Janet Biehl: Further Reflections on the Revolution in Rojava

YPJ fighters

YPJ fighters

Continuing my coverage of the situation in Rojava with eyewitness reports from Janet Biehl and David Graeber, here I reproduce an edited interview with Janet Biehl where she provides some more detailed information regarding what is happening there. The unedited interview can be found at: http://www.biehlonbookchin.com/poor-in-means/. Biehl continues to highlight the influence of Murray Bookchin and the similarities between his ideas and what is being accomplished in Rojava. In Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included selections from Murray Bookchin and David Graeber on direct democracy, as well as excerpts from an earlier interview Janet Biehl did with a member of the Kurdish movement for communal democracy and autonomy.

Roj-revo-MAIN

Poor in Means But Rich in Spirit

Rojava seemed to me to be poor in means but rich in spirit. The people are brave, educated and dedicated to defending their revolution and their society. Their revolution is grassroots-democratic, gender equal, and cooperative. I’ve never experienced anything like it. The people of Rojava are showing the world what humanity is capable of.

Rojava’s system is similar to Bookchin’s ideas in the most crucial way: power flows from the bottom up. The base of Bookchin’s system is the citizens’ assembly. The base of Rojava’s is the commune. One of my questions before arriving was whether Rojava’s communes were assemblies of all citizens or rather meetings of their delegates or representatives in a council. But I found out that the communes are made of up a neighborhood’s households, and that anyone from those households may attend and participate in a meeting. That’s an assembly.

Another similarity is that in both systems power flows upward through various levels. Citizens’ assemblies can’t exist in isolation–they have to have a mechanism by which they interconnect with their peers, yet one that remains democratic. Rojava’s solution is the people’s council system that rises through several tiers: the neighborhood, the district, the city, and the canton. Bookchin, by contrast, spoke of towns and neighborhoods confederating. Murray called the broader levels “confederal councils,” where as in Rojava they are called people’s councils at every level, or even “house of the people.”

In both cases they are made up of mandated delegates, not representatives as in a legislature. Rojava’s delegates–called co-presidents–convey the wishes of the people [at] the next level up–they don’t act on their own initiative. So that’s another similarity. In Rojava, the people’s councils aren’t made up only of co-presidents from the lower levels; they also comprise people elected to enter at that level. The councils seem to be quite large. I think that’s a good idea.

In addition to the council system, Rojava has a transitional government in place as well, a built-in dual power. The council system is separate from it but also carries the wishes of the people into it, through various mechanisms.

Murray Bookchin

Murray Bookchin

Bookchin wrote extensively about the revolutionary process, in his histories of revolutionary movements. You can’t make a revolution just any day, he would point out; history has to be on your side; only at times does a “revolutionary situation” develop, when it’s possible to change the system. He lamented that all too often, when a revolutionary situation came around, the revolutionaries weren’t ready for it. They longed for an opportunity to make change, but they did not organize in advance, and so when the revolutionary situation developed, they missed their chance.

Rojavans did not make the common mistake. They prepared for decades before the revolutionary situation happened,building counterinstitutions, creating a structured counterpower. The Qamislo massacre of 2004 taught them that they had not prepared sufficiently, so they intensified their preparations. So when the revolutionary situation came in 2012, they were ready. When the regime collapsed, leaving a power vacuum, the counterinstitutions were in place to take power, and they did.

Rojavans understand something else Murray argued too, about power. The issue is not to abolish power–that can’t be done. The issue, is rather, to define who has the power: will it be a regime, or will it be the people? Rojavans understood when the moment arrived that power was theirs for the taking, and they took it. He would have applauded heartily.

And finally, I think he would have commended the work of Tev-Dem, a movement of civil society organizations established in order to create the council system–communes and other institutions of democratic self-rule. I think he would have commended Rojavans’ imagination in inventing a movement whose purpose is to create democratic self-government…

Rojavan women

Rojavan women

Misogyny is deeply rooted in the Middle East. Women have fewer rights there than almost anywhere else in the world. Their intelligence and value are denigrated. They may be married while still girls. Their husbands can beat them with impunity, and husbands can have plural wives. And when a woman is sexually abused, her male relatives blame her and may commit an honor killing or even coerce her into committing an honor suicide. She is often excluded from education and from working outside the home, and she is certainly forbidden to participate in public life.

In Rojava this grim condition is undone, as the whole society is committed to creating equality for the sexes. Girls are educated along with boys. They can choose any profession. Violence against women is forbidden. A woman who experiences domestic violence can bring the problem to a public meeting, where it is discussed and investigated. Above all they may participate in public life. In Rojava’s democratic self-government, a meeting must consist of 40 percent women. The institutions have no individual heads–they must always have two co-presidents, one man and one woman. An elaborate series of women’s councils exists alongside the general councils. Women’s councils have veto power over decisions that affect women. Rojava’s defense forces consist of units for men and units for women.

In many places we were told that Rojava’s revolution is a women’s revolution; that a revolution that does not alter the status of women really isn’t a revolution at all; that transforming the status of women transforms the whole society; that freedom for women is inseparable from freedom of society; and even that women are “the main actors in economy, society, and history.” Such ideas are taught not only in the women’s academies and the Mesopotamian Academy but also in, for example, the academies that train the defense and security forces. At the Asayis academy in Rimelan, we were told that half the educational time is dedicated to equality of the sexes…

rojava commune

Rojava’s social contract affirms the inclusion of all minorities, by name. When we met with Nilüfer Koc, co-president of the KNK, she defined Democratic Autonomy not in terms of democracy but expressly as “unity in diversity.”

We met a group of Assyrians in Qamislo, who explained to us that the Baath regime had recognized only Arabs as the sole ethnicity in Syria. Like Kurds, Assyrians had no cultural rights and were barred from organizing a political party. But in the summer of 2012 the revolution founded the self-government, and since then the Assyrians have experienced both improvements in their condition. The revolution established three official languages; Kurdish, Arabic, and Soryani (the Assyrians’ language). Assyrians even have their own defense unit, the Sutoro.

Of course, our delegation couldn’t examine the whole society under a microscope. But we asked the group of Assyrians what difficulties they experienced with the self-government. They responded that they have no difficulties. They participate in the people’s councils at all levels. We learned that in the transitional government each minority must have 10 percent of the seats in parliament, even when they don’t have 10 percent of the population. That’s positive discrimination.

Most important, the Assyrian women have organized themselves. They believe that women are essential to democracy, and that democracy is essential to women. “Self-government means,” said one Assyrian woman, “that women are more effective and can participate and can learn to become leaders. … We have in common with Kurdish women the wish to defend the society. … We have relations with Kurdish and Arab women … The Assyrian Women’s Organization also includes Arab women. We want to improve the condition of all women in this area, not only Assyrian women.”

It is one further splendid aspect of this “women’s revolution”: women of all ethnicities share the same problems from traditional society. In Rojava the equality of the sexes ties women together across ethnic lines, bringing everyone closer together.

a female Asayis

a female Asayis

Rojava has been fighting a long, grueling war of self-defense against ISIS, and to that end the self-government maintains defense forces (YPG, YPJ) and security forces (Asayis). Arming these men and women, providing them with food and uniforms, and meeting other military needs consumes 70 percent of the budget. The remaining 30 percent goes to public services. Rojava considers health and education to be basic human needs, and on that slim budget, it finances public systems for both.

