George Barrett: Direct Action v. Parliamentarianism

Freedom Press in England has recently published a collection of essays on anarchism by George Barrett (1888-1917), Our Masters Are Helpless, edited by Iain McKay. Barrett wrote for the London based anarchist paper, Freedom, and published his own paper, The Anarchist, and several pamphlets on anarchism. Two of his best known pamphlets were the posthumously published Objections to Anarchism (Freedom Press, 1921) and The Anarchist Revolution (Freedom Press, 1920). Here I reproduce his answer from Objections to Anarchism about why Parliament cannot be used to achieve a social revolution, and the section on direct action from The Anarchist Revolution, in which Barrett sets forth the anarchist alternative to parliamentary (or electoral) methods. Both topics retain their relevance today, particularly with respect to the current political debacle in Britain regarding its exit from the European Union and Boris Johnson’s attempts to usurp the British Parliament.

Objections to Anarchism No. 2

The House of Commons and the Law have been used by the present dominant class to gain their ends; why cannot they be used by us to gain ours?

This question is based upon an extraordinary misunderstanding. It seems to be taken for granted that Capitalism and the workers’ movement both have the same end in view. If this were so, they might perhaps use the same means; but as the capitalist is out to perfect his system of exploitation and government, whilst the worker is out for emancipation and liberty, naturally the same means cannot be employed for both purposes. This surely answers the question sufficiently so far as it is a definite question. In so far, however, as it contains the vague suggestion that government is the agent of reform, progress, and revolution, it touches the very point upon which Anarchists differ from all political parties. It is worthwhile, then, to examine the suggestion a little more closely.

It is thought by the enthusiastic politicians that once they can capture government, then from their position of power they would be able very quickly to mould society into the desired shape. Pass ideal laws, they think, and the ideal society would be the result. How simple, is it not? We should thus get the Revolution on the terms promised us by the wonderful Blatchford — “without bloodshed, and without losing a day’s work,” But, alas! the short cut to the Golden Age is an illusion. In the first place, any form of society shaped by law is not ideal. In the second place, law cannot shape society; indeed, rather the reverse is true. It is this second point which is all-important.

Those who understand the forces behind progress will see the law limping along in the rear, and never succeeding in keeping up with the progress made by the people; always, in fact, resisting any advance, always trying to start reaction, but in the long run always having to give way and allow more and more liberty. Even the champions of government recognise this when they want to make a drastic change, and then they throw aside the pretence of the law and turn to revolutionary methods.

The present ruling class, who are supposed to be a living proof that the Government can do anything, are in themselves quite candid in the admission that it can do very little. Whoever will study their rise to power will find that to get there they preach in theory, and establish in fact, the principle of resistance to the law. Indeed, curious as it may seem, it is a fact that immediately after the Revolution it was declared seditious to preach against resistance to law, just as today it is seditious to speak in favour of it.

To sum up, then, if there was any logic in the question, which there is not, we might restate it thus: “Since the present dominant class were unable to gain their ends by use of the House of Commons and the Law, why should we hope to gain ours by them?”

Direct Action

To make it quite clear what is meant by the expression Direct Action, let us take an illustration. Not very many years ago, if there was a great national calamity, such as an outbreak of plague, the religious people used to declare that the only remedy was for us as a nation to pray that God might remove his curse. These good people were very much shocked when scientists came along and began taking merely sanitary precautions to stamp out the disease. The first was the indirect method: prayers were sent up to heaven so that God might send down his good influence on the plague. This was a very indirect route to reach a disease which was, so to speak, next door. The scientist attended to the disease itself, studied its nature, and tried to find a means of stamping it out. This was direct action.

To-day in very much the same way the people are divided with two methods. In their factories and homes they find themselves discontented, and some of them propose to influence the chief of society — the Parliament — so that it will exercise its power to put things right. These in their turn are shocked when advanced thinkers come along and declare that the way to get a remedy is to study the nature of the trouble and apply the cure directly to it. The former believe in the indirect or legislative method, for it is a long way from home to Westminster and back home again. The latter are the direct actionists, and they recognise that if anyone is going to put the factories in order, it will be the workers who spend their lives in them, and not the politicians.

Imagine the utter absurdity of a group of politicians sitting in the House of Commons earnestly discussing the welfare of the people. While they are doing so, are there not countless bakers, builders, and tailors walking about the streets, unemployed, and cut off, by the laws which these same politicians have passed, from the means of production, machinery, and tools with which they might produce what they need. To break down the laws and allow these people to produce what is necessary for their welfare, on equal terms with the other workers, is the way to abolish poverty.

It is clear that, if we are to rid ourselves of the troubles that best us at present, we must organise an entirely new system of wealth distribution. I do not mean by this that we must divide up, but I mean that the wealth which is produced must be stopped from flowing to the rich man who produces nothing; the stream must be diverted so that it will come to the producer.

