Title: The Left
Author: Andrew Flood
Date: 1995
Source: Retrieved on 8th August 2021 from struggle.ws and struggle.ws
Notes: This article first appeared in Red & Black Revolution No 1.

      Ashes to Phoenix?

        The collapse of the left

        It’s not just the party!

        A new left?

        What went wrong?

        Aiding struggle?

        The ‘new left’

        Shopping trolley

        The Ivory Tower

        All action, no talk?

      Time to be constructive

        English speaking ‘Anarchism’

        Anarchism today

        Theoretical and tactical unity

        Involvement in everyday life.


Ashes to Phoenix?

It has become something of a cliché to refer to the death or collapse of the left. What’s still missing however is an analysis of what went wrong with the left. One that goes beyond surface manifestations, and reaches into its core politics. This lack of analysis means that much of the ‘new left’ is not that new at all, merely a repackaging of old ideas in new wrappers.

Major changes have occurred in the left [1] throughout its short history. In both numbers and politics there have been wide swings from times of hope and mass numbers to times of despair and collapse. In the late 60’s and early 70’s the left grew internationally, attracting huge numbers and leading real battles. Today this growth has collapsed almost totally, many of the organisations that led it no longer exist and the ideas of those that survive, have been for the most part so discredited, that it is unlikely they can ever recover.

The collapse of the left

Since the Russian revolution the left has been divided into two great camps. There were those who followed the Bolshevik model of a revolutionary seizure of state power and those who followed the more traditional Marxist model of social democracy, seeking to gain state power electorally where possible. Although there were other significant movements, including the anarchists, what shaped the left today were the splits within those two camps and the perimeter of debate laid down around them.

The Communist parties built real mass parties in many countries, and expanded their influence from Russia to a host of other nations. Along with all those who claimed the Bolshevik legacy, they rode a carpet of triumphalism for many years, one that limited debate around revolution to variations on the Leninist model. Even in countries like Ireland where they never reached significant numbers, the prestige of Russia and the other revolutions enabled them to wield an influence far out of proportion with their numbers, among intellectuals and in the unions. But towards the end of the 1980’s the whole edifice crashed to the ground almost overnight. In the east the parties were overthrown, in the west they split into competing and mostly irrelevant factions.

The social-democrats in the years after the First World War expanded on the earlier success of the German SDP and came to power in country after country. Most of the western democracies have had social democratic governments in the intervening period. But the left social-democrats had always looked to the USSR as a guide, while their policies were very much based on ability to control and direct national capital. In the 80’s the changed nature of capital, from a national form to an increasingly trans-national one made social democratic economic programs redundant. The control of the national economy needed by the nation state for even the limited reforms of social-democracy is beginning to vanish. Witness how even the threatened election of a Labour government in Britain resulted in rapid capital transfers out of the country. The left within the social democratic parties collapsed due to the increasing impotence of their program and the emerging crisis in the USSR. Their mass membership first dwindled and then collapsed. Today in rhetoric[2] as well as deed they are indistinguishable from the liberal parties.

This twin collapse was international and resulted in the vast bulk of those who called themselves socialist abandoning left politics and activism. As a related consequence the 1980’s also saw the ‘left’ leaning national liberation organisations like the ANC or FMLN come to a compromise with imperialism and reach a settlement. This had a demoralising effect on those whose primary focus was solidarity work for these organisations, one that is still to reach its full consequences as events unfold in South Africa and Palestine.

There were many who saw themselves as outside the Communist parties and the social democrats. Sometimes the differences were real, as with anarchists. Sometimes they were not so real but appeared so because of the very narrowness of debate, as with most Trotskyists. Even with this perceived gap the very fact that huge numbersabandoned politics had a knock on effect. This was demoralising but it also meant that effective action became increasingly impossible. Even if the arguments were won, the networks that could have carried them through no longer existed.

It’s not just the party!

All those bodies which could be described as ‘left’ have seen a collapse in involvement. This effect is seen not just in political organisations but more importantly in all campaigning bodies. The effect is seen in the unions where the number of activists has dwindled to the point where most unpaid positions are uncontested. This has led to the outwardly positive ‘election’ of revolutionaries to trades councils and branch committees. The reality behind this is more to do with nobody else being willing to take the job. In no sense has the broad layer of activists (who might once have seen far left politics as loony) been won over, rather most have dropped out or come to see revolutionary politics as irrelevant rather than dangerous.

The ability of the left to explain what is happening around it, to intervene in events and to change the course of them has vanished. Although illusions in the state was always the major problem of the left, today the activity of what remains is little more than attempts to get the state to police society for the better. For example the far-right is to be countered by trying to get the Fascists banned by the state at national and local level. In fact much of the left today see people themselves as the problem and see more police, more intrusive management, more control over what can be said and seen, as the solution. Most notably this has arisen in the focus on censorship as not just a method but almost the only way of fighting both racism and sexism.

The death of the left is also reflected in its lack of hope. Where once the left was all about an exciting vision of a future society now it is pre-occupied with a fear of the future and a longing for the past. New scientific discoveries instead of being seen as part of the process of liberating man from nature, are instead seen as part of a plan to create a Huxley type ‘Brave New World’. Hence recent articles in surviving Trotskyist journals argue against Chaos Theory and the Human Genome project as being anti-Marxist. Science once seen as the solution to many of humanity’s problems is now seen as a major problem in itself.

This is what is meant by saying the left is dead. Its numbers have collapsed, it has no vision or direction and instead of looking to the future it worships the past.

