How to argue badly – a lesson in dishonesty from the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty

So, to start off with, a brief round-up of things that have actually happened in the real world that it’s reasonable to care about:
University College London went into occupation last week, and Hackney, Haringey and Camden can all be added to the list of areas that have seen militant demos against council cuts budgets – Haringey in particular deserve recognition for their success in managing to occupy the council chamber, excellent work. Meanwhile, construction workers in Hull have blockaded the entrance to a biofuels plant in a daring piece of wildcat direct action that caused massive disruption to traffic over fears of redundancies.



On a darker note, if you have any spare cash burning a hole in your pocket, I’d strongly recommend making a donation to the New Zealand/Aoteraoa-based anarchist group Beyond Resistance to support their work with victims of the recent earthquake in Christchurch.

So, having got the important stuff out of the way, back to what I do best: writing lengthy, vitriolic replies to shitty articles by irrelevant leftists. Specifically, the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty and their incredibly long, stunningly dishonest article on “working-class struggle and anarchism”.

1. Write shitty article. 2. Enrage anarchists. 3. ???? 4. Socialist revolution.

For the most part, I don’t really object to the ideas they put forward in the article – it mostly consists of a lengthy explanation of why class struggle is important (which is true) and then a criticism of the sort of apolitical syndicalism practised by the French CGT before the First World War (which I agree is not a particularly useful organisational model). Sure, they do express some ideas I have problems with, as when they list “tenants’ and community struggles, anti-racist agitation, anti-war demonstrations, feminist activity, electoral politics” as if electioneering was somehow the same thing as a rent strike, but for the most part the real problem is with what they don’t talk about. The first paragraph sums up why this awful, awful article is so bad: “Anarchism opposes the capitalist state. But by no means all anarchists identify with the working class as the force to defeat the capitalist state and create a new society. Some anarchists do. Those are the anarcho-syndicalists, who on this issue have the same idea as Marxists do, and whose ideas this article will come back to later.“ As someone who’s never actively identified as an anarcho-syndicalist, but does see class struggle as central to my understanding of anarchism, I think you can see why I found it mildly discomforting to be told that I DON’T FUCKING EXIST. But at least I’m not alone: as part of a political tradition that the AWL doesn’t believe exists, or at least doesn’t find important enough to mention in an article about anarchism and class struggle, I join Kropotkin, Malatesta, Goldman, Berkman, the Haymarket Martyrs, the entire Spanish anarchist movement including the CNT, the FAI, the FIJL, the Mujeres Libres and the Friends of Durruti, every new development in the anarcho-syndicalist tradition after WWI, the entire International Workers’ Association, the entire International of Anarchist Federations, the Anarkismo project, the Organisational Platform of the Libertarian Communists and the whole platformist tradition, the Situationists and the events of May 1968, the Solidarity group and pretty much the whole of the contemporary British anarchist movement – not just the obvious examples of the Anarchist Federation and the Solidarity Federation, but also Class War, Liberty & Solidarity, the Commune (not that the Commune identify as an anarchist group, but their politics are a lot more relevant to me than, say, Proudhon’s), Black Flag magazine, Freedom press, and the anarchist movement conference of 2009, which, despite not being