The main economic activity in Cizire is agriculture. With its fertile soil and good growing conditions, the canton is rich in wheat and barley. Before the revolution it was the breadbasket of Syria. Notably, the Baath regime declined to build processing facilities in Rojava, even flour mills. The self-government built one only recently, at Tirbespiye, and now provides flour for the whole canton. Bread remains the staff of life–each household gets three loaves of bread a day, which the self-government provides at 40 percent below cost.

Flour mill in Tirbesiye

Flour mill in Tirbesiye

For the last two years the self-government has supplied seeds to the farmers, and diesel for their machinery, so they can continue to cultivate their lands. The self-government has also created local companies to develop infrastructure and to build roads. And it finances the refugee camps in the Kurdish areas. Humanitarian institutions are present there too, but only symbolically–they don’t finance electricity, water, or education, because Rojava is not internationally recognized; the agencies have to work through the KRG and Damascus, which doesn’t allow it. So Rojava must provide for them. The result is an economy of survival. Electricity and clean water are in limited supply.

Some Rojavans earn wages, but many work on a voluntary basis; still others just make their living, say, from a cow. “We consume bread together,” Hemo said, “and if there is no bread, we do not get bread.”

A sewing co-op in Rojava

A sewing co-op in Rojava

Still, at the top of the economic development agenda is the creation of cooperatives, in Rojava’s “community economy.” “Our political project and our economic project are the same,” said Abdurrahman Hemo, an adviser for economic development in Cizire canton. For two years Cizire has been promoting cooperativism through academies, seminars, and community discussions, and is building them in different sectors. Most of the cooperatives are agricultural, but others are springing up in trades and construction.

Rojava collects no taxes from its people, and receives a small income from the border crossing at Semalka. But most of Rojava’s income by far comes from Cizire’s oil. The canton has thousands of oilfields, but at the moment only 200 of them are active. Once again, the Baath regime exploited Cizire’s raw materials but refused to construct processing plants. So while Cizire has petroleum, it had no refineries. Only since the revolution has the self-government improvised a large refinery to produce diesel and benzene, which are sold cheaply in the local economy. Diesel is now cheaper than water–it fuels the small generators that provide power in much of Cizire. But the canton exploits petroleum only for its own use…

Rojava shares a long border with Turkey, and several border crossings exist. But they are officially closed now, since Turkey embargoes Rojava both politically and economically. The KRG observes Turkey’s embargo, although it has relaxed in recent months to allow trade through the Semalka crossing. But because of the virtually complete embargo, Rojava must build everything itself from local materials. It gets no investment from outside–all production and all consumption are domestic. Self-sufficiency is not ideology–it’s an economic reality.

The principles of democratic autonomy are anti-capitalist, but Rojava has in any case no economic surplus that can be used to develop the economy. The economic development adviser, Hemo, is seeking outside investment. “We want to be self-sufficient,” he told us, “but to develop quality of life, we need some kind of industry.” Rojava needs a power plant and a fertilizer factory. But the cooperative economy can’t finance industry at that level, he told us. “We need help from outside, private or public, so we can build our social economy together.”

In what is called the “open economy,” outside investment is welcomed as long as it conforms to the social nature of Rojava’s “community economy.” Without outside investment, Hemo believes, Rojava can survive maybe only another year or two. But although Rojava must industrialize, it must not create a state economy, or a centralized economy. Even with outside investment, it should remain locally organized: “We need a common economy, and factories should be communally owned.”

But outside investment is lacking, because Rojava’s existence is not internationally recognized. Potential investors have no legal access–they have to go through the KRG and Damascus. And they have no physical access–the absence of border crossings with Turkey. To survive, Rojava needs openings to the outside world. It seems clear that Turkey must open its borders and allow this noble and high-minded project to continue.

Janet Biehl, December 2014

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The Bakunin Bicentennial

Bakunin birthday

May 2014 marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of the great anarchist revolutionary, Michael Bakunin (1814-1876). As 2014 comes to a close, I thought it fitting to reprint an appreciation of Bakunin written by his greatest biographer, Max Nettlau, on the 100th anniversary of his birth. Much as Nettlau admired Bakunin, he did not do so uncritically. He recognized that Bakunin’s penchant for secret societies, while having a certain logic in his own time, was inconsistent with the anarchist project of creating a free society based on self-management. On the other hand, Nettlau commended Bakunin for never holding himself aloof from popular struggles, and for avoiding a narrow preoccupation with workers’ movements, as a popular social revolution requires a broad mass of support, including all the dispossessed and disempowered. I included several selections from Bakunin in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas because, as Kropotkin noted, it was Bakunin more than anyone else who established the principles of modern anarchism.

Michael Bakunin (1814-1876)

Michael Bakunin (1814-1876)

Michael Bakunin: An Appreciation

Most centenarians, even when born much later and still among us, are but dried-up relics of a remote past; whilst some few, though gone long since, remain full of life, and rather make us feel ourselves how little life and energy there is in most of us. These men, in advance of their age, prepared new ways for coming generations, who are often but too slow to follow them up. Prophets and dreamers, thinkers and rebels they are called, and of those who, in the strife for freedom and social happiness for all, united the best qualities of these four descriptions, Michael Bakunin is by far the best known.

In recalling his memory, we will not forget the many less known thinkers and rebels, very many of whom from the “thirties” to the early “seventies” of [the 19th] century had, by personal contact, their share in forming this or that part of his personality. None of them, however, had the great gift of uniting into one current of revolt all the many elements of revolutionary thought, and that burning desire to bring about collective revolutionary action which constitute Bakunin’s most fascinating characteristics.

Courageous and heroic rebels always existed, but their aims were too often very narrow–they had not overcome political, religious, and social prejudices. Again, the most perfect “systems” were worked out theoretically; but these generous thinkers lacked the spirit to resort to action for their realization, and their methods were tame, meek, and mild. Fourier waited for years for a millionaire to turn up who would hand him the money to construct the first Phalanstery. The Saint-Simonians had their eyes on kings or sons of kings who might be persuaded to realise their aims “from above.” Marx was content to “prove” that the decay of Capitalism and the advent of the working classes to power will happen automatically.

No+gods+no+masters

Among the best known Socialists, Robert Owen and Proudhon, Blanqui and Bakunin, tried to realise their ideas by corresponding action. Blanqui’s splendid “Neither God Nor Master,” is, however, counteracted by the authoritarian and narrow political and nationalist character of his practical action. Both Owen and Proudhon represent, as to the means of action, the method of free experimentation, which is, in my opinion, the only one which holds good aside from the method of individual and collective revolt advocated by Bakunin and many others.

Circumstances—the weakness of small minorities in face of the brute force of traditional authority, and the indifference of the great mass of the population—have as yet no chance for either method to show its best, and, the ways of progress being manifold, neither of them may ever render the other quite superfluous. These experimental Socialists and Anarchists, then, are neither superior nor inferior, but simply different, dissimilar from Bakunin, the fiercest representative of the idea of real revolutionary action.

His economics are not original; he accepted willingly Marx’s dissection of the capitalist system; nor did he dwell in particular on the future methods of distribution, declaring only the necessity for each to receive the full produce of his labour. But to him exploitation and oppression were not merely economic and political grievances which fairer ways of distribution and apparent participation in political power (democracy) would abolish; he saw clearer than almost all Socialists before him the close connection of all forms of authority, religious, political, social, and their embodiment, the State, with economic exploitation and submission.

