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Mick Armstrong's Gross Distortion of Anarchism.

category international | anarchist movement | debate author Tuesday July 31, 2007 21:42author by W. - WSM (pers cap) Report this post to the editors

A reply to "Is there anything radical about anarchism?"

In a recent article published on the ‘Socialist Democracy’ website Mick Armstrong presents a brief overview of the spectrum of thought within the anarchist movement, focussing his argument against strawmen including anarchist-capitalists and lifestylists.


There are trends within anarchism to be critiqued and for the most part it is anarchists doing this work, a criticism based on straw-men however brings nothing to the battle of ideas. Had Mick criticised primitivism, crimethinc or insurrectionism he might have displayed even a slight knowledge of his subject matter.

While failing to mention one of the strongest and most political trends within the anarchist movement, anarchist-communism, Mick presents the dominant form of anarchism as ‘lifestyle anarchism’ which “in turn merge into ‘autonomism‘ and/or the masked Black Blocs with their terrorist-style antics”. A mention of the centuries dead propaganda-by-the-deed strategy forced me to re-check the date the article was published. No such groups hold any sway within anarchism.

Mick references Murray Bookchin’s brilliant polemic ‘Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism – An Unbridgeable Chasm’, a piece which attacks the anarchist movement of the early 90’s in North America, which I fully agree with. Lifestylism is still a force within anarchism in North America but this just isn’t true for many other places where anarchism is an organised political force.

If Mick was seeking to critique only North American anarchism and a certain section of European anarchism then his article might have some relevance, his flaw however is assuming these trends are global and not isolated in certain regions.

Syndicalism gets a passing mention as the ‘socialist’ end of the spectrum and is dismissed for not having a political outlook, a critique which anarchist communists would partially share. His dismissal of syndicalism as a minority trend and his attempt to down-play the ‘socialist’ aspects of the anarchist movement betray a deep ignorance on his part.

Could anyone with knowledge of groups like Spain’s CNT and CGT or even the recent growth of the IWA, the anarchist-syndicalist international, honestly believe that syndicalism was a foot-note to the movement? The recent rebirth of industrial unionism in North America, where anarchist militants have moved away from the bourgeois individualist ideologies of Crimethinc and Hakim Bey, has seen the rebirth of the IWW.

It is when discussing leadership and methods of organising that Mick portrays his complete misunderstanding of the movement. Apparently, rejecting Leninist centralisation and vanguard leadership, leaves us organising in ‘secret, elite bands’ backing this up with a reference to Bakunin, an anarchist who lived under Czarist Russia and spent many years in prison for his organising efforts. While Bakunin is wrong it is possible to see why organising secretly may have been a priority at the time, Lenin also organised in secret for a while.

Anarchists no longer organise in secret bands, neither are we opposed to organising, debating or electing accountable comrades for specific roles. The platformist current within anarchist-communism sees the role of the anarchist organisation in a very different way to Mick. Operating on the basic principles of ideological unity, tactical unity, collective action and discipline, and federalism. Platformism considers itself the organised tendency within anarchism and is growing in Ireland, North America, Latin American countries like Chile and even in the UK.

Platformists see the importance of intervening politically in workers and social struggles and presenting their ideas but we do not see revolution coming from a vanguard party of the ‘most advanced workers’. Perhaps Socialist Democracy should better learn the lessons of history that are winning so many revolutionary youths over to the anarchist cause.

Instead platformists believe the emancipation of the proletariat must be the job of the proletariat, with all power exercised through their own democratic, revolutionary, organs - workers councils. It is true that authority must be defeated with authority, the authority of the ruling class met with the authority of the workers but the existence of a revolutionary vanguard assuming to form a dictatorship on behalf of the Proletariat has not and can never work.

