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In Defense of Revolutionary Class-Struggle Anarchism

Thursday April 21, 2016


Wayne Priceauthor
Response to Laurence Daviss Defense of Uri Gordons and David Graebers Views
from My Criticisms
Within the anarchist movement there are conflicting trends. Laurence Davis has
written an essay which defends the reformist exodus trend in anarchism against the
revolutionary "class-struggle trend. In large part, he does this by defending Uri
Gordons and David Graebers views against my criticisms. This is my response.
Many books are published annually on the subject of anarchism, which is quite a
change from decades past. It is impossible to keep up with all of them. So I did not
read The Continuum Companion to Anarchism when it came out in 2012. Edited by
Ruth Kinna, it is a collection of essays about research on anarchism. However, I
recently came across it, and noticed that it had an article on Anarchism and the
Future of Revolution, written by Laurence Davis (a college teacher, theorist, and
activist in Ireland). Part of his article was an attack on my views about anarchist
revolution! This is an important topic. It might be described as what strategy might
lead to an anarchist society. Therefore I am responding to Davis essay, even if four
or so years late.
Davis begins by dividing the current anarchist movement into two broad
orientations: one rooted in the anarcho-communist and anarcho-syndicalist class
struggle traditions, and premised on the belief that a vast movement of the
oppressed must rise up and smash the capitalist state, and the other associated with
a revolutionary exodus strategy focused less (at least initially) on direct
confrontation with the state and more on the construction of alternate institutions and
social relationships that will ultimately render [the state] and the capitalist market
redundant. (212) Both anarchist trends overlap with trends in libertarian
(autonomous) Marxism.
Class struggle anarchists see the working class as at least one of the central
revolutionary forces, along with others, such as peasants, women, People of Color,
etc. But advocates of an exodus strategy propose to somehow withdraw from
capitalist society. As Davis definition explains, this orientation does not absolutely
rule out an eventual direct confrontation with the state, but does not focus on it. It
prefers to emphasize the construction of alternate institutions and social
relationships which it expects will ultimately render the state and the market
redundant. Therefore there is little need to orient towards, advocate, or prepare for,
a possible confrontation with state power. Davis is clearly supportive of this exodus
trend. The theory of revolutionary exodusis creatively redefining revolutionary
struggle for our time. (213) I am a supporter of revolutionary class-struggle
anarchism.
This dichotomy is an objective classification of anarchist perspectives, although it
has its limitations. The insurrectionist anarchist trend does not quite fit into these

alternatives, nor does the libertarian municipalism" of Murray Bookchin. And in real
life there is much overlap. Class-struggle activists have a long tradition of social,
community, and cultural organizing. Schmidt & van der Walt report Spanish
syndicalist unions wereimmersed in a rich and dense network of anarchist
community centers, schools, and librariesthat existed in every district and village of
anarchist strengthand a vast anarchist press. (2009; 185) Advocates of an
exodus strategy are usually active participants in mass struggles when they break
out. Adherents of both trends sincerely share a common goal of a cooperative, selfmanaged society, without states, classes, or other oppressions. Yet the distinction is
useful overall (as I state in Price 2009a).
Actually Davis is ambivalent about the distinction between exodus and classstruggle anarchist trends. He has raised this binary model, but then seems to want
to break it down. He specially criticizes me for fix[ing] rigid ideological boundaries
and for having effectively marginalized those with political views alien to his own
understanding of the movementdrawing a normatively weighted dichotomous
distinction between revolutionary anarchismand reformist anarchism. (214) But all
I am doing is accepting the same basic two-trends model of anarchism he does, and
stating reasons why I agree with one of the trendsas he agrees with the other.
(Although I have learned from both trends.)
Davis regards the class-struggle trend to be exemplified by Schmidt and van der
Walt (referring to their book, Black Flame; this was before political controversy
developed around Schmidt). And by me. He says we are class-struggle anarchists
widely read in contemporary movement circles. (212) He also cites Richard Frank,
but interprets him as having major differences with other class-struggle anarchists.
For the exodus trend, Davis refers to David Graeber and Uri Gordon. He also cites
Richard Day, although he is more critical of Days work.
Davis does not actually examine my views on revolution as expounded in my books
or articles (such as Price 2007a). Instead he responds to my critical reviews of the
works of Uri Gordon and David Graeber. (On Gordon, see Price 2009a; 2009b; on
Graeber, see Price 2007b; 2012; 2015.) I assess the validity of arguments made
for the latter tendency [exodusWP] in the light of criticisms leveled by partisans of
the former ['class struggle'WP]. (212)
Because Davis has read so little of my work, he makes a number of mistakes in
describing my opinions. For example, in discussing Gordons critique of industrial
capitalist modernity, he refers to the uncritically modernist perspectives represented
in the work of Price. (220). But in Price (2007a) and elsewhere I have argued for
an alternate or appropriate technology, rejecting both anti-technological
primitivism and the Marxist acceptance of technology as it has been developed by
capitalism.
The Argument for Revolution
Of the basic arguments for revolution (in the sense of popular uprisings which
dismantle the state and other capitalist institutions), Davis seems to be in agreement
with one: that a new society is both morally desirable and objectively necessary (if

