Sébastien Faure: Anarchist Synthesis

Sébastien Faure

Recently I noticed some renewed interest in the idea of an “anarchist synthesis,” a concept championed in the 1920s by such anarchists as Voline and Sébastien Faure. In Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included excerpts from Voline’s article on an anarchist synthesis that Faure had printed in his Encyclopédie Anarchiste. Today, I am reproducing parts of an article Faure wrote in 1928 on the anarchist synthesis. Fundamentally, Faure and Voline were trying to transcend the sectarian differences that existed among anarchists that had been exacerbated by the Marxist, Fascist and military suppression of anarchist ideas and movements in Russia, Italy and Latin America. The idea of an anarchist synthesis is similar to the concept of anarchism without adjectives, in that both sought to overcome the sectarian squabbles that prevented anarchists from taking united action, without attempting to impose a particular perspective as a quasi-official anarchist orthodoxy (something which the synthesists accused the Platformists of doing). Thanks to Shawn Wilbur for yet again making a translation of this sort of material available.

The Anarchist Synthesis

In France, as in the majority of other countries, we distinguish three great anarchist currents, which can be designated in this way:

Anarcho-syndicalism;
Libertarian communism;
Anarchist individualism.

It was natural and inevitable that, having reached a certain development, an idea as vast as anarchism would result in this triple manifestation of life.

A philosophical and social movement, a movement of ideas and action, intending to make a clean break with all authoritarian institutions, must inevitably give rise to these distinctions necessarily determined by the variety of the situations, milieus and temperaments, as well as the diversity of the sources by which the countless individual formations and the tremendous multiplicity of events are fueled.

Anarcho-syndicalism; libertarian communism; anarchist individualism: these three currents exist and nothing nor any person can prevent this from being the case. Each of them represents a force—a force that it is neither possible nor desirable to strike down. To convince ourselves of this, it is enough place ourselves—as simply anarchists, full stop—at the very heart of the gigantic effort that must be carried out in order to shatter the principle of authority. Then, you will be conscious of the indispensable boost furnished by each of these three currents in the battle to be given.

These three currents are distinct, but not opposed.

Now, I have three questions to pose:

The first is addressed from the anarcho-syndicalists to the libertarian communists and anarchist individualists;

The second is addressed from the libertarian communists to the anarcho-syndicalists and anarchist individualists;

The second is addressed from the anarchist individualists to the anarcho-syndicalists and libertarian communists.

Here is the first:

“If anarchism, considered as a social and popular action, contemplates the hour when, inevitably, it will make the decisive assault on the capitalist, authoritarian world that we express by the phrase “the Social Revolution,” can it do without the support of the imposing masses that group within their midst, in the field of labor, the trade-union organizations?”

I think that it would be madness to hope for victory without the participation in the liberating upheaval — and a participation that is active, efficient, brutal and persistent — by these working masses, who, en bloc, have a greater interest than anyone in social transformation.

I am not saying, and I do not think that, in anticipation of the necessary collaboration between the syndicalist and anarchist forces in the period of revolutionary ferment and action, both must, right now, unite, associate, merge and form just one homogeneous and compact whole. But I do think and will say, with my old friend Malatesta:

“Anarchists much recognize the utility and importance of the trade-union movement, they must favor its development and make it one of the levers of their action, striving to make the cooperation of syndicalism and other progressive forces lead to a social revolution that includes the suppression of classes, total liberty, equality, peace and solidarity among all human beings. But it would be a macabre illusion to believe, as many do, that the workers’ movement will lead to such a revolution by itself, by virtue of its very nature. Quite the contrary: in all the movements based on immediate and material interests (and a broad workers’ movement can be built on no other foundations), there is a need for ferment, pressure, the concerted work of men of ideas who struggle and sacrifice themselves in the service of a future ideal. Without this lever, every movement inevitably tends to adapt itself to the circumstances, giving rise to the conservative spirit, the fear of change among those who succeed in obtaining better conditions. Often, new privileged classes are created, who strive to support, to reinforce the state of things that we wish to bring down.

From this arising the pressing necessity of properly anarchist organizations that, within or outside the syndicates, struggle for the full realization of anarchism and seek to sterilize all the germs of corruption and reaction.” — Malatesta, “A Project of Anarchist Organization”

We see it: it is no more a question of organically linking the anarchist movement to the syndicalist movement than [of linking] syndicalism to anarchism; it is only a question of acting, within or outside of the syndicates, for the full realization of the anarchist ideal.

And I ask the libertarian communists and the anarchist individualists what reasons of principle or fact, what essential, fundamental reasons, they can oppose to an anarcho-syndicalism conceived and practiced in this manner?

Here is the second question:

“Intransigent enemy of the exploitation of man by man, engendered by the capitalist regime, and of the domination of man by man, birthed by the State, can anarchism conceive of the actual and total suppression of the first without the suppression of the capitalist regime and placing in common (libertarian communism) of the means of production, transport and exchange? And can it conceive of the actual and total abolition effective of the second without the permanent abolition of the State and of all the institutions that result from it?”

And I ask the anarcho-syndicalists and the anarchist individualists (1) what reasons of principle or fact, what essential, fundamental reasons, they can oppose to a libertarian communism conceived and practiced in this manner?

Here is the third and last question:

“Anarchism being, on the one hand, the highest and clearest expression of the reaction of the individual to the political, economic and moral oppression that all the authoritarian institutions cause to weigh on them and, on the other hand, the firmest and most precise affirmation of the right of every individual to their full flourishing through the satisfaction of their needs in all domains, can anarchism conceive of the actual and total realization of that reaction and that affirmation by a better means that that of an individual culture pushed as far as possible in the direction of a social transformation, breaking all the machinery of constraint and repression?”

And I ask the anarcho-syndicalists and the libertarian communists, what reasons of principle or fact, what essential, fundamental reasons they can oppose to an anarchist individualism conceived and practiced in this way?