“The emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself.”
Karl Marx

Anarchism, insurrections and insurrectionalism
http://www.wsm.ie/story/1027

Civilisation, Primitivism and anarchism
http://www.anarkismo.net/newswire.php?story_id=1451

Your politics are bourgeois as fuck – rethinking crimethinc
http://www.anarkismo.net/newswire.php?story_id=3664

The IBT pamphlet ‘Platformism & Bolshevism’ a polemic against platformist anarchism
http://www.bolshevik.org/Pamphlets/Platformism/Platformism.html


Reply written by a young anarchist to the article published at - http://www.socialistdemocracy.org/RecentArticles/RecentIsThereAnythingRadicalAboutAnarchism.html

author by Futureblisspublication date Thu Aug 02, 2007 07:57author address Oslo, NorwayReport this post to the editors

I haven't read and won't bother to read Mick Armstrong's text, but I agree with the text of this article though.

I'd wonder if you could expound upon your statement "the recent growth of the IWA, the anarchist-syndicalist international" though. Has the IWA experienced a significant growth lately? In which countries?

Also: is platformism growing in Northern america? Even in the UK? I didn't even know there is any platformist organization in the UK (you have the Anarchist Federation, which is good, but maybe not platformists? At least they seem a bit too critical of trade union activism as far as I'm concerned).

author by Paddy Rua - WSMpublication date Thu Aug 02, 2007 10:42Report this post to the editors

Platformism in the UK in any organisational form is virtually non existent. In Scotland only recently there's a group being formed along those lines -and in England there's a number of sympathetic individuals around different local collectives. That's all, but still this interest and the Scottish presence is quite significant.

author by Anarchopublication date Thu Aug 02, 2007 23:00Report this post to the editors

'Syndicalism gets a passing mention as the ‘socialist’ end of the spectrum and is dismissed for not having a political outlook, a critique which anarchist communists would partially share.'

Sorry, but Rocker exposed the myth that anarcho-syndicalism was indifference to politics in 1937. I do wish that other anarchists would not repeat this particular myth of Marxists, particularly when by "political" the Marxists mean "party political."

While not a syndicalist (I'm a communist-anarchist), I recognise that syndicalists do not ignore political struggles. They do (often) reject the need for a specific anarchist organisation, which is a different matter.

'His dismissal of syndicalism as a minority trend and his attempt to down-play the ‘socialist’ aspects of the anarchist movement betray a deep ignorance on his part.'

It is not "deep ignorance" -- it is a deliberate attempt to distort anarchist to keep the party rank and file faithful. I've refuted enough Marxists accounts of anarchism to conclude that these party hacks are not repeating the same silly assertions time and again by accident.

It makes sense, though. A honest account of anarchism would expose their ideology for what it is. Best, then, to distort anarchism and concentrate on those aspects which can best be used to put off the rank and file party member finding out more.

Related Link: http://www.anarchistfaq.org
author by José Antonio Gutiérrezpublication date Fri Aug 03, 2007 03:45Report this post to the editors

'Syndicalism gets a passing mention as the ‘socialist’ end of the spectrum and is dismissed for not having a political outlook, a critique which anarchist communists would partially share.'

Dear Anarcho, note that W. says PARTIALLY. That is quite relevant -certainly syndicalism is "political" in the broad sense of the word but usually underestimate the importance of the political side of the struggle. Actually, the rejection of the political organisation (specific organisation, party, however you want to call it) is quite telling.

As telling as another of the leading figures of anarchosyndicalism, Diego Abad de Santillán, stating openly ("El organismo Económico de la Revolución") that after the revolution society will not have to bother in organising politics for there will be absolute freedom, but that organisation should only happen at the level of economics and society will spontaneously resolve political problems. This was no capricious idea, but a well rooted idea in organisations such as FORA and CNT, where Abad de Santillán participated as a leading figure.

Another eloquent anarchist theoretician Ferdinand Pelloutier, of the CGT (another of the huge examples of revolutionary syndicalism) said talking about revolutionary society: "Can't it consist in a free organisation limited exclusively by the needs of production and consumption, all political institutions having disappeared?" (quoted in Guerin's "Anarchism", preface by Noam Chomsky).

This naivety not only is wrong: it is disastrous as proved in the revolutionary experience of 1936. Having shown a wonderful capacity and readiness to run the economy, anarchists in Spain had, in fairness, no clear view of how the political institutions should be turned into revolutionary organs having for so long dismissed this question (the only clear and coherent position coming from the Friends of Durruti, but far too late). No matter how deep collectivism and forms of communism were taking root in the coutryside and factories the political institutions did not disappear and the fear to an anarchist "dictatorship" as Abad de Santillán posed it, lead to anarchists, well, participating in the State!

