Introductions to political theories

libcom.org's clearly written short introductions to various political philosophies related to libertarian communism with which we are sympathetic.

Anarchist communism - an introduction

A short introduction to anarchist-communism.

Anarchist communism is a form of anarchism that advocates the abolition of the State and capitalism in favour of a horizontal network of voluntary associations through which everyone will be free to satisfy his or her needs.

Anarchist communism is also known as anarcho-communism, communist anarchism, or, sometimes, libertarian communism. However, while all anarchist communists are libertarian communists, some libertarian communists, such as council communists, are not anarchists. What distinguishes anarchist communism from other variants of libertarian communism is the formers opposition to all forms of political power, hierarchy and domination.

Anarchist communism stresses egalitarianism and the abolition of social hierarchy and class distinctions that arise from unequal wealth distribution, the abolition of capitalism and money, and the collective production and distribution of wealth by means of voluntary associations. In anarchist communism, the state and property no longer exist. Each individual and group is free to contribute to production and to satisfy their needs based on their own choice. Systems of production and distribution are managed by their participants.

The abolition of wage labour is central to anarchist communism. With distribution of wealth being based on self-determined needs, people will be free to engage in whatever activities they find most fulfilling and will no longer have to engage in work for which they have neither the temperament nor the aptitude. Anarchist communists argue that there is no valid way of measuring the value of any one person's economic contributions because all wealth is a collective product of current and preceding generations. Anarchist communists argue that any economic system based on wage labour and private property will require a coercive state apparatus to enforce property rights and to maintain the unequal economic relationships that will inevitably arise.

Well known anarchist communists include Peter, or Piotr, Kropotkin (Russia), Errico Malatesta (Italy) and Nestor Makhno (Ukraine). Kropotkin is often seen as the most important theorist of anarchist communism, outlining his economic ideas in books The Conquest of Bread and Fields, Factories and Workshops. Kropotkin felt co-operation to be more beneficial than competition, arguing in Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution that this was illustrated in nature. Anarchist communist ideas were very influential in the introduction of anarchism to Japan through the efforts of Kôtoku Shûsui in the early 1900s who corresponded with Kropotkin and translated his works. Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman (who were both deported from USA in 1919) became important proponents of ‘Communist anarchism’ and became especially critical of Bolshevism after they discovered its devastating reality first-hand in Russia, and after the Red Army's crushing of the Kronstadt uprising. They in turn had been influenced by German-born émigrée to the USA, Johann Most, who had earlier helped bring anarchist communist thought to Britain though his contact with Frank Kitz in London around 1880 (see Anarchist Communism in Britain for a full historical account).

Many platformists refer to themselves as anarchist communists, although other anarchist communists are uncomfortable with some areas of the Organisational Platform document, such as the issue of ‘collective responsibility’ as supported by Mahkno but opposed by Malatesta. While historically many anarchist communists have been active anarcho-syndicalists, many are critical towards those syndicalists who seek some form of self-managed wage system rather than its abolition, pointing out that any system which maintains economic relations based on reward of effort and exchange is not communist.

Modern day anarchist communists are represented in several organisations within the International of Anarchist Federations, including the Anarchist Federation (Britain). Platformist anarchist communists include the Workers Solidarity Movement (Ireland) and the North-Eastern Federation of Anarchist Communists (USA). Many nascent Eastern European, Russian and Caucasian anarchist groups identify with anarchist communism and there is a strong anarchist communist current amongst contemporary Latin American and Caribbean anarchist organisations.

More information

Edited by libcom from an article by the Anarchist Federation.

AttachmentSize
Anarchist communism - an introduction.pdf104.76 KB

Anarcho-syndicalism - an introduction

A short explanation of anarcho-syndicalism and notes on its history.

Anarcho-syndicalism is one of the major forms of social anarchism. The idea behind anarcho-syndicalism is to combine the economic methods of syndicalism with the revolutionary politics of anarchism. This leads anarcho-syndicalists to be involved in everything from small propaganda groups to mass revolutionary unions, always organised according to anarchist principles, on a decentralised, federated basis.

Anarcho-syndicalism developed out of Revolutionary Syndicalism, however whereas Revolutionary Syndicalists rejected any politics in the union (in the 1906 Charter of Amiens), anarcho-syndicalists insisted that any organisation of workers must have explicitly revolutionary politics lest it lapse into reformism and collaboration with the ruling class. Following the Revolutionary Syndicalist CGT’s support for World War One, against the anarchist principle of international working class solidarity, the Spanish CNT voted in 1923 to adopt libertarian communism (anarchism) as its explicit goal.

