Rethinking Anarchism: Carlos Taibo (6)

What follows below is the 6th Chapter of Carlos Taibo’s Rethinking Anarchy: Direct Action, Self-Management, Autonomy (La Catarata, Madrid, 2013).  Largely concerned with the history of spanish anarchism, Taibo also considers, in this chapter, the complex relationship between anarchism and marxism, the soviet experiment and social democracy, concluding with observations on more recent latin american efforts as “21st century” socialism.  We have already translated and posted the “Prologue” and the “Chapter 1″ of this work (Click here), “Chapter 2″ (Click here), “Chapter 3″ (Click here), “Chapter 4” (click here) and “Chapter 5” (Click here).  And we hope to continue in what will be the complete translation of the book.  In this way we aim to share with English readers the work of one of the most significant anarchist voices today in spain.

Chapter 6: History and Confrontations

Our Libertarians

In 2010, when the centenary of the foundation of the CNT was celebrated, exercises in de-mystification of what was the libertarian movement, among us, became frequent, in the circuits of media power.  Even though de-mystification is always healthy, to do it with something that was before systematically forgotten was appealing, even more so when those responsible for it show little interest in freeing themselves from demonising clichés that they themselves forged, or in this instance, inherited.  In the heat of the moment of this bewildering ceremony, the confusion of some habits embraced by the republican bourgeoisie of three quarters of a century ago re-appeared, in the form of a depreciative intellectualism and a commiserating paternalism applied to those who then as now are invisible.

Our libertarians had of course their faults.  If among them a vanguard often functioned in separation from an apathetic base, the absence of serious plans regarding the future and the contradictions of participation in the political game with which they concerned themselves joined with a sterile revolutionary gymnastics and, with it, a gratuitous violence.  None of this however justifies setting aside the enormous merits of a movement that dignified the working class, put into place a model egalitarianism in favour of the most disadvantaged, grew without officials or bureaucracies, contributed efficacious instruments of resistance and pressure, developed active networks in the form of farms, workshops and cooperatives, put into place audacious educational and cultural initiatives, and revealed, lastly, and in extremely difficult circumstances, a formidable capacity of mobilisation.  The CNT was, in addition, a vital agent in checking, in July of 1936, the rebel uprising and played a prominent role, in the months that followed, in the experiences of collectivisation (knowledge of which would be a good for our youth) and which suffered a savage repression at the hands of the new regime.  Numerous highly recommendable studies capture this world of social ebullition and permanent struggle: La cultura anarquista a Catalunya by Ferran Aisa, ¡Nosotros los anarquistas! by Stuart Christie, Venjança de classe by Xavier Diez, La lucha por Barcelona by Chris Ealham, Anarquistas by Dolors Marin and La revolución libertarian by Heleno Saña. (1)

I will however return to the official discourse, always associated with a lamentable exercise in presentism: what happened in the past is judged on the basis of the values that – it is supposed – are today ours.  Nothing then is simpler than to forget the extreme conditions of work and repression that made themselves felt in the decade of the 1930s, as there is nothing simpler than to approve of the violence of the system before that of those who suffered it.  Nothing is more reasonable than to take as proven the reformist character of the 2nd – workers? – Republic –, forgetting in parallel the repression that it gave itself over to – not only during the bienio negro – the systematic beach of approved laws and, so often, the silent acceptance of many of the rules of the past.  From the comfort of the present nothing is more logical in the end than to oppose good labour unionists and bad anarchists even as there is overwhelming evidence of the fortunate participation of the CNT in the traditional political game.  Everything that smells of social revolution is stigmatised as anachronistic and contemptable and the libertarians are converted into those most responsible for the troubles of the Republic.

An example of all of the above is expressed in the well-known contrast between violent anarchists – often presented as genuine delinquents, responsible for so many deaths – and neat militants of left-wing parties, who always maintained their composure.  Santos Julía, in his own time wrote, in the pages of El País, that “the slaughters in the ranks of the franquistas during the war were not carried out by republicans, but by adepts of a social revolution that, had it triumphed, would also have supposed the end of the Republic” (2) (sic).  Josep Fontana, in his pseudo-reply in Público (3), notably submitted to avoid the principal debate: interested in separating the violence of the franquistas and the republicans, preferred to answer with silence before that which can only be understood as, on the side of Julía, an acritical and classist demonization of the social revolution, accompanied by a canonisation of the Republic, source apparently of all that is good.  This type of discourse is, furthermore, very frequent in the collective book authored by a handful of historians, more or less associated with the official left, and published in the beginning of 2012 to oppose the manipulations of the Royal Academy of History.(4)