But who is it that distributes the wealth? Is it the politician? Certainly not; as a matter of fact, it is the transport workers. If, then, the workers who produce want an alteration in the present distribution, to whom must they apply? To their comrades, the transport workers, and not to the politicians, who have nothing to do with the matter. Similarly when better conditions are needed in the factories — larger sheds, better floors, and more efficient lighting and ventilation — who are the only people capable of doing this? It is the workers who need these reforms, and the workers who can carry them out. The task before the worker to-day is as it has been in the past: the slave class must rid itself of the dictating class — i.e., of those in authority.

Such is the simple logic of the Direct Actionist, and it is already clear how it necessarily leads to the Anarchist Revolution. We must, however, be careful how we follow this principle — not that we fear being taken too far, but lest it does not take us far enough. The expression has been used so much in contradistinction to legislation, that any one who throws a brick through a window is generally supposed to be a Direct Actionist. He may be and he may not.

To be logical and true to the real meaning of the term, every act should, of course, be on the direct road towards the desired end — in our case, the Social Revolution. Sometimes it is difficult to be entirely consistent, but it is nevertheless of the utmost importance that there should be at least a minority of the workers who understand what is the direct road, so that every skirmish may be made by them a step towards the final overthrow of Capitalism.

At the risk of repeating myself, then, let me try to state the position very clearly. We have two classes — the governing, ruling, and possessing people on the one hand, and those governed and without property on the other; in a word, a master class and a slave class.

When this slave class becomes discontented and restive, it has several courses to consider before deciding which will give better conditions. It may be argued:

  1. That since the present masters do not give enough of the good things of life, these must be turned out and a new set selected from among the slave class; or
  2. That since the slave class is composed of the producers, and the master class is, therefore, dependent on it, the former is clearly in a position to force the masters to give them more food and everything that may be desired; or
  3. That since the slave class is the producer of all that is necessary for life, there is no need to either ask or demand anything from the master class. The slave class need simply to cut off supplies to the masters and start feeding themselves.

The first of these arguments, it will be seen, is that of the politicians; and it may be dismissed without further comment, since, as will be understood after what has been already said, it obviously misses the point. It is not a question of who shall be master, but it is a matter of the essential relationship between master and slave, quite irrespective of who either of them may be.

The second argument is that of the non-Parliamentary but non-Revolutionary Trade Unionist. It is right in that it recognises where lies the true power of the workers in their fight against the capitalists, but it is wrong in that it proposes no change in the relationship between these two.

If the slave class is to be better housed, fed, and clothed from the masters’ store, it means that the slaves will become more and more completely owned by the masters. It is not revolutionary, because it proposes to retain master and slave, and merely attempts to better the conditions of the latter.

The third argument is, of course, that of the revolutionist. It agrees with the second as to the weapon to be used, but it says that the task before the workers is to feed, house, clothe, and educate themselves, and not to spend their energies in making better masters of the capitalists.

To cut off supplies to the capitalist and to retain what is produced for the workers are the main points of the revolutionary fight.

In every industrial dispute there are really two, and only two, essentials. On the one hand are the factories, warehouses, railways, mines, etc., which may be termed industrial property; on the other, the workers. To unite these two is to accomplish the revolution; for with them will be built the new society.

The capitalist and master class in general can hold their position only so long as they can keep the workers outside the warehouses and factories, for within are the means of life, and the common people must be allowed to use these only on the strict understanding that they make profit and submit to the conditions dictated. To come out on strike, then, is merely rebellion, and is essentially not the revolution, however thoroughly it is done; to stay in and work in the condition of equality, free from the dictates of a useless master class, is the real object of the revolutionist.

Direct action, therefore, in this strictly revolutionary sense would mean the taking possession of the means of production and the necessities of life by the workers who have produced them, and the reorganisation of industry according to the principles of freedom.

The doctrine of Direct Action does not boast of bringing the workers easy salvation. It is, indeed, a recognition of the terribly simple fact that nothing can save us except our own intelligence and power. We, the workers, are the creative force, for is it not we who have produced all the food, clothing, and houses? Assuredly it is we who need them. What, then, has the politician to do with this? Nothing, absolutely nothing! What use is it to hand over to the master class all that we produce, and then keep up a continuous quarrel as to how much we shall be allowed back? Instead of this we have to stop supplies, reorganise our industries, not from above but from their source below, and see that in future all that is produced goes to the producer and not to the dominant class. This is the meaning of direct action, and it is Anarchism.

But, alas! it is easier to accomplish a revolution on paper with cold logic than it is to bring it about in industrial life. We have to fight the lack of understanding on the part of the worker and the craft of the politician ever at work to increase this; and in addition we have the certainty that the class in power will attempt to resist the change, with the only argument that remains on their side — brute force. While, therefore, it is important to understand that direct action properly applied means the actual “conquest of bread” and the taking possession of the factories, we must be content probably for some little while longer to use our weapon of direct action simply according to the second of the three arguments given above — that is, to demand better conditions from the capitalist class.

