War fever, internationalism, and the limitations of anarchism

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These days there are very few active discussions in the “Recent Discussions” section of  libcom.org But one that has provoked a lot of controversy is an article called “British anarchism succumbs to war fever”[1] by Albatross, which opens up with a salvo against the anarchists who are calling for participation on the Ukrainian side in the imperialist conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Albatross poses the question: “how is it that today the anarchist movement in Britain (and elsewhere) is supporting one nation's military against another, ideologically justifying and materially provisioning the Ukrainian war effort? Are we seeing something altogether new that would lead us to question and revise our principles? No. We are seeing the same tragedy brought upon the people of the region as we have seen time after time. Our anti-militarist, internationalist, and revolutionary perspective is as vital as ever. At this present stage, the struggle for liberation is caught in the no-man's-land between imperialist invasion on the one side, and national defence (backed by an opposing imperialism) on the other. To seek purpose in either trench would be just more fuel in the furnace of capitalist warfare; it would mean allegiance to the state against anarchy”.

Albatross cites a number of examples of this anarchist war fever, for example: “From Ukraine to Scotland to Western Sahara to Palestine to Tatarstan, we stand with the people resisting imperialism,” proclaims Darya Rustamova in the pages of Freedom, an article reprinted by the Anarchist Federation. He also quotes the editorial of the AF’s magazine Organise, no 96, which proclaims that “Anarchists have taken to defence of their homeland”. Against both statements, Albatross rightly poses the question “Who are ‘the people’? By what means are they resisting? To what end?”, and to the second quote asks “What homeland do anarchists have? The ‘homeland’ is a sentimental notion of the nation-state in which a person is born” and which is used to justify the policy of “national defence”. He also contrasts this with an article published in 2009 by the AF which was much clearer in rejecting support for any nationalism, “including that of ‘oppressed nations’”[2]

Albatross goes on to demonstrate that the idea that in Ukraine there is some kind of autonomous popular resistance to the invader is delusional: all the so-called independent anarchist fighting units have been completely incorporated into the official state army, in some cases operating alongside the openly fascist units led by the Azov Brigade. And by extension, support for the Ukrainian state also involves support for the imperialist alliance which backs it with arms and propaganda – for NATO: “In our own context, the war fever that has overcome British anarchism will likely lead to support for British military intervention (through military aid and technical support, if not actual combat involvement) and, by extension, NATO imperialism. It is through such means that Ukraine will be able to defeat Russia. Given that NATO members are currently hesitant to escalate into direct conflict between nuclear powers, some anarchists find themselves in the absurd position of being more eager for the generalisation of imperialist war than their own ruling classes”.

As in our initial article about the anarchist response to the war, Albatross makes it clear that some parts of the anarchist movement have taken a clearly internationalist position against both camps in the war,  citing various groups of the anarcho-syndicalist International Workers’ Aassociation in Russia (the KRAS) , Poland, Serbia and Slovakia, as well as the Assembly group in Ukraine itself, and adding that “Some anarchists in Britain have taken this course of working class internationalism – such as the Anarchist Communist Group, Liverpool Solidarity Federation, and AnarCom Network – but they are a minority”.

Finally, Albatross points out that the Freedom group has also given a platform in its press to one of the elements involved in the doxing of the comrades of the KRAS (whose statement about this police-like behaviour we also published on our website[3]). Names and addresses of KRAS comrades were published online by some pro-Ukraine anarchists, effectively opening these comrades up to state repression.

Furore on libcom

“The war between nations, then, must be transformed into open class struggle. This begins when workers reject the social truce within their ‘own’ nation, and organise on a class basis against the people who oppress and exploit them every day”.

This basic internationalist position put forward in the text by Albatross got the following response from a poster called Machnette:

“Sounds a lot like genocide appeasement to me. Perfect example of somebody who would allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good. I'm glad that the aid (ie from the western powers – WR) is shooting down the bombs, clearing the mines and ending the crimes of the occupation ASAP. Is this some great victory for the class struggle? Who says it is? It's about saving lives!
When there's lives on the line, ideological purity is a luxury that is paid for with the blood of the innocent … We don't have the right to dictate dogma to our comrades when they ask for a lifeline under the threat of literal genocide!”

