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What is a marxist party like the German Communist Workers Party of the 1920s (the KAPD), a sympathising party of the Third International, doing on an anarchist family tree? "The positive legacy of the left/council communists must be their theoretical breakthroughs in their analysis of the Trade Unions and parliamentary democracy and in their understanding of the centrality of working class self-organisation in the revolutionary project." ('In the tradition, Part 1', Organise 52, Winter '99/'00)
We read this in a continuing history by an English anarchist group, the Anarchist Federation, which includes the Communist Left (1), amongst others, in an attempt to trace its roots. It may seem strange that anarchists, who, particularly over the last ten years, have been joining in the deafening media chorus that equates Stalinism with communism, and marxism with the gulag, are now finding marxists to identify with. But anarchist attempts to associate itself with marxism, or, claims to have married marxism with the eternal ideals of anarchism have been going on for the past 150 years of the workers movement. When Bakunin declared himself a disciple of Marx and the Ist International (before stabbing both in the back), he was not the last of an ignoble tradition.
More recently, with the current vogue for a ‘new revolutionary movement’, syntheses of anarchism and marxism are being proclaimed anew (see International Review 102 ‘Is it possible to reconcile anarchism and marxism?’) Some might say that we left communists should be grateful for these anarchist compliments to our political ancestors, and encourage reconciliation between all those who are against the capitalist system.
Without wanting to seem bad mannered, we don’t believe it is possible to defend the political positions and activity of left communism within an anarchist perspective.
Without marxism left communism is impossible
Of course these anarchists don’t defend the left communists as part of the marxist tradition, within which the left communists saw and still see themselves. Nor do they defend all of the left communists (no mention is made of the Italian Communist Party led by the left around Amadeo Bordiga in the 1920s). They rather defend the minority of ‘good’ marxists against the majority of ‘bad’ ones: "The vast majority of marxists (social democrats, Leninists) have paid lip service to the motto of the First International." (Organise, 52).
In fact the conviction that communism is the self-liberation of the working class emerges with marxism, not with anarchism. While Marx and Engels and the Communist League were elaborating the historical and economic existence and objectives of the working class in the 1840s, one of the forefathers of anarchism, Max Stirner, would only recognise the self-liberation of the ego. Pierre Joseph Proudhon, another early figure of anarchism, counselled against strikes and political action by workers. While Bakunin declared himself for collective action and class struggle, his real level of adherence to the motto of the Ist International was limited as, in practice, he fostered a conspiracy of a hierarchical elite, and tried to destroy the International.
The AF follow in these illustrious footsteps, because, for them, in reality, the working class as a historic class with common political aims doesn’t exist, it is instead a vehicle along with others of the eternal principles of anarchism: "If we as Anarchist Communists still see the working class movement as decisive it is not because of its supposed capacities as an emancipatory class but because workers are those who produce the wealth and are at the heart of the mechanism of production of capital." How can the working class emancipate itself if it is not an ‘emancipatory class’: a class with brawn but no brain?
We can agree with AF that the anarchists have never betrayed the motto of the 1st International, because they only ever understood it as a code for the unlimited freedom of the individual. Loyalty to this abstraction poses no problem because it can never have any contact with reality. Kropotkin, the ‘anarcho-trenchist’, or the French anarchist CGT could support the proletarian slaughter in the First World War, the Spanish CNT could join a capitalist government in 1936, but the principles remain inviolate.
Anarchism can’t defend the left communist legacy
The political positions that the AF supposedly admire in the left communists therefore could only come from the marxist movement, its acquisitions and the lessons of its mistakes.
Dictatorship of the proletariat
The AF say that they prefer the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ to the dictatorship of the party. But, seeing as this fundamental understanding of the workers’ movement does not appear in the AF’s ‘Aims and Principles’ or in their ‘Manifesto for the Millennium’, it is reasonable to suppose that this is ‘lip service’ and that, in reality, they retain basic anarchist prejudices against this essential political action. The ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ is an expression that encapsulates the main objective of the working class on its road to liberation: the seizing of political power and the smashing of the old state machine and the political suppression of the bourgeoisie.
Substitutionism and parliamentarism
The KAPD made a critique of the substitutionist conception of the party. If they criticised ‘leadership politics’ it wasn’t out of anti-authoritarianism, but because at the time in the early 1920s this phrase meant the parliamentarism of the Social Democracy and the subjection of the membership and the workers to the opportunism of the parliamentary caucus. The KAPD were for the proletarian political party acting as a vanguard of the working class. Not in parliament: but in the workers’ councils. They argued that the historical conditions and the experience of the working class demanded a revision of the social democratic conception of the party, and a rejection of the fight for reforms through parliament that in an earlier time could strengthen the proletariat (which anarchists abstained from).
The anarchist objection to parliament and substitutionism is a moral and eternal one, related to their anxiety over ‘authority’, although in practice, as we will see below, anarchists have often fallen into electoralism. But they are also against any party, which includes the KAPD, that intends to be the vanguard of the working class.
But if, according to the AF, the working class is not ‘emancipatory’ by itself, then revolutionary consciousness must of necessity come from outside this class and act in its place. Anarchism is no stranger to substitutionism as the history of ‘propaganda by the deed’ demonstrates.
