Against anarcho-smugness

As Corbyn’s suspension from the Labour Party occasions yet another wave of anarcho-smugness, Anna K. takes aim at the strange self-satisfaction of our politically irrelevant movement.

On December 13th 2019, the day after the General Election, I had the grave misfortune of being behind the till at Freedom Bookshop. To be clear, my misfortune lay not in my location – which is a wonderful place, full of many excellent books – but in the fact that a few old-school anarchists decided to spend the day draped around the shop, crowing about Corbyn’s loss. There was no grim head shaking; no solemn, if trite, soundbites about it being a regrettable, if entirely predictable, turn of events.  They were happy. Indeed, they were more or less celebrating. If childhood hadn’t left me so conflict averse – and the individuals involved weren’t such well-known bullies – I might have managed to mutter something about certain people having corpses in their mouths. But I was cowed, and for the sake of a peaceful shift, I left these self-identified partisans of the working class to loudly revel in barbarism’s landslide.

While these bilious has-beens represent a particularly grotesque extreme of anarchist opinion, their unabashed joy at Corbyn’s defeat is not so far different from the smug “we told you so” that has, for the most part, constituted “the anarchist response” to December’s election results. One might have hoped that anarchists would have had something useful to say following the defeat of the first mass movement for socialism this country has seen in decades. Sadly, with one or two minor exceptions, all we seem to have produced are some rather tiresome Urban 75 posts about how we’re so wise and everyone else is pathetic and naïve.

Not only are such responses politically moribund but they are also premised on a fundamental misunderstanding. As comrades in Plan C pointed out way back in 2017, the mass of hope that was invested in Corbynism wasn’t so much a sign of people’s political naivety, as it was an index of their complete desperation:

“Anti-capitalist social movements and Left organisations have been in crisis for a decade or more; old strategies and tactics don’t work any more; governments and corporations are seemingly immune to anything and everything that we throw at them. The turn to the Labour Party is an act of desperation: we don’t know how else we can change anything! Our crisis of faith in our own ability to transform the world means we turn instead to a saviour who can do it for us. The revolutionary project is reconceptualised as a strategy for gaining state power – or more precisely public office.”

Instead of facing up to this damning indictment of our failure to become a historical force, we anarchists seem, if anything, to have retreated further into a resigned minoritarianism that is more concerned with being right than it is with changing the world.

In this respect, we are not without historical precedent. According to Daniel Guérin, towards the end of the 19th century, the anarchist movement had managed to transform itself into little more than a “flimsy scarecrow”:

“When they found themselves a small minority, the anarchists abandoned the idea of militancy within large popular movements. Free rein was given to utopian doctrines, combining premature anticipations and nostalgic evocations of a golden age….In the 1890s the anarchists had reached a dead end and they were cut off from the world of the workers which had become the monopoly of the social democrats. They snuggled into little sects, barricaded themselves into ivory towers where they polished up increasingly unrealistic dogmas; or else they performed and applauded acts of individual terrorism, and let themselves be caught in a net of repression and reprisal” (Anarchism: From Theory to Practice p.74 & 77-78)

On Guérin’s account, anarchism was able to revivify itself through its (re)engagement in mass trade unionism but not before the movement went through a period of painful self-assessment, which saw figures such as Kropotkin radically rethink their position on issues like propaganda of the deed.

My contention is that we in the British anarchist movement are way overdue such a period of radical reassessment. Capitalism is in crisis, fascism is in the ascendency and yet we have never been more politically irrelevant. Now is not the time for smugness or schadenfreude. It is time for us to turn our “ruthless criticism” back upon ourselves.

Anna K.