Nestor Makhno: The Struggle Against the State

Nestor Makhno

Nestor Makhno

Nestor Makhno (1888-1934) is a controversial figure in the history of the anarchist movement. For three years he led a guerrilla army campaign in Ukraine during the civil war that followed the 1917 Russian Revolution. He would sometimes summarily execute counter-revolutionaries, and his army conscripted some of its members. On the other hand, when his forces liberated a village or town from the control of the Czarists (the “Whites”) or from the Bolsheviks (the “Reds”), they would reopen the presses and meeting halls shut down by those forces and free everyone from the local jails. With his comrade, Peter Arshinov, and some other anarchists, he helped craft the “Organizational Platform of the Libertarian Communists,” which called on anarchists to form a federalist revolutionary organization based on collective responsibility, which some anarchists regarded as a vanguard organization that would function more like a revolutionary socialist party than a federalist anarchist organization. Around the same time as the Platform appeared, Makhno published this essay on the struggle against the State, summarizing his views on the tasks ahead based on the lessons of the Russian Revolution. I included excerpts from the Platform and responses from some of its critics, including Malatesta and Voline, in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, as well as some proclamations by the Makhnovist army and excerpts from Arshinov’s history of the Makhnovist movement.

The Struggle Against the State

The Struggle Against the State

THE STRUGGLE AGAINST THE STATE

The fact that the modern State is the organizational form of an authority founded upon arbitrariness and violence in the social life of toilers is independent of whether it may be “bourgeois” or “proletarian.” It relies upon oppressive centralism, arising out of the direct violence of a minority deployed against the majority In order to enforce and impose the legality of its system, the State resorts not only to the gun and money, but also to potent weapons of psychological pressure. With the aid of such weapons, a tiny group of politicians enforces psychological repression of an entire society, and, in particular, of the toiling masses, conditioning them in such a way as to divert their attention from the slavery instituted by the State.

So it must be clear that if we are to combat the organized violence of the modern State, we have to deploy powerful weapons appropriate to the magnitude of the task.

Thus far, the methods of social action employed by the revolutionary working class against the power of the oppressors and exploiters — the State and Capital — in conformity with libertarian ideas, were insufficient to lead the toilers on to complete victory.

It has come to pass in history that the workers have defeated Capital, but the victory then slipped from their grasp because some State power emerged, amalgamating the interests of private capital and those of State capitalism for the sake of success over the toilers.

The experience of the Russian revolution has blatantly exposed our shortcomings in this regard. We must not forget that, but should rather apply ourselves to identifying those shortcomings plainly.

We may acknowledge that our struggle against the State in the Russian revolution was remarkable, despite the disorganization by which our ranks were afflicted: remarkable above all insofar as the destruction of that odious institution is concerned.

But, by contrast, our struggle was insignificant in the realm of construction of the free society of toilers and its social structures, which might have ensured that it prospered beyond reach of the tutelage of the State and its repressive institutions.

The fact that we libertarian communists or anarcho-syndicalists failed to anticipate the sequel to the Russian revolution, and that we failed to make haste to devise new forms of social activity in time, led many of our groups and organizations to dither yet again in their political and socio-strategic policy on the fighting front of the Revolution.

If we are to avert a future relapse into these same errors, when a revolutionary situation comes about, and in order to retain the cohesion and coherence of our organizational line, we must first of all amalgamate all of our forces into one active collective, then without further ado, define our constructive conception of economic, social, local and territorial units, so that they are outlined in detail (free soviets), and in particular describe in broad outline their basic revolutionary mission in the struggle against the State. Contemporary life and the Russian revolution require that.

Those who have blended in with the very ranks of the worker and peasant masses, participating actively in the victories and defeats of their campaign, must without doubt come to our own conclusions, and more specifically to an appreciation that our struggle against the State must be carried on until the State has been utterly eradicated: they will also acknowledge that the toughest role in that struggle is the role of the revolutionary armed force.

It is essential that the action of the Revolution’s armed forces be linked with the social and economic unit, wherein the labouring people will organize itself from the earliest days of the revolution onwards, so that total self-organization of life may be introduced, out of reach of all statist structures.

From this moment forth, anarchists must focus their attention upon that aspect of the Revolution. They have to be convinced that, if the revolution’s armed forces are organized into huge armies or into lots of local armed detachments, they cannot but overcome the State’s incumbents and defenders, and thereby bring about the conditions needed by the toiling populace supporting the revolution, so that it may cut all ties with the past and look to the final detail of the process of constructing a new socio-economic existence.

The State will, though, be able to cling to a few local enclaves and try to place multifarious obstacles in the path of the toilers’ new life, slowing the pace of growth and harmonious development of new relationships founded on the complete emancipation of man.

The final and utter liquidation of the State can only come to pass when the struggle of the toilers is oriented along the most libertarian lines possible, when the toilers will themselves determine the structures of their social action. These structures should assume the form of organs of social and economic self-direction, the form of free “anti-authoritarian” soviets. The revolutionary workers and their vanguard — the anarchists — must analyze the nature and structure of these soviets and specify their revolutionary functions in advance. It is upon that, chiefly, that the positive evolution and development of anarchist ideas, in the ranks of those who will accomplish the liquidation of the State on their own account in order to build a free society, will be dependent.

Dyelo Truda No.17, October 1926

Makhnovist Flag (trans.)

Makhnovist Flag (trans.)

Malatesta: These Things Are Yours (1920)

Errico Malatesta

Errico Malatesta

The following piece, “This is Your Stuff,” was published by Errico Malatesta in Italy in June 1920, when Italy was on the brink of revolution. Workers had occupied factories, throwing out their bosses, acting for themselves, without waiting for the various socialist and communist parties to make the revolution for them. When Malatesta heard that some workers and peasants were destroying what they produced, he urged them instead to regard the things that they have produced as their own. “This is Your Stuff” is included in Davide Turcato’s anthology of Malatesta’s writings, The Method of Freedom, recently published by AK Press. I included several selections by Malatesta in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas.

Don't pay for food

This is Your Stuff!

From a few places around Italy, where rebel hearts beat harder, we hear rumors of a madcap notion.

Of the destruction of the crops.

Only recently in the Novara area the peasants maimed oxen just to spite their bosses; and we were reminded of the husband who maimed himself in the nether regions just to punish his wife.

Such acts would be understandable at a time when workers had no hope of imminent liberation, when the slave, having no way of freeing himself, looked for a moment of bittersweet delight by taking his master with him when he died.

But these days, such acts would look more like a suicidal mania.

Today the workers stand on the brink of becoming the masters of all they have produced; today the revolution is hammering at the gates and we should be sparing with all products, especially foodstuffs, so that we may assured of survival and success.

Or is there anyone out there who thinks that, come the revolution, the need to eat will be no more?

The destruction of goods would be tantamount to making it impossible for us to pull off a revolution that brings benefits; and, at the time, since the goods of only a few bosses would be destroyed, that would be playing into the hands of other bosses who would profit by the growing shortfall and would sell off their products at higher prices.

Rather than thinking about destroying stuff, the workers must get used to the idea that everything that there is, everything that is produced, is theirs, in the hands of thieves today, but to be wrested back tomorrow.

It never occurs to any robbery victim to destroy his possessions just to spite the thief, when he knows that he will shortly be getting his stuff back.

Rather than toying with the idea of destroying things, the workers should keep an eye out that the bosses do not waste it; they should prevent the bosses and the government from letting products go to ruin through speculation or neglect, from leaving the land untilled and the workers jobless, or engaged in the churning out of useless or harmful goods.

Starting right now, the workers should think of themselves as the owners, and start acting like owners.

The destruction of stuff is the act of a slave—a rebellious slave, but a slave nonetheless.

The workers today do not want and do not have to be slaves any longer.

