Hurrah for Anarchy!

hurrah for anarchy

Recently Dissent magazine carried a rather lame critique of anarchism by Sheri Berman. Here I present an excellent rejoinder, posted by “Patrick” (also the author?) at For Student Power and the Black Rose Anarchist Federation website. As the article notes, Berman’s comments about the Paris Commune being an example of anarchism’s failure are particularly off the mark (for a different perspective, see my book, We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It). As for Dissent, I can’t resist recalling an old Woody Allen joke about Dissent merging with a similar magazine, Commentary, to create a new magazine, Dissentary.

volume-3

Another Day, Another Hatchet Job

Is just me, or has the quality of critiques of anarchism been getting worse lately?

Barnard Professor Sheri Berman’s contribution to Dissent’s Fall 2015 issue (“No Cheers for Anarchism”) makes it clear she holds anarchism — and anarchists — in contempt. I looked for, but sadly could not find, a well-argued reason why. Her essay is plagued by the kind of scattershot superficial analysis, innuendo, and guilt-by-association better suited to a publication like the Weekly Standard than such a storied journal of the left.

Berman’s trouble begins when she asserts a fundamental similarity between anarchists and libertarians:

Anarchists dream of a world without states, traditional political organizations, or any other structures that restrict individual freedom. Because they share such beliefs and goals with libertarians, anarchists are easily confused with them. In the American context, at least, the main distinction between the two concerns capitalism: anarchists view it as inherently coercive, while libertarians venerate it as the embodiment and guardian of individual rights. This has led the former to be viewed as left wing and the latter as right wing, but in reality, anarchists differ dramatically from other sectors of the modern left (just as libertarians differ dramatically from traditional conservatives and other factions of the modern right).

While it’s true that American libertarians essentially stole their appellation from us (“libertarian” at least in Europe still largely means anarchist), they sadly did not deign to import any of our ideas. Anarchist analysis is fundamentally social and structural, and is the common thread that links our opposition to capitalism and the state, our resistance to all forms of oppression and domination, and our proposal of common ownership of wealth and production through direct democracy. Libertarians, on the other hand, construct their world starting with the atomized individual, resting on a foundation of modern property rights: it is a thoroughly reactionary ideology.

no to anarcho-capitalism

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century anarchism’s rejection of traditional political organizations and activity led to its involvement in various uprisings and rebellions, the most important of which was the Paris Commune.

It is strange to see Berman assert that anarchists during that time rejected “traditional political organizations and activity.” I can only assume she means electoral and party politics, which given the time period were anything but traditional. Indeed, Europe has a much longer history of strikes, revolts, and revolutions than of parliaments. Modern European political parties only kicked off in earnest post-1848 while universal suffrage took even longer. And while she claims anarchism is a very different animal from its brethren on the left, anarchists made up a significant portion of the First International, and have joined arms with their fellow socialists in barricades, picket lines, and revolutions ever since.

Odder still, considering how few actual anarchists were there, is Berman’s implication that the Paris Commune was an “anarchist activity”:

Despite their often spectacular nature, anarchist activities were almost uniformly unsuccessful. For example, the Paris Commune’s lack of internal organization, leadership, or agreed-upon goals left it prone to infighting and vulnerable to counter-attack; it was brutally crushed by the forces of counter-revolution.

Given that both Marxists and anarchists spoke highly of the Commune, one suspects there is more to it than Berman lets on. While she pins the blame on a “lack of internal organization, leadership, or agreed-upon goals,” one of the anarchist critiques of the Commune is that while there was plenty of internal organization, it was hobbled by its centralized and bureaucratic nature. As Kropotkin put it:

But in 1871 the people of Paris, which had overthrown so many governments, was only involved in its first attempt at revolt against the governmental system itself: it submitted to governmental fetichism and gave itself a government. We know the consequence. It sent its devoted sons to the Hotel-de-Ville. Indeed, immobilised there by fetters of red tape, forced to discuss when action was needed, and losing the sensitivity that comes from continued contact with the masses, they saw themselves reduced to impotence. Paralysed by their distancing from the revolutionary centre — the people — they themselves paralysed the popular initiative.

Berman then claims that the fin-de-siecle left abandoned anarchism for political parties and trade unions, neglecting to mention that a large majority of anarchists at that time were already moving into the labor movement. While many socialist parties at the time saw trade unions as little more than party recruiting grounds and vehicles for turf wars with other socialists, anarchists placed labor struggles at the heart of revolutionary strategy (exemplified by the prominent rise of anarcho-syndicalism across Europe and Latin America).

Anarcho-Syndicalism

Anarcho-Syndicalism

Berman correctly notes that after World War I “socialists played a significant role” in governments across Europe:

During the interwar period socialist parties became the bulwarks of democracy in many parts of Europe. Defending democracy meant that socialists needed to win elections and attract the support of the majority, which would in turn require compromises, trade-offs and patience—none of which appealed to anarchists.

While socialists in power were quite successful at breaking strikes and attacking popular movements on their left, they failed at what was possibly their most important task: heading off the rise of nationalism and fascism. The world paid dearly for that failure. In Spain it was the election of a social democrat-led coalition, not anarchist agitation (as Berman alleges), that spurred Franco’s coup. Were it not for the immediate actions taken by the UGT and anarchist-led CNT trade unions to arm and mobilize the population, against a backdrop of paralysis on the part of the government, Franco’s victory likely would have been nearly instantaneous.

Similarly, Berman’s analysis of the 1960s is painfully incomplete. Claiming the post-1945 social democratic order “undergirded an unprecedented period of consolidated democracy, economic growth, and social stability in Europe and the West,” she neglects to mention the mountains of stolen resources and millions of bodies across Asia and Africa on which that order depended. Nor does she mention that the anti-colonial, anti-imperialist project was central to the radical left of the 1960s, simply stating that “many anarchist-influenced ‘New Left’ and counter-culture movements (including punk and the Yippies in the United States, and squatters movements in many European cities) attack[ed] the reigning ‘bourgeois, capitalist’ order.” The only time Berman bothers to reach outside the comforts of the West is for a few bogeymen:

Some praised the likes of Ho Chi Minh, Mao Zedong, and Fidel Castro—hardly icons of freedom—and showed scorn for public opinion and for the “masses” who didn’t share their vision of the world.

Trying to hang those three around anarchism’s neck — none of whom were remotely anarchist, and in the case of Castro, actively jailed and murdered Cuban anarchists? The mind boggles.

Anti-Castro Cuban anarchist paper

Anti-Castro Cuban anarchist paper

In the post-Cold War era, anarchism has emerged as arguably the most energetic current on the left in the U.S. Berman dismisses Occupy Wall Street as a flash in the pan, little more than “theatrics” with “ephemeral impact.” While neither OWS nor the many successful campaigns and movements it birthed were majority anarchist, their tools, sensibilities and outlook drew heavily from that tradition. And too many progressives forget that over the course of a few months, OWS dramatically changed the bounds of mainstream economic and political debate (remember the summer preceding it, when matters of wealth inequality and Wall Street were permanently sidelined to debt ceilings and austerity packages?). That’s something for which the Elizabeth Warrens and Bernie Sanderses of the world should thank their friendly neighborhood anarchist.