Hence, Anarchism—which need not be defined here—was to him the necessary basis, the essential factor of all real Socialism. In this he differs fundamentally from ever so many Socialists who glide over this immense problem by some verbal juggle between “Government” and “administration,” “the State” and “society,” or the like, because a real desire for freedom is not yet awakened in them. This desire and its consequence, the determination to revolt to realise freedom, exists in every being; I should say that it exists in some form and to some degree in the smallest particle that composes matter, but ages of priest- and State-craft have almost smothered it, and ages of alleged democracy, of triumphant Social Democracy even, are not likely to kindle it again.

Mikhail-Bakunin-Quotes-2

Here Bakunin’s Socialism sets in with full strength—mental, personal, and social freedom to him are inseparable—Atheism, Anarchism, Socialism an organic unit. His Atheism is not that of the ordinary Freethinker, who may be an authoritarian and an anti-Socialist; nor is his Socialism that of the ordinary Socialist, who may be, and very often is, an authoritarian and a Christian; nor would his Anarchism ever deviate into the eccentricities of Tolstoy and Tucker.

But each of the three ideas penetrates the other two and constitutes with them a living realisation of freedom, just as all our intellectual, political, and social prejudices and evils descend from one common source—authority. Whoever reads “God and the State,” the best known of Bakunin’s many written expositions of these ideas, may discover that when the scales of religion fall from his eyes, at the same moment also the State will appear to him in its horrid hideousness, and anti-Statist Socialism will be the only way out. The thoroughness of Bakunin’s Socialist propaganda is, to my impression, unique.

From these remarks it may be gathered that I dissent from certain recent efforts to revindicate Bakunin almost exclusively as a Syndicalist. He was, at the time of the International, greatly interested in seeing the scattered masses of the workers combining into trade societies or sections of the International. Solidarity in the economic struggle was to be the only basis of working-class organisation. He expressed the opinion that these organisations would spontaneously evolve into federated Socialist bodies, the natural basis of future society. This automatic evolution has been rightly contested by our Swiss comrade Bertoni. But did Bakunin really mean it when he sketched it out in his writings of elementary public propaganda?

We must not forget that Bakunin—and here we touch one of his shortcomings—seeing the backward dispositions of the great masses in his time, did not think it possible to propagate the whole of his ideas directly among the people. By insisting on purely economic organisation, he wished to protect the masses against the greedy politician who, under the cloak of Socialism, farms and exploits their electoral “power” in our age of progress!

He also wished to prevent their falling under the leadership of sectarian Socialism of any kind. He did not wish them, however, to fall into the hands and under the thumbs of Labour leaders, whom he knew, to satiety, in Geneva, and whom he stigmatised in his Egalité articles of 1869. His idea was that among the organised masses interested in economic warfare thoroughgoing revolutionists, Anarchists, should exercise an invisible yet carefully concerted activity, co-ordinating the workers’ forces and making them strike a common blow, nationally and internationally, at the right moment.

The secret character of this inner circle, Fraternité and Alliance, was to be a safeguard against ambition and leadership. This method may have been derived from the secret societies of past times; Bakunin improved it as best he could in the direction of freedom, but could not, of course, remove the evils resulting from every infringement of freedom, however small and well-intentioned it may be in the beginning. This problem offers wide possibilities, from dictatorship and “democratic” leadership to Bakunin’s invisible, preconcerted initiative, to free and open initiative, and to entire spontaneity and individual freedom. To imitate Bakunin in our days in this respect would not mean progress, but repeating a mistake of the past.

mikhail-bakunin-quotes

In criticising this secret preconcerted direction of movements, considered worse than useless in our time, we ought not to overlook that the then existing reason for making such arrangements has also nearly gone. To Bakunin, who participated in the movements of 1848-49, in the Polish insurrection in the early “sixties,” in secret Italian movements, and who, like so many, foresaw the fall of the French Empire and a revolution in Paris, which might have happened under better auspices than the Commune of 1871—to him, then, an international Socialist “1848,” a real social revolution, was a tangible thing which might really happen before his eyes, and which he did his best to really bring about by secretly influencing and co-ordinating local mass movements.

We in our sober days have so often been told that all this is impossible, that revolutions are hopeless and obsolete, that, with few exceptions, no effort is ever made, and the necessity of replacing semi-authoritarian proceedings like that of Bakunin by the free play of individual initiative or other improved methods, never seems to arise.

Bakunin’s best plans failed for various reasons, one of which was the smallness of the means which the movements, then in their infancy, offered to him in every respect. Since all these possibilities are a matter of the past, let me dwell for a moment on the thought of what Bakunin would have done had he lived during the First of May movements of the early [1890s] or during the Continental general strike efforts of the ten years next following.

With the tenth part of the materials these movements contained, which exploded some here, some there, like fireworks, in splendid isolation, Bakunin would have attacked international Capitalism and the State everywhere in a way never yet heard of. And movements which really create new methods of successful struggle against a strong Government, like the Suffragette and the Ulster movements, would never have let him stand aside in cool disdain, because their narrow purpose was not his own.

I fancy he would never have rested day and night until he had raised the social revolutionary movement to the level of similar or greater efficiency. To think of this makes one feel alive; to see the dreary reality of our wise age lulls one to sleep again. I am the last one to overlook the many Anarchists who sacrificed themselves by deeds of valour—the last also to urge others to do what I am not doing myself: I merely state the fact that with Bakunin a great part of faith in the revolution died, that the hope and confidence which emanated from his large personality were never restored, and that the infinite possibilities of the last twenty-five years found many excellent comrades who did their best, but none upon whose shoulders the mantle of Bakunin has fallen.

bakunin people's stick

What, then, was and is Bakunin’s influence?

It is wonderful to think how he arose in the International at the right moment to prevent the influence of Marx, always predominant in the Northern countries, from becoming general. Without him, dull, political, electioneering Marxism would have fallen like mildew also on the South of Europe. We need but think how Cafiero, later on the boldest Italian Anarchist, first returned to Naples as the trusted friend and admirer of Marx; how Lafargue, Marx’s son-in-law, was the chosen apostle of Marxism for Spain, etc. To oppose the deep-laid schemes of Marx, a man of Bakunin’s experience and initiative was really needed; by him alone the young movements of Italy and Spain, those of the South of France and of French-speaking Switzerland, and a part of the Russian movement, were welded together, learnt to practise international solidarity, and to prepare international action.

This alone created a lasting basis for the coming Anarchist movement, whilst everywhere else the other Socialist movements, described as Utopian and unscientific, had to give way to Marxism, proclaimed as the only scientific doctrine! Persecutions after revolutionary attempts often reduced these free territories of Anarchism to a minimum; but when Italy, Spain, and France were silenced, some corner in Switzerland where Bakunin’s seed had fallen always remained, and in this way, thanks to the solid work of Bakunin and his comrades, mainly from 1868 to 1874, Anarchy, was always able to face her enemies and to revive.