we are to avoid economic, ecological, and military disasters). He criticizes Richard


Day for denying the need and possibility of revolutionary transformation.
The other main argument is that the capitalists will not easily permit the end of
capitalism. They will bitterly resist letting people take away their wealth, their power,
their factories, their mansions, their estates, their international firms, their factoryfarms, their media, their bought-and-paid-for politicians, lawyers, priests, police,
armies, and so oneven should the overwhelming majority of the people want to do
so. Davis cites this argument, as raised by me, saying, This is a legitimate point,
deserving serious discussion and debate. (216)
But his response is only, Graeber would no doubt reply that it is precisely because
of the tremendous military power at the disposal of modern, industrialized states that
a revolutionary strategy focused first and foremost on challenging this power head
on would almost certainly prove to be counterproductive. (216-7) No doubt this
would be trueunless the people were largely united in challenging state power
unless the workers (of the modern, industrialized society) went on strike, occupying
and taking over that modern industryand unless the ranks of the military (sons and
daughters of the working class) were won over to the revolution. But whatever the
pace of events, whether or not challenging [state] power was done first and
foremost or later-and-finally, the central state power of capitalist society would
eventually have to be challenged head on and defeated. Otherwise everything else
would prove to be counterproductive.
Similarly, Davis quotes Gordon as asserting, The states utterly disproportional
military mightand social control mean that it simply cannot be defeated in outright
battle. (224) Then I wonder how revolutions ever succeeded, considering that they
always began with the existing state having the advantage in armaments and social
control (which is what made it the state). Yet there have been successful revolutions
(one of which is celebrated every Fourth of July).
But Davis and Gordon answer this conundrum, A mass insurrection might
succeed[if] large numbers of the police and armed forces desert or defect, and this
in turn would be plausible only in the context of a very broad-based and militant
popular mobilization. (224) Which is what class-struggle anarchists have been
saying all along.
Davis adds, As no such mobilization exists at present, armed struggle would seem
for now to be a self-defeating prospect. (224) These words would seem to be
directed at a straw man; class-struggle anarchists do not advocate mass armed
struggle against the state without a broad-based and militant popular mobilization.
This is why they work to create broad-based and militant (and radically democratic)
popular mobilizations. Davis is in agreement with them when he concludes, This
neednt preclude the possibility of anarchists working to create the ultimate
conditions for its future success, either in defense against a final and violent attempt
by the state to crush oppositional forces or as part of a scenario of social collapse
triggered by peak oil and climate change. (224) So far he agrees with revolutionary
class-struggle anarchistsbut such agreement has implications for here-and-now
activities which might conflict with the exodus model. It could lead to a focus in the

