Sunday, April 30, 2017

Marxism, Psychiatry, and Capitalism




Marxism, Psychiatry, and Capitalism

This is the transcript of a recent email interview I did with Dr. Bruce M. Z. Cohen, senior lecturer at the University of Auckland and author of Psychiatric Hegemony: A Marxist Theory of Mental Illness (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), where we discuss capitalism, psychiatry, and view psychiatry under a Marxist lens.

1. What made you want to apply a specifically Marxist view to psychiatry and psychology?​ Are you personally a Marxist and how did you come to be one?

That’s a good question. I didn’t expect to ever be writing such a book, but thanks to my students I realised that someone had to take responsibility for filling a current gap in the literature. I run a postgraduate course on the Sociology of Mental Health, in which my students complete project essays on topics of their own choosing. As it is a sociology course, they are obviously required to apply different theoretical approaches to their chosen issue. I always encourage the students to consider the wide range of theoretical approaches available to them including structural functionalism, labeling, social constructionism, Foucauldian, critical feminist and race theory, as well as Marxist scholarship. Regarding the later, my students complained that they couldn’t find anything much out there. As a lecturer, I am always a little skeptical of such claims, but –hats off to my students!– they were correct on this occasion. With all the literature on mental health and illness currently in circulation, I found it astounding that there was no standard Marxist account available. Hence, the main reason for writing Psychiatric Hegemony: A Marxist Theory of Mental Illness.

To answer the second part of your question, yes I am a Marxist! Though I grew up in a very conservative –large as well as small ‘c’– part of England in the 1980s, my parents were members of the CPGB (Communist Party of Great Britain). (In fact, my mother became the first communist parish councilor in the area, kicking out a Tory in the process). So I was politically conscious and politically active from a young age thanks to my family, imbued with a strong sense of social justice, and particularly incensed by Thatcher’s attacks on the trade unions and the working classes at the time (which most people in my area thought was just fantastic!). But I think being a sociologist has really made me a fully committed Marxist; whichever area you are studying or working in, be it religion, education, health, crime, the family, or whatever, it doesn’t take long to uncover evidence that the needs of capital determine the priorities of these institutions– they reproduce inequalities, oppress the majority of the population, and produce surplus value for a privileged minority. Is this a kind of society that, in good conscience, I or any sociologist can accept or support? Of course not! That’s why I’m a Marxist. Human beings can do better.   

2. Discuss the connection between psychiatry, psychology, education, and capitalism and how the former institutions have been influenced by the latter, historically speaking.

Following my point above, the mental health system (I use this as an umbrella term here to bring together psychiatry, psychology, and the various support professions and agencies working in the area of mental health including therapists, counselors, psychiatric nurses, and social workers) and the education system in their contemporary forms are both products of industrial capitalism. Briefly, compulsory schooling developed across western societies in the nineteenth century due to the needs of capital for higher skilled workers as well as to socially control working class youth (through, for example, socializing them into the norms and values of capitalism as the only “correct” way to think and understand the world). As I discuss in my book, the mental health system develops during the same period as another institution of social control: the asylums separate the able from the non-able bodied, it pathologises and confines problematic populations (primarily working class groups).

In neoliberal society, I argue that the connections between the mental health system and the education system (as well as many other areas of public and private life) have become much stronger and more explicit. For example, my socio-historical case study of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in the book demonstrates that the origins of the diagnosis began with psychologists’ concern for deviant working class youth who failed to “adapt” to the demands of compulsory schooling. A hundred years later, we can still see in the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) that the symptoms of ADHD have nothing to do with having a mental illness but rather denote the requirements for more productive and efficient students and workers (for instance, forgetting or losing homework, failing to complete assigned tasks, poor time-management, and so on). As the demands on young people to stay on at school and go further in education have increased, so we have seen an increase in mental health experts in this area, and thus the increasing medicalization of “at risk” (I would argue, non-conforming) children. The expansion in the use of diagnoses such as autism and “oppositional defiant disorder” by psychiatry can also be theorized as serving a similar purpose here.

3. In what way does capitalism utilize psychiatry and psychology to demonize and ridicule those who have politics that don't fit with the status quo? (This has been talked about somewhat before and I would be interested in hearing you expand upon it.)

I devote a chapter to this issue in my book, but to be honest I think a whole monograph is required on the subject. It’s a fascinating (and, as you do the research, shocking) issue. I can follow many other scholars by reiterating that the mental health system is highly effective in neutralizing threats through pathologising political and social dissent. I think it’s more effective than say the criminal justice system because the courts are usually questioning the legality of the person’s actions alone, rather than the rationality or sanity on those actions. Imprisonment of a protester, for instance, does not fundamentally undermine his or her actions or beliefs in the same way as being labeled as mentally sick does.