As regards presentism, it rests always, in addition, on a blatant acceptance of the presumed goodness of the order that we today enjoy.  From this perspective, it is possible to understand another prestigious historian, José Álarez Junco, who apparently never heard of the caso Scala – the Barcelona fire of 1978 in which the attempt was made to accuse the libertarian movement – allows himself to affirm that the CNT did not raise its head immediately in 1975 due to its incapacity to accept the sacred rules of the transition.  If each is free to express his opinions, it would be better to maintain a distance in relation to those who express opinions such as these as the distinguished product of an acute and scientific work behind which nevertheless hides endless prejudices and versions of history as much self-interested as ideological.

The last of the stigmas of this pathetic discourse is the repeated affirmation that anarchism died among us in 1939.  To put the lie to it, it is but necessary to consider dates and anarchism’s diverse nature.  Let us recall that anarcho-syndicalism still lives and maintains a presence, however much the disinformation media prefer to continue to associate with picket lines and violence.  The trace of libertarian thought is also easily discernible in new social movements – feminism, environmentalism, pacifism – and the very new – the worlds of anti-globalisation, degrowth or of indignación – ; many of the strategies of these movements, that may appear to us to be extremely innovative, were developed, as I will immediately try to justify, in the libertarian world eighty years ago.  The urgency, on the other hand, of responding to the endless collapse of social democracy and Leninism has brought back to discussion words such as self-management, socialisation and decentralisation in support of societies that are not based on coercion or the search for profit, and suspicious of the supposedly liberating potential of technology.  Against these facts, the affirmation, so common in the palace sermons, that anarchism is an ideology of the past, reveals rather well the time in which those who express it live.

The Republican Myth

The only serious reason that invites any support among us of the republican option is the corruption of the monarchy with which we live.  This option however often presupposes that the most important problems that burden us are closely and exclusively tied to the monarchical institution.  As if a republic would solve them all magically!  It is nevertheless necessary to recall that the majority of the member States of the European Union (EU) are republics without this in itself being a guarantee of anything relevant.

It is certainly true in the Spanish case that the demand for a republic not only sinks its roots in the awareness of the conditions of the currently existing monarchy: it also drinks from the desire of give back to the political regime that reigned in the decade of the 1930s its dignity.  Though such a desire is respectable – how can the teachers of the republic not be honoured, how can one not remember those who fought fascism –, it would be good if people who wish to give it free reign also guard their distance in relation to something which in the end seems, here also, like a delicate process of the invention of a tradition.

And we do the truth no favours if we avoid criticisms of what was the 2nd Republic.  I am not now speaking obviously of those of the revisionist literature that has flowed from the ultramontanist right: I am thinking of those that put their finger on the wound of how the republic served to ground the interests of an ascendant bourgeoisie that did not hesitate to keep sharpened instruments of repression against popular classes that it said it wish to alphabetise.  I think of how in the end it left things as they were in decisive domains.  Or I think of the necessity to disable myths which have been forged with the passage of time around such equivocal personalities as Azaña and Ortega; the first portrayed as a statesman bearer of a modernising national project and in no way associated with the ascendant bourgeoisie mentioned above and the second described, without more ado, as an impeccable democrat, Europeanist, federalist and tolerant.

It would be good if in the end we did not lose sight of the fact that we often place under the general category of republicans many people who, from the perspective of a final social revolution, struggled for other horizons.  “The republican police is like that of the monarchy, in the same way that the republican tyranny is equal to that of the monarchy.  The police have not changed; it will never change.  Its mission was, is and will continue to be the persecution of the workers and the poor”, stated in 1932, with impeccable lucidity, an editorial of Solidaridad Obrera. (5)

The Years of the War

Permit me to dedicate some time to glossing what the libertarians did in the years of the Spanish Civil War, a moment in which the workers, or many of them, confronted fascism directly, something which their German, Italian or French counterparts did not do – or only did with far less daring.

