BOOK REVIEW: Michael Schmidt and Lucien van der Walt, Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism, volume 1 (2009)

The following review was basically written in early 2010, just after the appearance of Black Flame. I held back from publication while awaiting volume 2, which has yet to appear. Time passing, I decided to go ahead and put it out there. –MM.

The following is a comradely criticism of a quite good book from a Marxist who generally identifies as a “libertarian communist.”

Emma Goldman, it is generally known, said that most Marxists know as much about anarchism as the average Catholic knows about Voltaire. I would generally confess to that characterization, but have over the years attempted to educate myself, both through books and discussions with anarchists and ex-anarchists. The Schmidt/van der Walt book is without doubt the one of the best overviews of anarchism and syndicalism I have come across in a very long time.

Nonetheless…

The authors (both South African, one a journalist, the other an academic) are not trying to write comprehensively about Marxism, but they still seem to have anarchist blind spots where Marx and Marxism are concerned. One can hardly write seriously about anarchism historically without mentioning its “great rival.” And in a good polemic, it is important to present the opponents’ case at its strongest, which Schmidt and van der Walt seriously fail to do.

At times they seem to assimilate Marx and Engels to a “classical Marxism” (the German SPD) which was “statist.” The SPD was in fact statist (i.e., “Lassallean”), but Marx and Engels wrote scathing critiques of it for exactly that. They actually agreed with some anarchist critiques of it, though they kept it to themselves, for better or for worse (mainly in their correspondence: in one letter, one of them says that Bakunin was mainly criticizing Lassalle thinking he was a Marxist; they also wrote to Bebel and Liebknecht completely rejecting the concept of “social democracy” as something utterly foreign to their communist project). And then there is their Critique of the Gotha Program, which the “Marxist” German SPD tried to suppress.

Schmidt and van der Walt want to undo the myth that anarchism was only successful in underdeveloped capitalist economies, and then promptly list ten peripheral countries in which it was important.[1]

In fact, the “classical Marxist” (and statist) parties such as the German SPD were “substitute bourgeois revolutions” in industrializing countries whose “real” telos was full-blown capitalism and parliamentary democracy, in places such as Germany where the latter barely existed. The opposite pole, Spain and Latin America, confirms this quite nicely, where the socialist parties, unlike the SPD, were nothing but parliamentary organizations of lawyers and doctors and where, as Schmidt and van der Walt say, anarchism built the mass working-class organizations. The only country they mention that might be considered as seriously industrialized with an important anarchist presence was France, and even there France was, prior to World War II, more a bourgeois democracy than a really advanced industrial country (50 percent of the population was still rural in 1945, not to mention when anarchist influence peaked around World War I).

The greatest weakness of Black Flame is its almost total lack of a discussion of the Marxists (after Marx) that one might broadly call “libertarian communist,” namely Rosa Luxemburg, Anton Pannekoek, Herman Gorter, CLR James and some aspects of Guy Debord. It also lacks an in-depth consideration of the soviets and workers’ councils in the Russian and German revolutions, which in this reviewer’s perspective were a lot more interesting than anything the anarchists, with the important exception of Spain, ever came up with in a mass movement situation.

The world hardly needs another rehash of the Bakunin-Nechaev relationship, but at the very least a book such as Black Flame should mention how Bakunin was taken in by him.

Then there is Schmidt and van der Walt’s discussion of Spain, and the desire to undo the “myth” of Spanish exceptionalism. Whatever else they might say, it was the one country where the anarchists came close to making a social revolution, and (as the authors themselves say) totally failed the test when push came to shove. There were thirty years of CNT/FAI rejection of “politics” and the state, and suddenly, in 1936, they have ministerial portfolios in a bourgeois government. For a book such as Black Flame, this failure (analogous to the failure of self-styled Marxists in Germany and Russia) is a question which deserves a lot more discussion than the authors give it.

Schmidt and van der Walt cast a pretty wide net for their (in my view special pleading) concept of “expanded anarchism,” as with syndicalism (e.g., the IWW, Daniel DeLeon, etc.). It should be recalled that DeLeon’s Socialist Labor Party and the IWW briefly attempted a fusion (ca. 1905) which was in no way “anarchist.” Yes, the IWW was syndicalist, but IWW rank-and-filers organized study groups on Marx’s Capital, one of the few mass movements in the West where that happened, to my knowledge. Of course labels are misleading (it might well be said that some anarchist and libertarian critics of the Second International were more Marxist than the official “Marxists” of the time).