There are many examples of this process in operation. In the late nineteenth century, the suffragette movement was a frequent target for the “hysteria” label. During the civil rights movement in the US, there was a significant increase in the labeling of young Black men with “schizophrenia” (psychiatrists sometimes referred to this as “the protest psychosis”). Similarly, young African-Caribbean protesters in the deprived inner cities of 1980s Britain were theorized by psychiatrists as prone to “cannabis psychosis.” As I mention in the book, I think an increasingly popular diagnosis which the mental health system is utilizing to pathologize those involved in civil disobedience or political violence today is antisocial personality disorder (APD): post-9/11, you can see that psychiatry is taking a much greater interest in medicalising any behavior which breaks the legal or moral status quo within capitalist society, particularly acts which involve perceived or actual violence.

4. How is psychiatry not an actual science in some ways? May people assume it is just by virtue of its utilization of ‘experts’ and ‘quantitative studies’?
This is really at the heart of the matter. To be considered as a valid branch of medicine, psychiatry has to reach the medical “gold standard,” which is to observe and identify real pathology on the body. And, though they’re tried repeatedly to do this, so far psychiatry has failed in this fundamental goal. Most recently, for example, the American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) DSM committee (which was responsible for producing the DSM-5) came to the following conclusion: the causation of mental disease remains unknown (for example, there is no useful biological marker or genetic test that has been identified) and psychiatrists still cannot distinguish between mentally healthy and mentally sick people. And of course without accurate identification of disease, a medical discipline cannot claim proof of causation or evidence of successful treatment, and they certainly cannot predict future cases of that disease.

So, to answer your question, no psychiatry is not a valid medical science. However, I argue in the book that progressing knowledge on madness (if such a thing is even possible) was not the reason for the establishment of the psychiatric profession or the continuation and expansion of the mental health system today. Rather, it’s a discipline that has supported capitalism, both in the pursuit of surplus value as well as being an institution of ideological control, responsible for reinforcing the norms and values of this society and punishing deviations from them.

5. In what ways does this massive increase in the labeling of people having psychological disorders affect us on a personal, familial, and community level? How does this increase the alienation from ourselves and our larger communities that has been going on for some time now?

The biggest issue is that it individualizes what are fundamentally social and political issues in this society. This obviously suits capitalism, it follows a neoliberal ideology that you need to work on yourself and look nowhere else for solutions to your problems. As I argue in the book, this is why the psychiatric discourse has been allowed to become all-encompassing (effectively “hegemonic”) over the last few decades; it has become highly useful in de-politicizing the oppressive reality of our lives. The involvement of the mental health system here is only one factor in the bigger issue though, which is of course the way the neoliberal project has attempted to destroy the social and the collective.

6. What are the negative aspects of self-diagnosing and how does that reinforce the status quo?

As with Marx’s famous comments on religion as the opium of the people, I think we can understand self-labeling and people desiring to have such a label as a way of coping with the alienating tendencies of capitalism. It’s no solution to the fundamental issues they have, but it can be a means of survival and maybe a limited form of “emancipation” at times. For example, the parents of a child who is underperforming in school may desire a mental illness diagnosis so that they can claim extra funding for study assistance, or someone who doesn’t enjoy socializing in large groups may seek a psychiatric diagnosis so that they can legitimately take antidepressants which dull their inhibitions.

There are a number of significant problems with self-labeling: most obviously, you cannot solve the social and political problems of capitalism with a mental illness label or by being subjected to talk therapy, drugs, or electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). It can obviously be dangerous to your health (for example, long-term users of antidepressants tend to die at a considerably younger age than non-users), and it can be stigmatizing. Further, it falsely legitimates the mental health system as a valid medical enterprise.

7. How do you see the working class overcoming this system?

Ultimately it’s a case of abolishing the mental health system and all its supporting apparatus. As with the criminal justice system, this is not an institution that has ever functioned in the interests of the working classes. At the end of my book I suggest a few practical things that can be done immediately to challenge and weaken the power of the mental health experts, these include: campaigning to remove psychiatry’s compulsory powers to confine and drug people against their will, withdrawing their prescription rights, and outlawing ECT.  I also think it is crucial to form closer alliances between academics, left wing activists, community groups, and progressive psychiatric survivor organizations to build a strong abolitionist alliance against the psychiatric system.

8. Tell us about your upcoming book and where you and others argue that “the best form of treatment for mental disorder is no treatment at all, and the causation of mental illness itself has yet to be established.” It would be great to hear about those last two parts in-depth.