Errico Malatesta, Umanità Nova, June 1920

Malatesta cover page

Anarchism and the Ukrainian Civil War (2014)

Street scene from Odessa, May 2014

Street scene from Odessa, May 2014

Below I reproduce excerpts from an article by “Antti Rautiainen” of the Russian anarchist group, Autonomous Action, regarding Ukrainian anarchist responses to the current situation in Ukraine. The article was prompted by the fire at the House of Trade Unions in Odessa on May 2, 2014, the result of armed clashes between pro-Russian militia and right wing Ukrainian nationalists resulting in some 42 deaths. The full article can be found here. In Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included several excerpts regarding the anarchist movement during the Russian and Ukrainian civil wars of 1918-1921. Although the Ukrainian anarchist movement today is tiny by comparison, the difficulties facing it, and the people of Ukraine, are no less significant.

Civil War in Ukraine

War does not require personal hatred between people, geopolitical and economical reasons are good enough for that. And in the Ukraine, the geopolitical interests are far greater than in Yugoslavia. If you have an interest in flaring up ethnic hatred or war, a rather small ethnic rift is enough. A few abuses, murders, and kidnappings, and everyone will be ready for battle. This has succeeded now in Ukraine, just as it has succeeded in many other places.

At the moment, the Western «left» seems to be pretty much clueless in terms of the events taking place there. This is because the «left,» broadly speaking, is not a very useful concept in the former Soviet Union, as it can mean anything from social-democrats and anarchists, to stalinists supporting Putin. Personally, I prefer to always write the word in quotation marks. I identify with anarchists, not the «left,» since, for quite a while now anarchists have been the only political force in Russia which united the ethos of opposing racism, sexism and homophobia to the ethos of social equality. Until very recently, there had not been much of any Western «new left» in Russia, with the exception of a handful of Trotskyists.

A split within the «left» in Ukraine is completely predictable and even necessary. In Kharkiv the streetfighting, Stalinist organisation, «Borotba» (meaning Struggle), has been on the opposite side of the anarchists. In this region of the former Soviet Union, 99.9% of the «left» will always support imperialism for the sake of «being with the people.» It is about time that anarchists refuse the «left» label. We have nothing in common with these people.

But anarchists, too, can be easily manipulated with buzzwords such as «self-organisation» and «direct democracy.» For example, Boris Kagarlitsky, a Russian intellectual widely known amongst the Western «left» and a frequent guest of World Social Forums, has found favorable ground in the West by using these buzzwords.

Apparently, the Ukrainian and Russian anarchists could not foresee the developments which lead to the civil war. Maidan had only been discussed from the point of view that it could offer something better than the Yanukovich regime. It was not expected that Russia would react to a Maidan victory with a conscious escalation of the conflict, and which could eventually lead to civil war.

Whereas Russia is the major propaganda machine and arms provider in the conflict, Western countries are not doing much better, as they only acknowledge the interests of the new government in Kiev and present the movement in Eastern Ukraine as mere Russian puppets.The armed wing of the «federalists» are definitely Kremlin puppets, but if it were not for the widespread discontent and protests against the new regime in Kiev, this armed wing would not have emerged.

I do not believe that a civil war was the Kremlin’s aim. First of all, it wanted to destablize Ukraine to the maximum in order to have Kiev give up any attempts to gain back control over Crimea. Now the situation is out of the Kremlin’s control, and it may have to send regular troops to Ukraine in order to fulfill the promise of support it has given to the «federalists.»

The government in Kiev has given so many «final ultimatums», which were quickly forgotten, and has announced so many [nonexistent] «anti-terrorist operations,» that it is clear it has very few battle-ready troops. A few times, the central government troops have actually taken action and the results have been tragi-comic. Thus, the government understands that it’s still in question whether it would succeed in a full-scale civil war. However, it also understands that war can help discipline society and stabilize the new order to the extent that any promises given to Maidan would be forgotten. With time, both sides have come to understand that a full-scale war might be necessary for their interests, even if neither was initially planning for this.

Anarchist Black Cats in Ukraine

Anarchist Black Cats in Ukraine

Disagreements within the anarchist movement

Over the course of events, the Ukrainian and Russian anarchist movements have split into three different sides. A first group concentrated on producing internet-statements against both sides of the conflict. For them, keeping out of any social processes is a matter of principle, and they only want to monitor and assess. Participation in the social protest is not a goal for them, as they prefer to keep their hands clean. Since every process has input from either disgusting liberals, hated nationalists, awful stalinists, all three at the same time, or other undesirables, one can never fully participate in anything and the only alternative is to stay home and publish statements on the internet about how everything is going from bad to worse. However, most of the time these statements are just self-evident banalities.

A second group was made up of those who got excited about all the riot-porn and anti-police violence in Kiev, without considering who was carrying out this violence and in whose interests. Certain antifascists drifted as far as to defend the «national unity» in Maidan, and threatened particular Kiev anarchists due to their criticism of Maidan and refusal to participate. Most of the people in this camp are just fans of anti-police violence without any theoretical frame[work], but some want to give Maidan an imagined anti-authoritarian flavor, by equating the general meeting of Maidan («Veche») with the revolutionary councils established during 20th century revolutions. They base this claim on the social demands occasionally presented at Maidan, but these demands were always at the periphery of the Maidan agenda.

One of these peripheral demands was the proposal that oligarchs should pay a tenth of their income in taxes and was generally in tune with nationalistic populism. However, the demands of the Kiev Maidan were still far from returning the billions stolen by oligarchs back to society. In Vinnytsa and Zhitomir, there was an attempt to expropriate factories owned by German capital, but this was the only case going beyond the national-liberal context that I am familiar with.

In any case, the main problem at Maidan wasn’t the lack of a social agenda and direct democracy, but the fact that people did not even demand them. Even if everyone kept repeating that they did not want another «orange revolution» like in 2004, nor for Yulia Timoshenko to return, at the end of the day chocolate industrialist Poroshenko and Vitaly Klitchko are leading the polls. This was the choice the people made as they grew weary of the revolutionary path as proposed by the radical nationalists of the Right sector. As of now, people want to return to «life as usual,» to life before Yanukovich, and are not prepared to make the sacrifices that further revolutionary developments would demand. Representative democracy is indeed like a hydra, if you cut one head, two will grow in its place.

However, none of the fears of a «fascist takeover» have materialized. Fascists gained very little real power, and in Ukraine their historical role will now be that of stormtroopers for liberal reforms demanded by the IMF and the European Union — that is, pension cuts, an up to five times increase in consumer gas prices, and others. Fascism in Ukraine has a powerful tradition, but it has been incapable of proceeding with its own agenda in the revolutionary wave. It is highly likely that the Svoboda-party will completely discredit itself in front of its voters.

But anyone attempting to intervene, anarchists included, could have encountered the same fate — that is, to be sidelined after all the effort. During the protests, anarchists and the «left» were looking towards the Right sector with envy, but in the end all the visibility and notoriety, for which they paid dearly, was not enough to help the Right sector gain any real influence.

If Kiev anarchists would have picked the position of «neutral observers» after Yanukovich had shot demonstrators, it would have completely discredited them. If after being shot, the working class, or more exactly «the people,» that is, the working class along with the lower strata of the bourgeoisie, would have failed to overthrow Yanukovich, Ukrainian society would have fallen into a lethargic sleep such as the one Russian and Belarusian societies are experiencing. Obviously, after the massacre there was no choice left except to overthrow the power, no matter what would come in its place. Anarchists in Kiev were in no position to significantly influence the situation, but standing aside was no longer an option.

And thus, we come to the third, «centrist,» position taken by anarchists — between the brainless actionism and the «neutral» internet statements. The camp of realist anarchists understood, that even if the Maidan protests pretty much lacked a meaningful positive program, something had to be done or the future would be dire.

