In Defense of Revolutionary Class-Struggle Anarchism
Response to Laurence Davis’s Defense of Uri Gordon’s and David Graeber’s Views from My Criticisms
Within the anarchist movement there are conflicting trends. Laurence Davis has written an essay which defends the reformist “exodus” trend in anarchism against the revolutionary "class-struggle” trend. In large part, he does this by defending Uri Gordon’s and David Graeber’s views against my criticisms. This is my response.
Many books are published annually on the subject of anarchism, which is quite a change from decades past. It is impossible to keep up with all of them. So I did not read The Continuum Companion to Anarchism when it came out in 2012. Edited by Ruth Kinna, it is a collection of essays about “research on anarchism.” However, I recently came across it, and noticed that it had an article on “Anarchism and the Future of Revolution,” written by Laurence Davis (a college teacher, theorist, and activist in Ireland). Part of his article was an attack on my views about anarchist revolution! This is an important topic. It might be described as “what strategy might lead to an anarchist society.” Therefore I am responding to Davis’ essay, even if four or so years late.
Davis begins by dividing the current anarchist movement into “two broad orientations…: one rooted in the anarcho-communist and anarcho-syndicalist class struggle traditions, and premised on the belief that a vast movement of the oppressed must rise up and smash the capitalist state, and the other associated with a ‘revolutionary exodus’ strategy focused less (at least initially) on direct confrontation with the state and more on the construction of alternate institutions and social relationships that will ultimately render [the state] and the capitalist market redundant.” (212) Both anarchist trends overlap with trends in libertarian (autonomous) Marxism.
“Class struggle anarchists” see the working class as at least one of the central revolutionary forces, along with others, such as peasants, women, People of Color, etc. But advocates of an “exodus” strategy propose to somehow withdraw from capitalist society. As Davis’ definition explains, this orientation does not absolutely rule out an eventual “direct confrontation with the state,” but does not focus on it. It prefers to emphasize “the construction of alternate institutions and social relationships” which it expects will “ultimately render” the state and the market “redundant.” Therefore there is little need to orient towards, advocate, or prepare for, a possible confrontation with state power. Davis is clearly supportive of this “exodus” trend. “…The theory of revolutionary exodus…is creatively redefining revolutionary struggle for our time.” (213) I am a supporter of revolutionary class-struggle anarchism.
This dichotomy is an objective classification of anarchist perspectives, although it has its limitations. The “insurrectionist anarchist” trend does not quite fit into these alternatives, nor does the “libertarian municipalism" of Murray Bookchin. And in real life there is much overlap. “Class-struggle” activists have a long tradition of social, community, and cultural organizing. Schmidt & van der Walt report “Spanish syndicalist unions were…immersed in a rich and dense network of anarchist community centers, schools, and libraries…that existed in every district and village of anarchist strength—and a vast anarchist press.” (2009; 185) Advocates of an “exodus” strategy are usually active participants in mass struggles when they break out. Adherents of both trends sincerely share a common goal of a cooperative, self-managed society, without states, classes, or other oppressions. Yet the distinction is useful overall (as I state in Price 2009a).
Actually Davis is ambivalent about the distinction between “exodus” and “class-struggle” anarchist trends. He has raised this binary model, but then seems to want to break it down. He specially criticizes me for “fix[ing] rigid ideological boundaries” and for having “effectively marginalized those with political views alien to his own understanding of the movement…drawing a normatively weighted dichotomous distinction between revolutionary anarchism…and reformist anarchism.” (214) But all I am doing is accepting the same basic two-trends model of anarchism he does, and stating reasons why I agree with one of the trends—as he agrees with the other. (Although I have learned from both trends.)
Davis regards the class-struggle trend to be exemplified by Schmidt and van der Walt (referring to their book, Black Flame; this was before political controversy developed around Schmidt). And by me. He says we are “class-struggle anarchists widely read in contemporary movement circles.” (212) He also cites Richard Frank, but interprets him as having major differences with other class-struggle anarchists. For the “exodus” trend, Davis refers to David Graeber and Uri Gordon. He also cites Richard Day, although he is more critical of Day’s work.
