The Bridge of Asses – “Alludes to the difficulty of getting asses to cross a bridge; hence to the difficulty of getting students to apprehend what is simple enough if attempted. (Applied to the fifth proposition of the first book of Euclid).”
There is a gulf today between the working-class and what passes for a revolutionary movement as profound as that which exists between the working-class and any of the bourgeois parties. There is no sympathy between them, no co-operation, not even a real common interest. This is a fact that disturbs and perplexes many sincere radicals. It worries many workers who find they have no alternative but to accept the propaganda influence of the media. They are ‘displaced’ from their own principles.
How do the so-called “revolutionaries”, the rebels of present day society regard the working class? If they are authoritarians they regard them as cannon fodder. Leadership must come from the students. They are the ‘natural leaders’ of the proletariat. Formerly it was the “intellectuals” that were to provide the “leadership”. Now it is not even that, but the young intellectuals who are considered to be the “natural leaders”. The workers are “only capable of themselves in achieving a trade union consciousness”. They are spoken down to in the agitational journals which nobody reads but the agitators; it is only the students who are capable of “theorising”!
But if the “revolutionaries” and “rebels” consider themselves “libertarians” then it is worse! The working class are not even worth the powder and shot of agitation! They are “only interested in material things” which any middle class drop-out knows are useless because he has always had them and rejects them for the time being! The workers are incapable of organizing! Any organization they create “must be” authoritarian and sell-out because the poor devils know no better! The trade unions are rubbish because at the best they could only consist of the workers!
The “authoritarians” see the solution as a party based upon intellectual leaders steeped in the study of Marxist Leninism now part and parcel of University curricula. The “libertarians” may grant the need for workers councils but reject syndicalism – i.e. the making of councils into a permanent organization. They visualise hippy communes sustained by councils keeping the workers’ noses to the grindstones while the former students ponce on them, as an alternative to the authoritarians, who visualise the glorification of the intellectual with Marxist-Leninism replacing Keynesian economics as its passport to success.
In the Labour Party today we see an interesting reflection of this as the old Party activists are left high and dry by the workers – who want nothing to do with it – and in come the Trotskyist students in maturity to take over all the positions… to fill up all the positions nobody else will take… and so have challenged – to everyone’s surprise – the divine right of Members of Parliament to be elected by their constituency for ever after they’ve wangled past a selection committee once. For the moment this is causing consternation… mild Trots who have never caused a flutter of anxiety to the State – like the Militant group – are headlines for the journalists in biting exposures of what we knew for years. But they too will find their place… look around the Labour Party – it is littered with dead Trotskyists still living… there is even one (at least) who has applied the entry tactic so successfully that he has gone through the Labour Party and emerged a Tory Party candidate.
In the hippy movement we see the other side of the coin: they contemplate dropping out and laud as a principle “never work again” and envisage living upon the State as a “revolution”. They despise the “work ethic” but even more those who do work. But they are helpful; they carefully explain to the mugs how they, too, must “liberate their minds” and get to such a high degree of libertarian consciousness that they aspire to being State pensioners for ever.
Small wonder that the demonstrations of the Left – authoritarian or libertarian – become parodies of the past. Pity is a gentle form of contempt, and the demonstrations are basically compassionate – they call it liberation – for repression in Chile or Vietnam or for some lost cause or minority or other. They are never for something positive. Often they manage to be out-manoeuvred by the National Front which wants to repress workers organisations but picks on issues which are bound to get it a certain sympathy, because they are issues affecting the working people which all the other parties choose to ignore.
There is nothing surprising in all this. We need not even look for a CIA plot. It has been going on for a long time. Only now it has come to a head. The working class pioneers theories of social organisation, ways of alternative living, methods of association. The theorists of the middle class come along and try to formulate them and set them down. Some – but very few – are honest: like Kropotkin, they acknowledge their debt to the masses. They go no further than those who initiated the idea.
Others, and this is the majority, take the ideas up but devise ways to leave the working class out of it.
Examples abound. The Fabian theorists came along to find a working class socialist movement. They gave it a Statist direction. Socialism for them was telling people what to do: giving the do-gooders a leading place in society – “abolishing the working classes and replacing them by sensible people” said Shaw.
Fabianism was taken over by Bolshevism and Fascism, the glorification of the State.
But on the libertarian side, the idea of the middle class achieving ‘liberation’ from the State and never paying tax again – but keeping a bit of government around the place for the plebs – has been touted in the States. The hippy idea is perhaps a less obnoxious version of this.
This may explain the need for constant criticism and that apparent “pig-headedness” which some of our “libertarian” contemporaries find so objectionable in Black Flag. We do not need to “win over” the masses. They are perfectly capable of action on their own behalf and do not need “vanguards”. We need to break down the barrier that exists between them and revolutionary libertarian thought which exists only because of imposters and humbugs.
We do not “idealise” the workers. But the most reactionary class existing are the intellectual pretenders who take hold of their ideas and try to write them out of it. They have succeeded in alienating them from their natural heritage, and one has only to evoke the past – in this country and elsewhere – to see that this is so. (That is why we dwell on the “glorious past” – another criticism!).
We do not entirely write off students. They have a part to play in the struggle. But not as students: if they prepare ahead to enter into mature life as conscious revolutionary workers they can play a useful role in changing society. As “students” they are condemned only to noisy protest and at most go on strike against themselves.
The hardest task of all is to build an anarchist movement. Perhaps it is easy to build one among artists – who are born individualists – or leisured people or young people who want a fighting protest before settling down to humdrum wage-earning or bourgeois life! But to build it in the place where people work and create and go about their daily lives is a truly hard task because there it comes into practical application. That is the bridge of asses at which all who would build a revolutionary movement are stumbling. Once they manage to cross that bridge the gulf will exist no longer. At that bridge every single one of the parties and groups stumble and to justify themselves they pretend they do not want to cross it.
Black Flag : organ of the Anarchist Black Cross v.4,no.4 (September/October 1975)
[Uploaded as supporting material for ‘Slaughter or slander? Notes on the Albert Meltzer-George Woodcock conflict’ in KSL: Bulletin of the Kate Sharpley Library No.107-108, December 2022: https://www.katesharpleylibrary.net/cjt075 ]