeois modes of production constitute progressive epochs in the economic systems of society…” (Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy)
On the same grounds, Engels goes so far as to defend the institution of slavery: “The introduction of slavery in Greece under the conditions of that time, was a great step forward…, it was slavery that first made possible the development of agriculture and industry and with it the flower of the ancient world, Hellenism. Without slavery, no Greek State, no Greek art and science; without slavery no Roman Empire; without Hellenism and the Roman Empire as a basis, no Europe… without the slavery of antiquity no modern socialism…” (Anti-Duhring, p. 203)
The consistent Economic Determinist could just as well argue on the same grounds that since production had developed to a point where there was a shortage of labor power, and since the shortage was made up by converting prisoners-of-war into slaves, therefore, wars were necessary and ultimately beneficial.
In his polemic against Proudhon (The Poverty of Philosophy, 1847, quoted on p. 357 in Handbook of Marxism, International, 1935), Marx maintained that slavery in America was still an economic necessity, arguing that “slavery is an economic category, like any other. Slavery is just as much the pivot of bourgeois industry as machinery or credit…, without slavery you have no cotton, without cotton, you have no modern industry…, without slavery, North America, the most progressive of countries would be turned into a primitive country. Abolish slavery and you will have wiped America off the map of nations.”
Question: How progressive is a country whose very existence depends on slavery?
Franz Mehring, Marx’s official biographer, explains that “Marx not only shows that machinery and large scale industry created greater misery than any mode of production known in history, but that also in their ceaseless revolutionisation of capitalist society they are preparing the way for a higher social form… the machine which degrades the worker into its mere appendage, creates at the same time the increasing productive forces of society so that all members of society will enjoy a life worthy of human beings, which could not be done before because pre-capitalist societies were too poor.”
Since, according to the Communist Manifesto, the bourgeoisie is the bearer of large-scale industry, it is in the interests of the workers to help the bourgeoisie to seize power as soon as possible and as soon as the bourgeoisie develops industry, to overthrow it. The workers should co-operate gladly because “as long as the rising mode of production furthers the general aims of society, it is enthusiastically welcomed even by those who suffer most from its corresponding mode of distribution. This was the case with the English workers in the beginnings of large scale industry” (Engels, Anti-Duhring, pp. 167-8). A deliberate brazen falsehood if ever there was one and a calculated insult to the valiant English workers who fought for freedom with unexampled courage. (See E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class)
Mehring explains that “Marx and Engels aimed at utilizing the Franco-Prussian War as thoroughly as possible in the interests of the proletarian struggle for emancipation… Engels condemned the leaders of the German Socialist Party, William Liebknecht and August Bebel, because they abstained from voting war credits… The situation is: Germany has been forced into a war to defend its national existence against Bonaparte… Bonaparte’s war policy was directed against the national unity Germany and, since the establishment of a united German state is necessary for the ultimate emancipation of the workers, the war must be supported. Bismarck [in prosecuting the war and unifying Germany] is doing a share of our work.”
Engels wrote that “militarism dominates and is swallowing Europe. But this militarism carries within itself the seed of its own destruction… Military rivalry forces states to spend more and more money on armaments thus hastening financial catastrophe…, compulsory military service makes the whole people familiar with the use of arms… the people revolt against the commanding military lords.., the armies of the princes become transformed into the armies of the People; the military machine refuses to work and militarism collapses by the dialectic of its own evolution… gunpowder and other inventions not only revolutionized warfare, but in revolutionizing industry, warfare represents an economic advance.” (Anti-Duhring, p. 192)
In an 1872 letter to the anarchist Carlo Cafiero, Engels declared that both Bismarck and King Victor Emanuel rendered immense service to the Revolution by creating political centralization in their respective countries. “…just as in economic evolution there is the tendency for capital to concentrate in fewer hands and for the smaller capitalist to be swallowed by the large, so likewise in political evolution it is inevitable that the small states should be absorbed by the great….” (Franz Mehring quotes Engels in Karl Marx, pp. 164-5)
In criticizing [the young, pre-anarchist – Ed.] Bakunin’s Appeal to the Slavs — which called for the independence of the Slavic peoples and the destruction of the Russian Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Prussia, the Neue Rheinische Zeitung (Feb. 14 1849,-edited by Marx) declared that “no Slavic people has a future for the simple reason that they lack the indispensable political and industrial conditions for independence… the stubborn Czechs and the Slovaks should be grateful to the Germans who have taken the trouble to civilize them be introducing them to commerce, industry, agricultural science and education… What would Texas or California have gained if it would be in the hands of the lazy Mexicans?”
It follows from the above quotation that militants who fight against slavery and for racial equality, people who refuse to help the bourgeoisie bosses, people who are against war and militarism, people who are for the freedom and independence of small nations against imperialist domination, are, according to marxist theory, “dialectically” counter-revolutionists against their oppressors who are unconsciously preparing the road for socialism.
Engels extols parliamentary political action and class collaboration — ”…the two million voters for the German Social Democratic Party plus the young men and women non-voters who stand behind them… form the most compact ‘shock troops’ of the international Proletarian Army.., if this goes on, we shall at the close of the century win over the greater part of the middle social layers, the petty bourgeoisie as well as the small peasants, and we shall come to be the decisive power in the land…. The capitalist parties perish because of the legal means set up by themselves,… the Social Democratic revolution… is getting on first rate while abiding by the law…” (pamphlet, “The Revolutionary Act”)
This catastrophic policy which led to the emasculation of the socialist movement and its absorption into the capitalist State, rendered the German socialist movement (numerically the strongest in the world) impotent to resist the First World War as well as the rise of Nazi fascism — historical tragedies whose magnitude it is impossible to assess.
Nature of the State
That economic factors to a greater or lesser degree, depending on circumstances, shape events is an indisputable fact. To assert, however, that the ultimate cause of all social changes is to be found only in changes in the mode and relations of production is a gross distortion which cannot be sustained by the facts of history.
The marxist misconception of history stems primarily from erroneous ideas about the origin and nature of the State and its preponderant role in the shaping of the economic and social life of humanity.
According to the Communist Manifesto, “the executive of the modern State is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.” Bakunin maintained that the State is not merely an agent of the dominant economic class, but that the State also constitutes a class in itself and is the most powerful of all by virtue of its monopoly of armed force and its sovereignty over all other social institutions. In contrast to Marx, Bakunin argued that the State is not only the product but also the creator and perpetuator of economic, political and social inequality.
Bakunin’s critique has in this respect been sustained by modern social thinkers. Sidney Hook states flatly that “the existence of the Soviet Union refutes the theory of historical materialism … since the basic economic changes were achieved through political action [the State].” (Marx and the Marxists, p. 124) It was this development which led Rudolf Hilferding, a noted Marxist economist, to revise his ideas about the nature of the State: “…the Marxist sectarian cannot grasp the idea that the present-day State power, having achieved independence, is unfolding its enormous strength according to its own laws, subjecting social forces and compelling them to serve its ends… Therefore, neither the Russian, nor totalitarian systems in general, is determined by the character of the economy. On the contrary, it is the economy that is determined by the policy of the ruling power. An analogy to the totalitarian State may be found in the era of the Roman Empire in the regime of the Praetorians and their emperors….” (quoted by Hook in Marx and the Marxists, p. 241)
In this connection the political scientist, Michel Collinet, observes that “for Lenin, the Revolution is not the necessary consequence of the productive forces, but of a militarized party of professional revolutionaries who knew how to use an effective strategy to profit by political occasions….” (Le Contrat Social, Jan. 1957)
The Marx-Engels notion that in primitive society the State originally arose to “safeguard the common interests of tribal societies against external enemies and later to protect the economic and political position of the ruling class” is false. The contention that exploitation arose through “purely economic causes… and not at all by the State… that historically, private property by no means makes appearance as the result of robbery and violence” is also false. (Engels, Anti-Duhring, pp. 167, 171, 184)
Evidence to the contrary is overwhelming. All competent historians and anthropologists, among them Edward Jenks, agree that:
“…the State, in its origin, was not an economic, but a military institution… formed by conquest and plunder… unwilling themselves to practice the patient arts of husbandry… the invading hosts settled down like a swarm of locusts on their prey… the rich vineyards and fields of Europe… No permanent State was ever built unaided by an invading host… the State itself, though intensely military in character, imposes itself on a solid base of permanent agriculture, which will supply its needs by wealth drawn from the fruitful soil.., the primitive State was simply a band of warriors under a military leader — Clovis, Rurik, Norman William — but as time went on… as the band of warriors settled down as lords and rulers of their fiefs, as hereditary successors to office and title became recognized… the State began to assume in varied forms the character of an institution, a piece of machinery which maintains a perpetual existence, despite the death of kings and barons…” (Edward Jenks, The State and the Nation, 1919, pp. 130, 131)
“…the State is essentially military in character… its methods are mainly non-productive… they do not produce values, but merely preserve or destroy them.. From its earliest stages its policy has been annexation or plunder of its own or alien communities… it creates property by handing over the resources of the community to individuals or small groups and this is, in effect, what the State had done by creating individual and private property and protecting it with its overwhelming power… the State received its return from this reckless squandering of the resources of the community…” (Jenks, p. 237, my emphasis)
“…the Roman Empire rests on force only, a brute force let loose by the lowest appetites.., it bound every man to his occupation… chained him and his descendants to the same post [occupation], established a real caste system… the wholesale destruction of wealth created by the subject peoples … Rome’s industry in the second and first centuries, B.C. had been war and the spoliation of the vanquished… the fruits of conquest were dissipated in a century…” (Ferdinand Lot, The End of the Ancient World and the Beginnings of the Middle Ages, pp. 8, 65, 84, 85, 82)
We cite a few examples from the anarchist Gaston Leval’s excellent analysis of Marxism which awaits translation into English:
“…the Visigoth dynasty [ruling much of Iberia and France after the Roman Empire fell – Ed.] did not derive its origin from the institution of private property nor from changes in the mode of production. It was the creation of the ‘conquistadores’ who institutionalized the domination and economic exploitation of the conquered peoples…”
“…what became France, was founded by Clovis [first king of the Franks – Ed.], a bandit who murdered his rivals and with a savage horde of warriors from the north routed the Romans and the Germans [Visigoths – Ed]. With each victory he and his successors augmented their forces, conquered more territories, and by plunder, rapine and extortion, engineered the economic subjugation of the conquered peoples, dividing property and the spoils of war among themselves. The true creators of the State were the militarists and the politicians, not only in Spain and France, but also in Flanders [Belgium], Germany, Russia and other northern European countries, and in Italy….”
“…the State by its very nature, tends to have a life of its own. It is a parasitic institution living at the expense of society… in Latin America the Spanish and Portuguese ‘conquistadores’ seized the land of the natives, plundered the urban communities, and by brute force, not by changes in the mode of production, imposed feudal regimes which to this day weigh so heavily on the economic and political institutions of so many nations… to give land to its soldiers and officials, the invaders changed the social structure of the conquered territories…”
To illustrate the predominance of the State, Leval points out that during the post-war period in the newly established small States “there already appeared Ministers, a repressive apparatus, jails, and executioners… There already appear classes. The new classes do not owe their existence to technological developments or changes in the mode of production. They are brought into being by the newly created State — the institutionalized political authority controlling or dominating the economic and social life of the people…”
“…the economy of the newly established States, may deteriorate; mass starvation and disease may decimate the population; but the ministries grow. The police and armed forces multiply. The new bureaucracy flourishes. A new powerful class exploits the peasants, levies taxes, and suffocates the people in an avalanche of rules and restrictions…”
“…Rene’ Dumont, a renowned agronomist and sociologist, reports from visits to some of the new States that the principal industry of these new countries is governmental administration. In fifteen former French colonies newly independent — economic production declined, but the production of politicians grew. In Dahomey, the wages of the governmental bureaucracy absorbs 70% of the national income. The situation in Gabon is just as bad or worse, as it is in other countries Dumont visited. As soon as a peasant learns to read and write he goes to the city to become a functionary..,” (above quotes from Gaston Leval, La Falacia del Marxismo, Mexico City, 1967, pp. 116, 117, 118)
Bakunin anticipated just such a development: “…in Turkish Serbia [after independence – Ed.] … there is only one class in control of the government — the bureaucracy. The one and only function of the State, therefore, is to exploit the Serbian people in order to provide the bureaucrats with all the comforts of life…” (Statism and Anarchy)
The State and Production
Marx and Engels praised the bourgeoisie for advancing the economy by “lumping together… loosely connected provinces.., or small independent states into one nation, with one government, one code of laws etc…” (Communist Manifesto). This assumption, that political centralization — the State, facilitates economic development is a dangerous illusion refuted by massive evidence. The fact is that wars between States devastated whole nations. The State wrecked the economy, stifled initiative and held back progress for centuries.
The Class Struggle
In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels declare that their “theoretical conclusions are based on the class struggle.” That class struggles are a factor in social change no one will deny. But the dogma that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” (Communist Manifesto) is false.
Gaston Leval demonstrates that “wars between migratory hordes and sedentary populations, nations and States, count in history more than class wars — particularly in Europe and Asia… In Spain, recall the six centuries of war against the Arabs. Read the literature of the 10th to the 16th Centuries to realize how little part the class war played as compared to religious and racial factors; how little the class war figured in the conquest of Sicily and almost all of Italy, Flanders and part of France by the Spanish armies; the international religious wars between Christians and Mohammendans; or the conquest of Latin America by Spain — the people of Spain sided with the kings…”(La Falacia del Marxismo, pp 121-2)
Contrary to the Communist Manifesto, the Plebians did not constitute a revolutionary class. In the centuries of the Roman Empire, both the Patricians and the Plebians approved the enslavement of prisoners-of-war, who were drafted to reinforce the armies of Caesar, Lucullus, and Pompeii. Although the Patricians represented the big landholders and the Plebians the small farmers; the Plebians were not interested in the abolition of privilege or the establishment of a new economic order. “Their sole concern,” writes Rudolf Rocker, “was to participate in the privileges of the Patricians and to obtain an equal share in the spoils of war.” (Nationalism and Culture, p. 379)
As compared to the catastrophic impact of wars in this century, even the most protracted struggles between workers and employers are of minor significance.
Marx surely underestimated the importance of nationalism in shaping history. He thought that nationalism would be superseded by class struggles because the proletariat would become class conscious in the process of struggle.
In this connection Lewis Mumford disagrees with Marx:
“When Marx wrote in the 1850s, nationalism seemed to him to be a dying movement… it had in fact, taken on a new life… with the massing of the population into national States which continued during the 19th Century, the national struggle for political power cut at right angle to the class struggle… the struggle for political power now became a struggle between States for command of exploitable areas… after 1850, nationalism became the drill master of the restless proletariat who identified themselves with the all-powerful State” (Technics and Civilization, pp. 189, 190, 191)
Marx and Engels believed that “modern industrial labour subjection to capitalism, in England, France, America and Germany, has stripped the proletariat of every trace of national character. Law, morality, religion, are to the proletariat so many bourgeois prejudices.” (Communist Manifesto)
The trouble with this argument is that workers still nurse these prejudices and act accordingly. What a worker thinks and feels may determine his or her reaction to events more than what he or she does for a living.
With the coming of World War I (which according to Marxist theory should have signalled the long delayed collapse of capitalism), the proletariat – ”the only really revolutionary class” (Communist Manifesto), became rabid nationalists, and even the German Socialist Party deputies in the Reichstag patriotically voted war credits.
In opposition to Marx, Bakunin argued that the bourgeois-minded workers in the advanced industrialized countries are not going to make revolutions [This is incorrect- Bakunin was often sceptical about the upper layer of workers in all countries, and never rejected the Western working class– Ed.].
History proved Bakunin right and Marx wrong. The most notable revolutions of this century have been those that broke out in Russia and China. Nor did the October Revolution, as Lenin expected, initiate a series of proletarian upheavals in the advanced countries of Western Europe that were deemed ripe for the Social Revolution.
Marx attached slight importance to psychological factors in revolution, but Bakunin insisted that revolution was impossible for people who had “lost the habit of freedom.” He left more room for people’s will, their aspiration for freedom and equality and “the instinct of revolt” which constitutes the “revolutionary consciousness” of oppressed peoples.
Rudolf Rocker writes that:
“…in France, crafts and industries were brought under the regimentation of the State… rigorous regulations and methods of work were decreed for all industries… an army of officials took care that no one deviated even by a hair’s breadth from established norms. Tailors were told how many stitches to make in sewing a sleeve into a coat; the cooper, how many hoops to put around a barrel. The State not only decreed the length, width and colour of woven fabrics but specified the number of threads in each weave. Violations were punished by confiscation of goods; in serious cases, by destruction of material, tools, workshops, etc… Just as agricultural production under serfdom declined sharply; so did the Royal ordinances and regimentation wreck industry and bring France to the brink of ruin…”
“As in France, English industry too, was subjected to severe restrictions. The Court was interested only in filling the Royal treasury. Under the reign of Charles I, the monopoly for the manufacture of soap was sold to a company of London soap boilers and a special ordinance forbade any household to make soap for its own use. Rights to exploit tin and coal deposits in the north of England, glass and other industries were sold to the highest bidders…”
“When England acquired its colonial empire, immense territories were sold to monopolists for ridiculously low payments from which they derived enormous profits in a few years… Queen Elizabeth sold exclusive rights to commercial companies to trade in the East Indies and all lands east of the Cape of Good Hope and west of the Straits of Magellan. Charles II gave exclusive rights to exploit Virginia to his father-in-law. Rights were sold to the Hudson Bay Company for 20% of the profits, etc…” (Nationalism and Culture, 1937, pp. 125, 126, 430, 431)
Peter Kropotkin denounced:
“…revolutionaries who glorify the State… the modern radical is a centralist, Statist and rabid Jacobin, and the Socialists (Marxists included) fall in step. Just as the Florentines at the end of the 15th Century knew no better than to call upon the dictatorship of the State to save themselves from the Patricians; so the socialists only call upon the same gods, the dictatorship of the State to save themselves from the horrors of the economic regime, created by the very same State!”
