Gabriel Kuhn: Anarchism Today

Gabriel Kuhn

Gabriel Kuhn

Gabriel Kuhn is the author and editor of numerous works relating to anarchism, rebellion and revolution, including Soccer vs. the State: Tackling Football and Radical Politics, Life Under the Jolly Roger: Reflections on Golden Age Piracy, a collection from Gustav Landauer, Revolution and Other Writings: A Political Reader, Erich Mühsam‘s Liberating Society from the State and Other Writings: A Political Reader, and All Power to the Councils! A Documentary History of the German Revolution of 1918–1919. He has a blog at PM Press, his main publisher. The following excerpts are from his post, “Revolution Is More Than a Word: 23 Theses on Anarchism.” I thought it was a useful contribution to the current situation facing anarchists, particularly in the U.S. I included some of Gustav Landauer’s writings in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian IdeasI discuss the origins of the anarchist movement from out of the struggles and debates within the International Workingmen’s Association (the so-called “First International”) in ‘We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It’: The First International and the Origins of the Anarchist Movement.

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Anarchism: A Political Movement

The origin of anarchism as a self-defined political movement dates back to the social question in mid-nineteenth-century Europe. Anarchists were part of the International Workingmen’s Association, better known as the First International, together with the political forces that would later turn into social democrats on the one hand and Leninists on the other. (1) We consider this origin important and see anarchism as part of the left-wing tradition. We are opposed to declaring anarchism a “philosophy”, an “ethic”, a “principle”, or a “way of life” rather than a political movement. An existential attitude is one thing; organizing for political change is another. Without proper organizing, anarchism is easily reduced to a noble idea, reflecting religion or hipsterism more than political ambition. At the same time, anarchism is not just antiauthoritarian class struggle. It is broader and includes activities that range from setting up social centers to deconstructing gender norms to conceiving alternative forms of transportation. Anarchism’s prefigurative dimension has always included questions that didn’t fit narrow definitions of the Left: dietary, sexual, and spiritual concerns as well as matters of personal ethics…

Anarchism’s problems today

The problem of revolution has haunted anarchism since its inception. Other problems have come and gone, depending on historical circumstances and the state of the movement. Here are the main ones we’re able to identify today:

* There is an unfortunate sense of moral superiority, which often overshadows political work. The underlying problem seems to be that two motivations overlap when people become active in anarchist circles: one is that you want to change the world; the other is that you want to be better than the average person. The latter easily leads to self-marginalization since any sense of moral superiority relies on belonging to a selected few rather than the masses. When this becomes dominant, your identity takes precedent over your actions and pointing out the personal shortcomings of others over political change. Ironically, the main targets are often people from within our own ranks rather than the enemy, following the sorry logic of, “If you can’t hit the ones you need to hit, you hit those within arm’s reach.” The combination of judging outsiders while competing with insiders for the moral top-dog position is incompatible with any movement claiming revolutionary integrity.

* The anarchist movement is, by and large, a subculture. Subcultures are great. They provide a home to people (sometimes a life-saving one), they help preserve activist knowledge, they allow for experimentation, and so on. But dissent is not revolution. So if the politics are reduced to the subculture, the revolutionary rhetoric becomes empty and alienating. People hate this and fuck that, but to what end?

* The default mode (mood) of many anarchist circles ranges from grumpy to outright rude. At times, our supposed microcosms of a liberated world are among the most uninviting places imaginable: dark, dirty, and populated by folks who confuse unfriendliness with rebellion. Acting like a jerk does not make you more radical, it just makes you a jerk. Sadly, belligerence also characterizes internal debates. The threads on some anarchist online forums are among the safest means to turn people off anarchism for good. A radical approach to conflict is characterized by openness and self-criticism, not anonymous growling.

* Despite the theoretical embrace of individuality and diversity, many anarchist scenes are incredibly uniform. Any average coffee shop on main street brings together a wider variety of people than most anarchist venues. There are historical reasons for this, but essentially, anarchist culture – the language, the appearance, the social codes – is simply very homogenous. How anarchist are environments in which people feel uncomfortable because of what they wear, eat, or listen to?

* There is a crucial divide in anarchist circles between activists who are opposed to injustice and activists who experience injustice. All activists need to work together to effectively change anything, but the different motivations need to be considered. While people who follow a missionary call tend to be rather ideological, people affected by injustice are often more pragmatic. If such a difference is not recognized, people will drift apart. In the worst case, only the ideologues remain, with abstract debates about personal identity or acceptable language assuming the supposed forefront of radical politics while losing any connection with political work on the ground. Radical politics, then, becomes primarily an intellectual exercise that says next to nothing about the quality of its protagonists as dedicated and reliable comrades.

* The concepts of a free space and a safe space, respectively, are often confounded. Safe spaces, that is, spaces where people can count on finding care and support, are needed in the world we live in. But they are spaces that fulfill a certain purpose. They are not the free spaces we seek to establish, that is, spaces in which people speak their mind, engage in debate, and commonly solve the problems that arise in the process. What makes people safe in the long run is the collective ability to negotiate boundaries. Absolute safety is impossible. Vulnerabilities, misunderstandings, and irritations are part of social life and will not disappear even in the most anarchist of societies.

