What follows is an outline of my personal process of ideological formation. The process of changing ones world view is in my experience a gradual one. All world views will have places in which they do not match up quite perfectly with reality, and all world views which survive for any length of time have some internal method of coping with these deficiencies. If someone suffers sudden profound changes in their world view, it’s likely that they are not making a switch based on evidence, but rather on faith.
More often people will drift away from some explanatory system. Generally this drift manifests as an accretion of contrary ideas, of collected facts which are in conflict with one’s mental model, of cognitive dissonance inspired by niggling difficulties. So it was with my gradual process of abandoning anarchism.
I had not been politically active in any serious way at any point in the US. Though I took part in the anti-war protests leading up to the invasion of Iraq, I was (rightly in retrospect) very sceptical of the capacity of the protests to stop anything.
I had maintained a sort of latent interest in politics, though it wasn’t particularly coherent. I’d never been fond of “authority” and had spent most of my childhood in conflict with school administrations. I had been expelled from school twice, and finally dropped out of high-school when I was 16 after passing the California high-school equivalency exam.
In school I was interested in punk music and gleaned some of my politics off of lyrics from bands like the Dead Kennedys and The Clash. Because of this, you could say I was already anarchistically inclined, having a strong distrust of the state.
I also had one teacher who taught a mini-course on US labour history, where I learned of events such as the Ludlow massacre, an event which inspires a distrust of the state and capital simultaneously. This teacher mentioned that he was an anarchist, and sympathetic with the IWW. That probably lodged anarchism as a potentially legitimate political tendency somewhere far back in my mind such that it could be resurrected later.
The thin distance between the Democratic and Republican parties helped to reinforce a feeling of political indifference which I remember contemplating as a teen. This feeling of indifference made me sceptical of politics, but it did not make me active.
I also had another big political influence which had a very different dimension to it. In 1992, when I was 14, I moved with my father to Turkmenistan. In the wake of the breakup of the USSR, the country deteriorated so rapidly that we actually made an unplanned move to Uzbekistan, which was weathering the disintegration more gracefully.
The collapse of the USSR had a profoundly negative impact on the standard of living of people in the former Republics. Watching the intrusion of market forces was a real eye-opener for me. Sometimes it’s hard to really notice something all around you. Capitalism is so pervasive that it fades into the background. It became far more apparent to me because of the stark contrast between the deteriorating economic behemoth and the unbridled system of accumulation which was supplanting it.
Of course the capricious political censorship of the USSR was also apparent even then. But even as the “freedom” of the market was introduced, much of this arbitrary political authority was not receding at all. The claims of a link between economic and political liberalism were demonstrated to be tenuous at best.
After coming back to the US, these feelings that something was fundamentally wrong with both the political and economic system would plague me. I remember walking with my friend Praveen through the Barrios in Albuquerque late at night and saying that I think I might be a communist. This lead us into a several-years-long conversation where I tried to establish my contradictory feelings between my scepticism of the state and my feeling of a need for a different approach to economics.
I moved to Ireland in 2005 primarily on the reputation of Ireland having a growing IT sector, which was my trade. The lead up to the general election of 2007 took place shortly after my move. This election featured the Green Party in a way that would have been unthinkable in the United States. The electoral system in Ireland, though difficult to break into, provided vastly more opportunities than exist in the US, where it’s virtually impossible to break the hegemony of the two main parties. The use of STV (Single Transferable Vote) gives a much greater opportunity for new players to enter into politics.
This fact lead me to be more interested in politics than I’d ever been in the States.
In the US there was generally virtually no difference between candidates and only two parties in all but the most unusual situations. I followed the elections closely and spent the time to go and vote (something I’d literally only done three times in the US, where I could rarely be bothered). I was living in Blackrock at the time, and so I voted Green and Labour.
It didn’t take long for the Green party to jettison all of its campaign promises (mere weeks?) and principles in order to join in coalition with Fianna Fáil in exchange for nothing tangible. The extent to which they viewed being in coalition as more important than getting any single concession really infuriated me. I suffered something of a crisis of faith in the advantages of STV which I had built up in my mind. Such a crisis probably never would have happened to me in the US, as I would never have had any faith to lose.
My increasing interest in politics and subsequent distress lead me to try and find a way out of the conundrum of a political regime in which the vested interests always seemed to come out on top, even when things were made more democratic.
