Anarchists in Hong Kong Today

Protestors in Hong Kong 2014

Protestors in Hong Kong 2014

In Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included a 2001 interview with Mok Chiu Yu, an anarchist in Hong Kong, describing the changes in Hong Kong after China’s resumption of control of Hong Kong in 1997. He and other anarchists in Hong Kong were trying to create a libertarian counter-culture from which they hoped “autonomy and real democracy” would spring. There have been anarchists active in Hong Kong since the early 1900s. During the 1930s, the anarchist movement in China and Hong Kong went into eclipse, only to revive in the aftermath of the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” of the late 1960s. In the 1970s, former Red Guards and students formed the “70s” group in Hong Kong, where they published ultra-left and anarchist critiques of the Chinese Communist Party dictatorship. As the uncredited story below indicates, in the fall of 2011, a new generation of anarchists became involved in the Occupy movement in Hong Kong and, most recently, in the pro-democracy student protests which shut down parts of Hong Kong over the past several months, until the police started dismantling their encampments.

The Face of Authority in Hong Kong

The Face of Authority in Hong Kong

Anarchists Protest in Hong Kong

In mid-October of 2011, as the Occupy movement was springing up in more than eighty countries around the world, a crowd of protesters gathered in the public atrium of the HSBC headquarters on 1 Queen’s Road, in the Central district of Hong Kong. They put up anti-capitalist banners and began an occupation of the building. A core group of eight to twenty people ended up living there, forming an autonomous collective; the bank building, they quipped, had excellent feng shui.

The squatters identified as anarchists, but they weren’t expressly trying to attack the institution above their heads. Their aim was to change the power structures that governed it. So they tinkered with the space and set up a miniature tent city, complete with a library and a kitchen. They made music, deliberated on political affairs and ideas, and distributed excess food, blankets, and other supplies to the surrounding community. At one point, they stopped talking to the press entirely. The occupiers remained at HSBC for more than ten months, until September, 2012, when they were evicted.

This September, I met with some members of the original collective. They were lounging around the edge of an occupied road in the Mong Kok district, which was then a stronghold of the pro-democracy movement that had begun blocking off some of Hong Kong’s main arteries in protest. “One of the problems of occupying a highly symbolic financial center is that people thought it was supposed to be a spectacle. We never wanted ours to appeal to the media in that way,” a thirty-year-old named Nin Chan told me, as he spun reggae records on a turntable for the group. “What we wanted to see was an exodus from the centers of power.”

Chan, who sported a goatee and a punk T-shirt that revealed a few tattoos, thinks and speaks like a theorist. Before Occupy, he was a graduate student and an essayist, with a background in literature, sociology, and philosophy. He and his friends had arrived in Mong Kok in the weeks after the start of protests led by the student groups Scholarism and Hong Kong Federation of Students, along with a group calling itself Occupy Central with Love and Peace. They were protesting the decision by the government in Beijing, on August 31st, to essentially give itself the right to vet candidates for Hong Kong’s first popular election, scheduled for 2017, and eventually to appoint its leader.

Demonstrators established encampments outside the local government’s offices in the Admiralty district, just east of Central; at nearby Causeway Bay; and at Mong Kok, three and a half miles away, across the harbor. The anarchists usually hung out at the margins of the Mong Kok occupation, throwing laid-back parties or hosting performers; on one occasion, a band rapped protest songs in Cantonese.

Following months of ups and downs, the police, backed by a court injunction, have announced that they will begin clearing the Admiralty encampment on Thursday morning; they cleared Mong Kok two weeks earlier. But while Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement is imperilled, the anarchists have simply carried on with the same approach they’ve had since 2011. After their forced removal from the HSBC building in 2012, they consciously turned away from the routines of the pro-democracy movement, such as the annual July 1st rally. In a neighbourhood near Mong Kok, they opened a book- and mattress-filled space that they called an “infoshop,” as well as a vegetarian-food coöperative that allows customers to set their own prices.

They bonded with migrant domestic workers and dockworkers during a strike in 2013, and, earlier this year, some crossed the strait to join Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement, which was protesting that state’s agreement with China to liberalize trade and industry ownership. More recently, they took part in a series of demonstrations against controversial development and construction projects—luxury properties and retail spaces that were designed to integrate the economies of Hong Kong and southern China, and that threatened to displace villagers and farmers in border areas.

"Hands Up Don't Shoot" in Hong Kong

“Hands Up Don’t Shoot” in Hong Kong

At Mong Kok, the anarchists didn’t set up their own camp; instead, they moved fluidly along the occupied road, heading wherever the music was, away from the crowds and the centers of activity. Their numbers fluctuated between twenty and thirty musicians, writers, artists, workers, and students, who sometimes referred to themselves as kaifong (“folks in the neighbourhood”). They spent time chatting with curious local residents, and threw street parties inspired by notions of leisure and friendship in the context of resistance.

While the pro-democracy movement continued to agitate for specific changes—a repeal of Beijing’s decision (along with an apology), a more open and participatory nomination process for Hong Kong’s chief executive position, and, at one point, the resignation of the current leader, Leung Chun-ying—the anarchists made pamphlets with covers that read, “Who said we needed a chief executive?”

The anarchists shared some of the protesters’ visions, like land justice and welfare overhaul, but not their desire to seek change through established channels. They were unenthusiastic about calls for democracy and electoral reform when Hong Kong’s capitalist system, which they describe as toxic, would remain. These divisions led to tensions, at times, with the more combative and doctrinaire activists in Mong Kok, who tended to regard the anarchists as lacking in zeal. At one point, the anarchists rolled out a ping-pong table and prepared a hot-pot dinner in the streets, inviting other protesters to share the meal.

One of the anarchists, a vocalist named Leung Wing-lai, who goes by Ah Lai, told me that the dinner was intended to challenge the authorities by bringing an element of everyday life into the occupied streets, thereby signalling that “this is how we’re going to carry on.” But some protesters were critical of the idea, and the dinner quickly attracted a hostile crowd, led by a group of self-described “radicals,” many of whom belong to a nativist clique that had been one of the more aggressive forces at Mong Kok. They accused the anarchists of trivializing the struggle and turning it into a carnival, and went so far as to distribute a poster that labelled Ah Lai a Chinese Communist Party informant.

“It feels like the ‘proper’ thing to do is to conduct yourself with a certain amount of gravity: you can’t have fun, because people are getting tear-gassed,” Chan said. “But this is our life…. It’s not peripheral to what we believe in.”

The crusade for democracy in Hong Kong, in its current form, is expected to end on Thursday [December 11, 2014]. The pro-democracy protesters have put up a final show of resistance, turning up in large numbers on Wednesday night, a week after they reclaimed a major road in Admiralty following an aggressive foray by police. Others have taken part in fasting, in twenty-eight-hour rotations, in reference to September 28th, when police used unprecedented amounts of tear gas on protesters.

But last week, too, Alex Chow, the twenty-four-year-old secretary-general of the Federation of Students, labelled some of the new tactics a “failure” for not meeting their stated aim of “paralyzing government.” Meanwhile, the co-founders of Occupy Central with Love and Peace turned themselves over to authorities, in an attempt to “bear the legal consequences” of the months-long unauthorized assembly. They were released without arrest.

The anarchists were already avoiding the Mong Kok encampment after the hot-pot incident, and, with more trouble in the offing, they have returned to the work they were doing before the protests began. Their band (they call the genre “loosely psychedelic folk”) recently took part in a joint concert and farmers’ market, in collaboration with villagers facing displacement from the government’s development plan. The action posed no direct threat to the authorities, but the anarchists have always seen their fight as a long-term one, and a part of their daily lives. “Elections are where all the desires gravitate,” Chan told me, back in the heyday of the Mong Kok occupation. “But everything needs to change.”

china tear gasses Hong Kong protesters

Platformism in Ukraine Today? A Debate

RKAS (PKAC) demonstration in Ukraine

RKAS (PKAC) demonstration in Ukraine

The Revolutionary Confederation of Anarcho-Syndicalists – N. I. Makhno (Революционная конфедерация анархо-синдикалистов им. Н. И. Махно), was established in Ukraine in 1994. It was consciously modeled after the Makhnovist movement of the Russian Revolution and Civil War (1917-1921), adopting a “Platformist” approach as advocated by Nestor Makhno, Peter Arshinov and other survivors of the Makhnovist movement. Many anarchists have been critics of Platformism as an attempt to create, in essence, an anarchist political party demanding ideological uniformity and “organizational discipline” (see Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas for excerpts from the original Platform and critical responses by Malatesta and Voline). What follows are excerpts from an interview by the Russia-based “libertarian communist” group, Autonomous Action, and one of the former leaders of the RKAS, going under the name of “Samurai,” and a critical response to Samurai’s comments, apparently from another Ukrainian anarchist. The unedited interview and the response can be found at anarkismo.net. For a lengthier critique of “Samurai” and the RKAS, see “Caution: platformist party and psychosect in one bottle!”

russia or ukraine

Platformism and Anarchism in Ukraine

There are three main reasons why the anarchist movement in the form it exists nowadays [in Ukraine] does not have any future. The first reason is the infantilism of the overwhelming majority of the people who join the movement. This is not connected only with age, though the majority of the participants of the movement recruited by us are in fact kids. Talking about infantilism I mean the state of mind, the child-like view of quite serious and fundamental things and a lack of seriousness in the perception of serious things. This is the paradigm of the consciousness of the majority of those who come to anarchism, no matter how old they are – 14, 18, 25 or older. Naïveté and some kind of childish inefficiency are inherent in them. These people form the agenda for the movement and the shape of its existence.

