Early Christianity and Anarchism

An anarchist Jesus?

Ever since anarchism emerged as a distinct doctrine in the 19th century (largely through the debates within the First International regarding the proper direction of working class and socialist movements), there have been Christians who have claimed that Jesus was a kind of pacifist anarchist. I examine these claims in my forthcoming book, The Anarchist Current, by reviewing the history of early Christianity. In this section, I compare the early Christians to the Jewish rebels against Roman rule, who appear to have been much closer to modern anarchists than Jesus and his followers.

Early Christianity and the Jewish Revolts in Palestine

When considering the alleged anarchism of Jesus and his followers, it is useful to compare them to the Jewish groups in Palestine who refused to pay taxes to the Roman Empire and denied the legitimacy of Roman authority. The refusal to pay Roman taxes pre-dated the so-called Jesus movement by about 30 years. Then between 66 and 70 CE, about 30 years after Jesus’ purported death, there was a protracted Jewish rebellion against Roman rule and the Jewish high priests and aristocrats who collaborated with the Romans. Some of the Jewish opponents of Roman authority, the “Fourth Philosophy” group, refused “to call any man master,” taking “God as their only leader.” [Horsley and Hanson, pp. 191 and 215; Horsley, p. 41] As we shall see, refusing to acknowledge the legitimacy of any earthly authority is the basis of much of what is now described as “religious” anarchism.

During the rebellion, a group called the “Zealots” fought not only “against the alien Roman oppressors,” but also “a class war against their own Jewish nobility.” [H & H, p. 226] The Zealots opposed “hierarchical power and privilege,” and chose their priests by lot, which was meant to ensure that the priests were chosen by God, “the true ruler of society.” [H & H, pp. 233] Unlike other Jewish rebel groups, and the nascent Christian communities, the Zealots did not have individual leaders, but reached “decisions collectively.” [H & H, pp. 235] While 19th and 20th century anarchists did not believe in any master, including a divine one, they believed, as did the Zealots, that no person had the right to rule over others; they rejected hierarchy and privilege; many of them advocated class war against the aristocracy and the capitalists; and they also practiced forms of non-coercive collective decision-making.

The Zealots share more similarities with 19th and 20th century anarchists than Jesus and his followers, who do not appear to have participated in or to have supported the 66 – 70 CE Jewish rebellion against Roman rule, which was consistent with Jesus’ advice to suffer earthly authorities gladly. [Ekkehard and Wolfgang Stegemann, The Jesus Movement: A Social History of Its First Century (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), trans. O.C. Dean, Jr., p. 212] According to the early historian of Christianity, Eusebius (c.260–c.340 CE), the Christians left Jerusalem at the beginning of the rebellion to sit it out in areas that remained under Roman control. [Stegemann & Stegemann, p. 220]

The four gospels in the New Testament that purport to set forth Jesus’ life and teachings all post-date the 66 – 70 CE rebellion. Despite the fact that the Christians had not supported the rebellion, the Christian communities in Palestine suffered along with the Jewish ones as the Romans put down the rebellion and reasserted Imperial authority. [Horsley & Hanson, Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs, p. 259] According to Horsley and Hanson, the “violent reimposition of the pax Romana […] meant that little survived of the concrete movement started by Jesus in Palestinian Jewish society.” [p. 259]

It is possible then that the authors of the gospels gave Jesus’ views a more spiritual slant in order to avoid further persecution by the Roman authorities. But even before the suppression of the 66 – 70 CE rebellion, Paul, perhaps Jesus’ most important disciple, was telling his fellow Christians that:

Every person must submit to the supreme authorities. There is no authority but by act of God, and the existing authorities are instituted by him; consequently anyone who rebels against authority is resisting a divine institution, and those who so resist have themselves to thank for the punishment they will receive (Romans 13:1–3).

This is anything but a religious anarchism denying the legitimacy of earthly authorities. Christian teachings like this provided support for the later transformation of Christianity into the official religion of the Roman Empire.

However, the transition of Christianity from an outlawed religious movement to state religion was to take over two hundred years. Regardless of whether the authors of the New Testament gospels tried to downplay the political significance of Jesus’ teachings, and despite Paul’s admonitions to the faithful to obey those in authority, as Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire, Roman officials remembered that they had executed the founder of this sect as a dangerous rebel who claimed to be the Messiah. By around 117 CE, being a Christian had become a crime under Roman law. [Stegemann, pp. 323 – 324]

Robert Graham

Anarcho-Cynicalism

Diogenes telling Alexander to get out of his light

Here is an excerpt from a book I am currently writing, The Anarchist Current: A History of Anarchist Ideas, based on the Afterword to my anthology of anarchist writings from ancient China to the 21st century, Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. In this chapter, I discuss the similarities between modern anarchism and the Cynic philosophers of ancient Greece and the Roman Empire.

Anarchism and the Cynic Philosophers of Greece and Rome

Diogenes of Sinope

Anarchistic elements can be found in the teachings of Diogenes the Cynic (412/404–323 BCE), and Zeno of Citium (333–262 BCE), the founder of the Stoic school of philosophy who was influenced by Diogenes. Only stories about Diogenes’ sometimes outrageous conduct and fragments of Zeno’s writings have survived, making it difficult to determine what they really advocated.

When assessing the possibility of “anarchist” ideas emerging among the ancient Greeks, it is useful to consider the attitudes that Diogenes, Zeno, and other possible precursors of anarchism, held regarding slavery, one of the most extreme examples of hierarchy and domination to which any anarchist worthy of the name must be inalterably opposed.

Diogenes is the most interesting example, because at one point he had his own slave, and at other points in his life he was a slave himself. There is a story that when Diogenes’ personal slave escaped, Diogenes did not try to bring him back, reasoning that if his slave could live without him, then he could live without a slave. [Doyne Dawson, Cities of the Gods: Communist Utopias in Greek Thought, Oxford U Press, 1992, p. 136] But this tells us more about Diogenes’ views regarding living a self-reliant life with few, if any, possessions, than it demonstrates any kind of political opposition to slavery, or to hierarchy and domination more generally. Doyne Dawson suggests that the “story that Diogenes himself was sold as a slave […] was so popular” not only “because it furnished the most dramatic demonstration possible of Cynic indifference to fortune; but also perhaps because it implicitly assured everyone that there was nothing socially subversive about Cynicism.” [p. 136]

But despite his indifference toward slavery (and much else), Diogenes acted in ways that were very subversive of ancient Greek morality and conventions. The other stories about him could not have assured anyone that his ideas were harmless. Diogenes was called a “Cynic,” meaning “dog-like,” because he lived much like a dog would, on the streets, with no possessions, and without shame. He purportedly masturbated and had sex in public.

Diogenes’ rejection of conventional morality could make him seem like a kind of philosophical anarchist, but he also expressed opinions of a more directly political kind, famously declaring himself a citizen of the “cosmos” or world, rejecting affiliation with any particular Greek city and related notions regarding loyalty to one’s homeland. Diogenes and other Cynics did not believe in sacrificing oneself for the sake of one’s city or state, and they opposed war and the use of weapons, a very contrarian view in ancient Greece where military service was expected of all able-bodied men and war was ubiquitous. [Malcolm Schofield, The Stoic Idea of the City, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991, pp. 51-52]

Nevertheless, Diogenes’ political views remain unclear, as none of his writings, if there were any, have survived. Later writers claimed he wrote a Republic; if so it sounds more like a parody of Plato’s hierarchical and authoritarian Republic than a conventional political treatise. Among other things, Diogenes advocated replacing coinage with dice. However, through parody and satire, Cynics like Diogenes would attempt to convey more serious ideas, such as abolishing currency because people should be able to satisfy their needs directly without having to use an artificial medium of exchange. Opponents claimed that this “communism” included women as common property, but that was a misrepresentation (one that was repeated in the 19th century by the much later opponents of socialist and communist doctrines).

The Cynics rejected conventional notions regarding property, and therefore would never have advocated that women should be held in common. Rather, they advocated that women were just as capable as men of living a natural life, without being bound by conventional norms, traditions or customs. Both women and men were therefore free to choose when, where and with whom to have sex, or any kind of relationship. Given the decidedly patriarchal structure of ancient Greek societies, such views could only have been regarded as “scandalous.” [Dawson, p. 137] Diogenes’ pupil, Crates, and his partner, Hipparchia, would allegedly have sex whenever it struck their fancy, including in public.

