October 4, 2013

Discussion and debate: ultra-leftism and confidence in the people

How much faith should revolutionaries have in the working people and masses, to overthrow the system of capitalism and build a new society? It is an open debate, with Marxists and communists arguing strongly that there are both objective reasons (class struggle) and historic precedent for confidence in the working class majority. The view is not unanimously shared, however. Anarchists, such as Emma Goldman who is pictured left and who the quote below is from, are often much more cynical. Marxists have called-out these kind of approaches as "ultra-left" -- sounding very radical, but in practice promoting a sense of futility and hopelessness and leading to inaction. Writing in his notebook once, Lenin said "Anarchism is a product of despair." What do you think? How is Goldman's concept of freedom similar or different to that of Marxist concepts of freedom? How is it similar or different to the kind of conceptualization of freedom we hear on TV, at school or in political speeches?

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About fifty years ago, a meteorlike idea made its appearance on the social horizon of the world, an idea so far-reaching, so revolutionary, so all-embracing as to spread terror in the hearts of tyrants everywhere. On the other hand, that idea was a harbinger of joy, of cheer, of hope to the millions. The pioneers knew the difficulties in their way, they knew the opposition, the persecution, the hardships that would meet them, but proud and unafraid they started on their march onward, ever onward. Now that idea has become a popular slogan. Almost everyone is a Socialist today: the rich man, as well as his poor victim; the upholders of law and authority, as well as their unfortunate culprits; the freethinker, as well as the perpetuator of religious falsehoods; the fashionable lady, as well as the shirtwaist girl. Why not? Now that the truth of fifty years ago has become a lie, now that it has been clipped of all its youthful imagination, and been robbed of its vigor, its strength, its revolutionary ideal -- why not? Now that it is no longer a beautiful vision, but a "practical, workable scheme," resting on the will of the majority, why not? Political cunning ever sings the praise of the mass: the poor majority, the outraged, the abused, the giant majority, if only it would follow us.

Who has not heard this litany before? Who does not know this never-varying refrain of all politicians? That the mass bleeds, that it is being robbed and exploited, I know as well as our vote-baiters. But I insist that not the handful of parasites, but the mass itself is responsible for this horrible state of affairs. It clings to its masters, loves the whip, and is the first to cry Crucify! the moment a protesting voice is raised against the sacredness of capitalistic authority or any other decayed institution. Yet how long would authority and private property exist, if not for the willingness of the mass to become soldiers, policemen, jailers, and hangmen. The Socialist demagogues know that as well as I, but they maintain the myth of the virtues of the majority, because their very scheme of life means the perpetuation of power. And how could the latter be acquired without numbers? Yes, authority, coercion, and dependence rest on the mass, but never freedom or the free unfoldment of the individual, never the birth of a free society.

From "Minorities vs Majorities" by Emma Goldman, in Anarchism and Other Essays (Third revised edition, New York: Mother Earth Publishing Association, 1917)


- Comments


  1. Comments are now open on this article.

  2. If the ycl and cpc truly believed in the capacity of the working class to emancipate itself they would not encourage them to participate in the electoral farce of rubber stamping their own exploitation by voting for 5 minutes every five years. They would not tell them to trust in the bourgeois institution that is parliament, an institution based not on collective decision making but on electing representatives to make the decisions for us and in a completely capitalist framework to boot.

  3. Well Stavros Eagle, by that same logic we shouldn't take 5 seconds to ever sign a petition to pressure the government since it is a bourgeois institution and that would indicate they are rubber stamping their own oppression. And never mind protest marches against government policy -- that's complaining against a completely capitalist framework, we should just call for revolution. Why don't we just go home and read the internets? Elections are just one aspect of the struggle, one area we can fight, and as much as you might desire that the communists disappear and stop being visible, we will continue to annoy the capitalists by showing up during their electoral horse-races and raining on the parade, showing an alternative direction. And when our candidates have been elected, its been about resistance not rubber stamping capitalism. By dropping out, being silent, not voting, not speaking, not protesting -- that's how you rubber stamp capitalism.

    1. Since when did signing a petition ever put pressure on the government? And I didn't say anything about not having protests and rallies, in fact I think they are important for the class to learn their strength through struggle. What I tried to get across is that revolution is an affair of the masses, not a task that can be decreed by representatives elected to a bourgeois institution. Electoralism serves to bolster this same institution at a time of unprecedented cynicism and apathy when it comes to parliamentary politics. Perhaps it is the ycl and cpc that don't have confidence in the 'people'.

      As an aside, by the 'people' do you mean all of them, the whole 'nation', proletarian and bourgeois hand in hand? This would be consistent with your legalistic and class collaborationist politics.

    2. Petitions are small one tactic of many in putting pressure on public figures who get elected, and organizers of petition drives will tell you that they aren't enough but still a part what you describe as learning your strength through struggle, popular education and mobilizing.

      Marx though the Charterists had a good idea with their campaign, which was centred around a petition, and can be credited with breaking the class wall around the right to vote. There are many other examples since. But you would have to study history of struggle for that and, Stavros Eagle, we're not 100% convinced your not some internet troll.

      Nor are we convinced that, given the logic of your conclusions above, that examples of pressuring parliament as part of class struggle will change your mind. You seem too busy labelling us with all the jargon you can pull out of the ultra-left anti-communist suitcase.

      When have we said that the decisive moments in revolutionary processes are decrees, let alone by capitalist parliaments? Read this blog and you will find a whole series of articles explaining the opposite.

      When have we talked about the whole 'nation'? Read this blog and you will find our long-fought for position is that Canada is a country of many nations in unequal union -- Quebec, Acadiens, Aboriginal Nations, and English-speaking Canada.

