Letters - Black Flag #219

Letters from Black Flag #219. 2000. On J18 and Bob Black replies to the review of Anarchy After Leftism in a previous issue.

Submitted by Fozzie on January 18, 2021

Dear BF

Once again, that hoary old chestnut of £10 and a packed-lunch for the Rent-a-Mob was trotted out by the Right - both conservative and labour - in the wake of J18. A quick glance at the history of the Mob - in London, at any rate - would suggest that in the glory days of King Mob the forces of Government and oppression were by far the most adept at manipulating the Mob. 'Lord' George Gordon in London; mill-owners in the industrial cities in the North; and Tory JPs and clerics in the country-side were all responsible for 'licensing' the actions of the crowd. I am not a clever man, but tell me why does the Right seem to know so much about the renting of mobs to terrorise? Might it have something to do with the practice, which they have continued into this century, to lead those they disenfranchise (through unemployment, alienation, etc.), by means of odious shits such as Mosley, into a position of disrepute over which they exercise control?

On a not wholly unrelated note, and demonstrating that direct action can be undertaken without being an agent of the state, EP Thompson pushes back the waving of the Red & the Black to 1780 when "...James Jackson, a watch-wheelcutter, who rode a carthorse and waved a red and black flag..." was a figurehead during the Gordon Riots (see Thompson, Making of the English Working Class, p78, 1968 Penguin) - the long history has yet to be written. No Pasaran!

Thanks for a great magazine, all the best,

Dear BF

Your anonymous writer faults me for observing in Anarchy after Leftism that "the Italian syndicalists mostly went over to Fascism", referencing David D Roberts, The Syndicalist Tradition and Italian Fascism. As proof, he quotes Roberts as writing that "the vast majority of the organised workers failed to respond to the syndicalists' appeals and continued to oppose intervention" in the First World War. Obviously this statement does not contradict mine. It is about war, not fascism. The war was over before the fascist movement began. And it is about the "organised workers", not about the members of the USI, which had only 100,000 members in 1914, and lost some of them when the interventionists split.

Contrary to Comrade Anonymous, the split was not between a cabal of intellectuals and "leaders" - in quotation marks, as if to imply that they were not what they really were, the syndicalist leaders - and the rank and file. True eggheads and officials split, but they were not alone: "The split was complex, penetrating to the rank and file level and even dividing individual unions, but the result was a further loss in working class support for the syndicalists." (Roberts, p.113). You may not like what Roberts has to say, but I didn't misrepresent his position. Denounce him, not me.

Even if Comrade A. were right, what does this fiasco say about syndicalism? Syndies assure us that their cumbersome hierarchies of bottom-up organising and accountability to the base are both the means to and the forms of a free society. Yet the Italian leaders and thinkers were almost all for a war which, the Comrade implies, almost all the rank and file were against. Syndical organisation is thus a self-refuting failure.

Comrade A. also asserts "that these 'leading syndicalists'" - he ignores the follower syndicalists - "were not anarchists and so not anarcho-syndicalists." When did I ever say they were? But this is quite a change in the Black Flag party line. Two years ago you opined, "In reality there is not such thing as just 'syndicalism' and anarcho-syndicalism and revolutionary syndicalism are the same thing" ("What is Anarcho-Syndicalism?" spring 1997). If this is so, then no doubt remains that the "Italian syndicalists mostly went over to fascism."

The article is almost entirely an exercise in irrelevance. I was not referring to the official positions taken by one small organisation in 1915 or 1919, but rather to the ultimate political trajectory of those Italians who had once considered themselves syndicalists. A modest but militant minority did put up a fight against fascism so long as that was possible. But many accommodated themselves to the fascist version of the corporatism espoused by all syndicalists. There was more to it than opportunism: syndicalism and nationalism (and then fascism) had been converging since before the war. Roberts makes this clear, but consider another opinion from another historian, A. James Gregor, Italian Fascism and Developmental Dictatorship, p. 108:

