Anarchism and imperialist war: Nationalism or internationalism?

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But German Social Democracy was not merely the strongest vanguard troop, it was the thinking head of the International. For this reason, we must begin the analysis, the self-examination process, with its fall. It has the duty to begin the salvation of international socialism, that means unsparing criticism of itself. None of the other parties, none of the other classes of bourgeois society, may look clearly and openly into the mirror of their own errors, their own weaknesses, for the mirror reflects their historical limitations and the historical doom that awaits them. The working class can boldly look truth straight in the face, even the bitterest self-renunciation, for its weaknesses are only confusion. The strict law of history gives back its power, stands guarantee for its final victory.

Unsparing self-criticism is not merely an essential for its existence but the working class’s supreme duty”.

Thus wrote Rosa Luxemburg in 1915, in The crisis in German Social Democracy, better known as the Junius Pamphlet, her searching examination of the betrayal of the majority of the German SPD, and other Socialist parties, faced with the supreme test of world imperialist war. In this passage she clearly lays out a central element of the marxist method: the principle of constant, “unsparing self-criticism”, which is both necessary and possible for marxism because it is the theoretical product of the first class in history that can “boldly look truth straight in the face”. During and after the First World War, this attempt to go the roots of the collapse of the Second International was a demarcating feature of the left currents which had been born out of the social democratic parties, but who now went on to form a new and explicitly communist International. And as the new International in turn slid into opportunism with the retreat of the post-war revolutionary wave – a regression most symbolically expressed in the policy of the United Front with the social democratic traitors - the same work of criticism was carried on by the left communist fractions within the Third International, in particular the German, Italian and Russian lefts.

In 1914, the anarchist movement also entered into crisis following the decision of the much-revered anarchist Peter Kropotkin and a group around him to declare their support for Entente imperialism against the bloc led by Germany, and the adoption of the same policy by the French ‘revolutionary syndicalist’ union, the CGT[1]. Within the ranks of the anarchist movement there were many who remained loyal to internationalism and who fiercely denounced the attitude of Kropotkin and other ‘anarcho-trenchists’. Probably a majority of the anarchists refused to participate in the imperialist war effort. But in contrast to the response of the marxist left, there was little attempt to undertake a theoretical analysis of the capitulation of a significant wing of the anarchist movement in 1914. And while the marxist left was able to call into question the underlying method and practice of the social democratic parties in the whole period before the war, no such capacity for “unsparing self-criticism” was displayed by the anarchists, who do not adhere to the historical materialist method but base themselves on more or less timeless and abstract principles and who are impregnated with the notion of being a kind of family united around the struggle for Freedom against Authority. There can be exceptions, serious attempts to go deeper into the problem, but generally they come from those anarchists who have been able to integrate certain elements from the theoretical method of marxism.

This inability to question itself in real depth derives from the original class nature of anarchism, which emerged from the resistance of the petty bourgeoisie, especially of independent artisans, to the process of proletarianisation which was disintegrating the class structure of the old feudal societies of 19th century Europe. The French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was the clearest embodiment of this current, with his rejection of communism in favour of a society of independent producers linked by equivalent exchange. It’s certainly true that the Proudhonists also expressed a movement towards ‘going over’ to the proletariat by joining the First International, but even with the most explicitly proletarian anarchist currents, such as the anarcho-syndicalists who developed towards the end of the 19th century, the incoherent, idealist and ahistorical political conceptions typical of the petty bourgeois world outlook were never fully overcome.