Not only was sex supposed to be entirely consensual, the Cynics rejected ideas regarding social modesty and decorum. Women therefore were not required to hide their bodies, but could wear the same simple garb as Cynic men, or exercise with them with little or no clothing at all.

The rejection of social conventions included disrespect for the law and authority, because laws are artificial human constructs. The Cynics were beholden to no one, including people who claimed to be superior to them, whether their owners (if they were slaves) or their rulers. One of the stories about Diogenes is that he told the man who bought him at the slave market that it was his new owner who would have to obey Diogenes. [Luis E. Navia, Classical Cynicism: A Critical Study (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1996, p. 105] Another story is that Diogenes liked to sun himself, and that when Alexander the Great went to meet him, he told Alexander to get out of his light. [Classical Cynicism, p. 81]

Cynic doctrines focused on the individual, with no aspirations to become a social movement. While the Cynics had nothing but contempt for property rights and traditional mores, they did not suggest that the lower classes and slaves rise up and overthrow their masters. Cynicism was a means to individual liberation from conventional morality, viewing political institutions as having no claim to legitimacy or obedience.

In this sense, Cynicism was similar to 20th century conceptions of “philosophical anarchism.” As with the “philosophical anarchists,” the Cynics had no expectation or confidence that enough people would come to share their views to pose a threat to the status quo, nor was it their mission to incite them to do so. On the other hand, living a self-reliant life simply and independently, like an animal, with few possessions and no allegiance to any god or master, finds some distant echoes in the ideas of the anarcho-primitivists of the late 20th century, with the major point of difference being that the Cynics were urban outliers. They may have lived like dogs, but as dogs in the streets, not as hunter-gatherers in a world without cities.

Diogenes looking for an honest man

The Cynics’ jaundiced view of people, still reflected today in the modern meaning of the word “cynical,” can also be compared to the views of those 19th century philosophers who rejected conventional morality, like Friedrich Nietzsche, but who had nothing but contempt for “the masses.” After all, it was Diogenes who was famous for walking city streets with a lantern in broad daylight looking for an “honest man.” One aphorism attributed to him is “reason or the rope,” which meant that if you cannot think for yourself, you might as well commit suicide.

Yet despite the sometimes misanthropic tone, Cynicism became popular among the lower classes during the first two centuries of the Roman empire, in contrast to its successor, Stoicism, which became allied with that empire, denuded of its radical content. Respectable philosophers denounced the Cynic “street philosophers” for inciting disrespect for authority and undermining social hierarchy, with their rejection of conventional notions of property and propriety. [Dawson, pp. 244-245]

The Cynics did not expect, but they argued, that anyone, including women and slaves, could, if they had enough independence of mind, embrace the Cynic lifestyle. Unlike the earlier Cynics in Greece, the Cynic street philosophers of the Roman empire “intended,” through their actions, “to set a model for people to imitate.” [Dawson, p. 246] In a way they practiced a kind of “propaganda by the deed”: through their actions and lifestyle they showed people how to live honestly, naturally and freely. But even these Cynics did not aspire to create a mass movement. As we shall see in the next chapter, it was only with the rise of Christianity that heretical movements arose that rejected the hierarchies of the Roman empire and the early Christian Church that later became allied with it.

Cynicism, by its very nature, could never serve as an ideological support for the Roman empire, which helps explain why so few Cynic writings have survived. Dawson has compared Cynicism to philosophical Daoism, in that it acted as a “counterpoint” to the philosophical and religious doctrines that provided justifications for the social hierarchies of ancient Rome, much like Daoism acted as a counterpoint to Confucianism in China. [Dawson, p. 250] Diogenes’ pupil, Crates, imagined a polis, Pera, “where no one owns anything, and war and conflict do not exist, because no one cares for money, glory, or lust.” [Dawson, p. 149]

The connections between private property, status, ambition, greed and war were also emphasized by the philosophical Daoists, and by 19th century anarchists. The Roman emperor, Julian (331–363 CE), was sufficiently concerned about the subversive nature of Cynic teachings to denounce them for promoting communism, and the scorn “of all laws human and divine.” He compared Cynics to bandits, because they “went about everywhere confounding the common laws.” [Dawson, p. 249]

Robert Graham

New Book about Kropotkin

It’s that time of year again – yes – Kropotkin’s birthday (December 21, 1842 on the modern calendar). To mark the occasion, I thought I would mention that Richard Morgan has recently published an interesting book about Kropotkin’s anarchism, The Making of Kropotkin’s Anarchist Thought: Disease, Degeneration, Health and the Bio-political Dimension. The book has been issued as part of the BASEES/Routledge Series on Russian and East European Studies. With Richard Morgan’s permission, here is a brief synopsis and introduction to the book. For more on Kropotkin’s revolutionary anarchism, visit my Kropotkin webpage and check out Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Volume One: From Anarchy to Anarchism (300CE-1939).

Happy Birthday Peter!

The Making of Kropotkin’s Anarchist Thought

This book argues that the Russian thinker Petr Kropotkin’s anarchism was a bio-political revolutionary project. It shows how Kropotkin drew on late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century European and Russian bio-social-medical scientific thought to the extent that ideas about health, sickness, insanity, degeneration, and hygiene were for him not metaphors but rather key political concerns. It goes on to discuss how for Kropotkin’s bio-political anarchism, the state, capitalism, and revolution were medical concerns whose effects on the individual and society were measurable by social statistics and explainable by bio-social-medical knowledge. Overall, the book provides a refreshing, innovative approach to understanding Kropotkin’s anarchism.

As a site of intersection between revolutionary politics and science, Kropotkin’s thought represents a new development in the tradition of anarchist political philosophy. Although his diagnoses of humanity’s problems were distinctly anarchist – emphasising the threat of the modern state and capitalism – the ways in which he thought about these threats and the means by which he tried to expose their dangers were transformed by scientific ideas. His remedies to these problems were also transformed by science. He offered typical anarchist visions of revolution and far-reaching social change as political solutions, yet they were intended to bring about effects and consequences that made sense to and were measurable in relation to forms of scientific knowledge. With its transformed forms of diagnosis and remedy, Kropotkin’s scientised brand of anarchism provided the tradition with new and different approaches to the individual and society, to ideas about power, moral corruption, order, and the dissemination of knowledge.

Two events that occurred around the time of Kropotkin’s birth in 1842 introduce the central themes of this book – anarchist politics and science – and illustrate how they came together in his thought. First, in his book What Is Property? [1840], Proudhon declared himself to be an anarchist. This is the first known instance of a political thinker willingly adopting the title. Before, particularly during the French Revolution, it had been used as a term of negative criticism and abuse levelled at ‘unruly’ political adversaries. Second, in the year of Kropotkin’s birth, English social reformer Edwin Chadwick published his study An Inquiry into the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain [1842]. As the title indicates, Chadwick’s work was an investigation into the state of public health, a biological assessment of a political territory’s population that stretched ‘from one end of the island to the other’.

These episodes mark two important developments within nineteenth-century political and scientific thought that became interwoven strands of Kropotkin’s life as a writer and thinker. The possibilities for thought represented by these seemingly unconnected events – both understanding that the term ‘anarchist’ could positively identify the creative ambitions of a political thinker and perceiving threats to political populations biologically – became intimately connected currents of Kropotkin’s ideas. Each typified new ways of looking at the world that together, interdependently, developed into crucial features of his worldview.

Proudhon’s self-definition as an anarchist brought into being the idea of anarchism as a non-maligned form of political philosophy, establishing a new, positive political identity to which Kropotkin would later subscribe. In relating anarchism with order, Proudhon engendered the possibility for it to be associated with creative as well as destructive political ambitions. Kropotkin grew up in a world where it was possible to conceive of the word ‘anarchist’ as a vocation, a calling that implied a desire not only to condemn socio-economic and political regimes but also to pursue society’s transformation.