The second reason is the “subculture” traits of the movement. A very good illustration of my words was demonstrated in one of the interviews about events in Ukraine on the Avtonomnoje Deistviye (Autonomous Action) site. Here is what one of the anarchists answered in this interview to the question: “Are there anarchist groups in Donbass?”:

“The activity of anarchists is at a low level, there are few of them. That’s why their influence on the political situation is extremely negligible. There are groups of ‘non-organized’ anarchists in some towns of the region – Donetsk, Avdeevka, Kramatorsk, Gorlovka, Mariupol, Yasinovataya. Membership of each group is up to ten or about this number… The activity of the given groups is various: starting from conducting games of five-a-side, concerts, up to agitation (stickers, graffiti)… But the activity is not systematic, as these groups are something like companies of friends”…

International Union of Anarchists (MSA)

International Union of Anarchists (MSA)

As one more example of infantilism and ideological manginess one can remember the anti-electoral propaganda of the breakaway organization from RKAS, the so-called Mezhdunarodnyj Souz Anarkhistov (MSA, International Union of Anarchists) in Donetsk. During the split the breakaways argued so much about the fact that in the allegedly authoritarian RKAS they were not given an opportunity to realize themselves, that their initiative was suppressed and so on. As a result, having freed themselves from the “dictatorship of the RKAS organizational bureau”, which made them go to mines and factories and spread “Anarchy” newspaper, and deal with trade unions and cooperatives, and build a well-disciplined “black guard”, having freed themselves from RKAS conference decisions, which put forth really constructive socio-political tasks, the “anti-authoritarian” anarchists, having established the MSA, showed their strategic and tactical abilities by sticking all around the city handwritten posters containing messages like: “Do not go to elections – eat vegetables!”.

And where are all these new, unimaginable anti-authoritarian units, the creators of which weakened RKAS systematically and broke the anarchist movement into pieces by their arrival, thus not giving it any opportunity to organize itself into a strong, mass political organization? Are they still sticking stickers, drawing graffiti no one wants, playing football and going to concerts? Eat vegetables, do not go to elections? For the sake of this, one had to destroy all the constructive sprouts in anarchist movement, saying that that was “not quite respectable for pure anarchism”? This is the way naughty children behave, arranging holidays of disobedience and riots for the sake of their petty insults and games…

I have already talked about the absence of anarchist organization. This is the main problem of the modern anarchist movement and the cause of its collapse against the background of current developments. The things that are happening now in Ukraine and the fact that anarchists here have been unable to use the situation because they denied common sense for years and were enthralled by subcultural, anti-organizational illusions, provides much food for self-analysis.

rkas makhno banner

And it confirms all the conclusions and efforts which supporters of the project called “RKAS – N.I. Makhno” attempted to carry out. The fact that it failed says a lot and answers the following question: “Is it possible for anarchists to hope now to switch the activity of the masses to the plane of the social revolution?” The organization is a very important medium for the existence of ideas. It is an incubator, a school, a mutual aid society and a productive platform for ideas and projects; but most importantly, it is a tool for realizing those ideas, it is an instrument of influence and an instrument of struggle. It cannot be replaced with affinity groups…

The RKAS project was… not just refused, but a real persecution was unleashed against it. Ask those who call themselves anarchists in Ukraine, what they think about RKAS and you’ll hear so much venom, bile, anger and lies. Why? Because we are the only ones who did not keep pace with supporters of subculture and chaotics (translator’s note: those who believe anarchy to be a pro-chaos movement), and the only ones who spoke of the need for unity, discipline and rigidity. The only people who spoke openly to one’s face about weaknesses and castigated the vices of the movement. And the only ones who had always acted against “the rules”.

We have always been unlike the others, with our… [Makhnovist] platformist anarchism. There are only two attitudes to RKAS among anarchists – respect or hatred. But there is no indifference. So we’re on the right track. And our struggle for the organization is a struggle for the realization of anarchist ideas in practice. Now we have a lot to rethink. But I’m afraid that everything will remain as it is in the anarchist movement…

Though I think that RKAS is a unique phenomenon in post-Soviet anarchism, one which existed for more than 20 years and played a brilliant role in its history. Many groups that appeared later are only clones of RKAS, whose creators are just copying parodies of the mother matrix, having lost its original essence. And each slightly-fledged anarchist certainly wants to create his new organization, always copying RKAS but claiming this act of creating a copy to be an anti-authoritarian rebellion and a new word in anarchism. This is ridiculous. And that would just be funny, if it were not so sad. Because it is an infinite ambitious split of the movement as if from the motives of anti-authoritarianism, but in fact from idiotic vanity and self-affirmation. And I don’t know, whether the coming-of-age will ever come…

RKAS demonstration

RKAS demonstration

A Response to Samurai

The introduction to this article informs readers that the organization in question wanted to adopt a strategic and responsible approach to developing a libertarian society and the author of the article seems to criticize the movement, as if the infantile movement was something outside of this organization, but affecting it and rendering it incapable of building a better movement. And this is bullshit.

I know the organization and knew it when it started. It was quite different in those days… The organization went through several incarnations, but Samurai was one element of leadership in the organization that stayed the same. So he can be seen as a crucial element in the degeneration of the organization at the same time. If the movement, including RKAS went into a direction that has “no future”, it was partly (or even mainly) because of bad decisions, especially of this person.

We cannot really talk about a bad strategy which is the result of a diverse collective of people seeking wrong paths. The organization became very hierachical, with an organizational office (orgburo) which concentrated a lot of the practical decision making in the hands of a few people. I am extremely critical of this model, because while technically maybe the organization later has to “approve” the tactics decided in this small circle, we can see in practice how this excludes members from discussion about the strategies, tactics and even goals of the organization, reducing them to a more passive position where they rubber stamp decisions of the moral authorities.

The RKAS degenerated into something like a cult, with a range of activities focusing around martial arts and militias. With a sort of “recruit them and discipline them” type of mentality, RKAS began to focus its “training program” on young kids. Because only young kids can be fooled by this type of organization. It was essentially a type of macho masturbation, paramilitary and cult-like in nature, not a type of organization in which working class adults would have any interest in participating.

Samurai has referred to this organization in different places as “an army”, which shows a little bit about the mentality behind what he was doing.

He called on anarchists to unite in the RKAS, but why would people like to unite in an organization which has vertical elements and acts like a cult? Especially if the leader does things like beat up people who disagree with him. As a martial arts teacher, Samurai defends and espouses the role of the teacher as one who gives knowledge and expects the organization to work in the same way. At events like RKAS camps, daily physical training in martial arts is something like a compulsory program, whereas ways to build non-hierarchical workplace and community organizations are not really a main point on the agenda. (Samurai describes in Russian-language forums that participation in “Black Guard” training is obligatory for every healthy member of the group on Saturdays and Sundays.) RKAS promoted a “clan structure” and the creation of “their own subculture”.

So then later writing about how subcultures and catering to youth presents a dead end for the movement can only be seen as a very hypocritical statement. It was the basis of the RKAS strategy for years.

But one thing is for certain, RKAS did intend to unite different anarchists – which is why you could [have] even anarcho-capitalists and nationalists in their ranks. While some call it “platformist”, the political platform seemed to go out the door in practice, while loyalty to the organization itself and its modus operandi became the main criteria for joining. If you like to play that you are in a revolutionary army, this made you a good candidate.

As to the anarcho-capitalists, we can see that RKAS members went into SAU, a legal anarcho-capitalist party some time ago. While some tried to justify this as some type of “entryism” and later they went out, there seems still to be cooperation with the capitalists.

