Once the political compass was invented, it seems like we couldn’t stop reinventing it. As we reach the end of the 60s and the beginning of the 70s, we’re going to get a number of different two-axis political charts releasing in rapid succession, including today’s entry, one of the very few to come from a more left wing perspective.
Most of the people we have (and will) discuss on this series are academics or politicians. Hans Eysenck was a prominent psychiatrist and college professor. Jerry Pournelle created his chart while working on his doctoral thesis. Next week, we will visit a politician. Trust me when I say, Christie and Meltzer are on a whole different level.
Stuart Christie was a Scottish anarchist born in 1946. His grandmother helped raise him, and it is from her that he got his anarchist values, going so far as to title his autobiography Granny Made Me An Anarchist. Direct action appealed to Christie. He joined a number of protest organizations, including the anti-nuclear weapons Scottish Committee of 100.
He also tried to assassinate fascist dictator General Franco in Spain with a bomb when he was eighteen, a crime for which he spent years in a Spanish prison.
Albert Meltzer’s career path wasn’t quite that dramatic, but it wasn’t far off. Meltzer was older, born in 1920, and he came to anarchism through a different path: Boxing. In his autobiography, he describes meeting Billy Campbell while learning to box, and from him, learning what he described as “hard line Anarchism of the traditional class struggle type.” As he got older, he started attending meetings — including some featuring famed anarchist political philosopher Emma Goldman — before getting involved with the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo, a Spanish anarchist collective, and worked to smuggle arms while still a teenager.
It was that connection that brought Meltzer and Christie together, as Meltzer would go on to campaign for Christie’s release. When Christie was finally freed from Spanish prison, the two would help reform the anarchist organization now known as the Black Cross, where they would start an anarchist newspaper called Black Flag. The two started with a focus on Franco and Spanish fascism, but the movement quickly became synonymous with fighting for the rights of political prisoners and working towards prison support and abolition.
During their long collaboration, they also co-wrote a book, titled The Floodgates of Anarchy. It was there that they created this political diagram.
Right away, you can see some interesting ideas at play, things that separate it pretty radically from what came before. The X-axis is ‘collectivism/capitalism’, while the Y-axis is ‘individualism/totalitarianism’. Some of these are terms we’ve seen used in axes previous; all are ones we’ll see used in axes going forward. What I find fascinating about the Christie/Meltzer chart is how they positions them.
Typically, you’ll see individualism and collectivism as contrasting values. And by typically, I mean ‘on this blog like two months ago.’ In my defense, it’s a common idea. Do you prioritize the individual or the group? How can you do both?
And yet, as they say, anarchism is at the intersection between the two. But it also clearly isn’t a centrist ideology. In my initial ratings, I did it by differentiating between anarcho-communists and anarcho-capitalists. Anarchists have a reputation for wanting chaos, for believing in a sort of “Every man for himself!” hellscape without any social contract. While this is semi-true of anarcho-capitalists (which they refer to as ‘capitalist individualists,’ arguing that one cannot be an anarchist and a capitalist), traditional anarchists actually just reject this idea in favor of a more collective model of community support.
Instead, Christie and Meltzer define their axes thus:
This supposes that there are two social considerations: individualistic and totalitarian. In the way in which we live, the basic determining factor is either the individual or the State. And there are two economic considerations: competitive and collective. The way in which we work is either capitalistic or socialistic.From “The Floodgates of Anarchy” by Stuart Christie and Albert Meltzer
This is why defining terms is important. The reason you can be both an individualist and a collectivist is because the question is not about prioritization of the individual or the group, but about the State or the people. What I had defined as individualism, they define as capitalism — an almost atavistic competitive impulse towards domination, towards winning and gaining more power than everyone else. Framed that way, it’s easy to see how the opposite would be collectivism, a tendency towards sharing the costs and the benefits with those around you.
As leftwing anarchists, Christie and Meltzer are just… well, more well-read on leftwing political theory than Pournelle, Eysenck, or most of our future subjects will be. While many of the political theorists we’ll discuss view Marx through a fairly conservative lens that smashes all forms of Marxism, communism, and socialism into one shapeless blob, Christie and Meltzer have a more nuanced view. For instance, they find an important difference not in the size of the State but merely its presence.
So too could a freely organised commune, whether in city or country, as opposed to the commune collectivised from above.
