May Day: An African Anarchist Perspective

may day reclaim

In Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included excerpts from Sam Mbah’s and I.E. Igariwey’s African Anarchism: The History of a Movement. Despite Mbah’s unfortunate death, anarchist ideas and approaches are still championed in Africa by a variety of groups, one of the most significant being the Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Front. Today I reproduce a piece by one of its members, Leroy Maisiri, “Why May Day? An African Working Class Perspective.”

anarchist-banner-at-anti-privatisation-forum-march-johannesburg-ca-2007

South African anarchists at anti-privatization protest

Why May Day?

Like a baby deer born into an unforgiving world with three broken legs, life has never been fair for the working class. We have witnessed centuries pass by, half-awake, half-trapped, half-fed. —- Locked in a cage fight with feet shackled to the ground (pound for pound, “no kicking allowed” they said) while the state and capitalism take turns at us, the dazed giant called the working class. With complicated combinations, the system lands organised blows: a punch to the heart called colonialism and apartheid; a quick right uppercut called minimal wages; a roundhouse kick called neo-liberalism; an elbow strike called privatization; the full body blow of unemployment; and the referee joins in with a face stomp called the “law.” The young champ is sent to the floor. —- In South Africa, the black working class majority is gripped by the rough hands of its ruling class, made up of a cold combination of black state elites and white capitalist elites, who choke the very life out of her.

How tight does this noose around our neck have to be before we choke? We do eight to five; the system works overtime to ensure the hungry never get fed, to make sure working class children never receive an education beyond what the system needs, and blocks access to tertiary education with financial barricades. If education is the key to being free, it’s no wonder they keep the poor locked out, or our throats slit with debt.

The system suffocates, and there is really not enough space at the top; we need to make society bottom-up instead. It is far more important we empower ourselves with liberatory education, from below, embrace the lessons learned from day-to-day struggle, building our own popular education, opening our own mind. Let us move onwards, with a revolutionary counter-culture embracing new ideas of what a better free anarchist society looks like.

And clear about the enemy we face. I present to you capitalism. Capitalism, who never travels alone: his brother, the state, next to him; his son racism to his right, and his daughter, the class system to his left. And at their feet, we, the working class: the workers, the unemployed, slaves of the factories, slaves of the offices, slaves of the mines, slaves of the shops, slaves of the system, picking up the pieces of our broken dreams, chained by a past of exploitation, racism and colonialism, blinded by the glare of a fake future promised on the billboards. Held down by the weight of our chains.

This why it is important we celebrate May Day.

The working class – all of us, white collar, blue collar, pink collar, employed and unemployed, skilled and unskilled, city and country, men and women, of all countries and peoples – have never stopped fighting back.

We have been picking up broken crayons, in the hopes of colouring in a better tomorrow for ourselves. We carry hand-me-down dreams from different tales of socialism, the dreams of freedom, of dignity, burning in our hearts, while we wear fake smiles for our masters, in-between lies. In our eyes, rests the hope of one day being able to grow into the sounds of our own laughter, where we can wear our happiness and freedom like fitting gloves. Unbowed. Unweighted by chains. Not forgetting the past, but moving into the new land of freedom.

Capitalism, racism, sexism, and class: hammer forces, colliding trains, smashing into us, who have no life insurance, and leaving us shattered windshields for eyes. Battered and blinded, it’s no wonder we’d rather march for minimum wages than a wage-less society; no wonder we constantly stumble after false solutions in “workers parties” and election promises, instead of democracy-from-below, in building our movements into a counter-power that can create a new world. No wonder we are held into separate sections of the stumbling, by continuous lines of old division and dogma.

An entire orchestra drowns in our throats: the voices of the unemployed echoing in a society with veins like guitar strings, our voices cracking, like the self-esteem of the single African mother dependent on a barely functional welfare system, our screams whispers, our dreams blazing but blinded.

In days like these it is important to remember our heroes, our champions of past years, to remember the stories of Ma Josie Mpama, who wanted nothing more, than to see the working class mature, to explode like landmines under the feet of the oppressive system that has spent centuries trampling over us.

mayday_joint_statement

The other day, while deep in thought, I felt the room grow more still, filled with clarity. The voice of Lucy Parsons pierced my very being. She, a labourer, a black woman, radical socialist and a mindful anarchist, had joined me in a conversation, not alone but with the likes of comrades from many sides, among them Samuel Fielden, S.P Bunting, T.W. Thibedi and Johnny Gomas.

Their voices reminded me of the dream, the obtainable goal. They reminded me that it was days like May Day, a symbolic dream, a global general strike, raised over the broken promises and bones, made by rich and powerful men carrying the flags of slavery, racism, gender oppression, exploitation, and neo-liberalism. The flag of capitalism and all its children, and its brother, the state.

They jogged my memory, reminded me that it was up to us to create a better tomorrow, and that we can! Even if the system has us looking like we are losing the fight against a melanoma, where even chemotherapy has claimed all our dreams.

To remember that we, the working class billions, can be more than what we are now, that we can awake, from our half-life, that we can be more than the shares and stocks that the system has nailed to our backs. That we can have the audacity to breathe, that we can do more than march apologetically, hoping for concessions from our ruling class masters.

I hope we wake up from our slumber. I hope the working class remembers that without her, there is no them, no ruling class. I hope we form ranks so tight, that nothing can get through them. I hope we remember that it all belongs to us.

That ours are victories won neither by co-option or negotiation. I hope we remember why May Day is what it is, that it is more than a public holiday but a powerful reminder: of the ongoing struggle for a united, anti-capitalist, anti-statist, bottom-up, international movement, asserting the common interests of the people against the minority elites who use laws and their militarized police to keep us oppressed.

This is the time to embrace working-class unity and challenge the status quo of capitalist oppression.

May Day is a call to the global working class to unite across any and all division lines that exist; to unite across race; to unite against nationalism and to fight for a bottom-up democracy, for workers’ control, one world, freedom and justice, redress of past wrongs and economic and social equality, self-management. Only then are we truly free.

Leroy Maisiri

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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.

