Anarchism, syndicalism and strategy: A reply to Lucien van der Walt

Issue: 131

Paul Blackledge

Lucien van der Walt’s reply to my “Marxism and Anarchism” marks a welcome step forward beyond the all too familiar “non-debate” between Marxist and anarchist tendencies on the revolutionary left.1 Essentially, his argument is that while International Socialism and anarchism (or at least the syndicalist interpretation of anarchism outlined in his and Michael Schmidt’s Black Flame) “converge” in conceiving socialism as a libertarian movement “from below”, Marxists such as Lenin and Trotsky represent a different tradition that builds upon more “authoritarian” aspects of Marx’s work. This difference is important because Lenin and Trotsky set the “template for Stalin’s” regime,2 and insofar as International Socialism fails to break with their ideas it risks undermining its own libertarian aspirations.

If valid this would be a devastating indictment of the SWP and similar revolutionary organisations. In fact, quite the reverse is true. Van der Walt’s criticisms rely on a caricatured interpretation of Marxism and a very distorted history of the Russian Revolution that effectively acts as a barrier to learning the lessons of past struggles. This perhaps explains why he attempts no serious engagement with Ian Birchall’s comments on the undoubted appeal of Bolshevism to a whole generation of anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists around the time of the Russian Revolution. As we shall see, though a minority of these activists withdrew their support for the regime during the civil war,3 Bolshevism attracted many syndicalists because it pointed to a socialist alternative to reformism that overcame the limitations of syndicalism in a way that is still of relevance to the left today.

Anarchism, syndicalism and strategy

With regard to van der Walt’s comments on Marx’s ideas, it is simply wrong of him to claim that International Socialism is unusual in stressing the centrality of the concept of working class self-emancipation to Marx’s thought. All serious writers on Marx agree that this concept is fundamental to his politics. From the third thesis on Feuerbach in which Marx writes that “the coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-changing can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice”, through The German Ideology where he and Engels insisted that revolutions were necessary not merely to remove the old ruling class but also, and much more importantly, to make the working class fit to rule through its own activity, to the rules of the First International in which Marx wrote that “the emancipation of the working class must be conquered by the working classes themselves” this idea was his lodestar. What is more, this concept is no mere political add on to the rest of Marx’s social theory. For, as he insists in Capital, we can only understand capitalism as a totality, and therefore conceive of challenging it as a totality, from the standpoint of working class struggles.4

There is a tacit acceptance of this perspective amongst those anarchists, such as Todd May and Ben Franks, whose critique of Marxism extends to a rejection of strategic thinking for a supposedly more democratic form of tactical politics.5 Writing from a similar perspective, Saul Newman points to the link between the movement away from strategy to tactics and the rejection of the idea of revolution. Because (postmodernist) anarchists cannot conceive capitalism as a totality, they dismiss the idea of revolution as a totalitarian project. Consequently, politics (of all colourations) in a fragmented world is reduced to a plurality of tactical forms.6 Simon Critchley suggests that for anarchists this means embracing an “infinitely demanding” but ultimately forlorn anarchist “commitment to a politics of resistance”.7 For all its supposed radicalism, this perspective is congruent with modern liberal ideas that change is possible so long as it is of a very minor and local variety, and in fact resembles a more pessimistic version of the reformism against which syndicalism rebelled at the end of the 19th century. This was a period when the nominally Marxist parties of the Second International (1889-1914) combined revolutionary rhetoric at their annual conferences with a day to day practice that limited politics “to the question of tactics”.8 And while theorists such as Karl Kautsky tried to cover the growing gap between theory and practice with an increasingly disconnected version of Marxist rhetoric, the actual practice of these organisations was best summarised by Eduard Bernstein, the most influential reformist critic of Marxist revolutionary politics at the turn of the last century, who argued that for socialists the movement is everything, the goal nothing.9

By contrast with thinkers who reduce anarchism to a plurality of tactical approaches, it is a great strength of van der Walt and Schmidt’s book that they attempt to conceptualise anarchism as a revolutionary strategy. However, while welcoming this attempt to think through the issue of moving from resistance to revolution, we should not shy away from addressing problems with their proposed syndicalist strategy for socialism

These problems are obscured in van der Walt’s method of reply to the criticisms of anarcho-syndicalism levelled in my original article. He argues that it is incoherent of me “to condemn all anarchist experiences (as in Spain) as due entirely to ideology, not context, but to exonerate all Marxist experiences (as in Russia) as due entirely to context, not ideology”.10 Any reader of my original article should immediately recognise that this is less a response to my arguments than an attempt to avoid the issue by means of a sleight of hand. I shall return to the issue of objective circumstances presently. With respect to the power of ideas, the contrast between Russia and Spain related to the problem of how revolutionaries should relate to the mass of workers who are still as yet under the influence of one or other form of reformist politics. I suggested that in two comparable revolutionary situations, Spain in 1936 and Russia in 1917, the Bolsheviks and the Spanish anarchists responded in two very different ways to this problem. I did not touch upon the material constraints affecting the Bolsheviks after 1917 because this issue was irrelevant to the political lessons I was highlighting.