* The idea that everyone should be allowed to do everything is confused with the idea that everyone is able do everything. The introduction of skills or the passing on of knowledge by experienced activists and organizers is scoffed at. This leads to encountering the same pitfalls and reinventing the wheel over and over again.

* There exists an almost complete lack of vision and strategic orientation in the anarchist movement. In addition, organizational structures are in crisis. Spontaneity, the affinity group model, and a romanticized understanding of multiplicity have become hegemonic. All of these notions are riddled with flaws. The only longterm communities they allow consist of a handful of friends, which is an insufficient basis for the organizing required for broad social change. The main answer to this from within the anarchist movement, namely platformism, underestimates the importance of individual responsibility, which leads to a confusion of formality with efficiency…

Gabriel Kuhn

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IWA-AIT, the CNT and the November Bilbao Conference

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The International Workers Association (IWA-AIT), an association of anarcho-syndicalist and revolutionary syndicalist trade unions founded in 1922, was intended to be a successor to the International Workingmen’s Association, which was created in 1864 by European workers, predominantly English and French, to provide for international solidarity between the workers of the world in their struggle against capitalism. The original (or “First”) International split in 1872 between the Marxists, who advocated the creation of “working class” political parties whose purpose was to “conquer political power,” and the anti-authoritarian, federalist and anarchist sections of the International that sought to abolish the state and replace authoritarian organization and capitalism with the free association of free producers. I discuss these developments in “We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It”: The First International and the Origins of the Anarchist Movement and included many of the most important documents relating to the anarchist wing of the International in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas

red-international

After the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia, creating the USSR, the renamed Communist Party sought in 1921 to enlist the world’s revolutionary trade unions in the so-called “Red International.” However, several union organizations of an anarcho-syndicalist and revolutionary syndicalist orientation, including the CNT in Spain, were concerned about the nascent Communist dictatorship and disagreed with any attempt to establish state socialism. These groups instead formed the IWA-AIT. The majority of the CNT now wants to “refound” the IWA, for reasons briefly summarized below. However, they are doing so in conflict with the IWA-AIT, which insists in the first statement below that the way to change the IWA-AIT is from within at a proper congress of the IWA-AIT, not by creating a new organization using the same name.

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INTERNATIONAL WORKERS ASSOCIATION IWA-AIT: Misconceptions over Split Conference

lt has come to our attention that various organizations have been invited to a conference ostensibly about “rebuilding the IWA” that is to be held in November in Spain. Due to the fact that this has caused some confusion as to the nature of said conference and to avoid any misunderstandings, we would like to clarify a few matters. —- The Congress of the lnternational Workers’ Association is to be held at the beginning of December in Poland. This Congress and only this Congress is where decisions about the proposals submitted to the Association can be made by the entirety of its member Sections. —- The conference being held in Spain, to which some organizations were invited, is not organized by the IWA, although it claims to be a “conference for the preparation of the IWA refoundation”. This initiative is thus a split where outside organizations are being invited to decide over the future of a federation to which they do not belong. It is held against the statutes, agreements and principles of the very federation it claims to be refounding and its aim is to exclude a dozen other member Sections from the process.

We refer to these facts since it has come to our attention that some comrades around the world may not have been informed to the nature of the conference and believe this is just an international “solidarity” event. However, the invitation sent to these organizations clearly state what the purpose is in the title. Therefore, those who are not members of the IWA Federation must really consider basic principles and ask how it is possible that anybody proposes to cut out the Members and give a voice to non-members.

The reason for holding this parallel conference before the legitimate one is to involve outside organizations in shaping the internal conflict. Instead of coming before the membership. Such a maneouvre is to make it look as if outside organizations are taking sides in an internal conflict and to place them on one side of a split. This is how the attendance of outside organizations will be treated, whether or not that was their intention.

With this clarification, we hope to inform the rank and file members of various organizations, who may not have seen the invitation or be aware of the circumstances. The IWA meets in December and it is at the Congress that the Member Sections must discuss and make decisions about the future of the federation, not any non-statutory meeting to which outside organizations are called to interfere and support the split faction. As stated before, time is needed to work things out in accordance with the procedures of our federation and we would appreciate it if outside organizations refrain from involvement in these matters which concern us directly and need to be resolved by ourselves.

We stress that in no way do we imply that any organizations avoid either the IWA or the split faction in matters such as international solidarity, which must continue even through this difficult time. It is possible that no resolution will be reached right away and that a longer conflict may exist, should the split faction continue to insist on acting in the name of the existing federation. The IWA has tried not to involve other organizations in these internal matters or ask them to take sides in the split. The split faction however has decided to do just that. We ask that people be cautious about such circumstances so that the situation not have new negative repercussions.

