A Review of the AWL’s collection on Anarchism

In the last article, I exorcised the worst of my demons with regards to Trotskyism, to show where I am coming from as well as making me feel more peaceful to write this review. The past is past.

Why this collection? I would say, this book itself is an example of why federalism is a good idea. Or wikipedia-style crowdsourcing if you want a ‘non-anarchist’ concept that would have the same (better) result. This collection makes little sense: there is no practical editing, but enormous editorial choices. Some texts are answers to others, but do not follow each other, which is just weird. There is no theme, so the issues treated (activism, trade unions, etc.) are disseminated throughout the book. Some texts selected are obscure, both in influence and in the sense that they obscure the issue, when other well-known, influential, well-articulated presentations are missing (give us Their Morals And Ours!)

Editing is not always evil manipulation, sometimes it is a force for good: for example, to avoid things like this: you read the first text and you immediately think: “direct action cannot be discussed as an absolute, far-right groups organise direct actions against mosque building-sites”. Then, Several texts later, someone remarks “Politics matters—direct action by whom, organised how and for what goals?” Yay. The form of a juxtaposition of texts, not even ordered by theme or anything, is very poor. Even the internet at least has links you can follow to see how ideas relate to each other. A non-fiction book should have more coherence, not less, than internet browsing.

I found in this book several of my pet peeves: my contempt for the one-day strike. I wrote in a previous review

“Once again, I must say that UK anarchists really should point out the fundamental difference between a one-day strike decreed by union bureaucrats and a strike until demands are met (or an unlimited strike!) instead of using a rhetoric of ‘it’s better than nothing’. One-day strikes only lead to ‘Vote Labour and you won’t have those days of disruption anymore’ (and to well-meaning people losing one day off their wages, while others just ignore it, which is justifiable, but can lead to complete disillusion and people scabbing when it actually matters, that is, when a strike needs to hold). How can anarchists make it so that instead of ending in a speech by Ed Milliband, a demo ends with a general assembly deciding on whether or not to go on strike again the next day? Not by being bussed out to London for the day would be a good start. Rant over.”

Their position on it is self-contradicting though, as the passage reads:

“Strikes are rarely strikes successful in Britain today because the unions—including the supposedly more militant ones led by non-revolutionary leftists and Stalinists—have developed a culture in which strikes are not really strikes, but incidental exercises in chest-beating; abstract expressions of protest and letting-off steam […] Picket lines don’t function as picket lines; in most places strike-breakers are allowed to walk past with little but a disapproving tut or two from their workmates”

Well, one is the logical (and fortunate!) consequence of the other: when you’re on strike because a bureaucrat tells you you must be, you rarely feel like knee-capping the so-called “scab”. Of course, the danger as I said before is that people come to not distinguish anymore between combative strikes initiated by their co-workers and union-led strikes for the union’s sake. From my experience, the atmosphere on a picket-line for a combative struggles, say, teachers on strike every day until some parents and their children from school get their papers, and the resentment towards scabs then, named and shamed even years after the dispute has been resolved, shows that not many people aside from anarchist and trotskyist theorists have trouble making that kind of distinction, especially when you compare it to the majority of teachers not bothering to go on strike, at the same school, for the umptieth isolated ‘day of action’.

Another one of my pet peeves is of course ‘activism’, as most anarchists. The idea that a lot of people (but not the AWL) oppose to us: “you are just staying there with your nice theories and debates, but we, at least, are doing something”. I wrote, in the same previous review, about this:

“it is a place that existed for 2 weeks, and failed to be the place where people could theorise together a sensible approach to this movement. Instead, they sat in circles listening to people give talks, playing guitar and painted banners. Being lectured, listening to music and painting do not sadly suffice to develop theory. I strongly suspect that a lot of people involved in this Café were either lefties (who think theory is the realm of the party, let’s not worry footsoldiers with it, we have dedicated thinkers paid to tell us what to do) or activists (who think theory is everyone’s private business, lets’ not start an argument but a show of hands who is up to do this or that, without discussing the theory behind it).”

On trade unions, well, at least they did not use my translation of Fonténis’ Participation In Trade Unions to make their point, but their arguments are very similar. Maybe they should have got in touch with Collective Action, who published at the same time the pamphlet of a debate in which an “anarchist” defends participation in trade unions against ex-Trotskyists.

And that is the problem with this collection: it is obviously made because they felt they needed to. Anarchism is a ‘thing’ that can no longer be ignored apparently, and the AWL needs to have a ‘position paper’ on it, or whatever name they have for this kind of thing. You cannot have members individually googling, blogging and finding stuff for themselves (which would actually lead them to have a better view of relations and differences between anarchists and trotskyists than reading this collection). This is collective work not for efficiency,’s work but because it has to be the work of the organisation. A debate yes, but on their ground, with their rules. But hey, as they self-congratulate in the book: they are doing better than the SWP’s anarchist talks (I had forgotten about that! I went to their talk, it was magical indeed. It just made me realise, that we had an ‘argument’ with one of their (female) members who seemed on the verge of a breakdown, but now that I think of how women can be treated in that organisation, I do not find it funny anymore. I am a terrible person).

So instead of taking texts in which different ideas are the most clearly expressed, and who cares if an Anarchist or a Troskyist, saying which ones they agree or disagree with, and offering anarchists a chance of also reflecting on which ones they agree on, we have this texts… And, don’t get me wrong, some of the “anarchist” ones are no better than the ones by AWL members.

There is one text that jumps out as truly above the rest: it is Yves Coleman‘s. It very literally made me laugh out loud, which is rare for a text about political ideologies. It has its faults, but it makes an important point: if you do a Trotskyist analysis of anything, you end up with Trotskyism. To truly debate, you need to put things into question, and the AWL at no point makes any move towards this. And rightly so, to my knowledge, this type of questioning of your beliefs, your most profound beliefs especially, cannot be done as an organisation.

Organisations have many uses, but that is not one of them. I know how traumatic it is, lately I’ve been working on the link between class struggle and revolution. Do you know how it feels to wake up one day and not know whether class-struggle is not just one of these mechanisms of capitalism, necessary for our survival, but not intrinsicly carrying any revolutionary potential? Well, when you have believed in class-struggle as the obvious way to emancipation all your life, it is not nice. I will almost certainly reach a conclusion that will be extremely close to the one I had originally, at least in its practical consequences, but that is not the point, the point is that you have to truly question things. Theory, and debate probably even more so, has a part of suffering attached to it, and that is why authoritarian groups with their certitudes and activists with their general ‘any theory goes, just pick and mix’ attitude have so much success, even among Anarchists and Trotskyists.

What is interesting, is that although the other texts opposed major positions of the AWL, this text is the one to which their response is angry. Not that other texts were just largely silly strawmen, but this one I think is the only one who told them something they did not want to hear: if you don’t put your ideology aside for a minute, you cannot inspect it or change it or debate it, which is true for all political schools.

And if this book’s contents is poor, it is not the fault of the individual texts in it (although some of them are pretty bad, and how the hell did Organise! publish something about unions being “castrated” is beyond me, I could not let that pass) but because the whole setting of this debate is askew; probably not intentionally, I believe in the honesty of the AWL’s comrades when they think they want a debate, but they are not doing the preliminary work of creating a space in which a real debate can take place, and their reaction to Coleman’s article seems to indicate they are not ready to do this. Also, the AWL sounds a lot as if they are doing Platformism and no-one told them (or Specifism, I still have little idea from reading this book how their organisation is structured).

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