I don’t like ideological politics at all. But, I suppose that if I had to choose one ideological movement that resonates the most with me, it would be ever embattled, and always losing, anarcho-syndicalism. Even its name is an awkward mouthful of a contraction. One of my heroes, George Orwell, fought under its black and red flag in Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War and remained a true believer all his life. George Orwell may have said “A pox on both of your houses!” to ideologues of the right and left, but he was no centrist. Hannah Arendt, another of my heroes, supposedly had strong sympathies with anarcho-syndicalism. Lenin, Stalin, Franco, Mussolini, and Hitler all massacred anarcho-syndicalists by the trainload. Our own government imprisoned bunches of them.
This movement appeals to my basic sense of justice. Those who do the actual work of producing should be entitled to the first fruits of their labors.
It also appeals to my democratic convictions. People should take charge themselves and on their own initiative. Political movement should always be from the bottom up, and should always be participatory. Top down democracy, whether right or left, is no democracy at all.
With the anarcho-syndicalists, I oppose corporate power as a usurpation of democracy. I have no sympathy with states or with nationalism, and see them at best as necessary evils. I would agree that states are primarily about protecting the property and privilege of those who already own and rule. My series on the history of the Florentine Republic shows that to be the case.
Anarcho-Syndicalist poster from the Spanish Civil War
My problem with anarcho-syndicalism is not that it’s a bad ideology, it’s actually a pretty good ideology, but that it’s an ideology at all. I am not a utopian. I don’t believe in utopia. I don’t think utopias are even desirable. Utopia presumes the end of all conflict. The only way to really achieve that is to end human variety. My one experience with anarcho-syndicalist ideologues was not a good one. Our effort to unionize our bookstore was constantly being criticized by an IWW group in Philadelphia. My heart is with the Wobblies, but I don’t want them representing me in contract negotiations. I don’t care about the Revolution, I want a decent contract, and I want to be able to deliver a decent contract to my colleagues. We won our union election in our bookstore here in New York by a 2 to 1 margin. The Wobblies lost theirs in Philadelphia. We got creamed in contract negotiations for the simple reason that the company had bottomless pockets and we didn’t. Money really is power, and we didn’t have much power.
Politics is not about ideology. It’s not about implementing a program, or about “untried ideals.” Politics is not about saving souls or saving the world. It is about doing real concrete things for real people. The German Communists thought the spontaneous uprising of German workers in 1919, hard pressed by the losses and hardships of the First World War, was their moment appointed by History to seize power and establish the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. They soon discovered to their horror that the rebelling workers couldn’t have cared less about the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. They wanted better wages and working conditions. Soon, right wing thugs murdered Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg.
If anything these days, my sympathies are more with anti-ideological pragmatists like Avishai Margalit who argues that perhaps the most desirable societies are those organized around a series of negative definitions. The most desirable society is one that does not brutalize or humiliate its citizens, or allows them to be harmed. The best society leaves people alone to live their lives as they wish, protects them from aggression, and minimizes the impact of misfortune. In order to accomplish those ends to their satisfaction, people must to some degree participate in their own governing.
The State is not some abstract entity that springs up on its own. We all have a hand in its creation and corruption. Our legislators are corrupt either because we are indifferent to what they are doing (as is the case with most city and state legislatures), or they really are trying to fulfill our wishes and to give us what we ask for. I don’t think there is any real solution to this problem. The corruption of politics and legislatures comes right out of the animal selfishness that is common to us all. I immediately suspect any ideology that proclaims the creation of a “new man.” We humans are at least partly animals, and like all animals, we are necessarily selfish. We bow before kings and salute flags because we want their protection. We submit to law because we want its protection from the natural animal aggression of our fellows. But, we are human beings with a fundamental birthright to freedom and dignity. More often than not, we will choose to gratify our animal selves at the expense of our better selves. In religious circles, this is called sin. The universe may be infinitely vast, and we may be infinitesimally small in comparison, but so far as we know, we are the only beings to notice all that vastness and our smallness. Of course we are special in the cosmos. We’re the only ones who notice the cosmos.