anarcho-syndicalist, still managed to have enough of an interest in class to use “Anarchism has been its most effective when it has had its roots in the workers movement. How and why was this? And why has it changed? What do we and other working class people do as we face deepening recession? What does working class mean today?” as a major part of its programme. All this is written out of history to leave us with Proudhon (who I’ve never read, and I can’t remember any other anarchist I’ve known expressing much of an active interest in), Bookchin (again, not someone I’ve ever taken much of an interest in), Bakunin (who I think had some good points and some bad ones), some slanders about Makhno (which is pretty much a pointless argument, and one that’s been covered many times already) and a critique of classical apolitical syndicalism, which again doesn’t really bear any relation to my actual politics.
So, the AWL have been kind enough to give us an excellent example of what a bad “Marxism vs. anarchism” article looks like. The question is, what would a good one be? To be honest, I don’t really think it’s possible to write a good article on this subject, simply because “Marxism” and “anarchism” simply do not exist as two coherent ideas and movements in eternal opposition to each other. I’d take the “Marxism” of Otto Ruhle or Anton Pannekoek over the “anarchism” of a Christian pacifist or a primitivist any day. There are a great number of competing traditions all claiming to represent each idea, and I’ll take responsibility for Proudhon’s or Nechayev’s ideas the day the AWL take responsibility for Stalin. Given that this is the situation, I think the only meaningful debate possible is between two specific traditions, with each side defining the territory they are and aren’t willing to take responsibility for. “Anarchism vs. Marxism” is a meaningless question, but I think “anarcho-syndicalism as interpreted by the modern IWA vs. left communism as interpreted by the ICC”, or “platformism as interpreted by the Anarkismo project vs. the Marx-Engels-Lenin-Trotsky-Shachtman-Matgamna thought of the AWL” is clear enough to have the potential to be meaningful.
I’ve written a frankly excessive amount in reply to this timewasting article already, and so I don’t have the time or energy for a full critique of the AWL, but I’ll give an example to start the ball rolling: as a (revolutionary, class-struggle) anarchist (one who recognises that formal organisation is useful in some situations, and thinks there are useful ideas to be found in the anarcho-syndicalist, platformist, council communist, situationist and insurrectionist traditions, but does not identify exclusively with any of them), I don’t think the AWL is particularly useful as a revolutionary organisation – not just because they’re Marxists, or even because they’re Trotskyists, but specifically because, in addition to writing really shitty dishonest articles, they also have a clear orientation towards the Labour Party, and continue to encourage illusions in the idea that it can be usefully reformed, a project that I think is impossible. (Maybe they also understand that it’s impossible to turn the Labour Party into a socialist organisation, but they think it’s useful to encourage people to believe in it because of some weird Trotskyist transitional demand logic. If that’s the case, then it’s incredibly dishonest and manipulative.) I think that the Labour Party, including its supposed left wing, is a barrier to the growth of revolutionary class consciousness, and so channelling people’s energies into it is the exact opposite of what communists should be doing. Now, if any AWLers can write an honest response explaining why I’m wrong and campaigning for John McDonnell is more useful than trying to convince people of the idea that mass working-class direct action is the only thing that can bring about real change, I’d be genuinely interested to see it.

