Contesting the revolutionary tradition

Issue: 127

Leo Zeilig

Michael Schmidt and Lucien van der Walt, Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism (AK Press, 2009), £18

Black Flame is the first of a two-volume project that attempts to re-examine the history and theory of “anarchism’s democratic class politics” over the last 150 years. Its scope is wide. The two volumes aim to cover the emergence of 19th century anarchism, the anti-capitalist movements at the start of this century, and the intellectual history of the tradition. This volume looks at the theoretical background to anarchism through the ideas of a number of its key thinkers. It is largely a project of definition. It offers a new approach, seeing anarchism as a movement born of the First International and working class politics in the 1860s. The book is also written by two self-declared anarchists, Michael Schmidt and Lucian van der Walt, who claim no fake “objectivity”. For readers of International Socialism, the book has an additional relevance—Black Flame challenges Marxism’s claim to revolutionary politics.

The book’s overarching argument is fairly simple to explain. For too long, the authors claim, anarchist thinking has been confused. Any form of anti-statist, non-authoritarian thought, movement or project was deemed anarchist. This had a number of serious problems. Anarchism became an amorphous, timeless movement that could not be fixed down in history. It was, for some anarchists, regarded as a natural outgrowth of humanity’s
anti-authoritarian urges from the first, primitive rebellion against authority. Its thinkers were equally diverse: among the “seven sages” of anarchism were Leon Tolstoy, William Godwin, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, and Benjamin Tucker.

In contrast the book claims that “the anarchist movement only emerged in the 1860s, and then as a wing of the modern labour and socialist movement.” This narrower, historically confined definition limits the scope of anarchism. It includes syndicalists like Daniel De Leon and James Connolly while its founding intellectuals were two Russian émigrés Mikhail Bakunin and Pyotr Kropotkin. “If classical Marxism had Marx and Engels, anarchism and syndicalism were above all shaped by two towering figures, Bakunin and Kropotkin.” Nor was anarchism the poor cousin to Marxism: rather mass syndicalist and anarchist movements emerged across the globe, in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Cuba, France, Spain, and Mexico.

There are conceptual concerns as well. Limiting anarchism to anti-statism distorts the real history of the tradition, the authors claim. The state is not the sole source of injustice and inequality; capitalist exploitation plays a central role as well. The first two chapters assert that anarchism is an inherently modern tradition. Schmidt and van der Walt also dismiss many of the clichés about anarchism. Anarchism does not reject all notions of hierarchical power, but recognises “legitimate coercive power, derived from collective and democratic decision making”.

It was in the First International, and partly through his disagreements with Marx, that Bakunin, the “key figure in the movement at that time”, formulated his ides of anarchism. Kropotkin and Bakunin began to define their theories both as anti-capitalist and as a form of socialism opposed to “the authoritarian socialism of Marx”.

The book resuscitates many anarchist and syndicalists activists and intellectuals (the authors argue that “syndicalism must be regarded as a progeny of anarchism”). Take one example. William Haywood was a leading American syndicalist at the turn of the 20th century. He was arrested and prosecuted in 1917 as a militant of the International Workers of the World. In 1921 he fled to the USSR and helped to organise an official experiment in self-management in the Urals and Siberia entitled the Autonomous Industrial Colony. Haywood died in 1928, the year that Stalin shut the Colony.

The book is a fascinating account of the often obscured history of anarchists, their organisations and history. There is much to commend in the book, and so perhaps it’s unfair to concentrate on the way Marxism is presented.

But the authors seem compelled to tell the modern history of anarchist thought against a “classical Marxism” that this reviewer does not recognise. They claim to establish a dialogue between anarchism and classical Marxism, and the book’s genuine originality stems from the view that classical Marxism and anarchism belong to the same family of ideas. But Marxism is presented as a reductionist theory that must be refuted. The authors pose anarchism as a major competitor to the revolutionary class-based tradition of classical Marxism, which they define “as associated with Marx, Engels, Karl Kautsky, Lenin, Leon Trotsky, Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse-tung, and others”. Many readers of this journal would dispute treating Stalin and Marx as belonging to the same tradition. Indeed the concept of “classical Marxism” was first used by Isaac Deutscher to exclude Stalinism from the politics and practice of Marxism.