Davis does not actually examine my views on revolution as expounded in my books or articles (such as Price 2007a). Instead he responds to my critical reviews of the works of Uri Gordon and David Graeber. (On Gordon, see Price 2009a; 2009b; on Graeber, see Price 2007b; 2012; 2015.) “…I assess the validity of arguments made for the latter tendency [‘exodus’—WP] in the light of criticisms leveled by partisans of the former ['class struggle'—WP].” (212)
Because Davis has read so little of my work, he makes a number of mistakes in describing my opinions. For example, in discussing Gordon’s critique of “industrial capitalist modernity,” he refers to “the uncritically modernist perspectives represented in the work of Price….” (220). But in Price (2007a) and elsewhere I have argued for an “alternate” or “appropriate” technology, rejecting both anti-technological primitivism and the Marxist acceptance of technology as it has been developed by capitalism.
The Argument for Revolution
Of the basic arguments for revolution (in the sense of popular uprisings which dismantle the state and other capitalist institutions), Davis seems to be in agreement with one: that a new society is both morally desirable and objectively necessary (if we are to avoid economic, ecological, and military disasters). He criticizes Richard Day for denying the need and possibility of revolutionary transformation.
The other main argument is that the capitalists will not easily permit the end of capitalism. They will bitterly resist letting people take away their wealth, their power, their factories, their mansions, their estates, their international firms, their factory-farms, their media, their bought-and-paid-for politicians, lawyers, priests, police, armies, and so on—even should the overwhelming majority of the people want to do so. Davis cites this argument, as raised by me, saying, “This is a legitimate point, deserving serious discussion and debate.” (216)
But his response is only, “Graeber would no doubt reply that it is precisely because of the tremendous military power at the disposal of modern, industrialized states that a revolutionary strategy focused first and foremost on challenging this power head on would almost certainly prove to be counterproductive.” (216-7) “No doubt” this would be true—unless the people were largely united in challenging state power—unless the workers (of the “modern, industrialized” society) went on strike, occupying and taking over that modern industry—and unless the ranks of the military (sons and daughters of the working class) were won over to the revolution. But whatever the pace of events, whether or not “challenging [state] power” was done “first and foremost” or later-and-finally, the central state power of capitalist society would eventually have to be challenged “head on” and defeated. Otherwise everything else would “prove to be counterproductive.”
Similarly, Davis quotes Gordon as asserting, “The state’s utterly disproportional military might…and social control mean that it simply cannot be defeated in outright battle.” (224) Then I wonder how revolutions ever succeeded, considering that they always began with the existing state having the advantage in armaments and social control (which is what made it the state). Yet there have been successful revolutions (one of which is celebrated every Fourth of July).
But Davis and Gordon answer this conundrum, “…A mass insurrection might succeed…[if] large numbers of the police and armed forces desert or defect, and this in turn would be plausible only in the context of a very broad-based and militant popular mobilization.” (224) Which is what class-struggle anarchists have been saying all along.
Davis adds, “As no such mobilization exists at present, armed struggle would seem for now to be a self-defeating prospect.” (224) These words would seem to be directed at a straw man; class-struggle anarchists do not advocate mass armed struggle against the state without a “broad-based and militant popular mobilization.” This is why they work to create broad-based and militant (and radically democratic) popular mobilizations. Davis is in agreement with them when he concludes, “…This needn’t preclude the possibility of anarchists working to create the ultimate conditions for its future success, either in defense against a final and violent attempt by the state to crush oppositional forces or as part of a scenario of social collapse triggered by peak oil and climate change.” (224) So far he agrees with revolutionary class-struggle anarchists—but such agreement has implications for here-and-now activities which might conflict with the “exodus” model. It could lead to a focus in the here-and-now on building movements of workers and others which should be as militant, radical, and democratic as possible.
However, Davis repeatedly rejects the view which he claims is held by class-struggle anarchists, “…the currently dominant paradigm of revolution as a single, cataclysmic break with past structures of oppression achieved by means of a violent seizure of state power.” (215) “…They tend to conceive of revolution as a singular, totalizing and cataclysmic break with past structures of oppression….” (216) He rejects their supposed “ideas of revolutionary closure and utopian perfectibility.” (223) This shows a basic misunderstanding of revolutions and revolutionaries.