Well, I’ve hopefully addressed those two specific issues previously in this interview – what passes for “treatment” at the hands of the mental health system is, ironically, very bad for your physical and emotional health. Perhaps that is unsurprising given that mental disorders are fabrications produced by psychiatry without real evidence for their existence.

The Routledge International Handbook of Critical Mental Health (due out later this year) is an edited collection of original contributions from colleagues in the US, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, which systematically problematizes the practices, priorities, and knowledge base of the western system of mental health. Basically, I have constructed a comprehensive resource manual which offers a variety of ways in which to theorize the business of mental health as a social, economic, political, and cultural project. So, for instance, the book provides updates on critical theories of mental health such as labeling, social constructionism, antipsychiatry, Foucauldian, Marxist, critical feminist, race and queer theory, critical realism, critical cultural theory, and mad studies. But it also demonstrates the application of such theoretical ideas and scholarship to key topics such as medicalization and pharmaceuticalisation, the DSM, global psychiatry, critical histories of mental health, and talk therapy. I’m very pleased at how it has turned out.

9. Is there a way to bring back a form of alternative psychiatry or psychology at all?

Some scholars are positive about the development of a post-revolutionary “Marxist psychology” or similar. I don’t think that’s possible, and I worry about giving these professions any sort of way out. My analysis points to these professions as agents of social control; they have always been responsible for policing the population not for emancipating them. So my answer to that question is an emphatic “no!"


Bruce M.Z. Cohen is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. His other books include Mental Health User Narratives: New Perspectives on Illness and Recovery (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008) and Being Cultural (Pearson, 2012).

Monday, April 17, 2017

Anarchism, Paganism, and Resistance




Anarchism, Paganism, and Resistance


By Brenan Daniels


Below is a recent interview I had with Rhyd, the editor of the website Gods & Radicals, where we discuss the origins of the organization, paganism, and religion in anarchism.



1. What led to the creation and found of Gods and Radicals? How did the entire group get together?
Gods & Radicals was started by myself and my friend Alley Valkyrie two years ago. We're both anarchists, the self-educated 'street-variety' as it were, living much of our lives working with homeless and other mostly-invisible victims of capitalism. And we also talked to other mostly-invisible things, like trees and dead people and land spirits and gods. So we were the self-educated street-variety of Pagans, too.
For us, our anti-capitalism and our Paganism seem to flow into each other seamlessly. Our desire to protect the natural world and our desire to protect the vulnerable were both rooted in the same soil. And we knew lots of other Pagans who were also anarchists, and lots of other anarchists who were also Pagans, but noticed that few were ever talking about what seemed pretty self-evident to all us. Because of the overwhelming response we got after a presentation together at a Pagan conference in California, we realized there was massive desire to talk more about this. So we started the site, named it after the presentation we gave, and put out a call for writers, and we got flooded pretty quickly with offers to help. It was pretty amazing.
2. Tell us about the journal A Beautiful Resistance. What led to its founding and what is the goal of the journal?
Gods & Radicals is both a website and a non-profit publisher, and A Beautiful Resistance is one of our publications. The idea behind the name is pretty simple: we tend to forget what we're resisting for in the midst of all thing things we're resisting against. Resistance can be ugly, exhausting, full of sorrow and misery and pain. It can also be beautiful, and should be, because we're not just struggling against capitalism, against patriarchy, against racism, and against authority. Instead, we're resisting for something, for ideas and for people and for ways of being that are beautiful.
Also, we wanted to challenge an unchallenged idea in both anarchist and Pagan publishing: we wanted to pay all our writers, to re-establish writing and art as labor that must be compensated.  With A Beautiful Resistance and our other publications, we split all the revenue after costs 50% with all the contributors, with the other half going back into the organization to start new publishing projects. We've been pretty successful so far on this.
3. How did you personally come to paganism and what exactly is paganism as it doesn't seem to be well understood in the general culture?
I can't and won't define Paganism for everyone, but I'll happily tell you how I define it for myself.
Paganism is the moment I lose my words at the sight of wildflowers breaking through sidewalk cracks in the poor areas of a city; the resurgence of the wild into the disciplined misery of the oppressed. It's the body that doesn't fit into the machine, the dream of buried rivers and streams under pavement. It's the tears I shed and the rage I feel when I see a river poisoned by an oil spill or see a mountain blown to bits to get at the coal underneath.
For me, it's all about relation to not just the human-world but the other-than-human world. The mountain that gets blown apart so industrialized capitalism can grind on, the river that gets poisoned so people can have cars—I'm in relationship with them. Just like when a trans friend is harassed or a Muslim neighbor is terrorized, I cannot stand by and accept that violence, because we are related, we relate to each other, and our existence is all bound up together.
I've always been like this, I think, but I didn't always identify the way I relate with the world as “Pagan.” Animism and witchcraft also describe it just as well. The words matter less to me than the worlds of meaning they attempt to describe.
4. Many anarchists reject any religion, especially organized religion. How do you square your anarchist political beliefs with your paganism?
I've always wanted to answer this question. More often than not, the question I am asked is how I square my pagan beliefs with generally atheistic anarchist political theory.
First off, I—and Gods & Radicals—strongly rejects clericalism. Anyone who sets themselves up as a mediator between humans and the world is trying to control people. In fact, most of our political systems derive from earlier religious-authority forms, evolving from priestly-control of society to king- or politician-control with the advent of monotheism. What both secular Liberal Democracy and theocratic empires have in common is authority: that others (priests, kings, politicians, bosses) can and do have the authority to define the world for you. We reject that in all its forms.
Traditionally, atheist anarchism and Marxism make the mistake of defining non-European, non-white, and indigenous spiritualities as 'superstitious' or even primitive. Post-colonialists like Dipesh Chakrabarty have helped unravel that as European exceptionalism, the continued notion that mostly-white leftists are somehow more superior in their atheist views because they've progressed past religion. They're enlightened, the rest of the world is not, and all that.
So I see the insistence that leftists must always be atheists to be little more than that same European exceptionalism that led to colonial suppression of indigenous beliefs in the Americas and Africa. Re-embracing our own spiritual existences—and our ability to create new ways of being outside Capital and the state—is a key to our own liberation and also ongoing anti-colonialist efforts around the world. Otherwise, we're no different from the French in Haiti who tried to suppress indigenous African beliefs so the Blacks would make better slaves, or the Spanish and English who tried to wipe out First Nation's beliefs to 'civilize' them.
To use an anarchist term, we're expropriating our meaning back, or in Marxist terms, we're seizing the means of the “production” of meaning.
5. In what way does Gods and Radicals create and change the narrative surrounding paganism, as a religious belief, and anarchism as a political belief?  What are the unique/new ideas or ways of thinking that G&R brings to the table?
Our primary influence has thus far been within Paganism, and it's also where we get the majority of our critics. There are racist elements in American Paganism particularly that don't like us. Also, our anti-clerical stance has made us a few enemies with the plastic-shaman, media-hungry elements that see us as a threat to their greed. And we've helped expose a few charlatans and leaders sympathetic to fascism and the alt-right. So, lots of enemies, but even more friends: we get emails weekly from people who thought they were maybe the only Pagan anarchists around. I like those emails a lot.


