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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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

Lessons from Brazil: Building Popular Power

Popular Protest in Brazil

Popular Protest in Brazil

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

Brazil MovimentoPasseLivre

The Free Pass Movement (MPL)

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

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

Brazil Tariff Zero

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

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

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

Brazil Police Movimento-Passe-Livre

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

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

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

Bus Fare is Theft

Bus Fare is Theft

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

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

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

Brazil MPL2

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

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

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

Tariffs Are Violence

Tariffs Are Violence

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

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

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

Organizing from the grassroots

Organizing from the grassroots

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

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

Brazilian Anarchist Coordination (CAB)

Brazilian Anarchist Coordination (CAB)

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

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

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

brazil mural

Risking Revolution: From the Commune to Occupy – New Adventures in Global Anarchy

The Paris Commune

Recently I have been posting documents from revolutionary struggles in France during 1870-1871 which culminated in the Paris Commune of March – May 1871. Anarchists regarded the Commune as providing a glimpse of how, through direct action and federated but autonomous organizations, people could take control of their lives, throwing out their oppressors and exploiters, and create a system of popular self-management while abolishing capitalism and the state (see Chapters 5, 6 and 7 of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Volume One). It was a risky endeavour, ultimately ending in the massacre of some 30,000 people by national government forces when the French state reimposed its control over a recalcitrant population. Given the enormity of state violence against “its” own population, many anarchists came to accept the necessity of armed struggle in order to achieve the social revolution. But after the suppression and military defeats of anarchist movements in the Russian and Spanish Revolutions and civil wars, some anarchists came to question the ability of anarchists through their own autonomous actions and organizations to achieve or defend a social revolution through armed force, leading some anarchists to adopt a policy of non-violence, and other anarchists to effectively abandon anarchism altogether, accepting the need for more authoritarian forms of organization in order to combat the counter-revolution.

In the various Occupy movements that have spread across the globe, there has been much debate over means and ends which invite comparisons to European debates in the early 1870s regarding the role of revolutionary communes. Below, I reproduce excerpts from a recent position paper from members of Occupy Oakland which raises a number of issues, some of which would appear familiar to the Communards, others which deal with much more contemporary concerns. The rest of the paper may be accessed here.

Police crackdown on Occupy Davis encampment

Who Is Oakland: Anti-Oppression Activism, the Politics of Safety, and State Co-optation

This pamphlet – written collaboratively by a group of people of color, women, and queers – is offered in deep solidarity and in the spirit of conversation with anyone committed to ending oppression and exploitation materially. It is a critique of how privilege theory and cultural essentialism have incapacitated antiracist, feminist, and queer organizing in this country by confusing identity categories with culture, and culture with solidarity. This conflation, we go on to argue, minimizes and misrepresents the severity and structural character of the violence and material deprivation faced by marginalized demographics.

According to this politics, white supremacy is primarily a psychological attitude which individuals can simply choose to discard instead of a material infrastructure which reproduces race at key sites across society – from racially segmented labor markets to the militarization of the border. Even when this material infrastructure is named, more confrontational tactics which might involve the risk of arrest are deemed “white” and “privileged,” while the focus turns back to reforming the behavior and beliefs of individuals. Privilege politics is ultimately rooted in an idealist theory of power which maintains that psychological attitudes are the root cause of oppression and exploitation, and that vague alterations in consciousness will somehow remake oppressive structures.

This dominant form of anti-oppression politics also assumes that demographic categories are coherent, homogeneous “communities” or “cultures.” This pamphlet argues that identity categories do not indicate political unity or agreement. Identity is not solidarity. The violent domination and subordination we face on the basis of our race, gender, and sexuality do not immediately create a shared political vision. But the uneven impact of oppression across society creates the conditions for the diffuse emergence of autonomous groups organizing on the basis of common experiences, analysis, and tactics. There is a difference between a politics which places shared cultural identity at the center of its analysis of oppression, and autonomous organizing against forms of oppression which impact members of marginalized groups unevenly.

This pamphlet argues that demands for increased cultural sensitivity and recognition has utterly failed to stop a rising tide of bigotry and violence in an age of deep austerity. Anti-oppression, civil rights, and decolonization struggles repeatedly demonstrate that if resistance is even slightly effective, the people who struggle are in danger. The choice is not between danger and safety, but between the uncertain dangers of revolt and the certainty of continued violence, deprivation, and death. There is no middle ground.

