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(en) A platformist response to "post-anarchism" - Sucking the Golden Egg: A Reply to Newman

From schmidtm@sundaytimes.co.za
Date Thu, 9 Oct 2003 17:32:58 +0200 (CEST)

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Comrades: The following is a response by the zabalaza anarchist communist federation
(zacf) of southern africa to an article by saul newman entitled "anarchism
and the politics of ressentiment" which is online at:
red & black regards - michael schmidt (acting international secretary, zacf, johannesburg) http://www.zabalaza.net
Author: "Peter Kropotkin", ZACF, southern Africa
In the midst of the establishment's persistent refusal to understand
anarchism, of its constant attempts to portray us as a bunch of violent
lunatics; in the face of continual misrepresentations by the Marxists,
of their efforts to portray us as a petty-bourgeois movement that rejects
organisation and can never be truly revolutionary; in the face of all
this systematic misunderstanding and refusal to engage, it is a
relief to encounter a piece of criticism that makes
some attempt to understand what anarchism is about, notes
some of our good points, offers (mostly) coherent
and (as far as I know) original arguments, and at least
attempts to present itself as making constructive proposals.
Nonetheless, I wish to argue that Saul Newman's article '
Anarchism and the Politics of Ressentiment' is based on
a fundamental misunderstanding of anarchism, and that its
proposals amount to a rejection of the real point of our

It will not surprise the reader to learn that Newman's article
belongs to the postmodernist tradition - or perhaps one
should say the 'post-ist' tradition generally, since he
identifies his proposals as 'post-anarchism'. He draws
extensively on Foucault (although the main source of his
criticism is Nietzsche) and, in the best fragmentary post-ist
manner ends up explicitly rejecting a general movement to
change society, and implicitly rejecting any general
theoretical social criticism as well. In places his writing
suffers from the obscurity characteristic of postmodernist
work, but he is not nearly as bad as some others. In short,
his article is a good example of the theoretical and
practical inadequacy of post-ism.

Newman illustrates his (mis)understanding of anarchist thought
with extensive quotations from Bakunin and Kropotkin.
I could take the time to find many other quotes to refute his
interpretation, but this would be beside the point for several
reasons. For one thing, it is always possible to distort a
text through selective quotation; arguing from isolated quotes
might go on forever. It is better to let the authors speak for
themselves - particularly in the case of Bakunin and
Kropotkin whom I have always found fairly easy to read. From
the point of view of plain understanding it always
amazes me how drastically they have been misinterpreted;
but after a while one gets tired of stating the obvious.
Again, we know that Bakunin and Kropotkin have made serious
errors, but these do not invalidate the tradition of
anarchist thought which they founded. Even if they were
guilty of everything Newman accuses them of, while this
might mean that most subsequent anarchists are either
completely misreading Bakunin and Kropotkin or missing out
important aspects of their ideas, we still remain rooted in
an intellectual tradition which, I maintain, is immune to Newman's
attacks and would be undermined by his supposed remedies.
It is this tradition, rather than Bakunin and Kropotkin as
individuals, that I wish to defend. I must add that the intellectual
tradition is intimately linked to a great tradition of struggle
and revolutionary practice, a link which I will show Newman almost
completely ignores.

The core of Newman's argument is as follows: Anarchism is
infected with 'ressentiment', a concept drawn from
Nietzsche, and definable as 'moral prejudice of the powerless
against the powerful'. This manifests itself in anarchist
thought as hostility to power in general and the state in
particular; Newman contrasts this with the Marxist emphasis on
class and economics, but maintains that anarchism has fallen
into a similar trap. Anarchism, he says, is based on a
positive view of human nature as essentially social and
co-operative (an element which he rightly contrasts with social
contract theories). He maintains that we root our struggle to
destroy the state in this essentially moral human subjectivity.
While acknowledging that this ethical approach might have
value independently of the struggle against the state, Newman
holds that the contrast between state and power on the one
hand, and co-operative society and human subjectivity on the
other, is naive in that it fails to assimilate the
(found in Nietzsche and Foucault) that power is ubiquitous in
human life and that opposing it is futile even if we wanted
to. He allows for a contrast between power and domination,
which, following Foucault, he defines, not very helpfully,
as congealed power. Domination can be resisted, but it is still
too closely related to power to be utterly defeated. In
particular, it is futile to hope for the revolutionary destruction
of the state; this hope depends on a Manichean dream
of getting rid of domination, and is likely to end up negating
itself and turning into a new form of oppression. Instead,
he advocates 'post-anarchism', which seems to consist in an
application of anarchist ideas - perhaps most particularly
mutual aid, but freed from 'essentialist' ideas about human
nature; also the link between liberty and equality,
which liberals wrongly see as being opposed to each other - in
opposition to particular instances of domination in
everyday life, but without revolutionary dreams.