The first thing that popped into my head was the idea of acting outside the electoral system — and the faint hints of anarchism from my past boiled up in my mind. The idea began growing on me, but I had some latent misgivings. I didn’t think it was acceptable to have a system without some sort of community wide mechanism for dealing with social problems, some form of community policing and community justice. If anarchist theories could not at least cope with that, I wasn’t much interested.
I began searching the internet for something along the lines of “anarchism and crime” and stumbled upon an article by Gregor Kerr (Crime and Community Policing). It didn’t provide much in the way of solutions, but it presented an air of seriousness. It struck me that these weren’t people who either thought they had all the answers, or people who avoided asking the hard questions.
It was to my pleasant surprise that the site (and indeed the article) was a product of Irish anarchists! I immediately started poring over their materials and position papers. Soon after I wrote in to the national secretary saying I’d like to join the organisation, saying that I mostly agreed with the position papers.
The then national secretary of the WSM told me at some point later that he had been surprised when I said I had read the position papers and agreed, that I was probably one of only a handful in the organisation who had read them at all. This is probably relevant to some of the problems in the period that I joined discussed in Kevin Doyle’s Anarchism, Ireland and the WSM and James O’Brien’s The WSM – A Political Analysis.
The immediate period after I joined the WSM in 2007 was largely comprised of an exploration of political theory, political history and discussion with other members. I found people open to being asked questions about problems of strategy and tactics and about questions of theory on economics and politics. At the time the organisation was not particularly active in any campaigns, so the bulk of activity was paper distribution, meetings and the odd protest. This gave us a fair bit of time for internal discussion which I found very exciting. My political isolation had meant that most of the ideas I’d developed around politics were very surface level and largely incoherent.
The Crisis of Capital and the Crisis of Strategy
In 2008 the banking crisis hit. We immediately saw it as an opportunity for us to bring our critique of capitalism to a wider audience, and to demonstrate its unstable and capricious nature.
Our response was essentially an acceleration of what we already did. This included stunts, protests, public meetings and publication. Indeed, this collection of tactics was essentially copied from our Trotskyist sister organisations, though most WSMers would vehemently deny it.
The period leading up to this had really been a lull in activity. After the Bin tax campaign of 2003, the anti-globalisation protests and the initial spurt around Shell to Sea, the organisation had been relatively inactive and reflective. While there were a number of individual campaigns (Shell2Sea, The Terrance Wheelock campaign etc.) there wasn’t a large scale organisational coordinated intervention in mass movements. Instead members generally took part in what interested them, with the majority taking part only tangentially in individual campaigns.
The crisis changed all of that. It pushed the membership into attempting more coordinated activity. ICTU (Irish Council of Trade Unions) called a large protest which we saw as an opportunity for intervention. We rose to the occasion with sloganistic posters and leaflets reading “Organise your workplace: Strike to win”, “ICTU WON’T, WORKERS MUST! Organise for a general strike” and “General Strike Now”.
Being in the platformist or especifismo tradition, our shared strategy was to use the political organisation to intervene in the mass organisations. Of course the WSM was relatively minuscule and trying to encourage a general strike via paper propaganda is hardly likely to work. Even if we would had a budget the size of ICTU we probably would not have gotten far with a pure advertisement approach.
This is not to say that individuals in the WSM had not done anything in their workplaces to help to push for more industrial action than what ICTU was likely to take. There had been activity by individual members in their individual unions. However, a significant percentage of the membership was not in unions, or not able to push a more militant approach. Neither was there any articulated strategy or support from the organisation along these lines.
It was this event more than any other that pushed me into looking for a viable strategy. I wanted to understand how we could reconcile or change our (on paper) organisational strategy such that it could translate into actual activity in a way that was likely to lead to greater influence of socialist and democratic ideas.
The Single Issue Campaign
James O’Brien and I were sent out to Sligo to conduct a public meeting in the wake of the economic crisis. We took the train down, and on the way I decided to pick James’ brain regarding the strategy that had been adopted for the Bin tax campaign.
In talking about the campaign, a theme which Alan MacSimoin had repeated almost like a mantra, came to the fore: “What are we going to get out of it and what do we want to get out of it?”, where “it” was whatever single issue campaign we were currently involved in.
Now, in meetings when Alan would ask this there was generally a really negative reaction towards the idea. “Oh that’s too instrumentalist.”, or “Do you want us to be Machiavellian?” or, “We should be looking at what others are getting out of it.” etc. etc. I probably accepted the wisdom of these responses myself when they were expressed, but Alan’s point started boring away in the back of my mind, and the responses seemed increasingly hollow.