IWA Secretariat

http://www.iwa-ait.org/content/misconceptions-over-split-conference

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CNT-ES: Open invitation to the Bilbao International Conference, 26-27 November, 2016 for anarcho-syndicalist and revolutionary syndicalist organizations

AIT/IWA Dear comrades: — CNT-E, FAU and USI are sections of the International Workers’ Association (IWA), founded in 1922. — We consider essential and urgent the existence of an active and inclusive anarcho-syndicalist International, which participates in and promotes struggles of workers worldwide and facilitates social improvements for them through this. Unfortunately, we have to admit that despite our best efforts the IWA has deviated from its principles and practices. Instead of concentrating on union activity, it has become bureaucratic, dogmatic and isolationist with regard to the labor movement. Considering this, we need to rebuild our International.

We believe that our International should restrict itself to general principles that express the commonalities that the members sections have, despite their different histories, traditions and social-economic situations. For us these general principles include:

– being an anarcho-syndicalist or revolutionary syndicalist organization as well as a bottom-up organization;

– not receiving economic funding from the state due to being a union or carrying out union activity;

– not supporting as an organization any electoral project, neither of a political party nor of individual candidates.

In addition, we believe that member sections should have at least 100 members nationally. We believe that smaller groups can carry out propaganda activities or local conflicts better and should concentrate on developing at the national level, before taking part in the complex decision-making process of an International. In order to support groups which have less than 100 members we will have the status “Friends”. We wish to help such groups grow and would be pleased to have them take part in our international solidarity campaigns.

At the same time, we do not presume to know or be aware of every other initiative worldwide that might fulfill these requirements. Therefore, we are issuing this open invitation to the International Conference, to be held in Bilbao (Spain) on November 26-27, 2016 during which we will be able to work towards a congress to rebuild an IWA. At the conference you will have a chance to present your organization and its work, get to meet other similar initiatives, assess the benefits of joining us in this endeavor, make contributions and proposals towards the congress agenda and the rebuilding of an IWA, and explore, in any case, the possibility of joint international actions and solidarity.

Even if your organization is not interested in joining this project on a more formal capacity, or ultimately decides not to, we still invite you to contact us to collaborate in international solidarity campaigns.

A proposal for the conference agenda and more practical info will be sent at a later date to those organizations that have expressed an interest in participating in it.

You can contact us on any of the following email addresses to express your interest, confirm your attendance, raise queries or concerns, etc.:

CNT-E, exteriores@cnt.es

FAU, is@fau.org

USI-AIT, info@usi-ait.org

http://cnt.es/en/news/open-invitation-letter-bilbao-international-conference-26-27-november-2016-anarcho-syndicalist-

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Brian Morris: The Myth of the Liberal State

Brian Morris

Brian Morris

Brian Morris is one of those authors whose writings, regrettably, I was unable to fit into Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. He surely deserved a place in Volume Three, The New Anarchism (1974-2012). He has written too many books to list here, but from an anarchist perspective his most noteworthy include Bakunin: The Philosophy of Freedom (1993), Ecology and Anarchism (1996), Kropotkin: The Politics of Community (2004), Pioneers of Ecological Humanism (2012), and Anthropology, Ecology, and Anarchism: A Brian Morris Reader (2014). The following is a piece Brian Morris wrote for the English anarchist paper, Freedom, in 1993, in which he handily disposes of the Oxford academic David Miller’s claims that some kind of state is necessary to achieve and maintain economic prosperity, distributive justice and peace.

Morris anthology

A Critique of Liberal Social Theory

David Miller’s useful book on ‘Anarchism’ [1984] was an attempt – so he assured us – to rescue anarchism from the dustbin of history.  He felt anarchism was an important political tradition and had something of value.  It could teach us about the abuses of power, and about the possibilities of free social relationships.  Miller, as a market socialist, advocated three specific values; economic efficiency, distributive justice and the control of “anti-social” behaviour.  In terms of these values, anarchism was declared not to be a viable political option.  He argued that without a market system and the nation state these values were simply not attainable.  Hence Miller’s advocacy of market socialism, otherwise known by its more familiar name of welfare capitalism.

Yet when we look at the real world, beyond the cloisters of Nuffield College, what do we observe?  None of Miller’s esteemed values are anywhere in evidence.

Take economic efficiency.  What do we find?  Poverty, malnutrition and famine throughout much of Africa and Latin America.  There is ecological degradation, increasing desertification, destruction of forests and woodlands, depletion at all levels.  Much of this is due to so-called “development”; to the intensification of agriculture, and to the economic maraudings of multinational capital in search of profits.  Judged in terms of economic efficiency, capitalism – the market economy – is a complete and utter failure, and a serious threat to human survival.

As for “distributive justice”?  What do we find?  Corruption, injustice, and obscene and blatant social inequalities everywhere.  Land holding and the ownership of productive capital, as well as access to the media, are everywhere maldistributed.  Thus, for example, we find in Peru that 10 per cent of the landowners own 93 per cent of the agricultural land.  We find that between 1982 and 1985 the Sudan exported millions of tons of sorghum – in order to feed animals in the richer countries – while at the same time thousands of peasants in southern Sudan were dying of hunger.  People in extreme poverty, without access to land, without any visible means of support and often without even a roof over their head, are to be seen throughout the world living in juxtaposition to extremes of luxury and wealth.  If anything there is, and always has been, an obverse correlation between capitalism and “distributive justice”.  For where commodity production prevails or intrudes, social inequalities invariably increase or are generated.  The green revolution in India has not only been a breeding ground for civil unrest and violence, but, as Vandana Shiva and others have written, has lead to INCREASING social inequalities.

