Sucking the Golden Egg: A Reply to Newman

A Platformist Response to “Post-Anarchism”

by Michael Schmidt

9 October 2003

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 here.

Red & Black regards,
Michael Schmidt
Acting international secretary, ZACF, Johannesburg

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 movement.

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 understanding (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 state 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 capacity 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 subjectivity.

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.