“The Coming Insurrection”?:Insurrectional Anarchism vs. Class-Struggle Anarchism

Authors: Wayne Price and Anarcho  |  PDF file size: 256 KB

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The pamphlet, “The Coming Insurrection” has been attracting attention. A discussion of some of its key points is useful in considering the differences between “insurrectional anarchism” and “class-struggle anarchism.”

This pamphlet is made up of 2 texts: “The Coming Insurrection”?:Insurrectional Anarchism vs. Class-Struggle Anarchism by Wayne Price, and“The Coming Insurrection” Review by Anarcho.

Anarchism vs. Primitivism

Anarchism vs. Primitivism by Brian Oliver SheppardAuthor: Brian Oliver Sheppard  |  PDF file size: 225 KB

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This important pamphlet looks closely at the fundamental conflicts between anarchism and primitivism.

It traces primitivism’s basic precepts back to their authoritarian roots, reveals primitivist misconceptions about anarchism, capitalism and technology, shows how the corporate media have used primitivism to discredit anarchism, and also shows how ideology-driven primitivists, much like fundamentalist Christians opposed to evolution, have picked through anthropological evidence to support their predetermined conclusions, while ignoring data that contradict those conclusions.

Sheppard also considers the many primitivist straw-man attacks upon anarchism, and asks: What kind of an anarchist movement do we want – one that looks often ugly, authoritarian social reality in the eye, with the aim of transforming it into something that will lead to freer, happier lives for all of us on planet Earth, or one that wastes its time fantasizing about a non-existent Golden Age, and that would result in the deaths of billions if its precepts were followed?

Analysis and Critiques

A Critique of Marxism (web)

Download PDFby Sam Dolgoff

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.

Sam has been active in the anarchist movement since the 1920s and presently lives in New York City.

Soil of Liberty also has a book service and a catalog will soon be available. Magazine subscriptions are $3 -$4 a-year. Address is on the back cover.


Foreword

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 [1846] 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).

Economic Determinism

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)

The Critique

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)

Peter Kropotkin:

“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)

Conclusion

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.

Marx’s Economics for Anarchists: An Anarchist’s Introduction to Marx’s Critique of Political Economy (web)

Download PDFby Wayne Price

“The transcripts of the 2006 meetings [of the governors of the Federal Reserve Board and the presidents of the 19 regional banks]… clearly show some of the nation’s pre-eminent economic minds did not fully understand the basic mechanics of the economy that they were charged with sheparding. The problem was not a lack of information; it was a lack of comprehension, born in part of their deep confidence in economic forecasting models that turned out to be broken.”

NY Times (January 13, 2012); p. A3.


Chapter 1: Introduction

Chapter 2: The Labour Theory of Value

Chapter 3: Cycles, Recessions, and the Falling Rate of Profit

Chapter 4: Primitive Accumulation at the Origins of Capitalism

Chapter 5: The Epoch of Capitalist Decline

Chapter 6: The Post-War Boom and Fictitious Capital

Chapter 7: State Capitalism

Chapter 8: Socialism or Barbarism?

Chapter 9: What Marx Meant by Socialism/Communism

Chapter 10: An Anarchist Critique of Marx’s Political Economy

Continue reading “Marx’s Economics for Anarchists: An Anarchist’s Introduction to Marx’s Critique of Political Economy (web)”

Bakunin vs. the Primitivists (web)

Download PDFby Brian Oliver Sheppard

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 bsheppard@bari.iww.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/

Give Up Activism: A Critique of the Activist Mentality in the direct action Movement (web)

Download PDFby Andrew X

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.

Experts

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.[2] 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.” [3] 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.

Roles

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.” [4] 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. [5] 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’. [6]

“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.” [7] 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.” [8]

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.” [9] 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!” [10] 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.” [11]

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.

Isolation

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.” [12]

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.” [13] 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’ [14] 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.” [15] 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…

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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!, [16] 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.” [17]

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”. [18] 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.[19] 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?” [20]

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. [21] 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.


Footnotes:

  1. 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.
  2. Squaring up to the Square Mile: A Rough Guide to the City of London (J18 Publications (UK), 1999) p.8
  3. ‘Direct Action: Six Years Down the Road’ in Do or Die No. 7, p.3
  4. Raoul Vaneigem – The Revolution of Everyday Life, (Left Bank Books/Rebel Press, 1994) – first published 1967, pp.131-3
  5. ‘The Day they Drove Twyford Down’ in Do or Die No. 1, p.11
  6. ‘Personality Politics: The Spectacularisation of Fairmile’ in Do or Die No. 7, p.35
  7. Op. Cit. 4, p.128
  8. Op. Cit. 4, p.107
  9. Op. Cit. 4, p.109
  10. Op. Cit. 4, p.108
  11. Op. Cit. 4, p.109
  12. Op. Cit. 4, p.111
  13. Op. Cit. 4, p.143
  14. Jacques Camatte – ‘On Organisation’ (1969) in This World We Must Leave and Other Essays (New York, Autonomedia, 1995)
  15. Op. Cit. 4, p.110
  16. ‘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
  17. The Bad Days Will End!, p. 5
  18. Gilles Dauvé (Jean Barrot) – ‘Critique of the Situationist International’ http://libcom.org/library/critique-situationist-international-gilles-dauve
  19. See ‘Whatever happened to the Situationists?’, Aufheben No. 6, p. 45 http://libcom.org/library/whatever-happened-to-the-situationists-review-aufheben-6
  20. The Bad Days Will End!, p. 6
  21. The Kolinko proposal was recently published in Collective Action Notes No. 16-17.

From: zinelibrary.info