This are not minor issues, but show how important is to think beyond "self-management" pure and simple and how to bring about a project of society.

So as far as I'm concerned -and by my knowledge of comrade W.- he is not repeating any particular "myth" of Marxists as you may see. That's why he says PARTIALLY. Certainly, syndicalism is political in the broad sense of the word, in spite of the fact that many of its own theoreticians denied it.

author by Anarchopublication date Fri Aug 03, 2007 16:50Report this post to the editors

"Can't it consist in a free organisation limited exclusively by the needs of production and consumption, all political institutions having disappeared?"

You will discover similar comments in Bakunin, Kropotkin and so forth. Anarchists aim for the abolition of all political institutions, i.e., the state in all its forms. As such, these syndicalist comments are compatible with communist-anarchist positions.

As far as Spain goes, the problem was that the CNT did not destroy the state, i.e. it did not make all political institutions "disappear." This decision had very little to do with anarcho-syndicalist politics but rather a misunderstanding of the situation they found themselves in.

if you read, say, "How we will bring about the revolution" it is clear that the syndicalists of the CGT did not ignore the state, in fact they make a point of destroying the state, leaving only the federation of workers' councils in its place (an expanded CGT). The history of the CNT shows that it was well aware of the need to smash the state and organise communes in its place (as can be seen in the pamphlet "libertarian communism", for example, or the 1936 congress resolution).

Now, please, do not repeat Marxist assertions as if they were true. If you read the relevant books, it is clear that the idea that syndicalism is "apolitical" and ignores the state or the need to defend a revolution and organise a new system is simply wrong.

Seeking an explanation of the failures of 1936 in the politics of the CNT rather than the circumstances it faced can only be done by ignoring a lot of history and ideas. That Marxists do it, I can understand. That some anarchists do it is not good.

And I should know. When I was younger, I thought that this critique of syndicalism was right. Then I explored the subject more and discovered that it was not. Syndicalism can be faulted for many things, such as ignoring the role of unionism under capitalism and the need for an anarchist federation (please do not call it a party), but ignoring the state is not one of them.

Related Link: http://www.anarchistfaq.org
author by José Antonio Gutiérrez D.publication date Fri Aug 03, 2007 19:41Report this post to the editors

Yes, it is true that when Bakunin talked about "apolitical" action talked about "non-electoralist" action. That is quite obvious. As obvious as syndicalist wanting to abolish "State" in favour of "workers's councils" or federations, or whatever (I said at no point that they "ignored" the State). But the latter is too broad a statement that relies practically in a mechanistic vision of the "economic" life replacing the "political" life. I think if you pay attention to numerous documents produced by the CNT before the revolution, and particularly to Diego Abad de Santillán's views, you would find out this quite easily as well. The fact is that anarchosyndicalists have thought historically that the organisation of the "producers" (whether by trade or industry, according to what pole of revolutionary unionism they suscribed to) was enough to the re-organisation of society, and THAT is a gross mistake and an over-simplifying view of society.

Their rejection of anarchist organisation is linked with this view of society and it is not a capricious isolated, one-off idea (again, when it comes to organisation, I'm not picky with words, and remember, for instance, that many anarchists rejected to support Ricardo Flores Magón's Mexican Liberal Party for being a "party"! Thus, not supporting the anarchist alternative there only because of a matter of name -how childish!)

When it comes to the Spanish comrades back in the days, no one faces circumstances without a range of options. Sometimes the range of options is quite narrow, others is not. Do you honestly believe the fact that anarchists ended up in government in Spain was a pure matter of circumstances? I would be so surprised if you honestly did so, taking into account that you are quite a talented writer. True, the circumstances of Spain, as that of any revolution were exceptionally difficult. But those were conscious and not unavoidable decisions. And in my opinion they sprung out from the inability to come up with a comprehensive political programme at all levels. The economic readiness of the CNT compared to its political clumsiness, again, is quite telling.