These three currents are called to combine: the anarchist synthesis.

From all that has come before and, particularly, from the three questions above, it follows:

1° that these three currents: anarcho-syndicalism, libertarian communism and anarchist individualism, currents that are distinct, but not contradictory; there is nothing about them that renders them irreconcilable, nothing that essentially, fundamentally opposes them, nothing that proclaims their incompatibility, nothing that prevents them from coexisting peacefully, or indeed from acting together toward a common propaganda and action;

2° that the existence of these three currents not only could not, in any way and to any degree, harm the total force of anarchism,—a philosophical and social movement considered, as is appropriate, in all its breadth,—but still can and, logically, must contribute to the combined force of anarchism;

3° that each of these currents has its indicated place, its role, its mission in the heart of the broad, deep social movement that, under the name of “Anarchism,” aims at the establishment of a social milieu that will insure to each and all the maximum well-being and liberty;

4° that, under these conditions, anarchism can be understood as what we call, in chemistry, a composite or mixed body, a body formed by the combination of several elements.

This mixed body is composed by the combination of these three elements: anarcho-syndicalism, libertarian communism and anarchist individualism.

Its chemical formula could be S. 2 C. 2 I. 2.

According to the events, the milieus, the multiple sources from which the currents that make up anarchism spring, the mixture of the three elements must vary. It is up to analysis and experimentation to reveal this dosage; through synthesis, the composite body is reassembled and if, here, one element predominates, it is possible that, there, it will be some other…

How is it that the existence of these three currents could have weakened the anarchist movement?

At this point in my demonstration, it is necessary to ask how it has happened that, especially in recent years and very particularly in France, the existence of these three anarchist elements, far from having strengthened the libertarian movement, has resulted in its weakening.

And having posed this problem in clear terms, it is important that it be studied and resolved in an equally crystalline manner.

The response is easy; but it demands from all, without exception, a great steadfastness.

I say that it is not the existence itself of these three elements—anarcho-syndicalism, libertarian communism and anarchist individualism—that has caused the weakness or, more precisely, the relative weakening of anarchist thought and action, but only the position that they have taken in relation to one another: a position of open, relentless, implacable war.

In the course of these harmful divisions each faction has employed an equal malice. Each has done their best to misrepresent the theses of the two others, to reduce their affirmations and negations to absurdity, to puff up or deflate their essential lines until they make an odious caricature of them.

Each tendency has directed against the others the most treacherous maneuvers and made use of the most murderous arms.

If, lacking an understanding between them, these three tendencies had been less rabid to make war against one another; if the activity used to struggle, within or outside of the various groupings, had been used to battle, even separately, against the common enemy, the anarchist movement of this country would have gained, as a result of the circumstances, a considerable breadth and a surprising strength.

But the intestine war of tendency against tendency, often even of personality against personality, has poisoned, corrupted, tainted, sterilized everything; even to the countryside, which should have been able to group around our precious ideas the hearts and minds enamored of Liberty and Justice, which are, especially in the popular milieus, much less rare than we like to pretend.

Each current has spit, drooled, vomited on the neighboring currents, in order to sully them and suggest that it alone is clean.

And, before the lamentable spectacle of these divisions and of the horrible machinations that they provoke on all sides, all our groupings are little by little emptied of the best of there content and our forces are exhausted against one another, instead of united in the battle to be waged against the common enemy: the principle of authority. That is the truth.

The evil and the remedy

The evil is great; it can, it must only be short-lived and the remedy is within reach of our hands.

Those who have read these lines attentively and without prejudice will work it out without effort: the remedy consists of drinking in the idea of the anarchist synthesis and applying that synthesis as soon and as well as possible. (2)

From what does the anarchist movement suffer? — From the war to the knife made by the three elements of which it is composed.

If, according to their origin, their character, their methods of propaganda, organization and action, these elements are condemned to rise up against one another, the remedy that I propose is worth nothing; it is inapplicable; it would be ineffective; let us abstain from its use and seek something else.

On the contrary, if the aforementioned oppositions do not exist and, in particular, if the elements—anarcho-syndicalist, libertarian communist and anarchist individualist—are made in order to combine and form a sort of anarchist synthesis, it is necessary—not tomorrow, but today—to attempt the realization of that synthesis.

I have discovered nothing and I propose nothing new: Luigi Fabbri and some Russian comrades (Voline, Fléchine, Mollie Steimer), with whom I have talked extensively these days, have confirmed to me that realization has been attempted in Italy, in the Italian Anarchist Union and, in Ukraine, within Nabat, and that these two attempts have given the best results, that they alone have broken the triumph of fascism in Italy and the victory of bolshevism in Ukraine.

There exists, in France, as pretty much everywhere, numerous groups having already applied and currently applying the elements of the anarchist synthesis (I wish to cite none of them, in order not to omit any), groups in which anarcho-syndicalists, libertarian communists and anarchist individualists work in harmony; and these groups are neither the least numerous nor the least active.

These few facts (and I could cite others) demonstrate that the application of the synthesis is possible. I do not say, I do not think that it will be done without delay or difficulty. Like everything that is still new, it will encounter incomprehension, resistance, even hostility. If we must remain imperturbable, we will remain so; if we must resist critiques and malice, we will resist. We are conscious that salvation lies there and we are certain that, sooner or later, the anarchists will reach it. That is why we do not let ourselves become discouraged.

What was done, in memorable circumstances, in Italy, in Spain, in the Ukraine; what was done in many localities in France, can be done and, under the pressure of events, will be done in all countries.

[Faure’s Notes:]

(1) It being well understood, as the libertarian communists have explicitly declared at Orléans (at the congress held in that town July 12-14, 1926), that, in the heart of the libertarian Commune, as they conceive it, “all the forms of association will be free, from the integral colony to individual labor and consumption.

