Is anarchism more radical than Leninism?

While I’m picking on easy targets, the Socialist Workers’ Party have published another “critique” of anarchism. It’s pretty much a repetition of the standard Leninist myths, but I thought I’d take a moment to reply to their distortions anyway.
Aside from the title – there are a lot of socialists I respect and have a lot of time for, it’s the pro-state ideology of Leninism that I object to – the first serious problem in Pat Stack’s article is the description of anarchism as aiming to bring about “a society with no state and no rules.” Anarchism has never meant “no rules”, and as for bringing about a society with no state, to me that sounds suspiciously like Engels’ desire to create a society where “the political authority of the State dies out.” If the idea of a stateless society is an unrealistic utopia, it’s an unrealistic utopia that all genuine Marxists are also committed to.
Stack then meanders through a discussion of capitalism and class consciousness before pronouncing that “the key to changing the world is the ability of the class conscious minority to win over the vast majority to act in their own interests. This is what we mean by leadership. This is not an important person giving orders or making grand pronouncements, but the most advanced sections of the class winning the majority.” This sounds fairly harmless, but it’s also entirely at odds with the way the SWP actually operates, where a few “important people” (the Central Committee) do give orders and make grand pronouncements. Their cosying up to lefty celebrities like George Galloway and Tommy Sheridan is just one of the most visible symptoms of this condition.
He argues that this abstract idea of “leadership” should not be seen as elitist, because “it is much more elitist for a self-appointed group of activists to carry out actions regardless of whether they are taking wider forces with them.” Exactly, very true, which is why the SWP sending a self-appointed group of activists to wreck the talks between striking BA workers and their employers was so embarrassing.
He pronounces that “Revolutionary Marxist parties are not like mainstream political parties.
They are not concerned about winning elections, dining with the Murdochs to win over the media or watering down their politics to gain popularity.” This is odd, coming from a party who are so keen to win elections, and whose “About Us” states that “Long manifestos don’t win such struggles — practical unity does. We fight alongside anybody or any organisation that wants to build the movement.” To me, this sounds a lot like the tendency to “travel at the pace of the most cautious, limiting our ability to carry the struggle forward”, which Stack identifies as a harmful effect of consensus decision-making. Beyond this, the SWP’s “about us” statement is itself a watering-down of their politics as part of the search for popularity, since it contains much less revolutionary content than “where we stand”, their older statement of principles. And that’s before I even mention their dodgy history on gay rights.
Apparently Marxist parties are also “not made up of passive members dictated to by important leaders.” Again, how this squares with the reality of a party where some leaders have been on the central committee for decades is anybody’s guess. “Democracy in a revolutionary party means the coming together of members to understand the world and debate a strategy” – but not, for instance, replacing a hierarchical leadership structure with instantly-re-callable delegates mandated to fulfill very specific tasks. This “democracy” then produces “centralism—unity in action” which “is essential against a highly centralised and powerful class enemy.” Leaving aside the question of how much help centralism actually is in practice (for example, compare the number of anarchist groups who regularly produce local propaganda touching on issues relevant to their area, versus the tendency of Leninist groups to just wheel out clunky one-size-fits-all material produced in London with nothing to say about local conditions), it’s still the case that real unity in action needs to come out of genuinely free and open debate over the way forward, instead of just involving the masses carrying out orders handed down from the centre. That model might work for an army or a corporation, but it’s totally useless for escaping the social relationships created by capitalism and class society.
Stack then claims that “For anarchists, the question of organisation remains a largely unanswered one.” And there is some truth to that – there is no final answer to the question of organisation, it’s necessary to constantly update our ideas and methods of organising to keep up with changes in society, rather than just dogmatically trying to repeat things that worked a century ago. It becomes crashingly obvious that this isn’t what he means when he follows that statement up with “Historically, organisation is either rejected outright or attempts to build it have floundered because of its loose and confused nature, or conversely because of the building of conspiratorial and elitist formations.” So, historically, the Industrial Workers of the World, the Spanish CNT, the Maknovschina, the entire International Workers’ Association, the International of Anarchist Federations, the Anarkismo project, even the very ideas of anarcho-syndicalism and platformism – these things just don’t exist in Stack’s narrative. I understand that reality can be tricky, but we all need to deal with it sometimes.
He then goes through another ramble about capitalism, before announcing that “At the same time we have to ensure that we take the widest possible forces with us in our actions.
Small elitist groups carrying out acts that make no sense to the majority who support their cause are likely to leave those supporters confused and demobilised.
If such elitist actions have a demobilising effect, then they do the class struggle real damage.”
To which I can only bring up, once again, the SWP’s invasion of the BA/Unite talks in May 2010 – how much more elitist could an action be? It’s also worth asking how this logic applies to the student occupations at the end of last year, which were definitely carried out by minorities, or the workers at Visteon, Vestas and Thomas Cook who occupied their workplaces in 2009 – should they have waited until the majority of the working class were willing to get involved in occupations before taking action?
Then he concludes by talking about Proudhon and property, which is still as irrelevant as it was the last time that particular dead horse got flogged, and blandly states that “post-revolutionary workers’ states… would be necessary to defend the revolution against its capitalist enemies” without giving a shred of evidence for his assertion. Ultimately, the simplistic slogans of the SWP fail to provide a coherent strategy for how to get rid of class society and the state that it requires.

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 Is anarchism more radical than Leninism?