Russian Anarchist Street Fighter

Russian Anarchist Street Fighter

The limits of intervention

In Kiev, anarchists took part in a number of important initiatives during the revolutionary wave — first of all the occupation of the ministry of education, and the raid against the immigration bureau by the local No Borders group, which was looking for proof of illegal cooperation with security services of foreign countries. But the most successful anarchist intervention was the one in Kharkiv, where Maidan was relatively weak but also freer of nationalistic influence.

Still, such centrism has its own problems. For one, you might unintentionally help the wrong forces gain power, also discrediting radical protest. A second problem would be that you might end up fighting a fight which is not your own. When AntiMaidan attacked the Maidan in the city of Kharkiv, its imagined enemy was not the anarchists, but NATO, EU or Western-Ukrainian fascists. Since anarchists had joined Maidan, it would have been cowardly to desert once the fight started. Thus anarchists ended up fighting side by side with liberals and fascists. I do not want to criticize the Kharkiv anarchists, after all they made, perhaps, the most serious attempt among Ukrainian anarchists to influence the course of events, but this was hardly the fight, and these were hardly the allies, they wanted.

And so comes the point when desertion becomes imperative, and that is when civil war begins. As of now, it’s still too early to make any final assessment of the anarchist attempts to influence Maidan, but after the beginning of a civil war, Maidan will no longer play a role. From now on, assembly will gradually turn to the army, and assault rifles will replace Molotov cocktails. Military discipline will replace spontaneous organisation.

Some supporters of the Ukrainian organisation, Borotba (meaning Struggle), and the Russian Left Front claim that they are attempting to do the same things as the anarchists did at Maidan, that is, direct protest towards social demands. But AntiMaidan has no structures of direct democracy, not even distorted ones. It quickly adopted the model of hierarchical, militaristic organisations. The AntiMaidan leadership consists of former police and reserve officers. It does not attempt to exert influence through the masses, but with military power and weapons. This makes perfect sense, considering that according to a recent opinion poll, even in the most pro-«federalist» area of Lugansk, a mere 24% of the population is in favor of armed takeovers of government structures. That is, AntiMaidan cannot count on a victory through mass demonstrations.

Whereas at its essence Maidan was a middle-class liberal and nationalistic protest, supported by part of the bourgeoisie, AntiMaidan is purely counter-revolutionary in tendency. Of course, AntiMaidan has its own grassroots level. One could attempt to intervene, but an intervention by joining would mean supporting a Soviet, imperialist approach. The Communist Party of the Russian Federation, Borotba, the Russian Left Front and Boris Kagarlitsky have all joined this Soviet chauvinist camp. Intervening in Maidan made sense only as long as the enemy were Berkut police forces and paid thugs. When the opponents are misled AntiMaidan participants, it no longer makes sense to fight in the streets.

When looking at either side of the conflict one can see a dangerous tendency, which every anarchist and anti-authoritarian will face in the future: the recuperation of anti-authoritarian rhetoric and terminology for the purposes of hierarchical ideologies. On the one side, «autonomous nationalists» who have found sympathy amongst many anarchists, and on the other, intellectuals such as Boris Kagarlitsky. Both characterising warring factions with attributes such as «direct democracy» and «self-organisation.» In reality, these characteristics are either present in a distorted form or not at all. When two different flavors of nationalism are «self-organising» in order to maim and murder each other, there is nothing to celebrate. Subsequent to the events in Ukraine, it is clear that anarchists must explain the essential difference between «self-organisation» and self-organisation to the world.

According to the opinion poll referenced above, in Eastern Ukraine as a whole, only 12% of the population supports the «federalists’» armed actions, whereas the Kiev government is supported by some 30%. The remaining 58% supports neither, and in conditions of civil war, this is the majority on which we should count. We should encourage desertion and conflict avoidance. Under any other conditions, and if anarchists had more influence, we could form independent units against both warring factions.

Unarmed civilians have stopped bloodbaths in several places by moving in between the troops as human shields. If not for this kind of civil disobedience, a full-scale war would have been launched much earlier. We should support this movement, and attempt to direct it against both «federalist» and government troops simultaneously.

In case Russia reacts either by occupying parts of Eastern Ukraine or the country as a whole, we could take the example of anarchist partisans in World War II era France and Italy. Under such conditions, the main enemy is the occupying army, as it will antagonize the whole population very quickly. But it is also necessary to keep the maximum distance from the nationalistic elements of the resistance, as any alliance with them would hinder anarchists from realizing their own program in the framework of the resistance.

The events in Odessa are a tragedy, and it is possible that among those who died in the House of the Trade Unions were also people who played no part in flaring up the violence. People who threw molotov cocktails at the House should have understood the consequences. Even if the fire igniting was not solely due to them, it is not for lack of trying.

In case civil war spreads, these deaths are just the beginning. No doubt that on both sides the majority only wants a better life for their close ones and their motherland, and many hate governments and oligarchs to an equal extent. The more sincerely naïve people die, the greater the pressure to support one of the factions in the war, and we must struggle against this pressure.

Whereas it may occasionally be worth it to swallow tear gas or to feel the police baton for a bourgeois revolution, it makes no sense at all to die in a civil war between two equally bourgeois and nationalist sides. It would not be another Maidan but something completely different. No blood, anarchist or otherwise, should spill due to this stupidity.

Antti Rautiainen, May 2014

Autonomous Action

Autonomous Action

Russell Brand: Don’t Vote – It Only Encourages Them

Writer and comedian Russell Brand is generating some controversy by stating the obvious: the electoral system is incapable of redressing the inequality and injustices facing people today. What we need is a revolution. As anarchists like to say, “if voting could change anything, it would be illegal.” In Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included a piece by Eduardo Colombo on “why anarchists don’t vote.”

ifvoting700iv5

Lessons from Brazil: Building Popular Power

Popular Protest in Brazil

Popular Protest in Brazil

Members of the Organização Anarquista Socialismo Libertário (Libertarian Socialism Anarchist Organization, OASL) have participated in the recent struggles in Brazil against the rising transportation tariffs, in Sao Paulo, in Brasilia and in cities like Mogi das Cruzes, Marilia and Franca. Members of other organizations linked to the Coordenação Anarquista Brasileira (Brazilian Anarchist Coordination, CAB) have, in other states, also contributed to the struggle. Below, two militants of OASL, Pablo Pamplona and Thiago Calixto, who have been participating in the struggles, respond to a few questions from Jonathan Bane of Anarkismo about the recent process of popular street mobilizations in the country. They emphasize the need to create ongoing grassroots organizations through which people can take control of their daily lives. For the full interview, click here.

Brazil MovimentoPasseLivre

The Free Pass Movement (MPL)

The struggles against the tariff increase [in Brazil] have been organized mainly by Movimento Passe Libre (Free Pass Movement, MPL), which has been organizing and convening struggles around the question of transport since 2006. The movement – with which we have great affinity and proximity – retains an autonomous and combative character. It builds its struggles independently through general and horizontal participation. It doesn’t bring sound cars to the streets, the statements are always passed around in minstrel form (someone shouts out the notices and the people around them repeat the same words, so that a greater number of people can hear) and the passivity of protesters is never encouraged; on the contrary, broad participation and action is always encouraged. This character, quite characteristic of the struggle against the rise [in tariffs], has earned strong support from the population, which, in our view, is tired of demonstrations in the traditional model of the left, around podiums and worn out speeches. Civil disobedience and direct action, as well as grassroots work, have been consistently practiced by the movement. At the same time, the fact that opposition to [political] parties has, to a large extent, been appropriated by a conservative and nationalist sector, sometimes stimulated by the extreme right, and has extended to the left as a whole, including trade union and social movements, should be cause for concern. The mainstream media has also contributed to this advance of conservative forces and to the weakening of the demands relating to transport.

