Friday, January 20, 2012

Graham Purchase's review in "Anarcho-syndicalist Review"

An interesting review of Black Flame appeared in ASR/ Anarcho-syndicalist Review no. 53, 2010, by Graham Purchase. Purchase is an Australian writer on anarchism (especially on its relation to ecology), and his ideas had an important impact (among others) on the (South African) Workers Solidarity Federation (WSF), as a look at their Position Papers on environmental and other issues shows (see here).

Given Purchase's important contributions to anarchism, such as Anarchism & Environmental Survival (1994/ 2011), his review was naturally of particular interest. Therefore it is pleasing to see Purchase commend the book for its "extensive" sources, its global coverage, its stress on the working class roots and project of anarchism and syndicalism, its examination of issues of race and gender, and its critique of crude identity politics.

Purchase does note that the book pretty much ignores environmental issues, which is perfectly true, but it should be stressed that this not due to disinterest on the authors' part. The absence was keenly felt, but it is mainly the result of the absence of a decent examination of this thread in anarchist and syndicalist history in most sources - with Purchase's work an important exception - and we are reliant on our sources. In any case, no book can be entirely comprehensive.

Purchase adds that the book accepts, rather than supersedes, some of the "sectarian" divisions in anarchism/ syndicalism (p. 39). True again, but is this a problem? The book does not aim to artificially synthesise anarchism into a unified movement, nor to sidestep its rich debates, but to survey and analyse the debates within the movement. This is necessary for any real history - and also useful for current discussions of tactics, analysis etc.

Such differences arise mainly from very real and sincere disagreements on tactics and strategy, and differing contexts, and not from sectarianism. Whether it is useful to supersede differences in the first place - as opposed to allowing success or failure to measure which approach is better - is itself an issue of some debate. Black Flame certainly leans towards some positions, but it also presents the rival positions and criticisms at some length: the book is an overview, not a manifesto.

Naturally, some of Purchase's comments are more political in nature, and to be welcomed as such. For example, he disagrees with the Bakuninist / Platformist / especifist / Malatestian approach of building specific anarchist political organisations, in addition to mass formations like unions etc. Since he notes that Black Flame demonstrates a "long historic precedent" for the centrality of dual organisationalism in anarchism/ syndicalism (including Bakunin's Alliance and the Spanish FAI), and since he fails to dispute the historic fact of such bodies, let alone their critical historic achievements, its unclear on what basis he then sweepingly confidently asserts that this approach is "certainly unachievable and probably undesirable" (p. 40).

Perhaps it is the assumption that this approach seeks to meld all anarchists into one unified group, with a common political position? However, the aim of the Alliance, the FAI etc. was something else: to form strong, specific, anarchist/ syndicalist political organisations, based on theoretical and tactical unity and collective responsibility, with a real influence (a leadership of ideas) in mass organisations of the popular classes. Naturally, the larger such a formation, the bigger its impact, but since the strength itself lies in political and organisational unity, it would be rare indeed that formations could include everybody who identified with anarchism or syndicalism - and so, such all-inclusiveness was never an aim.

Purchase is also less convincing where he claims Black Flame neglects "the Commune" i.e. the anarchist commitment to the "self-governing suburb, quarter or region" (p. 39). This is rather a misrepresentation - or perhaps, we misunderstand Purchase? -as Black Flame stresses that syndicalist unions immersed themselves in community struggles (e.g. p. 21, 185), shows that anarchists / syndicalists favoured community activism and took various approaches to such activism (pp. 124, 190 onwards, 330 onwards), and that the movement generally envisaged "Democratic local groups at the workplace and in the neighbourhood" as "the nucleus of the social movement that would create libertarian socialism" (p. 68).

This supposed neglect of the community is, for Purchase, caused by Black Flame apparently treating anarchism and syndicalism as identical. This claim, too, is simply wrong, as the book explicitly differentiates anarchism and syndicalism, and treats syndicalism as an anarchist strategy, not accepted by all. This position is made upfront in chapter 1 (p. 21) and at great length elsewhere. It is surely not too different to Purchase's view that anarchism is the "tree", syndicalism a "branch" (p. 39)?

Overall, a stimulating review, with much food for thought, but with some room for engagement!

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