Berman reaches peak superficiality as she concludes her essay by way of former congressman Barney Frank, a man whose blinkered conception of social change can only be measured in angry letters and phone calls to the Capitol switchboard:

In his recent book, Barney Frank, for example, contrasted the National Rifle Association’s persistent grassroots organizing and resultant ability to mobilize supporters to flood lawmakers’ offices with letters and calls and to vote as a bloc, with the inclination of many on the left to “hold public demonstrations, in which like-minded people gather to reassure each other of their beliefs.” Frank goes on to argue that “if you care deeply about an issue and are engaged in group activity on its behalf that is fun and inspiring and heightens your sense of solidarity with others . . . you are most certainly not doing your cause any good.”

There’s quite a bit of confusion here, not least of which is the implication that social movements (let alone anarchist-inspired ones) desire the same scope and scale of change that the NRA does. I for one am glad that so many movements reject the Berman-Frank model of social change. From immigrant rights (in both the Americas and Europe) to service sector unionization, from campaigns against fossil fuel projects to the 2012 Québec student strike, anarchists are at the forefront and in the trenches, helping shape analysis and strategy. Instead of petitioning their elected officials, they are doing what every successful movement has done: changing the reality on the ground so starkly and fundamentally that political and economic elites are forced to accommodate.

chomsky on anarchism

Ultimately, the shadow that hangs over Berman’s entire essay is cast not by anarchism, but by the colossal wreckage of social democracy.

Berman approvingly quotes François Mitterand’s denunciation of Paris protesters in May 1968: “what a mish-mash of quasi-Marxism, what hotch-potch, what confusion.” While she contents to caricature one of the most important events of the twentieth century, the quote much more accurately describes Mitterand’s own panicked and confused descent into austerity when faced with all the terrible demands of capital but none of the workers and youth on the streets to force him to live up to his socialist promises.

For decades now, social democratic parties across the West have taken up the mantle of hatchet men for the interests of capital. It is austerity imposed by the “left” that cuts deepest and is hardest to oppose. This slow self-immolation by socialist parties, stretching from London to Athens and Paris to Berlin, reminds us that we can’t administer our way out of the horrors of capitalism. While those on the electoral left — the true starry-eyed utopians — propose yet another round of minor fixes to capitalism’s foundational deformities, anarchists and our allies will keep fighting for and building a liberated world, one that needs neither capitalists nor their reluctant stewards.

January 2016

A different perspective

A different perspective

2015: Year in Review

Circle A

Just got my annual report from WordPress. During the past year, my three most popular posts were “Libertarian Revolution in Rojava,” David Graeber’s “There is a real revolution in Rojava,” and “Further Reflections on the Revolution in Rojava” by Janet Biehl. For more recent stories about the Kurdish struggle for self-determination, particularly for women, see this article in the Washington Post, and this article in the Huffington Post regarding Murray Bookchin’s continuing influence among the Kurds. Here is an excerpt from an article from last fall by Carne Ross on the situation in Rojava, noting the war that Turkey is waging against the Kurds, a war largely ignored by the mainstream media, which likes to pretend that Turkey is helping in the fight against ISIS. The full article can by found here on Ross’ blog. I included material from Kurdish anarchists and Janet Biehl’s interview with Kurdish “democratic confederalists” in Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas.

anarchy_rojava_STIM

Power to the People of Rojava

I visited Rojava last month while filming a documentary about the failings of the western model of democracy. The region covers a substantial “corner” of north-east Syria and has a population of approximately 3m, yet it is not easy to get to. The only passage is by small boat or a creaky pontoon bridge across the Tigris from Iraq.

Turkey has closed its borders with Rojava, preventing all movement from the north, including humanitarian supplies to Kurdish-controlled areas. To the south, in Iraq, the Kurdistan Regional Government does not make access easy; permits for journalists are not straightforward and, we were told, repeat visits are discouraged.

The isolation is not only physical. Turkey regards the Syrian Kurd YPG militia that is fighting the jihadi organisation Isis in Rojava as synonymous with the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK), a longstanding enemy inside Turkey. The YPG’s advance against Isis along Syria’s northern border has been halted by the declaration by Turkey of a so-called “safe zone” to the west of the Euphrates between the front line and the Kurdish-controlled canton of Afrin in the north-west. For the Kurds, the motive seems transparently clear: to prevent the formation of a contiguous area of Kurdish control along Turkey’s southern border.

The KRG, which collaborates with Turkey against the PKK, has also been reluctant to support the YPG, even though they share a common enemy in the shape of Isis. Turkey has likewise pressured the US to eschew the Syrian Kurds, although in the past few days Washington has come out in more open support, including delivering arms supplies to the YPG. Meanwhile, the Kurds maintain an uneasy truce with the Syrian regime, which keeps two small bases in Rojava but otherwise has no military presence here — a tacit deal whereby the Kurds control the territory in return for not fighting the regime.

Those journalists that do get here naturally gravitate to the front lines like the devastated city of Kobani; similarly, images of the photogenic young women who make up the female Kurdish militia, the YPJ, are more eye-catching than the village hall meetings that comprise the reality of an innovative grassroots democracy. But it is in those dusty assemblies across Rojava that a democratic revolution is taking place.

Carne Ross, October 2015

Emma Goldman "Happy New Year"

Emma Goldman “Happy New Year”

Neither East Nor West

Neither east nor west

In the next installment from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I discuss how in the aftermath of the Second World War, confronted by the “cold war” between the United States and the Soviet Union, anarchists attempted to maintain an independent position that refused any compromise with either power block. Marie Louise Berneri’s slogan, “Neither East Nor West,” was clearly meant to echo the 19th century anarchist battle cry, “Neither God Nor Master.” One of the more interesting attempts to mark out an independent path for anarchist movements was made by the Bulgarian Anarchist Communist Federation, which developed a conception of an interlocking network of organizations that anticipated the notion of “horizontal federations” articulated by Colin Ward and other anarchists in the 1960s. Unfortunately, the Bulgarian anarchist movement was crushed by the Stalinists when they turned Bulgaria into a Soviet client state.

anarchist communism

Neither East Nor West

After the Second World War, despite the “Cold War” between the Soviet Union and the United States, anarchists sought to keep alive their libertarian vision of a free and equal society in which every individual is able to flourish. Marie Louise Berneri coined the phrase, “Neither East nor West,” signifying anarchist opposition to all power blocs (Volume Two, Selection 10). Anarchists continued to oppose colonialism and the imperialist expansion of the Soviet and American empires (Volume Two, Selections 8, 9, 28, 29 & 31).

Due to their opposition to both dominant power blocs, during the Cold War organized anarchist movements faced almost insurmountable obstacles, similar to the situation faced by the Spanish anarchists during the Revolution and Civil War. In Bulgaria, there was a significant pre-war anarchist communist movement which reemerged briefly after the defeat of Nazi Germany, but which was quickly suppressed by their Soviet “liberators.” The Bulgarian anarchists repudiated fascism as an “attempt to restore absolutism [and] autocracy… with the aim of defending the economic and spiritual dominance of the privileged classes.” They rejected “political democracy” (representative government) because “its social foundations [are] based on the centralized State and capitalism,” resulting in “chaos, contradictions and crime.” As for State socialism, “it leads to State capitalism—the most monstrous form of economic exploitation and oppression, and of total domination of social and individual freedom” (Volume Two, Selection 7).

