Response to “Why I am no longer an anarchist”

by Paul Bowman on January 17, 2014

The following text is a response to the article “Why I am no longer an anarchist”.

I don’t aspire to respond to every point made in that text, but to develop points which I think are interesting in developing a clearer understanding of anarchist principles and philosophy than Gavin was able to find in his time in the WSM, to our collective discredit, it should be said, at least as far as the pedagogical role of the organisation is concerned. It is a personal response rather than the result of any collective discussion by the WSM.

Gavin’s text begins with sections on “Pre-history” and his initial experiences “In Ireland” which I am going to pass by, being as they are more by way of introduction to his own starting points than raising the central questions of political theory I want to address.

Passive Support

In the section on “The Single Issue Campaign” Gavin recounts his discussions with James about past community campaigns. Specifically the anti-Bin Tax campaign which predates both Gavin’s and my own entry into Ireland and Irish anarchist politics. James’ account is that, despite central involvement, much hard work and some recognition of participants at the time, the WSM did not succeed in retaining any real advances in either organisational capacity or increased influence after the end of the campaign. By contrast, in Gavin’s view, the Socialist Party did make “advances” in turning the profile achieved during the campaign into electoral gains. The train of thought he then follows is worth reproducing in length, as it is important for what follows from it:

The critical value in the electoral strategy was that after the campaign died, passive support could still be maintained. I was struggling with how we might marshal passive support, and there didn’t seem to be any real way that we could turn our single issue campaigns into more permanent success.

Anarchism appeared to harbour not simply an antipathy towards elections and electoralism but a more generalised distrust of any type of passive support. Attempting to gain passive support was considered on an axis from near irrelevant to elitist and sometimes even bordering on evil.

While I agreed about the many tactical problematics that anarchists mentioned with respect to elections, this revulsion at passive support made no sense to me. It seemed as if there was a belief that the most politically obsessive people would somehow generalise their obsession to the whole of society, an idea which seemed totally improbable.

Part of this probably also came from the demographic of the membership, people who did not have heavy family obligations such as children which would make more passive support and only occasional activity a pre-requisite.

The notion of “passive support” here is the central problematic around which much else turns. The big difficulty here centres on the multiple meanings of passive support and the way Gavin fails to distinguish between them and their different implications, both for single-issue campaigns, mass organisations and the specific political organisation.

In brief, passive support, as outlined above, ranges from the constraints of time poverty (as in the example Gavin gives of family obligations) and dependency on others to do things for you, either through lack of confidence and organisational experience or capacity, or, more problematically, through being content with political activity being a specialised task that others do on your behalf in return for votes in elections or the occasional couple of quid for a campaign or party membership card.

This last form of passivity is a scourge pretty much everywhere, but is a particularly pernicious curse in Ireland, due to the historical legacy of the development of political clientelism from the aftermath of the Civil War up until the present day. Much can be, and has been, written on this topic, but here is not the place to rehearse that material.

To fail then to distinguish between support from people who are sympathetic to the aims of the specific political organisation and are interested in developing their own capacities to act, even within the limits that time poverty or other life constraints may impose upon them, and the support of those who don’t really care whether your particular political allegiance is to the Pope, Chairman Mao or Cthulhu, so long as you “deliver the goods” for them and the local community, in exchange for the odd vote now and again, is fatal to any serious project for social transformation in Ireland (or elsewhere).

The problem, particularly in Ireland, is that electoralism tends to garner support of the latter disengaged kind, in preference to the former more engaged kind. The electoral gains that the SP made in the wake of the Bin Tax were not from people who had suddenly became sympathetic to their particular brand of Trotskyism, or even socialism in the broadest sense. But those who respected the commitment of activists who had (voluntarily) gone to jail over the tax and seemed to show genuine willing to fight for the little guy/gal in the locality.

What was definitely true at the time of the LEDL proposal, was its observation that contrary to the “ladder of engagement” that most voluntary and NGO organisations aim for, the WSM had a “cliff of engagement”. There was literally nothing between full membership and total commitment, and no relationship or engagement at all. Since that time the organisation has re-conceptualised the relationship between membership and non-members through adoption of a “spheres of engagement” model taking inspiration from various sources, whether the aforementioned ladder of engagement or the FARJ’s “Concentric Circles”, and with the aim of breaking down this “cliff of engagement” problem. However the key here is the engagement content. We still see no utility in the pursuit of un-engaged passive support of the kind electoralism mostly orients to, either in the strategically specific context of organisational dualism, or in the broader vista of radical social transformation.

Finally before moving on from this point, there appears to be a misunderstanding around the strategy of organisational dualism contained in the comment that there was “a belief that the most politically obsessive people would somehow generalise their obsession to the whole of society”. It is not the aim of the specific political organisation to generalise itself to the whole of the working class (note the substitution of society for class in the original) in the absence of autonomous and combative mass organisations, both workplace and community-based. It is these latter bodies which will ultimately have the historic task of seizing control of the streets, land and means of production and organising production, distribution and consumption directly.