The price for this failure to draw the real lessons of 1914 was paid in full in the new crisis which swept the anarchist movement in reaction to the events in Spain in 1936-37. Important elements of the anarchist movement which had not betrayed in 1914 – above all the Spanish CNT – now plunged into support for a new imperialist war, in which a conflict between two capitalist factions, the Republican regime dominated by the bourgeois left, and the right wing forces led by Franco, was part of a wider inter-imperialist battle, most openly between the fascist states of Germany and Italy and the newly emerging imperialism of the USSR. Under the banner of anti-fascist unity, the CNT rapidly integrated itself into the Republican state at all levels, including the Catalan and Madrid governments.  Most importantly, the CNT’s central role was in diverting what had initially been an authentic proletarian response to the Franco coup, a response which had used the methods of the class struggle – general strike, fraternisation with troops, factory occupations and arming of the workers – into the military defence of the capitalist Republic. Given the strength of this initial proletarian reaction, not only the anarchists but also numerous marxist currents outside of Stalinism were also drawn into support for the anti-fascist front in one way or another; and this included not only the more opportunist tendency around Trotsky but important elements of the communist left, including a minority within the Italian Left Fraction. On the other hand, within anarchism there were certainly class reactions to the betrayal of the CNT, such as the Friends of Durruti Group and Camillo Berneri’s Guerra di Classe. But real clarity about the nature of the war only emerged from a small minority of the marxist left, above all the Italian Fraction which published Bilan. The latter was almost alone in rejecting the claim that the war in Spain was in any way a war for the interests of the proletariat: on the contrary it was a kind of dress rehearsal for the approaching world imperialist massacre. For Bilan Spain was a new 1914 for the anarchist movement in particular[2]. And in 1939, faced with the new world war which Bilan had predicted, it was now a majority of the anarchists, intoxicated by anti-fascism, which followed the road of capitulation to the Allied war effort, either as part of the ‘Resistance’ or directly as part of the official allied armies: at the head of the ‘Liberation’ parade in Paris in 1944 was an armoured car festooned with the banners of the CNT, which had been fighting inside the Free French army division led by General Leclerc. Again, there were anarchist groups and individuals who remained true to internationalist principles in 1939-45, but once again, there is little evidence that they carried out a systematic examination of the historic betrayal of the majority of the movement to which they still claimed adherence. The result has been that there has been, as after the betrayals of 1914, a failure to draw any class lines between the internationalists and the anarcho-patriots: in many cases, the latter were simply reintegrated into the “affinity group” which is the anarchist movement once things went back to “normal” after the war. Behind this incapacity to defend class principles in an intransigent manner is not only a profound intellectual weakness but also a lack of moral indignation: all is forgiven as long as you stay inside the family.

Today the question of war is once again facing the world proletariat. Not a world war around already constituted blocs, but a more general, more chaotic descent into military barbarism across the planet, as exemplified by the wars in Africa, the Middle East and the Ukraine. These wars are again imperialist wars, in which the bigger capitalist states vie against their rivals through various local or national factions, and they are all expressions of capitalism’s increasing descent into self-destruction. And once again, a part of the anarchist movement is openly participating in these imperialist conflicts:

  • In Russia and Ukraine, there has been a growth of anarcho-nationalist or “ethno-anarchist” groups who openly function as a “libertarian” wing of the war drive in each country. But a more “respectable” anarchist group such as the Autonomous Workers’ Union, which publishes material on libcom and held a meeting at the annual Anarchist Bookfair this year, has also revealed its deep ambiguities on the current war: in some official statements it appears to take a position of opposition both to the Ukraine regime and the pro-Russian separatists, to NATO as well as the Russian Federation, but Facebook statements by some of its leading members tell a very different story, apparently defending the Kiev government and its war against Russian incursion and even calling for NATO support[3];
  • In Rojava or Syrian Kurdistan, the Kurdish Anarchist Forum and the Turkish DAF (Devrimci Anarşist Faaliyet) support, participate in, and carry out global propaganda on behalf of the so-called ‘Rojava revolution’, claiming that the local population is organising itself in independent communes in its fight against the Syrian government and above all against the brutal jihadists of Islamic State. The DAF offers its services to participate in the fighting around the besieged city of Kobane near the Turkish border. In reality, these ‘communes’ are tightly controlled by the Kurdish nationalist PKK, which in the last few years has carried out a ‘turn’ away from Maoism towards the ‘libertarian municipalism’ of Murray Bookchin[4]. And in its conflict with IS, the PKK has been more or less openly acting as the ground forces of the ‘western’ coalition led by the USA;
  • anarchist elements in the west are also drawn into the campaign of ‘solidarity with Kobane’, which is effectively a campaign in solidarity with the PKK. The anarchist celebrity David Graeber has published an article in The Guardian Why is the world ignoring the revolutionary Kurds in Syria?’[5] which describes the PKK’s experiment in ‘direct democracy’ as a “social revolution”, compares it with the anarchist collectives in Spain in 1936 and calls for the “international left” to prevent a repetition of the same tragic defeat. A similar outlook is taken up by the poster who signs as Ocelot on libcom, although his arguments in favour of antifascism and the “revolutionary Kurds” offer a more sophisticated version of the same thing, since he is well aware of what he calls the “Bordigist” position on the question of fascism, and is vehemently opposed to it[6]. But perhaps more important is the response of some of the established anarchist organisations. In France, for example, the CNT-AIT[7] participates in ‘solidarity with Kobane’ demonstrations behind a banner which says: “Arms for the Kurdish resistance, Rojava is hope, anarchists in solidarity” (see picture). The flags of the French Federation Anarchiste can also be seen behind the same banner, while the International of Anarchist Federations, to which French FA and the Anarchist Federation in the UK are both affiliated, and which lists the DAF and KAF as friendly organisations, publishes most of the DAF’s articles on the situation in Rojava without critical comment.

