Would the real anarchists / Trotskyists… (Et cetera)

From the Department of Where Are They Now?

‘K so, a few days ago the newly-appointed boss of Australia’s Worst Union (AWU) was profiled in the local rag. And according to it, Paul Howes is a former Trotskyist. Actually, the story is a gold mine for leftist trainspotters…

Nuclear no nightmare, says unionism’s new face
The Age
January 30, 2008

At 26, former Trotskyist Paul Howes is now a leading figure in Australia’s labour movement, writes Tony Wright.

PAUL Howes was barely into his teens when France’s insistence on testing nuclear devices in the Pacific propelled him into the world of far-left demonstrators. He joined Resistance and the Democratic Socialist Party, which meant, effectively, that he was a Trotskyist.

A bit over a decade later, he represents 130,000 mainly blue-collar Australian workers, and he has journeyed a long way from the left and from any ideological objection to the nuclear industry.

These days he insists Australia has to have cheap energy to ensure it maintains a manufacturing industry and advocates a bipartisan debate on whether Australia should embrace nuclear power. “No one with any credibility disputes climate change,” he says.

“If we are going to be a country that makes things — and we have to be — then we need power, we need power that doesn’t produce excessive greenhouse gases, and so we have to look at nuclear power.

“I don’t know if nuclear is the answer, but we have to talk about it sensibly.”

Mr Howes, at age 26, is the new national secretary of the Australian Workers Union.

In a few short months, he has replaced Bill Shorten as the chief of the nation’s biggest and most powerful blue-collar union, moved the union’s headquarters from Melbourne to Sydney and has hardly paused for breath in his passion to persuade anyone who will listen that Australia has to continue to manufacture goods from the minerals it hauls out of the earth.

A strong and innovative manufacturing sector, he says, is the key to Australia’s continuing prosperity.

Many in the industrial movement were sceptical about the idea of a baby-faced member of generation Y taking over the nation’s oldest union, established in Ballarat in 1886.

But Mr Howes had already packed a lot into his young life. He left an unhappy home in the Blue Mountains for no fixed address in Sydney three months before he turned 15, bought a couple of copies of Green Left Weekly and began mixing with the radical fringes of the left while working as an insurance clerk.

At 16, he found himself at the World Festival for Youth and Students in Cuba, where he fell out of love with the communist ideal.

“I decided that if I wanted to change the world, I didn’t want it to be like Cuba,” he says. He suddenly discovered he wasn’t a socialist after all, but a believer in a capitalist democratic system with a bent towards social justice.

Soon he was a researcher at the NSW Labor Council, then transferred to the AWU as an organiser. It wasn’t long before Bill Shorten recognised the young man’s talents, and over the past couple of years he has been on the fast track.

Yet Mr Howes never managed to finish high school.

“My single greatest regret of my life is I never finished my education,” he says. “I still plan to do so. It’s so important that we foster a culture that recognises that education is important to every single individual and to the nation’s wellbeing.”

Education or not, he was recently invited to the University of California, San Diego, and Stanford University to take part in the Australia[n]-America Leadership Dialogue, where he took time out to support striking Hollywood writers.

Mr Howes will speak at the National Press Club in Canberra today.

In the mid-90s, Paul was indeed busy organising fellow high school students at Blaxland High, and talking up Resistance’s efforts to recruit them, first via the ‘Students Against the Cuts’, then the ‘United Secondary Students Union’ (1996–1997). At the time, Paul and a comrade wrote an enthusiastic assessment of the 14th World Festival of Youth and Students in Havana, concluding that “The closing session was an electric event, with chants and songs culminating in a spontaneous march by some delegates around the track of the Pan-American Stadium. It was a fitting finale to an event that proved that international solidarity is alive and well, and that reaffirmed that imperialism and neo-liberalism require coordinated action by anti-imperialist movements around the world.” In other words, not only has Paul come full circle on the issue of nuclear power, he’s also had a profound change of ‘heart’ on the role of the US in world affairs. The AALD, it will be remembered, sponsored the tour last year of Dick Cheney.

At this time, Paul was also the subject of an interview concerning the DSP’s 1996 Federal election campaign:

Politicians and parliament: young people want change (GLW, #220, February 21, 1996)

Resistance is campaigning for the Democratic Socialists in the federal elections. NATASHA SIMONS interviewed three Resistance members about the campaign. Paul Howes is a 14-year-old student at Blaxland High in Sydney’s West. He joined Resistance last July through the campaign against nuclear testing.

Why did you join Resistance?

I joined because I wanted to make a difference in society, not just sit around and complain about social injustice, but actually get out there and campaign. I was also involved in the campaign against nuclear testing. I thought capitalism really stuffed up people’s minds and I wanted to tell other kids about that and about socialism. When I joined, I was still a member of the Labor Party, but I was really disillusioned with them.

Why did you leave the Labor Party?

I joined the ALP because I thought I could change Labor and make it a real workers’ party. But after a while I realised that Labor had gone so far right it was too late to change it. Even the left faction of Labor thought I was too radical. Another reason I left was the hierarchy and the lack of grassroots input.

Ho ho ho.

Since then, Howes has of course rejoined the ALP, and at some point in the probably not-too-distant future, is likely to rejoin his former boss Bill Shorten in Federal Parliament (should he so choose). The Democratic Socialists, on the other hand, has now become the Socialist Alliance. One thing that hasn’t changed is the unpopularity of its candidates.

In his capacity as a teenage Trotskyist, Howes also had occasion to interact with the “Left” on University campuses. Thus:

SYDNEY — The National Union of Students NSW state conference at the University of Sydney on November 23 heard reports from the outgoing elected office bearers, elect[ed] new officers for 1997 and amended the NUS State Policy and Regulations document… Paul Howes from USSU addressed the conference and was heckled and jeered by Unity. The motion [“for financial and joint political support from NUS for USSU” — that is, $ for Resistance/DSP] was vehemently opposed by Van Badham, a member of NAL from Wollongong, who dismissed USSU because it didn’t have a constitution. Marcus Greville from Resistance commented, “The argument used against the motion to support USSU was grasping at straws. How can you be seriously interested in fighting for the rights of students against the Liberal government’s attacks, and in the same breath deny high school students the support they need to campaign?”

Whatever. Of the other figures mentioned, Marcus G later achieved a small degree of notoriety for blaming the Arterial Bloc and Mutiny for the carnage which erupted on the streets of Melbourne as part of the bloody, ultra-violent struggles surrounding the G20 meeting in November 2006 (JOSIE TAYLOR: Who were the people responsible for that violence? // MARCUS GREVILLE: The names of the groups are Arterial Bloc and a group called Mutiny. Above and beyond that, we don’t have any information, because they organised externally to us”.) Van Badham, on the other hand, now scribbles for the theatre. Further, according to Wikipedia anyways, “By 1998, Badham was an avowed anarchist and President of the New South Wales branch of the National Union of Students, caucusing with the radical group known as the Non Aligned Left”.

Two things. One, I can remember reading about the, ah, anarchist coup in NSW student politics at the time. And thinking “Who the fcuk?”, “What the fcuk?”, and “The fucking Irish know more about anarchist politics in Australia than I do?”

‘Anarchist Students Win in Australian NUS Election’, Workers’ Solidarity Movement, No.47, Spring 1996:

Reports from Australia indicate that an anarchist-influenced student initiative, called the Non-Aligned Left (NAL), has been elected to almost all the regional National Union of Students (NUS) officerships and is the largest faction on the national officerships. The NUS represents some 450,000 students. It is the first time the Australian Labour Party has lost control of any state NUS branch and the first time non-Labour [Party] factions have had a majority of the national executive. According to NAL activist, Marcus Westbury, the NAL has existed only for two years. They have grown from a handful of delegates to the second largest NUS faction primarily because of their commitment to participatory decision making, a non-hierarchical structure, and their non-binding nature.

Surprisingly — and this is thing number two — the ‘anarchist’ intervention in NUS didn’t last. Nor did NAL, for that matter, which later morphed into the NBL (which has since been supplanted by the Grassroots Left). Note that such shenanigans took place just as a new Federal, Tory Government was ushered in. Further, that with its dispatch late last year, the low-wattage light bulb on the shared student household on the hill has been re-lit (Students in shift on union funding, Sarah Elks, The Australian, January 14, 2008: “THE nation’s peak student body will urge the Rudd Government to scrap controversial voluntary student unionism laws…”).

Other former NAL *s include Kerry Nettle and Jamie Parker. Both Nettle and Parker found a place in the Greens; Nettle in the Australian Senate, Parker on Leichhardt Council. Marcus Westbury, on the other hand, now opines on The Yartz for the ABC.

Finally, Howes is hardly the first former revolutionary to become a trade union bureaucrat or a politician. The Right Honourable Michael ‘I did not have sex with that woman’ Costa is another former Trotskyist and member of both the Socialist Workers’ Party (now the DSP) and Australia’s Worst Union. Oh, and like Howes, a very keen supporter of capitalist development: Nuclear power? Good! Environmentalist? Bad! (Note further that John Laws has never seen a prostitute and that neither Bob Carr nor Paul Keating are queer.) Costa is also a trainspotter, and revealed as much when he addressed fellow Senator Lee Rhiannon (May 12, 2004):

The Hon. MICHAEL COSTA: I am very happy to elucidate my answer. My first experience with the notion of quelling was, I think, at Kronstadt during the Russian Revolution when Trotsky took a brigade of the Red Army and crushed the anarchists. In my previous manifestation as a young Trotskyite I supported his decision in an historical sense. I have had time to reflect on the mistake of supporting that decision, but every time Ms Lee Rhiannon speaks I tend to think that Trotsky may have been right about suppressing anarchists because they do not add to the parliamentary process or the complexities of managing government. I certainly would advocate it for the Greens. Ms Lee Rhiannon can take some comfort in the fact that she had the ultimate victory when Stalin managed to get a pickaxe in the back of Trotsky’s head.

Well, the front of his head, apparently, but you get the point. (Ho ho ho.)

“But @ndy”, you might say, “Who are YOU to criticise?”. To which I can only reply:

    “The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

About @ndy

I live in Melbourne, Australia. I like anarchy. I don't like nazis. I enjoy eating pizza and drinking beer. I barrack for the greatest football team on Earth: Collingwood Magpies. The 2024 premiership's a cakewalk for the good old Collingwood.
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60 Responses to Would the real anarchists / Trotskyists… (Et cetera)

  1. lumpnboy says:

    The NAL was always dominated by opportunistic would-be hacks who would deal with anyone for anything to build their little micro-fiefdoms. I’m genuinely surprised that anyone with any sense of radical politics could ever have thought the NAL was collectively practising any sort of anarchist politics. Certainly NAL practice was not exactly “non-hierarchical”, though it certainly appeared in the promotional literature.

    Neither was that the first time the ALP had lost control of an NUS branch. Indeed, in its very early period even DSP-types could make a reasonable claim to have controlled a state branch, before they decided that NUS was an ALP conspiracy and must be destroyed – a position they reverse a number of years later.

    On a final note, I’m pretty sure that the USSU did not begin as a DSP front, and certainly there were people heavily involved in its formation who were neither DSP members nor DSP stooges. Maybe someone else could give a better idea of this history, if anyone cares.

  2. pickypicky says:

    “The Democratic Socialists, on the other hand, has now become the Socialist Alliance.”

    Um, actually, the Democratic Socialists are … STILL the Democratic Socialists.

  3. juancastro says:

    Can I just say that the DSP has nothing to do with Trotskyism. They are pro-Vietnam, pro-Cuba… Countries that Trotskyists understand to be classic examples of state-capitalism, with totalitarian rule and/or a bureaucratic class running society in it’s own interests.