It is not, however, too much to hope that in the very near future the Anarchists will form a militant section of the workers, which will give to every great industrial rebellion the revolutionary character which is its true meaning. Worker as well as capitalist is beginning to recognise that a well-planned scheme for feeding the strikers is more than possible. Such a scheme would entail the capturing of the bakeries, and this is surely the first step of the revolution.

Beside this real problem, simple but great, how hollow and grotesque are the promises of the politicians. How absurd the idea of gaining liberty through the ballot-box. These hopeless government men, who talk with such sublime imbecility of feeding, housing, and clothing, only add insult to injury. The House they stand in to make their senseless speeches was built and furnished by the workers, and it is the workers who house and feed them.

And beyond our own doubt and hesitation, what, after all, stands in our way? Let us gain inspiration from the hopeless position of our foes. How helpless they are! Is not the policeman’s baton shaped by the worker, and his absurd uniform stitched by underpaid women? The soldier’s rifle is certainly not made by the master class — in every particular they are hopelessly our dependents. Every instrument of oppression is supplied to them by us, and we keep them alive by feeding them day by day. Surely, then, it is apparent that this change must come. Those above are powerless for good, or for evil; the revolution can be brought only by an upheaval from below — from the one vital section of society, the workers.

George Barrett

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CrimethInc: Occupy ICE

Occupy ICE is a movement spreading across the USA to protest and oppose the Trump administration’s ongoing attacks on refugees and immigrants, resulting in mass incarcerations of adults and children, with the children often separated, most likely permanently, from their parents. As with the Occupy movement, there are sometimes heated disagreements over tactics, as this piece from CrimethInc. illustrates.

Portland and Tacoma: You Can’t Build a Movement Based on Shame

I spent time at both the blockade in Portland, Oregon and the Northwest Detention Center Occupation in Tacoma, Washington. I think it is so inspiring and exciting that these occupations and blockades are happening all over the country. I wish they were happening in every city, at every ICE facility.

At both of these occupations, there were many anarchists with whom I felt affinity; but there were also aspects of these occupations that reminded me of the worst parts of the 2011 Occupy movement—including an intense form of privilege politics that I had hoped we had learned from and moved on from in the past seven years.

One of the most exciting aspects of resistance during times of intense repression and authoritarianism such as the time we are experiencing now is the number of people who are radicalized and join anarchist struggles. It is a huge opportunity for us—a time to spread anarchist ideas. Newly radicalized people are looking for direction. Often, however, they will follow the loudest voices—and the loudest voices are often the liberals or self-appointed “leadership” of a movement. I have seen both new people and seasoned revolutionaries controlled by authoritarian privilege politics, accepting them out of fear of being seen as racist—even though most privilege politics are themselves racist, involving self-appointed white leaders claiming to speak for all people of color and claiming that people of color are always peaceful.

This is not to say that racism is not a problem in anarchist scenes. But adhering to reactionary privilege politics can be as bad as not addressing it at all.

At the occupation at the Northwest Detention Center, there were moments when the General Assembly was filled with anarchists; at these times, the assembly made consensus decisions to never talk to the police and to not have a police liaison or any sort of security force, and agreed that snitching and sexual assault were the only acceptable reasons to kick someone out of camp without discussion. There were other times when the General Assembly was full of liberals, self-appointed all-white leadership, and even a person who threatened to snitch if someone did anything illegal. These were the moments the camp felt most stifling. We were told by that all-white “leadership” that the only acceptable action was to build the camp, for example, by cooking and organizing supplies. They maintained that any other actions would harm the people inside the detention center—all of whom, apparently, did not want tactics to escalate beyond cooking and taking out the trash.

To be clear: the NWDC is one of the biggest immigration prisons in the country. How they asked all 1500 people trapped inside it what tactics they do and don’t support was never explained to us (and of course they could not and did not consult with all of these people).

At the Portland occupation, I saw some people aggressively shamed for tagging the Tesla showroom. They were screamed at and kicked out of the occupation at 3 am. I also saw those same people later being described as white, although half of them were people of color, because it didn’t fit into the leadership’s privilege politics narrative to admit that many people of color are invested in confrontational politics and escalation. As they were verbally assaulted and kicked out of camp, they were told that because they had tagged the Tesla showroom, it would be their fault if the police came to the blockade and took children away from their parents.

At the Tacoma blockade, one afternoon, a nonviolent direct action training took place. It began with two white people and one person of color aggressively shaming everyone in the space for the actions of the police. According to them, it was our fault that the ICE agents were torturing and raping people inside because demonstrators had been standing in the street the night before. It was our fault the ICE agents were torturing and raping people inside because a couple demonstrators had been drinking beer.