In another post Machnette writes

We can talk shit all we like about the IRA, or the Taliban not meeting our ideological standards, but what we cannot deny is that they had a right to oppose their respective occupations.

And in order to back the anarchist groups that are supporting Ukraine, Machnette announces that “I started funding Organise! magazine yesterday. If this has upset you guys that badly, it must be doing something really right”.

The majority of posts on the thread (by Battlescarred of the ACG, Lone Drone, Sherbu-kteer, Djybas of the Internationalist Communist Tendency and others) reject all of Machnette’s arguments in support of Ukraine and its NATO allies, not to mention the implied support for the “anti-imperialist” IRA and the Taliban[4]. Battlescarred also provides further information about the doxing of KRAS, following attempts on the Russian anarchist Avtonom website to exonerate the anarcho-snitches[5].

Concessions to the war fever

Having given credit where it is due, we think it’s necessary to remark that there are some rather dangerous chinks in the internationalist armour worn by Albatross. This became clear following a post by Steven, a long-standing member of the libcom collective, who says that while “this article makes a lot of good and important points, and is coming from a good place … I think there is a major problem with it”. And this problem is the idea that revolutionaries in Ukraine should focus on anti-militarism, in other words, opposing the Ukrainian war machine. Steven goes on: “Ukraine is a corrupt social democracy. But anarchists and revolutionaries are pretty free to agitate as they see fit (given the current exception of pro-Russian left parties at the moment). In Russia of course the situation is very different. Anarchists, anti-fascists and revolutionaries are frequently arrested, tortured by security forces, murdered by fascists and other right-wing extremists, jailed for long periods etc. Given that, I don't really feel I can criticise Ukrainian anarchists who choose to join the armed fight against the Russian invasion. Because this isn't just a matter of the nationality of your ruler, it's about whether you can live free, or be tortured, thrown in jail or killed”.

This is a clear concession to those who openly advocate joining the armed “resistance”. Lurking behind it is the classic leftist rejoinder in defence of anti-fascist fronts: “what do you do when the fascists are marching down your street and trashing your house?”. It’s never posed in political, class terms, just in terms of individual survival. Of course, as individuals faced with an immediate threat, you may be forced into all kinds of actions: running away, picking up a gun to defend yourself and your family, or being conscripted into a bourgeois army. But it’s not the same for a proletarian political organisation, a collective body whose reason for existence is to provide a clear "line of march" to the working class as a whole. And on that basis we must firmly denounce the arguments of those Ukrainian anarchists who make a deliberate political choice to join the armed fight against the Russian invasion, and openly call on others to opt for this choice as an example of anarchism in action.

The reply to this by Albatross seems completely contradictory:

“Going back to the original point, while I agree with the gist of what you're saying, I don't think anti-militarism in the specific sense is irrelevant to Ukrainians just because their nation is the invaded side. While Ukrainians are suffering from bombings and in some areas brutal occupation, many are also suffering from conscription, martial law, closed borders, etc. There is the propaganda image of the Ukrainian nation totally united in a war until victory or death, and then there is the reality that there are many people who have no desire to kill and die for their country, but who are forced to do so, being stopped at the border, subpoenaed on the street, punished for desertion, etc ... I don't judge the choices of individuals in such a situation, but I do think it is legitimate to criticise the political project of anarchist movements as expressed by, for example, The Resistance Committee and the Solidarity Collectives. I am more or less in agreement with the rest of your comment”.

Albatross seems to be unaware that there really is a fundamental disagreement with Steven here, because the whole thrust of the latter’s post is that it undermines criticism of the Ukrainian anarcho-patriots, and by implication all those outside Ukraine who support and advocate their position.

Steven defends himself by saying that he is in favour of class actions like the wildcat strikes by Ukrainian miners and health workers which have taken place during the war. At the same time, he comes back with a question for Albatross: “A clarification question for you then, appreciate that you bring up the example of anti-war sabotage in Russia which has been beautiful to see. But would you advocate that kind of sabotage against the Ukrainian military as well? Because I would not, because that would essentially just assist the Russian invasion

To this Djybas rightly replies: “The question needs turning on its head. When talking about class struggle, we're talking about elemental social forces not calculated individual acts. If workers in any of the warring states took up the class struggle, and by doing so began to undermine the war effort in any way, would Steven and others, in their political capacity, be telling them to ‘go back to work because you're assisting the enemy’? And do remember - in times of crisis and war, opposition to any attacks on working class conditions is seen by the ruling class as a threat to national unity (so even civilian protests or opposition to restrictions on the right to strike, which you provide as positive examples, very quickly becomes ‘undermining the war effort’ according to war propaganda)”

We can add: despite Steven’s illusions in freedom to agitate in Ukraine, are we really to believe that political groups openly defending internationalist positions in Ukraine won’t also be accused of “undermining the war effort” and subjected to state repression?