While anarcho-syndicalists advocate similar tactics to syndicalists, their revolutionary politics mean they don't aim to recruit all workers into ‘One Big Union.’ Instead, they try and organise alongside non-anarcho-syndicalist workers by advocating mass meetings, factory committees and workers’ councils which unite all workers. Commenting on the Russian Revolution, Russian anarcho-syndicalist GP Maximov wrote that:

It is a noteworthy feature of the revolution that despite the rather small influence of Anarchists on the masses before its out break, it followed from its inception the anarchistic course of full decentralisation; the revolutionary bodies immediately pushed to the front by the course of revolution were Anarcho-Syndicalist in their essential character. These were of the kind which lend themselves as adequate instruments for the quickest realisation of the Anarchist ideal - Soviets, Factory Committees, peasant land committees and house committees, etc.

At its foundation in 1922, the International Workers' Association (IWA) committed itself to "the establishment of economic communities and administrative organs run by the workers in the field and factories, forming a system of free councils without subordination to any authority or political party, bar none." In more recent times, the late 1980s saw the CNT organise mass assemblies in the workplace and community during the Puerto Real dockyard struggles.

Anarchism in action - CNT armoured car factory
Spain 1936 - anarcho-syndicalist workers in the CNT construct armoured cars to fight the fascists in one of the collectivised factories

Another important element of anarcho-syndicalism is that it doesn’t limit itself to workplace activity, seeing tactics such as rent strikes and unemployed organising as means to further working class demands outside the workplace, alongside the more typically syndicalist direct action of strikes, occupations and sabotage by workers at the point of production.

The aim of the anarcho-syndicalist union is not just to win improved conditions. It would also serve as "the elementary school of Socialism" (Rudolf Rocker, Anarchism and Anarcho-Syndicalism). In this way, anarcho-syndicalist unions aim to ‘create the new world in the shell of the old’ and they take very seriously Bakunin’s remark that the workers’ organisations must create "not only the ideas but also the facts of the future" in the pre-revolutionary period. The organisation of the union would prepare workers for the direct democracy, self-activity and mutual aid needed if the future society is to succeed.

Anarcho-syndicalists, like all libertarian communists, "are convinced that a Socialist economic order cannot be created by the decrees and statutes of a government, but only by... the taking over of the management of all plants by the producers themselves" (Rocker, ibid.). Political parties are not just unnecessary for social change, but actually hold it back. These parties (even those claiming to represent the workers) stifle working class self-activity by attempting to either negotiate with government or by trying to lead the working class to victory.

Anarcho-syndicalists believe that workers should take direct action to get better conditions at work and win social and political demands (while always having revolution and workers’ control as their final goal). An example of this would be the Spanish CNT (National Confederation of Labour) striking for the release of political prisoners in the beginning of the 20th Century, and British construction workers doing the same in the 1970s. Other recent political strikes include general strikes against the second Iraq war in Italy, Spain and Germany.

Between 1905 and 1939, anarcho-syndicalism gained itself a very prominent position in the workers’ movements of France, Italy and Spain (the CNT playing a leading role in the Spanish Civil War and Revolution in 1936-39) as well as in Latin America where anarchism was the predominant force in the workers' movement in many countries (such as in Argentina, Brazil and, to some extent, Peru). Today, though not as powerful a force as it once was, it still plays a significant role in workers’ struggles in areas of Western Europe.

More information

Council communism - an introduction

A short history and explanation of the ideas and practice of council communism.

Council communism was a militant workers' movement that first emerged in Germany and the Netherlands during the 1920s. Today it lives on as an important theoretical current that inspires libertarian communists.

The central (and simple) argument of council communism, in stark contrast to both reformist social democrats and Leninists, is that workers’ councils which arise in workplaces and communities during periods of intense struggle are the natural form of working class organisation. This view is completely opposed to reformist or Leninist arguments which stress that the working class are incapable of doing anything by ourselves and need to rely on vanguard parties, ballot boxes (and the capitalist state institutions that both of these entail) to sort out our problems.

These conclusions lead council communists to maintain very similar positions to those held by class struggle anarchists and revolutionary syndicalists with the main difference often, but not always, being a commitment to Marx and his methods of analysis. As such there are historical and present day instances of close cooperation between the two currents, even to the point of many inspired by council communism becoming members of class struggle anarchist and revolutionary syndicalist groups.

Following from this, council communists argue that society and the economy should be managed by coordinations of workers’ councils, made up of delegates elected at workplaces and can be recalled at any moment by those who elected them. As such, council communists oppose bureaucratic state socialism. They also oppose the idea of a revolutionary party seizing power, believing that any social upheaval led by one these ‘revolutionary’ parties will just end up in a party dictatorship. Otto Rühle, a key contributor to the development of council communism famously penned that the revolution is not a party affair.