Morris Kropotkin

As for the nation state keeping the peace, or curtailing “anti-social” behaviour, what do we, in reality, find?  Exactly the opposite.  The state is THE source of violent repression, of social and political harassment, and of the curtailment of civil liberties everywhere.  Militarism is rife throughout the world, and the oppression of people by state functionaries, usually on behalf of commercial interests, is the norm.  As Vithal Rajan puts it, in referring to India: if a tiger is poached, the international community is loud in its disapproval: but if the police shoot ten tribal people defending their customary rights to the forest it is frequently not even considered an offence, and is certainly not reported in the international press.

David Miller, like other liberals, has a rather quaint idea that governments are essentially neutral and benign institutions, serving to protect us from “anti-social” people.  The reality is rather different: such institutions are there to support and protect private property and capitalist interests.  This is clearly brought out in David Powell’s recent study of the coal industry in Britain, appropriately entitled “The Power Game”.  The book clearly states which side the state was on in the bitter struggles between labour and capital during the years of industrialism.  At the periphery of the capitalist system, the state is not an institution that protects people; it is one that they need protection from.  The state is organized violence and the reason that power has a capillary effect in modern society – as Foucault argued – is not that there are no centralized institutions but to the fact that the state is now so powerful.  It is infrastructural – penetrating social institutions – as well as overtly coercive and despotic.  The state is incompatible with liberty as is capitalism as an economic system.  Nowadays it is difficult to disentangle the two, and a form of state capitalism prevails.

There is no evidence for the supposed correlation between capitalism and freedom which liberal scholars like Friedman, Hayek, Gray and Fukuyama are so fond of stressing.  John Hall and John Ikenberry in their Open University Book on “The State” (1989) assert that early modern Europe was characterized by an intrinsic link between commerce and liberty (52).  Such a distorted reading of history is only possible if one completely oblates the fact that not only was there little liberty in Europe for working people during this period, but also the “commerce” of which they speak entailed rapacious mercantile trade, genocide and slavery.  Capitalism, as Ngugi Wa Thiongo notes, “came to the world dripping with blood”.  It hardly needs mentioning that some of the most important liberal scholars – like Hume and Locke – were personally implicated in the slave “trade”, worthy though they may have been in other respects.  There has never been a correlation between capitalism and liberty if capitalism is seen for what it is; namely a world system that is intrinsically exploitative of people and of the natural environment.

As a political scientist David Miller has little interest in ecology.  Even people who see themselves as radical ecologists – writers like Arne Naess, Paul Ekins, and Robyn Eckersley – and who are alive to current problems relating to “social justice” and “ecological sustainability”, embrace, when it comes to offering some vision of an alternative future, the kind of welfare capitalism long ago suggested by liberal scholars.  Their vision is no different from that of Miller.  They are thus advocates of the “market” as the best way of allocating resources – and assume that it will simply cease to be exploitative of people and of nature.  The state, they believe, will simply transform itself into a benign institution, one that will provide “macro-controls” on the market – protecting ecosystem integrity, social justice and equality, as well as curtailing excessive concentrations of economic power.  A political vision that is hardly new or radical: it just provides scholarly colleagues with an up-date on liberal theory taking into account the global ecological and economic crisis.  It is an attempt to “green” liberal political theory, just as, at another level, multinational corporations are engaged in greening the retail business.

Brian Morris, Freedom (1993)

Morris pioneers of ecological humanism

Fearless Anarchy

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Just got my sales statement from AK Press, and see that ‘We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It’ – The First International and the Origins of the Anarchist Movement has now sold over 1200 copies! (over 1100 paperbacks and over 100 e-books). Many thanks to AK Press for their excellent marketing and promotion. Here is an excerpt from the conclusion, drawing some lessons for today from out of the debates among the anarchists in the International Workingmen’s Association.

We Do Not Fear the Cover

Anarchism and Social Movements

Today, many anarchists advocate not only working within broader based social movements, but helping to establish popular movements that from their inception adopt decentralized, affinity group based organizational structures that form horizontal networks and popular assemblies where power remains at the base, not in a hierarchical administration, bureaucracy or executive.[i]

But this concept can also be traced back to the International, for it was the federalists, anti-authoritarians and anarchists in the International who insisted that the workers’ own organizations, including the International itself, should be directly democratic, voluntary federations freely federated with one another, for they were to provide the very basis for the future free society. Contemporary anarchists have simply developed more sophisticated ways of implementing these ideas and preventing movements from being co-opted and transformed into top down organizations.

