Contemporary anarchism

An exchange

Eric Kerl’s article, “Contemporary Anarchism” (Issue 72, July–August 2010), prompted several responses. Here the ISR reproduces one by regular ZNet contributor Tom Wetzel ( and another by Sebastian Lamb, a member of the New Socialist Group in Canada. Eric Kerl’s rejoinder follows.

Syndicalism and self-emancipation


Eric Kerl’s article on contemporary anarchism offers an overview of various libertarian left political views. But Kerl only briefly touches on syndicalism. To have a sensible debate I think it would be helpful to have an actual description of the politics from those who advocate it. What follows is written from the point of view of Workers Solidarity Alliance, which describes itself as “a social anarchist organization rooted in the syndicalist tradition.”

Workers directly managing the industries, in our view, is necessary for the liberation of the working class from class oppression. For us, the development of a mass workers’ movement where the organizations and struggles are “self-managed” by the workers themselves “prefigures” a society self-managed by the working class.

“The emancipation of the working class must be the work of the workers themselves” is a principle that syndicalists share with Marx. This means the class needs mass organizations it controls in order to secure its liberation.

Thus we advocate for the development of a labor movement that is controlled by its members, looks out for the interests of the working class as a whole, extends a hand across borders to coordinate struggles with workers in other countries, opposes racism and sexism, rejects “partnership” with the employers, remains independent of the political parties and professional politicians, rejects the imperialist policy of the American federal state, and works to develop an alliance with other social movements.

In the course of the twentieth century, libertarian socialists came to extend the concept of “self-managed” mass organization to struggles outside the workplace, and to social movements that address the various forms of oppression. It’s hard to see how a socialism based on self-management of industry and society could come about if self-management practices do not become entrenched in the working class–based mass movements that are the means of social transformation.

Platformism and especifismo, which Kerl discusses, are contributions to a social anarchist approach known as “dual organizationalism,” which WSA also advocates. This means we see a role for both mass organizations and political organizations. Through a political organization, activists can share experiences and pool resources, develop programs of popular education, train activists and organizers, and encourage militancy and rank-and-file self-management in mass organizations.

But we see the mass movements, not a “party,” as the means to liberation and working-class power.

“Self-emancipation” requires that the working class gain power in society. A self-managing society needs a governance structure through which the people make and enforce the basic rules of the society and defend their social order. Thus we think there would be a central role for regional and national congresses of delegates elected by the base assemblies. To ensure accountability to the base and direct participation by the rank and file, we favor a rule that allows controversial decisions of congresses to be forced back to the base assemblies for debate and decision.

How does this differ from a state? As Engels explains in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, the state is an apparatus that is separated off from effective popular control, and rules over society. This is necessary if the state is to fulfill its function of guarding and promoting the interests of the dominating classes. Thus, the direct rule of the masses through assemblies—and congresses that are directly accountable to the base, and enforced by a popular militia under direct popular control, is not a state, in our view.

As we see it, the WSA’s libertarian socialism is at odds with Leninism because the latter advocates a partyist strategy, that is, the capture of state power by a party that then implements its program top-down through the hierarchies of the state. In the Russian Revolution, for example, Lenin opposed workers’ self-management. “The key problem,” writes Marxist sociologist Sam Farber in Before Stalinism, “was that Lenin and the mainstream of the Bolshevik Party…paid little if any attention to the need for a transformation and democratization of the daily life of the working class on the shop floor and community.… For Lenin the central problem and concern continued to be the revolutionary transformation of the central state.” Libertarian socialists in the Russian Revolution had advocated for a national congress of factory committees to create a bottom-up form of economic planning.

But this was rejected by the Bolsheviks who created a central planning body at the end of 1917, appointed top-down.

Kerl claims that the anarcho-syndicalists in the Spanish revolution “rejected power.” However, as CNT historian Jose Peirats wrote, the anarcho-syndicalist press always maintained that “all social power must be in the hands of the proletariat.”