When the protests against the last [tariff] increase stopped in 2011, the MPL discussed the amplification of their discussion. They made an assessment that this should continue with the struggle at another level of discussion and raised a campaign for Tarifa Zero (Zero Tariff). The movement took the discussion on public transport to a political discussion, of the public management of resources and the right to the city, arguing that real public transport, as well as other rights such as health and education, should not be charged for, but guaranteed by the government and paid for with incremental taxes: who has more pays more, who has less pays less, who doesn’t have doesn’t pay. With this new campaign, the movement could sustain the internal political discussion and external grassroots work in schools and communities that, in our view, was very positive, for two years. We believe that this contributed to qualifying the militants for the construction of a new, bigger and bolder phase of struggle, as it in fact was, even since before the first big action. They just weren’t expecting that the mobilizations would grow so much and, largely, completely bypass what had been planned.

Brazil Tariff Zero

Another factor that could have contributed is that, after eight years and for the first time in the struggle against the increase in Sao Paulo, we have a mayor from the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers Party, PT). The struggle also interested strong conservative sectors further to the right, which have been trying to erode the image of the new mayor, and with it, that of the federal government. A key element was the position of the media that, at first, positioned itself against the movement. As the protests grew, as well as the popular support – coupled with massive repression which reached a significant part of the reporters from the large media companies – the media started changing its position and moving to defend the movement. They preferred, however, to promote their own agendas and encourage pacifism, civility and nationalism, criminalizing the more radical sectors. Finally, we can identify that technology in general (cameras on cellular phones, for example), notably the internet, allowed for the dissemination of what was happening in the protests and that this was boosted by social networks. This variable is also relevant.

None of this would be possible without the movement’s years of building struggle, or without this feeling of revolt against state repression. However, social networks also play a key role, as we said. Facebook is one important tool for MPL, and its main point of reference. The call to the actions was done through “events”, public notes have been released making clarifications about the struggle and, especially, it is through them that the vehicles of mass communication are debunked.

The first demonstration had about 5000 people, and already had live coverage on Jornal Nacional, the country’s main television news. The same was to continue with the following actions: the mainstream media kept talking of struggle (even before the tariff reduction, it was already on the cover of many of the country’s major newspapers and magazines). Initially, the protesters were labelled as vandals, youth without a cause and other positions trying to delegitimize the movement. So the whole country was talking about the demonstrations, which was fundamental, and through social networks shared videos and information that showed another side of the story.

Brazil Police Movimento-Passe-Livre

The repression, contrary to causing fear, encouraged the revolt of the population and, in Sao Paulo, the government halted the most massive repressions by the Tropa de Choque (Shock Troop). The demonstrators, heavily influenced by the mainstream media, began denouncing any acts of violence and “pacifism” became one of the main common senses of the protests.

In our assessment, recent events confirm what the anarchists have always advocated: it is not enough that the people take to the streets; it is necessary that the people conquer power, from the bottom up, at their own rhythm and organization, not by taking the state, but through the construction of participatory and popular organizations. For this, grassroots work is indispensable. If there is no prior preparation, political discussion is abstracted and co-opted by the more organized sectors of society. In the current case, the big capitalists and the state. A large part of the population that is in the streets have no accumulation in political discussions and just reproduce what they have seen for a long time through the lens of the dominant ideology. They were conditioned to convert the demands to issues that matter to the right, like the “pride of being Brazilian”, “less taxes”, “less impunity,” etc.

Social networks are not good in and of themselves and don’t, in any way, replace the importance and necessity for popular organization and permanent grassroots work.

Bus Fare is Theft

Bus Fare is Theft

MPL maintains that any bus fare is theft, since it is a public service and, as such, should be free. The movement believes that the question of urban mobility is directly related to other basic rights, such as health, education and culture. In addition it defends that the right to come and go not be restricted to getting to and from work. The right to the city, that every citizen can enjoy the things that the city offers, is then a central and very profound point. Decriminalization of social movements is also an important issue and should gain momentum with the arrival of the World Cup.

But in any case MPL maintained before the repeal of the increases, and we share this analysis, that the agenda of the struggle should continue being the immediate reduction in tariffs. We are concerned that a struggle for everything would end up as a conquest of nothing. Therefore we support the focus on tariff reduction. From the moment that the reduction is won, the fight could advance to the next steps and, through the accumulation of short- and medium-term gains, the movement could be increasingly strengthened. This point of view was shared by virtually the whole left.

However, with the winning of the reduction, other demands have been raised. Some by the left, such as the need for zero tariffs, an end to the repression of social movements, the advance of struggles for rights, etc. Others by the more conservative right, or even by much of the common sense that pervades many people who are on the streets. The size of the demonstrations led the population towards optimism, to thinking that “Brazil is changing” and to the will to demand everything that comes to mind. In our view, it is important that our sector, that seeks to build autonomous and combative popular struggles, resumes this continuity of issues.

Brazil MPL2

In recent days the struggles have won over a more plural crowd. In the central regions of the city we have noticed a collection of forces composed more or less as follows. A more autonomous and combative sector, linked to MPL, which is strong and spearheaded the beginning of the movement. A more traditional left sector, with parties and movements, which had significant involvement since the beginning of the protests. A majority sector of new people who have taken to the streets (research has shown that most people had never taken to the streets before), and that reproduce a lot of the common sense; they are mainly conservatives and support demands linked to the conservative agenda. The repudiation of political parties, which ended up being a repudiation of the whole left, comes from this wing. Finally, there is a sector, certainly the minority, that combines the extreme right, in some cases linked to military sectors, of big capital and landlords. The question that is still not clear is what the capacity of these new people that are the majority is to adhere to proposals of combative class struggle, though independent of political parties and the state.

In terms of class, the demonstrations in the central region of the city are composed, mostly, of who is or has been in higher education. However, it is possible to notice the participation of workers and residents of the periphery; the majority outside of the organized left. In the peripheries social movements have held very important demonstrations of markedly popular character and with positions further to the left. Perhaps the continuity of the protests should be sought in these initiatives, by those who actually want to build alternatives of popular power.

In terms of numbers, the country has come to mobilize over one million people (0.5% of the population); in Sao Paulo we reached a few hundred thousand in a few days.

Tariffs Are Violence

Tariffs Are Violence

There is a very large division in the general reaction [to the protests]. In the first demonstrations we had the following picture: there were those that denounced the demonstrators as freeloading vandals, but even then it was not a majority position. There were those who argued that the demonstrations were peaceful, and those that denounced state violence. However, given the widespread manipulation of the media and the lack of preparation of the left to respond to the accusations, today we have a large number of people that accuse any more radical direct action of vandalism. It is an attempt to separate the peaceful protesters from the violent ones and, unfortunately, in a few cases, the government has tried to place the blame for the violent actions on the anarchists. This was the case in Rio Grande do Sul (RS), with the invasion by the police of the local of the Federação Anarquista Gaúcha (Gaucho Anarchist Federation, FAG) and the attempt to blame them not only for the acts of vandalism, but for the accumulation of support for right-wing initiatives. This is really absurd.

First of all, violence is directly propagated by the system in which we live. Violence is using daily the precarious transport system that we have, violence is dying in the queues of public hospitals, violence is the education of our public schools, violence is the exploitation that we suffer daily when we work. This has to be clear. Capitalism is a system based on violence. We are violated every day. And when the people complain, mobilize, they are again violated by the state, as has been the case with respect to repression throughout the country. The violence of the demonstrations is in response to this situation to which the population is subjected every day.

Still, we must remember that the last demonstrations in Sao Paulo showed cases of violence between the protesters themselves, stimulated by sectors of the extreme right and led by the inexperienced and conservatives that are in the streets. Violence against party militants, social movements and the whole organized left. And it was not a rejection by the left, but by the right, in fascist speeches and attitudes. A lot of the advocates of non-violence acceded to that, a fact that the media hardly addressed…

Organizing from the grassroots

Organizing from the grassroots

We think it is important to emphasize the importance of organized and continuous grassroots work. The image of hundreds of thousands of people spontaneously occupying the streets brought new optimistic airs, of the possibility of concrete change outside of the polls. For the social imagination, the occupation of the streets became the new terrain for doing politics. But, thanks to the distortion of the facts, it has also become the only terrain. The right is trying to construct the idea that all political organization is inherently opportunist and corrupt, while grassroots work is supposedly unnecessary, since, as the protesters chanted, “the people have awoken” (and when were they asleep)?

