Anarchist Science Fiction

by Iain McKay
It is with a sad heart that I write this article – Iain Banks, the Scottish writer, has died at a far too early age. Reading the many interviews and obituaries, it is obvious that one of the good guys has shuffled off this moral coil. In terms of his writings, I’ve only read his science fiction works and I would recommend them to all anarchist SF fans – particularly the Culture series.
To be honest, I’m surprised by how sad it makes me feel to think that there will be no more Culture books. I read The Hydrogen Sonata this year, which was fun (although not as fun as Surface Detail – particularly the wonderful chapter sketching the rise of artificial heavens and hells). I’ve read them all and the only one I found disappointing was Matter and even that was worth reading (it mentions anarchist revolutionaries!). My one quibble is that the books tend to have somewhat anti-climactic endings – Banks builds up the story, the ideas, the threat so well that when it ends it always seems somewhat less than hoped for. However, while the destination may be less than hoped for the journey makes it worthwhile.
For those who don’t know, the Culture is a post-scarcity communist/anarchist utopia and it does present a fun vision of a free society. So in terms of SF it gives a glimpse, particularly the novella The State of the Art in which Culture agents visit Earth in 1977 and the obvious contrasts are made:
On Earth one of the things that a large proportion of the locals is most proud of is this wonderful economic system which, with a sureness and certainty so comprehensive one could almost imagine the process bears some relation to their limited and limiting notions of either thermodynamics or God, all food, comfort, energy, shelter, space, fuel and sustenance gravitates naturally and easily away from those who need it most and towards those who need it least. Indeed, those on the receiving end of such largesse are often harmed unto death by its arrival, though the effects may take years and generations to manifest themselves.
I particularly liked the speech by a Culture member noting that, compared to Earthlings, he was the richest man alive as he had access to the vast economic, social and cultural wealth of a vast chunk of the universe but he was also the poorest man alive as he owned none of it. Banks was clearly a man who understood what Proudhon was getting at, the core idea of socialism which recognizes the difference between use-rights and property-rights. He did, however, indicate a certain attachment to central planning (as indicated in The State of the Art and in an interview I read). Suffice to say, if central planning requires hyper-intelligent super-computers to work then just as well proclaim that all we need is fairy dust as well.
Which is one of the many reasons I love Ursula le Guin’s The Dispossessed – it remains my favorite anarchist SF novel precisely because it does not invoke technology much more advanced than we have and, moreover, suggests that a free society will not be perfect, will face difficult decisions, will face problems. The Culture is fun and expresses the mind-set well, but it is utopian. She also clearly understands anarchism and the anarchist mind-set as shown by The Dispossessed and the excellent short story “The Day Before the Revolution.” If you have not read her works, do yourself a favor and do so – starting with The Dispossessed! You can tell that her parents were anthropologists given the richness of her work.
Reading David Graeber’s Debt (which I would urge you to do, as it is an important work) two things struck home. Graeber notes the poverty of imagination of most economists (who basically project a money economy backwards and then remove the money, causing them to invent a barter system which no tribal society ever had). Second, the poverty of imagination of most SF writers (particularly the “classic” ones from the mid-20th Century) whose characters are white, male, middle-class Americans in space. In terms of fantasy, much the same can be said – Conan’s world is just our world’s history with slightly different names.
This point was made by another one of my favorite writers, Michael Moorcock in his essay “Starship Stormtroopers.” This first appeared in Cienfuegos Press Anarchist Review (the anarchist movement needs something like this these days), but I first read it as part of The Opium General which also included a review of Michael Malet’s book on Nestor Makhno. These got me aware of anarchism and when I read the introduction to The Anarchist Reader and the extracts on Makhno in it, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the ideas I had developed by myself had a name – anarchism. And talking of Makhno, Moorcock has him fighting Stalin in an alternative 1940s in the fun The Steel Tsar, the final part of his A Nomad of the Time Streams trilogy regarding the adventures of Captain Oswald Bastable. The first book in this series (The Warlord of the Air) also has anarchists in it. Both are worth reading.
I should also mention Marge Piercy’s Women on the Edge of Time and Body of Glass, both excellent (her City of Darkness, City of Light is also excellent, set during the French Revolution it made me read finally read Kropotkin’s The Great French Revolution – something else I would urge revolutionary anarchists to do). And it would be remiss of me not to mention Alan Moore, specifically V for Vendetta. Do not let the film put you off. Its best bits are those taken straight from the book and the politics are gutted, anarchism being mention once – when someone shouts “Anarchy in the UK” after stealing from a shop when the totalitarian surveillance system goes down! The book itself is a classic and V’s speech to the nation is a brilliant piece of anarchist propaganda. And, no, it is not an inspiration for anarchist tactics (as some clueless Marxists suggested when the film came it) as it is, obviously, a superhero comic.
I should also mention the ex-Trotskyist (and friend of Iain Banks) Ken MacLeod and his Fall Revolution series, which I did not particularly like. I read The Stone Canal first, being drawn in by it starting at Glasgow University (which I attended long after MacLeod). The “anarcho”-capitalist utopia is unpleasant, as you would expect, but the end suggested that The Cassini Division, with its libertarian socialist utopia, would be more interesting. It was, although very much a Marxist-inspired stateless communist utopia, and unlike the rest of the series, it was the only one I wanted to know how it ended. I then read The Star Fraction and The Sky Road, neither of which appealed. Finally, Leninist China Mieville. I’ve read two of his books (Perdido Street Station and Iron Council) and they were enjoyable enough (I would say they were a bit long, but I cannot complain about others on that score!). They were very imaginative, so it came as a surprise to discover he was then a member of the British SWP! Saying that, Iron Council did show his SWP politics by taking Marx’s “revolutions are the locomotives of history” a bit too literally, not to mention “the anarchist passion” of one of the protagonists (who very much acts in terms of “propaganda by the deed” which does seem to be the Leninist notion of “real” libertarian tactics!). Still, Mieville seems to have made the right decisions in terms of the recent crisis in the SWP which is good news and I would by far to prefer to pick up with one of his books than MacLeod (to be totally honest).
I’m sure that there are other SF and Fantasy writers and works of a libertarian nature – who would you recommend?

The Collectivist Transition

by Jeff Stein

Anarchist economics began with Proudhon but eventually developed into two schools of thought: anarcho-syndicalism with its emphasis on mass production industries in an urban environment, and anarchist-communism with its emphasis on egalitarian distribution and small-scale communities. Both these theories developed out of anarcho-collectivism, a radical economic federalism developed by the libertarian elements of the (First) International Workingmen’s Association. Its principal advocates were Michael Bakunin and James Guillaume, but the real credit for the theory of collectivism should go to the workers belonging to the International, who took the various socialist and trade union economic ideas of the time and modified them in light of their own experience.

The Limits of Proudhonian Economics

The collectivists shared a number of ideas with the followers of Proudhon in the International, in particular the concepts of workers self-management of industry and economic federalism. On the other hand they saw a need to go beyond the sort of utopian thinking that led the Proudhonists to believe capitalism might be transformed by the growth of worker cooperatives and mutualist credit. By the time the International was formed in 1864, worker cooperatives had been experimented with for several decades and by now were floundering. In the last years of his life, even Proudhon was forced to admit the cooperative movement was not developing as he had hoped:

Not many years later, in 1857, he severely criticized the existing workers’ associations; inspired by naive, utopian illusions, they had paid the price of their lack of experience. They had become narrow and exclusive, had functioned as collective employers, and had been carried away by hierarchical and managerial concepts. All the abuses of capitalist companies “were exaggerated further in these so-called brotherhoods.” They had been torn by discord, rivalry, defections, and betrayals. Once their managers had learned the business concerned, they retired to “set up as bourgeois employers on their own account.” In other instances, the members had insisted on dividing up the resources. In 1848 several hundred workers’ associations had been set up; nine years later only twenty remained. (Guerin, pp. 47-48)

These same observations were made by the members of the International:

The English section reported on cooperatives. Without denying the usefulness of cooperative organizations, it indicated a dangerous tendency noticeable in a majority of such bodies in England, which were beginning to develop into purely commercial and capitalist institutions, thus creating the opportunity for the birth of a new class – the working bourgeoisie. (Maximoff, p. 47)

The small, isolated, under-capitalized worker cooperatives could barely survive in competition with their better established capitalist rivals. The few cooperatives that prospered, often betrayed their working class supporters and began to operate as though their facilities were their own private property, aided and abetted by the laws and existing capitalist businesses. The failings of the cooperatives had raised the thorny issue of how to turn the socialization of the means of production from an ideal into a practical reality. The solution suggested by the collectivists was to expropriate the means of production from the capitalists and for the workers’ associations to own these “collectively,” no longer recognizing any individual ownership rights to divide up and sell them. The third Congress of the International accordingly passed a resolution that the main purpose of the cooperatives must go beyond narrow self-interest. Instead their purpose must be support the struggle “to wrench from the hands of the capitalists the means of production and return them to their rightful owners, the workers themselves.” (Guillaume, p. 70)

As we have seen, in The Principle of Federation (1863), Proudhon began to sketch the outlines of a sort of economic federalism before he died. This did not, however, prevent his mutualist followers from trying to defend his earlier ideas. At the 1869 Basel Congress of the International, a dispute arose over a resolution calling for the collectivization of the land. The Proudhonists held out for the right of small farmers to own land privately, as long as they did not rent out the land for others to work. Tolain, speaking for the mutualists, suggested the resolution be changed to read,

The Congress declares that, to realize the emancipation of the worker, it must transform the leases of farmland…to contracts of sale: so that ownership, continually in circulation, ceases to be abusive in itself; and consequently [by ensuring the individual worker the right to the product of his labors]…safeguards the liberty of the individual groups. (Guillaume, p. 197)

Bakunin, speaking for the collectivists, disputed the notion that private property, even in a limited form, was justified as a means for safeguarding individual rights.

…the individual is a product of society, and without society man is nothing. All productive labor is above all social labor; “production is only possible through the combination of the labor of past generations with the present generation, there is not ever labor that can be called individual labor.” He [Bakunin] is thus a supporter of collective property, not only of the soil, but of all social wealth. As for the organization of agricultural production, it is concluded by the solidarization of the communes, as proposed by the majority of the commission, all the more willingly that this solidarization implies the organization of society from the bottom upwards, while the proposition of the minority presupposes a State [to guarantee and enforce the terms of sale]. (Guillaume, p. 197)

To be fair to Proudhon and the mutualists, their waffling on the issue of private property was not so much due to ambivalence about collective ownership, as an example of the extremes they were prepared to go to avoid a revolutionary confrontation. Mutualist credit was intended to produce “a new economic arrangement” which would somehow avoid the “shock” of violent confrontation with the capitalists over their property rights. To the collectivists, who were veterans of bitter labor strikes and insurrections, this was hopelessly idealistic. Capitalism had not originated out of a peaceful, democratic debate as to how to organize production to ensure economic justice and well-being for all, but was the product of centuries of fraud, theft, and State-sponsored violence. Proudhon often ignored that these activities were as much a part of the functioning of the existing economy as was the official market side of capitalism. The State and the capitalists would not disappear with a new set of rules, since they, more often than not, did not play by their own rules.

Although Proudhon had discovered many of the contradictions of capitalist economics, his non-confrontational solutions were just too out of touch with reality. What the anarchists needed was to base their economics less on moral arguments than on a positivist materialism. As Bakunin put it:

…Proudhon remained an incorrigible idealist all his life, swayed at one moment by the Bible and at the next by Roman Law …His great misfortune was that he never studied natural science and adopted its methods….As a thinker Marx is on the right path. He has set up the principle that all religious, political and legal developments in history are not the cause but the effect of economic developments. Many others before him had a hand in the unveiling of it and even expressed it in part, but in the last resort credit is due to him for having developed the idea scientifically and having made it the basis of his whole scientific teaching. On the other hand, Proudhon understood the idea of freedom better than Marx. (Jackson, pp. 128-129)

Collectivism and Marxism

The criticism Bakunin made of Proudhon’s idealism was perhaps a kinder version of the same criticism Marx had made in The Poverty of Philosophy. It is on the basis of such statements, as well as his praise for Marx’s Capital, that some argue that Bakunin shared the economic views of Marx. In reality Bakunin and his fellow collectivists differed with Marx on economic grounds as well as on political matters. Bakunin did begin a translation of Capital into Russian, but never completed it. Had his enthusiasm for the work been as overwhelming as some claim, he would no doubt have finished it and collected the remainder of the sum agreed upon by the Russian publishing house (instead of getting expelled at the Hague Congress of the International for allegedly threatening the publisher in order to get out of the deal). A closer look at what Bakunin thought about Capital reveals his real reason for admiring the work:

…nothing, that I know of, contains an analysis so profound, so luminous, so scientific, so decisive and if I can express it thus, so merciless an expose of the formation of bourgeois capital and the systematic and cruel exploitation that capital continues exercising over the work of the proletariat. The only defect of this work…is that it has been written, in part, in a style excessively metaphysical and abstract…which makes it difficult to explain and nearly unapproachable for the majority of workers. (Bakunin, p. 195)

Bakunin, more the revolutionary than the economist, admired Capital as a great piece of revolutionary propaganda. Marx, drawing his facts and figures out of British government documents and parliamentary debates, had hoisted the capitalists by their own petards. This does not mean he endorsed it verbatim. Bakunin had earlier translated The Communist Manifesto into Russian and made no bones about his disagreements with Marx and Engels over their proposals for a centralized state socialist economy.

I am not a communist because communism concentrates and absorbs all the powers of society into the state, because it necessarily ends in the centralization of property in the hands of the state…I want society and collective property to be organized from the bottom upwards by means of free association and not from the top downwards by means of some form of authority…it is in this sense that I am a collectivist. (quoted in Cahm, p. 36)

Rather than a State or a market determining the allocation of resources and the distribution of products, the workers would decide these things themselves by free agreements among the associations. These agreements would be monitored by the communes, and industrial federations to make sure that labor was not exploited. Bakunin, however, recognized that any system of free exchange of products still held the danger of monopoly and private accumulation of wealth, particularly by the self-employed farmer or artisan, who tried to pass on land or equipment to his children. Thus he also called for the abolition of inheritance to prevent the rise of a new working class bourgeoisie.