I think the way we change the anarchist narrative is precisely in what I mentioned earlier: we are undermining the European exceptionalism that crept into anarchism, and reminding people we can all create our own meaning.


One thinks of the way anti-Enclosure resistance movements in England and Wales adopted Pagan language and mysticism in their resistance: the Luddites, for instance, claimed to be led by a ghostly 'captain' who lived under a hill in a forest. That's a land spirit. Likewise, the Whiteboys in Ireland gave eviction notices to landlords in the name of an ancient land-goddess, and the Rebeccas claimed to have gotten their costumes from an ancient crone in the mountains. The narrative of those resistance movements is remarkably similar to the spiritual stories of indigenous and slave resistance in the Americas. Likewise, the ritual to Erzuli Dantor at Bois Cayman which sparked the Haitian Revolution, or the women's resistance to factory owners in Cambodia through possession by land spirits call the Neak Ta—resistance to oppression has very often been spiritual as well as physical.


By telling those stories, and by telling our own, we open up more space for these kinds of resistances, and also challenge the insistence that European-secular atheism is the natural, final evolution of humanity.


Such a view also helps us navigate away from the appropriative nature of Western spirituality. The capitalist creation of whiteness stripped people of their relationship to land and culture. “Hurt people hurt people,” as they say, and that whiteness manifests now in a voracious theft of the culture and spiritual expressions of others. Dismantling that whiteness and healing the damage that was done (and that it does) will require creating new relationships to land and culture in which everyone engages in their own meaning-making.  


Also, we're trying to provide a bulwark against the alt/new/fascist right. They gain power significantly by playing to that lost sense of meaning; they've been able to make so much headway on this precisely because many leftists demean spiritual expression. We're trying to fix that.


6. How can people support G&R and are there orgs/groups that G&R is allied with?


A few ways. First, we are always excited to meet new writers and artists. We pay for writing on our site now, and welcome as many diverse voices as want to write with us. Secondly, we are a non-profit and accept donations to help us pay our writers. Buying our books helps a lot as well—that's how we pay our print writers. And sharing our stuff, of course, is always really helpful, especially now that most social media sites throttle views in order to get their users to buy advertising.