This book will argue that what Kropotkin hoped to achieve politically as an anarchist – diagnosing and solving social problems – was representative of the trend in nineteenth-century social and scientific thought depicted by Chadwick’s inquiry. His anarchist exposé of the dangers facing humanity had a key bio-political dimension – that is, an intersectional concern with the biological impact of political and social environments on individuals and society and with the political and social implications of their biological states and conditions. Like Chadwick, he was concerned with identifying the threat of disease to human populations, connecting bodily experiences to wider processes of industrialisation and urbanisation. With the support of expert knowledge, evidence, facts, and data, Kropotkin believed his political diagnoses to be accurate and exact. He was confident that his anarchist politics could scientifically measure the biological threats facing individuals and society. And in accordance with his biological diagnoses of social problems, Kropotkin’s political solutions had a medical focus. His remedies sought to literally heal society with the application of bio-political knowledge and technologies.

Richard Morgan

Merry Winter Solstice!

Trial of the Chicago 7/8

Aaron Sorkin’s liberal revisionist take on the trial of the Chicago 7/8 has sent me in search of more accurate portrayals of the trial, for example, Conspiracy: The Trial of the Chicago 8, which relies entirely on the actual court transcripts and includes later interviews with the defendants. Another more accurate depiction is Chicago 10:

The proceedings against the defendants was a show trial orchestrated by the Nixon administration in order to break the back of radical protest and revolutionary movements in the United States in the late 1960s. The original 8 defendants, including Black Panther leader, Bobby Seale, were accused of conspiracy to incite riots at the Democratic Party National Convention in Chicago in 1968.

What really happened is more accurately described as a “police riot,” with the Chicago police assaulting and arresting hundreds of anti-Vietnam war protestors outside of the Convention. The defendants, with the exception of Bobby Seale, had helped organize the protests, but were then put on trial for allegedly instigating the so-called riots by the protestors who were being beaten by the police. The trial was a farce, with Bobby Seale being bound, gagged and chained in the courtroom, until his case was severed from the other defendants, leaving the 7 defendants of the title to Sorkin’s Hollywood version of the trial.

The most radical of the defendants were the two Yippies (Youth International Party), Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. Hoffman had been involved in the civil rights movement in the early 1960s and then became more radical, advocating a youth-based cultural revolution, departing from the boring rituals of leftwing protest by doing things like showering the New York Stock Exchange trading floor with dollar bills to disrupt the heart of world capitalism. Jerry Rubin had been involved in the free speech movement in Berkeley, California, and then became active in the Yippies, an anarchistic, anti-capitalist as well as anti-war group. While Sorkin at least portrays Hoffman as a smart and funny guy (well played by comedian Sacha Baron Cohen), Rubin is portrayed as an irresponsible stoner nitwit with a penchant for molotov cocktails and female FBI infiltrators of the protest movement (all untrue according to Rubin’s then companion, Nancy Kurshan (https://www.counterpunch.org/2020/10/22/i-was-in-the-room-where-it-happened-one-womans-perspective-on-the-trial-of-the-chicago-7/).

The veteran anti-war activist David Dellinger (I included a piece by him in Volume Two of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas), is portrayed in Sorkin’s film as a middle-class pacifist do-gooder provoked into punching a sheriff at the trial (which never happened either).

One of the prosecutors is portrayed, again inaccurately, as having doubts about putting people on trial for their radical ideas.

One of the few good parts in Sorkin’s version of the trial is that it includes (briefly) one of the leaders of the Black Panthers in Chicago, Fred Hampton, and the fact that he was murdered by the FBI during the trial.

Fred Hampton

Diane di Prima (1934-2020)

Diane di Prima, famous beat poet, radical, anarchist, activist, died at age 86 on October 25, 2020. One of the better tributes to her was an interview with her daughter, Dominique di Prima, on CBC radio in Canada:

https://www.cbc.ca/radio/asithappens/as-it-happens-tuesday-edition-1.5778707/beat-poet-diane-di-prima-taught-her-kids-to-question-authority-and-believe-in-their-own-creativity-1.5778900

To get the full flavour of the interview you need to listen to it, as the transcript omits any reference to di Prima’s anarchist politics. Here is one of di Prima’s poems, Revolutionary Letter No. 4:

REVOLUTIONARY LETTER #4

Left to themselves people

grow their hair.

Left to themselves they

take off their shoe’s.

Left to themselves they make love

sleep easily

share blankets, dope & children

they are not lazy or afraid

Stuart Christie – In Memoriam (1946-2020)

Stuart Christie (1946-2020)

Very sad to hear of the death of Stuart Christie on August 15, 2020. He maintained an excellent website providing access to anarchist films and literature. Here is an excerpt from his autobiography, My Granny Made Me an Anarchist: The Christie File: Part 1, 1946-1964, in which he summarizes his view of anarchism. He and his comrade, Albert Meltzer, wrote a book on revolutionary anarchism, The Floodgates of Anarchy, which sets forth his ideas in more detail. I met Stuart many years ago and had a very interesting conversation with him in which we agreed that by the 1980s neo-liberalism was a much more significant ideological foe than Marxism. Little did we know that the Soviet Union would collapse a mere three years later. The Kate Sharpley Library has posted an obituary by John Patten.

Anarchism – A Definition

At this juncture it would probably be helpful to give a summary of the idea which won me over so completely at such a young age.

Anarchism encompasses such a broad view of the world that it cannot easily be distilled into a formal definition. Mikhail Bakunin, a man of action whose writings and example over a century ago did most to transform anarchism from an abstract critique of political power into a theory of practical social action, defined its fundamental tenet thus:

In a word, we reject all privileged, licensed, official, and legal legislation and authority, even though it arise from universal suffrage, convinced that it could only turn to the benefit of a dominant and exploiting minority, and against the interests of the vast enslaved majority.[1]

Anarchism is a movement for human freedom. It is concrete, democratic and egalitarian. It is rooted in normality as opposed to eccentricity. It has existed and developed since the seventeenth century, with a philosophy and a defined outlook that have evolved and grown with time and circumstance. Anarchism began – and remains – a direct challenge by the underprivileged to their oppression and exploitation. It opposes both the insidious growth of state power and the pernicious ethos of possessive individualism, which, together or separately, ultimately serve only the interests of the few at the expense of the rest.

Anarchism is both a theory and practice of life. Philosophically, it aims for the maximum accord between the individual, society and nature. Practically, it aims for us to organise and live our lives in such a way as to make politicians, governments, states and their officials superfluous. In an anarchist society, mutually respectful sovereign individuals would be organised in non-coercive relationships within naturally defined communities in which the means of production and distribution are held in common.

Anarchists are not dreamers obsessed with abstract principles and theoretical constructs, Events are ruled by chance and people’s actions depend on long-held habits and on psychological and emotional factors that are often antisocial and usually unpredictable. Anarchists are well aware that a perfect society cannot be won tomorrow. Indeed, the struggle lasts forever! However, it is the vision that provides the spur to struggle against things as they are, and for things that might be.

Whatever the immediate prospects of achieving a free society, and however remote the ideal, if we value our common humanity then we must never cease to strive to realise our vision. To settle for anything less means we are little more than beasts of burden at the service of the privileged few, without much to gain from life other than a lighter load, better feed and a cosier berth.

Ultimately, only struggle determines outcome, and progress towards a more meaningful community must begin with the will to resist every form of injustice. In general terms, this means challenging all exploitation and defying the legitimacy of all coercive authority. If anarchists have one article of unshakable faith, it is that, once the habit of deferring to politicians or ideologues is lost, and that of resistance to domination and exploitation acquired, then ordinary people have a capacity to organise every aspect of their lives in their own interests, anywhere and at any time, both freely and fairly.

Anarchists do not stand aside from popular struggle, nor do they attempt to dominate it. They seek to contribute to it practically whatever they can, and also to assist within it the highest possible levels both of individual self-development and of group solidarity. It is possible to recognise anarchist ideas concerning voluntary relationships, egalitarian participation in decision-making processes, mutual aid and a related critique of all forms of domination in philosophical, social and revolutionary movements in all times and places.

Elsewhere, the less formal practices and struggles of the more indomitable among the propertyless and disadvantaged victims of the authority system have found articulation in the writings of those who on brief acquaintance would appear to be mere millenarian dreamers. Far from being abstract speculations conjured out of thin air, such works have, like all social theories, been derived from sensitive observation. They reflect the fundamental and uncontainable conviction nourished by a conscious minority throughout history that social power held over people is a usurpation of natural rights: power originates in the people, and they alone have, together, the right to wield it.