The streets are a fundamental tool to make the struggle public, but it is not in them that the public debate and political training will be completely carried out. It is through daily struggle in the social, student, trade union and community movements that the people build the necessary power to win their emancipation. What we are seeing today is that, if on the one hand the left has the potential to mobilize, some of its ways are very worn. It is necessary, in our view, to emphasize grassroots work and to adopt a strategy that contributes to this emancipatory project. In our view, in the demonstrations, in the popular movements stimulating class struggle, combativeness, independence, democratic participation; in short, trying to build popular power. We should not leave aside the symbolic struggle.

Brazilian Anarchist Coordination (CAB)

Brazilian Anarchist Coordination (CAB)

The key point is that this potential must be converted into a social force that contributes to our project of a new society; and this is not by way of the state or agreements with capitalists. The people need their own alternative. If there is no popular organization, struggles will continue to be lost. As anarchists, we maintain that this organization will be better prepared if it is built from the bottom up, with a strong base and capable of taking the struggle towards paths that interest it as a class.

We live in a historic moment, a turning point in the mood of the population. We have had an immense quantitative advance in the struggle, and if we want to advance even further we need to focus on grassroots work where, with daily struggle, we can learn from our mistakes and successes.

Forward in the building of popular power!
Arriba los que luchan!

brazil mural

Military Dictatorship or Social Revolution in Egypt

social revolution flags

Here is a brief excerpt from a larger piece by Jerome Roos on the Egyptian military’s recent moves against the Morsi government in Egypt:

Even if the Muslim Brotherhood did at times seek to directly confront the military’s political influence, the military’s top command remained one of the dominant political and economic players even after Egypt’s first free and fair elections. It never took over state power because it never truly relinquished it: after burning its fingers on a disastrous year of military rule, it deliberately entered into a coalition with the country’s biggest and oldest organized political force. The moment that force imploded, as a result of its own incompetence and arrogance, the army simply dumped it and replaced it with someone more of their liking — piggybacking off a wave of grassroots protest and some of the largest mobilizations in world history to further entrench its hegemony.

This has led to an extremely dangerous situation in which a majority of protesters has now come to see the army as an enforcer of the popular will and a defender of the people’s revolution because it sided with them in the struggle to overthrow the deeply unpopular Muslim Brotherhood. Meanwhile, the military command has carefully and skilfully preserved the position of social dominance it acquired over the course of the past six decades of military dictatorship. Mubarak was overthrown, but his authoritarian state was never truly dismantled. As an Egyptian activist told us in an email yesterday, by siding with the streets in the overthrow of Morsi, the army and the state security apparatus even managed to “whitewash” their own previous lies and crimes and now seem more popular and less vulnerable than ever.

For the rest of the article, click here.

egypt

From Taksim to Rio to Tahrir… and Everywhere

Protesters return to Tahrir Square

Protesters return to Tahrir Square

With the media carrying stories about huge public demonstrations now again in Cairo and other parts of Egypt, with millions of people demanding an end to the Morsi regime, and the Egyptian military threatening to intervene to restore “order,” this open letter from the “Comrades from Cairo” collective is as timely as it is relevant. Check out these links: http://roarmag.org/2013/06/from-tahrir-and-rio-to-taksi…ne%29; and http://www.glykosymoritis.blogspot.com.

Open letter by the Egyptian activist collective ‘Comrades from Cairo’

To you at whose side we struggle:

June 30 will mark a new stage of rebellion for us, building on what started on January 25 and 28, 2011. This time we rebel against the reign of the Muslim Brotherhood that has brought only more of the same forms of economic exploitation, police violence, torture and killings.

References to the coming of “democracy” have no relevance when there is no possibility of living a decent life with any signs of dignity and decent livelihood. Claims of legitimacy through an electoral process distract from the reality that in Egypt our struggle continues because we face the perpetuation of an oppressive regime that has changed its face but maintains the same logic of repression, austerity and police brutality. The authorities maintain the same lack of any accountability towards the public, and positions of power translate into opportunities to increase personal power and wealth.

June 30 renews the Revolution’s scream: “The People Want the Fall of the System”. We seek a future governed neither by the petty authoritarianism and crony capitalism of the Brotherhood nor a military apparatus which maintains a stranglehold over political and economic life nor a return to the old structures of the Mubarak era. Though the ranks of protesters that will take to the streets on June 30 are not united around this call, it must be ours — it must be our stance because we will not accept a return to the bloody periods of the past.

Though our networks are still weak we draw hope and inspiration from recent uprisings, especially across Turkey and Brazil. Each is born out of different political and economic realities, but we have all been ruled by tight circles whose desire for more has perpetuated a lack of vision of any good for people. We are inspired by the horizontal organization of the Free Fare Movement founded in Bahía, Brazil in 2003 and the public assemblies spreading throughout Turkey.

In Egypt, the Brotherhood only adds a religious veneer to the process, while the logic of a localized neo-liberalism crushes the people. In Turkey a strategy of aggressive private-sector growth, likewise translates into authoritarian rule, the same logic of police brutality as the primary weapon to oppress opposition and any attempts to envision alternatives. In Brazil a government rooted in a revolutionary legitimacy has proven that its past is only a mask it wears while it partners with the same capitalist order in exploiting people and nature alike.

These recent struggles share in the fight of much older constant battles of the Kurds and the indigenous peoples of Latin America. For decades, the Turkish and Brazilian governments have tried but failed to wipe out these movements’ struggle for life. Their resistance to state repression was the precursor to the new wave of protests that have spread across Turkey and Brazil. We see an urgency in recognizing the depth in each others’ struggles and seek out forms of rebellion to spread into new spaces, neighborhoods and communities.

Our struggles share a potential to oppose the global regime of nation states. In crisis as in prosperity, the state — in Egypt under the rule of Mubarak, the Military Junta or the Muslim Brotherhood — continues to dispossess and disenfranchise in order to preserve and expand the wealth and privilege of those in power.

None of us are fighting in isolation. We face common enemies from Bahrain, Brazil and Bosnia, Chile, Palestine, Syria, Turkey, Kurdistan, Tunisia, Sudan, the Western Sahara and Egypt. And the list goes on. Everywhere they call us thugs, vandals, looters and terrorists. We are fighting more than economic exploitation, naked police violence or an illegitimate legal system. It is not rights or reformed citizenship that we fight for.

We oppose the nation-state as a centralized tool of repression, that enables a local elite to suck the life out of us and global powers to retain their dominion over our everyday lives. The two work in unison with bullets and broadcasts and everything in between. We are not advocating to unify or equate our various battles, but it is the same structure of authority and power that we have to fight, dismantle, and bring down. Together, our struggle is stronger.

We want the downfall of the System.

Comrades from Cairo

Egyptian protesters storm the Muslim Brotherhood

Egyptian protesters storm the Muslim Brotherhood

Kropotkin: Workers’ Organization (Part 2)

Kropotkin

Kropotkin

This is the second part of Kropotkin’s December 1881 article on workers’ organization, in which he argues that it is through their own organizations and direct action, particularly strikes, that the workers will develop the class consciousness and solidarity needed for them to abolish capitalism. This article will be included in Iain McKay’s forthcoming anthology of Kropotkin’s writings, Direct Struggle Against Capital, and was recently published in the Anarcho-Syndicalist Review. The translation is by James Bar Bowen. I included several of Kropotkin’s writings in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, and have posted many more on this blog, including his analysis of the 1905 Russian Revolution and his conception of a post-revolutionary anarchist society.

direct action

Workers’ Organization, Part 2: Striking Against Capitalism

Le Révolté showed in the last edition that a party which proposes as its goal a Social revolution, and which seeks to seize capital from the hands of its current holders must, of necessity, and from this day onwards, position itself at the centre of the struggle against capital. If it wishes that the next revolution should take place against the regime of property and that the watchword of the next call to arms should necessarily be one calling for the expropriation of society’s wealth from the capitalists, the struggle must, on all fronts, be a struggle against the capitalists.