“The role of the nascent State in the 16th and 17th Centuries was to destroy the independence of the cities; to pillage the rich guilds of the merchants and artisans; to concentrate in its hands the external commerce; to lay hands on the internal administration of the guilds and subject internal commerce and all manufacturing to the last detail to the control of a host of officials and in this way, to kill industry and the arts; taking over the local militias and the whole municipal administration; crushing the weak in the interests of the strong by taxation and ruining countries by wars and the lands were either simply stolen by the rich with the connivance of the State or confiscated by the State directly…”
Kropotkin calls attention to the:
“…shameless waste of the Ministers and the Court; the monstrous profits of the private concessionaires who collected indirect taxes and similar profits by the innumerable official collectors who channelled the direct tax into the treasury…. Industry in the 18th Century was dying… all the State was capable of doing was to tighten the screws for the workers; depopulate the countryside; spread misery in the towns; reduce millions of human beings to a state of starvation and impose industrial serfdom,., already, at the close of the 14th Century, an edict by Edward III, King of England, decreed that ‘every alliance, connivance, meetings, enactments and solemn oaths made or to be made between carpenters and masons [or any other trades] are null and void’.., in 1801 the French government itself undertook to appoint mayors and syndics in each of the thirty thousand communes…” (The State: Its Historic Role, pp. 41-43, 46-47)
Engels justified the tyranny of the State on the ground that “forcible measures of Louis 14th, made it easier for the bourgeoisie to carry through their revolution”. But the bourgeoisie, in the name of the “common will” fought the absolute monarchy for the exclusive right to exploit the workers; just as they crushed the revolt of the workers and the sans culottes during the French Revolution a century later. Marx and Engels conceded that the bourgeoisie “established new classes, new oppress-ions… in place of the old ones…” (Communist Manifesto). But their inability to learn from historical events that no State can ever play a revolutionary role, persists to this day.
Marx’s whole theory of history and economic laws led him to predict both the inevitable collapse of capitalism and the dictatorship of the proletariat. But capitalism has not only been able to survive. It has actually become more entrenched by adopting, in various degrees, social-democratic reform measures; thereby absorbing the labour and socialist movements into the structure of the State capitalist economic system (-sometimes designated “welfare state” or “welfare capitalism “)The political scientist Michel Collinet points out that “if the cyclical crises of capitalism are, as Marx predicted, a source of misery and insecurity; it is also a fact that after more than a hundred years, it has not led the working class to make a [PROLETARIAN] Social Revolution. The terrible economic depression of 1929, profoundly divided and demoralized the workers and their political parties who claim to represent them… in Europe the crisis aggravated nationalism and brought on the fascist racist reaction. In America, the ‘New Deal’ of Roosevelt; in France, the popular front… strengthened capitalism…” (Le Contrat Social, January 1967. I have inserted and emphasized the PROLETARIAN to establish the point that neither the largely agrarian Russian nor the Chinese Revolution were really proletarian.)
The Marxist Max Schachtman, in his introduction to Franz Mehring’s biography of Karl Marx, admits the “incontestable fact that the class struggle has not… led to the rule of the working class that was to be transitional-to a classless society — the perspective that Marx himself held to be his unique contribution — cannot be explained away…” And Max Eastman in his introduction to an anthology of Marx and Engels writings, likewise objects that “the very first sentence of the Communist Manifesto, ‘the History of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles’ shows the disposition to read one’s own interests into the definition of facts…”
Marx and most authoritarian socialists did not give much thought to the forms of organization that might translate into reality the ideal of a free, stateless society. The dialectical method which Marx employed in working out his theory of Dialectical Materialism is essentially a philosophy of perpetual conflict between opposing tendencies or forces interrupted by temporary adjustments. There is conflict, but society is also a vast interlocking network of co-operative labour and the very existence of mankind depends upon this inner cohesion.
In this connection, Paul Avrich emphasizes that “mankind, in fact, owes its existence to mutual assistance. The theories of Hegel, Marx and Darwin notwithstanding, Kropotkin held that co-operation rather than conflict lies at the root of the historical process…” (Introduction to the 1972 edition of Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution)
Marx’s failure to appreciate this truth permeates his grossly distorted conceptions.
Marx on Capitalism: The Dialectical Falsification of History
Marx’s notion that the “bourgeoisie has created more colossal productive forces in scarce one hundred years than all preceding generations together…” (Communist Manifesto) is a gross distortion. Lewis Mumford’s classic study, Technics and Civilization, an objective assessment of the relationship of capitalism to technology, corrects Marx on this point:
“While technics owes an honest debt to capitalism, as it does to war, capitalism and technics must be clearly distinguished at every stage … the machine took on characteristics that had nothing essential to do with the technical process or the forms of work… it was because of capitalism that the handicraft industries in Europe and other parts of the world were recklessly destroyed by machine products; even when machine products were inferior to the things they replaced.., the machine has suffered from the sins of capitalism.., contrariwise, capitalism has taken credit for the machine…”
“Although there is a close historical association of modern technics and modern capitalism, there is no necessary connection between them. Capitalism has existed in other civilizations, which had relatively low technical development, and technics made steady improvements from the 10th to the 15th Century without the special incentives of capitalism… between the 10th and the 18th Century all the technical preparations for capitalism had already taken place…” (emphasis added, pp. 26, 27, 28) Which refutes the silly remark that “no earlier century had even a presentiment that such [capitalist] productive forces [existed]…” (Communist Manifesto)
A few examples to refute that falsehood:
John U. Nef:
“…the most startling progress of the physical and mathematical sciences in the 16th and early 17th centuries occurred in parts of Europe that did not participate directly in the speeding-up of industrial growth in England and Northern Europe…” Nef describes the “boom in mining and metallurgy between the late 15th and early 16th centuries… when much of continental Europe was built or rebuilt in the new Renaissance style of architecture…” Nef also documents the “remarkable industrial development especially striking in Northern Italy, parts of Spain, the southern low countries and southern Germany…” (The Conquest of the Material World, pp. 326, 42)
“All modern industry came to us from these free cities [of the Middle Ages]. In three centuries, industries and the arts attained such perfection that our century has only been able to surpass them in speed of production, but rarely in quality or the intrinsic beauty of the product… in each of its manifestations, our technical progress is only the child of the civilization that grew up within the free communes… All the great discoveries made by modern science; the compass, the clock, the watch, printing, maritime discoveries, gunpowder, the laws of gravitation, atmospheric pressure, of which the steam engine is a development, the rudiments of chemistry, the scientific methods already outlined by Roger Bacon and applied in the Italian universities… Where do all these things originate if not in the free cities? In the civilization which was developed under the protection of communal liberties… in the 16th century Europe was covered with rich cities… their caravans covered the continent, their vessels ploughed the seas and the rivers…” (The State: Its Historic Role, p. 29)
“The cities of the 13th century [writes Lewis Mumford] were far brighter and cleaner and better ordered than the new victorian towns. Medieval hospitals were more spacious and more sanitary than the hospitals of the victorian towns. In many parts of Europe the medieval workers had a demonstrably higher standard of living than the drudge tied triumphantly to a semi-automatic machine…” (Technics and Civilization, p. 183)
Kropotkin indignantly refutes the false allegations of the “historians and economists who teach us that the village commune, having become an outdated form of land possession which hampered progress, had to disappear under the action of ‘natural economic forces’…” Kropotkin denounces the Marxian “socialists who claim to be ‘scientific socialists’ who repeat this stock fable… this odious calculated lie… History abounds with documents to prove that the village commune was in the first place deprived of all its powers by the State, of its independence, and that afterwards the lands were either stolen with the connivance of the State or confiscated by the State directly… Have we not learned at school that the State had performed the great service of creating, out of the ruins of feudal society, national unions which had been previously made impossible by the rivalries between cities?”
Kropotkin calls attention to the fact that the “Dialectical Materialists” do not even begin to appreciate the:
“…communalist movement that existed in the 11th and 12th centuries… this movement with its virile affirmation of the individual; which succeeded in creating a society through the free federation of’ towns and villages, was the complete negation of the unitarian centralizing Roman outlook. Nor is it linked to any historic personality or central institution… Society was literally covered with a network of sworn brotherhoods; of guilds for mutual aid… it is even very doubtful whether there was a single man in that period, free man or serf, who did not belong to a brotherhood or some guild, as well as to his commune… In the course of a hundred years this movement spread in an impressive harmonious way throughout Europe covering Scotland, France, the Low Countries, Italy, Germany, Poland, Russia. In these cities [communes] sheltered by their conquered liberties, inspired by free agreement and free initiative, a whole new civilization grew up and flourished in ways unparalleled to this day.” (The State: Its Historic Role)
Since Kropotkin developed these ideas in 1897, further research by reputable historians and political scientists has confirmed his analysis. Edward Jencks wrote:
“…the typical village of the middle ages in Western Europe and indeed, of people in a corresponding stage the world over, was not like the typical village of modern France or England, merely a locality in which neighbours who carry on their work independently happen to live, but a community, carrying on its work as a single body of co-partners governed by customary rules, to which all must conform, it was not competitive… the self-governing municipality, or borough, was the highest achievement of the patriarchal principle; and after a dark period of repression, it gallantly took up the struggle against the newer ideas of absolute rule which produced the institution of the State…. it was founded on the undying principles of brotherhood, freedom and voluntary co-operation, as opposed to subordination, regimentation or compulsory service…” (The State and the Nation, pp. 94, 116, 118, 137, Jenck’s comments concern patriarchal society in transition to the free cities or communes discussed by Kropotkin)
R.H. Tawney suggests that:
“it may do well to remember that the characteristic… of the medieval guild was that if it sprang from economic needs, it claimed at least to subordinate them to social needs… preserve a rough equality among the good men of the mystery [association]; check economic egotism by insisting that every brother shall share his good fortune with another and-stand by his neighbour in need, resist the encroachments of a conscienceless money-power; preserve professional standards of training and craftsmanship, and to repress by a strict corporate discipline the natural appetite of each to snatch advantages for himself to the detriment of all… much that is now mechanical was then personal, intimate and direct, and there was little room for organization on a scale too vast for the standards that are applied to individuals, or the doctrine that silences scruples and closes all accounts with the final plea of economic expediency…”
“…the most fundamental difference between medieval and modern economic thought is that while modern economic thought normally refers to expediency, medieval economic thought starts from the position that there is a moral authority to which considerations of economic expediency must be subordinated… the fact that the socialist doctrine should have been expounded as early as the middle of the 14th century is a reminder that economic thought contained elements much more modern than is sometimes suggested…” (Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, pp. 31, 32, 42, 43)
Thorough research by highly qualified historians leads to the inescapable conclusion that capitalism is not, as the marxists insist, the indispensable progressive precondition for the transition to socialism. Actually, capitalism usurped the creative achievements of mankind and reversed the libertarian trend of society, the better to subjugate the people to the greed of the capitalists and the despotism of the State.
Indisputable evidence also demonstrates that capitalism is not inevitable and that there is a libertarian alternative: a flexible society permeated by the principles of individual and collective freedom, solidarity, self-management, federalism and free agreement. The potential for such a society existed in the village communities, brotherhoods, guilds and Free Cities [communes] of the Middle Ages. Kropotkin did not, as is charged, idealize the Free Cities. In analysing medieval society he took into account “the internal conflicts with which the history of these communes is filled… street riots… blood spilled… reprisals, etc…” But Kropotkin did prove that “all the elements, as well as the fact itself, of large human groupings, freely constituted, were already there…” (The State …) Writing thirty years later, Tawney too, found that “the rise of the Free Cities was one of the glories of medieval Europe and the germ of every subsequent advance in civilization…” (Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, p. 55)
Marx’s theories have not been sustained by events. His system could be best designated as “The Dialectic Falsification of History.” There are no “laws of history” and progress from one stage of development to another is not inevitable. Marxism is no longer relevant to the growing number of people who are alarmed by the unprecedented proliferation of the economic and military powers of the modern State and the concomitant regimentation of the individual. Nationalization of property and means of production, even in a “socialist” State, as advocated by Marx and Engels, does not fundamentally alter the basic inequality between those wielding power and those subject to it. Even Marxists no longer believe that the State will “wither away”. Freedom is not merely the reflection of the mode of production but the essence of life. The dogma that science, philosophy, the arts, ethics and free institutions only mirror the economic mode of production is giving way to the conviction that these phenomena have an independent share in the shaping of history. A theory for the renewal of society that attaches little or no importance to these supreme values does not merit the respect of freedom-loving people.
It is reported on all sides that the winter will mean terrible misery for the working classes all over the country. Aged people say that they have never seen such a want of employment at the beginning of the autumn as is seen now. Skilled workers are as badly affected as the unskilled ones. Nothing similar has been seen in this country since the terrible years of 1884 to 1886, when from one-fifth to nearly one-fourth of the Trade Unionists in the shipbuilding trade were unemployed, when nearly the same proportion of unemployment prevailed in all the leading trades; and when groups of unemployed men were walking all the day long in the streets of London and all the great cities singing their heart-rending, misery songs.
It is no use hiding our heads in the sand, as do the ostriches. The bare truth must be told. It is a national calamity, and as a national calamity it must be faced by extraordinary measures. Read the rest of this entry »
At the Congress held in Paris by the General Region, a speaker who was distinguished by his bitterness against anarchists said: ‘Communism and anarchy howl to find themselves together!’
Another speaker who also spoke against anarchists, but with less violence, cried when speaking of economic liberty: ‘How can liberty be violated when there is equality?’
Well, I think that these two speakers were wrong. Read the rest of this entry »
What we mean by “Direct Action”
Direct Action is the symbol of revolutionary unionism in action. This formula is representative of the twofold battle against exploitation and oppression. It proclaims, with inherent clarity, the direction and orientation of the working class’s endeavours in its relentless attack upon capitalism.
Direct Action is a notion of such clarity, of such self-evident transparency, that merely to speak the words defines and explains them. It means that the working class, in constant rebellion against the existing state of affairs, expects nothing from outside people, powers or forces, but rather creates its own conditions of struggle and looks to itself for its means of action. It means that, against the existing society which recognises only the citizen, rises the producer. And that that producer, having grasped that any social grouping models itself upon its system of production, intends to attack directly the capitalist mode of production in order to transform it, by eliminating the employer and thereby achieving sovereignty in the workshop – the essential condition for the enjoyment of real freedom. Read the rest of this entry »
by Angel Gardner
If there is anything that I have learned from working in the restaurant and retail industry for over 14 years, it is that sexual harassment and sexism in the workplace is an issue that has not gone away. Perhaps you have become more tolerant of being sexually objectified. Maybe you are afraid that being uncomfortable with sexual advances or comments means that you are a prude or hopelessly outdated. The reality is that sexual harassment and sexism are all about power. We feel uncomfortable about standing up for ourselves in these situations because to do so questions power relations; not only in the workplace, but in society in general.
Is it sexual harassment or sexism in the workplace?
- A district manager asks you and your 40-year old female co-worker, “Will you girls make us some coffee for our meeting?”
- Your manager makes all the women in the workplace wear tight baby doll t-shirts which are intentionally a size too small that say, “For a Good Time Call …” while the men are told to wear plain black polo shirts that do not have to be form-fitting.
- During your training at a retail clothing store, you are told to flirt with potential customers to make sales. You feel uncomfortable with this and despite your efforts to be proactive about sales in a professional way, you are pulled aside later for not being “friendly enough.”
- A conventionally-attractive regular customer often sits at the bar and stares at you throughout your shift and has made several comments about your appearance that make you uncomfortable. When you tell him to stop, he says that you should be flattered. Your boss fails to act and your other co-workers, who appreciate his attention, tell you that you are strange for not liking it.
The answer: If any of these policies, attitudes or behavior makes you feel uncomfortable, then you should not have to deal with it. Everyone’s comfort level is different. Some of your co-workers might not mind being called “girl” or “sweetie,” while others may take offense to being referred to as a “woman” or by any gender-specific pronoun. Different expectations for employee uniforms that force co-workers into stereotyped gender roles are sexist practices that create a potentially hostile workplace. Flirting with customers should never be a given, but a choice. Some people may find that they like the attention and get better tips by flaunting their appearance and flirting, but not everyone should have to interact in a similar fashion. Berating others for what makes them uncomfortable promotes an environment of harassment.