While this is a report on current anarchist thinking about revolution, readers might have expected some background references to anarchists’ previous research on revolution, such as Kropotkin on the French Revolution (1986) or Bookchin’s study of a series of revolutions (1996). There are none. Nor does Davis refer to the vast libraries written on the Russian and Spanish revolutions by anarchists, Marxists, and bourgeois historians (summarized in Price 2007a). Nor does he mention anything on the other great bourgeois-democratic revolutions, such as the English or the U.S., nor the Stalinist-nationalist revolutions in China or Cuba.
Had Davis examined this body of work, he would know that revolutions have never been nothing-but “singular, totalizing, and cataclysmic breaks.” And revolutionaries have not expected them to be. Revolutions are preceded by years—decades—of mounting tensions and lesser conflicts; of cycles of rebellion and repression; of overall dissatisfaction among all sectors of society; of conflicts around many distinct issues; of the building of popular “dual power” institutions—councils and assemblies, unions and associations, in neighborhoods and workplaces—which compete with the power of the existing state; a continuing mass radicalization; and an eventual conflict in which either the old state or the popular associations win out. If the revolutionary people win, this would be only the beginning of a long period of conflicts (possibly civil wars and foreign interventions) and a long period of social experimentation and consolidation. (How violent and “bloody” the revolution would be has always depended on how well-organized and prepared the people are and to what extent the ruling class can be isolated and demoralized.)
Kropotkin summarized, “…The anarchists recognize that…the slow evolution of society is followed from time to time by periods of accelerated evolution which are called revolutions….Periods of rapid changes will follow the periods of slow evolution, and these periods must be taken advantage of…through the organization in every township or commune of the local groups of producers and consumers, as also the regional, and eventually the international, federation of these groups.” (Kropotkin 1975; 110)
As we know, all previous revolutions have either failed (the old rulers keep power) or have succeeded, only to put a new ruling class in power (the bourgeoisie or a collective bureaucracy). Such revolutions may have won limited gains for the people (such as increased freedom, won by the bourgeois-democratic revolutions in England, the U.S., and France). Yet they remained exploitative class societies. Class-struggle anarchists’ goal is for the working class and all oppressed people to “take power,” in the sense of overturning the state, the capitalist class, and all other institutions of oppression, and to build up a self-managed, radically democratic, society—the self-organization of the people. But not to “take state power,” that is, not to create a new bureaucratic-military, socially-alienated, state machine over the rest of society. When all the working people are involved in governing, then there will be no government.
Such an understanding of revolution includes the building up of mass struggles and popular institutions (as Benjamin Franks expresses it), as well as the “moment of ‘decisive revolutionary rupture’,” (as Schmidt & van der Walt put it, quoted by Davis; 213) when the central power of the ruling class is overturned, and then a lengthy period of gradual pluralistic experimentation (as Malatesta advocated).
The Non-Revolutionary Program of “Exodus” Anarchism
Class-struggle anarchists do not criticize the “exodus” anarchists for advocating a lengthy pre-revolutionary period (lengthy as necessary, anyway) of building up mass struggles and alternate organizations. They criticize them for believing that it is possible to make an “exodus” from capitalist society: “… most successful forms of popular resistance have historically taken the form not of challenging power head on, but of ‘slipping away from its grasp’, whether by means of flight, desertion, or the founding of new communities.” (216) Davis cites this bit of anthropological wisdom from David Grabber, who claims this as a model for current “revolutions.” Davis vehemently denies that this view of Graeber’s “is somehow anti-revolutionary, defeatist, reformist, or in any way opposed to popular uprisings….” (217) despite the plain meaning of the words.
Davis criticizes me for seeing “only instrumental value [in] the constructive prefigurative project of cultivating nonhierarchical movement structures.” (222) Actually I have constantly advocated that popular movements of opposition be as democratic and participatory as possible, to prefigure the future society, as opposed to Leninist concepts of building a centralized vanguard party. I have also expressed appreciation of decentralized democratic co-ops, communities, and infoshops, as good in themselves—but I regard them as making limited contributions to a strategy for revolution. However, I do evaluate “nonhierarchical movement structures” in terms of their contribution toward ending capitalism and saving the world from war and ecological catastrophe. I do not apologize for that.
