The Leaderhip of Ideas

published 10 Apr 2015
1999 - WSM Paper Sellers

Anarchists generally believe that the major flaw of the most prominent socialist movements in history – from the Bolsheviks to the Labour Party and Syriza – is a failure to account for the corrupting influence of power. In anarchist thinking, the state is a vehicle for domination of society on behalf of a small elite. Any socialists who successfully capture state power will inevitably become a new elite and thus anarchists fiercely oppose these “state-socialists” - a term applied to all non-anarchist socialists.  Anarchist predictions of the corrupting nature of state power date back to the 1870s and intervening history has only strengthened their beliefs.

“a new class, a new hierarchy of real and counterfeit scientists and scholars [...] woe unto the mass of ignorant ones!”
On the International Workingmen's Association and Karl Marx, Mikhail Bakunin, 1872

A core tenet of anarchist ideology is that wherever power imbalances exist, injustice and exploitation will surely follow. Anarchist intellectual and theoretical activity is heavily focused on documenting and denouncing the negative consequences of the multi-faceted power imbalances that exist within society. This extends from the macro-imbalances between broad categories, such as genders, nationalities or ethnic groups, to the complex micro-manifestations of these imbalances in inter-personal dynamics.

The Moral Imperative

The goal of anarchism is to abolish all power-imbalances; to create a world based on voluntary cooperation, where all are equals and nobody can dominate another. This goal imposes significant strategic and moral constraints on political activity. The moral constraints stem from the knowledge that power-imbalances are often invisible to those who benefit from them. For example, people who come from stable, supportive, and financially-secure families, tend to take many of the attendant benefits for granted and fail to realise that they have much more freedom to take risks than those who lack such a safety net (in recent years this concept has become relatively well known through the phrase 'check your privilege", but in the late 1990s, this terminology was unknown to us). Individual advocates of anarchism who take advantage of power micro-imbalances for selfish, personal reasons are considered to be hypocrites. Anarchist groups which influence broader groups within society in ways that deviate significantly from the direct-democratic and voluntary principles they espouse are considered similarly hypocritical.

In the WSM, this moral constraint was taken very seriously indeed, both on a personal and a collective level. Considerable time was devoted to analysing how the group operated internally and whether there might be unconscious prejudices which made the group less welcoming to those who were not white, heterosexual, Irish males. Gender balance was a particularly thorny issue – the group was always at least 70% male, with 80% probably being an average in terms of active participation. Furthermore, although this was never actually mentioned, most women members joined as the wives or girlfriends of male members and their participation rarely persisted beyond their relationships. In line with feminist theory, of which the WSM were ardent supporters, the lack of women was assumed to reflect sub-conscious sexism operating within the group. There were frequent sessions devoted to discussing ways in which the organisation could overcome this sexism – I’d estimate that 10% of the group’s formal political discussion were devoted to the issue. These discussions occasionally produced various minor reforms in how the group worked, albeit without any noticeable effect on female participation.

Moral self-examination was no less acute when it came to the group’s external interactions. WSM members considered, with some justification I should add, that their rivals on the left were habitually deceptive in how the presented themselves to the public. The Socialist Workers Party, which has remained the largest organisation on the Irish far left for the last three decades, would regularly establish new ‘fronts’ – broad campaign groups dedicated to a particular issue – without revealing that the group was effectively controlled by revolutionary socialists. By contrast, the WSM was committed to always being “honest with the class”, by openly declaring the organisation’s involvement in any activity or group that they participated in and, moreover, announcing its revolutionary anarchist nature. Members who spoke at public events almost always announced their membership of the WSM before making their point and often included a brief summary of the organisation’s anarchist nature. The commitment to honesty didn’t end there. Whenever the organisation took part in any sort of activity with non-members, a significant amount of effort was expended in trying to avoid the possibility of dominating decision making by virtue of acting as a coherent organisation.

These moral imperatives were very significant constraints on political activity because they effectively ruled out all tactics except rational persuasion of the virtues of anarchism, regardless of the content of the activity. This was not, however, considered a problem by the WSM – the organisation explicitly considered its role to be primarily "fighting the battle of ideas", a point that was repeatedly emphasised within the group. Members relished any opportunity to make the rational case for anarchism in front of an audience of non-members, whether it be at a public meeting on housing or racism or any other concrete issue. The goal was for the organisaton to become "the Leadership of Ideas" by winning this battle. This approach was not altogether unusual on the far-left, various other groups would show up at such meetings and make the case for their own variety of political ideology and thus any given meeting, regardless of its topic, was liable to include a debate on abstract political ideologies, with frequent references to historical revolutionary events.