The International debated the subject of inheritance at its Basel Congress in 1869. Marx was opposed to the International taking a position on the subject of inheritance on the grounds that once the private ownership of the means of production had been abolished (and expropriated by the workers’ government), there would be nothing left to inherit. Even worse, it implied the International would support something other than the state communism of Marx. As Eccarius, speaking for Marx, put it,

the abolition of the right of inheritance can not be the point of departure for the same social transformation: it would be too absurd to require the abolition of the law of supply and demand while continuing the state of conditions of exchange; it would be a reactionary theory in practice. By treating the laws of inheritance, we suppose necessarily that individual ownership of the means of production would continue to exist. (Guillaume, p. 201)

Eccarius was half right. Bakunin and the other collectivists intended that something other than the state ownership of the means of production and central control would exist, but it would not necessarily be capitalist ownership nor a market economy. The full collectivization of the economy would not be carried out by a single decree, but over a generation. Abolition of wage labor by the collectivization of the capitalist employers would be the first step, but the right of the self-employed, particularly the small farmer, to their means of livelihood would be respected. To recognize this right of possession to the tools needed for one’s own labor, however, was not to recognize an ownership right that could be bought and sold or passed on to one’s children. This was the meaning behind the collectivist demand for the abolition of inheritance.

If after having proclaimed the social liquidation, we attempted to dispossess by decree millions of small farmers, they would necessarily be thrown onto the side of reaction, and in order for them to submit to the revolution, it would be necessary to employ force against them…It would be well then to leave them possessors in fact of those small parcels of which they are proprietors. But if you don’t abolish the right of inheritance what would happen? They would transfer their holdings to their children…

If, to the contrary, at the same time that you would make the social liquidation… you abolish the right of inheritance what would remain with the peasants? Nothing but defacto possession, and that possession… no longer sheltered by the protective power of the state, would easily be transformed under the pressure of events and of revolutionary forces. (Bakunin, quoted by Guillaume, p. 203)

The Collectivist Economic Doctrine

Collectivism, unlike Proudhon’s Mutualism or Marxism, was not a well developed theory, the product of a single mind. Its principal advocates were socialist revolutionaries and workers caught up in the events of the time: the upheavals of 1848 which occurred throughout Europe, the birth of the labor unions, and the Paris Commune of 1871. As far as they could tell, a social revolution was not an abstract goal looming far off in the distance, but something that had to be prepared for right away. Some sort of workable economic program had to be agreed upon by the labor movement, which had broad appeal to the various socialist and labor groupings that made up the International, without locking everyone into something they might regret later. This explains why collectivism often was so sketchy in details, and some of its advocates disagreed among themselves over various points.

The closest thing to a “definitive” statement of collectivism is an essay written by James Guillaume in 1874, “Ideas on Social Organization” (see Dolgoff, pp. 356-379). Guillaume begins by emphasizing that there can be no “blueprint” for social revolution, since it must be left up to the workers themselves to decide how best to organize themselves in their own areas. However, having said that, he begins to make various suggestions about the collectivist approach. First the system of wage labor will be abolished by the workers “taking possession” of all capital and tools of production, i.e. the collectivization of property. The self-employed and the owners of family businesses are to be left alone to operate as they wish, but with this important exception: “his former hired hands, if he had any, will become his partners and share with him the products which their common labor extracts from the land.” (Dolgoff, p. 359)

The internal organization of the worker collectives, working conditions, hours, distribution of responsibilities, and share of income, etc., are to be left in the hands of their members: “Each workshop, each factory, will organize itself into an association of workers who will be free to administer production and organize their work as they think best, provided that the rights of each worker are safeguarded and the principles of equality and justice are observed.” (Dolgoff, p. 363, my emphasis)

However the fact that the collectivists were willing to tolerate those groups which decided to distribute income according to hours worked, does not mean the collectivists believed in the principle, “to each according to their work.” As Guillaume makes clear, this is only justified (where it is practiced) as a temporary expedient, to discourage over-consumption during the transition period when capitalist conditions of scarcity will not yet have been overcome.

In some communities remuneration will be in proportion to hours worked; in others payment will be measured by both the hours of work and the kind of work performed; still other systems will be experimented with to see how they work out. The problem of property having been resolved, and there being no capitalists placing a tax on the labor of the masses, the question of types of distribution and remuneration become secondary. We should to the greatest possible extent institute and be guided by the principle From each according to his ability, to each according to his need. When, thanks to the progress of scientific industry and agriculture, production comes to outstrip consumption, and this will be attained some years after the Revolution, it will no longer be necessary to stingily dole out each worker’s share of goods… (Dolgoff, p. 361)

Although collectivism promotes the greatest autonomy for the worker associations, it should not be confused with a market economy. The goods produced by the collectivized factories and workshops are exchanged not according to highest price that can be wrung from consumers, but according to their actual production costs. The determination of these honest prices is to be by a “Bank of Exchange” in each community (obviously an idea borrowed from Proudhon).

…the [labor] value of the commodities having been established in advance by a contractual agreement between the regional cooperative federations [ie. industrial unions] and the various communes, who will also furnish statistics to the Banks of Exchange. The Bank of Exchange will remit to the producers negotiable vouchers representing the value of their products; these vouchers will be accepted throughout the territory included in the federation of communes. (Dolgoff, p. 366) The Bank of Exchange …[will] arrange to procure goods which the commune is obliged to get from outside sources, such as certain foodstuffs, fuels, manufactured products, etc. These outside products will be featured side by side with local goods…and all goods will be uniformly priced. [Since similar goods all have the same average labor value.] (Dolgoff, p. 367)

Although this scheme bears a strong resemblance to Proudhonian “People’s Banking,” it should be noted that the Banks of Exchange, along with a “Communal Statistical Commission,” are intended to have a planning function as well.

…each Bank of Exchange makes sure in advance that these products are in demand [in order to risk] nothing by immediately issuing payment vouchers to the producers. (p. 367) ….By means of statistics gathered from all the communes in a region, it will be possible to scientifically balance production and consumption. In line with these statistics, it will also be possible to add more help in industries where production is insufficient and reduce the number of men where there is a surplus of production. (Dolgoff, p. 370)

As conditions permit, the exchange functions of the communal banks are to be gradually replaced by the distribution of goods “in accordance with the needs of the consumers.” (p. 368) Until that point is reached, the local community has the responsibility for providing certain basic needs for everyone without regard for production done by that particular individual. Among these essential needs to be distributed freely are education, housing, health, personal security and fire protection, disaster relief, and food services. The worker collectives engaged in these essential communal services will not be required to exchange them for their “labor value,” but “will receive from the commune vouchers enabling them to acquire all commodities necessary for the decent maintenance of their members.” (Dolgoff, p. 365)

Therefore each “commune” is to provide a basic standard of living for all its members during the transitional period leading towards economic abundance. Those people desiring a higher income will be given the right of access to the means of production in order to produce goods both for themselves and for exchange. Each worker collective, however, will not have to shift for itself but will receive assistance from the communes, and local and regional industry associations.

…social organization is completed, on the one hand by the establishment of regional corporative federations comprising all the groups of workers in the same industry; and on the other by the establishment of a federation of communes….The corporative federations will unite all the workers in the same industry; they will no longer unite to protect their wages and working conditions against the onslaughts of their employers, but primarily to guarantee mutual use of the tools of production which are the property of each of these groups and which will by a reciprocal contract become the collective property of the whole corporative federation. In this way, the federation of groups will be able to exercise constant control over production, and regulate the rate of production to meet the fluctuating consumer needs of society….The statistics of production, coordinated by the statistical bureaus of every a rational manner of the hours of labor, the cost price of products and their exchange value, and the quantities in which these products should be produced to meet the needs of consumers. (Dolgoff, pp. 376-377)

A Limited Form of Communism

In his essay, “Must We Apply Ourselves with an Examination of the Ideal of a Future System?”, Peter Kropotkin pointed out that the anarcho-collectivism advocated by Bakunin, Guillaume, and the anarchists in the First International, was actually a variety of anarchist communism, but “in an altered and limited form” (Miller, p. 59). The anarcho-collectivists felt that full communism, ie. the free distribution of all goods and services, would have to wait until the economy had been reorganized and the scarcity artificially created by the capitalist market had been overcome. Until then much of production would be according to the principle of “to each workplace according to their product.” This is not the same as the state collectivists who argued for “to each worker according to their work,” and called for elaborate schemes of income hierarchy. The worst that can be said about the anarcho- collectivists, is that they were willing to tolerate income differences at various workplaces for the sake of giving each collective the autonomy to decide for themselves. This was, however, not their ideal. Even for the transition period, the anarcho-collectivist principle was income equality for all working in the same collective.

Do not the manager’s superior training and greater responsibilities entitle him to more pay and privileges than manual workers? Is not administrative work just as necessary to production as is manual labor – if not more so? Of course, production would be badly crippled, if not altogether suspended, without efficient and intelligent management. But from the standpoint of elementary justice and even efficiency, the management of production need not be exclusively monopolized by one or several individuals. And the managers are not at all entitled to more pay… (Bakunin, quoted in Dolgoff, p. 424)

A much more serious problem for collectivism is the inequality which would inevitably arise between workers due to the exchange of products. The collectivists sought to ameliorate this to a certain extent by giving the investment arm of the communes, the Banks of Exchange, a more activist role in economic planning, and by putting an income floor under all workers by providing free housing, food, and public services. However, this creates further possible sources of inequality, since the communal service workers are supposed to work in return for meeting all their needs regardless of their productivity. Thus a possible source of conflict arises between a communist service sector and an exchange-based production sector. If the production goes well, the communal workers may resent the higher incomes gained by the production workers. If production goes poorly, the production workers may resent the income security of the service workers.

For the collectivists these problems were seen as minor, if recognized at all. Guillaume, for instance, assumed that the material abundance developed during the transitional period would bring about a blossoming of morality, which would soon make the exchange economy irrelevant. Unfortunately, this begs the question, since he did not bother to define what “abundance” is and how we are to know when we have achieved it. We can safely predict that in any future economy there is virtually no limit to human desires for material goods, while there will always be limits to what society and the ecology are able to provide without causing a breakdown. “Abundance” means different things to different people. The danger is that by leaving this point of development undefined, those who may be the economic”winners” of the transitional period, may be unwilling to make the next step.

The Collectivist Legacy

The main contribution of the collectivists to anarchist economics was their attempt to anticipate many of the problems which would be encountered during the revolutionary transition from capitalism to stateless communism, and their emphasis on the need for finding a balance between ultimate goals and day-to-day realities. These methods contributed enormously to the early successes of the 1936 revolution in Spain, where the anarchist movement retained a strong collectivist tradition. The specific proposals made by Guillaume and others, while useful as an example of applying anarchist principles to existing conditions, have lost most of their relevance. We do not live in 19th century europe nor 1930s Spain, but in a high-tech economy threatened by environmental exhaustion. In most industries, technology has developed well beyond the point needed for “abundance” in 19th century terms. This makes the question of defining the minimum level of abundance all the more important for modern anarchists, as well as the more practical problem of how to go beyond a crude exchange economy during the transition.


Bakunin, M. Obras Completas , Volume III. Translated by Santillan, Buenos Aires, 1926.

Cahm, Caroline. Kropotkin and the Rise of Revolutionary Anarchism 1872 – 1886 . Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Dolgoff, Sam. Bakunin on Anarchism. Black Rose Books, Montreal, 1980.

Guerin, Daniel. Anarchism. Monthly Review Press, 1970.

Guillaume, James. L’Internationale : Documents et Souvenirs (1864 – 1878) . Paris, 1905. 4 volumes.

Jackson,J. Marx, Proudhon and European Socialism. Collier, New York, 1966.

Maximoff, G.P. Constructive Anarchism. Chicago, 1952.

Miller, Martin A. Selected Writings on Anarchism and Revolution: P.A. Kropotkin. M.I.T. Press, 1970.

(I would like to thank Nan DiBello for her assistance with this article.)

Bakunin and the Historians

Review Essay by Jon Bekken

“Mikhail Alexandrovich Bakunin, the anarchist, was a political thinker; his reputation, based partly on his appetite for action and partly on unsympathetic historiography, obscures this…” Robert Cutler opens the introduction to his anthology of Bakunin’s writings with these words. Another historian, Nunzio Pernicone, deplores the modern fashion of “Bakunin-bashing.” And Arthur Lehning, in a 1978 review of the historical literature, refers to a conspiracy of silence, suggesting that studying Bakunin inevitably raises basic questions confronting working-class movements – dictatorship vs. liberty, centralism vs. federalism, self-organization vs. a domineering political party.

When Lehning wrote, only the Marxist E.H. Carr’s 1937 biography was available in English (aside from historical sketches in pamphlets, journals, and collections of Bakunin’s work) and few of Bakunin’s writings had been translated into English. But today a substantial number of biographical works, at least compared to the paucity of Bakunin’s own writings, are available in English. In addition to E.H. Carr’s dated but still standard biography, reissued in 1975, readers have been subjected to two popular biographies (Masters, Mendel), a new scholarly biography by Aileen Kelly, a very useful look at Bakunin’s pivotal role in organizing the Italian socialist movement (Ravindranathan), and Thomas’ rather intriguing examination of the way in which Marx borrowed his ideas from, and shaped his arguments in response to, anarchist thinkers including Bakunin and Proudhon.

Masters’, Mendel’s and Kelly’s biographies are quite poor, especially when compared to Carr. Mendel argues (unconvincingly, and on the basis of remarkably few sources) that Bakunin’s revolutionary career and ideas were fundamentally authoritarian and resulted from deep-seated psychological problems. Masters is friendlier to his subject (but sees anarchism as at best a beautiful but impractical dream), but draws almost entirely upon English-language sources, especially Carr, and is written more in the style of a novel than a work of history.

Aileen Kelly’s biography, the newest of the three, purports to be an intellectual biography but (in Cutler’s words) “treats Bakunin as a case study in the social psychology of millenarianism” (p. 234). Kelly is unabashedly hostile, painting Bakunin as an ill- meaning buffoon, misrepresenting key aspects of his life and thought, and disguising missing evidence with circular footnotes. Although historians of Spanish (Esenwein) and Italian (Ravindranathan) anarchism point to the organizational and propagandistic skills Bakunin displayed in those settings, Kelly refuses to allow the historical record to stand in the way of her thesis.