here-and-now on building movements of workers and others which should be as


militant, radical, and democratic as possible.
However, Davis repeatedly rejects the view which he claims is held by class-struggle
anarchists, the currently dominant paradigm of revolution as a single, cataclysmic
break with past structures of oppression achieved by means of a violent seizure of
state power. (215) They tend to conceive of revolution as a singular, totalizing
and cataclysmic break with past structures of oppression. (216) He rejects their
supposed ideas of revolutionary closure and utopian perfectibility. (223) This shows
a basic misunderstanding of revolutions and revolutionaries.
While this is a report on current anarchist thinking about revolution, readers might
have expected some background references to anarchists previous research on
revolution, such as Kropotkin on the French Revolution (1986) or Bookchins study of
a series of revolutions (1996). There are none. Nor does Davis refer to the vast
libraries written on the Russian and Spanish revolutions by anarchists, Marxists, and
bourgeois historians (summarized in Price 2007a). Nor does he mention anything on
the other great bourgeois-democratic revolutions, such as the English or the U.S.,
nor the Stalinist-nationalist revolutions in China or Cuba.
Had Davis examined this body of work, he would know that revolutions have never
been nothing-but singular, totalizing, and cataclysmic breaks. And revolutionaries
have not expected them to be. Revolutions are preceded by yearsdecadesof
mounting tensions and lesser conflicts; of cycles of rebellion and repression; of
overall dissatisfaction among all sectors of society; of conflicts around many distinct
issues; of the building of popular dual power institutionscouncils and assemblies,
unions and associations, in neighborhoods and workplaceswhich compete with the
power of the existing state; a continuing mass radicalization; and an eventual conflict
in which either the old state or the popular associations win out. If the revolutionary
people win, this would be only the beginning of a long period of conflicts (possibly
civil wars and foreign interventions) and a long period of social experimentation and
consolidation. (How violent and bloody the revolution would be has always
depended on how well-organized and prepared the people are and to what extent
the ruling class can be isolated and demoralized.)
Kropotkin summarized, The anarchists recognize thatthe slow evolution of
society is followed from time to time by periods of accelerated evolution which are
called revolutions.Periods of rapid changes will follow the periods of slow
evolution, and these periods must be taken advantage ofthrough the organization
in every township or commune of the local groups of producers and consumers, as
also the regional, and eventually the international, federation of these
groups. (Kropotkin 1975; 110)
As we know, all previous revolutions have either failed (the old rulers keep power) or
have succeeded, only to put a new ruling class in power (the bourgeoisie or a
collective bureaucracy). Such revolutions may have won limited gains for the people
(such as increased freedom, won by the bourgeois-democratic revolutions in
England, the U.S., and France). Yet they remained exploitative class societies.
Class-struggle anarchists goal is for the working class and all oppressed people to

take power, in the sense of overturning the state, the capitalist class, and all other
institutions of oppression, and to build up a self-managed, radically democratic,
societythe self-organization of the people. But not to take state power, that is, not
to create a new bureaucratic-military, socially-alienated, state machine over the rest
of society. When all the working people are involved in governing, then there will be
no government.
Such an understanding of revolution includes the building up of mass struggles and
popular institutions (as Benjamin Franks expresses it), as well as the moment of
decisive revolutionary rupture, (as Schmidt & van der Walt put it, quoted by Davis;
213) when the central power of the ruling class is overturned, and then a lengthy
period of gradual pluralistic experimentation (as Malatesta advocated).
The Non-Revolutionary Program of Exodus Anarchism
Class-struggle anarchists do not criticize the exodus anarchists for advocating a
lengthy pre-revolutionary period (lengthy as necessary, anyway) of building up mass
struggles and alternate organizations. They criticize them for believing that it is
possible to make an exodus from capitalist society: most successful forms of
popular resistance have historically taken the form not of challenging power head on,
but of slipping away from its grasp, whether by means of flight, desertion, or the
founding of new communities. (216) Davis cites this bit of anthropological wisdom
from David Grabber, who claims this as a model for current revolutions. Davis
vehemently denies that this view of Graebers is somehow anti-revolutionary,
defeatist, reformist, or in any way opposed to popular uprisings. (217) despite the
plain meaning of the words.
Davis criticizes me for seeing only instrumental value [in] the constructive
prefigurative project of cultivating nonhierarchical movement structures. (222)
Actually I have constantly advocated that popular movements of opposition be as
democratic and participatory as possible, to prefigure the future society, as opposed
to Leninist concepts of building a centralized vanguard party. I have also expressed
appreciation of decentralized democratic co-ops, communities, and infoshops, as
good in themselvesbut I regard them as making limited contributions to a strategy
for revolution. However, I do evaluate nonhierarchical movement structures in
terms of their contribution toward ending capitalism and saving the world from war
and ecological catastrophe. I do not apologize for that.
Instead, Davis argues, For contemporary small-a anarchiststhese here-and-now
alternative institutionsand social relationships are the essence of
anarchism.Many contemporary anarchists insist that the revolution is
now. (222-3) Gordon writes, The development of nonhierarchical structures in
which domination is constantly challenged is, for most anarchists, an end in
itself.Anarchists today do not tend to think of revolutionif they even use the term
as a future event but rather as a present-day process and a potential dimension of
everyday life. (Gordon 2008; 35 & 41)
I find these words pretty plain in their meaning. Rather than build a movement to
eventually end oppression, exploitation, and ecological catastrophe, this school of