    They advocate socialism from above, eg. their unflinching support of Chavez as a leader, as opposed to supporting the radical _movements_ in Venezuela. They’re an outdated relic of Stalinism, and again, have nothing to do with Trotsky or even Marx and Lenin for that matter.

    (In the interests of honesty, I’m a member of Socialist Alternative.)

  4. Soviet Left Faction says:

    Are you talking about the Australian Workers’ Union? Because I am a member of the AWU.

  5. @ndy says:


    Uh-huh. The ins and outs of the NAL I’m largely ignorant of; I assume that it was of a type. I do remember reading about the anarchist coup at the time, not recognising any of the names involved (or only vaguely), asking around among the anarchists / students that I knew, and then being given the score.

    Something along the lines of Student Politics 1 | Anarchists 0.

    It seemed slightly odd to me then that news of this kind should be published in a foreign anarchist publication, but apparently the folks involved (Marcus W) actually contacted the WSM to inform them of their victory. It’s a dynamic that continues, and I’m occasionally still informed as to what’s “really” going on in Australia by those many thousands of kilometres away…

    With regards the USSU, you may well be right, and apologies to any involved for implying as much if that’s the case. On the other hand, I think it likely that if the USSU did not begin as a front, it would have been sucked dry by the DSP given half a chance, which is what appears to have happened in Sydney. (From what materials are available on the web, it appears to have begun in Melbourne, and was then reproduced there and, presumably, elsewhere. Others involved appear to have been independent or aligned to other socialist groups.) In any case, it collapsed fairly quickly (not necessarily a bad thing), but otherwise appears to also have been of a type. More generally, unless those involved are aware and vigilant, any political formation or cause which appears to attract young people will be targetted for assimilation by one or more parties, and maintaining an independent (autonomous) existence for any length of time can be difficult.


    Uh-huh. What I meant was: back then, ‘Democratic Socialists’ was the name given to the DSP’s electoral front; now it’s known as the ‘Socialist Alliance’. (And the DSP is now officially known as the ‘Democratic Socialist Perspective’, a ‘tendency’ within the SA.)


    On the one hand, I wouldn’t go so far as to state that the DSP has “nothing” to do with Trotskyism; on the other hand, you’re right — strictly speaking, it isn’t ‘Trotskyist’ (nor does it claim to be). It does, however, have quite a lot to do with Marx and Lenin, and Marxism remains its principal organisational ideology. That it espouses a different interpretation of this legacy to that which Socialist Alternative or other ostensibly Marxist organisations do is to my mind a more accurate claim.

    With regards ‘state capitalism’, this thesis is not peculiarly Trotskyist (insofar as it wasn’t the work of Trotsky but some of his epigones) and other Trotskyists (that is, those who consciously describe themselves as such) have different understandings of the nature of the Soviet Union and the other states (societies) which claimed the title of ‘Communist’. As far as I’m aware, Trotsky described the Soviet Union not as a ‘state capitalist’ formation but as a ‘degenerated workers’ state’. Further, the ‘state capitalist’ thesis was primarily the work of Tony Cliff, written in 1947 and published a year later as ‘The Nature of Stalinist Russia’ (and eventually as ‘State Capitalism in Russia’). Of course, Cliff was the principal theorist of the tendency from which Socialist Alternative derives.

    A useful discussion of various competing arguments on the subject may be found in ‘What was the USSR? Towards a Theory of the Deformation of Value under State Capitalism’ in the Marxist journal (zine) Aufheben.

    On the subject of Cuba and Vietnam, it may appall you that the DSP appears to support these authoritarian regimes, but it’s a fairly orthodox Trotskyist position as far as I can tell, and not unique to the DSP. Their support for Chavez I’ve discussed elsewhere.

  6. Peter R says:

    Actually Trotsky never referred to State Capitalism, that was Tony Cliff. The DSP, even when we still referred to ourselves as Trotskyites, always maintained Trotsky’s theory of degenerated workers’ states to describe the countries that you mention.

    Of course, he was dead when they had their revolutions, so who really knows what he would have called them.

    Howes, just to keep my comments in the game, appears to be the most loyal servant of capital around. Except for maybe Costa: there should be some kind of competition really.

  7. juancastro says:

    As you have both correctly pointed out, Trotsky did say that the USSR was degenerated. But any serious analysis of the USSR and the states of the eastern bloc shows that they were pretty much identical. Therefore either Stalinist Russia was state-capitalism, or countries in the eastern bloc were degenerated workers’ states. I think it’s pretty clear that the dictators in the eastern bloc were just that, so therefore the only option left is to say that they were all instances of totalitarian state-capitalism.

    On another tack, how can states like China, Cuba, and Vietnam be degenerated workers’ states when they never experienced a mass _workers’_ revolution? All three involved (popular) peasant/guerrilla armies, not general strikes as advocated by Luxemburg and Lenin.

    And just quickly Re the DSP being Marxist, I think it would be a stretch to interpret Marx in a way that supports one party dictatorships as workers’ states.

  8. grumpy cat says:

    Hey all, i was at Wollongong Uni, which was the real base of NAL in its heyday and they were totally crap.
    much love

  9. Soviet Left Faction says:

    Bloody revisionists. I hate you people. Anarchists, gays, trotskyists are all the same. Bloody revisionists. All you people do is attack proletarian achievements and bash into the USSR. Do you people know how many people died to liberate Russia from the bourgeoisie? Do you know how many died to protect Russia from the Germans and capitalists?

    Revisionists are cowards.

    The DSP are coward revisionists who hide behind their computers attack us hard working stalinists.

    I had to work six hours a day just to get enough money to eat and to survive. My mother did nothing when I was raped by my school teacher when I was only nine. I have to work to get enough money to go to school and to pay for things I need. I have been bashed and bullyed. But the fucking rich live life easy and have the things they need. What do I have? Next to nothing. You fucking revisionists don’t know nothing.

  10. @ndy says:


    First, I think it’s mistaken to draw a political equivalence between Soviet [sic] Russia and its satellites. For one thing, many of them were only drawn into its orbit following WWII, not as the result of political revolutions, but imperial conquest: from Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan in the late 1910s and early 1920s to the annexation of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia (the Baltic states) in WWII, to the incorporation of Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Albania in the war years and the immediate post-War period (though often aided by Communists within those countries) the Soviet [sic] Empire was an imperialist project through and through. In other words, to begin with, “any serious analysis of the USSR and the states of the eastern bloc” needs to recognise these historical facts before proceeding to an examination of the differences between the Russian core and the non-Russian periphery of Soviet Empire (1917–1991).

    Secondly, the question which has confronted Marxists (Leninists) from the mid-1920s, Lenin’s death, and Stalin’s assumption of dictatorial powers very soon thereafter has always been how and why did this occur? How did the workers’ state(s) “degenerate” in this fashion? (The anarchist critique, on the other hand, is of Bolshevism as such.) The relevance of the above point regarding the differences in the history of Russia and other countries in Eastern Europe becomes clearer when it’s recognised that in a number of cases there was no “workers’ state” to ‘degenerate’ in the first place.

    Thirdly, and leaving aside the question of both the “degeneration” of ostensible “workers’ states” and the emergence of a “state capitalist” economy and society, the question you raise with regards China, Cuba and Vietnam could just as easily be raised with regards Russia in 1917. That is, how can you have a “proletarian revolution” in a country overwhelmingly populated by peasants?

    Finally, there are lots of other questions that could be asked, but it’s worth noting that I proceed from very different political premises and that my understanding of history is significantly different to your own or that to be found among the various Marxist groupuscules which dominate the student Left.

    An excerpt on Leninism and State Capitalism
    Noam Chomsky
    From “Intellectuals and the State” (1977), published in Towards a New Cold War (1982)

    “The organization and the rule of society by socialist savants,” [Bakunin] wrote, “is the worst of all despotic governments.” The leaders of the Communist party will proceed “to liberate [the people] in their own way,” concentrating “all administrative power in their own strong hands, because the ignorant people are in need of a strong guardianship… [the mass of the people will be] under the direct command of the state engineers, who will constitute the new privileged political-scientific class.” For the proletariat, the new regime “will, in reality, be nothing but a barracks” under the control of a Red bureaucracy. But surely it is “heresy against common sense and historical experience” to believe that “a group of individuals, even the most intelligent and best-intentioned, would be capable of becoming the mind, the soul, the directing and unifying will of the revolutionary movement and the economic organization of the proletariat of all lands.” In fact, the “learned minority, which presumes to express the will of the people,” will rule in “a pseudo-representative government” that will “serve to conceal the domination of the masses by a handful of privileged elite.”

    I need not dwell on the performance of Bakunin’s Red bureaucracy when they have succeeded in centralizing state power in their hands, riding to power on a wave of popular movements that they have proceeded to dismantle and finally destroy.

    I might also mention in this connection the penetrating studies by the Dutch Marxist scientist Anton Pannekoek. Writing in the late 1930s and then under the German occupation, he discussed “the social ideals growing up in the minds of the intellectual class now that it feels its increasing importance in the process of production: a well-ordered organization of production for use under the direction of technical and scientific experts.” These ideals, he pointed out, are shared by the intelligentsia in capitalist societies and by Communist intellectuals, whose aim is “to bring to power, by means of the fighting force of the workers, a layer of leaders who then establish planned production by means of State-Power.” They develop the theory that “the talented energetic minority takes the lead and the incapable majority follows and obeys.” Their natural social ideology is some version of state socialism, “a design for reconstructing society on the basis of a working class such as the middle class sees it and knows it under capitalism” — tools of production, submissive, incapable of rational decision. To this mentality, “an economic system where the workers are themselves masters and leaders of their work… is identical with anarchy and chaos.” But state socialism, as conceived by the intellectuals, is a plan of social organization “entirely different from a true disposal by the producers over production,” true socialism, a system in which workers are “masters of the factories, masters of their own labor, to conduct it at their own will.”

    Lenin proclaimed in 1918 that “unquestioning submission to a single will is absolutely necessary for the success of labour processes that are based on large-scale machine-industry… today the Revolution demands, in the interests of socialism, that the masses unquestioningly obey the single will of the leaders of the labour process”; “there is not the least contradiction between society (i.e., socialist) democracy and the use of dictatorial power by a few persons.” And two years later: “The transition to practical work is connected with individual authority. This is the system which more than any other assures the best utilization of human resources.”

    Consider, in comparison, the following dictum:

      Vital decision-making, particularly in policy matters, must remain at the top. God…is clearly democratic. He distributes brain power universally, but He quite justifiably expects us to do something efficient and constructive with that priceless gift. That is what management is all about. Its medium is human capacity, and its most fundamental task is to deal with change. It is the gate through which social, political, economic, technological change, indeed change in every dimension, is rationally spread through society… the real threat to democracy comes not from overmanagement, but from undermanagement. To undermanage reality is not to keep it free. It is simply to let some force other than reason shape reality… if it is not reason that rules man, then man falls short of his potential.

    In short, reason demands submission to centralized management: This is true freedom, the realization of democracy. Apart from the reference to God, it would be hard to tell whether the quote is from Lenin, or — as indeed is the case — Robert McNamara, a typical example of the scientific and educational estate in state capitalist democracy.

  11. juancastro says:

    First, I think it’s mistaken to draw a political equivalence between Soviet [sic] Russia and its satellites. For one thing, many of them were only drawn into its orbit following WWII, not as the result of political revolutions, but imperial conquest.