The program of the Bulgarian Anarchist Communist Federation is noteworthy today for its emphasis on anarchist federalism as “a dense and complex network” of village communities, regional communes, productive enterprises, trade unions, distribution networks and consumer organizations that would be “grouped in a general confederation of exchange and consumption for satisfying the needs of all inhabitants” (Volume Two, Selection 7). Such network forms of organization mark an advance over the “inverse pyramid” structure that had long been advocated by anarcho-syndicalists, which was much more prone to being transformed into a more conventional, hierarchical form of organization during times of crisis, as in Spain. By the early 1950s, many anarcho-syndicalists were advocating similar horizontal networks based on factory councils and community assemblies, resembling a “honeycomb,” as Philip Sansom put it, in which “all the cells are of equal importance and fit into each other,” instead of control being “maintained from the centre” (Volume Two, Selection 58).

Within their own organizations, the Bulgarian anarchist communists advocated a form of consensus decision-making. However, while “the decision of the majority is not binding on the minority,” in practice “the minority generally rallies to the decision of the majority,” after the majority has had an opportunity to demonstrate the wisdom of its position. Thus, while the minority was not bound to follow the decisions of the majority, the majority was not prevented from acting in accordance with its own views, such that the minority could not assume de facto authority over the majority by refusing to agree with the majority decision, as sometimes happens under other forms of consensus decision-making. The Bulgarian anarchist communists recognized that in broader based mass organizations that were not specifically anarchist in orientation, majority rule would generally prevail, but even then “the minority may be freed from the obligation to apply a general decision, on condition that it does not prevent the execution of such a decision” (Volume Two, Selection 7). In this regard, their position is remarkably similar to that of contemporary advocates of participatory democracy, such as Carole Pateman (1985: 159-162; see also Graham, 1996), and anarchist advocates of various forms of direct democracy (Volume Three, Chapter 2).

Robert Graham

anarchist communism 2

Massacre in Turkey

An injured man hugs an injured woman after an explosion during a peace march in Ankara

THIS is not a historical or theoretical piece. It’s about a massacre of around 100 protesters in Turkey, including members of the Turkish anarchist movement. For some background, see my earlier post about the Turkish airforce bombing Kurdish targets with the tacit support of the USA and NATO, while pretending to go after ISIS (the article in the Guardian quoted below refers to Turkey’s so-called “synchronised” bombing campaign against ISIS and the PKK; in reality, most of the bombs have been dropped on people in Kurdish areas, not ISIS). The HDP is a pro-Kurdish party which recently won seats in the Turkish legislature. The PKK is a Kurdish political party and insurgency that has been fighting for Kurdish autonomy for decades.

One of the bombs explodes in the middle of the march

One of the bombs explodes in the middle of the march

For early coverage of the attack, see this article in the Guardian newspaper. It’s not hard to read between the lines. Here are some disturbing quotes from the article:

“Scum attacked in Ankara,” said the Haberturk newspaper…

Some witnesses said ambulances could not immediately reach the scene of the attack, and that police obstructed the quick evacuation of the wounded from the square…

The prime minister’s office banned media coverage of the attack, citing “security reasons”, though several local media groups said they would ignore the ministry’s orders. Access to social media services, such as Twitter, was temporarily only possible through VPN in Turkey.

Veysel Eroglu, minister for forestry and water, attempted to put the blame on the organisers of the peace rally. “Our people need to be careful of such provocateurs that organise terrorist demonstrations in order to incite discord in social harmony,” he said.

The HDP, one of the groups organising the peace rally, said in a statement that it had specifically been targeted. Several HDP members and parliamentary candidates are among the victims of the attack.

Selahattin Demirtaş, co-chair of the HDP party, said: “This attack is not targeting our state and national unity, it is perpetrated by the state against the people. We are witnessing a massacre here. A cruel and barbarian attack was carried out. The death toll is high.” Demirtas added that he did not expect that those responsible for the bombings would be brought to justice.

Asked at a press conference if he had considered resigning over the Ankara attack, interior minister Selami Altinok denied that there had been failures in security preparations for the planned peace rally. Only hours after the Ankara bomb attacks, the PKK declared a unilateral ceasefire and called on its fighters to halt all guerrilla attacks in Turkey, according to the Firat news agency…

A rally for the pro-Kurdish HDP party was bombed in June, ahead of last year’s general election, but this is the deadliest single attack on the country’s soil…

Turkey has been in a heightened state of alert since starting a “synchronised war on terror” in July, including airstrikes against Islamic State fighters in Syria and PKK bases in northern Iraq. It has also rounded up hundreds of suspected militants at home.

Turkish anarchist demonstration

Turkish anarchist demonstration

Here is a statement from the Turkish anarchist group, the DAF (Revolutionary Anarchist Action):

CAN’T BE FORGOTTEN, CAN’T BE FORGIVEN

Today, on the 10th of October, the “Labor, Democracy and Peace Meeting” that was organized by various unions, associations and organizations has been attacked. Like in Amed on June and in Suruc on July, the bombs exploding in Ankara today has killed tens of people.

Thousands of people came together from many different cities of the geography against the politics of war, against war profiteering of different power groups. Today, the bombs that exploded, murdered the people who wanted peace, life and freedom against war.

This explosion, in which more than 30 people have lost their lives until now, is a reflection of the blood thirsty greed of the powers. The ones who murdered in Amed, in Pirsus, in Cizir, are now trying to intimidate the peoples, frustrate with war politics and discourage from the struggle for freedom, by murdering tens of people in Ankara.

The powers should know that by any means, be it arrests or murder with bombs, we will not be afraid of the powers or submit their war politics.

For a new world, a life of freedom, the murderers in Amed, in Pirsus, Cizir and Ankara, murdered ones
CAN’T BE FORGOTTEN, the murderers CAN’T BE FORGIVEN.

Revolutionary Anarchist Action (DAF)

Turkey-ankara_bomb_attack

Poetry and Anarchism: Herbert Read

Herbert Read

Herbert Read

Continuing with my installments from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, in this section I discuss the contributions of Herbert Read to the development of anarchist ideas in response to the Spanish Revolution and Civil War. I included several selections from Read in Volumes One and Two of the Anarchism anthology. Read influenced people like Alex Comfort, Howard Zinn and Murray Bookchin, laying the groundwork for the new directions in anarchist theory that were to emerge from out of the aftermath of the Second World War.

herbert-read-ICA-006

Poetry and Anarchism

One of the anarchists involved in rethinking anarchism around the time of the Spanish Revolution and Civil War was the English poet, art critic and essayist, Herbert Read (1893-1968). In Poetry and Anarchism (1938), Read acknowledged that “to declare for a doctrine so remote as anarchism at this stage of history will be regarded by some critics as a sign of intellectual bankruptcy; by others as a sort of treason, a desertion of the democratic front at the most acute moment of its crisis; by still others as mere poetic nonsense.” Read sought to “balance anarchism with surrealism, reason with romanticism, the understanding with the imagination, function with freedom” (Volume One, Selection 130). He developed an ecological conception of anarchism emphasizing spontaneity and differentiation. He saw society as “an organic being” in which communities “can live naturally and freely” and individuals can “develop in consciousness of strength, vitality and joy,” with progress being “measured by the degree of differentiation within a society” (Volume Two, Selection 1). It was partly through Read’s writings that Murray Bookchin was later inspired to draw the connections between ecology and anarchism (Volume Two, Selection 48).