The authors adamantly reject sloppy definitions which they claim have blighted anarchism, in favour of a notion that links anarchism inextricably to the rise of working class politics. Why then does the book present such a crude definition of Marxism, worthy not of the revolutionary left, but of the daily clichés of the media?

These mistakes are repeated throughout the book. So if the theoretical tradition of Marxism can be drawn from Stalin then it is no surprise when the authors argue that “regardless of the intents or the emancipatory aims of classical Marxism, these politics provided the basic rationale for the one-party dictatorships of the former East bloc”. Presumably this practice was the entirely logical consequences of Bakunin’s prophecy that Marx would be a “dictator over the proletariat”.

These are not subsidiary concerns. The book develops its definition of anarchism in opposition (and more occasionally in tandem) to “classical Marxism”. But if this definition of Marxism is—to say the least—intellectually and historically contested, a significant part of the project simply falls apart. Take the discussion on the state and the “dictatorship of the proletariat”. We are told that the definition of the state in “classical Marxism” is fairly simple as a “body of armed men” at the service of the dominant classes. Therefore the working class “led by the revolutionary party, must form its own dictatorship of the proletariat to change society”. Yet the state will always be a highly centralised structure “that inevitably concentrated power in the hands of the directing elite”.

But Marx, Lenin and Trotsky, for example, thought that the existing state could not be wielded for the revolution and that it needed to be broken. This was Marx’s principal conclusion from the Paris Commune in 1871. Likewise the “dictatorship of the proletariat”—perhaps the most maligned concept in Marxism—does not mean the dictatorship of the party over a revolutionised society but the assertion of working class power. How can any revolutionary project hope to consummate victory without the determination to break the resistance of the overthrown ruling classes? Dictatorship of the proletariat is a term for the democratic defence of working class power. It is regarded as a necessary and temporary form of political control by the working class through their organs of self-organisation; councils, trade unions, communes etc.

This defence of popular power is not a celebration of authoritarianism and despotism, but the reverse. Emancipatory projects can only be sustained with an assertion of the new authority over vestiges of the old state. Paradoxically, Bakunin came up with a term that describes this process rather well. “Permanent barricades”, he argued, would coordinate the defence of the revolution against internal and external enemies. This is precisely the “legitimate coercive power” derived from working class democracy that the book asserts as part of the anarchist tradition.

Unfortunately Schmidt and van der Walt continue to repeat criticism of Marxism that would raise the eyebrows of even right-wing critics. Chapter 3 is an absurdist gallery. The faults found in classical Marxism are predictable, and include determinism, class reductionism and a notion of progress that justifies the destruction of pre-capitalist society as necessary and progressive (all of which is true if you include Kautsky, Stalin and Mao in the Marxist canon). These criticisms are familiar enough, but there are other more ridiculous claims. So Trotsky’s criticism of the USSR apparently arose because of the “conceit that he had not been part of the ruling bureaucracy”. So Trotsky was motivated by jealousy. No mention of Stalin’s destruction of every remnant of the Bolshevik tradition, the systematic execution of the leadership of the 1917 Revolution and the clamping down on decent socialists (including Haywood’s Colony) by Stalin. This is prejudice dressed up as history.

There are other glaring absences. Nothing is said of the Trotskyist tradition of state capitalism, and only the anarchist contribution to the theory is credited. This approach is bizarre in a book that asserts a kinship between Marxism and anarchism. If the authors had been more discerning they would have seen the emancipatory politics at the heart of classical Marxism. Instead they undermine their own efforts to develop a convincing broad anarchist tradition. But the book remains a very useful and interesting contribution to the history of global working class politics.