    But that’s exactly my point; even though they were conquered, and showed no signs of revolution, their state looked identical to that of Stalinist Russia. So at this point (after Trotsky was already dead), the position that the USSR is a degenerated workers’ state is totally untenable. Then you have the laughable distinction made by orthodox Trotskyists between “degenerated” and “deformed”, desperately trying to make reality fit the theory, rather than vice versa.

    I’m not sure if you’re a little bit confused by proletariat, because the term refers strictly to the working-class, not to peasantry. So while there were hundreds of thousands of workers and soldiers in the streets of the major cities, protesting for all sorts of progressive things, the peasants (as a relatively conservative, petit bourgeoisie social class) just wanted their land. Thus the Bolsheviks had to court the peasants (and their SR party) at all times, and then later make compromises, just to keep them on side. These compromises were meant to allow the soviet republic to hold together until the world revolution saved them, but this never happened obviously.

    Which leads us to how did the revolution end up in a totalitarian regime… well I’m not an expert on this subject, but I know that there was a number of factors involved.

    1) The failure of the revolution in Germany, not once, but twice. Russia was always incredibly backward, and the Bolsheviks openly looked to the proletariat of much more advanced Germany as the leaders of the world revolution. Trotsky and Lenin (and surely more) knew that the Russian Revolution was doomed to fail if the revolution did not spread. And it did, but was aborted consistently both in Germany, and other European states.

    2) Being invaded by something like 13 nations did little to help this backward country modernise. I challenge any nation on this planet to defeat an onslaught of invading and internal counter-revolutionary armies such as was faced by the workers of Russia in 1917.

    3) Russia’s unique mixture of feudal agrarianism with (small sectors) of highly advanced industry meant that there was a relatively small, but highly advanced, working class. After the war, most of them were dead, or (in the midst of a nation-wide famine) had fled back to the villages to where food was being produced. Given the lack of an organised working class (which I don’t need to tell you is the fundamental prerequisite for socialism, or most developed anarchisms for that matter), the Bolsheviks instituted a temporary bureaucracy, again, as a holding pattern while waiting for the international revolution, and from there the rest is history.

    I have to say I don’t like that stuff you quoted Lenin saying, but without context I’m not going to jump to conclusions that contradict the overwhelming amount of stuff he says that is pro-working class control over society. He might have meant “single will” to mean the decisions made by the councils of soviets, which, as direct democracy in action, I totally agree with.

    And one other important thing, the anarchist critique of Bolshevism always struck me as somewhat elitist. Okay, so there was a revolution, everybody agrees on that. Now, somewhere between the revolution and Stalin’s USSR, something went wrong. We say that the international revolution failed, the working class was destroyed, and the peasants were reactionary. You say, the leadership of the mass movements was authoritarian. Firstly, I haven’t read anything to support the fact that Lenin wanted to be a dictator, or anything like that. Lenin actually was the most left-wing member of the party when it came to giving power to the soviets that had spontaneously arisen around the country.

    But secondly, you’re saying that a single man was able to bend the will of millions of active, class conscious (in the Marxist sense), militant people to his cause? I call that elitism. If you believe change actually comes from below (which I think you do), and you believe that the masses were involved with the October revolution (which I think you do), then it follows that something happened to those masses in order to render them helpless, not that they were somehow repressed by one man and his relatively small party of a couple of hundred thousand strong (in a country of 160 million).

    Awaiting your response,


  12. juancastro says:

    Oh, one other thing. You talk of centralised state planning as discussed by Marxists in the 1930’s, well to be fair, our tradition totally rejects that form of the state, and we believe that Stalinist Russia embodied that ruling class of technocrats and bureaucrats that the true revolutionary left hates so much.

    We support soviets in every workplace, regional coordinating councils, and then an overarching council of of all the local soviets. All delegates get paid the average wage and nothing more, so there is no financial incentive, or possibility of corruption. We place ourselves at the whim of ordinary people participating in these soviets, and would simply hope to be selected as delegates on the strength of our arguments. I hardly think that’s totalitarian, or in any way encouraging the formation of a ruling, technical class, as what happened in the USSR.

    Can we be clear here @ndy; I’m (and Socialist Alternative) is not Stalinist, and we do not in any way support the creation of full-time bureaucrats that are paid more than the average worker, to make decisions on behalf of anyone else.

    Lets keep discussing these issues, it’s fantastic, but let’s just continue to be aware as to which form of socialism we’re actually promoting!

  13. Lumpen says:

    Can we be clear here @ndy; I’m (and Socialist Alternative) is not Stalinist, and we do not in any way support the creation of full-time bureaucrats that are paid more than the average worker, to make decisions on behalf of anyone else.

    I recall SA arguing the opposite when it came to student politics and paid positions within student associations. When I argued (and practiced) that all rep positions should be voluntary and unpaid, or as a compromise, tied directly to the amount received for Youth Allowance, there was a lot of gnashing of teeth. The argument was that Austudy wasn’t enough to live on blah blah. Yet SA were happy enough to take some of this pittance off others and use it to pay themselves a better wage as they were full-time bureaucrats.

  14. Soviet Left Faction says:

    “Stalinist Russia embodied that ruling class of technocrats and bureaucrats that the true revolutionary left hates so much.”

    There was more to the Soviet Union then just Russia, you idiot. There was no ruling class is socialist Soviet Union. “Bureaucrats” you say. Then may I ask who will be running a socialist state? Plus, who will run the transition from capitalist to socialist to communist?

    Who will run government departments and who will work in them if there are no bureaucrats?

  15. @ndy says:


    But that’s exactly my point; even though they were conquered, and showed no signs of revolution, their state looked identical to that of Stalinist Russia. So at this point (after Trotsky was already dead), the position that the USSR is a degenerated workers’ state is totally untenable. Then you have the laughable distinction made by orthodox Trotskyists between “degenerated” and “deformed”, desperately trying to make reality fit the theory, rather than vice versa.

    In terms of the question of whether or not the Soviet Union was a degenerated workers’ state, it doesn’t follow that, simply because this model was reconstructed elsewhere, and as a result of what essentially amounts to a form of imperial expansion, the thesis is thereby rendered false. Rather, it’s quite possible — theoretically — that the Soviet Union was a workers’ state, underwent a degeneration, thereby became a ‘degenerated workers’ state’, and this model was then exported. This is why orthodox Trotskyists prefer to use the term ‘deformed workers’ states’ to describe many of these cases. Now, this argument may be right or wrong, but it at least has the virtue of being internally consistent.

    As an aside, it’s not the case that all or even most of these countries showed no signs of revolutionary activity — quite the opposite, in fact. During the course of WWII, for example, the ‘partisan’ forces which fought the Nazis (and their puppet regimes) were often dominated by Communists, and it was partly as a result of this determined ‘anti-fascist’ war that Communism obtained no small degree of popularity. In fact, this was the case not only in Eastern but Western Europe too, especially in France and Italy.

    As a further aside, the incorporation of other territories and nations as part of the Soviet Empire began almost immediately upon its creation: the Ukraine being perhaps the most obvious example.


    I’m aware of the meaning of the term ‘proletariat’; so too, ‘proletarian revolution’. The point being, it was considered by many Marxists at the time — and I believe on the basis of a highly consistent reading of Marx himself — that a ‘proletarian revolution’ in a feudal society such as Russia was an absurdity. And although Marx often gave short shrift to ‘ethics’, part of the moral justification for his support for proletarian revolution was that he believed such a revolution was in keeping with democratic notions of majority rule. That is, part of the moral ballast for communism was that it would allow the great bulk of humanity to throw off the chains imposed upon them by capitalism. Such was obviously not the case in Russia, where industrial workers constituted perhaps less than 10% of the population. So — the point you make about the Bolsheviks being forced to give undue political consideration to the economic, political and social interests of the Russian peasantry — the vast majority of the population, in other words — is simply illustrative of the exceedingly tenuous position they found themselves in (one which also explicitly contradicted Marx’s own scientistical prognostications).


    With regards the course of events in Russia from 1917 onwards, I’m well aware of the orthodox Marxist explanation, which basically amounts to a recognition of the fact that its “success” relied on the success of genuinely proletarian revolutions elsewhere in Western Europe; principally in Germany, where the workers’ movement was strong and strongly Marxist, having been so for many decades. Otherwise, internally, war and economic backwardness posed their own severe challenges.

    The obvious point to make in reply is that, irrespective of these three issues, the Bolshevik regime under Lenin set about actively dismantling workers’ self-management from 1917 onwards. That is, as soon as it was able to. Further, it did this in accord with the desire to construct a “workers’ state”. There are a number of texts which document this history, but perhaps the most relevant in this context is that by Maurice Brinton, from which the following is an extract:

    We must now state our own methodological premises. We hold that the ‘relations of production’ – the relations which individuals or groups enter into with one another in the process of producing wealth – are the essential foundations of any society. A certain pattern of relations of production is the common denominator of all class societies. This pattern is one in which the producer does not dominate the means of production but on the contrary both is ‘separated from them’ and from the products of his own labour. In all class societies the producer is in a position of subordination to those who manage the productive process. Workers’ management of production – implying as it does the total domination of the producer over the productive process – is not for us a marginal matter. It is the core of our politics. It is the only means whereby authoritarian (order-giving, order-taking) relations in production can be transcended and a free, communist or anarchist, society introduced.

    We also hold that the means of production may change hands (passing for instance from private hands into those of a bureaucracy, collectively owning them) with out this revolutionising the relations of production. Under such circumstances – and whatever the formal status of property – the society is still a class society for production is still managed by an agency other than the producers themselves. Property relations, in other words, do not necessarily reflect the relations of production. They may serve to mask them – and in fact they often have.

    This much of the analysis is fairly widely accepted. What has not been hitherto attempted is to relate the history of the Russian Revolution to this overall conceptual framework. Here we can only indicate the broad lines of such an approach. Seen in this light the Russian Revolution represents an unsuccessful attempt by the Russian working class to break out of relations of production that were proving increasingly oppressive. The massive upsurge of 1917 proved strong enough to smash the political supremacy of the bourgeoisie (by shattering the economic base on which it was founded: the private ownership of the means of production). It altered the existing system of property relations. But it did not prove strong enough (despite heroic attempts in this direction) to alter the authoritarian relations of production characteristic of all class societies. Sections of the working class (those most active in the Factory Committee movement) certainly attempted to influence the Revolution in this direction. But their attempt failed. It is worth analysing the causes of this failure – and seeing how new masters came to replace the old ones.

    What were the forces pitted against those seeking a total transformation of the conditions of industrial life? First, of course, there was the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie had everything to lose in such a total social upheaval. Confronted with workers’ management, it stood to lose not only its ownership of the means of production but also the possibility of privileged positions vested in expertise and in the exercise of decisional authority. No wonder the bourgeois breathed a sigh of relief when they saw that the leaders of the Revolution would ‘go no further than nationalisation’ and were keen to leave intact the order-giver/order-taker relationship in industry and else where. True, large sections of the bourgeoisie fought desperately to regain their lost property. The Civil War was a protracted and bloody affair. But thousands of those who, through custom and culture, were more or less closely attached to the expropriated bourgeoisie were very soon offered the opportunity to re-enter the ‘revolutionary stronghold’ – by the back door as it were – and to resume their role as managers of the labour process in the ‘Workers’ State’. They seized this unexpected opportunity eagerly. In droves they either joined the Party – or decided to co-operate with it, cynically welcoming every utterance by Lenin or Trotsky in favour of ‘labour discipline’ or ‘one-man management’. Many were soon to be appointed (from above) to leading positions in the economy. Merging with the new political-administrative ‘elite’, of which the Party itself formed the nucleus, the more ‘enlightened’ and technologically skilled sections of the ‘expropriated class’ soon resumed dominant positions in the relations of production.

