Saturday, January 28, 2012

A Useful Debate: Notes on Martin Thomas' "Solidarity"/Alliance for Workers' Liberty critique of "Black Flame"

The British Trotskyist group, Alliance for Workers' Liberty (AWL), in 2011 published a 3 part review/ critique/ discussion of Black Flame in their paperSolidarity. Written by Martin Thomas, it appeared in three parts:

Part 1 here
Part 2 here
Part 3 here

There are many points with which to disagree, but let us stress first that the AWL was absolutely comradely and non-sectarian throughout. The Black Flame authors, several times offered a platform in Solidarity to reply, and engagement in the "Comments" sections was also friendly. Regrettably time commitments made the formal reply impossible, although some responses were posted online by Lucien (see below).

Meanwhile, Iain McKay, author of the Anarchist FAQ (vol. 1 book edition here and online edition here), also participated extensively in the debate, with systematic responses in the "Comments" section of each part - detailed responses that by-and-large refute much of the 3-part review.

Thomas then invited McKay to debate the issues at the AWL's annual "Ideas for Freedom" event, which in 2011 ran from 8-10 July. The AWL agreed to McKay's terms that the event be free and that an anarchist stall be permitted.
You can read McKay's statement for the "Ideas for Freedom" event in PDF here. However, his many interventions in the "Comments" (under his well-known internet name Anarcho) are  an even richer and more comprehensive point-by-point refutation of many of the claims by Thomas. They can be found from here down, from here down, and from here down.

Meanwhile here are two posts by Lucien, which are rather modest efforts compared to McKay's detailed work.

Here is Lucien's first of two posts in "Comments" , from here (scroll below for the second post):

Martin Thomas writes that ‘Trotsky fought Stalinism to the death. But Schmidt and van der Walt claim he "envisaged socialism as 'authoritarian leadership... centralised distribution of the labour force... the workers' state... entitled to send any worker wherever his labour may be needed', with "dissenters sent to labour camps if necessary" … The words put in quote marks are culled not from Trotsky himself but from "pages 128, 132" of a book by one Wayne Thorpe … None of the words was ever written by Trotsky as a statement of his vision of socialism. The quoted string of words was never written as a whole connected passage by Trotsky anywhere.

Actually, this is passage is from Leon Trotsky, Terrorisme et communisme (Paris, 1963; 1st edn in Russia, July 1920), p. 215.

It draws on his remarks at the 9th Party Congress 1920, where he added that "the working masses cannot be left wandering all over Russia. They must be thrown here and there, appointed, commanded, just like soldiers," and "Deserters from labour ought to be formed into punitive battalions or put into concentration camps". This is from Leon Trotsky, Sochineniya (Works), vol. XV, p. 126, quoted in Maurice Brinton, The Bolsheviks and Workers Control, 1917-1921: The State and Counter-Revolution (London: Solidarity, 1970), p. 61.

The fact that it was in a "polemic" - in fact, as Thomas notes, part of a larger "proposal" to militarise labour - merely underlines the point in Black Flame that "The differences between [Stalinism and Trotskyism] should not be overstated."

Here is Lucien's second of two posts in the "Comments" sections, from here:

Many of the misconceptions that Martin outlined are dealt with in-depth by Lucien van der Walt in a recent piece for International Socialism. There is also an extended version of the paper, available online. Both articles are linked below.

Before outlining some of the key points in these, let me just mention that Martin proceeds from the assumption that van der Walt and Schmidt are somehow revising anarchism, or breaking with traditional anarchism. This is mistaken.

Black Flame is simply a description of the views of mainstream historical anarchism and syndicalism, made through a discussion of standard texts and a world of historical experiences. That the conclusions do not fit the AWL vision of what anarchism "really" is, is simply testament to the fact that the comrades at the AWL seem to be trying to fit anarchism and syndicalism into a set of flawed Marxist stereotypes - rather than seriously engage with actual anarchist and syndicalist writings or the actual history of anarchism and syndicalism, they are relying instead on clichés, assertions and reiterations of certain Marxist myths.

The point is simply that a constructive discussion between Marxism and anarchism/ syndicalism, from which both can learn, is frustrated by such an approach.

Now, the misconceptions regarding anarchism (and syndicalism) dealt with in van der Walt's two papers include:

1. the role of anarchists in the Paris Commune and their views on the Commune. Many of the ideas of the Commune were first expressed by the anarchists, who, unlike the Marxists, played a key role in the Commune, and who were also involved in the other communalist revolts of the time in Spain, France and Italy; to assert a contradiction between anarchism and the Commune, or to present the anarchists as anti-Commune, is simply wrong.

