The legacy of anarchist successes?

A commenter at AnarchistNews.Org posting as “SirEinzige” offers these observations concerning yours truly and my previous reply to a commentor on the same thread:

What Preston doesn’t seem to realize is that classical anarchist failures were to an inherent degree rooted in their organizational successes which played a role in things like the new deal. At most his focus should be tertiary with no strange bedfellows and seperate means and ends. In that regard secession could have a place in anarchist tactics but to to the point of becoming part of the machine of organization, positions and solutions.

Also, Stirner is not on the ideology scale and certainly nowhere near ancaps.

There’s a lot of substance in this short statement that is worth addressing. The first point involves an assessment of the relative successes and failures of the anarchist wing of the historic labor movement.

“classical anarchist failures were to an inherent degree rooted in their organizational successes which played a role in things like the new deal.”

This comment is actually reminiscent of something I wrote 15 years ago lamenting the drift of much of anarchism into implicit social democratic reformism.

“The reality of course is that anarchism was one of the most successful mass movements ever. Yes, the state has yet to be abolished. No nation to date has adopted the black flag as its own. Yes, the international bourgeoisie retain their power. Class rule is with us now as much as ever. However, when we look at the state of things in the industrialized world a century ago we see that history has indeed moved in our direction.

Anarchists were at the forefront of the movement for the eight-hour workday. The Haymarket martyrs gave their lives for this cause. At one point it was illegal to organize labor unions. Striking workers were regularly gunned down by government agents and private thugs. It was a federal crime in the United States to distribute information about contraception. Orphaned children were confined to slave-like conditions and used for medical experimentation along with the mentally handicapped, juvenile delinquents, homosexuals and others. Prison conditions often rivaled those of Nazi concentration camps. The death penalty was regularly imposed for burglary and grand larceny. People of African descent were regularly murdered and terrorized by gangs of racists while authorities looked the other way.

Anarchists were among the earliest and most militant opponents of all of these conditions. The eight-hour day, the right to organize unions, read sexually explicit literature, practice contraception and obtain abortions and engage in antiwar protests, prison reform and countless other rights and privileges that we take for granted today did not exist at the time of the classical anarchist movement. Roger Baldwin was inspired to found the American Civil Liberties Union after hearing a speech by the anarchist and pioneer womens’ rights advocate Emma Goldman. Anarchists were among the earliest opponents of the mistreatment of homosexuals as well. In many ways, things have advanced considerably over the past century.”

In other words, while the classical anarchist movement failed miserably to actual carry out revolutions against states and ruling classes, many of the issues and ideals championed by the movement were eventually realized to at least a partial degree.

SirEinzige appears to be arguing that the actual successes of anarchist labor organizing efforts proved to be their undoing at the end of the day, because the labor movement that the anarchists helped to organize subsequently grew to the point where A) it actually achieved comprehensive labor reforms that ironically undermined the general militancy of the labor movement and B) allowed for the cooptation of the labor movement under the New Deal compact. It could be argued a similar narrative unfolded in other industrialized nations as well during the same era.

But this observation folds into the New Left recognition that the industrial proletariat in Western capitalist countries had ceased to be a revolutionary or even oppositional force due to rising living standards, technological innovation, the growth of consumer culture, the integration of the industrial working class into the middle class, the integration of labor and social democratic parties into the state, the institutionalization of labor unions, a range of political, legal, and economic reforms, etc.

In fact, by the 1960s workers in advanced industrialized nations had largely become a conservative force. Hence, the “workerist” orientation that continues to be championed by our classical syndicalist and libertarian communist friends became obsolete.

I was a “workerist”  myself during my early years as an anarchist (1980s), and even held offices in classical syndicalist organizations like Workers Solidarity Alliance and the Industrial Workers of the World. My rationale for this position was pretty shallow as it amounted to little more than “because that’s how they did it in the classical anarchist movement.” But I was zealous for this perspective and worked as a strike support volunteer for a number of major strikes that were going on at the time.