    Secondly, the Factory Committee Movement had to cope with openly hostile tendencies on the ‘left’, such as the Mensheviks. The Mensheviks repeatedly stressed that as the revolution could only be of bourgeois-democratic type there could be no future in attempts by the workers to manage production. All such endeavours were denounced as ‘anarchist’ and ‘utopian’. In places the Mensheviks proved a serious obstacle to the Factory Committee Movement, but the opposition was anticipated, principled and consistent.

    Thirdly – and far more difficult to see through – was the attitude of the Bolsheviks. Between March and October the Bolsheviks supported the growth of the Factory Committees, only to turn viciously against them in the last few weeks of 1917, seeking to incorporate them into the new union structure, the better to emasculate them. This process, which is fully described in the pamphlet, was to play an important role in preventing the rapidly growing challenge to capitalist relations of production from coming to a head. Instead the Bolsheviks canalised the energies released between March and October into a successful onslaught against the political power of the bourgeoisie (and against the property relations on which that power was based). At this level the revolution was ‘successful’. But the Bolsheviks were also ‘successful’ in restoring ‘law and order’ in industry – law and order that reconsolidated the authoritarian relations in production, which for a brief period had been seriously shaken.

    Why did the Party act in this manner? To answer this question would require a much fuller analysis of the Bolshevik Party and of its relation to the Russian working class than we can here attempt. Again one would have to steer clear both of mythology (‘the great Bolshevik Party’, ‘the weapon forged by Lenin’, ‘the spearhead of the revolution’, etc.) and of anti-mythology (‘the Party as the embodiment of totalitarianism. militarism, bureaucracy,’ etc.), seeking constantly to understand rather than to rant or rave. At the superficial level both the Party’s ideology and its practice were firmly rooted in the specific historical circumstances of Tsarist Russia, in the first decade of this century. Illegality and persecution partly explain (although they do not justify) the Party’s organisational structure and its conception of its relationship to the class. What is more difficult to understand is the naiveté [sic] of the Bolshevik leaders who don’t seem to have appreciated the effects that this type of organisation and this type of relationship to the class would inevitably have on the subsequent history of the Party.

    Writing of the early history of the Party no lesser an exponent of Bolshevik orthodoxy than Trotsky was to state- “The habits peculiar . . . to a political machine were already forming in the underground. The young revolutionary bureaucrat was already emerging as a type. The conditions of conspiracy, true enough, offered rather meagre scope for such formalities of democracy as elections, accountability and control. Yet undoubtedly the Committee men narrowed these limitations considerably more than necessity demanded. They were far more intransigent and severe with the revolutionary working men that with themselves, preferring to domineer even on occasions that called imperatively for lending an attentive ear to the voice of the masses. Krupskaya notes that, just as in the Bolshevik committees, so at the Congress itself, there were almost no working men. The intellectuals predominated. ”The Committee man” writes Krupskaya, ”was usually quite a self-confident person . . . as a rule he did not recognise any internal party democracy . . . did not want any innovations . . . did not desire and did not know how to adapt himself to rapidly changing conditions”.

    What all this was to lead to was first hinted at in 1905. Soviets had appeared in many places. “The Petersburgh Committee of the Bolsheviks was frightened at first by such an innovation as a non-partisan representation of the embattled masses. It could find nothing better to do than to present the Soviet with an ultimatum: immediately adopt a Social-Democratic programme or disband. The Petersburgh Soviet as a whole, including the contingent of Bolshevik working men as well, ignored this ultimatum without batting an eyelid”. Broue, one of the more sophisticated apologists of Bolshevism, was to write that “those in the Bolshevik Party who were the most favourable to the Soviets only saw in them, in the best of cases, auxiliaries for the Party . . . only belatedly did the Party discover the role it could play in the Soviets, and the interest that the Soviets presented for increasing the Party’s influence with a view to leading the masses”. The problem is put here in a nutshell. The Bolshevik cadres saw their role as the leadership of the revolution. Any movement not initiated by them or independent of their control could only evoke their suspicion. It has often been said that the Bolsheviks were ‘surprised’ by the creation of the Soviets: this euphemism should not mislead us. The reaction of the Bolsheviks was of far deeper significance than mere ‘surprise’ – it reflected a whole concept of revolutionary struggle, a whole concept of the relationship between workers and revolutionaries. The action of the Russian masses themselves, as far back as 1905, was already to condemn these attitudes as outdated.

    This separation between the Bolsheviks and the masses was to be revealed repeatedly during 1917. It was first witnessed during the February revolution, again at the time of the ‘April Theses’. and later still at the time of the July days. It has repeatedly been admitted that the Party made ‘mistakes’ both in 1905 and in 1917. But this ‘explanation’ explains nothing. What one should be asking is what made these mistakes possible? And one can answer only if one understands the type of work undertaken by the Party cadres, from the creation of the Party right up to the time of the Revolution. The Party leaders (from those on the Central Committee down to those in charge of local groups) had been placed, through the combined effects of the conditions of the struggle against Tsarism and of their own organisational conceptions, in a situation which allowed them only tenuous links with the real workers’ movement. “A worker-agitator” wrote Lenin, “who shows any talent and is at all promising should not work in the factory. We must see to it that he lives on Party support . . . and goes over to an underground status”. No wonder the few Bolshevik cadres of working class origin soon lost real contacts with the class.

    The Bolshevik Party was torn by a contradiction which helps explain its attitude before and after 1917. Its strength lay in the advanced workers who supported it. There is no doubt that this support was at times widespread and genuine. But these workers could not control the Party. The leadership was firmly in the hands of professional revolutionaries. In a sense this was inevitable. A clandestine press and the dissemination of propaganda could only be kept going regularly by militants constantly on the move and at times compelled to seek refuge overseas. A worker could only become a Bolshevik cadre on condition he ceased work and placed himself at the disposal of the Party, which would then send him on special missions, to this or that town. The apparatus of the Party was in the hands of revolutionary specialists. The contradiction was that the real living forces that provided the strength of the Party could not control it. As an institution, the Party totally eluded control by the Russian working class. The problems encountered by the Russian Revolution after 1917 did not bring about this contradiction, they only served to exacerbate it. The attitude of the Party in 1917 and after are products of its history. This is what rendered so futile most of the attempts made within the Party by various oppositions between 1918 and 1921. They failed to perceive that a given ideological premise (the preordained hegemony of the Party) led necessarily to certain conclusions in practice.

    But even this is probably not taking the analysis far enough. At an even deeper level the very conception of this kind of organisation and this kind of relationship to the mass movement reflect the unrecognised influence of bourgeois ideology, even on the minds of those who were relentlessly seeking to overthrow bourgeois society. The concept that society must necessarily be divided into ‘leaders’ and ‘led’, the notion that there are some born to rule while others cannot really develop beyond a certain stage have from time immemorial been the tacit assumptions of every ruling class in history. For even the Bolsheviks to accept them shows how correct Marx was when he proclaimed that ‘the ruling ideas of each epoch are the ideas of its ruling class’. Confronted with an ‘efficient’, tightly-knit organisation of this kind, built on ideas of this kind, it is scarcely surprising that the emerging factory Committees were unable to carry the Revolution to completion.

    The final difficulty confronting the Committees was inherent in the Committee movement itself. Although certain individuals showed extraordinary lucidity, and although the Committee Movement represents the highest manifestation of the class struggle achieved in 1917, the movement as a whole was unable to understand what was happening to it and to offer any serious resistance. It did not succeed in generalising its experience and the record it left is, unfortunately, very fragmentary. Unable to proclaim its own objectives (workers’ self-management) in clear and positive terms, it was inevitable that others would step into the vacuum. With the bourgeoisie in full disintegration, and the working class as yet insufficiently strong or conscious to impose its own solutions to the problems tearing society apart, the triumphs of Bolshevism and of the bureaucracy were both inevitable.

    An analysis of the Russian Revolution shows that in allowing a specific group, separate from the workers themselves, to take over the function of managing production, the working class loses all possibility of even controlling the means of producing wealth. The separation of productive labour from the means of production results in an exploiting society. Moreover, when institutions such as the soviets could no longer be influenced by ordinary workers. the regime could no longer be called a soviet regime. By no stretch of the imagination could it still be taken to reflect the interests of the working class. The basic question: who manages production after the overthrow of the bourgeoisie? should therefore now become the centre of any serious discussion about socialism. Today the old equation (liquidation of the bourgeoisie = workers’ state) popularised by countless Leninists, Stalinists and Trotskyists is just not good enough.

    In 1917 the Russian workers created organs (Factory Committees and Soviets) that might have ensured the management of society by the workers themselves. But the soviets passed into the hands of Bolshevik functionaries. A state apparatus, separate from the masses, was rapidly reconstituted. The Russian workers did not succeed in creating new institutions through which they would have managed both industry and social life. This task was therefore taken over by someone else, by a group whose specific task it became. The bureaucracy organised the work process in a country of whose political institutions it was also master.

    All this necessitates a serious re-evaluation of several basic concepts. ‘Workers’ power’ cannot be identified or equated with the power of the Party – as it repeatedly was by the Bolsheviks. In the words of Rosa Luxemburg, workers’ power must be implemented ‘by the class, not by a minority, managing things in the name of the class. It must emanate from the active involvement of the masses, remain under their direct influence, be submitted to control by the entire population, result from the increasing political awareness of the people’. As for the concept of ‘taking power’ it cannot mean a semi military putsch, carried out by a minority, as it obviously does for so many who still seem to be living in the Petrograd of 1917. Nor can it only mean the defence – however necessary – of what the working class has won against attempts by the bourgeoisie to win it back. What ‘taking power’ really implies is that the vast majority of the working class at last realises its ability to manage both production and society – and organises to this end.

    This text is in no sense an economic history of Russia between 1917 and 1921. It is, at best, a selective industrial chronology. In most instances the facts speak for themselves. In a few places, we have taken the opportunity of describing our own views, particularly when we felt that all the protagonists in the great historical debates were wrong, or trapped in a system of ideas that prevented them from appreciating the real significance of what was happening. Events such as the stages of the Civil War are only mentioned in order to place various controversies in context – and to nail once and for all the allegation that many of the measures described were taken ‘as a result of the Civil War’.

    It will probably be objected that, throughout the narrative, greater stress has been placed on various struggles within the Party than on the actions of the millions who, for one reason or another, never joined the Party or who, from the beginning, saw through what it was endeavouring to do. The ‘charge’ is true but the shortcoming almost unavoidable. The aspirations of thousands of people, their doubts, their hesitations, their hopes, their sacrifices, their desire to transform the conditions of their daily life and their struggles to do so are undoubtedly as much a moulding force of history as the resolutions of Party Congresses or the speeches of Party leaders. Yet an activity that has neither rules nor statutes, neither tribunes nor troubadours, belongs almost by definition to what history suppresses. An awareness of the problem, however acute, will not generate the missing material. And an essay such as this is largely a question of documentation. The masses make history, they do not write it. And those who do write it are nearly always more concerned with ancestor worship and retrospective justification that with a balanced presentation of the facts.

    Other charges will also be made. The quotations from Lenin and Trotsky will not be denied but it will be stated that they are ‘selective’ and that ‘other things, too’ were said. Again, we plead ‘guilty’. But we would stress that there are hagiographers enough in the trade whose ‘objectivity’ (like Deutscher’s for instance) is but a cloak for sophisticated apologetics. There is moreover another reason for unearthing this material. Fifty years after the Revolution – and long after its ‘isolation’ has been broken – the bureaucratic system in Russia clearly bears little resemblance to the model of the Paris Commune (elected and revocable delegates, none receiving more than a workingman’s wage, etc., etc.). In fact Russia’s social structure has scarcely any anticipation in the whole corpus of Marxist theory. It therefore seems more relevant to quote those statements of the Bolshevik leaders of 1917 which helped determine Russia’s evolution rather than those other statements which, like the May Day speeches of Labour leaders, were for ever to remain in the realm of rhetoric.