It is well known that in those years an acute and intense polemic between those who defended – in substance the libertarians – that the war and the revolution had to be carried out simultaneously and those who asserted that the only priority was winning the war made itself felt.  The scenario was uniquely hostile for the first, who suffered obviously the effects of the latter, but also the harassment, the boycott and the absence of collaboration, in many cases, of the republican authorities and the political forces that supported them.  The party of order, as its name states, assumed an unabashed defence of the established order, giving expression symbolically to the devolution of many of the industries and lands that had been collectivised at the beginning of the war to their owners.  In the following decades, as a consequence, the collectivising experiment, in the majority of cases realised voluntarily, without hierarchical structures, by industrial workers and peasants, fell into oblivion, along with what the republicans did against the same experiment.

Little attention has been given to the fact that in 1936, in Spain, many of the Russian debates of earlier decades reappeared.  In Spain, were the conditions present for a revolution?  A good part of the Leninist historiography that had answered affirmatively to this question in the case of Russia seemed to understand that in Spain, by contrast, the conditions were absent, such that, from this perspective, the sign of apparent revolution registered in 1936 was rather the product of the failure, even though relative, of the military uprising than the consequence of an objective scenario propitious for revolution.  Behind all of this, it was easy to suspect a prosaic fact: the perspective of a revolution in Spain was scorned because only with difficulty would it be controlled and led by those who elaborated the argument against it.  The libertarian response revealed itself of course to be far less impregnated with objective certainties and far more inclined towards identifying various possibilities that derived from complex circumstances (and not only from the military coup).

As things were, some of the modulations of the Leninist critique – I am not referring in this instance, let it be understood, to the official discourse of the Spanish Communist Party – coincided in affirming that in 1936 the anarchists should have taken power (it can be concluded that the Leninists believed, certainly, in their own way, in the Spanish libertarian movement, for which it seemed to display a subterranean admiration: otherwise, they would never have suggested that a rival assume governments and ministries).  It is true that the anarchists never unilaterally and exclusively took power – in this they were consistent –, as it was in fact, and at least in its directing cupola – because, in effect, an entity of this nature did finally develop –, they renounced to fully spreading a grass roots revolution and often entered into open contradiction with the very principles they declared to be their own.  This curious way of proceeding in the end generated a very curious theatre: while, on the one hand, it was emphasised that the libertarians were people that it was not convenient to trust – an obstacle on the path to republican order –, on the other hand it was commonly forgotten that the CNT did in substance what was asked of it.  It incorporated itself, in particular, in the Catalan and Spanish governments, with well-known results: an accumulation of difficulties for internal democracy, the development of an incipient bureaucracy and in which debate was absent, and without any benefit for its cause; rather, it would quickly come to verify the magnitude of the error committed.  It acted, furthermore, with an ingenuous generosity that did nothing to render others better: let us not forget that during the civil war, the conduct of the libertarian world was infinitely less aggressive and planned than the apparatus of power of the Republic and its supporters.  Given the above, and as far as I can see, the record of these years – in which there occurred, in an extraordinary combination, the most beautiful and the most tremendously error plagued experiment – did not demonstrate the ineptitude of the anarchist project, but rather the terrible consequences of its abandonment.

Why accept, to finish – and here I return to the theoretical discussion about the bases of an eventual revolution –, the supposed error of the Spanish singularity, of the anomaly, of an anarchism and an anarcho-syndicalism that prospered after the First World War?  Was their lot much better than others?  Was not this anomaly a principal explanation for why it took three years for fascism to sink its roots in the greater part of the Iberian Peninsula?  Are we not in the obligation, in the end, to undo many of the stigmas that have been fixed on the Spanish libertarians?  In this respect, I see with satisfaction that some professional historians have begun to so see matters, even though our anarchists never developed a millenarian movement – not even in the south of the Peninsula –, even though there is no reason to disqualify a priori such a commitment.  It would seem a promising beginning of revision.

The Example of the CNT

Chris Ealham’s book, already referred to, offers precious information with respect to the kind of action developed by the CNT, during a quarter of a century in a singular location: the city of Barcelona.  It portrays, firstly, a revolutionary transformation of space and the control of public life,(6) with an acute consciousness of community and local autonomy,(7) a noteworthy effort directed towards rendering neighbourhoods impenetrable, independent and mutually supporting,(8) and finally, the deployment of practices of a profoundly democratic nature.  What was revealed in the background of all of this was the aim spreading a morality superior to that of the bourgeoisie, commonly perceived as criminals, and this under the shelter of a very active movement of denunciation of what underlay the consumption of alcohol, prostitution, religious institutions, bullfights or sexual repression.  The most significant result was a collective and elated us(9) confronting property owning classes who impeded the satisfaction of vital necessities such as those related to clothing, food and housing.(10)  An us also accompanied by an explicit defence of illegality, understood as “anarchist and revolutionary”.(11)  “I am a pure anarchist and I rob banks, but I am incapable of stealing from the poor, as others do”, stated one of the thieves of an armoury.