The Israeli kibbutz is an example of a freely organised commune, though composed of settlers with authoritarian attitudes of one sort or another. It could not be called authoritarian communism, since that term has become so debased by its nominal association with state communism as to be totally misleading. Libertarian communes based upon consciously libertarian attitudes could have been seen on the opposite side of the Mediterranean, in the achievements of Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War. These attitudes have been implanted by Spanish anarchism over many years, and time and again, when it was a choice of starvation or hopeless rebellion, the peasants chose the latter and established the free commune, knowing the army (monarchist, republican or fascist) would suppress it, but preferring to go down fighting.
When, in 1936, the landlords fled, the way was open to free collectivisation in Spain. It was a political need for Soviet imperialism to break up the Revolution, by making the Communist Party strong enough to do it. It was also fear of example, for they dreaded comparison of free communism with their own.From “The Floodgates of Anarchy” by Stuart Christie and Albert Meltzer
A commune can be authoritarian but still relatively individualistic.
There are also some… interesting decisions being made in the labeling of the extremes. I find it interesting, in the quote above, that they avoid calling some things ‘authoritarian communism’ because the terminology has been ‘debased’ by its association with state communism… while then using ‘totalitarianism’ to describe Fabianism. Totalitarianism fits in well with Nazi fascism or Stalinism, certainly. But what even is Fabianism?
The Fabian Society were a group of British socialists in the 1800s who liked the idea of socialism, but rejected the more revolutionary aims of traditional Marxist socialists and communists. Instead, they preferred incremental, State-guided solutions — legislative, rather than direct, action.
What about that is totalitarian? Well, Christie and Meltzer argue this:
The role of the trade union leadership in bargaining directly with capitalism and using working-class militancy, or at least the threat of it, as a lever, has nowadays been challenged by social-democratic politicians who want to make the unions into bargaining agencies of the State. This trend first emerged in the First World War, when the alleged national exigencies gave the government the chance to curb the labour movement. Only the militancy reintroduced by the short-lived British syndicalist movement and the IWW saved the working class from a complete collapse into industrial serfdom, from which the declaration of peace would not necessarily have saved them.
In that war, those who had always applauded the value of a free market and the ability of unfettered enterprise to deliver the goods, and indeed still let the manufacturer go on making profits in order not to interfere with the sacred rights of property, were quite adamant that the working class had to sacrifice if the nation were to be triumphant. The parliamentarian leadership of the unions immediately capitulated. In Britain it collaborated, in Germany it obeyed. In both countries it began the long, disastrous course of accepting State intervention in industrial affairs.From “The Floodgates of Anarchy” by Stuart Christie and Albert Meltzer
Their argument, which I don’t totally buy, is that socialist reform driven the State will inevitably turn into totalitarianism. I do think they are on to something about the difference between direct action led by workers and benefits given down from on high by elites as vital in determining the nature and outcome of the policy. Power that you take is more secure than power that you are given. But totalitarianism?
Traditionally, a totalitarian state is one in which everything serves the State; in which everything, in effect, is the State. There is nothing to rebel against, because the State is the water in which you swim. Fabianism does sort of fit in here; because the State is controlling the apparatus of your benefits, when you can and cannot strike, your wages, and more, in a real way, to many workers, the State can feel all-consuming.
But totalitarian states typically have other traits as well, and Fabianism doesn’t really match those. Opposition parties, for example, are often forbidden or imprisoned, which doesn’t fit. And even in a Fabian state, you could leave, change jobs, or protest without punishment, which likewise doesn’t fit the all-consuming bureaucratic nature of a traditional totalitarian state. Hell, you can still vote in elections that have semi-meaningful consequences.
In a way, I feel as though Meltzer and Christie fell prey to a mistake that we all, from time to time, make, allowing the rivalries of the moment to color their approach. Fabianism, while a flawed ideology, was a rival of the time for their leftist approaches. Placing it as roughly analogous to fascism and Stalinism is preposterous — but persuasive, perhaps, to people trying to decide whether they want to support worker-driven socialism or the top down Fabian model.
Everyone does this. I do this. It’s one of the more subtle forms of bias, and one that can have disastrous consequences at the wrong moment. Read The Death of Democracy by Benjamin Carter Hett if you want a good book on how catastrophically wrong these sorts of alliances can go. In some ways, many of us can be harsher on potential allies who fail than we are on our diehard political enemies we had no hope for to begin with.
That said, this is the strongest of the political compasses we’ve seen so far. It is interesting, novel, and grounded in real, concrete political concerns that persist to this day. It challenged me to think about anarchy and totalitarianism in different ways than I had before. While I don’t think it is a good model for my particular project, it is nevertheless an excellent political compass.
I also found the sections I read of The Floodgates of Anarchy genuinely interesting. If you want to see how UK anarchists in the mid-20th century were approaching the issues and politics of their era, I think it is worth checking out. It is free online at the Anarchist Library.