Previous Part 1: Organise! 52, From 1st international & up to Spanish Revolution.
FEW ORGANISED POLITICAL groups opposed the Second World War from a class position. Those minorities who did included the anarchists, council communist (the remnants of the revolutionary workers movement of the 1920s in Germany, Holland and elsewhere) and left communists such as the Bordigists (Italian communists in exile who supported the positions of the first leader of the Italian Communist Party). In occupied Europe these groups were isolated and faced great dangers in trying to continue any political intervention. During the war years theoret¬ical devvelopments were understandably limited, militants were too busy dodging bullets, the draft etc. Following the thesis of their deceased leader, the Trotskvists predicted the inevitable collapse of the post-war Soviet Union to barbarism capitalism or the political revolution (read change of’ leadership) which would put Russia back on the road to socialism.
Social democratic consensus
Optimism about possibilities for revolutionary change immediately following the war was shared by many on the left, anarchists and libertarian communists included. Memories of the wave of revolution at the end of the first world war remained. Howver, the wav the pre-war revolutionary movement in Germany had been smashed, and the dominance of those ‘heroes of the resistance’, the Communist Parties in France and Italy. meant that upheaval was limited to strike movements rather than insurrections. Benefiting from the economic boom brought by post-war restructuring, a social democratic consenus prevailed in Europe. In Eastern Europe once powerful workers’ movements were now under the Stalinist jackboot, having been ‘liberated’ by the Red Army. So. many revolutionaries felt the need to reassess the socialist project in light of the developments over the past 30 years. In 1946. a dissident faction developed within the French section of the Trotskyist Fourth International, whose leading lights included Cornelius Castoriadis. Claude Lefort and Francois Lyotard. Their movement away from Trotskyist orthodoxy led them to leave the Fourth International and, in 1945. to launch a journal, Socialisme ou Barbarie (Socialism or Barbarism) which rejected the Trotskyist idea that the USSR was a “degenerated workers state”. Rather, SoB argued that the Soviet Uiion was a form of state capitalism. In itself, this was hardly a revelation, after all the Soviet Union had been characterised as such, by anarchists and left communists, as early as 1921, What was innovative was the idea developed by SoB of the bureaucratisation of society as a universal phenomenon. of which the Soviet Union was a particular variation (“totalitarian” as opposed to “fragmented” as in the West). This theory of bureaucratisation had consequences for the subsequent development of SoB’s politics. Early meetings of SoB were attended by - amongst others - French Bordigists, Fontenis and fellow comrades, and by the people who would later set up the Situationist International. The meetings must have been very interesting!
Other than analysing the nature of the Soviet Union, the group also focussed on the importance of workers’ autonomous struggles against their official ‘representation’, such as the Labour and Communist Parties. but particularly against the trade unions. Castoriadis made no attempt to hide the influence of the Council Communist Anton Pannekoek, in his understanding of socialism as something the working class does. rather than something that is done to it or is forced upon it by objective circumstance. The post war boom which showed little sign of abating led some within SoB, particularly but not only Castoriadis, to believe that capitalism had overcome its tendency to fall into periodic crisis and that, consequently, the existence of social struggle pointed to a different crisis, namely that of the organisation of social life under bureaucratic capitalism. For Castoriadis. the struggle between the owners of the means of production and the workers had been superseded by the struggle between the order-givers and order-takers, between the bureaucracy and those who carry out the orders of the bureaucrats. The struggle, therefore, had come down to the struggle over who manages production, the producers themselves or another strata. In terms of approach to organisational concerns. SoB started off from a partyist perspective hut became more spontaneist until its demise in 1966. Castoriadis himself dropped out of political life to become a professional intellectual (a critical psychologist no less!). Soon after, Francois Lyotard found well-paid work defending class society and theoretical cretinism as a guru of post-modernism. In 1963, SoB split and a group known as Pouvoir Ouvrier (Workers’ Power. not to be confused with the British Trot group) emerged, critical of the ‘new‘ class analysis, arguing for a more ‘traditional’ class analysis and the need for a vanguard-type organisation not so far removed from that of the Trotskyists. This group showed how a political current can get it half right!
The influence the Organisational Platform of the Libertarian Comniunists (see ‘In the tradition: part one’) was felt particularly strongly in France and the debate between Platformists and Svnthesists raged in France throughout the 1930s, The Second World War put these arguments on ice for a time but they immediately resurfaced with the coming of ‘peace’. The French Anarchist Federation became, for a time, dominated by Platformists. changing its name to the Libertarian Communist Federation (FCL) and excluding those who opposed the changes. The FCL emphasised engagement in the day-to-day struggles of the exploited and oppressed and an opposition to philosophical navel-gazing.