I. The Non-Negotiable Necessity of Autonomous Organizing

As a group of people of color, women, queers, and poor people coming together to attack a complex matrix of oppression and exploitation, we believe in the absolute necessity of autonomous organizing. By “autonomous” we mean the formation of independent groups of people who face specific forms of exploitation and oppression – including but not limited to people of color, women, queers, trans* people, gender nonconforming people, QPOC. We also believe in the political value of organizing in ways which try to cross racial, gender, and sexual divisions. We are neither spokespersons for Occupy Oakland nor do we think a single group can possibly speak to the variety of challenges facing different constituencies.

We hope for the diffuse emergence of widespread autonomous organizing. We believe that a future beyond capital’s 500 year emergence through enclosures of common land, and the enslavement, colonization, and genocide of non-European populations – and beyond the 7000 or more years of violent patriarchal structuring of society along hierarchized and increasingly binary gender lines – will require revolutions within revolutions. Capitalism’s ecocidal destiny, and its relentless global production of poverty, misery, abuse, and disposable and enslavable populations, will force catastrophic social change within most of our lifetimes – whether the public actively pursues it or not.

No demographic category of people could possibly share an identical set of political beliefs, cultural identities, or personal values. Accounts of racial, gender, and sexual oppression as “intersectional” continue to treat identity categories as coherent communities with shared values and ways of knowing the world. No individual or organization can speak for people of color, women, the world’s colonized populations, workers, or any demographic category as a whole – although activists of color, female and queer activists, and labor activists from the Global North routinely and arrogantly claim this right. These “representatives” and institutions speak on behalf of social categories which are not, in fact, communities of shared opinion. This representational politics tends to eradicate any space for political disagreement between individuals subsumed under the same identity categories.

We are interested in exploring the question of the relationship between identity-based oppression and capitalism, and conscious of the fact that the few existing attempts to synthesize these two vastly different political discourses leave us with far more questions than answers. More recent attempts to come to terms with this split between anti-oppression and anticapitalist politics, in insurrectionary anarchism for example, typically rely on simplistic forms of race and gender critique which typically begin and end with the police. According to this political current, the street is a place where deep and entrenched social differences can be momentarily overcome. We think this analysis deeply underestimates the qualitative differences between specific forms and sites of oppression and the variety of tactics needed to address these different situations.

Finally, we completely reject a vulgar “class first” politics which argues that racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia are simply “secondary to” or “derivative of” economic exploitation. The prevalence of racism in the US is not a clever conspiracy hatched by a handful of ruling elites but from the start has been a durable racial contract between two unequal parties. The US is a white supremacist nation indelibly marked by the legal construction of the “white race” in the 1600s through the formation of a cross-class alliance between a wealthy planter class and poor white indentured servants. W.E.B. Du Bois called the legal privileges accorded to poor whites a “psychological wage”: “It must be remembered that the white group of laborers, while they received a low wage, were compensated in part by a sort of public and psychological wage. They were given public deference and titles of courtesy because they were white. They were admitted freely with all classes of white people to public functions, public parks, and the best schools. The police were drawn from their ranks, and the courts, dependent upon their votes, treated them with such leniency as to encourage lawlessness. Their vote selected public officials, and while this had small effect upon the economic situation, it had great effect upon their personal treatment and the deference shown to them.”

We live in the shadow of this choice and this history. A history which is far from over…

Without God, Without Laws, Without Husband: free, beautiful & crazy (Chile)

Noir et Rouge: Majority and Minority (1958)

In Volume 2 of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included several selections from the French anarchist journal, Noir et Rouge (1956-1970), including material on national liberation and anti-colonialism, draft resistance against the French war against Algerian independence (Selection 31), and new directions in anarchist theory (Selection 47). Noir et Rouge (Black and Red, the traditional colours of class struggle anarchism) was published by the Groupes Anarchistes d’Action Revolutionaire (Revolutionary Action Anarchist Groups), one of the many French anarchist groups that emerged following the split in the French anarchist movement between Georges Fontenis and the Libertarian Communist Federation, which tried to unite anarchists and other ultra-leftists into a more conventional revolutionary party, and those anarchists who felt the Fontenis approach was dogmatic and authoritarian (see the previous post from Giovanna Berneri). In the following excerpts from Noir et Rouge, translated by Paul Sharkey, the GAAR sets forth its position on the debate regarding majority rule, defending the right of the minority to follow its own path. Noir et Rouge, with its more fluid conception of anarchist organization, influenced the student revolutionaries of May 1968 in France.