From one point of view anarchists can in part welcome this collapse, as it is the collapse of authoritarian socialism. Most of the left organisations were social-democratic or Leninist in character and so their ideas were incapable of constructing socialism. The nature of the collapse re-enforces the anarchist rejection of the authoritarian methods of these organisations as it was these methods that destroyed the potential for socialism. After years of being told that compromises and deceit were the fastest (if not only) way to create socialism, anarchists feel entitled to repeat the response of Voline to Trotsky in 1919 at the height of the Russian Civil war:

Trotsky: “One can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs”

Voline: “I see the broken eggs now where’s this omelette of yours?”

In the English speaking countries [3] and in particular Ireland, the anarchist movement is much too small to replace the numbers and influence once held by the left. So the collapse of authoritarian socialism is widely seen as the collapse of socialism and a demonstration that capitalism, whatever its flaws is the best that can be hoped for. Even in the countries where the anarchist movement is substantial (and in many countries it is the main force on the revolutionary left) it is as yet inadequate for its basic task (i.e. revolution). In terms of ideas, the anarchists may have the best ones but as yet they are not capable of winning the masses to overthrowing capitalism and creating anarchism.

In the English speaking countries there is not and has not been a significant anarchist movement with the possible exception of the period up to World War I in the USA. Anarchists have operated as a small section of a larger left. Because of the small size of the anarchist movement the collapse of this larger left has had profound effects on it, both due to the general climate of demoralisation and also because it is no longer possible to exist purely as an opposition to Leninism and social democracy. This is a good thing because some anarchist organisations had come to limit themselves to explaining ‘Why the left is wrong’ on a whole number of issues rather than trying to construct an alternative themselves.

A new left?

It might be hoped that with the twin collapse of Leninism and authoritarian socialism people would flock to the banner of anarchism. For the most part this has not happened. Instead over the last decade we have seen the emergence of a number of ‘new’ left organisations which claim to represent a decisive break with the past. Sometimes this represents little more than a change of names. In other cases these new organisations arose as splits by members unhappy with the direction of exisiting organisations, their initial politics coming from ex-members of that organisation. The Committees of Correspondence in the USA was formed by members of the Communist Party USA who lost an internal argument over the direction (‘reforming’) of that party.

Many members of the old left organisations recognised that their ideas were discredited and no longer relevant, and voted with their feet, leaving not only left organisations but oppositional politics in general. But not all vanished, some have made efforts to remain active. Some of these have refused to learn anything, or admit that mistakes were made, instead they carry on activity in a parody of yesteryear. Some of the Communist parties for instance reacted by returning to worshipping the period of Stalin or Brezhnev and blame the ‘reformers’ for all their current woes. The Irish Communist Party responded to the collapse of the USSR by hiring a skip and throwing most of the Gorbachev material from their Dublin bookshop into it. In most Communist parties however the majority came to the conclusion that revolution itself was no longer possible and instead became social democrats or abandoned left politics for ‘progressive’ politics where the working class is seen as just one more pressure group in a rainbow coalition.

Some organisations did become aware of their own death and sensibly dissolved themselves rather than causing damage as they thrashed around in their death agonies. But they were wrong to imagine that just because they could conceive no future relevance for revolutionary politics that revolution was no longer relevant. Instead they were faced with a jump that they were incapable of seeing the other side of. Indeed the upturn in industrial disputes over the last year in Europe, most notably around Air France, indicate that the class conflict goes on and may even be picking up some of its lost momentum. Unemployment and poverty have again become obvious features of capitalism. To this extent the crisis on the left is mirrored by a crisis in capitalism, its hope of the early 80’s of an eternal boom now dashed on the rocks of recession.

What went wrong?

That the left has collapsed is contested by only the most irrelevant sects. But the attempts to explain why it happened are poor, focusing on the surface manifestations; the economic crisis of the USSR in the 80’s, or conspiracy theories about the CIA. The right and many on the left went for the simplest explanation of all, socialism cannot work and revolutions have to end in dictatorship. But the failure is not with the idea of socialism but rather with what those who called themselves socialists became. It was not socialism that failed but the socialists! Above all, this failure arose from the left ideologies that looked to good leaders to liberate the rest of us. To these ideologies the role of ‘ordinary people’ differed, from the tickers of ballot papers to the stormers of barricades. The role of decision makers however was denied, it was to be placed in trust with an intellectual elite until the far off day when this power could be returned.

The tragic part about this is that the warnings about where the statist path would lead have been around since the working class first became a formidable force at the time of the Paris Commune [1871]. The debate between the anarchists and Marxists that split the 1st International was fought around this issue. But for various reasons those issuing the warning, the anarchists, failed to convince the rest of the left [4].

The two major trends of the 20th Century socialist movement, the Leninists and the social-democrats, were not as radically different as it may have seemed but rather represented two sides of the same coin. The actual structure of rule in the Soviet Union was never really a major problem for either of these groupings, their disagreements were over whether such a society had to be established through revolution, or could be ‘reformed’ into being. Both currents sought to create socialism through the actions of a few, wielding state power, on behalf of the many. Left social-democrats like Tony Benn went further and were commonly happy enough to describe the USSR as actually existing socialism. In Ireland, organisations like the Workers Party held a similar (if quiet) position towards North Korea and, along with members of Labour Left went there on junkets.

The argument between Leninism and social-democracy was not about how a socialist society could be built, both aimed to use state power to do this. Rather it was whether sufficient control of the state could be gained through the parliamentary system. Many Leninists may have claimed to wish for more democracy [5] in the USSR but they all stood over the Bolshevik destruction of democracy, only moving to opposition when their particular hero was ousted. Organisations like the Socialist Workers Party that claim to stand for ‘socialism from below’ defend the actions of the Bolsheviks in imposing one man management, crushing workers councils and censoring, imprisoning and executing members of other left tendencies. This has to call into question any claimed commitment to democracy, or socialism from below.