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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

Kobane Under Attack

ISIS attacks Kobane

ISIS attacks Kobane

Alarming news from Kobane – an ISIS attack that has likely resulted in the massacre of around 200 hundred people. While it appears that the armed forces in Kobane have repelled this latest ISIS assault, the situation remains very dangerous. The people of Kobane and Rojava need our support now more than ever. Below, I reproduce excerpts from a recent report by Zaher Baher from the Haringey Solidarity Group and Kurdistan Anarchists Forum on the possibility and need for an independent economic path in Rojava. Previously, I posted reports by David Graeber and Janet Biehl on social reconstruction in Rojava. In Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included selections from Kurdish anarchists and Janet Biehl on the possibilities of a libertarian social revolution in Kurdish areas in Turkey, Syria and Iraq.

Tev-Dem (Movement for a Democratic Society)

Tev-Dem (Movement for a Democratic Society)

Kobane and its Reconstruction

The war and sanctions indeed made life in Kobane and the rest of Rojava miserable for a long time but in my opinion both factors played a major role in [the survival of] the whole of Rojava.

The war there introduced Rojava to the world and particularly leftists, communists, socialists, trade unionists, anarchists and libertarians. It brought love, support and solidarity to Rojava and its people. Hundreds of people from different countries travelled there to be in the front line against ISIS and a few of them lost their lives. Hundreds more went there as journalists and aid and community workers to show their support and solidarity.

[S]anction[s] against Rojava by Turkey, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the regional countries all also played a role in Rojava[‘s survival]. [These factors] prevented corruption, money [and] capital [entering], and hindered exploitation by businessmen and landowners. The simple life of the region managed to go on. People had to rely on themselves, work voluntarily and collectively. The true natural relation between the people continued.

Now Kobane and the whole of Rojava enter the economic test which is difficult indeed. Many countries can resist military occupation but cannot survive an economic one. Launching an economic war by the big corporations and the international financial institutions can be devastating. This may start with the reconstruction of Kobane. Rebuilding it could bring death or the survival of Rojava as a whole by initiating its social revolution.

In my opinion rebuilding Kobane may take one of the following [routes]:
• Either through the work of big corporations and financial institutions, like [the] IMF, WB and ECB. This [would] no doubt benefit the big corporations in particular and the capitalist system in general as happened, by imposing so many dramatic conditions, in Africa and South America.
• Or through international support and solidarity of leftists, communists, trade unionists, socialists, anarchists and libertarians. This of course is a slow process but it is the only way that Kabane can be rebuilt solidly… avoiding the influence of the big corporations.
• It could also be done by contracting out some of the projects to some companies to supply materials and expertise but the actual work to be done collectively by the people… provided a close watch and scrutiny [by] the DSAs [Democratic Self-Administration] and the Tev-Dem [Movement for a Democratic Society] could be imposed.

There is currently a big discussion among the politicians, academics and economists about the rebuilding [of] Kobane and the future economy of Rojava. In fact a big conference was held in Amed in early May regarding rebuilding Kobane but so far no decision has been taken. While I was in Bakur I spoke to many people in important positions. They all rejected the big corporations and explained that this is their own official and firm view.

[Deciding not to rebuild] Kobane through the big corporations and the international financial institutions is [an] excellent decision against the interests of the US and the Western countries and keeps their powers out. In the meantime it is our duty to help and support whatever we can to participate in [the] reconstruction of Kobane in order to protect this shining experiment. We should not let the blood of thousands of people who [sacrificed] themselves to liberate Kobane and protect the social revolution in Rojava to go in vain.

Zaher Baher, June 2015

kobane solidarity

Marxist influences on the anarchists of the First International

Marx & Bakunin

Marx & Bakunin

My new book, ‘We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It’: The First International and the Origins of the Anarchist Movement, should be out this Monday, June 16, 2015. Published by AK Press, it’s a history of the debates and struggles with the International Workingmen’s Association (IWMA), which led to the creation of avowedly anarchist movements in Italy, Spain, France and Switzerland, and later in Russia and the Americas. Here, I include a brief excerpt from the conclusion regarding the influence of Marx’s political economy, but not his politics, on some of the anarchists involved in the International and what was to become an international anarchist movement.

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Marxist influences on the emergent anarchist movement

Somewhat surprisingly, another part of the legacy of the International is the influence of Marxism on anarchism, albeit Marxism as a critique of capitalism and a theory of class struggle. Bakunin thought Marx’s Capital a much more incisive critique of capitalism than anything Proudhon ever wrote. Elisée Reclus was at one time in discussions with Marx about translating Capital into French. Johann Most produced a popular summary of Capital when he was still a Social Democrat, but Marx’s economic class analysis continued to have an influence on him after he became an anarchist. Carlo Cafiero prepared his own summary of Capital for Italian readers, and often referred to it in his anarchist writings. In the book that Albert Parsons put together while awaiting execution in a Chicago jail, Anarchism: Its Philosophy and Scientific Basis, he included lengthy excerpts from Marx’s Capital and the Communist Manifesto, together with the trial speeches of himself and the other Haymarket Martyrs, plus writings on anarchism by Kropotkin, Reclus and some other American anarchists.

Malatesta later remarked that the anarchists in the International, even those who had not read Marx, “were still too Marxist.” By this he meant that they had been too much influenced by Marx’s theory of history, according to which capitalism produced its own grave diggers, the revolutionary proletariat. For Malatesta, this had too much the air of inevitability to it, and it exaggerated the role of economic circumstance in creating class consciousness. It also underestimated the role of conscious choice and determination in revolutionary social transformation. Neither revolution nor anarchy was inevitable. They had to be fought for self-consciously, not as a merely instinctive revolt against oppression, which could just as easily result in some form of revolutionary dictatorship, or the restoration of the status quo, without the desire for freedom and clear ideas about how to achieve it.

But the anarchists in the International who admired Marx’s critique of capitalism, while rejecting his politics, never agreed with the Marxist view that classes and coercive political power as exemplified by the state would disappear once capitalism was abolished. Bakunin, Guillaume and other anarchists in the International argued, to the contrary, that if the state and other authoritarian institutions were not also abolished, a new ruling class would arise comprising those in control of the state. Although rarely given credit for it, this theory of the “new class” originated with the anarchists in the International, despite being appropriated, without acknowledgement, by some dissident Marxists after the advent of Stalinism.