Majority and Minority

Can a majority claim to speak for on organization? Are its decisions binding upon the organization? How is the minority treated in terms of its expression, its conduct, its very existence within the ranks of that organization?

At first glance, all these questions appear to be of secondary interest, but in fact they are of considerable significance when one wishes to live inside an organization and wants that organization to live. And there can be no “laissez-faire, time will tell, every case is a case apart, with a little good will…” approach, for often experience is very convincing but by the time it is noticed it is too late to change anything and everything has to be embraced or allowed to fall by the wayside. Right from the very first steps taken together, we must devise a theoretical and practical line of policy acceptable to all and, in this context, the minority-majority issue can tilt the balance in one direction or the other.

As we see it, the operation of a federalist organization is incompatible with retention of the principle of majority rule. There is a real majority in the form of a freely conceived, freely accepted unanimity. Any other majority, be it a two thirds majority, an absolute or simple majority, with all manner of implications, constitutes a majority only as far as those who accept it are concerned; as far as others are concerned, it is worthless and cannot be considered binding.

Every time an attempt is made to foist a policy upon others, on one ground or another, one arrives at a contrived, fragile, unstable unity. Of course, in every case one finds and is going to find “special circumstances, historical necessities” — but then, what moment in humanity’s march towards its happiness is not historical? And it is not hard for those in need of that majority to prate on about special circumstances.

But… “without a majority, no decision can be arrived at and in the absence of decisions, an organization is worthless, a shambles.” This is the chief charge levelled at libertarians by authority lovers and, it has to be said, by certain libertarians. But experience flies in the face of such reasoning. Not only are there organizations in existence that are built on this foundation, but there have been instances where, without any votes being counted, there was a real majority… 19 July 1936, the May events in Barcelona in 1937… but there was no majority when the anarchists were “obliged” to collaborate with the government, at which point our adversaries started to roil about the existence of an opposition and a minority and to carp about the anarchists’ weakness and lack of discipline. Yet it was the existence of that very minority that salvaged the movement’s honour, including the honour of those who had consented to compromise.

The majority principle derives from the practice of the political struggle, from universal suffrage, from parliamentarianism. There, it is necessary, nay, the only indispensable factor in the smooth running of the system. The struggle to win a majority has never been and never will be open and honest. In order to win votes, no one shows his true face, the mechanisms of his game or the real aims he has in mind. The most revolutionary appeals are merely vague propositions likely to attract a brood swathe of individuals: the most po-faced sermons are only the ravings of rabble-rousers trying to stir the basest sentiments of the mob, be it selfish or sham-humanitarian. This grand parade of fine talkers is well orchestrated from behind the scenes through the use of intimidation, economic and other threats, as well as promises and special advantages. In authoritarian regimes, this backstage activity is even more transparent and the real agents of the majority (the official and political police, direct or indirect oppression) tread the boards, flourishing their “arguments”; they do not even trouble to mount a few minor displays against the recalcitrant so as to make an example for the rest, and to arrive at the ideal majority… 99.99%. But that danger lurks even within non-authoritarian, democratic, indeed, libertarian organizations, when the principle of majority rule is embraced along with the competition to win a majority. We have seen supposedly libertarian congresses hatched behind the scenes, with the parts and the speeches allocated in advance and even propaganda tailor-mode for each delegate, and we have also witnessed the outcome.

This “Fontenis-style” phenomenon ought not to be repeated.

But there will always be some who are not convinced, some who hold back, even if only for strictly personal reasons: we know about the unconfessed role that has been played by personal relations, even in strictly political, economic or ideological organizations. We cannot make it a requirement that everyone hits it off with everybody else. So we will run into nonsensical, unsolicited obstruction which can paralyze and stymie the organization just when it ought to be acting with the greatest speed — and what, then, are we to do? It happens.

But this argument is founded upon two mistakes: the notion of a homogeneous specific organization and the notion of anarchist morality.