We must remember that the violence of the police is never our fault. The violence inflicted upon the migrants detained within the Northwest Detention Center, despite being escalated during the protest outside, is still entirely the fault of the police inflicting it.

Many of the people in the nonviolent direct action training were white folks who had never been to a protest before and were heavily influenced by being shamed and told how racist they were. This type of privilege politics, built on shaming people into inaction, is not how you build a movement. It doesn’t build momentum, it shuts it down. It doesn’t inspire people, it shuts them down. Shame is a feeling that does nothing but disempower people, which is the exact opposite of our goal—building power, together.

As I watched the people being kicked out of the Portland blockade that night, the “security team” evicting them repeatedly expressed the belief that if there was graffiti, the police would immediately come and shut down the camp. As if the police wouldn’t come to an illegal blockade if the building hadn’t been tagged! As if the police were allowing the camp to exist because of some morality that the police and the protestors shared, and the only reason the police would come would be if that morality were no longer shared. It was as if they believed that the protestors and the police had come to an agreement, in which as long as the police could trust the protestors to police each other, then the protestors could trust the police not to evict the camp.

But the police can never be trusted, and they will never share our ethics. We know, both from the logic of the state’s position as well as from our experience in past actions, that the police will always come—just as soon as they have the force to do so. However, the amount of force they need to evict a camp or shut down a demonstration often depends on how confrontational the demonstration is. The more confrontational the occupation, the more force the police will need to evict it and the longer it will take for them to amass that force.

One recent example of this is the Olympia blockade, which barricaded an active railroad for 12 days. The entire neighborhood was covered in anti-police graffiti. Cement was poured on the tracks. Security cameras were taken down. Parking meters in the area were broken. At any given time, the greatest number of people you might find at the blockade would be ~50-100. At night, it was down to 5-20 people. By contrast, if we count from the first day of the overnight occupation in Portland to the day the ICE building was reopened, the Portland blockade lasted 10 days—and the number of people at that blockade was often 1000 or more.

The graffiti—and the smashed parking meters, broken security cameras, and so forth—at the Olympia blockade did not cause the police to come sooner. It actually took them longer to come, despite the blockade being only a fraction of the size of the Portland blockade. At the Portland blockade, people were busy policing each other. The actual cops didn’t even need to come. The protestors themselves were protecting the property of the government and the showrooms of capitalism. (Never mind that both the Tesla showroom and the ICE facility are owned by a man who openly admitted to running his Mercedes into demonstrators.)

We are in a time of crisis, in which the overt white nationalist terror of the state is clearer than ever. In this moment, we should build autonomous spaces in which people can take action outside of the control of politicians and peace police. We believe this because of our political ethics of autonomy, but it is strategic as well. Confrontational tactics are a threat to the state, whereas any protest tactics that do not actually threaten the power of white supremacy can only reinforce it. The stronger we make the barricades, the longer we can hold off the police. The less we police each other, the less power we give to them.

As anarchists, how do we counter the politics of leadership, inaction and shame? How do we build our power even as the liberals and peace police are actively trying to strip it from us?

CrimethInc. July 2018

Emma Goldman on May Day

Emma Goldman

Emma Goldman

Just found this great quote from Emma Goldman from a May Day rally in Toronto in 1939. I included several selections from Emma in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, and began Volume Two with her thoughts on anarchism in the face of the Second World War. Thanks to Dave Lester for posting this.

Emma Goldman, May Day 1937, Hyde Park

Emma Goldman, May Day 1937, Hyde Park

May Day 1939

“Again we are celebrating the first day of May, marching in parades, singing songs, listening to pretty speeches delivered by politicians and labor leaders. But is this the purpose of the first of May?

“We are being told that here in Canada, prosperity is back again. The barons of industry are harvesting millions of dollars from the sweat and toil of the Canadian workers.

“Yes, our masters will grant us ‘democratic rights’ when it comes to elections. They know as long as we are using our “powerful” slips of paper nothing is threatening their privileges. But when we use direct action, your collective strength, and strike for higher wages, then our bosses tell us that we have overstepped our “democratic rights.

“Our strength lies in the field of economics, in the factories, in the workshops, in the mines, and not in the lobbies of parliament or the steps of city halls. Therefore, fellow workers, let us mark this first of May by the realization that organization in the economic field is our only effective weapon against war and its creator the state, against Capitalism and its offspring Fascism.”

Emma Goldman

Emma Goldman 70th birthday

 

Malatesta: These Things Are Yours (1920)

Errico Malatesta

Errico Malatesta

The following piece, “This is Your Stuff,” was published by Errico Malatesta in Italy in June 1920, when Italy was on the brink of revolution. Workers had occupied factories, throwing out their bosses, acting for themselves, without waiting for the various socialist and communist parties to make the revolution for them. When Malatesta heard that some workers and peasants were destroying what they produced, he urged them instead to regard the things that they have produced as their own. “This is Your Stuff” is included in Davide Turcato’s anthology of Malatesta’s writings, The Method of Freedom, recently published by AK Press. I included several selections by Malatesta in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas.

