"post-left" anarchism and the platform

Dear Anarchy

Jason McQuinn states he cannot make sense of some of my "extensive rant." Sadly his reply proved my point by its descent into insults and attempts at ridicule. Yes, indeed, the "horror of it all" if you cannot respond to a letter without lowering the tone. "Don't make [you] laugh"? Please. Does labelling another comrade's letter a "rant" suggest a good environment to discuss issues? Hardly. Obviously some kinds of "personal attacks, irrational labelling, irrelevant mudslinging" are more horrendous that others.

Similarly, to suggest that my letter indicates being "afraid of criticism" seems incredulous. If so, I would not bother writing. I did so, partly, to highlight the hypocritical tone of the "anti-Platform" issue with its petty attacks on Platformists (which detracted from any positive points being made) along aside the plea for rational debate between anarchists. Debate and critique is essential, it is how it is done which matters. The issue promised one thing and (sadly) delivered another. My other concern was to correct some inaccuracies and to highlight some issues with two of the articles. But, clearly, to do this equates with producing a "rant" and being afraid of criticism. Silly me. I had failed to realise that critique was a one-way street.

Jason defends labelling other anarchists with "post-left" approved descriptions. Apparently "workerist" simply applies to "would-be radicals who focus almost exclusively on work, workplaces and workers." Assuming that this is all that is meant by this term (which I doubt), Jason fails to indicate why this is a bad thing. Given that the vast majority of the population is working class, it seems strange that a desire to reach these people with libertarian ideas should be worthy of a label?. Particularly as being subject to hierarchy for 8 hours plus a day they have a real interest in ending it. So please explain why radicals should fail to "focus almost exclusively" on the vast majority of the population? Particularly as these "would-be" radicals are, in the main, working class. Should they not focus on what directly oppresses them and seek to end it?And if a concern to discuss our ideas with fellow working class people equates to "workerism" then anarchism has always been so.

I would also suggest that saying so-called "workerist" anarchists focus almost exclusively on "work" or the "workplace" is not an accurate reflection of reality. I know few, if any, anarchists who do so. I do know plenty who include workplace struggle in a wider approach which includes community struggle, opposing sexism, racism and homophobia, a concern for cultural issues and a whole lot more. As such, it feels like a straw man argument. Even assuming that they do concentrate on "work" as much as suggested, why is this a bad thing? What happens in work impacts in all aspects of our lives. And most people spend most of their lives in work. It would make sense, therefore, to address the issue and help any struggles which combat hierarchy in it -- particularly as capitalism is rooted in the exploitation of labour.

Apparently "organisationalist" refers to those "who so steadfastly fetishize organisation-building." As opposed to those who so steadfastly fetishise the rejection of organisation-building? And what, exactly, does this mean? It sounds impressive, but beyond an insult I'm not sure it means anything. So organisation-building is a bad thing. Why? Shouldn't anarchists work together? If they do, then an organisation has been built. But, I guess, only building informal, temporary, organisations is appropriate (not that this fetishises a specific form of organisation, of course, only "left" anarchists do that!). But temporary organisations means having to rebuild everything from scratch time and time again. And how long is temporary? Anarchy Magazine has being going for decades. When does it stop being temporary? Or is permanent organisation okay when it is a small group? If so, then why does this change if these permanent (small) groups seek to federate with like-minded other groups and share resources and co-ordinate their activities? As for the informal/formal difference, well, I'm not sure why having known, agreed policies and procedures is a bad thing. After all, Anarchy magazine has an agreed policy on responding to critical letters. Or am I missing something? Does formal simply mean being a member of a group? If so, then why is that bad?

But, of course, organisations can take on a life of their own and become more than the sum of their parts. Very true. However, I fail to see why this means rejecting organising together any more than the fact that camp fires can cause forest fires means rejecting being warm when in the woods. It simply means being aware of the dangers and taking suitable precautions. In the case of anarchist federations, ensuring local autonomy, self-management, federalism and decision-making from the bottom up. I cannot help feeling that for "post-left" anarchists there is only one way of organising, namely their way. If you reject it then you are a "left" anarchist (and not really an anarchist anyway perhaps?).

Then there is "left", that word which is apparently producing such "obvious, genuine differences between real existing anarchists." As far as I can see, the differences are related to the question of whether we should reject "workerist" and "organisationalist" attitudes. If you don't then you are a "left" anarchist. Given Jason's definitions of these terms in his reply, then "post-left" means rejecting addressing the vast majority of the population and what they do the vast majority of their lives and reject working and co-operating with your fellow anarchists in anything but a strictly limited and ad hoc basis (if at all). Surely there is something wrong here? Are "real existing anarchists" really rejecting such basic anarchist ideas as these? I hope not.