So you feel like a policy or an individual at work is creating a hostile work environment? Going the legal route is not always the best or solitary option. Collectively standing up together with your co-workers against sexist practices, policies or individuals can often be the safest and most powerful way to fight. Though it is technically illegal, it is easier for companies to retaliate against an individual than a group of workers. In addition, sexual harassment cases often result in companies dragging women through the mud and can prove to be very traumatic for the victim. Legal processes can take a long time to resolve, but taking direct action in your workplace is immediate. When workers come together to fight sexual harassment and sexism, we are empowered by taking back the workplace and at the same time, form closer bonds with our co-workers by building mutual trust and respect for one another.
How do I fight sexism and harassment in my workplace?
- Form a coalition with co-workers who share and/or are sympathetic to your concerns. Sexual harassment affects union and non-union members alike, so do not exclude any possible allies.
- Ban customers and clients who are repeat offenders from the store and make sure that the ban is being enforced by the rest of your co-workers.
- Confront your boss as a group about sexual harassment issues (perhaps even a definition) and make it known that you take it very seriously and so should they.
- Confront workers who refuse to support their fellow workers when they feel harassed, violated, or uncomfortable. Have one-on-one conversations about the impact of their actions (not respecting boundaries) and words (“it’s not a big deal”), and express your feelings in a genuine, but professional manner.
- Any policy, dress code, or expectations that fellow workers find to be sexist should be addressed, regardless of whether or not you’ve reached consensus. If you are required by your job to wear a tight baby doll t-shirt, but men can wear polos, you should also be able to wear polo, if you do not want to wear the t-shirt.
This article originally appeared in the March edition of the Industrial Worker, the newspaper of the Industrial Workers of the World. It does a great job answering many questions relating to sexual harassment.
The specific anarchist organisation uses, both for its internal and external functioning, the logic of what we call “concentric circles” – strongly inspired by the Bakuninist organisational model. The main reason that we adopt this logic of functioning is because, for us, the anarchist organisation needs to preserve different instances of action. These different instances should strengthen its work while at the same time allowing it to bring together prepared militants with a high level of commitment and approximating people sympathetic to the theory or practice of the organisation – who could be more or less prepared and more or less committed. In short, the concentric circles seek to resolve an important paradox: the anarchist organisation needs to be closed enough to have prepared, committed and politically aligned militants, and open enough to draw in new militants.
A large part of the problems that occur in anarchist organisation’s are caused by them not functioning according to the logic of concentric circles and by not implementing these two instances of action. Should a person who says they are an anarchist and is interested in the work of the organisation be in the organisation, despite not knowing the political line in depth? Should a laymen interested in anarchist ideas be in the organisation? How do you relate to “libertarians” – in the broadest sense of the term – who do not consider themselves anarchists? Should they be in the organisation? And the older members who have already done important work but now want to be close, but not to engage in the permanent activities of the organisation? And those that can only rarely dedicate time for activism? There are many questions. Other problems occur because there are doubts about the implementation of social work. Must the organisation present itself as an anarchist organisation in the social movements? In its social work can it form alliances with other individuals, groups and organisations that are not anarchist? In such a case, what are the common points to advocate? How do you carry out social work in a field with people from different ideologies and maintain an anarchist identity? How do you ensure that anarchism does not lose its identity when in contact with social movements? On this point there are also many questions.
The concentric circles are intended to provide a clear place for each of the militants and sympathisers of the organization. In addition, they seek to facilitate and strengthen the social work of the anarchist organisation, and finally, establish a channel for the capture of new militants.
In practice, the logic of concentric circles is established as follows. Inside the specific anarchist organisation there are only anarchists that, to a greater or lesser extent, are able to elaborate, reproduce and apply the political line of the organisation internally, in the fronts and in public activity. Also, to a greater or lesser extent, militants should be able to assist in the elaboration of the strategic-tactical line of the organisation, as well as having full capacity to reproduce and apply it. Militants assume internal functions in the organisation – be they executive, deliberative or extraordinary – as well as external functions with regards to social work. The functions assumed by the militants within the organisation adhere to self-management and federalism, or to horizontal decisions where all the militants have the same power of voice and of vote and where, in specific cases, there is delegation with imperative mandates. The functions to be performed by the delegates must be very well defined so that they “cannot act on behalf of the association unless the members thereof have explicitly authorised them [to do so]; they should execute only what the members have decided and not dictate the way forward to the association” [Luigi Fabbri. “The Anarchist Organisation”. In: Italian Anarchist Communism. p. 124]. Moreover, the functions should be rotated in order to empower everyone and avoid crystallised positions or functions.
The specific anarchist organisation could have only one circle of militants, all of them being in the same instance, or it could have more than one circle – the criteria being collectively defined. For example, this may be the time that a person has been in the organisation or their ability to elaborate the political or tactical-strategic lines. Thus, the newer militants or those with a lesser ability to elaborate the lines may be in a more external (distant) circle, with the more experienced militants with a greater ability for elaborating the lines in another more internal (closer) one. There is not a hierarchy between the circles, but the idea is that the more “inside”, or the closer the militant, the better are they able to formulate, understand, reproduce and apply the lines of the organisation. The more “inside” the militant, the greater is their level of commitment and activity. The more a militant offers the organisation, the more is demanded of them by it. It is the militants who decide on their level of commitment and they do or do not participate in the instances of deliberation based on this choice. Thus, the militants decide how much they want to commit and the more they commit, the more they will decide. The less they commit, the less they will decide.
This does not mean that the position of the more committed is of more value than that of the less committed. It means that they participate in different decision-making bodies. For example, those more committed participate with voice and vote in the Congresses, which define the political and strategic lines of the organisation; the less committed do not participate in the Congresses, or only participate as observers, and participate in the monthly assemblies where the tactics and practical applications of the lines are defined.
Thus, inside the specific anarchist organisation you may have one or more circles, which should always be defined by the level of commitment of the militants. In the case of more than one level this must be clear to everyone, and the criteria to change a level available to all militants. It is, therefore, the militant who chooses where they want to be.
The next circle, more external and distant from the core of the anarchist organisation is no longer part of the organisation, but has a fundamental importance: the level of supporters. This body, or instance, seeks to group together all people who have ideological affinities with the anarchist organisation. Supporters are responsible for assisting the organisation in its practical work, such as the publishing of pamphlets, periodicals or books; the dissemination of propaganda material; helping in the work of producing theory or of contextual analysis; in the organisation of practical activities for social work: community activities, help in training work, logistical activities, help in organising work, etc. This instance of support is where people who have affinities with the anarchist organisation and its work have contact with other militants, are able to deepen their knowledge of the political line of the organisation, better get to know its activities and deepen their vision of anarchism, etc.
Therefore, the category of support has an important role to help the anarchist organisation put into practice its activities, seeking to bring those interested closer to it. This approximation has as a future objective that some of these supporters will become militants of the organisation. The specific anarchist organisation draws in the greatest possible number of supporters and, through practical work, identifies those interested in joining the organisation and who have an appropriate profile for membership. The proposal for entry into the organisation may be made by the militants of the organisation to the supporter and vice-versa. Although each militant chooses their level of commitment to the organisation and where they want to be, the objective of the anarchist organisation is always to have the greatest number of militants in the more internal circles, with a greater level of commitment.
Let us give a practical example: let’s suppose that an organisation has deliberated to work internally with two levels of commitment – or two circles. When the militants are new they enter at the level of “militant” and, when they have been there six months and are prepared and committed militants, move on to the level of “full militant”. Let us suppose that this organisation has resolved to have a level of supporters. The objective of the organisation will be to draw in the greatest possible number of supporters, based on the affinity of each one with the organisation, transferring them to the level of militant and, after six months – once prepared – to the level of full militant. We illustrate how this can work in practice.
SU being the level of supporters, M of militants and FM of full militants, the objective is the flow indicated by the red arrow – to go from SU to M and from M to FM. Those who are interested can follow this flow, and those who are not can stay where they feel better. For example, if a person wants to give sporadic support, and no more than that, they may want to always stay at SU. The issue here is that all a person’s will to work should be utilised by the organisation. This is not because a person has little time, or because they prefer to help at a time when it must be rejected, but because inside a specific anarchist organisation there must be room for all those who wish to contribute. “The criteria for selection that never fails are the accomplishments. The aptitude and efficiency of the militants are, fundamentally, measures for the enthusiasm and the application with which they perform their tasks”. [Juan Mechoso. Acción Directa Anarquista. p.199.]
The logic of concentric circles requires that each militant and the organisation itself have very well defined rights and duties for each level of commitment. This is because it is not just for someone to make decisions about something with which they will not comply. A supporter who frequents activities once a month and makes sporadic contributions, for example, cannot decide on rules or activities that must be met or carried out daily, as they would be deciding something much more for the other militants than for themselves.
It is a very common practice in libertarian groups that people who make sporadic contributions decide on issues which end up being committed to or carried out by the more permanent members. It is very easy for a militant who appears from time to time to want to set the political line of the organisation, for example, since it is not they who will have to follow this line most of the time.
These are disproportionate forms of decision-making in which one ends up deciding something which others enact. In the model of concentric circles we seek a system of rights and duties in which everyone makes decisions about that which they could and should be committed to afterwards. In this way it is normal for supporters to decide only on that in which they will be involved. In the same way it is normal for militants of the organisation to decide on that which they will carry out. Thus we make decisions and their commitments proportionally and this implies that the organisation has clear criteria for entry, well defining who does and does not take part in it, and at what level of commitment the militants are.
An important criterion for entry is that all of the militants who enter the organisation must agree with its political line. For this the anarchist organisation must have theoretical material that expresses this line – in less depth for those who are not yet members of the organisation and in more depth for those who are. When someone is interested in the work of the anarchist organisation, showing interest in approximation, you should make this person a supporter and give them the necessary guidance. As a supporter, knowing the political line in a little more depth and having an affinity for the practical work of the organisation, the person may show interest in joining the organisation or the organisation can express its interest in the supporter becoming a militant. In both cases the supporter should receive permanent guidance from the anarchist organisation, giving to them theoretical material that will deepen their political line. One or more militants who know this line well will discuss doubts, debate and make clarifications with them. Having secured the agreement of the supporter with the political line of the organisation, and with agreement from both parties, the militant is integrated into the organisation. It is important that in the initial period every new militant has the guidance of another older one, who will orient and prepare them for work. In any event, the anarchist organisation always has to concern itself with the training and guidance of the supporters and militants so that this may allow them to change their level of commitment, if they so desire.
This same logic of concentric circles works in social work. Through it, the anarchist organisation is articulated to perform social work in the most appropriate and effective way. As we have seen, the anarchist organisation is divided internally into fronts for the performance of practical work. For this there are organisations that prefer to establish direct relations with the social movements, and there are others that prefer to present themselves through an intermediary social organisation, which we could call a grouping of tendency.
Participation in the grouping of tendency implies acceptance of a set of definitions that can be shared by comrades of diverse ideological origins, but which share certain indispensable exclusions (to the reformists, for example) if seeking a minimum level of real operational coherence. (…) The groupings of tendency, co-ordinated with each other and rooted in the most combative of the people (…) are a higher level than the latter [the level of the masses]. [Ibid. pg. 190, 192.]
The grouping of tendency puts itself between the social movements and the specific anarchist organisation, bringing together militants of distinct ideologies that have affinity in relation to certain practical questions.
As we have emphasised, there are anarchist organisations that prefer to present themselves directly in the social movements, without the necessity of the groupings of tendency, and others preferring to present themselves by means of these. In both cases there are positive and negative points and each organisation must determine the best way to act. As the views that we advocate in the social movements are much more practical than theoretical, it may be interesting to work with a grouping of tendency, incorporating people who agree with some or all of the positions that we advocate in the social movements (strength, classism, autonomy, combativeness, direct action, direct democracy and revolutionary perspective) and that will help us to augment the social force in defence of these positions.
In the same way as in the diagram above, the idea is that the specific anarchist organisation seeks insertion in this intermediate level (grouping of tendency) and through it presents itself, conducting its work in social movements in search of social insertion. Again we illustrate how this works in practice.
SAO being the specific anarchist organisation, GT the grouping of tendency and SM the social movement, there are two flows.
The first – that of the influence of the SAO – seeks to go to the GT and from there to the SM. Let us look at a few practical examples. The anarchist organisation that desires to act in a union may form a grouping of tendency with other activists from the union movement who defend some specific banners (revolutionary perspective, direct action, etc.) and by means of this tendency may influence the union movement, or the union in which it acts. Or the anarchist organisation may choose to work with the landless movement and, for this, brings people who defend similar positions (autonomy, direct democracy, etc.) in the social movement together in a grouping of tendency. By means of this grouping of tendency the specific anarchist organisation acts within the landless movement and, in this way, seeks to influence it.
This form of organisation aims to solve a very common problem that we find in activism. For example, when we know very dedicated activists; revolutionaries that advocate self-management, autonomy, grassroots democracy, direct democracy, etc. and with whom we do not act because they are not anarchists. These activists could work with the anarchists in the groupings of tendency and defend their positions in the social movements together.
The second arrow in the diagram shows the objective of the flow of militants. That is, in this scheme of work, the goal is to bring people in the social movements that have practical affinity with the anarchists into the groupings of tendency and, from there, bring those that have ideological affinity closer to the anarchist organisation. In the same way as in the previous diagram, if a militant has great practical affinity with the anarchists, but is not an anarchist, they must be a member of the grouping of tendency and will be fundamental to the achievement of social work. If they have ideological affinities, they may be closer to or even join the organisation.
The objective of the anarchist organisation is not to turn all activists into anarchists, but to learn to work with each of these activists in the most appropriate way. While having mutual interests the militants may change their positions in the circles (from the social movement to the grouping of tendency or from the grouping of tendency to the anarchist organisation). Without these mutual interests, however, each one acts where they think it more pertinent.
Charter of Principles of the Anarchist Federation of Rio de Janeiro
(Federação Anarquista do Rio de Janeiro – FARJ)
“We desire the freedom and well-being of all men, all without exception. We want that every human being can develop and live in the happiest way possible. And we believe that this freedom and this well-being cannot be given by a man or by a party, but that everyone should find in themselves their conditions, and conquer them.
We consider that only the most complete application of the principle of solidarity can destroy war, oppression and exploitation, and solidarity can only be born of free agreement, of the spontaneous and desired harmonising of all concerned.”
- Errico Malatesta
Anarchism is a political ideology of social transformation, which is expressed through an anti-authoritarian mode of reflection, interpretation and intervention on reality. It constitutes a revolutionary theory that struggles against all forms of exploitation and oppression. It has its historical origins in the working class struggles over almost two centuries. Committed to these principles, which are a continuation of the organisationalist current of anarchism, the Federação Anarquista do Rio de Janeiro (FARJ) proposes to work – now and without intermediations – in order to interfere in the different realities that make up the universe of social movements.
To achieve its intended goals – to move immediately towards a world where all are free and equal – the FARJ will respect the firm ethical precepts that sustain it, promoting the development of a political culture that is based on respect for the plurality of perspectives and affinity of objectives.
The FARJ is an organisation of active minority, made up of militants conscious of their historical responsibility (“a subject who has a libertarian ethic knows why they’re struggling and is able to explain the ideological motives of struggle, [and] has commitment and self-discipline to carry out the tasks undertaken ” – Ideal Peres). It proposes a radical transformation of society having as its starting point everyday popular life. It seeks always to support the development and strengthening of self-organisation, in the construction of independent and combative activities, in order that we all achieve a truly just society, free and equal, within the conception that each of its components is only an interim fighter inserted in the continued pursuit of human beings but for the realisation of the perfect dream, at least for creating the best possible utopias. To this end, the FARJ always seeks to support the training and development of other self-managed organisations, participating combatively in the day-to-day struggles of popular movements in action, first, in Brazil, in Latin America and especially in Rio de Janeiro.
To achieve these objectives, the FARJ has well-defined principles and content. The assumption of coherence with these principles is what determines ideological authenticity pertaining to anarchism.
In summary, these principles are:
Freedom is the founding principle of anarchism. The struggle for freedom precedes anarchy. The desire to be free – from the contingencies of nature, principally, and, in the second instance, from human predators themselves, which by means of instruments of domination suffocate true egalitarian and fraternal dynamics – is the axis around which, in a permanent process historical, social, political and economic transformations turn. Individual freedom, however, can only find its greatest expression in collective freedom. States, capitalism and their results, class society, false educational principles, authoritarian family practices and ideologies of mass alienation, as well as mistaken theories of social emancipation, which lead to the formation of new tyrannies, currently constitute the greatest obstacles to the full libertarian development of humanity.
2. Ethics and Values
The libertarian ethic is synonymous with anarchism, and is its backbone. It is a non-negotiable militant commitment, and presupposes consistency between life and ideology, that is, living anarchism. We understand that the ends are in the means, just as the tree is in the seed, and that we will only arrive at libertarian ends with political responsibility and through libertarian means. Ethics are exercised in mutual respect, and are responsible for defining the priority of values.
Federalism is a non-hierarchical method of political organisation of society. It presupposes the decentralisation of the process of decision-making and enables the integration of self-managed nuclei at all levels.
It is based on mutual aid and on free association, with equal rights and duties for all. We consider it essential that the federal units exercise their right to deliberate, through delegations taken in the grassroots assemblies, guided by agreed principles, and having the organisational and militant commitment to abide by the resolutions of the council of delegates, thus respecting the decisions of the federative body.