Aiding struggle?

Even in the short term the left commonly offered no way forward. It would be wrong to overstate the case but a large section of the left was not interested in helping workers win struggles except in the most abstract sense. Instead involvement in struggle had just one thing behind it: ‘build the party’. This commonly took the form of setting up a party controlled ‘front’ which would campaign around an issue solely in order to recruit those who were motivated to fight on this issue. Once the potential recruits dried up, then the campaign was quietly wound up. A common response to contacting someone about a new campaign was the question of ‘whose front is it’. Anyone who has been involved with left activity for any period of time will have been through meetings and campaigns disrupted and possibly destroyed by different left factions wrestling for control.

The effect this had on activists was seen by the way membership of many left organisations operated like a revolving door, with people interested in socialism walking in one side, only to be thrown out the other, disillusioned and burnt out. ‘Everything for the organisation’ was the unofficial slogan of the left. This destroyed many peoples’ belief in socialism as a source of inspiration as they got sucked into the methods of treachery and deceit that this involved.

Many of today’s activists have either come through this mill, or have had bad experiences of the left using them. This has created a legacy of suspicion and even hostility which forms a real barrier in building solidarity today. It also means that many activists have no interest in building revolutionary organisations but instead limit themselves to building campaigns. Revolutionary organisations are seen as self-serving edifices rather than bodies with a positive and vital contribution to make to struggle. The attitude that characterises these activists’ view of the revolutionary organisations is suspicion.

So in this way the left has actually played a substantial negative role. It has constructed a monstrous caricature of socialism and the methods of socialism. Rather than bringing people forward, it has sucked the spirit out of them. Not just those parts of the left who created and worshipped the USSR but also those whose methods have alienated tens of thousands of activists. In this context many activists see left organisations as useless barriers, interested only in selling papers and sectarian squabbles.

The ‘new left’

This crisis of the left has become increasingly apparent over the last decade and has resulted in the formation of many new groups, including ourselves. As the crisis became particularly obvious, the process of disintegration speeded up and the new organisations if anything became more confused. Most of the more recent ones have no common vision of anything positive in the past but are united solely by a feeling of ‘that’s not the way to do it’ towards the existing left. But consciously or unconsciously, various strategies have been adopted by some as the way forward. It is these strategies that must be examined to judge the potential of such new groups.

Groups whose aim is a new flavour of Leninism or social-democracy can be written off at the start. The record of their strategies for the last century speaks for itself. From the libertarian point of view the fault is in their core politics, that which makes them statist. However many have become aware of these flaws and so many of the groups that have arisen in the last decade would claim to be neither. It is these forces which are important in terms of the emergence of a new left.

Certain limitations have to be recognised from the start. It is inevitable that many of the newer left organisations have a blinkered vision, brought about by their youth and small size. Their memory extends back maybe a decade or so at most. They are unaware of events outside their own country except in the broadest terms, and force events to fit into an analysis generated from their immediate and narrow experience[6]. This is a real if unavoidable problem, but one that is greatly reduced when it is recognised and taken into account. It is also a reason why it is vital to convince many of the older layer of activists that there is still a point in revolutionary politics, but that a thorough re-examination of basic politics is necessary.

It is not intended to discuss organisations claiming to be in the anarchist tradition in this article. What will be discussed is organisations who believe that the wheel needs to be re-invented (i.e. that there is no historical tradition worth basing themselves on). These see the solution in junking the left to date, and re-building from scratch. This is the most common set of strategies to have emerged in the last few years. What has united these different strategies to date is that although it is pointed out repeatedly that mistakes were made and the old left is irrelevant, there is little analysis as to the cause of this irrelevancy. The assumption is that with the verbal break from the ‘old politics’, all the problems it created fade away.

This assumption is fundamentally flawed as it assumes that the reasons for the failure of the left to date are understood. In fact for the most part, instead of analysis, all that exists is a set of popular prejudices and some surface understanding of the problem. This approach also assumes that there is little need for newer members to re-discover the cause of the previous problems, that this information will somehow be transmitted down by the older members (leadership?). This in itself is a direct example of the re-appearance of one of the problems associated with the failure of the old left. The division into leaders and paper sellers.

Organisations adopting these strategies are often faced with an additional problem. They attract long time members of various other organisations who have brought a fair amount of political baggage with them. Although they can say ‘yes we were wrong’ they can’t admit the possibility that some of their former critics were right, at least in part. One British group, Analysis [7], decided that the Russian revolution was not so relevant after all. To them the turning point for the failure of socialism was the support the social democratic parties gave to their various ruling classes in voting for World War I. As they put it “Had the revolution never occurred, had Stalinism never existed, Marxism would still face the crisis it does today” [8]. This was a handy way for a bunch of ‘ex’-Leninists to avoid facing why they had remained uncritical of the Bolsheviks for so many years.

This political baggage also surfaces in that although many can admit the Russian revolution was in part destroyed by the politics of Bolshevism, they can only do so after first making clear that their critique is not related to the ‘moralism’ of the anarchists. This is the hallmark of an organisation that never sees itself as addressing ‘ordinary people’. Who in their right mind would approach such a discussion with ‘I’ve nothing against shooting leftists to achieve revolution, but it does not work’. The anarchists were full of moral indignation at the Bolshevik shooting of leftists and workers and quite right too! But they also argued that terror was crushing the revolution by destroying popular initiative and debate. To read Voline’s or Maximoff’s, (two of the exiled Russian anarchists) accounts, is not to encounter page after page of moralism but to find concrete example after example of the crippling of a revolution by a party obsessed with its need to be in control. It is also fundamentally dishonest and reflects the attitude of the guru to his followers. It is obviously not expected that anyone will look at the original ‘moralism’.