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About nothingiseverlost

"The impulse to fight against work and management is immediately collective. As we fight against the conditions of our own lives, we see that other people are doing the same. To get anywhere we have to fight side by side. We begin to break down the divisions between us and prejudices, hierarchies, and nationalisms begin to be undermined. As we build trust and solidarity, we grow more daring and combative. More becomes possible. We get more organized, more confident, more disruptive and more powerful."
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5 Responses to How to argue badly – a lesson in dishonesty from the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty

  1. JoeMaguire says:

    “So, the AWL have been kind enough to give us an excellent example of what a bad “Marxism vs. anarchism” article looks like.”

    After you strip away the smears thats a good summary of what your left with.

  2. Ray McHale says:

    On the issue of Labour Party orientation – and speaking not as an AWLer – I believe the campaign by Liverpool City Council in the 1980s showed what can be achieved. i.e. not sowing illusions, but a genuine engagement with the mass of working people, around an electoral programme, and a commitment to implement policies in the interest of working people. OK, so it didn’t all work out (give me an example that did) but it did bring a mass mobilisation behind councillors on the basis of a programme that they put before the electorate. While you huddle in corners talking to ones and twos about overthrowing Capitalism, Militant lead a fight that seriously started down that road. Mass opposition to the system doesn’t just spring up, or develop from everyone getting the right political understanding. That understand develops during action and struggle. You can spend a life-time standing on a corner calling on people to overthrow capitalism, or you can join in the fights that affect them on a day to day basis, and from that build an understanding of the steps they have to take. Yes, Transitional Demands – reasonable demands to solve day to day problems, that lead to an eventual understanding that it is the system that prevents these being achieved, and thus the system must be changed. You can do this in the Trade Unions as well, but as you haven’t yet convinced these that they can change society directly – rather than through the current political system – this again leads back to the Labour Party and what it can or can’t deliver. The TUs still direct there members towards the Labour Party making changes in Government. This may well be exposed as not delivering, but the trade unions are not currently pursuing such an approach. Does that mean we cease to orientate towards the Trade Unions? I don’t thing so. We orientate towards these as our traditional organisations – using them to fight either directly for change, or to fight within the LP for change. Again, within that fight workers develop a consciousness that allows them to look beyond the present system and perhaps their present organisations. You think you can just get to that point directly. I am not convinced and don’t see examples to support your contention. (Interstingly the Poll Tax fight, built outside these traditional organisations quickly faded, with few political gains for the left once it was successful.) So, for now I continue to orientate my Marxists, Trotskyist ideas towards the Labour Party – placing demands on Labour Councillors not to implement the cuts and for the trade unions to strike against the cuts, as the basis for organising a broader working class fight back – as a basis for developing understanding of why the system has to be changed.

    • I agree with you that, obviously, there’s no real example of anyone successfully defeating capitalism in the long term that we can point to as being the definitive way to do it, but I think it’s instructive to look at the defeat of Militant. They might have managed to build a mass movement behind them locally, but they couldn’t do it on a national scale, and they weren’t just defeated by Thatcher, they were also defeated by the lack of solidarity they received from the rest of the Party nationally, and particularly from the leadership, who expelled them. So, if the most powerful left-wing grouping in Labour was defeated by the leadership then, when the Labour left had far more of a base than they do today, what rational reason is there to think that any attempt to replicate their strategy today wouldn’t end up in the same kind of defeat?
      “While you huddle in corners talking to ones and twos about overthrowing Capitalism, Militant lead a fight that seriously started down that road.” This is a strawman. The main focus of my activity at the moment isn’t on talking to anyone about overthrowing capitalism, it’s on trying to build my local anti-cuts campaigns – both externally in terms of convincing more people to get involved, and arguing inside the campaign against domination by any one political faction, and against passive liberal tactics in favour of ideas like strike action and occupations – i.e., the sort of thing that actually starts to lead us down the road of overthrowing capitalism. You can call this a transitional demand if you want, but I think there’s a major difference between building confidence in working-class people’s ability to act for themselves and building faith in councillors or electoral politics.
      “Mass opposition to the system doesn’t just spring up, or develop from everyone getting the right political understanding. That understand develops during action and struggle.” I more or less agree with this, but just to play devil’s advocate for a moment here, how do you explain the militant student movement that sprang up at the end of 2010, or the recent events in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Madison? In the first case, there were certainly organisations involved, but I don’t think you can put what happened down to the NUS, which condemned the movement’s militancy, or NCAFC – ironically, I do think this is an example of an area where the AWL have actually done some really good work, but that’s another question for another day. Fundamentally, I don’t think that what happened was down to NCAFC patiently educating people and building up branches, the student movement took off because the calls put out by a fairly minor organisation happened to tap into a mood of mass opposition that already existed. I don’t think that any of the Middle Eastern countries I mentioned have anything similar to a Labour Party or any organised socialist groups big enough to play a major role in the events (maybe the left in Egypt’s a bit better organised, but I still don’t think they’re a major factor in what’s been happening). Again, in Wisconsin the unions are obviously a major factor, but what’s been happening certainly doesn’t fit the image you portray of a mass movement patiently built up by revolutionaries using transitional demands – again, the unions were able to organise mass protest because of a mood for action that existed independently of them, and certainly wasn’t a product of socialist organising.