    More later.

  16. @ndy says:


    And one other important thing, the anarchist critique of Bolshevism always struck me as somewhat elitist. Okay, so there was a revolution, everybody agrees on that. Now, somewhere between the revolution and Stalin’s USSR, something went wrong. We say that the international revolution failed, the working class was destroyed, and the peasants were reactionary. You say, the leadership of the mass movements was authoritarian. Firstly, I haven’t read anything to support the fact that Lenin wanted to be a dictator, or anything like that. Lenin actually was the most left-wing member of the party when it came to giving power to the soviets that had spontaneously arisen around the country.

    There are a number of anarchist critiques of Bolshevism. Some were contemporaneous with the emergence of Russian (and before that German) Social Democracy in the late nineteenth century and attacked both Bolshevik and Menshevik tendencies; others developed during the course of 1917–1921, the construction of the Bolshevik (Communist) state in Russia and in light of the repression of anarchists and other revolutionary tendencies; others still have been produced in the roughly 90 years since then.

    So: yeah, there was a “revolution”, but the question is what did this actually consist of? When Lenin adopted the slogan ‘All Power to the Soviets’, as well as being denounced for his ‘anarchism’, in some respects I think he hit the nail on the head. That is, what was revolutionary about the events of 1917 in Russia was the fact that many millions of proletarians seized control of their workplaces and instituted forms of popular self-management: the soviets (workers’ councils) and factory committees. Further, that they attempted to co-ordinate these structures on a broad geographical and industrial basis. Also, that large numbers of the peasantry seized control of the farms on which they worked. So, on the one hand, there was a large-scale (re-)appropriation of wealth and the means of producing it; on the other, the construction of new forms of economic and social life based on egalitarian principles.

    The role of the Bolsheviks in this period and in relation to these events and activities is another question (which Brinton’s text goes at least some way towards illuminating). The point being, to say that “something went wrong” between 1917 and the emergence of “Stalin’s Russia” (in 1922? 1924? 1927? 1928?) is not only untenable, but has little to do with the anarchist critique of Bolshevism (Communism) as such. Further, this critique, at least as far as this anarchist is concerned, cannot be reduced to the assertion that “the leadership of the mass movements was authoritarian”. Rather, the role of the Bolshevik Party in subverting ‘soviet democracy’ needs to be placed in the context of the development of the Party over the preceding decades, and an acknowledgment of its conscious desire to construct a “workers’ state” in Russia with itself as the leading and then sole Party.

    With regards Lenin himself, obviously, an examination of his writings and speeches reveals that his ideas, like that of others, changed over time, and in response to changing circumstances. Thus on the one hand there’s the Lenin of 1902 and What is to be Done?; on the other, the Lenin of 1917 who wrote The State and Revolution. In my opinion, however, all of his writings and ideological pronouncements should be read in their proper context, and that context is the historic task he appointed to he and his Party: to overthrow Tsarist rule and create a workers’ state in Russia, with he and his Party at the helm. To put it another way: Lenin at his most radical (“Lenin actually was the most left-wing member of the party when it came to giving [sic] power to the soviets”) was merely articulating the social reality all the better to conduct its recuperation and eventual incorporation into the project of constructing a Communist State.

    But secondly, you’re saying that a single man was able to bend the will of millions of active, class conscious (in the Marxist sense), militant people to his cause? I call that elitism.

    You can call it whatever you like; it’s certainly not something I maintain, as I hope the above goes some way to demonstrating. Nevertheless, insofar as its meaningful to speak of political dictatorships, yes, it’s a legitimate question to ask. That is, how is it possible and through what means does a dictatorship sustain itself over time? The beginnings of an answer, I believe — and leaving aside the obvious fact that ‘the state’ is, by definition, a violent institution — may be found in the degree to which individuals are capable of self-delusion, and to rationalise activities they would otherwise find objectionable through reference to its serving a higher purpose, especially ‘for reasons of state’.

    There is no horror, no cruelty, sacrilege, or perjury, no imposture, no infamous transaction, no cynical robbery, no bold plunder or shabby betrayal that has not been or is not daily being perpetrated by the representatives of the states, under no other pretext than those elastic words, so convenient and yet so terrible: “for reasons of state”. ~ Mikhail Bakunin, Federalism, Socialism, Anti-Theologism, 1867

    Finally, with regards Bolshevik repression, I recommend Maximoff’s The Guillotine @ Work (sample chapter) and Voline’s The Unknown Revolution. More generally, the anarchistfaq goes into some detail regarding the anarchist critique of Bolshevism and the events of the Russian Revolution.

    I hope my response was worth the wait.

  17. @ndy says:

    PS. Lenin’s statement regarding absolute submission to authority on the part of the workers may be found in his ‘The Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government’, written March-April 1918, published April 28, 1918, Pravda, No.83; Izvestia No.85. Note that translations vary slightly.

    In regard to the second question, concerning the significance of individual dictatorial powers from the point of view of the specific tasks of the present moment, it must be said that large-scale machine industry—which is precisely the material source, the productive source, the foundation of socialism—calls for absolute and strict unity of will, which directs the joint labours of hundreds, thousands and tens of thousands of people. The technical, economic and historical necessity of this is obvious, and all those who have thought about socialism have always regarded it as one of the conditions of socialism. But how can strict unity of will be ensured? By thousands subordinating their will to the will of one.

    Given ideal class-consciousness and discipline on the part of those participating in the common work, this subordination would be something like the mild leadership of a conductor of an orchestra. It may assume the sharp forms of a dictatorship if ideal discipline and class-consciousness are lacking. But be that as it may, unquestioning subordination to a single will is absolutely necessary for the success of processes organised on the pattern of large-scale machine industry. On the railways it is twice and three times as necessary. In this transition from one political task to another, which on the surface is totally dissimilar to the first, lies the whole originality of the present situation. The revolution has only just smashed the oldest, strongest and heaviest of fetters, to which the people submitted under duress. That was yesterday. Today, however, the same revolution demands—precisely in the interests of its development and consolidation, precisely in the interests of socialism—that the people unquestioningly obey the single will of the leaders of labour. Of course, such a transition cannot be made at one step. Clearly, it can be achieved only as a result of tremendous jolts, shocks, reversions to old ways, the enormous exertion of effort on the part of the proletarian vanguard, which is leading the people to the new ways.

  18. grumpy cat says:

    Hi All,
    I think there are some later letters by Marx where he does think a revolution in Russia that jumps over the capitalist stage is possible – also I believe that there is a similar argument in his Ethnographic Notebooks. Also I know there are some writings by Lenin where he pretty much admits that the only thing on offer from the early 1920s on is state capitalism – would have to hunt for the reference. And whilst I am critical of the Bolsheviks it is hard to imagine anything really awesome coming out of the civil war.
    rebel love

  19. juancastro says:

    RE Lumpen:

    I don’t think that getting paid some sort of wage is outrageous when somebody is putting in hours of work into the student union. The point is that they don’t get paid disproportionate amounts. Most students work these days, but being a student + being a committed socialist and doing the 12 hours or so of work required at a minimum + being a reasonably dedicated student rep means that it’s going to be pretty difficult to maintain a steady job as well.

    Good student reps do a vital job, and deserve to get paid enough so that they can commit to the task properly IMO. Again, the difference between that position and a position supporting a privileged class of technocrats is that these positions are recallable, and are not paid above and beyond the average rate of other workers.

    Just lastly, I don’t think being a volunteer is a radical statement, it’s just (usually) that people can afford to be because they’re not living in poverty. Not everyone can afford to be a volunteer, and knowing the people who are involved in the NUS from SA, they’re not exactly drowning in their own wealth.

    PS. @ndy, your posts are impressive, and it’s a bit too late in the evening for me to parse through them atm. Also, the fact I’m a very new member of the revolutionary left is somewhat restricting; my theoretical background is very weak! I’ll try to respond later.

    PPS. Soviet Left Faction, your tone is aggressive and somewhat pathetic given your disgusting right-wing views. Nobody will be running anything for anybody, or rather, everybody (sans ruling class) will be running everything for everybody else.

  20. @ndy says:

    Hey Dave,

    Yeah, in correspondence with Vera Zasulich (1881), Uncle Karl wrote about how the peasant commune (mir) might form the basis of another developmental path for Russia.

    Franklin Rosemont scribbles on the Ethnological Notebooks in ‘Karl Marx and the Iroquois’.

    Aside from one of the worst tyrannies in human history, heaps of neat stuff came out of Russia. Like, poetry. One of my favourites:

    The time has come
    To throw off the yoke
    Of capitalism.
    All fetters,
    And priests.
    For order
    And science
    And laws —
    What are they?
    From boredom
    By great men
    In cabinets!
    The old world
    We’ll destroy
    And wreck
    And burn!
    Not ‘order’.
    We’ll build,
    Without it
    We’ll live!
    But the great
    To bayonets
    Cannot fall!
    Before it
    On their knees
    All will bend,
    Even authority!
    So quickly
    My brothers
    Let’s raise
    The black flag!
    And grasp
    The hand
    Of all
    The oppressed!

    ~ Viktor Triuk, ‘Anarkhistam’, Burevestnik, March 5, 1918, p.3.

    Right on dead brother!

  21. grumpy cat says:

    Hi All,
    It’s late but facing the same conditions if anarchists had the hegemonic position in the class would have anything been really different or something better possible? Obviously an unanswerable question but I have been thinking lately a lot about how often revolutionaries argue that everything is possible when maybe we can only hope for things not being as shit. I am not talking reformism here, but maybe the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism, in specific historical situations, only offers us something minimally better.
    rebel love

    There is great Bolshevik art and poetry from the same time too.