Instead council communists believe that the role of a revolutionary organization is not to perform the revolution for the working class, but only to agitate within the class, encouraging people to take control of their own struggles through the directly democratic institutions of workers’ councils.

It’s sometimes been thought that council communists have maintained an ‘outside and against’ position on bureaucratic reformist trade unions, seeing them as a brake on workers’ militancy and believing that the leadership, whose role is seen as little more than ‘cops with flat caps’, will always eventually sell out the membership. It is true that, historically at least, council communists have been anti-trade union. However, this has largely been due to the context in which council communists were writing. For instance, German council communists of the 1920s were fully aware of the German trade unions’ role in betraying the attempted workers’ revolution in 1918. However, in modern times, though keeping a very critical view of trade unions and their undemocratic nature, those inspired by council communists generally believe in forming autonomous class struggle organizations that agitate in and beyond the unions.

Council communists obviously also held a strong criticism of the ‘successful’ Russian revolution of 1917. Though they felt that originally it had a pro-working class nature about it, it ended up being a bourgeois revolution, with the new ‘communist’ leaders replacing the old feudal aristocracy with a state capitalist bureaucracy. The council communists hold that the Bolshevik Party just took over the role of individual capitalists rather then got rid of it.

The council communists emerged largely out of the German rank-and-file trade union movement, who opposed their unions and organised increasingly radical strikes towards the end of 1917 and the beginning of 1918. These formed into the Communist Workers’ Party of Germany (KAPD), it's workers' union the AAUD, and the AAUD-E, whose hey-day was in the attempted German revolution of 1918-19. Similar tendencies developed within the workers’ movements of Italy, Bulgaria and the Netherlands.

The brutally repressed but briefly successful anti-USSR workers' uprising in Hungary 1956 is often used as a practical example of how workers' councils can arise naturally out of the working class during periods of intense class struggle, even despite the workers' lack of explicit commitment to council communist theory.

Council communist ideas have since been taken on by many libertarian communists around the world with groups like Socialisme ou Barbarie and the Situationist International being greatly influenced by them. However council communists were never part of the anarchist tradition, and so grouping them with libertarian communists is seen to be inaccurate. This said the AAUD-E later did work towards rapprochement with class struggle anarchists and revolutionary syndicalists in the Block Antiautoritärer Revolutionäre. Considering this along with their anti-Bolshevism, anti-partyism, and anti-statist approach to the dictatorship of the proletariat it is appropriate to see council communists an anti-authoritarian current in the historical workers' movement.

However, these groups are sometimes designated derogatively as 'councilist' by left communists, for overtly obsessing over workers' spontaneity and submitting to what Mark Shipway describes as 'an empty, formalistic emphasis on workers’ councils which completely neglects the communist content of the council communist equation.' This is perceived as dangerous because it is possible that workers might be able to spontaneously take over the means of production during a crisis but only end up establishing a form of 'self-managed capitalism' in which federated workers' councils govern the world but unpleasant capitalist wage relations are still retained.

Council communists in contrast think that the working class must develop to possess a strong political consciousness and have communism and the abolition of capitalism set as their goal; the councils are only the means by which this goal can be realised. This was also the criticism made by the left communists in the KAPD when the AAUD-E split from them in rejection of a separate political (party) organisation of communists.

By libcom, 2005 (subject to subsequent edits by forum members)

More information

AttachmentSize
Council communism intros.pdf723.41 KB

Situationists - an introduction

A short introduction to the ideas of the Situationists. Based in France, their strand of libertarian Marxism became popular after the mass strikes of 1968.

Situationist ideas came from the European organisation the Situationist International, formed in 1957. While it lasted only 15 years, its ideas were deeply influential, and have been a part of Western society - and radical movements - ever since.

Resisting any attempts to file their ideas into a static ideology, situationism, the SI called attention to the priority of real life, real live activity, which continually experiments and corrects itself, instead of just constantly reiterating a few supposedly eternal truths like the ideologies of Trotskyism, Leninism, Maoism or even anarchism. Static ideologies, however true they may be, tend, like everything else in capitalist society, to rigidify and become fetishised, just one more thing to passively consume.

Partly as a result of this, Situationist ideas are notoriously difficult to explain, and open to a wide degree of interpretation. However, a few facts can be stated. Most introductions to the Situationists focus on their cultural ideas, particularly in relation to detournement (subverting elements of popular culture) and the development of punk, but the roots of Situationist ideas are in Marxism. Libertarian Marxism, closer to anarchism than authoritarian strands of traditional Marxism, with the central idea that workers are systematically exploited in capitalism and that they should organise and take control of the means of production and organise society on the basis of democratic workers' councils.