The immediate influence of Bakunin was reduced after he had retired from the movement in 1874, when certain friends left him; bad health—he died in June, 1876—prevented him continuing his work with fresh elements gathered round him. Soon after his death a period of theoretical elaboration began, when the methods of distribution were examined and Communist Anarchism in its present form was shaped. In those years also, after the failure of many collective revolts, the struggle became more bitter, and individual action, propaganda by the deed, was resorted to, a proceeding which made preconcerted secret arrangements in Bakunin’s manner useless. In this way, both his economic ideas, Collectivist Anarchism, and his favourite method of action alluded to, became so to speak obsolete, and were neglected.

Add to this that from about 1879 and 1880 Anarchism could be openly propagated on a large scale in France (mainly in Paris and in the Lyons region). This great extension of the propaganda gave so much new work, a new spirit entered the groups, soon arts and science were permeated with Anarchism—Elisée Reclus’ wonderful influence was at work. In Bakunin’s stormy days there was no time for this, through no fault of his.

In short, Anarchism in France and in many other countries was in its vigorous youth, a period when the tendency to look ahead is greatest, and the past is neglected like a cradle of infancy. For this reason, and because very little information on Bakunin was accessible to the Anarchists of the “eighties,” Bakunin’s influence in those years remained small. I ought to have mentioned that certain opinions of Bakunin’s gained much ground in the Russian revolutionary movement of the “seventies” and later, but cannot dwell further on this.

mikhail-bakunin-voltaire

In 1882, Reclus and Cafiero published the choicest extract from the many manuscripts left by Bakunin: “Dieu et Etat!” (God and the State), a pamphlet which B. R. Tucker fortunately translated into English (1883 or 1884). This or its English reprint circulated in England when no other English Anarchist pamphlet existed, and its radical Anarchist freethought or thoroughly freethinking Anarchism certainly left lasting marks on the early Anarchist propagandists, and will continue to do so. Of course, the same applies to translations in many countries.

About 1896, a considerable part of Bakunin’s correspondence was published, preceded and followed by many extracts from his unpublished manuscripts, a part of which is now before us in the six volumes of the Paris edition of his works. It became possible, with the help of these and many other sources, to examine his life in detail, and in particular to give, proofs in hand, the story of the great struggle in the International, and to scatter the calumnies and lies heaped up by the Marxist writers and the bourgeois authors who followed them.

All this brought about a revival in the interest in Bakunin; but is there not a deeper cause for such a revival? When Bakunin was gone, his friends felt perhaps rather relieved, for the strain he put on their activity was sometimes too great for them. We in our times, or some of us, at least, are perhaps in the opposite situation: there is no strain at all put on us, and we might wish for somebody to rouse us. Thus we look back at any rate with pathetic sympathy on the heroic age of Anarchism, from Bakunin’s times to the early “nineties” in France. Many things have happened since then also—I need but recall Ferrer’s name; but, in my opinion at least, a complacent admiration of Syndicalism has too often replaced every thought of Anarchist action.

I say again: it is preposterous to think that Bakunin would have been a Syndicalist and nothing else—but what he would have tried to make of Syndicalism, how he would have tried to group these and many other materials of revolt and to lead them to action, this my imagination cannot sketch out, but I feel that things would have gone otherwise, and the capitalists would sleep less quietly. I am no admirer of personalities, and have many faults to find with Bakunin also on other grounds, but this I feel, that where he was rebellion grew round him, whilst today, with such splendid material, rebellion is nowhere. South Africa, Colorado, are ever so hopeful events, but think what a Bakunin would have made of them—and then we can measure the value of this man in the struggle for freedom.

Max Nettlau, Freedom, June 1914

bakunin

David Graeber: There is a Real Revolution in Rojava

Revolution in Rojava

Revolution in Rojava

In this post I reproduce an edited version of an interview with David Graeber that was recently published in Turkish by the daily paper, Evrensel. Graeber was part of the group that included Janet Biehl which recently visited Rojava to eyewitness what is happening there. I have already posted some of Biehl’s initial impressions, and previously reproduced Graeber’s call for support for the people of Rojava. In this interview, Graeber emphasizes that a genuine anti-capitalist libertarian revolution is taking place in Rojava, and criticizes those on the left, including the more sectarian anarchist groups, who can only criticize what is going on, when the people of Rojava desperately need our help. I included some selections by David Graeber on the “new anarchism” and anarchist alternatives to representative democracy in Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. I also included several selections from Murray Bookchin in Volumes Two and Three, where he developed his ideas regarding a libertarian form of direct democracy based on community assemblies. The unedited version of the interview with David Graeber can be found here.

Revolutionary Women in Rojava

Revolutionary Women in Rojava

A Genuine Revolution

If anyone had any doubt in their minds about whether this was really a revolution, or just some kind of window-dressing, I’d say the visit put that permanently to rest. There are still people talking like that: This is just a PKK (The Kurdistan Workers’ Party) front, they’re really a Stalinist authoritarian organization that’s just pretending to have adopted radical democracy. No.

They’re totally for real. This is a genuine revolution. But in a way that’s exactly the problem. The major powers have committed themselves to an ideology that says real revolutions can no longer happen.

Meanwhile, many on the left, even the radical left, seem to have tacitly adopted a politics which assumes the same, even though they still make superficially revolutionary noises. They take a kind of puritanical ‘anti-imperialist’ framework that assumes the significant players are governments and capitalists and that’s the only game worth talking about. The game where you wage war, create mythical villains, seize oil and other resources, set up patronage networks: that’s the only game in town.

The people in Rojava are saying: We don’t want to play that game. We want to create a new game. A lot of people find that confusing and disturbing so they choose to believe it isn’t really happening, or such people are deluded or dishonest or naive.

kurdish-ypj-3

I find it remarkable how so many people in West see these armed feminist cadres, for example, and don’t even think on the ideas that must lie behind them. They just figured it happened somehow. ‘I guess it’s a Kurdish tradition.’ To some degree it’s orientalism of course, or simple racism. It never occurs to them that people in Kurdistan might be reading Judith Butler too. At best they think ‘Oh, they’re trying to come up to Western standards of democracy and women’s rights. I wonder if it’s for real or just for foreign consumption.’ It just doesn’t seem to occur to them they might be taking these things way further than ‘Western standards’ ever have; that they might genuinely believe in the principles that Western states only profess.

The reaction in the international anarchist communities has been decidedly mixed. I find it somewhat difficult to understand. There’s a very substantial group of anarchists–usually the more sectarian elements–who insist that the PKK is still a ‘Stalinist’ authoritarian nationalist group which has adopted Bookchin and other left libertarian ideas to court the anti-authoritarian left in Europe and America.

It’s always struck me that this is one of the silliest and most narcissistic ideas I’ve ever heard. Even if the premise were correct, and a Marxist-Leninist group decided to fake an ideology to win foreign support, why on earth would they choose anarchist ideas developed by Murray Bookchin? That would be the stupidest gambit ever. Obviously they’d pretend to be Islamists or Liberals, those are the guys who get the guns and material support.

Anyway I think a lot of people on the international left, and the anarchist left included, basically don’t really want to win. They can’t imagine a revolution would really happen and secretly they don’t even want it, since it would mean sharing their cool club with ordinary people; they wouldn’t be special any more. So in that way it’s rather useful in culling the real revolutionaries from the poseurs. But the real revolutionaries have been solid.

There were so many impressive things [in Rojava]. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anywhere else in the world where there’s been a dual power situation where the same political forces created both sides. There’s the ‘democratic self-administration,’ which has all the form and trappings of a state–Parliament, Ministries, and so on–but it was created to be carefully separated from the means of coercive power.