James noted that while the WSM had been very active and had built up quite a lot of credibility during the Bin Tax campaign it had ultimately ended in failure, not only for the campaign itself but also for the WSM and anarchism since we gained very little despite our considerable efforts. However, the Socialist Party had also been in the campaign, and had turned the failure of the campaign into a relative success. They had a greater profile after the campaign which they used in elections and so had a way to translate the good-will and passive support they generated during the struggle into something tangible. This helped to move them up to a higher water mark.
We began discussing what it was that an anarchist group could do in these single issue campaigns that wouldn’t leave us stranded after the campaign ran its course (either towards success or failure). Now, whatever you might get out of such a campaign might only be the success of the campaign itself, but it seemed ever more important to me that we would at least think about what we might get.
The fact that the SP could turn a loss into a gain through elections sent me off on a long search after some way we could replicate such successes in an extra-parliamentary fashion. There are groups like Alinsky’s community organisation or Acorn and others which have been able to create lasting organisations that have residues of successes through community organising. However, I never shook the uncomfortable feeling that the electoral route might represent the best opportunity.
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.
Going Through the Motions
In 2010 a group called Claiming our Future decided to hold a large participatory meeting of the left. They managed to get support from the community sector (including community and environmentally focused NGOs), unions and the left of Labour as well as a healthy smattering of random lefties.
They managed to generate a significant buzz and gathered a pretty full house at the RDS. In the lead-up there was an electronic suggestions portal and at least initially the content looked pretty far to the left of Keynesianism with some interesting suggestions.
The meeting took most of a whole day and basically oriented around trying to find shared values that could be used to get a sense of commonality or purpose. I found the experience very positive, and met several people who were not in revolutionary parties, who were open minded and genuinely wanted to have some avenue for social change.
Claiming our Future didn’t have much of a future, unfortunately, as Labour didn’t have an interest in allowing a powerful left faction to form inside of the party while the NGOs and unions weren’t too keen on rocking a lot of boats. While Labour might be too far right for most of them, it was still easier for them to communicate with, and therefore more useful, than Fine Gael or Fianna Fail.
When I began to leave the RDS after the closing session I was immediately greeted by a gauntlet of socialists, mostly SWP, pushing party papers. Among them were my comrades in the WSM handing out some rather odd leaflet, which I believe was about zombie banks. After the positive interaction with thoughtful but non-revolutionary leftists this was a real moment of clarity demonstrating just how weird we must look, and how similar our activities were on the outside to the Socialist Workers Party, a group which all anarchists knew in their hearts is Satan reincarnate.
A few days later I was chatting to a friend and he said that my political group had been in the paper — it was in fact the SWP. It started to dawn on me just how totally irrelevant to most people any of our ideology was. They were never going to contact it. What they understood was merely the epiphenomena of shouty students and protesters being protesters. If there was a distinction between the various shades of the far left it could not be understood from our activities.
The structure of the ideology
I came into the WSM with an interest in ecology, anti-war activism and a belief that we needed a different approach to economics to bring it about. The WSM on the surface seemed to be excellent on all of these questions. The problems of “real existing socialism” were swept away with a simple statement that their core problem was their statism. It was possible to accept socialism without having to be associated with the previous attempts.
The main points of ideological commonality boiled down to a number of principles which basically everyone held in lesser or greater emphasis. The ones which I think were most formative of the ideology are as follows:
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.
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.
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.
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.
5. Anti-state – Anarchists have anti-state in the name.
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.
These principles were generally constituted on a moral basis, that is, they were shared values that did not themselves require interrogation or support from OUTSIDE? the anarchist system of ideas.
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.
As I mentioned, the WSM had a fair number of position papers, and had an “on paper” orthodoxy of platformism. Basically this outlined a strategy in which the specific political organisation (in this case the WSM) would attempt to intervene in larger mass organisations to convince them of anarchist ideas. The organisation would serve as a sort of think tank for the working class and its members would be among the most active, progressive and, indeed, leading elements in these mass organisations. Since in Ireland the only mass class organisations were the unions, this meant an organisational dualism– a syndicalist strategy with an anti-electoral party intervening to help provide political direction.
The actual orientation of the WSM did not however line up with the position papers. Many people were probably not even aware of the stated strategy and many of those that were did not think it was a good strategy, though there were some exceptions (Kevin Doyle, Alan MacSimoin, James O’Brien and a few others).