There are of course elements within anarchism who have been very consistent in their rejection of this support for nationalism. We have already published the internationalist statement by the KRAS, the Russian section of the anarcho-syndicalist International Workers’ Association, against the war between Russia and Ukraine[8], and we have pointed out above that a member of the KRAS, who posts as foristaruso, has posted some very strong criticisms of the positions of the AWU on libcom (see footnote 3). In one of the main libcom threads about the situation in the Middle East, individual comrades have argued forcefully against the pro-PKK line, notably a member of the UK branch of the IWA (Solidarity Federation) who posts as AES. The collective that runs the libcom site has featured two articles on the PKK and Rojava written from a left communist perspective: the ICC’s ‘warning’ against the PKK’s new libertarian facelift (footnote 4), and the article ‘The Bloodbath in Syria: Class war or Ethnic war’[9] written by Devrim and first published on the website of the Internationalist Communist Tendency. In the comments that follow the latter article there are furious and slanderous replies by posters who seem to be members or supporters of the Turkish DAF.

At the time of writing the AF in the UK has published a statement which has no illusions in the leftist, nationalist nature of the PKK and shows that the turn towards Bookchinism and ‘confederal democracy’ was initiated from above by its great leader Ocalan, who has also made similar approaches to the Assad regime, the Turkish state and towards Islam[10]. The AF has the courage to admit that the position it is taking up will not be popular given the large number of anarchists being drawn into the support for the ‘Rojava revolution’. But here again we see a total incoherence within the same ‘international’ tendency. The AF statement contains no criticism whatever of the DAF or the IAF and in its list of ‘concrete’ actions proposed at the end of statement is the call to “provide humanitarian aid to Rojava via IFA, which has direct contact with DAF”. This seems to be a concession to the pressure of “we must do something now”, which is very strong in the anarchist milieu, even if the aid (whether military or humanitarian) organised by a small group in Turkey would inevitably play into the hands of bigger organisations, such as the PKK. And this is in reality what the DAF is proposing, since it has offered volunteers to fight in the PKK-controlled ‘Peoples Protection Units’ or YPG. The AF also writes that it aims to “encourage and support any independent action of workers and peasants in the Rojava region. Argue against any nationalist agitation and for the unity of Kurdish, Arab, Muslim, Christian and Yezidi workers and peasants. Any such independent initiatives must free themselves from PKK/PYD control, and equally from aid by the Western allies, from their clients like the Free Syrian Army, Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party, and the Turkish state”. But it could hardly do so without also arguing against the pro-PKK positions of the DAF itself.