It is the strategies that are based around this method that are looked at here. Strategies based on the premise that little if anything can usefully be salvaged from the left’s history. Strategies based above all on the idea that to date nothing useful has been done, except perhaps in the field of theory. And it is in this approach to theory and its perceived relationship to practice that the greatest problems arise.

Shopping trolley

To see nothing coherent in the past but still wish to be active leaves an organisation with an immediate problem. What do you base this activity on? One strategy used in this case, where a wide body of theory is quickly needed, is equivalent to filling a shopping trolley at a car boot sale. What appears to be the most useful ideas from the past are picked up, regardless of their relationship with each other.

The adoption of such a strategy is often characterised by a tendency for the organisation to see itself as the only one capable of understanding what’s going on. It’s not hard to see how this mentality develops when all around seem to be intent on carrying on regardless on a sinking ship. Apart from this inherent elitism, this strategy carries it own problems.

Chief among these is that, if an organisation places itself in the role as saviour it must be able to provide answers to everything. The development of coherent ideas takes time. This time can be reduced considerably by picking what appear to be the best ideas around. While this approach is highly flawed it can perhaps be feasible if sufficient time is spent re-developing these ideas to fit into the core of the organisations existing politics. (There is also the wider question of ‘is it necessary’?) In practice however, temptation wins and one gets treated to a frantic super-market spree as the group hurtles around quickly grabbing whatever has the best packaging off the shelves. Unfortunately at some later stage it’s discovered all the bits don’t quite go together. But by then everybody’s got their pet piece and no one has much in common.

The Ivory Tower

Another strategy that is emerging is for organisations to shun activity in favour of a retreat to academia, to re-examine the text books in order to emerge some time in the future with a shiny new theory. This is often the next stop for individuals who have been in a group where the shopping trolley fell apart. Activity or contact with the outside world is diagnosed as the problem, what’s needed is temporary isolation, with your message just being aimed at others on the left who have realised something is wrong.

Their deliberate use of archaic language shows us that what we have is politics designed to impress the existing intellectual left [9]. There is no excuse for putting across simple ideas in complex terms unless you intend your material to be used as a sleeping aid. These may seem like irrelevant stylistic matters but actually they reflect an important point.

This is that the new left is repeating many of the mistakes of the old, in a re-packaged form. The idea that the answers are to be found in text books, that somewhere, there is a magic theory or theories which will show the way forward is just a re-working of the old Trotskyist idea of a ‘crisis of leadership’[10]. Ideas are important and the right ideas are vital but it is people who are the life blood of the revolutionary process. Far more people are aware that the current system is offering an inadequate future for themselves and their children than are involved in revolutionary politics. Most people come into conflict with the system at one stage or another. What is lacking is the belief that there can be an alternative, that change is possible.

What’s needed are arguments on why revolutions have failed in the past and how they can succeed in the future. But what is also needed is the development of a tradition of success. People must believe that they can win in order for them to start to fight back. This belief can be created by winning small victories. What’s more it is only by real experience in struggle, that ideas can be tested, it is only by encountering real life that the ability to convince people can be honed. Those who would retreat to the libraries are like armchair tourists who imagine watching Holiday ’95 is the same thing as walking down those far away streets.

All action, no talk?

There is another side to this ‘emphasis on theory’ coin. Another strategy which has been adopted by some organisations is one in which theory is either discarded beyond rudimentary aims and principles, or left to a small elite. No need is perceived for politics developed beyond a ‘we hate capitalism’. Nor is a need seen for politics to be developed within the whole organisation as opposed to a small elite, steering the ship. In many cases this last strategy is not adopted in a conscious fashion but rather is the end result of an anti-organisation attitude. It stems from an alienation from and rejection of the traditional methods of the left so that these methods themselves rather than just their implementation are rejected. It can perhaps be characterised as ‘all action and no talk’!

Such a strategy frequently results in the organisation’s activities being limited to cheerleading for others, unwilling and unable to influence the actual course of events. Blind activism is substituted for theoretical discussion. Most of such organisations are short lived, quickly becoming demoralised after finding themselves being used as foot soldiers by some more organised section of the left. Even for those who survive for some considerable period this is often as a result of hermetically sealing themselves off from the rest of the left. This is achieved by dismissing other groups through crude labels whose political content is zero or close to zero (such as ‘students’, ‘trendies’, ‘sad’, ‘middle class’, ‘boring’, the reader will probably be familiar with other examples).

This labelling is similar to the technique used by many Leninists and so demonstrates the unconscious vanguardism some of these organisations have assumed. Their publications cover their activities along with those whom they cheer on alone, they also present themselves as the ‘only revolutionaries’. They reject attempts to involve wider forces if they are not going to dominate the resulting alliance. This vanguardism, along with the sectarian characterisation of others, in conditions of feared defeat or frustration, has even, with a number of organisations, resulted in poorly excused physical attacks on other leftists!

The last two strategies discussed, the ‘Ivory Tower’ and the ‘all action, no talk’ are in fact twins. They share in common the idea that theory and practice can be separated, and perhaps need bear no relationship to one another at all. To believe that one can be developed without the other is a fallacy. So also is the idea that one is the work of intellectuals, the other the work of activists. The two go hand in hand. It may be possible to come up with fine ideas in your back room or carry out actions on the streets but it is only where these two combine that the potential for revolution gains space to emerge. In the development of ideas and the activity of struggle it is not just the results that matter. As important is the process, the development of the ability and confidence to make decisions and carry them through. This ability must be developed not just in the organisation but in every individual, if the division into leader and led is to be avoided.