Don't pay for food

This is Your Stuff!

From a few places around Italy, where rebel hearts beat harder, we hear rumors of a madcap notion.

Of the destruction of the crops.

Only recently in the Novara area the peasants maimed oxen just to spite their bosses; and we were reminded of the husband who maimed himself in the nether regions just to punish his wife.

Such acts would be understandable at a time when workers had no hope of imminent liberation, when the slave, having no way of freeing himself, looked for a moment of bittersweet delight by taking his master with him when he died.

But these days, such acts would look more like a suicidal mania.

Today the workers stand on the brink of becoming the masters of all they have produced; today the revolution is hammering at the gates and we should be sparing with all products, especially foodstuffs, so that we may assured of survival and success.

Or is there anyone out there who thinks that, come the revolution, the need to eat will be no more?

The destruction of goods would be tantamount to making it impossible for us to pull off a revolution that brings benefits; and, at the time, since the goods of only a few bosses would be destroyed, that would be playing into the hands of other bosses who would profit by the growing shortfall and would sell off their products at higher prices.

Rather than thinking about destroying stuff, the workers must get used to the idea that everything that there is, everything that is produced, is theirs, in the hands of thieves today, but to be wrested back tomorrow.

It never occurs to any robbery victim to destroy his possessions just to spite the thief, when he knows that he will shortly be getting his stuff back.

Rather than toying with the idea of destroying things, the workers should keep an eye out that the bosses do not waste it; they should prevent the bosses and the government from letting products go to ruin through speculation or neglect, from leaving the land untilled and the workers jobless, or engaged in the churning out of useless or harmful goods.

Starting right now, the workers should think of themselves as the owners, and start acting like owners.

The destruction of stuff is the act of a slave—a rebellious slave, but a slave nonetheless.

The workers today do not want and do not have to be slaves any longer.

Errico Malatesta, Umanità Nova, June 1920

Malatesta cover page

Geoffrey Ostergaard: The Relevance of Syndicalism

Geoffrey Ostergaard (1926-1990) was an English anarcho-syndicalist who also wrote about non-violence and direct action. His publications include The Gentle Anarchists, with Melville Currell, Nonviolent Revolution in India, and The Tradition of Workers’ Control. I included excerpts from his essay, “Fabianism and the Managerial Revolution” in Volume Two of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas: The Emergence of the New Anarchism (1939-1977). In “The Relevance of Syndicalism,” originally published in Colin Ward’s Anarchy magazine, Volume 3, No. 6, June 1963, he argues for the relevance of syndicalism by connecting the syndicalists’ anti-statism and direct action tactics to the burgeoning peace movements of the 1960s. In the mid-1980s, he revised the article for inclusion in a book of articles on influential anarchist thinkers and movements that I was putting together (but for which I was unable to find a publisher). This is the first time that his revised version of the paper has appeared, in the first of two parts.

THE RELEVANCE OF SYNDICALISM

Geoffrey Ostergaard

Syndicalism, as a movement of significant size and influence, flourished in the two decades prior to 1917 and, since then, apart from a brief and cruel flowering in Spain during the Civil War, it has been largely a spent force. Avowedly syndicalist groups and organizations still exist in many countries but their memberships are numbered in the hundreds and thousands rather than in tens of thousands and millions; and a dispassionate observer would be forced to place them in that half-submerged world inhabited by ‘the socialist sects.’ Periodical1y attempts are made to regroup the scattered forces of syndicalism in preparation for a new offensive. But it seems unlikely that such attempts will lead to a revival of the movement in its classical form in the foreseeable future.

Why, then, should we bother our heads with syndicalism? Why not leave the subject to the historians? It is clearly one of the failures of history, a movement that did not ‘come off.’ With our eyes on the present and the future, why concern ourselves with the past, especially the unsuccessful past? As T.S. Eliot reminded us, ‘We cannot revive old factions or follow an antique drum’; and perhaps, even if we could, we ought not to do so.

There are at least two good reasons for not adopting the viewpoint implicit in such questions. One is that the present and possible future cannot be understood without an understanding of the past. And by ‘the past’ I mean not only the ‘successful’ past — that part of history which most obviously leads to the present; I include also the ‘unsuccessful’ past — that part of history which from the viewpoint of the present seems to have led nowhere. It is a point often overlooked, even by intelligent historians, that there is as much, if not more, to be learned from the failures as from the successes of history. This, as I shall try to show, is particularly true of syndicalism. An understanding of why syndicalism failed and a pondering of the implications of that failure can illuminate our understanding of the present in a way that no account of ‘successful’ movements could do.

