5. Primitivist Attacks on Anarchism

Submitted by Jacques Roux on January 8, 2007

Not content simply to attack the fields of anthropology and history, or the reader's intelligence, primitivists also rail against the tradition they claim to be a part of - the anarchist tradition. In an article in the pretentiously titled Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed, for example, John Zerzan complains of "an anarchy dominated by the productionist/ workerist/ syndicalist perspectives of...Murray Bookchin and Noam Chomsky." "George Bradford" groans that primitivism's enemies are "corporate engineers and leftist/syndicalist critics," amazingly equating the two. The especially noxious Feral Faun/David Watkins claims that "anarcho-syndicalists embrace the values essential to capitalism," while the Green Anarchy Collective writes at Z-Net that "[i]nsofar as anarchists cling to the left and define themselves in its terms (e.g. anarcho-syndicalists) they will go nowhere." A recent issue of primitivist-friendly A:AJODA also devoted much space to polemics against anarcho-communism and "organizationalism," as well.

Anarcho-syndicalism, of course, was the highly organized revolutionary strategy of the great anarchist movements in Spain, Mexico, Cuba, Argentina, and elsewhere. Prominent anarcho-syndicalists, living and dead, include Rudolf Rocker, Noam Chomsky, Sam Dolgoff, Diego Abad de Santillan, Gregory Maximoff, Bueneventura Durutti, and Emile Pouget. Prominent anarcho-communists have included Alexander Berkman, Errico Malatesta, Emma Goldman, Nestor Makhno, and Peter Kropotkin. Others that have worked within this tradition include Mikhail Bakunin, Daniel Guerin, Murray Bookchin, Janet Biehl, and Albert Meltzer. In other words, this is the mainstream of anarchism. According to primitive thinkers, however, the anarchist tradition is wrong. (And if it is so wrong, then one wonders why they feel the need to attach themselves to it.)

In Against His-story, Perlman berates those who advocate the self-management thesis. "They would supplant the state with a network of computer centers, factories, and mines coordinated 'by the workers themselves' or by an Anarchist union," he warns. "They would not call this arrangement a State. The name-change would exorcise the beast," Perlman incredibly states. He sees no difference whatsoever between a hierarchical, authoritarian society based on violence, in which nearly everyone who works must follow orders in an almost military manner, and a society in which people freely and collectively control their own work lives, and in which no government intrudes into our private lives.

In stating that anarcho-syndicalists merely want a name-change, Perlman echoes the worst anarcho-capitalist polemicists, who state that an anarchist syndicate is really "a state by another name." That is, apparently any organized group of people with some type of decision-making structure is a "state." By this logic, aren't primitivist groups also states? The self-management thesis that Perlman attacks is at root a thesis of human self-determination; that is, it asserts that workers and their communities should have decision-making power over resources and structures (mines, computer centers, etc.) in their area. Do primitivists not believe in this? If primitivists do not believe that communities should be self-managed - that is, managed by the people living in them - then how shall decisions affecting the collectivity be coordinated within them? The desire for self-management says nothing about the decisions communities will make, such as whether to continue to utilize or close up mines - only that control will be shifted to worker and community hands, and away from capitalists and politicians.

Perlman's characterization is wrong, but not unique.

Primitivists regularly advance two notions when defending their views against anarchists. One is that, no matter how many primitive screeds are read, anyone who objects to primitivism "does not understand it" or "has not read enough about it." Presumably, to understand primitivism is to agree with it. (It's common for devout members of religious groups to make the same claim, which highlights the similarities between primitivists and religionists.) Primitivists seem not to be able to grasp the possibility that one could disagree with their views precisely because they are understood.

The second notion is that, although they allow themselves the freedom to polemicize viciously against traditional anarchists, they cannot be criticized in turn. Anarchist criticism of their views is "divisive," "sectarian," or "uncomradely." Anarchists are routinely presented with the pathetic sight of primitivists and post-leftists viciously attacking classical anarchism, only to thereafter run behind the black flag and claim "but we're all in this together" when the fire is returned. In the world of primitive thinking, only primitive thoughts deserve to be advanced.

