Review of 'When Insurrections Die': modernist ideas hinder a break from anarchism

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In the last issue of World Revolution we reported that one of the participants at our public forum on anarchism and the war in Spain in the 1930s had given out a pamphlet called When Insurrections Die by Gilles Dauve (1). A brief preface by Antagonism Press informs us that "this is a shorter, entirely reconceived version of the preface to the selection of articles on Spain 1936-39 from the Italian left magazine Bilan, published in French under the pen-name Jean Barrot and now out of print".

We want to make some comments on this text because while it contains many of the analyses and class positions elaborated by the communist left, its primary effect is to provide a theoretical justification for some of the most basic confusions surrounding the methods and goals of the communist revolution - confusions which are only too rife in the milieu which we refer to as the swamp, the ever-shifting zone of transition between bourgeois and proletarian politics.

This is by no means the first time that we have encountered Barrot's work. There is no doubt that he has been influenced by the communist left and as well as the Bilan collection has also published a book on the German left which we reviewed when it was published in the 1970s (2). This influence can still be seen in the text When Insurrections Die. But Barrot's political specificity is that he is a key figure in the development of what we have termed the ‘modernist' current.

This current, though having much older roots (3), made its real debut on the margins of the revolutionary milieu in the mid-70s; it was in essence a product of the reflux of the first international wave of workers' struggles launched by the general strike in France in May 1968. It reappeared again in another period of reflux in the early 80s, following the defeat of the mass strike movement in Poland (4). Today, with the ‘collapse of communism' and its attendant campaigns, the working class faces even greater difficulties, even doubts about its own existence as a class; it is therefore not surprising to find modernist ideas again gaining currency. In Britain, the Aufheben group, for example, borrows many of modernism's presuppositions. This is because the foremost characteristic of modernism is to put in question the revolutionary nature of the working class. In itself this is not unique - indeed a kind of ‘modernism' or ‘post-modernism' has become a dominant feature of bourgeois ideology in general today. But the modernists we are referring to also claim to be communists.

The trajectory of Jacques Camatte and the review Invariance provide the clearest illustration of modernism's underlying approach. Camatte broke from the Bordigist PCI in the 60s, having discovered that Bordigism was not the only expression of the historical communist left. But very rapidly Camatte developed profound doubts in the revolutionary potential of the working class, increasingly defining it as no more than a cog in the capitalist system. This was accompanied by a growing rejection of marxism and of revolutionary political organisations, which he characterised as ‘rackets'. Camatte's hopes turned to the eruption of a ‘universal human class' against capital; but very soon these hopes also faded and he took the logical step of retreating to a survivalist commune in the French mountains.

This ‘modern' attempt to find a revolutionary road that has ‘gone beyond' marxism and the working class thus revealed itself as a new packaging of classically anarchist themes. When Marx criticised Bakunin in the 1860s, he demonstrated that such themes were already reactionary, that the workers' movement had left them behind. It had replaced the notion of a ‘grand social liquidation' of all the oppressed by the idea of a working class struggle for political power; it had replaced organisational methods based on affinity groups, sects, or freebooting individuals with the principle of coherent political organisations of the communist vanguard. Modernism, like classical anarchism, was essentially the ideology of petty bourgeois thinkers who considered that the working class was not revolutionary enough for them and who as a result could only slip back into the conceptions of the past.

Barrot has never reached the extreme conclusions of Camatte, but from the 1970s onwards he has continued to disseminate all the underlying conceptions of modernism: its doubts about the working class; its characterisation of politics as a sphere of alienation; its rejection of militant political organisation and of the necessity for the working class to establish its political domination before it can create a communist society. When Insurrections Die shows that Barrot has not revised these views.

Barrot on Spain 36: vestiges of clarity, addition of confusion

Barrot's text is presented, as we have seen, as an "entirely reconceived" version of the introduction to the Bilan collection on Spain. Indeed it is so much revised that there is hardly any mention of Bilan in it at all. Instead, Barrot's historical references are to the positions of the Dutch communist left. This is probably no accident, since although the majority of the Dutch council communists certainly did defend revolutionary positions on the war in Spain, it was the Italian left who insisted on applying to the situation certain marxist basics which must make any self-respecting modernist feel rather uncomfortable: concepts such as the decadence of capitalism, the necessity for the class party and the dictatorship of the proletariat. Add to this the text's argument that "marxism", no less than anarchism, "fetishises" the state (see p 32-33), and we can conclude that the Barrot of the ‘90s has moved farther away from marxism from the Barrot of the ‘70s, who could still write that, "The future revolution will not be a question of banal repetition; but it will take up the historic thread of the international communist left" (from The communist left in Germany, 1918-21, cited in International Review 11). Nevertheless, the text still contains many nuggets of clarity inherited from the communist left:

- in its denunciation of the fraud of anti-fascism and the Trotskyist ideology of the United Front. According to the latter, the working class could have stopped the rise of fascism in the 20s and 30s ‘if only' it had forced the different left wing parties to unite. Instead Barrot's text reaffirms that it was precisely the left factions of capital in Germany and Italy who prepared the way for fascism;

- vis-a-vis the war in Spain, the text reiterates the view defended by Bilan and other left communist fractions at the time: the proletariat had indeed defended itself from the fascist attack when it fought on its own class terrain in July 1936; but it then opened itself up to the massacre by allowing itself to be pulled onto the bourgeois terrain of defending democracy. The text also uncovers the crucial role played by the semi-Trotskyists of the POUM and the anarchists of the CNT in diverting the working class from an all-out attack on the capitalist state and in subjugating it to the authority of the bourgeoisie, above all through the medium of the ‘anti-fascist militias' and the ‘collectivisations'. Finally, it demonstrates that when the Spanish workers made one last attempt to regroup behind their own class barricades, the POUM and the CNT were again on hand to sabotage this resistance from the inside.

The basic problem with the text is that having chased anarchism out of the front door, Barrot's modernist conceptions allow it in again through the back window. Barrot agrees with marxism that the bourgeois state has to be smashed in any real revolutionary uprising. But he is explicitly opposed to the marxist conception that the proletariat must then consolidate its own political domination if it is to take social and economic life in a communist direction. For him, this is just a formula for erecting a new power above the proletariat. What is needed instead is an immediate ‘communisation' of social relations:

"There is no revolution without the destruction of the state. But how? Beating off armed bands, getting rid of state structures and habits, setting up new modes of debate and decision - all these tasks are impossible if they do not go hand in hand with communisation. We don't want ‘power': we want the power to change all of life... If the revolution is supposed to be political first and social later, it would create an apparat whose sole function would be the struggle against the supporters of the old world, i.e. a negative function of repression, a system of control resting on no other content than its ‘programme' and its will to realise communism the day that conditions finally allow for it. This is how a revolution ideologises itself and legitimises the birth of a specialised stratum to oversee the maturation and the expectation of the ever-radiant day after tomorrow. The very stuff of politics is not being able , and not wanting, to change anything; it brings together what is separated without going any further..."(When Insurrections Die, p 38).

All this is highly ambiguous. It is perfectly true that the proletarian revolution can only triumph if it is based on the permanent self-activity of the proletarian masses in all areas of life, and that from the start this self-activity must tend in a communist direction. But to deny the primacy of politics in the first, decisive stages of the revolution is to spread the illusion that a new communist mode of life can appear from day one in any given corner - as implied by Barrot when he says that:

"communist measures (in Spain) could have undermined the social bases of the two states (republican and nationalist), if only by solving the agrarian question... A subversive force erupted, bringing to the fore the most oppressed strata, those farthest from political life (e.g. women), but it could not go all the way and eradicate the system root and branch" (p 35).

Here Barrot seems to ignore the fact that the Spanish events took place in a period of profound defeat for the working class internationally; but as the experience of the Russian revolution shows, even in a globally revolutionary period, very little can change in the sphere of social and economic relations until the working class has taken political power on a world scale. Even when many of the outward forms of value production are done away with (e.g. the virtual suppression of money during the ‘war communism' period in Russia), the content of a social relations based on scarcity will constantly re-impose itself. Communism is not the communisation of poverty in one country but a world-wide society of abundance that has dug out the roots of competition and exchange.

In conflating the social and political dimensions of the revolutionary process, and above all by equating proletarian political power with the automatic emergence of an ‘apparat', a ‘specialised stratum', the ‘modern' Barrot has only given a new theoretical gloss to Bakunin's rejection of ‘authoritarian marxism'. Small wonder that his writings should appear so attractive to those who are weary of the clichés of traditional anarchism but who cling desperately to its innermost convictions.

Amos, (6/12/99).


1) The pamphlet is being given away free; the reason being, as its distributor said at the forum , that "I am a communist". Presumably this means that communist literature should not be sold. For us this approach is not communist at all; it is a further expression of anarchist moralism and individualism. A communist organisation - as opposed to loose associations of individuals who publish things from time to time - which refused on principle to sell its press would be unable to maintain its existence for very long.

2) See International Review 11 ‘The Communist left in Germany 1918-21: a review'

3) For a study of the historical roots of modernism, see ‘Modernism: from leftism to the void' in World Revolution 3. This article, however, has an important weakness in that it presents modernism more or less as a direct emanation of the counter-revolution. Today we would define it as an expression of the swamp, though it may have strong leftist and parasitic elements within it.

4) See ‘Doubts about the working class' in International Review 34. At the time this text was written (1983), Barrot was producing La Banquise, (The Ice Barrier), which was based on an extreme pessimism about the possibilities of the class struggle. Prior to this he animated a group called Mouvement Communiste (not to be confused with the parasitic group of the same name today). Today he seems to work on a purely individual basis.