Other groups that we work with but aren't affiliated with directly, groups that might be of great interest to others, are Heathens United Against Racism and Appalachian Pagan Ministry, both of which are doing a lot of work to fight fascist organizing within Heathenry. And we have great relationships with quite a few Pagan communities elsewhere in the world fighting these same struggles, particularly against fascists.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Chasm



The Chasm: State Socialists and Anarchists
By Brenan Daniels


Below is an interview I had with both Tom Wetzel and two members of the Facebook page Anarchist Memes discussing the history between state socialists and anarchists, with the above individuals representing an anarchistic view of the situation. Part 2 will discuss the same idea from the view of state socialists.


  1. It is well known that there was a split between Marxists and anarchists at the First International. However, how were relations between Marxists and anarchists before the split and how did this split affect relations generally speaking?


JA: Despite the first international or the Hague conference a decade later or even Krondstadt, the attack on Makhno’s forces or the ‘37 may-fighting in Spain...I think the overall tone and relationship between anarchists and Marxists has been one of comradery and socialist kinship.


That said, I think that anarchists are well aware of the fact that Marxism is not homogeneous - not least because anarchists (in my observation) tend to have been Marxists first before adopting anarchism. The tendency is not to hold all of Marxism responsible for the opinions and actions of “tankies”.  We are aware that the POUM fought with the CNT in the aforementioned may-days, we are aware of the Pannekoeks’, Luxemburgs and Lukacs’s within Marxism and hold these people and Marxists like them in high-esteem.


OM: I would generally say, that as soon as these two tendency formed from early Socialism, there were elements of both hostility and cooperation. The problem is that, historically, there has been a tendency by some Marxist currents (Leninism and its Maoist/Stalinist derivatives) to prefer a reactionary victory over the victory of a competing leftist tendency in any given conflict. With other tendencies of Marxism though, like Left or Council Communism, the relationship was much more harmonious and cooperative, as mentioned by [JA]. Today, both of these histories seem to inform Marxist-Anarchist relationships in varying measure, while I see the current resurgence of ultra-authoritarian Marxist tendencies seen among young activists today as a problem.


Wetzel: The label anarchism wasn’t really used by the libertarian socialists in the International Workingmen’s Association. Bakunin referred to his politics as “revolutionary socialism.”  The main disagreement was over Marx’s advocacy of building labor political parties “to win the battle of democracy” (as he put it) through gaining government power. This was the beginning of the party-based strategy that has always been central to Marxism.
The libertarian socialists put the emphasis on building mass union organizations, and their potentially revolutionary role. Thus, the libertarian socialists in the first international were in many ways precursors of the type of revolutionary strategy that was called syndicalism in the early 20th century. Marx’s statement “The emancipation of the working class is the work of the workers themselves” was strongly endorsed by the syndicalist militants of the 20th century. Libertarian socialists have been influenced as well by Marx’s analysis of how capitalism works.


  1. In the US, it is known that anarchists and state socialists supported labor in their fight against capital, but how close was the relationship between the two groups at this time?


JA: The relationship between anarchists and Marxists in the United States has been overwhelming close, intertwined, and copacetic. Marxists and anarchists in the late 19th century and early 20th century shared common-causes and worked closely with one another - often co-mingling in abstractly socialist organizations like the knights of labor or the IWW (which is still welcoming to both anarchists and Marxists alike) and/or coming out to protest/agitate/strike etc. in defense of workers, marginalized, or imprisoned and/or executed Marxist/anarchist comrades.


OM: Not being from the US, I can add little to the situation there. In Germany, many radical leftists ID only as vaguely “radical left” without identifying fully with either Marxism or Anarchism, though.


Wetzel: In the period from early 1900s to World War 1, the growing revolutionary syndicalist movement of that era was influenced by both Marxist and anarchist ideas. There were a number of cases where Marxist and anarchist groups cooperated in building highly democratic worker organizations. In the IWW in the USA Marxists associated with the left wing of the Socialist Party cooperated with anarcho-syndicalists like Jack Walsh and Carlo Tresca. The important factory council movement in Turin Italy in 1919-20 was developed as a joint project of Antonio Gramsci’s Socialist Party group and the Turin Libertarian Group. This was an independent shop stewards council movement based on stop work assemblies in Fiat and other factories. The councils were developed independently of the bureaucracy of the CGL (Socialist Party trade union).