Stuart Christie

Iain McKay on the Spanish Revolution

I am a few weeks late for marking the anniversary of the Spanish Revolution, but here is a recent piece on that topic by Iain McKay. I included a chapter on Spanish anarchism and the Spanish Revolution in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas.

Anti-Fascist and Anti-Capitalist

The Spanish Civil War is usually considered as a forerunner of the Second World War – a struggle between the Spanish Republic and Franco’s fascist forces. This is not quite the case for the Spanish Labour movement [which], thanks to the influence of anarchists, was the most revolutionary one in the world. The CNT, a mass anarcho-syndicalist union, rightly saw the rise of fascism in the 1920s and 1930s as a product of capitalism’s fear of revolution.

To fight fascism effectively meant to fight the system that spawned it. Hence the CNT National Committee on 14 February 1936:

“We are not the defenders of the Republic, but we fight against fascism relentlessly, we will contribute all of the forces that we have to rout the historical executioners of the Spanish proletariat [… to] ensure that the defensive contribution of the masses leads in the direction of real social revolution, under the auspices of libertarian communism…”

“Either fascism or social revolution. Defeating the former is the duty of the whole proletariat and all those who love freedom, weapons in hand; that the revolution be social and libertarian must be the deepest concern of Confederates.”

In short, the CNT was not fighting fascism to maintain an exploitative and oppressive system in which a nominally democratic government protects an economic system mired in years of depression. It was fighting fascism for a better society – and it was this fear which had driven ruling classes across Europe to embrace fascism to protect themselves.

Spanish Revolution Timeline

These were the ideas which were commonplace in working class circles in many parts of Spain in 1936. Yet, as Noam Chomsky noted, the social revolution of 1936 dates back decades and starts in 1868 with the formation of the Spanish section of the International Workers’ Association. State repression soon saw this smashed but it was replaced by other union federations which suffered the same fate.

Then, in 1911 the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT) was founded – and was quickly banned. Legalised again, it surged in membership as workers in Spain (as elsewhere) were radicalised by the First World War and the Russian Revolution. 1919 saw the CNT declare at its national congress that its objective was libertarian communism. It was soon banned by the quasi-fascist Primo de Rivera regime. While the CNT was banned in the 1920s, in 1927 the Federación Anarquista Ibérica (FAI) – a specially anarchist federation – was founded.

In 1931 the Second Republic was created. The CNT re-organises and leads countless strikes and revolts – all faced repression by the liberal republic. Two years later, in 1933, a right-wing government was elected and, again, numerous libertarian revolts were crushed and the CNT repressed. In 1934 an insurrection in Asturias and Catalonia called by the UGT-run Workers Alliance is crushed. 1936 is the year of civil war and revolution as 19th February sees the Popular Front elected. The CNT starts to re-organise. On 17th July the Army revolts against the Republic, starting in Morocco but soon spreads across Spain. The government is paralysed – the workers’ organisations, with the CNT and FAI at their head, respond and draw upon their years of experience in the class struggle to resist the army.

I cannot cover all the popular resistance and so will concentrate on what happened on the 19th of July in Barcelona. The troops started to leave their barracks around 5am, with the officers claiming to be defending the republic against (yet another) anarchist uprising. The CNT declares a general strike and factory sirens called the masses onto the streets. Libertarians seize weapons wherever they could and barricades are built — some assault and civil guards join the resistance. Fighting takes place all day and into the next. The Army revolt is finally ended with the storming of the final rebel barracks (the Andreu barracks).

All this, I must stress, was no spontaneous response. It was prepared and organised by libertarian “committees of defence” in Barcelona’s working-class neighbourhoods as well as by CNT unions – not to mention years of strikes, rent strikes, street fighting, etc. However, while the fighting was organised the subsequent Revolution was spontaneous – it was created by militants who had taken Kropotkin’s call to “act for yourselves” seriously.

The Revolution Begins

Where the army had been defeated, the people took the opportunity to transform society into one worthy of human beings. Anarchist militant Enriqueta Rovira paints a vivid picture:

“The atmosphere then, the feelings were very special. It was beautiful. A feeling of – how shall I say it – of power, not in the sense of domination, but in the sense of things being under our control, if under anyone’s. Of possibility. We had everything. We had Barcelona: It was ours. You’d walk out in the streets, and they were ours – here, CNT; there, comite this or that. It was totally different. Full of possibility. A feeling that we could, together, really do something. That we could make things different.”

The workers did not go back to being wage-slaves but expropriated their workplaces. The days and weeks following the 19th of July saw the collectivisation of industry and the land. About eight million people directly or indirectly participated, with over 60% of the land collectively cultivated by the peasants without landlords while in Catalonia almost all the industries run by workers and their committees, without capitalists, well-paid managers or the state. Every branch of industry was taken over and run by their workers – factories, mills, workshops, transportation, public services, health care, utilities, even football teams. As visitor Emma Goldman recounted:

“I was especially impressed with the replies to my questions as to what actually had the workers gained by the collectivisation [. . .] the answer always was, first, greater freedom. And only secondly, more wages and less time of work. In two years in Russia I never heard any workers express this idea of greater freedom.”

The Spanish Revolution created a socialism which was based on workers’ control rather than, as in the Russian Revolution, controlled workers. The new collectives were structured like the CNT and its strikes and so based on, as historian Martha A. Ackelsberg put it, “general assemblies of workers [which] decided policy, while elected committees managed affairs on a day-to-day basis”. The collectives showed that capitalists were not needed for investment and innovation either, for “they maintained, if not increased, agricultural production, often introducing new patterns of cultivation and fertilisation […] collectivists built chicken coups, barns, and other facilities for the care and feeding of the community’s animals. Federations of collectives co-ordinated the construction of roads, schools, bridges, canals and dams.”

While individual workplaces were taken over by their workers, federations were seen as a means to co-ordinate and socialise the economy. The CNT was well aware of the need “[t]o socialise an industry” as “partial collectivisation will in time degenerate into a kind of bourgeois co-operativism”. As anarchist theorists had predicted, the process of federation and socialisation took time and developed unevenly. However, as CNT militant Saturnino Carod reminds us:

“For it can never be forgotten that it was the working class and peasantry which, by demonstrating their ability to run industry and agriculture collectively, allowed the republic to continue the struggle for thirty-two months. It was they who created a war industry, who kept agricultural production increasing, who formed militias […] Without their creative endeavour, the republic could not have fought the war”.

Getting the economy running again was not the pressing task facing the members of the CNT. Franco had only been defeated across two-thirds of Spain and so the defence of the revolution predicted by anarchist thinkers had an even greater urgency. This led to the organisation of militias by the CNT and other unions and parties. However, the CNT’s armed forces were based on libertarian principles as militant Buenaventura Durruti summarised:

“I don’t believe—and everything happening around us confirms this— that you can run a workers’ militia according to classical military rules. I believe that discipline, coordination, and planning are indispensable, but we shouldn’t define them in the terms of the world that we’re destroying. We have to build on new foundations.”

It should be noted that only the CNT militias were democratic, those organised by Marxist parties like the POUM and PSUC were modelled on the [Soviet] Red Army.

As well as organising militias to free those under Army rule elsewhere in Spain, the workers of the CNT took the initiative in creating war industries by the conversion of existing industry to produce home-made armed vehicles, grenades, etc. However, it was not forgotten that a key measure to defend the revolution and defeat the forces of reaction was the interest and active participation of the many rather than power to a few. As Pilar Vivancos, a collective member, put it:

“It was marvellous to live in a collective, a free society where one could say what one thought, where if the village committee seemed unsatisfactory one could say. The committee took no big decisions without calling the whole village together in a general assembly. All this was wonderful.”

As well as transforming the economy, the social revolution also looked to transform all aspects of social life. Women activists of the CNT and FAI created the Mujeres Libres (Free Women) movement which was organised to fight against the “triple enslavement to ignorance, as women, and as producers” and recognised the interwoven nature of social oppressions and hierarchies:

We could not separate the women’s problem from the social problem, nor could we deny [its] significance […] by converting women into a simple instrument for any organisation, even our own libertarian organisation. The intention […] was much much broader: […] to empower women to make of them individuals capable of contributing to the structuring of the future society, individuals who have learned to be self-determining”

This was needed because, in spite of a theoretical awareness of the need for sexual equality, many male anarchists in Spain practiced manarchy in action. Thus patriarchy within the libertarian movement also had to be combated as Kyralina, a Mujeres Libres activist, argued:

“All those compañeros, however radical they may be in cafes, unions, and even affinity groups, seem to drop their costumes as lovers of female liberation at the doors of their homes. Inside, they behave with their compañeras just like common husbands.”