The CNT was a mass movement in which there were several different anarchist tendencies. In September 1936, the radical wing persuaded the CNT to propose to the UGT union federation a joint taking of power by the labor organizations. They proposed to replace the Republican state with national and regional defense councils, elected by worker congresses. The defense councils would run a unified revolutionary people’s militia. This program was carried out in the region of Aragon, where the CNT village unions invoked a regional congress and elected a regional defense council. But the UGT blocked this program at the national level, due to opposition from the two main Marxist parties.

In a previous article in the ISR (“Anarchists in the Spanish Civil War,” Issue 24, July–August 2002) Geoff Bailey wrote: “Some workers’ organizations understood the need to take power. The Friends of Durruti argued for…the overthrow of the government and the formation of a revolutionary junta.” This “revolutionary junta” is the national defense council proposed by the CNT in September 1936. This was a proposal for the mass organizations, not a political party, to “take power.”

Of course, more could be said on all the points that I’ve touched upon here.

Contemporary anarchism and Marxism


Eric Kerl’s ISR article on “Contemporary Anarchism” addresses important issues for anticapitalists, especially in the U.S. and the Canadian state where anarchist ideas of various kinds have significant influence among radicals.

Kerl’s article does a reasonable job of surveying the major currents of anarchism in the United States today (the picture in the Canadian state is pretty similar). Kerl is right to note that “anarchists of all types are currently debating new tactics, political shifts, and reassessments of the anarchist tradition” and his stated aim of searching for “common ground with the best aspects of today’s anarchism” is laudable. I will offer a couple of comments about how the article engages with anarchism and about its conception of Marxism.

An anarcho-syndicalist high school teacher friend described Kerl’s article as “pretty thoughtful and mediumly constructive,” and I think that’s fair. If we’re interested in dialogue between serious revolutionaries from different traditions, it’s not helpful to make sweeping claims like, “For decades, class struggle has been treated with indifference or outright contempt by anarchists” as Kerl does.

That’s been true for many anarchists in the U.S. and the Canadian state, but there have always been some anarchists who have supported workplace struggles and looked to class struggle to change society.

Kerl captures a distinctive aspect of much of contemporary anarchism: “What is different about the new anarchism is that it ignores rather than challenges state power; instead of the means prefiguring the ends, the means have become the ends.” The “retreat from any goals-based, long-term strategy” by many anarchists is significant.

I think this is best understood as one manifestation of a broader pattern: the retreat from left politics based on a long-term strategy that has taken place in an era where the main left political projects of the twentieth century—social democracy, Stalinism, “Third World” national liberation—have lost their credibility and radical political alternatives based on mass struggle from below to transform society don’t have much appeal, especially in places where unions are weak and bureaucratized, and other social movements are feeble or missing.

Kerl recognizes that the current he calls “social movement anarchism” has the broadest appeal to activists. But to simply say that this “represents the most diffuse and liberal wing of anarchist thought” just scratches the surface. It is loose and there are liberal elements, but in the Canadian state (and in the U.S., I’m sure) there are many serious radicals committed to migrant justice, anti-poverty, international solidarity, and other kinds of activism who are part of this current and many more people who are influenced by it to some extent. Some are part of the discussions about “new tactics, political shifts, and reassessments of the anarchist tradition” that Kerl acknowledges. I think this current is less influenced by any of the historical traditions within anarchism than other anarchist currents are. This is a source of some of its strengths as well as some of its weaknesses. How this current evolves will be quite important for the anticapitalist left.

Kerl confidently claims, “While it can be demonstrated that the heart of Marxism (as opposed to the socialist movement more broadly) is working-class self-emancipation, anarchism is a much broader church from which certain wings can only expelled arbitrarily, not because of something intrinsic to anarchist theory.” This is a bit dubious.