(2) The phrase anarchist synthesis must be taken, here, in the sense of gathering, association, organization and understanding of all the human elements who align themselves with the anarchist ideal.

Speaking of association and studying whether it is possible and desirable that all these elements should assemble, I could only call anarchist synthesis, this assembly, this basis of organization.

The synthesis of the anarchist theories is another matter, an extremely important subject that I propose to address when my health and circumstances allow.

Sébastien Faure, 1928

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Andrew Flood: Reflections on Platformism

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

In Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included excerpts from the “Organizational Platform of the Libertarian Communists,” which argued for a class struggle based anarchism united by a common platform. The Platform was written by veteran Russian and Ukrainian anarchists, such as Peter Arshinov and Nestor Makhno. I also included critiques of the Platform by the veteran anarchist revolutionary, Errico Malatesta, and by other Russian anarchists, including Voline, who argued for an “anarchist synthesis” which was supposed to combine the best aspects of anarchist communism, syndicalism and individualism. In the excerpts below, Andrew Flood reflects on the experience of the Workers’ Solidarity Movement (WSM) in trying to follow a platformist approach in the 21st century. The complete article can be found here.

Andrew Flood

Andrew Flood

Reflections on the Platform in the 21st Century

“The platform’s task is to assemble all of the healthy elements of the anarchist movement into a single active and continually operating organization, the General Union of Anarchists. All of anarchism’s active militants must direct their resources into the creation of this organization.”

This sentence is probably among the most contested of the [Platform], including quite often within WSM. The Platformist approach is sometimes misrepresented as being about just grouping together the best militants. That is grouping together a relatively small number from within the anarchist movement that will influence the movement in general through the power of their ideas. Elsewhere on the left and occasionally within Platformism that sort of ‘best militants’ grouping is sometimes called a cadre organisation. Cadre is a military term about the methodology of maintaining a small but highly trained force in peacetime that forms the officer layers of a very much bigger conscript army when war arrives.

Instead of war we are talking here about revolution. Those who in effect advocate a cadre organisation hold to the idea that this side of the revolution the revolutionary organisation can only group together a tiny minority and that this means the quality of that minority is all that is really important. I say ‘in effect’ because the obvious contradiction between the cadre form and anarchism has meant you have anarchists who advocate the form but oppose the use of the term cadre. Which introduces contradictions that prove damaging in the medium term as the form is adopted in a way that makes critique of it more difficult. You end up with a ‘that’s not what we are’ denial that then necessitates one of those frustrating debates about what words really mean.

In any case the language used in the Platform above is quite different, it excludes the cadre approach. It aims to group not the best anarchists but (almost) all anarchists. The solution advocated is not the identification and recruitment of a knowledgeable and skilled cadre but rather a methodology to bring together most anarchists in a manner that collectively generates and allows implementation of the best solutions they reach. Platformist groups that have ‘gone bad’ have been those groups that confused the first process for the second.

To repeat, the Platform argues for grouping together “all of anarchisms active militants” – the only anarchists it excludes are the implicit ‘unhealthy elements.’

However, unlike the Synthesis counterproposal, the Platform doesn’t want to group all anarchists together ignoring political differences but rather insists that the major function of the grouping together of militants is to discuss and resolve those differences in a collective fashion and then implement what is agreed.

unity2

The question of unity

As the text continues it defines the four key organisational principles through which this is to be achieved;
1. Unity of theory
2. Unity of tactics or the collective method of action
3. Collective responsibility
4. Federalism

“Federalism means the free agreement of individuals and entire organizations upon collective endeavour, in order to achieve a common objective.”

The WSM had a strong focus on the first point, unity of theory, through the development and repeated modification of position papers. For the most part this worked at preserving a collective baseline that could be referenced in new situations but our methodology for generating it left a lot to be desired. We basically copied the methodology of much larger organisations like the unions and the traditional left. Which was one where motions were written by individuals and then debated and voted on by the WSM as a whole at twice yearly national conferences.

The problems here were that
a. the intellectual work of generating large blocks of text only suited a small minority of member. Probably less than 10% of members ever submitted a substantial motion to conference even though dozens of such motions were submitted over 25 years. There was little or no effort prior to 2011 to change that dynamic, in effect accepting the existence of a de facto internal cadre carrying out the most important intellectual work. Some of those who subsequently left not only embraced this but based their analysis of ‘what went wrong’ around the admittance of members they consider to lack sufficient intellectual understanding. A mea culpa here – probably as much as 50% of the text of our motions after 1990 was generated by me, it’s a form of thinking out an issue and codifying the results that comes very easly to me.
b. motions being generated by a small minority resulted in a lot of the members being quite passive with regard to the content of these motions, in particular where the content was not politically controversial. This had the biggest impact in areas of resource allocation as it meant that unless members strongly disagreed with a proposal they would vote for it. But that didn’t indicate a personal commitment to the work required to implement it.

In a certain sense there need not be a problem here. Often there will be tactical proposals that are compatible with other tactics and so the only question really is whether there are enough collective resources that people would allow a particular experiment to go ahead.

The problem arises when there is the expectation that the act of getting a motion passed is enough in itself to then expect all members will work to implement it in circumstances where the act of passing is really more of a ‘sure, give it a go’.

This is in part a discussion around what ‘tactical unity’ should be read to mean. And partly a discussion about understanding that implementing any project will always be a case not just of winning passive agreement but also generating ownership and ‘buy in’. That second factor was seldom understood in WSM, instead people tended to fall back to simply demanding that ‘Unity of tactics’ meant people had to implement their project once it had been voted for.

anarchist unity

The challenge of resource allocation

That approach might work if the original decision making process is one in which the entire work of the organisations is weighed up and the votes take place in the context not of deciding whether something is a nice idea but rather on whether resources can be moved from some other area to that area. Obviously this would also have a huge impact on the likelihood of a motion being passed and required a very different decision making mechanism, one outside the tradition of unions and other organisations. It didn’t help that we were an all volunteer organisation while unions have a large staffs of full timers to administer and co-ordinate the allocation of resources. As the organisation becomes bigger the scale of trying to weigh all the demands on resources against new demands in motions become ever more complex. Indeed even at the level of an organisation with 50 members in 3 cities it’s close to impossible for every member to keep track of all the needed information.