The principles and practices of the specific organisation only have relevance to the mass of the class to the extent that they begin to encounter the problems of making workplace and community organisations serve their own needs rather than reproducing new self-serving bureaucracies. Clearly we are a good distance from that process being underway at present. And of course in its absence any specific political organisation will be dominated by political obsessives and will have at most marginal influences on social development. But that is not to say that the organisational dualist strategy is simply to generalise from the specific political organisation in its isolated and semi-sectarian form. Or the illusion that it would be even possible to do so, albeit undesirable.

Six of the best?

The subsequent section on “The structure of the ideology” is the most politically interesting, so we shall spend some time on going through it in detail.

Gavin begins by outlining six points that he thinks are the most salient structural points in his perception of the anarchist ideology. In short they are: 1. Prefiguration 2. Horizontality 3. Decentralisation 4. Revolutionary 5. Anti-State 6. Anti-capitalist. His selection of these six is a little idiosyncratic, but as there is no defined doctrinal form of ideological principles, outside of the “Points of Unity” section of the wsm constitution, most individual wsm members or ex-members would probably come up with slightly different lists, if asked. We’ll go through these point by point as they merit detailed consideration.

1. Prefiguration – The idea that our manner of organising is intimately related to the end outcome. Not only do ends not justify means, but the ends will have a similar character to the means.

Although the word itself is of relatively recent origin from the early 1980s, the basic concept is part of anarchist principles going back to the Sonvilier Circular of 1871. However it is often misunderstood in the utopian sense that Gavin attributes to it here – i.e. the connection being one of intimacy and similarity of character between ends and means – tending to the utopian error of seeing them as one and the same – “be the change you want to see” in the Gandhian formula. This has never been true for a movement that historically, like the rest of the left, sought to attain the future goal of a classless society by building an antagonist working class counterpower in the present. That the anarchist workers movement attempted to block or mitigate to the greatest extent possible, the recreation of class differences and hierarchies within its ranks, was not an obstacle to its success, but part of its source in those places and eras where it became the dominant force in the class struggle. Of course contemporary anarchism exists as a sect-like shadow of its former existence as a mass movement, and suffers from the ideological deformations of that condition, including vestiges of 1960s style utopianism, but these sub-cultural accretions need to be distinguished from the efficacy of the underlying principles themselves

Prefiguration distinguishes itself from utopianism on the one hand and instrumentalism on the other by a grasp of the distinct-but-not-separate relationship between ends and means.

To the instrumentalist the relationship between ends and means is external, that is to say they are entirely separate. From that position, that the forces that determine the final ends are entirely unconnected to the means by which they are attained (an entirely undialectical and anti-materialist perspective, n.b.), any anxieties people may have over means employed can be only be due to misguided moral scruples, whether due to “bourgeois moralism” or “un-materialistic attachment to anarchist ideology” (usually buy-one-get-one-free in the endlessly unoriginal state socialist literature). There is also invariably a co-morbidity of the instrumentalist perspective with the fetishism of power. The latter provides the standards of “efficiency” which creates the external viewpoint from which means can be judged – being otherwise indistinguishable given their lack of determinative effect on the desired ends that justify all.

The fetishism of power is key to understanding the line that separates libertarians from the state power-worshipping left, whose side Gavin has now crossed over to (as other of his recent writings such as A Social Democratic Manifesto for Ireland will amply attest). Given that it shapes pretty much all of his logic, its worth briefly outlining that here.

Power is not a thing, like a TV remote that can simply be taken and used to change channel from neoliberal austerity to Socialist Network News. Power is an effect that is exercised on people to, in turn, change their activity to affect that of others, and so on. Within the social network of interacting human action and power effects, we need to distinguish (at a minimum) at least two types of power. In European latinate languages this distinction is already part of the language (pouvoir/puissance, potere/potenza, etc). In English the word power is confusingly used for both constituted power (power-over) and constituent power (power-to). Constituent power or “power-to” is our creative and productive power, our capacity to do things, to make lasting changes on the environment or people around us (potentially both positive or negative from an ethical judgement point of view – constituent power is not a moral or normative concept). Constituted power or “power-over” is the fetishised form of power as command over constituent power produced by the expropriation of the latter and based on the materially-grounded relations of society (e.g. wage labour commands the power-to of the cop to swing a baton to the command of his or her institutional and political masters). There isn’t really the space here to go into a fuller exposition of the political economy of power, but hopefully that sketches the significant distinction between its two forms.

Instrumentalism is then the fetishism of power – the belief that only constituted power really exists. Or that to be efficient, constituent power must first transform itself into constituted power by forming organisations and institutions that can confront the constituted power of capitalist institutions on its own ground and match it, if not replace it, or even take it over. The fetishism of power leads thus to “symmetrism”.

Symmetrism is the belief that in order to effectively contest the enemy, and ultimately defeat them, it is necessary to mimic their institutional forms and “fight fire with fire”. If the Brits have an army, the the Irish liberation struggle must form an army, complete with top-down military command, associated parliamentary political parties, and so on. Hence Irish republicanism is trapped forever in the doomed loop of mimicking the institutions of British rule in Ireland, all the better to be entrusted with the “poacher turned gamekeeper” comprador role of the running of them later on. Round and round it goes, the futile merry-go-round of power fetishism. It’s a simple failure of transformational logic. Transformation means getting something different. Doing what you know best (and appears to work best in current circumstances) doesn’t get something different, just more of the same. Instrumentalism is orthogonal to transformation.