      Read this blog and you will find when we talk about the people it means the working class and the rest of the non-capitalist population which could (and often are) there allies in particular struggles.

      What strengthens a bourgeois parliament? Not exercising the very rights we had to fight and wring with blood, sweat and tears from the capitalist class? And by making it a totally uncontested space of bourgeois domination?

      Well my dear that's what we have now -- and record numbers of people not voting. Prolonged cynicism and apathy towards politics in general helps the boss class, plain and simple.

      It is the social democrats who do advocate for everything you describe. Their website is something like NDP.com -- maybe it is time to spend your energy bumping that strong head against genuine class-collaborationist policies.

      But trying to defend Red Emma when she exposed her dislike of the majority population in this diatribe blaming the victim -- well it strikes us as a bit futile.

    3. I'm not defending Red Emma. I think her body of work can speak for itself. What you are doing is taking an excerpt from a piece, which displays a cynicism on her part, and implying that it is representative of her work as a whole. I think that we can understand cynicism from a person whose life's work was agitation for revolutionary change and then not seeing that revolution happen in her country. It leads one to ask, 'what is the subjective appeal of capitalism to those in whose material interests it is to throw this system on the scrap heap?'. It doesn't mean we should throw her to the dogs as a counter revolutionist.

      She was certainly not cynical when the Russian revolutions happened, though she was about the eventual degeneration into bureaucratic state capitalism, which the Stalinized left continues to insist on calling socialism.

  4. To be fair, we're actually implying that excerpt represents anarchism in many ways, not just one individual writer, because there is a lack of confidence in the working class and the people. But gosh darn it, now you've jumped onto the Soviet people's brave but imperfect attempt to build working class power despite incredible opposition (invasion by Canada, civil war, fascism, and then a nuclear gun to their heads, etc.) and made the case that it also proves the masses "love the whip." We've gone full-circle. Thanks for making the links, especially with then next generation, post-1927, of ultra-leftists who had adopted similar positions to anarchist Emma and a total extreme rejection of the USSR, but now dressed up as Marxism because life itself had disqualified many of her ideas. As to this debate thread, seem's like its come down to wee bit more "provocation" rather than real debate, Mr. Eagle. We'll just have to throw in the towel! http://tinyurl.com/mdx8gt8

    1. Don't throw in the towel yet. I read the last part of the article from which this excerpt is taken. At the end she makes the point about the importance of intelligent minorities in creating revolutionary change. Is this not reminiscent of VI Lenin's What is to Be Done where he paraphrased Karl Kautsky about the need for a vanguard party of the proletariat because by itself the working class can achieve only trade union consciousness, as opposed to revolutionary consciousness? More to the point, I believe this misrepresentation, slander against EG has more to do with invalidating her later writings critical of the capitalist counterrevolution in Russia in the guise of bureaucratic functionaries who manage the state capital, then it does with (hypocritical) moral indignation about blaming the victim or not having faith in the people.

  5. There is no slander in the original article as we quote her own words. Unless she slanders herself somehow. What is taking place in the discussion comments thread, we thought, was a frank exchange of ideas and not personal attacks on dead rebels.

    Anyway, your point about intelligent minorities leading revolutions, vanguardism of Leninism, and moral outrage is brilliant -- brilliantly mistaken.

    First, this is exactly the critique anarchists quite infrequently make of Marxism, the Communist Parties and YCLs. Of course there is no end of small vanguardist groups who claim a left identity. And as you show, anarchism is not at all incompatible with vanguardism, with the notion that a fringe micro-group can subjectively and spontaneously turn the situation in a country, or even the whole world, into revolution.

    Again, we ask: are are debating someone who presents with arguments that, basically, prove themselves to be just polemical anti-communist noise, not a dialogue? Marx and Lenin's ideas are pretty clear in their insistence that revolutions do not come out of personal whims, no matter how noble, but the social-economic contradictions of capitalism and political crises.

    Their writings also clearly provide answer the questions in a revolution who will take the lead? and how will they do it? The danger of the Communists is their realization that the working class itself will take the lead, and they will do it through a revolutionary organization which can seize state power. No, a trade union isn't good enough, yes the working class can achieve revolutionary consciousness, but not without the help of its own party -- the Communist Party -- which is not a separate intelligent minority but a section of the working class.

    The problem for anarchists remains: how do you coordinate the various efforts of local revolutionary forces (on which they put a one-sided emphasis) into a common direction? And their response is either to come up with a plan that, at the end of the day, still does not allow for enough coordination and discipline to be effective or -- basically introduces the concept of a vanguard party.

    Perhaps it is within the framework of this profound, and vexing internal conundrum of strategy that anarchism faces, that we should see Goldman's comments about intelligent minorities.

    Their is a second point in your comment we would like to pick up on which is also important and not disconnected from this strategic problem.

    You characterize our objections to Goldman as subjective moral indignation. This shows your argument totally missing our main point -- which is about fundamentals and how people see the world, ie. what are social classes, what is their social relationship with other classes, and what is their status and potential objectively.

    Goldman's anti-communist writings on the USSR can be read by contemporary activists and weighed-up not only theoretically but also historically. We don't need to cherry-pick quotes to attack that work which has enough problems that are evident today to collapse on its own. That 20th century history was far from perfect but shows that the Communist Parties have made major achievements defeating the capitalists and winning working class power, and maintaining it.

    What historical record do the anarchists have? Maybe the BC Dukabour Communes? Spain in 1934? The FLQ? Rochdale College? Mondragon? Occupy?

    Perhaps its time to stop kicking down those who you are trying to liberate.


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