Manifesto of Libertarian Communism
In 1953. Georges Fontenis of the FCL published the Manifesto of Libetarian Communism. The Manifesto, which remained untranslated into English until almost 35 years later, remains probably the most coherent example of Platformist writing available. In it, Fontenis powerfully argues that anarchism is a product of social and class struggle and not an “abstract philosophy” or “individualist ethic”. Rather, he states, “It was born in and out of’ the social and it had to wait for a given historic period and a given state of class antagonism for anarchist communist aspirations that Socialisme ou Barbarie and Noir et Rouge to show themselves clearly for the phenomenon or revolt to result in a coherent and completely revolutionary conception.” The Manifesto like the Platform before it, defended theoretical unity; tactical unity; collective responsibilitv and a collective method of action, organised through a specific organisation. Whilst it rejected the notion of the ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’ as a term too open to interpretation to be of use, the Manifesto was viewed by some to lean too much towards a Leninism sans Lenin.
Noir et Rouge and the Groupes Anarchistes d’Action Révolutionnaire
In 1955, the Revolutionary Anarchist Action Groups (GAAR) split from the Federation Communiste Libertaire (FCL), unhappy with all direction the FCL was taking (including flirtations with ‘revolutionary’ electoralism!),but wishing to continue to defend Platformism. The group launched a magazine Noir et Rouge (Black and Red) in 1956, which continued until 1970. The group changed its name to Noir et Rouge in 1961 and a year later some of those involved rejoined the French Anarchist Federation. Noir et Rouge had as their initial aim to “Prepare the basis of a rejuvenated anarchism and in order to do this the group attempted a reappraisal of the revolutionary experiences of the 20th century, particularly the experiences of worker’s’ councils in Russia and the collectivisations in the Spanish Revolution but also those of Hungary 1956 and the more recent attempts at ‘self-management’ in Yugoslavia and Algeria. This led the group, particularly after 1961, to criticise all ‘traditional’ revolutionary politics. including Platformism. It would appear were converging from very different backgrounds during the 1950s and early 1960s. Unlike the majority of the GAAR, the magazine group turned awav from a stress on organisation towards a more spontaneous approach. Unlike Socialisme ou Barbarie however. little of their writing was published in the English language and so their pioneering attempts to ‘rejuvenate’ anarchism are almost unknown outside France. Perhaps the most infamous associate of Noir et Rouge was Daniel Cohn—Bendit. ‘Danny the Red’. who would play a role as spokesperson for the May events in France. Noir et Rouge, like SoB, and the Situationists (see below) had an important influence on the build-up to May 68 and the events themselves, despite the limited circulation of their ideas and publications. Something worth remembering when plodding on with our activities and propaganda.
Gruppi Anarchici d’Azione Proletaria
In post-war Italy, anarchists influenced by the Platformist tradition and by the critical Marxism of the German communist Karl Korsch emerged. They opposed the direction of the large synthesist organisation, the Italian Anarchist Federation (FAI), which was beginning to reject class analysis in favour of a vague humanistic version of anarchism. Unlike the French Platformists, the Italians decided to split off from the FAI and form their own organisation. The Anarchist Groups of Proletarian Action (GAAP) in 1949/50. They empha¬sised the need for a rigorous political approach, an engagement with Marxism, and defended the class basis of anarchism. Much of their energy was engaged in the struggle against Stalinism, in the shape of the massive Italian Communist Party. On an international level they called for the opening of a revolutionarv ‘Third Front’ against American anc Soviet imperialism and were part of the short-lived Libertarian Communist International alongside comrades in France and Spain. Isolated from traditional anarchism and ultimately marginalised by Stalinism in a period of low class struggle, the GAAP eventually merged with Azione Comunista, a confederation of dissident Trotskvist, Bordigist and former Communist Party militants, from which they were after a short time effectively expelled. This led to the group’s disintegration.
The Hungarian uprising of 1956 came as a breath of fresh air against the stink of Stalinism and had repercussions world-wide, inspiring many socialists of the post-war generation to question not only the validity of ‘actually existing socialism’ but to ask “what is the content of’ socialism?” The thesis of Socialisme ou Barbarie concerning the anti-bureaucratic nature of authentic socialism seemed acutely relevant. The group itself took the view that: “... over the coining years, all significant questions will be condensed into one: are you for or against the action and the program of the Hungarian workers?” So what exactly was the Hungarian Resolution and why was it such a turning point? Hungary in 1956 was under the government of Imre Nagy, a watered-down Stalinist entrusted by Moscow to ‘liberalise’ Hungary to put a secure lid on social discontent. Despite his ‘reforms’, the system of exploitation in the name of socialism continued to engender opposition. On 23rd October 1956, following a mobilisation in the capital, Budapest, by students demanding moderate reform, some of a 200,000 crowd of demonstrators attacked the state radio station and so began the Hungarian revolt, If students and intellectuals had provided the spark, it was the working class who carried the flame and made sure that the arrival of Soviet tanks was met with fierce resistance. Over the next few days a wave of insurrectionary fervour enveloped Hungary as workers left their factories and offices to take part in assaults upon the headquarters of the local ‘red bourgeoisie’ and their secret police. Workers’ councils emerged in every industrial centre, effectively taking power at all levels. These councils coordinated at a local and regional level and attempted to realise a form of workers’ control in the workplaces. The ‘programme’ of’ the workers’ councils varied from area to area but nowhere did they call for the reintroduction of free market capitalism. The limitations of their form of workers’ control never had time to show themselves as the Hungarian revolution, failing to spread beyond its national borders, essentially succumbed to the military might of the Soviet army. The experience of the councils, which developed spontaneously. without the leadership of any vanguard party and which within a matter of days took responsibility for production, distribution and communication on a national level had an enormous impact on those in the revolutionary movement willing to see past Stalinist lies about an attempted ‘capitalist restoration’ by ‘nationalists’. Whatever the limitations of the councils programme, the fact that the working class had once more shown its capacity for autonomous action was an inspiration for those fighting for working class self-organisation.
