Category Archives: Philosophy

We should not have to read this crap on International Women’s Day

*This article will, unavoidably, feature potentially upsetting material relating to rape, victim-blaming, etc.*

by Anne Archist

Phil Sheppard’s article, published on page 14 of The Cambridge Student today, might easily have been a scorecard for ‘patronising bingo’. First he sets the tone by telling us that “discussion of sexual offences is marred by miscommunication”; presumably he believes that nobody could possibly agree with them, if only they understood! Next, his opponents in the debate are told to “cease taking offence”. After all, we all know how emotional women are, right? And they do get “offended” at the silliest things like men pointing out that if they didn’t want to get raped then they shouldn’t have worn that skirt! I’m going to try to deconstruct most of what’s wrong with this particular article, but it’s part of a wider attitude towards rape and personal responsibility, and many of the same arguments could be applied to other examples of this general attitude. Note: I’m assuming Sheppard’s article is only supposed to address a contemporary Western audience, so I’m pretty much responding in kind.

The article’s argument is basically that although victims should not be morally blamed for any actions that may figure in their being raped, such as walking around late at night on their own, they are still causally responsible in a non-moral sense, and therefore more rapes could be avoided if we focused more on encouraging people to take precautions against being raped. It prominently features equivocation; this means using multiple meanings of the same term in an argument as if they were interchangeable. For instance: “All rivers have banks. All banks have cash-points. Therefore all rivers have cash-points.” This example plays on the multiple meanings of the word ‘bank’ in order to reach a clearly false conclusion. It should be evident this is a logical fallacy, meaning that all arguments of this form are invalid.

Sheppard’s equivocation is between two meanings of ‘responsibility’. First, he tells us that by ‘responsibility’ he means “situations in which … a person is a factual cause” (similar to what is known as ‘causal responsibility’ in the philosophical literature). He uses it accordingly when he writes that “If a homeowner leaves his house unlocked in a neighbourhood of renowned burglars, he is partly responsible for his losses”. However, he later writes that “Potential victims must be made aware that they have a responsibility to take reasonable steps to prevent being affected by crime”; here he uses ‘responsibility’ in the sense of an obligation or expectation laid on an individual to act in a certain way. He has therefore smuggled in the idea that women have some kind of behavioural obligations without attempting to justify this claim. After telling us he is using a narrow technical sense of the word at the start, he slips into a broader usage later on with no comment and no distinction maintained.

The claim of obligation looks justified, because the author seems to have followed a very rigorous, logical argument through to its conclusion. What he has actually done is use the same word in different contexts to make it sound like a logical argument, when in fact it is an illogical one. Being intellectually scrupulous, I should point out that his conclusion isn’t automatically false just because his argument is illogical. To illustrate: “My house is made of cats, therefore I have two eyes” is not a logically valid argument, but its conclusion is still true.

The article doesn’t rely entirely on this elision of meanings to reach its conclusion – Sheppard doesn’t just say that women have a “responsibility” to take precautions, but also (more reasonably) that perhaps it would be a good idea, purely from a practical point of view. There is certainly a difference here. To say that you are obliged to take precautions implies that you are held liable if you do not (i.e. that you will be considered “at fault” and therefore “blamed”, in Sheppard’s use of the word), and may justify less sympathy towards you, greater leniency towards the perpetrator, etc. To say that it would be a good idea to take precautions anyway is not necessarily to imply these things, in theory. This is the crux of the article – it says, in effect, “we won’t think any less of you if you don’t, but we’d prefer it if you wore a longer skirt”, etc.

There’s one obvious objection to this, which is more or less a recognition of the complexity of causality, the ‘butterfly effect’ model of causation. Yes, if the victim hadn’t walked down that alley, they wouldn’t have been raped. But similarly, if they had eaten a badly-preserved curry they found in the fridge the day before rather than throwing it away, they would have been suffering from food poisoning and not left the house at all that night. Or, if they had left the club an hour earlier they would have walked down the alley before the attacker arrived. Or…

The point here is not to be a smartass. The point is to say that responsibility in the sense of factual cause, which Sheppard says he is talking about, is highly dispersive – as you examine it, more agents become involved, more acts become involved, individual agents’ links become more tenuous and individual actions’ effects become harder to trace, etc. Even with a relatively limited frame of reference we can identify many potential agents and acts that could have changed the outcome in many cases.

Suppose someone takes a taxi to a party and rapes someone there. Is the taxi driver responsible for the rape? In the ordinary sense of the word, clearly not. In the technical sense Sheppard claims to be using, though, they are – their acts formed part of a chain of events that caused the rape. Of course the taxi driver has no idea that their actions will result in a rape, but this is irrelevant to their being a “factual cause”. The moment we start introducing judgements about whether someone knew or could have guessed the consequences of their actions,  we have gone beyond the type of responsibility Sheppard is addressing; frankly, we are starting to draw a line between merely being a part of a causal chain and having some moral significance in the causal chain, which is precisely what we have agreed we are not doing when we say a victim’s actions may be preconditions for their being raped.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that Sheppard comes back with a response that goes something like this: “I’m not saying there’s any moral blame attached to the victim knowing their actions make their being raped more likely, I’m just saying that if they can see the consequences then they probably should act differently” – not in the sense of a moral ‘should’, just in the sense that you ‘should’ go to the gym if you want to lose weight (what Kant called “the hypothetical imperative”). This is the only way out of the dilemma that I can see.

This is where I really part ways with the article’s author. He comes across as entirely ignorant of the realities of rape and women’s lives. This isn’t necessarily his fault, as such, and it’s often difficult to know how little you know, so I don’t blame him for thinking he could write a well-informed and well-argued article. Perhaps he has actually studied rape statistics in depth and so on, but we can only go on the article, which puts across an impression of someone who still thinks that rape is something that happens only when a drunk woman in a short skirt walks down a dark alley on her own and a man leaps from a dustbin to violently assault her.

Among Sheppard’s paternalistic pronouncements is the exhortation to women to “begin taking care”. I get the impression that he, like many men, has never considered what he has never had to consider – what might a woman’s life be like? By that I mean both the events that take place in her life, objectively, and her own subjective experience and internalisation of those events. I’m sure Sheppard means well, but perhaps he should think before he puts pen to paper about how much sexual harassment women may have to deal with on a weekly basis, how many women have survived sexual violence and desperately want not to go through it again, how much more attention women may pay to their drinks in clubs, etc. The fact that he literally tells women to be more careful is perhaps the most patronising aspect of the article – but don’t get offended, remember!

Still, people could always take more care, right? Nobody’s perfect. I should re-state Sheppard’s advice as clearly as possible: “[There is] a risk known to, and avoidable by, the victim [who therefore should] take reasonable steps to prevent being affected by crime”. There are several problems with this thesis: firstly, sexual violence is not as easily avoided as he implies; secondly, it is not as easy to determine the reasonability of steps as he implies; thirdly, regardless of the author’s protestations, it puts the emphasis on the wrong party.