Libertarian Barcelona would often make a show of its support for practices of self-management.  Recall, for example, that in the CNT congress of 1919, it was proposed that lands slated for construction but yet undeveloped and the buildings constructed by union labour be expropriated.  In a different domain, it can also be recalled that graphic arts labour unions were incited to apply a red censorship against those publications that misinformed on matters having to do with questions of labour.(13)  Is this even imaginable today among the majority labour unions in Spain?  Apart from that, many of the initiatives that appear to us strictly contemporary were tried by our anarchist and anarcho-syndicalist grandparents, very knowledgeable in what direct action meant.  I speak of strikers and the unemployed who would refuse to pay in restaurants, of groups of women who, protected, would rob shops or, in more delicate operations of bank holdups, would transport money and payrolls.  Any were the protests organised to reduce housing rents and the prices of foods.  There existed – let us not forget – a Sindicato de Inquilinos (“Tenants’ Union”), that in 1922 managed to call a strike in collaboration with construction workers.  House occupation were the order of the day, as well as what we would today call escraches in front of the homes of large property owners.  That the initiatives went beyond the ambit of work is demonstrated by the fact that in the decade of the 1930s, the Comisión de Defesa Económica proposed increasing efforts in making workers aware of problems of consumption in the face of speculative, rentier and commercial interests, consequence of the numerous complaints regarding the low quality of goods produced or in relation to schools, health centres, public lighting and transportation.

Another of the characteristics of libertarian practice was its manifestly inclusive nature.  In instances where respect for older generations was proverbial, a constant preoccupation with the problems of the unemployed is also evident.  Frequently, groups of the unemployed were created who sought work and in this way, collectively, exercised a certain pressure on company owners.  The CNT also organised its own employment offices that had among their aims to pressure the bosses and control their practices.  The Confederation was also often, in addition, the means of entry to and insertion in the city for immigrants that would arrive there.  So that nothing was left out, the libertarians also liked to reject categories that in prison served to distinguish between political, social and common prisoners.  It cannot be said though that things developed along the same lines in reference to women, frequent victims of marginalisation and commonly relegated to secondary roles.

The libertarian world, I will add, also generated a rich network of support in the area of culture and propaganda.  I am thinking of associations, cultural centres – with spaces that offered products at reduced prices or which programed musical and theatrical events, further examples that recall what I have called elsewhere in this book spaces of autonomy –, rationalist schools – dedicated to literacy and cultural diffusion –, cooperatives, workshops, farms, newspapers, publishing activities, libraries, travel and naturalist clubs.  Still, what remains to be studied is the very solid relationship with the world of culture, and in particular written culture, that so many libertarians always displayed and who in all evidence managed to rise above the horizon of a society burdened by the injustice and inequality for which they had been prepared.  Ealham defends that all of this dense fabric allowed, under the umbrella of the CNT, for the forging of an autonomous proletarian culture capable of resisting the influx that in so many other places were exercised instruments of mass culture that in the area of sports and music eroded the vigour of socialist consciousness.(14)

Marx and His Followers

I find little pleasure in the obscenely identitarian disputes that have so often marked the relation – the struggle, better said – between libertarians and Marxists.  If the petulance of many of the latter, supposed bearers of a terribly complex social science that calls for high priests, has always disturbed me, I also find no comfort before certain discourses which, from the libertarian perspective, refuse any critical discussion of important matters.

And what is first necessary from this perspective is to distinguish between different kinds of Marxists.  It is more than obvious that there is little relation between an arrogant Leninist who believes with military spirit in the redeeming Party and who wields without caution the same, always repeated phraseology, on the one hand, and heterodox Marxists who in many cases have drunk from, and admittedly so, from libertarian streams, on the other hand.  Even though electing specific views causes me some disquiet, I can refer to those, apparently open and open to dialogue, which often reveal dramatic silences.  A superficial example: that of the book by Tariq Ali, The Idea of Communism.(15)  The text in question firstly does not render justice to its title, on account of the fact that it only pays attention to the idea of communism.  Ali’s work identifies this last, without more ado, with the thought of Marx and Engels and with the thought of those that have claimed allegiance to them, ignoring any consideration of the communist currents that flowed through other channels, in particular the libertarian (it is pointless for the reader to search in these pages for any mention of, to go no further, Bakunin, Kropotkin or Malatesta).  Ali sidesteps all discussion around the State, does the impossible to save face with regards to Lenin and Trotsky – all evils find their source in Stalinism –, ignores the criticisms that the Soviet and Chinese experiments merited, from anarchist bases or from those specific to heterodox Marxism, and finally, and undoubtedly without wanting to, feeds the idea that to gauge what communism is, it is sufficient to annul what the Soviet type systems were.