Read noted that even “if you abolish all other classes and distinctions and retain a bureaucracy you are still far from the classless society, for the bureaucracy is itself the nucleus of a class whose interests are totally opposed to the people it supposedly serves.” Taking advantage of the bureaucratic structure of the modern state, the professional politician rises to power, “his motive throughout [being] personal ambition and megalomania” (Volume One, Selection 130), a notion further developed by Alex Comfort in his post-war book, Authority and Delinquency in the Modern State, in which he argued that the bureaucratic state, through its power structures, provides a ready outlet for those with psychopathic tendencies (Volume Two, Selection 26).

ReadHerbert-1938Read sought to reverse the rise to power of professional politicians and bureaucrats by advocating a “return to a functional basis of representation,” by which he meant the development of decentralized but federated organs of self-management, as had long been advocated by anarchists from Proudhon and Bakunin to the anarcho-syndicalists. The professional politician would be replaced by the “ad hoc delegate,” who would continue to work within his or her area, such that there would be “no whole-time officials, no bureaucrats, no politicians, no dictators” (Volume One, Selection 130).

Arguing that “real politics are local politics,” Read proposed that local councils or “governments” composed of delegates from the community and the functional groups that comprise it “control all the immediate interests of the citizen,” with “remoter interests—questions of cooperation, intercommunication, and foreign affairs—[being] settled by councils of delegates elected by the local councils and the [workers’] syndicates.” Read admitted that this was a system of government, but distinguished this conception of local and functional organization from the “autonomous State,” which “is divorced from its immediate functions and becomes an entity claiming to control the lives and destinies of its subjects,” such that “liberty ceases to exist” (Volume One, Selection 130).

Robert Graham

herbert-read

Days of Infamy in Northern Syria

Turkey & ISIS

Sketchy reports of the renewed Turkish bombing campaign against the Kurds in southern Turkey, northern Syria and Iraq have recently appeared in the North American media, but usually the reports emphasize Turkish and American claims that the Turkish forces are targetting ISIS. Despite the fact that so far the Kurdish forces in Rojava have been the only ones to mount any effective opposition to ISIS, the Americans have now made clear that in exchange for the use of Turkish air bases and for token air strikes by the Turkish airforce against ISIS, with the brunt of the Turkish attacks being concentrated on the Kurds, the U.S. is prepared to abandon the Kurds to a different kind of massacre, that from the air above. Below, I reproduce a report by Andrew Flood of the Workers Solidarity Movement regarding the Turkish military campaign against the Kurds. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to publicize these attacks by the Turkish armed forces on the Kurdish people, and to protest them in the strongest terms possible. These attacks remind me of the Nazi and Fascist air strikes against Guernica during the Spanish Civil War, when another civilian population was targetted for daring to struggle for their own freedom and independence.

guernica

Guernica

The Turkish State’s War Against the Kurds

Considerable evidence of support for ISIS from the Turkish state has been published in the international media over the last months. An ISIS commander told the Washington Post on August 12, 2014, “We used to have some fighters — even high-level members of the Islamic State — getting treated in Turkish hospitals.” —- This Sunday the Observer revealed details of a US Special forces raid on an ISIS compound. “One senior western official familiar with the intelligence gathered at the slain leader’s compound said that direct dealings between Turkish officials and ranking ISIS members was now “undeniable”.” Oil smuggling was what that ISIS leader was co-ordinating with the Turkish officials and ISIS were getting an “estimated $1m-$4m per day in oil revenue”

Turkey now claims to have switched sides but the reality of both its bombing campaign and police raids in Turkey is that while they tell the international media they are targeting ISIS the targets are Kurds and the Turkish radical left.

One very clear illustration of who Turkey has really gone to war with is found in this record of who has been arrested in the raids over the last days (21 – 28 July).

People arrested: total 1034 (36 are children).
140 ISIS member,
22 Fetullah Gülen movement
872 PKK/KCK and other leftist groups
figures from http://inadinahaber.org/…/ihdden-bir-haftanin-bilancosu-41…/

The Gülen movement are an oppositional group whose leader lives in the US and don’t belong to either camp so excluding them, we see that for every 1 ISIS arrest there were 6 arrests of people from the left including the Kurdish left.

In other words there has been no change of policy by the Turkish state, the primary objective remains the defeat of the Rojava revolution. Previously they had been hoping that ISIS could accomplish this for them, acting as a deniable proxy. However it recently became clear that ISIS is not currently capable of defeating the YPG/J.

Once US air support had stripped the advantage of the US armour and heavy weapons ISIS had captured at Mosul, ISIS first ground to a halt at Kobane and then were driven back. In addition media stories reporting on Turkish support for ISIS made it hard for the Obama administration to continue to pretend not to notice.

At the same time the US had found that the Kurdish forces in general, and the YPG/J in particular were the only reliable cannon fodder in the region willing to fight against ISIS on the ground, and thus provide accurate information for targeting air strikes. We use the word cannon fodder deliberately: the US is entirely cynical about its co-operation with the YPG/J as demonstrated in recent months by the refusal to provide them with heavy weaponry, but much more starkly in the last fews days as Obama clearly told Erdogan that the US would stand by while the Turkish air force bombed their only effective allies. In return the US gets the use of Incirlik air base.

What about the mass bombings carried out by the Turkish air force, are these also directed at ISIS in an effective sense or just for show? So far from the information we’ve been able to gather, what Turkey is doing here is even more blatant. The air war started with an air strike against ISIS, possibly involving 3 planes, which was announced to the media but which ISIS claimed had hit nothing. Since then it seems almost all the airstrikes, and there have been dozens of them (185 sorties against 400 targets according to Al Monitor), have been hitting Kurdish positions across Kurdistan, that is in South West Turkey, Iraq and even Syria. As the (UK) Independent put it yesterday “In the first two days of the Turkish campaign it sent only a few planes to bomb Syria while there were 185 air missions against about 400 PKK targets.” Reporting on last night’s strikes, described as the heaviest yet, which hit only Kurdish positions even Reuters commented “Turkey’s assaults on the PKK have so far been far heavier than its strikes against Islamic State, fuelling suspicions that its real agenda is keeping Kurdish political and territorial ambitions in check, something the government denies.”