Pre 2013 the WSM had no mechanism to weigh up competing demands for resource beyond members including ‘make a priority’ type phrases in their motions. But actually that simply displaced the problem as before long almost everything of importance to anyone was made a priority. In retrospect it seems remarkable that we never recognised that the developing friction that was causing required different methodology or a change in approach to what we meant by tactical unity.

But importantly the second issue here is around the idea that tactical unity should be translated into every member implementing every decision. WSM went through periods where that was attempted, normally in the context of genuine mass popular campaigns that involved a significant minority of the working class. The most recent example of that approach being organising against the Household Tax where there was considerable pressure on every member to make it the main focus of their activity. There was logic to that as at the time it was the biggest struggle in quite some years. But there were also problems beyond the obvious one that it is never a good idea to put all your eggs in the one basket. Those included;
a. Newer members in areas where they were the only member didn’t necessarily have the confidence, experience and skills to deal with the manipulative behaviour of the leninist groups.Most of our newer members who found themselves in this sort of situation quietly drifted out of WSM .
b. The campaign was a very basic class based one with limited economic demands. Making it the major focus of every member would have resulted in members who were active in other areas, in particular anti-oppression struggles having to reduce or temporarily abandon that activity.
c. The Household Tax campaign was eventually defeated in a way that was quite demoralising. With most of our members putting most of their effort into that struggle the result was widespread demoralisation in WSM in the final months that was not balanced by success elsewhere.

hierarchy_is_chaos

The wrong case for tactical unity

It’s often the case that when you argue with Leninists about the need for democracy they fall back on military examples where its only possible for a small number of people to make a decision that has to be made quickly or defeat is certain. Therefore they claim direct / assembly democracy is not essential and should be replaced by the representative forms of democratic centralism. Arguing for general patterns of behaviour based on extreme examples will seldom give good results. Yet platformists tend to do this with relation to tactical unity.

In the conditions of the revolution in the Ukraine you can certainly see why quite a tight tactical unity would be needed. It was important that everyone would implement a particular plan at the same moment in time. ‘We are going to attack that hill at dawn from three sides and we need you to attack the river crossing 5km away 30 minutes before hand as a diversion to draw away reinforcements.’ But as with the Leninists and democracy just because extreme examples exist where a very strict definition of tactical unity needs to be followed this doesn’t then mean that such a level should be the default position in most circumstances.

Instead I’d suggest that tactical unity should not be read as anything more than a requirement to implement the tactics that are agreed if they apply to the given area a member is active in. So in relation to the household tax campaign tactical unity would mean arguing for a boycott of the charge, if that was the work you were involved in, and not a requirement to get involved in that work in order to make that argument. Indeed that must have been the intended meaning of the Platform, why else list Tactical Unity separately from Collective Discipline? There could be times, preferably brief, where the organisation thought that the scale of opportunity that existed did require an exceptional level of tactical unity including an individual requirement for implementation. But that would need to be a clear cut decision rather than, as happened in our case, an assumption some members made and tried to require of others.

Which brings us to Collective Responsibility. This can be read as every individual being responsible for the implementation of every decision but that makes little sense. What makes more sense is if it is understood to operate on both the collective and individual level. On the collective level it is the requirement for the organisation to implement decisions made. If that is to be meaningful it means building into the decision making process a way of weighing up and parcelling out the competition for collective resources. Then on the individual level the implementation of tasks that the individual has taken on should be a requirement, as should the expectation of taking on some minimum volume of tasks. In other words at the individual level the expectation is not that everyone will do X but rather than the individual will take on tasks and implement those tasks as part of a collective process.

When you look at the way the Platform defines the last point, Federalism, we see exactly this expectation in the definition; “the federalist type of anarchist organization, while acknowledging the right of every member of the organization to independence, freedom of opinion, personal initiative and individual liberty, entrusts each member with specific organizational duties, requiring that these be duly performed and that decisions jointly made also be put into effect.”

The conclusion I would come to is that in these core aspects it can be argued that the post 2013 WSM have moved a lot closer to a practical understanding and implementation of the Platform. The pre 2009 WSM had a formal adherence to the Platform but we lacked a practical distinction between tactical unity, collective responsibility and federalism of the sort worked through here. Instead we failed to distinguish between these. And coupled this with an inherited a set of contradictory practises from the unions, left and republicanism that were to some extent in contrast to these points and were administratively unworkable in an anarchist organisation. The end result was that the proclaimed (too intense) unity was seldom realised in practise and this became a source of frustration & friction.

Solidarity march

National co-ordination

The platform also addresses head on the tricky question of how you co-ordinate the work of numerous branches or other sub-divisions, its answer is not dissimilar to the WSM Delegate Council (DC):

Executive Committee of the Union

“The following functions will be ascribed to that Committee: implementation of decisions made by the Union, as entrusted; overseeing the activity and theoretical development of the individual organizations, in keeping with the overall theoretical and tactical line of the Union; monitoring the general state of the movement; maintaining functional organizational ties between all the member organizations of the Union, as well as with other organizations.”

However because of the administrative contradiction outlined above was an ongoing tension where WSM DC was expected to somehow solve the consequences of our failure to collectively understand the differences between the four points above. Those who later went on to become social democrats wanted DC to micro-manage the organisation’s work – at a level impossible without ‘full timers’ – and as part of this micro-management the requirement to pass on all sorts of decision making powers to DC.