My argument was clear. Because the Bolsheviks had a concept of dictatorship of the proletariat (as real democratic control by the working class) they were able to frame their “united front” with Kerensky’s bourgeois regime against Kornilov’s attempted coup in September 1917 in a way that allowed them to avoid taking an ultra-left abstentionist position on the coup while nevertheless maintaining their independence from Kerensky’s bourgeois government. If this approach paved the way for the October Revolution, anarchism’s rejection of the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat meant that it was far more difficult for the CNT in Spain to do something similar. It is all well and good to say that the CNT broke with anarchism when they joined the Republican government. At a theoretical level this is perfectly true. The point is, though, that when the CNT leaders joined the government they were reacting to a real problem, and unless their critics point to a viable alternative course of action then their criticisms remain at a purely abstract level. The anarchists in Spain were right to defend the Republic against Franco, but without something like the concepts of united front and dictatorship of the proletariat they had no adequate answer to those Republican politicians who said that because war demanded a unified military structure they should join the Republican government.

The beginning of an answer to this problem was formulated by various anarchists in the 1930s. Interestingly, Diego Abad de Santillán, who in 1936 had been one of the first anarchists to justify joining the government in order to help win the war against Franco, was by 1940 amongst those anarchists who had come to the conclusion that the strategy had been a disaster: “We sacrificed the revolution itself without understanding that this sacrifice also implied sacrificing the aims of the war”.11 Because, in essence, Trotsky shared this critique of the Popular Front government, the arguments of Santillán and other similar anarchists open up the possibility of a fruitful dialogue between Marxists and anarchists. Nonetheless, because Trotsky’s argument involves a defence of the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat, for such a dialogue to be meaningful it must involve discussion of this idea.12

To this end, it is interesting that van der Walt should claim that anarchism does not suffer from the weaknesses over the issue of democracy that I laid at its door. This is not because I agree with the detail of his arguments—on
the contrary I think he has a procrustean tendency to force the messy plurality of real anarchisms into an ideal version that he’d prefer anarchism to be. Nevertheless, when he counters my charge that anarchism has great difficulty with the concept of democracy by pointing to Wayne Price’s anarchist engagement with this issue, this at least has the benefit of opening a door to debate on the thorny question of the dictatorship of the proletariat.13

In The Abolition of the State, Price argues that “anarchism is democracy without the state”.14 More concretely, he suggests that while “it will be necessary for the oppressed to take power” in a revolutionary situation, it would be “a mistake for the oppressed to take state power”.15 It is to Price’s credit that he recognises that this position was, in essence, shared by Marx and Lenin. They too rejected the idea, often mistakenly associated with their names elsewhere in anarchist and autonomist circles, that socialists should “seize the state”. In its place they insisted that the revolution should be defended through workers” own democratic organisations.16 In an interesting comment in the longer online version of his critique of my essay, van der Walt runs with this idea. In regard to my and Leo Zeilig’s rehearsals of the Marxist understanding of the dictatorship of the proletariat as a form of extreme democracy he writes: “If (and I stress, only if) we concede [such] definitions, then we must argue that Bakunin, Kropotkin, as defenders of working class power and it’s armed defence, were for a ‘workers’ state’ and a ‘dictatorship’ of the proletariat. Indeed, it would follow that the majority of the broad anarchist tradition were for the state.”17

Clearly, this statement takes us beyond sectarian non-debate. It is also safe to say that it would be very contentious in anarchist circles—even Price insists that Lenin’s “libertarian interpretation of Marxism is contradictory to the totalitarian state” he developed.18 Nonetheless, given that neither Zeilig nor I wrote anything particularly controversial or new about the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat, van der Walt’s comments suggest that once we escape caricatured readings of Marx there is a real potential for dialogue between anarchism and Marxism. Concretely, it opens the door to a discussion of the means through which we should fight for democracy.