Ravindranathan, however, has written an outstanding book focussing on one of Bakunin’s most productive efforts during his ten years or so as an anarchist (for most of his revolutionary career, Bakunin was a pan-Slavist). Bakunin played a key role in disabusing the nascent Italian revolutionaries of patriotic illusions, and persuaded them that a social, not merely a political, revolution was necessary. As the American Historical Review’s (Dec. 1990, pp. 1576-77) reviewer put it, “Thankfully, Ravindranathan does not indulge in the Bakunin-bashing that has become so fashionable in recent years. Although he does not hesitate to note [indeed, to exaggerate-jb] the Russian’s ideological inconsistencies and personal failings, Ravindranathan portrays Bakunin as a serious and devoted revolutionary, an acute thinker capable of extraordinary insights… and a master propagandist.”

Kelly and Mendel attribute responsibility for Nechaev’s Catechism to Bakunin, even though it has been proven that Bakunin not only did not write it, but vigorously denounced it. (Carr, writing before the evidence was in, makes the same argument on the basis of stylistic similarities and turns of phrase, apparently never considering the fact that authors borrow from, and are influenced by, one another. Avrich’s collection of Anarchist Portraits contains an essay reviewing the evidence on this, and another which attacks Bakunin on scant evidence indeed.) Aside from Carr, the biographies focus their attention on Bakunin’s pre- anarchist period, whether because it was the greater part of his life (though it is his anarchist years for which Bakunin is best remembered, and that account for the continuing historical interest) or because it enables biographers to indulge in their pet theories about why Bakunin turned out so badly.

And make no mistake about it, in the eyes of his biographers (at least his English-language biographers) Bakunin turned out very badly indeed. For Carr, Bakunin is a tragic-comic figure, albeit very human. Masters suggests a greater degree of grandeur in his rewriting of Carr’s work. For Mendel, Bakunin is a villain of the highest order, with an egomaniacal will to dominate and to destroy. Kelly softens this portrait somewhat, leaving Bakunin quite inscrutable. For if he were truly the ineffectual buffoon she describes, he would surely have long since passed into obscurity.

Readers interested in learning the details of Bakunin’s life would do better to look at Guillaume’s highly partisan account, which opens Dolgoff’s anthology, or Shatz’s briefer biographical sketch in the Introduction to his edition of Statism and Anarchy. While Carr is by no means friendly to anarchism, his account too is worth reading. But Ravindranathan’s account, while covering Bakunin’s life from 1814 through 1863 (Bakunin moved to Italy in 1864) in just 16 pages, offers the best book-length English- language biography, covering the years when Bakunin developed and began to propagate his anarchist ideas. Despite its focus on Italy, Bakunin & The Italians illustrates both Bakunin’s methods and his ideas during this vital period (Bakunin retired in ill health in 1874, his final two years receive little attention).

In order to read Bakunin himself, one still often needs to be proficient in French or Russian (preferably both), but there are now four widely-available English-language anthologies of Bakunin’s writings (Dolgoff, Cutler, Lehning and Maximoff), alongside the long-available God and the State (published by Dover in 1970) and Marshall Shatz’s new translation of Statism and Anarchy – one of Bakunin’s few more-or-less completed books, and his last major theoretical work. (An earlier translation of Statism and Anarchy by C.H. Plummer was published in 1976 by the Revisionist Press. I have been unable to locate a copy, but it is reputedly much inferior.) Also available in English is an annotated edition of The Confession of Mikhail Bakunin (written from a Russian prison), and excerpts in several anthologies and pamphlets.

These translations and anthologies fall into two broad categories: scholarly editions (Cutler, Shatz), and more popular translations (Dolgoff, Maximoff; Lehning falls somewhere in between) intended to present Bakunin’s ideas to contemporary readers. The popular editions often delete references to often obscure controversies or persons Bakunin was responding to and seek to simplify his often difficult prose in order to make it more accessible to modern readers. The resulting works are generally more readable than are their scholarly counterparts, though some readers prefer (or need) the deleted material in order to place Bakunin’s writings in their specific, historical context, which often shaped not only the concerns addressed but also the form they took.

Dolgoff’s anthology is the most useful and comprehensive, although Cutler has unearthed several interesting texts. Maximoff is useful primarily as a concordance – he has organized very brief excerpts by subject, in order to enable readers to readily ascertain, say, Bakunin’s views on human nature. But while translators such as Cutler and Schatz tend to present Bakunin’s writings as historical artifacts, Dolgoff sets out to illustrate the basic themes of Bakunin’s anarchist philosophy, and has carefully selected his texts “in order to enable the reader to grasp the essence of Bakunin’s views” (p. 21).

(For readers interested in comparing different translations, Cutler [pp. 32-33] provides a useful list of the editions and pages upon which other English-language translations of the same works can be found. Similarly, compare Dolgoff’s 25 pages of excerpts from Statism and Anarchy to Shatz’s 218 page translation. Dolgoff extracts the core of Bakunin’s devastating critique of Marxism and his discussion of the preconditions for social revolution; while it is certainly useful to have the complete work available, it is largely devoted to a detailed analysis of contemporary political currents which adds relatively little – with some exceptions, most notably the “Appendix” and its discussion of revolutionary strategy – to our understanding of Bakunin’s philosophy.)

Sadly, many anarchists know little more of Bakunin than a few aphorisms (the urge to destroy is also a creative urge, “I shall continue to be an impossible person so long as those who are now possible remain possible”) and perhaps a general sense of his critique of, and battle against, Marxism. For example, a writer in The Raven recently argued, on the basis of her reading of God and the State, that Bakunin was uninterested in the liberation of women. Clearly she was unfamiliar with Bakunin’s “Manifesto of the Russian Revolutionary Association to the Oppressed Women of Russia” (excerpted in Dolgoff), of his defense of his sister’s right to escape a love-less marriage, etc. Similarly, recent writers in the anarchist press have attributed a wide variety of conflicting economic views to Bakunin. Without doubt, Bakunin had many faults and inconsistencies – even during the years when he was developing anarchism as a political philosophy. But he played a vital role in the evolution of our movement and our ideas, and deserves to be better, and more accurately, remembered.

Works Cited:

Paul Avrich, Anarchist Portraits. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988. (Reviewed LLR 7)

Michael Bakunin, Statism and Anarchy (Introduced and Edited by Marshall Shatz). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

E.H. Carr, Michael Bakunin (Revised Edition). New York: Octagon Books, 1975.

Robert Cutler (translator and editor), From out of the Dustbin: Bakunin’s Basic Writings, 1869-1871. Ann Arbor, MI: Ardis Publishers, 1985. (Reviewed LLR 2)

Sam Dolgoff (editor), Bakunin on Anarchism (Expanded edition). Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1980.

George Esenwein, Anarchist Ideology and the Working Class Movement in Spain. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989. (Reviewed this issue)

Aileen Kelly, Mikhail Bakunin: A Study in the Psychology and Politics of Utopianism. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1982.

Arthur Lehning, Michel Bakounine et les historiens. Geneva: C.I.R.A., 1979.

—– (editor), Michael Bakunin: Selected Writings (Translated by Steven Cox and Olive Stevens). London: Jonathan Cape, 1973.

Anthony Masters, Bakunin: The Father of Anarchism. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1974.

G.P. Maximoff (translator and editor), The Political Philosophy of Bakunin: Scientific Anarchism. Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1953.

Arthur Mendel, Michael Bakunin: Roots of Apocalypse. New York: Praeger, 1981.

T.R. Ravindranathan, Bakunin and the Italians. McGill-Queen’s University Press (3430 McTavish St., Montreal, Quebec H3A 1X9), 1989.

Paul Thomas, Karl Marx and the Anarchists. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980.

One More Nail in the Coffin

When UAW President Owen Bieber agreed to sent Caterpillar strikers back to work on April 14 under the terms of Cat management’s final offer he drove another nail into the coffin of organized labor in the U.S.

Bieber’s motive in capitulating to the world’s largest earth moving equipment manufacturer was undoubtedly to preserve the jobs of 12,600 striking workers (and the dues revenue generated for UAW coffers?) who were threatened with permanent replacement by scabs.

Alternatives to surrender, risky as they might be, could have been implemented. Mass picketing, plant occupations, or a combination of both could have bee set up to keep out any scabs. Thousands of unionists in the midwest who were anxious to come to the Cat strikers’ aid would have responded to a call for active support. (On March 22, over 20,000 workers took part in a solidarity rally held in Peoria, Illinois; there had been short sympathy strikes of Cat workers in South Africa and Belgium, and even some talk of a general strike in some UAW locals.)

However, one has to wonder if other alternative tactics were even considered before the decision to surrender was reached. Although there has been some talk recently of implementing a work- to-rule to bring some pressure to bear on Cat management, the seeming lack of any creative thinking about strategy and tactics in the current economic climate only underlines the total bankruptcy of business unionism.

The capitalists declared war on labor over ten years ago, and the casualties suffered in this decade should have convinced any sober unionist – even a reformist one – that the long battle of attrition-style strikes is suicide. Not only that, the UAW’s failure to organize any pre-strike actions to reduce Cat inventory going into the strike shows the severe short-sightedness, approaching blindness, of the trade union leadership. In addition, the fact that the rank-and-file were not even consulted, let alone allowed to vote, on the decision to return to work indicates that the business union leadership is more afraid of an active rank-and- file than anything else.

Of course, negotiations between UAW leaders, Cat executives and a federal mediator could produce a slightly improved contract for Cat workers. But the rank-and-file will remain largely marginal to the process, and this is the crux of the matter. The passivity and lack of self-organization of the rank-and-file makes the defense of hard-won conditions, let alone their improvement, virtually impossible – not only for Cat workers but for workers in all sectors of the economy.

Only when we decide to organize ourselves into self-managed, revolutionary class unions that recognize the irreconcilable conflict between labor and capital will we have the power to win.

Capitalist terror and madness

Capitalist terror and madness:
George bin Laden & Osama son of Bush incorporated.
Towers may blow up and crumble, while fortifying the very social structures they stood as a symbol for. The words You can’t blow up a social relation, ring truer than ever.

There are good reasons to begin talking about terror as such and within a global context. To a large extent terror can also be viewed apart from whatever motives that may hide behind particular expressions of it, or whether it is carried out of states or not. If the end result is the same, in both a shorter and longer term perspective, such distinctions become less important. Which does not mean we should overlook the question of ideological legitimization It is no coincidence that terror has formed such a central part within fascist movements. Nor that words such as class are absent in Osama bin Laden’s as well as George Bush’s legitmization of terror.

Terror has a long history in the service of counter-revolution, and will always work towards undermining the very foundations of a new, free, postcapitalist, society, or even one where forces of death, oppression and exploitation are significantly weakened. The Red Terror orchestrated by the Bolsheviks, directed against, they claimed, the old rulling classes, had essentially two effects, apart from that of immediate, indiscriminate death. It brought into existence the repressive forces of the new state which were again redireced against the workers and peasants, and served as the most “vital” recruiting ground for the White Army (or armies). For the rest of the Civil War period, the terror within these two armies, combined with and constituted a precondition for the terror directed against workers, and even more so against the peasants masses. This produced an even greater army of deserters, but also a situation where two camps, becoming increasingly indistinguisable from each other, in effect recruited solidiers for the other side. The Red Army victory was finalized through a massive war against the peasantry and the working class, and the greatest famine that the Russian Empire, had seen. Five million starved to death. Further down this historical blind alley, followed the rule of Stalin.

Terror can be reduced to the following: To rule through fear. The target is not the persons directly hit but those who fear they might be the next. Thus the more indiscriminate the better. Terror produces or reinforces counter-terror, and imposes internal terror in both camps. In the late Yugoslavia, this Rule was played out as civil war. On another level, in Northern Ireland, the sectarian killings are not only in themselves a manifestion of terror but also its trueborn children. While having roots and precendents further back in Irish history, organisational terror of more recent date have been effective in reproducing this madness. Any terror group, even those who start out with social revolutionary pretensions, will tend to reproduce the state from within, as well as reinforcing the one whose power they set out to “ex-terminate;” a favorite expression of Lenin, who tended to confuse social relations with biology. However, to have assisinated Hitler during World War II or Stalin in his might, would not have consitituted terror if carried out from the conviction that their removal alone could lessen sufferings and save many more lifes. These are two of the rare historical cases where this very likely also would have been the result.

In what follows it is important that readers clearly distinguish between Islamism as a political project (with numerous historical precedents in the history of European Christianity, the time when such a term still had a real meaning as a Rule and not only exception) and muslims as fellow workers and friends.

The abstract words of justice and honor of Islamists such as Osama bin Laden and feyadeen of Imperial Order, as George Bush, turns to corpses within and without the United States. Like the national socialism of the Ba’th, Islamism shares with the governments of the United States of America and Israel, in being far more effective in taking the lifes of “muslims” – or human beings of flesh and blood and lifegiving kaffir (heathen) dreams, as I would say – than other such human creatures, as Israeli “jews,” or U.S. “christians.” That is not likely to change. Nor is this a coincidence.

In 1981, Lafif Lakhdar wrote in Khamsin: Journal of revolutionary socialists of the Middle East:

“In a Moment of frankeness, Hasan al-Banna’ admitted in 1947 to the members of his [Muslim] Brotherhood [in Egypt] that the first obstacle they would meet on the path to the re-Islamisation of secular Muslim society, in his opinion, would be the hostility of the people. ‘I must tell you,’ he said, ‘that your preaching is still a closed book to the majority. The day when they discover it and realise what it aims for, they will resist violently and oppose you tentaciously.'”