Robert Graham

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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

The Party is Haunting Us Again

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Below I reproduce excerpts from a piece by Shawn Hattingh of the Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Front in South Africa, warning against putting one’s faith in “mass workers’ parties,” or “MWPs.” For the full article, click here. There have been calls in South Africa for the creation of an MWP since the National Union of Metalworkers broke from the ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC). I’ve edited some of the historical sections, as I’ve posted plenty of material on the split between the anarchists, who advocated direct action, social revolution and self-management, and the “social democrats,” including Marx, who advocated MWPs, the purpose of which was to attain state power and to create socialism. The historical record suggests otherwise. Similar concerns have been raised in Greece, following the leftist party, Syriza, forming a government there earlier this year. The anarchist case against state socialism, state capitalism and participation in conventional politics is well documented in the three volumes of my anthology of anarchist writings, Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas.

South African workers on strike

South African workers on strike

The party is haunting us again

Karl Marx once said that history repeats itself, first as a tragedy then as a farce. A case in point is that in South Africa sections of the left are once again calling for a mass workers’ party (MWP) to be formed to contest elections – this they believe will bring us closer to revolution. History says otherwise.

Of course the new calls for a MWP stem from the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) breaking from the African National Congress (ANC). As an outcome NUMSA is exploring the possibility of setting up a MWP to contest elections. Many Marxist and leftist influenced organisations, but also cadres within NUMSA, are therefore providing reasons why activists should be interested in such a party.

Some of the reasons they have been giving in support of forming such a party have included: a good showing by such a party will strengthen struggles; a MWP party can unite the working class; a MWP can provide the working class with the correct ideological line of march; a MWP in the legislature – whether at a local, provincial or national level – will be able to make mass propaganda for the cause of socialism; gains and pro-working class policies could be secured by contesting state power; a MWP heading the state could provide greater welfare; and if a MWP gains control over the state it could nationalise key industries, bringing socialism closer. Others, while advocating for a MWP, have taken a slightly different view influenced by the notion of ‘revolutionary parliamentarianism’ and they argue such a party could enter into parliament to expose the sham of parliamentary democracy and the current state; and that through this it could supposedly open the eyes of the working class, bringing revolution nearer and setting the stage for a so-called workers’ state.

Looking back over the history of MWPs, which first appeared as social democratic parties in the nineteenth century, none have fully lived up to the promises cited above. Throughout history no MWP has united the working class. This is because within working class politics different traditions have existed and an anti-party and anti-electoral strand has always existed. For a period between 1870 and 1920 it was the dominant form of revolutionary politics amongst the working class. In fact, the First International, which existed from 1864 to 1871 and aimed to bring working class organisations internationally together, split around the issue of MWPs and electoralism; with some including Marx going the MWP path and a majority rejecting parties and electioneering in favour of anti-state revolutionary politics through anarchism/syndicalism.

Today in South Africa there are also many activists, certainly within community organisations and struggles, that are anti-party and anti-electoralism. The vast majority of these activists are not anarchists (given the very limited influence of anarchism in South Africa), but have a deep mistrust of political parties, and politicians – even left-wing ones – entering into the state. This comes from experience. A new MWP, therefore, will in all likelihood not receive this section of the working class’s support…

Gains for the working class have also very seldom been brought about simply by MWPs winning elections or even gaining hold of state power. Rather struggle, including strikes, protests, revolts and revolutionary upheavals, have led to the working class winning gains from the ruling class…

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Centred towards state power

One of the central reasons why MWPs have not brought about a genuine form of socialism – as opposed to reforming capitalism or embarking on state capitalism – is their orientation to contesting and capturing state power. Indeed, many of those advocating for NUMSA to form a MWP have taken words such as those of Leon Trotsky to heart when he said: “Every political party worthy of the name strives to capture political power and thus place the State at the service of the class whose interests it expresses.” The problem with such thinking, and a fatal flaw within the logic of MWPs, is that the state cannot simply be taken over by the working class and wielded as a revolutionary tool, even if it is a so-called workers’ state.

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States can’t be used for liberation

The reason for this is that states emerged to ensure that elite minorities could and can wield power over a majority. States, therefore, came into being when societies based on class first arose. The purpose states were built to fulfil was to ensure that an elite could rule and accumulate wealth through using the state they controlled to keep a majority subservient, oppressed and exploited. As such states have always been tools and instruments of elite rulers and their class. This defining feature of all states means they can’t be used for liberation; it is not the purpose for which they arose. In fact, if there was no inequality or class rule, states would not exist.

How states work to ensure that the ruling class maintains power and wealth can easily be seen under capitalism. Today we have huge states that ensure the interests of the ruling class (capitalists, politicians and top officials in the state) are protected and furthered. Through the state’s legislative, judiciary, economic, military and policing arms, the state always protects and enforces the property interests of this class by protecting and enforcing minority property ownership, whether it be private and/or state-owned property. Along with this, states today legalise exploitation along with attempting to create an environment in which capitalism can generally function. These massive institutions cannot be simply wielded in the interest of the working class. Indeed, their function is to keep the working class oppressed.

Of course states use ideology and propaganda to ensure the working class accepts its own oppression. One source which states often perversely use in an attempt to ideologically neuter the working class is the fact that they provide some welfare and socially-useful services. Of course states, as discussed above in relation to the 8 hour working day, were forced to provide such services due to massive working class struggles and, often, the real threat of revolution. As such, welfare represents a gain of past mass struggles. Nonetheless, states and the ruling classes controlling them were also willing to make concessions based on the calculation that to do so would limit the possibility of future revolts. States then, for propaganda purposes, falsely claimed that it was their ‘benevolence’ that led to welfare. This is then used by states even today in order to claim they exist for the benefit of all classes. In other words they use the provision of welfare to try and mask the fact they exist to enforce class rule by an elite minority. What is, of course, not mentioned is that the need for welfare only exists because of class rule and capitalism; and that the resources states spend on welfare ironically also originally derive from the exploitation of the working class. A MWP in state power providing greater welfare does not overturn this reality.

The greatest weapon states – and the elite that control and influence them – have for ensuring class rule is the legal monopoly they have on violence. When strikes or protests escalate states deploy the police and even military to put them down. Even peaceful protests and strikes often face police repression. If open revolt against capitalism or class rule breaks out, states have always reacted violently, even to the point of waging civil war. Under the Soviet Union, even under Lenin and a so-called workers’ state, this too took place…

No state throughout history, even when MWPs have headed it, has allowed socialism to blossom or the working class to genuinely control the means of production. Even under the Soviet Union, it was a state bureaucracy that controlled the means of production. The working class remained oppressed and exploited and under the heels of the Bolshevik-controlled state…
If a MWP nationalised the means of production in South Africa this would not be socialism… The reality is under nationalistion, the state would own and control factories, banks, farms and mines; not the working class. Indeed, if the working class genuinely had power and control over the means of production there would be no need for a state and nationlisation – states only exist because a few need to enforce their rule and control over the economy.

