An Anarchist FAQ version 15.0 released (18/03/2014)

An Anarchist FAQ is now at version 15.0. This release is a revision of the appendix replying to David McNally's attack on anarchism and defend of Leninism:

Reply to errors and distortions in David McNally's pamphlet "Socialism from Below."

    1. Introduction
    2. Is anarchism the politics of the "small property owner"?
    3. Does anarchism "glorify values from the past"?
    4. Why are McNally's comments on Proudhon a distortion of his ideas?
    5. Why are McNally's comments on Bakunin a distortion of his ideas?
    6. Are the "quirks of personality" or "rooted in the very nature of anarchist doctrine"?
    7. Are anarchists against democracy?
    8. Are Leninists in favour of democracy?
    9. Why is McNally wrong on the relation of syndicalism to anarchism?
    10. Do syndicalists reject working class political action?
    11. Why is McNally's claim that Leninism supports working class self-emancipation wrong?
    12. Why is Marxist "class analysis" of anarchism contradictory?
    13. If Marxism is "socialism from below," why do anarchists reject it?
    14. Why is McNally's use of the term "socialism from below" dishonest?
    15. Did Trotsky keep alive Leninism's "democratic essence"?

By co-incidence it has been revised 14 years to the day it was first released and 30 years after McNally's pamphlet was first published.

The revised reply is much longer than the original reply and far longer than McNally's pamphlet. This is unavoidable due to the nature of McNally's claims and how they have entered the "conventional wisdom" of much of the left (including, sad to say, anarchists who should know better). We hope that readers understand and take the time to read the reply. After all, will a sentance simply stating McNally is wrong about almost all he claims about both Anarchism and Leninism would be factually correct and short, it would not be convincing.

Another objection would be that the reply draws upon some works which were not available to McNally when he was writing the pamphlet. That does contain an element of truth -- these were not available when the reply was initially written and some of McNally's claims went unreplied to simply because the facts were not easily available. However, given the nature of McNally's claims it behoved him to check their accuracy by means of the primary sources rather than simply utilising those secondary sources which confirmed his (and Draper's) own prejudices. Sadly, the notion that anarchist thinkers should be read is something alien to most Marxist writers.

If McNally had went to the source material then some of his truly horrific mistakes would have been avoided. He would have, for example, discovered the context of Proudhon's comment that "All this democracy disgusts me" and, we hope, not used it as it seriously distorts his ideas. While he could claim he got this quote third hand (Schapiro via Draper), it behoves a serious and honest revolutionary socialist to confirm that his sources are fairly utilising the material they reference. So we have ensured that, where possible, we indicate the source material being quoted. The one exception are the quotes from the chapter "L'esclavage et le prolétariat" ("Slavery and the Proletariat") which is Chapter IX of the Third Part of Proudhon's The Federative Principle (volume 8 of Oeuvres Complètes, Lacroix edition, pp. 227-34). Instead we have referenced them to Iain McKay's "Neither Washington nor Richmond: Proudhon on Racism & the Civil War" (Anarcho-Syndicalist Review no. 60) as this references this volume, indicates the translator of the chapter (Ian Harvey) and is easier to find and so verify.

All this does not, of course, mean that Bakunin and Proudhon are considered idols to anarchists -- far from it, we recognise their flaws and limitations. That is why we do not, unlike certain other socialist tendencies, name ourselves after individuals. We do not confuse critique with playing "whose dead white guy with a beard was nicer" (which is, when you boil it down, is what most Marxist critiques of anarchism amount to).

So our critique of McNally does not imply that anarchists think Proudhon or Bakunin (or any anarchist) is above reproach. They are not. However, if they are to be criticised then they should be criticised for the views they actually held rather than for inventions based on selective quoting or for one-off comments in private notebooks. If a position is accurately reported (for example, Proudhon's sexism) then the question arises whether this is consistent with the fundamental ("essence", to use McNally's preferred term) ideas that person expressed or whether they are in contradiction to them. As will be seen, for the anarchist thinkers these positions are in contradiction to the fundamental ideas they expressed elsewhere and, unsurprisingly, other anarchists recognised this and applied them consistently (e.g., Bakunin's support for sexual equality). After all, Proudhon argued that genuine liberty and equality required self-governing workplaces and communities, why should the family be the sole exception? And why should we reject all his ideas due to this inconsistency rather than simply reject the few inconsistent ones in the name of the fundamental ideals driving his work?

This reply serves two purposes. First, it exposes as baseless many myths about anarchism (and specific anarchists) common in Marxist circles. This, in itself, is a worthwhile task as it allows libertarians to move the debate between Marxism and Anarchism to real issues of actual importance to the socialist movement. Second, it discusses the grim reality of Leninism in power, shows its links between its (authoritarian) practice and its (authoritarian) ideology and indicates why anarchism is the superior form of socialism simply because it takes the notion of "socialism from below" seriously, as more than something to pay lip-service to while justifying "socialism from above".