Instead, Davis argues, “For contemporary ‘small-a’ anarchists…these here-and-now alternative institutions…and social relationships …are the essence of anarchism….Many contemporary anarchists insist that ‘the revolution is now’….” (222-3) Gordon writes, “The development of nonhierarchical structures in which domination is constantly challenged is, for most anarchists, an end in itself….Anarchists today do not tend to think of revolution—if they even use the term—as a future event but rather as a present-day process and a potential dimension of everyday life.” (Gordon 2008; 35 & 41)
I find these words pretty plain in their meaning. Rather than build a movement to eventually end oppression, exploitation, and ecological catastrophe, this school of anarchism advocates focusing on living anarchistically in the day-to-day reality of current society. Apparently the future can take care of itself. Meanwhile Gordon specifically denounces the very idea of making demands on the state in order to win reforms and benefits. “…A ‘politics of demand’…extends undue recognition and legitimation to state power…a strategy far removed from anarchism” (same; 151).This may sound very radical but means giving up many possibilities for mass struggles (e.g., for the $15 minimum wage, ending fracking, withdrawing from specific wars, recognizing LGBT equality, anti-police brutality, etc.).
There are two issues here. The main one is whether the “exodus” strategy is likely to work. Could society be changed into statelessness by refusing to “challenge power head on, ‘slipping away from its grasp’ ?” Suppose such an approach started to be successful, so that alternate institutions actually threaten the auto or steel corporations, the big banks, and the national government (posing it this way shows the obvious limitations of this strategy). Wouldn’t the state and the corporations crack down on this development? Or at least try to? Surely, at some point there will have to be democratic mass movements of workers and everyone else to confront the state and the capitalist class. If so, then anarchists should warn the people. It should be prepared for.
The second, and lesser, question, is whether this “exodus” approach is accurately called “revolutionary.” If your strategy is to engage in gradual, step-by-step, limited struggles, limiting yourself to living freely in the here-and-now, and not intending to confront and overthrow the state as your eventual goal—then I don’t know why you call this “revolutionary.” It is classically reformist. That is why Davis describes the “exodus” trend as “creatively redefining revolutionary struggle for the twenty-first century.” (224) That is to say, changing the definition of revolution, “creatively.” However sincere, this re-definition is a way of rejecting a revolutionary strategy while keeping the honorable label of “revolution.”
While declared to be a brand new program “for the twenty-first century,” it is a return to J.P. Proudhon’s reformist program of “mutualism.” It is the same orientation promoted by gradualist anarchists in the 1950s and 1960s, such as Colin Ward and Paul Goodman. Proudhon, Ward, Goodman, and other gradualists made major contributions to anarchist theory, but they are all recognized as reformists.
Anarchism and Democracy
Anarchists have long had an ambivalent attitude toward democracy, sometimes falling into various sorts of elitism. Of the class-struggle anarchists being cited here by Davis, all regard anarchism as an extreme, radical, extension of democracy, into every place there is group decision-making. “Anarchism would be nothing less than the most complete realization of democracy—democracy in the fields, factories, and neighborhoods, coordinated through federal structures and councils from below upward…” (Schmidt & van der Walt 2009; 70) They reject defining “democracy” as only present-day, bourgeois, representative democracy. They also reject any concept of democracy as meaning that the majority can oppress a minority. They define an anarchist society as “democracy without the state.”
Of the “exodus” advocates cited by Davis, David Grabber defends the unity of anarchism and democracy. At most he may he criticized for saying that anarchist democracy requires consensus procedures. I regard both consensus and majority rule (with rights for minorities) as practical issues, not as matters of principle. Either can organize self-management and either may be mis-used in oppressive ways.
However, Davis condemns Richard Day, despite his contributions to “exodus” theory. “…Day’s understanding…is deeply anti-democratic. Day is quite clear on this point. From his point of view, the possibility of popular democratic social change is nil.” (226)
On the other hand, Davis vigorously disagrees with my characterization of Uri Gordon’s work as elitist and undemocratic. “It is true that in the course of his argument, Gordon draws back from fully embracing the principle of radical democracy, but only insofar as it entails collectively binding decisions that are enforceable.” (219)
However, Gordon does much more than fail to “fully embrace radical democracy.” He is explicit: “…The mistake that most clouds our thinking over process [is] the continued couching of the debate in the language of democracy….Anarchism, then, represents not the most radical form of democracy, but an altogether different paradigm of collective action.” (Gordon 2008; 69—70) He rejects democracy because it inevitably includes institutionalized coercion. “Democratic discourse assumes without exception that the political process results…in collectively binding decisions.” (same; 69) He regards this as coercive.