This the Taliban knows, and this is also the reason for their state-building terror. What they do not recognise is that they in a longer perspective are paving the road for the McDonaldisation and secularisation of Afghanistan. Thus Lafif Lakhdar could write 20 years ago about a country bordering Afghanistan: “Contrary to what Islamic propaganda claims, and many western leftist believe, today’s Iran does not represent the reinvogation of Islam but its swan song, except that it lacks any beauty”

Our social revolutionary friend made another significant observation:

“The cult of death may well fascinate a large number of middle class youths, who are the victims of emotional blocks, and are frightened of freedom and and libertarian ways. It is however no solution in the face of the real problems which shake the very foundation of the Iranian society. A person such as Khomeini, who suffers from historical scleroris, and who in his book “Islamic Government” deals with such serious problems as the buggery of a poor donkey by poor muslims, and who is incapable of creating an Iranian bourgeoisie, can only return to to the American fold or fall under Soviet influence. “We are less independent today,” admits Badi Sadr, “than we were under the Shah. Our budget depends on the credit of foreign banks. Our dependence on arms and foreign military experts is quite simple tragic.” Has Bani Sadr, the spiritual son of the Imam, finally grasped that in a world unified by the violence of the laws of the market Iran cannot be independent, whether the Imam is present or absent, likes it or not? …. The middle classes, who first idolised Khomeini in the belief that they had found in him an universal miracle cure, now turn away from him to await the coup d’Ètat. The sub-proletariat who served him as cannon foder, now suffer more than ever with the repression of the Khalkhali. The proletariat are engaged in a permanent struggle in their workplaces to counter the intervention of the Islamic committees, and only stop specific strikes to return their permanent go-slow.”

Through one of those ironic twist of history, Osama Bin Laden and Taliban are preparing the incorporation of Afghanistan into the “American fold.” If a further tens of thousands of Afghanis do not die in the process, it is through no merit of theirs. Nor should we thank them if September 11 does not produce an inflation of death, carried further to other countries and continents as massacres, civil wars, pogroms and famine, nationalist and religious hysteria, foreign military intervention and terror. Whether or not the verdict of history will show al-Qaeda was directly responsible for the World Trade Center graveyard is not the question here, but that this expression of Islamism have been disseminating a Culture of Death, Terror, Oppression, Self-oppression and Stupidity, which nutures such acts. All with the complicity of global financial institutions, the governments of “the West,” as well as of of Israel, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, the military regime of Algeria, Iraq, and others. In implicating all these other actors, I am not promoting some weird conspiracy theory, but an understanding of how social forces de facto tend to reinforce each other, knowingly or unknowingly. The extremely central role Saudi Arabian petroleum money has played, and very likely will continue to do, is almost comical but also very telling.

The World Trade Center massacre must be comprehended within an agenda of nuturing xenophobic hysteria. As a means for ends that geographically lie elsewhere. That the airborne suicidal guiders of the will of God were human beings with crushed dreams, and victims of capitalist alienation as much as everyone else whose lives exploded, like the numerous children who suffer a far less spectacular death in Iraq under the rule of Washington, D.C. and Baghdad, does not change this.

Within such an agenda, US might and wealth and the settler colonialism of Israel, become the best of allies, but can only function as such by being portrayed as the incarnation of “Satan” within an endless rhetorical monologue, where the distinction between rulers and ruled, and every class perspective, is wholly blurred. Just as the US propaganda apparatus never can make any real critique of Islamism, the Islamist leaders, as the Panarabic before them, cannot put forth any real critique of the global social order that the United States is a manifestation of. This would have undermined their own power basis and ends. Instead their “anti-imperialism” and Jihads serve as a means to enslave their “own” working classes: to reproduce “Satan,” as the rule of fascist terror within an Islamic or nationalist ideological framework, even more oppressive in many aspects than “Satan himself.” Only to soon be fully reintegrated into the capitalist world order they always were a particular expression of. And in the meantime, all social struggles pointing beyond the present order, all efforts of bringing into life a confederation of globalised wokers-to-workers solidarity, is undermined.

Terror works in seemingly mysterious ways. If looked at not from the perspective of New York, but from people coming from regions where Islamist terror forms part of, or is on the verge of becoming, part of daily fear, the message of September 11 spoke loud and clear. The turning of the World Trade Center into a graveyard was from this point of view a de facto declaration of war by rulers and would-be-rulers against the masses in the Middle East and Central Asia, North Africa and beyond. Not a struggle against oppression and exploitation: but a call for total submission through terror, and an expression of inter-capitalist competion. A terror that did not start and will not end in New York, which never was its real target. Which is yet another reason to oppose NATOs war-efforts.

Simultaneously this act of terror is exploited as a means to impose “security” on the working class of “the North,” and throughout the globe. Around and within Fortress Europe, and all the other Fortresses of the world, the walls are now being built taller, and a whole new level of control is being imposed. Refugees, legal and illegal immigrants – and those who from their appearance can be suspected to belong among “Them” – will be hit worst. Increasingly they will become victims of a more subtle terror, a phenomenom which started long ago but which now has gained force. Without ever reaching the headlines, a greater number of human beings seeking a better future for themselves and their children, trying to reach the shores of Spain, Italy, Australia and elsewhere, will drown, be shot (as happens on the US-Mexican border), or die for other reasons. Increased “security” will extend worldwide, and lead to the full imposition of a global capitalist world (dis)order.

Nothing of this is predetermined, but such an agenda has gained force after September 11, 2001. It has been become even more critical to wage also an ideological struggle against forces of terror, state-sponsored or not, on a local and global level. We are all part of the one same bloody civilisation, of alienation and silent and spectacular death and boredom, but also of compassion, love and broken hearts, tears and laughter, hopes and dreams, and a capacity for globalised solidarity.

The capitalist world order is an order that rules by being everywhere, and increasingly so, and not only in a restricted economical sense. If all its force was concentrated in the Pentagon it would have been easy to overcome. Instead it rules as much through small and large Ayatollahs, small and large Saddam Huseyns and Assads, Milosovics and Tudjmans, Sharons and Arafats and, as well as through the “humantarian” rulers of the Scandinavian countries. The latter is true as well. But terror is still among the phenomenoms that most effectively reproduces the monster, state-sponsored or not. Afghanistan has been one of this centres of capitalist world disorder in the last decades. There another manifestation of modern alienation was born, created out of many worlds, of old and new ones, linked to the global market in numerous ways. That the Taliban soldiers, together with Pakistani border guards, in these very days are being bribed to turn their heads the other way, so to let refugees pass a closed border, and that this is all organised as an enterprise, selling the fear of famine and death for what amounts to several months salary, is just another example on how the force of commodity production and the spirit of George Bushs is very much is alive in the realm of Taliban.

The world is increasingly moving towards a triadic American-European-Asian Empire. The enforced alliance-building we are now seeing around the Pentagons campaign of Infinite Terror (which magnitude is still quite unclear), and the seeking of legitimation for this through the United Nations, is not just a facade. We are moving towards a global order, also politically, in a whole new sense. Just as the the increased speed and magnitude of communication and transportation on a global level is increasingly also furthering a blurring between terror, policing and war. But we should also be aware of the new positive possibilities for a struggle of global resistance founded on solidarity this opens for us, with a potential to take us beyond capitalism.

Capitalism is a complex, globally interlinked social system that only can be surpassed through a collective creative effort on the basis of human communication and practical, non-hierachical and globalised solidarity of the working classes. There never was and never will be any other road. Now less than ever.

A last word about terror. In a play of words: Out of the ruins of anarchy, anarchy cannot arise, only the rule of the Market and the State in their most brutalised, authoritarian manifestations. In its proper sense, anarchy of course does not signify disorder and the struggle of each against all, however common such a belief may be, but the overcoming of the Rule of the Siamese Twins of Market and State through the human creation of a global classless society, where people in cooperation rule over their own lifes and destinies, and the freedom of all becomes the condition of the freedom of each, as the freedom of each is the condition for the freedom of all.

Chinese Anarchism collection

by Jing Zhao

Since the great Chinese Democratic Movement in 1989 transformed me into an anarchist in Japan, I learnt more and more anarchism from Japanese and English resources. In 1992-95 when I worked in a company living under Fuji Maintain, I read Black Flag Front series in Numatsu Library. I was deeply moved when I realized that this great work was conducted by one Japanese anarchist in the 1920s, and I was delighted that Ba Jin had translated some of the material in this series into Chinese in the 1930s.

Unfortunately, in China, almost all books related to political thought, especially anarchism, were modified to fit the so-called Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought. For example, Ba Jin’s Collected Works (published in 1993 by People’s Literature Press) did not include his “From Capitalism to Anarchism” (published in 1930 by Shanghai Liberty Press), and deleted the names of Chen Duxiu (Chinese Communist Party founder) and Emma Goldman (Ba Jin’s “spiritual mother”) in his “My Childhood.”

This make a Chinese anarchism collection edition important and urgent in this era of globalization. Since Confucians and Shima Qian, editing history has also made history in China.

All of these works are published in Chinese (and while some are translations, the collection includes much material not available in English, including information on the Soviet Union’s activities in China). Since 2008, the collection’s books have been published through They can also be downloaded for free from the US-Japan-China Comparative Policy Research Institute’s web site at Following is a list of publications presently available:

A-1 Anarchists Vanzetti and Sacco, translated and written by Ba Jin. ISBN: 978-0-557-16157-7

A-2 Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist, by Berkman, translated by Ba Jin. ISBN: 978-0-557-17172-9

A-3 The Chicago Anarchists, translated and written by Ba Jin. ISBN: 978-0-557-24143-9

B-1: Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, by Godwin, translated by He Muli, edited by Jing Zhao. ISBN: 9780557327140

C-1 Chinese Anarchist Activities, edited by Jing Zhao. ISBN: 978-0-557-19209-0

F-1 What is Property, by Prodoun, translated by Sun Shubing.

G-1: The German Ideas Contributing to Anarchism, by Jing Zhao, ISBN: 9781257377718

J-1 Japanese Anarchism Material, translated and written by Ba Jin and Jing Zhao. ISBN: 978-0-557-23538-4

R-1 Memoirs of a Revolutionary, by Kropotkin, translated by Ba Jin. ISBN: 978-0-557-16157-7

R-2 The Conquest of Bread, by Kropotkin, translated by Ba Jin, edited by Jing Zhao. ISBN: 978-0-557-17173-6

R-3 Ethics, by Kropotkin, translated by Ba Jin. ISBN: 978-0-557-17076-0

R-4 Russian Nihilist History, by Stepniak, translated by Ba Jin. ISBN: 978-0-557-17077-7

R-5 Prison Memoirs of a Revolutionary, by Figner, translated by Ba Jin. ISBN: 978-0-557-17175-0

R-6 State and Anarchy, by Bakunin, translated by Ma Rangcong.

R-7 Russian Revolutionary Pioneers, translated and written by Ba Jin. ISBN: 978-0-557-22345-9

R-8: The Unknown Russian Revolution, by Jing Zhao. ISBN: 9781458304117

S-1 The Anarchist Lesson from the Spanish Civil War, translated and written by Ba Jin and Jing Zhao. ISBN: 978-0-557-17055-5

W-1 Anarchism: From Practice to Theory, by Jing Zhao. ISBN: 978-0-557-01635-8

W-2 State Forms and Social Order, by Jing Zhao. ISBN: 978-0-557-03086-6

An Anarchist FAQ

Review by Jon Bekken

Iain McKay, An Anarchist FAQ Volume 1 (AK Press, 2008), 555 pages, $25 paper. Volume 2 (AK Press, 2012), 561 pages, $25 paper.

This two-volume compilation includes the great bulk of the material assembled online in the Anarchist FAQ by ASR contributor Iain McKay and other comrades over more than a decade. Established to confront misrepresentations of anarchism that have proliferated particularly in the online universe (allegedly anarchist tendencies exist there that have no apparent manifestation in the material world in which the rest of us live), AFAQ quickly evolved into a much broader overview of anarchism, as a social movement and as a set of ideas.

It is impossible to do justice to the 1,136 pages in these two volumes. Volume 1 opens (after three introductions which explain the origins and evolution of the project) with an overview of anarchism, followed by sections explaining why anarchists oppose hierarchy, capitalism and the state; summarizing the anarchist critique of capitalist economics; reviewing how statism and capitalism operate as an intertwined system of exploitation and oppression; offering an anarchist analysis of the ecological crisis, and refuting the notion that there could be some sort of “anarcho”-capitalism. An appendix reviews the origins of three major anarchist symbols: the black flag, the red-and-black flag and the circled A. Volume 2 opens with a survey of individualist anarchism, which remains implacably hostile to capitalism despite its differences with the social anarchism embraced by most anarchists; followed by an explanation of why anarchists (who McKay rightly insists are part of the broader socialist movement) reject state socialism; an overview of anarchist thinking about the shape of a future, free society; a section addressing contemporary anarchist practice (involvement in social struggles, direct action, organizational approaches, alternative social organizations, child rearing, and social revolution); followed by a brief bibliography.

Each major section is divided into smaller sections and subsections (presented in question form and using an outline numbering system that probably works better online) addressing specific aspects of the topic. The writing and organization are clear, if rarely captivating, and the tone is reasoned and constructive. However, at times, McKay does show his exasperation with the persistent misrepresentations of the Marxists and the “anarcho”-capitalists (who, as he rightly points out, have nothing whatsoever to do with anarchism and receive attention here far out of proportion to their actual significance in the world in large part because of their early adoption of and highly vocal presence on the Internet). Evidently, the ravings of the “anarcho”-primitivists have received less attention online and so they pass unmentioned here. As the book is devoted to political and social thought and action, there is also virtually no attention given to anarchist tendencies in art and literature, or to the post-modern “anarchisms” which dominate so much academic publishing on the subject of late.

McKay and his fellow contributors give serious consideration even to anarchist tendencies with which they clearly disagree. Thus, platformism, syndicalism and synthesis all receive respectful treatment, presenting the arguments proffered for and against. Thus, Bookchin’s libertarian municipalism is presented on its own terms before a short critical assessment (1092-93). (This tolerant policy can extend too far, as with the citations to the notorious police informer Bob Black, who can evidently be excerpted to make it appear as if he has a coherent social analysis, though nothing could be further from the truth.) Here and throughout the two volumes there is heavy reliance on direct quotations. The FAQ draws upon and tends to synthesize a wide array of (primarily anarchist) sources, in keeping with its broader mission of presenting a broad anarchist approach to a general public, rather than exploring differences within the movement or advocating for a particular school of thought. The emphasis is definitely upon the classics of anarchist thought, but McKay and his contributors have read widely and include citations not only to anarchist writers but also to social scientists and historians whose work tends (whether intended to or not) to bolster the anarchist position.