Training for Battle

The WSM put considerable effort into training its members for such political sparring. New members were given tasks of preparing presentations on the most important aspects of revolutionary history. Three other people had joined the organisation around the time that I did and a special event was organised to facilitate our training – a “day-school” on historical revolutions in which each of the new members was given the task of presenting an anarchist analysis of the revolutions in Russia, Spain, Mexico and the failed revolution in Germany. I was responsible for covering Russia. The daunting prospect of presenting such seminal events to the experienced membership had the effect of forcing me to read the WSM’s canonical texts on the subject. This consisted of three books by anarchists who had been personally involved in the events: The Guillotine at Work by Gregori Maximoff, The Unknown Revolution by Voline and the History of the Makhnovist Movement, by Peter Arshinov and one retrospective analysis written in the 1970s: The Bolsheviks and Workers Control by Maurice Brinton.

The day-school was held in the North Star Hotel on Amiens Street. It was advertised publicly but the only non-members who showed up were members of the Spartacist League – a particularly doctrinaire Trotskyist organisation who were soon evicted due to the fact that their only contribution was an over-the-top denunciation of anarchism. It did however, serve its purpose adequately – all the new members were given an introduction to the organisation’s doctrine on these events. It is worth noting that I never read another text on the subjects – yet was adequately equipped to put forward the WSM’s position against all comers. I subsequently came to understand that each leftist organisation has its own reading list on these events, each of which takes an entirely different interpretation of the same events. Members of each organisation can consider themselves to be experts on these events, without even being aware of the others’ positions – an effective inoculation against the ideology of their rivals. The Socialist Workers Party was (and remains) particularly extreme in this – over the years, their leadership has written dumbed-down, cartoonish interpretations of these revolutions, allowing them to forgo their membership having any engagement with the historical record at all.

The Best Fighters

While the ‘battle of ideas’ was always of paramount importance to the WSM, the membership were self-aware enough to understand that showing up at meetings and arguing for anarchist ideology was unlikely to create a very good impression on the public or those who were primarily interested in the concrete issue in question. Thus the WSM paired their political argumentation with a commitment to being good citizens within such campaigns – doing more than their fair share of the routine organisational work required to organise meetings, print leaflets, and so on, or “being the best fighters” in the WSM’s jargon. Overall the organisation's strategy for out-competing its rivals could be summed up as being more moral and more logical than their opponents, who were considered to frequently resort to short-cuts and logical sleights of hand - a lack of faith in the class. The strategy was not particularly effective in terms of recruitment. In the decade after the organisation reformed it had resulted in exactly one recruit from the leftist milieu in which they operated – Gregor Kerr. On the other hand, he was an exceptionally high quality activist who had a wealth of experience in both trade union and community campaigns.

The Strategic Aspect

I should state that many WSM members would probably disagree with the centrality of moralistic considerations in guiding the organisation’s activity. For one thing, the concept of moralism sat uneasily with many WSM members, probably due to its strong association with prescriptive Catholicism in Ireland. For another thing, the WSM’s commitment to the above principles also had a strategic aspect. Anarchists’ vision is of a post-revolutionary society organised from the bottom up in a democratic, egalitarian communism. Most thoughtful anarchists are not, however, optimistic enough to imagine that society is likely to decide to hold a revolution and then spontaneously reorganise itself along anarchist lines. Building organisations in the here and now that are based upon anarchist principles is seen as a necessary step towards an anarchist society – such organisations are training grounds for the future reorganisation of society. The strategic approach is encapsulated in the anarchist slogan: “building a new world in the shell of the old” and in recent times, it has even generated its own academic adjective: “pre-figurative”. However, regardless of the academic overlay, the idea is simple enough: if you hope that society at large will reorganise itself along certain principles after a revolution, the more people who have experience in organising according to those principles in advance the better. Thus, a major focus of anarchist political activity is to advocate the adoption of anarchist principles of organisation within whatever groups they are involved with. This vocation is fuelled by the belief that people will find direct democratic decision making to be so empowering as to enable the model to flourish and spread once seeded.

This basic strategic approach to politics was and remains part of the WSM’s DNA. Most of the preamble to the organisation’s constitution – the core beliefs - is an expression of this idea and the WSM’s determination to apply it in “mass movements”, of whatever form, from trade-unions to housing campaigns and community groups. In the 1990s, the WSM proved no less committed to this idea in practice than they were in theory. The promotion of anarchist principles of organisation was almost the sole focus of the WSM’s work within ‘mass organisations’. The only problem was that the strategy had been conceived of in an era when there were many opportunities for political militants to constructively advocate their principles to mass audiences: well-attended union branch meetings full of political debate, general assemblies of strikers, community meetings, mass campaigns and so on.