This is a good point to question the uncritical way the western media has taken up the Turkish state and media’s use of PKK as the designation of the armed wing. The reality is that the PKK is more of a political organization; its relation to its armed wing, the HPG is not that dissimilar to the relationship between the Sinn Fein political party and the IRA in Ireland. However in Ireland both British and Irish states recognized the distinction and as a result even at the height of the war, although Sinn Fein was censored and its members subject to repression, it was never banned and membership was never illegal. Both Irish and British states wanted to leave a political door open to ending the conflict. The Turkish state on the other hand has not only waged a brutal counterinsurgency campaign in which 40,000 were killed but has relentlessly criminalized all radical Kurdish political organization, essentially trying to close off the political road to peace.

Not only was the PKK banned but even broader Kurdish political formations like the KCK were also targeted. The KCK is the formation set up to implement the idea of “democratic confederalism” which draws from the theories of libertarian municipalism, social ecology, and Communalism developed by the American anarchist political philosopher Murray Bookchin. Which is broadly similar to what is being implemented in Rojava. Some 7748 people were arrested for KCK involvement in Turkey between April 2009 and October 2011; those charged were charged with membership of an illegal organization under Article 314 of the Turkish Penal Code.

We are not insisting that there is no connection between the PKK and the HPG. That would be quite stupid. Nor are we insisting there is no connection between the PKK and KCK. But we think it’s a mistake to reproduce the Turkish state’s insistence that an armed military organization is identical to a political party which is identical in turn to the mass assembly formation that party has launched. More than a mistake, confusing the three provides ideological cover for the repression of the KCK in particular. Part of the reason for maintaining this distinction is also that it is clear that these different formations have distinct methods and tactics even if the fact of ongoing repression re-enforces the need to maintain a unified public face. The actions of the Turkish state are designed to provoke a response from the more militaristically inclined, a response that will then be used to justify further escalation.

turkish air strike

What is the Turkish state up to?

1. It is continuing its original objective of damaging its main non-EU rival in the region, the Assad regime in Syria. That was the original reason for backing ISIS and other Islamist forces (al-Nusra) in the Syrian civil war. With the US increasingly involved and ISIS proving a weak force when faced with the determined enemy of the Rojava revolution ISIS are, it appears, being partially ditched, at least for now. Although the so called safe zone in North-West Syria which Turkey claims to be creating will in effect prevent the Kurds capturing the area now held by ISIS and al-Nusra. Which means the Turkish secret state maintains a supply route to both groups if it cares to use it.

2. The HPG unilateral ceasefire in Turkey along with the role HPG combatants played in defeating ISIS in Syria and Iraq was causing many in the EU and even the US military to question whether the PKK should be removed from the list of terrorist groups. This would have been a disaster for Turkish state diplomacy in reversing one of its major successes of the post 9/11 era. The airstrikes are clearly intended to provoke retaliation from the HPG, retaliation which will be used to maintain the terrorist status of the PKK internationally and repress the PKK and KCK domestically.

3. Erdogan’s future plans for Turkey. Erdogan had hoped to come out of the last elections with enough of a parliamentary majority for his AKP party to impose a new constitution which would keep him in power and eliminate the secular basis of the Turkish state. A combination of the Gezi park rising, fear of that new constitution and the HPG unilateral ceasefire allowed a new Kurdish/left party the HDP to break the 10% electoral [barrier] designed to prevent a Kurdish party [from] being able to take seats in parliament. The 13% vote the HDP achieved not only reduced but eliminated the AKP majority and since then Turkey has been under a lame duck caretaker rule of a party that no longer has the majority to impose its will.

If as seems likely the bombings of the HPG and the large scale police arrests of PKK, KCK and other leftists provokes an armed response than Erdogan probably hopes to call fresh elections in a highly polarised situation where the HDP will not get the required 10%. The AKP will then be almost certainly returned with a majority of seats and maybe even the super majority it needs to impose a new constitution unilaterally. On the other hand polls shows that a large majority of people in Turkey are against an invasion of Syria and indeed even among AKP voters more would prefer to see the PYD win out than ISIS.

4. Erdogan has sworn to prevent the formation of a Kurdish autonomous region in Rojava by whatever means are required. As long as the US found the YPG/J useful in its war against ISIS the means the Turkish military could deploy were limited. The conditions the Turkish state is now creating will make the YPG/J less useful, will increase the cost for the US of building a deeper relationship with them and open up the possibility of creating the conditions where the majority of the Turkish public might accept an invasion of Rojava.

It was always clear that the Rojava revolution was a fragile thing, operating in a gap created by the Syrian civil war between major military powers. The actions of the Turkish state are designed to shut that gap. The US is co-operating in that project even if it is also for now using the YPG/J as cannon fodder. The only thing that can defeat that project is a revolt by a sizeable section of the population in Turkey backed up by large protests in the US and Europe against the cynical role that the US and NATO are playing.

Andrew Flood, Workers Solidarity Movement (Ireland)

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Kropotkin on the Paris Commune

The Paris Commune

The Paris Commune

In Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included excerpts from Peter Kropotkin’s essay on the Paris Commune, in which he argued that the lesson to be drawn from the Commune was the need for the people themselves to abolish capitalism and to create anarchist communism through their own direct action. As this week marks the anniversary of the brutal suppression of the Commune by the French government in Versailles, which massacred some 30,000 people in Paris during the so-called “Bloody Week” at the end of May 1871, I thought I would reproduce the section from Kropotkin’s essay in which he discusses some of the lessons to be drawn from the Commune. The translation is by Nicolas Walter, and first appeared in the Freedom Press pamphlet, The Paris Commune, Freedom Pamphlet No. 8 (1971), published to mark the 100th anniversary of the Commune.

Burning of the Tuileries by George Jules Victor Clairin, 1871

‘Burning of the Tuileries,’ by George Jules Victor Clairin, 1871

Lessons from the Paris Commune

What idea does the Paris Commune represent? And why is this idea so attractive to the workers of every land, of every nationality?

The answer is easy. The revolution of 1871 was above all a popular one. It was made by the people themselves, it sprang spontaneously from within the masses, and it was among the great mass of the people that it found its defenders, its heroes, its martyrs–and it is exactly for this ‘mob’ character that the bourgeoisie will never forgive it. And at the same time the moving idea of this revolution–vague, it is true, unconscious perhaps, but nevertheless pronounced and running through all its actions–is the idea of the social revolution, trying at last to establish after so many centuries of struggle real liberty and real equality for all.

It was the revolution of ‘the mob’ marching forward to conquer its rights.

Attempts have been made, it is true, and are still being made to change the real direction of this revolution and to represent it as a simple attempt to regain the independence of Paris and thus to constitute a little state within France. But nothing can be less true. Paris did not try to isolate itself from France, any more than to conquer it by force of arms; it did not try to shut itself up within its walls like a monk in a cloister; it was not inspired by a narrow parochial spirit.

If it claimed its independence, if it wished to prevent the interference of the central power in its affairs, it was because it saw in that independence a means of quietly working out the bases of future organization and bringing about within itself a social revolution–a revolution which would have completely transformed the whole system of production and exchange by basing them on justice, which would have completely modified human relations by putting them on a footing of equality, and which would have remade the morality of our society by giving it a basis in the principles of equity and solidarity.

Communal independence was then but a means for the people of Paris, and the social revolution was their end.