Now, obviously new challenges have arisen for the working class due to the rise of neo-liberalism and globalization since the 1970s, and I still regard aspects of classical syndicalism and anarcho-communism to be relevant to contemporary economics. The syndicalist model of industrial organization advocated by economists such as Diego Abad de Santillan (see Mondragon for a partial example) or the anarcho-communist communes advocated by Kropotkin would continue to seem to be just as legitimate as any other kind of economic arrangements. Prototypes for these exist in the form of things like intentional communities, eco-villages, the kibbutzim, etc. I even think classical syndicalism as a tactical approach might continue to be relevant to societies that are in earlier stages of economic development (i..e the periphery).

But the real challenge when it comes to labor organization in a society like the United States concerns how to go about doing so in an economy heavily dominated by part-time service industry workers in transient jobs and highly skilled technical workers, where outsourcing is an ongoing reality, where intra-class stratification among the working class is increasingly prevalent, and where nearly 90 percent of the workforce is non-unionized.

At most his focus should be tertiary with no strange bedfellows and seperate (sic)means and ends. In that regard secession could have a place in anarchist tactics but to to the point of becoming part of the machine of organization, positions and solutions.

The question of “strange bedfellows” and “separate means and ends”raises issues of what the ranking of strategic priorities should necessarily be. My general observation has been that the bulk of the anarchist milieu in the Western countries, particularly in the United States, along with the “general left” as well, is principally oriented towards the advancement of cultural politics, identity politics, and issues of a social or cultural nature, rather that issues pertaining to imperialism, international relations, geopolitics, and the state itself, with even class issues playing second fiddle to cultural politics.

I have argued for a reversal of this ranking of priorities in almost an exact order whereby opposition to the Empire, American imperialism, and imperialism generally would be the primary focus (this is particularly important for those of us who are residents or citizens of the United States, the world’s leading imperialist regime). The secondary focus would be opposition to the state (again, a particularly important focus given the growth of the surveillance state, the police state, and the prison-industrial complex). The tertiary focus would be on economic questions as these impact the greatest number of people in the wider society, irrespective of identity issues. The quaternary focus would be on preferred sets of economic arrangements, lifestyle preferences, favored identity groups, and favored social issues. At present, the majority of the anarchist milieu appears to be primarily oriented towards the quaternary category to the detriment of the first three categories. HOWEVER, this does not mean that there should not be secondary organizations that are specifically oriented towards “preferred sets of economic arrangements, lifestyle preferences, favored identity groups, and favored social issues.” In fact, I think such organizations would be among the foundations for the development of alternative infrastructure on the fourth generation warfare model (see Hezbollah). I do think that the anarchist milieu frequently exhibits certain excesses and imbalances in these areas as well, but that’s a separate argument.

Regarding the issue of “strange bedfellows,” different sets of bedfellows are appropriate in different circumstances, and I have noticed that many if not most anarchists have a deeply ingrained habit of thinking in ideological rather than tactical terms. For example, many anarchists appear to be looking to gain ideological converts or persuading people to embrace a certain social, cultural, moral or ethical vision in an almost quasi-religious sense (e.g.,”Whitey must repent of the sin of racism and come to accept the egalitarian gospel.”) This would seem to be an impractical approach. Rather, the ambition should be less focus on ideological and moral conversion and more on building coalitions around practical goals.

For example, if fast food or superstore workers go out on a general strike, obviously such an effort has to be inclusive of all workers in such industries regardless of not only their identity affiliations but also their wider cultural or political affiliations. It would not be appropriate to expect all participants in such an action to hold to a particular position on animal rights or gay marriage, for example.

Opposition to U.S. imperialism must by nature include, well, all opponents of U.S. imperialism, regardless of their views on other issues. For example, some of the best critiques of and efforts against U.S. imperialism originate from paleoconservative and libertarian-oriented Right.

The same is true of efforts against the state. As Larry Gambone put it: “This must be a single issue movement, uniting everyone with a grievance against the state into a movement for the decentralization of power. It must not be allowed to be bogged down by secondary and therefore divisive issues, these can be dealt with by other groups.” Secession is merely a means towards this particular end.

As for the question of “organization, positions and solutions,” we at American Revolutionary Vanguard and Attack the System have produced a wide range of material on these questions, as a cursory examination of our website will indicate. Of course, others may disagree with many of our views, and that’s fine, but we can hardly be accused of offering no ideas on such questions.

