Wednesday, April 3, 2013

A "Black Flame" review that has been circulating on anarchist boards and lists...

Stumbled across this, which has been moving through a series of networks and lists:  

Jack Devon:‘Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism’
I came across ‘Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism’ quite by chance and I’m so glad I did; it’s one of the best works of non-fiction I’ve read in years. The authors are a journalist and an academic, a winning combination because they’ve succeeded in combining sound scholarship with accessible prose to launch a bold, unflinching assault on the myth-making, obfuscation, disinformation and downright lies that have served to distort, discredit and obscure the immense contribution anarchism and syndicalism have made to the labour movement globally and to society at large.

Michael Schmidt and Lucien van der Walt adopt a stance of sympathetic engagement; letting nothing pass without critical appraisal, yet their approach is nonetheless sympathetic to the broad anarchist tradition. The result is nothing short of an exhilerating read. I can’t wait to get my hands on volume two.

They begin with the demolition of faulty definitions of anarchism. Paul Elzbacher’s influential ‘Anarchism: Exponents of the Anarchist Philosophy’ (1900) picked seven ‘recognised’ anarchist teachers: Godwin, Stirner, Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin, Tucker and Tolstoy. His basic assumption was faulty. Godwin derived an antistatist stance from utilitarian principles of the 1790s, but that didn’t make him an anarchist. Stirner was an extreme individualist of the 1840s . Tolstoy was a Christian mystic and contemplative. Godwin and Tolstoy were ascetics, Stirner a libertine. Proudhon was a utopian, a proponent of mutualism. Tucker was a rationalist and an atheist. In other words, Elzbacher ended up with a selection of people with radically different ideas. No wonder he defined anarchism by the lowest common denominator: opposition to the state.

Matters were not improved by the self-serving myth-making of anarchists themselves, some of whom tried to establish the idea that anarchism had always existed in mankind, a phrase that even slipped into the 1910 Encyclopaedia Britannica. The anarchist historian Max Nettlau suggested that the anarchist concept and principles could be found in ancient Greece as well as among scientific writers of the 18th century. In his classic ‘Anarcho-Syndicalism’, Rudolf Rocker said anarchist ideas were to be found in every period of known history. In 1944 George Woodcock found in Taoism the first anarchistic doctrine. If anarchism can encompass economic liberals, Marxists, radical Christians, Taoism, and more,‘ the authors write, ‘it is hardly surprising that the standard works on anarchism describe it as “incoherent”.’

Using a deductive method, the authors start from scratch in seeking to construct an accurate picture of anarchism. ‘The basic premise of all the anarchist arguments was a deep and fundamental commitment to individual freedom,’ they write. ‘For the anarchists, however, freedom could only exist, and be exercised, in society; equally, inegalitarian and hierarchical social structures made freedom impossible. It followed that the anarchist ideal was a society based on social and economic equality as well as self-management, in which individual freedom could truly exist.’

It was simply untrue to claim, as did E.H. Carr in his biography of Bakunin, that the key figure in anarchism was an extreme individualist influenced by Stirner. Bakunin envisaged freedom as a product of society, not a revolt against society by individuals. On the contrary, the struggle against extreme individualism was an essential part of the anarchist project. For the anarchist, duties and freedoms are inextricably linked. So where does this take us? Anarchism and syndicalism are born of the European Enlightenment; specifically, anarchism is rooted in the labour movement of the 1860s.

Anarchism can be said to be rational, anti-authoritarian, egalitarian, and opposed to capitalism and landlordism. For anarchists, the class system has been the fundamental obstacle to true individuality with the state seen as a defender of that class system, a centralised body that concentrates power in the hands of the minority ruling class. ‘The emancipation of the working class and peasantry required a radically different form of social organisation that maximised popular self-activity and self-management – and this was entirely at odds with the state,’ the authors say.

The early anarchists also rejected the classical Marxist strategy of using the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ as a means to destroy class society. That would simply replace one ruling elite with another. ‘I am above all an absolute enemy of revolution by decrees,’ said Bakunin. ‘which derive from the idea of the revolutionary State, i.e., reaction disguised as revolution.’ The new regime would only become a class system as bad as any that preceded it. Revolutionary ‘socialist’ governments, Bakunin and Kropotkin repeatedly said, would in fact be forms of state capitalism. The state ‘will then become the only banker, capitalist, organiser, and director of all national labour, and the distributor of its products,’ Bakunin said. How right he was!

For anarchists, the means shaped the ends. The classical Marxist notion that history was a trajectory, a straight line determined by economic production – regardless of what anyone thought, said or did – was crude determinism by anarchist standards. In the anarchist world view, there was a great deal more to life – and history – than productive forces. If history marched anywhere, it did so in fits and starts, and was affected by phenomena such as culture, religion and leisure Anarchists also saw the struggle of the popular classes – the working class and peasantry – as the engine of change. For classical Marxists, the peasantry was dismissed as a declining class that would be absorbed by the spread of capitalism.

Opposed to Marxist notions of the ‘aristocracy of labour’, Bakunin maintained that only through the broadest possible class unity could the interests of the popular classes as a whole be defended. Anarchists were strongly internationalist, seeing war simply as a means for ruling groups to compete with one another globally for raw materials and new markets. From the start the movement also embraced a strong feminist impulse and championed equal rights for women.

‘It is our view,’ the authors say,’that the term anarchism should be reserved for a particular rationalist and revolutionary form of libertarian socialism that emerged in the second half of the 19the century. Anarchism was against social and economic hierarchy as well as inequality – and specifically, capitalism, landlordism, and the state – and in favour of an international class struggle and revolution from below by a self-organised working class and peasantry in order to create a self-managed, socialist, and stateless social order. In this new order, individual freedom would be harmonised with communal obligations through cooperation, democratic decision making, and social and economic equality, and economic coordination would take place through federal forms…’