Certainly, we know that there is a risk of rape. Some women feel this as practically ever-present, at least in the back of their minds.  But the more you know about rape, the more you realise it isn’t something you can expect to protect yourself against. Multiple studies have confirmed that the majority of perpetrators are known by their victims, most commonly as a husband or partner. Around a third of girls have been sexually assaulted, often by relatives or other trusted adults. How exactly does one avoid these attacks? Should women stop entering romantic relationships? Should young girls lock their doors from the inside when they go to bed at night?

I know both men and women who have been raped or otherwise sexually assaulted. One took the “precaution” of getting a (licensed) cab home and was harassed by the driver, who then tried to attack her. One was an adolescent boy attacked by a trusted older male. One was attacked by a stranger in a supposedly very safe environment. There are more, in varied circumstances. The vast majority of these were in supposedly safe circumstances, with supposedly trustworthy people; in fact, I know of only one person who was attacked while walking around in public on their own.

So what would Phil Sheppard have women do? It also seems strange that he doesn’t suggest that men take any precautions – most victims of rape are women, but not all, and apparently we all have a “responsibility” to avoid being raped… And what exactly counts as a reasonable precaution? Once we confront the real trends in rape, rather than the ‘stranger in the bushes’ mirage, should women avoid relationships with men, going outside their own home at all, letting men into their home, etc?

Chastity belts might be some help, but even they have their limits. I’m inclined to think all of these things fall outside the “reasonable” camp. I take it then, that Sheppard is just encouraging women not to dress too sexily, get too drunk, or walk around alone at night, and hoping this will be enough to avert sexual attacks. I hope it’s evident by now why this is basically useless advice. In fact, the advice may be worse than useless.

By writing an entire comment piece about how women are really – after all – partially responsible for their own victimisation by rapists, Sheppard focuses the spotlight squarely on the victim themselves. Sheppard contributes to the overall culture of questioning women’s consent or non-consent in an accusatory manner. In other words, if you didn’t take reasonable precautions, then maybe you really secretly wanted it. This is akin to reprimanding women for not crying out loud enough (as Deuteronomy 22:24 does, condemning raped women to stoning to death as a result).

Sheppard says quite explicitly that the focus should not be on reducing men’s willingness to rape, but on increasing women’s fear: “Educating men about rape is laudable, but only insofar as it does not detract from personal risk-aversion”; women should act more afraid than they currently do, in other words. This renders the argument amenable to those who use rape as a tool of power, whether husband, father, soldier, teacher, politician or priest. Note the wording of the comment (surely not intentionally phrased this way). It would be one thing to say that it would be unfortunate if the focus on men’s responsibility led to women letting down their guard and then being raped. Instead, the wording used states that educating men about rape ceases to be laudable the moment it in any way detracts from (women’s) risk-averse behaviour.

Women’s fictional “responsibility” to take precautions (established only through equivocation) is given priority over men’s real responsibility not to rape (easily established by basic moral reasoning: rape is wrong and one has a responsibility not to do things that are wrong).Similarly, in a singularly unfortunate choice of words, Sheppard writes: “The continued drive against victim-blaming is having a detrimental effect”; in other words, all this feminist noise about how a victim shouldn’t be made to feel responsible for their own rape is distracting us from the Real Issue, which is that women just aren’t trying hard enough to avoid being raped. The implicit trade-off here is having a relatively full life versus the threat of being raped, particularly for women; know that you run the risk of sexual violence if you want to go out alone at night, if you want to have close relationships with men, if you want to travel, etc.

For the record, I don’t think Phil Sheppard is an unreconstructed misogynist victim-blaming rape apologist. I think he’s a relatively intelligent person who’s trying to take an ‘objective’, ‘academic’ stance on a question of power politics that exists in the real world without letting the real world inform that stance. I think he’s got people’s best interests at heart, but I think his article is dreadfully-argued and counterproductive. It tells us nothing we can actually use – it has no actual suggestions of what people could do to take reasonable precautions. It doesn’t even acknowledge the areas that might be problematic, like how small the impact of “precautions” on rape may be, or the contested nature of “reasonable” precautions. This is compounded by the fact that he has worded some things very badly and adopted an air of patronising academia that has been abused to veil an invalid argument towards an empirically-ill-supported conclusion. Phil, I’m sure you’re not trying to blame rape survivors – I understand that, you haven’t miscommunicated it – but I do think you’re going the wrong way about supporting them and fighting rape.

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Marx doesn’t have all the answers

by Anne Archist

There is a tendency on the left towards reductive theories and models; this is most pronounced in Marxism, versions of which often place massive emphasis on the development of technology, or imbue one form of oppression with strategic and ontological primacy, etc. Other ideas that can be strictly or broadly said to be on the ‘left’ are guilty of this on occasion too, to varying ideas – some anarchists are highly materialist, some feminists think that the lot of women in life can be understood from the standpoint of one particular factor such as the belief that women are made vulnerable by their potential for pregnancy, or whatever it may be. In this post I’ll talk specifically about Marxism, although much of it is applicable to other movements and theories to some extent.

This kind of analysis leaves much to be desired, however, as it lacks the subtle nuances and detailed models that have been developed often within liberal discourse. Materialist analysis should not be based on totally superseding the pre-existing explanations we have available, but on correcting, refining and supplementing them as appropriate. Obviously large sections of liberal theory are ‘ideological’ in the Marxist sense – they are flawed ways of understanding the world perpetuated because they serve certain interests and perhaps contain some ‘partial truth’ or ‘mirror’ something real.

But this approach of throwing the baby out with the bathwater is a totally unjustifiable approach that it itself ideological – it begins with the true proposition that liberal theory is flawed, and promotes the myth that Marxism is holistic and ‘scientific’ and so can explain everything. It is important to note that this approach is not that taken by Marx himself or people like Althusser, Cohen or Gramsci. For these theorists, the method was to adjust and expand prior ideas about the world; Marx began with classical economics and produced his own take on it while later writers aimed to expand the scope of Marx’s methods, refine his claims to render them consistent, etc.

There are often things to be learnt from non-materialist analysis and disciplines other than history or economics. It is interesting to note, for instance, how few Marxists seem to take social psychology seriously, despite the fact that it has provided a great deal of insight into the (re)production of racism in society, military discipline and other forms of proletarian obedience, etc. Another example is the distaste of some Marxists towards philosophy (and particularly logic) as if philosophers expected to be able to explain the whole world from the comfort of their armchair; I have heard people seriously express the notion that logic is bourgeois and is the philosophical antithesis of materialism, an idea which is totally wrong-headed to say the least.

If we want to understand the world in order to change it, we will need to keep our minds open about different disciplines, theories, models and propositions. The world cannot be changed by someone who understands only economics and has no concept of history outside of this. The world cannot be changed by someone who understands only history and has no notion of the complexities involved in ‘democracy’ as a concept and a goal. Any revolutionary or even reformist ‘progressive’ movement must be polymathic if it is to achieve its goals; we have to be able, for instance, to look at the social-psychological, philosophical, historical, economic, political and practical aspects of a question like how to achieve industrial democracy.