Three years later in Britain, a current developed, under the influence of Socialisme ou Barbarie, which broke with Trotskyism (in this case the Socialist Labour League led by Gerry Healy). Originally called Socialism Reaffirmed, the group would become known as Solidarity and exist in one form or another for almost 30 years. Although initially seeing itself as a Marxist group critical of the Bolshevik heritage, it soon developed its own character as a ‘national organisation’ of libertarian socialists. In 1961 it published an English translation of the key statement of the Socialisme ou Barbarie group and consequentlv published much of the writing of Castoriadis (under the pen name Paul Cardan), including his post-1964 work. Like Castoriadis, Solidarity defended the need for workers’ self-management of production and of society, but not all those involved in the organisation fully accepted his notion of the new revoluntionary ‘subject’ being “order takers” rather than proletarians. The Situationist International (see below) suggested that, thanks to Solidarity’s translator. the group received Castoriadis’ work “... like the light that arrives on Earth from stars that have already long burned out” and were unaware that the founder of Socialisme ou Barbarie had long since died, politically speaking. Although the Anarchist Federation generallv rejects the term ‘self-management’ with all its ambiguity. it is obvious that many people within Solidarity interpreted the term as meaning the end of production for sale or exchange. Whatever Solidarity’s weaknesses (not least their fairly lax attitude to maintaining an international organisation and their lack of political direction after they effectively split around 1980). Solidarity was involved in important revolutionary activity and publishing for at least 20 of its 30 years, producing a wealth of literature defending a coherent vision of libertarian socialism that was unavailable elsewhere. Compared to many of the ‘class struggle’ anarchists in Britain during the 1960s and 1970s, they developed a consistent body of politics that recognised the need for working class self-organisation outside social democratic and Leninist models.
The Situationist International
The Situationist International was formed in 1957, from the unification of three avant-garde artistic/cultural groups. For the first five years of its existence, its main theoretical focus was on developing a critique of art, culture, town planning and anvthing else that they considered worth critiquing. Only in 1962. did the group - which, although numerically small. was geographically spread across Europe (based mainlv in France) - really develop a political perspective based on salvaging what was authentically revolutionary from the history and practice of the workers’ movement. Much of their early political orientation was influenced by Socialisme ou Barbarie, and, like that group. their ambition was to help in the creation of a ‘new revolutionary movement’ based upon the proletariat of the ‘industrial advanced countries’. By the time the situationists had formulated their positions, Socialisme ou Barbarie had, however, lost hope in the proletariat and had lost any dynamic presence in revolutionary political life (see above). One major problem with any appraisal of the Situationist International is the legacy left by some of their followers and intepreters (known sometimes as Pro-Situs). which leaves them looking like disgruntled, destructive intellectuals with very little positive contribution to make. Actually, judged on their own writings and record of activity, they were far from the ‘arty misfits’ their opponents would like to paint them. The situationists took Marx’s conception of alienation and applied it to society as a whole rather than just to the world of work. They argued that alienated labour was central to existence in all aspects of daily life, as proletarians were confronted by their own alienation at every turn ahout. ln culture, sport, sexuality, education, pseudo-rebellion, everything that could be turned into a commoditv had been. This society of mediated images. of ‘spectacle’ could only be swept away by a proletarian revolution and the realisation of “generalised self-management”, which for the situationists meant the abolition of wage labour and the state: “The only reason the situationists do not call themselves communists is so as not to be confused with the cadres of pro-Soviet or pro-Chinese anti-worker bureaucracies.” [Italian section of the SI, 1969] So, by their actions should they be judged. In the May 1968 events in Paris the situationists. their comrades and allies were faced with a real-life revolutionary situation. Did they cut the mustard? Find out next time.
To come in Part 3. May 1968 until today.
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