Anarchism: A ‘Revisionist’ Approach by Nicolas Walter (1960, Freedom Press)

0

Published in Freedom – The Anarchist Weekly on January 2nd 1960.

Transcribed from a slightly burned original, please report errors. See PDF at the bottom.

Editors Note: The word revisionist, which our contributor uses to designate his point of view, is liable to misinterpretation. He uses it by analogy with Bernstein’s revisions to Marxist theory. The French and Italian anarchists use it to imply those disastrous concessions to Communist methods of organisation which some groups have advocated in those countries. In America the word
apparently stands for the revised version of recent political history propagated by Mr. Harry Elmer Barnes. Our contribu­tor uses the word in neither of these senses.

The position of an anarchist in our present political and social environment is rather like that of a Marxist before 1917 or a Trotskyist after 1929. Briefly, the trouble is that things haven’t worked out as they were expected or hoped to do. First let’s take a look at Marxism which. as A. J. P. Taylor has put it, is like school —unpleasant and dangerous when neat, but useful when carefully blended with other things.

Marxism

Marx and Engels said the rich would get richer and the poor poorer until at last a violent upheaval established the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, which would lead to the Withering Away of the State and the appearance of the Classless Society in which ‘the government of men will be replaced by the administration of things’. Or, more concisely, ‘Capitalism — Revolution — Socialism — Communism’.

If it had not been for the Russian Revolution this theory would probably have been pretty well discredited by now. For in Western Europe—that is, in the countries Marx and Engels were talking about—the rich have in fact got poorer and the poor richer, Capitalism has gradually become Welfare Capitalism (or State Socialism. depending on your point of view), and everyone is now engaged in living happily ever after. Even if we take into account Russia. China and the People’s Democracies, we can say that where there have been Revolutions the Dictatorship has been of the Party rather than of the Proletariat and shows little sign of withering away.

Even Engels towards the end of his life began to feel that orthodox Marxist doctrine was not correct (see in particular the introduction he wrote in 1895 for a new editions of Marx’s Class Struggles in France) and Eduard Bernstein deliberately set out after Engels’ death the same year to revise Marxist theory in accordance with the facts—which were. as he noted laconically, that ‘peasants do not sink, middle class does not disappear, crises do not grow larger, misery and serfdom do not increase’. His theoretical Revisionism and the practical Reformism of most Social Democrats might well have triumphed over the revolutionary doctrines of orthodox Marxists if the Russian Bolsheviks – who were among the latter – had not been successful.

Since 1917, of course, Marxist theory has been inextricably bound up with Russian practice and has had little connection with Marx or Engels. Oddly enough, their ideas – like those Of Hobbes – work much better if applied not to classes but to nations, among whom the rich and strong do get richer and stronger. the poor and weak do get poorer and weaker, and violent upheavals are all too prevalent. Indeed Lenin (following Hobson) partly realised this – hence the Communist obsession with Imperialism – but, since Communist Russia is one of the top nations, it is hardly in their interest to foster a revolt of poor against rich nations; just as, since the Russian Communists are now a ruling class, it is not in their interest to foster a revolt of poor against rich people in Hungary, let alone Russia itself. It is impossible not to wish that Marx and Engels could come back to see their handiwork (though I doubt if they would acknowledge it).

Anarchism

What the hell has all this got to do with anarchism? Well, the point is that things haven’t worked out right for us either. Just as Communists (or syndicalists, or Trotskyists in the Socialist Labour League) haven’t the slightest chance of seizing power in any Western country, so there isn’t the slightest chance of anarchist ideas being successful in the foreseeable future – and we haven’t got the consolation of being able to apply them to nations.

I think it is vital for anarchists to realise this fact. Of course most of them do; I don’t know how many people in the world today seriously hope to see the abolition of government in their life time, but the number must be tiny. We need not only to realise this fact; we must accept it and go on to work out what we can do in the meantime.

In the days when anarchists and socialists weren’t completely separated, they had much the same policy of agitation and organisation; later, some anarchists hoped to go on with it, but socialists and communists proved more efficient (and intolerant). Since the First World War anarchists have been prominent only in Italy, Spain and the Ukraine, and unsuccessful everywhere. As a result of this tendency, anarchists have tried other policies. They became very impatient and advocated ‘propaganda by deed’ (terrorism); or they narrowed their field of activity to, say, single factories or rural communities; or they concentrated on education and journalism – the maintenance of la minorité consciente, or they became very patient and turned to personal relationships, the Goal of a free society being obscured by the Way of private freedom and growing about as remote as the Second Coming of Christ.