If we’re blind to the dangers and flaws of our strategies then we will screw up all over again, just as many movements have in the past. The failure of the USSR or Cuba cannot be put down solely to grand historical factors like the Cold War, however vital these are to understanding the context in which they existed and the pressures that shaped them. They took the shapes they did partly also as a result of decisions that were made by individuals and groups – decisions that may have been influenced by individuals personalities, incorrect theories or predictions, one-off historical events, logical fallacies, and conformity or fear.

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Why Social Mobility is Shit (II)

by Anne Archist

The second lesson from our analysis of the concept of social mobility, which is much less significant but worth pointing out in the absence of its acknowledgement by the political mainstream, is that people can move down as well as up the social hierarchy. Not only this, but (in relative terms at least) every movement up is accompanied by (a) movement(s) down, and vice versa. Marx talked about one-sided ways of understanding a concept, and this is certainly something that most commentators are guilty of – social mobility is a good thing, right? After all, it allows people to end up better off than they started in life. But, of course, it also means that people might end up worse off than they started too. For everyone who wins the lottery, someone’s business collapses. For every child of a mining family that became a professor, a child of the bourgeoisie was forced to seek wages by an inheritance squandered by their parents.

Basically, social mobility is generally conceived as a matter of relations – the generally increasing wealth of society as a whole, even when distributed around the population to some extent, is not termed social mobility. People’s position improving relative to their barest physical needs is not, therefore, social mobility (on this normal interpretation of the term, at least). Rather, it is improvement relative to other people in our society that counts as mobility. I leapfrog you, leaving you no better off. Someone else takes my place, sending me crashing back to where I was before. None of this makes any overall improvement – social mobility, conceptually speaking, is a zero-sum game.

If we all move together, we are not moving within the hierarchy but shifting the whole hierarchy onto different ground, still intact. John MacLean said “Rise with your class, not out of it” – the working class can improve their position as a class, and can eventually abolish the very social relations that make them the working class. This should be their focus, rather than the language of social mobility that implores workers to leave their class behind them and enter the ranks of small capital or the self-employed.

It’s interesting also to reflect on the way that social mobility is measured and conceptualised by the right. This is a methodological issue that threatens to slip into the analysis of those on the left, as methodologies and underlying analytical assumptions have been known to do in the past. Here’s an example: David Willetts is concerned about the effect feminism has had on social mobility. His reasoning is that many women have been able to take opportunities that would otherwise gone to men and improved their social positions. Of course, the reason that Willetts sees this as a threat to social mobility is that he conceives of the family unit as a single, indivisible economic entity, represented largely by the ‘male breadwinner’.

If Willetts conceived of social mobility on an individual level, the improvements in women’s social mobility would neutralise the damage done to men’s social mobility, as we’ve already seen. The reason that women pose a problem in this way of looking at things is that they themselves aren’t seen as worthy of assessing individually for their own social standing. Their social standing is, largely, that of their husband. Families are becoming less socially mobile due to the fact that generally families now consist of either two people who are well off and well educated or two people who are not particularly economically prosperous and averagely educated at best.

This means that there is increasing polarisation between family units in terms of, say, education, when you average out between the husband and wife. Before you could have relied upon well-educated men marrying poorly-educated women in order to create a tendency towards the mean. It also means that families are less likely to change dramatically in terms of income and so on – if the family’s income depends almost entirely on the man’s income, then the loss of his job will affect them much more than if his income only makes up half or a third of the income.

None of this has anything to do with individual people’s chances in life, their incomes or levels of education, their class membership, or whatever. It has to do with the way that these people come together into family units, and that is what Willetts is blind to; by taking the basic economic unit to be the male-headed family, he obscures inequalities within families and the social mobility of women (other than single women, perhaps, who may appear in his metrics as a kind of abberation). Willetts also seems to confuse inequality in household income with lack of social mobility, though it’s unclear as to what exactly his reasoning is from the way he’s been quoted in the press.

Why, then, do some on the left promote this apparently right-wing goal? Arguments over what will best promote social mobility abound, claims that the cuts to education will harm social mobility come even from hardline SWPers and so forth. It makes perfect sense that David Willetts should be concerned with social mobility – presumably he thinks there’s some link between meritocracy and social mobility (which, of course, isn’t logically the case since people’s position could change due to luck, as when workers win lottery jackpots), and that meritocracy is good.

But surely the left should be making the more politically explosive points against this agenda? When tories talk about social mobility they’re talking merely about: shuffling around who’s rich and who’s poor, not eliminating poverty; increasing competition for good educational opportunities, not improving educational opportunities for all; pitting ordinary working people against each other, not building cooperation and solidarity among them.

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Why Social Mobility is Shit (I)

by Anne Archist

Everyone’s talking about it. David Willetts has kicked the hornet’s nest most recently by arguing that feminism is to blame for reduced social mobility over the last few decades, but the concept itself is in widespread usage these days, from the left through to the government. Social mobility is good, we’re told; it gives people a chance to get on in life, to do better than the generations before them. That all sounds nice, but today I’m going to tear the whole concept apart like only a philosopher can.

The kind of social mobility we’re talking about here (and that most people are talking about elsewhere) is ‘vertical social mobility’. This is the idea that people can move up or down the social hierarchy. Some people are at the ‘top’ of society (generally those who are best educated, have the highest incomes, have the most political/economic power, know the most powerful people, etc) and others are at the ‘bottom’ (the opposite), with people in various layers in between, or a spectrum stretching from one to the other. To talk about (vertical) social mobility without imagining society in this hierarchical and unequal way renders it nonsense.

So the first lesson we can take from our analysis of social mobility as a concept is that it’s incompatible with an equal, classless society. Social mobility presupposes a class divide or a spectrum of inequality; equality and classlessness makes ‘mobility’ impossible because mobility means (the capability for) movement from one point to another, and an equal, classless society is one in which everyone occupies the same social position – everyone is at the same point because there is only one point. Next time people imply that equality and social mobility go hand in hand, remember that while higher degrees of equality may correlate with higher measures of social mobility, real equality is incompatible with real social mobility.

Some people will be confused by the previous paragraph – generally more equality means more mobility, but the most equality means the least mobility? How can that be the case? Something that might illuminate the previous paragraph is the idea of multiple-peakedness; this is important in understanding certain aspects of politics. The idea is that not everything works as a linear improvement in a particular direction. It’s not true, for instance, that everyone who votes for the most right-wing party would vote for the second most right-wing party as their second preference (an assumption, incidentally, that seems to be underlying much of the AV debate at the moment; maybe I’ll talk about this more in a further post).