Then you have the TEV-DEM (The Democratic Society Movement), driven bottom up by directly democratic institutions. Ultimately–and this is key–the security forces are answerable to the bottom-up structures and not to the top-down ones.

One of the first places we visited was a police academy (AsayiÅ). Everyone had to take courses in non-violent conflict resolution and feminist theory before they were allowed to touch a gun. The co-directors explained to us their ultimate aim was to give everyone in the country six weeks of police training, so that ultimately, they could eliminate police.

I think most movements, faced with dire war conditions, would not nonetheless immediately abolish capital punishment, dissolve the secret police and democratize the army. Military units for instance elect their officers.

Rojava-10

The President of Cizire canton is an Arab, head of a major local tribe in fact. I suppose you could argue he was just a figurehead. In a sense the entire government is. But even if you look at the bottom-up structures, it’s certainly not just the Kurds who are participating. I was told the only real problem is with some of the ‘Arab belt’ settlements, people who were brought in by the Baathists in the 50s and 60s from other parts of Syria as part of an intentional policy of marginalizing and assimilating Kurds. Some of those communities they said are pretty unfriendly to the revolution.

But Arabs whose families had been there for generations, or the Assyrians, Khirgizians, Armenians, Chechens, and so on, are quite enthusiastic. The Assyrians we talked to said, after a long difficult relation with the regime, they felt they finally were being allowed religious [freedom] and cultural autonomy.

Probably the most intractable problem might be women’s liberation. The PYD and TEV-DEM see it as absolutely central to their idea of revolution, but they also have the problem of dealing with larger alliances with Arab communities who feel this violates basic religious principles. For instance, while the Syriac-speakers have their own women’s union, the Arabs don’t, and Arab girls interested in organizing around gender issues or even taking feminist seminars have to hitch on with the Assyrians or even the Kurds.

It is absolutely true that the US and European powers will do what they can to subvert the revolution. That goes without saying. The people I talked to were all well aware of it. But they didn’t make a strong differentiation between the leadership of regional powers like Turkey or Iran or Saudi Arabia, and Euro-American powers like, say, France or the US. They assumed they were all capitalist and statist and thus anti-revolutionary, who might at best be convinced to put up with them but were not ultimately on their side.

Then there’s the even more complicated question of the structure of what’s called ‘the international community,’ the global system of institutions like the UN or IMF, corporations, NGOs, human rights organizations for that matter, which all presume a statist organization, a government that can pass laws and has a monopoly of coercive enforcement over those laws. There’s only one airport in Cizire and it’s still under Syrian government control. They could take it over easily, any time, they say. One reason they don’t is because: How would a non-state run an airport anyway? Everything you do in an airport is subject to international regulations which presume a state.

[ISIS] can’t be seen to lose. Their entire recruiting strategy is based on the idea that they are an unstoppable juggernaut, and their continual victory is proof that they represent the will of God. To be defeated by a bunch of feminists would be the ultimate humiliation. As long as they’re still fighting in Kobane, they can claim that media claims are lies and they are really advancing. Who can prove otherwise? If they pull out they will have admitted defeat.

It seems [Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish leader] has shifted from an anti-Kurdish, anti-Assad policy to an almost purely anti-Kurdish strategy. Again and again he has been willing to ally with pseudo-religious fascists to attack any PKK-inspired experiments in radical democracy. Clearly, like Daesh (ISIS) themselves, he sees what they are doing as an ideological threat, perhaps the only real viable ideological alternative to right-wing Islamism on the horizon, and he will do anything to stamp it out.

Rojava-Car-MAIN

At the moment things look surprisingly good for the revolutionary [Kurdish] forces. The KDG even gave up the giant ditch they were building across the Rojava border after the PKK intervened to effectively save Erbil and other cities from ISIS back in August. One KNK person told me it had a major effect on popular consciousness there; that one month had done 20 years worth of consciousness raising. Young people were particularly struck by the way their own Peshmerga fled the field but PKK women soldiers didn’t. But it’s hard to imagine how the KRG territory however will be revolutionized any time soon. Neither would the international powers allow it.

I think the Kurdish struggle is quite explicitly anti-capitalist in both [Turkey and Rojava]. It’s their starting point. They’ve managed to come up with a kind of formula: One can’t get rid of capitalism without eliminating the state, one can’t get rid of the state without getting rid of patriarchy. However, the Rojavans have it quite easy in class terms because the real bourgeoisie, such as it was in a mostly very agricultural region, took off with the collapse of the Baath regime.

They will have a long-term problem if they don’t work on the educational system to ensure a developmentalist technocrat stratum doesn’t eventually try to take power, but in the meantime, it’s understandable they are focusing more immediately on gender issues. In Turkey, well, I don’t know nearly as much, but I do have the sense things are much more complicated.

I’ve spent my life thinking about how we might be able to do things like this in some remote time in the future and most people think I’m crazy to imagine it will ever be. These people are doing it now. If they prove that it can be done, that a genuinely egalitarian and democratic society is possible, it will completely transform people’s sense of human possibility. Myself, I feel ten years younger just having spent 10 days there.

There were so many striking images, so many ideas. I really liked the disparity between the way people looked, often, and the things they said. You meet some guy, a doctor, he looks like a slightly scary Syrian military type in a leather jacket and stern austere expression. Then you talk to him and he explains: ‘Well, we feel the best approach to public health is preventative, most disease is made possible by stress. We feel if we reduce stress, levels of heart disease, diabetes, even cancer will decline. So our ultimate plan is to reorganize the cities to be 70% green space.’ There are all these mad, brilliant schemes. But then you go to the next doctor and they explain how because of the Turkish embargo, they can’t even get basic medicine or equipment, all the dialysis patients they couldn’t smuggle out have died. There’ a disjuncture between their ambitions and their incredibly straightened circumstances.

The woman who was effectively our guide was a deputy foreign minister named Amina. At one point, we apologized that we weren’t able to bring better gifts and help to the Rojavans, who were suffering so under the embargo. And she said: ‘In the end, that isn’t very important. We have the one thing no one can ever give you. We have our freedom. You don’t. We only wish there was some way we could give that to you.’

I am by temperament an optimist, I seek out situations which bear some promise. I don’t think there’s any guarantee this one will work out in the end, that it won’t be crushed, but it certainly won’t [last] if everyone decides in advance that no revolution is possible and refuse to give active support, or even devote their efforts to attacking it or increasing its isolation, which many do.

If there’s something I’m aware of, that others aren’t, perhaps it’s the fact that history isn’t over. Capitalists have made a mighty effort these past 30 or 40 years to convince people that current economic arrangements–not even capitalism, but the peculiar, financialized, semi-feudal form of capitalism we happen to have today–is the only possible economic system. They’ve put far more effort into that than they have into actually creating a viable global capitalist system. As a result the system is breaking down all around us at just the moment when everyone has lost the ability to imagine anything else.

I think it’s pretty obvious that in 50 years, capitalism in any form we’d recognize, and probably in any form at all, will be gone. Something else will have replaced it. That something might not be better. It might be even worse. It seems to me for that very reason it’s our responsibility, as intellectuals, or just as thoughtful human beings, to try to at least think about what something better might look like. And if there are people actually trying to create that better thing, it’s our responsibility to help them out.