  22. @ndy says:

    An innocuous building
    for so monumental
    a task!
    behind iron gates
    & anonymous
    in white smocks
    toil like
    in electromicroscopic
    the vinegrated cerebrums
    of late soviet luminaries
    to determine
    what made
    their heads
    this is
    their mission
    in its 67th
    & final year
    long rumored
    now uncovered in
    Room 19 at the
    Brain Institute
    of Moscow
    former reputed
    of Marxism-Leninism
    historical materialism
    & militant atheism

    Row upon row
    of bowls of
    pickled gray
    the cranial
    entrails of
    Sergei Eisenstein
    Maxim Gorky
    Vladimir Mayakovsky
    the famous Pavlov
    but not his celebrated
    various generals of
    the Red Army &
    forgotten members
    of the Central
    their noodles
    excavated under the
    orders of
    the boss
    of all bosses
    Joseph Djugashvili
    who tells ’em
    in the cerebellums
    the secret to
    the data:
    mind is matter
    ideology is
    she is no witch
    tied with rocks

    That’s the theoretical premise
    of the Brain Institute
    from the organ
    its flesh
    its cells
    can be deduced
    the source of
    political clarity
    artistic creativity
    military technique
    will &
    which if found
    could be reproduced
    tested &
    thus advancing the
    formation of the
    new soviet man
    by leaps & bounds
    especially at the
    pinnacle of
    collective social life
    Lenin declared
    with that
    not as yet fully
    paralyzed brain
    of his still
    having become
    General Secretary
    has concentrated
    enormous power
    in his hands
    & I am not sure
    that he always
    knows how to
    use that
    with sufficient
    I propose to
    the comrades
    to find a way
    to remove Stalin
    from that position
    & appoint
    another man
    more loyal
    more courteous
    & more considerate
    to comrades
    less capricious, etc”
    Or that
    the last act
    of Mayakovsky’s
    tortured noggin
    was to
    pull its plug
    rather than submit to
    the muse
    of police art
    unaware that it would
    float in a jar of
    the people’s formaldehyde
    for six decades
    scrutinized under
    detection methods
    sibling to
    aka existing socialism

    Watch them
    bustle & scurry
    each night
    the locked doors of
    Room 19 & its
    vaulted booty
    with paraffin
    carefully eyed
    by dutiful
    Lydia Malofeyeva
    comrade chief deputy
    of brainkeeping
    no peeking
    no sneaking
    watch them put chunks
    of the tissue into a
    block of wax
    then sealing off
    a patina of brain
    with a motorized
    a veg-o-matic
    type device
    to finely slice
    the subject of slides
    hundreds of thousands of
    of head cheese
    for the big cheese
    under the close &
    quiet supervision of
    the latest & last
    incarnation of the
    Central Committee
    Gensec &
    their ultimate act
    of skullduggery
    still fresh in
    from Sakharov’s
    late pate
    (the technicians
    unsure which morsel
    is his
    engage in polemics
    piling up shavings
    since they are paid
    30,000 slides
    alone of
    Lenin’s brain
    how many cases
    of carpal
    syndrome &
    the unionized
    at the Brain Institutes
    to get Lenin’s
    reduced to its
    physiological essence?
    each synapse
    individually wrapped
    here is what
    is to be done
    there is state &
    revolution & the
    right of oppressed
    nations to
    all obviously assimilated
    by comrades
    as indicated by
    recent events

    In 67 years
    of rigorous
    scientific inquiry
    the earnest cadres
    they had absolutely
    nothing to learn
    at all
    thought maybe
    the political figures
    would have some type
    of specific
    brain structure”
    Leonid Khaspekov
    vicedirector of the
    Brain Institute
    says of the commissars
    “that their brains
    would differ greatly
    from those of
    other people
    but of course
    that’s hardly possible”

    The narcotic
    monotony of
    the tasks
    the automatic lullaby
    of the machine
    the routine
    accumulation of cells on
    the fixed aroma of
    the crypt
    measured the
    seemingly immutable
    its fog
    the historical
    the reverse of
    the pendulum
    the dystrophic
    conquests of the
    apparently eternal
    politbureau & its
    perennial catechism:
    they thought
    that maybe
    the political
    would have
    some type
    of specific
    that their
    would differ
    greatly from
    of course
    that’s hardly

    of course
    always been

    ~ Jon Hillson, Room 19

  23. Lumpen says:

    I don’t think that getting paid some sort of wage is outrageous when somebody is putting in hours of work into the student union. The point is that they don’t get paid disproportionate amounts.

    Who’s outraged? My problem at the time was, and continues to be, the entire model of full-time, paid politicians when other, more democratic models are available. You know, like elected recallable delegates with frequent rotation of positions. That whole democracy thing.

    Look at who sets the wages and how much input students have into the running of these organisations. You might begin to see why it’s problematic beyond the amount of wage paid which, for the record, was fucking ridiculous in those days at RMIT, Melbourne Uni and, to a lesser extent, La Trobe and Monash. (This is around 1999-2004).

    Most students work these days, but being a student being a committed socialist and doing the 12 hours or so of work required at a minimum being a reasonably dedicated student rep means that it’s going to be pretty difficult to maintain a steady job as well.

    I don’t think the solution therefore is to subsidise these committed socialists with money from non-committed students. By all means, pour money into campaigns but I think on principle the money should stay out of the vanguard’s pockets. As one of the few idiots who continued to pay union fees after VSU, it’s annoying to watch.

    Again, the difference between that position and a position supporting a privileged class of technocrats is that these positions are recallable, and are not paid above and beyond the average rate of other workers.

    The process of recall is exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, in all the student unions I’m familiar with. In either case, it’s rarely invoked simply because there aren’t enough students participating to get the numbers to do so. Although I suspect we have very different definitions of “recall” – and how a mandate can be created for delegates.

    The difference between student politicians and technocrats extends far beyond recall and wages. Technocrats, for example, are usually capable at the job they are doing.

    Just lastly, I don’t think being a volunteer is a radical statement, it’s just (usually) that people can afford to be because they’re not living in poverty. Not everyone can afford to be a volunteer, and knowing the people who are involved in the NUS from SA, they’re not exactly drowning in their own wealth.

    As I said above, there are necessary organisational changes for sustainable activism if you’re into the whole student thing. I’m pretty sure that if you go to Melbourne Uni, any privation suffered will be transitory.

    I can tell you first-hand that even when you are both time and fiscally poor, it is possible and not uncommon to volunteer for things. The examples are so numerous it’s hard to know where to begin. Sporting clubs are a better example, but there are a number of political organisations that exist without paid functionaries.

    I meant “voluntary” more as in “free association”, though. Either definition works for me.

    Urgh. Don’t really want to keep talking about the pros and cons of paid politicians in student orgs.

  24. juancastro says:

    I just don’t see why you separate student union work from normal work. You use terms like “subsidising” as opposed to just “paying”, and I really can’t see why. I mean, why not work your day job for free, and donate all your earnings to a charity? Not that I think charities are all that worthwhile, but I’m just struggling to understand your “principled stance”.

    I agree that union reps should be held accountable, and definitely should be recalled if they’re shit. No arguments there. But I think it’s hard to know if they’re shit, because speaking on behalf of the average student, we don’t have a fucking clue what they do. And this is from someone who has/is involved in the open organising committees in the anti-VSU campaigns, etc. at Monash.

    RE Radical democratic forms of organising, I’m with you (assuming you’re an anarchist) on the recallable delegate structure of committees.

    However I don’t think I agree with random rotating delegates. I think some people _are_ better suited to different positions than others, and their skills should be utilised. I know that might be taken as ‘elitist’, but I think a total rejection of meritocracy is being radical to the point of abandoning democracy. For (a stupid) example, somebody with strong analytical/theoretical skills might be better suited to behind-the-scenes work while a naturally gifted orator should be utilising those skills. Similarly, an environmental scientist with a PHD in renewable energy has a logical role to play as permanent (democratically selected) spokesperson, barring others with similar or equivalent qualifications.

    If a non-scientist _wants_ to be the environmental spokesperson, then s/he has to convince the assembly that s/he is worthy of replacing the other comrade. This doesn’t mean that anyone should get paid more than anyone else according to their ‘merit’, but does mean that the person who the _people_ think is the most qualified gets the job. I honestly think that’s more democratic than picking a name out of a box each week.

  25. Soviet Left Faction says:

    Delegates should be elected by a relevant committee for a period of time. VIVA STALIN.

    The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was a socialist proletariat republic and the CPSU was a vanguard of the Soviet proletariat. It reflected the interests of the international working class in it’s policies.

    The USSR started to decline from 1953 onwards.

  26. @ndy says:

    Go to bed Peter, it’s way past your bedtime. You have a big day ahead of you tomorrow, and I don’t want you to be all grumpy in the morning.

  27. Lumpen says:

    Hola juancastro.

    I just don’t see why you separate student union work from normal work.

    Because, theoretically at least, we control the labour that goes into a voluntary association and the form and conditions of this labour, again theoretically, can be set by those conducting the work. At my job, for example, I can’t realistically say “Hey boss, how about someone else does this while I enjoy the weather” and continue to trade my labour for a wage.

    I’m not against recompense per se (according to ability and need, etc), but I think the concept of alienation goes a long way to describe the differences between the two activities. It’s been said elsewhere, but “work” is a vague term that describes many disparate activities, and so is not particularly useful in this kind of discussion without definition.

    I agree that union reps should be held accountable, and definitely should be recalled if they’re shit… But I think it’s hard to know if they’re shit, because speaking on behalf of the average student, we don’t have a fucking clue what they do.

    This is a political problem with an organisational solution if you ask me, and to not address it as a matter of utmost urgency is a good example of the differences between anarchists and trots on an everyday level.

    Accountability is as nonexistent as general participation in student associations. Reps are usually loathe to make themselves accountable (hey, one election is enough!) and collectives are all-too-often impotent. There are notable exceptions; I’ve never seen a women’s department that put up with a shit rep and enviro departments seem to be much more participatory. It is no coincidence that these are the departments with deep connections to movements outside of the association themselves.

    If a non-scientist _wants_ to be the environmental spokesperson, then s/he has to convince the assembly that s/he is worthy of replacing the other comrade.

    You don’t need to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. I see what you’re saying, but generally anarchists strive for the administration of things, not people and political organisation tends to reflect that. I can’t think of any positions of potential power within anarchist groups that require a PhD.

    That kind of specialist knowledge can lend some kind of justified authority (say, doctor over patient) but if I was being ruled by people on the basis of their degree, I’d consider that a tyranny. Again, I fall back to ability and need. Rotation of positions broadens the base within which an organisation can draw from and it isn’t random: it’s voluntary. Within anarchist groups, skilling-up is a major part of the rotation and people aren’t left to struggle with a task on their own.

    But I don’t think the ranks of student politicians, or communist groups, are made up of experts conducting unfathomable tasks. The subject of this blog entry proves as much. I’ve seen people I considered to be mentally, ah, slow rise through the ranks of the ALP from these same student positions. Not experts. Seriously.

  28. juancastro says:

    Before I begin, I have no idea how to do that quote thing that you all seem to be employing so elegantly, so I’m just going to stick to old fashioned quotation marks.

    [< blockquote >Blah blah blah…< / blockquote > but without the gaps…]

    Actually, just rereading your post, there isn’t [much] I need to quote, because I don’t think I disagree with much of what you said!

    Because, theoretically at least, we control the labour that goes into a voluntary association and the form and conditions of this labour, again theoretically, can be set by those conducting the work. At my job, for example, I can’t realistically say “Hey boss, how about someone else does this while I enjoy the weather” and continue to trade my labour for a wage.

    Actually, there are a fair few office jobs that utilise flexi-hours or something along those lines, in which you can start a fair bit later, and make up the time either later that day or another day of the week. Having said that, I still think you have a point about the nature of work in a voluntary organisation… hmm. I think in an ideal world a delegate would get paid for their time, and I think we both agree on that, but given the current situation and relative lack of funding that these organisations have… I’m not sure.

    Still, I think if someone _is_ actually going to spend a decent amount of hours each week doing union stuff, they will need some compensation for that, or else the free time available to do such things will probably dwindle (there’s an underused word) by sheer necessity of having to actually earn enough to survive. Otherwise you might end up with an organisation biased towards the wealthy.

    Rotation of positions broadens the base within which an organisation can draw from and it isn’t random: it’s voluntary. Within anarchist groups, skilling-up is a major part of the rotation and people aren’t left to struggle with a task on their own.

    I completely when it comes to the sort of organisational stuff that takes up most of the time of ‘leaders’ of organisations. In fact, I agree in all cases that I can think of at the moment.

    But I’m going to refer back to the example of a socialist organisation here. The people writing the analysis of the current socio-political climate, they actually are doing something that requires a bit more knowledge and historical perspective. That’s the sort of position I don’t think is necessarily worth rotating for the sake of up-skilling. By all means, have assistants and whatever else to get others involved, but the person with the best analysis/historical knowledge/dedication/whatever else (as decided by everybody) _should_ be in the position that requires that knowledge. And it’s not as if they have any power over anybody. We are all free to disagree with any analysis that is put forward by the national executive, any poster designs, any topic choices, any specific actions at specific rallies, whatever.