Another, Soledad, stressed that [i]t was essential that we work and struggle together, because otherwise, there would be no social revolution. But we needed our own organisation to fight for ourselves.” This was based, to use the words of Lucia Sanchez Saornil, empowerment (capacitación):

“It is not [the man] who is called upon to set out the roles and responsibilities of the woman in society, no matter how elevated he might consider them to be. No, the anarchist way is to allow the woman to act freely herself, without tutors or external pressures; that she may develop in the direction that her nature and her faculties dictate.”

With this perspective Mujeres Libres were active across Republican Spain and created alternatives which undercut patriarchy wherever it raised its ugly head – including in the CNT and FAI.

Thus a new world was created across Spain, one which transformed every aspect of life – from the economic to the personal. A world which George Orwell vividly recounted when he arrived in Barcelona in December 1936:

“The Anarchists were still in virtual control of Catalonia and the revolution was still in full swing. […] It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flag of the Anarchists […] Above all, there was a belief in the revolution and the future, a feeling of having suddenly emerged into an era of equality and freedom. Human beings were trying to behave as human beings and not as cogs in the capitalist machine.”

An Incomplete Revolution

After 19th July, the members of the CNT started to build the beginnings of Anarchy. Workplaces and land expropriated and collectivised under workers control while union- and party-based militias were organised to defeat Franco’s forces.

Yet, was the State smashed and replaced by a federation of workers’ organisations as anarchism had long argued? No – the CNT in Barcelona decided to cooperate with other anti-fascist groups in a Central Committee of Anti-Fascist Militias. As they later recounted, the leadership of the CNT decided “not to speak about Libertarian Communism as long as part of Spain was in the hands of the fascists.” This eventually led to the CNT joining the Catalan and Spanish governments [where they] were quickly marginalised.

The question is: why? Was this anarchist theory or the situation facing anarchists? As anarchist theory was ignored, it must be the second.

For, lest we forget, immediately after the defeat of the Army in Barcelona the CNT was isolated – it had no idea what the situation was elsewhere, even elsewhere in Catalonia. Then there was the danger of fighting on two fronts if libertarian communism was declared as there was a distinct possibility of having to fight Franco and the Republican State in that case. Then there was the fear of wider foreign intervention against the revolution beyond the help Franco received from Germany and Italy. Finally, there was optimism in the membership who had just defeated the Army in Barcelona and so were willing to tolerate the remnants of the State for a short period while Franco was defeated – particularly as there was so much else to do like organise militias and an economy.

All these factors help explain the decision to ignore Anarchist theory rather than push for libertarian communism even if it does not justify it nor make it correct.

The Counter-Revolution

Ultimately, the decision of the CNT to avoid fighting on two fronts did not mean it did not happen. The remnants of the State and the capitalist class regrouped and pursued a counter-revolution. At its head was the Communist Party – and this party soon created a civil war within the civil war.

In Spain, it sided with the urban and rural petit-bourgeois and bourgeois to (finally) get a mass base and undermined the gains of the revolution while USSR shaped Government Policy by supplying weapons (and to get its claws on Spanish gold). The attack on the revolution reached its climax in the May Days of 1937 which began with a government attack on Barcelona’s collectivised telephone exchange. This saw CNT members raise barricades across the city while the Communist and State forces assassinated anarchist activists (including Italian anarchist and refugee from Mussolini, Camilo Berneri). Elsewhere, saw the destruction of the rural collectives by use of troops and tanks while falsely claiming the peasants were forced to join – at the same time praising Stalin’s collectivisation!

As well as using troops and tanks against peasants rather than Franco’s troops, the State denied resources and weapons to libertarian troops and collectives. George Orwell stated the obvious:

“A government which sends boys of fifteen to the front with rifles forty years old and keeps its biggest men and newest weapons in the rear is manifestly more afraid of the revolution than the fascists”

Finally, I should note the political repression and trials of radicals – starting with the dissident Marxists of the POUM as “Trotsky-Fascists” (although Trotsky had few, if any, kind words for the party). It was experiencing this at first hand which forced Orwell – a member of the POUM militia – to flee Spain.

Lessons of the Revolution

Yes, ultimately the revolution was defeated but it must be stressed that every political grouping failed – anarchists, socialists, Stalinists, the POUM and the handful of Trotskyists.

In areas were the socialist UGT was bigger than the CNT the revolution was correspondingly less. As anarchist Abel Paz notes “in Madrid, thanks to the Socialist Party, bourgeois structures were left intact and even fortified: a semi-dead state received a new lease on life and no dual power was created to neutralise it.” In terms of the Stalinists, they defeated the revolution, replaced the militias with an army, placated the bourgeoisie but Franco still won. So the Communist solution completely failed – the People Armed won the revolution, the People’s Army lost the war.

The Spainish labour movement clearly vindicated the anarchist critique of Marxism. While the anarchist influenced unions remained militant, the socialists soon became as reformist as Bakunin predicted:

“the workers […] will send common workers […] to […] Legislative Assemblies. […] The worker-deputies, transplanted into a bourgeois environment, into an atmosphere of purely bourgeois political ideas, will in fact cease to be workers and, becoming Statesmen, they will become bourgeois, and perhaps even more bourgeois than the Bourgeois themselves. For men do not make their situations; on the contrary, men are made by them”.

Indeed, it was the libertarian labour movement which was the innovative trend – so much so, many Marxists often point to the Spanish Revolution as an example of socialist revolution! As such, Engels was completely wrong when he proclaimed in the 1870s that “we may safely predict that the new departure will not come from these ‘anarchist’ spouters, but from the small body of intelligent and energetic workmen who, in 1872, remained true to the [Marxist dominated wing of the] International.”

The reasons are clear enough – as anarchists had long argued, organising and fighting on the economic plain radicalised those involved rather than producing the apathy and reformism associated with electioneering. Likewise, the anarchist critique involved all social hierarchies and oppressions which meant – to use the words of historian J. Romero Maura – that “the demands of the CNT went much further than those of any social democrat: with its emphasis on true equality, autogestion [self-management] and working class dignity, anarcho-syndicalism made demands the capitalist system could not possibly grant to the workers.”

It should also be noted that Anarchism itself had predicted the failure of the revolution. Kropotkin, for example, had repeatedly stressed that “a new form of economic organisation will necessarily require a new form of political structure” but the CNT refused to do this out of a desire to promote anti-fascist unity. However, in practice this cooperation within non-worker organisations did little to aid the revolution nor even the fight against fascism. As Kropotkin had suggested:

“what means can the State provide to abolish this monopoly that the working class could not find in its own strength and groups? […] Could its governmental machine, developed for the creation and upholding of these [class] privileges, now be used to abolish them? Would not the new function require new organs? And these new organs would they not have to be created by the workers themselves, in their unions, their federations, completely outside the State?”

The experience of 1936 reinforces this argument for Anarchists did not fully apply Anarchist ideas and disaster resulted. In short, as British anarchist Vernon Richards put it, the CNT-FAI “failed to put their theories to the test, adopting the tactics of the enemy”. Rather than, to use Bakunin’s words, creating “the federative Alliance of all working men’s associations “in order to “constitute the Commune” and so “the federation of insurgent associations” to “organise a revolutionary force capable of defeating reaction,” the CNT in Barcelona [joined the] Central Committee of Anti-Fascist Militias. Instead of [joining] this body it should have called a full plenum of CNT unions and neighbourhood defence committees with delegates invited from the [socialist] UGT and unorganised workplaces. Only this would have built the popular federations which could have successfully resisted Franco and defended the revolution.

The decision to work with other anti-fascist parties and unions was understandable but such co-operation had to be based on popular organisation from below. Anti-Fascism is not enough – the need remains to destroy the system which spawns it. As Scottish Anarchist Ethel McDonald put it:

“Fascism is not something new, some new force of evil opposed to society, but is only the old enemy, Capitalism, under a new and fearful sounding name [. . .] Anti-Fascism is the new slogan by which the working class is being betrayed.”