David Graeber, December 2014

kobane solidarity

Birthday Greetings from Peter Kropotkin

Kropotkin birthday

December 21st is the birthday of Peter Kropotkin, the anarchist communist revolutionary (1842-1921). To celebrate his 172nd birthday, I am presenting, by way of a “birthday greeting,” some comments by Kropotkin on how best to communicate anarchist ideas and what makes a successful revolution, taken from his Memoirs of a Revolutionist. Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas includes several selections by Kropotkin on anarchist communism, social revolution, law and authority, mutual aid, the Paris Commune, and libertarian technology.

Kropotkin memoirs

Hope, not Despair, Makes Successful Revolutions

Socialist papers have often a tendency to become mere annals of complaints about existing conditions. The oppression of the laborers in the mine, the factory, and the field is related; the misery and sufferings of the workers during strikes are told in vivid pictures; their helplessness in the struggle against employers is insisted upon: and this succession of hopeless efforts, related in the paper, exercises a most depressing influence upon the reader.

To counterbalance that effect, the editor has to rely chiefly upon burning words by means of which he tries to inspire his readers with energy and faith.
I thought, on the contrary, that a revolutionary paper must be, above all, a record of those symptoms which everywhere announce the coming of a new era, the germination of new forms of social life, the growing revolt against antiquated institutions. These symptoms should be watched, brought together in their intimate connection, and so grouped as to show to the hesitating minds of the greater number the invisible and often unconscious support which advanced ideas find everywhere, when a revival of thought takes place in society.

To make one feel sympathy with the throbbing of the human heart all over the world, with its revolt against age-long injustice, with its attempts at working out new forms of life,—this should be the chief duty of a revolutionary paper. It is hope, not despair, which makes successful revolutions.

Historians often tell us how this or that system of philosophy has accomplished a certain change in human thought, and subsequently in institutions. But this is not history. The greatest social philosophers have only caught the indications of coming changes, have understood their inner relations, and, aided by induction and intuition, have foretold what was to occur.

It may also be easy to draw a plan of social organization, by starting from a few principles and developing them to their necessary consequences, like a geometrical conclusion from a few axioms; but this is not sociology. A correct social forecast cannot be made unless one keeps an eye on the thousands of signs of the new life, separating the occasional facts from those which are organically essential, and building the generalization upon that basis.

This was the method of thought with which I endeavored to familiarize my readers, using plain comprehensible words, so as to accustom the most modest of them to judge for himself whereunto society is moving, and himself to correct the thinker if the latter comes to wrong conclusions. As to the criticism of what exists, I went into it only to disentangle the roots of the evils, and to show that a deep-seated and carefully-nurtured fetishism with regard to the antiquated survivals of past phases of human development, and a widespread cowardice of mind and will, are the main sources of all evils.

Peter Kropotkin

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Libertarian Revolution in Rojava

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In Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included excerpts from an interview that Janet Biehl, longtime companion of Murray Bookchin, conducted in 2011 with Ercan Ayboga, a Kurdish “democratic confederalist.” More recently, I posted an appeal from David Graeber for support for the mainly Kurdish people fighting in Rojava, an area in northern Syria under siege by the Islamic State (ISIS), where people are trying to establish a form of direct democracy based on popular assemblies, which share some similarities with the “libertarian democracy” of the anarchist collectives in the Spanish Revolution and Civil War. This December, Biehl, Graeber and several other people went to Rojava to see for themselves what was going on there. Here I reproduce some of Janet Biehl’s initial observations.

kobane solidarity

Impressions of Rojava

Rojava consists of three geographically non-contiguous cantons; we would see only the easternmost one, Cezire (or Jazira), due to the ongoing war with the Islamic State, which rages to the west, especially in Kobani. But everywhere we were welcomed warmly…

After Tunisian and Egyptian opposition groups mounted insurgencies during the Arab Spring in 2011, rebellious Syrians rose up too, initiating the civil war. In the summer of 2012, the regime’s authority collapsed in Rojava, where the Kurds had little trouble persuading its officials to depart nonviolently.

Rojavans ( …while they are mostly Kurds, they are also Arabs, Assyrians, Chechens, and others) then faced a choice of aligning themselves either with the regime that had persecuted them, or with the mostly Islamic militant opposition groups.

Rojava’s Kurds being relatively secular, they refused both sides and decided instead to embark on a Third Way, based on the ideas of Abdullah Ãcalan, the imprisoned Kurdish leader who rethought the Kurdish issue, the nature of revolution, and an alternative modernity to the nation-state and capitalism… Drawing eclectically from sources in history, philosophy, politics, and anthropology, Ãcalan proposed ‘Democratic Confederalism’ as the name for the overarching program of bottom-up democracy, gender equality, ecology, and a cooperative economy. The implementation of those principles, in institutions not only of democratic self-government but also of economics, education, health and gender, is called Democratic Autonomy.

Women defending Kobane

Women in the YPJ

A Women’s Revolution

Under their Third Way, Rojava’s three cantons declared Democratic Autonomy and formally established it in a ‘social contract’ (the non-statist term it uses instead of ‘constitution’). Under that program, they created a system of popular self-government, based in neighborhood commune assemblies (comprising several hundred households each), which anyone may attend, and with power rising from the bottom up through elected deputies to the city and cantonal levels.

When our delegation visited a Qamishlo neighborhood (Qamishlo being the largest city in the Cezire canton), we attended a meeting of a local people’s council, where the electricity and matters relating to women, conflict resolution and families of martyrs were discussed. Men and women sat and participated together. Elsewhere in Qamishlo, we witnessed an assembly of women addressing problems particular to their gender.

Gender is of special importance to this project in human emancipation. We quickly realized that the Rojava Revolution is fundamentally a women’s revolution. This part of the world is traditionally home to extreme patriarchal oppression: to be born female is to be at risk for violent abuse, childhood marriage, honor killings, polygamy, and more.

But today the women of Rojava have shaken off that tradition and participate fully in public life: at every level of politics and society. Institutional leadership consists not of one position but two, one male and one female official for the sake of gender equality and also to keep power from concentrating into one person’s hands.

Representatives of Yekitiya Star, the umbrella organization for women’s groups, explained that women are essential to democracy — they even defined the antagonist of women’s freedom, strikingly, not as patriarchy but as the nation-state and capitalist modernity. The women’s revolution aims to free everyone. Women are to this revolution what the proletariat was to Marxist-Leninist revolutions of the past century. It has profoundly transformed not only women’s status but every aspect of society.

Even the traditionally male-dominated strands of society, like the military, have been profoundly transformed. The people’s protection units (YPG) have been joined by the YPJ, or women’s protection units, whose images by now have become world famous. Together, the YPG and the YPJ are defending society against the jihadist forces of ISIS and Al-Nusra with Kalashnikovs and, perhaps equally formidably, a fierce intellectual and emotional commitment not only to their community’s survival but to its political ideas and aspirations too.

When we visited a meeting of the YPJ, we were told that the fighters’ education consists not only of training in practical matters like weapons but also in Democratic Autonomy. ‘We are fighting for our ideas,’ they emphasized at every turn. Two of the women who met with us had been injured in battle. One sat with an IV bag, another with a metal crutch–both were wincing in pain but had the fortitude and self-discipline to participate in our session.