This meant that the above schema of values, together with the strategy of social revolution, were the binding ideology of the WSM in practice. Revolution was really the only strategic answer that was widely shared – and since insurrection was not really considered viable or desirable by most people in the WSM, the tactics were very rarely connected with this strategy.
Of course, coming from my previous position of near total political incoherence into something at least vaguely coherent meant that I spent most of the time giving the benefit of the doubt to the various ideas. I did not however shy away from problems, but continued to interrogate them through conversation and reading.
One of the first potential problems with the schema which I noticed was the apparent difficulty in the strategy of revolution and prefiguration. If violence tends to lead to authoritarian might-makes-right sort of conditions, doesn’t violence as a means lead to ends which share these qualities?
I began asking other members how a non-hierarchical peaceful communist society could arise from violent confrontation with the state. This lead to a wide range of answers.
One response is that revolution could look more like the colour revolutions (of the former Soviet Block states), where the state apparatus puts up vanishingly small resistance to the transformation. Other responses put revolution as a more fuzzy thing closer to reform – like what the civil rights movement had achieved in the US. Some accepted that prefiguration and violence were not entirely compatible but that we could only hope to minimise the violence and we probably would not get ideal outcomes no matter what.
These questions sent me off on a project to gain a better understanding of the meaning of revolution. Remarkably there is scarcely any useful anarchist analysis of revolution (Bookchin, Guérin, excepted, however both are arguably Marxists) or really anything with a long strategic or theoretical view. There are a few books by anarchists about specific revolutions, but they range from poor to middling in quality for the most part. For that reason I was forced into a sort of eclecticism.
Revolution was not the only element which was fairly ambiguous. Anarchist anti-statism turned out also to be a slippery fish. At the same time that the WSM demanded the smashing of the state, we would call for nationalisation of resources, no cut-backs in social services and sometimes even increases in taxation to support a social welfare state.
Partly this was possible due to a very exacting definition of the state: the exercise of ruling class domination by force in the last instance. This was in fact the definition that Engels sometimes used. However, the constancy of this definition was far from obvious. Sometimes things could be argued on the basis of a different notion of the state without defining what it was. Arguments against greater EU integration were often made on the basis of anti-statism, without specific reference to this formula. Sometimes people would be for or against supporting increases in the welfare state depending on their particular internal semantic understanding of “state”.
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.
When I probed people about institutions which could make binding decisions about public policy at scale – such as roads, public health, global warming, etc. it turned out that the question was not merely definitional. People had vast differences in their internal mental model of the state, and a fair number of people rejected that we should have institutions capable of making such scaled decisions (or sometimes any institutions at all!).
There was further very little understanding in process terms of what would actually be required to keep everything as a loose federation of sometimes overlapping institutions. Clearly this situation would lead to constant misapprehensions of who was responsible for what – a situation that would leave people yearning for greater coherence.
I respected my comrades in the WSM, but realised that the basic values that people held would mean that every attempt to move forward would be a pitched battle in which I believed the general population was closer to being correct than the anarchists.
In particular the question of specialisation of function was a major area of contention. There was a broadly held belief that the only democratic way to do things was to include everyone in the process. “Too many cooks spoils the broth” was considered anathema. Instead people who were not competent at a given task or even worse, not in the slightest bit interested were asked to include their inputs.
There were some very strange outcomes from this orientation. At one point Chekov Feeney was writing a critique of prevailing economic theories and developing an anarchist version in their place. This was a personal endeavour, though he sought feedback from various people, both within and outside of the organisation. Personal or not, there was enough of a feeling that the process should be formalised and made a collective endeavour of the organisation by making a committee responsible for it. I have worked on collective papers in academia and it is very rare for more than two or three authors to do the actual writing, and generally it is the culmination of a period of research, and even then the authors have to be on a similar intellectual wavelength. Simply passing a motion to the effect that it should be a project of a sub-committee won’t make it so.
There is of course a value in training people in areas that are important for self actualisation and to help increase the capacity of an organisation. Despite this, you cannot have everyone learn everything well. You can also lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink. There is no sense in forcing volunteers into specialisation in areas in which they have no interest.
The Delegate council (DC) was another example of an attempt to deal with the fear of generating bureaucracy by causing it not to function. Delegate council was the interim body for running the WSM between national conferences. It was in essence the central committee. However, there were in the time I was in the WSM only a handful of political decisions actually made by the DC, due to a fear that it would be undemocratic for them to make a determination about something. Indeed in a few cases where they did make a determination, it ended up returning to branch and being re-decided.
