Prospects for Revolution after the collapse of the existing left - 1994


We are living in a time of great change for the left. For this century the left has been identified with social-democracy (Labour, WP etc.) who saw socialism as being introduced through a few good men taking getting elected through parliament. Or by Leninists who saw socialism as a few good men being put into power by a revolution. Essentially both were variations on the Marxist conception of socialism. Anarchists who argued that socialism could not be brought about by a few good men but only by the self activity of the working class were dismissed as everything from dreamers to bomb throwers.

Well the statists have had most of a century to put their ideas into practise and they have failed miserably. Both Leninism and Social democracy have been shown to offer no way forward for our class, indeed they were dead ends which we are only now beginning to stumble out of. Social democracy as an idea is dead, none of the parties even pretends to be about introducing socialism through parliaments, instead they present themselves as bringing a kinder, gentler capitalism. Leninism as an idea should have died in the 20's when to became clear what a disaster the USSR had become. Instead it split and stumbled on in 57 varieties, each one blaming the other for the failure of their project. With the collapse of the USSR however it died as a significant force with a couple of very odd local exceptions.

In the short term this has surprisingly thrown up problems for those of us active in fighting for a better society. The bulk of union activists and indeed those active around most progressive issues identified themselves with one or other variety of state socialists. As these groups collapsed many of them rather than saying 'we were wrong' instead claimed capitalism had changed and socialism was no longer relevant. This coupled with the defeats inflicted upon our class by the ruling class in the 80's led to massive demoralisation. So many of these people vanished or remain as demoralised clock watchers, lacking both a vision of a better future and a belief that it is possible to defeat capitalism on even small issues in the here and now.


This is where we find ourselves, but the demoralisation should not blind us to the great potential that has been thrown open. The collapse of the left is mirrored by a collapse in right wing politics, and a deep crisis in capitalism. If in the 80's many workers believed partially in the inevitability of Thatcherist policies in the 90's few believe in anything. With the stage cleared in this manner the potential for growth by the libertarian left is huge. Over 10-20 years we are looking at the best potential for a libertarian revolution ever. The question is can we change that potential into a reality.
State of the liberation left

This is not easy, every where but particularly in the English speaking countries the libertarian left is fragmented, lacking experience and confused. None of our organisations are as yet capable of offering a coherent alternative and many of them are not even working towards that.

historical distruction

Anarchism which is by far the most consistent and largest strain within the libertarian left was almost destroyed in the first 50 years of this century. From the USA in the years of the first world war where our militants were jailed and then deported for opposing the war, to Russia where they were jailed, exiled and executed by the Bolsheviks, perhaps as many as 200,000 of them, to Italy, Germany and Spain where they were crushed and sent to concentration camps fighting the Nazis, to war time Europe where the Nazis wiped out the movements every where they occupied most notably in Poland to post war Europe where the remnants were smashed by Stalin on the one hand in Bulgaria, to the victorious allies on the other in Italy. Over this time the strong movements in Southern and Latin America were wiped out by years of dictatorship.

Nowhere has the anarchist movement recovered to even a fraction of its strength, the anarchist unions in Spain may claim 20 -> 30,000 members but in 1936 the CNT had 1 million. Even the theoretical depth and practise of the movement was wiped out, many of todays groups are little more than a parody of what has gone before.
poor state in England and Ireland

Nowhere is this more true than in England and Ireland. The groups in this room represent the most organised sections of the movement here but we are all tiny and almost completely insignificant. With the exception of ourselves they are also characterised by a lack of coherency except around one or two pet issues and an inability to intervene as an organisation outside of these issues. What's more there is little attempt to develop this coherency, instead activity alone is substituted. There is little vision and no discussion of how we build mass organisations.
the need for clear anarchism

I'm not about to claim we have all the answers, or even a sizeable percentage of them but at least we have set out to work out our ideas and learn from the historical mistakes of anarchism. This is the most immediate task facing anarchists and one that vital if we are to become more than a small organisation. We must clarify our ideas, we must examine our history we must create a base on which to build.