However, the most important lesson of the revolution is that libertarian socialism worked – but this is usually downplayed or ignored by “objective” historians. As Noam Chomsky argues, “there is more than enough evidence to show that a deep bias against social revolution and a commitment to the values and social order of liberal bourgeois democracy has led the author to misrepresent crucial events and to overlook major historical currents.” The revolution shows that products and services can be provided to workers, by workers without bosses and bureaucrats. It shows that there is a viable alternative to both privatisation and nationalisation in the form of socialisation and associationism.

This is why the Spanish Revolution should be remembered today. As Orwell put it, it was “a foretaste of Socialism […] the prevailing mental atmosphere was that of Socialism. Many of the normal motives of civilised life – snobbishness, money-grubbing, fear of the boss, etc. – had simply ceased to exist […] no one owned anyone else as his master […] One had breathed the air of equality”. It shows that a genuine socialist alternative exists and works. As Durruti memorably put it at the Aragon Front:

“We have always lived in slums and holes in the wall. We will know how to accommodate ourselves for a time. For, you must not forget, we can also build. It is we the workers who built these palaces and cities here in Spain and in America and everywhere. We, the workers, can build others to take their place. And better ones! We are not in the least afraid of ruins. We are going to inherit the earth; there is not the slightest doubt about that. The bourgeoisie might blast and ruin its own world before it leaves the stage of history. We carry a new world here, in our hearts. That world is growing this minute.”

These words, like the revolution that inspired them, should inspire all seekers of liberty today.

Conclusions

The experience of Spain in the 1930s shows that it is not enough to just oppose fascism for, after all, defending the status quo is hardly inspiring. This helps explain the often limited appeal of campaigns today against the far-right in which the critique of the social problems which the right blame on scapegoats is muted in the interest of widening the campaign. This portrays the left as being part of the problem rather than the solution by linking it with those who benefit from the system. As Chomsky noted long ago:

“Why should a liberal intellectual be so persuaded of the virtues of a political system of four-year dictatorship? The answer seems all too plain.”

It also shows that revolutions cannot be half-made. Even in the face of immanent threat of Franco’s troops, the so-called anti-fascist parties spent time and resources crushing the revolution and the CNT-FAI. It is hard to not draw the conclusion that the Republicans seemed to prefer fascism to anarchism. As such, attempts to limit the revolution were a fatal error by the CNT-FAI leadership.

However, we must not forget that Anarchists failed, not Anarchism. Unlike the Russian Revolution, which failed because Marxist theory was applied, in Spain the revolution failed because [anarchist] theory was not applied. Yet for all the errors and limitations, the social revolution of 1936 was Anarchy in Action and remains an inspiration for today – although, of course, one to be learned from rather than idolised.

Iain McKay

Anarchist Struggle in Rojava

Here are excerpts from what appears to be an interview between the Uruguayan Anarchist Federation (Federacion Anarquista Uruguaya – FAU) and member(s) of Têkosîna Anarsîst (Anarchist Struggle), a group of anarchists supporting the Kurdish resistance in Rojava. I included material from Kurdish anarchists and Democratic Confederalists in Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. The complete interview, including the English translation, can be found at the FAU website.

Explain the formation of the Battalion of libertarian comrades and their links with the Kurdish resistance?

Since the beginning of the Rojava revolution, especially following the resistance in Kobanê in 2015, international volunteers have come to confront the Daesh (ISIS) and defend the revolution. In the early years most of the international volunteers came in coordination with YPG and YPJ, the Kurdish self-defense militias. Given the anti-state character of the political project of Rojava, anarchists from different continents joined the struggle in defense of the revolution, often arriving in a disparate and disorganized way.

In 2015, in addition to internationalists in YPG and YPJ, the IFB (International Freedom Battalion) was organized, uniting international militants and Turkish revolutionary organizations in a common organization. Within the IFB the first anarchist brigade was formed under the name of IRPGF (International Revolutionary People’s Guerrilla Forces), which operated for approximately one year during the Tabqa and Raqqa operations.

Têkosîna Anarsîst (Anarchist Struggle) was created at the end of 2017 after the liberation of Raqqa. We seek to not only participate in the struggle against the Daesh, but to learn from the Kurdistan freedom movement while building bridges with libertarian movements around the world. As anarchists, we see the importance of taking up arms against the theocratic despotism of the Islamic State, but also against the fascistic oppression of the Turkish State, the Syrian State, the various imperialist powers and the myriad Islamic fundamentalist groups fighting in Syria.

The reality of the war is very complex, and sometimes it plunges us into a sea of contradictions about our role here. Inter-ethnic and inter-religious conflicts converge with a proxy war of regional and geopolitical powers, where imperialist and colonial influences set the pace of a Middle East bathed in blood and oil. But the Kurdish resistance is an emblematic example of revolutionary organization, and Rojava’s social and political project is certainly inspiring. After some years working here we saw good sides and also bad sides of the revolution, and our commitment with it is based in a frame of internationalism and critical solidarity.

The implementation of democratic confederalism, a stateless society based on women’s liberation, ecology and direct democracy, is an example for those of us who believe in a world free from capitalism and patriarchy. This is what led us to Rojava, but what now? A large number of internationalists who come to Rojava participate in defending the revolution for a few months and then return home to their previous lives. Is that what we want? Is this our idea of internationalist solidarity? No, we want something else.

To better understand what we are looking for we studied the history of internationalism, but instead of looking at the centralized structure of the third international we choose to find inspiration in the anticolonial struggle of the Tricontinental Conference. Revolutionaries like Almícar Cabral from Guinea-Bissau, Ben Barka from Morocco or Che Guevara from Argentina, came together to, in the words of Franz Fanon “stand with the wretched of the earth to create a world of human beings”. Their perspectives on international solidarity were very clear: “It is not a question of wishing success to the attacked, but of running his own luck; accompanying them to death or victory”. They were talking about creating 2, 3, many Vietnams; we talk about creating 2, 3, many Rojavas, many Barbachas, many Chiapas.

Tekosîna Anarsîst is not only an anarchist group in Syria or Kurdistan, our existence is conditioned by the struggle and the revolutionary process of Rojava. The oppression suffered by the Kurdish people is another example of the colonial dynamics suffered by indigenous peoples, peoples with ancestral cultures and roots who are threatened by capitalist hegemony. As internationalists, it is also our duty to study and understand the ways imperial powers exert oppression over countries of the Global South. We struggled against oppression at home and now we continue the struggle here.

We came to Rojava responding to the call for international solidarity, and so our priority is to understand the needs of the people and the dynamics of the local revolutionary movement. In the past we had been working in coordination with the IFB (International Freedom Battalion), but today we are an autonomous organization integrated in the Syrian Democratic Forces, alongside Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians and other internationals, fighting for a democratic and ecological Syria free of patriarchal oppression.

PKK fighters

What are the main differences between TA and the PKK and its armed groups?

The PKK is a revolutionary party created in response to the oppression suffered by the Kurdish people. Tekosîna Anarsîst is a collective created to support and learn from the revolution of Rojava. This reality engenders a great number of differences in relation to the size of the organization, objectives, internal dynamics, future projection, tactics and strategies.

The PKK was founded more than 40 years ago as a national liberation movement with an internationalist outlook, forming an anti-colonial movement in the Middle East. Through its struggle for national liberation, the PKK, which started with a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist orientation, evaluated its achievements and shortcomings. Abdullah Öcalan proposed a new paradigm, nourished by libertarian perspectives, positioning itself against the nation-state model, patriarchy and the ecocide produced by capitalism and the techno-industrial system.

Instead, the new paradigm creates models of direct democracy, with communes and cooperatives as the social base. It prioritizes women’s liberation as the basis of social transformation through women organizing themselves autonomously. It is committed to an ecological perspective and a reconnection with nature, reconstructing a model of life in accordance with the other living beings on this planet.

Its perspectives on violence also differ from those of its Maoist origins, where revolutionary violence was conceived of as an objective in itself. The change of paradigm, largely motivated by the Kurdish women’s movement, refocused the analysis around the concept of self-defence. The patriarchal and colonial dynamics of states, which base their existence on domination through war, genocide and slavery, have always met with resistance from those they seek to subdue. Societies that have lived a free life cannot accept the domination of centralized systems, and that is why every society, every living being, needs to ensure its systems of self-defense.