Instead Gordon seeks to “minimize” the use of “plenaries” and assemblies, emphasizing decentralized networks of “unaccountable” groupings and individuals. “…Anarchists are bound to acknowledge that this invisible, subterranean, indeed unaccountable use of power is not only inevitable in some measure (…), but also needs to be embraced since it coheres with their worldview in important respects…. Invisible power…is not only a practical necessity but also has intrinsic political value from an anarchist perspective.” (same; 75)
Rather than trying to unpack what Gordon is saying, I will just summarize the issue as I see it. A goal of anarchism is the abolition of the state—a special coercive organization over and above the rest of society—replacing it with the self-organization of the people. The goal should not be the total abolition of all coercion, but the reduction of coercion to the minimum possible. Social decision-making should be done by discussion, experimentation, and the use of intelligence. (I refer to “social decision-making,” because vast areas of life are outside the realm of group decisions, such as individuals’ choice of religion or non-coercive sexual practices.) Since groups do have to make decisions, “collectively binding decisions” are inevitable and so some minimal coercion will exist. Of course individuals may leave any particular group or community, but then they give up the possibility of affecting that group’s decisions. And then they will go to other groups or communities which also have to make decisions.
Davis’ essay is primarily an exposition of what he calls the “revolutionary exodus” trend in anarchism and its defense against my criticisms from the perspective of revolutionary class-struggle anarchism. It has been impossible for me to cover all of Davis’ arguments—let alone to re-analyze the views of Gordon and Graeber. I have focused on key issues of the arguments about mass revolution, the strategy of “exodus,” and the value of radical democracy.
It has been a little difficult to deal with Davis’ presentation because he tends to go back and forth. He presents a two-trend model of current anarchism, but condemns me for supposedly rigidifying the distinction. He is for the “exodus” perspective of focusing on the here-and-now of anarchist living but also accepts the possibility of an ultimate direct conflict with the state—but he rejects advocating and organizing for it now. He misstates my views on technology. He misstates class-struggle anarchists views on the nature of revolution. He defends Gordon by claiming Gordon is merely not “fully embracing the principle of radical democracy,” when Gordon clearly rejects the principle of democracy, radical or otherwise.
I will conclude with an observation by Paul Goodman (who was generally in the “exodus” trend). “It will be said that there is no time. Yes, probably. But let me cite a remark of Tocqueville. In his last work, L’Ancien Re’gime, he notes ‘with terror,’ as he says, how throughout the eighteenth century writer after writer and expert after expert pointed out that this and that detail of the Old Regime was unviable and could not possibly survive; added up, they proved that the entire Old Regime was doomed and must soon collapse; and yet there was not a single [person] who foretold that there would be a mighty revolution.” (Goodman 1965; 189)
Bookchin, Murray (1996). The Third Revolution; Popular Movements in the Revolutionary Era. Vol. 1. London/NY: Cassel.
Davis, Laurence (2012). “Anarchism and the Future of Revolution.” In Ruth Kinna (ed.) (2012). Pp. 212—232.
Goodman, Paul (1965). People or Personnel; Decentralizing and the Mixed System. NY: Random House.
Gordon, Uri (2008). Anarchy Alive! Anti-Authoritarian Politics from Practice to Theory. London/Ann Arbor MI: Pluto Press.
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Price, Wayne (2007b). “Fragments of a Reformist Anarchism: A Review of David Graeber, Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology. Anarkismo.”
Price, Wayne (2009a). “The Two Main Trends in Anarchism.” Anarkismo
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Price, Wayne (2012). “Review of Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber". Anarkismo.
Price, Wayne (2015). “The Reversed Revolutions of David Graeber;
Review of David Graeber, Revolutions in Reverse.” Anarkismo.
Schmidt, Michael, & van der Walt, Lucien (2009). Black Flame; The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism. Vol. 1. Oakland CA: AK Press.