The Situationists, or Situs, were the first revolutionary group to analyse capitalism in its current consumerist form. Then as now, in the West most workers were not desperately poor, toiling 12 hours a day in factories and mines (workers' struggles over the previous 150 years saw to that) but the poverty of everyday life had never been greater. Workers were not beaten down with savage repression, so much as with illusions in empty consumer goods, or spectacles, which were imbued by culture and marketing with characteristics they don’t really possess. For example, that purchasing this or that gadget or brand of shoes will make your life complete, or make your sad life like that of the celebrities and models culture shows us.

The Situs argued that increased material wealth of workers was not enough to stop class struggle and ensure capitalism’s perpetual existence, as many on the left argued at the time, since authentic human desires would be always in conflict with alienating capitalist society. Situationist tactics included attempting to create “situations” where humans would interact together as people, not mediated by commodities. They saw in moments of true community the possibility of a future, joyful and un-alienated society.

"People who talk about revolution and class struggle without referring explicitly to everyday life, without understanding what is subversive about love and what is positive in the refusal of constraints, such people have corpses in their mouths."
1

In a (anti-)spectacular demonstration of the validity of their ideas, a group of Situationists, along with anarchists, at the Nanterre University were instrumental in sparking the Revolt of May 1968 which swept the country, bringing it to a state of near-revolution, with 10 million workers on General Strike, many of them occupying their workplaces.

The key figure in the SI, Guy Debord, committed suicide in 1994 but Situationist ideas live on, having been made a fundamental part of most anarchist theory today, as well as their thoughts on consumerism which are now held as truisms by most people.

“We have a world of pleasure to win, and nothing to lose but boredom.” 2

More information

  • 1. The Revolution of Everyday Life - Raoul Vaneigem
  • 2. ibid.
AttachmentSize
Situationists - an introduction.pdf25.78 KB

Syndicalism - an introduction

A short explanation of revolutionary syndicalism and industrial unionism as well as some notes on their histories.

Syndicalism refers to the practice of organising workers into unions to fight for their interests. Originally, the term comes from the French work for Trade Unionism (Syndiclisme), but in English the term specifically refers to rank-and-file unionism.

There are two major tendencies: Revolutionary Syndicalism, typified by the French CGT, and Industrial Unionism, typified by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). A related tendency is anarcho-syndicalism, but its specifically anarchist politics differentiate it from syndicalism, which is purely economic, or 'non-political'. The idea behind syndicalism is to create an industrial, fighting union movement. Syndicalists therefore advocate decentralised, federated unions that use direct action to get reforms under capitalism until they are strong enough to overthrow it.

Revolutionary Syndicalism has its roots in the anarchist movement, and can be traced back to the libertarian tendency in the First International Workingmens’ Association, when prominent Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin argued that: "the future social organisation must be made solely from the bottom up, by the free association or federation of workers, firstly in their unions, then in the communes, regions, nations and finally in a great federation, international and universal." Industrial Unionism has its roots in the Marxist tradition, with the IWW’s famous 1905 ‘Preamble to the Constitution’ quoting Marx’s dictum “instead of the conservative motto, ‘A fair day's wage for a fair day's work,’ we must inscribe on our banner the revolutionary watchword, ‘Abolition of the wage system.’”

The origins of syndicalism - libertarian socialists meet at Basel in 1869
The origins of syndicalism - libertarian socialists meet at Basel in 1869

Despite these different origins, Revolutionary Syndicalism and Industrial Unionism converged on a very similar approach. The central idea is that trade unions divide workers by trade, which can (and has) end up in scabbing. In America, industrial disputes would sometimes see violent clashes between workers of different unions who would ignore each other’s requests to respect picket lines. The aim of syndicalism is to unite all workers into ‘One Big Union’ controlled by the members, from the grassroots.

This is obviously in deep contrast to the current reformist unions who are filled with layer upon layer of bureaucrats who can call off industrial action regardless of the wishes of the membership. This kind of union democracy puts control of workers’ struggles where it belongs: with the workers themselves.

Both Industrial Unionism (as per the 1905 IWW constitution) and Revolutionary Syndicalism (as per the 1906 Charter of Amiens) are non-political, aiming to build unions for all workers regardless of political persuasions. However, this doesn’t mean syndicalists are indifferent to the great social and political issues of the day. Rather syndicalists argue that only by building democratic, workers’power at the point of production (‘industrial democracy’) that social ills can be addressed:

When the industry of the world is run by the workers for their own good, we see no chance for the problems of unemployment, war, social conflict, or large scale crime, or any of our serious social problems to continue.

More information

AttachmentSize
Syndicalism - an introduction.pdf846.06 KB