I will turn to the one important point in his reply. This is my criticism of his review of North-Eastern Anarchist. He "stands by [his] very, very brief comments" and criticises me for making "completely unsupported" comments. I failed to do so before because I did not want to make my "extensive rant" longer than it was and, moreover, because anyone familiar with the articles in question would see I was correct. I will provide my summary with some evidence for those who have not read the articles.

Jason states that Brian Sheppard's article implies "if only there were some anarchist leaders in the AFL-CIO and Teamsters they'd be revolutionary." Only if you quote out of context. Brian argued that the "problem with 'organized' labor . . .is precisely how it is organized," namely "in a very undemocratic and disempowering way." As such, to suggest Brian considered the sole problem as "its leadership" is a distortion. Particularly as he says "what is needed, then, is this: the classical ideas and spirit of anarchism infused into the labor movement." It is clear from this that Brian is arguing for a radical transformation of how unions operate and not about changing who makes up the leadership.

Jason claims that Aileen O'Carroll's article "ignore[d] the effects of authoritarian ideology and organisation" of the Bolsheviks. This seems incredulous as the whole article discussed that. By quoting her out of context, Jason turns an article on the limitations of Bolshevik ideology into its opposite. When Aileen notes that "the Bolsheviks could have followed a more democratic route, but they chose not to" she was specifically discussing modern-day Leninist rationales for the Bolsheviks' authoritarian practice. The rest of the essay shows why these rationales are wrong as Bolshevik ideology played its part. For example, she states that "the Leninist idea of socialism has more to do with the nationalisation of industry or State Capitalism than the creation of a society in which workers have control over their own labour power." She argues that "Leninists believe it is the job of the party to exercise control of society on behalf of the ruling class and like a parent, the party interprets what the best interests of the working class are." She clearly notes that "with or without the civil war their strategic decisions would have been the same, because they arise out of the Leninist conception of what socialism is and what workers control means. Their understanding of what socialism means is very different from the anarchist definition." Moreover, "our argument is that no matter what the objective factors were or will be, the Bolshevik route always and inevitably leads to the death of the revolution."

I could go on, but I have made my point. Is Jason's summary of Aileen's article reflective of what she actually argued? I can only assume a (irrational?) dislike for "leftist" anarchism made him fail to see the bloody obvious.

Moving on from Jason's somewhat pointless reply, I turn to the "reader response." I had to laugh at my anonymous critic when she/he defended Bob Black's appropriation of Lenin's arguments from "What is to be done?" Apparently Black was merely "emphasising the original contributions of Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin, . . . and that anarchist theory did not simply arise spontaneously from the class struggle." And there I was thinking that Black was attacking the Platform for arguing exactly this when, in fact, he was agreeing with it! Silly me. And what of Black's "post-leftism" embracing a key concept from leftism in one of its most authoritarian forms? Not a word. Perhaps that explains the attempt to put words in Black's typewriter?

But, then again, Black does get off easy from our critic, who fails to mention Black's errors in his article. The best that they can come up with is that Black is addressing the "compulsory" nature of the Platform -- by quoting something not actually in the Platform! I corrected this inaccurate assertion about the Platform and provided the real source as well as an alternative translation. I also corrected the suggestion that the WSM editing their version of the Platform to exclude the quote in question. It appears that casting false assertions on the honesty of your comrades is fair game in "rational" debate and not worthy of comment.

I also find it significant that our anonymous comrade considers it unworthy of mention to ponder the relevance of Black's review in the first place. After all, I know of no anarchist group which applies the Platform as it was written. Black is, therefore, simply repeating criticisms which were relevant in the 1920s (criticisms made at the time, much of which I agree with). It reminds me of when Leninists (real "leftists") talk about Bakunin's secret organisations when arguing against modern anarchism. They fail to note that no-one has actually organised in that way since the 1870s, yet consider it essential that they highlight its limitations! Black's review of the Platform is a simply a similar exercise in ideology passing as theory. Yes, many anarchist groups call themselves Platformist but by that they mean they are inspired by aspects of the Platform while rejecting other parts of it. Just as anarchists are inspired by some aspects of Bakunin's ideas while rejecting other parts. Why concentrate on the parts that are rejected?

Then there is the question of the Platform's call for a "common command" for a revolutionary army. Apparently Black was merely channelling the spirits of long dead anarchists when he talked about the counter-revolutionary "People's Army" and the CNT militias and can take no responsibility for his words. Shame, then, that these "Russian anarchists" could not have used the Spanish example as they were writing ten years before the outbreak of the Spanish revolution. I should also note that the CNT militias also argued for a co-ordination of all fronts, seeing it as essential to defeat Franco. They wanted this co-ordination to come from below, via elected war committees. As practised by the Makhnovists, who were used as an example of what was meant in the Platform incidentally.