An important feature of Newman's argument is his recognition
of the anarchist emphasis on the social and co-operative
nature of human beings, a key aspect of our thinking which
cruder critics tend to ignore or over-hastily dismiss. But even
his understanding of this element is deeply flawed. To begin
with, he rather curiously locates Stirnerite individualism
within the anarchist current, although it should be obvious that
an approach that emphasises the individual at the
expense of mutual aid is incompatible with anarchist social
theory as he, and we, understand it. This suggests that he
has momentarily fallen into the common error of identifying as
anarchist any theory that stands in opposition to the
state. This is curious since Newman, like many others, puts
anarchism in contrast to Marxism; but Marxists also tend
to regard the state as oppressive and believe that it will
eventually have to go (however much they insist that it can
be used in the short term). Such a crude emphasis on
opposition to the stat
e is often associated with a failure to recognise the distinctive
anarchist intellectual tradition. But although Newman
shows signs of making this error, he is not as guilty of it as
some others; nor is it the deepest flaw in his argument.

A more important question is how we understand the principle
of the social nature of humanity, the 'optimistic
conception of human nature'. On the one hand, Newman
attributes to us the view (drawn from Kropotkin) that 'the
natural and essential principle of human society is mutual aid,
and that man is naturally cooperative, sociable and
altruistic, rather than competitive and egotistic.' On the other
hand, he subsequently notes that Bakunin identifies a
'natural lust for power' as a feature of all human beings.
Newman identifies these elements as signs of a contradiction
in anarchist thought, or perhaps an indication that Bakunin had
dimly seen something that undermines our whole
perspective of human nature, and with it our entire political
approach. Newman thinks that our view of human nature,
while it has some value, is nonetheless a major flaw in our
thinking as it stands. But is he correct?

Many social and political theorists have played fast and loose
with notions of human nature - usually taking an egoistic
approach in support of authoritarian theories. No doubt many
anarchists have been guilty of a mirror image of the
same error; or of related errors like Malatesta's teleological
view that society is 'tending towards a goal' of greater
co-operation and solidarity. But such approaches are no more
intrinsic to anarchism than is historical determinism.
It seems to me that the core of the anarchist position on these
matters consists in (a) a rejection of egoistic theories
of human nature; and (b) the view that human nature is
essentially social. The latter element implies a natural
for co-operation and mutual aid; it does not imply that humans
are entirely altruistic or that egoistic elements, lust for
power and the like, are completely absent. I should add that
one can expect the relative predominance of these
elements to be influenced by the character of the society we
live in. It is in relation to this perspective that I wish to
examine Newman's criticisms.