On this issue, van der Walt and Schmidt argue that syndicalism emerged as the revolutionary opposition to the reformism of the Marxist movement at the turn of the last century. There is an element of truth to this argument. However, in his eagerness to conflate Marxism with social democratic reformism van der Walt ignores the way that the practice of these socialist parties was informed by an important break with Marx’s theory of the state. By disregarding Marx’s critique of the Gotha Programme and Engels’s similar critique of the Erfurt Programme—in which they insisted it was a grave mistake for the German party to claim that the transition to socialism could be won without smashing the old state through a revolution—the leading socialist intellectual of that period, Karl Kautsky, defended a practice whereby socialist parties aimed to represent all the disparate elements of the working class in one organisation. The problem with this type of organisation was that unity among disparate tendencies could only be maintained by overlooking divergent political practices within the working class, and in particular the increasingly conservative practice of the bureaucratic leadership of the trade unions and parliamentary party. In practice it meant reining in the left of the party so as not to alienate the right.19

Syndicalism developed as a radical working class response to the conservative consequences of this kind of politics. In an attempt to correct what anarcho-syndicalists such as Alexander Berkman regarded as the entirely rotten “game of politics”,20 syndicalists insisted that socialists should orientate on the “the primacy of industrial struggle and militant trade unionism”.21 This approach, or so Berkman argued, overcame a contradiction within Marxism between Marx’s claims, on the one hand, that revolution is necessary to create a new society and, on the other hand, that “the proletariat must get hold of the political machinery, of the government, in order to conquer the bourgeoisie”.22 According to van der Walt and Schmidt, this change of focus meant that whereas “classical Marxism tended to pose a strict dichotomy between a “political field” (centred on the state, and engaged by the revolutionary party through political action) and an “economic field” (dealing with wages and working conditions, and relegated to the unions, but led by the party) the syndicalists saw the revolutionary union as simultaneously undertaking both political and economic functions”.23

This argument is both problematic and suggestive. We have already noted that among anarchists Price recognises that the interpretation of Marxism repeated by Berkman is simply wrong: neither Marx nor Lenin believed that socialism could issue from the capture of the bourgeois state machine.24 More specifically, van der Walt’s argument is problematic because Marxists have been the most important theorists to recognise that the separation of economics and politics was a problem for the workers’ movement. Van der Walt’s claim to the contrary relies upon a reduction of Marxism to social democratic reformism. This has the important consequence of obscuring the fact that a powerful Marxist response to Second International reformism grew alongside the syndicalist challenge. More pertinently, these Marxists complemented their critique of reformism with a critique of syndicalism. And though they welcomed syndicalism as a revolutionary current within the working class, they argued that it was unable to point beyond the limits of reformist socialism.

This is where van der Walt’s comment on overcoming the separation between economics and politics is suggestive. For if anarchists and Marxists can agree that we are struggling for a real democratic alternative to capitalism, that is for a form of democracy that isn’t confined merely to the “political” level but which gives us social control over economic decisions, this can act as a focus for a real dialogue about how this can be achieved. If we can also agree that socialism cannot be won by seizing the state (either through insurrection or parliamentary vote), then we should move forward to discuss the kinds of political practice that complement the idea of socialism from below.

If Marxists and syndicalists agree that trade unionism will play a fundamental part in the struggle for socialism, we also need to take on board Rosa Luxemburg’s critique of the limitations of trade unionism. At a time when trade union bureaucrats were exercising increasing power in the German socialist movement, Luxemburg caused great consternation by pointing out that trade unionism is enmeshed in capitalist social relations.25 This is because, at a day to day level, trade unionists tend to focus on negotiations to improve the conditions of sale of labour power. This practice informs the emergence of a layer of professional negotiators, and because this bureaucratic layer exists to negotiate terms and conditions of work within capitalism it tends to become a conservative barrier against struggles which point beyond the parameters of these negotiations.26 This is relevant to the issue of syndicalism because, though syndicalist leaders tend to be more militant than the average trade union leader, they essentially play the same role and thus experience similar pressures towards conservatism. Indeed, the actions of the leaders of the CNT in 1936 reflected this situation.27

Van der Walt and Schmidt are aware of this tendency to conservatism, but rather than provide a historically specific sociological explanation of it in terms of capitalist relations of production they tend to turn it into a law of nature, appealing to Robert Michels’s famous “Iron Law of Oligarchy”—with the caveat that Michels’s law is counteracted by an opposite “tendency toward democracy”.28 Whereas Marxists explain the conservatism of the trade union bureaucracy in terms that are specific to capitalist social relations, Michels explains this tendency in a way that effectively makes capitalist social relations universal. Indeed, he argues that it is a “natural love of power” which gives rise to “immanent oligarchical tendencies in every kind of human organisation”.29 The key implication of Michels’s thesis is the impossibility of democracy, and to the extent that van der Walt and Schmidt, alongside many other anarchists, accept his claims they weaken their own arguments for the possibility of a real democracy. This is the basis for the point I made in my original article about anarchism’s tendency to flounder when confronted with the problem of democracy.