In fact, those who can access the Internet or who have the time and money to read many current anarchist periodicals are probably familiar with the growing gulf between primitivism and the tendency within the anarchist movement that maintains a class-struggle, but not anti-technological, approach. Primitivism claims hostility to traditional left ideas, as evidenced by dour rants about "workerists" above, including those embodied in the classical anarchist tradition. "Post-leftists," as anti-left primitivists prefer to be called, derive their appellation in the main from the book Anarchy AfterLeftism, written by known police informant and attorney Bob Black. In A:AJODA #48 (Fall-Winter 1999-2000), John Zerzan wrote under the "Post-Left Anarchy!" forum, identifying his brand of primitivism as a form of post-leftist thought.

The division within the anarchist movement between primitivists and other anarchists is particular to the U.S., where hipsters often claim any number of bizarre ideas under a rubric of "anarchism" to lend them a fashionable sheen. Where the anarchist movement exists elsewhere, however, one finds it informed with classical anarchist ideas of class struggle and self-management. These same working class aspects of the anarchist movement, however, are often derided by American primitivists as reformist or "leftist." For them, leftism is quite as bad as rightism.

Of course, anarchists have always criticized the authoritarian left, because anarchists have always criticized authoritarianism. For instance, Voline's The Unknown Revolution and Emma Goldman's My Disillusionment in Russia are two well-known examples of the anarchist critique of Leninist tyranny. The fate of the anarchist Spanish CNT-FAI at the hands of the Stalinist, nominally leftist Partido Comunista Espanola is known by most anarchists. Anarchist criticism of the practices of authoritarian leftists has come as much from actual experience as from theoretical disagreement. Bakunin and Marx debated constantly, defining for many the splits between libertarian and authoritarian leftism, and it's silly and dishonest to pretend that these differences are nonexistent or trivial.

The Green Anarchy Collective writes at Z-Net: "The two main failed and exhausted means or approaches towards change in recent times have been liberalism and leftism.... Technology, production, hierarchy; government, ecological destruction, and ideas like 'progress' continue to go unquestioned by most who would identify with the left." The Green Anarchist proclamation to the contrary, traditional anarchists like Peter Kropotkin situated anarchism at the left wing of the socialist movement. Like Bakunin, Kropotkin believed that anarchism was a form of socialism, and that "socialism without liberty is slavery and brutality."

Additionally, primitivists often denigrate anarcho-syndicalists as secret Marxist-Leninists (or even fascists!) who would reveal themselves truly as such if ever they "gained power." This is a rather curious charge, given that the social designs advanced by anarcho-syndicalists are designed to make it impossible that anyone could "gain power" over others.

The primitivists' chief complaint is that "workerist" anarchists romanticize work, while primitivists want to abolish it. Anarcho-syndicalists hold work on a sort of mystical pedestal, primitivists say, refusing to acknowledge that humans are more than simple "workers." (Actually, the problem is that anarcho-syndicalists do see that humans are more than mere workers, but that capitalists don't!)

Most direct of the primitivist assaults on anarcho-syndicalism is Feral Faun's "The Bourgeois Origins of Anarcho-Syndicalism," available on the web (at http://www.insurgentdesire.org.uk/syndicalism.h) and as a pamphlet. Feral Watkins, published in A: AJODA and Fifth Estate, absurdly claims in his piece that "anarcho-syndicalists embrace the values essential to capitalism" and that anarcho-syndicalists do this "maybe even more than the bourgeoisie." How it is possible for those other than the actual bourgeoisie to do this is not explained; by definition, the bourgeoisie are the guardians and source of bourgeois values. If anarcho-syndicalists do this "maybe even more" than their bosses - the bourgeoisie - then anarcho-syndicalists are a great danger indeed. It means they are even more reactionary than the actual power holders in this system!

The essay's main point is that "anarcho-syndicalism reflects bourgeois ideology" and that "values upheld by anarcho-syndicalists do not significantly differ from those of the more radical of the bourgeois liberal theorists, and their project, upon examination, proves to be merely the extension of the liberal project." It is unclear what Faun/Watkins means by "merely an extension of the liberal project," save that this is supposed to be bad. Indeed, most anarchists agree that the birth of anarchism owed much to the Enlightenment. "With the development of industrial capitalism," Noam Chomsky writes in Daniel Guerin's Anarchism, "a new and unanticipated system of injustice, it is libertarian socialism that has preserved and extended the radical humanist message of the Enlightenment and the classical liberal ideals that were perverted into an ideology to sustain the emerging social order." Anarchists do not deny that power-holders pay lip service to Enlightenment ideals while engaging in behavior that contradicts them.

