It’s an essay by Christopher Day.
There are my notes. I should also put up my notes on the L&R member manual, might have been for the L&R NYC local, I don’t remember, we read this in a reading group I was in a while ago.
This is a Love and Rage document, details on the historical context below. I’d like to know a lot more about that context, where the document came from and how it was received, both formal and informal responses. I’d also love to hear more from people who actually know anarchist history (not me) about whether or not the failings Day lists are really failings that it’s fair to credit anarchism with.
To begin, I see a hair which, like an anarchist federation, I shall split. Specifically, why “failures of anarchism” and not “anarchists”? The former could suggest a break with the tradition and (or, because it) implies that no future version of the tradition is likely to be able to overcome past failures. In any case…
“This paper is (…) is an attempt to pose some serious and difficult questions that I believe anarchism has irresponsibly avoided. It is addressed to those in the anarchist movement who are serious about making an anti-authoritarian revolution.”
“the lessons that most anarchists seem to have drawn from the history of the anarchist movement (…) what is wrong with the anarchist movement (…) is nothing short of a complete abdication of one of the most basic responsibilities of revolutionaries: the responsibility to subject the defeats and failures of the movement to the most thoroughgoing critical scrutiny.”
“The anarchist movement is filled with people who are less interested in overthrowing the existing oppressive social order than with washing their hands of it. This concern with ensuring the passage of ones soul to anarchist heaven can range from the obsessive efforts to purify ones personal habits to the sectarian refusal to join any group or organization that shows any sign of being a product of this society.”
“as revolutionaries (…) we have certain responsibilities,” three in particular:
1. win freedom
2. learn from the past
3. have a plan
In more detail – win freedom: “It is neccesary to actually win freedom. Anti-capitalism doesn’t do the victims of capitalism any good if you don’t actually destroy capitalism. Anti-statism doesn’t do the victims of the state any good if you don’t actually smash the state. Anarchism has been very good at putting forth visions of a free society and that is for the good. But it is worthless if we don’t develop an actual strategy for realizing those visions. It is not enough to be right, we must also win.”
Yes, though I have mixed feelings about the emphasis on victims. Those victims, at least some of them, also have the power to put a stop to all this. And two other things. On the one hand, it’s possible to read this as implying short term freedoms. Higher wages, say, give greater to freedoms to the people who have them. Ending bad laws, likewise. I’m for that, hurray for freedoms. Bigger cages and longer chains are better than smaller cages and shorter chains. But what’s the connection between these short term and long term freedoms? Is there one posited here, or not? It’s not clear if so and if there is it’s not clear what the connection is. On the other hand, who does the ‘actual winning’? That’s a question about the role of revolutionaries in mass struggles and mass organizations. I used to think that revolutionaries just had to/ought to be the best of the mass, the best at the mass work. I still have that impulse but I’ve dropped the just, that’s not sufficient. (I’m not yet clear on what *is* sufficient.)
2. learn from the past
“We are not the first people to grapple with the problem of how to make revolution and create a free society. We have an obligation to subject every chapter in the fight for freedom to the most searing analysis we are capable of.”
I mostly agree, but why “searing”? Why not “searching”? Searing seeks to burn. This calls to my mind a sort of debate with the dead which aims to win and to convict. Sometimes that necessary. But surely we want to be retain the positives without overestimating them or neglecting our critical responsibilities. And also… people don’t live by the bread of criticism alone, we need the roses of positivity too. At least some of us do. We need both anger and hope, negative lessons from the past as well as positive ones and a clear effort to maintain and spread a sense of possibility.
Learning from the past “is the only way that we can hope to avoid repeating the errors of the past. The anarchist approach to history, unfortunately, consists largely of looking for the lessons we want to find. (…) This feel good approach to our own history (or to some imaginary prehistoric anarchist Eden) is generally coupled with a complete disinterest in the history of struggles that can’t be neatly contained within our own ideological borders (however any individual might define them). The result is a sort of hagiology: a timeless procession of libertarian martyrs to be invoked in political debates. How many anarchists once they have read an anti-authoritarian account of some historical episode actually go and read accounts from other perspectives?”
I don’t know enough about actually existing anarchists (I know plenty but read more marxists and don’t follow anarchist press as often as I’d like to) but this certainly speaks to my irritation with how some of the Italian extra-parliamentary left in the 60s and 70s and its attendant theory has been taken up in circles I’m aware of (and that left has largely been taken up as a footnote to and veneer upon the theory — Paris in May 1968 and the Situationist International are another example of the same dynamics, in my opinion). Clearly this approach to history is a bad one.
3. Have a plan
“revolutionaries have a responsibility to have a plausible plan for making revolution.”