Internationalism is exercised, in practice, through federalism. We understand that internationalism is enriched by respect for diversity of cultural practices and is practiced by the solidarity of struggles and through social self-management.
An anti-capitalist and anti-statist method of socio-economic management at all levels. It is characterised as the management of the means of production and social organisation for the benefit of the collectivity; it is exercised from the grassroots entities, with equal rights and participation of all responsible.
Self-management, as a process of constructing the new, while still living with the current outdated system, potentiates the transformations that point to an egalitarian society.
6. Direct Action
A method of action based on individual and collective protagonism. It is marked by horizontality and by a minimum of intermediation that, when necessary, does not result in the emergence of decision-making centres separated from those concerned.
Direct action is expressed in multiple variants and at all levels and expression, connecting the workers and oppressed to the centre of political action.
“Only direct action shakes thrones, threatens tyrannies, convolves worlds; it alone, principally, educates and strengthens the dispossessed people in their millennial struggle. Direct action is the revolution.” (José Oiticica)
7. Class struggle
We affirm our identity as workers. We fight for a classless society in which everyone can work and have the right to a dignified life. To achieve this objective, we consciously face a daily class struggle against the exploitative elites and the state. We believe that the end of class society will only be achieved with the emancipation of the oppressed in the process of the social revolution.
8. Political Practice and Social Insertion
We understand that, as workers, our intervention must be guided by our own social reality, based on the struggles that we face in our daily lives. However, considering that we anarchists believe that political action involves a greater commitment to social causes, we must always seek to relate our own militant practice to the diverse manifestations of popular struggles. Therefore, we believe that any expressions in this direction in the social, cultural, peasant, trade union, student, community, ecological etc. camps – as long as inserted in the context of the struggles for freedom – contemplate our political practice of social insertion.
9. Mutual Aid
We propose to achieve active solidarity in struggle, fraternising with all comrades truly working for a more just and egalitarian world. Thus, we consider that mutual aid is a logical and direct consequence of the set of principles of anarchism, since we can only implement them through effective solidarity between the exploited and oppressed.
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Our conception is that anarchism, as social thought, does not allow the separating of theory and practice, ends from means and action from transformation; it does not allow for rigid frameworks wishing to establish, for the attitudes of militants, an abstract model that determines their principles and strategies. Anarchism, by being anti-dogmatic and establishing freedom as its primary concern, seeks in the evident contradictions of the capitalist system its field of action. Therefore, it is within the class struggle that the anarchists must be, while having a society of oppressed and oppressors, of bosses and workers, owners and dispossessed. However, as anarchists understand that the class struggle is a means and not an ends, they must be on the alert for certain interpretations of authoritarian meaning that conceive of history as the mere result of the struggle between classes. If there really is a factor that transforms history for libertarians, it can only be the result of the struggle continually engendered by revolutionaries against oppression and in search of solidarity. For anarchists, man isn’t, in the new society, a simple result of historical materialism. Men are not forged by the hammer blows levelled by predetermined dialectics nor by some scheme that transcends them to concrete action.
Therefore, direct action is not only a means or methodology of combat, but the only way to materialise, in attitudes, the desire for individual and collective transformation. In this way the anarchists, who never sought a scientistic systematisation of their social thought, affirm that only through concrete actions can the radical process of transformation result.
Without masters or dogmas, libertarian militants proceed advocating social insertion in the most pressing issues of their lives. Such a relationship puts in the hands of the people and other organised groups the task of changing everything to please everyone. We think that anarchic elements were present in the classless societies of yesterday, and continue, in those of today, not because they represent the result of economic contradictions, but to express, in the fullest form, the desire for freedom common to all individuals and communities throughout time. For this anarchism served, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as an important inspiration for the struggle against the bourgeoisie in the same way as it should determine the ethical standards of the future anarchic society.
“We will support the officials just so long as they rightly represent the workers, but we will act independently immediately they misrepresent them. Being composed of delegates from every shop and untrammelled by obsolete law or rule, we claim to represent the true feeling of the workers. We can act immediately according to the merits of the case and the desire of the rank and file”.*
One of the most noticeable features in recent trade union history is the conflict between the rank and file of the trade unions and their officials, and it is a feature which, if not remedied, will lead us all into muddle and ultimately disaster. We have not time to spend in abuse, our whole attention must be given to an attempt to understand why our organisations produce men who think in the terms they do, and why the rank and file in the workshops think differently.
A perusal of the history of the labour movement, both industrial and political, will reveal to the critical eye certain tendencies and certain features which, when acted upon by external conditions, will produce the type of persons familiar to us as trade union officials and labour leaders.
Everyone is aware that usually a man gets into office on the strength of revolutionary speeches, which strangely contrast with those of a later date after a period in office. This contrast is usually explained away by a dissertation on the difference between propaganda and administration. That there is a difference between these two functions we readily admit, but that the difference sufficiently explains the change we deny. The social atmosphere in which we move, the common events of everyday life, the people with whom we converse, the struggle to make ends meet, the conditions of labour, all these determine our outlook on life.
Do I feel that the man on the next machine is competing for my job? Do I feel that the vast army who have entered into industry will soon be scrambling with me at the works gates for a job in order to obtain the means of a livelihood? My attitude towards the dilution of labour will obviously be different to the man who is not likely to be subject to such an experience. That is why the Engineers have clashed with the Government officials. They are not likely to be subject to the schemes they have introduced, hence they can talk glibly about safeguards.
Now compare the outlook of the man in the workshop and the man as a full time official. As a man in the workshop he feels every change; the workshop atmosphere is his atmosphere; the conditions under which he labours are primary; his trade union constitution is secondary, and sometimes even more remote. But let the same man get into office. He is removed out of the workshop; he meets a fresh class of people, and breathes a different atmosphere. Those things which were once primary are now secondary. He becomes buried in the constitution, and of necessity looks from a new point of view on those things which he has ceased to feel acutely. Not that he has ceased to feel interested, not that he has become dishonest, not that he has not the interests of labour at heart, but because human nature is what it is, he feels the influence of new factors, and the result is a change of outlook.
Thus we obtain a contrast between those who reflect the working class conditions and those who are remote from them. Consider, now, the effect of this constitutional development. The constitutions invest elected officials with certain powers of decision which involve the members of the organisations in obedience to their rulings. It is true to say that certain questions have been referred to the ballot box ere decisions have been arrived at; but it is unquestionably true, also, that important matters have not been so referred, and increasingly insistent has been the progress towards government by officials. They have the power to rule whether a strike is constitutional or unconstitutional, and accordingly to pay or withhold strike pay. Local business must be referred for executive approval, and, where rules are silent, power to decide according to their judgment is theirs. The latter is probably the most important of all. It allows small groups who are, as we have already shown, remote from actual workshop experience to govern the mass and involve the mass into working under conditions which they have had no opportunity of considering prior to their inception. The need of the hour is a drastic revision of this constitutional procedure which demands that the function of the rank and file shall be simply that of obedience.
This is reflected in all our activities. We expect officials to lead, to shoulder responsibility, to think for us. Hence we get labour leaders, official and unofficial, the one in office, the other out of office, speaking and acting as if the workers were pliable goods, to be moulded and formed according to their desires and judgment. However sincere they may be, and we do not doubt the sincerity of the majority, these methods will not do.
Real democratic practice demands that every member of an organisation shall participate actively in the conduct of the business of the society. We need, therefore, to reverse the present situation, and instead of leaders and officials being in the forefront of our thoughts, the questions of the day which have to be answered should occupy that position. It matters little to us whether leaders be official or unofficial so long as they sway the mass, little thinking is done by the mass.
If one man can sway the crowd in one direction, another man can move them in the opposite direction. We desire the mass of men and women to think for themselves, and until they do this no real progress is made, democracy becomes a farce, and the future of the race becomes a story of race deterioration.
Thought is revolutionary: it breaks down barriers, transforms institutions, and leads onward to a larger life. To be afraid of thought is to be afraid of life, and to become an instrument of darkness and oppression.
The functions of an elected committee, therefore, should he such that instead of arriving at decisions FOR the rank and file they would provide the means whereby full information relative to any question of policy should receive the attention and consideration OF the rank and file, the results to be expressed by ballot. The more responsibility rests upon every member of an organisation the greater is the tendency for thought to be more general, and the more truly will elected officials be able to reflect the thoughts and feelings of the members of the various organisations.
Now we have shown some of the principal defects in the constitutional procedure, we will show how these defects have been and are encouraged by defects in the structure.
The ballot box is no new thing, every trade unionist understands the use of it, yet we find that when there is an election of officers, for example, or a ballot on some particular question, rarely more than forty percent vote; that means there are sixty percent who do not trouble. Being vexed with the sixty percent will not help us. An organisation which only stimulates forty percent to activity must be somewhat defective, and it is our duty to find those defects and remedy them.
A ballot is usually taken in the branches, and the meetings are always summoned meetings, so we will consider now the branch as a unit of the organisation. It is usually composed of members who live in certain areas, irrespective of where they work, and irrespective of the turn on which they work.
These are important factors, and account for a great deal of neglect. Men working together every day become familiar to each other and easily associate, because their interests are common. This makes common expression possible. They may live, however, in various districts, and belong to various branches. Fresh associations have therefore to be formed, which at the best are but temporary, because only revived once a fortnight at the most, and there is thus no direct relationship between the branch group and the workshop group. The particular grievances of any workshop are thus fresh to a majority of the members of a branch. The persons concerned are unfamiliar persons, the jobs unfamiliar jobs, and the workshop remote; hence the members do not feel a personal interest in the branch meetings as they would if that business was directly connected with their every day experience. The consequence is bad attendance at branch meetings and little interest. We are driven, then, to the conclusion that there must be direct connection between the workshop and the branch in order to obtain the maximum concentration on business. The workers in one workshop should therefore be members of one branch.
Immediately we contemplate this phase of our difficulties we are brought against a further condition of affairs which shows a dissipation of energy that can only be described as appalling. We organise for power and yet we find the workers in the workshops divided not only amongst a score of branches but a score of unions, and in a single district scores of unions, and in the whole of the country eleven hundred unions.
Modern methods of production are social in character. We mean by this statement that workers of all kinds associate together, and are necessary to each other to produce goods. The interests of one, therefore, are the interests of another. Mechanics cannot get along without labourers or without crane drivers; none of these can dispense with the blacksmith, the grinder, the forgemen, etc., yet in spite of this inter-dependence, which extends throughout all industry, the organisations of the workers are almost anti-social in character.
They keep the workers divided by organising them on the basis of their differences instead of their common interests. Born at a period when large scale machine production had not arrived, when skill was at a greater premium than it is today, many have maintained the prejudices which organisations naturally cultivate, while during the same period of growth the changes in methods of production were changing their position in relation to other workers, unperceived by them. With the advent of the general labour unions catering for men and women workers, the differences became organised differences, and the adjustment of labour organisations to the changes increasingly complex. The skilled men resent the encroachments of the unskilled, the unskilled often resent what appears to them the domineering tactics of the skilled, and both resent the encroachments of the women workers. An examination of their respective positions will reveal the futility of maintaining these sectional prejudices.
Consider the position of the skilled workers. They have years of tradition behind them, also five years apprenticeship to their particular trade. The serving of an apprenticeship is in itself sufficient to form a strong prejudice for their position in industry. But whilst the skilled unions have maintained the serving of an apprenticeship as a primary condition of membership, industrial methods have been changing until the all-round mechanic, for example, is the exception and not the rule. Specialisation has progressed by leaps and bounds. Automatic machine production has vastly increased. Apprenticeship in thousands of cases is a farce, for even they are kept on repetition work and have become a species of cheap labour. Increasingly are they set to mate men on piece work jobs, and although producing the same amount of work receive only 50 percent of the wages received by the men. It will be thus clearly perceived that every simplification in the methods of production, every improvement to automatic machine production, every application of machinery in place of hand production, means that the way becomes easier for others to enter the trades. So we can safely say that as historical development takes away the monopoly position of skilled workers it paves the way for the advancement of the unskilled.
Working in the same workshops as the skilled men, having to assist them in their work, seeing how the work is becoming simplified, knowing no reason satisfactory to himself why, having had to start life as a labourer, he should decline advancement and remain a labourer, takes time by the forelock, and ere long can compete with the rest on specialised work. So also enter the women workers, and thus ensues a struggle between craft, trade, and sex prejudices.
There are in industry seven millions of women workers, more than a million of whom have entered the engineering industry since the beginning of the war. How far they have been successful is no doubt a surprise to the majority of people. In addition to shell production, which has nearly passed into the hands of women, at least so far as the smaller kinds of them are concerned, we read in the Times Engineering Supplement of June 29th, 1917, an account of women’s work, from which the following is taken:
“In particular the Bristol exhibition was remarkable for the many hundreds of specimens of work wholly or mainly done by women. Apart from the still larger range covered by the photographs, fourteen separate groups of samples were shown, dealing respectively with aircraft engines, motor car engines, magnetos and other accessories of internal combustion engines, locomotive and stationary engines, guns and gun components, small arms, gauges, cutters and allied work, drawing dies and punches, welded and other aircraft fittings, aircraft framing and structural parts, projectiles, miscellaneous engineering, and optical and glass work. The list is long, but its very length summarises no more than fairly the variety of applications that are being made of women’s services in one work or another. A similar variety was seen in the composition of most of the individual groups. Details, for instance, were exhibited of several different aircraft engines, of motor car and motor lorry engines of a variety of makes, of “tank” (land ship) and Diesel engines; of the breech mechanism and other parts of a variety of guns, from the 3-pdr. Hotchkiss to the 8-in. howitzer, and, among small arms, of the Lewis and Vickers machine guns and the Lee-Enfield rifle. Over seventy punches and dies were shown for cartridge-drawing alone, and over a hundred varieties of shell-boring and milling cutters, twist-drills, and allied tools, and nearly as many separate parts of aeroplanes.”
That such production on the part of women is general it would be untrue to say, but it at least shows the tremendous possibilities before the women workers, how far the simplifying process has gone, and how the monopoly position of the skilled worker in all but heavy work has nearly gone. In many workshops, however, it can safely be said that women are not a success. As a matter of fact in some places there has been no attempt to make them a success. They are consequently tolerated with amused contempt as passengers for the war.
This position makes a grievous state of affairs for any post war schemes. It makes possible sham restoration schemes to which we all stand to lose by the magnitude of the unemployed market. Thousands of women may be turned into the streets, or become encumbrances on the men who may be at work or who also may be unemployed. Domestic service cannot absorb all women, as some suggest, nor is it possible, as others remark, for them to go back to what they were doing before the war. To put back the clock of history is impossible, and other solutions will have to be found.
It is true that woman labour is usually cheap labour; it is true that women generally are more servile than men (and they are bad enough); it is also true that they are most difficult to organise because of these defects, thinking less about such matters than men. For these reasons they are more the victims of the employing class. The blame is not altogether theirs. We men and women of today have now to pay the price of man’s economic dominance over women which has existed for centuries. Content to treat women as subjects instead of equals, men are now faced with problems not to their liking.
Yet everyone of the wage earning class, whether man or woman, is in the same fix. Each has to work for wages or starve. Each fears unemployment. The skilled men detest dilution because they fear the lowering of their standard of life by keener competition. The semi-skilled, and the unskilled, and the women each desire to improve their lot. All are in the hands of those who own the means of providing them with work and wages. Skilled men are justified in their desires, and so are the others. The only way the mutual interests of the wage earners can be secured, therefore, is by united effort on the part of all independent workers, whether men or women. Many have been the attempts in the past to bring about this result. Federal schemes have been tried, and amalgamation schemes advocated. Characteristic of them all, however, is the fact that always have they sought for a fusion of officialdom as a means to the fusion of the rank and file.
We propose to reverse this procedure. Already we have shown how we are driven back to the workshops. With the workshops, then, as the new units of organisation, we will now show how, starting with these, we can erect the structure of the Great Industrial Union, invigorate the labour movement with the real democratic spirit, and in the process lose none of the real values won in the historic struggle of the trade union movement.
The Workshop Committee
The procedure to adopt is to form in every workshop a workshop Committee, composed of shop stewards, elected by the workers in the workshops. Skilled, semi-skilled, and unskilled workers should have their shop stewards, and due regard be given also to the particular union to which each worker belongs.
For example:- Suppose a workshop is composed of members of the General Labourers’ Union, Workers’ Union, A.S.E., Steam Engine Makers, Women Workers, etc., each of these unions should have their shop stewards, and the whole co-operate together, and form the workshop committee.
Immediately this will stimulate the campaign for the elimination of the non-unionist. We know of one shop where, as soon as the workshop committee was formed, every union benefited in membership, and one society enrolled sixty members.
Where possible, it is advisable for shop stewards to be officially recognised and to be supplied with rules which lend support and encourage the close co-operation which a workshop committee requires.
We suggest the following as a shop steward’s instruction card, for any of the societies:-
- Members’ pence cards should be inspected every six weeks.
- New arrivals into workshops shall be approached by the shop steward nearest to such and questioned as to membership of a trade union.
- Steward shall demand the production of pence card of alleged member.