Overall, Faun/Watkins’ critique of anarcho-syndicalism is a good example of the primitivist critique of class struggle anarchism. To Feral Faun and other primitivists, anarcho-syndicalism was never an authentic revolutionary tendency to begin with. How could anarcho-syndicalism ever be revolutionary if it has "bourgeois origins"?

Indeed, Faun's essay castigates the behavior of the Spanish CNT during the Revolution of 1936 as "truly disgusting." Neglecting the fact that it was only some members of the CNT that made (easy-to-see-in-hindsight) mistakes, even those anarchists that do not consider themselves anarcho-syndicalists are inclined to agree that if ever there was an anarchist revolution, it was in Spain in the late 1930s. But not for Faun and other primitivists. To them, the broad working class movement against Spanish fascism was itself bourgeois, "maybe even more" bourgeois than the bourgeois resistance itself, representing no real libertarian alternative for the Spanish people, even if it was what a majority of them preferred. According to the primitive take on the conflict, what the workers themselves wanted in the face of Franco's dictatorship was a delusion, a "workerist" hell "even more" bourgeois than capitalism. This being the case, surely for the primitivists the defeat and attendant slaughter of the "bourgeois" Spanish anarchists was a relief, as no consistent anarchist could ever want a system set up by those "maybe even more" bourgeois than the capitalist class.

Ironically, Feral Watkins introduces his essay with a brief depiction of the historical development of capitalism that could have come from the pages of Marx. He refers to the period of "liberal bourgeois" revolutions in the late 17th to early 19th centuries. "This period was the uprising of the bourgeoisie against the feudal system and the power of the Catholic Church," Faun informs us. The irony in Faun's description lies not in the fact that it is incorrect - in fact, it is accurate to say that the revolutions of this period did upset old feudal orders and replace aristocracies with sham, bourgeois democracies - but because it shows that, try as they may, primitive post-leftists cannot escape a left-wing analysis.

Anti-left primitivists assail anarcho-syndicalists for engaging in an analysis that they say is mired in musty old leftist terms and concepts, for example. Feral Faun's interpretation of the liberal bourgeois revolutions of the Enlightenment, however, is pretty much straight up historical materialism (Marxism, in other words). Ironically, without leftist concepts buttressing them, primitivists could not write their "anti-left" diatribes. Likewise, Faun repeatedly uses terms like "bourgeoisie" that also reek of ancient leftism. Most modern anarchists refuse such terms precisely because they reek of Old Guard, Party dogmatism. (Rather than speak of the ''bourgeoisie," for example, many anarchists find it more useful to note the operations of multi-nationals and the corporate elite.)

Faun then makes one of the more horrible mistakes in his essay: he claims that "the defining quality of capitalism, as compared with other economic systems, is not the existence of capitalists but the production of excess capital allowing for continued economic expansion." It is true that the defining quality of capitalism is not the existence of capitalists - but neither is it the "production of excess capital." It is the fact of capital - of class property - itself. If capitalism is anything, it is the existence of capital. It is not the "excess production" of it. "Capital" is itself a form of property that presupposes a certain distribution of power: the power of some to control and dispose of the things others must have access to in order to survive. "Capital" is an authoritarian relationship between individuals, and this authoritarian relation is precisely the defining aspect of capitalism for anarchists. If the "production of excess capital" is the defining quality for primitivists, and not the authoritarianism that is inherent in "capital" itself, then in what sense are primitivists anarchists?

Now, if by "production of excess capital" Feral Watkins really meant "extraction of surplus value," then again he is not engaging in a primitivist analysis but simply an old Marxist one. If, however, he really means that capitalism is defined as production of excess capital, then we have to ask: what is the significance of this production of "excess capital," and who is I such production bad for? And, for that matter, how much capital is the "right" amount of capital to be piled up before "production of excess capital" begins?