I think I agree but I am not sure. I would very much like to hear what Don Hamerquist and John Steele, among others, think of this point. Hamerquist in his recent writings has called for a sensibility he draws from the philosopher Alain Badiou, from Lenin, and his own thoughts, that he calls “porosity to the event.” I take this to be about responsivity and flexibility as objective conditions change and as masses start to move. I’m not sure what I think of all this but it’s clearly an important set of questions and problems, and I think it raises questions for the issue of “a plausible plan for making revolution”, at the very least about what sort of plan we need, and about the role of plans in revolution. Along similar lines, Steele, one of the key animators of the Khukuri Theory web site and involved in the Kasama web site, has argued that in our moment we need a theoretical or philosophical reconceptualizing. This is not incompatible with a plan per se, perhaps it’s a preliminary for one, or is something that happens in parallel.
“If we don’t have a plausible plan for making revolution we can be sure that there will be somebody else there who will. There is no guarantee that revolutionary-minded people will be spontaneously drawn to anti-authoritarian politics.”
I think most of this is true and here too Hamerquist’s analysis on the Three Way Fight blog and elsewhere is relevant. If we’re not ready, others will be, though I’m not sure I am as compelled by Day or Hamerquist by the threat of other *revolutionaries* being ready (this has come up a bit in discussion on Gathering Forces). Still the issue is very important and in this case, with regard to the issue of a plan, it’s worth talking about what sort of plan. Clearly revolutionaries need to be ready, but I’m not sure about the role of a plan, or again about what sorts of plans, in that readiness. (I’m open to having my mind changed on any of this, particularly from having my mind changed from mostly questions and vague misgivings to having clearer ideas and positions.)
This sounds to me like in keeping with Hamerquist: “We can reasonably anticipate that the future will bring upsurges in popular opposition to the existing system. Without being any more specific about where those upsurges might occur it seems clear that it is from the ranks of such upsurges that the numbers of the revolutionary movement will be increased, eventually leading to a revolutionary situation (which is distinguished from the normal crises of the current order only by the existence of a revolutionary movement ready to push things further).”
On this: “People who are fed up with the existing system and who are willing to commit themselves to its overthrow will look around for likeminded people who have an idea of what to do.”
Yes, I think so. I’m not sure though, because I think there are two claims in all this, between so to speak the *correct* plan and any old plan because some people need some plan in some crucial times. We need “an idea of what to do” on the one hand because we need to know what to do, and on the other hand because if we don’t then people won’t be attracted to us when the time comes. On the latter, it’s not entirely clear that the plan has to be all that right, it just have to be enough to attract people. (I’m not speaking for or against that notion, just raising it as something to think about.)
“The plan (…)should be subject to constant revision in light of experience and debate” and “needs to be able to answer questions that have been posed concretely in the past.”
“There is a widespread tendency in the anarchist movement (and on the left in general) to say that the question of how we are going to actually make a revolution is too distant and therefore too abstract to deal with now. Instead it is asserted that we should focus on practical projects or immediate struggles.”
This speaks to me. I’ve said this before, I used to say “we organize to gain more organizers” as if that was sufficient. The goal or vision is not simply “more organizers.” I think this is basically right in one sense — we need more organizers; to quote Day, “there are not enough revolutionaries to make a revolution at this moment”, not enough quantitatively or qualitatively, we should try to make both more and better. But obviously at some point the move has to shift from “organize to gain more organizers” to organizing for other purposes. (When and how to shift, of if the implication here — for now organize to gain more organizers and later organize differently — makes sense, that’s all another matter for other discussions.)
“the practical projects or immediate struggles we decide to focus on are precisely what will determine if we ever move any closer to making revolution. If we abdicate our responsibility to try to figure out what it will take to actually make revolution and to direct our current work accordingly we will be caught up in an endless succession of “practical projects and immediate struggles” and when confronted with a potentially revolutionary situation we will be pushed to the side by more politically prepared forces (who undoubtedly we will accuse of “betraying” the revolution if they don’t shoot all of us). We will be carried by the tide of history instead of attempting to steer our own course. And by allowing this to happen again it will be we who have really betrayed the revolution.”
Yes. Though this could be read as primarily about where to struggle and not now. I doubt that’s the intent, but I think it’s an issue worth raising.
“The net result of the refusal to deal with what it will actually take to make a revolution is that anarchism has become a sort of directionless but militant reformism. We are either building various “counter-institutions” that resemble nothing so much as grungier versions of the social services administered by different churches; or we are throwing ourself into some largely reactive social struggle in which our actions are frequently bold and courageous, but from which we never build any sort of ongoing social movement (let alone a revolutionary organization).”
That sounds basically true to me. I think Joel Olson’s piece (the exact title escapes me, something like “beyond infoshops and insurrections,” I should find my notes) is good on this as well.
“anarchism failed to win lasting freedom for anybody on earth”
Yes. But what revolutionary tradition has done otherwise, and for how long?
