Appendix: What anarchists don’t like about leadership

Posted: May 9, 2014 in Uncategorized

Back just over a year ago I wrote an article arguing why it’s necessary for socialists to build a revolutionary party.

I stand over the main line of argument in this article although some of the assertions, such as “The only forces to survive the onslaught of capitalist triumphalism in the ‘90s and ‘00s were the revolutionary parties” – are a bit one-sided. Also, the article fails to deal with some arguments that I have come up against since writing it.

As an appendix, I want to add a note on what anarchists have to say on the matter.

The points I made in the original article were basically as follows: the capitalist system is a destructive blind alley and we have to overthrow it and replace it with socialism. To do this, every socialist has two tasks: one, contribute to movements against oppression whether by workers or other oppressed groups, building people’s confidence and organisation. Two: build an organised and effective revolutionary party that comprises the most left-wing and politically conscious and dedicated section of the working class along with its allies. The purpose of this party is to intervene in struggles against oppression and at key moments give a lead to the working class to make a big historical impact.

It goes without saying that no individual, acting alone, can do either of these things in any substantial way that will change things for the better or effect historic events.

It is more enjoyable and easy to be part of a loose network than a centralised party. Light political activity, when you feel like it, is much more easy and enjoyable than serious, consistent political activity, that in a big way cuts across other things you would like to do.

But such loose networks of people on revolutionary “light duty” are of limited use. An organisation of people who do not agree with each other on key questions, who are not experienced, serious and organised, who improvise at the last moment rather than operating through a weathered and robust organisation, cannot play a concerted role in intervening in campaigns or movements.

I can imagine, in a situation of a revolution or mass movement or a huge campaign, thousands, hundreds of thousands or millions using loose and informal kinds of methods to organise. But that’s last-minute stuff. Structures, leaders, experience and resources (buildings, papers, vehicles, money) are all smooth channels that make all activity far more effective and purposeful.

Three facile criticisms by an anarchist

This brings us to the anarchists, who use a variety of organisational methods, generally loose, informal, and formally “leaderless”. Their critique of “Leninist”, “Vanguardist” parties is interesting in that it shows up their own preoccupations pretty starkly. We will examine the relevant section in the Anarchist FAQ as an example. Throughout the article the points I dispute are those raised in this section.

This “answer” in the Anarchist FAQ shows a complete lack of interest in how revolutionaries should interact with the working class and struggle against the system and against oppression. Instead it shows us the various ways in which an overly-sensitive individualist, politically active in a period of low class struggle, might be offended by the demands of being a member of any organisation of any kind. For example, the very idea of electing a leadership is portrayed as bad because “it is assumed that the leadership has a special insight into social problems above and beyond that of anyone else”, with the result that people are less likely to criticise the leadership.

What follows from their criticism is that the anarchists would prefer if we maintained the fiction that every person is equally capable, insightful, intelligent, dedicated and able. Unfortunately this is not the case. In any organisation there are those who come naturally to the fore. Some have fewer commitments, some have better abilities, some are more dedicated. This is what is called “leadership”.

Since leadership naturally arises, should we not formalise it so that it is less likely to be abused? Of course we should, because if we have an informal leadership, we have all of the problems of leadership and none of the benefits. A usurpation of power and a division or labour takes place, a clique forms, but the clique is not accountable to the membership. And on the other hand, if this informal leadership wants to get anything done, it enjoys no authority and cannot lift a finger. The wheel must be reinvented with every twitch of a muscle.

And since we cannot have a national conference every day, is it not necessary to elect a leadership to carry out decisions in the meantime? Otherwise, how is it remotely possible to keep up with events or maintain a consistent level of activity?

But maintaining a consistent level of activity is also a problem for anarchists. Members of these terrible revolutionary parties are kept so busy, apparently, that they become uncritical swallowers of party propaganda. “[A]lternative sources of information and such thinking [what kind of “thinking” is never specified] is regularly dismissed as being contaminated by bourgeois influences”. What alternative sources of information are they referring to? This is not specified either. I know that revolutionaries regularly criticise the mainstream corporate-owned or state-owned media. Maybe this is what the anarchists are referring to. Do they think it’s unfair to characterise these sources as “contaminated by bourgeois influences”? They are owned, produced, distributed and strictly controlled by the bourgeoisie! In any case, revolutionaries very regularly make extensive use of these “sources of information”. I read books, newspapers, magazines and websites and listen to podcasts from a huge variety of sources.

Sensationalism and paranoia

Electing a leadership! Expecting revolutionaries to consistently active in politics! Criticising the corporate-owned media! What horrors will we be subjected to next? All these terrible “authoritarian” crimes lead to a terrible situation:

“This often goes so far as to label those who question any aspect of the party’s analysis revisionists or deviationists, bending to the “pressures of capitalism,” and are usually driven from the ranks as heretics… The evidence from numerous vanguard parties suggest that their leaderships usually view any dissent as […] disruption and demand that dissidents cease their action or face expulsion from the party.”

The anarchists have here made three idiotic political points, and followed them up with a fictional assertion. All this stuff about heretics and expulsions is completely ridiculous. They are not borne out by my experience in the slightest. Even if we look at the British SWP, exposed to all the world as a deeply unhealthy and undemocratic organisation last year in a stomach-turning way, these points fall flat on their face at the slightest nudge of truth.

If social media changed anything, they'd make it illegal. If bookfairs changed anything, they'd make them illegal. You can slot in any word into this sentence, and it reveals the emptiness of this slogan.

If social media changed anything, they’d make it illegal. If bookfairs changed anything, they’d make them illegal. You can slot in any word into this sentence, and it reveals the emptiness of this slogan.