By way of summation, and to give a bit of the flavor of the whole, I will briefly discuss Section I: What would an anarchist society look like? This 168-page section is broken up into subsections on libertarian socialism, a discussion of the balance between the insanity of drafting blueprints for the future and thinking about the sort of society we wish to build, considerations of the structural aspects of an anarchist economy and an anarchist society, consideration of how an anarchist economy might function, a review of the Spanish Revolution as an example of anarchism in practice (if also under severe constraints), and short discussions of the balance between individualism and society and the so-called Tragedy of the Commons.

This is a lot of terrain to cover, but the questions are essential. McKay’s discussion is grounded in the classics, and (correctly) presuppose that anarchism represents a particular strand of socialism, quoting Bakunin:

We are convinced that freedom without socialism is privilege and injustice, and that socialism without freedom is slavery and brutality. (839)

The text then methodically establishes the necessity of socialism, the practicality of our vision, explains why any lover of freedom must reject markets, and refutes the absurd (but oft-preached) notion that capitalism distributes social resources efficiently. And that’s just the first 30 pages. The section refutes mainstream economists’ critiques of self-management (critiques based not on examining actual practice but rather on mental exercises based on assumptions that nowhere exist), and reviews the long history of self-management in practice.

However, as McKay argues, social ownership of the means of life, and of production, is essential to any meaningful freedom. While anarchists have advocated for different methods for distributing the product of our necessarily social labor, and hence for different systems for organizing the economy, all anarchist visions are necessarily based upon social ownership and free access to  the means of production. McKay explores the ways in which overlapping federations of syndicates and associations (most organized for specific purposes, as anarchists have generally been skeptical of schemes which try to centralize the entire sphere of human life into a single, totalized organization) can cooperate to meet the incredibly varied range of human needs and desires.

Throughout, McKay raises and refutes the objections we have all heard a thousand times, not only theoretically but with extensive examples from real life (something far more congenial to anarchist theory than to the doctrines of either the capitalists or the state socialists). Anarchism, he shows (like Kropotkin and Dolgoff before) offers an eminently practical approach ideally suited to coordinating large, complex societies.

My main objection to this section is the part where McKay suggests (to quote the title) that “anarchists desire to abolish work.” In the actual text, he is more clear, noting that

Work (in the sense of doing necessary things or productive activity) will always be with us. There is no getting away from it; crops need to be grown, schools built, homes fixed, and so on. No, work in this context means any form of labor in which the worker does not control his or her own activity.

But what purpose is served by using commonly understood terms such as “work” in so technical a way? It must necessarily lead to confusion, on the one hand, and on the other enable charlatans such as the aforementioned Bob Black to sneak their obfuscations into the anarchist camp. Far better to speak of wage slavery, or, as Chomsky often does, to authoritarianism in the economic sphere.

Far too much of our labor is of course wasted under present arrangements, and our workplaces are sites of subjugation and misery. In an economy controlled by workers and organized around meeting human needs, we could soon slash the work week to 16 hour or less, reorganize workplaces to make them both safer and more fulfilling, abolish the ruthless division of labor that has some think and others serving as the minions of those who decide, and redirect the entire sphere of production in fundamental ways. This would transform our relation to our work, as well as to the products of our labor. But while we might well take genuine pleasure from joining with our fellow workers to fulfill our needs and our desires, not all work will be pleasurable in and of itself, as is suggested here.

Anarchists have not come to agreement as to how production will be coordinated and social priorities decided upon, and so McKay leaves these questions open (while discussing some of the leading proposals). This is an issue ASR has been exploring in our series on anarchist economics, and which I suspect is at the root of the otherwise inexplicable attraction many feel to the Parecon scheme. Personally, I find Kropotkin’s treatment of these issues more compelling, even if it is a century old. AFAQ does effectively integrate the experience of the Spanish Revolution (also presented in a well-crafted 31-page section that concludes this chapter) into the discussion. But in general, I fear the pluralistic approach embraced in this treatment – while capturing the diversity of the movement – undermines the coherence of the argument, as well as eliding the congruence between our broader social visions and the means we advocate that is one of the unique strengths of the anarcho-syndicalist approach.

In short, McKay and his fellow contributors have made a substantial contribution in creating and maintaining the online introduction to anarchism, and refutation of the endless objections of those who can not conceive of a society free of oppression and exploitation. It will serve as an invaluable reference to those unfamiliar with our ideas and our movement, or to those who have recently embraced anarchism but have yet to explore and reflect upon the tradition. However, its breadth and pluralism are both its greatest strength and its most notable weakness.

Anarchist Economics

compiled by Jon Bekken

A casual observer of the anarchist movement, restricted to contemporary writings, could be forgiven for concluding that anarchists have no conception of economics. Several years ago a serious debate was carried out in the pages of the British anarchist paper Freedom in which it was argued that all wealth comes from agriculture – that the working class is merely a burden that peasants and other agricultural workers are compelled to shoulder. The only possible conclusion from this line of reasoning is that we should dismantle the cities and factories and all return to agrarian pursuits. One suspects that farmers – deprived of tractors, books and other useful items and confronted with millions of starving city dwellers cluttering up perfectly good farmland that could otherwise be growing crops – might take a somewhat different point of view.

On this side of the Atlantic, countless trees have been killed in furtherance of “arguments” for abolishing work, abandoning technology and turning to a barter economy (or, alternately, to local currencies) both as a strategy for escaping (I hesitate to use the word overthrowing) capitalism and as a principle for reorganizing economic life in a free society. Such approaches may have a certain appeal for lifestylists whose aim is more to reduce the extent to which capital impinges on their personal existence (a rather futile enterprise) than to abolish its tyranny over society, but they are simply irrelevant to those of us truly committed to building a free society.

Although anarchists are of necessity interested in the workings of capitalist economies, our attention is focused on the class struggle. An anarchist economics might study the theft of our labor by the bosses, the squandering of social resources by the state, and the channels through which the bosses manipulate markets, finance and production to increase their profits and to pit workers in different parts of the world against each other. And, most importantly, an anarchist economics would address itself to the problems of maintaining economic activity in a revolutionary situation, and to the sort of economic arrangements which might support a free society.

We have been attempting such a study in the columns of our journal for several years. In our Winter 1991 issue (#10), Libertarian Labor Review (now Anarcho-Syndicalist Review) announced the anarchist economics project which continues to this day. As we said then:

Far too many anarchists nowadays have underestimated the importance of economics in their vision of social change, but this was not always the case. The classical anarchists, who always considered themselves part of the socialist movement, recognized the new economic arrangements created by the social revolution would determine its success or failure. Thus they were forced to create an economic “science,” which although sometimes in agreement with capitalist or marxist economics on various points, must diverge from them to the same extent that it differed in its goals. The notion of a political anarchist who was an economic marxist or economic capitalist – a notion one runs across all too often today – would have struck the original anarchist thinkers as an absurd impossibility. It is our hope that this series will help to show why this is so, as well as to help bring anarchist economics up to date with current developments.So far we expect the series to include discussions of the contributions made by Proudhon, Bakunin and the First International Workers Association, Kropotkin, the Spanish Anarchists and their practical experiences in the Spanish Revolution, as well as those of less-well-known anarchists. We also hope to add to this critiques of Marxist economics and modern capitalist economists such as Keynes and his neo-classical critics. Finally we will look at contributions made by modern economists such as E.F. Schumacher and the appropriate technologists, whose views have converged with those of the anarchist movement in several ways.
Due to the scope of the projected series, we are hoping to get contributions of articles and letters from outside our small collective. We extend an open invitation to all in our movement who are interested in taking part in this series along the lines we have mentioned to get in touch with us…

To date we have published articles on the economic theories advanced by Proudhon, Bakunin and Kropotkin; a translation of a major article by Abraham Guillen; a critique of Marxism; an analysis of the Mondragon cooperatives; and several articles on contemporary economic issues. Our plans for the future include critiques of neo-Marxist and Keynesian economics, and a series of articles building on the anarchist economic tradition to suggest ways in which we might organize production, distribution and consumption in a free society.

Economics is fundamentally the study of how to organize production and consumption to meet human needs most efficiently and satisfactorily. As such, it is inextricably bound up with questions of human values – with our sense of who we are, how we wish to relate to our fellow human beings and to our planet, and how we wish to live our lives. Bourgeois economists have made the mistake of confusing their (fundamentally anti-human) values with economic laws, asserting against all evidence the necessity and efficiency of mechanisms such as markets, wages and (in an earlier day) chattel slavery. Marx similarly seized on bourgeois economists’ claims that the price of commodities is determined by the amount of labor socially necessary to their production for his Labor Theory of Value, a quasi-religious doctrine which cannot hold up to the slightest empirical scrutiny. Wage levels, like the price of all commodities, are set not by their cost of production or the amount of labor they require (though there are of course material constraints; few workers will be paid more than the revenues they make possible or less than it takes to feed them), but by the relative economic, military and social power held by the respective parties. Kropotkin’s research demonstrated that shortages, economic crises and general distress are endemic to capitalism, but are wholly unnecessary. The means to meet all of society’s needs were already at hand a century ago, but instead of doing so capitalism creates a perverse set of incentives encouraging chronic underproduction and deprivation.

Kropotkin argued for restructuring production to decentralize agriculture and industry, arguing that economies of scale and specialization are largely illusory. At the same time, he rejected the notion that it was possible to reduce labor to the individual – to isolate any one worker’s contribution to social production. The simple act of manufacturing a shirt necessitates thousands of workers, from the farmers who grow the cotton (or the chemists who fabricate the nylon), to the makers of the sewing machines (and of the raw materials from which they are manufactured), to the sewing machine operators, to those maintaining the vast economic infrastructure (energy, roads, water, etc.) necessary to production. All production is social. We enrich each other – not only spiritually, but materially as well – as we work, think and play together; and without the efforts of society as a whole no one prospers.

Anarchist economics should begin not from the standpoint of production, but rather from the standpoint of consumption – of human needs. Needs should govern production; the purpose of anarchist economics is not so much to understand the workings of the capitalist economy but rather to study human needs and determine how they might be best satisfied. Every kind of human activity should begin from what is local and immediate, and should link in a cooperative network with no center and no directing agency (federation). Nor is it enough merely to meet people’s material needs – we must also have the means to pursue our artistic, intellectual and aesthetic interests. These are not luxuries, but necessities.

It seems to me that any anarchist economics must begin from certain basic premises:

    • No Markets: Everyone above all has the right to live, and so a free society must share the means of existence among all, without exception. All goods and services should be provided free of charge to all. Those available in abundance should be available without limit, those in short supply should be rationed on the basis of need.
    • No Wages: The notion that people will not work without compulsion is provably false. Far from shirking work when they do not receive a wage, when people work cooperatively for the good of all they achieve feats of productivity never realizable through coercion. Efforts to arrive at “just wages” are necessarily artificial and arbitrary. Labor vouchers, consumption credits and similar schemes are nothing more than attempts to maintain the reality of the wage system while changing its name.
    • What Work and Why? Despite dramatic increases in productivity over the last century, we work as many (and often more) hours as ever, while millions of our fellow workers languish without the means to support themselves. Enormous effort is squandered tracking the flow of money, encouraging people to consume, and making products designed to wear out quickly. Meanwhile, vitally important social needs go unmet. Many jobs can be eliminated, but other jobs (for example, cleaning up the environment or building a viable public transport system to replace our current auto-intensive one) will be created. Some effort will have to go to material assistance to our fellow workers in other parts of the globe to develop economies capable of sustaining themselves and the planet (this is a matter not only of human solidarity, but also of our own self-interest). Nonetheless, there is no reason why we cannot dramatically reduce the number of hours we spend at work, while simultaneously making that time less alienating and better meeting human needs.
    • Self-Management: Under current conditions, too many workers spend long hours doing boring work under unhealthy conditions, while others have no work at all or do work that serves no socially useful purpose. Over-specialization, repetitive drudgery and the separation of manual and mental labor must be replaced with self-managed, cooperative labor.

Self-management necessarily implies federalist economic arrangements. Where “libertarian Marxists” such as Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel suggest a centralized economic planning bureaucracy (albeit under some form of democratic oversight) which would inevitably lead to a dictatorship of the “facilitator” class, an anarchist economics would clearly devolve most decisions to the local level and rely on free agreements to handle coordination. (Of course, difficult issues of how to balance, for example, ecological concerns with production and consumption needs would remain, and some method would have to be developed for addressing them in a way that simultaneously upholds the rights of those most directly impacted by the decisions and the broader social issues at stake.)

Expropriation, direct action, federalism and self-management are the means for making the social revolution and reconstructing society. Ultimately, only the free distribution of necessities, in all their variety, on the basis not of position or productivity, but of need, is compatible with a free society.

As Kropotkin noted a century ago, production and exchange are so complicated that no government would be capable of organizing production unless the workers themselves took charge, “for in all production there arises daily thousands of difficulties that no government can hope to foresee … only the efforts of thousands of intelligences working on problems can cooperate in the development of the new social system and find solutions for the thousands of local problems.” (quoted in Dolgoff, Relevance of Anarchism to Modern Society)

The society we hope to build must necessarily be built on the basis of what presently exists – seizing the existing industries and goods to meet immediate needs, and as the building blocks from which we will construct a free society. To think otherwise is to build castles in the air. As Sam Dolgoff notes, “Anarchy or no anarchy, the people must eat and be provided with the other necessities of life. The cities must be provisioned and vital services cannot be disrupted. Even if poorly served, the people in their own interests would not allow us or anyone else to disrupt these services unless and until they are reorganized in a better way…” So we need to think about how we would manage the transition from what is to what we want (it seems to me that revolutionary unions offer the best prospects). While it is not possible to spell out in every detail how a free society might operate, it is important to think about its general outlines in advance, so that we might build with a vision of where we are trying to go.

Published to Date in our Anarchist Economics Series:

Jeff Stein, “Proudhon’s Economic Legacy,” LLR 10 (Winter 1991), pp. 8-13.