Suppose that a working-class voter is minimally class-conscious; they realise that free markets are just a route to the rich getting richer at their expense, and they know that they have a certain common interest with fellow workers in a similar position to themselves. They may also be racist or generally nationalist and short-sighted, however. That is, they may not be internationalist and may not understand their common interest with immigrant workers. They vote BNP because they see the BNP as a party that will fight for the native working class, will oppose free market profiteering, etc. Ignoring the question of how accurate this perception is, it doesn’t therefore follow that they would vote for UKIP or the tories as their second preference. Perhaps they’d vote Labour or even support the Socialist Party or something of the sort.

This is multiple-peakedness – the line on a graph that represents their preferences doesn’t have just one peak and descend in a straight line from there, but actually has a peak at each end. In this instance it’s probably double-peaked, with a gradual descent down from the far left towards the tories but then a big peak at the end representing the far right. In other instances there may be more than two peaks separated by troughs of varying heights, etc. Now we can apply this idea to the relationship between equality and social mobility; it may be that in, e.g. conditions present in Western European style broadly social democracies, equality and social mobility are correlated. This doesn’t imply that they will correlate in other conditions (other sections of the graph, as it were). After all, if a society is too polarised, mobility will be all but impossible too – social mobility is going to be low for slaves, for instance! – but if a society is equal enough then social mobility is going to be conceptually impossible altogether because there is no room to ‘move’.

While we’re on the subject, don’t forget the transformation of quantity into quality in terms of understanding the relationship here… This is the thing that Engels repeatedly explained in terms of water changing states – as water heats up (a change in quantity of energy), it eventually reaches a point where it boils (a change in quality of state). It could be that social mobility improves up to the point that it just becomes a socially/politically meaningless concept because there is little relevance to moving within the narrow constrains that a society that is basically equal. I’m not concerned here with laying out a strict analysis of the relationship between the two variables across the whole range of possibilities, but it seems pretty clear that at the extreme of total equality, social mobility is utterly non-existent. As I’ve said, social mobility presupposes an unequal, class-divided society.

Part II coming tomorrow…

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More on Marxism and Anarchism

by Anne Archist

EDIT: This is a response to Daniel Morley’s article on Marxist and anarchist theory.  I originally accused Daniel of purposefully ignoring several points I made in a debate we had on this topic, since I discovered the article afterwards, published on the ‘in defence of Marxism’ website; I was under the impression that he was being purposefully misleading. I’ve since discovered that it was published at an earlier date on the Socialist Appeal website, so I’ve edited out some of my criticisms of him here, but this still raises the question of why he allowed the article to be republished after the debate without modification. Unfortunately there isn’t a comments form on either website, so I’ve decided to write a rebuttal here rather than being able to respond directly. I wish I had more time to edit this, and maybe I will edit it further at a later point.

Theory

Firstly, Daniel says that “Anarchism paradoxically rejects theory as an accomplice of intellectual elitism or armchair inaction”. Well, to the extent that Anarchist theory rejects theory, that is indeed inconsistent (not paradoxical, though); however, quite why materialist Social Anarchism is being accused of rejecting theory is beyond me. There are indeed some people who call themselves Anarchists and reject the importance of theory, just as there are some people who call themselves Anarchists and embrace the free market as the solution to life’s woes.

What Daniel is doing here is equivocating between different tendencies within the broad label of “Anarchist” (seemingly based only on who self-describes as such, rather than any objective criterion in their theory); this is like comparing Socialist Appeal to the Red Army Faction – they may both call themselves “Marxist”, but that doesn’t mean it’s appropriate to assume they share the same theoretical basis. Just as not all Marxists endorse terrorism, nor do all Anarchists reject theory. Marxist comrades should be clear about who they’re criticising when they polemicise against “Anarchism” as if it were one homogeneous movement or body of theory: Materialist, class-struggle Anarchist Communists? Idealist, individualist Anarcho-Capitalists? Anarcho-primitivist survivalists? All of these? None?

In fact, given that Daniel goes on to quote Kropotkin, a geographer and biologist who wrote Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (attempting to give a scientific grounding in evolutionary theory to socialistic impulses) and a Secretary of the Russian Geographical Society. Even his books on politics are highly scientific, with lengthy discussions of crop yields: to suggest both that modern Anarchist theory is based on Kropotkin’s work and that it rejects “theory” and “science” is bizarre, to say the least.

Equality

Daniel also says that “Marxist theory is chiefly concerned with understanding inequality and oppression”, which is odd, because I’ve yet to hear a prominent Marxist theorist express any concerns about inequality per se. Here’s what Marx had to say on the matter: “unequal individuals (and they would not be different individuals if they were not unequal) are measurable only by an equal standard insofar as they are brought under an equal point of view, are taken from one definite side only … and nothing more is seen in them, everything else being ignored.” I don’t want to talk too much about the flaws on the Marxist side of the piece, but this does seem like a particularly simplistic version of Marxism, and one that appears calculated to refute the perception that Anarchism has historically been more directly and supportively engaged in the struggles of women, queer people, etc.

Technocrats vs workers

Next, Daniel misrepresents Kropotkin on several counts. He says that Kropotkin feared a class divide between “technocrats” and workers but suggests that the basis for this was an assumption that production “would be too complex for workers to get their head[sic] around”. Of course, Kropotkin never made such a crass and patronising assumption about the intellect of the average worker; on the contrary, he praised the genius of workers in early industrial society and said that it was in fact greater than that of professional scientists, giving examples of workers who revolutionised production processes in order to make their own jobs easier, etc.

What Kropotkin feared was a society that continued to divide and specialise labour – a society in which certain people would be entrusted with the technical skills and knowledge that society required, rather than such knowledge being freely available and technical training being an integral part of even the most basic work, which would help to revolutionise production further. In short, Kropotkin argued the (materialist) point that superstructures arise on the basis of relations of productions and that therefore the question of division of labour within society was a politically significant question because it was a question of what social relations should exist – would there be a divide between technicians and scientists on the one hand and manual drones on the other, or would knowledge be disseminated freely and in abundance? His argument here is a polemic against the socialists of his day who wanted to preserve a Fordist-style division of labour, warning that this laid the economic foundations for a new class structure.

In fact, Daniel explains this point quite clearly, though not in as much detail as I have. What he doesn’t do is attribute it to Kropotkin – instead, he asserts that Kropotkin “has the whole thing on its head”, using only a quote about Collectivism as evidence. But anyone who’s read Kropotkin’s passages on Collectivism properly knows that when he says Collectivism, it means something specific. It doesn’t mean “collective ownership and control of the means of production”, as Daniel implies, but rather a specific form of distribution of the means of consumption, i.e. the goods produced. You can find a brief passage about this here that might put it into a better context.

Localism vs centralism

The next section focuses on localism, somehow concluding that primitive societies have no class structure “thanks to their internal … unity”. This is a pretty non-materialist explanation if ever I saw one (and quite probably circular from a materialist point of view) but that’s incidental. What is important is that Daniel gives no gloss of what Kropotkin might mean when he encourages localism, but simply puts the word in his mouth and then describes competition between factories in the USSR. Localism, he says, was the cause of Stalinism. This claim isn’t really explained, however, unless we assume that Kropotkin’s “localism” is something that allows, nay encourages, competition in a market between different individual factories.