For capitalists, there is no such thing as an excess of capital. They can never have enough. And they can certainly not be sated to a degree where they feel they have an "excess" of it. After all, that is what makes them capitalists. The more, the better. For them, there is always a shortage, no matter how much they have, and that is what drives them to expand their businesses and to accumulate ever more. There is no "excess" in their logic. Rather, there is always slightly less than is needed to sate their appetite.

For workers, however, who labor under the command of capitalists, the term "excess of capital" is a redundancy. The mere fact of capital is an excess. Its simple existence is a superfluity. Capitalism breeds excess because it is itself excess. From the working class point of view, the existence of capitalists is excessive and unnecessary; capitalists are a superfluous class of people whose elimination (as a class - not as individuals!) would increase efficiency and freedom. But then, the primitivists have no working class point of view. In fact, they show disdain to the idea that there is a meaningfully distinct working class perspective. (Of course, primitivists do slip up and refer to a "working class" fairly often, but it is not informed with any definite meaning; it is used in the same casual sense that The New York Times might occasionally refer to an American "working class.")

It may seem as if we are splitting hairs here, in the critique of how Faun defines capitalism. But Faun's failure to grasp the simple authoritarian dynamic that makes "capital" what it is reveals the poverty of the primitivist philosophy. Anarchists see private property in the means of production - "capital" - as a manifestation of the broader problem of authoritarianism. To anarchists, the particular type of authoritarianism that capital represents is itself the defining characteristic of capitalism. If for primitivists the defining characteristic is simply an "excess production" of privately owned means of production, then they have no meaningful anti-authoritarian analysis of our current economic system.

Faun claims that anarcho-syndicalists have core values in common with capitalists. The "values which are essential to capitalist expansion are production and progress," he says. "Anarcho-syndicalists embrace...these capitalist values," he maintains. Zerzan and others make similar arguments, claiming that leftists blindly adhere to notions of progress as well. "Production" and "progress" taken out of context, however, could apply to almost anything. The question is, for anarchists, production of what and under what conditions? And, similarly, progress towards what? It is not enough to say that "production and progress" themselves are absolutely good or bad, devoid of context.

Production that satisfies the greatest amount of human need with the least human expenditure is a worthy goal for anarcho-syndicalists. Production that fattens profit margins the handsomest, with the least attending social responsibility, is what business owners value. These are radically different priorities. Capitalists believe in progress towards whatever will help them make money: technological progress that eliminates paid or potentially dissident labor is hailed as "progress." Disemployment and environmental ruin are "progress."

But to anarcho-syndicalists, this is the opposite of progress; to anarcho-syndicalists, "progress" is meaningful to the extent innovations occur that help feed, house, clothe, etc., the greatest number of humans with the least amount of human labor, the least use of natural resources, and the least amount of environmental damage. Innovations that expand the scope of human freedom and aid in worker self-management (i.e., human self-determination), are seen as progressive. Capitalists have no interest in this sort of progress, as it is not profitable. Primitivists do not acknowledge this obvious, basic distinction, as to do so would deprive them of a useful straw man.

"Essential to production and progress is work," Faun continues, "and so the bourgeois highly value work - and, contrary to the image painted by 'radical' labor propagandists, it is not uncommon for capitalists to work many more hours than industrial workers, but it's organizational rather than productive work"

Police informants may also work many more hours than industrial workers, but this is not the sort of work that anarcho-syndicalists value. Again, it is not simply work as an absolute that is valued, but the kind of work. "What type of work is it, and to what ends is it being conducted?" the anarcho-syndicalist asks. There is work that is harmful to the working class - such as the "work" of exploitation and of managing - and there is work that is productive and useful to society. The latter sort of work is valued by anarcho-syndicalists. The work of ruling and exploiting is not.

"Those who manage to avoid work are the moral scum of capitalist society - parasites off the working people," Faun writes, stating also that anarcho-syndicalism views shirkers in the same light. Those who do absolutely no 9-to-5 type work in our current system may or may not be acting in a manner that is conducive to revolutionary goals, however. Most anarcho-syndicalists would rather someone not work at all, than work as a capitalist or as a police informant, for example. A hatred of work in our current system is understandable; indeed, it is this hatred that fuels the anarcho-syndicalist desire for revolutionary change. This is hatred of work as it must be conducted in the statist/capitalist system wherein the mass of people work to enrich a few at the expense of themselves, their talents, and their own self-actualization.