Back to the macho sect-like nature of RKAS, we can see what Samurai wrote in one Russian-language forum: “The RKAS has always been an anarchist community, a large family of like-minded, ideological and militant clan of fighters in word and deed(…) And none of those who have violated the principles and spirit of the organization go without punishment. All lazy people, incorrigible windbags, cowards and faint-hearted are ruthlessly expelled. Traitors are despised in public. Causing harm is punished. It was decided at a general meeting or by the arbitral tribunal”.

As we can see from this text, Samurai does not see a problem with this, but criticizes those who freed themselves from the dictatorship of the organizational bureau as infantile, as being the causes of the problem. And the problem is that RKAS was weakened by those who left it, according to the logic of the author. But as I pointed out earlier, this sort of cult-like masturbating paramilitaristic organization is the realm of young kids who equate clan-like discipline with revolutionary tactics. One cannot expect that people will not tire and grow out of the spell of “the teacher”. And criticism of the pro-patriotic elements of this text and RKAS’s tolerance for this.

While on the surface this text may look as a criticism of subcultural anarchists by organized ones, it is nothing more than the criticism of one subcultural leader against other subcultures.

Groups like the degenerated RKAS or other macho and subcultural federations are small ghettos which offer no real perspective for the working class to organize themselves into non-hierarchical organizations which can fight against capitalism on any practical level.

makhno quote

Anarchism and Women’s Liberation in the late 19th Century

Anarchist Feminism

Anarchist Feminism

In this installment from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of my anthology of anarchist writings from ancient China to the present day, Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I discuss the emergence of distinctly feminist currents in anarchist thought in the 1880s and 1890s, beginning with Louise Michel, the social revolutionary anarchist who had fought in the Paris Commune, been exiled to the French penal colony in New Caledonia, where she supported indigenous struggles against the French authorities, and then returned to France where she led street protests against unemployment and poverty, maintaining her commitment to an anarchist social revolution. In Volume One of the Anarchism anthology, I included selections from her speech to the military tribunal that condemned her to the penal colony, and from her Memoirs regarding women’s rights.

Louise Michel wall mural

Louise Michel wall mural

Women’s Liberation

Louise Michel felt that women were “famished for learning” and could not understand why men would try to cripple women’s intelligence, “as if there were already too much intelligence in the world.” For Michel, discrimination against girls and women was the greatest barrier to “the equality of the sexes.” What women “want is knowledge and education and liberty.” She looked forward to the day when men and women “will no more argue about which sex is superior than races will argue about which race is foremost in the world” (Volume One, Selection 68).

First Anarchist Feminist Paper

First Anarchist Feminist Paper

Bakunin opposed the legal institution of marriage, arguing that the “union of a man and a woman must be free” (Volume One, Selection 67). Carmen Lareva, an early anarchist feminist in Argentina who wrote for La Voz de la Mujer in the 1890s, one of the first explicitly anarchist feminist papers written by and for women, decried how the anarchist advocacy of “free love” was distorted by opponents of anarchism into the claim that anarchists wanted to liberate women only to turn them “into concubines, sordid playthings for man’s unrestrained passions.” Lareva argued that it was existing society, with its inequality, sexual hypocrisy and exploitation, which drove women to prostitution and forced them into marriages in which the woman “is required to feign love of someone she simply detests” in exchange for food and housing (Volume One, Selection 69).

emmaposter-open-road

Emma Goldman (1869-1940) argued that the only difference between a married woman and a prostitute was “that the one has sold herself into chattel slavery during life, for a home or a title, and the other one sells herself for the length of time she desires.” She demanded “the independence of woman; her right to support herself; to live for herself; to love whomever she pleases, or as many as she pleases,” in the here and now, not after the revolution (Volume One, Selection 70). Real sexual liberation meant that women should have free access to contraception so that they could be sexually active while still being free to decide whether and when to have children. Both Goldman and the American anarchist, Ezra Heywood (1829-1893), were imprisoned by U.S. authorities for trying to make birth control information and devices available to women.

Robert Graham

anarcho-feminism

Sam Mbah – In Memoriam

Sam Mbah

Sam Mbah

I found out this week that Sam Mbah, co-author with I.E. Igariwey of African Anarchism: The History of a Movement (Tucson: See Sharp Press, 1997), died of a heart condition on November 6, 2014. This is sad news. Last summer I reposted an appeal for financial support for Sam’s medical treatment. Last year I posted excerpts from an interview with Sam about the “African Spring” protest movement in Nigeria. In African Anarchism, Mbah and Igariwey relate the libertarian traditions of African communalism to anarchist conceptions of community and the critique of the nation-state, drawing on the work of European anarchists such as Bakunin and G.P. Maksimov. Here I reproduce some excerpts on communalism from African Anarchism included in Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, where Mbah and Igariwey draw out some of the affinities between communalism and modern anarchism. In the “Anarchist Current: From Anarchy to Anarchism,” I also discuss some of the anarchistic aspects of pre-statist societies.

africananar3

African Anarchism: The Communalist Background

Traditional African societies were, for the most part, founded on communalism. The term is used here in two senses. First, it denotes a definite mode of production or social formation that comes generally, though not inevitably, after hunter-gatherer societies, and in turn precedes feudalism. If one accepts cultural evolution, one sees that most European and Asian societies passed through these stages of development.

Communalism is also used in a second, related sense to denote a way of life that is distinctly African. This way of life can be glimpsed in the collectivist structure of African societies in which: 1) different communities enjoy (near) unfettered independence from one another; 2) communities manage their own affairs and are for all practical purposes self-accounting and self-governing; and 3) every individual without exception takes part, either directly or indirectly, in the running of community affairs at all levels.

In contrast to Europe and Asia, most of Africa never developed past the stage of communalism. Despite the indigenous development of feudalism and the later imposition of capitalism, communal features persist to this day—sometimes pervasively—in the majority of African societies that lie outside the big cities and townships. Essentially, much of Africa is communal in both the cultural (production/social formation) and descriptive (structural) senses.

Among the most important features of African communalism are the absence of classes, that is, social stratification; the absence of exploitative or antagonistic social relations; the existence of equal access to land and other elements of production; equality at the level of distribution of social produce; and the fact that strong family and kinship ties form(ed) the basis of social life in African communal societies. Within this framework, each household was able to meet its own basic needs. Under communalism, by virtue of being a member of a family or community, every African was (is) assured of sufficient land to meet his or her own needs.

Because in traditional African societies the economy was largely horticultural and subsistence based, as [Robert] Horton notes, “often small villages farmed, hunted, fished, etc., and looked after themselves independently with little reference to the rest of the continent.” Various communities produced surpluses of given commodities which they exchanged, through barter, for those items that they lacked. The situation was such that no one starved while others stuffed themselves and threw away the excess.

According to Walter Rodney, “in that way, the salt industry of one locality would be stimulated, while the iron industry would be encouraged in another. In a coastal, lake or riverine area, dried fish could become profitable, while yams and millet would be grown in abundance elsewhere to provide a basis of exchange…” Thus, in many parts of Africa a symbiosis arose between groups earning their living in different manners—they exchanged goods and coexisted to their mutual advantage.

Political organization under communalism was horizontal in structure, characterized by a high level of diffusion of functions and power. Political leadership, not authority, prevailed, and leadership was not founded on imposition, coercion, or centralization; it arose out of a common consensus or a mutually felt need.

Leadership developed on the basis of family and kinship ties woven around the elders; it was conferred only by age, a factor that… runs deep in communalism. In Africa, old age was—and still often is—equated with possession of wisdom and rational judgment. Elders presided at meetings and at the settlement of disputes, but hardly in the sense of superiors; their position did not confer the far-reaching socio-political authority associated with the modern state system, or with feudal states.

There was a pronounced sense of equality among all members of the community. Leadership focused on the interests of the group rather than on authority over its members. Invariably, the elders shared work with the rest of the community and received more or less the same share or value of total social produce as everyone else, often through tribute/redistributive mechanisms.

The relationship between the co-ordinating segments of the community was characterized by equivalence and opposition, and this tended to hinder the emergence of role specialization, and thus the division of labour among individuals. Generally, elders presided over the administration of justice, the settlement of disputes, and the organization of communal activities, functions they necessarily shared with selected representatives of their communities, depending on the specific nature of the dispute or issue involved.

Such meetings and gatherings were not guided by any known written laws, for there were none. Instead, they were based on traditional belief systems, mutual respect, and indigenous principles of natural law and justice. Social sanctions existed for various kinds of transgressions—theft, witchcraft, adultery, homicide, rape, etc. When an individual committed an offence, often his entire household, his kinsmen, and his extended family suffered with him, and sometimes for him. This was because such offences were believed to bring shame not only upon the individual, but even more so upon his relatives.