The heart of socialism from below is indeed working-class self-emancipation (and the self-emancipation of other oppressed groups with which this is inextricably intertwined). But not all supporters of socialism from below have been Marxists (Hal Draper’s inability to see this is one of the weaknesses of his fine essay “The Two Souls of Socialism”). Most Marxists have not been supporters of socialism from below. Unfortunately, Marxism appears in Kerl’s article as a coherent and unified single tradition that is unchanging and not in need of renewal, while anarchism is treated as broad and diffuse.

Anarchists who are fighters for workers’ power can make a coherent case that there is a gulf between their socialist politics and those of other anarchists. Marxists who are socialists committed to the self-emancipation of the working class can and must make a compelling case that our politics are enormously different from those of most other Marxists.

Kerl makes an important point at the end of his article that deserves to be taken further. He writes (and I agree) that “many of the revolutionary left’s most dedicated activists identify with the anarchist tradition and continue to make important contributions to the fight against oppression” and adds that “these anarchists have represented Marxism better than some of the so-called Marxists.”

Isn’t the real point not that they have “represented Marxism better” but that they have done more for the cause of human emancipation than many Marxists? That cause has never been anyone’s property. Or, to put it another way, these anarchists have practiced the politics of socialism better than many Marxists.

Urgent tasks
“Anarchism vs. Marxism” is an extremely unhelpful way to discuss politics today. The more we can get beyond labels and clarify real areas of agreement and disagreement, the better. We cannot afford to let different interpretations of twentieth- century events act as barriers to political dialogue on the anticapitalist left about the challenges we face.
Faced with ecological crisis and an aggressive ruling-class offensive, the most important discussions among all radicals who see people’s self-organized struggles as crucial are those about how we can best assist such struggles to develop in workplaces, in communities, and on campuses. How to strengthen support for anti-capitalist and pro-liberation politics (especially outside the narrow circles where they’re still marginalized) is also worth discussing. Let’s start there and see where we can go.

Sebastian Lamb is one of the editors of the New Socialist webzine. An earlier version of this piece was posted in the blog section at


Eric Kerl Response


My recent article “Contemporary Anarchism” was intended as a contribution for activists grappling with the political questions facing revolutionaries today, both in terms of theory and of practice. Too often, serious political dialogue is eclipsed by sectarian name-calling, avoiding the central political questions, and missing opportunities for common work.

In their responses, Tom Wetzel and Sebastian Lamb recognize the pitfalls of labels like “anarchist” and “Marxist.” While my article examines the different types of contemporary anarchisms, it assumes the tradition of genuine Marxism that the ISR has always defended in its pages—international socialism and working-class self-emancipation.

While Wetzel, Lamb, and myself all agree on this principle of self-emancipation, our approaches diverge in practice. On one hand, Sebastian Lamb makes the case that there are only minor differences between anarchists and Marxists, and thus finds it “extremely unhelpful” to frame the discussion in this manner. Tom Wetzel, on the other hand, repeats the cold-war mythology that the “partyist strategy” of Leninism seeks to “capture state power…[and] implements its program top-down through the hierarchies of the state.” I would like to propose an approach that does not shy away from our theoretical and practical disagreements, even as we try to find common ground to fight together in today’s struggles.

The U.S. working class has endured decades of assaults from the bosses and our union organizations have been eviscerated. The current economic crisis continues to wreck lives, yet we have witnessed no widespread class fightback. Instead, struggles have largely been localized; around budgets cuts, housing issues, civil rights, and jobs.

Even these small movements, because they include people with different ideas, reveal political debates over next steps, practical objectives, potential allies, and movement tactics. The ideas and politics that guide a specific movement have a profound effect on its ultimate direction as well as on the activists involved. But the guiding politics of social movements don’t simply appear out of thin air. Rank-and-file workers themselves invented the flying picket tactic just as rank-and-file workers developed workers’ councils and soviets. And these workers had to win others to these new tactics through a process of political debate and experience; they were leading with their ideas and testing them in practice.