Some object that the great majority of workers are not sufficiently aware of the situation imposed upon them by the holders of capital: “The workers have not yet understood,” they say, “that the true enemy of the worker, of the whole of society, of progress, and of liberty is the capitalist; and the workers allow themselves to be drawn too easily by the bourgeoisie into fighting miserable battles whose focus is solely upon bourgeois politics.” But if this is true, if it is true that the worker all too often drops his prey in order to chase shadows, if it is true that all too often he expends his energies against those who, of course, are also his enemies, but he does not realise that he actually needs to bring the capitalist to his knees; if all this is true, then we too are guilty of chasing shadows since we have failed to identify those who are the true enemies of the worker. The formation of a new political party is not the way to bring the economic question out into the open. If the great majority of workers is not sufficiently aware of the importance of the economic question (a fact about which we anarchists remain in no doubt), then relegating this question itself into the background is definitely not going to highlight its importance in the eyes of the workers. If this misconception exists, we must work against it, not preserve and perpetuate it.

black cat

Putting this objection to one side, we must now discuss the diverse characteristics of the struggle against capitalism. Our readers of course realise that such a discussion should not take place in a newspaper. It is actually on the ground, among those groups themselves, with full knowledge of local circumstances and spurred on by changing conditions that the question of practical action should be discussed. In The Spirit of Revolt,[1] we showed how the peasants in the last century and the revolutionary bourgeoisie managed to develop a current of ideas directed against the nobility and the royals. In our articles on the Agrarian League in Ireland,[2] we showed how the Irish people managed to organise themselves to fight on a daily basis a relentless and merciless war against the ruling class. Taking inspiration from this, we must find the means to fight against the boss and the capitalist in ways appropriate to each locality. What may work perfectly in Ireland may not work in France, and what may give great results in one country may fail in another. Moreover, it is not through following the advice of a newspaper that groups of activists will manage to find the best ways to fight. It is by posing questions in the light of local circumstances for each group; it is by discussing in depth; it is by taking inspiration from events which, at any given moment, may excite local interest, and by looking closely at their own situation that they will find the methods of action most appropriate for their own locality.

However, there remains one tactic in the revolutionary struggle about which Le Révolté is willing to give its opinion. This is not because this is a superior method, or even less so, the only valid tactic. But it is a weapon which workers use in different contexts, wherever they may be, and it is a weapon which can be called upon at any time, according to circumstance. This weapon is the strike!

It is, however, even more necessary to speak of it today because, for some time now, the ideologues and the false friends of the workers have campaigned covertly against the use of the strike, with a view to turning the working class away from this form of struggle and railroading them down a more ‘political’ path.[3] The result of this has been that recently strikes have broken out all over France, and those who have inscribed upon their banners that the emancipation of the workers must be achieved by the workers themselves[4] are now maintaining a healthy distance between themselves and the struggle being undertaken by their brothers and sisters; they are also maintaining for themselves a distance from the subsequent privations suffered by the workers, be these in the form of the sabres of the gendarmes, the knives of the foremen or the sentences of the judges.

It is fashionable these days to say that the strike is not a way to emancipate the worker, so we should not bother with it. Well, let us just have a closer look at this objection.

Of course, going on strike is not, in itself, a means of emancipation. It is [only] by revolution, by the expropriation society’s wealth and putting it at the disposal of everyone that the workers will break their chains. But does it follow that they should wait with folded arms until the day of the revolution? In order to be able to make revolution, the mass of workers must organise themselves, and resistance and the strike are excellent means by which workers can organise. Indeed, they have a great advantage over the tactics that are being proposed at the moment (workers’ representatives, constitution of a workers’ political party, etc.) which do not actually derail the movement but serve to keep it perpetually in thrall to its principal enemy, the capitalist. The strike and resistance funds[5] provide the means to organise not only the socialist converts (these seek each other out and organise themselves anyway) but especially those who are not yet converted, even though they really should be.

In effect, strikes break out all over the place. But, isolated and abandoned to their own fate, they fail all too often. And, meanwhile, what the workers who go on strike really need to do is to organise themselves, to communicate among themselves, and they will welcome with open arms anyone who would come and offer help to build the organisation that they lack. The task is immense: there is so much work to do for every man and woman devoted to the workers’ cause, and the results of this organisational work will of course prove enormously satisfying to all those who do put their weight behind the movement. What is required is to build societies of resistance[6] for each trade in each town, to create resistance funds and fight against the exploiters, to unify [solidariser] the workers’ organisations of each town and trade and to put them in contact with those of other towns, to federate across France, to federate across borders, internationally. The concept of workers’ solidarity must become more than just a saying: it must become a daily reality for all trades and all nations. In the beginning, the International faced national and local prejudice, rivalry between trades, and so on; and yes – and this is perhaps one of the greatest services the International has done for us – these rivalries and these prejudices were overcome, and we really did witness workers from distant countries and trades, who had previously been in conflict, now working together. The result of this, let us not forget, was achieved by organisations emerging from and owing their very existence to the great strikes of the time. It is through the organisation of resistance to the boss that the International managed to gather together more than two million workers and to create a powerful force before which both bourgeoisie and governments trembled.

general strike

“But the strike,” the theoreticians tell us, “only addresses the selfish interests of the worker.” In the first place, it is not egotism which drives the worker to strike: he is driven by misery, by the overarching necessity to raise wages in line with food prices. If he endures months of privation during a strike, it is not with a view to becoming another petit bourgeois: it is to avoid dying of starvation, himself, his wife, his children. And then, far from developing egotistical instincts, the strike serves to develop the sense of solidarity which emerges from the very heart of the organisation. How often have we seen the starving share their meagre earnings with their striking comrades! Just recently, the building workers of Barcelona donated as much as half their scant wages to strikers campaigning for a nine-and-a-half hour day (and we should acknowledge in passing that they succeeded, whereas if they had followed the parliamentary route, they would still be working eleven or twelve hours a day). At no time in history has solidarity among the working classes been practised at such a developed level as during strikes called by the International.

Lastly, the best evidence against the accusation levelled at the strike that it is purely a selfish tactic is of course the history of the International. The International was born from strikes; at root, it was a strikers’ organisation, right up until the bourgeoisie, aided by the ambitious, managed to draw a part of the Association into parliamentary struggles. And, at the same time, it is precisely this organisation, by means of its local sections and its congresses, which managed to elaborate the wider principles of modern socialism which today gives us our strength; for – with all due respect to the so-called scientific socialists – until the present there has not been a single idea on socialism which has not been expressed in the Congresses of the International. The practice of going on strike did not hinder different sections within the International from addressing the social question in all its complexity. On the contrary, it helped it as well as simultaneously spreading the wider ideas among the masses.

The Spirit of Revolt

The Spirit of Revolt

Others have also often been heard to say that the strike does not awaken the revolutionary spirit. In the current climate, you would have to say that the opposite is true. There is hardly a strike called these days which does not see the arrival of troops, the exchange of blows, and numerous acts of revolt. Some fight the soldiers, others march on the factories; in 1873 in Spain, the strikers at Alcoy declared the Commune and fired on the bourgeoisie; [in 1877] at Pittsburgh in the USA, the strikers found themselves masters of a territory as large as France, and the strike became the catalyst for a general uprising; [7] in Ireland, the striking farm workers found themselves in open confrontation with the State. Thanks to government intervention, the factory rebel becomes a rebel against the State. Today, he finds ranged before him soldiers who will tamely obey the orders of their officers to shoot. But the employing of troops in strikes will only serve to “demoralise”, that is to say, to moralise the soldier: as a result, the soldier will lay down his arms and refuse to fight against his insurgent brothers.

