From Red & Black Notes by Matt Crossin
This is the third in a series of articles by Matt Crossin, ‘Critical Notes on Developments in the Anarchist Movement’. New articles in the series will be published in coming weeks.
Organisation, Class Struggle, and Riots
The ‘classical’ period of anarchism, which can be defined as lasting from the foundation of the St. Imier ‘anarchist’ International in 1872 to the end of the Second World War in 1945, had two significant currents. ‘Mass’ or ‘Social’ anarchism, represented by anarcho-syndicalism (the formation of anarchist union federations) and dual organisationalism (the formation of specific anarchist organisations intervening in mass struggles), was overwhelmingly dominant, and traces its lineage through the St. Imier Congress, to the libertarian wing of the First International, and other federalist precursors within the workers’ movement. Opposed to this was the minority current of ‘insurrectionary’ anarchism, which saw the developing workers’ movement as reformist (and reforms themselves of dubious worth), opposed formal organisations as inconsistent with anarchism, and limited itself to tactics intended to provoke widespread insurrection: armed attacks against the State and property, assassination of politicans and bosses, etc.
Insurrectionary anarchism found new life with the decline of the international workers’ movement in the late 1970s. Radical forms of rank-and-file power were repressed. Unions managed by professionalised bureaucracies, committed to the stability of the capitalist system (including their cushy position within it), and generally subservient to the interests of affiliated political parties, accepted the integration of organised labour within highly regulated, legalistic channels of dispute management, which criminalised effective direct action and restricted workers’ control over the struggle.
Rather than recognize the turn from law-defying militancy to legalistic impotence as an outcome requiring a renewed commitment to the long and patient work of workplace agitation, some revolutionaries chose to accept the more convenient narrative that this historic tragedy had been inevitabile. Our position as ‘workers’ – individuals forged by capitalist development into a class, but capable of becoming a class that acts for itself – was supposedly ‘no longer relevant’ to emancipation.
Insurrectionists claim that the struggle over production ultimately led to bureaucratisation and an accommodation with class society. From their perspective, there is, therefore, no point in attempting to collectively identify as an oppressed class of ‘workers’, or organise mass organisations of struggle on that basis. Indeed, insurrectionary anarchists oppose all forms of formal organisation and are often sceptical of the idea of ‘organisation’ itself. They argue that specific projects require nothing more than informal ‘affinity groups’: close comrades working together to achieve concrete goals, without any ongoing structure or political programme.