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The centralisation of states has consequences

In order to carry out the rule of an elite, all states have been centralised and hierarchical. As such, orders in all states flow down a chain of command. Only a few can and do rule. To carry out instructions from above, large bureaucracies always develop. This too attracts opportunists and careerists, as through states individual wealth and power can be accumulated via large salaries, patronage networks and corruption.

The reality is so even under a parliamentary system. Most high-ranking state officials, including generals, director-generals, police commissioners, state legal advisors, state attorneys, judges, managers and CEOs of parastatals, officials in the various departments and magistrates are never elected by the people. They are not answerable to the working class, but to their line of managers. Most of their decisions, policies and actions will never be known by the vast majority of people – the top-down centralised structure of states ensures this. Even if a MWP was formed in South Africa and came to head some form of state, it could not change the centralised nature of the state. Centralisation and the state go hand-in-hand.

Likewise it is parliamentarians and the executive (presidents, premiers, mayors and all their ministers) that make and pass laws; not the mass of people. In fact, parliamentarians are not truly accountable to voters (except for 5 minutes every 5 years) and this is so even where MWPs have entered into parliament. While a MWP may occasionally make noise in parliament, there is actually a very long history around the world of parliamentarians of MWPs acting in their own interests, including voting for high salaries and betraying the working class. This is because parliamentarians, even from MWPs, don’t receive mandates and are not recallable by the working class. The way parliamentary democracy functions means parliamentarians vote and decide on policy and legislation within the confines of legislature – they don’t go back to the working class to gain approval for their actions. Those advocating for a MWP in South Africa, therefore, consciously or unconsciously avoid revealing this truth to the activists they are trying to convince.

bristolas

States and rulers

States, too, generate an elite and a section of the ruling class. This is central to the reason why MWPs going into the state and electioneering will not and cannot deliver socialism and an end to class rule. When people enter into top positions in states – including, historically, in so-called workers’ states – they gain access to the means of administration and coercion and to new privileges. Being part of a few who have the power to make decisions for and over others and the ability to enforce those decisions, creates a position of a ruler. As such, the centralisation of power, which defines states, generates an elite. This can be seen in Venezuela today where a so-called MWP heads up the state. There top state officials rule, they receive large salaries and they have joined the ruling class. Power there does not lie in the hands of the working class. It would be no different if a MWP were to come to head the state in South Africa.

Consequently, even where MWPs have come to gain state power and even when they have headed what many Marxists have called a workers’ state in the early days of the Soviet Union, the leadership of these parties have become a new elite. They have, therefore, either become a new ruling class outright or they have joined the existing ruling class. Indeed, even if a MWP elected to only pay its parliamentarians, top state officials, ministers and President/Prime Minister/Chairperson an average workers’ wage, they would still be rulers, they would still have power and they could still decide on policies and law and enforce those. The working class would still not have power.

The state cannot, therefore, be used to bring about socialism nor end class rule. It is preposterous to think that by entering into top positions in the state that a MWP can bring about socialism or even constantly make gains for the working class. The centralised and hierarchical nature of all states throughout history, even so-called workers’ states, means this is not possible. States and elite rule are synonymous with one another. This means that a new MWP in South Africa, because of its tactics of centering towards the state, is not going to lead the working class to socialism and end class rule. It may change the faces of the ruling elite, but it will not get rid of the rule by an elite few.

lucy-parsons

The dangers of a MWP

MWPs and electioneering, consequently, hold many dangers. The orientation towards the state and electioneering carries the danger of creating illusions amongst the working class that the state can be used for liberation. This is a danger even in cases where advocates arguing for the MWP say that it should only stand in elections to expose the class nature of the current state. In such cases it is unlikely such tactics will bring the revolution closer. Indeed, why call on people to vote representatives into a state when you know it is a sham? Far from leading to people seeing the state as part of the problem, it is likely to create illusions. Consequently, it also leads to the possibility that the working class will view elections, rather than mass struggle, as a focus of their energy. Indeed, many MWPs have diverted people’s energies away from struggles, strikes and protests towards electioneering with disastrous consequences.

The idea of the MWP also carries the risk that the working class will shift the focus from building their own organs of struggle towards building a new party. In fact, if NUMSA is to play a revolutionary role, the task of NUMSA comrades is to transform their union into a revolutionary union. That means fighting in the union, too, to make it radically democratic. If a MWP is formed in all likelihood this won’t happen – precisely because energies will be diverted into creating something new, the MWP. Likewise, it is also likely that mass struggles and organising in the townships will wane as energies too will be diverted away from building on what already exists into building a MWP.

The greatest threat that MWPs and their orientation to electioneering and the state (even a so-called workers state) pose is promoting the idea amongst the working class that freedom and salvation will come from above and not through its own existing organisations and struggles. Indeed, it promotes the idea that a MWP can substitute for the working class; and that if a MWP had power it would bring freedom. The reality though is liberation won’t and can’t, by definition, come from above or through substitutionalism. If socialism is to be created it will be created by the working class through its own actions, organisations and struggle and not through the state and a MWP. Indeed, only the working class can liberate itself; and given the nature of states it, by definition, can’t come though such structures.

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Rather build a revolutionary working class counter-power

Another path, instead of a MWP, which the working class could go down is to rather build its own revolutionary counter-power against not only capitalism, but also the state and all forms of oppression including racism and sexism. Throughout history there have been instances where a counter-power has been built by the working class itself, including Russia during 1917, Germany in 1918, Spain in 1936 and South Africa in the early 1980s. It is, therefore, possible for the class itself – without the so-called guidance of a MWP and without a MWP taking state power – to build its own counter-power. This is perhaps a more long term project and perhaps even a harder task than building a MWP, but it is a task that the working class will have to embark upon if it is to have power in its own hands one day.