Gone is the “inverted” pyramid of the 19th century anarchists, with smaller scale groups federating into larger and more encompassing federations, ultimately resulting in international federations composed of groups from lower level federations, such as national or regional federations. The problem with these kinds of federations is that the higher level federations can be transformed into governing bodies, particularly in times of crisis, as Marx and Engels attempted to transform the International’s General Council into an executive power after the suppression of the Paris Commune.

Instead of federations organized “from the bottom up,” many contemporary anarchists advocate interlocking horizontal networks like those used in various global movements against neo-liberalism, the “horizontalidad” movement in Argentina and the Occupy movement, networks with no centres, not even administrative or “federalist” ones.[ii] These contemporary movements have been able, at least for a time, to break out of the isolation to which autonomous anarchist communist groups in late 19th century Europe were prone prior to the renewed involvement of many anarchists in the workers’ movement in the mid-1890s, which gave rise to various revolutionary and anarchist syndicalist movements in Europe and the Americas.

What is different about contemporary anarchist approaches to organization is that they bridge the gap between the affinity group, popular assemblies and broader networks of similar organizations and movements in a way that 19th century anarchist communist groups were unable to do, without relying on the more permanent forms and institutions utilized by the anarcho-syndicalists in their federalist organizations. Syndicalist organizations were always in danger of being transformed into top down bureaucratic organizations, as eventually happened with the French CGT during the First World War and even more so after the Russian Revolution, when the CGT came under the control of the Marxists. Under the pressure of the Spanish Civil War, even the anarcho-syndicalist CNT in Spain began turning into a bureaucratic organization.

In many ways, these contemporary forms of anarchist organization mirror the anarchist communist vision of a society in which, in Kropotkin’s words, “ever modified associations… carry in themselves the elements of their durability and constantly assume new forms which answer best to the multiple aspirations of all.”[iii] By making these kinds of organizations, like affinity groups, the basis of their horizontal networks, contemporary anarchists have created non-hierarchical organizations that not just prefigure, but realize in the here and now, the organizational forms consonant with an anarchist communist future, within the context of broader movements for social change.

Robert Graham

[i] Graeber, “The New Anarchists,” in Anarchism Vol. 3, “The New Anarchism,” ed R. Graham, 2012: 1-11.

[ii] Graham, ibid: 572-576.

[iii] Graham, Anarchism Vol. 1, “From Anarchy to Anarchism,” 2005: 142.

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Anarchism: Toward Global Justice

anti-globalization portland

Getting back to the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, in which I survey the origins, development and evolution of anarchist ideas, in this installment I discuss the relationship between anarchism and contemporary anti-capitalist movements. As the electoral debacles of representative government in capitalist “democracies” continue to unfold, perhaps we will see yet another resurgence in direct action movements against capitalism and domination.

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Anarchism and Global Justice Movements

David Graeber, among others, has noted that many groups involved in the global justice movement utilize “a rich and growing panoply of organizational instruments—spokescouncils, affinity groups, facilitation tools, break outs, fishbowls, blocking concerns, vibe-watchers and so on—all aimed at creating forms of democratic process that allow initiatives to rise from below and attain maximum effective solidarity; without stifling dissenting voices, creating leadership positions or compelling anyone to do anything which they have not freely agreed to do,” an essentially anarchist approach. Indeed, the “very notion of direct action, with its rejection of a politics which appeals to governments to modify their behaviour, in favour of physical intervention against state power in a form that itself prefigures an alternative—all of this emerges directly from the libertarian tradition” (Volume Three, Selection 1). Similar approaches have been adopted by the Occupy movements that spread across the globe in 2011 (Volume Three, Selection 9).

In light of these developments, some anarchists have begun to articulate a less sectarian and more inclusive conception of anarchism which focuses on process and action, allowing for a diversity of views regarding ultimate ends, recognizing that what anarchists seek is social liberation, not the triumph of an ideology. Anarchists have participated in such international resistance networks as People’s Global Action, which also include many non-anarchists, but which also reject more conventional organizational structures. As the Zapatista inspired Second Declaration of La Realidad put it, such networks have “no central command or hierarchies. We are the network, all of us who resist” (Volume Three, Selections 1 & 58).

This view has been embraced by a variety of anarchist groups. In the 2001 Madrid Declaration of social revolutionary libertarian groups from Europe, Latin America and the Middle East, they argue that anarchists “should currently strive towards encouraging convergence, the interaction of social movements—including the workers’ movement—in a solid social movement antagonistic to capital and its present true face: economic globalization and all other types of domination. This antagonistic social movement does not have, and nor should it have, a single organizational expression. It is pluralistic, based on current reality, coming and acting together in the same territory, recreating a common territorial identity, composed of many identities,” such as “the workers’ movement, the unemployed, the excluded, indigenous movements, discriminated groups, ecologists and feminists, promoting direct action as a way towards social reappropriation of wealth and as a form of propaganda by the deed, as an exercise in direct democracy, participatory and federalist, without delegations or intermediaries, building on a community level in each territory and as an alternative to authoritarian institutions” (Volume Three, Selection 2).