A major problem…with anarchism

One of the most interesting remarks in this thread comes from Sherbu-kteer:

 “I can understand now why left-communists place so much emphasis on internationalism during WWII as an essential part of communist politics. It revealed the same thing that is being revealed now: that the perspective of most of the left has not gone beyond searching for the lesser-evil capitalists and supporting them once they think they've found them. Once again,”.

This reminds us that anarchist participation in imperialist war did not begin with the Ukraine war. There is of course the example of Kropotkin in 1914, whose followers earned the title of “anarcho-trenchists” by advocating support for French democracy against German autocracy with arguments that are very close to those of today’s pro-war apologists. Most of today’s anarchists would probably argue that they reject Kropotkin’s stance. Very few of them would admit that the majority of anarchists failed the next two major tests by imperialist war: the war in Spain 1936-9 and the Second World War. Again, most anarchists today would condemn the CNT representatives who joined regional and central government in Spain to help direct the war effort. But the idea that there was a proletarian revolution taking place “alongside” the inter-capitalist conflict in Spain led even the best anarchist groups, like the Friends of Durruti, to compromise on the question of supporting the war effort. It’s not insignificant that in his article in reply to Albatross, Wayne Price[6] also uses a quote from the Friends’ pamphlet “Towards a Fresh Revolution”:
“There must be no collaboration with capitalism….Class struggle is no obstacle to workers continuing at present to fight on in the battlefields and working in the war industries….Revolutionary workers must not shoulder official posts, nor establish themselves in the ministries. For as long as the war lasts, collaboration is permissible—on the battlefield, in the trenches, on the parapets, and in productive labour in the rearguard.”

Against this centrist position, the Italian Communist Left insisted that the smallest strike in the “rearguard” would be a step forward for the Spanish workers and a blow against the imperialist war – a position vindicated by the Barcelona uprising of May 1937 (in which, it should be said, the Friends of Durruti took part on the workers’ side of the barricades, against the Republican government and its Stalinist and CNT agents).

And in the Second World War, the groups of the communist left were again totally opposed to those anarchists who advocated participation in the anti-fascist Resistance and even flew the black and red flag in the armoured cars that led the “Liberation” of Paris. By this time the number of anarchists who took a more or less clear internationalist position against the war had been reduced to a small handful (such as the group around Voline in France and the War Commentary group around Marie-Louise Berneri in Britain).

At the beginning of his article, Albatross says that, in opposition to the phony declarations by parts of the ruling class, lamenting that war is a terrible thing, “Anarchism cuts right through such mystification. We say it as we see it: the workers of different nations are sent to slaughter each other in the interests of their rulers. Anti-militarism is a core principle of anarchism”.

But where can we find this creature called anarchism? Where are the principles of anarchism encoded as clear programmatic positions? The truth is that anarchism has always been an extremely heterogenous political phenomenon, encompassing communists and individualists, those in favour of national liberation struggles and those opposed to them – and those who have opposed imperialist wars and those who have supported them. The same problem exists today, as we can see by comparing the AF with the ACG, for example. Or by looking at the Anarkismo website which contains an international statement against the war, signed by the ACG, with the pro-war article by Wayne Price. Battlescarred also points out that the AF is part of the International of Anarchist Federations which has issued statements denouncing the war on both sides. Contrary to the idea of a general family of anarchism which shares universal principles, anarchism “in general” can only be a kind of swamp containing bourgeois, petty bourgeois and proletarian elements.

But can’t the same thing be said about marxism? Doesn’t it also include Stalinists and Trotskyist cheerleaders in every imperialist war and left communists opposed to all such wars? The difference is that the communist left has always based its definition of the marxist “camp” on historical experience and adherence or not to clearly formulated programmes. We don’t define Stalinists and Trotskyists as marxists just because they use this label for themselves, but on their real practice, most importantly when faced with key questions like war and revolution, which has shown them to be part of the capitalist political apparatus.