As in fact, is utopianism. If the instrumentalists believe that constituted power is the only real or effective form of power, utopianism has the opposite problem. It holds that constituent power is directly determinate of social reality in the here and now, in a direct, unmediated way. In other words, if we want to transform society from its present condition to follow different values, then all we need to do is start acting as if we lived in that alternative society, and through our example, encourage others to do the same. Once enough people follow the new behaviour the social transformation will be complete. Revolutionism (more of which in a bit) is precisely the rejection of a naive utopianism that not only confuses the destination with the way of getting there, but believes that end and means are one and the same thing.

If both instrumentalism and utopianism are orthogonal to transformative action, then prefigurative practice tries to trace the diagonal, so as to make forward progress genuinely possible. The class war is always asymmetric warfare. The means may not directly resemble the kinds of practices that will reproduce the new relations, once transformation has been effected, any more than an acorn may resemble a fully grown oak tree. But they must be congruent with the transformation to be achieved. And just because an artificial christmas tree is bigger and more “tree-like” than an acorn, does not make it a “transitional stage” that makes a useful stepping stone towards an oak tree by dint of glueing on bark and oak leaves in some “transitional period”.

2. Horizontality – That we should attempt to remain as non-hierarchical in our relationships as possible. This principle leads further to radical direct democratic demands, and radical support for liberal social values and egalitarian social relations.

As a word “horizontality” is even more recent than “prefiguration”, having only been coined in 2001 in the Argentine crisis of that year. However, unlike the latter, it’s attribution as a key aspect of anarchist principles of organisation and power is more ill-fitting. Especially when taken in conjunction with the next alleged principle:

3. Decentralisation – Decentralisation is seen as the antidote to centralisation. Here, centralisation is deemed as the original sin of the Bolsheviks which prefigured the degeneration of the revolution in a pro-state non-horizontal direction.

In fact anarchist views on organisation have remained relatively consistent in promoting the principle of federalism from the days of Bakunin to the present. Yes it’s certainly true that the section on Federalism in the Platform begins:

Anarchism has always denied centralised organisation, both in the area of the social life of the masses and in its political action.

But it continues thus:

The centralised system relies on the diminution of the critical spirit, initiative and independence of each individual and on the blind submission of the masses to the ‘centre’.

Clearly the de-centralisation being talked of here is the democratic refusal of blind authority, of the very kind that Gavin professes allegiance to at multiple points in the document. Federalism is explicitly also the recognition of the need for “specialisation of function”, i.e. operational autonomy for groups with particular interests or skills that we will look at again in a minute. In fact there is a contradiction between asserting (falsely) the need for centralisation of decision-making power for organisational effectiveness (in the fetishist valorisation of power-over above power-to) and simultaneously asserting (correctly) the need for initiative and autonomy and specialisation of function. Unless, of course, like bosses everywhere, you think that the only specialisation that really matters is that of wielding expropriated power-over.

4. Revolutionary – The only sure method of changing society is social revolution. The anti-electoralism of anarchism, and the belief in the illegitimacy of the state leads to a need for an alternative method of change from reform and the ballot box.

Here we have the imputation of moralism overriding pragmatism. Anarchists are not forced into revolutionism by a moral rejection of state as “illegitimate”, but rather by the pragmatic consideration of the incapacity and impotence of the state to effect the radical transformation necessary to replace capitalism with communism. As already discussed above, the anarchist acceptance of the need for revolutionary transformation is a rejection of the utopian notion that the embryo of the new society can simply be “immaculately” conceived – free from the “stain” of capitalist social relations – in the here and now, gestate within its interstices and gradually expand to bring the New Jerusalem without need for rupture or conflict, by the power of example alone and the appeal to universal reason. There is nothing less “moralizing” and more pragmatic than the acceptance of the need for revolution.

5. Anti-state – Anarchists have anti-state in the name.

An oddly short commentary on this particular principle. One that is symptomatically silent on criticism and also factually incorrect. The greek -archos means “leader” not “state” (acracy is the nearest you would get to a Greek word for anti-state and was in fact used by a number of Spanish anarchists in the classical period). Anarchy literally means ‘without leaders’ – not in the sense that anarchist military units refuse to elect leaders (for example) but rather that the unquestioning obedience to a leader whose authority is beyond question, is rejected as fatal to any self-emancipatory project. “No Gods, No Masters” is a concept simple and direct enough that many otherwise politically unengaged people have embraced it without mistaking its content. Gavin’s error in thinking that Anarchism defines itself, ab origine, as anti-state really reflects his own political progression to embracing electoralism and social transformation via seizing control of the state, and believing that this is the foundation of his break with anarchism. Not so, as we will see shortly.

6. Anti-capitalist – The domination of capital was seen in various degrees to constitute a tyranny, though often times (by perhaps a majority of the membership) this tyranny was seen as merely on par with other types of oppressions.