Nor have the AF based themselves on the theoretical breakthroughs of the KAPD on the unions. After stating that the unions can’t be revolutionary organs, the seventh AF principle of its ‘Aims and Principles’ reads: "....we do not argue for people to leave unions until they are made irrelevant by the revolutionary event. The union is a common point of departure for many workers. Rank and file initiatives may strengthen us in the battle for anarchist-communism. What’s important is that we organise ourselves collectively, arguing for workers to control struggles themselves."
The KAPD was implacably opposed to the existing unions (and called for workers to leave them) not because they were non-revolutionary, which was true in the 19th century, but because the decadence of capitalism had turned them into counter-revolutionary weapons of the state against working class struggle. The trade unions could say of AF’s ‘opposition’ to them: ‘who needs friends when you have ‘enemies’ like this?’.
The theoretical coherence of left communism can only be defended by a coherent unified organisation. In contrast this is the anarchist view of organisation taken from a statement by the ACF (forerunner of the AF) in a dispute with others about prisoner support: "as a non-hierarchical federation of anarchist communists we work together in solidarity but we cannot order what our members do like a Leninist party would. So, if on the one hand an individual member wants to give unconditional support to a prisoner while another gives other prisoners higher priority or refuses to support a particular prisoner that is up to them....[x]’s fight for freedom ....and neither you nor we can compel them to say why. Freedom not to speak is as much a basic tenet of the free society as intimidation and coercion to tell all is of the police state." (Organise, 51).
On that basis a member of the ACF is free to state that they are not supporting. In other words every one does what they want. Not only that: everyone has the right not to justify it to their comrades. No solidarity can be constructed in such an organisation, no one can rely on anyone else: there are no obligatory rules that everyone voluntarily adheres to. The abstract principle of individual freedom is used against the collective solidarity that unity demands. The demand for transparency, without which real common action and clarity is impossible, is equated with the repression of the police state.
The only glue that can keep such an organisation together is that of friendship, which creates an informal hierarchy of its own and reduces the platform to window dressing.
Roots in leftism
AF’s real roots are not in left communism, or even partially in it, but in leftism, the radical wing of the capitalist left. They describe it themselves in an earlier history of the origins of their organisation. (Organise! No. 42, Spring 1996). They emerged from the debacle of the various anarchist communist organisations of the 1970s, who entered almost en masse into Trotskyist groups. In 1974 most of the Organisation of Revolutionary Anarchists "ended up in the horrific authoritarian Healyite outfit, the Workers Revolutionary Party, whilst others joined IS (the precursor of the Socialist Workers Party)" (p17).
The remains of the ORA then formed the Anarchist Workers Association in 1975, but in 1977 an overtly leftist tendency expelled the others and reformed as the Libertarian Communist Group which later entered an electoral front with the Trotskyist International Marxist Group called Socialist Unity. The latter put forward the slogan: ‘Vote Labour, but Build a Socialist Alternative’. Eventually the LCG fused with another leftist group Big Flame in 1980, which dissolved when its members entered the Labour Party. The AF was formed from veterans of the ORA/AWA/LCG and a split from the SWP that produced the magazine ‘Virus’.
The degree to which the AF has broken with its leftist past can be measured by their position on the trade unions that is virtually indistinguishable from the typical leftist approach.
The degree to which it really adheres to left communist traditions, and the sincerity of its motives for claiming to do so, can be understood by its implacable hostility to left communist organisations. In the case of the ICC, for example, the ACF once wrote to us to say that we were not ‘welcome’ at their meetings. So while they claim that "theoretical diversity has been a strength in our movement" and "we believe debate is vital" (Beyond Resistance) (2), this does not include the threat of left communists intervening at their meetings.
Anarchism doesn’t have any independent history. Its eternal principles - liberty, equality, fraternity - originally borrowed from the bourgeoisie, recognise no historical context, and no grounding in the maturation of an historic class. It originally expresses the instability of the radical petit-bourgeoisie that looks uncertainly to an imaginary future, while harking back to a nostalgic golden age.
The history of the twentieth century shows that anarchism is quite capable of reconciling itself with the left wing of capital, but organically incapable of recognising the theoretical acquisitions of the workers’ movement that are defended by the marxists of the communist left. The AF tries to claim the KAPD as part of the heritage of anarchism. This attempt at misrepresenting the contribution of part of the communist left marks out the parasitism of the AF in relation to the revolutionary political organisations of the working class.
1) The term Communist Left comes from the 1920s when this trend was part of a larger movement: the Communist International. Today the rest of this movement has long since passed into the camp of capital, but the historical name remains to identify our current.
2) Beyond Resistance, a Revolutionary Manifesto for the Millennium. "The emancipation of the working class is the task of the working class itself.", whilst acting to negate it in practice. "Despite all manner of confusions, tactical dead-ends and betrayals, the revolutionary anarchists have remained loyal to it...[the KAPD] rejected the idea of ‘leadership politics’, called for the dictatorship of the proletariat, not the party, and opposed the idea of ‘injecting’ consciousness into the working class from the outside...." (Organise! No. 52)