Along with special pleading for building a very large tent for anarchism and syndicalism, one footnote (chapter 3, note 108) really made this reviewer sit up and take notice. It is utterly garbled, and points to the authors’ sloppiness. Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution for Russia (Marx had one for Germany) was a blast precisely against the two-stage theory, and it is completely false to say that the bourgeois revolution fell to the “party.” It fell to the working class, as was confirmed by 1905 and again by 1917. Trotsky was an anti-Leninist when he developed the theory, and it was a total outlier in the European revolutionary milieu until 1917 when Lenin adopted it. Such sloppiness, even on a small point, makes one wonder just how much Schmidt and van der Walt know about the adversary.

To conclude. What undid the anarchist (and syndicalist) mass movements in many countries? It was the Russian Revolution and the rise of mass Communist Parties, as well as the post-1900 phase of capitalist accumulation based on a preponderance of relative surplus value, the latter a major historical oversight of our authors. But lurking in Schmidt and van der Walt’s portrayal is the old assumption of “mean old statists” winning out. The truth was that many people they call anarchists and syndicalists found something in early Third International communism that was lacking in anarchism and syndicalism. As they do say, many anarchists and syndicalists read Lenin’s State and Revolution and assumed that anarchists had taken power in Russia. They were quickly disabused, and were out of the Third International by 1921–22. Some of them, such as the very interesting character Alfred Rosmer in France, became Trotskyists. Others, such as William Z. Foster and James P. Cannon, both longtime IWW militants, became Stalinists and Trotskyists respectively. Cannon and Foster were unhappy with the IWW well before 1917 or even World War I. A book such as Black Flame, to be convincing to the unconverted, would do well to devote some attention to what such people (in the case of Rosmer and Cannon, among the best) saw in early communism what they found lacking in the syndicalist tradition. They were not dishonest people who wanted to build statism. Let’s face it, as Schmidt and van der Walt do not: a lot of anarchists and syndicalists “failed the test” of World War I just as badly as most Marxists did (and one might mention the American, Italian and Serbian socialist parties, all of whom opposed entry into WWI). There is no reason to think that if Spain had entered the war, a similar split would not have occurred in the CNT/FAI.

With these provisos in mind, the reader (as did this reader) will find a lot to think about in Black Flame, and Insurgent Notes looks forward to reviewing volume 2.

  1. [1] On this problematic, cf. Loren Goldner, Ubu Saved From Drowning: Class Struggle and Statist Containment in Portugal and Spain, 1974–1977. The second part, on Spain, attempts to situate Spanish anarchism internationally.

Comments

5 Comments so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. Karen,

    You seem to critique anarchism for only influencing mass movements in countries that aren’t totally industrialized or where there is no emphasis on “relative surplus value.” Even if this were empirically true, it sounds like a very mechanistic understanding of the relationship between the economy and politics. On top of that, it’s strange to criticize a tendency for not having a mass base and then complain about the overlooking of “libertarian Marxists.” These were truly voices in the wilderness that had no impact on historical movements. I appreciate Pannekoek and Gorter as much as anyone, but compared to the influence of the Leninists, who ended up controlling a vast empire, they were absolutely insignificant. In theory and practice, the overwhelming preponderance of Marxism is statist.

    Also, the Russian soviets of 1905 were created under anarchist influence and had participation by anarchists, especially when they re-appeared in 1917 (see Voline’s The Unknown Revolution), and the anarchists were defeated in Russia and Spain mainly due to a deliberate campaign of violence by the Marxists, although obviously they made errors and could be criticized on any number of specifics, such as when the CNT moderates joined the government. But you can’t discuss the anarchists in the Russian and Spanish revolutions without admitting that they were attacked and murdered by Marxists.

  2. John Desalin,

    It is obvious that Karen knows really nothing of the historical legacy of the Communist Left and prefers to once again, go on the defensive rather than take up Goldner’s critique, which was never actually addressed in her comment.

    Once again, we’re treated to the anarchist purity which apparently is immune from critique, even though all of its sources–Bakunin, Proudhon, Kropotkin–all were major class traitors in the end.

  3. dave fryett,

    The main thrust of Moriarty’s critique of Black Flame is that there isn’t enough material on Marx and Marxism, and this in a book abt anarcho-syndicalism!

    Moving along, “At times they seem to assimilate Marx and Engels to a “classical Marxism” (the German SPD) which was “statist.” The SPD was in fact statist (i.e., “Lassallean”), but Marx and Engels wrote scathing critiques of it for exactly that.

    Not so. Firstly, there were two main disagreements between Lassalle: the latter’s “iron law of wages,” and the his strategy of seeking an alliance with the Kaiser’s government in order to defeat the bourgeoisie and, over time, to establish socialism. Lassalle wanted to use the existing state, Marx insisted it had to be overthrown and a workers’ state take its place. Hence they held two opposing statist theories.

    But this is not what anarchos mean by statism–the use of the state to effect socialism. We are against any state, including Marx’ workers’ state, which for us is an oxymoron. Engels said the state was necessary for the proletariat to hold its class enemies in subjection, we argue that any state holds everybody in subjection. Accordingly for us it is a false dichotomy to contrast Marx’ and Lassalle’s statisms. In any case, it was not for statism generally which caused Marx and Engels to critique Lassalle, rather it was the latter’s particular ideas on the subject.