To begin with, what does this perspective imply for Newman's
claim that anarchist resistance is primarily rooted in
human moral subjectivity? I should first point out that
Newman's thesis involves a misunderstanding that is linked to
his exaggeration of our differences with Marx. He correctly
points out that we place far more emphasis on the state,
and direct far more of our fire against it, than the Marxists do;
that we make no absolute claim that it is subordinate to
class interests; and that we firmly reject the Marxist view that
the state might be turned to revolutionary purposes.
But his claim that 'Rather than working from the society to the
State - and seeing the State as the derivative of economic
relations - anarchists work from the State to society' is a
caricature of our approach. After all, anarchists since Bakunin
have attacked private property, capitalism and the bourgeoisie
as fiercely as we have attacked the state. If we do not
usually accept simple economic determinism of the Marxist
kind, we do generally hold that the state and the ruling class
are intimately related; and I would want to claim, as I think
would most anarchists, that the relationship works in both
directions. Newman alludes to Bakunin's (correct) prediction
that the establishment of a Marxist 'workers' state' would
lead to the transformation of the 'revolutionary vanguard' into a
new ruling class; we would certainly agree that this is
not the only instance of state power giving rise to class
oppression; but we must also recognise that a ruling class
does need a state to hold on to power; and we can present
numerous instances of states acting in the immediate
economic interests of the bourgeoisie. It is for these reasons
that class struggle, contra Newman, is central to anarchist
theory - and even more central to anarchist practice.

Newman, then, is incorrect in denying the importance of the
class distinction in anarchist theory. It is certainly true that
the state/society distinction also plays an important role,
particularly in Kropotkin; there is even a grain of truth in the
claim that resistance is rooted in human subjectivity. We do
maintain that the capacity for mutual aid and solidarity,
and the love of freedom, are important elements in human
nature and manifest themselves spontaneously in a great
variety of circumstances; forms of organisation appropriate to
anarchism frequently emerge among people without
any background in our ideas. But I see no evidence that we
have ever made this the sole basis of our resistance.
We believe that the class struggle and the experience of
oppression compel the oppressed to resist their oppressors;
that this struggle itself teaches the oppressed the need for
revolutionary change, and enables them to build in their
organs of struggle the forms and structures of a better society;
that struggle itself contributes to the development of
subjectivity; in short, that resistance is rooted both in
subjectivity and in objective conditions. To say otherwise is a
travesty of our theories; even worse, it is a travesty of our
practical experience of a century of struggle throughout
the world.

As for the claims that 'The State is essential to the existence
of revolutionary subject, just as the revolutionary subject
is essential to the existence of the State', and that 'Without
this stultifying oppression, the anarchist subject would be
unable to see itself as 'moral' and 'rational'', they are worse
than a travesty; they are mere sophistry. Sure, if no state
had ever existed, we would not have to make a big issue of
opposing states, and would probably not define ourselves
as 'an-archists'; but people could still hold similar positive
views about liberty, equality, and mutual aid, and how to
organise society to promote these aims. Again, if and when we
do succeed in destroying the state, opposing it may
no longer be our biggest priority, but that will certainly not
negate the value of our ideas in general. The fact that
anarchist thought originated in response to state and class
oppression does not mean that it is defined by oppression;
and it certainly does not change the fact that oppression
is the main obstacle to the achievement of our goals.

This brings me to the question of revolution, and to Newman's
point that 'To abolish central institutions like the State
with one stroke would be to neglect the multiform and diffuse
relations of power they are based on, thus allowing new
institutions and relations of domination to rise up.' I should
start by noting that the danger of new institutions of domination
arising out of revolution is hardly one of which anarchists are
unaware; we have seen Newman himself noting that
Bakunin raised such concerns in response to Marx - and it is
precisely in rejection of Marxist methods that we do propose
to abolish the state. However, it is indeed true that if the main
action of the anarchist revolution was to 'abolish the state
at one stroke' without dealing with all sorts of other concerns,
the defeat of the revolution would be pretty near inevitable.
Fortunately, though, anarchists have thought quite a bit more
deeply than this.

Newman's charge is that the main focus of the anarchist
revolution is the destruction of political power. It is ironic that
Marxists have frequently accused us of neglecting political
power in the revolutionary context - presumably because
of a background assumption that immediate destruction of
political power is unthinkable and that the thing to do with it is
take it and use it. They think that rejection of political power
can only lead to a failure to understand it. Their charge is
nonsensical, in some way even more so than Newman, but at
least they attempt to find an example to support their case.
Their favourite reference is to the Spanish revolution of 1936,
when several prominent anarchists accepted high
government positions instead of recognizing the Popular Front
government as an oppressor and a class enemy.
The Marxists like to claim that this step was somehow a
consequence of anarchist principles, of 'anarchist
misunderstandings of the state' or some such. Of course if
anarchists had joined a 'workers' government' controlled
by Lenin it would have been a totally different matter!
Nonsense. The entry into government was a blatant violation
of anarchist principles, and was recognized as such by more
committed anarchists both at the time and afterwards.
But the Marxist nonsense is really no more nonsensical than
Newman's interpretation.