  1. MODERN1ST says:

    great post. the SWP are utterly worthless opportunists, wreckers and parasites. fuck them.

  2. Contrite SWP member says:

    Well ok, it’s a pretty crappy article (not the first crappy article in the paper about this subject in the recent past…) and it’s a shame in the light of the ISJ exchanges between Blackledge, Birchall and Van Der Walt in which everyone expresses a desire to get past “caricatured non-debate”.

    Worth noting that accusations can get a bit caricatured on the other side as well. Ian Birchall notes in a recent ISJ interview that “The question of the Leninist party is a bit problematic because, maybe not everyone understands it this way, but one of the fundamental lessons I’ve always taken from Cliff’s Lenin is that there is no such thing as “the Leninist party”. Lenin had six or seven different concepts of the party according to the situation he was in.” Draper always went on about that as well (though he’s not entirely innocent of caricaturing anarchists either!): .

    Also worth noting that Lenin himself didn’t think that the State and socialism were compatible (State and Revolution’s pretty clear on that). As far as I can see, he basically saw a “Workers’ State” as a necessary and temporary arrangement to fend off counter-revolution. Leninists would also see the Workers’ State as looking something like the Paris Commune, or rule by Soviet, rather than a horrible dictatorship. Obviously it all went to shit fairly rapidly, though one strength of the SWP is that it never denied that fact or had any truck with Trotskyist groups who thought the USSR was in any sense a “Workers’ State”. I suppose the blame would be placed more on external factors (Civil War, an already ravaged economy after WW1, the failure of the Revolution to spread etc etc), though it also has to be admitted that the Bolsheviks made some big errors within that context.

    It’s been a rambling wall of text already, but I’d just like to come back on the BA dispute stuff. Yes, that was utterly stupid, adventurist, tactically unfathomable etc etc, and I don’t think you’d find many Party members who would disagree with that given the sheer amount of anguished/angry/embarrassed facepalming that went on in the wake of it. I don’t think it was quite as premeditated as it was presented to be (I was there, even featured for a few seconds on Sky news going into the building under the headline “IDIOT PROTESTORS STORM UNION NEGOTIATIONS”…). Basically there was a fairly sizeable Right to Work conference that day near the ACAS building, at the end of which it was noted that Willie Walsh was nearby and there was a strong uptake for the idea of an impromptu protest outside the building. Once there, someone opened the door and about half of us just sort of rushed in. After that, of course, things took a turn for the even stupider but I don’t think people were wanting to disrupt the meeting (I was dense enough to not even know why Walsh was there).

    Even if there had been a grand plan to stop the meeting (and how, in any case could we have known it was that easy to get in?) it should be noted that we didn’t stop anything. The negotiations were all finished, we caught Walsh coming out of a toilet as we standing aimlessly in the hall. There was 5 minutes or so of chanting, 2 minutes of being bollicked senseless by Tony Woodley (who then had his excuse to flounce off pretending that, but for 50-100 confused Trotskyists he would have secured the deal of the century…) and then we left a bit sheepishly. Also, it wasn’t exclusively SWP (though the majority were), I even knew a few anarchists who went up…

    In any case, whatever you think of it, there couldn’t be a much better illustration of the party’s position that elite, self-appointed groups of activists can be a real hinderance to the movement!

    (Again, sorry about the length, who said cuts were intrinsically a bad idea…)

  3. Contrite SWP member says:

    Also, MODERN1ST, “parasites”? Really..?

  4. Cheers for the considered reply, as you say it’s good to try and move away from caricatured non-debate. I fully acknowledge that anarchists can be guilty of caricaturing Leninists as well – part of the reason I used a different title was that I wanted to get away from the inflexible “anarchism vs marxism framework”, and towards a view that can deal with the fact that some marxists have said very useful things, some marxists have said very stupid things, and both those things are also true of anarchists.
    Don’t think we’re likely to agree about the possibility of a workers’ state any time soon, but that is a bit of an abstract concept – you’re not going to be administrating a revolutionary state any time soon, I’m equally unlikely to be involved in any uprisings against said hypothetical workers’ state for the foreseeable future, so concentrating on questions related to concrete, practical activity seems more relevant than debating abstract theoretical possibilities or things that happened before either of us were born.
    We’re clearly pretty much in agreement about the BA thing – if I was looking to pointscore, I’d note that that was also an illustration of how democratic centralism doesn’t save you from doing counter-productive things, but I accept that there’s nothing in Lenin, Trotsky or Cliff where it says “thou shalt rush in as outsiders and disrupt other workers’ negotiations with their bosses”, so I can accept that as an accident, not an essential product of the way you organise, any more than all anarchists should be blamed for the tiny minority that wanted to do a black bloc on June 30th. I do still there’s a place for militant minorities acting autonomously on some occasions – most UK Uncut actions and student occupations could be described as the work of relatively small, self-appointed groups, but I don’t think that makes them a bad thing. There’s not really a neat conclusion to reach here – we can all agree that the ideal is mass militant action, but where that’s not possible, sometimes it’s a good idea for minorities to act independently, sometimes it isn’t, it all depends on specific circumstances that you can’t generalise about too widely.

  5. Anarcho says:

    In terms of Draper’s The Myth of Lenin’s “Concept of The Party” here is a reply:

    H.5.4 Did Lenin abandon vanguardism?

    and I’ve linked to my 10 year old arguments in this article in reply to his “Anarchy in the UK?” ones:

    The SWP versus Anarchism

    An Anarchist FAQ

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