The first alternative has fallen into disuse (though I doubt if I am alone in thinking that the completion of Guy Fawkes’ work might be a good idea). The second remains but is in decline; syndicalism and coenobitism are pretty insignificant now, which is a pity. The third and fourth are in varying degrees the chief forms of anarchist activity that have survived. The. behaviour of many people shows them to be anarchists, even if they don’t realise or proclaim the fact. And of course there are groups like the London Anarchist Group and papers like Freedom (with the Freedom Press and Bookshop in the background to keep us up to the mark and to maintain la min­orité consciente.) But I wonder how much contact is made except with the converted, and how much is being got across even when there is contact. There isn’t much point having a voice crying in the wilderness if it isn’t heard; and there isn’t much point in hundreds of thousands of people hearing it if the only words they can make out are ‘Woe! Woe!’.

Functions of Rebellion

There seem to me to be two chief functions of any movement: the negative one of attacking what is wrong and the positive one of suggesting what would be better. I don’t mean that the former is any less valuable than the latter (this idea is an old trick of the powers that be), but excellent as it is it cannot stand alone. We must be clear about the meaning of our fundamental principle: opposition to the exercise of power by people over others. Freedom is a splendid word, but it is no more than that if it doesn’t mean something concrete. It’s no good just saying we want ‘a free society’ and hate ‘government’ and leaving it at that. We must particularise and explain what we mean in detail.

We must also go some of the way to meet those we disagree with. Anarchists may object that we can’t compromise. But all of us – except nihilists and hermits – are already compromising to some extent. We are involved in society, here and now, and must begin from that fact. A revolution is more likely to make things worse than better; if we continue as we are going we won’t change much in the world we live in, and it is this we are concerned with, not utopia.

Now don’t want to denigrate those people who are attempting to build a free society in factories or self-contained communities, or who are attempting to spread anarchist ideas in the press or at meetings or on street-corners, or who are engaged in a do-it-yourself face-to-face anarchism in their private lives. On the contrary I admire and respect all of them. But I do want to suggest that we take a long cool look at the theory and practice of anarchism today – just as Bernstein did at Marxism sixty years ago—and see how it should and could be revised.

Anarchists escape certain political diseases – such as conservatism, bureau­cracy, paternalism, intolerance, establishmentarianism and so on – but there are other ones they do suffer from that seem to me to be dangerous. I hope it will not be invidious if I name and describe them and suggest remedies for them. After all, we can’t be perfect.

Political Diseases

Sectarianism is the belief that one’s own sect has the truth in its pocket and that all the other ones are beyond hope. This is particularly acceptable to anar­chists, since pretty well all other politi­cal groups have some sort of liking for government; but that does not mean they are all equally misguided. It is essential that we should see the differences be­ tween other groups and reserve our chief opprobrium for the worst ones while giving some sort of approval or support to the better ones. To say ‘a plague on all your houses’ gives a nice warm feel­ing, but doesn’t get us anywhere. We haven’t got a corner in freedom, and it is absurd to pretend we have.

Connected with this is anti-parliamen­tarism. I don’t want to suggest that we should start putting up anarchist candi­dates or alternatively go out and vote Labour to a man, but 1 think we should consider Parliament (and trade unions, co-operatives, local councils and the whole apparatus of representative gov­ernment) without prejudice. Eighty years ago it was reasonable for William Morris to say that Parliament belonged to ‘the Enemy’; Marx had said the same thing before that, but as early as 1895 Engels realised that the German workers were doing better through the Social Democrats in parliament than they had ever done through strikes and riots. I don’t deny that parliamentary govern­ment has been responsible for an enor­mous amount of harm (not least in sanc­tifying the oppression of politicians), but it has also been responsible for a lot of good and is perhaps the best form of government available to us.

I know – we don’t want any form of government, and much of what goes on in Parliament is just a charade. But since government is going to be with us for quite some time, we might as well try to make the best of it even while we are working for its abolition. The point is really that if we have abandoned revolutionism (as I think most anarchists now have) then we have abandoned the methods favoured by people like Baku­nin, Morris, Kropotkin, and Malatesta and must find other ones. If we aren’t going to smash the state by force or simply turn our backs on it, then we must accept the fact of its existence and set about making it unnecessary by other means. And as matters stand the most effective way of making ourselves felt is by putting pressure on politicians (and trade unionists and civil servants and so on), whether constitutionally or other­ wise.

Here and Now?