Jon Bekken, “Capitalism is Criminal,” LLR 10 (Winter 1991), pp. 14-19.

Jon Beken, “Kropotkin’s Anarchist Critique of Capitalism,” LLR 11 (Summer 1991), pp. 19-24.

Etcetera, “Dispersed Fordism and the New Organization of Labor,” LLR 12 (Winter 1992), pp. 16-18. Translated by Mike Hargis.

Jon Bekken, “Peter Kropotkin’s Anarchist Communism,” LLR 12 (Winter 1992), pp. 19-24.

Jeff Stein, Revew: “Looking Forward,” LLR 12 (Winter 1992), pp. 25-28.

Jon Bekken, “North American Free Trade,” LLR 13 (Summer 1992), pp. 18-19.

Jeff Stein, “The Collectivist Tradition,” LLR 13 (Summer 1992), pp. 24-29.

Jeff Stein, Review: “Market Anarchism? Caveat Emptor,” LLR 13 (Summer 1992), pp. 33-34.

Michael Bakunin, “The Capitalist System,” Champaign: Libertarian Labor Review, 1993, 15 pp. Translated by G.P. Maximoff and Jeff Stein.

Abraham Guillen, “Principles of Libertarian Economics,” in three parts: LLR 14 (Winter 1993), pp. 20-25; LLR 15 (Summer 1993), pp. 24-30; LLR 16 (Winter 1994), pp. 18-23. Translated and with an afterword by Jeff Stein.

Mike Hargis, “The Myth of the Vanishing Working Class,” LLR 16 (Winter 1994), pp. 2-3.

Jon Bekken, “The American Health Care Crisis: Capitalism,” LLR 16 (Winter 1994), pp. 10-14.

Harald Beyer-Arnesen, “From Production-Links to Human Relations,” LLR 17 (Summer 1994), pp. 13-14.

Jeff Stein, “Marxism: The Negation of Communism,” LLR 17 (Summer 1994), pp. 20-26.

Noam Chomsky, “The “New’ Corporate World Economic Order,” LLR 18 (Spring 1995), pp. 6-11.

Mike Long, “The Mondragon Co-operative Federation: A Model for Our Times?” LLR 19 (Winter 1996), pp. 19-36. With a commentary by Mike Hargis.

Jon Bekken, “The Limits of “Self’-Management Under Capitalism,” LLR 21 (Winter 1997), pp. 29-33.

Rene Berthier, “Crisis of Work, or Crisis of Capital?” LLR 23 (Summer 1998), pp. 19-24. Translated by Mike Hargis.

Jeff Stein, “The Tragedy of the Markets,” LLR 23 (Summer 1998), pp. 30-37.

Jeff Stein, “Scamming the Welfare State,” LLR 24 (Winter 1998-99), pp. 14-18.

Jeff Stein, “Freedom and Industry: The Syndicalism of Christian Cornelissen,” ASR 28 (Spring 2000), pp. 13-19.

Jon Bekken, Review: “Campaigning for a Living Wage,” ASR 28 (Spring 2000), p. 31.

Brian Oliver Sheppard, “Anarchism vs. Right-Wing ‘Anti-Statism,'” ASR 31 (Spring 2001), pp. 23-25.

Jeff Stein, Review: “The Irrational in Capitalism,” ASR 31 (Spring 2001), pp. 26-27.

Brian Oliver Sheppard, “Anarcho-Syndicalist Answer to Corporate Globalization,” ASR 33 (Winter 2001/02), pp. 11-15.

Jeff Stein, Review: “After Capitalism,” ASR 37 (Spring 2003), pp. 33-34.

Jon Bekken, Review Essay: “Work Without End, or Time to Live?” ASR 38 (Winter 2003/04), pp. 23-29.

Also of Relevance:

Frank Adams, “Worker Ownership: Anarchism in Action?” LLR 5 (Summer 1988), pp. 24-26.

Jon Bekken, Review Essay: “In the Shell of the Old?” LLR 5 (Summer 1988), pp. 36-39.

Sam Dolgoff, editor, The Anarchist Collectives: Workers’ Self-Management in the Spanish Revolution. Montreal: Black Rose Books.

Sam Dolgoff, “The Role of Marxism in the International Labor Movement,” LLR 5 (Summer 1988), pp. 27-35.

Sam Dolgoff, The Relevance of Anarchism to Modern Society. Chicago: Charles H. Kerr, 1989.

Peter Kropotkin, Fields Factories and Workshops . New Brunswick: Transaction. A condensed and annotated edition edited by Colin Ward is also available from Freedom Press under the title Fields, Factories and Workshops Tomorrow.

Peter Kropotkin, The Conquest of Bread . New York: New York University Press.

Gaston Leval, Collectives in the Spanish Revolution . London: Freedom Press.

Mike Long, “A Tale of Two Strikes: Education Workers in Hawai’i,” ASR 33 (Winter 2001/02), pp. 19-30.

Mike Long, Review Essay: “Mondragon and Other Co-ops: For & Against,” ASR 29 (Summer 2000), pp. 15-28.

G.P. Maximoff, Program of Anarcho-Syndicalism. (extract from his Constructive Anarchism, published in English in 1952; this section is not included in the only edition of the work now in print.) Sydney: Monty Miller Press, 1985

Pierre Proudhon, What Is Property? (B. Tucker, translator). New York: Dover.

Pierre Proudhon, General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century (J. Robinson, translator). London: Pluto Press.

Graham Purchase, “After the Revolution” (Review of D.A. Santillan’s After The Revolution: Economic Reconstruction in Spain Today), LLR 20 (Summer 1996), pp. 38-39.

Jeff Stein, “The Tragedy of the Markets” (Review), LLR 23 (Summer 1998)

Jeff Stein, “Freedom and Industry: The Syndicalism of Christian Cornelissen,” ASR 28 (Winter 2000)

Jon Bekken, “Capitalism and its Economics” (Review) ASR 31 (Spring 2001)

Jon Bekken, “Work without end, or time to live? Fighting over time” (Review Essay), ASR 38 (Winter 2003-04)

Jon Bekken, “The Impossibility of Just Prices” (Review), ASR 41 (Summer 2005)

Iain McKay, “Would cutting wages really reduce unemployment?” ASR 50 (Winter 20

Iain McKay, “On Paul Krugman’s Nobel prize in economics: Class, power & “free” markets,” ASR 51 (Winter 2009)

Iain McKay, “The economics of anarchy,” ASR 53 (Winter 2010)
Iain McKay, “Reforming health care,” ASR 53 (Winter 2010)

Jon Bekken, “The Economics of Freedom,” ASR 54 (Summer 2010)

Iain McKay, “Radical Economics & Labor” (Review), ASR 57 (Winter 2012)

Iain McKay, “Pay Inequality: Where it comes from and what to do about it,” ASR 58 (Summer 2012)

Eric Chester, “The Crisis of Capitalism,” ASR 59 (Winter 2013)

Wayne Price, “Workers’ Self-Directed Enterprises: A Revolutionary Program,” ASR 61 (Winter 2014), pp. 21-24.
Iain McKay, “Anarchist Economics,” ASR 61 (Winter 2014), pp. 25-28.
Brian Martin, “Prosperity Through Self-Management,” ASR 61 (Winter 2014), pp. 39-43.
Jeff Stein, “The Irrational in Economics  (Review), ASR 61 (Winter 2014), pp. 44-47.

Jon Bekken, “(barely) Staying Alive: The US Economy Since the ’70s (50 Years of Economic Crisis),” ASR 64/5 (Summer 2015), pp. 13-16.
Brian Martin, “From Capitalism To Commons,” ASR 64/5 (Summer 2015),  pp. 17-20.

Iain McKay, “Poor Adam Smith,” ASR 66 (Winter 2016),  pp. 21-22.
Iain McKay, “Proudhon, Property & Possession,” ASR 66 (Winter 2016), pp. 23-25.
Jeff Stein, “The Realities of Self-Management” (Review), ASR 66 (Winter 2016), pp. 32-34.

Thoughts on the 2012 Presidential Elect-Chains

We anarchists don’t have a lot of use for elections. We know that the decisions that most affect our lives as workers are made by the employing class and that politicians are just there to give the illusion of representation as they carry out the bosses’ class program. Still, elections can tell us something about the terrain upon which we are currently deployed.
The re-election of Barack Obama tells us, for example, that a majority of those voting prefer a government that “provides for the general welfare,” as the U.S. Constitution puts it, rather than just the welfare of the rich. That the voters will be sorely disappointed when the lame-duck Obama administration seeks to make a “grand bargain” with Republicans that cuts beloved “entitlements” over the next few years doesn’t change the fact that the people voted to defend those programs. The AFL-CIO mobilized its staff and ranks to get out the vote for Obama, even though he did nothing over the past four years to earn labor’s support, and they’ve vowed to bring street heat to prevent the inevitable sell-out. We’ll see.
Americans rejected the notion that Wall Street knows best.  Obama’s opponent, Mitt Romney, tried to convince voters that his experience at Bain Capital, a private equity firm, would make him capable of jump-starting the ailing American economy. During the election campaign, including the Republican primaries, it was revealed that Bain Capital and Mitt Romney had no record of reviving American industry.  Instead Bain Capital was known for leveraged buy-outs of older marginally profitable companies and then loading them with debt from high pay-outs to investors, big pay increases to Bain corporate executives, and borrowed funds.  When the leveraged companies were unable to pay these debts created by Bain, the companies were taken into bankruptcy and the assets sold off, leaving the workers unemployed and retirees without their full pensions. Instead of a “job creator,” Romney was a “vulture capitalist.” Obama did not offer an alternative to vulture capitalism, but was able to raise considerable skepticism about Romney’s vision of letting Wall Street guide the economic recovery.
Another lesson from the election is that the days of white supremacy (or at least its cultural manifestation) in the U.S. are numbered – and this is driving the racists to distraction. On Fox Snooze, pundit Bill O’Reilly claimed that Obama won re-election because we are no longer living in a “traditional America” and that the non-traditional Americans just “want stuff,” presumably for free (and what’s wrong with that, might we ask?). It is well known that by 2050 the pale-faces will be only half the population, the rest will be people of color (or mud people, if you’re a tea-bagger). Obama won the votes of over 70% of Latino voters, over 70% of Asians, over 90% of African-Americans, over 60% of youth and over 55% of women – all the constituencies that don’t watch Fox Snooze.
The writing is on the wall, and “traditional America” doesn’t like what it’s telling them. Following the election the racists began venting on Twitter and Facebook; the buffoon Donald Trump called the elections a farce and called for a revolution; and thousands of people in the states that went for Romney have signed petitions asking for permission to secede from the United States.
Of course, these people are delusional.
We know that Obama is not a socialist, or even a progressive. He’s actually a Richard Nixon Republican.
Rich people have done just fine during his administration. Profits are way up. The auto bailout was accompanied by deep concessions granted by the auto workers union (just like in 1979). The Obama education “reform” program sees teachers unions as a road-block to be smashed and the wages of federal workers have been frozen for the past two years. Efforts to stem climate change have given way to “energy independence.” Unemployment among Black folk is still double that of Whites and unemployment overall is double-digit; the prison-industrial complex continues to incarcerate over 2,000,000 people, a majority of whom are people of color, and militarism has never been more rampant: the war in Afghanistan is slated to go on for another two years despite the fact that the number of so-called insider attacks on NATO forces is increasing; the drone-assassination program continues to kill suspected “terrorists” and anybody who happens to be in the neighborhood; and the love of all things military is paraded in public at all times. Tune in to any sporting event.
Really, the only thing that Bill O’Reilly and company have to complain about is that the captain of the ship of state does not look like them (oh, and that they might actually be asked to pay a little extra for the privilege of the protection of their state).
We anarcho-syndicalists have a tough row to hoe. With people so invested in protecting the crumbs from the bosses’ plate how to convince them that they can provide for the well-being of all by taking control of the means of life? Will the inevitable disappointment in a second Obama term result in greater cynicism among the people or open them up to a radical critique of the system? Big Labor has promised to keep Obama’s feet to the fire. If history is any indicator, what this means is a few demonstrations targeting Republican legislators and further support for Democrats in 2014. Will there be openings for revolutionaries to intervene in these mobilizations to point to a different path? One thing is for certain – there will be more class battles in the near future as the crisis continues and further attempts are made to make the workers pay. An added dimension, the racist right will undoubtedly engage in more violent direct action against people of color and anti-racists will have to actively defend against this unless we want the people to have to depend on the state for protection, thus increasing the state’s power.
In any event the re-election of Barack Obama to the presidency is not going to end the “war on terror,” reduce unemployment, secure women’s reproductive rights, save Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid, start to address global climate change or do any of the other nice things Obama supporters voted for. Autonomous working class organization and direct action are still the only way to stay the hand of capital and bend the state to the people’s will.