But again, it seems that Daniel’s grasp of the concept of Collectivism is letting him down here. Anyone who understands the importance of the critiques of Collectivism in Kropotkin’s work knows that he argued stridently against the idea that a revolution should preserve markets and commodity exchange in the form we know them. To lay hands on the means of production collectively is not enough, he pointed out, if we continue to produce goods for sale on a market in competition with other workers; cooperation, not competition, is the order of the day.

I think Daniel has similarly misunderstood the meaning and importance of localism in Kropotkin’s theory. Localism for Kropotkin was not a way of just dividing up the pre-existing geography of production, but rather an acknowledgement that that geography should be altered. Localism in Kropotkin’s work was about self-sufficiency and efficiency, about local areas producing for their own needs rather than shipping goods halfway around the world. Each individual town would begin to grow more of its own food, each village would integrate better technology into their agricultural practice, etc.

It becomes pretty clear that Kropotkin’s localism is not what Daniel’s representing it to be when we consider that major discussions of “decentralisation of industry” are focused on international trade and division of labour under capitalism, the efficiency gains to be made by local production, etc. On the other hand they have little, if anything, to say about the governance of local areas. Daniel says that the workers in the USSR were “in reality not autonomous at all, but under the firm control of the market, money and their empty stomachs”. This is exactly Kropotkin’s point – we will be under the control of these things unless we take control of them first by reorganising production and distribution.

Bakunin’s prediction

Lastly, Daniel’s comparison of Bakunin’s theory to a “stopped clock” is frankly ridiculous – he didn’t say simply that state oppression would exist in the future, or that state oppression was inevitable. He said that state oppression would continue to exist on the basis of contemporary Marxists’ schemas for organising the revolution and the society that was born out of it. He wasn’t right about Stalinism simply through chance, and to suggest that he was merely bleating the same defeatist tune at everyone is churlish. Many other people made the same prediction for similar reasons – Nietzsche, for one. It’s just too simplistic to dismiss these people as having more luck than theory; in the same article, Daniel refers to Bakunin as a theorist, and then suggests that he had a lack of theory! Presumably this means a lack of the right theory, i.e. he disagreed with Marx. But of course he did – everyone knows this, nobody denies it, and his theory turned out to be vindicated by historical events!

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Anarchism and Marxism: A discussion

by Anne Archist

The following is a very rough transcript of a discussion. I’ve tried to reproduce it as accurately as possible but some sections may be missing and I may have made mistakes at some point along the way. I gave the Anarchism section of the talk, while the Marxism section was given by Daniel Morley. I apologise in particular if I have misrepresented Daniel’s comments in any way. The debate that followed from the floor veered all over the place and plenty of it was off-topic. I haven’t included my contributions to that debate because I couldn’t write and speak at the same time.

Anarchism

The first thing I want to say is that I will be “taking sides”, and specifically I’m going to nail my colours to the mast and say that I’m not interested in any form of Anarchism that is friendly to capitalism. I’m not just fixing definitions to suit myself here; ‘anarchist’ is a label applied to many theories, but this doesn’t show that they share a common theoretical basis. I could argue at length about how so-called “anarcho”-capitalism and social anarchism have nothing in common but this is the Marxist Discussion Group, not the Adam Smith Institute, so I’ll leave it at that and hope that people are satisfied.

I want to start out by giving a brief history of anarchist thought, and though I won’t have time to go into everything, I’m going to focus on a few historically contentious discussions in ways that will hopefully undermine some of the myths spread about anarchists. My view is that anarchists and Marxists have more in common than is generally recognised, and I hope this discussion can help to break down some of the stereotypes and barriers between our traditions.

Much as Marxism was preceded by utopian, idealist and religious socialism of various forms, anarchism’s roots stretch back to Greek and Eastern philosophy. It’s generally considered to have become recognisable in its modern form in the writings of William Godwin, though he apparently drifted away from communism – later editions of ‘Political Justice’ were heavily edited. The first person to self-describe as an anarchist is Proudhon, and the key historical anarchist theorists from today’s point of view are probably Bakunin, Kropotkin, Goldman and Rocker.

Anarchism became an important organised political movement as a faction of the International Working Men’s Association, also known as the First International, founded in 1866. They preferred terms like “federalist” to describe their politics, and were led by Bakunin, though Kropotkin did join the International for a short period. Debates between this trend and the Marxists reached a head at the Hague Congress of 1872, and leading anarchists including Bakunin were expelled.

I want to clear up a few myths about anarchist theory. Despite its predecessors, modern anarchism rests on the same philosophical basis as Marxism – materialism. Bakunin said this in the clearest possible terms: “Undoubtedly the idealists are wrong and the materialists are right.” As for economic analysis, it is often suggested that anarchists have none, or more precisely that they have none of their own. Firstly, I’m not entirely sure why Marxists would consider it a criticism to point out that anarchists agree with the Marxist economic analysis.

Secondly, the idea that they have none at all is quickly disproven by the fact that Bakunin translated Marx’s magnum opus, ‘Capital’, into Russian (to the surprise of Marx, who overestimated the Russian working class’ backwardness); an abridged translation was published in Italian by an anarchist as well. Do we just have to admit we pinched Marx’s ideas, then? Well, no – Marx was heavily influence by Proudhon early in his career, whose book ‘What Is Property?’ was apparently the text that convinced Marx private property must be abolished. Anarchism and Marxism’s contributions to materialist analysis and anti-capitalist economics are intertwined. They form historically and conceptually inseparable parts of a whole – remove Proudhon’s ideas from Marx and you’re left with an economics not far off Adam Smith.

Don’t take it from me, though: “This work became possible only owing to the work of Proudhon himself”, say Marx and Engels in ‘The Holy Family’. They continue later: “Proudhon makes a critical investigation – the first resolute, ruthless, and at the same time scientific investigation – of the basis of political economy, private property. This is the great scientific advance he made, an advance which revolutionizes political economy and for the first time makes a real science of political economy possible.”

Proudhon’s economic theory was limited, but this is understandable given his historical circumstances; he was not a communist, preferring market-based forms of socialism that he believed could usurp capitalism through the development of co-operative industry funded through mutual free credit. This was called mutualism. The idea was – roughly speaking, since I’ve not really read any Proudhon first-hand – that workers could set up banks, creating money to fund the establishment of cooperatives and other workers’ organisations that would compete with the state and capitalist enterprises. A kind of economic dual-power would come about and then capitalism would be surpassed as the collectives would perform better on the market (due to the fact that they were under the control of the people who knew best how to run them, they re-invested money back into the business rather than cream it off in profits, they sold at a lower price, etc).

