A criticism of the failure of anarchists and libertarian socialists to seriously organize and how it cedes ground to authoritarian sects.
"We anarchists and Syndicalists - indeed all who believe that the liberation of the workers is the task of the workers themselves - were too poorly organized and too weak to hold the revolution on a straight course towards socialism."
- M. Sergven in the Moscow anarchist newspaper Vol'nyi Golos Truda, Sept. 16, 1918
"Most of the Russian Anarchists themselves were unfortunately still in the messes of limited group activities and of individualistic endeavour as against the more important social and collective efforts. . . honesty and sincerity compel me to state that their work would have been of infinitely greater practical value had they been better organized and equipped to quide the released energies of the people towards the reorganization of life on a libertarian foundation."
- Emma Goldman, My Disillusionment in Russia, 1925
The idea that capitalism in its present form in the United States will not endure is hardly to be disputed anywhere. The capitalist class itself debates only the precise mixture of state capitalism, social democracy, and fascism that will best serve to maintain and expand their own power and profits.
That debate is, of course, reflected in Leninist circles. While some maneuver for potential advantage in a developing social democracy, others are busy learning the skills of underground terrorism and urban guerilla warfare. The fortunes of there various groups will ebb and flow with the developing consensus of the capitalist class.
Thus, barring a major nuclear war, we face two possible futures. One, which I think less likely, would see a major uprising against a fascist tyranny, an uprising led by the political descendents of the Weather Underground, the Symbionese Liberation Army etc. The other future, which seems more likely to me, would feature the electoral victory of a broad coalition that would have evolved from groups we know today as the Communist Party, October League, Revolutionary Communist Party, Socialist Workers Party, etc.
In a sense most important to us, of course, both futures would be identical: the working class would have no substantive political and economic power. There would be a lot of speeches about the working class, a lot of red flags flying, a lot of statues of Marx and Engels. There might (or might not) be some improvements in the conditions of ordinary working people. But there would be no real freedom. As the rock song of several years ago put it: "Say hello to the new boss: it's the same as the old boss!"
But what about us? How will the presence of those who believe that "the liberation of the workers is the task of the workers themselves" affect these two futures of Leninist victory?
Therein, as it is said, lies a tale.
About ten months ago (October 1975) 1 decided to move to the San Francistco Bay Area from New Orleans. I had spent a number of years working in a very small anarcho-communist collective (usually less than six people), and it seemed likely to me that nothing bigger was going to come along in New Orleans for longer than I wanted to wait.
One thing I expected to find here was a much higher level of class consciousness among ordinary working people than was (is) the case in New Orleans. I was not disappointed. There are always thousands of workers on strike here. Frequently they side-step their "leadership" and engage in militant struggle. One can even get occasional glimpses of a kind of primitive socialist consciousness.
But I also expected to find a large number (several hundreds) of people who understood anarcho-communist politics and who were eager to implement those politics in mass struggles. In my more hopeful moments, I saw the possibility of beginning to build a real movement for workers' councils, starting in the Bay Area and spreading across the country.
Of course, why should I expect this? It's not true anyplace else. I have to admit that there was a sizable hunk of romanticism in my "thinking" on this matter. The Bay Area was one of the hotbeds of student radicalism during the 1960's. I had seen some of the pamphlets published by the neo-Situationist groups in the early 1970's, and I assumed these Berkeley-based groups had been steadily growing. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it seemed overwhelmingly obvious that given the class consciousness of ordinary working people in the Bay Area, even a small but active anarcho-communist group would quickly grow towards becoming a movement, constantly expanding, recruiting new people, launching new projects, showing up in the midst of every struggle with our basic idea: only the working class can liberate the working class!
Well, I found the anarchists, anarcho-communists, libertarian socialists, etc., if not by the hundreds at least by the score. I attended one meeting with more than 50 people present and a number of others with from 30 to 40 people present. Not bad for a start, right?
This would be a much easier article to write if I could just say that all those I met were simply assholes. Unfortunately, with only a few exceptions, they aren't assholes. They are people that anyone with our political views would be delighted to work with.
