So, the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty have published a reply to critics of their last shitty article about anarchism, although they politely avoid responding to any of the points I made about how the entire debate is framed in terms that make it meaningless. Before I allow myself to be dragged any deeper into this mess, I’d just like to stress that I realise this sort of thing is very boring to a lot of people, but I think there are two good reasons for engaging with it: one is that, to steal a snappy phrase, “Many people find a critique of Bolshevism boring. Unfortunately even one’s uninteresting enemies can be powerful”, and the other is just to ward off dogmatism: vast numbers of people have embraced utterly insane ideologies, from Maoism to religious fundamentalism, without realising that they were doing anything irrational. I think my ideas make sense and have a sound basis in reality, but the only way to be really confident about that is to actively – and honestly – engage with criticism of your views. Still, you’re under no obligation to read it – filling in a crossword puzzle can be an interesting mental exercise, but just reading a completed crossword would be pretty dull, and I can’t guarantee that this piece will be any more interesting.
So, onto the article itself. Last time, the article was more objectionable for its silences than for what it actually argued; this time, the worst problem still isn’t with the ideas it contains, but with the way that they published people’s real names without consulting them. If you’re wondering how they got people’s names in the first place, it’s simple: they make you sign up to the website before you can reply to comments, and make it compulsory to give your real name as part of the signing-up process, along with a guarantee that they won’t publish it:
Luckily for me, I thought that looked weird, so I only entered a single letter into the form, but I can’t blame anyone who thought that “The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly” meant “The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.” To help them out, here’s a more honest version of the form that the AWL might want to consider using in future:
In his defence, the author of the article says that he didn’t know anyone who commented on the article was “operating in secret”, which seems a little odd. When you ask someone to submit their preferred username, and they give it, I don’t think it takes that much of a massive intellectual effort to work out that that’s probably the name they prefer to use. Martin Thomas publishes his articles under the name Martin Thomas, but he has never specifically said that he wants to be referred to as “Martin Thomas” and not “an untrustworthy Leninist sack of shit who writes terrible articles”, so, by his standards, it’s hard to say which name he’d prefer me to use.
The article starts off by quoting an interview with an AF activist from 2007. Now, it’s not entirely Martin Thomas’ fault that he looked to this piece, since the AF’s website actively directs people towards it, but a lot of the contents are pretty irrelevant by now – it’s from a time when Blair was still prime minister, Bush was still president, and Climate Camp was seen as being among the most pressing threats to the state. He then tries to stress the similarity between the AWL’s politics and class-struggle anarchism, such as our shared refusal of “an orientation to the “left” bureaucracies in the labour movement”, which I agree sounds good, although I can’t help thinking that articles like “Labour Party leadership election: back John McDonnell!”, “Why we support John McDonnell and not Diane Abbott”, “Back John McDonnell for Labour leader” and “General Election: help John McDonnell!” sort of make it sound like they may actually have a wee bit of a soft spot for certain specific left bureaucrats. Not naming any names, of course.
Thomas also claims that “on international issues, our perspective has more in common with the focus on international working-class solidarity of most class-struggle anarchists than it does with the “Trotskyists” who orient to Hamas or Hezbollah or the Muslim Brotherhood on grounds of supposed “anti-imperialism””, a stirring claim which would be even more inspiring if they didn’t also support various other murderous nationalist factions, like the Kosova Liberation Army, in the name of anti-imperialism (relevant bit is quite a long way down, you might want to just search the page for “KLA”). Thomas then reiterates his criticism of classical syndicalism, again without acknowledging the differences between the “One Big Union” form of syndicalism, which does indeed seek to “include as nearly as possible the whole workforce” in the union, and contemporary anarcho-syndicalism, which explicitly acknowledges that “the role of anarcho-syndicalist networks and unions is not to try and recruit every worker”. This difference makes his criticism of syndicalism as it existed in 1914 completely irrelevant to a discussion of anarcho-syndicalism in 2011, but clearly comrade Thomas is too thrifty to throw away a good argument just because it no longer fits the facts.
He makes the valid point that anarchists often criticise Trotskyists because of what the Bolsheviks did, and then get offended by their criticism of various historical anarchists – I agree that focusing on Kronstadt isn’t the most useful way to make our case, which is why I’ve tried to limit myself to just discussing the stupid ideas, like support for the KLA and lefty Labour politicians, which the AWL itself still promotes today. And, once again, he pretends that criticising Proudhon and Bakunin, while ignoring virtually every other major anarchist thinker and organisation, is the same thing as talking about “the whole history of [the anarchist] tradition”. Then he goes back to criticising Proudhon some more, which is still pretty irrelevant as far as I’m concerned, and once again explains to us that working-class struggle and organisation is important, which still isn’t news to any organised class-struggle anarchist.