anarchism advocates focusing on living anarchistically in the day-to-day reality of


current society. Apparently the future can take care of itself. Meanwhile Gordon
specifically denounces the very idea of making demands on the state in order to win
reforms and benefits. A politics of demandextends undue recognition and
legitimation to state powera strategy far removed from anarchism (same;
151).This may sound very radical but means giving up many possibilities for mass
struggles (e.g., for the $15 minimum wage, ending fracking, withdrawing from
specific wars, recognizing LGBT equality, anti-police brutality, etc.).
There are two issues here. The main one is whether the exodus strategy is likely to
work. Could society be changed into statelessness by refusing to challenge power
head on, slipping away from its grasp ? Suppose such an approach started to be
successful, so that alternate institutions actually threaten the auto or steel
corporations, the big banks, and the national government (posing it this way shows
the obvious limitations of this strategy). Wouldnt the state and the corporations crack
down on this development? Or at least try to? Surely, at some point there will have to
be democratic mass movements of workers and everyone else to confront the state
and the capitalist class. If so, then anarchists should warn the people. It should be
prepared for.
The second, and lesser, question, is whether this exodus approach is accurately
called revolutionary. If your strategy is to engage in gradual, step-by-step, limited
struggles, limiting yourself to living freely in the here-and-now, and not intending to
confront and overthrow the state as your eventual goalthen I dont know why you
call this revolutionary. It is classically reformist. That is why Davis describes the
exodus trend as creatively redefining revolutionary struggle for the twenty-first
century. (224) That is to say, changing the definition of revolution, creatively.
However sincere, this re-definition is a way of rejecting a revolutionary strategy while
keeping the honorable label of revolution.
While declared to be a brand new program for the twenty-first century, it is a return
to J.P. Proudhons reformist program of mutualism. It is the same orientation
promoted by gradualist anarchists in the 1950s and 1960s, such as Colin Ward and
Paul Goodman. Proudhon, Ward, Goodman, and other gradualists made major
contributions to anarchist theory, but they are all recognized as reformists.
Anarchism and Democracy
Anarchists have long had an ambivalent attitude toward democracy, sometimes
falling into various sorts of elitism. Of the class-struggle anarchists being cited here
by Davis, all regard anarchism as an extreme, radical, extension of democracy, into
every place there is group decision-making. Anarchism would be nothing less than
the most complete realization of democracydemocracy in the fields, factories, and
neighborhoods, coordinated through federal structures and councils from below
upward (Schmidt & van der Walt 2009; 70) They reject defining democracy as
only present-day, bourgeois, representative democracy. They also reject any concept
of democracy as meaning that the majority can oppress a minority. They define an
anarchist society as democracy without the state.