This is an echo of the anarchist insistence that the end (the revolution) cannot be separated from the means (revolutionary organisation) used to obtain it. The surest safeguard against future hijacking of revolutionary movements by authoritarianism is not to have a golden rule book or a sub group to keep the movement pure[11] but a tradition of self-activity. This is a hint at the direction that needs to be taken.

We are coming through a time of cataclysmic change for the left. The old methods of organisation have failed, the new ones that are evolving are flawed and sometimes not even all that new. Some of the problems faced have been identified in this article, the more difficult question is how to go about constructing a new left? Part of the answer to this question is the realisation that the problems discussed above have a common solution. Is it necessary to re-invent the wheel? Or is there already a left tradition whose analysis is a starting point explaining the failure of the left in the past. Such a tradition does indeed exist and what’s more it also provides from its history a positive model of socialist organisation.

Time to be constructive

In the left from Ashes to Phoenix? it was argued that the left as it had come to be known has collapsed. The new left that is arising from the ashes carries much of the baggage and many of the mistakes of its predecessors. It is without clear direction, knowing it wants to build something new, but not sure what this will be or how to do it. It bases itself on a hodgepodge of different traditions or on none. These criticisms are easy to make, what is more difficult is to pinpoint a way forwards.

This article indicates the direction that needs to be taken. There is a current within the left that stands out in its opposition to the division of revolutionary organisations into leaders and led. This current is anarchism. However new organisation(s) should not be built on the basis of a turn to the past. Rather it must be recognised that previous anarchist movements have also failed, and not just for objective reasons. None of them are adequate as models, so it is not a question of constructing international versions of the CNT, the Friends of Durruti or any other group. Indeed any project that picks an organisation from history and says this is what we should be modelled on would seem to be more interested in historical re-enactment than revolution.

Anarchism put forward an accurate critique of the problems of Marxism as a whole. Anarchism also demonstrated methods of organisation based on mass democracy. This is its importance, as not only does it go some way to explaining why the left has failed but it also points the way to how it can succeed.

Anarchism crystallised around opposition to the idea that socialism could be introduced by a small elite on behalf of the minority. There are, were and probably will continue to be Marxists that claim Marx also opposed this idea but to do this is to deny the historical argument that took place at the end of the 1860’s between the Marxists and the anarchists. It is also to ignore what Marxism has meant in the period since then.

To an extent the anarchist critique of Marxism can be portrayed as unsophisticated, not explaining where the authoritarian side of Marxism comes from in sufficient depth. Certainly in the English speaking countries, anarchism appears theoretically weak when compared to the vast body of work calling itself Marxist. But complexity or detail does not make an analysis correct, sometimes the simplest of ideas carry profound truths [12]. And when the record of the anarchist organisations are compared with those of the Marxists one finds on those key issues of 20th century socialism, the state and role of the revolutionary organisation, the anarchists were consistently on the right side. The worst of the anarchist deviations, the power sharing with the bourgeois republicans in Spain palls into insignificance when compared with the damage done by social democracy or Stalin.

The strength of anarchism has been its belief in the ability of the working class to take its destiny into its own hands free of intermediaries. This and its uncompromising rejection of the state and politics of manipulation has left a legacy that can be sharply contrasted with that of other left currents. This makes it very different from both Leninism and social democracy, whose basic ideas are quite closely connected. Many of the old debates and the style they were carried out in are now irrelevant, it will take time before new, more positive debates become the norm.

For the left today, in a period where many believe social-democracy and the USSR have demonstrated that socialism cannot work, the demonstrations of self-management by anarchist inspired workers are of key importance. The Spanish revolution saw the democratic running of a large part of the economy and a sizeable military force by the working class [13]. This provides us with an actual example of the non-utopian nature of self-management. In practice such forms also arose spontaneously in revolutions where anarchist ideas played no major part, including that of Hungary in 1956 [14]. In the future it is to these examples we should look to for inspiration.

English speaking ‘Anarchism’

What the anarchist movement needs today is not a historical re-enactment of past glories. What’s more, in the English speaking countries at least, the anarchist movement, to be polite, leaves a lot to be desired. There is no real mass tradition of anarchism outside the pre-WWI USA. Even this was more of an example of anarchist ideas playing a major role within a wider movement than of an anarchist mass movement. There have been no real anarchist syndicalist [15] unions or mass organisations. Individual anarchists like Emma Goldman may have been important figures but they represented isolated examples rather than movements.

In the inter-war years anarchism was nearly destroyed internationally by dictatorship, fascism and Leninism. Those countries where the tradition was weak, in particular the English speaking ones, saw a complete death of any understanding of anarchism and its re-interpretation by academics, among these George Woodcock. This re-interpretation attempted to rob anarchism of its base in class struggle and instead reduce it to a radical liberalism. This had (and continues to have) disastrous consequences for the growth of anarchism from the 60’s on in these countries.

One of the most harmful ideas introduced by these academics was the idea of anarchism as a code of personal conduct rather than one of collective struggle. This occurred partially by their inclusion of all pacifists from Tolstoy to Gandhi as anarchists and partially from a completely false understanding of the anarchist movement in Spain. The Spanish example was particularly absurd, anarchists were presented as moralists who would not drink coffee rather than as members of an organisation based on class struggle, over one million strong.. It’s true that anarchists do have a different sense of what is ‘right or wrong’ than that instilled in us by capitalist culture but this flows from their politics rather than the reverse.