Apart from all of this, I willingly accept that to mark out what Marx said and did is not always a simple task.  If I have to begin with the good side of the German thinker, I would point that the anti-statist dimension of Marx’s, and Engels’ thought, has been a thousand times over ignored.  I will recall in this case the Engels of The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, who rightly stated what follows: “The society that organises production anew on the basis of a free and equal association of the producers will put the whole State machine where it will then belong: in the museum of antiquities, side by side with spinning wheel and the bronze axe.”(16)  And I would emphasise that that the gloss of the concept, infrequent in the work of Marx, of the dictatorship of the proletariat, has been abused.  To finish, I will ask: where ae those Marxists who forget that Marx often defined socialism as a federation of free communes, and not as a bureaucratised and centralised State, in what I understand as that which separates in a drastic way his views from those brandished by Lenin in the course of events beginning in 1917?  I will confess, however that to present Marx as a libertarian thinker is to do violence to reality.  And this however much the Manuscripts of 1844 – with the theory of alienation – and The Civil War in France are profusely cited (As Lenin’s State and Revolution is cited).  The careful anthology of the libertarian thought of Marx and Engels by Carlos Díaz, which was published some years ago, appears to me to confirm, not without paradox, the above.(17)

This is perhaps also the occasion to recall, on the other hand, that the anarchist contemporaries of Marx – most significantly Bakunin – seemed to have accepted the essence of the criticism of political economy developed by the latter, with the understanding that they often emphasised that tis acceptance was largely due to the idea that this criticism was rooted in concepts already grounded in the practice of the workers’ movement of the time.(18)  what on many occasions has been described as a gesture of intellectual openness on the part of Bakunin – the aforementioned acceptance of Marxist political economy – can also be interpreted, however, as an unforgiveable carelessness.  As things were, the principal theorists of nineteenth-century anarchism failed to develop a criticism of political economy that could respond in a more refined way consistent with the conceptual presuppositions of anarchism, an option that today must seem more delicate.  This is so however much it must be noted that none of these nineteenth-century anarchist theorists sought to deploy a world-view as Marx aspired to do.

However much the greater part of Marx’s theorisations of salaried labour, commodities or surplus value merit everyone’s attention, there are, as far as I can see, five significant lacuna in Marx’s reading: an ignorance with regards to many of the oppressions and alienations that we suffer, and what this accordingly implies, consequently, for the roots of emancipation; a dramatic idealisation of the development of the forces of production as sources of prosperity and justice; the intuition that the material resources available to us are inexhaustible; the incapacity to take cognisance of the exploitation and marginalisation specific to women, and, lastly, an unrestrained Jacobinism.  In the backroom, and in a plan burdened by the defence of aberrant formulas of centralisation which many owe – to repeat myself – to the presumption of possessing a social science that should be managed by a group of specialists, a certain Marxism has exalted – has stolen – the word socialism as if it were the supreme expression of its engagement, in the same way that capitalism has enjoyed identifying itself, in a self-interested manner, with democracy.

Power: The Soviet Experiment

If it is meaningful to discuss the Marx’s affinities and choices, the presumed realisation of his thought in the form that we all know in Soviet type systems leaves little room for manoeuvre.

The first thing that is convenient to review in this case is the perspicacious lucidity of many of the anarchist analyses that cautioned against the possible consequences of applying Marx’s ideas.  I speak of possible deviations for it is the case that the relation between the work of this last and what Lenin did with it is controversial, such that there is no good reason to attribute to the first decisions assumed by the second.  In a similar way, it would be ingenuous to confuse Lenin with Stalin, as well as to conclude that the first had nothing to do with scenario outlined by his successor in the management of the Soviet State.  With respect to this last, I am not among those certainly who estimate that the majority of the miseries that this State caused were the product of malicious Stalinism: the seed was planted by Lenin under the cover of the cancelation of the independent power of the soviets, the decision to proscribe other political alternatives, an aberrant centralising project that served to ground a nascent bureaucracy, the rehabilitation of a good part of the imperial logic of Tsarism or, in sum, a sui generis interpretation of what Marx had understood regarding what should be the development of capitalism and social formartions.