Sam Mbah and I.E. Igariwey, 1997

African Anarchism

African Anarchism

Anarchism and Working Class Struggles

The Robber Barons

The Robber Barons

Continuing with the installments to the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, in this section I describe how, in the 1880s and 1890s, anarchists renewed their involvement in working class struggles in Europe and the Americas, leading to the emergence of anarcho-syndicalism.

maypole

Anarchism and the Workers’ Struggles

The Haymarket Martyrs were part of the so-called “Black International,” the International Working People’s Association. The IWPA drew its inspiration from the anti-authoritarian International, and adopted a social revolutionary anarchist program at its founding Congress in Pittsburgh in 1883, openly advocating armed insurrection and the revolutionary expropriation of the capitalists by the workers themselves (Volume One, Selection 55). Following the example of the anti-authoritarian International of the 1870s, the IWPA sought to create revolutionary trade unions that would press for the immediate demands of the workers, for example the 8 hour day, while preparing for the social revolution. Around the same time, similar ideas were being propounded by the Workers’ Federation of the Spanish Region (Volume One, Selection 36), and by anarchists involved in working class movements in Latin America.

But by 1894 in Europe, when Malatesta again urged anarchists to go to the people, many agreed with him that after “twenty years of propaganda and struggle… we are today nearly strangers to the great popular commotions which agitate Europe and America” (Volume One, Selection 53). One of those anarchists was Fernand Pelloutier (1867-1901). Sensing growing disillusionment among the workers with the electoral tactics of the socialist parties, some anarchists had again become involved in the trade union movement. Pelloutier argued that through participation in the trade unions, anarchists “taught the masses the true meaning of anarchism, a doctrine” which can readily “manage without the individual dynamiter” (Volume One, Selection 56). It was from this renewed involvement in the workers’ struggles that anarcho-syndicalism was born (Volume One, Chapter 12).

Pelloutier argued, as Bakunin had before him (Volume One, Selection 25), that revolutionary trade union organizations, unlike the state, are based on voluntary membership and therefore operate largely on the basis of free agreement. Any trade union “officials” are subject to “permanent revocability,” and play a coordinating rather than a “directorial” role. Through their own autonomous organizations, the workers will come “to understand that they should regulate their affairs for themselves,” and will be able to prevent the reconstitution of state power after the revolution by taking control of “the instruments of production,” seeing “to the operation of the economy through the free grouping,” rendering “any political institution superfluous,” with the workers having already become accustomed “to shrug off tutelage” through their participation in the revolutionary trade union, or “syndicalist,” movement (Volume One, Selection 56).

Also noteworthy in Pelloutier’s call for renewed anarchist involvement in the workers’ movement was his endorsement of anarchist communism as the ultimate goal of the revolutionary syndicalist movement. However, in France, after Pelloutier’s death, the revolutionary syndicalist organization, the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT), adopted a policy of nonaffiliation with any party or doctrine, including anarchism. CGT militants, such as Pierre Monatte, claimed that within the CGT all doctrines enjoyed “equal tolerance” (Volume One, Selection 60). The CGT focused on the means of revolutionary action, such as direct action and the general strike, instead of arguing over ideology.

CGT

This was in contrast to anarcho-syndicalist union federations, such as the Workers’ Federations of the Argentine Region (FORA) and the Uruguayan Region (FORU), which, as with Pelloutier, recommended “the widest possible study of the economic-philosophical principles of anarchist communism” (Volume One, Selection 58). The anarcho-syndicalists sought to organize the workers into revolutionary trade unions through which they would abolish the state and capitalism by means of general strikes, factory occupations, expropriation and insurrection. For the most part, their ultimate goal was anarchist communism, the abolition of wage labour, private property and the state, and the creation of free federations of worker, consumer and communal associations, whether in Latin America (Volume One, Selection 95), Russia (Volume One, Selection 84), Japan (Volume One, Selection 107), Spain (Volume One, Selection 124), or elsewhere.

Anarcho-syndicalists were behind the reconstitution of the International Workers’ Association (IWA/AIT) in 1922, with a membership of about two million workers from 15 countries in Europe and Latin America. At their founding Congress, they explicitly endorsed “libertarian communism” as their goal and rejected any “form of statism, even the so-called ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’,” because dictatorship “will always be the creator of new monopolies and new privileges” (Volume One, Selection 114).

iwaaitbann

Anarchists who sought to work within revolutionary working class organizations or popular movements adopted different approaches regarding the proper relationship between their anarchist ideals and these broader based social movements. Some, such as Amadée Dunois (1878-1945), argued that anarchists needed their own organizations to coordinate their activities, to support their work within the trade unions and to spread their ideas, infusing the workers’ organizations “with the anarchist spirit” (Dunois, 1907). This model of dual organization was similar to what Bakunin had advocated during the First International, when he urged his comrades in his revolutionary brotherhood, the Alliance of Social Revolutionaries, which adhered to Bakunin’s anarchist program, to join the International in order to steer it in an anarchist direction.

Antonio Pellicer Paraire (1851-1916), a veteran of the anarchist Workers’ Federation of the Spanish Region (Volume One, Selection 36), acknowledged in an article from 1900 that, given the existing state of the workers’ movement, “parallel or dual organization has to be accepted,” with the anarchists maintaining their own revolutionary groups, but he argued that the primary focus must be on creating libertarian workers’ federations in which each worker is an equal and active participant, so as to prevent the development of a trade union bureaucracy and a de facto executive assuming control of the organization. Each organization must in turn retain “their autonomy and independence, free of meddling by other groups and with no one having methods, systems, theories, schools of thought, beliefs, or any faith shoved down his throat” (Volume One, Selection 57). Only through the self-activity of the masses can an anarchist society hope to be achieved.

In his posthumously published work, The Anarchist Conception of Syndicalism (1920), Neno Vasco (1878-1920), who was active in the Brazilian and Portuguese anarchist movements, warned of the dangers of self-proclaimed anarchist groups, “populated more by rebels than by anarchists,” seizing the initiative and forcing “emancipation” on the people by claiming “the right to act on its behalf,” instead of prompting the people “to look to its own liberation,” with “the persons concerned” taking matters “directly in hand.” For example, the provision of suitable housing “should be left to the tenants themselves,” a point later emphasized by Giancarlo de Carlo (Volume Two, Selection 18) and Colin Ward (1983), and “all the other production, transport and distribution services… should be entrusted to the workers working in each sector.”

Robert Graham

Anarcho-Syndicalism

Anarcho-Syndicalism

Means and Ends, War and Peace – November 11th

war_and_revolution_by_declarck-d6jife2

This is the next installment from the Anarchist Current, the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, in which I survey the historical origins and development of anarchist ideas. In this installment, I discuss anarchist views during the 1880s-1890s on the relationship between means and ends and the need to remain engaged in popular struggles. I briefly refer to the execution on November 11, 1887, of the Haymarket Martyrs, four Chicago anarchists framed for a bombing at a demonstration against police violence at the beginning of May 1886. I previously posted one of Voltairine de Cleyre‘s speeches commemorating their executions and excerpts from their trial speeches.

haymarketcol

In Britain and several of its former colonies, November 11th is celebrated as a day of remembrance for all the soldiers who have been killed fighting wars on behalf of their political and economic masters. Earlier this year I posted the International Anarchist Manifesto against the First World War. I have also posted Marie Louise Berneri’s critique of the hypocrisy of the politicians and patriots who condemn any acts of violence against the existing order as “terrorism” but venerate the mass slaughters known as “modern warfare” as great patriotic self-sacrifice.

Fight_the_state,_not_wars

Means and Ends

There were ongoing debates among anarchists regarding methods and tactics. Cafiero agreed with the late Carlo Pisacane that “ideals spring from deeds, and not the other way around” (Volume One, Selections 16 & 44). He argued that anarchists should seize every opportunity to incite “the rabble and the poor” to violent revolution, “by word, by writing, by dagger, by gun, by dynamite, sometimes even by the ballot when it is a case of voting for an ineligible candidate” (Volume One, Selection 44).
Kropotkin argued that by exemplary actions “which compel general attention, the new idea seeps into people’s minds and wins converts. One such act may, in a few days, make more propaganda than thousands of pamphlets” (1880).

Jean Grave (1854-1939) explained that through propaganda by the deed, the anarchist “preaches by example.” Consequently, contrary to Cafiero, “the means employed must always be adapted to the end, under pain of producing the exact contrary of one’s expectations”. For Grave, the “surest means of making Anarchy triumph is to act like an Anarchist” (Volume One, Selection 46). Some anarchists agreed with Cafiero that any method that brought anarchy closer was acceptable, including bombings and assassinations. At the 1881 International Anarchist Congress in London, the delegates declared themselves in favour of “illegality” as “the only way leading to revolution” (Cahm: 157-158), echoing Cafiero’s statement from the previous year that “everything is right for us which is not legal” (Volume One, Selection 44).