Anarchism is different from Leninism and social democracy in that it understands that the means used to achieve a socialist revolution will determine the success or failure of that revolution. This was not true for the revolutions that brought capitalism to power, there it was possible for the new elite to emerge regardless of how it had got its backing. Socialism requires mass participation. As such it will not be granted by an elite but will have to prevent the emergence of elites. This can only be done if the mass of society is already acting on the basis that no new centres of rule can be allowed to emerge, that they themselves must plan, create and administer the new society.

The identification of anarchism with counter cultural movements (like punk rock and increasingly the ‘crusty/new age traveller’ scene) arises from this ‘liberal’ interpretation. In turn this image of anarchism as a personal code of conduct encourages the counter culture to attach the label anarchist to itself. This ‘anarchism’ is an often bizarre set of rules ranging from not eating at McDonalds to not getting a job. If anything it represents a hopeless rebellion against, and alienation from, life under modern capitalism. It is a self-imposed ghetto, its adherents see no hope of changing society. In fact the counter culture is often hostile to any attempt to address anyone outside the ghetto [16], seeing this as selling out. However the counter culture is not entirely apolitical. A significant minority in Britain for instance will turn out for demonstrations and where physical confrontation with the state occur they often become the cannon fodder.

There are also significant areas within this counter culture where work is done which can give a positive example. Perhaps the best example of this is the squatting movement of the last couple of decades which saw huge numbers of people using direct action to solve homelessness by taking over empty buildings. Of course the bulk of these people were outside the counter culture, immigrant workers, the young homeless and those including young married people whose jobs could not cover the high rent in London and for whom council accommodation was unavailable or inadequate.

However the fact that so many of today’s anarchists came to anarchism through this counter culture has repercussions for building new movements. To an extent they find it difficult to break with the anti-organisational parts of the counter culture. This response dovetails with that of activists who have had bad experience of revolutionary organisations. The counter culture also tends to see the way forward in winning over the ghetto rather than addressing mainstream society and getting involved in its institutions. Having identified the existing left as being only interested in theory and building the party organisation, they end up rejecting the need for both theory and organisation. In short, they attempt to create their own new ghetto to which they can win people.

Anarchism today

Whatever about the poor state of the anarchist movement in English speaking countries, a different, much stronger tradition is found almost everywhere else. Language limitations restrict our ability to comment in depth on many of these but there are anarchist organisations in most if not all European, Central American and Southern American countries. There are also organisations in some Asian and African countries. In some of these countries they are the biggest or only force on the revolutionary left.

This is an area that is not just holding its own but is indeed growing. This year the IWA welcomed its first African section, in the form of the Awareness League of Nigeria and has entered into discussion with two unions in Asia. Since the mid-70’s anarcho-syndicalist unions have been re-built in Spain and the Swedish SAC has moved from reformism back to anarchist-syndicalism. Anarchists were the first sections of the left to resume activity in Eastern Europe, the first opposition march in Moscow since the late 20’s was staged by anarchists on 28th May 1988 under the banner “Freedom without Socialism is Privilege and Injustice. Socialism without Freedom is Slavery and Brutality”, a quote from Bakunin. In the last year several anarchist groups have emerged in the republics of former Yugoslavia and some have started a process of co-operation against the war there. Central and Southern America have also seen groups re-emerge into public activity, in some countries, like Venezuela, the anarchists are the only national force on the left.

In a period where all other sections of the left have been in decline, anarchism has re-established itself and started to grow. This is all the more remarkable when you consider this growth has come about almost completely internally, no major resources were pumped in from the outside. Compare this with the Trotskyist groups who poured huge resources into Eastern Europe for relatively little return. This included sending members over to maintain a permanent presence in Moscow and the other capitals. Anyone reading the Trotskyist press would be aware of their constant appeals for funds to help in this work. This attempt to import Trotskyism in any of its varieties failed to make any significant impact. Anarchist groups, on the contrary, emerged from the countries of the East to make contact with us in the west. They were based on ‘left dissidents’ rediscovering a banned history, their membership coming from sections of society as far apart as intellectuals [17] to punk fans and independent union activists.

So although the situation can seem very much isolated in any of the English speaking countries there is a very much larger and more together movement elsewhere. It is by no means perfect, it is dominated by syndicalism but it is a start. The question for us and the readers of this article is how to go about building mass anarchist movements in our countries. The beginnings of such a movement exist in almost all countries, anarchism has consistently attracted new blood and new influence.

Both the historical legacy of anarchism and the (related) fact that it is currently the only substantial anti-Leninist but revolutionary movement in existence lead to the conclusion that the best starting point for building a new left is anarchism. But what sort of anarchist movement is needed? The objective has to be kept in mind, to aid in the creation of a revolution that will found a future society without classes or the rule of a minority. It also has to be recognised that anarchism in the past has failed to fulfil this objective, most notably in Spain where it could have carried the revolution through, at least locally.

We must learn from the mistakes of the past. It is not enough to build large loose organisations formed on the basis of opposition to capitalism and an adherence to anarchism as an ideal. Experience has shown that these become paralysed when faced with an unforseen set of circumstances as with the Spanish CNT, or effectively taken over by much smaller but more coherent forces as was the fate of many of the other syndicalist movements. At a key moment they are likely to falter and it at this point that authoritarians can step in and assume leadership over the revolution.

More importantly, the building of local groups with only with the intention of getting stuck in but no vision of becoming a mass movement, has little to offer when it comes to creating a libertarian revolution. Such groups and the networks that are constructed from time to time may start off vibrant but quickly lose a sense of purpose and cease to exist over time. In Britain in particular a large number of these have arisen over the last decade, and in Ireland we have had a few. They leave no real legacy, however; who can even remember the Dublin Anarchist Collective, Dundalk Libertarian Communist Group, Scottish Libertarian Federation or the Midlands Anarchist Network.