Later anarchists – those in the First International, for instance – largely sided with Marx’s economic analysis as he moved away from its Proudhonist origins. Bakunin argued that the working class should use a “revolutionary general strike” as the death blow to capitalism, seize the means of production, owning and controlling them collectively. It’s worth spending some time on this question under the current circumstances. In fact, the anarchists were advocating the general strike – and trying to turn it into reality – at a time when Engels was decrying it as unnecessary at best. At worst it was impossible, and most likely it would not result in revolution even if it could be carried out since it targeted individual bourgeois in their roles as employers, rather than the instrument of their class organised as such – the state.

Bakunin’s “federalist” inclinations led him to hold that the question of remuneration for labour was a matter to be decided by individual communities. The question of ownership was settled, but the question of distribution was a subject for experimentation; communities might choose markets with local currency, some form of labour-note based rationing, etc. This theory is generally referred to as anarcho-collectivism, or just collectivism, though distinctions are rarely drawn accurately or consistently from here on in and the term has also been applied to other socialist theories.

Some anarchists consider Bakunin’s ideas as a transitional state that will give way to full communism while others consider it an end in itself (since freedom of migration would allow people to choose which distributive system to live under, etc). Rocker suggests that the economic objectives of mutualism, collectivism, communism, and so on should be considered merely educated guesses at the best way of ensuring a free society, and says that people will likely experiment with different distributive methods.

As I said, the distinctions get less clear from this point, but Kropotkin says: “For the day on which old institutions will fall under the proletarian axe, voices will cry out: “Bread, shelter, ease for all!” And those voices will be listened to… we shall build in the name of Communism and Anarchy.” His point is that basic necessities should immediately be distributed along communist principles and be available to all without any distributive barrier. The key difference, then, is that they are willing to take sides in the debate about distribution – unsurprisingly, these people are called anarchist (or anarcho-) communists.

Kropotkin’s later thought also hinted towards aspects of syndicalism (which is not a specifically anarchist theory but anarcho-syndicalism, the anarchist version, is most common these days). He edited the passage I quoted earlier, to replace the slogan “in demolishing we shall build” with “in building we shall demolish”. This reflected what he felt were lessons learnt from the course of struggle – that simply overturning the status quo without any idea of what should follow it would leave the door open to a restoral of bourgeois order (or perhaps worse).

The syndicalist idea, like mutualism, is a strategy rather than a distributive principle.  It says that some form of industrial union organising can be used in place of a political party in the traditional sense in order to bring about revolution. Syndicalists generally conceive of their task as building organisation in industry either through federating and coordinating pre-existing unions, setting up independent revolutionary unions, or otherwise strengthening the working class’ level of economically-based organisation.

This would then allow them to wage class war using primarily economic weapons such as the strike, and to eventually use general strikes and the seizure of the means of production by force if necessary to effect collectivisation. It’s a common misconception that anarchists, syndicalists, and particularly anarcho-syndicalists, reject political struggle per se, and think that revolution will somehow come about through the economistic development of trade union consciousness.

Rocker, who is often credited as the major anarcho-syndicalist theorist, said: “If Anarcho-Syndicalism nevertheless rejects the participation in the present national parliaments, it is not because they have no sympathy with political struggles in general, but because its adherents are of the opinion that this form of activity is the very weakest and most helpless form of the political struggle for the workers…  Their method is that of direct action in both the economic and political struggle of the time. By direct action they mean every method of the immediate struggle by the workers against economic and political oppression. ”

Rocker goes on to talk about just a few methods of direct action, but makes it clear there are more. The tactic that best represents the relation between economics and politics is probably the social strike; this a strike undertaken with the interests of the whole community in mind, which may include demands such as the lowering of food prices or rent, the provision of services and welfare through employers’ acknowledgement of a “social responsibility”, etc. Similarly, the general strike was used as a weapon by the Chartists in their campaign for enfranchisement – this would presumably be a form of ‘social general strike’.

So that’s a potted history of anarchist theory – there’s a lot more I could go into but I obviously don’t have the time. I hope it’s dispelled a few myths about anarchism: that anarchists don’t have any economic analysis or that they merely piggy-back on Marxism’s in a way that demonstrates a lack of theoretical completeness; that anarchists are idealists, don’t recognise the importance of class struggle, or don’t base themselves in the working class; that anarchists have commonly advocated unrealistic spontaneity or that their strategic and tactical understanding can be reduced to wishful thinking; that anarchists are opposed to organisation; and so forth.

It’s a common misconception on the part of anarchists that Marxists all want to take state power, in their own name and for their own nefarious ends, introducing something akin to the USSR. This is, of course, totally false – take, for instance, the International Communist Group, who say “the revolutionary dictatorship of our class will abolish the state”. On the other hand, it’s a common misconception on the part of Marxists that anarchists all want to live an individualistic utopian existence of utter freedom. This is just as false – Bakunin talks about “the republic as a commune, the republic as a federation, a Socialist and a genuine people’s republic” as “the system of Anarchism.”

So how do I think we should conceptualise the relationship between Marxism and anarchism? Well, I think that there is probably a wider gap between the extremes of those calling themselves Marxists than there is between the average materialist anarchist and the average Trotskyist. We need to pay attention to what people actually think, concretely and specifically, rather than what language they use to describe their ideas. I’d suggest that the types of anarchism I’ve discussed are probably best understood as contributions to the Marxist tradition – historically, philosophically, economically, etc. Obviously though, I’d also go so far as to say that at certain historical periods anarchists have been ahead of more orthodox or mainstream Marxists and that this contribution has been a vital factor in driving Marxism forward.

Marxism

Marxism and anarchism obviously have a lot in common – they’re both theories that are against all forms of oppression and inequality, and they both aim to create a stateless and classless society in the long run. I think that the Marxist understanding of class society and the state are key to understanding the world around us. They are a theoretical focus that provides us with a guide to action; we can learn things about how to deal with them from the way we analyse and critique them. The first question we should ask is: “what are the origins and effects of oppression?” The history of human society has more or less been a list of oppression in varying different forms. Even today we are still surrounded by inequality – why is this, and why is it allowed to go on when it could be addressed so easily? So many people live below the poverty line while a relatively small number of people own vast fortunes that could easily provide for these people’s needs. Why isn’t this done?

The first antagonism was between man and nature. Human beings are poorly adapted to their environment – we can’t fly, we don’t have poisonous stings, etc. On the other hand, we are dependent on nature for our survival, since it ultimately provides our food, shelter, clothing, and so on. This is the first law of society – that we have to struggle against nature to fulfil our needs. We are materially conditioned by nature, not born free; the idea of people being totally “free” in a state of nature is a myth, because they can never be free from the demands of survival. This leads to a struggle to improve the forces of production in order to improve the conditions of existence.

How did the first state arise? Initially there was no need for a state, no state apparatus. Society was, however, divided into different groups such as tribes; these groups competed against each other in order to control resources, using trade, violence, intimidation, and so on. The struggle was both over nature’s bounty and over the subjugation of others’ labour power in the form of slavery. Often people ask about the nature of the link between this slavery and the establishment of state machinery – did classes come first and necessitate the creation of a state, or did the state come first and facilitate the subjugation of minorities into a different class? This isn’t really important. What matters is that when you strip power of its economic basis it becomes devoid of meaning, it becomes literally incomprehensible. What is the meaning of power free from exploitation of labour, control of resources, etc? Oppressing others for the sake of it is meaningless.