I come back nevertheless to the analyses of anarchists and I appeal to three examples of these.  The first is from Bakunin and he writes: “the leaders of the Communist party, namely Mr. Marx and his friends, who will proceed to liberate humanity in their own way. They will concentrate the reins of government in a strong hand, because the ignorant people require an exceedingly firm guardianship; they will establish a single state bank, concentrating in its hands all commercial, industrial, agricultural, and even scientific production, and then divide the masses into two armies — industrial and agricultural — under the direct command of state engineers, who will constitute a new privileged scientific-political estate.”(19)  The second is Tolstoy, even though it must be understood that he was a kind of reluctant anarchist: “Even if it were the case that what Marx predicted were to come about, the only thing that would happen is that despotism would continue.  If now it is the capitalists who rule, then the governors of the working class will do it.”(20)  The third, finally, is from Diego Abad de Santillán, who in this case wrote a posteriori: “Either the revolution gives social wealth to the producers, or it does not.  If it does so, if the producers organise themselves to produce and distribute collectively, the State has nothing to do.  If it does not do so, then the revolution is nothing but a fraud, and the State continues.”(21)

It is not difficult to gather in a few words what I consider systems of the soviet type to have become in the end: a form of bureaucratic State capitalism, dramatically incapable of transcending the historical and canonical universe of capitalism.  Under it a new tyranny germinated, salaried labour and commodities in no way disappeared, the power of grass roots revolutionary organisations – the soviets – were annihilated, and with it, any perspective of self-management was diluted, a bureaucracy emerged that transformed itself into a kind of collective capitalist and consequently gave no body to a social revolution.  And to leave nothing out, a working class that had been head of the new State was invented and idealised – how much more interesting it is to study the deviations of the soviets than the palace intrigues of the Bolsheviks –, a clear idealisation of the virtues attributed to the development of productive forces gained ground and, in addition to all of this, and in a scenario in which all dissidence was annihilated – including the national dissidence –, the repression and military power reached enormous levels, a formidable idolatry of the State developed, in obvious oblivion certainly to many of Marx’s theorisations in this regard.  If someone wishes to add that at the basis of all of these elements was an important increase of external pressures, I would happily agree, understanding however that only with great difficulty can this justify the results: it would be unwarranted to categorically state that an intentionally revolutionary process must always end transformed into something different – either through loss of energy or through authoritarian radicalisation and State idolatry – as a consequence of the pressure exercised by the order against which it is mobilised.

Many of the excesses of the soviet type systems found their realisation in an institution: the single party and leader.  In this political party was expressed to the utmost degree the perspective of hierarchy.  Holloway describes it as a sort of disciplining of the class struggle, by virtue of which the endless expressions of it are subordinated to State control.(22)  A similar impoverishment of the class struggle was not unrelated to the different forms of expression of Leninist discourse, Trotskyist or Stalinist: on the contrary, it extends to all of those projects whose aim is the conquest of political power, that is, to all of those projects incapable of forging themselves without hierarchies or leaders.

The Collapse of Social Democracy

In this age, it no longer seems to make any real sense to critically evaluate social democracy: it has itself contributed, and powerfully, to its own discredit.  If a hundred years ago there still remained some small sign for thinking that the ideology encouraged by Bernstein or Kautsky was beholden to the principal goal of overcoming capitalism, the hopes in this respect have waned over the course of the 20th century.  In the best of cases – I emphasis: in the best of cases, because very often the circumstances have been evidently the worst – the objective of social democracy, a project in fact circumscribed to Western Europe, was to manage capitalism in a civilised manner.  Even though today there is no shortage of those who grieve for the era of Welfare States, I fear very much that the balance of the golden age of social democracy is something less flattering: the obstacles that it placed before the path of predatory capitalism were minor; it fed a hand full of myths that today cannot but be felt to be empty – civil society, citizenship-ism, representative democracy –; it did not hesitate to comply with all of the misery that is associated with concepts such as “growth” and “competition”; it promoted a delicate social demobilisation; it tied its name to a particular entity, the famous Welfare State, which I have already tried to provide an account of; finally, it propitiated the foundation of new forms of colonial domination.  All of this was forged – let us not forget – in the time of the fat cows, in the years of cheap petrol, at the hand of a mental narrative that, in the shadow of a formidable effort of propaganda, it has to be admitted, for good or ill, and at the scale of self-adulation, functioned.

