A few comments on Allan Armstrong’s use of ‘anarchism’

Allan Armstrong’s article on the development of the International Socialist Group (ISG) is thought-provoking and most helpful in understanding the recent development of left politics in Scotland and, in particular, the prospects of the Radical Independence Conference.

He rightly criticizes the Trotskyist groups’ farcical spectacle of forming fronts, their paper membership drives, wishy-washy social democratic politics and secretive, top-down decision-making.  For us, this is part and parcel of their ideology: vanguardism, pure and simple.

You would think that he would then draw on the arguments made by anarchists, who have, after all, been critiquing vanguard and party socialism since it began.  In fact, Allan mentions anarchism a number of times but only to obfuscate and rubbish what it stands for.  It’s as though going so far in arguing against mainstream socialism he has to distance himself from those of us who go ‘too far’.

Allan suggests that anarchists are ‘the most consistent advocates of ‘Anti-capitalism’’ which he argues is a flexible, vague term much like ‘radical’. Undoubtedly, anarchists have become a major part of the global ‘anti-capitalist’ movement which unites a number of disparate groups and tendencies against the common enemy of capitalism – which itself is often defined in different ways. This is summed up in Paul Kingsnorth’s phrase ‘one no, many yeses’.

I would argue that the rise of anarchism in this global movement has led to a greater influence of our core ideas: direct democracy, direct action and class solidarity.  However, the anarchist label is also seen to be used in this movement, but especially on the Internet in general, in very different, sometimes contradictory ways.  This is great for those who want to denounce our politics; all you have to do is point to any of the numerous dire examples. Allan does this by suggesting that our ‘thinking overlaps with some pro-capitalist ideas’ – helpfully illustrated by the Libertarian party logo.

In reality the main organized anarchist groups in Scotland, the Anarchist Federation (AFed) and Solidarity Federation (Solfed), are both communist groups.  AFed is a political group which stands for anarchist communism and Solfed is a revolutionary union initiative which aims for ‘libertarian communism’.  We have absolutely nothing in common with right-wing libertarians.  This could be only be argued if one thought, as Allan seems to do, that we ‘base [our] politics around opposition to secondary aspects of capitalism’ such as the state in this case.  In fact, we see the state as an intrinsic part of capitalism and oppose both as communists.

For us, communism means not just a society of freedom and equality but the movement which seeks to bring that society about and which must at the same time live up to these ideals.  It must then be organized on directly democratic grounds.  This leads us to Allan’s other point.  He suggests that:

the Left could be described as anarcho-bureaucratic. Despite the linking of ‘anarcho’ and ‘bureaucratic’, this phrase is not an oxymoron. The ‘anarcho’ side draws upon Bakunin’s model of having a secret inner organisation directing wider organisations. The ‘bureaucratic’ side, which is usually pursued by Parties or wannabe Parties, draws upon the model of those front organisations run by the old official Communist Parties.

In terms of describing Bakunin’s method as one of a small secret organization, I could spend a lot of time arguing that although Bakunin was not perfect his involvement in secret organizations was shared by many other socialists such as Marx and, nonetheless, his main vision was genuinely concerned with direct democracy.  What’s really important, though, is what anarchists such as AFed and Solfed do in practice today, and both our groups are founded on direct participation, recallable delegates and federalism.  Not secretive cliques or, indeed, representation.  We also aren’t Bakuninists but choose the best of his ideas and ditch the rest – like we do with Marx.

In short, what’s really being described in the quote above is just typical vanguard organization.  I’m not interested in writing a sectarian rant against Allan or the Republican Communist Network.  We would be happy to have a comradely debate about the differences in our politics, in our interpretation of communist organization but in the first place this should be based on an honest description of each other’s politics.  Allan’s article does not do this, which is a shame because there is so much we agree on.  An example of this is his excellent assessment of the independence referendum:

As the ongoing economic and political crisis deepens, the SNP government, and SNP controlled or influenced local councils, will become responsible for more and more attacks upon the working class. This is one reason why the SNP government is determined to gut the democratic demand for Scottish self-determination of as much of its meaningful political and economic content as possible before 2014. Self-determination has to be confined to what is acceptable to its big business backers, whilst simultaneously being acceptable to the US and British ruling classes.