Except that that is the most amazing and sorrowful fact of the matter. The practical definitions of "political work" that I encountered among various libertarians here were simply stunning in their manifest idiocy.
Or perhaps my own understanding is simply too primitive. I think of political work, whatever form it takes, as something we do in order to win over millions of working people (our sisters and brothers) to the idea that we should all run our own lives. It is, or ought to be, clear that both elements are equally important: mass movements, no matter how massive, that are not libertarian will not liberate us; our ideas, no matter how libertarian, will not liberate us unless shared with millions of working people.
Instead, I heard arguments like these:
"Who needs a movement anyway? What we really need are more small affinity groups, a few close comrades operating on common politics and trust in each other. That's the only real egalitarian politics; big movements are authoritarian by their very nature."
If mass movements are authoritarian by their very nature, if we cannot build an egalitarian mass movement, then we are simply doomed. Small groups will never overthrow capitalism. Instead, the Leninists will do it and we will always live under some form of class society.
"Hell, it's not up to us to liberate the workers any more than it's up to the Leninists. The deepening of the current economic crisis will convince the workers that they must liberate themselves, without any help from us."
What is it up to us to do? Is our role that of merely sitting back and commenting on the latest trends in the economy? When we say that the workers must liberate themselves, do we include ourselves in that phrase?
"We cannot build a movement at all. Movements are built by millions of workers when they want to build them: a small group can't just command such a movement into existence."
It's true that movements by definition are built by millions of working people. But was there ever a movement that didn't begin when a small group decided it was time to begin?
"We can't simply go out and build a libertarian communist movement. First we should spend a year or two developing a common theory and building trust in each other."
How many times does it still have to be repeated: revolutionary theory comes only from revolutionary practice. Trust come only from mutual experience in common struggle.
"Anyway, we don't have to rush into building a united libertarian organization. It's not as if the Leninists are about to take over. They're always squabbling among themselves, committing one blunder after another, hah, hah."
One thing I've noticed out here: the libertarians all take endless delight in the blunders of the Leninists. Now go back and read the quotations at the beginning of this article: who had the last laugh in Russia?
"We should not publish a mass anarcho-communist newspaper in the Bay Area. It's too much work and besides, there's already a dozen left papers out here."
That is, we should scorn to reach working people with our ideas because we'd have to work hard to do it and, anyway it's not necessary since the Leninists are already reaching people with their ideas. (!)
That is what the libertarians in the Bay Area say; this is what they do: revolutionary psychotherapy, revolutionary computer programming, revolutionary book store, revolutionary radio, revolutionary film-making, revolutionary camping out at Lake Tahoe. revolutionary trips to Europe, and. most importantly, revolutionary study groups.
There may be dozens of these groups. some more serious in their studies than others. But they share a common pattern of social invisibility, They are, by and large, closed to new members as a matter of policy. Thus, even if a new person became interested in our politics and (somehow!) found out that one of these groups existed, they wouldn't be allowed to join. (!)
The reader will not be surprised, then, to learn that nothing is presently being done to build an anarcho-communist movement in the Bay Area. One naturally hopes that this will not always be the case, but it will be as long as the libertarians here resolutely refuse to accept their political responsibilities!
It is nothing but ego-puffing drivel to call oneself an anarchist, anarcho-communist. libertarian socialist. etc. and then sit back and wait for working people "out there" to liberate us. It is nothing but revolutionary nose-picking to sit back and wait for the capitalist class to arrange a convenient crisis and then give up its state power to the working class. It is positively criminal when we, knowing full well the intentions of the Leninists, do nothing except make wise-cracks while they gradually learn enough to take over from the old capitalist class and re-establish class society on a new and much more terrible foundation!
The grim truth of the matter is that when (not if. when) the present form of capitalism in this country is overthrown, the Leninists will win ... unless we overcome our own folly of fragmentation, passivity, and disorganization. The Leninists will win ... unless we develop confidence in our own abilities to organize a mass anarcho-communist movement. The Leninists will win ... unless we ourselves accept the responsibility of fighting to win!
Published in Volume 2, Number 1 of The Red Menace, Summer 1977.
Taken from web-archived version of The Red Menace website.