Given that McNally was neither the first nor the last Leninist to attack anarchism in shamefully inaccurate ways, the question arises why do they do this? Perhaps the answer can be derived from a comment by Lenin who, in May 1907, defended himself for the rhetoric he used against a group of Mensheviks:

The wording is calculated to evoke in the reader hatred, aversion and contempt . . . Such wording is calculated not to convince, but to break up the ranks of the opponent… to destroy him . . . to evoke the worse thoughts, the worst suspicions about the opponent." [Collected Works, vol. 12, pp. 424-5]

The words used by McNally, like those of Draper, reflects this "struggle to destroy the hostile organisation, destroy its influence over the masses of the proletariat" and the aim "to wage an immediate and merciless war of extermination" against opponents. [Op. Cit., p. 427] McNally's pamphlet clearly raises the "worse suspicions" and "worse thoughts" against anarchism and anarchists and so potential recruits are insulated from ideas which may present a more consistent (if not always consistently applied by Proudhon and Bakunin) socialist alternative to the state capitalism of Leninism. Needless to say, in 1907 this "war of extermnation" was considered part of the battle of ideas. Sadly, when the Bolsheviks seized power this soon became a literal war against all non-Bolshevik parties and groups.

Ultimately, looking at McNally's pamphlet it is not hard to see why his distorts anarchism so much -- anarchism presents a genuine socialist alternative to Leninism. It is also not hard to see that Leninism has done immense damage to socialism and that its adherents today are continuing this. We need to reject its poisoned legacy.

The underlying problem with McNally's pamphlet is simply that it considers, in spite of all the evidence, that Marxism and Leninism were successful. The rise of Social Democracy is impressive but we cannot forget that, as Bakunin predicted, its degeneration into reformism (if not counter-revolution, as in Germany after the First World War). Significantly, Lenin did not notice the obvious domination of opportunism within the party and instead considered the radical words spoken as more important than the reformist practice -- until, of course, its support for "its" state in 1914 made it unavoidable. That the Bolsheviks remained in power in 1921 could be considered, by some, as success yet the regime was by no means socialist -- if we take as socialism McNally's definition (the need for political and economic democracy). Success seems to be viewed purely in terms of whenever a socialist party holds the reins of power rather than whether the country was on the path to socialism. In reality, the Bolsheviks simply confirmed Bakunin's predictions that state socialism would become the dictatorship over the proletariat.

McNally stresses that "challenge is to restore to socialism its democratic essence, its passionate concern with human freedom" and talks of "socialism's democratic essence" while, at the same time, defending the Bolshevik regime which replaced soviet democracy with party dictatorship and workers' control by "dictatorial" (to use Lenin's word) one-man management. This suggests that he does not know what the word "essence" means. In philosophy, essence is the attribute or attributes that make an entity what it fundamentally is, by necessity, and without which it loses its identity. It is the the intrinsic nature or indispensable quality of something which determines its character. Clearly, by McNally's defence of Bolshevism, in practice -- if not in theory -- he does not consider democracy or human freedom (or "concern with human freedom", not quite the same thing!) as fundamental to socialism for if he did then, like the left-Menshevik Martov, he would oppose the Bolshevik regime as (like the Stalinist one) as socialist in name only.

Essence, in philosophy, is contrasted with accident, a property or properties that the entity has contingently, without which the substance can still retain its identity. Leninism, then, views democracy and freedom as optional extras which can -- indeed, should if the "success" of the revolution demands it -- be done away with. As long as the right people are in power (Lenin and Trotsky rather than Stalin) then democracy can be eliminated and a regime can still be considered socialist. McNally is expressing cognitive dissonance and he holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time -- namely, that socialism need democracy and freedom and the Bolshevik dictatorship was socialist.

McNally's position is similar to that of Trotsky's in The Revolution Betrayed, namely that the Russian revolution failed because of its isolation, backwardness and the impact of the civil war. That Trotsky's account ignores the role of Bolshevik ideology as well as his own policies in the rise of Stalinism should come as no surprise (indeed, as this appendix shows, it is actually misleading). Which is the proble, for what conclusions can be draw from the Leninist account? Basically, that Leninist ideology should be followed as is because the rise of Stalinism was the result of external factors which, hopefully, will not occur again. This means that, if needs be, the vanguard party can eliminate soviet, workplace, union and army democracy to "save" the revolution as long as the country is not too backward or isolated for too long. That this is problematic goes without saying -- or at least it should, but modern-day Leninists base their politics on it and so rather than learn from history they are set to repeat it.

Ultimately, we need to question the impact of Marxism on the labour movement. Socialism at the start of the 21st century is in a bad way, mostly due to the toxic legacy of Bolshevism and, before that, Social Democracy. We can be sure if Marx had seen how his ideas had worked in practice he would have sought to re-evaluate them. Many Marxists did object to the Bolshevik regime as a violation of Marxism's principles (the Mensheviks on the right and the Council Communists on the left) but McNally does not place himself in either of those traditions. Instead, we have cant about Leninism's democratic "essence" combined with rationales and justifications for why this "essence" had to be ignored and the implicit assumption that this had no impact on whether the regime was socialist or not. Given this, it is understandable that he distorts anarchism -- for it helps ensure people radicals will not investigate genuinely "from below" socialist alternatives.

It should be noted that this appendix was written before section H (on Marxism) was in its final stage and long before it was completed. Unsurprisingly, many of the themes we discuss in the appendix also appear in that section and in greater detail.