As anarchists, as revolutionaries, we agree with this political and social vision. Ecology, feminism, communalism or confederalism are not unknown to anarchism, quite the contrary. In Rojava we have had to defend ourselves with all the means at our disposal against the theocratic despotism of the Islamic state and the invasion of the Turkish fascist state. In times of war, we have fought side by side with YPG, YPJ, guerrillas of the PKK, members of other Turkish revolutionary parties, other internationalists of different ideologies, Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians. When the enemy fires, when the bombs fall, the one on our side of the trench is compa, is heval, and the ideological differences do not weigh as much as the passion to defend the revolution, the passion to build a free society.

But there are certainly ideological differences that, when bullets and mortars do not rain down, lead to debates and reflections that influence our way of thinking about revolution and understanding anarchism. The differences that Marx and Bakunin, among many others, discussed at the congresses of the first workers’ international are still a source of conflict today. But it is precisely this conflict that helps us to reflect, to learn, to continue to grow.

In response to the question, the main differences we have found are, on the one hand, organizational, and on the other, ideological. At the organizational level, we prioritize decentralization and the distribution of tasks, responsibilities and leadership, deliberately avoiding the creation of a central committee or an authoritarian institution. We know that military structures are always conditioned by hierarchical organization and a chain of command, and in some aspects we have had to adapt our structure to military needs.

But unlike other forces, we pay special attention to operating in an inclusive and horizontal manner, encouraging rotating responsibilities and leadership. Collective learning, trust and mutual support, but above all the desire for a free life, are the basis of our work and political project.

At the ideological level, the differences may be more complex. The most relevant is perhaps our strong support for LGBT+ struggles, which in the Kurdish liberation movement do not have such determined support. There is, however, a current in the Kurdish women’s movement and in jineolojî in particular, with whom we share a perspective on these issues. They themselves are questioning and reflecting on the apparent essentialism of this movement, opening the door to a more extended understanding of woman closer to queer theories, although still in a minority.

Also the pragmatism of this movement sometimes leads to ideological contradictions, especially in aspects related to property. In Rojava there are communal initiatives and incentives for collective ownership, but private property is still the norm in society, without much effort to change this reality. Within revolutionary movements, property is largely collective, and the communal life has a clear socialist orientation, but it is sometimes difficult for these ideas to reach the majority of the population.

To bring a wider perspective, if we think not only of our organization but of anarchism more broadly, we see great contradictions with the individualistic tendency of anti-authoritarian movements in recent decades. Têkosîna Anarsîst is committed to a collective struggle that transcends individual logic and liberal thinking, in tune with the values of social anarchism, but without ceasing to reflect on the role of the individual in society. We very aware that with orders imposed from the top down, without respecting collective decisions or listening to minority voices, coercion is imposed on the individual. In turn, when the individual does not act in accordance with the common aims of a movement, he or she delegitimizes the organization and the collective struggle.

Another important debate between traditional anarchism and the ideas of democratic confederalism is the aproach to society and the relation with positivism and rationalism. Anarchism has often seen science and reason, which were resignified by the so-called «enlightenment», as the only way to achieve a free society. In the new paradigm this premise is questioned, with special attention to other ways of understanding the world and society that elude European colonial thought, especially looking at mythology and ancestral knowledge. These perspectives are important when it comes to learning from indigenous movements, rethinking our relationship with nature, with civilization and with life itself.

Evaluating these ideas, the similarities and differences that we have found with our movements and the reality of Rojava, have led us to prioritize two objectives. First, the development of militant personalities, working to deconstruct the patriarchal and capitalist influence that we have internalized. Second, the need to agree on organizational standards based on commitment and responsibility, according to our will as revolutionaries but also to the needs of our organization. And even though these objectives are developed in a different way from the PKK, the methods that we learn here are of great help to us. The practice of tekmil, platform, criticism and self-criticism, guide us in our growth and development as revolutionaries, but we also recognize the need to study and learn from the history of anarchist and revolutionary movements around the world.

Democratic Confederalism

How do you analyze the process of building Democratic Confederalism? What is your participation in this construction?

The construction of democratic confederalism is certainly more visible in Rojava, but it cannot be disconnected from the rest of Kurdistan. In recent years the ideas of this political paradigm have been put into practice on a large scale in Rojava, but we must also take into account other territories such as Mexmur camp or the more recently autonomous zone of Sengal in Basur (Iraqi Kurdistan). There are also political developments in Rojhilat (Iranian Kurdistan), but above all in Bakur, within the borders of the Turkish State. It is necessary to take into account the four parts into which Kurdistan is divided today to understand why the Kurdish movement is oriented towards an anti-state solution.

When analyzing its construction, it is essential to refer to the ideological work of Abdullah Öcalan and his «Manifesto for a Democratic Society». Unlike other political proposals, democratic confederalism does not limit itself to describing a utopian society free of oppression, but opens a dialogue of questions and answers on how to transform society and realize this utopia. How we want to live, how we want to relate and how we want to fight are important questions in building a revolutionary society. The answers that Öcalan outlines are not easily summarized in a few paragraphs, but it is important to understand some of the concepts he identifies. This democratic modernity, as we have mentioned, is based on the liberation of women, ecology and democracy without the state.

This ideological progression shows similarities with other revolutionary processes such as the Zapatista movement, an insurgent movement in the mountains of southern Mexico. Both movements are born with a Maoist framework but are reoriented towards libertarian socialism, both have grown and found refuge in the mountains, both are heirs to a people with ancient origins, both have a strong autonomous women’s movement, both are an example for anti-capitalist movements worldwide.

Democratic confederalism is not a new ideology, it is a way of understanding society and civilization that inspires us to develop as revolutionary movements, to make a commitment to our ideas and to move forward with determined steps towards a more just society.

In bringing these ideas into practice in Rojava, the process has been vastly influenced by the war in Syria. In turn it has been the war what made the revolution possible, enabling the radical social transformation needed to lay the foundations of such political developments. In 2012 the YPG/YPJ, then poorly armed people’s militias, expelled the soldiers and bureaucrats of the Syrian state with hardly a few bullets fired.

This was followed by bitter fighting against Islamist groups like al-Nusra and later Daesh. After breaking Daesh’s seige of Kobanê in 2015, the YPG/YPJ expanded to lead the military coalition of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). By the time Raqqa was liberated in 2017, the SDF had become a regular military force, trained and equipped to a semi-professional level.

These military developments were accompanied by a process of social transformation based on the ideas of democratic confederalism, with the creation of communes, cooperatives, women’s centres, justice committees, academies, school programs in Kurdish, cultural centres, etc. Social institutions such as TEV-DEM (Tevgera Civaka Demokratîk – Movement for a Democratic Society), together with the PYD (Partiya Yekineyen Democratic – Democratic Unity Party) and other political parties, came together to establish the Autonomous Administration, initially organized in 3 cantons (Efrîn, Kobanê, Cizîre). We see the clear aim to manage the territory on the basis of local organization, based on a municipal model, without seeking the centralization of a State system.

No revolution is an easy process, and despite the criticisms we may have about certain decisions, the process that Rojava is going through in these 8 years of revolution is admirable. Once again, it is difficult to summarize everything in a few paragraphs, but among the most important steps we want to mention the development of the situation that women are experiencing, and the role that the YPJ is playing in this process. Women in Syria, like women all over the world, suffer from the violence and oppression of patriarchal systems, but from 2014 they were especially threatened by the theocratic despotism of the Islamic state. Daesh is undoubtedly a more brutal and bloody example of patriarchy, with thousands of women captured and sold into sexual slavery.

In words of YPJ fighter Amara from Kobane “Our philosophical views made us women conscious of the fact that we can only live by resisting”, giving perspectives on why many women choose to take up arms to free themselves from such a threat, why they choose self-defence and direct action against that which threatens their lives. After the military victories against Daesh the enormous courage and sacrifice that women have brought to the revolution was proven beyond doubt. The Kurdish movement says that no society can be free if women are not free, and in Rojava this slogan becomes the heart of the revolutionary process.