      “You can spend a life-time standing on a corner calling on people to overthrow capitalism, or you can join in the fights that affect them on a day to day basis, and from that build an understanding of the steps they have to take.” Mmhmm. The latter is exactly what I argue for. It’s exactly why I find the work of groups like the Seattle Solidarity Network so inspiring, because that’s what they’re doing. But, as I see the potential for change, both in the short and the long term, as coming from working-class direct action, that’s the kind of understanding I want to build. I don’t think that telling people to vote Labour is very useful either for solving their day-to-day problems or for overthrowing capitalism, and so I see no reason to tell them to do that.
      “Yes, Transitional Demands – reasonable demands to solve day to day problems, that lead to an eventual understanding that it is the system that prevents these being achieved, and thus the system must be changed.” Reasonable demands to solve day to day problems? Great, I fully support those. That’s exactly what groups like the Seattle Solidarity Network, or groups like Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty closer to home, are doing. I am definitely down with that. It’s the “that lead to an eventual understanding that it is the system that prevents these being achieved” that I have a massive problem with. Asking for reasonable demands that are actually reasonable, and you think have a chance of winning, makes perfect sense – by taking collective action to achieve them, we can make the people around us more aware of their own strength, and so contribute to the slow but vital process of building class consciousness, brilliant. Asking for demands that you know you cannot achieve is called lying, and I think it’s fundamentally dishonest, disrespectful and manipulative to tell people to make them if you know they’re going to fail. Either you’re in the position of saying “I think this reform is impossible under capitalism, but you should ask for it anyway, because the experience of not getting it will be good for you”, in which case you look like a nutter and there’s no reason for anyone to take you seriously, or you lie through your teeth and say “I think it is definitely possible to win this reform, we have every chance of getting it, it’s definitely a good idea to pour all our hopes and energies into trying to get it”, in which case you’ll look like a numpty when the campaign fails, and instead of gravitating to your leadership, the only lesson that “the masses” are likely to take away is that socialists are a bunch of idiots who make impossible promises and then fail to live up to them. I don’t think that helps build class consciousness in any meaningful way.
      As for the unions, that’s a whole different question. And, of course, only relevant to public sector workers – for the vast section of the working class made up of claimants, pensioners, and people employed in non-union industries like call centres, temp agencies and the service sector, the unions aren’t even an option, so the need to come up with an alternative strategy is even more urgent. But, for those of us who work in the areas where the unions do still exist, I don’t see how that changes the fact that revolutionaries should be arguing for solutions based around the ability of the working class itself to transform the world, and against reliance on politicians to do things for us.
      Interestingly, the Poll Tax fight, built outside these traditional organisations, was successful, and how many other major national struggles from the last 30 years can you say that about? You can continue to orientate towards the Labour Party, putting impossible demands on councillors and then inevitably looking like an impractical dreamer when your demands aren’t met. I’ll continue to orientate towards the working class as a whole, including the vast majority who aren’t members of Labour, putting forward suggestions about how we can actively resist, as a basis for developing confidence in ourselves and an understanding of how the system can be changed. As a wise man once said, “10,000 or 100,000 proletarians armed to the teeth are nothing if they place their trust in anything beside their own power to change the world.”

  3. Anarcho says:

    “All this is written out of history to leave us with Proudhon (who I’ve never read, and I can’t remember any other anarchist I’ve known expressing much of an active interest in)”

    As a revolutionary class struggle communist-anarchist, I’m very interested in Proudhon. A great many of our ideas come from him but, of course, he was a reformist who was against strikes and unions. Hence marxists talking about him even though no subsequent anarchist agreed with him on that issue!

    It should also be noted, to be fair, that Proudhon did not question that the workers would free themselves by their own efforts — just not by strikes. His followered in the IWMA did support strikes and, of course, Bakunin put strikes and unions at the heart of his politics. But, of course, Marxists don’t have a clue about his (syndicalistic) ideas…

    anyways, read the introduction to my new Proudhon Anthology “Property is Theft!” on why I think Proudhon is of interest:

    Introduction: General Idea of the Revolution in the 21st Century
    http://anarchism.pageabode.com/pjproudhon/introduction-contents

    • Fair enough (although, outside of cyberspace, I don’t think I’ve actually “met” you in real life, so my point still sort of stands.) But, even coming from your standpoint, I’m sure you can appreciate the frustration of the way that Kropotkin, Rocker, Malatesta and all the rest just seem to vanish into thin air.

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