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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 naïve 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.