Last Thursday, I took part in a debate on Marxism and anarchism with some comrades from the Alliance for Workers' Liberty. As Freedom in the 21st has already written an account of the same debate, and Iain McKay has done an extremely long write-up of a similar debate in London, I figured it was time to get my own thoughts in gear and do a review. So here it is.
The AWL have, to their credit, been more willing than other groups to host directly address the ideas of anarchism. At times when our ideas have gained in prominence, there have always been hack-job articles - a case in point being this latest piece in the Socialist Worker, expertly torn apart by Cautiously Pessimistic. But the Leninist response to anarchism remains largely that of hacking away at straw men. The SWP held a meeting on the subject in Liverpool not too long ago which I found to be comradely and largely honest, but it was only the AWL who actively sought out anarchists to share a platform and debate with.
This wasn't initially the case. In March, the AWL published a truly god-awful piece on anarchism and class struggle in their paper Solidarity, which was annihilated by Cautiously Pessimistic, who also took umbrage with their reply to critics. In order to tackle accusations of dishonesty, they published a response by the North London local of Solfed as part of what they called "an ongoing debate."
Locally, I've had a number of these arguments before, in informal settings. I get on well with the AWL members in Liverpool. As the spiel for the debate says Liverpool Solfed and Merseyside AWL "work together in struggles and campaigns against the cuts, against racism and fascism, sometimes agreeing, sometimes disagreeing, about how to take them forward." So, although the context above is important to understand how the two organisations relate to each other nationally, even without it a debate in Liverpool has been on the cards for some time.
Overall, the debate was comradely, though at times heated. The AWL speaker opened by talking about anarchism broadly, followed by where it and Marxism differed, before finishing on why the Marxist approach was to be preferred. She stressed continually that she wasn't trying to create a caricature of anarchists, but to sketch out the ideas that diverged significantly and explain why they were wrong.
However, despite the intentions, it was a caricature that emerged. Others pointed out the falsehoods in the accounts offered of the Paris Commune and the Spanish Revolution, and not being the expert in debating history I will again leave this to others - most notably Iain McKay's write-up of his talk in London, which adds Russia to the list. However, what I did challenge in my speech was the idea that anarcho-syndicalist methods of organisation didn't actually constitute organisation.
Though the old chestnut that "anarchy = chaos" wasn't actually rolled out, it was hinted at. Having a self-organised society, delegate systems, direct democracy, etc, was all well and good, but "you have to have something to defend it with." This came with the absurd claim that in Spain "the republican government was ready to hand over everything to the anarchists" but they didn't take it and without a state there was no way to defend the revolution. In fact, it was that some members of the CNT did enter government that was the significant mistake, and the anarcho-syndicalist militias such as Durruti's column were a way of defending the revolution without entering or rebuilding statist structures.
There was also an argument that "what we call a worker's state" was simply the organisation of administrative functions to replace the "bourgeois state." But this didn't answer the fact that such a state invariably took on the form as well as the function of the state as we know it today and that the kind of non-hierarchical organisation anarchists advocate represents such administrative functions without bureaucratic or bourgeois form.
I also argued the point about Solfed being a "revolutionary union initiative." This, according to the AWL comrade, was the wrong approach because unions are not revolutionary and because the class struggle needs political organisations alongside economic ones.
However, I made a point of explaining the distinction between trade unionism and anarcho-syndicalism, tracing back to traditional syndicalism. With the acceptance of unions by capitalism, they took on capitalist forms - with a top-down hierarchy, salaried bureaucrats, full-time staff, etc. This provoked a rank-and-file backlash which gave birth to syndicalism. Seeing how union officials served as mediators between labour and capital - the "keepers of industrial peace" - they argued for militant rank-and-file action as opposed to bureaucracy and direct action as opposed to mediation.
Anarcho-syndicalism breaks from traditional syndicalism by applying the same ideas in the community as well as the workplace. Such direct action, in place of lobbying, seeking votes, and all the other electoral activities that many on the left engage in, is the political equivalent to our economic organisation. As the pamphlet What is anarcho-syndicalism (PDF) says, "anarcho-syndicalism unites the political and the economic and opposes representation in favour of self-organisation."
On the point about elections, I specifically argued against the idea that we should engage with voting on the grounds that "many working class people believe that's the way forward." I said that if this was the case, we ought to make the argument for a different way of operating, and to raise people's consciousness about their own power as a class rather than encouraging illusions. The Labour Party is the prime example of where the various pressures of entering the legislature lead a workers' party. If you want to get ahead, then you have to serve the realities of the capitalist system. If not, you face either marginalisation or defeat. History bears this out, and it's no surprise that across the world "socialist" parties are amongst those implementing austerity.
As one comrade from the Anarchist Federation noted, "it's not even a case of 'power corrupts.' Hierarchies and power structures don't allow themselves to be dissolved."
From my standpoint, the comebacks to this were incredibly weak. One comrade noted the situation in Egypt, and that without something to defend the revolution they face either the Muslim Brotherhood taking over or the army smashing them to pieces. But, aside from the above argument that something doesn't have to mean a hierarchical state structure, we already see "leaders" of the uprising collaborating to preserve the capitalist system and stop the revolts going further.
There was no answer to the crimes of Leninism, including the argument that the Russian Revolution died in 1917 when Lenin created the Cheka and started to systematically repress opposition, culminating in the suppression of the Kronstadt rebellion. Instead, "Stalinism" (or, in reference to the Socialist Party, pseudo-Stalinism) was the stock answer for Leninist ideas leading to repression or corruption.
Despite these flaws in the arguments, the broad debate itself was interesting. It was also relevant, because we are talking about the kind of world we wish to create as we resist the injustices of the current system and our methods for getting there.
Anarchists argue that the way we organise to fight struggles today prefigures the organisation of the world we wish to create. That being the case, we cannot simply leave well enough alone until after the revolution in the name of "unity," as some would disingenuously argue. The point is to promote and build class struggle, and we cannot do that without open, honest debate on the shape that struggle takes.