"Thus, by 1919, Italian nationalism and revolutionary syndicalism shared substantial similarities" such as "their doctrinal emphases on mass mobilisation, mimetic example, elite rule, mythic suasion, and collective development and modernisation... To these ends, both nationalism and revolutionary national syndicalism advocated an ethic of discipline, sacrifice and labour for a nation still caught up in the psychology of underdevelopment." In other words, fascists shared with syndicalists then what they share with syndicalists - including anarcho-syndicalists - to this day: a dedication to work and workerism, productivism, industrialism, and sacrificial moralism. We post-leftist anarchists reject this heritage.

yours in slack
Bob Black

Dear BF

Comrade A replies-

Is Comrade B is taking the piss? He claims “it is about war, not fascism” and so his comments concerning the “syndicalists” are correct. Given that the pro-war syndicalists were the ones to become National Syndicalists and fascists, his point is lost on me. Surely if the majority of syndicalists (i.e. members of the USI) in Italy had gone over to fascism (and its ‘National Syndicalism’) then they would have supported the Nation in World War One? In fact the majority of USI members rejected the arguments of those syndicalists who were later to become fascists in 1914 - Comrade B’s argument simply does not hold water. If, as he says, “syndicalism and nationalism (and then fascism) had been converging before the war” then the majority of USI members were not aware of this when they voted for an anti-war position (and so anti-nationalist) at the start of the First World War. Nor were the fascists when they attacked the USI after the war.

The article did indicate that most USI members rejected the pro-war syndicalists - “the majority did not even follow” the syndicalist “leaders” in supporting the war. Comrade B wonders “what does this fiasco say about syndicalism”? I have to wonder what planet Comrade B is on. The organisation voted in its national congress an anti-war position and the pro-war minority left. Rather than being a “self-refuting failure” this example shows Comrade B’s arguments to be self refuting - and that he cannot get basic facts right.

Moving on, Comrade B takes issue with the suggestion that he implied that syndicalists he mentions were anarchists. Here he is taking the piss. After all, his comments are in a book about anarchism and the failings of “Leftist” anarchy. Is it not safe to assume that he was discussing the failings of anarchists rather than “Leftists” (i.e. Marxists)? Perhaps I am wrong, perhaps in order to refute Anarcho-syndicalists you must discuss the failures of Marxist-syndicalists? What next, a refutation of communist anarchism by discussing the failures of Leninism?

Comrade B states that a “modest but militant minority did put up a fight against fascism”. In fact, the USI (which had grown from the 70,000 left after the pro-war factions left to nearly 1 million members) was the majority syndicalist organisation in the country (the pro-war, National Syndicalist Union AIL was a fraction of its size). It was USI members who took part in the Arditi Del Popolo. It was the USI which took part in the general strike against fascism. It was the USI which was crushed by fascist gangs. And Comrade B still claims that the “Italian syndicalists mostly went over to fascism”. Amazing.

He quotes another academic that by 1919 “Italian nationalism and revolutionary syndicalism shared substantial similarities”. Yes, but only if you look at the pro-war syndicalists who had left the USI years before (hence Gregor’s reference to national syndicalists)! What did the USI stand for by 1919? It had taken an anti-war position, supported the class struggle and taken a leading role in the strikes and occupations of the post-war period. For this the USI was attacked and crushed by the fascists. So much for “similarities” between the USI (i.e. revolutionary syndicalism) and Italian Nationalism (and so fascism).

Comrade B ends with a diatribe against “syndicalism” (including anarcho-syndicalism) and what they apparently believe in. I do not (and none of the anarcho-syndicalists I have met) subscribe to his list. Perhaps Comrade B confuses a desire to see the end of wage-labour by self-management with a glorification of work? If so, then that is his business. Personally I agree with Kropotkin on the necessity of attractive “work” (i.e. productive activity) and reducing the hours we have to do this to a minimum. Every anarcho-syndicalist I have met shares this vision of work transformed into attractive, productive activity and minimised - and the first step towards this is occupying the workplace and placing it under self-management (where appropriate, of course, many workplaces should be turned into something more useful). I get the impression that Comrade B thinks that nobody reads his works, otherwise he would not suggest other anarchists glorify work and not be aware of the importance of his arguments in “The Abolition of Work”. It is a shame he underestimates his influence in our movement so.