After years of state persecution, a small minority of self-proclaimed anarchists adopted terrorist tactics in the 1890s. Anarchist groups had been suppressed in Spain, Germany and Italy in the 1870s, particularly after some failed assassination attempts on the Kaiser in Germany, and the Kings of Italy and Spain in the late 1870s, even before Russian revolutionaries assassinated Czar Alexander II in 1881. Although none of the would be assassins were anarchists, the authorities and capitalist press blamed the anarchists and their doctrine of propaganda by the deed for these events, with the Times of London describing anarchism in 1879 as having “revolution for its starting point, murder for its means, and anarchy for its ideals” (Stafford: 131).

The Lyon Anarchist Trial

The Lyon Anarchist Trial

Those anarchists in France who had survived the Paris Commune were imprisoned, transported to penal colonies, or exiled. During the 1870s and 1880s, anarchists were prosecuted for belonging to the First International. In 1883, several anarchists in France, including Kropotkin, were imprisoned on the basis of their alleged membership, despite the fact that the anti-authoritarian International had ceased to exist by 1881. At their trial they declared: “Scoundrels that we are, we claim bread for all, knowledge for all, work for all, independence and justice for all” (Manifesto of the Anarchists, Lyon 1883).

Perhaps the most notorious persecution of the anarchists around this time was the trial and execution of the four “Haymarket Martyrs” in Chicago in 1887 (a fifth, Louis Lingg, cheated the executioner by committing suicide). They were convicted and condemned to death on trumped up charges that they were responsible for throwing a bomb at a demonstration in the Chicago Haymarket area in 1886.

When Emile Henry (1872-1894) threw a bomb into a Parisian café in 1894, describing his act as “propaganda by the deed,” he regarded it as an act of vengeance for the thousands of workers massacred by the bourgeoisie, such as the Communards, and the anarchists who had been executed by the authorities in Germany, France, Spain and the United States. He meant to show to the bourgeoisie “that those who have suffered are tired at last of their suffering” and “will strike all the more brutally if you are brutal with them” (1894). He denounced those anarchists who eschewed individual acts of terrorism as cowards.

Malatesta, who was no pacifist, countered such views by describing as “ultra-authoritarians” those anarchists who try “to justify and exalt every brutal deed” by arguing that the bourgeoisie are just “as bad or worse.” By doing so, these self-described anarchists had entered “on a path which is the most absolute negation of all anarchist ideas and sentiments.” Although they had “entered the movement inspired with those feelings of love and respect for the liberty of others which distinguish the true Anarchist,” as a result of “a sort of moral intoxication produced by the violent struggle” they ended up extolling actions “worthy of the greatest tyrants.” He warned that “the danger of being corrupted by the use of violence, and of despising the people, and becoming cruel as well as fanatical prosecutors, exists for all” (Volume One, Selection 48).

Malatesta at the Magistrate's Court

Malatesta at the Magistrate’s Court

In the 1890s, the French state brought in draconian laws banning anarchist activities and publications. Bernard Lazare (1865-1903), the writer and journalist then active in the French anarchist movement, denounced the hypocrisy of the defenders of the status quo who, as the paid apologists for the police, rationalized the far greater violence of the state. He defiantly proclaimed that no “law can halt free thought, no penalty can stop us from uttering the truth… and the Idea, gagged, bound and beaten, will emerge all the more lively, splendid and mighty” (Volume One, Selection 62).

Malatesta took a more sober approach, recognizing that “past history contains examples of persecutions which stopped and destroyed a movement as well as of others which brought about a revolution.” He criticized those “comrades who expect the triumph of our ideas from the multiplication of acts of individual violence,” arguing that “bourgeois society cannot be overthrown” by bombs and knife blows because it is based “on an enormous mass of private interests and prejudices… sustained… by the inertia of the masses and their habits of submission.” While he argued that anarchists should ignore and defy anti-anarchist laws and measures where able to do so, he felt that anarchists had isolated themselves from the people. He called on anarchists to “live among the people and to win them over… by actively taking part in their struggles and sufferings,” for the anarchist social revolution can only succeed when the people are “ready to fight and… to take the conduct of their affairs into their own hands” (Volume One, Selection 53).

Robert Graham

malatesta anarchist spirit

Additional References

Cahm, Caroline. Kropotkin and the Rise of Revolutionary Anarchism, 1872-1886. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Henry, Emile. “A Terrorist’s Defence” (1894). The Anarchist Reader. Ed. G. Woodcock. Fontana, 1977.

Kropotkin, Peter. “The Spirit of Revolt” (1880). Kropotkin’s Revolutionary Pamphlets. Ed. R.N. Baldwin. New York: Dover, 1970.

Stafford, David. From Anarchism to Reformism: A Study of the Political Activities of Paul Brousse, 1870-90. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1971.

Anarchist Communism

anarcho_communsim_by_3_a_p_a_3_a.sized

This is the latest installment from the Anarchist Current, the afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, in which I continue my survey of the development of anarchist ideas. In this installment, I describe how the doctrine of anarchist communism arose from the debates within the anti-authoritarian sections of the International, following the split between the anarchists and the Marxists at the 1872 Hague Congress.

carlo cafiero

Carlo Cafiero

Anarchist Communism

It was from among the debates within the anti-authoritarian International that the doctrine of anarchist communism emerged in the 1870s. François Dumartheray published a pamphlet in February 1876 advocating anarchist communism, and Elisée Reclus spoke in favour of it at the March 1876 Lausanne Congress of the anti-authoritarian International. By the fall of 1876, the Italian Federation considered “the collective ownership of the products of labour to be the necessary complement of the [anarchist] collectivist” program of common ownership of the means of production (Nettlau: 139). Anarchist communism was debated at the September 1877 Verviers Congress of the anti-authoritarian International, with Paul Brousse and the Italian anarchist, Andrea Costa, arguing in favour, and the Spanish anarchists, Tomás González Morago and José García Viñas, defending the collectivist view, shared by Proudhon and Bakunin, that each person should be entitled to the full product of his or her labour.

At the October 1880 Congress of the Jura Federation, the delegates adopted an anarchist communist position, largely as the result of Cafiero’s speech, “Anarchy and Communism” (Volume One, Selection 32). Cafiero defined the communist principle as “from each and to each according to his will,” with everyone having the right to take what they will “without demanding from individuals more work than they would like to give.” With production being geared towards satisfying people’s wants and needs, instead of the financial demands of the military, the state and the wealthy few, there will be no “need to ask for more work than each wants to give, because there will be enough products for the morrow.”

Cafiero argued against the collectivist position on the basis that “individual distribution of products would re-establish not only inequality between men, but also inequality between different kinds of work,” with the less fortunate being relegated the “dirty work,” instead of it being “vocation and personal taste which would decide a man to devote himself to one form of activity rather than another.” Furthermore, with “the ever-increasing tendency of modern labour to make use of the labour of previous generations” embodied in the existing economic infrastructure, “how could we determine what is the share of the product of one and the share of the product of another? It is absolutely impossible.” With respect to goods which are not sufficiently abundant to permit everyone to take what they will, Cafiero suggested that such goods should be distributed “not according to merit but according to need,” much as they are in present-day families, with those in greater need, such as children and the elderly, being given the larger portions during periods of scarcity (Volume One, Selection 32).

kropotkin_anarchism_Freedom

Kropotkin further developed the theory of anarchist communism in a series of pamphlets and books, the best know and most influential being The Conquest of Bread (Volume One, Selection 33), and Fields, Factories and Workshops (Volume One, Selection 34). The Conquest of Bread helped persuade many anarchists, including former collectivists in Spain, anarcho-syndicalists (Volume One, Selections 58, 84, 95 & 114), and anarchists in Japan, China and Korea (Volume One, Selections 99, 106 & 108), to adopt an anarchist communist position, sometimes referred to, particularly in Spain, as “libertarian communism” (Volume One, Selection 124).