This Marxist-syndicalist alliance was broken with the development of the Communist International in the early ‘20s. The Leninist parties insisted on working towards party hegemony in labor movements. Although the American Communist Party continued to adapt and use many syndicalist tactics and ideas in their organizing in the ’20s and early ‘30s (such as elected negotiating committees, agitation around the flat incompatibility of working class and employing class interests), they were not opposed to top-down forms of labor organization in their ideology, and this became obvious after the turn of the Communist Parties to the Popular Front approach in 1936.



  1. Talk about the situation between anarchists during World War 1 as it doesn’t seem that that is too much discussed.


JA: WWI for anarchists was marked by controversy, activity, and suppression. Throughout Europe and the US, anti-war anarchists were incarcerated en-mass and hounded endlessly. Pushed further underground, many escalated their militancy (i.e. Galleaninists in the US who actively bombed targets and assassinated officials), while others waged free-speech fights and took part in all manner of anti-war and anti-capitalist activism. The rule that anarchists opposed the war was excepted by notable anarchist luminaries such as Kropotkin  - and in turn, this support was denounced by others (and the majority) i.e. Goldman, Berkman, Malatesta.


OM: The rather marginal German Anarchist groups were heavily oppressed by the state, so they devoted relatively little time to internal controversy. Activities in general declined markedly, with military authorities often sending known Anarchists, along with other radical leftists, on suicide missions during WWI. Additionally, Anarchists lacked ideas and strategies for dealing with the war, being driven by events rather than taking on an active role.


Wetzel: Let’s take each country separately. During the Russian revolution there were a variety of anarchist and libertarian socialist groups. Two groups that worked in an alliance during the revolution were the Union of Socialist Revolutionaries-Maximalist and the Russian Anarcho-Syndicalist Confederation. For example at the time of the October revolution the alliance between these two groups controlled the important soviet in Kronstadt and provided armed sailors to overthrow the Provisional Government. The October 1917 revolution occurred when the Soviet Congress took power and overthrew the unelected Provisional Government.


All the anarchist and libertarian socialist groups supported this move.  However, the Bolsheviks got the Soviet Congress to let them centralize power in a new state via the Council of People’s Commissars. The syndicalists and maximalists opposed this but continued to give “critical support” to the revolution because they believed they would be able to still organize for their view in the factory committees, soviets and unions. By 1921 however the militants of these groups were in prison and they were completely suppressed.  Between 1918 and 1920 the Communist government also eliminated the last elements  of worker collective control in industry and converted the soviets into rubber stamps of the party…including the overthrow of soviet elections that went against them.


The syndicalists and libertarian socialists of the ‘20s and ‘30s came to understand that Bolshevik policies and program had led to the creation of a new ruling class in Russia, based on the party and state bureaucracy…the industrial managers, elite planners, military officers, and the power of the party bureaucracy. The working class, in their view, continued to be an exploited and subordinated class.


In Spain the anarcho-syndicalist labor organization, CNT, was the majority union, especially in the industrialized regions of Catalonia and Valencia which contained 80 percent of Spain’s manufacturing.  Because of the long history of anti-labor violence and repression in Spain, both the CNT and the UGT (union shared by the Socialist and Communist parties) had armed groups.  CNT had an organized system of clandestine armed cells in Catalonia, used for protecting workers in strikes. When the army attempted to seize power to crush the labor movement in July 1936, this clandestine armed organization smashed the army in Catalonia. CNT then built its own “proletarian army” with about 100,000 members and UGT built an armed militia also. Under cover of this armed power, the workers of Catalonia and other areas proceeded to engage in the most widespread direct worker seizure of capitalist property that has ever occurred…almost the whole of the economy in northeast Spain. Both the CNT and UGT farm labor unions had a revolutionary program and proceeded to collectivize millions of acres of farm land, creating more than two thousand collectivized village communities.


CNT proposed to replace the Republican state with a joint defense council of the UGT and CNT unions and a unified militia. They also proposed that the entire economy should be socialized under worker management. This was veto’d by the state socialists…the Socialist and Communist Parties. This was based on the Communist’s na├»ve view that somehow they could get the capitalist “democracies” to let the anti-fascist forces buy weapons even though it was clear that a proletarian revolution was underway. So if they “respected government legality” this would protect the “international legitimacy” of the Spanish Republic. This didn’t work.


The Communists in Spain pursued a strategy of trying to get control of the state through control of the police and army. After street fighting between CNT armed defense organizations and police in Barcelona in May 1937, the Communists were able to consolidate power in the national state and in 1938 began to nationalize the worker-managed industries, moving to create a managerialist type of bureaucratic class as they did in Eastern Europe after World War 2.


Various anarchist tendencies in the CNT also contributed to this result. At the outset of the revolution anarchists and syndicalists in the CNT were divided over the question of consolidating political or society-wide power. Some thought the decentralized and uncoordinated system of local committees was enough.