The social democrats later interpreted their failure to make DC work in the manner wished as a failure of anarchism. In particular they came to adopt the idea that such decision making roles were only suitable for an elite of people with the right sort of brains. To be clear they were far from the first set of people for whom the Platform proved a transition out of anarchism to more elitist politics, to my mind this is because the Platform has often been implemented as a program for a cadre organisation.

Does any of this still matter in the age of the ‘networked individual’?

There is a final point, and that is to ask whether an organisational set of principles from the year when public telephones first appeared in Dublin train stations has relevance in the age when many of us have instant global video communication devices sitting in our pockets. The transformative opening up of ‘one to many’ communications in the last decade has radically changed the way oppositional movements emerge. The central part once played by the old left party system in monopolising ‘one to many’ communications in oppositional politics no longer exists. We are only beginning to see how that will transform the left but the question has to be asked whether this means the organisational principles of the Platform are about as relevant as designs for a horse and cart today.

I’d suggest that perhaps the Platform is more relevant than ever precisely because the communication monopolies that once made centralised, top down party structures seem natural no longer exist. Let’s rewrite the 3rd paragraph of the platform quoted at the start of this piece slightly to refer to more recent events. ‘In every country the Occupy movements were represented by local organizations with contradictory theory and tactics with no forward planning or continuity in their work. They folded after a time, leaving little or no trace.’ This suggests how the problems of informal anarchism of the 1910s have become more general movement problems today. But it also enables us to see how the negative costs of such disappearance are not what they used to be because online communications and archiving makes it much more possible to preserve both lessons and communications networks. Occupy and the other horizontalist movements didn’t simply vanish, they often seeded other movement’s.

An important qualifier is that the horizontalist movements may share organisational features with the informal anarchists of long ago but they did not define themselves as revolutionary organisations en route to overthrowing capitalism. From that point of view the way the Platform talks about the relationship between the Platformists and the mass semi-spontaneous movements of its day are informative “We regard revolutionary syndicalism solely as a trade-union movement of the workers with no specific social and political ideology, and thus incapable by itself of resolving the social question; as such it is our opinion that the task of anarchists in the ranks of that movement consists of developing anarchist ideas within it and of steering it in an anarchist direction, so as to turn it into an active army of the social revolution. It is important to remember that if syndicalism is not given the support of anarchist theory in good time, it will be forced to rely on the ideology of some statist political party.”

The post 2011 period is precisely a period where ‘horizontalism not given the support of anarchist theory in good time, [was] forced to rely on the ideology of some statist political party’ in the forms of Syriza, Podemos and much less convincingly the old left of Sanders & Corbyn. This was a failure of the weakness and general disorganisation of anarchism in 2011 – it failed to provide a convincing alternative. Worse some made the mistake of reading the failures of Occupy as being failures of anarchism. Some of the informal anarchists in Greece, Spain and elsewhere ended up being sucked into becoming voters if not foot soldiers of those new statist political parties.

Resisting those tendencies would have required quite sizeable and well resourced formal anarchist organisations with the reputation and reach to successfully argue for other paths than the retreat to electoralism. Building those sort of organisations is not the work of weeks or months, nor can they rapidly emerge from nowhere. Rather we need to spend time building the required tight relationships and deep levels of skill and experience on a large enough basis to give us the needed reach when popular movements explode onto the scene. The Platform continues to provide a starting point to understanding how that is done.

Where does that leave the WSM today with regard to the Platform?

The ‘Organizational Platform of the General Union of Anarchists (Draft)’ remains a useful foundational document even if its certainly not the text you would hand to someone explain what the WSM stands for. It’s particularly useful for anarchists who have become frustrated with practises of anarchism that are based around informality as a demonstration that informality is not fundamental to anarchism. The danger here is that for such people it is often also the last step before they break with anarchism, so the historical experience has been that hitting a barrier often results in just such a break. Critics then reverse cause and effect and portray the platform as some sort of exit text.

It’s useful as a tool of common identification with other anarchists internationally. In both cases its pedigree is important as those who drafted it were quite central figures in anarchism of the 1910s and 1920s. But that is quite a specialist usage that also has the downside of only working for those who have a rather detailed knowledge of what many consider to be an obscure corner of anarchist history. Out of necessity WSM has relied almost completely on such an approach to identify potential international allies, the exceptions being where direct individual contact generated the level of knowledge and mutual understanding that could bypass that.

As with all foundational texts it’s important to be hyper aware of the tendency to treat them as scripture or material for ‘appeal to expertise’ style of arguments. And the related danger of presuming that anything not touched on is not of major importance. As discussed already the huge shortcomings of the platform is not in what it says but what it doesn’t say, it had nothing to say about how other oppressions intersect class. Or, although this is a modern concern, the related questions of environmental crisis and growth requiring economics.

The Platform is not anything approaching a manual, quite the opposite it’s a sketch of some ideas that will only become useful as a guide when they are considerably fleshed out and built on. It’s central ongoing strength, perhaps unfortunately, is its description of the shortcomings of informal anarchism in the opening paragraphs and the sketch it provides of organisational structures and methods to overcome those shortcomings. Without those anarchism remains trapped as a critique of the left without the accompanying methods to aid the birth of a genuinely free society.

That at the end of the day is the relevance of the platform. We stand on the shoulders of a fight for freedom that is hundreds of years old and in certain respects thousands. That is a fight that has not been won and broadly we have lost for two reasons. The first because rebellion resulted on the promotion of new people into power, people who promised freedom but who at best simply modifyed the prison. And the second because we lacked the organisation to defeat the old regime. Most of the left tends to focus simply on that second problem, many in the anarchist movement fear the first to the extent it makes the second inevitable. The platform claimed to provide the route to freedom overcoming both.

Andrew Flood

The Platform and Its Critics

Organizational Platform

Continuing with the installments from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, in this section I discuss the impact of the “Organizational Platform of the Libertarian Communists,” published by Peter Arshinov, Nestor Makhno and other anarchists in 1926. Excerpts from the Platform were included in Volume One of the Anarchism anthology. The Platform generated a great deal of criticism from other anarchists, some of which I also included in Volume One. More recently, I posted a debate on Platformism between two Ukrainian anarchists in relation to the current civil war in Ukraine.