When the members of an organization are bound together not only by reasonably friendly personal relations, but also and primarily by a given number of ideological and tactical principles — enough common ground to justify the claim that that organization is homogeneous — the dangers of significant differences of opinion are minimal. This is one of the reasons why we stick to the views and practice of a “specific anarchist group” which we refuse to dilute or see diluted for us. Just let a new practice be adopted — “come all ye who are for freedom” or “against the State,” or even “anarchism generally” — and the next day, friction on some issue will be inevitable. Heterogeneity carries another consequence: the existence of groups of “initiates” (with a foot in several groups at once, maybe) which are, most of the time, secret or semi-secret: and every one them aims to make the running) their consciences clear that they are “leading others along the righteous path”… which will very quickly degenerate into internecine squabbling, into an OPB*, into leaders and masses. Thus there are not just a majority and a minority but a number of concentric circles, most often revolving around some “master-mind” (which releases the others from any requirement to think), each suspicious of the other, each of them pursuing his own little schemes behind the scenes or in the open, trying to win others over to his faction, and all of this overlaid with a blithe semblance of unity. This is an unwholesome climate that neither educates nor builds upright, honest individuals. It is a “den of parliamentarianism” in miniature.

Even so, though, and in spite of the variety of the views, differences of opinion and debates that may emerge, we should be overly•starry-eyed. Ideas themselves are not set in stone and are liable to evolve. So if the differences of opinion are of a significantly theoretical order, it would be better for the organization if it were to fall apart and for there to be two or several new more or less homogeneous organizations, than for one heterogeneous organization to be retained. This is inevitable, and if any attempt is made to stem this trend, it is at that point that there is a risk of everything coming to a halt and grinding to a standstill, through the quest for anodyne compromises that forestall disintegration but also prevent movement in any direction at all.

The other factor mentioned earlier — anarchist morality — if properly understood and implemented in life will help greatly to smooth over minor frictions, and also the disintegration of the organization should it come — through acceptance of an opinion that differs from one’s own, without writing it off as the opinion of an enemy or taking up arms against it. Provided, of course, that we are not dealing with a view completely outside the parameters of anarchism. The history of anarchism has had only a few specific instances of this sort to show and this latter likelihood can virtually be discounted.

There is a considerable part to be played in anarchist organizations by an internal bulletin wherein there can be an open forum for all matters of concern to the organization, including dissenting viewpoints.

There is a further factor tied to the organization: comrades joining this organization must freely embrace its necessity and its role. That much is self-evident. Anybody who cannot see beyond the narrow confines of the individual, who cannot imagine social structures beyond scattered, isolated individuals, will be better advised to stay isolated, helping others as and when he sees fit, but not hampering the organization through uncompromising, maverick practices. Some other designation will have to be devised for comrades of this sort, who are often very good comrades in fact, and they will have to be accepted for what they are.

A genuinely democratic organization can be identified on the basis of its behaviour vis-a-vis its own opposition. This is all the more true of a libertarian organization which aims to lay the groundwork for the society of the future. Every time that a majority discusses and enforces the majority-prescribed parameters within which the opposition has to operate, there can be two reasons far this: either the membership was very widely based, or, inside that organization, there are persons itching to play the parts of leaders. These two possibilities are not mutually exclusive: such and such a member keen to take charge of the organization will draft in new members in order to boost his chances of winning majority support.

Outside our own organizations, can we require and practice rejection of majority rule? This is a thornier issue, for circumstances differ, and the aim is primarily to promote our ideas without betraying them. But here too, we must ensure that even the victorious majority does not crush the spirit of the minority, not just because of the danger of finding ourselves in the same position someday (revolutionary movements being most often minority movements) but also because of our anti-totalitarian outlook and tolerance. Every time that a leader or panel of leaders starts to claim absolute mastery, they end up turning on one another and will arrive at a dictatorship, camouflaged or brazen. The first sign of a future “head of State” or “people’s leader’ is the hatred he bears his own comrades who cannot stand him in that role. After which there is no stopping his appetite for authority, the parameters of which become increasingly broadened and boundless.

Every organization, no matter what it may be, is a compromise between one person and the rest vis-a-vis the imperatives of social life. Meaning that every individual must inevitably renounce certain tendencies or habits which are unacceptable or harmful to society. And as a result, inside every organization, there is a risk of the sacrifices required of individuals for society’s sake going beyond the needs of society per se and turning an abstraction like the State, the bureaucracy, the leader, historical necessity, etc… One barrier against this threat is for the individual to have the option to dissent from certain things or certain tendencies which he deems inappropriate and of no social utility, the chance of switching across to the opposition, which is to say, the minority. There are other barriers as well: federalist organization per se, direct and limited election of officers, genuine participation by ordinary members of the organization, the struggle being economic rather than political, etc…

* Organisation Pensée Bataille

Noir et Rouge, No. 10, June 1958