A minority wanted the CNT to take power in the regions where it could. This is what they did, under support of Buenaventura Durruti’s large militia organization, in eastern Aragon in September 1936. The economy was coordinated via a regional congress of delegates and the village assemblies elected a defense council to replace the old state authority. But they failed to do this in Catalonia and Valencia which were the core industrial regions of Spain. Durruti thought they could negotiate with Francisco Largo Caballero (prime minister and head of the UGT and left wing of the Socialist Party) for an acceptable solution if they held their ground and went as far as they could in consolidating working class power.


Some anarchists in the CNT were confused about the concept of “power”. Based on what happened in the Russian revolution, they thought of “taking power” as meaning that some new bureaucratic group would hold top down managerial power in some state. But “taking power” could also be interpreted as collectivizing power, via things like worker delegate congresses and coordinating councils. This would depend upon accountability to the masses via the base assemblies in the workplaces and neighborhoods. By rejecting the  solution of building worker political power via workers councils in Catalonia, they found themselves forced into the hopeless situation of participating in the Popular Front government, where they were essentially captive to the socialist parties with their Popular Front strategy.


  1. During World War 2, what was the situation in Spain and Russia, respectively, in which anarchists and state socialists found themselves on the same side or against one another? How did anarchists threaten the cause of state socialists or vice versa? How does this affect present relations?


JA: I don’t think the present is affected by the internecine socialist fighting in Spain or during WWII.  These historical episodes and the debates that still take-place about them, are not (as far as I can tell) having any negative impact per Marxist/anarchist coordination.  Backing up a bit, I say internecine because Trotskyists and anarchists during this period often shared a similar fate and fought/died together - in Spain and Greece most notably.


Wetzel: I think there are several essential strategic goals that the radical left needs to work at:


First, there needs to be a revival of disruptive, collective strike actions by workers. Strikes are very important because workers have the power to shut down the flow of profits to employers, or shut down operation of government agencies. Doing this helps to change the mindset and outlook within the working class because it changes the situation from one where people confront their employers as powerless individuals to a situation where people can think in terms of “we”. Strikes are learning experiences because people will learn how they confront all the institutions of the society – the media, the courts, the police, the union bureaucrats, the politicians. It develops “class consciousness” because people tend to think more in terms of “us” versus “them”.


Workplace organizing is also important because the workforce has become much more diverse than in an earlier era and thus building mass worker unions with a democratic character means working to build bridges across the various differences in the working class and taking account of the different ways that groups in the working class are oppressed. This is another way in which a revived era of mass worker struggle would change the labor movement.


Rebuilding a real labor movement is not going to be an easy or simple task, partly because the inherited American unions are so intensely bureaucratized and controlled from the top. Back in the ‘30s radicals generally understood workers have to control their own unions. I think that rebuilding an effective labor movement is going to require building new unions outside the inherited bureaucratic unions of the AFL-CIO.


It’s also more likely that working people will become more identified with unionism, if they are not so limited as they’ve been in their aims and not so controlled by staff and paid officers from HQ but are more authentically organizations workers form and run themselves. There have been various periods in the past where workers in the USA built organizations from below like this on a large scale, as during 1915-21 and 1933-35.


Secondly, and related to my first point, we need ways for working at training and supporting people who make the commitment to stick at the project of rebuilding worker organization and action. This would mean forms of public education outside academia developed by and for working class people. In rebuilding the “militant minority” in the workplace we’re laying the groundwork for the radical left to once again have an actual presence and influence in the working class.


Third, for a long time there has been a general understanding by many on the left that fragmentation is a serious weakness. This takes various forms, such as single issue movements, or separation into a myriad of different kinds of movements – climate justice, Black Lives Matters, immigrant rights, tenant movement, each union focusing narrowly on its struggles with its employer, and so on,.


From a strategic point of view, I think we need to think in terms of developing a coalescing of forces into a kind of class front or working class social movement alliance. But I tend to think of this as a grassroots, horizontal kind of linkage, not via bureaucracies of unions and non-profits. This would be reflected in movements supporting the aims and struggles of other movements. There is some of this going on, but it will need to develop further.


  1. It seems that due to the right wing onslaught in the 70s and 80s that much of the left has retreated to the academy. What are your thoughts on this and can it be reversed?


JA: I agree with your premise that the left has retreated to the academia and inward after defeats in the 60’s and 70’s.  I don’t know that this will be reversed any-time soon, but I am optimistic. I sense the youth of today are more politicized and enlightened than my generation (generation x), and that gives me hope. As well, the uptick in anti-fascist militancy (unfortunately, an uptick in fascism concomitantly) and propaganda-of-the-deed of late also gives me a sense (although, perhaps it’s inflated or a product of my social-bubble) that an episode marked by a more tangible praxis is nigh.