Political leadership is just this: individuals, with the experience of struggle, can advance ideas and tactics that will strengthen the workers’ movement and help prepare it for the next stages in struggle—whether economic, political, or ideological. Lenin and others recognized the importance of uniting these working-class leaders into a political party that can act as a unit, providing leadership and an important counterweight to the overbearing power of the capitalist state. In this context, political leadership is an organic outgrowth of the rank-and-file workers’ movement, not some alien force that seeks to dupe the mass of workers into following a conspiratorial clique of adventurists.

The libertarian socialist Victor Serge rightfully understood the relationship:

We cannot overemphasize the fact that in the course of the last ten years, the words “leaders,” “parties,” “soviets,” “masses,” have altogether changed their meaning.…At the time of the [October] insurrection, the leaders were only the foremost, the most respected and most authoritative of the militants; the Bolshevik Party was the political organization which best expressed the popular sentiment. From this fact came its popularity and the effectiveness of its activity.

Indeed, the historic task of the working class is to radically reconstruct a new world from the ashes of the old through its own self-activity. Oddly, Wetzel incorrectly paraphrases Engels on the state—as “an apparatus that is separated off from effective popular control,” rather than a coercive instrument of class rule—to justify an explicitly non-Marxist understanding of it. He envisions a future “governance structure” based on “regional and national congresses…and direct participation,” but refuses to recognize this as a state. Like anarchists before him, he thinks he can, to cite Engels, “change a thing by changing its name.”

Both Engels and Marx were quite clear, writing from the experiences of the European revolutions and the Paris Commune, that the working class would need to exercise its own revolutionary authority in order to prevent counterrevolution and to hasten the withering away of the state, thus giving the new workers’ state “a revolutionary and transitional form.” This is not merely a semantic question, for if the ultimate goal of both Marxism and anarchism is to establish a classless, stateless world free of oppression and exploitation, we need to be clear on what qualifies as a state. Conveniently, Wetzel sees the need for a “popular militia under direct popular control,” but ignores the purpose of a militia—organized coercion. Indeed, “special bodies of armed men” play a central role in Engels and Marx’s understanding of the state. Confusingly, Wetzel proposes an armed body (albeit under popular control) without the authority of a workers’ state and for purposes unknown. Will this militia exist indefinitely? What is the basis for its dissolution? Wetzel has no answer, since he misunderstands the workers’ state from the outset.

As for Lenin’s opposition to workers’ self-management, suffice it to say that Wetzel’s criticism leaves out context. The fledgling Russian workers’ state existed in conditions of encirclement by Western armies, well-funded counterrevolutionary White armies, economic chaos and collapse, and the dissolution of the working class (by as early as April 1918, the workforce of Petrograd had decline to 40 percent of its January 1917 level, and the number of metalworkers in the capital declined by almost 75 percent, due either to economic collapse or workers leaving the bench to fight for the Red Army). The shift toward top-down centralization and away from self-management was not a product of Bolshevik elitism, but rather the centrifugal collapse of Russia’s industrial system in the midst of civil war. It is this that explains Lenin’s shift from support for workers’ control toward more centralized forms of economic management.

For his part, Sebastian Lamb prefers to avoid these arguments altogether. We’re left to wonder if Marx and Engels themselves were correct in pursuing their very heated debates with Proudhon, Bakunin, and other anarchists (who did not advocate a socialism from below, but mutualist exchange with private ownership or secret groups of revolutionaries.) While it is quite easy to advance a perspective of amiability in the abstract, things are much more complicated on the ground where debates regularly flare up between anarchists, Marxists, and other activists about strategies and tactics (how should we occupy this or that building, what are our demands, should we act as a small group or reach out to larger numbers, etc.). Like it or not, political ideas and theory inform the different approaches.

Our job as revolutionaries and Marxists is to work inside movements, wherever the working class is being radicalized, and persistently build toward a stronger, more political, more organized working class that can defend its interests in the present. Serious revolutionaries, however, must also fight for the ideas and the leadership that can one day put revolution and workers’ power on the table. Debates like this are an integral part of that process.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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