Of the exodus advocates cited by Davis, David Grabber defends the unity of
anarchism and democracy. At most he may he criticized for saying that anarchist
democracy requires consensus procedures. I regard both consensus and majority
rule (with rights for minorities) as practical issues, not as matters of principle. Either
can organize self-management and either may be mis-used in oppressive ways.
However, Davis condemns Richard Day, despite his contributions to exodus theory.
Days understandingis deeply anti-democratic. Day is quite clear on this point.
From his point of view, the possibility of popular democratic social change is
nil. (226)
On the other hand, Davis vigorously disagrees with my characterization of Uri
Gordons work as elitist and undemocratic. It is true that in the course of his
argument, Gordon draws back from fully embracing the principle of radical
democracy, but only insofar as it entails collectively binding decisions that are
enforceable. (219)
However, Gordon does much more than fail to fully embrace radical democracy. He
is explicit: The mistake that most clouds our thinking over process [is] the
continued couching of the debate in the language of democracy.Anarchism, then,
represents not the most radical form of democracy, but an altogether different
paradigm of collective action. (Gordon 2008; 6970) He rejects democracy
because it inevitably includes institutionalized coercion. Democratic discourse
assumes without exception that the political process resultsin collectively binding
decisions. (same; 69) He regards this as coercive.
Instead Gordon seeks to minimize the use of plenaries and assemblies,
emphasizing decentralized networks of unaccountable groupings and individuals.
Anarchists are bound to acknowledge that this invisible, subterranean, indeed
unaccountable use of power is not only inevitable in some measure (), but also
needs to be embraced since it coheres with their worldview in important respects.
Invisible poweris not only a practical necessity but also has intrinsic political value
from an anarchist perspective. (same; 75)
Rather than trying to unpack what Gordon is saying, I will just summarize the issue
as I see it. A goal of anarchism is the abolition of the statea special coercive
organization over and above the rest of societyreplacing it with the selforganization of the people. The goal should not be the total abolition of all coercion,
but the reduction of coercion to the minimum possible. Social decision-making
should be done by discussion, experimentation, and the use of intelligence. (I refer to
social decision-making, because vast areas of life are outside the realm of group
decisions, such as individuals choice of religion or non-coercive sexual practices.)
Since groups do have to make decisions, collectively binding decisions are
inevitable and so some minimal coercion will exist. Of course individuals may leave
any particular group or community, but then they give up the possibility of affecting
that groups decisions. And then they will go to other groups or communities which
also have to make decisions.
Conclusion

Davis essay is primarily an exposition of what he calls the revolutionary exodus


trend in anarchism and its defense against my criticisms from the perspective of
revolutionary class-struggle anarchism. It has been impossible for me to cover all of
Davis argumentslet alone to re-analyze the views of Gordon and Graeber. I have
focused on key issues of the arguments about mass revolution, the strategy of
exodus, and the value of radical democracy.
It has been a little difficult to deal with Davis presentation because he tends to go
back and forth. He presents a two-trend model of current anarchism, but condemns
me for supposedly rigidifying the distinction. He is for the exodus perspective of
focusing on the here-and-now of anarchist living but also accepts the possibility of an
ultimate direct conflict with the statebut he rejects advocating and organizing for it
now. He misstates my views on technology. He misstates class-struggle anarchists
views on the nature of revolution. He defends Gordon by claiming Gordon is merely
not fully embracing the principle of radical democracy, when Gordon clearly rejects
the principle of democracy, radical or otherwise.
I will conclude with an observation by Paul Goodman (who was generally in the
exodus trend). It will be said that there is no time. Yes, probably. But let me cite a
remark of Tocqueville. In his last work, LAncien Regime, he notes with terror, as he
says, how throughout the eighteenth century writer after writer and expert after
expert pointed out that this and that detail of the Old Regime was unviable and could
not possibly survive; added up, they proved that the entire Old Regime was doomed
and must soon collapse; and yet there was not a single [person] who foretold that
there would be a mighty revolution. (Goodman 1965; 189)
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