It follows from this that the state is not just an arbitrary evil that we can do away with once we realise its nature. It performs a certain social function – serving class interests – and it preserves the prevailing form of class rule. Marxists think that the proletarian state works in the same way – it defends the revolution by suppressing other classes. Even some anarchists would agree with this in a sense. So why did the state maintain itself historically in situations like in the USSR? What was the economic basis for this?

The USSR couldn’t produce sufficiently. The state can only be done away with once work is no longer a burden, which is brought about by the shortening of the work day due to increased employment and productivity. This allows people to take part in running their own affairs and therefore does away with the need for such centralisation and specialisation of administering society. The division of labour between mental and manual can’t just be wished away, it’s based on class inequality. Kropotkin feared that intellectuals and technicians would form a new ruling class – the division of labour provided the basis for a further class divide. Marxists, on the other hand, would identify this as a symptom of class society instead; it can be done away with as class divides are done away with.

Workers’ control failed in Russia because of the objective conditions, not because of the divide between mental and manual labour creating a new class. The workers weren’t capable of organising production properly and began to collectively exploit each other by charging high prices to other factories for their products. So is federalism or localism an answer, as a way of reducing the complexity of organising production (since each collective would only need to deal with local affairs, etc)? No, in fact the opposite. Russian workers couldn’t handle production because Russia was small and isolated – they needed to rely on a world division of labour.

[Something I didn’t really catch about medieval communes]

Potential exists to raise the standard of living internationally because of capitalism’s development of the productive forces and the process of globalisation. Today we are living in an epoch of revolution – there have been waves of unrest across the Middle East, inspired perhaps by the UK and Greece and so on. We are looking at an emerging world fightback.

Discussion.

T: You spoke about anarchism and Marxism being loose categorisations in terms of theory – I was wondering whether you could talk about the differences in praxis?

D: I think the role of party leadership is to popularise, preserve and develop theory and ideas. This is Marx did. Between the crisis periods he didn’t slog away inside pre-existing parties, he concentrated on developing theory that workers could draw on when they began to organise as a class. The chief problem of any revolutionary party is that there isn’t a revolution most of the time.

D2: The relationship of activists/revolutionaries to the working class is crucial. The other day I saw UKUncut walking through Boots, making a load of noise and so on… They alienated the workers there – I heard the workers complaining about them – and they didn’t really achieve anything. I would say to them that I agree with their aims, but I think they’d achieve a lot more if they went about it by speaking to the workers, making sure that they understand the situation, and encouraging and helping them to organise, because ultimately they’re the ones with the power in this situation. I think there’s a real divide between this – I think it’s called propaganda of the deed – kind of tactic, and the ideas of unionisation, organisation, etc.

L: I think it goes to show how loosely people use the terms these days that UKUncut could be called anarchists, I mean, they’re just not. The term propaganda of the deed comes from the sort of individual terrorism that some anarchists carried out at the end of the 19th century, but even at that time there were other anarchists who were in the International and organising in unions and so on. It’s an outdated idea – nobody really believes in it as a strategy any more – and it doesn’t reflect the greater part of the history of anarchism. It’s not something that has really been endorsed anarchists in the 20th century onwards.

D: This kind of individualism in tactics is based on objective factors like low levels of class struggle; it’s not something that inevitably stems from any theory, and it’s a pitfall that’s common to many theories, so you have groups like the Baader-Meinhof Gang in Germany or the Brigate Rosse in Italy who were ostensibly Marxist groups that followed the same kind of individualistic, conspiratorial terrorist tactics rather than class struggle.  People respond to the objective circumstances they find themselves in and it’s often tempting to think that there is some kind of short-cut to revolution or class-consciousness when you’re in a lull period.

D2: You’re right about the term ‘anarchism’ losing its hard edge. I think maybe a more accurate term to describe these groups would be ‘autonomist’? I just worry that there’s a kind of logical escalation from these sort of publicity stunt tactics to terrorism and violence; they might think “oh well we did this and it didn’t work, so maybe we should try something more extreme, something that’s going to have a more direct effect or get more attention”.

T: I think the problem with trying to forego a party is that it puts the onus on the individual to do everything themselves – if you’re not in an organisation you have to try to educate yourself and so on. And maybe there’s an extent to which people who aren’t in parties treat the whole movement as a party of sorts, so instead of developing ideas and bouncing them off members of the same group, they throw them out to the movement as a whole, and so on…

X: What do people think about the election of Ed Miliband with the unions’ support? Does this provide some kind of possibility for change – I mean, he’s not been very militant so far but maybe knowing that he’s relying on the unions’ backing will motivate him to action.

H: If Ed Miliband was going to do anything, I think he would have done it by now, to be honest. I mean, he’s pretty shit.

X: I was just wondering whether maybe the economic situation made him more timid than he might otherwise be, it’s a difficult situation to be in as a leader.

H: Well, if anything the economic situation gives him more leeway, it should allow him to be more confident because everyone’s so pissed off with the tories.

D2: We have to understand the election of Ed Miliband is part of a dialectical process. He represents a move away from Blairism; the Blairites were literally weeping when it was announced that he had won the election, because they know that it represented a change of direction to some extent. If we keep applying pressure to them then we can force people in positions of leadership to step up to the plate.

D: We shouldn’t be too interested in the personality traits of this or that leader. As Marxists we base ourselves in the working class and the movement, not the figurehead that represents it in Parliament. The election of Ed does demonstrate the strength of the grassroots movement in Labour though – the unions could effectively control Labour if they wanted to, but they’re not exercising that power in a militant way and they won’t do unless their members push them to. Sadly there was no real left candidate in the election – that would have been John McDonnell, but the bureaucracy prevented him from standing – so we’ve got to put demands on the leaders to push them in that direction. Ed should have supported the student demos and he should not just march with us on the 26th but should be at the head of the march, leading it.

M: We shouldn’t underestimate the influence a mass movement can have on the leadership. Look at Chavez, he started off as (D: a follower of Tony Blair)… Yeah, but the movement pushed him to the left.

Y: As Marxists, why are we even talking about change through democratic means? Why are we even discussing the Labour Party, they’re not Marxist, they’re not Socialist and they won’t deliver Socialism. That’s not how it works, we believe in revolution, right?

A: We’re not talking about Labour getting into power to represent us, we’re talking about using Labour to build a mass movement. They are a mass organisation that we can intervene in as part of building the movement for that revolution.

Y: But why Labour? Surely there are better mass organisations?

T: There’s obviously lots of debate over the issue of Labour between Marxists, but ultimately parliament isn’t negligible. The Italian Communist Party for instance came out of the reformist Italian Socialist Party… There is potential to build something better out of it.