Well anti-capitalism certainly is a core value of both the WSM and any anarchism worthy of the name – that is true. Whether it is one of the values that Gavin has moved away from is not actually clear in this particular text, but that is a question we will return to at the conclusion. On the question of whether “the tyranny was seen [by perhaps a majority of the membership] as merely on a par with other types of oppressions” I have to admit I have no way of knowing the inner minds of the whole membership. But I’ve certainly not seen any evidence that this is the case and it is certainly not the currently formally agreed politics of the organisation. I take the point that there can sometimes be a wide divergence between the written, formally adopted politics of the organisation and the personal beliefs of members, but that is an argument for greater specificity in political positions and more frequent review of them by the membership. Which is contrary to the broad left “lowest common denominator” political direction that Gavin is currently advocating as the way forward. So here there is a mismatch in his stated reasons for departure and actual direction of travel. A lack of correspondence between identified problem and proposed solution that haunts this document as a whole in fact.

The world turned upside down

But the oddly brief nature of his final two principles are then explained by the comment that follows immediately after the listing of the six principles.

The final two points however are somewhat more derivative than the others and demonstrated quite a bit of variation. Anti-statism and anti-capitalism, can for instance, be considered derivative of horizontalism.

Here we have the world turned upside down. Anarchism is historically and essentially a tendency of revolt against capitalism emerging from the workers movement. What could be the motive for the inversion of the genealogical relation between anti-capitalism and anti-statism?

In the context of this specific text it serves two purposes. The first is the conventional state socialist accusation of anarchists being obsessed with opposition to the state. An accusation made to distract attention from the anarchist critique that the instrumentalisation of the state as a means of overcoming capitalism has been historically and empirically demonstrated as a failure, time and again, without a single exception. If this is what Gavin means by “materialism” it is a profoundly anti-historical one.

The second is precisely to deflect attention from the fact that the real point at issue in this argument is about capitalism, not the state. Anarchists are not revolutionist as a result of their anti-statism, but anti-statist (and also revolutionist) as a result of their anti-capitalism.

Gavin’s implication is that any anarchist that put anti-capitalism above anti-statism would ultimately be forced by pragmatism to abandon the latter in pursuit of the former. This is in fact the opposite of the truth. Anarchists reject electoralism, state action and Bernsteinian reformism because we don’t see the possibility of any of these strategies of achieving our communist goal of the self-emancipation of the working class from enslavement to capital. We don’t see self-emancipation as the only “acceptable” form of emancipation, but the only possible one in our situation. A point we touched on above in our discussion on the role of “passive support” in social transformation.

Before moving on to address some of the other points Gavin has raised in this section of his text, some reflection on this section should be made. It is clear that if, after several years of membership and activity with the WSM, Gavin remains relatively unfamiliar with the basic philosophy and principles of anarchism – despite having read all the position papers – then clearly there is a failure in the pedagogical function of the organisation in transmitting the “fundamentals”.

Partly this is due to a historical reluctance by anarchists to reduce the philosophy and principles of the ideology to a simplified doctrinal form. The very notion of doctrine brings unwelcome resonances of the dogmas and catechisms of the Church. Across the political divide we witness also the unedifying spectacle of pious Marxists arguing about the economic significance of the correct exegesis of some shopping list that Marx scribbled on the margins of a newspaper he was reading on the lavatory – or so it too often seems. Yet the original (and infamous) wsm “required reading list” of god knows many books you had to read before applying to sit the exam for full membership, also smacks too much of the Irish civil service entrance exams and seems no more appropriate for a specific political organisation. For the purposes of pedagogical clarity, we may well need to create a new “Anarchist 101” which will deal with some of the topics discussed above in a concise, even if simplified, form.

Organisational dualism

Returning to the text then, Gavin goes on to talk about the general platformist or organisational dualism strategic schema. Rather than discuss this strategy on its own merits Gavin instead stages a diversion by dropping a couple of mostly inaccurate barbs against the WSM.

The first is that “many people were probably not even aware of the stated strategy…” which is just basically snark, all the more so for not being true (the strategy is outlined in the 8-point core principles of the constitution which you have to understand and agree with to join).

The second allegation is that “…and many of those that were did not think it was a good strategy, though there were some exceptions…” and goes on to name a number of individuals who had a particular notion of the dual organisational strategy – namely restricting union activity to mainstream unions like SIPTU. A particular interpretation of the strategy that many other members rejected in favour of pursuing syndicalist activity through the anti-social partnership IWU. Between these two positions there was disagreement, but both were different potential implementations of the same strategy.

Similarly, for those student members who pursued their mass organising activity within the rank and file groups like FEE (Free Education for Everyone) within the student union, or those activists who chose the main focus of their social insertion as community-based organising in the Campaign Against Home and Water Taxes, were all equally engaged in operating according to the dual organisationalist strategy.

But even if the membership of the organisation genuinely were not effectively engaged in implementing this strategy in a coherent way, that would be a reflection on the effectiveness of the organisation, but not of the strategy itself.