Our involvement in this whole process is relatively modest, as we have only been working for three years in Rojava. In the beginning, the most important thing was to understand the local reality, the Kurdish language and culture, the political project and the functioning of the organizations and structures. This brought some ideological contradictions along with new methods of organizing. Despite our ideological similarities and Öcalan’s references to different anarchist thinkers, like Bakunin, Kropotkin or Foucault, anarchism remains a great unknown for the Kurdish movementh.

In the third volume of the «manifesto for a democratic civilization», Öcalan reflects on the importance of anarchism as a key ally in the development of democratic modernity, sharing his [critiques] and perspectives for anarchist movements. In the ideological field, our work has focused on reflecting on these ideas and contradictions, translating them and making them more accessible to a wide audience.

We have also spent time debating and sharing our ideas among us, as we are an international group of anarchists from various countries, often with different perspectives and backgrounds. This work has given us a better understanding of the libertarian movements in different parts of the world and how to put them in context with the revolutionary process we are going through.

In the practical field, our work has focused on defending the revolution. After taking part in different military campaigns against the Islamic State, we pushed to develop our capacities as combat medics, since health care in the first minutes can be crucial for survival. Tekosîna Anarsîst worked as a combat medical team in the Baghouz campaign, the last bastion of the Islamic State, and has since been our main task whenever there has been an active front in Rojava. Operating as a combat medical team also means being able to train new members in these disciplines, so we have put a lot of effort into compiling what we have learned to share with new comrades who came to join the revolution.

Têkosîna Anarsîst (Anarchist Struggle), July 2020

CrimethInc: The Two Faces of Fascism

Here is an excerpt from a piece from CrimethInc on the alliance between state military and police forces and the far right.

The Two Faces of Fascism

For years, the Portland Police and the Department of Homeland Security have worked with fascist and far-right organizers to coordinate their demonstrations and facilitate their violence against anti-racist and anti-fascist counter-protesters as well as the general public. In June 2018, DHS worked directly with far-right leader Joey Gibson to plan a rally in downtown Portland during which fascists were permitted to attack counter-demonstrators with impunity. In early 2019, texts between Gibson and members of the Portland Police Bureau came to light, revealing that the police were feeding Gibson information, letting him know when his colleagues that were on probation needed to lay low, and informed him in advance about anti-fascist events and activities. Police faced no consequences for this.

Already in 2017, when fascist Jeremy Christian murdered two people after attending a far-right rally in Portland, we were compelled to publish this poster explaining how fascists and Portland police work together.

No One Is Coming to Save Us

For now, Trump and his supporters are making great efforts to justify the intervention of federal officers in Portland, to such an extent that the governor of Oregon has accused him of simply attempting to pull “an election stunt.” But if this becomes normalized, one day, the Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies will intervene all around the country on a regular basis, without need of justification—attacking and permanently injuring protesters, kidnapping activists in unmarked cars, and suppressing protest by lethal force if necessary. Trump is not just a rogue demagogue; he is testing the balance of power on behalf of the entire ruling class, trying to figure out just how much they can get away with.

The brutality of the DHS and the Portland police illustrates why people rebelled in response to the murder of the George Floyd in the first place. There is no question of the government or the police being accountable to us. The only way we can gain leverage on them is by becoming ungovernable, making it impossible for them to keep their economy running at our expense. The answer is not to petition the authorities for more stringent rules governing state and federal intervention—a doomed venture—but to delegitimize all the forces of oppression, from the federal to the local level, and organize together to make it impossible for them to rule us.

A demonstrator in Portland on the night of July 16.

While it currently seems unlikely that Trump can craft a consensus among the ruling class to hold on to power—democratically or not—for four more years, it is certain that the marauders who make up his administration are in no hurry to lose their grip on the reins of the state. As the rifts within the ruling class widen alongside the gulfs in our entire society, some of them may be legitimately concerned that they could share the fate of those of Trump’s closest associates who have already been found guilty of crimes. If deploying DHS against “violent anarchists” goes well for Trump, he will move on to his next adversaries, and the balance of power may begin to shift in his favor.

Rather than imagining that elections and “the rule of law” will protect us from tyranny, we must understand how representation and law are themselves bound up in the perpetuation of the institutions via which tyrants like Trump rule. The only reason we have elections or rights in the first place is that our predecessors fought a revolution and then a bloody civil war. The work of liberation that they began still waits for us to finish it today.

For a world without police.

NAASN Statement on the Protests Against Police Violence

NAASN Statement on the Protests Against Police Violence

The North American Anarchist Studies Network condemns the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, David McAtee, Nicholas Gibbs, Chantel Moore, and the countless other Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) lives stolen by police violence and white supremacy. The long history of racist police brutality and murder has been facilitated by a culture of impunity that encourages such violence. We therefore stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and other anti-racist groups in condemning police murders and the violent repression of protests, demanding and fighting for racial justice, and calling for long-overdue radical structural changes. These include defunding, divesting from, and abolishing police and prisons, and investing in community-led health, education, and safety alternatives. As anarchist scholars and activists, we also denounce the scapegoating of anarchists and anti-fascists to delegitimize this movement for justice, excuse further violence against protestors, and criminalize dissent.

These and many other instances of flagrant abuse of police power are stark examples of systemic injustice and racism. Police terrorize BIPOC communities, LGBTQ+ communities, people with disabilities, and poor and unhoused people on a daily basis. The coercive threat of police violence and imprisonment is omnipresent. Militarized police forces throughout the globe enforce violently racist, ecologically destructive and white supremacist systems of capitalism and settler-colonialism.

Because of the inherently violent and unjust nature of the system of policing, we stand with organizations like MPD150 who demand that police be held accountable, defunded, and ultimately abolished. True justice is not possible until the systems that beget injustice are dismantled. Astronomical budgets for oppressive, militarized prison systems and police forces should be diverted to communities in need. Instead of devoting public funds to policing and imprisoning unhoused people, for example, these funds should be used to make housing a human right. Police justify their existence by filling necessary social roles, from responding to emergencies to guiding traffic. While violent and racist police activities should cease to exist altogether, roles like emergency response should be filled by accountable, unarmed, community-based, and democratic organizations.

As a transnational network of researchers and writers operating both inside and outside the official system of higher education, we add our voices to the call for all educational institutions to both divest from local police and defund, disarm, and disband their own policing forces. We call on all academics, faculty members, and public intellectuals to use their positions to both critique oppressive institutions and organize to remove them from our communities.

As a community of scholars dedicated to the study of anarchism in North America, we recognize the danger when President Trump and others blame “anarchist thugs” and anti-fascist activists for instigating violence, thus cynically deflecting attention from the white supremacist and far right violence he has encouraged and enabled. Authoritarian leaders have long deployed the “bomb-throwing anarchist” stereotype to delegitimize protest and justify police violence against popular movements for social justice. Indeed, following World War One, the American government fomented an anti-anarchist “red scare”. This reactionary period saw mob violence, beatings, arrests, censorship, mass deportations of working-class activists, and executions, including the execution by electric chair of two immigrant radicals, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti.

Now, we see the same story begin to play out in the United States as a fearful president threatens to suspend civil and human rights to “dominate” the “rioting anarchists.” We call out such craven propaganda tactics for what they are: facile attempts to distract the American public from the real sources of violence, inequality, and racism. We note in response that anarchists have played useful and productive roles in almost every major horizontal (non-electoral) social movement in modern North American history. Rather than demonizing anarchists, we invite consideration of the wisdom and insight to be found in non-hierarchical organizing methods and radical political thought, including especially the long tradition of radical black political thought and practice, from Abolitionism to Anti-Racist Action to Black feminism and beyond.

To end, we repeat the words Sacco and Vanzetti wrote shortly before the State of Massachusetts killed them 93 years ago.  

“What I wish more than all in this last hour of agony is that our case and our fate may be understood in their real being and serve as a tremendous lesson to the forces of freedom, that our suffering and death will not have been in vain.”

  • Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, 1927

Sacco and Vanzetti’s words ring true for all others killed by police and the prison system, who fill the history books of the USA and so many other countries. Through movements for freedom, we learn from each other’s struggles and stand together against interlocking systems of domination. We will ensure that these deaths were not in vain. 

In solidarity through the endless struggle,

The North American Anarchist Studies Network, 2020