A second reason for not dismissing syndicalism out of hand is perhaps more debatable, since it stems from the values inherent in my own political position. Looked at in the round, the world socialist movement since 1917 has been divided into two great camps the social democratic camp, on the one side, and the Bolshevik or Communist camp, on the other. Initially, what divided the two camps was the question of which road to take to the socialist society. The social democrats or (to avoid the ambiguity this term may now have for British readers) democratic socialists opted for the constitutional road, while the Communists chose the revolutionary road taken by their great hero, Lenin. In recent decades, however, the division between the two has become blurred.

‘Revisionists’ have been at work in both camps. In the Communist camp, failure to make much progress along the revolutionary road in advanced capitalist countries led to doubts which eventually expressed themselves in the form of ‘Eurocommunism.’ Essentially, what Eurocommunism boils down to is the reluctant acceptance of the basic idea of the first ‘revisionist’ of Marxism, Eduard Bernstein: the road to socialism, in some countries at least, must be constitutional and democratic. But at the same time as many Communists were re-routing themselves, democratic socialists engaged in a revisionism even more radical. In their case, the definition of socialism itself was involved. Henceforth, socialism was not to be defined as it once had been by every kind of socialist: the social ownership of all the means of production, distribution and exchange. So long as the State controls ‘the governing heights of the economy,’ it is not necessary, so it was argued, to abrogate capitalist ownership completely. Abrogation is necessary, if at all, only for certain ‘basic’ industries; in others, State regulation will suffice.

However, despite the curious cavortings of both Communists and democratic socialists, they have remained united in one underlying belief: the road to socialism lies through the acquisition by their respective parties of the political power of the State, the institution claiming, within its territory, a monopoly of the major means of physical coercion and, within its territory but also in relation to other States, the attribute of sovereignty. In this respect, both differ from the socialists of what may be called the third camp: the anti-state or non-state libertarian socialists.

In the first forty years after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, not much was heard from this camp. The notable exception was in Spain; but, even there, the victory in 1939 of Franco’s fascist forces appeared to mark for most socialists the final liquidation of libertarian socialism. Historically, this third camp has comprised a variety of groups and movements, both constitutional and revolutionary. These include the so-called pre-Marxian ‘utopian socialists’; the cooperative movement; anarchists of all hues other than ‘individualist’; the guild socialists; and, of course, the syndicalists. Apart from the doubtful exception of the cooperators, the list may look like a catalogue of history’s ‘failures.’ Twenty years ago, certainly, that is how most historians would have read the list. But things have changed in the third camp as well as in the other two camps.

In the late ‘fifties and the ‘sixties, under the umbrella of ‘The New Left,’ libertarian socialism resurfaced. The starting point of New Left thinking was disillusionment with both democratic socialism and Marxian Communism as then extant in the shape of Welfare Statism and Stalinism, respectively. As New Left movements proliferated, various themes, theories and actions, all distinctly libertarian, began to come to the fore: anti-militarism, nonviolent direct action, the rediscovery of community, community action and politics, radical decentralism, participatory democracy, the organization of the poor and oppressed inter-racially, and the building of a counter culture and counter-institutions (such as new co-ops, collectives and communes). For many youthful New Leftists all these were novel ideas which they believed they themselves had invented. But it was not long before the more historically-minded among them began to realize that the ‘new’ ideas were essentially a rediscovery of old insights and a reassertion of a once-honoured but submerged tradition. As a consequence, there was a revival of serious study of old masters and old movements. In Academia, even anarchism became a respectable subject of enquiry and discussion.

For a brief moment in 1968 it looked as though forces ranged behind the New Left banner might succeed in making a spectacular breakthrough in the heartlands of advanced industrial capitalism. But, for a variety of complex reasons, the prospect (or dream) of a libertarian revolution speedily vanished, and by the early ‘seventies the New Left – ‘a movement of movements’ rather than a single movement – had dissolved into disputatious rival fragments. Libertarian socialism had been reasserted and today, in the mid-eighties, it remains a lively current of thought, infecting in some degree socialists from the other two camps. But it has not yet succeeded in firmly establishing itself as a distinctive third camp with a coherent analysis of the contemporary world and a clear strategy for achieving the classical socialist goal of a free, egalitarian, classless and transnational society.

This is unfortunate, since there is no doubt that at the present time we are witnessing the continuing decomposition of both democratic socialism and Marxian communism. The democratic socialist road, it is now clear, leads not to socialism as traditionally understood but to the managerial-bureaucratic Welfare-cum-Warfare State. It is equally clear that the Communist road leads to a variant of the same end. Overall, in the period since 1917, Communism has gained ground at the expense of democratic socialism. In relatively undeveloped countries, usually in alliance with the old enemy of nationalism, Communism has demonstrated in a way that democratic socialism has never done its capacity to make a revolution, to establish a new social order. What, alas, it has not demonstrated, and shows no signs of demonstrating, is its capacity to create a new social order remotely resembling that of the classical socialist ideal. If the future does, indeed, lie with Communism, so much the worse for the socialist dream! For, if one has to choose between them, a managerial-bureaucratic State run on the basis of a state socialist economy is even more tyrannical than one run on the basis of a capitalist  or mixed economy.