Rather than critiquing the basic especifist or dual organisational strategy on its own merits though, Gavin uses his few quick throwaways as a means of sidestepping that issue and returning to his critique of his chosen “six principles”, and specifically revolutionism, based on the allegation that this was “the [real] binding ideology of the wsm, in practice”. Which is not true, but this appeal to the right to dispense with theory in light of practice allows him to return to an – ironically – theoretical terrain on which he is more at ease. Unsurprisingly given that it is primarily his own construction for this very purpose. But to reiterate, if anyone is looking for a rigorous critique of platformism, especifismo or the dual organisationalist strategy of social transformation, you will not find it here in Gavin’s apologia.

Revolution & the state

What we have instead is a couple of points about supposed ambiguities around the questions of revolution and the state.

The “ambiguity” around the question of revolution boils down the supposed contradiction between revolutionary violence and prefiguration, given the goal of a society free from organised violence and authoritarian dominance. To a degree this is merely an extension of the misunderstanding around prefiguration as opposed to utopianism that we looked at above. In addition there are serious tensions between libertarian politics and the organised use of violence, but all the more reason to promote libertarian politics so as to be aware of these problems.

In passing, it has to be said, that in the experience of this author, in the recent contemporary period in the UK and Ireland, leaving aside republicanism, the most sustained involvement of the left in organised violence was in the anti-fascist struggle. A struggle in which the majority of active participants were anarchists and the vast majority of the authoritarian state socialist left, who worship bureaucratic butchers like Trotsky and Lenin, and fantasise about military command, were abstainers. Hence the idea that the authoritarian left have anything to teach anarchists on matters military is a pathetic prejudice. In fact it is salient that those with the most experience in the use of organised political violence, are the ones with the greatest respect for its irreducibly problematic aspects and the need for strong discipline and libertarian principles, precisely to counteract these issues.

On the second point about the state, as we have already seen Gavin inverts the foundational relationship between communism/anti-capitalism and anti-statism in anarchist ideology. And I use the word ideology in a similar way to the FARJ – to mean the set of analyses, philosophy and values proper to a political tendency in the proletarian movement – and not in the puerile sense of certain orthodox Marxists who call their own ideology “scientific socialism” and everything else “false consciousness” and “ideology” as a synonym of same. (Frankly any capital-M Marxists who accuse others of “ideology” in this derogatory sense, are profoundly lacking in self-awareness or any sense of irony, given their general manner of banging on about the correct interpretation of Marx or Lenin’s sacred scriptures).

Returning to the matter of supposed ambiguity of anarchists around the question of the state. Despite agreeing with Gavin that all left debate around the state generally suffers from a lack of rigorous definition of what is implied by that term, nonetheless there is not necessarily a contradiction in anarchists being opposed to privatisations, for example. Anarchist opposition to the state is to the possibility of using it for the self-emancipation of the proletariat, as already noted. There is no contradiction between that and being opposed to the privatisation of natural resources or what used to be called natural monopolies (infrastructure, water, utilities) before the market fundamentalists rewrote the economics textbooks. Any more than there is a contradiction in having the abolition of wage labour as a goal and defending workers wages in the here and now through workplace organisation and industrial action.

The public service debate and communism

Gavin goes on from these supposed ambiguities or contradictions around the role of the state, to the following observation:

César De Paepe, an early anarchist, had run into a similar problem when debating with other anarchists about whether we would have administrations on questions of public goods, such as roads, lighting and public health. Eventually he capitulated to reason and said he was for a workers state if having these things was synonymous with having a state.

First an important point of historical accuracy. César de Paepe was not an early anarchist, he was a collectivist. As such he lead the collectivist charge against the Proudhonists in the First International. The collectivist party within the International included both the followers of Marx and Bakunin, but at that stage de Paepe far outshone them both. The circumstances of the 1872 “split” in the International left all the different tendencies and groups that were unwilling to swallow Marx’s unilateral seizure of power (everybody except the German-speaking sections, New York and the Marxist side of the original Geneva split) together in the (retrospectively) so-called “anti-authoritarian” International.

It was the subsequent debate between Bakunin’s Swiss followers and de Paepe that both eventually solidified a specifically “anarchist” tendency, and prompted the latter to break with Bakunin and collectivism – covertly until after his death – and progress to anarchist communism.

The “public service debate” as it became known, between de Paepe and Schwitzguebel, exposed a contradiction, not within anarchism, but within collectivism. The logical unfolding of which led indeed to an inevitable fork in the road: the choice between either the retention of the principle of the wage (collectivism) and the acceptance of a tax-funded public sector for the provision of public goods and services (particularly health – de Paepe was a doctor who unlike most of his bourgeois contemporaries gave freely of his skills to help poor workers, leading to his own tragically early death); or, alternatively, to the recognition that the escape from the state and class society (recognising Bakunin’s prophetic insight that a “workers state” would be nothing other than a new class society) required the abandonment of the wage and adopting the common property of the results of production – or communism.

To say de Paepe “capitulated to reason” in accepting the “workers state” as a necessity for the provision of public services, without the correct context, says two things. First of all the false identification of de Paepe as an anarchist who “saw the light” and characterising the anarchist position of rejecting the state as means to self-emancipation of the workers as one based on “unreason” (presumably based on irrational or romantic “moralism” as previously seen). Secondly, that de Paepe’s acceptance of the state was not tied to his allegiance to the collectivist principle of the wage – i.e. to his anti-communism.