“many anarchists today seem only nominally committed to that basic project. Many more seem interested primarily in carving out for themselves, their friends, and their favorite bands a zone of personal freedom, “autonomous” of moral responsibility for the larger condition of humanity (but, incidentally, not of the electrical grid or the production of electronic components).”
Yes. This is part of the attraction of Black Flame’s effort to write many anarchists out of anarchism. I don’t find that intellectually compelling — I just don’t find “those people may think they’re anarchist but they’re not” to be particularly convincing. But I find the other move that this writing-out accomplishes to be very compelling, which is to say, in writing many people out of the anarchist tradition Black Flame is trying to draw lines and form a different “we” from “we, the anarchists” as conceived of by many people who think of themselves as anarchists. I’m all for that.
“Anarchism has quite simply refused to learn from its historic failures, preferring to rewrite them as successes.”
I’m not sure about this, I don’t know enough to say either way.
“the anarchist movement offers people who want to make revolution very little in the way of a coherent plan of action. Projects, schemes, and reasons to riot abound — but their place in a larger coherent strategy for actually overthrowing the existing order is anybody’s guess.”
“One of the consequences of Marxism’s “successes” has been that there has been greater opportunity to see its limitations.”
Interesting. I for one am strongly drawn to marxisms that criticize marxist “successes.”
“we need to understand ourselves as one part of a much broader revolutionary project of human liberation that everywhere around the world has either been defeated or is in retreat.”
“The revolutionary movement is not defined by the embrace of a particular ideology, but rather by the objective movement of oppressed people resisting their oppression and fighting for a world free from oppression. Over time this movement has taken many twists and turns and has, at least ideologically, branched off in a number of directions. It has found expression through a variety of ideological forms (anarchism, marxism, feminism, revolutionary nationalism, liberation theology).”
That parenthetical list of ideologies strikes me as strongly overlapping, not as clearly distinct, either in theory or in practice — many adherent of one have also been of another.
(Aside: “At every moment in its history the revolutionary movement has contained the contradictions of the authoritarian society from which it is constantly being reborn. So its every theoretical and organizational expression has always contained both revolutionary and counter-revolutionary, both liberatory and oppressive, both libertarian and authoritarian aspects and potentialities.” This sounds relatively close to Althusser in the Philosophy of the Encounter.)
“As anarchists we have tended to divide the left neatly into libertarian and authoritarian camps.”
Yes. The Fire By Night statement, linked to below, talks about a common impulse among some anarchists toward moralism, this division into camps (and the point Day makes about Bakunin being used for an “I told you so”) is an example of that.
It’s also quite nice to see a “we” here now.
“there has been a general tendency to make this division in a mechanical way. There is a tendency, for example, to view the split in the 1st International between Marx and Bakunin as setting the terms by which we analyze the whole intervening historical experience. As the inheritors of Bakunin’s anarchism we uphold the good works of all anarchists since him and ritualistically denounce the actions of all Marxists in the same period. The consequence of this is to blind ourselves to the counter-revolutionary elements in anarchist theory and practice and the legitimate accomplishments of many marxists (or other “authoritarian” currents).”
I can’t speak to the first international or to counter-revolutionary aspects of anarchism beyond the stupid ‘temporary autonomous zone’ kind of stuff that
Day discusses above, but the rest here seems right on to me.
“In opposition to this mechanical or scholastic approach I believe we should look at the whole experience of the revolutionary movement dialectically. We need to identify the aspects of anarchism that effectively crippled it as a credible revolutionary alternative to marxism. We need to examine when and how liberatory currents asserted themselves within marxism. We need to look at the various questions that distinguish various currents within the revolutionary movement. We need to look at these questions not simply in the abstract but in the real historical conditions in which they arose and developed. We need to look not just at the few times anarchists have played a significant role in a revolutionary situation but at all the revolutions of the past century.”
I don’t find “look at X dialectically” an illuminating type of phrase but otherwise, yes, absolutely. Look historically and with a fine-grained approach.
“It is practically anarchist dogma that every revolutionary situation has the potential to become an authentic libertarian revolution. On the basis of this position the failure of any situation to develop in such a direction is the consequence of the authoritarianism of the various ostensibly revolutionary organizations and parties.”
The latter doesn’t follow from the former. The former could be true – as in, this “practically anarchist dogma” could be true without entailing the latter. The phrase “authentically libertarian revolution” should be unpacked, but there are always more and less libertarian options available.
“The suggestion that the “objective conditions” faced by various revolutionary movements account for the turns they took is routinely ridiculed by anarchists as simply making excuses for the crimes of those authoritarian forces. And certainly there is no shortage of cases in which the suppression of the workers movement, political executions, the imprisonment of dedicated revolutionaries, and so on have been dismissed with casual reference to the “objective conditions.” But this does not mean that objective conditions haven’t imposed insurmountable obstacles for the revolutionary movement.”