As anarchists we believe we should organize for change now and are committed to the economic, social and cultural resistance in Scotland that Allan speaks of – although we would differ over the campaigns we’re involved in and in our respective strategies. In one case Allan acknowledges that anarchists have been actively involved in the Anti-fascist Alliance (AFA) and have shown to co-operate with other socialists in confronting fascism directly whilst opposing those in the UAF/SWP who have physically tried to prevent this.  Let’s have more of this sort of co-operation and less strawman arguments against anarchists.

Mike Sabot – AFed Scotland, personal capacity


2 thoughts on “A few comments on Allan Armstrong’s use of ‘anarchism’

  1. Hi Mike,

    Thanks for taking the time to reply.

    I have found that some of the most useful thinking to help communists get over the legacy of the past, has come at the intersection of various dissident Communists (including autonomists) and Anarchists. I worked alongside Anarchists in the Anti-Poll Tax Federation. There was early promise in the formation of ‘the commune’. Anarchists were invited to the Global Commune day school the RCN initiated entitled ‘Trade Unions Are They Fit for Purpose’.

    I have also found a number of Anarchist writers most worthwhile. I cite Murray Bookchin, but could also have mentioned Rudolf Rocker.

    My friend and comrade Brian Higgins (possibly the most blacklisted building worker in the UK) has commented favourably on the SolFed in London, I have not knowingly had direct contact with the Sol-Fed.

    I wasn’t suggesting that Anarchist Left Libertarians were allied to the Libertarian Right, just as I know that many orthodox and dissident Marxists do oppose Social Democrats and official Communists. However, I think there is weakness amongst many Anarchists, when they define themselves as anti-state, just as I believe there is a weakness amongst many orthodox and dissident Marxists when they define themselves as anti-market. In ‘the commune’ there were Anarchists who wanted to define its principles as opposition to the state, but didn’t consider putting opposition to wage slavery as a principle.

    Anarchism, like Marxism, has left behind a very varied legacy. I have certainly come across Anarcho-syndicalists who treat their particular union in much the same way as orthodox Communists or Trotskyists treat their particular party. Groups like the Black Bloc are every bit as vanguardist as any Marxist-Leninist. However, when I see and work with Anarchists who are prepared to openly and critically examine their own legacy, then I welcome this in the same way I welcome discussion, debate and joint action with Marxists who are critical of the official, orthodox and a good deal of the dissident legacy too.

    You will see that I probably differ most strongly with Anarchists when I argue that it is necessary for communists to work within and against, whilst looking beyond the state – the same attitude I have toward waged work.

    That shouldn’t stop us working together though in the many campaigns that do arise.

    Yours in struggle,

    Allan Armstrong

    • Hi Allan,
      Cheers for getting back to me. A few points: I think you really only address our real differences towards the end – ‘I probably differ most strongly with Anarchists when I argue that it is necessary for communists to work within and against, whilst looking beyond the state’.

      Before this you mention the Black Bloc (which I’d say is forming anonymous, black-clad groups on demonstrations with the aim of destroying property, and escalating tensions with the police) which isn’t a tactic I or anyone I know advocates! Not because I have a moral problem with property destruction but because in general it’s useless and often counterproductive. The Black Bloc to me alienates the very people we want to work with and propagates the convenient idea that the anarchist strain of communism, libertarian communism is disorganized violence and nothing more.

      You give a couple of examples of anarchists who stress being anti-state over other principles and who fetishized their union. I believe you but I don’t think it’s a great way of arguing against anarchism per se which should do neither, in my opinion.

      By suggesting that we have anything in common with the Libertarian Right I think you avoid really addressing what we mean by being against the state. It damns us by association rather than honestly critiquing our position. If, as you say, you only brought it up as a comparison to highlight the ‘weakness’ or anti-statism this seems like a contradiction to me. Aren’t all communists meant to be anti-state, as you yourself suggest? Of course, how we can work against and look beyond the state while aiming to be part of it I have never understood.

      For us organizing in unions as waged workers is completely unlike trying to organize as parties for state power. By fighting towards assembly structures and unions ‘as associations’ rather than unions ‘as representatives’ – i.e. rejecting top-down union bureaucracy and politicizing wage struggles – we can wield class power as workers. However, since it is, by definition, a hierarchical class structure, there is no way the working class as a whole can hold state power. Whoever tries to do so we think can only end up trying to represent the working class and managing capital ‘on their behalf’.

      Of course, we can work together without agreeing on this!
      Have a great Hogmanay,

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