This latter point matters because Gavin’s text is symptomatically silent on the question of communism. After all, if communism is the shared goal, then a critique of anarchist strategy can be based on efficacy in attaining that goal. However, if communism is no longer the goal, then really the text should be entitled “Why I am no longer a communist”, if it is to be fully honest.

Given Gavin’s recent rapprochement and enthusiasm for various European Eurocommunist parties, who may take badly to such a title, given their notion of Communism is a certain nostalgia for the old framed portraits of Stalin and Togliatti still gathering dust on the wall, such circumspection may seem politic. However, in the debate with the anarchist and libertarian communist movements, this question of the abandonment of communism is key.


So much for de Paepe. Gavin goes on to note that when questioning different members of the WSM there turned out to be a wide range of conceptions as to the kind of institutions and processes by which a post-capitalist society would be managed. Not only public services but many other questions affecting many more than the numbers in an immediate locality. Such as environmental questions etc.

It is very true that given the relatively restricted human resources available to the organisation relatively little has been done on this “projectual” (in Alternative libertaire’s sense of projecting forward to imagine potential organisational forms and principles to solve the problems of future post-capitalist society) front. Partly this is due to the obvious political objections to small, self-selected groups coming up with blueprints for the future in isolation from the mass of people who will have to make and live in it. But partly it is also a question of priorities given the competing demands of social insertion and political activity in the here and now, pedagogical requirements of spreading the basic action principles and philosophy of libertarian practice, and so on.

One of the practical issues raised by Gavin is the question of “specialisation of function” – specifically the default practice that all members of the branch need to be involved in every discussion and every vote on every matter that other members of the organisation are actively involved in, even if they have no personal involvement or particular interest. In a sense this is a hangover of having grown from a much smaller organisation where that was the only practical way to operate. It is also a legacy from the dual genealogy of direct action activist groups and the micro-left that much of wsm and other anarchist group practices inherit from.

Again in our recent re-organisation the group has moved towards a form of more decentralised “operational federalism” whereby working groups have more initiative in discussing and making decisions autonomously, reporting the results to the rest of the organisation through the mechanism of the Delegate Council for oversight and accountability. However, this is not so much due to issues of experience or competence – after all one of the reasons to join political groups is to gain experience and learn competence – but more a recognition that above a certain organisational size it is a waste of peoples time to have to sit through detailed discussions on topics that they are not specifically engaged in. The experience of having to sit passively while watching others participate in a discussion you can’t contribute to (or in some cases, entirely follow) is both alienating and boring. Given how much of our daily life is already taken up with alienating and boring activity, it is a priority for voluntary groups to avoid reproducing this as much as humanly possible.

Oddly, Gavin picks up on the Delegate Council as another example of preceived WSM organisational failing. This is apparently due to its failure to act as a Central Committee in the manner of the top-down leadership bodies of authoritarian socialist groups. Obviously it goes without saying that this behaviour is by design. But it should be pointed out that there is a direct contradiction between the advocating the need for “specialisation of function” and the kind of top-down micro-management by the centre characteristic of Central Committees. The fact that the two issues follow directly one after the other in the text appears to show a lack of joined-up thinking in Gavin’s critique.

Anti-universalism and the retreat from class

There are other points, but in the interests of brevity (already a lost cause, in fairness, but still…) we’ll pass on to just pick up on one final comment towards the end of this section in Gavin’s text.

I realised it would not be possible to win the argument against extreme horizontalism, anti-statism, anti-universalism, the lack of attention to the need for passive support or any of these propositions which I disagreed with…

It is specifically “anti-universalism” that stands out as an anomaly here in a close reading of the text. It appears nowhere else, before or after this point and as such is likely a marker for what is being left unsaid in the text. It leads us perhaps towards a clue for the disappearance of class and class struggle not only in this text, but in Gavin’s current social-democratic writings as a whole. In this he is following his new idol Kautsky who famously wrote the “maximum programme” gloss of Marxism to the SPD’s Erfurt programme without mentioning the class struggle once, other than in the title itself.

In 1986 Ellen Meiksins Wood wrote a classic book entitled “The Retreat from Class” looking at the phenomenon of the disappearance of class from the discourse and politics of the Eurocommunist parties that Gavin and his colleagues around the Spirit of Contradiction blog are interested in forming links with. Although Meiksins Wood’s extended essay was brilliant on the dissection of the “what” and the “how” of this process, her propositions on the “why” were ultimately less satisfying. Despite her pointing towards certain external causes (Maoism, Althusser/Poulantsas, middle class electoral opportunism, etc), the suspicion remained that there was some more immanent process at work in the retreat from class by the various different branches of official Third International Marxism. But the mystery was what could explain how a politics that initially defined itself more than any other in relation to the working class and its interests, could progressively transform itself into a denial of class and promotion of a universalist “progressive” project?