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Cooperation and Education

Rojavans fight for the survival of their community but above all, as the YPJ told us, for their ideas. They even put the successful implementation of democracy above ethnicity. Their social agreement affirms the inclusion of ethnic minorities (Arabs, Chechens, Assyrians) and religions (Muslims, Christians, Yezidis), and Democratic Autonomy in practice seems to bend over backwards to include minorities, without imposing it on others against their will, leaving the door open to all.

When our delegation asked a group of Assyrians to tell us their challenges with Democratic Autonomy, they said they had none. In nine days we could not possibly have scoured Rojava for all problems, and our interlocutors candidly admitted that Rojava is hardly above criticism, but as far as I could see, Rojava at the very least aspires to model tolerance and pluralism in a part of the world that has seen far too much fanaticism and repression, and to whatever extent it succeeds, it deserves commendation.

Rojava’s economic model is the same as its political model, an economics adviser in Derik told us: to create a ‘community economy,’ building cooperatives in all sectors and educating the people in the idea. The adviser expressed satisfaction that even though 70 percent of Rojava’s resources must go to the war effort, the economy still manages to meet everyone’s basic needs.

They strive for self-sufficiency, because they must: the crucial fact is that Rojava exists under an embargo. It can neither export to nor import from its immediate neighbor to the north, Turkey, which would like to see the whole Kurdish project disappear.

Even the KRG, under control of their ethnic kin but economically beholden to Turkey, observes the embargo, although more cross-border KRG-Rojava trade is occurring now in the wake of political developments. But the country still lacks resources. That does not dampen their spirit: ‘If there is only bread, then we all have a share,’ the adviser told us.

We visited an economics academy and economic cooperatives: a sewing cooperative in Derik, making uniforms for the defense forces; a cooperative greenhouse, growing cucumbers and tomatoes; a dairy cooperative in Rimelan, where a new shed was under construction.

The Kurdish areas are the most fertile parts of Syria, home to its abundant wheat supply, but the Baâath regime had deliberately refrained from industrializing the area, a source of raw materials. Hence wheat was cultivated but could not be milled into flour. We visited a mill, newly constructed since the revolution, improvised from local materials. It now provides flour for the bread consumed in Cezire, whose residents get three loaves a day.

Similarly, Cezire was Syria’s major source of petroleum, with several thousand oil rigs, mostly in the Rimelan area. But the Baâath regime ensured that Rojava had no refineries, forcing the oil to be transported to refineries elsewhere in Syria. But since the revolution, Rojavans have improvised two new oil refineries, which are used mainly to provide diesel for the generators that power the canton. The local oil industry, if such it can be called, produces only enough for local needs, nothing more.

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A DIY Revolution

The level of improvisation was striking throughout the canton. The more we traveled through Rojava, the more I marveled at the do-it-yourself nature of the revolution, its reliance on local ingenuity and the scarce materials at hand. But it was not until we visited the various academies, the women’s academy in Rimelan and the Mesopotamian Academy in Qamishlo, that I realized that it is integral to the system as a whole.

The education system in Rojava is non-traditional, rejecting ideas of hierarchy, power and hegemony. Instead of following a teacher-student hierarchy, students teach each other and learn from each other’s experience. Students learn what is useful, in practical matters; they ‘search for meaning,’ as we were told, in intellectual matters. They do not memorize; they learn to think for themselves and make decisions, to become the subjects of their own lives. They learn to be empowered and to participate in Democratic Autonomy.

Janet Biehl, December 2014

kurdish fighters

Anarchists in Hong Kong Today

Protestors in Hong Kong 2014

Protestors in Hong Kong 2014

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

The Face of Authority in Hong Kong

The Face of Authority in Hong Kong

Anarchists Protest in Hong Kong

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Hands Up Don't Shoot" in Hong Kong

“Hands Up Don’t Shoot” in Hong Kong

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

china tear gasses Hong Kong protesters

Anarchist Ethics

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In this installment from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I discuss anarchist approaches to morality and ethics. Contrary to popular misconceptions, most self-identified anarchists were not nihilistic egoists or amoralists, like Max Stirner, but instead were critics of the parsimonious and hypocritical morality found in existing society, which is designed to encourage subservience and obedience. Anarchists argued that people can only be “moral,” in a positive sense, in a society of equals without hierarchy and domination.

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Anarchist Morality

“Official morality,” wrote Elisée Reclus in 1894, “consists in bowing humbly to one’s superiors and in proudly holding up one’s head before one’s subordinates” (Volume One, Selection 38). True morality can only exist between equals. “It is not only against the abstract trinity of law, religion, and authority” that anarchists declare war, according to Kropotkin, but the inequality that gives rise to “deceit, cunning, exploitation, depravity, vice… It is in the name of equality that we are determined to have no more prostituted, exploited, deceived and governed men and women.”

This sense of justice and solidarity, “which brings the individual to consider the rights of every other individual as equal to his own,” has been successively widened, from the clan, to the tribe, to the nation, to the whole of humankind, until it is transcended by a “higher conception of ‘no revenge for wrongs,’ and of freely giving more than one expects to receive from his neighbours” (Volume One, Selection 54). For Kropotkin, acting morally is not only natural, but a means of self-fulfillment.

What anarchists sought to achieve was a world in which everyone is free to develop his or her talents and abilities to their fullest. This is impossible as long as workers are required to engage in labour merely to eke out an existence, taking whatever jobs they can get, women must work at home and in the factory or office, subject to their husbands and fathers at home, to their bosses at work, and to conventional morality always, and children must be trained to accept their lot in life and to obey their “betters.”

It is for these reasons that anarchism, Kropotkin wrote, “refuses all hierarchical organization” (Volume One, Selection 41). As Charlotte Wilson (1854-1944), who helped found the English language anarchist newspaper, Freedom, with Kropotkin in 1886, explained, “all coercive organization” with its “machine-like regularity is fatal to the realization” of the anarchist ideal of self-fulfillment for all, not just the privileged few (Volume One, Selection 37).

Robert Graham

Kropotkin quote well being for all

Platformism in Ukraine Today? A Debate

RKAS (PKAC) demonstration in Ukraine

RKAS (PKAC) demonstration in Ukraine

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

russia or ukraine

Platformism and Anarchism in Ukraine

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

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

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

International Union of Anarchists (MSA)

International Union of Anarchists (MSA)

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

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

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

rkas makhno banner

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

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

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

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

RKAS demonstration

RKAS demonstration

A Response to Samurai

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

makhno quote

Anarchism and Education

education no masters

In the next installment from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I discuss anarchist approaches to education. Although I begin this section with a discussion of the role of Francisco Ferrer in inspiring the “Modern School” movement, anarchists had been advocating libertarian alternatives to conventional education systems since the time of William Godwin. Proudhon, Bakunin and the anarchists in the First International had advocated an “integral education,” combining practical and theoretical knowledge. Bakunin’s associate, Paul Robin, and Louise Michel, helped set up the first anarchist “free schools” in France and England. In the mid-twentieth century into the 1970s, anarchists like Herbert Read and Paul Goodman, and fellow travellers like Ivan Illich, began developing an even more radical critique of education, calling for an end to “compulsory miseducation” and the “deschooling” of society.