The Crisis of Capitalism

By Eric Chester, ASR 59

The global economy is mired in the worst crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s, and yet capitalism has always been characterized by instability and insecurity. An economic system that operates without an overall plan, and in which powerful economic forces act on the basis of maximizing short-run profits, is a system that is inherently unstable. Marx predicted a collapse of capitalism leading to a revolutionary upsurge as early as the 1850s.1 This would appear to be a prediction that has been contradicted by the course of history, but in fact the global economy has been plunged into one crisis after another.
The unpleasant reality we confront today is that although capitalism is constantly changing, the impact of these changes is, on balance, overwhelmingly destructive. Indeed, as capitalism grows and expands, it destroys everything in its path. As the system unravels, more and more workers become permanently displaced from the workforce; income and wealth differentials widen within the already industrialized societies, as an increasing number of countries are added to the list of “failed” nations; and ecological catastrophe threatens the continued existence of the planet as we know it. We are at a crossroads. Either the working class acts as a class and wrests power from the capitalist class, or the system will disintegrate into a catastrophic freefall.
The Business Cycle
Capitalism has always been marked by short-run business cycles in which times of prosperity are followed by harsh times. To some extent, these short-run cycles are self-regulating. Unplanned growth leads to overproduction in certain sectors and investors pull back. Bankruptcies ripple through the economy, allowing venture capitalists to purchase existing assets at bargain prices. Lower prices, and, more importantly, even lower wages, create opportunities for new investment, and the cycle begins again.
Capitalism has also experienced several severe downturns when its continued existence was called into question. Frequently, an economic boom is accompanied by a period of frenzied speculation. When the bubble bursts and speculators go bankrupt, the crisis spreads rapidly through the entire economy, with banks and financial institutions the hardest hit. Investment banks play a vital role in directing investment into new sectors, the dynamic growth sectors. Once confidence in the financial sector has been lost investment spirals downward and the entire economic system confronts a total collapse.
Although a decline in the price of capital goods might help to overcome the down phase of the usual short-run business cycle, the opposite is the case when bankruptcies occur as the result of a sustained and precipitous slump, such as the current one. Firms coming out of administration initiate massive layoffs as venture capitalists squeeze a greatly reduced workforce in a desperate search for profits. In the end, the spiral of bankruptcies that ensues in the course of an economic crisis only reinforces the pervasive collapse in investor confidence, thus making it even more difficult to spur the economy back into sustained growth.
Bailouts and Total War
When the system reaches the point of catastrophic collapse at the onset of a crisis of confidence, the most powerful capitalist interests usually intervene, often in conjunction with the state, bailing out the banks in order to avert a disastrous crash. This happened in the fall of 2008 and into the spring of 2009, with the support of both Presidents Bush and Obama. Confronted with the imminent possibility of a precipitous fall in output, and in stock market prices, the rich and powerful abandoned their distaste for planning and government intervention and agreed to a massive rescue of bankrupt financial institutions, as well as the auto industry. The recent bailout is not the only time that such a crisis intervention has occurred during a financial panic.
An imminent economic collapse is not the only moment of crisis when the government can rapidly assert a dominant role in the economy. The planned mobilization of a nation’s resources when fighting a total war is the other circumstance. During both world wars, the governments of the combatant nations commanded vast resources, becoming the predominant factor in the economy. In some cases, key industries were nationalized, and the rudiments of a national economic plan were put into practice. Segments of the Left, especially mainstream social democrats, viewed these developments as significant steps toward a socialist economy. The move toward a more planned economy was cited as a further proof that a socialist transformation was inevitable. Furthermore, it was argued, the inefficiencies of an unplanned economy were so glaring that even segments of the capitalist class understood the need for a regulated economy, with a substantial public sector that included key industries.
These arguments were advanced by some influential socialists in the United States during World War I, only to quickly be proven totally mistaken. Once the war ended, there was a concerted corporate onslaught designed to ensure that the capitalist class regained its hegemonic control of the economy. The entire network of railroads had been taken over by the federal government during the war, but the railroads were returned to their owners soon after the war came to an end. Public sector spending was sharply curtailed, and any hint of government planning was abandoned. After World War II, the anti-Communist hysteria provided a convenient rationale for dismantling wartime planning, along with the social reforms of the New Deal.
The dire threats arising from a total war provide a temporary crisis situation in which the government displaces the capitalist class as the prime factor in determining investment. In a very different context, a pending economic collapse has the same effect. In both cases, the role of the state as the determining factor in the economy has proven to be a temporary phenomenon. As the crisis passes, the pendulum soon swings back, and the government is forced to retreat.
The Limits of Deficit Financing
The capitalist economy is not self-regulating. Furthermore, emergency bailouts of bankrupt banks and corporations can prevent a rapid and total collapse, but they don’t resolve the crisis, which continues as economic stagnation threatens to deepen into a downward freefall.
Keynesian economists recognize this and argue for active government intervention as an effective means of stabilizing the system. In “normal” times, Keynesian economics can act to provide a certain balance, smoothing out the cycle. Higher interest rates can check the tendency to high inflation rates during the boom years. Deficit financing can enable the government to stimulate output and employment during the downturn. Only a few years ago, many mainstream economists were convinced that counter-cyclical government intervention assured the continued stability of the system. The current crisis has proven that this forecast was nothing more than an ideological rationale for the capitalist system.
In fact, once an immediate crisis situation has been passed, the traditional resistance to government intervention, and, indeed, to any kind of broader plan, reasserts itself. This resistance represents more than an adherence to the ideology of “free markets.” Indeed, the powerful corporate interests that backed the bailout did so in pragmatic disregard for “free market” dogma. One of the essential mechanisms of control held by the capitalist class is its ability to determine how much of its savings it will invest, and in which industries it will invest. To permit the government to become the primary channel for the flow of investment funds is to strip capitalists of a key component of the economic power they control as the ruling class.
It is easy for the wealthy to bring pressure on the government because a rapidly growing debt will lead bondholders to become more fearful of a default. With an increasing public debt to government budget ratio, or public debt to output ratio, interest on the debt starts rising as a proportion of total spending. This can not continue indefinitely since some types of expenditures are viewed as critically important, and thus are extremely difficult to cut. Thus, aside from upholding the interests of the capitalists as the ruling class, bondholders have real concerns that the state will default on interest payments as debt ratios increase. Deficit financing by its nature can only act as a short-term means of stimulating the economy.
Keynesian Economics and the 1930s
These underlying factors produce the curious paradox that Keynesian policies only work in “normal” times to smooth the short-run fluctuations of the business cycle, and not in a time of crisis when the system is threatened with collapse. Yet Keynes developed his General Theory in the 1930s with the express purpose of countering the Great Depression. He was convinced that his policies would enable the industrialized countries to overcome the Great Depression, and to avoid further slides into mass unemployment. Both predictions have proven to be false. Once the “animal spirits”2 of investors have totally soured, as the wealthy few lose confidence in the growth potential of the economy, deficit spending will not succeed in moving the economy back on track.
The experience of the United States in the 1930s provides an interesting case to examine. President Franklin Roosevelt was surrounded by advisers who viewed themselves as social reformers, and who were open to Keynesian economics. The federal government deliberately expanded its expenditures on social services, through deficit financing, with the explicit intention of stimulating economic growth and returning the country to prosperity. These policies were followed from the time FDR was inaugurated in March 1933 until June 1937.
When Roosevelt became president in March 1933, the United States had already experienced four years of economic collapse, during which President Hoover had done virtually nothing to counter the crash. Estimates of unemployment indicate that one out of four workers could not find a job, and millions wandered the country looking to survive.3  This was a catastrophic disaster, one requiring drastic measures.
Roosevelt had no overriding strategy, but he was prepared to take immediate action to counter the crisis. Legislation creating the Civilian Conservation Corps was rapidly enacted by Congress, creating jobs for hundreds of thousands to create nature trails and buildings in national parks, as well as building and repairing basic infrastructure. In 1935, the Works Progress Administration was launched, pump-priming the economy on a large scale with a wide variety of projects that employed a total of eight million workers over the eight years of its existence.4
New Deal programs were funded through deficit financing. Historians have estimated that the unemployment rate fell from 24% in 1933 to 14% in 1937. This was an improvement, but hardly an impressive one. The United States was still bogged down in an economic depression, with millions of workers confronting long periods of unemployment, with little hope for the future.
In early 1937, President Roosevelt’s administration came under heavy attack from corporate interests. The national debt had been rapidly rising, and bondholders were becoming skittish. Furthermore, CIO unions had organized militant strikes and occupations in the automobile industry, as well as other key industries. A spike in unemployment might dampen the militancy of an aroused rank and file.
Roosevelt had always viewed deficit financing as a temporary measure, a brief exception to the norm of a balanced budget. In June 1937, he proposed a drastic cut of three billion dollars in the funding of New Deal programs, with the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps absorbing most of the cuts.5
The result was a profound shock to the system, with the downturn even more precipitous than that of 1929, at the start of the Great Depression. In the ten months following June 1937, total output fell by 12%, while industrial output dropped by one-third. Estimates of the unemployment rate indicate a jump from 14% in 1937 to 19% in 1938, with 10.4 million workers out of work.6
Roosevelt’s advisors pleaded with him to restore the cuts, but he refused until the spring of 1938, when funding was partially restored. A further collapse was averted, but the economy continued to sputter until the fall of 1939, when military production began to escalate as the European countries prepared for World War II.7
Keynesian policies did not succeed in overcoming the economic crisis of the 1930s, although the technical analysis underlining the policy recommendations was shown to be true. Government spending when not counterbalanced by taxes on the working class has a significant multiplier effect on output, income and employment. Nevertheless, Keynes did not take into account the overall context. First, unlike wartime, countering an economic downturn does not provide the government, even a very popular one such as that of FDR’s New Deal, with sufficient momentum to engage in the level of deficit spending required to counter the collapse in private investment. As a result, the economy remains stuck in the doldrums, although no longer at the trough of the cycle.
Second, Keynes’s analysis views pump priming as a temporary fix. The government gives the system a boost and then the economy returns to its previous course. In fact, during a severe downturn investor confidence does not respond to deficit financing. Once the government moves toward a balanced budget, usually by reducing spending on social services, output falls, moving back to the level where it was prior to the government intervention. The underlying problem, the refusal by the wealthy few to invest, has not been resolved.
The only way deficit financing could work in the midst of a severe economic downturn is if it were to be made a permanent feature of the economy, but this can never happen. Deficit financing can only be a temporary measure because the state is taking over an essential task in a capitalist economy, one reserved to the capitalist class. It follows that the rich and powerful will use all of their power to ensure that deficits are cut and they again become the driving force in the economy, determining the flow and direction of investment.
The experience of the United States in the 1930s provides an archetypical model. In spite of New Deal pump-priming, the Great Depression only came to an end with the start of World War II. Such a solution to the current economic crisis is no longer possible. Capitalism is a dynamic system in which certain innovations are fostered. The producers of armaments are always seeking deadlier weapons that require fewer soldiers to deploy them. Thus, a future total war would be over quickly and would leave the planet a radioactive wasteland. Smaller, localized wars of occupation do not necessitate a huge output of military weapons and do not involve enormous armies. Indeed, the United States was fighting two localized wars in 2008 and yet still experienced the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. In the current context, the military can not provide the sustained demand needed to lift a country out of the mire of economic stagnation.
The Myth of Neo-Liberalism
In analyzing the failure of Keynesian economics to resolve the tendency of the capitalist economy to veer into an economic collapse, the emphasis has been on the underlying economics and class relations, and not on ideological dogma. The current “common wisdom” of the Left ascribes the defeat of Keynesian economics to the ascendancy of neo-liberal ideologues. This is a highly dubious explanation.
There is nothing new about the theory that the capitalist system is self-regulating, and that any government intervention can only make the situation worse by upsetting the automatic correcting mechanisms built into a market economy. Similar ideas were formulated by the Austrian school of economists in the late nineteenth century in response to the rise of a working class movement influenced by Marxism.
There is no doubt that this perspective has more traction now than even a few decades ago, but this is hardly because of its cogency or insights. The globalization of production has provided the objective basis for the rise of neo-liberalism. Corporations have outsourced their factories and mills to low-wage countries, thus destroying unions in the private sector. Unions provided the essential base of support for social democratic parties that legislated the welfare state in Western Europe, and for the liberal wing of the Democratic Party as well.
As transnational corporations create a global workforce, corporate bosses see no need to pay wages and benefits to workers in the previously industrialized countries that are higher than those paid to low-wage workers in Bangladesh, China or India. This drive to reduce wages is not a matter of ideology, but rather the pragmatic imperative of the bottom line. Globalization has substantially shifted the balance of class forces. The rightward tilt in the ideological debate reflects a more fundamental shift in the underlying balance of class forces.
This is not to deny that the rise of neo-liberal ideologues marks a meaningful change in the political terrain. In particular, in the United States, which has a long history of elections dominated by two corporate parties controlled by opportunistic politicians whose political perspective does not extend beyond a commitment to upholding the power of the capitalist class. The Tea Party has a program and an ideology that goes well beyond this, calling for the total dismantling of the welfare state reforms instituted during the New Deal. Its rapid rise in visibility has made a significant impact on the Republican Party, which has begun to present a distinct alternative to the pragmatic centrism of the Democrats.
As socialists, we can recognize that there are genuine differences between the pragmatic Obama Democrats and the Tea Party neo-liberal ideologues. Nevertheless, both approaches remain well within the constraints of mainstream capitalist politics. When leftists target neo-liberalism as the primary problem, they underscore their failure to understand the essential dynamic of the current crisis in their desire to exaggerate the differences between neo-liberals and their pragmatic opponents. This position is often followed by a call for a coalition of the broad Left against the rabid, dogmatic Right, as those on the Left subordinate their radical politics to defeat the perceived threat of a neo-liberal victory.
Global capitalism, not neo-liberalism, is the primary problem, and a rapid transition to a socialist society provides the only possible answer.
Capitalism has always had an inherent tendency to expand. Of course, the drive to conquer others precedes the rise of the capitalist system, as imperial rulers have always fought to expand their domain. In the past, this would involve looting and pillaging. The empires that have arisen in modern times have certainly looted and pillaged, but this has been a secondary aspect of their rule.
Historically, a capitalist power has sought to create a distinctive link between the imperial center and the subject countries on its periphery. The British empire of the nineteenth century is the classic example. Industrial production was concentrated in the center, England and Scotland, while industry in the periphery was actively discouraged. The headquarters and coordinating functions of the finance sector were also centrally located in London. Conquered countries were limited to one primary economic role, providing cheap raw materials for the industries of the imperial power. This could entail the exploitation of scarce natural resources, with no regard for the environment, or the extreme exploitation of unskilled labor through the use of force.