- Steward shall take note of shop conditions, wages, etc., in the area in which he is acting as shop steward, and report any violations of district conditions as approved by the trade unions which are not immediately remedied to the trade union officials.
- Any dispute arising between employer and employee, which results in a challenge of district conditions as approved, shall be reported to the shop steward.
- Steward shall then consult with other shop stewards as to the course of procedure to be adopted, the results of such consultation to be submitted to the members in the shop for approval.
- Matters which affect more than one department shall be dealt with in a similar manner by the stewards in the affected areas.
- The workers in the workshop should attempt to remedy their grievances in the workshop before calling in official aid.
- Where members of other unions are affected, their co-operation should be sought.
We would also advise that there be one shop steward to not more than fifteen workers. The more active workers there are the better and easier is the organising work carried on. Also, elect a convener in each shop for each class of worker. Their duties will be to call shop stewards’ meetings in the shop, and be delegates to the district meetings. Other duties we shall mention later.
The initiative should be taken by the workers in the various districts. It is immaterial whether the first move is made through the local trade union committees, or in the workshops and then through the committee, so long as the stewards are elected in the workshops and not in the branches. The means are then assured of an alliance between official and unofficial activities by an official recognition of rank and file control.
Having now described how the workshop committees can be formed, and how the committees can be at the same time part of the official trade union movement, we must now proceed to show how the movement can grow, and how it must grow to meet the demands of the day.
Local Industrial Committees
Local Industrial Committees should be formed in each district. It will be readily perceived that no one firm will be completely organised before the workers in other firms begin to move in the same direction. Therefore in the early stages of development, full shop stewards’ meetings should be held in every district, and an industrial administrative committee be formed from these meetings. The size of the committee will vary according to the size of the district, so we will leave that to the discretion of those who form the committee. The functions of these committees are mainly those of educating and co-ordinating the efforts of the rank and file through the shop stewards. For example, one committee provides information relative to agreed upon district conditions, Munitions Act, Military Service agreement, Labour Advisory Board, procedure in the workshops, etc. Then this committee should be the means of extending and developing the organisations, so that the workers can obtain the maximum of power in their hands.
The committee should not usurp the functions of the local trade union committees, but attend to the larger questions, embracing all the trade unions in the industry.
It will have been observed that we have addressed ourselves, so far as practical procedure is concerned, to the engineering workers. This we have done because the nucleus of the larger organisation has already come into being through that industry, and presents us with a clear line of development. So far, then, we have shown how to form a workshop committee, and an engineering workers’ committee in a locality. These committees should not have any governing power, but should exist to render service to the rank and file, by providing means for them to arrive at decisions and to unite their forces.
Works or Plant Committees
The next step is to intensify the development of the workshop committees by the formation in every plant of a plant committee. To achieve this, all the stewards of each firm, from every department of that firm, should meet and elect a committee from amongst them to centralise the efforts or link up the shop committees in the firm. The need for this development we will endeavour to make clear. Just as it is necessary to co-operate the workshops for production, so it is necessary to co-ordinate the work of the shop committees. As there are questions which affect a single department, so there are questions which affect the plant as a whole. The function of a plant committee, will be such that every question, every activity, can be known throughout the departments at the earliest possible moment, and the maximum of attention be rapidly developed. The complaints of workers that they do not know what is happening would become less frequent. The trick of ‘playing’ one department against another to cut rates could easily be stopped, and so on.
Without a central committee on each plant, the workshop committee tends to looseness in action, which is not an advantage to the workers’ movement. On the other hand with a plant committee at work, every change in workshop practice could be observed, every new department tackled as to the organisation of the workers in that department, and everywhere would proceed a growth of the knowledge among the workers of how intimately related we are to each other, how dependent we are each to the other for the production of society’s requirements. In other words, there would proceed a cultivation of the consciousness of the social character of the methods of production. Without that consciousness, all hope of a united working class is in vain, and complete solidarity impossible.
Instead of it being a theory of a few, that the workers are associated in production, the organisation of the workers at the centres of production will demonstrate it as a fact. Then will the smelters, the moulders, the labourers, forgemen, blacksmiths, etc., and all other workers, emphasise their social relationship, their inter-dependence in production, and the power they can be when linked together on a common basis. Consider this phase of development more closely, and how essential and valuable it is will become increasingly apparent.
Not only do we find in modern capitalism a tendency for nations to become self-contained, but also industrial enterprises within the nations tend in a similar direction. Enterprising employers with capital organised for the exploitation of certain resources, such as coal, iron and steel productions, etc., find themselves at the beginning of their enterprise dependent upon other groups of capitalists for certain facilities for the production of their particular speciality. The result is that each group, seeking more and more to minimise the cost of production, endeavours to obtain first hand control over all which is essential for that business, whatever it may be.
For example, consider the growth of a modern armament firm. It commences its career by specialising in armour plate, and finds itself dependent on outsiders for coal, transport, machinery, and general goods. It grows, employs navvies, bricklayers, joiners, carpenters, and erectors to build new departments. It employs mechanics to do their own repairs to machinery and transport. As new departments come into being a railway system and carting systems follow. Horses, carts, stables, locomotives, wagons, etc., become part of the stock of the firm. What men used to repair they now produce. With the enlargement of the firm electrical plant and motors, and gas producers are introduced, which again enlarge the scope of the management for production of goods for which hitherto they had been dependent upon outsiders. A hold is achieved on some coal mine, a grip is obtained of the railway system, and so at every step more and more workers of every description come under the control of a single employer or a group of employers.
We are brought together by the natural development of industry, and made increasingly indispensable to each other by the simplifying, sub-dividing processes used in production. We have become social groups, dependent upon a common employer or group of employers. The only way to meet the situation is to organise to fight as we are organised to produce. Hence the plant committee to bring together all workers on the plant, to concentrate labour power, to meet centralised capital’s power.
Local Workers’ Committee
We have seen how the formation of workshop committees has led us to the formation of an engineering workers’ committee and the plant committee in a locality. These in turn lead us to further local and national development. There are no clear demarcation lines between one industry and another, just as there are no clear demarcation lines between skilled, semi-skilled, and unskilled workers. A modern engineering plant, as we have shown, has in it workers of various kinds; besides mechanics, moulders, smiths, forgemen, etc., are joiners, carpenters, bricklayers, masons, transport workers, etc., all of which are dependent upon the engineering plant, and must accordingly be represented on the plant committee.
This drives us clear into other industries than engineering and makes imperative a similar development in these other industries as in the engineering industry. Then, just as from the trade union branches we have the trade council, so from the various industrial committees representatives should be elected to form the local workers’ committee.
It will be similar in form to a trades council, with this essential difference—the trades council is only indirectly related to the workshops, whereas the workers’ committee is directly related. The former has no power; the latter has the driving power of the directly connected workers in the workshops. So the workers’ committee will be the means of focussing the attention of the workers in a locality upon those questions which affect the workers as a whole in that locality.
The possibilities of such an organisation in a district are tremendous. Each committee will be limited by its nature to certain particular activities: the workshop committee to questions which affect the workshop, the plant committee to questions affecting the firm as a whole, the industrial committee to the questions of the industry, the workers’ committee to the questions relating to the workers as a class. Thus we are presented with a means of intensive and extensive development of greater power than as workers we have ever possessed before.
We have already shown in our remarks on the plant committee how industry progresses inside an engineering plant, and implies a similar development in other industries. One has only to consider modern machine development to readily realise that as machinery enters the domain of all industries, as transport becomes more easy and mechanical, all kinds of workers become inter-mingled and inter-dependent. Engineering spreads itself out into all classes of industry—into the mining industry, the building industry, into agriculture, etc., until we find, just as the other industrial workers have mingled with other engineering workers, so engineering workers and others intermingle with other industrial workers in their respective industries. The consequences are such that fewer situations arise, fewer questions come to the front affecting one industry alone or one section alone, and it becomes increasingly imperative that the workers should modify or adjust their organisations to meet the new industrial problems; for no dispute can now arise which does not directly affect more than the workers in one industry, even outside a single plant or firm.
A stoppage of much magnitude affects the miners by modifying the coal consumption, affects the railways by holding up goods for transport, and in some cases the railway workers are called upon, to convey “blackleg” goods and men to other centres than the dispute centres, and vice versa. A stoppage of miners soon stagnates other industries, and likewise a stoppage of railway workers affects miners, engineers, and so on. The necessity for mutual assistance thus becomes immediately apparent when a dispute arises, and an effective co-ordination of all wage workers is urged upon us. The workers’ committee is the means to that end, not only for fighting purposes, but also for the cultivation of that class consciousness, which, we repeat, is so necessary to working class progress. Furthermore, as a means for the dissemination of information in every direction, such a committee will prove invaluable, and reversing the procedure, it will be able to focus the opinions of the rank and file on questions relating to the working class as no other organisation has the facilities to do today.
To encourage and to establish such an organisation, however, demands cash to meet the expenses involved. In order therefore that even in this matter the class basis shall be recognised, we recommend that associate membership cards be issued from the workers’ committee. The card should contain a brief statement of the objects we have in view, and space for the entrance of contribution, which should be nominal in amount. The manner of collecting contributions can be easily carried out, as follows: let the contribution be paid to the shop steward, who will enter the amount on the card provided, the stewards will then pay over to the convenor of the shop, who will in turn, pay over the amount to the treasurer of the workers’ committee at the shop stewards’ meeting, each checking the payments of the other.
National Industrial Committees
The further extensive development in the formation, of a national industrial committee now demands our attention, for it will be readily agreed that the local organisations must be co-ordinated for effective action.
We are of the opinion that the local structure must have its counterpart in the national structure, so we must proceed to show how a national industrial committee can be formed. In the initial stages of the movement it will be apparent that a ballot for the election of the first national committee would be impossible, and as we, as workers, are not investing these committees with executive power there is little to worry about. Therefore a national conference of delegates from the local industrial committees should be convened in the most convenient centre. From this conference should be elected a national administrative committee for that industry, consideration being given to the localities from which the members of the committee are elected. Having thus provided for emergencies by such initial co-ordination the first task of the committee is to proceed to the perfecting of the organisation.
It will be essential for efficiency to group a number of centres together for the purpose of representation on the national administrative committee of the industry. We would suggest twelve geographical divisions, with two delegates from each division, the boundaries of the division depending upon the geographical distribution of the industry. The functions of the committee should be confined to the focussing of questions of a national character relating to the industry. It must be clearly understood that the national industrial committee is not to usurp the functions of the executive councils of the trade unions. Power to decide action is vested in the workshop so far as these committees are concerned.
If the occasion arises when the rank and file are so out of touch with the executive councils of their unions that they take action in spite of them, undoubtedly they would use whatever organisation lay to hand. Apart from such abnormal circumstances the functions of the committee should be confined to the building up of the organisation, to the dissemination of information throughout the workshops of all matters relating to the industry, initiating ways and means of altering the structure and constitutions of the trade unions, and working with the true spirit of democracy until the old organisations are so transformed that the outworn and the obsolete are thrown off, and we merge into the larger, more powerful structure we have outlined.
National Workers’ Committee
But just as we found it necessary to arrive at the class basis in the local workers’ committee, so it is essential that we should have the counterpart to it to the national workers’ committee. Again we find that history justifies the development. As the trade unionists of the past felt that there was a community of interest between all trade unionists in a locality, and formed the trades council, so they eventually found a similar move on national lines necessary and formed the trades union congress. Its counterpart in our movement is the national workers’ committee. To form this we suggest two delegates should be elected from each national industrial committee. The smallness of the committee will not be a disadvantage. Of its nature it will confine itself to questions which affect the workers as a whole. The financial relationship of the industrial committees and the national workers’ committee can be arranged at the conferences when the initial steps are made to the formation of the committees.
Having outlined the manner in which the structure can grow out of the existing conditions, we would emphasise the fact that we are not antagonistic to the trade union movement. We are not out to smash but to grow, to utilise every available means whereby we can achieve a more efficient organisation of the workers, that we all may become conscious by an increasing activity on our part how necessary each worker is to the other for production and for emancipation.
Unity in the workshop must come first; hence we have dealt more in detail with the shop committees than the larger organisations growing out of them. Not for a moment would we lay down a hard and fast policy. The old mingles with the new. Crises will arise which will produce organisations coloured by the nature of the questions at issue. But apart from abnormal situations we have endeavoured to show a clear line of development from the old to the new.
Working in the existing organisations, investing the rank and file with responsibility at every stage and in every crisis; seeking to alter the constitution of every organisation from within to meet the demands of the age; working always from the bottom upwards—we can see the rank and file of the workshops through the workshop committees dealing with the questions of the workshops, the rank and file of the firms tackling the questions of the plant as a whole through the plant committee, the industrial questions through the industrial committees, the working class questions through the working class organisation—the workers’ committee. The more such activity grows the more will the old organisations be modified, until, whether by easy stages or by a general move at a given time, we can fuse our forces into the structure which will have already grown.
So to work with a will from within your organisations, shouldering responsibility, liberating ideas, discarding prejudices, extending your organisations in every direction until we merge into the great industrial union of the working class. Every circumstance of the age demands such a culmination. The march of science, the concentration of the forces of capitalism, the power of the State, the transformation of the military armies into vast military industrial armies, all are factors in the struggles of the future, stupendous and appalling to contemplate. During the greatest war in history—an engineers’ war—the British Government can allow 80,000 to 90,000 engineers to cease work for three weeks. Let the war cease, liberate the vast number of industrial workers from the army, and what becomes of our petty strike? It sinks into insignificance.
“His Majesty’s Government will place the whole civil and military forces of the Crown at the disposal of the railway companies…” So said the Premier of 1911 to the railway men. So will say the Premier of England tomorrow. The one mighty hope, the only hope, lies in the direction indicated, in a virile, thinking, courageous working class organised as a class to fight and win.
* Hinton, ‘The Clyde Workers Committee and the dilution struggle’ in Briggs & Saville, Essays in Labour History, Vol. II, 1971
Text from the LibCom site with corrections made in reference to the hard copy
edition published by Class War Classix
An early 1970s left feminist interpretation of Malleus Maleficarum * is the centrepiece of this essay by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deidre English. Witches, Midwives and Nurses explains how the American medical profession came to be dominated by rich, white men. It sets the tone for a dark story of the co-optation by men of medicine as practiced by women from the earliest times and the subsequent alienation, persecution, and subjugation of such women with the rise of the male-dominated “medical profession.” The tragic irony of this tale is that all the good about that profession came from the independent “wise women” of olde.
Originally published by The Feminist Press at CUNY.
“To know our history is to begin to see how
to take up the struggle again!”
Women have always been healers. They were the unlicensed doctors and anatomists of western history. They were abortionists, nurses and counsellors. They were pharmacists, cultivating healing herbs and exchanging the secrets of their uses. They were midwives, travelling from home to home and village to village. For centuries women were doctors without degrees, barred from books and lectures, learning from each other, and passing on experience from neighbour to neighbour and mother to daughter. They were called “wise women” by the people, witches or charlatans by the authorities. Medicine is part of our heritage as women, our history, our birthright.
Today, however, health care is the property of male professionals. Ninety-three percent of the doctors in the US are men; and almost all the top directors and administrators of health institutions. Women are still in the overall majority — 70 percent of health workers are women — but we have been incorporated as workers into an industry where the bosses are men. We are no longer independent practitioners, known by our own names, for our own work. We are, for the most part, institutional fixtures, filling faceless job slots: clerk, dietary aide, technician, maid.
- What Next?
- The Crisis
- Reactions to the Crisis: Liberalism and Reformist Socialism
- Reactions to the Crisis: Fascism
- Reactions to the Crisis: The Far Left
Facing an economic crisis of world historical proportions, the worst since the Great Depression, the United States has already responded with striking political changes, particularly the election of the first African-American president. What is likely to happen in the future and what should be the response of revolutionary class-struggle anarchists?
Economically, what has begun is either a deep, lengthy, world-wide, recession — or a collapse into a second Great Depression, possibly worse than the first.
This article is a critique of so-called “primitivism,” an anti-technological current mainly based in Western countries. It has a degree of influence amongst a sector of anarchists, but the author is incorrect to use the term “anarcho-primitivist,” as this suggests “primitivism” is a form of anarchism. It is not. As the author himself notes, Bakunin’s ideas are the key reference point for anarchism, and radically at odds with “primitivism”. That said, the criticisms posed are useful, and so, I thought this paper worth recovering from obscurity.
Lucien van der Walt
In Bakunin’s day, those who longed for pre-capitalist, feudal social relations were the aristocracy. Those who took it even further and hearkened back to the days before feudalism, before slavery and to the days of free nomadic peoples, were the romanticists. They were inspired in the main by the political writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and by much romantic poetry and literature that indicted industrial civilization. They regarded intuition at least as important as rational deliberation, but usually more so.
The values held by these romantic socialists are very similar to those held by anarcho-primitivists [sic.]. Bakunin often spoke against the romanticist socialists; he felt they held individualist values that could only develop in a very privileged milieu and which reflected that privilege and its latent elitism. What Bakunin condemned in the thinking of the political followers of Rousseau are largely the same things found in modern primitivism. It is this commonality between the political romanticism of the Rousseauists and the beliefs of modern anarcho-primitivists that makes Bakunin’s statements applicable to the present state of the anarchist movement, especially to the anti-worker, primitivist element within it.