Routinely when delegate council was coming up a new delegate would be picked to avoid creating permanent roles. This often lead to the dreaded waiting game where everyone would sit around and wait until someone was guilted into filling the role. Of course this resulted in the delegate often being someone new who knew neither the purpose of delegate council, nor had been trained in the rules of its organisation or even given a primer on its purpose. The result was a general lack of seriousness.
Another example was a motion brought by Andrew Flood which required that members take on no more than two roles per-person, such that the organisation would not focus too much power in one individual. After passing the motion it was ignored, including by Andrew, at the very conference at which it was passed!
This extreme levelling approach demonstrated to me two fundamental problems. One is that any functional organisation would have to be able to generate organs that could specialise in various tasks. The attempt to place all the party’s organs in a blender worked about as well for the WSM as it would for your innards. The second is that it demonstrated, not an analysis of power dynamics, but a paranoia of power. Instead of insisting on democratic method and structures of accountability to deal with problems, it took the approach of distrusting everyone with any amount of autonomy in decision making. The result was a bureaucracy which could not become sclerotic because it was too dysfunctional and amorphous to begin with. Ironically, this meant that many of the decisions of the organisation were made more informally, leading to some worse problems than simply trusting elected representatives to carry out tasks.
Ultimately I concluded that while many of the core points of libertarianism retain some rational kernel, when placed together as an orthodoxy they combine to create something which is destined to fail at every turn. You might argue until you are blue in the face to get some concession to reason, but it would slip from your fingers shortly afterwords. 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 as they were in fact the underlying fabric on which the organisation was predicated. Any attempt to argue against them would fail on a contradiction with the orthodoxy. Indeed, even if when I chatted with individual members they saw the sense in a proposal, it would not be enough when it was expressed collectively.
Finding a Road Forward
The idea of a Sisyphean task of fighting an entrenched inclination towards being wrong and ineffectual did not appeal to me, so I left the WSM. I did not immediately reject anarchism as such, but I was now searching around for ideas that could cope with the problems that I had identified.
I spent a few months discussing political strategy with some other comrades, including James O’Brien and Chekov Feeney. However, since we were all groping around for a new way forward, the project floundered. James suggested that perhaps we were trying to move into the space that was already occupied by the ULA. I basically agreed with this assessment and so decided that it was likely not going to be useful to continue with this space already occupied. In addition, our direction was not very concrete at the time. Ironically, it’s much easier to be cooperative if you are systematically inclined towards wrongness than when you are unsystematically inclined towards rightness.
I had been reading widely about past revolutions and theories about them and some new option seemed to take shape which I had rejected previously out of an unconscious anarchist sectarianism. James O’Brien gave me a book on the history of the SPD in Germany: “German Social Democracy 1905–1917: The Development of the Great Schism”. This movement which I’d dismissed out of hand was much more impressive than I’d imagined. The drift in the content of Social Democracy combined with the split into the communist parties had left Social Democracy with a flabby visage. It turned out that this impression ignored a rich history.
This encounter opened me up to the entire history of Marxist organisations in Europe. I began seeing the process of attaining socialism in a much more structural way – a materialist way. I no longer wanted to condemn various organisations on points of principle, but rather analyse what possibilities may have existed practically to move towards the social control of the means of production.
Two things became apparent to me in these investigations. First, the anglophone world has had a decidedly strange surviving lineage of Marxists. The Marxists have largely been purged from Labour (UK) and the far left is dominated by Trotskyism, which has never really become a serious force anywhere.
By contrast, both official Communism and Social Democracy had been vast movements with activity at every level. Far from being “mere electoralists” as many anarchists would like to portray them, they exceeded anarchists at extra-parliamentary capacity at every level. They had become more capable of producing the sorts of interstitial organisations that anarchists tend to favour. The SPD had social centres, sports centres, bicycle clubs, choirs and much more. Further, they were capable of direct action and it’s hardly the case that they were merely legalistically inclined as the SPD did have a significant period in which the organisation itself was illegal.
Secondly, the left wing of Communism and Social Democracy are essentially the same, merely displaced in time. The major difference is really lineal – the Communists trace their origin back to Lenin, whereas the Social Democrats atrophied and shifted to the right so much that they no longer held the same political ideology as they did prior to Lenin.
But most importantly, I was exposed to a Marxist approach to analysis which pushed me to understand more about the material dimensions of these movements. How had they gotten big, how had they failed, how could we expect to find the strength to build a mass movement that wanted to take social control of production.
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.
(Originally posted at Spirit of Contradiction)