Notice that I refer to the Spanish revolution even though the
state was not destroyed, and even though our struggle was
ultimately defeated. The point is that revolutions do not
consist simply in the destruction of the state. In Spain workers
seized factories, peasants took over the land, militias were
established for self-defence, and production was at least
partly restructured on a basis of mutual aid. Although this
happened in a short period (mostly late 1936, after which
reactionary forces took the offensive) it was a product of
decades of struggle and preparation. Such has been
anarchist practice in every revolution where we played a major
part: in Ukraine, in Mexico, in Manchuria. Such has
been the aim of our practice in the many movements that have
never yet come close to revolution. And such is not
only our practice but our theory as well. To take just one
example, Kropotkin in The Conquest of Bread devotes at
least as much emphasis to the rebuilding of society and
production as to the actual defeat of the oppressor. And we
have always emphasised that this rebuilding does not begin
with the defeat of the state, but is integral to the way we
organise our forces of struggle long before the revolution. The
bottom-up, grassroots organisation of these forces,
'controlled by the workers themselves', is intended as the key
antidote to a re-emergence of oppression and
domination, of state and class.

Not that we necessarily see revolution as automatically
opening the door to a perfect society free from power and
domination. On the contrary, Kropotkin notes that we can
expect post-revolutionary society to vary considerably in
different places; it is fair to assume that some communities
will continue to have serious problems. This is confirmed
by the fact that Kropotkin does not regard the anarchist
revolution as a totally exceptional event. Instead, he regards
revolutions as unusual but not utterly anomalous shifts in the
general evolution of society. And surely this perspective
is borne out by history. Revolutions have happened before, and
only the most hidebound end-of-history theorist
would suggest that they will not happen again. They are often
violent and have many destructive features, but can
also have valuable consequences. I do not think many people
would want to deny that we are better off for 1789,
even if the system that emerged as a result of 1789 is the
system we are now fighting against. (This does not mean
that we accept the Marxist view that the rise of capitalism
was an inevitable and necessary precursor of communism;
anarchists are usually not historical determinists; but we can
recognise that however terrible capitalism is there were
also some important gains for ordinary people in the course of
its rise to power. It is simplistic to view 1789 only as
a bourgeois revolution.)

Newman might now retort that I have given away too much.
What, he might ask, is the point of revolutionary anarchism,
without the thesis that human nature is essentially and only
co-operative, and without the view that the revolutionary
destruction of the state will usher in a perfect society where
this nature can be fully realised? And if not for the sake
of the perfect society, why are we so determined to destroy
the state in the first place? Here he might again throw at
us the point, drawn from Foucault, that 'Assemblages such as
the State are based on unstable power relations that
can just as easily turn against the institution they form the
basis of.' But such a reply would be a distortion of the point
of anarchism as well as of history in general. Some anarchists
have, indeed, made deep metaphysical attacks on the
state, or posed the question, 'Why do we need government
anyway?' But this sort of approach, while not without value,
is not the core of the anarchist critique. We reject the state
because in real life, in history, it is almost always oppressive.
If there is metaphysics involved it is in the positive aspect -
the view that we can get on without the state - but even there
we can be a lot more modest than Newman and other critics
like to portray us. Post-ists like to talk dismissively about
general theories, and prefer to focus on the particular; but
where can Foucault give us an example of the unstable
power relations on which the state is based turning against the
state. We don't want to say this can never happen,
just that it usually doesn't, and that an 'anti-theoretical' or
'particularistic' claim that it does is really just as theoretical
and abstract as any of our views.