“In every Congress of the International Workingmen’s Association,” Bakunin lamented in the late 1860’s, “we have fought the individualists or false-brother socialists who say that society was founded by a free contract of originally free men and who claim, along with the moralists and bourgeois economists, that man can be free, that he can be a man, outside of society.” Bakunin’s refers here to the followers of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and his criticism carries weight to this day. In the anarchist movement, the romantic, anti-society sect are the primitivists.
“Me against the World”
A tendency in the contemporary American radical movement is for individuals, particularly newly emerging radicals, to see themselves as enlightened, impassioned rebels struggling against a morass of public ineptitude. In the highly individualistic West, such a conception of the world and one’s relation to it is hard to avoid, given how individuals are socialized to think of themselves as the height of importance – as with others on the mere periphery. This can be true even of those who bear the brunt of class, gender, and/or racial oppression in Western societies. Some radicals never move beyond this phase, and they see the chief struggle as an individual one against the rest of humanity.
Everyone is an ignoramus, the script seems to go for these enlightened rebels, and I, who can see through the haze that has so deluded others, am unfortunately caught in the midst of a society of oppressors and of complicit idiots that I am condemned to struggle against by virtue of my gifts, gifts of perception that allow me to see things as they really are but which also burden me with a life of hardship (due to “society”). This feeling of alienation is no doubt common, but when it manifests in a belief in primitivism, that coercion is part and parcel of technological advance, then primitivists are led to advocate, as has been done in the anarchist ‘zine Killing King Abacus, that what is needed is a “revolutionary project that can destroy this society and its institutions.” (“Against the Logic of Submission: Revolt, Not Therapy,” ‘Wilful Disobedience,’ Vol. 2, No. 10)
With the “me versus the world” motif solidly in place, the young rebel proclaims society itself as the oppressor, adding that true freedom can only be possible outside society’s clutches, and never within it or though it.
Rousseau’s romanticism feeds into this egocentric conception of the world perfectly, and it is why Bakunin and other anarchists saw individualist romanticism as a dangerous trend in the anti-capitalist, anti-statist movement. The statement of Rousseauists that “a man can be free, that he can be a man, [only] outside of society,” is implicitly elitist. It is a misanthropic view. It sees social interaction (in the large sense) as something bad, as something to be avoided, since associating with a group – a society – must always lead to oppression. One is always served best by avoiding associations of others, as such associations can only oppress or make one conform in an undesirably herdlike manner.
Rousseau’s idea of the social contract posited that at one prehistoric point in time, people lived as atomized, isolated individuals who one day decided to come together for mutual protection and benefit. Living together necessitated loss of liberty; this trade-off between complete freedom and social obligation was the “social contract.” It meant that so long as humans decided to live in societies, they were necessarily not free. True freedom was possible only in isolation, away from society.
The Theory of the Free Contract is false
“It was a great fallacy on the part of Jean-Jacques Rousseau to have assumed that primitive society was established by a free contract entered into by savages,” Bakunin responds in “The Immorality of the State.” In Three Lectures to Swiss Members, he continues, stating, “In the past there has never been a free contract. There has only been brutality, stupidity, injustice, and violence … The theory of the free contract is just as false from the standpoint of nature. Man does not voluntarily create society; he is involuntarily born into it. He is above all a social animal. Only in society can he become a human being, that is, a thinking, speaking, loving, and wilful animal.”
Modern society is bad, anarchists agree; but it is bad because its modern form is bad, not because society is absolutely bad, no matter its structure. “The State is a transitory historic form, a passing form of society,” Bakunin wrote, “like the Church, of which it is a younger brother.”
Society is not inherently oppressive, though it can assume forms that are. To the followers of Rousseau, however, society itself is the problem, and real freedom can only be maintained outside its purlieus. Humans are inherently oppressive when relating in groups, according to this belief, since association means renunciation of liberty. This belief in the inherent tendency towards coercion when humans relate in groups can be seen as a liberal version of the belief taught by organised religion that people are inherently sinful and will always do ill.
The duty of the person who seeks true freedom is to waste no time with others, but rather to seek out his own individual course, and to expect resistance by the rest of the herd, who will tend to repress when associated with, or so the Rousseauist idea leads one to deduce. The duty of the freedom-seeker, from the liberal Rousseauist point of view, is to declare war on society itself, or somehow boycott it.
A Revolt against the idea of Society is impossible
Bakunin answers this well: “A radical revolt against society would be … just as impossible for man as a revolt against Nature, human society being nothing else but the last great manifestation or creation of Nature upon this earth. And an individual who would want to rebel against society, that is, against Nature in general and his own nature in particular, would place himself beyond the pale of real existence, would plunge into nothingness, into an absolute void, into lifeless abstraction, into God.”
By placing themselves “beyond the pale of real existence” and becoming, as Bakunin notes, modern imitators of Narcissus, egotistical individualists resemble more, in their arrogance, the powerful elites who control and dominate society than revolutionaries. Indeed, the problem with the corporate elites and politicians who control our affairs today is that they, too, place themselves beyond the pale of society, and assume God-like positions of power in which their decision making abilities have unchecked ramifications upon the lives of humans across the globe and upon the global environment as well. Such people follow the liberal Rousseauist attitude that society – collections of humans – are inherently oppressive, thus rendering their control necessary. Control of people’s supposed innate viciousness has always been given as the rationalization for the existence of the State.
To primitivists, true freedom is tantamount to finding a place where one can dwell beyond the burden of social responsibility. Corporate elites and the wealthy have found that place, and demonstrate it by continually acting in their own interests rather than society’s. But for liberal bourgeois radicals who see even this, quite despite themselves, as a part of the oppression by “society,” the only solution is to travel off somewhere away from everyone, to live alone, away from all of humanity’s evil, in an environment of what they believe to be pure and total freedom. In this setting, it is assumed that all of one’s powers may finally flower, leading to true self-actualization. Rural communes, retreats and other lifestylist forays are evidence that people do, in fact, attempt to drop out and leave society behind.
Escapism is not Revolutionary
“Imagine a man endowed with the most inspired powers by nature,” Bakunin writes, “cast out from all human society into a desert since infancy. If he does not miserably perish, which is the most probable result, he will become nothing but a boor, an ape, lacking speech and thought … Even if you are alone with yourself, perfectly isolated, you must use words to think. To be sure, you can have conceptions which represent things, but as soon as you want to consider something you must use words, for words alone determine thought, giving the character of thought to fleeting representations and instincts. Thought hardly exists before speech, nor does speech exist before thought. These two forms of the same activity of the human brain are born together. Thought is therefore impossible without speech. But what is speech? It is communication. It is the conversation of one human individual with many other human individuals. Only through this conversation and in it can a nimalistic man transform himself into a human being, that is, a thinking being. His individuality as a man, his freedom, is thus the product of a collectivity.”
Speech is indeed evidence of the social nature of man. That solitary confinement is such a cruel punishment shows that in some deep sense humans need contact with one another. Before solitary confinement, it was not uncommon to expel “undesirable” individuals from the group, to cast them into exile. Isolation has often served as a punishment; that it worked shows that its consequences are undesirable for most people. It has rarely given them ample opportunity to freely develop or become self-actualized human beings. (Any “isolation” such as religious monasticism or writers’ retreats is an “isolation” doubtless predicated upon pre-existing, beneficial social relations; i.e. monks relate with one another and use facilities built by others, writers use paper and writing materials made by others, to give some possible examples).
It is hard, in this case, to see how a disdain for – or rebellion against – the idea of society itself could represent a striving for true freedom, when being deprived of social relations has historically amounted to a punishment. The possibilities for freedom that exist through social interaction are far richer than those that exist in isolation.
The social anarchist position is that only certain constellations of social relations are oppressive and undesirable, and that there is potential for a liberatory society. In effect, the primitivists condemn all human relations. Primitivists may not agree with this characterization, just as, for example, capitalists might not agree that the system they support wreaks havoc on the environment or on peoples’ lives. Despite what is outwardly claimed, a look at the underpinnings of primitivist ideas reveals that the ideology is predicated upon a set of beliefs inconsistent with any goals of increasing human freedom, happiness or equality.
Far from believing that all possible constellations of human social relations are destructive, social anarchists believe that there exist relations that can increase freedom and help humans develop to their fullest potential. The solution is not to leave all of society, part and parcel, and live away from civilization as a hermit. Nor is it to damn the abstraction of “consumer/ industrial/ modern society” and advocate that “society and its institutions be destroyed” as many passionate young primitivist rebels do. The solution is to work for revolutionary social change so that society may hold true to its promise of helping fully develop humanity’s latent potentialities.
The Noble Savage as Primitivist Ideal
Rousseau’s “noble savage,” a distinctly Anglo/Eurocentric creation that has assumed the status of archetype in the imperialist West, was the model of the truly free, natural man. The noble savage is noble for living in organic unity with the environment, a conscious choice made to preserve freedom, seeing that what is called “civilization” is really an estrangement from the primal, feral self.
The “noble savage” is today reflected in much of the New Age fad, through images of indigenous peoples couched in mystic symbolism, living psychically wholesome, adventurous and unrestricted lives in a state of nature. “Southwestern art,” New Age paraphernalia, and occult shops display this tendency clearly. A colonized people is held up to privileged, imperial citizens as symbols of a simpler, less restrictive past, representing a sort of Edenic existence for the bourgeois. Many express a yearning for this through meditation, sweat lodge excursions, or classes on forgotten, ancient ways of “wiser” peoples.
Such people live in “natural liberty,” as Rousseau called it – or, at least, closer to it than inhabitants of modern civilization. Such people lead more wholesome lives, attuned to the rhythms of an ancient existence. “Once the social compact is violated,” Rousseau explains in On the Social Contract, “each person then regains his first rights and resumes his natural liberty, while losing the conventional liberty for which he renounced it.”
The “natural liberty” regained is the anti-social liberty of renouncing social ties. It is the liberty of the primitivist rebel who looks backward, to the past of human history, for liberation, rather than forward.
“This theory revealed by J-J. Rousseau,” Bakunin writes, “the most malevolent writer of the past century, the sophist who inspired all the bourgeois revolutionaries, betokens a complete ignorance of both nature and history. It is not in the past, nor even in the present, that we should seek the freedom of the masses. It is in the future.”
Bakunin could do just as well to say this to our primitivists today – for they, as the modern adherents of the bourgeois, romanticist tradition of Rousseau, whether conscious or not, look to the past for freedom. Social anarchists, however, look to a future that is as of yet unformed and there for the taking for whoever wants it. Such a claim to the future must be realized through collective effort, however; no individual can rebel against “society” and have the future. Dumping technology and civilization is no realistic option. In a letter that Voltaire sent to Rousseau after reading his essay on the noble savage, Voltaire claimed, “One longs, in reading your book, to walk on all fours.”
How might Voltaire respond to an essay by John Zerzan, or Feral Faun, or any other of our primitivist writers, who extol ancient people and their ways as holding the key to our liberation? How might he respond to such primitivist heroes as Ted Kaczynski, who shunned society to live a remote, primitive lifestyle where he could supposedly be truly free?
“The freedom of individuals is by no means an individual matter,” Bakunin claimed in defiance of this bourgeois individualist tradition. “It is a collective matter, a collective product. No individual can be free outside of human society or without its cooperation … Everything human in man is the product of a collective, social labor. To be free in absolute isolation is an absurdity invented by theologians and metaphysicians who have replaced the society of humans by that of God, their phantom. They say that each person feels free in the presence of God, that is, in the presence of absolute emptiness, Nothingness. Freedom in isolation, then, is the Freedom of Nothingness, or indeed the Nothingness of freedom: slavery.”
These ideas on society and its desirability were not Bakunin’s alone, but form the bulk of much traditional anarchist thinking. Accepting or rejecting ideas based on their own soundness and not on the stature of the person uttering them is of course key if we are to avoid clothing some individuals in the raiment’s of sainthood, regarding all they speak as Holy Writ. However, Kropotkin, Rocker, Malatesta, Berkman, etc., all claimed that what was in order for revolutionaries was not the destruction of “society” as such, but rather the destruction of the modern form of society, to be replaced with a newer form – one that built upon the technological advances of capitalist society but jettisoned its oppressive social forms otherwise. If one disregards the basic social insights of these thinkers – as one would have to were one to believe primitivist ideas – then in what sense is one working within the milieu of Bakunin, Kropotkin, et. al. – namely, the milieu of anarchism? If a group doesn’t work within the anarchist milieu, then why should they receive such massive coverage and publication in anarchist journals? Why not give equal time to Trotskyists or others who likewise aren’t working within an anarchist milieu?
Bakunin isn’t God, and just because he says something, it isn’t necessarily true (and there are other things about which Bakunin was quite wrong). But that much of Bakunin’s analysis forms the basis of subsequent antiauthoritarian thought up until our own time is a virtual truism. If the anarchist movement is ready to reject the insights that Bakunin gave us about society, then primitivism can perhaps be accepted as an adequate successor. But if Bakunin’s insights are going to be regarded as still relevant, as insights anarchists still consider true and worthy, then they are in bitter conflict with the ideas of primitivism. If we are going to be consistent, we can hold one set of beliefs – but not both of them.
Brian Oliver Sheppard is an anarchist writer and organiser who writes for The Industrial Worker and has written for Anarcho-Syndicalist Review, Kontrapunkt, Barricada, and other anarchist papers. His Exploitation and How it Affects You was published by Barricade Books in Melbourne, Australia, in 2000. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
First published in “Onward: Anarchist News, Opinion, Theory, and Strategy of Today” newspaper, in 2000. The “Onward” site is done, but the URL was www.onwardnewspaper.org/
- Worker Control
- Efficiency and Self-Sufficiency
- Primitivism and Technophilia
- Capitalism and a Clean Environment
- Consumerism and Environmentalism
- Anarcho-Syndicalism and Environmentalism
- Means and Ends
- The Organisation of Daily Life
In an anarchist society, the absence of centralised state authority will permit a radically new integration of nature, labour and culture. As the social and ecological revolution progresses, national boundaries will become cartographical curiosities, and divisions based upon differences in geography, climate and species distribution will re-emerge. This essay addresses the question of what role unionism will play in these changes.
Anarchist insistence that revolutionary movements can develop effectively only if they speak to the specific realities of people’s lives leads logically to the conclusion that a truly revolutionary movement must accommodate itself to diversity. It must reflect an understanding of the life experiences of those who participate in it as a first step to engaging them in the revolutionary process. The need is particularly acute, and the strategic issues especially complex, in the case of women, whose daily life experiences in many societies have been, and continue to be, different from those of men.
In the early years of this century, Spanish anarchists – male and female – articulated a vision of a non-hierarchical, communitarian, society in which women and men would participate equally. And yet, in pre-Civil War Spain, most women were far from “ready” to participate equally with men in the struggle to realize that vision. Although the organised anarcho-syndicalist movement (the Confederación National del Trabajo [CNT]) oriented itself primarily to workplace struggles, the majority of Spanish women were not engaged in factory work. Many of those who did engage in paid labour – mostly in the textile industry – worked at home, for piece rate wages, and were not unionised. Women who worked and had families continued to do “double duty” as housewives and mothers. The particular forms women’s oppression took in Spain kept women effectively subordinated to men even within the context of the revolutionary anarchist movement.
From the black bloc ‘having a go’ to going on marches, from smashing up a McDonalds’ to attending a picket, from throwing bricks to going to fundraising concerts for single issue campaigns – all of these activities have had the term ‘direct action’ applied to them.
Direct action has been confused with actions that are probably best termed as ‘symbolic’ – and which are, on many occasions, ineffective. A lot of the confusion has been due to the media terming anything that they regard as outside the perimeters of ‘normal protest’ as ‘direct action’ – however some confusion is down to activists themselves confusing the terms. Many activists, for example, regard protests such as the G8 summit as direct action, but these types of protests, even if they are successful in shutting down the event, remain as symbolic.
One problem apparent in the June 18th day of action was the adoption of an activist mentality. This problem became particularly obvious with June 18th precisely because the people involved in organising it and the people involved on the day tried to push beyond these limitations. This piece is no criticism of anyone involved – rather an attempt to inspire some thought on the challenges that confront us if we are really serious in our intention of doing away with the capitalist mode of production.
By ‘an activist mentality’ what I mean is that people think of themselves primarily as activists and as belonging to some wider community of activists. The activist identifies with what they do and thinks of it as their role in life, like a job or career. In the same way some people will identify with their job as a doctor or a teacher, and instead of it being something they just happen to be doing, it becomes an essential part of their self-image.
The activist is a specialist or an expert in social change. To think of yourself as being an activist means to think of yourself as being somehow privileged or more advanced than others in your appreciation of the need for social change, in the knowledge of how to achieve it and as leading or being in the forefront of the practical struggle to create this change.
Activism, like all expert roles, has its basis in the division of labour – it is a specialised separate task. The division of labour is the foundation of class society, the fundamental division being that between mental and manual labour. The division of labour operates, for example, in medicine or education – instead of healing and bringing up kids being common knowledge and tasks that everyone has a hand in, this knowledge becomes the specialised property of doctors and teachers – experts that we must rely on to do these things for us. Experts jealously guard and mystify the skills they have. This keeps people separated and disempowered and reinforces hierarchical class society.