The subject of historical change

The concluding section “Finding a Road Forward” looks towards the way forward in Gavin’s chosen direction of building the neo-Kautskyite mass social-democratic party, which needn’t concern us too much here. However it does include this significant statement on objectives.

The path forward is going to have to pay careful attention to the subject of historical change. Marx’s initial hypothesis was that the working class was in a relationship with the means of production in capitalism which would allow it to take control. The party form and trade unions presented a pathway which allowed a big socialist movement to develop.

It is unlikely that we can recover the exact same formula as occurred before, but whatever happens we will have to be paying attention to the same fundamental problems: what is the subject which can bring about socialism; how are they able to find a material basis in which to grow their movement; and what ideological character will be required to cement this group in such a way that it can face a confrontation with capital.

Here lies the nub of the matter. The agency of social change is the class struggle. However this does not mean the working class is the subject of historical change, because class is a condition not a subject. A subject can possess things, but the working class is the condition of being dispossessed, to say that “it” can possess things is a category error. This is probably the biggest problem with the language of class that it doesn’t make clear the difference between those who use it in a reified way – a subject that can change social conditions by seizing constituted power, the means of production etc – and those who use it to refer to the relation of alienation, dispossession and conflict internal to the capitalist social dynamic. This is an unfortunate feature of human language with its innate tendency to anthropomorphic or pathetic fallacy inherited from the days when our ancestors personified the natural forces around them as spirits or gods.

Here we find the solution to Meiksins-Wood’s mystery. Why does the reification of class as the subject of historical change lead to the retreat from class? Simply put, because the search for agency in the form of a collective subject necessarily falls back on representation and thence to universalism. The representative figure of the historical subject, becomes the universal subject. And given that you cannot be both a member of the particular condition of the dispossessed class and a part of the universal subject at the same time, the subject of social change has to take form as something external to the class – whether the vanguard party, the mass party, the revolutionary union, libertarian municipality or other – which has universal claim on our allegiance as the privileged vehicle of the salvation, not of a particular class, but humanity as a whole.

Here also we find the source of that lasting tension or antipathy towards the claims of particular oppressions of women, gays, blacks, etc. on the part of those like the old-time official Communist parties, whose loyalty is to this messianic representational figure. What the champions of intersectionality mis-identify as “class fundamentalism” is arguably more the allegiance to the idea of a monolithic historical subject whose very universalism is threatened by the claims of particular identities.

If, by contrast, class is not a subject, with a collective identity and apriori interests, but a condition, then there is no necessary ontological contradiction between the proliferation of a multiplicity of intersecting oppressive subjectifications and a common situation of dispossession. This was the original progressive core of the idea of multitude – the multitudinous subjectivities of the class – before it was, ironically, re-appropriated by Negri in his ceaseless search for the new subject of history.

Which counterpower?

Here, finally, we are faced with two mutually exclusive conceptions of proletarian counterpower. On the one hand we have the instrumentalist conception of “workers power” as that portion of constituted power re-appropriated by the historical subject – as constituted in its chosen messianic-organisational form, e.g. the mass party – and set against the power of the capitalist class. In this first conception the nature and substance of both capitalist and working class power is the same. It is merely the vector, the political direction, that is contrary. We could call this a merely programmatic counterpower

In the second conception of counterpower, the constituent power-effect produced by proletarian activity/resistance is contrary, in its very nature, to the constituted power of state and capital. If power is the production of an effect, the effect of proletarian counter-power is to block, disrupt and ultimately destroy the reproduction and exercise of constituted power. That is not to say that the recomposition of a new proletarian counterpower, adapted to the new conjuncture, does not also involve the construction of new organisations and institutions. But the latter are not substitutes for the class itself, as a constituted-power, monolithic “subject of history”.

In a wider context we can say that without a countervailing force to capital, then the argument between reform or revolution is in many ways like two bald men arguing over a comb. Also, with the possible exception of those who believe in the immiseration theory that “the worse the better”, reforms do not pose a threat to revolution per se (unlike the converse). The real difference in the here and now is to which model of building counterpower actually has a chance of effectively doing so. If as the parent of two young boys Gavin, like many others, wants to see enough social improvement in the short term that they might have a future when they grow up other than the curse of emigration currently afflicting our society (not to mention accelerating environmental destruction) then to fail to have sympathy with that aim would be monstrously reprehensible. But that still leaves the question of whether the unconventional goal of the counterpower necessary to achieve any kind of real change at all, can be attained by the conventional means of yet another broad left electoral vehicle. The anarchist understanding of capital, power and politics is that it will not be and cannot be.

(Originally published at Spirit of Contradiction)

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

jrb January 17, 2014 at 3:14 pm

Like the article this is responding to, there are a lot of things in here that I probably would really enjoy interacting with… but the article is so long, so packed with unnecessary verbiage, so meandering and unfocused in organization, that it’s just not worth my time. I gave up after the first few paragraphs, scanned the rest then wrote this comment. My suggestion for the editors would be to make a goal of cutting submitted articles down by 25-50%. I suspect they would find that the nuggets of real ideas and argumentation would be preserved, and most of what was cut out would seem unnecessary dross in retrospect. I really want to read both of these articles, but the third drafts, not the first or second.