This end would have certainly been attained if the revolution of March 18 had been able to take its natural course, if the people of Paris had not been slashed, stabbed, shot and disembowelled by the murderers of Versailles. To find a clear and precise idea, comprehensible to everyone and summing up in a few words what had to be done to bring about the revolution–such was indeed the preoccupation of the people of Paris from the earliest days of their independence.

But a great idea does not germinate in a day, however rapid the elaboration and propagation of ideas during revolutionary periods. It always needs a certain time to develop, to spread throughout the masses, and to translate itself into action, and the Paris Commune lacked this time.

Paris commune

It lacked more than this, because ten years ago the ideas of modern socialism were themselves passing through a period of transition. The Commune was born so to speak between two eras in the development of modern socialism. In 1871 the authoritarian, governmental, and more or less religious communism of 1848 no longer had any hold over the practical and libertarian minds of our era. Where could you find today a Parisian who would agree to shut himself up in a Phalansterian barracks? On the other hand the collectivism which wished to yoke together the wage system and collective property remained incomprehensible, unattractive, and bristling with difficulties in its practical application. And free communism, anarchist communism, was scarcely dawning; it scarcely ventured to provoke the attacks of the worshippers of governmentalism.

Minds were undecided, and the socialists themselves didn’t feel bold enough to begin the demolition of individual property, having no definite end in view. Then they let themselves be fooled by the argument which humbugs have repeated for centuries : ‘Let us first make sure of victory; after that we shall see what can be done.’

First make sure of victory! As if there were any way of forming a free commune so long as you don’t touch property! As if there were any way of defeating the enemy so long as the great mass of the people is not directly interested in the triumph of the revolution, by seeing that it will bring material, intellectual, and moral well-being for everyone! They tried to consolidate the Commune first and put off the social revolution until later, whereas the only way to proceed was to consolidate the Commune by means of the social revolution!

The same thing happened with the principle of government. By proclaiming the free commune, the people of Paris were proclaiming an essentially anarchist principle; but, since the idea of anarchism had at that time only faintly dawned in men’s minds, it was checked half-way, and within the Commune people decided in favour of the old principle of authority, giving themselves a Commune Council, copied from the municipal councils.

If indeed we admit that a central government is absolutely useless to regulate the relations of communes between themselves, why should we admit its necessity to regulate the mutual relations of the groups which make up the commune? And if we leave to the free initiative of the communes the business of coming to a common understanding with regard to enterprises concerning several cities at once, why refuse this same initiative to the groups composing a commune? There is no more reason for a government inside a commune than for a government above the commune.

'Neither God Nor Master'

‘Neither God Nor Master’

But in 1871 the people of Paris, who have overthrown so many governments, were making only their first attempt to rebel against the governmental system itself; so they let themselves be carried away by governmental fetishism and gave themselves a government. The consequences of that are known. The people sent their devoted sons to the town hall. There, immobilized, in the midst of paperwork, forced to rule when their instincts prompted them to be and to move among the people, forced to discuss when it was necessary to act, and losing the inspiration which comes from continual contact with the masses, they found themselves reduced to impotence. Paralysed by their removal from the revolutionary source, the people, they themselves paralysed the popular initiative.

Born during a period of transition, at a time when the ideas of socialism and authority were undergoing a profound modification; emerging from a war, in an isolated centre, under the guns of the Prussians, the Paris Commune was bound to perish.

But by its eminently popular character it began a new era in the series of revolutions, and through its ideas it was the precursor of a great social revolution. The unheard of, cowardly, and ferocious massacres with which the bourgeoisie celebrated its fall, the mean vengeance which the torturers have perpetrated on their prisoners for nine years, these cannibalistic orgies have opened up between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat a chasm which will never be filled. At the time of the next revolution, the people will know what has to be done; they will know what awaits them if they don’t gain a decisive victory, and they will act accordingly.

Indeed we now know that on the day when France bristles with insurgent communes, the people must no longer give themselves a government and expect that government to initiate revolutionary measures. When they have made a clean sweep of the parasites who devour them, they will themselves take possession of all social wealth so as to put it into common according to the principles of anarchist communism.

And when they have entirely abolished property, government, and the state, they will form themselves freely according to the necessities dictated to them by life itself. Breaking its chains and overthrowing its idols, mankind will march them towards a better future, no longer knowing either masters or slaves, keeping its veneration only for the noble martyrs who paid with their blood and sufferings for those first attempts at emancipation which have lighted our way in our march towards the conquest of freedom.

Peter Kropotkin, 1881

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Kropotkin

Emma Goldman on May Day

Emma Goldman

Emma Goldman

Just found this great quote from Emma Goldman from a May Day rally in Toronto in 1939. I included several selections from Emma in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, and began Volume Two with her thoughts on anarchism in the face of the Second World War. Thanks to Dave Lester for posting this.

Emma Goldman, May Day 1937, Hyde Park

Emma Goldman, May Day 1937, Hyde Park

May Day 1939

“Again we are celebrating the first day of May, marching in parades, singing songs, listening to pretty speeches delivered by politicians and labor leaders. But is this the purpose of the first of May?

“We are being told that here in Canada, prosperity is back again. The barons of industry are harvesting millions of dollars from the sweat and toil of the Canadian workers.

“Yes, our masters will grant us ‘democratic rights’ when it comes to elections. They know as long as we are using our “powerful” slips of paper nothing is threatening their privileges. But when we use direct action, your collective strength, and strike for higher wages, then our bosses tell us that we have overstepped our “democratic rights.

“Our strength lies in the field of economics, in the factories, in the workshops, in the mines, and not in the lobbies of parliament or the steps of city halls. Therefore, fellow workers, let us mark this first of May by the realization that organization in the economic field is our only effective weapon against war and its creator the state, against Capitalism and its offspring Fascism.”

Emma Goldman

Emma Goldman 70th birthday

 

Revolution in Rojava: Between a Rock and a Hard Place

KURDISH-FUNERAL-KOBANE-FIGHTER

Another May 1st has come and gone. Sometimes I post material from the Chicago anarchists and Haymarket Martyrs around May Day, whose executions on November 11, 1887 helped to cement May 1st as an international day of solidarity and protest for workers around the world. I have set up a Haymarket Martyrs page, with selections from the speeches they made at their trial. This year I have decided to go with something more topical, excerpts from a recent article by Andrew Flood on the revolution in Rojava, where people with left libertarian ideas are fighting a life and death struggle, published in the WSM (Workers’ Solidarity Movement) Irish Anarchist Review, No. 11. I included some of Andrew’s writings on the Zapatista (EZLN) and Occupy movements in Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas.

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Revolutionary contradictions in Rojava

The revolution in Rojava is being pushed by a separate organisation, the PYD [Democratic Union Party] but it’s very clear that it is at least deeply influenced by its strong connections with the PKK. The successful defence of Kobane was greatly bolstered by PKK fighters crossing the border, perhaps more dependant on that then it was on US airpower or weapon drops.

The PKK is the Kurdistan Workers’ Party which fought an often brutal armed struggle against the Turkish state from 1984 to 2013. It’s political origins in the late 1970s fused Kurdish nationalism with the Marxist Leninism of the New Left coming out of the 1960s in the fight for an independent Kurdish state. It’s armed struggle which included many bombings and armed conflict with other Kurdish forces as well as the Turkish state inevitably has left many of the Turkish left in particular deeply suspicious of it.