The Original Platformists

The Original Platformists

The Platform and Its Critics

The defeat of the Makhnovists in Ukraine and the anarchist movement in Russia led Arshinov and Makhno to argue that anarchists needed to rethink their approach. In 1926, now in exile, they published the Organizational Platform of the Libertarian Communists, calling for the creation of a General Union of anarchists based on theoretical and tactical unity, collective responsibility and federalism (Volume One, Selection 115). Although, for the most part, the Platform merely restated the Makhnovist conception of anarchism, it generated considerable controversy in anarchist circles. The Platform argued in favour of military organization based on “unity in the plan of operations and unity of common command,” “revolutionary self-discipline,” and “total submission of the revolutionary army to the masses of worker and peasant organizations common throughout the country.” Despite its insistence on revolutionary self-discipline and contrary to the practice of the Makhnovists during the Civil War, the Platform rejected any form of conscription, stating that “all coercion will be completely excluded from the work of defending the revolution,” marking a return to rather than a departure from anarchist principles (Volume One, Selection 115).

It was the Platform’s emphasis on the need for theoretical and tactical unity, and the notion of “collective responsibility,” that caused the greatest debate. The Platform argued that “the tactical methods employed by separate members and groups within the Union should… be in rigorous concord both with each other and with the general theory and tactic[s] of the Union.” Collective responsibility “requires each member to undertake fixed organizational duties, and demands execution of communal decisions.” The Platform took the position that revolutionary activity in collective areas of life “cannot be based on the personal responsibility of individual militants,” describing such an approach as “irresponsible individualism” (Volume One, Selection 115).

The General Union of anarchists was to strive “to realize a network of revolutionary peasant [and worker] economic organizations” and unions, “founded on anti-authoritarian principles,” with the General Union serving as “the organized vanguard of their emancipating process” (Volume One, Selection 115). Voline and several other exiled Russian anarchists argued against any anarchist organization assuming a vanguard role. For them, the social revolution “must be the free creation of the masses, not controlled by ideological or political groups,” for the “slightest suggestion of direction, of superiority, of leadership of the masses… inevitably implies that the masses must… submit to it.” A General Union of “anarchists” that “orients the mass organizations (workers and peasants) in their political direction and is supported as needed by a centralized army is nothing more than a new political power” (Volume One, Selection 115).

Anarchist critics of the Platform: Senya Fleshin, Voline & Mollie Steimer

Anarchist critics of the Platform: Senya Fleshin, Voline & Mollie Steimer

Voline and his associates found the Platform’s conception of social and economic organization “mechanical” and simplistic, with its scheme for the coordination of production and consumption by workers’ and peasants’ soviets, committees and unions run by elected delegates subject to recall. They saw in such organizations a danger of “immobility, bureaucracy [and] a tendency to authoritarianism that will not be changed automatically by the principle of voting.” They thought a “better guarantee” of freedom lies “in the creation of a series of other, more mobile, even provisional organs which arise and multiply according to the needs that arise in the course of daily living and activities,” offering “a richer, more faithful reflection of the complexity of social life” (Volume One, Selection 115).

While the Voline group acknowledged that ideological differences among anarchists, and the resulting disunity, were partly responsible for the failure of the Russian anarchist movement, they argued that there were other factors at play, including the “existing prejudices, customs [and] education” of the masses, the fact that they “look for accommodation rather than radical change,” and the repressive forces lined up against them (Volume One, Selection 115). For Voline, what was needed was not a more centralized and disciplined party type organization, but a “synthesis” of all the “just and valid elements” of the various anarchist currents, including syndicalism, communism and individualism (Volume One, Selection 116). Foreshadowing subsequent ecological conceptions of anarchism (Volume Two, Selection 48; Volume Three, Chapter 6), Voline argued that anarchism should reflect the “creative diversity” of life itself, achieving unity through “diversity and movement” (Volume One, Selection 116).

Malatesta responded to the Platform by emphasizing that “in order to achieve their ends, anarchist organizations must, in their constitution and operation, remain in harmony with the principles of anarchism.” He argued that the proposed General Union of anarchists should be seen for what it really was, “the Union of a particular fraction of anarchists.” He regarded as authoritarian the proposal for a “Union Executive Committee” to “oversee the ‘ideological and organizational conduct’” of the Union’s constitutive organizations and members, arguing that such an approach would turn the Union into “a nursery for heresies and schisms” (Volume One, Selection 115).

For Malatesta, what the Platformists were proposing was a form of representative government based on majority vote, which “in practice always leads to domination by a small minority.” While anarchist organizations and congresses “serve to maintain and increase personal relationships among the most active comrades, to coordinate and encourage programmatic studies on the ways and means of taking action, to acquaint all on the situation in the various regions and the action most urgently needed in each; to formulate the various opinions current among the anarchists… their decisions are not obligatory rules but suggestions, recommendations, proposals to be submitted to all involved, and do not become binding and enforceable except on those who accept them, and for as long as they accept them” (Volume One, Selection 115).

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Since the publication of the Platform in 1926, anarchists have continued to debate which forms of organization are compatible with an anarchist vision of a free society. Some have championed various forms of direct democracy, whether in factory committees (Volume Two, Selection 59) or community assemblies (Volume Two, Selection 62). Others have followed Kropotkin, Voline and Malatesta in arguing in favour of more fluid, ad hoc organizations forming complex horizontal networks of voluntary associations (Volume Two, Selection 63; Volume Three, Selection 1).