And last but not least, to accept some facts in order to overcome mistakes, shortcomings and failures FROM AN ANARCHIST POINT OF VIEW does not equal to repeating Marxists' statements. (In fact, coming from anarchosyndicalism, I only turned into an anarchist-communist when I realized of these shorcomings.) To insist on such a thing, Anarcho, is only a cheap resort that has often the risk to replace rational discussion with marx-o-phobia and trying to start a race to prove "who's the most anarchist here" -a race I'm definitely not interested in starting with anyone.

author by @ndypublication date Fri Aug 03, 2007 21:01Report this post to the editors

I've also written a reply to Mick's article, which is available here:

http://slackbastard.anarchobase.com/?p=728

Related Link: http://slackbastard.anarchobase.com
author by Anarchopublication date Fri Aug 03, 2007 23:31Report this post to the editors

'The fact is that anarchosyndicalists have thought historically that the organisation of the "producers" (whether by trade or industry, according to what pole of revolutionary unionism they suscribed to) was enough to the re-organisation of society, and THAT is a gross mistake and an over-simplifying view of society."

Unfortunately, that vision can also be found in Bakunin as well as other social anarchists. It was a product of the time. Moreover, the 1936 resolution on libertarian communism showed a greater awareness of social organisation, as did other CNT pamphlets of the time. And as you say, "historically" this may be the case -- whether it still is the case is doubtful. Anarcho-syndicalism has changed, maybe the critique can too?

"Their rejection of anarchist organisation is linked with this view of society and it is not a capricious isolated, one-off idea"

Many anarcho-syndicalists do not reject the notion of an anarchist organisation. However, the tendency of some syndicalists to assume that unionism can be inherently revolutionary is simplistic and, ultimately, false.

"When it comes to the Spanish comrades back in the days, no one faces circumstances without a range of options. Sometimes the range of options is quite narrow, others is not. Do you honestly believe the fact that anarchists ended up in government in Spain was a pure matter of circumstances?"

I would say that they had a few, limited choices and they picked the wrong one. The choice in question directly contradicted their politics and earlier activities and so can hardly be blamed on them. Which leaves the circumstances they found themselves in. The consequences of that decisions logically drove them into the state -- the initial wrong step took them there.

Anarchist politics are quite clear -- smash the state, expropriate capital and build a federation of communes. The CNT did not pursue this because they thought they would end up fighting both the fascists and the republic. Given the unknown situation on the 20th of July, I can understand why they may have thought that this was unwise. It does not justify the decision, but it helps explain it.

The revolution, of course, broke out anyway and the republic did attack the anarchists when it was strong enough. They should have applied their politics on the 20th of July -- that they did not cannot be explained by those politics, I think.

"I would be so surprised if you honestly did so, taking into account that you are quite a talented writer. True, the circumstances of Spain, as that of any revolution were exceptionally difficult. But those were conscious and not unavoidable decisions."

Circumstances explain the decision, but do not justify it.

"And in my opinion they sprung out from the inability to come up with a comprehensive political programme at all levels. The economic readiness of the CNT compared to its political clumsiness, again, is quite telling."

They had a comprehensive political programme, which they failed to apply totally. The key problem, beyond the fascist threat, was how to work with the UGT -- which had repeatedly rejected anarchist ideas of unity from below. That pushed the CNT to apply the UGT "workers alliance" kind of top-down unity. What they should have done, of course, was call a full plenum of workplace and community delegates -- as advocated by many anarchist thinkers, then and now.

"And last but not least, to accept some facts in order to overcome mistakes, shortcomings and failures FROM AN ANARCHIST POINT OF VIEW does not equal to repeating Marxists' statements."

Ah, but I am disputting that they are facts. Changing "anarchist" to "syndicalist" does not matter much when the fact is that both groups had/have programmes, strategies and theories which belie the claims.

I'm all for overcoming mistakes, shortcomings and failures -- but based on a firm understanding of the facts of the matter. As such, I dispute the claim that the CNT had no vision/programme for revolution -- it had. The question is, why did it not apply it in full? And that is best explained by the circumstances it found itself in, circumstances which Marxists ignore in favour of "anarchism is silly" style-assertions. I dislike seeing anarchists repeating, even partially, such arguments.