In Fields, Factories and Workshops, Kropotkin set forth his vision of a decentralized anarchist communist society “of integrated, combined labour… where each worker works both in the field and in the workshop,” and each region “produces and itself consumes most of its own agricultural and manufactured produce.” At “the gates of your fields and gardens,” there will be a “countless variety of workshops and factories… required to satisfy the infinite diversity of tastes… in which human life is of more account than machinery and the making of extra profits… into which men, women and children will not be driven by hunger, but will be attracted by the desire of finding an activity suited to their tastes” (Volume One, Selection 34). This remarkably advanced conception of an ecologically sustainable society inspired many subsequent anarchists, including Gustav Landauer (1870-1919) in Germany (Volume One, Selection 111), and through him the kibbutz movement in Palestine (Buber, Volume Two, Selection 16, and Horrox, 2009), the anarchist communists in China (Volume One, Selection 99), the “pure” anarchists of Japan (Volume One, Selection 106), and the anarchist advocates of libertarian communism in Spain (Volume One, Selection 124).

communitas cover

Paul and Percival Goodman updated Kropotkin’s ideas in Communitas (1947), proposing not only the integration of the fields, factories and workshops, but also the home and the workplace, providing for decentralized, human-scale production designed “to give the most well-rounded employment to each person, in a diversified environment,” based on “small units with relative self-sufficiency, so that each community can enter into a larger whole with solidarity and independence of viewpoint” (Volume Two, Selection 17). In the 1960s, Murray Bookchin (1921-2006) argued that “the anarchist concepts of a balanced community, a face-to-face democracy, a humanistic technology, and a decentralized society… are not only desirable, they are also necessary” to avoid ecological collapse and to support a libertarian society (Volume Two, Selection 48), a point made earlier by Ethel Mannin (Volume Two, Selection 14). Kropotkin continues to influence and inspire “green” anarchists, such as Graham Purchase, who advocates an anarchist form of bioregionalism (Volume Three, Selection 28), and Peter Marshall, with his “liberation ecology” (Volume Three, Selection 30).

There is another aspect of Kropotkin’s conception of anarchist communism that had far-reaching implications, and this is his vision of a free society which “seeks the most complete development of individuality combined with the highest development of voluntary association in all its aspects.” These “ever changing, ever modified associations” will “constantly assume new forms which answer best to the multiple aspirations of all” (Volume One, Selection 41). Some Italian anarchist communists, such as Luigi Galleani (1861-1931), argued for an even more fluid concept of voluntary association, opposing any attempts to create permanent organizations, whether an anarchist federation or a revolutionary trade union, arguing that any formal organization inevitably requires its members to “submit for the sake of discipline” and unity to “provisions, decisions, [and] measures… even though they may be contrary to their opinion and their interest” (Volume One, Selection 35).

As Davide Turcato points out (2009), the debate between “anti-organizationalists,” such as Galleani, and the “organizationalists,” such as Malatesta, “was a debate of great sophistication,” which developed many ideas which were to “become common currency in the sociological literature, particularly through the work of Robert Michels,” who recognized that “anarchists were the first to insist upon the hierarchical and oligarchic consequences of party organization.”

Most anarchist communists, including Kropotkin and Malatesta, believed that nonhierarchical organization is possible and desirable, although one must always be on guard against oligarchic and bureaucratic tendencies. In our day, Colin Ward (1924-2010), drawing explicitly on Kropotkin’s theory of voluntary association, has endeavoured to show that anarchist ideas regarding “autonomous groups, workers’ control, [and] the federal principle, add up to a coherent theory of social organization which is a valid and realistic alternative to the authoritarian, hierarchical institutional philosophy which we see in application all around us” (Volume Two, Selection 63).

Robert Graham

eco-anarchism

eco-anarchism

Additional References

Goodman, Paul & Percival. Communitas: Means of Livelihood and Ways of Life. New York: Vintage Books, 1960.

Horrox, James. A Living Revolution: Anarchism in the Kibbutz Movement. San Francisco: AK Press, 2009.

Nettlau, Max. A Short History of Anarchism. London: Freedom Press, 1996.

Turcato, Davide. “Making Sense of Anarchism.” Introduction. Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Volume Two. Montreal: Black Rose Books, 2009.

Assembly Democracy in Kurdistan

Kurdish Woman Defending Kobani

Kurdish Woman Defending Kobani

As the Kurds continue to defend Kobani from the ISIS assault, with very limited support (in fact, Turkey at first used the movement of Kurdish fighters into the area as an excuse for bombing Kurdish targets), I reproduce from Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas Janet Biehl’s 2012 interview with Ercan Ayboga,  in which he describes the development of a confederal democratic assembly movement among the Kurds, inspired in part by Murray Bookchin’s writings. Biehl has since translated into English a book of writings by members of the movement, Democratic Autonomy in North Kurdistan: The Council Movement, Gender Liberation and Ecology (New Compass Press), available from AK Press.

Kurdish Democratic Society Congress

Kurdish Democratic Society Congress

The Democratic Assembly Movement in Kurdistan

Until the 1980s the Kurdish society was completely patriarchal. There were no women’s rights or feminist groups, not even among the more liberal Alevi Kurds. The most important dynamic in overcoming the patriarchal structures became the Kurdish freedom movement. And without women’s participation, the movement could not possibly have achieved broad popular support. By around 1990 women were participating widely in this movement, and between 1990 and 1992 women were leading demonstrations, which started to change the situation significantly. In the middle of 1990s a broad ideological discussion started in the movement, in which patriarchal structures in the whole society were criticized systematically. Since then, many women’s organizations have been founded in all areas of the struggle…

Today women are present in all the political structures, at all levels, in the Kurdish freedom movement, which is a result of the long gender discussion and of women’s struggle within the movement and in the democratic assemblies. For instance, in the BDP [Peace and Democracy Party], all chairperson positions must be held by a man and a woman, and there is a 40 percent requirement for both sexes in all management boards, public parliaments, and elected councils. As “gender liberation” is one of the three main principles used by the freedom movement besides “democracy” and “ecology,” a social perspective without women’s liberation is unthinkable.
Assembly democracy has limited roots in Kurdistan history and geography. …[T]he society’s village character was and is still fairly strong. Some villages had hierarchy and aghas (feudal big land owners), but in others, where these factors were absent, villages organized common meetings in the kom (village community) in which they made decisions. In many cases, older women participated in these meetings, but not young women.
In past centuries, tribes sometimes held assemblies with representatives from all families (or villages) in order to discuss important issues of the tribe or the larger society. The tribal leader carried out the decisions that the assembly accepted.
During their long history, Kurdish tribes used from time to time and from region to region a confederal organizational structure for facing political and social challenges. It was based on voluntariness, so not all tribes participated in the confederal structure. But in most of Kurdistan, many non-Kurdish tribes or societies were not much involved in the confederal system.
PKK Fighters