So while the attempt to rethink anarchism as a democratic theory by van der Walt, Price and others is to be welcomed, to realise this project requires breaking with the liberal assumptions about the universality of individual egoism that are embedded within Michels’s critique of democracy. Specifically it means breaking with his transhistorical account of the tendency to oligarchy and replacing it with a social and historical account that is able to grasp the concrete roots of oligarchy in particular reformist institutions that develop within capitalism.30

This would allow them to come to terms with the real strengths and limitations of syndicalism. In his classic 1938 defence of anarcho-syndicalism, Rudolf Rocker argued that syndicalism grew as a “reaction against the concepts
and methods of political socialism”. This did not mean that he rejected politics altogether, but rather that he insisted the focal point of struggle should be “in the economic fighting organisations of the workers”. A similar point can be found in Earl Ford’s and William Foster’s Syndicalism (1912). This book combines a powerful critique of social democratic reformism with a defence of direct working class industrial militancy. Ford and Foster point out that because the latter represented “real power” it was the real source of reforms whereas the former was merely an “expression of public sentiment”.31

In a gesture of solidarity with this general perspective, Trotsky insisted that Bolshevism had more in common with syndicalism than it did with social democracy. However, he argued that the Bolsheviks differed from the syndicalists insofar as they took seriously the problem of how the militant minority within the working class was to win the rest of the working class over to the kind of direct strike action advocated by syndicalists.32 That this is a real problem for syndicalism is evident in Rocker’s tacit assumption that workers became united in a more or less automatic process: “the whole development of modern capitalism…can but serve to spread this enlightenment more widely among the workers”.33 There is a similar problem with Berkman’s discussion of working class reformism. He sees this merely in terms of the existence of false ideas within the working class.34 The corollary of this argument is a propagandistic (of the deed) approach to winning workers to socialism.

But if working class reformism is rooted in the struggle to improve the conditions of sale of labour power (wages and conditions) which underpins the emergence of a reformist and oligarchic labour bureaucracy, then syndicalism severely underestimates the social basis of reformism. It was because of this that, although the Bolsheviks agreed with syndicalist criticisms of reformist political parties, they nevertheless insisted that new forms of political organisation were necessary to win the majority of workers away from the influence of reformism. This project builds upon fundamental insights from syndicalism. For instance, British syndicalists a century ago laid the basis for all subsequent revolutionary work in the unions: “We will support the officials just so long as they rightly represent the workers, but we will act independently immediately they misrepresent them”.35 But it also involves a break with syndicalism.

Ralph Darlington explains that the Bolsheviks pointed to a contradiction at the heart of syndicalism between “trying to build both revolutionary cadre organisations and mass trade unions”.36 In contrast both to syndicalism and to reformist (statist) socialism, the Bolsheviks pointed to a new form of organisation that transcended the opposition between direct action and politics. Like the syndicalists, the Bolsheviks aimed to organise the real fighting minority within the working class. This meant that, unlike the reformists, when the Bolsheviks oriented on taking political power they did not mean to seize the state but rather to smash it and replace it with real organs of workers’ democracy. In this way Bolshevism went beyond not only the limits of political reformism but also the limits of direct action within capitalism, and hence of syndicalism. As Darlington argues, though “syndicalism clearly represented a significant step forward from parliamentary reformism…the exclusive emphasis on the industrial struggle meant that in practice it represented the mirror image of reformism, with its separation of economics and politics”.37

It was because Bolshevism pointed beyond these limits that many syndicalists, including the main author of Syndicalism, William Z Foster, came over to Bolshevism after 1917. Van der Walt and Schmidt recognise this fact, but don’t think through the fundamental questions it poses for their defence of syndicalism.38 For all its strengths, syndicalism’s rejection of parliamentary politics did not succeed in informing a practice that overcame the separation between economics and politics, and therefore did not provide an adequate revolutionary alternative to reformism. To the extent that syndicalist struggles don’t orient towards a challenge for political power, they, like all forms of direct action, remain trapped at the level of civil society, and therefore effectively remain as a subset of reformism.