The advantage of building a counter-power, though, is that history shows that it could be built through the organisations and movements the working class itself has already begun to create, be it community organisations, unions and worker committees. To build a counter-power the working class would, though, have to strengthen these movements and organisations and transform them into organs of working class direct democracy. They would also have to be infused with a revolutionary politics that aims not just to transform the state and capitalism, but to replace these with a new society.

To build a counter-power though does not mean ignoring the struggle for immediate gains. The working class needs better housing and a decent lifestyle today and can’t simply wait for the revolution to have the basics of life. As such the struggles for the things that are needed today to improve the lives of the working class, which include placing demands on bosses and politicians because they have stolen from the working class, is vital. Indeed, things like corruption, repression and poor delivery can only be resolved in favour of the working class by the working class organising itself outside and against the state and placing demands on and even imposing its will on the bosses and state through mass direct action. Importantly though, it cannot also relax if the ruling class do provide such concessions. Rather, winning immediate gains has to be used as a school of struggle and immediate gains have to be used to build on towards revolution.

As part of this, the working class also needs to build towards the goal of seizing the means of production directly through its own organisations and structures; and from there socialise the means of production to meet the needs of all. It can’t rely on a MWP or state to do so; because then another power other than the working class would in fact control the means of production. History shows that the means of production can be seized directly by the class in revolutionary situations; for example in Russia in 1917 many factories were seized by the working class and were briefly run by workers’ themselves using democratic committees in order to plan production – unfortunately these were destroyed once Lenin and the Bolsheviks consolidated their so-called workers’ state.

Instead of MWPs and hoping elections or even a workers’ state might bring gains or even revolution, the working class needs to build democratic revolutionary organs and fight so that one day it can take power in society itself and run society through direct democracy without a party instructing it or a state. This can be done using federated organs of direct democracy like worker councils, community assemblies and committees to allow everyone to have an equal say in how society is run. MWPs and voting in parliamentary or municipal elections brings us no closer to building such structures of counter-power. Rather all it does is run the risk of generating further illusions in the state and it risks keeping the working class in chains far into the future. The working class has been in chains for far too long; it is time for the class itself to begin breaking those chains. Only it itself has the power to do so.

Shawn Hattingh – ZACF
Related Link: http://zabalaza.net

no masters no borders

Maintaining the Struggle in Greece

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Below I reproduce excerpts from a CrimethInc. piece on the situation in Greece following Syriza’s electoral success. In Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included a CrimethInc. analysis of the Egyptian revolution. Here, the authors warn against complacency in response to the Syriza electoral victory in Greece, given past experience with political parties affiliated with broader based social movements achieving power.

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Syriza and Pacification

It is too early to predict what the precise relationship will be between the new governing party and the movements that put them in place. We can only speculate based on past precedents.

Let’s return to the Brazilian example. After Lula came to power, the most powerful social movement in Brazil, the 1.5-million-strong land reform campaign MST (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra), found itself in a considerably worse position than it had faced under the preceding conservative government. Although it shared considerable membership and leadership with Lula’s own party, the necessities of governing precluded Lula from assisting it. Though the MST had managed to compel the previous government to legalize many land occupations, it ceased to make any headway whatsoever under Lula. This pattern has played out all across Latin America as politicians have betrayed the social movements that put them in office. This is a good argument for building up strength we can use on our own terms, autonomously, rather than trying to get sympathetic politicians into office—for once they are in office, they must act according to the logic of their post, not the logic of the movement.

Syriza came to power by courting votes and watering down demands. Representative democracy tends to reduce politics to a matter of lowest common denominators, as parties jockey to attract voters and form coalitions. Indeed, Syriza’s first move after the election was to establish a coalition with Independent Greeks, a right-wing party. In order to preserve this coalition, Syriza will have to make concessions to their partners’ agenda. This will mean, first, forcing unwanted right-wing policies past its own membership—and then enforcing those policies on everyone else. There’s no getting around the essentially coercive nature of governing.

Many anarchists hope Syriza will put the brakes on state repression of social movements, enabling them to develop more freely. Didn’t Syriza essentially support the riots of 2008? But back then, they were a small party looking for allies; now they are the ruling elite. In order to retain the reins of the state, they must show that they are prepared to enforce the rule of law. Though they may not prosecute minor protest activity as aggressively as a right-wing government would, they will still have to divide protesters into legitimate and illegitimate—a move out of the counterinsurgency handbook that guides governments and occupying armies the whole world over. This would not be new for Greece; the same thing happened under the social democrats of PASOK in the early 1980s. Even if Syriza’s government does not seek to maintain the previous level of repression, their function will be to divide movements, incorporating the docile and marginalizing the rest. This might prove to be a more effective repressive strategy than brute force.

In these new conditions, the movements themselves will change. Syriza has already become involved in many grassroots social programs; they will probably offer the most cooperative of these projects more resources, but only under the mantle of the state. It will become harder and harder for grassroots organizers to remain truly autonomous, to demonstrate the difference between self-organization and management from above. Something like this has already occurred in the US non-profit sector with disastrous effects. We may also cite government involvement in supposedly grassroots neighborhood organizing in Venezuela under Hugo Chavez.

This kind of assimilation into the logic of the state is essential to parties like Syriza. They need movements that know how to behave themselves, that can serve to legitimize decisions made in the parliament without causing too much of a fuss. Indeed, the mere prospect that Syriza might come into power has kept the streets of Greece largely empty of protest since 2012, intensifying the risks for anarchists and others who continued to demonstrate. Parties on the Syriza model can pacify the public without even entering office.

So what happens to the rest of the movement, to those who continue to assert their autonomy, seeking to build power on their own terms outside the institutions? That is the question before us…

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Fighting Harder, Wanting More

If Syriza’s victory succeeds in lulling those who once met in the streets back into spectatorship and isolation, this will close the windows of possibility that opened during the uprisings, rendering Syriza themselves redundant and offering a new model by which to pacify social movements around the world. But they are playing with fire, promising solutions they cannot deliver. If their failure could open the door for fascism, it could also create a new phase of movements outside and against all authoritarian power.