Let me try to illustrate our view of the state, and many other
concerns Newman raises about our struggles, by means
of a simple analogy. Many men beat their wives; it is obvious
that the wives suffer from this; but many of us would
maintain that the men who do this are also degrading
themselves, losing out, at least, on what they could gain from a
more positive, loving, respectful relationship. It is also well
known that many women go along with the abuse, accept it,
decline chances to end it, even perhaps encourage it in some
ways - in short, they are complicit in it. None of this
changes the fact that an end to the abuse is both possible and
desirable. We might add that it is desirable for both
parties, and that ending it would bring out the better aspects of
both their natures; but of course there are many cases
when the woman wants to end it but the man, the dominant
party, keeps it going - sometimes while promising to end it
and perpetually apologising only to start again the next day. In
many such cases the only option available to the woman
is to leave. And when she leaves her life is not perfect but is a
lot better than it was before.

This does not sound like philosophy or deep social theory, and
might not earn the respect of Newman or tons of other
theorists. But is humanity not at least approximately divided
into powerful oppressors and powerless victims of
oppression? Anarchists hold that all, including the rulers, are
degraded by this situation; we recognise that the
oppressed are often complicit; we also know that the rulers
sometimes apologise and express the intention to improve
matters in the future; and yet it goes on. Unfortunately it is not
open to the oppressed to pack up and leave the planet;
nor can we send our rulers into exile, even if we wanted to
give them the chance to inflict themselves on the Martians.
The one option open to us is to strive to end their rule, and in
the course of this struggle to build the structures for a
better world (not a perfect world) and to guard ourselves
against the return of tyranny. And these efforts are born from
our actual situation rather than from some abstract

Newman focuses his critique on abstract theories instead of
looking at our practice. He fails to recognise the integration
between the two; fails also to recognise that anarchists do not
claim a leading or vanguard role for theorists, but draw their
theories from practice and insist on people's ability to liberate
themselves. He talks of 'ressentiment' as an abstract
concept, not seeing that we oppose our rulers not out of envy
or inferiority complex, but because they are oppressing
us and we would be better off without them. So he insists that
we turn away from revolution because he doesn't see what
we mean by it, because it's dangerous and because it can't
deliver something we don't generally expect it to deliver. He
then makes some obscure comments about 'eternal return' -
the one point at which I totally failed to see what he was
getting at, though perhaps this could be remedied - before
attempting to make some positive suggestions. He urges us
to 'envisage a form of political community or collective identity
that [does] not restrict difference' - as if we hadn't been
doing that all along! (Compare Kropotkin's insistence on the
diversity of post-revolutionary society.) Maybe there are
specific points he has in mind in terms of extending our
approach to such matters; but then he should give details. I do
not think even this opening is available in the case of his call
for the 'construction of new forms of collective action and
identities'. Nothing has been more central to anarchist theory
and practice since the time of Bakunin. We are constantly
debating and experimenting with many different forms of
organisation, both in struggle and for mutual aid for our
immediate needs. I do not know of any other movement that
has been as innovative in this area. So after asking us to
throw out a central aspect of our practice, Newman advocates
another central aspect as if it was something new.

In calling himself a post-anarchist, Newman seems to identify
anarchism as something like his intellectual grandmother.
But he is not content only to teach his grandmother to suck
eggs. Without taking any note of what she's been saying and
doing for over a hundred years, he walks up to her and says,
'Granny, you're obviously suffering from the illusion that
the yolks of these eggs are made of gold. This is why you've
been going around smashing them. Now I may at some
point give you some suggestions on how to suck eggs; but for
now remember that, not only is the yolk not made of gold,
but you'll never get to it anyway; all you can do is suck the
white.' Admittedly this is not as bad as those who accuse
Granny of trying to eat the shell and throw the yolk away, or
those who say the eggs are all empty anyway; but that is
the kind of help Newman is offering. All Granny can do is go
on sucking eggs, welcome any genuinely constructive
suggestions, and perhaps take a little time to contemplate
whether this sort of approach may be all that 'post-ism' has
to offer.


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