A division of labour implies that one person takes on a role on behalf of many others who relinquish this responsibility. A separation of tasks means that other people will grow your food and make your clothes and supply your electricity while you get on with achieving social change. The activist, being an expert in social change, assumes that other people aren’t doing anything to change their lives and so feels a duty or a responsibility to do it on their behalf. Activists think they are compensating for the lack of activity by others. Defining ourselves as activists means defining our actions as the ones which will bring about social change, thus disregarding the activity of thousands upon thousands of other non-activists. Activism is based on this misconception that it is only activists who do social change – whereas of course class struggle is happening all the time.
Form and Content
The tension between the form of ‘activism’ in which our political activity appears and its increasingly radical content has only been growing over the last few years. The background of a lot of the people involved in June 18th is of being ‘activists’ who ‘campaign’ on an ‘issue’. The political progress that has been made in the activist scene over the last few years has resulted in a situation where many people have moved beyond single issue campaigns against specific companies or developments to a rather ill-defined yet nonetheless promising anti-capitalist perspective. Yet although the content of the campaigning activity has altered, the form of activism has not. So instead of taking on Monsanto and going to their headquarters and occupying it, we have now seen beyond the single facet of capital represented by Monsanto and so develop a ‘campaign’ against capitalism. And where better to go and occupy than what is perceived as being the headquarters of capitalism – the City?
Our methods of operating are still the same as if we were taking on a specific corporation or development, despite the fact that capitalism is not at all the same sort of thing and the ways in which one might bring down a particular company are not at all the same as the ways in which you might bring down capitalism. For example, vigorous campaigning by animal rights activists has succeeded in wrecking both Consort dog breeders and Hillgrove Farm cat breeders. The businesses were ruined and went into receivership. Similarly the campaign waged against arch-vivisectionists Huntingdon Life Sciences succeeded in reducing their share price by 33%, but the company just about managed to survive by running a desperate PR campaign in the City to pick up prices. Activism can very successfully accomplish bringing down a business, yet to bring down capitalism a lot more will be required than to simply extend this sort of activity to every business in every sector. Similarly with the targeting of butcher’s shops by animal rights activists, the net result is probably only to aid the supermarkets in closing down all the small butcher’s shops, thus assisting the process of competition and the ‘natural selection’ of the marketplace. Thus activists often succeed in destroying one small business while strengthening capital overall.
A similar thing applies with anti-roads activism. Wide-scale anti-roads protests have created opportunities for a whole new sector of capitalism – security, surveillance, tunnellers, climbers, experts and consultants. We are now one ‘market risk’ among others to be taken into account when bidding for a roads contract. We may have actually assisted the rule of market forces, by forcing out the companies that are weakest and least able to cope. Protest-bashing consultant Amanda Webster says: “The advent of the protest movement will actually provide market advantages to those contractors who can handle it effectively.”  Again activism can bring down a business or stop a road but capitalism carries merrily on, if anything stronger than before.
These things are surely an indication, if one were needed, that tackling capitalism will require not only a quantitative change (more actions, more activists) but a qualitative one (we need to discover some more effective form of operating). It seems we have very little idea of what it might actually require to bring down capitalism. As if all it needed was some sort of critical mass of activists occupying offices to be reached and then we’d have a revolution…
The form of activism has been preserved even while the content of this activity has moved beyond the form that contains it. We still think in terms of being ‘activists’ doing a ‘campaign’ on an ‘issue’, and because we are ‘direct action’ activists we will go and ‘do an action’ against our target. The method of campaigning against specific developments or single companies has been carried over into this new thing of taking on capitalism. We’re attempting to take on capitalism and conceptualising what we’re doing in completely inappropriate terms, utilising a method of operating appropriate to liberal reformism. So we have the bizarre spectacle of ‘doing an action’ against capitalism – an utterly inadequate practice.
The role of the ‘activist’ is a role we adopt just like that of policeman, parent or priest – a strange psychological form we use to define ourselves and our relation to others. The ‘activist’ is a specialist or an expert in social change – yet the harder we cling to this role and notion of what we are, the more we actually impede the change we desire. A real revolution will involve the breaking out of all preconceived roles and the destruction of all specialism – the reclamation of our lives. The seizing control over our own destinies which is the act of revolution will involve the creation of new selves and new forms of interaction and community. ‘Experts’ in anything can only hinder this.
The Situationist International developed a stringent critique of roles and particularly the role of ‘the militant’. Their criticism was mainly directed against leftist and social-democratic ideologies because that was mainly what they encountered. Although these forms of alienation still exist and are plain to be seen, in our particular milieu it is the liberal activist we encounter more often than the leftist militant. Nevertheless, they share many features in common (which of course is not surprising).
The Situationist Raoul Vaneigem defined roles like this: “Stereotypes are the dominant images of a period… The stereotype is the model of the role; the role is a model form of behaviour. The repetition of an attitude creates a role.” To play a role is to cultivate an appearance to the neglect of everything authentic: “we succumb to the seduction of borrowed attitudes.” As role-players we dwell in inauthenticity – reducing our lives to a string of clichés – “breaking [our] day down into a series of poses chosen more or less unconsciously from the range of dominant stereotypes.”  This process has been at work since the early days of the anti-roads movement. At Twyford Down after Yellow Wednesday in December ‘92, press and media coverage focused on the Dongas Tribe and the dreadlocked countercultural aspect of the protests. Initially this was by no means the predominant element – there was a large group of ramblers at the eviction for example.  But people attracted to Twyford by the media coverage thought every single person there had dreadlocks. The media coverage had the effect of making ‘ordinary’ people stay away and more dreadlocked countercultural types turned up – decreasing the diversity of the protests. More recently, a similar thing has happened in the way in which people drawn to protest sites by the coverage of Swampy they had seen on TV began to replicate in their own lives the attitudes presented by the media as characteristic of the role of the ‘eco-warrior’. 
“Just as the passivity of the consumer is an active passivity, so the passivity of the spectator lies in his ability to assimilate roles and play them according to official norms. The repetition of images and stereotypes offers a set of models from which everyone is supposed to choose a role.”  The role of the militant or activist is just one of these roles, and therein, despite all the revolutionary rhetoric that goes with the role, lies its ultimate conservatism.
The supposedly revolutionary activity of the activist is a dull and sterile routine – a constant repetition of a few actions with no potential for change. Activists would probably resist change if it came because it would disrupt the easy certainties of their role and the nice little niche they’ve carved out for themselves. Like union bosses, activists are eternal representatives and mediators. In the same way as union leaders would be against their workers actually succeeding in their struggle because this would put them out of a job, the role of the activist is threatened by change. Indeed revolution, or even any real moves in that direction, would profoundly upset activists by depriving them of their role. If everyone is becoming revolutionary then you’re not so special anymore, are you?
So why do we behave like activists? Simply because it’s the easy cowards’ option? It is easy to fall into playing the activist role because it fits into this society and doesn’t challenge it – activism is an accepted form of dissent. Even if as activists we are doing things which are not accepted and are illegal, the form of activism itself – the way it is like a job – means that it fits in with our psychology and our upbringing. It has a certain attraction precisely because it is not revolutionary.
We Don’t Need Any More Martyrs
The key to understanding both the role of the militant and the activist is self-sacrifice – the sacrifice of the self to ‘the cause’ which is seen as being separate from the self. This of course has nothing to do with real revolutionary activity which is the seizing of the self. Revolutionary martyrdom goes together with the identification of some cause separate from one’s own life – an action against capitalism which identifies capitalism as ‘out there’ in the City is fundamentally mistaken – the real power of capital is right here in our everyday lives – we re-create its power every day because capital is not a thing but a social relation between people (and hence classes) mediated by things.
Of course I am not suggesting that everyone who was involved in June 18th shares in the adoption of this role and the self-sacrifice that goes with it to an equal extent. As I said above, the problem of activism was made particularly apparent by June 18th precisely because it was an attempt to break from these roles and our normal ways of operating. Much of what is outlined here is a ‘worst case scenario’ of what playing the role of an activist can lead to. The extent to which we can recognise this within our own movement will give us an indication of how much work there is still to be done.
The activist makes politics dull and sterile and drives people away from it, but playing the role also fucks up the activist herself. The role of the activist creates a separation between ends and means: self-sacrifice means creating a division between the revolution as love and joy in the future but duty and routine now. The worldview of activism is dominated by guilt and duty because the activist is not fighting for herself but for a separate cause: “All causes are equally inhuman.” 
As an activist you have to deny your own desires because your political activity is defined such that these things do not count as ‘politics’. You put ‘politics’ in a separate box to the rest of your life – it’s like a job… you do ‘politics’ 9-5 and then go home and do something else. Because it is in this separate box, ‘politics’ exists unhampered by any real-world practical considerations of effectiveness. The activist feels obliged to keep plugging away at the same old routine unthinkingly, unable to stop or consider, the main thing being that the activist is kept busy and assuages her guilt by banging her head against a brick wall if necessary.
Part of being revolutionary might be knowing when to stop and wait. It might be important to know how and when to strike for maximum effectiveness and also how and when NOT to strike. Activists have this ‘We must do something NOW!’ attitude that seems fuelled by guilt. This is completely untactical.
The self-sacrifice of the militant or the activist is mirrored in their power over others as an expert – like a religion there is a kind of hierarchy of suffering and self-righteousness. The activist assumes power over others by virtue of her greater degree of suffering (‘non-hierarchical’ activist groups in fact form a ‘dictatorship of the most committed’). The activist uses moral coercion and guilt to wield power over others less experienced in the theology of suffering. Their subordination of themselves goes hand in hand with their subordination of others – all enslaved to ‘the cause’. Self-sacrificing politicos stunt their own lives and their own will to live – this generates a bitterness and an antipathy to life which is then turned outwards to wither everything else. They are “great despisers of life… the partisans of absolute self-sacrifice… their lives twisted by their monstrous asceticism.”  We can see this in our own movement, for example on site, in the antagonism between the desire to sit around and have a good time versus the guilt-tripping build/fortify/barricade work ethic and in the sometimes excessive passion with which ‘lunch outs’ are denounced. The self-sacrificing martyr is offended and outraged when she sees others that are not sacrificing themselves. Like when the ‘honest worker’ attacks the scrounger or the layabout with such vitriol, we know it is actually because she hates her job and the martyrdom she has made of her life and therefore hates to see anyone escape this fate, hates to see anyone enjoying themselves while she is suffering – she must drag everyone down into the muck with her – an equality of self-sacrifice.
In the old religious cosmology, the successful martyr went to heaven. In the modern worldview, successful martyrs can look forward to going down in history. The greatest self-sacrifice, the greatest success in creating a role (or even better, in devising a whole new one for people to emulate – e.g. the eco-warrior) wins a reward in history – the bourgeois heaven.
The old left was quite open in its call for heroic sacrifice: “Sacrifice yourselves joyfully, brothers and sisters! For the Cause, for the Established Order, for the Party, for Unity, for Meat and Potatoes!”  But these days it is much more veiled: Vaneigem accuses “young leftist radicals” of “enter[ing] the service of a Cause – the ‘best’ of all Causes. The time they have for creative activity they squander on handing out leaflets, putting up posters, demonstrating or heckling local politicians. They become militants, fetishising action because others are doing their thinking for them.” 
This resounds with us – particularly the thing about the fetishising of action – in left groups the militants are left free to engage in endless busywork because the group leader or guru has the ‘theory’ down pat, which is just accepted and lapped up – the ‘party line’. With direct action activists it’s slightly different – action is fetishised, but more out of an aversion to any theory whatsoever.
Although it is present, that element of the activist role which relies on self-sacrifice and duty was not so significant in June 18th. What is more of an issue for us is the feeling of separateness from ‘ordinary people’ that activism implies. People identify with some weird sub-culture or clique as being ‘us’ as opposed to the ‘them’ of everyone else in the world.
The activist role is a self-imposed isolation from all the people we should be connecting to. Taking on the role of an activist separates you from the rest of the human race as someone special and different. People tend to think of their own first person plural (who are you referring to when you say ‘we’?) as referring to some community of activists, rather than a class. For example, for some time now in the activist milieu it has been popular to argue for ‘no more single issues’ and for the importance of ‘making links’. However, many people’s conception of what this involved was to ‘make links’ with other activists and other campaign groups. June 18th demonstrated this quite well, the whole idea being to get all the representatives of all the various different causes or issues in one place at one time, voluntarily relegating ourselves to the ghetto of good causes.
Similarly, the various networking forums that have recently sprung up around the country – the Rebel Alliance in Brighton, NASA in Nottingham, Riotous Assembly in Manchester, the London Underground etc. have a similar goal – to get all the activist groups in the area talking to each other. I’m not knocking this – it is an essential pre-requisite for any further action, but it should be recognised for the extremely limited form of ‘making links’ that it is. It is also interesting in that what the groups attending these meetings have in common is that they are activist groups – what they are actually concerned with seems to be a secondary consideration.
It is not enough merely to seek to link together all the activists in the world, neither is it enough to seek to transform more people into activists. Contrary to what some people may think, we will not be any closer to a revolution if lots and lots of people become activists. Some people seem to have the strange idea that what is needed is for everyone to be somehow persuaded into becoming activists like us and then we’ll have a revolution. Vaneigem says: “Revolution is made everyday despite, and in opposition to, the specialists of revolution.” 
The militant or activist is a specialist in social change or revolution. The specialist recruits others to her own tiny area of specialism in order to increase her own power and thus dispel the realisation of her own powerlessness. “The specialist… enrols himself in order to enrol others.”  Like a pyramid selling scheme, the hierarchy is self-replicating – you are recruited and in order not to be at the bottom of the pyramid, you have to recruit more people to be under you, who then do exactly the same. The reproduction of the alienated society of roles is accomplished through specialists.
Jacques Camatte in his essay ‘On Organization’  makes the astute point that political groupings often end up as “gangs” defining themselves by exclusion – the group member’s first loyalty becomes to the group rather than to the struggle. His critique applies especially to the myriad of Left sects and groupuscules at which it was directed but it applies also to a lesser extent to the activist mentality.
The political group or party substitutes itself for the proletariat and its own survival and reproduction become paramount – revolutionary activity becomes synonymous with ‘building the party’ and recruiting members. The group takes itself to have a unique grasp on truth and everyone outside the group is treated like an idiot in need of education by this vanguard. Instead of an equal debate between comrades we get instead the separation of theory and propaganda, where the group has its own theory, which is almost kept secret in the belief that the inherently less mentally able punters must be lured in the organisation with some strategy of populism before the politics are sprung on them by surprise. This dishonest method of dealing with those outside of the group is similar to a religious cult – they will never tell you upfront what they are about.
We can see here some similarities with activism, in the way that the activist milieu acts like a leftist sect. Activism as a whole has some of the characteristics of a “gang”. Activist gangs can often end up being cross-class alliances, including all sorts of liberal reformists because they too are ‘activists’. People think of themselves primarily as activists and their primary loyalty becomes to the community of activists and not to the struggle as such. The “gang” is illusory community, distracting us from creating a wider community of resistance. The essence of Camatte’s critique is an attack on the creation of an interior/exterior division between the group and the class. We come to think of ourselves as being activists and therefore as being separate from and having different interests from the mass of working class people.
Our activity should be the immediate expression of a real struggle, not the affirmation of the separateness and distinctness of a particular group. In Marxist groups the possession of ‘theory’ is the all-important thing determining power – it’s different in the activist milieu, but not that different – the possession of the relevant ‘social capital’ – knowledge, experience, contacts, equipment etc. is the primary thing determining power.
Activism reproduces the structure of this society in its operations: “When the rebel begins to believe that he is fighting for a higher good, the authoritarian principle gets a fillip.”  This is no trivial matter, but is at the basis of capitalist social relations. Capital is a social relation between people mediated by things – the basic principle of alienation is that we live our lives in the service of some thing that we ourselves have created. If we reproduce this structure in the name of politics that declares itself anti-capitalist, we have lost before we have begun. You cannot fight alienation by alienated means.
A Modest Proposal
This is a modest proposal that we should develop ways of operating that are adequate to our radical ideas. This task will not be easy and the writer of this short piece has no clearer insight into how we should go about this than anyone else. I am not arguing that June 18th should have been abandoned or attacked; indeed it was a valiant attempt to get beyond our limitations and to create something better than what we have at present. However, in its attempts to break with antique and formulaic ways of doing things it has made clear the ties that still bind us to the past. The criticisms of activism that I have expressed above do not all apply to June 18th. However there is a certain paradigm of activism which at its worst includes all that I have outlined above and June 18th shared in this paradigm to a certain extent. To exactly what extent is for you to decide.
Activism is a form partly forced upon us by weakness. Like the joint action taken by Reclaim the Streets and the Liverpool dockers – we find ourselves in times in which radical politics is often the product of mutual weakness and isolation. If this is the case, it may not even be within our power to break out of the role of activists. It may be that in times of a downturn in struggle, those who continue to work for social revolution become marginalised and come to be seen (and to see themselves) as a special separate group of people. It may be that this is only capable of being corrected by a general upsurge in struggle when we won’t be weirdo’s and freaks any more but will seem simply to be stating what is on everybody’s minds. However, to work to escalate the struggle it will be necessary to break with the role of activists to whatever extent is possible – to constantly try to push at the boundaries of our limitations and constraints.