OM: I would agree that there has been a retreat into the academy, but shortly followed by another retreat into subculturalism. With regards to reversal: Where I live, academic Anarchism has largely died out already (except for a few people in deep cover), while the subculture is slowly drying out due to self-isolation and increasing, self-imposed irrelevance. At the same time, I see a lot of discontent with Capitalism and popular demands for alternatives. At least theoretically, we should be able to build on this for a resurgence.




  1. How is anarchism making a comeback today?


JA: Relative to our recent marginalization, I think so. My sense is that more people of know what it is and/or have some sympathy for it.
OM: If us Anarchists can get it together enough to publicly propose viable and attractive alternatives, I consider a comeback not only possible, but actually likely. The demand is there, but we need to deliver. For this, we need to abandon subculturalism and academic obscurantism and actually work in a more strategic and popularly appealing fashion.



  1. How is state socialism making a comeback today?


Wetzel: With the Bernie Sanders campaign the concept of “democratic socialism” was widely popularized. This refers to a social-democratic perspective that doesn’t really aim at replacing capitalism with a new socialist economy, but aims to use elections of people to state office to create laws and programs to restrict the predatory behavior of corporations and provide some benefits that would be of benefit to the masses, such as Medicare for All health insurance.


In Europe the old social democratic or socialist parties have been rotted out by commitment to neo-liberalism and austerity. This has led to either new left parties or things like change of leadership in the UK Labour Party, with an aim to pushing back against austerity and rebuilding support for the stronger social-democratic policies that were characteristic of Europe in the post-World War 2 era.


But this isn’t really a comeback for the concept of socialism as state-management of the economy or centralized state planning. To the extent that “democratic socialists” or electoral socialists think beyond capitalism at all, they tend to think in terms of building worker cooperatives which would still operate in a market economy. So market socialism, in one form of another, has become the dominant vision for many socialists.



  1. Can anarchists and state socialists ever work together? It seems that that would be so since they agree on so much.


JA: We excel in cooperation where specific issues are concerned...police violence or some local outrage etc. - what I think is difficult is getting socialists abstractly, together under a big umbrella that can connect our groupuscules up and harness our collective potential.
OM: In my experience, cooperation with anti-authoritarian Marxists (like leftcoms) is possible and productive, having participated myself in this. With the more authoritarian variants, only partial/punctual cooperation, usually on defensive issues like anti-fascism, seems practical.


Wetzel: They could work together I think in practical organizing projects such as building unions or cooperatives or tenant organizations or climate justice protests, etc. There have been state socialists as members in syndicalist unions like the IWW for example.


However, there may still be disagreements or conflicts in these areas. These disagreements are likely to happen over the question of how mass organizations are to be run. Libertarian socialists want mass organizations to be self-managed, that is, they want them to be controlled in a direct way by the rank-and-file members. They would oppose concentrating power in an executive body. Social-democrats and Leninists are likely to still favor some strategy of “boring from within” – changing leadership – in the inherited unions, rather than building independent worker committees, and grassroots unions apart from the inherited labor bureaucracy.


Dialogue might suggest areas where there can be agreement in relation to some goals or programs. But there is still the fundamental difference in how libertarian socialists and Leninists (and other state socialists) think about what socialism is. Workers self-management – and complete worker mastery of production -- is, in the libertarian socialist view, a necessary condition for working class liberation from the class system. It’s not adequate to limit this to simply control of a coop or individual workplace but has to be generalized and coordinated throughout the economy, from a libertarian socialist point of view.


There is the related problem of how we view working class political power or society wide power. Even if libertarian socialists would support particular reforms in the context of the present system (such as Medicare for All in USA), in the end the old state has to be dismantled for the working class to be freed from its subordinate class position. That’s because the state is based on top-down structures of managerial control that have the boss/worker relation of subordination built in. The state represents the concentrated defense of a system of class domination and exploitation, and the forms of inequality tied in with this. So working class political power would have to be based on some form of delegate democracy consistent with worker self-management everywhere and be accountable to the masses at the base, through workplace and neighborhood assemblies.


A form of direct communal power by the masses (via neighborhood and workplace assemblies) is also going to be essential to have a solution to the present worsening environmental crisis. The people need to obtain a very direct control over what gets put into the atmosphere and water through the economic system. So we can think of the socialist goal as having both a worker control and communal control dimension. But both require replacing the present hierarchical institutions – corporations and state – that dominate society.


Historically socialists have often defined socialism as democratic worker and community control over the political economy. Libertarian and state socialists have differed in working out the details.