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ISR Issue 55, November–December 2007


Thanks for Socialism 2007

Dear ISR,
Enclosed is my subscription renewal. Thank you very much for Socialism 2007. It was a profound experience, and it left a lasting impression on me. The speakers were great and the discussions afterward inspiring. And I had the pleasure of meeting many of the staff. I have been reading their writings in the magazine and the Socialist Worker newspaper for many years, and I finally got the pleasure of meeting them in person.

A special thank-you to Joe Allen for his presentation on the Vietnam soldiers’ rebellion and to Sharon Smith for her presentation on the Flint sitdown strike. I enjoyed both of these talks immensely.

Best Regards,
Charlie Schott

ISR gets anarchism wrong

Dear ISR,
I do despair when I see academics and Marxists trying to discuss anarchism because they will always get it wrong. We had two classic examples in ISR issue 53.

Take James Green. He tries his best to turn the Haymarket martyrs into Marxists. He asserts that “Albert Parsons believed a strong socialist movement needed to follow the prescription put forward by Karl Marx: that is, such a movement needed a mass working-class following.” As if that were not also Bakunin’s position! He states that because the martyrs were “busy organizing their own unions” they “didn’t stop being Marxists.” Yet Marx had mocked Bakunin for arguing that (to quote Marx) the working class “must only organize themselves in trade unions” and “not occupy itself with politics.” So attempts to portray the ideas of the martyrs as Marxist requires ignoring Bakunin’s syndicalism and Marx’s consistent opposition to it.

The martyrs did come to see that both the state and capitalism had to be abolished at the same time and, as Green says, “the working class had to have its own institutions and its own militia, its own communal forms of decision-making.” That is, they came to the same conclusion as Bakunin had and is why they called themselves anarchists.

Space precludes any lengthy critique of Jason Yanowitz’s “On the Makhno myth.” Luckily, I do not have to as he repeats the usual Marxist attacks I debunk in detail in “An anarchist FAQ” (AFAQ). For some strange reason Yanowitz does not mention that. Suffice it to say, he presents the same lack of common sense, distortion, and lack of understanding of anarchism and the Makhnovists I have come to expect from Marxists and refuted before (see:

For example, it is hardly difficult to work out why the Whites breached the front if the Bolsheviks refused to arm the Makhnovists (troops without weapons or ammunition can hardly fight). That Yanowitz cannot see this shows that discovering the truth about the Makhnovists was the last thing on his mind. Then there is the claim that “parties were banned from organizing for election to regional bodies.” That hardly fits with the fact that they had Socialist Revolutionary, Menshevik, and communist delegates. What they objected to were “party lists” in soviet elections, which was how Martov was picked as a factory “delegate” over Lenin in early 1920. The Makhnovists argued that delegates had to be workers from the village or workplace that elected them. Rather than “obliterate existing state structures before moving on,” they organized soviet congresses in both liberated towns and countryside. As for them “regulat[ing] the press,” it seems ironic that an increase in press freedom under the Makhnovists compared to the Bolsheviks becomes a rod with which to beat them! Much the same applies to Yanowitz’s other examples of Makhnovist so-called authoritarianism.

Then there is Makhno’s advice to the railway workers. Well, that is the key thing—it was advice as he thought that working-class people had to solve their own problems by themselves, through their own organizations. In contrast, Trotsky imposed martial law on them along strict military and bureaucratic lines. One-man management or workers’ control? Which is more socialist? And which the railway workers preferred? Is workers’ control a socialist principle or just a “vague platitude”? And which worked better, given the railway network totally collapsed after Trotsky got his way with it? In reality, the lack of “local autonomy” led the Bolshevik “coordinated, centralized plan for war production and defense” into inefficiency, waste, and bureaucracy, i.e., it made matters much worse. As for the old myth “anarchists ignore the objective difficulties facing the revolution,” that is debunked in AFAQ. Strangely, Yanowitz could not bring himself to discuss that. It is as perplexing as his silence over the Bolsheviks disbanding any soviet elected with a non-Bolshevik majority since before the civil war started, how they had been advocating party dictatorship since the start of 1919, and how this influenced their relations with the Makhnovists. The identification of party dictatorship with “the dictatorship of the proletariat” helps explain the Makhnovist “hostility” which Yanowitz finds so puzzling.
Space also excludes any discussion of the political issues Yanowitz raises as much as the factual ones. As he repeats the standard Marxist attacks anarchists have been debunking for decades, I can simply recommend visiting AFAQ for the anarchist critique to Marxism, our vision of social revolution, and how to defend it.

Ultimately, the logic in Yanowitz’s attack fails him. True, the Makhnovists did not live up to all their anarchist ideals but they did a remarkable job in difficult circumstances. The Bolsheviks did far worse in relation to theirs! Yet, for Marxists, the former must be pilloried far more than the latter. I can only surmise that this is because the Makhnovists, for all their faults, expose the authoritarian core of Bolshevism and show that libertarian alternatives were possible after all.