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One of the signatories to the Madrid Declaration, the CIPO-RFM or Consejo Indigena Popular de Oaxaca ‘Ricardo Flores Magón’ (‘Ricardo Flores Magón’ Native People’s Council of Oaxaca), is a liberation movement in the Oaxaca region of Mexico that consciously draws on the heritage of Mexican anarchism and indigenous traditions (Volume One, Selection 73; Volume Three, Selection 59). As the Columbian anarchist group, Colectivo Alas de Xue, argues, there exists much common ground between anarchists and many indigenous (or “Indian”) groups in the Americas, such as opposition to the conformity and homogenization imposed by nation states within their own borders, with their centralized power structures, national “culture” and “official” languages, and the separation of peoples by those same borders, dividing families and inhibiting people’s movements (Volume Three, Selection 60). Many anarchists have become involved in groups like “No Borders” and “No One Is Illegal,” which seek, in Harsha Walia’s words, “to attain justice and victories for immigrants and refugees, and to develop the communities’ own capacity to attain dignity for themselves and their families. Real justice will come as immigrants, refugees, and nonstatus people build greater trust in visions of an alternate world, and organize, educate, act, and fight for their own self-determination” (Volume Three, Selection 64).

This quest for self-determination often brings indigenous peoples and immigrants into conflict with national governments, multinational corporations and the paramilitary organizations upon which they sometimes rely, but it is a quest which lies at the heart of anarchism conceived as a movement that seeks to create a world in which people may, in Bakunin’s words, “take into their own hands the direction of their destinies” (Volume One, Selection 24).

From this perspective, there is no necessary conflict between anarchist anti-statism and communal self-determination—rather, they can be seen as parts of the same age old struggle for freedom, often incorporating similar decision making procedures and forms of organization while employing similar tactics, such as direct action. As Uri Gordon argues in the context of the Palestinian struggle for independence, “anarchists may take action in solidarity with Palestinians (as well as Tibetans, West Papuans and Sahrawis for that matter) without reference to the question of statehood. The everyday acts of resistance that anarchists join and defend in Palestine and Israel are immediate steps to help preserve people’s livelihoods and dignity, which are in no way necessarily connected to a statist project” (Volume Three, Selection 21).

latin american anarchism

The Colectivo Alas de Xue notes that many indigenous societies utilize collective forms of decision making similar to the kinds of direct democracy that “libertarians have yearned for down through the centuries” (Volume Three, Selection 60). As David Graeber argues, many indigenous communities developed forms of consensus-based decision making that provide a model consonant with anarchist conceptions of direct democracy precisely because in such societies there is “no way to compel a minority to agree with a majority decision—either because there is no state with a monopoly of coercive force, or because the state has nothing to do with local decision-making” (Volume Three, Selection 6).

This is not to say that libertarian groups drawing on these communal traditions uncritically endorse every aspect of them. Sharif Gemie points out that “many tribal lifestyles are explicitly patriarchal: they refuse women any formal involvement in decision-making. Many tribes also affirm the sanctity of rule by elders, thus rejecting the political potential of younger people” (Volume Three, Selection 50). In Mexico, the CIPO-RFM has consciously striven to deal with these sorts of issues by, for example, actively promoting “a culture of respect for women and for women’s rights, ensuring in practice that within our organization women take up their equal and fair share of positions of representation and responsibility within our ranks” (Volume Three, Selection 59).

In Africa, anarchists have sought to build upon the pre-colonial history of people living without states in egalitarian communities, particularly in light of the disastrous consequences of colonialism and the division of Africa into nation states whose borders were arbitrarily set by the former colonial powers (Volume Three, Selections 51 & 52). Kurdish anarchists have similarly argued that tribal traditions of decentralization and hostility toward the various nation states which have sought to control them predispose the Kurds toward anarchism, leading to the development of a community assembly movement drawing on the ideas of Murray Bookchin (Volume 3, Selection 61). Bas Umali has suggested that Bookchin’s ideas can also be adapted to conditions in the Philippine archipelago, building on traditional community forms such as the “barangay,” a small community of 50 to 100 families (Volume Three, Selection 62).

Whether in Africa, the Americas, the Middle East, or the South Pacific, wherever functioning communities exist, there will also exist social practices and institutions of solidarity and mutual aid. As Elisée Reclus noted long ago, “where anarchist practice really triumphs is in the course of everyday life among common people who would not be able to endure their dreadful struggle for existence if they did not engage in spontaneous mutual aid, putting aside differences and conflicts of interest” (Volume One, Selection 38). Colin Ward therefore argues that “an anarchist society, a society which organizes itself without authority, is always in existence, like a seed beneath the snow, buried under the weight of the state and its bureaucracy, capitalism and its waste, privilege and its injustices, nationalism and its suicidal loyalties, religious differences and their superstitious separatism” (1973: 11). From this perspective, anarchism is not “the founding of something new,” but as Gustav Landauer wrote, “the actualization and reconstitution of something that has always been present, which exists alongside the state, albeit buried and laid waste” (Ward, 1973: 11).