In Ireland in 1999, such opportunities were very thin on the ground. The Celtic Tiger was roaring, driven by an increasing numbers of US multi-national corporations. This was facilitated by a no-conflict, social-partnership deal between the government and the trade-unions dating back to 1987, which had the effect of steadily demobilising their mass base. By the late 1990s, a long term and ongoing decline in both union membership numbers and participation levels had established itself and labour conflicts were sporadic, isolated from one another. This meant that WSM activity in “mass organisations” was mostly confined to participation in events or campaign groups that were organised by themselves or by other far-left groups. This probably had a major influence on emphasising the moral over the strategic aspect of the WSM's politics - in the absence of pressing practical problems, looking inwards at least gives you something to do.

The Dreaded Paper Sales

Paper-sales were the most regular activity which brought the WSM into contact with non-members. The organisation produced an 8 page tabloid-format newspaper every six months or so which it would try to sell for a price of 50p at every opportunity – at public demonstrations, outside public meetings and on the streets. Street sales were particularly gruelling: 5 or 6 members would congregate at a prominent spot in the city centre with a high volume of foot-traffic and spend an hour or two hawking their wares to an overwhelmingly disinterested public. From attending probably a dozen such events, my lifetime sales totaled exactly two, although I must admit to a shining lack of talent as a salesman - by contrast Gregor always seemed to sell 4 or 5 at each event. What made them so unpleasant was the fact that such events made it impossible to ignore just how marginal we were to political life. We were weird cultists who the public scuttled by as quickly as possible, the scientologists did better. Older members would regale us with tales of yore, when pub-sales were part of our standard repertoire. The idea of walking through pubs, trying to hawk anarchist political theory to the drinking masses still fills me with masochistic horror.

Paper sales at public demonstrations and meetings were significantly better in some ways. At least we could guarantee that a significant proportion of the audience were interested in far-left political theory. On the other hand, any such event would see paper-sellers from about 6 rival organisations competing with each other. Most of the people present were members or affiliates of Trotskyist organisations who generally despised all their rivals and would demonstrate this in no uncertain terms when offered a newspaper. The small number of civilians present would be so harassed by the multitude of hawkers that their reactions were often no more welcoming. This was particularly the case outside public meetings – the attendees would have to run through a tunnel formed by vendors jostling for position at the exits as they left. Being part of the harassing mob was not an experience that I enjoyed in any way. I forced myself to do it to demonstrate my willingness to share the burden of the organisation’s unglamorous work and told myself that it was a useful exercise in humility, but in truth I despised every single second.

Comments (5)

Fergal Scully

Nice work Chekov. Speaking as someone with many anarcho friends and if I'm honest some unrefined anarchist tendancies myself, I think that the leadership of ideas is successful in a lot of ways. For example the stonybatter against the water tax group organises non hierarchically and this was never challenged or had to be justified. It was always accepted as logical by the wider non anarcho types of all hues in the group.

chekov's picture

Thanks Fergal! However, I don't think I agree with you altogether. I agree that in recent years there has been a broad trend towards more directly democratic structures. However, what you describe in my opinion is much closer to good old fashioned leadership than it is to what the WSM means by Leadership of Ideas.

To explain: most people don't have particularly strong ideas about how campaign groups should be structured and will defer to those who do, particularly when there is a cohort which agrees with one another. So, from this point of view, the important thing in determining how a particular water tax group will be structured is what the leadership thinks. In areas where the leadership is predominantly anarchist, anarchist structures will be adopted, in areas where the leadership is Leninist (or social democratic or whatever) the structures will be traditional committee-based hierarchies (and of course, in areas where a particular party predominate, these will follow the party hierarchy's lead).

The Leadership of Ideas concept would only come into play in situations where the leadership of the group is contested between multiple ideological forces and indeed, it would only be convincingly demonstrated in situations where anarchists were an ideological minority and opposed by a larger number of ideological opponents. If the anarchists managed to convince a majority of the non-ideologically committed to adopt anarchist structures despite being in the minority, that would be a good example of the concept of leadership of ideas working.

I don't know enough about the local Water Tax campaign groups to say for sure. But I'd bet that the structures of the local campaign groups are basically determined by the balance of forces among the ideologically committed. If I'm wrong, and it really is a case of Leadership of Ideas, then there should be examples of local groups which have adopted anarchist structures despite ideologically committed anarchists being in a minority compared to ideologically committed others.


Hilarious! Thank you, Kevin



The 'Organize!' image is very cool indeed.


Good read, Mr F. Moral self-examination, honesty, leadership of ideas....liking what I'm reading.