That between the civilised management of capitalism and letting oneself go with the wave of this last in its most savage and unregulated form, there is not, contrary to appearances, much difference, is demonstrated by subsequent events and facts.  In the last quarter century, social democracy has diluted itself in the magma of the liberal order, and including in that of neo-liberalism, with which it has thereby lost its already precarious markers of identity.  The corresponding political project, if such it may be called, is an indelible part, if singularly pathetic, of this order, to such an extent that it in no proposes surpassing it.  The consequence is easy to discern: the principal discussion, easy to win, with those who still continue to make demands within a social democratic horizon is relative to which political forces express its demands.  Left behind this dispute is another: that which is born of the justification of the remains of the shipwreck of social democracy, impregnated to unimaginable extremes by the logic of the system under which we live, absorbed in the market and private property, and which is not addressed as a problem, the central problem of the environmental and resource limits of the planet.  It is as if they lived in the Washington of 1930, or in the Stockholm of 1963, and had not taken notice of the fact that the very heart of Keynesian politics, equally idolatrous of the State, has been indelibly damned by this very problem.

As things were, a conclusion arises: the deviation of Leninism and social democracy has become a central element in the inspiration of anarchist ideas.  The least that can be said is that in a scenario marked by the ruin of soviet type systems – I know already that such a ruin is nothing more than that of Leninism – and the collapse of social democracy, anarchist ideas have been visibly less touched and more resilient.  Even though there is no reason to exclude the possible reappearance of projects that appeal, to a greater or lesser degree, to social democracy or Leninism, there is an accumulation of information to feed the certainty about how such re-born projects will finish: far from any emancipatory perspective and from any serious awareness of what causes their collapse.  This is what one has to anticipate of political forces who among us, while they employ an apparently radical verbal arsenal – perhaps a legacy of the Leninist nostalgia of yesteryear –, do not hesitate in preserving alliances with a social democracy fully compromised with its labour unions, that abides without dissimulation with the institutional game, that avoids any project that sustains some relationship, however distant, with self-management and, imbued with an aberrant short-termism, prefers to close its eyes before the evidence that, as I have just noted, the social democratic vulgate has no answer to the collapse that awaits us.

The Latin-American Models

The exhaustion of social democracy and Leninism has gone hand in hand – perhaps it was inevitable – the emergence of projects that pretend to be distinct from those born by these two worldviews.  The debate is open: do the leftist governments of Latin America offer an inspirational model that would provide answers to the many dead ends that we find ourselves in, in the opulent north or, on the contrary, and fireworks aside, should we remain cautious in relation to what these governments do and signify?  Let us not forget that for many who take the first stand, that the experiments, like those of Venezuela, Ecuador or Bolivia, demonstrate the possibility of respecting the norms of liberal democracy – in these countries, there are reasonably pluralistic elections – while at the same time implementing social policies that are changing scenarios in ways that are truly and fortunately benefitting the disadvantaged.  It is true that much of the support that these models incite would respond to at least two distinct perceptions: while for some their greatest virtue would derive from the absence of the vices of real socialism, for others, closer to the organic and dogmatic ideas of third international communism, it would be rather the fortunate continuity of what they always assumed, at all levels, soviet type models.

Before taking up the question, allow me to say that from my perspective, this is not a matter of denying that the governments in question have outlined policies preferable to those of their predecessors.  It would be equally problematic to reject dogmatically and aprioristically all that they signify, especially given the harassment that they suffer at the hands of the powerful and which they relieve.  Lastly, it would not be wise to close one’s eyes before certain eventually stimulating movements that appeal to options of self-management or to projects linked not to governments, but to indigenous communities and their unique forms of organisation and conduct.

However, having noted the above, and to get directly to the most important point, we are I believe under the obligation to ask ourselves if experiences like the Venezuelan, the Ecuadorian or the Bolivian configure a suggestive and convincing model for those of us who find inspiration in a libertarian worldview.  And the answer, which seems to me obvious, is negative.  And it is so, if we can so put it, for five reasons.

The first of these emphasises the visibly personal character of the models here under discussion, constructed in large measure from top to bottom, and in some cases, in addition, dependent on the armed forces.  In a world such as ours, the libertarian world, in which there is a pride in and an explicit rejection of leaderships and personalisms, it is difficult to accept projects that evidently move in an opposing direction.