    Moreover, the SPD was not Lassallean. It was in fact a merger of Lassalle workers’ association [can’t remember name] and the Social Democratic Workers’ Party of Germany, which was solidly Marxist. The rest of Moriarty’s criticism on these lines are rendered meaningless by his fundamental mistakes of stating that the SPD was not Marxist; that it was statist because it was Lassallean; and that its revolting reformism was due to its Lassallean nature.

    “The greatest weakness of Black Flame is its almost total lack of a discussion of the Marxists (after Marx) that one might broadly call “libertarian communist,” namely Rosa Luxemburg, Anton Pannekoek, Herman Gorter, CLR James and some aspects of Guy Debord. It also lacks an in-depth consideration of the soviets and workers’ councils in the Russian and German revolutions…”

    Once again, Black Flame is a book about anarcho-syndicalism, not a history of the various tendencies within Marxism.

    “There were thirty years of CNT/FAI rejection of “politics” and the state, and suddenly, in 1936, they have ministerial portfolios in a bourgeois government.”

    Indeed, most anarchos I know would agree with you, but this is an odd line of criticism for a Marxist.

    “Yes, the IWW was syndicalist, but IWW rank-and-filers organized study groups on Marx’s Capital, one of the few mass movements in the West where that happened, to my knowledge.”

    If Moriarty means the American West, then there is a chance he is correct, but if he means the broader West, then he is not. Furthermore, many anarchos, myself included, have read Marx. He has made an enormous contribution to the socialist movement. But if they remained Wobblies then they obviously broke with Marxist theory to some degree.

    “Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution for Russia (Marx had one for Germany) was a blast precisely against the two-stage theory, and it is completely false to say that the bourgeois revolution fell to the “party.” It fell to the working class, as was confirmed by 1905 and again by 1917. Trotsky was an anti-Leninist when he developed the theory, and it was a total outlier in the European revolutionary milieu until 1917 when Lenin adopted it. Such sloppiness, even on a small point, makes one wonder just how much Schmidt and van der Walt know about the adversary.”

    First, the adversary is capital. Second, Moriarty is in no position to talk abt sloppiness. Third, did the events of 1905 disprove the stages theory? How so? It is not merely the case of the proletariat participating in revolutionary activity, they have done that throughout history, it is a matter of its claiming power and exercising it over the other classes. This certainly did not occur. Fourth, did Lenin accept the theory of permanent revolution. There are certainly some Leninists who disagree [the CPGB, M-L, leaps to mind].

    “The truth was that many people they call anarchists and syndicalists found something in early Third International communism that was lacking in anarchism and syndicalism. As they do say, many anarchists and syndicalists read Lenin’s State and Revolution and assumed that anarchists had taken power in Russia.”

    Now that is a remarkable statement. Indeed SAR was written at the end of Lenin’s hippy period, which began with his Theses, but neither of those flower-power tomes in any way reflected the totalitarian state Lenin instituted in Russia. And SAR contained passages which were explicitly statist and would not be acceptable to anarchos. Indeed there were some who went over to the Bolsheviks, they were called anarcho-Bolsheviks, but this was due largely to resignation rather than a belief that Lenin had become an anarchist. That is utterly preposterous.

    Moreover, anarchos don’t take power, that is the point of anarchism.

    Moriarty stated at the outset that his was going to be a comradely critique. It was hardly that.

  4. eric,

    Criticizing a book on Anarchism for not being about Marxism or Marxists is a bit odd, no?

  5. One of the biggest problems with Black Flame is how it narrowly defines anarchism while, at the same time, trying to include in the anarchist tradition self-identified Marxist activists and thinkers. This review did a good job of pointing that out; I think the book has been ridiculed for it from many corners– anarchists included, btw.

    I think that, for anarchists, its really tough to define their philosophy in the shadow of Marxism because, as I would argue, Marxism *can be* a much more coherent and rigorous philosophy; so anarchist works on anarchism tend to define anarchism primarily in opposition to Marxism– at least at the outset, as a sort of premise. This approach always gives a big incentive to build straw-men and caricature’s of Marx and Marxism

    Marxism also has a lot of critiques of anarchism, but it usually doesn’t tend to define itself, firstly, in relation to anarchism as anarchism typically does with Marxism. This situation really holds anarchist thought back almost as much as the lack of political-economic insight. The section on Marxist economics in Black Flame was quite shocking; both for advocating Marginal Utility as superior to Marx’s value-theory and for just getting Marx’s theory so damn wrong! But, with the state of Marxian economics as it is, maybe this should not be surprising at all!.

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