“In my opinion, a possible government of SYRIZA, taking into account that its life will be short, should serve as a challenge for the people of the struggle. With action that will be what we call ‘anarchist provocations’ against the leftist rhetoric of SYRIZA, we should force them to reveal their true face which is none other than the face of capitalism that can neither be humanized nor rectified but only destroyed with constant struggle by all means.”
Nikos Romanos, writing from prison in Greece

For this to be possible, anarchists in Greece and everywhere around the world must differentiate themselves from all political parties, inviting the general public to join them in spaces beyond the influence of even the most generous social democrats. This will mean facing off against the opportunistic politicians who once joined them in the street. It will not be easy, but it is the only way. If nothing else, now that the elections are over and Syriza stands on the other side of the walls of power, the lines are clear.

Abolishing capitalism and the state is still unthinkable for most people. Yet, as Greece has seen, the measures that could stabilize capitalism for another generation are still more unthinkable. In the day-to-day practices of Greek anarchists—the occupied social centers and university buildings, the self-defense patrols against Golden Dawn, the social programs and assemblies—we can see the first steps towards a world without property or government. If these practices reached an impasse in 2012, it was partly because so many people abandoned the streets in hopes of a Syriza victory. These are the examples to emulate from Greece, not the Syriza model. Let’s stop dallying with false solutions.

CrimethInc.

Greek anarchists

Anarchist Prospects in Greece with Syriza in Power

Micropolis - Free Social Space in Greece

Micropolis – Free Social Space in Greece

The Anti-Authoritarian Current is an anarchist organization with sections in several cities in Greece. Below one of their members explains what Syriza in power is likely to mean for the social movements from which it emerged. Mention is made of ex-PASOK members playing a role in the newly elected Syriza government. PASOK is a conventional (and some would say corrupt) socialist party that has previously formed the government in Greece. The right wing ministers in the Syriza government are members of the “Independent Greeks,” an anti-European Union party. The text is extracted and edited from the interview, “Syriza and social movements: between big risks and some opportunities. Interview with AK Athens.” The original interview, which also looks at the question of the threat from fascism, can be read at http://www.infoaut.org/…/13796-syriza-and-social-movements-…

Alpha-Kappa Greek Anti-Authoritarian Network

Alpha-Kappa Greek Anti-Authoritarian Network

Syriza in Power and the Anarchist Project

Syriza is a result of both the struggles and their defeat at the movement level. The movement failed to pose a serious counterattack against the conservative attack at all levels, attacks which also had the EU support.

Syriza was elected by the votes of the people of the movement and this is reasonable because it posed a realist choice in various matters in which the movement has failed (for example a defence of the taxation attack, the abolition of Sunday labor, the abolition of the high security prison law).

On the other hand, we all know that there is no “libertarian” government and no one will apply measures that promote or secure freedom and the interests of the lower classes, unless they struggle for those interests. The participation of populist Right ministers in the government and ex PASOK members supports this argument.

So, the movement has to take into consideration the new political landscape and create a new strategy. I would imagine three important elements that should characterize this:

1. the first is to blackmail the government to enforce the common agenda that it shares with the movement (to shut down detention camps for refugees and grant citizenship, abolition of high security prisons, abolition of anti-terrorist laws etc) and ensure that the movement will be the strongest opposition;

2. the second is to occupy, expand and create new social spaces for the movement; and

3. last, but most important of all, to create a common ground, a common center, a common universe against and outside the state and capital control.

Social centres must focus on serving social needs, but they must also build institutions of mutual support and sharing (a social bank that will promote the projects, solidarity economies and distribution networks etc). Anti-fascist initiatives have to work together to promote anti-fascist discourse and anti-fascist street vigilance.

The seizure of space and the transformation of the metropolis into a galaxy of social spaces and initiatives of self management requires a level of coordination and organization that the Greek scene hasn’t even imagined so far.

The biggest threat to the context of all these is the danger of integration within the state, and the biggest challenge is to secure total autonomy and also the viability of the antiauthoritarian project.

There is also a fourth element, that of international coordination and support. The Greek autonomous/ anarchist/ anti-authoritarian movement always declares that the solution can only be international but hasn’t done much to promote this. It is time to create a permanent, effective and ambitious common space of struggle between the European and Mediterranean autonomous and anti-authoritarian initiatives that will enforce our discourse and praxis.

All these four factors require a lot of thinking, debate and recomposition on behalf of the a/a/a movement and, as far as I can tell, there are a lot of people that share this ambition.

The nearer SYRIZA got to the chance of seizing parliamentary superiority the more it distanced itself from the movement. The adoption of a lot of ex PASOK populist politicians into the party made clear that SYRIZA is a product of the defeat of the squares to pose a direct democratic alternative rather than a dialectic bloom of a socialist movement.

The members of SYRIZA behaved as true inheritors of the Stalinism that characterizes all the left parties in Greece, defending every absurdity of their leadership, instead of criticizing and promoting a more movemental agenda.

There is an estimation that 10,000 governmental and ministerial positions are the critical ones, that every government has to put its own people in to to produce sustainable politics. It is very clear that, since SYRIZA has 35,000 members, one out of three will take a place in the state apparatus, it will be a party that will quickly become a party of the State, adopting all the bureaucratic reflexes that this entails.

So, a lot of SYRIZA affiliated forces will face the dilemma of either returning to the movement or making a permanent divorce with it. One thing is for sure: state and movement are two elements whose only dialectical relation is one of conflict. If not, their relation becomes integration and bureaucracy.

Greek Townhall

Greek Townhall

 

The Assembly Movement in Greece

The assembly movement in Greece

The assembly movement in Greece

In Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included a selection from an anarchist in Greece on the Greek anarchist movement and their struggle against capitalism and the state. Here, I reproduce excerpts from an interview with a Greek activist regarding the popular assembly movement there, inspired in part by similar movements in Tunisia, Egypt, Spain, Mexico, Turkey and Argentina. Volume Three also includes selections on the “horizontalidad” movement in Argentina, the revolution in Egypt and the Zapatista movement in Mexico. On my blog, I have posted reports regarding the assembly movements in Turkey and, more recently, in Rojava, as well as material from Brazil. The full English translation of this interview can be found at: http://libcom.org/library/greece-state-collapses-neighborhoods-organize-interview-member-athenian-assembly-movemen.