Our comrade states that Black's mention of Makhno's drinking and Arshinov's return to the USSR was "insignificant" in terms of his "overall critique." Then why mention them at all then? Why should Makhno's drinking be even considered worthy of note unless you seek to trivialise the ideas you are attempting to refute. Similarly, our comrade (like Black) does not explain how Arshinov's return to Russia signifies more about the Platform than Makhno's and Mett's continued opposition to the regime. As such, it is simply a case of guilt by association and unworthy of rational debate. I do, however, find this ironic, as "post-left" anarchists denounced Bookchin for doing exactly the same thing as regards individualist anarchists and fascism (and, even more ironically, a book review in this Anarchy makes the same point). Apparently individualist anarchists becoming fascists says nothing, but one of the five authors of the Platform returning to Russia is deeply significant!

Moving onto the "dual power" question (an expression I don't particularly like, incidentally, as I thought I had indicated in my letter). Apparently forming such "armed revolutionary organisations" as "soviets, factory committees, and peasant committees" and other organs popular self-management cannot be "viewed as anything other than a proto-State." So when I talk about people managing their own affairs directly, I (in fact) meant "management by elected delegates and specialists, operating within whatever bureaucratic structure was put in place." But where does that leave anarchism? My arguments are simply repeating the ideas of Bakunin, Kropotkin, Goldman, Berkman, Malatesta and a host of other anarchist thinkers. Ideas I think are still relevant. So my "ideological agenda" appears to be simply promoting anarchist ideas.

So where does this rejection of key ideas of revolutionary anarchism led us? Well, apparently no factory committees to organise production. That means any workers' militias fighting to defend the revolution will not get weapons and ammunition. Not that such militias would exist. Organising self-managed militias and federating them into war committees would mean creating a "centralised, regular army" and so that's out too. Far better to have the militia groups not co-ordinating their defence of the revolution! As for soviets, well, obviously Kropotkin (and Malatesta, Goldman, Makhno, et al) were simply wrong to see anything positive in them. Bloody leftists, not knowing what anarchism really stands for!

So I do find his/her dismissal of self-managed struggle and organisation as a "proto-state" incredible. As such, when he/she concludes by stating that they hoped anarchists will "embrace a truly anarchist approach to confronting all forms of power" I really have to wonder what this "truly anarchist approach" is. Reading Murray Bookchin's "Listen, Marxist!" is recommended as "a good start." Having read it numerous times, I have to wonder why it is recommended as it follows my basic argument, not his/hers. As well as arguing for "an organisation of affinity groups" it states that anarchists "seek to persuade the factory committees, assemblies or soviets to make themselves into genuine organs of popular self-management." But all this, we are assured by our anonymous comrade, is a "proto-State" and the "organisationalist agenda" is, in fact, "the most pernicious Leftist influence in the contemporary anarchist movement"!

So, yes, I would wholeheartedly recommend reading "Listen, Marxist!" It shows how much far some "post-left" anarchists are from a "truly anarchist approach" to the problems of revolutionary change.

What is significant is that a "post-left" anarchist should recommend a book which attacked Marxist attitudes prevalent 35 years as being relevant to the current debate within anarchist circles today. Does that mean today's "organisationalist" and "workerist" anarchists simply parrot the ideas of Marxist-Leninists in the 1960s? Of course not. But its seems sad that "post-left" anarchists think they do. And it does point to the ideological nature of much of the "post-leftist" critique of anarchism. Rather than critique what anarchists are doing now, we just subjected to reviews of a 80 year-old document (which is not being even being applied in its pure form) and recommendations to read an excellent ("organisationalist"?) anarchist essay directed to non-anarchists in the 1960s. Hardly convincing.

Ultimately, the replies to my letter just confirm my worse fears about "post-left" anarchism. At its best, it simply repeats basic libertarian ideas and is so redundant. At its worse, it simply allows some comrades to feel smug and insult others while systematically attacking the core ideas of anarchism. Ideas other anarchists still see as valid simply because the "post-left" anarchists suggest nothing to replace them with.

Tell you what. Someone please explain how "post-left" anarchists see a revolution developing without federations of factory committees, neighbourhood assemblies and militia columns as well as all the other popular organisations anarchists like Bakunin and Kropotkin advocated and are dismissed by some as a "proto-state." Does "post-left" anarchism have any concrete suggestions, however vague, on how to solve the problems every revolution has faced? Enlighten me about how a revolution will defend and organise itself without embracing the ideas advocated by these anarchist thinkers? It should make interesting reading to see how "post-leftists" avoid the "false ideas and sloppy thinking" derived from such anarchists as Bakunin, Kropotkin and Malatesta on this and other important issues!

Obviously I have not addressed every issue raised in the two replies. This letter is already long enough (I would not want to be accused of producing another "extensive rant") so I will leave it there. I look forward to the "scathing" replies which will, as seems all too common, ignore the important issues raised while spreading the insults liberally.


Iain McKay

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