Some anarchists in Russia and Spain after the revolutions there attempted to identify why their movements were defeated by the authoritarian forces. Their conclusions were remarkably similar and apply to anarchism today in many countries.

Some of the Russian exiles formed a group in Paris that published a pamphlet [18] based on their experiences that argued:

“This contradiction between the positive and incontestable substance of libertarian ideas, and the miserable state in which the anarchist movement vegetates, has its explanation in a number of causes, of which the most important, the principal, is the absence of organisational principles and practices in the anarchist movement.

In all countries. the anarchist movement is represented by several local organisations advocating contradictory theories and practices having no perspectives for the future, nor of a continuity in militant work, and habitually disappearing. hardly leaving the slightest trace behind them.”

A decade later in 1938 a second group, the Friends of Durruti composed of several thousand members of the Spanish CNT published a pamphlet [19] explaining why the CNT had failed to complete the Spanish revolution. It was part of an attempt even at that late stage to turn the situation around:

“We [the CNT] did not have a concrete program. We had no idea where we were going. We had lyricism aplenty; but when all is said and done, we did not know what to do with our masses of workers or how to give substance to the popular effusion which erupted inside our organisation. By not knowing what to do we handed the revolution on a platter to the bourgeoisie and the Marxists who support the farce of yesteryear “

Although the Friends of Durruti were talking of the problems faced during an actual revolution their criticism is also relevant to today’s situation. Lack of organisation prevents many anarchist groups from being effective and in the event of a revolution in the future will prevent them from leading it to success.

What is needed is an organisation with coherent ideas and a practice of democratic debate and decision making. One capable of dealing with crisis and making rapid decisions without relying on a ‘leadership’. This is an easy statement to make, in practice it is not easy to create. All too often such attempts either succumb to authoritarianism or collapse into sectarianism and isolation. They become isolated in their own ghetto, interested in argument but no longer capable of or even interested in intervening in struggle.

Building an effective anarchist organisation is not something that can happen overnight. Even the initial formation of core politics takes a number of years. Then the process of winning people over to these politics and giving them the skills and knowledge required to play a full role in a revolutionary organisation takes a considerable amount of time. To maintain coherency and democracy the organisation can only grow slowly when small, even in ideal circumstances doubling perhaps every 6 months to a year. And in the course of that growth it is all too easy to lose sight of the goal and lapse into isolation, sectarianism and irrelevancy.

Even given the right theory, an organisation is dependant on the experience and commitment of its membership in order to put its ideas into practice and arrive at new sensible strategies. The commitment needed can only be maintained if the internal culture of an organisation is one in which debate is favoured and sectarianism is discouraged.

Obviously the political positions are also important but that discussion is beyond the scope of any one article. However it is possible to identify key areas of organisational practice that an anarchist organisation needs to be committed to in order to avoid the mistakes of the past, and grow in a consistent, coherent way. These are:

Theoretical and tactical unity

An organisation is strong only because it represents the collective efforts of many individuals. To maximise on this these efforts need to be completely collective, all members working towards a common goal with common tactics. This is not just in relation to revolution but in every area the organisation involves itself in. This has been called tactical unity.

Authoritarian organisations have tactical unity because commands are passed down from the leadership, unity only breaks down when disagreements arise within the leadership. These organisations may have a formal adherence to theoretical unity but usually this comprises of no more than the ability of the membership to repeat the utterings of the leadership [20]. This is not an option for anarchists, in order to achieve tactical unity there must be real theoretical unity. This requires unrelenting discussion, education and debate around all theoretical issues within the organisation with the goal of forging a set of clearly understood positions and the ability of all the membership to argue for and present new ones. Rather than parroting a party line there is needed an organisational understanding of how to see and interact with the rest of the world.

This practice not only gives the organisation real strength in its activities, but also gives it the ability to react in a crisis. The understanding developed and the experience of decision making are precisely the tools needed when it comes to aiding the creation of revolution and the establishment of a socialist society based on real democracy. The continuous interaction of the members with society brings the skills and practice of the organisation into the wider movement. We wish our ideas to lead, not because we have control of particular positions, but because of the superiority of our organisation’s ideas.

Involvement in everyday life.

Too often revolutionaries see themselves as separate from and above everyday life. The working class is often talked of as a separate, foreign entity rather than the place where we live and interact on a daily basis. Activity is seen as the cart to be placed behind the horse of revolutionary theory. Some Marxists refer to this as a cornerstone of their organisation. They have expressed it as “No revolutionary practice without revolutionary theory.” Activity is thus seen at best, as the method by which new recruits are won [21], at worst, something that is not as yet necessary.

If building a mass revolutionary organisation was simply a matter of having a good theory, perhaps there would be something in this approach, at least for authoritarian socialists. A few learned types go up the mountain for some years to consult the written word of the gods of socialism. They interpret this as a creed for new times, carve it in stone and return to the assembled masses on the plains below, ready to lead them to the promised land. This is still a popular approach to revolutionary organisation at the moment.

But a quick look at the history of the left demonstrates that the mass organisations have not been those with the best theory but those most able to interact with the mass of the population. The strength of Maoism or the Sandanistas to name two once popular movements, was hardly in their theoretical clarity. Rather it was in their ability to interact with a sizeable section of the population, despite the weakness of their political understanding.