As recently as 2012, 541 people died in the conflict between the PKK and the Turkish state; the current peace process across the border in Turkey is fragile. Prolonged military conflicts brutalise even the most political of activists and unchecked tend to see ‘hard men’ rise to positions of control. Those who strongly dislike Rojava because of the PKK influence have proven hard to debate as for the most part all they do is cite the history of bad things that were done in order to insist both that change is impossible and that any change reported has to therefore be a trick.

From an anarchist perspective the additional fact that the PKK has been led since its inception by Abdullah Öcalan and that a personality cult surrounds him raises problems. Anarchists have not been immune to the tendency to raise particular fighters to cult status, the Spanish anarchist Durruti being one example. But Öcalan whose face dominates most mobilisations is still alive and presented as directing at least the ideological development that influences Rojava from his prison cell in Turkey.

However the mindset that sees Öcalan as an all powerful puppet master should be challenged. Like other movements the PKK contains other voices and like other movements existing in conditions of intense conflict sometimes this isn’t so visible to outsiders due to the need [for] both organisational loyalis[m] and the need to maintain discipline in the face of an enemy eager to exploit weaknesses. But it’s an open enough secret that a push for change also came from the base, and in particular from women demanding a distinct women’s military command,

It’s significant that the first women’s organisation had to be founded in exile in Germany in 1987. The official history of the women’s movement is perhaps required to give credit to Öcalan but even it suggests a struggle from below in talking of how “the impact of feudal society created difficulties in women’s organization due to lack of self-confidence.”

However, the faith in freedom, their own strength and self-organization that Kurdish women gained by their practical experiences in the freedom struggle contributed to a quick progress of their ideological, military, political and social organization. Women gained their self-confidence thanks to their successful march into many areas of struggle which traditionally were regarded as “belonging to men”. Hereby women have changed the mentality and structures of male domination and thus the mentality of Kurdish society, life, social organization, liberation and democracy as part of the qualitative change in revolution. This also led to a serious change in the traditional, ruling perception and mentality of men towards women. (Footnote http://www.kjk-online.org/hakkimizda/?lang=en)

rojava women

The importance of the question of top down military discipline becomes clearer when you consider the nature of power in Rojava. The council system as described owes much to the work of PYD cadre operating as TEV-DEM [Movement for a Democratic Society]. But as well as being essential to the construction of grassroots democracy the PYD also forms a more conventional government structure.

The left talks about situations of dual power when you have in existence at the same time the top down government of the state and a bottom up self government of the people. Each of those structures can make very different decisions and this brings them into conflict. The historical development of such conflicts is that the conventional state government comes to control the armed forces and as serious disagreements develop deploys them against the grassroots democracy to ‘defend the revolution’. The Russian revolution was destroyed when the Bolsheviks used such state power to suppress the workers’ councils and soviets. The Spanish revolution was defeated by fascism in 1939 but in 1937 the republican government took significant steps to crush the power of the sort of assemblies and co-ops that are developing in Rojava.

Of course this history is also known to the PYD/TEV-DEM cadre and to an extent they address this contradiction [in terms of] them deliberately holding both sides of the dual power equation to protect the grassroots democratic structures. The councils are constructed so that the state holds a minority of positions and can be easily outvoted by the delegates from below. But the real test of that will only develop if and when the grassroots democracy decides on a different approach to that of the PYD leadership.

The second major contradiction is the military one. In their fight against ISIS the YPG/J were dependent on US air support to destroy the armor and heavy weaponry ISIS had captured off the US supplied Iraqi army. Of course you could suggest that was simply the US cancelling out the effects of its own intervention, an intervention that had also created the conditions from which ISIS arose. But clearly any continued military support would be conditional on the US thinking the Rojava revolution was not going to represent a significant threat to its considerable interests in the region.

As soon as the US have ISIS contained it’s likely that not only will support be cut off, but the US will be encouraging Turkey & Barzani in Iraq to destabilise and overthrow the PYD and wipe out TEV-DEM. The PYD have to be aware of that [creating] considerable additional pressure to prevent the grassroots democracy going too far within Rojava or encouraging the spread of its methods into Syria or Iraq. Perhaps the PYD leadership might reason if it stays localised and low key the US might overlook the threat it represents, the threat of a good example.

As I updated the final draft of this article what may be a key event in answering these questions took place. The YPG recaptured the massive La Farge cement plant. This is important not simply because cement is essential for reconstruction but because it was built by a French owned company only 7 years ago and was the second biggest foreign capital investment in Syria. How will Tev-Dem deal with that, seize control of the plant, seek a partnership deal or hand it back? How will that decision be made and much more importantly how and by who?

Some have reacted to these contradictions by refusing to defend the revolution at all and accusing anyone who does as some sort of sell out. This approach is ‘safe’ if the purpose of your organisation is to seldom take a risk or support movements that turn out to be less than they promised. But such a perspective is a useless one if you want to see a revolutionary transformation of society as that will always involve taking risks and working with real world movements that will always be less perfect that a small ideological group might desire.

rojava people

What can we learn?

Many of the people on the ground in Rojava would not care much about what some anarchist group in Ireland thinks of them: a moment’s curiosity perhaps that some group so far away had produced a commentary. And we are not particularly interested in presenting ourselves as some sort of panel of judges of whether other movements around the work are revolutionary enough. What we are interested in is what lessons can we learn from the difficult experience in Rojava:

1. The first lesson is the unexpected nature of such a profound attempt in such difficult circumstances. Particularly for those of us in the West it’s a strong reminder not to fall into the sort of lazy orientalist thinking that assumes new revolutionary ideas can only emerge from the global cities where the academic left has its strongest roots. As with the Zapatistas, ordinary people in what are viewed by outsiders as isolated backwaters can suddenly leap far ahead not only in theory but also in practise.

2. Solidarity that is limited to a movement identical to your own desires is not real solidarity at all. Real solidarity means recognising and respecting difference; that doesn’t require the suspension of critique but it does require an attempt at positive engagement with new ideas and new methods. That is both difficult and risky whereas intellectual denunciation is both easy and safe.

3. The fight for the progressive nation state is over. Here this is visible by the explicit declarations of the PKK that this is no longer their goal but really this is just a particularly clear instance (the EZLN being another) of a direction to history imposed perhaps by the rise of globalisation and the end of the USSR but reflecting a deeper reality that developed across the 20th century.

4. Gender liberation is not an add on to the revolutionary process but a central part of creating it in the first place. Movements that reproduce patriarchal divisions of power in their ranks, because they say to oppose the ‘natural’ influence of outside society would be too difficult or divisive, are movements that are going nowhere in the long term.

For all its contradictions the Rojava revolution is a bright beacon that demands we consider again what our picture of revolution is and how we think such a process might play out. It is a very fragile moment in a very hostile sea, surrounded by the most ruthless enemies. It may not survive, it may degenerate but it demonstrates once more the ability of ordinary men and women to seize the world and try to remake it even in the most difficult of circumstances.