Work in a primitivist society would consist of foraging, hunting, gathering, cooking, seeking or constructing shelter, etc. Just as primitivists claim they would not force anyone to engage in this sort of work, leaving idlers to go it alone or die, so too would anarcho-syndicalists not force anyone to work in a post-capitalist order. But in an anarcho-syndicalist society, surpluses would be more likely to abound, thereby enabling non-workers to be cared for. In the primitivist utopia, surpluses would be guaranteed not to exist - indeed, they are posited as authoritarian - leaving many to suffer and die. (Remember, primitivists claim that "the emergence of surplus . . . invariably [my emphasis] involves property and an end to unconditional sharing" - surpluses are therefore to be avoided, not welcomed.)

Anarcho-syndicalists can also envision a time when work is shorter, more pleasant, more efficient, and more productive than it is now, leaving plenty of time for leisure, if work itself is not counted by workers as being indistinguishable from leisure activity. The primitivist notion, much like the capitalist's, is that people require external compulsion to work. Without such external compulsion, primitivists say, no one would want to work in mines or do other unsavory jobs. Kropotkin addressed this old canard in "Anarchist Communism":

[size=10]As to the childish question, repeated for fifty years: "Who would do disagreeable work?" frankly I regret that none of our savants has ever been brought to do it, be it for only one day in his life. If there is still work which is really disagreeable in itself, it is only because our scientific men have never cared to consider the means of rendering it less so: they have always known that there were plenty of starving men who would do it for a few pence a day.[/indent]

Work can be made more pleasant when the bosses are chased out and when workers themselves administer their workplaces; all resources previously controlled by capitalists would be in the hands of the public. Primitivists who do not wish to work in such a society would not be forced to do so, and it would be up to individual communities to decide whether to give primitive idlers portions of a surplus they did not help produce. (Of course, given that such a society could only occur through a revolution stressing principles of solidarity and mutual aid, it is likely that primitivist non-workers would indeed find themselves supported by their despised workerist cousins.) Until such a state of affairs, however, anarcho-syndicalism places no special blame on people who try to avoid work, unless they do so in a manner that unduly hurts their working class brethren. Anarchists believe that the most important work to be done in the period we are in now is the work of organizing people to overthrow the state-subsidized capitalist system.

Feral Watkins refers to Chaz Bufe's "Listen, Anarchist!" as evidence of how anarchists feel about those who try to avoid work in our society. Bufe mentions that anarchists who intentionally try to get on public assistance as a means of living a work-free, "anarchist" lifestyle are not acting in a manner that is most beneficial for achieving revolutionary change. To primitivists and lifestylists in general, Bufe's comment must come across as a paternalistic admonition of slackers, echoing Republican anti-welfare rhetoric, with its obsessive insistence that people everywhere do the responsible and moral thing of getting a job. In fact, this is the general attitude that primitivists attribute to anarcho-syndicalism and the labor movement as a whole.1

Bufe's comments and the anarcho-syndicalist position are not congruent with Watkins' estimation of them, however. In one sense, it is more helpful to anarcho-syndicalist goals for anarchists to have jobs, as they can attempt to organize their place of work along non-hierarchical lines. In this sense, it is helpful for anarchists to go into the workplace much as community organizers go into neighborhoods they wish to organize. The tragedy is, of course, that for most anarchists work is not an organizing choice, but a necessity of life. Radical unions are dependent upon workers organizing within their industry for the eventual expropriation of capital from private hands.

The desire by some lumpenproles to scam their way onto the welfare rolls also represents a type of escapism. No one is saying that what small, paltry welfare programs exist in the US should be destroyed, or anything like that (quite the contrary). But carving out an individual, work-free lifestyle is not revolutionary, nor will it lead to any substantial revolutionary change. Bosses can live with workers dropping out of the rat race; they cannot live with workers actively organizing on the shop floor. Indeed, the great anarchist revolutions of Spain, the Ukraine, Mexico, and elsewhere, were not guided by some rousing vision of dropping out of the rat race. Welfare escapism is.