He then goes on to show off his marvellous ability to understand and articulate what anarchists think better than they do, explaining to us that “when young people call themselves “anarchist”, often all they mean is that they are left-wing but not yet sufficiently convinced to commit themselves to regular activity, instead preferring to join “actions” from time to time, or to gear their activity into a friendship group rather than a spelled-out strategy”. Of course, Thomas can’t be bothered backing his patronising claims up with any actual evidence: from attempting to deny the very real differences between class struggle anarchist politics and the AWL’s bureaucratic, nationalist ideas, he suddenly reverts to pretending that anarchists are just young people who aren’t committed enough to be proper socialists yet, and certainly don’t have any coherent ideas of our own.
Finally – at long last – he then moves on to attempting to consider some actual contemporary class-struggle anarchist activity, rather than just relying on criticisms of outdated 19th century philosophers and vague smears against uncommitted young people. Sadly, and this isn’t entirely his fault, he then goes on to assert that he was right all along to lump all class-struggle anarchists in with his not-very-good critique of syndicalism, on the grounds that “the bit of AF activity specifically focused on long-term working-class organisation (as distinct from more generic “the-people-against-power” stuff) is work in the IWW, a syndicalist organisation” – this may have been true in 2007, but it certainly isn’t the case today. A quick skim-read of the AF’s workplace strategy, this discussion document on the problem with unions, and their critical analysis of syndicalism should serve to demonstrate that his criticism of CGT-style syndicalism is pretty irrelevant to the AF’s politics. He then, utterly bafflingly, asks “But how does working-class struggle fit into AF strategy? And when the AF extolls working-class struggle, is that a roundabout way of extolling “direct action” in general, or a focus on the class character of struggle? That is less clear.” This is the point where I really started to feel sorry for the poor man – when you find it difficult to work out whether an organisation whose defining statement of principles starts “1. The Anarchist Federation is an organisation of revolutionary class struggle anarchists. We aim for the abolition of all hierarchy, and work for the creation of a world-wide classless society: anarchist communism. 2. Capitalism is based on the exploitation of the working class by the ruling class…” is genuinely interested in class issues or not, dealing with anything that’s actually difficult to understand must be pretty much impossible.
He then considers anarchists’ opposition to representative politics, claiming not to understand the difference between hierarchical representative structures like Parliament, the unions and Leninist parties and the sort of mandated, accountable and instantly re-callable delegate systems that anarchists argue for – anyone who hasn’t encountered the distinction before should see here for one description of the difference. Having carefully established, through the medium of just making shit up and hoping no-one calls him on it, that when the AF talks about class struggle, it’s not really talking about class struggle, he makes the revealing assertion that “Marxists see struggle as “class” in character partly to the extent that it goes beyond the… “self-organised”. For vanguardists like Comrade Thomas, a struggle organised by the workers themselves can never be as valuable as a struggle controlled by the revolutionary party.
He then proceeds to waffle on about anarcho-syndicalism a bit more, still without really saying anything that’s actually relevant to the practice of modern-day anarcho-syndicalists, and then criticises the AF for having a whole page in one of their pamphlets which talks about the Spanish revolution but only briefly refers to the CNT/FAI leadership’s participation in government as a “mistake”. Because, of course, it’d be impossible to find a single page of any AWL document that talks about Lenin or the Bolsheviks without discussing the things they did wrong in depth. The statement that there is “No discussion of why the “mistake” was made and what should be learned from it” is unarguable, as long as you ignore Fascism/Anti-Fascism, the text they’ve republished which does exactly that. And their discussion of exactly that issue in their critique of syndicalism. I’m sure there’s more, but those were the first two examples that sprang to mind. Still, when it comes to Spain, I think the revolution was disarmed less by anarcho-syndicalist ideology than by the ideology of anti-fascism and left unity, and I don’t think the AWL can teach anarchists much about the critique of either of those things. And, frankly, any organisation that spends that much time trying to drum up enthusiasm for Labour politicians and then tries to lecture anarchists on the importance of not co-operating with bourgeois power structures can fuck right off.
I would attempt to conclude this piece by responding to his conclusion, but it’s hard to find any real summary of ideas there. It pretty much just goes “anarchists don’t criticise each other much; anarchists get all upset when Leninists write incredibly shitty articles that claim to criticise their politics, but in fact bear very little resemblance to anarchist ideas whatsoever; therefore, anarchism can never adequately form a “memory of the working class”. It’s hard to refute a statement when you can’t see any logic behind it in the first place.
So, I’m always interested to hear and engage with actual criticisms of my ideas. I’ve now read two massive articles by the AWL, over eight and a half thousand words in total, claiming to criticise anarchism, hoping to find something that might challenge my understanding of the world or provoke me to think about things in a new way, but so far I’ve found nothing new. Either I’m a terribly blinkered dogmatist, clinging desperately to my fossilised ideology, or I’ve just wasted my time reading two very long, very bad articles.