In the end, the strike itself, the days without work or bread, spent in these opulent streets of limitless luxury and the vices of the bourgeoisie, will do more for the propagation of socialist ideas than all manner of public meetings in times of relative social harmony. Such is the power of these ideas that one fine day the strikers of Ostrau in Austria will requisition all the food in the town’s shops and declare their right to society’s wealth.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

But the strike, we must be clear, is not the only engine of war in the struggle against capital. In a strike, it is the workers as a whole who are taking up the fight; but there is also a role for groups and even individuals; and the ways in which they may act and be effective can vary infinitely according to local circumstances and the needs of the moment and the situation. It would be pointless to analyse these roles here since each group will find new and original ways to further the workers’ cause as it becomes active and effective in their own part of the great labour movement. The most important thing for us to do here is to agree upon the following principles:

The goal of the revolution is the expropriation of the holders of society’s wealth, and it is against these holders that we must organise. We must marshal all of our efforts with the aim of creating a vast workers’ organisation to pursue this goal. The organisation of resistance [to] and war on capital must be the principal objective of the workers’ organisation, and its methods must be informed not by the pointless struggles of bourgeois politics but the struggle, by all of the means possible, against those who currently hold society’s wealth – and the strike is an excellent means of organisation and one of the most powerful weapons in the struggle.

If we manage over the course of the next few years to create such an organisation, we can be sure that the next revolution will not fail: the precious blood of the people will not be spilled in vain, and the worker, currently a slave, will emerge victorious from the conflict and will commence a new era in the development of human society based on Equality, Solidarity and Labour.

Le Révolté,  December 24, 1881


[1] L’Espirit de Révolté was one of Kropotkin’s most famous pamphlets and was initially published in Le Révolté between May 14 and July 9 1881 and was subsequently included in Words of a Rebel. Excerpts from the Nicolas Walter translation are included in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas.

[2] A reference to the Irish National Land League. (Editor)

[3] The Parti Ouvrier did not encourage strikes although they supported them once they had begun. (Editor)

[4] An ironic reference to first sentence of the “General Rules” of The International Working Men’s Association drawn up by Marx in 1864 (included in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas). Anarchists like Bakunin and Kropotkin agreed with the position and argued that Marx’s support for “political action” (electioneering) by political parties contradicted this fundamental position of genuine socialism. (Editor)

[5] Caisse de résistance (resistance funds) are strike funds, reserves set up by a union ahead of a strike or gathered from other unions and workers during a strike which are used to provide strike pay or for other strike-related activities. (Editor)

[6] Sociétés de résistance was a common term for militant unions within the libertarian-wing of the International Working Men’s Association. (Editor)

[7] A reference to the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. (Editor)

solidarity

Kropotkin: Workers’ Organization (Part 1)

Peter Kropotkin

Peter Kropotkin

I recently posted a page collecting various writings from the Paris Commune to commemorate its 142nd anniversary. In Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included excerpts from Peter Kropotkin’s essay commemorating  the 10th anniversary of the Commune, in which he drew two important lessons for anarchists. First, that for the social revolution to succeed, the people must take direct action to institute immediately a form of anarchist communism. Second, that a revolutionary commune has no more need for an internal government than it had for a national government to rule over it. While Kropotkin’s anarchist communism is sometimes contrasted with anarcho-syndicalism (by Murray Bookchin for example), Kropotkin was well aware of the need for the workers themselves to take up a direct struggle against capitalism and the state using their own working class organizations. In fact, he did not think a social revolution could succeed without revolutionary working class organization, as the excerpts below make clear.

direct_struggle_against_capitalThis is the first part of an essay Kropotkin published at the end of 1881, describing the kind of working class organization he felt was needed in order to abolish capitalism and the state. The translation is by James Bar Bowen for the anthology of Kropotkin’s writings, Direct Struggle Against Capital, edited by Iain McKay, to be published by AK Press sometime next year. It recently appeared in the Anarcho-Syndicalist Review, issue number 59.

Workers’ Organization: Part 1

As bourgeois society becomes more and more chaotic, as States fall apart, and as one can sense a coming revolution in Europe, we perceive in the hearts of the workers of all countries an ever increasing desire to unite, to stand shoulder to shoulder, to organize. In France particularly, where all workers’ organizations were crushed, dismantled and thrown to the four winds after the fall of the [Paris] Commune, this desire is ever more visible. In almost every industrial town there is a movement to have the workers’ voices heard and to unite; and even in the villages, according to reports from the most trusted observers, the workers are demanding nothing less than the development of institutions whose sole purpose is the defence of workers’ rights.

Commune kropotkine

The results that have been achieved in this area over the last three years have certainly been significant. However, if we look at the enormity of the task incumbent on the revolutionary socialist party, if we compare our meagre resources with those available to our adversaries, if we honestly face up to the work that we still have to do, in order that, in four or five years’ time, on the day of the revolution, we can offer a real force capable of marching resolutely towards the demolition of the old social order – if we take that into account, we have to admit that the amount of work left to do is still immense and that we have scarcely begun the creation of a true workers’ movement: the great working masses are still a long way removed from the workers’ movement inaugurated three years ago. The Collectivists, in spite of the fact that they give themselves the pretentious name ‘Workers’ Party’ are still not seeing the rush of workers to their organization that they envisaged when they first launched their electoral campaign;[1] and, as they lean more and more towards the Radical Party, they lose ground instead of gaining it. As for the anarchist groups, most of them are not yet in sustained daily contact with the majority of workers who, of course, are the only ones who can give the impetus to and implement the action necessary for any party, be that in the field of theoretical propaganda and ideas or in the field of concrete political action.

Well, let us leave these people to their illusions, if that is what they want. We prefer to face up to the task in all its enormity; and, instead of prematurely announcing our victory, we prefer to propose the following questions: what do we need to do to develop our organizations much further than at present? What do we need to do to extend our sphere of influence to the whole of the mass of workers, with the objective of creating a conscious and invincible force on the day of the revolution, in order to achieve the aspirations of the working class?

***

It appears to us that an essential point that has been ignored up till now but which needs to be explored before we go any further is this: for any organization to be able to achieve wider development, to become a force, it is important for those at the forefront of the movement to be clear as to what is the final objective of the organization they have created; and that, once this objective has been agreed upon – specify a proposed course of action in conformity with the ends. This prior reasoning is clearly an indispensable precondition if the organization is going to have any chance of success, and essentially all of the organizations have, up to now, never proceeded differently. Take the Conservatives, the Bonapartists, the Opportunists, the Radicals, the political conspirators of previous eras – each one of their parties has a well-defined objective and their means of action are absolutely in accordance with this objective.

parti-radical_12019

It would take too long to analyze here the goals and methods of each of the parties. Therefore, I will explore just one illustrative example here and let it stand as an example for all. Let us take, by way of example, the radical or intransigent party.

Their goal is well defined: the radicals tell us that they wish to abolish personal government and to install in France a democratic republic copied from the US model.[2] Abolition of the Senate, a single chamber, elected by the simple means of universal suffrage; separation of Church and State; absolute freedom of the press, of speech and of association; regional autonomy; a national army. These are the most important features of their programme. And will the worker be happier under this regime or not? And as a result, will he cease to be a wage-earner at the mercy of his boss? These questions do not really interest them: these things can be sorted out at a later date, they reply. The social question is reduced in importance to something which can be sorted out some time in the future by the democratic state. It is not a question for them of overturning existing institutions: it is simply a case of modifying them; and a legislative assembly could, according to them, do this easily. All of their political programme can be implemented by means of decrees, and all that needs to happen – they say – is that power needs to be wrenched from the hands of those who currently hold it and passed into the hands of the Radical Party.