    It would be silly for me to replace someone on the national executive for the sake of up-skilling me, given that I have no historical knowledge and almost non-existent experience with contemporary political analysis. On the other hand, I (we are all) encouraged to get involved with all sorts of organising committees, branch meeting stuff, and shit like that. So there is definitely an explicit process of up-skilling members going on.

    I feel like you’re going to disapprove of something I’ve said, so I’m waiting with interest 🙂

    Oh, and I agree that something should be done to get more students involved in student unions. It’s easier wished than done, but it really should be a priority.

  29. Lumpen says:

    Again, I see what you’re saying, but when I talk of the rotation of positions, I mean the necessary roles required to keep an organisation functioning. This is distinct from general activity and following your interests, which of course you’re free to do. It’s called “liberty” and it’s awesome.

    Speaking very broadly and using your example, in an anarchist group it would usually be that someone or a group drafts an article and this can either be adopted by the group, modified or rejected. The decision to write an article might come from an individual taking initiative, or identified as a priority by the group.

    It’s kind of hard to put across how different things are organisationally and politically between anarchists and Leninist. Your priorities, such as branch meetings and national executives, student unions etc, aren’t even on the radar for us – for the most part anyway.

    One way to look at is to see anarchist activity as oriented more toward providing the infrastructure for revolutionary action. In other words, we work to create space where people can relate to each other directly outside of capital. This struggle is not reliant on privilege, although it is true to say that privilege makes it easier to slum it in radical politics. This is why the privileged should be treated with suspicion and mild contempt.

    Recognising the dynamism of capital means understanding that these relations shift and change, particularly as workers make gains and capitalism recuperates. It isn’t up to us to determine what forms these revolutionary relations/organisations take and probably pointless to do so. (PRO TIP: this is a fundamental difference between contemporary Leninism and anarchism.) However, we do know what kind of world we’d like to live in, and are not somehow separate to revolution just because we are working for it in the here and now. Political consciousness for anarchists should mean understanding that the relations must be fatal to capitalism, not a way of making it manageable.

    What I disapprove of is the kind of politics that make you feel too “silly” to be at the forefront of struggle and relegate you to a lesser position. Mick Armstrong, for example, has completely lost touch with reality as a result of cocooning himself in the weird world of Melbourne Uni leftwing politics. The G20 stuff should be more than enough evidence.

    By default, your ability to look at the world and see what problems need addressing (and how to do it) is probably sharper than Mick’s. Remember that next time you see his head lean back and his eyelids do that weird fluttering thing.

    As for getting students into student unions, you’d have to ask yourself “to what end?” If I was still a student, I probably wouldn’t bother waiting for politicians to take the lead. That might be the subject of another discussion.

  30. juancastro says:

    It’s kind of hard to put across how different things are organisationally and politically between anarchists and Leninist. Your priorities, such as branch meetings and national executives, student unions etc, aren’t even on the radar for us – for the most part anyway.

    Yeah you’re definitely right about that. When I tried to get in touch with Melbourne anarchists I discovered that actually, they do very little when it comes to revolutionary work. I mean, what serious revolutionary movement would ignore the request of somebody seeking THEM out looking to join? All that I got out of a month of emails to every organisation (that seemed to exist only in name) in Melbourne was being signed on to some shitty, inactive mailing list.

    This isn’t about bitterness or anything like that. Rather, this abject failure by anarchists to actually use an opportunity to get someone involved with their organisations really backed up the point being made by people in SAlt at the time that anarchists actually aren’t interested in mass movements. Now even to this day I don’t accept much of their polemics against anarchism, but it just seems whatever anarchists exist in Melbourne aren’t actually on the streets building a movement or at any of the protests RE any of the issues that you would think are important to the left, so how the hell (and possibly why the hell) would someone join them.

    Also, branch meetings are a vital part of the organisation, they’re the democratic decision making place, the information sharing zone, the educational inspiration, and place where the organisation clarifies it’s ideas through democratic discussion… Yeah, why would you bother. Much more useful to be at home reading a revolutionary book.

    Sorry if I sound over aggressive, but I have had this discussion before with my Spanish anarcho-cousin. He seems to think what he does (nothing but internet activity on blogs and news sites, and using this activity to promote yomango, okupacions, etc.) is sufficient.

    [Attack of the Anarchoids from Neptune! (June 1, 2008)]

  31. Lumpen says:

    I mean, what serious revolutionary movement would ignore the request of somebody seeking THEM out looking to join?

    LOL. The kind I’m always in. The last twelve months have been weird. There’s been a concerted effort to clear out the dead wood left over after the post-anti-globalisation upsurge and a long period of inactivity in other projects. The group I’m involved in, the Melbourne Anarchist Club, had a moratorium on accepting new members because we felt we didn’t have the organisational capacity to responsibly deal with an expansion. Even then, we could still accept membership applications and non-members are welcome to observe at meetings, so it’s strange that no-one got back to you. All sorted out now though. Couldn’t tell you what the deal with other groups is. 2008 is shaping up to be a good year for anarchy, I reckon. Maybe keep an eye out.

    …the point being made by people in SAlt at the time that anarchists actually aren’t interested in mass movements.

    There’s an element of truth in that. Anarchist groups usually create the space where analysis and experimentation are possible and this is used to to facilitate revolutionary activity. This is usually why anarchist groups don’t bother going to protests en masse, unless there are some lulz to be gained. Then again, there is ADA (Anarchist Direct Action) in Melbourne and Mutiny in Sydney who love that shit.

    Anarchists and Leninists are not equivalent to each other; strategies such as entrism and intervention are antithetical to anarchism. It’s not like joining a political party because we’re not seeking to lead by decree and policy, but by example. Clearly the Party structure is far more efficient on the level of commandeering, intervention and disciplined action – authoritarianism isn’t without its advantages. However, in the long-term I’m fairly convinced that a federative structure based on liberty and mutual aid is the best way to go.

    By the same criteria, couldn’t you call the SAlt project an abject failure? Ten years of activity and they have failed to build significant connections outside of students at Melbourne University, they are hated by pretty much everyone familiar enough with them who isn’t a member and consistently failed to take a leadership role in any protest movement. Funnily enough, the peers of SAlt that are usually the target of the most criticism have been far more successful: the environment movement for example have been kicking goals for quite awhile now, and students involved have taken a leadership role.

    On a tangential note, the SAlt obsession with “autonomists” is based on great exaggerations. I can only guess that it’s written for purely internal purposes. In the student movement, at its height there were probably 30 self-identified autonomists whose main activity was making excellent pamphlets (Rebel Dave might be able to confirm if he’s reading). From memory, identity politics and autonomists were deliberately, and misleadingly, conflated. Don’t believe the hype.

    My limited experience of SAlt branch meetings is that they are a pageant designed to convince members there is democracy because debate is conducted within the narrow terms set out by the leaders. Positions are already worked out by the Central Committee and it’s up to the branches to ratify them. Failure to do so is usually met with charges of personal failure or moving to the Right. Fuck reading revolutionary books: I’d rather stay at home and watch Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.

    Don’t worry about sounding overly aggressive. Just the cut and thrust of a discussion between opposing sides. I’m not taking it personally!

  32. @ndy says:


    On November 23, 2007 — that is, less than three months ago — you wrote:

    I’ve only recently begun identifying as an anarchist after a long period of flirting with the idea. I was involved with Socialist Alternative for 5 months or so but grew tired of their elitist, dogmatic and sectarian’ish ways.

    On February 7, 2008, you write:

    All that I got out of a month of emails to every organisation (that seemed to exist only in name) in Melbourne was being signed on to some shitty, inactive mailing list.

    I’m not sure, but it may be that the “shitty, inactive mailing list” you refer to above is the Australian Anarchy Bulletin Board — the forum in which you wrote the statement regarding your disappointment at the “elitist, dogmatic and sectarian’ish ways” of SAlt.

    As one of the Administrators on AABB, I’m the person who responded to your initial contact and, on the basis of your agreement with the statement inre the AABB’s rules and regulations, approved your membership.

    That’s a matter of record.

    In light of the above, ideologically speaking, it seem to me that you’re somewhat confused. Further, I think that you’re making the mistake of generalising from your own experience. In other words, because you believe yourself to have been rebuffed, you assume this must be the case for all others.

  33. juancastro says:

    I will happily admit to being somewhat confused, but that confusion isn’t helped by the (ostensible or real?) inaction of Melbourne Anarchists to reach out to someone wanting to find out more.

    I’m learning the SAlt perspective on things, but who is out there presenting the anarchist perspective? The anarchist guide to action? Where are the anarchist cells, and what are they doing? I’ve tried to find out for a while, and indeed, all I got in return was a subscription to a shitty inactive mailing list. Do you contest that description?

    And I think it IS reasonable to generalise from my experience given that it seems to reflect a certain ideological antipathy – or at least, apathy – that anarchists have towards building a movement. The alternative is that everyone is still on holiday, or (and this is something you might have foreshadowed with your use of the word “rebuffed”) I wasn’t considered radical enough to be included. Either way, whatever! I’m not upset because I want to be included, I’m upset because I genuinely WOULD like to find out more about a serious anarchist response to the socialist programme, and your alternative.

    [Attack of the Anarchoids from Neptune! (June 1, 2008)]

  34. juancastro says:

    Oh, I still think there are members who are far too sectarian, but I think my perception of dogmatism was confused with clarity. Ditto RE elitism.

    But again, where are the anarchists for the wannabes of this world to discuss these issues with?

    [Attack of the Anarchoids from Neptune! (June 1, 2008)]

  35. grumpy cat says:

    Lumpen wrote

    In the student movement, at its height there were probably 30 self-identified autonomists whose main activity was making excellent pamphlets (Rebel Dave might be able to confirm if he’s reading). From memory, identity politics and autonomists were deliberately, and misleadingly, conflated.

    I think the numbers would be roughly accurate – though at the time “autonomist” was often used to describe some one who was a non/anti-Leninist Marxist – more people were probably into the Sits and Mai68 than operismo or autonomia. For example Love and Rage was described as a “collective of the autonomous Left” – there was a clear emphasis on “autonomous” not “autonomist”. From memory the bulk of the pamphlets they produced were just anarcho/left. Only one, a debate between Zanny Begg (then DSP) and Harry Cleaver with an essay by Sergio Fiedler was clearly autonomist. Though many of the documents Sergio wrote did set an autonomist tone for the group.

    The collective I was in Wollongong Revolutionary Action had a core of autonomists in it but our politics were much broader – you can find our archives here.

    The most prolific pamphlets publishers was/is Treason from Canberra. At least half of this very small collective was deeply hostile to autonomism and I don’t think anything we published was clearly autonomist – except a pamphlet by Harry Cleaver.

    As for activity I think the majority of autonomist types were actually pretty deeply involved in campaigns and struggles – in a mode of activity largely similar to anarchists – though perhaps more hostile to formal organisation. I know that groups of autonomists were involved in social centres in Sydney, anti-borders stuff etc. Out of this milieu I think there is only a handful of us who are still really “autonomists” – other writers like Agamben or Brown have started to have a larger influence. After Multitude many people became disillusioned with Negri. It is, for sure, his most reformist work and shows the really [acute?] problems with his thinking. I still love it and think it is one of the best pieces of political writing in the last ten years.

