A Review of "Facing The Enemy: A History of Anarchist Organisation from Proudhon to May 1968" by Alexandre Skirda

Mark McGuire

The Labyrinth of the Left Subculture

A common tendency in much of the English-speaking anarchist milieux in recent years has been its transformation from largely subcultures to congeries of sects. Self-absorbed groupings often unconsciously influenced by the elitism and vanguardism of the surrounding left subculture, heavily influenced by the Leninist/Stalinist legacies. The recent mushrooming in North America of various Anarchist Communist Federations is the latest expression of this tendency. Certainly these groupings appear to have strong tendencies to becoming sects. Their "anarchist communist" ideology being essentially a theology. Whilst their practice is heavily informed by the particularly exotic left subcultural codes of behaviour predominant in North America a fascination with identity politics, an unquenchable thirst for participation in anti-globalist protest spectacles, an unwholesome attraction to navel gazing organisational formalities eg. gender dynamics/balance and involvement in all manner of causes/issues fashionable in the leftist milieu. Currently, they certainly lack any strategy and the associated long term programme of work which would be decisive in assisting the emergence of an alternative revolutionary labour movement in North America involving the prioritising of long-term work in strategic industries. Apart from these hazards of the left subculture in precluding within these groupings the flourishing of a climate favourable for scientific analysis and debate necessary for the developing an effective strategy, the basis of these formations being "affinity groups" is also likely to be an obstructive factor. Given personal loyalties which feature so much in such groups being likely to get in the way of rational analysis and discussion. 

An important explanation of the dysfunctional character of these groupings formally anarchist "organisations" but in fact lost in the leftist jungle of micro-vanguard parties must be seen as the absence of generations of militant anarchist workers who could transmit anarchism as a revolutionary practice within the class struggle. Due to the rise of Fascism and Stalinism in the 20th Century and dictatorships and waves of state repression combined with ever-tightening labour legislation and the development of Welfare States/Social Democratic Unionism which destroyed and marginalised anarcho-syndicalist labour movements throughout the world.

The book under review is basically a survey of the quest for explicit anarchist organisation with particular reference to Europe and France, in particular. The author's discussion of this quest does throw important light on the particularly malicious phenomena of the "left subculture" which today poses such a serious threat to international anarchism and the workers control project. 

Following a brief discussion of the anti-social individualism of Max Stirner and the mutualist individualism of Pierre Proudhon, the author proceeds to look at the Russian anarchist Michael Bakunin's contribution to anarchist organisation, particular his programmes for the "Alliance of Social Democracy" and the "International Brotherhood". The former was to draw as many labour organisations into the International Working Men's Association(IWMA) so that the Alliance's work "may be confined to the political and revolutionary development of said Association". The latter was to prepare for the revolution and substitute its strictly concerted and covert collective action for "any government or formal dictatorship ... which is to say a new bourgeois rule". It was to act as an "unseen general staff". A sort of dictatorship by the clandestine anarchist party which Bakunin thought necessary given his lack of consideration of such political structures as workers and community councils. A concept, likely to be influenced by Blanquism with its conspiratorial elitist schemes which contradicts basic anarchist principles which the author has no problems. 

The author proceeds to a discussion of the conflict between the Marxist and Bakuninist wings of the IWMA over the issue of support for activity on political party and parliamentary lines. This factional struggle which resulted in a split in the IWMA in 1872 leading to the formation of the Federalist IWMA which opposed collaboration with political parties and had many features associated with the anarcho-syndicalist tradition. The author fails to recognise that the decline of this organisation was associated with its move away from being a labour movement into largely a federation of anarchist groups. The author sees the decline purely due to organisational deficiencies.

"Propaganda of the Deed"

The author then sketches out the character of the anarchist movement in the decades prior to WWI. He throws some fascinating light on its largely informal character and its intoxication with "propaganda of the deed" by anarchist groups and the involvement by some sectors with terrorism. The author graphically shows how this orientation played into the hands of police infiltration and provocations. However, the author fails to discuss important ideological reasons for this phenomena. Particularly following the death of Bakunin, the rise into prominence of the spontaneist revolution is around the corner current associated with new anarchist theorists Errico Malatesta and Peter Kropotkin. Practical activity associated with this version of anarchism oscillated between the distribution of abstract propaganda and armed/insurrectionary action to inspire revolutionary action. 

"Revolutionary Syndicalist Upsurge" 

The author goes on to show that the predominance of this version anarchism was curtailed with the emergence of revolutionary syndicalism and the work of the anarchist Fernand Pelloutier. His propaganda on behalf of anarchists becoming involved in the emerging labour movement proved quite influential following the merger of the Federation Bourses Du Travail with the General Confederation of Labour (CGT). Most anarchists in France and subsequently other countries adopted this new orientation but not as part of some anarchist party-building exercise. The author shows in graphic detail that a minority of those identifying with "anarchism" didn't adopt the syndicalist option and composed an "individualist tendency". Some of these elements became engaged in spectacular criminal activity such as Ravachol and the Bonnot Gang, encouraged by "individualist theoreticians" discrediting all identifying with the anarchist label. This illegalist behaviour of elements of the individualist current led to a major reaction amongst the predominant syndicalist current resulting in the formation in 1913 of the Anarchist Revolutionary Communist Federation (FCRA) which condemned individualism, and emphasised syndicalism. 

The next major crisis affecting the labour and anarchist movements in France and elsewhere was the outbreak of WWI in 1914. The author shows how the outbreak of the war had a disastrous impact on the CGT with its senior officials being drawn into close collaboration with the French Capitalist set up and its war effort in the shape of the "Sacred Union". Whilst the CGT officials refused to call a General Strike to oppose the war, which had always been CGT policy during its syndicalist/anti-militarist phase. The author mainly focuses on such factors as the likelihood of savage state repression against CGT militants in the event of such a General Strike and the overwhelming influence of jingoism amongst the French working class at the outbreak of WWI, in explaining this somersault by the top committees of the CGT. A more important factor which the author fails to adequately discuss is the predominance of the "reformist" current within the CGT prior to WWI and the failure of syndicalist militants to transform the unions associated with this reformist tendency into revolutionary bodies through encouraging participation in militant action.

"Anarchism in Crisis"

The successful Bolshevik coup in Russia in 1917 and the subsequent crushing of the anarchist movement in Russia by the Soviet State caused a major crisis amongst those in France and elsewhere who adopted "anarchist and syndicalist labels". The author shows the how the rise of Leninism in the shape of the newly formed French Communist Party seriously divided the revolutionary movement and contributed to a disastrous splitting of the labour movement which caused a severe marginalisation of the anarchist and syndicalist current. This process was particularly manifest in the CGT. During the war an opposition to the Sacred Union and the layer of union officials who supported it grew associated with the Revolutionary Syndicalist Committees (RSC). The author sketches the role of Pierre Besnard and a secret coterie of CGT militants involved in the RSCs who played a crucial role in this splitting process. These militants hoped to take over the various important committees of the CGT to win the organisation back to the syndicalist fold by installing revolutionary militants in these bodies. They helped initiate a major split from the CGT to form the CGTU (General Confederation of Labour United). Following the success of the early Communist Party with its cell network taking over the CGTU and curtailing syndicalist influence, Besnard helped spark a schism in the CGTU to form the CGTSR (General Confederation Revolutionary Syndicalist). This final split consisted largely of artisans, members of small craft unions. The CGTSR remained quite small with at its peak some 6,000 or so members and declining in size in its final years before the outbreak of WWII. 

"Arshinov Platform Controversy"

The most important controversy in the interwar international anarchist movement focused on the "Arshinov Platform". This controversy and its subsequent ramifications provides a major focus of this volume. The author takes a fairly sympathetic view of this initiative. The basic thrust of the Platform was to inspire the merging of the so-called "anarchist movement" in various countries into a non-parliamentary "party" to compete with and out manoeuvre Leninist-inspired parties in various arenas. 

The author provides quite a bit of new detail in regard to the background and publication of the Platform. The authors of the Platform were the Group of Russian Anarchists Abroad a group of Russian anarchist exiles who had fled the repression of the Bolshevik state. Particularly prominent in the group and in the drafting of the Platform was Peter Arshinov. Initially during his revolutionary career he had been a Bolshevik, but had subsequently moved toward a spontaneous-style anarchist position. During the Russian Revolution of 1917-21, Arshinov had been very active in the anarchist-influenced Makhnovist partisan movement in the Ukraine and had become its historian. The Platform caused quite a storm of hostile criticism and debate. In the case of the residual anarchist movement in the USSR the author shows the disastrous impact of some its members' participation in the controversy. Following a group letter by Moscow anarchists endorsing the Platform, a major wave of state repression struck what remained of organised anarchism in the USSR effectively destroying it. In regard to the author's discussion of the international debate concerning the Platform, there is a major gap. As the author fails to refer to the particularly effective contribution of George Maximoff, veteran Russian anarcho-syndicalist exile with his book "Constructive Anarchism". In this book, Maximoff criticised the Platform's very crude and confused economic and social ideas for revolutionary transformation and emphasised the Bolshevik and vanguardist tendencies of the Platform. Particularly, the vanguardist notion of labour organisations being subordinated to the "anarchist party" via its cell structure. Instead of this party-building, Maximoff argues on behalf of fostering anarcho-syndicalist unionism. The author argues that the failure of the so-called "international anarchist movement" of the time to adopt the Platform and hostile criticism received from its prominent figures, encouraged Arshinov to come out in support of co-operating with the Stalinist regime and return to the USSR, where he was killed in the purges of the late 1930s.

"Blood of Spain"

An anarchist movement which mostly ignored the Platform was the Spanish. Although one of its largest groupings seems to have been heavily informed in certain sectors by the vanguardist tendencies implicit in the Platform. In particular, the Barcelona-based FAI (Iberian Anarchist Federation). The author does a fairly shoddy job in discussing the activity of those associated with this particular organisation. He has little say about the destructive behaviour of important sections of the FAI in the late 1920s and '30s which led to the purging from the CNT (National Confederation of Labour) - mass anarcho-syndicalist union confederation of more coherent anarcho-syndicalist tendencies. Such as the Revolutionary Syndicalist Committees, later known as the BOC (Worker Peasant Bloc) and the Treintistas. The hysterical atmosphere associated with these purges based on slanders spread by FAI activists and the massive state repression affecting the CNT during the insurrectionary cycle encouraged by sectors of the FAI in the early 1930s, must be seen as very hostile for the consideration and discussion of revolutionary political strategies within the CNT. The author ignores this unfortunate development and how lacking such a political strategy a workers'/peasants' councils state, the CNT and FAI incorporation in the Popular Front government during the Civil War was a very strong possibility. The author's discussion of the CNT's history is also somewhat inaccurate. He fails to grasp that the CNT when it formed in 1910 was in fact a loose alliance of labour organisations of different tendencies with those associated with anarchism being just one current. It was only later during WWI that that anarchist influence became predominant. 

"Anarchist Resurgence in Post WWII France & Renewed Crisis" 

The author provides quite a lot of fascinating information about the resurgent anarchist and syndicalist movement in France following the end of WWII, France being one of the few countries which experienced such a major resurgence. On the level of propaganda, anarchist publications had relatively large print runs such as the French Anarchist Federation's weekly Le Libertaire with 50,000 copies. The anarcho-syndicalist union CNT-F had approximately 40,000 members with bases in some strategic sectors such as in the auto industry at Citroen. The author looks at various reasons for the subsequent marginalisation of the anarchist movement a few years later. A major reason, the author considers for this decline are internal developments in the French Anarchist Federation. In particular, a notorious grouping called the OPB (Thought-Battle Organisation) whose members considered themselves very much inspired by the Arshinov Programme. The author sketches the changing role of this clandestine group from rearguard charged with combating provocateurs and spies to a sect with a strong entryist and vanguardist orientation. This group was able to capture control of the French Anarchist Federation via Bolshevik-style manipulative tactics and changed its name to the FCL (Libertarian Communist Federation). The author tells the sorry tale of the FCL and how it sought to imitate the French Communist Party in many respects, but lacking the resources of the FCP failed to win away its base. However, in competing with the FCP in regard to the Algerian War it faced severe State attacks depriving it of premises and faced massive fines. The increasing Stalinist character of the FCL led also to the departure of many anarchist militants, who went on to re-form the FAF. After the late 1950s, it became the predominant explicit anarchist "organisation". An important factor which the author fails to adequately discuss in explaining the decline of French anarchism is the impact of the formation of the FO, a major split instigated by the CIA in the CGT. With the formation of the FO, large sections of the CNT-F's key bases went over to the new union centre encouraging strong sect tendencies in anarchist groupings. 

"Post-1968 French Anarchism"

The author proceeds to discuss the post-1968 development of French Anarchism. The impression given is of a largely propaganda movement characterised by a range of different groupings with strong left subcultural tendencies, with little influence as an industrial movement. The most significant grouping was the revived French Anarchist Federation influenced by the "Syntheticist Anarchism" of the Russian anarchist Volin, composed of different tendencies, but having a general support for syndicalism. The author shows how it has developed significant propaganda organs and infrastructure.

The other key grouping is the ORA/OCL (Organisation of Revolutionary Anarchists) heavily influenced by the Arshinov Platform and according to the author possessing a "hidden policy leadership" and generally heavily affected by the surrounding leftist subculture. 

In conclusion, the book under review certainly provides a detailed survey of the development of anarchist groupings since the 19th Century. However, the author gives the false impression that the key task of anarchists is the building of specific anarchist organisations informed by the Arshinov Programme, which the volume provides ample evidence can often take on features of the Leninist/Stalinist legacy which informs the Left Subculture in many countries. Rather than assisting workers' militant self-organisation and facilitating workers' control-directed activity. As the emancipation of the working class can only be achieved by workers themselves.


[Article from Rebel Worker Vol.21 No.5 (179) Nov.- Dec. 2002, paper of the Anarcho-Syndicalist Network]

Source: Rebel Worker

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