From this perspective, the libertarian socialist tradition takes on a special significance for the present generation of socialists. It may be — we have cause enough to be skeptical — that there is no road to the truly socialist society. The whole ideology of socialism over the last 175 years may come to be seen in the future — if humanity has any future — as yet one more ideology preparing the ground for the rise of yet one more historic ruling class. But, if there be a road, I am convinced that it is the third road which the syndicalists among others helped to pave. It is for this reason that syndicalism remains a subject of continuing relevance.

The most striking feature of syndicalist thought and action is the importance attached to the class struggle. Classical syndicalism, it should be noted, emerged at about the same time as the first revisionist controversy within Marxism at the turn of the century. Led by Bernstein, the revisionists questioned, among other things, Marx’s analysis of class development and his theory of the State. They argued, in effect, for what I have called the democratic socialist position — the view that socialism could be achieved gradually by a broad democratic movement acquiring, peacefully and constitutionally, control of the existing machinery of the State. This amounted to a right-wing revision of Marxism. Syndicalism, in contrast, was a revision of Marxism to the left. The struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie was seen by the syndicalists as the very essence of Marxism — ‘the alpha and omega of socialism’, as Sorel put it. All their energies were directed toward the relentless pursuit of this struggle: the class war was to be fought to a victorious finish with no compromise given or taken. Any form of class collaboration was seen as anathema. Like orthodox Marxists, the syndicalists regarded the existing State as an instrument of coercion for maintaining bourgeois domination. Where they parted company from the orthodox, however, was in their opposition to any form of the State. Marx had argued that the task of the proletariat was to destroy, in the course of the revolution, the bourgeois State and to put in its place a proletarian State. The new State would socialize the means of production, distribution and exchange, thereby abolishing social classes, and this would be the prelude to the eventual liquidation of the coercive apparatus of society. The State, as Engels put it, would ‘wither away.’. The syndicalists, in contrast, and influenced in this respect by the anarchists, insisted that the State as such must be destroyed in the course of the revolution: to build a new State on the ruins of the old would simply result in the perpetuation of class rule over the proletariat in a new, possibly more vicious, form.

This view implied a rejection not only of parliamentary action — the contesting of elections for bourgeois parliaments — but also of political action in the narrow Statist sense of the term. The syndicalists insisted that the class war must be waged, as the French put it, on the terrain de classe by direct action. Fighting the class war involves, of course, political action in the wider sense of a struggle for social power. What distinguished the syndicalists was the view that this struggle for social power, the struggle to achieve proletarian ascendancy, did not involve setting up a specialized political organization, to wit, a political party. Quite the contrary. To try to achieve socialism through such an organization, argued the syndicalists, would be fatal to the very aims of the proletariat.

It is important to grasp this point and the reasoning behind it if we are to begin to understand syndicalism. To Communists rejection of party organization appears as the fatal error of the syndicalists. The Marxist revolutions of our century, they would argue, have all been carried through only by means of the highly disciplined form of the proletarian party perfected by Lenin. As Lenin put it to some syndicalists who visited Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution: ‘You cannot lead the proletariat without a Party.’ No Communist Party means no revolution; at best, only revolt that stops short of revolution. How, it might be asked, could the syndicalists have made such a stupid mistake?

This, of course, is to beg the question. But leaving aside for the moment the suggestion that the syndicalists were in error, and noting as we do so that some syndicalists, such as Tom Mann, did admit to error and joined the Communist Party, it is relatively easy to see how the classical syndicalists arrived at their position. In a sense, they did so because they were more Marxist than Marx himself, and perhaps less heretical Marxists than Lenin. (There is a strong case for arguing that Bolshevism is the greatest Marxist heresy, turning the materialist conception on its head and, by its political success, invalidating the theory.) The classical syndicalists accepted wholeheartedly the materialist conception of history, and deduced from it the conclusion that political power is essentially a derivative from economic power. As James Connolly put it, ‘It is an axiom, enforced by the experience of the ages, that they who rule industrially will rule politically.’ A class that possesses economic power will thus necessarily, sooner rather than later, acquire political power. If, then, the proletariat, like the bourgeoisie before it, sets about acquiring economic power and is able to do so, it need not worry overmuch about political power. For the proletariat, as for the industrial bourgeoisie, economic power means power over and within industry. So, if the workers can win control of industry, the battle for proletarian ascendancy will have been won. James Connolly, again, expressed the point succinctly in these words ‘The workshop is the cockpit of civilization…. The fight for the conquest of the political state is not the battle, it is only the echo of the battle. The real battle is being fought out every day for the power to control industry.’