    But yeah SAlt went hard trying to distort and destroy autonomist influences. As @ndy writes here the IS tendency lost a lot of people, often key members, to autonomism. Some went on to do great things: like what i previously thought was called Autonomy & Solidarity but is now called Upping the Anti.

    rebel love

  36. @ndy says:


    In November 2007 you identified yourself as an anarchist. Further, you claimed to have been “involved with” SAlt (as a member?) for a period five months some time prior to this (presumably at some point during 2007). You also claimed that the reason you were no longer involved was because SAlt had proven to be elitist, dogmatic and sectarian.

    Less than three months later, in February 2008, you declared that you were a member of SAlt. Following this, you noted that, in your opinion, the anarchist critique of Bolshevism was elitist. You then declared, among other things, that I was wasting my time blogging about neo-Nazis, that anarchists do very little when it comes to “revolutionary work”, that I am “ultra-sectarian” and should probably stick to being a “sideline theoretician”.

    All this in the space of literally a few days.

    In terms of reaching out, as I’ve already noted, when you applied to join the AABB — and you still haven’t made it clear whether this is the shittiness you refer to as having joined — I responded, and approved your membership. I’ve also gone to some lengths to respond to your comments here. As far as I’m aware, in doing so, I haven’t abused you, but rather taken your enquiries seriously. (Please note in this context that there have been almost 4,000 comments (including my own) on my blog in total, from all kinds of odds and sods.) As such, I believe I’ve done quite a lot to ‘reach out’ to you.

    Do you contest that description [of local anarchist shittiness]?

    Yes, absolutely, both for the reasons outlined above and for others.

    And I think it IS reasonable to generalise from my experience given that it seems to reflect a certain ideological antipathy – or at least, apathy – that anarchists have towards building a movement.

    Yes and no. I personally have been involved, both directly and indirectly, in a number of different anarchist projects, and over a period of several years. On the other hand, my blog is subtitled “Anarchy and apathy battle it out on @ndy’s blog” so, y’know…

    Finally, my use of the term “rebuffed” was chosen on the basis of its most accurately summarising your experience. That is: according to to you, you were rebuffed. Beyond this, you would need to inform me exactly which groups you contacted.

    On autonomy and student politics:

    I don’t remember when I first encountered the concept; I think it may have been some time in the early ’90s, and possibly in the context of reading German and Italian political history and in particular that of the social movements of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. I can recall attending a seminar at which I picked up a copy of Harry Cleaver’s essay on ‘Kropotkin, Self-Valorization and the Crisis of Marxism’ around this time (I think it was being distributed by Steve or possibly Bruce); at the same time I was exploring local anarchist community and University libraries and reading all kindsa stuff, so who knows. In other words, the ideas were about — and I mean the concept of ‘autonomy’ in a Marxist sense, found also in the work of Socialism ou Barbarie / Solidarity / Cornelius Castoriadis — but I think it only really became a force on the student left (in Australia) a little later, I think as one of the symptoms of the crisis Cleaver refers to in his essay. As for numbers, I’ve got no idea — I principally associate this tendency with groups such as Revolutionary Action in Wollongong (1999), Love and Rage in Sydney (1998) and (I think) another mob called Red & Black…

    L&R emerged from Left Alliance, and was originally titled the ‘Libertarian Communist Collective’. It appeared to attract a number of students disillusioned by their participation in other Marxist (that is, Leninist / Trotskyist) parties such as SAlt and the ISO. I always regarded it as being a leftist political formation, with a somewhat tenuous relationship to anarchism; an expression of a (more) libertarian tendency within Marxism (also given a more thoroughgoing ideological expression by folks such as Daniel Guerin and the Cohn-Bendits in France).

    The debate which took place between former DSP member Zanny Begg and Harry Cleaver I remember reading at the time; as well as being a painful lesson in why it’s not always advisable to pick fights with University professors, I think it was an indication that ‘autonomism’ of some sort had well and truly arrived on campus. (Funnily enough, Zanny now makes approving references to the dastardly autonomists.)

    Regarding Sergio’s work, I can remember reading some of it, and having sharp disagreements. These were expressed primarily online, although I did have an opportunity to meet him in 2002. Curiously, in a manner akin to Zanny’s own shift in perspective, I believe Sergio is now much closer to Lenin.

    In any case, one of the culminating points for all this yak was the ‘The Italian Effect’ conference in 2004 at the University of Sydney, described in the Cultural Studies Review, Vol. 11, No. 2, Chris Healy and Stephen Muecke (eds):

    The September 2005 issue of Cultural Studies Review hosts a special section on ‘the Italian effect’. The essays here focus on the influence of radical Italian thought and its unique way of combining theory with political and cultural practices in diverse spheres from media activism and net culture to feminism. Essays consider the work of key thinkers such as Antonio Negri, Paolo Virno and Giorgio Agamben, and the impact of ‘Italian thought’ on emergent forms of research and activism both internationally and in Australia. Guest edited by Michael Goddard and Brett Neilson, this section features writing from leading Italian cultural theorist and media activist Franco Berardi (Bifo).

    More generally, Steve Wright’s book Storming Heaven: Class Composition and Struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism is the standard English-language history of autonomia and operaismo.

    (Also of interest in this context: Polemos, Universitas, Brett Neilson & Angela Mitropoulos, Borderlands, Volume 4 Number 1, 2005.)

    Finally, afaik, Upping the Anti is a Canadian publication, with little or no involvement by Australian-based (former) members of L&R. Rather, L&R produced a few issues of a newsletter called ‘Autonomy & Solidarity’, while the mob responsible for producing Anti is also named the ‘Autonomy & Solidarity Network’.

  37. juancastro says:


    Okay, thanks for that brief history of my confusion. Not that this is relevant to the discussion at all, but let me clarify what happened. I join SAlt in May last year, a few weeks after going to the excellent Marxism conference. I then went to Spain for 5 weeks and had many chats with a cousin heavily into anarchist ideas, but who has done sweet FA for the three years since he stopped being a communist. So while his ideas seemed fine for the most part, I was already a bit wary of an ideology that was so sceptical of the need for strong organisation.

    I then went to Lebanon to see my family for a bit and then Alice Springs for a few months, and arrived back in Melbourne around the time of that email. I had heard some critiques of Communism from my cousin, and many of those played on (mis?)conceptions common in the media, so I was a bit uneasy about being a member again, and this during this period I was going through some heavy internal debates, doing a lot of research on the net, reading texts from both movements, etc. After going to a few more SAlt meetings again, and bringing these questions up with some people, I was convinced, if not by everything they said against anarchism, but at least enough to join for now, and here’s the clincher: ESPECIALLY since I had heard nothing back from any anarchists in Melbourne.

    I’m sorry, but you can’t compare this blog and your (well researched, and interesting) responses to my questions and an inactive anarchist bulletin board to a weekly meeting where 30 people get together and discuss politics for 4-5 hours, and a clear commitment by the organisation to go to every rally or protest in Melbourne. They just don’t stack up. Hence my comments that anarchists seem to be doing very little revolutionary work.

    But again, I was referring to the inactive mailing list as shitty, not the entire anarchist movement in Melbourne. I still haven’t found it in order to judge it…

    [Attack of the Anarchoids from Neptune! (June 1, 2008)]

  38. Lumpen says:

    As I’ve said to Dave previously, I can honestly say that the trots just don’t get much of a look-in, even in general conversation, in anarchist circles. They’re just an irrelevance to what we’re doing. Except for the G20 stuff, where a couple of them went out of their way to attack anarchist groups, we seem to move in very different circles.

    The last quasi-big gathering of anarchists in Melbourne recently there were around 40 people, mostly young (under thirty), only about a third were from organised groups. For such purposes I counted the mentions of the trots, because of the conversation I had with Dave got me thinking that the terrain has changed so much in the last three years. There was a grand total of four or five mentions throughout the course of a day where much, much alcohol was consumed. Pretty interesting considering a large lot of people were students.

    “Sectarian” is one of those words that gets used a lot, like “right winger”, as an insult more than analysis. But you know what? Fuck it. I’m on the side of liberty and anarchy. I’m openly classist. Most of these student Marxists are only around for a couple of years and then fuck off, most are a bunch of red-lacquered fascists anyway and I can’t fucking stand them. If they robbed their parents blind and gave me the proceeds, I might take their position on class a bit more seriously.

    I do, however, find the exploits of the hard left interesting.

    This blog really is the last refuge of the diminishing group of Left trainspotters in Melbourne. It’s a weird hobby, probably as socially useful as that of our vehicular counterparts, but then there’s no accounting for taste. I find it pretty annoying that even a bit of self-indulgence in these matters is met with (whatever is the radical equivalent of) moral panic.

    I was being a bit facetious when I said the main activity of the autonomists was producing pamphlets (I still have a bunch and they are fucking excellent). I was involved on the periphery of Love & Rage and have nothing but huge respect for their legacy, problems and all, and the same goes for RA. I think I was trying to say that I saw the L&R tendency as more of a reflection of what was already happening, particularly amongst enviro, queer and women’s movements on campus, which is why I liked them so much; the organisation was a reflection of theory and practice. Pretty good for a student group, I reckon.

  39. @ndy says:


    First, the point of my recounting your account of your recent political evolution was to indicate why I think you’re confused in terms of your political perspective. This is, generally, how I read rapid changes in such. On the other hand, I recounted the fact that I personally responded to your enquiries in order to demonstrate that a) you claimed to identify as an anarchist and b) to confirm that you had in fact received a response to your enquiries of local anarchists. Further, I repeat: ‘exactly which anarchist groups did you contact?’.

    Secondly, I’m not trying to compare the contents or function of this blog to regular weekly meetings. Rather, the point is that this blog functions as a forum in which you are able to publish your views and I have spent considerable time responding to them.

    Finally, if it’s the case that what you want is an opportunity to attend regular weekly meetings of 30 people in which politics is discussed for 4-5 hours, and an organisation whose members commit themselves to attending every political rally in Melbourne, then SAlt may well be your organisation of choice. (Although you may also like to consider the DSP.) The politics of the organisation, in this instance, is secondary to its engaging in regular activity of a sort you find compatible with your interest in face-to-face discussion and participation in public protest. Nevertheless, to conclude on this basis that anarchists do very little ‘revolutionary work’ — assuming that attending weekly meetings and many public rallies is indeed ‘revolutionary’ — is mistaken.

  40. Lumpen says:

    You need to imagine the soundtrack when I write entries like that above. This is my current favourite song, btw. The middle eight will make you loose your shit. Now carry on.

  41. @ndy says:

    HEEEEEELLLL YEEEEEEEAAA! Nubian godess? Naturally black and beautiful? Soul Power Princess? Mother Earth?! I kno, Im feelin ya. Still waitin to [be] blessed with my OWN Soul Sista so I can become whole!

  42. Lumpen says:

    So racist.

  43. @ndy says:

    Blame sjragin.

  44. Lumpen says:

    Is “sjragin” like “rahowa”?

  45. Asher says:

    “I’d rather stay at home and watch Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.”

    So would I, but it’s a fucking cool program, so that’s not saying much. Leftist trainspotting is fun – pity you don’t have cult members like http://newzeal. blogspot.com over there to make it even more interesting though!

  46. Lumpen says:

    I was just saying to my partner that I find New Zealand incomprehensible. Eskies are called chilly bins, milk bars are called dairies and the natives are allowed to buy alcohol and pornography. Talk about topsy-turvy!

    The other song on high rotation:

  47. Asher says:

    Least we know what a duvet is. Seriously, doona? WTF were you thinking? And you do realise what thongs are in the rest of the world, right?

  48. Lumpen says:

    Oh, a duvet. Sounds French and fancy. I believe thongs are called “flip flops” in the rest of the world. I also believe that John Farnham could beat Dave Dobbin in a fistfight.

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