George Walford: The Champions of Validity

In Anarchy, a Journal of Desire Armed, #31, Lev Chernyi speaks of two political groups. On the one hand ‘those who defend dominant (or would-be dominant) institutions’; on the other, ‘radicals and revolutionaries.’ Most people who think about such things accept this or some similar distinction and they agree, also, that the second group works mainly to do away with those institutions, or at least to deprive them of dominance.

The radicals and revolutionaries have been at work for over a century now – for two centuries if you locate their origins in the French Revolution – without making noticeable progress in this task. They give no sign of being greatly affected by their experience; rather than feeling disheartened, or turning to find the reason for their lack of success, they resolve to press ahead with greater energy. This raises questions, for sane and sensible people do not persist, over generations and centuries, in activities which bring them only frustration. When they appear to be doing so we have to ask whether their apparent undertaking may not be masking a deeper engagement with a less obvious project, one which does provide satisfactions to keep them politically active.

Radicals and revolutionaries do not passively accept their present condition; each issue of Anarchy contains initiatives intended to increase the number of readers, and most socialist, communist or anarchist journals make similar attempts. Both individually and through their various organisations the members of this movement try to increase their numbers and their strength; they have been doing this since they first appeared. In spite of these efforts they remain a minority, too small to produce much effect, and the outcome has been the continuing presence of dominant institutions – governmental, commercial, industrial, legal, military and coercive – with no reason to expect anything very different in future; the Year of Revolutions was 1848.

It does not matter whether you cut the slices by income, by sex, age, nationality, ethnicity, relation to the means of production, skin colour, education, occupation, geographical location east, west, north or south, or membership of the first, second, third or fourth worlds. In every group large enough to exercise much social influence the great majority accepts or defends dominant institutions; only a minority adheres to the radical or revolutionary movement. As long as this continues those institutions will retain their dominance, and there is no sign that it is likely to change. Yet the radicals and revolutionaries do not act as though they recognise any particular problem, carrying on as before and looking set to continue doing so.

Marxists cling to their old theories as if the Russian collapse had never happened. The Socialist Party of Great Britain, five hundred strong after ninety years, carry on working for an overwhelming, worldwide majority. Anarchy the journal does not stress any need for better understanding of the reasons why dominant institutions persist, and no other part of the movement takes up the enquiry or urges others to do so. One might perhaps have expected the Anarchist Research Group to tackle the job, but they concentrate on acquiring factual knowledge about anarchists and anarchism.

The decision that dominant institutions ought to be done away with marks a point of transition and a point, having no area, offers no base for operations. Each person makes this decision for themselves, and that is as far as they can go without involving others. Putting these many personal resolutions into effect, against the resistance to be expected from the defenders of institutions, would require joint action, and the unanimity needed for this has not been forthcoming. This shows up clearly in the history of the older sections of the movement, in revolutionary communism for example.

Trying to minimise dissension, the early communists avoided any exact definition of their final objective, but if they were to move towards it they had to reach agreement on at least the first few steps and this they failed to do. In the Communist Manifesto Marx speaks of communists having a clearer vision of the way ahead than the general body of the proletariat, but even in 1848 the implication of solidarity within communist ranks was questionable, while the later history of their organisations has consisted largely of internecine conflict. This was markedly so where they seemed at first to have triumphed; the struggles among Bolsheviks in Russia after 1917 were ended only by the imposition of institutions more dominant than any previously known there. While fighting among themselves the communists were also in conflict with the more moderate socialists (‘social fascists’) on one side and the anarchists (‘left-wing deviationists’) on the other. In his battle with Bakunin Marx shifted the headquarters of the International to New York, effectively ending its active life.

By refusing the compliance formerly granted to institutional demands each radical and revolutionary wins liberty to put forward his or her own proposals (or to choose which ones to support), and the high valuation of independence that has brought them this far inclines them to make the most of their freedom. The groups and individuals composing the movement engage in debate among themselves over aims, methods, analyses and theories; commonly fierce, and often developing into struggles, these arguments absorb the greater part of their political energies; victory or at least survival in this battle, establishment of the validity of their thinking, moves towards the position of main objective and the attack on institutions recedes, to become hardly more than one of the subjects argued about. This tendency strengthens towards the revolutionary extreme.

Mildly reformist organisations like the British Labour Party find themselves hamstrung by political divisions, while in the absence of rigorous discipline communist parties split into feuding sections. Among the anarchists, even when a group seems to be seeking support for action against institutions, inquiry shows it promoting debate. Class War, for example, demands that ‘the rich scum’ be ‘thought-terminated’ (emphasis added), presents a set of highly theorised principles for acceptance, and urges participation in its activities not only for the sake of the oppressed but also ‘for discussion.’ Anarchists show an eager divisiveness that sometimes leads them to deny the existence of an anarchist movement at all; they operate as a multiplicity of separate people and small groups, each of them maintaining its own policies, proposals, ideas and beliefs against those of the others.

Demands for action against institutions often appear in revolutionary journals. These may annoy the establishment and sometimes frighten members of it, but they do not have much effect on sympathisers and can hardly be expected to do so. Supporters of the movement object less to any particular features of dominant institutions than to their dominance, and since that remains relatively constant the attacks and calls for action substantially repeat themselves, sinking into routine. These journals keep up the interest and their circulations mainly by serving as arenas for the battle of ideas going on within the movement.

New radical and revolutionary organisations soon find themselves following much the same course as the older ones and for the same reason. Any who call dominant institutions in question find themselves committed to either devising alternatives or justifying an absence of them, and in doing this they enjoy freedom of speculation. The proposals advanced by one person or group conflict with those of others, and the resulting struggle comes to absorb their attention. Radicals and revolutionaries often complain that fragmentation renders their movement ineffective. They proclaim a need for solidarity while refusing to sacrifice political individuality for the sake of joint action.

When Robert Owen began to advocate socialism in the 1830s it seemed to be simple common sense; so much so that he appealed to the rulers, expecting them to support him. Since then the theoretical difficulties, the fragmentation and the internal conflicts have grown, until now the criticism encountered by any part of the radical and revolutionary movement is likely to come as much from presumed comrades as from defenders of existing conditions. Labour-socialists try to exclude communists while anarchists repudiate them both – and each other too – and the Socialist Party of Great Britain ‘enters the field of political action determined to wage war against all other political parties.’ Rather than diminishing, fragmentation increases; over the last few decades greenists and a new wave of feminists have introduced further divisions, and we have no reason to expect a reversal of this tendency.

A collection of feuding fragments can hardly make any great contribution either to forming a new social order or to destroying an old one; so far as any danger from radicals and revolutionaries goes the dominant institutions may rest secure. But if this movement is not for attacking these institutions, what is it for?

A similar problem arises in the economic field. The ostensible function of economic activity is to meet human needs, but much buying and selling and competition has little to do with this; it makes sense only when one thinks of the participants as engaged in a tournament of value [1]. In much the same way, the disputes among reformers and revolutionaries often have little to do with attacking dominant institutions or with establishing socialism, communism or anarchism, but a great deal to do with demonstrating the superiority of the participants’ ideas. Much of what is done by the socialist, communist and anarchist movements falls into place when one thinks of the people and groups composing these movements as engaged in a tournament of validity.

[1] See ‘The Enduring Base’ in IC 57.

from Ideological Commentary 58, November 1992.