Paul Bowman January 17, 2014 at 4:53 pm

Heh. Imagine my surprise to check in to the North Star to see what new articles are on and to find something I’d written.

I don’t have a problem with the site editors adding this without consulting me, as I assume an implied Creative Commons (non-profit, attribution) licence on stuff I put up on the web, including this piece originally written for spiritofcontradiction.

But, by the same token – in response to jrb’s comment – if it doesn’t look like a properly revised, edited and polished stand-alone piece intended for general circulation, well… that’s cos it isn’t particularly. Sorry about that. But by all means take it up with the site editors re quality control.


Jara Handala January 18, 2014 at 4:02 pm

I was struck by something you said, in your penultimate section, that
“class is a condition not a subject”. It’s something I’ve been thinking
about for a while, but I have come to a different conclusion:

A class cannot be a condition as the latter consists in two or more
entities & the relationships between them. One kind of such an
entity is a group of people, so, for example, the working class is
necessarily involved in a constitutive relationship with the capitalist class, & that
constitutes a necessary quality of their condition.

2) Any class, as a
whole, in total, can never be a subject acting in pursuance of its own
interest. Only a part of a class can do this. If that part claims to act
on behalf of the whole class then it is putting itself forward as its
representative, that is it is presenting itself as a substitute. Only
sometimes does that part authentically represent what can be judged to
be the interest of that class.

3) But a class, as a whole, can act
to pursue an interest that is not its own, & that happens every day
at work. Capitalist economic activity involves the organisation of
workers by capitalists as variable capital. As such workers aggregate as
a class – but not on their own terms; to the contrary, in these
circumstances they constitute a class in-itself purely on capitalist
terms. During their working hours they are agents, actors, subjects of a
process in three ways: individually; as part of a work group; & collectively as an aggregation, as a
class, either producing or circulating value, or engaging in non-value
activities such as teaching skills.

4) In summary, a class in-itself
only exists as a subject in the production & circulation of use
values (economic life), & never in any other kind of human living. A
class never acts for-itself – never. What can happen politically &
culturally – & indeed economically – is that a part of a class can present itself as
representative of what it says are the interests of a class, & in so
doing it putatively substitutes itself for the whole class when it acts. A significant part of
what Marx & professed Marxists have said on this is mistaken, &
dangerously so as the process of substitution has progressed all the way
up to the substitute being the leader of The Party.

5) Just to
note, all too often peeps say ‘the ruling class/the working class does
this or that’ but this is untrue: what is being referred to is not a
collective subject but only a part of that class, or indeed not of that
class but state managers or commentators who, perhaps, see the
world within the horizon (Lucien Goldmann) of that class. For example,
when state managers devise a strategy or a policy they are judging what
they think is best: it is not an action of ‘the ruling class’.


Jara Handala January 18, 2014 at 4:04 pm

Oh dear, it’s come out in a different format to what I had composed. Such is life – unfortunately.


Craig Shively January 19, 2014 at 3:07 am

I have to agree with jrb and Paul Bowman that this site is in sore need of editors to help make these articles more readable and to the point. Discovering this site a few weeks ago, I was excited at its (for the most part) lack of both academic jargon or impassioned anarcho-teen vehemence. The “About” section of The NorthStar is a very succinct expression of the kind of left media I have been looking for.

But I’ve noticed that a lot of the articles here seem to fall into categories of either first-draft, rambling enthusiasm or “erudition for its own sake” displays of knowledge that do nothing to clarify the theses of the articles themselves. I really dig me some difficult radical theory, but those are books and these are web articles. Who is served by the insertion of French or latin phrases into a text that is meant to be read by a general audience? Perhaps the ego of the author? Does radical politics always entail textual esotericism? I believe it’s possible to express complex political ideas in less pretentious language without sacrificing either form or content. I also believe that one of the major problems with the Left is its inability to form a coherent rhetoric. This is reflected directly in the often chaotic styles of writing and fetishized displays of knowledge that are often found on this site as well as others.

I am by no means suggesting a dumbing down of the pieces or their content, but rather that the editors and writers perhaps do a little, well, editing. I’m myself an editor with a small literary magazine, and I am well aware of the difficulties of running a publication. But I would be happy to help with this chore at the NorthStar if need be. I have considered submitting some of my own articles to The NorthStar, and I will. Once they are edited to be concise and clear.

It would be great to be able to send someone with an interest in radical politics (who has never considered grad school) to The NorthStar and not have them alienated by needless erudition or undefined acronyms. Let’s make this happen.


cheap wow gold December 5, 2014 at 10:18 am

I purchased your Dark chocolate brown leafy cheap wow gold intended for X-mas, nevertheless i seriously failed to for example the color, thus i mailed in pertaining to black white. My organization is but still to be able to recive thoose. Though i will claim, I appreciate all the large kinds more suitable, we’d recomend people leading to a shorts.


Bypassing Surveys December 5, 2014 at 11:04 am

If some one wishes exdpert view regarding blogging and
site-building then i suggest him/her to visit this weblog, Keep up thhe pleasant job.


Leave a Comment

{ 5 trackbacks }

Previous post:

Next post: