Back to Page One.

SMASH THE STATE: Socialism and Anarchism


It's 30 years since the May 1968 uprisings in France, and nearly 10 since the Soviet Union collapsed. In the process of trying to rethink, renew, and reinvigorate the Left, it is crucial for revolutionary democratic socialists and anarchists to dialogue with each other, drop the old standard name callings, and figure out how we can learn from and work with each other. Socialists need to learn from the hidden libertarian currents that can be found within our own histories and ideas.

Examples from within "orthodox" non-stalinist Marxism would include much of Rosa Luxemburg's work, Leon Trotsky's theory of Permanent Revolution, and V. I. Lenin's "State and Revolution. In history we can look to the Paris Commune, the workers' councils in Russia in 1905 and 1917, and Paris in 1968. This is a heritage which anarchists and socialists can and should share.

To that end, there are a few key questions concerning North American anarchism that I'll try to assess for their relevance and meaning for those who are engaged in the fight to end oppression, class exploitation, ecological destruction, and the bureaucratic state.

"Have a good time all the time cuz you don't get nuthin when you die." - Chumbawumba

One of the main debates in North American anarchism is summed up in Murray Bookchin's Social anarchism or Lifestyle anarchism - an unbridgeable chasm. Bookchin identifies himself as an anarchist-socialist as opposed to lifestyle individualist anarchists. His main target is Hakim Bey, the inventor of the Temporary Autonomous Zone, brief areas of freedom that don't smash the state but gleefully ignore it. Bey proposes that one should create orgiastic psychedelic Zones in order to get sneak peeks at freedom and, thereby, alter consciousness.

Bookchin also criticizes the anti-technology neoprimitivists who somehow manage to operate computers to put out the paper Fifth Estate. Bookchin rightly attacks their technological determinism, the idea that modern technology inevitably produces capitalist social relations. David Watson, a member of the Fifth Estate collective, has written a book called Beyond Bookchin, which is one of the dreariest, ultra-academic defenses of playfulness, desire, and "fun".

This debate in many ways resembles the one between Karl Marx and Max Stirner in the 1840s. Bookchin comes down as the socially responsible one, while Bey is much more fun. What both lack is any real strategy for fighting capitalism and/or the state. Bookchin has some interesting things to say about what socialism could be like, but does not prioritise fights against sexism, the capitalist class, white supremacy, heterosexism or imperialism. Neither side of this debate identifies a social group (e.g. workers, women) which could organize in order to change the world.

"Don't know what I want, but I know how to get it." ??? - Sex Pistols

Contemporary anarchists vary extremely widely on questions of strategy and tactics, but one phrase comes up again and again: direct action. In doing research on anarchism, the best definition I've been able to find is "doing stuff." It generally implies an element of illegality, but how illegal is indeterminate. For instance, a demonstration could be technically illegal (because of traffic laws, noise laws, etc.) but isn't usually treated as such in Canada. On the other hand, blowing up a munitions plant is very illegal, and has been treated as such. An unfortunate aspect of this is that some anarchists believe a political action is only really "revolutionary" if it includes direct physical confrontation with the police and/or lots of arrests.

Some on the Left try to counterpose mass action to direct action. So for advocates of direct action something semi-illegal needs to take place, while some advocates of mass action merely require a whole bunch of people to turn up at a rally, demonstration, or whatever. The mistake both can make is that they turn a tactic in to a strategy. This reflects an extreme short-sightedness and a mechanical view of how people radicalize and what political actions are intended for and can achieve. Some advocates of "direct action" argue that when people get hassled, beat up, or arrested by the police, they will recognize the evils inherent in the state. It's more likely, however, that they'll get scared and will learn to stay away from activism and radical politics.

In reading recent anarchist writings in magazines and zines, mass movements are often equated with bureaucracy and liberal leftish politics. By misunderstanding the origins of the labour bureaucracy and dissolution of many of the important social movements, this equation reinforces anti-organizational biases, cliquish sectarianism, and can lead to terrible, and useless, political positions. One example of this is the tendency to reject the organized labour movement. In the face of the labour bureaucracy's timidity and willingness to act as referee between business and workers, this view is understandable. But it is wrong.

Groups like Teamsters for a Democratic Union have helped reform one of the most corrupt pro-business unions, and through their organizing helped ensure the victory of the UPS strike last year. The militant action and creative community organizing of the nearly 2000 striking/locked out newspaper workers in Detroit is another example of combative unionism and working class solidarity. Unions do protect workers rights.

In recent years a new class struggle anarchism has emerged in Canada and the US. This would include the re-emergence of the Wobblies, Food not Bombs, and in Toronto the commitment of anarchists (including Food not Bombs) to the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty. We will have to wait and see if larger currents of this sort emerge in the years to come.

Anarchists have often been better or more aware of certain issues than most Marxists. The importance of building a counter-hegemonic culture (e.g. zines), anti-psychiatry, prison reform/abolition, and ecology have been part of the anarchist movement for years. Socialists need to pay attention to these ideas, and not idly dismiss them as irrelevant to class struggle.

"Hope exists only for hopeless." - Walter Benjamin

I think revolutionary socialists have two crucial things to teach anarchists: the necessity of clear democratic organization, and the necessity of learning history. With the twin stars of Stalinism and trotskyism largely extinguished, the absence of a mass revolutionary organization in the US or Canada, and the sense that capitalism has won the game for world domination, two options are left open to young radicals: social democratic reformism and ultra-leftism (which includes a lot of anarchism). Both are politics of despair, based on the idea that structural change is not really possible, and if it is, we'd just get another Soviet Union or North Korea. We need to find and articulate a politics of hope. This hope should definitely not be wildly optimistic, but a mixture of optimism and pessimism. Revolutionaries need to take chances, and recognize that creating a truly human world is possible. Not all anarchists are hopeless ultra-leftists, nor are all hopeless ultra-leftists anarchists.

May the red and black flags fly together more often in the future, as we continue to fight for human liberation!

Suggested reading: Emma Goldman, Anarchism and other essays; Murray Bookchin, Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism; Angry Women (RE/Search books); Jon Purkis (editor), 21st Century Anarchism; V.I. Lenin, State and Revolution, and Left Wing Communism; Fireweed issue 59/60 "Revolution Grrrl Style;" Michael Lowy, On Changing the World.

Mark Connery is an anti-poverty and anti-racist activist and a member of the Toronto New Socialist Group.

email webmaster for updates!