This is their goal. Whether it is achievable or not is another question; but what is important to us is to establish whether their means are in accordance with their ends. As advocates of political reform, they have constituted themselves as a political party and are working towards the conquest of power. Envisaging the realignment of the centre of governmental power towards a democratic future, with a view to getting as many Members as possible elected to the Chamber, in local councils and in all of the government institutions and to become the bigwigs in these positions of power. Their enemy, being the government, they organise against the government, daringly declaring war on it and preparing for it to fall.

Property, in their eyes, is sacrosanct, and they do not wish to oppose it by any means: all their efforts are directed towards seizing power in government. If they appeal to the people and promise them economic reforms, it is only with the intention of overturning the current government and putting in its place a more democratic one.

This political programme is very definitely not what we are working for. What is clear to us is that it is not possible to implement real social change without the regime of property undergoing a profound transformation. However, while having strong criticisms of this programme, we have to agree that the means of action proposed by this party are in accordance with its proposed goals: these are the goals, and that is the organization proposing to achieve them!

***

What then is the objective of the workers’ organization? And what means of action and modes of organization should they employ?

The objective for which the French workers wish to organize has only ever been vaguely articulated up until now. However, there are two main points about which there definitely remains no doubt. The workers’ Congresses have managed to articulate them, after long discussions, and the resolutions of the Congresses on this subject repeatedly receive the approval of the workers. The two points are as follows: the first is common ownership as opposed to private property; and the second is affirmation that this change of regime regarding property can only be implemented by revolutionary means. The abolition of private property is the goal; and the social revolution is the means. These are the two agreed points, eloquently summed up, adopted by those who at the forefront of the workers’ movement. The Communist-Anarchists have honed these points and have also developed a wider political programme: they believe in a more complete abolition of private property than that proposed by the Collectivists[3], and they also include in their goals the abolition of the State and the spread of revolutionary propaganda. However, there is one thing upon which we all agree (or rather did agree before the appearance of the minimum programme[4]) and that is that the goal of the workers’ organization should be the economic revolution, the social revolution.

Courbert: The Stone Cutters

Courbert: The Stone Cutters

A whole new world opens up in the light of these resolutions from the workers’ Congresses. The French proletariat thus announces that it is not against one government or another that it declares war. It takes the question from a much wider and more rational perspective: it is against the holders of capital, be they blue, red or white [the colours of the French flag], that they wish to declare war. It is not a political party that they seek to form either: it is a party of economic struggle. It is no longer democratic reform that they demand: it is a complete economic revolution, the social revolution. The enemy is no longer M. Gambetta nor M. Clemenceau; the enemy is capital, along with all the Gambettas and the Clemenceaus from today or in the future who seek to uphold it or to serve it. The enemy is the boss, the capitalist, the financier – all the parasites who live at the expense of the rest of us and whose wealth is created from the sweat and the blood of the worker. The enemy is the whole of bourgeois society and the goal is to overthrow it. It is not enough to simply overthrow a government. The problem is greater than that: it is necessary to seize all of the wealth of society, if necessary doing so over the corpse of the bourgeoisie, with the intention of returning all of society’s wealth to those who produced it, the workers with their calloused hands, those who have never had enough.

Georges Clemenceau

Georges Clemenceau

This is the goal. And now that the goal has been established, the means of action are also obvious. The workers declaring war on capital? In order to bring it down completely? Yes. From today onwards, they must prepare themselves without wasting a single moment: they must engage in the struggle against capital. Of course, the Radical Party, for example, does not expect that the day of the revolution will simply fall from the sky, so that they can then declare war on the government that they wish to overthrow. They continue their struggle at all times, taking neither respite nor repose: they do not miss a single opportunity to fight this war, and if the opportunity to fight does not present itself, they create it, and they are right to do so, because it is only through a constant series of skirmishes, only by means of repeated acts of war, undertaken daily and at every opportunity that one can prepare for the decisive battle and the victory.  We who have declared war on capital must do the same with the bourgeoisie if our declarations are not to constitute empty words. If we wish to prepare for the day of the battle [and] our victory over capital, we must, from this day onward begin to skirmish, to harass the enemy at every opportunity, to make them seethe and rage, to exhaust them with the struggle, to demoralize them. We must never lose sight of the main enemy: capitalism, exploitation. And we must never become put off by the enemy’s distractions and diversions. The State will, of necessity, play its part in this war because, if it is in any way possible to declare war on the State without taking on capital at the same time, it is absolutely impossible to declare war on capital without striking out at the State at the same time.

What means of action should we employ in this war? If our goal is simply to declare this war, then we can simply create conflict – we have the means to do this: indeed, they are obvious. Each group of workers will find them where they are, appropriate to local circumstance, rising from the very conditions created in each locality. Striking will of course be one of the means of agitation and action, and this will be discussed in a later article; but a thousand other tactics, as yet unthoughtof and unexpressed in print will also be available to us at the sites of conflict. The main thing is to carry the following idea forward:

The enemy on whom we declare war is capital; and it is against capital that we will direct all our efforts, taking care not to become distracted from our goal by the phony campaigns and arguments of the political parties. The great struggle that we are preparing for is essentially economic, and so it is on the economic terrain that we should focus our activities.

If we place ourselves on this terrain, we will see that the great mass of workers will come and join our ranks, and that they will assemble under the flag of the League of Workers. Thus we will become a powerful force which will, on the day of the revolution, impose its will upon exploiters of every sort.

Le Révolté, December 10, 1881


[1] Kropotkin is referring to the French Marxists rather than collectivists like Bakunin who were active in the First International. The Parti Ouvrier (Workers Party) was created in 1880 by Jules Guesde who drew up in conjunction with Marx the minimum programme accepted at its National Congress that year. It stressed the need to form a political party using elections in pursuit of socialism. Marx wrote the preamble which stated: “That such an organization must be striven for, using all the means at the disposal of the proletariat, including universal suffrage, thus transformed from the instrument of deception which it has been hitherto into an instrument of emancipation.” (Marx-Engels Collected Works, vol. 24, p. 340). (Editor)

[2] Personal government refers to situations were the head of state extends their powers and controls other parts of the government. The classic example in France was when Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, the elected President of the Republic, staged a coup d’état in December 1851 and dissolved the National Assembly before, a year later, proclaiming himself Emperor. This situation remained until 1869 when, under pressure by the population, a parliamentary monarchy was substituted for personal government. (Editor)

[3] As Kropotkin discussed in a later pamphlet, “The Wage System”, the collectivists advocated common ownership of the means of production but retained payment according to work done. Communist-anarchists argued that this retained private property in products and argued that both logic and ethics demanded the socialization of products as well as means, in other words “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs.” (Editor)

[4] A reference to the standard Marxist practice of drawing up two programmes, a minimum one listing various immediate reforms which could be implemented within capitalism and a maximum one which listed the longer term aims that would be implemented once the Marxist party had won political power. The former existed to secure popular support, the latter to console the consciences of the socialists. In conjunction with Marx, Jules Guesde drew up the minimum programme accepted by the National Congress of the French Workers Party at Le Havre in 1880, which stressed the creation of a socialist party, use of elections and possible reforms. (Editor)

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The Paris Commune of 1871

paris commune

Last year, I posted a series of writings by anarchist and revolutionary socialist participants in the international workers’ movement and the 1871 Paris Commune. This month marks the (142nd) anniversay of the tragic defeat of the revolutionary Paris Commune, which became an inspiration to thousands of anarchists and revolutionaries across the globe. Today, I have created a page setting forth the various writings on the Commune previously posted separately, which you can access by clicking here. Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas has a chapter on the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune, with writings by Bakunin, Louise Michel and Kropotkin.

Paris cover

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