Andrew Flood, April 2015

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The Platform and Its Critics

Organizational Platform

Continuing with the installments from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, in this section I discuss the impact of the “Organizational Platform of the Libertarian Communists,” published by Peter Arshinov, Nestor Makhno and other anarchists in 1926. Excerpts from the Platform were included in Volume One of the Anarchism anthology. The Platform generated a great deal of criticism from other anarchists, some of which I also included in Volume One. More recently, I posted a debate on Platformism between two Ukrainian anarchists in relation to the current civil war in Ukraine.

The Original Platformists

The Original Platformists

The Platform and Its Critics

The defeat of the Makhnovists in Ukraine and the anarchist movement in Russia led Arshinov and Makhno to argue that anarchists needed to rethink their approach. In 1926, now in exile, they published the Organizational Platform of the Libertarian Communists, calling for the creation of a General Union of anarchists based on theoretical and tactical unity, collective responsibility and federalism (Volume One, Selection 115). Although, for the most part, the Platform merely restated the Makhnovist conception of anarchism, it generated considerable controversy in anarchist circles. The Platform argued in favour of military organization based on “unity in the plan of operations and unity of common command,” “revolutionary self-discipline,” and “total submission of the revolutionary army to the masses of worker and peasant organizations common throughout the country.” Despite its insistence on revolutionary self-discipline and contrary to the practice of the Makhnovists during the Civil War, the Platform rejected any form of conscription, stating that “all coercion will be completely excluded from the work of defending the revolution,” marking a return to rather than a departure from anarchist principles (Volume One, Selection 115).

It was the Platform’s emphasis on the need for theoretical and tactical unity, and the notion of “collective responsibility,” that caused the greatest debate. The Platform argued that “the tactical methods employed by separate members and groups within the Union should… be in rigorous concord both with each other and with the general theory and tactic[s] of the Union.” Collective responsibility “requires each member to undertake fixed organizational duties, and demands execution of communal decisions.” The Platform took the position that revolutionary activity in collective areas of life “cannot be based on the personal responsibility of individual militants,” describing such an approach as “irresponsible individualism” (Volume One, Selection 115).

The General Union of anarchists was to strive “to realize a network of revolutionary peasant [and worker] economic organizations” and unions, “founded on anti-authoritarian principles,” with the General Union serving as “the organized vanguard of their emancipating process” (Volume One, Selection 115). Voline and several other exiled Russian anarchists argued against any anarchist organization assuming a vanguard role. For them, the social revolution “must be the free creation of the masses, not controlled by ideological or political groups,” for the “slightest suggestion of direction, of superiority, of leadership of the masses… inevitably implies that the masses must… submit to it.” A General Union of “anarchists” that “orients the mass organizations (workers and peasants) in their political direction and is supported as needed by a centralized army is nothing more than a new political power” (Volume One, Selection 115).

Anarchist critics of the Platform: Senya Fleshin, Voline & Mollie Steimer

Anarchist critics of the Platform: Senya Fleshin, Voline & Mollie Steimer

Voline and his associates found the Platform’s conception of social and economic organization “mechanical” and simplistic, with its scheme for the coordination of production and consumption by workers’ and peasants’ soviets, committees and unions run by elected delegates subject to recall. They saw in such organizations a danger of “immobility, bureaucracy [and] a tendency to authoritarianism that will not be changed automatically by the principle of voting.” They thought a “better guarantee” of freedom lies “in the creation of a series of other, more mobile, even provisional organs which arise and multiply according to the needs that arise in the course of daily living and activities,” offering “a richer, more faithful reflection of the complexity of social life” (Volume One, Selection 115).

While the Voline group acknowledged that ideological differences among anarchists, and the resulting disunity, were partly responsible for the failure of the Russian anarchist movement, they argued that there were other factors at play, including the “existing prejudices, customs [and] education” of the masses, the fact that they “look for accommodation rather than radical change,” and the repressive forces lined up against them (Volume One, Selection 115). For Voline, what was needed was not a more centralized and disciplined party type organization, but a “synthesis” of all the “just and valid elements” of the various anarchist currents, including syndicalism, communism and individualism (Volume One, Selection 116). Foreshadowing subsequent ecological conceptions of anarchism (Volume Two, Selection 48; Volume Three, Chapter 6), Voline argued that anarchism should reflect the “creative diversity” of life itself, achieving unity through “diversity and movement” (Volume One, Selection 116).

Malatesta responded to the Platform by emphasizing that “in order to achieve their ends, anarchist organizations must, in their constitution and operation, remain in harmony with the principles of anarchism.” He argued that the proposed General Union of anarchists should be seen for what it really was, “the Union of a particular fraction of anarchists.” He regarded as authoritarian the proposal for a “Union Executive Committee” to “oversee the ‘ideological and organizational conduct’” of the Union’s constitutive organizations and members, arguing that such an approach would turn the Union into “a nursery for heresies and schisms” (Volume One, Selection 115).

For Malatesta, what the Platformists were proposing was a form of representative government based on majority vote, which “in practice always leads to domination by a small minority.” While anarchist organizations and congresses “serve to maintain and increase personal relationships among the most active comrades, to coordinate and encourage programmatic studies on the ways and means of taking action, to acquaint all on the situation in the various regions and the action most urgently needed in each; to formulate the various opinions current among the anarchists… their decisions are not obligatory rules but suggestions, recommendations, proposals to be submitted to all involved, and do not become binding and enforceable except on those who accept them, and for as long as they accept them” (Volume One, Selection 115).

Malatesta quote 2

Since the publication of the Platform in 1926, anarchists have continued to debate which forms of organization are compatible with an anarchist vision of a free society. Some have championed various forms of direct democracy, whether in factory committees (Volume Two, Selection 59) or community assemblies (Volume Two, Selection 62). Others have followed Kropotkin, Voline and Malatesta in arguing in favour of more fluid, ad hoc organizations forming complex horizontal networks of voluntary associations (Volume Two, Selection 63; Volume Three, Selection 1).

Malatesta suggested that the Russian Platformists were “obsessed with the success of the Bolsheviks,” hence their desire “to gather the anarchists together in a sort of disciplined army which, under the ideological and practical direction of a few leaders, would march solidly to the attack of the existing regimes, and after having won a material victory would direct the constitution of a new society” (Volume One, Selection 115). But for those so inclined, there were other organizations for them to join, namely the various Communist Parties that were soon organized in Europe, Asia and the Americas under Russian tutelage.

Despite the creation of an anarcho-syndicalist International in early 1922 (Volume One, Selection 114), many anarchists and syndicalists, and the trade unions in which they were influential, affiliated instead with the Comintern (Communist International) and its related organizations. In addition, many anarchist and syndicalist groups and organizations were forcibly suppressed, by the Bolsheviks in Russia, the Fascists in Italy, the new “revolutionary” government in Mexico, military dictatorships in Portugal, Spain and Latin America, and the “democratic” government of the United States, which deported scores of radicals in 1919 (including Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman), imprisoned Mexican anarchists like Ricardo Flores Magón, and enacted “criminal syndicalism” laws to prohibit revolutionary syndicalist speech and action.

Robert Graham

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