But there is more to the syndicalist case than this. Taking seriously, indeed, the theory of the class struggle, the syndicalists worked for a clean-cut, uncompromising proletarian victory. Socialism for them meant the replacement of bourgeois culture and institutions by proletarian culture and institutions. Their whole conception of socialism was, in the words of a Freedom editorial of the time, a thoroughly ‘working class conception.’ They had no time at all for middle class socialists. They had little patience even for the guild socialists whose ideas were closest to their own. Because guild socialists retained in some form the institution of the State, conceived in a Fabian-way as representing the interests of consumers, the syndicalists thought, as one of them put it, that they were ‘incapable of conceiving a commonwealth which is not designed on the canons of bourgeois architecture.’ Designing and building a commonwealth on the canons of proletarian architecture was what the syndicalists were about. When Marx in his Address to the First International had said that the emancipation of the working class must be the work of the workers themselves, the syndicalists thought he meant it. They did not think he meant that emancipation would come through the organization of a self-styled proletarian party led principally by people of bourgeois origins who, for one reason or another — and not always, they suspected, for creditable reasons — had taken up the cause of the workers. Bourgeois socialist intellectuals — professors, students, publicists and the like — had, the syndicalists thought, only a strictly limited and auxiliary role to play in the workers’ movement. The task of such people was to make explicit what was implicit in the social relations of capitalist society. Most definitely, it was not their task to instruct the proletariat, to guide the workers, and to lead them into correct courses of action. A workers’ movement which allowed itself to be directed by bourgeois intellectuals, even déclassé intellectuals, would, they believed, end up either compromising with the status quo or establishing a new form of class rule over the proletariat.

From this perspective, the syndicalists proceeded to juxtapose the concept of class against the concept of party. As social formations, the two are quite different. A class is a natural product of historical development, comprising individuals who occupy essentially the same position in the economic order of society. A party, in contrast, is an artificial aggregate, a consciously contrived organization, a social artifact, composed of heterogeneous elements drawn from all or, at least, a variety of classes. A class is based on a homogeneity of origin and conditions of life, and the bond of unity between its members is primarily economic. A party, however, represents essentially an intellectual unity: the bond uniting its members is primarily ideological. When individuals are approached on the basis of their class, the focus is on their role in the economic order, a role which sharply separates them from members of other classes. Thus the opposition of class interests is highlighted. But when individuals are approached on the basis of party, the focus is on their role as citizens and electors in the political order, and this role they share with members of all classes. Inevitably, on this approach, the opposition of class interests is muted. Parties may, and often do, express particular class interests — hence the view, held by political sociologists, that elections are the democratic expression of the class struggle. But parties also serve to moderate and to contain class antagonism. And, whatever the function of particular parties may be, the party system as a whole works to mitigate class conflicts and to preserve the existing socio-economic and political system.

The syndicalists, of course, appreciated that classes as such do not act. Social action involves the action of individuals in and through organizations. Organization of the proletariat, therefore, was an admitted necessity. In this respect, the syndicalists differed from those among the classical anarchists who minimized the importance of organization and who pinned their hopes on spontaneous revolutionary uprisings, stimulated by catalytic agents like Bakunin.

But, if the class struggle was the basic reality, why, asked the syndicalists, set up a special organization — a political party — which from its very nature would inevitably undermine the struggle? Why, indeed, when the proletariat already had an organization of its own: the trade or labour union — an organization based on the working class, confined (at that time) to the working class, and set up by the workers for the purpose of defending their interests in the daily struggle against their capitalist masters? True, the trade unions had been conceived, even by their creators, as mainly ameliorative instruments, as a means to win concessions for the workers within the social framework of capitalism. But there was no a priori reason why the role of unions should be so limited. Given proper direction, it was argued, they could be transformed into revolutionary instruments.

A single-minded emphasis on the potentialities of the trade union is in fact the most distinctive single feature of classical syndicalism. Syndicalists differed among themselves about how unions should be organized, many favouring industrial rather than craft unions, but all agreed that they had a dual role to perform: first, the traditional role of defending the interests of the workers under capitalism; and, secondly, the revolutionary role of overthrowing capitalism and constituting themselves as the basic units of the succeeding socialist society. Referring to this second role, James Connolly put it thus: ‘to build up an industrial republic with the shell of the political state, in order that, when the industrial republic is fully organized, it may crack the shell of the political state and step into its place in the scheme of the universe.’ As these words suggest, the more important second role became operative at once and not simply during and on the morrow of the revolution. In other words, syndicalism was not just a blueprint of the future socialist society in which unions would be the basic units of all social organization and would federate at the local, regional, national and transnational levels in order to carry out all the useful functions presently performed by bourgeois organizations. The task of the unions was to struggle here and now to divest the existing organizations of capitalist society of all life and to transfer whatever value they might have to the proletarian organizations. This part of the syndicalist strategy was summed up in Sorel’s words: ‘to snatch from the State and from the Commune, one by one, all their attributes in order to enrich the proletarian organisms in the process of formation.’