Robert Graham

another world is possible

Neither EU Nor UK

Brexit

The recent “Brexit” vote in Britain brings to mind a few things. First, the counter-revolutionary role of state-controlled referendums (‘referenda’ for the language police), something that Proudhon pointed out in 1851 in General Idea of the Revolution, building on his previous seemingly paradoxical statement that “universal suffrage is counter-revolution” (I included excerpts from General Idea in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, and several other of Proudhon’s anarchist writings). Just as universal suffrage is used to legitimate political rule by giving the illusion of popular sovereignty, so do referendums provide an illusion of “direct democracy,” when the ruling classes remain firmly in control (although not always as firmly as they like)

lesser evil

Second, the false dichotomies represented by the choices provided in referendums — in this case the choice between an “independent United Kingdom” and the European Union. Throughout the history of anarchist movements, anarchists have been told they have to choose between one or the other unacceptable alternative, the so-called “lesser evil” (and so we have “derivative anarchist fellow traveller” Noam Chomsky advocating support for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump). Failing to choose is supposed to constitute an abdication of responsibility and to condemn anarchists to powerlessness and irrelevancy. In 1851 in France, the choice was supposed to be between Napoleon III or the Republic; during the Russian Revolution, the choice was supposed to be between the Bolsheviks (Marxist Leninists) or the counter-revolution; during the two World Wars, in Europe the choice was supposed to be between the “Allies” or Germany/the Nazis; during the Spanish Revolution, the choice was supposed to be between Fascism or the Republic, or between military victory or social revolution; during the Cold War, the choice was supposed to be between US or Soviet imperialism, inspiring Marie Louise Berneri to coin the phrase, “Neither East Nor West” (see Volume Two of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas). In response to the Brexit vote, I would like to put forward a variation of that theme: Neither the EU Nor the UK.

Third, if anarchists reject this latest false dilemma, what alternatives can they present? Besides the obvious (possibly long term) ones, like social revolution, an anarchist society without hierarchy and domination, freedom and equality, and so forth? As a contribution to that debate, I present Andrew Flood’s 10 point guide for post Brexit resistance (from the Workers Solidarity Movement website). Andrew has also presented an excellent analysis of the Brexit vote results.

10 point guide for post Brexit resistance as racist right wins EU referendum

  1. The Brexit vote for the UK to leave the European Union demonstrates that even weak parliamentary democracy is incompatible with escalating neoliberal inequality.  In the UK as elsewhere a tiny segment of the population have taken a larger and larger share of total wealth in the last decades.  Particularly under austerity almost everyone else has seen their share of the wealth they produce decline massively.
  2. The Remain campaign was headed up by the political class of the neoliberal establishment and backed by model neo liberal corporations like Ryanair.  But because the anger against rising inequality was successfully diverted through scapegoating already marginalized people, in particular migrants, the Leave campaign was also led by wealthy elitist bigots whose variant of neoliberalism looks to the former colonies and the US rather than Europe.
  3. The markets are now punishing the electorate with capital flight. But the racist colonialist nature of the Leave campaign means that rather than capitalism being blamed migrants will again be scapegoated.  The impact of continued inequality – on white citizen workers – will be blamed on attacks on migrants not being as cruel and ruthless as ‘required’.
  4. The alternative to fight for isn’t yet another referendum but the abolition of a global order built on inequality & market dictatorship.
  5. In the immediate future, the defense of migrants, including those yet to come, is fundamental to opposing the swing to the right post-Brexit.
  6. If the left swings towards a simple economist stance post-Brexit then the racist colonialist nature of that vote will be solidified  We must argue on the more apparently difficult grounds of global class solidarity and not on the treacherous path of the narrow self interest of white citizen workers which can only serve a reactionary English nationalism steeped in racism and colonialism.
  7. The fallout from the Leave vote will not just be limited within the borders of the UK will see a  but huge boost for racist colonialist movements across EU.  The leaders of those movements, like Marine Le Pen have already greeted the Leave vote with joy.
  8. It’s vital to understand this cannot be combatted with liberal platitudes because it is a consequence of the rising inequality economic liberalism has created.  We are facing either a transformation to radical direct democracy that will create economic equality or a turn to the authoritarian politics of control needed to enforce sharp divisions in wealth.
  9. Things look grim but then they were already grim as we face into climate change and automation under capitalism.  The rise of the far right and colonialist racism is not a natural phenomenon but a consequence of a system in a crisis that is a fundamental product of  its own functioning.
  10. We need to take our world back from the patriarchal white supremacist capitalist elite that dominates the planet and dominated both sides of the EU referendum.  The transformation we need if we are not to face escalating poverty, war and climate destruction is a total one that eliminates the state and capitalism to create libertarian communism.

Andrew Flood

brexit voter analysis

The Economics of Anarchy

anarchist revolt

After a bit of a break, I’m continuing with the installments from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of my anthology of anarchist writings from ancient China to the present day, Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. This section discusses different anarchist approaches to economic organization. Contrary to the sectarians at the Socialist Party of Great Britain, just because I included a variety of perspectives does not indicate endorsement of any particular position.