This is not to dismiss direct action or propaganda as a waste of time. But just as parliamentary activity by itself is no use, so direct action by itself is unlikely to get very much done. And our job is not just to work for a remote goal or to live decently ourselves, but to make the world a better place here and now. We must be opportunists; I don’t mean we must fall into the trap of careerism (the history of the trade unions and the Labour Party ought to keep us out of that danger), but that we should take every opportunity to oppose what is bad and support what is good. Agreed, gov­ernment is bad, but national health or proper pensions are good even if in present circumstances only a government can put them into practice.

All I am really trying to say is that we shouldn’t dismiss politics out of hand or wash our hands of the whole dirty business. This is the attitude taken up by Communists when they label all other groups as ‘bourgeois’ and go on to call them ‘fascist’. Political parties and poli­ticians aren’t all the same. If you look carefully enough you can find radicals and libertarians in quite a lot of places, and we should support them. There is no need to betray our principles; we can always go right on saying exactly what we think. But there are people involved in conventional politics who need and deserve the support of all decent people —Fenner Brockway and Sydney Silver­ man, Jo Grimond and Jeremy Thorpe, Nigel Nicolson and Christopher Hollis (no longer, alas!).

There are also several movements and organisations that aren’t specifically anar­chist but can be described as anarchistic -the Campaign for Nuclear Disarma­ment, the Homosexual Law Reform Society, UNICEF, various refugee relief groups, pacifist organisations, the Danilo Dolci Committee, the International Vol­untary Service (which runs work-camps). Jimmy Porter complained that there aren’t any good brave causes left; good heavens! – there are hundreds, and we should be in them.

Smugness

The real danger is the smugness that appeals to all minority movements; there is a genuine pleasure in feeling that one’s ideas are so wonderful that they will never be put into practice. In a word, facilism – the postponement of all present problems because we can deal with them “when the time comes”. The time is now; the kingdom of heaven won’t fall into our laps, or even come upon us like a thief in the night. There is no in­ evitable social or historical determinism working in our favour. We have learnt to distrust revolutions (as Christians have learnt to distrust the apocalypse), and we will only get anywhere by a hell of a lot of hard, dull work.

If we don’t like the way things are now, we must say not only what is wrong with them but what can and should be done to make them better. If we object to state education, we must say what sort of schools we want (if we want schools at all); if we object to the employment of labour or the ownership of property, we must make fresh proposals for the or­ganisation of production and the rest; if we object to fines and prisons, we must say how offenders are to be dealt with (how about a probation period in which practical restitution is made?). Unless we speak up, positively as well as negatively, our case will go by default. We don’t want laissez-faire liberalism, or State Socialism, whether Butskellit or Tribunite; all right then—what’s wrong with them and, even more importantly, what can be done instead? The strength of the Fabians was that they faced to this sort of question. So must we.

Libertarianism and Radicalism

Above all, perhaps, we must not fall into the error of quietism. We must not give up in disgust, or cross to the other side of the road, or sit back secure in our possession of the truth, or just carry on in the old ways. The old ways haven’t worked, and our predecessors wouldn’t think much of us if we only repeated what they said fifty or a hundred years ago. Anarchists combine two things – radicalism and libertarianism. By libertarianism I mean the love of freedom, the rejection of power and authority, the insistence on minding ones own business. But this must be tempered by radicalism. A radical is someone who cares, and not only cares and protests but tries to do something about it.

About what? About all the dirty things that are going on in the world; what Voltaire called ‘I’infamé’. They won’t cure themselves, nor will they be cured by the abolition of government alone. A radical cannot sit quiet; cannot withdraw; cannot be an outsider; he is involved in mankind; he has a sense of outrage (see Paul Johnson’s article Conviction). We wouldn’t have got as far as we have if there hadn’t been plenty of libertarians and radicals before us. We mustn’t let them down; we must be both, and so work that mean should have a new birth of freedom (to quote Lincoln) and that government of anyone, by anyone, for anyone, should perish from the earth.

Nicolas Hardy Walter (22 November 1934 – 7 March 2000) was a British anarchist writer, speaker and activist. He was a member of the Committee of 100 and Spies for Peace, and wrote on topics of anarchism and humanism.

Publications:

Humanism: What’s in the Word (1997). London: Rationalist Press Association 

Blasphemy, Ancient and Modern (1990). London: Rationalist Press Association

About Anarchism (1969). London: Freedom Press.

Nonviolent Resistance: Men Against War (1963).

Share.

About Author

Nicolas Hardy Walter (22 November 1934 – 7 March 2000) was a British anarchist writer, speaker and activist.