PKK Fighters

In the 1990s, as the Kurdish freedom movement grew stronger, an effort was made to build up assemblies in “liberated” villages. PKK [Kurdish Workers Party] guerrillas promoted village assemblies, and in villages where the guerrillas were strong, most of the people accepted them. But just as they were getting under way, the Turkish army destroyed 4,000 villages and their political structures. Thereafter the repression intensified. Since 2005, in some of the villages that were close to the freedom movement, this idea has been developed again. Some villages organize regular democratic assemblies, fully including women and all parts of the society.
The Kurdish freedom movement had its ideological sources in the 1968 student movement and the Turkish left’s Marxist-Leninist, Stalinist, Maoist, Trotskyist, and other communist theories. At the end of the 1980s, the Kurdish freedom movement embarked on a critique of the actually existing (state) socialist model, and in later years it would be deepened. The critique of the 1990s said, among other points, that it’s important to change individuals and society before taking the power of any state, that the relationship between individuals and state must be organized anew and that instead of big bureaucratic-technocratic structures, a full democracy should be developed.
In 1999, when the PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan was captured and the guerrilla forces were withdrawn to Iraqi Kurdistan, the freedom movement underwent a process of comprehensive strategic change. It did not give up the idea of socialism, but it rejected the existing Marxist-Leninist structure as too hierarchical and not democratic enough. Political and civil struggle replaced armed struggle as the movement’s center. Starting in 2000, it promoted civil disobedience and resistance (the Intifada in Palestine was also an inspiration).
 pkk logo
Further, the movement gave up the aim of establishing a Kurdish-dominant state, because of the existing difficult political conditions in the Middle East and the world; instead, it advanced a long-term solution for the Kurdish question within the four states Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria: democratic confederalism. It now considers it more important to have a democratic, social and tolerant society than to have one’s own state. For Turkey, it has proposed the foundation of a second or democratic republic…
The Kurdish freedom movement developed the idea of “democratic confederalism” not only from the ideas of communalist intellectuals but also from movements like the Zapatistas; from Kurdish society’s own village-influenced history; from the long, thirty-five-year experience of political and armed struggle; from the intense controversies within Turkish democratic-socialist-revolutionary movements; and from the movement’s continuous development of transparent structures for the broad population…
We foresee communalism as developing first in Turkish Kurdistan. Since 2007 the freedom movement has created democratic and decision-making assemblies in neighborhoods of cities where it is strong, particularly in the provinces of Hakkari, Sirnak, Siirt, Mardin, Diyarbakir, Batman, and Van. The assemblies were established to make decisions on all common problems, challenges, and projects of the respective neighborhood according the principles of a base democracy–the whole population has the right to participate. In some of the assemblies, non-Kurdish people are participating, like Azerbaijanis and Aramaic people…
There are assemblies at several levels. At the bottom are the neighborhood assemblies. They choose the delegates that constitute the city assembly. In Diyarbakir, ideas are discussed in the city assembly, of which the city council is part—not officially, not legally, but in our system. If the city assembly makes a certain decision on an issue, then the city council members who are part of the city assembly will promote it. (But the city council also has members from the other parties, like the ruling AKP, which don’t agree with it.) The city council has the legal power to make decisions that become laws. But for the people, the city assembly is the legitimate body.
When decisions on a bigger scale have to be taken, the city and village assemblies of a province come together. In the provinces of Hakkari and Sirnak, the experience has had very positive results. The state authority has no influence on the population–the people don’t accept the state authorities. There are two parallel authorities, of which the democratic confederal structure is more powerful in practice.
 Rojava_cities
At the top of this model is the DTK (Democratic Society Congress), which brings together all Kurds in the Republic of Turkey. It consists of more than five hundred civil society organizations, labor unions, and political parties—they make up 40 percent of its members; 60 percent of its members are delegates from village assemblies.
The DTK provincial assemblies were crucial in electing the candidates for the Turkish parliament of the legal pro-Kurdish party, the BDP. For the last elections, the Diyarbakir provincial assembly decided on six candidates chosen by the DTK—those selected became candidates of the BDP for parliament. (Six of 36 elected candidates are now in prison—the court did not release them. We don’t know when or whether they will be liberated.)
Slowly but surely, democratic confederalism is gaining acceptance by more Turkish Kurds. Recently, the DTK presented a draft paper on democratic autonomy for Turkish Kurdistan. At a big meeting in Diyarbakir in July 14, 2011, the DTK declared itself in support of “democratic autonomy.” It seeks to realize democratic autonomy step by step, by Kurds’ own means, and especially where the Kurdish freedom movement is strong. Much of Kurdish society approved, but the idea was controversial in Turkish society.
One result of the discussions of democratic confederalism has been an objective to found new villages on the communalist idea or transform existing villages whose conditions are suitable for that. Such villages are to be democratic, ecological, gender equal, and/or even peace villages. Here peace not only refers to the armed conflict; it expresses the people’s relationships among themselves and with the natural world. Cooperatives are the economic and material base of these villages.
PKK Rally

BDP Rally

The first peace villages were developed in 2010. In Hakkari province, which borders Iraq and Iran and where the freedom movement is very strong, several villages decided to develop a cooperative economy. The new political and social relationship of the population and the economy are suitable for that, as the freedom movement is very strong there, with direct support from 90 percent of the society. Close to the city of Weranshah (Viranşehir), the construction of a new village with seventy households based on the idea of peace villages just started. In Van province, activists have decided to build a new ecological women’s village, which would be something special. This would enforce the role of women in the society. Women who have been victims of domestic violence will be accepted. These small communities could supply themselves with all or almost all the necessary energy.
In reality, the assembly model has not yet been developed broadly for several reasons. First, in some places the Kurdish freedom movement is not so strong. Almost half of the population in Turkey’s Kurdish areas still do not actively support it. In those places there are no few or no assemblies. Second, the discussions among the Kurds on democratic confederalism have not proceeded everywhere as well as they might.
And third, the repression by the Turkish state makes further development very difficult. About thirty-five hundred activists have been arrested in the past two and a half years, since 2009, which in many regions has significantly weakened the structures of democratic confederalism. There have been trials for two years. The military clashes between Turkish Army and the Kurdish guerrillas are once again on the increase… The state simply says these assemblies are coordinated by the KCK (Union of Communities in Kurdistan), the umbrella structure of the leftist Kurdish freedom movement in Middle East ,of which today PKK is a part, which is an illegal structure, and that becomes the pretext for arresting them…The Turkish Kurds’ legal party, the BDP, proposes “democratic autonomy” for the whole republic… Generally it envisages a fundamental democratization in the Turkey’s political and administrative structure, achieving it through democratic participation by incorporating people into processes of decision-making. The essential vision is not to create smaller structures with characteristics of the nation-state; rather, the democratic decision-making structures in the societies should be developed through a combination of base democracy and council democracy.
And rather than being a purely “ethnic” and “territorial” conception, democratic autonomy proposes a regional and local structure through which cultural differences are able to freely express themselves. Thus it proposes to establish twenty to twenty-five regions in Turkey with major autonomous rights. These autonomous regions and their assemblies would also assume major responsibilities in fields like education, health, culture, agriculture, industry, social services and security, women, youth and sports. The central government would continue to conduct foreign affairs, finance and external defense services.
In addition, the Kurdish freedom movement demands that Turkish Kurdistan have control over its own “security,” or self-defense; and the right to manage the natural environment and natural resources. At the same time it demands that Turkish Kurdistan be able to establish specific social, cultural, economic and political ties with the other three parts of Kurdistan, in Iran, Iraq and Syria.
Democratic Society Congress (DTK)

Democratic Society Congress (DTK)

In Turkey, the Kurdish freedom movement is in implementation phase, but in the three other parts, the Kurds are in the first stage of discussing democratic confederalism. The existing Kurdish parties and organizations that are not part of the Kurdish freedom movement give no importance to it. They support either full independence for Kurdistan or a classical model of autonomy and federation.
But organizations that are part of or close to the KCK, and intellectuals and small groups, promote democratic confederalism as well as the democratic autonomy project of the DTK. The thirty-five hundred activists arrested since 2009 have all been members of the KCK which is an illegal organization. Every two years they have meetings with delegates from all four countries—they meet secretly—in the mountains…
The Kurdish freedom movement has declared that it is not against existing state boundaries and does not want to change them. But at the same time the movement expects that the states respect all decisions of the population. The movement speaks of two authorities, the state and the population. In democratic confederalism, two different regions of neighboring states can come closer, for instance in terms of culture, education, economy, without challenging the existing states. But in a system of democratic confederalism, the Kurds of different states, or any other suppressed culture in more than two different states, would come closer after decades of separation. This aspect is still not defined well und needs to be discussed deeper.
The Kurdish freedom movement proposes democratic confederalism for all countries and cultures of Middle East, as it is more appropriate than the existing centralized, half-decentralized, or totalitarian political structures there. Before the twentieth-century foundation of nation-states in the Middle East, the structures did not control the societies deeply; the different regions had certain freedoms and self-government, and the tribal structures were dominant. Here many local structures are still strong and resist the state influence.
Further, in the Middle East the cultural diversity is so high that a communalist society could much better consider this richness. It would allow ethnically or religiously nondominant groups to organize themselves and contribute significantly to a dynamic cultural diversity. Direct democratic structures may make sense here too: in the recent uprisings in many countries, new democratic movements were born or have been strengthened. We would like to object to opinions that consider Arabs or other populations incapable of democratic thinking.
Excerpted from Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Volume Three: The New Anarchism (1974-2012), ed. Robert Graham
democratic_autonomy_in_north_kurdistan_front

The Split in the First International

The Workers Themselves

The Workers Themselves

Continuing with the installments from the Anarchist Current, the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas in which I survey the origins and evolution of anarchist ideas, in the excerpts below I briefly describe the split in the First International between the authoritarians who supported centralized political parties and revolutionary dictatorship, and the anti-authoritarians, the majority of whom were anarchists.

FederationJura

The Split in the First International

Following the suppression of the Commune, the conflict in the International between the anti-authoritarians and the supporters of top down political organization, such as Marx and his followers, came to a head. In response to Marx’s attempt to consolidate power in the International’s General Council, and to make the conquest of political power by the working class a mandatory policy of the International, the Swiss Jura Federation denounced the fictitious unity the Council sought to create through “centralization and dictatorship,” arguing that the “International, as the embryo of the human society of the future, is required in the here and now to faithfully mirror our principles of freedom and federation” (Volume One, Selection 26).

After Bakunin and Guillaume were expelled, largely at Marx’s instigation, from the International on trumped up charges at the 1872 Hague Congress, the anti-authoritarian sections of the International held their own congress at St. Imier in Switzerland. The Congress declared “the destruction of all political power,” rather than its conquest, as “the first duty of the proletariat,” whose “aspirations… can have no purpose other than the establishment of an absolutely free economic organization and federation, founded upon the labour and equality of all” (Volume One, Selection 27).