Modern_School,_by_Francisco_Ferrer,_translated_by_Voltairine_de_Cleyre_in_1909

Libertarian Education

Anarchists did not limit their involvement in popular struggles to the workers’ movement. Anarchists were also involved in various libertarian education movements that sought to bring to the masses the “integral education” of which Bakunin spoke, in order to ensure “that in the future no class can rule over the working masses, exploiting them, superior to them because it knows more” (Volume One, Selection 64).

In Europe, North America, Latin America, China and Japan, Francisco Ferrer (1859-1909) inspired the “Modern School” movement which sought to liberate children from the authoritarian strictures of religious and state controlled schools by creating schools outside of the existing education system in which children would be free to pursue their individual inclinations and interests. Ferrer argued that, in contrast, religious and state schools imprison “children physically, intellectually, and morally, in order to direct the development of their faculties in the paths desired” by the authorities, making children “accustomed to obey, to believe, to think according to the social dogmas which govern us,” and education “but a means of domination in the hands of the governing powers” (Volume One, Selection 65).

Ferrer had himself been influenced by earlier experiments in libertarian education in England and France by anarchists like Louise Michel and Paul Robin (1837-1912). His execution by Spanish authorities in 1909, rather than putting an end to the Modern School movement, gave it renewed inspiration.

La Ruche - Anarchist Free School

La Ruche – Anarchist Free School

In France, Sébastien Faure (1858-1942) founded the “la Ruche” (Beehive) free school in 1904. La Ruche was noteworthy for providing boys and girls with equal educational opportunities, sex education, and for its rejection of any form of punishment or constraint, all very radical approaches during an era when girls were either excluded or segregated, information regarding sex and contraception was censored, even for adults, and corporal punishment of students was routine. Faure, as with Godwin before him, rejected any system of punishments and rewards because “it makes no appeal” to the child’s reasoning or conscience, producing “a slavish, cowardly, sheepish breed… capable of cruelty and abjection” (Volume One, Selection 66)…

Herbert Read (1893-1968) later expanded on the role of modern education in creating a submissive populace, much as Ferrer and Faure had before him. Through the education system, “everything personal, everything which is the expression of individual perceptions and feelings, is either neglected, or subordinated to some conception of normality, of social convention, of correctness.” Read therefore advocated libertarian education, emphasizing the creative process and “education through art,” arguing that it “is only in so far as we liberate” children, “shoots not yet stunted or distorted by an environment of hatred and injustice, that we can expect to make any enduring change in society” (Volume Two, Selection 36).

Paul Goodman (1911-1972) described the school system as “compulsory mis-education,” which perpetuated a society in which youth are “growing up absurd.” His friend Ivan Illich (1926-2002) was later to advocate “deschooling society” as a way of combating the commodification of social life, where everything, and everybody, becomes a commodity to be consumed (Volume Two, Selection 73). By the 1960s and 1970s, people were again experimenting in libertarian education (Volume Two, Selection 46), something which anarchists had been advocating since the time of William Godwin.

Robert Graham

education godwin clean

Additional References

Goodman, Paul. Compulsory Mis-Education. New York: Horizon Press, 1964; and Growing Up Absurd. New York: Vintage Books, 1960.

Illich, Ivan. Deschooling Society. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973.

Read, Herbert. Education Through Art. London: Faber & Faber, 1943.

We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It

we do not fear the book cover

AK Press now has a graphic for the cover of my forthcoming book, “We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It”: The First International and the Origins of the Anarchist Movement. I have already posted a few excerpts on this blog. The book should be out next Spring. Here, I set forth some excerpts from the Introduction, where I provide a definition of anarchism based on the way the anarchists in the International conceived it. The quote in the title, “We do not fear anarchy – we invoke it,” is from Bakunin.

goldman quote

Defining Anarchism

During his polemics within the International against the “authoritarians” and “bourgeois socialists,” Bakunin set forth six primary grounds for distinguishing his anarchism from the views of his opponents: first, his rejection of any kind of institutional, coercive authority (anti-authoritarianism); second, his opposition to the modern state, even as a “transitional” power to abolish capitalism (anti-statism); third, his opposition to any participation in existing systems of government or “bourgeois politics” (anti-parliamentarianism); fourth and fifth, his advocacy of voluntary federation during the struggle against capitalism and the state and in a post-revolutionary society (federalism), so that the revolutionary means were consistent with the revolutionary ends (libertarianism); and sixth, his call for the immediate abolition of the state and capitalism by means of direct action, including insurrection and the expropriation by the workers themselves of the means of production (social revolution).

In identifying Proudhon as an anarchist, Bakunin focused on Proudhon’s critique of the state and private property, Proudhon’s opposition to the authoritarian politics of the Jacobins and any sort of “revolutionary” dictatorship, and Proudhon’s concept of “agro-industrial federation,” a libertarian form of socialism wherein the state and capitalism are replaced by voluntary federations of agricultural, industrial and communal organizations with no central authority above them. Where he differed from Proudhon was in his advocacy of insurrection and expropriation and in his rejection of Proudhon’s view that capitalism and the state could be gradually supplanted through the creation and ever widening expansion of voluntary associations of workers, peasants, professionals and other functional groups with access to free credit through their own credit unions, or “people’s bank.”

Following Bakunin’s approach, anarchism, whether his, Proudhon’s or someone else’s, can be distinguished from other doctrines on the basis of its anti-authoritarianism, anti-statism, anti-parliamentarianism, federalism, libertarianism and advocacy of direct action. Bakunin included Proudhon in the anarchist camp despite Proudhon’s opposition to insurrection and expropriation and his gradualist approach. Bakunin recognized that despite these differences Proudhon was still an anarchist. Both advocated direct action, but with Proudhon emphasizing non-violent direct action that would gradually hollow out existing institutions and replace them with voluntary agro-industrial federations.

While Proudhon and Bakunin were both proponents of “social” revolution, Proudhon’s social revolution was conceived in gradual, pacific terms, not in insurrectionary terms, in contrast to Bakunin. Furthermore, all socialists of their era agreed on the need for some kind of “social” revolution, given the failure of the preceding “political” revolutions (the French Revolution and the European revolutions of 1848-1849). Consequently, advocacy of social revolution does not distinguish anarchism from other doctrines, such as socialism.

For the purposes of this study, therefore, I will proceed on the basis that anarchism can be defined as a view that rejects coercive authority, the state and participation in existing systems of government, and which advocates federalism (or voluntary association), libertarianism and direct action. This is consistent with Proudhon and Bakunin’s conceptions of anarchism and, as will be seen in the chapters which follow, the views of those members of the International who came to identify themselves as anarchists and to create an international anarchist movement.

Arguably, some of these six defining characteristics can be derived from the others. For example, the state and government can be seen simply as specific examples of coercive authority, so that anti-authoritarianism is the primary defining characteristic of anarchism. As Sébastien Faure (1858-1942) put it, “whoever denies Authority and fights against it is an Anarchist.”[i] Be that as it may, in historical terms I believe that it was on the basis of these six characteristics that anarchism came to be distinguished from other political orientations. These six criteria help to flesh out the content of anarchism in a more substantive sense, providing a more robust and “political” conception of anarchism as something more than mere “anti-authoritarianism.” To define anarchism simply on the basis of what it is that anarchists oppose fails to take into account the positive anarchist alternatives to authoritarian institutions and practices that also distinguish anarchism from other doctrines.

Robert Graham

[i] Woodcock, The Anarchist Reader, 1977: 62.

what is

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