'To insist on such a thing, Anarcho, is only a cheap resort that has often the risk to replace rational discussion with marx-o-phobia and trying to start a race to prove "who's the most anarchist here" -a race I'm definitely not interested in starting with anyone.'

It is quite simple. Marxists misrepresent key facts about anarchism. I dislike seeing anarchists repeating them, but shifting the focus onto other tendencies which do not warrent it.

As I have said, my reading of CNT and syndicalist works has indicated that they had a vision of revolution, a programme of social change. The problem was that it was not applied in 1936 and the question is why.

To say that the programme was not applied because they did not have one is false. Was the vision inadequate? Hardly, as elements of it were very successfully applied (and in the case of Aragon, almost totally applied). Which leaves us with, I think, the most likely reason -- the circumstances they faced which provoked the wrong decision which, in turn, logically lead them down the wrong road.

Syndicalism can be critiqued for many reasons, but the notion it had no strategy/programme for revolution is not one of them.

Related Link: http://www.anarchistfaq.org
author by José Antonio Gutiérrezpublication date Sat Aug 04, 2007 00:42Report this post to the editors

"Unfortunately, that vision can also be found in Bakunin as well as other social anarchists. It was a product of the time."

Yes and no. True, in Bakunin you can find that but you can find far more than that as well. Bakunin was quite a complex writer and anarchosyndicalism did quite an economicist reading of his work. Yes, it is true as well that anarchosyndicalists wrote quite lofty utopias of how society should be and adhered to libertarian communist -but in fairness, compared to their understanding of the problems of production their understanding of other social issues was quite slim. An utopia, or a declaration of good will, do not replace a revolutionary programme (if you refer to the Zaragoza conference of 1936 as a comprehensive programme, I would quite honestly disagree).

The thing was not if they "applied" or their (insufficient) programme on the 20th of July -because obviously they did in the factories and in the countryside. The "anarchist dictatorship" incident in Barcelona is quite telling of the limitations they faced on the political spectrum.

"Anarcho-syndicalism has changed, maybe the critique can too?"

But it's essential componentes have not quite changed -and are still exppressed in their basic rejection of the need of anarchists to have specifically political organisations and quite often to sectarianly label any such attempt as "veiled bolshevism".

"Many anarcho-syndicalists do not reject the notion of an anarchist organisation."

What they reject is a "political" anarchist organisation. An organisation that carries daily struggles and demands for reforms. For anarchosyndicalists (and this is still the case) the anarchist organisation has to remain in the field of propaganda or "orientation" pretty much in the same model the FAI served the CNT.

"However, the tendency of some syndicalists to assume that unionism can be inherently revolutionary is simplistic and, ultimately, false."

A quick look to the historical writings of the IWW will make you aware that this was not the case, by the way, and this is actually an unfair criticism on your behalf.

"As such, I dispute the claim that the CNT had no vision/programme for revolution -- it had. The question is, why did it not apply it in full?"

"As I have said, my reading of CNT and syndicalist works has indicated that they had a vision of revolution, a programme of social change."

They had, that's for sure. I'm not saying they did not have or as they were silly (such a reading of what I'm saying distorts the argument I'm making and worse, it is purely defensive). I'm saying it was insufficient and did not have much beyond self-management. As it had a tendency to reduce the social problem to "production/consumption". That this could be seen in some of the former anarchists including Bakunin, that's for sure (though I insist there are many ways to read the old man), but to insist on the same view at this stage is not justifiable.

"Syndicalism can be critiqued for many reasons, but the notion it had no strategy/programme for revolution is not one of them"

At no point I said that -so please, Anarcho, do not put words in my mouth (that's quite a tendency among anarchists when discussing by the way). That's not the right way to discuss.

My main argument is: anarchosyndicalism had an insufficient view when it comes to the political side of social change (as opposed to the economicist side of it, what was quite thorough and has valuable insights there), and this was reflected in their hostility to the conception of an anarchist political organisation -better reflected in Maximov's reply to the Platform. (As well as in the quite differing view when it comes to social organisations).

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