Yes, though I think the “no shortage of cases” could be treated with more gravity here; they don’t feel particularly like they’re taken seriously here, on my reading.
I like the stuff about revolutionary situations happening when people are unprepared.
“it has simply not been possible to overthrow capitalism in most (if not all) of the imperialized countries. Revolutions in those countries have been of neccesity capitalist (and ususally state capitalist) revolutions that have swept away certain (horribly oppressive) pre-capitalist features of those societies and renegotiated the terms of capitalist exploitation.”
Nope. Necessarily capitalist, because of pre-capitalist backwardness? Please.
“the achievment of a stateless classless society within the territorial limits of a single country (or otherwise defined territory) in a world of nation-states is impossible. Revolutions so confined to a national territory become national revolutions or are crushed. National revolutions can accomplish certain things but not others. The replacement of the old state apparatus with a new ostensibly revolutionary state is necessary to secure many of those accomplishments but we should have no illusions about such a state “withering away” on its own accord. It too will have to be smashed. One of the main things that national revolutions give people is experience in the process of making revolution and a deeper understanding of the complex dynamics of revolutions.”
This is worth taking very seriously, but this does not entail the necessity of capitalist revolution.
“a regular army can only be defeated by another army. Militias or other irregular forms of military organization alone, while capable of heroic resistance, will ultimately collapse before a regular army. The collapse of a national army (almost always precipitated by a military defeat) can create an opening for a revolutionary movement. But if that movement does not create its own army the old order will reconstitute its army or a foreign power will do it for them.”
I don’t know enough about Iraq to really say, but my impression from very little study is that this is not holding true in Iraq.
“only one class has the potential to overthrow capitalism — the international working class (…) the working class organized as a revolutionary class is the only single force without which the overthrow of capitalism is absolutely impossible.”
“It must act in conjunction with other classes and social movements to win and the participation of those forces is crucial to carrying out the most thoroughgoing social change”
What? What other classes and movements? And if we’re going to talk about historical failures to be criticized then surely cross-class alliances is an apt target.
** Note to self — I’ve read just under half of it, stopped just before the section titled “Unequal Development.” I’ll pick it up here later.
Excerpts below from two different pieces talking about this essay.
“The debates that led to the dissolution of Love and Rage have echoes going back to the founding of the organization. But the last chapter in the conflict began essentially with the publication of an essay called “The Historical Failure of Anarchism.” The paper argued that the anarchist movement had failed to adequately confront its historical defeats, particularly in the Spanish Revolution, and so anarchism had become theoretically impoverished. It called on anarchists to re-examine certain assumptions and tenets, and to look at the experiences of non-anarchist revolutions in the 20th century for both positive and negative lessons. Most provocatively, it argued that the exclusive reliance on militias by anarchists in Spain had been a military disaster, and upheld the position of the Friends of Durrutti who had called for the formation of a revolutionary army. While this essay was not intended as an attempt to outline a strategic orientation for Love and Rage, it quickly became the object of heated polemics that overshadowed the efforts to talk about a strategy for the organization. Two former members of the RSL wrote attacks on the essay that suggested that it was the first step down the slippery slope towards Stalinism. Many other members took issue with the essay as well. At this point, several members of the New York local sought to redirect the debate towards questions of organizing method, drawing variously on Paolo Friere’s theories of pedagogy, Mao Ze Dong’s theory of “Mass Line,” and the Zapatistas’ notion of “Mandar Obedeciendo” (leading by obeying). These members saw reflection on our own organizing as a necessary component of developing an effective revolutionary strategy. The ex-RSL members and several others attacked this organizing approach promoted by the New York members as reformist, and as a tailing after the lowest common denominator politics of the masses. Several ex-RSLers argued instead for the development of an “Anarchist Transitional Program” (presumably similar to the Transitional Program of the Trotskyists). This would be a program of demands, such as calling for a general strike, that anarchists should fight for in the course of reform struggles and would supposedly lead those struggles towards revolutionary conclusions. The debate over organizing method exposed how little anarchist theory has to say on the question. The main theoretical concepts on both sides of this debate were taken from outside anarchism, though some tried to dress them up with examples from anarchist history or calls to “read Malatesta.”
“as an addendum to his ‘Historical Failure of Anarchism’, Day also called for the creation of a regular ‘revolutionary army’ implicitly modeled on the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. The PLA, of course, had nothing to do with carrying out a directly democratic revolution in China, but instead was the military instrument establishing state capitalism. (…) Writing in ‘Stakes is High’ and ‘The Historical Failure of Anarchism’, Day went to great lengths to ‘prove’ that the Chinese Revolution of 1949 ‘of necessity’ had to be state capitalist.