Beyond the myths about Leninism

It was one of Lenin’s great contributions to revolutionary theory to point towards the practical measures necessary to move beyond a situation where the left was leading a myriad of local fragmented struggles that did not challenge for power. His fundamental strategic contribution to socialist theory involved an attempt to think through the practical political problems associated with realising the socialist goals immanent to the real movements from below for freedom. Thus in What is to be Done? he argued that if Russian socialists, who had succeeded in winning real local leadership within the workers’ movement, were to realise the full potential of this movement they needed to create a unified network of activists through which to combine these various struggles into a challenge for power.

A decade and a half later, on the basis of a return to Marx’s writings on the Paris Commune, Lenin made a root and branch critique of the way that reformist (statist) socialism reproduced the capitalist separation between economics and politics. Concretely, he argued that this situation could only be transcended by the emergence of new forms of democracy that were simultaneously economic and political. He insisted that the Russian soviets or workers’ councils in 1905 and again in 1917 represented the real spontaneous basis for such a democratic order. By actualising a real democratic alternative to capitalism these structures prefigure socialism. It is because similar organisations have emerged at high points in the class struggle over the 20th century that Marxists insist they continue to act as the concrete utopia against which we can judge capitalism.39

Nevertheless, because the working class is fragmented and workers’ struggles tend to be sectional, the idea that workers’ councils represent a more democratic form of social organisation must be won inside the workers’ movement against those who deny it. This implies the need for some form of political organisation whose aim it is to win the majority over to socialism. Such an organisation cannot prefigure socialism because by its victory it begins to create the conditions for its own dissolution. Of course, we could dogmatically assert that any such organisation would not dissolve but would attempt to fix its own power. However, as I noted in my original essay, arguments such as this imply a pessimistic because ahistorical model of human nature that undermines any model of socialism.

The key problem with the vehement tone of van der Walt’s criticisms of Lenin is that it acts as a barrier to a serious discussion of these strategic issues. Specifically, van der Walt follows well trodden anarchist ground in damning Lenin by reference to the nature of the regime in Russia after the October Revolution. Against Zeilig and me, he argues that if we admit that Lenin played a pivotal role in 1917 we should also accept that he played a similarly key role in the revolution’s degeneration after 1917.40

At one level this argument is obviously true: of course Lenin and Trotsky made a difference both before and after the revolution. The difficulty is to grasp how much of a difference they made and the possible alternatives open to them. To give one example, the key Bolshevik slogan in 1917 was “Bread, peace and land: all power to the soviets”. This encapsulated their argument that the only way to feed the cities (bread) involved ending the War (peace) and redistributing the land to the peasants (land), and this could only be done if the workers’ councils (soviets) took power from the bourgeois government. The huge assumption in this argument was the success of a revolution in Germany, for otherwise the German army would keep fighting. In negotiations with the German imperialists from December 1917 to March 1918 the Bolsheviks had to choose between peace on the one hand and bread and land on the other. In the end they compromised by handing over massive grain producing regions for the sake of peace. Many anarchists, and some Bolsheviks, argued that they should have continued to fight. Clearly this decision made a difference, but what kind of difference? Any adequate answer to this must consider the choices open to the Bolsheviks in this period.

Economic crisis led to an unprecedented narrowing of the parameters of what was possible. The problems facing the Bolsheviks were of almost unheard of severity. Russia was a relatively backward country at the outbreak of the First World War, and war and then civil war made matters much worse. So by 1920 the value of industrial production had declined to about 13 percent of the already very low level it had been in 1913, while over the period from 1913 to 1921-2 the number of waged workers had dropped from 11 million to 6.5 million with the number of industrial workers more than halved.41 This incredibly harsh context meant that sheer physical survival was the primary goal both for ordinary Russians and for the new revolutionary regime. So while it is obviously true that what the Bolsheviks did mattered, more than anything else this terrible context that shaped the new Russian state.42 As Peter Sedgwick wrote,”the ‘objective’ social circumstances of Russia’s revolution and civil war contain sufficient conditions for the collapse of the mass revolutionary wave, without recourse to causal factors stemming from the ‘subjective’ deficiencies of Lenin’s early formulations”.43 In this situation Lenin’s tragedy was that his nominal position of power coincided with a keen awareness that there was no internal socialist solution to the grave problems facing the regime. The problem with van der Walt’s comments on these issues is that he gives no sense of the narrowing boundaries of the possible. This changing context meant that whereas Lenin’s choices had been decisive in 1917, in the civil war and afterwards the opposite was true: he floundered before unbeatable odds.44