It is certainly significant that the most consistent responses to the situation in Rojava have been written from within the tradition of left communism. What characterises the more general response of the anarchists is their total lack of coherence. When you look at the websites of the IWA, the CNT-AIT, or Solidarity Federation, they remain relentlessly focused on immediate and local workers’ struggles which they have been involved with[11] - rather in the style of the Economist current which Lenin criticised a hundred years ago. The great economic, political and social events in the world are hardly mentioned, and there is no sign of any debate about such a fundamental questions as internationalism and imperialist war, even when there are obviously profound differences within this current, ranging from internationalism to nationalism. This lack of debate, this avoidance of confronting differences – which we can also observe in the IAF - is far more dangerous than the crises which hit the anarchist movement in 1914 and 1936, when there was still a much greater reaction to the betrayal of principles within the ranks of the movement. Anarchism remains a family which can easily accommodate bourgeois and proletarian positions and in this sense still reflects the vagueness, the vacillation of social strata caught between the two major classes of society. This atmosphere is a real obstacle to clarification, preventing even the clearest, most firmly internationalist individuals or groupings from going to the roots of this latest example of anarchist collaboration with the bourgeoisie. To take their positions to their conclusion would demand a thorough re-examination of past crises in the anarchist milieu, above all the one in 1936 where, as we argue in our recent articles in the International Review, the fatal flaws of anarchism were revealed most tellingly. In the final analysis, it would demand a fundamental critique of anarchism itself and a real assimilation of the marxist method.

Amos 3/12/14

[1]. See the article on the CGT from our series on anarcho-syndicalism: The link for the whole series is here:


[2]. See in particular these articles:;; A sequel to the last article, dealing with the dissident anarchists in Spain and elsewhere, will appear shortly.


[5]. A response by the ICT can be found here: This text clearly defends an internationalist position against Graeber’s leftist ideology, but it does make a concession to anarchism: the idea that there was a “social revolution” in Spain in 1936. “The military coup of July 18 1936 against the Second Spanish Republic came after years of class struggle. The Popular Front government of socialists and liberals did not know how to respond but the workers did. When the liberal ministers refused to arm the workers they attacked the barracks of the regime and armed themselves. This unleashed a social revolution which in various parts of Spain was almost as Graeber describes it. However it did not touch the political power of the bourgeois Spanish Republic. The state was not destroyed”.

The last point is correct but the idea of a “social revolution” was not shared at the time by the Italian Fraction of the Communist Left (which published Bilan and from which both the ICC and ICT claim descent) – rather it seems closer to the position of the minority of the Fraction who went off to fight in the militias of the POUM “in defence of the Spanish revolution”. Bilan certainly recognised July 1936 and May 37 as workers’ uprisings but never used the term social revolution to describe the events in Spain precisely because the bourgeois state had not be destroyed and the workers had not taken power or even established a dual power situation; the result being that all the “social measures” (collectivisations of farms and factories, etc) undertaken by workers and peasants were very rapidly integrated into a new form of war economy geared to serve an imperialist conflict, with the anarcho-syndicalist CNT being the principal instrument both for diverting the initial proletarian response into an anti-fascist front, and for administrating the war economy “under workers’ control”. The minority ‘Resolution on Spain’ submitted by Eiffel in the US group the RWL in 1937 - published in this issue – has the same starting point as that of Bilan.

This question is important because while there are many internationalists in the anarchist movement who have taken a clear position on the current war in the Middle East, left communists need to encourage these comrades to make a thorough analysis of why anarchism has so often failed the test of imperialist war, above all in 1936. The idea of a “Spanish revolution” in 1936 represents a kind of sacred icon for nearly all anarchists, but until they are prepared to go to the roots of why such a significant part of the anarchist movement crossed the class line at that time, they will not be able to consistently defend internationalist positions today and in the future.

[7]. AIT is the Association International des Travailleurs is French for International Workers Association.


[11]. The picture of the CNT-AIT banner featured in this article is typical of the style of many of these articles, which whenever possible show pictures of the IWA contingent or picket to show the crucial role they have played in the struggle – an approach consistent with their notion of organising the class into revolutionary unions.




Anarchism and War