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The Assembly Movement in Greece

The idea of neighborhood assemblies spread massively after December 2008. The death of Alexis and the weeks of revolt, confrontations and occupations that followed, as well as the acid attack on the transit worker, Konstantina Kuneva, were the events that really shook society. The broad characteristics of that revolt are, on the one hand, the absence of any demands or petitions for reforms and, on the other hand, the aspect of decentralization in all the neighborhoods of Athens and, immediately thereafter, in the whole country. After December 2008, the dynamic of the actions and confrontations in the city centers reached its limit and then shifted to the neighborhoods. With the assemblies, the idea at first consisted in obtaining places for meetings, without having anything particular in mind, except the will to engage in collective inquiry. It was a way to prolong the relations that had been created during the revolt. Many of the assemblies were formed at that time, but only four of them continued to function continuously. The others reappeared when the social movement broke out again, as is taking place today or as happened in 2011, when there were approximately forty assemblies in Athens.

The assembly of Vyronas, Kaisariani, Pangrati (VKP) was formed in neighborhoods that have a long history of popular revolt: one of them was the old red neighborhood during the Resistance, the neighborhood that the Nazis were never able to conquer. This tradition was interrupted with the passage of the years as a result of the bourgeoisification of the population, but also because the State built a barracks there for armed police. Today these three neighborhoods have a heterogeneous population, but in general they are rather well-off districts. There were assemblies in VKP before 2008, created amidst struggles over public space. The first one was formed to oppose the project to construct a theater in the middle of a park. Besides the paving and cement this implied—Athens is one of the cities in Europe with the fewest green spaces—the inhabitants knew that the theater would be rented to private companies that would raise the price of tickets through the roof. Thanks to this mobilization, the project was cancelled and the assembly continued to exist, and even still exists today, organizing activities for children, basketball tournaments and a free café in the park on the first Sunday of each month. It is also very active in participating in the life of the neighborhood, distributing militant propaganda in the schools, organizing open festivals with the immigrants and also engaging in solidarity actions with people who were arrested in the demonstrations during the general strikes. And there was another struggle that attracted a lot of people: the opposition to the tunnel and highway overpass project that was slated to destroy part of the Hymettus mountain, one of the last green spaces in the city, located to the east of the city center. There were many demonstrations in the vicinity of the mountain, blockades of the highway bypasses, and actions at the toll booths, which caused the project to be abandoned. In VKP the people had these experiences as a starting point. Later, during the revolts of December 2008, they occupied a municipal youth center for a few days and rapidly convoked the assembly. After the weekly assemblies in the three neighborhoods, the people decided to rent a place to meet. At this time about thirty persons participated in the assemblies, a figure that has remained more or less stable to this day.

We are involved in two types of action: on the one hand, we are defending ourselves against the attacks of the system and, on the other hand, we are elaborating projects and ways of life that seem desirable to us. For example, in 2010 there was an initial attempt to coordinate with other assemblies and libertarian collectives that participated in the struggles in their neighborhoods against the fare increases in public transport. We arranged for each assembly to simultaneously organize demonstrations in the subway and bus stations. Pamphlets were distributed, the ticket machines were vandalized, and we proposed self-reductions in order to question the discourse of the authorities, which consisted in saying that public transport was just another commodity that had to be profitable. We made an attempt to link up with the workers in public transport, but this was difficult. The people from Golden Dawn—the Greek neo-Nazi party—have a lot of influence among the bus drivers trade union.

Later, we participated in all the general strikes since 2010, which were severely repressed. During the course of one of these strikes, the pigs attacked the march of the neighborhood assemblies, sending one person to the hospital in a coma, who almost died, and others were seriously injured. These experiences brought us together and strengthened our determination. We blockaded the supermarkets and shopping centers of the neighborhood in order to turn the strike into a real strike, so that no one would be able to consume. We also attempted to encircle the Greek Parliament when the deputies were voting on the second round of austerity measures. The neighborhood assemblies played an important role in this demonstration. We also tried to maintain a permanent presence in the neighborhood, organizing demonstrations and a collective kitchen and cultivating an occupied garden for the purpose of attaining food self-sufficiency. We also hold a barter market once a month in different squares. We also have a meeting hall with a library that is open to the neighborhood, in which we organize various activities, debates and talks.

Greek anarchists in Athens

Greek anarchists march in Athens

All these actions are undertaken for the purpose of breaking with the individualism and the pessimism that have seized Greece with the onset of the crisis, to fight against the social cannibalism that the State is indirectly promoting as a solution to the crisis. By way of these practices, we are attempting to encourage the development of relations based on equality and solidarity. The neighborhood is a very fertile space for this, all the more so insofar as in Athens the city districts are still socially quite mixed, which allows us to establish unexpected relations.

We had to deal with this problem [of getting enough food] ever since we opened the collective kitchens. We made contact with the other assemblies that had similar problems and, during that time, a large area in an adjacent neighborhood was occupied: a villa with cultivable land. We decided to convoke a new assembly entirely dedicated to this question. This same assembly is now responsible for cultivating the land for the purpose of supplying the collective kitchens of the four neighborhoods that are cooperating on this project. We are still a long way from being self-sufficient with regard to food, but it is a first step. Having said this, the garden is being threatened with eviction. Expulsions from the occupied spaces, such as, for example, at Villa Amalias and Skaramagas, have multiplied in Athens since the beginning of 2013.

Certain people have spoken at the assembly to express their view that there are too many immigrants in the neighborhoods and that something must be done about this. This is a risk we have to take when participating in open movements. Sometimes there are even outbursts of sexism during actions. The only way to fight against this is by talking to people. Usually, they understand, and if not, they go away. Once, however, at a neighborhood assembly convened to oppose the construction of cell phone towers, two fascists showed up without saying that they belonged to Golden Dawn. But we knew about them because in a small neighborhood everyone knows everything. The only thing we could do was to tell them that they were not welcome.

Since they obtained seats in Parliament, and thanks to the support they have received as a result, Golden Dawn has opened offices throughout Greece. Whenever they open a new office, protests and demonstrations are held that often result in confrontations with the police. Without police protection, the fascists would not be able to maintain a presence in the neighborhoods. Fortunately, at least for now, they only have two really active neighborhood committees in Athens. In some working class neighborhoods such as those in western Athens, near the Piraeus, they have a certain amount of influence. In those districts, however, the neighborhood assemblies openly confront them. In our neighborhood there is neither a fascist presence nor any immigrant hunting, but this is due, in part, to our presence and constant vigilance. In my opinion, the antifascist struggle consists more in building our own structures and the kind of world we want—which is basically antifascist in essence—than in denouncing them with speeches.