Malatesta suggested that the Russian Platformists were “obsessed with the success of the Bolsheviks,” hence their desire “to gather the anarchists together in a sort of disciplined army which, under the ideological and practical direction of a few leaders, would march solidly to the attack of the existing regimes, and after having won a material victory would direct the constitution of a new society” (Volume One, Selection 115). But for those so inclined, there were other organizations for them to join, namely the various Communist Parties that were soon organized in Europe, Asia and the Americas under Russian tutelage.

Despite the creation of an anarcho-syndicalist International in early 1922 (Volume One, Selection 114), many anarchists and syndicalists, and the trade unions in which they were influential, affiliated instead with the Comintern (Communist International) and its related organizations. In addition, many anarchist and syndicalist groups and organizations were forcibly suppressed, by the Bolsheviks in Russia, the Fascists in Italy, the new “revolutionary” government in Mexico, military dictatorships in Portugal, Spain and Latin America, and the “democratic” government of the United States, which deported scores of radicals in 1919 (including Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman), imprisoned Mexican anarchists like Ricardo Flores Magón, and enacted “criminal syndicalism” laws to prohibit revolutionary syndicalist speech and action.

Robert Graham

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Platformism in Ukraine Today? A Debate

RKAS (PKAC) demonstration in Ukraine

RKAS (PKAC) demonstration in Ukraine

The Revolutionary Confederation of Anarcho-Syndicalists – N. I. Makhno (Революционная конфедерация анархо-синдикалистов им. Н. И. Махно), was established in Ukraine in 1994. It was consciously modeled after the Makhnovist movement of the Russian Revolution and Civil War (1917-1921), adopting a “Platformist” approach as advocated by Nestor Makhno, Peter Arshinov and other survivors of the Makhnovist movement. Many anarchists have been critics of Platformism as an attempt to create, in essence, an anarchist political party demanding ideological uniformity and “organizational discipline” (see Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas for excerpts from the original Platform and critical responses by Malatesta and Voline). What follows are excerpts from an interview by the Russia-based “libertarian communist” group, Autonomous Action, and one of the former leaders of the RKAS, going under the name of “Samurai,” and a critical response to Samurai’s comments, apparently from another Ukrainian anarchist. The unedited interview and the response can be found at anarkismo.net. For a lengthier critique of “Samurai” and the RKAS, see “Caution: platformist party and psychosect in one bottle!”

russia or ukraine

Platformism and Anarchism in Ukraine

There are three main reasons why the anarchist movement in the form it exists nowadays [in Ukraine] does not have any future. The first reason is the infantilism of the overwhelming majority of the people who join the movement. This is not connected only with age, though the majority of the participants of the movement recruited by us are in fact kids. Talking about infantilism I mean the state of mind, the child-like view of quite serious and fundamental things and a lack of seriousness in the perception of serious things. This is the paradigm of the consciousness of the majority of those who come to anarchism, no matter how old they are – 14, 18, 25 or older. Naïveté and some kind of childish inefficiency are inherent in them. These people form the agenda for the movement and the shape of its existence.

The second reason is the “subculture” traits of the movement. A very good illustration of my words was demonstrated in one of the interviews about events in Ukraine on the Avtonomnoje Deistviye (Autonomous Action) site. Here is what one of the anarchists answered in this interview to the question: “Are there anarchist groups in Donbass?”:

“The activity of anarchists is at a low level, there are few of them. That’s why their influence on the political situation is extremely negligible. There are groups of ‘non-organized’ anarchists in some towns of the region – Donetsk, Avdeevka, Kramatorsk, Gorlovka, Mariupol, Yasinovataya. Membership of each group is up to ten or about this number… The activity of the given groups is various: starting from conducting games of five-a-side, concerts, up to agitation (stickers, graffiti)… But the activity is not systematic, as these groups are something like companies of friends”…

International Union of Anarchists (MSA)

International Union of Anarchists (MSA)

As one more example of infantilism and ideological manginess one can remember the anti-electoral propaganda of the breakaway organization from RKAS, the so-called Mezhdunarodnyj Souz Anarkhistov (MSA, International Union of Anarchists) in Donetsk. During the split the breakaways argued so much about the fact that in the allegedly authoritarian RKAS they were not given an opportunity to realize themselves, that their initiative was suppressed and so on. As a result, having freed themselves from the “dictatorship of the RKAS organizational bureau”, which made them go to mines and factories and spread “Anarchy” newspaper, and deal with trade unions and cooperatives, and build a well-disciplined “black guard”, having freed themselves from RKAS conference decisions, which put forth really constructive socio-political tasks, the “anti-authoritarian” anarchists, having established the MSA, showed their strategic and tactical abilities by sticking all around the city handwritten posters containing messages like: “Do not go to elections – eat vegetables!”.

And where are all these new, unimaginable anti-authoritarian units, the creators of which weakened RKAS systematically and broke the anarchist movement into pieces by their arrival, thus not giving it any opportunity to organize itself into a strong, mass political organization? Are they still sticking stickers, drawing graffiti no one wants, playing football and going to concerts? Eat vegetables, do not go to elections? For the sake of this, one had to destroy all the constructive sprouts in anarchist movement, saying that that was “not quite respectable for pure anarchism”? This is the way naughty children behave, arranging holidays of disobedience and riots for the sake of their petty insults and games…

I have already talked about the absence of anarchist organization. This is the main problem of the modern anarchist movement and the cause of its collapse against the background of current developments. The things that are happening now in Ukraine and the fact that anarchists here have been unable to use the situation because they denied common sense for years and were enthralled by subcultural, anti-organizational illusions, provides much food for self-analysis.