The key problem with the anarchist world view is that it did not originate from such a rigorous class analysis and did not base itself on the materialist view of history, which means that from the start its “principles” were based on abstractions like opposition to all authority. If we take the anarchist “principle” regarding national liberation, for example, we can see where this lack of method can lead us. Thus, in his defence of the fight for “national freedom” in Ukraine, Wayne Price is happy to quote this from Bakunin: “Nationality…denotes the inalienable right of individuals, groups, associations and regions to their own way of life. And this way of life is the product of a long historical development. That is why I will always champion the cause of oppressed nationalities struggling to liberate themselves from the oppression of the state.” (Bakunin On Anarchism, S. Dolgoff, Ed. 1980; Black Rose).

For Bakunin, the principles of anarchism are thus founded on the “inalienable rights” of individuals, regions, or nationalities. In contrast to this approach, Marx and Engels always used the criteria of class interests: they had no doubt that struggles for national liberation were bourgeois struggles, but some of them could be supported by the working class if they served the development of a still progressive capitalist system. But these conditions radically changed with the onset of capitalism’s decadence and in this epoch all national struggles have become reactionary, fundamentally anti-working class.  

It's true that other anarchist currents, such as the anarcho-syndicalists, have tended to be more consistent in basing their positions on the interests of the working class. But this only emphasises that there are no “universal principles” of a “true anarchism”.

The idea of the inalienable rights of the individual goes back to the very origins of anarchism in the most radical wing of the petty bourgeoisie. This is one of the reasons why even those currents who see themselves as communists and part of the workers’ movement generally have a great difficulty in distinguishing collective class movements such as strikes from individual acts of despair. Thus, Steven finds “acts of anti-war sabotage” in Russia (though not Ukraine) beautiful to see, and libcom publishes numerous accounts of actions like the firebombing of recruitment centres in Russia by this or that individual (a lot of these accounts were originally put out by the Assembly group, which, while it seems to have opposed the enlistment of other Ukrainian anarchists into the war effort, does not seem very clear about what would constitute a class resistance to the war).

We can understand the anger and frustration which leads individuals to take such actions, but they do not provide any perspective for the working class, any more the “exemplary deeds” of certain anarchists in the late 19th century served to spark off a wider class movement.

As Sherbu-kteer put it above, “the consistent internationalists are in the minority, and they have to fight harder than ever to have their voices heard by demoralised working-classes that are dominated by nationalism and war fever”. The fact that there is little or no direct class resistance to this war, either in Russia, or even more clearly in Ukraine where the workers are indeed dominated by nationalism and war fever, does not mean that internationalists have nothing to say. We do whatever we can to spread the internationalist message, not only to make our voices heard today, but to lay down markers for the future when the international working class will pose the question of war much more openly and decisively.



[1] British anarchism succumbs to war-fever. The article was also published on the website of the Anarchist Communist Group, although the ACG say that they were not involved in writing it.

[2] Anarchist federation against nationalism. In WRs 344 and 345 we wrote a two-part article which showed that the AF did have a link to the internationalist anarchist tradition. This tradition has been carried on by the Anarchist Communist Group which split from the AF in 2017. The primary reason for the split seemed to be identity politics, but in the article we wrote at the time Reflections on the split in the anarchist-federation we pointed out that there also seemed to be differences on the more fundamental question of internationalism. The war in Ukraine has had a decisive impact here, and the trajectory of the AF has shown that there is a smooth transition from identity politics to the complete betrayal of class positions and internationalism. See Notes on internationalist anarchism in Britain: Part one;  Notes on Internationalist Anarchism in the UK: (part 2) 

[3] "Anarchists” who forget the principles. Statement by KRAS-IWA

[4] We should however mention that the rather well known anarcho-leftist, Wayne Price, who has elsewhere supported Rojava and other quasi-state enterprises masquerading as anarchist communes, has written a reply to the text by Albatross, “Are anarchists giving in to war fever”.

[5] Lies are being spread about Ukrainian anarchist Anatoli Dubovik. This text has since been retracted by Avtonom for reasons that remain unclear.

[6] See footnote 4


Anarchists and the Ukraine war