2. the notion that Bakunin and Kropotkin either rejected class struggle, or rejected the modern working class. Both anarchist luminaries saw class struggle and trade unions as central to the anarchist project - this is precisely why syndicalism arose in the anarchist wing of the First International, as both Marx and Engels themselves recognised.

3. the myth that the Spanish anarchists and syndicalists (and anarchists and syndicalists elsewhere) lacked any programme for "coordinated authority for the war against the fascists" and other reactionaries. The need for coordinated military defence of revolution - in the context of a multi-tendency system of working class and peasant rule - was a staple of anarchist thought and was, for instance, the official programme of the Spanish CNT and FAI - joining the Spanish government violated anarchist policy, and did not flow from it; the need for armed and coordinated military defence was central to anarchism, and this is clear from a vast range of primary texts, not to mention the fact of numerous anarchist and syndicalist militias and armies historically. Contrary to Martin's suggestions, these issues are also discussed at length in Black Flame, which comes down in favour of this approach.

4. the myth that (to use Martin's words) anarchists reject the need for a "disciplined revolutionary socialist party with a definite programme and a press." If by "party" we mean a specific political organisation, based on theoretical and tactical unity, with some collective discipline, then this was precisely the view of key anarchists and syndicalists worldwide, ranging from Bakunin and Kropotkin to Ricardo Flores Magón, José Oiticica, Shifu, T.W. Thibedi etc. Notable organisations on these lines include the International Alliance of Socialist Democracy, Spain’s FAI, Mexico’s La Social, China’s Society of Anarchist-Communist Comrades, the postwar Uruguayan Anarchist Federation, etc. The prevalence of this approach is clearly shown in Black Flame, although Martin does not mention it.

Of course some anarchists rejected this approach, but then again, you get Marxists who reject the Marxist party e.g. autonomists; it does not follow from the fact of Marxist autonomism that the mainstream of Marxism rejected the need for vanguard parties, and it equally does not follow from the fact that a few anarchists and syndicalists rejected political organisation that the mainstream of anarchism and syndicalism did so - the issue was, for the mainstream, not whether to form specific anarchist groups, but how they should be structured, and how they should operate in relation to the masses and the revolution; in those debates, Bakunin etc. came down firmly for specific political organisation, based on theoretical and tactical unity, with some collective discipline. These issues are also discussed at length by van der Walt’s two papers and by Black Flame.

5. the misleading claim that Bolshevism (and mainstream historical Marxism) was more democratic than anarchism and syndicalism. The Russian Revolution was (precisely as Bakunin and Kropotkin predicted years before), strangled by the Marxist "vanguard", which from the start operated a party-run secret police, crushed strikes, murdered left opponents, destroyed soviet democracy and workers self-management etc. - to assert a sharp break between "Marxism" and "Stalinism" and the whole Soviet/ East bloc experience is not just historically flawed, but is at odds with the views of the great majority of Marxists; it is mistaken to write about Marxism as if Communism never happened, and as if Lenin and Trotsky did not create a one-party state, complete with the apparatus of forced labour camps, secret police, peasant extortions etc. later developed further by Stalin.

Lucien van der Walt, 2011, "Counterpower, Participatory Democracy, Revolutionary Defence: debating 'Black Flame,' revolutionary anarchism and historical Marxism," International Socialism: a quarterly journal of socialist theory, no. 130 (2011), pp. 193-207, online here

Description: This article is, in part, a response to criticisms of the broad anarchist tradition in 'International Socialism' (ISJ), an International Socialist Tendency (IST) journal. However, it is also an examination of issues like the use of sources in Marxist/ anarchist debates, the historical/ current impact of anarchism/ syndicalism, anarchism and the question of defending revolutions, revolutions and pluralism, anarchism and political struggles and bodies, the Spanish anarchists' debates on taking power, anarchism's relationship to democracy, the historical role of Marxism, the role of Bolshevism in the fate of the Russian Revolution, Lenin and Stalin, and the tasks of the 21st century left.

Lucien van der Walt, 7 April 2011, "Detailed reply to 'International Socialism': debating power and revolution in anarchism, 'Black Flame' and historical Marxism," 62 pp., online here

Description: This paper develops the themes in the short paper at length, with far more extensive data and references.


  1. Thanks for mentioning me. Readers may wish to vist these links.

    First is a write-up of my talk: Marxism and Anarchism

    Second is my leaflet: The AWL versus Anarchism

    Third, and finally, my thoughts on the experience: Leninists are strange

    Suffice to say, I'm sure that Leninists will repeat the same old nonsense about anarchism in spite of these articles like these refuting them.


  2. You may be interested to know that the AWL have produced a pamphlet on anarchism which includes some of this material. It has a new response to my leaflet, which I reply to in The AWL versus Anarchism (part 2)

    Martin Thomas is still flogging the "Trotsky did not say this" line...