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And it confirms all the conclusions and efforts which supporters of the project called “RKAS – N.I. Makhno” attempted to carry out. The fact that it failed says a lot and answers the following question: “Is it possible for anarchists to hope now to switch the activity of the masses to the plane of the social revolution?” The organization is a very important medium for the existence of ideas. It is an incubator, a school, a mutual aid society and a productive platform for ideas and projects; but most importantly, it is a tool for realizing those ideas, it is an instrument of influence and an instrument of struggle. It cannot be replaced with affinity groups…

The RKAS project was… not just refused, but a real persecution was unleashed against it. Ask those who call themselves anarchists in Ukraine, what they think about RKAS and you’ll hear so much venom, bile, anger and lies. Why? Because we are the only ones who did not keep pace with supporters of subculture and chaotics (translator’s note: those who believe anarchy to be a pro-chaos movement), and the only ones who spoke of the need for unity, discipline and rigidity. The only people who spoke openly to one’s face about weaknesses and castigated the vices of the movement. And the only ones who had always acted against “the rules”.

We have always been unlike the others, with our… [Makhnovist] platformist anarchism. There are only two attitudes to RKAS among anarchists – respect or hatred. But there is no indifference. So we’re on the right track. And our struggle for the organization is a struggle for the realization of anarchist ideas in practice. Now we have a lot to rethink. But I’m afraid that everything will remain as it is in the anarchist movement…

Though I think that RKAS is a unique phenomenon in post-Soviet anarchism, one which existed for more than 20 years and played a brilliant role in its history. Many groups that appeared later are only clones of RKAS, whose creators are just copying parodies of the mother matrix, having lost its original essence. And each slightly-fledged anarchist certainly wants to create his new organization, always copying RKAS but claiming this act of creating a copy to be an anti-authoritarian rebellion and a new word in anarchism. This is ridiculous. And that would just be funny, if it were not so sad. Because it is an infinite ambitious split of the movement as if from the motives of anti-authoritarianism, but in fact from idiotic vanity and self-affirmation. And I don’t know, whether the coming-of-age will ever come…

RKAS demonstration

RKAS demonstration

A Response to Samurai

The introduction to this article informs readers that the organization in question wanted to adopt a strategic and responsible approach to developing a libertarian society and the author of the article seems to criticize the movement, as if the infantile movement was something outside of this organization, but affecting it and rendering it incapable of building a better movement. And this is bullshit.

I know the organization and knew it when it started. It was quite different in those days… The organization went through several incarnations, but Samurai was one element of leadership in the organization that stayed the same. So he can be seen as a crucial element in the degeneration of the organization at the same time. If the movement, including RKAS went into a direction that has “no future”, it was partly (or even mainly) because of bad decisions, especially of this person.

We cannot really talk about a bad strategy which is the result of a diverse collective of people seeking wrong paths. The organization became very hierachical, with an organizational office (orgburo) which concentrated a lot of the practical decision making in the hands of a few people. I am extremely critical of this model, because while technically maybe the organization later has to “approve” the tactics decided in this small circle, we can see in practice how this excludes members from discussion about the strategies, tactics and even goals of the organization, reducing them to a more passive position where they rubber stamp decisions of the moral authorities.

The RKAS degenerated into something like a cult, with a range of activities focusing around martial arts and militias. With a sort of “recruit them and discipline them” type of mentality, RKAS began to focus its “training program” on young kids. Because only young kids can be fooled by this type of organization. It was essentially a type of macho masturbation, paramilitary and cult-like in nature, not a type of organization in which working class adults would have any interest in participating.

Samurai has referred to this organization in different places as “an army”, which shows a little bit about the mentality behind what he was doing.

He called on anarchists to unite in the RKAS, but why would people like to unite in an organization which has vertical elements and acts like a cult? Especially if the leader does things like beat up people who disagree with him. As a martial arts teacher, Samurai defends and espouses the role of the teacher as one who gives knowledge and expects the organization to work in the same way. At events like RKAS camps, daily physical training in martial arts is something like a compulsory program, whereas ways to build non-hierarchical workplace and community organizations are not really a main point on the agenda. (Samurai describes in Russian-language forums that participation in “Black Guard” training is obligatory for every healthy member of the group on Saturdays and Sundays.) RKAS promoted a “clan structure” and the creation of “their own subculture”.

So then later writing about how subcultures and catering to youth presents a dead end for the movement can only be seen as a very hypocritical statement. It was the basis of the RKAS strategy for years.

But one thing is for certain, RKAS did intend to unite different anarchists – which is why you could [have] even anarcho-capitalists and nationalists in their ranks. While some call it “platformist”, the political platform seemed to go out the door in practice, while loyalty to the organization itself and its modus operandi became the main criteria for joining. If you like to play that you are in a revolutionary army, this made you a good candidate.

As to the anarcho-capitalists, we can see that RKAS members went into SAU, a legal anarcho-capitalist party some time ago. While some tried to justify this as some type of “entryism” and later they went out, there seems still to be cooperation with the capitalists.

Back to the macho sect-like nature of RKAS, we can see what Samurai wrote in one Russian-language forum: “The RKAS has always been an anarchist community, a large family of like-minded, ideological and militant clan of fighters in word and deed(…) And none of those who have violated the principles and spirit of the organization go without punishment. All lazy people, incorrigible windbags, cowards and faint-hearted are ruthlessly expelled. Traitors are despised in public. Causing harm is punished. It was decided at a general meeting or by the arbitral tribunal”.

As we can see from this text, Samurai does not see a problem with this, but criticizes those who freed themselves from the dictatorship of the organizational bureau as infantile, as being the causes of the problem. And the problem is that RKAS was weakened by those who left it, according to the logic of the author. But as I pointed out earlier, this sort of cult-like masturbating paramilitaristic organization is the realm of young kids who equate clan-like discipline with revolutionary tactics. One cannot expect that people will not tire and grow out of the spell of “the teacher”. And criticism of the pro-patriotic elements of this text and RKAS’s tolerance for this.

While on the surface this text may look as a criticism of subcultural anarchists by organized ones, it is nothing more than the criticism of one subcultural leader against other subcultures.

Groups like the degenerated RKAS or other macho and subcultural federations are small ghettos which offer no real perspective for the working class to organize themselves into non-hierarchical organizations which can fight against capitalism on any practical level.

makhno quote