A: What better basis is there? I don’t see one. I mean, you can start to ask why should we still be based in the working class – some people influenced by Marxism did this, like Foucault and the Frankfurt School – but if you think the working class are the revolutionary agent then you need to base yourself in its mass organisations.

Y: But I think our key aim is to dispel false consciousness. The most important thing we can do is to make people aware of the extent of exploitation and oppression. They don’t realise how exploited they are, and they don’t realise the limitations of the Labour Party and so on. I worry that this sort of thing just reinforces these illusions.

L: Well, on the point of the Italian Communist Party and so on – building revolutionary parties out of reformist ones – they weren’t built in a party like Labour, and neither were the KPD. They aimed to pull people out of the reformist parties to build a mass movement outside them; that’s not what most socialists do with Labour. They try to fight through it and turn it into something it’s not.

D2: The only other mass party that has been to the left of Labour is the Communist Party, and their membership has fallen massively. Labour is the natural party of the working class. It’s just ultra-leftist and sectarian to try to set up a new party outside of the existing mass party of the class.

L: But wasn’t that exactly what the Third International did? And what about Die Linke in Germany? They’ve been successful following this tactic. I think there is a danger of perpetuating illusions in Labour by remaining in there long-term.

T: We shouldn’t concentrate on the snail’s-pace progress in Labour. We should look to students’ unions and trade unions. It’s dangerous to refuse to work through parliament, because people do actually have a lot of illusions in the real world. They look to parliament, they want to be represented in there. We have to work with people as they are but try to get them out of Labour in the long term.

D: Marx, interestingly, said that the working class could come to power through parliament in Britain. It’s not about putting pressure on the leaders to do this or do that; it’s about building a labour movement. There is no other organisation that can play the same role. How do you build a new mass party? It won’t be us here in this room that do it – it will be the working class. We should participate in the struggle through Labour to gain the ear of the working class. I disagree with the person that spoke before about our task being to dispel false consciousness; the working class don’t suffer from false consciousness, they know that politicians don’t do anything to help them, they know their job is shit and their boss is better off than them for no good reason. They just think that the existing structures serve them better compared to any other option they can see right now. There isn’t real mass participation in Labour, but this is just reflective of the low ebb of class struggle in general. There’s also no real participation in the unions for instance.

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A plague on both your houses!

by Anne Archist

There has been a perspective (at least superficially) missing from the recent ‘horizontalism vs hierarchy‘ debate triggered by the student movement’s decentralised self-organisation over the past few months. On the one hand there have been some (mostly newer) activists, politically unaffiliated students whose involvement in the movement is more limited, plus a few left-communists and anarchists influenced by the anti-organisation trend. On the other hand there have been Leninists and some pre-existing activists from other political traditions.

The former are concerned with preventing centralisation and bureaucratisation, widening informal networks and so on; they don’t, however, seem to be particularly interested in building solid organisational and practical links between the occupations, student assemblies, and so on. I get the impression that their vision is one of many different groups doing different things and linked together by a common cause but no real process of coordination or means of ensuring accountability beyond a very local level. The latter are concerned with making the movement more accountable and responsive at ‘higher’ levels, putting structures in place to regulate and coordinate local bodies, etc. I get the impression that their vision is one of  national committees competing for real ‘leadership’ of the movement, with institutional structures and hierarchies extending down towards local anti-cuts groups and heavily permeated with full-timers and lay-activists from Leninist groups.

The missing perspective, then, is one that acknowledges the need for organisation and structures without creating professional ‘leaders’ and buying wholesale into structures that will inevitably lead to a process of calcification. Leninists are (overly) fond of pointing to the famous pamphlet by Jo Freeman, which actually arose from the feminist movement, as a critique of anarchist organising methods. Of course, Jo’s critique can be applied in large part to structured organisations as well, and the remedies she suggests are compatible with anarchism. Incidentally, the response puts across the impression Cathy Levine hasn’t actually read Freeman’s essay, so I wouldn’t really recommend it in relation to this debate.

It is sadly commonplace for debates to polarise, especially when they are conducted in non-ideal conditions (such as under time constraints, in a stressful situation, or across language barriers). I’ve got a long history of writing about this problem as applied to anarchism and Marxism, and I don’t suppose it will be resigned to history anytime soon (I’ll be taking part in a discussion at Cambridge’s Marxist Discussion Group on the topic next term, in fact). We shouldn’t be surprised that the middle-ground hasn’t been given much space in the debate. As part of their relentless drive towards over-simplification to the point of absurdity, some of the intellectual-gutter elements of the left have tried to assert that there are only two options: rigid, committee-based national organisation exercising formalised links with local committees and so on; or else utterly ‘anarchic’ individualist voluntarism whereby hundreds of conflicting statement and tactics will proliferate until the vast majority give up altogether. This is simply not true, and nor does it adequately differentiate between the many factors involved in a successful movement (such as the difference in structures needed for organising a march compared to those needed for publicising it).

Those of you who know me will recognise this as another call for honest but open-minded discussion aimed at understanding our differences but also our similarities, and working ourselves away from extremes of knee-jerkism and towards more considered balancing acts. In short, then, the real challenge for the student movement right now is to find ways of formalising and structuring the relationships within the movement without creating a caste of professional and unrepresentative ‘leaders’, to find ways of ensuring accountability of those taking executive action without also surrendering important decision-making power to them rather than larger bodies, to work out the right attitude to take with NUS and allies like the trade unions that both appreciates their appropriate roles and puts pressure on them to fulfil those roles more closely in line with the interests of society.

The NUS, for instance, is a mediator and a representative – but not of the politically engaged and active ‘student’ movement (which is not really a student movement at all, including as it does parents/staff/etc, but merely a sectional vanguard of a broader anti-cuts sentiment that the left cannot help but see coming). Its actual role (whether we like it or not, and whether we wish this to change over time or not) is to perform a regulatory and mediating function – it works as much for the state as it does for us in some senses – and to act as the voice of all students. We have to understand this function in order to know how to relate to the NUS as it currently is and see what it can do – and what it cannot or should not do – for our movement.

If we cannot find ways of building a democratic, accountable movement that has enough structure to prevent ‘personality-makes-right’ mentality, that organises marginalised or sectional groups with due respect for their needs (such as the women’s section that the National Campaign Against Fees & Cuts has been organising since some months before the movement exploded into the news media), and that still allows mass-participation with differing levels of involvement and communication between different localities/sections/etc, then quite frankly we’ve got little hope of winning this struggle. The Leninists are right to assert that relying on groups of friends tweeting and throwing things at the police won’t help us win, but nor will imposing top-down leadership and subjugating our movement to the tempo and whims of the Labour movement. I should point out that of course I’m not implying that all Leninists are calling for this any more than all anarchists are calling for affinity-group streetfighting – if pushed to take a side in the argument, I’d suggest that generally the Leninists understand the importance of bottom-up leadership of ideas better than their opponents understand the importance of accountability and structure.

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