Yours in disgust,
Iain McKay

Jason Yanowitz responds:
I thought it was clear I was addressing, not ignoring, the anarchist FAQ’s Makhno section by quoting from it and then refuting its main points throughout my article. I leave it to readers to decide whether I was successful. Iain’s response is wrong about the historical particulars and flawed because he ducks the central question: whether Makhno’s anarchist practice offered a genuine path to socialism. Addressing Iain’s main points in order:
1. Regarding Makhno’s abandoment of the front, AFAQ repeats decades-old assertions with no credible documentation. As quoted in my article, Colin Darch’s doctoral thesis notes that:

[A] comparison of [Arshinov and Voline’s] accounts with contemporary documents shows that both writers seriously misrepresent the sequence of events which led to Makhno’s calamitous abandonment of the Red Army front against Denikin in May and June 1919.... [They] have been followed in this misrepresentation by many secondary sources.

There is no evidence that Makhnovists had fewer weapons than other sections of the Red Army. Other ill-equipped units didn’t just abandon the front. If the Makhnovists didn’t have the material to fight, why did they form their own army?

2. A common practice adopted by the Russian working class was party-based elections. Instead of electing specific individuals, workers voted for party platforms. Whatever one may think of the merits of this approach, the Makhnovists used their armed authority to reject it and impose their own electoral system.

3. After occupying a town, the Makhnovists would, independent of the wishes of the townspeople, enforce their own vision of society. They distributed currency that read “feel free to forge this” and made it a capital crime to deny their money’s validity. The ensuing inflation devastated workers.

4. All sides, including self-proclaimed anarchists, felt it necessary to regulate (i.e., impose state authority on) the press.

5. Iain calls Makhno’s orders “advice.” But Makhno destroyed existing systems of exchange and stole from the railway workers. It’s a bit like the U.S. military “advising” Iraqis to run their own affairs while occupying the country and forcing through legislation. (Iain also seems to have discovered hitherto unknown scholarship on Trotsky. From E.H. Carr on, serious historians generally agree that Trotsky helped organize a remarkable reconstruction of a war-ravaged rail system.)

Iain spends more time discussing Bolshevik policy during the civil war than addressing my main points about Makhno. He explains that lack of space prevents him from grappling with the political issues I raise. But the AFAQ has no such constraint and (as of this writing) no substantive answer to my main point: Faced with the same situation as the Bolsheviks, the Makhnovists recreated state structures (giving them different names) with a perspective of “anarchism from above.” They instituted a draft, created a secret police, summarily executed people, etc. But they had no real plan for organizing society (e.g., modern production). Also, Makhno and his officers regularly got drunk and raped women.

Although they differ on definitions of “authority,” anarchists reject it on principle. Marxists argue that because it is impossible to organize society without authority we must demystify and democratize it. Through their actions, the Makhnovists implicitly acknowledged that they too could not dispense with authority. We can debate what forms authority should take (e.g., should the bourgeoisie get a vote during the transition to a socialist society?) but we can’t reasonably deny its necessity.

Those interested in human liberation should study and question Bolshevik policy in the months and years after the revolution. However, we should not skew that debate with illusions in a mythical anarchist alternative.

The Editors’ respond:

Iain McKay takes issue with Jim Green’s comment that the Haymarket martyrs were influenced by both Marx and anarchist thinkers. In this view, Green was merely stating a fact that is admitted by any serious historian of the period. Paul Avrich, in his masterful book, The Haymarket Tragedy, notes that, “Parsons drew his ideas from both American and European sources. He had read a good deal of advanced literature, and the strains of Jefferson and Paine as well as Bakunin and Marx resounded through his speeches.” And he writes in another passage: “[Parsons and Spies]…were indebted to Marx as much as to Proudhon, Bakunin, and Kropotkin. Spies, in a lecture to the Chicago liberal league, called Marx a ‘modern Oedipus,’ who revealed to the world ‘the lever that caused all social phenomena.’” And a book Parsons wrote from prison awaiting his execution ends with an extract from the Communist Manifesto. Green, too, points out in his book, Death in Haymarket, that while revolutionary militants in Chicago by the mid–1880s identified themselves as anarchists, August Spies

insisted he remained a follower of Marx, and not of Marx’s anarchist enemy, Bakunin. It was true that Spies and his Chicago comrades had given up hope of finding a peaceful path to socialism via elections and legislative changes, that they had broken decisively with their former comrades in the Socialistic Labor Party. Yet the Internationals continued to label their publications socialist in 1885, because they adhered to Marx’s belief that capitalism would be destroyed by its own contradictions and by the inevitable emergence of a class-conscious movement of workers prepared to abolish private property along with the forms of government that sanctioned and protected it.

Perhaps Mr. McKay’s anarchist sectarianism blinds him to the fact that it might be possible for militants in the 1880s to hold views influenced by both Marxist and anarchist thinkers.

That Bakunin, according to McKay, also understood the need for a “mass working-class following” adds nothing toward illuminating the truth or falsity of Green’s view. As far as Marx mocking Bakunin for arguing that the working class “must only organize themselves in trade unions”—McKay seems to miss the “only” in the sentence. Marx, as anyone familiar with his works knows, was one of the first socialists to support trade unions as a means of developing the fighting strength of the working class. However, he believed that trade unions were insufficient to achieve socialism, and that the working class also needed its own political party, a view that separated him from the anarchists. McKay can agree or disagree with this view, but it is wrong to imply that Marx opposed trade unions.

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