Anarchists need to root their politics firmly in actual struggle, at whatever level it is occurring. Through this involvement, as serious activists, respect can be gained and so an audience won among the real ‘vanguard’, those actually involved in fighting at some level against the system.[22] Theory, as far as possible, must be taken from experiences of struggle and tested by that experience. It must be presented so that it gains a wider and wider influence within the major movement.


Too often anarchist groups are composed of a small core of people who do the vast bulk of the work and financing of the organisation and a much larger periphery who avoid this commitment. This is unacceptable and a recipe for disaster. Revolutionary organisations require a large commitment in both money and time if they are to grow. All individuals involved must be willing to make this commitment, there is little room for hobbyists.

The left is coming through a bleak time, one of defeat and retreat stretching back over a decade. It is all too easy to become demoralised. But it is part of a price that has to be paid for a century of following a variety of dead ends. The left may be largely comatose for the moment but the force that created it is as active as ever. Capitalism is incapable of fulfilling the needs of the people of the world, and so long as it exists it will throw up oppositional forces. In Ireland, issues such as the X-case and the service charges demonstrate how people will be forced to fight back, although these are not offensives and should not be portrayed as such. In Mexico the EZLN rising on New Years day exposes the same force.

The question for us is how to avoid the mistakes of those activists who went before us. Anarchism is weak at the moment, but the possibility remains open to build the organisations and confidence in the class that are required to win change. Revolutionary opportunities will arise, the task is to build the skills and confidence needed to seize them, and that work starts today.

[1] It is intended here to avoid the practice of pretending to be somehow separate from the ‘left’ and share nothing in common with it. All those on the left operate in a common environment, despite their political differences in approaching this environment. Differences are in the politics held and the methods used, not in any mysterious force.

[2] And it was rhetoric along with their mass membership that gave them their only claim to be socialist. The record of social democrats in power has been dismal, with even the most favourable reading of history giving them few achievements and a multitude of sell outs.

[3] The situation in the English speaking countries is being addressed in particular.

[4] These reasons among others include the confused politics of part of the anarchist movement at the time, demonstrated by its turn to ‘propaganda by deed’ (assassinations) in the 1890’s.

[5] Democracy is being used here as shorthand for a society under socialism where all decisions are made at the lowest possible level by those they affect, or by delegates who are mandated, recallable etc. Not what’s called parliamentary ‘democracy’.

[6] So for instance because at the moment the unions in Britain or Ireland are weak and completely under the domination of the bureaucracy they presume no real struggle can emerge from them and that the bureaucracy is unbeatable.

[7] They produced three issues of a journal of the same name before disintegrating.

[8] Analysis No 2., page 3.

[9] Recently a letter in the science journal Nature accused researchers of writing papers in such a way so as to be impossible to understand unless you worked in the field. It is as if the use of obscure terms is how you prove your credentials. If this is true of mainstream science it is certainly true of many of the new left publications.

[10] Basically that the time is ripe for revolution and all that’s needed is for the right leadership to come along, raise the correct slogans and break the working class from the current reformist/centrist misleaders.

[11] As with the FAI in the Spanish CNT, whose role was to combat reformist tendencies (as well as carrying out ‘fund raising’ and retaliation for attacks by the bosses hired guns on union organisers).

[12] Indeed if volume and complexity of theory alone were the yardstick used Christianity or Islam! should be considered.

[13] by anarchists, these accounted for the failure of anarchism to create an alternative, however much it could point at the possibility of that alternative.

[14] It is important to recognise that none of these things were complete however, due to a situation of dual power with the state. However the period from after the revolution in 1936 to May 1937 saw most major decisions being made in a democratic fashion with the state only interfering at the national level.

[15] These examples should have ended the debate over whether the working class could collectively run the economy. To the idealists where the idea is more important than the reality however we still receive the mantra of ‘trade union consciousness’ and ‘need for the state’.

[16] The IWW in the USA was indeed a real union but it was explicitly not anarchist. Its politics although having much in common with anarchism (and despite the fact many anarchists were members) was more probably described as revolutionary syndicalist.

[17] A fair part of this view originates with a single study by a right wing bourgeoisie scholar in Spain based on one village at the time of a minor uprising in 1932. His work has since been shown as completely inaccurate. See The anarchists of Casas Viejas by Jerome R. Mintz [1982] for a fuller discussion of this event and its subsequent falsification.

[18] An example of this was the recent beating up of one of the more political and successful punk singers, Jello Biafra the lead singer of the Dead Kennedy’s for ‘selling out’. His leg was broken so badly that it was so swollen it could not be put in a cast.

[19] There is an excellent interview with activists of KAS (Russian anarchists, using the name of the anarcho-syndicalist organisation suppressed by the Bolsheviks in 1918) in issue #5 of Independent Politics, Winter 1994 that describes the origins of these groups in more detail. The following quote describes the formation of one of the groups that came together from 12 cities in the late 80’s to re-form KAS.
“In Moscow this was a student group called Obshchina, community or commune, which dates back to 1983. There was a group of people, friends, and in 1985–86 they had been the organising committee of the All Union Revolutionary Marxist Party. Later there was some evolution of ideas and by the time the Obshchina group was created in 1987 the main participants already knew that they stood for anarcho-syndicalism. This was mainly under the influence of Bakunin’s critique of state socialism and Marxism. These people were mainly historians and had the possibility to read materials in the archives, which was closed to the general public.”

[20] Although defeat at the hands of Franco’s better equipped army, or by even stronger international intervention would have remained a possibility. There was little international support that could be called on. Obviously without spreading internationally the revolution could not have survived long.

[21] Organisational Platform of the Libertarian Communists.

[22] Towards a Fresh Revolution.