I have to underline, secondly, that this is not just a matter of leaderships and hierarchies: the other side of the issue has to do with the weakness of the formulas, in the models here under scrutiny, which should permit, beyond a mere control from the grass roots, the open development of projects of self-management.  To this may be added the many illusions that derive from the evident acceptance of the norms of liberal democracy, and one in particular: that which holds that there is no problem in delegating our capacity to choose to others.

I will note thirdly, that in these models, the State is almost everything.  It is assumed that an institution inherited from the old powers will labour in the service of projects whose emancipatory potential I very much fear will be consequently significantly weighed down.  Under the cover of this new optical illusion, it will be difficult not to be surprised with the persistence, as a consequence, of the vices of bureaucratisation and, in parallel, corruption.

I am obliged to signal, fourthly, that there exists an obvious confusion at the most basic level in the majority of the projects embraced by the leftist governments of Latin America.  These projects have almost always pointed in the direction of an amplification of the welfare functions of the institution of the State.  Nothing would be more lamentable than to confuse this with socialism (unless of course we remove from this notion much of the wealth associated with its meaning).  If on the one hand there is no record of any socialisation of property – or in the best of cases, such socialisation has been marginal – on the other hand, the rules of the market and of capitalism have unequivocally survived.

I will allow myself a fifth and final observation: even in the cases where there has been a connection to indigenous communities in certain institutional projects which may have to some degree minimized the concern, the models have commonly and sadly succumbed to the spell of productivist and developmentalist projects that tentatively reproduce mimetically many of the miseries that the opulent North has exported, more often than not – let it be said – with reasonable success.

Returning to the main argument: if there is no great doubt as regards the fact that the leftist governments of Latin America have contributed to – some more, some less – to improve the conditions of the lower classes, from a libertarian perspective it would seem necessary to remain cautious.  And this for one principal reason: that which is born of the certainty that with what these governments have deployed, that it is extremely difficult to imagine future societies characterised by equality, self-management, the contestation of the misery of  patriarchy, de-commodification and the respect for the rights of future generations.  In this regard, nothing would please me more than to be mistaken.


  1. Ferran Aisa, La cultura anarquista a Catalunya. Ediciones 1984, Barcelona, 2006; Stuart Christie, ¡Nosotros los anarquistas! Universitat de València, Valencia, 2010; Xavier Diez, enjança de classe. Virus, Barcelona, 2010; Chris Ealham, La lucha por Barcelona. Alianza, Madrid, 2005; Dolors Marin, Anarquistas. Ariel, Barcelona, 2010; Heleno Saña, La revolución libertaria. Laetoli, Pamplona, 2010; Ealham’s book is the Castilian version of the English text that I cite profusely further on.
  1. El Pais, June 25th, 2010.
  1. Público, June 29th, 2010.
  1. Ángel Viñas (ed.), En el combate por la historia. Passado y Presente, Madrid, 2012.
  1. Solidaridad Obrera, September 9th, 1932, cited in Chris Ealham, Anarchism and the City. Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Barcelona, 1898-1937. AK, Edinburgh/Oakland/Baltimore, p. 124.
  1. Ealham, Anarchism and the City …, op. cit., p. 36.
  1. Ibidem, p. 41.
  1. Ibidem.
  1. Ibidem, p. 39.
  1. Ibidem, p. 159.
  1. Ibidem, p. 126.
  1. Ibidem, p. 127.
  1. Termes, cit., p. 306.
  1. Ealham, Anarchism and the City …, op. cit., p. 47.
  1. Tariq Ali, La idea del comunismo. Alianza, Madrid, 2012.
  1. Wayne Price, La abolición del Estado. Perspectivas anarquistas y marxistas. Anarres/Tupac, Buenos Aires, 2012, p. 11.
  1. Carlos Díaz (ed.), Marx-Engels: El libro rojo y negro. Júcar, Gijón, 1976.
  1. Graeber, Rivoluzione …, op. cit., p. 35.
  1. Quoted in Avrich, cit.. p. 12.
  1. Quoted in Marshall, cit., p. 379.
  1. Diego Abad de Santillán, quoted in Guérin, cit., p. 39.
  1. Holloway, cit., p. 17.


As a complement to Taibo’s history of spanish anarchism, we add the documentary by Juan Gamero, Viver la utopia, with english subtitles …


This entry was posted in Commentary and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.