Indeed, in the post-revolutionary context Lenin responded to the increasingly grave internal and external threats to the revolution in a more or less ad hoc manner. As EH Carr wrote, “Almost every step taken by [the Bolsheviks in the civil war] was either a reaction to some pressing emergency or a reprisal for some action or threatened action against them”.45 One example of van der Walt’s misleading methodology is his comments that in the five years after 1917 there were 20 times more executions than there had been in the previous 50 years under the Tsarist Okhrana. Van der Walt doesn’t compare like with like: civil wars are endemically violent, and as there hadn’t been a civil war over the previous 50 years comparing these periods is close to nonsensical. The Bolsheviks were involved in a civil war in which they were compelled to respond to a “bloody attempt by the old order to restore its reign”.46 While individual decisions should always be open to criticism, to condemn them for their general use of violence in this context is not merely absurd, but also effectively amounts to an attack on the revolution itself. We might equally dismiss Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation because it went hand in hand with the deaths of 625,000 Americans in their civil war (about the same number of Americans as were killed in the First and Second World Wars and the Korean and Vietnam wars combined!), or reject the gains of the English Revolution when we discover that, as a percentage of the English population, three times more people died in the civil wars of the 1640s than did in the First World War. More to the point, we could deploy a similar methodology to reject anarchism because of the role of anarchists in the executions of tens of thousands in Spain’s Republican Zone in the first few weeks of their civil war?47

Similar criticisms could be made of van der Walt’s claim, noted above, that “the Lenin-Trotsky regime” was a “template for Stalin’s”. The problem with this comparison is that once again the discussion of violence is abstracted from its social context. This is of fundamental importance. The earlier use of violence was in response to genuine military threats to the revolutionary regime from counter-revolutionary armies—”the terror of 1917 to 1922 was, in the main, a fact of civil war fuelled by the dialectic of revolution and counterrevolution”.48 But violence in the later period was deployed to crush the last vestiges of the revolutionary ideology that could trace its roots back to 1917: the Stalinist regime “needed that bloodletting in order to install firmly the new class created by the ‘new’ method of production”.49 By abstracting these two periods of violence out of their social context, van der Walt effectively makes history meaningless except as a series of forms of domination.

Indeed, in his eagerness to attack Lenin, van der Walt goes so far as to regurgitate the old right wing smear, first spread as early as October 1917, about the use of rape by the Bolsheviks. Though van der Walt doesn’t repeat the original stablemate of this slander—the claim that Bolsheviks had passed a decree nationalising women!—this is perhaps because not even the most right wing ideologues can get away with this absurd accusation any more. As it is, van der Walt’s comments on rape are paraphrased from the writings of the controversial right wing historian Vladimir Brovkin. While this provenance of the rape claim would normally trouble a socialist (would we trust a Reaganite to give a honest account of an anarchist demonstration?), van der Walt actually accentuates the anti-Bolshevik tone of Brovkin’s argument by replacing the word “often” with “routinely” to describe Bolshevik use of rape. Thus, whereas Brovkin wrote that “beatings, torture, intimidation and rape were often used”, van der Walt changes this sentence to “beatings, torture and rape were routinely used”. This is doubly misleading because Brovkin doesn’t actually cite any specific cases of rape to substantiate this claim.50

Elsewhere in his book where he does cite actual rape cases his evidence comes from the archives of Bolsheviks who were prosecuting the rapists—ie, it was evidence that, far from deploying rape as a means of terror, the regime was trying to stamp it out! Moreover, his key argument is not that the Bolsheviks were rapists, but rather that rape became widespread after the revolution because the Bolsheviks challenged the sanctity of religion and the family. He thus blames what we might call the feminist aspect of Bolshevik policy for increasing violence against women: “The problem the Bolsheviks did not want to face was that the debunking of religion and attacks on courtship, the family, and the private sphere necessarily encouraged a ‘utilitarian’ attitude to women”.51 This kind of reactionary nonsense is a commonplace amongst conservative critics of the liberation movements of the 1960s and we on the left should be debunking it rather than pretending those who regurgitate it are reliable critics of revolutionary movements. The fact that van der Walt not only cites Brovkin as an authority on the revolution but also reinforces the anti-Bolshevik bias of the language of this Cold War warrior suggests that he is less interested in obtaining a rounded picture of the Bolsheviks’ practice than he is in repeating any accusations that might be used to damn them, however outlandish they might be, and irrespective of their origin.