In this context, the working class of the imperial power had a vested interest in maintaining the empire. Indeed, a century ago the more far-sighted strategists of the British Empire understood the utility of ensuring the loyalty of the British working class by providing limited social benefits and establishing a minimum wage. In the past, there had been a unique and defined set of economic relationships between the imperial power and its dependent colonies.
The outsourcing of industry and mining to the developing countries has devastated the traditional working class in the developed capitalist countries. Unions in the private sector have been virtually wiped out, and public sector unions have come under intensive attack. As a result, inequalities in income and wealth have significantly widened, thereby increasing the volatility of the system as well as its tendency to become mired in prolonged slumps. Globalization also increases the volatility of the system because it greatly restricts the ability of governments to regulate the economy, and to redistribute income through taxes. The interconnectedness of the global economy also increases the likelihood that a crisis triggered in one country will spread quickly throughout the globe.
Globalization makes the system more volatile, but it only accentuates the fundamental underlying problems. Indeed, the Great Depression of the 1930s occurred decades before corporations began shifting industrial production overseas. Still, globalization adds to the instability of the system, while making it more difficult to pull the economy out of a prolonged downturn.
The Keynesian policy of deficit financing as a method of stimulating the economy constitutes one of an array of government programs designed to stabilize the system. Many on the Left are convinced that the deregulation of markets, as driven by the neo-liberals, provides the primary reason for the current global downturn. In their view, future disasters can only be avoided by strict regulation of the economy, especially the financial sector.
At the turn of the twentieth century, progressives pushed for government action to break up the trusts. They called for anti-trust legislation, hoping that the market economy would return to a mythical golden age when small firms, acting independently of each other, operated within competitive markets. This project proved to be a total failure, as large corporations discovered ingenious ways to evade anti-trust legislation in order to create ever more gigantic entities, and to act in collusion with other powerful firms in their market. Capitalist economies have always been dominated by a few large corporations that manipulate prices and outputs so as to maximize profits. These days, corporations span the globe, crossing national borders with ease.
During the New Deal, the focus of reform shifted from anti-trust legislation to the financial sector. The current crisis has led progressives, once again, to argue that strict regulation of the financial sector will be a critical element in a program that will allow the economy to overcome the current slump and prevent another one from occurring. In fact, such a policy is bound to fail.
To start with, a speculative frenzy only occurs when investors are confident of the future and are willing to take risks. The current situation is characterized by investor pessimism, and a reluctance to undertake risky projects. Indeed, investor confidence appears to be heading downward, with no imminent sign of any upswing. The current problem confronting capitalism is not how to curb an unbridled speculative frenzy. Quite the contrary, investors are following an extremely cautious path.
Even if the current crisis were to be overcome, it will be very difficult for any government to enforce strict regulations on the financial sector that inhibit speculative investments. The only time the economy can prosper is when investors are prepared to undertake investments in new sectors where, by definition, the future is unclear and the risks are high. Obviously, there are no gains to society from the kind of scam investments that brought the housing market to a standstill. Still, it is difficult to discern in the midst of a boom what are risky but still potentially worthwhile investments and what are elaborate frauds.
Furthermore, even the most skillful regulation does not touch the underlying problem. Capitalism generates more savings than can be matched by profitable investments. Globalization has further exacerbated this underlying problem by widening the gap between rich and poor. Regulating the financial sector will not add to effective demand, and, indeed, may well reduce it by dampening investment.
There is also little reason to believe that regulation of the financial sector will prove to be effective. Globalization has integrated the world’s financial markets, making it easy to shift funds from country to country. Financial institutions need no longer remain in New York or London, but rather can be relocated to any place that is connected to the internet. Restrictive legislation in the United States and Britain will just speed the rate at which financial institutions move offshore.
Finally, the impetus to enforce strict regulation dissipates as the crisis that spurred these actions fades in memory. As time goes on, enforcement becomes increasingly lax and banks, and financial institutions become more adept in evading the rules. Corporations use their enormous power to press the case for regulatory “reform,” insisting on the need for freeing financial institutions from “unnecessary” restrictive red tape.
This trajectory can be traced in the United States from the 1930s to the recent debacle. During the first days of the New Deal, the Glass-Steagall Banking Bill was passed with the goal of stabilizing the financial sector, in part by making it harder for banks to invest in high-risk loans. One aspect of this was the creation of a tight barrier between retail banks, those taking deposits from individuals and small businesses, and investment banks, which funnel large sums to fund mergers and new technologies, but also underwrite risky investment vehicles. Over the years, the tight separation of the two types of financial institutions was eroded, until legislation passed in 1999, during the Clinton Administration, junked the entire policy, permitting retail banks to merge with investment banks. The funneling of funds from retail banks to the high-risk investments of credit default swaps and real estate investment trusts was one factor facilitating the speculative frenzy in the housing market, which, when it collapsed, triggered the current crisis. It should be noted that this piece of deregulation was not formulated by neo-liberal ideologues, but rather by the pragmatic advisors of Bill Clinton who were enamored with the rapid spread of a global financial sector.
Capitalism is inherently unstable, and subject to extended periods of mass unemployment, bankruptcies and crisis. Government regulation will not prevent economic instability. Efforts to regulate the financial sector in order to prevent destructive speculative booms are bound to fail. These efforts represent yet another case of reformers fruitlessly trying to fix a system through piecemeal changes. Capitalism can not be reformed. It must be fundamentally transformed through a revolutionary process.
Obama and the Economic Crisis
Emergency bailouts of banks and bankrupt corporations can forestall a total collapse, but the economy remains mired in stagnation. The recent course of events in the United States is indicative of the depth of the problems confronting a capitalist system in decline.
President Barack Obama is, above all, a pragmatist. He has no ideological reluctance to using the state to intervene in the economy, and yet he also has no intention of confronting the capitalist class. Very much the corporate centrist, Obama’s economic policy has been marked by cautious timidity. A total collapse has been forestalled, but output remains stalled, and unemployment remains at high levels. The official unemployment rate fell from 10.0% in 2008 to 8.4% in 2011. These figures limit the count of the unemployed to those who are currently out of work, but who are actively seeking employment. A broader figure adds to the number of unemployed those who have become discouraged, as well as those “marginally” tied to the workforce, including older workers who reluctantly retired after finding that work was no longer available. Using this more accurate indicator, the unemployment rate fell from 15.2% in 2008 to 13.5% in 2011.
These statistics demonstrate that the United States remains stalled in the worst economic crisis since the 1930s, and the Administration has done little to overcome it. Obama’s approach to overcoming the crisis has been far more cautious than Roosevelt’s New Deal, as limited as that was. This reflects several factors. First, the bailout of 2008 was enormously expensive, adding significantly to the total debt, and thus making it more difficult to undertake deficit financing to spark a revival. Furthermore, globalization has led to the U.S. debt being held by wealthy individuals and financial institutions from around the world. It is all too easy for those currently holding U.S. bonds to sell them should they become concerned with the federal government’s increasing debt. Such a dumping would significantly increase the interest rate accruing to U.S. bonds, making it more expensive to borrow.
These factors are relevant, but secondary to the significant shifts in the objective situation since the 1930s. Globalization has undermined the strength of the working class in the previously industrialized countries. (In the United States, only 7% of those working in the private sector are union members.) With the working class in retreat, Obama has only agreed to implement a fiscal policy of economic stagnation. This is in contrast with the first years of the New Deal, when Roosevelt authorized deficit financing on a scale that led to lower unemployment rates, although unemployment still remained at depression levels. Globalization makes capitalism even more susceptible to severe economic downturns, while at the same time making it more difficult to recover.
Obama has also been eager to limit the scope of counter-cyclical spending to capital projects that can be viewed as emergency measures, while avoiding projects that widen the scope of projects undertaken by the public sector. New Deal plans to counter mass unemployment were quite different. The Civilian Conservation Corps constructed roads and buildings in wilderness areas that made natural parks more accessible and desirable, and thus stimulated the demand for increased funding for the park system that lasted well beyond the 1930s. The Works Progress Administration was given a broad mandate that led to a variety of projects such as the Federal Theater Project and the Federal Art Project8 that could only inspire working people to demand that the federal government do more than fund a vast military apparatus. The Obama administration has studiously avoided any creativity in envisioning pump-priming projects.
This difference in approach reflects the underlying shift in the balance of class forces. Roosevelt was worried that the working class in the United States might be attracted by Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany. He therefore sought to present a positive alternative, a welfare state which remained a capitalist market economy.
The change in approach to deficit financing also reflects the very different global context in which the United States finds itself. In the 1930s, most Americans believed that the Great Depression was merely a temporary downturn that would be followed by further periods of prosperity. Eighty years later, globalization has led to deindustrialization.
For three decades prior to the economic crisis of 2008, the working class has suffered through declining real wages and a deterioration in essential social services. Although Obama has pursued a fiscal policy of modest economic stimulus that has forestalled a total collapse, state and local governments have not been provided with funds from the federal treasury needed to counteract the precipitous drop in tax revenues at every level of government. As a result, there have been drastic cutbacks in education, health care and mass transit, compounding those that were already in place before the current crisis. Workers are constantly told that austerity is inevitable, and that they will have to live on less, not just now but in the future.
The Eurozone Debt Crisis
The sharp downturn in the global economy has led to a rapid increase in the debt owed by governments in most of the developed capitalist countries. Banks have been bailed out by governments anxious to avoid a collapse of the financial sector. Tax revenues have substantially declined, as output and incomes spiral downward. At the same time, some countries have pursued Keynesian pump-priming policies by increasing expenditures on infrastructure projects, such as roads, railroads, even prestige projects such as venues for the Olympics.
In several countries within the Eurozone, the rise in the national debt has led to a catastrophic collapse in the economy. Generally, these countries are among those with the weakest economies, having the lowest per capita incomes within Western Europe. Still, the crisis is deepening and spreading. Even France and Holland are threatened by the debt crisis, and the possibility that the European Union may disintegrate is very real.
Although several countries are approaching the economic abyss, their paths to this critical point have been strikingly different. Spain had a small debt to output ratio prior to 2008. The Spanish housing market boomed, but once the slump began, mortgages could not be repaid and the banks collapsed. In Greece, the debt to output ratio was high before 2008. The Greek government hoped that the richer EU countries, particularly Germany, would continue to funnel aid its way, permitting the Greeks to construct a network of social services that approached that of the wealthier countries of Western Europe. Once the global crisis hit, the shaky foundation of this fleeting prosperity was exposed, and the economy collapsed.
In both Spain and Greece, official unemployment rates stand at 25%, and interest rates on government bonds have risen to levels that cannot be sustained. Although the specific road to the debt crisis has varied, the results have been very similar. The economic crisis has led to a sharp fall in output and, as a result, tax revenues have fallen as well. As deficits increase, the countries are pressured into sharp cuts in social services, which produce even further cuts in output, and the downward spiral continues as the system spins out of control.
Bondholders observe debt to output ratios rapidly increasing in the weaker Eurozone countries, and they respond by shifting out of the bonds of those countries and into safe havens, such as U.S. government bonds. The increase in those wanting to sell leads to a fall in the price of the bonds of the beleaguered countries, and thus an increase in interest rates. Higher interest rates add to government expenditures, thus creating even larger government deficits, and a further twist in the downward spiral.
As interest rates on government bonds approach 7% per year, bondholders begin to panic, and bankruptcy looms. Interest rates for both Greece and Spain have begun to approach this critical point. To avoid a crisis, the European Union, that is primarily the German government, provides emergency funds to buy the bonds of the targeted country, demanding stringent repayment plans and further cutbacks. The emergency infusion of funds stabilizes the bond market for awhile, until the spiral begins again and the abyss approaches again.
In this situation, austerity measures are self-defeating. Cutting government spending only exacerbates the underlying problem. Still, stimulating the economy through deficit financing will not work either, given the readiness of bondholders to flee from the risk of default. Furthermore, the draconian cuts required to service the emergency loans virtually propel the working class into action, and the militancy of the popular resistance deters the government from fully implementing the austerity program demanded by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.
There would appear to be only one way out of this impasse within the constraints of a capitalist market economy. The wealthy few must be heavily taxed, and the revenues thus generated used to fund vital social services. This would require a significant shift in the balance of class forces toward the working class. The recent decades have been characterized by the exactly contrary trend, as the gap between the rich and the poor widens even further.
Globalization not only undercuts the power of the working class in the previously industrialized societies, but it also makes it easier for the affluent to hide their incomes in the many tax havens that have sprung up around the world. The ability of nation states to effectively tax wealthy individuals or large corporations has been significantly undermined by globalization. Incomes and corporate profits would have to be taxed at the source, and this would require full and open transparency by corporations to become meaningful. A true accounting would necessitate a direct confrontation with international capital, triggering massive capital flight.
Immediately, the Eurozone countries confronting economic collapse can gain a breathing space by leaving the European Union and defaulting on sovereign debt. By being integrated into a currency zone dominated by Germany, less technologically advanced countries such as Spain and Greece have been saddled with overpriced exports. This has exacerbated the impact of the global downturn, and has been one factor contributing to the economic crisis in these countries. Nevertheless, leaving the Eurozone will not resolve the underlying problems. Investor confidence has been decimated, and a brief upsurge in exports is not likely to remedy the problem.
A Stark Choice
The choice is stark. Either countries such as Greece and Spain move rapidly to overthrow capitalism, and to establish a new society, or economic stability will be restored by quashing the working class, dismantling social services and slashing wages. This is a choice that can not be confined to one country. The revolutionary option will only succeed if it rapidly spreads. The current crisis can not be transcended through half-measures and limited reforms. We need to think in bold terms, to view our commitment to building a new society as an immediate strategic priority, not as a goal for some vaguely defined future.

1.  In a letter to Engels written on September 25, 1856, Marx suggested that the crisis had “assumed European dimensions such as have never been seen before.” The two revolutionaries would not “be able to spend much longer here merely as spectators.” Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1983), 40:72.
2.  John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (London: Macmillan, 1936), p. 161.
3.  The federal government did not collect statistics on unemployment during the 1930s, so economic historians have calculated rough estimates based on the available statistics concerning output and income. In 1940, the current system was initiated, based on monthly surveys of the labor force. The estimates of unemployment rates from the 1930s, therefore, are not comparable to the current statistics.
4.  Frank Knight, “The Economic Principles of the New Deal,” in Morton J. Frisch and Martin Diamond, The Thirties: Reconsideration in the Light of the American Political Tradition (De Kalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1968), p. 92.
5.  William Leuchtenberg, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, 1932-40 (New York: Harper and Row, 1963), p. 244.
6.  Richard Polenberg, “The Decline of the New Deal, 1937-1940,” in John Braeman, Robert H. Bremner and David Brody, eds., The New Deal: The National Level (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, p. 255.
7. Knight, “Economic Principles,” p. 94.
8.  Leuchtenberg, Roosevelt and the New Deal, pp. 125-8.