We would also emphasise the need to base yourself on the anarchist tradition. It is this tradition that put up the clearest and most sustained resistance to Leninism and also demonstrated in practise in the Spanish revolution the enormous potential of the working class. It was also this tradition that first outlined the danger of the Marxists writing off the state and workers democracy as irrelevant or side issues. The bulk of the libertarian movement is confused on this issue today. At this point I'dlike to make some criticisms of the other groups here.

Class War don't yet know if they are Marxists or anarchists, have no coherent position on a range of basic issues and no public interest in learning from the mistakes of the past. Red Action call themselves Marxists but deny rather then reject the authoritarian aspects of Marxism, exemplified by Engels insistence that the anarchists were fools for imagining a factory could be run by anything but dictatorial management.

Organise on the other hand although clearly identifying with anarchism are part of an international that has yet to acknowledge that the entry of anarchists into government in Spain was mistake. These sort of mistakes are key features of almost all the libertarian movement today, ones which must be corrected if we are to go forward. That is part of the function of todays gathering, to highlight and discuss our differences, rather than engaging in mutual back slapping.

We want you to use today to begin to make a choice between these groups. The WSM does not share these problems I've highlighted because of the emphasis we put on working out common positions and on internal education. Our revolutionary practise is guided by our revolutionary theory.
changed working class

We have to understand that the working class has changed over the last 50 years. Many have written it off, others just concentrate on the most impoverished sections of it, hence the constant use of phrases like working class areas. We say that the vast bulk of the population of this city is working class. Essentially the class consists of nearly all PAYE workers, their dependants and the unemployed. Its very hard to find an area, a street or a shopping centre that is not working class in that sense. We see most of what people call middle class as being working class, whether its teachers, bank workers or computer operators like myself.

The reason this class is revolutionary is because of its huge size and the fact that from to teacher to steel worker it has only one solution to its problems. That solution is collective action, banding together against the bosses. Teachers and steel workers can't hope for a better life by getting a greater share of the factory or school, they can only depend on the solidarity of their workmates. many on the left see most workers as unwinnable due to the availability of videos and the idea that 'were all middle class now', we look at the example of the Europeans upheavals in '68 particularly France as an example of how easily White collar workers will adopt and take up revolutionary demands.
revolutionaries in the class

To become a mass organisation, to win the bulk of the class to anarchist politics revolutionaries have to be able to address the class. We can only do this by building up a reputation as the most militant fighters and those with the best ideas within the class. Those whose idea of revolution is to shout slogans at whatever section of the class is currently in struggle are rightly seen as intellectual masturbators.
the pick up of struggle

In the last few years many European countries have seen brief general strikes. We saw how the French government was forced to back down in the face of militancy from Aer France workers and then again from students. We've seen the first post-Leninist rebellion in Chipas at the start of this year. In the last weeks we've seen the end of Apartheid in South Africa as a product of capitalism need to deal with a mass movement there. We've seen the growth of new anarchist movements throughout Eastern Europe. The potential for change is not only there, we are seeing its first green shoots, the question is can we win this time.

Building a mass organisation

tens if not hundreds of thousands

I have said all the groups here are tiny. We see a revolution as only being successful when the mass of the workers have anarchist ideas it follows that this is only possible when the anarchist organisations have memberships in the tens if not hundreds of thousands in this country. Not just in this country, an isolated revolution here would not survive long. The potential is huge but so is the task facing us, to build anarchist organisations involving enormous numbers of workers in every country of the world. Fortunately we know the idea is already international, whats needed is the clarity and support to put it into practise.
every struggle

To do this we have to be able to appeal to all section of the class, to fight on every issue that effects the class. At the moment the WSM is the only libertarian organisation that has the beginnings of this ability. We believe that the other organisations are making a serious mistake in their refusal to work out and clearly state positions on everything that effects the class. Indeed this is a mistake we made ourselves and that eventually nearly killed us despite a promising initial growth.

your place in this

We are tiny, if anarchism is to be put on the agenda we need huge organisation with worked out ideas. You have a role to play in building such organisations by examining what is on offer here today and getting involved. You may lack confidence or even see your contribution as insignificant but your wrong. It is only if those who consider themselves revolutionaries get involved in the building of the revolutionary organisations that we can effect change. That strength is a collective one made up of individuals each taking the first step. You all have a huge contribution to make, use today as the starting point of that contribution.

Talk given to a WSM meeting in 1994.