"The only real problem they have with the capitalist system is who's in charge," Feral Faun continues, referring to anarcho-syndicalists. Zerzan agrees, writing, "Self-managed factories and other forms of productionism and specialization are now widely understood as no advance at all." ("Widely understood"? By whom?) Anarcho-syndicalists would "prefer the One Big Capitalist," Faun writes, "the international union of working people, rather than various individuals, corporations and states to be in charge. But the basic structure would be the same."

Here Faun/Watkins mocks the I.W.W. and its and its notion of the "One Big Union." But when Faun scoffs at the "international union of working people" he also denigrates global working class unity itself! Indeed, Faun's analysis is not "workerist" at all. Far from it. It is, in fact, anti-worker. The fear of the "one big capitalist" is exactly the anarchist critique of Leninism and other forms of statist socialism. That is, statist socialists seek to replace a number of capitalists with one large capitalist in the form of the state. But anarcho-syndicalists want neither one big capitalist (the state) or many capitalists to choose from: they want a self-managed economy where the people doing the actual work are calling the shots. That is not capitalism, let alone something that is conducive to the formation of "One Big Capitalist." Feral Watkins' insistence that it somehow is only reinforces the fact that he and other primitivists have no understanding of the basic social dynamic that underpins capitalism.

"[T]he bourgeois liberal is content to get rid of priests and kings, and the anarcho-syndicalist throws in presidents and bosses," Faun says. "But the factories remain intact, the stores remain intact (though the syndicalists may call them distribution centers), the family remains intact - the entire social system remains intact."

And would families not remain intact if primitivists had their way? Faun's insistence is that since physical structures, like stores, remain standing, somehow oppressive social relations must exist as well. Like Karl Marx's flawed belief that the "steam mill gives you the industrial capitalist," Faun believes that the store will give you the boss. That is, the physical existence of buildings somehow brings about authority figures. Faun does not trouble us with an explanation of how this is so - he leaves us to take it on his good word.

In fact, whether or not the stores remain intact would be the prerogative of workers and their communities. When Faun posits that anarcho-syndicalists want things to continue the same as before, but simply self-managed, he betrays a deep misunderstanding of the principle of self-management, as does Perlman, above. Anarcho-syndicalism is the belief that workers know best about how their labor is to be used - if at all - and that they, and not theorists, should decide what to do at the actual point of production.

And, believe it or not, anarcho-syndicalists do not wish to deprive primitivists of any opportunity to get back to nature. If, in a post-revolutionary society, groups of primitivists wanted to leave and lead a lifestyle they'd consider more attuned to man's natural inclinations, they would certainly be free to do so. As they'd look in disdain over their shoulders at the "workerist" anarchist civilization they have left, they could delight in pursuing the very hard work of foraging and constructing shelter for themselves, deluding themselves that that is not itself work - albeit a hard sort of work not aided by the machinery that anarchists back in the hi-tech society have expropriated from capitalist rule. In the end, the primitivist will be working much harder than his "workerist" cousin, no matter how hard he may try to convince himself that he has liberated himself from toil.

  • 1Editors Note: In fact, I see little ethical difference between capitalists who live off the labor of others and welfare-primitivists such as Watkins/Faun who likewise deliberately live off stolen [by the government] labor. The money they receive doesn't fall off trees - it's taken from the pay of those who work. I consider both parasites, and worse, parasites who spit on those whose labor they live off. - CB



9 years 8 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by NothingLeftism on October 20, 2014

I'd imagine that this has been pointed out before, but David Watkins is not Feral Faun, and Feral Faun is not a primitivist. I won't even bother pointing out any of the other endless inaccuracies in this piece -- I have elsewhere, years ago -- because I don't think that anyone really cares, but just one more thing: When you leftists talk about organizing the "working class" in their "shops", what, precisely, do you mean? Do you mean people who work in manufacturing? Does the means of production include the barista at Starbucks? Are university professors, and their consumer counterparts in the education market, the student scions of the middle-class-and-up, what constitutes the modern proletariat? The working class? The industrial workers? How are your outreach efforts coming along with the +/-13% of the workforce that actually do productive (resource extraction, manufacturing, construction) labour?