The St. Imier Congress extolled the benefits of militant trade union organization, for “it integrates the proletariat into a community of interests, trains it in collective living and prepares it for the supreme struggle.” The Congress embraced strike action “as a precious weapon in the struggle,” because it exposes “the antagonism between labour and capital” and prepares “the proletariat for the great and final revolutionary contest” (Volume One, Selection 27). Whether the final revolutionary contest would be an insurrection, a general strike, or a combination of the two remained open to debate. At the time, many anarchists favoured insurrection, particularly those associated with the Italian Federation, which attempted insurrections in Bologna in 1874 and Benevento in 1877.

The proto-syndicalist elements in the anti-authoritarian wing of the International, exemplified by Guillaume, emphasized the need for organized working class resistance to the State and capital. This approach was particularly prominent in Spain and various parts of Latin America, where anarchists were involved in creating some of the first trade unions and workers’ federations.

In Spain this doctrine became known as anarchist “collectivism,” which the Spanish veteran of the First International, José Llunas Pujols (1850-1905), defined as “a society organized on the basis of collective ownership, economic federation and the complete emancipation of the human being” (Volume One, Selection 36). The “unit of organization would… be the trades section in each locality,” with administrative tasks performed by delegates who would be replaced if they failed to adhere to the mandates given to them by their respective sections (Volume One, Selection 36). This form of working class direct democracy, similar to the “Worker Democracy” advocated by Proudhon in On the Political Capacity of the Working Classes (Volume One, Selection 18), was later taken up by the anarcho-syndicalists (Volume One, Chapter 12).

Following the defeat of the Paris Commune, the International was outlawed in much of Europe, making it extremely difficult for anarchists to maintain or create revolutionary working class organizations. Although the anti-authoritarian International outlasted the Marxist wing by several years, it eventually split between the anarchist communists, who favoured insurrectionary methods, the proto-syndicalists who favoured federations of revolutionary unions, and more moderate federalists who eventually embraced state socialism, such as César de Paepe from Belgium.

Robert Graham

bakunin

David Graeber: Support the Kurds in Syria!

rojava

In the piece below, David Graeber asks why the world is ignoring the revolutionary Kurds in Syria, drawing a connection with the situation in Spain during the Spanish Revolution and Civil War (1936-1939), when the so-called democracies imposed an arms embargo on Spain, while Hitler and Mussolini’s fascist dictatorships not only provided the Spanish military and Falangists with the most up-to-date weapons, but even supplied some of their own armed forces, bombing civilian targets like Guernica, which provoked Pablo Picasso into creating one of his greatest art pieces in protest. The situation in Kobane is also reminiscent of the situation of the Paris Commune in May 1871, when the reactionary armed forces of the Versailles government attacked the revolutionary Communards, massacring 30,000 Parisians while the world looked on and the Prussians ensured that no outside help would arrive, much as Turkey is doing to the Kurds in Kobane.

Mujeres Libres in the Spanish Revolution

Mujeres Libres in the Spanish Revolution

I included some selections by David Graeber on the “new anarchism” and democracy in Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. I also included a statement from Kurdish anarchists, and an interview that Janet Biehl conducted with PKK members regarding their adoption of a libertarian communalist approach inspired by Murray Bookchin. Volume One of the Anarchism anthology included several selections regarding the anarchists in the Spanish Revolution and the Mujeres Libres group Graeber refers to below.

Tev-Dem (Movement for a Democratic Society) Meeting in Qamishli

Tev-Dem (Movement for a Democratic Society) Meeting in Qamishli

Why is the world ignoring the revolutionary Kurds in Syria?

In 1937, my father volunteered to fight in the International Brigades in defence of the Spanish Republic. A would-be fascist coup had been temporarily halted by a worker’s uprising, spearheaded by anarchists and socialists, and in much of Spain a genuine social revolution ensued, leading to whole cities under directly democratic management, industries under worker control, and the radical empowerment of women.

Spanish revolutionaries hoped to create a vision of a free society that the entire world might follow. Instead, world powers declared a policy of “non-intervention” and maintained a rigorous blockade on the republic, even after Hitler and Mussolini, ostensible signatories, began pouring in troops and weapons to reinforce the fascist side. The result was years of civil war that ended with the suppression of the revolution and some of a bloody century’s bloodiest massacres.

I never thought I would, in my own lifetime, see the same thing happen again. Obviously, no historical event ever really happens twice. There are a thousand differences between what happened in Spain in 1936 and what is happening in Rojava, the three largely Kurdish provinces of northern Syria, today. But some of the similarities are so striking, and so distressing, that I feel it’s incumbent on me, as someone who grew up in a family whose politics were in many ways defined by the Spanish revolution, to say: we cannot let it end the same way again.

The autonomous region of Rojava, as it exists today, is one of few bright spots – albeit a very bright one – to emerge from the tragedy of the Syrian revolution. Having driven out agents of the Assad regime in 2011, and despite the hostility of almost all of its neighbours, Rojava has not only maintained its independence, but is a remarkable democratic experiment. Popular assemblies have been created as the ultimate decision-making bodies, councils selected with careful ethnic balance (in each municipality, for instance, the top three officers have to include one Kurd, one Arab and one Assyrian or Armenian Christian, and at least one of the three has to be a woman), there are women’s and youth councils, and, in a remarkable echo of the armed Mujeres Libres (Free Women) of Spain, a feminist army, the “YJA Star” militia (the “Union of Free Women”, the star here referring to the ancient Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar), that has carried out a large proportion of the combat operations against the forces of Islamic State.

How can something like this happen and still be almost entirely ignored by the international community, even, largely, by the International left? Mainly, it seems, because the Rojavan revolutionary party, the PYD, works in alliance with Turkey’s Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK), a Marxist guerilla movement that has since the 1970s been engaged in a long war against the Turkish state. NATO, the US and EU officially classify them as a “terrorist” organisation. Meanwhile, leftists largely write them off as Stalinists.

But, in fact, the PKK itself is no longer anything remotely like the old, top-down Leninist party it once was. Its own internal evolution, and the intellectual conversion of its own founder, Abdullah Ocalan, held in a Turkish island prison since 1999, have led it to entirely change its aims and tactics.

The PKK has declared that it no longer even seeks to create a Kurdish state. Instead, inspired in part by the vision of social ecologist and anarchist Murray Bookchin, it has adopted the vision of “libertarian municipalism”, calling for Kurds to create free, self-governing communities, based on principles of direct democracy, that would then come together across national borders – that it is hoped would over time become increasingly meaningless. In this way, they proposed, the Kurdish struggle could become a model for a wordwide movement towards genuine democracy, co-operative economy, and the gradual dissolution of the bureaucratic nation-state.

Since 2005 the PKK, inspired by the strategy of the Zapatista rebels in Chiapas, declared a unilateral ceasefire with the Turkish state and began concentrating their efforts in developing democratic structures in the territories they already controlled. Some have questioned how serious all this really is. Clearly, authoritarian elements remain. But what has happened in Rojava, where the Syrian revolution gave Kurdish radicals the chance to carry out such experiments in a large, contiguous territory, suggests this is anything but window dressing. Councils, assemblies and popular militias have been formed, regime property has been turned over to worker-managed co-operatives – and all despite continual attacks by the extreme rightwing forces of Isis. The results meet any definition of a social revolution. In the Middle East, at least, these efforts have been noticed: particularly after PKK and Rojava forces intervened to successfully fight their way through Isis territory in Iraq to rescue thousands of Yezidi refugees trapped on Mount Sinjar after the local peshmerga fled the field. These actions were widely celebrated in the region, but remarkably received almost no notice in the European or North American press.

Now, Isis has returned, with scores of US-made tanks and heavy artillery taken from Iraqi forces, to take revenge against many of those same revolutionary militias in Kobane, declaring their intention to massacre and enslave – yes, literally enslave – the entire civilian population. Meanwhile, the Turkish army stands at the border preventing reinforcements or ammunition from reaching the defenders, and US planes buzz overhead making occasional, symbolic, pinprick strikes – apparently, just to be able to say that it did not do nothing as a group it claims to be at war with crushes defenders of one of the world’s great democratic experiments.

If there is a parallel today to Franco’s superficially devout, murderous Falangists, who would it be but Isis? If there is a parallel to the Mujeres Libres of Spain, who could it be but the courageous women defending the barricades in Kobane? Is the world – and this time most scandalously of all, the international left – really going to be complicit in letting history repeat itself?

David Graeber, October 12, 2014

Picasso's Guernica

Picasso’s Guernica

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