Lastly, on the issue of how to interpret Max Stirner, I agree his ideas transcend ordinary political ideologies, and that Stirner’s individualism is far more radical than that of the anarcho-capitalists (as even Rothbard admitted). But that’s my point. Stirner’s ideas represent an almost metaphysical characterization of human freedom in all of its paradoxes, and his complete negation of all institutions and ideologies places him at the top of the anarchist heap, IMO.


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3 replies »

  1. No Keith, anarchism means lawlessness and the sex pistols; drugs, punk rock, dyed-green mohawks and riots too… just being a troll

    With the military industrial complex out of control (and increasingly being exposed), with more people being made aware of the massive corruption occurring in all social and economic realms, and the disappearance of the middle class, now seems like a better time than any, in recent history, for achieving a reversal of the ranking of the four anarchist priorities you desire. With workers getting the shaft today, it may be a very good opportunity to reach out (with actual success) to many of them, just like the anarchist of old did. They say intellectuals often lead revolutions, and who better to reach out to than college graduates, with a $60,000 growing debt, working not in their professional field, but as a waiter or for minimum wage at some corporate chain. Sure those individuals may have received a good PC brainwashing while obtaining their worthless degrees, but I think due to their economic struggles, and the fact that they do have above-average intelligence, they may be receptive to an Emma Goldman-esque speech.
    I think times may be ripe for a revival of anarchism. With the ceaseless, wasteful wars that close to nobody wants, an unending economic recession, a Fox News-ization across virtually the entire media spectrum (now even PBS)… I think people would be receptive to anarchist ideas and solutions, because anarchist ideas and solutions are genuine and empowering. The worse things get, the more conditions deteriorate, the more open, I think, the public will be to anarchy. The trouble is how to reach them in great enough numbers to make a difference.

    • These fucking idiots are too lazy to walk a block instead of drive, can’t save money, don’t think ahead about the obvious – who gives a fuck if they revolt? Fucking chimp out all they want, it’s going to be for stupid reasons and end up serving some other subhuman cult ideology.

  2. “I have argued for a reversal of this ranking of priorities in almost an exact order whereby opposition to the Empire, American imperialism, and imperialism generally would be the primary focus…”

    As a pessimistic nihilist with libertarian tendencies, I tend to view the Imperialist question as one of immediate practice, since it is here that most of the theft and armed thuggery has its genesis and core rationalization; if it were ever acknowledged that no one is going to attack the United States and no one has in over two centuries it would do a great deal to undermine the prestige of the Stasi; much more than Republicunt tax mongers and pot-smoking white Rastafarians’ pet projects would. I do not think that the 18th century free traders were simply being moralistic when they unstintingly despised imperialism and militarism, as Vicessimus Knox argued the combination of militarism and the exultation of luxury is the chief weapon despotism uses to curb disobedience and expand its power. Even if we are simply looking at disruption of trade and budgetary excess it is almost impossible to find anything more absolutely insane than the American Millstone. When adding to the legal hazards involved in rationalizing routine mass murdering bureaucrats it is hard to see how even the most boring libertarian or free trader could find more to bitch about than the Empire.

    I think the problem is the Universalism of American culture; as much as I am inclined to snub people for ideological and occupational reasons I can at least recognize that in doing so I am deliberately choosing not to participate in ‘movementism’; my hermeticism is conscious, whereas the hopelessly fragmentary ideological left are simply repeating their Protestant forebearer’s mistake: fighting one another to the point of exhaustion and self-destruction, while telling themselves it’s all for ‘teh cause’.

    On the other hand, I think one issue, similar to that posed by the masses, is that many of these people do have ideologies so irrational and subjectivist that they can not possible sustain a coalition or even a meaningful objective for themselves. Almost everything I have read on Anarchist websites is meaningless gibberish that, just like theology, means nothing to anyone who hasn’t already swallowed your Kool-Aid, and can not even be formulated in a logical enough way to implement if one had all the support in the world. Rational political movements fail because politics and movementism is not rational, goal-oriented behaviour; people who are rational and motivated will not be attracted to it and those who start out with clear goals will lose them in what is essentially a hopeless gesturing to empty-headed cattle. There will never be ‘good’ political movement, because anything capable of being that popular either is or will shortly be infested with nonsense and human trash.

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