A more balanced summary of the practice of the Bolsheviks in the civil war was suggested by William H Chamberlain in his pioneering social history of the Russian Revolution. Commenting on comments from an officer who had deserted the Red Army to join the Whites only to find their behaviour appalling, Chamberlain writes that “not all communists, certainly, were saints or puritans. But their general behaviour and morale seem to have been better than those of their opponents”.52 To recognise this does not imply, as van der Walt suggests, that Marxists believe everything Lenin and the Bolsheviks did in this period was right; clearly that would be absurd. Rather it is to recognise that, despite occasionally making a virtue of necessity, the Bolsheviks acted to defend the revolution in a situation in which the only solution lay beyond their control in the success or failure of socialist revolutions outside Russia. So while it is legitimate to criticise them for the decisions they made in this period, the reality is that famine, disease and decimation of the working class meant that a “third revolution” replacing them with a system to their left was simply not a realistic political perspective at the time.53

The choice in 1917 was between the Bolsheviks on the one hand and the proto-fascists in the White armies on the other (before October the provisional government merely maintained a precarious balance between these two social forces), and this remained the choice in the early 1920s.54 This situation is reflected in the fact that, for all the (abstract) moral power of their criticisms of the Bolsheviks, the anarchists remained largely isolated in Russia. Indeed, as Paul Avrich points out in the conclusion to his very friendly history of Russian anarchism, it was in part because the anarchists “paid scant attention to the practical needs of a rapidly changing world” that anarchism remained a “visionary utopia” of a “small group of individuals who had alienated themselves from the mainstream of contemporary society”.55

So though it is true that Bolshevik rule in the immediate post-revolutionary context did come to resemble aspects of the Jacobin regime at the height of the French Revolution in 1793-4, it is doubly important not to conflate this process with Stalinism. First, Stalin’s rise to power went hand in hand with the purging of the Bolshevik Party—by 1939 only 1.3 percent of party members could date their membership back to 1917, 93 percent of those who had been members in 1917 were no longer members, and 70 percent of party members had joined since 1929.56 Second, and perhaps more importantly, to reduce Bolshevism to a variant of Jacobinism obscures the way that in the run up to the October Revolution Lenin had built a party that was able to win a majority of Russian workers to socialism.


Unfortunately, rather than debate the substantive issues raised by my original article, van der Walt has chosen to erect and reject a straw man version of Lenin (and Marx). While in this response I have had to deal with these distortions, I want in conclusion to return to the main strategic debates between anarchists and Marxists. I suspect that van der Walt would agree that though the world is a very different place today than it was when the left engaged in many of the debates touched upon in this essay, in its essence capitalism is still built upon the systematic exploitation of wage labour. In turn, this means that Rosa Luxemburg’s claim that socialist organisation must be rooted first and foremost in the working class retains all its validity: “Where the chains of capitalism are forged, there they must be broken”.57

Such a project demands political organisation, and the nature of political organisation presupposes some model of its function: we can only decide what kind of parties we want by working out what we want them for. If reformist parties are organised around electoral districts and parliamentary calendars with a view to winning elections, insurrectionary parties merely organise a more militant approach to the same goal of seizing the state. Because direct action by contrast aims to prefigure a libertarian model of socialism, anarchist “parties” will be organised along very different lines. While seeming opposites, in practice these two approaches—statism and direct action—actually reflect two sides of the same coin of the modern capitalist separation of politics and economics: both approaches fetishise an emasculated politics.

Van der Walt’s argument that Marxist parties are statist parties assumes that we too are trapped within these parameters. In my original article I showed via a contrast between Marxism and Jacobinism/Blanquism that we are not. Our aim is not to seize the state but rather to win the majority of workers to socialism and to smash the old state and replace it with our organs of democratic authority. This process will involve the use of a variety of tactics, some electoral and some direct action. Strategy, from this perspective, is best understood as a project aimed at the conquest of power that is rooted in lessons learnt from previous and ongoing struggles as generalised in theory and as creatively applied and developed in a practice.58

For all of its undoubted strengths, syndicalism could neither escape the pressures towards bureaucratisation nor provide an adequate account of the relationship between the revolutionary minority within any union and the union more generally. The strength of Bolshevism, by contrast, was that it provided a clear distinction between party and class that allowed it to conceptualise the process by which the socialist minority were able to win over a majority of the working class to the soviet idea during the Russian Revolution. This experience obviously includes lessons from which socialists would do well to learn. Similarly, the experience of the Comintern in its revolutionary period—the first four congresses—provides an indispensible resource for contemporary activists.