In May 2011, following in the footsteps of the movement of the indignados [in Spain] and the occupation of Syntagma Square, there was a second wave of assemblies in Athens. In our neighborhood, militants from one part of the radical left called for the creation of another assembly in which we also participated. Soon, however, major differences arose among us. If you want to create a space for dialogue with people who act in a paternalistic and condescending way, like leaders, you will necessarily have conflicts. During this period the assemblies were inundated with demands such as a proposal to nationalize the Bank of Greece. People who wanted an open debate soon lost interest and this second wave did not last very long. The assemblies controlled by the leftists could not, or did not want to, propose concrete demands concerning health, education or food security. In short, they did not try to promote another way of life, beyond the capitalist system which is collapsing all around us. Do we need to nationalize the Bank? This is not the correct question, in my view.

A third wave of assemblies took place when the State implemented a special extra tax on everyone’s electricity bills: “those who do not pay the tax, will have their electricity cut off”. The tax and the attempts to fight against it have accentuated the differences between the assemblies. Some of them were composed of people who were concerned about having their electricity cut off and simply asked the more politically active participants to solve the problem for them. Some accepted this role, although this implied the abandonment of horizontal organization in favor of the logic of delegation.

Our assembly also issued an appeal to organize around the issue of these special taxes. It is very dynamic and is actually quite radical: our neighborhoods do not have to undergo electricity cut-offs, whether because of non-payment of the tax or for any other reason. For us, electricity is a vital good.

The assembly went to the tax offices and forced the company that was contracted to implement the electricity cut-offs to leave the neighborhood. Later, we went to the local headquarters of the electricity company to cut off its electricity. Today, we have established neighborhood patrols to prevent the technicians from the electric company from cutting off our electricity. At the present time, along with the antifascist struggle, this is the main fight that the assemblies are waging.

greekanarchists

The assembly movement owes a great deal to what took place in Argentina. Although there is no direct connection, the influence is real. During the first general strikes, we were inspired by the Argentinian experience, and later also by the Tunisian and Egyptian events. Another important influence was the self-reduction movements in Italy during the seventies: groups organized to not pay rents, electric bills or transport fares. In our assembly, particularly, many people were inspired by the Zapatista struggle in Mexico and its quest for autonomy. We participate in solidarity actions with these struggles in our neighborhood.

One factor that all these different sources of inspiration have in common, which is present in the assemblies, is the will to organize horizontally, without political parties: although there are party militants in the assemblies, they only participate in the assemblies as individuals, without labels. The political foundations of the assemblies are autonomy and the will to create structures outside capitalism, based on sharing and solidarity. In our assembly, there are basic positions that have been arrived at after long discussions. We are always seeking a consensus in order to find a way to move forward together.

In Greece, there is much less belief in institutions, in the idea of the social contract and representation, than in France. It is fertile ground both for anti-authoritarian ideas as well as for hyper-authoritarian ideas. Here, it is much easier than it is in France to associate on common bases with people from diverse political backgrounds. On the other hand, however, the danger of becoming a closed group also exists: finding a way to keep the assemblies open to recent arrivals is a never-ending task.

After the revolt of 2008-2009 we were continuously trying to keep abreast of what was happening. What the neighborhood assemblies have once again contributed, as a possibility, was precisely not to restrict our demands to things that were taken away from us and instead to move towards the world we want to create. But the obstacles are numerous and the repression suffered by the political militants, the rise of Golden Dawn, the explosion of unemployment and the constant violence against immigrants prevent us from devoting ourselves to a program as if nothing else was happening.

One of the weak points of the movement is the fact that the moments of resurgence have never obtained any concrete results. The general assembly of the neighborhood assemblies was one of those moments. In November 2011 all the existing assemblies convened in one assembly: forty in Athens, with four hundred representatives and a good dynamic. But it quickly ran out of steam. It obtained no concrete victories and this was a source of discouragement, creating a feeling of defeat that is very acute at the present time. This feeling is also in part caused by the fact that the neighborhood assemblies do not appear to be viable solutions for the organization of everyday life.

The will to create structures based on self-organization and autonomy poses numerous questions: how can they be built while simultaneously going beyond the logic of charity and philanthropy? How can we create our own autonomy in an environment in which everything has been stolen, where we cannot produce anything for ourselves, especially in the urban setting? What do we have to do to get people to really participate? When we organize collective kitchens or barter markets, we have to constantly explain that they are not ordinary distribution services.

I do not think there is a really convincing answer to these problems, we have to be patient. The way I see it, in the very large assemblies people are inclined to delegate tasks to others and to accept the representation of a small group, whereas when there are more personal relations and more contacts, there is correspondingly greater equality in participation. It is a question of relations. There are not many people who think that we can live without anyone’s help, without a basis of consensus and dialogue, and that we can reclaim our lives on an individual basis.

I get the impression, however, that, as the State and the economic system decline and fall, more “grey zones” will arise and other modes of organization and relations will become possible. The role of the assemblies will be crucial in this. Not only do we have to keep the home fires burning, but we also have to make the fire last longer. New structures appear in Greece with each passing month. From this perspective, the movement is on the right path.

Translated in December 2014 from the Spanish translation published in the Spanish journal, Argelaga, No. 5, Fall 2014 (Available online at: https://argelaga.wordpress.com/2014/10/22/en-grecia-el-estado-se-hunde-los-barrios-se-organizan/).

Originally published in French under the title, “L’etat s’effondre, les quartiers s’organisent”. Retour sur le mouvement des assemblées de quartier. La revue Z, No. 7, 2013. Dossier Grèce: Thessalonique dans la dépression européenne. Bricolages quotidiens et résistances insolvables.

Greek-protests-Athens_714579

Janet Biehl: Further Reflections on the Revolution in Rojava

YPJ fighters

YPJ fighters

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

Roj-revo-MAIN

Poor in Means But Rich in Spirit

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

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

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

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

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

Murray Bookchin

Murray Bookchin

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

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

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

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

Rojavan women

Rojavan women

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

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

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

rojava commune

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

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

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

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

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

a female Asayis

a female Asayis

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

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

Flour mill in Tirbesiye

Flour mill in Tirbesiye

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

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

A sewing co-op in Rojava

A sewing co-op in Rojava

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

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

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

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

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

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

Janet Biehl, December 2014

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