Historically, those movements that have come the closest to de-stabilising or removing or going beyond capitalism have not at all taken the form of activism. Activism is essentially a political form and a method of operating suited to liberal reformism that is being pushed beyond its own limits and used for revolutionary purposes. The activist role in itself must be problematic for those who desire social revolution…
Give Up Activism – Postscript
Many of the articles printed in the Reflections on June 18th pamphlet repeated almost to the onset of tedium that capitalism is a social relation and isn’t just to do with big banks, corporations or international financial institutions. It’s an important point and worth making, but ‘Give up Activism’ had other fish to fry.
Therefore the conclusion reached by these other articles was the point of departure for this one – if it is true that capitalism is a social relation based in production and in the relations between classes then what implications does this have for our activity and for our method of attacking it? The basic kernel of the piece and the initial idea that inspired the writing of it is the ‘Form and Content’ section. It had occurred to many people that there was something a little odd about a ‘day of action against capitalism’. The original inspiration behind the article was an attempt to pin down what it was that made the idea appear a little odd, incongruous, contradictory.
It seemed there was a similarity between the way we were carrying on acting like liberal activists campaigning against capitalism as if it was another single issue, another ‘cause’, and Vaneigem’s critique of the leftist militant, whose politics consist of a set of duties carried out on behalf of an external ‘cause’. It is true that the activist and the militant share this common factor, but it is about all they have in common. I made the mistake of carrying over all the other characteristics attributed by Vaneigem to ‘the militant’ and assigning them also to the activist, when they largely weren’t appropriate. As a result, large sections of ‘Give up Activism’ come across as far too harsh and as an inaccurate representation of the direct action movement. The Situationists’ characteristic bile was perhaps more appropriate when directed at leftist party hacks than as a description of the sort of politics involved around June 18th. The self-sacrifice, the martyrdom and guilt that Vaneigem identified as central to the politics of ‘the militant’ is much less a feature of direct action politics, which to the contrary is more usually criticised for the opposite failing of lifestylism.
As has been very neatly drawn out by an excellent critique in the American publication The Bad Days Will End!,  the original idea that motivated the writing of the article and this rehashing of Vaneigem, translating the critique of the leftist ‘militant’ into that of the liberal ‘activist’, are incongruously roped together to produce an article which is an unwieldy amalgam of the objective (What social situation are we in? What forms of action are appropriate?) and the subjective (Why do we feel like activists? Why do we have this mentality? Can we change the way we feel about ourselves?). It is not so much that the subjective aspect of activism is emphasised over the objective, but rather more that the very real problems that are identified with acting as activists come to be seen to be mere products of having this ‘activist mentality’. ‘Give up Activism’ can then be read such that it seems to reverse cause and effect and to imply that if we simply ‘give up’ this mental role then the objective conditions will change too:
“[Give up Activism’s] greatest weakness is this one-sided emphasis on the ‘subjective’ side of the social phenomenon of activism. The emphasis points to an obvious conclusion implicit throughout [the] argument: If activism is a mental attitude or ‘role’, it may be changed, as one changes one’s mind, or thrown off, like a mask or a costume… The implication is clear: cease to cling, let go of the role, ‘give up activism’, and a significant impediment to the desired change will be removed.” 
The article was of course never proposing that we could simply think ourselves out of the problem. It was intended merely to suggest that we might be able to remove an impediment and an illusion about our situation as one step towards challenging that situation, and from that point that we might start to discover a more effective and more appropriate way of acting.
It is now clear that the slipshod hitching of Vaneigem to a enquiry into what it was that was incongruous and odd in having a one-day action against capitalism was an error, prompted by an over-hasty appropriation of Situationist ideas, without considering how much of a connection there really was between them and the original idea behind the piece. The theory of roles is perhaps the weakest part of Vaneigem’s ideas and in his ‘Critique of the Situationist International’, Gilles Dauvé even goes so far as to say: “Vaneigem was the weakest side of the SI, the one which reveals all its weaknesses”.  This is probably a little harsh. But nevertheless, the sort of degeneration that Situationist ideas underwent after the post-1968 disintegration of the SI took the worst elements of Vaneigem’s “radical subjectivity” as their starting point, in the poorest examples effectively degenerating into bourgeois individualism. That it is this element of Situationist thought that has proven the most easily recuperable should give us pause for thought before too-readily taking it on board.
Revolution in Your Head
This over-emphasis in ‘Give up Activism’ on the theory of roles and on the subjective side of things has led some people to fail to recognise the original impetus behind the piece. This starting point and presupposition was perhaps not made clear enough, because some people seem to have assumed that the purpose of the article was to make some kind of point concerning individual psychological health. ‘Give up Activism’ was not intended to be an article about or an exercise in radical therapy. The main intention of the article, however inexpertly executed, was always to think about our collective activity – what we are doing and how we might do it better.
However, there was a point to the ‘subjectivism’ of the main part of the article. The reason why ‘Give up Activism’ was so concerned with our ideas and our mental image of ourselves is not because I thought that if we change our ideas then everything will be alright, but because I had nothing to say about our activity. This was very clearly a critique written from the inside and thus also a self-critique and I am still very much involved in ‘activist’ politics. As I made plain, I have not necessarily got any clearer idea than anyone else of how to go about developing new forms of action more appropriate to an ‘anti-capitalist’ perspective. June 18th was a valiant attempt to do just this, and ‘Give up Activism’ was not a criticism of the action on June 18th as such. I certainly couldn’t have come up with anything much better myself.
Although the piece is called ‘Give up Activism’, I did not want to suggest at all that people stop trashing GM crops, smashing up the City and disrupting the gatherings of the rich and powerful, or any of the other myriad acts of resistance that ‘activists’ engage in. It was more the way we do these things and what we think we are doing when we do them that I was seeking to question. Because ‘Give up Activism’ had little or nothing to recommend in terms of objective practical activity, the emphasis on the subjective made it seem like I thought these problems existed only in our heads.
Of course, thinking of ourselves as activists and as belonging to a community of activists is no more than a recognition of the truth, and there is nothing pathological in that. The problem I was trying to make clear was the identification with the activist role – being happy as a radical minority. I intended to question the role, to make people dissatisfied with the role, even while they remained within it. It is only in this way that we stand a chance of escaping it.
Obviously we are constrained within our specific circumstances. During an ebb in the class struggle, revolutionaries are in even more of a minority than they are in any case. We probably don’t have any choice about appearing as a strange subculture. But we do have a choice about our attitude to this situation, and if we come to ditch the mental identification with the role then we may discover that there is actually some room for manoeuvre within our activist role so that we can try and break from activist practice as far as we are able. The point is that challenging the ‘subjective’ element – our activist self-image – will at least be a step towards moving beyond the role in its ‘objective’ element also. As I said in ‘Give up Activism’, only with a general escalation of the class struggle will activists be able to completely ditch their role, but in the meantime: “to work to escalate the struggle it will be necessary to break with the role of activists to whatever extent is possible – to constantly try to push at the boundaries of our limitations and constraints.” Which was precisely the point of the article.
For if we cannot even think beyond the role now, then what hope have we of ever escaping it? We should at the very least be dissatisfied with our position as a radical minority and be trying to generalise the struggle and make the necessary upturn happen. Doing away with the activist mentality is necessary but not sufficient for doing away with the role in practice.
Up the Workers!
Although ‘Give up Activism’ neglected to recommend any actual change in behaviour outside of saying that we needed one, perhaps now it would be appropriate to say something about this. How can we bring ‘politics’ out of its separate box, as an external cause to which we dedicate ourselves?
Many of the criticisms of the direct action movement revolve around similar points. Capitalism is based on work; our struggles against it are not based on our work but quite the opposite, they are something we do outside whatever work we may do. Our struggles are not based on our direct needs (as for example, going on strike for higher wages); they seem disconnected, arbitrary. Our ‘days of action’ and so forth have no connection to any wider on-going struggle in society. We treat capitalism as if it was something external, ignoring our own relation to it. These points are repeated again and again in criticisms of the direct action movement (including ‘Give up Activism’ but also in many other places).
The problem is not necessarily that people don’t understand that capital is a social relation and that it’s to do with production as well as just banks and stock exchanges, here as well as in the Third World or that capital is a relation between classes. The point is that even when all of this is understood our attitude to this is still as outsiders looking in, deciding at what point to attack this system. Our struggle against capitalism is not based on our relation to value-creation, to work. On the whole the people who make up the direct action movement occupy marginal positions within society as the unemployed, as students or working in various temporary and transitory jobs. We do not really inhabit the world of production, but exist largely in the realm of consumption and circulation. What unity the direct action movement possesses does not come from all working in the same occupation or living in the same area. It is a unity based on intellectual commitment to a set of ideas.
To a certain extent ‘Give up Activism’ was being disingenuous (as were many of the other critiques making similar points) in providing all these hints but never spelling out exactly where they led, which left the door open for them to be misunderstood. The author of the critique in The Bad Days Will End! was right to point out what the article was indicating but shied away from actually mentioning: the basic thing that’s wrong with activism is that it isn’t collective mass struggle by the working class at the point of production, which is the way that revolutions are supposed to happen.
The sort of activity that meets the criteria of all the criticisms – that is based on immediate needs, in a mass on-going struggle, in direct connection to our everyday lives and that does not treat capital as something external to us, is this working class struggle. It seems a little unfair to criticise the direct action movement for not being something that it cannot be and has never claimed to be, but nevertheless, if we want to move forward we’ve got to know what we’re lacking.
The reason that this sort of working class struggle is the obvious answer to what we are lacking is that this is THE model of revolution that the last hundred years or so has handed down to us that we have to draw upon. However, the shadow of the failure of the workers’ movement still hangs over us. And if this is not the model of how a revolution might happen, then what is? And no one has any very convincing answers to that question.
A Vociferous Minority
So we are stuck with the question – what do we do as a radical minority that wants to create revolution in non-revolutionary times? The way I see it at the moment, we basically have two options. The first is to recognise that as a small scene of radicals we can have relatively little influence on the overall picture and that if and when an upsurge in the class struggle occurs it probably won’t have much to do with us. Therefore until the mythical day arrives the best thing we can do is to continue to take radical action, to pursue politics that push things in the right direction and to try and drag along as many other people as possible, but basically to resign ourselves to that fact that we are going to continue to be a minority. So until the point when some sort of upturn in the class struggle occurs it’s basically a holding operation. We can try and stop things getting worse, have a finger in the dam, try and strategically target weak points in the system where we think we can hit and have some effect, develop our theory, live our lives in as radical a way as possible, build a sustainable counter culture that can carry on doing these things in the long term… and hopefully when one day, events out of our control lead to a general radicalisation of society and an upturn in the class struggle we will be there ready to play some part and to contribute what things we have learnt and what skills we have developed as a radical subculture.
The flaw in this sort of approach is that it appears almost like another sort of ‘automatic Marxism’ – a term used to poke fun at those Marxists who thought that a revolution would happen when the contradictions between the forces and the relations of production had matured sufficiently, when the objective conditions were right, so that revolution almost seemed to be a process that happened without the need for any human involvement and you could just sit back and wait for it to happen. This sort of idea is a flaw carried over into ultra-left thinking. As is explained in The Bad Days Will End!, many ultra-left groups have recognised that in periods of downturn, they are necessarily going to be minorities and have argued against compensating for this with any kind of party-building or attempts to substitute their group for the struggle of the proletariat as a whole. Some ultra-left groups have taken this line of thinking to its logical conclusion and have ended up turning doing nothing into a political principle. Of course our response would not be to do nothing, but nevertheless, the point remains that if everyone similarly just waited for an upsurge to happen then it certainly never would. Effectively by just waiting for it to happen we are assuming that someone else will do it for us and maintaining a division between us and the ‘ordinary’ workers who will make this happen.
The alternative to this scenario is to stop thinking of the ebb and flow of the class struggle as like some force of nature that just comes and goes without us being able to effect it at all, and to start thinking about how to build class power and how to end the current disorganised and atomised state of workers in this country. The problem is that over the last twenty or so years, the social landscape of the country has changed so fast and so rapidly that it has caught us on the hop. Restructuring and relocation have fractured and divided people. We could try and help re-compose a new unity, instead of just being content with doing our bit and waiting for the upturn, to try and make this upturn happen. We will probably still be acting as activists, but to a lesser extent, and at least we will be making it more possible for us to abolish activism altogether in the future.
One way of doing this is suggested in the critique in The Bad Days Will End!:
“Perhaps, then, the first steps towards a genuine anti-activism would be to turn towards these specific, everyday, ongoing struggles. How are the so-called ‘ordinary’ workers resisting capitalism at this time? What opportunities are already there in their ongoing struggles? What networks are already being built through their own efforts?” 
A current example of exactly this sort of thing is the investigation into call centres initiated by the German group Kolinko, which is mentioned in The Bad Days Will End! and was also contributed to in the recent Undercurrents No. 8.  The idea of this project is that call centres represent the ‘new sweatshops’ of the information economy and that if a new cycle of workers’ resistance is to emerge anywhere then this might just be the place.
It is perhaps also worth considering that changing circumstances might work to our advantage – the restructuring of the welfare state is forcing more and more activists into work. For example the call centre enquiry project mentioned above could represent a good opportunity for us as call centres are exactly the sort of places where people forced off the dole end up working and exactly the sort of temporary and transient jobs in which those involved in the direct action movement end up working also. This certainly could help make the connection between capitalism and our own immediate needs, and perhaps might allow us to better participate in developing new fronts in the class struggle. Or the increased imposition of work could just end up with us even more fucked over than we are at present, which is obviously what the government are hoping. They are attempting to both have their cake and eat it – trying to turn the clock back and return to days of austerity and privation while gambling that the working class is so atomised and divided by twenty years of attacks that this will not provoke a return of the struggle that originally brought about the introduction of these amelioration measures in the first place. Only time will tell whether they are to be successful in their endeavour or whether we are to be successful in ours.
In conclusion, perhaps the best thing would be to try and adopt both of the above methods. We need to maintain our radicalism and commitment to direct action, not being afraid to take action as a minority. But equally, we can’t just resign ourselves to remaining a small radical subculture and treading water while we wait for everyone else to make the revolutionary wave for us. We should also perhaps look at the potential for making our direct action complement whatever practical contribution to current workers’ struggles we may feel able to make. In both the possible scenarios outlined above we continue to act more or less within the activist role. But hopefully in both of these different scenarios we would be able to reject the mental identification with the role of activism and actively try to go beyond our status as activists to whatever extent is possible.
- To my knowledge the article has been translated into French and published in Je sais tout (Association des 26-Cantons, 8, rue Lissignol CH-1201 Genève, Suisse) and in Éxchanges No. 93 (BP 241, 75866 Paris Cedex 18, France). It has been translated into Spanish and published in Ekintza Zuzena (Ediciones E.Z., Apdo. 235, 48080 Bilbo (Bizkaia), Spanish State). It has been republished in America in Collective Action Notes No. 16-17 (CAN, POB 22962, Baltimore, MD 21203, USA) and in the UK in Organise! No. 54 (AF, c/o 84b Whitechapel High Street, London E1 7QX, UK). It is also available online at: www.infoshop.org/octo/j18_rts1.html#give_up and http://tierra.ucsd.edu/~acf/online/j18/reflec1.html#GIVE If anyone knows of any other places it has been reproduced or critiqued, I would be grateful to hear of them, via Do or Die.
- Squaring up to the Square Mile: A Rough Guide to the City of London (J18 Publications (UK), 1999) p.8
- ‘Direct Action: Six Years Down the Road’ in Do or Die No. 7, p.3
- Raoul Vaneigem – The Revolution of Everyday Life, (Left Bank Books/Rebel Press, 1994) – first published 1967, pp.131-3
- ‘The Day they Drove Twyford Down’ in Do or Die No. 1, p.11
- ‘Personality Politics: The Spectacularisation of Fairmile’ in Do or Die No. 7, p.35
- Op. Cit. 4, p.128
- Op. Cit. 4, p.107
- Op. Cit. 4, p.109
- Op. Cit. 4, p.108
- Op. Cit. 4, p.109
- Op. Cit. 4, p.111
- Op. Cit. 4, p.143
- Jacques Camatte – ‘On Organisation’ (1969) in This World We Must Leave and Other Essays (New York, Autonomedia, 1995)
- Op. Cit. 4, p.110
- ‘The Necessity and Impossibility of Anti-Activism’, The Bad Days Will End!, No. 3. p. 4. I highly recommend this article, and the magazine contains some other good stuff too. Send $3 to: Merrymount Publications, PO Box 441597, Somerville, MA 02144, USA. Email: bronterre[at]earthlink[dot]net http://libcom.org/library/anti-activism
- The Bad Days Will End!, p. 5
- Gilles Dauvé (Jean Barrot) – ‘Critique of the Situationist International’ http://libcom.org/library/critique-situationist-international-gilles-dauve
- See ‘Whatever happened to the Situationists?’, Aufheben No. 6, p. 45 http://libcom.org/library/whatever-happened-to-the-situationists-review-aufheben-6
- The Bad Days Will End!, p. 6
- The Kolinko proposal was recently published in Collective Action Notes No. 16-17.