Tree of Anarchy

The Economics of Anarchy

In the “economic” sphere, Murray Bookchin came to advocate “municipal control” of the economy by community assemblies, thereby abolishing the “economic” as a distinct social sphere by absorbing it into the “political” sphere (Volume Three, Selection 46), a reversal of Proudhon’s earlier argument that “political institutions must be lost in industrial organization” (Volume One, Selection 12). In order to avoid such community control from degenerating into a system of competing city-states, he advocated anarchist communism within each community (the abolition of private property and distribution according to need), and federalism between communities. Bookchin claimed that the “syndicalist alternative” of workers’ control “re-privatizes the economy into ‘self-managed’ collectives,” opening “the way to their degeneration into traditional forms of private property” (Volume Three, Selection 46).

eco-communalism

eco-communalism

However, most anarcho-syndicalists would respond that workers’ self-management would not be based on a simple factory council model of organization but would include self-managed communal, consumer, trade (or vocational), industrial and service organizations forming a complex network of interlocking groups in which factory councils would be unable to reconstitute themselves as autonomous private firms operating for their own profit (see, for example, Sansom, Volume Two, Selection 58, and Joyeaux, Volume Two, Selection 61), particularly when the economy as a whole would be organized along anarchist communist lines.

anarchist communism kropotkin

John Crump and Adam Buick have emphasized that selling, “as an act of exchange… could only take place between separate owners. Yet separate owners of parts of the social product are precisely what would not, and could not, exist” in an anarchist communist society. “With the replacement of exchange by common ownership what basically would happen is that wealth would cease to take the form of exchange value, so that all the expressions of this social relationship peculiar to an exchange economy, such as money and prices, would automatically disappear” (Volume Three, Selection 48).

mutualism

Anarchists continue to debate the kind of economy compatible with their vision of a free society. Kevin Carson, updating Proudhon and Benjamin Tucker’s “mutualist” ideas, argues for a gradual transition to a stateless society through the creation of “alternative social infrastructure,” such as “producers’ and consumers’ co-ops, LETS [local exchange trading] systems and mutual banks, syndicalist industrial unions, tenant associations and rent strikes, neighbourhood associations, (non-police affiliated) crime-watch and cop-watch programs, voluntary courts for civil arbitration, community-supported agriculture, etc.” For Carson, “mutualism means building the kind of society we want here and now, based on grass-roots organization for voluntary cooperation and mutual aid—instead of waiting for the revolution.”

Unlike most other anarchists, Carson advocates the retention of market relations because when “firms and self-employed individuals deal with each other through market, rather than federal relations, there are no organizations superior to them. Rather than decisions being made by permanent organizations, which will inevitably serve as power bases for managers and ‘experts,’ decisions will be made by the invisible hand of the marketplace” (Volume Three, Selection 47).

revolution

John Crump and Adam Buick argue against reliance on market mechanisms and deny that there can be a gradual transition from capitalism to anarchist communism. In an anarchist communist society, “resources and labour would be allocated… by conscious decisions, not through the operation of economic laws acting with the same coercive force as laws of nature,” such as the “invisible hand” of the market. A “gradual evolution from a class society to a classless society is impossible because at some stage there would have to be a rupture which would deprive the state capitalist ruling class—be they well-meaning or, more likely, otherwise—of their exclusive control over the means of production” (Volume Three, Selection 48).

Luciano Lanza argues that there are ways to temper reliance on market mechanisms, for example by sharing profits among firms. But for him the main point is to move beyond the “logic of the market,” a society in which “the capitalist market defines every aspect of social coexistence,” to a society where, quoting Cornelius Castoriadis, “economics has been restored to its place as a mere auxiliary to human life rather than its ultimate purpose” (Volume Three, Selection 49). As George Benello puts it, “the goal is a society organized in such a fashion that the basic activities of living are carried out through organizations whose style and structure mirror the values sought for.”

Alexander Berkman

Because this “vision is a total one, rather than centered on specific issues and problems, projects of many sorts will reinforce the vision: co-operative schools, day care centers, community [credit] unions, newspapers, radio, and later producer enterprise.” As these projects proliferate, society becomes more “densely and intensively organized in an integrative fashion wherein the basic activities of life interrelate,” so that what comes to be “defended is not simply a set of discrete political goals, but a way of life” (Volume Two, Selection 44). This is yet another example of the “prefigurative politics” that anarchists have advocated and practiced since at least the time of Proudhon, and which has again come to the fore with the advent of “global justice” movements against neo-liberalism toward the end of the 20th century.

Robert Graham

emma goldman

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

zabalaza-header-2011111

Hurrah for Anarchy!

hurrah for anarchy

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

volume-3

Another Day, Another Hatchet Job

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

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

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

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

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

no to anarcho-capitalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anarcho-Syndicalism

Anarcho-Syndicalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anti-Castro Cuban anarchist paper

Anti-Castro Cuban anarchist paper

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

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

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

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

chomsky on anarchism

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

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

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

January 2016

A different perspective

A different perspective

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