The key problem with the caricatured interpretation of Lenin’s (and Marx’s) politics reproduced in van der Walt’s essay is that it acts as a barrier to our assimilation of lessons from these movements. Conversely, it is a key strength of his essay that he attempts to conceptualise anarchism as a strategy for the realisation of real democracy through revolution. While I stand by my claim that the elements of liberalism embedded within anarchist theory act as a barrier to a full embrace of democracy, I can only welcome van der Walt’s attempt to point beyond this impasse.

In response to this project we should respond, good, let’s fight together for real democracy, discuss our differences as comrades in struggle, and try to formulate a strategy adequate for the socialist transformation of society.

hr. Notes

1: Thanks to Mike Haynes and Alex Callinicos. Considerations of space prevent me from engaging properly with Ian Birchall’s reply to my essay-I shall return to the issues he raises at a later date.

2: Van der Walt 2011a, pp201-204.

3: Avrich, 1967, p196.

4: Marx, 1976, p732.

5: May, 1994, pp1-15; Franks, 2006, p98.

6: Newman, 2001, p2.

7: Critchley, 2007, p89.

8: Cliff, 1975, p254.

9: Bernstein, 1993, p190.

10: Van der Walt, 2011a, p203.

11: Broué and Témime, 2008, p208.

12: On Spain Trotsky wrote, “We can and must defend bourgeois democracy not by bourgeois democratic means but by the methods of class struggle, which in turn pave the way for the replacement of bourgeois democracy by the dictatorship of the proletariat. This means in particular that in the process of defending bourgeois democracy, even with arms in hand, the party of the proletariat takes no responsibility for bourgeois democracy, does not enter its government, but maintains full freedom of criticism and of action in relation to all parties of the Popular Front, thus preparing the overthrow of bourgeois democracy at the next stage”-Trotsky, 1973, p257.

13: Van der Walt, 2011a, p198.

14: Price, 2007, p172.

15: Price, 2007, p10.

16: Contra van der Walt, Price also recognises that whereas Marx was clear that the dictatorship of the proletariat was the concrete modern form of democracy, “the historical relation between anarchism and democracy is highly ambiguous-Price, 2007, pp49; 165.

17: Van der Walt, 2011b.

18: Price 2007, p50.

19: Harman, 2004, p31; Schorske, 1983, p115.

20: Berkman, 1989, p60.

21: Darlington, 2008, p233.

22: Berkman, 1989, p77.

23: Van der Walt and Schmidt, 2009, p141.

24: For a recent academic anarchist defence of the similarities between Marx and the anarchists on the question of the state see Karatini, 2005, pp165-184.

25: Luxemburg, 1970a, p72.

26: Cliff and Gluckstein, 1986.

27: Darlington, 2008, p224; Hallas, 1985, p82.

28: Van der Walt and Schmidt, 2009, p189.

29: Michels, 1962, pp326; 50.

30: Barker, 2001.

31: Ford and Foster, 1990, p20.

32: Hallas, 1985, pp35-37.

33: Rocker, 1989, pp85, 116, 124.

34: Berkman, 1989, p63.

35: From the Clyde Workers’ Committee 1915, quoted in Cliff and Gluckstein, 1986, p34; See also Darlington, 2008, p221.

36: Darlington, 2008, p167.

37: Darlington, 2008, p245.

38: Van der Walt and Schmidt, 2009, p13; Darlington, 2008.

39: Gluckstein, 1985; Barker, 1987.

40: Van der Walt, 2011a, p203.

41: Nove, 1992, pp89-110.

42: Lewin, 1968, p17; see also Harman, 2008, p427; Mayer, 2000, p49.

43: Sedgwick, 1992, p13.

44: Harris, 1968, p152.

45: Carr, 1950, pp161, 168 and chapter 7 more generally; Mayer, 2000, p258.

46: Haynes and Husan, 2003, p49.

47: Durgan, 2007, p80.

48: Mayer, 2000, pp312, 253, 13, 239, 309-313.

49: Dunayevskaya, 1988, p227.

50: The sum total of evidence cited for the claim that the Bolsheviks used rape is this: “numerous instances are cited in ‘TsKa: Ko vsem chlenam partii, ko vsem mestnym organizatsiyam’, Iz Partii No 4 (May 1923)”-Brovkin 1998, pp24, 227.

51: Brovkin, 1998, p119.

52: Chamberlain, 1952, p461.

53: Haynes and Husan, 2003, pp49-61.

54: Haynes, 1997; Mayer, 2000, p244.

55: Avrich, 1967, p253.

56: Harris, 1978, p272; Harman 2008, p477.

57: Luxemburg, 1970b, p419.

58: Cliff, 1975, pp253-254.


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