In the search for examples to prove their claims, the anarchists have to reach back very far. They give us one example from 1920 and two examples from 1921, and all three are from Soviet Russia! Along with this there is one paragraph quoted from some “Scottish libertarians”, presumably from recently enough. The paragraph is not particularly interesting or insightful and the only reason it has been included is because it makes an unsubstantiated claim that Leninists “have a tendency” to refuse some “inalienable right” or other relating to people who are in a minority of one arguing for their point of view.

So just to summarise their argument: they begin by making a number of political points which are polluted with exaggerations and sinister language as camouflage for their distinct lack of content or seriousness. Then they make up a paranoid, sensationalist, red-gothic claim. Then they travel a long way through time to find some far-fetched evidence, and supply another weak unsubstantiated claim that flies wide of the mark.

It is legitimate to ask the question: Why? Why has such an article come into being?

Part of the problem is that the anarchists throw into one bucket every party that claims to stand in the tradition of the Bolsheviks. Unsurprisingly there is a wide variation here which they do not acknowledge. There is no difference here acknowledged between the old Stalinist tradition and the Sparts. There is no difference here between the horrendous Healyite organisation and the Militant.

Rather than looking at the specific features of the parties they’re criticising (apart from a cursory look at the British SWP which is supposed to stand in for this vast array of different traditions and organisations), the anarchists talk in a very basic way about “democratic” and “bureaucratic” centralism.

Then they try to head off anyone pointing out the stupidity of this oversight by concluding gleefully with a claim that every revolutionary socialist will claim that “their organisation is the exception to the rule!”

A tension exists in every revolutionary party, manifesting itself in the twin dangers of sectarian irrelevance and opportunist sell-out. This tension cannot be separated from the historical context, and it is intimately connected to the question of leadership and the party regime. Rather than looking at this interesting question in any serious way, they have a single, one-size-fits-all explanation for every problem that has ever existed in a revolutionary party, for every poor leadership, unhealthy regime or failure.

An anarchist diagnosis

It is of course everyone’s prerogative to present their position in as favourable a way as possible for their purposes. The anarchists do this in spades. Their explanation hides behind words like “Leninism” and “Vanguard” and “bureaucratic centralism”. Talk of Leninist “crackpots” and “control freaks”, conflations with Stalinism, appealing to and encouraging the mood of suspicion and reluctance of political involvement that characterises the current period, all these things serve to cover up the pathetic reality of what they concretely and positively stand for. It is as follows: They are against leadership. All these problems in all these widely varied parties happened because of… leadership. The same thing will happen to you if you dare to have leadership. We should have, instead of leadership… Not leadership.

I think it was in My Life that Trotsky that remarked that anarchism is very strong on negations, but sorely lacking in positive content. My experience and reading has borne out this claim. Structure is “rigidity”. Leadership is “hierarchy”. Organisation is “bureaucracy” or “authoritarianism.” I respond that loose networks of activists are a hive of headaches and ineffectual faffing about. I don’t need to go far in time or space to back this up with examples.

My local anarchist group recently held their annual book fair. Outside my apartment, the wind blew one of their posters half-way off its corriboard so that I could see under the 2014 poster. Under it was the last poster that the anarchists had hung up. It was for the Anarchist Book fair 2013. This brought it home to me that they had held no meetings and promoted no demonstrations, in the intervening year. In the same time I have gone through acres of corriboard, and thus reached thousands upon thousands more people with my politics. The difference is stark, and it is a clear result of a difference of ideas.

In 2012 these same anarchists played a positive role in a mass working-class campaign. However, a defeat for that campaign plus their anti-election dogma led to them becoming unbearable campaign bedfellows. Their departure was a relief, which is sad to say because they had proved themselves to be capable enough earlier on. Since then, barring some pro-choice activity, they have not visibly done anything. There came, following the British SWP crisis, a toxic social media campaign (informal and undeclared, of course) against the idea of a revolutionary party. This is just about now running out of steam.

Their sensational fear of leadership has led them to a position where they are really little more than an annual bookfair-organising committee. This is a worthy pursuit, books are great, but their activity is not going to effect the course of history for better or worse.

  1. “My local anarchist group recently held their annual book fair. Outside my apartment, the wind blew one of their posters half-way off its corriboard so that I could see under the 2014 poster. Under it was the last poster that the anarchists had hung up. It was for the Anarchist Book fair 2013. This brought it home to me that they had held no meetings and promoted no demonstrations, in the intervening year. In the same time I have gone through acres of corriboard, and thus reached thousands upon thousands more people with my politics. The difference is stark, and it is a clear result of a difference of ideas.”

    This would be great if popular militancy could be measured in acres of corriboard, or indeed in hours of activity by members of political organisations, but the reality is we’re living through a low point in struggle following the defeat of our organising efforts against austerity and the crisis. The WSM has chosen to uses this period to engage in some much needed critical reflection, having realised that our theory and practice were out of date and were inhibiting us from intervening correctly in contemporary conditions. This is hardly a secret, and, whatever you think of that as a decision, it’s a bit silly to criticise us for doing precisely what we decided we would do as if it we were failing in our intention to the exact opposite.

    • sapteuq says:

      I wasn’t aware of this turn, apologies. Thanks for the clarification and addition, I don’t want to misrepresent anyone here, much appreciated.

      • sapteuq says:

        I left the above comment in a brief snatch of time, but there’s more to be said. Activity and discussion do not preclude each other (certainly not to the extent of organising one activity in a whole year), and I never said that popular militancy could be measured in acres of corriboard. It was pretty clear that my point was that it’s an indication of relative ability to mobilise and organise, and is an index of consistent activity. I really don’t see the purpose of effectively retiring from political activity for the duration of a period following a defeat.

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